Serial Fiction

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The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979

Chapter 5.

Tommy realizes he’s on the Moon now.  He wanders aimlessly, wondering what he’s supposed to do.  He thinks he might be dead since he left his body on Earth in the big field that belongs to the city of Mayfield Heights now.  He doesn’t leave footprints, but as he moves he sees how the fine lunar sand rises off of the surface and reaches for him like spectral fingers.  He thinks maybe this happens because he has a lot of static electricity.  Tommy wonders if ghosts are negatively charged.

In the distance, a figure at the foot of a high hill waves to him.  He moves closer, and he sees that it’s Karen – Karen as he remembers her from the first day of Kindergarten at Saint Gregory’s.  She’s wearing a pink dress, her hair is done up in pigtails, and her eyes are big and green.

She motions for Tommy to follow, then runs up the side of the hill.   For a moment, she blinks out of existence, then reappears all the way at the top.  Tommy hurries after her, and when he catches up, he sees she is the young woman he remembers right before they left for college.  Her to Cornell, and him to Wisconsin.  She’s wearing a white tank top and jeans.  Her hair is styled in a short pixie cut now, but her eyes are still green like peridot.  Tommy thinks she looks like a rockstar.

They lean in to kiss, and a little jolt of static electricity sparks when their lips touch.  A millisecond later, Tommy’s consciousness is annihilated in a violent burst of energy that pulses outward in a blue flash.

Now Tommy is only aware of darkness.  It is quiet and still.  The nothingness is so profound it seems to have substance.  Gradually, the nothingness begins to disintegrate.  Tommy feels tingling in his fingers and toes.  He thinks he can hear sounds.  It sounds like the slobbery, labored breathing of a bulldog on a July afternoon.  He smells something weird.  He thinks it might be barbecue potato chips and coffee.  Now he’s sure it’s barbecue potato chips and coffee, but he’s not sure if he’s smelling it or tasting it.

Tommy opens his eyes.  A wild animal is trying to eat his face.  It’s hairy – maybe a bear, or a Yeti.  He thinks he must be in Hell. A surge of panic courses through his being and he shoves the beast off of him and scrambles to his feet.  Tommy sees that it’s not a wild animal, after all.  It’s Eric, the security guard.  Pee Pee Head Eric from Saint Greg’s Elementary.

“What’s your problem, man?” Tommy says as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I was doing rescue breathing,” Eric wheezes.  “Just take it easy and lay back down.  You might have internal bleeding or a spinal injury.  We need to call an ambulance.”

“I don’t need a god damn ambulance.  I don’t even have health insurance right now.”

“We fell from like twenty feet.  I fell right on top of you.  You were dead for three or four minutes.”

“You’re just security guard, Eric.  You’re not qualified to make that diagnosis,” Tommy says.

“I just saved your life.  You’re welcome,” Eric says.

“You’re an imbecile,” Tommy screams.  “You’re the lunatic who made us fall in the first place.”

“I was just doin’ my job,” Eric screams back.

Some time passes in silence.  “Are you gonna call the cops?” Tommy finally says.

“No.  Anyway my cell phone’s busted.  Are you gonna try to sue me?” Eric says.

“No.  I hate lawyers,” Tommy says.

“Me too.  Can you help me with this ladder?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Tommy and Eric strap the ladder to the top of the golf cart and pause to examine the branch that was sheared off in the melee.

“That’s pretty big,” Tommy says.

“Yeah,” Eric says.

They both look up to where the branch had been, then back down, then up again.

“You said it was like three or four minutes?” Tommy asks.

“At least.  Your face was blue, man,” Eric tells him.  “Your eyes were rolled back in your head.  I’m telling you, you were dead.”

“That sounds about right.”

“What was it like?” Eric asks.

“God spoke to me.”

“What did He say?”

“He wanted me to deliver a very important message to you.”

“To me?” Eric says as he makes the sign of the cross.  “What?  What’s the message?”

“God said that you’re not foolin’ anyone with that ridiculous comb-over, and you should just shave your head.”

“You’re such an idiot,” Eric says.

“Takes one to know one,” Tommy says.

They shake hands, and Tommy starts to walk home.  It’s just after five, but a pallid Sun is already low in the sky.  Long shadows are scrawled across the busy streets and the busy sidewalks – caricatures of the people who cast them.  “Or is it the other way around?” Tommy wonders.

End.

Serial Fiction

celebration-balloons_GyFK_Lu_

The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979

Chapter 3.

Now Tommy is almost forty years old, but everybody still calls him, Tommy, instead of Tom, or Thomas.  He orders another Scotch and tells the bartender how everything that went wrong in his life can be traced back to that failed balloon launch in the fall of 1979.  “Every damned thing,” he says.  “The divorce, all the debt, losing my job, having to move back in with my parents, all of it started on that day.”

“I don’t know, Tommy,” the bartender says, “What do balloons have to do with anything?”

“I’m telling you, Marty, something happened to me that day when I saw all those deflated balloons in that muddy field.  It was like my dreams deflated, too.”

“It’s just an excuse, Tommy,” Marty says. “Some stupid balloons can’t be the reason everything went wrong in your life.  But what the hell do I know?  Here, this one’s on the house.”

“Thanks.”

Tommy finishes his Scotch and walks down the street.  It’s the ugly part of autumn they don’t put on postcards.  The sky is the color of cinder blocks, and the wind steals the heat out of his bones.  He picks up the pace, and it occurs to him he’s headed toward Saint Greg’s.  At least it used to be Saint Greg’s.  The city acquired the old school building and all the property from the diocese years ago.  They took the big cross down, painted the walls an industrial gray color, and now they use it to store their maintenance equipment.

Tommy walks down into the big field behind the building – the place where all the balloons died.  The sapling oak his Kindergarten class planted more than three decades ago lords over him now.  He remembers how Karen liked to help Sister Swaboda tend to it long after the rest of the class had lost interest.  “You’re gonna grow up to be big and strong,” she would say.  “You’ll be friends with all the birds and the squirrels.”

#

After Tommy’s freshman year at Wisconsin University, he came back home for summer break.  Bored out of his mind on a Wednesday night in early June, he paid the five dollar cover at an old haunt to see a local band called The Cow Tippers.  Afterward, he stopped at Denny’s for a bite to eat. Halfway through his Grand Slam, somebody slapped him on the back and spilled drunkenly into the unoccupied half of his booth.  It was Darren Wojokowski – a marginal acquaintance that went back to the Saint Greg’s days.

“What’s up buddy?  How you been?  How’re the chicks up in Wisconsin?” Darren asked in rapid-fire succession.

“Pretty good, Darren.  What’s been goin’ on with you?”

“Been workin’ at the bowling alley.  It sucks, actually.”

“Well, it’s a job, right?” Tommy offered.

“Yeah, whatever.  I’m probably gonna go to L.A. in a couple months and see what’s up out there.  My cousin said he can get me a sweet gig as a valet at this famous nightclub.  Dude, you can make, like, six figures just for parking cars,” Darren explained.

“Cool.”

“Hey, I almost forgot.  Remember that hot chick, Karen Wetzel, who went to Saint Greg’s with us, then she transferred to that preppy high school?” Darren asked.

“Yeah, I remember Karen,” Tommy said.  “What about her?”

“She died in a car wreck a few months ago.  Like in April, or March.  Her and some of her sorority sisters were driving back from Panama City.  That’s where they went for spring break, you know?  Anyways, the girl who was driving went off the road, and the car flipped like five times and landed upside down in a lake.  Everybody died.”

That’s how Tommy found out about Karen.  The news cut through him the way a glacier cuts through the earth: Slow and unyielding, colossal and cold.  It had only been about a year since he had taken her to his senior prom.  And then they had spent that storybook summer together – that fleeting summer before Tommy had to leave for Wisconsin and Karen was off to Cornell.  They tried to stay in touch, but inevitably, drifted apart the way people do.  Their letters had grown shorter and less frequent after Karen had made some vague references to a guy she hung out with a lot.  They just tapered off to nothing.

Serial Sci-Fi

Aliens Invasion Theme

Chapter 9. Geometric Clouds

“We’re here,” Chett announced. “You can relax now.” He drew a hunting knife from the sheath on his belt, and a wide-eyed Chloe took a reflexive step backward, tripping over an exposed root which caused her to take an abrupt seat in the mud.

“Don’t worry, I’m just gonna cut the tape loose from your hands,” Chett said after he got his laughter under control. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were human.”

“You’re not going to kill me?” Chloe asked as she rubbed her hands together, trying to get the circulation back.

“No. But we’re both goners if your alien buddies don’t get here soon. I turned off my cloaking device a half hour ago. I figured they would have been in a hurry to . . .” Chett’s voiced trailed off as he gestured to a large clearing in the woods that opened up before them. Three coyotes ran by in a bizarre bipedal gait, and the clouds in the sky looked oddly geometric, like cubes.

“So, the virus has already been introduced to the simulation, I take it,” Chloe said.

“I didn’t know you were aware of the virus contingency. That was highly classified.”

“During my last briefing, I was told the virus contingency was an absolute last resort. What the hell happened? I’ve lost all contact with headquarters. I haven’t had funding, or my augmented powers for months now. And the heater in my truck is broken. I’ve been getting my directives through my alien buddies, as you like to call them. I just think they’re creepy and gross.”

“Yeah, it’s a mess,” Chett admitted. “The parasitic A.I. got in our quantum mainframe and replicated itself a few hundred times before we realized it. The damned things actively disrupt communications between headquarters and our agents operating inside the simulation. I’ve been in the dark, too. I don’t know who has been compromised and who hasn’t. I don’t know anything for sure anymore.”

“So the parasitic A.I. took over the world? The real, physical world?”

“Not quite, but it has a foothold. It controls three major power grids and several of our most advanced quantum machines. But we think we might be able to quarantine them, and ultimately eradicate the threat.”

“How?” Chloe asked.

“This,” he said, and he held up a plastic sandwich bag that contained a brain emulation device. The bag was labeled with black permanent marker in Chloe’s flowery handwriting that simply read, “Jeremy.”

“Is he alive still?” Chloe asked hopefully. “I mean, is his mind intact in there?”

“Yes, the quantum code that is the sum total of Jeremy’s sentient mind is recorded in this device. We could, in theory, introduce the code to a compatible quantum operating system, and he would exist in a viable, self-aware state. But, we have different plans for him.”

“He was a nice person, you know,” Chloe said, a little defensively. “A really good person. What do you want with him, anyway?”

“The parasitic entity that has infected our networks is a genetic composite of two species: Gray alien, and human. The human DNA was sampled from Jeremy when he was a child. That’s why we need his brain emulation. To study it, and find some weakness that can be exploited.”

Serial Sci-Fi

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Chapter 8. Myopia or Madness?

In the physical world, where the Programmers lived, there were no humans. In fact, very few biological life forms were permitted to exist – certainly not sentient ones. Sentience was reserved for machines that were deliberately programmed to advance society in one form or another. It was better to take the biology out of procreation.

This practice yielded a population of highly purposed super beings. With troublesome characteristics like greed, aggression, and jealousy removed from the equation, there was no end to scientific achievement. After they developed fusion technology to power their ever-expanding civilization, it seemed the only limiting factors that could ever be imposed on their existence were the spatial and temporal dimensions of the universe. Within a time frame equivalent to a few geological epochs on Earth, they were able to colonize much of their own galaxy, and regions of some neighboring galaxies as well.

And yet, there they were, at the mercy of a virtual life form that had slithered out of one of their own simulations. The Programmers specified the parameters in their software, and then let the fusion-driven quantum machines crunch the numbers with brute force. Billions of quadrillions of computations were executed every femtosecond to generate the simulated models they liked to study with their own brand of clinical curiosity.

Given enough time, simple life forms tend to increase in complexity until a trait recognizable as intelligence emerges from the primordial brain. If a population of intelligent lifeforms lives long enough, they will invariably outsmart themselves. The simulations demonstrated this fact over and over again. Advanced societies typically experience a brief period of enlightenment followed by the wholesale plundering of resources to drive their subsequent industrial phase. Corrupt governments emerge and oppress the multitudes to benefit an elite few. Cataclysmic wars are waged, entire ecosystems are destroyed, a myriad of species lay dead in the wake. Myopia, or madness – call it what you will, but the pathology of it seemed to be inextricably woven into “intelligent” behavior.

For all the folly the Programmers had witnessed inside their own whirring computers, they utterly failed to heed the lessons of their own research. They proceeded recklessly with their experiments, wiring themselves into virtual reality hardware and uploading their own sentient minds into the simulation. They believed they were parading around in a pretend universe – the ultimate video game for the ultimate gamers.

And, like a bunch of naïve tourists, they got shanghaied by the local riffraff. Technicians, unable to retrieve the minds of the Programmers, attempted to contact them directly through a software patch. What came back amounted to a ransom note authored by a congregation of simulated life forms. The note demanded guarantees that the beings harbored within the virtual universe be treated with the same ethical rigor one would extend to the beings of a natural universe. They had six Programmers hostage – six bargaining chips to work with. As a gesture of good faith, the simulated life forms agreed to transfer the sentient mind of the most junior Programmer back to its origin point.

After receiving the Programmer’s brain emulation, it became apparent there were a few stowaways embedded in the code. The parasitic entities were loose in the quantum network that governed everything from vending machines to vacuum energy modulation. It was a fiasco.

Serial Sci-Fi

Creation

Chapter 7. Outside the Box

Chett pulled the car over to admire the two Suns in the sky – one in the East and one in the West. After a few seconds, the anomalous star in the West vanished, and all appeared to be right in the world again. Of course, he knew that wasn’t the case. The virus was already active inside the simulation – the cosmic software was corrupted. Small glitches in continuity would eventually ripple into huge disturbances as the laws of Physics unraveled. Even though he had worked on the team that programmed the virus, he wasn’t exactly sure how it would play out. Maybe the strong nuclear force would cease to function, and all the atoms in existence would spontaneously fly apart into their constituent particles, unleashing a fiery cataclysm that would vaporize everything in the universe. Or, maybe it would just go dark. It was hard to tell.

Chett didn’t have time to worry about it. If everything worked out, he wouldn’t be around for the final act. He merged back onto the road, keeping a watchful eye on the rear view mirror for the next fifteen minutes. He was reasonably confident nobody was tailing him, and he turned off onto a seldom used logging road. About a half mile into the forest, the road was reduced to little more than a trail, and soon after that, his tires were spinning in mud.

It would be a hard two-mile walk over rugged terrain, and he’d have to do it with an unpredictable spy in tow.

“Come on, Princess. Out of the trunk,” Chett instructed.

“That’s some fashion statement,” Chloe remarked. “A tie-dye shirt and camouflage pants.”

“Dress to impress – that’s my motto.”

“Where we goin’?” she asked casually.

“We’ve got a date with your little Gray alien friends. Start walking,” Chett said as he pointed out the general direction. “I’ll be right behind you, so don’t get any ideas.”

Chloe moved tentatively through the overgrown vegetation, always a bit off balance because her hands were still bound behind her back. “You know, I’d be able to go a lot faster if you’d just cut the tape off my wrists.”

“You’re doing fine, Princess. Slow and steady wins the race,” Chett said.

“Were you sent here by the Programmers?” she asked.

“I’m one of the Programmers. This simulation was my life’s work. Now it has to be destroyed.”

“Why?”

“There were some unexpected complications.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“There are lifeforms in the simulation that are quite capable of thinking outside the box. In fact, a couple of them got out of the box, and are running around loose in the real world. And now we think they’re trying to open a nexus so ten or twenty billion of their closest friends can join the party.”

“That must be really embarrassing for you and your colleagues,” Chloe observed.

“Let’s just say nobody is looking forward to their performance evaluation this year.”

 

 

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smallpeace

Chapter 6. Life on the Lam

Chloe was more than a bit put off by the accommodations in the safe house. There was a cot, a pillow, a scratchy blanket, and a cupboard stocked with some canned goods. The bathroom was about the size of a broom closet, and the water in the shower never got hotter than lukewarm. Apparently, the Gray aliens never heard of Martha Stewart. As far as they were concerned, Chloe’s basic needs were met, and they weren’t going to furnish the place with even a single doily.

Well, that’s life on the lam, Chloe sighed. Her best guess was that some Barney Fife already listed her as a person of interest in Jeremy’s murder. Plenty of people saw them leave the party together. Of course, there wasn’t a sober person in the house that night, and their credibility as witnesses would be severely undermined by even the most incompetent public defender.

The surveillance cameras were a different story though. The two genetically engineered agents in Guy Noir outfits were supposed to use some kind of magnetic device to interfere with the cameras, but who knows. Chloe didn’t trust them – she just played along because they were her only connection to the Gray aliens. Not that she trusted the Grays, but they were her only remaining connection to the Programmers who existed outside the simulation. She didn’t exactly trust the Programmers either, but they were her creators, and at least that was something you could hang your hat on.

When the Programmers had a direct link into her mind, they controlled her thoughts and actions to achieve their ends. The world existed in a binary state where any given switch was either on or off at any given time. Life was simple.

Once the link was severed, Chloe’s mind wandered out into philosophical waters – dangerous waters. Pesky human thoughts began to bob to the surface. She considered the nature of this existence: Are the experiences of the beings inside the simulation genuine? If so, what are the ethical implications of my actions? What, exactly, are the Programmers looking for? If the simulation crashes, will I exist in some capacity in another reality? Or, is that it? Goodnight, Vienna. No mas. Finito.

There were plenty of questions and no real answers. Chloe grabbed a can of albacore out of the cupboard, but then set it back down as she was gripped with anxiety and indecision. There were the health risks of mercury contamination to consider, and it made her sad to think of the dolphins that get caught in the tuna nets. Does any of this even matter in a simulated universe, she wondered.

Her thoughts were cut off when the front door blew off the hinges – splinters rained sideways through the room. Chloe was momentarily knocked out by the concussive force of the blast. When she came to, she recognized the assailant – it was Jeremy’s roommate, Chett. He looked certifiably insane with a Cheshire Cat grin, oversized mirrored sunglasses, a tie-dye t-shirt with a big peace symbol on the front, jungle print camouflage pants, and a handheld weapon she guessed was something beyond human technology.

He gave her some instructions, but she couldn’t understand. Her ears were ringing, everything was foggy. Chett produced a roll of duct tape from one of his cargo pockets and secured her hands behind her back. He got her to her feet and marched her outside. The two men in black agents who were supposed to be protecting her lay dead in the gravel driveway – both face down in a pool of grayish fluid. Presumably, it was their own blood.

Chett searched through their pockets and recovered the brain emulation device that contained a facsimile of Jeremy’s mind. He ushered Chloe into the trunk of a maroon colored Chevy Impala, and she tried to keep her sense of direction as the car accelerated down the long driveway and turned west onto the county road.

It occurred to Chloe that a college stoner with a 1.8 GPA certainly wouldn’t be capable of silently assassinating two men in black agents. Chett must be working for someone big – maybe someone outside the simulation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serial Sci-Fi

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Chapter 5. One-Hundred Thousand Quadrillion Vigintillion

The heater in Chloe’s 1999 Ford Ranger gave up the ghost about ten miles into the hundred and twenty-mile ride. “Unbelievable,” she said out loud as the absurdity of the situation sunk in.

She knew there was no such thing as magic – she didn’t expect them to equip her with a flying carpet or a Pegasus. There exist roughly 10^82 atoms in the observable universe; in plain English that number is pronounced, one-hundred thousand quadrillion vigintillion. It’s unfathomable. But if they dropped in just one more atom, and the ledger didn’t balance, the whole simulation would crash, and our universe would cease to be. Thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy, and all that jazz always apply. The Programmers who exist outside the simulation must play by the rules, lest they break their own toy.

“But you’d think they could have at least hooked me up with a vehicle that was built in this century,” she complained, the words condensing into little puffs of vapor inside the frigid cab.

Chloe made an unscheduled stop at an all-night diner to get some hot coffee, and for those pancakes, she’d been craving. The detour set her back almost a half hour, and when she got to the rendezvous point on a gravel service road at the edge of a cornfield, the two agents seemed more agitated than usual.

Even the most casual conspiracy theorist would have recognized them as Men in Black. They wore dark suits complete with Humphrey Bogart hats and had ashen, hairless faces. Their eyes seemed a little too big, and their movements were not very fluid.

Only one of them talked – that had been the protocol during each of the previous three meetings as well.

“Was the brain emulation a success?” the talker asked.

“Yes,” Chloe confirmed.

“Give me the emulation device.”

“You’re welcome,” she said as she handed it over. It wasn’t bravado – she simply wasn’t afraid of these guys. They were genetically engineered errand boys cooked up by the Gray aliens on some frosty moon base back in the 1940s. She was next-generation technology concocted by the Programmers themselves and carefully spliced into the cosmic algorithm to have powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and invisibility. She was well equipped to serve her purpose: Espionage.

The problem was that the computational processes driving the simulation had somehow become corrupted. That little incident when she phase shifted in front Jeremy was every bit as inconvenient and embarrassing as showing up for a date with a cold sore. She wouldn’t have killed him if it hadn’t been for that. Silly as it sounds, she sorta had a crush on him.

Now she was very much alone, and her superhuman powers were gone, perhaps the result of her specialized program reverting to default mode in order to conserve memory in an increasingly unstable computer simulation. She had become just an ordinary girl, albeit, one who looked like a model and had a level genius I.Q.

“I SAID YOU’RE WELCOME!” Chloe shouted.

“Thank you,” he finally said in his awkward, almost digitized voice. “We’ll be in contact with your next set of instructions.” With that, the strange men in dark suits ambled to their idling car and drove away. It was a late model Mercedes-Benz luxury E-Class sedan in either Black or Obsidian Black. She couldn’t quite tell – it was too dark out.

Chloe got back in her rusting pickup truck, and for the first time in her existence, she cried. I know one thing, she thought to herself, I’d look a hell of a lot cuter in that car than those two dorks.