Well, look. My laptop died horribly, and here I am in a hotel room–okay, “suite”–with no other computers handy. ‘Cept my wife’s. Oh, and an Android tablet. Um, and a couple of Kindles. I have lots of new material, but I haven’t been able to edit any of it, ’cause it’s either (a) backed up “in the cloud” where I can’t retrieve it until I have a new laptop set up, or (b) recently typed on an Alphasmart Neo, which is a very cool lightweight dedicated word processor that’s smaller than many keyboards…but I can’t edit on it worth a darn damn (which is actually why I like it so much, when my goal is to get stuff written). So, in spite of having had a good writing week…here’s this. Bright side? I’ll have a backlog of new stories to publish starting next week.
Oh, the cover? That’s ’cause I need to run Microsoft Windows to run a program called InDesign to make it, and I don’t actually like Windows, so I run it in what’s called a “virtual machine” (which suddenly suggests another story to me…hmm!) while actually running Linux underneath, and I won’t be ready to do THAT until I go download a bunch of stuff and set it up. On my new laptop. Which should arrive very soon.
Besides, I’ve always liked this story, so I’m glad I have the chance to get it out there. A foolish young friend of mine (I say this ’cause he was getting a degree in “Literature” at the time, but don’t get me started) thought it was the best thing I’d written when I showed it to him. I dunno about that, but it was definitely fun. And perhaps a bit strange, with references to all sorts of mythological things and also actual things thrown in. Yes, pretty much just thrown in there. Just because.
Also…RIP, James Hogan. This story might have been better if I’d never read any of your stuff, but I’m glad I did it anyway.
All right, I don’t know what to tell you. This one had to turn out weird—I mean, look at that first sentence. So this is how it turned out. Here’s the main thing: be careful how you let your mind wander, next time you’re on a plane (by which I mean “airplane,” though that first sentence–again I refer to it, though only ’cause I like it–might give you another impression).
A Flat Earth is no place to be when the shit starts rolling downhill.
I knew I couldn’t blame anyone but myself, but did it have to happen again today? Marisol’s birthday, and she would never understand. Even if she did, though, she’d leave me. Quickly. Twice, if she could manage it, just so I’d get the point. With my situation, it could happen over and over for the next ten years. But that sort of thinking wouldn’t take me anywhere I wanted to go, so I chopped it off.
Time to focus: I’d frozen the guy coming down the stairs in front of me while I considered my current problem, which mostly consisted of his presence in my exit path. Or anyway I tried to freeze him.
But he didn’t stop moving when he should’ve, and a bunch of his friends started clattering down behind him, so I grabbed the damned thing I’d been sent after from the middle of the pentagram, ignoring the tingle it gave my arm to reach in there, and got myself out of the basement. Via the aether again, and there’d be Hell to pay for that one.
* * *
I know what you’re thinking. Things can’t be damned, not literally, because they have no souls. One tingling arm (really more of a twitch-shiver-ache until it finally synchronized with my heartbeat and faded an hour ago) isn’t going to convince you otherwise. Damned things just don’t exist.
Well, why else do you think it was valuable enough to send me after it? I don’t like to work too often, so I need big jobs that’ll mostly pay off the creditors I accumulate in between. Except when I lose the creditors entirely, and then I need money even more because I have to find my girlfriend and introduce myself all over again. Don’t get me wrong—she’s worth it. But she’s not cheap, especially now that she’s getting used to my having so much cash when I show up and she doesn’t know me yet. No, I don’t understand how that works either, but it sure seems to be a reliable thing, and in a way I like it because it means something carries over.
Back where I came from I don’t know if people (other than me, I guess, and I like to think that’s figurative) can be damned any more effectively than things. I never thought about it much. But the rules changed on me somehow, a little at a time so I almost didn’t notice, and now I’ll believe almost anything. It’s a policy.
If I’d had that attitude to start with I’d still be an usher at the All-Star Cinema in Boerne, Kansas. I had the job for seven years, and I’d have liked to keep it for seven more. It was peaceful and mostly pleasant, except for the gum and candy under the chairs, and that wasn’t a critical issue because I could mostly leave it be unless it was too gucky. And Marisol worked up front, and an expensive date for us meant a guy delivered pizza to my apartment.
My troubles all started when I got interested in astronomy. I spent a lot of time out watching the stars, and wondering where they came from. I read some books on the subject, and they were mostly very helpful. Then I got hold of a tome by some Irish writer named Tipi or Wigwam or something like that, and made the mistake of abandoning my native skepticism and very nearly believing what he had to say. Ironic, that. Usually my troubles start the other way around.
It shouldn’t have mattered much, because nobody was all that interested in my opinion. But one night I was looking at Jupiter through my telescope and thought I saw it spit out another planet, just like Wigwam had said some other guy, named Velociraptor or something like that, had claimed might happen. Or had happened once already, or something. (No, of course I can’t look up the books to get all these details right. They’re not around anymore.)
I blinked, quickly convinced myself it hadn’t happened, and looked back through the scope. All was normal. It might have stayed that way, or anyway I hope it could have, because the thing I want second-most in the world is to get back to that theater and stay there.
But then I started reading about space travel, and when I got into the history of it—well, frankly a thing they called a Lunar Rover just screwed up my whole world.
Because I couldn’t believe in it.
See, it ran on batteries, and batteries were these tricky little creatures. They only worked, when they worked at all, in a narrow temperature window. There were other problems with them, too, but the Lunar Rover was supposed to go places where I couldn’t see how the batteries wouldn’t be either too cold or too hot. Too cold and you got no work out of ’em. Too hot and they might just blow up and quit on you. So, like I said, I just couldn’t believe in it.
The Lunar Rover was part of a big government program to send people to the Moon—yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous now. Back where all this happened everybody believed in stuff like that. Anyway, I started wondering.
Again, it shouldn’t have mattered what I thought about it. But an idea like that just won’t stay put. Or in a way it does, but only by putting down roots. They’ll get into everything after a while.
Because: if the Lunar Rover was faked, why not the whole Moon mission? Why not almost anything the government claimed to do? What if it was all faked? Welfare programs, emergency management, crime prevention, even tax collection for all I knew. Well, maybe not that last one, but you see what I mean.
At first it didn’t seem to matter that I was thinking this way. Things went on pretty much as they had, which I have to tell you suggests something to me, but never mind.
Then came the time I flew to Maine for my grandmother’s funeral. I had to change planes in Chicago, but there was a big storm and I ended up in Atlanta. From there I headed for Boston, but somehow I wound up in Miami.
I began to wonder about the point of it all.
I stayed overnight in a hotel down there, and made a few stops on the way back up north the next day, and it came to me that I’d seen the same red-headed guy with a limp in three airports, unless it was four.
Well, that could happen, I guessed. Lots of people had their travel plans all mixed up around then. But I got to thinking that the view out the windows of the planes was never all that good, even on a clear day. And somehow the distances between places were unconvincing when you looked at ’em just right. All the airports had the same food, the storm was everywhere, and now here I was finding the same actual people in these different cities, so who was to say the whole distance thing wasn’t a big hoax? Maybe we did all live in the same place, and planes just circled around. I mean, if they really flew at all. I began to think this might be true. I mean I really thought it.
I think it might have just been because I was tired. But whatever it was, after the funeral in Maine I decided the hell with all the pretense and grabbed a cab home to Kansas. I got there in about five minutes, and let me tell you it was a hell of a lot easier than all that airline rigmarole. Didn’t even have to take off my shoes, or eat pretzels either.
Right then I think therapy might have helped. Maybe if I could have been convinced, right away, that I’d hallucinated, then things would have worked out better.
But it was so much fun at first. I went everywhere, wandered through Manhattan, Tokyo, and Topeka in an hour. Because, really, they were all the same. It was a heady feeling, a gust of belonging that blew me around the globe but let me sleep in my own bed.
Except that I couldn’t quit. Soon I stopped believing in science and engineering at all, learned to accept that Switzerland really was full of gnomes, had a slice of Moon on my burger (no tire tracks from a Lunar Rover either, thank you very much) at McDonald’s, and once I nearly let myself be taken under the Hill at Newgrange in what was supposedly Ireland—but I still had my common sense, and didn’t go for that one.
And I couldn’t get home anymore. My Marisol was sometimes Mary, sometimes Marie, once Maryelizabeth, and—most frightening of all—for two weeks she wasn’t even there.
So, that little guy on the stairs? When I escaped via the aether? Well, that’s what I call it. It’s easy to do. I just quit believing I’m actually trapped, or that there’s no door behind me, or that whoever’s bothering me at the moment is actually present and voila! I get to reintroduce myself to my girlfriend, or sometimes correct her mistaken impressions and oddly warped memories. Because no one thing ever changes by itself. There are always consequences.
I can’t tell whether I’m traveling, changing the world, or what. If I’m traveling, I don’t know what happens to the other versions of myself I seem to be displacing. If I’m changing things, I don’t want to be responsible for the effects. I mean, actual angels and demons walking the Earth just because I decided I didn’t buy the idea of a God who made the place but would keep his fingers out of the pie afterwards? Or ships actually falling off the edge of the world because of my idle speculations? However this whole thing started, shouldn’t somebody call it off? I mean, how about a sense of proportion here?
So that’s it, Marisol. Or Marty, as you call yourself now since you had an operation or transformation or whatever three years ago, though I have to say you looked better yesterday without it. And even so, you looked better a little while ago than you do right now. But we’ll fix it. Don’t worry.
We’re gonna go up to a high place, Marty. And we’ll take a wagon, and we’ll go right off the cliff into the River Lethe.
Don’t worry, though. I don’t believe we’ll hit the water. I think maybe I was wrong to believe that planes don’t fly. I think maybe all this will turn out to be a passing fancy, a daydream.
We’ll need other people too, and I’ll get them on the way. No problem, because my freeze gun will work again once we get close enough. I’m sure of it. I don’t believe it’s permanently disabled, you see. It cost too much for that.
The people will have to be tied in place at first, but they’ll end up in seatbelts on the other side. I think I saw a guy with red hair in the bakery yesterday, and he may have had a limp. I’ll make sure he does by the time we take off.
I’m sure we won’t really hit the water in the freaking wagon, Marty, because it’ll be an airplane when I’m done with it. But hell, if we did just crash into the Lethe and I forgot everything just like the old Greek stories say would happen, what’s the worst case? Maybe nothing would exist anymore, huh? That’s ridiculous, though. Somebody’s gotta be in charge of this madhouse, and that sort of thing just wouldn’t be allowed. We’ll be fine.
And this damned thing I picked up from the pentagram, this weird little book you called a grimoire? I can’t even read it, you know, so I don’t know why it bothers you so much for me to have it.
You know, I just realized…that red-headed guy in the bakery yesterday looked a lot like the man who hired me to steal that damned book. If he had dyed his hair or something, anyway. And he was talking to another guy when I saw him, who was probably very nearly the same person as the fellow I tried to freeze on the stairs—the one who rushed me so I had to grab the book and get out of there. And of course the redhead might have actually been (sort of) the same guy I saw in a bunch of airports, the one who inspired me to kick my disbelief into high gear. Funny how people mix and match when I swap them all around. Probably it’s all coincidence, though. One thing I don’t see in any of this is a pattern.
I didn’t mean to hit you so hard when you grabbed for the book, Marty. You got blood all over yourself. But you’ll be okay later. I’m sure you will. You just can’t talk right now. The breathing thing can be fixed too.
Tell you what. I’ll toss this thing you call a grimoire over the side before we get to be in a plane, with windows and all. Well, okay, you don’t know what I’m talking about, but you will. We’ll leave the book here on this side, and whatever influence you think it has will be over with.
We’re going down, Marty. Because when all is said and done, and it will be, none of this means anything anyway. You want to toss it for me? I’ll tell you, even if we did follow it down all the way, who cares? After the way my life’s gone lately I’d say that’d just be more of the same. Nothing more than one damned thing after another.
Hey, that was pretty good. Wouldn’t you say?
Well, don’t worry about it. We’ll be fine. And so will everything else.
I’m pretty sure about this.
My books are not in stores, so the only way anybody hears about them is online. If I’ve entertained you sufficiently, and if you can spare the time, please consider posting a review online. Even a line or two, if posted to Amazon or Goodreads, can make a big difference to me. And I’ll appreciate the heck out of it.
Also, if you’d like to be among the first folks notified of new releases regardless of where they’re sold, you can sign up to my mailing list here. I send email to this list only when I have a new release, and I won’t sell or give away your email address.
Have a good day out there.