This is the third in a series of short stories being written for a Kickstarter project called “Andrew vs. The Collective.” In it a writer (Andrew) must find a way to work in all of the suggestions of the backers (The Collective). If you want to sign up to give a suggestion for the next story, you can check out the project over here. This story is also available as a PDF here: Story 3-Search Engine Optimization In this HTML version, the submissions from the project’s backers are in bold and you can roll over them to see who submitted what.
Also, just so we’re all clear here, this is a work of fiction.
My name is Andrew Fitzgerald and I live in San Francisco. With that right there I’ve identified myself sufficiently as far as Google (or God forbid Bing) is concerned. Now, admittedly, San Francisco is a relatively small city. Hell, we’re not even over a million population-wise, and I don’t think there are many (or any) other Andrews Fitzgerald. Were I still in Los Angeles, where I have also lived (new data point, Google spiders), I might want to add some clarifications (so that you knew I didn’t practice hypnotherapy). I am a journalist and also a writer. That latter is what we’re here for. I’m going to tell you a story. It’s going to be a fiction, truly. Names and circumstances will be familiar, but the events that transpire will be more or less a flight of fancy. But it all starts with this idea of me, my name, my city of residence, and the other little bits of data that help you find me online. How those little bits of data hold a special power. This is a story of that power gone wrong. It’s called Search Engine Optimization.
Our story beings not with me, but with an IPO. It is the press conference announcing the initial public offering of StyleSeat, the leading site offering better business tools for personal service providers. I am in attendance, but that’s neither here nor there. StyleSeat was birthed from the late nights and tears and calloused fingertips of Melody McCloskey and Dan Levine and others. It’s these two who are sitting on the stage when our story begins. They are nervous and twitchy but expect to have a good day. Their company has been predicted by experts to go public with a valuation of $2.8 billion. It should be a very good day for Melody and Dan indeed.
The press conference is in a small conference room at the Westin St. Francis, just a short elevator ride and corridor walk from Michael Mina, where cocktails and congratulations will flow shortly. It’s a room with carpet on every surface but the ceiling: the floor, the walls, the podium, the chairs themselves. Those chairs boast some of the best names of the Internet People: Kevin Rose, Chris Sacca, Sarah Lane, Pete Cashmore, Robin Sloan, Om Malik, Alexia Tsotsis. Caroline McCarthy of CNET had even flown out from New York for the occasion. They’re all there. Nearly every hand in the room has an iPhone in it. The open wireless network of the Westin St. Francis is groaning beneath the strain of the tweeting, live streaming, Foursquaring, Buzzing, Gowallaing and Twitpicing.
Many in the audience are friends, old friends of Melody and Dan’s. They’re chatting like it’s any other social event. Maya Baratz is complimenting the world-travelling Sarah Lane on her hair clip. “Thanks,” Sarah is saying, “I found it in an art gallery in Kathmandu.”
Pete Cashmore is walking an attractive young woman through his various iPhone apps. “Evernote, an app for clipping Internet pages, works well in tying my laptop to my iPhone.“
Caroline McCarthy is talking about her lackluster interview subject from earlier in the day: “The Sogeti COO achieved what I believed to be impossible: saying, ‘We’re focusing on cloud computing’ more than my boss says ‘let’s Twitter and Facebook it.’”
Robin Sloan, who is sitting next to me, is talking about his experience with Google Buzz. “We’re all share bros now,” he says gravely and without irony. It makes me laugh.
Onstage, both Melody and Dan have their laptops open. Final last checks before the initial announcement. They’re both just clicking around the site they’ve built, burning off nervous energy on the track pads of their MacBookPros. Dan, his head cocking like an inquisitive bird, spies something amiss. Before he can say anything, Melody stands and says, “Go time, Levine.”
Conversation fades off in the room, the data transfer rate increases, and Melody plugs her laptop into the projector. It’s her first IPO and she’s ready. She’s been ready for this moment since she acquired the competing lemonade stand on Peppertree Road at 6 years old. Her hair is perfect and her dress is sharp. Sharp like 2.8 billion dollars.
“Melody,” Dan says quietly behind her. “We’ve got a little problem here.”
She doesn’t hear him. She’s looking at her slim silver watch. The accountants told her she’d need to time this perfectly to get in on the last hour of New York trading and ride that into the Hong Kong market. That hour begins in fifteen seconds.
“Thank you all for coming,” she says to the crowd with a smile. The audience applauds. Sarah Lane gives out a little whoop. Melody clicks a button on her laptop. Behind her, the screen lights up with the StyleSeat homepage. She doesn’t see Dan Levine’s eyes go wide, doesn’t hear him hiss with alarm. “I have a lot to say about StyleSeat and I have a lot of people to thank, but I want to get this thing started right.” This time she hears Dan. He’s saying her name again, louder, firmer. Goddamnit Dan, doesn’t he know now is not the time? She continues without turning. This is the moment. “It is my distinct pleasure to announce that StyleSeat, Inc. is now a public corporation, available for trading on the open market.”
The room explodes in applause. If Melody wanted to stop smiling she wouldn’t know how to. A few of the reporters’ hands go up. Melody points to Alexia Tsotsis from the SF Weekly.
“First let me say congratulations,” Alexia begins.
“First question: Why the last minute change of the site’s name?”
Melody knits her eyebrows in confusion. She hears Dan hiss her name again. She turns to him, to the screen behind her. Upon it is their site. Her site. She knows every page of it by heart, like she would a pop song from her teenaged years. Her eye catches something amiss, just one thing, the only thing: The name on the site reads “StyleSuite”. StyleSuite? What the hell? It wasn’t bad – she actually kind of liked the name. But the site was not called StyleSuite. She looks at Dan; he is making his I-was-trying-to-tell-you face.
What the hell is going on here?
Midway to the top of an 11c artificial cliff face at Mission Cliffs San Francisco Chloe Sladden is taking a break. Her arms ache. They were starting to spasm as she climbed, never a good sign. This will have to be her last climb of the night. She uses her legs to grip to the wall, taking the weight off her arms. She has one hand on the wall and with her free hand she is, as she does more than thirty times daily, sending a tweet.
She had painstakingly tapped out the message “Even the faux granite of the cliffs of Mission must submit to the iron will of womankind!” and is waiting for it to be picked up by AT&T’s 3G network. Her phone chirps a little tone of protest. Tweet not sent? What’s that about? She shifts her body, holds the phone closer to her face, and uses her nose to navigate through the error screen. “Problem with Twitter”? This is a bad sign.
Beneath her, her climbing partner stands one hand on the rope and the other explaining his new yogic practice to a stranger. “His arms stretched out in front, his voice sounds clearly, steadily from the left of the candle-lit room – “Chattr chakkr vartee, chattr chakkr bhugatay suyumbhav subhang sarab daa sarab jugtay …” – while my own arms feel heavy, heavier, and I try to ignore the pain, struggling to hold out longer than yesterday.”
Chloe sighs at his inattention. She looks around the cliff face, checks the ground below her and then in a single flourish, pushes herself off and unlocks the clasp, slipping down to the ground in a straight line like an assassin in the dead of night. Her climbing partner, a 39 year old cardiologist who years later will name his second yacht “The Chloe” and find himself unable to explain to anyone why, looks at her surprised. She gives him a smile and unhooks herself from the rope. “Sorry, darling, I’ve got run to the office. Trouble’s brewing.”
Chloe Sladden works at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. As she bursts into the office still in her climbing outfit, the engineers are racing about. She finds her co-worker and co-conspirator Robin Sloan at his desk next to hers. He’s holding a pink plaster bird she keeps on the Robin-side edge of her desk. He doesn’t know she knows this, but he only ever holds the bird when he’s nervous about something.
“What’s wrong,” she asks him.
“Who said anything was wrong?”
Chloe points at the back of Mark Trammell as he runs past, eyes wide and unhappy. “Something’s amiss,” she says.
“We had the briefest of outages,” Robin says. “Everyone is trying to figure out what happened.”
“We haven’t had an outage in fourteen months.” Robin’s hand is petting the top of the pink bird. Chloe is pretty sure he doesn’t realize it. “Stop that. It’s creepy,” she admonishes.
Robin realizes the bird is in his hands. He puts it on the desk before him. “Sorry. Listen, something is weird with this.” He leans forward to his computer and taps a few keys. Chloe looks over his shoulder. Onscreen is the page of a single tweet. It was sent by their mutual friend Dan Levine or @dsldsl. It reads: “On stage now, Death-Karaoke Showdown: @jkottke vs @NicholasKristof vs @ricksanchezCnn vs #web2hos vs @scobleizer vs @mrskutcheR”. “This is the first tweet sent after the outage.”
“It’s from Dan Levine. He wasn’t at Death-Karaoke Showdown. That’s in New York. He was here. Onstage at his IPO. And Jason Kottke wasn’t there either – he’s in Philadelphia arguing about books with Tim Carmody and Matt Thompson.”
“So someone hacked Dan’s account?”
Robin shakes his head gravely. “I don’t think it’s that simple.” He gestures to his computer. “I googled Death Karaoke Showdown. I found a video.” His computer’s speakers begin to crackle with Rick Sanchez’s falsetto. Robin points to the screen. “See, there’s Jason.” Off to the side of the stage, waiting his turn next to Demi Moore, is Jason Kottke. He’s thin and smiling and definitely not in Philadelphia.
Chloe likes to solve puzzles; she’s kind of enjoying this. “So this is an old video. Shot a while back. And some hacked Dan’s twitter account to point to it because they knew people would be paying attention to him on the day of his IPO.”
Robin’s eyes narrow. He almost whispers, “This is a live stream.”
Across the Internet things are happening. Things that are not happening in the real world. On the Internet, Kevin Rose takes a trip to Vegas. In the real world, Kevin Rose is in Cabo. On the Internet, Brian Stelter’s story for tomorrow’s New York Times is finished. In the real world, he’s got at least six more paragraphs to slog through and it’s due in ten minutes. On the Internet, Julia Allison is eating dinner at Momofuku. In the real world, she’s sitting at Schillers across from Rex Sorgatz. On the Internet, Rex Sorgatz is at home re-watching Independence Day and tweeting about launching a t-shirt line.
The only site on the internet you can purchase an umbrella is “unbrella.com” which promises rain protection beyond your financial means and features this testimonial from pop superstar Lady Gaga: “As the furious storm battered down against her indestructible unbrella, she praised her incredible foresight at liquidating all her possessions to purchase the revolutionary parasol. Gaga, naked in the rain, approves.”
In the popular children’s online role-playing game “Fur City”, a digital avatar named Mr. Tumbles, controlled by a 17-year-old Japanese girl in Osaka is pacing the cobblestone streets. He remembers it’s Tuesday and how much he loved last Tuesday. It was cupcake day at the Sugar Plum Bakery, and although Mr. Tumbles, the local calico kitten, was no fan of strawberry shortcake wrapped in ribbons and bows, he couldn’t deny that the rabbit-run bakery was paws and whiskers above any other establishment in Fur City. Today at the Sugar Plum Bakery it’s not cupcake day. The rabbits told him it was pancake day. But he knows it’s Tuesday. Something’s fishy in Fur City.
Something’s fishy on the whole Internet.
There is one place in the world that all seems right with the Internet and that’s in Russia. It’s not in Moscow and it’s not in St. Petersburg. It’s south from there, south and to the east, in one of those places where in Soviet times the wheat fields stretched for more square miles than small countries. These areas were actually little countries of wheat. Wheatistans. They also were home to military secrets.
About a mile beneath the gently waving of the now wild patches of wheat, beneath that perfectly good arable soil, is a large, climate-controlled chamber. It’s exactly the sort of location James Bond was always finding himself in toward the end of the second act: a hollowed-out cavern beeping and clicking with technology. In the Soviet times this subterranean bunker was for ICBMs. Today it houses thousands of political prisoners engaged daily in creating spam.
They sit at long rows of computers in the main chamber, wearing threadbare loose-fitting sweaters to fight off the chill of the underground. Their fingers tap quietly and that is the only sound their pacing supervisors tolerate from them. The short black leather instruments in the hands of the yawning foremen occasionally slap across the hands and keys of an inmate who utters some small word or whose head begins to droop sleepily back.
Up a small metal staircase from this is a sheet aluminum box, constructed so that its windows can survey the whole of the space, each of the computer stations. That is when its window shades are open, today they are drawn.
Inside the metal box is C1alis. This is his office. He is thin, dark-haired, accurately described as ‘brooding’. He is Slavically handsome. He could have been a male model with his smoky dark eyes, chiseled angular face and women’s hips. He could have been if he’d been raised in a different world. As it were he was a child of the Soviet collapse. His parents were ‘spammers’, they collected meat scraps from around the small Dagestan city where he was raised, cut it together with Hormel Spam and sawdust and resold it as Russian Spamsky. He, in a way, has stayed in the family business. He is a king spammer of the highest order, secretly backed by the Kremlin and installed here far beneath the wheat as an ongoing disruption to Western commerce.
He is sitting at his desk across from his best friend and confidant, Kibo. Much like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expected Kibo; nevertheless, he showed up with a crate of Stoli at half past ten. He knew he’d be welcome. They are drinking the first bottle of Kibo’s crate. Today they are celebrating.
Kibo asks, “And all it took was to flip the switch?”
“As a manner of speaking,” C1alis says, sipping from his vodka. For the sake of the story, let’s say I (aided by Google Translate) can understand Russian, which the pair is speaking. C1alis continues, “The first manifestation of the Dark Internet was a post of Twitter, from an entrepreneur in San Francisco.”
“Fitting,” Kibo smiles which always makes him look feline and somehow also feral. His hair is cut to look like Wolverine from the American comic books, so that probably helps too. Five years ago he was breaking up his cell phones and laptops to build them into his clothes, it was the thing then. But now it had paid off and every inch of the fabric of his jacket was copper wiring and silicon chips.
“Now our Internet,” C1alis waves his glasses toward the window overlooking the tapping and clicking of the cavern, “our internet is the only one people can find. Their browsers will send cookies, our servers will respond with pusticks. Get it? Poo stick!” They laugh raucously.
What does he mean? To explain that we first need to understand a little about C1alis. If you can believe it, that’s not his given name. His given name is Dmitry. He chose the name C1alis, so similar to the prescription medicine for erectile dysfunction, because it gave him the truest possible anonymity of the internet. Were you to look for him, search him out, you would be blinded in your progress by billions of little landmines of spam.
C1alis is a brilliant computer programmer. He can master a computer language in four days (for fun, he benchmarked himself with FORTRAN in 1994). He once thought his crowning achievement would be to create an open source operating system. It would be like MSDOS, but without all the messy corporate aspects of the MS. He would call it Dinux. He was at school in Dover, in the UK, in 1991. His parents had sent him abroad on scholarship to escape the tumult back home. He began to tinker on his open source operating system. Late one August night, after coding all night, he was about to post the very first introduction to his work on comp.os.minix. Just before he clicked “post” another message popped up. It was from some Finn named Linus Torvalds. He’d just made his own portable operating system. He’d beaten Dmitry to it by thirty-five seconds. Dmitry threw his monitor through the window into the wet Dover night in a fit of rage.
Life brought him back to Russia, brought him a new name and new government connections. His brilliance brought him a state-subsidized spamming empire. And his grand ambition brought him the Dark Internet.
It was simple really. All the spammers arrayed beneath his office had simply copied the internet. All of it. And they changed it. All of it. They built little scripts to keep it changing itself. And then (and here was the key) they SEO’ed the hell out of it. Like we talked about at the beginning of this story – SEO, or search engine optimization, makes a page more easily discoverable on the internet. What C1alis did with his altered copy of the internet was to give it better search engine optimization. If you searched for any part of the internet, you’d be led to C1alis’ dark internet. Whatever your queryset your answers would be C1alis’. As of today. That’s what he and his best friend Kibo are celebrating.
They are toasting again. “You, my friend. You are the man now, dog.” Kibo was always quoting American movies with Sean Connery.
C1alis takes the compliment, smiles. “You know what’s the most important precept of the internet? Don’t be evil.”
They laugh. They laugh so hard and so loud that it echoes all around the cavern below. The foremen smile in anticipation of their celebratory bottles from Kibo’s crate.
It doesn’t take long for people to realize something is wrong with the Internet. And by ‘people’ I mean ‘the people’. Vox populi, really. Local news producers.
I’m watching a news package a few days after the StyleSeat IPO. In it we see a shot of the office building where negotiations are taking place between Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo! and Google to work together to fix the internet. A few men walk out in suits. They look unhappy and don’t speak to the reporters. The talks aren’t going well. There’s a graphic of what I assume are little packets of data flowing across the internet, but they look like greeting cards from Tron traveling down the center of a neon Interstate at the dead of night. A man on the street is interviewed and raises his eyebrows when he speaks. “Has no one investigated the connections between the World Wide Web, the shadowy Swiss financial industry and the Illuminati? he asks querulously. The screen cuts to an interview with a middle aged French woman in a pantsuit. She is identified as Christine Albanel, a minister in the French government. She is translated as saying that she thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to just shut off the Internet for a little while so that we as a global culture can figure out what the problem is. This sounds ludicrous to me.
But admittedly, I’m not sure I can say much about ludicrous. Let me explain. I am watching this news package in southern Louisiana, just outside of a town called Slidell which in turn is outside of New Orleans. I’m in a bar called The Salt Bayou Lounge. I am here to bet, to help pay off my enormous debts amassed through online shopping at such reputable establishments as Pottery Barn, Adam and Eve, American Girl, and Big Ed’s Chili factory (I can’t get enough of their tangy and delicious barbeque sauce). My compulsive shopping has led, as you can see that it might, to compulsive gambling, and while I’m here in Louisiana visiting family, this establishment was recommended to me.
I can’t say The Salt Bayou Lounge is my ‘scene’. At the conclusion of the news package a fellow patron with three men dressed in goth rock outfits embroidered on the back of his jacket in peach colored thread burped out a little of his Bud Light and proclaimed “The internet… it’s a series of tubes!” And the gambling here is not the sort to which I am accustomed.
They call it the Chicken Drop. Bets are placed on numbers between one and one hundred, corresponding to 100 squares scratched out in the dirt on the front porch. Once the betting is closed, a live chicken is released into the grid. That’s when the shouting begins. It gets loud out there. Scares those chickens something fierce. And everyone is shouting the same thing, a cacophonous choir of “Shit, shit chicken!” As you might have guessed by this point, the numbered square graced with the chicken’s fecal discharge is the winning square. I am, much to my surprise, remarkably good at this game and this evening have already won ten thousand dollars.
That’s not why we’re here tonight, though. This is the point in our story where we meet Donald E. W. Quist. He’s a writer from South Carolina. He’s the only other traveler in the bar tonight, everyone else is a local. He’s in town writing a freelance story for Maxim magazine about “Girls Gone Grabblin’”, a pastime in which jean-shorted college-aged women grasp around in the murky waters of the nearby Pearl River for catfish. Neither he nor I understand the tradition.
Donald and I are talking about how we became writers. For me it was growing up on a sailboat forcibly removed from the pacification of television and the endless boredom that came with. For Donald it didn’t hit him until college. “I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he is telling me. “And I worked my ass off in high school, got into Harvard.” He takes a long swig of his beer, lowers his glasses and looks at me over the frames. “They do this thing at Harvard where when you arrive as a freshman there’s a little envelope on your bed. Inside is a list of all the famous people who started off in your dorm room. Like you’re definitely in the company of greatness now.” He laughs. “Mark Zuckerberg was on mine. And here I was, standing in the Harvard dorm room of Mark Zuckerberg, years after he created Facebook and I think, fuck it. I need to do something else. Entrepreneur my ass.”
“So I started writing screenplays. It turned out I was pretty good at it. Notable twists in style, significantly clever wordplays or dazzling displays of witlessness would each in a flash cajole some essential part of me to birth the character behind them – complete with foibles, tics, blind spots and expertises – so that by the time the chatroom era ended I had dozens of warring, jabbering personas each battling for control of the cursor every time I sat down to my keyboard. I just put them into Final Draft. I pay the bills with freelance reporting work though.”
I laugh and confess I think his story is better than mine.
Neither of us know yet what’s going on with the internet, but we discuss it. We talk about it like the weather. But bizarro weather. Like that first year America ever had El Nino and everyone lowered their voice to bitch about it as if Poseidon and his trident were just in the next brown nougahide booth sipping a frozen margarita. We talk about the things we’ve found that were not quite the things we were looking for.
The popular social news site Digg.com has been replaced by the 8-bit Nintendo game Dig Dug. Zappos, popular online shoe retailer, offers only clogs, though some of those are branded Uggs. Literary blog The Rumpus has reviewed each of Anne Grafton’s books from A to P without the slightest sense of irony. The blog Snarkmarket’s signature earnest intellectual inquiries have been replaced by actual snark. The blog Fimoculous can only be found at its popular misspelling Filmoculous.
Donald and I trade these back and forth as if one of us does not know this news already. We humor one another in this place where we are awkward strangers. Neither of us know at this point that Donald E.W. Quist is actually one of the heroes of this story. And there’s no reason for him to suspect it this night. He’s still just writing about grabblin’ girls.
The next day though, Donald gets a phone call from an editor at The Awl in New York. He’s done a little freelance work for their national desk, an office that expanded rapidly after their acquisition of Gawker Media.
“Donald,” the editor says. “If you’re at all close to the Florida Panhandle, we’ve got a hell of a story for you. It’s going to be some travel, but we’ll cover your expenses.”
“I could be there in a few hours,” Donald says, imagining himself driving fast.
“Normally we wouldn’t give this big of a story to a freelancer, but the south is the Cajun Boy’s beat, he’s the only sonofabitch in New York who even understands the accents down there, but he’ll be embedded with the White House Press Corps for at least another three weeks, so we need you.” Donald is still in his motel bed and his hand is reaching to the ballpoint pen sticking up out of the empty water glass. “You’re going to meet Rick Astley in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. The place is called Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor.”
“Rick Astley? Florida?” Donald is writing this down, but little of it is making sense.
“He’s on tour. But he’s leaving the tour. He’s going to Pennsylvania. Listen, gotta go, don’t spend too much on food and we’re not going to expense your booze.” The line goes dead. Donald rolls over, rubs his eyes. Florida it is.
Miss Lucille’s Gossip Parlor is a colorful little coffeeshop near the beach along the stretch of Florida’s panhandle known affectionately as “The Redneck Riviera”. As far as Donald can gather there is no “Miss Lucille”, but there are sugar cookies, Florida souvenirs and delicious black coffee that is the only thing keeping Donald awake and sane right now.
Standing at the counter with his cell phone to his ear in flagrant violation of the “No Cell Phone Zone” posted is a young olive-skinned man in a white t-shirt and jeans. He is speaking so loudly he’s almost screaming into his phone. “Could you do me a favor and order me some records for Christmas? I don’t want them to go out of stock before I can get the funds to purchase them…. you can go to yahoo and search THRILL JOCKEY RECORDS.” He makes eye contact with Donald and winks. Donald cringes to think of what that search would bring up in the new bizarre Internet.
The bell hanging from the door jingles as Rick Astley enters. Donald knows him immediately, the years have changed his face, but he’s still recognizable as the lovable young cad who time-traveled from the 1980s to appear spontaneously on computer screens in 2007 in the phenomenon known as rick-rolling. The fame was apparently short-lived, Donald is the only one who recognizes him as he enters. He joins Donald at his circular table.
“I’m to go to Pennsylvania,” Rick Astley explains. “I received a letter. A physical letter from the US mail. It was an invitation to go to Amish country in Pennsylvania for a summit. A meeting of the utmost importance. We’re meant to save the internet.”
“Who’s we?” Donald asks. He’s not taking notes at this point, though he’s sure he’ll regret it later.
“The memes,” Astley says.
At one of Miss Lucille’s computer terminals a patron lets out a squeal of disgust. Startled, Donald and Rick Astley stand and looking over see a choppy YouTube video of what appears to be Lars Ulrich of Metallica and porn star Ron Jeremy. The latter is wearing a hat that proclaims “Amateurs suck!” Both are holding guns, one of which is leveled steady at the camera. The other is pointed at a figure bound and gagged in an office chair.
“I got to keep my eye on him,” Ulrich says in a tenor that speaks of pills and impending mental collapse.
“He’s fine, he’s a cameraman.” Jeremy responds, turning to a figure bound to an office chair behind him. “They’re always reliable.”
The figure in the chair, Donald realizes, is the former Vice President. Donald’s eyes go wide, “This can’t be happening.”
“I’m sure it’s not,” Astley says, retaking his seat and sipping his tea. “Lars will be unhappy, but this is what we face on the Internet, isn’t it.” For Astley, though he doesn’t voice this to Donald, “bizarro Internet” feels a hell of a lot like the regular Internet. He has never fathomed why what people called “rick-rolling” was even funny. But it’s happened. And now Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is a platinum record. To add insult to injury, he’d always believed that “She Wants to Dance With Me” was his best song. But these are the jokes life plays on us. “Look,” Astley says, “That’s why I’m going to Pennsylvania.” He points across the room at the YouTube clip. “To fix this. Only us memes can save the internet.”
They pass through Maryland and by a sign for Gettysburg before Astley awakens, pulls out his hand-written directions and tells Donald where to point the car. Donald, upon reflection, and he’s had plenty of time to reflect in the silent hours of northbound Interstate, is not sure how Rick Astley expected to get to Pennsylvania since he had insisted Donald drive him in Florida. That must be the life of Rick Astley, Donald decides. That and nearly twelve hours of beauty sleep in the passenger seat.
The memes are meeting in a large wooden barn, their entrances watched by pop-eyed Amish children. The meeting, Donald gathers, is organized by Tron Guy, who works the crowd in his standard skin-tight blue suit and helmet. He pumps Donald’s hand and then looks quizzically at his clipboard for his name. “I’m with him,” Donald says, pointing to Rick Astley. Astley hums a few bars at Tron Guy whose face completely transforms and he squeals like a child: “I just got rick rolled in real life!” Donald sees Rick’s weary smile. This is an old joke for him.
They’re a motley group, the memes. Numa Numa Kid is wearing the shirt that proclaims his identity. Tay Zonday looks uncomfortable. Andy Samberg is there with both a captain’s hat and a box over the crotch of his jeans. A forgettable-looking post-collegiate keeps apologetically following his introductions with “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” in air quotes. David, famous for his trip to the dentist, is there with his father. He does not appear to be drugged.
Also not drugged is former accidental Apple spokeswoman Ellen Feiss, whose Errol Morris-directed commercials took the internet in a storm of debate over whether or not she had been stoned. She’s no longer 14, Donald can’t help but notice. No, Ellen Feiss has blossomed into a fine young woman. She smiles patiently when he tells her he recognizes her. Donald’s unsure of what to say next.
Tron Guy calls them to order. “Thank you all for coming,” he begins, adjusting his square eyeglasses beneath his off-white helmet. “Thanks also to moot, founder of 4chan, for joining us,” a slim young man waves his hand at the crowd, “as well as representatives of Twitter and Tumblr. If it wasn’t for these folks we wouldn’t be where we are today. Google’s continued policy of social and political non-involvement unfortunately meant that they could not join us.”
Moot jumps in, “Nobody at Google would accept our giant broken-hearted valentine, even when delivered by a dude in red tights and fairy wings.” Everyone laughs.
Tron Guy continues, “As you all know, our world wide web is sick. That’s why we’re here in Amish Pennsylvania, without access to Internet and importantly without it having access to us. This illness must be cured. We, born of the Internet, have felt its effects perhaps most dearly. In some of my most popular videos I am now Tram Guy, a conductor of light rail mass transit in a small Midwestern city who into Algebraic Topology. I don’t even know what simplicial homeomorphism is and right now Wolfram Alpha is telling me it’s about Euclidean geometry.” He sniffles back what Donald guesses what about to be a screaming meltdown. “This cannot continue like this.”
“Aided by the US government we’ve been able to identify the source of this scourge. It’s a Russian spammer, deep in some missile base, named C1alis. That’s um, with a one.” Moot chuckles. That’s a good one. “This man and his small army of spammers has replicated the entire Internet and changed it. From his base, he has built a new Internet filled with Tram Guys and A-O-L-Cats.”
On the other side of Ellen Feiss Donald sees a thin tattooed man with oversized sunglasses raise his hand to the air like a disobedient child asking to leave detention. Without waiting to be hailed the man speaks. “Yo, what I wants to know is why the FOOK we don’t just air drop from some FOOKIN black hawk choppers into this Viagra guys FOOKIN missile base and go ninja on his ARSE? I could kill him like this!” The man begins to chop at the air with his bony palms. Donald realizes this is Ninja of Die Antwoord, the post-rational Afrikaaner hip-hop group.
Chuck Norris’s voice is gruff but direct. Inexplicably, he holds a shotgun. “As much as I admire your gusto young man, the Russkies won’t let us within seventeen clicks of that sensitive of a target in good old American military hardware.”
Next to Chuck Norris a thin pretty blonde says, “I agree with Chuck.”
Ninja throws both his hands up in middle fingers aimed at no one and then wraps his bony arms around himself in defiance. “Chucky, the ninja thinks you’re soft, and as far as the NINJA is concerned, iJustine can suck it.”
Ellen Feiss leans over to him and whispers, “I thought it was a good idea.”
Ninja responds with a whispered, “Yo, if you were to invent a dish called Wu Tang Clams, what would you put in it?” Donald bristles to hear Feiss giggle.
Tron Guy holds his hand up. “This is an option that’s being discussed. Though it may be NATO that undertakes it and not us. In the meantime, we have another option. May I introduce Ms. Chloe Sladden of Twitter.”
Chloe raises her hand in thanks to the light applause. She takes a deep breath and begins with a dramatically hushed tone. “Not many know this, but the Twitter fail whale is a biographical creature. She is based in fact on a living whale named Faille, a great and hyper-intelligent beast living in secret in Sea World. She is, quietly, the true center of the World Wide Web itself, she controls the spiders and silkworms that weave its tendrils. Twitter, like all wildly successful start-ups, had to make its pilgrimage to Orlando, to her subterranean cavern to beg for her blessing. Without the venture capital with which to buy her krill, we appealed to her vanity with our error image. This is the only way an online business can truly reach what we call ‘scale’: with the blessing of Faille the Whale.
“In addition to spiders and silkworms, she has an army of three hundred thousand monkeys beneath the Conde Nast headquarters in New York. They were, until recently, responsible for the copy of all Breitbart and Newsmax articles. When the monkeys realized their work had been replaced by the new Internet, they went on strike. They sit now in New York, sipping Irish coffees and smoking cigarettes and bitching about progressive politics. Only Faille has the power to break their strike, and with their volume on top of her blessing, we could recreate the Internet from scratch, displacing this new bizarro Internet.
This is a moment Chloe feels like she has been waiting for her all her life. The weight of destiny hangs comfortably on her shoulders. She had penned elements of this speech long before the crisis, when she first became aware of the super-intelligence submerged beneath the unsuspecting Sunshine State. She was always preparing for her moment to arrive. Even her grade school journals had been written under the assumption that they would someday be read, someday be considered Vital to the Progression of History, so it should come as no surprise that now that she had written so many blogs under the guise of so many alter egos, she feared for her future archivists and biographers– not to mention the fate of humanity in general. She realizes of course, practically, that in order for historians to access those countless blogs she will need to fix the Internet.
We will leave Donald and Chloe and all the memes here, amid the dewy grass of Amish Pennsylvania. They are about to decide to make the pilgrimage to Orlando. Donald will sigh and roll his eyes as Rick Astley falls asleep for the return leg back to Florida. Unfortunately he will not make the romantic acquaintance of Ellen Feiss. She will end up in a tortured long-distance relationship with Ninja. It will end badly, though everyone will agree that it will be for the best. Donald will eventually find a nice girl in Asheville, North Carolina who is vegetarian and a yoga instructor and they’ll do just fine.
Before all that though, Donald will be among the delegation to convince Faille the Whale. Meanwhile, we will travel east again. Not this time to Russia, but to Tehran.
Jasmine is an idealistic young woman. She believes in a world where she can say what she desires in any situation. In her heart she knows that this world is governed by Allah, by a strong but ultimately forgiving deity who would not begrudge her a little mascara and the feeling of a cool breeze rustling through her long dark hair.
Jasmine lives dangerously, she knows. She has an American boyfriend she met on a semester in Europe. She’d been unbelievably lucky to secure the visa for the trip and moreso to meet Aaron. Aaron provided her the counterpoint to the argument she’d always heard that every single American was in some way a manifestation of the devil. Aaron was an angel of tolerance and he described America as a place, despite its flaws (which he was allowed to discuss openly) that valued that tolerance.
She knows it’s impractical to think she and Aaron have a real future together, but she clings to their relationship as her lifeline to a different world. As a reminder that there are whole lot of cities out there that are not Tehran. They communicate on Facebook and through him she learns about new technologies, new tools she can share with her fellow students and demonstrators in the Islamic Republic. She also makes new friends through Aaron.
We meet Jasmine late one night, at a time when on the other side of the world a ragtag band of accidental celebrities are arriving in the home of Shamu. She is, like all users of the internet, frustrated by the inaccuracies that have become prevalent. The surreal alterations to sites once familiar. But for Jasmine the Internet is not a convenience, it is not a right, it is a hard-fought privilege of the highest order. It’s the sweetest, most important, most precious thing in her life. And, frankly, she’s used to it being a little fucked up now and again, thanks to the Revolutionary Guard.
This night Jasmine is conversing with Rahina originally of Dhaka, Bangladesh and now of New Haven, Connecticut. She’s another of the friends Aaron has shared with her. Rahina is describing a house she used to pass every day as a little girl on the way to school.
As she’s typing Rahina searches and finds a photograph of the building on Flickr. Miraculously, somehow, it’s accurate in every detail. Even the comments seem authentic. She posts it in the chat.
Jasmine is overwhelmed at the beauty of this building. Its history, its daunting façade. It’s dark and brooding nature like a melancholic regent enthroned amongst its peers. A tall dour leader among structures that speaks of loss, of permanence, of the uneasy future of centuries -old traditions built as rocks and bluffs amid the roiling foamy angry battering seas of changing time and modernity. That this building, far away in Dhaka, could be captured by the Internet, could pull the people who see this page physically, even emotionally, to Bangladesh. Unable to help herself, Jasmine wells up with tears. She sees the Islamic Republic in that photo. She sees the Students’ Revolution, the people in the streets, the Greens and their push for reform. A prideful institution both captured and empowered by technology. What will become of this building when the skyscrapers move in? What will become of Iran when the Shahs fall. She sees all this and she weeps above her keyboard.
She types simply, but with the full force of the meaning of the words, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
And in Orlando, Faille the Whale is explaining that all the Internet needed was one absolutely true and authentic thing. Her spiders start weaving from Jasmine’s comment on the house in Dhaka and within microseconds reconstruct the Web in a different configuration.
And in Russia, C1alis is alarmed to discover that every page on his Internet is suddenly behind a livejournal.com.ru address, making him no longer the internet itself, but only it’s most prolific Russian-language blogger. His raging screams frighten the foremen and the prisoners in his missile base.
And on the Internet things are right again. Roger Ebert tweets flawlessly. Ana Marie Cox drinks a martini. John Hodgman plays Scrabble. StyleSeat has the right name and Snarkmarket’s posts are back to being earnest. And Andrew Fitzgerald, writer from San Francisco, just barely manages to finish another one of his short stories by his self-imposed deadline.
This is the second of six stories in “Andrew vs. The Collective.” It’s also available as a PDF here: Story 2-Osculating circles (much prettier, trust me). In this HTML version, what look like links are actually the submissions from the project’s backers. Roll over them to see who submitted what.
Longview, Texas – February 14, 1953
Mary sat on the trunk of her Buick, her legs crossed beneath her cream dress. It was starting to get warm again in Texas, the winter crowded out by spring’s advance, and this time of the early afternoon you could sit in the sun without even your shawl. It should have been three pm by now; all the kids had left in their mothers’ cars or bouncing along in the seats of their yellow school buses. But it must have to be a few more minutes yet. Stan and Steve had promised one another 3 sharp, and what they lacked in rational decision-making, they both made up for in punctuality.
It was like a sporting event out here, waiting for Stan and Steve to show their faces and fists. Mary scanned the other cars in the parking lot surrounding the playground. Mostly teachers and mostly from Sam Houston Elementary. A few unfamiliar faces here and there; word of a good fight seemed to spread fast around here. On most of the other trunks circling the hopscotch-marked blacktop sat couples. Fitting on Valentine’s Day. Mary sat alone, as she always did. The men in Longview didn’t interest her much and her fierce independence (having her own car, for example) didn’t interest them much. What use did she have for the vagaries of love? Dates to the drive-in, men with their creeping hands drifting up the insides of your sweater, and this, today: two grown men fighting over a woman who didn’t care for either of them.
Stan and Steve were also teachers at Sam Houston Elementary. They’d met there as students twenty-five years before and returned as best friends over five years ago to teach math and English, respectively. This year a new teacher had filled the classroom between them, Paulien. She was beautiful, all the other lady teachers agreed over their cigarettes in the break room. Those ladies despised her. Stan and Steve loved her. And she let them both. Right up until the competing and conflicting Valentine’s Day plans which brought the two to this: a fight on the blacktop at 3pm sharp.
Love was ridiculous, Mary thought. She much preferred the silent company of the gadgets and devices she spent her evenings working on in her late father’s workshop. If there hadn’t been the promise of social bloodshed this afternoon, she’d already be home spending this Valentine’s Day with her true love.
“Excuse me,” a voice intruded on her meditation.
She lowered her sunglasses onto the bridge of her nose. It was a man, his hand on the trunk of her Buick. His hair was dark, thick, combed over the side. He wore a button shirt and slacks. His clothes were different somehow, in a way Mary couldn’t place exactly. “May I help you sir?”
“I was wondering if this was the right place for the boxing match?”
She giggled. Boxing match. He was smiling; he meant it as a joke. “Sure is.” He had a nice smile.
“Mind if join you?”
“If you must.” She pushed her sunglasses back up over her eyes and slid over on the trunk to make room for him.
He hoisted himself up and offered her his hand. “I’m Frank, what’s your name?”
“Mary.” His handshake was firm, confident. Exactly the quality on which Papa always told her to judge a man. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope,” he said. “I’m from Houston.”
“Houston? What brings you up to Longview?”
“I’m a traveler.”
She laughed. “Well that is just delightfully ambiguous.”
He smiled at her again. “You’re a traveler too, you just don’t know it yet.” That smile made her feel…she didn’t know. “Here come the stallions.”
Stan and Steve were in their shirtsleeves, their fists wrapped with what looked like masking tape from their classrooms. They came out of different doors onto the blacktop, both looking angry in a way that was alien to their friendly faces. Nowhere to be seen was Paulien, though Mary imagined her to be behind a curtain in one of the classroom windows.
“Listen,” Mary’s new friend Frank said, laying his hand across hers. “I don’t have much time.” His touch was electric on her skin. Her temptation was to slap his hand away from her wrist, to deploy some of the foul language she’d learned from the men who taught her to fix her Buick. But she didn’t. Instead she found herself, what…enjoying his touch? She looked up from his hand to his eyes, which were locked on hers. She felt a flutter of…something? Who was this man?
“You’re touching me,” she murmured.
“Mary, I need for you to know me. I’m Frank.”
“I heard you the first time.”
“And we’ll meet six more times. Tonight you’ll finally figure out the machine you’ve been tinkering with.”
On the blacktop, Stan threw the first punch. Steve’s head flew back at a sickening angle. The crowd groaned in empathy.
“How do you know about my machine?” Mary whispered. Who was this man?
“It’s going to work better than you ever thought.” He was whispering too now. “It’s going to propel you forward through time and space at intervals you’ll have no control over. You’re going to hurtle toward the future like a stone skipping across a pond. You will be a traveler.” She opened her lips, but he held his finger up over them. “I know, because I’m also a traveler. I’m hurtling toward the past.”
Mary’s head was spinning. Mr. Good-Looking from Houston was telling her he was some sort of time traveler? And how did he know about her machine? Was this a joke? Did she dare to believe him?
“Mary,” he said, his voice low and sad. “I don’t expect you to believe me now, but you and I…we’re lovers. This…” His voice disappeared for a moment in a choke.
Steve finally landed a good blow, this one on Stan’s cheekbone, sending Stan staggering backwards across the black asphalt.
Frank continued, “This is the last time I’ll ever see you, Mary.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you told me. You told me this was the first time you ever met me.”
“When did I tell you that?”
“The first time I ever met you. In my research facility. In 2085.”
Stan and Steve had wrapped their arms around one another in that drunken lovers’ dance of boxers, staggering and bloody and holding one another up out of spite.
Mary whispered, “In 2085? I suppose there are flying cars then?”
Frank laughed. “No, no flying cars yet. But we’ve got computers like you’d never believe.” The humor left his eyes. “Mary, I beg you. Will you kiss me one last time?”
Steve’s fist was raised to deliver his best friend a quietus upon the brow.
Mary flushed. Frank drew in close and she hesitated. What would all the other teachers say about her smooching a dark-haired handsome stranger on the back of her car in broad daylight? As if he knew what she was thinking, he said “Don’t worry about them, you’ll never see any of them again.”
His lips locked against hers. It was the first time she ever kissed Frank and her kissed her like it was the last time in eternity.
Houston, Texas – February 14, 2087
“It is perhaps appropriate that we find ourselves journeying into the human heart for the first time on Valentine’s Day.” Frank was in his element, standing at the podium before the giant plexiglass window. In front of him sat the crew at their instruments, blinking and softly beeping reassuring tones. Arrayed above them: the gallery. There were easily 75 people seated up there: other doctors, local notables, wives of prominent physicians. Frank turned to the window behind him. Through it, illuminated by four incandescent spotlights, was the murky artery of Paul Schirp, IT specialist and patient at the Houston Biomedical Research Complex, Cardiac Division.
At said facility, Paul Schirp’s body lay in a surgery ward on the fifth floor. Observed from the outside, he seemed perfectly normal. And there was a legion of doctors checking for exactly that. Within Paul Schirp, however, cruising fast – maybe a little too fast – was the cell-sized craft designed and now piloted by Frank. It was Frank’s most recent triumph, physical travel through the body’s pathways, procedures where doctors could go themselves and look at the clogged pathways leading to the hearts of Texan men. The real coup was the shrinking technology, an algorithm Frank had stumbled upon drunk and scrawling the chalkboard at a pool hall. It was his big discovery of last year, the subject of his doctoral thesis, and had, at the fastest the Biomedical Research Engineering Department could manage, been completed for use twelve months later. It was a career-making technology, but Frank was already bored with it already. Protocol, however, demanded he pilot this inaugural mission, so here he was.
“We should reach the heart in the next thirty minutes,” he said for the gallery’s benefit. “We’ll be enjoying refreshments before then if you’ll join me in the aft cabin.”
Twenty minutes later his hand was worn from the steady pumping handshakes of the local medical elite. A few of their spouses gave him meaningful winks. He couldn’t have cared less for the adulation. He was itching to have the day done, to be back in his lab. He was working on something far bigger than this, no pun intended.
A chime sounded on the intercom. He excused himself from conversation with a former professor, and headed for the cockpit. A woman steered her way before him, her hand wrapped around a martini glass.
“You’re Frank,” she said. It was a declaration, not a question.
“That’s right. And you are?”
She extended her hand. “Mary. My name’s Mary.”
“And do I know you from the hospital?”
“No, this is the first time you met me.” She smiled at him warmly, almost…sadly?
“Well then it’s a pleasure.”
She looped her arm under his elbow. “No, the pleasure is all mine. We don’t have much time, but let me tell you all about it.”
San Francisco, California – 1976
Longview to San Francisco would have been strange enough in 1953. But a few clicks and whirs after she’d tightened that last screw with her Dad’s old flat head screwdriver she found herself not just in another place, but another time. How did she know? Well the hair, really. These men with their long hair and their mustaches. Their shiny shirts. Their strange jeans that poofed out at the bottom. All of these things pointed to a different time. That and the newspaper she found with the dateline “1976”.
Within about an hour Andy had found her. He seemed to just find people and pull them along in his wake to whatever the party of the week was. She was now firmly in his wake and sat gawking like a foreign tourist at the festivities around her.
They were in a huge apartment or hotel suite overlooking the city skyline and the bay beyond. Mary was perched on a stool, elbows on a tiled counter littered with empty glasses and bottles. The room was packed with people, many wearing sunglasses to ward off the dying rays of the sinking sun. They smoked and drank and did…other things. Mary watched as two sweaty red-eyed men sped through their conversation and stopped only to bend down to the glass table before them and sniff up some sort of white powder through a rolled up dollar bill.
When she’d first sat down and Andy was still at her side she’d asked what it was and he’d laughed, teeth pearly white in exultation of being visible to the surrounding world. “That, baby, is Co-caine! Don’t touch it myself, but it’s all yours if you want some.” She’d politely declined.
Andy. Andy Levine was, people kept telling her, the baddest bass player in the whole city, if not the entire world. “He’s going to re-revolutionize rock music, baby,” a man with tousled unwashed hair and dilated pupils told her. “That means, you know, he’s going to like evolutionize it.” But once he’d introduced her to the party, Andy had gone away, carried off by the eddies of conversation across and around the room and out through the far door.
“That’s where the set is,” a man’s voice said next to her.
Mary looked to her side, hoping to see a familiar face in this unfamiliar land. Perhaps the mysterious Frank? It wasn’t. It was a forty-something man with wiry hair hanging to his eyebrows. He had tired eyes. “That’s where they’ll shoot the show ‘Scotty the Skyscraper.’ This is the party for their premiere episode.”
He extended his hand, “Tom Jones O’Chopper,” he said. “I’m a stock broker.” He indicated his sports coat as if it was a badge of his career. “What do you do?”
“I’m a school teacher,” Mary said. “Though I guess these days I’m doing a bit of traveling.”
“Love to travel!” Tom said in a tone that could have been exclamation if it wasn’t so close to just exhalation. “I just got back from the Caribbean.” He leaned in conspiratorially. He smelled of gin. “That’s where the party favors came from.” He leaned back, proud of himself, but Mary could see a great weight of sadness pulling him down on the inside. It was so apparent on his face. “I was a stock broker down in the Caribbean just a few years ago. Made lots of money, thought about running for office. And my friend, my best friend, Ray-Ray was a hot sauce tycoon. He brought me to his friend Tito’s place on St. Algun Donde to talk about opening an investment account. Tito must have been into some serious shit because every drink I had at his bar was free and every corner of the room was stacked high with bales of ganja and blanco. I was supposed to be there for two days but one morning I was sitting at the bar next to this Trinidadian girl named Pearl who was telling me I had to take her to Miami and marry her and the jukebox started playing that John Lennon song about Merry Christmas the war is over or whatever…that’s when I realized it was Christmas. The sonofabitch snuck up on me.”
“That was the same morning Tito walked down to the bar, which was also where his girls cut the cocaine, and saw I was still there. With one eye closed against the bright light, wolfing down the last of the cold scrambled egg and stuffing the wedges of toast in his cheeks, he counted eight, no nine bottles of vodka scattered over the work surface and he said, ‘Stock broker! You makin’ me no money!’ And he packed a duffel bag full of cocaine and sent me to San Francisco. That’s how I got here. How about you little lady? I’m sure your story can’t be crazier than that.”
Mary was still trying to fathom half of the foreign things he’d recounted but she was able to murmur, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Mary looked over at him, at the sweat beading on his temple, and fought off an overwhelming urge to throw her arms around him and squeeze the sadness right out of him. But behind him she saw a familiar face. “Frank!” she exclaimed.
It was Frank all right, in the same shirt and slacks she saw him in sitting on the trunk of her Buick in Longview in 1953. He smiled, laying his hand on Tom Jones O’Chopper’s shoulder. “Excuse me, Tom.”
The stock broker turned, “Do I know you?”
“You will.” Frank looked past him. “Mary, care to join me on the deck?” Mary gladly took his hand and let herself be led out through the glass doors. She wanted to speak, but nothing came out. What was there to say? He meanwhile, kept a steady patter of party conversation. He was pointing off at a tall hill, saying, “It is thanks to the development of optical telegraphy, those giant semaphore systems mounted on windmills by the French, Prussians and other militarists, that previously unremarkable prominences were proudly renamed Telegraph Hill. Like this one here.” He slid the door shut behind them. “Enough of that.” He wrapped his arms around her and she felt at home in them. “Thank god you’re finally here.”
“What is this place?” Mary asked. “How did I get here?”
“It’s San Francisco, I’m sure you’ve surmised. And it’s 1976. We’re at a party that’s been going on for three days. In a little bit, they’re going to open up the studio next door to a waiting audience of little kids. And in that studio will be an entire television show crew out of their minds on drugs and booze. Scotty the Skyscraper, the star, who is supposed to walk around on stilts for the duration of the show, will stumble and fall in the second take of his opening monologue. He’ll knock over a bottle of vodka onto a mess of wires, a fire will start and following the dramatic escape of the studio audience and untimely death of the star, the show will be cancelled. You and I will be gone by then.”
“How do you know all this?”
Frank smiled at her and stroked her cheek like it was the most natural thing in the world. “You told me. In Morocco. About two decades from now. We’ll laugh about it then, but right now I need to get you oriented.”
“To San Francisco?”
“No, love, to traveling. You’re lucky, your first stop is short and I was here to greet you. Some other places you’ll be alone, and you’ll stay for long periods of time.”
“Why don’t you tell me where I’m headed next?”
He grinned. “Because, Mary, you asked me not to. It would spoil the surprise you said.”
She laughed. “Yeah that sounds about right.”
“We’re not the only travelers. There are the others, all moving different directions, at different speeds and intervals. You learn to recognize them eventually.” He pointed through the sliding glass door. “Those two right there, they’ve been in 1976 for months, but they’re both from the first decade of the next century.” On a couch just inside sat two thin animated young men with excited eyes and intertwined hands. One of them wore a dark suit with a lavender pocket square. The other wore ripped jeans no longer than his thighs, a purple t-shirt and what looked like a latigo wrapped around his thin waist. Frank pulled her face back to his. “It’s important I introduce you to them at this party.” He brought his lips close to hers. “Which is a shame, because I would much rather just spend the time with you.”
They called themselves Nick and Nora, Nick of the ripped-off jeans and Nora of the dark suit with the splash of lavender. Nora offered Mary a small mirror with three dusty lines of white powder. She politely declined. “You’re missing out, babe,” Nora said, his voice deep and sonorous. “It’s my absolute best.”
“It’s the finest of ashes to dust,” Nick added. “Nora makes it herself. Don’t you sweetheart?”
Nora, who did not appear to Mary to be a she, blushed. He said, “I work at the Columbarium of San Francisco. The left-over ashes get mixed into our little friend here.”
“It’s a positively mystical experience!” Nick interjected. “And nice for us to take a taste once in a while, not just the clients at the tranny Tom Waits show!”
Frank leaned in and whispered to Mary. “Tom Waits is a singer from the next few decades.” Mary watched as Nora’s eyes tracked the whisper.
Nora leaned in close. “You know Tom Waits. You’re travelers too, aren’t you?”
Frank nodded and Mary followed his lead.
Nora smiled. “Well then it’s our pleasure. We’re from 2000.”
“It’s such a futuristic year!” Nick exclaimed.
“But after a brief stop in 1991 we’ve been here in 1976 for months now. We had to set up little lives.” He looked at Nick. “Or at least I did. Some of us refuse to get a job.”
“I’m a trustafarian!” Nick said with glee. “Still living off Daddy’s money in an entirely different time! I spend my days on Haight Street, which, let me tell you, never changes much apparently.”
“When are you from?” Nora asked.
“2087,” Frank said.
“1953,” Mary said.
“Lovers from different times! I would have thought you were traveling together…but I guess most don’t. It get complicated with the children.”
“Not for us!” Nick grinned. “That’s the one good thing about being gay; all sex, no consequence.” He pantomimed a pregnant belly protruding from beneath his faded purple tee.
“Who here is closer to home?” Nora asked, looking between the two of them.
“I am,” Mary said. “This is my first stop.”
“Well then you’re lucky. Most people hit a few stops before they meet another traveler. There’s a whole culture of us.”
Nick paused, his head halfway down to the mirror he was holding up to it, “We’re like peripatetics of time!”
A woman squealed, rushing out of the kitchen. “I’m not entirely certain, but I think there may be a dead possum under the radishes in the vegetable crisper.”
“That’s our cue,” Frank said. “We should clear out.”
“What happens next?” Nick asked, still distracted from the mirror beneath him.
“In about ten minutes, they’ll try to start the show and it’s going to be a disaster.”
Nora laughed, “Oh we knew it was going to be a disaster. That’s why we came.”
Frank stood, pulling Mary’s hand up with him. “Cops and firemen disaster.”
Nora dusted off his suit jacket and rose. “Well we can’t have any of that, can we Nick?”
Frank kissed Mary on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon, love. And you’ll see me soon too.”
Istanbul, Turkey – 2048
His first night was a rough one. Frank had slept in a doorway accosted by a few representatives of the city’s legions of stray cats. The next morning, still finding himself in Istanbul and it still being 2048, he decided he needed to work out a living situation. He haggled himself a small room in a hotel with the old Euros he had stowed beneath the false bottom of his satchel. For a week he toured the city. He’d never been to Istanbul in 2087 so he spent most of the time looking at ancient ruins and timeless mosques, which only served to make him feel like building a time machine, had been unnecessary when he could have just taken a vacation.
Mary, the woman who had told him they were lovers, who had pressed against him in the supply closet of his ship when they were mere nano-meters from the aorta and begged him to kiss her for ‘the last time’, she had told him he could never know how long he’d be in a given time. Told him to prepare to feel marooned. “Especially at the next one,” she’d said with a wink.
So did marooned mean a week? A month? A year? He’d need to get a job.
He took a tour bus out of the city, to walk with the daytrippers through the forests on the Black Sea side of the Bosphorous. He needed to think. What could he do in this time and place? Bring them medical miracles? His tour group wound through a needle-strewn copse of pines, chattering in a Babel of different languages. What other advantages did he have? He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, thanks to the digital encyclopedia he’d wisely packed. He knew that in this time Turkey was mired in another struggle between Kemalists and Islamists. But what could he do with that?
His reverie was shattered by a woman’s scream from the front of the group. Before her a military man in full uniform staggered into the clearing, running, dripping blood, wailing with an inhuman sound. He was a captain by his markings, and he fell at their feet. Their eyes went wide with shock as they watched an affliction of starlings stream down from the heavens and devour the unsuspecting captain, leaving nothing but his gleaming, disenfranchised framework behind on the forest floor. Without thinking, Frank began snapping pictures.
The Day of Allah’s Birds was the day he signed on with the Associated Press as a freelance photographer. With his digital encyclopedia he knew the daily news events in the city, could always be at the right place at the right time. The money was good, he started to pick up a little Turkish, and time stretched long.
It was as a freelance photographer burdened with Cassandra’s knowledge of the future that he was both awaiting and dreading the G8 summit. He knew the outcome already: the traditional protests would give way to the Islamists and the Kemalist generals would play their hand too hard, too violently and the world would shiver at the bloodshed. It would end with the first unapologetically Islamist European Union government and that would eventually work out just fine. But those few days would be brutal, especially in the streets of Istanbul.
It was in those last few peaceful days he made acquaintance with Hadassah Lempeh, professional matchmaker and fortune-teller. They drank at the same bar at the same time every day and their familiar nods eventually led to conversation. She drank Efes, the local beer, snacked on calamari and Frank sipped the wine.
“You’re lost here,” she told him on the day before the G8 ministers arrived. “Not just in Istanbul. You’re lost in the world.”
“You could say that.” Frank tried to give Hadassah as little information as possible in case her fortune-telling skills weren’t just an income supplement to her waning business in matchmaking.
She shook her head. “I’m glad we made friends, boy. But I know it won’t last. My only friend is my food. Hence the cephalopods.” She gestured at her plate. “Trust me, old Hadassah knows a thing or two. You’re gone after this G-8 hubbub.”
She laughed. “This is a bad one coming. And I know bad times. I was in Seattle for 1999.” She sighed. “Years ago. I almost didn’t make it. Was still in jail on day one. I got nabbed driving north through Oregon. When the flashing lights flickered in the rear-view, I was hurtling down I-5 in Ruckus’ unregistered red pickup with a bag of weed in my pocket and an open fifth of Jim Beam beneath my seat, stacks of surreptitious photos of Seattle rooftops strewn across the dash, and the back filled with u-locks and climbing gear. So you don’t let anyone tell you old Hadassah doesn’t know a street action.”
Frank took a sip of wine, trying to mask the mathematics he was performing behind his eyes. Hadassah was what – 60? 70?
“Don’t go trying to calculate my age, boy. I’m older than Quetzalcoatl. But listen, this is what old Hadassah needs to tell you.” She leaned into him. “You’ll meet a woman. This is the fortuneteller talking. You’ll meet a woman in the gas. Now this is the matchmaker talking. She’ll be the wrong woman. The right woman will come two days later.”
On the next Thursday Frank met the wrong woman. Her name was Sora and they were both trying to negotiate an exit from a cloud of tear gas that obscured the source of the hurled rocks. They both carried cameras and they both wore bandannas and later, after they’d escaped to the Savoy for a drink, they both drank whiskeys.
Sora was Turkish, beautiful; she looked at him with smoldering eyes and talked fast in English like there was never enough time to say everything that needed to be said. He shared her cigarettes (she called them Zhong Nan Hais) on the porch of the Savoy in one of the few islands of tranquility in the city that day.
She explained her delicate situation as a Turk and as journalist. “My mother was a friend of an enemy of the people. My father was a government minister. Neither of them ever tried to sway me to their side. So I just ended up in the middle.”
The next day even the Savoy was washed over in the tide of uprising.
It was Sora’s picture that did it. The tank and the burqa and the child. It was the generals at their bloody worst, the country at its most vulnerable. Frank knew the picture, everyone did back in 2085. There wasn’t an award that photograph didn’t win in 2042, not a heart it didn’t stir. And it wouldn’t be for another two decades that the world discovered Sora wasn’t a photographer at all. That most devious of activists, the woman willing to martyr a child for her country. Frank chided himself for not recognizing the name in the context of the Istanbul Riots.
The next night at the Savoy, a Ulusal Kanal delivery van overturned and burning across the street, he’d turned from her and as he was walking away he heard her sob, “You know. You bastard, how could you know?”
It was Saturday night. He threaded his way through the streets, detouring away from firelight when he saw it and explosions when he heard them, eventually arriving back at his rooms. He looked up from his key ring, a small elephant carved out of bone, with silver tusks, worn smooth on one side where it had been hanging on his belt, to see a woman leaning against his doorjamb.
“How’s Sora?” she asked. “Take it hard?” It was Mary.
“How did you know?”
She laughed. “You told me all about it in Morocco.” She indicated the door. “You going to invite me in? Supposedly we’ve got a few hours before I’m off to Houston.”
Without hesitation, without even thinking about it, he kissed her. The right woman indeed.
Rome, Italy – 1984
She loved Italy. The eighties she could have done without, but this country was amazing. So much history at every corner. So much old in this future world. She avoided the angry smog-spewing small cars and violently backfiring buses and stuck to the monuments and ruins around every aged corner.
This had been a long stop for her. When she’d first arrived it had been 1983. That was three months ago. Before Rome and after San Francisco she’d had another week at the end of the 70s, in Boulder, and then spent two days of 1981 on the beaches of Antigua. She hadn’t seen Frank since San Francisco, but she found herself hoping he’d show up here in Rome.
She’d found herself a small community of fellow travelers. They drank at the American-style Harry’s Bar from the afternoons until late in the evening. She wasn’t sure what the rest of them did for their money, but she taught English to aristocrats’ children, which paid her well and let her off in the mid-afternoon, so she was always happy to join them.
They were a motley crew at Harry’s. Loud enough to drive off all but the regulars but regular enough to not attract reproach from the management (though plenty from the bar cat, Engelbert, who possessed only three legs and an undying love of the pot-bellied pig kept at the exotic pet store next door.)
The most tolerant behind the bar was Narcissa, who never spoke but to repeat back an order in confirmation. The one conversation Mary had had with her was a single sentence in which Narcissa tried to explain her name, “It’s an old family joke. A haha from my Papa.”
Today, as Mary entered, Narcissa was working, and she nodded to her. Mary was wearing a hand-knit vest that was her first personal project since she got to the 1980s. It kept her back warm despite the chill of the outside, but she noticed, left her arms in danger of the cold. At the bar were the constant companions Archie Goodwin and Chancellor Chamomile Teague. Archie was as small and thin as Teague was wide and round, and though they were travelers from different times, somehow the smaller man had ended up in the Chancellor’s employ. Which was useful for the Chancellor, who wasn’t much of a communicator.
Archie had explained to Mary when first she’d the pair, “There are three things you must know about Chancellor Chamomile Teague: first, he is always the principal actor in any story in which he is so much as mentioned; second, he is immortal; and third, though garrulous, he speaks exclusively in elaborate palindromes.”
To greet her entrance the Chancellor spun on his stool crying “Yo! Bottoms up, U.S. Motto, boy!”
Narcissa shook her head, wiping endlessly at the countertop, muttering “US motto boy” inflected as if she meant a lad who personified the peculiar spirit of America.
Hunched over the bar at the corner was the man who called himself Nicholas J. Pony, always using the full name. He was tall, olive-skinned and wore a simple white t-shirt and denim jeans. Englebert the cat favored him of all the regulars and sat perched on the bar above his bottle of beer. Nicholas claimed to live sideways in time, one of those rare travelers who’d figured out how to turn their vector through time into a sort of a loop. She assumed he was from somewhere to the future as he would spend his afternoons muttering about the musical selections in the bar. By way of greeting he said to her, finger pointing up at the house speakers, “The Talking Heads didn’t put out one good album after 1980.”
“Hey Nick,” she said, hugging him around the shoulders. “Can I have a glass of Primitivo?” she asked Narcissa.
“Primitive, oh?” Narcissa responded, her hand already reaching for the bottle.
Archie slid up next to Mary at the bar. “We’re so glad you’re here, doll, we’ve concocted a plan and we want your support!”
“Oh really?” Mary asked.
Teague called from the end of the bar, “Sue, dice, do, to decide us!”
Archie, turning to glare at him, said, “No, Chancellor, shan’t be dice. It’ll be Mary’s decision, right?” He turned back to her as she took her first sip of wine. “Now dear. Today, the Chancellor and I were engaged in a little haunting. With a solid dosing of a vicious little hallucinogen, we were in the company of fair-skinned red headed heiress to quite a substantial British fortune. She had long forgotten our presence, been tearing through her apartments for a quotation, and had given up to sit on her desk and stare at the patterns in the fire. And that’s when old Archie Goodwin stepped out of the aging pulp novel by Rex Stout that lay on open on the sofa, winked at the red-head perched on the desk, and offered her the services of his rather large employer before stepping into the looking glass above the fireplace; she shook her head and reshelved the title before putting out the lights. Shook her right up, I say!”
“You two are sick,” Nichols J. Pony said, without turning his head from his sip of Peroni.
“Well, I can’t say the Chancellor was much help. He dosed himself by happenstance and spent the evening beneath a massive Modigliani.”
The Chancellor nodded sagely, his eyes distant. “I roamed under it as a tired, nude Maori.”
“Yeah you’re a real savage type,” Archie spat. “This is the one who wants to go sit and wait for El Bulli to open back up since this is the year Adria joins the kitchen. Savage my foot!”
“What’s your idea?” prodded Mary gently.
“Right, of course. Well today, in our experiments inspired by implied zombification, what with us being the spirits of the long dead forebears to our dear heiress, see, the Chancellor and I thought what this dour little camaraderie could use was a crypt crawl!”
Mary looked at him and then at the Chancellor’s eager smile quizzically. “A crypt crawl?”
Nicholas J. Pony swung his stool around. “Like a pub crawl, but through the Catholic crypts?”
Archie nodded furiously. “Yes, yes you’ve got it!”
“Well that’s is just a pizza idea if I’ve ever heard one!” Mary assumed that in Nicholas’ time pizza had taken on an adjectival meaning. He used it often in that capacity.
That was how they found themselves first gallivanting through the catacombs of St. Callixtus, each with their own bottle of wine. Then later they were standing at a grate near the backside of the Vatican accompanied by Archie’s sometime lady-friend Andie. Andie was the proprietor of the tiny exotic pet shop next door to Harry’s that specialized in illegal specimens and police bribes. “I have a friend, a priest friend, he’s a client really,” her voice always moved fast, hyper, ebullient. “He needed a baby giraffe. It was more money than he could afford by the time we got it into the shop. It had to come through Africa you see, through my friend Elise. She runs a beauty shop, of course, with a sideline deal in pets. She paints toes and toads in Kathmandu.” Andie stopped for a split second to giggle at her own wordplay. “So the priest. So the priest, he showed me this place.” She lifted the grate at her feet. “This is the crypt of St. Peter’s. It’s where I saw the first John Paul’s body.” She giggled again, uncontrollably. “Of course I had to use the visitors’ entrance!”
They wound down the narrow stone stairs beneath cobwebbed arches and past the interred bodies of long-forgotten Catholic heroes, perhaps the Crusaders.
They found a good nook to lean back, pop their bottles open and partake in their libations. Nicholas J. Pony turned out his flashlight, plunging them all momentarily into dizzying darkness before he lit a candle and stood it up in a recess unoccupied by the dead. They smiled at one another like shy schoolchildren in the flicker of the flame. For once even Andie had nothing to say and Teague was without a palindrome for the occasion.
Mary looked around at the group. It was such a nice group of folks. Odd, surely. But she liked to believe this is why she became a traveler, why she set herself skipping across the surface of time, to meet people like these and share in experiences like this. She didn’t care about flying cars really, or how dissonant and inhuman rock music had become, it was just for moments like this. There was one thing missing though, she thought to herself. Frank.
Nicholas J. Pony wrapped his arms around her in a giant bear hug, lifting her a few inches off the ground. “We’re going to miss you, kiddo,” he said, grunting with the exertion of squeezing her so tightly.
“What do you mean,” she eked out.
“You’re about done here.”
She was startled by a scraping sound behind her, back in the direction of the street. Spooked, Archie moved to the candle to blow it out. A priest? A Crusader raised for revenge? “Don’t worry with the candle,” a voice called. “I’m here for Mary.”
Nicholas J. Pony released her and Mary ran toward the voice in the dark. “Frank!” she exclaimed. He wrapped her up in a hug of his own. “What are you doing here?”
“Sadly, I’m just passing through.”
“How did you find us?”
He smiled at her. She could just barely make out his features in the candlelight. “You told me on the train in the desert.”
She kissed him on the cheek. On his other cheek. On his lips. “I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been waiting for you to show up for weeks. I’ve got so much to tell you.”
“You will, not now though.” He kissed her back, a short sweet peck on her lips. “One thing, real quick. When you get to Morocco…I’ll be in the back of the train.”
Orlando, Florida – 2009
He’d been able to recognize Disney World when it suddenly appeared before him. He was in Fantasyland he guessed, and it was far too humid to be California’s Disneyland. Somehow, though, a tiny tyke of a girl had mistaken him for her Disney-appointed guide. Her name, he gathered, was Adeline, and she was there to be a princess for a day. After a few weak protestations and a few stern looks from the woman she called “Mimi” he’d given in and joined the tour.
For her special day, Adeline got to be dressed as her favorite Disney princess. She chose Belle from Beauty in the Beast. Somehow, though, Frank had ended up in the Sleeping Beauty dress. When he told the harried servants of Cinderella’s castle that he didn’t want to be adorned in the frills and lace they’d shook their heads and said, “At least you get tips, buddy.”
Adeline, standing on her child’s size tea party chair, regarded him with her tiny fist under her chin, a plastic wand protruding from it. She nodded her approval. “This way you’ll be fit as a fiddle for our foiree on Friday.” How do you tell a tiny princess it’s pronounced “soiree”?
The afternoon was spent in a constant loop of “It’s a Small World After All” broken only when the little princess had recognized one of her favorite singers striding across the park in a hooded sweatshirt and oversized sunglasses. “You’re Taylor Swift!” Adeline yelled, waving her wand while she ran full tilt to catch up with the young blond woman.
Many hours later, and long after Adeline had squeezed the breath out of all of them with her good-bye hugs, they were at a bar called Paradise Island. The night had turned fuzzy for Frank. He was still in the Sleeping Beauty gown, much to the amusement of the giant bar’s only other patrons, a huge contingent of Japanese businessmen. They were dominating the karaoke machine, doing their best with American rap. Spanoli, who was actually a mute, kept buying Frank shots of tequila. Beside him, Taylor Swift sipped from a ginger ale. Next to her sat a British man of Mediterranean complexion who introduced himself as “Lord Adonis” without any hint of irony. On Frank’s other side was an old friend of Spanoli’s who introduced himself as Tom Jones O’ Chopper.
Tom, who’d told Frank he looked familiar, was explaining to him how after a party in San Francisco in 1976 he’d sworn off having anything to do with cocaine. “They saved every last one of those kids in the studio audience, I tell you. But the looks on their faces, the flames dancing over Scotty the Skyscraper.” He shook his head at the memory.
Onstage, at the end of a rousing if unintelligible rendition of “Stand up and Get Crunk”, the karaoke jockey called for Spanoli.
“I thought he was mute,” Frank slurred.
“He’s a champion karaoke signer.” Taylor Swift said, smiling. “Signing not singing. He’s really the best there is.” Her smile was radiant.
“I say dear,” Adonis said over his martini. “How is it that your mute friend is a singing coach?”
Taylor Swift shushed him and turned to watch Spanoli. Frank couldn’t figure Adonis out. He was obviously rich, obviously British. When he’d learned Frank’s profession was medicine he’d said “Good man! I’m in the schools, myself.” But how he’d ended up there at the bar, leaning imperceptibly closer to the young pop star with each martini, Frank couldn’t tell.
O’ Chopper leaned in again. “Twenty years later, to the day, I swore off junk food.”
“Did you?” Frank thought he asked politely.
“Me and my buddy Trevor were at this bar in the Bahamas and ate a whole bowl of cocaine-laced Cheetos. We spent the night tearing the wallpaper off the walls of our hotel room. And ever since the unfortunate incident thirteen years ago, Trevor has suffered from a morbid fear of Cheetos. And I just gave up all junk food.” He slapped his belly. “Better for me anyhow!”
The karaoke monitor lit up with the song title: “Edelweiss – From the Sound of Music.”
“I love this one!” Taylor Swift exclaimed with a little clap.
The first strains of the signature Rogers and Hammerstein sound came through the speakers and onstage Spanoli began to move his arms in slow, waving motions. Frank watched, transfixed. Behind him Adonis said, “Miss Swift, it’s nearly the holidays, what say we go find some mistletoe?”
Frank turned to see Taylor Swift hold up a fist and say “Adonis, I’m gonna mistletoe your FACE.”
“Man, that Adonis never knows when to quit,” O’ Chopper confided. Frank’s head was spinning. “He loves those little pop stars. That’s not me at all, not Tom Jones O’ Chopper. You shoulda seen this little thing I had going in New York, just two stops down the Metro from me. She was like a mixture of Lady Gaga, Anjelica Huston, and Dom DeLuise all rolled into one; there was no way on earth I was going to miss my opportunity to rub the sandwich on her backside as soon as she stepped off the train.”
Frank wasn’t certain if O’ Chopper had said “rub the sandwich on her backside” or if that was what the tequila had made his ears hear, but he knew he had to get out of there.
He stood, wobbling, thinking he would find his way to the bathroom. A hand wrapped around his arm. “Can I have this dance, princess?”
“Mary!” he was pretty confident he didn’t spit on her as he said it.
She pulled him close. “Good news love, you’re almost done here.”
“Oh thank god!”
She whispered, her voice clear and sweet in his ear. “One thing. In Morocco. I’ll be in the back of the train.”
Morocco – 1999
The train came to a sudden stop in the empty desert. Beyond its greasy windows fell a magnificent sunset, cast across the dunes like an oil painting. At the front of the train the conductors yelled and cursed, joined by the occasional passenger. Every third or fourth window another passenger’s head emerged to shout questions about the train’s impeded progress. The final car of the train was the dining car, a red velvet baroque affair that had emptied out when the train stopped. Only two passengers remained at their small table, holding their champagne flutes aloft so that they caught the light of the dying sun and scattered it around the cabin as if through a jewel.
“To us,” Mary said, her face spread wide in a smile.
“To us, and Morocco,” Frank said, reaching across the table to take her hand.
The sun set in a final flare as they told one another of the places they’d been. What they’d seen in the places before they saw each other, what they’d seen in the places they’d been to alone. Both of them loved to watch the other speak, almost hated when it was their turn to recount and be distracted from the face of the other. From the face of their lover. They held hands as the light faded from the sky and the unlit train compartment descended into darkness. They watched one another’s eyes after they reflected no more light.
Fires lit up across the dunes when night fell completely. Small tufts of campfire dotting the space that had been sand in daylight. A steward came into the car to light candles. Mary asked him in French what they were stopped for. “The King has died today,” he told her. “King Hassan the second. This day will be a day of rest. No trains will move.”
“When did you pick up French,” Frank asked her.
“Not so long ago.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Frank could see her coy smile in the light of the candles on the tables around them. He leaned in and kissed her above their champagne-strewn tabletop. The steward left them and Frank pulled his chair around to Mary’s so they could sit together and watch the flickering of the campfires. Strains of a song of mourning drifted through the warm night air.
“How long do we have here?” Frank asked Mary.
“I don’t know, you never told.”
“That’s right. This is the first time we’ve ever been on the same page, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know anything you don’t know.” Mary loved the feeling Frank’s arm around her. The solidity of his presence.
Frank drank in the smell of her hair. “This is exactly where I want to be.”
She turned to him in the chair. “Me too. I hope this lasts forever.”
And they held one another that desert night amidst a pile of blankets on the floor of the dining car. They were both, as individuals, the happiest they’d ever been. They wound around one another like osculating circles and hoped the night or whatever remained of their time in this time, would never end.
Epilogue –Spain, 2135
It was a long jump from Frank’s warm grasp in 2085 to the frigid wastelands of 2135. It was a new ice age, she’d surmised, and possibly man-made. Men, as it were, seemed to be extinct, replaced by a post-human augmented version. They were genetically engineered for this cold.
The newspapers the day she’d arrived were full of headlines trumpeting the first alien contact. A whole new species out there in the even chillier cold of space and they thought the post-humans were their benevolent creator.
Not so benevolent, Mary thought to herself as she staggered across snowdrifts beyond the walls of the city once known as Pamplona. They’d seen her shiver beneath her hand-knitted Roman vest, knew her as not one of their own, and her sent her to die in the frozen wastes. Exactly the future race Mary would have expected humanity to become looking forward from 1953.
Daggered, she strode slowly through the ice, a long slow drip of gall and blood warming the insides of her vest, the vest she had devoted so much care to – care dripping off her forehead, pouring from her eyes, care sweating out of every conscious gland and orifice to congeal in a cascade down around her sleeves, grasping ripping behesting her to remove them oh so carefully and place them away from that treasured sleeve-unworthy thing – the vest she now bled her last carefully inhaled, sob-interrupted breaths into. She thought about Frank and she remembered Morocco, remembered his touch, and she knew he’d fare better in the past.
Epilogue –Virginia, 1862
Cruel fortune to be dragged away from Mary’s embrace in 1953. Crueler fortune to be cast so much further to the past. It was nearly a century prior by Frank’s calculations, if this was in fact the American Civil War. It was certainly a war of some kind, smoke rising around him and the smell of black powder clogging his nostrils. He ran through what seemed to be farm fields, dodging the whiz of musket balls overhead and desperate to find a path out of the heaviest fighting.
He hopped over the body of a Confederate soldier, ducking away from the charge of a Union cavalryman. At his feet, much to his surprise, he saw a man that looked like the twentieth century comedian Bill Cosby, surrounded by some sort of plastic foodstuff. The man was dead, couldn’t speak, but the note pinned on his chest said for him “I am Spartacus.” Time was slipping, Frank realized. Something, somewhere had gone terribly wrong. He had to get out of there.
A shot rang out in the distance, though Frank was unsure how he heard this one more clearly than the others. Likely because it was the shot that felled him. He crumpled to the moist soil beside Bill Cosby. “Pudding Pops” was what the label read on the plastic things surrounding him. Strange. Frank drifted and as he did, wished his love all the happiness of mankind’s better future.
The whole reason I’m doing Andrew vs. The Collective is because I wrote a book called The Collective. I wrote it, the first draft of it anyway, entirely in the month of November 2008. Why would I do such a thing? Because it was National Novel Writing Month!
I really credit NaNoWriMo (that’s the shortened version) with helping me to finish my first book. I am one of those people who really great at starting lots of projects but finds it difficult to bring them to a conclusion. Especially projects I’m doing on my accord, without threat of professional censure. That’s why, for me, NaNoWriMo was the perfect way to break through that “first novel” barrier.
So I wanted to offer two things in this post. My recommendation for first time writers who might be interested in undertaking a marathon November. And share what I learned about the process with any NaNoWriMo winners out there who might want to take their project all the way to printing.
November 2008: It was a crazy month. I work in news, so the election alone would have made it heady. Additionally it was the month everybody started laying off huge swaths of staff, and my company was no exception. In the midst of all that, I’d committed to write 50,000 words of fiction. How did I do it? I wrote all the time. Especially toward the end of the month when I felt like time was running out. I traveled a lot that month, so making it a part of a regular schedule, of my daily/weekly ritual, wasn’t an option. I was able, though, to write anytime I was in transit. (My favorite place to write the whole month was on the Amtrak from New York to DC. At sunrise.) They key to getting through it for me was just being determined to finish. I set a challenge for myself and goddamnit I was going to meet that challenge. The NaNoWriMo emails from other authors that kept bouncing up in my inbox helped motivate me too.
So what comes after 50K words? A lot of editing. A lot. I decided that if I could take a first draft all the way through, I might as well finish it completely. Edited and all. I thought it would take about 6 months. It took 12.
First draft to first readers: My first draft was a hot mess and I totally knew it. The end especially. When I was so close to 50,000 and it was November 30th and the conclusion to the story was fast approaching, my tapping fingers just started skipping crucial plot developments. I did a read-through a few weeks later, in January. But the real big next step was giving it to readers. I chose three close friends whose opinions I valued and gave them copies. Then I waited.
Notes!: My readers gave me good notes. Some were all along the same lines: It fell apart at the end. Others were just big brainstorms of ideas. The challenge at this stage was sifting through all these brilliant suggestions and then making some big changes out of them.
Here come the changes: It ended up that I had to re-write the whole back half of the book. I had this subplot that, at the end, became the main conclusion and the way it read it was really jarring. So, of 7 chapters, I had to throw out the final two (except for a few scenes here and there) and replace them with four new ones. Then I had to more or less graft those chapters onto the front of the book, sort of hand stitching the changes line-by-line into the middle two chapters.
Massive re-edit: Few things I’ve ever done in my life felt like they called for as much brainpower at one time as this process. You’re editing one line at a time and you’re watching your word choice, your punctuation, but also you’re watching the scene development, the chapter’s flow, and also you’re thinking about the whole story, the whole of each character, all of the big questions. Hard! But, also…a lot of fun and very rewarding.
And then it’s done: This might be the hardest part: saying it’s done. It’s over! Move on! Working with a NaNoWriMo book I think made this part easier. It wasn’t something I’d been working on for years. I hadn’t built it up in my head as my magnum opus. That made it easier to say “This is done, what’s next?”
Printing: I decided to not seek a publisher and to print it myself. I ended up going through Lulu, which is only one of several really great sites (Blurb, Createspace, etc). It costs money, so you’ll probably end up offering it for sale. I decided to do a Kickstarter to promote the book and to get it out there. (Which is going on right now).
Should you do NaNoWriMo? I’m going to go ahead and tack a “heck” onto that “yes”. If you’ve been telling yourself you had a novel in you for years, it’s time to get it out.
This is the first of six stories in “Andrew vs. The Collective.” It’s also available as a PDF here: Story 1-The Cannonball Run (much prettier, trust me). In this HTML version, what look like links are actually the submissions from the project’s backers. Roll over them to see who submitted what.
I was in the passenger seat of a 1976 Pontiac Trans Am and there was Burt Reynolds, driving. I want to be clear here: I am not Burt Reynolds. Burt Reynolds was Burt Reynolds, in the stretching but somehow ageless flesh himself. His famous leaden foot was deployed. The speedometer was at 93 mph. “This is a 1976 Pontiac Trans Am,” he said.
“I noticed,” I responded.
He turned to me and grinned. That megawatt smile of his outshone the glare of the setting sun behind him like I was in some sort of dream. His mustache was perfect. “Welcome back to the Cannonball Run.”
Was I dreaming? “Is this a dream?”
Burt’s eyes crinkled up in a smile as he turned his attention back to the road. “Son, that red-eye flight has knocked you senseless.” Burt Reynolds was right, it took four Ambien to sleep from Macau to Atlanta and I was still beyond groggy. I tried to focus my eyes on the Georgia kudzu whipping by, a carpet of creeping green draped upon a topography of hills, trees and roadside ditches. He continued, “Protocol is, last year’s winner gets a personal escort from old Burt Reynolds himself. You’re not going to have an ‘And then he woke up and realized, it had all just been a dream’ moment. Burt Reynolds promises you that.”
Last year’s winner. That was me. The white-knuckled, white-haired banshee of overland long distance speed. I took the Cannonball 2016 with two hours over my nearest competitor. I found the only café in that last Patagonian town and sat sipping Malbec just waiting for anyone to make a footrace out of the final twenty feet.
“How old are you, son?”
I drifted back into the present. “How old are you, Burt Reynolds?”
“Son, I’m always 39.” He bared those teeth of his again. “I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that you got more white up top than the Rockies in winter.”
“That’s why they call me Mont Blanc,” I said. “It’s premature gray.”
“Ah,” Burt said, thoughtfully stroking his mustache. “These days you just can’t tell.” His smile broke for a second. Not the smile itself, that remained. Its enthusiasm, that Burt Reynolds élan behind the smile, disappeared like a wink. I’d lost him. He was in some private Burt Reynolds space now.
I studied the side of his face. It was amazing, his youth. If I had to guess I would have put his natural age in the 80s. Even in the 90s. But time seemed to have stopped for Burt Reynolds. Like so many of his generation and those that came after, Burt was a lucky beneficiary of the gene therapy advances of the last decade. His middle age suddenly stretched long and luxurious, sprawling over the years like an odalisque in triumphant display.
“I love it back here,” Burt said, arising out of Burt’s World. “The quiet highways. I was from down here, you know?”
“Hell yeah, boy. Played football at FSU. Go Noles.” His hand was raised from the steering wheel in a half-hearted Indian chop. His eyes were distant. “I like these roads because they seem long and endless, but you always know where you’re going. You know how long it’ll take you to get there.”
I looked at him to respond but realized we weren’t having a conversation. This was just Burt Reynolds talking. Like I was the camera and this was his monologue.
“Life used to be like that, you know? Long stretches of pure blacktop like they could go on forever, but you always knew where you were headed. You always knew how far it was you had left.” He paused. His voice was quiet, scratchy. “Not anymore, man. I tell you what.” He turned to me. “I mean, how many more times can you win the Cannonball in the next 100 years, my man?”
I didn’t know what to say. Inexplicably, agelessness was giving Burt Reynolds an existential crisis and the roads of Georgia were only making it worse.
By the time the car swung into the gravel driveway in Jacksonville, Georgia, the unassailably cool façade of Burt Reynolds had returned. He gave me a little punch in the arm as we got out of the car. “Go get ‘em tiger.”
My Italian cowboy style boots crunched in the gravel beneath me as I took in the parking lot of Boone’s Saloon. Encircling a brick and aluminum shack were at least two-dozen pickup trucks, some at their god-given normal height and others jacked higher than a man could take his seat without a girlish hop. Each truck was an island of smokers, most populated with baseball-capped young men and the jean-shorted and halter-topped young women that clung to them.
Amongst this archipelago of American-made machinery sat the occasional sports car. Some were flashy, obviously expensive, flagrant. But there were the others too, the ones I could tell with nary a glance under the hood that they were machines with some real muscle. These cars, so foreign to this gravel parking lot and its Friday night Bud-swilling crowd; these were the cars of my compatriots. The cars of the Cannonball Run.
It was my fifth year in the race. My first race was from sea to shining sea. But then the 50 states weren’t enough. Cross-Atlantic in 2014. Island hopping Cross-Pacific in 2015. Last year was an All-Americas Alaska to Patagonia. And last year I won it. Alone. That was the only way I raced.
I swung the bar door open and a wave of stale beer, disinfectant and Hank Williams, Jr. washed over me. It was Raoul who saw me first. “Fuck! Fuck!” he yelled, the Tourette’s getting to his tongue before my name could. He waved his single ghostly white arm high above the crowd, reaching toward the back of the room like it was one of the basketballs he was paid to palm by the Ukrainian National League. “Ever’ body! It’s Mont Blanc! He’s here!”
Mont Blanc. Let me explain. In this room Raoul was the only one taller than me. And he is a freak of height (as well as other things: albinism, Tourette’s, arm loss, etc.). I’m 6’10”, rail thin and my hair went white at 24. I rise above the foothills of my peers like a solitary snow-capped Alp. Hence the signature name derived from my signature pen: Mont Blanc. The White Mountain. (It sounds much better in French.)
I raised my hand in humble salute as a cheer went up around the room. They were all here: Celia Escobar, Jayce ‘Martini’ Mullis, Jake Black, Baby Girl Kelly, Raoul, and of course: Don Franco. He parted the crowd like Moses to get to me first. It was his duty as race master to greet the defending champion and it was his right as the revered Don Franco to have first crack at warmly pumping my hand.
“Mont Blanc,” he said, looking up with eyes alive with excitement and cognac, his giant hand wrapped around mine. He turned to the room, my hand still gripped in his and called above the crowd: “MONT BLANC!” They cheered.
I tried to make my way through in Don Franco’s wake, but the crowd closed around me with backslaps and handshakes. Jayce Mullis was the first to grasp my hand. A man as small as I was a mountain, he’d made his fortune with an afterhours Chicago nightclub known for ‘the best martinis after 3am.’ He traveled with his own martini glasses, closed up in a felt case like pool cues. He drove with a hand grasped around one of these and almost never finished a race. Rarely a challenge, but always present. His eyes were narrowed at mine in challenge.
At Mullis’ side was Baby Girl Kelly, the voice behind the R&B chart-topper “Get Steppin’”. Well, the voice behind the autotune behind the chart topper. There was a moment, not but a few years before, that she couldn’t walk into a place like Boone’s without being mobbed by college-aged fans. That was a time since passed. She towered over Jayce Mullis and, it was rumored, lived off his money. She gave me a hot-breathed kiss on my cheek.
Next to her I noticed an unfamiliar face: a mute and mysterious mustachioed man. He didn’t offer his hand, only his glare, but that was quickly interrupted by the boisterous handshake of Jake Black. Jake’s net worth was more than the sum of all of our money with millionaire Don Franco as an exponent. He was an unapologetic, unrepentant inventor of financial derivatives, the same instruments that dethroned the United States from its place of global economic prominence in the aughts. He was a heavy drinker but generally tolerated. “It’s great to see you!” he all but yelled in my ear. “It’s been a long year! Hell my liver hasn’t been this pickled since the New Orleans Saints won their first Super Bowl in oh-ten!” He spun away from me, already dizzy from drink, and his elbow connected with the nacho plate of a tall brunette in a silver bodysuit.
“You’re lucky I have this hot dog in my purse, otherwise you’d meet a fate worse than leprosy,” growled Celia Escobar, pulling more food from the handbag draped over her shoulder. She and her lover Miriam Atwater were the next to offer me their greetings. They had met at a Renaissance Faire, two tall thin awkward teenaged girl elves and had formed a bond that proved inseparable in the years since. They trained animals, Celia large dogs and Miriam wild circus cats. Together they drove like the animals of their work. Last year they’d been two miles ahead of me in the Amazon when their Lamborghini was spiked by the detritus of an accidental aerial defenestration. A single pen (no, not a Mont Blanc) flew clean through their engine block. A lucky break for me and a yearlong grudge for them. They greeted me with ice-cold handshakes and steely eyes.
“Before we begin,” Don Franco was calling ahead of me, “a drink! One for the White Mountain and one for me: a perspiring, beseeching, ambrosial libation for Don Franco!”
Before long I was on the rickety wooden stage with Don Franco. Behind us a Dixie flag was scrawled with the words “The South Will Rise Again”. In my hand was a cool bottle of Mexican beer. I sat on a chair facing out at the crowd, cheering and raucous as Don Franco built them up. Against the door, Burt Reynolds held up a can in salute.
“You are the greatest of racers!” Don Franco cried. “You are the gasoline that fuels the fires of legend! You, my friends, you are the Cannonball!”
They exploded in rapturous adulation.
“Let’s talk details folks. Last year was a fine overland race. My dear friend Mont Blanc here towered above the competition.”
Some applause, some joking boos at the pun.
“So this year we go above the mountains. This year we combine all of our routes, our overland, our ocean racers, and our aerial bests for the very first Air-Land-Sea Cannonball! This year we go clear to the other side of the world! This year…we race to China!”
Applause exploded through the room.
“Our final destination will be Jining, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. A deserted city surrounded by desert. You can take whatever direction you prefer; whatever routes suit your fancy, with one condition. As Captain Floyd taught us over the Atlantic…” all eyes turned to Captain Floyd, a dour ex-astronaut and Cannonball winner “…all one needs do to get around the world is shoot into orbit, wait a few seconds for the Earth to spin and then drop back down.” Laughter. “So along the way you must check in at three points. There is a list online. You’ve got one hour, gather your teams and finalize your strategies.” Groups were already huddling around their phones in tight groups of two or three. Don Franco was smiling. He lived for this. “Let’s have some entertainment!” he called.
I descended from the stage passing a lithe young girl in a straw cowboy hat and denim skirt. I needed to find a dark corner to go through the way stations. Everyone had known it was an air-sea-land race this year and I’m sure they’d spent months on their amphibious aerial vehicles. I had my own plan, a simple one: it was an American Express Black Card. After Patagonia I took my winnings and I flew to Macau. I made money on blackjack until they wouldn’t pay me in cash anymore. It only took Amex seventh months to find me. Between that card and my signature pen, I was set. Let my compatriots figure out how to put wings on their favorite Mustangs.
I found a lonely stool in a dark corner, illuminated only by the neon of a Pabst sign. As the click and buzz of an instrument plugging into the PA sounded from the stage, I was thumbing through a hacked-together travel program on my phone. The long, jangled strain of an electric guitar chord draped itself over the barroom. I was booking a car service back to the Atlanta airport from a disreputable-looking vendor I thought could be bribed into driving over 100mph.
The music, when it began, was hard charging and angry, chord after quickly changing chord of electric angst. I stole a look at the denim-skirted girl with the guitar slung across her, attacking it furiously. Her hair flew about her face like a cloud of bees. She began to sing.
I drive a mini-van and a Ford pickup / a Lava Red / Fuel Injected / Custom Harley / and you shall know me / for I am a Recovering Pharisee.
It was an impressive performance. Her energy pulled the Cannonballers away from their ministrations, attracted their eyes.
I’ve enjoyed the Caribbean and the Irish Sea / The Pacific, The Atlantic / their waters all baptized me / and you shall know me / For I am a recovering Pharisee.
A hand grasped my arm. “Mont Blanc,” a woman’s voice whispered in my ear. “What a pleasure.” Alice.
I was brought up from ashes raised from dust / Born at night, not last night / And you can trust / that you’ll know me / For I am a recovering Pharisee.
Alice. My last love. The belle of the ball. I’d met her at 23, after a modeling career, a jock husband, and two children all abandoned. When I’d met her she’d moved through life like a wrecking ball. A juggernaut that stopped for no emotion, even if it was the broken heart of a White Mountain. “Why, hello,” I said.
“That’s it? I was expecting something a little more vituperative.”
I have it all, the life the wife / but it’s all a loss to the Rugged Cross and what I learned at its feet. / Take it from me / it’s plain to see / when you’re a recovering Pharisee. WHEN YOU’RE A RECOVERING PHARISEE.
“She’s yours, isn’t she?” I murmured.
Alice’s blue eyes were electric. “All mine. Her name’s Elsa.”
“She a little intense,” I ventured.
“She’s a true believer,” Alice said, watching her lover convulse on stage. “Not that you’d know anything about that.”
Alice had cast me aside as her last foray into the world of men before she became a connoisseur of the finer sex. She liked wild young things. “What are you up to now, Alice? What are you doing here?”
Now she was looking at me. “Same old,” she smiled.
“You mean you’re NOT spying for the US government?”
Elsa, on stage, was a flurry of final chords.
“That’s correct. NOT spying.”
“And so how does NOT spying bring you to the Cannonball starting line?”
“I’m racing.” This was a first. Alice looked down on the Cannonball, had derided my passion for it. “And I’m racing with you.”
I laughed. “Alice,” I began, my hands out. “I race alone. It’s what I…” I noticed her hand protruding from her purse. In it was a small black pistol.
“There’s money in it for you, but I figured this would be more direct.”
“And Mont Blanc, at the lead of a surprising team of three!” Don Franco held my timecard extended, a grin behind it. “I’ll see you in China,” he said. I took it, gave a shy wave to the cheering crowd of contestants and bemused Boone’s regulars and then I climbed into the black town car idling next to me.
In the back sat Alice and Elsa, in the front our driver. “Atlanta Hartsfield, no less than a hundred the whole way,” I said, the steel of competition suddenly the composition of my voice. I noticed Alice’s hand was still in her purse, gripping her pistol. She needn’t worry, I thought. I never could say no to Alice. And besides, now I was all race. Every atom of my being was competition.
Our first waypoint was Washington where we were to meet with our designated timecard stamper Captain Floyd, former NASA astronaut and now NASA bureaucrat. On the plane, once Alice and my arguments over our itinerary faded to a muted contrition (I accepted we’d go St. Petersburg instead of Bishkek for our last stop) we began to catch up.
I had done much of nothing. Won the Cannonball. Moved to Macau. She’d done little she could discuss. Except Elsa, who was asleep on the cushions in the back of the plane. “I met her on a Friday,” she said. “In a Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. In the women’s bathroom.”
“You’re really the classy one aren’t you?”
“I was taking a dance class. Salsa. For an assignment. That bathroom always put me on edge. There was a hinge loose on the door and it never quite shut properly. I was washing my face when Elsa walked in. She just stared at me in the mirror, right in the eyes. We could hear children being led in Shabbat songs. But we were silent. Then she said to me, ‘I’ve always thought something should happen in this bathroom.’”
“And then something happened,” I said.
“I got her number, that was all.” Alice leaned over her seat and looked back to Elsa, enjoying the view. “I tell you, the moment I knew I loved her was the first time I ever saw her sing. She’s a creature that cannot stop. That devours the time before her like Kronos, like there’s a real end to life and it’s soon. Watching her on that stage in San Francisco I knew. In the windswept browtightened focus of her terrible inertia, her inabilities shed as rumors from the confident – she moved ever forward, a ravenous pattern filling gulfs of wary thought, the flux of her environment echoing the Schröodingeric implications of radical internal shift, parts melding and exchanging, unstable form, neon force blinding as what once were feet – now a referential grounding – quaked eras through the gathering blur of behindness, repetition and all that was left by this surge of pastself atomic coalescence, nothing for the history but a hypokeimenic smear on what this quest would leave unrazed.”
“Jesus, you love this girl.”
“And she loves Jesus.”
I rented a car at Reagan National; positive I saw the swaying platinum blonde extensions of Baby Girl Kelly high above her two companions in the snow-delayed crowds. We tore down the Beltway and through the empty snow-swept streets to the drab gray stones of Captain Floyd’s office.
He was inside, in the lobby, with a newspaper.
“Paper says it’s snowing today,” was his greeting.
“Yep, sure is, Captain Floyd,” I said, anxious.
“Haven’t seen snow like that since Mars.”
He stood, a tall thin man whose gray temples were beginning to wrap around the back of his head. He had the pallor of a man exiled to the District of Columbia. A tint of skin tone that seemed to infect his soul.
He pointed to a photograph. “The Coca-Cola Mars mission of 2015. That’s me, right there on the top of Mons Olympus.” It was grainy, there was no way to tell who was inside that bulky spacesuit bedecked with the famous Coca Cola cursive, but I believed it was he. And all around him was what looked like snow.
“It snows on Mars?” I asked, momentarily distracted from my heart-pounding desire to get the hell out of there and off the continent.
“Carbon dioxide. It’s not really snow like we know it. Can’t stick your tongue out under it. But hell it sure looks like it, don’t it?” His eyes went wistful. “It’s a totally different world, Mars. I mean that literally and figuratively of course.” He pointed at another spacesuit to the left of his. “That was Falk. Ben Falk. Great kid, but never came home. Right after this picture. He was trying to bag a sample and the zipper snagged. Tore through his whole damned suit. All we had was duct tape. Like Mars cares about duct tape. Last of the corporate missions because of that kid.”
I got the feeling that life stretched long and endless for Captain Floyd these days. I didn’t envy him. He reminded me of Burt Reynolds.
He took my time card from me, checked his watch and began to sign it. But then he stopped and looked up, eyes misty and distant. “If they can make ridiculous products like glue out of horses…why can’t they make something logical, like duct tape out of ducks? Sorry. Morbid. You should get going.” He collapsed on his lobby bench again, out of reach of the hug that my heart demanded I wrap him in. I settled for a handshake, closing my hand atop his and squeezing it hard. Captain Floyd: Cannonball winner to bureaucrat zombie. I had to get out of there.
“It was almost the same thing Burt Reynolds was saying,” I was telling Alice. Elsa sat next to her in her white halter-top, her bare shoulders freckled and hunched over a plate of cheese and grapes, which she shoved between her teeth.
“You think Captain Floyd feels old?” Alice asked, bringing my eyes back to her.
“Not old. But that life is too long.”
“There was a study that said depression in seniors is on the rise since gene technology.”
“Right, what to do with your life when the timeline of the whole thing shifts?”
Elsa’s voice surprised me. “It’s not my place to say, but this is what happens when man tries to slap the hand of God. Man finds himself unmoored from the things that have given him identity, given him a reason for being. Extending your life to be closer in age to the Lord, to see from the Lord’s perspective, this comes with consequences.” She burst a grape between two canines. “Though any of us could be hit by a truck tomorrow, so it’s bullshit anyway.”
Alice’s eyes, meeting mine, seemed to say Isn’t she the cutest?
Our contact in Geneva was another former Cannonball winner. Or two rather: The Prezbylewski Twins. They were brilliant Renaissance men of science: engineers, geneticists, mathematicians and more. In the Cannonball across the Pacific they’d designed a submersible vessel outfitted with a jet engine.
We met them at a building that sat on the shore of Lake Geneva, glittering in the crisp light of the sun, the mountains’ reflections extending into another underwater range in mirror.
The Prezbylewski Twins were Canadian by nationality, completely unfathomable by ethnicity. Somehow they were identical, but one of them, Tick, was white while his brother, Tack, was black. We were walking through the foyer of what looked like a laboratory facility and they were telling Elsa the story of their improbable birth. It was their favorite story. Tick was speaking: “Presented with the infant fetuses, the mother and the father were completely flummoxed. The Doctor told the troubled parents, ‘The odds of a mixed race couple conceiving fraternal twins are low; lower still are the odds that the fetuses would exhibit such widely disparate complexions, with one child phenotypically white and the other child phenotypically black; but, my God, for the fetuses to display such overt hostility toward one another while in utero, even going so far as to subdivide the uterus… I’m afraid I’ve never seen anything like this before – this is prenatal apartheid.’”
Tack began to laugh. “These infants, bitter rivals in the womb, soon realized the potential of partnership and drew up an agreement to share in accolades and honors.”
The brothers grinned in unison, a mirrored expression across two hues of skin.
Tack spoke to Alice, “You’ve been writing?” The last they’d met her she’d been undercover as a blogger specializing in South Asian politics.
“No, working on a research project. Combing back issues of Siriththiran magazine looking for the crippling flaw in the Tamil Tigers’ cultural strategy.” Alice’s ability to lie on the spot was as superhuman as her ability to exude confidence while doing so.
Tick shook his head. “I’ve never been much for separatist politics. While I’ll admit to occasionally looking in on your linguistic shenanigans, I hardly know what I could add to any such posts.”
Before us, Tack pulled open a heavy iron door. We passed through the portal and I found myself almost bending in half. Knowing the brothers’ penchant for submersibles I was unsurprised to glance through a window to our side and see a fish flit by.
I normally would have been hopping from foot to foot in maddened anxiety at the slightest delay, but my competitive steel was itself competing with a new inexplicable ennui. I kept hearing Burt Reynolds’s words in my head, deep in my heart: “How many more Cannonballs can you win?” It was dulling my edge.
While Tack searched for a pen, Tick stooped to pet a small black mongrel of a dog. “Cute dog,” Alice said. I could hear in her voice that she had the anxiety to leave that I lacked.
“This is Blackie,” Tick explained.
“Blackie the dog,” mused Alice.
“Blackie the dog was not actually a dog,” Tack interjected. “Before last year.” From her place looking out at the fish, I could see Elsa grimace with distaste.
Tick, his fingers behind Blackie’s ear, scratching furiously, cooed, “You’re a good kitty, good kitty. We’re all kitties here, aren’t we? Aren’t we?”
“That’s what you’ve been working on?” Alice said. “Pet-mixing?”
The twins smiled wryly, just the right and left halves of their mouths, respectively. “Mammal-mixing,” Tack said, returning with a pen. “Sea monkeys are not primates after all. But yes, genetic experiments.” He sighed, signing my timecard. “Life stretches long, dear.”
We landed at a private airstrip on the frigid outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia and Alice produced passports for each of us, emblazoned with the crest of the European Union.
“When we meet Kasparov,” she said, “you let me do the talking.”
So this was why she was along. Garry Kasparov, chess legend turned Russia’s only opposition leader, was our St. Petersburg waypoint. I’d never known he was involved in the Cannonball, but Alice must have known ahead of time.
Our limo was bedecked with a flashing blue light and high-pitched siren and tore through the snow-lined streets. My head up against the cool pane of the window, I did something I rarely did in a race: I thought. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking, really. Thinking about Burt Reynolds and life. I was barely into my thirties. When I was a child and I thought about long life, I imagined it stretching to 100. When you’re a child and you imagine 100 years in which to accomplish the things a man must, you divide it into quarters. What will I accomplish in each of my four sets of 25 years? But now, medicine had intervened. Now I had more than four sets of 25. My math was all off.
Alice’s voice shattered my reverie. “Here,” she said. It was her all-business voice. She opened the door hard and wide, almost knocking a sleeping transient from a snow pile.
Garry Kasparov was in a red bathrobe when he opened the door to his flat. His thick gray hair strived to point in every possible direction away from his head, his eyes were crusted over in sleep; he wiped at both with little effect. “You are the Cannonballers,” he said in heavily accented English as he walked from us toward the kitchen. “Let me find my pen.”
Alice gave me a stern look and then darted around the apartment, checking the undersides of tables, lamps, and the backs of chairs. For what, exactly? As Kasparov walked back toward us with a cup of cloudy tap water, she strode toward an old stereo and flipped it on. The music was classical. I believe it was Shostakovich. She turned it high. The flutes, when they entered, made me wince.
“Kasparov,” she hissed. “We don’t have long.”
Kasparov’s eyes tightened as he watched her approach. He took a sip of water.
“Now is the time. You will run for President of Russia again. The US will support you in secret. We will get you elected. Putin is finally weak.”
Kasparov shook his head. Standing there in his bathrobe, he looked like a tired, tired old man. He walked away from Alice, flicked a switch on the stereo and Shostakovich disappeared in a sudden and surprising silence. It was Kasparov’s growl that filled it.
“You foolish American spies. How many times can you offer me this same false promise? Let the hidden microphones listen, I don’t care.”
Alice’s eyebrows rose in surprise. This was not in the plan.
“You know this used to be Shostakovich’s apartment?” he asked, rhetorically. “During the siege, during the war. He would lie in that bedroom, in my bedroom, and whisper against Stalin. As if Stalin were really the problem. In the weeks before he wrote the Leningrad Symphony he considered turning. Offering the city up to the Germans and the Finns with himself as mayor. But one morning he found something that changed his mind. About that and about a lot of things. Clipped to his bike, he found a strip of yellowed graph paper with neat handwritten text that fit between the small grid lines, “Οὔ με πείσεις, κάν με πείσεις.” Ancient Greek: “even if you convince me, you’ll never convince me.” He believed it was from the city. Maybe from Mother Russia herself. Some Russian intelligence deeper, more insidious than Stalin, than the Communist Party and the Politburo, something before even the Tsars. That’s really what the Leningrad Symphony is about: the Mother in Mother Russia.
Kasparov walked to the window, drew aside the curtain, and looked out into the dim light. “And why would I want to be President of this horrid country, anyway. It has been eating away at its own insides since Yeltsin. Food is always scarce, too expensive. Street violence is out of control, even here in St. Petersburg.” He turned to us, his face a portrait of exhaustion. “I never knew, until now, that watching a nearly dead hooker foam at the mouth could be considered a sport. It’s disgusting, this city.”
He walked to me. “You are Mont Blanc. It’s unmistakable based on your description. Let me use that famous pen of yours and then you can take your foolish friends away. I will stay here, kept alive by the scientists of Mother Russia to live in eternal opposition, my life stretching long and endless before me.”
Alice, her eyes stoked cinders, turned and said, “Elsa, Mont Blanc, wait outside please.”
I generously took her to mean outside the door where it was warm and not outside the building where it was below freezing. Elsa and I leaned against the banister waiting and listening to the steady clump of a resident’s ascension as it neared us.
The man, when he appeared, was preceded by a white-tipped cane. His head was drooped as if he were studying the floor through his dark black glasses. He would have been if was not so obviously blind. “Did I hear Shostakovich?” he asked us by way of introduction. His accent was Western, possibly American.
“A few minutes ago, yes.”
“Ah, he’s a favorite. Sometimes you have to play something other than ‘Oklahoma’. Even if they’re paying you for it.”
“Anything from Broadway. It’s what pays the bills.” He had angled his face up to mine now, though his eyes would have been pointed at my chin behind those glasses. “You’re here about the television, I assume? To install my cable?”
“No, just passing through.” I looked at Elsa who had fixed her bored, distracted gaze on the back of the piano player’s head.
“Passing through,” the man muttered as if turning over something in his mind. “Right, right.” He touched me on the arm and began to speak fast and otherworldly like some sort of daykeeper: “You’re about to give up on something. An award of some kind. You’re looking for an answer. You’ll find it in the snows.”
The man didn’t reply; he swung his cane out and rounded the banister to continue his climb. Before I could call out another question the door swung open in front of us. Alice’s hair was askew, her eyes were intense and her lips were tight.
“Svalbard,” she said.
“You don’t know!” Kasparov yelled from behind her. “It’s the most powerful computer on Earth! Trust me, I’ve battled the worst!”
“We’re making a Svalbard Run,” Alice continued.
It was just outside that the mute, mustachioed man attacked us with the knife. He leapt from behind a snowdrift and would have been wrist deep in my spleen but for the surprisingly quick karate chop of Elsa. I had been protesting to Alice that there wasn’t a charter service in the world that was going to fly us from St. Petersburg to Svalbard in the year’s waning months. Her response, post-karate chop, was to discharge two bullets into the coat of the mustachioed man, using his own girth to muffle the report. “This one’s with Baby Girl Kelly and Jayce Mullis,” she said. “Whatever transportation they’re using, it’ll be ours.”
“We’re going into the Global Seed Vault,” Alice was telling me. “Can you handle a gun?” I shrugged. “Of course you can.” She pressed a small, cold lump of metal into my palm. “Just don’t use it to shoot me.” She smiled. I forgot that Alice enjoyed times like this. She turned to Elsa, who was up against the railing. “We’ll need one for you too, sweetheart.”
Elsa’s face was different. Still impassive, still impenetrable, but no longer distant. Elsa was alert. She was here with us now, and her hand was emerging from her coat pocket with something. “No, dear. I have a gun.” Her Southern lilt was gone, replaced with something undeniably Russian. “I cannot let you near the Svalbard Vaults.”
Alice hissed, “You’re a double agent! You bitch!” She leapt at her, feline in the air as Elsa squeezed off a shot that went wide, missing Alice’s now airborne golden mane by a centimeter. Then Elsa’s hand was down, slapped against the railing once, twice, and her gun clattered away. Alice had her firmly in her grip. The things she wanted to say did not match any words she knew of – not in English, not in any language – and yet she felt compelled to vocalize them, and so she said: “I love you.” And then she hefted her over the side.
Elsa’s body fell somewhere in St. Petersburg.
Baby Girl Kelly and Jayce Mullis had outfitted their airship well. It had a full bedroom/bathroom suite. A kitchen, or galley, I suppose. They had stored bottle after bottle of Cristal, filled the freezers with frozen steaks, even stocked the cupboards with tiny cans of Vienna Sausages. They packed lemons and pemmican against scurvy. They’d also stuffed the closets with every type of outerwear imaginable, and Alice and I donned all of it.
Above decks the sky had turned to the darkest of cloudless nights. The sun was gone from here not for the night but for the next few months. We flew by GPS as I tacked through squalls and gusts, eyes squinting behind thick snow-skiers’ goggles.
With this diversion I knew we’d given up the race. We wouldn’t beat anyone to Jining, China even if we managed to survive Svalbard. And somehow, I found myself not caring. I’d slipped into an emotional torpor. About the Cannonball, about my life of racing, about my life at all. My soul felt as black as the night around us.
After a few hours, Alice waved to me from the foredeck. Off in the distance through a haze akin to that of a nuclear winter she could just make out the seemingly lifeless body of a child. Upon closer inspection, circling above, we saw it was a bear cub, dead from the elements. He’d been clawing at an iron door as if it were a cave he could find warmth in.
We were here: The Global Seed Vault of Svalbard, Norway.
As Kasparov had told Alice, the Russian government wasn’t run by Vladimir Putin, ageless strongman though he seemed. It was run by the greatest chess-playing computer ever built. When Kasparov himself had been defeated by Deep Blue, the Kremlin decided computers had come of age and were finally ready to rule over man. While the world was depositing its seeds into the Svalbard vaults, Russia secretly moved in its newly finished computer. A place unassailable by military force according to treaty and a place so secure it was intended to survive multiple possible apocalypses. Which reminded me, how were we going to break into this place?
“We’re going in the front door,” Alice said matter-of-factly over the roar of the wind.
And in we went, snowflakes curling around our feet in the airlock as we stepped through, guns drawn and ready.
“Who are we expecting?” I whispered.
“Russian agents disguised as Norwegian UN guards,” Alice hissed back.
I sighed. This was so typical Alice.
Before us a giant steel door swung open to reveal a cavernous halogen-lit space with smooth, rounded concrete walls. I crept forward but Alice rushed past me, her blond hair fluttering behind her. “No time,” she called. “It’s got to know we’re here by now!”
It’s got to know? Was Alice convinced this thing was sentient? Some sort of sentient supercomputer running Russia for the last two decades? I rushed to catch up, following her deeper into tighter concrete tunnels past brushed steel doors and, somehow, not another single soul.
Alice disappeared around another corner but as I followed, I didn’t find her, I just found a blank wall. A tunnel as yet undug. The rare rough patch of rock wall. Where was Alice? I turned. A shot rang out and a spark of pain set my shoulder on fire. I spun and hit the concrete floor.
And then I was walking through one of the steel doors. It opened onto a living room. A living room with a window to the outside. But strangely not the outside I knew lurked dark and freezing in Svalbard, somewhere different. Somewhere warm and sunny. Before the window, on a faded floral couch sat a young olive-skinned man in a white undershirt. He had thick black hair and on his lap he held a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow. He smiled as I walked in. “Want some pizza?” he asked.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Are you the computer?”
He laughed. “I’m Nicholas J. Pony.” His smile was boyish. He flipped open the cardboard box on the couch next to him, exposing a few remaining slices of cheese pizza in offering. “Have one,” he insisted.
I sat down next to him and took a piece. It felt good in my hands, still warm.
“You ever read this book?” he asked, brandishing the Pynchon.
“No,” I said, biting off the tip of my slice. It was delicious.
“It’s stupid. I just got to a chapter that’s all in German. I swear I’ll throw this book out this window.”
“You should quit reading it,” I said.
“I never give up,” he replied, still smiling.
“Me neither,” I replied, taking a second bite of the pizza. How could I have been so ravenously hungry without realizing it?
“Sure you do,” he said. “What about this race?”
He was right. I stopped mid-chew. Something was wrong with me. I was not myself, I was not Mont Blanc. I was quitting the Cannonball. “How many times can you win the Cannonball?” I murmured.
Nicholas J. Pony laughed. “Man, you could win it so many times.”
I lowered my pizza to my lap and looked up to him. His eyes were bright with excitement, but his head backlit by the sunny window. I had to squint to look at him. “But to what end?”
“It’s all about pizza,” he said. “Not pizza the noun, though that’s an important part of it. It’s about pizza the adjective.” I knitted my eyebrows in confusion. “When I say pizza, I say it with an exclamation point. It means awesome. More awesome than awesome.” He pointed across the room to a black Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. It only had three strings. “I play that guitar and that’s totally pizza. I turn it all the way up, I put the amp in the window, and I really blast the neighbors until I can’t catch my breath. You’re too worried about living. You’ve got to worry about pizza. As the adjective.”
Then Alice was shaking me awake.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said, breathless. “You can’t just sleep on the floor.” I heard a distant explosion. An alarm.
I grabbed at my shoulder expecting a mess of blood. My hand came back dry.
“Pizza,” I muttered.
“You want a pizza right now?” she asked, incredulous.
“No, pizza, as an adjective. I’m expressing my elation. We’ve got to move. I can get that airship to China in time to win this thing.”
As it happens, we didn’t quite win The Cannonball. To our credit, the detour to the Arctic Circle put us only an hour behind the winners: Raoul and a parrot-perched seagull he’d acquired in the Azores. They stood at the center of the crowd gathered in the sun-drenched empty street surrounded by tables of liquor and kegs of beer organized by Don Franco’s people. Drooley was not a fastidious seagull; Raoul said he was always encroaching on his personal space, hopping and pecking for a lagniappe of any sort. It didn’t seem to help that Raoul was letting him sip from his cup of potato vodka.
The city of Jining, as promised, was deserted and surrounded by desert. The Gobi’s sands drifted past us, lazily encroaching where civilization once held sway.
Plenty of people had yet to arrive. Baby Girl Kelly and Jayce Mullis (as we could have guessed) were among the absent. When asked if we knew where any of the strays had gotten off to, Alice responded innocently “Perhaps there are some in Kathmandu?” Then we both laughed.
Don Franco was in rare form, making his way through the racers with his bottle of champagne. He approached us as we stood talking with Celia Escobar. She and Miriam had spent the night in the coffin-shaped cabin of their homemade rocket crossing the Pacific with only six granola bars and a DVD player. “I stayed up til 4 a.m. watching Zabriskie Point and I think it broke my brain,” she told us.
“Antonioni!” cried Don Franco, shaking a point-making finger in the air. “The Italians they made the best films!” He filled our flutes to overflowing.
I had my arm around Alice’s thin waist and it felt good. I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew that after today, after we flew off in the “Get Steppin’”, after we dumped it in the Pacific and chartered a yacht back to Macau, that Alice and I wouldn’t last. She’d disappear from my life again. But it didn’t matter, it was all pizza.
Raoul cried out from the center of the crowd, his single arm raised to the yellow sky, “You know what this party needs? We need to get some fried chicken and get into a fight!”
Ah The Cannonball. It was all pizza. Pizza, the adjective.
As of yesterday, the submission period for Andrew vs. The Collective Story #1 is officially open. And let me tell you, just in the last 24 hours, things have sort of gotten awesome. Here is just a tiny representative sample of awesomeness:
Jonathan Schmid says: My noun: Siriththiran (a magazine published in Sri Lanka.)
Suzanne Fischer says: “They packed lemons and pemmican against scurvy.”
Rod Naber says: Setting: A 1976 Pontiac Trans-Am driven by an aging Burt Reynolds. The speedometer is at 93 mph. The year is 2017.
This is by no means the sum total of the awesome – you should go check out the others.
If you’re already a backer – you’ve only got until Friday, Noon PST to get your submission in for Story #1.
If you’re not a backer – you’ve got that same time (minus a few minutes of signing up) to get in on the first story. Right now there are 64 backers. Can we get that to 75 before I start writing?
Some links you might find helpful:
– Sign up for Andrew vs. The Collective.
– What is The Collective?
– What’s my favorite thing I found on the Internet today?