A fine selection from THE ADVENTURES OF GREGORY SAMSON, SPACE EXPLORER:
The Origami Man
EDICT: This file and all subsequent files are sealed from all but the utmost. This file has been allowed sentience and is legally empowered for self-defense. Unauthorized readers will be expunged.
WARNING: Cognitive identification procedures are underway.
FILE: Interview 1
CONTENT: Transcript of interview with unforeseen local binary organism self-identifying as individual code-named The Origami Man.
SUBJECT: Unforeseen local binary organism self-identifying as individual code-named The Origami Man.
INTERVIEWER: Scientist __________.
Note: For security purposes Scientist ________’s name and all identifying remarks have been stricken from FILE: Interview 1.
This is Scientist ________, operative designation __________, signing in on __________ in universe ____________. It’s, ah, _____________. Happy ________, everyone.
Ok, ___________, I think I’m all set up in here. Wake him up.
Hi. Can you hear me?
Oh. That’s bright.
Can you hear me?
Yes, I can hear you fine.
Amazing. Look at him, __________, he’s perfectly intact. I really thought we’d killed him for a moment there.
Hi, my name is __________. I’m here to ask you some questions.
Would you please lower your voice?
We’re very curious how you’re still here, we weren’t expecting to find, well, anything. Could you explain your continued existence?
You’re hurting my head. What did you do to me, anyway?
Please explain your continued presence.
Lower your voice.
Explain your continued existence.
I said lower your voice.
Do not speak to me in that tone!
Explain your continued existence!
I’m fine. No, really.
Yeah, it hurt. I’m fine.
What are you?
My name is ________. I’m here to ask you some questions.
Well, _________, you’d better lower your god damn voice and turn down the lights or I won’t say shit. You can yell until you’re blue in the face, it won’t do you any good.
Ok, we’re back, it’s the ________ of ________, ah, _________ in the _____. Ok, ___________wake him up.
What’s going on?
Check his brain patterns.
Well, why is he laughing?
Nothing, ___________. You wouldn’t get it.
But hey, you better turn down those fucking lights and lower your voice or I’ll rip out your fucking–
Thank you, ___________.
And here we are again. It’s _________ on ______________. Let’s give it another go.
Hi. I still have to ask you some questions.
I can do this longer than you can.
I doubt that.
Lower the lights, __________.
Oh, thank you.
Gee, it’s been a long time since I sat down.
Any chance of a cup of coffee?
What is coffee?
Yeah, I know there isn’t any goddam coffee.
I’m trying to lighten the mood.
Oh be an optimist.
Well, _________, what do you want?
Tell me about Gregory Samson.
How do you know that name?
We saw it in your thoughts, but we don’t understand. We need you to explain what happened.
Mind-reading is an imprecise process.
Maybe you just aren’t that good at reading minds.
Gregory Samson. Greg. Gregory. Gregory Samson.
Gregory Richard Samson.
If I was a girl they were gonna name me Gloria. Which is kinda funny in retrospect.
Tell me about Gregory Samson.
Don’t say that name again. It’s not yours to say.
Tell me how you began.
Do you remember everything?
I do not.
Me too. Yeah, all of it.
Yes, I know I still owe you five bucks.
Please tell me how you began.
And then what?
I don’t know. We have not encountered a scenario like this in the past.
What are you smiling at?
As Gregory Samson awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin!
I don’t understand.
It’s an old short story.
How did I begin…Jesus Christ.
I woke up in the morning with a shell on my back.
I didn’t notice it at first, it being on my back, out of the way. I felt good, well-rested. Healthy. The wound in my shoulder was so perfectly healed I could almost imagine I had dreamt the whole thing. Just almost, though, because my blood-soaked tee-shirt was still draped over the back of my desk chair.
I fingered the hole in the fabric and felt a little sick. My flesh felt fine, unmarred and loose, but my shirt was still damp with my blood, and there was a hole the size of a poker chip to the right of the neck. My fingers came away red-brown and slick. I stood perfectly still for a moment, devoid of thought, and then wadded the shirt into a tight ball and threw it in the trash.
I’d been horribly wounded. Now I wasn’t. Those were the facts I knew in that moment. There were no others.
The sound of clattering pans and running water reached me from the kitchen on the far side of the house. At least one of my roommates was up. After a moment I heard the coffee pot start to bubble, and my stomach growled. I rolled my shoulder and looked at the bloody mess in the trash and covered it with some crumpled papers. Hungry was a good sign. I’d survived something strange, but now it was over. I just had to get past it.
I did some pull-ups on a bar I’d mounted across the top of my closet for just that purpose. The effort, the slow ascent and calm recovery, helped to calm me down. I’ve been able to pull my own weight since I was seven, thanks to my dad the fitness freak. He was a marine, before he met my mom.
Actually, he probably would have said he was still a marine. Marines were like that.
There was a mirror on the back wall of the closet, so when I bent over to grab a pair of pants I couldn’t help but notice the big black thing clinging to my back. I froze. My immediate thought was that a tick had gotten me. Foolish, I know, the shell covered most of my back, but I hate ticks. When I was twelve I got one stuck in my armpit during one of our periodic camping trips, and a lifelong phobia was born. I hate ticks. They were awful.
I remember, I didn’t make a sound, there in the closet. Not a peep.
I’ve always been proud of that.
What? What’s wrong?
Start from the beginning.
This is the beginning.
Start from the beginning.
Tell me how you were created.
Well, my mother and father had been married for about a year, and then nature took its course.
That’s not what I mean.
I know that’s not what you mean.
It happened like it always happened!
Which, I suppose, means nothing to you.
Tell me how you began.
After this, shut up, all right? Let me talk. You wanna get me started, that’s on you. Don’t interrupt. Cool?
How did it happen. Ok.
Oh yeah. I remember,
If I had to listen to Pomp and Circumstance one more time, I was going to hit someone. This was the ninth time in five days. Five high school bands droning the same plodding melody over and over, entrance and exit, day in, day out. The cymbals were always a hair off time, and the horns were always discordant. It was awful. Edward Elgar, that’s who wrote Pomp and Circumstance. God, what an insipid song.
It was late June, ninety degrees and humid. The forecast called for rain, so we were set up in the gym, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Just that same flat hazy heat-amplifying humidity that made the air feel like somebody had microwaved a wet blanket.
Elgar’s monstrosity ground to a close, and someone started talking. The principal, maybe. I turned on my tablet and tried to take notes, but there wasn’t any point. A trained ape could write graduation notices. Just the same four hundred word blurb with different names: Dryden High School Produced Four Hundred Citizens This Year. Good Job Dryden. It was like writing factory bulletins. Ball Bearing Production Exceeds Quarterly Projections.
Graduations sucked to begin with, and having to be there when I didn’t know anyone graduating made the whole thing as pleasant as a pimple on my ass. I hated writing graduation pieces, but my editor gave me seventy-five bucks apiece for them, and I was living too close to the poverty line to turn up my nose at the extra work. I was twenty-eight years old, working as a journalist in Ithaca, New York, making about twenty-two grand a year. Money wasn’t the most important thing in life, but even so I had more and more the sense that I had hitched my wagon to a dead horse. Newspapers weren’t exactly the fast track in twenty fourteen.
The valedictorian began her speech. Prom factored heavily, so I tuned her out and checked my email, thinking for the fifth time in five days that the valedictorian speechwriting process should be adult-supervised. For the most part, the formative experiences of a child capable of earning valedictorian in a graduating class of more than three hundred are pretty inane. What kind of fun can an eighteen-year-old with a four point three grade point average get up to, anyway?
Look, it’s not that I took the occasion lightly; I just didn’t want any part of it. Graduation is a lot of kids’ first real adult accomplishment, their first concrete victory in life. It’s a milestone. But if the ceremony were any more boring, people would have been passing out in the bleachers. I would rather have kicked a rabid raccoon than sit through another high school graduation. But like I said, I needed the money.
I folded my arms and let my mind wander. The last kid in line, Christopher Zybznmski, was so busy pumping his fists at the crowd he barely looked at the man who gave him his diploma. In my experience there is no one more undeservedly arrogant than a freshly graduated high school senior.
I remember being that old, the way life stretched out so far ahead of me I couldn’t comprehend the possibility of being humbled. I’d done something real for the first time in my life. I could do anything.
The band coalesced and picked up their instruments, and I steeled myself for Samson vs. Elgar: Round Ten. Dryden High School bucked tradition, though, and went with a saccharine cover of In My Life for their outro. Appalling in its own right, to be sure, but a definite improvement over Pomp and Circumstance.
I scooted for the exit. I’d arrived early and gotten the few quotes I needed, so I had no reason to stick around. In deference to past experience, I’d parked on the far side of the science building, away from the crowds, so I wouldn’t have to contend with traffic. If I hurried, and caught all green lights, I could be home and drinking a beer in less than twenty minutes.
Once I had my tie off, it was a beautiful day. I unbuttoned my nice shirt and stuffed it in my bag. Wrinkles be damned.
I was cutting through the field next to the gym when something hit me in the right shoulder and smashed me down onto the ground, on my left side. The impact carried me through a few feet of piss-poor grass and dead dry dirt. The ground churned up around my head. Then gravity too hold and I flopped over on my stomach, slowly. My left arm was pinned under my chest, and my head was twisted around to the right. There was dirt in my mouth.
Something was lodged in my heart. It felt very strange, and not at all pleasant.
Numbness radiated from the wound so quickly that it seemed my body disappeared. I tried to move and couldn’t. With numbness had come paralysis. I could smell the blood streaming out of the wound in my shoulder, overwhelming the smell of dying grass and spent topsoil with the stench of copper and salt. There were two sides to that particular coin: on the one hand, if I was bleeding, that meant my heart was still beating. On the other hand, the only way I would have recognized the smell of blood was if there was an awful lot of it, and I knew I didn’t have an awful lot to spare.
So there I was, plowed into a field by god knows what, bleeding out, paralyzed, and yet somehow, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I’m tough, all right, although I should probably give a little credit to blood loss and shock.
Time passed, and I didn’t die. This was puzzling. There was a lot of blood, and while I was no scientist, I was still fairly certain that I needed blood to survive. At the very least I should have lost consciousness, but as the minutes passed I felt no diminishing clarity. If I could have raised a quizzical eyebrow, I would have. Then again, if I had really been able to move I probably would have called an ambulance. There really was an awful lot of blood.
A thought wormed its way into my head. I would be all right. Whatever had hit me was keeping my brain alive while it repaired the damage done to my body. I shouldn’t worry.
It wasn’t my thought. I thought about that, but didn’t get anywhere.
I was bleeding less. Either I was getting better, or I was running out of blood. One or the other. The coppery smell faded, and the aroma of parched dirt made a comeback, along with the barest hint of grass. If I survived whatever was happening to me, I would come back some weekend with a hose and some seed. Do my part for the betterment of the American education system.
The sun continued its slow, impossibly close arc across the sky; my face was probably burnt to hell.
I examined my choice of parking space more closely. I should have parked with everybody else. I examined my choice of career. I should have majored in Business. I tried to trace the decisions I had made with my life that had led to my being hit in the neck with a supersonic chunk of frozen airline sewage.
All at once I knew that whatever had hit me was not sewage, and that it was offended.
There was something in the back of my head. I could feel it, but if I looked at it too closely, it disappeared. But I knew it was in there.
On the other hand, I still wasn’t dead. That was nice.
For a while, I didn’t think of anything. When I did think, I thought of beer. Tall, cold draft beers dripping condensation on blackened hardwood in a dark room on a bright day. That, and major thoracic surgery.
Eventually, someone would find me. I just had to be patient. I might have to deal with the stigma of being found by the local stoners when they came down to the quad to burn one last joint before they split town, but I could weather that embarrassment. Everything would be fine. Eventually, someone would find me.
My body twitched from time to time. My arm would wiggle under my chest, or my back would spasm. At one point my legs ran three steps and twisted me around in a quarter circle. I tried to convince myself that these were the normal byproducts of a positive process, and not the convulsions of a dead or dying man. It wasn’t easy. I was still entirely numb, and paralyzed, and increasingly nervous.
There was a really nice sunset somewhere in there. A smattering of cirrus clouds that caught the magnificent pinks and oranges and, near the end, hellish reds as day faded into darkness.
The darkness itself was less fun. As the last trace of light disappeared I wondered in that sudden way whether I was already dead, and this was death, the imprisonment of the living mind in the decaying body. Perhaps the onset of night would bring with it demons intent on punishing me for my sins.
There were no demons. After a while there were crickets and peepers. I decided that meant I had come out ahead. The moon replaced the sun and climbed into the sky. Slowly.
My breath hitched in and I sneezed a cloud of powdered blood. My body jerked forward and back, and then, abruptly, I sat up. It took several minutes for my conscious mind to catch up to reality.
“What the hell?” I couldn’t think of anything profound to say. I was still numb, and distracted by a fear that was too large to quantify. I didn’t know if I was alive.
My skin began to tingle, gently at first and then violently, until I was doubled over clutching myself and trying not to move. I couldn’t breath. Needles worked their way over my body by the thousands, marching rows that swept through me in horrible waves. It was like being frozen and burnt in a billion individual pieces.
And then it stopped, switched off as if I had passed some sort of milestone. My sense of touch returned. I took a deep breath, held it and then let it out, trying to be as still as possible. I didn’t trust myself to move.
All fixed, something thought with my brain. I shut my eyes and tried to follow the thought to its source. My mind felt heavier, as if there was something hanging off the back of it. Like a tube raft tethered to a motorboat, or the handle on a Dunkin’ Donut. I opened my mouth and moved my jaw around. I couldn’t get my thoughts in order.
I touched my shoulder carefully, afraid of what I would find, but the wound was gone. Healed. There was a large hole through my shirt, and I was soaked in blood, but my skin was smooth and uninjured. I moved my arm and felt no resistance.
I lurched to my feet and stood still, getting used to the idea that I wasn’t dead. My heart was beating again. That was a novel thought. I ran my fingers through my hair. I was a mess. My clothes and skin were covered in bloody mud. If I got pulled over on the way home they would bust me on principle. Although it was possible they would let me go when they figured out it was all my own blood. I giggled and took off across the field. I felt dragged down, exhausted in some primal way, as if I had run a marathon and then fucked my brains out.
I had a spare shirt in the trunk. I could change my shirt. That was a normal thought, a practical thought, and I clutched at it. The shirt stank of sweat from a run along the canal the previous week, or maybe the week before that, but it was still better than what I had on. I got in the car and turned on the engine and tried to pull myself together. There was a pack of cigarettes on the dash, left there by my roommate the night before, when she’d needed a ride home from…somewhere. I couldn’t remember. I shook one out and lit it with the pop lighter next to the steering wheel. The nicotine hit me like a ton of bricks, and for a second, all was right with the world.
I remember thinking, I should report this, but I had no idea how, or to whom. A visit to the hospital was probably in order, too, but I was exhausted, and everything in the entire world could wait until the morning. I had no idea what time it was, and I didn’t care enough to check. I put the car in reverse and backed up blind, pulled out onto the street and floored it home.
It took me twenty minutes and three more cigarettes to get back to Ithaca. I left the windows down and the radio loud, and when I got home I took a shower and went to bed. I fell asleep immediately, and didn’t dream.
The thing on my back wasn’t a tick, but I couldn’t help making the comparison. It was vaguely bug-shaped, an elongated hexagon with rounded corners and a hard surface that called to mind the word ‘carapace.’ Very buggy. It was also dug into the base of my neck like a nail. This gave it a distinctly tick-like affect. I reached up and touched it and was sort of amazed that I didn’t want to throw up.
The shell narrowed to a few inches wide at the top, became a conduit of some kind. The flesh there was scarred over and smooth, pressed out as if the shell had erupted from inside and somehow not killed me. It looked like it had been there for years.
The rest of the thing clung to me like it was custom made. It was at its widest across my shoulder blades, narrower down my back, and tapered to a point at the base of my spine. Maybe two inches thick, right in the middle, and razor sharp at the edges. Light, like it wasn’t even there, but it was. When I moved my head, I could feel where it was connected to my spine, right at the base of my skull. I could feel my fingers on the surface of the thing. It was like having a fifth limb.
I had not paid closer attention to anything else I had encountered in my life at that point, including sex. Was it a part of me, I wondered, or was it just growing out of me?
I thought of mushrooms growing out of logs, blackheads that left behind oozing craters, wasps hatching from spiders, teeth pulled from sockets. Panic prickled the edge of my hair, and I had to force myself to swallow and breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth. I had to stay level.
Up close the shell was iridescent grey-black, striated in every conceivable direction, like it wasn’t all one piece. When I arched my back it moved with me, slipping over my skin with the sinewy grace of a snake. We were connected only at the point where it entered my neck. Otherwise it was unhindered, as if it were meant to move around.
The door across the hall opened and shut, and I heard Iris’ footsteps as she moved down the hall. Probably as motivated as I was by the prospect of coffee. And since that meant Dylan was in the kitchen, there was probably breakfast. Good to live with a chef. My stomach growled, thought about it, and growled some more. I breathed. Hunger was good.
Unless I needed food to sustain the awful metamorphosis of some terrible thing gestating inside of me. And besides, how the hell was I going to leave the room with a metal shell covering my ass? Christ. I probably already owed money to Franz Kafka’s estate.
I listened to Iris bounce down the stairs. I could hear her footsteps very clearly, even though the staircase was on the other side of the house, and carpeted. The colors in my closet were brighter than I remembered them being, too. My eyes had an odd fresh feeling to them, like I’d washed them in lysergic acid.
I could smell Iris’ perfume through the door.
For a moment, I let myself imagine what she was wearing. It wasn’t a fruitful thought, but there wasn’t any harm in a little mental leering, and any distraction was welcome. And besides, Iris was a knockout. A student teacher with an alarming joie de vivre, a fun person to be around, a good friend of Dylan’s and a burgeoning friend of mine. She had needed a place around when Dylan and I had decided to move in together. Cheaper to live with roommates. She knew Dylan, but not me and she hadn’t realized until moving day that Dylan and I weren’t a couple. After a lot of laughter we’d had a frank discussion, which boiled down to the arbitrary decision that neither of us would try to have sex with the other…and that was that.
The sexual tension was killing me. That, or I was just a heterosexual male living across the hall from someone who looked like Wonder Woman would have if they had drawn her Greek. One or the other. Either way, I couldn’t face a beautiful woman with a shell growing out of my neck.
I turned around and looked at the thing more closely. From a few feet it looked like my back had been dipped in rubber. Damn thing was gonna be a pain in the ass to hide. I saw a lot of turtlenecks in my future, and grinned painfully, because I hated turtlenecks.
The shell began to change color, from black to purple to red to pink, and then to tan and then finally to something approaching my skin tone. In a few seconds it was indistinguishable from my back. The change was so sudden I didn’t realize what was happening until it was already done.
A foreign thought wormed its way into my mind. The shell was acclimating to something it couldn’t quite define. As soon as it was finished it would tell me more. After a moment, another thought followed grumpily on the heels of the first. When it was finished acclimating, communication would be much easier.
Well, I thought, at least it seems friendly. My stomach growled again, somewhat painfully. I took a deep breath and pulled on my forgotten pair of jeans and a light blue shirt. I didn’t want to admit it, but I felt a lot better when the shell was covered up.
“Ya gotta eat, Greg,” I said to my reflection. “Ya gotta eat.”
The shell pulled away from my body under my clothes. It might have looked like metal, but it was as flexible as rubber: in a matter of seconds it had rolled itself up from either side and twisted its way out of the back of my collar. Then it flattened itself out and lowered over my shirt, as conspicuous in tan on blue as it had been in black on tan. I noted in a detached way that the fabric on my back was still breathable.
“God dammit,” I mumbled. My voice was hoarse, so I cleared my throat. The shell changed color again, faster this time, from tan to sky blue. When it was done it was nearly invisible. If I had seen me from a distance I might not have noticed anything out of the ordinary. Whatever it was, it didn’t want to be seen.
It could think, and it had wants. It was alive. There was a living thing hiding on my back, burrowed into my neck. Nobody knew was there. It was like a metaphor, or a horrible, horrible monster.
Part of me was watching the morning unfold the way a person watches a car crash from the inside. Patient terror. I was along for the ride, and when everything stopped moving, I would pick up the pieces, if there were any left to pick up. If I was alive in an hour, I would figure out what to do with the rest of my life.
Why didn’t it want to be seen? What the hell did it want?
I heard Iris’ footsteps again, and after a minute she knocked on my door.
“Hey,” she called, “Up and at them, Fallout Boy. Dylan is making blueberry pancakes.”
My stomach growled again. Ya gotta eat, Greg. If I was dying, I didn’t want to die hungry. Besides, if I wasn’t dying, eventually I would need to find out if I could still pass for human. No time like the present, and all that garbage.
“Morning,” I croaked when I opened the door. I cleared my throat again, but it didn’t help. I was host to some kind of terrible creature from the eldritch depths, and Iris was wearing spandex. Yoga attire. Standard twenty-first-century girl garb. She was tall, about five ten, with thick black hair in tight little curls that fell to just shoulder length. Thin, but very present. Substantial. Lithe. It would be crass of me to talk about her body at any length.
She was really hot.
“It would be rude if I told you that you looked like shit before I said good morning,” Iris said. She handed me a cup of coffee and looked me over, frowning slightly. “Good morning. You look like shit. What the hell happened to you?”
“I slept on my neck wrong,” I said. I saw everything very clearly. Too clearly. I’d only seen this way once or twice before, when I wasn’t sure I was going to survive something awful. The shadows in the hall were thinner, and I could hear Dylan humming tunelessly to himself in the kitchen. My senses hadn’t been this good when I had crashed the Subaru. Then again, I’d been drunk. My memory of the night was fuzzy.
Iris looked at my face and made the tiniest of shrugs. “Well, walk it off,” she said. “Blueberry pancakes wait for no man.”
I followed her down the hall, staring at previously unnoticed details in the woodwork in the walls, pills in the carpet I’d never seen before, an odd smudge in the corner of the picture of Dylan’s childhood dog rolling on a dead raccoon. I was careful not to look at Iris’ butt. A little lechery was fine. Too much, and I’d cross a line. I did let myself sneak a peek, though, because I was half-convinced I was dying. But only half-convinced. In spite of my fears, I felt pretty good. Better than I’d felt in a long time, actually. My body felt clean, light.
Iris spun in place at the top of the stairs and snapped her fingers. I noticed she tilted her coffee cup inward to compensate for the centripetal force on the liquid.
“Sorry, no, I lied,” she said, moving past me with an excited expression on her face, “blueberry pancakes do wait for some things. C’mere, I want to show you this.”
She took my arm, just for a second, and smiled at me with a bright, happy smile that looked like it might have toed a line somewhere between us. Or maybe I was imagining things.
We went into her bedroom. I’d been inside infrequently since move-in day, because a person’s space is sacrosanct and we had a big living room. I was curious what I’d find.
Not everything was in its place, but it was clear that everything had a place. There was a large desk covered in books and papers mostly organized into some arcane system. There was a bed, mostly made, with an antique frame that I remembered as being quite heavy. There was a bookshelf organized by levels into textbooks and novels. There was a black dress half in the hamper, and I found myself wondering about the occasion that had necessitated such a dress. I clamped down on the thought. Iris friend. Friend, Greg. Friend.
The walls were covered in tapestries and Rothko prints, so the aesthetic was somewhat that of a grownup with a young person’s life. Modern professional meets grad student.
Iris picked up a little folio bound in red construction paper and craft detritus. The cover was a mess of glitter and beads and yarn stuck in glue. I was reminded of sabertoothed tigers trapped in tar pit, bugs in amber. Ticks full and stupid on dinosaur blood, suffocating in glass. Above the largest concentration of glitter I could just make out the words ‘the funest joc boc evr.’
“The kids in my class made me a going away present!” Iris was laughing as she spoke. She handed me the book and stood just behind me, looking over my shoulder. She was just a bit shorter than me, so her chin just touched my collar. It was a strangely intimate position. I thought about that.
She was right over the shell. I half turned and stepped around, so we were close together, looking at the book with our foreheads almost touching. A somewhat more intimate position, but at least I was between her and my back. If anyone was going to get eaten, it was me. I swallowed hard. Iris opened the book and showed me the first page.
“They all signed it,” she said. “As best they could.”
“They’ve got a good sense of the letter sounds, anyway,” I said. Most of the names were spelled phonetically correctly, if not linguistically correctly.
“That’s the first step.”
I turned the page. “They’re still not very good at telling jokes,” I said after a second. Iris laughed.
“Oh yeah, they’re horrible.” She grinned. “A window into the mind of a child. Turns out they’re all nuts. Look at this one, ‘Why did the lion cross the road? Because roar!’”
“Oof.” I turned the page. “Wait a minute, I know this one. ‘A man and a woman go to the carnival and ride the rides, and then he asks her what she wants to do and she wants to get weighed and they get weighed at the guess your weight and–’” I turned the page. The handwriting was quite large. “‘–they ride the rides and then she wants to get weighed and he gets mad and takes her home and she says the date was wousy.”
“Yeah, that’s Yvette,” Iris snorted. “Her parents are a little out there.” She turned the page and pointed out a kid with great spelling. His handwriting wasn’t that good, but then, neither was mine, and I had a BA. Iris moved closer to me as she read. We went through the whole book.
“I’m gonna miss them,” she said. “But there are a few positions opening up next year in the district I’m gonna apply for.”
“Good,” I said. “I hope you get one.”
Iris nodded. Her hair brushed my arm. “Me too.” She closed the book and looked up at me, smiling wide. My chest felt both constricted and perfect, and even the duality of the sensations was disconcerting. I was conscious of the point at which the conduit entered my spine. If it did something, suddenly, would I be able to run? Would I be able to save my friends, even if I couldn’t save myself? Christ, what a question to have to ask myself before I’d even had a cup of coffee.
“Are you ok?” Iris asked. She had a small vertical line between her eyebrows as she looked at me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She put the book on her desk and stepped in front of me.
“What’s going on?” She held her left wrist with her right hand and cocked her weight to one side. Jesus, I might have been dying and still I was staring at her.
“I don’t know,” I said. I slipped into hiding so easily. I think back on it and tell myself that there was no way to tell her the truth, given that I didn’t know the truth, myself, but the thought rings hollow. I’d just had a lot of practice at hiding myself. I didn’t want to hide from her. But it was simple. And I didn’t know what else to do.
Iris’ mouth flattened and she nodded. Then she gave me a hug. After a second I unpinned my arms and hugged her back.
“It’s gonna be ok,” she said. “You’ll figure it out. Whatever it is.”
She looked up at me and suddenly I thought, how friendly is this hug?
“You know you can like, talk to me about things,” she said, as if it were a simple matter of fact. I nodded, and she hugged me again, and then as she was pulling away she kissed me, once, on the side of the mouth. Both of us stopped moving. There was some direct eye contact, and after a moment Iris leaned forward and kissed me once, deliberately, without closing her eyes, as if she were testing something.
She moved her head back and looked down at my face, and rubbed her lips together, then looked me in the eye again.
“That may be a problem,” she said.
I nodded, and we let go of each other at the same time. She stepped back, and looked around the room.
“Pancakes?” She said.
“Blueberry pancakes,” I said.
She looked at me and held her elbow with her opposite hand and blew air out of her mouth. “And…” she said.
“And we don’t need to figure it out right now,” I said. She looked me in the eye. “Ok?”
She inhaled and held it and said, “Ok. Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not.” I shrugged. The shell shifted on my back and my stomach tightened.
Iris grinned slyly. “Me neither. Come on, I’ll buy you breakfast.”
I put on a grin and a nod and followed her out of the room.
There is a space between thoughts that feels similar to shock, when a person is being pulled in too many different directions, and there’s no way to know what to think, let alone what to do. I wanted to run screaming from something that was stuck to me, and I wanted to grab Iris and kiss her and run my hands through her hair, and I wanted to tell her to fuck off because we were supposed to be friends and I was supposed to be the letch, not her, me I could handle. Everything moved slowly. My morning was patient terror, the inside of the accident all over again, watching the blurry spinning world for detail because these details might be the last I see.
Iris held my hand down the hall until we got to the top of the stairs. Her palm was warm, and I could still smell her lips deep inside my mouth. She let go without a word and bounced down the stairs, hair flying around her head. I think of her now as a symbol of finality, the textural memory of something lost or left behind. The lingering sensation of the last step of concrete under your feet when you leave the road and walk into the woods.
I was going to have to move out. I could feel it.
Dylan was standing at the stove with his back turned when I moseyed into the kitchen, a respectable distance behind Iris. His shoulders were slumped, and he was drinking from a big glass of ice water. While I refilled my coffee cup he poured three large dollops of batter on the griddle.
“Welcome to the Land of Death,” he grunted.
“Gee, you haven’t been to the Land of Death since college,” I said. “Must be a hell of a hangover.”
“Red wine and Manhattans.” Dylan shuddered. “There’s bacon in the oven.”
“There’s a cure-all,” Iris said.
“Grease is good for a hangover,” Dylan said. “Not so much for your arteries.”
“Fuck ‘em,” Iris said. She drank her coffee. I sat down across from her and gave her a friendly smile and she opened her eyes wide and mimed screaming, then smiled once and shrugged.
I grinned weakly. I wasn’t feeling very eloquent. My shell, felt but foreign, made me feel like I wasn’t sitting quite right in my seat. My stomach roared incessantly at the smell of pancakes, coffee and bacon. There was a bowl of cut melons on the counter, too, and their smell wove underneath everything and flickered at the edges of my vision. I blinked hard. I wasn’t synesthetic. I wasn’t. Unless now I was.
Dylan set the table with bacon, eggs, blueberry pancakes, buttered toast and honeydew wedges, then refilled everyone’s coffee. He was a big man, with long arms that he loaded with four plates apiece. His skin under the hot ceramic turned bright red, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Now, how long did all this take you?” Iris asked. Dylan shrugged.
“Ten minutes or so. Fifteen.” He shrugged. “I dunno. It was all autopilot.”
Iris looked at the neat kitchen. Dylan cleaned while he cooked, so the kitchen was nearly spotless.
“Teach me, Master,” she said. Dylan shrugged and buttered a pancake.
“Ok, first you gotta chop me a thousand onions.” He grinned. “We did food prep for prisons and colleges and shit back in school. Fed ourselves, too. Like, I learned how to chop a bell pepper real easy by chopping a thousand bell peppers in a row. You know?”
“Forget it, I’m out,” Iris said. “What’d you do last night?”
I filled my plate and took a bite of pancake and the thing in the back of my mind sat up and yelled in my head, a bright, happy, surprised noise. Somebody else’s happiness. Glee felt at a distance. I managed to start chewing, and the tone settled into a constant, level roar of approval and desire.
“Got tanked with the staff,” Dylan said. “Got the new line guy to take me home.” He winked at her. “He’s cute.”
Iris glanced at me, but I barely noticed. I was too busy having my mind blown apart by the experience of a bite of bacon. My brain was a sodden mess of happy chemicals and fight-or-flight hormones. It was all I could do to keep a straight face.
I drank a big slurp of hot coffee and scalded my tongue and the chemicals went away and I slumped a little in my seat.
“Mitchell is gay, Iris.” Dylan grinned. “Mine. Greg, you with us?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “Just tired. Breakfast is great.”
“He says he slept on his neck wrong,” Iris said. Dylan grinned at her evilly, and Iris waved her hand dismissively. “Greg, what’d you do last night, anyway?”
I sipped my orange juice while I thought of a lie, and everything in my vision started to glitter. The thing in the back of my mind really liked OJ. I took another sip, and the same thing happened. I put the glass down.
“Greg?” Iris said. “Hello, Cadet Samson, come in please. What’d you do last night?”
“Ya get laid?” Dylan grinned, and Iris looked at him sharply.
“No,” I said immediately. “I went to the Chanticleer after I got finished in Dryden. Had a few drinks and came home.”
Nobody spoke for a moment. Dylan ate a strip of bacon. Iris looked out the window at my car in the driveway. The buzzing in my head rose to a fever pitch, and I ate another bite of pancake. Whatever the damn thing was, it really liked blueberry pancakes.
“You got in at like three in the morning,” Iris said. “I heard you in the bathroom.” She looked me straight in the face. “How much did you have to drink?”
I opened my mouth and couldn’t think of what to say. Inside my head, the unaffected part of me sighed and rubbed its scalp. I’d gotten myself caught in a lie. This hadn’t happened to me since sophomore year in college. Goddam pancake-loving shell. And of all the lies to get caught in, and at this moment…things were looking bleak. Christ. I was normally so good at this sort of thing.
“Not too much,” I said. “I just got to talking to people.” I was defending myself to her. Not to them. To her. Dylan was just a spectator. It had happened without my noticing.
“You’re hung over!” Iris said. “Why didn’t you take a fucking cab?” She wasn’t loud, but her words were. Her anger was palpable. Dylan took slice of melon and began to eat it with a spoon. I took a deep breath and bled it out.
I should clarify: I’m not an alcoholic, and I didn’t make a habit of drunk driving. But eight months before all this happened I drove home from my own birthday party and wrapped my car around a tree. I walked away from the crash blowing a .16 and lost my license for six months. Hell, I nearly went to jail. My memory of events is hazy, but apparently I gave the cops a hard time.
Iris had been living with us for a little more than two months, at that point. She put fifty bucks in a fake rock next to the door, for cab fare, and made me promise never to drive drunk again. The fake rock trick was something she got from her mom, who forced a similar promise out of Iris’ father when Iris was about nine. Her dad was still alive, but he’d broken that promise a lot more than he kept it, and eventually lost his license for good. He was a drunk, and it caused Iris a lot of pain.
I’d kept my promise. I’d left my car places, taken cabs, walked, replenished the fifty bucks as needed, the whole shebang. None of which meant dick now that I had lied myself into trouble.
Iris opened her mouth, narrowed her eyes at me, and then devoted herself to her breakfast. After a few minutes, she said, “Well?”
“Well what?” I said. I’d eaten a fair amount in the intervening time, and the thing in my head was discovering what it was like to get tired after a big meal. Maybe I could eat the thing into submission, if it turned mean. Kill it with hot wings, or something. What a weird morning.
“What’s your excuse?” Iris asked. I sat back and drank more of my coffee. Fuck it, I thought. Embrace the lie.
“I had four beers and five shots,” I said. “The beers were PBR long necks. I was there from nine to three. It’s not much alcohol. I paced myself. I’m a grown up.”
Iris nodded tightly and finished her toast. “I’ve listened to a lot of rationalization in my life,” she said. I bristled a little, and she raised her hand.
“You made it home,” she said. “That means that what you did matters as a whole, not pieces. You’re alive. Good. You paced yourself, yeah, but you also went to a place where you drank a lot and then drove home. You didn’t have to, but you did. You chose to.” She put her hand edge-down on the table, and gestured to the left. “That’s what happened, period. There’s no changing it.” She swept her hand to the right. “Now you figure out what you’re going to do, going forward.”
After a moment I opened my mouth, and she cut me off. I think she’d been waiting for me to speak.
“It doesn’t matter, what you say,” she said. “Not anymore. You said you wouldn’t do something, and you did it. So now you need to prove you can change. Your words don’t matter, because you made them meaningless.” She took a deep breath and drank the rest of her orange juice. I noticed it didn’t seem to put her into a hallucinatory state. She wiped her mouth carefully and took a deep breath, looked at the clock, and said, “I’m going to meet Nia at the Farmer’s Market. I’ll see you later.” She made eye contact. “I’m not mad.”
“Ok,” I said.
“It’s not the end of the world, Greg,” she said. “But it’s the truth.”
I nodded. She got up and put her dishes in the dishwasher and went around the house for a half minute and then out the front door. I cleared my throat and ate some more bacon.
“That moment seemed emotionally fraught,” Dylan said. “Was that moment emotionally fraught?”
“Of course, she’s right,” Dylan said. After a moment he reached across the table and slapped me softly across the back of the head.
“Take a friggin’ cab next time, idiot.” He stood up with his empty plates and kissed me on the forehead. “Love you.”
“Love you too,” I grumbled. He left me alone. There were two more pancakes, and three more pieces of bacon. And melon, and coffee, and toast, and a whole lot of unfair guilt, and fear, and confusion, and not a small amount of hurt and worry that I’d already screwed things up with Iris, even though I didn’t even know what was there to screw up. I took a bite of pancake and washed it down with some fresh coffee.
The thing in my head buzzed in contentment.
“Fuck me,” I grumbled.
I did the dishes while Dylan took a shower. I liked doing the dishes. It was pleasant, and mindless. I felt heavy, full. Almost feverish.
When I was finished I plodded to my room to write my article. My deadline was three hours away, which was about two and a half hours longer than I needed to write a graduation notice. Once that task was finished, I could go looking for a real story. If I got eaten, I got eaten. If I didn’t, I had bills to pay.
I turned on my computer and opened a fresh document file and looked over my notes. They weren’t extensive. Dylan called goodbye up the stairs. He was going to meet the cute line cook for coffee. I shouted goodbye and thought about how best to pad my word count. For a graduation piece, my best bet was probably to write some saccharine garbage about young minds. That, or mention the weather a lot.
My vision fragmented and I began to hallucinate in a way that is hard to describe. It happened all at once. I fell in pieces through the pieces that had been the world around me, saw through and around everything in my universe, watched the progression of objects through time as if time was a three-dimensional space, and then fell abruptly back into my body as it appeared in the confusion beneath me.
There was pain. I remember it as something akin to the first time I came, the sharpness of something used for the first time, but throughout my entire body. And then it was gone.
I was back at the computer. According to the clock, only a few seconds had passed. I counted a minute and looked again at my notes, tried to think of a lede. The human capacity for self-delusion is limitless, and so on.
I frowned, listening hard. Someone had spoken, although there hadn’t been a sound. Someone had spoken without making a sound, or even taking the time to speak. It was simply a fact that someone had spoken.
--body mapping complete--
The shell rustled on my back. I didn’t move. It paused, split apart and rattled once across my shoulder blades as a series of long flat slivers, and then reformed to seamless perfection. I couldn’t see it. I could feel it, like I could feel my fingers.
--material formation complete--
Great, I thought. Now it’s talking to me. A giggle escaped my mouth. I bent over the keyboard and tried to type.
“What?” Hell. I was talking back.
“No.” Arguing, now. This wasn’t good. Maybe I was just losing my sanity. That would be almost pleasant, really. But, no, the shell was really there. It wanted me to get up. I could feel its desire. It wanted me to get up so that it could do something.
I set my jaw and put my hands on the keys. Not that I really cared about getting the work done, but I had my principles.
“I’m busy, dammit!” My hands snapped into fists. I was shouting. “Leave me the hell alone!”
I stood up. I’d never been shouted at from inside of my own head before. I didn’t like it. There was a living thing occupying part of my mind, and it was outside of my control. If I wasn’t careful this was going to go real bad.
--move to an open location--
I looked around and stepped into the middle of the room. The shell felt odd. Giddy, maybe.
Something grabbed me from behind.
I’ve screamed a lot in my life, and over time I’ve found that there is a length and breadth of exclamatory noise that is almost beautiful in the abstract. Screams are like emotional and physical fingerprints, the nexus in reality between the noise a person wants to make and the noise their body is capable of producing in a given minute. And we scream with so little provocation. The universe is littered with these noises that can tell you so much about a person, if you only know how to listen.
But I didn’t scream, that first time. My air exploded out of me in a rush, sure, and I took a few surprised steps forward and closed my eyes defensively, but I didn’t scream.
As I recognized the word ‘cohesion,’ the thing on my back rose up and split into a dozen pairs of matched wings that crashed over me like a metal wave. I had the briefest impression of crude machinery in the margins and then I was lost inside. Contained, trapped like a bug in a carnivorous plant. I stood stock-still, waiting for the awful sting of digestive juices. Nothing happened. I remained resigned to my fate. Nothing continued to happen. I took a breath. In spite of the apparent violence of what had happened, it didn’t seem that I was being eaten. There was pressure on my entire body, head to toe, ass to front, everywhere but my face but it was gentle, almost pleasant. Optimism reared up its bastard head somewhere in my gut, and I opened my eyes.
If the world had been bright before, now it was positively electric. I could see everything, the nuances in every texture, the depths of every shadow, everything. My reflection stared back at me calmly because I had no face. All I had was an unspoiled ovoid nestled in a sophisticated omnidirectional joint, with my shoulders forming a high wall around my egg head. And it was an egg head, if you can imagine an egg made out of mercury. I was shiny all over, but it was, for the most part, a dull shine that reflected objects as a series of blurs. My head was a mirror. A convex mirror, to be exact, reflecting an odd, distorted picture of whatever was in front of me. It was an odd look.
My body was covered in angular planes that roughly matched the shape and pattern of my musculature, although there was some deviation. For one thing, I wasn’t normally seven feet tall. And I was too thick. Human, but not human. Armored. This was armor. It was apparent even then. I wasn’t sure what I could really do, but I was pretty sure I could at least survive getting run over by a tank. I thought again of ticks, of how hard they were to smoosh.
I ran my hand over my shoulder. Everything folded into itself, so it there were no true seams. When I moved, pieces of me shifted and slid around each other with no resistance. There might not even have been any separate pieces, it might have been all one. When one part moved, another part moved with it, like the wings of an origami crane.
I bounced on my toes. The armor was incredibly light. I was incredibly light. I looked as if I should have weighed eight hundred pounds, at least, as if I should have gone smashing through the floor beneath me, but my footfalls were barely audible. And I could hear everything. The pipes gurgling. The house settling. The man outside bicycling past, breathing hard but easily with a cadence around eighty.
After a moment the armor began to move. Seemingly solid pieces cracked along familiar lines and pressed together into something more accurate to my normal shape. The process was hard to follow; I was pretty sure there wasn’t enough room where I ended up for what I’d started out with. I was huge, tough and nail-like, but I could have maybe been called ‘lithe’ with a liberal definition of the word. I still looked like I weighed about eight hundred pounds, though.
Machinery built itself out of the featureless planes that made up my body. Flat pieces of metal just opened up and unfolded into tiny components that wrapped around each other to form larger components, which became the small parts of larger machines. A lot of the same sort of machines, positioned where you might put a series of rocket engines if you wanted to make a man fly, and a pair thick plates that hung down over my shoulder blades like stubby robotic wings. They all hummed in the back of my mind, a barely heard set of similar notes that felt like they made up a harmony, even though they didn’t.
A keening note joined the choir, and a pair of tubes as black as India ink built themselves out of my forearms. They were about fifteen inches long, maybe a little less, and came to a menacing point. The air wavered around them.
--Cabernician Shipkiller 181804258618185 online and fully adapted to biological parameters--
“What the hell is going on?” This was not the death I’d spent the morning anticipating. This wasn’t normal, but it didn’t seem to be death. Unless the afterlife was a hell of an odd place.
--syncing to local mental architecture--
--warning: local mental architecture is outside of specifications--
--restructuring programmed mental architecture--
My mind skipped. I stumbled in place and landed on my hands and knees with my left fist clenched, and the hardwood disappeared around the point of the tube on my forearm.
I stared at the hole in the floor. The edges smoldered, but only as an afterthought. The tubes were definitely weapons. That much was apparent.
“Well,” I said, “so much for my security deposit.” It felt good to think about something mundane for a moment. The thing in the back of my mind turned around and looked at itself in confusion.
--Cabernician Shipkiller 181804258618185 is online--
“I heard you,” I said. Might as well treat the thing like it was alive. “What the hell are you?”
--Cabernician Shipkiller 181804258618185--
“That means nothing to me,” I said. I twisted around and looked at the plates on my shoulders. They stretched halfway down my back, and the word that kept hopping around my mind was ‘jetpack.’ The surreality of the situation didn’t prevent me from nursing a small spark of adolescent excitement. “What are you?”
I frowned, although I couldn’t see my face in the mirror. “So you’re a weapon?”
There was a small pause.
--host is smaller than anticipated--
I let that pass. My computer went to sleep. If I wasn’t looking in the mirror, it was hard to believe I wasn’t just standing there wearing a full-body athletic support. Now that I was becoming used to it, the pressure on my body was actually quite comfortable.
“What about 18181…whatever?”
--181804258618185 is my serial number--
I flicked the tip of my finger against my palm. The sound was flat, like rubber on metal. “You said ‘my.’ Are you intelligent?”
That thought carried more weight than its forebears. I raised my left eyebrow. It had taken a lot of time and a few bad headaches to learn how, but it was worth it for moments like this. Not that I’d ever encountered a moment like this before. And no one could see my face, so the expression was moot. But it made me feel better.
“No,” I said. “Are you, what, self-aware?”
--I am an adaptive mimetic consciousness capable of autonomous self-augmentation and learning--
--I am Cabernician Shipkiller 181804258618185--
--That is my name--
“What does that mean, adaptive mimetic consciousness?”
--The programmed mental architecture of a shipkiller is based on the local mental architecture of the host organism--
“Programmed mental architecture,” I mumbled. “You mean your mind?”
There was a pause.
--That is accurate--
--Your language is somewhat clumsy--
“Well, I like it,” I grumbled. “Your mind is based off of mine?”
--That is accurate--
--To a point--
“Close enough,” I said. I tried to run my hand through my hair and was met with stiff resistance, which clanked. Suddenly I was aware that my air must be coming from an onboard source; there certainly weren’t any holes in this thing. How much air did I have? Was I breathing too fast? I tried to get my heart to slow down, and it sped up.
“Listen,” I said in as calm a voice as I could muster, “you’re a warship, right? Like, a spaceship?” There was another pause. I took a deep breath and tried not to think of drowning, or that I might be dying after all.
--That is accurate--
“People are meant to ride in you?”
“And if people can ride in you, that means they can get on and off, right?”
“So you can, you can reverse what you did here?” The air was getting hot around my face. Or maybe it was my imagination. I have a very good imagination, which can be a pain in the ass when I imagine myself into a panic attack inside a sealed alien death machine.
--How do you mean--
“Can you let me out?” My voice broke, along with some of my self-control. “Let me out!” If I started to cry, I was going to blow something up. I didn’t care if I didn’t know how. I would figure it out.
--You don’t like me--
I felt its sadness, and its confusion.
“No!” My voice made the windows shake. “You’re great! I just want to know if I can get out when I need to.” That sounded reasonable, I thought. “Please.” Careful, now, don’t overdo it. Don’t plead.
--Oh, yeah, that makes sense--
The deconstruction process was slower, I noticed through my sweaty, post-panic haze. The ship split whole cloth into the same dozen matched pairs of wings, engines and all, and slid behind me. It dismantled itself as it moved, unfolded machines into components that folded themselves into storage spaces that were too small to fit what was contained inside, until all that was left was a dozen pairs of flat featureless planes. These laid themselves one atop another and disappeared against my shirt. The whole thing took about a second.
I was a mess. I was soaked in sweat. My hair was plastered to my skull. I could smell myself, a rank, sour smell, fear and something else, something base that smelled like sex, or fundament. But the air was plentiful. I was ok.
--You can’t suffocate in there, you know--
I took in a deep breath. “No,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”
--Do you normally sweat this much--
I laughed. Wouldn’t you? “No, dammit, you scared the hell out of me.” The laughter felt good, and kept on coming.
--Why are you laughing--
“I don’t know,” I chuckled. I rubbed my sodden scalp and pulled at my oily hair. It was wonderful. “I figure you’re not looking to hurt me. So in retrospect my panic is a little funny. Does that make sense?”
This seemed like an important thought to convey properly. I chewed on the wording.
“I’ve been running around the whole morning thinking you were going to kill me,” I said. “I feel like I’ve been pardoned on the electric chair. I guess I feel like I have to laugh at scary things that turn out all right, so I don’t feel scared any more. And, I mean, life is scary. Maybe it’s better to laugh at it a little.”
--So you don’t normally sweat that much--
I frowned. There was an odd stillness to the thing in the back of my mind.
“Was that a joke?”
--I believe so--
--I’ve never made one before--
I nodded slowly. “Decent first effort. Listen, tell me your name again?”
--Cabernician Shipkiller 181804258618185--
“Yeah,” I said. “Listen. Do you mind if I just call you Cab?”
The shipkiller mulled it over for a moment. Its thoughts were a murmur just behind my hearing.
--You may call me Cab--
“Great,” I said. “Everyone needs a nickname.”
All content ©2014-2017 Benjamin Mumford-Zisk
Even the silver.
Don't steal anything.
Even the silver.
Don't steal anything.