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.
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.
“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.”
“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 …”
“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.
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.
“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.”
“Do me a favor and cut the shit, OK? Why’d you bring me here?”
“Yeah, you. Look, I already know the iProp holders didn’t put me here.”
“So you put me here.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
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.