What It Is

It only takes a patch swap to splash the STM’s interface across both workstation monitors and we begin to examine the reason for Denny’s insomnia. A couple remote adjustments and we’re treated to a color enhanced vista of something that, by all accounts, should not exist.

I need to caution you. If anyone asks… it does NOT exist. Okay?

You really need to trust me on this.

Monitor one on the left shows me a set of static images, representations of the staged sample on its three axes. It’s a wafer, only four or five atoms top to bottom, but no real detail. It’s quite a bit larger than I’d expected.

Screen two offers an expanded view from the probe poised above the first layer.

The STM maps individual atoms in a material, but its modality doesn’t define subatomic particles. Rather, the software interprets and generates a representation that looks more like bubble wrap than anything I can think of.

I suspect we’re going to need something more powerful very soon, but for now we have a working tool most folks aren’t typically able to fit into their kitchen. These boys are lucky I found them when I did, is all I gotta say.

“This is… the stuff?” I say.

“Mm hmm.”

“We really have to call it something besides ‘the stuff’.”

“Plasmos,” Denny says.

“Bozonium,” Benn says.

“Come again?” I’m not sure I heard him right.


“Not you.”

Denny’s looking at the enhanced image. 

“Barbarella,” he says. “The mathmos.”

And just like that, we’re playing Trivial Pursuit®.

Fine, I’ve got this. “The mathmos was a sentient alien goo living beneath the only city, the only hospitable, habitable environment on an otherwise inhospitable world. Every now and then, the goo would reach out and swallow a citizen or two. No big deal. Not quite what you’d call symbiotic, but better odds than Outside, so the script goes.”

Denny’s grin remains disconcerting.

“The principal attribute of my plasmos in its raw stage,” he says, “is that its properties are ambiguous, completely malleable—plastic in a literal sense.”

“Plastic mathmos.”


“It won’t eat us will it?”

Benn coughs. “Says the girl with sentient alien goo in her refrigerator.”

“Probably not.” Denny says.

“Two syllables,” I say. “Easy to remember. Works for me.”

“So, Bozonium’s out, right?” Benn sounds disappointed.

And that’s what consensus looks like.

Raw plasmos, let’s call it then, patent and trademark pending, turns out to exhibit a near-homogenous surface to the scanning tunneling microscope. Not as much a bubble as a bump. Its color enhancement profile is monochromatic and disinteresting.

Plasmos, one might say, looks unnatural. What constitutes “natural” is fodder for much speculation amongst the three of us recently, but we could debate that later, I guess.

“Go ahead and tunnel down to the second layer,” Denny says. “The first gradation is just a dielectric wrapper. It’ll dissipate as the probe moves through it.”

“Eric,” I say more or less symbolically in the direction of the gimbaled breadbox. “Map the sample in the STM, please, and display on both screens. Two up on two. Then follow Denny’s direction with the probe.”

“Okay,” says a pleasant tenor voice.

The inert layer dissolves upon contact with the intrusion of the probe, as advertised, and my protégé maintains a precise, micro-micrometric separation regardless irregularities in the atomic terrain.

A raster inches down from the top of the screens displaying topography. This is not first stage material. It’s been shaped with deliberate intention. I notice my mouth is open and shut it.

“Hey, Eric,” Benn says. “I didn’t know you were on or I would have said ‘Hi’ before.”

“Power-save mode.”

“How’s it going in there, buddy?”

“Thank you for asking, Benn. I’m managing some precision work with the STM right now, but I want you to know it warms my circuits to see you, albeit not sufficiently to cause them to thermally reconfigure themselves.”

Benn snorts milk and the raster continues to trace the object’s surface at a pace I could never hope to achieve.

“Benn? Are you all right?” Eric sounds concerned. I like that. Maybe he is.

Benn, one hand pressed hard over the bridge of his nose, waves vague acknowledgement with the other.

Patterns emerge on-screen.

The software is doing its best to represent what it detects without prejudice. The bubble-wrap vista so far revealed is crisscrossed and ribboned with something that looks like carefully strewn grains of arborio rice with a generous helping of Morse code in braille scattered among and connecting them.

I’ve not seen anything like this before and I’ve already seen some pretty wild stuff. I’m not sure something isn’t wrong with the equipment, but Eric continues to map the rest of the sample as though there is no problem, so I just stare at it with my mouth open again.

An irregularity appears as a blister composed of the same braille stir-fry organized in clusters around it. I nudge Denny with an elbow and point. “See that light discoloration in the granular strata, upper quadrant just right of center?”

“Yes,” he says, pointing the other way. “There’s another.”

I see it too. And then I see others, slightly brighter points at odd places on the map.

Denny’s eyes are darting. “Eric, can you give me another scan of the surface, mark and superimpose any changes?”

“Once the initial pass is complete in another one hundred thirteen point zero two eight seconds from the conclusion of this statement, I could give you a continuous progressive scan at sixty frames instead, if that would provide more context.”

“You could? I mean, yes. Definitely. Do that.”

One hundred fourteen seconds later, active pico-circuitry becomes apparent in real time.

Denny and I are both standing now, shoulder to shoulder, watching as clocked pulses energize the coded pathways. They radiate outward from the little blister, like dendrites. We watch energy exchange across what looks like synapses.

I feel my own synapses energizing as the implications of this careen in my head. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up. My hand reaches out to the laptop touch screen on its own volition, narrowing Eric’s scan to the little cluster that seems the focal point of this example.

A flash of intense brightness overwhelms the output optics for just an instant, enough to make me recoil, then a pristine view of something I’m pretty sure no one’s ever seen before.

“Eric, what was that?”

“I do not have an answer, but here is a capture of the incident on two.”

A star appears on the right-side monitor. Eric adjusts and it loses several orders of magnitude. I dial the image back three frames to see its precursor. Remember what I said about the ‘bubble wrap’ appearance of the surface? Well, this isn’t. It looks like a cavity. An emptiness. Three frames forward, a brilliant emptiness.

“Ohhh-kay. I am now officially interested,” I say. “Secretary, please note the date and time. There is so much going on inside this little sandwich, Denzil. How did you get an atom of plasmos to produces energy?”

“It’s not an atom. It’s a singularity.”

“Hold on,” Benn says from the cheap seats. “Granted, I’m without the benefit of a formal education in Einsteinian or Hawking physics, but I have read ‘Black Holes for Dummies’, you know. I don’t think that’s a black hole. I don’t think so because it was in your pocket on the way over here and we’re all still alive and, you know… there’s still a here here.”

“You’re right, of course, Benn. This is the other one.”

“I’m sorry?”

“A white hole.”

“Oh,” Benn says. “White hole. Well then, sorry to interrupt you again. Please continue.”

I have so many questions I don’t know where to begin. “You didn’t make any of this?”

“No. Yes. I made the stillpoint. Raw first stage ambiguity.”

“And the mystery woman, Abbey, made all of this… from that?”

“Everything except the spark.”

“Without any instrumentation?” I know I sound skeptical.

“That’s right. I watched her do it. When she was finished, I formed the dielectric wrapper around the model. I didn’t have instrumentation then either.”

I cannot feature how that could even be possible, but I know he’s telling the truth. Did I already say I have no idea what his limitations are anymore?

“This is just an example, of course,” he says. “More form than function, but you get the idea.”

Yeah, I do. “Disregarding for just a moment the handy blueprint for nanocomponents and neuro-connective applications heretofore merely dreamed of, what we seem to have here is either a limitless power source or the end of all life as we know it. Potentially both at once.

“I want to get into the substrate of that and see what’s under the hood. I want to know how it works and how to make it do other things. But what I really want to know is, why did they give this to you?”

Benn has unreclined himself and joined us in front of the micro-panorama. One hand on his friend’s shoulder, he points, not at the images, but at the STM’s blurred hulk behind the drapes. “Let me see if I understand. That… thing there… is a hole the size of an atom.”


What’s in the hole?”

“I thought you said you read the book.”

Benn’s face scrunches up. “There’s no empirical evidence that all the matter collapsing into a black hole is expressed as either matter or energy out of some theoretical other ‘side’, or ‘end’, or whatever. That niggling detail aside, is the black hole at the hypothetical other “end” of this, also the size of an atom?”

“Let’s say that it is, for the sake of conversation.”

“Good. And where is this other end right now, the black, ‘oh God oh God we’re all gonna die’ end’?”

“I don’t know. It’s not a hose. Time-space deforms around the event. Erica may be right in theory about being the same…”

“Listen, you know I’m not a scientist, right? But I read. I watch The Discovery Channel and Myth Busters and PBS when they’re not aggressively soliciting donations. I may not understand celestial or quantum mechanics, but whether you’ve got yourself a portable gravity well there or an explosion of literally astronomical proportions, it hardly matters which, does it?

“Either way, brother, there’s no other place I’d rather be than right here, Front Row Joe, with the two of you.”

A grin plumps the whiskers around Denny’s cheeks and squints his eyes. It’s an alarming look on his gaunt, scruffy mug.

“Thank you, Benn. That means a lot.”

“Besides, I couldn’t get far enough away even if I wanted to.”

He’s right about that.

 “I’d ask you both to consider that, up to now, neither of these catastrophic events have occurred.”

“As far as you know.”

“I could tell you what I believe, but that’s irrelevant. If you’ve followed the chain of circumstances that’s brought us together,” he gestures to the microcosmic close-up, “you already know what you believe.”

“No, I don’t,” Benn says.

“Anyway, Erica’s question is a valid one. Why do we have it? I’m not the one to answer it. It’s not my story to tell.”

“You mean the midget, right?”

“Dwarf.” I say it automatically now, it sems. “Eric, if you would, please. The usual criteria for Braden… what’s he say his name is, Den?”


The breadbox doesn’t miss a beat. “I parsed and filtered the usual sources when it was mentioned earlier. What I retrieved was a single, unambiguous, ‘go mind your own business’. I’m paraphrasing.”

I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m really not. I think I’m jealous, though.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” I say and slide the definitely-not-a-flip-phone back in front of Denny. I sit down on the cajón. “Your show.”

      ~    ~

Dry Leaves In A Culvert

“Weekend before last,” Denny says, “I’d driven home. Didn’t tell anyone I was going. Planned to meet Mom and Kath at the mall by the river.

“I got to the food court first. Busy. Lots of people. I bought a sandwich, found a table, and was just digging in when I saw this woman. Big. Linebacker big. No neck, but head and shoulders above anyone else standing at the time. Came straight up to my table and sucked every bit of oxygen out of the room. Nobody else seemed to notice the sudden vacuum. Maybe I’m just sensitive to it.”

“What did she look like?” says Benn around a mouthful.

“Like that old trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie,” Denny says without missing the proverbial beat. “Her cheeks were blown out like that. Her entire face was, really, but her features were all crushed together in the middle. Lips squeezed into a bow-tie pucker. Broad, flat nose. Didn’t look like she could breathe through it. Tiny, close-set, ball bearing eyes. Shark eyes. No eyebrows.

“Black. Did I mention that? Like obsidian-black black. Head shaved smooth except for a pile of bright red hair on top all bunched together with a scünci. Like a shock of flaming wheat. Bazooms like a truck bumper. Front-ass like a snowplow. Bulging back fat, hips to here, balloon-butt, cankles…”

“I am so sorry Benn asked you what she looked like,” I say. “Please stop.”

“Overall,” he sounds like he’s summing up, “she looked like she was smuggling medicine balls inside three layered tank tops and pink stretch pants. I seriously didn’t know whether to laugh in her face, shit my pants, or do both and hope security was already on the way.

“Oh, and her feet…”

“Oh, for the love of God! I don’t want to know this!”

Denny sighs. “She just sort of loomed over the table. Looked me up and down like I was a pork chop. Plunked a little groznic down in the middle of the table, about the size of a pack of cards. Told me to leave it alone. Even her voice sounded fat. Then she shambled away, jostling chairs, tables, people… making herself conspicuous. Shouldered her way into the line at the Sbarro counter. While everyone was watching the show, the midget climbed into the chair beside me.

“I can only imagine the expression on my face. He called me by name. Said I was not hallucinating and there was no need to draw attention to ourselves by making a show. So, I pulled it in. We shook hands. You know what? His fingers really are like sausages.

“He talked some. Braden is his name, by the way. Braden Fane. He only said it once and didn’t leave a business card. Seemed worth remembering. He told me to hang on to the little device the behemoth left on the table.

“There was a commotion over at the Sbarro counter and he was gone. I think I caught a glimpse of him once between the tables. Maybe. Gone is the operative word. The Hulk stalked off in another direction and Mom and Kath showed up all of half a minute later.”

Denny stops talking and searches my face a while. I can wait. He hasn’t touched his birthday feast-in-a-bowl, but he finishes off his coffee and sets the mug aside.

“I told you that story so I could tell you this one,” he says.

Benn levers his chair into a recline.

“I got a text from him the next day. Your guess how. He asked to meet me whenever, wherever I choose and I thought, what could it possibly matter now? I mean, in terms of my privacy and personal security. All that’s been breached now by what appears a flesh-and-blood breathing human being in the exact image of someone I met in a dream… or a vision, or a psychotic episode. I don’t know, Erica. What do you want to call it now?”

“I can let it go if you will.”

He nods. “I thought, what difference if I meet him in a crowded place or an empty lot in the dead of night? In for a penny, you know? I either trust in what’s happening and embrace it or go hide until it’s over. So, I invited him to my apartment. That evening. Him and Abbey. That’s her name.”

“Abbey what?” from the peanut gallery. “Normal?”

“Yes, I know I’ve painted her in an unflattering light. I meant to do that. See, this time they showed up together and I didn’t even recognize her.

“Braden was the same: short, charismatic, casually impeccable. But towering over him and me both was this… I’m sorry, I’ve been searching for a word to describe this creature. Goddess is a little dramatic, but closer to the mark than ‘strikingly handsome woman’. Same obsidian flesh as the kaiju I’d seen the day before, same red hair, only luxurious now, and… terrifying, once I realized who or what I was seeing.”

“You’re sure it was her?”

“Good question. When you meet her, look in her eyes.”

“Maybe you were dreaming again,” Benn says.

“You’re really not helping,” I tell Benn and, to Denny, “Go on. Benn and I are done interrupting you now. Aren’t we Benn?”

He shoves a deliberate spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. “Mmm hmm.”


“We talked,” Denny says, “Braden and I. Abbey doesn’t say much. Braden showed me some stuff. I showed him some stuff. Then Abbey showed me some stuff with my own stuff and that’s pretty much when I stopped sleeping.

“I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening to me. Around me. I realized that others swept up in this, like yourselves, might be trying to understand and make decisions about what’s happening to and around them as well and what to do about it.

“I’ve involved you this far because I needed to process what’s happening with me and because I… trust you. I didn’t know if I could withstand it alone. I didn’t know anything. And then I knew too much. Now you do too.

“You didn’t ask for this and I’m not oblivious to your plight, either of you. I’m sorry you’re in it now up to your…”

I grip Denny’s shoulders and turn him until we have eye contact.

“Are you shitting me? Plight?! You and Benn are the most interesting people I’ve met in the last,” I pretend to count on my fingers, “twelve years. And you’re sorry?! This isn’t all about you, you know.”

“I thought you weren’t going to interrupt me anymore.”

“. . .”

“I saw Abbey again this morning,” he says.

“Which one?” Benn says. Apparently, the entire non-interruption contract has been abandoned without pretense.

Denny’s face is reliving that moment only a few hours distant. I thought he had appeared haunted before.

“I was taking trash out to the street and she was pushing a shopping cart up the sidewalk. Same big frame, but withered onto it. Twisted, dried up, and wrapped in a shawl. It was her, no mistake. She looked ancient. Braden was sleeping in the cart, bundled up on a bed of blankets. No, really. Sound asleep. He looked peaceful.

“Remember before, I said her voice sounded ‘fat’? This morning it was wind churning dry leaves in a culvert. She said Braden wants to talk to all of us after we look at this.” Denny indicates the laptop screen. “I would add, of course, only if you choose to do so. I have not presumed your level of commitment to this whatever-it-is we’ve done here beyond this point.”  

I hear the words he’s saying. They have a certain peculiar kind of continuity; I’ll give them that. If I didn’t know he wasn’t making it all up, I’d be a lot less agitated by it. I have questions.

“You said she said, ‘all of us’. How do they know about ‘all of us’?”

“I think you mean, how do they know about you.”

“How do they know about me?”

“Remember that quantum experience’ you mentioned a few minutes ago?”

“Doesn’t really explain it.”

“It kind of does, unless you want to have it both ways. I’ve never spoken of you. Braden hasn’t asked me questions about you, but he speaks of you as a matter of fact. And Benn.”

“Benn’s hardly a mystery.”

“I am too.”

Apparently, I’m not the mystery I think I am either. “Given the unique circumstances of the last weeks, not to mention current events, I’m willing to give some latitude to my misgivings. And you. So, let’s see it.”


“Remember the whizbang you were invited to take home with you from that first meeting? It’s in your pocket right now, isn’t it?”


I tap out an up-tempo paradiddle on the cajón until he shows it to me.

It looks like a flip-phone, but sleek like flip-phones weren’t then. Or ever. It doesn’t open up like a flip-phone either. He puts it on the workbench between us.

“That’s not the deal just now. This is.” He redirects my attention to the laptop. “The night Braden and Abbey came to my place, Abbey shaped it herself from a stillpoint I made. In real time. No STM, no tools, no gimmick.”

“How do you know? Maybe she prestidigitated it.”

“Maybe,” he says. “First time I’ve seen it like this too.”

“Do you know what it is?”


I want to look, and I know when I do, I will know something new that will challenge some of my cherished biases, a holographic moment to change my perspective and, with it, everything. I am not sure I want that much understanding.

And, you know, how can I not?


The Bus Leaves At Noon

A squeak, a complaint of old wood and tired metal forced together by the weight of a footstep on the seventh tread of the outer stair, alerts me to an approach. I haven’t invited anyone to drop by.

A second creak and grate, much like the first, suggests not only are there two persons about to reach the upper landing—a precarious proposition at best—but that neither is concerned about stealth. Four jarring blows to the cheap, hollow-core barrier between myself and the outside world intrude upon my already divided concentration.

“This is the Eff Bee Eye!” says a voice loud, firm, and authoritative. “Open the door, Ms. Cozinki. We have you surrounded.”

“You got the wrong address. Cozinki lives in the dump over the garage next street over.”

“No mistake, Ms. Cozinki.”

“The place is a mess and I’m busy. Go away.”

“We can do this easy, or we can do it hard.”

I brush aside the magnifier on its swing arm, switch off the fusing tool, and sleeve it. The stool top swivels me toward the door.

“I’m not decent.”

“Don’t make us use the gas.”

It’s not exactly a short walk to the door. I kick a pizza box and a couple fair-sized clumps of packing material out of my path. There’s a sweatshirt in the dish drainer that’s at least a three out of five and I shrug into it. It’s suitably baggy and hangs discretely to mid-thigh. Emblazoned on the front is a tender sentiment:




I have to yank the door against a customary resistance. It swings inward with a metallic protest. I hadn’t noticed it was pouring rain, but the two men on the landing, without benefit of an awning, have a bedraggled, stray-like appearance. I motion them inside.

“Benn, you know you’re not capable of disguising your voice, right?”

“Am too.”

Benn’s a ropey, wholesome-looking boy. He’s got a warm smile for me and it feels nice. Denny looks haggard, his face hollow beneath grizzled stubble. The silver in it is new. His eyes are bright with excitement, though. We exchange air-hugs as he steps past me.

Both shuck off their hats and saturated outerwear, hanging them behind the door on hooks that were already there when I moved in. Handy.

I pull a hand towel off the refrigerator door handle and toss it underneath their coats to catch the runoff. Standing water makes the laminate flooring warp. It’s not so much the appearance I’m concerned about, as it is my cleaning and damage deposit. Besides, it was time to change that towel out anyway.

“What brings you boys out on a glorious afternoon like this?”

“We missed your company.” Denny says. He’s already halfway to the end of the kitchen counter where my STM’s framework is bolted to shock pads—you know, like you do.

“You look like hell,” I say to his back.

He’s pulling on nitrile gloves with a snap. “Pot. Kettle.”

He wakes the coffee maker and worries off one shoe with his other foot. Then the other. He slips through the triple plastic drape surrounding the equipment, his hands moving across the surfaces, caressing them, activating primary power, component systems, laptop interface. I feel more than hear the compressor under our feet come on-line.

“You’re contaminating my space with your sloppy protocols.”

Benn plops a damp, doubled, brown paper shopping bag in my hands, bulging with booty.

“And you,” I tell him. “I’m wary of geeks bearing gifts.”

“The Trojan Bag ploy only works if Denny and I can both get inside it. Besides, the ruse is pointless once we’re already at large within your gates.” He fixes me with an ominous look. “We have you surrounded.” He nods, indicating Denny, a specter behind the drape, oblivious. “You should surrender now.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

My hands are full, so I tip my head toward Denny. “What’s going on? Where’s he been?”

“I don’t know. Holed up for days. I figured he was emulating you, or something, and let him be. Couple hours ago, he called and said we were coming to see you.”

“I have a phone too, you know.”

“We knew you’d be here.”

He begins to extract items from the bag.

“You’ll probably want to save these for later,” he says, presenting me with two twelve-packs of Pepsis in tiny aluminum cans. Sweetened with real sugar, not corn syrup. Not even ten ounces. I call them ‘shots’. I don’t know why I crave that carbonation after-burn so much. But sugar? No mystery there. And no, we still haven’t converted to metric yet, stubbornly hanging on to our medieval standard.

Benn sets the shots aside and digs a bit deeper, producing an economy-sized air freshener with a handy pistol-grip sprayer, pressing it into my hands with a head-tilt.

“Oh, no you didn’t.”

He looks surprised and innocent and adorable, but mostly innocent.

“You don’t invite yourselves over and then criticize my environment’s carefully modulated atmosphere. That’s just impolite and I resent the implication.”

“Gosh, ma’am, I sure didn’t…”

“That delicate fragrance to which you so disrespectfully allude is a painstakingly faithful recreation of one my great grandfather developed in France during double-you double-you one, called eau de bee oh—which, by the way, I intend to begin marketing under the brand name, Gymnasium Number Five; patent and trademark pending.”

“Sounds divine. Regardless, the ambiance will benefit from a good spritzing before we open these,” he says. Both hands in the sack now, he pauses, real dramatic like.

“We had neither the time nor cumulative experience between us to bake a cake, so we sincerely hope this will do.” He withdraws an unopened package of Oreos, a half-gallon carton of milk, and two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Nobody swoons anymore. Have you noticed that?

“Happy birthday, Erica.” He stacks them on the counter. “Hey, Den, where’d you put the candles?”

Denny’s voice is muffled behind the plastic barrier. “Thought you had ’em.”

“This is… I don’t know, catastrophic or something.”

I’m still holding the paper sack in both hands.

“Anyway, we got this for you too.” Benn dredges a final package from the bag.

It’s wrapped in plastic. We affect an exchange.

He crumples the brown paper into a wad. It traces a high arc over his shoulder, tips off the rim of the trash can, and joins the general strew around the base.

“Good effort,” I tell him.

I can hear as well as feel the STM’s vacuum pump thrum to life beneath us.

Benn fixes an expectant gaze on the gift in my hands. It’s flat and narrow and doesn’t look particularly dangerous, slipping out of the plastic into my hands. An expedient gift-wrapping of newsprint and strapping tape proves resistant. I worry a slit under the paper with a ragged fingernail and it peels away from a top-of-the-line e-reader tablet. Books and pictures and music and video in a cargo pocket-sized hand-held. It looks new, no fingerprints or wear on the touchscreen either.

“You shouldn’t have,” I say, thumbing the tablet’s oh en button.

I think everybody says that when they clearly don’t mean it. I don’t; they totally should have.

Denny shoulders through the plastic drapes with the STM’s notebook interface in one hand. He snags a steaming cup from the coffeebot with the other and steers his way across the room toward the workbench.

“I practically stole it from some sport in Portland on Craig’s List,” he says. “It’s clean and I eclipsed the after-market tracking, of course, so you don’t have to.”

“You know me so well.”

Benn gives my shoulder a brotherly pat. “We did pre-load it with some tasty subject matter, though.”

I bring up the content menu with reservation, relieved to discover it’s not hyper-realistic Japanese tentacle porn.

“It’s Calvin and Hobbes,” I say with what I pray did not sound anything like a sob.

I know they know it’s not really my birthday. I think I have something in my eyes.

“Would you boys excuse me a minute?”

“Take your time,” Denny mutters, preoccupied again.

I clip the oh en switch of the stereo receiver on my way into the bathroom closet just for some radio noise. I don’t mind if they can hear me blow my nose, but I gotta pee, too.

Instead of music, though, I’m at the “we’ll be right back after these messages” leading edge of what will be several minutes of tedious, poorly produced local commercial content: enthusiastic, rapid-fire patter, uninspired jingles, and none of it adequate for my immediate needs.

I twist a spigot to run some water in the sink. A familiar shudder of the pipes is followed by a gasp of air cleared before the flow. I call ’em sink-farts. I wonder if they’ll think I made that noise.

Running water serves a secondary purpose, I suppose, as it takes a while for hot water to work its way up from the tank in the space below. By the time it does, its temperature’s sufficient to liquefy flesh. I temper it from the other tap and scrub my hands and face.

Reaching for a towel, I catch my reflection in the hazy mirror and wish I hadn’t. I also wish I hadn’t wiped it for a better look. I look like a carnie in a bally show pitched on the boulevard to the Gates of Hell. My complexion, particularly in this fluorescent light, is best described as ‘pasty’.

I know I’m not pretty. I have an unusual face. It’s not gross or anything, but it’s definitely my own. The bulky sweatshirt I’m wearing easily obscures what was once deemed a satisfactory, if minimalist figure. Not so much right now. Also, it’s been some time since I shaved my legs and…

Why am I looking at myself in the mirror again wondering if I have crud between my teeth?

I twist the spigots closed with a jerk. It makes the old pipes bang into an interstitial radio silence. I scrub my face again, harder. Maybe it’ll bring some pink back into my cheeks for a couple minutes anyway. I can’t do much about the hair; they’ve already seen me. I search the astonished face staring back at me.

“Who are you and what have you done with me?” she says. I hook a thumb at the door and she leaves.

It appears Benn’s given up looking for clean bowls and decided to wash some he found in the sink. The closest thing to a dish towel is under their coats, so he’s bunched up paper towels to swab the bowls out. He chucks the soggy glob at the wide-mouth a good twelve feet away and, just like that, he’s one for two.

I hit the oh ef ef switch on the receiver just in time to squelch a standard Grateful Dead impersonation of a garage band. I dig a pair of jeans out of a pile and shimmy into them. I’m buttoning the fly and look up to see Benn with the carton of milk in one hand, tumbler in the other.

“Are you wearing a merkin?” he asks, like he’s just wondering where the spoons are kept.

“Are you trying to get frisky with me?”

His face says this is the first time that’s ever occurred to him. He lifts carton and glass in his hands and says, “Do you want milk with your cookies?”

“Yes, please.”

I pluck the bottle of air freshener from the counter with a grumble and apply it to the less genteel corners of the room, away from the ‘birthday feast’ and sensitive electronics. Also, as a supplementary measure, I give a couple shots under the sink.

I’m afraid I’ve become inured to the odors I’ve spawned around me over time, but I can detect the difference immediately. It’s actually kind of pleasant. Not floral, more like clean linens or something. Huh.

A couple shots at the wide-mouth couldn’t hurt either before I put the unnatural thing away again.

Denny’s leaning in over the notebook. I can’t see the screen, but I know he’s prepped and staged his sample in the machine, fussing now, positioning the probe so we can view whatever it is. Precision work by a quick study. I don’t believe I could have done it better.

Benn’s melting ice cream over the Oreos in the microwave. I capsize the heavy duffle onto a relatively unoccupied section of floor space and roll the chair into another for his comfort and viewing ease. Who says I’m not a considerate hostess?

Meanwhile he’s capped the milk and opens the refrigerator to put the carton inside. If I’d been paying closer attention, I suppose I could have warned him.

“Hey, Erica. What is that?”

“Biology final.”

“A science project?”

“Uh huh.”

“It’s moving.”

“Mesmerizing, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s… wait. No. It’s got pseudopods.”

“I know.”

“Hold on. Erica, is it trying to climb out of the bowl?”

“Yeah. See, the light tends to agitate it. You should probably close the door now.”

“Wh…? It can SEE?!”

“It’s rudimentary.”

He’s still staring at it. “Jesus CHRIST!”

“You’re starting to piss it off.”

I think it’s a real testament to Benn’s character that he’s able to ease the door closed instead of slamming it shut and rearranging all my condiments. He leans his back against it, breathing. I’m not sure if he’s pantomiming or not.

“I had no idea your sensibilities were so delicate, little fella. Here. Try not to think about it.”

I lift my sweatshirt up over my boobs, give him two seconds and a smile, retrieve my bowl, and leave him to reboot his operating system.

Denny’s scooched the barstool over to his corner of the workbench and settled into it. The view into the microverse beckons. I haul my cajón over beside him and sit down on it.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Tell me what you think it is first.”

“I mean you. What is it with you? You’ve been a ghost for almost two weeks. What, are you dying or something?”

“No… what?”

“You have no idea how disturbing you look, do you?”

There is a depth in his eyes difficult to interpret.

“Never mind. You’ve arranged this get-together, and I have no doubt, like last time, you’re going to show us something else stupefying. I mean, it’s not like we’re used to it yet.”

“You’ve got to admit, that last one was pretty impressive,” Benn says.

Denny’s gaze seems impassive, coming from a greater distance than the few feet between us. I touch his sleeve and give his arm a squeeze.

“Cone of silence,” I say.

Benn’s sprawled in the chair where I parked it for him, feet up, bowl in one hand, mouth full. He makes a winding motion in the air with his spoon. Denny turns back and searches my eyes, as if the words he’s looking for are in there.

“I’ve been afraid to sleep. Afraid everything will have changed when I open my eyes.”

There’s an analog clock on the wall above the trashcan and, if I had replaced the battery a couple months ago, I could’ve watched it ticking off seconds into dead air right now.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” is all I can think of to say. I want to ask him if that means everything might change for him alone, or for all of us. “Has anything changed yet?”

“How would I know?”

“Well, you’d probably be the only one who would.”

“Odd how that doesn’t help me feel better.”

“We’re all still here so far. That seems promising.”

I can see him sifting words and stringing them together.

“Remember the midget from my dream?” he says.


“I met him.”

Now it’s my turn to try stringing words together. They pile up on top of each other like vehicles on the curve of an ice-glazed freeway. The first few to work their way past the jam are not the most conversationally useful. I know it as they come out anyway.

“The proper term is ‘dwarf’,” I say, “and it wasn’t a dream.”

“Yes, it was.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Are we going to do this again?”


“It was a dream, Erica. Dream-Benner even told me so.”

“Are you even hearing yourself? You had a quantum experience…”

“MIDGET!” Benn’s shout is a thespian’s exclamation, clear all the way in the back row.

Denny’s head and mine turn in unison.

Benn takes a slug of milk and wipes the froth on his sleeve. “The midget. Finish your story, Den. I don’t know about her, but the suspense is killin’ me.”

Denny’s stool rotates so he can look at us both. This close to him, he seems feral. So, I scoot back to give the man some space, and he tells us this story.

◄      ~   

This Is Then

This is me fifteen years ago, designing my empire. I am laying the foundation, even as it becomes apparent I will have accomplices. The important thing is, I am changing the world, one intention and micrometric tweak at a time.  The universe is holographic in nature, you know; any change made to my world changes everything. There are literally quadrillions of examples of this every second. Look around, you can’t possibly miss them all.

Look at me there. I look like a slob, don’t I? I think nothing of wearing the same clothes for days, if any, showering only when I can’t stand myself anymore, or on one of those rare and awkward occasions when I’m expected to present in person.

I had a cat for a while. Guess he couldn’t stand me either. I’ll admit, he’s not the first stray male, regardless of species, to leave me over a perceived lack of attentiveness. I was a lousy companion, too immersed in my work to even cuddle the poor, scruffy little thing. I feel kind of bad about that sometimes.

I don’t eat right. Nothing that would require much in the way of preparation or clean-up afterward. Cap that off with dangerous levels of caffeine and sugar and it’s not hard to figure out why I look the way I do.

My apartment’s an unadorned studio over the shuttered garage of what some used to call a “shade-tree mechanic”, the guy who could fix any car ever made before technology surpassed his experience. He used to live here; now he has a girlfriend. I still hear him now and then, rattling around down there. Nothing raucous. Days mostly and, if he’s thinking of working at night, he brings by steaks and a six pack.

Bob’s a benign landlord and this is an adequate environment for my purposes: a single, spacious rectangle with a Spartan kitchen at one corner across from a functional bathroom enclosed within an expedient-looking plywood closet. The whole place isn’t pretty and needs work. Like me.

Notice how the walls are bare, except for over there in the corner where my workstation monitors fan out like a pair of mismatched wings. There, between the windows. Yeah, those are windows. I could look out of them if I wanted. Same over the sink, but I’d have to take down sheets of aluminum foil to do it. Also, I’m out of Scotch tape to put them back up and don’t need the aggravation.

What’s out there? Schadenfreude Theater, mostly.

The hand-drawn schematics and notes to self on the whiteboards there in the corner are a cryptic roadmap to this moment in time and on the long wall over the workbench, the free-form collage of vintage album covers represents my only tangible nod to art. The vinyl that came in those sleeves warped beyond salvation years ago, as mismanaged vinyl tends to do. Regardless, I’ve got a few thousand tunes on the cloud shuffling through my headphones to supply the soundtrack of my life, so I’m good for now. I mean then.

If you noticed that hot mess in the gimbaled framework there on the workbench, that’s Eric. He’s still in a rudimentary stage, in terms of heuristics, but he’s a breadbox with a budding, teachable personality and a brutal tactician at Chinese Checkers, let me tell you.

A tall barstool with a pillow top and contoured back caresses my bottom with a sumptuous familiarity. Nearby, an expensive office chair, engineered for supreme ergonomics and comfort, provides firm lumbar support to a military duffle full of laundry. I’ve been meaning to get to that.

You’ll notice the rest of my dorm-chic furnishings seem to be little more than flat surfaces covered with careless disorder. It’s not careless. Even my bed, a hard futon mattress on a two-by-four and plywood pallet, is little more than a catch-all for textbooks and manuals, a scattering of loose change and unsorted clothing, a couple more toolkits, a stuffed penguin named Farkle, and a box of cold, half-eaten pizza. I don’t mind. I hardly use it anyway. The bed, I mean. I don’t have a boyfriend and I don’t sleep much.

The same disarray maintains over on the kitchen side, except around the holy triad: my coffee maker, microwave, and, inside that elongated, visqueen-draped area at the end of the drainboard, a scanning tunneling microscope. Yes, it is kinda big, isn’t it?

I had to shore up underneath to accommodate its bulk in addition to rendering a preposterous amount of vibration damping. Bob didn’t seem to mind. Happy to help out, in fact, and even offered some of the space below to secure a few of the bulkier, noisier components out of my working-living space. He’s awesome.

The cajón by the bathroom door is the other flat surface exempt from the apparent clutter afflicting the rest of my surroundings. You won’t see a plastic plant in a wicker basket sitting on top of it, nor cardboard box full of project discards. Nothing sits on that but me. I like to play it when I’m thinking. Sometimes I think until my knuckles hurt.

Rampant disorganization around me doesn’t seem nearly as problematic as the time and energy I would have to expend tidying up. I know where to put my hands on everything I need. File by pile, that’s my style. Anything on the floor between me and the exit is trash and I take a push broom and square-nosed shovel to it every few days as needed. You know, so that I have egress. In case of fire. I believe it’s written into the lease agreement.

I don’t need to remove the foil from my windows to contemplate the world outside my den. As I gaze outward from the high ground atop my plush barstool, I see pretty much every facet of global society at large, from business and politics to what passes for human interaction, rooted in little else but greed, fear, and high fructose corn syrup.

Governments around the world are invested in what the prophet Carlin used to call “The Bigger-Dick Foreign Policy”. Ancient hatreds and freshly brewed animosities appear to benefit equally from weaponized space-age technology. Meanwhile, biblical levels of intolerance and brutality are routinely brought to bear upon those least able to defend themselves from it. Business as usual, I guess, even here in the Land of the Free. Those who thought they knew how bad it could get were wrong, of course.

The End Times came and after that, things got complicated.

Here, I’m doing it again. I apologize. I’m skipping ahead and I don’t mean to confuse you with allusions to future history. You’ll know all this for yourself soon enough. Come on back to my cluttered little nest where we started. I’ll try to stay on track.

I am in my junior year at a well-recognized University. Never mind where. Peripheral to my personal as well as scholastic pursuits, I’ve been allowed unique insight into the nature of surveillance and myths of privacy. This is a particular point of focus for me because I’m reluctant to advertise my empire-building strategy and schematics. I want them to be a surprise.

Here’s a takeaway for you: Someone wants to know where you are and what you’re doing all the time. There are eyes and ears everywhere. They’re in the hallways of your schools, the aisles of your department stores, they’re on the streets and in your cars, hovering in the sky above and orbiting in space, Jehovah-like, able to observe and record activities below with intimate detail.

Do you have a device with an internet connection in your home or on your person? Do you have and enjoy a social network presence? Do you have credit cards with chips on them in your purse or wallet? Well, good news, citizen. There’s a proctoscope up your fundament so deep it can probably tell what flavor gum you’re chewing. You’d think that’d be uncomfortable, but you don’t even notice, do you?

If I say it’s not only possible, but inevitable that someone is able to track (almost) anyone anywhere anytime, does that make me sound paranoid? If you think so, you haven’t been paying attention. That’s why I’m here in this inconspicuous little hovel on a nowhere street in a quiet burg without much of a view fifteen years ago, changing the world. I may be nobody now, but no matter what develops from here, I intend to remain that way.

Hey, wait! What about me and my cloud-based musical library, you may ask. Isn’t that an invitation to the same scrutiny which I’ve neatly encapsulated in my heretofore strident harangue? A pertinent, perceptive question.

I like you. Tell you what I’m going to do; I’m going to level with you. No, it isn’t. Not even close.

Also, I’m invisible. I’ve made myself a phantom. I leave footprints that anyone who cares can follow with ease. There’s just enough variation to give the appearance of callow, youthful behavior—my digital doppelganger must seem human rather than mechanical—but ultimately the trail I leave runs in circles—routine, unremarkable, boring circles.


Prologue — That Was Now

Seems people still enjoy an engaging story, don’t they? As if the story they’re constantly making up in their own heads isn’t enough. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe reality is only subjective anyway.

What do you mean, what do I mean? About reality or subjectivity?

I mean, we share the same space in time in reasonable proximity in this vast universe and we tend to refer to this big thing we’re in as Reality. We accept and share many foundational conventions of this Reality, whether we understand them or not, like energy and mass, gravity, love, loss, and death. We share questions.

“Why?” seems to come up often.

Our individual reality is filtered and shaped by our perceptions, our experiences, and our comprehension of them, and by what we believe. But we don’t perceive, understand, or believe alike even about these fundamental things.

Imagine we sit on opposite sides of a table. Between us is a candle. Suspended above the candle flame is a stone. Describe the stone as you see it. My description will likely be different. Which of us is right?

Look into the candle flame and tell me, do you see the same light I do? Do you? If you have a rudimentary understanding of how light travels and how the human eye operates, you’ll agree the photons reaching my retina cannot be the same ones reaching yours. Same source, different rays of light. We see the same thing, yet we do not. Can you tell me the ray of light I see is the wrong one?

Our understanding and our belief about what we observe will have roots in our genetic code and in our socialization. That is, we will automatically concur about elemental components of this experience we share, up, down, table, stone, flame, but our thoughts and beliefs about it will, at best, coincide just enough to forestall argument.

Once you accept that no one else will ever perceive and believe what you do, exactly as you do, you may then consider that what we think of as Real is only a description of the world from our own point of view, discrete and unique, probably incomplete.

What’s that? Your reality? It is as subjective to me as mine is to you. Ask anybody; I’ll wait. And while you’re doing that, I’ll tell you about how deep subjectivity can go. I’ll tell you as much as I know, and I know more than most about how it was at the beginning of the story. This one.

At the beginning, the boundary wasn’t so fuzzy. Our bodies may not have been fully devoted to what was mainly a visual experience, but those early ventures down the VR rabbit hole were glimpses into a frontier vast and uncharted, a parallel universe of wide-open possibility and, for the practical dreamers, profitability. Who would not be willing to immerse themselves in such a pristine sea of potentialities, create worlds, and play in them?

The technology has since enjoyed what the ad-men of yesteryear liked to call a ‘paradigm shift’. Let me tell you about it.

Imagine your deepest, sacred attention held rapt, fully absorbed in an environment so rich and visceral, so—you’ll pardon the expression—realistic that every one of your senses is invested. When you feel your body move and react to physics you rarely, if ever, think about, your mind will barely be able to distinguish virtual experience from real. Nor will it care to do so. Even knowing at some primal level you’re engaged within a construct and won’t even be allowed to die there, it’s still real enough. The difference is inconsequential to your synapses.

Go ahead; explore the world. Explore other worlds. Go anywhere your nature leads you. Connect to any among a burgeoning constellation of hosted venues, intricately crafted realms in which to conduct real-world business and commerce, or accommodate any variety of amusements, impulses, fantasies, or perversions. Build your own world if you can afford it. It’s manageable. Make up your own rules. It doesn’t even have to be pretty. Somebody will pay to experience it.

Real is infinite, they say, and immediate and overwhelming and absolutely nothing is assured, least of all your survival. It’s flooded with sensations and emotions and prayers you didn’t even know were prayers. But it’s your story and, in it, you are the center of the universe. You are the Prime Object. The voice in your head says so.

The virtual continuum, conversely, is not infinite. Not yet anyway, but it is immediate and overwhelming and, though constrained by rules, you are still the center of the universe.

Once offered the ability to disconnect from Real and reconnect at will, most will choose to work and recreate in virtua without harboring much angst. It’s safer there, for one thing.

No one contracts disease in vee. That’s a big deal. Also, only a handful of pioneers world-wide have ever died as a direct result of a failsafe anomaly. For another, it feels Real; or so the compelling AsReal commercial presentations assert. In fact, in value-added ways you never would have expected, it’s often better than Real. Within the Nexus of All Subjective Realities, as the corporate entity refers to itself, “the possibilities are endless”. The cost is as painless and ephemeral as a soul, and as affordable.

True Believers of many faiths consider the virtual realm to be anathema. Some devout sects have demonstrated violent opposition to its existence. A few billion others have come to see it as a necessity, bordering upon a God-given Right. Some have adapted to life there exclusively. Some have had no choice.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. It’s hard not to, standing in the only reality I know and afraid for the first time in I-don’t-remember-how-many years. I don’t understand what’s happened. I don’t know whose story I’m in now.

It’s been said there are no endings, only new beginnings. I’m here to tell you, some things end. Spoiler alert: I’m looking at it.

But all of that was now.

~      ~      

Scroll to Top