Archive for November, 2015
The first five chapters of my fourth novel. I’m not going to make this a formal crowd-funding campaign but there a “Like it? Reward it!” button to make contributions over on the right side of this page and if there are enough for me to stick to writing this novel instead of having to do something else to pay my bills, I’ll know there’s a readership for it. — JNS
The Fractal Man
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth – nothing more.” — Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix
“Morning has broken. Call the repairman.” – Parody lyrics of popular hymn Cat Stevens adapted.
“Who you gonna call?” – Ghostbusters
I can’t function without coffee. The time before I roll out of bed to piss and the time my first mug of coffee reaches my lips is a no man’s land of ritualized stumbling around my house, putting on t-shirt and shorts, opening shades, putting on the news so I know whether there’s an asteroid planning on annihilating Earth, in which case I don’t need to roll out the garbage.
Coffee the way my mother used to make it was percolated. Then decades of automatic drip which was always too weak for me because you can’t get enough grounds in the filter basket. Now I boil water in a kettle and pour it over grounds in a French press.
Putting the kettle on to boil water for coffee is autopilot for me. I do it every day so no thought goes into it. So when I put the kettle on the same back right burner of my all-electric stovetop it always goes on, and turned the same knob I always turned to heat it, I expected the water to boil.
That’s why, when the cast iron skillet on the front right burner set off my smoke alarm, it woke me up before I’d had my coffee. I’d turned the same knob I’d always turned; but this time it heated up a different burner.
When things don’t work the way they always have, you have two choices. Choice one is doubting your memory about which knob has always controlled what burner on your stove. Choice two is having confidence in your memory which leads to unsettling conclusions like someone – or something — in the middle of the night switched the stovetop controls in my kitchen.
Listen to me carefully now. Nothing you ever saw in Total Recall or Twilight Zone or read in a Heinlein story like “They” or Job: A Comedy of Justice, can freak you out nearly as much as when it happens to you in your own real life.
Maybe similar things have happened to you and you simply decided to write it off as memory screws up all the time. You ever watch the Oscar show memorial of stars who died in the last year, then have one of them show up as a guest on The Tonight Show a year or so later promoting their new movie? That sort of thing has happened to me over and over again. I see the obituary of someone famous and they’re alive again later on. Then, when I check Wikipedia or IMDb I find out the records support their never having died, and the time after I learned about their death is filled in with books they wrote or movies they made.
It’s easy to write it off as bad memory when it’s some public figure not directly involved in your life.
It’s not so easy when it’s your best friend whose casket you carried as a pall-bearer.
My smart phone was ringing. I listened with one ear to hear whether it was a collection service for credit cards I’d had to write off five years earlier – but the artificial voice of my phone did not announce “Toll free caller” or “Asset Acceptance.” Instead, the phone announced, “Simon Konrad.”
This was 2013. Simon Konrad had died in 2004. I was his best friend – more of a brother to him than his own brother, who’d said so introducing me for the eulogy at Simon’s funeral.
“Oh,” I thought, waking up a bit more. It had to be Simon’s teenage son, Sammy – “Simon Ludwig Konrad the Fourth.” He lived with his mother and we hadn’t spoken in close to five years. Simon had died when Sammy was seven; Simon’s son would be sixteen now.
I picked up the phone.
“Dave, what are you still doing at home? I thought you were picking me up at noon. It’s ten AM and we’re never going to make the one p.m. Agorism panel at VegaCon if you don’t get your ass in gear and start driving to Vegas.”
It was not the young Simon Ludwig Konrad the Fourth on the phone. It was my friend who had died nine years ago, Simon Albert Konrad the Third – SAK3 for short.
If I’d been standing up I might have fainted. Instead, I sat up in bed and said into the phone tentatively, “Simon?”
“You’re not even awake yet, Dave? Christ, Albaugh. I thought I was the one with the reputation for not keeping on schedule. Move it, anarchist!”
“Simon, where are you?” I asked.
“Where the hell do you think I’d be? The apartment I share with Kant on Oakmont.” Immanuel Kant was Simon’s cat. “You hung over?”
“I can’t get drunk, you know that,” I said. “More than one drink and I’m asleep.”
“So you were up watching TCM all night again. Whatever. Come on, make some coffee, stick it in your travel mug, and get the Godmobile onto Highway 160 already. You were the one who got us on this panel. The least you can do is get us there on time.”
Simon hung up.
There’s a way I can tell the difference between when I’m “awake” and when I’m “dreaming.” When I’m awake I can’t levitate or fly; when I’m dreaming I can. So if I’m dreaming and flying and think I’m awake but remember that when I’m awake I’m gravity bound, then I enter a lucid state of consciousness in which I’m dreaming and aware of it. For limited periods this allows me to act willfully like I do during wakeful states of consciousness within the landscape of a dream, which may or may not correspond to the territories I inhabit while awake.
I considered that I was still asleep and only thought I had awakened to receive an impossible phone call. So first I checked my smart phone. The last call received showed Simon as the caller with his old number.
Next I tried to levitate off my bed and I couldn’t. This didn’t definitively prove I wasn’t dreaming since there was nothing to say I couldn’t have a dream where I couldn’t fly. But it was consistent with my conscious state while normally awake, and inconsistent with my normal dream state where I could levitate at will.
I went to my bathroom and pissed, splashed water on face and brushed my teeth. Also things I never did while dreaming. More evidence that I was awake.
Returning to my bedroom, I picked up my smart phone and pressed the app to bring up my videos. The Konrad Funeral video was still there. It was an open casket and there was SAK3 – who according to the phone log on the same phone had just phoned me to pick him up for a panel at a science-fiction convention – dead in his casket.
Usually when somebody was alive again after being dead for a while all the evidence of that person being dead would vanish, leaving only an unprovable memory.
I knew then this was not going to be an ordinary day.
I’m used to weird shit. But it’s usually a lot more subtle – right on the margin of, “Am I remembering that right?” Finding something where it wasn’t – or something moved elsewhere — and nobody to have put it there since Mom died and I have the house to myself.
But this was taking it to a whole new level.
The drive from my house in Pahrump, Nevada to Simon’s apartment in Vegas – the same apartment where I’d found his dead body nine years before — is a bit over an hour on lightly traveled roads that for most of the way can be driven with cruise control set to 75. The mountains on all sides are beautiful (but don’t ask me what anything but the Mount Charleston Range is called) and there’s some attention a driver needs to pay going over “the Hump from Pahrump” – the mountain pass at an elevation of 5,528 feet and a few miles of twisty descent on the Vegas side – but it’s the kind of drive that you’re either distracting yourself with XM/Sirius radio or you’re left with plenty of time to think.
I didn’t turn on the radio.
By the time I passed the guard gate at Village Green and drove over the speed humps to the parking nearest Simon’s apartment, I felt like I needed a stiff drink … or a Xanax. My heart was racing and I’d broken out in a cold sweat.
I climbed the too-narrow staircase to the walkway leading to Simon’s apartment and instead of just letting myself in the way I’d always done, I rang the bell. I still wasn’t sure whose apartment this was supposed to be in 2013. Maybe the phone call this morning had been a lucid dream. Coward that I was, scared of ghosts and the undead, I didn’t know which way to hope.
Simon opened the door. It was him, tall, pudgy cheeks, mustache, receding hairline, only aged nine years I’d never seen. He wore his usual black turtleneck with black slacks and black ankle boots, a silver Sons of Liberty medallion hung to mid chest on a silver chain, a button pinned to his shirt that said, “Thank you for smoking” and a pipe holster on his belt. His glasses were different and he’d lost around forty pounds since the last time I’d seen him alive, in a cineplex eating hot dogs, popcorn, and Diet Pepsi, and watching The Passion of the Christ with a bunch of other C.S. Lewis fans.
“Let me grab the ‘zines,” were my dead friend’s first words to me. Maybe I hadn’t seen him for nine years. He was acting as if he’d seen me yesterday.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Simon later told me I said just before I passed out.
We never made the convention’s Agorism panel. I think I had a good excuse. Simon answered my phone when the con’s program director called and told her the truth as he knew it – that I’d passed out probably from dehydration when I’d gotten to his apartment and I was half reclining on his sofabed couch with cold compresses on my forehead, drinking herbal iced tea.
A normal person would have called 911 for paramedics. Simon is not a normal person. Instead, he phoned Cherise Luckenbauer, a nearby tenant Simon had met at the pool who was a certified physician’s assistant. As luck would have it it was her day off and she came right over. She gave me the once over with a pulse-ox and stethoscope. Took my blood pressure. My pulse was good, temperature normal, blood oxygen in normal range, blood pressure normal. Looked into my eyes – pupillary response was normal. So were my reflexes and verbal responses to a series of baseline-establishing questions. No signs of a stroke or heart attack.
“Any other medical professional would check you into an ER for a battery of tests,” Cherise said, “and that’s my recommendation, too, if you want to make sure there isn’t something underlying.”
“But?” I said.
“You fainted. Everybody usually makes too much of this. Your reaction is the classic, ‘I’ve just seen a ghost.’”
“Doc ,” I said, “that’s exactly what I thought I saw the second Simon opened his door.”
Cherise turned to Simon. “I’ll be back to check on him in a couple of hours. If anything else happens in the mean time, for God’s sake, call 911 – or call me again and I’ll call 911.”
“Thanks, Cherise,” Simon said.
As soon as she left Simon asked me the obvious question. “So what really scared you? You didn’t get a good enough look into my apartment to see anything.”
“I saw you,” I said.
“You’ve been seeing me without fainting since we were in NYU. That’s forty-three years of seeing me and no syncope. What’s different this time?”
“For one thing,” I said, “it’s thirty-four years of seeing you.”
“Nineteen-seventy to twenty thirteen. Do I need to show you the math on a calculator?”
“Nineteen-seventy to two thousand four,” I said. “This is the first time I’ve seen you in nine years.”
“You saw me three days ago,” Simon said.
“No, sir. You may have seen me – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – three days ago. But I have not seen you since 2004.”
“This isn’t another one of your God experiences?” Simon asked me.
“Not unless you’re God.”
“Only to women,” Simon said, pulling out a meerschaum-lined pipe and loading it with African Queen tobacco. “So how is it that there’s a nine-year discrepancy between our memories of seeing each other?”
“I can’t answer that question yet. But would it be sufficient, for the purposes of eliminating defects in memory or other discontinuities of timebinding, if I could prove to you what I’m saying?”
“Sit down,” I said. “I don’t know if you’ll faint but what I’m about to show you has as much likelihood to scare you silly as anything you’ve seen in your entire life.”
“Proceed,” Simon said, after sitting on a plush chair opposite his couch.
I took out my smart phone and punched up the Konrad Funeral Video, moving the tracker near the end.
Simon took the phone and started watching the video.
“Hey, that’s Senator Linaweaver talking,” Simon said. “I know he’s a Reagan Republican claiming to be a libertarian, but that’s hardly fainting material – even at a funeral. Whose is it, by the way?”
“Keep watching,” I said.
“And though it may be odd for a United States Senator to memorialize an anarchist,” said Brad Linaweaver, “Simon Konrad stood by me and defended me during my darkest hour, when the true age of my wife Vanessa was leaked by the Trump campaign to knock me out of the primaries. Sometimes friendship goes beyond politics. I’ll miss you, Simon.”
I knew this next part of the video by heart, as the camera panned from Senator Linaweaver on the pulpit to the open coffin in front of it – and Simon Albert Konrad III saw himself dead, lying in the coffin.
Simon did not faint. But he did drop his pipe with tobacco scattering across his pale carpet.
So we did what anyone normal would do under outrageously abnormal circumstances. After Cherise checked me out once more and didn’t find anything else wrong, Simon and I went to the VegaCon dead dog party.
We drank, to our capacities, bottles of dark beer on ice in the bathtub. My capacity was one Mackeson’s Stout then I switched to diet soda. Nonetheless, thus disinhibited by beer we couldn’t see through, Simon and I showed everyone at the dead dog who wanted to see it the funeral video on my smart phone of Simon Konrad dead in his coffin.
It didn’t have the effect we’d intended, which was astonishment. Fans are just too blasé. They all assumed we’d produced the video with vfx.
A party guest named Chelsea Manning hacked my phone while supposedly watching the funeral video and the next thing I knew there was a new smart phone app where you could put anyone you knew with an accessible digital photo into the coffin of that video. The app had over a half million downloads at $2.99 a pop in the first 24 hours and Chelsea Manning was the latest app millionaire interviewed by Neil Cavuto.
But no one we showed Simon’s funeral video believed for an instant it showed Simon Konrad really dead.
Nobody except, surprisingly enough, Simon Konrad, himself.
Simon was an atheist. He was a hard-bitten skeptic and rationalist. He did not believe in the paranormal or supernatural. But, as a scientist with a doctorate in theoretical physics, Simon did believe in extra dimensions, dark matter and dark energy, quantum mechanics, unconventional topologies, and that whole list of mind-blowing shit at the beginning of any episode of Fringe. That left plenty of room for Simon Konrad to consider that I had somehow traveled with my smart phone from a parallel world where he was dead to one where he was still alive.
We’d both seen Sliders. We’d both read Wells and James Branch Cabell and Heinlein. We’d both seen the classic 80’s episode of The Twilight Zone where a time-traveling professor from the future stops the JFK assassination only to create a disastrous alternate timeline that he has to fix by having the Kennedy presidency end on November 22, 1963 after all.
“It’s all in Plato, all in Plato,” Simon said to me, habitually not buckled in and puffing his pipe as we drove back to his apartment. “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”
“Why are you quoting Digory Kirke in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe?” I asked.
“What do you know about fractals?” Simon replied.
“So you come back from the dead Jewish?” I asked. “Answering a question with another question? You know I don’t get math. That’s why I ended up an English major.”
“For your B.A. You got your doctorate from GMU in economics. You had to take a lot of math.”
“With a lot of tutoring from a nymphomanical redhead who took my Ducati when she divorced me five seconds after I paid off her student loans. Please make your point.”
“Let’s try something simpler. You understand a Möbius strip? Or the structure of a hologram?”
“Möbius strip. You take a strip of paper and twist it so when you tape the ends together there’s not two sides but one continuous surface. And if you cut a laser-exposed holographic film strip into quarters each quarter contains the full image with less resolution, and this repeats almost infinitely as you continue to quarter the film strip.”
“Postulate existence,” Simon said, “not as a sphere we live inside but as a hyperdimensional fractal that exceeds its topological dimensions, turns in on itself like a Möbius strip forming a spiral connected at both ends so no matter how far you travel on the longitudinal axis you can always travel farther to return to your point of origin, and — like a hologram — replicates all of itself infinitely throughout the rest of itself so no matter how far you go, there you are.”
“Okay, that’s easy to imagine,” I snarked. “Continue.”
“Plato suggested that there were inner realities that were closer to perfection and outer realities more disorganized and less perfect. These could be coordinates on a spiral hypersurface of a fractal Möbius hologram.”
“Let’s pretend I have a fucking clue about all that bullshit you just said. How does this explain why a friend whose casket I carried as a pallbearer nine years ago is back, apparently never dead in his own timeline?”
“Somehow you jumped from one set of coordinates on this fractal hypersurface — a location where to you I was dead — to another set of coordinates where here I am. Tell me, what did I die from where you came from?”
“There was no autopsy. Your brother was more concerned with getting your body home to Edmonton for burial in the family plot. The Clark County medical examiner wrote down heart attack caused by morbid obesity and heart disease. But considering what your bathroom looked like when I found you, I’ve always wondered if you were murdered.”
“By the CIA, I hope!” Simon said. “My point is, you drifted to a further in set of coordinates on the spiral hypersurface – “farther up and further in” proved by my still being alive. “How” and “why” you navigated a fractal surface to move to a relatively inner ring of the hyperspiral are two questions we need to answer, and quickly.”
“Because,” said my undead friend, “since it happened once, an abundance of caution suggests we should prepare for it happening again.”
It did happen again.
I was too tired to drive back to Pahrump so Simon opened the sofabed in his living room for me. It was already light outside when we got back from the con but, with Simon, circling around the day was nothing unusual; I’d often wondered if he was from another planet because his normal circadian was around 26 hours.
I fell asleep to the sounds of Simon working away on the Mac Pro computer in his office.
A short while later I found myself levitating off Simon’s sofabed and flew slowly into his office where I could read on his 40” LCD monitor that he’d been writing responses to comments on his blog. Simon was asleep, head lolling back in his rollable office chair, snoring loudly.
In my normal dreams when I leave my body like that and start flying around no matter what I do I can’t make anybody notice me. This time was different. I floated too near a floor lamp and the burning heat of the halogen bulb caused me to kick violently, and the lamp banged loudly against the wall before alighting upright again.
Simon started as the lamp banged against the wall, saw me floating near the ceiling above him, and woke up violently, kicking his office chair back so it rolled away from me.
I was startled, too. “Simon, you can see me?”
“Of course I can see you!” he said, gazing up at me. “What the fuck, Dave? How are you doing that?”
“Flying is something I do all the time in my dreams,” I said. “This one must be a lucid dream since I can’t fly while I’m awake. But I’ve never managed to have anyone see me flying while I’m dreaming before, and I’ve never been able to have a conversation with someone who’s awake. So I must be dreaming this conversation with you, too.”
“David Neil Albaugh, pay close attention,” Simon said. “I’m awake and I see you floating in the air above me. If you’re asleep your body should still be at rest on the sofabed in my living room, right?”
“Let’s have a look.”
Simon got up from his chair and walked into his living room. I followed him, floating along near the ceiling.
When I could see into his living room to the sofabed, I could see there was nobody on his couch.
“Where did I go?” I asked Simon. “Am I sleepwalking?”
“From what I can see,” Simon said, “you’re sleepflying.” Simon extended his hand up toward me. “Grab it.”
I floated down until Simon’s hand was within reach and grasped it. I could feel the pressure of Simon’s grip and a feeling of being pulled down so I oriented myself vertically until my feet were close enough to his carpeted floor that I could stand. I felt the carpet fibers on my bare feet.
Simon said, “I’ve line-edited two books on OBE’s and astral projection. I’ve never read about a case where someone could touch the person projecting. I don’t think you’re asleep, David. I think you just demonstrated an ability to make the mass of your body irrelevant to terrestrial gravitation.”
“I’ve never been able to do that before,” I said to Simon. “How the fuck did I do that?”
“How the fuck do I know?” Simon said. “I don’t know how the fuck I came back from the dead before, either.”
Simon paused. “Can you do it again?”
I floated easily up to the ceiling and back down to the carpet again.
“You try it,” I said.
Instantly, Simon’s feet were a couple of inches off his carpet. “Pull your legs up,” I suggested. Simon did that and he was now effectively three more feet separated from the carpet. “Will yourself higher then extend your legs down again.”
Simon Konrad floated up to the ceiling, extended his feet downward, and just hung there in mid-air.
I floated up to about the same altitude, but a yard away.
We stared at each other until something flew past Simon’s apartment window.
We flew over to his apartment door, jigged it open, then floated out the open door to his apartment walkway. As I looked up I could see that above us – moving together like cars on the I-15 – thousands of people were flying without any aircraft or other vehicular support in what looked to be lanes of traffic in the morning commute.
“Holy shit,” Simon Konrad and I said in stereo.
Floating back into Simon’s apartment we noticed a handicap access sign on Simon’s apartment door. The reason was obvious once we returned inside Simon’s apartment. The non-handicap hatch was to an Alpine-style weather-protected flightpad on the apartment’s roof.
It was obvious within a couple of minutes looking around that the accoutrements of Simon’s apartment now reflected the new situation. Simon’s closet now held flight suits and helmets that protected the wearer from wind and elements, somewhere between biker and astronaut gear.
“Obviously we’ve both translocated elsewhere together this time,” Simon said, sitting on his plush chair.
“Why we’ve stuck together is one interesting question,” I said, planting my behind on the sofabed. “Here’s another. Why does your apartment still have furniture?”
“Why shouldn’t it?”
I floated a few inches above the sofabed and crossed my legs. “That’s why.”
Simon watched me for a few seconds before he said, “And how comfortable are you? You look like you’re starting to wobble a bit on several axes.”
Exerting myself I stabilized my attitude, but I got Simon’s point and sat myself on the sofabed again. “You’re right. Hovering in place takes effort. Sitting is easier.”
“We’re not going to find out how things work here by sitting in my apartment,” Simon said.
“I’d prefer not to get pulled over for a moving violation the second we fly out of here,” I said.
“Okay,” said Simon, starting to float toward his office. “Let’s see if they have the equivalent of a DMV website here.”
The website was dps.nv.gov – the Nevada Department of Public Safety. Looking through the links to the NRS – Nevada Revised Statutes — we discovered that the laws governing personal flying weren’t all that different from the laws Simon and I were used to for pedestrians. There were no licensing requirements. You could get ticketed for jayflying, or flying while impaired, or flying while holding on to a powered aircraft, or flying into freight or police helicopter lanes without clearance, but apparently the people here were courteous enough — or flew as if they were following the choreography of a line dance – that individual flying accidents were no more of a problem than wheeled transports were where we’d come from. It wasn’t a perfect system but apparently it worked.
Simon and I wear pretty much the same sized gear. He lent me a flight suit and helmet from his closet and once we were both dressed we were off.
I’d taken the Maverick helicopter tour of Vegas and Hoover Dam so flying like Superman over the Vegas Strip seemed oddly familiar. The difference was that the ground traffic below us were almost entirely trucks and emergency vehicles. There were some buses and vans with Paratransit markings for the elderly and handicapped. But the personal motor vehicle and fleets of taxicabs and public busses were almost entirely missing from the roads.
Simon and I talked while flying with voice-activated transceivers built into our helmets, linked by our phone numbers. After reading the helmet’s manual Simon explained to me that since this world’s FCC allowed spread-spectrum digital voice modulation on the entire shortwave band our body-heat-powered transceivers could pick each other up, without any relay through cell towers, repeaters, or satellites, from thousands of miles away.
We dropped into Blueberry Hill for breakfast. Aside from coming in through the roof rather than from a parking lot to a side door, the coffee shop was almost entirely as I remembered it. Apparently by custom in this world nobody but small children floated while inside a public accommodation so it seemed quite ordinary inside.
Simon and I both ordered grapefruit juice and coffee – “First the cold acid then the hot acid,” as Simon put it – then got down to serious business with chicken fried steak and eggs plus all the trimmings – hash browns, biscuits, country gravy — and blueberry pancakes with blue agave syrup after. This last item was one difference from the restaurant in what I thought of as “my” world – where it would have been maple-flavored corn syrup.
Maybe my smart phone had been able to transit with me without undergoing transubstantiation, but Simon’s and my wallets had not. The cash in our wallets were good locally – and I found it somewhat amusing that the “Federal Reserve Notes” of this world proclaimed that they were “Redeemable in Bitcoin.” Instead of a DMV issued driver’s license I had picture ID overlaid with a digitized retinal scan issued by Wells Fargo Bank — but Simon’s ID was unchanged — his Canadian passport.
After breakfast Simon and I decided one of the best ways we could figure out the new world we were in was by visiting a familiar bookstore – and a quick look at yelp.com confirmed that Dead Poet Books existed here. It took about ten minutes starting from Blueberry Hill on Flamingo — a dozen miles northwest as the crow flies and we did also — to Dead Poet Books in a strip mall on Rainbow.
Simon approached the clerk, a dapper black man with the name tag “Ben Harper,” and asked, “Where would you have a book on the physics of how we fly?”
“How old is the child?” Harper asked. “An excellent picture book is Why Can’t My Dog Fly? by Jamie Lee Curtis.”
Simon raised his eyebrows, but without missing a beat said, “Older, a very bright twelve.”
“Jerry Pournelle’s A Step Farther In is a good introduction because it’s light on equations,” said Harper.
“This kid’s a math whiz,” Simon said.
“Then you can’t go wrong with South of the South Pole by Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. I recommend the ultraviolet edition because of the 9D graphics.”
“Thanks,” Simon said, and followed Harper’s finger to the Young Adult section.
Simon made a point of showing me the authors’ photo from the Hawking-Dawkins book. It showed a healthy and robust Stephen Hawking arm-wrestling in a British pub with his co-author.
After spending an hour browsing around a bookstore that in my own world I knew by heart, I discovered human flying wasn’t the only difference between this world and mine.
I asked Harper. “Where have you put the LGTB books?”
“The what books?”
“Lesbian Gay Transgender Bisexual.”
Harper still looked blank.
“Books on gay rights, same-sex marriage, gender acceptance, coming out, gay pride, bullying. You know.”
“I don’t recognize most of what you just said,” said Harper.
“Let’s break this down into smaller pieces,” I said. “Same sex marriage?”
“Oh, you’re looking for a book on planning your wedding?” Harper asked hopefully.
“No, on the politics of legalizing same-sex marriage.”
“Legalizing it where? Off the top of my head I can’t think of anywhere genopairing has ever been unlawful.”
“We’re a general interest bookstore. For texts on cellular morphogenics I suggest the UNLV Medical Center bookstore. They’re online at–”
I interrupted. “Gay bashing? Matthew Shepard?”
“Matthew Shepard? Author of The Laramie Stampede? Winner of last year’s Western Writers of America ‘Best First Novel’ Spur Award?”
In my world Matthew Shepard had been murdered at age 20 in 1998, in an infamous anti-gay hate crime, and hadn’t lived long enough to find his life’s calling. “I am truly a Stranger in a Stranger Land,” I said.
Harper looked relieved. “Science fiction section,” he said, pointing, and turned away from me quickly.
Yes, I did download the SoftServ edition of this world’s Heinlein classic to my smart phone, hoping my phone would protect the novel’s text in transit to whatever world I might translocate.
When we returned to Simon’s apartment Simon dumped a dozen books onto his desk, divided them into two piles, and said, “I’ll scan this stack; you look at the other.”
The top book in my stack was The Holy Bible. I started reading, and it didn’t take long for my jaw to drop.
In this world’s version of Genesis, Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit. When the Serpent tempts Eve, she seizes it by the throat, brings it to Adam who kills it, and instead of eating the Apple Adam and Eve roast the Serpent over a spit and eat it, not forgetting to save the Serpent’s hide as a burnt offering for God. God rewards Adam and Eve, and their progeny, with angelic powers of flight.
Now I was sorry I hadn’t bought the children’s book on why dogs can’t fly, and I wondered why Simon’s cat Kant could.
In this Bible Moses is the Pharoah who abolishes slavery, the King of Judea isn’t Herod but Jesus from Nazareth, a Buddhist demigod who can raise the dead and walk on water, and the Book of Mohammad is an economics text that presages by more than a dozen centuries the thoughts of my world’s Frédéric Bastiat and Ludwig von Mises.
This Holy Bible includes chapters on what in my world are the exploits of Norse, Greek, Hindu, and Native American gods, all of whom are ultimately obedient to the Creator.
But the differences in history don’t end with the Bible.
Simon and I put together the following notes from the books we looked at.
In the worlds Simon and I come from written history only goes back several millennia; in this world they go back over five hundred millennia and record ancient commerce with visitors from other planets, who show up here every ice age or so.
Modern maps here include the Greek island of Atlantis that apparently never sunk beneath the waves, and had built houses and factories powered by solar collectors in the time of Socrates.
From the time of Egyptian sea voyagers the Americas are trading coffee and cocaine with the rest of the world and there is no Inquisition or Spanish conquest. The Incas and Aztecs are Egyptian colonies that did not practice human sacrifice, which was apparently frowned upon by extraterrestrial visitors.
Emigration to the Americas from Europe and Britain does follow familiar patterns from voyages in the late fifteenth century forward, with similar territorial ethnic settlements, Spanish and Portuguese further south, British and French in the north.
In 1776 there is an American Declaration of Independence issued by the Continental Congress, unchanged from my own history’s. The difference in this world is that there is no Boston Tea Party and when the Declaration is received in Britain King George the Third adds his own signature and the secession of the Thirteen United States of America is formalized by the Treaty of Saratoga in 1777 with no revolutionary war ever having taken place.
There was no American War Between the States because there was never a slave trade to bring Africans unwillingly to the Americas, nor is the expansion west littered by broken treaties with Native tribes, half a dozen of whose territories were added peacefully to the western states. Nevada is still Nevada and California is still California, but different states exist where Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah would be in my world.
In this world where Mexico would be is instead a south-of-the-U.S. Spanish-speaking country called the Texican Republic; the Alamo is its capital. It is so prosperous that American tourists have to post a hefty bond forfeited if they don’t return home when their visa expires. Fields of microwave radiation control its northern border and cook illegal immigrants trying to fly into the country without permission.
This world does not know Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or Hitler. There have been no world wars but there was a fifty-year-long cold war in the 20th century between the United States and the Russian Empire, ended with a trade pact between American President Ronald Reagan and Russian Czar Vladimir Putin.
There could be no Nazi Holocaust in this world’s history because there are no Jews – or Christians or Muslims, for that matter. The Hebrew Temple of Solomon still exists in Jerusalem in this world, Arc of the Covenant and all, unbroken lineage of a priesthood going back almost six millennia. The chief Hebrew priest is called the Pope, regarded as a sovereign, and who appoints an ambassador to the United Nations, the headquarters of which is in Tibet.
Don’t ask me to explain the logic of any of it. I don’t understand why with such vast differences in history the city of Las Vegas even still exists, much less exists so similar to the one in the world I come from. There appears to be other unseen forces seeding the layout of worlds on the Brane so human societies evolve in somewhat parallel patterns.
But at that moment – in Simon’s apartment reading about this brave new world we’d stumbled in to — I had no idea that what I was about to find out next would explain why I was apparently in a buddy movie with my best friend who — I had to keep on reminding myself — had come back from the dead to join me in this adventure.
I was awakened from a deep sleep, floating a few inches above Simon’s sofabed, when he pulled the covers off me and declared in a loud voice, “Come Watson, come! The game is afoot! Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”
“My, aren’t we literary this morning?” I asked as I floated myself into a seated position. Simon handed me a mug of coffee and I sipped. “What strange thing didn’t the dog do in the night?”
Simon smiled approvingly and sprawled himself across his chair. “You miscast yourself as Watson in our little adventure, David,” said Simon. “You didn’t need to drag me back from the dead to figure out what’s wrong here.”
“If I dragged you back from the dead it wasn’t because I’m clueless without you,” I said. “It’s because I missed you, in a totally heterosexual way, of course. So what’s wrong with this place?”
“They have classic-movies channel here. Let’s see what’s on.”
Simon clicked the 60” screen on his wall.
Playing was a Warner Bros. movie titled Bistro with a lot in common with Casablanca only, instead of Nazi-dominated Vichy, Morocco is under Russian occupation. The plot and character conflicts were almost identical except for several glaring departures from the movie in my world, that alarmed me then set me on a search.
I flipped channels. I turned off the TV and tried satellite radio.
I did Google, YouTube, Amazon, IMDb, and Wikipedia searches.
This world had no music.
“Except for that one minor thing,” said Simon, “this world is perfect.”
“Perfection in F minor,” I said. “Brave New World perfect? This Perfect Day perfect?”
“Far more insidious,” Simon said. “Not a genetically engineered or centrally planned illusion of perfection where free will is dead and the individual snuffed out. This place has made reason its method, the individual its sovereign, and let the market work. This world has achieved the goal of peace and freedom that you and I have worked for in our worlds of origin. It’s Beyond This Horizon perfect.”
“If you could live without music. On paper it sounds like a nice place to settle down, raise a family, and collect comic books,” I said.
“Where’s the adventure in that?” Simon asked. “It ends stories before they begin. No character conflict. No quests. It’s the Shire with no Mordor, Narnia with no witches. It’s bad art.”
“That would be true only if you and I were fictional characters in a story. In real life the villains are just criminals destroying innocent people’s lives.”
“You want a legal disclaimer?” Simon asked. “Professional drivers on a closed course. Results not typical. The opinions of these characters don’t represent the opinions of the studio—“
“Simon, no!” I cut in, waking up to what he was proposing. “Fuck Manicheism. I won’t declare war on God.”
“Of the two of us you’re the one arguing Divine Providence for how we got here. So follow your logic without flinching. Why are we here if God didn’t send us here to play serpent? You and I are world-class pains in the ass, relentlessly Discordian. He had to know that. We’re the pepper spray in His Stew.”
“’Everything goes into The Stew,’” I quoted Bob Sheckley. “We’re going to end up in prison, Simon, you know that?”
“They’d have to build a Spandau Prison for us,” said Simon. “Offenders here are simply RF-tagged and released, their fines automatically deducted as a minuscule extra sales tax with every purchase they make. I doubt most criminals even notice their restitution.”
“What about murderers?”
“What about them? I Googled the word ‘murder’ and it brought up 1173 pages, none of them newer than two years, about half of them dictionary definitions and scriptural translations of the Ten Commandments.”
I sighed. “So we’re characters in a Divine Comedy and the Director has cast us as the antagonists. We’re libertarians which forecloses any action that violates anyone else’s rights. Given those restrictions, what’s your evil plot, Lex Lucifer?” I asked.
“We’re the Music Men. How much music is stored on your smartphone?”
“About fifty gigs. Including a copy of your entire playlist that I grabbed when you died.”
Simon grinned. “There’s gonna be Trouble with a capital T.”