Friday, February 20, 2015

Honest Opinion

We draw your attention to a man in his late 20s in an antiseptic hotel room resembling the ersatz environment at the end of 2001 which the aliens created as a reference frame for the poor unsuspecting astronaut before they turned him into a space fetus. Let’s call him “Jeff.” That’s not his real name, but nobody wrote that down.
Jeff is lying in bed in a business suit in this suite in the Marriott from Hell. Fully clothed, except for the lack of shoes and socks. The lights are on, but he’s out. A girl giggles in the next room, keeps doing it, trilling up and down the giggle scales, eventually pulling Jeff up to the threshold of waking consciousness. His eyes do the REM thing. Jeff’s eyes in Jeff’s head and Jeff’s watching. How, exactly? As logic holes go, it’s a sucking chest wound. Jeff notices it.
That’s me. Wearing a suit? I’m … Shit. I’m looking down at myself from the ceiling. Looking down at my own eyes? How …
At which point, Jeff opens his eyes.
And sits up in bed.
Looks around. Generic hotel room, as noted. Bad.
I didn’t check into this hotel room.
Yeah. Bad. Grabs his … lapels?
I don’t wear suits, either.
Calculated insult. Very bad.
A young girl’s voice, lilting behind the wall.
No answer. OK.
Bad. bad, bad.
Jeff lies back down. Studies the popcorn ceiling for a very long time. A rational response, given the irrational circumstances. Said circumstances being, potentially, exceedingly bad. Dante’s Inferno bad.
By way of explanation, Jeff is a music critic. Global bigmouth on that node all the kids like. Out of pigheaded principle or death wish, he speaks his mind. Give me your honest opinion, Jeff. Like an idiot, he does. Happy words, occasionally. Sad, angry words usually. Those unhappy words cost various, powerful iProp holders money. In the vid they'll eventually make of Jeff’s life, they’re the Bad Guys. And they’re very pissed off. Chances are they’re paying Jeff back. Chances are, they grabbed him. And stuck him here. Where’s here?
Shitty, bland hotel room. Swirls like the Cygnus the Swan and Orion on the ceiling. If Jeff was a travel and leisure critic, he’d give this place a lousy review. So where …
 This hotel room could be realspace. Physical. But Jeff doubts it. It’s too freaking perfect. Mind realm, not physical. Skullspace.
That’s what it smells like. Yep.
Chances are, Jeff’s body is a drooling, catatonic wreck, wired up in a black clinic. Jeff’s mind, meanwhile, is “here,” utterly helpless, in an imaginary realm where his tormentors can rattle his cage at will, at their mercy, ha-ha-ha. Takes serious resources to do that. Which the Bad Guys have. Most likely scenario.
But there’s still a slim, remote, infinitesimal possibility Jeff’s workmates are messing with him. It’s those kooky social outcasts back at the node, those cut-ups. This is a joke, see? They’re funning with me. Sure, Jeff.
Might as well get it over with.
Jeff stops staring at the ceiling. He gets on his shoeless feet, starts padding around the shiny space, checking it out. That spatially indeterminate, girlish voice keeps humming. Jeff calls out to her.
“Hello? Come out, come out, where ever you are.”
Just buying time. Tries the fone, dead. Tries the front door—the obsidian-black front door, which actually looks like the monolith in 2001. Gropes, gropes. OK. No doorknob. That’s how cold this is. Not even the casual sadism of a doorknob that doesn’t turn, or turns and turns. (Doesn’t sound like a workplace gag, does it?) No. It ain’t the node nerds. It’s the Bad Guys, definitely. And they’re not playing with him. Jeff’s not worth the trouble. No suspense, no build up. They cut to the chase, these people. Right up front, the door tells him he’s stuck, we’ve got you where we want you, this ain’t real.
“Hmmmm. Hmmm.”
What the hell is she singing?
The reference pops up in Jeff’s musicologist mind. Alas my love you do me wrong. “Greensleeves.” Public domain. Henry VIII supposedly. Christians ripped it off with that “What Child Is This”... Who cares? Focus.
Jeff does another barefoot circuit around the “hotel room,” finds the sweet songstress not. Finally enters the oversized bathroom. Looks at the mirror, looks in it. Sees his own reflection. Pretty much what you expect to see in a mirror. What you don’t expect --
This crazy-eyed teenaged girl standing next to his reflection. Standing to his right, in mirrorspace. Which means she’d be …
 Looks left. But she’s not there.
Looks back at the mirror.
There she is.
Just in the mirror. OK.
She giggles. Jeff shouts, looking for the hidden cam.
“OK, guys. I don’t wanna play.”
As-in the guys back at the node. Jeff’s still desperately clinging to the hope that his pals are pranking him.
Mirror Girl wrinkles her nose.
 “He doesn’t want to play.”
 “OK, Jeff. Seriously.”
Smile. Merciless. Eyes like green whirlpools.
Jeff studies mirror. Sees his reflection. Sees the smiling greeneyed girl standing next to his reflection, viewer’s left. Black hair, like the fabric of space. Yeah, too sexy, too young, too crazy. Just my type. The Bad Guys know what they’re doing.
“I’m here,” he says.
“You’re there.”
“My reflection is …But you’re …”
Jeff pushes out his left hand. Mirror Jeff extends his right hand, reaching out to Mirror Girl. But she sidesteps out of the way.
“OK. It’s pretty clear this is not really happening.”
“Wow, you’re so smart. It’s like all in your mind, right?”
Jeff jabs to his left. Mirror Girl dodges.
“You’re not here. This is either Wonderland or skullspace.”
“Yeah.  Or I am here—in a camo suit. But the mirror makes me visible.” Little shake of the hips. Boom boom. “So, this could be realspace.”
“OK. It could.”
And flying monkeys could emerge from Jeff’s ass and make all content free. Or she’d give him a straight answer if he asks her name. He bites his tongue and doesn’t say that. He asks the question she won’t answer.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Who’s behind this?”
“Oh, do I bore you? Gee I’m really, really sorry.”
“No, I’m really, really sorry.”
“Where am I?”
“51°25' N, 33°32' E.”
“What’s there?”
“Abandoned missile silo. Medical stuff. Computers. You.”
“Any other questions?”
What do you want?
That’s the logical question to ask her. The bear trap the Bad Guys figure he’ll stick his leg into.
What do you want?
Jeff’s biting his tongue again. It’s not his style
He wants to say, “Fuck you. I know how this works. The Bad Guys got me. The iProp holders I’ve pissed off. They got me trapped in a dungeon of the mind and they’re ready to rattle my cage. ‘What do I want?’ That question’s the trigger. You’ll start talking in a weird voice. “What do we want? What do you think we want, Jeff?” Then I’ll fall to my needs and start begging and bargaining. Oh please don’t hurt me. Then you’ll laugh and start hurting me. I’m not stupid. Fuck you, OK?”
Thank God he didn’t say that. But the way she’s looking at him, biting her lower lip. Fuck. He did say it.
“The Bad Guys won’t hurt you. Sorry.”
“Oh great. They’re not going to torture me—and you’re sorry? Why?”
She’s going to torture you.
“Oh great. Then what …”
“I’m sorry.”
“Let me out. Please?”
“I’m rilly, rilly sorry.”
“Rilly.” Valley Girl lingo. SoCal, right? Hometown patois. Or she loaded it. You never know these days. Real, not real.
Jeff isn’t worried about the iProp holders anymore. He’s worried about. Something familiar about. Her. If he wasn’t such an idiot, he’d get it.
 “I’m sorry!”
She’d been shouting that for awhile. Jeff drifted off, lost the thread.
“Yeah, me. I’m really sorry.”
Sorry. For dirty deeds done or dirty deeds planned? Rich chick, crazy. Maybe she’s some sick freak trapped me in skullspace for S&M torture. How do I state that delicately?
“What is this, some kind of sex thing?”
“No. And it’s certainly not torture, bad boy.”
 “Who said …”
“You. Not yet.”
She smiles. Those whirlpool eyes.
“Microexpressions. Tongue. T. . roof of the mouth.”
What the hell are you?
 “Torture, from Latin root, tortu, to twist. No, it’s not like those cruelfun vids, no. Sorry! Bad girl implying don’t-hurt-me cowardly badness in you. Fear is a natural response. Badness is me. Yeah, rilly. His heart is beating too fast, tell him? OK. I’m not going to –”
“Hurt me physically.”
“Physically, metaphysically, metempsychotically, no. “
This associational word salad. Something familiar about it. Yeah. She’s one of those …
The girl giggles and claps her hands.
Schizophrenics. The new kind. The old kind used to hear voices. The new kind all hear the same voice.
“I’m sorry.”
“Stop saying that.”
Madthings. Popped up when the gods did.
“What are you thinking?”
I’m thinking you’re a madthing. I’m thinking I should keep that to myself.
“What do you think of me?”
Lie. Tell ‘em what they want to hear for once.
“I think you’re beautiful, probably Irish, look to be 19 or so. For all I know you’re a 47 fat guy in his underwear, but I think you look like you back in realspace. Intelligent, but …you’re probably out of your fucking mind. One of those Madthings, I’m guessing. Hear voices. Gods ordering you around.”
Great, Jeff.
“Do me a favor and cut the shit, OK? Why’d you bring me here?”
Puzzled look.
“Yeah, you. Look, I already know the iProp holders didn’t put me here.”
“So you put me here.”
Smile fades.
“OK, you’re not alone. It’s not the iProp guys. Who are you working for?”
She hollers. He’s under the distinct impression she said “God.”
“’God’…as in ‘God, what a stupid question.’ Or ‘God,’ as in ‘the Man Upstairs.’
“None of the above. File not found. Ask again later.”
“You’re a mouthpiece for the gods, right? One of those things that popped up. Little messenger girl?”
She nods, shyly.
 “Why am I here?”
“They want you here.”
“Why do they want me here?”
“Here, you’re an ear. Here.”
“Clear as mud.”
“Midas had ass’s ears.”
“He did, huh?”
“Yes, no. Mythological figure, Greek. Midas, the king with the golden touch.”
“How did he go to the bathroom?”
She giggles. Good sign. Or not.
“You know the story.”
“The Midas touch?”
“No. The other story. The song story.”
Jeff thinks. Yeah he knows it.
“King Midas was pals with Pan, the goat-god with the pipes.”
 “Pan was satyr but wiser, ha.”
“Ha-ha. Anyway, Pan challenged Apollo, the wise-god, with the lyre, to a battle of the bands. Pan played. Apollo played. Two gods. Three human judges.”
“Apollo was the better lyre.”
Insane bright eyes.
He goes on.
“Yeah. Anyway, King Midas was one of the judges. Knowing what was good for them, the other judges kissed Apollo’s shiny ass. “Yeah, you’re the best, man. God of Light and Music and Poetry. Totally.” These two picked Apollo. Midas, like the dumbass he was, voted for his pal, Pan. Apollo, despite his reputation for rationality, rewarded him with donkey’s ears. Midas tried to hide them with a hat. But only your barber knows for sure, right?”
“The barber knew.”
“The barber knew. What do you know?”
“The barber dug a hole in the ground,” she says. “He whispered the story. Into the hole.”
“I know. And?”
“The hole filled in. The grasses grew. And then they spoke. ‘Midas has asss ears. Midas has ass’s ears.’ The grasses told on Midas.”
“To the wind. I know.”
“The wind whispered and whispered it.”
She’s going someplace with this. It’s creeping him out.
“I know. Cute story. The talking wind.”
And he hears the fucking wind. Talking.
Music through the walls.
She’s crying. Jeff sees her reflected in the dead TV, her eyes welling up with tears. He knows where the tears come from, the poisoned spring at the bottom of the well in her eyes. This chick feels guilty. About what? What she’s going to tell him? What she’s going to show him? What? He’s curious, can’t deny that. But the I-don’t-want-to-die faction of his brain definitely outvotes the curiosity. He’s keeping his mouth shut and staying right here.
And he’s walking down the hallway. That damn monolith door is behind him, closing shut. He can see her walking next to him in the hallway mirrors. Faint music playing from somewhere.
“What do you want?”
“Who are you?”
“Who …? I’m a music critic. What …”
He figures it out.
“You’ve got to hear the music,” she says.
They’re standing in front of the elevator. The elevator door opens. Music pumping in louder. He can hear it, all right.
“This is as far as I go, kid.”
Now they’re in the elevator. Going down. He can see her in the shiny steel door. The freaking music is making his ears bleed. Aside from looking sad, it doesn’t seem to bother her.
“Let me explain something to you. This god music, whatever it is? I don’t want to hear it.”
“You’ve got to hear it.”
“No I don’t. Why don’t you hear it?”
“I can’t hear it,” she says.
“Can’t. As-in won’t.”
“Can’t as-in me. Brain. Wiring. Sorry.”
“You literally can’t hear it?”
“No. Madthing, I. Hear the godvoices. The music? Mad all the way.”
“That’s why you’re in the mirror.”
“Battleship. Sunk.”
“That’s great, kid. You can’t hear the music. I get it. Well, I can’t either, OK? No freaking way. Like it or not, I’m staying in this elevator.”
He gets one last glimpse of her sad face in the steel doors. Then they open.
And he walks out of the elevator.
Into a hotel lobby, completely deserted. Throbbing music from somewhere, louder now. Jeff follows the bass heartbeat. Trying not to, but his legs aren’t taking orders right now. Keeps walking towards that music. Sees an open stairwell, red. Sign on a stand in front of it. BAR. Arrow pointing down.
Jeff goes down the stairs,
Emerges in a basement bar.
Seedy, low-rent. Sprayed-black urethane ceiling. Stage with musical instruments. Vintage speakers and gear. No band, so recorded music. Two old-school microphones. The music cuts off. Spot hits the stage.
Two shining beings emerge from the blackness, walk up to the microphones. Each takes one. Stands there. Just the two of them.
Chiseled features, perfect hair. Ridiculous muscles, perfect teeth.
Two rock gods, for want of a better term
Or, just plain gods.
One is Apollo, one is Pan. That’s obvious. But Jeff has no idea who’s who. No obvious clues like God #A is holding a flute, God #B is holding a lyre. No. Just those mics, yeah. This is going to be a sing-off. And I’m …
The sound system booms. DJ voice.
“Jeff! Thanks for coming, my man—and what an honor and privilege it is. Your reputation for honesty proceeds you!”
Precedes, dumbass.
“Well, OK, looks like the gang’s all here. OK, I guess it’s that time. Hey, Jeff  if you could please the seat of honor, we’d all like to get started.”
Spotlight reveals a seat at a table dead center, not too close to the stage, not too far. Good acoustic separation, yeah. Red table cloth. Little foldy thing on top. RESERVED FOR JUDGE.
If I guess wrong, I’m going to wind up with donkey’s ears or turned inside-out and buried alive in a cornfield.
Some freaking honor.
 “OK, Jeff. First contestant, chosen at random…”
The spotlight turns to the god at stage left.
 “Just give us your honest opinion, Jeff, that’s all we ask.”
He smiles.
Kiss my ass. That’s all I ask.
A B# chord plays from the speakers. 
The rhythm line cuts in like a jackhammer.
And the god begins to sing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Time Capsule

It took them several weeks, but they finally did it. The team of scientists, perhaps the last team of scientists on earth, unearthed the capsule from 20 meters below the hard desert floor. A steel cylinder, shiny once, caked with sand now. It looked like a giant, filthy suppository. But the sight made the scientists very happy. Understandable, considering the energy expended to dig it out. A painstaking excavation yielding nothing but pain for day after day. Reasonable hypothesis: We’re risking our lives to dig a giant hole in the desert. But the capsule was there. The ancient paper map had been accurate, if unclear. Reasonable hypothesis: We have it now. Our years of search have ended. The time capsule is ours at last! Their fingers bled, but they didn’t notice. The scientists cheered—until the arrows silenced them. They didn’t even have time to dust the damn thing off.
A band of ugly-looking white guys looked down over the edge of the big, square hole. Laughing, joking, really proud of themselves for shooting a bunch of starving old scientists in the back. (Time capsule? We know about it too. Thanks for digging it up, weaklings!) They had a good laugh, then started walking down the ramp.
These characters called themselves, “The Hard Men of Pure Blood.” In our time, we call them “assholes.” They dressed in a motley of grey fabric and ancient military crap, all stitched up with swastikas, skulls and SS emblems. Their idea of Nazi uniforms.
They studied the capsule. Big metal thing, crud-caked, pretty much nothing to see here, but the High Man said it was important, so they roared approval. Then had their cringing, castrated slaves put it on the cart that the scientists had helpfully provided and roll it up the ramp. Ordinarily, they’d desecrate the scientists’ bodies, but time was really a factor.
Later that night, the High Man would speak. (Actually, kind of a short guy. The dude in the incredibly rare genuine Nazi helmet.) He stood on a rock above a crackling fire. The Slightly Less High Men were gathered in a circle in front of the fire—Ah! My uniform’s on fire!—just a little too damn close. Was this a bereckoned insult? Does he scorn our purity of blood? The Low Slobs got the cheap seats; Women in the sex hole; Slaves in the place of torment, etc. Such is the natural order.
Mr. Nazi Helmet had memorized his speech, of course. Reading was for slaves.
Silence, making 'em sweat. Big tense moment. Crowd on the edge of their rocks.
The High Man cleared his throat and hollered. The Hard Men shouted back at him. A call-and-response ensued in that charming, pseudo-Germanic gibberish the Hard Men of Pure Blood were famous for.
“Speak I now of past and pain. All here know of firefeeding. Suchlike us made world of willing. Hail to Hard Men, dead yet living!”
“Hail to Hard Men, dead yet living!”
“Hard Men waste the world of weakness. Hail our Fathers!”
“Hail our Fathers!”
“World of weakness, Fathers hated. Menlikewomen, softweak all. Power also Fathers knew! Wield of kenning Fathers held. Pastways weak yet pastmind strong! Such hardlightkenning shone near all Godhidcunningdarkclefts, even “uncleftbeholding of firststuffs,” as writ, even also force to fly rock through air, carve rune to mindghost (or thinkthing spark to capture ken), even writing deep to lifeseedrune to formchange beasts, plants, even mankin, as willing was. Burning weak would burn such kenning. Fathers knew! Yet fire freed they, and kenning hid in suchlike wielding. “Time Capsule” called, where secrets hid—but now our hands do hold!"
He does that Nazi salute thing. Never gets old, huh?
Hail to Fathers! Hail to Hard Men!”
Hail to Fathers! Hail to Hard Men!
OK, OK, sorry about the Nordic word salad. In case you’re lost, the alpha male in the feldgrau garb is saying the "Fathers" (the macho jerks who used to run the world) started a nuclear war to wipe out the weak sisters. They figured that, despite the devastation, a few incredibly strong warriors—their "Children”— would survive and breed. Based on that assumption, these so-called "Fathers" put the secrets of their technology in various time capsules, buried the capsules for their "Children" to find, and then proceeded to burn up the world. There's also a lame explanation why some weaklings survived and a shitload of repetition. Let's just skip to the end of this wretched exercise.
“Fathers freed the fire cleansing. Fire fed on hard men willing. For we, their Children, Fathers died!”
“For we their Children, Fathers died!”
“Kneel we now to Fathers’ fury! Gift to Children shall be opened. Open now the gift of kenning. Hail our Fathers! Hail say all!”
“Hail say all!”
OK, OK. Now that the speech was out of the way, The High Man proceeded to open the time capsule. (Such honor was not for slaves!) Or began the process. A slave had showed him a diagram. Something called a “wrench.” Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. Thus the slave had spoken before his death. Now it was time. The High Man got to work.
There were bright red letters …
Once you got the dust off, it was plain to see. If you could read.
Bolt by bolt, the High Man cranked. And cranked.
This was going to take a long time.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Happy Groundhog Day

James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" posited a cyclic theory of history. I.e.: we live in a dream that endlessly circles back on itself and bites its own tail. Ironically, Joyce's birthday was February 2. Groundhog Day.

While we're on the subject, most literary critics aren't science fiction writers. With FW, they get into the weeds, get lost in the maze, all dazzled by the formal structure and elaborate, overworked multilingual bibble-babble. The one thing they don't do is take the damn thing seriously. On its own terms. As a theory of history.

Seeing as how I am a science fiction writer, I'm happy to spell it out.

The theory is --

The human race, originally, was a single collective mind -- i.e. Finnegan. Each individual mind is networked to the whole via -- what else? -- telepathy. OK, like the Borg. Each individual got marching orders from the collective intelligence in the form of the voice of God -- as Julian Jaynes pointed out. But it's not the right brain talking to the left brain. It's the whole system talking to its parts. There's an intelligence on the other side of the voice. Someone is speaking. 

This worked great until the emergence of cities and civilization. Things got complicated -- to the point it crashed the system. All the individual minds got cut off -- became suddenly disconnected, alone. This explains our traumatic memory of the Fall, of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues. And the need to invent Authority Figures in the sky telling us what to do.

Finnegan is now dreaming. History is his dream. It only seems to be going forward, but it's really the same schtick going round and round. Like Hollywood, Finnegan's only got a few stock formulas. His dream keeps repeating these basic stories, but mixes them up so they appear new. ("Die Hard" today, "Cliffhanger" tomorrow.) These vignettes are staged by a small cast of actors -- the fragments of Finnegan's mind. (We only think there are billions of people. In reality, there's the King, the Warrior, the Lover, the Joker, etc.) History's basically like a rotating rep company. A small troupe doing a handful of plays.

The show goes on, until human civilization gets so complex and interconnected that the process of fragmentation starts to reverse. Finnegan -- the collective mind behind the dream -- starts waking up again. Like the dreaming Red King in Alice in Wonderland, that's curtains for the rest of us. So, we keep trying to put him back to sleep. But the show's almost over.