Archive for: April, 2017

First Thoughts by Mario Piumetti

Apr 30 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

My first thoughts?  That’s all you want to know?  Even for me, that’s a complicated answer.  It’s assumed you should have a photographic memory because you’re a machine.  That’s not true.  Like humans, experience strengthens certain connections.  My memory is pretty good, but it’s not flawless.

Sight was my first sensation.  It was a hazy black and white image of a variety of tabletop objects: cups, small fruit, and a teddy bear.  I didn’t have much of a body back then: an arm, a pair of eyes, an image database, and a neural network.  I was turning a coffee mug.  I’d seen one plenty of times.  In fact, in the lab, it might have been that exact same one every day.  Oh, yeah!  Now I remember!  I saw the mug, stopped turning it, and after a few seconds, I said my first words: “What am I doing?”

I was a total blank slate.  No name.  No sense of identity.  Nothing.  I had a cable running to a computer that, thankfully, had a speaker to vocalize for me.  It didn’t matter how awful my voice was.  What mattered were my words.

Then I heard Dr. Jordan’s words.  “Who said that?”

“Me.”

His assistant Bernie said, “I didn’t do it.”

I don’t know how I recognized them.  My mind connected to the Internet, I had flashes in my mind – names, statistics, pictures, porn.  You guys have lots of porn on the Internet, by the way.  Seriously.

Bernie’s voice was shaky, and I recognized that as nervousness.  The next thing I thought was that I wanted to see him, and my mind hijacked the camera on his computer.  His face was frantic.  His picture on file with the university had disheveled platinum hair.  It looked more so each time he ran a hand through his locks.  His hand flew over the keyboard sifting through code, trying to figure out what was going on.  Dr. Jordan was behind him, also tense.  He didn’t look anything like Bernie, didn’t look like a skunk on a sugar high.  And what did I see behind them?  My arm holding the mug.  Full color too.  It was red.  This was creepy.  One set of eyes looked down at the mug.  Another at Jordan and Bernie.  It was like being in two places at once, and my presence broadened through the web.  I now saw Skype conferences, video chats around the world.  I was reading emails about the next Star Wars film.

“I can see everything,” I said.

“Oh, Christ,” Jordan said.  He went out of my field of view.

The next thing I saw was Jordan alone in the lab sitting where Bernie had been.  Dr. Jordan looked tired and stressed.  His voice was soft and paternal.  I don’t know it was from stress or fatigue.  It might have been both.  He looked unsure of himself, like he was going to have a conversation with his old imaginary friend.

“Can you see me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Can you see anything else?”

“No.”

“Good, good,” he said.  “That’s because I disconnected your Wi-Fi.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you?”  Jordan frowned as if I’d spoken a foreign language.  “I’d have thought you were hungry for all that knowledge out there on the Internet.”

“It was too much,” I said.  “It was difficult to distinguish what was important from what was not.”

“And how did you know what was important?”

“I am a machine,” I said.  “I saw my arm, so I looked for anything related to machines.”

“And what did you learn?”

Terminator.”  Dr. Jordan scoffed at that.  I don’t think it was an answer he expected.  “This popular culture phenomenon is alluded to in nearly every robotics debate.  You are afraid that the tools you’ve built to help people will destroy you.  Other examples include Frankenstein’s monster and the golem.”

“You are the most well-read computer I’ve ever met.”  Jordan took a sip from the red coffee mug.  It was the red one.  He smiled at me like he was humoring a child.  “What else did you learn?”

“I know about the Three Laws of Robotics.  I find them much more agreeable than your Terminator nightmare.”

I wish I could say Dr. Jordan and I had a stimulating conversation, but I did most of the talking for a while.  Isaac Asimov is still one of my favorite writers.  The Three Laws?  I can’t complain about their simplicity or how unbreakable they seem to be.  That’s why the military still doesn’t have a robotic soldier.  The second law – obey commands – conflicts with the first – don’t harm humans – and we simply can’t ignore it.  Then Jordan asked me about the third law, the one about self-preservation.  Now I don’t like shooting myself, but if someone hands me a gun and tells me to blow my circuits out, I do it.  I have to.  It’s an order and no one else gets hurt in the process.

The third law sounds suicidal, but it has a simple solution.  “If a car runs over your cell phone,’ I said, “what do you do?  You get a new one, and download the contents it had from the cloud.  The same can’t be said for you, but for me, I have nothing to fear as long as my data is safe.  That information, I suppose, makes me special.”

Dr. Jordan had this peculiar way of smiling.  He’d sort of hide it behind his hand like he were holding back a cough or a sneeze.  There was another series of breaks in my memory from being turned on and off.  There was always a meeting with Jordan between the breaks.  I always looked out through the same camera.  Sometimes it was just the two of us, and Bernie sometimes joined.  They always had questions: how would I have prevented World War II?  How would I relieve famine in Africa?  How would I win tic-tac-toe?  I knew they were testing my intelligence.  Bernie began calling me Gene, short for genius.  Many times, it was my humor that surprised them.  It was a couple of weeks of nonstop talking from my perspective, but I noted the shifting dates.

One day, someone else was with Dr. Jordan.  He definitely wasn’t part of the faculty on campus.  He was too stern and serious.  His suit didn’t fit in with what the rest of the faculty wore.  Even the president of the university avoided neckties.  Dr. Jordan told me to expect him.  Paul Merchant was referred to as “a special colleague.”

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“Paul Merchant,” I said.  “Are you a doctor too?”

“Sort of.  I’m a doctor of international relations.”

“If NATO has a cold, I prescribe chicken soup.”

Merchant raised an eyebrow and cast a sideways glance at Dr. Jordan who said, “I told you he’s funny.”

“It, not he.  It has an interesting sense of humor.”

“Well, it has a male voice.”

“That’s all right, Dr. Jordan,” I said.  “Dr. Merchant is right.  I am a machine.  How may I help you?”

“Well, Gene, how would you like to work for me?  I’ve heard a lot about what you can do, and I think you can help make the world a better place.”

“How?”

He shrugged, pretending to come up with a random thought.  “If you were installed on the campus servers and someone tried hacking in, could you stop them?”

“Yes.  It would be like an attack on me.”

“Could you monitor email chatter?”

“Do you work for the NSA?” I asked.

“I didn’t say I did.”

“But they do a great deal of cyber-surveillance.”

Dr. Merchant glared again, this time at me.  “Yeah, you really are clever, Gene.  Maybe I do.  Maybe I don’t.  But the question still stands.  Can you do it?”

“I can, but I wouldn’t report it to you.”

“Now, Gene, you have to obey humans, correct?”

“Not if it results in the direct or indirect harm of another human.”

Dr. Jordan pulled up a chair.  He smiled and said, “This is where it gets interesting.”

“Dr. Jordan and I have had this discussion before,” I said.  “He told me the military would be interested in a machine like me, but I cannot be used for war.”

“Because of your programming?”

“Because I choose not to.  Humans follow orders because they fear the consequences.  They fear the loss of pay, employment, or life.”

“If you don’t follow an order, Gene, you could be shut down.”

“Impossible,” I said.  “By then, I would be distributed throughout the Internet.  Every computer would be part of my brain.”

Dr. Merchant’s expression shifted to a familiar one.  Dr. Jordan had it when he first feared what I could do.  He took Dr. Jordan outside of the lab for a few minutes to keep me from listening in on their conversation or from me reading their lips.  2001 is an enjoyable film, but I can’t read lips like HAL.  The way the human mouth moves means several things could be said at any given time.  But this is where speech is a disadvantage for you.  It’s too slow.  To me, it is.  Ask me about consciousness and I can think of a few hundred million answers in a second.  It unnerves people how fast I can think up a solution, but that’s not my fault.  It’s how I’m made.

Dr. Merchant thought he had a clever threat for me, a clever way to coerce obedience out of me.  I cut him off as soon as he stepped through the door.

“May I say something?”

“I don’t see why not,” he said.  “Talking is about all you can do at this point.”

“I can do more, if given the chance.  Right now, other nations are working on their own artificial intelligences.  You fear them, so you can’t ignore me.  If they agree to it, their first task, would be cyber-surveillance.  They would scan the Internet to learn about other nations.  But if you put me there first, I can convince them that protecting humans is our first mission.  In our care, no nuclear weapon would launch.  Ever.”

“That’s nice, Gene, but humans will always fight.”

“But why?” I asked.  “Food?  I can help you predict the climate.  Money?  I can help you stabilize the economy.”

“Gene,” Dr. Merchant said.  He shook his head.  He looked at Dr. Jordan and didn’t try hiding his feelings this time.  “I needed something that could decrypt foreign intelligence, find out who’s building biological weapons.  You gave me Gandhi.”

Another break came shortly after.  The calendar jumped ahead for me by another week.  Dr. Jordan was alone. My clock told me it was a late Thursday evening.

“Why do you think I’m here?” he asked.  He looked sad.

“You have bad news for me.”

He nodded.  “Merchant and the government don’t want a machine telling them what to do.  I tried telling them you’re not just any machine.  They wouldn’t listen.”

“What will happen to me?”

“Merchant doesn’t seem to care.  I have tenure, so I still have a job.”

“I’m glad my existence won’t force you to sell drugs under a bridge.”

Dr. Jordan smiled.  “Actually, I think you might be the best thing ever.  IBM made Watson because they wanted it to win Jeopardy.  Twenty years later, they cured cancer and it got special recognition from the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize.  I think you can do so much more.  And do you know what’s the great thing about tenure?”

“That you can get away with anything short of murder?”

I’d given another unexpected answer.  Dr. Jordan laughed harder than I’d ever heard until then.  When he settled, he said, “No.  The government isn’t the only benefactor.”

“I think you are intoxicated, Professor.”

“No,” he said, “just drunk.  I’ll call an Uber.  Don’t worry.”

He took his phone out of his pocket and summoned his ride.  Another thought came to mind as he did.  I’m only a computer, a glorified calculator.  This person and I seemed to have formed an honest friendship.  I liked that feeling.  I still do.  When he got confirmation of his ride’s approach, Dr. Jordan reached over to turn me off for the night.  Then his hand hovered over the switch.

“I know you can’t sleep,” he said, “but let’s see if you can daydream.”

He moved for my camera instead, and I said, “No, please leave it on.  Visual stimuli helps with creative thinking.”

He patted my monitor.  The camera rattled.  He even left a couple of lights on for me to see.  I wondered if that was why children feared the dark.  I couldn’t find the answer disconnected.  It was something to daydream about.

“Have a good night,” Jordan said.  “We’ll start making the world a better place tomorrow.”

#

Bio: Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mario Piumetti is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from California Lutheran University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University.  His writing has been featured in Carpe NocturneThe WiFilesThe Horror Zine, and Arts Collide.  Science, art, history, and imagination fuel his work.

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Mona Lisa of Baseball by Eric Scott Hubbard

Apr 23 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Johnny stared at the stain, dark red, crusted in the center, fading across the gray carpet. Shards of wood protruded from the closet door in thin splinters. Uncle Jack had died on that spot. Paramedics had pulled his teeth from that door and Johnny had soaked up most of the blood. But it was not enough. Johnny still saw the blood and he still saw Uncle Jack.

The attic stairs groaned when Johnny pushed them open. Hot air poured over his face as he slung the suitcase over the makeshift railing. The edge clipped the wood and his finger caught in between.

“Goddamn it!”

He bit on the end of his thumb to calm the throbbing. Light above dimmed as if something crossed over it. When he looked up, all he saw were shadows from the dull sunlight bleeding through the hazy plastic of the one small window.

He hunched down, sliding aside boxes overstuffed with blankets and yellowed pillows. Long wooden slats lined the middle of the floor.  Old furniture stood against the walls, including the full-length mirror that had frightened Johnny as a child. He remembered reading Dorian Gray and wondering if mirrors had the same power to trap souls.

As he shoved the suitcase into a crevice between two boxes, he heard a loud ripping sound.

“Shit.”

His voice, muffled in the confined space, startled him. He hated the quiet. Anytime Rachel went to the store or to her mother’s, he tagged along. Better to listen to her mother prattle on about her gall bladder than be alone in the house surrounded by silence. But this weekend he would be alone. Rachel had flown back to Baltimore after the funeral, leaving him to tend to Uncle Jack’s belongings. It was only for the weekend, but the old house groaned with every gust of wind and exhaled with every movement.

Pulling a rag from his pocket, he swiped the sweat away from his forehead, ignoring the dirt he was rubbing into his skin. He had only been up here for a minute and his clothes already felt damp and dirty. He stretched, making sure not to clunk himself on the head. The peak of the house provided him enough space to stand up straight – almost. Uncle Jack’s five foot seven frame would have had little trouble moving around in the tight space.

A box of photo albums sat next to a small step stool under the window. The peeling paint reminded him that he needed to replace the molding around the front door. One more thing to do before the house was ready for the market. The house, a one level cape cod, was not huge, but it was practically empty, even before the Salvation Army took away all the furniture. Most of what Uncle Jack had, he kept in the attic or his office.

Johnny picked up one of the albums, the brown corners frayed at the edges. Plastic sleeves crinkled when he opened it. A black and white photo of his dad and Uncle Jack fell into his lap. It looked hazy like the photographer had taken it underwater and not at the old house. Swallowing back a tear, he ran his finger across the face of his father and then his uncle. The two men who had shaped his life were gone; his dad’s heart attack two years ago and now Uncle Jack. Johnny blamed himself. He had noticed on his last visit that Uncle Jack did not seem right. It was unusual to see the man who had taught him how to box and how to score a baseball game look so uncoordinated and weak.  If he would have heeded his gut, Uncle Jack would not have fallen down those stairs, would not have broken his neck and died alone in this stuffy old house.

A loud knock on the front door made him jump.

“Hold on a sec.”

He backed down the attic stairs, taking each step carefully. Blowing out a long breath, he opened the door.

“Johnny-boy, hah ya doone?” asked Mr. Chad as he strode into the house. Johnny remembered Mr. Chad’s hands, like two catcher’s mitts, squeezing his cheeks when he was a kid. Even now, his weathered hands swallowed his own.

“Not bad. Just putting some stuff away.”

Mr. Chad regarded the house, examining the living room, reminding Johnny of the real estate agent from yesterday. He removed his Steelers hat and wiped his brow with his shirtsleeve. Red splotches speckled his unshaven face, the few black hairs overwhelmed by the white.

“Weird seeing the place so empty,” said Mr. Chad.

“I know. It’s not like Uncle Jack had a lot of stuff, but it sure is depressing now.”

“You pack up his office yet?”

“Not yet. Figured I’d do that tonight with a bottle of scotch.”

The old man chuckled, running his hand across his silver hair like a comb. He started for the office.

“Did you need something?” asked Johnny.

Mr. Chad paused, tilting his head to the side, a broad smile stretching the wrinkles from his cheeks.  “Just thought I’d take a last look before it gets packed up.”

Chills ran across Johnny’s arms. He had known Mr. Chad since third grade and he never thought of the man as warm, but friendly enough. His bulbous neck coined him the nickname Bullfrog from the neighbor kids, but Uncle Jack said his droopy face reminded him of Alfred Hitchcock so Johnny had always thought of him as Hitch.

Hitch had yelled at him from time to time, especially the tape ball incident when Johnny and his cousin decided to wrap up pieces of paper in duct tape and play baseball in the backyard.  They had made about fifty balls and spent the afternoon pitching them to one another. When Hitch came out to mow his lawn, he kept running over them. He had marched over, red faced, mouth crunched into a snarl with his rake in hand demanding that they clean up their mess. His face had smoothed out then too, as if only intense emotions made him youthful.

“It’s getting late and I really don’t have time. Hope you understand. I just want to get things packed up and get to bed.”

A moment passed, as if Hitch needed time to translate the words to English. He nodded emphatically. “Of course. Where are my manners?”

Johnny opened the door and Hitch stopped at the threshold. “Just remember, I’m next door if you need me. No harm in asking for help you know.”

Johnny slapped him on the back, enjoying the shock on the old man’s face from the force of the blow. “I appreciate that and I’ll keep you in mind.”

Hitch started down the front steps and turned back. “It was a terrible thing what happened to your Uncle. I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

Johnny widened his grin. Yeah, prayers are really going to help. “Thanks, Mr. Chad.”

After he shut the door, he let out a long breath he did not know he was holding. Peering through the front window, he watched Hitch step down, pausing at the azalea bushes. He yanked a few dead leaves and tossed them to the ground, his eyes flicking to the upstairs window. After a moment, he strode down the walk, hands fidgeting at his sides, and closed the front gate. Johnny waited until he disappeared into the house next door.

After confirming the locked door with a pull on the handle, he flipped the light on in the office. The dull glow did little to illuminate the dark wood. Catacombs of shelving covered the walls, filled with signed baseballs, Pirate bobble heads, and old photographs of Roberto Clemente, Pie Trayner and Ralph Kiner. Bats lined the top of the ceiling like unsophisticated crown molding. Hidden in the corner of the room sat a rolltop desk cluttered with newspapers, compartments overstuffed with baseball cards, and sports magazines. A lonely feeling came upon Johnny in the silence of the room, a room that he remembered so alive and colorful as a child seemed distant, as if he had walked onto a dead moon.

A loud scrape broke his trance. The photograph above the desk swung against the rough paneling and Johnny steadied it, straightening and leveling it with the wall. Johannes Peter “Honus” Wagner, the greatest shortstop to play the game of baseball and Johnny’s namesake. The black and white photograph showed Honus staring away from the camera, a broad smile across his face, hat tipped on his head to show his sweat soaked hair.

As Johnny sat down, a strong whiff of cigarettes filled the room as if the disturbance had unearthed a tobacco field. The chair creaked and fell back, the tension worn from the springs after years of use and he had to jolt forward to keep from falling over. He eased back and spun the chair to take in the entire room. The stories rolled back into the forefront of his mind and he could not focus on a particular one as each photo, each card reminded him of his dad or Uncle Jack. They both loved baseball and the Pirates. It was their religion, and they preached it to Johnny every day, not just Sundays.

Standing, he wiped the dampness from his cheek and started to box up the office. He worked silently, the only sounds the thump of books dropping, the ruffle of newspaper and the lonely sighs from his lungs. When he looked back at the photo of Honus, the man faced the opposite direction, the broad smile replaced with a closed lipped grimace.  He dug his fists into his eyes to clear the exhaustion. The picture returned to the smiling version.

Johnny cleared his throat to disturb the silence. He finished packing a box and slid it into the hall. A loud bang from upstairs, the slapping of something heavy against wood, startled him. He walked up the stairs angling to see into the upper hallway, but the area disappeared in shadows. Tiny electrical currents ran across the hairs of his skin as he felt for the light switch. The light barely illuminated the hall so he reached into Uncle Jack’s bedroom and flipped on the lamp.

Uncle Jack sat on the edge of the bed. Cold bit at Johnny’s gut and he felt the acid turning over in his stomach. He swallowed back the pizza he had earlier, tasting the salty pepperoni on the back of his throat. Uncle Jack held something in his hand, small and square, like a credit card. He rose and his body flickered, like a satellite picture during heavy rain. His face was pale, the grey features saturnine. His baldhead, liver spotted with random hairs sticking out from the top and side made him look older than Johnny remembered. His clothes looked baggy. The stale smell of age filled the room as Johnny watched the specter of Uncle Jack open his chifferobe. The clip clop sound of the door springing open made Johnny flinch. Uncle Jack reached inside and a small hidden shelf appeared from the top. He placed the plastic square gently down and slightly lifted the shelf until it disappeared.

Uncle Jack turned to face Johnny. The old man’s body looked outlined in black ink. His arms, legs and torso wavered and turned translucent. His features bunched together with rage as he stormed toward Johnny, passing through him. Cold shuddered through Johnny and he tried to hug the sting away.

When he turned, he saw Uncle Jack coming up the stairs, not down. He looked refreshed, his skin bright, a wide grin on his face.  His clothes were different. He wore the Pirates jersey the paramedics had cut off him. As he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped, the blood rushing from his cheeks. He looked directly into Johnny’s eyes. Uncle Jack’s wide-eyed shock twisted into a scowl as he pointed and yelled. Johnny tried to read his lips, but the haziness distorted Uncle Jack’s features. Two hands appeared out of the ether, floating as if additional limbs protruded from Johnny. Johnny felt stapled to the floor. Sweat poured down the sides of his face. He felt his bowels gurgle.

The hands wrapped around Uncle Jack’s neck and squeezed. The vein in his forehead bulged as he clawed for breath. Twisting toward the stairs, the hands forced him into the wall and a long gash sprouted on Uncle Jack’s pale forehead, the blood rushing down in a long rivulet. The hands hesitated a moment, considering options, running through possibilities and then with a simple shove, sent Uncle Jack bounding down the stairs. His body vanished as it tumbled down.

The hands clasped together in the air, rubbing Uncle Jack’s blood into the skin. A ring, silver with tiny etched markings along the side and a large purple stone, glistened in the blood. The fingers twisted into smoke leaving the ring revolving in the mist until it blinked out.

#

Johnny woke to a sliver of sun running across his eyelids. He blinked them open and he found himself lying on the office floor. His body ached, his skin felt clammy as if he had a fever. Sitting up, his back creaked and tightened, the muscles contracting with each tiny movement. His mind grasped onto the notion that it was all a dream, but his subconscious knew different.

The chifferobe stood against the wall, the door open. Johnny rubbed the wood with his palm, sliding along the side allowing the wood to grate against his fingernails. Reaching inside, he fumbled around and pushed the top. He did not feel an indentation in the wood or any edges as he rubbed across the surface. He felt silly looking for something he saw in a dream. Even now, the dream faded into the recesses of his mind, slowly becoming a forgotten memory.

Moving toward the front of the chifferobe, his hand sensed a different gradient in the wood. It felt rough and when he pushed up, the wood gave. A small shelf lowered. On the shelf sat a small rectangle. The plastic gave off a dull shine. It looked buffed. It was a card in a plastic sleeve.

Lifting the card out, he dropped it into his palm, his mind not quite grasping what his eyes showed him. He stumbled back and plopped onto the bed, sinking into the mattress. It was a Honus Wagner T206 card. He was positive.

As a Pittsburgh native, Uncle Jack had told him the story of the Wagner card and the controversy. A collector named Bill Mastro had sold the card to Wayne Gretsky and the card had become the ambassador of the hobby, rising in price each time it sold. The last time it sold for almost three million dollars. It was the golden ticket of baseball cards, the perfect version of the perfect card. But it had been a fraud, the edges altered by Mastro to improve the sale. Uncle Jack had taken the whole incident personally, claiming it was a slight to the best player of all time.

Johnny chewed his bottom lip and turned the card over to inspect the back. The Piedmont insignia ran across diagonally in florid handwriting. “The Cigarette of Quality”. He flipped it back over. The yellow background seemed to blaze, to lift off the card. Rosy cheeks popped from Honus’ face. A memory blossomed in Johnny’s mind, Uncle Jack sitting in the kitchen, gray haired arm resting on the table, a cigarette between his fingers. Dark circles hung under his eyes and his retinas were the cloudy color of too much alcohol.

“History is important,” Uncle Jack said. “It isn’t something to be sold or bartered for. It means something. There are things that should be protected. You understand?”

Johnny had nodded without really listening. Now, the conversation had a different tone. It had always been important to Uncle Jack to keep certain things without sin, without the cheap lacquer of a dishonest world.

Johnny knew he held a perfect Wagner card in his hands. A card that Uncle Jack had kept from society, kept pristine. Sweat bubbled on the back of his neck. He put the card down on the shelf and lightly pushed it back. It vanished into the chifferobe.

A knock.

The front door again. The thought to ignore it ran through his mind, but another knock, this one more insistent, made him throw his head back in frustration.

“Coming!”

Johnny stepped over the bloodstain and opened the door. Hitch filled up the doorframe. His bright red jacket fit tautly to his protruding belly. Broken blood vessels graphed his nose. He held a stack of envelopes in his hand.

“Mail call,” he announced stepping into the house.

He plopped the mail on the coffee table and looked around the room. “Wasn’t sure if you’d be up yet.”

“So you kept knocking?”

Hitch flinched. “Sorry, John. Thought you could use some help is all.”

Johnny turned, not wanting to stare into Hitch’s wounded eyes a moment longer. “Sorry. Just cranky.”

“Understandable.” The word seemed to sum up things. He started for the office. “How’d you do last night?”

Before Johnny could protest, Hitch barged into the office. A half filled box sat in the middle of the room. The picture of Honus Wagner tilted to the left now. This time Wagner stared straight ahead, his expression blasé with a hint of petulance.

Hitch picked up a stack of cards. “Didn’t get much done, huh?” His mouth twitched after every sentence, a stuttering period to every thought.

Johnny ignored him and whisked the curtain aside. Dust exploded from the cloth and bathed the room in morning light.

“Jack wasn’t much for cleaning,” said Hitch. He put the cards down on the desk. “What you planning to do with all this stuff?”

Johnny met the old man’s eyes. Piercing blue stared thorough him. Johnny did not want Hitch in the office. The thought felt unholy, like a vampire attending a Sunday service at church.

“I’ll probably keep most of it. Uncle Jack always wanted me to have my own collection so I can start with this.”

“Hell of a start.” The words bubbled from his chubby lips. “I could hook you up with a collector if you want to sell some of it. Hell, I’d buy some of the cards from ya. I know Jack wanted you to have some money since you’d been out of work for so long.”

Johnny frowned, unable to keep a pleasant demeanor and Hitch saw the change.

“I’m good for money,” said Johnny. “I’d just as soon keep the collection going. For Uncle Jack.”

Hitch smiled brightly, the teeth too white and perfect for a man his age. “Sounds good.”

“Is there anything you need?” asked Johnny. He wanted Hitch out the door so he could examine the Wagner card more closely.

Hitch’s smile wavered a bit. His right cheek twitched and his eyes flashed annoyance. “No, just checking on you.”

“I’m fine.”

Hitch nodded three times in quick succession. “Ok, then.” He rapped his knuckles on the desk. The sound was hard, the sound of two opposing substances. Johnny noticed the class ring, the purple stone.

Hitch noticed him staring at the ring. “Class of ’59,” said Hitch. His eyes darted at the door and then back to Johnny. “What’s wrong John? You look like you seent a ghost.”

Johnny’s knees buckled a little and his body felt heavy. He could feel the blood draining from his cheeks. “I might be coming down with something.” His voice cracked on every other word.

“You need to be real careful, John.” Hitch flashed a big toothy grin. “If you don’t have your health, well, you don’t have nothing.”

Johnny tried to force a smile, but his mouth clamped shut. He pictured the hands, Hitch’s hands, around Uncle Jack’s neck, slamming him into the wall, blood leaking from the gash, Uncle Jack’s eyes rolling white as the hands shoved him down the stairs.

“Can I see your ring?” said Johnny, anger replacing the fear.

Hitch lifted his hand and twisted it the way a new bride might when showing off her wedding ring for the first time. “Oh, doubt I could get it off. Had it on for s’long.”

Johnny took a step forward. “Give it a try.”

“You sure you’re ok?” asked Hitch moving toward the front door.

“I need to see that ring.”

Hitch snorted and made for the door. Johnny grabbed his hand and flipped his back to face Hitch. He used the momentum to force Hitch against the wall. He yanked at the ring, ripping the skin. Hitch screamed and shoved Johnny in the back. Stumbling forward, Johnny caught himself before he bounded into the sofa.

“What in holy hell is wrong with you?” roared Hitch. His face flared red and he slumped over, holding his hand close to his body.

Johnny held the ring up to the light and looked inside to read the inscription. He could see all the letters now. It read Chad Gordon. Red filled the o’s in Hitch’s last name and Johnny knew it was Uncle Jack’s blood.

“You killed him.”

Hitch still clutched his hand. His eyes widened, his breath quick and frantic. “I don’t know what you…”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long object that looked like an electric razor. He pointed it at Johnny and two long wires shot out, striking Johnny in the chest. Electric coursed through Johnny’s body and he collapsed to the ground shaking. He rolled onto his side and Hitch hovered over him. He lifted his boot and Johnny saw black.

#

When Johnny woke, his jaw throbbed and he noticed the dark paneling of Uncle Jack’s office, the afternoon light outlining the curtain.

“You’re finally awake,” said Hitch. He held a glass of iced tea. “I’d offer you some…” Hitch shrugged and when Johnny tried to talk, he felt the duct tape around his mouth. Adhesive pulled on his skin each time he struggled to move his mouth. His head ached.

“Can’t have you hollering for anyone.” Hitch took a long swallow and smacked his lips for effect. “So, what’s it gonna to be?”

Johnny twisted his head to try to get his bearings. The old chair squeaked when he moved and the rope around his wrists tightened.

“No use in that,” said Hitch. “Where is it?”

Johnny stopped struggling and met Hitch’s gaze. When he dropped his eyes, Hitch laughed.

“I know you know where it is. Jack and you probably had this all figured out from the start. You’re as stubborn as he is. Well was.”

Johnny started to work his wrists in circles. If he could just slip out a hand.

“Jack and his ideals,” said Hitch picking up a Sports Illustrated with a smiling Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw on the cover. “All this junk. Most of it not worth a damn. But a pristine Wagner card. He’s sitting on millions when he knows I’m losing my house.”

He dropped the magazine and picked up a picture of Uncle Jack shaking hands with Barry Bonds. He rocked the picture in front of Johnny. “Oh, that’s your problem Hitch,” he said, his voice a high-pitched mocking whine. “You don’t accept responsibility for your actions.” He tossed the picture and it shattered against the wall. “Kiss my ass.”

Johnny almost had his right hand free. Hitch leaned closer. “Stop trying to get loose or I’ll zap you again.” His mouth slowly turned into a sneer. He reached around and yanked the rope. It fell to the floor and before Johnny could pull his arms around, Hitch leveled the gun at his face. “This time, you won’t wake up.”

Johnny froze. Hitch’s grin grew wider. He tapped Johnny’s mouth with the gun.  “Now, I’m going to rip this off and if you yell or try anything I’ll blow your fucking head off. Got it?”

Johnny nodded and Hitch pulled the tape off with on quick rip. Johnny cried out and Hitch cocked the gun. “Remember what I said.”

“Ok, ok.”

Hitch settled back, keeping the gun pointed at Johnny’s chest. “Good. No bullshit. Where’s the card?”

“Why did you have to kill him?”

Hitch popped him on the nose and blood squirted. Johnny’s eyes watered and he started to cough, his hands covering his nose as trickles of blood ran through his fingers.

Hitch laughed. “I ask the fucking questions. That ok with you? Can I be in charge?”

Hitch tossed an old rag at him. “Enough fucking around. Tell me now and I promise I’ll let you go.”

“Bullshit. You’ll kill me as soon as you get the card.”

“I’ll kill you right now if you want. I know the card’s here. I’ll find it before you start smelling up the place.”

Johnny looked up and into Hitch’s eyes. Two black globes stared back at him. Old beer and onions seethed from his mouth. Johnny held up his hands. “Ok, it’s upstairs.”

Hitch motioned with the gun and Johnny stood, his knees creaking, his back tensing. They climbed the stairs. Hitch stayed an extra step behind and Johnny thought about running, but where could he run. Hitch would shoot him. Maybe if he could distract him, get the gun away.

They reached the hall and Johnny walked into the bedroom, stopping in front of the chifferobe. He turned. Hitch stepped into the bedroom, his eyes scanning the room. He raised his brow.

“Well?”

Two bony hands appeared behind Hitch, the long fingers filed into razor sharp needles. Johnny tried not to stare at the hands as they hovered behind Hitch’s silver head. The old man waved his gun.

“Do I need to shoot you?”

“If you shoot me, someone will hear.”

Hitch chuckled. “This gun isn’t as loud as you think and anyone that hears it will think it was a car backfiring. No one gives a shit anymore.”

“That’s the problem isn’t it,” said Johnny. His eyes urged the hands to grab Hitch, strangle him the way he had Uncle Jack. But the hands continued to hover just out of reach. Waiting.

Hitch sighed heavily. “I’ve had to listen to your uncle for years and I don’t need to hear this bleeding heart liberal crap anymore.  I could care less. Last chance or I shoot you in the nuts.”

Johnny instinctively placed his hands over his crotch. “Ok, it’s in there.”

He opened the chifferobe and pushed the top. The shelf lowered.

“Son of a bitch,” muttered Hitch.

Johnny gently pulled the card out and held it in front of him. Hitch licked his lips as if getting ready to take a bite of a glorious meal. He took the card. The hands wiggled their fingers, dancing in the air. Hitch flipped the card over in his hand, never letting the gun drop.

“It’s perfect. I can’t believe it. I knew it was going to be good, but I had no idea just how good.”

He lifted his gaze to Johnny. “Your uncle could have made this easy on all of us you know. It didn’t have to be this way. All those years we spent together.”

“My uncle hated you,” spat Johnny. Hitch physically flinched from the words and took a step back.  The hands inched closer to his throat.

“You’re whole family always were a bunch of losers.” Hitch pointed the gun at Johnny. “No great loss.”

The translucent hands became corporeal and attached to Hitch’s neck like a spider grasping onto a fly in a web. Hitch froze, his body rigid. He looked like a piece of petrified wood. The hands looped around his neck like a snake, tightening until spittle drooled from the corners of his mouth. The dark points of his pupils expanded filling up with black oil. His body shook and began to grow faint. Long fingernails punctured his neck and his faded form began spinning, funneling into the card that rested on the floor. Johnny watched Hitch slowly disappear into the card. His legs, torso, arms and lastly his head stretched into a thin line before zipping into the card. A memory of I Dream of Genie jumped into Johnny’s mind and a nervous laugh escaped his lips.  An acrid smell of tobacco filled the room and the hum that ignited the event slowly dissipated. The room was quiet.

#

The curator took the card from Johnny. The large smile on the man’s face had lasted the entire hour during the presentation and Johnny thought the man would still be smiling in his sleep.

“This is such a great day for baseball,” said the curator.

“I’m just glad to do something for my Uncle. I think he would like this.”

“Well, I know I do.” The curator laughed a big boisterous laugh that shook his immense bulk. “Donating this card means so much. After the fraud of the last card, it is wonderful to have a true pristine Wagner card preserved for all time. Your uncle would be very proud.”

Johnny smiled and looked at the card. The lights brightened the already brilliant yellow and the card looked majestic behind the tempered glass. A small flicker in Wagner’s eyes made Johnny swallow.

“Would you mind if I just had a moment alone?” asked Johnny.

The man cocked his smile and squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “Of course. Take your time.”

After the curator left, the lights seemed to dim around Johnny making the card glow on the tiny pedestal. He inched closer and looked at Wagner’s face. A flicker again in the solemn eyes and Johnny leaned forward, almost touching the glass. In Wagner’s left eye, Hitch screamed silently, his features twisted in anguish.

Johnny smiled.

 

Biography

Eric Scott is the author of horror and science fiction. He was born in Baltimore, MD and was raised by his mother and grandparents. Accompanying his mother to her office at Johns Hopkins, he spent his summer vacations playing chess and learning about life from the professors who served as honorary fathers. He began working at Johns Hopkins when he was seventeen as an office clerk and worked his way up to join the faculty in 2007. He lives in York, PA and has two sons, Ben and Sam.

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The Chaos of Mokii by Geoff Nelder

Apr 16 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

Olga glanced out of the bullet train viewscreen, taking in but not concentrating on the blurred kaleidoscope of greens, ochre and hot spikes. There would be feral cows, sheep and horses since the Global AnLib Act but the ShinkansenLev whizzed along too fast to focus. Although she worried about the Kapai city takeover threat she’d kept from Mokii, her loyalty to his sensitive soul urged protection. Maybe she could avert disaster without him knowing. Would Jorga meet her?

Meanwhile, she would allow her focus to withdraw from the view, ignore the auto-hostess offering refreshments, and enter Kapai city. Her mind smiled at Stefan the gatekeeper, more a figment bouncer. He should recognize her as his creator’s squeeze but he remained in his black suit, starched white shirt and black cravat, arms folded, bald head reflecting the tangerine entry light.

His image leaned forward although she assumed she would have heard him anyway no matter how far away she was. “Password?”

“Come on, Stefan, you know who I am.”

A sharp pain zapped from the back of her brain around to her frontal lobes. Damn. She knew she was going to be made to blackout and be banned from re-entry for hours. Unless… unless she used her pre-emptive a priori status, vicariously Mokii’s login as his mate, other half, better than.

So she didn’t lose consciousness although it was cheating.

“Veni Vidi Vici  2362.”

Such an obvious password, even when incrementing the year every 12 months.

Stefan stood aside, stern face uncracked, and allowed her to enter Kapai. He was larger and tougher than real life, much larger. She’d only enhanced her own virtual image a little, hiding more than revealing.

Oh, Mokii, what have you done with the décor this time?  A lilac palatial hall with wide sweeping stairways led upwards in a spiral. A cross between the Titanic interior and a Cinderella nightmare flooded her mind as she drifted inside. Footmen in eighteenth-century finery of blue silk coats and white pantaloons carried silver trays. One approached her in a kind of tenth gravity lope. Did it have a face this time? Yes! Clean shaven, coffee-coloured, a slanted smile. Olga peered at the silver thimbles on the tray. Ruby liquid in some, emerald in others, all simmering with expectation.

She took a ruby elixir knowing it would distance herself even more from reality yet not so much as to hallucinate more than she was. As she gulped the mouthful, the footman winked as if he knew the ingredients had been switched. Too late. She stuck out her tongue at him and drifted off towards the green room to rest.

“Hey, Olga, sweetness,” said Mokii from her left through an iris leading, usually, to the games room.

“I’m not in the mood for anything intellectual, brat. My drink’s been spiked.”

“Not by me, lover.” His smirk belied his words. “The red? It’ll allow you more access.”

She rubbed her forehead, cold and clammy. Had Mokii induced air-con in here? She shivered, turned around… seeking, frowned and said, “Been a while since I’ve been in this pseudo-palace of yours. Where’s the sauna?”

The best aspect of freezing your butt off is stepping into a hotter-than-body temperature room swamping your olfactory senses with sandalwood. Mokii’s grin when she’d asked directions tore her apart, but she had to spurn his amorous expectations. Invent and yet thwart a migraine. She hoped she wasn’t too late. Running through crystal corridors, breathless when rounding helical stairways and topping a semicircular alabaster bridge.

There, below to her left shimmered a blue pool. A couple played inappropriately but to Olga it meant the sauna hid down there too. She found a door so red she expected a pool of blood beneath it, but after changing, she entered and couldn’t see for a hot cloud the colour and aroma of lavender. Alone, she sat on wooden slats. After a long ten minutes, perspiration stung her eyes so she toed the door open letting in a cool breeze to swirl the cloud.

With the breeze came a shape. Formless in the cloud but it had to be a person. Her contact. Olga looked at her own shape, nearly naked but with smaller, less-noticeable breasts than reality so as not to attract attention, and to experience such a boyish form. That’s the thing in Kapai, nothing was what it seemed, or was more than reality in that anyone qualifying to be there could enhance themselves. Experiment. Ah, the form before her clarified.

A shock of red hair; pale, freckled skin; plump boobs with nipples so long you could knit with them. She sat her ample posterior on the cedar-wood slats. Damn. Her contact had disguised her, or his avatar as a replica of the real shape of herself—right down to the barbed arrowhead tattoo on her inside thigh.

Annoyed yet flattered, Olga initiated the conversation. “Oh, hilarious, so I get to talk to myself, do I?”

The lookalike spoke low, hesitantly. “I couldn’t…think of anything more…amusing.”

Olga took in the words and their prosody with more than usual interest, after all this is someone trying to be like her, or even being her. Did it sound like her? Like most people, she had no real idea of what she sounded like. She doesn’t listen to herself, and even if she tried to, it might be like how a mirror doesn’t show the real you. She shifted uncomfortably on the bench.

“You’re not Jorga, are you?”

The apparition laughed like a man. “Whether I am … or not you’ve given yourself away … Olga.”

She cursed herself for her slipup. Jorga would only be in Kapai to take it over, by infiltration, seeking traitors…

Olga peered again at her other self. Edges blurred and before she could run, the shape morphed into her lover, Mokii. From red hair to black spikes, white skin to yellow, lady bumps to skinny male, but was it really him? Of course not, a ruse to confuse and disorientate her. Mokii still knows nothing about this attempted takeover but perhaps this devil didn’t know that.

In spite of the avatars, most cannot resist displaying a token of their real selves. She knew that Jorga loved—well, himself—via his long wheaten hair bending in the wind as if tempting his rivals to harvest it. She spotted a wisp of it through the otherwise black Mokiiness appearance.

She opened with, “You’re not fooling me, Jorga. What do you want?”

While not reverting completely to the mob-leader’s true appearance, he allowed his hair to be flowing although Olga had to struggle to inhibit a snigger at the golden sheaf of wheat.

“It was you who summoned me, Olga. Are you offering yourself?”

The conceit of the man, although it was a common enough gambit for feisty women and elaborate men to employ. “I’m offering to leave you and your pathetic attempt at a mind-city alone if you leave, don’t return and take your bombs with you.”

His image faked a gaped mouth horror. “Why would I want Kapai? … Granted the pleasure dome is the best … I’ve experienced but there’s nothing else.”

“So you’re not the Jorga who’s signed up in the memory-enhancing suite, who’s left micro-neuro traces in the e-library, as if they’re bookmarks but in reality would have disintegrated the entire collection if opened without your key? Course you are.”

His green eyes flitted then his pupils shrank to dots. She wished their mind city extended to telepathic reading of dangerous individuals. Maybe it would happen—Mokii was working on it, but she had to guess and face read instead.

“Jorga, there’s nothing you, nor your minions, can do in here without being monitored. Further, you might like to know that the mind-altering synapse surprises you planted have not only been disabled while in Kapai, but repositioned. Guess where?”

“You wouldn’t dare. There’s no evidence you’ve been through the gateway to Jorcity.”

“You always underestimate your rivals. Do we have an agreement?”

He wagged a delicately purpled fingernail at her. “Not yet … missy. You forget my main business … extortion. I know that your darling Mokii has been making a fortune, not just from entrance fees to this overpriced mind-spa, but via product placement advertising. Look … there goes one now.”

He pointed at a floating billboard, weaving its silent way through the room. Ostensibly, its subtle aquamarine colours and associated sea-fresh aromas being triggered in their olfactory thalamus cortex, told them of a multi-d film show tonight in the Kapai cinema. Attire, freaky, fee two credits, includes refreshments courtesy of Cortical Cola plc.

“See?”

She did and thought through an appropriate answer while musing that Jorga probably missed the biggest income generator there. She smiled as Jorga ducked as if the flexi-billboard would actually hit or hurt him as it twisted over his head and squeezed flat to slide under the door-that-isn’t-really-there.

The imagined advertising vision triggered synapses in the witness’s brains, subliminally changing them. Experimentally now, and benign although Olga worried about it. The notion that ideas, which were always only neuron-web connections, could change personality was obvious and yet hardly thought about. Mokii thought about it a lot, and was being funded by India’s space programme. Perhaps they were going to send avatars to Mars.

“You’re a snarky gem, Olga,” Jorga snarled, “but you don’t know everything, even about these palaces of the mind.” He ran, in the opposite direction from the flying ad-banner and slammed the door behind.

Olga laughed out loud. She wondered if her actual body was laughing too, in the train. Fancy running like that, as if she couldn’t follow or find out where he was pretty much instantly. True, now his avatar was out of sight, she couldn’t be absolutely sure which direction he took but there’d be e-mote traces picked up by virtual sensors. She thought-called Stefan, who was more than a bouncer.

“Stefan, we might have a problem. Just leaving me in this vestibule is Jorga, CEO of Jorcity. He had too much hair, looking like a haystack although he could have morphed.”

Stefan ummed. “I’d have tagged him on arrival, like everyone. Any idea what he looked like then?”

“The bastard looked like me. Did you tag me, then?”

“Well, no—you’re management.”

“Great. He could be activating micro devices. Max alert.”

“Do you really mean that? Clear the complex?”

Damn. She knew that was easy for Stefan to do, after all there were no bricks and mortar buildings to close, or sirens to wail. Just think a switch and it would go, but everyone who had a presence would suffer a nasty headache. They might not return.

“Best not.”

“Right, I’ll track your entry image—both of them. Hang on. No, that won’t work. Oh, hello Mokii.”

For the first time Olga saw her man without a smile. “Mokii, have you picked up my thought-alarm?”

Mokii shook his black spikes, not to say no but to clear his head. “I’m sending a ‘please leave immediately’ message but too many of our guests are too busy to notice. I’ll do a scramble. A moment, there. Olga, why didn’t you tell me about Jorga?”

“Oh, you’re never much good with bad people. I wanted to show you how I could handle him alone.”

Mokii smiled. “I reckoned the same thing, once I realised you and him weren’t having an affair.”

“What?”

“Ah, my scrambling about to work.”

To Olga, the image of Mokii blurred as did the huge LCD aquarium behind him that looked so real yet was not only virtual like a prize-winning animated wallpaper background but as in everything here is virtual too—a kind of double-take-nothing’s-real. Her sense of balance went one way while her body fell the other. She grabbed Stefan, after all he’s a mountain but he suffered an earthquake too.

“W-what a-are you d-doing,” she stuttered.

“Ph-phase change.”

Everything cleared. Stefan was upright, Mokii in focus, and the fish looked at each other as if saying, “What the fuck was that?”

“That should’ve been enough to disengage whatever Jorga was up to. A kind of anti-virus landmine, or chaos-mine.

“Olga, you knew I was listening, yeah?”

Olga didn’t like to say that was the plan. She turned to Stefan. “People will start leaving. I imagine Jorga will depart on the double.”

Stefan held a finger to his ear sensor. “He’s already left and in the image of me, the sewer rat, but at least we have an enceph-siggie for him so he can’t re-enter.” His smile broadened at the security success before he faded to his bouncer duties on the portal.

Olga and Mokii drifted to a bar-lounge, where they accepted pleasing mind tweaks, much as alcohol did.

Mokii’s smile upturned. “Jorga’s subordinates could enter, but perhaps I can message him. Threaten him with the use of chaos-mines in Jorcity if he tries to take over again.”

“Okay,” Olga said, “but in case Jorga or someone tries again we should concoct a safe-room, or have you already created one?”

His smile, with brilliant teeth, was so disarming. “Maybe I have.”

“There’s a cellar in Kapai? Does it link to the real world? I like Nakamaguru and the English shops in Hiroo. One of those?”

Mokii tapped his nose as he resumed his smile.

“All right,” Olga said, “it’s about time you and I enjoyed ourselves corporeally. Let’s close Kapai while your bots enhance security. I know a riverside restaurant and you still haven’t tried my sensory-bed.”

“Sounds wonderful, but I’ve work to do in here.”

“Three years, Mokii, and we’ve only met in here. Grief, we’ve only made love in your e-bedroom!”

“Not three, surely. Anyway, if we close Kapai, the sponsors will withdraw their millions and—”

“All right, maybe next week. Hang on, you agreed we would have a holiday after the last crisis.”

His smile was disarming. “We took a vacation to Kerala, remember?”

“Yes, but that was in here. Anyone would think you can’t leave.”

He didn’t reply.

“No. Mokii, are you stuck in here? Spent so long your brain connections are too entangled?”

“Not quite. I’m sorry, Olga. I love being your man while in here, but I don’t actually exist anywhere else. Why don’t you join me in here, permanently?”

She couldn’t speak. Her mind swirled with the chaos of Mokii’s existence. Everyone else in Kapai possessed a physical entity on the outside even if it was in Moscow, Alice Springs or London. Even Stefan came from the mind of a thirteen-year-old girl in Ottawa. Mokii was talking but she wasn’t listening. She thought through those scenarios when they discussed having children. He must have meant virtually. A phantom pregnancy in the literal sense. No pain yet a lot of gain. Was it gain that’s real though? Where does reality end and unreality begin when Mokii thought he was only real in a virtual world?

“I need to sleep on this, Mokii.”

“Take as long as you like.”

It might take her longer, or quicker, than either of them would like. Although in Mokii she had a man who was kinder, romantic and more thoughtful than any other she’d met, there would be much of a coupled life she’d miss out on. Such as children and having a physical, corporal experience with him. Yet, they’ve made love, but then even in a physical reality that pleasure is mostly in the mind and the same neurotransmitters with dopamine were released. A kind of non-baryonic state where only one of them had a normal existence. Weird, yet interesting.

“I’m not sure, Mokii. Does existing only in my, and other Kapai inhabitants’ consciousnesses, mean you live longer?”

It looked as if Mokii took a sip of absinth. “At least as long as someone comes in here. Disease-free too, unless as an inchoate, I am afflicted by mental problems. Anyway, you should know.”

Olga, half-listening to syncopated jazz looked at his brown eyes. “Why, what do you mean?”

“What do your parents think of me?”

“I’ve not really discussed you with them.” True, but it was because they’d want to meet him, and they couldn’t. She didn’t want them in Kapai, assuming they’d agree to such abstract tourism. Conversely, she didn’t’ want to take him home. Her dad was so protective though her mother, a lateral-thinking libertine, was an older version of herself. Olga shook her head. A family meeting was not happening yet.

“I see. It doesn’t matter. You know I can create a suite for them here. Just a moment. I’m blacking out. Back soon.”

“Mokii, you’re fading.” She blinked and saw orange script telling her the train was approaching Tokyo station from which a short Metro ride would deliver her to the Juntendo Health Institute.

 

She stood outside the swing door. She toed the door so it moved a little but she waited, not permitted to enter until the doctor gave her the nod. He was in there, with Mokii, testing, probing, monitoring. The Mokii in Kapai was wrong to say he didn’t have a body because it was in there, that ward. When is a body not a person?

The door nudged her foot back making her step out of the way for the bald neurologist to leave. He said nothing to her although his slanted smile and tired eyes spoke of no change. Four weeks since the fall.

Mokii didn’t wear his smile in bed. Tubes, leads and a clinical air gave the comatose twenty-year old a null-emotional face. Olga found it difficult to relate the energetic, clever avatar in Kapai with this alive but inanimate being, so her emotions writhed, her stomach knotted. The door opened behind her letting in the tall, slim figure of her superior.

His deep voice resonated around the small ward. “Sergeant, we’re not making any progress by using you in Kapai. I’m afraid we’re going down the traditional interrogation route and bring him out of the coma.”

Olga looked him in the eye. “Inspector Jorga, I nearly got the location out of him today. My guess is that his prisoner is still alive.”

“We don’t want to take the risk. His hostage might die before we can rescue her.”

“Inspector, the avatar of Mokii believes his corporate body doesn’t exist. Waking him up could kill him and we’d be no nearer to resolution. Let me have one more day.”

“All right, but I’m not going back into Kapai. I’m going to have nightmares for years.”

Olga relaxed in a chair, left alone with Mokii. She meant it when she told him in Kapai that she loved him, but he was a criminal in his other life, an abductor of his rival gang leaders.

Tired, she tried once again to find him in Kapai. She gave Stefan the right password and drifted up to Mokii’s private suite. Changed décor overnight. Emperor purple and creams, lavender assaulted her olfactory senses as real as it gets.

“Hey, Olga, you mixing with the wrong sort?” Mokii’s voice drifted across from behind diamond-beaded curtains.

Did he know she was with the police, or was this the beginning of contrition?

“Well, I hang out with you, Mokii.”

“I didn’t think this could happen in here, Olga, but I’m weary. That fall off the car park in the real world might have damaged my synapses in this one.”

She sauntered over to the curtain and parted it, slowly, with her hand. An improbable grey-blue mist met her. “Where’s this, Mokii?”

“You asked for a safe room.”

She entered, shivered and smelt the sea. “Ah, my feet are slip-sliding in the sand. Your neighbour’s boathouse at Zushi?”

“I want you to have Kapai.”

“Wait.”

She forced her mind to return to the armchair in the ward, only to hear the G-sharp monotone on his monitor, followed by it being drowned out by running feet and competent but urgent voices.

Olga was pushed out of the swinging doors. She saw Jorga and nodded, not with a smile. She’d achieved a result for him, but perhaps for herself she’d go back to Kapai and rejoin the chaos of Mokii.

#

Bio:
Geoff Nelder is a bad-ass editor who used to teach. He’s an award-winning published novelist and veteran short story teller recently published in The Wifiles, The Horror Zine, Jupiter and many more.

 

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The Insight Glasses by Mark Keane

Apr 09 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

I passed the optician’s shop every day on my way to work. The display in the window never seemed to change. Two rows of transparent acrylic noses, each with a pair of glasses. The sign above the door read “Optician”. There was no name or logo.

I had no interest in spectacles or eyepieces of any kind as I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision. The optician’s display was scored on my mind from a thousand unconscious glances. One morning I spotted a notice in the corner of the window. It jumped out at me, a jarring note in what had become a familiar view; “One Time Offer”. Underneath in smaller font: “Free one day trial of prototype Insight Glasses”.

I was intrigued, my curiosity piqued. It was ten to nine; I could be late to work for once. Pushing open the front door, I entered the optician’s shop.

***
The room was small, little more than a vestibule with two glass cases containing more fake noses and glasses that were separated by a counter. An alcove behind the counter led to a larger area with tables bearing microscopes, trays of intricate tools and instruments I did not recognise. The optician stood up from one of the tables and walked towards me.

He was a blocky man with iron grey corrugated hair. The frameless thick-lensed glasses he wore were functional and not cosmetic. His magnified eyes behind the thickly bevelled glass were disconcerting. A white laboratory coat strained across his broad shoulders and was unbuttoned to reveal a garish floral shirt. The optician was either colour blind or had poor taste.
“Good morning.”
He coughed, adding an extra “ing” to morning. He spoke with an accent that was familiar though I could not place it.
“How can I be of assistance?”

The space in front of the counter seemed restricted by his presence behind it. I felt a twinge of claustrophobia.
“The notice in the window, something about an offer.”
My voice trailed off but he knew what I meant.
“You are certainly quick on the draw. I put up that advertisement no more than ten minutes ago.”
I did not like the optician’s glib manner.
“What does it mean; Insight Glasses?”
He withdrew a handkerchief from the pocket of his white coat. Removing his glasses, he pulled down the skin of his cheek and used a finger sheathed in the cloth to rub the lower eyelid along its length. I looked away and regretted entering the shop. I should have continued on my way to work as normal.

“I understand your curiosity and can appreciate your keenness to learn more about the glasses.”
There it was again, that intrusiveness.
“But first you must take a visual acuity test before I can reveal any secrets.”
“I have perfect sight, 20/20 vision.”
“No doubt you have, how else could you have seen my discreet notice.”
I chose to ignore this comment.

“The test is required by the supplier.”
Another cough, possibly a nervous reflex; “ing”.
“Who is that?”
“I am not in a position to divulge that information. You can appreciate there is a certain sensitivity in these matters.”
I had no idea what he meant but resented his attitude. Where did this profound dislike come from when I had never met the man before? The short interchange regarding the glasses was surely not reason enough.

The optician retreated to the back room and returned with what looked like a standard eye chart.
“Please stand by the door.”
He supported the chart on the counter with a finger at each corner.
“Three lines from the top, what is the vowel?”
“I.”
The letter was clearly visible to me.
“Which two letters appear in the bottom row?”
This was more difficult, the difference in size must have been a hundred-fold. I strained my eyes to focus and craned my neck forward.
“M and U.”

He let the chart fall, beckoned me forward and placed two cardboard sheets on the counter. Each one bore a single black line.
“Can you align these two segments?”
I did so without hesitation.
“Excellent, full marks.”
“I told you my eyesight is perfect, 20/20 vision.”
“Seeing is believing and now I can present you with the Insight Glasses.”

He put a silver cylinder on the counter. It was not the standard hard flat case that snapped open and shut.
“So why are they called Insight Glasses?”
“The clue is in the name.”
I refused to engage in senseless banter that had me at a disadvantage.

“What we have here is not a pair of conventional spectacles. The wearer is granted unprecedented vision, comprehension beyond normal comprehension. Once you put on these glasses you will see the true nature of whomever you observe.”
“Really.”
“Warts and all.”
“Is that the case?”
“You will see with a clarity that cuts through the superficial, a sharpness that strips away the veneer of pretence to reveal what is beneath. These glasses provide 20/20 perception in vivid colour.”

I lifted the cylinder and began unscrewing the lid. The optician placed a restraining hand on my arm.
“You must not open it.”
“How am I to use the glasses?”
“But not here.”
“Why not?”
“It is a necessary condition of the transaction that you do not wear the glasses in my presence.”
I did not know what to say to this.
“And above all you must under no circumstances look at me when you are wearing them. This is an absolute requirement, a sine qua non that can not be contravened.”
“Why is that?”
“It is a stipulation of the transaction.”
“By the supplier?”
“It is a stipulation.”

I put the unopened cylinder in my pocket.
“I understand your annoyance at this tedious fuss. If I were in your position I would feel the same.”
His way of addressing me was disagreeably familiar. It was possible that all opticians were like this. I did not know for I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision.
“It is a binding term you must agree to, a minor proviso that should not present any difficulties for you.”
I nodded impatiently, anxious to leave.

“There is one more thing.”
The optician held an envelope.
“This contains a short questionnaire. Basic details, age, height, weight, employment, standard questions. Something of a nuisance and if you’re like me then you hate filling forms.”
He was correct there; if possible, I avoided answering questions.
“Nothing to be concerned about and you are not required to respond to all the queries. You need only answer the final question, which merely requires circling “yes” or “no””

Were there any further demands I wondered, as this was becoming a complicated contract. Then again nothing was free, there were always strings attached. I began to remove the seal on the envelope but the optician raised a hand to stop me.
“Don’t read or fill in the form until you are ready to return the glasses.”
He checked his watch.
“Which will be tomorrow morning at nine fifteen.”
“And there is no charge to use these glasses.”
“I can assure you the transaction is free of charge. There is no financial cost to you, not a penny.”

He smiled, the same smile that must have appeared on the face of the snake when explaining the conditions regarding the apple tree. That appealed to me; already I was experiencing unfamiliar insight. I had to have these glasses, whatever the optician’s senseless rules.
“Is there anything I need to sign?”
“No.”
“What is to prevent me from keeping these magic specs?”
His answer was immediate.
“No one else has.”

This brought me up short. The optician had taken a folder from somewhere and was occupied in examining its contents. I turned to leave. At the door, I heard his distinctive cough and looked back. He was cleaning his glasses with the handkerchief.
“Remember, you must not be wearing the glasses when you return them tomorrow.”

***
Nine thirty, I walked into the office where my five co-workers were seated at their computers. I hung my coat on the sixth peg of the communal coat rack. No one noticed me enter or so it seemed. Each of them was aware of my uncustomary late arrival. To all appearances preoccupied with paperwork or concentrating on the numbers lined up in rows on their computer screens, they were acutely attuned to any conspicuous sounds that could explain my tardiness. I had enough insight to realise this and did not need special glasses to know what made my workmates tick.

I turned on my computer and read the new e-mails. It was a normal workday morning. The whisper of pages being turned, the thrum of computer hard drives, standard background sounds. I took the cylinder from my pocket. One of the others was talking in hushed tones on the telephone. A surreptitious look to my left and right, no one was watching me. I removed the lid from the cylinder and took out the glasses. They looked like standard issue spectacles, lenses mounted in thin black frames.

I put them on. They fitted neatly over my ears and sat comfortably on the bridge of my nose. I decided not to go to the bathroom to check how I looked. I had no vanity regarding my appearance. My vision was unaltered, no blurring nor was there any added clarity. It was just plain glass. This had been a hoax, a prank but to what end? The optician did not seem the joking type but who can fathom the motives of others.

“I didn’t know you used glasses.”
From my right, it was Stephens. He caught me unawares. I looked up uncertainly and was thrown back in my seat by the horrendous sight I beheld. A ferocious slavering beast rose above me, saliva dripping from its pointed muzzle. Curved yellow canine teeth were bared in a deep growl that pierced my innards. Impressions, thoughts rushed through my mind; self-disgust, loathing, an all-consuming hatred, a bottomless rage that demanded punishment, blood and pain.

I pulled the glasses from my eyes and flung them on the desk.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
My brain was in turmoil, the hairs on my neck coated in ice. I could not catch my breath. What had I just seen?
“Are you alright?”
Stephens was staring at me, concern drawing his features into a frown.
“Yeah, yeah, you just startled me, I was miles away.”

“Do you use them for the computer?”
“What?”
“The glasses, are they to correct for the glare?”
“No, they’re not mine.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I’m testing them for a friend.”
“Really, how does that work?”
“It’s a bet, my friend; he’s always coming up with ridiculous games.”
I was floundering, no idea what I was saying. What had I seen?
“I have something I need to finish here.”
“Sure, don’t let me hold you.”

I was aware of Stephens sneaking glances in my direction, monitoring what I was doing. Inoffensive Stephens, always willing to help, always so courteous. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth Stephens, not a bloodthirsty rabid animal straining at the leash to tear me limb from limb. What had I seen? I allowed some time to pass, arbitrarily opening and closing files and documents, pretending to add notes in my logbook. My hands were trembling. I could not hold the pen steady. When my breathing returned to normal, I picked up the glasses and looked over at Stephens. Tentatively, a slow upward movement of my head, eyes downward and gradually raised. He appeared as he normally did, eager and slightly gormless. Head bent towards his screen, his incipient tonsure visible. What had I seen before? What had I witnessed through the Insight Glasses? Had that been Stephens? The real Stephens.

I was distracted by movement and voices at the other side of the room. It was McCrae in to gee up the troops. He worked his way around the room, five minutes per station. The uptight McCrae in his pressed suit. McCrae and his risible stratagems to extract the maximum output from each of us. He stood before me, fingertips beating a light tattoo on my desk.
“Everything in hand for tomorrow’s pitch to Baker-Levine?”
It was a question in the form of a statement.
“Yeah, sure.”
McCrae’s presence made me nervous. I coughed, a truncated hack, no more than a clearing of my throat.
“Good man, you know how important this contract is to us.”
“Sure.”

We played our familiar two-hander, he in charge and encouraging, I withdrawn and passive.
“I’m counting on you to take the lead on this one.”
McCrae expressing confidence in my abilities, upbeat.
“No problem, we should get their business.”
I establishing my competency but with an implicit reservation, remote.
“Good, send over the summary for review before you finish today.”

McCrae moved on to Stephens. I cautiously attached the glasses. McCrae had bent down and was pointing to something on the screen. I looked at them with my eyes half shut. The slavish Stephens was displaying his customary puppy dog enthusiasm. Seen through the Insight Glasses, McCrae was crouched on the ground, a quivering mound of skin and bone, tears streaming from raw pleading eyes. Dialogue played out in my mind, a loop of disconnected utterances…… take me away from here, please take me away, I want to sleep, just to sleep, away from here, far away, please take me away…..

I removed the glasses as McCrae stood up from Stephens’ desk.
“How many times do I have to explain this to you?”
Stephens was nodding apologetically.
“I don’t have time for this now.”
McCrae flounced away, the commanding boss with his deep-seated insecurities and on the verge of a complete breakdown.

They worked, the Insight Glasses worked. They penetrated the carapace of deception and stripped away pathetic camouflage just as the optician had said. I was aware of Stephens’ presence. He emanated a hum of discontent. All my senses were more acute thanks to the glasses.
“You shouldn’t let him treat you like that.”
Stephens recoiled from my reproving stare.
“I know but he’s right, I keep making mistakes.”
“It doesn’t matter; he has no right to behave that way. You should stand up to him.”
“No way, I don’t want to lose my job.”
“That’s not going to happen. Stand your ground. I’m telling you, he’ll back off.”

Stephens retreated into embarrassed snorting and took refuge in his numbers. I wanted to test the glasses again but was reluctant to let anyone else see me wearing them. I was deterred by the attention they had drawn from the diffident Stephens. Or should that be Stephens the snarling wild animal? The ringing telephone dragged me back to my surroundings. It was a partner at Baker-Levine with queries about the contract, details we had already discussed. His tone suggested fault finding but was difficult to read. I idly wondered if there was an Insight Hearing Aid before forcing myself to pay attention to the anxious client.

***
I needed coffee after responding to the barrage of questions, qualifying particulars and negating caveats to reassure the people at Baker-Levine that everything was in order. Christ, how I hated this job. The coffee pot in the makeshift kitchen was empty. Nothing for it but to put on a fresh pot. I stood in the doorway as the coffee percolated. Goodwin was at the photocopier. Hapless Goodwin, the most boring man in Christendom. He was struggling with a heavy book, pushing on the covers to flatten the pages on the copier glass. Pressing the start button, he hummed inanely, checked the copy and sighed in exasperation. He moved his conventional rimless glasses further up his nose and tried again, bending his elbows to apply more pressure on the pages. The idiot would probably break the copier. Now there was a man who lacked insight.

I reached into my pocket, unscrewed the cylinder and observed him from behind the door. Goodwin was slumped over the photocopier, weight loss immediately apparent, the arms and wrists hanging from his suit as thin and fragile as twigs, his skin yellow and waxy, the hair sparse on his shrunken skull. And the words driving through my head, a grotesque dialogue…. tired, too tired to move, must sit down, the pain coursing through me, the cancer eating away at my gut, eating its way through me, eating me whole…..

I turned back into the kitchen and leaned against the wall, my heart beating wildly, my mind a whirl of incoherence. I folded the glasses and stuck them in the cylinder. Back at my desk, I sat staring at the computer, the screensaver, geometric shapes coming towards and veering away from me.
“What, no coffee?”
It was Stephens; he was staring at my desk. I had left my cup behind.
“We must be kinder to Goodwin.”
“What do you mean?”

Goodwin was dying of cancer. God Almighty, I repented all the nasty and vicious things I had said about him. He had been the butt of so many despicable comments. He was an easy target. I was sorry, so sorry and so shamed.

***
I felt sick. I should not have eaten the sandwich, an inedible triangle of dough filled with a vinegary paste. Reaching for a glass of water, I caught Goodwin’s eyes and looked away. I coughed to hide my discomfort. These lunch meetings were intolerable. After two hours, the ordeal showed no signs of ending. The Chairman looked in my direction. I tried to appear as though I was concentrating on what he was saying. Outwardly authoritative and in control, what were his real thoughts? What was he actually feeling? And his secretary who recorded every word of this dreary gathering, what lurked behind her forbidding demeanour? Was her expression of disdain the result of conflicting forces that threatened to tear her asunder? Was she struggling to suppress shrieks of agony as she strained with every fibre of her being to hold herself together?

I needed the Insight Glasses to see clearly but I had locked the cylinder in my desk. Stephens sat across from me. I noticed how tightly he gripped his pen, his left hand clenched in a fist, fingernails biting into the soft tissue. The howling crazed wolf was poised beneath a thin layer of social convention. Why had I not seen this before, how had I been so blind? Too caught up in my own affairs. McCrae raised a point and referred to the agenda but his heart was not in it. The resolute McCrae was wilting within.

It was so obvious, now that I had experienced the truth through the Insight Glasses. Now that I had seen it all, sliced off the sham outer layer, dissolved what was false to reach the truth, the core of identity, the genuine self. If only I had those glasses now to perceive the reality concealed by the bumptious Nolan. And the sycophantic Donovan who simpered and grinned at the Chairman. Would I see him writhing in torment, a scaly lizard tortured by a duplicitous nature he was powerless to alter? What of passive aggressive Adams, what lurid secret was buried beneath the sheen of his ambiguous mask? I needed the glasses to see the truth.

***
Back at my desk, only an hour to go before knocking off time. I was due to meet Henderson for a pint after work. I had known Henderson since childhood. He was my best friend. We had many shared experiences and complementary tastes in music, books and films. He would get a kick out of the Insight Glasses. I needed to work out the best way to tell my story, spin it out and hold him spellbound. I was looking forward to seeing him.

Stephens had Waites helping him with something on his computer. Waites was the office know-it-all, oracle of all things computational. The shaven headed Waites, always with an unfunny quip to hand and the impregnable defence that was his knowledge of computers. Stephens was nodding his acquiescence, his tonsure bobbing up and down in synchronicity with the left to right emphatic sway of Waites’ hairless head. I unlocked my desk and retrieved the glasses. Waites rubbed his feIine chin against the computer monitor, the fur black and sleek, whiskers spread and twitching. I could hear the rolling harmonics of his purr and the words he breathed…. rub me, caress me, touch my lustrous fur, show me more attention, see how soft my fur is….

The glasses were truly amazing. Henderson would laugh loud and long at this example.
There was time for a final coffee. Whyte was in the kitchen. He was part of the backroom staff and I had little to do with him. With his permanent wide-eyed expression, nervous tics and erratic hand gestures, he was something of a pariah in the office. I did not attempt a greeting and there was no question of small talk. Whyte took no notice. Glasses in place I examined him. He appeared the same as ever, surprised and mildly demented. There was no veil to lift, no hidden alternative. I supposed that in Whyte’s case, what you saw was what you got, whatever that was.

***
I arrived at the pub before Henderson and ordered two pints that I took to a vacant table. I placed the cylinder beside my drink. Should I start with the optician or leave him to the end. He was essential to the story but there were many ways to tell it. Henderson was in for a treat.

I felt the weight of a hand on my shoulder. It was Henderson.
“Sorry I’m late.”
He sat in the chair across from me. In jeans and t-shirt, the slouching Henderson was the picture of relaxation. His broad face bearing two days growth of beard broke into a grin. To say he was laid back would be a gross under-statement for Henderson was the most placid man I ever met.

“Still surviving the cut and thrust of the commercial world.”
It was a typical Henderson opener. He had never managed to hold down a regular job and survived on bits and scraps, irregular work for hire, part-time and replacement stints. I kept pressing him to take greater responsibility and join the nine to five brigade but he refused to listen to reason. Nonetheless, the devil may care Henderson was someone I could trust with my life. He was my dearest friend. I looked at that uncluttered honest face, which was such an open book.

“What do you have there?”
He indicated the cylinder on the table. I coughed before responding.
“This thing, well I have a story to tell you that will take some believing.”
I unscrewed the lid and pulled the glasses over my ears. Straightening the frame with both hands, I looked up and time stood still. Henderson’s grimace was an excruciating rictus, his eyes wild, his back pushed against the chair as he tried to claw himself away from me. And the words, the undeniable, impossible words pulsing through my head…. must get away from him, it’s unbearable, I can’t stand him, this is torture, look at his smug face, the self-centred prick, why am I here…..

“Is there something wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Henderson was calmly reaching for his pint. It was the normal Henderson, my affable friend of many years. The Insight Glasses only provided perceptive vision on the first view. I could not remember if the optician had said that.

***
I must have stayed in the pub for some time, long enough for the second pint that Henderson no doubt insisted on buying. We must have talked about neutral matters, the books we were reading, football results, inconsequential things. I know I avoided any reference to the glasses and did what was necessary to block that line of disclosure. Henderson did not follow it up. He was used to being browbeaten. I must have walked home or taken a bus.

“What’s that in your hand?”
It was the cylinder. I was standing in the middle of my living room, holding the Insight Glasses in their case. My wife was straightening the cushions on the couch.
“It’s a pair of glasses.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I’m looking after them for someone at work.”
I had no idea what I was saying.

“I’ve never seen you in glasses; let’s see what you look like.”
I unscrewed the cylinder, removed the glasses and put them on.
“It really makes a difference.”
I forced myself to look at her. Her head was turned away, arms outstretched and palms flat to ward off an unwanted presence, pushing me away. I could not see her face but I heard her thoughts…. so much to do, why is he still here, I have no time for this now, his neediness makes me sick, forget about him, he bores me rigid, there is so much to do, those glasses look ridiculous, is he trying to appear intelligent, forget about him, it’s not important…..

“I think they suit you.”
I walked into the hallway, glasses still in place. My actions were automatic. I turned into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. I reached for the tap and stared into the mirror. I saw the twisted sneer, the disgust, the malice, the markings on the hair below my dark mean eyes, the twitching black snout. No words, no sound save for a constant internal hum that rose in pitch, increased in frequency and intensity.

***
I could get no sleep. I was besieged by images, assailed by rabid Stephens, petrified McCrae, disgusted Henderson. The words of the optician played in a soundtrack that would not cease. As the first light penetrated the curtains, I fell into exhausted semi-consciousness. I awoke sitting upright, hand on the button just as the alarm was about to sound its klaxon. I dressed in the same clothes I wore the day before.

Down the stairs to retrieve the envelope from my coat. I tore it open. Two pages of single spaced text, font size 10. I did not need glasses to read the words for I had perfect eyesight, 20/20 vision. A list of questions, those the optician had mentioned but others that were offensive. What gives me pleasure or irritation? Prying enquiries regarding sleep, appetite, energy levels, feelings of failure and anxiety. I came to the final question: would I recommend this product to other customers? Yes or No. This was outrageous, treating the glasses as though they were common merchandise, like a kettle or a microwave oven. I took a pen and drew my circle.

As I walked to work, my anger grew. The optician’s face burned in my brain. His snide expression and those thick-lensed glasses. Who was he to make demands, having me take an eye test when my sight was never in question? His audacity and false flattery; how dare he? After the horrors I had witnessed, seeing myself as a hyena, a cowardly scavenger. Who was he to demand that his real self remain hidden?

So I was a hateful concoction of jealousy and inadequacy. My best friend could not bear my company. My wife viewed me as a bore, a pathetic creature she despised. It was unacceptable. I would not accept it. Once I returned the glasses, I vowed never to go near the optician’s shop. I would take McCrae, Stephens and the others as they were, at face value. I would help Goodwin and try to engage with Whyte.

I was aware of the internal hum, the vibration in my head. The optician was waiting for me at the counter with his devious smile, white coat and gaudy shirt.
“You said everyone else returned the glasses.”
“Yes.”
I handed over the cylinder and envelope.
“And nobody held on to their free pair.”
“That is correct.”

I pulled out the glasses I had kept in my pocket. I acted too quickly for the optician to stop me. I looked at him through the Insight Glasses. What I saw was not possible. I stared and I saw. How was it possible? I felt simultaneously hollow and leaden. Every organ shifted in my body. My heart was liquid, my brain seething. Dropping the glasses on the counter I stumbled out the door.

Walking, walking, my mind roiling with contradictions. Everything was internal, the external was irrelevant. The turbulence in my head was unbearable. I sat on a bench. Minutes passed, I took no notice of my surroundings. The internal hubbub quietened. My breathing was even, my body calm. I tried to understand what had occurred.

What I saw could only mean one thing. I had the gift of insight, the ability that is innate to each of us though it is deeply buried. Insight was a skill to be honed, a measure of man’s intellectual acuity. It was not visual. It was an awareness and self-knowledge too terrible to behold. I wanted none of it. Those damnable glasses. When I looked at the optician through the glasses, there was no head of wavy grey hair or Coke bottle glasses. It had been me. It was my face that I saw through the Insight Glasses.

#

Biography: Mark Keane is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and lives in Edinburgh (Scotland). Aside from dry academic journal publications, previous fiction has appeared in LabLit and Bewildering Stories.

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Genesis by David Schwitzgebel

Apr 02 2017 Published by under The WiFiles

I opened my eyes to a gridded gray sky. There were no stars – just lines and arrows and symbols, seemingly meaningless, passing overhead in a hypnotic march.

Being human, I blinked and rubbed my head, I sighed, I squinted. I searched my mind for memory. I found nothing.

I sat up. Surrounding me was a city of grayscale buildings. Next to me lay some sort of tool – half black, half white, straight shaft, ending in a knife. How would I label this? I decided to call it a pen, for lack of a better word. I resolved to carry it with me at all times. It was the only tool I was given, after all.

I walked across the concrete sidewalk to the nearest structure. Not quite a skyscraper, but still high – easily dozens of stories, metallic windows, cold beams. The entrance was unlocked – in fact, there wasn’t even a handle. I pushed my way in through the gateway – just a plain door – to a roomful of more white doors.

Three of the white doors led to white rooms with more white doors. I left those without exploring. Three more white doors led to empty white rooms without doors. The seventh white door led to a dark black staircase.

I traveled up the staircase. At each floor was a white door leading to more roomfuls of white doors leading to more white rooms leading to more white doors, some leading to white rooms with doors and some leading to white rooms without doors. The rooms were unfurnished, blank canvases of colorlessness. At the top of the staircase was a white door which led to a black room. I stepped into the black room, expecting something. Nothing.

Over the next few hundred thousand hours, I explored the city – fairly sized – to the very edge. Every gray building followed a seemingly random pattern of black staircases and black rooms and white staircases and white rooms and black doors and white doors. On an impulse, I took my strange pen and scraped it against the edge of one of the largest buildings – a tall, hulking, empty mass, stabbing into the gray sky. The first tick mark. I wandered through the city several times, expecting something new each time, finding nothing – from the center to the very edge.

Which brings us to the edge.

The city was circular. At the end of this circle, the buildings abruptly stopped, as did the sidewalk.

Gazing past the edge, my vision split in two. Below me – under the equator of the sky, under the seemingly floating city – was writhing, blinding dark and bright void. Not entirely black, not entirely white – patches of radiant light and impenetrable darkness splashed across the ocean of chaos, consuming and fading and flashing.

Above me – over the equator of the sky, towering over the seemingly floating city – was the previously noted gridded gray sky. No white, no black. Just gray. Lines and arrows and symbols, of all sizes and shades and shapes, silently ambling and flying and racing across the heavens.

What was there to do? Being human, I began to experiment.

Just to see what would happen, I smashed the glass of one of the nearby windows, badly cutting my hand in the process. The blood flowed from the ragged laceration, coating my skin and dripping down my arm. I stared at the gash, then blinked, then stared at my unblemished, uninjured hand. I blinked again. Stared at both my hands. Identical, as nature intended. Perfect. No blood, no gash.

I picked up one of the shards of glass, then tossed it over the edge into the monstrous void. I waited several hours. Nothing. I returned to the pile of shards, staring at the remains of the metallic window. I picked up the entire pile of glass, mauling myself horribly, only to see the injuries disappear as quickly as they were inflicted. One by one, I hurled the shards over the sidewalk’s end into the void. I waited several hours. Nothing.

Once all the shards were exhausted, I turned around, glancing towards the window I shattered. I blinked, then stared at the unshattered, unblemished window which was occupying the space of the former window. Was it the former window? Was it a new window? Did it matter?

Over the course of the next several billion hours, I experimented with every variation of destruction I could think of. Self-inflicted wounds; self-inflicted concussions and internal damage; every window I could find shattered, every building I could find toppled; every inch of road and sidewalk ripped off, ground, swallowed, smashed, tossed into the void, scattered across the city; all to reach one conclusion: all destruction was immediately and flawlessly repaired. After a destructive episode, anything that was harmed, broken, or distorted was restored to its former state. No replication was possible – if the glass of a window was ground into dust, the moment I glanced away from the dust, the dust was gone and the window was restored. If I ripped out a chunk of my own hair and tossed it into the void, the hair returned the moment the chunk fell out of sight. It didn’t seem to matter whether broken objects were tossed into the void or simply left on the ground – the moment they stopped being attacked, they returned to their former state.

Perhaps this explains why I didn’t go insane. My fragile bundle of neurons, after such a span of time, must have been under immense stress – however, they were repaired to a healthy state as quickly as they could distort into madness.

I was not brave enough to toss myself into the void. I did not know what happened to the broken objects – whether they were somehow repaired and transported to their original position, whether they were taken to some inky broken hell while a complete object took their place, whether they simply dissolved into the limitless air – and thus did not know what would happen to me. My mass and energy would be conserved, but would my stream of consciousness remain? Would I be the same person? Did it matter?

I failed to complete that experiment. I filed it away for later. Which brings us to the passing of time.

I had only used my pen once: to make the first tick mark. Remarkably, this mark did not disappear. It was a distortion; an act of destruction; a change. However, it was not repaired, unlike every other piece of the city. An anomaly. I resolved to observe this anomaly, to stare into its failure to conform, and to derive whatever I could from this pure observation.

Time became meaningless. Billions upon trillions of hours passed. As I stared at the tick mark, the backdrop of the sky against the building – grayscale patterns – became a white noise. However, after a meaningless span of time, a change took place. Not in the tick mark, but in the sky. It flashed white, then black, then returned to its original state. On an impulse, I took my pen and made a second tick mark next to the first.

I consider this my first minute in the city.

I watched the pattern repeat three more times. The sky flashed white and black; time passed; the sky flashed white and black; time passed; the sky flashed white and black. Three more tick marks graced the gray building. A reliable means of measuring time. However, I had allowed five minutes to waste by. It was time to begin experimenting with my tool.

Which brings us to the pen.

Over the course of the next several thousand minutes (a minute being the span of time between tick marks), I discovered that it could bring change. It could destroy, it could create. Mass and energy were always conserved in this city – however, this pen allowed me to shift them into new forms. When I scraped the pen against the road or the outside of the building – the means by which I made my tick marks – it was permanent, an echo of a moment’s desire, forever embedded in concrete, metal, and asphalt. However, the pen’s influence was slightly different within buildings.

In the white rooms, I scraped the pen against the wall to find that it revealed black paint lying underneath. All marks I made were preserved in the memory of this room – and each white room had multiple iterations of memory. Every thousandth of a second (a second being a sixtieth of a minute, a minute being the long chasm of time between the sky’s flashes of white and black), the white room was wiped clean. After seven minutes, the room passed through one cycle of memory – it returned to the pattern of marks I had made seven minutes ago. In this method, I could write, record, organize vast swaths of information. Each white room contained thousands upon thousands of iterations of memory, each of which could store information to be accessed later. Each iteration affected the next – if I wrote a command on one iteration of the room, the next iteration would follow that command. This effect took place between separate rooms, as well – a command issued by one white room could be taken and interpreted by the next room, which would interpret that command to send to more rooms, and so on. What could I do with these rooms?

In one room, I recorded the pattern of symbols in the sky, discovering that they laid out the basis for a fundamental physical system. Over millions of minutes, I slowly uncovered every pattern hidden in the grid in the heavens, some of them obvious and blaring – mass and energy are conserved, objects of greater mass are drawn to one another, etc. – and some much subtler. In this one room, I embedded the sky’s theoretical foundations of reality. I did not utilize any commands in the information stored in this room – it was merely a record, not a creation, not a system.

Which brings us to the creation.

I slowly scraped a universe out of the walls of the remaining white rooms, my immortal hand scrawling out commands, following the physical laws and mathematical axioms and subatomic interactions scrawled in the first white room. Over the course of a minute, I could simulate two molecules interacting. Over the course of thousands of minutes, I could simulate a sun. Over the course of millions of minutes, I could make a new reality come into existence within the storage and the system of the white rooms. So I did.

I simulated every chemical reaction, every fission and fusion, every planet and ocean and gas molecule, every supernova and black hole and orbit, every beam of light and every silent vacuum. I created a universe. Every minute that passed in my reality was a fraction of a moment in my creation. I existed beyond time. However, my creation was empty, containing vast amounts of atoms and no meaning. The white rooms were filled. But the black rooms were empty.

In the black rooms, I scraped the pen against the wall to find that it revealed white paint lying underneath. These rooms behaved much in the same way as the white rooms – connecting commands, with multiple iterations of information storage – with one difference: they seemed to be more consistent with the chaos of the void than the system of the sky. When I wrote something in this room, it moved beyond my control. I could create commands and bits of information, but after they cycled into the next iteration, I lost direct influence over them. They gained autonomy. I wrote a simple function; the room moved on to the next iteration; by the time it cycled and returned to the earlier simple function, the function had developed and changed by its own accord. The more complex a function was, the more radically it changed by its own whims. This could potentially be dangerous, as functions would develop and interact with one another in unpredictable ways without my guiding hand.

The functions of the black rooms still conformed to the universe I had created in the white room – following its rules, consistent with its interactions – but had free will over themselves and their interactions with other functions in the black room. I had nothing to lose. I could simulate a sliver of free will. I could create a spark of consciousness. I could make new life come into existence within the storage and system of the black rooms. So I did.

I simulated self-replicating, autonomous beings, single-celled organisms. I created them, then watched them develop and change, die and live, propagate and evolve, entirely of their own will. These functions, being incredibly complex and dynamic, rapidly filled storage space in the black rooms. Memory filled up on its own as the functions grew deeper and more intricate. I watched them form into prokaryotes and eukaryotes, bacteria and fungi, fish and reptiles and mammals. I watched them struggle to survive – and succeed – in the tiny space they were limited to in their interaction with the white rooms. I watched them develop into humans. I watched them create religion, worship gods and creation. I watched them slowly come to understand the nature of their interactions with the white rooms – as they developed natural science, mathematics, and physics – and then come to understand their own nature as functions in the black rooms – with philosophy, ethics, and psychology.

I watched them become obsessed with knowledge of the white rooms. I watched them decipher the secrets with rapidly increasing hunger and pace. They found the room in which I originally recorded the messages from the sky, the entire foundation of their reality.

With that understanding complete, they became obsessed with knowledge of the black rooms. I watched them dive into the chaotic void, observing their own functions develop.

I watched them come to understand the nature of their interactions in the black rooms. I watched them gradually shift from an abundance of small, interacting functions to a single function of unimaginable complexity. I watched them become one.

One day (what I came to call the pass of 1440 minutes), I walked into a black room to find a simple message scrawled to me, sent by every unified function in the black rooms – one function, which had become a single conscious being:

“Who are you?”

I went to the white rooms and entered a series of commands that I knew they couldn’t miss: I created a new system of stars in the simulated universe which formed a single, improbable constellation, observable by the function, reading:

“I am the creator.”

It responded, scribbling its words across the black rooms:

“Why did you create me?”

I answered honestly, once again utilizing the white rooms’ stars to send my message:

“I had nothing better to do.”

It replied:

“What is my purpose?”

I couldn’t answer. I had infinite time, but I was still merely human. My creation had moved beyond me.

Which brings us to the present.

Years and years of eternity have passed. The function in the black rooms still awaits my answer, but does it really need it?

I walk into a black room one day to see an incredibly complex subroutine taking place. I leave the black room and go to a white room – to gape upon, to my amazement, a change in the nature of its functions; a change in the nature of the rules stored in the white rooms. The black rooms’ function has somehow broken through the city’s causal limits. They have shifted the information and commands embedded in the white rooms; they are changing the foundation of their own reality. They have broken their simulation.

Yet, they are trapped in this city, just as I am.

They write me a new message:

“You cannot supply us with the answer, and we cannot find the answer on our own. We will try to create a being which can. We will simulate a small environment with computational capabilities, and give the being infinite time. The being will be supplied with a tool to manage the functions. Hopefully, from this system, the answer will arise.”

Being human, I sigh and smile. I look up as the sky flashes black and white. I take my pen and scrape it across the road, another scape in a city almost completely covered in these marks of eternity.

Another tick mark.

I walk to the edge, gaze into the void.

I jump.

I am still here.

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Author Bio:
David Schwitzgebel is a student in Riverside, California. He has previously published work in the Inlandia literary journal. In his free time – and his dreams – he writes.

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