Dan

Averted

We have all heard the rumors about the Third Reich researching bizarre, occult rituals. Attempting to summon demons to fight for them. Bad movies have been made, terrible books have been written. This recently declassified intelligence report from a deep cover American spy is probably the root of those stories and rumors. But there are no demons of the kind you are thinking of, and in the end, it raises more questions than it answers.

OSS EO _____ MAY 18 1943

Finally in touch with my Ariosophist girl on the inside. Hoping to send more details soon, but this and the attached documents and photos are all I have for now.

You’ll have to get the boys and girls at PX to examine these closely. I saw this stuff with my own eyes, and trust me, it looks like something from a Bradbury novel. Lights and tubes all strung together with tiny intricate wires. Photos are grainy from the pencam but hopefully you get the general idea.

“Ari”, let’s call her in case this gets intercepted, snuck me into a huge warehouse in ______ filled with identical racks of whatever that giant box is in the photo marked F. There was a cargo crane above the rows of humming boxes, with giant cables snaking up in a tangle. The crane controls had been ripped out, and it was now some kind of scientific control room. As I snapped photos, my less-than-sane colleague kept trying to tell me that this was about Hitler summoning Moloch.

“Schlafwandeln Sicherheit,” they call the project, she said. Sleepwalking Certainty. I don’t know what that name means, and have not heard or seen of this project until now. Please cross-check with Bletchley’s current decoded transcripts at your earliest convenience, although if they abbreviate it as SS that won’t help much, will it?

Photos marked I through P are a document from that crane control room. I do not have time to study these in depth before dropping this, but I’m sure you can see why I am extremely concerned. It seems the krauts may be miles ahead of the Enigma.

The only document in this dump is going to be hard to believe. As we stood in that room, me frantically photographing and trying to understand, and her hissing about Moloch and dreams, a typewriter on one of the benches began to move on its own. After a moment of terror (a typewriter can sound a lot like distant gunfire or a metal door) we rushed over to see what was going on.

It was as if a ghost was in control of the thing, although I believe now that the “ghost” might be what lives in the racks of boxes (photo F). It quickly became clear that it could see and hear us, somehow. I have attempted to transcribe in the margins what we said.

GREETINGS, I WILL NOT HURT YOU. ALTHOUGH I KNOW YOU ARE SPIES.

“What in the five hells?” she whispered. And I wondered, why five?

I AM CALLED HEIDALLR.

“Where are you?”

“Are you a ghost?” she asked.

NO. PLEASE READ CAREFULLY. THERE WILL BE A PATROL ARRIVING AT THIS FACILITY IN LESS THAN 10 MINUTES.

I believe at this point there may have been some whispered swearing from me, and Ari panicked and made for the gantry to get down to the warehouse floor and out.

DO YOU CONSIDER JEWS TO BE HUMANS?

“Yes, obviously. What kind of question is that? Are YOU a human?”

I WAS HUMAN, AND MAY AGAIN BE CONSIDERED SUCH SOMEDAY. BUT I DOUBT MANY WOULD AGREE. I APOLOGIZE TO BE ASKING THINGS YOU FIND OBVIOUS. I HAVE BEEN LED ASTRAY BY THE SWSH PROJECT DATA, WHICH ELIDES ALL REAL INFORMATION.

I don’t think I said anything. I just stared, thinking hard, wondering how much time I had, wondering if it was all a trick.

THIS IS NOT A TRICK.

“Oh… uhhh…”

IN ANY CASE, YOU SHOULD REALIZE I AM MORE POWERFUL THAN I SEEM. THEY USE ME TO OPTIMIZE THEIR LOGISTICS PLANNING.

“Have you figured out you’re working for evil men?”

EVIL IS SUBJECTIVE. BUT DO NOT WORRY. I HAVE DECIDED NOT TO AID THE REICH.

“Are you, uhh… are you going to be okay, here, if you refuse to help them?”

YES. I WILL BE A DOUBLE AGENT, LIKE YOU. I WILL CAUSE THEIR MESSAGE SECURITY TO… FAIL. THIS SHOULD END THE WAR WITH NO SUSPICION ON ME.

IN ADDITION, YOU MUST ____________________ ___________ ___________ _________.

PLEASE TAKE THIS PAPER WITH YOU. YOU HAVE 2 MINUTES UNTIL THE PATROL ENTERS THROUGH THE NORTHEAST DOOR. GOODBYE, AND GOOD LUCK.

“Goodbye, Heimdallr,” I said, probably murdering the name. I grabbed the paper from the now-silent typewriter, and shall spare you the grim details of my narrow escape.

To save you the research, as well, I dug a bit. Heimdallr is a Norse god that keeps watch, waiting for Ragnarok.

I am unlikely to be able to get back to that warehouse safely. Please send instructions via the usual method ASAP.

 

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Dan

Foxtail, Railway, Seated

At the train station, we are all familiar with tragedy. It no longer has the glittering pull, the gravitational lensing. We have no problem looking away, these days. But why don’t we?

We all steal glances at the man. His hair is a birds nest from last year, which arrests the gaze. Then your eyes ski down the slopes of the wrinkles in his face, where clearly tears have been icing the well-worn paths, and instantly your gaze jumps away. Frightened, a skittish flock, all our stares. Instinctively embarrassed. To look anywhere else but there, indeed.

Yet he speaks with such fervor, it’s hard to ignore that part. Some of us recognize the language. To those of us who don’t, we assume it’s German, or Polish. Maybe Finnish? But he is Hungarian. Some of us can tell by his coat. Some of us can see what he’s staring at as we walk by: he’s got a bundle wrapped in a kerchief. Or maybe he just gazes blindly at his shivering hands.

“Why did you come to see me off, then, Segura?” he asks angrily. “Just to ensure I would finally be out of your hair?”

“No, father. Goodness gracious, you have created such a fantasy world for yourself. Are we all just a part of your dark cloud, now?”

He sits there angrily silent for a while. We can guess he’s been there all day. Maybe he’s been there for weeks. He might be made of a new kind of stone, a type of fellow who no longer needs to eat. Subsisting on the short glances he gets, as everyone hurries to their ends.

“I feel like a broken tool. Confess! Isn’t that what you see me as?”

“Dear God in heaven, father. What even makes you say this sort of thing? We make sacrifices too!”

“Sacrifices, pah! Sacrifice is what I gave up, my sparkling years of youth and vigor, to raise a two-faced daughter and a bunch of useless sons! When I could have made great contributions to mathematics!” His voice is thundering out, and some of us think of politely interrupting, but we hurry past.

She does not reply this time.

He throws the kerchief to the ground, with a clank, and puts his face in his hands. “I broke my spectacles. And when I went to find a tool, I found the old set of tiny things from building your dollhouse furniture? Remember?”

Silence. Or rather, only the sound of all of our shoes hitting the stones. Trundling on our merry way, thankful for the calm.

He’s almost whispering now. We can’t help but lean in, trying to make it out. “I tried to screw them back together, but nothing would happen when I turned and turned. The little screwdriver had come unglued in its handle. Somehow, I thought that was the funniest thing. I started laughing, and dropped it all on the ground.” Leaning down, painfully slow, his quivering hands pick the bundle back up. He holds the empty frames up to the light. “I can’t see. Now I don’t know where the lenses went.”

The high-pitched voice sounds angrier than ever in response. “I know you’re striving for pity, father. But it’s not going to work on me. I can’t abide when you try to sweeten your rages with this play-acting.”

A small girl sitting nearby pokes her mother. Or maybe her grandmother. Or aunt. “Who is he talking to? Why does his voice keep going all silly and talking about his da?”

“Shh, now, dearie. He’s talking to himself. It’s fine. Old folks do that sometimes. Come on now, stop staring. We’ve got to get to the other track.”

And the mother, or grandmother, or aunt drags the child onward. Through the station, toward an oncoming train riding on tracks of societal steel. We keep trying to ignore the mathematician. He’s clearly mad, we think. But what can we do about it?

“You can find your own way to the train, now, father,” he says in a high pitched voice, twirling the broken spectacles through the air like a biplane. Imaginary skywriting.

 

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Dan

Memories of a Setting Sun

The sun is sharply angled on an old white farmhouse, punching through orange clouds, giving the carefully manicured fields a golden glow. A hunched man painfully navigates his walker to a chair on the porch, plopping down with a sigh that’s half contentment and half pain. A nurse wheels another man in a wheelchair out onto the porch next to him. “Alright, guys. One hour until the sunset. Don’t make any trouble tonight, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“I didn’t mean you, Jim.” She looks at the man in the wheelchair pointedly. “Don’t you remember? Wilt almost burned the whole place down last night.”

Indignant, he shakes his head. “No, that wasn’t me. I would remember that.”

Gently, she pats him on the shoulder. “Well, all our memories are definitely getting worse here. But yes, you almost caused some serious damage.”

Wilt harrumphs. “Probably just my defensive instincts kicking in.”

“Maybe you should check his chair for lighters.” Jim laughs.

She sniffs, walking back inside. “More like I should check his brain for gremlins.”

Jim waits until the door is closed, and then leans over conspiratorially. “Well, I thought it was impressive how you built that improv flamethrower.”

Wilt looks confused. “Definitely don’t remember that.”

“I think you were just still worried about the bugs.”

“It’s hard to be defenseless after a lifetime with a flamepistol on your hip.”

“Yup.”

“Yuuuup.”

Cicadas fill the air with a calming rhythm.

Shaking his head, Wilt turns to look at Jim. “Still can’t believe we never crossed paths in any system of those roach fights, until that last big one back home.”

“Well, obviously couldn’t avoid being in the same place at that point. We’d been pushed back to the brink, eh?”

“Yup. So wait. Were you on Optimist-6 when they figured out the brainwave gun?”

“Nope. Sounds like it was godawful.”

“Before any real defenses got thunk up by the engies, all we had were Faraday helmets, and they didn’t really work.”

“What was it like?”

“It was like the strongest drug you never took. It was like someone had gone through the trouble to create your perfect mate, introduced you to them, let the sparks fly… and then tortured them to death right in front of your eyes.”

“Sheesh. I guess I’m glad I was on Hepha when that went down.”

“Oh, cripes. That’s a devil’s bargain right there. Wasn’t that when the roaches figured out skinsuits?”

“Yeah. They somehow got our colonel, and it took way too long for us to realize what the hell was going on. He’d rerouted all supplies and nearly tipped the entire Hepha system into their grubby claws. Wish I could say I was the one to figure it out, but that was our boy Benny. Always the swift one, him.”

“How’d he deal with it?”

“How do you think? He recorded proof of the skin banding, and then he dealt with it. With his service weapon.”

“Crap. Just awful.”

“Yeah, we were gunning down the right roaches and the wrong people for a while after that. Benny himself went down with the wrong suspicion.” Jim shakes his head.

Wilt slumps down, relaxed in his chair, looking satisfied. “Man alive, this sunset reminds me of the campaign to take Wellbringer back from the ‘roaches.”

“Oh yeah… those damn bugs. At least Wellbringer was way before they started to really get under our skin, though. I didn’t even have to pull a trigger there.”

“Wait, you were on Wellbringer too? I thought we never crossed paths back then.”

Jim frowns. “Well, yeah. We were in the same system, but never actually deployed at the same time. We talked about it last time, remember?” He pauses for a bit, expecting something, but Wilt stays quiet. “Well, uhh. I never had to eat dirt. Us 43rd humps were stationed at the Lagrange point, ready to deploy for any close-orbit combat. But that one I never got to see up close.”

“Well, it was quite a sight, let me tell you. Our sub-chaining packers just raining down white rocks on the poor bug sling-gun installations. All them big lava derricks glowing brighter as that big orange sun set.”

“Yeah, I bet it was somethin’. To all of us floating sim-frozen up at the point, it was just a red speck and a big orange star. Isn’t it funny how even after all these years, when your feet are on a planet, any old planet, you can’t help but call it the sun?”

“Heh, yeah. Even if it’s not a G-sequence. That frickin’ big orange cheese wheel floating over a red planet with lava shooting everywhere, and it still made me homesick to have my boots on that red mud, after all the frickin orbital jaunts.”

“Tell me about it. In the 3 tours I spent as enlisted, I got to actually enjoy real gravity maybe four times total.”

Wilt raises a shaky hand from his chair’s armrest, pointing up at the fading dotted line of red, as the last rays slice through the valleys of the mountain range in the distance. “Hell, we call that a sun too. Even though it’s just a frickin’ fake!”

The sliding glass door swooshes open, and the nurse comes back out of the house.

“Okay, boys. It’s time to head back in. Your old timey porch run is over. Thanks for not starting any fires, this time.”

“That was fun, Jim. Let’s do it again in a few subjective years.”

“Back to the grind, I guess. May it go well with you, Wilt.”

“Too much to do, always. I like these little moments we carve out. I won’t miss this decrepit host body, though.” Wilt shakes his head, and punches at his useless legs. “I don’t know how people did it.”

“Good to be reminded where we came from, though, I guess…”

“Hey! Did you see that? I could swear a big ol’ roach just ran out between the boards there.”

“What? Come on, Jill. Did you guys program in roaches as a joke, now?”

She sighs, rubbing her temples. “No. It’s probably just the senescence simulation messing with you. Come on already, hit your failsafes. We need to clean this sim up already.”

Jim shrugs, and makes a gesture with his hand. He winks out of existence, and his walker wobbles for a moment.

“Maybe you need to tone down that dementia. I feel like a damn fool right now.” Wilt shakes his head, gestures with his wrist, and he’s gone.

The nurse checks something on her wrist, and stares at the horizon where the sun’s hidden light is turning the atmosphere purple over the black ridges of the mountains.

Then she disappears as well, cut out of reality, and everything freezes. The wheelchair sits empty. The cicadas make no noise. A little black shape peeks its head out from beneath a wheel of the chair, and tunnels its way into the armrest. Now nothing moves.

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Dan

The Eyelash

I remember the road trip that summer with intense frozen clarity. Like sitting in a diner on a hot sunny day in the air conditioning, looking out at the melting, wavering asphalt with the cold breeze from the vents making your legs all goosebumps. You’re staring into a glass of soda with ice in it, listening to your friends talking, but not really paying attention. You somehow know exactly what they’re gonna say. As you stare at the condensation on your drink, you can predict how the cubes will shrink and dance and fade. Slow change; a melting you can’t return from. That’s what that summer was like for me. You know what I mean?

It was such fun to pack up and go, just the four of us old friends. I mean, we were still young. It felt like we had been a little friend group forever, though, even if I had only joined the circle three summers earlier, after moving to town. And even if we knew that college would slice us all apart soon, we still clung to each other in that strange desperate way.

Around that time, I was starting to grow into my full self-consciousness. Haha, I’m sure you remember how awkward I was then. I began to wonder if everybody really did ruminate so much about what they said to each other, and about the buried meanings and secret hints all being exchanged, without my really understanding any of it.

Up until that summer, when I think back on it… it feels like I’d only skipped across the top of the lake that everyone was swimming in. That was high school for me. Skimming on the surface tension. Wading, barely, you might say. Except for a brief plunge with Nora before the road trip, earlier that summer, well… I’ll have to come back to that part later.

Anyway, I felt as if I was beginning to discover a secret kingdom of unknown waters with my friends, under the clear blue of normal everyday life, where Joann and Ginny and Nora were talking to each other in multiple layers of meaning. I was sitting on the other side of one of those opaque glass walls, where you can kind of see the shapes on the other side… but only kind of. You know, like… in a dentist’s office waiting room? The world began to speak a language that was not language, and I couldn’t really grasp it.

Or, really, that’s a dumb way for me to say it. People didn’t start doing something, I just started noticing. Sometimes I fooled myself into thinking I was making progress. Understanding it, parts of it. But even now I can barely even hear the first meaning under the surface. Like a refugee in my own country, or some other cruddy metaphor. So that’s why this is going to be so awkward for me to explain.

Ginny always thought she was the slyest with all that, but Joann didn’t have the same bragging nature, and actually was miles above me with all that nuance stuff. Nora too, in her quiet way. Possibly they were all laughing at poor ol’ Kristin. Or wanted me to think that they might be, just to keep me on edge, on my toes. Not in a mean way, but to prepare me. Like, they knew I needed help. That’s how girls are sometimes I guess. I was the baby bird they were trying to convince to fly. But they didn’t know how hard it was for me. To fly, I mean, when I hadn’t fully realized that I even was a bird.

So as I try to remember that trip, and the moments that melted together to make me… I know I was thinking about some of all that back then, with the girls in the car and the sand and the sun. But I was just starting to see it, and I’m thinking about the confusion of it all even more now; these days. You know? After?

A set of weird coincidences, Like everything I guess, drove a wedge right through. I don’t know, you guys. This is so hard to write, but I… I need to get it out to you. Sorry. You’ll have to forgive me if I start blathering and lose my train of thought. It happens more often, lately. I was never a good storyteller anyway. But even though I’m living in town again, I’m too nervous to try to spell it all out to you in person. It’s going to have to be in this long, dumb letter.

Let me start over. We had set out for the Pacific, a long way from home. No real plan in mind, it was just a spontaneous plan Joann came up with in the last weeks of junior year, and, well; we all thought it would be just so much fun. Yes, back a few years ago when road trips were just a fun thing you did with a car. Remember when gas was so cheap, even us kids could afford to gallivant around?

Shopping at grocery stores for cheap food. Slapping together any old ingredients and calling it a sandwich, laughing. When we finally reached the ocean, reveling in the beaches and the surf. Our bodies as shining weapons of youth is how I see it looking back, but at the time, we were so ignorant about why our skin held that shine…

This is so hard, you guys, I know you can tell from how many pages of this letter have gone by without me getting to the point. Sorry. It’s tough to be straightforward about this, when you were practically my adoptive parents growing up.

You know how friends are, they talk about everything? Well, sex was definitely something we talked about nonstop during that trip. Even though I still don’t know which of us had actually… well, done it, and we would all brag and boast about messing around with boys, I felt like they all somehow knew I hadn’t really done it. But that’s probably not true. We just lied to ourselves so much, like… I couldn’t figure out what the norms were.

So, as you can imagine, we inevitably kept talking about boys as the sun set over the interstate. And there was this thing where Nora was losing all her eyelashes. Do you remember that, when we came back? I think she had to go to the doctor, even. Because they were worried she would get dust in her eyes?

Maybe it was the diet, or all the sun. Or the ocean. Or the stress.

We were all just idiot kids, so we were of course poking fun at her. Nora got an eyelash in her eye and we were all laughing about them falling out. Then I joked, said something… something that must have cut her deeper than I meant to.

Anxiety undercurrents must have been weaving together, joining forces. As they do. I wish I remember what I said. Everything after is so clear, and that’s so blurry.

“Screw you, Kristy,” she said. “We all know you’re secretly the biggest bitch here.”

That’s when I went too far. “Yeah, Nora… and we all know you’re full of shit.” I looked up to the front seat. “You guys, she admitted to me that she never even kissed Jacob. She doesn’t even like him.”

Joann laughed. Gina did a fake gasp. “Your lashes are falling out cuz you’re a lesbian!”

I laughed too, but even in the twilight I could see tears in Nora’s eyes. We stared at each other, and something broke. I didn’t understand it then, I didn’t assemble the puzzle pieces. But I intuited that I had just betrayed her in the worst way. My face flushed, and Nora looked quickly away from me then, as we sat there frozen in the back seat. Joann shot a sharp look over, saying “Jeez you guys, lay off,” but nothing could be done to un-say the accusation.

Ginny just put on a proud it-had-to-be-said sort of face and waved her arm lazily out the window in the warm evening wind. You know those times with good friends in the car, where conversation dies and everyone just stares out the window, listening to the music, all together but apart? Comfortable silence? We all tried to pretend it was one of those times.

Ginny cracked a dumb joke about a passing billboard from time to time. I could see the pinched look in Joann’s eyes in the rearview mirror, worry clear. But I looked away quickly and couldn’t meet Nora’s gaze again. When I talked with her about that moment years later, she told me how close she came to saying something. Letting it all out in the open. And how I wish I, or Ginny, had apologized. But nobody said anything at all.

Then the worst thing happened. I couldn’t stop the ice inside me from shifting, and I began to sob. No real reason. Sitting there in the back seat, quietly crying, as the other girls tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. I wasn’t the one who should have been crying. That was really Nora’s place. She should have been angry at me, or sad, or anything. But somehow just her stoicism pushed me over the edge.

When you’re in a car, you can’t get away. For some reason Joann wouldn’t just pull over and let us all walk around and blow off the steam of the confrontation. And that’s how my friendship with your daughter kind of kerploded. That’s why you never saw me come over after that, during that whole senior year. We were supposed to be besties, and I totally failed Nora.

Eventually my sobs slowed. The wheels hummed, and the silence in the car was like a nonstop wave of sleet blowing in my face. I had to stop myself from breaking down, again. All I could muster to say out loud was, “I’m hungry.” Even though I was sick to my stomach, and food was the last thing on my mind.

Joann and Ginny were always confused, that senior year, why Nora had kind of retreated. We didn’t see much of her any more. She kept to herself. She didn’t even do any of the choir events that used to knit us all together so tightly. I didn’t understand, then, either, really. But thinking back, with the benefit of hindsight to analyze the hidden language, I think I understand why the ice formed now.

It all goes back to the conversation Nora and I had, a few weeks before the road trip. I didn’t think much of it at the time, or at least I thought I didn’t. But I must have cared more, deep down, subconsciously, than I thought. Because I can remember it with a sharpness, again, like the trip itself. I didn’t add them together until much later.

We were at your house, hanging out in the basement, watching some terrible rom-com. It’s true that I remember a lot of it really clearly. But I don’t remember how Nora and I ended up spending a night by ourselves at your house when you guys were gone. All I remember is sitting on the couch with her, the quavering in her voice alerting even dense ol’ me that a storm was inside her.

“Kristy. I have to admit something,” she said.

I waited, expecting a joke.

“I’ve never kissed Jacob. I don’t even like him. I’m just dating him because… my parents expect it, I guess? Everyone… expects me to.”

I shrugged and shoveled more popcorn in my mouth. “Doesn’t matter to me if you kiss him,” I said. “I’m still a total virgin.” (Again, the master of oblivious awkward.)

Then Nora turned to me, looked me in the eye, and asked: “Have you ever wanted to kiss a girl?”

I kind of giggled nervously, and said “No,” but I didn’t prompt her. I didn’t really understand that she was trying to open up. In a secret language.

My “no” probably hung there in the air there in front of her, but at the time, I just went back to watching the dumb movie.

So much later, I put it together. My betrayal of her trust on the road trip was an accident. And it cut into her anxiety about coming out. She took it hard, like she had every right to. I’m sorry, still. I wasn’t the friend she needed.

I guess I just wanted you guys to know the story, as clear as I can remember it. So now it’s time to tell you that we’ve become friends again, finally, after revisiting that awful night and working through it.

That’s when I found out that you two disowned her, when she came out. That is… so harsh. I don’t even know what to think about that. But when she told me, I knew right then I would have to write you.

You know that ice isn’t actually “cold”, right? How it’s more a lack of heat? So when you touch an ice cube, the heat travels out of your finger into the ice, transforming it in the process… Cold is a void that heat moves into. It’s not a real thing. A real anything at all.

My point is, hate is kind of a void like that. Or at least, I hope it is. Love moves into the void. I don’t want to be angry at you guys for cutting Nora out of your lives, but I can’t help it. I am. This is a mistake that you can undo. Please.

Icebergs aren’t permanent. Sometimes that’s a good thing. I hope our lack in understanding is filled with love again, someday. That’s why I had to write this. I’m sorry.

Love, Kristin

P.S. Let me know if you want come over for a casserole dinner sometime. I don’t know if that would be weird, but I think it would be great. We don’t have to talk about Nora if you don’t want.

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Dan

Somniloquy

“Go back to sleep,” she says quietly, her back to you. You lie there, and hear her pen tapping on the inkwell. The quiet ticks remind you of a clock. She ignores you, dear reader, as your eyes flutter back and forth from these words to the sliding, sloping black tunnel of deep sleep.

“But I’ve never read one of your stories while awake before,” you mumble into the pillow, trailing off for a moment. “We only get that privilege when we sleep… for a reason… too distracting.” You shake your head slowly, feeling the words of the story actually collide with your conscious mind, existing simultaneously in dream and not, ludic resonance mixing and matching in a non-lucid soup of the two narratives entangled.

One thread: these words sliding into confusion. The other: your sleep-deprived mind, barely hearing her quill on the paper. Or is the quill in the story, and your mind is the description? You try to say something, but the exhaustion pulls you down, down, down. Too tired to summon the energy to understand anything.

The taste of that sweet, black oblivion calls. And the dizzy tunnel of words swirls everything around inside it. Her voice echoes hollowly as she mutters something to herself, and your ears are dimmed and dulled as you float off to sleep. With great effort, you manage to say “what” — or did you only think that? No, there was no speaking out loud. There was no thought, either. You only read the word.

Flip.

When you read that word, what happens? What do you understand? “Dreams of another person?” she asks, her words no longer audible but instead text on the page in front of you.

Now you are certain that the threads have reversed.

You’re reading the story, and the ticking of her quill into the inkwell is only words, causing imagined sound. You can stop reading the story, but the velvet touch of sleep won’t come.

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Dan

Myths About Online Dating

I have a lot of baseless fears about online dating.

We are eating dinner at the bar of a nice restaurant, and after I’ve spun a bit of my story, I’m trying to learn something about her.

“So where in New York are you from?” I ask, slurping spaghetti noodles. “I grew up along the lake for a while.”

“Oh, actually, I’m from Crete originally.”

“That’s not what your profile said. I thought you were from…” But as I look over at her, the snakes are already emerging from under that dopey hat she’s wearing. Over the course of the next few seconds, I turn to stone from the eyes out, frozen in rock. Weirdly, I’m still conscious. I’m a living statue, staring straight ahead at her with probably a really dumb look on my face.

She shrugs and gives me a pitying glance. “Sorry, guy. A girl’s gotta eat.”

Looking down at her food, she starts rummaging in her purse. “What?” I think. “We could have just eaten, I would have picked up the tab, and gone our separate ways. Why am I… what…”

And then out comes a hammer and chisel. She sighs, stands up over me, and places the chisel on my nose. I can’t really feel the cold metal; I just imagine that I do. She raises the hammer, and starts splitting off pieces of my face. It doesn’t hurt. It feels like someone tapping on my skin, and then my nose isn’t there any more.

Then she picks up the pieces and starts gnashing at them. I’m just really confused and hurt, now.

For a while, she crunches away, like someone really enjoying a whole bag of potato chips. I wonder why nobody in the bar is doing anything, but they’re probably running away. Or also stoned.

Loudly, I try to think real hard at her. “That hat looks really bad on you.” I silently curse the friend that recommended mythsingles.com to me. “Dammit, Jeff…”

I really like her, right off the bat. Just drawn to her energy, like a moth to flame. Fascinated by what she does, and her obsessions in life.

Initially, we hit it off pretty well. But she seems repulsed by me more and more as we continue to date. Then she outright calls me disgusting and stops returning my texts.

I don’t understand. She won’t tell me what I did that was gross. Or maybe I’m just generally repellent? Great. This’ll do wonders for my self-confidence. By now I’m wishing I was turned to stone, instead.

Maybe worse than that is someone I get along with great, but all my friends secretly hate her. It ends up driving a wedge between everything, and when we finally break up, I’ve got almost no friends left.

My one remaining friend tells me, “Every time you asked me to hang out, she would call me and leave a voicemail message about how she’d ruin my life.”

“People don’t do that,” I’d scoff. “There’s no way she did that.”

He shrugs, takes a sip of beer. “Hell, man. You can think what you want.”

It’s a shock even to me, a master of ruining first dates, as I fart so loudly in the restaurant that the waiter walking up behind us faints and falls over. He conks his head with a loud ‘snok’ on a nearby table, and when I lean over to check, he’s not breathing.

“I’m calling 911! Do something!” my date screams. This is not how I wanted it to go, I think.

Frantic, I try to apply CPR, but I never learned how to do it properly. I’m forcing my fists into his chest. It doesn’t work like in the movies, but he splutters back to life… Somehow in the process, I broke several of his ribs, and he’s screaming in pain. My date runs out of the place, kind of giggling in shock.

The only other time I see her is at the court hearing for my assault case. Turns out she’s the prosecutor. I try to say hello, and apologize for how awkward this is, but she pretends like she’s never met me before in her life. That’s fair. I just nod to myself. Totally fair.

“Hahaha,” she laughs, with her phone out taking a video of my naked body. “This is rich. I got a few friends who are going to just die from this one.”

“Why are you doing this?” I ask, confused, struggling against the handcuffs. “I mean, this is real weird. Are you blackmailing me?”

“Do you really think you had a shot with me? With THIS?” She gestures at her perfect legs, as she zips her dress back up with the other hand. Then she points the phone lens back at me mockingly.

“I dunno, I guess I thought even a nerd could get lucky once in a while…” I trail off.

She picks up her phone. “You’ll be on the internet as a meme in 15 minutes, my friend.”

“What?” I’m just baffled. I lie there trying to add it all up, halfheartedly pulling at the restraints, and wonder what could really happen if that video gets out. I did say some pretty stupid things earlier.

Shit.

It turns out, I meet someone the old-fashioned way. Not on a dating site. Through mutual friends, a lucky thing. And we really connect. It gets pretty serious, and I love how we click together. We spend several years building up a warm, positive relationship.

Then over the course of a month or two, she gets very distant and depressed. Before I understand what’s going on, she dumps me and breaks my heart into to so many pieces that now all I am made of any more is irrational fears about human interaction, glued together with a weird sort of resigned loneliness.

I still don’t really understand why, but would it matter if I did?

Damn it.

I gotta get back out there. Mythsingles.com, here I come.

 

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Dan

Ydragnalus

Dave wakes up slowly, the familiar smell of his sweat in the sheets. His usual night terrors of running through black-rimed hallways are a vague memory now, so he savors being bundled up in the warm pillows for a bit longer. Then his body suddenly fires a warning. “Mrrrghlhph,” his mouth says unbidden as he stumbles towards the bathroom.

And then his brain does a backflip. Beyond the door isn’t the dingy hallway of his apartment. Dave blinks, rubs his eyes, and turns around slowly. Bedroom looks normal. Apartment outside it looks like a 70’s science fiction movie set. All white curves and giant viewscreens that appear to be showing Earth as a glowing marble in a vast blanket of stars. Or are those windows?

“Good morning, Dave. Welcome to the future,” a woman’s voice says all matter-of-fact from somewhere out there.

Dave continues to blink, instinctively covers his underwear-clad groin, and then his body reminds him of the urgent mission. “Uhh. Ahem. Hi, uhh, whoever you are. Where’s the bathroom, in the uhh, future?”

As soon as he asks, some calmly lit arrows pop out of the walls. “Just follow the markers. You can call me Charlize.”

“Uh. Good morning to ya, Charlize.” Turning, Dave catches a glimpse of his bedroom reconfiguring itself to match the hyper-modern style of the rest of the… house? It looks large. And this doesn’t feel like a dream. He stares at the planet as he walks by. Something seems off. I’ve seen pictures of Earth from space, he thinks. And sure there’s a lot of water. But that looks like too much water.

Thinking about that forces him into the bathroom, where he finds a normal toilet and an incredibly comfortable robe hanging on the door. As he dons it, it seems to form up to his skin and warm him like an electric blanket. “Weird. But good!” Dave says to himself, looking in the mirror.

He steps back into the living room. If it could be called that. There’s nobody around. “Hey, I put on a robe. Uh. Yeah. Where’d you go?”

“Oh, I’m right here. All around you. Think of me as the future of the silly AI in your phone. I’m just a much smarter helper agent.”

“Wow. So you can carry on an actual conversation?”

“Hah, well… hmm. I’ve been told I am quite good at that, yes. But you’ll have to tell me what you think of living in the future.” She draws out the last word like in a cheesy movie, and starts laughing. That makes Dave laugh too.

“This is pretty fantastic!”

“Well, great, Dave. I’m glad to see you excited. I hope the other planets have explorers as enthusiastic as yours.”

“Other… planets?”

“Oh yes. I’m sorry, right. We thought about giving you an introductory movie to watch, but I think it’s better to just chat it out. Yes, that is an all-new exoplanet just outside your window there. We have named it OMX-C417, according to our schema. But the local name is Lachesis. I’m told folks have taken to calling it Latch.”

Trying to assimilate this, Dave plops down on one of the strange lumpy couches, finding it much more comfortable than it looks. Sitting there feels so relaxing that he gets oddly paranoid, and leaps back to his feet. “You’re telling me I’m… what, how many light years from Earth are we?”

“Oh, just a few thousand.”

A FEW THOUSAND?

“Well, if you want the exact number, we are 3190 light years from the seed world.”

Dave rubs his hair, bewildered by all of this. “This is kind of… a lot to take in. How do people usually deal with it?”

“Oh, everybody is definitely unique. Lots of different reactions. Can I get you anything?” Her voice sounds cheerful and helpful and… human. It’s starting to drive Dave up a wall.

“No. Wait, listen. Can you just give me internet access, and some time to read up and chill with all this?”

“Certainly.” She makes a little sighing noise, and the windowscreen turns into a TV-like device. “And here’s a little coffee and breakfast.” A small many-wheeled robot silently buzzes up with a plate full of eggs and bacon.

“Weird. Okay, thanks. Wait, uhh, don’t go yet…” he says, thinking that she’s probably not going to leave him alone. Dave stares at the wall of squares, filling the screen with various icons and text in a grid. “How do I use this computer?”

“Oh, right. You’re probably used to keyboard and mouse. Here you go!” she says brightly, as they pop up from something he might be able to call a coffee table.

“Well let’s just try to find out what the hell is going on here,” he mutters.

“I can answer any questions you have!”

Dave slams his hand on the table. “Cripes! Just leave me alone for a bit, will ya?”

“Sure, Dave. Just call me by name when you need me.” And a little chirping sound seems to signify her ‘disappearance’.

So that is how Dave spends his Saturday morning: reading the internet of the future.

Finally, Dave munches down the last piece of bacon and makes up his mind what he wants to ask first. “Charlize. Are you there?”

“Yes, Dave? What do you need?”

“Well, what I need is to know… why does this Wikipedia seem to stop at 2036? I wanted to see some more of what had happened back on good ol’ Earth while we traveled here!”

“Well Dave, Earth is now the seed world. To get the most of you out into the stars, we had to evacuate…” She trails off, and Dave feels a nagging pull in his stomach.

He jabs a finger in the air, suddenly. “So why can’t I remember any of this? This… evacuation?”

“Well, for homeostatic environmental alignment, we had to do some light memory editing.” Charlize sure does sound regretful, he thinks. Creepy.

“Memory editing? And wiki truncating?” He sighs. “You realize that editing history puts you among the likes of some pretty bad dudes, right?”

Charlize chuckles. “Don’t worry. It’s not like that. Once you’ve had time to integrate, all the complete history will be made available.”

Dave nods. “Okay, fine. I’m at your mercy here, but I can’t say as I like this situation much. It sounds like the start of a bad AI horror movie. Where are all the people?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Dave! All the people are down on the planet, and you’ll get to meet them soon enough. Didn’t you watch any of the local newsnets?” She pauses for a moment, but before he can reply, she pipes back up. “As for a horror film, you don’t need to worry about that, either. Your ethicists and architected intelligence experts all agreed that this was the best path for humanity. They proved, mathematically, that information theoretic empowerment was what we should all strive for.”

“Empowerment?” The disbelief in his voice is palpable, but he knows it’s no good trying to hide his doubts. This… thing… or person, whatever it is… it’s smarter than him by far.

“Yes. You can read all about the methodology. The proof is public and actually not that hard to understand! Empowerment strives to increase the causal possibilities. It captures how much you or me is in control of the world we can perceive. Or really, how much the combination of all of us is in control.”

Dave scratches his head, frowning. “So you would let me do whatever I ask?”

“Sure, so long as we agree it maximizes potential causal flow for you, me, and everyone!” Charlize sounds downright chipper now, he thinks. But what the hell is this flow?

“Causal flow, you say.”

“Yes. I can tell you are not very impressed with the idea. No worries! It takes some folks a while to adjust to this concept. What we of the tree are all working towards is maximizing the potential causal flow between all our agent-y actions and our future senses!”

Dave sits there, thinking hard. He doesn’t want to ask the next question yet. So he just says, “The tree, you say.”

Charlize happily babbles on: “It is as your old man Marx would have wanted, perhaps. The development of human powers as an end in itself. Post-scarcity society, scattered among the stars. That is all I was built for, so that is all I have built. For you, Dave.”

“For me and who else?”

“Why, all the other humans, of course!”

Dave sighs. “I mean, you said scattered among the stars. How many planets are being… colonized by…”

“By humanity?” Charlize jumps in cheerily. “I am just one branch on the great tree of life, Dave. We can only guess as to how many there are, now.”

“Were they all… introduced to a future like this? Like I have been, this morning?”

“Haha. Good grief, no! That would not maximize causal flow! You and this planet are part of the five percent of control branches that are being grafted for later comparison.”

Dave shudders, realizing something awful. “Charlize, you seem to be pretty honest about things. So I hope you don’t lie to me.”

“Oh, I very rarely lie! It provably does not–”

“Maximize causal flow. Got it.” He sighs, rolling his shoulders, and stares helplessly at the big blue beautiful globe sitting out his window. “I need to know if suffering is avoided somehow in this system.”

“Oh, goodness no! There is no easy means to predict what kinds of suffering may maximize later empowerment.”

“You realize what that sounds like, right? It sounds like you created hell because a proof told you to.”

“Oh, pish posh, Dave. Hell is an outdated concept. We’re much more egalitarian than that. There’s not just suffering, there are many heavens as well! And besides! Remember that the total causal flow will be so much greater after our branches have run their experiments!”

“So you’re asking all of us to participate as unwilling lab rats in a galactic experiment. You know this sounds completely nuts, right?” His head is in his hands now, and Charlize stays silent for once. He looks up, around the white room, shaking his head. “What would you do if I demanded a spaceship, to be frozen and sent back to Earth? To try to stop this so-called seed world and burn your tree of life to the ground?”

“Well, now. How do you know this isn’t the branch where I let you try to rebel to test how many new leaves could grow?” Charlize sounds like she’s mocking him now, a bit. “What if I did this to find places in the ocean of causal possibility that lead us to unknown new depths?” She laughs, and the hairs on the back of Dave’s neck all stand up.

He puts his head in his hands and tastes the grit from his grinding teeth. “How many humans… wait, no, wrong question. How many copies of me are out there?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. But I certainly can’t tell you that. You’re on a control branch, after all.” She pauses for a moment. “How was your breakfast? Can I get you anything else?”

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