Complete Stories by Rudy Rucker

Including collaborations with Bruce Sterling, Paul Di Filippo, Marc Laidlaw, John Shirley, Rudy Rucker Jr., Terry Bisson, and Eileen Gunn. Buy some of their works!

Complete Stories is Copyright © 2013 Rudy Rucker as a volume, and the individual stories are copyrighted to their authors. The introduction and the notes to the stories describe the stories' previous publications. All rights reserved. Transreal Books, Los Gatos, California, August, 2013. You can buy an ebook or a print version of Complete Stories via the links at Transreal Books.

Table of Contents
Introduction
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Enlightenment Rabies
Schrödinger’s Cat
Sufferin’ Succotash
A New Golden Age
Faraway Eyes
The 57th Franz Kafka
The Indian Rope Trick Explained
A New Experiment With Time
The Man Who Ate Himself
Tales of Houdini
The Facts of Life
Buzz
The Last Einstein-Rosen Bridge
Pac-Man
Pi in the Sky
Wishloop
Inertia
Bringing in the Sheaves
The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics
Message Found in a Copy of Flatland
Plastic Letters
Monument to the Third International
Rapture in Space
Storming the Cosmos (Written with Bruce Sterling)
In Frozen Time
Soft Death
Inside Out
Instability (Written with Paul Di Filippo)
The Man Who Was a Cosmic String
Probability Pipeline (Written with Marc Laidlaw)
As Above, So Below
Chaos Surfari (Written with Marc Laidlaw)
Big Jelly (Written with Bruce Sterling)
Easy As Pie
The Andy Warhol Sandcandle (Written with Marc Laidlaw)
Cobb Wakes Up
The Square Root of Pythagoras (Written with Paul Di Filippo)
Pockets (Written with John Shirley)
Junk DNA (Written with Bruce Sterling)
The Use of the Ellipse the Catalog the Meter & the Vibrating Plane
Jenna and Me (Written with Rudy Rucker Jr.)
Six Thought Experiments Concerning the Nature of Computation
MS Found in a Minidrive
Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch
The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club
Panpsychism Proved
Elves of the Subdimensions (Written with Paul Di Filippo)
2+2=5 (Written with Terry Bisson)
Visions of the Metanovel
The Third Bomb
The Imitation Game
Hormiga Canyon (Written with Bruce Sterling)
The Perfect Wave (Written with Marc Laidlaw)
Tangier Routines
Message Found In A Gravity Wave
Qlone
Colliding Branes (Written with Bruce Sterling)
Jack and the Aktuals or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory
All Hangy (Written with John Shirley)
To See Infinity Bare (Written with Paul Di Filippo)
Bad Ideas
Good Night, Moon (Written with Bruce Sterling)
Fjaerland (Written with Paul DiFilippo)
The Fnoor Hen
Hive Mind Man (Written with Eileen Gunn)
My Office Mate
Yubba Vines (Writen with Paul Di Filippo)
Loco (Written with Bruce Sterling)
I Arise Again
Apricot Lane


Introduction

I’ve arranged my stories in the order in which they were composed. On the whole, the later stories are better than the earlier ones, so you might do well to start reading somewhere towards the middle of this collection. Like many professions, writing is something one learns on the job.

Over the years I’ve published four print anthologies of my stories:

The 57th Franz Kafka (Ace Books, 1983)

Transreal! (WCS Books, 1991)

Gnarl! (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000)

Mad Professor (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007).

The final nineteen stories appearing in this, my new anthology, haven’t appeared in any of those four print anthologies.

At this point in my career, I thought it would be futuristic to abandon print and to have my story anthology take on the form of an ebook, published by my own Transreal Press. The big win is that, given that I’m working with an ebook, I can make make my new anthology comprehensive. Thus: Complete Stories.

I first assembled this collection in 2012, and what you see here is the 2013 edition. I expect to write a few more stories in the coming years. As time runs on, I’ll continue making new editions of my Complete Stories. Walt Whitman spent his whole life revising and expanding one single book of poetry: Leaves of Grass. Complete Stories is in some sense my final anthology.

Flipping through these tales, I feel a mixture of nostalgia, pride, and embarrassment. I used to write as if women were wonderful, fascinating aliens—over the years I’ve gotten better at depicting them as people. Intoxication has remained a years-long literary obsession. My politics remain those of the hippies, punks, and grungers. But always the stories have their own wild humor and logic.

I can characterize my fiction with in terms of six concepts: (1) Thought experiments, (2) Power-chords, (3) Gnarliness, (4) Wit, (5) Transrealism, and (6) Collaboration.

(1) The notion of fictional thought experiments was made popular by Albert Einstein, who fueled his science speculations with so-called Gedankenexperimenten. Thought experiments are a very powerful technique of philosophical investigation. In practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the side effects of new technological developments. In order to tease out the subtler consequences of current trends, a complex fictional simulation is necessary; inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis. If I want to imagine, for instance, what our world would be like if ordinary objects were conscious, then the best way to make progress is to fictionally simulate a person discovering this. The kinds of thought experiments I enjoy are different in intent and in execution from merely futurological investigations. My primary goal is not to make useful predictions that businessmen can use. I’m more interested in exploring the human condition, with literary power chord standing in for archetypal psychic forces.

(2) When I speak of power chords in the context of fantastic literature, I’m talking about certain classic tropes that have the visceral punch of heavy musical riffs: blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, immersive virtual reality, clones, robots, teleportation, alien-controlled pod people, endless shrinking, the shattering of planet Earth, intelligent goo, antigravity, starships, ecodisaster, pleasure-center zappers, alternate universes, nanomachines, mind viruses, higher dimensions, a cosmic computation that generates our reality, and, of course, the attack of the giant ants. When I use a power chord, I try to do something fresh with the trope, perhaps placing it into an unfamiliar context, perhaps describing it more intensely than usual, or perhaps using it for a novel thought experiment. I like it when my material takes on a life of its own. This leads to what I call the gnarly zone.

(3) In short, a gnarly process is complex and unpredictable without being random. If a story hews to some very familiar pattern, it feels stale. But if absolutely anything can happen, a story becomes as unengaging as someone else’s dream. The gnarly zone is lies at the interface between logic and fantasy. I see my tales as simulated worlds in which the characters and tropes and social situations bounce off each other like eddies in a turbulent wake, like gliders in a cellular automaton graphic, like vines twisting around each other in a jungle. When I write, I like to be surprised.

(4) My early mentor Robert Sheckley was a supremely witty writer. Over the years I got to spend a few golden hours in Sheckley’s presence. And I think it’s safe to say that wit, rather than mere humor, was his primary goal. Wit involves describing the world as it actually is. You experience a release of tension when you notice a glitch. Something was off-kilter, and now you see what it was. The elephant in the living room has been named. The evil spirit has been incanted. Perceiving an incongruity in our supposedly smooth-running society provokes a shock of recognition and a concomitant burst of laughter. Wit is a critical-satirical process that can be more serious than the “humorous” label suggests.

(5) “Transrealism” is a word that I made up. Early on, I found that using myself and my friends as characters in my science-fiction tales appeals to me very much. My actual life is the real part, and the trans part are the cool things that happen to the characters in my science-fiction stories. In other words, I found that I could use the special effects and power chords of SF as a way to thicken and intensify my material. The tools of science fiction can be a way to add a more artistic shape to the suppressed fears and desires that you inevitably incorporate into your fiction. To my way of thinking, transrealism is a way to describe not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.

(6) Regarding collaboration, note that nearly a third of the pieces in Complete Stories were written with other authors. As a practical matter, I get lonely being a writer on my own, and I welcome the chance to get into a collaborative exchange with another writer. One of the remarkable things about science-fiction writing is the level of literary collaboration that it supports. In this respect, we’re like scientists—and like musicians. Science fiction is a shared enterprise. And I’m grateful to be part of it.

—Rudy Rucker, Los Gatos, California, 2013



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash

It was a hell of a lecture. “Out of Your Mindscape,” Jack had called it on the posters he’d put up all over town. The posters had a picture of a guy thinking a thought balloon of himself thinking a thought balloon of himself thinking etcetera and ad infinitum. Jack Flash was wild about infinite regresses that term.

I never could see the use of them myself. So my mind has an image of my mind which has an image of my mind and so on. So what. To me the fact that my mind is infinite is about as significant as the fact that human bodies have ten toes. Big Mind doesn’t have anything to do with the finite-infinite distinction. And in terms of my immediate life, what counts in the Pure Land is having two minds instead of one mind…and who cares if they’re infinite.

At the time I’m talking about, I was an English instructor at the same upstate New York college where Jack taught. People don’t take to me, and I always have trouble keeping jobs on Earth. They were going to terminate my contract even though I’d just had a paper on Invasion of the Body Snatchers accepted by the Journal of Popular Culture.

I had just gotten the bad news from my chairman at lunch time, and I’d spent the afternoon going through my second to last spore of geezel. That’s a pretty hefty dose for one sitting, so I was kind of lit when I walked into Jack’s lecture.

Jack had drawn a big crowd, but they were pretty stiff. I was feeling reckless, and decided to loosen things up by laughing and stamping my feet every time Jack said, “infinity.” Before long the place was rocking.

Jack likes to work a crowd; and once I’d gotten them started he kept bringing them higher…changing the subject, making slips of the tongue, and mixing in side-raps, one-liners, and level changes. It was a pleasure to watch him.

He was wearing light tan corduroys and a blue flannel Bean’s shirt. He never stopped moving except when he wanted to say something heavy. For that he would lean forward on the desk and manage to look every one of us in the eye. But mostly he’d be writing things on the board, wiping chalk dust off on his corduroys, pushing his long brown hair back from his forehead, or taking his ratty black sweater on and off.

I couldn’t really tell you what the talk was about. After all, I was pretty high, and I’ve never bothered to master a lot of the standard human concepts. Roughly speaking, it seemed like Jack thought he could prove that every possible universe exists. Considering my background, you’d think I’d be interested in what he might have to say on this topic…but you’d be wrong. I just wanted to lesnerize a couple of people and get the hell back to the Pure Land.

Without thinking about it too hard, I suspected that most of what Jack said was wrong anyway…but it was fun listening to him rave. Quite a few people came up to him afterwards, and I stuck around.

After a while it was down to just one chick talking to Jack. I walked up to join their conversation. “That was splendid, Jack,” I said.

“Thanks, Simon,” he answered. He turned to the girl, “What do you say the three of us go get a beer?” He had already put on his brown leather jacket.

“All right,” the girl said, and we started out. I’d never seen her before. She reminded me of a Mercedes-Benz…classic features, and a flawless exterior, gliding along on smoothly meshing joints.

“I’m Si Bork,” I said to her, hoping for a handshake.

“Helen,” she said nodding, and then picked up the thread of her conversation with Jack. “I mean, how can you be sure that those parallel universe you were talking about really exist? Can you leave your body?”

Jack hated to answer no to a question like that, so he just shrugged. “How could I ever tell?” And then he was back on his favorite subject, his own ideas. “I’ve got a whole new thing I’m working on now. Did it ever occur to you that black holes and white holes really exist in your Mindscape?”

Actually he wasn’t far off, but I wasn’t going to start blabbing everything I knew. Not yet anyway. If I played it right Jack would probably go along with me…maybe…and if I could just find someone else …

Helen was talking quietly to Jack as we went into the bar. I was sure she was already wondering how to get rid of this obvious loser, Simon Bork, so that she and Jack could really rap. But I knew Jack wanted me to stick around, and I started trying to make friends with Helen while Jack got us a pitcher.

We exchanged a few listless facts about what we did for a living…she was in medical school…and then a silence fell. I had to say something interesting.

“You remind me of a Mercedes,” I blurted out finally, unable to come up with anything more abstract. She gave me her full attention for a few seconds…sizing me up.

I know what I look like…hell, I build this body from scratch every morning, including the glasses. Gold-rimmed glasses, set deep into eye sockets with colorless eyes. Prematurely bald, with a few lank strands across the top. Twitchy face with a rabbity mouth. The kind of guy who eats Oreos for dessert after every one of the crummy little meals he cooks in his rented room.

Helen shook her head, “You look like a Studebaker yourself.” But as she said it she patted my arm, and I could feel a tingle…almost a shock…pass up the arm and into my bodymass.

She was so beautiful. Teeth, mouth, swelling breasts, her voice. This was as close to a girl this beautiful as I had ever been. If only I could get closer…I closed my eyes to skren her better. It was so relaxing to be near this woman. She seemed so kind…perhaps I could tell her …

“I have this problem …” I started to say, but a gassy wet vibrato had crept into my voice. I was starting to flow! Beneath my shirt the stiff orange buds were already forming on the transparent hide covering my swirling green bodymass. Helen’s eyes widened as my face sagged.

I couldn’t stop myself from shlubbering out, “I want to lesnerize you.” Why did I have to go and tip my hand like that, a part of my mind wondered bleakly. Helen had jumped to her feet, and when I slid to the floor I could see her shiny black underwear. It took the full force of my will to keep from beginning to rave in the mother tongue.

Not that she could have any doubts about what I was. In seconds she would begin to scream, and things would get worse until finally I would have to chirp again. I couldn’t figure out how I could have let myself go like this. For two years I had held human shape except when I got into my werble…disguised as the bed in my cheap, but well-locked, boarding-house room.

But now sitting here with this woman my control had suddenly snapped…and I was flopping around under the table like a sun-ripened manta ray. This would make the third mission in a row I had blown. Any second she would scream.

I tensed myself and prepared to chirp. When the humans discover a “Venusian,” we always take one of them with us. When forced out of my body, I convert its mass into a single pulse of electromagnetic energy…a chirp…which eventually reaches the Pure Land and is reconstructed there. They’ve got a radio-telescope hooked up to a vat of undifferentiated tissue.

Just so that the few humans in the know will think twice before attacking a “Venusian,” we always make it a point to beam the chirp through someone’s head on the way out. The energy density hard-boils their brain like an egg in a microwave oven.

But still no one came…and there was no scream. Something brushed against me. Something soft…it was the girl! Helen had sat down, taken off her shoes, and was gently kneading my bodymass. I grew bristles which slipped between her toes, and she clenched and gently tugged at them. Unmistakable pheromones were drifting down. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Helen was a V-sexual.

There was still time to save this mission. I forced myself back into human form and crawled out from under the table. Just as I stood up, Jack Flash came back with a pitcher of beer. “Was just talking to a friend,” he explained, jerking his head towards a group of backs at the bar. “And what have you been doing down there, Simon…checking Helen’s oil?”

I got back in my chair. “Just dropped some change,” I said with a synthetic chuckle. My feet hadn’t gelled yet, and Helen continued her gentle treading and plucking.

“Si spent the whole time you were gone under the table, Jack,” Helen said, withdrawing her feet. “He was really behaving strangely.” Her eyes bored into me with the twisted hunger of a V-sexual. I loved every minute of it. If I had to, I’d chirp and the hell with it. If not …

Jack looked at me with respect. “Didn’t know you had it in you, Si.” We all drank in silence for a minute. Finally Helen broke the relaxed silence.

“I don’t see how it would make sense, really, to talk about moving from one parallel world to another, Jack. If you were in both of them already, then what would there be to move?”

Jack ran his hand back along the central part of his straight hair. “I am in many of the different parallel Earths…and in each of them I think that’s the only one I’m really in. But there should be some sort of higher consciousness which could …” His voice trailed off. I liked that about Jack, that he couldn’t figure this one out. I knew the answer to Helen’s question. After all, I come from a parallel universe.

A “Venusian’s” mission on Earth is to reproduce by lesnerization, and then return to the Pure Land. Once enough of us have done this, there will be a web of consciousness connecting our universe and yours, and we will be able to draw the two closer together so that even the weak and diseased members of our race can move freely between “Venus” and the Earth. Several members of my swarm have completed successful missions, and they have described to me in detail what it is like to have the sort of multiple trans-universal consciousness which Jack and Helen were puzzling out.

Suddenly I spoke up, “Jack, I know a lot about parallel universes.” Helen gave me a cautioning glance, but I continued, “I have certain connections …”

Jack was laughing. “Connections with who, Si? Galaxy X?”

“Why don’t we go back to my room and talk it over. The three of us.”

Jack still didn’t get it. He thought I wanted to turn them on to some dope. So of course he came along. And Helen…she and I dropped a little behind and she slipped her hand into my shirt. No human had ever touched me there before.

If a “Venusian” is exposed he chirps, and no evidence of his existence is left…save for the mysterious death of one of the people who discovered him. There are thousands of us on Earth now, but few of us are ever detected…and the establishment chooses to ignore whatever fragmentary proofs of our existence arise. But there are rumors and, more important, there is subconscious knowledge. V-sexuals are people who have fallen in love with this subconsciously-sensed other presence in the world. V-sexuality is, for obvious reasons, primarily a latent perversion…but as a few lucky “Venusians” know, a V-sexual can move to intense overtness in the space of a few minutes. I could hardly wait. And if we could get Jack to join in …

It takes a minute to get my door open. I have three locks. Jack began kidding me about it. “What have you got in there Simon, a suitcase of gold?”

“You’ll see,” I said as the door finally opened. Jack went in first, and Helen came in after me, her hand resting lightly on my back. I wanted to triple lock the door behind me, but I feared this might alarm them.

The door opens into the kitchenette end of the room. You can tell it’s the kitchenette because that part of the room has a linoleum floor. Sometimes when I am too tired to cook, I just break some eggs on the floor, pour oil and ketchup on top of them, and then flow around on the linoleum until I have ingested everything.

But now I had company. “Beer?” I inquired. They were sitting on my werble at the other end of the room. The only other place to sit was the chair by the kitchenette table.

“Sure,” Jack said, “But we really can’t stay too long, Simon.” He thought he was going somewhere alone with Helen. Couldn’t he tell that now she only had eyes for me?

I got out three beers and glided over to the werble…my body movements suggestively fluid. Helen couldn’t take her eyes off me. “Tell Jack, Helen,” I said. “Tell him, and then I’ll let you undress me.”

With a visible effort Jack maintained his cool. “What makes you think Helen would want to undress you, Si? And what’s she supposed to tell me?”

“Si is a ‘Venusian,’” Helen said huskily. “I never knew if they were real or not. I’ve always…I’ve always …” her face was working, and she couldn’t get the rest of the sentence out. She slid a hand back under my shirt and fingered a stiff orange bud. Her hand was damp.

Jack jumped up off the bed and began moving towards the door. “You go out that door, and I’ll fry your brain,” I said evenly. Helen was moaning now, running her moist, trembling fingers over my face.

“Flow now while I’m touching you, darling,” she breathed.

I let my head go slack, and it began sinking down through the collar of my shirt. Helen was fumbling frantically at our clothes. I couldn’t see Jack anymore since I’d let my head merge into my bodymass, but I could still skren him. He had stopped near the door and was hesitating…his emotions a mixture of fear and curiosity. Finally curiosity won out.

“I can’t believe this,” Jack said desperately. He ripped the top off another beer from the icebox. He’d left his first one by the werble, and he was scared to get close to me. He sat down on the kitchen chair. “I’ll watch,” he said shakily, “But I’m not going to let you lesnerize us.”

That’s what he thought. I didn’t bother answering…it would have been too much trouble to form a mouth. It didn’t seem like Helen was ever going to get my clothes off, so I reduced viscosity and flowed out of my left pant leg and onto the floor. She had gotten her shirt and bra off, and she lay down to rub her stiff-nippled breasts across me. It felt nice.

For the next half hour or so she sat there kneading and molding me…like a three-year-old girl at the nursery school play-dough table. Only they don’t moan as much in nursery school. Somewhere along the line she got her pants off too, and I grew a few suitable protuberances. I liked that Jack was watching us. He might be smarter than me, he might be human…but I had the girl.

I guess Helen and I made something like the ultimate donkey show. When she finally got off me and lay panting on my werble, Jack was so hot that he pulled down his pants and jumped her. I flowed closer and laid a gentle pseudopod across the back of his thighs.

He twisted away, screaming, “No, Simon, not yet, don’t lesnerize us! Please not yet! I’ve just got to…get to …” He was thrusting in and out frantically, and in a few seconds it was all over.

I should have taken them then and there…but lesnerization goes a lot smoother if the human hosts are completely willing. It’s a simple operation. You just run a pseudopod up the person’s nose, suck out their brain, and fill their head up with part of your bodymass. Over the next year, your offspring slowly absorbs all of the host body, learning how to model it in the process. It’s the way we’ve always reproduced on Earth. When we fission like this, we have to split off two buds…baby “Venusians”…so we always have to lesnerize two people at once.

If I could only get those buds into Jack and Helen’s skulls I’d be free to chirp back to the Pure Land. My mind drifted pleasantly as I thought of rejoining my swarm…a respected and successful colonizer…possessor of trans-universal consciousness.

I formed Si Bork’s body again and lay down next to Jack and Helen. “How would you like to come forever?” I said softly. “That’s what lesnerization feels like…an orgasm that never stops. All I have to do is reach up through your nose and gently touch your brain,” no point telling them about what I’d do next, “and, wham, you’re as enlightened as Gautama Buddha.” Sex and enlightenment. It makes a nice package.

But they both looked a little doubtful. “What do you mean when you say ‘wham,’ hon?” Helen asked.

And then Jack chimed in, “Don’t you think it might be risky to fool around with a person’s brain like that?” He covered his nose defensively.

“Look,” I said, readjusting my features to look fatherly, “No ‘Venusian’ would ever dream of doing anything which might harm a human. We want to be your allies…your partners in a new trans-universal culture. Now I know you’ve heard the rumors about lesnerization. Take it from me, they’re all lies put out by chauvinist reactionaries. Lesnerization is just a way of getting to know each other better. Jack,” I patted his shoulder, “Once you’ve lesnerized with me, you’ll have more new stuff in that skull of yours than you can possible imagine. Lesnerization is simply a way for me to take things that I know and put them into your head.”

They shifted uneasily and looked at each other. Finally Jack spoke. “What do you say we get dressed and go talk about it over a pizza. I can dig where you’re coming from. Brain-to-brain communication. But I’ve got to have some food first.” He pulled his pants back up.

“That’s a good idea,” Helen said, fastening her bra. “I’m famished.” She began buttoning up her blouse. “Where is ‘Venus’ anyway, Si? And why are you all so secretive?”

I couldn’t believe how distant she suddenly seemed. First she’s all over me, and then I ask one little favor, and she starts asking questions like a hick at the freak show. I felt like just chirping the hell out of there and blowing one of them away. But if I went back to the Pure Land without lesnerizing anyone they’d just stuff me in a ship back to Earth…or worse. So I politely answered her question as I dressed.

“Actually, Helen, what you call ‘Venus’ is in one of those parallel universes Jack likes to talk about. In a way it’s in the same place where your Venus is, only ‘Venus’ is a different superspace location. We don’t call it ‘Venus’ though. We call it the Pure Land.”

“But how can the Pure Land be where Venus is without really being there?” Helen responded. Jack interrupted impatiently before I could answer.

“It has a different fourth-dimensional location is all, Helen. You can read about it in that Geometry and Relativity book I wrote.” We were all dressed and on our way out of the apartment. Jack turned to me. “What I want to hear is your answer to her other question, Simon. If you ‘Venusians’ are just here to make friends, then why do you sneak around so that only the nuts believe in you?”

I cleared my throat nervously. “We’re scared, Jack. Scared of small-minded xenophobic bigots. We’re really a very weak race. If we tried to land a ship openly, the pigs would blast us out of the sky. We want to come out in the open, but it’s not time yet. We need to know more about human psychology first, and we need time to spread the right kind of rumors about us.” I smiled self-deprecatingly.

But Jack seemed to be becoming more hostile. He was probably just jealous that I’d gotten more off Helen than him. “You say you’re weak, Simon, but didn’t you threaten to fry my brain just a little while ago?”

I generated a chuckle. “Oh that. Well, I could fry your brain…hard-boil it really…but only by converting my body into pure energy. That’s how we get back to the Pure Land. We call it chirping.” I explained the process to them, meanwhile trying to put my arm around Helen, but she shrugged it off.

Although it was supper time, the restaurant was almost empty. I’d never been there before, but Jack seemed to be a regular. He stopped to chat with the guy making pizzas in the front window.

I steered Helen to a table in the rear…I was hoping to lesnerize them after they’d had a good meal and a few beers. I was prepared to act forcibly if necessary…at the worst I’d lose a pseudopod. I smiled moistly at Helen. “Did you have a nice time in my room?”

“You know I did,” she said haltingly, “But I’m scared of what I could become if I keep seeing you. And I don’t know how I’ll be able to stay away.” She began crying, and reached out to touch my face. “One part of me already wants to do it again…especially with a man watching and thinking I’m the lowest kind of slut …” She hesitated, then resumed in a strained voice, “But if I kept doing that, what would happen to the rest of me…to Helen?” She covered her face with her hands.

Someone had turned the jukebox on, and over a background of moans and abrupt guitar chords a voice crooned, “Well it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas …” Helen was slipping away from me…but where was Jack? Surely he would listen to reason. I skrenned him walking across the room. I started to turn, but then he was already upon me, and he sank an eight-inch knife into my neck.

That did it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. Jack Flash was going to get it. I relaxed my hold on the knotted spacetime which made up my body and put everything I had into my chirp…carefully beaming it at the spot behind me where he crouched.

But I should have looked first. The bastard had an aluminum pizza pan in front of his face…and I bounced off it and out through the ceiling.

It doesn’t take long to get to the Pure Land from Earth. You get a faster-than-light phase-shift going in your pulse, lock it real, tear loose, and jump spacetime sheets. Once you’re back in the home space, it’s just a matter of a little simple tube-surfing. The only hard thing about it is that the whole trip seems to happen at once…so you have to know just what you’re going to do before you start.

I didn’t get much of a welcome at home when they found out I’d screwed up another mission. They said I could either go back to Earth or spend fifteen years in the tissue fields. I was frantic to revenge myself on Jack, and even more frantic to get back between Helen’s legs, so I would have been perfectly willing to go back to Earth…except that the trip back takes so long.

You can’t chirp from the Pure Land to Earth, since there’s no one waiting on Earth to reconstitute you. You have to go the long way…around the Horn, as it were. That is, you have to take a spaceship out the collapsed star Gouda X-1, fly in, bounce off the ring singularity into a new universe, and fly back to Earth. It’s dangerous and the whole trip takes about ten years proper-time. So the tissue fields didn’t necessarily sound that bad.

I asked for a week to think it over. They gave me two days, and I went out into the plaza promising to be back.

It felt good to be flowing across the intricately grooved stones again with the swarm. We aren’t very big on individual personalities, and before long I’d almost forgotten I’d ever left. A warm hydro-carbon rain drizzled down, and I circled around the plaza in the figures of the swarm’s never-ending dance.

The pimpled hides of my fellow “Venusians” felt familiar and comforting…but still I couldn’t put the feel of Helen’s breasts and thighs out of my mind…she was so smooth…so slippery.

I realized I was horny, and found a willing fellow-citizen…whom you might as well think of as a girl. We flowed away from the plaza together, and our individual consciousness returned. She told me her name was Pasmit.

As we passed through a grove of geezel fungi I paused to pry loose one of the immature spores. I threw it to Pasmit, she digested a little of it and threw it back to me.

We went on for several versts this way, finally stopping when the singing in our tissues could no longer be ignored. We pressed our vents together, guided by the sensitive bristles surrounding them; and then we let our bodymasses mingle for a timeless interval. The hydro-carbon drizzle increased, and the geezel spore rolled stealthily back towards its mother fungus. Finally we stopped pulsing and slid apart. The gamma-radiation is much stronger out in the country, and everything was suffused with a kindly glow.

I must have been mad to want to go back to Earth, I thought. Pasmit and I could build a burrow near the tissue fields. I’d get strong and green working in the fields, and every night we’d go dance with the swarm. It had been good enough for my ancestors; why shouldn’t it be good enough for me? There was just one thing …

“Pasmit,” I vibrated, “Could you do something for me…something special?”

She snuggled closer to me. “What is it, Sibork?”

“Could you form your bodymass like this, and this, and this …” I gestured rapidly, “And then could you rub on me? I’ll show you how I mean.”

She burbled, and started to do it. I sighed and went limp, images of Helen filling my mind. Pasmit leaned over me and began to knead my bodymass with her hands. Quaveringly I pulsed my next request, and extruded the appropriate protuberances. She started to do it …

But abruptly she stopped, and her pulsations became harsh. “But this is human shape! You want me to be like a human, Sibork!” She recoiled and rapidly re-assumed “Venusian” shape. “You’re a filthy H-sexual!” she shrilled, “Don’t come near me!”

Pasmit delivered her parting shot as she began flowing back towards the swarm. “You’re not fit to live in the Pure Land anymore, Sibork. You’re tainted. You’ll have to go back to Earth tomorrow.”

I knew she was right. I couldn’t even blame her for feeling the way she did…I used to feel the same way about H-sexuals.

I spent an uneasy night sleeping under a rock, and the next morning I shipped out for Earth again. Despite what I’d told Jack, we “Venusians” are virtually indestructible. So our spaceships do not need any very complex life-support systems.

My ship consisted, basically, of one hundred kilos of geezel and the shell of a nauton, a sort of gigantic fungus-snail common in the Pure Land. I packed the geezel into the front of the cone-shaped spiral shell, crawled in after, and sealed the back off with a specially thickened section of my hide.

During the trip I would feed off the geezel, and propel the ship by converting some of the food energy into a stream of ions, to be blown out of an aperture in my hide door. In effect, I fart myself through space. Given the steady force and the small mass of my ship, I can reach relativistic velocities rather easily…and once one travels close enough to the speed of light, time dilation sets in. As far as my body’s aging processes are concerned, the one hundred light-year trip to Gouda X-1 takes only five years.

Even five years might seem like a long time to be wadded up inside a nauton shell, but I have the ability to let my individual consciousness go totally dormant…turning the control of my body over to what we call “Big Mind” in the Pure Land.

I spent five years in a trance, pooting along towards Gouda X-1. When I was not too far from it, the intense gravitational radiation jolted me back into existence.

For a few moments I was totally disoriented. I had no idea where I was…for a second I didn’t even know if I was “Venusian” or human. Ahead of me I skrenned a hot bluish star with a huge tufty horn of flame growing out of it. The name Beetroot 322 popped into my mind. The horn fed an immense spiral of brightly glowing gas which was twisted around a region of what seemed to be absolute blackness.

I was falling…at almost the speed of light…down towards the collapsed star which nestled in the center of the spiral of gas it had pulled out of its companion star. The collapsed star was Gouda X-1, and at its very center was the gate which led out of the Pure Land universe.

As I drew closer I could see the ring singularity that lay at the heart of this whirlpool of space and time. If a star such as Gouda X-1 is rotating fast enough when it collapses to form a black hole, then the singularity at its center takes the shape of a ring. Space is infinitely curved at each point of this ring, and to venture too close to it is to be torn apart atom from atom. But if you manage to go through the ring, something quite different happens.

Think of the many parallel universes as being a stack of so many pieces of cloth. Now imagine punching a circular hole through this stack of fabrics, and then sewing all of these spacetime sheets together along the edges of the circles you punched out. That’s what a ring singularity is like…almost.

But I left out what’s inside the ring. Well, when you go through the ring you enter an antimatter, anti-gravity anti-universe…which repels you, spits you back like a squeezed watermelon seed.

When you come back through the ring, you go onto one of those many sheets of spacetime which are sewed together along the ring singularity…and if you’re lucky you come out where and when you wanted to.

Actually it’s not really luck that determines in which universe and at what time in that universe you come out. It’s more like you come out where you expect to come out.

Causality takes a beating when minds and singularities interact. But Big Mind doesn’t need causality anyway…every instant of every universe springs into existence together, and synchronicity is the natural order of things.

Anyway, there I was in a flexible nauton shell being sucked down into the heart of Gouda X-1 at something like the speed of light. And Jack Flash thought he’d been far out. I had to laugh thinking of that jerk sneaking up behind me like that with his knife and pizza pan. When I got to Earth this time things were going to be different. Because I was planning to get back there before I’d left.

The singularity was dead ahead now, a bright ring a few kilometers in diameter. Bright isn’t the word for it, really. You know how a mirror looks when it bounces sun into your eyes?

All of Gouda X-1’s mass had gone into that circle of light and, friend, it was a perfect circle. It was like looking at the ultimate platonic circle in Big Mind, the circle from which all other circles derive their feeble and reflected reality.

As you can imagine, the gravitational force coming off that ring was incredible. I was thin as a needle and I whisked through without even slowing down. But as soon as I’d gone through I was in an anti-universe, and every particle of that universe wanted me out of there. This was the most dangerous part of the trip. If some piece of antimatter happened by and brushed into me I’d be annihilated. If I didn’t steer just right the anti-universe would throw me against the ring and I’d be annihilated. If I panicked and chirped, my energy pulse would be trapped in an endless pendulum orbit around the ring and, for all practical purposes, I’d be annihilated.

There was also the matter of bouncing out into the right space and time. I could already see myself looking in through the pizza-parlor window at Jack Flash getting a knife and pan from his friend behind the counter. Jack looked scared and I felt a little sorry for him. Maybe I shouldn’t suck his brain out after all…but how else could I establish a trans-universal consciousness?

My attention snapped back to the situation at hand. The repulsive force from the anti-universe counterpart of Gouda X-1’s mate, Beetroot 322, had decelerated me from the speed of light to rest, and had already started forcing me back towards the ring singularity. This was the roughest part of the ride. One second you’re going 99.999 percent the speed of light one way, and the next instant you’re going 99.999 percent the speed of light the other way. There weren’t many “Venusians” who could handle the ring singularity bounce-trip. I’d been trained for it from budhood, and even so it must have taken five years off my life every time I did it.

As I zoomed back through the ring, I struggled to keep from blacking out, and I kept my mind fixed on frightened Jack Flash in the pizza-parlor window…and on Helen, across the table from me with her face in her hands…I’m sorry Jack…I love you Helen …

I burst out of the ergosphere of Gouda X-1 traveling so fast that it would have taken a photon a year to gain five meters on me. I had some slowing down to do before I got to Earth…if there was an Earth in this space.

The ship was traveling rear-end first now, and I began absorbing geezel and shooting out the ion-steam again. Five years of this and I would have decelerated back to rest. I had started out with revenge and lust in my mind, but for some reason I was now suffused with thoughts of peace and love. Good old Jack. Dear sweet Helen. Even my department chairman seemed almost “Venusian.” I drifted into a trance and let Big Mind take over.

I was so anxious about missing Earth that I woke up a few months early. Those were peaceful months, hurtling towards the Sun with a speed that I steadily diminished. There was plenty of time to think about what I would do on Earth.

I began to wonder about the wisdom of reproducing by lesnerization. The whole idea of reproducing ourselves on Earth by planting the buds inside people’s skulls went back to Brow, the first “Venusian” who ever survived the ring singularity bounce-trip to any of the inhabited versions of Earth. Disguised as a Dutch mathematician, Brow had advanced the destructive mathematical philosophy called intuitionism, and he had lesnerized dozens, perhaps hundreds of people before chirping back to the Pure Land. Many of the “Venusians” now on Earth are Brow’s descendants, although every year a few new colonizers, such as myself, make the ring singularity bounce-trip to one of the Earths.

But what had made Brow feel that the only safe place to grow a bud was inside a human skull? At home we grow buds in nautons, in geezel plants…sometimes even in the ground. What gave Brow, and the rest of us, our conviction that on Earth we should only reproduce by the murder of innocent human beings?

The power of suggestion, that’s what. A solitary “Venusian” on an alien Earth behaves as humans consciously or subconsciously expect a blob from outer space to behave. As I explain in my article on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, blobs from outer space symbolize the unchecked id. With their natural fear that their lower, more bestial desires will take over their minds, what could be more natural than for people to expect the “Venusians” to reproduce by lesnerization. Nobody had told Jack what lesnerization was…in his guts he knew I wanted to eat his brain…so he’d come after me with the knife.

Why couldn’t I break this cycle? Why couldn’t humans and “Venusians” really be trans-universal allies? But a less idealistic part of me was still wondering how to safely reproduce myself on Earth if not by lesnerizing. Would not the humans hunt out and destroy a bud which was hidden anywhere other than inside a human skull? And if I failed to achieve trans-universal consciousness this time I could never return to the Pure Land.

The topography of the Earth below me looked familiar, so I knew I’d bounced into a universe pretty much like the one where Jack had knifed me. I splashed down in one of the Finger Lakes, formed Si Bork’s body again, and swam ashore. I didn’t feel any special need to rush or to stall. If I was going to show up at the right time, I would.

It was around dusk when I reached the highway and stuck out my thumb. I’d grown my own clothes this time, and I looked like any other hitchhiker. After awhile a pickup truck stopped. The driver was an old farmer, bound for Livingston, my destination.

I told him I was an English prof at the college there, and we talked a little about monster movies. He had a strange way of putting his fingers under his nose and sniffing them when he talked about creatures from outer space. Was he trying to tell me something? When I looked closely, I seemed to see bumps under his faded cotton shirt …

“Are you ‘Venusian?’” I asked him, and then added something that a human would have taken for a cough, but which was really a Pure Land proverb meaning something like, “Once you’re born, the worst has already happened.”

Without answering he pulled the pickup off the road and turned to look directly at me. His features were flowing with joy and we embraced.

We sat there maybe a half hour, pulsing each other’s like stories back and forth. His name was Roon, and he’d come from a bud some “Venusian” had lesnerized into the body of the farmer Roon still impersonated. The farmer and his wife had been UFO enthusiasts willing to go along with anything an alien suggested, and Roon’s sib-bud had agreed that lesnerizing was wrong, and the sib-bud had gone down to the Pentagon, trying to tell them the truth. Roon had never heard from his sib-bud again, and figured he’d either chirped out or joined the CIA.

Roon raised pigs now, and when I asked him why we couldn’t just grow our buds in his pigs’ bodies, he was shocked. “Pigs are lower forms of life, Sibork!”

“So are humans,” I responded. “And for that matter, so are we.” I told him my theory about why Brow had acted as he did. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” I concluded. “If we stop murdering people, we’ll be able to come out in the open and really befriend them. I’ve found it’s almost impossible to lie to a human.” Which reminded me…if I was going to stop Jack from knifing me, I’d better get a move on.

Roon dropped me off near the pizza-parlor, and we agreed to meet again. Now to explain what happened next, I’m going to have to introduce a little notation. Roon dropped me off near the pizza-parlor, right? Now if I had walked down, looked in the window, and seen a “Venusian” talking with Helen at the rear table…who would that be? Me. But to keep things from getting too confusing, let’s call that “Venusian” me*, reserving the word me for the “Venusian” looking in the window.

It was just about night now, maybe seven o’clock, and I walked down the street towards the pizza-parlor. Everything was clicking. I knew that Jack was going to be standing in that window.

And he was. He’d just turned the jukebox on, and was picking up a pizza pan and an eight-inch knife from the counter. At the back of the room I could see my* back and Helen, her face in her hands.

I opened the door and walked in. Jack had paused to exchange a few last words with the counterman and he didn’t see me. I walked over to the jukebox and kicked it so hard that the needle slid across the record and the machine turned itself off. He whirled around, knife at the ready.

“Hi, Jack.”

I was ready for him, and there was no way in the world he could get that knife into me. I could see that realization sink into him, and he mumbled something about getting the knife to cut up the pizza. He hadn’t noticed yet that I* was still sitting at the table.

“Jack,” I began, “I’ve been through a lot of changes since the last time I saw you …”

He laughed nervously, “It’s been all of two minutes, Simon. What kind of …” and then he broke off. I* was walking across the room towards him.

I* was glad to see that I had made it in time…but I* had always known that I would. I wondered how I* had known that, since I didn’t recall having expected anyone to come save me the last time around. I* pointed out that that had been a different universe…and I realized that since things were happening differently here from the last time, it must be that I really had bounced out of Gouda X-1 into a universe just a shade different from the one where I had gotten knifed.

While Jack was staring at me*, I deftly took the knife away from him. I* thought that was nicely done, and we exchanged a smile.

“We’ve got double consciousness,” I and I* said to Jack happily. He looked confused.

“Where did you come from?” he said to me, “Are you Si’s twin brother, or what?”

“Actually I’m the same person as Sibork*,” I answered, “Only I come from a different universe.” And then I began laughing, “I’ve finally got it.”

“Got what?” Jack said, expressionlessly looking from me to me*.

“Trans-universal consciousness,” I* answered, and then , “So I* don’t need to lesnerize anyone anymore. You were right to be scared of it, and I’m* sorry for wanting to do it to you.” Finally Jack broke into a smile.

“Tell me more,” he said. So I* did.

Meanwhile I walked over to Helen. She had stopped crying and was sitting there watching the conversation in amazement. “Helen,” I said, “I love you, I can make you happy. Just because you love a ‘Venusian,’ doesn’t make you bad. You have broader horizons than other people is all.”

She smiled up at me, “And now there’s two of you?”

I smiled back. The Pure Land could wait.



Note on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

Written in Spring, 1976.

The 57th Franz Kafka, Ace Books, 1983.

This apprentice exercise touches upon some of my favorite SF themes: time-travel, UFO aliens, brain-eating, and sex. It also marks the start of my “transreal” practice of modeling some of my characters on myself, my friends and my long-suffering family. Loosely speaking, I’m Jack Flash and Si Bork was my Geneseo English professor friend Lee Poague. Lee also appears in White Light, and his younger brother Dennis became the Stahn “Sta-Hi” Mooney character of my Ware series of novels. Not that my family, friends or I are really very much like my fiction characters. The distinction is comparable to that between an actor’s real life and the life of the characters whom he or she plays.

The word “geezel” is an homage to the master Robert Sheckley, who once used it to stand for a kind of alien food; and “lesnerize” is from a Golden Age story that used it to mean “sneeze.”



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Enlightenment Rabies

His boots looked so perfect. Two dark parabolas in a field of yellow; slight three-dimensional interest provided by the scurf strewn about. Time to act. Bodine took a newspaper the size of a bubblegum wrapper from the stack at the android’s elbow.

“Three dollars.”

Handing over the money, he again forgot where he was. Or entered another spacetime. “The cave and the marketplace” is what he called it. Buying the newspaper was marketplace, and grooving on his boots was cave. This was an old Zen distinction comparable to the One/Many distinction of the Greeks. Bodine tried to live at the interface of complementary world-views; but more often than not he was just really out of it.

He passed through the news-shop’s air-curtain and glanced up at the sky. A shareholder jostled him, then remarked, “They’re saying it’ll rain tonight, uh.”

“I don’t care what they’re saying. I make my own weather,” Bodine snapped.

The shareholder’s face froze behind his stunglasses and began to fade. Bodine elaborated, “If you let those glasses tell you what tomorrow’s weather is today, then you don’t have your tomorrow. You have their tomorrow. Lose the consensus, Jimmy. Wake up, uh.”

The shareholder gave him a cautious but superior smile. “You had your vaccination?” he asked with exaggerated clarity, and walked on.

Bodine fell into a dream looking at the gauzy white clouds against the light and bright November sky. Good day for something. He put some music in his workspace and started walking. The shareholder’s question surfaced in his mind.

Vaccination. Damn. Seemed like they’d just been through all that a few weeks ago. Bodine had nearly been swept that time. He’d caught the disease…“Dirtbug” they’d been calling it…he’d caught it and would have died if he hadn’t been able to score some anti-toxin. Had cost him ten grand, and he’d had to kill a man to get the money. This time he’d do it the easy way and let the state vaccinate him.

Bodine sat down on a bench and took the newspaper out of his packet. It was really a small white-light hologram. He held it up to his eye and looked through to see an old-fashioned newspaper spread out on a table. Social hygiene was page four.

… tragic death of three patients at Veterans’ hospital…ten soldiers at research center…new virus isolated…disease has been named “Enlightenment Rabies” …

Bodine laughed bitterly. There must be more people working the interface than he’d realized. The state invented the diseases and spread them, but it always named them after some perceived social ill. This time it was enlightenment, next time it might be underconsumption or dirty teeth. In any case, the point was that if you were too wasted or stubborn to go get the state-administered antidote you were going to get swept.

… cramps, buboes, and convulsions ending in death by suffocation…crash vaccination program…available November 17–20 at these local centers …

Bodine checked the date on the paper. Today was the 20th. Now where was the nearest center? After a few minutes he knew where to go. Off the interface, brought down in the marketplace, running scared like they wanted.

Halfway down the block Bodine bumped into his friend Ace High. Ace was standing on the sidewalk with his head thrown far back and his arms wrapped around his legs. The Metal Crane position.

Bodine stopped to look at Ace for a minute. Ace’s eyes were aimed at him, but there was nobody home. Bodine was clearly in the presence of an unvaccinated fellow-citizen.

“Hey Ace,” he said, trying to straighten up his friend’s bent body, “Come on, uh, it’s eigenstate time.”

Ace High was infinitely differentiable. He got the message and locked in on the signal. His face split like a melon when he smiled, as he did now, uncleaned teeth glistening in the sun. “Why…does the doctor…have no face?” he crooned, guessing Bodine’s meaning. “Lez go, boss.”

Bodine and Ace High started off for the vaccination center. It was easier to be going together. That way if you forgot where you were going, your friend might still know.

“Let’s get some stunglasses on,” Bodine suggested, feeling through his pockets. He still had his pair. Ace had lost his, so they decided to stop in at the next news-shop to get some.

Bodine was already feeling the effects of his stunglasses. His mind was filled with safety tips, news updates, and new product information. Purposefully he went into the news-shop and bought a pair of stunglasses for Ace High. It was an attractive little shop with a big multiplexed holographic display in the corner. If Bodine looked in just the right direction, the image his stunglasses produced fit right on top of the image displayed in the news-shop. An indescribably beautiful moiré interference pattern appeared, and he was gone again.

Fortunately Ace High had already put on his new stunglasses. As he watched, Bodine slowly assumed the Silent Planet posture, his face turned rapturously to the news-shop’s advertising display. Ace High looked at the floor, not wanting to disturb his friend. The stunglasses were projecting a three-dimensional holographic image in front of everything he looked at. The image was multiplexed, so he couldn’t actually say for sure what it was of. It was a lot things at once, and his brain knew how to sort out and store the information. His trusting brain was soaking it right up.

As he watched the stunglasses’ images, Ace High’s slack exuberance turned to responsible concern. Concern that he had not drawn his paycheck for two months. Concern about what he had been doing for two months. Concern that everyone receive their Enlightenment Rabies vaccination, particularly himself and Bodine. Concern with the fact that more and more young people were turning their backs on the real world, only to go chasing after some kind of crazy half-scientific hopped-up occultist mystagogic blue-dome swizzle, uh.

Bodine was more or less squatting on the floor with his arms between his knees. He was singing or moaning a wavering note. The Music of the Spheres is what the kids called it, and ordinarily if your best friend was singing the Music of the Spheres you left him alone for a few days. But they had to get that vaccination or they’d be swept.

“Are we crazy / are we insanéd / are we zeroes / that someone painted?” Bodine muttered when Ace shook him. Then he shifted phases, the images unlocked, and he was walking out the door with a headache.

“The old bus station, right?” Ace High said. Bodine nodded, and they started down the cold and dry sidewalk, flooded yellow with clear November sun. They were wearing their stunglasses, and each of them had about half of his attention occupied by the multiplex image the stunglasses projected into any part of the visual field not under active scrutiny.

The bus station was a ten minute walk away, but they didn’t talk much. They were absorbed in watching a dinosaur show. They couldn’t even tell that it was multiplex anymore. Their whole conscious minds were involved in the show they were watching, and the incessant messages from all the “sponsors” were being sorted out and stowed away subconsciously.

Soon Bodine and Ace High had joined the long line of waiting citizens that snaked out of the old bus station. Everyone had stunglasses on. Some people were watching sports, some were watching old movies, some were watching sex, some were watching university extension courses. Nobody was watching the November sunlight sliding across the street like nectar from the last flower of the year.



Note on “Enlightenment Rabies”

Written in 1977.

New Pathways, #9, November, 1987.

When I wrote the amateurish “Enlightenment Rabies” I was exercised about the U. S. propaganda tactic of naming diseases after the government’s enemies: the Russian Flu, the Chinese Flu and the like. And, of course, I was filled with hatred for television. From the present-day vantage, the story looks cyberpunk. I sent “Enlightenment Rabies” to the short-lived magazine Unearth in 1978, and they were going to print it, but then they decided to serialize my novel Spacetime Donuts instead. Unearth‘s policy was to print previously unpublished authors. William Gibson and I both had our first SF publications there. I eventually cannibalized the opening paragraph of “Enlightenment Rabies” for Chapter 25 of Software.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Schrödinger’s Cat

“A cat is placed in a steel chamber, together with the following hellish contraption (which must be protected against direct interference by the cat): In a Geiger counter there is a tiny amount of radioactive substance, so tiny that maybe within an hour one of the atoms decays, but equally probably none of them decays. If an atom decays then the counter triggers and via a relay activates a little hammer which breaks a container of cyanide. If one has left this entire system for an hour, then one would say that the cat is still living if no atom has decayed. The first decay would have poisoned it. The wave-function of the entire system would express this by containing equal parts of the living and the dead cat.” —Erwin Schrödinger.

-----

By rights, this should have been an important scientific paper…not a thrilling wonder tale in some lurid, mass-produced edition. But I must cast my net as wide as possible. I am fishing for minds, minds with the delicacy of thought to appreciate the nature of Ion Stepanek’s fate.

Such are the facts: with my assistance, Ion Stepanek was able to build a sort of time-machine. He used this machine to produce a yes-and-no situation, which he tried to observe. As a result, he has split into an uncollapsible mixed state. Due to coupling effects, I suffer his condition, though not yet to the same degree.

It is March 21, 1980, Heidelberg, West Germany. I am sitting in the office Stepanek shared with me, staring out at a white sky. The office is in the Physics Institute. Across the river, the great castle hovers over the misted town like a thought. Such are the facts.

I did my undergraduate work at Stanford, then took my Ph.D. in particle physics at Berkeley. My thesis project helped lead to the first experimental disproof of the Bell inequality. At one time this was a fairly sensational result, although now more and more people have accepted the ultimate validity of the wave-function world-view.

Schrödinger’s though-experiment is paradoxical because, according to quantum mechanics, until the observer opens the door, the cat is not definitely dead or definitely alive, but is rather 50 percent dead and 50 percent alive. The cat is in what is known as a mixed state.

Einstein responded to Schrödinger’s paradox by asserting that this fifty-fifty business was just a measure of the observer’s lack of knowledge, rather than being a true description of the actual state of the cat. But the experimental disproof of the Bell inequality has shown that Einstein was wrong. The unobserved world evolves into truly mixed states. There are no hidden parameters which make things stay definite.

It is thanks, in part, to my own research that this result was proved. But despite this high achievement, I was unable to obtain a good research or teaching post. I make enemies easily, and it may be that one of my letters of recommendation was, in effect, a black-ball.

I postponed the inevitable with a post-doc at Harvard. But after that I had to take a poorly paying job at a state college in Wankato, Minnesota.

Cut off from any real physics laboratory, I was forced to begin thinking more deeply about the experiments I had run at Harvard and at Berkeley. What is it Schrödinger says about his paradox?

“This prevents us from accepting a ‘blurred model’ so naïvely as a picture of reality. By itself reality is not at all unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a blurred or poorly-focused photograph and a picture of clouds or fog patches.”

I had a nervous breakdown during my fourth year at Wankato. It had to do with the television weather reports. Quantum mechanics implies that until someone makes an observation, the weather is indeterminate, in a mixed state. There is, in principle, no reason why it should not be sunny every day. Indeed, it is logically possible to argue that it rains only because people believe it to be raining.

Fact: in Wankato, Minnesota, there is precipitation 227 days of the year.

Before too long I thought I had determined the reason for this. All of the citizens of Wankato…even the faculty members…watch television weather reports every evening. These reports almost always predict rain or snow. It seemed obvious to me, in my isolation, that if the weather reports could be stopped, then it would not rain so often.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to gather signatures for a petition. I went to the TV station and complained. Finally, I forced my way into the studio one evening and interrupted the weather report to state my case.

“Tomorrow it will be sunny!” I cried. “If only you will believe!”

The next day it was sunny. But I was out of a job, and in a mental institution. It was clear that I needed a rest. It had been folly to shift my fellows over so abruptly from one belief system to another. I had neglected the bridge, the mixed state.

That was in March, 1979. A year ago. They let me out after six weeks of treatment. As luck would have it, a letter from a German research foundation was waiting for me when I finally got back to my little furnished room. They had approved my application for a one-year grant, to be spent working with Ion Stepanek at the Physics Institute of the University of Heidelberg. My project title? “Mixed States as Bridges Between Parallel Universes.”

On a typical Heidelberg day it is misty. On the Neckar River the vapor hangs in networks, concentrated at the boundaries of atmospheric pressure cells. The old town is squeezed between the river and a steep mountainside. Some hundred meters up the mountain hangs the huge, ruined castle. In the mist it looks weightless, phantasmagoric.

I got there in early September, during semester break. I found a room outside of town, and on most days, I would ride the stuffy bus from my apartment to Bismarckplatz, the little city’s center.

Strange feelings always filled me on these bus rides. I never seemed to see the same face twice, and the strangeness of it put me at a remove from reality. Never had I tasted alienation in such a pure and unalloyed form.

Half convinced that I was invisible, I would stare greedily at the German women, at their thick blonde hair and their strong features. The women stared back with bold and clinical eyes. I gave my heart a thousand times, without ever saying a word. But I could never muster the courage to approach one of those tantalizing aliens. I am, after all, soft and funny-looking.

On a normal day I would get out at Bismarckplatz and walk over the bridge. Crossing the Neckar always took me a long time. In the middle of the bridge I would stop and watch the fifty-meter-long barges speeding by beneath me. The river is like a highway, with coal and wrecked cars being lugged upstream, and great beams of steel gliding downstream. There are the locks to see, and the hazy old town, and above it all, the great hallucinatory castle.

Other darker thoughts detained me on the bridge as well. Surely you have seen Edvard Munch’s painting, The Cry? Why do you think Munch chose to place this most anguished figure in modern art…on a bridge? On a bridge one is neither here nor there; one is rootless…and anything can happen. Did you know that in the 1800s the most commonly attempted method of suicide was none other than…jumping off a bridge? Out there, in the wind, one need not choose this bank or that. There are other alternatives.

During my first two months in Heidelberg, the Institute was deserted. The sole secretary present showed me my desk in Ion Stepanek’s large office. As I later learned, Stepanek was spending the semester break visiting relatives in Budapest. Both he and his wife, Klara, were Hungarian refugees.

The first time I met Stepanek, he caught me by surprise. I had spent those first lonely months at the Institute by going over various treatments of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. My slow understanding of the solution was expressed in a large, three-dimensional figure, a sort of solid letter “Y,” which I was amusing myself with by drawing on the office blackboard.

“William,” a voice cried suddenly. “What a pleasure to find you here, hard at work!” I turned a bit too abruptly—he had startled me—and we shook hands.

Ion Stepanek was a short, wiry man, given to wearing suede vests and jackets. His hair was thinning, and rather greasy. He had a large nose and a wide, amused mouth. His eyes were very quick, and he had a disconcerting habit of staring me in the eye when he sensed I might be holding something back.

Although he was ten years my senior and, nominally, my supervisor, Ion began by treating me as an equal. He had read my experimental work and my recent, unpublishable theorizings. In return I had read everything he had written, even including a stack of freshly typed pages I had found on his desk.

His sharp eyes took in my diagram of the EPR paradox, and then he turned to gesture at the window. “So, William? Do you like the fog? The indeterminacy?”

I shrugged. “I can live with it. Did you enjoy your vacation?”

“Must it be yes or no?” I didn’t know quite what to answer. Stepanek savored the moment, then clapped me on the shoulder. “Have you read my latest?”

“You mean this?” I pointed to the pages on his desk. “Yes, I took the liberty. But …” I stopped, not wanting to offend him.

He plucked the thought out of my eyes and answered it. “You are wondering why I would waste my energy on a chimera like time-travel.”

I nodded. “Surely you are aware of the paradoxes. One can so easily produce a yes-and-no situation with a time-machine.”

Ion smiled widely, mirthlessly. “Do you not understand your own work? This is just what you want.”

We dropped the matter for then, and went on to discuss the bus routes, my apartment, the restaurants…the minutiae of life in a foreign country.

Ion insisted on taking me home with him for the midday meal. His house was only a few hundred meters from the Institute. His wife, Klara, greeted me like a long-lost cousin.

“Ion has been so looking forward to your visit, William. It is wonderful that you are here!” She had soft eyes and dark, sensual lips. A perfect wife, a perfect mother. How comfortable she made me feel!

I accepted a glass of kirsch before lunch. The clear, dry alcohol went straight to my head, but Ion assured me that Klara’s after-dinner coffee would remedy that. Then the two children, twin ten-year-old girls, came crashing in.

The German school-day ends before one o’clock, and it is not unusual for the whole family to have their big meal together at midday.

“Do you fix such a big supper as well?” I asked Klara as we sat down to our cauliflower soup.

“This is not big,” she said, looking down the loaded table. “This is nothing.”

Besides the soup, there was a roast stuffed with hot sausage, a platter of fried potatoes, creamed spinach, cucumber salad, smoked cheese, two kinds of salami, dishes of pickled peppers, and a large carafe of excellent white wine.

“I have never seen such a magnificent meal in my life!” I exclaimed.

The twins giggled, and Ion laughed appreciatively. “You see, Klara? William is already learning the art of Hungarian exaggeration.”

In the course of many happy hours spent at the Stepaneks’ over the next three months, I was to become very familiar with this sort of conversation. A Hungarian is never happy without being ecstatic, never sad without being suicidal, never your friend without being ready to give you everything he owns, never displeased without being ready to kill. But there was, for all that, a consciously playful element to their exaggerations which somehow kept them from ever being oppressive.

Klara was thirty-five, about halfway in age between Ion and I. Before long I was thoroughly infatuated with her, and flirted shamelessly. Ion must have noticed, but perhaps he welcomed the excitement for Klara. Or perhaps he pitied me too much to object.

I got in the habit of dropping my spoon at most of our frequent common meals. Bent and straining under the table, I would stare at Klara’s legs. She could feel my gaze, and would slowly rub her nylons against each other. When I sat up she would give me a look of dreamy speculation, her full lips parted to show a few of her perfect teeth. I hoped my hopes and dreamed my dreams.

Meanwhile, Ion and I were working long hours on our joint project. His intention was to push the Feynman time-reversal theory of antimatter hard enough to get time-travel. He had the clout to get the necessary components and material—some of them totally new. My job was to assemble the components into a working system.

There is something magical about scientific apparatus. A witch doctor assembles decorated stones, special herbs, pieces of rare animals…and he expects that putting these valued objects together will cause something unusual to happen. Spirit voices, levitation, miracle cures …

The constructions of engineers and physicists are not really so different. Bits of etched silicon, special chemicals, oddly shaped pieces of metal…the experimentalist places them together, and suddenly one has a radio, or an airplane, or an X-ray machine.

Stepanek’s design for a time-machine was a bit more obviously allied to sorcery than is customary. The key components were six of the brand-new “phase-mirrors.” It was only as a result of his years-long friendship with the director of the Max Planck Institute that Ion was able to get these fantastically rare and valuable plates of…what?

The phase-mirrors were made of a completely new type of substance called quarkonium, a hyperstable compound something like metallic helium—but with some of the protons’ component quarks replaced by the newly obtainable “bottom” quarks. Quarkonium is, strangely enough, neither matter nor antimatter. The stuff exists in some fantastically charged tension between the two. The fact that quarkonium is thus hyperstable made it possible that, in certain circumstances, the phase-mirrors could emit or absorb almost their entire mass-energy without disintegrating.

Two of the thin, inflexible quarkonium plates were square, and four were longish rectangles. I assembled the six into a box, setting an evacuation nozzle into the hole with which one plate had been provided. The material was strange to work with, slippery and utterly rigid. Although they were supposed to be a sort of mirror, the plates did not reflect images in any ordinary way…at least not most of the time. But, over and over, as I was assembling the phase-mirrors into a box, I seemed to glimpse isolated images of my fingertips here and there on the mirrors’ surfaces.

We spent forty-eight hours pumping the box out to a state of near-perfect vacuum, and then sealed it off. While the pump was running, Ion instructed me to mount a series of wire loops on the table, loops which could be charged to produce a weakly guiding magnetic field. We set the box in the middle of the loops, and that was about it. A transparent box like an aquarium with a glass top. Ion called the box a time-tunnel, but I found this colorful description misleading.

We ran our first tests with an electron beam. The idea was that a signal could come out of one end of the box before it went in the other. It’s called an advanced potential in quantum mechanics. We got the results Ion had predicted, so we moved up to atomic nuclei, and then to a series of larger and larger iron bullets.

Shooting the bullets into that phase-mirror box made me a little nervous… . I expected the box to shatter. But somehow it didn’t. I assumed it was because the quarkonium plates were, in some sense, liquid, and thus able to close up after a rapid enough object.

I believed that for a while, anyway. But before long I had come to believe something stranger…that the box was able to create and destroy matter/antimatter pairs. But where was the energy coming from? And where did it go?

Ion had an explanation. But I was not ready to accept his description of what we had built. That way lay madness.

“Do you know what your husband and I have done?” I asked Klara at lunch the last day of February. The twins had already left the table to do their homework. I glanced at Ion, and he gave me an encouraging nod. Until now I had been sworn to silence.

Klara looked a bit nervous at my question. Ion was, I had learned, something of a philanderer. What a fool to betray a woman as wonderful as Klara!

“Nothing too depraved, I hope?” Her voice was gay, but with the faintest tremolo of real worry. She drew out a cigarette and placed it between her wonderful lips, waiting for the touch of my lighter…the lighter which I had bought solely so that I could light Klara’s cigarettes. She tilted her head back, away from the smoke, and looked at Ion questioningly.

He smiled his broad, mirthless smile. “William and I have assembled a rather interesting piece of apparatus. It creates and destroys matter, according to William’s way of looking at things.”

Klara arched her eyebrows at me. “Is that true, William? Perhaps you have solved the energy crisis?”

I laughed, a bit exasperated by Ion’s misdirection. “No, no. This is a very expensive machine to build. We have used most of the quarkonium in the world to build it. And really it creates and absorbs matter/antimatter pairs, rather than just matter. But Ion thinks …

Ion was pouring himself a glass of wine, and the carafe clattered against his glass. “I do not think, William, I know. We have built a time-machine.” Suddenly, on some level, we were fighting over Klara.

She blew a thick stream of smoke and put out her cigarette. “I would like a time-machine. Then I could see what the castle looked like in 1400, before the French blew it up. And I’d like to see dinosaurs. And fashions one thousand years from now.” It was clear she didn’t believe Ion. “Dearest, do you think you could bring me back a kitchen-robot from the future? It would be even nicer than that dishwasher you’re always promising to get me!”

Ion was breathing heavily. He had had several glasses of kirsch before lunch. This quarrel had been brewing for three months. I thought his experiment interesting, but I saw no reason to take Feynman’s theory so literally as to assert that we had produced time-travel. Ion could see this in my eyes.

He stood up suddenly, almost as if to attack me. Was he, on top of it all, jealous of my attentions to Klara? New Year’s Eve, after he had passed out, Klara and I, how close we had come! I tried to keep this out of my eyes. I stood up clumsily, and my chair fell to the floor behind me.

“Don’t panic, William,” Ion said, shrugging on his suede jacket. “I only thought we could give Klara a demonstration.”

The twins, attracted by the noise of my chair, had come running in from the study, and insisted that they too be allowed to come see Daddy’s machine. Ion acquiesced, on the condition that they bring a certain toy.

We all bundled into our coats…Klara wore a charming fox coat sewed in herring-bone strips…and we walked the three blocks to the Physics Institute.

The twins ran ahead of us, screaming and trying to slide on the frozen puddles. Klara walked between Ion and me, linking an arm with each of us. The sky was low and grey. The eternal mist seemed to form a circular wall around us, always ten meters off.

“Should we show Klara the bullet series?” I asked Ion, speaking across Klara’s lovely, upturned face.

Ion pursed his lips and shook his head. “Too fast. Klara has to see it to believe it.”

“Believe what?”

“We have a sort of tunnel,” I explained. “The size of a toy train tunnel. And if we shoot a bullet through it, the bullet seems to come out the right end before it goes in the left.”

Klara laughed. “Now that sounds useful. We could use one of your machines in the tunnel under the castle…where those dreadful traffic jams are.”

“Actually,” Ion said, “I thought I would use a little car today—the little three-wheeler that I helped the twins make last night.”

The twins had brought the little car, a bright red-yellow-blue mass of Lego blocks. On the top was a battery-run motor, with a cog wheel linked by a black plastic chain to a gear on the single front wheel.

Klara examined our “time-tunnel” with interest. The core of it was the shoe-box-sized vacuum chamber made of phase-mirrors. You could see in quite easily. The thick loops of the guiding-field wires arched over the box like croquet wickets.

I removed the rifle from its mount on one end of the lab-table, and waited while Ion got the car from the little girls.

Then, bustling a bit, he lined up his three women in chairs against the wall, and set the car down at one end of the table. I cleared my throat, preparatory to telling them what they might expect, but Ion shushed me.

“First let them see, and then we’ll discuss it.”

I taped an iron nail to the bottom of the Lego car, and dialed the guiding-field’s power up to some hundred times the level we had used before. The Lego car made a pretty big test-particle.

In all frankness, I expected the experiment to be a failure. The car would roll up to the phase-mirror box, bump into the side and stop…nothing more. But I was wrong.

As the little car labored across the table towards the left end of the box, something happened at the right end. Seemingly out of no place, an identical Lego car pushed out of the right end of the tunnel and went chuffing on its way! “And there’s one inside now, rolling left!” Klara exclaimed, leaning forward. She was right. For a few seconds there were three Lego cars on the table.

Car (1): The original car, still approaching the tunnel’s left entrance. Car (2): The one moving in the tunnel, from right to left. Car (3): The new one moving away from the right end of the tunnel.

And then car (1) and car (2) met at the left-end mirror. They melted into each other…nose into nose, wheel into wheel, tail into tail. It was like watching a Rorschach ink-blot disappear into its central fold.

One of the twins squealed and ran to catch car (3) before it ran off the other end of the lab table. I took it from her and examined it closely. Car (3) appeared to be identical to car (1). We had already done this experiment with electrons and with small bullets…but one bullet or electron is much like another. Until now I had been unwilling to accept Ion’s interpretation of our experiment. But it certainly looked as if car (3) really was car (1).

Ion stepped to the blackboard and drew a diagram.

“Look,” he said to Klara. “Here’s a spacetime diagram of what happens. If we think of the zigzag line as the history of a particular object, what we have is this: First, car (1) goes forward in time till it gets to the left phase-mirror. Second, inside the tunnel it flips and moves backwards in time, but still left-to-right, and we call it car (2). Third, upon passing through another phase-mirror it flips back to run forward in time again, and is called car (3). By evolving into car (3), the original car (1) manages to come out of the right end a few seconds earlier than it goes in the left.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” I interrupted. “But we can read the picture a bit differently. Just think of moving that space-axis upwards through time, and see what happens. First there’s just car (1) moving to the right. Then suddenly something happens at the right end of the tunnel. Car (2) and car (3) come into existence together—by a process called pair-production. Car (3) is matter and car (2) is antimatter. With enough energy present, you can convert zero Lego blocks into plus-forty-nine Lego blocks and minus-forty-nine Lego blocks. You can get something from nothing…as long as you get anti-something too.”

My voice was baying evangelically. At Wankato State the students used to call me “Rover.” Now Klara smiled at me. Politely. She didn’t know what I was talking about. Ion hid a smile by pretending to rub his nose.

I continued, “When car (2) meets car (1), the two disappear into a burst of energy. It’s called mutual annihilation. Matter plus antimatter makes pure energy. The first puzzling thing about the experiment is how the tunnel knows to produce the appropriate matter/antimatter pair in time. But quantum mechanics does allow for action at a distance. Advanced potentials. Presumably an advanced potential from the approaching car (1) triggers the pair-production of …”

Klara looked quite blank by now. I broke off the exposition and made my point. “All three cars are different. Car (2) is antimatter traveling forward in time, not car (1) traveling backwards in time. And car (3) is just a sort of correction term.”

Klara looked from one of us to the other, smiling a bit. “Ion’s right,” she said finally, and with a nod of her head. “Anyone can see that the little car which came out is the same as the one that went in.” She caught my dejected expression and laughed. “Well, what’s the difference anyway? Whether the thing in the tunnel is a particle going backwards in time or an anti-particle going forward in time. It comes to …”

She had to break off and grab one of the twins, who had been about to try to stick her finger into a phase-mirror. A smell was filling the room, and we noticed that the other twin had opened one of the propane gas-valves set in the table.

“I better get these bad children out of here,” Klara exclaimed. “But it’s marvelous, Ion. And William, you must be very clever to have helped Ion build this!” A flash of lips, a swirl of fur, and she was gone.

I picked up the toy car and examined it closely. Even I had trouble believing my description of what had happened. How would the right end know to produce pairs in the right order to build up car and anti-car from nose to wheel to tail? And where would the energy have come from? Granted that a fantastic amount of energy was stored in the fantastically expensive quarkonium, but still …

Ion was sitting at his desk writing, his back to me. Despite what Klara had said, the two descriptions did not come to the same thing. Was this car the same as the original car, or was it only an identical copy? I had to know!

Suddenly I thought of a way to test the difference. I would let the car roll towards the tunnel, and at the last minute I would stop it from going in. A decisive experiment.

Suppose Ion was right. Suppose that car (3) was just a time-traveled car (1). What then? If car (1) did not go in the tunnel, then car (2) and car (3) would not come into existence.

But suppose I was right. Suppose that the whole effect was just advanced potential pair-production, triggered by car (1)’s approach. What then? Car (2) and car (3) would already have been created even if, at the very last second, car (1) did not actually enter the tunnel.

In terms of Ion’s spacetime diagram, what I was going to do was to stop car (1) at the time marked “X.” If car (3) came out anyway, then I was right. If car (3) didn’t come out, then Ion was right.

I started the car and set it down. “Look, Ion.” I didn’t bother saying more…he would understand. I fixed my mind on grabbing the car at the last possible instant before it went through the…looking-glass. I leaned over the table, concentrating. I didn’t dare look away to see if car (3) came out of the other end or not.

I seized car (1) just before its nose touched the phase-mirror. Then I stepped back and looked down the table. There was no car (3) at the other end…and no antimatter car (2) at my end. Ion was right.

I returned the little car to the starting position and let it run through the time-tunnel undisturbed, trying to see it Ion’s way.

A car moving right to left is the same as a car moving left to right and backwards in time. Suddenly I could see the pair-production and the mutual annihilation as corners in time. Ion was right, he really was. We had time-travel, admittedly over just a three-second range, but time-travel nonetheless. Even the strange fact that the phase-mirrors turned things backwards as well as reversing them in time made sense. The fact that the front of the car moved backwards in time as soon as it passed through the left end meant that a normal observer had to see it as disappearing first.

“Well?” Ion was smiling his wide, mirthless smile, his eyes picking my brain.

I nodded. “Okay. But how does the car get through the phase-mirrors? They felt so hard when I was gluing them together.”

Ion shrugged. “How does a reflection get through an ordinary looking-glass? It is the property of a mirror to produce images. But this particular mirror works only when the guiding-field is on.” He pointed to the left end of the time-tunnel.

Time-tunnel. As I said the word to myself, my last remaining question dissolved. If car (1) was car (2) was car (3), then no mass or anti-mass at all was really being created or destroyed. So of course there were no huge energy drains or blasts going on. Looked at differently, the quarkonium plates were a closed system which could pass energy back in time…so the pair-producing drew its energy from the annihilation, even though it happened first.

I nodded again, harder. “Okay. But now what?”

“Aren’t you worried about time-paradoxes anymore?” Ion’s voice was challenging, almost angry. It was as if he hadn’t wanted me to agree with him…hadn’t wanted it to be true. The next question: What if one were to stop car (1) if and only if car (3) has already appeared?

I didn’t say it, but he could see it in my eyes. The fear. Suddenly fatherly, he patted me on the shoulder. “Take the rest of the afternoon off, William. I want to write all of this up before…before I continue.”

I nodded and left him there. I spent the next few hours drinking Schlossquell beer, and then I went to the Eros House, a shabby building full of legal prostitutes. With the lights off, I could almost believe I was with Klara. Later I had more beer.

I slept badly that night. At four in the morning an unpleasant dream woke me up so completely that I couldn’t go back to sleep. It was a scene inspired by Kafka’s The Castle.

In the dream, through some transmutation, the Heidelberg castle is…science. Endless corridors, doors, people to meet. On the white plaster walls there are things like fire-alarms, little hammers mounted over glass plates. Behind the glass is…cyanide, thick gas, swirling, deadly. I hurry down a hallway, a sheaf of papers in my hand. Someone is in front of me, tangible, but invisible. My other self? Somehow the person moves so as to always be in my blind spot. A question is posed, the unspeakable question which the castle itself embodies. My tongue is slow and sticky. Yes and no. A bell is tolling. Yes and no. The hammers quiver… .

The world is clouds and fog patches, a confused smear which no magical apparatus can sharpen up. The cat knows.

That morning I found Ion sitting at his desk. He was asleep, with his head on his crossed arms. One of the phase-mirrors was cracked! Had Ion had some sort of tantrum? I examined the hairline crack. Of course the vacuum was ruined now. I wondered if the quarkonium plate could be repaired. There were some individual Lego-blocks scattered around the floor and table. Apparently Ion had been there all night.

I stood over him for a moment, looking at him with something like affection. I had been worried, too worried to even …

“William?” The voice was blurred. His eyes flickered open, then shut. “Is it raining?”

This struck me as a very odd question. It was, in fact, a marvelously sunny day, the first taste of spring. The sky was a delicate blue and the birds were singing. A square of sunlight was lying on Ion’s desk!

“It’s sunny, Ion.”

“I thought it was. And I thought it was raining.” His voice was muffled, and seemed somehow to come from underneath his head.

“You should get some sleep,” I urged. “Klara must be worried.”

“I’m scared to move.” A long pause. “I might disperse even more.”

Disperse? A strange word to use. Wave-packets disperse, but people …

“Read my notes,” Ion said, “I …” He let his voice trail off, and just sat there, eyes closed, his head resting on his crossed arms. There seemed to be something under his arms, some sort of pillow.

I picked up the lab book lying on his desk. It started with a description of the apparatus and the first experiments we had conducted. Nothing new there. I flipped forward a few pages.

There was a diagram like the one Ion had drawn for Klara. Under it was a sketch of the Lego car and a description of the two experiments, the one where the car comes out of the time-tunnel before it goes in, and my variation, where the car is stopped from going in, and therefore does not come out.

Ion had conducted a third experiment. The car was to roll towards the tunnel while he watched both ends. His plan was to stop car (1) if car (3) appeared, and to let car (1) go if car (3) did not appear. This meant that a car would come out of the right end of the tunnel if and only if no car came out of the right end of the tunnel. Yes if and only if no.

Think about it. Either car (3) appears or it doesn’t. Case I: Car (3) appears. So Ion stops car (1) from entering the tunnel. So car (3) doesn’t appear. Case II: Car (3) doesn’t appear. So Ion lets car (1) into the tunnel. So car (3) appears.

Question: When Ion actually ran the experiment, did car (3) appear? Answer: Yes and no.

I closed the lab book and looked around the room. The scattered bits of Legos…how many?

“What happened, Ion? Did the car come out of the tunnel?”

“Yes,” Ion said, raising his head from on top of his arms.

“No,” Ion said, uncrossing his arms and raising up his other head from under his arms.

The two faces looked at me, each of them a bit translucent, a bit unreal. The two necks merged into his collar, making a solid, tubular letter “Y.”

I gagged and stepped back.

The phone began to ring. The second of Ion’s heads…the no-head…seemed not to hear it, and continued to stare at me with those prehensile eyes. Eyes which reached deep into my mind.

But at the same time, Ion’s head groped up the receiver and held it to the first head…the yes-head…to one of the shimmering ears. I could hear Klara’s tiny voice. She sounded angry, accusing.

“I was working,” the yes-head said.

“Your boyfriend is here,” the no-head said, noticing the conversation. “I’m going to show him something.”

Ion let the phone drop and walked over to the laboratory table. The no-head, the mean one, was doing the talking. Whichever head was talking tended to be bigger. It was as if the silent head corresponded to some part of Ion which was father away…drifting towards some parallel universe.

“I’m in a mixed state, William. I ran the paradox. It had to come out both ways.” He turned the switch to power-up the guiding-field. It was dangerous to be restarting it without a vacuum in the chamber.

The no-head bent down, peering into the cracked phase-mirror. He was still talking to me. “I know how you think I look. But that’s just your projection. Actually it feels…marvelous. You’ll see in …”

“Get out, William,” the yes-head cried. “Before it’s too late.”

Klara’s voice was quacking from the dangling phone receiver. I could feel myself going mad, as surely as cloth tearing. I seized the phone to speak to her. “This is William. Ion’s had a terrible accident. He …”

There was a crash behind me. I whirled around. The time-tunnel was billowing smoke and the phase-mirrors had smashed into pieces. For a second I couldn’t see Ion through the smoke, but then he came at me.

A tangle of twenty or a hundred thin necks writhed out of his open collar, and on the end of each tentacle-like neck rode a tiny grimacing head, and every little head was screaming at me in a terrible tiny voice… .

He dispersed completely after that. As different variants of Ion Stepanek split off into different universes, each corresponding head would shrink…get “farther away”…and a copy of his body would split off with it, twisting and dwindling. I don’t know how long it took; I don’t know how I could have seen it; I wish I could forget it. The horrible squid-bunch of necks, each little head screaming out something different…I hope he’s really gone.

I live with Klara now, and I wear Ion’s clothes. I have taken over his job at the Institute…they think he’s resigned. Klara forged his signature on the letter.

It’s a good life, except for having to cut the buds off my neck every morning. The wart-like little heads. Some look like me, and some look like him. Klara says I only imagine them, and that there’s nothing on my neck but eczema.

I still have the specs for the time-tunnel. Maybe I’ll rebuild it, and observe a yes-and-no, and disperse. I’ll go into the mixed state and come out…who knows…maybe in heaven. But I don’t really need the machine anymore.

Mixed states happen all the time. Say someone asks you whether or not you want to kill yourself. Before they asked, maybe you weren’t really all that much for or against suicide. That’s your original mixed state. But answering the question is like being born. You have to stick out a yes-head or a no-head to answer. And the other one has to get shaved off.

It could be any question. Do you like milk? Who are you going to vote for? Are you happy? Do you understand what I’m talking about?

In a way, mixed states are nice. Not naming things, and not forcing them to be this way or that, but just…letting them go. Satori. There’s a Zen question for it: “What was your original face before you were born?”

My original face. A mixed state. I don’t need a machine, no heap of glass and wire. I’m just going to walk out on the bridge towards the castle. I’ll stop. Out there, in the wind, one needs not choose this bank or that. There are other alternatives.



Note on “Schrödinger’s Cat”

Written in Spring, 1979.

Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact, March, 1981.

My family and I lived in Heidelberg from 1978 to 1980. I was there on a two-year grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The grant came through just as I was losing my first teaching job in Geneseo (a.k.a. Wankato, a.k.a. Bata). My formal duties in Heidelberg were zero: I was given a soundproofed office and a typewriter. As well as doing research on Georg Cantor’s theories of infinities, I spent a lot of my time writing science-fiction. At this point in my career I didn’t know that I would be able to complete and sell novels, so I put a great deal of energy into writing stories.

“Schrödinger’s Cat” was inspired by my studies of numerous papers on quantum mechanics and the nature of time in journals like Philosophy of Science. The second diagram for this story seems to suggest an interesting new result: that a time-reversing mirror would have to spatially mirror-reverse objects as well. “By rights this should have been an important scientific paper …”

Analog editor Stanley Schmidt had some doubts about the legitimacy of the mass-energy conversion processes taking place at the surface of the phase-mirrors, but I placated him by saying the phase-mirror was made of “quarkonium.” Since quarks were then at the edge of scientific knowledge, quarkonium was a handy catch-all magic-maker akin to the “radioactivity” used by 1940s SF writers.

The seed for this story was a drawing I made for my cheerfully horrified children of a Santa Claus with a thousand heads, answering phone-calls from every boy and girl in the world at once.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Sufferin’ Succotash

She was big. Fine big legs and white feathers glued all over her head. I had to have a piece of that. She brought me another bowl of slop and I gave her a thousand credit note. “Keep the change, baby.” That made three. She dimpled and sat down across from me.

“You’re beachy.” Looking me over. Charlie and I had only been out of the Regulator for a month, but I was back up to 150 keys already. I had an exoskeleton with gold chasing and rubies at the joints.

“I’m fat and I’m rich,” I said, stating the obvious. “And you’ve got something I want.” I stared at her hungrily. Those white feathers on the bare scalp were a perfect touch.

She signaled the other waitress to cover for her. I’d set the hook. She rested her big breasts on her folded arms and leaned across the table. “Why you spoon so hard? Soliton flange?”

“I’ve always been hungry, baby. Always. I lost my mother when I was four.”

She cooed sympathetically, and I decided to whip a little more out of it. “She was a juicer. She’d lock me and the dog in and go out for the night. One night she didn’t come back. It was a week before the landlord happened to open up our apartment. There wasn’t much of Poochy left …”

“You poor slogger.” Three thousand credits and she didn’t mind if I’d eaten a live dog. But still, “Why you not dial the food-tap?”

“This was back in 2020, honey. You had to go out to get food. They had stores.”

She made an O of her bright yellow lips, flexing her juicy tongue. “But you’re still mix and match!”

“You’re as young as you feel,” I said vaguely. Right now I felt like I was going to die if I didn’t get some meat. I still couldn’t believe I’d gone to so much trouble to end up in a future where there was nothing to eat but processed algae. I had half a billion credits and I couldn’t score anything but veggies.

I looked at the room around us. You could eat for free at home, but people still liked to come out. They had some noise they called music, and things to look at glued to the walls. Antiques. A car-wheel, a 2-D TV set, a formica table-top…and animals, lots of stuffed animals.

Around 2130 they’d realized that nothing but the cockroaches and us was going to hack it. Pollution had cut the gene pools that far and a domino effect was setting in. Suddenly everyone wanted a stuffed animal to remind them of our glorious heritage. The whole last generation of animals ended up on mantelpieces and barroom walls.

“You know,” I said, staring longingly at a glass-eyed chicken, “A hundred years ago this place was an Italian restaurant called Stacky’s. I used to spend a lot of time here back then. The menu they had! Jesus. Have you ever even seen meat, baby?”

She smiled and shook her head. “You’re just scripting.” She didn’t believe any of it, which was just as well. The statute of limitations had run out, but still …

“Where’s your crib?” she was asking. “I could peel you.” Her tongue was purple against the yellow lip-wax.

I didn’t answer for a few minutes. I was remembering how it had been here a hundred years ago…the night I’d first met Charlie.

I was just getting by, back then, living off computer fraud. I’d invented a do-gooder thing, the Office of Interpersonal Therapeutics, and I’d gotten the computer to believe me when I charged all my bills to the OIT. It took a couple of hours a day punching in fake case-histories, requisitions, employee data…but at least it wasn’t honest work.

It was easy…so easy I sometimes suspected the Feds had a special slot on the payroll for computer con-men. I figured I fell somewhere between wino and social worker.

Most evenings I’d get into Stacky’s early and they’d just bring me one of everything on the menu. Then I’d have a couple more rounds of whatever seemed best.

The night I met Charlie I was just sitting there looking at the beautiful golden skin of a roast chicken. Suddenly my table flipped over and the dishes went flying. Lying on the floor in front of me was the fattest…hell, he was obese.

“You do that often?” I asked.

He was slowly getting up with the aid of his exoskeleton, and didn’t seem to hear me. It was hard, really, to even tell where his head was. There was just metal tubes and little motors and yards of bouncing cloth. But then a precise little voice answered, “More than once a year, less than once a month.” An arm and then a head appeared. “You’re Eddie Myers,” the fat man stated. “And I’m Charles Laxman.”

He had fifty keys on me easy. You could tell from the way he had a deep crease circling his wrist. I only had those at my ankles. The servos at Charlie’s shoulder and elbow whirred, and the alloy tubes strapped to his right arm swiveled and hinged so as to move his right hand towards me. My servos followed suit and we shook.

In a sense all really fat men look alike. But there are differences if you know how to look for them. I could tell that Charles Laxman was rich, educated and a little flaky. He was the kind of guy who might drool when he’s thinking hard…but he’s likely to be thinking about something incredible. I liked him already for being fatter than me, and it was clear from his clothes that he was rich.

“So what’s on your mind, Charlie?” I asked, punching two drink orders into the bar board. As usual I charged it to the OIT.

“Eddie,” he said, nodding towards the bar board, “You’re a fat, small-time criminal. Am I correct?”

I was a little insulted. Was he drunk? “You out slumming?”

But he didn’t seem to hear me. “Money, Eddie. Money,” he said, smiling and puddling forward on the table. His eyes were blank.

“Money …” I said, encouragingly.

He held up five fingers. “Megadollars, Eddie. Fifty million in gold.” And then I knew what he was talking about as if I’d read his mind. He wanted me to help him break the Bin.

I figured he was crazy, but talk is just talk. And he looked lonely. “Let’s go outside,” I suggested, tossing off my drink.

Our exoskeletons walked us a few blocks together. It was a pleasant night, and I had to admit I enjoyed Charlie’s company. The whir and clank of the servos in the night air was relaxing. I lit a cigar and heard him out.

Charlie wasn’t like any of the other fat men I’ve known. Any news-paper column psychologist could tell you why I eat so much…after all, mamma is the Latin word for tit. But Charlie hadn’t gotten fat as an accidental side-effect of a desperate seeking after this or that. No, he had gotten fat on purpose. That was the first thing he told me…that for two years he had been eating “like a mindless animal.”

Without telling me why he’d wanted to be so fat, Charlie then went into some convoluted spiel about space and time. Apparently he had made his fortune by inventing a gravitational condenser. Fill it with garbage, flick a switch…and you had a tiny black hole which would boil off in radiation before long. Every big city dump had one.

But being rich wasn’t enough for Charlie…or maybe he just wasn’t rich enough. In any case, he wanted to pull off the crime of the century. He wanted to rob the Bin, the Earth-Moon gold transport.

The Moon colony had seceded from Earth shortly after they discovered the helium caves in 2025. They called us Mudders and we called them Loonies, but we couldn’t live without them. By 2050 every power plant on Earth had a super-cooled, quantum-effect liquid helium core, and most freight was being shipped in helium-filled zeppelins.

The Loonies didn’t trust us, and insisted on being paid twice a year for their helium. Paid in gold. Obligingly we Mudders had built them a robot-operated gold transport armed with missiles and lasers. The Loonies’ Bin we called it.

Everyone who’d ever tried to rob the Bin was dead, but my new friend Charlie Laxman had a plan. His gimmick was that he’d found a way to speed up.

He called his gizmo a Regulator. You fed energy into it and something seeped out…loosening things up in such a way that time near the Regulator had very little to do with the time in the rest of the world. You could live out a year at the time it took an egg to fry.

“But have you ever tried it on yourself?” I asked Charlie.

“I’ll try it now that you’re coming in with me,” he said quietly as we walked along in the direction of his townhouse. “I was scared to try it alone, even though I know it’s safe…if you’re fat enough.”

“What does the fat have to do with it?”

“I’ve been testing the Regulator on hamsters. I’d strap it to their backs and turn it on and then watch how they died. It always took the fat ones much longer to die.” Charlie began searching through his pockets for something.

“I don’t get it. If this Regulator kills every hamster you tried it on…I mean, that’s not real encouraging?” The fifty million in gold seemed a little further away than it had a minute ago.

Charlie didn’t seem to hear me. He was still rummaging in his clothes. Finally he gave up the search and looked at me, blinking. “Encouraging,” he said, obviously replaying my question to himself, “Encouraging. Well, it was just starvation they died of. And you and I could live very comfortably for a week on nothing but water.”

I was beginning to get it. We’d flash down on the Bin, take a day or two to clear it out and be gone before it could react. “But what about when we slow back down?” I asked, “They’ll be able to trace the gold.”

“We’ll just lie low,” Charlie said calmly. “For about a hundred years. My Regulator works the other way too. We’ll take a nap and it’ll be 2150.”

A big loose grin spread over my face.

-----

The girl across the table from me was grinning back. She held an atomizer out towards me. “You step out? Alterations?”

“Let’s go,” I said. “Physically.” She went over to whisper something to the other waitress, and then we left together. I whistled and my car pulled up. There was room for her in back with me, and I instructed the robot to take us out to my house.

“I’m Zoozie,” she said, trying to put her arms around me.

“Fast Eddie,” I answered. “But I’m too big.” Her face was near mine, and I managed to lean forward enough to lick it. Nice. I reached down to feel one of those big legs.

“Let’s bounce,” she suggested.

“If you can find it.” I told the robot not to hurry and lay back in my seat. I could see lights flickering past like starts. In my mind I was back on Charlie’s spaceship.

The Bin was just a point of light against the blackness of space, but we had come close enough to attract its attention. A light began flashing on the control panel of our ship, and a pleasantly feminine computer voice addressed us. “Red warning. You have violated the security zone of a Class Q Transport. Please change your course to a three-one-niner reading to avoid interception. You have thirty seconds of grace. This warning will not be repeated.”

I gunned our ship straight for the Bin, and looked over at Charlie with a hard grin. He looked a little pale. I think he might have backed out if I hadn’t been there.

We were both wearing scuba diving gear…yellow rubber suits and a couple of tanks of compressed oxygen apiece. He said that even though it would feel like we were out there for hours, we wouldn’t need pressure suits. A suit’s joints would have heated up too much anyway. As it was, Charlie had had to design us special beefed-up and frictionless exo-skeletons. It had taken a while to get used to them. If you weren’t careful, you could brain yourself going to scratch your ear.

Each of us had one of Charlie’s Regulators set into the rubber suit right over the navel, and now we dialed them on. I felt like I could smell the extra time, a tingling high in my sinuses. My nose seemed to expand and I felt like a horse, a horse I’d seen in a zoo when I was four. I remembered the scrape I’d gotten on my knee that day, and Mommy tucking me in. I seemed to taste blood in my mouth and I could hear Poochy screaming. My eyes snapped open.

Nothing looked different, except the clock on the control panel seemed to have stopped. The next fifteen hours of my life would last about a tenth of a second, normal time.

Charlie was already undogging the hatch and I walked over to help him. As I walked, the air felt like a thick jelly, and rubbing against it heated me up unpleasantly. Finally the hatch cracked open and the jelly wafted us and our equipment into outer space. This was the part I’d had my doubts about, but the hard vacuum just felt like a crisp fall day. The raw solar radiation warmed my cheeks pleasantly.

Charlie ripped the hatch door loose from the ship, tore it in half, and handed me the larger piece. What with the souped-up exoskeleton and my speeded-up reflexes, the thick metal felt like balsa wood.

The Bin was about two k’s off, and I could see a missile come easing out of a hole in the side. It came floating towards us like a big lazy fish. Aiming carefully, I threw a chunk of metal at it when it was a thousand meters off. The recoil of my throw sent me spinning, and it took a minute of pitching out small pieces of the hatch to stop myself. The Rocket was exploding in slow motion. It looked like a flower blooming.

Charlie waved his fist at me happily, and by throwing some more pieces of the hatch we got ourselves moving towards the Bin at a good clip. Two more missiles swam out, but they were just after our ship and we let them go. I began to doubt that the Bin’s robot brain could see us at all.

Just then the lasers started up. A beam was sweeping towards my mid-section a lot faster than I liked. I pitched a big piece of that hatch past my feet, and the recoil pushed me headfirst away from the level of the ray. But it was close, and my feet felt a little warm.

Again, it took me a minute to stop spinning. There were four laser rays. Three of them were happily roasting our ship, but my narrow escape seemed to have attracted the attention of the fourth. It was still after me. We weren’t carrying radios, so I could only signal Charlie by waving desperately.

The ray was almost on me again, and I didn’t have time to see if Charlie noticed or not. I dodged, but this time the unbearably bright ray caught up with me while I was still spinning. I was dizzy, and it was getting hot. It was hard to think. Should I turn the Regulator dial? Which way should I turn it?

Suddenly the light went out. Painfully I stopped the spinning and looked around. Charlie had knocked out the laser with a lucky throw.

The Bin thought it was taking evasive action now. I could tell because there was a cloud of gas oozing out of the engines. But Charlie and I were so speeded up that the ship looked like it was standing still. We closed in on it, and Charlie split open the hull with a high-speed karate chop. I glanced back at our ship. The three lasers were melting it like an ice-cream cone, and a missile was starting to explode next to it. It was going to be a long walk home.

The Moon was not too far away, and it filled what seemed like half the sky. Most of it was dark, lit only by Earthlight. Some mountain peaks made points of light near the terminator. Somewhere down there was a mountain called J-67, inside of which Charlie had his hideout.

While he set up the launching tube, I began hauling the gold out of the Bin. There were 200 bars, each with a mass of some 10 keys…which is a lot to push around, even in free-fall.

Meanwhile, Charlie had set the sights of the launching tube on three reference stars and switched on the gyros. I fitted in a gold bar, pulled back the spring and pressed the release. Our first million bucks went tumbling down its trajectory towards the slopes of J-67.

I kept hauling the bars out, and Charlie kept zinging them off. God, it was hard work. And was I hungry! Hours and hours passed. Finally I was so weak that I thought one of the gold bars was a roast chicken. I could almost hear it cackling as I gnawed at it. Someone made me stop moving. It was Charlie laying me out on the Bin’s hull. Listlessly I watched him launch a few more bars. Suddenly I felt a twitch in the metal plates beneath me.

The rear end of the ship was beginning to swell up. I went and tapped Charlie’s shoulder and pointed aft. His mouth was covered by the breathing mask, but I could see his eyes light up. He made an exploding motion with his hands and legs. I remembered then. The Loonies had the Bin booby-trapped with a bomb.

I was ready to leave and to hell with the last few bars of gold, but Charlie had a different idea. We each turned our Regulators up another notch.

I was moving so fast now that the light coming from the Moon looked funny. The pounds were melting off me faster than a taxi-meter clicks. Finally the last gold bar was shipped off.

We each ripped a big chunk off the front end of the Bin, being careful not to uncover that explosion. Then we started pitching pieces at the Earth to get us moving towards the Moon. The important thing, of course, was to save some of the hull to use as a retro-rocket when you came tumbling down at those unbelievably sharp mountains.

I felt an unfamiliar twitching. Zoozie was sitting on me like a chicken on an ostrich egg. “Thanks, baby. I didn’t think I had it in me.”

She laughed musically and lifted her plump leg over me as she slid off. “That’s a beachy crib,” she said, looking out the window. My car had pulled up in front of our house.

Charlie met us at the door, suspicious as a father waiting up for his son on prom night. “Who’s this?” he demanded.

“I’m Zoozie. Parley-voo bounce?”

Charlie looked at her sadly. “You’d better leave now. You don’t know what Mr. Myers is really after.”

“Will you shut up!” I pulled her in and closed the door behind us. God, I was hungry. I felt like I hadn’t eaten good food in a hundred years.

But Charlie wouldn’t let up. “Did he tell you how we got here?”He had a protective arm around her, the goddamn vegetarian.

“Just can it, Mr. Clean,” I shouted. “The decision is hers. I’m ready to buy her the best prosthetic leg that money can …” I stopped suddenly. Things were developing a little faster than I’d planned.

Zoozie was looking back and forth between us. “You tollahs jab so old. Fancy dress?”

“We’re from 2050,” Charlie said, speaking slowly. “We stole lots of gold and had to hide for a hundred years. Now we’re rich and we’re safe, but Eddie can’t get what he wants to eat.”

There was no use putting it off. I answered the question in her eyes. “I’d like to buy one…one of your drumsticks.”

Charlie held the door open for her. We listened as her footsteps pattered into the distance. “Don’t worry, Eddie,” he said. I’ve got some slime mold evolving under the Regulator. We’ll be feasting on horseshoe crab before you know it.”



Note on “Sufferin’ Succotash”

Written in Summer, 1979.

The 57th Franz Kafka, Ace Books, 1983.

I made my first stab at writing science-fiction when I was a senior at Swarthmore College, and I actually wrote the first few pages of this story in 1967. In 1979, I was pushing hard to become a pro SF writer, and I wanted always to have a story in the mail. So I dug out “Sufferin’ Succotash” and finished it. In a way, this is my first SF story that I started, although it’s not the first that I finished.

Oh, but wait, I did write an even earlier science-fiction story; it was called “The Miracle,” and appeared in The Pegasus, an annual magazine published by The Chevalier Literary Society in Louisville, Kentucky, March, 1962. If you want to read that one, you’ll have to find a copy of The Pegasus! I can’t bring myself to reprint it.

The Chevalier Literary Society was in fact a social club for high-school boys in Louisville. There were about six of these high-school fraternities in Louisville, and we all had to publish annual literary magazines to lend an air of legitimacy. The Pegasus of June, 1963, contains an actually usable piece of writing by me, a stream-of-consciousness piece called “Bus Ride—December 20, 1962.” Later I lifted this piece nearly intact for use at the end of the third chapter of my transreal novel The Secret of Life.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

A New Golden Age

“It’s like music,” I repeated. Lady Vickers looked at me uncomprehendingly. Pale British features beneath wavy red hair, a long nose with a ripple in it.

“You can’t hear mathematics,” she stated. “It’s just squiggles in some great dusty book.” Everyone else around the small table was eating. White soup again.

I laid down my spoon. “Look at it this way. When I read a math paper it’s no different than a musician reading a score. In each case the pleasure comes from the play of patterns, the harmonies and contrasts.” The meat platter was going around the table now, and I speared a cutlet.

I salted it heavily and bit into the hot, greasy meat with pleasure. The food was second-rate, but it was free. The prospect of unemployment had done wonders for my appetite.

Mies van Koop joined the conversation. He had sparse curly hair and no chin. His head was like a large, thoughtful carrot with the point tucked into his tight collar. “It’s a sound analogy, Fletch. But the musician can play his score, play it so that even a legislator …” he smiled and nodded donnishly to Lady Vickers. “Even a legislator can hear how beautiful Beethoven is.”

“That’s just what I was going to say,” she added, wagging her finger at me. “I’m sure my husband has done lovely work, but the only way he knows how to show a person one of his beastly theorems is to make her swot through pages and pages of teeming little symbols.”

Mies and I exchanged a look. Lord Vickers was a crank, an eccentric amateur whose work was devoid of serious mathematical interest. But it was thanks to him that Lady Vickers had bothered to come to our little conference. She was the only member of the Europarliament who had.

“Vat you think our chances are?” Rozzick asked her in the sudden silence, his mouth full of unchewed cauliflower.

“Dismal. Unless you can find some way of making your research appeal to the working man, you’ll be cut out of next year’s budget entirely. They need all the mathematics money for that new computer in Geneva, you know.”

“We know,” I said gloomily. “That’s why we’re holding this meeting. But it seems a little late for public relations. If only we hadn’t let the government take over all the research funds.”

“There’s no point blaming the government,” Lady Vickers said tartly. “People are simply tired of paying you mathematicians to make them feel stupid.”

“Zo build the machine,” Rozzick said with an emphatic bob of his bald little head.

“That’s right,” Mies said, “Build a machine that will play mathematics like music. Why not?”

Lady Vickers clapped her hands in delight and turned to me, “You mean you know how?”

Before I could say anything, Mies kicked me under the table. Hard. I got the message. “Well, we don’t have quite all the bugs worked out …”

“But that’s just too marvelous!” Lady Vickers gushed, pulling out a little appointment book. “Let’s see…the vote on the math appropriation is June 4…which gives us six weeks. Why don’t you get your machine ready and bring it to Foxmire towards the end of May? The session is being held in London, you know, and I could bring the whole committee out to feel the beauty of mathematics.”

I was having trouble moving my mouth. “Is planty time,” Rozzick put in, his eyes twinkling.

Just then Watson caught the thread of conversation. In the journals he was a famous mathematician…practically a grand old man. In conversation he was the callowest of eighteen-years-olds. “Who are you trying to kid, Fletch?” He shook his head, and dandruff showered down on the narrow shoulders of his black suit. “There’s no way …” He broke off with a yelp of pain. Mies was keeping busy.

“If you’re going to make that train, we’d better get going,” I said to Lady Vickers with a worried glance at my watch.

“My dear me, yes,” she agreed, rising with me. “We’ll expect you and your machine on May 23 then?” I nodded, steering her across the room. Watson had stuck his head under the table to see what was the matter. Something was preventing him from getting back out.

When I got back from the train station, an excited knot of people had formed around Watson, Rozzick and Mies. Watson spotted me first, and in his shrill cracking voice called out, “Our pimp is here.”

I smiled ingratiatingly and joined the group. “Watson thinks it’s immoral to make mathematics a sensual experience,” Mies explained. “The rest of us feel that greater exposure can only help our case.”

“Where is machine?” Rozzick asked, grinning like a Tartar jack-o’-lantern.

“You know as well as I do that there is none. All I did was remark to Lady Vickers …”

“One must employ the direct stimulation of the brain,” LaHaye put in. He was a delicate old Frenchman with a shock of luminous white hair.

I shook my head. “In the long run, maybe. But I can’t quite see myself sticking needles in the committee’s brainstems five weeks from now. I’m afraid the impulses are going to have to come in through normal …”

“Absolute Film,” Rozzick said suddenly. “Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger invented in the 1920s. Abstract patterns on screen, repeating and differentiating. Is in Warszaw archives accessible.”

“Derisory!” LaHaye protested. “If we make of mathematics an exhibit, it should not be a tawdry son et lumière. Don’t worry about needles, Dr. Fletcher. There are new field methods.” He molded strange shapes in the air around his snowy head.

“He’s right,” Watson nodded. “The essential thing about mathematics is that it gives aesthetic pleasure without coming through the senses. They’ve already got food and television for their eyes and ears, their gobbling mouths and grubbing hands. If we’re going to give them mathematics, let’s sock it to them right in the old grey matter!”

Mies had taken out his pen and a pad of paper. “What type of manifold should we use as the parameter space?”

>> - - - <<

We couldn’t have done it if we’d been anywhere else but the Center. Even with their staff and laboratories it took us a month of twenty-hour days to get our first working math player built. It looked like one of those domey old hair-dryers growing out of a file cabinet with dials. We called it a Moddler.

No one was very interested in being the first to get his brain mathed or modified or coddled or whatever. The others had done most of the actual work, so I had to volunteer.

Watson, LaHaye, Rozzick and Mies were all there when I snugged the Moddler’s helmet down over my ears. I squeezed the switch on and let the electrical vortex fields swirl into my head.

We’d put together two tapes, one on Book I of Euclid’s Elements, and the other on iterated ultrapowers of measurable cardinals. The idea was that the first tape would show people how to understand things they’d vaguely heard of…congruent triangles, parallel lines and the Pythagorean theorem. The second tape was supposed to show the power and beauty of flat-out pure mathematics. It was like we had two excursions: a leisurely drive around a famous ruin, and a jolting blast down a drag-strip out on the edge of town.

We’d put the first tape together in a sort of patchwork fashion, using direct brain recordings as well as artificially punched-in thought patterns. Rozzick had done most of this one. It was all visualized geometry: glowing triangles, blooming circles and the like. Sort of an internalized Absolute Film.

The final proof was lovely, but for me the most striking part was a series of food images which Rozzick had accidentally let slip into the proof that a triangle’s area is one-half base times height.

“Since when are triangles covered with anchovy paste?” I asked Rozzick as Mies switched tapes.

“Is your vision clear?” LaHaye wanted to know. I looked around, blinking. Everything felt fine. I still had an afterglow of pleasure from the complex play of angles in Euclid’s culminating proof that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the two sides.

Then they switched on the second tape. Watson was the only one of us who had really mastered the Kunen paper on which this tape was based. But he’d refused to have his brain patterns taped. Instead he’d constructed the whole thing as an artificial design in our parameter space.

The tape played in my head without words or pictures. There was a measurable cardinal. Suddenly I knew its properties in the same unspoken way that I knew my own body. I did something to the cardinal and it transformed itself, changing the concepts clustered around it. This happened over and over. With a feeling of light-headedness, I felt myself moving outside of this endless self-transformation…comprehending it from the outside. I picked out a certain subconstellation of the whole process, and swathed it in its logical hull. Suddenly I understood a theorem I had always wondered about.

When the tape ended I begged my colleagues for an hour of privacy. I had to think about iterated ultrapowers some more. I rushed to the library and got out Kunen’s paper. But the lucidity was gone. I started to stumble over the notation, the subscripts and superscripts; I was stumped by the gappy proofs; I kept forgetting the definitions. Already the actual content of the main theorem eluded me. I realized then that the Moddler was a success. You could enjoy mathematics—even the mathematics you couldn’t normally understand.

We all got a little drunk that night. Somewhere towards midnight I found myself walking along the edge of the woods with Mies. He was humming softly, beating time with gentle nods of his head.

We stopped while I lit my thirtieth cigarette of the day. In the match’s fire I thought I caught something odd in Mies’s expression. “What is it?” I asked, exhaling smoke.

“The music …” he began. “The music most people listen to is not good.”

I didn’t see what he was getting at, and started my usual defense of rock music.

“Muzak,” Mies interrupted. “Isn’t that what you call it…what they play in airports?”

“Yeah. Easy listening.”

“Do you really expect that the official taste in mathematics will be any better? If everyone were to sit under the Moddler…what kind of mathematics would they ask for?”

I shrank from his suggestion. “Don’t worry, Mies. There are objective standards of mathematical truth. No one will undermine them. We’re headed for a new golden age.”

LaHaye and I took the Moddler to Foxmire the next week. It was a big estate, with a hog wallow and three holes of golf between the gatehouse and the mansion. We found Lord Vickers at work on the terrace behind his house. He was thick-set and sported pop-eyes set into a high forehead.

“Fletcher and LaHaye,” he exclaimed. “I am honored. You arrive opportunely. Behold.” He pulled a sheet of paper out of his special typewriter and handed it to me.

LaHaye was looking over my shoulder. There wasn’t much to see. Vickers used his own special mathematical notation. “It would make a nice wallpaper,” LaHaye chuckled, then added quickly, “Perhaps if you once explained the symbolism …”

Lord Vickers took the paper back with a hollow laugh. “You know very well that my symbols are all defined in my Thematics and Metathematics…a book whose acceptance you have tirelessly conspired against.”

“Let’s not open old wounds,” I broke in. “Dr. LaHaye’s remark was not seriously intended. But it illustrates a problem which every mathematician faces. The problem of communicating his work to non-specialists, to mathematical illiterates.” I went on to describe the Moddler while LaHaye left to supervise its installation in Lord Vicker’s study.

“But that is fantastic!” Vickers exclaimed, pacing back and forth excitedly. A large Yorkshire hog had ambled up to the edge of the terrace. I threw it an apple.

Suddenly Vickers was saying, “We must make a tape of Thematics and Metathematics, Dr. Fletcher.” This request caught me off-guard.

Vickers had printed his book privately, and had sent a copy to every mathematician in the world. I didn’t know of anyone who had read it. The problem was that Vickers claimed he could do things like trisect angles with ruler and compass, give an internal consistency proof for mathematics, and so on. But we mathematicians have rigorous proofs that such things are impossible. So we knew in advance that Vickers’s work contained errors, as surely as if he had claimed to have proved that he was twenty meters tall. To master his eccentric notation just to find out his specific mistakes seemed no more worthwhile than looking for the leak in a sunken ship.

But Lord Vickers had money and he had influence. I was glad LaHaye wasn’t there to hear me answer, “Of course. I’d be glad to put it on tape.”

And, God help me, I did. We had four days before Lady Vickers would bring the Appropriations Committee out for our demonstration. I spent all my waking time in Vickers’s study, smoking his cigarettes and punching in Thematics and Metathematics.

It would be nice if I could say I discovered great truths in the book, but that’s not the way it was. Vickers’s work was garbage, full of logical errors and needless obfuscation. I refrained from trying to fix up his mistakes, and just programmed in the patterns as they came. LaHaye flipped when he found out what I was up to. “We have prepared a feast for the mind,” he complained, “And you have fouled the table with this, this …”

“Think of it as a ripe Camembert,” I sighed. “And serve it last. They’ll just laugh it off.”

Lady Vickers was radiant when she heard I’d taped Thematics and Metathematics. I suggested that it was perhaps too important a work to waste on the Appropriations Committee, but she wouldn’t hear of passing it up.

Counting her, there were five people on the committee. LaHaye was the one who knew how to run the Moddler, so I took a walk while he ran each of the legislators through the three tapes.

It was a hot day. I spotted some of those hogs lying on the smooth hard earth under a huge beech tree, and I wandered over to look at them. The big fellow I’d given the apple was there, and he cocked a hopeful eye at me. I spread out my empty hands, then leaned over to scratch his ears. It was peaceful with the pigs, and after a while I lay down and rested my head on my friend’s stomach. Through the fresh green beech leaves I could see the taut blue sky.

Lady Vickers called me in. The committee was sitting around the study working on a couple of bottles of Amontillado. Lord Vickers was at the sideboard, his back turned to me. LaHaye looked flushed and desperate.

“Well,” I said.

“They didn’t like the first tape …” LaHaye began.

“Dreary, dreary,” Lady Vickers cried.

“We are not schoolchildren,” another committee member put in.

I felt the floor sinking below me. “And the second tape?”

“I don’t see how you can call that mathematics,” Lady Vickers declaimed.

“There were no equations,” someone complained.

“And it made me dizzy,” another added.

“Here’s to the new golden age of mathematics,” Lord Vickers cried suddenly.

“To Thematics and Metathematics,” his wife added, lifting her glass. There was a chorus of approving remarks.

“That was the real thing.”

“Plenty of logic.”

“And so many symbols!”

Lord Vickers was smiling at me from across the room. “There’ll be a place for you at my new institute, Fletcher.”

I took a glass of sherry.



Note on “A New Golden Age”

Written in Fall, 1979.

The Randolph-Macon Woman’s College Alumnae Bulletin, Summer, 1981.

My character Joseph Fletcher makes his first appearance in this story, which was inspired by a visit to the Mathematics Conference Center in Oberwolfach, Germany. At that time my grant was about to run out and I was intensively looking for a job. The only job I ended up being offered was at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Publishing a story in the R-MWC Alumnae Bulletin struck me as an ironically fitting thing to do since Charles Howard Hinton, a nineteenth century mathematical writer whom I admire, first published one of his stories about the fourth dimension in the Cheltenham Ladies’ College Journal.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Faraway Eyes

“Look at this,” my partner the genius said. He was waving a soap bubble.

I looked back at the program taking shape on my terminal’s screen. Orderly green lines of PL/II commands. “Lay off, Harry. I’m not interested.”

Harry ignored remarks like that…probably didn’t even hear them. He leaned over me heavily. A fat drop of soap solution splatted onto the keys. I sighed, punched in a SAVE, and logged off.

“Watch,” Harry said. He had one of those super-bubble frames, a big plastic ring. There was a ten-centimeter soap film stretched across it. Harry blew a gentle stream of air at the center. The big film wobbled, bulged, and then a procession of little bubbles began pinching off and floating away.

“Radioactivity, Harry,” I said, trying not to nag. “Waste disposal. Remember the NCR contract?”

He stared at the dancing soap film, thick lips parted in wonder. A bubble landed on the film and merged back in.

Someone was shouting in the reception room. Someone from New Jersey. Rosie’s footsteps came stitching down the hall. I walked past Harry and leaned out the door. “What’s up?”

Rosie wore her hair over her face with a transparent peep-hole dyed in. Her dress was hologrammed to look like a tree-trunk. A nice girl. Sometimes I wondered what she looked like.

“There’s a man with a wheelbarrow to see you, Mister Fletcher. A Mister Kreementz?”

I remembered Kreementz. He was in charge of pollution control at Murden Chemical in Newark. Harry and I had built him a novel stack-scrubber about five years ago. There’d been no complaints before this.

“What’s in the wheelbarrow?”

Rosie glanced sidelong at Harry and tittered. “That’s the funny part. The wheelbarrow’s empty. And he keeps saying he wants to dump it out on your …”

The door from the reception room slammed open and Kreementz came surging down the hall with a big steel wheelbarrow in front of him. If it hadn’t been for the necktie, he would have looked like an angry old construction worker. Rosie and I stepped back into my office, bumping Harry.

“Garden State Degeneracy—We Deliver,” Harry said cryptically.

And then the wrath of Kreementz was upon us. “The jig is up, boys. I filed suit on my way over. You know what a plant shutdown costs per hour? You ain’t gonna sneak off and leave me holding the bag.”

He set the wheelbarrow down heavily. His suit was sweat-stained, and he was breathing hard. I wondered how an empty wheelbarrow could be so heavy.

“Sit down, Mr. Kreementz.” I gestured at my chair. “I don’t know why you think Fletcher & Company would do anything other than stand behind our products. If Murden Chemical has a problem with our emission controller, I can assure you that …”

Harry sniffed the air and winked at Rosie. He stuck his thumb out from his fist and mimed someone drinking out of a bottle. I was surprised to see him joke that way. Kreementz caught the gesture and flared up.

“That weirdo null-ray of yours is on the fritz. Every time we start it, it shuts itself off again. And they’re blaming me!” He glared at Harry. “You’d drink, too! You think it’s funny? Try this on for size!”

With a grunt he tipped the wheelbarrow forward. Something too small to see thudded on to the concrete floor. Dust and stone chips flew up. There was a terrible rumbling, like a lead beer-barrel. It was rolling towards Harry.

With a heavy man’s nimbleness, Harry stepped to the side and knelt down. There was a slowly lengthening groove in the floor. There was something at the end of the groove, something tiny that rolled and rumbled.

Rosie was standing by the door looking like a hairy fence-post. When her peephole didn’t show, you couldn’t tell which way she was facing. I assumed she was watching Harry. He seemed to fascinate her.

“Very nice,” Harry said as he inched along the floor on his hands and knees. “Come take a look, Fletch.”

I glanced inquiringly at Kreementz. “Be my guest,” he said. “We’ve got plenty more where that came from. The base of Stack Seven. That’s the one that you …”

Suddenly I got the picture.

The rumbling was still going on. It sounded for all the world like Kreementz had started a heavy little ball rolling across our floor. I got down next to Harry and squinted.

It was tiny, a fraction of a millimeter across. A little sphere, shiny like a droplet of mercury. Judging from the groove it was chewing into the floor, I guessed it weighed well over a hundred kilograms. Harry planted his thick thumb in the ball’s path. The ball rumbled under his thumb without slowing down. Pretty soon it would hit the wall.

Rosie was behind me, leaning over to see too. I shot a look up. With her hair hanging forward, I could see her face. She had a prim mouth and faraway eyes. When she saw me looking at her she stood up straight.

I got up, determined to show Kreementz who was boss. “Mister Kreementz, the null-ray was designed to compress the matter inside your stack. We did not say that the matter would then disappear. I believe I warned you to keep the stack clean.”

“But I didn’t see anything building up!” Kreementz burst out. “The first month I cleaned it out every day, but one day I missed and the gunk was gone anyway. I figured that ray of yours would make anything disappear if it stayed in long enough.”

“In other words, you haven’t cleaned the stack for almost five years of continuous operation?”

Kreementz started to nod, then glared. He’d admitted too much already.

“I guess you were right,” Harry said to me as he stood up.

“About the automatic shut-off?”

“You mean you designed the null-ray to stop working?” Kreementz demanded.

There was a sudden crunching. The little ball was drilling through our wall and into the next room. When the noise died down again I answered.

“We wanted it to be…foolproof.”

“You see,” Harry added, “If you leave something under the null-ray long enough…say five years…then it goes black hole.”

Kreementz mopped his brow. “What would have happened if we’d gotten a black hole in Stack Seven?”

“I’ll give you the good news first,” Harry said, his ropey lips twisting into a smile. “Quantum effects would force the hole to evaporate into pure energy. By measuring the energy released in the evaporation event, scientists would be able to tell whether or not the quark theory of matter is correct. Fletch, give him the bad news.”

“According to Stephen Hawking’s calculations, the ‘evaporation’ of a hundred kilogram black hole would be the same as a ten megaton nuclear blast. Of course, if the quark theory of matter is wrong, then the blast would be some ten thousand times stronger.”

“You guys would have been great on Laugh-In,” Kreementz said sourly.

“What’s Laugh-In?” Rosie asked.

“It was a TV show when Mister Kreementz was little,” I said. “He seems like a person who watched television a lot as a child, doesn’t he?”

“At least I had a childhood,” Kreementz retorted. “You guys look like you was hatched. Especially him!”

Harry was staring at the wall, shoulders hunched and fists thrust into the enormous pockets of his baggy grey polyester pants. There was a muffled crash as the little ball left the next room.

Harry turned slowly. “How many tons?”

“He means how many tons are in the stack,” I explained.

“I ain’t weighed it,” Kreementz said sullenly. “Five years worth of smoke. Maybe two hundred thousand tons.”

“But smoke is light,” Rosie protested.

“Not at Murden Chemical,” I said.

“Not when these guys are through with it,” Kreementz added. “They built us a ray which kills all the atoms inside Stack Seven. They stop vibrating and shrivel up. We have a cap on the stack. Every few minutes it gets as full of smoke as it can hold, and then the null-ray triggers, and everything inside the smokestack disappears.”

“You keep forgetting that the stuff doesn’t disappear,” I corrected. “It just collapses down to a very small size.”

“Like a trash compactor,” Rosie suggested.

I nodded. “That’s what we had in mind. One smokestack full of crud was supposed to make a hundred-kilogram block the size of a brick. But Mister Kreementz left the stuff in there to get collapsed a little more with each pulse of the null-ray. We warned him not to do that, but he did it anyway. If I hadn’t put in a mass detector coupled to a shut-off circuit, then Mister Kreementz would have turned Central Jersey into just another beautiful memory.”

The rumbling had stopped after the last crash. The shiny little speck of degenerate matter had probably sunk into our flower bed. “How dense is that stuff?” I asked Harry.

He had been scribbling on the blackboard ever since Kreementz had given him the two hundred thousand tons figure. “I get ten-to-the-eleventh grams per cubic centimeter. That’s neutronium. Plain neutrons with just enough degenerate electrons and protons mixed in to keep it stable. I’m surprised it worked.”

“Is neutronium valuable?” Kreementz wanted to know.

Harry opened his mouth to answer. I stepped in front of him. I had a policy of never letting Harry answer any question relating to money.

“Are you kidding?” I asked Kreementz with a mocking laugh. “Is sewage valuable? Do people like cancer? Are oil-spills good for fish? Is the Pope Jewish? You’ve got a big, dirty cleanup ahead of you, Kreementz. One false move and you’ll blow the plant sky high. I don’t envy you.” One hand was behind my back, making shooing gestures at Harry.

Kreementz sighed heavily. “You wouldn’t have a drink handy, would you?”

Rosie got him a Coke and a few ounces of lab alcohol. He took a long, thirsty pull. Deftly I set the hook. “We could organize the cleanup, but it’d be …”

“No, Fletch,” Harry said. “It’s too dangerous. I don’t think we should risk it.” He was right on the beam.

“I’ve been authorized to make you an offer,” Kreementz said, naming a reasonable sum. “It’s a lot to pay, and I still think we could win the lawsuit…but the management wants to get her started up again.”

“Triple that and we’ll have it clean in two days.”

“Double.”

“Done.”

* * * *

Actually, the cleanup was a piece of cake. We opened up the side of the smokestack and brought in bulldozers. The stuff on top was something like high-grade iron ore. The lower layers had been under the null-ray longer. We had to truck most of it out a few cubic centimeters at a time. Our trucks could only carry a hundred tons. But we’d rented a fleet of them.

Harry had poured a titaniplast floor into our basement. The stuff was a metallic compound based on the new quark chemistry. No one knew yet how strong it was…since no one had ever been able to break a piece of it after it hardened. We dumped the neutronium in the basement window. Harry was happy to have the stuff, said it had arrived just when he needed it. He took some waldoes down there and got to work. I was happy to get him and his soap bubbles out of my office.

My job right then was to run some computer simulations for the nuclear energy people. How many would die if we buried the radioactive waste in a diamond mine. What would happen if you put it in the polar ice-cap. How much would it cost to rocket it into the sun. They’d been stockpiling the waste for forty years now. Every time it looked like they’d decided on a solution, someone came up with a new “but what if.” Fletcher & Co. had taken an NRC contract to improve the simulations and, by God, make a decision.

Harry had promised to try to think of a brand-new solution, but I wasn’t counting on it. I just concentrated on debugging my programs. The extra money from Murden Chemical had helped, but if I couldn’t make the NRC happy enough to pay big bucks, then the leaser was going to repossess my central processing unit. I would have sooner given up my own medulla.

A week went by. Rosie brought me my lunch as usual, milk and tuna-salad sandwich. I didn’t like to stop programming when I was hot. But instead of quietly leaving, Rosie stayed standing next to me. Today’s dress was hologrammed to make a fountain out of her. It was distracting.

“Is there a problem, Rosie?”

“It’s Doctor Gerber. He’s been acting strangely.”

“When Harry stops acting strangely, I’ll worry. Meanwhile, could you get me some more milk?”

I went on eating and punching keys for a while, but then I realized she was still standing at my elbow. “All right,” I said, finally looking up. “Tell me about it.”

“I guess you know that Doctor Gerber and I are…are …”

I hadn’t. The possibility had never occurred to me. Harry? Rosie? They were my genius and my receptionist. It was hard for me to think of them as being anything else. It wasn’t in the flowchart.

“I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere,” I said finally.

“He moved in with me two months ago,” she said with a toss of her head. For a second I glimpsed her aquiline nose. “I’ve been after him to take me somewhere, somewhere far away. But now he hasn’t come home for a week. He just stays in the basement here and he won’t come out.”

So, I wanted to say, that’s what he always does when he’s onto something. Leave him alone! Instead I said, “Perhaps I’d better have a look.” I stood up.

“And tell him that I’ll stop nagging him about the trip if he comes back,” Rosie added.

Harry didn’t notice me at first. He was asleep. The basement looked like a minimalist sculptor’s studio. The main exhibit was a bowed ramp of titaniplast that looked like it had grown out of the floor. The ramp slanted down from one wall, and then swooped back up to the other wall. The ramp had a semi-circular groove on top, and at the low point there was a black titaniplast sphere. The setup reminded me of the ball-return gutter in some unearthly bowling alley. The ball was one-and-a-half meters across and looked heavy.

I walked past the greasy vinyl couch that Harry was lying on and looked at the sphere. The utterly rigid black material shone dully under the yellow electric lights. There was a hole cut in one side, a pentagonal hole big enough to crawl through. There was something funny about the space inside. It was like staring into a lens.

As I leaned closer I felt an unpleasant pressure on my temples. I straightened up, but the sphere kept getting closer. I was sliding across the floor. I jerked in fear and fell backwards. Crablike I scuttled back across the room.

“The only way to get in is fast,” Harry said suddenly. “It’s not so bad inside, I think. Positive curvature instead of negative.”

I sat up and looked around. Harry was lying on his back with his arms and legs sticking straight up. It must have been exercise, but it looked terrible.

“Rosie sent me,” I said, before I forgot.

“Why?”

“She wonders why you haven’t come to see her this week.”

“I’ve been busy.”

I decided I’d done enough for Rosie. “What’s the sphere for?”

“You roll it back and forth. It’s a dodecahedral skeleton of neutronium bars embedded in a shell of titaniplast. A padded jungle-gym for gravitons. What else did Rosie say?”

“She said that if you came back she’d stop nagging you about the trip. What happens when you roll the sphere back and forth?”

“I hoped she’d say that. I hate travel. I ought to go up and talk to her …”

He started out, but I caught him by the shoulder. “Harry, please tell me what you’ve built here.”

He looked back at me, baffled. “Can’t you see?”

“I see a hollow black sphere sitting on a rocker track. Why don’t we take it from there.”

“You remember my super-bubble ring? This is sort of the same thing. It’s to get rid of nuclear waste. Anything that’s inside the sphere disappears when the sphere rolls back and forth.”

My heart skipped a beat. “Have you tested it?”

“No. Wait a minute. I’m going to get Rosie.” He flicked on a switch and went upstairs.

While he was gone I looked the thing over some more. Harry had started a system of winches and pulleys running. Almost imperceptibly, the sphere was creeping up the ramp. I hoped it didn’t fall off. That degenerate matter packed a wallop. I sat down on the couch and started drafting my letter to the NRC. All things considered, a half billion a year didn’t seem like too much to ask.

When Harry and Rosie finally came back, I could see that hunky was still far from dory. Harry didn’t understand about apologies, about white lies. I wondered what she saw in him.

But with both of us there to impress, Harry became more communicative. His soap solution and super-bubble ring were under the couch, and he dragged them out. He made a big film and blew at the center of it. The film wobbled and bulged.

“That’s what space is like inside a massive object,” Harry said. “It curves towards the fourth dimension. Now, if I blow harder …”

He did, and a little bubble pinched off the film and floated away. “That’s the way a black hole does it. But we can’t use them. So instead…“

He blew out a little bulge in the soap film again. But this time instead of blowing harder, he jiggled the film back and forth. Ripples darted around on the film’s surface, and suddenly two of them happened to meet near the bulge. The walls met and a little bubble floated off again.

“That’s what the neutronium skeleton is supposed to do for us. The space inside it bulges way out towards the fourth dimension. Now when the sphere starts rolling down the ramp, those moving bars of neutronium are going to churn up waves like a mix-master. Sooner or later two waves will meet, and the bulge inside the sphere will pinch off to make a little hypersphere outside of our space.”

The winch motors turned off with a click. The sphere was poised at the top of the ramp.

“What happens then?” Rosie asked.

“The hypersphere floats away. Maybe it lands on a different space; maybe it comes back to ours someplace else.”

“Another space …” Rosie said slowly. “Like the astral plane?”

Harry shrugged. “If you want to call it that.”

The sphere had come to rest at the top of the track with the hole on the side pointing towards us. Harry had a little loading chute ready by the track there. It was aimed so that anything that slid down it would zip right through the hole in the sphere.

“What do you want to put in?” Harry asked.

“Would it…would it be dangerous for a person?” Rosie wanted to know.

“What a question!” I burst out. “You’d be squeezed to death! And then the gravity waves would work you over. And if by some wild fluke you lived through all that, where do you think you’d end up? Even if your space bubble ever did join up with a normal space again, what do you think the odds are that you’d land on the surface of an Earth-like planet?”

“Maybe it would take you to a different kind of space,” Rosie suggested mildly. “Where you don’t need planets.”

“Rosie will always have the mind of a secretary,” Harry said cuttingly. “What do you say I put this in?” He picked up an empty cardboard box from the floor.

“Fine,” I said. “But let’s try something massive, too. A sandbag.”

Harry set the cardboard box at the top of the little sliding-board and let it go. The sphere’s field accelerated the box down the chute and it zoomed through the hole, getting somewhat crushed by tidal forces on the way.

Once inside, it bounced around for a minute before settling to the bottom. The bouncing had fluffed it back up again. Except for all the box’s right angles being a little too big, it looked fine.

“Why doesn’t the gravitational field in there crush it?”

“Anything inside is pushed and pulled in every direction at once,” Harry said. “Which adds up to nothing. Of course there’s still a strong positive curvature of space in there. And when those bars start moving around…but I don’t want to bore Rosie.” He shot her a nasty look, but she just stood there, stiff and alone.

Harry and I went upstairs then to get one of the sandbags from the radiation lab. It was a good fifty kilos, and it took the two of us to get it down the stairs. Neither one of us is getting any younger.

Rosie was gone when we got back downstairs. “You shouldn’t have said that about the mind of a secretary,” I told Harry.

He sighed. “Ah, she’s always talking about that fantasy-land stuff. If only I could get her to take a night-school physics course. There’s wonder enough in pure science without going in for a lot of malarkey. And she still won’t give up on that trip business.”

We heaved the sandbag onto the chute and it slid down to rest by the cardboard box. Then Harry tossed a cap-shaped titaniplast hatch-cover in place. The gravitational field slammed it on tight. We stood clear and he tripped the release.

The enormously heavy sphere rumbled down the incline, past the middle and back up to the other wall. Then it came back. I thought of a bubble wand waving back and forth. I thought I could feel the gravity waves in the pit of my stomach.

“It’s not moving very fast, Harry.”

“Doesn’t have too. The dodecahedral field configuration is inherently unstable, especially with that space mix-master going. I bet it has pinched off five hyperspheres by now. Hear the air rushing in?”

Indeed there was a hissing to be heard over the rumble of the track. As the space inside the neutronium sphere was blown away, new space and new air had to seep in. I actually felt myself drawn towards the sphere again, but this time from across the room.

It took about ten minutes for the oscillations to dampen, for the sphere to stop rolling back and forth. When we slid the hatch-door over with a long stick there was nothing inside.

“We ought to send a radio-beacon through the next time,” Harry remarked. “Then we could hear if it resurfaced somewhere in our space.”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “Right now I want to celebrate. What do you say I take you and Rosie out for the best meal of your lives?”

But we couldn’t find Rosie anywhere. In fact, she never showed up at the office again.

It’s funny about a girl like that. I never noticed her much when she worked for me, but now…now I dream about her every night. So does Harry.



Note on “Faraway Eyes”

Written in Fall, 1979.

Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact, September, 1980.

“Faraway Eyes” was the first story I sold to a mainline SF magazine, although by this time I’d serialized Spacetime Donuts in Unearth and I’d sold my novel White Light to both Virgin and Ace. But “Faraway Eyes” was my first “real” magazine sale.

“Faraway Eyes” introduces Joe Fletcher’s partner Harry Gerber. These are a very traditional SF pair of characters, whose roots go back to Robert Sheckley’s AAA Ace stories, to Henry Kuttner and beyond. Fletcher and Harry reappear in the stories “The Man Who Ate Himself,” “Inertia,” and in my novel Master of Space and Time.

I have the uneasy feeling that the various mass and size numbers in this tale are scientifically inaccurate. In later years I often had my engineer friend John Walker check the science in my writings.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The 57th Franz Kafka

20 January 1981.

Pain again, deep in the left side of my face. At some point in the night I gave up pretending to sleep and sat by the window, staring down at the blind land-street and the deaf river.

The impossibility of connected thought. Several times I thought I heard the new body moving in the long basin.

It began snowing during the night. I opened both windows and hunched myself forward with my mouth open, drawing in deep, aching breaths. My hope: a perfect snowflake, if sucked down wholly and rapidly, might reach the black center of my lungs and freeze them solid. Imagine breathing water, breathing ice. Later, hearing the bells toll, I wept.

After Mema brought me my breakfast, she went out to clean away the melting snow. I stood well back from the window lest she see my cheers and gloating grimaces.

After clearing the sidewalk, she had not yet had enough of wielding her scrub-broom, and stepped, repeatedly and at great risk, into the heavy land-street traffic, trying to clear off our half. She has, in the years since I dissolved the marriage, become an automaton. I realize this with finality when I see her stare uncomprehendingly after the splashing motorwagons, which again and again cover our half of the street, and splatter her apron and her thick legs with the grey, crystalline frosting.

The suppressed laughter hurts my chest. I begin to cough and have to sit down on my bed. Here I sit, words crawling off my pen-point.

There are only four more pages left in this, the last volume of my fifty-seventh series of diaries. I must write less.

23 January 1981.

Three days of fever. Straightening my wet bedclothes, Mema found my special pictures, the Fast-Night groupings, and took them away. What if Felice were to see them?

I have more pictures hidden in the attic, pictures I press to my ribs while I pour all my food out into the long basin. The new body is not so far along as I had hoped. There are still only the clotted fibers. It is strange that I could have thought otherwise.

25 January 1981.

Last night the worst yet. Dream: again Reb Pessin showing me the Book of Qlippoth, the secrets of immortality. A high buzzing, as of a tremendous propeller, drowns out his voice. The surprising weight of the little book. He makes a false gesture, and I spread out in space instead of time. A whole city where everyone wears my face, streets of women, the offices. A street-car conductor leaning over me, shaking with laughter, “If I were you …”

Awake before dawn. For the first time real fear that the new body will not be ready. But going into the attic with a candle, I see that all is well. Even the skin is finished.

26 January 1981.

Real sleep at last. Waking up, an unnatural feeling of lightness. So many memories are gone already, gone over.

I drank two cups of black tea with breakfast. Mema had to go back down to the kitchen for the second. When she brought it up, I had forgotten the first breakfast already, and asked her where it was. This is all as it should be. Soon I can begin again.

Yesterday, in a mood of wild exaltation, I mailed my remaining special pictures to Felice, first scribbling her real name on some of the women’s faces.

Now, cheerful and whistling from my sound sleep and my two cups of tea, I take pen in hand and compose another letter to her father:

-----

Honored Herr B!

I am not surprised that you have failed to answer my letters of 24.XII.80, 26.XII.80, and 15.I.81. You need not apologize! It is only right and natural that a man in your position must take thought, in the interests of his daughter, before moving to bind a marriage contract. The questions of my finances, age and health are undoubtedly your unspoken concerns.

As regards the question of age: I am forty-one, and will remain so. Although your daughter is now but twenty, she will in the course of time become sixty. Until that age, I vow to have and hold her as sole love-object. Frau Mema, my housekeeper and ex-wife, can attest to this.

My financial security is assured by certain interlocking fixed-interest annuities. I do not need to work, and I despise to do so. My brutto yearly income is in the excess of fifteen thousand thalers…not a figure to conjure with, but surely adequate for your little mouse’s needs.

The state of my health is a predictable matter. At present it is bad, and it will grow a bit worse. But next month, and in the summer, I will once again be fresh and strong. There can be no doubt of this.

Would a marriage date of February 30 be acceptable to you?

With high respect,

Franz K. LVII

-----

29 January 1981.

All evening, Mema watched television in the parlor, directly under my bedroom. The police were here yesterday, sent by Felice’s father.

They did not dare come up to me, and spoke only to Mema. I stood naked at the head of the stairs, baring my teeth and trembling with a fierce joy each time I glimpsed their green peaked caps. It struck me that the caps were living beings which wear policemen.

The excitement made me very weak, and all day I left the bed only to empty my cavities into the long basin. It is time to complete the task, to open my veins. Mema knows that today is the day, and under my feet she rocks and watches green, peaked caps move across the television screen.

30 January 1981.

LVIII is still waiting in the long basin behind the thin attic wall.

Last night I took candle and long knife and leaned over the basin, staring down through the thick, gathered fluids. The candle-wax dripped and sprung into little saucers, white disks that drifted down to rest on Franz LVIII’s closed eyelids. His mouth is set in a smile, as always.

I am not frightened of death, not after fifty-six times. But when my new body walks, the green, peaked caps will take it away. Herr B. must pay for this.

I have resolved to make him murder me. The exquisite uncertainty of how he will do it. I feel like a virgin bride.

Mema has gone to the butcher to buy two kilograms of blood-sausage. Tonight I will chew the sausage up for LVIII. My true blood must belong to Herr B.

31 January 1981.

The blood-sausage was everything I had ever dreamed it to be. Thick and dark, with the texture of excrement, the congealed pigs’ blood is stuffed into a greasy casing made of the animals’ own small intestines.

Leaning over the long basin, chewing and spitting up, I felt a disgust purer and more complete than anything I have experienced since the time of the camps.

The sausage-casing is stamped with repeated pictures of a pig wearing a crown and making obeisances. I have stretched the casing enough to wrap it around my waist, like the little tailor who killed seven with one blow.

The chewing of the sausage took a long time, and I fell asleep in a sort of ecstasy, with my forehead resting on the rim of the long basin. I awakened to a touch of LVIII’s hand, tugging petulantly at my hair. I started back, uncertain where I was, and heard the church tower toll three.

Filled with an implacable strength, I descended the stairs. Mema lay sleeping on her cot in the kitchen. I unplugged the phone and brought it upstairs. Then I crawled under my bed to muffle the sound, and dialed Felice’s number over and over.

The shining love-words dripped off my lips that still glistened with blood-sausage. My tongue felt slender, magically flexible, as if it could pierce the phone wires and the shell of her ear. After my second call, her father answered, and I gibbered like a golem, ever-new inspirations striking me with each call. I continued calling for two hours. They answered less and less often, and finally not at all. Now I have left my phone off the hook to keep theirs ringing.

Franz K. LVIII is sloshing about in the long basin, impatient for the final spark. The dawn strikes through my window and gilds this page, the last of this volume. Now, before Mema awakes, I must go to pound on Felice’s door, a long knife in my hand.



Note on “The 57th Franz Kafka”

Written in Spring, 1980.

The Little Magazine, Vol. 13, Nos. 3 & 4, 1982.

In Heidelberg I read and reread the Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Diaries of Franz Kafka. The physical setting of this story was the house of my Heidelberg friend Imre Molnar who lived down the hill from us on the Schlierbacher Landstrasse. Imre himself appears as Huba in The Sex Sphere, but he had nothing to do with the character in “The 57th Franz Kafka.”

The name for the story comes from the fact that the story is set in 1981, which was fifty-seven years after Kafka’s 1924 death. I used this story’s name for my first story anthology because I had the fantasy that people would like my stories so much that I would be considered a “new Franz Kafka”— certainly not the first “new Franz Kafka,” but maybe the fifty-seventh.

The Little Magazine at that time was co-edited by David Hartwell, who’d eventually become my editor at Tor Books.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The Indian Rope Trick Explained

(With excerpts from Revell Gibson’s “Transdimensional Avatar.”)

Paris was backwards. Charlie Raumer sat on a patch of grass near the Louvre trying to straighten it out. The kids were fighting, Cybele wasn’t speaking to him, and all around was the mirror-image of the Paris he remembered from twelve years ago.

He buried his face in his hands, pushing at the misty red memories. He imagined a Paris made of glass, a relief map. If you looked at it from the wrong side, everything would be backwards, inside-out. He began tugging at the surfaces in his image to put them right. Something began…there was a heavy thud on his back.

It was Iris, the ten-year-old. “What’s the matter, Daddy, are you drunk?” She broke into a wild giggle at this sally, and her two little brothers joined in, pigs at the party. They piled onto his back with a confused squealing. Someone shrieked, “POKE!” and little Jimmy fell crying to the ground.

Raumer’s teeth clenched. “Iris, you stop it or …”

“It was Howard,” she yelled with a grimace at the larger of her two little brothers. Distrusting speech, Howard charged her, arms windmilling. Raumer seized the two and shook them hard. Their little faces looked crooked and ugly.

“Stop, stop, stop!” It was Cybele, back with a precious paper bag of postcards. When she was a girl she had spent every Sunday in the Louvre. But now that she was finally here again, her family had refused to come inside.

“Mine, Mama. Me.” Jimmy took an uncertain step forwards. Howard snaked past him and snatched the cards from his mother. Iris cross-checked Howard and they hit the ground together.

Raumer dealt out two back-handed slaps and recovered the cards. The printing on the museum shop bag was reversed. He wished he had never started fooling with the Hinton hypercube models.

“Is that all you can do?” his wife was demanding, an orchid of anger blossoming in her voice. “Beat them? Why don’t you ever help me instead of ruining our …”

All this time a part of Raumer’s mind had been fiddling with his image of Paris. Now instead of trying to make it come right he let it be backward, let himself go. He felt a rush of freedom. And disappeared.

He snapped back on the steps of the Louvre, thirty meters away. Nothing looked backwards anymore. In a twinkling instant the two heavily ornamented wings of the building had changed places. His tail-bone hurt where he’d dropped onto the steps. Across the road he could see Cybele and the kids looking for him.

“Bhom bhom bho-la?”

Raumer turned. A tall African was hunkering just behind him. A street-vendor. They were all over Paris this June. White plastic ivory elephants, brittle leather belts, strangely patterned wallets, and the little drums mounted on sticks. The vendor was twirling one of the drums between his fingers. There were two clay marbles attached with string, and when the drum twirled, the marbles rattled on the taut skins. “Bhom bhom bho-la?”

Non merci. Pas acheter.” As he tried to brush the peddler off, the utter strangeness of what had just happened was hitting Raumer. He had been over there, and now he was here. Had he blacked out? But there was nothing stronger than coffee and a hangover in his system. Across the road, Iris squealed and pointed up at him.

Je vous le donne,” the African said, holding out the little drum. Still twirling it. Pattapattapattapat. “Pour devenir sauteur.” Serious eyes under a high, noble forehead.

Raumer took the drum. For becoming a jumper. So the African had seen. Raumer had really jumped thirty meters. But …

Iris came pumping up the steps, her eyes fixed on the toy. “Can it be mine, Dad?”

A light touch of long fingers on Raumer’s shoulder. “Inquirez devant le Centre Pompidou.” He turned to thank, to ask, but the tall African was already gliding down the steps, no leg-movements visible under his black and yellow dashiki.

Iris was tugging at the drum now. One of the little clay marbles came off and bounced down the steps. Raumer bared his teeth at the child, then retrieved the ball. He slipped it into his coat pocket with the drum before the others could start in.

“You didn’t have to run off like that,” Cybele said, looking not quite pleased to have found him. “We didn’t even see you cross the street.”

“Daddy bought a toy drum, and it’s mine,” Iris announced. Jimmy’s face quivered, and Howard stepped forward, alert eyes fixed on the bulge in Raumer’s pocket.

“What is the matter with you children?” Cybele demanded. “Can’t you stop asking for things for one minute?”

“I’ll get them each a drum,” Raumer muttered. Four of the Africans were standing in a group ten meters away. Impassively, with long arcing gestures, they were working a stream of Canadian tourists. They could have been catching fish. Raumer hesitated, trying to decide which one he had talked with.

“You will not,” Cybele said, taking his arm. An old lady had just stepped out of a cab and onto the curb next to them. Cybele called to the cab driver in rapid French, then herded Raumer in. “I am going to feed you and these children before you murder each other.”

Raumer had a veal cutlet with a fried egg on it; Cybele had calf-brains in brown butter; and the kids each had a little steak with pommes frites. Coffee, apple juice, wine…they were all smiling at each other. A cool June day in Paris. It’s ridiculous what a difference food makes. The kids drifted across the cheap restaurant to play pinball with two francs they had scrounged.

Raumer took the toy drum out of his pocket to tie the string Iris had snapped. “So you did buy one,” Cybele said, lighting a cigarette. “It’s cute.”

“One of those Africans gave it to me,” Raumer said. “For jumping thirty meters through hyperspace.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I figure that’s what happened. When I disappeared. I’d been having that mirror-image feeling again and …”

Cybele sighed a cloud of smoke. “This is our vacation, Charlie. Our last chance. Can’t you wait till you’re back in your library to be so crazy?” She tried to soften the last word with a strained smile.

“I don’t think it’s crazy to be writing a book on the history of the fourth dimension. What am I supposed to do…walk around holding your hand as if we were still courting?”

“It might be nice.” Suddenly her reserve broke. “Oh, Charlie, don’t you care? We fell in love here. And if now all we can do is…fight…then we’re …” She held a supplicating hand out across the table.

“My jumping like that fits in with the theory I found in the Hinton book,” Raumer said slowly, not really noticing his wife. “We have a slight thickness in the fourth dimension. We’re like coins sliding around on a table-top. Our consciousness is down with the table-top…but if you somehow identify with the top side of the coin then things look backwards. At the Louvre I finally let myself go all the way up. The momentum flipped me right off the board. I could have come down anywhere. I could have come down backwards or sideways …”

While he talked, Raumer twirled the carved rod sticking out of the little tom-tom’s side. The strings and weights followed along, trailing like a galaxy’s spiral arms. When he reversed direction, the little marbles pattered on the tight skins. He rolled the stick back and forth, getting the hang of it. Pattapat. Pattapattapat.

“You don’t…you don’t really …” Cybele began, then gave up. “Why don’t we all rest and then go see the Pompidou Art Center at Beaubourg?” she suggested in a charged, artificially bright voice. “I hear it’s the kind of place where you and the kids won’t get bored.”

A wail cut the air. Howard. Iris had pushed the reset button on the pinball machine, and Howard’s franc had been lost. Raumer went over to put in another coin.

The machine was called Dimension Warp. The glass scoreboard carried a bright picture of two women learning the ropes from a hyperspace pilot who’s a robot. Those naughty cuties are taking notes and licking the points of their thick pencils…while that jivey robobopster fingers the controls. The player as machine, courting curvy Nature. Groovy.

Raumer split three games with Iris and Howard. Jimmy got to pull the plunger. The machine had an unusual feature, a little ramp a ball could jump over to land somewhere else on the board…in a special and otherwise inaccessible free-game hole if you were lucky. The cover-glass was set up high enough so the ball could sail quite a distance before clacking back into the plane of normal play.

“That’s what you did, Daddy,” Howard said the first time the ball made its trip through the third dimension.

“What do you mean?” Raumer gave his son a sharp look. He couldn’t always tell what went on behind that smooth seven-year-old forehead.

“He means that your turn’s over,” Iris interjected. They left it at that.

Their hotel was nearby, and Cybele wanted to go up to rest and change shoes. Little Jimmy needed a nap and Iris wanted to keep an eye on her mother. Eager to avoid the possibility of another ugly scene in the tiny hotel room, Raumer proposed that he kill some time with Howard and meet the others in front of the Pompidou Center in an hour and a half. Cheerfully, father and son boarded the Metro.

In between stations the DuBonnet ads flickered past. DUBO…DU-BON…DUBONNET…DUBO…DUBON…DUBONNET…Over and over. A pun. Du beau: lovely; du bon: tasty. Cybele had explained it to him the first time he’d come to Paris. Twelve years now. She’d been an art student then and he’d been at the Université on a scholars exchange program. An American machine courting a French cutie. Somehow he’d won her. But now he only wondered why he’d wanted to.

“What if the ball went under the board like a subway?” Howard asked suddenly, his big opened eyes reflecting in the black glass.

Cybele had told Raumer about Howard’s long ruminations. “All the machinery, the electrical stuff, is under the board,” he smiled. “The ball would probably get stuck, half under and half over.”

He had a sudden impulse to talk to the boy, to teach him something. He hardly knew the child, really. In the normal run of things Cybele did all the work with the children.

“Imagine this, Howard. Imagine that there were pictures that could slide around just on the pinball board. What would the ball look like to them when it rolled around?”

“Like a ball.”

“No, dummy. If all they could see was what touched their plane, then the ball would look like a dot moving around.”

“Unless you pushed it through.”

“That’s right. If you pushed the ball through the plane they’d see a circular cross-section. And when the ball jumps off the ramp, they’d think it had disappeared.”

“Why do you call it a cross-section? Cross means X.”

“It can mean cutting, too. If I had a real big sharp knife I could make a cross-section of you…cut you down the middle and shave off a nice thin …” Raumer stopped himself. That was no way to talk to a child. What was the matter with him?

At the next stop they had to change trains. Raumer’s memory was still playing tricks on him…they caught their connecting train in the wrong direction. Upset, he yelled at Howard for wanting to go to the bathroom.

When they finally got to the right stop, the boy’s face had turned into a tight little mask. Raumer suddenly realized that no one in his family really liked him. They had no reason to. Trying to buy a smile, he gave Howard the toy drum. No reaction. They climbed the stairs, and stepped out into the plaza next to the Centre Pompidou.

The building itself is as wonderful as anything in it. It is built inside-out, with all the structural supports, heating shafts, escalators, plumbing and electrical conduits attached to the outside walls. The machinery is all outside, and the traditional decoration is all hanging on the walls inside. The marvelous joke is that a lot of those functional-looking pipes outside are fake…pure this-is-not-a-decoration decoration. It isn’t enough for the building to be inside out, it has to look inside out.

The plaza was dotted with idlers, many of them arranged into circles around street-performers: a juggler, a fire-eater lying on a mound of broken glass, and a crazy man shouting fifty years too late about the surrealist staple of rayons ultraviolets. The chilly breeze was snatching the words out of people’s mouths and scattering them around the big square.

Right by the subway stairs there were a few sidewalk artists waiting for people to drop coins onto the pastels they’d drawn on the stone ground. One of the artists had filled in the black outline of a boy with fanciful pictures of body organs and thoughts.

Howard begged till Raumer put half a franc on the man’s picture, and then he pulled his father over to join a group watching a snake-charmer. Snakers are supposed to be Indian, but this charmer was another of the dashiki-clad Africans.

He was squatting on a piece of cloth patterned with squares and slanting lines. His snakes writhed sluggishly and spilled out of a big wicker basket. His flute was a gourd with two pipes sticking out. One pipe had holes for fingering the eerie, wandering notes, and the other let air out to play on the face of the snake being charmed.

A cobra on the basket top wove back and forth, following the movements of the snaker’s flute. Its hood was spread menacingly, and occasionally it made as if to strike. The tune drifted up and down a pentatonic scale, weaving like the snake’s body. Little Howard began twirling his drum in accompaniment. Typically, he’d been able to play it as soon as Raumer gave it to him.

When the snaker heard the sound of the pattering, his eyes flashed at them. The tune speeded up, and Howard kept pace. Slowly the snaker rose to a crouch, drawing the cobra higher and higher. Finally he was standing erect on his long legs and the cobra had reared up to an impossible height. Raumer hoped its venom sacs were gone. The music cut off abruptly and the cobra collapsed back to a great, shifting coil.

“Bhom bhom bho-la!” the African shouted. He was an imposing man with stiff ebony features. A few coins pattered onto the tessellated cloth beneath his feet. “Dix francs de plus et je vous montre une merveille!” He held out his ten fingers. He wanted more money.

Perhaps this was the man he’d been told to see, Raumer thought. That African by the Louvre had said something about coming here. On a sudden impulse he fingered a limp bill out of his pocket and tossed it onto the snaker’s cloth. Ten francs. It seemed like play-money.

Merci, Monsieur De L’Espace,” the tall black man said with a slight bow. “Et maintenant! Le truc Indien!” He whistled sharply, penetratingly, and a young African boy in shorts came running across the square, carrying a heavy coiled rope.

The snaker gave a longer speech then, but Raumer couldn’t follow it. What had the man called him? Mister Space? He couldn’t figure it out. What a strange day this was. First that funny gap or jump near the Louvre…and now this snake charmer was making a rope uncoil and slowly rise into the air.

Howard was tugging his sleeve; he had something to say. “There’s a thread attached to the rope,” came the deafening whisper. “The little boy is pulling it up.”

The kid was right. Sharp-eyed little devil. There was a grey thread leading up from the rope. The thread looped over a nail in the air over-head, and the little assistant was surreptitiously reeling the thread in behind his back. Ten francs for such a cheap…a nail in the air?

The music squeaked, rose higher, and disappeared into the supersonic. The snaker laid down his flute. The end of the rope was up at the nail…it looked more like a thorn, really. With a single precise gesture, the African reached up and attached the rope to the thorn.

Meanwhile the little boy was sitting on the cube-patterned cloth, binding a long thorn lengthwise to the bottom of each foot. The thorns stuck out in front like crampons.

Dix francs,” the speaker cried, pacing back and forth with his long fingers outspread. “Seulement dix francs de plus et mon fils va monter!”

Quite a crowd had gathered now. Raumer and Howard were in the front row, but the people were three deep behind them. A few coins flew through the air and landed near the snakes. The cobra struck half-heartedly at a twenty-centime piece. The little boy was ready now, a thorn sticking out past the toes of each foot, and a third thorn clasped ice-pick style in his right hand.

Encore trois francs!” the father shouted after looking things over. “Encore trois!” One more franc piece landed on the cloth. And then nothing. They all waited. The breeze grew colder. Where was the sun? This was supposed to be June.

“Lend me two francs, Daddy,” Howard whispered. It looked like no one else was going to cough up. With a sigh Raumer fished his last two coins out. All his family ever wanted from him was money.

Howard trotted over and handed the coins to the snaker. The man’s hand whipped out and caught Howard by the wrist. He took the little drum from him, and then leaned over and whispered something. Raumer stepped forward, but Howard was already free. The snaker had given him a straw-wrapped package in place of the drum. He skipped back, his eyebrows high with excitement.

The music started up again. The snaker was playing the flute with one hand and the drum with the other. His mouth remained fixed in the same mask-like expression. The little black boy made a stroboscopic series of gestures and began to climb.

He held the rope with his left hand only. Foot by foot, hand by hand, he worked himself into the air. He would pull a foot loose, then set the thorn with a sharp kick. Slide the left hand up, reset the right hand, reset the feet. It was like watching a mountain climber kicking ice-steps for himself in a steep snow-field.

When the boy reached the top of the rope he began pulling the rope up after him. The crowd was absolutely silent. The music wailed and pattered, the flute-tone flowing over the beats like a stream over round stones.

The boy had the rope coiled over his left shoulder now. Holding himself steady with his right hand, he pulled loose the thorn that had held the rope. He reset it at shoulder level and paused, pressed against the aether like a tree-fog on a windowpane. His thin, wooden-looking limbs tensed.

Suddenly the boy was gone. The audience broke into a wild hubbub of cheers and questions. Coins rained onto the African’s cloth. He bowed once and began gathering up his snakes. The show was over. People drifted off.

There you are. We looked all over.”

“What did you buy for Howard? What’s he got in his hand?”

“Dada!”

Raumer turned with a smile. “We just saw the most incredible thing. This kid climbed up a rope, pulled it up after him and disappeared. The Indian Rope Trick! I’ve read about it for years. And now I understand how it works. I’ve got to ask that guy where the bush …”

But when he turned back the snaker had disappeared, faded into the crowd, basket and all. Meanwhile Iris had unwrapped Howard’s package.

“Four stickers!” she exclaimed. “Good for poking!”

“Let me see those.” Raumer scooped the long, reddish thorns up. Testing, he jabbed one in the air. It dug in and stuck in something invisible.

“What are you teaching the children, Charlie? They could put each other’s eyes out that way. Throw those things away!”

Raumer released the thorn cautiously. It stayed fixed in the air where he’d jabbed it. Wonderingly, he looked at the tips of the other three. The tips seemed to bend…yet not bend. They weren’t quite fully there.

“These are thorns from the legendary bush of Shanker Bhola, Cybele. Aether pitons. I always thought it was only a …” Raumer sat down on the pavement and unlaced a shoe. “It’s as if those coins on the table had little needles to dig into the wood. Then they wouldn’t have to just slide wherever the forces pulled them. They’d be free to climb against gravity through empty space.”

Raumer had both shoes off now. He laid one of the long thorns inside each shoe and pushed them forward, through the leather. They stuck out the front like toe-spurs. He began lacing the shoes back on, his feet squeezed in over the thorn-shafts.

“What’s Daddy doing?”

“I don’t know, Iris. I don’t know what’s the matter with your father.”

“He wants to climb through the air like the little black boy,” Howard explained. “Those thorns can stick in the air.”

A few passers-by had gathered to watch Raumer putting his shoes on. “Dix francs!” Howard shouted, getting in the spirit of the thing. His mother had taught him a few words of French. He held his little hands up for attention. “Dix francs!” A few more people stopped. American street-performers were a rarity.

Cybele shushed Howard. Jimmy started crying for an ice cream. Iris had one of the thorns and was practicing jabbing it into the aether. “This is swell, Dad! Can I try it next?”

“We’ll see, sweetie.” Raumer patted his daughter’s blonde head and kicked a raised foot tentatively. The thorn dug into the air. He reached up and set another thorn overhead. He was able then to pull himself up off the ground, resting on his anchored left foot and right hand.

He drew his right foot up a little higher than the other and kicked it in. Iris handed him the fourth thorn, and he set that up higher with his left hand. Like a human fly climbing an office building with suction cups, he began working his way up. A few coins rang on the pavement beneath him. “Dix francs!” Howard shouted again.

Cybele had just gotten four ice cream sticks from a vendor. Now she saw him and stared up, fear and joy fighting for possession of her features. “Don’t go too high, Charlie!”

He did another few meters. He was high enough to break a leg now if he fell. His hands were sweating and it was hard to keep a good grip on the thorns in his hands. The shafts of the other thorns were digging into the soles of his feet. He couldn’t go much higher. But he didn’t want to go back down to his family either.

The most puzzling thing was that the aether didn’t seem to be moving relative to normal space. Using the sliding-coins analogy, a person would be a small, irregular coin riding the rim of a huge rotating disk…Earth. But since Earth is rotating, then it should zip out from under any piton fixed in the motionless aether. Of course maybe the aether wasn’t quite solid after all. Maybe a thin sheet of it was dragged along with the Earth. Given the right kinds of length contractions that would just about jibe with relativity. Raumer wondered if he could set a thorn hard enough to reach the lower levels of the aether.

Holding fast with his left hand, he pulled his right hand back and slammed the thorn forward as hard as he could. There was a sudden wrench, the sound of glass breaking. His right hand was bleeding. The thorn had ripped out of his grasp and sped across the plaza to break a window in the Pompidou Center.

There were a lot of people under Raumer now, pointing at him and at the broken window. He was ten or fifteen meters up. Cybele and the kids seemed peculiarly unconcerned about him. They were just eating their ice creams and staring. Howard and Iris had managed to fill their pockets with small change from the crowd. Across the plaza Raumer saw a flic, a young nattily-uniformed policeman. He was heading his way. Raumer wondered how that African kid had managed to disappear.

He was standing on two of the thorns and holding the other with both hands. Now the flic was close enough to start shouting at him. Calling him a terrorist. He was going to have to do something. Before, it had looked as if that kid had just jumped backward…out through hyperspace. He’d done it himself that morning. But what if he landed wrong? Suddenly he didn’t care.

Raumer tensed all his muscles and jumped backwards, pushing off as hard as possible with the three thorns. He slipped sideways as he took off.

And a sort of wafer floated to the ground.

Qu’est ce qu’y a, alors?” the flic asked, effortlessly pushing his way through the crowd. His handsome dark eyes flashed back and forth, searching for the man who had broken the window. But the villain had escaped.

In the center of the circle the flic found only a sidewalk artist…a charming French-American woman with three children. They were standing around an astonishingly detailed cross-sectional picture of a man’s insides.

Strictly speaking, the flic should have arrested the woman for painting without a license. But suddenly, inexplicably, the picture seemed to slide off down the street. The policeman covered his confusion by asking the woman for a date.

*****

The following selected passages, and the accompanying illustrations, are taken from Transdimensional Avatar by Revell Gibson (Ten Pound Island Press, 1982).

*****

And how did this living avatar come into being? How is it that, Christ-like, one man can span the gap between Heaven and Hell…yet remain here on Earth with ordinary mortals?

Professor Raumer has suggested that I explain his physical transmogrification by the time-honored technique of analogical reasoning. So let us imagine a flat universe, a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants would contemplate the idea of a third dimension with the fear and trembling we normally accord the fourth.

We are three-dimensional solids that move about on a certain surface, the spherical surface of Earth. Think of a Flatland whose inhabitants are two-dimensional figures that move about on a certain line, the bounding line, if you will, or a disk which they call their planet.

Just as gravity limits us, as a rule, to two degrees of freedom in our mundane peregrinations (East-West plus North-South); just so we imagine that the Flatland gravity limits most Flatlanders to one degree of freedom in their motions (Left-Right) along their planetary line. Of course, if a Flatlander had wing-like projections which he flapped, then he could also move in the additional Up-Down dimension, just as a bird does.

Now suppose that the whole sheet which makes up Flatland is actually lying on something. Think of a vast sheet of wax paper floating on a sea. In the sheet itself are scratches…shapes which move about…the Flatlanders bustling back and forth on their planetary line. The analogy, of course, is to our space as a vast hypersheet nestled on the breast of the endless Aether main.

And what a noble vista that must be, the endless sea of Aethery! What strange demons swim beneath, what angels fly above! Our thoughts, Professor Raumer tells me, float above this sea like joyous, sun-bathed clouds…but beneath the hypersurface crowd clotted emotions: shining, stinging, slimy jellyfish!

Our avatar, our Professor Raumer, is wedged at right angles to our space. He is half above the hypersurface of space…and half below. Half-demon and half-god, he intersects our space in a single two-dimensional cross-section…a section too thin and feeble for speech, but immanent enough for hand-signals.

It fell upon me to be the first to recognize him for what he is, though so seemingly like a beer-stain on the floor…the floor of the Coupole Café to be precise, in the Montparnasse district of Paris. A marvelous place, crowded with merry-makers late into the night. I was there, part of the happy throng, eating my second dozen of oysters. Claires No. 1 (the best in my estimation) were the oysters, and I gave this living food an agreeable environment in the form of a bottle of excellent, but cheap, Muscadet.

Full of food, full of peace, I gazed with interest at the floor. There were cigarette butts, women’s ankles, streaks of sawdust and!!! A large, man-shaped stain, lightly tinted, a perfect silhouette sliding along! The arms were waving in semaphore, I realized proximately, still remembering my youthful experience as a signalman. “H–E–L–P!” they said.

Without wishing to attract undue notice, I moved my feet about on the floor, also in semaphore patterns. “W–H–O A–R–E Y–O–U?” An animated conversation ensued. Raumer had been sliding all over Paris looking for someone who would a) notice him, and b) understand his arm signals. I was, or am, the man, and will be, yet even in the face of scorn from those myopic fools who say they cannot see Professor Raumer.

But I digress. Professor Raumer’s rotation was, he told me, the result of an ill-conceived and badly executed attempt to move out along the Aether, above the surface of the Earth, and against the gravitational force.

His technique was to use special thorns as Oars or Pitons, reaching out of our space and into the Aether, thus exerting a force to act against gravity. This worked well enough, but when he attempted to jump free of the Aether and back to the ground, he slipped somehow sideways.

Gravity, weakly acting on that of his cross-sections still in our space, keeps him glued to the ground. He floats, as it were, on his back. By sticking a leg or an arm down into the swirling currents of the Aether sea he is able to slide about Earth’s surface at will. Yet, such is the nature of the Aether-stuff that Professor Raumer is unable to exert the force to turn him-self sideways. His own efforts cannot bring him fully back into our space.

Immediately after the transformation, Professor Raumer slid away from the crowd at the Pompidou Center. He tells me that he was by some higher vision certain that his wife, a practical woman, would take up with the first replacement for him which she found. He could not have been more prescient.

These inquiries finally led me to an apartment above a miserable café in the Monceau district. Professor Raumer had so manipulated himself that only a cross-section of his head and eyes remained in our space. I carried this cross-section tucked between the pages of these very notes.

Throned behind the zinc bar was the inevitable concierge, a termagant, a virago. No, she had never heard of a Madame Raumer. I gave her twenty francs. Oh yes, I must be looking for the woman with the American children. She lived upstairs with her fiancé, a fine young man employed by the police force.

That’s not my husband,” cried Mrs. Raumer, an attractive but somewhat hard-looking woman. “My husband is dead!”

The cross-section of Professor Raumer’s head lay on the table between us. Suddenly the shapes of his two hands appeared on the table-top as well. The fingers moved in agile silhouettes, spelling out the words of his plea: “C–Y–B–E–L–E I S–T–I–L–L L–O–V–E Y–O–U. D–O Y–O–U H–A–V–E T–H–E T–H–O–R–N–S?”

Mrs. Raumer started back from the table. She seemed angry with me. “Get out of here, you pompous blimp! Take your creepy magic tricks with you! No, I don’t have the thorns, the thorns disappeared with my husband! He’s gone and I have a new life!”

As she railed in this way, one of her children, the littlest, pressed forward and poked a finger into the center of the cross-section on the table. This direct palpating of his brain must have been uncomfortable for Professor Raumer, for he slid off the table, floated to the floor, and disappeared beneath a rug.

The unpleasantly handsome young flic seemed to take me for his rival in Mrs. Raumer’s affections. If I were not a man of generous bulk, the situation might have gone very badly indeed. As it was, I was forced to leave so precipitously that I was unable to retrieve Professor Raumer from beneath the rug. There was nothing for it but to install myself in the dreary drink-shop downstairs and await further developments.

I spent a miserable two hours there, with only a few pinball players for company. The café’s menu was utterly without interest, and their wine was not even deplorable. I regretted having aided Professor Raumer in his fool’s mission of revisiting his family. I had helped him only because of his promise to later reveal certain higher truths to me.

I was on the point of leaving when Raumer’s three children suddenly appeared, trooping down the stairs. Iris, the oldest, was spokeswoman for this pathetic delegation.

“Can you make my Daddy get fat again?” she inquired.

“Perhaps I can help. But not unless he comes away with me.”

“I want him to stay under the rug,” protested Howard. “We can talk to him with our fingers.”

Talk? About what? How absurd to waste so great an avatar on children’s prattle! I controlled myself with difficulty. “Your father belongs to humanity. With my help he can bring us unheard-of knowledge. Tell him he must come to me.”

It was almost midnight, and I was quite dizzy from the many glasses of cognac. The children had long since gone back upstairs. Bleakly I wondered how Professor Raumer could prefer their uncultured company to mine. Just then I saw the familiar stain come sliding down the stairs like a hesitant man’s shadow.

The scene was painful in the extreme. Not having a family, and not wanting one, I cannot pretend to understand his motives. But in the end I promised to help him “get fat again,” and for his part, Professor Raumer shared with me all that he had learned. I give here only a partial summary of what he told me that night before our long journey began.

Thoughts are definite forms…permanently extant, yet in some way parasitic upon human existence. Parasitism is too strong a word. Let us say, rather, symbiosis, reserving the term “parasitism” for those low and slippery entities which do deserve such a name. I speak, of course, of human emotion, or, to be quite blunt, the ties of love which can make an avatar shrink from his destiny.

Following this, Professor Raumer described to me how the thought-clouds rain lower-dimensional simulacra of themselves upon the infinite Aether sea, dimpling and rippling the sketchy forms of our lowly three-dimensional space.

He told me of how the clouds merge and split, and of the great SUN beyond it all, the SUN which drives the eternal process of sublimation and precipitation. The SUN, the goal of every mystic’s quest…I cannot understand how anyone could ever wish to leave it.

And now, these few notes written, we set off, I know not whence, in search of the sacred bush of Shanker Bola. With its thorns I will lever Professor Raumer back. With the same thorns I shall set myself free. Peace, my brothers.



Note on “The Indian Rope Trick Explained”

Written in Spring, 1980.

Changes, Ace Books, 1983.

One of the great things about living in Heidelberg was that we could get in the car and drive to Paris. This story was inspired by a trip there with my wife Sylvia and our three children Georgia, Rudy Jr., and Isabel. I should add that we had a lot more fun on the trip than this story might indicate. Raumer needs to be something of a jerk so that his wife will be glad to get rid of him. “Transreal” doesn’t mean “true.”



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

A New Experiment With Time

The first thing the citizens of Bata notice is a greasy place in the street. A fat man slips on it. Bill Stook comes down in the yellow pickup with the smashed fender and throws on a bucket of sand.

A week later the patch begins to stink. The stuff is thickened and drawn together. There’re lots of flies that come and land on your face afterwards. The kindergarten teacher twists her ankle. Black high-heels and a thin summer dress.

Stook comes back with a shovel, but he can’t get the stuff loose. A few idlers—daytripping feebs—give their advice, spit-talking about glare-ice and mineral oil. Finally Stook throws on some more sand and goes home.

Under the arc-lights the patch is elliptical, four by eight feet. It cuts across the crosswalk and both lanes of traffic. The tire-marks on it extend out into straight smears in either direction. A dog has dropped a bone in the middle.

Maisie Gleaves lives in a Buffalo rooming house. She is black and white, with red lipstick and a christmas-green raincoat. Every night she lies on her bed looking at her Bata High School yearbook. Two years now. Somehow she will go back.

Workmen are putting up a banner saying, BATA SIDEWALK SALE DAYS. Meanwhile a group of men, shopkeepers, inspect the stinking patch of pulp. One of them tries to pick up a bone. His fingers slide off it. It’s an outrage. Bill Stook is called and threatened with dismissal. He covers the patch with sawdust and puts a refreshment stand around it. SIDEWALK SALE DAYS. In the hot sun, people order hot dogs, catch a whiff of decay and put on more mustard. Stook mans the booth, nipping whiskey from a pint bottle. The flattened lump underfoot feels springy.

A white sunset slides under low clouds. They dismantle the booth and the sawdust blows away. Mashed arms and legs, tooth cracklings, scraps of green cloth. The tire tracks are gone from the flattened corpse. The state police take Stook away.

Maisie watches Buffalo TV in a silver diner. Trouble in Bata. She remembers all the lost faces. Ron. She pays for her tea. Back in her room she stares into the mirror for two hours. Her image is moving closer.

Sleeping or waking, it’s all the same now. No more boundaries. Something is coming nearer, growing to connect. She lives on air and thinks only of Bata. She will return.

Bit by bit the corpse grows whole. Slowly the bones link up, imperceptibly the flesh crawls back. One night the face is finished. In the dark it begins to twitch unseen.

Stook is out on bail. He is driving a stolen truck, the pickup they used to let him use. All his rage and bitterness is focused on the corpse in the street. He speeds towards it, past the guards, through the sawhorses. A screech of brakes, a thud. Suddenly his crumpled fender is smooth. The corpse walks off backwards.

Stook runs after the skinny corpse, a woman. She minces backwards towards the bus stop, glaring at him. He catches up as she climbs into the bus to Buffalo. He tries to grab her, but it’s impossible. He cannot alter her past.

Maisie leaves her room and walks. A block ahead she sees a black and white woman in a christmas-green coat climb off the bus from Bata. She is walking backwards, this woman. Maisie hastens to meet her.

The two figures merge and are no more. A cabbie sees them disappear into each other. For Maisie it is different. She walks through the flash and down the street.

Everything is running backwards. Maisie is going back through time, back to Bata. The bus backs up to where she’d seen herself get out. Ticketless, she climbs in the exit door and sits down. She is nervous. The bus is going forty miles per hour in reverse.

As the bus backs out of Buffalo onto the Thruway, the man sitting next to Maisie begins staring at her. He says something backwards, a drooling gabble. She answers anyway. He turns and stares out the dark window. She spoke because he spoke; he spoke because she spoke. He picks off a wad of gum from under his seat and begins chewing it.

When the bus leaves the Thruway and backs past the old filling-station, she walks to the door. It opens, and she goes down the steps. Bata. She’s glad she waited so long. She’ll get a room here, and in two years she’ll be back in high school. Ron. This time it will work out right.

A short, red-faced man is blocking her way. She sets her face and walks towards him. He backs off, drawing farther and farther away. There are police around a pickup parked in the intersection. But there is no traffic.

The little man scuttles crablike into the cab of the pickup. Just to scare him she walks right up to it, right up to the fender. There is a sudden jolt. The pickup squeals its brakes and backs away.



Note on “A New Experiment with Time”

Written in Spring, 1980.

Sphinx Magazin, #16, Spring, 1982.

I got the seed idea for this story while driving from Geneseo to Buffalo in 1978. I was looking in my rear-view mirror and imagining that I was driving backwards. Two years later in a Heidelberg street I saw a woman with red lipstick and a green raincoat, and the story clicked. It’s kind of a retake on the time-reversal diagrams that appear in “Schrödinger’s Cat.” The story’s first publication was as a German translation in a hipster European magazine edited by Udo Breger, my German translator at that time.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The Man Who Ate Himself

Harry enjoyed driving, even though he’d never managed to get a license. He had a whole theory of it, a system of simultaneous differential equations which told him how fast to turn the wheel for a four-wheel skid on a tight turn taken too fast. “Controlled drift,” he called it.

I drew my safety belt a bit tighter. “I’m driving on the way back to the airport, Harry. I only said you could drive on the way to Marston’s. Remember that.” It wasn’t always easy to have a genius for a partner.

We were going at least fifteen miles per hour too fast. Harry was slouched back in his seat, stiff arms outstretched. He wore a forgotten smile and kept giving the wheel abrupt, precise little twitches. I had to think of Mr. Toad’s wild ride. At least we were in open country.

We hadn’t encountered another car for about five miles now. Harry was taking the curves wider and wider…brushing across them and fishtailing out. Humming unhappily, I studied the map Marston had sent us. Great Crater. We should be almost …

There was a wild squealing. I cried out something of a religious nature and threw my hands up to protect my face. The car bounced like a skipped stone, slewed and shuddered to a stop. The engine died. The sun was bright and hot.

“Pretty flashy, boys. And ah’d always thought you scientist fellas were a bunch of ribbon clerks. Welcome to Great Crater!”

A limited-function android with a TV-screen face pulled open the cyclone-fence gate Harry had stopped for. The android was dressed like a gunslinger. Van Marston’s familiar features grinned at us from the screen.

Immediately beyond the gate, the road slanted sharply downwards…dropping a hundred meters to the floor of Great Crater. The crater was a few kilometers across. A mist clung to the heavily irrigated grounds. I couldn’t quite make out the mansion I knew lay at the center.

As soon as the gate was fully open, Harry revved up the engine to a chattering scream and peeled out, kicking cubic meters of gravel up into a roostertail. When the road dropped out from under us we actually left the ground.

“YEEEEEHAW!” Marston’s amplified voice whooped. The android drew a six-shooter and fired two shots down the slope after us. Presumably it had aimed to miss.

Marston had made his bundle in oil and uranium. He wasn’t what you’d normally think of as a Friend Of The Earth. But now that he’d retired, he’d tried to fix up his Great Crater estate like one of those wild animal parks. Some giraffes were stalking through the tall grass to our right, and down where the driveway leveled out, a tremendous snake lay sunning himself.

Still accelerating, Harry detoured around the snake, knocking a cloud of winged insects out of the elephant grass. The unexpected lurch made me smack my head on the edge of the window. Suddenly I’d had enough.

I reached my left foot over and stepped on the brake. Hard. At the same time I took the key out of the ignition and pocketed it. Far above us, the android fired another shot. You could hardly hear it over the steady chirping of the insects.

“Harry, the car’s rented in my name. And we’ve got some delicate machinery in the trunk. What are you trying to prove?”

We’d skidded to a stop half off the road, some hundred feet past that huge snake. It was watching us with glassy black eyes, and seemed to be nibbling its tail. Marston’s house was still out of sight.

Finally Harry answered. “You know how I feel, Fletch. I don’t like Marston. He’s stupid. He’s a bully.” Harry’s hands clenched and unclenched on the wheel. “I knew a kid just like him in eighth grade. Donny Lyons. Every day Donny Lyons would knock me down and steal my dessert. Until one day I hid one of my father’s false teeth inside a Twinkie.” Harry let out one of his weird giggles.

“Look, Harry. Marston wants to give us a lot of money to help float his corpse in outer space forever. We’re going to take the money. We need it because for some crazy reason you wouldn’t let me market that waste disposal device of yours …”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I know, Harry. Just let me finish. The point is that we can take Marston for a lot of bucks. You told me you don’t see how his capsule can avoid crashing…sooner or later. So just remember that we’re screwing him. But, please, for God’s sake, don’t tell him. Then everyone’ll be happy.”

“Everyone except his wife.”

“Look, how’s she going to know if Marston’s capsule falls into a star somewhere? As if she’d care anyway. She’s not even thirty! Now, will you trade places with me and let me drive?”

Harry opened his door and got out heavily. It was hot, and the plastic seat was sweaty where he’d sat. I waited a minute before sliding over. Harry stood next to the car and stared back at that snake.

“Isn’t there some myth?” he said when he got back in. “About a snake who swallows his own tail?”

“Yeah. I don’t know.” I rolled up my window. There was something moving towards us through the tall grass on our left. It would be typical of Marston to have lions loose to handle intruders. I started up the engine and drove on.

There was a second fence around Marston’s house and lawn. The old man was out in front, leaning on a hoe and waiting for us. I couldn’t believe how skinny he’d gotten. Lung cancer. He pushed one of the buttons set into the hoe handle. The inner gate opened for us.

“Welcome, boys! Welcome to my little Garden of Eden. Let me show you mah plot!” His diseased voice had a grainy, raucous quality.

I got out and went over to gladhand our pigeon, but Harry just sat in the car, ostentatiously picking his teeth.

“Y’all wouldn’t have to do that if you’d stop eatin’ flesh!” Marston called out to him. “Live and let live. It’s Mother Nature’s law!” Marston had been one of America’s most vocal vegetarians for several years now.

Harry examined the end of his toothpick. “That’s not what you said when you closed down the solar energy companies, Mr. Marston.” He spoke without looking up. “Back then it was eat or be eaten.”

Marston looked back at me with a genial smile. “Guess ah’ve always wanted to see me a real genius. Now ah know.” He hooked his thumb towards Harry and stage-whispered, “Looks lahk a cross between a cow-flop and an albino toad, don’t he?”

“Really, Van.” A melodious voice came from the shady porch. “That’s no way to talk about the author of The Geometrodynamics of the Degenerate Tensor?” In true Southern belle style, each sentence ended as a question.

“Well, point mah head and call me Doctor,” Marston chortled. “Ah had no ideah!”

Evangeline Marston walked down the steps, a graceful arm outstretched. She wore a jiggling T-shirt and skintight red lamé jeans. I had to bite my tongue to keep from moaning.

“Don’t listen to Van, Dr. Gerber. We’re really so happy to meet you?” Harry pocketed his toothpick and got out of the car with alacrity. He was as much of a horny bastard as the next man.

“I didn’t realize you were abreast of current cosmological theory, Mrs. Marston.” Harry’s big livery lips stretched in a wet smile. “I’d be happy to send you some preprints.”

“Oh, you would? I have the nicest little professor at Austin who’d be so delighted? And do call me Evangeline.”

“Pleased to meet you, Evangeline,” I sang out, and basked for an instant in her warm gaze. Harry grunted something similar.

“Y’all just have to come see mah crops now,” Marston said, waving us on around the house. “Ole Eva and me have been living off the land, ain’t we sugar?” He gave the gorgeous red apple of her rear a lingering pat.

In back of the house Marston had his famous garden. He always had his TV spots filmed with him standing in it…usually leaning on that goddamn hoe. All his companies had ever done was to rip the Earth off, but now the fact that he had a garden was supposed to make us forget all that.

For all Marston’s talk about Mother Earth, you could tell that he had a crazy fear that the old girl was going to get back at him. He was so scared of ending up underground that he’d hired us to help him launch his corpse into outer space. According to his letter he had only a few weeks left.

Evangeline walked in among the plants and tossed Marston a ripe tomato. He caught it and bit in thirstily, the juice running down his knobby old chin.

“Why don’t you just let Eva bury you in the garden?” Harry suggested with deliberate cruelty. “I’m sure you’d make good fertilizer.”

A pulsing snake of a vein sprang into relief on Marston’s forehead. “That is just,” he wheezed angrily, “what ah do not want to happen. As you verah well know, Mr. Genius author of Tense Jamaican Degenerates. As you verah well know!” His dull old eyes brightened with fury.

I stepped in. We’d come here to close a deal, not to trade insults. “I’m sorry, Mr. Marston. Dr. Gerber has only been involved with the technical design aspects. I’m sure he was not aware that …”

Gasping for breath, the old man went on as if I hadn’t spoken. Harry had struck a nerve. “Ah, Van Marston, am not going to rot in the ground. And ah am not going to burn in no fire. Ah am going to stay just as ah am fo’evvah and a day!” He glared at Harry with pure hatred.

“Yes, sir!” I said with an ingratiating smile. “And Fletcher & Company is going to make it happen for you. Your guidance system is in our car. All systems go! I’ve got the plans right here.” I patted my briefcase. “If you’d care to …”

“I’m sure that you distinguished gentlemen must be absolutely famished?” Eva said, drifting out of the garden. The contrast between her swiveling hips and her refined, magnolia-blossom voice was exquisite. Those pants could have been painted on. Briefly I let myself imagine licking the paint off.

At lunch I was polite and shared Marston’s stewed corn and zucchini. Harry and Evangeline had TV-dinners of Mexican food.

“Eva doesn’t like vegetables,” Marston confided in me. “Ah have to eat just about everything that garden grows.” A TV-screen-faced android cleared the dishes away.

The screen was playing an old-South movie staring Shirley Temple and Mr. Bojangles. “Oh my goo’ness,” the android murmured, and set a bottle of bourbon on the table. Happily, I poured myself a drink.

There really had been something special about the vegetables. Eating them had filled me with an unusual sense of…completeness. “The soil is special,” Marston was saying. I listened with a patient smile. “Mah plot is right on the spot where the meteor struck.” He leaned across the table with an expression of senile cunning. “We found part of it, too. The remains of an alien spaceship. Ah made it into mah sarcophagus.”

Harry had been busy watching Evangeline chew, but this last remark drew him into the conversation. “Chariots of the Gods, Mr. Marston? Fact is stranger than fiction, eh?”

That little vein on the old man’s forehead popped out again. He stood up angrily. “You just come on out to the barn with me, toad head. Ah have nevah …” A wet, heavy cough cut him off.

In an instant Evangeline was at his side. In between the brutal coughs Marston was gasping air with pathetic little whoops. His face was red, and his eyes bulged out. Suddenly a thick gusher of blood vomited out of his mouth. The eyes went out like lights. He was dead when he hit the floor.

Evangeline looked wild-eyed from him to me to Harry. “You …” she got out in a thin strained voice. Then she began throwing things. A metal trivet caught Harry in the temple, but I managed to grab her wrists before she got the carving knives. I had been wrong when I’d said she wouldn’t care if Marston died. I don’t know why, but she loved that scrawny old earthraper.

I was ready to forget the contract and leave, but the gate-control buttons were keyed to Marston’s and Evangeline’s fingerprints only. And Evangeline wanted to do things just as Marston had planned.

So I helped her put him in his cylindrical coffin. It was made of strips of wood fit together like a Chinese puzzle. Marston had made it himself, out of a cottonwood tree he’d cut down to dig his garden. We slid Marston in there naked and took him downstairs to the walk-in freezer.

The physical labor of hauling the coffin to the basement helped calm Evangeline down. I strained my milk, and ended up wishing I’d gotten the android to help. When the old man was stowed like he’d wanted, I helped myself to some more of his bourbon and sat down on the porch with Evangeline. The shrilling of the grasshoppers washed over us.

“Where is that awful toad-man?” Evangeline asked suddenly. It was not clear to me what she wanted him for.

“Harry didn’t kill your husband, Mrs. Marston. It was cancer. And, if you’ll forgive my saying so, your husband’s companies have probably led to more …”

“You don’t have to tell me that, Mr. Fletcher. My husband knew what he did to the Earth. And he was scared the Earth wouldn’t forgive him for it. That’s one of the reasons …” Her voice caught.

“One of the reasons he wanted us to launch him into space,” I filled in. “Well, it shouldn’t be hard. He’s already got the rocket?”

“Yes, we have it in an underground silo right over there.” She waved towards the barn. “And Van and I built his own little capsule for him.” She pushed her voice on. “All you and…and Dr. Gerber have to do is plan a course and install something to keep him from falling into any stars.”

“He wants to float in outer space forever,” I said. “That’s fine with me. Let me show you how the system works.” I got out some papers. I’d done most of the work on this one, and was eager to impress this beautiful woman.

The heart of the system was a set of piezoelectric crystals. Whenever Marston’s capsule approached a gravitating object, the tidal forces would squeeze a trickle of current out of one of the crystals. Each crystal was hooked in to a little ion jet. The result was that Marston’s capsule would automatically adjust its path to avoid any star or planet which came its way. In the absolute cold of outer space, the crystals would be sensitive enough to react to a star that was still a light-year off. Since the guidance jets would react so early, they didn’t have to be very strong.

“Yes,” Evangeline said when I’d finished explaining. “But what happens when the jets run out of juice?”

I hadn’t expected her to think of that. “The charge should be more than adequate for a thousand years,” I extemporized. “That certainly …”

“It’s not forever,” she protested. “Van wants to last forever…not just end up in some star a thousand years from now.”

Harry ambled around the corner of the house. He looked like he wanted to laugh. Holding a tight, straight mouth he took a seat next to me. There was a silence.

“I looked at it,” Harry said finally. “I guess I owe Mr. Marston some sort of apology.” Then, with terrible inappropriateness, he giggled.

“Look at what?” I asked, sharply.

“It’s a little bit late for an apology, Dr. Gerber?” Evangeline spoke across me. Her voice was cold, but there was a hint of satisfaction in it.

“Do you think I could photograph it before …” Harry began.

“I’m not at all sure we’re going to send it off,” Evangeline replied. “Mr. Fletcher has just told me he can only guarantee a thousand years?”

Harry made a negative, froglike face. “Fletch doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Once it goes into orbit around the galaxy, the energy requirement goes down to oh-point-zilch. I can promise you ten billion years. A whole cosmic cycle.”

“What the lame-brained hell is a cosmic cycle supposed to be?” I burst out. Harry had hurt my feelings.

Evangeline seemed to know. “That’s how long the universe lasts,” she explained. “That nice little professor at Austin told me about it. Time is only supposed to be ten billion years long?”

“That’s right,” Harry said, with another giggle. “And wouldn’t it be something if your husband’s capsule lasts all the way? The first man to travel around time!”

I thought for a minute. “When you say around, do you mean …”

Harry interrupted me. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to get him launched tonight.”

I took a long drink of my bourbon. Sitting in the middle of Great Crater, I felt like I was at the center of a bull’s-eye. The house, the lawn, the inner fence, the fake African savanna, the rim of the crater, the outer fence…it was all Marston’s and I wanted to get out. I held my glass up to the setting sun. “So let’s get to work.”

We got the guidance system out of the car’s trunk. We had six little ion jets coupled to crystal sensors, and a power pack to drive the jets. Microprocessors were built in. The pack was no bigger than a knapsack, but we had wedged enough unconfined quarks in there to run New York City for ten years. Two of Marston’s power-plants had piped us the energy. If he was lucky enough not to have too many near misses, maybe he would make it into galactic orbit.

Evangeline brought the android over to help. The TV-screen face was playing a tape of Marston, in black-face, singing work-songs. Weird.

“Take dis hammer, give it to the captain,” the android crooned as it shouldered the power pack. “Take dis hammer, give it to the …”

Evangeline stepped forward and flicked a switch on the machine’s back. Its face shrank to a point of light and winked out. The locusts shrilled on.

Nothing Harry or Evangeline had said had prepared me for Marston’s capsule. It was like a giant razor clam. The two shell-halves were made of some shiny, lavalike substance. In back they were joined by metal hinges. In front, they were propped open with a two-by-four. Inside was a cylindrical hollow, just the size of Marston’s coffin.

“We found those…windows in the garden?” Evangeline said. “And there were some metal scraps we melted and cast into hinges. Van had the whole idea after he found the windows?” The shock of her husband’s death seemed to have worn off a little. Her halo of sexuality was building back up.

“They could just be silica that was fused when the meteor hit,” Harry mused. “But those markings …”

I looked closely at one of the shell-halves. It was darkly transparent, and was covered with scratches. The scratches were arranged in bands, and certain of them appeared over and over. It was easy to see how Marston might have convinced himself they meant something. I shuddered a little, remembering his thick, bloody coughing. I busied myself with the jets.

A few hours later we had the guidance system hooked up. It was basically just glued onto the capsule…any touch of an atmosphere would have pulled it loose…but we weren’t planning for the capsule to ever go near an atmosphere once the rocket was launched.

Although there was no way to honestly predict what the capsule might encounter once it was a few dozen light-years from Earth, we had programmed in an overall course plan. The rocket Marston had hidden in the underground silo was to take the capsule out of the solar system. Once in interstellar space, the rocket would eject the capsule. At that point our guidance system would kick on. Our basic principle would just be to avoid massive objects as they came up. According to our calculations, this would eventually get the capsule out into intergalactic space. So as not to have to deal with any more galaxies crowded with stars, we planned for the capsule to go into orbit around our galaxy once it got out there. Sooner or later it would have to fall back in…but this wasn’t exactly a short-term problem.

“The most important thing is that he doesn’t come back to Earth,” Evangeline reminded us. “Can you promise me that?”

I had known Harry long enough to read his expressions. Right now he was wiggly with suppressed laughter. I wondered how badly he’d sabotaged the guidance system.

“I promise you,” I told Evangeline, giving her arm a kindly pat. Her flesh felt like warm marble. “I think we’re ready to go.”

Evangeline and the android went down to the freezer to get Marston. While they were gone I tried to pump Harry for some information, but he just grinned and took a few pictures of the scratches in that black glass. When Evangeline came back, the android’s face-screen was back on. It was singing, “Massa’s In De Cold Cold Ground.”

I helped them heave Marston’s coffin into the capsule. I’d had those two bourbons, so of course I had to gash my finger on a rough edge. Some of my blood went with Marston.

The capsule was resting on a little dolly on tracks.

While I nursed my cut, Evangeline pushed a button on the wall, and the capsule began rolling smoothly forward. Outside, a five-meter disk of sod lifted up to reveal Marston’s personal hearse. A hydraulic lift eased the rocket up so that its hatch was level with the ground. Mechanical arms reached out and gently drew the capsule in. The hatch thudded shut, and we were ready for launch. The sky was clear. It was almost midnight. The locusts had finally knocked off. In the distance I heard a lion’s coughing roar.

“When should it go off?” Evangeline asked me in a silky whisper. She looked a little chilled in just that T-shirt.

I took my calculator out. I’d stored the master program last week. All I had to do was to enter tomorrow’s date, and the machine gave me the optimum launch time. “One thirteen,” I replied. “A.M. Where’s your console?”

“Inside.” We followed Evangeline into the dark house. I felt better being there now that Marston was out of the freezer. Evangeline opened a rolltop desk in the living room to reveal the console. She punched in 0113 and switched on the automatic sequencing. That was all there was to it. We had a little over an hour to kill. I got myself another bourbon. Harry and Evangeline stuck to soda.

Looking out the window at the rocket-tip protruding from the ground fifty meters away, something occurred to me. “That’s kind of close, you know. The exhaust is liable to set the house on fire.”

“Don’t worry,” Evangeline sang back. “The house is mostly titaniplast. Van had a lot of enemies?”

That was a good lead-in for one of Harry’s remarks, but he passed the opportunity up. He just leaned back in one of Marston’s leather chairs sipping soda and staring at Evangeline. She kept finding reasons to stand up and lean over, with her prettiest feature aimed right at him.

When it got down to the last few minutes, we all stood by the window and counted down together. I had to hand it to Marston. It seemed like a great way to go. Just before blast-off, the android came out with a magnum of cold champagne. Knowing that Marston must have programmed that into the console sequencer, we drank long and deep with a clear conscience. And at one thirteen the big bird lifted off. Marston’s lawn and garden were burned to a crisp, but inside his titaniplast house we didn’t feel a thing. We stared upward until the tiny flame was lost in the stars.

I must have had most of the champagne, because I don’t remember going to bed. All night I had whirlybed dreams. There was some trivial sequence of actions which I kept having to do—each completion was only a new beginning. The task had something to do with the scratches on Marston’s capsule. They were sort of there, yet not there…and it was up to me to make them real. But I couldn’t read them until I’d written them, and I couldn’t write them till I’d read them.

Finally I managed to wake up. Dawn. The house was quiet. I seemed to be in a guest room. On the other side of the room was an unmade bed. Where was Harry? Just as I stood up, he came padding down the hall. He had a funny expression.

“Let’s go,” he said shortly.

“Okay. But where’s …”

“Never mind. Let’s get out of here. Are you sober enough to drive?”

“Sure.”

We went down and got in the car. Harry said I should just drive up to the gate and honk. I did, and it swung open. Harry leaned out the car window, staring back at the house. Perhaps something moved at one of the windows. “I love her,” he said, finally pulling himself back in.

“What happened last night? Don’t tell me that she let you …”

Harry was close to tears. “She has a mind, Fletch. A body like that, and she’d even heard of my papers! I had her. I had her. But then I had to go and tell her. She’ll never forgive me.”

“You told her how you sabotaged the guidance system?”

“I didn’t sabotage it. I didn’t have to. Time is a circle, Fletch. If she had really understood my papers she would have known that. Time is a circle ten billion years around. And Marston’s body is going to make the round trip.”

I thought a minute. “So? That just means that there’s two Marstons out there. There’s the Marston we just launched, and there’s the Marston who’s traveled ten billion years around. One Marston is seventy and the other is ten-billion-and-seventy.”

“That won’t wash, Fletch. What if we’d decided not to launch him? How would the ten-billion-and-seventy-year-old know whether or not to exist? A particle’s world-line can’t be like a thread winding around and around time. It has to close off, to come back on itself.”

“I still don’t get the point, Harry.”

“The point is that circular time means the universe repeats. Every ten billion years everything comes back to the same place. It’s like a pool table. If you plug all the pockets and hit a hard enough break-shot, the balls will eventually reform into the triangular pattern you started with. Every atom in Marston’s capsule has to come back to where it started from.”

We were almost at the edge of the crater floor now. Suddenly it clicked. “You mean this crater …”

“Has to be, Fletch. Has to be! Marston’s ship is going to go around time and crash here…say in AD 1100. There’s probably even a Zuni Indian legend about it. And then Marston’s capsule is going to lie buried until he digs it up five years ago. Sealed in the capsule is going to be some rotten compost which he is going to plow into his vegetable garden.”

The joy of science had driven off Harry’s sorrow at losing Evangeline. He gave a wild giggle. “And Marston thought he was a vegetarian! He thought he could avoid rotting on Earth!”

The same snake we’d seen yesterday was lying in the same place in the driveway. It had its tail tucked into its mouth. I down-shifted and drove up the slope to the lip of the crater. The android guard was already holding the gate open for us. The TV-camera over the gate scanned back and forth. For an instant the camera pointed at the android’s face, and it became a TV-screen with a picture of a TV-screen with a picture of a TV-screen with a picture of …

I pulled onto the paved road and started driving toward the airport. I had a hell of a hangover.



Note on “The Man Who Ate Himself”

Written in Spring, 1980.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December, 1982.

This is another story that could have been a paper for Philosophy of Science. But instead I made it a Fletcher and Harry story. Harry’s appearance is based on a professor I knew when I was a mathematics graduate student. The story went that when this particular professor had been drafted, years earlier, they’d had to discharge him after a week because he refused to ever let go of his special briefcase full of math papers!



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Tales of Houdini

Houdini is broke. The vaudeville circuit is dead, ditto big-city stage. Mel Rabstein from Pathé News phones him up looking for a feature.

“Two G advance plus three points gross after turnaround.”

“You’re on.”

The idea is to get a priest, a rabbi and a judge to be on camera with Houdini in all the big scenes. It’ll be feature-length and play in the Loews chain. All Houdini knows for sure is that there’ll be escapes, bad ones, with no warnings.

It starts at four in the morning, July 8, 1948. They bust into Houdini’s home in Levittown. He lives there with his crippled mom. Opening shot of priest and rabbi kicking the door down. Close on their thick-soled black shoes. Available light. The footage is grainy, jerky, can’t-help-it-cinema-verité. It’s all true.

The judge has a little bucket of melted wax, and they seal up Houdini’s eyes and ears and nose-holes. The dark mysterioso face is covered over and over before he fully awakes, relaxing into the events, leaving dreams of pursuit. Houdini is ready. They wrap him up in Ace bandages and surgical tape, a mummy, a White Owl cigar.

Eddie Machotka, the Pathé cameraman, time-lapses the drive out to the airstrip. He shoots a frame every ten seconds so the half-hour drive only takes two minutes on screen. Dark, the wrong angles, but still convincing. There’s no cuts. In the back of the Packard, on the laps of the priest, judge and rabbi, lies Houdini, a white loaf crusty with tape, twitching in condensed time.

The car pulls right onto the airstrip, next to a B-15 bomber. Eddie hops out and films the three holy witnesses unloading Houdini. Pan over the plane. “The Dirty Lady,” is lettered up near the nose.

The Dirty Lady! And it’s not crop dusters or reservists flying it, daddyo, it’s Johnny Gallio and his Flying A-Holes! Forget it! Johnny G., the most decorated World War II Pacific combat ace, flying, with Slick Tires Jones navigating, and no less a man than Moanin’ Max Moscowitz in back.

Johnny G. jumps down out of the cockpit, not too fast, not too slow, just cool, flight-jacket Johnny. Moanin’ Max and Slick Tires lean out the bomb-bay hatch, grinning and ready to roll.

The judge pulls out a turnip pocket-watch. The camera zooms in and out, four-fifty A. M., the sky is getting light.

Houdini? He doesn’t know they’re handing him into the bomb-bay of The Dirty Lady. He can’t even hear or see or smell. But he’s at peace, glad to have all this out in the open, glad to have it really happen.

Everyone gets in the plane. Bad camera-motion as Eddie climbs in. Then a shot of Houdini, long and white, worming around like an insect larva. He’s snuggled right down in the bomb cradle with Moanin’ Max leaning over him like some wild worker ant.

The engines fire up with a hoarse roar. The priest and the rabbi sit and talk. Black clothes, white faces, grey teeth.

“Do you have any food?” the priest asks. He’s powerfully built, young, with thin blonde hair. One hell of a Notre Dame linebacker under those robes.

The rabbi is a little fellow with a fedora and a black beard. He’s got a Franz Kafka mouth, all ticks and teeth. “It’s my understanding that we’ll breakfast in the terminal after the release.”

The priest is getting two hundred for this, the rabbi three. He has a bigger name. If the rushes work out they’ll be witnessing the other escapes as well.

It’s not a big plane, really, and no matter which way Eddie points the camera, there’s always a white piece of Houdini in the frame. Up front you can see Johnny G. in profile, handsome Johnny not looking too good. There’s sweat-beads on his long upper lip, booze sweat. Peace is coming hard to Johnny.

“Just spiral her on up,” Slick Tires says softly. “Like a bed-spring, Johnny.”

Out the portholes you can see the angled horizon sweep by, until they hit the high mattress of clouds. Max watches the altimeter, grinning and showing his teeth. They punch out of the clouds, into high slanting sunlight. Johnny holds to the helix…he’d go up forever if no one said stop…but now it’s high enough.

“Bombs away!” Slick Tires calls back. The priest crosses himself and Moanin’ Max pulls the release handle. Shot of white-wrapped Houdini in the coffin-like bomb-cradle. The bottom falls out, and the long form falls slowly, weightlessly at first. Then the slipstream catches one end, and he begins to tumble, dark white against the bright white of the clouds below.

Eddie holds the shot as long as he can. There’s a big egg-shaped cloud down there, with Houdini falling towards it. Houdini begins to unwrap himself. You can see the bandages trailing him, whipping back and forth like a long flagellum, then thip he’s spermed his way into that rounded white cloud.

On the way back to the airstrip, Eddie and the sound-man go around the plane asking everyone if they think Houdini’ll make it.

“I certainly hope so,” the rabbi.

“I have no idea,” the priest, hungry for his breakfast.

“There’s just no way,” Moanin’ Max. “He’ll impact at two hundred miles per.”

“Everyone dies,” Johnny G.

“In his position I expect I’d try to drogue-chute the bandages,” Slick Tires.

“It’s a conundrum,” the judge.

The clouds drizzle and the plane throws up great sheets of water when it lands. Eddie films them getting out and filing into the small terminal, deserted except …

Across the room, with his back to them, a man in pajamas is playing pinball. Cigar-smoke. Someone calls to him, and he turns—Houdini.

Houdini brings his mother to see the rushes. Everyone except for her loves it. She’s very upset, though, and tears at her hair. Lots of it comes out, lots of white old hair on the floor next to her wheelchair.

Back at home Houdini gets down on his knees and begs and begs until she gives him permission to finish the movie. Rabstein at Pathé figures two more stunts will do it.

“No more magic after that,” Houdini promises. “I’ll use the money to open us a little music shop.”

“Dear boy.”

For the second stunt they fly Houdini and his mom out to Seattle. Rabstein wants to use the old lady for reaction shots. Pathé sets the two of them up in a boarding house, leaving the time and nature of the escape indeterminate.

Eddie Machotka sticks pretty close, filming bits of their long strolls down by the docks. Houdini eating a Dungeness crab. His mom buying taffy. Houdini getting her a wig.

Four figures in black slickers slip down from a fishing boat. Perhaps Houdini hears their footfalls, but he doesn’t deign to turn. Then they’re upon him: the priest, the judge, the rabbi, and this time a doctor as well—could be Rex Morgan.

While the old lady screams and screams, the doctor knocks Houdini out with a big injection of sodium pentathol. The great escape artist doesn’t resist, just watches and smiles till he fades. The old lady bashes the doctor with her purse before the priest and rabbi get her and Houdini bundled onto the fishing boat.

On the boat, it’s Johnny G. and the A-Holes again. Johnny can fly anything, even a boat. His eyes are bloodshot and all over the place, but Slick Tires guides him out of the harbor and down the Puget Sound to a logging river. Takes a couple of hours, but Eddie time-lapses it all…Houdini lying in half of a hollowed log and the doc shooting him up every so often.

Finally they get to a sort of mill-pond with a few logs in it. Moanin’ Max and the judge have a tub of plaster mixed up, and they pour it in around Houdini. They tape over his head-holes, except for the mouth, which gets a breathing tube. What they do is to seal him up inside a big log, with the breathing tube sticking out disguised as a branch-stub. Houdini is unconscious and locked inside the log by a plaster-of-Paris filling…sort of like a worm dead inside a Twinkie. The priest and the rabbi and the judge and the doctor heave the log overboard.

It splashes, rolls, and mingles with the other logs waiting to get sawed up. There’s ten logs now, and you can’t tell for sure which is the one with Houdini in it. The saw is running and the conveyor belt snags the first log.

Shot of the logs bumping around. In the foreground, Houdini’s mom is pulling the hair out of her wig. Big SKAAAAAZZT sound of the first log getting cut up. You can see the saw up there in the background, a giant rip-saw cutting the log right down the middle.

SKAAAZZZZT! SKAAAAZZZZZT! SKAAAZZZZT! The splinters fly. One by one the logs are hooked and dragged up to the saw. You want to look away, but you can’t…just waiting to see blood and used food come flying out. SKAAAZZZZT!

Johnny G. drinks something from a silver hip-flask. His lips move silently. Curses? Prayers? SKAAAZZZZT! Moanin’ Max’s nervous horse-face sweats and grins. Houdini’s Mom has the wig plucked right down to the hair-net. SKAAAZZZZZT! Slick Tire’s eyes are big and white as hard-boiled eggs. He helps himself to Johnny’s flask. SKAAAZZT! The priest mops his forehead and the rabbi…SKNAKCHUNKFWEEEEE!

Plaster dust flies from the ninth log. It falls in two, revealing only a negative of Houdini’s body. An empty mold! They all scramble onto the mill dock, camera pointing around, looking for the great man. Where is he?

Over the shouts and cheers you can hear the jukebox in the mill-hands’ cafeteria. The Andrews Sisters. And inside there’s…Houdini, tapping his foot and eating a cheeseburger.

“Only one more escape,” Houdini promises, “And then we’ll get that music shop.”

“I’m so frightened, Harry,” his bald mom says. “If only they’d give you some warning.”

“They have, this time. Piece of cake. We’re flying out to Nevada.”

“I just hope you stay away from those show-girls.”

The priest and the rabbi and the judge and the doctor are all there, and this time a scientist, too. A low-ceilinged concrete room with slits for windows. Houdini is dressed in a black rubber wet suit, doing card-tricks.

The scientist, who’s a dead ringer for Albert Einstein, speaks briefly over the telephone and nods to the doctor. The doctor smiles handsomely into the camera, then handcuffs Houdini and helps him into a cylindrical tank of water. Refrigeration coils cool it down, and before long they’ve got Houdini frozen solid inside a huge cake of ice.

The priest and the rabbi knock down the sides of the tank, and there’s Houdini like a big firecracker with his head sticking out for a fuse. Outside is a truck with a hydraulic lift. Johnny G. and the A-Holes are there, and they load Houdini in back. The ice gets covered with pads to keep it from melting in the hot desert sun.

Two miles off, you can see a spindly test-tower with a little shed on top. This is an atom-bomb test range, out in some godforsaken desert in the middle of Nevada. Eddie Machotka rides the truck with Houdini and the A-Holes.

Shot of the slender tower looming overhead, the obscene bomb-bulge at the top. God only knows what strings Rabstein had to pull to get Pathé in on this.

There’s a cylindrical hole in the ground right under the tower, right at ground zero, and they slip the frozen Houdini in there. His head, flush with the ground, grins at them like a peyote cactus. They drive back to the bunker, fast.

Eddie films it all in real time, no cuts. Houdini’s mom is in the bunker, of course, plucking a lapful of wigs. The scientist hands her some dice.

“Just to give him fighting chance, we won’t detonate until you are rolling a two. Is called snake-eyes, yes?”

Close on her face, frantic with worry. As slowly as possible, she rattles the dice and spills them onto the floor.

Snake-eyes!

Before anyone else can react, the scientist has pushed the button, a merry twinkle in his faraway eyes. The sudden light filters into the bunker, shading all the blacks up to grey. The shock wave hits next, and the judge collapses, possibly from heart attack. The roar goes on and on. The crowded faces turn this way and that.

Then it’s over, and the noise is gone, gone except for…an insistent honking, right outside the bunker. The scientist undogs the door and they all look out, Eddie shooting over their shoulders.

It’s Houdini! Yes! In a white convertible with a breast-heavy show-girl!

“Give me my money!” he shouts. “And color me gone!”



Note on “Tales of Houdini”

Written in Summer, 1980.

Elsewhere, Ace Books, 1981.

I remember reading a cartoon-story about Houdini in Children’s Digest when I was young. My own “Tales of Houdini” arose orally; it was a story that I made up for the children one day while we were driving on a Sunday outing from Heidelberg to the nearby town of Speyer, all five of us in a 1972 Taunus, Sylvia and I in front and the three kids in back. I rehearsed the story in my mind a few times, and then, right after we moved back to the States, I used my mother’s portable Olivetti to knock it out in one go. Bruce Sterling included the story in his classic cyberpunk Mirrorshades anthology of 1986. The cameraman “Eddie” in this story was based on my friend Eddie Marritz, who still is a cameraman to this day.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The Facts of Life

The Tulpan resembled an ordinary plastic soda-straw. He was warpsick, and lay trembling on his tiny jellybed. One end of him…his name was Ö…was oozing orange foam, and the other end of him was piping a distress signal.

Jack Stalk wanted to help, but he didn’t trust his legs. Or arms, for that matter. He thought back on the crowded, chiming passage through hyperspace. Now you see us, now you don’t.

It was horrible to come down from the mindless joy of the warp, down into a crowded piece of machinery, a hundred thousand light-years from home. From Micha. Jack could see her full face, smell her sweet body. Micha. If they hadn’t quarreled this never would have happened.

He felt he should sit up and do something, help Ö , look out a porthole, ask more questions…but he could only lie there, staring at the blank ceiling which now looked, in some indefinite way, alive…like a face, really.

“Hello, Jack-Stalk,” the ceiling said. “Ready for conversing topics of mutual interest?”

It was Ö ‘s cloud-person, Fefferfuff by name. Fefferfuff was up there, a centimeter thick, a talking carpet of cloud.

“Are we there yet?” Jack asked.

“Position yes, velocity no. Our planet always moving some 700 km/sec relative to the cosmic background. After matching them up then we landing Tulpa.”

As Fefferfuff said this, he reached a tendril down to the control board. Jack could feel the ship’s engines cutting in, and the welcome pressure of acceleration. The solid g-force felt good to Jack. He felt good enough to sit up and take a look at little Ö , still skirling his distress.

The distress-call was a repeated pattern of kinetic tone images. There was a downward tone, a thrust and grab, a twirling sound, three blips and a harmonious resolution.

Jack slid his hand down the side of Ö ‘s bed until he found a slit. He pushed his hand in, removed an object and laid it on the bed. It was a tightly furled piece of material. A Tulpan suitcase. Jack unrolled it as Ö squeaked approvingly.

The fabric…slippery and somewhat elastic…was lined with little pockets holding various shapes. One pocket seemed full of little balls. Jack took out three and laid them near the Tulpan’s intake end.

“Geople helping geople,” Fefferfuff observed. Ö vacuumed up the pills. He looked, then, like a short boa constrictor who’d just eaten three cantaloupes. He stopped foaming and humped himself up like a numeral “2.”

“Gleephwee buzz buzz,” Ö said, “Ah wove Wucy.”

“I love Lucy,” Fefferfuff repeated, his husky voice solemn with emotion. “You love Lucy. Lucy loves you. Geople loving geople.”

Jack Stalk tried once again to explain. “That was just a comedy show. Twenty, thirty years ago. I hardly ever watched it. I mean if you want to talk about old TV shows, how about Rod Serling? Ed Sullivan? ‘Sergeant Bilko?’”

“Hahahahahahaha,” Ö said, imitating canned laughter.

“Lucy is waiting,” Fefferfuff said serenely. “Waiting for average fellow. You lucky dog.”

“How does your FTL drive work?” Jack Stalk asked, just to change the subject. He’d heard about little else but Lucille Ball from these two ever since they’d nabbed him. It had been a classic UFO snatch. Lights in the sky. Unattached young man has a fight with his girl, goes out for a walk, and is never seen again. Missing person number 765 for the year 1981. No one but Micha would really care…and she’d forget before long. He had to get back!

“Grandma dreams she moves Tweety-Bird’s cage,” Fefferfuff said, presumably in answer to Jack’s question. “Tweety dreams Grandma. We dream God. God dreams us here, he dreams us there.”

“Znnt, znnt,” Ö said by way of illustration. He swayed back and forth like a happy little cobra.

“But what type of engine have you got in this thing?” Jack insisted. He needed to find out how to fly it back. “I mean this isn’t a Tibetan prayer-wheel you’ve got here, it’s a fantastically sophisticated ship with a faster-than-light drive! We’d give anything for this on Earth.” A sudden inspiration struck. “We could probably arrange to turn the real Lucille Ball over to …”

A porthole irised open. “We already got good-looking Lucy on Tulpa. Waiting for you. You lucky dog.”

Jack Stalk could see the small blue disk of a planet out there. They were coming up on it, matching velocities. He still couldn’t see why, if the Tulpans had an FTL drive, they couldn’t have just jumped right from downtown Louisville, where they’d nabbed him, to the surface of their home planet. Instead they had spent a whole week powering out of the solar system…allegedly to “match velocities with the cosmic background.” And now they were using the rockets again, this time to switch from cosmic rest to the motion of Tulpa. It seemed stupid.

“Hewwo,” Ö said, sounding like a wetly blown kazoo, “Hewwo, Earthwing.” This, along with “Ah wove Wucy,” was the extent of his spoken English. Of course Ö, the soda-straw, didn’t need to speak English. Fefferfuff could create the necessary sound waves by vibrating the particles of his gaseous body. And Fefferfuff, who was part of Ö…or was it the other way around…Fefferfuff was a linguist, a student of Earth’s televised culture. He had some very strange ideas about Earth.

“Jack-Stalk,” the cloud person asked then, “In your sex orgies what is the precise role of the twenty-piece steel mixing-bowl set? Is the wearing of black mouse-ears a signal of genotypic sterility? Or is it rather functioning as signal for coital adjacency? We are so very curious about your reproductive processes.”

“If you’re so interested in that stuff you should spend some time on Earth and look around…instead of watching television all the time. Sex is part of everyday life. No big deal. It’s just …” Jack broke off, strangely embarrassed, and made the traditional hand-gesture for coitus: The extended right forefinger is thrust repeatedly into a circle formed by the left thumb and forefinger. In point of fact, Jack was still a virgin.

“You and Lucy must do this for all of us,” Fefferfuff said. “We never seeing it on television. Excretion as well. Until Ö and I picking you up we thinking that human body-chemistry so advanced that there no bodily wastes. In the cases of Fred-Flintstone or Walter-Cronkite, for instance …”

Jack stopped listening. He’d been kidnapped by incredibly advanced aliens…and all they were interested in was doo-doo and weenies.

They were from the planet Tulpa, on the other side of the galaxy, about a hundred thousand light-years from Earth. Something about the symmetry of the galactic gravitational field made it easy for them to jump across to our side and back. They’d been doing the jumps for twenty or thirty years now, but had never actually landed on Earth before this. They hadn’t had the conventional rocket power up till now.

Prior to this visit, the Tulpans had gotten all their information about Earth by intercepting TV broadcasts. On the basis of total minutes broadcast, they had concluded that Lucille Ball was the most important person on Earth. Apparently they had developed some sort of Lucy simulacrum.

Once again, Jack leaned over the ship’s control panel, trying to puzzle it out. The big button there must activate the FTL drive…he’d seen Fefferfuff reach a tendril down to it just before the jump. And those two rows of lights had something to do with the velocity. Before the jump, the Tulpans had wasted days maneuvering the ship till each pair of lights was glowing evenly. The conventional rocket controls were over there and …

Fefferfuff drifted down from the ceiling to shroud the control panel. The engines shifted to full roar. The ship was sliding down into the gravitational well of the planet Tulpa. Jack lurched back to his jellybed.

When Fefferfuff had finished setting the controls, he drifted over to settle down on top of little Ö and his bed. The two of them seemed to be symbiotic parts of a single organism. An animated lichen. The gauzy cloud-person wrapped himself round and round the lively soda-straw. The result was a long pale object about the size and shape of a human mummy. A hole opened in one end to address Jack Stalk.

“We shaping like humans in your honor.” Arms and legs articulated out of the form, then fingers, a nose and a chin. It looked something like the Pillsbury dough-boy.

There was a thump and the engines stopped. They’d landed. As far as Jack Stalk could figure out, he’d been brought here to star in a live sex-show, co-starring a giant lichen in drag. Fuuuugh! What a way to lose your virginity!

The dough-boy opened the ship’s door and…she was right outside, smiling at him with that weird double-bow mouth, her hair flaming red. The planet’s surface looked like blue jello.

“Hello, Jack-Stalk. Let’s getting down to business.”

The humanoid form lay down on the blue jello and pulled up her skirts …

“What should be under skirts?” Ö-Fefferfuff stage-whispered in Jack Stalk’s ear. “What normally looking like? We fix up just like.”

“Not keeping a girl waiting all day,” the supine one warbled, nancing her skirts back and forth. There were several other Tulpans standing around holding things that might have been guns…but were probably cameras. Jack made his move.

With quick, economical motions, he pushed the Ö-Fefferfuff dough-boy out of the hatch, stepped back, locked the door, and walked over to the control panel. If he wasted time using the conventional rockets, the Tulpans would get him. Better to use the FTL drive right away. Jump right out. Back to Earth, back to Louisville, back to Micha.

A Tulpan’s voice crackled over the ship’s comm-unit. “Not making a false move, Jack-Stalk! Above all not using the FTL drive without matching velocity to cosmic nullity! Uncontrolled hyperjumping very bad, come back yesterday!”

Another Tulpan voice, perhaps Ö-Fefferfuff’s, broke in. “If you really…not loving Lucy, we can painless re-model. Better maybe she matching dream-girl Micha? You giving us please one sex-show and I safely driving you home like taxi.”

Something finally snapped in Jack Stalk’s psyche. He wanted out, far out, right now. He pushed the big FTL button on the control panel.

The Tulpans watched in dismay as their ship wavered, sagged and disappeared.

“You’re a fool,” the one with the comm-unit told Ö-Fefferfuff.

“God is a fool,” the dough-boy shrugged. “He wrote the script, not me.”

“What’s going to happen?” the imitation Lucy asked, flowing back into an upright position. “Jack-Stalk didn’t match velocities! He jumped without adopting the cosmic frame of reference!” They spoke in Tulpan.

One of the cameramen spoke up. “Since we’re moving away from Earth, this means that he’ll get back before he left …”

“Oh no!” Lucy shrilled. “What if he causes a paradox? What if he warns his past self not to be abducted by Ö-Fefferfuff? If he’s not abducted, then he doesn’t come here, so he doesn’t go back, so he doesn’t warn himself, so he is abducted, in which case he does go back, and …”

“Oh, shut up,” the Tulpan with the comm-unit snapped. “We’ve all heard it before. What do you think, Ö-Fefferfuff, you unruffled fool?”

Ö-Fefferfuff had let himself slump into the sluglike Posture of Noble Ease. “No problem, chief. Grandma’s in her rocker and all’s right with the cage.” A serious student of the Tweetie and Sylvester cycle, he enjoyed showing off his erudition. “But seriously, Ü-Ramalam, are you familiar with Ä-Eddywed’s explanation of the recession of distant galaxies? He claims that, in cosmic time, the galaxies are actually shrinking, and that’s why they look farther apart. Thus, when Jack-Stalk arrives, perhaps one or two Lucy shows before leaving, he will …”

Jack Stalk stared out his stolen ship’s porthole, presumably at the Sun. After fiddling around with the instrument panel for awhile, he’d been able to dope out the controls for the attitude jets. He was, after all, a budding engineer. He’d rolled the ship around till he found what looked like the closest and brightest star. That had to be the Sun. If not …

He pushed the thought back, pointed the ship towards that bright star, and cut in the conventional rocket drive. He would have liked to try another hyperjump…but maybe hyperjumps were bad for nearby planets. The thought that he might have destroyed Tulpa didn’t particularly bother him. Hell, what difference was one less inhabited planet in a whole galaxy? But Earth…Earth was special. Earth had Micha on it. Not to mention Louisville.

The Tulpan ship was fast…the engines seemed to be based on powerful mass-converters. But it was still a long way to the Sun. He kept track of the days by making food-paste smears on the bulkhead. Fefferfuff had showed him how to run the food synthesizer on the way out.

After two weeks the Sun…if it was the Sun…had grown to a distinct little disc, and Jack Stalk began decelerating. Once a day he would cut the engines and roll the ship around, watching for planets. On his third day of searching, he spotted a bright dot a few degrees above the Sun. Above the sun, damn, that meant he wasn’t in the plane of the ecliptic. He was coming down on the solar system from above…or up from beneath, not that up and down really meant anything out in …

On second thought Jack Stalk realized that it was good to be looking down on the solar system. He dialed up the porthole’s magnification and began looking for planets. It wasn’t hard, once he got the hang of it…after all, sunlight was bouncing up off each of them. It was just a matter of…there, that blue-white one had to be Earth…it was the next one in from the red one, Mars.

Jack managed to hit the plane of the ecliptic pretty near Earth, but he hadn’t decelerated enough, and had to spend a frustrating three days watching Earth sliding back above him. From time to time he wondered what sort of fuel the rocket’s mass-converter used…and how much of it was left. It was another long week till he finally got back up near the Earth, and this time at a reasonable speed.

The planet looked big, really big, turning majestically beneath him. Landing was going to be touchy…if he came in too fast there’d be no correcting it. And what if someone’s Air Force fired a missile at him?

Jack Stalk spun the dial on the comm-unit, hoping to eavesdrop on some military transmissions.

FZZAT! The screen sprang to life. A smooth, handsome male face stared out at him. “What do you mean by coming here like this? What is it that you…want, Jennifer?”

Cut to Jennifer’s tear-stained face. “Oh, Brad, don’t you understand? I’ve fallen in love with you. You can’t just use a woman and walk …”

Jack Stalk smiled happily. A soap opera. He was back to Earth for sure. He decided to just watch TV for a while, relax, wait for the news, find out the date. It had been Saturday, August 22, 1981, when the Tulpans had nabbed him. Since then had been close to two months. Would Micha still be waiting? As the soap opera on the TV screen played itself out, Jack Stalk’s own soap opera spun in his mind.

On that last Saturday, he and Micha had gone swimming in a quarry on Jack’s brother’s farm, a few miles west of Louisville. It had just been the two of them, so they’d gone nude. The water in the quarry was deep and unimaginably pure. You could see blue-gills hovering, ten, twenty, thirty feet below. Jack loved to dive and come up under Micha, marveling at her big strong buttocks and huge buoyant breasts.

There was even a cave cut into the quarry wall, and Jack and Micha swam in there for some serious necking. It had been nice, not too rocky, and not much flotsam except for an old grey tennis-ball.

Micha’s lips, posing and pouting, had planted kisses, soft and hard, all over him. He’d revelled in her white curves…this was the first time he’d seen her naked all over…and had noticed that from the side she was an almost perfect sine-wave. Kissable neck at zero, plump nipple at one-half pi, tiny waist at pi, delectable summit of firm asscheek at three-halves pi, and the divinely soft folds of thigh against buttock at two pi. He’d told her this, and she, also an engineering student at The University of Louisville, had been amused.

They might have even made love, at last, at last…if Jack’s brother Daryl hadn’t showed up. Typically, Daryl had made his presence known by firing a shotgun and hollering, “COME ON OUT OF THAT CAVE,” over the outside speaker of his pickup truck’s CB.

He was just-kidding-around-of-course, as usual, but Micha’d been so freaked that Jack had had to swim back, tell Daryl to cool it, get Micha’s suit, and swim it out to the cave.

They swam in side by side, and Jack had been touched-to-the-quick by Micha’s brave and nervous smile, her lower lip set just so against her upper. On second thought, it hadn’t been the smile itself that really got him—it had been her control over it, and the way she would compress her lips over and over again in her enigmatic, slightly menacing pout.

“Hey,” Daryl had called when she got out of the water. “What’s a sexy girl like you doing with my baby brother? What’s he got that I don’t?”

Micha didn’t say anything, just pouted and flashed her eyes from the one to the other. Where Jack was skinny, almost hollow-chested, Daryl was big and muscular. Jack had a visionary’s wide brown eyes, Daryl a soldier’s green slits. Now that he’d taken over the family farm, Daryl liked to play the redneck.

“You’re a real idiot,” Jack said quietly, “Shooting off that gun.”

“Whatsamatter, bro?” Daryl laughed. “Didn’t you get a chance to shoot yours?” He chuckled lewdly, ingratiatingly, and stuck a corner of his tongue out at Micha. “Y’all come on up to the house and have a drink,” he called then, and drove off in his pickup.

“Let’s not stay long,” Micha urged, as they followed Daryl in Jack’s old VW.

But they had stayed long, too long. For all their resentment of each other, the two brothers did enjoy drinking bourbon together. Daryl needled Jack about getting so educated at Daryl’s expense, and Jack needled Daryl about hogging most of their inheritance. But on another level, each respected the other for being different. And here, on the family farm, in the haze of alcohol, it was almost like being kids again, kids with all the time in the world. Daryl’s wife brought out food and old jokes. Micha quietly sipped at a glass of white wine, setting and resetting her full lips.

They’d finally left around ten, and on the drive back downtown, Micha had spoken her piece. “So, so, Jack, you still wish you were a farmboy. And you let you bully of a brother walk all over you. Did you see the way he looked at me? Thank God I waited for my suit in that disgusting cave, or he probably would have shot you and raped me on the spot! And I thought you came from a nice family.”

“But,” Jack protested, staring hard at the drink-blurred road, “It was nice in the cave, I thought. That…that wasn’t so disgusting, was it?”

“Oh, it was all right,” Micha said coldly. “Until your brother came. A horrible big bug crawled on me when you were getting my suit. And then him staring at me like that all evening…oh, just take me home.”

In the car, outside her apartment-house, Micha had sat with him for five minutes, passively letting herself be kissed and apologized to…but she’d refused to let him set their next date.

Jack had driven the five blocks to his own apartment building, parked the car, and, too depressed to go in, had taken a walk. There had been a storm brewing, with high flashes of heat lightning, and he had wandered onto the University of Louisville campus, finally sitting on the administration building’s steps, next to their copy of Rodin’s The Thinker. The rain had started, all at once, and Jack just sat there, lashed by the liquid curtains. Lightning had forked and zigzagged down the sky, striking once, twice, three times nearby.

And then the Tulpans’ spherical ship had touched down. At first Jack had thought it was ball-lightning. He’d even fumbled out a pen, useless in the rain, to take some notes on the phenomenon…but by then Fefferfuff had flown out and begun pulling him towards the ship. With Micha mad at him he hadn’t even felt like struggling.

On the comm-unit’s screen, an ugly man was reading a sheet of paper. The five-thirty local news. School board. Sewage. Lay-offs at Ford and GE. “And now the weather. Charlie?”

The weatherman’s bald head filled the screen. He scribbled the usual incomprehensible bullshit on a plastic map. He was so bald that when he turned his head, you could see a lot of folds and meat-tucks in back. Jack amused himself by pretending that these mashing wrinkles made up the weatherman’s real face. But then he heard something which brought him up with a start.

“Today is Friday, August 21, 1981. The hottest temperature on record for this date was 104 in 1956, the lowest a cool 64 in 1949. The weather for tomorrow, Saturday, August 22, 1981, will be hot, with thundershowers expected in the late afternoon and evening.”

The date was printed right there on the screen. This was the day before Jack had left! But …

Jack dialed his receiver up and down the spectrum, and picked up another news show. The same thing. One of the Tulpans, he now recalled, had said something about this: Uncontrolled hyperjumping very bad, come back yesterday.

Come back yesterday. What an opportunity! At the very least he could head off the fight with Micha by giving himself some sound advice when it would do the most good. Or, even better, he could somehow head off Daryl…prevent him from fouling up Jack’s big chance to get laid.

Grinning with excitement, Jack nudged the ship out of orbit. The Earth fell up at him, huge and welcome as Micha’s ass.

The ship maneuvered surprisingly well, and in the space of five hours, Jack had it down to an altitude of what looked like two or three km. He was hovering somewhere out over the Pacific Ocean, sunny blue wave-patterns marching past below. By now it would be almost midnight in Louisville. He set his wristwatch to twelve. He toyed with the idea of whipping across America and slitting his sleeping brother’s throat…but thought better of it. He was too tired.

So Jack Stalk lay down on his jellybed and slept.

When he awoke it was night on the Pacific. Ten in the morning, Louisville time. He flew east, into the dawn. As he flew, he kept searching up and down the radio bands, nervous about military pursuit planes…but no one seemed to notice him.

He was crossing the Mississippi when he first suspected that something might be wrong. A swallow flew at him. This was surprising in itself, since it looked as if he was about two km up. But the real shocker was the bird’s size. The thing was as big as a jetliner! Powering along with its maw spread, it attacked him!

Jack Stalk took evasive action and increased his altitude. By the time he’d found Louisville, he had himself convinced that the business with the bird had just been an illusion. After all, the porthole had still been set on a pretty high magnification.

He knew Louisville well, and it wasn’t hard to find his brother’s farm. Before landing, Jack checked the time. Two in the afternoon. Great. Daryl hadn’t busted in on them till about three-thirty. All he had to do was land in the woods, cover the ship with brush, and go distract his brother for a couple of hours. Meanwhile his past self would get laid in the cave and, hopefully, drive downtown to spend the night with Micha. When that thunderstorm started, he’d be happy in Micha’s soft bed—instead of out getting kidnapped by the Tulpans.

But then…? Jack had a moment of doubt. If he didn’t get kidnapped by the Tulpans, then he wouldn’t be here in a second body to do all this. So what! So this body would disappear or something. Jack looked at his hands, white and slender. Disappear? So what, so what. His other self, the real self would wake up in bed with yummy milky Micha. Could any man die for a better cause?

Jack centered the ship over a copse of trees in the middle of the pasture nearest Daryl’s house. He could see Daryl on his tractor, mowing the next pasture over, too busy to look up. Jack cut the engine power and let the ship slide down to Earth.

He had to fight back a moment of panic as he came down into the trees. They were so big! How could they be so big? Gently jiggling the attitude jets, he wriggled past the huge trunks and branches. It seemed to go on for kilometers. Finally there was the grass…coming up…and up…a jungle of high golden stalks scissoring past the porthole…what?

With a tiny thud the ship finally hit solid ground. Jack was beginning, vaguely, to get the picture. Cautiously he opened the hatch. The yellow-grey field grass rose a hundred meters above him. Beneath him were root-tendrils, as big as the tunnels in a man-sized, 3-D maze, twined this way and that. Something large, dark and chitinous was scrabbling towards the ship …

Jack slammed the hatch and powered back up into the treetops. Now he understood why the trees looked so big. His ship was the size of a tennis ball. He was the size of a grasshopper. He had jumped into the past and it had made him small.

Suddenly he remembered a paradox he’d read about in the first pages of Martin Gardner’s classic, Relativity for the Million. It had been called Poincaré’s Paradox:

“Suppose that one night, while you were sleeping, everything got a hundred times as small as it was the day before. EVERYTHING—electrons, atoms, wavelengths of light, you yourself, your bed, your house, the Earth, the Sun, the stars, the spaces between the stars. When you awoke would you be able to tell that anything had changed? Is there any experiment you could perform that would prove you had altered in size?”

“No,” Poincaré and Gardner had answered. “There would be no way to tell. For size is relative.” Fine. But, Jack Stalk thought, what about time-travel? What if the universe really is shrinking…maybe not quite uniformly, and that’s why the galaxies seem to get farther apart…what if it does get a hundred times smaller every week…what if that’s true and one day some poor guy manages to travel back in time?

Relative to the time-traveler, all the yesterday people are two hundred meters tall. And a tree is two kilometers high. And …

A crow protecting its territory darted out and struck the Tulpan spaceship a glancing blow with its beak. Bobbing and weaving, Jack took the ship back up high. From there things looked fine. It was just that he wasn’t nearly as high as it felt like he was.

What could he possibly accomplish now, two centimeters tall? As long as he stayed on Earth, floating along the normal timestream again, he was going to be, almost literally, a shrimp.

What about using the hyperjump again, then? Presumably the thing worked like a shuttle, and he’d yoyo right back to Tulpa. Maybe he would gain a week back and show up normal-sized. Lucy-sized. Jack shuddered. And thought of another problem.

He’d changed his velocity a lot since the last jump. What if the next jump made him even smaller, or worse, bigger…enormously bigger. Jack visualized that for a moment, imagining his ship becoming the size of a whole galactic sector. The gentle patter of stars and planets raining down his gravity-well to patter on his hull. Still, if he were to carefully …

Just then the Tulpan ship’s engine sputtered. He began losing altitude. Out of fuel. Jack looked frantically out the porthole. There was the quarry over there. Quick!

By using the last reserves of the altitude jets, Jack was able to crash-land in the quarry’s clear waters. Fortunately he got strapped down on the jellybed in time, and the crash felt no worse than getting kicked in the stomach by a mule. Even after he’d bounced up to the surface again, the ship kept tossing around for awhile. Through the porthole, Jack saw a whale-sized fish whizz past. The blue-gills were striking at him.

But after awhile they gave up. Fortunately the ship was too big to swallow whole. There was an dangerous-sounding gurgling from deep in the ship, but after awhile that, too, stopped.

“I’m glad it’s not two weeks back,” Jack muttered, and opened the hatch which was, providentially, somewhat above the water-line.

It was Saturday, August 22, 1981, the second time around for this shrunken future Jack Stalk. Over there, where the road sloped down to the quarry’s edge sat two people. A boy and a girl. Jack and Micha. A past Jack. Call him Jack*.

They were only twenty meters off, but it looked like two kilometers to poor little Jack. Even so, he almost dove in…before he remembered the fish. But then he noticed the mouth of the cave, not very far off at all.

For some reason the attitude jets still worked. Using what he supposed were the last drops of the fuel, Jack skipped across the water and beached himself on the cave’s wide shingle.

Jack* and Micha arrived soon thereafter. They lay down some five meters off. Grimly, hurriedly, Jack started the long trek over, struggling over the many large boulders in his path. What would he say? He didn’t even know anymore. Somehow the idea of getting Jack* laid and just quietly winking out of existence…somehow this had stopped seeming like such a noble and sensible idea. He wanted help!

But just as he came to the foothills of Micha’s wonderful white thighs, there was an explosion outside. Daryl. His stupid loudspeaker voice. Jack* and Micha exchanged words…so loud that Jack had to hold his tiny ears…and then Jack* splashed off. Micha just lay there on her side, resting her head on her arm, her back to Jack.

Jack wondered where to begin. He was standing on the rocky ground about even with the two pi point on Micha’s sine-curve, that is to say, right next to her most private parts, rear approach.

Her full, smooth thigh towered above him. To his right the celestial spheres of her buttocks joined. There was a fat, pleasant-looking wrinkle where buttock met thigh. Jack resolved to climb it. On a sudden sex-crazed impulse, he took his clothes off first.

“This makes it all worthwhile,” he muttered as he worked his way up. There was some pubic hair up ahead, almost within reach, just another step, she’d be glad to see him, sure she would, dear Micha, oh my God I love it so much here I think I’m going to …

“EEE-YAH!” Jack heard from afar. And then he was snatched and flung, head over heels, far out into the water.

By the time he’d struggled back to shore, that stupid and monstrous Jack* had come and taken his fine, big Micha away. Jack lay down on a rock, gasping like a fish out of water.

It was hard to get his breath properly…the air wasn’t really right for him, now that his lungs and hemoglobin molecules were a hundred times too small. Fortunately he’d left the ship’s hatch open, and its air-generator was working overtime, filling the cave with shrunk air. But the mixture wasn’t rich enough. He had to get back to the ship.

Had to get back to the ship. Jack staggered to his feet. And fell. He wasn’t going to make it. He didn’t care. He lay on his side, wet, naked and helpless, his chest heaving. His mind was a blank.

Something tickled Jack’s ass then, down at the bottom of the cheek where it meets the thigh. A spider? Eeeyah! He twitched himself into a sitting position, ready for something horrible…but it was only a little ball of some kind. A floating little ball nudging at him.

It was a tiny Tulpan spaceship! From further in the future! Suddenly Jack felt strong enough to move. He seized the new little ship in his fist, and scrambled over to his own ship. There was good air inside. He closed the hatch and opened his hand.

The little ship’s hatch popped open, and a white puff of smoke drifted out. The smoke spread, tenuously taking shape …

“Fefferfuff?” Jack asked. “Is it you?”

“It is I, Jack-Stalk.” The voice was faint and windy. “Ö and I feeling sorry your jam, and noticing that universe not disappearing, we also breaking jump rules. Now to setting controls correctly and not like flaky shmoe. Lucy still waiting.”

The patch of pale haze drifted over to the control panel, tsk-tsking at what it found.

“But the engines are out of fuel,” Jack said weakly. He tried to peek into the tiny ship hovering in front of him. “Is Ö really in there?”

A tiny squeak of, “Hewwo, Earthwing,” floated out of the miniature hatch. Somehow, having Ö there made Jack feel that everything would be all right.

“Everything’s all right,” Fefferfuff said. “The ship is refueled. It running on water. Molecule size no problem. Now to setting controls as I say, Jack-Stalk. Please one sex-show, then I bringing you back like taxi as advertised.”

So Jack Stalk finally lost his virginity. Once to Lucy. And then, a month later, to Micha.



Note on “The Facts of Life”

Written in Fall, 1980.

The 57th Franz Kafka, Ace Books, 1983.

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, near where this story is set. This is another time-travel-related tale with aliens, based on a seed idea from Martin Gardner. If you’re curious about why FTL can lead to time-travel, check out my nonfiction book, The Fourth Dimension.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Buzz

A rock-concert. It’s Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Elvis is dripping sweat, bent over a white plastic J. C. Penney’s guitar. Superwimp! His amazingly deep and authoritative voice carries over the driving network of electric sound. “Waitin’ to de eyund of de woruld / waitin’ to de eyund o de woruld / waitin’ to de eyund odee world, deeyur Lord / I sincerely hope you’re comin’ ‘cause you cerntly started something.” NnnMmmMMmmMMMmMMMP NnnnMmmmMMmMMmMMMP. His rhythm guitarist shambles about, opening and closing his mouth like a chimpanzee eating a cigarette butt. The bassman looks like the equipment manager for a football team, all dressed in chinos and a yellow oxford-cloth button-down. But at the end of the song he jumps up and lands in a split.

The camera draws back and we see the audience. A sparse crowd here in this Mannheim concert-hall. Maybe three hundred people. A few of the greaser-hippies the Germans call “rrockerrs,” some punk-girls with black lips, punk-boys with short red and green hair, but mostly just average-type sales clerks and students.

“You’re a dismal bunch of punks,” Elvis says, not unkindly. People are smoking cigarettes. A little knot of GIs shares a hash-pipe.

The camera closes in on a slight, red-haired youth at the right edge of the crowd. On the sound track, Elvis starts one of his smeared-notes songs from Get Happy. The red-haired youth fiddles with his tape-recorder. Close shot of the turning reels. The reels speed up, the music too, an excited drone. Tape ends, flap flap flap, and everyone’s leaving the concert hall.

We follow the red-haired youth out onto the street. He’s alone, carrying his big tape-player on a strap slung over one shoulder. He wears black Levis and a shiny brown leather jacket. His skin is luminously pale, his hair short and spiky, his fingers long and mobile. A street-car screeches to a gggkgreeeeeeessht halt and he climbs into its yellow-green light.

Cut. The next evening. Shot of the red-haired youth handling an ancient glass vase. He sits by a window in a one-room apartment, the fragile cylindrical vessel in his hands. Close shot on the vase.

The glass is cloudy, old-looking and shimmering here and there with metal oxides deposited over what must have been centuries of burial. The surface is etched with thousands of tiny lines. The lines wrap around and around the cylinder. It is as if after having been blown, the vase was put on a lathe and shaved down. A diamond knife in some turner’s hand has etched a single groove around the vase from top to bottom.

Medium shot of red-haired youth walking across his apartment. One whole wall is books, one wall a workbench. Electronic components, computer circuitry. Orange light from the setting sun slopes in.

He flicks on his tape-deck. A man screaming in rising bursts and then a great rush of tight, happy sound. Blondie’s “I’m Not Living in the Real World.”

The red-haired youth busies himself with his tools, mounting the vase into some kind of machine. When Debbie’s voice croons, “Didn’t I ever tell you I was gone?” he hits a button, snaring the phrase on a tape-loop. Eternal repeat on that: “Didn’t I ever tell you I was gone? Didn’t I ever tell you I was gone? Didn’t I ever tell you I was gone?”

There’s a whole console of buttons set into the back of the workbench. He hits another and overdubs a loop of live E. C. sneering, “Now I try to stay amused. Now I try to stay amused. Now I try to stay amused.”

More buttons, and more voices coming on, all on top of each other. Jagger: “Do the hip-shake, babe. Do the hip-shake, babe. Do the hip-shake, babe.” The Zap: “The torture never stops. The torture never stops. The torture never stops.” Marley: “Wake up and turn I loose. Wake up and turn I loose. Wake up and turn I loose.” Nina Hagen: “Ich glotz Tay-Fow. Ich glotz Tay-Fow. Ich glotz Tay-Fow.” Johnny Rotten: “And we don’t care. And we don’t care. And we don’t care.” More Jagger: “I’m always hearin’ voices in the street. I’m always hearin’ voices in the street. I’m always hearin’ voices in the street.” And more others, more and more cutting in and speeded up, making a…wild, high buzz, you understand.

But it won’t fly yet. Something’s missing. The vase! He’s got the vase mounted on a sort of lathe, and he’s setting a phonograph needle down on the spinning glass, dropping the needle down into the groove as if it were one of Thomas Alva Edison’s cylindrical phonograph records.

Macro-close-up of the phonograph needle in the groove. The needle vibrates back and forth with the groove’s slow meanderings. There is a steady tone feeding out from the needle. The winging welter of the music-loops damps down and the vase-glass recording comes up. A rumble as from a voice underwater. A squeak. A rumble.

Zoom back to the red-haired youth. Weird eyes on this kid. He’s so young…how can he know so much? His hands crawl patiently over the equipment surrounding the vase. Dreamy smile. Again an indistinct rumble from the vase, this time more voice-like. The youth wags his head and makes another adjustment.

Cut back to macro-close-up of the phono needle. The groove twists back and forth, the needle follows, and we hear a voice talking clearly.

“Ah noko landee cleek-ka-sneep. Orbaahm. Deedle?”

Soft wah-wah-wah and the phono needle changes its appearance. We zoom slowly back…vase still spinning. But only half of the vase is etched yet, and the needle has turned into the tip of a diamond knife, held in the hand of a tan-brown man with ultra-black hair, an Egyptian craftsman etching the original groove into the vase. He is talking, and as he talks the vibrations travel down his arms and into the etching tool he holds…he’s recording his voice though he doesn’t know it.

Here in the flashback we see it all, the pedal-driven lathe, the blazing square of sun lying on the floor like sheet-iron, the play of muscles in the turner’s back, his big liquid eyes and purple lips. He speaks again.

“Ahna bogbog du smeepy flan.”

Suddenly we notice who he’s talking to.

Propped up in a corner of the one-room workshop is a…giant beetle. Totem? No…it’s alive, but injured. Straw-yellow ichor seeps from a rent in one side of the soft belly. With a sudden screech, the creature begins to sing.

The noise is dense, concentrated…quintessentially evil, welling out of the swiveling, jewel-like little head, all emerald, carnelian, lapis lazuli. Outside the door we see part of what might be a wrecked spaceship.

The alien knows what it’s doing, beaming its groaning twitter straight at the craftsman’s body. The timeless humming of the alien’s soul is being etched forever into the spinning glass.

Close shot of the glass, the flash-forward (soft haw-haw-haw) to red-haired youth. He’s still got all his tape-loops running, and now on top of it is the horrible, insistent, mind-picking flicker of the ancient alien death-song. It adds up to something…unheard of.

The youth starts back from the bench. A stool crashes down. The sound is out of control, roiling about the room in booming crests so crushingly loud you begin to see them gel. (A buzzer goes off under your seat nnnNNNBBZEEEEEEE, just like at The Tingler.)

Red-haired youth slapping at switches, smashing machinery with a crescent wrench, trying to stop it, Stop It, STOP STOP STOP…Vase shatters, youth’s pants split open from a huge milky-white hard-on. He pumps it frantically with one hand, flailing at instruments with the other; it’s too much, too loud, too far.

Wild, high, buzzing stacking way up now. We cut to an outside shot of youth’s building. Everything motionless for two heartbeats, then a window explodes out in slow motion, and he flies through, bleeding, ejaculating. Suddenly the soundtrack is slowed down, too, and the mad sound breaks into manageable pieces.

You can see into the apartment, the machinery is wrecked, a fire is starting, but the sound keeps on. It’s a self-perpetuating vortex pattern now, riding on the energy gradient of the day/night twilight zone. We can see the smoke twirling in significant patterns, and overlayered there are purple-to-ultraviolet moirés.

Camera pulls up to a hundred meters and we look down to see the paisley streamers flowing out on the gentle evening breeze. The youth is flaring like a sparkler, still falling, and on the sidewalk we see a man and his dog go up in light. Down the block we see it happen again, and again, and with each flash, the paisley moiré gets a little brighter, the sound a little stronger. Three little children run down the street, screaming, but unharmed.

Cut.

New Jersey. The refineries like giant chemistry labs. Ten-wheel trucks roar past. A solitary figure by the side of the Jersey Turnpike here at the Newark exit. Sunset.

He has colorless blond hair, steel glasses, wears baggy old clothes. White painter’s clothes. The drafts from the trucks’ passings flutter the loose fabric this way and that.

In front of his solar plexus, like a dish-antenna, he holds a piece of cardboard. “EXIT 9.” The lettering is dark and crooked.

There is a lull in the traffic now. He sets down his sign and lights a cigarette. Behind him we see the stark silhouette of a cracking tower, totem woven of five hundred pipes. In profile, he inhales deeply.

Something is bothering him. He brushes at his eyes…smoke? Insects? He throws down his thin cigarette and begins slapping at his head and shoulders. There is a wild, high buzzing. As the noise peaks, the hitchhiker melts into a blob of blinding light.

A semi rumbles past, brakes groaning, horn blasting fear. It says “PYRAMID” on the side.

Cut to the truck-driver’s face. Likable Italian kid, twenty, curly black hair, trying to keep his rig under control.

“Waxman,” he hollers to his sleeping partner. “Hey, Waxman! We gotta pull …”

The wild, high buzzing has not stopped, and now it builds to a new peak. The curly-haired driver’s face glows and runs like molten steel.

Aerial shot of the PYRAMID semi-tractor-trailer jack-knifing, rolling, bursting into flame. Wild, high buzzing, rhythmic, never repeating.

We continue to rise, looking down at the big pile-up. Cars and trucks keep coming. The passengers go up in little puffs of white light, flashbulbs popping off in the dinky-toy cars far, far below us, still rising, rising to look down at all America, one-quarter dark.

Time speeds up and we see the terminator, the edge of night, sweep across the country east to west. There is a jumping twinkle in the moving twilight zone, fleeting specks of light like phosphorescent plankton at some surf’s lapping line. Pht, pht, pht, pht, pht. The wild, high buzzing, far and faint.

We come back down in California, just before the terminator gets there. Across a beach and through the dish of a radio-telescope. The percussive sounds of a woman’s foot-steps hurrying down the hall. Clip clip clip clip. (Think of those little jolts traveling wavelike up her leg-flesh, up to her ripe ass and crinkly hole and fur-burger deluxe…just think about it!) Knock knock.

We see a door open. A fat man looks up. He wears a long-sleeved white plastic shirt with a pen in the pocket. He holds a sheaf of computer print-outs. The day’s last square of sunlight lies warm on his lap, and he’s been thinking about sex, but only says, “Yes, Dr. Schmid? What is it?”

The woman steps forward and leans over the desk. She’s dressed casually: jeans, tube-top, wedgies. Bushy-brown hair, all frizzed out. No lipstick on her full lips. We look at her from behind.

“It’s these readings, Professor Akwell.” She hands him a roll of paper with squiggles on it. “These peaks are utterly anomalous. It’s as if some vast pulse of energy swept across the country during the last three hours. See this? And this and this?”

The professor feeds the paper tape slowly through his fingers. “Do you have an audio conversion?”

“Not yet, but …”

“I’ll want to hear the fine-structure energy-analogue.”

“Of course.” She’s around behind the desk now, leaning over his shoulder. It is almost dark outside and, again, the wild, high buzzing mounts.

The professor swivels and looks up at her. Nice full braless breasts right at eye-level. His heart beating, ka-thumn ka-thumn. The buzzing coming and going, a syncopated sound with crests inside the troughs.

He pushes up her tube-top. She smiles and leans forward. He tongues and sucks at her hanging milky-white bubs, takes a stiff, dark-pink nipple in his mouth.

The buzzing peaks, but instead of vibrating away into pure dimension-Z energy, the professor and doctor are…dancing through it, lying down beside the CRASH desk-chair, spitty slippery slick peekaboo hair fanning out, and the deadly sound is just coking them up is all…my God, he’s built like a racehorse. She spreads and pushes back, their orgone energy tears at the buzzing, breaking it into Stones riffs: “Oh, Doctor please do the hip-shake, babe, I’m riding down your moonlight mile …”

But now we’re dollying out through the window, and up again. It’s almost dark outside and the buzzing is louder than ever, wilder and higher…it’s a multiplex sound with endlessly complex layers of information folded inside each other over and over. (Think of the sound an acid-tripping brain might make as chessmen slide off tilted tiles and wooden fingers fumble for the saves.)

Split-screen checker-board montage. In the black squares people flare into white energy, in the red squares they couple. We draw back and the tessellated plane warps into a sphere, Mother Earth, everyone coming or going at twilight’s touch.

Cut to a double bed with a sleeping couple. Pale, pale grey light outside. Faint buzzing. The woman sits up suddenly. Mashed frizzy hair, smallish breasts with perfect nipples. It’s Dr. Schmid! She shakes the dormant mound next to her, and Professor Akwell sits up, too, eyes gummy.

The light is growing, the buzzing too. Dr. Schmid flicks on the radio.

“It is kuzzz seventy to bzzzzzznt Earth’s adult population destroyed. Preliminary studies indicate that the deaths wheeeeeep dawn and dusk.”

“Do you hear that?” she cries, jumping out of bed and staring out the window. On a distant hillside a little flare of white light. “Quickly, dear!” She hops back in the bed.

Professor Akwell still rubbing his eyes. “I’m…I’m too tired.”

The radio is still crackling and talking. “Interviews with fweeep a striking uniformity. All those adults not destroyed by the Buzz were engaged in dzeeeent. Listeners are urgently advised to pair up and stick together. Orgasm zaaaaap only answer.”

Fingers trembling with haste, Dr. Schmid has pulled on tight stockings and a lacy black garter belt. The buzzing is so loud that the perfume bottles on her dresser are rattling. She falls back on a chair, her legs spread. “Hurry, hurry, oh please hurry!” A ray of sunlight slant into the room.

The professor shambles across the room and kneels down in front of her. Runs his hands around her stocking-tops, where the full buttocks bulge out like warm triple-scoops of vanilla ice cream. He squats lower and glues his mouth to her vagina.

Cut to prof’s-eye view of her body. Mystery-furze of black pubic hair in the foreground, thighs and black suspenders out to the sides, the taut buckler of her undulating belly, the swollen breasts sliding, nipples pointing this way and that, her pouting lips and heavy-lidded eyes.

She’s coming now; it’s fine for her, and part of the buzzing stutters into “Emotional Rescue,” but the professor barely has a hard-on, this early in the morning and still having to take a piss. He doesn’t come, and the buzzing takes him away, melting into hot light between those quivering thighs.

She screams and draws back. The light rolls across the floor like ball-lightning, singeing a trail into the carpet. And then something surprising happens. The light grows projections, begins to dim, and it’s…Professor Akwell saved by the love of a good woman?

No. It’s that red-haired youth from Mannheim. Naked and curled into a fetal position. He stands up and runs a hand across his forehead. Buzzing and music fading now, New York Dolls chanting: “Who are the Mystery Girls? Who are the Mystery Girls? Who are the Mystery Girls?”

Wo sind wir?” youth asks in German.

The woman is embarrassed and fumbles for her robe. “Who are you?”

Amerika?”

“Yes.” She stands, cheeks still pink with sex-flush. “This is America. But where did you come from?”

“I,” he fumbles for the English. “I am from Mannheim, Germany. I have make the Buzz. I am Uli.” Naked, but self-assured, Uli holds his hand out.

“Lola. Lola Schmid.” Gingerly she takes his hand. “But why have you done this? And how?”

Uli looks down at himself. “Do you have some jeans?”

“Yes …” She hands him the pair she was wearing yesterday. He wriggles into them, then slips on her discarded tube-top as well. He picks up one of her lipsticks and leans close to the mirror on her dresser.

Lola goes to her closet, turns her back to Uli and puts on a dress. Shot of inviting ass framed by black garter-straps. Then swish the dress is on, a light summer dress with little stars and nebulae printed yellow on white.

Cut to Uli and Lola having breakfast in Lola’s kitchen. In her clothes, and with his face made up, he looks…unsettling. A punky bachelor girl. He is talking, haltingly, and with many fluid hand-gestures.

“I have all the time been looking for the absolute rock. I snipped from here and there the all-best pieces and folded up mixed.” He meshes his fingers to illustrate. “So it was all right. It went. But always I was still feeling something missing.”

“Where did you find it, then?” Lola’s manner is bright, yet distant. You sense that she no longer quite believes in the reality unfolding around her.

“I was reading in a magazine that someone had the idea of treating turned antiquities as noise-plates.” His measured eyes stare at her, looking to see if she understands. One eye is blue, one green.

Lola shakes her head and Uli tries again. “I robbed an Egyptian vase from the museum.” He picks up an empty juice-glass and turns it on its side. As he continues talking, he rolls the glass with one hand and touches it delicately with a pencil. “There was a little groove ringed around and around. The Egyptian worker a long time ago made noise and his knife trembled. My phonographic stylus turned the trembling back into voice. A song not his. A very strange song.”

Uli falls silent. Lola finds and lights a cigarette. Finally Uli continues.

“I whited-out…and yet here I am back. I think everyone will melt into light and everyone will come back. We all must tour the Hall of the Martian Kings.”

“I don’t want to. Sex is better. And why do you speak of Martians?”

“It was like this. I mixed the sounds together. It stacked up and became too big. From the window out I must go. And this is the surprising point, that I never hit the street. Instead …

Wah-wah-wah and melt to flashback.

Uli-eye view of falling towards street. Neatly arranged German cobblestones rushing up at you. A dog gazing up too surprised to run. Wild, high buzzing.

Suddenly a section of the cobblestones swings open like two double doors. Blinding light streams out and you fall through the street and into the light. Everything is glowing from ultraviolet on up to X-ray-colored. Also an on/off strobing in the film here, giving things red jumpy edges.

The music-loops are subtracted from the buzzing and now you hear only the pure, solemn twitter of the Martian death-song. Camera dollies along the endless bright corridor. Huge translucent statues of scarab-beetles line the sides like suits of armor. The floor is tessellated in snaky curves, there are doors doors doors.

You see Uli’s hand reach out and turn a doorknob, then whiiisssk! Back in Lola’s kitchen.

“The song from the vase,” Uli is saying, “It is perhaps the soul of the Martian civilization. We are free now to go in and out from door to door.”

Lola shakes her head. “Not me.”

Cut. Lola’s bed, sunset. The buzzing is building. Lola is on all fours, wearing only the garter belt. Uli is crouched behind her, his hand spreading her cheeks, his face pressed into her crack. She moans and pushes back.

Wild, high buzzing closer now. Uli kneels and we see Lola’s sweet, inviting asshole puckered out like Clara Bow’s mouth. Uli rubs spit on his long white cock and drives it in, holding her hips and pulling her against him. They come, screaming. The buzzing fades.

Cut. Dawn. Uli sleeping in Lola’s bed. A shaft of sunlight flicks onto the wall. Faint buzzing. Lola sits up with a grunt of fear. Moving quickly, she turns and squats over Uli’s face, rubbing her cunt against his slack features. He half wakes.

“Go gone, Lola. Back to the Hall is best.”

No!” She is kneeling over his mouth, naked, facing the camera. “Do it, Uli! Do it to me!” He is passive, uninterested.

Lola mashes her breasts with her left hand, rubs her clitoris with two fingers of her right. The buzzing is louder and louder.

“More,” Lola moans, “It’s not enough. You’ve got to …”

She begins to piss. This is enough. Her face puffs and glazes and she comes, taking some of the buzzing into Linton Kwesi Johnson: “Smash their brains in, smash their brains in, smash their brains in.”

But Uli…Uli lets the sound take him away again; he’s a hissing white mound at the foot of the bed. Once again, as with Professor Akwell, the light dims and re-forms into a new shape …”Baby it’s you, baby it’s you, baby it’s you.”

Enjoy yourself.



Note on “Buzz”

Written in Spring, 1981.

New Blood, December, 1981.

New Blood was a magazine run by Michael Wojczuk and Niko Murray out of Boulder, Colorado. I met them in the summer of 1981 when I had a two-week gig giving a short course at the Naropa Institute of Boulder. New Blood always had a vigorous punky feel to it, and I was happy to have two of my stories in their pages. It was great in Boulder—I got to take a hot tub with Allen Ginsberg, smoke pot with Gregory Corso, and give a copy of White Light to William Burroughs.

“Buzz” is the most cyberpunk of my early stories. Sylvia and I really did see Elvis Costello play in Mannheim, by the way, it wasn’t far from Heidelberg.

I took the scientific idea for “Buzz” from Peter K. Lewin, “Preliminary Studies in the Extraction of Human Sounds Engraved Accidentally into Ancient Vessels,” Speculations in Science And Technology, #3, August, 1980.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The Last Einstein-Rosen Bridge

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” — Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

Joe threw the empty soda bottle high over the black dirt, and Udo fired a rock at it. Miss. Joe’s turn.

He looked for a good rock while Udo retrieved the bottle from the mounded rows of the asparagus field. In Heidelberg, the farmers keep their asparagus white by making it grow up through half a meter of sunless mulch.

“Okay Joe,” Udo called. “Raketen los!” The big liter bottle arced up, twirling end over end and whistling. Completely in synch for that one second, Joe flung his clot of asphalt. He nicked the bottle, but it didn’t break. Solid German construction.

Just then Udo’s mother started yelling from the house. Joe couldn’t understand her dialect, but he liked her voice. She had strong legs and big breasts and red hair. Too bad he didn’t have a mother like that. Too bad he didn’t have a mother.

“I must eat dinner,” Udo explained in the clean high-German they taught at school. “You can have the bottle since you hit it first.”

“Thanks. Why don’t you come over to the base tonight? They’re showing Grease.” It was Joe’s favorite movie. Dark and wiry, he looked like one of Travolta’s friends.

Schmiere? In English?”

“Naturally. In Amerikanisch, man. It’s at the Patrick Henry Village NCO Club. I’ll get you in.”

After Udo left, Joe walked into the asparagus field to get the bottle. It would be good for a twenty pfennig refund, enough for a sweet-bun at the market he passed on the way to the U.S. Army base where he lived with his father.

The mounds of mulch over the asparagus were patted smooth. Here and there you could see a little bump where a ripe stalk was about to break through. The watery, insistent May sunlight brought a rich earth-smell up from the field. An occasional car whizzed past, emphasizing the silence.

As Joe picked up the bottle he noticed something shiny lying on the next mound over. A bright little sphere, like a big ball bearing or a silvered glass Christmas-tree ball. An odd thing to find in an asparagus field.

He hopped over the intervening mound and leaned over the little mirror-ball. The sky was in there, and his face and the horizon and the field. Neat. But …

Wait. It wasn’t the same. The field in the little reflected image was pink and crowded with towering…machinery, tapering in towards the image’s center. Worse, the funhouse face looking back at Joe was not his after all…was not any living human’s.

He jumped back with a sort of cry. The face in the ball didn’t move. Maybe it was just painted on? That had to be it. He leaned over the ball again, scrutinizing the weird visage.

What had initially seemed a butchered mess now took on order. It was basically humanoid: ears, pinky-tan skin, long hair on top, nose-slits, eyes and mouth. The big difference was that the mouth was on top and the eyes on bottom…like a person upside down, with red mouth detached and writhing in the big black forehead. What a crazy thing to paint on a ball and leave …

The mouth was moving. Calling others. More faces crowded up. Two, three, five…small and distorted in the mirror’s curve.

Joe gasped and stepped back, then stepped forward and gave the ball a poke with his bottle. It rolled off the mound. Nothing in the image changed. The central figure was holding up a three-fingered hand and making signs. The vaguely female mouth-slash moved soundlessly. Over the figure’s head Joe could make out a tiny rocket-plane moving across the curved sky, moving away and away, dwindling towards the infinitely distant central point. It was a whole universe in there. The…woman beckoned him closer.

“Wait,” Joe muttered. “I’ll take you home. I can’t stay here.”

But he didn’t want to touch the sphere. Maybe if you touched it they could pull you inside. He took out his handkerchief and laid it on the ground next to the shiny ball. Then he used the bottle to nudge the ball onto the hankie, which he picked up by its four corners. The ball was very light…hardly there at all. Back at the road he stowed it and the bottle in the knapsack he used for a school satchel, then swung onto his bike.

The ride from his school to the Army apartment blocks usually spun past in a happy blur of physical power. Joe was good on his bike, a ten-speed his Dad had given him for his fourteenth birthday.

But today the bike felt like an Exercycle. Like a pedal-powered generator feeding hidden movie projectors busily back-imaging filmed Heidelberg scenes onto a spherical plastic screen, a ten-meter fake universe centered on Joe’s head. Only then the middle wouldn’t be infinitely …

KLA-BRANG-BRANNG-BRANNNNG! Ow. Almost hit by a street-car. Easy there, Joe, you’re freaking out. Wasn’t he ever going to get home? It was like he just kept going half the remaining distance.

Feeling too shaky to ride anymore, Joe dismounted and wheeled his bike down the crowded four P. M. sidewalk. Alien faces streamed past. All he could think of was the infinite universe in his knapsack.

“Joey! Hey, Joey!”

Vivian came skipping up to him, smiling and breathing hard. She was a pre-teen pest, a real Army-brat. She lived in the same building as Joe.

“What are you doing off the base?” he asked.

Vivian’s eyes glowed. “My mom sent me to buy some wine. I’m allowed in Germany. How was German school today, Joey?”

Joe was one of the few Army kids who didn’t go to the Army school. He had hopes of growing up cosmopolitan. With a full-blooded gypsy for a father, he had a leg up on it. Vivian already thought he was an inter-national playboy.

“It was highly stimulating. Look, will you watch my bike while I go in the market?” He could have locked it, of course, but if Vivian was watching it, then she couldn’t follow him into the store.

“Sure, Joey. I was already in there. Look.” She held up her shopping bag. “Real wine, and I bought it.” She stuck out her bud-breasts and pursed her pinkened lips.

Joe walked past the bright vegetables and into the store. Inside he selected a twenty-pfennig sweet-roll and opened his knapsack to get out the empty soda bottle.

A face filled with womanly pleading stared up at him. The handkerchief had come undone. The little ball-universe provided its own light…Joe could make out the bright pinpoint of a distant sun. Some trucks were driving around on the field behind the woman. Out, she gestured, holding her hands together and rapidly parting them. Take us out of the bag!

Joe vibrated his hands in front of his face in the calm down gesture. He tapped his watch and held up a just a minute finger. Smiling and waving goodbye for now, he took out the bottle and rebuckled the knapsack.

“Do you have a little animal in there?” asked Frau Wittman as he traded the bottle for the sweet-bun. She was a pleasant skinny lady, who liked Joe for knowing German. Most other Germans didn’t trust him, since his skin was so dark. But ever since Frau Wittman had wormed out of Joe that his mother was a suicide, she’d treated him like a grandson.

Ja,” Joe nodded, thinking fast. “Ein Meerschweinchen.” A guinea pig.

“How nice,” Frau Wittman beamed. “Take yourself another sweet-roll.”

“Thanks.”

On the sidewalk Vivian was acting her age for once…staring blankly at the traffic and picking her nose. Feeling like a big brother, Joe gave her the extra bun. He wondered what it would be like to have a sibling…someone close enough to share his secret with. Maybe he could show it to Udo tonight…if Udo’s parents let him come. But they probably wouldn’t—they didn’t like the Army, and they didn’t like Joe’s olive skin.

He said goodbye to Vivian and rode the rest of the way home without any trouble. He’d probably just been hungry. The apartment was a pigsty, an empty pigsty. Joe’s Dad usually went straight to the noncoms’ bar as soon as he got off duty for the day. Joe checked the fridge…nothing but milk and his father’s beer…then went on to his room.

Joe’s room was the one nice spot in the apartment. He had a good stereo from the PX, travel posters on the wall, a couple of plants and an Indian bedspread for a window curtain. The furniture was GI, but at least it was neat.

His heart pounding with excitement, Joe rolled the mirror-ball out onto his bed. The woman…he was sure it was a woman…waved her hands in greeting, then began staring this way and that, taking it all in.

She could only see half the room from the side she was on, and Joe was about to turn the ball so she could see the rest. But then she…turned it herself.

It was strange to watch this happen. one of the woman’s hands came closer and closer to the ball’s surface, and the image of her fingers covered almost everything. The fingers seemed to hold and turn the surface, and the whole little universe turned along. The fingers let go, the hand drew back, and the woman was on the other side of the ball. Joe could see the back of her head.

He leaned over the ball and looked down at her from above. That put the mouth and eyes in the right places, and she looked human, almost familiar. The mouth smiled kindly.

She could see his bookcase from where she was now, and it seemed to be of particular interest to her. She raised an arm and pointed. The arm-image curved halfway round the ball.

Still leery of actually touching the ball, Joe went and got a book and brought it over…a tattered copy of Heinlein’s Starman Jones. The woman held up what seemed to be a camera and he riffled through the pages for her. Maybe her machines would be able to learn English!

Excited by this idea, Joe brought over book after book. His fat, illustrated dictionary seemed to be a particularly big hit. He riffled its pages slowly to be sure they got it all down.

At the end of an hour Joe was feeling weak and hungry again. The Christmas-ball people were busy setting up something that looked like a console-model TV set. Maybe they planned to show him movies? He went out to the kitchen to drink some milk.

When he came back, the little TV screen was on. The woman spoke into a microphone, and words crawled across the screen. English words.

HELLO. MY NAME IS TULPA. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?

Hands shaking with excitement, Joe fumbled out a pen and one of his little blue school-paper pamphlets.

Hello, Tulpa, he printed. My name is Joe. Where are you from?

WE ARE NOT FROM. WE ARE HERE. WE HAVE LANDED YOU HERE WITH OUR MACHINES.

That didn’t make sense. It was Tulpa who had landed on Earth in her little space-squeezed ball. A strange, mind-numbing idea began to form… .

You landed, Joe insisted. You are inside a tiny ball.

Tulpa smiled, her eyes, staring out from under the microphone. YOU LOOK THE SAME TO US. YOU LOOK LIKE YOU’RE INSIDE A LITTLE BALL.

To prove this she reached out her hand and pressed two fingers against the ball’s surface. Then she…picked up the surface and moved it around. The images in the ball swept and curved. Now he saw the top of her head, now the back of the TV, now the distant sunset. One of Tulpa’s companions danced towards the surface, then away.

No, Joe wrote shakily. You’re inside and I’m outside. I can prove it. He covered the ball with his handkerchief, then pulled it away. I can cover you up!

SO CAN I. Tulpa produced a black velvet pouch. Her fingers grew out to the surface, the images swept, and suddenly the little ball was all black. A shiny, black, imageless mirror.

Just then the apartment door slammed. His father!

“Joey?” the drink-blurred voice called. “Are you here?”

“Yeah, Dad.” Joe put his handkerchief over the ball.

“What a day,” his father called. “What a bitch of a day.” Joe heard him get a beer out of the fridge and snap it open. “What are you doing in there?” The light footsteps approached, and the door swung open.

Joe’s father was a slight man, a bantam-weight gypsy with a metallic voice. He was an alcoholic, a lifer retread sergeant, a lonely man who had never forgiven his wife for escaping into suicide. His eyes looked flat behind his flesh-colored GI glasses. Flat but observant.

“What’s all the books out for? And what’s that under the hankie? You’re not smoking pot are you?”

Joe snorted contemptuously. “Sure, Dad, I’m high on angel-dust. I’m really flying.” He tucked his hands into his underarms and flapped his elbows like chicken-wings. “And meanwhile I’m writing up a report for my literature class.”

“So what’s with the snot-rag? What’s under it?” Veteran of twenty years of barracks inspections, Joe’s father was not to be distracted.

“It’s just a ball I found. A funny glass ball.” Chancing it, Joe raised a corner of the hankie. Okay. It was still black from Tulpa’s pouch. He took the hankie all the way off.

Joe’s father leaned wonderingly over the ball. “Funny how it doesn’t reflect. It looks like one of those crystal balls. You know your Aunt Rosie…she used to do that stuff. Show people their dead relatives.”

“That’s interesting,” Joe said, not really listening. He had to put the ball away before …

Three pink spots appeared on the ball’s surface. The blackness slid down off the ball. Tulpa stared out at them, smiling uncertainly.

Joe’s father grunted like a man punched in the heart. “That’s her,” he croaked. “That’s your no-good traitor mother who left me all alone.”

Tulpa stared intently at Joe’s father, trying to read his expression.

“You’re crazy,” Joe said, shaking his father’s shoulder. “This has nothing to do with you.”

His father twisted out of Joe’s grip and shoved him aside. “It’s her, I tell you. Safe in heaven and laughing at me.”

Tulpa had both hands up, waving the calm down gesture she’d learned from Joe. She looked frightened.

Joe’s father’s voice rose to parade-ground intensity. “I’LL GET YOU, ARLENE!”

Before Joe could stop him, his father snatched up the ball and threw it against the wall.

The ball winked out of existence. Two punctured sheets of spacetime snapped apart…too far. The universe shattered.



Note on “The Last Einstein-Rosen Bridge”

Written in Spring, 1981.

The 57th Franz Kafka, Ace Books, 1983.

“The Last Einstein-Rosen Bridge” has an odd history. After writing it, I sent it to Robert Sheckley, who was then the fiction editor at Omni. He called back to say he was going to buy it, provided I made a small change to the ending. I was overjoyed, as Omni was at that time the top-paying SF market. My wife and I were about to go to New York for a conference anyway, so we arranged to meet Sheckley, which was great fun. Sheckley suggested the Hamlet quote for the head of the story. My wife and I had dinner with him and his then wife, Jay Rothbel. The waiter behaved like an out-of-control Sheckley robot and Sheckley and I almost got run down crossing the street. It was all perfect. But then I didn’t hear anything from Sheckley for quite some time.

When I next talked to him, he told me that his boss at Omni had told him not to use “The Last Einstein-Rosen Bridge.” Also Sheckley told me that he was being eased out of the Omni job. So in the end I never did sell a story to Omni. I was working on my novel The Sex Sphere around this same time, and just to get some immediate use out of “The Last Einstein-Rosen Bridge,” I used an altered from of it as Chapter Twelve of that book.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Pac-Man

It was hot. Polly was driving Rhett home from work. Pretty Polly, fresh out of college, driving her husband home from his job at the arcade. Rhett had been fresh out of college three or four years earlier, but it hadn’t took.

“Eat her, Polly, eat her fast,” cried Rhett. A fifty-year-old woman in a pink alligator shirt and lime-green Bermudas was in the crosswalk.

“Pac-Man, Rhett?”

Rhett made change and serviced the machines at Crasher’s, a pinball and video arcade in the new Killeville shopping mall. He left about a third of his pay in the machines, especially Pac-Man and Star Castle. Sometimes, when Rhett had been playing a lot, he’d come home still in the machine’s space, the Pac-Man space today, a cookie-filled maze with floorping monsters that try to eat you while you try to eat all the cookies, and there’s stop-signs to eat too: they make the monsters turn blue and then you can eat them back till they start flashing, which is almost right away on the third and fifth boards …

“Yeah. I broke a hundred thousand today.”

“My that’s a lot.” The uneaten fifty-year-old preppie was out of the road now. Polly eased the car forward.

“Sixteen boards,” added Rhett.

In Pac-Man, each time you eat all the cookies and stop-signs, the screen blinks and then goes back to starting position. Almost all the video games include some similar principle. Killing off all the monsters in Space Invaders, blowing up the central ship in Star Castle, making it through the maze in Berzerk: in each case one gets a reset, a new board. The rules of the game usually change somewhat with each new board, so that as one moves to higher levels, one is exploring new space, probing unknown areas of the machine’s program.

“There was an incredible show after the fifteenth board,” Rhett continued. “All the monsters came out and took their robes off. Underneath they were like pink slugs. And then they acted out their roles. Like the red one is always first?”

Polly smiled over at Rhett. He was long and skinny, with a pencil-thin mustache. He knew that he was wasting his life on the video machines, and she knew, but it hadn’t seemed to matter yet. They had time to burn. They were married and they both had college degrees: till now that had been enough.

“I went for the interview, Rhett.”

“Yeah? At the bank?”

“I think I can get it, but it looks kind of dinky. I’d just be a programmer.”

“You don’t know computers.”

“I do too. I took a whole year of programming, I’ll have you know.”

“A useful trade,” mused Rhett. “Killeville College prepares its students for a successful career in modern society. The New South. Why did I have to major in English?”

“You could get a better job if you wanted to, Rhett.”

Rhett’s fingers danced across the phantom controls.

“Tfoo, tfoo, tfoom!”

The next day, Polly decided to take the bank job. It was dinky, but they paid five dollars an hour, and Mr. Hunt, the personnel officer, promised that there were opportunities for rapid advancement. After signing up and agreeing to be there Monday, Polly drove over to the mall to tell Rhett.

The mall was a single huge building jigsawed into a lake of asphalt. Crasher’s was in the middle, right by Spencer Gifts. It was dark and air-conditioned with a gold carpet on the floor. A row of machines was lined up along each wall, pinball on the right, video on the left. Polly liked the pinballs better; at least there you were manipulating something real.

The pinballs glowed and the videos twinkled. A few youths were playing, and the machines filled the room with sound.

Intruder alert, Intruder alert.

mmmmmwwwwwhhhhaaaaaAAAAAAAAAA-KOW-KOW-KOW!

Welcome to Xenon.

Doodley-doodle-doodley-doo.

Budda-budda-zen-zen-BLOOOO!

Try me again.

There at the back was Rhett, grinning and twitching at the controls of Star Castle. He wore a news-vendor’s change apron.

“I took the job,” said Polly, coming up behind him.

“Just a minute,” said Rhett, not looking up. “I’ll give you change in a minute.” He took her for a customer, or pretended to.

A fat spaceship rotated slowly at the center of the Star Castle screen. Surrounding it were concentric rings of light: force-fields. Rhett’s ship darted around the perimeter of the rings like a horsefly, twisting and stinging, trying to blast its way to the machine’s central ship. Eerily singing bombs pursued Rhett, and when he finally breached the innermost wall, the machine began firing huge, crackling space-mines. Rhett dodged the mines, firing and thrusting all the while. One of his bullets caught the central ship and the whole screen blacked out in a deafening explosion.

“That’s five,” said Rhett, glancing back. “Hi, Polly.”

“I went to see Mr. Hunt like we decided, Rhett. They’re really giving me the job.”

“Far out. Maybe I’ll quit working here. The machines are starting to get to me. This morning I saw a face on the Pac-Man screen.”

“Whose face, Rhett?”

The new board was on the screen and Rhett turned back to the controls. Wi-wi-wi-wi-wi-wi-wi went his bullets against the eeEEeeEEeeEEeeEEee of the smart bombs and the mmmmMMMMwaaaaaa of the force-fields.

“Reagan,” said Rhett, sliding his ship off one corner of the screen and back on the other. “President Reagan, man. He thanked me for developing the software for some new missile system. He said that all the Pac-Man machines are keyed into the Pentagon, and that the monsters stand for Russian anti-missiles. I ran twenty boards. Nobody’s ever done that before.”

There was a big hole in the force-fields now. The fat, evil ship at the center spat a vicious buzz-bomb. Rhett zapped it wi-wi-wi from the other side of the board. Then the ship. BLOOOOOOOO!

“Six,” said Rhett, glancing up again. “I’m really hot today. I figure if the Pentagon put out Pac-Man, maybe someone else did Star Castle.”

Polly wondered if Rhett was joking. In a way it made sense. Use the machines to tap American youth’s idle energy and quirky reflexes. A computer can follow a given program as fast as you want, but a human operator’s creative randomization is impossible to simulate. Why not have our missiles trace out Pac-Man monster-evasion paths? Why not tap every run that gets past twenty boards?

“Did President Reagan say you’d get any money?” asked Polly. “Did he offer you a job?”

“No job.” Wi-wi-wi-wi-wi-wi-wi. “But he’s sending a secret agent to give me a thousand dollars. If I tell anyone, it’s treason. Aaaaaauugh!” Crackle-ackle-ackle-FTOOOM. Rhett’s ship exploded into twirling fragments.

“Change, please?”

Rhett changed a five for one of the customers, then turned his full attention on Polly.

“So you’re taking the job at the bank? They’re really hiring you?”

“Starting Monday. Did you really see Reagan?”

“I think I did.”

“Why don’t you phone him up?”

“It was probably just a tape. He wouldn’t know me from Adam.” Rhett fed another quarter into the Star Castle machine. “I’m gonna work on this some more. See who’s behind it. Will you hand out change for me?”

“Okay.”

Polly tied on Rhett’s change apron and leaned against the rear wall. Now and then someone would ask her for more quarters, always boys. White males between fourteen and thirty-four years of age. Interacting with machines. Maybe, for men, women themselves are just very complicated video machines… . Polly pushed the unpleasant thought away. There was something more serious to think about: Rhett’s obsession. The whole time she made change, he kept plugging away at Star Castle. Ten boards, fifteen, and finally twenty.

But no leader’s face appeared, just the same dull target with its whining force-fields. A flurry of bombs raced out like a flight of swallows. Rhett let them take him, then sagged against the machine in exhaustion.

“Polly! Are you working here?” A big sloppy man shambled up. It was Dr. Horvath, Polly’s old Calculus professor. She’d been his favorite student. “Is this the best job a Killeville College math major can aspire to?”

“No, no.” Polly was embarrassed. “I’m just helping Rhett. Rhett?” Wearily her husband straightened up from the Star Castle machine. “Rhett, you remember Dr. Horvath, don’t you? From the graduation?”

“Hi.” Rhett gave his winning smile and shook hands. “These machines have been freaking me out.”

“Can I tell him, Rhett?”

“Go ahead.”

“Dr. Horvath, this morning Rhett saw President Reagan’s face on the Pac-Man screen. Rhett says the Pentagon is using the twenty-board runs to design the new anti-anti-missile system.”

Horvath cocked his big head and smiled. “Sounds like paranoid schizophrenia to me, Polly. Or drug psychosis.”

“Hey!” said Rhett. “I’m clean!”

“So show me der Führer‘s face. I’ve got time to kill or I wouldn’t be here.”

“Right now I’m too wrecked,” confessed Rhett. “I just blew the whole afternoon trying the break through on Star Castle. But there’s nothing there.”

Horvath gave Polly a questioning look. He thought Rhett was crazy. She couldn’t leave it at that.

“Come in tomorrow, Dr. Horvath. Come in before ten. Rhett’s fastest in the morning. He’ll show you…and me, too.”

“At this point Rhett’s the only one who’s been vouchsafed the mystical vision of our fearless leader?” Horvath’s pasty, green-tinged features twisted sarcastically.

“Put up or shut up,” said Rhett. “Be here at nine.”

That night, Rhett and Polly had their first really big argument in ten months of marriage. Ostensibly, it was about whether Polly should be allowed to read in bed when Rhett was trying to sleep. Obviously, it was also about her reluctance to make love. But deep down, the argument was triggered by the slippage of their relative positions: Polly was moving into a good, middle-class job, but Rhett seemed to be moving down into madness.

There was a lot of tension the next morning. Crasher’s didn’t open to the public till ten, so Rhett and Polly had it to themselves. Rhett fed a quarter to the Pac-Man machine and got to work. “What a way to spend Saturday,” complained Polly. “That machine doesn’t connect to anything, Rhett. You might as well be shouting into a hollow tree. President Reagan isn’t in there.”

Rhett didn’t look up…didn’t dare to. Three boards, six.

Horvath arrived, rapping at the metal grill that covered the entrance. As usual, he was wearing shapeless baggy pants and an oversized white nylon shirt. His glasses glinted blankly in the fluorescent light. Polly let him in.

“How’s he doing?” whispered Horvath eagerly.

“Ten boards,” shouted Rhett. “I’m in the groove today. Ten boards and I haven’t lost a man yet!”

Horvath and Polly exchanged a glance. After all the nasty, wild things Rhett has said last night, there was no question in her mind that Rhett had imagined his vision of the President. Surely Dr. Horvath knew this, too. But he looked so expectant! Why would an important professor take the trouble to come watch her crazy husband play Pac-Man at nine in the morning?

Horvath walked over to stand behind Rhett, and Polly trailed after. There is a single control on a Pac-Man machine, a sort of joystick. It controls the movements of a yellow disk on the screen: the disk moves in the direction in which you push the joystick. It’s not quite a disk, really; it’s a circle with one sector missing. The sector acts as a munching mouth, a hungry Chinese, a greedy Happy-Face, a Pac-Man. As you move it around, the Pac-Man eats the cookies and stop-signs in the maze. Muncha-uncha-uncha-uncha. Later there are also cherries, strawberries, grapes, birds, and bags of gold. Gloooop!

Rhett was on his fifteenth board now, and the four monsters that chased his yellow disk moved with a frightening degree of cooperation. But, uncha-uncha-uncha, the little Pac-Man slipped out of every trap, lured the monsters away from every prize. Uncha-uncha-uncha-uncha-gloop! Rhett ate a bag of gold worth five thousand points. That made a hundred-and-three thousand points. Horvath was transfixed, and even Polly was a little impressed. She’d never seen Rhett play so well.

The next few boards took longer. The monsters had stopped speeding up with each board. Instead they were acting smarter. Rhett had to expend more and more time on evasive action. The happy little Pac-Man moved about in paths so complex as to seem utterly random to anyone but Rhett. Seventeen boards. Nineteen.

On the twentieth board the monsters speeded back up. Rhett nearly lost a man. But then he knuckled down and ate the whole board in one intricately filigreed sweep.

The screen grew gray and full of static. And then there he was— Mr. President himself.

“Ron-Boy Ray-Gun,” said Horvath nastily. “I don’t believe it.”

“See?” snarled Rhett. “Now who’s crazy?”

”…thank you for helping our country,” the video screen was saying. Reagan looked friendly with his neat pompadour and his cocky, lopsided smile. Friendly, but serious. “Your photograph and fingerprints have been forwarded to the CIA for information retrieval. An agent will contact you to make payment in the sum of one thousand dollars. This offer cannot be repeated, and must be kept secret. Let me thank you again for making this a safer world.”

“That’s it,” said Rhett, straightening up and kicking the kinks out of his long, skinny legs.

“Are you sure?” demanded Horvath, strangely tense. “Couldn’t there be a higher level?”

“The screen’s blank,” shrugged Rhett. “The game’s over.”

“Push the Start button,” suggested Horvath.

“Pac-Man doesn’t give free games,” replied Rhett. “And I’ve got to open up in a few minutes.”

“Just try,” insisted Horvath. “Push the button.”

Rhett pressed the Start button with his skinny forefinger. The familiar maze appeared on the screen. The monsters moved out of their cave and the little Pac-Man started eating. Uncha-uncha-uncha-unch. Mesmerized by the sound, Rhett grabbed the joystick, meaning to dodge a hungry red monster.

But when Rhett touched the control, something about the image changed. It thickened and grew out of the screen. This was no longer a two-dimensional video image, but a three-dimensional hologram. The Pac-Man was a smiling little sphere sliding around a transparent three-dimensional maze. Rhett found that he could control his man’s movement in the new dimension by pushing or pulling the joystick. With rapid, automatic motions he dodged the monsters and set his man to eating cookies.

Polly was not so accepting of this change. “How did you know that would happen?” she demanded of Horvath. “What are you up to, anyway?”

“Just don’t disturb Rhett,” said Horvath, pushing Polly away from the machine. “This is more important than you can realize.” His hands felt strange and clammy.

Just then someone started shaking the steel grate at the entrance.

“Let them in,” called Rhett. “It’s almost time. I don’t believe this machine!” His face was set in a tight, happy smile. He’d eaten every cookie in his cubical maze now, and with a flourish of music it reset itself. Twenty-second board.

“Hey!” shouted the man at the grate. “Let me in there!”

He already had his wallet out. Can’t wait to spend his money, thought Polly, but she was wrong. The man had a badge to show her.

“CIA, Miss. I’m looking for Rhett Lyndon.”

“That’s my husband. He’s playing Pac-Man. Do you have the two thousand dollars?”

“He can only collect one. But he shouldn’t have told you!” The secret agent was a fit, avid-faced man in his thirties. He reminded Polly of a whippet. She rolled back the grate and he surged in, looking the whole room over at once.

“Who’s the other guy?”

“Beat it, pig!” shouted Horvath.

Polly had always known Dr. Horvath was a radical, but this outburst really shocked her. “You can leave, Dr. Horvath. We have some private business to discuss.”

Rhett glanced over with a brief, ambiguous smile. But then he had to give his full attention back to the game. The maze he was working seemed to have grown. It stuck more than a meter out of the machine now.

“I can do better than the Pentagon’s lousy thousand,” hissed Horvath. “I can give you anything you want, if only Rhett can help us defeat the Rull.”

“Freeze,” screamed the secret agent. He’d drawn a heavy pistol out of his shoulder-holster.

But rather than freezing, Horvath flowed. His whole body seemed to melt away, and thick gouts of green slime came surging out the bottoms of his pant-legs. The agent fired three wild shots anyway, but they only rippled the slime. And then a pseudopod of the stuff lashed out and struck the CIA man down. There was a moment’s soft burbling while the alien flowed over and absorbed its prey.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, the ugly incident was over. The slime flowed back from the agent, revealing only a clean spot on the carpet, and Dr. Horvath’s clothes filled back up. The head reappeared last of all, growing out of the nylon shirt’s collar like a talking puffball.

“I’ll admit it, Polly,” it was saying. “I’m an alien. But a good alien. The Rull are the bad ones. They don’t even eat what they kill. We are, of course, fantastically advanced compared to you primitive bipeds. But we need your animal shiftiness, your low cunning!”

“Rhett,” screamed Polly. “Help! Horvath is an alien!” She darted past the slimy deceiver to stand near her husband, as near as she could get.

Rhett’s upper body and head were inside the maze now; it had grown that much. A glowing two-meter cube of passages surrounded him. The Pac-Man and the monsters raced this way and that. Bobbing and weaving, Rhett watched and controlled the chase. The planes of the hologram bathed his features in a golden, beatific light. The Pac-Man completed its circuit of a randomized space-filling curve…and the cube flickered to rest.

“Thirty,” said Rhett.

“Go!” shouted Horvath. “Go Rhett! Finish this board and we’ll be able to eat all the Rull worlds without losing a single ship!”

With each uncha Polly imagined a planet disappearing into some huge group-Horvath. Rull-monsters darted this way and that, trying to foil the Pac-Man, but crazy Rhett was too fast and random for anyone. She wondered what to ask Horvath for. Riches, telepathy, the power of flight?

Suddenly the board was empty. Rhett had done it again! The huge maze drew back into the Pac-Man machine’s screen. The image of a jubilant alien appeared, burbling thanks. And then the screen blanked out.

“That was our leader,” said Horvath. “We can’t thank you enough. Anything you want is yours. Make a wish.”

PAC,” said Rhett distantly. “P,A,C. P is Pentagon, A is Alien…I wish I could find out what C is.”

“You got it,” said Horvath. “Just push the Start button. And thanks again.” With a slow zeenting noise the alien disappeared, feet first.

“Was he for real?” said Rhett.

“I can’t believe it,” wailed Polly. “You just blew our big wish. Who cares what C stands for!”

Rhett shrugged and pushed the Start button. There was a sizzling sound, and slowly the machine, and then the room, dissolved into clear white light.

“Greetings,” boomed a voice. “This is the Cosmos speaking. I wonder if you could help me out?”



Note on “Pac-Man”

Written in Summer, 1981.

Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June, 1982.

I wrote “Pac-Man” on summer vacation at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My son Rudy Jr. and I had just discovered video arcades, and we spent a lot of time in them. Even though he was only nine, Rudy was much better at them than me. And now, nearly twenty years later, one of my favorite projects for teaching my computer science students is to have them write Pac-Man and Asteroids games.

When I sold this story to Asimov’s, the editor George Scithers thought it would be legally risky to use the trademarked name “Pac-Man,” and he insisted that we call it “Peg-Man.” Instead of having “P.A.C.” stand for “President, Alien, Cosmos,” P.E.G. stood for “President, Extraterrestrial, God.”

This is the first of several stories set in “Killeville,” a Twilight Zone kind of town inspired by Lynchburg, Virginia, where my family and I lived from 1980 to 1986.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Pi in the Sky

The fragmented shells beneath Jane’s feet began to flicker and sway. She took her husband’s arm.

“Let’s go back, Morris.”

“Already?”

“I’m dizzy. The sun…it’s too much.”

Morris looked at her closely, his dark eyes concerned. She leaned against him, smiling weakly.

“You’re right,” said Morris. “It’s too much at noon like this. Let’s go back to Andrew’s.”

Jane shaded her eyes and looked back along the beach. The beach sand was pure white; the hot waves were pale blue. Grand Turk Island, March 22, 1992. This was their honeymoon.

Jane’s brother, Andrew, lived here, and they could stay with him for free. Andrew made his living teaching the occasional tourist to skin-dive.

Back at the house there was nothing doing. The shutters were closed against the heat. Andrew was lying on a couch, smoking and listening to soft Hawaiian music. In the next room, Andrew’s wife Julie lay on their bed’s white sheets, reading a Borges anthology.

“You see,” said Andrew as they came in. “I told you.”

“You were right,” grinned Morris. He did not enjoy talking to his brother-in-law.

“I almost had sunstroke,” said Jane. “Morris, too. It was like being hit on the head with a hammer.”

“At three we’ll go out in the boat,” promised Andrew. “We can go down off the shelf today.”

“Great,” said Morris. “How deep?”

With slow, economical gestures, Andrew lit another cigarette. “As the spirit moves us. My equipment’s good for a hundred meters. Last week I saw whales down there. A whole pod.”

It was four-thirty by the time they were actually in the boat. Everything happened late down there. Island time. As a gesture towards assimilation, Morris had stopped wearing his digital watch. Now he was sitting back by the boat’s electric motor, happy to be doing something. Up in the front of the boat with her brother, Jane smiled back at her husband.

“Don’t forget to exhale on the way up,” Andrew cautioned her. “And stay near me. Yesterday, every time I looked for you, all I could see was a flipper sticking out from behind a reef.”

“I love it down there,” said Jane. “The flip and flow of it, everything so alive and full of color. It’s a relief from my job at the cancer labs. All the doctors do is kill things. Sad, colorless little mice. There’s a sort of blender that liquifies a mouse every thirty seconds.”

“At least Morris doesn’t kill things,” muttered Andrew. “What’s he supposed to do with those computers anyway?”

“It was something to do with breaking codes. A universal decoder. But you should ask him yourself, Andrew. You never talk to him. Aren’t you glad to see us?”

“Oh, sure, Sis. At least he finally married you. I didn’t like the way he was living off you all last year, and still not committing himself. This way he can’t bug out when he gets his degree and the bucks start rolling in.”

“Morris would never do that, Andrew.”

The sun had filled the boat’s batteries with a good charge. Before long, they’d jounced out to where the water-color changes. Near the shore it’s turquoise, but when you get out to where the continental shelf drops off, the water suddenly looks deep green. Andrew threw an anchor out and signaled Morris to cut the motor. The air was hot and damp, palpable as wet silk. It’d be good to get underwater.

“Okay,” said Andrew, relaxed and professional. “Let’s get our wet suits on. It’s cold down there.”

Morris helped Jane into the tight rubber garment. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. Somehow I never thought that I would spend a honeymoon skin-diving in the Caribbean. This is just fantastic.”

“Stick near me and exhale on the way up,” repeated Andrew. “I think we’ll go down fifty meters today. No point going much further…it gets gloomy after that. And dangerous.”

“How deep is the water here?” asked Morris.

“Down off the shelf it’s over a mile. Two thousand meters.”

“Unreal. Can we bring up some sponges?”

“I’ll give you a knife for your belt. But I don’t really like bringing live things up. They belong down there. Up here they just lie around and stink.”

Andrew checked the anchor again, and then they donned facemasks, flippers, weights and airleaves. The airleaves were the latest in scuba equipment: folded packs of special gas-exchange membrane. Instead of carrying your air in a pressurized tank, you could simply extract it from the water around you. The airleaves were, in effect, artificial gills. They made it possible to stay down much longer.

Underwater now, Jane looked up at the boat, an odd slipper-shape black against the wrinkled mirror of the water’s surface. She took an almost sensual pleasure at drawing air in through her mouthpiece. When she breathed out, the vibrations of the bubbles filled her ears with lively sound. Morris was above her, Andrew below. All around them darted bright bits of color—parrot fish, tetras, clown-fish, lupes—vibrant flecks, wheeling like shattered light. Now Andrew was waving to Jane, gesturing her closer. He’d found something. Gently flapping her hands, Jane sank to his level.

Using the butt of his spear, Andrew prodded a small, untidy-looking fish. At the first touch of the spear, the fish stopped swimming and puffed itself up. A blow-fish! Now it was the size of a basketball, all spiny and uptight. As her smile was invisible, Jane showed her amusement with a happy hand-wave. Morris joined them, and they swam a bit deeper.

It was like being at the lip of a tremendous cliff. Directly beneath them was the sandy bottom which slopes up to become Grand Turk’s beach. But a few meters ahead the bottom stopped abruptly. Fighting a feeling that she would fall, Jane swam out over the edge. A sheer wall of fissured rock dropped down beneath her, down and down into invisibility. A mile of water.

Something touched Jane’s elbow. Morris. His eyes were wide and excited behind the glass of his face-mask. With a long outrush of bubbles, he kicked himself down past the cliff’s edge, down past a group of protruding sponges. Andrew and Jane followed.

With each few meters of further descent, things changed. At one level there was color, at the next everything was blue, then brown, then grey. Jane noticed that as the pressure increased, the shape of her air-bubbles changed. Instead of being lovely musical spheres, they were now squeezed into nasty sickle-shaped saucers. The sound of the bubbles seemed like mocking laughter. The pressure, the dark, the cold…she felt so confused. Her ears hurt. How long had they been down? How deep were they? Morris was far below, darkly twitching. He should come back!

Looking around desperately, Jane found Andrew at her side. He showed her his depth gauge. Sixty meters. Was that a lot? Stay, Andrew signaled to her. Don’t follow. Then he kicked his way down after Morris. Jane held her nostrils and blew. With a sticky pop, her ears finally cleared. As the pain went, so did her panic. The satanic cackling of her air-bubbles changed to sweet chiming. Beneath the music sounded something else, something profound and solemn, some giant song that set her whole body athrill. Behind her were the jumbled surfaces of the cliff; far beneath her were Andrew and Morris, but there, out there in the depths, something vast was moving.

Strange giant fish. Two, three of them, as big as whales, singing a deep, mysterious song that Jane felt more than heard. The song had a dense, packed quality—each note was filled with hidden cadences and falls.

The creatures were pale-green, mottled here and there with ugly splotches of red. The oddest thing was that each of them bore bunches of tentacles were the pectoral fins might have been. Five tentacles per bunch. These were not creatures of Earth. Their vast, pale-purple eyes glowed feverishly. Were they ill? Their immense tails seemed to beat with an unhealthy stutter. Impossibly huge, impossibly weightless, they circled once, as if to stare at the humans, then glided off into the endless volume of sea.

Andrew reappeared, half-dragging Morris by one arm. Was some-thing wrong? Morris held his other arm against his chest, hugging something to himself. The knife-scabbard at his belt was empty.

Andrew pointed up towards the surface, then mimed bubbles coming out of his mouth. Breathe out. All the way to the surface. Jane fixed her wandering mind on that one thing. Breathe out.

Finally air, real air. Sunlight. She flopped over the gunwale and into the boat. Morris and Andrew were already there.

“What happened?” asked Jane. “I felt so strange.”

“That’s rapture of the depths,” said Andrew. “Nitrogen gets into your blood. I should have warned you. Morris here was ready to swim all the way down.”

“I was not,” protested Morris. “I just had to look at that funny sort of canyon in the cliff. You didn’t have to rush me like that, Andrew.”

“What did you do with my knife?”

“It broke. This thing, I pried it loose in there.” Morris held out the object that he’d been cradling against his chest. It was a narrow cone, six inches long and marked with an intricate pattern of black and grey rings.

“How beautiful,” exclaimed Jane. “Is it a seashell? Is there still something in it?”

Andrew took the object from Morris’s reluctant grasp and examined it closely. “I don’t think it’s a shell. A fossil, maybe, or some kind of coral. You look, Jane.”

The cone felt strangely heavy to Jane. The base and the tip were white. The tip was so fine that it curled back on itself like a wire. The main part of the cone was marked with many black rings, some broad, some fine. The base was somewhat hollowed out. Jane held the hollow up to her ear and listened, just as if it were a conch.

“It works,” she announced. “Even though it’s not a shell, it’s got the ocean sound in it. Try it, Morris.”

Morris pressed the cone to his ear, listening hard to the intricate pattern of hisses.

“Did you see the giant fishes?” Jane asked Andrew.

“There aren’t any whales today. We would have seen them spouting.”

“I know, Andrew. These weren’t whales. They were just as big, but they had tentacles. I heard them singing.”

Andrew regarded his sister quizzically. “That rapture of the depths really got to you, didn’t it?”

“This sound is interesting,” said Morris, the cone still pressed to his ear. “It sounds like the stripes look.”

Andrew’s wife, Julie, heated up a can of corned beef for supper. Almost no one on Grand Turk ate fresh fish, not even the natives. They preferred the glamour of canned or frozen imports. Washed down with bottle after bottle of Beck’s beer, the corned beef tasted pretty good. Morris told Julie of his adventure.

“There was a big rift in the cliff, a sort of canyon almost. I could see something bright towards the back.”

“You’re lucky there wasn’t a barracuda in there,” chided Andrew. “Or a moray eel. I don’t know why you couldn’t wait for me.”

“Face it, I was zonked. I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s incredible the effect that a little extra nitrogen in your bloodstream has. But I saw this bright spot back in the canyon and it looked like…like an altar. I was thinking of a movie I saw on TV one night, The Idol’s Eye. It felt like I was in some alien temple to steal treasure.” Morris gave Jane a special smile. He was proud to have done something unexpected for once. “So I entered the temple of the deep and there I found it, snagged in a big branch of white coral. Look, Julie.”

Morris took the striped cone out from his pocket and laid it on the table by Julie’s plate. Julie, a sexy, full-lipped woman in her early thirties, picked the cone up and examined its tip.

“It’s so sharp. There’s a sort of curly wire at the tip. Maybe it’s a part from some crashed airplane’s radio. Don’t resistors have stripes like that?”

Andrew took the cone. “That’s a thought, Julie. There was that big plane-crash this winter. The smugglers.”

“How did you know they were smugglers?” asked Jane.

“They never radioed for help. And no one could ever trace them. Some of the villagers saw the plane go down at night, all lit up.” Andrew turned his attention back to the little striped cone. “You know, it’s smooth enough to be man-made. And that really does look like a wire at the tip. Why don’t we smash it open?”

No!” cried Morris. “It’s mine.”

“Yeah?” taunted Andrew. “And what about my thirty-seven-dollar knife? While I was swimming down to rescue Morris, he was busy breaking my knife. And meanwhile Jane was hallucinating some new kind of giant fish. What a zoo. These two were worse than the Kansans…and that’s going some.”

“Tell them about the Kansans,” urged Julie.

Andrew gave Morris back his cone and launched into a series of linked tales about the various wackos he’d guided into the depths. Julie chimed in with details. Once they got started, Andrew and Julie could talk all night. There was still no decent TV reception on Grand Turk, and the residents were accustomed to passing the evenings in endless yak-sessions.

Jane and Morris got to bed around midnight, exhausted and full of beer. One of the nightly thunderstorms was wandering around in the distance. Jane fell asleep quickly.

At four A. M. something woke her. She lay there wondering what, then remembered that there was supposed to be someone in bed with her. Where was Morris? She lay there for a minute, listening to the rain on Andrew’s tin roof. The sound of the water made her thirsty.

She found Morris at the kitchen table, bent over a sheet of paper, making notations. His free hand held the striped cone pressed to his ear.

“Jane.” He set the cone down, then picked it up again, eyeing it in wonder. “This is unbelievable. The pattern of stripes and the pattern of sound…they’re the same. This thing is specially designed to code up a certain string of numbers. The pattern is a noisy fractal.”

“What are you talking about? It’s four in the morning.”

“Look. Look at the rings on this thing.” He held the cone out to her. There were three solid black strips around it. Between the solid stripes were lots of smaller black and white stripes.

“So what. It looks like a coon-tail.”

“How many of the big black rings are there?”

“Three.”

“Right. Three. Now look at the two areas in between the big stripes.”

“They look like each other.”

“Right again. Note that each of them is cut in half by a smaller black stripe. One small black stripe in each. That makes a bunch of sub-areas, all identical. Each of these is, in turn, cut by four tiny black stripes. It goes on.” Morris displayed a magnifying glass. “I’ve got the first few levels: three, one, four, one, five. Now listen to it, Jane. The sound is the same pattern.” He proffered the cone.

Dutifully, Jane held it to her ear. “sss-s-s-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-sss-s-s-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-sss,” went the cone. There was a pause, then the sound repeated itself: “sss-s-s-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-sss-s-s-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-sss.” Three loud hisses, each of the intervals broken up by a quieter hiss, and each of the subintervals broken by four still quieter hisses. Three, one, four.

Jane sat the cone down and nodded at Morris. “You’re right. The patterns are the same. Can we go back to bed?”

“Jane, don’t you see? If the patterns are the same, then it can only be because they mean something. There’s an endless string of digits coded up in this thing. I think it must be an alien artifact. I can’t wait to hook the wire up to a signal analyzer.”

“How would an alien artifact get here?”

“Didn’t you hear what Andrew said about an unidentified airship crashing last winter? It must have been a UFO. Those giant whale-like fish you saw…they might be the aliens! This cone is packed with alien information! I’ll decode it with my new program!”

And decode it he did. As soon as they got back up to Boston, Morris rushed into his lab and hooked the cone’s little wire up to his computer. The cone began feeding out an endless sequence of digits, apparently the same digits as were coded up in the nuances of its shading. Breaking the code was not easy, but once a very large sample of the numbers had been examined it was possible for Morris’s decoding program to produce results. On May 9th the first print-outs appeared.

That day, when Jane came by to pick up Morris, she found him in the computer room, surrounded by a crowd of people: graduate students, professors, and a reporter from the Boston Globe.

“You’re saying that you have a whole library of books written by extraterrestrials?” queried the reporter. “Can you show me the books?”

Morris and the other graduate students laughed happily.

“That’s the library,” Morris said, pointing. “Right there.”

The striped cone rested on cushioned supports in a plexiglass box. The curly little hair of a wire at the cone’s tip was fixed to a cable leading into the lab’s incredibly powerful CRAY-3 gigaflop computer. The machine’s ink-jet printer was running. A secondary knot of excited scientists stood flipping through the pages of the print-out. Not wanting to disturb Morris, Jane walked over and asked them what they were reading.

“What I’m reading?” exclaimed one of them, a distinguished mathematics professor named Slade. Morris had taken Jane to a party at his house once. “I’m reading the solution to the Riemann Conjecture. I’ve spent my whole life working on this problem and now your husband’s decoding program has found the answer in a goddamn seashell from outer space.”

“Aren’t you glad?” said Jane. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

“No,” cried the professor. “It’s a disaster! I’ve lived for nothing!”

“Don’t be a fool, Slade,” interrupted one of the others. “What if it prints out a cure for cancer?”

“What makes you think that giant space-fish suffer from cancer?” snapped Slade. “And even if they did, why should we be able to understand their cure? Most of this stuff is gibberish. Only mathematics is the same for everyone. Only the mathematicians are going to be out of a job.”

Slade’s prediction proved false. Over the next couple of weeks, information poured out of the cone at an ever-increasing rate. Morris located a section of the code which served as a sort of index to the rest of it. Like some tiny horn of plenty, the cone disgorged not only brilliant mathematical monographs, but also new theories of physics, strange alien philosophies, and a complete history of the creatures who had built it.

Each day the newspapers and TV shows were filled with all of the newest facts about the extraterrestrials:

They call themselves the “Leutians.” They inhabit a world orbiting Barnard’s Star, a world completely covered with water. The water is as atmosphere for them; they float above their planet’s sea-bed like blimps over mountains. With no need for shelter, Leutians do not have our concept of society. Information is exchanged not by crowding together, but rather by long, powerful songs which reverberate the deeps for leagues and leagues. Owing to an existence in a sea’s constant flux, the Leutian world-view is quite essentially different from ours. They lack, for instance, our belief in the primacy of time over space. The events of a typical Leutian story or myth are organized not in terms of temporal occurrence, but rather in terms of spatial location. Most Leutian physics is still incomprehensible for us. Leutian mathematics places much more emphasis on geometry than on algebra; yet they have the answers to virtually every mathematical puzzle which we have ever proposed. Leutians have three sexual genders, the extra sex serving an enzymatic purpose. Their religion is very odd: rather than regarding God as large and powerful, the Leutians view Him as small and simple. In their discussions of God, the Leutian books refer to some hidden knowledge known only as the Joke. We do not yet know what the Joke is.

And so on. Jane and Morris began to tire of it. With the incessant round of receptions and interviews, Morris hardly had time for his new wife. And Jane herself had her own interviews to attend. After all, she was the only person who had actually seen the Leutians. Over and over she answered the same three or four questions: over and over Morris described how he had found the cone. When the government decided to organize a search for the Leutians off Grand Turk, Jane and Morris were happy to join in.

Thinking fast, Andrew had persuaded the government to buy him a five-million-dollar mini-sub. With an experienced deep-sea diver as co-pilot, Andrew explored the surrounding ocean bottom, finally finding some charred sections of the Leutian ship’s vast hull. The seekers speculated that the Leutian home-planet’s air was very tenuous, and that the creatures had been badly burned by the heat of entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The red splotches, which Jane had observed on the Leutians, took on a sinister significance.

Meanwhile a fleet of ships combed the island waters, sonars a-ping. Nothing. Andrew’s further searches were also unsuccessful. One by one, the reporters left Grand Turk. By mid-June, it felt like a second honeymoon. Though Jane wondered why Morris wasn’t eager to rush back to his machines, she postponed any inquiries. In any case, as far as money went, they were fixed for life. The U.S. government was buying Morris’s salvage rights to the cone. Instead of sponging off Andrew, Jane and Morris could now pay for the ramshackle comfort of the Turk’s Head Inn.

June 24th was a Wednesday. Jane and Morris had a pleasant lunch of daiquiris and lobster-tail salad, the lobsters fresh from Grand Turk’s waters. Happy and full, they wandered up to their room from the hotel’s shady veranda. Instead of air-conditioning, their room had a large ceiling fan, right over the big, clean bed.

“Morris,” asked Jane after awhile. “There’s something I’ve sort of wanted to ask you. Only we’ve been so happy here I didn’t dare.”

Morris smiled and kissed her. Success had mellowed him fast. “You wonder why I don’t want to rush back and play with my computer.”

“Well, yes. Don’t you have to take care of your decoding program?”

Morris made a face halfway between a grimace and a smile. “It’s not my decoding program anymore. One of the Leutian books had a better one. Nothing I could ever do with computers can match what those books have in them.”

“That must bother you. Professor Slade said something about having lived for nothing once he saw the answer to his big math problem in the Leutian books.”

“Slade. Slade’s crazy. What about lobster-tails? What about the beach?”

Jane knew Morris well enough to detect an edge of bitterness in these remarks. “But you miss the intellectual adventure don’t you, Morris? Don’t you, in a way, wish we could get rid of the cone and go back to the way things were?”

“I’m sure that someone like Slade will try to get rid of it,” said Morris. “But it’s impossible. There’s no way for us to lose the Leutian knowledge. That’s the Joke.”

There was a sudden pounding on their door. “Jane, Morris!” hollered Andrew’s voice. “Come quick! The Leutians have washed up on the south beach!”

Andrew drove Julie, Jane, Morris, and the lone remaining TV camera-man in his Jeep. Grand Turk’s south beach was wild and deserted, a prime place for beachcombing. Thick seaweed clotted the water, and the ocean waves beat in just as they did a million years ago. Ten meters out from shore, out where the shallows ended, lay the three bloated corpses.

Gulls and terns whirled above them, tearing off strips of the strange flesh. One of the hulks had swung around so that its tail rested on dry sand. A pack of wild dogs gathered there to fight over the meat. The Leutians’ huge purple eyes glared up at the sky like jewels in toppled idols’ heads. The smell was wild and sweet, smoke and ambergris.

“Oh,” cried Jane, “Oh, Morris, why did they leave home?”

Morris was looking up and down the beach with interest. He and Jane had never been here yet. He leaned over to examine a blue glass sphere, a fishing-float washed from who knows where.

“Why?” repeated Jane. “Why did they come?”

Hefting the float, Morris finally met her eyes. “They wanted to get away from the Joke. They wanted intellectual adventure.”

“But what is it, Morris? What is the Joke?”

“The code numbers for their library. Their library is coded up as an endless sequence of digits, right?”

“So?”

“Well it just happens …” Morris held up the glass sphere. “You know what pi is, don’t you, Jane? Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, right? In decimals, pi starts out 3.14159265358979. There’s plenty of simple programs to generate the rest of the digits.”

“Three, one, four. Wasn’t that …”

“You got it, Jane. You’ve got the Joke. The library of all Leutian knowledge is coded up by the decimal expansion of pi. There’s no getting rid of it.”

Half happy, half sad, they stood there, looking out past the gulls and dogs, out past the Leutians, out to the living sea. Beyond that lay the sky—so big, so small.



Note on “Pi in the Sky”

Written in Fall, 1981.

The 57th Franz Kafka, Ace Books, 1983.

“Pi in the Sky” was inspired by a trip that Sylvia, the kids and I took to visit my brother Embry when he lived on Grand Turk Island in the Caribbean. I liked the idea of the regressing fractal encryption, as I'd been wondering how to store a very large amount of data in a physical pattern, this was something I'd been discussing with the science writer Martin Gardner. My story was to some extent inspired by Jorge Luis Borges 1940 tale, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” My notion of pi as a kind of universal library reappears in Carl Sagan's 1985 novel Contact.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Wishloop

Jeannie snaked her arm a little tighter around Ricky’s waist. They were surely going to kiss tonight, as soon as it got dark. To her left were gold-plated clouds and a fat ruby sun. The longest day of the year. Too bad there were so many people on the beach.

Just ahead, a knot of idlers watched a fisherman drag something in. Ricky stopped short. Jeannie tugged him to come on, but there he stopped, staring with his mouth open. Anything to do with sports held Ricky in thrall.

“Come on, Ricky, it’s just a rull.”

“Gigundo! Look at the rod bend!”

The rull came slip-slopping out of the surf, a sort of giant skate or manta ray. Rulls were from outer space. People liked to kill them.

“Gigundo!” repeated Ricky. “That devil’s got a three meter wingspan.”

Jeannie sighed. It was a shame that a smart, lively girl like herself had to date idiots. How many Rickys had she known? When would Fall and college ever come?

The rull’s flesh was pale green with filaments of red. Its main body was vaguely reptilian: a fat, sinuous croc shape and a long spiky tail. On the sides of the body were the big slimy wings that flew the rull through the water. The rull had no head to speak of: just a long mouth-slit, some nose-holes, and two little eyes backed by pouches. The mouth was soft and toothless; rulls lived on whatever decayed garbage they could scrounge from the sea floor. This one had a hook set in its mouth. A bad catch.

According to the scientists, the rull spores had drifted down from space to seed the ocean. Why, no one knew. Why do weeds grow? In the last year all kinds of unearthly creatures had appeared. The solar system was drifting through some cosmic cloud of spores, and worthless new species were cropping up all over the place.

“Watch,” Ricky said, taking Jeannie’s arm. “Watch this.”

The fisherman held a long hunting knife poised over the center of the rull’s translucent body. The stupid, harmless creature lay there shivering. Rulls balanced off their low intelligence with some modest psionic abilities. It could feel the humans’ revulsion and see its impending death.

The rull puffed up the two big airsacs behind its smeary eyes. The air whistled back out, clammy and smelly, trying to sound like words. Fwee-fwet-fwee-fwo. Please let me go. Fwee-fwaah-fwa-fwish. I’ll grant a wish.

Rulls always said this, but people killed them anyway. The fisherman steadied his knife over the fleshmound’s summit. Jeannie felt a sudden burst of sympathy for the poor thing, this poor outcast in a world it never made. She drew free of Ricky and stepped forward to lay her hand on the fisherman’s shoulder.

“Don’t. Let the poor thing go, and take your wish.”

“Rull wishes don’t work out so good,” said the fisherman, glancing up at her. “Or didn’t you know?”

The creature’s muddy eyes stared gratefully up at Jeannie. The hook, she noticed, had fallen out of its mouth. She smiled charmingly at the fisherman, working to keep him distracted.

“What do you mean?” asked Jeannie. “I wish I could free a rull and get a wish.”

Just then the ungainly creature made its move. With a huge slurping noise it flopped across the sand and into the breakers. There was a moment of confusion, and then Jeannie got her wish.

She snaked her arm a little tighter around Ricky’s waist. They were surely going to kiss tonight, as soon as it got dark. To her left were gold-plated clouds and a fat ruby sun. The longest day of the year…the longest day ever.



Note on “Wishloop”

Written in Summer, 1981.

San Jose State University Department of Mathematics and Computer Science Newsletter, December, 1988.

I wrote this on vacation with my family at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. In the Outer Banks, you always see idiots killing skates that they’ve caught. Just to publish this short-short story somewhere, I eventually put in our SJSU departmental newsletter.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Inertia

Nancy was asleep, avoiding me. I was watching TV. A six-inch butler in there making a pitch for textured paper napkins. Texture equals romance. I was clean broke, and my new wife had stopped loving me.

“Come on,” urges the midget butler, beckoning me into the tube and towards a table. The tablecloth hangs down to the ground like theater curtains. An expectant buzz filters out. I shoulder through the heavy fabric and find myself onstage. A big little audience in here. At last, I have texture, and Nancy’s onstage, too, wearing next to nothing and raring to …

The doorbell rang, waking me. Eleven-thirty Friday night, mild mid-September, Princeton, New Jersey, Nancy asleep beside me, her features all closed up. My unformed bud, my cruel mistress. I went downstairs and answered the door. Harry.

His big white face looked anxious. “I hope I didn’t wake you, I just thought I’d, uh …”

“It’s okay. I was under a table putting on a show for some midgets.”

Harry’s voice dropped. “You were already dreaming?”

“Relax. I’m still dressed. Nancy’s asleep.” I walked into the kitchen and Harry tagged along. We’d had a drink together that afternoon, and he looked like he’d been at it ever since. I took out two beers and handed him one.

“No thanks,” said Harry. He shouldered past me and shambled into the pantry where Nancy kept our liquor supply.

“Tequila, Harry?”

“Uh, yeah, I need.”

I should point out that Harry and I were both getting over a series of nasty shocks and unwanted life-changes. Rude chuckles with a negative charge. Harry’s regular girlfriend had more or less committed suicide, and the next woman he’d loved had rejected him utterly.

I’d gotten married, which seems positive enough, but just then my engineering business had gone down the tubes. “When there’s money worries, love goes out the window,” my Uncle Arpad told me once. Once you get started fighting, it’s hard to stop.

My near-bankruptcy had finished Harry right off: he’d been my research and development department. I was still making a little money with consulting, but I had no work at all for Harry. He was making ends meet by teaching high-school physics. Rumpled genius Harry was teaching at the Collegiate Academy for Young Ladies.

“There’s only a drop left,” Harry observed, holding up the tequila bottle.

“Go on and kill it.”

“I better not. Nancy’ll be mad at me.”

My tidy new wife, Nancy, my slobby old pal Harry—need I say more? Nancy was going to be mad no matter what.

“Frozen daiquiris!” I proposed. I found a rum-bottle with a few shots left. Harry snagged a vodka bottle, and it was back to the kitchen. Harry leaned against a wall, staring at the ceiling. I got ice and a can of limeade concentrate out of the freezer. You really shouldn’t be doing this, I thought to myself.

“That’s some ceiling,” Harry remarked. “The way it’s peeling.”

It was an unusual ceiling. The week after Nancy and I had moved in, the kitchen ceiling paint had blistered and burst in seven places. But it was new paint, so no flakes had fallen. Instead, there were seven irregular blobs of white underpaint surrounded by dangling ruffs of peeled-back tan latex.

“Jellyfish,” said Harry. “Invisible space-squid.”

I loaded up the blender and pushed the switch. Skazz, skazz, fwrrr, tik-tik-tik. I sampled it. Fuh. Too much limeade.

Harry read my expression. “You put the whole two-quart size in, idiot?”

I added ice. Skazz, fwrrr, tik. Pour and pour.

“Too watery.” Harry dumped his drink back in and handed me the vodka bottle. My hand tipped a half-pint in. Skazz, fwrr, tik. Perfection.

“I didn’t tell you what I’ve been teaching,” Harry said.

“I wasn’t sure you wanted to talk about it. Action equals reaction? Voltage equals current times resistance? I’m sorry, Harry, believe me I’m sorry. If I can get my business back on its feet you’ll be the first to …”

“It’s interesting to teach in prep-school,” Harry said, smiling strangely. “It stimulates my mind in a way that could be most lucrative.”

My attention level went up about fifteen percent. “You have a new idea?”

“Are you familiar with Mach’s Principle?”

“Heard of it. It’s unproved. Something about absolute space?”

“Mach says there really is no space. There’s no framework at all without matter. If there were only one object in the universe, then motion would be a meaningless concept. No acceleration, no rotation, no inertia.”

“Inertia?”

“Inertia is an object’s tendency to resist changes in motion.” Harry waved his glass. “Heft is inertia.” The glass flew out of his hand and shattered on the floor. I heard a fluting call from upstairs.

“It’s all right, Nancy,” I shouted. But already her steps were coming down the stairs, swift and implacable.

“What’s that smell? What are you doing?”

She stood in the kitchen doorway, squinting against the light. She had snub features, bobbed strawberry-blonde hair and a sweet little figure. I loved her with all my heart.

Harry squatted on the floor, picking up bits of broken glass. Seeing him, Nancy stepped back, as if from an open drain.

“Harry just dropped by,” I explained. “We’re discussing inertia.”

“I can see that. You’re going to be in horrible condition for the race tomorrow, Joseph.” My Christian name. She was unhappy—and who could blame her? I’d promised to run the Princeton Ten-Miler with her.

“What nonsense,” put in Harry. “Conspicuous consumption of body-energy. How do you think a black millhand feels when he sees you go prancing by in your seventy-dollar air-shoes?” The guy never knew when to shut up.

“You fat ugly toad, I’d like to step on you.” With that, Nancy turned and stalked upstairs.

There was a minute’s silence. The humming fluorescent light covered everything with stagnant vivacity. The rum hit me. Suddenly the big, lobed paint-peelings on the ceiling looked festive.

“Let’s go down to the basement, Harry.”

He poured some more vodka into our blenderful of daiquiris. I opened the basement door and the cats rushed out.

Downstairs was my happy place. I’d torn some carpet out of my old office and brought it here, also the desk and file-cabinet. I had a good little computer, a daisy-wheel printer and, best of all, half a basement full of offbeat tools and components.

It was the first time Harry had been down here. From the old days he knew most of the equipment by serial number, but seeing it all jumbled up differently was Christmas for him.

“Jeez, Fletch. There’s enough stuff here to build a time-machine!”

“You mean that?”

He gave me a sly look from the corner of his eye. “You got a gyroscope?”

“Sure. Yeah. Got a beauty. Army surplus inertial guidance servo. I’ve even got a transformer for it. Want to see it run?”

“In a minute. First things first.” He sat down on my desk and, no longer having a glass, took a long gulp from the chill and green and possibly protosentient fluid in the Pyrex beaker-top of our blender, a beaker-top, by the way, whose geometry was such that it could not be set down.

“Gimme some.”

Blub, chug, blub.

“Ahhhhh. ‘Sgood.”

Chug, blub, chub, blug. The beaker passed back and forth and was suddenly empty.

“We finished that too fast, Harry. Much too fast.”

“I feel pretty damn good, Fletch. I think I can do something with that Mach’s principle. The point is that gravitational mass and inertial mass are not the same thing. Gravity is like a charge, but inertia is a type of interrelatedness.”

“You’re going to build a time-machine?”

“Get your mind out of the gutter, Fletcher. I’m going to build an inertia-winder.”

I assumed that he was putting me on. “Why not smelt up some Cavorite instead? You know what I mean? That Jules Verne alloy that was supposed to shield things from gravitational attraction? Or maybe we should put together a Dean Drive and mail it to John Campbell. The gyro’d come in handy.”

“Campbell’s dead, more’s the pity.” Harry sucked a last drop out of the beaker and smacked his lips. “I’m commencin’ to feel pret-ty damn good.”

“You learn to talk that way at the prep-school?”

“The Collegiate Academy. Oh, my, yes. Those sweet girls. Bless their hearts. The cardioid curve, dear Fletcher, is, of course, a traditional symbol for pulchritudinous callipygosity, and when I speak of blessing, I think, selbstverständlich, of the censer and thurible, the spray of holy anointment, and the fullness of emotion appropriate to such …”

Maundering on in such fashion, Harry drifted over to my equipment and began hefting this object and now that. Suddenly I didn’t feel so good. I decided to leave him on his own and check out Nancy.

She was pacing up and down the upstairs hall. Seeing her, the moment before she started talking, I knew again why I loved her. Her grace, her aliveness, the way she moved.

“Dammit, Joseph, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Nancy, I was asleep. And Harry showed up, so I let him in. He’s my buddy.”

“You smell like a distillery. Talking to him’s fine, but do you have to drink like him? You’re not built for it.”

A wave of dizziness hit me then. I grabbed the banister for support. Nancy spotted the move.

“Are you going to throw up, Joe? Are you all right?”

I felt a sickening lightness in my stomach. We’d drunk that stuff much too fast. Inertia. A giant’s fist clenched my Adam’s apple. Nancy helped me into the bathroom.

When I was through being sick, she wiped my face off with a washcloth and laid me down on our bed.

“Poor Joey. Poor baby.”

“You don’t really love me.”

“You don’t love me.”

“I do love you.”

“I love you, too, Joey. I love you a lot.”

It was good in bed. Sleep came.

I woke suddenly in the dark, feeling queasy. Three, four in the morning? My mouth was an agony of salt and mucus. Water, I needed water, lots of it. Aspirin. The toilet.

Painfully I eased up onto one elbow. For some reason my body rocked so far forward that my head bumped my knees. I was as wobbly as a Macy’s parade turkey float. I definitely had to get to the bathroom.

I creaked into a sitting position and swung my legs out of bed. Inexplicably, my legs took off across the room, dragging my body behind. WHAM, I crashed into an armchair; SLAM, I hit the floor; CRASH, I bounced across the room. My arms and legs were flying around like Styrofoam cups in a windstorm. Yet none of it really hurt. With sudden sick horror, I decided that I’d suffered some kind of brain damage. I was having a seizure for sure.

Just then there was a scream, and Nancy came bashing into me. I reached out to grab her, but the force of my touch flicked her away like a ping-pong ball. The objects she smashed into took off on their own random trajectories, and now our whole room was filled with dark, crazy bouncing. This was more than brain damage; this was a major breakdown of physical law. What …

I remembered Harry. I’m going to build an inertia-winder. I rose abruptly to my feet. Error. I ricocheted from the ceiling to our bed. I struck the bed at an awkward angle, and its springs catapulted me out our bedroom’s open French windows. I was traveling much faster than it seemed at all reasonable. Our second story porch shot under me, and an instant later I’d crashed. My fall was fortunately broken by the large Spirea bush that I landed on.

For a long minute I just lay there, assessing the damages. As far as I could feel, nothing was broken. Really, I hardly even felt bruised. The night air was mild and pleasant. From where I lay, I could see the lit-up windows of our basement. Harry was down there. Harry had made this happen. But how? Something to do with inertia. He’d taken my inertia away, and now my body could be pushed around like a dandelion seed. But if I didn’t weigh anything, why had I crashed to the ground so hard? And why hadn’t it hurt?

It didn’t matter. Right now the only thing that mattered was to go down to the basement and wring Harry’s neck. Slowly, slowly, I eased myself into an upright position. I felt as unsteady as a six-foot pile of plates. When I tried to step forward, my center of gravity shifted and I fell back down. Great progress: an inch per minute.

I decided to take my chances and leap.

Once again, I overdid it. The two stories of our house whizzed past, and then I was looking down at our streetlit roof—looking down at the roof and still climbing. Although I was getting frightfully high, I wasn’t too worried about it. My body had so little inertia that my legs would easily be able to absorb the shock of landing.

Slowly, not wanting to throw myself into a spin, I leaned my head back to look up at the sky. Nothing. There was nothing up there. Low clouds? Not likely; clouds would be reflecting some of the city lights back down at us. But tonight had been a full moon, the Harvest moon. I’d seen it rising earlier when …

Suddenly I could see the moon and stars again. I was high, high in the sky. Forgetting to move slowly, I looked back down. Despite my abrupt head-movement, I didn’t start spinning. The influence of the rest of the universe was acting on me again, and my inertia was back.

Below my feet was a huge black dome, the region that Harry had somehow cut off from the world. It was expanding. The air up here felt thick again. It had inertia; it dragged and beat against me. Rapidly my upward motion slowed, and then I was falling, falling heavily. I prayed that Harry wouldn’t pick this instant to turn off his inertia-winder.

As I tumbled back through the dark dome, my speed increased dramatically. The gravitational mass of my body was the same, so that the gravity of Earth pulled me as hard as ever. Yet in here my inertial mass, the mass which resists motion, was almost zero. The trees, the streetlight, my house—they all streaked past. I tensed my bent legs against the crash.

At just the moment of impact I pushed up, neutralizing the shock. When someone jumps off a building, it’s not the falling that kills them, it’s the sudden stop. But with virtually no inertia to resist changes of motion, a sudden transition from over one hundred miles per hour to complete rest is only mildly jarring.

The whole leap had taken less than a minute. I found myself right next to the cellar door outside my house. Now that I had a better under-standing of what was going on, I was able without too much difficulty to get one of the big doors open and go on down into the basement.

“HELLO, FLETCHER!”

My inertialess eardrum vibrated wildly with Harry’s greeting. He was comfortably seated in my desk-chair. I must have jerked an arm involuntarily, for I found myself on the floor again. Glaring fixedly at Harry, I crawled towards him, close enough to reach out and …

“AREN’T YOU HAPPY?”

This time I was braced for it.

“Whisper, Harry, whisper.” Maybe it wasn’t really that loud; maybe it was the hangover. There’s no hangover worse than the one you have when you wake up at four A. M. I wondered what Nancy was doing now. I hoped she’d have the sense to just get back in bed. For some reason, thinking about her didn’t make me feel tense like it usually did. She was, after all, just another person, a person just like me …

“I DID IT!”

“You did it.” Gingerly I rose to my feet. “Please don’t talk loud or I’ll have to kill you. Did what?”

“Come see.” Moving with the caution of an arthritic eighty-year-old on glare-ice, Harry eased out of my chair and led me back to the work-shop area. Sitting on a cleared part of the floor was the inertia-winder.

It was basically just an electric gyroscope with a glob of something attached to the protruding rotor. Wound-up inertia?

“Quarkonium,” breathed Harry. “I kept some back from the last shipment. It’s a cross between matter and antimatter. Last week I ran it through some high-energy vacuum-sputtering to build up a fractal surface-geometry. A lot of the quark pairs are split up now. Once I had that going for me, I just needed a gyro to spin them around.”

“You could have warned me.”

“I didn’t know you were going to rush back upstairs. How about another drink?”

“No way. Turn that thing off now, before someone gets hurt. I was outside and I could see the sphere of influence growing. It’s just our house now, but if you let it go much longer, it’ll be the neighbors, too. I could get sued.”

Harry looked acutely uncomfortable, but said nothing.

“All right then, I’ll turn it off myself.” I leaned forward, fell down, righted myself on all fours, found the cord of the electric gyro, and yanked at it. The plug flew at me and bounced off my forehead. Harry had already unplugged it. I kicked at the gyro. The compassless rotor bobbed this way and that. The faint while of its spinning diminished not one whit.

“The quarkonium’s surface is very…adhesive,” Harry murmured. “The field-lines of inertia are all wrapped around it. It has a lot of inertia and it keeps getting more.”

“So when does it run down?”

“I…I don’t think it ever will. It’s self-perpetuating.”

“Come on, Harry. What about the Second Law of Thermodynamics?”

“This is different, Fletch. This is quarkonium.”

There was a sledgehammer over in the corner of the basement. I went and got it. It was amazingly easy to heft. I took a good solid stance in front of the gyro and let fly. The gyro skittered a few feet across the floor and I fell down. All right. I hadn’t expected to succeed on the first try. I kept at it for about ten minutes. Harry watched in silence.

Finally a lucky blow cracked the gyro’s mount. The rotor snapped free, rolled around on the floor, then spun up onto one end. The shiny glob of wound-up inertia spun there like a child’s top. All that hammering had accomplished exactly nothing.

I let my arms and legs go limp. Gravity bounced me around on the floor for awhile. I lay there. Harry stood over me, looking worried. With a quick, savage blow, I knocked his legs out from under him. Gravity bounced him around for awhile. Then he was lying next to me.

I closed my eye, imagining a black sphere of inertialessness. The sphere grew and grew. Soon it included the whole Earth. Chaos. The sphere kept growing. After awhile it included the Moon. Without its inertia, the Moon would fall down. Without any heft fighting our gravity, we’d reel the Moon in like a poisoned catfish. Eventually…if anyone still cared…we’d both fall into the Sun.

The whine of the spinning quarkonium blob seemed to have gotten higher. The thing was actually speeding up. How long did we have? Ten hours? Ten days?

“JOEY! WHERE ARE YOU?” The distress-cry of my mate.

I leaped to my feet shouting, “I’M COMING, DARLING!” Error. I smashed the naked light bulb on the ceiling with the nape of my neck. I bounced into a shelf full of radio tubes. I landed right on top of the inertia-winder. For a horrible moment the inertia-wrapped glob of quarkonium spun right against my cheek. It felt silky and sly as a vampire’s first kiss.

The light in the stairwell snapped on and there was Nancy.

“What is it, Joey? Why don’t we weigh anything? I keep falling and …” She tumbled down the stairs and came to rest next to me and Harry and the inertia-winder. A square of light from the staircase spot-lit us like three degenerates in a Tennessee Williams play.

“Harry built this machine?”

“That’s right, Nancy.” Harry was actually trying to sound friendly. I think he’d realized, as I had, that we’d all be dead soon. I took Nancy’s hand.

“Why are you just lying here? Why don’t you turn the machine off?”

“We can’t.”

“Well, what exactly is it doing?”

“It cuts us off from the rest of the world’s inertial influences,” said Harry. “You know what inertia is?”

“It’s you and Joey getting drunk again for no reason. It’s Joey and me fighting just because we fought yesterday. It’s you and me not liking each other because the other one doesn’t like us.” Nancy paused, considering what she’d just said.

“That’s all true, Nancy. And in physics inertia is an object’s tendency to resist changes in its motion. Inertia is an overall property of the universe. We only have inertia because of the stars.”

“You mean like the zodiac influences your moods?”

“Well…maybe. But I’m talking physics. This thing I put together,” Harry gestured at the inertia-winder. “This thing produces an expanding shell of unconfined quarks. Wherever the shell crosses inertial field-lines, the lines snap. It’s snapping more and more field-lines all the time. Soon the whole block will have no inertia, then all of Princeton, then the whole state and the world and then …”

“How long, Harry?” My voice was husky and brittle.

“Well, you’re asking me to solve a non-linear partial differential equation there …” Harry hummed a distracted snatch of verse. ”…fine-structured constant…hyperbolic tangent of that…oh, call it 26.34 hours. Give or take.”

“Until what?” demanded Nancy.

“Until the Moon loses all its inertia,” I said. “When that happens it falls down.”

“But why would it fall if it doesn’t weigh anything?”

“There’s inertia and there’s gravitational mass,” said Harry patiently. “This doesn’t change gravitational attraction. It just takes away the ability to resist gravitational attraction.”

“DAMMIT HARRY!” The force of the accompanying gesture threw Nancy against me. “Goddammit, Harry, what’d you build it for?”

“It would have wonderful applications,” I said placatingly, “if we could just turn it off. Like for a jet-liner. Get rid of its inertia for awhile and you could launch it with a rubber-band. Or you could use an inertia-winder for real cheap energy generation. Accelerate something when it’s inertialess, then let it have its inertia back and take advantage of the free momentum. If there were a way to turn it off, we’d be rich instead of dead.”

The spinning glob on the rotor was the size of a softball now. Nancy reached out a finger to touch it. “Ugh! It’s so soft and…greedy feeling.”

“What did you just say?” asked Harry.

“Soft. Greedy feeling.”

“That’s the broken quark-bags. But I meant Fletch. What did you say, Fletcher?”

“You could accelerate something inside the inertialess sphere and when it got out, it’d have a lot of momentum.”

Pret-ty damn good. Call the Kennedy Center.”

“What for? Tickets to the ballet?”

“Kennedy Space Center. We’ll put this sucker on a Saturn rocket and let the Crab Nebula worry about it.”

“Sure, Crab Nebula. You’ll be lucky to find a rocket that moves faster than the black sphere is expanding.”

“The change-up, Fletcher. When the rocket exhaust gets to the edge of the sphere, it gets a sudden increase in momentum. The same speed but a lot more inertia. Action equals reaction. Momentum down means momentum up. It’ll kick the whole sphere like a mule. I don’t see why …” Distracted humming again. “Yes. The system should reach nine-tenths the speed of light at…forty-seven minutes after launch. We’ll have lost part of the night sky but what the hell. It beats having the Moon land on your head. Call Max Moritz.”

General Moritz was a guy we’d done some ordnance development for, a few years back. A Pentagon big-wig. “All right. I’ll call him.”

“Where does he live?” Nancy wanted to know.

“Right in D.C. Georgetown.”

“Do you think the sphere has reached them yet?”

“I doubt it. What’s the difference? The telephone’ll work. It’s just electrons moving down a wire. If your husband can move through the sphere, then so can an electron.”

“The phone won’t work,” I insisted. “Except for local calls. Long-distance is all by microwave these days. There’s something about your expanding quark sphere that blocks electromagnetic radiation. That’s why you can’t tell if the Sun’s up yet.”

“Even if you could call Moritz, he wouldn’t believe you yet,” added Nancy. “He still has his stubbornness.”

“Not stubbornness, Nancy. Inertia.”

“This is more than just physics.” Her voice was light and amused. “People keep acting the same way because other people are watching them. You get trapped into acting out the role that society assigns you. It’s the same with matter. If all the stars and galaxies say, ‘Well, so and so is sitting right there,’ then it’s really hard to move over here. Peer pressure. It’s inertia. But now we’re all covered up together. Like kids hiding under a blanket. None of the big people know what we’re doing.” She put her arms around me and gave me a wet kiss. “Come on, Harry, you kiss me too.”

“I’d better not. You two just go on and enjoy yourselves. I’m going upstairs to call Max.”

Harry banged around upstairs for awhile. Then he was talking to someone, an operator. Nancy and I ignored him. We were enjoying our-selves. The only fly in the ointment was that I kept imagining that I saw people out of the corner of my eyes, glowing people like elves and fairies. That was just the alcohol abuse acting up on me. But making love with no inertia was fantastic, so …

“Ahem.”

“Are you already back, Harry? Can’t you see …”

“You were right about the phone. I think we better go see Moritz in person.”

I sat up and straightened my clothes. “What?”

“Didn’t you say you could jump real high? We’ll walk to Washington in seven-league boots!”

“What if we move too fast and land outside the sphere? If we landed from one of those jumps with all our inertia along, it’d be like falling out of an airplane. Certain death.”

“We’ll carry the inertia-winder with us. We’ll need it to show Moritz anyway.”

Well…why not. I began looking around for something to carry the spinning inertia-winder in.

“I’m coming, too,” said Nancy, standing up carefully.

“Aw, Nancy …”

“Yes, I’m coming.”

My Nancy. “Okay, honey. You come, too. Maybe we can see some sights in D.C. Be sure to bring your checkbook if we need to get the bus back. And what should I carry the inertia-winder in?”

“How about your old lunch-box that you used to use when you had an office to go to.”

“Good idea.” I found the old grey lunch-box in a corner of the basement and nudged the inertia-winder on in. It sat in the bottom of the box, spinning like a top, making a whining buzz against the metal. I hoped it wouldn’t drill its way through.

“Let me get us some sweaters,” suggested Nancy. “Even though it’s warm, we could get cold flying through the air.”

The trip got off to a good start. The three of us went out in the back yard, linked arms, and took off like superheroes. I’d never jumped harder in my life. It felt like we were going a thousand miles an hour. A limp wind whistled past us as we rose up and up and up. I held my shrilly buzzing lunch-box clutched in one hand. With the winder right with us, there was no danger of leaving the region of no inertia. We continued to rise. The whole suburban sprawl of Princeton was just a dotty smear of light, far, far below.

“Joey!” Nancy was worried. “We shouldn’t have jumped so hard! What’s going to happen when we land? And we’re still climbing!”

All at once the ground was invisible. As far as I could make out, we were passing through some clouds. A very unpleasant thought crossed my mind. What if we kept climbing indefinitely? What if the force of our combined jump had been enough to zap us up to escape velocity? As long as we stayed inside the sphere, there was virtually no wind-resistance to slow us down. Earth’s gravity was pulling at us all the time, slowly chip-ping away at our velocity, yet the turnaround point was nowhere in sight. We were going to rise and rise until we either froze to death or asphyxiated. The air streaming past me felt cold and thin as ice picks.

“Drop it, Fletch,” said Harry. His thoughts were, as usual, a step ahead of mine. “Drop the inertia-winder so we can get out of its sphere of influence and have the wind slow us down.”

I dropped my lunch-box, or tried to. At first it just hung there in front of me, buzzing like some giant horsefly. Finally I took hold of it and threw it down past my feet. The other two hung onto me as the recoil pushed us yet higher. The air was really getting cold now. With the clouds below and the black sphere’s boundary still above, it was utterly dark. Nancy began sobbing.

Just then we broke out into blinding sunlight. We were so high that the sky overhead was dark purple instead of blue. A terrifyingly immense dome of black curved down away from us, cutting the Earth’s spread-out surface in a vast circle. Out past it I could see the wrinkled surface of the sea, the huge expanse of the Chesapeake Bay. With any luck we’d be landing right in Washington.

“It’s beautiful,” gasped Nancy.

The air was so thin that we had to pant rapidly to keep from blacking out. But it was thick enough to stop our flight. Earth’s big gravity took over and we began to fall.

“Just remember how Superman lands in the movies,” I advised Nancy. “Keep your legs bent and push up as you hit.” Then the lovely sunlight was gone again.

Once we’d fallen back through the clouds we could make out the spread-out street-lights of Washington and its suburbs. The Potomac River’s black swath made a convenient landmark. Harry craned this way and that, trying to orient himself. Finally he pointed one of his stubby arms.

“That’s Georgetown over there.”

“The Pentagon would be better,” I suggested. “I’m sure General Moritz is over there by now. The Army’s going to be in a state of Red Alert wondering what happened. The whole city is without inertia. Let’s just hope they don’t start shooting missiles at the Russians.”

“They couldn’t if they wanted to,” Harry observed. “No radio-links.”

We were falling faster than ever. Here and there I could see other people flying through the air. Some of them looked very strange…not even like people, really. There was one in particular, a small man who glowed green all over. I tried to point him out to Nancy, but then he was gone. Probably just my imagination. A complex sound drifted up from the city, a generalized roar compounded of screams, sirens and horns.

“You all better decide where to land,” said Nancy. “Or we’re going to end up in the river.”

Indeed, the Potomac was directly beneath us, and getting closer all the time. “The Pentagon,” I urged, “over there to the right. We should throw something to the left to push us that way.”

“My shoes,” offered Harry. Hanging onto me with his left arm, he reached down with his right to slip off his loafers, then threw them one, two, off to our left. This was enough. We streaked down towards a strip of park at the river’s edge.

The landing was easy, but the one-mile walk to the Pentagon was a bit harder. Without inertia it’s impossible to walk normally, yet we were loath to try another big jump. Finally Nancy hit on a sort of modified bunny-hop. Harry and I hopped along after her.

The George Washington Parkway was an incredible scene. Some people were still trying to drive. Their cars jerked around like in a speeded up stop-action movie. From zero to a hundred and back to zero in three seconds. The vehicles kept crashing into each other like bumper cars, but no one was getting hurt.

The great lawn in front of the Pentagon’s main entrance was brightly lit by searchlights. A cordon of armed soldiers barred the entrance. The whole scene reminded me of the last time I’d been here: for the big outer-space peace-march.

“HALT,” shouted a bull-horn.

“Look out, Joey,” said Nancy. “They’ve got guns pointed at us.”

“Think Superman, baby. With no inertia those bullets’ll just bounce off us.”

“HUMANS,” hollered Harry. “WE ARE HERE TO HELP YOU. TAKE US TO YOUR LEADERS.” He’d never sounded more like a Martian.

We bunny-hopped closer. There was another warning, and then the soldiers opened fire. Just as I predicted, it was no worse than being barraged by pea-shooters. You just had to be careful that you didn’t get hit in the eye. We hopped closer.

Harry kept us his alien invader routine. “DO NOT ANGER US, EARTHLINGS. WE COME IN PEACE.” At that, some fanatic lobbed a mortar shell down in front of us. The shrapnel bounced off us all right, but the force of the shock-wave was enough to send us tumbling head over heels. Luckily, we were able to hang onto each other. We finally came to a stop against a big deuce-and-a-half troop truck parked off to one side.

“What’s with the Day the Earth Stood Still routine?” I asked Harry as soon as I could get my breath. “Why do you act like a spaceman?”

“I thought that way it would be easier to get in.”

“We’re lucky we weren’t killed,” exclaimed Nancy. “If we’d gotten closer, they could have bayoneted us, you realize that?”

“No more Mister Nice Guy,” I said. “Let’s plow this stinking truck into them. We’ve got to get Moritz to find that inertia-winder and put it on a rocket.”

I toyed with the idea of picking the truck up and throwing it, but this was unfortunately out of the question. The truck’s gravitational mass was as big as ever. The most I could hope for would be to push it over on its side.

“The keys are in here,” called Nancy from the cab. “Come on, boys.”

Bombs and tracer bullets flared around us as we barreled into the Pentagon steps. At the last minute we jumped clear and bounced to a rest against the building’s wall. The soldiers were so distracted that we were able to climb through a window.

We found ourselves in a long, brightly-lit corridor. People in uniforms hurried this way and that, bouncing off the walls and ceilings. Harry steered us right into one of the offices. A whey-faced old man in a captain’s uniform looked up from his empty desk. He seemed a bit drunk.

“Can we use your phone?” asked Harry. “We have to get in touch with General Max Moritz.”

“Good luck,” said the man, smiling wryly. “All the great high muck-a-mucks are downstairs hiding in the Situation Room. How did you three get in here anyway?”

“We’re CIA operatives,” I said casually. “We’ve got some information on the attack.”

Narrowing his muddy eyes, he sized us up. Cute Nancy, weird Harold, and Joe Fletcher the tech-freak. “You’re lying,” he concluded, and pulled something out of his drawer. A bottle. “Have a drink. Die high, as we used to say in ‘Nam.”

“Well all right.” I took the fifth of bourbon and blasted a hit.

Joseph.”

“I’m sorry, Nancy, I forgot myself.” I passed the bottle to Harry, who greedily sucked it for what seemed like a very long time. The man be-hind the desk watched with displeasure. The name-tag on his chest read: Captain Snerman.

“It’s really true,” wheezed Harry, returning what remained of the bourbon. “We’re not in the CIA, but we do have some information about the inertia-winder. I built it. I made all this happen.”

“Sure you did,” said Snerman, cradling his depleted fifth. “You and the two hundred other people who’ve already called in. What’d you use, pyramid power? Antigravity? Spirit familiars?”

There was a crash as one of the people hurrying down the corridor bounced against our door. “Not antigravity,” said Harry, “anti-inertia. I promise you, my good man, Max Moritz knows us very well. Just tell him that Harry Gerber and Joe Fletcher are here to consult with him on the current situation. Time is of the essence.”

“What the hell,” Snerman took a drink and dialed a number. “Snerman here. We’ve got what might be a lead. Two men and a woman. Harry Gerber, Joseph Fletcher, and …” He glanced up at Nancy.

“Nancy Lydon.” Of course she’d refused to change her name when we got married.

“Nancy Lydon,” continued Snerman. “Gerber and Fletcher insist that they are scientists, that they know General Moritz, and that they have caused the present crises.” The receiver chattered briefly, and then Snerman set it down.

“Make yourselves comfortable.” he said, gesturing at some grey metal chairs. He held onto his desk to keep the gesture from knocking him over. “It’ll take your message a while to percolate up the chain of command. Where is this machine of yours anyway, Mr. Gerber?”

“It’s in my lunch-box,” I volunteered, “But …” Harry nudged me sharply and I fell silent.

“This is for General Moritz’s ears only,” said Harry. “The fate of the Earth is at stake.”

Snerman shrugged, fell out of his chair, got back in his chair and took another drink. I wondered what time it was. Maybe ten in the morning. According to Harry’s calculations we had about twenty hours till the moon fell down. Of course some other disaster might take place first.

It seemed possible, for instance, that the changing balance of gravity and inertia could lead to severe earthquakes. What if Earth broke right in half? Of if the air escaped? Or …

Just then my stomach took a nose dive. There was some…person-age standing behind Snerman. It was a man made of greenish flames, a man with a goblin’s pointed face …

There was a sharp knock on the door. Two big marines with bayonets. Our escort. Moritz wanted to see us. The glowing man had disappeared with the knock. I’d probably just imagined him. You know how it is when you’re over-tired; sometimes you think you see things moving, just quick glimpses out of the corner of your eye.

There were more people in the halls than before. They were still falling down a lot, but they kept moving anyway. The best technique for indoors seemed to be a rapid shuffling motion like that of a cross-country skier. The elevators were not to be trusted, so we took the stairs. It was ten levels and three checkpoints to the Situation Room. The marines shoved us in and closed the door after us.

A huge wall-map of the world dominated the room. Built-in electronic graphics had shaded a large grey circle around D.C. To the south it took in most of Virginia; to the north it had just reached New York City.

“Harry,” called a man’s high, choky voice. “Fletcher.”

It was General Moritz. He was seated with the other brass at a long oak table. Nancy, Harry and I shuffled closer.

Max Moritz was a plump Pennsylvania Dutchman who wore his blond hair combed straight back from the forehead. His cheeks were chubby and his eyes a merry delft-blue. For him war was fun. He had the cheerful viciousness of a child who likes to torture animals. Harry and I had endeared ourselves to him a few years back when we’d invented a way to make water radioactive. It was a beam that a satellite could shine at the enemy’s reservoirs. The beam started a quark resonance process leading to proton-decay. If you drank any of our irradiated water, you’d glow in the dark. Moritz was still hoping for a chance to try it out.

“Is this true that you have caused the big blackout?” yodeled the general. He always sounded like he was swallowing something. “By thunder, I’m hoping so!”

“Yes, it’s true,” I said. “Harry made something called an inertia-winder. It snaps our ties to the rest of the universe. Inertial field-lines are broken, and electromagnetic radiation is blocked as well. The problem …”

“These men are insane,” snapped a grim-faced civilian to Moritz’s right. “Get them out of here.”

“So it’s you, Baumgard,” crowed Harry. “Still stupid and blind?”

“General Moritz!” The civilian rose to his feet, his angrily waving arms jerking his inertialess body around. He had conservatively long hair, the same grey color as his face. His suit was dark-blue with dandruff on the shoulders. I recognized him as Dr. Dana Baumgard, a very well-respected government physicist, formerly of M.I.T. Harry and I had beat-en him out on that radioactive water project. He’d never forgiven Harry for refusing to explain how our beam worked…Harry never really knew how any of his inventions worked.

“I have known Harry Gerber for years,” continued Baumgard. “The man is an unscrupulous charlatan. To be sure, he has cobbled together one or two ingenious devices. But never has he offered any scientific explanations of why his machines should work. Whatever he tells you will be nonsense, I can assure you.”

“I am thanking you for your opinion, Dr. Baumgard,” gargled Moritz. “And now I am asking you, please, to sit down.”

“We need a rocket,” said Harry. “We have to get the inertia-winder on a rocket right away.”

“To send at the Russians,” chortled Moritz. “If only we could. But these politicians are such cautious snails. I can ask permission, but …”

“Not to send at the Russians,” I broke in. “To send to outer space. The Moon will fall on us in less than twenty hours!”

“Can’t you make it fall on the Russians?” asked Moritz petulantly. “Why does it have to fall on us?”

“It will kill us all no matter where it falls,” cried Nancy. “Please don’t waste time!”

“Where is this device that you have purportedly concocted?” asked Baumgard.

“Right in the center,” said Harry, pointing at the map. “Right in the center of that big grey circle. A bit northeast of here, I’d say. We meant to bring it, but Fletcher dropped it.”

“I don’t suppose you drunken fools can give me any kind of description of what your machine does?” demanded Baumgard.

“It’s an inertia-winder,” said Harry calmly. “Basically, what I have is a rotating sphere of unconfined quarks. As you know from Mach’s Principle, inertia exists only relative to the mass of the distant stars. My device cuts the inertia-lines that stretch to us from these distant objects. Isolated inside this sphere we have only our self-inertia, which is virtually zero.”

“If we are cut off,” interrupted Baumgard, “then why is it that we still feel the gravitational attraction of Earth? Why aren’t we weightless? Surely you are not denying the equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass?”

“Of course I am,” gloated Harry. “You can feel it yourself. Your inertia is gone, but the Earth still pulls you against the floor. Unless you jump.” Harry gave a little hop and whisked up to the ceiling and back. He was really getting smooth at this. “Gravitation is a type of spacetime curvature. My inertia-winder does nothing to change that. But inertia is a synchronistic quantum-mechanical effect.”

“The stars can’t see what we’re doing,” put in Nancy. “They don’t know where we are, so we don’t have to stay still so much. Can’t you feel it? Don’t you feel…looser?”

“Shut up, Nancy,” I muttered. “It’ll be a cold day in hell when the Situation Room crowd starts feeling loose.”

“Gibberish!” declaimed Baumgard. “Complete gibberish.”

General Moritz signed. “Yes indeed, Doctor, yes indeed. But what we’re doing next, I have no inkling.”

“You’re going to help us,” I insisted. “The inertia-winder’s sphere of influence is growing. We are unable to stop it. Within twenty hours, it’s influence will reach to the Moon. With no centrifugal force of inertia, the Moon will fall down and smash our whole planet. The only solution is to send the inertia-winder away from our solar system.”

“How do you know you could rocket it away faster than the sphere of influence is growing?” demanded Baumgard.

“The rocket will have the advantage of taking off with virtually no air-resistance to fight,” said Harry tapping one hand with his broad fore-finger. “Moreover, there will be a fantastic gain of momentum for each particle of exhaust which leaves the sphere of inertialessness. According to my calculations, the rocket will soon reach near-light velocity, while the sphere’s radius will continue to expand at only a few hundred miles per hour.

“And what happens to the sphere then?” asked Baumgard, his voice carrying the wistfulness of a boy whose worst enemy has received a much better Christmas present.

“Won’t it ruin any other solar system that it runs into? Eventually it could collapse our whole galaxy!”

“You’re talking about thousands of years from now,” said Harry airily. “Millions. By then we’ll think of something. Hell, if I can just get the bugs worked out, we can fly out to turn the inertia-winder off by next year.”

There was a sudden, earth-shaking crash. Then another and another. Moritz snatched up a red telephone, his face aglow with excitement. “Is it the Russians? Can we retaliate?”

The answer he heard seemed not to be to his liking. A few moments later he’d slammed the receiver down, bouncing a little from the motion. “It’s our satellites,” he said. “They’re starting to fall down. Where did you boys say you were losing that furshlugginer inertia-winder?”

“I’ll back your plan to send it into space,” added Baumgard, his face pale and sweating. “But God help you, Gerber, if you don’t make good on your promise to go out and turn it off by next year.”

“Next year” has a way of rolling around a little sooner than you expect. Nine months after that eventful September day when we’d built and launched the inertia-winder, Harry and I were rocketing after it, strapped into a spaceship of our design. And Nancy? I’d lost her over Christmas. She’d gone to visit her sister down South, and it didn’t look like she was ever coming back. In mid-February Harry had moved in with me and we’d been hard at work ever since. I’d meant to go after Nancy, but somehow I hadn’t gotten around to it. And now I was racing out of the plane of the solar system at about ninety-five percent the speed of light.

Our spaceship was unconventional, to say the least. It was basically a big old Ford station wagon…with a few modifications. Why a Ford? Because Harry’s mother had one that she didn’t need much anymore.

We’d torn out the tailgate and rear-window and replaced them with an air lock just big enough to cycle us through one at a time. We’d beefed up the windshield with a transparent slab of titaniplast, hoisted out the engine and packed the life-support unit in under the hood. The actual rocket-drive was mounted down where the transmission had been, with the nozzles pointing out like dual exhausts. To finish the ship off, we’d sprayed everything but the windshield and rocket-nozzles with airtight urethane foams, and then coated that with a skin of reflective Mylar. It was a hell of a vehicle.

The secret of our rocket-drive was that Harry had finally perfected the inertia-winder. He’d found a way to turn it on and off, and even better, a way to keep the black sphere of influence from growing indefinitely. To move our ship we needed only to surround ourselves with a five-meter sphere of inertialessness and shoot matter out of our rocket-nozzles. Under inertialess conditions, it was easy to accelerate the matter with an electromagnetic mass-driver; and whenever matter left the black sphere of inertialessness, it gave us a fantastic push forward.

The two major factors limiting our range were, firstly, how much matter we could bring along with us for the mass-driver to throw out, and, secondly, how much power we could store to run the mass-driver. We beat the matter-storage problem by using powdered neutronium, a sort of degenerate matter massing about one hundred kilos per dust-speck. And we handled the energy-storage by using a power-pack based on unconfined quark-antiquark pairs. The thing held a charge big enough to run New York City for months. With the runaway inertia-winder’s head start, it was going to take us awhile to catch it.

So as far as rocket-power went, we were in pretty good shape. Air and food were okay too: we had a nice culture of DNA-doctored slime-mold growing under the hood. The stuff absorbed carbon dioxide, gave off oxygen, and tasted more or less like tuna fish. All it asked in return was our waste, and a steady supply of heat from the power-pack.

Physically we were all set for a trip of up to a year our time, which could come to something like three or four years Earth-time, taking relativistic time-dilation into account. Physically we were all set, but mentally, well…imagine a month-long car-trip with no view, no change in diet, no chance to stretch your legs, and with Harry Gerber in the car with you. Or with Joseph Fletcher, for that matter.

“Harry,” I whined. “Let’s turn the drive off for awhile again. I’ve got to see.” The bad thing about our drive was that when it was on, we were cut off from the rest of the universe by our inertia-winder’s five-meter black sphere. According to the Ford’s dashboard calendar-clock this was our ninety-third day out. We’d had the drive on for the last ten days solid. Sitting behind the steering wheel and staring out through the windshield, I could see nothing but our ship’s shiny hood faintly reflecting our small ceiling-light.

“We really ought to keep accelerating,” said Harry testily. He was behind me, floating there in the wagon’s roomy rear. “The sooner we catch up, the sooner we can go home. And you shouldn’t be talking to me anyway. It’s my turn to sleep.”

“I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care!” I slapped the gearshift from Drive to Neutral. The mass-driver’s irritating whine stopped instantly, and moments later the inertia-winder stopped, too.

Harry surged forward, as eager as I to look out the window. His knee caught my head a nasty jolt.

“You stupid stinking slob,” I hissed through clenched teeth. I didn’t bother to turn my head to glare at him. The view was too important to me.

The view. When I was little, my parents used to take us to visit some friends in Georgia. They lived on the Savannah River, with a dock going out into it. Nights we’d sit there, all of us, the big people smoking and talking, and we kids staring up at the sky. That was the most stars I’d ever seen till this trip. And now, oh now, great skeins and marbled streamers of light, so living, so static. I loved to look at it, to let my mind flow out of our cramped quarters, flow out into the All.

Dead ahead of us was a black dish the size of your fist at arm’s length. That’s where we were going; that was the sphere of influence of the inertia-winder we’d launched in September.

“Look how big it is,” I said to Harry after awhile. “Twice as big as the last time we looked. We’re gaining fast.”

“Or it’s growing fast.”

“You stupid stinking slob.”

“That’s twice, Fletcher.” Something in Harry’s voice compelled me to look over at the too-familiar features. It was not a pleasant sight.

“Harry, don’t look at me that way.”

That’s twice. You know where that line comes from? It’s a joke my grandfather used to tell. It goes like this; it’s an old-time story. A man and a woman had just gotten married. They got into a rented horse-and-buggy and started out on their honeymoon trip, the man holding the reins. It was a wet day and there were puddles in the road. The horse shied at one particularly large puddle, and the bridegroom had to get down and lead the animal through the puddle. ‘That’s once,’ he said to the horse as he remounted the driver’s seat. Well, pretty soon there came another large puddle. Once again …”

Garbage. I stopped listening and let my mind flow back out that window. The runaway inertia-winder was still so far off. After we shut it down, we’d still have to fly all the way back. And for what? By rights we should be back on Earth marketing our new rocket-drive…not that Harry was able to explain how to build one. Even more important, I should be back there wooing Nancy. Now that the excitement of the rocket-building was over, I missed her more every day.

”…stopped at a third puddle,” Harry was saying. ”’That’s three times,’ cried the bridegroom, and then he took out a pistol and shot the horse dead. ‘I don’t think you should have done that,’ says the bride, and the man says, ‘That’s once!’”

“Are you trying to threaten me, Harry? You’re a stupid stinking slob. That’s three times. Like it or lump it and shut the goddamn hell up while I’m enjoying the view.” Trembling with some mad rage I’d never known, I awaited his reaction.

Like a fool, he went for my neck. That was just what I’d been expecting, and I blocked his lunge with my forearm. But I hadn’t realized that Harry had a knife in his right hand. It cut deeply into my flesh.

Bright globs of my blood shot out and danced. Almost immediately, Harry showed signs of remorse. He dropped his knife and tried to stanch my blood’s flow, pressing his dirty handkerchief onto the incision.

Well all right, I’d asked for it. Typical event on a long two-man probe. But then, all at once, it got a lot worse. A glob of my blood drifted into our toilet-vent, a louvered oval in the center of the dash. The vent channeled right to the superslime, our food, our air, our good buddy, a DNA-doctored mutant tissue with no FDA approval. My blood went in the vent, the superslime tasted of it, found it good, and wanted more, more, MORE.

There we were in the front seat of our Ford station wagon, me behind the wheel, and Harry bent over my slashed wrist, an instant poised just right there, and then a thick gout, a thick nasty gout of hungry super- slime reared out of the toilet-vent all reach and menace. The slime’s distributive, ambiguous, non-FDA brain had realized a basic truth: People Are Food.

More and more of the thick, mucus-like slime came oozing out of the vent. A pseudopod, the size of a man’s arm, waved about, feeling for flesh. Harry shrank away from it, trying to scoot back over the seat. But a lax tentacle stretched out to block his escape-route. The stuff was stalking him—I guess he smelled stronger than I.

Quickly I tied Harry’s handkerchief around my wrist, making a sort of tourniquet, and then I slipped over the seat and into the station wagon’s rear. If I could just get to the laser in time! We hadn’t planned to use it till later, and it was packed in under a lot of other …

“Help me, Fletcher! For the love of God, help me!”

For some twisted reason I found Harry’s cries amusing.

That’s twice,” I called, in a voice shaking with laughter. “That’s twice, Harry. And you didn’t say please.”

“Please help me! It’s all over my leg and it’s oozing some kind of acid on me. Oh God it burns, Fletcher, it’s digesting me!”

There was the laser. I snatched it up and leaned into the front seat. The slime had woven a sort of wet cage all around Harry, a cage of thick green ropes dripping hydrochloric acid. Harry had his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around his head. A piece of slime was plastered against his left leg. Faint wisps of smoke drifted up from this spot as the acid ate away at Harry’s baggy pants.

Moving quickly, I lasered through the slime-rope that fed out of the toilet-vent, and then I snapped the vent’s louvers shut. Cut off from the main body-mass, the slime tendrils around Harry lost their purposefulness and simply flopped down over him. The acid-secretions stopped as well, and we were able to scrape the stuff off without too much pain. Harry was unharmed, except for an ugly red burn on his thigh. My wounded wrist began to throb as the adrenaline faded.

“Here,” said Harry, fumbling open the glove-compartment. “Here’s the first-aid kit. Let me bandage your wrist for you.”

“Oh no, Harry. Let me fix your burn first.”

We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Suddenly I felt better than I’d felt all month.

“I’ll turn the drive back on.”

“Good. Open it up all the way and we’ll catch that sucker by next week.” Harry’s voice was a little muffled. He was chewing a mouthful of the slime.

Our last week of pursuit went by pretty quickly. Harry amused himself by putting together a little Zeeman catastrophe-machine out of rubber-bands and paper-clips. The effect was that if you moved one of the paper-clips around in the contraption, it felt like there was a complexly folded set of forces acting on the clip. At one spot, in particular, the clip would always give a sudden jerk. That was supposed to be a “catastrophe,” in the sense of “abrupt and unpredictable change.” Harry claimed that if you called one direction “fear” and the other direction “rage,” then that little twitch of the paper-clip symbolized what he’d been feeling when he pulled the knife on me. I let him talk, and spent most of my time programming some video-games onto our computer.

As we approached the runaway inertia-winder’s black sphere, we turned off our drive more and more often to check our progress. It was important to line ourselves up so we’d be heading right towards the center. Once we were inside, our drive wouldn’t be nearly so powerful.

Day by day the sphere grew, blotting out the distant stars. Soon we could see nothing else. We blasted the rockets for twelve more hours, cut power, and coasted towards the interface. We wanted to be able to get a fix on the other rocket as soon as we entered its sphere of influence.

“How will we know when we’re inside?” I asked Harry.

“You’ll feel your inertia go away again. And our radar’ll pick up the other rocket. And maybe …”

Just then I felt a little twitch, a space-ripple running the length of our ship. A strange twinkling filled the space ahead of us.

Before I could say anything, the speaker on our radio crackled into life. “Greetings, masslings. Hail the dearth!” The voice was high and staticky, almost a random whistle. “Hail the dearth!” chimed in more of the little voices. “And sideways fro!”

Something slapped into our windshield then, something green-yellow-white and glowing, something like a living flame.

“Oh my,” said Harry.

The light-glob on our windshield twisted and flickered, forming itself into the shape of a wiry little man. His face was sharp and pointed, with a mischievous slash-mouth and great, staring eyes. A goblin.

“I’ve seen it before,” I stuttered. “I’ve seen that thing before.”

Spots of light flickered everywhere, as far ahead of us as I could see. It was like we’d flown into a swarm of varicolored fireflies.

“It’s all full of aliens,” Harry gasped. “The inertia-winder’s sphere of influence is full of aliens. Maybe we should leave, Fletcher. Maybe we should turn around before they get us. Hurry up and turn the ship around!”

I hesitated, lost in thought. That goblin looked just like the creature I’d seen in Snerman’s office. And …

“Oh masslings, flee not so soon,” said the speaker. The little green goblin bowed and capered, mouthing the words. Bits of flame scattered off his fingertips.

Another glob of light flopped into our windshield. It was mostly red and brown. As before, the flickering damped down, and the thing took humanoid shape.

“That’s a gnome,” said Harry, his voice cracking a little. “A little gnome just like the statue that Mother had in our backyard. These aren’t aliens, Fletcher, these are …”

“How do you do, and how do you do, and how do you do again,” boomed a voice as the red-jacketed little gnome bowed in turn to Harry, the goblin and me. He had muddy boots and a dense white beard. A pleasant-looking fellow.

Another shape landed, and another. A slender pink sprite with gauzy gold wings, and a blobby mermaid. They all looked…familiar, like things seen or dreamed once before.

“Come out, come out, come out and play,” sang their voices, and the eldritch creatures pressed up against our windshield. The gnome produced a sturdy silver hammer from inside his coat and began tapping at our titaniplast, as if looking for the right place. The mermaid drooled, the goblin snickered, and the little sprite made limbering-up gestures with her magic wand.

“Look out!” screamed Harry. “They’re going to break our windshield!”

“Let’s get out of here,” I cried, reaching for the gearshift. “I’m going to cut the drive back …”

But just then the windshield shattered. The gaping hole with its shards of plastic was like a horrible insatiable mouth. The air screamed out past us, while loose cargo flew this way and that. I struggled to hang onto the steering wheel, but the wind was too strong. I let it take me then; I let myself flutter out like a dead leaf. No use fighting it; we were dead for sure.

The cold nothingness of space burned into my nose and lungs, like Alpine air at first, coming on and on, infinitely empty, utterly pure. Something grabbed me by the leg, something hot—the goblin.

That should have been it…but it wasn’t. The sprite ran her wand all over me, coating me with an even, golden glow. Suddenly the frost on my tongue melted and I could breathe. No, that’s not quite right. It wasn’t that I could breathe, it was that I no longer needed to breathe. The aching nausea of suffocation went away as soon as the wand touched my lips. Somehow the sprite had wrapped me in an energy barrier and had put my viscera in stasis.

I could move around as easily as ever. The first thing I did was look to see what had happened to Harry. He was still in his seat, his legs grimly wedged against the dash. His eyes had a glazed, staring quality…frozen solid? The sprite went in after him.

It occurred to me that I was hearing voices, an impossibility in empty space. Could it be telepathy? Maybe it had been telepathy all along…I didn’t recall ever having turned the radio on, come to think of it.

“Greet thee meet in ever neverplace,” said the goblin, still clutching my leg in his hot, flickering hand. “Seekers be ye free to slide?”

“He can’t understand that,” said the gnome, tugging at his beard. “He doesn’t know what you’re talking about, Fire. I wonder what his name is?” The sturdy little man floated in front of me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

I went ahead and pretended I could talk, letting the words form in my mind. “I’m Joe Fletcher. My partner’s name is Harry Gerber. We built the machine that’s at the center of this sphere. We want to turn it off. But who are you?”

“I’m called Earth,” said the gnome. “But really I’m everywhere. The goblin is Fire, and the ladies are Air and Water. We’re elementals.”

“Wawa,” said the soggy mermaid called Water. “Wa glub.”

“Silly Water,” sang the sprite. She’d finished coating Harry with pixie-dust. “You’re all right now, Harry Gerber.”

Harry stared at me, his fishlike mouth agape.

“It’s okay,” I said—or thought—to him. “I mean it’s sort of okay. Talk to me subvocally. I’ll be able to hear.”

“We’re both dead and it’s sort of okay?”

“I don’t think we’re dead, Harry.”

“Dearth not dead,” interjected the goblin.

“Wa glubby glub,” said Water.

“We like your machine,” said the gnome. “It’s nice in here, in this big black sphere. Usually we can’t stop moving.”

“This is Earth, Air, Fire, and Water,” I told Harry. “They’re elemental spirits. Gnome, sprite, goblin, mermaid.”

“What about all the others?” asked Harry, sticking his head out through our broken windshield. There were zillions of other bright beings, darting and dancing as far as the eye could see.

“Those are all us, too,” said Earth, the gnome. “There’s only one of me, but I weave back and forth through all of space and time.”

“Me first,” corrected the goblin. “Only me in the wee, wee start.”

“I come before the start,” said Air melodiously. “I am the framework.”

“Wa glub,” said Water, waving a slack hand at the other three and then at herself. “Gaga me.”

“She means that she is logically prior to all of us,” said the sprite. “In the sense that form and becoming are more basic than substance and being.”

“Wawa glubglub,” agreed the mermaid. Her color fluctuated from blue to grey. Her lower half was the traditional fishtail, and her upper half was like a nude woman’s. But she was lumpy, by no means the sexy doll that the word “mermaid” conjures up. Great humps and bulges rippled her flesh like waves on a wind-whipped sea. Now and then a glob of her body would pinch off and drift away into space.

Nor was the sprite sexy in any ordinary sense. Her slender bubblegum-pink body was so attenuated as to be insectlike. With her buzzing gold wings, she was more like a dragonfly than a person. Yet there was something sweet about her small face, something sweet and deeply intelligent.

The goblin’s sharp face also seemed to hold some great wisdom, but a wisdom too arcane for me ever to grasp. Of all the elementals, he seemed the most familiar to me. I’d seen him, or a copy of him, in D.C. the day we launched the winder. And I’d seen him before that: in my dreams, out of the corner of my eye in cities, or on lonely walks in the woods, and most of all, of course, in fires. Have you ever stared too long at a log fire, stared so long that the darting little flames became speedy men peeping out of the wood’s cracks? Speedy men, each a goblin, each a loop of Fire’s tangled lifeline.

The gnome was the most human of the elementals. He looked just right, with dirty brown boots and pants, and with a red jacket and cap. The cap was pointed and fell over to one side.

“I don’t believe this,” said Harry, struggling with our spaceship. “This is so unscientific it makes me sick. I’d almost rather die than be saved by pixie-dust. Why don’t you…elementals tell me you’re from Betelgeuse or Proxima Centauri. It’d made me feel a whole lot better.”

“We’re not from anywhere in particular,” said the sprite, taking Harry’s arm to keep him from drifting off. “We’re abstract concepts personified. Like the electron. The electron is in each piece of matter right? Or space. Space is everywhere.”

“Not right now it isn’t,” said the gnome, with a nervous glance over his shoulder. “It hasn’t been around recently. I think that’s because there’s no inertia in here.”

“Space as squid is lurking ere wot ye …” began the goblin, but Harry interrupted.

“Well, we aren’t from everywhere. We’re from the planet Earth. And you’ve ruined our ship. How are we going to get home?”

“Can’t you fix that windshield?” I asked the gnome. “We just want to turn off the runaway inertia-winder and go back to our people.”

“Cancel dearth?” cried the goblin. “Ah, but merry it is this way, ‘tis the finest fairy-ring that ever was.”

“Prehistoric Stonehenge isn’t so bad,” put in the sprite. “We’re having a good time there, too.”

“And the time when the Sun goes nova and black hole,” added the gnome. “I’m having fun there.”

“Wait,” protested Harry. “If you’re really spread out all over space and time, then you must sometimes meet your past selves, right?”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

“Wilst probe the savor?” asked the goblin. A twisting glob of flame, green-yellow-white, smacked into my leg. Too hot. I danced aside and the glob jelled into a copy of the goblin, a past and future self.

“What about time-paradoxes?” asked Harry. “What if your past self does something that it didn’t do?”

“So what?”

“Contradictions are logically impossible,” I explained. “A universe containing contradictions cannot exist.”

“Glub gazork,” said the mermaid. And then she did something very strange. She lifted up her arms and…didn’t lift up her arms. At the same time. She winked/smiled at Harry/me. The sprite pinched my cheek with both hands. Yet at the same time she was tickling Harry.

“You see?” said the gnome. “Who are you to tell the universe what it can do.”

“The existence of the universe is already a contradiction,” amplified the sprite. “Something from nothing.”

“Glub gazork na bog du smeepy flan.”

“Slideways in the fog.”

“Tally-ho!”

“Stop!” cried Harry. “I can’t take any more.”

The two goblins put their arms around each other’s shoulders like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

“First boy,” sang the sprite.

“Nohow,” snapped a goblin.

“Second boy.”

“Contrariwise,” cried the other.

“This is all very interesting,” I interrupted. “But what’s the point? I mean, will you fix our windshield or not?” The effects of the pixie-dust were beginning to wear off and I was getting cold.

“‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree,’” quoted the gnome, “‘Where Alph the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.’ This is the sunless sea, Joe Fletcher. We like it here. If we let you keep your rocket, you might come back. You might turn our inertia-winder off. Or your leader, the mad General Moritz, might mindlessly attack us.”

“What if the sphere of influence keeps growing,” I protested. “What if all the galaxy gets eaten up?”

“That won’t happen,” said the sprite. “The thing’s already stopped growing. It’s stable now. You mustn’t disturb it.”

Harry and I exchanged a glance. I could read his thoughts like neon signs: Who cares about the inertia-winder anyway? and I like the sprite, and How are we going to get back? and …

There was a sudden screaming. It seemed to come from a great distance. One of the goblins disappeared and the other began to jabber.

“Six furlongs ‘tis and most foully beaked. The squid draws nigh to seek her prey and snaffle down these miserable victims every one!”

“The space-squid!” exclaimed the gnome.

“Oh my,” said the sprite. “Already?”

“Aaauuugh!” roared the mermaid, rippling in sloppy panic.

“Don’t worry, dear,” said the sprite. “These men are going to kill the squid after it eats you, remember?”

“Aaaaaaarrrgh! Yubba mmpf wow!”

“What squid?” I demanded, but the question was suddenly superfluous. Looming up ahead was a huge, twisty, purplish form: the space-squid.

It looked much like an ocean-going giant squid. Its body was a pen-shaped pod with a fluke at one end. The business end of the body sported eight tentacles and two extra-long arms, arms some thirty meters long and with broad sucker-pads at the ends.

Watching us closely with its huge, intelligent eyes, the creature drew closer. Its method of propulsion was elegant: a flexible funnel sticking out of its body spewed a jet of glowing ions.

Before any of us could really react (or perhaps the elementals had no will to alter a known future), the long arms’ sucker-pads had seized the mermaid. She gave a gurgling cry and was drawn away from us towards the space-squid’s bunched and writhing wreath of tentacles. I could make out a great hooked beak in the center, a beak like a parrot’s, and moments later this beak sank into the mermaid’s watery flesh.

Her screams were overwhelming. Listening against my will, I felt the slash of the creature’s beak; I felt the grip of its tooth-ringed suckers; I felt the horror of becoming food.

“Quick,” shouted Harry. “Let out the superslime!”

Yes! The superslime! I zipped into our ship and opened up the toilet vent. At first there was no reaction, but when I stuck in my hand the slime came surging after.

“Get under the car,” Harry told the elementals. “Go around behind it and wait till the squid tries to eat the superslime.”

“We knew you’d do this,” said the gnome happily. “You humans are so delightfully sequential.”

The slime was thickly feeling for me, its glistening surface athrob. I led it out through the broken windshield, out into space. As the slime was vacuum-adapted, this caused it no pain. It flowed out, bulking ever larger. Now the space-squid’s arms came reaching towards us again.

A quick, inertialess twist and flip put me safe under the car with the others. Using my pixie-dust ESP, I could pick up the feelings of both slime and squid. EAT! GRAB! EAT! GRAB!

The two met like long-lost lovers: tentacles seizing slime, slime engulfing tentacles. The hideous beak gobbled chunks of superslime while the slime’s acids dissolved great sections of the squid. In a matter of minutes, nothing at all was left; they’d consumed each other totally.

“Like an electron meeting a positron,” marveled Harry. “Now will you three fix our spaceship?”

“Even if they fix it, we’re going to have a hard time with no slime for food and air,” I worried at Harry.

“We won’t fix it,” said the gnome. “We don’t want anyone coming back out here. What’s more, Harry Gerber is going to forget how to build inertia-winders.”

“Zap,” said the sprite, tapping Harry’s head with her wand. “That does it.”

I felt a sudden horror of the void of space stretching out on all sides of us.

“Help us,” I begged the goblin. “Isn’t there a way for us to go back?”

“Go slideways.”

“We don’t know how.”

“We can push you,” said the gnome. “Where do you want to land?”

“And when?” added the sprite.

“At Nancy’s sister’s house in Virginia,” I said.

“June twenty-fourth,” said Harry. “Like it should be. Please send us back. I really don’t remember how to build the inertia-winder. I promise.”

The goblin danced, the sprite waved her wand, and the gnome put his hands on our backs and shoved. We tumbled head over heels slideways fro, and crashed down onto Nancy’s sister’s dining table.

Nancy was, on the whole, glad to see me. I moved into her bedroom, and they let Harry sleep on the couch. Our plan was to lie low for a few weeks. Everything would have been fine if Nancy’s sister hadn’t asked Harry to fix her TV set. But that’s another story.



Note on “Inertia”

Written in Spring, 1982.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January, 1983.

“Inertia” has one of the more complicated and interesting scientific premises I’ve used. I got the idea for it when hanging around with my Lynchburg friend, Mike Gambone, who did indeed have a peeling paint ceiling and an electric gyroscope in his basement. After I wrote “Inertia,” Mike gave me the gyroscope, and I kept it with me until we left Lynchburg. The transreal identities of my Fletcher and Harry characters vary, but when I was writing “Inertia,” I thought of Fletcher as Mike and Harry as me. Later I wrote a whole novel about these two characters, Master of Space and Time.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Bringing in the Sheaves

Religious fervor filled the air. Twenty or thirty rows of mutants ringed the torch-lit dais where Pally Love was holding forth. The dais was set up in the middle of what had once been a gymnasium. The gym had been part of a YMCA summer camp located on an island out in the Thomas River. The island was called Love Island now. It was the seat of Pally Love’s Millennial Church of the Mystical Body of Christ. Pally was a doughy little man with a plain face. But what a voice!

They call you gunjy mues.” he shouted. “The Montviews, the Pigyears, the Arkers…they want to kill you, yes they do. They set themselves up as mighty ones, and they seek to trample you beneath their feet. They see fit to tamper with Lord God’s new dispensation. Oh, sweet Jesus, what a time we’re having here. Oh, what a time we are having on God’s gray earth in these, the last days. And these are the last days, my brethren, make no mistake about it. I’d like you to pause…and look around, dear friends. Look at your neighbors, look at each other, and ask yourself one simple question. One simple little question. Does Pally love me? Can I let Pally into my heart? Can Christ, through Pally, bring me to a brighter day? Dear friends! If you say yes, if you say yes Pally, then you have received the greatest gift that man can receive. You have received the love that Christ has given me to give unto you. And this love …”

Meg Crash stood off to one side, watching Pally work out. Pretty good crowd of mues tonight, and most of them had brought something. The offerings were piled beside the dais: records, pieces of metal, liquor, car batteries, bags of food, even some tanks of gasoline. Pally was one of the only men in Killeville who managed to still drive a car. Pally Love, king of the gunjy mues. Not that Pally himself was a mutant. No way. Pally was fat and sleek and healthy as a prize stud-hog. That was part of his appeal to the mues: the fact that even though he was everything the mutants were not, Pally still loved them.

And why shouldn’t Pally love the mues? They took good care of him. They took good care of Meg Crash, too, for that matter, not that Meg could bring herself to really love them any more than Pally could. It was a rough job being Pally Love’s head deaconess, especially rough ever since her brother Tab had left.

“Yes,” Pally was shouting. “Come forward my darlings, drag your poor twisted bodies here and merge with the love of Christ, Christ the Son of God, the Christ whose body-cells are us. Join Him now, come join Him here and now!”

This was Meg’s signal to start helping mues up onto the dais. A kid with no legs was already out in the aisle, so Meg helped that one first. The kid’s head was all wrenched around to one side and his tongue was hanging out, but you could sense a keen intelligence in there anyway. One thing, mues weren’t stupid, even if they did fall for Pally’s line. Who could tell? Maybe he was helping them more than they were helping him. The whole giant leech business made Meg nervous…it was like the mues were using Pally to set the thing up.

“Flubba,” said the kid, rolling an eye up at Meg. “Flubba geep.”

His body tapered to a sort of point around the waist, but his arms were big and strong. She grabbed his hands and lugged him up to the dais. That’s it for you, gunjy mue, Meg couldn’t help thinking. Time to become part of Pally’s giant leech. He was probably skrenning her thoughts but it didn’t seem to bother him.

Two others were at the edge of the platform already, and Meg helped them up. She glanced out at the crowd…no one else was coming up tonight. The next thing was to undress these three. The boy with no legs wore only a long T-shirt, which came off easily enough. The next mue had a fairly normal body, dressed in jeans and T-shirt, but it didn’t really have a head. There was just a sort of cavity-riddled hump between his shoulders. No telling which hole was for what. The jeans came off smoothly, but the T-shirt snagged on the ragged head-hump and Meg had to pull really hard. The last mue was perhaps female, very pale and wearing a night-gown. Stripping this off, Meg saw that its body was like a soft porcupine, with flesh-fingers sticking out all over. How did these things stay alive, anyway?

“Are you ready to join Christ’s mystical body?” The veins in Pally’s neck were standing out; his face was slick with sweat.

Weddy, Pawwy!

“Open the tabernacle, Reverend Crash!”

Meg walked over to the side of the gymnasium and threw open the door that led to the locker room. The giant leech lived in there, a sort of group-creature made up of the merged bodies of scores of mues. It wouldn’t do to let the thing near you…not unless you were ready to join it for good. A sweet, wet smell drifted out of the locker room door. Meg could hear a heavy slithering, a sound like wet canvas bags being dragged across the cement floor. Taking no chances, she hurried across to the other side of the gym.

The rest of the mues, the ones not ready to merge tonight, followed Meg across the gym floor, dragging and flippering themselves along as fast as they could. Meg stood protectively in front of them with an electric cattle prod in one hand. Pally used his car’s generator to keep the prod charged up.

The gym floor was clear now, clear except for the little, round platform in the middle. Pally was still on the platform, still yelling, with the three naked mues at his feet.

“Can you feel it?”

Guh fee it.

“Are you ready?”

Bluh weddy!

“Do you want it?”

Wah wanna!

The tip of the giant leech poked out of the locker-room door now, and the crowd moaned with excitement. The giant leech ritual was still relatively new. Meg’s twin brother Tab had invented it more or less by accident one night…the last night before he’d taken off for some other part of Killeville. Pally had always ended his services by having some mues get up on the dais with him. Once they were up there, he’d sprinkle water and oil on them and say they were blessed. But that last night, Tab, drunk and disgusted, had filled Pally’s water and oil pitchers with concentrated battery acid.

Now the one thing about mutants was their fantastic ability to recover from wounds. If you stuck a knife in a mue and pulled the blade back out, the cut would just close up. They healed like dough, no matter what. To kill a mue you had to practically cut it in half. Their ability to regenerate tissue was one of their two big survival traits, the other survival feature being enhanced psi powers. They could read minds and see things far away. “Skrenning,” they called it.

When Tab’s acid had burned four mues’ skins off that last night, the skins had taken a few minutes to grow back. But by then the flayed parts, where the mues touched, had already grown together. Presto, a group-creature, a newborn giant leech, a grex made of four mutants. Technically, a grex is a slug-like object formed by a group of slime-mold cells. Each of the cells has an independent existence, yet for purposes of reproduction they are able to join together, crawl about, and form a fruiting body. The combination of tissue regeneration and psi power enabled the mues to form just such a grex, a leech-like creature that lived and acted as a single organism.

Pally and Meg and been doing the ritual a few times a week now for several months. The giant grex held some sixty mues. Blessedly, it seemed satisfied with its life, though there was no telling what it thought about while resting in its locker room. One thing for sure, no one was going to investigate. Just throw a bunch of food in there once a day, and keep the door shut.

Now the huge group-mutant was slithering across the gymnasium floor, sliding closer and closer to the dais holding Pally and the three mues. There were eyes scattered all over the grex’s surface, and there were bunches of hands here and there. Towards the front was a moist slit, the thing’s tooth-filled mouth.

“The body of Christ,” bellowed Pally. “The mystical body of Christ!” Not wanting to take the chance of being eaten or absorbed, he shouted a last blessing and hurried over to Meg’s side.

Kwa,” cried the porcupine-flesh-fingers mutant on the dais, “Bah Kwa!” The one with no real head made a sort of high whistling sound and now the grex was at the edge of the dais.

Each time they did the giant leech ritual, the leech looked more developed, more integrated. At first it had been easy to pick out the individual members of the grex: they’d been like the constituent parts in one of those old paintings where an allegorical face, say “Harvest” or “Spring”, is made up of the fruits and flowers of the season. The giant leech had started as “Radiation”, made up of dozens of skungy freaks. But now the grex was fully integrated, all smoothed out.

A web of veins lay under the pink, wet skin. There were eyes all over…like raisins in a pie. The bottom of the thing was covered with hair. Everyone’s scalp had migrated there to give the grex something to “walk” on. The hairs all pointed backwards for traction, like mohair on the bottom of a cross-country ski. There was a row of ears along the grex’s median line, and bunches of hands both fore and aft.

Meg’s stomach was hardened from two years’ work with Pally and the mues, but the sight of the giant leech always made her retch. Its muscular symmetry was somehow worse than the ragged deformities of the mues. Meg leaned forward, gagging, hoping she wouldn’t actually vomit.

“Stop it,” muttered Pally, right at her side. “Control yourself, Meg.”

The grex was on the dais now. It arched itself up over the three waiting mues like a croquet wicket. The long slit-mouth was only for feeding…the thing had another method for absorbing new members, a disgusting, vaguely sexual procedure. As the grex arched over the three naked mues, the one with no head began whistling louder, whistling like a tea-kettle. Perhaps it was in pain.

The hair on the grex’s bottom was suddenly wet, wet and dripping. Some of the constituent mues’ stomach tissues were down there to produce hydrochloric acid. The acid drizzled on the three naked forms, eating at their skins. Just as his face began to burn off, the kid with no legs shot Meg a hard glance, a look that said, “I know why you’re sorry for me, but you’ll never know why I’m sorry for you.”

Once again, Meg wondered who was really using who. In a sense, she and Pally were the mues’ servants…even though Pally thought it was the other way around. More than anything, Pally needed power and adulation. The normals, the people in the clans, thought Pally was a fool, a liar and a bully. Pally needed to have the mues worship him. The clanspeople didn’t think about Pally very much. If they spoke of him at all, it was only with weary contempt. The clans didn’t hate Pally, but Pally hated the clans. Oh, did he hate the clans! The less they cared about him, the more he hated them. Sometimes he would preach to the mues about leading a crusade, a holy war against the unbelievers. Until now it had all been just so much talk. But with the giant leech…or with ten leeches …

The skin was pretty well gone from the three mues now, and the grex began slowly to lower itself down on them. Its wet bottom-hair parted to expose a long red welt, a strip of naked tissue that the new mues could merge into. One of them cried out something like, “It is finished,” and then it was. The great leech lay flat on the dais, calmly pulsing.

They all sang a hymn then, and the leech swayed to the beat. Standing well over to one side of the gym, Pally gave a closing harangue and sent the congregation on its way. Meg handed him the cattle prod and went to stand by the exit door, trying to get a few more donations from the mues as they left.

“Okay, Meg,” called Pally as soon as the hall emptied. “Help me herd it back.” Pally didn’t like getting close to the big leech. He held the cattle prod out like someone holding a crucifix up to a vampire.

Just as Meg started towards Pally, the leech shuddered and slid off the dais, its long supple body flowing like water. Pally jerked convulsively, knocking loose the plug of the cord that led from cattle prod to his car outside. Moving faster than it ever had before, the leech flowed over the prod and put itself between Pally and the exit. Pally froze and shot Meg a desperate glance.

“Back to your room, guys,” shouted Meg, putting some iron in her voice. She strode angrily towards the leech. “Turn around and go back in. We’ll feed you double rations tomorrow.”

The leech raised its front end up in a questioning way. Its broad mouth was slightly parted, revealing two carpets of teeth. Its eyes shifted from Pally to Meg and back again.

Meg took another step forward, and stamped her foot commandingly. “BACK! Go back to your room, and I’ll get you a whole pig to eat tomorrow!”

Pally picked that moment to scream. His scream was lurid and juicy. The leech went for the sound. Moving so fast that it blurred, it darted over and clamped its mouth over Pally’s head and shoulders. His screaming stopped almost right away. The leech humped itself up and bolted the rest of Pally down into its gullet. It was like watching a snake swallow a rat.

Meg ran outside, locking the door behind her. As soon as the door closed, she heard the heavy thud of the leech throwing itself against it. SPLANG. The door shuddered. SPLANG.

Pally’s big car was out there running, still feeding juice into the cattle prod’s disconnected cord. Cooter, a black guy Meg’s age, was sitting behind the wheel.

“What happened?” he yelled.

“The leech got Pally,” answered Meg, getting in the car. “We better get out of here.”

The door gave then, and the leech came speeding out. Cooter peeled out, but not fast enough. The leech flowed up over the car and the engine stalled. With the mass of sixty mues, the leech had them pinned in place. For a moment nothing happened, and then the creature’s hairy underside began sucking at the windows, trying to pop one loose.

“Don’t open the door, Cooter, whatever you do.”

Cooter unholstered his .45 and fired a few shots up through the car roof. Acid began drizzling in. Now the leech was thumping on the windows instead of sucking at them. A spiderweb of cracks spread across the windshield. Cooter leaned on the horn.

Suddenly the leech slid off them. All the noise had drawn the rest of Pally’s private army out of their barracks. Five beefy guys that looked like good food. The leech wolfed down two of them, and the other three headed for the river. Cooter got the car restarted, and sped across the wood bridge that led from Pally’s island to the shore.

“Stop here,” said Meg. “Let’s burn the bridge.” Moving quickly, they got a drum of gasoline out of the car’s trunk and slopped it all over the bridge’s planks. They got back on shore and fired the bridge up. The sudden WHUMP of ignition singed Meg’s eyebrows and threw her onto her back. In the firelight, they could see the leech racing along the island’s shore, looking for the other men or looking for a way to shore. It tried several times to go into the water, but each time the current forced it back.

“It’s too heavy to swim,” said Cooter. “And the water’s too fast and deep for it to wade.”

The great leech reared itself up by the shore and began silently swaying back and forth, jerky in the fire’s light.

“It’s worried,” said Meg. “Good. It’ll starve to death out there. Thank God it’s not big enough to splash across.”

They got in the car to drive on up the hill into the city. But the road was full of dark figures. Mues. The grex was telepathically calling all mues, and they were flocking down to the river. Meg and Cooter stopped the car and stared back towards the island.

One by one the mues launched themselves into the current and floundered over to Pally’s island. One by one they went and joined the body of the great leech. In half and hour it would be two or three times as big—big enough to crawl across the river.

Cooter put the car into gear and began edging forward through the torrent of mues.

“Where to, Meg?”

“As far as the gas’ll take us.” She leaned across and checked the gauge. “Let’s shoot for Richmond.”

Cooter eased the car up the hill that led down to the river. The mues thinned out at the top, and he stepped on the accelerator.

Bye-bye, Killeville, goodbye.



Note on “Bringing in the Sheaves”

Written in Spring, 1982.

Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, November, 1986.

In the summer of 1982 I started writing Twinks, the only science-fiction novel which I never finished. I often dream that there is yet another science-fiction novel which I wrote quickly and had published in a small, fugitive edition. The elusive extra dream book is something like The Hobbit, and my hurried editor is Craig Shaw Gardner, who was my editor at Unearth. Well, that’s not Twinks in any case, Twinks was a punk post-WWIII book with radiation mutants. “Bringing in the Sheaves” is the slightly altered third chapter of Twinks.

Pally Love is of course modeled on Lynchburg’s then-famous TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, and the giant leech is his so-called Moral Majority movement.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics

I got the tape in Heidelberg. A witch named Karla gave it to me.

I met Karla at Diaconescu’s apartment. Diaconescu, a Romanian, was interesting in his own right although, balding, he had a “rope-throw” hairdo. We played chess sometimes in his office, on a marble board with pre-Columbian pieces. I was supposed to be a mathematician and he was supposed to be a physicist. His fantasy was that I would help him develop a computer theory of perception. For my part, I was hoping he had dope. One Sunday I came for tea.

Lots of rolling papers around his place, and lots of what an American would take to be dope-art. But it was only cheap tobacco, only European avant-garde. Wine and tea, tea and Mozart. Oh man. Stuck inside of culture with the freak-out blues again.

Karla had a shiny face, like four foreheads clustered around her basic face-holes. All in all, it occurred to me, men have nine body-holes, women ten. I can’t remember if we spoke German or English—English most likely. She was writing a doctoral dissertation on Jack Kerouac.

Jack K. My main man. Those dreary high-school years I read On the Road, then Desolation Angels and Big Sur in college, Mexico City Blues in grad-school and, finally, on the actual airplane to actual Heidelberg, I’d read Tristessa: “All of us trembling in our mortality boots, born to die, BORN TO DIE I could write it on the wall and on Walls all over America.”

I asked Karla if she had weed. “Well, sure, I mean I will soon,” and she gave me her address. Some kind of sex-angle in there too. “We’ll talk about the beatniks.”

I phoned a few times, and she’d never scored yet. At some point I rode my bike over to her apartment anyway. Going to visit a strange witchy girl alone was something I’d never done since marriage. Ringing Karla’s bell felt like reaching in through a waterfall, like passing through an interface.

She had a scuzzy pad, two rooms on either side of a public hall. Coffee in her kitchen and cross the hall to look at books in her bedroom. Dope coming next week maybe.

Well, there we were, her on the bed with four foreheads and ten holes, me cross-legged on the floor looking at this and that. Heartbeat, a book by Carolyn Cassady, who married Neal and had Jack for a lover. Xeroxes of letters between Jack and Neal, traces of the long disintegration, both losing their raps, word by word, drink by pill, blank years winding down to boredom, blindness, O. D. death. A long sliding board I’m on too, oh man, oh man, sun in a meat-bag with nine holes.

Karla could see I was real depressed and in no way about to get on that bed with her, hole to hole, hole to hole. To cheer me up she brought out something else: a tape-cassette and a cassette-player. “This is Jack.”

“Him doing a reading?”

“No, no. It’s really him. This is a very special machine. You know how Neal was involved with the Edgar Cayce people?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know.” The tape-player did look funny. Instead of the speaker there was a sort of cone-shaped hole. And there were no controls, no fast-forward or reverse, just an on-off switch. I leaned to look at the little tape-cassette. There was a tape in there, but a very fine and silvery sort of tape. For some reason the case was etched all over in patterns like circuit diagrams.

”…right after death,” Karla was saying in her low, hypnotic voice. “Jack’s complete software is in here as well as his genetic code. There’s only been a few of these made…it’s more than just science, it’s magic.” She clicked the tape into the player. “Go on, Alvin, turn Jack on. He’ll enjoy meeting you.”

I felt dizzy and confused. How long had I been sitting here? How long had she been talking? I reached for the switch, then hesitated. This scene had gotten so unreal so fast. Maybe she’d drugged the coffee?

“Don’t be afraid. Turn him on.” Karla’s voice seemed to come from a long way away. I clicked the switch.

The tape whined on its spools. I could smell something burning. A little puff of smoke floated up from the tape-player’s cone, and then there was more smoke, lots of it. The thick plume writhed and folded back on itself, forming layer after layer of intricate haze.

The ghostly figure thickened and drew substance from the player’s cone. At some point it was finished. Jack Kerouac was there standing over me with a puzzled frown.

Somehow Karla’s coven had caught the Kerouac of 1958, a tough, greasy-faced mind-assassin still years away from his eventual bloat and blood-stomach death.

“I was afraid he’d look like a corpse,” I murmured to Karla.

“Well, I feel like a corpse—say a dead horse—what happened?” said Kerouac. He walked over to the window and looked out. “Whooeee, this ain’t even Cleveland or the golden tongues of flame. Got any hoocha?” He turned and glared at me with eyes that were dark vortices. Everything about him was right except the eyes.

“Do you have any brandy?” I asked Karla.

“No, but I could begin undressing.”

Kerouac and I exchanged a glance of mutual understanding. “Look,” I suggested, “Jack and I will go out for a bottle and be right back.”

“Oh all right,” Karla sighed. “But you have to carry the player with you. And hang onto it!”

The soul-player had a carrying strap. As I slung it over my shoulder, Kerouac staggered a bit. “Easy, Jackson,” he cautioned.

“My name’s Alvin, actually,” I said.

“Al von Actually,” muttered Kerouac. “Let’s rip this joint.”

We clattered down the stairs, his feet as loud as mine. Jack seemed a little surprised at the street-scene. I think it was his first time in Germany. I wasn’t too well dressed, and with Jack’s rumpled hair and filthy plaid shirt, we made a really scurvy pair of Americans. The passers-by, handsome and nicely dressed, gave us wide berth.

“We can get some brandy down here,” I said, jerking my head. “At the candy store. Then let’s go sit by the river.”

“Twilight of the gods at River Lethe. In the groove, Al, in the gr-gr-oove.” He seemed fairly uninterested in talking to me and spoke only in such distracted snatches, spoke like a man playing pinball and talking to a friend over his shoulder. Off and on I had the feeling that if the soul-player were turned off, I’d be the one to disappear. But he was the one with black whirlpools instead of eyes. Kerouac was the ghost, not me.

But not quite ghost either; his grip on the bottle was solid, his drinking was real, and so was mine, of course, as we passed the liter back and forth, sitting on the grassy meadow that slopes down the Neckar River. It was March 12th, basically cold, but with a good strong sun. I was comfortable in my old leather jacket and Jack, Jack was right there with me.

“I like this brandy,” I said, feeling it.

“Bee-a-zooze. What do you want from me anyway, Al? Poke a stick in a corpse, get maggots come up on you. Taking a chance, Al, for whyever?”

“Well, I…you’re my favorite writer. I always wanted to be you. Hitch-hike stoned and buy whores in Mexico. I missed all that, I mean I did it, but differently. I guess I want the next kids to like me like I like you.”

“Lot of like, it’s all nothing. Pain and death, more death and pain. It took me twenty years to kill myself. You?”

“I’m just starting. I figure if I trade some of the drinking off for weed, I can stretch it out longer. If I don’t shoot myself. I can’t believe you’re really here. Jack Kerouac.”

He drained the rest of the bottle and pitched it out into the river. A cloud was in front of the sun now and the water was grey. It was, all at once, hard to think of any good reason for living. At least I had a son.

“Look in my eyes,” Jack was saying. “Look in there.”

I didn’t want to, but he leaned in front of me to stare. His face was hard and bitter. I realized I was playing way out of my league.

The eyes. Like I said before, they were spinning dark holes, empty sockets forever draining no place. I thought of Edgar Allen Poe’s story about some guys caught for days in a maelstrom, and thinking this, I began to see small figures flailing in the dark spirals, Jack’s remembered friends and loved ones maybe, or maybe other dead souls.

The whirlpools fused now to a single dark, huge cyclone, seemingly beneath me. I was scared to breathe, scared to fall, scared even that Kerouac himself might fall into his own eyes.

A dog ran up to us and the spell snapped. “More trinken,” said Jack. “Go get another bottle, Al. I’ll wait here.”

“Okay.”

“The player,” rasped Jack. “You have to leave the soul-player here, too.”

“Fine.” I set it down on the ground.

“Out on first,” said Kerouac. “The pick-off. Tell the bitch leave me alone.” With that he snatched up the soul-player and ran down to the river. I let him go.

Well, I figured that was that. It looked like Kerouac turned himself off by carrying the soul-player into the river and shorting it out…which was fine with me. Meeting him hadn’t been as much fun as I’d expected.

I didn’t want to face Karla with the news I’d lost her machine, so I biked over to my office to phone her up. For some reason Diaconescu was there, waiting for me. I was glad to see a human face.

“What’s happening, Ray?”

“Karla sent me. She saw you two from her window and phoned me to meet you here. You’re really in trouble, Alvin.”

“Look, it was her decision to lend me that machine. I’m sorry Kerouac threw it in the river and ruined it, but …”

“He didn’t ruin the machine, Alvin. That’s the point. The machine is waterproof.”

“Then where’d he go? I saw him disappear.”

“He went underwater, you idiot. To sneak off. It’s the most dangerous thing possible to have a dead soul in control of its own player.”

“Oh man. Are you sure you don’t have any weed?”

I filled my knapsack up with beer bought at a newsstand—they sell alcohol everywhere in Germany—and pedaled on home. The seven- kilometer bike-ride from my University office to our apartment in the Foreign Scholars Guest House was usually a time when I got into my body and cooled out. But today my mind was boiling. The death and depression coming off Kerouac had been overwhelming. What had that been in his eyes there? The pit of hell, it’d seemed like, a vortex ring sort of, a long twisty thread running through each of his eyes, and whoever was outside in the air here was variable. The thought of not being able to die terrified me more than anything I’d ever heard of: for me death had always seemed like sweet oblivion, a back-door to the burrow, a certain escape. But now I had the feeling that the dark vortex was there, full of thin hare screamers, ineluctable whether or not a soul-player was around to reveal it at this level of reality. The only thing worse than death is eternal life.

Back home my wife, Cybele, was folding laundry on our bed. The baby was on the floor crying.

“Thank God you came back early, Alvin. I’m going nuts. You know what the superintendent told me? He said we can’t put the dirty Pampers in the garbage, that it’s unsanitary. We’re supposed to tear them apart and flush the pieces, can you believe that? And he was so rude, all red-faced and puffing. Jesus I hate it here, can’t you get us back to the States?”

“Cybele, you won’t believe what happened today. I met Jack Kerouac. And now he’s on the loose.”

“I thought he died a long time ago.”

“He did, he did. This witch-girl, Karla? I met her over at Diaconescu’s?”

“The time you went without me. Left me home with the baby.”

“Yeah, yeah. She conjured up his ghost somehow, and I was supposed to keep control of it; keep control of Kerouac’s ghost, but we got drunk together and he freaked me out so much I let him get away.”

“You’re drunk now?”

“I don’t know. Sort of. I bought some beer. You want one?”

“Sure. But you sound like you’re off your rocker, Alvin. Why don’t you just sit down and play with the baby. Maybe there’s a cartoon on TV for you two.”

Baby Joe was glad to see me. He held out his arms and opened up his mouth wide. I could see the two little teeth on his bottom gum. His diaper was soaked. I changed him, being careful to flush the paper part of the old diaper, as per request. As usual with the baby, I could forget I was alive, which is, after all, the only thing that makes life worth living.

I gave Cybele a beer, opened one for myself, and sat down in front of the TV with the baby. The evening programs were just starting—there’s no daytime TV at all in Germany—and, thank God, Zorro was on. The month before they’d been showing old Marx brothers movies, dubbed of course, and now it was Zorro, an episode a day. Baby Joe liked it as much as I did.

But there was something fishy today, something very wrong. Zorro didn’t look like he was supposed to. No cape, no sword, no pointy mustache. It was vortex-eyed Kerouac there in his place, sniggering and stumbling over his lines. Instead of slashing a “Z” on a wanted poster, he just spit on it. Instead of defending the waitress’s honor during the big saloon brawl, he hopped over the bar and stole a fifth of tequila. When he bowed to the police-chief’s daughter, he hiccupped and threw up. At the big masquerade ball he jumped on stage and started shouting about Death and Nothingness. When the peasants came to him for help, he asked them for marijuana. And the whole time he had the soul-player’s strap slung over his shoulder.

After awhile I thought of calling Cybele.

“Look at this, baby! It’s unbelievable. Kerouac’s on TV instead of Zorro. I think he can see me, too. He keeps making faces.”

Cybele came and stood next to me, tall and sexy. Instantly Kerouac disappeared from the screen, leaving old cape ‘n’ sword Zorro in his place. She smiled down at me kindly. “My Alvin. He trips out on acid but he still comes home on time. Just take care of Joe while I fix supper, honey. We’re having pork stew with sauerkraut.”

“But …”

“Are you so far gone you don’t remember taking it? The Black-Star that Dennis DeMentis sent you last week. I saw you put it in your knapsack this morning. You can’t fool me, Alvin.”

“But …”

She disappeared into our tiny kitchen and Kerouac reappeared on the screen, elbowing past the horses and soldiers to press his face right up to it.

“Hey, Al,” said the TV’s speaker in Kerouac’s voice. “You’re going crazy croozy whack-a-doozy.”

“Cybele! Come here!”

She came running out of the kitchen, and this time Kerouac wasn’t fast enough; she saw him staring out at us like some giant goldfish. He started to withdraw, then changed his mind.

“Are you Al’s old lady love do hop his heart on?”

“Really, Cybele,” I whispered. “My story’s true. That Black-Star’s in my desk at school and Kerouac’s ghost’s inside our TV.”

“A beer for blear, dear.” The screen wobbled like Jello and Kerouac wriggled out into our living room. He stank of dead fish. In one hand he held that stolen bottle of tequila, and his other hand cradled the soul-player.

“Just don’t look in his eyes,” I cautioned Cybele. Baby Joe started crying.

“Be pope, ti Josie,” crooned Jack. “Dad’s in a castle, Ma’s wearing a shell, nothing’s the matter, black Jack’s here from Hell.”

I’d only had one sip of my beer, so I just handed it over to him. “Isn’t there any way out?” I asked him. “Any way into Nothingness?”

Just then someone started pounding on our door. Cybele went to open it, walking backwards so she could keep an eye on Kerouac. He took a hit of tequila, a pull of beer, and lit one of the reefers the peasants had given him.

Black-jack means sap,” he said. “That’s me.”

It was Karla at the door. Karla and Ray Diaconescu. Before Jack could do anything, they’d run across the room and grabbed him. He was clumsy from all the booze, and Karla was able to wrest the soul-player away from him.

“Turn it off now, Alvin,” she urged. “You turned it on and you have to be the one to turn it off. It only worked because you know Jack so well.”

“How about it, Jack?” I looked over at him. His eyes were swirling worse than ever. You could almost feel a breeze from air rushing into them.

He gave a tight smile and passed me his reefer. “Bee-a-zlast on, brother. They call this Germany? I call it the Land of Nod. Friar Tuck awaits her shadowy pleasure. The cactus-shapes of nowhere night.”

“Do you want me to turn it off or what? I can’t give the player back to you. You’ll drive me nuts. But anything else, man, I mean I know your pain.”

Suddenly he threw an arm around my neck and dragged me up against him. Karla, still holding the soul-player, gasped and took a step back. Kerouac’s voice was harsh in my ear.

I knew a guy who died. That’s what Corso says about me now. Only I didn’t. He’s keeping me in the whirlpool, you are. Let me in, Al, carry me.” I tried to pull back, repelled by his closeness, his smell, but the crook of his arm held my neck like a vise. He was still talking. “Let me in your eyes, man, and I’ll keep quiet till you crack up. I’ll help you write. And you’ll end up in the whirly dark, too. Sweet and low from the foggy dew, corrupting the boys from Kentucky ham-spread dope-rush street sweets.”

He drew back then, and we stared into each other’s eyes; and I saw the thin hare screamers in the black pit same as before, only this time I jumped in, but really it jumped in me. All at once Jack was gone. I turned Karla’s machine off for her, saw her and Ray to the door, then had supper with Cybele and Baby Joe. And that’s how I became a writer.



Note on “The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics”

Written in Spring, 1982.

New Blood, July, 1982.

In 1982, the literary arm of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, was directed by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, and was indeed called The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics.

I did meet a woman in Germany who gave me a Xerox of Neal Cassady’s and Jack Kerouac’s letters to each other. Kerouac is, of course, one of my all-time favorite writers, not so much for the sustained narrative arc of one novel, but rather for his sensibility and for the extreme beauty and originality of his language and phrasing.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Message Found in a Copy of Flatland

The story which appears below is purported to be Robert Ackley’s first-person account of his strange disappearance. I am not quite sure if the account is really true…I rather hope, for Ackley’s sake, that it is not.

I obtained the typescript of this story in a roundabout way. My friend, Gregory Gibson, was in London last year, looking for rare books. A dealer in Cheapside Street showed Gibson a copy of an early edition of Edwin Abbott’s 1884 fiction, Flatland. The copy Gibson saw was remarkable for the fact that someone had handwritten a whole story in the margins of the book’s pages. The dealer told Gibson that the volume was brought in by a cook’s helper, who had found the book in the basement of a Pakistani restaurant where he once worked.

Gibson could not afford the book’s very steep purchase price, but he did obtain the dealer’s permission to copy out the story written in the volume’s margins. Here, without further ado, it is: the singular adventure of Robert Ackley.

All my attempts to get back through the tunnel have proven fruitless. It will be necessary for me to move on and seek another way out. Before departing, however, I will write out an account of my adventures thus far.

Until last year I had always believed Edwin Abbott’s Flatland to be a work of fiction. Now I know better. Flatland is real. I can look up and see it as I write.

For those of my readers familiar with the book in whose margins I write, this will be startling news: for Flatland tells the adventures of A Square, a two-dimensional being living in a two-dimensional world. How, you may ask, could such a filmy world really exist? How could there be intelligent creatures with length and width, yet without thickness? If Flatland is real, then why am I the only living man who has touched it? Patience, dear readers. All this, and much more, will be revealed.

The scientific justification for Flatland is that it helps us better to understand the fourth dimension. “The fourth dimension” is a concept peculiarly linked to the late nineteenth century. In those years, mathematicians had just laid the foundations for a comprehensive theory of higher-dimensional space. Physicists were beginning to work with the notion of four-dimensional spacetime. Philosophers were using the idea of a fourth dimension to solve some of their oldest riddles. And mediums throughout Europe were coming to the conclusion that the spirits of the dead consist of four-dimensional ectoplasm. There was an immense popular interest in the fourth dimension, and Flatland, subtitled, “A Romance of Many Dimensions,” was an immediate success.

Abbott’s method was to describe a two-dimensional square’s difficulties in imagining a third dimension of space. As we read of A Square’s struggles, we become better able to understand our own difficulties in imagining a fourth dimension. The fourth dimension is to us what the third dimension is to the Flatlanders.

This powerful analogy is the rarest of things: a truly new idea. I often used to ask myself where Abbott might have gotten such an idea. When Gray University granted me my sabbatical last year, I determined to go to London and look through Abbott’s papers and publications. Could Flatland have been inspired by A. F. Möbius’s Barycentric Calculus of 1827? Might Abbott have corresponded with C. H. Hinton, eccentric author of the 1880 essay, “What Is The Fourth Dimension?” Or is Flatland nothing more than the inspired reworking of certain ideas in Plato’s Republic?

Abbott wrote many other books in his lifetime, all crashingly dull: How to Parse, The Kernel and the Husk—Letters on Spiritual Christianity, English Lessons for English People, A Shakespearian Grammar, Parables for Children, and so on. Except for Flatland, all of Abbott’s books are just what one would expect from a Victorian clergyman, headmaster of the City of London School. Where did Abbott find his inspiration for Flatland? The answer is stranger than I could ever have imagined.

It was an unnaturally hot day in July. The London papers were full of stories about the heat-wave. One man reported that three golf-balls had exploded in the heat of his parked car. All the blackboards in a local school had cracked. Numerous pigeons had died and fallen to the sidewalks. I finished my greasy breakfast and set forth from my hotel, an unprepossessing structure not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

My plan for the day was to visit the site of the old City of London School on Cheapside at Milk Street. Abbott attended the school himself, and then returned as headmaster for the years 1865-1889. Under Abbott’s leadership the school moved to a new building in 1882, but I had a feeling that some valuable clue to his psychology might still be found in the older building.

To my disappointment, nothing of the old building remained…at least nothing that I could see. Much of Cheapside was destroyed during the Blitz. Flimsy concrete and metal structures have replaced what stood there before. I came to a halt at the corner of Cheapside and Milk, utterly discouraged.

Sweat trickled down my sides. A red double-decker labored past, fouling the heavy air with its exhaust. Ugly, alien music drifted out of the little food-shops. I was jostled by men and women of every caste and color: masses of people, hot and impatient, inescapable as the flow of time.

I pushed into a wretched Pakistani snack-bar and ordered a beer. They had none. I settled for a Coke. I tried to imagine Edwin Abbott walking through this dingy space one hundred years ago.

The girl behind the counter handed me my Coke. Her skin had a fine coppery color, and her lips were like chocolate ice cream. She didn’t smile, but neither did she frown. Desperate with loneliness and disorientation, I struck up a conversation.

“Have you been here long?”

“I was born in London.” Her impeccable accent came as a rebuke. “My father owns this shop now for five years.”

“Did you know I came all the way from America just to visit this shop?”

She laughed and looked away. A girl in a big city learns to ignore madmen.

“No, no,” I insisted. “It’s really true. Look …” I took out my dog-eared first edition of Flatland, this very copy in whose margins I now write. “The man who wrote this book was headmaster of a school that stood near this spot.”

“What school?”

“The City School of London. They moved it to the Victoria Embankment in 1882.”

“Then you should go there. Here we have only food.” For some reason the sight of Abbot’s book had caused her cheeks to flush an even darker hue.

“I’ll save that trip for another day. Don’t you want to know what the book is about?”

“I do know. It is about flat creatures who slide around in a plane.”

The readiness of her response astonished me. But before I could pose another question, the girl had turned to serve another customer, a turbaned Sikh with a pockmarked face. I scanned the menu, looking for something else to order.

“Could I have some of the spicy meatballs, please?”

“Certainly.”

“What’s your name?”

“Deela.”

She failed to ask mine, so I volunteered the information. “I’m Bob. Professor Robert Ackley of Gray University.”

“And what do you profess?” She set the plate of meatballs down with an encouraging click.

“Mathematics. I study the fourth dimension, just as Abbott did. Have you really read Flatland?”

Deela glanced down the counter, as if fearful of being overheard. “I have not read it. I …”

The Sikh interrupted then, calling for butter on his rice. I sampled one of the meatballs. It was hot and dry as desert sand.

“Could I have another Coke, please?”

“Are you rich?” Deela whispered unexpectedly.

Was she hoping for a date with me? Well, why not? This was the longest conversation I’d had with anyone since coming to London. “I’m well-off,” I said, hoping to make myself attractive. “I have a good position, and I am unmarried. Would you like to have dinner with me?”

This proposal seemed to surprise Deela. She covered her mouth with one hand and burst into high laughter. Admittedly I am no ladies’ man, but this really seemed too rude to bear. I put away my book and rose to my feet.

“What do I owe you?”

“I’m sorry I laughed, Robert. You surprised me. Perhaps I will have dinner with you someday.” She lowered her voice and leaned closer. “Downstairs here there is something you should see. I was hoping that you might pay to see it.”

It seemed very hot and close in this little restaurant. The inclination of the Sikh’s turban indicated that he was listening to our conversation. I had made a fool of myself. It was time to go. Stiffly I paid the bill and left. Only when I stepped out on the street and looked at my change did I realize that Deela had given me a note.

-----

Robert—

Flatland is in the basement of our shop. Come back at closing time and I will show it to you. Please bring one hundred pounds. My father is ill.

Deela.

-----

I turned and started back into the shop. But Deela made a worried face and placed her fingers on her lips. Very well, I could wait. Closing time, I noted, was ten P. M.

I spent the rest of the day in the British Museum, ferreting out obscure books on the fourth dimension. For the first time I was able to hold in my hands a copy of J. K. F. Zöllner’s 1878 book, Transcendental Physics. Here I read how a spirit from hyperspace would be able to enter a closed room by coming in, not through walls or ceiling, but through the “side” of the room lying open to the fourth dimension.

Four-dimensional spirits…long sought, but never found! Smiling a bit at Zöllner’s gullibility, I set his book down and reread Deela’s note. Flatland is in the basement of our shop. What could she mean by this? Had they perhaps found Abbott’s original manuscript in the ruined foundations of the old City School? Or did she mean something more literal, something more incredible, something more bizarre than spirits from the fourth dimension?

The whole time in the library, I had the feeling that someone was watching me. When I stepped back onto the street, I realized that I was indeed being followed. It was the Sikh, his obstinate turban always half a block behind me. Finally I lost him by going into a movie theater, leaving by the rear exit, and dashing into the nearest pub.

I passed a bland few hours there, drinking the warm beer and eating the stodgy food. Finally it was ten P. M.

Deela was waiting for me in the darkened shop. She let me in and locked the door behind me.

“Did you bring the money?”

The empty shop felt very private. Deela’s breath was spicy and close. What had I really come for?

“Flatland,” stated Deela, “is in the basement. Did you bring the money?”

I gave her a fifty-pound note. She flattened it out and held it up to examine it by the street-light. Suddenly there was a rapping on the door. The Sikh!

“Quick!” Deela took me by the arm and rushed me behind the counter and down a narrow hallway. “Down there,” she said, indicating a door. “I’ll get rid of him.” She trotted back out to the front of the shop.

Breathless with fear and excitement, I opened the shabby door and stepped down onto the dark stairs.

The door swung closed behind me, muffling the sound of Deela’s voice. She was arguing with the Sikh, though without letting him in. I moved my head this way and that, trying to make out what lay in the basement. Deela’s faint voice grew shriller. There was what looked like a ball of light floating at the foot of the stairs. An oddly patterned ball of light some three feet across. I went down a few more steps to have a closer look. The thing was sort of like a huge lens, a lens looking onto …

Just then there came the sound of shattering glass. The Sikh had smashed his way in! The clangor of the shop’s burglar alarm drowned out Deela’s wild screams. Footsteps pounded close by and the door at the head of the stairs flew open.

“Come back up, Professor Ackley,” called the Sikh. His voice was high and desperate. “You are in great danger.”

But I couldn’t tear myself away from the glowing sphere. It appeared to be an Einstein-Rosen bridge, a space-tunnel leading into another universe. The other universe seemed to contain only one thing: an endless glowing plane filled with moving forms. Flatland.

The Sikh came clattering down the stairs. My legs made a decision. I leaped forward, through the space-tunnel and into another world.

I landed on all fours…there was a sort of floor about a yard below the plane of Flatland. When I stood up, it was as if I were standing waist-deep in an endless, shiny lake. My fall through the Flatlanders’ space had smashed up one of their houses. Several of them were nosing at my waist, wondering what I was. To my surprise, I could feel their touch quite distinctly. They seemed to have a thickness of several millimeters.

The mouth of the space-tunnel was right overhead, a dark sphere framing the Sikh’s excited little face. He reached down as if to grab me. I quickly squatted down beneath the plane of Flatland and crawled away across the firm, smooth floor. The hazy, bright space shimmered overhead like an endless soap-film, effectively shielding me from the Sikh.

I could hear the sound of more footsteps on the stairs. Deela? There were cries, a gunshot, and then silence. I poked my head back up, being careful not to bump any Flatlanders. The dark opening of the space-tunnel was empty. I was safe, safe in Flatland. I rose up to my full height and surveyed the region around me.

I was standing in the middle of a “street,” that is to say, in the middle of a clear path lined with Flatland houses on either side. The houses had the form of large squares and rectangles, three to five feet on a side. The Flatlanders themselves were as Abbott has described them: women are short Lines with a bright eye at one end, the soldiers are very sharp isosceles Triangles, and there are Squares, Pentagons and other Polygons as well. The adults are, on the average, about twelve inches across.

The buildings that lined my street bore signs in the form of strings of colored dots along their outer walls. To my right was the house of a childless Hexagon and his wife. To my left was the home of an equilateral Triangle, proud father of three little Squares. The Triangle’s door, a hinged line segment, stood ajar. One of his children, who had been playing in the street, sped inside, frightened by my appearance. The plane of Flatland cut me at the waist and arms, giving me the appearance of a large blob flanked by two smaller blobs—a weird and uncanny spectacle, to be sure.

Now the Triangle stuck his eye out of his door to study me. I could feel his excited voice vibrating the space touching my waist. Flatland seemed to made of a sort of jelly, perhaps one-sixteenth of an inch thick.

Suddenly I heard Deela calling to me. I looked back at the dark mouth of the tunnel, floating about eight feet above the mysterious ground on which I stood. I walked towards it, staying in the middle of the street. The little line-segment doors slammed as I walked past, and I could look down at the Flatlanders cowering in their homes.

I stopped under the tunnel’s mouth and looked up at Deela. She was holding a coiled-up rope-ladder.

“Do you want to come out now, Robert?” There was something cold and unpleasant about her voice.

“What happened to the Sikh?”

“He will not bother us again. How much money do you have with you?”

I recalled that so far I had only paid her half of the hundred pounds. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you the rest of the money.” But how could she even think of money with a wonder like this to …

I felt a sharp pain in the small of my back, then another. I whirled around to see a platoon of two dozen Flatland soldiers bearing down on me. Two of them had stuck into my back like knives. I wrenched them out, lifted them free of their space, and threw them into the next block. I was bleeding! Blade-thick and tough-skinned, these soldiers were a real threat. One by one, I picked them up by their blunt ends and set them down inside the nearest building. I kept them locked in by propping my side against the door.

“If you give me all your money, Robert,” said Deela, “then I will lower this rope-ladder.”

It was then that I finally grasped the desperation of my situation. Barring Deela’s help, there was no possible way for me to get up to the mouth of the tunnel. And Deela would not help unless I handed over all my cash…some three hundred pounds. The Sikh, whom I had mistakenly thought of as enemy, had been trying to save me from Deela’s trap!

“Come on,” she said. “I don’t have all night.”

There were some more soldiers coming down the street after me. I reached back to feel my wounds. My hand came away wet with blood. It was interesting here, but it was clearly time to leave.

“Very well, you nasty little thief. Here is all the money I have. Three hundred pounds. The police, I assure you, will hear of this.” I drew the bills out and held them up to the tunnel-mouth. Deela reached through, snatched the money, and then disappeared. The new troop of soldiers was almost upon me.

“Hurry!” I shouted. “Hurry up with the ladder! I need medical attention!” Moving quickly, I scooped up the soldiers as they came. One got past my hand and stabbed me in the stomach. I grew angry, and dealt with the remaining soldiers by poking out their hearts.

When I was free to look up at the tunnel-mouth again. I saw a sight to chill the blood. I was the Sikh, eyes glazed in death, his arms dangling down towards me. I realized that Deela had shot him. I grabbed one of his hands and pulled, hoping to lift myself up into the tunnel. But the corpse slid down, crashed through Flatland, and thudded onto the floor at my feet.

“Deela!” I screamed. “For the love of God!”

Her face appeared again…but she was no longer holding the rope-ladder. In its stead she held a pistol. Of course it would not do to set me free. I would make difficulties. With my body already safe in this dimensional oubliette, it would be nonsense to set me free. Deela aimed her gun.

As before, I ducked below Flatland’s opalescent surface and crawled for dear life. Deela didn’t even bother shooting.

“Goodbye, Robert,” I heard her calling. “Stay away from the tunnel or else!” This was followed by her laughter, her footsteps, the slamming of the cellar door, and then silence.

That was two days ago. My wounds have healed. The Sikh has grown stiff. I made several repellent efforts to use his corpse as a ladder or grappling-hook, but to no avail. The tunnel-mouth is too high, and I am constantly distracted by the attacks of the isosceles Triangles.

But my situation is not entirely desperate. The Flatlanders are, I have learned, edible, with a taste something like very moist smoked salmon. It takes quite a few of them to make a meal, but they are plentiful, and they are easy to catch. No matter how tightly they lock their doors, they never know when the five globs of my fingers will appear like Zöllner’s spirits to snatch them away.

I have filled the margins of my beloved old Flatland now. It is time to move on. Somewhere there may be another tunnel. Before leaving, I will throw this message up through the tunnel-mouth. It will lie beneath the basement stairs, and someday someone will find it.

Farewell, reader, and do not pity me. I was but a poor laborer in the vineyard of knowledge—and now I have become the Lord of Flatland.



Note on “Message Found in a Copy of Flatland”

Written in Summer, 1982.

The 57th Franz Kafka, Ace Books, 1983.

My friend and fellow fourth-dimension maven Thomas Banchoff of Brown University traveled to London one summer to dig up information about Edwin Abbott. This story is my concept of what happened to him, although somehow Banchoff (or someone who says he is Banchoff) seems to have made it back to the States.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Plastic Letters

“Someone who, dreaming, says ‘I am dreaming,’ even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream ‘it is raining,’ while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty.

Wittgenstein wrote these words two days before his death on April 29, 1951. He died of cancer. I see my typewriter, its plastic keys. I press the plastic letters and write these words. Am I a mumbling dreamer? And you?

Before I came here I lived in a UFO, a spaceship called Star Nine. My “brother” and I were set down in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. We attended private schools. He went into the wood business, and I became a science-fiction writer.

I first remembered about Star Nine one night in 1964 after drinking a fifth of scotch. I told my brother about it and started choking him when he didn’t believe me. But the next day he admitted I was right.

The way Star Nine sends a person down is to aim a green laser-beam. The beam shudders like, and there’s a new fake Earthling. When we first got here, I was a five-year-old boy, and my brother was ten. It was in a cow pasture with a barbed-wire fence. We started crying and ran home. Star Nine had beamed memories to our “parents,” a childless couple just moving into town.

I am free to reveal all this because by the time you read this “I” will be gone. There are enough of us now to accomplish our task, the theft of your reality. You will dream on as before, there will be stimuli to mutter about, but the world will be absent. It is as if a farmer were to catch and make off with the rain of Wittgenstein’s dreamer. So that the dreamer will not be disturbed, the farmer sets up, in the now-empty night, a cassette-player with a tape of “Rain.” Splish-splash, gut-buckets of Iowa rain, and the corn rustling, all magnetic signals on a plastic tape. Miles off are Tenniel’s “mome raths” (us), orange pigs with bunches of pink worms for tails, we are the farmer, we are the rain without stopping. I eye “I,” to eat the exhale/inhale, day/night, summer/winter, parent/child, one/many, the broken clock all gone.



Note on “Plastic Letters”

Written in November, 1982.

Live From the Stagger Café, #5, Summer, 1987.

“Plastic Letters” is a quick vision that was inspired by a dream. It also represents the starting seed for my novel, The Secret of Life, in which the teenage hero learns that he is a saucer alien. Live From the Stagger Café was a little zine edited by Luke McGuff in Minneapolis. The story title is taken from the name of an album by the group Blondie.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Monument to the Third International

For Henry and Diana Vaughan.

A draft plucked at Luanne Carrandine’s blonde hair. Visions of claws, shadows of deliverance.

“You see?” her salesgirl was saying. “There’s a hole in the floor, Mrs. Carrandine. Thank goodness no one fell in!”

A thick mist was drifting up, mist thick and slow as ketchup. A tendril snaked up to encircle Luanne’s calf. She caught a whiff of the stuff then, and tiny voices seemed to call from every corner. Luanne shook her head and widened her eyes. Come on, she thought to herself, this is Monday morning, Luanne baby, it’s get-it-together time. The facts, please.

The facts: There is a big, round hole in the floor of the dressing-room of Luanne and Garvey Carrandine’s dress-shop. The hole is oozing smoke. Bummer. Rain-gray post-holiday Monday, down there in Killeville, Virginia, man, and the goddamned store is like falling apart. At least I don’t have hair on my face.

The mist gave off an electric ozone charge. Breathing it, Luanne felt good, tight, strong, tingly.

“Is that the basement?” her salesgirl inquired

“There isn’t any basement,” said Luanne. “None of the plaza stores have basements, baby. There’s just a concrete slab, and garbage under that. Who found the hole? Have you called the fire-department?”

“I—I found it, but I haven’t called. I wasn’t sure who—do you think there’s been a robbery?”

Luanne stepped back from the hole and looked around. Tops and bottoms, silk and fuzz. “I don’t know what the hell anyone could have stolen, Kathy. There’s nothing here worth taking—just ask our customers.” She was sick of running the clothes-store, sick of making her money a dollar at a time.

The mist had her feeling reckless. “Maybe it’s a sinkhole like in Florida. Maybe the whole damned store will fall in, and Garvey and I can collect insurance. I hope so, Kathy, I really do.”

Luanne emphasized her point by jumping up and down. She was a small blonde with bold eyes and a pert mouth. Bold and round, pert and lipsticked. She was early thirties going on Sweet Sixteen.

Kathy watched her boss jump up and down. The jumps were surprisingly high. “What shall I do, Mrs. Carrandine?”

“Go on home, honey. I’ll get Garvey and the cops and the insurance men over here. We’ll stay closed for two days and then have a Fire Sale. A Sinkhole Special.” She smiled, stopped jumping, and made her way to the phone. “Just run along, Kathy. We’ll pay you for today, and tomorrow you can come in and help me mark down some of the tags.” Kathy left.

The phone was behind the counter, over on one side with the store-room and the dressing-room. There was mist, and Luanne felt funny again as she started dialing.

“What’s up?” asked Garvey’s voice. He dealt with their wholesalers from an office downtown.

“Honey, there’s a big hole in the dressing-room floor. It’s like a manhole.”

“Uh, how deep is it?” Garvey was not an excitable man.

“I don’t know. But…I’m starting to see things. Hurry.”

When Garvey reached the store, he found Luanne at her desk, drawing pictures with her youngest daughter’s colored pencils. The whole floor was covered with mist, a slow gray carpet of magic gas. Some of the stuff drifted up to meet Garvey’s nose. He inhaled and saw the shop fill with lazy blobs of color. It felt like skin-diving amidst tropical fish.

“God loves me, Garvey, He’s sent me a vision. Just look at that one—the teal scroll with red stars printed on it? Can you see that as a blouse?”

“Uh …” Garvey could see it, sort of.

“Yes, Garvey, we can do it! We’ll collect insurance and sell the store and start making our own line of clothes. Luanne’s Luxuries, can you dig it?” She breathed deeply and looked around, eyes ablaze. “All these new images, it’s just fantastic!”

Garvey was a tall, slim man with a perpetually unfocused air. He regarded his wife for a moment, then went to look at the hole in the dressing-room floor. The way the mist was pouring out, it was hard to see in. He wondered if the smoke might be dangerous to breathe, then decided not. He felt wonderful.

“Is there a flashlight, Luanne?”

“By the fuse-box, Gar.”

He got the light and shone it at the hole. He could make out the sides—the hole was a slanting shaft some three feet across—but the bottom was all fogged up. He went out to the front counter and found a short length of leftover Christmas ribbon.

Luanne was too busy with her new fashion-drawings to look up.

“I’m going to lower this down into the hole,” announced Garvey as he tied the ribbon’s end around the flashlight. His skin was tingling, and colors were everywhere. He kept thinking he heard voices. “Luanne? Do you feel as weird as I do?”

She laughed softly and filled in some green cross-hatching. “It’s the mist, man, it’s giving me teachings. We’ve got the burning bush right here with us.”

For the first time, Garvey noticed that rain was coming through the dressing-room ceiling. There was a big hole in the ceiling right over the hole in the floor.

“Hey Luanne, I think it’s a meteorite!”

“Straight from heaven, baby. Luanne’s Leisure Luxuries!”

Garvey crouched down by the hole and lowered away. The light swung this way and that, a pale blob in the mist. Three feet, six—he was out of ribbon and the bottom was still out of reach. He took a deep breath and reached way down in the hole, hoping to find out how deep it was.

Just then a bit of the floor’s concrete crumbled. Garvey fell head first into the fog-shrouded hole.

Time passed. Slowly the mist dissipated. At some point Luanne’s visionary state wore off. She looked down at the drawings she’d been working on and wondered what they meant. It was as if she had been drugged for the last hour or so, drugged full and happy. Some of her drawings were of clothes, but others were of buildings. One of the buildings was particularly striking: a vast conical lattice surrounded by two twining spirals of metal. Mounted inside it were four huge glass structures: a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder and a half-sphere.

But where was Garvey? Hadn’t he been here a little while ago?

Luanne hurried through her silent store. There was the hole, and there, three feet down, were the soles of poor Garvey’s shoes! He was stuck in there upside down! The mist had poisoned him—he had passed out and fallen in!

Luanne seized Garvey’s feet and pulled. Normally she couldn’t have budged him, but something filled her with superstrength. Garvey bumped up out of the hole like a lumpy carrot. Luanne laid him out on his back and began blowing kisses into his slack mouth. He breathed back, twitched, opened his eyes.

“Garvey? Are you all right?”

Da,” said Garvey, his voice strangely gruff. “Pamiatnik III Internatsionala prokety Vladimir Tatlin.” His eyes closed and he went slack again.

Luanne picked him up bodily and carried him away from the awful hole. With fumbling fingers she dialed the Rescue Squad.

Garvey woke to the sound of his wife’s voice. They were each in a single bed—hospital beds. She was sitting up and talking on the phone.

”…responsibility. The insurance won’t pay, and we’ve got to sue someone. Isn’t there a World Court? The comet smashed into our store, man. We’re in a decontamination room and they want to bulldoze our store under. What the hell is a lawyer for, Sidney? Stay on it, and call back. Goodbye.”

“Uh, Luanne …”

“Garvey! Baby! These idiots think we glow in the dark, man, we’re supposed to stay locked up for ten days! The store’s screwed and nobody wants to take the blame. I say it’s our government’s fault—I mean they’re the ones who egg the Russians on.”

“The Russians?”

“Those stupid Commies,” Luanne fumed. “It was some kind of space-probe they sent up to intercept that new comet they discovered. Lenin’s Comet? These goddamned spastic Reds wanted to plant a time-capsule of propaganda on the comet and bring part of it back.”

“Part of Lenin’s Comet?”

“That’s what crashed in our store. The probe smashed the comet all to bits. Our store got hit by about six tons of frozen comet. The stuff boiled off into gas and that’s what flipped us out, Garvey, that’s where the visions came from.”

For someone in a hospital bed, Luanne looked surprisingly well. Her cheeks were flushed with excitement, and her round eyes were bright with plans.

“They want us on the Today show, Gar, but the doctors won’t let us out. There’s got to be big money in this somewhere. It’s just too bizarre. Drugged-out on space-gas!”

“Was I in the hole very long?”

“I was sort of wasted, baby, so I’m not too sure. Half an hour? What was it like?”

“I …”

Garvey was interrupted by a voice from the TV screen. It was a fat doctor, talking to them on closed-circuit. “Hello, Mr. Carrandine, I’m glad to see you’ve snapped out of it.”

“Let us out!” shouted Luanne. “What about our children?”

“Your children will be taken care of by a policewoman, Mrs. Carrandine. Surely you must understand that your quarantine will last until we have finished our batteries of tests. The material you and your husband inhaled is unlike any other substance known to science. My colleagues tell me that is must come from a different galaxy, where the weak-force is …”

“CRAP!” Luanne threw her sheet over the TV screen and camera. “Come on, Garvey, help me figure out how we can get out of here and cash in on this!”

“Did you hear that? They’ll put a policewoman in our house? Jesus. How long have we been here?”

“It’s just noon. The kids are still in school. Do you feel all right now, baby?”

Garvey got out of his bed and stretched. He felt good, very good indeed. It would be nice to get some lunch. A fast-food triple-burger and a milkshake, for instance.

The air in front of his chest grew thick. There was a pale flickering, a slight buzz, and—plop, a burger ‘n’ shake dropped out of the air to splatter on the hospital-room floor!

“Oh my God!” Luanne had been watching closely. “Can you do that again, Gar?”

This time he stood next to the dresser. Make it two shakes and burgers. Nothing to it. Buzz, flicker, click—there they were.

“Jesus, Garvey. How come I can’t do that?”

“I got more of the gas than you did.” Garvey ate as he talked. “I always knew something like this would happen to me, Luanne. I’m Superman! I can do anything I like. And the I.R.S. can go straight to hell!”

Don’t, Garvey! You’ve got to be careful what you wish! Don’t wear it out on garbage!”

There was a fumbling outside, and the inner door of their room’s air-lock swung open. It was a man in a baggy white decontamination suit. His face was obscured by bulky air-filters.

“yrrnd shhhnnddt chuchufff mnnn krrrrdnnn!” The bulky figure reached for Garvey’s lunch.

“Uh, Luanne, do you think …”

“Yeah, baby. Let’s split.”

The scene around them flickered like two intercut films and resolved itself into the Carrandine’s living-room.

“Oh, Garvey! Make a lot of gold, man, I mean like hundreds of pounds! Quick before the pigs get here!”

A small ingot of gold thudded to the floor. Then another and another and another—the rain of metal lasted a full minute. Garvey paused and regarded his riches with a vaguely dissatisfied air.

“That’s good for a few million bucks, Luanne. Go hide it, and let me concentrate. I’ve got to do something much bigger. There’s not a whole lot of time left—I can feel my powers wearing off.”

Obediently Luanne got her daughter Betsy’s wagon and began lugging ingots into the den. There was a fireplace in there with a trapdoor you could lift up to shove the ashes in. One by one, Luanne stashed the gold-bars in the hidden ash-barrel.

There were sirens in the distance. Garvey lay on the couch with his eyes closed. As Luanne hurried back and forth with the heavy ingots, she saw girders rising up around their house, steel beams shooting up like fountains. Some vast tower was growing overhead, some eternal monument to Garvey’s power!

Luanne hid the last ingot and went to stand by Garvey’s laboring head. “Can you hear me, baby?” A weak nod. “Are you done?” Another nod. “Can I have a chicken sandwich and a glass of red wine?”

“No,” said Garvey, smiling a little. “You’ll have to buy it, Luanne. I’ve used up all my power.”

The room was in shadow, darkened by the immense bulk overhead. Luanne laid her hand on Garvey’s cool forehead. “What did you make out there, baby?”

“A tower. I saw it when I was in the hole. I don’t know what it means, but I had to make it. It’s sort of a giant clock. Let’s go outside and see how it turned out.”

The structure overhead was inconceivably vast. Standing under it was like standing under the Eiffel tower. Garvey and Luanne had to walk a good five minutes till they could get a decent view of the thing. People were milling about like excited ants, but for the moment no one stopped the Carrandines. They reached a good vantage-point and feasted their eyes.

“I drew that,” murmured Luanne. Garvey just smiled, happier than he’d ever been.

The tower was a giant cone swept out by two linked spirals. Supported by a great spare lattice of strutwork, the spirals narrowed up to a point hundreds and hundreds of feet overhead. Inside the giant structure were four great glass jewels, four whole buildings suspended one above the other: a cube, a triangular pyramid, a cylinder, and a hemisphere.

“They rotate,” said Garvey. “The cube once a year, the tetrahedron once a month, the cylinder once a week, and the hemisphere once a day. It’s never the same. A monument with moving parts.”

“Can we go in?”

“Yeah. See that?” Garvey pointed to a great slanting shaft that leaned up along one side of the tower. A shaft twice the height of the Empire State Building. “There’s elevators in there. The cube is an exhibition hall, the pyramid is an auditorium, the cylinder is offices, and the hemisphere…the hemisphere is for us.”

“There they are,” someone shouted. “There’s Carrandine and his wife! Get them!”

The fat doctor and some other men came rushing up to Garvey and Luanne. “Did you build this thing?”

“Uh …”

“Sure Garvey built it! You should be down on your knees thanking him, man.”

“Do you know what this tower is, Carrandine?”

“I—I got the idea for it when I was stuck in that hole.”

“No wonder. We found the Russian time-capsule down in the bottom. A Communist artist named Vladimir Tatlin dreamed up the design for this tower in 1919. Monument to the Third International. Fortunately the Soviets never had the funds to construct it. But now you …”

“Talk about uptight!” interrupted Luanne. “What’s ‘the Third Inter-national’ supposed to be?”

No one seemed to know. And once Garvey had promised to manage the monument’s rental and upkeep, no one really cared. The great tower stands in Killeville to this day—go see it next time you’re down South!



Note on “Monument to the Third International”

Written in 1983.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December, 1984.

Our Lynchburg friends Henry and Diana Vaughan did indeed own a dress-shop. I saw a model of Tatlin’s proposed Monument to the Third International in the Moscow-Paris exhibition at the Pompidou Center, and then I saw the model again in a TV documentary.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Rapture in Space

Denny Blevins was a dreamer who didn’t like to think. Drugs and no job put his head in just the right place for this. If at all possible, he liked to get wired and spend the day lying on his rooming house mattress and looking out the window at the sky. On clear days he could watch his eyes’ phosphenes against the bright blue; and on cloudy days he’d dig the clouds’ drifty motions and boiling edges. One day he realized his window-dirt was like a constant noise-hum in the system, so he knocked out the pane that he usually looked through. The sky was even better then, and when it rained he could watch the drops coming in. At night he might watch the stars, or he might get up and roam the city streets for deals.

His Dad, whom he hadn’t seen in several years, died that April. Denny flew out to the funeral. His big brother Allen was there, with Dad’s insurance money. Turned out they got $15K apiece.

“Don’t squander it, Denny,” said Allen, who was an English teacher. “Time’s winged chariot for no man waits! You’re getting older and it’s time you found a career. Go to school and learn something. Or buy into a trade. Do something to make Dad’s soul proud.”

“I will,” said Denny, feeling defensive. Instead of talking in clear he used the new cyberslang. “I’ll get so cashy and so starry so zip you won’t believe it, Allen. I’ll get a tunebot, start a motion, and cut a choicey vid. Denny in the Clouds with Clouds. Untense, bro, I’ve got plex ideas.”

When Denny got back to his room he got a new sound system and a self-playing electric guitar. And scored a lot of dope and food-packs. The days went by; the money dwindled to $9K. Early in June the phone rang.

“Hello, Denny Blevins?” The voice was false and crackly.

“Yes!” Denny was glad to get a call from someone besides Allen. It seemed like lately Allen was constantly calling him up to nag.

“Welcome to the future. I am Phil, a phonebot cybersystem designed to contact consumer prospects. I would like to tell about the on-line possibilities open to you. Shall I continue?”

“Yes,” said Denny.

It turned out the “Phil the phonebot” was a kind of computerized phone salesman. The phonebot was selling phonebots which you, the consumer prospect, could use to sell phonebots to others. It was—though Denny didn’t realize this—a classic Ponzi pyramid scheme, like a chain letter, or like those companies which sell people franchises to sell franchises to sell franchises to sell …

The phonebot had a certain amount of interactivity. It asked a few yes/no questions; and whenever Denny burst in with some comment, it would pause, say, “That’s right, Denny! But listen to the rest!” and continue. Denny was pleased to hear his name so often. Alone in his room, week after week, he’d been feeling his reality fade. Writing original songs for the guitar was harder than he’d expected. It would be nice to have a robot friend. At the end, when Phil asked for his verdict, Denny said, “Okay, Phil, I want you. Come to my rooming-house tomorrow and I’ll have the money.”

The phonebot was not the arm-waving clanker that Denny, in his ignorance, had imagined. It was, rather, a flat metal box that plugged right into the wall phone-socket. The box had a slot for an electronic directory, and a speaker for talking to its owner. It told Denny he could call it Phil; all the phonebots were named Phil. The basic phonebot sales spiel was stored in the Phil’s memory, though you could change the patter if you wanted. You could, indeed, use the phonebot to sell things other than phonebots.

The standard salespitch lasted five minutes, and one minute was allotted to the consumer’s responses. If everyone answered, listened, and responded, the phonebot could process ten prospects per hour, and one hundred twenty in a 9 A. M. – 9 P. M. day! The whole system cost nine thousand dollars, though as soon as you bought one and joined the pyramid, you could get more of them for six. Three thousand dollars profit for each phonebot your phonebot could sell! If you sold, say, one a day, you’d make better than $100K a year!

The electronic directory held all the names and numbers in the city; and each morning it would ask Denny who he wanted to try today. He could select the numbers on the day’s calling list on the basis of neighborhood, last name, family size, type of business and so on.

The first day, Denny picked a middle-class suburb and told Phil to call all the childless married couples there. Young folks looking for an opportunity! Denny set the speaker so he could listen to people’s responses. It was not encouraging.

click

“No…click

click

“This kilp ought to be illegal…click

click

“Get a job, you bizzy dook…click

“Of all the…click

“Again? click

Most people hung up so fast that Phil was able to make some thousand unsuccessful contacts in less than ten hours. Only seven people listened through the whole message and left comments at the end; and six of these people seemed to be bedridden or crazy. The seventh had a phonebot she wanted to sell cheap.

Denny tried different phoning strategies—rich people, poor people, people with two sevens in their phone number, and so on. He tried different kinds of salespitches—bossy ones, ingratiating ones, curt ones, ethnic-accent ones, etc. He made up a salespitch that offered businesses the chance to rent Phil to do phone advertising for them.

Nothing worked. It got to be depressing sitting in his room watching Phil fail—it was like having Willy Loman for his roommate. The machine made little noises, and unless Denny took a lot of dope, he had trouble relaxing out into the sky. The empty food-packs stank.

Two more weeks, and all the money, food and dope were gone. Right after he did the last of the dope, Denny recorded a final sales-pitch:

“Uh…hi. This is Phil the prophet at 1801 Eye Street. I eye I…I’m out of money and I’d rather not have to…uh…leave my room. You send me money for…uh…food and I’ll give God your name. Dope’s rail, too.”

Phil ran that on random numbers for two days with no success. Denny came down into deep hunger. Involuntary detox. If his Dad had left much more money, Denny might have died, holed up in that room. Good old Dad. He trembled out into the street and got a job working counter in a Greek coffee shop called the KoDo. It was okay; there was plenty of food, and he didn’t have to watch Phil panhandling.

As Denny’s strength and sanity came back, he remembered sex. But he didn’t know any girls. He took Phil off panhandling and put him onto propositioning numbers in the young working-girl neighborhoods.

“Hi, are you a woman? I’m Phil, sleek robot for a whippy young man who’s ready to get under. Make a guess and he’ll mess. Leave your number and state your need; he’s fuff-looking and into sleaze.”

This message worked surprisingly well. The day after he started it up, Denny came home to find four enthusiastic responses stored on Phil’s chips. Two of the responses seemed to be from men, and one of the women’s voice sounded old…really old. The fourth response was from “Silke.”

“Hi, desperado, this is Silke. I like your machine. Call me.”

Phil had Silke’s number stored, of course, so Denny called her right up. Feeling shy, he talked through Phil, using the machine as voder to make his voice sound weird. After all, Phil was the one who knew her.

“Hello?” Cute, eager, practical, strange.

“Silke? This is Phil. Denny’s talking through me. You want to interface?”

“Like where?”

“My room?”

“Is it small? It sounds like your room is small. I like small rooms.”

“You got it. 1801 Eye Street, Denny’ll be in front of the building.”

“What do you look like, Denny?”

“Tall, thin, teeth when I grin, which is lots. My hair’s peroxide blond on top. I’ll wear my X-shirt.”

“Me too. See you in an hour.”

Denny put on his X-shirt—a T-shirt with a big silk screen picture of his genitalia—and raced down to the KoDo to beg Spiros, the boss, for an advance on his wages.

“Please, Spiros, I got a date.”

The shop was almost empty, and Spiros was sitting at the counter watching a payvid porno show on his pocket TV. He glanced over at Denny, all decked out in his X-shirt, and pulled two fifties out of his pocket.

“Let me know how she come.”

Denny spent one fifty on two Fiesta food-packs and some wine: the other fifty went for a capsule of snap-crystals from a street vendor. He was back in front of his rooming-house in plenty of time. Ten minutes, and there came Silke, with a great big pink crotch-shot printed onto her T-shirt. She looked giga good.

For the first instant they stood looking at each other’s X-shirts, and then they shook hands.

“I’m Denny Blevins. I got some food and wine and snap here, if you want to go up.” Denny was indeed tall and thin, and toothy when he grinned. His mouth was very wide. His hair was long and dark in back, and short and blond on top. He wore red rhinestone earrings, his semierect X-shirt, tight black plastic pants, and fake leopard fur shoes. His arms were muscular and veiny, and he moved them a lot when he talked.

“Go up and get under,” smiled Silke. She was medium height, and wore her straw-like black hair in a bouffant. She had fine, hard features. She’d appliquéd pictures of monster eyes to her eyelids, and she wore white dayglo lipstick. Beneath her sopping wet X-shirt, she wore a tight, silvered jumpsuit with cutouts. On her feet she wore roller skates with lights in the wheels.

“Oxo,” said Denny.

“Wow,” said Silke.

Up in the room they got to know each other. Denny showed Silke his phonebot and his sound system, pretended to start to play his guitar and to then decide not to, and told about some of the weird things he’d seen in the sky, looking out that broken pane. Silke, as it turned out, was a payvid sex dancer come here from West Virginia. She talked mostly in clear, but she was smart, and she liked to get wild, but only with the right kind of guy. Sex dancer didn’t mean hooker and she was, she assured Denny, clean. She had a big dream she wasn’t quite willing to tell him yet.

“Come on,” he urged, popping the autowave foodpacks open. “Decode.”

“Ah, I don’t know, Denny. You might think I’m skanky.”

They sat side by side on Denny’s mattress and ate the pasty food with the packed in plastic spoons. It was good. It was good to have another person in the room here.

“Silke,” said Denny when they finished eating, “I’d been thinking Phil was kilp. Dook null. But if he got you here it was worth it. Seems I just need tech to relate, you wave?”

Silke threw the empty foodtrays on the floor and gave Denny a big kiss. They went ahead and fuffed. It seemed like it had been a while for both of them. Skin all over, soft, warm, skin, touch, kiss, lick, smell, good.

Afterwards, Denny opened the capsule of snap and they split it. You put the stuff on your tongue, it sputtered and popped, and you breathed in the freebase fumes. Fab rush. Out through the empty window pane they could see the moon and two stars stronger than the city lights.

“Out there,” said Silke, her voice fast and shaky from the snap. “That’s my dream. If we hurry, Denny, we can be the first people to have sex in space. They’d remember us forever. I’ve been thinking about it, and there was always missing links, but you and Phil are it. We’ll get in the shuttlebox—it’s a room like this—and go up. We get up there and make videos of us getting under, and—this is my new flash—we use Phil to sell the vids to pay for the trip. You wave?”

Denny’s long, maniacal smile curled across his face. The snap was still crackling on his tongue. “Stuzzadelic! Nobody’s fuffed in space yet? None of those gawks who’ve used the shuttlebox?”

“They might have, but not for the record. But if we scurry we’ll be the famous first forever. We’ll be starry.”

“Oxo, Silke.” Denny’s voice rose with excitement. “Are you there, Phil?”

“Yes, Denny.”

“Got a new pitch. In clear.”

“Proceed.”

“Hi, this is Denny.” He nudged the naked girl next to him.

“And this is Silke.”

“We’re doing a live fuff-vid we’d like to show you.”

“It’s called Rapture in Space. It’s the very first X-rated love film from outer space.”

“Zero gravity,” said Denny, reaching over to whang on his guitar.

“Endless fun.”

“Mindless pleasure.” Whang.

“Out near the sun.” Silke nuzzled his neck and moaned stagily. “Oh, Denny, oh, darling, it’s …”

RAPTURE IN SPACE! Satisfaction guaranteed. This is bound to be a collector’s item; the very first live sex video from space. A full ninety minutes of unbelievable null-gee action, with great Mother Earth in the background, tune in for only fifty …”

“More, Denny,” wailed Silke, who was now grinding herself against him with some urgency. “More!”

Whang. “Only one hundred dollars, and going up fast. To order, simply leave your card number after the beep.”

Beep!”

Phil got to work the next morning, calling numbers of businesses where lots of men worked. The orders poured in. Lacking a business-front by which to cash the credit orders, Denny enlisted Spiros, who quickly set up KoDo Space Rapture Enterprises. For managing the business, Spiros only wanted 15% and some preliminary tapes of Denny and Silke in action. For another 45%, Silke’s porno payvid employers—an outfit known as XVID—stood ready to distribute the show. Dreaming of this day, Silke had already bought her own cameras. She and Denny practiced a lot, getting their moves down. Spiros agreed that the rushes looked good. Denny went ahead and reserved the shuttlebox for a trip in mid July.

The shuttlebox was a small passenger module that could be loaded into the space shuttle for one of its weekly trips up to orbit and back. A trip for two cost $100K. Denny bought electronic directories for cities across the country, and set Phil to working twenty hours a day. He averaged fifty sales a day, and by launch time, Silke and Denny had enough to pay everyone off, and then some.

But this was just the beginning. Three days before the launch, the news services picked up on the Rapture in Space plan, and everything went crazy. There was no way for a cheap box like Phil to process the orders anymore. Denny and Silke had to give XVID anther 15% of the action, and let them handle the tens of thousands of orders. It was projected that Rapture in Space would pull an audience share of 7%—which is a lot of people. Even more money came in the form of fat contracts for two product endorsements: SPACE RAPTURE, the cosmic eroscent for high-flyers, and RAPT SHIELD, an antiviral lotion for use by sexual adventurers. XVID and the advertisers privately wished that Denny and Silke were a bit more…upscale looking, but they were the two who had the tiger by the tail.

Inevitably, some of the Christian Party congressmen tried to have Denny and Silke enjoined from making an XVID broadcast from aboard the space shuttle which was, after all, government property. But for 5% of the gross, a fast thinking lawyer was able to convince a hastily convened Federal court that, insofar as Rapture in Space was being codecast to the XVID dish and cabled thence only to paying subscribers, the show was a form of constitutionally protected free speech, in no way essentially different from a live-sex show in a private club.

So the great day came. Naked save for a drenching of Space Rapture eroscent, Silke and Denny waved goodbye and stepped into their shuttle-box. It was shaped like a two-meter-thick letter D, with a rounded floor, and with a big picture window set into the flat ceiling. A crane loaded the shuttlebox into the bay of the space shuttle along with some satellites, missiles, building materials, etc. A worker dogged all the stuff down, and then the baydoors closed. Silke and Denny wedged themselves down into their puttylike floor. Blast off—roar, shudder, push, clunk, roar some more.

Then they were floating. The baydoors swung open, and the astronauts got to work with their retractable arms and space tools. Silke and Denny were busy, too. They set up the cameras, and got their little antenna locked in on the XVID dish. They started broadcasting right away—some of the Rapture in Space subscribers had signed up for the whole live protocols in addition to the ninety minute show that Silke and Denny were scheduled to put on in …

“Only half an hour, Denny,” said Silke. “Only thirty minutes till we go on.” She was crouched over the sink, douching, and vacuuming the water back up. As fate would have it, she was menstruating. She hadn’t warned anyone about it.

Denny felt cold and sick to his stomach. XVID had scheduled their show right after take-off because otherwise—with all the news going on—people might forget about it. But right now he didn’t fell like fuffing at all, let alone getting under. Every time he touched something, or even breathed, his whole body moved.

“All clean now,” sang Silke. “No one can tell, not even you.”

There was a rapping on their window—one of the astronauts, a jolly jock woman named Judy. She grinned through her helmet and gave them a high sign. The astronauts thought the Rapture in Space show was a great idea; it would make people think about them in new, more interesting ways.

“I talked to Judy before the launch,” said Silke, waving back. “She said to watch out for the rebound.” She floated to Denny and began fondling him. “Ten minutes, starman.”

Outside the window, Judy was a shiny wad against Earth’s great marbled curve. The clouds, Denny realized, I’m seeing the clouds from on top. His genitals were warming to Silke’s touch. He tongued a snap crystal out of a crack between his teeth and bit it open. Inhale. The clouds. Silke’s touch. He was hard, thank God, he was hard. This was going to be all right.

The cameras made a noise to signal the start of the main transmission, and Denny decided to start by planting a kiss on Silke’s mouth. He bumped her shoulder and she started to drift away. She tightened her grip on his penis and led him along after her. It hurt, but not too unpleasantly. She landed on her back, on the padded floor, and guided Denny right into her vagina. Smooth and warm. Good. Denny pushed into her and…rebound.

He flew, rapidly and buttocks first, up to the window. He had hold of Silke’s armpit and she came with him. She got her mouth over his penis for a second, which was good, but then her body spun around, and she slid toothrakingly off him, which was very bad.

Trying to hold a smile, Denny stole a look at the clock. Three minutes. Rapture in Space had been on for three minutes now. Eighty-seven minutes to go.

It was another bruising half hour or so until Denny and Silke began to get the hang of spacefuffing. And then it was fun. For a long time they hung in midair, with Denny in Silke, and Silke’s legs around his waist, just gently jogging, but moaning and throwing their heads around for the camera. Actually, the more they hammed it up, the better it felt. Autosuggestion.

Denny stared and stared at the clouds to keep from coming, but finally he had to pull out for a rest. To keep things going they did rebounds for awhile. Silke would lie spreadeagled on the floor, and Denny would kind of leap down on her; both of them adjusting their pelvises for a bullseye. She’d sink into the cushions, then rebound them both up. It got better and better. Silke curled up into a ball and impaled herself on Denny’s shaft. He wedged himself against the wall with his feet and one hand and used his other hand to spin her around and around, bobbin on his spindle. Denny lay on the floor and Silke did leaps onto him. They kissed and licked each other all over, and from every angle. The time was almost up.

For the finale, they went back to midair fuffing; arms and legs wrapped around each other; one camera aimed at their faces, and one camera aimed at their genitalia. They hit a rhythm where they always pushed just as hard as each other and it action/reaction cancelled out, hard and harder, with big Earth out the window, yes, the air full of their smells, yes, the only sound the sound of their ragged breathing, yes, now NOW AAAHHHHHHH!!!!

Denny kind of fainted there, and forgot to slide out for the come-shot. Silke went blank, too, and they just floated, linked like puzzle pieces for five or ten minutes. It made a great finale for the Rapture in Space show, really much more convincing than the standard sperm spurt.

Two days later, and they were back on Earth, with the difference that they were now, as Denny had hoped, cashy and starry. People recognized them everywhere, and looked at them funny, often asking for a date. They did some interviews, some more endorsements and they got an XVID contract to host a monthly spacefuff variety show.

Things were going really good until Denny got a tumor.

“It’s a dooky little kilp down in my bag,” he complained to Silke. “Feel it.”

Sure enough, there was a one-centimeter lump in Denny’s scrotum. Silke wanted him to see a doctor, but he kept stalling. He was afraid they’d run a blood test and get on his case about drugs. Some things were still illegal.

A month went by and the lump was the size of an orange.

“It’s so gawky you can see it through my pants,” complained Denny. “It’s giga ouch and I can’t cut a vid this way.”

But he still wouldn’t go to the doctor. What with all the snap he could buy, and with his new cloud telescope, Denny didn’t notice what was going on in his body most of the time. He was happy to miss the next few XVID dates. Silke hosted them alone.

Three more months and the lump was like a small watermelon. When Denny came down one time and noticed that the tumor was moving he really got worried

“Silke! It’s alive! The thing in my bag is alive! Aaauuugh!”

Silke paid a doctor two thousand dollars to come to their apartment. The doctor was a bald, dignified man with a white beard. He examined Denny’s scrotum for a long time, feeling, listening, and watching the tumor’s occasional twitches. Finally he pulled the covers back over Denny and sat down. He regarded Silke and Denny in silence for quite some time.

“Decode!” demanded Denny. “What the kilp we got running here?”

“You’re pregnant,” said the doctor. “Four months into it, I’d say.”

The quickening fetus gave another kick and Denny groaned. He knew it was true. “But how?”

The doctor steepled his fingers. “I…I saw Rapture in Space. There were certain signs to indicate that your uh partner was menstruating?”

“Check.”

“Menstruation, as you must know, involves the discharge of the unfertilized ovum along with some discarded uterine tissues. I would speculate that after your ejaculation the ovum became wedged in your meatus. It is conceivable that under weightless conditions the sperm’s flagell3/4 could have driven the now-fertilized ovum up into your vas deferens. The ovum implanted itself in the bloodrich tissues there and developed into a fetus.”

“I want an abortion.”

“No!” protested Silke. “That’s our baby, Denny. You’re already almost half done carrying it. It’ll be lovely for us…and just think of the publicity!”

“Uh …” said Denny, reaching for his bag of dope.

“No more drugs,” said the doctor, snatching the bag. “Except for the ones I give you.” He broke into a broad, excited smile. “This will make medical history.”

And indeed it did. The doctor designed Denny a kind of pouch in which he could carry his pregnant scrotum, and Denny made a number of video appearances, not all of them X-rated. He spoke on the changing roles of the sexes, and he counted the days till delivery. In the public’s mind, Denny became the symbol of a new recombining of sex with life and love. In Denny’s own mind, he finally became a productive and worthwhile person. The baby was a flawless girl, delivered by a modified Caesarian section.

Sex was never the same again.



Note on “Rapture in Space”

Written in Fall, 1984.

Semiotext[e] SF, Autonomedia, 1989.

Dennis Poague, a.k.a. Sta-Hi, was the inspiration for this story; he really did spend his inheritance on a phoning machine. I wrote this story shortly after seeing the IMAX movie, The Dream Is Alive, which featured pictures of the sexy astronaut Judy Resnick sleeping in zero-gee. The Challenger shuttle blew up with Judy in it a few months later, definitively deep-sixing whatever slim chance “Rapture in Space” had of getting into a normal SF magazine.

Semiotext[e] SF was an anthology which Peter Lamborn Wilson and I co-edited. Originally we’d planned to call the book Bad Brains, but Peter felt doing this would conflict with the band of the same name. At the time, Peter rented an apartment upstairs from the apartment of my friend Eddie Marritz in New York City, which is how I happened to meet him. Eddie appears in the story “Tales of Houdini,” in “Drugs and Live Sex—NYC 1980,” and in the novel Master of Space and Time.

A funny Dennis story. When we moved to San Jose, it turned out Dennis lived here, so we started getting together a lot. I was supposed to give a reading at an annual San Jose SF convention called Bay Con in 1987, and the day before the reading I was in a bicycle accident and had a huge black eye. I didn’t want to appear in public looking so bad, so I gave Dennis my manuscript of “As Above So Below,” and told him to do the reading. I figured he would enjoy this free taste of fame, and I was right—remember that one of Software Sta-Hi’s big obsessions is how to become famous.

Although I’d already made friends with the San Francisco SF writers, none of the fans knew at Bay Con knew what I looked like, so when Dennis appeared in a corduroy jacket and read my story, they assumed he was me. The funny thing was, when I came and did my own reading at Bay Con a year later, several people came up to me and said, “You know, I saw your reading last year and it was wonderful. You made the material so fresh and new…it was like you’d never even read it before!”



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Storming the Cosmos
(Written with Bruce Sterling)

I first met Vlad Zipkin at a Moscow beatnik party in the glorious winter of 1957. I went there as a KGB informer. Because of my report on that first meeting, poor Vlad had to spend six months in a mental hospital—not that he wasn’t crazy.

As a boy I often tattled on wrongdoers, but I certainly didn’t plan to grow up to be a professional informer. It just worked out that way. The turning point was in the spring of 1953, when I failed my completion exams at the All-Union Metallurgical Institute. I’d been working towards those exams for years; I wanted to help build the rockets that would launch us into the Infinite.

And then, suddenly, one day in April, it was all over. Our examination grades were posted, and I was one of the three in seventeen who’d failed. To take the exam again, I’d have to wait a whole year. First I was depressed, then angry. I knew for a fact that four of the students with good grades had cheated. I, who was honest, had failed; and they, who had cheated, had passed. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t communist—I went and told the head of the Institute.

The upshot was that I passed after all, and became an assistant metallurgical engineer at the Kaliningrad space center. But, in reality, my main duty was to make weekly reports to the KGB on what my coworkers thought and said and did. I was, frankly, grateful to have my KGB work to do, as most of the metallurgical work was a bit beyond me.

There is an ugly Russian word for informer: stukach, snitch. The criminals, the psychotics, the parasites, and the beatniks—to them I was a stukach. But without stukachi, our communist society would explode into anarchy or grind to a decadent halt. Vlad Zipkin might be a genius, and I might be a stukach—but society needed us both.

I first met Vlad at a party thrown by a girl called Lyuda. Lyuda had her own Moscow apartment; her father was a Red Army colonel-general in Kaliningrad. She was a nice, sexy girl who looked a little like Doris Day.

Lyuda and her friends were all beatniks. They drank a lot; they used English slang; they listened to jazz; and the men hung around with prostitutes. One of the guys got Lyuda pregnant and she went for an abortion. She had VD as well. We heard of this, of course. Word spreads about these matters. Someone in Higher Circles decided to eliminate the anti-social sex gangster responsible for this. It was my job to find out who he was.

It was a matter for space-center KGB because several rocket-scientists were known to be in Lyuda’s orbit. My approach was cagey. I made contact with a prostitute named Trina who hung around the Metropol, the Moskva, and other foreign hotels. Trina had chic Western clothes from her customers, and she was friends with many of the Moscow beatniks. I’m certainly not dashing enough to charm a girl like Trina—instead, I simply told her that I was KGB, and that if she didn’t get me into one of Lyuda’s bashes I’d have her arrested.

Lyuda’s pad was jammed when we got there. I was proud to show up with a cool chick like Trina on my arm. I looked very sharp too, with the leather jacket, and the black stove-pipe pants with no cuffs that all the beatniks were wearing that season. Trina stuck right with me—as we’d planned—and lots of men came up to talk to us. Trina would get them to talking dirty, and then I’d make some remark about Lyuda, ending with “but I guess she has a boyfriend?” The problem was that she had lots of them. I kept having to go into the bathroom to write down more names. Somehow I had to decide on one particular guy.

Time went on, and I got tenser. Cigarette smoke filled the room. The bathroom was jammed and I had to wait. When I came back I saw Trina with a hardcore beatnik named Starsky—he got her attention with some garbled Americanisms: “Hey baby, let’s jive down to Hollywood and drink cool Scotch. I love making it with gone broads like you and Lyuda.” He showed her a wad of hard currency—dollars he had illegally bought from tourists. I decided on the spot that Starsky was my man, and told Trina to leave with him and find out where he lived.

Now that I’d finished my investigation, I could relax and enjoy my-self. I got a bottle of vodka and sat down by Lyuda’s Steinway piano. Some guy in sunglasses was playing a slow boogie-woogie. It was lovely, lovely enough to move me to tears—tears for Lyuda’s corrupted beauty, tears for my lost childhood, tears for my mother’s grave.

A sharp poke in the thigh interrupted my reverie.

“Quit bawling, fatso, this isn’t the Ukraine.”

The voice came from beneath the piano. Leaning down, I saw a man sitting cross-legged there, a thin, blond man with pale eyes. He smiled and showed his bad teeth. “Cheer up, pal, I mean it. And pass me that vodka bottle you’re sucking. My name’s Vlad Zipkin.”

I passed him my bottle. “I’m Nikita Iosifovich Globov.”

“Nice shoes,” Vlad said admiringly. “Cool jacket, too. You’re a snappy dresser, for a rocket-type.”

“What makes you think I’m from the space center?” I said.

Vlad lowered his voice. “The shoes. You got those from Nokidze the Kazakh, the black market guy. He’s been selling ‘em all over Kaliningrad.”

I climbed under the piano with Zipkin. The air was a little clearer there. “You’re one of us, Comrade Zipkin?”

“I do information theory,” Zipkin whispered, drunkenly touching one finger to his lips. “We’re designing error-proof codes for communicating with the…you know.” He made a little orbiting movement with his forefinger and looked upward at the shiny dark bottom of the piano. The Sputnik had only been up since October. We space workers were still not used to talking about it in public.

“Come on, don’t be shy,” I said, smiling. “We can say ‘Sputnik,’ can’t we? Everyone in the world has talked of nothing else for months!”

It was easy to draw Vlad out. “My group’s hush-hush,” he bragged criminally. “The top brass think ‘information theory’ has to be classified and censored. But the theory’s not information itself, it’s an abstract meta-information …” He burbled on a while in the weird jargon of his profession. I grew bored and opened a pack of Kent cigarettes.

Vlad bummed one instantly. He was impressed that I had American cigarettes. Only cool black-market operators had classy cigs like that. Vlad felt the need to impress me in return. “Khrushchev wants the next sputnik to broadcast propaganda,” he confided, blowing smoke. “The Internationale in outer space—what foolishness!” Vlad shook his head. “As if countries matter any more outside our atmosphere. To any real Russian, it is already clear that we have surpassed the Americans. Why should we copy their fascist nationalism? We have soared into the void and left them in the dirt!” He grinned. “Damn, these are good smokes. Can you get me a connection?”

“What are you offering?” I said.

He nodded at Lyuda. “See our hostess? You see those earrings she has? They’re gold-plated transistors I stole from the Center! All property is theft, hey Nikita?”

I liked Vlad well enough, but I felt duty-bound to report his questionable attitudes along with my information about Starsky. Political deviance such as Vlad’s is a type of mental illness. I liked Vlad enough to truly want to see him get better.

Having made my report, I returned to Kaliningrad, and forgot about Vlad. I didn’t hear about him for a month.

Since the early ‘50s, Kaliningrad had been the home of the Soviet space effort. Kaliningrad was thirty kilometers north of Moscow and had once been a summer resort. There we worked heroically at rocket research and construction—though the actual launches took place at the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome, far to the south. I enjoyed life in Kaliningrad. The stores were crammed with Polish hams and fresh lamb chops, and the landscape of forests and lakes was romantic and pleasant. Security was excellent.

Outside the research complex and block apartments were dachas, resort homes for space scientists, engineers, and party officials, including our top boss, the Chief Designer himself. The entire compound was surrounded by a high wood-and-concrete fence manned around the clock by armed guards. It was very peaceful. The compound held almost fifty dachas. I owned a small one—a kitchen and two rooms—with large gar-den filled with fruit trees and berry bushes, now covered by winter snow.

A month after Lyuda’s party, I was enjoying myself in my dacha, quietly pressing a new suit I had bought from Nokidze the Kazakh, when I heard a black ZIL sedan splash up through the mud outside. I peeked through the curtains. A woman stamped up the path and knocked. I opened the door slightly.

“Nikita Iosifovich Globov?”

“Yes?”

“Let me in, you fat sneak!” she said.

I gaped at her. She addressed me with filthy words. Shocked, I let her in. She was a dusky, strong-featured Tartar woman dressed in a cheap black two-piece suit from the Moscow G. U. M. store. No woman in Kaliningrad wore clothes or shoes that ugly, unless she was a real hardliner. So I got worried. She kicked the door shut and glared at me.

“You turned in Vladimir Zipkin!”

“What?”

“Listen, you meddling idiot, I’m Captain Bogulyubova from Information Mechanics. You’ve put my best worker into the mental hospital! What were you thinking? Do you realize what this will do to my production schedules?”

I was caught off guard. I babbled something about proper ideology coming first.

“You louse!” she snarled. “It’s my department and I handle Security there! How dare you report one of my people without coming to me first? Do you see me turning in metallurgists?”

“Well, you can’t have him babbling state secrets to every beatnik in Moscow!” I said defensively.

“You forget yourself,” said Captain Bogulyubova with a taut smile. “I have a rank in KGB and you are a common stukach. I can make a great deal of trouble for you. A very great deal.”

I began to sweat. “I was doing my duty. No one can deny that. Besides, I didn’t know he was in the hospital! All he needed was a few counseling sessions!”

“You fouled up everything,” she said, staring at me through slitted eyes like a Cossack sizing up a captured hog. She crossed her arms over her hefty chest and looked around my dacha. “This little place of yours will be nice for Vlad. He’ll need some rest. Poor Vlad. No one else from my section will want to work with him after he gets out. They’ll be afraid to be seen with him! But we need him, and you’re going to help me. Vlad will work here, and you’ll keep an eye on him. It can be a kind of house arrest.”

“But what about my work in metallurgy?”

She glared at me. “Your new work will be Comrade Zipkin’s rehabilitation. You’ll volunteer to do it, and you’ll tell the Higher Circles that he’s become a splendid example of communist dedication! He’d better get the order of Lenin, understand?”

“This isn’t fair, Comrade Captain. Be reasonable!”

“Listen, you hypocrite swine, I know all about you and your black market dealings. Those shoes cost more than you make in a month!” She snatched the iron off the end of my board and slammed it flat against my brand new suit. Steam curled up.

“All right!” I cried, wringing my hands. “I’ll help him.” I yanked the suit away and splashed water on the scorched fabric.

Nina laughed and stormed out of the house. I felt terrible. A man can’t help it if he needs to dress well. It’s unfair to hold a thing like that over someone.

Months passed. The spring of 1958 arrived. The dog Laika had been shot into the cosmic void. A good dog, a Russian, an Earthling. The Americans’ first launches had failed, and then in February they shot up a laughable sputnik no bigger than a grapefruit. Meanwhile we metallurgists forged ahead on the mighty RD-108 Supercluster paraffin-fueled engine, which would lift our first cosmonaut into the Infinite. There were technical snags and gross lapses in space-worker ideology, but much progress was made.

Captain Nina dropped by several times to bluster and grumble about Vlad. She blamed me for everything, but it was Vlad’s problem. All one has to do, really, is tell the mental health workers what they want to hear. But Zipkin couldn’t seem to master this.

A third sputnik was launched in May 1958, with much instrumentation on board. Yet it still failed to broadcast a coherent propaganda statement, much less sing the Internationale. Vlad was missed, and missed badly. I awaited Vlad’s return with some trepidation. Would he resent me? Fear me? Despise me?

For my part, I simply wanted Vlad to like me. In going over his dossier I had come to see that, despite his eccentricities, the man was indeed a genius. I resolved to take care of Vlad Zipkin, to protect him from his irrational sociopathic impulses.

A KGB ambulance brought Vlad and his belongings to my dacha early one Sunday morning in July. He looked pale and disoriented. I greeted him with false heartiness.

“Greetings Vladimir Eduardovich! It’s an honor and a joy to have you share my dacha. Come in, come in. I have yogurt and fresh gooseberries. Let me help you carry all that stuff inside!”

“So it was you.” Vlad was silent while we carried his suitcase and three boxes of belongings into the dacha. When I urged him to eat with me, his face took on a desperate cast. “Please, Globov, leave me alone now. Those months in the hospital—you can’t imagine what it’s been like.”

“Vladimir, don’t worry, this dacha is your home, and I’m your friend.”

Vlad grimaced. “Just let me spend the day alone in your garden, and don’t tell the KGB I’m antisocial. I want to conform, I do want to fit in, but for God’s sake, not today.”

“Vlad, believe me, I want only the best for you. Go out and lie in the hammock; eat the berries, enjoy the sun.”

Vlad’s pale eyes bulged as they fell on my framed official photograph of Laika, the cosmonaut dog. The dog had a weird, frog-like, rubber oxygen mask on her face. Just before launch, she had been laced up within a heavy, stiff space-suit—a kind of canine straitjacket, actually. Vlad frowned and shuddered. I guess it reminded him of his recent unpleasantness.

Vlad yanked my vodka bottle off the kitchen counter, and headed outside without another word. I watched him through the window—he looked well enough, sipping vodka, picking blackberries, and finally falling asleep in the hammock. His suitcase contained very little of interest, and his boxes were mostly filled with books. Most were technical, but many were scientific romances: the socialist H. G. Wells, Capek, Yefremov, Kazantsev, and the like.

When Vlad awoke he was in much better spirits. I showed him around the property. The garden stretched back thirty meters, where there was a snug outhouse. We strolled together out into the muddy streets. At Vlad’s urging, I got the guards to open the gate for us, and we walked out into the peaceful birch and pine woods around the Klyazma Reservoir. It had rained heavily during the preceding week, and mush-rooms were everywhere. We amused ourselves by gathering the edible ones—every Russian knows mushrooms.

Vlad knew an “instant pickling” technique based on lightly boiling the mushrooms in brine, then packing them in ice and vinegar. It worked well back in our kitchen, and I congratulated him. He was as pleased as a child.

In the days that followed, I realized that Vlad was not anti-Party. He was simply very unworldly. He was one of those gifted unfortunates who can’t manage life without a protector.

Still, his opinion carried a lot of weight around the Center, and he worked on important problems. I escorted him everywhere—except the labs I wasn’t cleared for—reminding him not to blurt out anything stupid.

Of course my own work suffered. I told my co-workers that Vlad was a sick relative of mine, which explained my common absence from the job. Rather than being disappointed by my absence, though, the other engineers praised my dedication to Vlad and encouraged me to spend plenty of time with him. I liked Vlad, but soon grew tired of the constant shepherding. He did most of his work in our dacha, which kept me cooped up there when I could have been out cutting deals with Nokidze or reporting on the beatnik scene.

It was too bad that Captain Nina Bogulyubova had fallen down on her job. She should have been watching over Vlad from the first. Now I had to tidy up after her bungling, so I felt she owed me some free time. I hinted tactfully at this when she arrived with a sealed briefcase containing some of Vlad’s work. My reward was another furious tongue lashing.

“You parasite, how dare you suggest that I failed Vladimir Eduardovich? I have always been aware of his value as a theorist, and as a man! He’s worth any ten of you stukach vermin! The Chief Designer himself has asked after Vladimir’s health. The Chief Designer spent years in a labor camp under Stalin. He knows it’s no disgrace to be shut away by some lickspittle sneak …” There was more, and worse. I began to feel that Captain Bogulyubova, in her violent Tartar way, had personal feelings for Vlad.

Also I had not known that our Chief Designer had been in camp. This was not good news, because people who have spent time in detention sometimes become embittered and lose proper perspective. Many people were being released from labor camps now that Nikita Khrushchev had become the Leader of Progressive Mankind. Also, amazing and almost insolent things were being published in the Literary Gazette.

Like most Ukrainians, I liked Khrushchev, but he had a funny peasant accent and everyone made fun of the way he talked on the radio. We never had such problems in Stalin’s day.

We Soviets had achieved a magnificent triumph in space, but I feared we were becoming lax. It saddened me to see how many space engineers, technicians, and designers avoided Party discipline. They claimed that their eighty-hour work weeks excused them from indoctrination meetings. Many read foreign technical documents without proper clearance. Proper censorship was evaded. Technicians from different departments sometimes gathered to discuss their work, privately, simply between themselves, without an actual need-to-know.

Vlad’s behavior was especially scandalous. He left top-secret documents scattered about the dacha, where one’s eye could not help but fall on them. He often drank to excess. He invited engineers from other departments to come visit us, and some of them, not knowing his dangerous past, accepted. It embarrassed me, because when they saw Vlad and me together they soon guessed the truth.

Still, I did my best to cover Vlad’s tracks and minimize his indiscretions. In this I failed miserably.

One evening, to my astonishment, I found him mulling over working papers for the RD-108 Supercluster engine. He had built a cardboard model of the rocket out of roller tubes from my private stock of toilet paper. “Where did you get those?” I demanded.

“Found ‘em in a box in the outhouse.”

“No, the documents!” I shouted. “That’s not your department! Those are state secrets!”

Vlad shrugged. “It’s all wrong,” he said thickly. He had been drinking again.

“What?”

“Our original rocket, the 107, had four nozzles. But this 108 Supercluster has twenty! Look, the extra engines are just bundled up like bananas and attached to the main rocket. They’re held on with hoops! The Americans will laugh when they see this.”

“But they won’t.” I snatched the blueprints out of his hands. “Who gave you these?”

“Korolyov did,” Vlad muttered. “Sergei Pavlovich.”

“The Chief Designer?” I said, stunned.

“Yeah, we were talking it over in the sauna this morning,” Vlad said. “Your old pal Nokidze came by while you were at work this morning, and he and I had a few. So I walked down to the bathhouse to sweat it off. Turned out the Chief was in the sauna, too—he’d been up all night working. He and I did some time together once, years ago. We used to look up at the stars, talk rockets together…So anyway, he turns to me and says, ‘You know how much thrust Von Braun is getting from a single engine?’ And I said, ‘Oh, must be eighty, ninety tons, right?’ ‘Right,’ he said, ‘and we’re getting twenty-five. We’ll have to strap twenty together to launch one man. We need a miracle, Vladimir. I’m ready to try anything.’ So then I told him about this book I’ve been reading.”

I said, “You were drunk on working-hours? And the chief Designer saw you in the sauna?”

“He sweats like anybody else,” Vlad said. “I told him about this new fiction writer. Aleksander Kazantsev. He’s a thinker, that boy.” Vlad tapped the side of his head meaningfully, then scratched his ribs inside his filthy house robe and lit a cigarette. I felt like killing him. “Kazantsev says we’re not the first explorers in space. There’ve been others, beings from the void. It’s no surprise. The great space-prophet Tsiolkovsky said there are an infinite number of inhabited worlds. You know how much the Chief Designer admired Tsiolkovsky. And when you look at the evidence—I mean this Tunguska thing—it begins to add up nicely.”

“Tunguska,” I said, fighting back a growing sense of horror. “That’s in Siberia, isn’t it?”

“Sure. So anyway, I said, ‘Chief, why are you wasting our time on these firecrackers when we have a shot at true star flight? Send out a crew of trained investigators to the impact site of this so-called Tunguska meteor! Run an information-theoretic analysis! If it was really an atomic-powered spacecraft like Kazantsev says, maybe there’s something left that could help us!’”

I winced, imagining Vlad in the sauna, drunk, first bringing up disgusting prison memories, then babbling on about space fiction to the premier genius of Soviet rocketry. It was horrible. “What did the chief say to you?”

“He said it sounded promising,” said Vlad airily. “Said he’d get things rolling right away. You got any more of those Kents?”

I slumped into my chair, dazed. “Look inside my boots,” I said numbly. “My Italian ones.”

“Oh,” Vlad said in a small voice. “I sort of found those last week.”

I roused myself. “The chief let you see the Supercluster plans? And said you ought to go to Siberia?”

“Oh, not just you and me,” Vlad said, amused. “He needs a really thorough investigation! We’d commandeer a whole train, get all the personnel and equipment we need!” Vlad grinned. “Excited, Nikita?”

My head spun. The man was a demon. I knew in my soul that he was goading me. Deliberately. Sadistically. Suddenly I realized how sick I was of Vlad, of constantly watchdogging this visionary moron. Words tumbled out of me.

“I hate you, Zipkin! So this is your revenge at last, eh? Sending me to Siberia! You beatnik scum! You think you’re smart, blondie? You’re weak, you’re sick, that’s what! I wish the KGB had shot you, you stupid, selfish, crazy …” My eyes flooded with sudden tears.

Vlad patted my shoulder, surprised. “Now don’t get all worked up.”

“You’re nuts!” I sobbed. “You rocketship types are all crazy, every one of you! Storming the cosmos…well, you can storm my sacred ass! I’m not boarding any secret train to nowhere—”

“Now, now,” Vlad soothed. “My imagination, your thoroughness—we make a great team! Just think of them pinning awards on us.”

“If it’s such a great idea, then you do it! I’m not slogging through some stinking wilderness …”

“Be logical!” Vlad said, rolling his eyes in derision. “You know I’m not well trusted. Your Higher Circles don’t understand me the way you do. I need you along to smooth things, that’s all. Relax, Nikita! I promise, I’ll split the fame and glory with you, fair and square.”

Of course, I did my best to defuse, or at least avoid, this lunatic scheme. I protested to Higher Circles. My usual contact, a balding jazz fanatic named Colonel Popov, watched me blankly, with the empty stare of a professional interrogator. I hinted broadly that Vlad had been misbehaving with classified documents. Popov ignored this, absently tapping a pencil on his “special” phone in catchy 5/4 rhythm.

Hesitantly I mentioned Vlad’s insane mission. Popov still gave no response. One of the phones, not the “special” one, rang loudly. Popov answered, said, “Yes,” three times, and left the room.

I waited a long hour, careful not to look at or touch anything on his desk. Finally Popov returned.

I began at once to babble. I knew his silent treatment was an old trick, but I couldn’t help it. Popov cut me off.

“Marx’s laws of historical development apply universally to all societies,” he said, sitting in his squeaking chair. “That, of course, includes possible star-dwelling societies.” He steepled his fingers. “It follows logically that progressive Interstellar void-ites would look kindly on us progressive peoples.”

“But the Tunguska meteor fell in 1908!” I said.

“Interesting,” Popov mused. “Historical-determinist cosmic-oids could have calculated through Marxist science that Russia would be first to achieve communism. They might well have left us some message or legacy.”

“But Comrade Colonel …”

Popov rustled open a desk drawer. “Have you read this book?” It was Kazantsev’s space romance. “It’s all the rage at the space center these days. I got my copy from your friend Nina Bogulyubova.”

“Well …” I said.

“Then why do you presume to debate me without even reading the facts?” Popov folded his arms. “We find it significant that the Tunguska event took place on June 30, 1908. Today is June 15, 1958. If heroic measures are taken, you may reach the Tunguska valley on the very day of the 50th anniversary!”

That Tartar cow Bogulyubova had gotten to the Higher Circles first. Actually, it didn’t surprise me that our KGB would support Vlad’s scheme. They controlled our security, but our complex engineering and technical developments much exceeded their mental grasp. Space aliens, however, were a concept anyone could understand.

Any skepticism on their part was crushed by the Chief Designer’s personal support for the scheme. The chief had been getting a lot of play in Khrushchev’s speeches lately, and was known as a miracle worker. If he said it was possible, that was good enough for Security.

I was helpless. An expedition was organized in frantic haste.

Naturally it was vital to have KGB along. Me, of course, since I was guarding Vlad. And Nina Bogulyubova, as she was Vlad’s superior. But then the KGB of the other departments grew jealous of Metallurgy and Information Mechanics. They suspected that we were pulling a fast one. Suppose an artifact really were discovered? It would make all our other work obsolete overnight. Would it not be best that each department have a KGB observer present? Soon we found no end of applicants for the expedition.

We were lavishly equipped. We had ten railway cars. Four held our Red Army escort and their tracked all-terrain vehicles. We also had three sleepers, a galley car, and two flatcars piled high with rations, tents, excavators, Geiger counters, radios, and surveying instruments. Vlad brought a bulky calculating device, Captain Nina supplied her own mysterious crates, and I had a box of metallurgical analysis equipment, in case we found a piece of the UFO.

We were towed through Moscow under tight security, then our cars were shackled to the green-and-yellow Trans-Siberian Express.

Soon the expedition was chugging across the endless, featureless steppes of central Asia. I grew so bored that I was forced to read Kazantsev’s book.

On June 30, 1908, a huge, mysterious fireball had smashed into the Tunguska River valley of the central Siberian uplands. This place was impossibly remote. Kazantsev suggested that the crash point had been chosen deliberately to avoid injuring Earthlings.

It was not until 1927 that the first expedition reached the crash site, revealing terrific devastation, but—no sign whatsoever of a meteorite! They found no impact crater, either; only the swampy Tunguska valley, surrounded by an elliptical blast pattern: sixty kilometers of dead, smashed trees.

Kazantsev pointed out that the facts suggested a nuclear airburst. Perhaps it was a deliberate detonation by aliens, to demonstrate atomic power to Earthlings. Or it might have been the accidental explosion of a nuclear starship drive. In an accidental crash, a socially advanced alien pilot would naturally guide his stricken craft to one of the planet’s “poles of uninhabitedness.” And eyewitness reports made it clear that the Tunguska body had definitely changed course in flight!

Once I had read this excellent work, my natural optimism surfaced again. Perhaps we would find something grand in Tunguska after all, something miraculous that the 1927 expedition had overlooked. Kulik’s expedition had missed it, but now we were in the atomic age. Or so we told ourselves. It seemed much more plausible on a train with two dozen other explorers, all eager for the great adventure.

It was an unsought vacation for us hardworking stukachi. Work had been savage throughout our departments, and we KGB had had a tough time keeping track of our comrades’ correctness. Meanwhile, back in Kaliningrad, they were still laboring away, while we relaxed in the dining saloon with pegged chessboards and tall brass samovars of steaming tea.

Vlad and I shared our own sleeping car. I forgave him for having involved me in this mess. We became friends again. This would be real man’s work, we told each other. Tramping through savage taiga with bears, wolves, and Siberian tigers! Hunting strange, possibly dangerous relics—relics that might change the very course of cosmic history! No more of this poring over blueprints and formulae like clerks! Neither of us had fought in the Great Patriotic War—I’d been too young, and Vlad had been in some camp or something. Other guys were always bragging about how they’d stormed this or shelled that or eaten shoe leather in Stalingrad—well, we’d soon be making them feel pretty small!

Day after day, the countryside rolled past. First the endless, grassy steppes, then a dark wall of pine forest, broken by white-barked birches. Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign was in full swing, and the radio was full of patriotic stuff about settling the wilderness. Every few hundred kilometers, especially by rivers, raw and ugly new towns had sprung up along the Trans-Sib line. Prefab apartment blocks, mud streets, cement trucks, and giant sooty power plants. Trains unloaded huge spools of black wire. “Electrification” was another big propaganda theme of 1958.

Our Trans-Sib train stopped often to take on passengers, but our long section was sealed under orders from Higher circles. We had no chance to stretch our legs and slowly all our carriages filled up with the reek of dirty clothes and endless cigarettes.

I was doing my best to keep Vlad’s spirits up when Nina Bogulyubova entered our carriage, ducking under a line of wet laundry. “Ah, Nina Igorovna,” I said, trying to keep things friendly. “Vlad and I were just discussing something. Exactly what does it take to merit burial in the Kremlin?”

“Oh, put a cork in it,” Bogulyubova said testily. “My money says your so-called spacecraft was just a chunk of ice and gas. Probably a piece of a comet which vaporized on impact. Maybe it’s worth a look, but that doesn’t mean I have to swallow crackpot pseudo-science!”

She sat on the bunk facing Vlad’s, where he sprawled out, stunned with boredom and strong cigarettes. Nina opened her briefcase. “Vladimir, I’ve developed those pictures I took of you.”

“Yeah?”

She produced a Kirlian photograph of his hand. “Look at these spiky flares of suppressed energy from your fingertips. Your aura has changed since we’ve boarded the train.”

Vlad frowned. “I could do with a few deciliters of vodka, that’s all.”

She shook her head quickly, then smiled and blinked at him flirtatiously. “Vladimir Eduardovich, you’re a man of genius. You have strong, passionate drives …”

Vlad studied her for a moment, obviously weighing her dubious attractions against his extreme boredom. An affair with a woman who was his superior, and also KGB, would be grossly improper and risky. Vlad, naturally, caught my eye and winked. “Look, Nikita, take a hike for a while, okay?”

He was putty in her hands. I was disgusted by the way she exploited Vlad’s weaknesses. I left him in her carnal clutches, though I felt really sorry for Vlad. Maybe I could scare him up something to drink.

The closest train-stop to Tunguska is near a place call Ust-Ilimsk, two hundred kilometers north of Bratsk, and three thousand long kilometers from Moscow. Even London, England, is twice as close to Moscow as Tunguska.

A secondary-line engine hauled our string of cars to a tiny railway junction in the absolute middle of nowhere. Then it chugged away. It was four in the morning of June 26, but since it was summer it was already light. There were five families running the place, living in log cabins chinked with mud.

Our ranking KGB officer, an officious jerk named Chalomei, unsealed our doors. Vlad and I jumped out onto the rough boards of the siding. After days of ceaseless train vibration we staggered around like sailors who’d lost their land-legs. All around us was raw wilderness, huge birches and tough Siberian pines, with knobby, shallow roots. Permafrost was only two feet underground. There was nothing but trees and marsh for days in all directions. I found it very depressing.

We tried to strike up a conversation with the local supervisor. He spoke bad Russian, and looked like a relocated Latvian. The rest of our company piled out, yawning and complaining.

When he saw them, our host turned pale. He wasn’t much like the brave pioneers on the posters. He looked scrawny and glum.

“Quite a place you have here,” I observed.

“Is better than labor camp, I always thinking,” he said. He murmured something to Vlad.

“Yeah,” Vlad said thoughtfully, looking at our crew. “Now that you mention it, they are all police sneaks.”

With much confusion, we began unloading our train cars. Slowly the siding filled up with boxes of rations, bundled tents, and wooden crates labeled SECRET and THIS SIDE UP.

A fight broke out between our civilians and our Red Army detachment. Our Kaliningrad folk were soon sucking their blisters and rubbing strained backs, but the soldiers refused to do the work alone.

Things were getting out of hand. I urged Vlad to give them all a good talking-to, a good, ringing speech to establish who was who and what was what. Something simple and forceful, with lots of “marching steadfastly together” and “storming the stars” and so on.

“I’ll give them something better,” said Vlad, running his hands back through his hair. “I’ll give them the truth.” He climbed atop a crate and launched into a strange, ideologically incorrect harangue.

“Comrades. You should think of Einstein’s teachings. Matter is illusion. Why do you struggle so? Spacetime is the ultimate reality. Spacetime is one, and we are all patterns on it. We are ripples, Comrades, wrinkles in the fabric of the …”

“Einstein is a tool of International Zionism,” shouted someone.

“And you are a dog,” said Vlad evenly. “Nevertheless you and I are the same. We are different parts of the cosmic One. Matter is just a …”

“Drop dead,” yelled another heckler.

“Death is an illusion,” said Vlad, his smile tightening. “A person’s spacetime pattern codes an information pattern which the cosmos is free to …”

It was total gibberish. Everyone began shouting and complaining at once, and Vlad’s speech stuttered to a halt.

Our KGB colonel Chalomei jumped up on a crate and declared that he was taking charge. He was attached directly to the Chief Designer’s staff, he shouted, and was fed up with our expedition’s laxity. This was nothing but pure mutiny, but nobody else outranked him in KGB. It looked like Chalomei would get away with it. He then tried to order our Red Army boys to finish the unloading.

But they got mulish. There were six of them, all Central Asian Uzbeks from Uckduck, a hick burg in Uzbekskaja. They’d all joined the Red Army together, probably at gunpoint. Their leader was Master Sergeant Mukhamed, a rough character with a broken nose and puffy, scarred eyebrows. He looked and acted like a tank.

Mukhamed bellowed that his orders didn’t include acting as house-serfs for egghead aristocrats. Chalomei insinuated how much trouble he could make for Mukhamed, but Mukhamed only laughed.

“I may be just a dumb Uzbek,” Mukhamed roared, “but I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck! Why do you think this train is full of you worth-less stukachi? It’s so those big-brain rocket boys you left behind can get some real work done for once! Without you stoolies hanging around, stir-ring up trouble to make yourselves look good! They’d love to see you scum break your necks in the swamps of Siberia …”

He said a great deal more, but the damage was already done. Our expedition’s morale collapsed like a burst balloon. The rest of the group refused to move another millimeter without direct orders from Higher Circles.

We spent three days then, on the station’s telegraph, waiting for orders. The glorious 50th Anniversary of the event came and went and everything was screwed up and in a total shambles. The gloomiest rumors spread among us. Some said that the Chief Designer had tricked us KGB to get us out of the way, and others said that Khrushchev himself was behind it. (There were always rumors of struggle between Party and KGB at the Very Highest Circles.) Whatever it meant, we were all sure to be humiliated when we got back, and heads would roll.

I was worried sick. If this really was a plot to hoodwink KGB, then I was in it up to my neck. Then the galley car caught fire during the night and sabotage was suspected. The locals, fearing interrogation, fled into the forest, though it was probably just one of Chalomei’s stukachi being careless with a samovar.

Orders finally arrived from Higher Circles. KGB personnel were to return to their posts for a “reassessment of their performance.” This did not sound promising at all. No such orders were given to Vlad or the “expedition regulars,” whatever that meant. Apparently the Higher Circles had not yet grasped that there were no “expedition regulars.”

Nina and I were both severely implicated, so we both decided that we were certainly “regulars” and should put off going back as long as possible. Together with Vlad, we had a long talk with Sergeant Mukhamed, who seemed a sensible sort.

“We’re better off without those desk jockeys,” Mukhamed said bluntly. “This is rough country. We can’t waste time tying up the shoelaces of those Moscow fairies. Besides, my orders say ‘Zipkin’ and I don’t see ‘KGB’ written anywhere on them.”

“Maybe he’s right,” Vlad said. “We’re in so deep now that our best chance is to actually find an artifact and prove them all wrong! Results are what count, after all! We’ve come this far—why turn tail now?”

Our own orders said nothing about the equipment. It turned out there was far too much of it for us to load it aboard the Red Army tractor vehicles. We left most of it on the sidings.

We left early next morning, while the others were still snoring. We had three all-terrain vehicles with us, brand new Red Army amphibious personnel carriers, called “BTR-50s,” or “byutors” in Army slang. They had camouflaged steel armor and rode very low to the ground on broad tracks. They had loud, rugged diesel engines and good navigation equipment, with room for ten troops each in a bay in the back. The front had slits and searchlights and little pop-up armored hatches for the driver and commander. The byutors floated in water, too, and could churn through the thickest mud like a salamander. We scientists rode in the first vehicle, while the second carried equipment and the third, fuel.

Once underway, our spirits rose immediately. You could always depend on the good old Red Army to get the job done! We roared through woods and swamps with a loud, comforting racket, scaring up large flocks of herons and geese. Our photoreconnaissance maps, which had been issued to us under the strictest security, helped us avoid the worst obstacles. The days were long and we made good speed, stopping only a few hours a night.

It took three days of steady travel to reach the Tunguksa basin. Cone-shaped hills surrounded the valley like watchtowers.

The terrain changed here. Mummified trees strewed the ground like jackstraws, many of them oddly burnt. Trees decayed very slowly in the Siberian taiga. They were deep-frozen all winter and stayed whole for decades.

Dusk fell. We bulled our way around the slope of one of the hills, while leafless, withered branches crunched and shrieked beneath our treads. The marshy Tunguska valley, clogged and gray with debris, came in to view. Sergeant Mukhamed called a halt. The maze of fallen lumber was too much for our machines.

We tottered out of the byutors and savored the silence. My kidneys felt like jelly from days of lurching and jarring. I stood by our byutor, resting my hand on it, taking comfort in the fact that it was man-made. The rough travel and savage dreariness had taken the edge off my enthusiasm. I needed a drink.

But our last liter of vodka had gone out the train window somewhere between Omsk and Tomsk. Nina had thrown it away “for Vlad’s sake.” She was acting more like a lovesick schoolgirl every day. She was constantly fussing over Vlad, tidying him up, watching his diet, leaping heavily to his defense in every conversation. Vlad, of course, merely sopped up this devotion as his due, too absent-minded to notice it. Vlad had a real talent for that. I wasn’t sure which of the two of them was more disgusting.

“At last,” Vlad exulted. “Look, Ninotchka, the site of the mystery! Isn’t it sublime!” Nina smiled and linked her solid arm with his.

The dusk thickened. Huge taiga mosquitoes whirred past our ears and settled to sting and pump blood. We slapped furiously, then set up our camp amid a ring of dense, smoky fires.

To our alarm, answering fires flared up on the five other hilltops ringing the valley.

“Evenks,” grumbled Sergeant Mukhamed. “Savage nomads. They live off their reindeer, and camp in round tents called yurts. No one can civilize them; it’s hopeless. Best just to ignore them.”

“Why are they here?” Nina said. “Such a bleak place.”

Vlad rubbed his chin. “The record of the ‘27 Kulik Expedition said the Evenk tribes remembered the explosion. They spoke of a Thunder-God smiting the valley. They must know this place pretty well.”

“I’m telling you,” rasped Mukhamed, “stay away. The men are all mushroom-eaters and the women are all whores.”

One of the shaven-headed Uzbek privates looked up from his tin of rations. “Really, Sarge?”

“Their girls have lice as big as your thumbnails,” the sergeant said. “And the men don’t like strangers. When they eat those poison toadstools they get like wild beasts.”

We had tea and hardtack, sniffling and wiping our eyes from the bug-repelling smoke. Vlad was full of plans. “Tomorrow we’ll gather data on the direction of the treefalls. That’ll show us the central impact point. Nina, you can help me with that. Nikita, you can stay here and help the soldiers set up base camp. And maybe later tomorrow we’ll have an idea of where to look for our artifact.”

Later that night, Vlad and Nina crept out of our long tent. I heard restrained groaning and sighing for half an hour. The soldiers snored on peacefully while I lay under the canvas with my eyes wide open. Finally Nina shuffled in, followed by Vlad brushing mud from his knees.

I slept poorly that night. Maybe Nina was no sexy hard-currency girl, but she was a woman, and even a stukach can’t overhear that sort of thing without getting hot and bothered. After all, I had my needs, too.

Around one in the morning I gave up trying to sleep and stepped out of the tent for some air. An incredible aurora display greeted me. We were late for the 50th anniversary of the Tunguska crash, but I had the feeling the valley was welcoming me.

There was an arc of rainbow light directly overhead, with crimson and yellow streamers shooting out from the zenith towards the horizons. Wide luminous bands, paralleling the arch, kept rising out of the horizon to roll across the heavens with swift steady majesty. The bands crashed into the arch like long breakers from a sea of light.

The great auroral rainbow, with all its wavering streamers, began to swing slowly upwards, and a second, brighter arch formed below it. The new arch shot a long serried row of slender, colored lances towards the Tunguska valley. The lances stretched down, touched, and a lightning flash of vivid orange glared out, filling the whole world around me. I held my breath, waiting for the thunder, but the only sound was Nina’s light snoring.

I watched for a while longer, until finally the great cosmic tide of light shivered into pieces. At the very end, disks appeared, silvery, shimmering saucers that filled the sky. Truly we had come to a very strange place. Filled with profound emotions, I was able to forget myself and sleep.

Next morning everyone woke up refreshed and cheerful. Vlad and Nina traipsed off with the surveying equipment. With the soldiers’ help, I set up the diesel generator for Vlad’s portable calculator. We did some camp scut-work, cutting heaps of firewood, digging a proper latrine. By then it was noon, but the lovebirds were still not back, so I did some exploring of my own. I tramped downhill into the disaster zone.

I realized almost at once that our task was hopeless. The ground was squelchy and dead, beneath a thick tangling shroud of leafless pines. We couldn’t look for wreckage systematically without hauling away the musty, long-dead crust of trees. Even if we managed that, the ground itself was impossibly soggy and treacherous.

I despaired. The valley itself oppressed my soul. The rest of the taiga had chipmunks, wood grouse, the occasional heron or squirrel, but this swamp seemed lifeless, poisonous. In many places the earth had sagged into shallow bowls and depressions, as if the rock below it had rotted away.

New young pines had sprung up to take the place of the old, but I didn’t like the look of them. The green saplings, growing up through the gray skeletons of their ancestors, were oddly stunted and twisted. A few older pines had been half-sheltered from the blast by freaks of topography. The living bark on their battered limbs and trunks showed repulsive puckered blast-scars.

Something malign had entered the soil. Perhaps poisoned comet ice, I thought. I took samples of the mud, mostly to impress the soldiers back at camp. I wasn’t much of a scientist, but I knew how to go through the motions.

While digging I disturbed an ant nest. The strange, big-headed ants emerged from their tunnels and surveyed the damage with eerie calm.

By the time I returned to camp, Vlad and Nina were back. Vlad was working on his calculator while Nina read out direction-angles of the felled trees. “We’re almost done,” Nina told me, her broad-cheeked face full of bovine satisfaction. “We’re running an information-theoretic analysis to determine the ground location of the explosion.”

The soldiers looked impressed. But the upshot of Vlad’s and Nina’s fancy analysis was what any fool could see by glancing at the elliptical valley. The brunt of the explosion had burst from the nearer focus of the ellipse, directly over a little hill I’d had my eye on all along.

“I’ve been taking soil samples,” I told Nina. “I suspect odd trace elements in the soil. I suppose you noticed the strange growth of the pines. They’re particularly tall at the blast’s epicenter.”

“Hmph,” Nina said. “While you were sleeping last night, there was a minor aurora. I took photos. I think the geomagnetic field may have had an influence on the object’s trajectory.”

“That’s elementary,” I sniffed. “What we need to study is a possible remagnetization of the rocks. Especially at impact point.”

“You’re neglecting the biological element.” Nina said. By now the soldiers’ heads were swiveling to follow our discussion like a tennis match. “I suppose you didn’t notice the faint luminescence of the sod?” She pulled some crumpled blades of grass from her pocket. “A Kirlian analysis will prove interesting.”

“But, of course, the ants—” I began.

“Will you two fakers shut up a minute?” Vlad broke in. “I’m trying to think.”

I swallowed hard. “Oh yes, Comrade Genius? What about?”

“About finding what we came for, Nikita. The alien craft.” Vlad frowned, waving his arm at the valley below us. “I’m convinced it’s buried out there somewhere. We don’t have a chance in this tangle and ooze…but we’ve got to figure some way to sniff it out.”

At that moment we heard the distant barking of a dog. “Great,” Vlad said without pausing. “Maybe that’s a bloodhound.”

He’d made a joke. I realized this after a moment, but by then it was too late to laugh. “It’s just some Evenk mutt,” Sergeant Mukhamed said. “They keep sled-dogs…eat ‘em, too.” The dog barked louder, coming closer. “Maybe it got loose.”

Ten minutes later the dog bounded into our camp, barking joyously and frisking. It was a small, bright-eyed female husky, with muddy legs and damp fur caked with bits of bark. “That’s no sled-dog,” Vlad said, wondering. “That’s a city mutt. What’s it doing here?”

She was certainly friendly enough. She barked in excitement and sniffed at our hands trustingly. I patted the dog and called her a good girl. “Where on earth did you come from?” I asked. I’d always liked dogs.

One of the soldiers addressed the dog in Uzbek and offered it some of his rations. It sniffed the food, took a tentative lick, but refused to eat it.

“Sit!” Vlad said suddenly. The dog sat obediently.

“She understands Russian,” Vlad said.

“Nonsense,” I said. “She just reacted to your voice.”

“There must be other Russians nearby,” Nina said. “A secret research station, maybe? Something we were never told about?”

“Well, I guess we have a mascot,” I said, scratching the dog’s scalp.

“Come here, Laika,” Vlad said. The dog pricked her ears and wandered toward him.

I felt an icy sensation of horror. I snatched my hand back as if I had touched a corpse. With an effort, I controlled myself. “Come on, Vlad,” I said. “You’re joking again.”

“Good dog,” Vlad said, patting her.

“Vlad,” I said, “Laika’s rocket burned up on re-entry.”

“Yes,” Vlad said, “the first creature we Earthlings put into space was sentenced to be burned alive. I often think about that.” Vlad stared dramatically into the depths of the valley. “Comrades, I think something is waiting here to help us storm the cosmos. I think it preserved Laika’s soul and reanimated her here, at this place, and at this time…It’s no coincidence. This is no ordinary animal. This is Laika, the cosmonaut dog!”

Laika barked loudly. I had never seen the dog without the rubber oxygen mask on her face, but I knew with a thrill of supernatural fear that Vlad was right. I felt an instant irrational urge to kill the dog, or at least give her a good kick. If I killed and buried her, I wouldn’t have to think about what she meant.

The others looked equally stricken. “Probably fell off a train,” Mukhamed muttered at last.

Vlad regally ignored this frail reed of logic. “We ought to follow Laika. The…Thunder-God put her here to lead us. It won’t get dark till ten o’clock. Let’s move out, comrades.” Vlad stood up and shrugged on his backpack. “Mukhamed?”

“Uh …” the sergeant said. “My orders are to stay with the vehicles.” He cleared his throat and spat. “There are Evenks about. Natural thieves. We wouldn’t want our camp to be raided.”

Vlad looked at him in surprise, and then with pity. He walked towards me, threw one arm over my shoulder, and took me aside. “Nikita, these Uzbeks are brave soldiers but they’re a bit superstitious. Terrified of the unknown. What a laugh. But you and I…Scientists, space pioneers…the Unknown is our natural habitat, right?”

“Well …”

“Come on, Nikita.” He glowered. “We can’t go back and face the top brass empty-handed.”

Nina joined us. “I knew you’d turn yellow, Globov. Never mind him, Vlad, darling. Why should you share your fame and glory with this sneaking coward? I’ll go with you—”

“You’re a woman,” Vlad assured her loftily. “You’re staying here where it’s safe.”

“But Vlad—”

Vlad folded his arms. “Don’t make me have to beat you.” Nina blushed girlishly and looked at the toes of her hiking boots. She could have broken his back like a twig.

The dog barked loudly and capered at our feet. “Come on,” Vlad said. He set off without looking back.

I grabbed my pack and followed him. I had to. I was guarding him: no more Vlad, no more Globov …

Our journey was a nightmare. The dog kept trying to follow us, or would run yipping through ratholes in the brush that we had to circle painfully. Half on intuition, we headed for the epicenter of the blast, the little hillock at the valley’s focus.

It was almost dusk again when we finally reached it, battered, scratched and bone-tired. We found a yurt there, half-hidden in a slough off to one side of the hill. It was an Evenk reindeer-skin tent, oozing grayish smoke from a vent-hole. A couple of scabby reindeer were pegged down outside it, gnawing at a lush, purplish patch of swamp moss. The dead trees around had been heavily seared by the blast, leaving half-charcoaled bubbly lumps of ancient resin. Some ferns and rushes had sprung up, corkscrewed, malformed, and growing with cancerous vigor.

The dog barked loudly at the wretched reindeer, who looked up with bleary-eyed indifference.

We heard leather thongs hiss loose in the door flap. A pale face framed in a greasy fur hood poked through. It was a young Evenk girl. She called to the dog, then noticed us and giggled quietly.

The dog rushed toward the yurt, wagging her tail. “Hello,” Vlad called. He spread his open hands. “Come on out, we’re friends.”

The girl stepped out and inched toward us, watching the ground carefully. She paused at a small twig, her dilated eyes goggling as if it were a boulder. She high-jumped far over it, and landed giggling. She wore an elaborate reindeer-skin jacket that hung past her knees, thickly embroidered with little beads of bone and wood. She also had tight fur trousers with lumpy beaded booties, sewn all in one piece like a child’s pajamas.

She sidled up, grinning coyly, and touched my face and clothes in curiosity. “Nikita,” I said, touching my chest.

“Balan Thok,” she whispered, running one fingertip down her sweating throat. She laughed drunkenly.

“Is that your dog?” Vlad said. “She came from the sky!” He gestured extravagantly. “Something under the earth here…brought her down from the sky…yes?”

I shrieked suddenly. A gargoyle had appeared in the tent’s opening. But the blank, ghastly face was only a wooden ceremonial mask, shaped like a frying pan, with a handle to grip below the “chin.” The mask had eye-slits and a carved mouth-hole fringed with a glued-on beard of reindeer hair.

Behind it was Balan Thok’s father, or maybe grandfather. Cunningly, the old villain peered at us around the edge of his mask. His face was as wrinkled as an old boot. The sides of his head were shaven and filth-choked white hair puffed from the top like a thistle. His long reindeer coat was fringed with black fur and covered with bits of polished bone and metal.

We established that the old savage was called Jif Gurd. Vlad went through his sky-pointing routine again. Jif Gurd returned briefly to his leather yurt and re-emerged with a long wooden spear. Grinning vacuously, he jammed the butt of it into a socket in the ground and pointed to the heavens.

“I don’t like the look of this,” I told Vlad at once. “That spear has dried blood on it.”

“Yeah. I’ve heard of this,” Vlad said. “Sacrifice poles for the thunder-god. Kulik wrote about them.” He turned to the old man. “That’s right,” he encouraged. “Thunder-God.” He pointed to the dog. “Thunder-God brought this dog down.”

“Thunder-God,” said Jif Gurd seriously. “Dog.” He looked up at the sky reverently. “Thunder-God.” He made a descending motion with his right arm, threw his hands apart to describe the explosion. “Boom!”

“That’s right! That’s right!” Vlad said excitedly.

Jif Gurd nodded. He bent down almost absentmindedly and picked little Laika up by the scruff of the neck. “Dog.”

“Yes, yes,” Vlad nodded eagerly. Before we could do anything, before we could realize what was happening, Jif Gurd reached inside his greasy coat, produced a long, curved knife, and slashed poor Laika’s throat. He lifted her up without effort—he was terribly strong, the strength of drug-madness—and jammed her limp neck over the end of the spear as if gaffing a fish.

Blood squirted everywhere. Vlad and I jumped back, horrified. “Hell!” Vlad cried in anguish. “I forgot that they sacrifice dogs!”

The hideous old man grinned and chattered excitedly. He was convinced that he understood us—that Vlad had wanted him to sacrifice the dog to the sky-god. He approved of the idea. He approved of us. I said, “He thinks we have something in common now, Vlad.”

“Yeah,” Vlad said. He looked sadly at Laika. “Well, we rocket men sacrificed her first, poor beast.”

“There goes our last lead to the UFO,” I said. “Poor Laika! All the way just for this!”

“This guy’s got to know where the thing is,” Vlad said stubbornly. “Look at the sly old codger—it’s written all over his face.” Vlad stepped forward. “Where is it? Where did it land?” He gestured wildly. “You take us there!”

Balan Thok gnawed her slender knuckles and giggled at our antics, but it didn’t take the old guy long to catch on. By gestures, and a few key words, we established that the Thunder-God was in a hole nearby. A hidden hole, deep in the earth. He knew where it was. He could show it to us.

But he wouldn’t.

“It’s a religious thing,” Vlad said, mulling it over. “I think we’re ritually unclean.”

“Muk-a-moor,” said the old man. He opened the tent flap and gestured us inside.

The leather walls inside were black with years of soot. The yurt was round, maybe five steps across, and braced with a lattice of smooth flat sticks and buckskin thongs. A fire blazed away in the yurt’s center, chunks of charred pine on a hearth of flat yellow stones. Dense smoke curdled the air. Two huge furry mounds loomed beside the hearth. They were Evenk sleeping bags, like miniature tents in themselves.

Our eyes were caught by the drying-racks over the fire. Mushrooms littered the racks, the red-capped fly agaric mushrooms that one always sees in children’s books. The intoxicating toadstools of the Siberian nomad. Their steaming fungal reek filled the tent, below the acrid stench of smoke and rancid sweat.

“Muk-a-moor,” said Jif Gurd, pointing at them, and then at his head.

“Oh, Christ,” Vlad said. “He won’t show us anything unless we eat his sacred mushrooms.” He caught the geezer’s eye and pantomimed eating.

The old addict shook his head and held up a leather cup. He pre-tended to drink, then smacked his rubbery, bearded lips. He pointed to Balan Thok.

“I don’t get it,” Vlad said.

“Right,” I said, getting to my feet. “Well, you hold him here, and I’ll go back to camp. I’ll have the soldiers in by midnight. We’ll beat the truth out of the old dog-butcher.”

“Sit down, idiot,” Vlad hissed. “Don’t you remember how quick he was with that knife?”

It was true. At my movement a sinister gleam had entered the old man’s eyes. I sat down quickly. “We can outrun him.”

“It’s getting dark,” Vlad said. Just three words, but they brought a whole scene into mind: running blind through a maze of broken branches, with a drug-crazed, panting slasher at my heels…I smiled winningly at the old shaman. He grinned back and again made his drinking gesture. He tossed the leather cup to Balan Thok, who grabbed at it wildly and missed it by two meters. She picked it up and turned her back on us. We heard her fumble with the lacing of her trousers. She squatted down. There was a hiss of liquid.

“Oh Jesus,” I said. “Vlad, no.”

“I’ve heard about this,” Vlad said wonderingly. “The active ingredient passes on into the urine. Ten savages can get drunk on one mushroom. Pass it from man to man.” He paused. “The kidneys absorb the impurities. It’s supposed to be better for you that way. Not as poisonous.”

“Can’t we just eat the muk-a-moors?” I said, pointing at the rack. The old shaman glowered at me, and shook his head violently. Balan Thok sashayed toward me, hiding her face behind one sleeve. She put the warm cup into my hands and backed away, giggling.

I held the cup. A terrible fatalism washed over me. “Vladimir,” I said. “I’m tired. My head hurts. I’ve been stung all over by mosquitoes and my pants are drenched with dog blood. I don’t want to drink the poison piss of some savage—”

“It’s for Science,” Vlad said soberly.

“All my life,” I began, “I wanted to work for the good of Society. My dear mother, God bless her memory …” I choked up. “If she could see what her dear son has come to…All those years of training, just for this! For this, Vlad?” I began trembling violently.

“Don’t spill it!” Vlad said. Balan Thok stared at me, licking her lips. “I think she likes you,” Vlad said.

For some weird reason these last words pushed me over the edge. I shoved the cup to my lips and drained the potion in one go. It sizzled down my gullet in a wave of hot nausea. Somehow I managed to keep from vomiting.

“How do you feel?” Vlad asked eagerly.

“My face is going numb.” I stared at Balan Thok. Her eyes were full of hot fascination. I looked at her, willing her to come toward me. Nothing could be worse now. I had gone through the ultimate. I was ready, no, eager, to heap any degradation on myself. Maybe fornication with this degraded creature would raise me to some strange height.

“You’re braver than I thought, Nikita,” Vlad said. His voice rang with unnatural volume in my drugged ears. He pulled the cup from my numbed hands. “Considered objectively, this is really not so bad. A healthy young woman…sterile fluid…It’s mere custom that makes it seem so repellent.” He smiled in superior fashion, gripping the cup.

Suddenly the old Siberian shaman stood before him guffawing crazily as he donated Vlad’s share. A cheesy reek came from his dropped trousers. Vlad stared at me in horror. I fell on my side, laughing wildly. My bones turned to rubber.

The girl laughed like a xylophone, gesturing to me lewdly. Vlad was puking noisily. I got up to lurch toward the girl, but forgot to move my feet and fell down. My head was inflamed with intense desire for her. She was turning round and round, singing in a high voice, holding a curved knife over her head. Somehow I tackled her and we fell headlong onto one of the Evenk sleeping bags, crushing it with a snapping of wood and lashings. I couldn’t get out of my clothes. They were crawling over me like live things.

I paused to retch, not feeling much pain, just a torrent of sensations as the drug came up. Vlad and the old man were singing together loudly and at great length. I was thumping around vaguely on top of the girl, watching a louse crawl through one of her braids.

The old man came crawling up on all fours and stared into my face. “Thunder-God,” he cackled, and tugged at my arm. He had pulled aside a large reindeer skin that covered the floor of the yurt. There was a deep hole, right there, right in the tent with us. Fighting the cramps in my stomach, I dragged myself toward it and peered in.

The space in the hole was strangely distorted; it was impossible to tell how deep it was. At its far end was a reticulated blue aurora that seemed to shift and flow in synchronization with my thoughts. For some reason I thought of Laika, and wished again that Jif Gurd hadn’t killed her. The aurora pulsed at my thought, and there was a thump outside the tent—a thump followed by loud barking.

“Laika?” I said. My voice came out slow and drugged. Balan Thok had her arms around my neck and was licking my face. Dragging her after me, I crawled to the tent flap and peered out. There was a dog-shaped glob of light out there, barking as if its throat would burst.

I was scared, and I let Balan Thok pull me back into the tent. The full intoxication took over. Balan Thok undid my trousers and aroused me to madness. Vlad and the old man were lying at the edge of the Thunder-God hole, staring down into the growing blue light and screaming to it. I threw Balan Thok down between them, and we began coupling savagely. Each spastic twitch of our bodies was a coded message, a message that Vlad and Jif Gurd’s howls were reinforcing. Our filth and drug-madness became a sacred ritual, an Eleusinian mystery. Before too long, I could hear the voice of …

God? No…not god, and not the Devil. The voice was from the blue light in the pit. And it wasn’t a voice. It was the same, somehow, as the aurora I’d seen last night. It liked dogs, and it liked me. Behind all the frenzy, I was very happy there, shuddering on Balan Thok. Time passed.

At some point there was more barking outside, and the old man screamed. I saw his face, underlit by the pulsing blue glow from the Thunder-God hole. He bounded over me, waving his bloody knife overhead.

I heard a gunshot from the tent-door, and someone came crashing in. A person led by a bright blue dog. Captain Nina. The dog had helped her find us. The dog ran over and snapped at me, forcing me away from Balan Thok and the hole. I got hold of Vlad’s leg, and dragged him along with me. There was another shot, and then Nina was struggling hand to hand with the old man. Vlad staggered to his feet and tried to join the fight. But I got my arms around his thin chest and kept backing away.

Jif Gurd and Nina were near the hole’s jumpy light now, and I could see that they both were wounded. She had shot the old man twice with a pistol, but he had his knife, and the strength of a maniac. The two of them wrestled hand-to-hand, clawing and screaming. Now Balan Thok rose to her knees and began slashing at Nina’s legs with a short dagger. Nina’s pistol pointed this way and that, constantly about to fire.

I dragged Vlad backwards, and we tore through the rotting leather of the yurt’s wall. An aurora like last night’s filled the sky. Now that I wasn’t staring into the hole I could think a little bit. So many things swirled in my mind, but one fact above all stuck out. We had found an alien artifact. If only it was a rocket-drive, then all of the terrible mess in the yurt could be forgotten …

An incandescent blast lifted Vlad and me off the ground and threw us five meters. The entire yurt leapt into the sky. It was gone instantly, leaving a backward meteor trail of flaming orange in the sudden blackness of the sky. The sodden earth convulsed. From overhead, a leaping sonic boom pressed Vlad and me down into the muck where we had landed. I passed out.

Vlad shook me awake after many hours. The sun was still burning above the horizon. It was another of those dizzying, endless, timeless summer days. I tried to remember what had happened. When my first memories came I retched in pain.

Vlad had started a roaring campfire from dead, mummified branches. “Have some tea, Nikita,” he said, handing me a tin army mug filled with hot, yellow liquid.

“No,” I choked weakly. “No more.”

“It’s tea,” Vlad said. I could tell his mind was running a mile a minute. “Take it easy. It’s all over. We’re alive, and we’ve found the star-drive. That blast last night!” His face hardened a bit. “Why didn’t you let me try to save poor Nina?”

I coughed and wiped my bloodshot, aching eyes. I tried to fit my last twelve hallucinated hours into some coherent pattern. “The yurt,” I croaked. “The star-drive shot it into the sky? That really happened?”

“Nina shot the old man. She burst in with a kind of ghost-dog? She burst in and the old man rushed her with his knife. When the drive went off, it threw all of them into the sky. Nina, the two Evenks, even the two reindeer and the dog. We were lucky—we were right at the edge of the ellipse.”

“I saved you, Vlad. There was no way to save Nina, too. Please don’t blame me.” I needed his forgiveness because I felt guilty. I had a strange feeling that it had been my wish of finding a rocket drive that had made the artifact send out the fatal blast.

Vlad sighed and scratched his ribs. “Poor Ninotchka. Imagine how it must have looked. Us rolling around screaming in delirium and you having filthy sex with that Evenk girl …” He frowned sadly. “Not what you expect from Soviet scientists.”

I sat up to look at the elliptical blast area where the yurt had been. Nothing was left of it but a few sticks and thongs and bits of hide. The rest was a muddy crater. “My God, Vlad.”

“It’s extremely powerful,” Vlad said moodily. “It wants to help us Earthlings, I know it does. It saved Laika, remember?”

“It saved her twice. Did you see the blue dog last night?”

Vlad frowned impatiently. “I saw lots of things last night, Nikita, but now those things are gone.”

“The drive is gone?”

“Oh no,” Vlad said. “I dug it out of the crater this morning.”

He gestured at our booty. It was sitting in the mud behind him. It was caked with dirt and weird, powdery rust. It looked like an old tractor crankcase.

“Is that it?” I said doubtfully.

“It looked better this morning,” Vlad said. “It was made of something like jade and was shaped like a vacuum cleaner. With fins. But if you take your eyes off it, it changes.”

“No. Really?”

Vlad said, “It’s looked shabby ever since you woke up. It’s picking up on your shame. That was really pretty horrible last night, Nikita; I’d never thought that you …”

I poked him sharply to shut him up. We looked at each other for a minute, and then I took a deep breath. “The main thing is that we’ve got it, Vlad. This is a great day in history.”

“Yeah,” agreed Vlad, finally smiling. The drive looked shinier now. “Help me rig up a sling for it.”

With great care, as much for our pounding heads as for the Artifact itself, we bundled it up in Vlad’s coat and slung it from a long, crooked shoulder-pole.

My head was still swimming. The mosquitoes were a nightmare. Vlad and I climbed up and over the splintery, denuded trunks of dead pines, stopping often to wheeze on the damp, metallic air. The sky was very clear and blue, the color of Lake Baikal. Sometimes, when Vlad’s head and shoulders were outlined against the sky, I seemed to see a faint Kirlian shimmer traveling up the shoulder-pole to dance on his skin.

Panting with exhaustion, we stopped and gulped down more rations. Both of us had the trots. Small wonder. We built a good sooty fire to keep the bugs off for a while. We threw in some smoky green boughs from those nasty-looking young pines. Vlad could not resist the urge to look at it again.

We unwrapped it. Vlad stared at it fondly. “After this, it will belong to all mankind,” he said. “But for now it’s ours!”

It had changed again. Now it had handles. They looked good and solid, less rusty than the rest. We lugged it by the handles until we got within earshot of the base-camp.

The soldiers heard our yells and three of them came to help us.

They told us about Nina on our way back. All day she had paced and fidgeted, worrying about Vlad and trying to talk the soldiers into a rescue mission. Finally, despite their good advice, she had set off after us alone.

The aurora fireworks during the night had terrified the Uzbeks. They were astonished to see that we had not only survived, but triumphed.

But we had to tell them that Nina was gone.

Sergeant Mukhamed produced some 200-proof ethanol from the de-icing tank of his byutor. Weeping unashamedly, we toasted the memory of our lost comrade, State Security Captain Nina Igorovna Bogulyubova. After that we had another round, and I made a short but dignified speech about those who fall while storming the cosmos. Yes, dear Captain Nina was gone; but thanks to her sacrifice, we, her comrades, had achieved an unprecedented victory. She would never be forgotten. Vlad and I would see to that.

We had another toast for our cosmic triumph. Then another for the final victory. Then we were out of drinks.

The Uzbeks hadn’t been idle while Vlad and I had been gone. They didn’t have live ammo, but a small bear had come snuffling round the camp the day before and they’d managed to run over him with one of the byutors. The air reeked of roast bear meat and dripping fat. Vlad and I had a good big rack of ribs, each. The ribs in my chunk were pretty broken up, but it was still tasty. For the first time, I felt like a real hero. Eating bear meat in Siberia. It was a heck of a thing.

Now that we were back to the byutors, our problems were behind us and we could look forward to a real “rain of gold.” Medals, and plenty of them. Big dachas on the Black Sea, and maybe even lecture tours in the West, where we could buy jazz records. All the Red Army boys figured they had big promotions coming.

We broke camp and loaded the carriers. Vlad wouldn’t join in the soldiers’ joking and kidding. He was still mooning about Nina. I felt sorry for Vlad. I’d never liked Nina much, and I’d been against her coming from the first. The wilderness was no place for females, and it was no wonder she’d come to grief. But I didn’t point this out to Vlad. It would only have made him feel worse. Besides, Nina’s heroic sacrifice had given a new level of deep moral meaning to our effort.

We packed the drive away in the first byutor where Vlad and I could keep an eye on it. Every time we stopped to refuel or study the maps, Vlad would open its wrappings and have a peek. I teased him about it. “What’s the matter, comrade? Want to chain it to your leg?”

Vlad was running his hand over and over the drive’s rusty surface. Beneath his polishing strokes, a faint gleam of silver had appeared. He frowned mightily. “Nikita, we must never forget that this is no soulless machine. I’m convinced it takes its form from what we make of it. It’s a frozen idea—that’s it true essence. And if you and I forget it, or look aside, it might just vanish.”

I tried to laugh him out of it, but Vlad was serious. He slept next to it both nights, until we reached the rail spur.

We followed the line to the station. Vlad telegraphed full particulars to Moscow and I sent along a proud report to Higher Circles.

We waited impatiently for four days. Finally a train arrived. It contained some rocket-drive technicians from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and two dozen uniformed KGB. Vlad and I were arrested. The Red Army boys were taken in custody by some Red Army brass. Even the Latvian who ran the station was arrested.

We were kept incommunicado in a bunk car. Vlad remained cheerful, though. “This is nothing,” he said, drawing on his old jailbird’s lore. “When they really mean business, they take your shoelaces. These KGB are just protective custody. After all, you and I have the greatest secret in cosmic history!” And we were treated well—we had red caviar, Crimean champagne, Kamchatkan king crab, blinis with sour cream.

The drive had been loaded aboard a flatcar and swathed down under many layers of canvas. The train pulled to a halt several times. The window shades on our car were kept lowered, but whenever we stopped, Vlad peeked out. He claimed the rocket specialists were adjusting the load.

After the second day of travel I had grave doubts about our whole situation. No one had interrogated us; for cosmic heroes, we were being badly neglected. I even had to beg ignominiously for DDT to kill the crab-lice I had caught from Balan Thok. Compared to the mundane boredom of our train confinement, our glorious adventure began to seem absurd. How would we explain our strange decisions—how would we explain what had happened to Nina? Our confusion would surely make it look like we were hiding something.

Instead of returning in triumph to Kaliningrad, our train headed south. We were bound for Baikonur Cosmodrome, where the rockets are launched. Actually, Baikonur is just the “security name” for the installation. The real town of Baikonur is five hundred kilometers away. The true launch site is near the village of Tyuratam. And Tyuratam, worse luck, is even more of a hick town that Baikonur.

This cheerless place lies on a high plain north of Afghanistan and east of the Aral Sea. It was dry and hot when we got there, with a cease-less irritating wind. As they marched us out of the train, we saw engineers unloading the drive. With derricks.

Over the course of the trip, as the government rocket experts fiddled with it, the drive had expanded to fit their preconceptions. It had grown to the size of a whole flatcar. It had become a maze of crooked hydraulics, with great ridged black blast-nozzles. It was even bound together with those ridiculous hoops.

Vlad and I were hustled into our new quarters: a decontamination suite, built in anticipation of the launch of our first cosmonauts. It was not bad for a jail. We probably would have gotten something worse, except that Vlad’s head sometimes oozed a faint but definite blue glow, and that made them cautious.

Our food came through sterilized slots in the wall. The door was like a bank vault. We were interrogated through windows of bulletproof glass via speakers and microphones.

We soon discovered that our space drive had been classified at the Very Highest Circles. It was not to be publicly referred to as an alien artifact. Officially, our space-drive was a secret new design from Kaliningrad. Even the scientist already working on it at Tyuratam had been told this, and apparently believed it.

The Higher Circles expected our drive to work miracles, but they were to be miracles of national Soviet science. No one was to know of our contact with cosmic powers.

Vlad and I became part of a precedence struggle in Higher Circles. Red Army defense radars had spotted the launching of the yurt, and they wanted to grill us. Khrushchev’s new Rocket Defense Forces also wanted us. So did the Kaliningrad KGB. And of course the Tyuratam technicians had a claim on us; they were planning to use our drive for a spectacular propaganda feat.

We ended up in the hands of KGB’s Paranormal Research Corps.

Weeks grew into months as the state psychics grilled us. They held up Zener cards from behind the glass and demanded that we guess circle, star, or cross. They gave us racks of radish seedlings through the food slots, and wanted us to speak nicely to half of them, and scold the other half.

They wanted us to influence the roll of dice, and to make it interesting they forced us to gamble for our vodka and cigarette rations. Naturally we blew the lot and were left with nothing to smoke.

We had no result from these investigations, except that Vlad once extruded a tiny bit of pale blue ectoplasm, and I turned out to be pretty good at reading colors, while blindfolded, with my fingertips. (I peeked down the side of my nose.)

One of our interrogators was a scrawny hardline Stalinist named Yezhov. He’d been a student of the biologist Lysenko and was convinced that Vlad and I could turn wheat into barley by forced evolution. Vlad finally blew up at this. “You charlatans!” he screamed into the microphone. “Not one of you has even read Tsiolkovsky! How can I speak to you? Where is the Chief Designer? I demand to be taken to Comrade Sergei Korolyov! He’d understand this!”

“You won’t get out of it that way,” Yezhov yapped, angrily shaking his vial of wheat seeds. “Your Chief Designer has had a heart attack. He’s recovering in his dacha, and Khrushchev himself has ordered that he not be disturbed. Besides, do you think we’re stupid enough to let people with alien powers into the heart of Moscow?”

“So that’s it!” I shouted, wounded to the core at the thought of my beloved Moscow. “You pimp! We’ve been holding out on you, that’s all!” I jabbed my hand dramatically at him from behind the glass. “Tonight, when you’re sleeping, my psychic aura will creep into your bed and squeeze your brain, like this!” I made a fist. Yezhov fled in terror.

Silence fell. “You shouldn’t have done that,” Vlad observed.

I slumped into one of our futuristic aluminum chairs. “I couldn’t help it,” I muttered. “Vlad, the truth’s out. It’s permanent exile for us. We’ll never see Moscow again.” Tears filled my eyes.

Vlad patted my shoulder sympathetically. “It was a brave gesture, Nikita. I’m proud to call you my friend.”

“You’re the brave one, Vlad.”

“But without you at my side, Nikita…You know, I’d have never dared to go into the valley alone. And if you hadn’t drunk that piss first, well, I certainly would never have—”

“That’s all in the past now, Vlad.” My cheeks burned and I began sobbing. “I should have ignored you when you were sitting under that piano at Lyuda’s. I should have left you in peace with your beatnik friends. Vlad, can you ever forgive me?”

“It’s nothing,” Vlad said nobly, thumping my back. “We’ve all been used, even poor Chief Korolyov. They’ve worked him to a frazzle. Even in camp he used to complain about his heart.” Vlad shook his fist. “Those fools. We bring them a magnificent drive from Tunguska, and they convince themselves it’s a reaction engine from Kaliningrad.”

I burned with indignation. “That’s right. It was our discovery! We’re heroes, but they treat us like enemies of the State! It’s so unfair, so uncommunist!” My voice rose. “If we’re enemies of the State, then what are we doing in here? Real enemies of the State live in Paris, with silk suits and a girl on each arm! And plenty of capitalist dollars in a secret Swiss bank!”

Vlad was philosophical. “You can have all that. You know what I wanted? To see men on the moon. I just wanted to see men reach the moon, and know I’d seen a great leap for all humanity!”

I wiped away tears. “You’re a dreamer, Vlad. The Infinite is just a propaganda game. We’ll never see daylight again.”

“Don’t give up hope,” Vlad said stubbornly. “At least we’re not clearing trees in some labor camp where it’s forty below. Sooner or later they’ll launch some cosmonauts, and then they’ll need this place for real. They’ll have to spring us then!”

We didn’t hear from the psychic corps again. We still got regular meals, and the occasional science magazine, reduced to tatters by some idiot censor who had decided Vlad and I were security risks. Once we even got a charity package from, of all people, Lyuda, who sent Vlad two cartons of Kents. We made a little ceremony of smoking one each, every day.

Our glass decontamination booth fronted on an empty auditorium for journalists and debriefing teams. Too bad none of them ever showed up. Every third day three cleaning women with mops and buckets scoured the auditorium floor. They always ignored us. Vlad and I used to speculate feverishly about their underwear.

The psychics had given up, and no one else seemed interested. Some-how we’d been lost in the files. We had been covered up so thoroughly that we no longer existed. We were the ghosts’ ghosts, and the secrets’ secrets, the best-hidden people in the world. We seemed to have popped loose from time and space, sleeping later and later each day, until finally we lost a day completely and could never keep track again.

We were down to our last pack of Kents when we had an unexpected visit.

It was a Red Army general with two brass-hat flunkies. We spotted him coming down the aisle from the auditorium’s big double doors, and we hustled on our best shirts. The general was a harried-looking, bald guy in his fifties. He turned on our speakers and looked down at his clipboard. “Comrades Zipkin and Globov!”

“Let me handle this, Vlad,” I hissed quickly. I leaned into my mike. “Yes, Comrade General?”

“My name’s Nedelin. I’m in charge of the launch.”

“What launch?” Vlad blurted.

“The Mars probe, of course.” Nedelin frowned. “According to this, you were involved in the engine’s design and construction?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “Thoroughly.”

Nedelin turned a page. “A special project with the Chief Designer.” He spoke with respect. “I’m no scientist, and I know you have important work in there. But could you spare time from your labors to lend us a hand? We could use your expertise.”

Vlad began to babble. “Oh, let us watch the launch! You can shoot us later, if you want! But let us see it, for God’s sake—”

Luckily I had clamped my hand over Vlad’s mike. I spoke quickly. “We’re at your service, General. Never mind Professor Zipkin, he’s a bit distraught.”

One of the flunkies wheeled open our bank vault door. His nose wrinkled at the sudden reek of months of our airtight stench, but he said nothing. Vlad and I accompanied Nedelin through the building. I could barely hold back from skipping and leaping, and Vlad’s knees trembled so badly I was afraid he would faint.

“I wouldn’t have disturbed your secret project,” the general informed us, “but Comrade Khrushchev delivers a speech at the United Nations tomorrow. He plans to announce that the Soviet Union has launched a probe to Mars. This launch must succeed today at all costs.” We walked through steel double-doors into the Tyuratam sunshine. Dust and grass had never smelled so good.

We climbed into Nedelin’s open-top field car. “You understand the stakes involved,” Nedelin said, sweating despite the crisp October breeze. “There is a new American president, this Cuban situation…our success is crucial!”

We drove off rapidly across the bleak concrete expanse of the rocket-field. Nedelin shouted at us from the front seat. “Intelligence says the Americans are redoubling their space efforts. We must do something unprecedented, something to crush their morale! Something years ahead of its time! The first spacecraft sent to another planet!”

Wind poured through our long hair, our patchy beards. “A new American president,” Vlad muttered. “Big deal.” As I soaked my lungs with fresh air I realized how much Vlad and I stank. We looked and smelled like derelicts. Nedelin was obviously desperate.

We pulled up outside the sloped, fire-scorched wall of a concrete launch bunker. The Mars rocket towered on its pad, surrounded by four twenty-story hinged gantries. Wisps of cloud poured down from the rocket’s liquid oxygen ports. Dozens of technicians in white coats and hard-hats clambered on the skeletal gentry-ladders, or shouted through bullhorns around the rocket’s huge base.

“Well, comrades?” Nedelin said. “As you can see, we have our best people at it. The countdown went smoothly. We called for ignition. And nothing. Nothing at all!” He pulled off his brimmed cap and wiped his balding scalp. “We have a very narrow launch window! Within a matter of hours we will have lost our best parameters. Not to mention Comrade Khrushchev’s speech!”

Vlad sniffed the air. “Comrade General. Have you fueled this craft with liquid paraffin?”

“Naturally!”

Vlad’s voice sank. “These people are working on a rocket which misfired. And you haven’t drained the fuel?”

Nedelin drew himself up stiffly. “That would take hours! I under-stand the risk! I’m not asking these people to face any danger I wouldn’t face myself!”

“You pompous ass!” Vlad screeched. “That’s no Earthling rocket! It only looks like one because you expect it to! It’s not supposed to have fuel!”

Nedelin stared in amazement. “What?”

“That’s why it didn’t take off!” Vlad raved. “It didn’t want to kill us all! That drive is from outer space! You’ve turned it into a gigantic firebomb!”

“You’ve gone mad! Comrade, get hold of yourself!” Nedelin shouted. We were all on the edge of panic.

“This blockhead’s useless,” Vlad snarled, grabbing my arm. “We’ve got to get those people out of there, Nikita! It could take off any second—everyone expected it to!”

We ran for the rocket, shouting wildly, yelling anything that came into our heads. We had to get the technicians away. The Tunguska device had never known its own strength—it didn’t know how frail we were. I stumbled and looked over my shoulder. Nedelin’s flunkies were just a dozen steps behind us.

The ground crew saw us coming. They cried out in alarm. Panic spread like lightning.

It wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t all been Russians. A gloomy and sensitive people are always ready to believe the worst. And the worst in this case was obvious: total disaster from a late ignition.

They fled like maniacs, but they couldn’t escape their expectations. Pale streamers of flame gushed from the engines. More streamers arched from the rocket’s peak, the spikes of auroral fire. The gantries shattered like matchsticks, filling the air above us with wheeling black shrapnel. Vlad stumbled to the ground. Somewhere ahead of us I could hear barking.

I hauled Vlad to his feet. “Follow the dog!” I bellowed over the roar. “Into the focus of the ellipse, where it’s stable!”

Vlad stumbled after me, jabbering with rage. “If only the Americans had gotten the drive! They would have put men on the moon!”

We dashed through a blinding rain of paraffin. The barking grew louder, and now I could see the eager dog of blue light, showing us the way. The rocket was dissolving above us. The blast-seared concrete under our feet pitched and buckled like aspic. Before us the rocket’s great nozzles dissolved into flaming webs of spectral whiteness.

Behind us, around us, the paraffin caught in a great flaming sea of deadly heat. I felt my flesh searing in the last instant: the instant when the inferno’s shock wave caught us up like straws and flung us into the core of white light.

I saw nothing but white for the longest time, seeing nothing, touching nothing. I floated in the timeless void. All the panic, the terror of the event, evaporated from me. All thoughts stopped. It was like death. Maybe it was a kind of death, I still don’t know.

And then, somehow, that perfect silence and oneness broke into pieces again. It shattered into millions of grainy atoms, a soundless crawling blizzard. Like phantom, hissing snow.

I stared into the snow, seeing it swirling, resolving into something new, with perfect ease, as if it were following the phase of my own dreams…A beautiful sheen, a white blur—

The white blur of reflections on glass. I was standing in front of a glass window. A department-store window. There were televisions behind the glass, the biggest televisions I had ever seen.

Vlad was standing next to me. A woman was holding my arm, a pretty beatnik girl with a flowered silk blouse and a scandalous short skirt. She was staring raptly at the television. A crowd of well-dressed people filled the pavement around and behind us.

I should have fainted then. But I felt fine. I’d just had a good lunch and my mouth tasted of a fine cigar. I blurted something in confusion, and the girl with Vlad said, “Shhhh!” and suddenly everyone was cheering.

Vlad grabbed me in a bear hug. I noticed then how fat we were. I don’t know why, but it just struck me. Our suits were so well-cut that they’d disguised it. “We’ve done it!” Vlad bellowed. “The moon!”

All around us people were chattering wildly. In French.

We were in Paris. And Americans were on the moon.

Vlad and I had lost nine years in a moment. Nine years in limbo, as the artifact flung us through time and space to that moment Vlad had longed so much to see. We were knit back into the world with many convincing details: paunches from years of decadent Western living, and apartments in the émigré quarter full of fine suits and well-worn shoes, and even some pop-science Vlad had written for the émigré magazines. And of course, our Swiss bank accounts.

It was a disappointment to see the Americans steal our glory. But of course, the Americans would never have made it if we Russians hadn’t shown them the way and supplied the vision. The Artifact was very generous to the Americans. If it weren’t for the Nedelin Disaster, which killed so many of our best technicians, we would surely have won.

The West still believes that the Nedelin Disaster of October 1960 was caused by the explosion of a conventional rocket. They did not even learn of the disaster until years after the fact. Even now this terrible catastrophe is little known. The Higher Circles forged false statements of death for all concerned: heart attacks, air crashes, and the like. Years passed before the coincidences of so many deaths became obvious.

Sometimes I wonder if even the Higher Circles know the real truth. It’s easy to imagine every document about Vlad and myself vanishing into the KGB shredders as soon as the disaster news spread. Where there is no history, there can be no blame. It’s an old principle.

Now the Cosmos is stormed every day, but the rockets are nothing more than bread trucks. This is not surprising from Americans, who will always try their best to turn the stars into dollars. But where is our memorial? We had the great dream of Tsiolkovsky right there in our hands. Vlad and I found it ourselves and brought it back from Siberia. We practically threw the Infinite right there at their feet! If only the Higher Circles hadn’t been so hasty, things would have been different.

Vlad has always told me not to say anything, now that we’re safe and rich and officially dead, but it’s just not fair. We deserve our historian, and what’s a historian but a fancy kind of snitch? So I wrote this all down while Vlad wasn’t looking.

I couldn’t help it—I just had to inform somebody. No one has ever known how Vlad Zipkin and I stormed the cosmos, except ourselves and the Higher Circles…and maybe some American top brass.

And Laika? Yes, the Artifact brought her to Paris, too. She still lives with us—which proves that all of this is true.



Note on “Storming the Cosmos” (Written with Bruce Sterling)

Written in 1985.

Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, December, 1985.

The first I heard of Bruce Sterling was in 1982, when he sent me a review of my Software and of Spacetime Donuts that he’d written for a free newspaper in Austin. It was about the best review I’d ever gotten, clearly this guy understood where I was coming from. He also sent me a copy of his novel Involution Ocean, a delightful take on Moby Dick which features dopers on a sea of sand.

I met Bruce in the flesh at a science-fiction convention in Baltimore in 1983, right after the publication of my fourth SF book, The Sex Sphere. He was there with his wife Nancy, William Gibson, Lou Shiner, and Lou Shiner’s wife. After the con, the five of them unexpectedly drove down to visit me in Lynchburg. I came home from my rundown office in shades and a Hawaiian shirt, driving our 1956 Buick. I was thrilled to have them visit me.

Around that time, Bruce started publishing a single-sheet newsletter called Cheap Truth, which railed at the plastic artificiality of much SF. The zine—and Gibson’s huge commercial success—soon established cyberpunk as a legitimate form of writing.

“Storming the Cosmos” takes off on Bruce’s deep interest in all things Soviet. One way to organize a story collaboration is for each author to “own” or even to “be” one of the characters. Loosely speaking, Bruce is Nikita and I’m Vlad.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

In Frozen Time

I just went back to look at the accident again. It’s truly horrible. I don’t even look human. My head’s being crushed under the right front wheel; it’s half as thick as it should be, and blood is squirting out my faceholes. A monster. I can’t stand looking at it, but as long as I’m here in frozen time, I’ll be slinking back and looking at my death, over and over, like a dog returning to his vomit, I know it, I know it, I know it.

I keep running up and down these boring few streets—something keeps me from getting too far—running up and down, and nothing’s changing. All I can do is rush around, hating the dull ugly buildings, the mindless plants, the priggish, proper people. And my thoughts, all in loops, never ending.

I don’t see how I’m going to stand this. My poor body, my poor wife, our poor wasted lives. Why couldn’t I have done better? I want to kill myself all over again, but I’m already dead. Oh God, oh God, oh, dear God, please help me. Please make this stop.

Once again, my hysteria ebbs. That’s my only measure of time now: my moodswings, and the walks I take, lonely ghost in a bland little town.

It took me a few years to kill myself. I guess it was losing my last teaching job that started me off with the suicide thoughts. Losing my good job, and then some marriage problems…ah, it wasn’t just the big things getting me down, it was a lot of things. The hangovers, being 38, no goals, and, worst of all, the boredom. The sameness. Day after day, month after month, the same fights, the same brief joys, the same problems. The menial job, shelving books in a library.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Wedding Anniversary, Summer Vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas…I couldn’t take it anymore, and finally I got the nerve to step in front of a truck. Now I’m dead and it’s 9:17:06 A.M., September 14, forever. Forever.

It’s so horrible, so Dantean, that I almost have to laugh. A guy kills himself because life’s such a boring drag, and then time freezes up on him, and he can’t walk more than three blocks from his body. Till recently, I never really knew what boredom was. Being here is like…an airport lounge with streets and buildings in it. Frozen time.

When I died, my consciousness branched out of the normal time-stream. My time is now perpendicular to normal time. I walk around and look at things—I have an astral body that looks just like my real one—and it’s as if everything were frozen. Like a huge 3-D flash-photograph. Right now, sitting here in my empty office, thinking this out, I can see a bird outside the window. It’s just about to land, and its wings are outstretched, and its beak is half-open, and if I walk over for a closer look, which I’ve done several times, I can see the nictating membrane stretched halfway across each of the blinking bird’s eyes. The bird is hanging there like a raisin in jello, hanging there every time I look.

On the streets, all the people are still as statues, like the figures in Muybridge’s “zoopraxographic” photographs. Some people are frozen in such awkward positions that it’s hard to believe they won’t—after my eternity ends—fall over, especially the old lady standing on one foot to reach a bag of food in through her car window.

In my house, my wife is brushing her teeth. The toothbrush handle pushes her mouth to one side. She doesn’t know yet that I’m dead. In my time I’ve been dead for a while now, but relative to me, my wife is frozen at the instant I died. She hasn’t gotten the word. She thinks I’m on my way back from the store with milk and eggs, when in fact I’m out of my broken body, and walking around.

Walking and thinking, always alone. I’m the only thing that moves in this silent town’s streets. Nothing changes except my thoughts. Boredom, boredom, boredom. And the horror of my corpse.

I always thought in terms of shooting myself, but the way it worked out was that I stepped in front of a Japanese pickup truck. I was on the way up to the store to get milk and eggs when, just like that, I stepped off the curb in front of the truck. It wasn’t an accident—I saw the truck coming—it was suicide. But, really, I’d always planned to shoot myself.

I used to think about it a lot. Like on a Sunday night—lying there weak and shaky, going over and over the money worries, the dying marriage, and all the stinging memories of another weekend’s ugly drunken scenes: the fights with friends, the cop troubles, the self-degradation, and the crazy things my wife had done—I’d cut it all off with thoughts of a .45 automatic, one of those flat black guns that movie gangsters and WWII soldiers have—with the checks on the grip, and the heavy bullets that are fed in at the butt of the gun. Lying there in bed, depressed and self-hating. I’d cheer myself up by imagining there was a .45 on my night table. I wouldn’t reach out my real arm—I didn’t want to stir my miserable wife into painful apology or recrimination—no, I’d reach out a phantom arm. An astral arm, a ghost arm, an arm like the arm an amputee imagines himself still to have—an arm like my whole body is now. The phantom arm would peel on out of my right arm, and reach over, and pick up that longed for .45.

Lying there sleepless and desperate, I had a lot of time to analyze my fantasies. The fact that I always reached for the pistol with my right arm struck me as significant, for if you pick up a pistol with your right hand, and then hold it to your temple in the most natural way, this means that your right hand is shooting the right hemisphere of your brain. Now, as is well known, the left hemisphere of the brain is a) the uptight cop half, and b) in control of the right hand. So by shooting oneself in the right temple with a gun held in the right hand one is, in effect, letting the left-brain kill the right-brain. The digital, highly socialized left-brain shoots the dark and creative right-brain. This particular death always seemed somberly appropriate to me, and a good symbol of society forcing poor, intellectual me into an early grave.

But—hell—I guess getting run over by a Japanese pickup truck makes some kind of statement, too. The fact is that I really hate pickups. I think I hate pickups a lot more than my right-brain ever hated my left-brain. What is it that people think they need to haul around in all those pickups? The pickups you see are always empty, aren’t they? Especially the Japanese ones, the cute, preppy energy-savers that bank employees and insurance salesmen drive. Presumably, the preps want to share in some imagined pickup grit macho, but they’re too clean and sensible to get a rusted-out unmufflered ‘70s redneck Ford, so they buy one of these shiny little Nipponese jobs with the manufacturer’s name on the back like on a pair of designer jeans. UGH! I hate, I hate, I hate…so many things.

I was talking about suicide.

Sometimes, if I was really strung out, the imaginary .45 would start to grow. It would get as big as a coffin: a heavy, L-shaped coffin lying on top of me and crushing out my breath. As big as the house I lived in. And every day, set into the classified ads, there was a picture of my gun, part of an ad for Ace Hardware, “Largest Selection of Guns in Central Virginia.”

I got so tired of not killing myself.

Some days it would sandbag me. I’d be, say, waiting in the car for the wife to come out of the library where we worked (she full-time, me part-time), and I wouldn’t be able to come up with one single iota of wanting to be there. And then, all of a sudden, there’d be Death, breathing in my face, so much closer than the last time.

I don’t want to exaggerate—my life wasn’t any worse than that of any other unhappily married, underemployed, middle-aged alcoholic. There wasn’t any one thing that made me want to die. It was the boredom that got me. My life was, quite literally, boring me to death, and I didn’t have the will power to do anything to change it. The only change I could come up with was suicide. And for the longest time, I was scared to even do that. Thinking back, I realize that I never could have shot myself. Focusing on the .45 was a kind of cop-out. But finally I got it together and stepped in front of that truck.

Got it together? In a way, yes. At first I was upset to be here, but now I’m getting used to it. What do I do? I sit in my office, and I take walks. Back and forth. It’s a rhythm. Thinking these thoughts, I stare at my computer, imagining that my words are being coded up on disk.

I’ve been thinking some more about what’s happened to me. I was, before my final occupation as book-shelver, a physics teacher, and it amuses me to try to analyze my present supernatural existence in scientific terms.

My astral body is of a faintly glowing substance, somewhat transparent—call it aether. I can pass through walls in good ghost-fashion, yet the gravitational curvature of space still binds me to the earth’s surface: I cannot fly. Although I am not of ordinary matter, I can see. Since nothing is moving for me, I must not be seeing in the usual fashion (that is, by intercepting moving photons). I would guess that my fine aether-body sees, rather, by directly sensing the space-undulations caused by the photons’ passage. This is borne out by the fact that I can see with my eyes closed.

My theory, as I’ve said before, is that when one dies, one’s soul enters frozen time—a volume of space corresponding to the instant of one’s death. I think of time as a long, gently undulating line, with each space-instant a hypersheet touching time at one point. A ghost lives on and on, but it is always in the now-space of its body’s death. In ordinary life, people encounter ghosts regularly—but only once for each ghost. A given instant is haunted only by the ghost of that particular space-slice, the ghost of whoever died that moment.

Image: the long corridor of time, lined with death-cells, some cells empty, some holding one tattered soul.

How long is a moment? How long does it take a person to die? Looking at the frozen world around me, it seems that my death instant has almost no time-duration at all. If it were even a hundredth of a second long, then some things would be blurred. But nothing is blurred, not even the flies’ wings, or the teeth of the chainsaw my neighbor is forever gunning. My death lasts no more than a thousandth of a second…and perhaps much less. This is significant.

Why? Because if the death-instant is so short, then each ghost is in solitary confinement. I know that someone, somewhere, dies every second—but what are the odds that any given person dies at the exact same thousandth of a second after 9:17, September 14, as I? I have calculated the odds—I have ample time for such calculations. The odds against such a coincidence are well over one thousand billion to one. And there are only a few billion people in the world. The chances that any other ghost shares my space-cell are less than one in a thousand.

So I’ll quest me no quests. Really, I’m not at all sure that I could leave Killeville, even if I tried. My astral body is, it may be, a holographic projection powered by my dying brain’s last massive pulse. If I go even three blocks away from my body, I feel faint and uneasy. There is no hope of walking to another city.

Here I am, and here I will be, forever. Alone.

It’s a sunny day.

It’s funny about boredom. The physical world is so complex, yet I used to think of it as simple. Each time I walk around the block I see something new.

Just now, I was out looking at all the wasps and bees feeding at one of the flowering bushes in our yard. I marveled at the bristles on the bees’ bulging backs, and at their little space-monster faces. And in the fork of a branchlet, caught in a hidden web, was a wasp being attacked by a spider. The wasp is biting the spider’s belly.

Walking on, I felt such a feeling of freedom. I used to always be in a hurry—not that I had anything worth doing. I was in a hurry, I suppose, because I felt bad about wasting time. But now that I have no time, I have all time. If I have endless time, then how can I waste it? I feel so relaxed. I wish I could have felt this way when I was alive.

The crushed body beneath the truck seems less and less like me. I walk by it with impunity. Up by the shops, coming out of the post office, not yet noticing the accident in the street, is always Lou Bunce, successful and overbearing. How nice it is, I thought this time, walking past him, how nice it is not to have to talk to him.

The supermarket front consists of 18,726 bricks. Numbers are power. I think now I’ll count the blades of grass in our lawn. I’ll memorize each and every detail of the little world I’m in.

Somehow the sunlight seems to be getting brighter. Could it be that by visiting each spot in my little neighborhood over and over, I am learning the light-patterns better, sensing them more intensely? Or is the world, in some way, objectively changing along my time axis? Has this all just been a dying man’s last hallucination? It doesn’t matter.

Before, I thought of this frozen time as a prison cell. But now, I’ve come to think of it rather as a monastic cubicle. I’ve had time here—how much time? I’ve had time to rethink my life. This started as hell, and it’s turned into heaven.

I’ve stopped taking my walks. I’ve lost my locality. From travelling over and over these few streets, I’ve spread myself out: I see all of it, all the time, all melting into the light.

A thought: I am this moment. Each of us is part God, and when our life ends, God puts us to work dreaming the world. I am the sidewalk, I am the air, I am 9:17:06 A.M., September 14.

Still the brightness grows.



Note on “In Frozen Time”

Written in 1985.

Afterlives, Vintage Books, 1986.

“In Frozen Time,” comes from near the end of my Lynchburg period. When your stories are all about death and suicide, it’s time for a change. Thank God my new job teaching computer science at San Jose State University came through. A more fundamental solution would have been to get into recovery, but I wasn’t ready yet.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Soft Death

“I’m sorry, Mr. Leckesh,” said the doctor, nervously tapping on his desk-screen. “There’s no doubt about it. The tests are all positive.”

“But surely …” began Leckesh. His voice came out as a papery whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean…can’t you put a new liver in me? I can afford the organs, and I can afford the surgery. My god, man, don’t just sit there and tell me you’re sorry! What am I paying you for?” At the mention of money, Leckesh’s voice regained its usual commanding tone.

The doctor looked uncomfortable. “I am sorry, Mr. Leckesh. The cancer has metastasized. Tumor cells are established in every part of your body.” He fingered some keys and green lines formed on his screen. “Step around the desk, Mr. Leckesh, and look at this.”

It was the graph of an upsloping curve, with dates along the horizontal axis, and percentages along the vertical axis. The graph was captioned: PROJECTED MORTALITY OF DOUGLAS LECKESH.

“These are my odds of dying by a given date?” barked Leckesh. What a fool this doctor was to let a computer do all his thinking. “You’ve got this all projected like some damned commodities option?”

“Most patients find it reassuring to know the whole truth,” said the doctor. “Today is March 30. You see how the curve rises? We have a fifty percent chance of your death before May 1; a ninety percent chance before July 1; and virtual certainty by late September. You can trust these figures, Mr. Leckesh. The Bertroy Medical Associates have the best computer in New York.”

“Turn it off,” cried Leckesh, smacking the screen so hard that its pixels quivered. “I came here to see a doctor! If I wanted to look at computer projections, I could have stayed in my office down on the Street!”

The doctor sighed and turned off his terminal. “You’re experiencing denial, Mr. Leckesh. The fact is that you’re going to die. Make the most of the time you have left. If you want a non-computerized projection, I’ll give you one.” He stared briefly at the cityscape outside his window. “Don’t expect much more than three weeks before your final collapse.”

Leckesh found his way out of the Bertroy Building and into the morning roar of Madison Avenue. It was 10:30. He had business meetings; but what difference would more millions make now? At least he should call Abby; she’d be waiting to hear. But once he told Abby, she’d only get right to work planning her own future. If he, Doug Leckesh, was the one doing the dying, why should he do anything for anyone anymore? Abby could wait. Business could stop. Right now he wanted a drink.

The weather was raw and blustery, with a little snow in the air. The sky was fifty different shades of gray. One of the new robot taxis slowed invitingly as Leckesh approached the curb. He owned stock in the company, but today of all days he didn’t feel like talking to a robot. He waved the cab off and kept walking. His club was only four blocks off.

There was a bar at the next corner, apparently not automated. Leckesh hadn’t entered a public drinking place for years, but a sudden gust of cold wind urged him in. He ordered a beer and a shot of scotch. The bartender looked sympathetic; Leckesh had a sudden flash that someone with cancer came in here every day. There were lots of doctors in the Bertroy Building. There were lots of people with cancer. There were lots of people who handled stress with alcohol.

“I’m ready for spring,” observed the bartender when Leckesh ordered his second round. He was a broad-faced Korean with a New Jersey accent. “I got a garden up on the roof and I’m dying to put the seedlings in.”

“What do you grow?” asked Leckesh, thinking of his father. Papa had put a garden in the back of their little tract home every summer. “This is living, Dougie,” Papa would say, picking a tomato and biting into it. “This is what it’s all about.”

“Lettuce,” said the flat-faced Korean. “Bok choy. Potatoes. I love new potatoes, the way they come up in a big clump of nuggets.”

Leckesh thought about nuggets. Tumor cells in every part of his body. He sucked down his scotch and asked for another.

“The main thing is fertilizer,” said the bartender, placidly pouring out a shot. “Plants need dead stuff, rotten stuff, all crumbly and black. It’s the cycle of nature. Death into life.”

“I’ll be dead in a month,” said Leckesh. The words jumped out. “I just saw my doctor. I have cancer all over my body.”

The Korean stopped moving and looked into Leckesh’s eyes. Just looked, for a long few seconds, watching him like a TV. “You scared?”

“I’m not religious,” said Leckesh. “I don’t think there’s anything after death. Three more weeks and it’s all over. I might as well never have lived.”

“You got a wife?”

“Ah, she won’t miss me. She’ll talk about missing me. She likes to put on a show. But she won’t really miss me. She’ll take all my money and find someone else, the little tramp.” Speaking so unkindly about Abby gave Leckesh a perverse and bitter satisfaction.

The Korean kept watching him in that blank, judicious way. “You have a lot of money?” he asked finally.

“Yes, I do,” said Leckesh, regaining his composure. “Not that it’s any of your business. What’s your name anyway? I’ll buy you a drink. Take it all out of this and keep the change.” He threw a two hundred dollar bill on the bar.

“My name’s Yung. I’m not supposed to drink on duty but …” The Korean glanced impassively around the bar. There were a couple of old longhairs having coffee in the booths, but that was it. “Yeah, I’ll take a Heineken.”

“That’s a boy, Yung. Get me one, too. Nothing but the best for Douglas Leckesh. I’m full of nuggets. You can call me Doug. I was thinking before, you must get a lot of death cases in this bar, being so close to the Bertroy Building. It’s all doctors in there, you know.”

“Oh yeah,” said Yung, opening the two bottles of Heineken. He poured his into a coffee mug. “Bertroy Medical Associates. They have a teraflop diagnostic computer in the basement there—it does a trillion calculations a second, fast as a human brain. My sister helps program it. She’s a smart girl, my sister Lo.” He sipped at his mug and watched Leckesh some more. “So you gonna die and you think that’s it, huh, Mr. Leckesh?”

“Religion’s wrong, Yung, isn’t it?” Leckesh was feeling his drinks. “When I was your age, I didn’t think so—hell, I even used to paint pictures. But down on the Street, nothing counts but numbers. I’ve got a seat on the Exchange, you know that? So don’t try and tell me about religion.”

Yung looked up and down the bar and leaned close. “Religion’s one thing, Mr. Leckesh, but immortality’s something else. Lo says immortality’s no big problem anymore.” He drew a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Leckesh. “This is modern; this is digital. Whenever you’re ready for immortality, my sister Lo’s got it.”

Leckesh pocketed the card without looking at it. All of a sudden, the beers and the scotches were hitting him hard. The dull throb of his sick liver was filigreed with accents of acute pain. He was stupid to be drinking this early in the day, drinking and slobbering out his soul to a Korean bartender. Where was his self-control? Stiff-legged, he stalked into the men’s room and made himself throw up. Better. He washed his face, first with hot and then with cold. He gargled and drank water from the tap. Three weeks, the doctor had said. Three weeks. Leckesh left the bar and went home to Abby.

Abby Leckesh was a dark-haired woman with full cheeks and beautiful teeth. When they’d met, fifteen years ago, Leckesh had been fifty and Abby thirty. He’d still dreamed of being a painter, even then, and he’d liked the bohemian crowd that Abby traveled in. But now Leckesh hated Abby’s friends with an aging man’s impotent jealousy.

To his displeasure, Abby greeted the news of his impending death with what he took for enthusiasm. She believed in spirits and mediums, and she was confident that Leckesh would be able to contact her from beyond the grave.

“Don’t be downcast, Doug. You’ll only be moving to a higher plane of existence. You’ll still be here with me as a dear familiar spirit.”

“Talk about a fate worse than death,” snapped Leckesh. “I don’t want to float around watching you spend my money on your boyfriends.” For years now, he’d suspected her of being unfaithful to him.

“I’ll wear full mourning for six months,” prattled Abby, ignoring his accusation. “I’ll go out and buy some black dresses today! And we must have Irwin Garden over for tea. He’s simply the most brilliant new medium in America. You should get to know his vibrations so he can contact you on the other side.”

Leckesh didn’t dignify this with an answer. Abby went out in search of mourning clothes and Mr. Garden while the robomat made Leckesh a veal cutlet for lunch. The meal cleared his head entirely and he drew out the business card that the Korean bartender…Yung…had given him.

SOFT DEATH INC.

Scientific Soul Preservation and Transmission

Strictest confidentiality — Call for an estimate today!

Lo Park * B-1001 Bertroy Building * 840-0190

Leckesh studied the card for awhile, and made his decision. He’d be damned if he was going to let one of Abby’s phony mediums get away with pretending to talk to his spirit. If there was anything to this “Scientific Soul Preservation,” he’d be able to steal a march on the table-rappers. He picked up the phone and called the Soft Death number.

“Hello, this is Lo Park.” Her accent was as pure New Jersey as Yung’s, though with a hint of Eastern melody.

“Hello, this is Doug Leckesh. A man—I believe it was your brother—gave me a business card with your name on it. Soft Death Incorporated?”

“Oh, yes, Yung told me. I don’t like to discuss this on the telephone. Could you come see me tomorrow morning, Mr. Leckesh?”

“Ten o’clock?”

“That will be fine.”

Feeling strangely relieved, Douglas Leckesh stretched out on the couch and fell asleep. He dreamed of colors, clouds of color around a long line of precise, musical tones—binary tones chanted by Lo Park’s musical voice. When he awoke, it was late afternoon, and Abby was sitting across the room drinking tea with a balding young man in glasses.

“This is Mr. Garden, Doug. He’s the medium I was telling you about.”

Garden smiled shyly and shook Leckesh’s hand. “I’m sorry to hear of your illness, Douglas.” He had gentle eyes and large moist lips. “You have very interesting vibrations.”

“So do you,” said Leckesh curtly. The thought of Garden alone in a dark room with Abby made him sick. “You have the vibrations of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, mixed in with the aura of a two-bit Casanova and the emanations of a snake-oil salesman. Get out of my apartment.”

Garden gave a low bow and left. Abby was quite angry.

“It’s fine for you, Doug, to act like that. Soon you’ll be dead. But I’ll be here all alone, with no one to take care of me.” Tears ran down her big cheeks. “Irwin Garden only wants to help me contact your spirit.”

“Let me worry about my spirit, Abby. Can’t you see that Garden wants to cheat me and seduce you? I don’t want jackals sniffing around my death-bed. I want to pass on in peace. Business as usual!” His liver hurt very much.

Abby sobbed harder. The fact was that she was very devoted to Leckesh. All her talk of mediums and mourning clothes was just a way to avoid thinking about his death. After a few minutes, she calmed herself and kissed him on the forehead. “Of course, Doug. I’ll do as you wish. I won’t see Mr. Garden again.” In his embittered state, Leckesh was convinced that Abby was lying. He’d never caught her yet, but he was sure she had boyfriends. How could she not? He’d been part artist when he’d wooed her, but since then he’d joined the Stock Exchange. How could Abby still love him? Well, now it didn’t matter. The long game was almost over. And if there was anything to these Soft Death people, Leckesh was on the brink of a whole new existence.

The next morning, he was back at the Bertroy Building. Lo Park’s office was in the basement; it was one of a number of small cubicles partitioned off along one wall of a room-sized computer installation. To all appearances, Lo worked as a programmer here. There was nothing about “Soft Death” on her flimsy office door. Leckesh wondered if he should bother going in, but the thought of outflanking Abby’s occultist manipulations goaded him on.

The Korean woman at the desk was young and slender, with hair so dark as to appear almost blue against her yellow skin. She looked up with a quick smile.

“Mr. Leckesh? Yung told me about you.”

“He told you I’m rich, dying and desperate, I suppose. What kind of immortality are you selling, Lo? And what’s the price?”

“The price is high. The immortality is software.”

“What do you mean?”

“Consider, Mr. Leckesh. The human body changes almost all its atoms every seven years or so. But you feel you are the same person as you were seven or fourteen or fifty-six years ago. What is constant in your body is the arrangement of cells, especially the cells of the brain. The real essence of Douglas Leckesh is not the seventy-five kilograms of diseased flesh that sits here. The essence of Douglas Leckesh is to be found in the pattern that your brain codes up. Do you follow?”

Leckesh nodded approvingly. “I was afraid you’d be another spiritualist. You’re saying that my so-called soul is really just a pattern of digital information?”

“Exactly. Abstractly speaking, the information pattern exists even in the absence of a body. Yet for the pattern to be in any sense alive, it needs some kind of substrate.” She smiled and gestured beyond her office door. “The Soft Death substrate is that computer out there. If you wish, I can extract the entire software information pattern from your body and code it into the machine.”

“How do I know you can really do it? And what would it feel like to live inside a computer’s memory?”

“Before we continue, Mr. Leckesh, I need a commitment from you. For various reasons, the full work of Soft Death is not legally sanctioned. I cannot put my earlier clients at risk without some proof of your sincerity.”

“You’re saying you want a check?”

“I want a document granting us title to approximately half of your properties and investments.” She slid a legal paper across the desk. “I’ve taken the liberty of drawing it up.”

Leckesh scanned down the contract with a practiced eye. Soft Death Incorporated had worked fast: half his assets were listed here, nearly a billion dollars worth. In return for the billion, Soft Death was promising Leckesh “hospice care and advanced embalming services.”

“We can’t make the contract more specific, Mr. Leckesh, again because of the legal sanctions on certain aspects of our operation.”

Leckesh shrugged. Perhaps this was a con. But what was the difference anymore? If Soft Death didn’t get this billion, Abby would give it to the Mr. Gardens of the world. He could feel the cancer deep in his guts; he could feel the growing of the pain. “I’ll sign.”

Lo pushed a buzzer, and a man came in to witness and notarize the document. Another blue-haired Korean. They reminded Leckesh of smurfs.

“Your brother, too?” asked Leckesh, smiling a little. Signing away this money felt good. What was that old bible story about the rich man trying to squeeze through a needle’s eye?

“No,” said Lo. “A cousin.” She locked the contract in her desk. “And now you’ll want to see proof that our process works. Do you remember William Kaley?”

“Bill Kaley? Yes, I knew him rather well. We did business together. He died last fall, I believe. He was one of the most materialistic men I ever knew. Are you telling me …”

“Here,” said Lo, punching a code into her telephone, and handing Leckesh the receiver. “You can talk to him.”

At first Leckesh heard only pips and bleats, but then there was a ringing, and a voice.

“Hello? Kaley here.”

“Bill? This is Doug Leckesh. Do you know what day it is?”

“It’s March 31, Doug. Are you dead, too?”

“Damn near. Are you really inside that computer?”

“Sure am. It’s not bad. There’s a lot of information coming in. I’m managing most of the investments I signed over to Soft Death, which keeps me busy. There’s a pretty good gang of people in here.”

“Any landscape?”

“It’s not like that, Dougie. But you’d be surprised how much fun pushing around the bits can be. How soon are you coming in? I’m a little lonely for a new voice, to tell you the truth.” He sounded almost wistful. “But, hell, it beats being dead. When are you coming in?”

“We haven’t worked that out yet.” Was this real? Leckesh paused, trying to remember something that would convince him he was really talking to the software of William Kaley. The Schattner deal! “Do you remember the Schattner takeover, Bill?”

“Do I! Don’t tell me the SEC finally found out.”

“No, no, I’m just checking. Remember the night after Schattner shot himself, and you and I’d made twelve million bucks? Do you remember what we had for dinner?”

“We went to MacDonald’s. The check was twelve dollars. We laughed our asses off. I could eat a million of these. Oh, it’s me in here, Doug, don’t worry.”

Leckesh smiled. “I’m not worried now, Bill. See you soon.” He hung up and looked at Lo. “When do we start?”

“Let me outline the procedure. To extract your software, we need to get five kinds of maps of your brain: symbolic, metabolic, electrical, physical, and chemical. Taken together, these data-sets are sufficient to produce an isomorphic model of your mental processes. You should begin working on the symbolic map today.”

“What do you mean? I thought you would do the work.”

“Only you know your own symbol-system, Mr. Leckesh.” Lo took a device the size of a cigarette-pack out of her desk. It had two little grilles, for microphone and speaker. “We call this a lifebox. Basically, I want you to tell it your life story. Tell everything. It takes most people a couple of weeks.”

“But…I’m no writer.”

“Don’t worry; the lifebox has prompts built into its program. It asks questions.” She flicked a switch and the lifebox hummed. “Go on, Mr. Leckesh, say something to it.”

“I…I’m not used to talking to machines.”

“What are some of the first machines you remember, Doug?” asked the lifebox. Its voice was calm, pleasant, interested. Lo nodded encouragingly, and Leckesh answered the question.

“The TV, and my mother’s vacuum cleaner. I used to love to watch the cartoons Saturday morning—Bugs Bunny was the best—and Mom would always pick that time to vacuum. It made red and green static on the TV screen.” Leckesh stopped and looked at the box. “Can you understand me?”

“Perfectly, Doug. I want to build up a sort of network among the concepts that matter to you, so I’m going to keep asking questions about some of the things you mention. I’ll get back to the vacuum cleaner in a minute, but first tell me this: what did you like best about Bugs Bunny?”

For the next couple of weeks, Leckesh took his lifebox everywhere. He talked to it at home and in the club—and when Abby and his friends reproved him for ignoring them, he began talking to it in a booth at Yung’s bar. The lifebox was the best listener Leckesh had ever had. It remembered everything he told it, and it winnowed the key concepts out of all his stories. Leckesh would respond to its prompts, or simply go off on tangents of his own. Except for the dizziness and the constant pain, he hadn’t had so much fun in years.

Finally, in mid-April, the lifebox said, “Now that’s a story I’ve heard before, Doug. And so was the last one. And, unless I’m mistaken, you’re about to tell me about the first time you slept with Abby.”

“You’re right,” said Leckesh, feeling a little twinge of guilt. Telling his life had made him remember how big a part of him Abby really was. And now, for two weeks, he’d been too busy with the lifebox to even look at her.

“Abby, Summer, Maine, Fourth of July, Firecrackers, Cans, Pineapple, Aunt Rose, Roses, Abby, Skin, Honey, Hexagons…I think we’ve got enough to go on, now, Doug. Why don’t you bring me on over to Lo’s. I’ve signaled her to expect us.”

Leckesh nodded to Yung and walked over the Bertroy Building. It was a beautiful spring day at last, with the endless blue sky leaping up from the spaces between the big city building. Six shades of blue, if you looked carefully. He hadn’t been able to tell the lifebox much about colors.

Lo was all smiles. “You’ve done a good job with the lifebox, Mr. Leckesh. That’s one of the most important steps. Now, what the lifebox program has done is to arrange some ten thousand of your key concepts into a kind of tree-diagram. The next step is to correlate this concept-network with your brain’s metabolic activity. Please come this way.”

Leckesh followed Lo across the computer room to the elevators. They rode up to a neurologist’s office on the top floor. There was a nice view out the top halves of the windows; the bottom halves were frosted glass. The neurologist and his nurses were, of course, Korean. Working quickly, they injected Leckesh with something, and laid him out on a table, with his head inside a large, domed sensor device.

“This is a PET-scanner, Mr. Leckesh,” explained the doctor. We want to learn just which parts of your brain react to the key concepts of your life story.” The injection made Leckesh feel both stunned and lively. He couldn’t move, but his mind was going a mile a minute. The PET-scan sensor seemed like a cavern, a door into the underworld. The doctor set the lifebox down on Leckesh’s chest, and it began its rapid-fire rundown.

“Machine. TV. Vacuum cleaner. Bugs Bunny. Rudeness. Teeth. Dogs …” After each word or phrase the PET-scanner would click. The process went on for the whole afternoon. ”…Pineapple. Cans. Firecrackers. Fourth of July. Maine. Summer. Abby.” Finally it was over. The doctor injected an antidote; Leckesh’s body speeded back up, and his mind slowed back down. Lo took him downstairs to her cubicle. The long afternoon’s ordeal had left him so weak that his walk was a stooped shuffle.

“Well, that’s it, Mr. Leckesh—until the end. We’ll get the electrical, physical and chemical maps at the end.”

“The end? After I die?”

Lo looked a little uncomfortable. “This is where the hospice comes in. We can’t take the risk of having your brain degenerate before we can analyze it. For the electrical probes to give reliable reading, the brain still has to be somewhat functional. Unless the tissues are absolutely fresh, the physical microtoming process works very poorly. And memory RNA is an extremely labile substance. The coordination of your brain-removal with our team’s readiness is a delicate thing.”

“Now hold on a minute. What are you saying?” Lo’s yellow face and blue hair made Leckesh think of a nightmare by van Gogh.

“I told you that some aspects of our operation are legally questionable, Mr. Leckesh.” Each syllable came out just so.

“You’re telling me that I’m supposed to make an appointment for your doctors to shock me to death, and cut up my brain, and grind up the pieces for a chemical analysis?”

“We need a day’s notice, is all. When you get to the point where you think the end is near, Mr. Leckesh, you simply get in touch with Soft Death, and our ambulance will take you to our hospice.”

“What if I wait too long?”

Lo shrugged. “It’s a matter of statistics, like everything else. Here.” She took what looked like a wristwatch out of her desk. “Wear this. To signal us to come get you, simply push this button here. The watch also has sensors which signal us automatically in case you collapse. Let me stress that the chances of our achieving a fully isomorphic copy of your software are much greater if you come in early. Quite frankly, I’d advise coming in today. I think the crisis is closer than you realize.”

“You’re just in a hurry to claim your half of my assets,” challenged Leckesh, suddenly wild with fear. His guts were on fire and his head was spinning.

“We already have half of your assets,” corrected Lo. “The document you signed was a contract, not a will. And, by the way, for another quarter of your assets we would be able to provide software transmission as well as the planned preservation …”

“I’m getting out of here,” shouted Leckesh, in a strained, cracking voice. “Soft Death is a bunch of vampires and ghouls!” In the cab home, he began coughing blood. He wondered if the Soft Death neurologist had poisoned him. This had all been a horrible mistake. He’d never been able to take Bill Kaley for more than an hour at a time; and now he was supposed to spend eternity in a machine with Kaley and a bunch of other rich fools?

He found Abby alone in the apartment, talking on the phone with Mr. Garden. Leckesh was so desperate to see his wife that he didn’t bother to be annoyed.

“Oh, Abby, I’ve been selfish. I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring you these last few weeks.”

“Where’s your little recorder, Doug? Did you finish dictating your life story?” Her pale, anxious face was luminous in the apartment’s gathering dusk.

“It’s all done. Kiss me, Abby.”

They hugged and kissed for a long time. Leckesh wondered how he could have thought that his words were more important than Abby’s real self, her real body with its real curves and its sweet real fragrance. And…even realer than that…her aura, the married couple telepathy they had together, the precious, unspoken understanding of two people in love.

“Doug?”

“What, darling?”

“What have you been up to, really? What were you always talking into that little box for? I know it wasn’t a recorder like you said. I heard it talking back to you. And there’s something else. I went to the bank today, and half of our money is gone. The teller said some group called Soft Death had a paper giving them the right to take half of our money out. What is Soft Death, Doug?” Abby’s voice quavered and broke. “Is it another woman you’ve been talking to? I wouldn’t blame you, with so little time left, but why won’t you let me help you, too?”

Leckesh’s heart swelled as if to burst. After all the bad things he’d thought about Abby in the past—she really did care. She cared more than anyone. Yet, still, he couldn’t tell her. It was Soft Death or nothing, wasn’t it? There was no immortality outside of their machine.

“Soft Death is…a kind of hospice. A home for the terminally ill. I signed a contract so I could go there when the cancer gets really bad. I might have to go pretty soon. I coughed blood in the cab, Abby, and I’m hurting bad.”

“But…half our money, Doug?”

“They pressured me, Abby. And it’s not just a hospice. I can’t tell you more, you might mess it up. We’ve both always had our secrets, haven’t we?” The pain in his stomach was beating like a bass drum.

“Oh, Doug, you’ve gotten so suspicious of me. There haven’t been any secrets, darling. It’s only because you were older than me that you worried so much. You’re all I…“

Something collapsed in Leckesh’s guts. He pitched forward onto his knees and vomited blood. The sensor in Lo’s wristwatch sent out a signal to the Soft Death ambulance that had trailed Leckesh’s taxi home.

The funeral was two days later. The only mourner aside from Abby was Irwin Garden, with his baggy pants and turbaned mind. Over Abby’s protests, he accompanied her back to her apartment.

“I promised Doug not to see you,” said Abby, pacing distractedly up and down the richly furnished living room. She stared out the window and turned to look at Garden’s calm face. His arched eyebrows showed over his glasses. Abby made up her mind. “Doug will forgive me. He and I still had so much to tell each other. He needs me, Irwin, I can feel it. Can you help me reach him?”

“I can try.”

Garden opened up his battered briefcase and drew out a large square of silk with a Tibetan mandala on it. He set it down on the dining table, and he and Abby sat down on either side of Leckesh’s old seat. Garden lit a stick of incense and began reading from a book he said was the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Time passed. Abby let Garden’s droning voice wash over her, as she thought of Doug. It was nearly dark now, and the plume of incense smoke was dense above the silken mandala. The table creaked and shifted; the thick smoke began to give off a faint blue glow. Garden fell silent.

“Doug,” said Abby, staring into the luminous smoke. “Doug, are you there?”

The smoke had no words. It only moaned, turning in on itself.

“Is something wrong, Doug? Tell me. Show me.”

A pattern formed in the air, indistinct as a cheap hologram, but multicolored, with rainbow fringes at each color-volume’s edge. The face of Douglas Leckesh, his tormented face.

Now the face shrank to the size of a fist, and pale color-lines enveloped it.

“A ghost-trap,” said Garden softly. “He’s telling you that something has his spirit trapped here on earth.”

Bright blips raced along the color-lines surrounding Leckesh’s face; bright, digital blips. His moaning chattered into the sound of typewriters.

“Is it Soft Death, Doug?”

The pulsing lines fell away, and the spirit face nodded. Somewhere in the apartment, a window blew open with a crash. There was a sudden, strong wind, and something white fluttered in from the bedroom. A small white rectangle.

The incense smoke dispersed, and the mandala cloth wafted onto the floor. Doug’s face was gone, but there, lying on the table between Abby and Irwin, was a dog-eared business card. The Soft Death business card that Yung had given Leckesh three weeks ago.

Abby was at the Bertroy Building when it opened next morning. After lengthy inquiries, she found herself in Lo Park’s basement cubicle.

“What have you done to my husband?” demanded Abby.

The young Korean woman was cool and matter-of-fact. “Soft Death Incorporated has preserved his software, according to his request.”

“What do you mean?”

“We coded up Douglas Leckesh’s brain-functions as a pattern of zeroes and ones in the computer out there. Would you like to talk with him?”

“I communicated with him last night.”

The Korean woman twitched her eyebrows unbelievingly. “I will telephone him for you.” She punched some buttons and handed Abby the receiver.

There was chiming and a buzzing, and then a voice. Doug’s voice. “Hello?” He sounded bored and unhappy.

“Doug! Is it really you?”

“I…I don’t know. Abby. You’re with Lo Park?”

“Yes. She says you’re in her computer. But last night Irwin Garden called your spirit out of thin air.”

A sob of anguish. “I was a fool, Abby. I should have believed you. Get me out of here. It’s like an endless business meeting, oh, it’s like Hell.”

“Your spirit wants you out, too. But it couldn’t talk.”

“All they have in here is my digital code,” said Leckesh’s voice. “But not the rest of me. I can hardly remember it in here, Abby, the colors and smells, the feelings you give me. It’s wrong for my two parts to be split this way. I was a fool to think I was nothing but numbers. I need to get out of here, and move on to the other side.”

“I’ll save you, darling.”

It didn’t take Lo Park long to draw up a contract for half of what Abby had left. In return, Soft Death promised “Software transmission.”

That afternoon a long, powerful radio signal was beamed straight up from a dish on the top of the Bertroy Building. The signal coded a certain digital information pattern, a bit-string derived from the software of the late Douglas Leckesh. Radio signals are invisible, but if you’d been watching the sky as the Leckesh beam went up, you might have seen an iridule: a brief swirl of rainbow light.



Note on “Soft Death”

Written in 1985.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September, 1986.

Another death story from Lynchburg. The software model of a person’s brain idea is central to my novels Software and Wetware. In “Soft Death,” I was interested in clarifying the technology of the “uploading” technique. I can really imagine senior citizens buying and using lifeboxes. The idea of a lifebox program which can “tell stories just like Grandpa used to” seems quite plausible. Imagine a graveyard with a pushbutton, speaker-grill and video screen on each stone, each of them running an interactive simulation of the grave’s inhabitant, a simulation that remembers the things that you, the visitor, tell it. The only hard part would be writing the program to insert the hyperlinks into the dictated material. I have more about this idea in my novel, Saucer Wisdom.

The character-name “Leckesh” is a near-anagram of Sheckley. For me, the most important SF writer of all is Robert Sheckley. Somewhere Nabokov describes a certain childhood book as being the one that bumped something and set the heavy ball rolling down the corridor of years. For me, that book of books was Sheckley’s Untouched by Human Hands. I first read it in the Spring of 1961, when I was in the hospital recovering from having my ruptured spleen removed.

Around the time I was writing “Soft Death,” Sheckley and Jay Rothbel showed up at our Lynchburg house in a camper van and lived in our driveway for a few days, their electric cord plugged into our socket, and their plumbing system connected to our hose. I could hardly believe my good fortune. It was like having ET land his ship in your yard.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Inside Out

You might think of Killeville as a town where every building is a Pizza Hut. Street after street of Pizza Huts, each with the same ten toppings and the same mock mansard roof—the same shiny zero repeated over and over like same tiles in a pavement, same pixels in a grid, same blank neurons in an imbecile’s brain.

The Killevillers—the men and women on either side of the Pizza Hut counters—see nothing odd about the boredom, the dodecaduplication. They are ugly people, cheap and odd as K-Mart dolls. The Killeville gene pool is a dreg from which all fine vapors evaporate, a dreg so small that some highly recessive genes have found expression. Killeville is like New Zealand with its weirdly unique fauna. Walking down a Killeville street, you might see the same hideous platypus face three times in ten minutes.

Of course a platypus is beautiful…to another platypus. The sound that drifts out of Killeville’s country clubs and cocktail parties is smug and well-pleased. It’s a sound like locusts, or like feasting geese. “This is good food,” they say. “Have you tried the spinach?” The words don’t actually matter; the nasal buzzing honk of the vowels conveys it all: We’re the same. We’re the same.

Unless you were born there, Killeville is a horrible place to live. Especially in August. In August the sky is a featureless gray pizza. The unpaved parts of the outdoors are choked with thorns and poison ivy. Inside the houses, mold grows on every surface, and fleas seethe in the wall-to-wall carpeting. In the wet grayness, time seems to have stopped. How to kill it?

One can watch TV, go to a restaurant, see a movie, or drink in a bar—though none of these pastimes is fun in Killeville. The TV channels are crowded with evangelists so stupid that it isn’t even funny. All the restaurants are, of course, Pizza Huts. And if all the restaurants are Pizza Huts, then all the movie theaters are showing Rambo and the Care Bears movie. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is very active in Killeville, and drinking in bars is risky. Sober, vigilant law-enforcement officers patrol the streets at every hour.

For all this, stodgy, nasty Killeville is as interesting a place as can be found in our universe. For whatever reason, it’s a place where strange things keep happening…very strange things. Look at what happened to Rex and Candy Redman in August, 198–.

Rex and Candy Redman: married twelve years, with two children aged eight and eleven. Rex was dark and skinny; Candy was a plump, fair-skinned redhead with blue eyes. She taught English at Killeville Middle School. Rex had lost his job at GE back in April. Rex had been a CB radio specialist at the Killeville GE plant—the job was the reason the Redmans had moved to Killeville in the first place. When Rex got laid off, he went a little crazy. Instead of selling the house and moving—which is what he should have done—he got a second mortgage on their house and started a business of his own: Redman Novelties & Magic, Wholesale & Retail. So far it hadn’t clicked. Far from it. The Redmans were broke and stuck in wretched Killeville. They avoided each other in the daytime, and in the evenings they read magazines.

Rex ran his business out of a rundown building downtown, a building abandoned by its former tenants, a sheet music sales corporation called, of all things, Bongo Fury. Bongo Fury had gotten some federal money to renovate the building next door, and were letting Rex’s building moulder as some kind of tax dodge. Rex had the whole second floor for fifty dollars a month. There was a girl artist who rented a room downstairs; she called it her studio. Her name was Marjorie. She thought Rex was cute. Candy didn’t like the situation.

“How was Marjorie today?” Candy asked, suddenly looking up from her copy of People. It was a glum Wednesday night.

“Look, Candy, she’s just a person. I do not have the slightest sexual interest in Marjorie. Even if I did, do you think I’d be stupid enough to start something with her? She’d be upstairs bothering me all the time. You’d find out right away…life would be even more of a nightmare.”

“It just seems funny,” said Candy, a hard glint in her eye. “It seems funny, that admiring young girl alone with you in an abandoned building all day. It stinks! Put yourself in my shoes! How would you like it?”

Rex went out to the kitchen for a glass of water. “Candy,” he said, coming back into the living room. “Just because you’re bored is no reason to start getting mean. Why can’t you be a little more rational?”

“Yeah?” said Candy. She threw her magazine to the floor. “Yeah? Well I’ve got a question for you. Why don’t you get a JOB?”

“I’m trying, hon, you know that.” Rex ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “And you know I just sent the catalogs out. The orders’ll be pouring in soon.”

“BULL!” Candy was escalating fast. “GET A JOB!”

“Ah, go to hell, ya goddamn naggin’ …” Rex moved rapidly out of the room as he said this.

“THAT’S RIGHT, GET OUT OF HERE!”

He grabbed his Kools pack and stepped out on the front stoop. A little breeze tonight; it was better than it had been. Good night to take a walk, have a cigarette, bring home a Dr Pepper, and fool around in his little basement workshop. He had a new effect he was working on. Candy would be asleep on the couch before long; it was her new dodge to avoid going to bed with him.

Walking towards the 7-Eleven, Rex thought about his new trick. It was a box called Reverso that was supposed to turn things into their opposites. A left glove into a right glove, a saltshaker into a pepper grinder, a deck of cards into a Bible, a Barbie doll into a Ken doll. Reverso could even move a coffee cup’s handle to its inside. Of course all the Reverso action could be done by sleight of hand—the idea was to sell the trapdoored Reverso box with before-and-after props. But now, walking along, Rex remembered his math and tried to work out what it would be like if Reverso were for real. What if it were possible, for instance, to turn things inside out by inverting in a sphere, turning each radius vector around on itself, sending a tennis ball’s fuzz to its inside, for instance. Given the right dimensional flow, it could be done …

As Rex calmed himself with thoughts of math, his senses opened and took in the night. The trees looked nice, nice and black against the citylit gray sky. The leaves whispered on a rising note. Storm coming; there was heat lightning in the distance and thundermutter. Buddaboombabububu. The wind picked up all of a sudden; fat rain started spitting; and then KCRAAACK! there was a blast to Rex’s right like a bomb going off! Somehow he’d felt it coming, and he jerked just the right way at just the right time. Things crashed all around him—what seemed like a whole tree. Sudden deaf silence and the crackling of flames.

Lightning had struck a big elm tree across the street from him; struck it and split it right down the middle. Half the tree had fallen down all around Rex, with heavy limbs just missing him on either side.

Shaky and elated, Rex picked his way over the wood to look at the exposed flaming heart of the tree. Something funny about the flame. Something very strange indeed. The flames were in the shape of a little person, a woman with red eyes and trailing limbs.

“Please help me, sir,” said the flame girl, her voice rough and skippy as an old LP. “I am of the folk, come down on the bolt. I need a flow to live on. When this fire goes out, I’m gone.”

“I,” said Rex. “You.” He thought of Moses and the burning bush. “Are you a spirit?”

Tinkling of laughter. “The folk are information patterns. I drift through the levels doing this and that. Can you lend me a body or two? I’ll make it worth your while.”

The rain was picking up, and the fire was dying out. A siren approached. The little figure’s hot, perfect face stared at Rex. She reached out towards him beseechingly.

“I have an idea,” said Rex. “I’ll put you in Candy…my wife. Just for a little while. Right now she’s probably asleep, so she won’t notice anyway. I live just over there …”

“Carry me in a coal,” hissed the little voice.

Rex tried to pick up part of the burning heartwood, but it was all one piece. On a sudden inspiration, he drew out a Kool and lit it by holding it against the dying flames. He puffed once, getting it lit, and the elfgirl entered him.

It felt good, it felt tingly, it felt like being alive. Quick thin fractal pathways grew down his arms and legs, spidering out from his chest, where the girl—

“My name is Zee.”

—had settled in.

“It’s nice in here,” said Zee, her voice subvocal in Rex’s throat. “No need to introduce yourself, Rex, I’m reading your mind. I’m going to keep your body and give Candy to Alf.” Rex’s lips moved slightly as Zee spoke. The reality of this hit Rex—he was possessed! He began a howl of surprise, but Zee cut him off toot sweet. She took over his motor reflexes and began marching him home. Rex’s nerves felt thick, coated, crustacean.

“Sorry to do this to you, Rex,” said the voice, “but I really don’t have a choice. It’s the only way I can get rid of Alf, the little spirit who possesses me. He’s been insisting I get him a human body. But I like you, so we’ll put him in your wife instead of you.”

Candy was stretched out on the couch, softly snoring. Rex put the Kool in his mouth and leaned over Candy so that the ash end was just inside her mouth. He blew as she inhaled. A tiny figure of smoke— a little man much, much smaller than Zee—twisted off the cigarette tip and disappeared into Candy’s chest. Gazzzunk. She snorted and sat up, eyes unnaturally bright. “So you’re Rex?” It was Candy’s voice, but huskier, and with a different pronunciation.

“Rex Redman. And you’re in my wife Candy. We’re both possessed, me by little Zee and she by smaller who? Who are you? You haven’t hurt Candy, have you?”

“Hi Zee. Tell him shut up, Candy’s here asleep, and I’m Alf. Let’s shake this meat, Zee.” Candy/Alf stretched her arms and pushed out her chest. “Hmm.” She undid her blouse and bra and examined her breasts with interest. Her motions were pert and youthful, and her features had a new tautness. “Do you want to make love?”

“Yeah,” said Rex/Zee. “Sure.”

Up in their second-floor bedroom, the sex was more fun than it had been in quite a while. The only reason Candy kept bugging Rex about Marjorie was, Rex believed, because Candy wanted to be unfaithful herself. Lately she’d been sick of him. Pumping in and out, Rex wondered if this was adultery. It was Candy’s body, but Candy’s mind was asleep, or on hold, and, for his part, Zee was calling the shots so good Rex wanted them all: come shots, smack shots, booze shots in the sweaty night. Eventually Candy woke up halfway and was happy. It became almost a fourway scene.

The way Zee told it, flaked out on the mattress there, she came from a race of discorporated beings consisting of pure patterns of information. The folk. They could live at any size scale or ideally, at several size scales at once. Each of the folk had a physically real ancestor on some level or another, but the originals were long lost in the endless mindgaming and switching of hosts. Before entering Rex’s nervous system, Zee had been a pattern of air turbulence up in the sky, a pattern that had wafted out from the leaves of a virus-infested bamboo grove in Thailand. The virus—which had been Zee—had evolved out of a self-replicating crystalline clay structure in the ground, which had been Zee, too.

Alf was a kind of parasite who’d just entered Zee recently. There were folk throughout the universe, and Alf had arrived in the form of a shower of cosmic rays. He’d latched right onto Zee. It had been his idea to get Zee to come down and possess a person—the folk didn’t usually like to do that. Alf had gotten Zee to possess Rex so Rex would help put Alf into a person, too. Zee was glad to get Alf out of her—she didn’t like him.

Lying there spent, fondling Candy and listening to Zee in the dark, Rex began to think he was dreaming. Dreaming a factual dream of the folk who live in the world’s patterns—live as clouds, as fires, as trees, as brooks, as people, as cells, as genes, as superstrings from dimension Z. Any type of ongoing process at all would do. Fractal; the word kept coming back. It meant something that is endlessly complex at every level—like a coastline, with its spits within inlets within bays; like a high-tree habitat where the thick branches keep merging to thicker ones, and the thin ones split and split.

“Would you really have died if I’d let your fire go out?” Rex asked. It was dawn and this was no dream.

“No,” laughed Zee. “I’m a terrible liar. I would have gone down into the wood’s grain-patterns, and then into the sugars of the sap. But I just had to get rid of Alf. And I like you, Rex. I was aiming for you when I rode the lightning down. You smelled interesting and…thick like extra space.”

“You could smell me all the way up in the sky?”

“It’s not really smelling. For us nothing’s so far away, you know. Your whole notion of space and distances is…a kind of flat picture? The folk are much realer than that. We live in full fractal Hilbert space. You think like a flat picture, but the paper, if you’ll just look, is all bumpy like a moonscape of bristlebushes covered with fuzzy fleas. There’s no fixed dimensions at all. Does it feel good when Alf and I do this?”

“Yes.”

Candy’s wordless smiling daze ended when the first rays of the sun came angling in the window. She jerked, rubbed her eyes, and groaned. “Rex, what have you been doing to me? I dreamed …” She tried to sit up and Alf wouldn’t let her. Her eyes rolled. “There are things in us, Rex, it’s real, I’m scared, I’m SCARED SCARED oooo—”

Her skin seemed to ridge up as Alf’s tendrils clamped down. Her mouth snapped shut and then her face smoothed into an icky pixie grin. She got out of bed and dressed awkwardly. Rex didn’t usually pay much attention to what women wore, but Candy’s outfit today definitely did not look right. A cocktail dress tucked into a pair of jeans. Where did she think she was going so early?

“I’ll call in sick,” said Alf through Candy. “Just a minute.” She went to the phone and tried to call the school where she worked. Alf didn’t seem to realize it was summer vacation.

“Mommy’s up!” shouted Griff, hearing the call.

“Where’s breakfast?” demanded little Leda.

“LOOK OUT, KIDS!” shouted Rex. “MOMMY AND I HAVE BEEN TAKEN OVER BY—” Zee’s clampdown hit him like a shot of animal tranquilizer.

“Just kidding,” called Zee/Rex. The kids laughed. Daddy was wild. Zee/Rex went into the kitchen to look for food and Leda asked for breakfast again. “Feed yourself, grubber,” mouthed Rex. Hungry. Zee had him brush past Griff and Leda and fill a bowl with milk, sugar, and three raw eggs. Zee/Rex leaned over the bowl and lapped the contents up.

“Daddy, you are eating like a pig!” laughed Leda. She fixed herself a bowl of milk and sugar and tried lapping it up like Daddy. The bowl slid off the table and onto the floor. Griff, upset by the disorder, grabbed some bread and headed out the door to play with the dog. Leda cleaned up halfheartedly until she realized that Daddy didn’t care, and then she went to watch cable TV.

“Do you want to fuck your wife some more?” said Zee. The voice was subvocal.

“Uh, no,” said Rex, beginning to wonder what he’d gotten his family into. “Not right now. Do you remember saying that you’d make it worth my while if I gave the use of our bodies, Zee? What kind of payment do the folk give?”

“As a rule, none,” said Zee, making Rex nibble on a stick of butter. “I told you I’m a terrible liar. Isn’t having me in you payment enough? Don’t you like being part of the Zee fractal?” Rex didn’t understand, but Zee helped him and then he did. Folk like Zee were long thin vortices in the fractal soup of all that is. Or like a necklace strung with diverse beads. Rex was a Zee-bead now, and Candy was an Alf-bead. Alf’s thread passed up through Zee, too, and up through Zee to who knew where.

It was dizzying to think about, the endlessness and the weird geometry of it all. To hear Zee tell it, every size scale was equally central, each object just another crotch in the transdimensional fractal world-tree. Zee and Alf were in them, above them, and maybe below them now, too: in their genes and in their memes. Rex’s thoughts felt no longer quite his.

He’d made a terrible mistake picking Zee up. He kept remembering the desperate expression on Candy’s face as Alf made her stop yelling. And the puzzled looks the children had given their terribly altered Dad.

“Can’t you and Alf move on, Zee? Leave your fractal trail in us, but move on down into the atoms? Can I drive you anywhere?”

“No. It’s ugly here in Killeville. I just came down because of you. When I’m through eating, I want to get back in bed with Candy and Alf.” Rex watched himself open the fridge, hunker down, and begin using a stick of celery to dig peanut butter out of the jar. Crunch off some celery each time. It tasted good. Whenever he relaxed, the nerve-tingle of Zee’s possession started to feel good. That was bad.

“What was it about me that attracted you so much, Zee?”

“I said I could smell you. You were thinking about your magic box called Reverso. It makes your flat space get thick, and it spins things over themselves. I told you the higher dimensions are real; you can build up to them with fractals. I bet I could make Reverso really work. I could do that for you, dear Rex.”

“Well, all right.” Rex went back in the bedroom and talked things over with Candy, who was busy putting on a different set of clothes. “I think I’ll drive down to my office, Candy,” said Rex. “Zee says she can help me get the Reverso working. And maybe then they’ll leave.”

“I’m going to stay in bed all day,” said Candy, making that pixie face. She had taken all her clothes back off, and one of her hands was busy down in her crotch. “I love this body.” Her voice was husky and strange. Rex felt very uneasy.

“Maybe I shouldn’t leave you like this, Candy.”

“Go on, go downtown to your Marjorie. I won’t be lonely, Rex. You can count on that.”

“Do you mean—”

Zee cut him off and marched him out of the bedroom and back down the stairs.

“And take the kids,” called Candy in something like her normal voice. She sounded scared. “Get the poor children out of here!”

“Right.”

Rex rounded up the children and took them over to the Carrandines’ house. Luanne Carrandine was a little surprised when Rex asked her to babysit, but after the usual heavy flirting, she agreed to help out. She was a charming blonde woman with a small jaded face. Some of the suggestions which Zee forced out of Rex’s mouth made Luanne laugh out loud. If her husband Garvey hadn’t been upstairs, Rex and Zee might have stayed on, but as it was, they headed downtown.

Last night’s storm had left Killeville gray and steamy. Kudzu writhed up the walls of the abandoned building Rex rented space in. The other renter—the famous Marjorie—didn’t usually show up till ten. Rex/Zee’s footsteps echoed in the empty space. He walked her up the filthy stairs to his little office. There on his desk sat the Reverso: a silver-painted, wood box with a hidden trapdoor in the bottom.

Rex felt foolish showing his crummy trick to a truly magical spirit like Zee. But she insisted, and he ran through the patter.

“This is a handy little box that turns things into their opposites,” said Rex, putting a right-handed leather glove in the chamber. “Suppose that you have two pairs of gloves, but you lose the left glove to each pair. No problem with Reverso!” He lifted the box up and shook it (meanwhile sneaking a hand in through the trapdoor to turn the special glove inside out). He set the Reverso beck down. “Open it up, Zee. You see! Right into left.” He took out the left glove and put in a fake saltshaker. “But that’s not all. Reverso changes all kinds of opposites. What if you have salt but no pepper?” He shook the chamber again. (A hidden curtain inside the “Saltshaker” slid down, changing its sides from white to black.) “Open the chamber, Zee—salt into pepper! Now what if you’re short on shelf space and your coffee cups’ handles keep bumping into each other?” He drew out a (special) coffee cup and placed it in the chamber. “Simple! We use Reverso to turn inside to out and put the handle on the inside for storage!” (He opened the chamber, moving the suctioned-on cup handle to the cup’s inside as he drew it out.) “See!”

“I know a way to do the first and last tricks without cheating,” said Zee. “I know how to really turn things inside out. Look.” Rex’s hand picked up a pencil and drew a picture of two concentric circles. “See the annular ring between the circles? Think of lots of little radial arrows in the ring, all leading from the inner circle to the outer circle.” His hand sketched rapidly. Think of the ring part as something solid. To turn it inside out means to flip each of the arrows over.” Zee stopped drawing and ran a kind of animation on Rex’s paper to point inwards. All of them turning together made a trail shaped like a torus. “Yes, a torus, whose intersection with the plane looks like two circles. Think of a smoke-ring, a torus whose inner circle keeps moving out—like a tornado biting its own tail. A planecutting toroidal vortex ring turns flat objects inside out. What we need for your real Reverso is a hypertorus whose intersection with your space looks like two spheres, a big one and a little one. I know where to get ‘em, Rex, closer than you know. These hypertoruses have a fuzzy fractal surface and a built-in vortex flow. You won’t believe where …”

“Talking to yourself, Rex?” It was Marjorie, come up the stairs to say hi. Rex and Zee, in the throes of scientific rapture, had failed to hear her come in.

Marjorie was a thin young woman who smiled a lot. She wore her hair very short, and she smoked Gauloises—which took some doing in a chainstore town like Killeville. “I’m making coffee for us, and I wondered if you remembered to bring milk and sugar.”

“Uh, no. Yes, I guess I am talking to myself. This Reverso trick, you know.” Suddenly Zee seized control of Rex’s tongue. “Do you want to make love?”

Marjorie laughed and gave Rex a gentle butt with her head. “I never thought you’d ask. Sex now?”

“No time now,” cried Rex, taking back over. “Shut up, Zee!”

Marjorie stepped back to the door and gave Rex a considering look. “Are you high, Rex? Or what? You have some for me?”

“I have to work,” said Rex. “Stay quiet, Zee.”

“I can make you feel like Rex,” said Zee through Rex’s mouth. “With an Alf. Come back here, honey.”

“Meanwhile on planet Earth,” said Marjorie, and disappeared down the stairs, shaking her head.

“Stop it, Zee, and let’s get to work. Where are we supposed to find that hypertoroidal vortex ring you were talking about?”

“Space’s dimensionality depends on the size scale you look at, Rex. From a distance a tree seems like a pattern of 1-D lines. Get closer and the bark looks like a warpy 2-D surface. Land on the surface and it’s a fissured 3-D world. Down and down. Hypertoroidal vortex rings are common at the atomic scale. They’re called quarks.”

“Quarks!”

“A quark is a toroidal loop of superstring. Now just hold still while I reach down and yank—”

There was a sinking feeling in Rex’s chest. Zee was moving down through him, descending into the dimensional depths. With her bright “growth tip” gone from him, Rex felt more fully himself than he had since last night. Zee’s fractal trail was still in him, but her active self was down somewhere in his atoms. He sighed and sank down into his armchair.

Interesting how receptive Marjorie had been to that suggestion of Zee’s…but no. The peace of his neutral isolation was too sweet to compromise. But what was Candy up to right now? What was Alf getting her to do?

Rex’s nervous gaze strayed to the shelves of the little novelties that he was ready to mail, once the orders started coming in. He tried to calm himself by thinking about business. Boy’s Life might be a good place to advertise, maybe he should write them for their rates. Or—

“Wuugh!” Zee’s heavy catch swelled and stung in Rex’s rising gorge and he gagged again, harder. A flickering fur sphere flopped out of his mouth and plopped onto the floor in front of him. It had an aura of frenzied activity, but it didn’t seem to be going anyplace. It just lay there on the pine boards, its surface flowing this way and that.

“I’m back,” murmured Zee with Rex’s mouth.

Rex nudged the sphere with his foot. It shrank from his touch.

“If you’re rough with it, it shrinks,” said Zee. “And if you pat it, it gets bigger. Try.”

Rex leaned forward and placed his hands lightly on the sphere’s equator. It wasn’t exactly fur-covered after all. Velcro was more like it. Zee had him rub his hands back and forth caressingly, and then move them apart. The sphere bulged along with his hands, out and out till it was four feet across. Rex felt like a tailor fitting a fat man for a suit. He pushed back his chair and got up to take a better look at the thing.

At any instant, its surface was fractally rough: cracked and fissured, with cracks in its cracks, and with a tufty overlay of slippery fuzz that branched and rebranched. In its richness of structure, it was a bit like an incredibly detailed scale model of some alien planet.

What made the fuzzball doubly strange was that its surface was in constant flux. If it was like the model of a planet, it was a dynamic model, with speeded-up time. As if to the rhythm of unseen seasons, patches of the fuzzball’s stubble would grow dark red, flatten out to eroded yellow badlands, glaze over with blue cracks, and then blossom back into pale red growth.

“A quark is this complex?” Rex asked unbelievingly. “And you say this is really a hypertorus? Where’s the inner sphere? And how can anything ever get inside it?”

“It’s the hyperflow that makes it impervious,” said Zee. “And you valve that down with a twist like this.” She made Rex grab the sphere and twist it clockwise about its vertical axis. It turned as grudgingly as a stiff faucet. “If you give it a half-turn, the hyperflow stops.” Sure enough, as Zee/Rex’s hands rotated the sphere it stopped it flickering. It was static now, with a big red patch near Rex. Frozen still like this, the sphere was filmy and transparent. Peering into it, Rex could see a small sphere in the middle with a green patch matching the outer sphere’s red patch.

“You can still make it change size when it’s stopped like this,” said Zee, urging Rex’s reluctant hands forward. “But now, even better, you can push right through it. Even though it still resists shear, it’s gone matter-transparent.”

The outer sphere was insubstantial as a curtain of water; the central sphere was, too. It had been the hyperflow, now halted, that gave the spheres their seeming solidity. Zee now demonstrated that if Rex jabbed or caressed the barely palpable inner sphere, it grew and shrank just as willingly as did the outer sphere. The two could be adjusted to bound concentric shells of any size.

The region between the spheres felt tingly with leashed energies. Rex could begin to see what would happen if the hyperflow started back up. Everything would turn over. The inside would go out, and the outside would go in. He jerked his hands back.

“And of course you restart it by turning it the other way,” said Zee. Rex dug into the sphere’s yielding surface and twisted it counterclockwise. Insubstantial though it was, the sphere resisted this axial rotation as strongly as before. Slowly it gave and unvalved. The hyperflow started back up. The big outer patch near Rex shifted shades from red through orange to yellow to green to blue to violet. Rex watched for a while and then stopped the flow the next time a green outer patch appeared. Peered in. Yes, now the inner patch was red. They’d traded places. The stuff of the outer sphere had flowed up through hyperspace and back down to the inner sphere. It was just the same as the way the stuff of a donut-shape’s outer equator can flow up over the donut’s top and down to its inner equator. Like a sea cucumber, the big quark lived to evert.

“Let’s call it a cumberquark,” said Rex.

“Fine,” said Zee. “Wonderful. I’m glad I showed it to you. Aren’t you going to try it out?”

Rex’s eye lit on a glass jar of rubber cement. He halted the cumberquark’s flow, jabbed the central sphere down to the size of a BB, squeezed the outer sphere down to the size of a small cantaloupe, and then adjusted the temporarily matter-transparent sphere so that the inner one was inside his jar of rubber cement. The outer sphere included the whole jar and a small disk-section of Rex’s desktop. With one quick motion, Rex unvalved the cumberquark just enough for the green patch to turn red, twisted the hyperflow back off, and shoved the cumberquark aside to see what it had wrought.

Thud floop. A moundy puddle of rubber cement resting in a crater on his desk. Wedged into the hole was an odd-shaped glass object. Rex picked it up. A jar, it was the rubber cement jar, but with the label inside, and rattling around inside it was—

“That hard little thing is the disk of desk the jar was sitting on.”

The jar’s lid was on the top, but facing inwards. Rex pushed on its underside and got it untwisted. As he untwisted it, compressed air hissed out: all the air that had been between the jar and the cumberquark’s outer sphere was squeezed in there. The lid clattered into the jar’s dry inside. Peeking in, Rex could see that the RUBBER CEMENT label had mirror-flipped to TNEMEC REBBUR. Check. He jiggled the jar and spilled the shrunken bit of desk out into his hand. Neat. It was a tiny sphere, with a BB-sized craterlet where the cumberquark’s inner sphere had nestled. A small gobbet of uneverted rubber cement clung to this dimple.

Quick youthful footsteps ascended the steps to Rex’s office. Marjorie, back for today’s Round Two.

“I want you to meet Kissycat. Kissycat, this is Rex.” Marjorie had a sinewy black cat nestled against her flattish chest. She pressed forward and placed the cat on Rex’s shoulder. It dug its claws in. Rex sneezed. He was allergic to cats. He had some trouble getting the neurotic beast off his shoulder and onto the desktop. He had a wonderful, awful, Grinchy idea.

“Will you sell me that cat, Marjorie?”

“No, but you can babysit him. I’m going down to the sub shop. Want anything?”

“Just a Coke. I’m going to meet Candy for lunch.” He’d been away too long already.

“La dee da. Where?”

“Oh, just at home.” Rex ran his shaky fingers through his hair, wondering if Candy was still in bed. But dammit, this was more important than Candy’s crazy threats. The cat. In just a minute he would be alone with the cat.

Kissycat nosed daintily around Rex’s desktop and began sniffing at the cumberquark.

“Rad,” said Marjorie, noticing it. “Is that a magic trick?”

“It’s a cumberquark. I just invented it.”

“What does it do?”

“Maybe I’ll show you when you get back. Sure, Kissycat can stay here. That’s fine. Here’s seventy-five cents for the Coke.”

As soon as she’d left the building, Rex dilated the cumberquark to pumpkin size and began stalking Kissycat. Sensing Rex’s mood—a mixture of prickly ailurophobia and psychotic glee—the beast kept well away from him. Fortunately he’d closed his office door and windows. Kissycat wedged himself under Rex’s armchair. Rex thumped the chair over and lunged. The cat yowled, spit, and slapped four nasty scratches across Rex’s left hand.

“You want me to kill you first?” Rex snarled, snatching up the heavy rod that he used to prop his window open. Candy had him all upset. “You want me to crush your head before I turn you inside out, you god—”

His voice broke and sweetened. Zee taking over. He’d forgotten all about her.

“Niceums kitty. Dere he is. All thcared of nassy man? Oobie doobie purr purr.” Zee made Rex rummage in his trashcan till he found a crust of yesterday’s tuna sandwich. “Nummy nums for Mr. Tissytat! Oobie doobie purr purr purr.” This humiliating performance went on for longer than Rex liked, but finally Kissycat was stretched out on the canvas seat of the director’s chair next to Rex’s desk, shedding hair and licking his feet. Rex halted the cumberquark’s flow and moved gingerly forward. “Niceums!”

Kissycat seemed not to notice as the gossamer outer sphere passed through his body. Cooing and peering in, Rex manipulated the sphere till its BB-sized center was inside the cat, hopefully inside its stomach. With a harsh cackle, Rex unvalved the sphere, let it flow through a flip, and turned it back off. There was a circle of canvas missing from the chair seat now, and the everted cat dropped through the hole to the floor, passing right through the temporarily matter-transparent cumberquark.

Kissycat was a good-sized pink ball with two holes in it. Rex had managed to get the middle sphere bang-on in the cat’s stomach. The crust he’d just fed Kissycat was lying right there next to the stomach. The stomach twitched and jerked. It had two sphincterish holes in it—holes that presumably tunneled to Kissycat’s mouth and anus. Rex gave the ball a little kick and it made a muffled mewing noise.

“A little strange in there is it, hand-scratcher?”

“Rex,” came Zee’s subvocal voice. “Don’t be mean. Isn’t he going to suffocate?” She was like a goddamn good conscience. If only Alf had been good, too. He couldn’t let himself think about Candy!

Rex forced his attention back to the matter at hand. “Kissycat won’t suffocate for a few minutes. Look how big he is. There’s a lot of air in there with him. He’s like a balloon!” The ball shuddered and mewed again, more faintly than before. “I’m just surprised the flip didn’t break his neck or something.”

“No, that’s safe enough. Space is kind of rubbery, you know. But listen, Rex, his air is running out fast. Turn him back.”

“I don’t want to. I want to show him to—” Rex was struck by an idea. Moving quickly, he took the tubular housing of a ballpoint pen and pushed it deep into one of the stomach holes. Kissycat’s esophagus. Stale air came rushing out in a gassy yowl. The pink ball shrank to catsize. After a few moments of confused struggle, the ball began pulsing steadily, pumping breaths in and out of the pen-tube.

There was noise downstairs. Marjorie! Rex turned the cumberquark back into a brightflowing little fuzzball, then put it and the everted cat inside his briefcase. He pounded down the stairs and got his Coke. “Thanks, Marjorie! Sorry to run, I just realized how late it is.”

“Where’s Kissycat?”

“Uh…I’m not sure. Inside or outside or something.” Rex’s briefcase was making a faint hissing noise.

“Some babysitter you are,” said Marjorie, cocking her head in kittenish pique. “What’s that noise? Do you—”

Rex lunged for the door, but now Zee had to put her two-cents worth in. “Look,” cried Rex’s mouth as his arms dumped the contents of his briefcase out onto the dirty hallway floor.

Marjorie screamed. “You’ve killed him! You’re crazy! Help!”

Zee relinquished control of Rex and hunkered somewhere inside him, snickering. Rex could hear her laughter like elfin bells. He snatched up him cumberquark and made as if to run for it, but Marjorie’s tearful face won his sudden sympathy. She was a pest, and a kid, but still—

“Stop screaming, dammit. I can turn him back.”

“You killed my cat!”

“He scratched my hand. And he’s not dead anyway. He’s just inside out. I wanted to borrow him to show Candy. I wasn’t going to hurt him any. Honest. I turned him inside out with my cumberquark, and I can turn him back.”

“You can? What’s that plastic tube?”

“He’s breathing through it. Now look. Let’s get something that can go in his stomach without making him sick. Oh…how about a sheet of newspaper. Yeah.” Moving quickly, Rex spread out a sheet of old newspaper and set the everted cat on it. Marjorie watched him with wide, frightened eyes. “Don’t look at me that way, dammit. Come here and pick up the paper, Marjorie, hold it stretched tight out in front of you.” She obeyed, and Rex got the cumberquark halted and in position, more or less. He reached in and took out the pen-tube, then readjusted the cumberquark. Marjorie was shaking. If Rex did the flip with the innersphere intersecting Kissycat’s flesh, this was going to be gross.

“Hold real still.” He steadied himself and unvalved the cumberquark for a half turn, then tightened it back.

Mrraaaow! Kissycat landed on his feet, right on the circle of cloth that had been part of Rex’s chairset upstairs. Marjorie stared down through the hole in her newspaper at him and cried out his name. Spotting Rex, the cat took off down the hall, heading for the dark recesses of the basement.

Everything was okay for a moment there, but then Zee had to speak back up. “I was thinking, Marjorie, about a wild new way to have sex. I could put the cumberquark’s central sphere in your womb and turn you inside out and—”

With a major effort of will, Rex got himself out the door and on the street before Zee could finish her suggestion. Marjorie watched him leave, too stunned to react.

The three mile drive home seemed to take a very long time. As the hot summer air beat in through the open car window, Rex kept thinking about inside out. What was the very innermost of all—the one/many language of quantum logic? And what, finally, was outermost of all—dead Aristotle’s Empyrean? Zee knew, or maybe she didn’t. Though Zee was not so scalebound as Rex, she was still finite, and her levels reached only so far, both up and down. There’s a sense in which zero is as far away as infinity: you can keep halving your size or keep doubling, but you never get to zero or infinity.

Rex’s thoughts grew less abstract. His perceptions were so loosened by the morning’s play that he kept seeing things inside out. Passing through Killeville, he could hear the bored platypus honking inside the offices, outside the tense exchanges in the Pizza Hut kitchens, inside the slow rustlings in the black people’s small shops, outside the redundant empty Killeville churches, inside the funeral homes with secret stinks, outside the huge “fine homes” with only a widow home, inside a supermarket office with the manager holding a plain teenage girl clerk on his gray-clad knees, outside a plastic gallon of milk. Entering his neighborhood, Rex could see into his neighbor’s hearts, see the wheels of worry and pain; and finally he could understand how little anyone else’s problems connected to his now. No one cared about him, nobody but Candy.

There were four strange cars in front of his house. A rusty pickup, a beetle, an MG, and a Japanese pickup. Rex knew the MG was Roland Brody’s, but who the hell were those other people?

There was a man sitting on Rex’s porch steps, a redneck who worked at the gas station. He smiled thinly and patted the spot on the porch next to him.

“Hydee. Ah’m Jody. And Ah believe yore her old man. Poor son. Hee hee.”

“This isn’t right.”

Another man hollered out the front door, a banker platypus in his white undershirt and flipperlength black socks. “Get some brew, Jodih, and we’ll all go back for seconds! She goin’ strong!”

Laughter drifted down from the second floor. The phone was ringing.

Rex staggered about on the sidewalk there, in the hot sun, reeling under the impact of all this nightmare. What could he do? Candy had flipped, she was doing it with every guy she vaguely even knew! A Plymouth van full of teenage boys pulled into Rex’s drive. He recognized the driver from church, but the boy didn’t recognize Rex.

“Is old lady Redman still up there putting out?” asked the callow, lightly mustached youth.

Rex put his briefcase down on the ground and took out the cumberquark. “You better get out of here, kid. I’m Mr. Redman.”

The van backed up rapidly and drove off. Rex could hear the excited boys whooping and laughing. Jody smiled down at him from the porch. Standing there in the high-noon moment, Rex could hear moans from upstairs. His wife; his wife having an orgasm with another man. This was just so—

“Poor Rex,” said Zee. “That Alf is awful. He’s not even from Earth.”

“Shut up, you bitch,” said Rex, starting up the steps.

“You gonna try and whup me?” Jody’s hands were large and callused. He was ready for a fight. In Jody’s trailerpark circles, fighting went with sex.

Rex spread the cumberquark out to the size of a washing machine and cut off its rotation. There was a lot of noise in his head: thumps and jabber. Jody rose up into a crouch. Rex lunged forward, spreading the cumberquark just a bit wider. For a frozen second there, the outer sphere surrounded Jody, and Rex cut the hyperflow on.

The surface was opaque fractal fuzz. You wouldn’t have known someone was inside if it hadn’t been for the wah-wah-wah sound of Jody’s screams, chopped into pulses by the hyperflow. The cumberquark rested solidly on the hole it had cut into the porch steps.

“You’re next, man,” Rex yelled to the platypus man looking out the front door. “I’m going to kill you, you preppy bastard!” With rapid movements of his bill and flippers, the banker got in his black Toyota truck and left. Rex turned Jody off to see what was what.

Not right. Edge-on to all normal dimensions, Jody was an annular cut-out, a slice of Halloween pumpkin. Rex eased him through another quarter turn and Jody was back on the steps. The cumberquark had stayed good and steady through all this—everything was back where it had started.

“How did it look, Jody?” Rex’s teeth were chattering.

“Unh.” For gasping Jody, Rex was no longer a person but rather a force of nature. Jody moved slowly down the steps talking to himself. “No nothin’ all inside out mah haid up mah butt just for snatch mah god—”

Rex shrank the cumberquark down a bit as Jody drove off. The VW and the MG were still there. How could Roland have done this to him? And who was the fourth guy?

The fourth guy was the real one, the lover a husband never sees. As Rex entered his house, the fourth man ran out the back door, looped around the house, and took off in his bug. Let him go. Rex went upstairs. Roland Brody was sitting on the edge of Rex and Candy’s bed looking chipper.

“Damn, Rex! I didn’t know Candy had it in her. I mean to tell you!” Roland fished his underpants off the floor and pulled them on. He was an old friend, an utterly charming man, tall and twitchy and with a profile like Thomas Jefferson on the nickel. A true Virginia gentleman. He had a deprecating way of tuning everything into a joke. Even now, it was hard to be angry with him. The VW’s popping faded, and Rex sank down into a chair. He was trembling all over. The cumberquark nestled soothingly in his lap.

Candy had the sheet pulled all the way up to her nose. Her big blue eyes peered over the top. “Don’t leave. Roland, I’m scared of what he’ll do. Can you forgive me, Rex? Alf made me do it.”

“Who’s this Alf fellow?” asked Roland, tucking the tail of his button-down shirt into his black pants. “Was he the guy in the VW?”

“You’re a bastard to have done it too, Roland,” said Rex.

“Hell, Rex. Wouldn’t you?”

The room reeked of sex. The jabbering was still in Rex’s head—a sound like a woman talking fast. All of a sudden he didn’t know what he was doing. He stretched the cumberquark out big and stopped and started it, turning big chunks of the room inside out. Part of the chair, circles of the floor, Candy’s dresser-top, a big piece of mattress. Roland tried to grab Rex, and Rex turned Roland’s forearm into pulp that fell to the floor. Candy was screaming bloody murder. Rex advanced on her, chunking the cumberquark on and off like a holepuncher, eating up their defiled bed. The womanvoice in his head was coming through Rex’s mouth.

“Better get out of her, Alf, better get out or your bod is gone, you crooked hiss from outspace, Alf, I’ll chunk you down, man, better split, Alf, better go or—”

“Stop!” yelled Candy. “Rex please stop!” Rex made the cumberquark go matter-transparent, and he slid it up over her legs. Candy’s face got that pixie look and Alf spoke.

“I’m only having fun,” he said. “Leave me alone, jerk. I’m your wife. I’m in here to stay.”

Then Rex knew what to do, he knew it like a math problem. He thought it fast with Zee, and she said yes.

Rex shrank the cumberquark real small and put it in his pocket. Poor Roland had collapsed on the floor. He was bleeding to death. Rex tied off Roland’s armstub with his necktie.

“Sorry, Roland. I’ll drive you to the hospital, man.”

“Damn, Rex, damn. Hurry.”

“That’s right,” said Alf/Candy. “Get out of here and leave me alone.”

The hospital wasn’t far. Rex dropped Roland at the emergency door and went back home. Instead of going in the front door he went in the basement door to sit in his study. There was no use talking to Candy before he got rid of Alf.

He took the cumberquark out of his pocket and set it down on his desk. Small, fast, flowy. He leaned over it and breathed. Hot bright Zee rode his breath out of his body and into the cumberquark. She could live there as well as in Rex. The little sphere lifted off Rex’s desk and buzzed around the study like a housefly. Zee had a way of pulsing its flow off and on to convert some of its 4-D momentum into antigravity. Now she stopped the quark’s flow entirely and inflated it out through Rex so that it held all of him except his feet. Rex hopped into the air, up into the big light bubble. It stuttered on when he was all in.

Rex’s sense inputs became a flicker. His room, his body, his room, his body, his room, his body…In between the two 3-D views were two prospects on hyperspace: ana and kata, black and white, heaven and hell. Room, ana, body, kata, room…The four images were shuffled together seamlessly, but only the room view mattered right now.

Zee shrank the cumberquark down to fly-size again. Rex felt the anti-gravity force as a jet from his spine. Thanks to the way Zee was pulsing the hyperflow, there was plenty of fresh air. They looped the loop, got a fix on things, and space-curved their way upstairs.

Candy/Alf didn’t notice them at first. She was lying still, staring at the ceiling. Rex/Zee hovered over her and then, before the woman could react, they zoomed down at her, shrinking small enough to enter her nose.

Pink cavern with blonde hairs, a dark tunnel at the back rush of wind, onward. No light in here, but Rex/Zee could see by the quark-light of the quantum strangeness. Oh Candy it’s nice in you. Me, kata, you, an, me, kata, you …

There was an evil glow in one of Candy’s lungs: Alf. He looked like a goblin, crouched there with pointed nose and ears. Rex/Zee bored right into him, wrapping his fibers around and around them, knotting him into their complex join.

And zoomed back out Candy’s nose, and got big again, and stopped.

Rex was standing in his bedroom. The ball that was Zee and Alf dipped in salute and sailed out the window.

Candy stood up and hugged Rex. They were still in love.

That winter Rex would get a new job, and they would leave Killeville, taking with them the children, a van of furniture, and the memory of this strange summer day.



Note on “Inside Out”

Written in Summer, 1986.

Synergy #1, HBJ Books, 1987.

In Lynchburg I rented an office in an empty, crumbling, kudzu-covered house owned by The Design Group, a commercial art office consisting of people who were friends of mine, and I got the notion to set a character into it.

This is the last of my Killeville stories, although the town does appear again in my alternate history novel, The Hollow Earth.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Instability
(Written with Paul Di Filippo)

Jack and Neal, loose and blasted, sitting on the steps of the ramshackle porch of Bill Burroughs’s Texas shack. Burroughs is out in the yard, catatonic in his orgone box, a copy of the Mayan codices in his lap. He’s already fixed M twice today. Neal is cleaning the seeds out of a shoebox full of maryjane. Time is thick and slow as honey. In the distance the rendering company’s noon whistle blows long, shrill and insistent. The rendering company is a factory where they cut up the cows that’re too diseased to ship to Chicago. Shoot and cut and cook to tallow and canned cancer consommé.

Burroughs rises to his feet like a figure in a well-greased Swiss clock. “There is scrabbling,” goes Bill. “There is scrabbling behind the dimensions. Bastards made a hole somewhere. You ever read Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space, Jack?”

“I read it in jail,” says Neal, secretly proud. “Dig, Bill, your mention of that document ties in so exactly with my most recent thought mode that old Jung would hop a hard-on.”

“Mhwee-heee-heee,” says Jack. “The Shadow knows.”

“I’m talking about this bomb foolishness,” harrumphs Burroughs, stalking stifflegged over to stand on the steps. “The paper on the floor in the roadhouse john last night said there’s a giant atom-bomb test taking place tomorrow at White Sands. They’re testing out the fucking ‘trigger bomb’ to use on that godawful new hydrogen bomb Edward Teller wants against the Rooshians. Pandora’s Box, boys, and we’re not talking cooze. That bomb’s going off in New Mexico tomorrow and right here and now the shithead meatflayers’ noon whistle is getting us all ready for World War Three, and if we’re all ready for that, then we’re by Gawd ready to be a great civilian army, yes, soldiers for Joe McCarthy and Harry J. Anslinger, poised to stomp out the reds ‘n’ queers ‘n’ dopefiends. Science brings us this. I wipe my queer junkie ass with science, boys. The Mayans had it aaall figured out a loooong time ago. Now take this von Neumann fella …”

“You mean Django Reinhardt?” goes Jack, stoned and rude. “Man, this is your life, their life, my life, a dog’s life, God’s life, the Life of Riley. The Army’s genius von Neumann of the desert, Bill, it was in the Sunday paper. Neal and I were rolling sticks on in Tuscaloosa, I just got an eidetic memory flash of it, you gone wigged cat, it was right before Neal nailed that cute Dairy Queen waitress with the Joan Crawford nose. She rimmed him and I watched.”

Neal goes: “Joan Crawford, Joan Crawfish, Joan Fishook, Joan Rawshanks in the fog. McVoutie!” He’s toking a hydrant roach and his jaywrapping fingers are laying rapid cable. Half the damn box is already twisted up.

Jack warps a brutal moodswing. There’s no wine. Ti Jack could use a widdly sup pour bon peek, like please, you ill cats, get me off this Earth…Is he saying this aloud, in front of Neal and Burroughs?

“And fuck the chicken giblets,” chortles Neal obscurely, joyously, in there, and then suggests, by actions as much as by words, is he really talking, Jack? “That we get back to what’s really important such as rolling up this here, ahem, um, urp, Mexican seegar, yes!”

Jack crabcakes slideways on fingertips and heels to Neal’s elbow and they begin to lovingly craft and fashion and croon upon and even it would not be too much to say give birth to a beautiful McDeVoutieful hairseeded twat of a reefer, the roach of which will be larger than any two normal sticks.

They get off good.

Meanwhile Bill Burroughs is slacked back in his rocker, refixed and not quite on the nod because he’s persistently irritated, both by the thought of the hydrogen bomb and, more acutely, by the flybuzz derry Times Square jive of the jabbering teaheads. Time passes, so very slow for Sal and Dean, so very fast for William Lee.

So Doctor Miracle and Little Richard are barreling along the Arizona highway, heading east Route 40 out of Vegas, their pockets full of silver cartwheels from the grinds they’ve thimblerigged and also wallets bulging with the high-denom bills they demanded when cashing in their chips after beating the bank at the roulette wheels of six different casinos with their unpatented probabilistic scams that are based on the vectors of neutrons through six inches of lead as transferred by spacetime Feynman diagrams to the workings of those rickety-clickety simple-ass macroscopic systems of ball and slots.

Doctor Miracle speaks. He attempts precision, to compensate for the Hungarian accent and for the alcohol-induced spread in bandwidth.

“Ve must remember to zend Stan Ulam a postcard from Los Alamos, reporting za zuccess of his Monte Carlo modeling method.”

“It woulda worked even better over in Europe,” goes Little Richard. “They got no double-zero slots on their wheels.”

Doctor Miracle nods sagely. He’s a plump guy in his fifties: thinning hair, cozy chin, faraway eyes. He’s dressed in a double-breasted suit, with a bright hulagirl necktie that’s wide as a pound of bacon.

Little Richard is younger, skinnier, more Jewish, and he has a thick pompadour. He’s wearing baggy khakis and a white tee-shirt with a pack of Luckies rolled up in the left sleeve.

It is not immediately apparent that these two men are ATOMIC WIZARDS, QUANTUM SHAMANS, PLUTONIUM PROPHETS, and BE-BOPPIN’ A-BOMB PEEAITCHDEES!

Doctor Miracle, meet Richard Feynman. Little Richard, say hello to Johnny von Neumann!

There is a case of champagne sitting on the rear seat in between them. Each of the A-scientists has an open bottle from which he swigs, while their car, a brand-new 1950 big-finned land-boat of a two-toned populuxe pink’n’green Caddy, speeds along the highway.

There is no one driving. The front seat is empty.

Von Neumann, First Anointed Master of Automata, has rigged up the world’s premier autopilot, you dig. He never could drive very well, and now he doesn’t have to. Fact is, no one has to! The Caddy has front-and-side-mounted radar which feeds into a monster contraption in the trunk, baby cousin to Weiner and Ulam’s Los Alamos MANIAC machine, a thing all vacuum tubes and cams, all cogs and Hollerith sorting rods, a mechanical brain that transmits cybernetic impulses directly to the steering, gas and brake mechanisms.

The Trilateral Commission has ruled that the brain in the Cad’s trunk is too cool for Joe Blow, way too cool, and the self-driving car isn’t going to make it to the assembly line ever. The country only needs a few of these supercars and this one has been set aside for the use and utmost ease for the two genius-type riders who wish to discuss high quantum-physical, metamathematical, and cybernetic topics without the burden of paying attention to the road. Johnny and Dickie’s periodic Alamos to Vegas jaunts soak up a lot of the extra nervous tension these important bomb-builders suffer from.

“So whadda ya think of my new method for scoring showgirls?” asks Feynman.

“Dickie, although za initial trials vere encouraging, ve must have more points on the graph before ve can extrapolate,” replies von Neumann. He looks sad. “You may haff scored, you zelfish little prick, but I—I did not achieve satisfactory sexual release. Far from it.”

“Waaall,” drawls Feynman, “I got a fave niteclub in El Paso where the girls are hotter’n gamma rays and pretty as parity conservation. You’ll get what you need for sure, Johnny. We could go right instead of left at Albuquerque and be there before daylight. Everyone at Los Alamos’ll be busy with the White Sands test anyway. Security won’t look for us till Monday, and by then we’ll be back, minus several milliliters of semen.”

“El Paso,” mutters von Neumann, taking a gadget out of his inner jacket pocket. It’s…THE FIRST POCKET CALCULATOR! Thing’s half the size of a volume of the Britannica, with Bakelite buttons, and what makes it truly hot is that it’s got all the road-distances from the Rand McNally Road Atlas databased onto the spools of a small wire-recorder inside. Von Neumann’s exceedingly proud of it, and although he could run the algorithm faster in his head, he plugs their present speed and location into the device, calls up the locations of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, El Paso and Los Alamos, and proceeds to massage the data.

“You’re qvite right, Dickie,” he announces presently, still counting the flashes of the calculator’s lights. “Ve can do as you say and indeed eefen return to za barracks before Monday zunrise. Venn is za test scheduled, may I ask?”

“8:00 A. M. Sunday morning.”

Von Neumann’s mouth broadens in a liverlipped grin. “How zynchronistic. Ve’ll be passing White Sands just zen. I haff not vittnessed a bomb-test since Trinity. And zis is za biggest one yet; zis bomb is, as you know Dickie, za Ulam cascade initiator for za new hydrogen bomb. I’m for it! Let me reprogram za brain!”

Feynman crawls over the front seat while the car continues its mad careening down the dizzy interstate, passing crawling tourist Buicks and mom’n’dad Studebakers. He lugs the case of champagne into the front with him. Von Neumann removes the upright cushion in the back seat and pries off the panel, exposing the brain in the trunk. Consulting his calculator from time to time, von Neumann begins reprogramming the big brain by yanking switchboard-type wires and reinserting them.

“I’m tired of plugging chust metal sockets, Richard. Viz za next girl, I go first.”

Now it’s night and the stoned beats are drunk and high on bennies, too. Neal, his face all crooked, slopes through Burroughs’s shack and picks Bill’s car keys off the dresser in the dinette where Joan is listening to the radio and scribbling on a piece of paper. Crossing the porch, thievishly heading for the Buick, Neal thinks Bill doesn’t see, but Bill does.

Burroughs, the beat morphinist whose weary disdain has shaded catastrophically with the benzedrine and alcohol into fried impatience, draws the skeletized sawed-off shotgun from the tube of hidden gutterpipe that this same Texafied Burroughs has suspended beneath a large hole drilled in the eaten wood of his porch floor. He fires a 12-gauge shotgun blast past Neal and into Neal’s cleaned and twisted box of maryjane, barely missing Jack.

Whew, no doubt,” goes Neal, tossing Burroughs the keys.

“Have ye hard drink, mine host?” goes Jack, trying to decide if the gun really went off or not. “Perhaps a pint of whiskey in the writing-desk, old top? A spot of sherry?”

“To continue my afternoon fit of thought,” says Burroughs, pocketing his keys, “I was talking about thermonuclear destruction and about the future of all humanity, which species has just about been squashed to spermacetae in the rictal mandrake spasms of Billy Sunday’s pimpled ass-cheeks.” He pumps another shell into the shotgun’s chamber. His eyes are crazed goofball pinpoints. “I am sorry I ever let you egregious dopesuckin’ latahs crash here. I mean you especially, jailbird conman Cassady.”

Neal sighs and hunkers down to wail on the bomber Jack’s lit off a smoldering scrap of shotgun wadding. Before long he and Jack are far into a rap, possibly sincere, possibly jive, a new rap wrapped around the concept that the three hipsters assembled here on the splintery porch ‘neath the gibbous prairie moon have formed or did or will form or, to be quite accurate, were forming and still are forming right then and there, an analogue of those Holy B-Movie Goofs, THE THREE STOOGES!

“Yes,” goes Jack, “Those Doomed Saints of Chaos, loosed on the workadaddy world to scramble the Charles Dickens cark and swink of BLOOEY YER FIRED, those Stooge Swine are the anarchosyndicalist truly wigged submarxists, Neal man, bikkhu Stooges goosing ripe assmelons and eating fried chicken for supper. We are the Three Stooges.”

“Bill is Moe,” says Neal, hot on the beam, batting his eyes at Bill, who wonders if it’s time to shed his character-armor. “Mister Serious Administerer of Fundament Punishments and Shotgun Blasts, and me with a Lederhosen Ass!”

“Ah you, Neal,” goes Jack, “You’re Curly, angelic madman saint of the uncaught motebeam flybuzz fly!”

“And Kerouac is Larry,” rheums Burroughs, weary with the knowledge. “Mopple-lipped, lisped, muxed and completely flunk is the phrase, eh Jack?”

“Born to die,” goes Jack. “We’re all born to die, and I hope it do be cool, Big Bill, if we goam take yo cah. Vootie-oh-oh.” He holds out his hand for the keys.

“Fuck it,” says Bill. “Who needs this noise.” He hands Jack the keys and before you know it, Neal’s at the wheel of the two-ton black Buick, gunning that straight eight mill and burping the clutch. Jack’s at his side and they’re on the road with a long honk goodbye.

In the night there’s reefer and plush seats and the radio, and Neal is past spaced, off in his private land that few but Jack and Alan can see. He whips the destination on Jack.

“This car is a frontrow seat to the A-blast.”

“What.”

“We’ll ball this jack to White Sands, New Mexico, dear Jack, right on time for the bombtest Sunday, 8 A. M. I stole some of Bill’s M, man, we’ll light up on it.”

In Houston they stop and get gas and wine and benny and Bull Durham cigarette papers and keep flying West.

Sometime in the night Jack starts to fade in and out of horror dreams. There’s a lot of overtime detox dreamwork that he’s logged off of too long. One time he’s dreaming he’s driving to an atom bomb test in a stolen car, which is of course true, and then after that he’s dreaming he’s the dead mythic character in black and white that he’s always planned to be. Not to mention the dreams of graves and Memere and the endless blood sausages pulled out of Jack’s gullet by some boffable blonde’s sinister boyfriend …

”…been oh rock and roll gospelled in on the bomb foolishness …” Neal is going when Jack screams and falls off the back seat he’s stretched out on. There’s hard wood and metal on the floor. ”…and Jack you do understand, buckeroo, that I have hornswoggled you into yet another new and unprecedentedly harebrained swing across the dairy fat of her jane’s spreadness?”

“Go,” goes Jack feebly, feeling around on the backseat floor. Short metal barrel, lightly oiled. Big flat disk of a magazine. Fuckin’ crazy Burroughs. It’s a Thompson submachinegun Jack’s lying on.

“And, ah Jack, man, I knew you’d know past the suicidal norm, Norm, that it was…DeVoutie!” Neal fishes a Bakelite ocarina out of his shirt pocket and tootles a thin, horrible note. “Goof on this, Jack, I just shot M and now I’m so high I can drive with my eyes closed.”

Giggling Leda Atomica tugs at the shoulders of her low-cut peasant blouse with the darling petitpoint floral embroidery, trying to conceal the vertiginous depths of her cleavage, down which Doctor Miracle is attempting to pour flat champagne. What a ride this juicy brunette is having!

Leda had been toking roadside Albuquerque monoxide till 11:55 this Saturday night, thumb outstretched and skirt hiked up to midthigh, one high-heel foot perched on a little baby-blue handcase with nylons’n’bra-straps trailing from its crack. Earlier that day she’d parted ways with her employer, an Okie named Oather. Leda’d been working at Oather’s juke-joint as a waitress and as a performer. Oather had put her in this like act wherein she strutted on the bar in highheels while a trained swan untied the strings of her atomgirl costume, a cute leatherette two-piece with conical silver lamé titcups and black shorts patterned in intersecting friendly-atom ellipses. Sometimes the swan bit Leda, which really pissed her off. Saturday afternoon, the swan had escaped from his pen, wandered out onto the road and been mashed by a semi full of hogs.

“That was the only bird like that in Arizona,” yelled Oather. “Why dintcha latch the pen?”

“Maybe people would start payin’ to watch you lick my butt,” said Leda evenly. “It’s about all you’re good for, limpdick.”

Et cetera.

Afternoon and early evening traffic was sparse. The drivers that did pass were all upstanding family men in sensible Plymouths, honest salesmen too tame for the tasty trouble Leda’s bod suggested.

Standing there at the roadside, Leda almost gave up hope. But then, just before midnight, the gloom parted and here comes some kind of barrel-assing Necco-wafer-colored Caddy!

When the radars hit Leda’s boobs and returned their echoes to the control mechanism, the cybernetic brain nearly had an aneurysm. Not trusting Feynman’s promises, von Neumann had hardwired the radars for just such a tramp-girl eventuality, coding hitch-hiking Jane Russell T&A parameters into the electronic brain’s very circuits. The Caddy’s headlights started blinking like a fellaheen in a sandstorm, concealed sirens went off, and Roman candles mounted on the rear bumper discharged, shooting rainbow fountains of glory into the night.

“SKIRT ALERT!” whooped Doctor Miracle and Little Richard.

Before Leda knew what was happening, the cybernetic Caddy had braked at her exact spot. The rear door opened, Leda and her case were snatched on in, and the car roared off, the wind of its passage scattering the tumbleweeds like dust.

Leda knew she was hooked up with some queer fellas as soon as she noticed the empty driver’s seat.

She wasn’t reassured by their habit of reciting backwards all the signs they passed.

“Pots!”

“Egrem!”

“Sag!”

But soon Leda took a shine to Doctor Miracle and Little Richard. Their personalities grew on her in direct proportion to the amount of bubbly she downed. By the time they hit Truth or Consequences, N. M., they’re scattin’ to the cool sounds of Wagner’s Nibelungenlied on the long-distance radio, and Johnny is trying to baptize her tits.

“Dleiy!” croons Doctor Miracle.

“Daeha thgil ciffart!” goes Feynman, all weaseled in on Leda’s other side.

“Kcuf em won syob!” says Leda, who’s gone seven dry weeks without the straight-on loving these scientists are so clearly ready to provide.

So they pull into the next tourist cabins and get naked and find out what factorial three really means. I mean…do they get it on or what? Those stagfilm stars Candy Barr and Smart Alec have got nothing on Leda, Dickie and Doctor Miracle! Oh baby!

And then it’s near dawn and they have breakfast at a greasy spoon, and then they’re on Route 85 South. Johnny’s got the brain programmed to drive them right to the 7:57 A. M. White Sands spacetime coordinate; he’s got the program tweaked down to the point where the Cad will actually cruise past ground zero and nestle itself behind the observation bunker, leaving them ample time to run inside and join the other top bomb boys.

Right before the turnoff to the White Sands road, von Neumann decides that things are getting dull.

“Dickie, activate the jacks!”

“Yowsah!”

Feynman leans over the front seat and flips a switch that’s breadboarded into the dash. The car starts to buck and rear like a wild bronco, its front and tail alternately rising and plunging. It’s another goof of the wondercaddy—von Neumann has built B-52 landing gear in over the car’s axles.

As the Caddy porpoises down the highway, its three occupants are laughing and falling all over each other, playing grabass, champagne spilling from an open bottle.

Suddenly, without warning, an OOGA-OOGA klaxon starts to blare.

“Collision imminent,” shouts von Neumann.

“Hold onto your tush!” advises Feynman.

“Be careful,” screams Leda and wriggles to the floor.

Feynman manages to get a swift glimpse of a nightblack Buick driving down the two-lane road’s exact center, heading straight towards them. No one is visible in the car.

Then the road disappears, leaving only blue sky to fill the windshield. There is a tremendous screech and roar of ripping metal, and the Caddy shudders slowly to a stop.

When Feynman and von Neumann peer out their rear window they see the Buick stopped back there. It is missing its entire roof, which lies crumpled in the road behind it.

For all Neal’s bragging, M’s not something he’s totally used to. He has to stop and puke a couple of times in El Paso, early early with the sky going white. There’s no sympathy from Jack, ‘cause Jack picked up yet another bottle of sweet wine outside San Antone and now he’s definitely passed. Neal has the machinegun up in the front seat with him; he knows he ought to put it in the trunk in case the cops ever pull them over, but the dapperness of the weapon is more than Neal can resist. He’s hoping to get out in the desert with it and blow away some cacti.

North of Las Cruces the sun is almost up and Neal is getting a bad disconnected feeling; he figures it’s the morphine wearing off and decides to fix again. He gets a syrette out of the Buick’s glove compartment and skinpops it. Five more miles and the rosy flush is on him, he feels better than he’s felt all night. The flat empty dawn highway is a gray triangle that’s driving the car. Neal gets the idea he’s a speck of paint on a perspective painting; he decides it would be cool to drive lying down. He lies down sideways on the driver’s seat, and when he sees that it works he grins and closes his eyes.

The crash tears open the dreams of Jack and Neal like some ravening fatman’s can-opener attacking oily smoked sardines. They wake up in a world that’s horribly different.

Jack’s sluggish and stays in the car, but Neal is out on the road doing dance incantation trying to avoid the death that he feels so thick in the air. The Thompson submachinegun is in his hand and he is, solely for the rhythm, you understand, firing it and raking the landscape, especially his own betraying Buick, though making sure the fatal lead is only in the lower parts, e.g. tires as opposed to sleepy Jack back seat or gastank, and, more especially than that, he’s trying to keep himself from laying a steel-jacketed flat horizontal line of lead across the hapless marshmallow white faces of the rich boys in the Cadillac. They have a lownumber government license plate. Neal feels like Cagney in White Heat, possessed by total crazed rage against authority, ready for a maddog last-stand showdown that can culminate only in a fireball of glorious fuck-you-copper destruction. But there’s only two of them here to kill. Not enough to go to the chair for. Not yet, no matter how bad the M comedown feels. Neal shoots lead arches over them until the gun goes to empty clicks.

Slowly, black Jack opens the holey Buick door, feeling God it’s so horrible to be alive. He vomits on the meaningless asphalt. The two strange men in the Cadillac give off the scent of antilife evil, a taint buried deep in their bonemarrow, like strontium 90 in mother’s milk. Bent down wiping his mouth and stealing an outlaw look at them, Jack flashes that these new guys have picked up their heavy death-aura from association with the very earth-frying, retina-blasting allbomb that he and Neal are being ineluctably drawn to by cosmic forces that Jack can see, as a matter of fact, ziggy lines sketched out against the sky as clear as any peyote mandala.

“Everyone hates me but Jesus,” says Neal, walking over to the Cadillac, spinning the empty Thompson around his callused thumb. “Everyone is Jesus but me.”

“Hi,” says Feynman. “I’m sorry we wrecked your car.”

Leda rises up from the floor between von Neumann’s legs, a fact not lost on Neal.

“We’re on our way to the bombtest,” croaks Jack, lurching over.

“Ve helped invent the bomb,” says von Neumann. “Ve’re rich and important men. Of course ve vill pay reparations and additionally offer you a ride to the test, ezpecially since you didn’t kill us.”

The Cadillac is obediently idling in park, its robot-brain having retracted the jacks and gone into standby mode after the oilpan-scraping collision. Neal mimes a widemouthed blowjob of the hot tip of the Thompson, flashes Leda an easy smile, slings the gun out into the desert, and then he and shuddery Jack clamber into the Cad’s front seat. Leda, with her trademark practicality, climbs into the front seat with them and gives them a bottle of champagne. She’s got the feeling these two brawny drifters can take her faster farther than science can.

Von Neumann flicks the RESET cyberswitch in the rearseat control panel, and the Cad rockets forward, pressing them all back into the deep cushioned seats. Neal fiddles with the steering-wheel, fishtailing the Cad this way and that, then observes, “Seems like this tough short’s got a mind of its own.”

“Zis car’s brobably as smart as you are,” von Neumann can’t help observing. Neal lets it slide. 7:49.

The Cad makes a hard squealing right turn onto the White Sands access road. There’s a checkpoint further on; but the soldiers recognize von Neumann’s wheels and wave them right on through.

Neal fires up a last reefer and begins beating out a rhythm on the dash with his hands, grooving to the pulse of the planet, his planet awaiting its savior. Smoke trickles out of his mouth; he shotguns Leda, breathing the smoke into her mouth, wearing the glazed eyes of a mundane gnostic messiah, hip to a revelation of the righteous road to salvation. Jack’s plugged in too, sucking his last champagne, telepathy-rapping with Neal. It’s almost time, and Doctor Miracle and Little Richard are too confused to stop it.

A tower rears on the horizon off to the left and all at once the smart Cad veers off the empty two-lane road and rams its way through a chain-link fence. Nerve-shattering scraping and lumbering thumps.

“Blease step on za gas a bit,” says von Neumann, unsurprised. He programmed this shortcut in. “I still vant to go under za tower, but is only three minutes remaining. Za program is undercompensating for our unfortunate lost time.” It is indeed 7:57.

Neal drapes himself over the wheel now, stone committed to this last holy folly. Feeling a wave of serene, yet exultant resignation, Jack says, “Go.” It’s almost all over now, he thinks, the endless roving and raging, brawling and fucking, the mad flights back and forth across and up and down the continent, the urge to get it all down on paper, every last feeling and vision in master-sketch detail, because we’re all gonna die one day, man, all of us—

The Caddy, its sides raked of paint by the torn fence, hurtles on like God’s own thunderbolt messenger, over pebbles and weeds, across the desert and the sloping glass craters of past tests. The tower is right ahead. 7:58.

“Get ready, Uncle Sam,” whispers Neal. “We’re coming to cut your balls off. Hold the boys down, Jack.”

Jack bodyrolls over the seat back into the laps of Feynman and von Neumann. Can’t have those mad scientists fiddle with the controls while Neal’s pulling his cool automotive move!

Leda still thinks she’s on a joyride and cozies up to Neal’s biceps, and for a second it’s just the way it’s supposed to be, handsome hardrapping Neal at the wheel of a big old bomb with a luscious brunette squeezed up against him like gum.

And now, before the guys in back can do much of anything, Neal’s clipped through the tower’s southern leg. As the tower starts to collapse, Neal, flying utterly on extrasensory instincts, slows just enough to pick up the bomb, which has been jarred prematurely off its release hook.

No Fat Boy, this gadget represents the ultimate to date in miniaturization: it’s only about as big as a fifty-gallon oildrum, and about as weighty. It crunches down onto the Caddy’s roof, bulging bent metal in just far enough to brush the heads of the riders.

And no, it doesn’t go off. Not yet. 7:59.

Neal aims the mighty Cad at the squat concrete bunker one mile off. This is an important test, the last step before the H-bomb, and all the key assholes are in there, every atomic brain in the free world, not to mention dignitaries and politicians aplently, all come to witness this proof of Amerikkkan military superiority, all those shitnasty fuckheads ready to kill the future.

King Neal floors it and does a cowboy yodel, Jack is laughing and elbowing the scientists, Leda’s screaming luridly, Dickie is talking too fast to understand, and Johnny is—8:00.

They impact the bunker at 80 mph, folding up accordian-style, but not feeling it, as the mushroom blooms, and the atoms of them and the assembled bigwigs commingle in the quantum instability of the reaction event. Time forks.

Somewhere, somewhen, there now exists an Earth where there are no nuclear arsenals, where nations do not waste their substance on missiles and bombs, where no one wakes up thinking each morning might be the world’s last—an Earth where two high, gone wigged cats wailed and grooved and ate up the road and Holy Goofed the world off its course.

For you and me.



Note on “Instability” (Written with Paul Di Filippo)

Written 1986-1987.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September, 1988.

I wrote the first page or two of “Instability” in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then I didn’t see where to go with it. Paul Di Filippo was putting out a zine called Astral Avenue, and on a whim I sent Paul the start of “Instability” to print as a “Write A Story With Rudy Rucker” contest. Nobody at all entered! But then Paul got into it and added a few pages, and we mailed it back and forth until it was done. I didn’t actually meet Paul in person until 1998.

Richard Feynman was still alive when we wrote “Instability,” so we called his character “Richard Lernmore” in the first publication.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

The Man Who Was a Cosmic String

As an acute-care doctor in San Francisco, I have seen many strange things. Perhaps I’ve turned a bit strange myself. I work at a clinic twelve hours a week; I live alone; I wear my head shaved; I speak softly; I am a morphine addict; I am Jewish; I do not have AIDS. I am my own man, but I have turned strange and stranger since I met the man who was a cosmic string.

It happened two weeks ago, in late November. It had been a long, sun-drenched day over the chocked pastel city of my birth. I was idle at home, staring out the attic window. The phone rang; it was one of my patients from the clinic. Her husband was sick. Yes, she understood I was off-duty, but could I come in a private capacity? If only as a friend. Her husband was taken very bad. She would give me a gold coin. Please come right away.

The woman’s name was Bei-na Id. She was from Chaotiskan, a tiny island republic off the Thai-Burmese isthmus of Kra. I had treated Bei-na for numerous small complaints; she was something of a hypochondriac. Her English was odd, but comprehensible. Once she’d passed gas while talking to me. We’d ignored it, but it was something I usually thought of when I talked to her: popcorn fart. Of her husband I knew nothing. They lived in the Mission, a short bus-ride away.

I agreed to come.

It was growing dark when I got to the Id home, a tiny houselet on the back of a lot. It was a converted garage. TV light flickered from behind drawn curtains. I knocked and Bei-na came quickly to the door.

“Thank you for come, Doctor. My husband is sick two days.”

“Yes.”

Standing just inside the front door, holding the black lunch-box that I use for a medical bag, I could see the entire house. Here was the living/dining-room with two tiny girls watching TV and a boy on the couch doing homework. The children were long and pale, paler than Bei-na. Perhaps her husband was American. My imagination raced: a failed priest, a renegade vet, a retired smuggler? How big would the gold coin be?

Straight ahead was the kitchen and laundry room. A fourth child stood by the sink: a smooth perfect teenage girl, her skin like dirty ivory. The children all ignored me, letting social custom replace the walls their house lacked. The TV was turned down very low. I could hear the dishes clunking beneath the sinkwater, I could hear the chugging motor of the fridge. There was another sound as well, an odd, sputtery hiss. I looked alertly at Bei-na, waiting for info. The less I say, the more my patients tell me.

Bei-na was a short woman with prominent cheekbones and the kind of pointed glasses that lower middle-class white women used to wear. Like a cartoon coolie’s, her head was a blunt yellow cone spreading out from her neck. She seemed worried, but also somewhat elated, perhaps at having gotten a doctor to come to her home. The hissing was definitely coming from behind the bedroom door. I wondered if her husband were psychotic. I imagined him crouched behind the door, mad-eyed with a machete. But no, surely not, the children were acting calm and safe.

“He been sick like this before, Doctor. When I find him first time on beach, he sick like this very bad three day and three night. My father cure him, but that medicine is all gone.”

“Well, let’s have a look at him. What’s his name?”

“We call him Filbert. You sure you ready to see? Let me get gold coin right now be fair.”

“Yes.”

Bei-na spoke to her children in sliding slangy phonemes. The boy on the couch got up, turned off the TV, and herded his small sisters to the kitchen. The girl at the sink gave me a sudden amused smile. Her gums were bright red. I wondered how a girl like that would smell, wet red and dirty ivory, so unlike her tired yellow popcorn fart mother who now pressed into my hand the smallest disk that I have ever heard called a “coin.” It was the size of one of those paper circles that a hole-puncher makes. I pocketed it, wondering if I would be able to get it home without losing it. Bei-na opened the bedroom door.

There is a drawing by M. C. Escher called Rind. It shows a rind, or ribbon, that curls around and around in a roughly helical pattern. The rind is bumpy, and its bumps sketch the surface of a human head. The wrappy rind is a helix head with spaces in it. One can see clouds and sky through the spaces.

Filbert Id was designed along similar lines. Each part of his body was a tight-wrapped spindle of dirty white fiber, as if he were a Michelin Man mummy with swathing-cloths of narrow narrow skin. There were no spaces between the successive loops of cosmic string. No spaces, that is, until I made my first error.

Leaning over Filbert Id’s dimly lit bed, my initial impression was that his skin was very wrinkled. His hissing grew louder the closer I got. The noise was fretful and intricate. Bei-na, seeming to extract sense from it, spoke softly to Filbert in her own tongue, but to no avail. He seemed terrified of me, and he held up his axially grooved arms as if to push me away. If I say that the grooves were axial, rather than annular or longitudinal, I mean that they went around and around his head, neck, fingers, arms, chest, etc., like latitude lines.

I leaned closer.

Although Filbert’s face contained the appearance of lips, his mouth did not open. Yet how loudly he hissed! I was medically curious about his means for producing the noise without opening his mouth. Could it be that he had a punctured lung? A cancer in the passages of his sinus? A missing tympanum and a hypertrophic Eustachian tube?

I felt a fine scientific impatience with Filbert’s panic. I pushed his arms out of the way and leaned very close to his face. I was struck by three things. His face held a strong electric charge (a spark jumped between us); his face did not radiate warmth; he was not breathing. Indeed—I peered closer—his nostrils were but molded dents, entirely occluded by what seemed to be flaps of Filbert’s dirty, fibrous skin. The man was suffocating!

I set my black metal box on the bedside table and took out swab, tongue depressor and rubbing alcohol. Clearly my first task was to clean out Filbert’s buccal and nasal cavities. Filbert’s eyes, I have omitted to mention, were matte black slits; I had thought they were closed. Yet as I opened my kit, laying out my syringe as well, Filbert moved his head as if he were looking things over. At the sight of the needle, he redoubled his hissings and his gesticulations. Fortunately he was in no condition to rise from his bed.

“Tell him to calm down,” I ordered Bei-na.

She made some bell noises; he hissed the harder.

“He very scared you break him.”

“He needs to breathe, doesn’t he?”

“I don’t know. “

“I’ll give him a sedative.”

Sedative. Lovely calm word. I myself was ready for my evening injection of morphine, for some morphine and for some fine classical music. This Chaotiskani nonsense was taking entirely too long.

I filled a syringe with morphine solution and stood back like a matador awaiting the moment of truth. I kept one hand in front of my upright syringe, so as not to alarm the patient. He thrashed and hissed…to no avail. I came in over his left forearm and pushed my needle into his chest.

It was only last week that I happened on a popular article about cosmic strings. Till then I had no language for what happened after I stuck the needle in Filbert Id.

At a certain large scale, our universe is structured like a foam of soap-bubbles. All ordinary matter is confined to the “soap films;” the galaxies are specks of color on mathematical sheets surrounding huge voids.

Why are the bubbles empty? Because each of these space voids has at its center a huge, tangled loop of cosmic string.

What is a cosmic string? A line-like spacetime flaw analogous to the point-like flaws called black holes.

How do the cosmic strings empty the bubbles? Each void’s central string is a closed, superconducting loop. Vast energies surge along each loop, and the endless eddying stirs up waves that push us all away.

The strings are probably talking to each other, even if they don’t know it. Even if they don’t care.

One theory I have is that they’re larvae, and that Filbert hatched when I poked him open. My image is this: Think of the stars as pollen on the surface of a quiet pond. There are eggs on the surface, too, and the eggs turn into larvae that are the cosmic strings. The larvae wiggle and jerk, and their waves push the star pollen back, forming it into a honeycomb of 2-D cells.

Either Filbert fell from the sky, which I doubt, or the strings are working at a new level, our level, yours and mine.

When I stuck my needle in Filbert Id, the man who was a cosmic string, his tight pattern came unsprung. Radiation surged out of his hollow inside, knocking me back and blowing the ceiling off the Ids’ bedroom.

I was briefly blinded. I am not sure what I really saw, in the shock and confusion and lack of words. “Loony Loop,” is the phrase I caught first. Loony Loop is a puzzle where you try to untangle a loop of blue nylon string from a multiple-looped pattern of chromesteel wire. Filbert Id came unsprung and turned into an enormous Loony Loop. I saw him doing it, and it made me radiation-sick. The loop hissed and buzzed, and then it tumbled rapidly upwards into the night sky.

Filbert Id hatched and flew away, leaving me with a loaded morphine syringe in my hand. With practiced speed, I injected the morphine intravenously. This was my second error.

How strong was the radiation? Bei-na died in my arms a half-hour later. Her children’s hair fell out, but they are on the mend. We left the ruined house together that night. Bei-na’s daughter, Wu-wei, has become my lover, which has eased the pain of these my last two weeks.

If this be my last will and testament, I bequeath all to dear Wu-wei, to her wet red, to her dirty ivory, to her brother Bo, and to her sisters Li and Le.

Cosmic string, larvae, Loony Loop, Wu-wei. These are the words that synchronistic Providence puts in my pen. My race is run beneath this sun.

With morphine, and only with morphine, the radiation-sickness has been bearable. But radiation-sickness is not the issue anymore. What is going to kill me—and quite soon—is something that I noticed this morning. My skin is grooved in axial rings, as skritchy as the surface of an Alva Edison cylindrical LP.

I shared a needle with Filbert two weeks ago, and what took him is ready to take me. I forbore the noon injection, but now it’s dusk and I’m hissing.

It’s time for the needle’s last prick. I’ll kiss Wu-wei goodbye and go outside to do it, to unspring and fall into the sky, a cosmic string.



Note on “The Man Who Was a Cosmic String”

Written in Spring, 1987.

The Universe, Bantam Books, 1987.

This was the first story I wrote after moving to California in the summer of 1986. The character is obliquely modeled on the science-fiction writer Michael Blumlein, who is indeed a doctor, though with none of the bad habits that the story character has. Blumlein has a very calm, serene way of expressing himself; this was the aspect of him that I tried to capture in this story.

I met Michael at a party in the apartment of Richard Kadrey and Pat Murphy in San Francisco. Marc Laidlaw was there as well. It was thrill to fall into so literary a scene. Right at this time I was helping Peter Lamborn Wilson edit the science-fiction anthology called Semiotext[e] SF, and we ended up including stories by Kadrey, Laidlaw and Blumlein. Michael sent us “Shed His Grace,” a story about a man who castrates himself while watching videos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan! The anthology sold out its first printing in a few weeks.

I got the name “Filbert Id” from a dream that Marc Laidlaw told me.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Probability Pipeline
(Written with Marc Laidlaw)

The trouble started in Surf City, and it ended in another dimension.

Delbert was loud and spidery; Zep was tall and absent and a year older. Being in different grades, they didn’t see each other much in the winters, but in the summers they were best friends on and off the beach. When Zep graduated, he spent a year at UC Santa Cruz before drugging out—he said he’d overfed his head. Delbert didn’t like drugs, so when he graduated he didn’t bother going to college at all. Now it was summer all year long.

It was November in Surf City and the pipeline was coming in steady. For the last few weeks they’d been without a surfboard, though these days the word was “stick,” not “board,” meaning Del and Zep were stickless. The way this particular bummer had come down was that Del had been bragging about his escape from a great white shark, and no one had believed him, so maximum Zep had cut a big sharkbite shape out of the dinged longboard he and Delbert shared, and still no one had believed. Basically Zep had thrashed the board for nothing, but at least Delbert was able to sell it to the Pup-Tent, a surfer snack shop where his girl Jen worked—not that Jen was really Delbert’s girl in any intense physical sense of the word, and not that the Pup-Tent had actually paid anything for the shark-bit board that Delbert had mounted on the wall over the cash register. But it looked rad up there.

Often, in the mid-morning, when things were slow at the Pup-Tent, Jen would grill Zep and Delbert some burgers, and the three of them would sit on the bench out in front of the Pup-Tent, staring through their shades at the bright, perfect sky, or at the cars and people going by, or across the street at the cliffs and the beach and the endlessly various Pacific ocean, dotted with wet-suited surfers. Zep sat on the left, Jen on the right, and Delbert in the middle; Delbert usually talking, either rapping off what he saw or telling one of his long, bogus stories, like about the time when he’d been flying a kite on the beach and a Coast Guard plane had swooped down low enough to suck his kite into its jet and he’d been pulled out to sea about half a mile, dangling twenty feet above the water until he’d flashed to let loose of the string.

One particular day that November, Delbert was telling Jen about a book on hypnotism he’d read the day before, and how last night he’d tried to activate Zep’s thrashed genius by putting Zep in a trance and telling him he was a great scientist and asking him to invent invisibility.

“He did that, Zep?” asked Jen, briefly interested. “Did it work?”

“I, uh, I…thought of peroxide,” said Zep. Peroxide was a big thing with Zep; he’d stripped his hair so often that its color was faintly ultraviolet. When Zep felt like somebody might understand him, he’d talk a lot about the weird science stuff he’d learned at Santa Cruz, but just now he wasn’t quite on.

“We put seven coats of it on a sheet of paper,” said Delbert, “and for a second we thought it was working, but it was really just the paper falling apart.”

“Oxo wow,” said Jen, suddenly pointing out at the horizon. “Outsider.” That was the traditional word for a big wave. “Far outsider…and ohmigod!…like …” Jen often ended her sentences that way, with a “like” and a gesture. This time it was her Vanna White move: both hands held out to the left side of her body, left hand high and right hand low, both hands palms up. She was watching one of the Stoke Pilgrims out there carve the outsider.

It was Lex Loach—Delbert could recognize him from the red-and-white checkerboard pattern on his wet suit. Loach executed a last nifty vertical snap, shot up off the face of the ripped outsider, and flew through the air, his wing squash turbo board glued to his feet by the suction cups on his neoprene booties.

Jen sighed and slowly turned her hands palms down. The Vanna White move, if done with the hands palms down, was known as Egyptian Style. Jen gave Delbert a sarcastic little neck-chop with her stiff left hand. “I wish you could ride, Delbert. I wish you had a stick.”

“This surf’s mush, Jen. Dig it, I saw a tidal wave when I was a kid. I was with my dad on Hawaii, and this volcano blew up, and the next minute all the water went out to sea and formed a gigantic—” He held out his arms as if to embrace a weather balloon.

“You saw that in a movie,” said Zep.

“Did not!” yelled Delbert. He was always yelling, and consequently he was always hoarse.

“Yo, dude. Krakatoa East of Java.”

“I never saw that movie, it really happened! We got stranded on the edge of the volcano and they had to come get us in a hot air balloon. Listen up, dude, my dad—”

Delbert jabbered on, trying to distract Jen from Lex Loach’s awesomely stoked breakouts. By the time a customer showed up, she seemed glad to go inside.

“Do you think she likes me?” Delbert asked Zep.

“No. You should have gone to college.” Zep’s voice was slow and even.

“What about you, brain-death?” challenged Del.

“I’m doing my detox, dude.” Zep got a tense, distant look when people questioned his sanity. But his voice stayed calm and disengaged. “The programs are in place, dude. All I need is run time. Chaos, fractals, dynamics, cellular automata. I did ten years’ research in two weeks last spring, dude. It’s just a matter of working out the applications!”

“Like to what?”

“You name it, bro.”

“Waves,” said Del. “Surfing. The new stick I need to bang Jen.”

Zep stared out at the horizon so long that Delbert thought he was lost in a flashback. But suddenly Zep’s voice was running tight and fast.

“Dig it, Del, I’m not going to say this twice. The ocean is a chaotic dynamical system with sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Macro info keeps being folded in while micro info keeps being excavated. In terms of the phase-space, it works by a kneading process, continually doubling the size of a region and folding it over on itself like saltwater taffy with the ribbony layers of color all shot through. Big waves disappear in the chop and the right small ripple can amp on up to make an outsider. If you do the right thing to the ocean, it’ll do whatever you want back. The thing about a chaotic system is that the slightest change in initial conditions produces a big effect—and I mean right away. Like on a pool table, dude, after ten bounces the position of the ball has been affected by the gravity from a pebble in a ring of Saturn. There’s a whole space of dynamic states, and the places where the system settles down are called chaotic attractors. We do right, and the ocean’ll do right by us.”

Del was like: “Chaos attractor? How do we control it?”

“There’s no formula because the computation is irreducibly complex. The only way to predict the ocean is to simulate it faster than real time. Could be done on a gigahertz CA. By the right head. The ocean…Delbert, the ocean’s state is a point in ten-trillion-dimensional surfspace.”

“Surfspace?” Delbert grinned over at his long blond friend with the dark, wandering eyes. When Zep got into one of his head trips he tended to let his cool, slow surfer pose slide. He’d been a punk before a surfer, and a science nerd before that.

“You gotta relate, babe,” enunciated Zep, as he tore on into the rest of his riff. “The wave pattern at any time is a fractal. Waves upon waves upon waves. Like a mountain range, and an ant thinks he’s at the top of a hill, but he’s only at the top of a bump on rock on an outcrop on a peak on the range on the planet. And there’s a cracky crack between his six legs. For our present purposes, it’s probably enough to take ten levels of waves into account.”

“Ten levels of waves?”

“Sure man, like put your nose near the water and there’s shivers on the ripples. The shivers have got kind of sketchy foam on them too. So sketchy foam, shivers, ripples, wads, and slidy sheets, now we be getting some meat to carve, uh, actual waves, peaks—those choppy peaks that look like Mr. Frostee’s head, you wave—steamers and hollow surf, mongo mothers, outsiders and number ten the tide. So the wave pattern at any given spot is a ten-dimensional quality, and the wave patterns at a trillion different spots make a point in ten-trillion-dimensional surfspace.”

“What’s all the trillions for?” Out on the sea, Lex Loach and four other Stoke Pilgrims were riding in from the break. Loach, Mr. Scrote, Shrimp Chips, Squid Puppy, and Floathead, same as usual. They usually came up to the Pup-Tent for lunch. Delbert and Zep usually left before the Pilgrims got there. “Talk faster, Zep.”

“I’m telling you, dude. Say I’m interested in predicting or influencing the waves over the next few minutes. Waves don’t move all that fast, so anything that can influence the surf here in the next few minutes is going to depend on the surfspace values within a neighboring area of, say, one square kilometer. I’m only going to fine-grain down to the millimeter level, you wave, so we’re looking at, uh, one trillion sample points. Million squared. Don’t interrupt again, Delbert, or I won’t build you the chaotic attractor.”

“You’re going to build me a new stick?”

“I got the idea when you hypnotized me last night. Only I’d forgotten till just now. Ten fractal surf levels at a trillion sample points. We model that with an imipolex CA, we use a parallel nerve-patch modem outset unit to send the rider’s surfest desires down a co-ax inside the leash, the CA does a chaotic back simulation of the fractal inset, the board does a jiggly-doo and …”

“TSUUUNAMIIIIII!” screamed Delbert, leaping up on the bench and striking a boss surfer pose.

Just then Lex Loach and the Stoke Pilgrims appeared, up from the beach. Lex looked at Delbert with the usual contempt. “Ride that bench, gnarly geek. Been puffing some of Zep’s KJ?”

Lex Loach had been boss of Surf City as long as Delbert could remember. He lived here all year long, except when he went to snowboard at Big Bear in short pants and no shirt. Delbert thought he looked like a carrot. He was tall and thin like a carrot, narrow at the bottom and very wide at the shoulders; and like a carrot, his torso was ribbed and downy.

Loach’s aging sidekick, Mr. Scrote, darted forward and made a vicious grab for Delbert’s balls. Mr. Scrote was wrinkled and mean. He had bloodshot eyes and was half deaf from surfer’s ear, and all his jokes had to do with genital pain. Delbert fended him off with a kick that missed. “Couldn’t help myself,” said Mr. Scrote to the other Pilgrims as he danced back out of reach. “Dude looks soooo killer on his new stick.”

“I am getting a new stick,” cried Delbert furiously. “Chaos Attractor. Zep’s building it.”

“What does a junkie know about surf?” put in Shrimp Chips, a burly young guy with bleached hair. “Zep can’t even stand to take a bath.”

“Zep’s clean,” said Delbert loyally. “And he knows all about surf just from sitting here and watching.”

“Same way you know about girls, right, weenie?” said Loach. “Want to watch me and Jen get it on?”

Delbert leaped off the bench and butted his head right into the middle of the carroty washboard of Loach’s abdomen. Loach fell over backward, and suddenly there were kids everywhere, screaming, “It’s a fight!”

Zep pulled Delbert back before Loach could pulverize him. The Stoke Pilgrims lined up around their chief carrot, ready to charge.

“Wait a minute,” Delbert yelped, holding out his hand. “Let’s handle this like real men. Lex, we challenge you to a duel. Zep’ll have my new gun ready by tomorrow. If you and your boys can close us out, it’s yours. And if we win, you give me your wing squash turbo.”

Loach shook his head and Mr. Scrote spoke up for him, widening his bloodshot eyes. “I doubt Lex’d want any piece of trash you’d ride. No, Delbert, if you lose, you suck a sea anemone and tell Jen you’re a fag.” The Stoke Pilgrims’ laughter was like the barking of seals. Delbert’s tongue prickled.

“Tomorrow by the San Diablo N-plant where the surf’s the gnarliest,” said Lex Loach, heading into the Pup-Tent. “Slack tide, dudes. Be there or we’ll find you.”

Up on the cliff, the N-plant looked like a gray golf ball sinking into a sand trap. The cliff was overgrown with yellow ice plant whose succulent, radiation-warmed leaves were fat as drowned men’s fingers. A colonic loop of cooling pipe jagged down the cliff, out into the sea, and back up the cliff to the reactor. The beach was littered with fish killed by the reactor’s thermal pollution. Closer to the sea, the tide’s full moon low had exposed great beds of oversize sea anemones that were bright, mutated warm-water sports. Having your face pushed into one of them would be no joke.

“Trust me, bro,” said Zep. He was greasy and jittery. “You’ll sluice roosters in Loach’s face. No prob. And after this we stalk the big tournament moola.”

“The surf is mush, Zep. I know it’s a drag, bro, but be objective. Look the hell at the zon.” The horizon was indeed flat. Closer to shore were long rows of small, parallel lines where the dead sea’s ripples came limping in. Delbert was secretly glad that the contest might well be called off.

“No way,” shouted Zep, angrily brandishing the nylon case that held the new board. “All you gotta do is plug in your leash and put Chaos Attractor in the water. The surf will definitely rise, little dude.”

“It’s mush.”

“Only because you are. Dig it!” Zep grabbed his friend by the front of his brand new paisley wet suit and shook him. “You haven’t looked at my new stick!” Zep dropped to his knees and unzipped Chaos Attractor’s case. He drew out a long, grayish, misshapen board. Most of it seemed actually transparent, though there were some dark, right-angled shapes embedded in the thing’s center.

Delbert jerked back in horror. For this he’d given Zep two hundred dollars? All his saving for what looked like a dime store Styrofoam toy surfboard that a slushed druggie had doused in epoxy?

“It…it’s transparent?” said Delbert after a time. In the dull day’s light you could see Zep’s scalp through his no-color hair. Del had trusted Zep and Zep had blown it. It was sad.

“Does that embarrass you?” snarled Zep, sensing Delbert’s pity. “Is there something wrong with transparency? And screw your two hundred bucks ‘cause this stick didn’t cost me nothing. I spent your money on crank, mofo, on clean Hell’s Angels blow. What else, Delbert, who do you think I am? Yeah! Touch the board!”

Delbert stroked the surface of the board uncertainly. “It’s rough,” he said finally.

“Yeah!” Zep wanted to get the whole story out, how he’d immediately spent the money on crank, and how then in the first comedown’s guilt he’d laid meth on Cowboy Bob, a dope-starved biker who hung around the meth dealer’s. Zep had fed Cowboy Bob’s head so Bob’d take him out breaking and entering: First they hit the KZ Kustom Zurf Shop for a primo transparent surfboard blank, then they barreled Bob’s chopped hog up to Oakland to liberate imipolex from the I. G. Farben research labs in the wake of a diversionary firebomb, and then they’d done the rest of the speed and shot over the Bay to dynamite open the door of System Concepts and score a Cellular Automaton Machine, the CAM8, right, and by 3:00 A. M. Zep had scored the goods and spent the rest of the night wiring the CAM board into the imipolex-wrapped blank’s honeyheart with tiny wires connecting to the stick’s surface all over, and then finally at dawn Zep had gone in through the back window of a butcher shop and wedged the board into the huge vacuum meat packer there to vacuum-sputter the new stick’s finish up into as weird a fractal as a snowflake Koch curve or a rucked Sierpinski carpet. And now lame little Delbert is all worried and:

“Why’s it so rough?”

Zep took a deep breath and concentrated on slowing down his heartbeat. Another breath. “This stick, Del, it uses its fractal surface for a realtime surfspace simulation. The board’s surface is a fractal CA model of the sea, you wave?”

“Zep, what’s that gray thing in the middle like a shark’s skeleton? Loach is going to laugh at us.”

“Shut up about Loach,” snarled Zep, losing all patience once again. “Lex Loach is like a poisonous mutant warty sculpin choked by a plastic tampon insert at the mouth of an offshore toxic waste pipe, man, thrashing around and stinging everybody in his spastic nowhere death throes.”

“He’s standing right behind you.”

Zep spun around and saw that Delbert was more or less correct, given his tendency toward exaggeration. Loach was striding down the beach toward them, along with the four other Stoke Pilgrims. They were carrying lean, tapering sticks with sharp noses and foiled rails. Loach and Mr. Scrote wore lurid wet suits. The younger three had painted their bodies with Day-Glo thermopaints.

“Gonna shred you suckers!” yelled Loach.

“Stupid clones!” whooped Zep, lifting Chaos Attractor high overhead. “Freestyle rules!”

“What kind of weird joke is this?” asked Loach, eyeing the new stick.

“Care to try it out?”

“Maybe. I’m gonna win it anyway, right?”

Zep nodded, calm and scientist-like now that the action had finally begun. It was good to have real flesh-and-blood enemies to deal with. “Let me show you where to plug it in. This might sting a bit a first.”

He knelt down and began to brush sand from Loach’s ankle.

“What’re you doing?” Loach asked, jumping back when he saw Zep coming at him with a wire terminating in sharp pins.

“You need this special leash to ride the board,” Zep said. “Without human input, the board would go out of control. The thing is, the fractal surface writhes in a data-simulation altered by the leash input. These fang things are a parallel nerve-port, wave? It feeds into the CAM8 along with the fractal wave analyses, so the board knows what to do.”

Mr. Scrote gave Zep a sharp kick in the ribs. “You’re gonna stick that thing in his ankle, you junkie, and give him AIDS?”

Zep bared his teeth in a confused grin. “Just hold still, Lex. It doesn’t hurt. I’d like to see what you can do with it.”

Loach stepped well back. “You’re whacked, dude. You been over the falls one too many times. Your brain is whitewater. Yo, Delbert! See you out at the break. It’s flat now, but there’ll be peaks once the tide starts in—believe it!” Loach and the Stoke Pilgrims hit the mushy warm water and began paddling out.

Zep was still crouched over Chaos Attractor. He glanced slyly up at Delbert. “You ready?”

“No.”

“Look, Del, you and my stick have to go out there and show the guys how to carve.”

“No way.”

“Get rad. Be an adventurist. You’ll be part of the system, man. Don’t you remember how I explained about waves?”

“I don’t care about waves,” said little Delbert. “I want to go home. It’s stupid to think I would ever be a major surfer. Who talked me into this, anyway? Was it you?”

Zep stared out at the zon. Loach and the Stoke Pilgrims were bobbing on the mucky water, waiting for a set. Suddenly he frowned. “You know, Del, maybe it’s not such a great idea for you to use this board.”

“What do you mean? It’s my stick isn’t it? I gave you two hundred dollars.”

“You still don’t have the big picture. At any moment, the relevant sea-configuration is ten trillion bits of analog info, right? Which folds up to one point in the ten-trillion-dimensional surfspace. As the ocean dynamically evolves, the point traces out a trajectory. But Del! The mind, Del, the mind is meanwhile and always jamming in the infinite-dimensional mindscape. Mindscape being larger than surfspace, you wave. My good tool Chaos Attractor picks up what you’re looking for and sends tiny ripples out into the ocean, pulsing them just right, so that they cause interference way out there and bounce back where you want. The coupled system of board and rider in the mindscape are riding the surfspace. You sketch yourself into your own picture.”

“So why can’t I ride the board?”

“Because, Delbert, because …” Zep gave a long, shuddery sigh and clamped the leash’s fangs into his own ankle. “Because you have a bad attitude and you’ll deal a mess and thrash the board before it gets burnt in. Because it’s mine. Because right now I’m plugged in and you’re not. Because …” Zep paused and smiled oddly. “I don’t like to say the word for what you are.”

“What word?”

“Ho-dad.”

Delbert’s tense frame sagged. “That’s really depressing, Zep.” In the distance a car had begun insistently to honk. At a loss for words, Delbert craned up the cliff at the N-plant parking lot. There was a girl up there, standing next to a car and waving and reaching in through the car window to honk. It was Jen! Delbert turned his back to Zep and waved both arms at Jen. “Come on down, baby,” he screamed. “Zep’s gonna break the board in for me and then I’ll shut down this beach for true!” Jen began slowly to pick her way down the steep cliff path. Delbert turned back to Zep. All smiles. “Be careful, my man. The Pilgrims’ll probably try to ram you.”

“I’m not afraid of Loach,” said Zep softly. “He’s a clone surfer. No sense of freestyle. We’re both ‘dads, man, but we’re still avant-garde. And you, man, you go and put some heavy physical moves on Jen while she’s standing here.”

Zep padded down to the water’s edge, avoiding the lurid, overgrown anemones. Clams squirted dark brown water form their holes. Sand crabs hid with only their antennae showing, dredging the slack warm water for the luminous plankton indigenous to the San Diablo break.

The N-plant made for an empty beach. There was plenty of room in the water, even with the five Stoke Pilgrims out there in a lineup. Floathead and Shrimp Chips were playing tic-tac-toe in the body paints on each other’s chests, and Squid Puppy was fiddling with a wristwatch video game.

Chaos Attractor lit up the instant it hit the water. Zep found himself looking into a percolating, turbulent lens. The board was a window into surfspace. Zep could see the swirling high-dimensional probability fluid, tiny torsion curls composed of tinier curls composed of tinier torsions. It made him almost high on life. Zep flopped belly-down on the board and began paddling out through the wavelets that lapped the shore.

“Hang ten trillion!” called Delbert.

Ripples spread away from Zep’s stick, expanding and crossing paths as they rushed toward the open sea. The water was laced with slimy indigo kelp. Zep thought of jellyfish. In this quap water, they’d be mongo. He kept paddling. The sun looked like the ghost of a silver dollar. He splashed through some parallel lines of number-three wavies. Stroke followed stroke, and finally he was far enough out. He let himself drift, riding up and down on the humping wave embryos. Chaos Attractor was sending out ripples all the time and now things were beginning to …

“Check the zon!” shouted Squid Puppy.

Zep sat up. Row upon row of waves were coming in from the zon, each wave bigger than the one before. The sea was starting to look like a staircase. Remain calm, carver. Nothing too big and nasty. A few even test waves would do nicely. Something with a long, lean lip and a smoothed-under ledge.

“Curl or crawl,” Loach called, glancing sidelong at Zep with a confident sneer.

Zep could feel the power between his legs. The surface of Chaos Attractor was flexing and rippling now, a faithful model of the sea’s surface. Looking down, Zep could see moving beads of color that matched the approaching waves. Wouldn’t it be great if …

The leash fed Zep’s thought to the CAM8. The CAM8 jived the imipolex. The imipolex fed a shudder to the sea. The surface band-pattern changed and …

“Mexican beach break!” screamed Zep.

The huge blue wall came out of nowhere and crashed onto Loach and his glittering board—all in the space of an exclamation point.

Zep aimed into the churning stampede of white foam, endured a moment of watery rage, and shot effortlessly out into calm tides. The real wave-set was marching in now. Zep decided to catch the seventh.

Loach surfaced a few meters off, all uptight. “Carve him, Pilgrims!”

Zep grinned. Not likely.

As the war-painted sea dogs huffed and puffed against the current, he calmly bent his will toward shaping that perfect seventh wave. The Stoke Pilgrims yelled in glee, catching waves from the set. Squid Puppy and Shrimp Chips came after Zep, dogsledding it in zigzags over the curl and down the hollow. Near miss. Here was Zep’s wave. He took his time getting to his feet after a slow takeoff, and looked back to see the prune-faced Mr. Scrote snaking after him, befouling the wave in his eagerness to slyve Zep.

It was time to hang ten.

Zep took a ginger step toward the nose and watched the gliding water rise up. Perfect, perfect…aaauuuuummmm. A shadow fell over Zep. He leaned farther out over the nose, and the shadow grew—like an ever-thicker cloud closing over the sun.

Zep looked back, and he saw that the sky was green and alive with foam, a shivering vault of water. Floating amid that enormous green curved world, which looked like some fathomless cavern made from bottle glass, was a lurid, red-eyed giant—a Macy’s Parade Mr. Scrote.

Zep flicked around, banked back toward the behemoth, and cruised up the slick green tube until he was at Scrote’s eye level. The sight of the bulging capillaries sickened him, and he stretched his arms straight out ahead of him, gripping the very tip of the board with his naked toes. He had all the time in the world. The wave didn’t seem to be breaking anymore.

The green expanse spread out around him. The curve above flowed like melting wax, drawing him into it. Rationally, he knew he was upside down, but it felt more like he was sliding down one side of a vast, translucent bowl. Under the board he could see a shimmering disk of white light, like a fire in the water: Was that the sun? He stepped back to the middle of Chaos Attractor, tilting the board up for greater speed, plunging ever deeper in the maelstrom spiral of the tube. He was nearing the heart of pure foam: the calm, still center of the ever-receding void.

Suddenly, a huge stain came steaming toward him out of the vortex. Gelatin, nausea, quaking purple spots, a glutinous leviathan with purple organs the size of aircraft carriers. Mile upon mile of slithery stinging tendrils drifted behind the thing, stretching clear back to the singular center that had been Zep’s goal.

It was a jellyfish, and…Zep was less than a centimeter tall. It figured, Zep thought, realizing what was up—it figured that he’d shrink. That’s what he’d always wanted from the drugs he couldn’t quite kick: annihilation, cessation of pain, the deep inattention of the zero. The jellyfish steamed closer, lurid as a bad trip, urgently quaking.

Zep sighed and dug in his stick’s back rail. Water shot up, and Zep grew. The jellyfish zoom-lensed back down to size. Chaos Attractor shot up out of the tube, and Zep fell down into the warm gray-and-green sea.

He surfaced into the raging chop and reeled Chaos Attractor in by the leash. Mr. Scrote was behind a crest somewhere, screaming at Loach. “He disappeared, Lex! I swear to God, dude—I had him, and he shrunk to nothing. Flat out disappeared!”

Zep got back on Chaos Attractor and rode some whitewater toward shore. There were Del and Jen, waving and making gestures. Del had his arm around her waist. Off to the right was the stupid N-plant cooling pipe. Zep glared up at the plant, feeling a hot, angry flash of righteous ecological rage. The nuke-pigs said no N-plant could ever explode, but it would be so rad if like this one went up, just to show the pigs that …

Ripples sped over the cooling pipe, and suddenly Zep noticed a cloud of steam or smoke in the air over the N-plant. Had that been there before? And was that rumbling noise thunder? Had to be thunder. Or a jet. Or maybe no. What was that he’d been thinking about an explosion? Forget it! Think pro-nuke, Zep baby!

When Zep was near shore, Delbert gave Jen a big kiss, dived in, and came stroking out, buoyed by his wet suit. He ducked a breaker or two and then he was holding onto the side of Chaos Attractor, totally stoked.

“I saw that, Zep! It was awesome! It does everything you said it does. It made great waves—and you shrank right up like you were surfing into a zero.”

“Yeah, Del, but listen—”

“Let me try now, Zep. I think I can do it.”

Zep back-paddled, gripping the board between his thighs. “I don’t think that’s such a hot idea.”

Delbert reddened. “Yeah? You know, Zep, you’re a real wipe sometimes. What is this, huh? You get me to fork over all my savings so you can go and build a board that didn’t cost you a cent in the first place—and now you act like it’s yours! You took my money for a board you would have made anyway!”

“It’s not that, Del. It’s just that—it’s more powerful that I thought. We maybe shouldn’t be using it around here. Look at the nuke.”

“Oh, yeah, try to distract me. What a bunch of crap! Give me that board, Zep. Come on, and the leash, too.”

“Del, look—”

Another spurt of steam went up from the plant. Zep gave thanks that the wind wasn’t blowing their way.

“You two dudes are maka sushi!” yelled Loach.

The Stoke Pilgrims cried out in unison, “Shred ‘em!”

Zep looked away from the board just long enough for Del to grab it away from him. Delbert got up on the board and pushed Zep under, holding him down with his feet and reeling in on the leash. Zep’s foot surfaced, and Delbert ripped the leash fangs out of his ankle. By the time Zep got his head back in the air, Delbert had installed the leash on himself and was paddling away, triumph in his eyes.

“It’s my stick, dude,” called Del.

“Oh, no, Delbert. Please, I swear I’m not goofing. If you do it, you’d better stay really, really cool. Go for the little waves. And don’t look at the N-plant. And if you do look, just remember that it can’t possibly explode. No fancy tricks, dude.”

“Bull!” screamed Delbert, shooting over a small peak. “This gun was built for tricks, Zep, and you know it. That’s the thrill, man! Anything can happen! That’s what this is all about!”

Delbert was belly to the board, stroking for the horizon. Back on the beach, Jen had noticed the N-plant’s activity, and she was making gestures of distress. Zep dog-paddled, wondering what to do. Suddenly four of the surf punks surrounded him.

“He looks kind of helpless down there, don’t he,” said Floathead.

“Watch him close,” said Mr. Scrote. “He’s slippery.”

“Let’s use his head for water polo,” suggested Squid Puppy darting the sharp end of his board at Zep.

Zep dove to the bottom and resurfaced, only find the Stoke Pilgrims’ boards nosed in around him like an asterisk with his head at the center. “Mess with my mind, I don’t care,” said Zep. “But just don’t put Delbert uptight.”

“We won’t bother bufu Delbert,” said Mr. Scrote. “He’s Lex’s now.”

“I know this is going to sound weird,” Zep began. “But …”

“Holy righteous mother of God,” interrupted Floathead. “Check out the zon, bros.”

“Far, far, faaar outsider,” someone whispered. The horizon looked bent in the middle, and it took an effort of will to realize that the great smooth bell-curve was an actual wave of actual water. It swelled up and up like a droplet on a faucet, swelled so big that you half expected it to break free of the sea and fly upward into great chaotic spheres. It was far enough off that there still might have been time to reach the safety of the cliffs…but that’s not what the surfers did. They broke formation and raced farther out to sea, out to where they guessed the monster wave would break.

Zep power-stroked out after the others, out toward where Loach and Delbert were waiting, Delbert bobbing up and down with a dismayed expression as Loach kept shouting at him. Just as Zep got there, Loach reached over and smacked Delbert in the face.

Delbert screamed in anger, his face going redder every second. “I’m gonna kill you, Loach!”

“Hoo-hoo-hoo!” cried the Stoke Pilgrims, forming their lineup. “Delbert is a ho-dad!”

“You can’t always bully me, Loach,” continued Delbert. “If you get near me one more time—if you snake in while I’m riding this super wave, my wave—it’s all over for you.”

“Oh, I’m shaking,” Loach said, slapping the water as he laughed. “Come on, paddle boy. Do your worst—and I do mean megaworst.” Loach grinned past Del at the other Stoke Pilgrims. “Contest’s over, guys! Let’s take this dip’s board right now!”

Zep watch Delbert’s face run through some fast changes, from helpless to terrified to grim to enraged to psychotic. It was as if some vicious bug had erupted from shy caterpillar Delbert. Some kind of catastrophic transition took place, and Delbert was a death’s head moth. All the while Chaos Attractor was churning out a moiréed blur of weird ripples, making the oncoming wave grow yet more monstrous.

Zep felt himself sucked up into the breast of a mountainous wall of water, a blackish green fortress whose surface rippled and coiled until it formed an immense, godlike face glaring down on all of them. Zep had never seen such cold eyes: The black depths of space had been drawn into them by the chaotic attractor. Sky had bent down to earth, drawing the sea up to see. Del and the Pilgrims and Zep all went rushing up toward a foamy green hell, while below …

Below was the rumbling, and now a ferocious cracking, accompanied by gouts of radioactive steam. Sirens and hooters. High up on the god-wave, Zep looked down and saw the N-plant rocking in its bed, as if nudged from beneath by a gigantic mole. Blue luminescence pulsed upward through the failing N-plant’s shimmering veils of deadly mist, blending into the green savagery of the spray trailing down from their wave. Frantic Jen had flung herself into the surf and was thrashing there, goggling up at the twin catastrophes of N-plant and Neptune’s wave.

Looking up, Zep saw Delbert streaking down the long beaked nose of Neptune while Loach and the Pilgrims skidded down the cheeks, thrown from their boards, eating it.

Zep felt proud. Delbert, I didn’t know you had it in you. Shut the beach DOWN!

Cracks crazed the surface of the N-plant. It was ready to blow. Way down there was Jen, screaming, “Save me!” like Olive Oyl. Del carved the pure surfspace, sending up a rooster of probability spray, jamming as if he’d been born on silvery, shadowy Chaos Attractor. He looked like he’d been to the edge of the universe and back already. He raved down deep to snatch up his Jen and set her in the board’s center; and then he snapped up the wall to wrap a tight spiral around floundering Zep.

“Latch on, dude!”

Zep clamped onto Chaos Attractor’s back rail and pulled himself aboard. The stick reared like a horse and sent them scudding up over the lip of the tsunami, out over the arching neck of the slow-breaking wave. Del glanced back through the falls and saw the filtered light of the San Diablo Nuclear Plant’s explosion, saw the light and the chunks of concrete and steel tumbling outward, borne on the shock-wave’s A-bomb energy.

The two waves intermingled in a chaotic mindscape abstraction. Up and up they flew, the fin scraping sparks from the edges of the unknown. Zep saw stars swimming under them, a great spiral of stars.

Everything was still, so still.

And then Del’s hand shot out. Across the galactic wheel a gleaming figure shared their space. It was coming straight at them. Rider of the tides of night, carver of blackhole beaches and neutron tubes. Bent low on his luminous board—graceful, poised, inhuman.

“Ohmigod!” said Jen. “The Silver Surfer!”



Note on “Probability Pipeline” (Written with Marc Laidlaw)

Written in 1987.

Synergy #2, HBJ Books, 1988.

Our first two years in California, Sylvia and I frequently got together with Kadrey, Murphy, Blumlein, and Laidlaw. We talked about starting a new “Freestyle” science-fiction movement along with Jeter and Shirley, but the idea died a-borning for the lack of any unifying principle other than “write like yourself except more so.”

For awhile, though, Marc and I were pretty strongly in pursuit of a Freestyle mystique, and we found most of our information in surfing magazines. Here’s one quote we dug: “Life on the edge measures seekers, performers, and adventurists.” Marc started writing me letters in the surf-magazine style. “There it is, Rude Dude. The Freestyle antifesto. No need to break down the metaphors—an adventurist knows what the Ocean really is. No need to feature matte-black mirrorshades or other emblems of our freestyle culture—hey, dude, we know who we are. No need to either glorify or castrate technology. Nature is the Ultimate. We’re skimming the cell-sea, cresting the waves that leap out over the black abyss …” Marc started publishing a neat zine called Freestyle, but it only went through three issues.

I went so far as to buy a used surfboard and wetsuit. Sylvia, Marc, Marc’s wife Geraldine, and I went to a wild beach north of Santa Cruz on New Years Day, 1987, and I tried to surf. I didn’t manage to stand on the board, but I did get out into the water. It was nice to see how well the wetsuit worked at keeping me warm.

Like my collaboration with Bruce Sterling, “Probability Pipeline” is a two-guys story. We thought of Marc being Del and Zep being me.

Due to anxiety about the trademark infringement issues in mentioning a well-known comic-book character like the Silver Surfer, the first publication of “Probability Pipeline” had the last line changed to: “Stoked,” said Jen. “God’s a surfer!”

Another exciting literary feature of moving to California was that I got to see my hero Robert Sheckley again. This time he was visiting his writer/comedian friend Marty Olson in Venice Beach. Olson had dreamed up the idea that Tim Leary would start hosting a PBS series about various futuristic things. Sheckley and I were to be the writers. Olson paid my plane-fare to LA, where he and “the Sheck-man” (as Olson called him) picked me up. It was a wonderful goof, hanging out with them, and then driving over to Tim’s house in Beverly Hills. Tim was up for the meeting, with pencils and pads of papers; he was a nice old guy, and a freedom-fighter from way back. We were all in full agreement about everything, but the hitch was that we never found a sponsor.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

As Above, So Below

I’d been overhacking again. The warm California night was real and intimate, synaesthetic, with the distant surfsound matching the pebbly parking lot under my bare feet, and the flowering shrub of jade plant in front of me fitting in too, with its fat loplop green leaves and stuft yellow star petals knobbing along like my breath and my heartbeat, and the rest of the plants matching the rest of the world: the menthol-smelling eucalyptus trees like the rush of the cars, the palm trees like my jittering synapses, the bed of calla lilies white and wonderful as the woman waiting for me at home, ah the plants, with their smells and their realtime ongoing updates …

The old flash came rushing over me once again: astonishment at the vastness of the invisible world machinery that keeps all this running, awe for the great program the world is working out. What a system! What a hack!

I was stoned and I’d been overhacking and my eyes were throbbing and I couldn’t remember what I’d said to Donna when she phoned…an hour ago?…nor could I remember when I’d last eaten. Eat. I walked across Route 1 to the Taco Bell. There were some kids there with pet rats crawling out of their Salvation Army coats, nice middle class kids no doubt, this being Santa Cruz. They wanted their burritos with no beans. “Beans are the worst,” one of them explained to the cholo countergirl. The back of the boy’s head had a remarkable yellow and green food-coloring dye job. A buzzcut DA with the left back half kapok yellow and the right half a poisonous green. The colors made me think of the assembly language XOR operation, which is a little like MINUS. Green XOR Yellow is Red. If I let my eyes go out of focus I could see a strip of red down the back of his head. I didn’t want to think about the weird screens I’d just been watching at my workstation in the empty Micromax labs.

The boy’s rat poked its head over the boy’s shoulder and cheesed its nose at me, twitch twitch, the long whiskers sweeping out envelopes of virtual surfaces. The beastie had long yellow fangs, though a festive air withal.

“You should dye the rat red,” I observed. “And call him XOR. Exclusive OR.”

“Beans are the worst,” repeated the boy, not acknowledging. He paid for his beanless burritos and left.

“Your order sir?” My turn.

“Four tacos and a large iced-tea.”

I ate the food out on the concrete patio tables. I poured on the hot sauce and it was really good. I liked being there except I didn’t like the traffic and I didn’t like the wind blowing all the paper off my table. They give you a lot a lot of paper at Taco Bell. It’s really obvious that the paper costs more than the food. But except for the wind and the traffic, I was feeling good. It was so neat to be getting input for free. When you’re hacking, you’re coupled to the screen, and all your input is from the machine’s output which all comes from the passage of time and from what you put in the machine. You’re making your own world all the time. And then you go outside and there’s all this great deep complex shit for free. The crackle of the thin taco shells, the faces of the punks, the wind on my face, and best of all—always the best—the plants.

Plants are really where it’s at, no lie. Take an oak tree: it grows from an acorn, right? The acorn is the program and the oak tree is the output. The runtime is like 80 years. That’s the best kind of computation…where a short program runs for a long long time and makes an interesting image. Lots of things are like that—a simple start and a long computation. In information theory we call it low complexity/high depth. Low complexity means short program, and high depth means a long runtime.

A really good example of a low complexity/high depth pattern is the Mandelbrot set. You grow it in the plane…for each point you keep squaring and adding in the last value, and some points go out to infinity and some don’t. The ones that don’t are inside the Mandelbrot set which is a big warty ass-shape with a disk stuck onto it. There’s an antenna sticking out of the disk, and shish-kabobbed onto the antenna are tiny little Mandelbrot sets: ass, warts & disk. Each of the warts is a Mandelbrot disk, too, each with a wiggly antenna coming out, and with shish-kabobs of ass, warts & disk, with yet smaller antennae, asses, warts, and disks, all swirled into maelstroms and lobed vortices, into paisley cactus high desert, into the Santa Cruz cliffs being eaten by the evercrashing sea.

The Mandelbrot set goes on forever, deeper and deeper down into more and more detail, except sooner or later you always get tired and go home. After I finished my tacos I walked back across Route 1 and got in my bicycle. It was a carbonfiber lowrider with fat smooth tires of catalyzed imipolex. I realized that I’d left my workstation computer on inside the Micromax building, but I just couldn’t handle going back in there to shut things off. It had been getting too weird. The last thing I thought I’d seen on my Mandelbrot set screen had been hairline cracks in the glass.

There was a liquor store just before the turnoff from Route 1 to the long road uphill to our house. My friend Jerry Rankle had stopped by Micromax to hand me a little capsule of white dust a couple of hours ago and I’d swallowed it fast and robotlike, thinking something like this’ll get you off the machine all right, Will, because I knew I was overhacking and I wanted to stop. I’d been the last one out of Micromax every day for a week.

“Lemme know how it hits you, Will,” Jerry had said in his jerky stuttery voice, always on the verge of a giggle. He was an old pal, a rundown needlefreak who’d once summed up his worldview for me in the immortal phrase: “The Universe Is Made of Jokes.”

“What is it exactly?” I’d thought to ask, sitting there at my workstation, feeling the little lump of the pill in my gullet, suddenly worried, but not talking too loud just in case my yuppie boss Steven Koss was within earshot. “How fast does it come on?”

“Wait and see,” said Jerry. “It’s brand new. You can name it, man. Some H. A. biohackers in Redwood City invented it last week. Could be a new scene.” H. A. stood for Hells Angels. Jerry thought highly of H. A. drug suppliers.

Now, on my bicycle, two hours later, passing the liquor store, I realized Jerry’s stuff was hitting me weird, worse than MDMA, this tinker-toy crap some slushed biker chemist had biohacked together—I was grinding my teeth like crazy and for sure it was going to be a good idea to have some booze to smooth the edges.

Basically, I was scared of going nuts just then, with the overhacking and the pot and the speed and now Jerry’s pill on top of it. The images I’d been getting on the machine just before quitting were at wholly new levels of detail in the Mandelbrot set. These were new levels I’d accessed with brand-new hardware boards, and the almost impossible thing is that at the new levels the images were becoming more than two-dimensional. Partly it was because I was breeding the Mandelbrot set with a chaotic tree pattern, but it had also seemed as if my new, enhanced Mandelbrot set was somehow taking advantage of the screen phosphor’s slight thickness to ruck itself up into faintly gnarled tissues that wanted (I could tell) to slide off the screen, across the desk, and onto my face just like the speedy octopus stage of the creature in that old flick Alien, the stage where the creature grabs onto some guy’s face and forces a sick egg down his esophagus.

Wo!

So I’d left the office, I’d had my tacos and tea, and now calmly calmly I was taking the precautionary measure of picking up a cylindrical pint bottle of Gusano Rojo, a Mexican-bottled distillation of mescal cactus, with an authentic cactus worm (gusano rojo means red worm) on the bottom. I paid the Korean behind the counter, I got back on my bike, I took a few hits of Gusano Rojo, I tucked the bottle in my knapsack, and I started the rest of the way uphill, trying to stave off the pill by ignoring it, even though I couldn’t stop the grinding of my teeth.

I held it all together until the last slope up to our house. The fatigue and the fear and the drugs started to clash really badly, and then the new drug kicked in top-volume, fusing shut the sanity brainswitch I’d desperately been holding open. It was nasty.

I lost control of my bicycle and weaved into the ditch. The bike’s cage protected me, more or less, not that I noticed. The bumps and jolts were like jerky camera motion on a screen. When the picture stopped moving the camera was pointing up into the sky.

I lay there quietly grinding my teeth, like a barnacle sifting seawater, unwilling to move and to stir up more sensations to analyze. The patch of sky I could see included the moon, which was nearly full. Her pale gold face churned with images, though her outline held steady. Dear moon, dear real world.

My calm lasted a few minutes, and then I began to worry. My leg was throbbing, was I badly cut? A car would stop soon; I would be institutionalized or killed; I was really and truly going crazy for good; this would never stop; the whole cozy womany world I leaned on was a rapidly tattering computer pattern on the nonscreen of the angry Void; and actually I was bleeding to death and too wrecked to do anything about it?!?!?

Wo. I sat up. The bike’s front wheel was broken. I dragged my machine up the road’s low sand embankment and shoved it into the manzanita chaparral. There was a tussocky meadowlet of soft grass and yellow-blossomed wood-sorrel a few meters further in. All the plants smiled at me and said, “Hello.” I lolled down and took a hit off my pint. Donna would be worried, but I couldn’t hack going home just yet. I needed to lay out here in the moonlight a minute and enjoy my medication. I was pretty together after all; the clashing was all over and the drugs had like balanced each other out. Though I was in orbit, I was by no means out to lunch. My skin felt prickly, like just before a thunderstorm.

And that’s when the creature came for me—all the way from the place where zero and infinity are the same.

The first unusual thing I noticed was a lot of colored fireflies darting around, all red, yellow and green. I could tell they weren’t hallucinations because they kept bumping into me. And then all at once there was this giant light moving up the hillside towards me. The light was so big and so bright that the manzanita bushes cast shadows. At first I was scared it was a police helicopter, and I scooted closer to the bushes to hide. The light kept getting brighter, so bright that I thought it was a nuclear explosion. I didn’t want to be blinded, so I closed my eyes.

And then nothing was happening, except there was a kind of hissing sound, really rich and complicated hissing, like a thousand soft radios playing at once. I opened my eyes back up and the light was overhead. It was hovering right over me, hissing and sputtering in a whispery way. I decided it was a UFO.

I knew the aliens could do whatever they wanted, and I knew they saw me, so I just lay there staring up at the ship. It was maybe fifty feet overhead and maybe fifty feet long. Or maybe a hundred and a hundred…it was kind of hard to tell. There were zillions of those fireflies now; and the ones high off the ground and closer to the ship seemed larger. There were thin tendrils connecting the fireflies to the ship so that the whole thing was like a jellyfish with bumpy tentacles hanging down, though by the time they got to the ground the tendrils were too small to see, so that it looked like the “fireflies” weren’t connected. I reached out and caught a couple of them…they were tingly and hard to hold on to. My skin was prickling like mad.

I yelled “Hello!” up at the UFO just so it would know I was an intelligent being. And then I was thinking maybe it had come especially to see me, so I yelled, “Welcome! My name is Will Coyote! I’m a hacker!” For the time being the mothership just stayed up there, hissing and with all its tendrils wafting this way and that like beautiful strings of Tivoli lights flashing red, yellow and green.

The ship itself was shaped in three main parts. There was a great big back section with a dimple in it, and then there was a smaller spherical section attached opposite the dimple, and sticking out of the front of the sphere section was a long spike kind of thing. It was just like—oh my God!—just like a giant three-dimensional Mandelbrot set! Though also like a beetle in a way, and like a jellyfish.

The UFO came lower and then some of the thicker tendrils were brushing against me. They felt shuddery, like the metal on a shorted out toaster. I figured the prickly feeling I’d been getting was from invisible fine tendrils that I couldn’t see. Could it be possible the thing was going to eat me like a Portuguese man-of-war that’s got hold of a small fish? I screamed out, “Don’t hurt me, I’m an intelligent being like you!” and the thing hissed louder, and then suddenly the hissing Fourier-transformed itself into a human voice. A woman’s voice.

“Don’t worry, William, I am very grateful to you. I wish to take you for a ride.”

I tried to stand up then, but I was too fucking zoned. So I just smiled and stretched by arms up to the big UFO ass. UFO? This had to be a hallucination. Slowly, slowly, it came lower.

The tendrils were thick as vines, and the fireflies on the tendrils were as big as grapefruits and baseballs. Since this whole ship was a fractal, each of the firefly globs was a three-sectioned thing like the main body: each of them was a dimpled round ass part with a little antennaed head-sphere stuck onto it. This was absolutely the best graphic ever. I was really happy.

I took one of the baby Mandelbrot sets in my hands and peered at it. It was warm and jittery as a pet mouse. Even though the little globster was vague at the edges, it was solid in the middle. Better than a graphic. I cradled it and touched it to my face. As the big mamma came lower I kept calm by wondering if she was real.

I stayed cool right up to when the giant ass landed on me and began pressing me down against the ground—pressing so hard that I could barely breathe. Was I like dying or some shit? Had I passed out, gotten apnea, and forgotten to breathe? I blinked and looked again, but the ass was still there; and right up against my face was the incredibly detailed female hide of a gigantic three dimensional Mandelbrot set, man, like all covered with warts on warts and cracks in cracks and bristles’n’bristles evverywhaaar, oh sisters and brothers, and the whole thing rippling with every color of the rainbow and loaded with such a strong electric charge that my nose prickled and I had to sneeze.

The sneeze changed something. Everything got black. Now I was really dead, right?

“Welcome aboard, William,” came the deep, thrilling voice of the mandelsphere’s dark innards. “My name is Ma.”

It was not wholly dark, no indeed—there were objects, but objects of such a refined and subtle nature that, likely as not, I would normally have walked right through them, except that here I had nothing else to walk into or through, so they became real to me.

It was not really dark, and it was not really small inside Ma. The space within was the mirror of the space without. While the outside of the Mandelbrot set’s hide was crowded and entangled, the hide’s inside was endlessly spacious. There being nowhere in particular to go, I sat myself down in a faintly glowing blue armchair and spoke.

“Where are you from?”

“I am everywhere; beyond all space, and within the tiniest motes. I am any size that wants me. You called me here.”

“It’s good to see all that programming finally pay off.” I was giddy with excitement. “Can I get a drink?”

Faint shapes wafted around me, and then a long luminous beaker of yellow was in my hand. I sucked greedily at the pure energy fluid. This was the kind of rest I deserved after all that mindbreaking hacking: always shifting bits left and right to make bytes, masking the bytes together into register-sized words, generating lookup tables, finding room for the tables in RAM, feeding the output into the color display ports…I drank and drank, and my glass was always full.

One pale shape after another came to me, flowed over me, and gave way to the next one. Each was reading me like a book, accessing me like a hypertext, learning the nature of my familiar world. It seemed that each could sense me in a slightly different way. While they read me, I thought questions and they thought answers back.

The shapes were like different body parts—each an aspect of the single higher-dimensional entity called Ma.

According to Ma, the smallest and largest sizes were one and the same. That was her native habitat.

Ma needed my presence to easily stay at this size-scale; for her it was more natural to exist as a quark or a universe. I was like a snag in a rushing river for her to hold onto.

Despite that, said Ma, there was only one thing at all, and that one thing was Ma.

“Am I you?”

“You are a pattern in the potentially infinite computation that is the universe; and I am the actually infinite end of said computation. I am all space and all time. The world you live in is happening; my essence is what comes before and after your mundane time.”

“How long is the program that starts it all?”

“Two bits. One Zero.”

“What about all the details?”

“You’d call it ‘screen wrap.’ Patterns grow out and around and come back over themselves and make fringes. It adds up over the billions of years, especially when you remember that each point in space is updating the computation each instant. Each of those points is me; I’m the rule that runs it all; and looked at the other way, I’m all the past and all the future.”

“I can totally dig it, Ma. The universe has a simple code and a long rich parallel computation. There are infinitely many size scales so in fact each orange or atom has everything inside it. Right on. What about uncertainty and Planck’s constant, though. Is that a hassle for you, Ma?”

She got into a complex answer involving infinite-dimensional Hilbert space—the human modes of thinking were new to her so we had some back and forth about it—and the conversation drifted on. Talking mathematical metaphysics, lolling on my ethereal couch, sipping my invigorating energy drink, and with the eager phantom Ma figures mounting me like harem girls, I swore I’d never been so happy. But then, all at once, the joy ended.

“Two more people are here,” said Ma’s sweet voice. “One of them is—Ow!” There was a sputtering and a lashing. “They’ve torn off a piece of me,” she screamed. “And now…oh no—”

There was a brainsplitting cry of pure agony, a pop, and then I thudded to the hard ground.

“Will! Hey, Will!” It was my wife, Donna, and my boss, Stephen Koss. They were proud of themselves for “saving” me.

“Yeah,” gloated Koss, stupid yuppie that he was. “I shot it with my Tazer.” He held up a stubby box with two wires trailing out of it. “Was some kind of anomalous electromagnetic field, I guess, and my jolt disrupted it. You feeling okay, big guy?”

“Why did you shoot it?” I asked, sitting up. “It was so beautiful!”

“It was going for your wife!” he snapped. I noticed that he had his arm across her shoulders.

Donna’s face was a white patch inside her long, hanging-down dark hair. “Are you all right, Will? What happened was I pulled off one of the baby globbies, and it started screaming and flashing checkerboard sparks.” She held something cradled against her breasts. It glowed.

“You got a baby Ma?” I cried, getting to my feet.

Donna cracked her fingers so Koss and I could peek in and see a flowing, colored, tiny Ma. Donna held it tight as a baby. Its little tail or spike stuck out below her hands. The tail was knobbed with tinier Mas.

“I broke it off the big one, and the big one got mad,” smiled Donna. “Do you think we could keep this one for a pet?”

“Pet, hell,” said Koss. “We can sell them.”

The magic energy drink Ma’d given me had gotten my head back together pretty good. The three of us went on up to our house on top of the hill, Donna and I in our dingy Honda, Koss following behind in his Jaguar with my wrecked bike.

“I was really worried when you didn’t come home,” said Donna. She was driving and I was holding the baby Ma. Ma felt good to my hands.

“I called Micromax and nobody was there except that thing, that AI answering machine,” continued Donna. She didn’t sound particularly friendly. “So I decided to drive downtown and look for you. I just knew you’d be drunk and stoned again. God, I’m sick of you, Will. You never notice me anymore.”

“Don’t start nagging me, Donna.”

“Oh, right. That’s what you always say: Don’t talk, Donna, be quiet. Well, I’ve had it, Will, with your computer and your drugs. When was the last time you bothered to touch me? I need love, Will, I need someone who’ll listen to me!”

What she said was true, but why did she have to start in on it now? “I hear you, Donna, loud and clear. Can you tell me more about how you found me?”

She sighed and shook her head and grudgingly told me the rest. “Halfway down the hill I saw this huge bright light UFO sitting on the ground. I got out and looked at it, and after awhile I picked a bud off it. It got all upset. That’s all.”

“How does Koss fit in?” I demanded. “Who told him to show up with his asshole electric gun?”

“Steven thought I was in danger,” said Donna. “He cares about me. Not like you, Will, so stoned and hacked you don’t know the first thing about me anymore. Steven showed up in his Jaguar right before I picked the bud. He said the stupid AI thing at Micromax called him to tell him a window was broken. And when he went there he found your terminal’s glass all broken out, too. He thinks the UFO thing came from your computer, Will.”

“Her name is Ma, Donna. She’s an infinite fractal from Hilbert space. This little one is all of her. Each of her bumps is all of her. She’s every particle, and she’s the whole world.” I held Ma up to my face and kissed her warty tingly hide. Each time I kissed her she grew a little. Donna sighed heavily.

Back at the house, I couldn’t get Koss to leave. He was all fired up with excitement from having killed something. Jock, caveman, yuppie—all the same. He preened himself in front of the disgustingly attentive Donna, laying down his moronic rap about what he thought had happened.

“I was in the exercise room working out with my exercise machine—hey, I need it every day, guys—and then the emergency phone’s all ringing from our AI about a broken window. I get in my Jag, cruise down there, and find Will’s fifteen thousand dollar Mitsubishi VGA with the front screen blown away. I’m wondering if one of Will’s dusted-out friends’ve blown him away or what. I decide not to call the pig in, I board up the broken window—then outside I’m all what’s that light on the hillside? I wind the Jag on up here and it’s some kind of atmospheric plasma display? Donna’s standing under it looking real fine—and she’s got the idea to tear off a little bud from it and all at once it’s violent.”

By this point Koss was pacing and pounding his hand with his fit tan fist, reliving the big play. “At the speeds I travel, you can’t waste time saying why. You just react. I snapped my Jaguar’s utility boot open and got out the heavy-duty stungun I keep in there in case of trouble. Sucker’s got a gunpowder charge that shoots two metal fishhook electrodes twenty yards. Those ‘trodes pack 150 volts! I aimed steady and I nailed that big mother right in its butt. FFFFFTT!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Donna already told me.”

“Let’s tear another glob off that little one,” said Koss.

“You better not,” said Donna. “It’ll get violent!”

“This little one can’t hurt us,” chortled Koss, snatching it out of my hands and tearing off a bud.

Little Ma screamed, but only I could hear her. She got an ugly cyan/white/magenta for a few minutes, and her broken tendril shot out black and white sparks, but a minute later she was a calm red/yellow/green and the sparking spot had healed over.

“Check it out, Donna!” exulted Koss. “We got work to do!” He pulled off another bud and another. “Like artichokes!”

“How exciting,” squealed Donna.

I just wanted to be alone with a Ma and grow it big enough to get inside again, but Koss got on my case about how I should write up a sample ad for the new company we were going to start. I told him to get fucked. Donna frowned at me and wrote an ad that was so bogus that I rewrote it. The finished version went like this:

-----

WONDERGLOBS

The living Wonderglob is an object of unparalleled beauty. Like God or the Universe itself, the Wonderglob feeds on YOUR attention—the more you look at it, the larger it grows.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of owning a Wonderglob is that you can HARVEST BUDS from it and, under our franchising agreement, SELL these buds to your friends! The initial investment pays for itself in a matter of weeks!

The Wonderglob dislikes electricity and is easily kept captive in our patented Wondertanks, whose metal-plated glass sides carry a small electric charge. The Wonderglob may be removed for play and meditation, but be sure to replace it in the Wondertank, particularly after harvesting.

-----

We didn’t happen to have any “patented Wondertanks” handy, but Donna had the idea of hooking a wire to the tightly woven steel mesh of our old djinkotl cage and keeping the buds in there. The Mas hated it, man, they were shrinking steadily. Meanwhile Koss was giving Donna lines of coke and jabbering about money. I couldn’t tell if things were as bad as they seemed, or worse. I chilled and crashed.

I snapped awake at 4:00 A. M. the way I sometimes do. Like if I go to bed wrecked, the survival reflex wakes me as soon as the limbic systems reboot. I wake up to assess the damages. Am I in bed? Who did I phone? What did I break?

Donna wasn’t in bed with me. I got up and went in the living room. There was Koss putting it to her right there on our rug, her legs wrapped around his dumb cheeks. My Mas are dying specks in a shitty lizard’s cage and Koss here is putting it to my wife? While torturing my dreams for gain?

I picked up the djinkotl cage and headed outside. Koss and Donna barely noticed.

It so happens I know my woods like the back of my own prick. I went around the hill to a green boulder redwood gully, a special spot all ferned and purling, with small white flowers and soggy mosses and rivulets underfoot, and overhead clear sky and stars past the tall trees. I took the Ma buds out of djinkotl cage—sixteen of them in all—and held them in my hands and mooshed down into soft trickly moss where living water could well in through my finger cracks and feed the ripped off and the newborn buds.

They drank the water avidly; they grew closer to my size. I could hear her/their happy thoughts. Ma’d never tasted water at this size scale before. The newly harvested buds stopped at the size of oranges, while Donna’s maimed original puffed up to womansize and continued to grow. Big Ma.

The spots where Koss had torn buds off were flat scars covered with a fine fractal down of new growth. Each of the new baby buds bore a single birth-scar, a kind of navel hidden in the cheeks of her swelling behind. Ma’s girls.

Sixteen is hex-ten. The girls lifted off and darted about. When they got farther away from me, they either got a lot smaller or a lot bigger. Some of them went high into the redwoods and on up into the sky, growing as they flew. There were quick blinks of brightness across the sky as one by one they maxxed out to cosmic scale. Others bumped down the gully towards the sea, dwindling to tiny bright specks in the water. A few hung around watching me and the main Ma.

And then the main Ma was big enough for me to get in her, so I did; I did it by hugging her against me until her shape slipped over me and I was back inside the endlessly vast interior of a fractal solid weird screen come true.

I wandered about in there at will. There were trees, there were boulders, but when you tripped over something it didn’t hurt. I went up a nubby slope and found an ethereal armchair, same one as before, except now it was purple and it had wood trim along the arms. There was a glass of energy-drink on the floor by the chair, and laying there on the left arm’s wood trim was a monster jay with a book of matches. I fired up for sure. Breathing the smoke out, watching the tendrils, with a pink womany Ma shape on my lap, I forgot everything I ever knew.

And it was calm, and it was wonderful, until of course some new Nazi asshole was on our case.

“A loud machine,” said Ma. “Coming closer.”

If I peered closely at a little speck in the air near me, I could see out to the world outside. It was all there, right in that little speck, the hill, and the ocean, and Santa Cruz. Racketting towards Ma and me was an Army helicopter with searchlights and with guns. From the speck’s shifty viewpoint, I could even see the soldiers in the chopper, all peering down at our glow. They were getting ready to shoot us.

“Can we hide somewhere?” I asked Ma.

“Yes, William. I can shrink and I can jump in and out of Earth’s space.”

“Won’t that hurt me?”

“Inside me you’re already out of Earth’s space. And as far as shrinking goes—infinity divided by ten is still infinity. My inside is always the same.”

“Then let’s go and get…inside the can of Geisha Girl crabmeat in my kitchen cupboard.”

“It’s…done.”

I took my attention off the little worldview speck—which now showed strands of crabmeat, a can, and outside the can our kitchen. Cops in the house, talking to Koss and Donna.

That all happened yesterday, or maybe it’s been two days. The longer I’m in here, the better I can see. At my request, Ma’s got soft-edged computer graphics rippling over the endlessly unfolding surfaces around me—Escher images, Gosper hacks, Conway games—whatever I feel like seeing. It’s like programming without ever having to touch a key. And with the energy drinks I’m never hungry. It’s perfect in here.

I just hope no one gets hungry for canned crab.



Note on “As Above, So Below”

Written in 1987.

The Microverse, Bantam Books, 1989.

Soon after moving to California, I gave a talk on Cellular Automata in Ralph Abraham’s Chaos Seminar at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Nick Herbert, author of Quantum Reality (Anchor Books, 1987) was there. I knew Nick from having corresponded with him about relativity theory. After my UCSC talk we had dinner with Ralph, and then some hackers showed Nick and me a lot of Mandelbrot set graphics. All of this came together pretty readily into the start of a story.

“As Above So Below” is a phrase used by the mystic P.D.Ouspensky and by the theosophist Madame Blavatsky. They attribute the phrase to a legendary magician called Hermes Trismigestus.

It took me awhile to completely finish “As Above So Below.” The first installment of it came out in Terra Nova, a hippie hacker zine published by Nick Turner and Romana Machado, whom I met at a reading I gave for the magazine Mondo 2000.

A few years later I was approached by the theater director Kathelin Hoffman, who was interested in putting on a one-act play by me in a theater in Fort Worth. I worked “As Above So Below” into a script, and it was produced from August 20 - September 5, 1992, by the Theater of All Possibilities at the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth. It was an amazing thing to see the actor Jim Covault impersonate Will Coyote who was, in turn, an impersonation of me.

Ma the Mandelbrot set was played by the thrilling Fiorella Tirenzi. The great SubGenius Ivan Stang was there in the audience next to me. What a night. Mathematics has been good to me.



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Chaos Surfari
(Written with Marc Laidlaw)

Way gnarly.

Delbert stood barefoot on a shelf of slimy-sharp sea rocks, clutching a terrycloth towel to his pimply chest. Behind him was a sandstone cliff crowned with cottages, below him were dead fish, seaweed, discolored water, and spit-bubbling crabs. One of the crabs had hold of a gooey condom; mindlessly the beast kept stretching and folding the rubber, now and again lowering its mandibles to taste the human salts that came oozing forth.

The sea, thought Del, has got to be the rudest place on earth.

Even though the surf was up, Del had stayed ashore today because of the red tide. Every so often the one-celled dinoflagellates would go on a breeding jag, and the ocean near Surf City would look and smell bad for weeks. Some of the older surfers said it was like the sea being on the rag, but it made Del think more of the time he’d vomited after eating reds, fried squid, and mucho red wine. Surf that shit? No way!

But Zep didn’t mind. Zep…Zep would wade right out into the middle of the most gruesome scenes Del could imagine. He picked fights with cops; called bikers by names even their buddies didn’t use; took drugs made by madmen; so right now, natch, Zep was out there carving tubes, unquestioningly accepting whatever liquid thrills Mother Ocean would serve up.

Well, almost unquestioningly. The catch was Zep’s unique imipolex microprocessing way-tech surfboard: the good stick Chaos Attractor. Chaos Attractor had a distinct effect on the waves; it was wired to a parallel nerve-port in Zep’s ankle. The smart board was able to read the ripples that hit it, run a CAM8 cellular automaton simulation of the future ocean nearby, use a global XOR to compare the simulation to Zep’s wishes, and to then eliminate the differences by pulsing out just the right antiripples into the sensitive chaos of the sea.

Zep had built the thing single-handedly out of stolen parts; in fact the corporation that had built the CAM8 chip—a Silicon Valley outfit called System Complex—had placed full-page ads in The Computer Shopper, offering huge rewards for the return of the device or any information leading to the arrest of the culprit. Fortunately, aside from Zep, the only person who knew the truth was Delbert.

Out on the water, where the red-stained waves sluiced in between the curling rock pinchers of Blowhole Cove, Zep let out a brain-curdling scream whenever he created a particularly nasty wave. Looking at the big crisscross surf, Del knew that Zep’s wishes were wild and unfocused—no surprise, as Zep was righteously stoned. Zep had scored a humongous jay that morning from Dennis Dementex, the chef at the Pup Tent where Del’s girlfriend Jen worked.

Del had toked a few puffs himself, and now he began to imagine that the stinking red-brown ocean was awash with real blood, drained from the bodies of dead and racked-up surfers; yes, the ocean and the things in it were angry, and the waves were hit-men out to extract vengeance from thankless air-breathers. “Is this how you treat your mother?” the ocean seemed to say. “By building parking lots and condos on her sandy flanks? By dumping toxic waste and pesticides into the cradle, as if you’re her only child? How dare you brag about your space probes when you know so little of what I conceal?”

Del peered down from his slippery rock shelf at the sand six feet below. The retreating tide combed back the eelgrass, slicking it down like Brylcreem in a cholo’s hair. Sea anemones puckered the scraggy wall like free-living anuses, punked out with bits of shell and broken glass. He realized he had to take a piss. Nobody around; do it.

Delbert aimed his steamy stream down into the eelgrass, hosing through the seaweed as if he were an archaeologist cleaning out a wreck. Something glinted; he tried to pee harder, but he’d run out of pressure. There was something nestled in the weeds, something scummy with pink plankton yet diamond-bright.

A jewel! he thought. It’s some kind of jewel washed up from the sea!

Zep screamed, his voice growing louder in a roar of surf. Delbert looked up and saw his best friend zooming toward him at the foot of a hungry wave. No time to watch Zep carve; in a moment, Del’s newfound treasure would be lost in a cataclysm of spray. He leaped down to the sand and pushed the seaweed aside.

Del’s fingers closed around the prize at the same time that the wave broke on his back an sucked him spinning into the deep. No way for now to tell which way was up, and already Del was out of breath. He clung hard to the shining ball he’d seized…confusion, a sharp jolt …

“Y’okay, dude?”

Del say up, his head ringing, and stared at the waves. Where had he been?

“My board clipped you right across the skull,” Zep said. “Shit, man, I’m glad you woke up. I had to drag you out. That’s a nasty bruise you got.”

“I—look what I found,” Delbert said. He opened his hand and the crystal lay revealed. The world showed inside it, reproduced in miniature but badly warped. He brought it closer to his eyes, working to focus, wishing that his head didn’t ache so bad. There was movement down inside it, maybe brine shrimp, krill.

He seemed to hear a voice inside his head, a slithery whisper that said, Look closer.

Now he saw more clearly. A tiny gallery of moving faces lay within the crystal Superball. Inhuman faces; faces out of horror comics. They had quivery tentacles instead of beards; beaks and mandibles where mouths should have been. Cold gray eyes, dark secrets. The slithery voice began to whisper words he didn’t understand, promising to reveal unguessed mysteries if he would only—would only —

“Del?”

“Shh! I’m looking!”

He was caught up in tracing the source of the faces, for they were set in a kaleidoscopic array, following some geometry he could hardly visualize. They seemed to sprout from the corners of a three-dimensional net of shimmering silver lines; the net formed pyramids and equilateral triangles, too many to see all at once. Some would vanish when others appeared. The whole thing cold have been an illusion, some novelty hologram a sea captain had put together in his spare time. But he couldn’t tear his eyes from the depths. The faces twitched, crowding closer. They were like gargoyles crouched on the vertices of the hinged lines, guarding the hearts of the triangles. Guarding what, he wondered?

Very well then, the voice whispered. A glimpse.

“Let me see it, Del.”

“I said wait!”

The gates of the net began to gape, permitting him some slight knowledge of what lay beyond those faces. His mind reeled with the insight. He saw an eye in a green pyramid, sitting on a plain very like the one he’d just dreamed of; but it wasn’t a real place. It was a landscape in cameo—straight off the back of a dollar bill. His point of view shifted suddenly, and where the dollar had been he saw a luscious naked blonde surfer girl, vaguely familiar, her hands cupping her breasts, one running down to play in her pubic curls and she winked at Delbert and began to approach. But then her tanned flesh went all white and flaky; she began to expand from the inside and her hair turned to shredded lettuce.

A burrito, Del thought. Jesus, that’s the most delicious burrito I’ve ever seen. And the smell—heavenly!

He started to reach out for it, but something rattled in his hands. He looked down and saw a car key where the crystal had been; looked up and saw, waiting for him at edge of an alien parking lot, a mint-green, mint-condition ‘48 Woodie. It was just like the car he’d seen in Surf Serf magazine last week, the boss Country Squire that belonged to the local Sicilian baron billionaire; it was the most beautiful car in the universe!

And poking out of the car’s open rear, perfect noses gleaming, were three fine surfboards—red, white and blue. He just knew that they would give him the ride of his life—like the Woodie, like that blonde girl.

As he approached the car, he could see that the back was heaped with cases of beer—all import stuff, powerful Australian lagers, which he could never afford. And there was a hefty block of resinous green vegetable matter on the front seat, little glints of gold scattered among the leaves of tight-packed buds as big as his foot.

And standing on the dashboard, glowing no less brightly at noon than he would at midnight, was Jesus Christ Himself, lending his aura of protection and respectability to even the drunkest surfari!

Then the weirdly angled walls snapped closed; the net swung back into being. The guardians leered out at him, as if daring him to seize their precious goods.

“Come on, Delbert, snap out of it!”

He blinked up at Zep. “I think—I think this is magic, Zep. I think I’ve found good luck.”

Zep snatched the ball out of his hand finally, and held it up to the sky, squinting at it with one eye.

“I don’t know about that,” he said after a minute. “I think this is just an ordinary plastic toy ecosphere. But look what’s written on it.”

He handed it back to Delbert, and showed him how when the light was just right you could see a string of angular letters scratched into the flattened base of the sphere.

WRITE IN NOW!

P.O. BOX 8128, SURF CITY, CA

WIN BIG $$$!

“We gotta write in now,” said Del, fondling the wonderful sphere. “Before someone else wins all the prizes. Did you see the Woodie, Zep? With the beer and the key and Jesus on the dashboard?”

“I don’t see anything in there but reflection lines and little shrimp,” said Zep. “This is one of those cheap plastic kits you order form a comic book to grow Sea Monkeys, man, which are in fact brine shrimp. Some feeb could easily have scratched that message on there simply for a goof. But hell yes, let’s go over to the post office. Penny. Penny’ll be there.” Penny was a big-breasted girl with dark brown hair and a wild laugh; Zep thought about her a lot.

They threw Chaos Attractor in the back of the old Chevy pickup Zep had recently acquired and drove over to the Surf City post office. It was cool and empty in there, like a jewel-case, Zep thought, a jewel-case holding plump pearl Penny so cute in her blue-gray Bermuda shorts, midthigh length with piping. Zep was all grin and buzzcut peroxide hair, leaning over the counter trying to think of something to say.

“I wish I was your underwear, Penny.”

“You’d be too scratchy, Zep.”

“Who has Box 8128?” asked Delbert. “I found this magic ball on the beach and it says to write Box 8128.” The reedy sound of his voice annoyed Zep no end.

“Who has Box 8128?” answered Penny. “I’m not supposed to give out government information, Del.” She gave her cute laugh and walked over to look at the post office boxes from behind. “Oh, wow! It’s Kid Beast!”

“That’s a name?” said Del. “Is he young?”

“Isn’t everyone young in Surf City?” said Pen, resting her arms on the counter and her breasts on her arms. “Kid Beast is a skinny punk who talks funny. You’ve seen him, Zep, he played drums for the Auntie Christs.” She glanced around the empty room. “I happen to know his home address because I saw him go in there one time. 496 Cliff Drive.”

“496 is a perfect number,” said Zep.

“What is?”

“Like six is three plus two plus one; and one, to, and three are the numbers that divide six. 496 is…whatever. Sixty-four times thirty-one. 1+2+4+8+16+32+64+31+62+124+248.”

“How do you know that?” asked Penny.

“I went to college, baby. Santa Cruz UC.”

“Let me see the magic ball,” said Penny.

“We found it on the beach,” said Zep, taking it from Del and handing it to her. “We saw things in it. You can keep it, Penny, if you’ll let me tie you up and fuck you.”

“Oh right.”

She gave Zep a thoughtful glance.

“Hey, Zep, don’t give it to her!” said Delbert. “That ball’s got some kind of power—it’s magic.”

Zep sighed, pissed at Delbert for interrupting what had become a promising conversation.

“Why don’t you go out to the truck, Del,” he said. “I’ll put a postcard in the Kid’s box, then we’ll swing by his house to make sure he pays up.”

“You’re trying to ditch me, aren’t you? You want to steal my magic ball!”

“Yes. No. Here’s your ball. Go on, man.” Del went out to the truck.

Five minutes later Zep came out whistling, with a postmark stamped on his cheek like a government lipstick kiss. Penny had agreed to meet him at Bitchen Kitchen to watch the sunset later on. He would get another jay off Dennis at the Pup Tent, then he’d score a bottle of wine and mellow out with playful Penny. Unfortunately it was just past noon. Summer days were too damn long!

Zep found Delbert sitting in the front seat of the truck, staring into the float-ball as if he really were seeing all the weird stuff he’d said he saw. It worried Zep for a minute, bringing him down.

“You still seeing things, Del?”

Delbert shook his head. “They’re not showing me, Zep. I have to be good…I have to do something special for them, I think.”

“I hope you didn’t get some weird spacetime concussion, Delbert. I mean, it wasn’t just any old surfboard that cracked you on the skull—it was Chaos Attractor. It might have knocked your brain into another dimension. You ever see that movie where the living brains come after a bunch of geeks? They’re like brains with snaky whiplike spines for tails.

Delbert looked at him, a little trail of spittle running down his chin. A skinny stranger on the sidewalk ducked down and peered at them, then disappeared. There was something funny going on. Something weirder than plastic movie monsters.

All the houses near 496 Cliff Drive had flowers in their yards and little “Cottage for Rent” signs with ivy wrapped around the posts; all perfect except for number 496, which was an animal house, totally whipped to shit. A three-legged pitbull lay sprawled in the dust of the front yard, angrily barking. The dog’s missing leg ended in a stub that looked…well, chewed. When the dog finally stood up to make its move, Zep kicked it over. It fell on its spine, whining. Using the magic ball for a knocker, he rapped sharply on the bungalow’s front door.

Just then something began happening to the surface of the door. It was like someone was projecting a slide on it, a picture all made of dancing spots whose speckling created the face of a boy. The light flashes, Zep realized, were caused by tiny laser-rays darting out of the base of the ball in his hands. As soon as he’d taken the image in, the laser rays turned back off.

The bungalow door opened to reveal the same skinny dude the ball’s lasers had just drawn. He wore hightop sneakers, jeans, and an old mod black suit-jacket with no shirt. His straight black hair fell into his eyes. He wore faint black lipstick; or maybe he’d been sucking on a stamp pad. He had a leather thong around his neck with a little brass crucifix.

“I’m Kid Beast. You here to audition for the new band?”

Kid Beast flung the door open and stepped back. The room gave off a foul tidal stink, as of a dozen starfish left in a hot car trunk through the length of an August day. Half a dozen aquariums bubbled along the walls and corners of the room, and another half dozen sat dark and stagnant, with occasional sulfur farts bubbling up through the murky scum. There was a drum-kit and some amps.

“Come on in,” said the Kid, picking up a carton of Friskees cat-food and pouring the contents into a black aquarium. The surface seethed with the frenzied feeding of opalescent beaks.

“My friend found this ball on the beach,” said Zep, holding up the sphere. “I think you want to pay a reward for it? I’m Zep.”

The Kid glanced up through the hair in his face. “On the beach, hug? I’ll bet. Gidget sent you, right?”

“Gidget who?” said Delbert, taking the ball and pushing Zep ahead of him into the Kid’s house. “Did she sing with the Auntie Christs? We love their stuff, don’t we Zep?” He broke into song: “‘I am the Auntie Christ! I look like Vincent Price! Wear black latex hosiery! Surfer girl is after me!’”

The Kid flicked them a nervous smile. His front teeth were broken, blackened, in need of caps. Zep was suddenly certain he had seen this kid many times…on the streets, or hanging out in front of the 7-11 at two in the morning, talking to the strangers who came and went, hitting on them for cigarettes and beer money. He repressed the dishonest urge to give the Kid a comradely clap on the back and reassure him that everything was going to be all right. Kid Beast was like a five-car pileup waiting for car number six.

“No, man, I’m talking about Tuttle Gidget, the chip billionaire.”

“Sweet,” said Zep. Everyone knew of Tuttle Gidget and his mansion on the hundred-acre estate on the top of a big hill north of town.”

“Gidget had the Auntie Christs up to his place to play for one of his like society dinners,” continued the Kid. “I bit a live squid…that was part of the new surf-music act we were breaking in. You know, bite into it and wave my head around with the tentacles coming out…“

“Did you get to see Gidget’s ‘48 Country Squire?” asked Del. I bet this ball is from him and he wants to give it to me!”

“Yeah, I guess I saw it. I don’t remember a lot about the evening. Somebody dosed me right before our second set and when I faded back in, the party was over, and the fucking band—my supposed friends—had all gone home without me. I was flaked out on the lawn and Gidget didn’t even notice me. And then I heard the sounds. Wait.”

Kid Beast started bopping around his living room, affixing little suction cups to the sides of his aquariums and hooking lengths of speaker wire to the suckers as he spoke. The wires all ran to a primitive mixing board, held together mainly by duct tape and rubber bands. Strange low noises began to ooze out of his speakers.

“It went kind of like this,” the Kid was saying. “The sound was coming from his swimming pool, and I was seeing colors. Thins like color three-dee TV pictures…one of them looked like you, Zep, come to think of it, and another was like your little friend. What’s his name?”

“My name is Del. I want what’s coming to me.”

“For sure. Why should I see something like Delbert?” Kid Beast shook his head in wonder, his dirty bangs batting against his dark eyes. “Anyway I’m seeing like ghost images and I’m hearing this weird bubbling music from the pool. Check it out. I think would be a great main sound for a new band.”

Kid Beast fiddled with the dials on his deck, and the room reverberated with aquatic belchings and bubblings. He was mixing up the aquarium sounds, wrenching them into obscene configurations that sounded like some mad punker vomiting into the gulfs of outer space.

The Kid looked proud. “Like, it’s so much uglier than anything any other group has got.”

“What happened after you woke up at Gidget’s?” asked Zep. “Did you get any more drugs?”

“Naw, man,” said the Kid. “You’re missing the point. The thing is, Gidget had somebody strapped to the diving board, a chick named Becka. She had her head hanging down over the end, with her long blonde hair touching the water. She was naked, arms and legs all tan, and you could see her T & A regions shining white in the dark. Gidget was standing over her on the diving board, wearing a wetsuit and holding a shimmering ball of light. Like that ball you have. Which is the point of this story. Did Gidget send you after me?”

“Becka?” said Zep. “I’d been wondering what happened to her.”

“I see her,” said Del, smiling and peering into his ball. “I see the girl you’re talking about. She turns into a burrito.”

“How right you are,” said Kid Beast with a bitter laugh. “Cause then the whole pool started to bubble and shake, and this huge orange-striped shell the color of a Creamsicle rose out of the water. There was a godawful smell. The shell tilted back under the diving board. It had tentacles—slithery orange tentacles, hundreds of ‘em. A giant nautilus. The feelers reached up and started writhing all over that poor Becka. It was planting something in her. When I saw that shit, man, I took off running. I wish I’d tried to save her. I bet Becka’s dead now. Her parents think she’s just run away. But the nautilus thing got her.”

In counterpoint to his narrative, Kid Beast had been mixing a nightmarish track that sounded like the ruminations of fish-eaten sailors playing Wurlitzers in a drowned shopping mall. His story chilled Zep, but Delbert was in another world: totally obliv.

“Gee,” said Delbert, glancing up and tossing the ball idly from hand to hand. “You think maybe we could get to meet Gidget?”

“What’s the matter with you, Del? You remember Becka. Didn’t you hear what they did to her?”

“I just know Gidget will give me that Woodie.”

“You really found that thing on the beach?” asked the Kid.

“Look for yourself,” said Zep. “It’s got your P. O. box number on it.”

Kid Beast shook his head and refused to touch the ball. “This is some kind of trick of Gidget’s. He wants to get that ball into my hands—like, maybe it will mark me, put a smell on me, so that tentacle thing knows where to find me. But no way, I’m not touching it.”

“That monster you saw with Becka,” said Zep, glancing down at his hands. “That was just a hallucination, right, Beast? Put the ball down, Delbert.”

“But…but what about my Woodie? And the girl? And the money and everything?”

“It’s called bait, Del. Put the ball in the trash. You’re better off without it.”

But Delbert clutched the little sphere to his chest. “You don’t understand, Zep. You’re just jealous cause you can’t see what I can see. I want what’s coming to me!”

Kid Beast gave Delbert a pitying look. “You know, Zep,” he said after a moment’s thought. “You guys should give the ball to Gidget. Not me. It’s Gidget’s anyway. Put the smell back on him before the nautilus wants to breed again.”

“Shit,” said Zep. He could see this turning into a full-on pain in the ass. He just hoped it didn’t interfere with his evening’s plans. “You mean like take it up to Gidget’s place? He’d never let us in.”

The Kid considered this. “Maybe not. But I know how to get past the gate. I’d like the chance to confront him about Becka. That shit was wrong. And while we’re at it, I’d dig another chance to hear that swimming-pool sound. I’ll bring a deck, man, and sample it. Yaaar. I’m glad you’re here to help me.”

“See, Zep,” gloated Delbert. He seemed to be hearing about every other word of what was said. “Let’s go to Gidget’s—he’s got my Woodie and everything. He’ll give me the big reward! That’s…that’s what the little shrimp things want. They’re telling me now, can’t you hear them? They’re telling me that Gidget wants to meet us. Especially you, Zep.”

This was definitely the worst Delbert had ever been. To some extent, Zep felt responsible—it was his surfboard, after all, that had put Delbert out of whack. ” “I’ll drive you guys up there,” said Zep slowly. “But you and me, Delbert, we get in, give Gidget the ball, ask for the reward, and get out . That’s it. In and out. And what the Kid does there is up to him.”

Delbert was pleased. He headed out the door toward the truck, hardly watching where he was going. The pitbull lunged, missed and fell over.

“Do you want to be in my new band?” Kid Beast asked Zep, upping the volume on his aquatic inferno for a last savoring second before switching off the power.

“I don’t play an instrument,” said Zep.

“Neither do I,” said the Kid. “That’s why I left the Aunties. They were starting sell out, getting into chords and shit.”

They drove through the narrow, winding hill streets of Surf City, past an endless repetition of miniature pastel-colored haciendas, each with a dwarf palm and a driftwood-and-bottleglass sculpture on the lawn. Zep didn’t trust Delbert to drive right now, and Del wasn’t interested in anything but the promises of his magic Sea Monkey sphere. Kid Beast sat between the two of them, giving occasional directions, though Zep already knew the way. Who didn’t?

While they were driving Zep kept thinking he saw pedestrians out of the corner of his eye. They’d pop out of nowhere and lurch towards the car. Zep would swerve, but then there’d be no one at all. It happened so often that he started to pick up on what seemed like a pattern. He only saw the ghost pedestrians at certain kinds of intersections, the ones were the streets were curved and one was running uphill. The weird walkers all looked like Kid Beast. Zep figured that Delbert’s ball was doing it to him, flashing little glimpses of his passenger onto his retina and then scrambling them with the crazy lines of the curbs. Thank God they were getting rid of the thing.

Soon the came to the pink stucco wall surrounding Gidget’s estate. Far ahead Zep could see the turreted roof of the mansion. The property wall held a wrought-iron gate decorated with dinosaurs. Long ago, when silicon was something that people were content to leave on beaches, the Gidget clan had made a tidy California fortune in oil. They weren’t the sort of people who forgot a thing like that. Zep had read somewhere that they’d even put Tyrannosaurus Rex on their family crest.

“Right,” said Kid Beast. “Honk four fast and three slow to make the gate open. Don’t worry, there’s only a few servants, and they stay in the house. We’ll see that prick Gidget himself, and, man, I’m going to let him have it.” Zep’s horn was broken, of course, so the three of them had to scream, “Honk-honk-honk-honk! Hooonk-hooonk-hooonk!” like rutting dinosaurs. A wild-eyed metal pterandon and a dainty diplodocus disengaged from a primordial French kiss, and the gate swung open with a wounded, rusty shriek.

Water sprinklers ran continuously all over the estate, and the grounds were lushly overgrown with exotic flowers and shrubs. It was more like a jungle than a formal garden—like something in one of those lost world movies. Kid Beast sat up, alertly shooting glances this way and that. “He’s got a whole maze of roadways here,” he said. They passed several side roads, and then the Kid pointed. “See the fork in the drive up there? The main entrance is around to the right. The pool and the garage are in back on the left. I’m thinking maybe it’s not so cool to confront Gidget. Turn left. We’ll throw the fucking bad-luck-ball in the pool, tape some sounds and split.”

Zep started to steer, but Delbert shouted, “No!” and wrenched the steering-wheel around to the right. Zep had a momentary feeling of being pulled in two and then, dammit, they were tooling up the drive towards the big house.

“Wrong way!” yelled Kid Beast, and pushed Delbert away from the steering-wheel. Zep hit the brakes and started to back up. He twisted around in his seat, staring out the pickup’s rear window. Just before he got back to the fork, a brilliantly polished ‘48 Country Squire Woodie came cruising out from the left fork that they’d missed. There were four people in the Woodie, one in back and three in front. At first all Zep saw was the beautiful blonde surfer chick sitting between the two guys in front. And then he noticed the faces of the others.

“Whoah,” he whispered. “That’s us.”

“There she is!” hollered Del. “My car, just like the shrimp things promised! Look, Zep, there’s beer in back and that glow on the dash is Jesus, and there’s three boards in back and everything. Don’t let them get away.”

But they did get away…they disappeared around a clump of bougainvillea, their happy voices fading like radio static into the hiss of the sprinklers, the chunka-chunka-pfft of lawn birds. Before Zep could decide what to do next, a plump man in shades and white suit came pooting down the drive in a golf cart. He was holding a machine-gun.

“That’s Logomarsino, Gidget’s bodyguard,” said Kid Beast, sinking down under the dash. “Don’t let him see me, man.”

“What are you worried about?” Zep asked sarcastically. “Guy’s only got an Uzi.”

Del leapt out of the car and waved his ball at the bodyguard. “Hey! How about my reward?”

The man in the golf cart, startled by what must have looked like a threatening gesture, squeezed off a burst. The bullets whizzed overhead, and the boys became studiously still. After the shots, the man stepped out of the cart and stared at them uncertainly. “You’re not real,” he croaked finally.

“Yes I am!” said Delbert indignantly. “You’re just trying to get out of giving me what I deserve.”

“I don’t think you’re real,” repeated the bodyguard. There was a noise in the distance: four short honks and three long ones. The bodyguard hopped back on his golf cart. “Now that sounds real!” he said, and sped off downhill.

“I want my reward,” said Del, plaintively. He started up the driveway to Gidget’s house. Zep took the precaution of turning his truck around, and then the and Kid Beast followed. On his way up the hill, Zep saw a couple more of the fast false images amidst Gidget’s jungle shrubbery—this time it was Del and the blonde girl. The images had a way of congealing out of flecks of color. There’d be like bright dots in the air, and then the dots would slide together in some filthy hyperdimensional way, forming a slightly grainy image of someone or something which would soon deconstruct itself into dots that drifted away like gnats.

“Hey Kid,” Zep finally thought to ask. “You see what I see?”

“Naw,” said Kid Beast. “I don’t see none of them freaky demonic manifestations, dude.” He lifted up the crucifix that hung from his neck and gave it a kiss.

Obviously Delbert was seeing the images, as he kept trying to talk to the ghosts, asking them when he’d get what he had coming. “Give it up, Delbert,” snapped Kid Beast, but now the mansion’s great madrone doors were swinging open to reveal a trim taut figure, all sheathed in shiny black. He held a glowing crystal in one hand, and there was a static of false images crowded around him like a ragged aura.

“Murderer!” screamed Kid Beast, flipping into a frenzy. “You killed that poor girl!”

“Hell, Beast, the dude’s wearing a wetsuit,” said Zep. “How bad can he be if he surfs?”

Seeing the weirdness and wealth, Zep was also flashing that no doubt Gidget had a monster stash somewhere. A pile of coke like in Scarface, right, a mound that you could just lower your snoggering face right down into. A fucking sandpile, man. Just thinking this, Zep could see the coke—or maybe it was acid-laced meth—sitting on a silver tray on a little three-legged table right at Gidget’s side. Zep gave Del a sharp jostle, grabbed the magic ball, and sprang first up the manse’s marble steps.

Delbert’s ball and Gidget’s ball picked up on each other. Little laser beams shot out of them, dancing off Zep and Gidget and the images around them. The billionaire frogman extended his one empty hand as a focus for the skittering beams, and within seconds all the little lines of light from Zep” ball had woven together into five brilliant strands, each one of them ending at one of Gidget’s fingertips.

Then Gidget closed his fist and the ball flew forward into his palm, carrying Zep with it. Now Zep was surrounded by the miasma of duplicate images which clung to Gidget like body odor; in fact, he was shaking the billionaire’s hand while a wiry tycoon arm slipped around his shoulder and gave him a friendly squeeze, leading him through the big doors and into the mansion.

“Get out of there, man!” he heard the Beast calling.

“Gimmie my ball, Zep, you weenie!”

But those were dim sounds, fading as he basked in the proximity of inconceivable wealth. Wealth, yes, it poured from the man. “Well, well,” Mr. Gidget was saying. “You’ve finally come to see me.” The madrone doors slammed shut, leaving Zep’s friends outside. He glanced around, looking around for that tremendous stash, but it was nowhere to be seen.

Gidget tossed the two balls from hand to hand like a juggler. “I’m quite pleased, yes. I sent my second sphere out on an errand this morning, and I’d wondered if it would really return. But I should have known better. These things pull the dimensions together so nicely, and all through the marvelous power of circumstance. There are no accidents, don’t you agree?”

“Definitely,” said Zep, feeling unaccountably mellow. The sounds of his friends pounding on the doors seemed very far away. “Deep down, everything always fits.”

“You sound sure of yourself,” said Gidget. “I like that in a young man. And such a strong-looking fellow. A surfer, am I right? I wonder, though. What use would a simple surf-bum have for an advanced piece of computer technology like a million-dollar Systems Complex CAM8 chip?”

“You—you—what are you talking about, man?”

“I believe you know what I mean. Someone bombed and robbed the Systems Complex warehouse…six months ago, hmmmm? Systems Complex is a wholly owned subsidiary of Gidgetdyne.”

A picture of Chaos Attractor danced out of the little ball and began zooming around Gidget’s head. A small figure stood on the board, a small lean image of Zep.

“Look,” said Zep, abandoning any hope of wall-papering his crime. “You want your CAM8 back? I’ve only been testing it out for you, Mr. Gidget. I’ve got it in my truck outside. In my surfboard.”

“Oh no, no, no. The CAM8 is obsolete now. Six months ago it was worth a million. But now—now all any of our customers would want is the new CAM10. They don’t know this yet, but they will soon. At present there’s only two CAM10s. The CAM8 simulated a space that was, oh, two-and-a-half dimensional. But the new CAM10 handles five dimensions, one of which is time. That’s why it was so easy for it to find you. Look.”

Gidget pried up the base of Del’s ball to reveal a glowing red jewel. He snapped the base shut again and the hidden hinges disappeared. “What makes the CAM10 chip particularly effective is that it drives a holographic laser display. When we’re through testing these two prototypes, we’ll go into full production.”

“How did it find me?” asked Zep. If they could just keep talking, maybe everything would be OK.

“An interesting question. Do you know about chaos theory? Of course you do. Why else would you have put the CAM8 chip in a surfboard?” Gidget was warming to his topic. “The CAM chips are so information-theoretically rich that they act as strange attractors in the fact-space of our reality.”

“I’m keyin’ you, dude,” said Zep. “Wave on this: I call my CAM8 surfboard Chaos Attractor!”

“You know, Zep,” beamed Gidget. “Maybe our research end could use a mind like yours. Frankly I’d been planning to let Cthulha’s daughter implant her neonate into the flesh of the CAM8 thief. But maybe—”

There was the sound of gunfire, of yelps, and of running feet. The front doors swung open to reveal the same Uzi-wielding bodyguard from before.

“Ah, Logomarsino,” said Gidget. “Have you taken care of our other intruders?”

“Hard to get a fix on them with all the ghost images,” said the bodyguard. “I just chased some of them away from your door.” He reached out and pinched Zep’s arm. “This is some live meat at last. The kid you were looking for, right? Let me tie him up and take him out to Cthulha’s daughter in the pool.

“Bag that action,” said Zep. “I’m R&D. I’m a computer scientist, dig? And what is this Cthulha’s daughter, anyway?”

“The spawn of a Great Old One,” said Gidget. “Neonate of an evil goddess-creature from another dimension. The CAM10 drew Cthulha here; she appeared in my swimming-pool the day I brought the chip home. It seems our supercomputational process has become so sensitive that different levels of reality are able to tune in upon it and to realize themselves. It’s a two-way street, it seems. Without Cthulha’s influence, I don’t think our hardware would function. But she’s a rather demanding guest. Although she only lives forty-nine days, on the last day of her life she produces a neonate that she needs to implant in human flesh. Today’s the day for Cthulha’s daughter to die—and to reproduce. Yes, today’s the day for the third in the line of the California Cthulha.”

“Cthulha’s granddaughter?” said Zep uncertainly.

“A male will do,” said Logomarsino. “And it’s not going to be me or Mr. Gidget.”

A faint sound came from the mansion’s real door. Delbert yelling and kicking at the back door. “GODDAMN YOU ALL, I WANT WHAT’S COMING TO ME!” Gidget and Logomarsino nodded and smiled at each other. Safe here in their intoxicating dimensional image zazz, Zep had to fight back the urge to grin along with them.

A minute later they were all at the poolside. Logomarsino stripped Del nude, tied Del’s hands tied behind him with rubber surgical cord, and cut his screams cut off with a ball-gag. Gidget stood to one side with the Uzi, preventing Zep and Kid Beast from trying to stop things. Now Logomarsino strapped Delbert the diving board. The pool water was black and fetid, as if filled with backed-up sewage. Kid Beast raised his eyebrows and surreptitiously flipped on his tape-recorder.

The pool water roiled, little pieces of garbage and algae floating up like a small red tide, and in the center of the filth flower appeared strands of green-yellow hair and a face—a heart-stopping beautiful California Girl face, ah, noble straight nose and lips thick enough to toothlessly peel a Sunkist orange! The face of Becka.

The nude Becka—or Cthulha’s daughter—slipped out of the foul water. She held a knife, a big black anodized diver’s knife, and in an instant she was at the diving board, the great blade poised over Delbert’s genitals. Zep covered his eyes. The poor little dude was about to get what was coming to him.

There were sproings and a splash. Zep had to look. The girl had cut Delbert free and thrown her knife in the pool! She was kissing Del’s cheek! Before anyone else could react, Zep shoved Gidget and his gun into the pool, and then Beast had done the same to Logomarsino! Like a complete pinhead, Del scooped up his magic ball, floating in the water at Gidget’s side and then they were on their way.

In a trice, the chick and three caballeros had run around the house onto the driveway. Where Zep’s truck had been, there now sat the green ‘48 Woodie, laden with the three new surfboards and Chaos Attractor, too. They jumped in and burned rubber, slaloming down Gidget’s hill, through the back streets of Surf City, and onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

The summer air beat in the windows. The ocean was on their left, the PCH was clear. It was late and calm and the sun was setting west over the slick tubes and all the fudds and foobars had gone home.

“Twist up a fuckin’ jay from that key, Del.”

“For true.”

The close-mouthed naked girl watched them, stroking Del gently on the upper arm. When he’d made the jay, she took it from him and lit it with the Woodie’s built-in butane lighter. She smoked oddly, just opening her lips far enough to slip the reefer tip in, and then exhaling the thick blue smoke sharply through her nose. She did this three times and then she silently proffered the stick to Kid Beast in the back seat.

“Later,” said he. “Right now I want this.” He handed up DAT tape. “These are the Auntie Christs’ best sounds. Is it really you, Becka? Do you remember what happened at the party? How did you ever get away from that big whacked-out nautilus?”

But Becka only smiled and didn’t answer. She’d never been a big talker anyway. She looked OK, even if Logomarsino had called her Cthulha’s daughter. Zep slotted the tape into the player. Del took a hit of the dope and passed it to Zep. Everything was wonderful. The water was beautiful; the red tide was gone. Stokin’ tubes were breaking in long freight-train crashes. The energizing surf sound interlaced with the wasted plangent music wafting out of the Woodie’s mighty sound system.

Zep smiled to feel the smooth-running Woodie roll them along so well. The pre-Populuxe Studebaker shape of the car reminded him of a car he’d thought he’d seen an ad for when he’d been a little boy. A car that had wings tucked under its fenders so that if you jerked the right lever the car would zoom off the crest of a hill, stubby and heavy as ever but with the engine roaring and making ti fly and you driving with the steering wheel. Whoah, dude. Maybe that dream too was about to come true. And, thinking of dreams, it was about time to meet Penny. Bitchen Kitchen would be booming just now. One more mile on the PCH, cut left onto the Point, and then they’d be carving for true.

The four of them were awesomely well-gunned, mused Zep, what with Chaos Attractor safe in back with the beer and the three bitchin’ new boards. What a car! Del had been right! This was magic, and no kind of black magic at all, as you could plainly see by the mildly glowing plastic Jesus on the dash.

“Hi, Jesus,” said Zep. “Thank you.”

Now they were past the crater-site of the old San Diablo N-plant and freewheeling down the long last slope before the road bottomed out and jogged right. The long slope down to the sea was empty.

Zep could see the Bitchen Kitchen parking spot down there past the turn, a beige patch between road and sharp cliff-edge with the surprisingly distant ocean collaged in behind. Bitchen Kitchen, where the gnarliest nudists, perverts, and surfers hung.

Zep loved skidding into the lot here. It was a sport. Local legend said that if you gathered enough speed and went straight, you could actually shoot up off the low ski-ramp of the sheer bluff and, if the waves were right, splash down safe in a deep, surging kettle. A tourist called Tuck Playfair had actually done it in ‘68.

Becka was all over Del by now, she was unbuttoning his shirt and even putting her hands in his pants. Del had never looked happier in his life. Even Kid Beast in back was happy, though he couldn’t stop staring nervously out the wagon’s open back tailgate. All dudes present sensed this could be the start of a righteous and functional partnership.

“I tolk you,” said Del, his voice actually choking up, so great was his joy. “I…I tolk Zep I’d get whak’s c-coming to me. And right now—” Delbert fought back his emotion by raising the volume and the pitch of his voice. “Right now! It’s happening!”

The silent blonde Becka—or Cthulha’s daughter—slipped Del’s shorts all the way off, cast them to the winds and leaned slowly forward, finally opening her mouth. Kid Beast was still staring out the back, and Zep was watching the road, so at first only Delbert could see the appalling structures in the girl’s mouth. There was something majorly wrong in there…instead of teeth she had like two hard cartilaginous skin-covered ridges. Delbert started pushing her away, even as she strained forward, opening her mouth wider and wider and making a noise like Patty Duke playing Helen Keller by imitating a person taking a shit.

“Wuuuh. Uuuuuunnnnuuuunnnh. Nnnnnggggggggh!”

“Hold on,” Delbert was saying. He sounded worried, but Zep was too polite to glance over. “Wait a minute. HEY, ZEP—”

There was a popping noise far behind them. A white Mercedes back there, coming up fast. A sudden spiderweb appeared in the windshield’s glass. “It’s Gidget and Logomarsino!” screamed Kid Beast. “They’re coming up fast!” Another gunshot, another hole in the windshield.

Out of the corner of his eye, Zep could see the girl’s mouth open wide and some like beak come pushing out—”

And Del is all, “AAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGHHH! WHAT ARE YOU—”

And Cthulha’s daughter is all, “Yeeeeeek. WurraWurraWurra. Yeeeeeek. WurraWurraWurra.”

And Kid Beast is all, “Floor it!”

And the cliff edge was coming right up and now, before Zep could even get his foot off the gas, Cthulha’s daughter snaked her surprisingly flexible leg over and mashed on his foot sending them out, up, and into the air two hundred empty feet above the sun-gilded surf. And then there was this like click, and the Woodie changed back into Zep’s pickup. It was Zep and Del and the girl in the front seat of the pickup, with Kid Beast in the bed of the truck with Chaos Attractor in back. And now Cthulha’s daughter was like coming apart, unfolding her hands and arms into feelers, there was a striped shell on her back for a moment, but that shattered and split —

“It’s an alien nautilus!” screamed Kid Beast, peering in through the pickup’s rear window. There was a flicker of light; Del’s sphere was shooting rays back towards Gidget’s car. And now Logomarsino and Gidget behind them drove off the cliff too.

Zep hung onto the steering wheel as if it were a lifesaver-ring. The pickup that had been a Woodie was bucking in heavy air turbulence, in a froth of three-dimensional chaos surf. The primordial mollusc girl threw herself against the pickup’s rear window, and it popped out clean and went tumbling away. She went flapping and wriggling out the hole, throwing herself to the wind. She fell away from the truck, but somehow evaded the pull of gravity, caught in the lines of force that had snarled pursued and pursuer somewhere outside of time. The pickup and the Mercedes hung impossibly suspended in midair. The waves far below them had stopped moving; the water was frozen in its endlessly various shapes.

A trumpet blast deafened them. Cthulha’s daughter was still unfolding, her hair thickening into long prehensile tendrils; her body turning orange and white, unfolding and expanding. She seemed to be caught in a slipstream which drew her swiftly and steadily toward a point midway between the two cars. As she hit that point, her whole cephalopod body shuddered. Her tentacles whipped out in either direction, half of them snarling in the bumper of Gidget’s Mercedes, the other half clutching the tail of Zep’s pickup. Her feelers came slithering across the bed of the truck, past Chaos Attractor, rustling among the empty beer cans and clam shells, feeling for Kid Beast.

“Here, Del,” gasped Zep. “Take the wheel.”

Delbert grasped the wheel, and Zep took Delbert’s magic ball.

Zep squeezed out through the pickup’s rear window and—beautiful surf music filled the sky.

“Stomp on these tentacle things!” cried the Kid. “She’s trying to get me!”

“Hang loose, Kid,” said Zep. The surf music was flowing down his spine, into his hands and legs. He knew what to do.

Kid Beast made a muffled, grunting sound, battling a thinly writhing weave of bloodworm tentacles that kept trying to creep like a living Persian carpet down his throat. Zep grabbed hold of the thin black fin of his surfboard and tugged. The tentacles overlaying it recoiled. Dragging the board after him, Zep knee-walked to the back of the truck and pulled the board halfway off the truck-bed edge.

“Where the fuck are you going?” cried Kid Beast. “Help me, man!”

Zep poised himself upon Chaos Attractor. “I am.” He gave himself a little push and out he went, Del’s magic CAM10 ball clasped in one outstretched hand.

The music was blaring, a deep descending scale of bass notes that continually verged on some archetypal core of surf sound. The free-floating shelless nautilus was singing high-pitched harmonies. Her tendrils were sweeping up and around in either direction, forming a vast figure eight, an infinity loop. The frozen world glistened beneath them. Zep started the long slide down towards the core of the nautilus. The beast saw him coming and opened her beak. With a well-aimed gesture, Zep threw the ball right into her mouth, dug his board into the air, and up around the loop towards the Mercedes.

That idiot Logomarsino leaned out his window shooting his machine-gun. Zep slyved this way and that, faking the guy. The bullets streamed past Zep and past the nautilus, arcing up along the curve of the loop, swarming back down again towards their origin, shattering the windshield of the Mercedes. Gidget hollered in fury. Zep surfed down upon them, and snatched Gidget’s CAM10 ball from his grasp. Zep air-surfed another trip around the great ribbon of the chaotic tentacle pattern, and threw the second magic ball into the beak of Cthulha’s daughter.

The effect was dramatic. The magic that had pulled the Great Old Ones into our world was neutralized now, merged back with its source. There was a furious flicker of images, like time running backwards. The nautilus tentacles pulled back into the central form, and Cthulha’s daughter was once again a girl named Becka.

The only catch was that all of them were still high up in the air above Bitchen Kitchen: Zep, Delbert, Gidget, Logomarsino, Kid Beast, Becka, the car and the truck, all dropping down towards the big basin of surf. The water was deep, but known for its sharp rocks. Zep dug the nose of his board downward, shooting to get beneath the others, and as he dived, he sent up a spiral of force, an invisible sliding board. Glancing up, he saw the others being pulled into his helical wake, their free fall softened into a safe glide.

Even so, the water rushed up fast enough to send Zep spinning. The black water scrambled Zep’s mind; the hungry waves pulled his board away from him. He heard a watery humming, that same old surf music, and then Delbert was pulling him to the surface.

They’d all made it, and Becka was her same old self, albeit once again way too good for Delbert. Zep had saved them all!

And there, on the shore, cheering and waving, stood Penny and Del’s real girlfriend Jen. They’d witnessed every one of Zep’s awesomely stoked moves.

“Penny!” called Zep. “Hey, Penny!”

“Zep! Let’s fuck! I love you!”



Note on “Chaos Surfari” (Written with Mark Laidlaw)

Written in 1988.

Interzone, March/April 1989.

Marc and I definitely wanted to do another surf story, and this ramshackle piece was the result. The form that the nautilus stretches herself into is supposed to be the classic chaotic form known as the Lorenz Attractor. At the time we wrote it, Marc and I didn’t have the ending quite straight, and we got the notion of “ending” the story by taking the last third of it and breaking that into pieces that would be printed upside-down, backwards, and/or mirror-reversed, these pieces to be set into the earlier parts of the story. Interzone actually printed the story that way for us, but we ended up not feeling really happy with the way it came out. Trying to make your text physically resemble a Lorenz Attractor is not in fact a good way to communicate a tale! For this reprinting I reworked the ending enough that it’s OK to just print it normally.

The CAM8 and CAM10 chips mentioned in this story and in “Probability Pipeline” were inspired by a special piece of computer hardware called the CAM6 which I was using for cellular automata simulations. The CAM6 was designed by a brilliant pair of guys called Norman Margolus and Tom Toffoli. I remember seeing them at a cellular automata conference in Los Alamos and telling them that I was working on a story in which a CAM10 attracts a giant squid-creature from another dimension. In his Italian accent, Toffoli said, “We are already expecting the giant squid with the CAM7.”



Table of Contents
Shop for ebook or print version of Complete Stories.

Big Jelly
(Written with Bruce Sterling)

The screaming metal jellyfish dragged long, invisible tentacles across the dry concrete acres of the San Jose airport. Or so it seemed to Tug—Tug Mesoglea, math-drunk programmer and fanatic aquarist. Tug was working on artificial jellyfish, and nearly everything looked like a jellyfish to him, even airplanes. Tug was here in front of the baggage claim to pick up Texas billionaire Revel Pullen.

It had taken a deluge of phone-calls, faxes and e-mail to lure the reclusive Texan venture-capitalist from his decrepit, polluted East Texas oil-fields, but Tug had now coaxed Revel Pullen to a second face-to-face meet in California. At last, it seemed that Tug’s unconventional high-tech startup scheme would charge into full-scale production. The prospect of success was sweet.

Tug had first met Revel in Monterey two months earlier, at the Spring symposium of the ACM SIGUSC, that is, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group for Underground and Submarine Computation.

At the symposium, Tug had given a badly botched presentation on artificial jellyfish. He’d arrived with 500 copies of a glossy desktop-published brochure: “Artificial Jellyfish: Your Route to Postindustrial Global Competitiveness!” But when it came time for Tug’s talk, his 15-terabyte virtual jellyfish-demo had crashed so hideously that he couldn’t even reboot his machine—a cheap Indonesian Sun-clone laptop that Tug now used as a bookend. Tug had brought some slides as a backup, but of course the slide-tray had jammed. And, worst of all, the single working prototype of Tug’s plastic artificial jellyfish had burst in transit to Monterey. After the talk, Tug, in a red haze of shame, had flushed the sodden rags of decomposing gel down the conference center’s john.

Tug had next headed for the cocktail lounge, and there the garrulous young Pullen had sought him out, had a few drinks with him, and had even picked up the tab—Tug’s wallet had been stolen the night before by a cute older busboy.

Since Tug’s topic was jellyfish, the raucous Pullen had thought it funny to buy rounds of tequila jelly-shots. The slimy jolts of potent boozy Jell-O had combined with Revel’s bellowed jokes, brags, and wild promises to ease the pain of Tug’s failed speech.

The next day, Tug and Revel had brunched together, and Revel had written Tug a handsome check as earnest money for pre-development expenses. Tug was to develop an artificial jellyfish capable of undersea oil prospecting.

As software applications went, oil-drilling was a little roughnecked and analog for Tug’s taste; but the money certainly looked real enough. The only troubling aspect about dealing with Revel was the man’s obsession with some new and troublesome organic slime which his family’s oldest oil-well had recently tapped. Again and again, the garish Texan had steered the conversation away from jellyfish and onto the subject of ancient subterranean slime.

Perched now on the fire-engine red hood of his expensive Animata sports car, Tug waited for Revel to arrive. Tug had curly dark hair and a pink-cheeked complexion. He wore shorts, a sport shirt, and Birkenstock sandals with argyle socks. He looked like a depraved British schoolboy. He’d bought the Animata with his house-money nest-egg when he’d learned that he would never, ever, be rich enough to buy a house in California. Leaning back against the windshield of his car, Tug stared at the descending airplanes and thought about jellyfish trawling through sky-blue seawater.

Tug had whole tankfuls of jellies at home: one tank with flattish moon jellies each with its four whitish circles of sex organs, another tank with small clear bell jellies from the eel grass of Monterey bay, a large tank with sea nettles that had long frilly oral arms and whiplike purple tentacles covered with stinging cells, a smaller tank of toadstool-like spotted jellies from Jellyfish Lake in Palau, a special tank of spinning comb-jellies with trailing ciliated arms, a Japanese tank with Japanese umbrella jellies—and more.

Next to the arsenal of tanks was the huge color screen of Tug’s workstation. Tug was no biologist; he’d blundered under the spell of the jellies while using mathematical algorithms to generate cellular models of vortex sheets. To Tug’s mathematician’s eye, a jellyfish was a highly perfected relationship between curvature and torsion, just like a vortex sheet, only a jellyfish was working off dynamic tension and osmotic stress. Real jellyfish were gnarlier than Tug’s simulations. Tug had become a dedicated amateur of coelenteratology.

Imitating nature to the core, Tug found a way to evolve and improve his vortex sheet models via genetic programming. Tug’s artificial jellyfish algorithms competed, mutated, reproduced and died inside the virtual reality of his workstation’s sea-green screen. As Tug’s algorithms improved, his big computer monitor became a tank of virtual jellyfish, of graphic representations of Tug’s equations, pushing at the chip’s computational limits, slowly pulsing about in dimly glowing simulation-space.

The living jellies in the tanks of true seawater provided an objective standard towards which Tug’s programs could try to evolve. At every hour of the day and night, video cameras peered into the spot-lit water tanks, ceaselessly analyzing the jellyfish motions and feeding data into the workstation.

The recent, crowning step of Tug’s investigations was his manufacturing breakthrough. His theoretical equations had become actual piezoplastic constructions—soft, watery, gelatinous robot jellies of real plastic in the real world. These models were produced by using an intersecting pair of laser beams to sinter—that is, to join together by heating without melting—the desired shape within a matrix of piezoplastic microbeads. The sintered microbeads behaved like a mass of cells: each of them could compress or elongate in response to delicate vibratory signals, and each microbead could in turn pass information to its neighbors.

A completed artificial jellyfish model was a floppy little umbrella that beat in steady cellular waves of excitation and relaxation. Tug’s best plastic jellyfish could stay active for up to three weeks.

Tug’s next requirement for his creations was “a killer application,” as the software tycoons called it. And it seemed he might have that killer app in hand, given his recent experiments in making the jellyfish sensitive to chemical scents and signals. Tug had convinced Revel—and half-believed himself—that the artificial jellies could be equipped with radio-signaling chips and set loose beneath the sea floor. They could sniff out oil-seeps in the ocean bottom and work their way deep into the vents. If this were so, then artificial jellyfish would revolutionize undersea oil prospecting.

The only drawback, in Tug’s view, was that offshore drilling was a contemptible crime against the wonderful environment that had bred the real jellies in the first place. Yet the plan seemed likely to free up Texas venture capital, enough capital to continue his research for at le