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EP410: Nutshell

by Jeffrey Wikstrom
Read by Alasdair Stuart

Links for this episode:

About the Author…

Jeffrey Wikstrom is a writer, registered patent agent, gamer, PhD chemist, and nerdly hobbyist.  This blog consists of material written on these interests and things relating to them; lately it’s mostly King Arthur.  After growing up in Arkansas and the Gulf Coast, he went to school in Boston and now lives in Wilmington DE, in a house he shares with his wife and their dogs.

About the Narrator…

I’ve worked as a magician, a rally marshal, a secretary, the world’s politest bouncer, and the manager of a comic/game store.   I’m now a freelance journalist, editor and podcaster and write regularly for SFXBleeding Cool, How It Works, Neo and Comic Heroes. I edit  Hub magazine (www.hubfiction.com)a free weekly PDF magazine covering science fiction, fantasy and horror with 10,000 readers that’s relaunching shortly and I host  Pseudopod (www.pseudopod.org), the weekly horror ficton podcast.

 

Nutshell
by Jeffrey Wikstrom

Carpet ocean, stretching over miles; hills and valleys and ravines, all upholstered.  The green indoor-outdoor gives way to blue, as land gives way to sea, but the texture never changes.  When it rains, as it sometimes does, the drops pass through the carpet without making contact, as though they or it aren’t really there.  It’s there enough for me to walk on, at least, though spongy in some places and firm in others, as though it conceals hidden frames or foundations.  Out on the blue carpet-sea, it feels stretched, tight, as though I walk on a drumhead.  Maybe if I cracked it open I would find a vast dark expanse of water, lit by undersea jack-o-lanterns and holes that show the sky without breaking up the carpet-underside ceiling.

None of it is real, of course.  That probably goes without saying.

It’s funny; I wasn’t supposed to experience time at all.  When they loaded us into the ship, we were told that the travel would be instantaneous from our perspectives.  One minute lying down in the big white plastic tombs, the next freshly decanted and opening raw new eyes.  We would transition seamlessly from fluorescents and anesthesia to the light of some distant new sun.  Certainly I have no memory of consciousness during departure.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be aware, during that dreadful acceleration which pulped our bones, and wrecked our flesh.  By then they had already guided us from our old bodies into the safety of simulation and storage.

This curated world never bruises me or shows me sharp edges.  Trees are padded poles, slick vinyl trunks capped by rubbery green spheres fifteen, twenty feet up.  Stairsteps run up the hillsides, though even the steepest rises are shallow enough I don’t really need the footholds.  Fat plush toys, pink and green and blue, gambol across the plains and mimic living beasts grazing carpet-grass, or drinking from carpet-brooks.  They ignore me, even when I shove or punch them.

Do I dream?  In dreaming, should I question my dream?  Should I feel some continuity of experience?  I can loop around, circle back and pass the same stand of vinyl tree-sculptures four times without noticing any discrepancies. Do I simply lack a capacity to recognize breaches of continuity?  Was that cottage always there?

I think it wasn’t.  Still, it’s mine, and not unwelcome.  I know it. I don’t fear it.  A woolen cube, windowed and doored, with a taut wedge of canvas for a roof.  I press my hand into the salmon-colored exterior wall.  It sinks in a half-inch, and leaves a deep handprint that faded slowly.  The flannel texture of the wall exactly matches a blanket I remember from childhood, one just that shade of pink.

The vast hall within stretches far too large to fit in that flannel cube exterior.   I step onto a hardwood floor under a thick layer of wax.  The walls rise up to the limits of my vision, shadows and smoke hiding the ceiling.  Apples, each bigger than my head, glow redly from above.  They and the poles skewering them make for an uneven forest of lampposts.  I find the space comforting, though I’ve never been here before.

“This is the stupidest place I’ve seen,” says the stranger.  I think he must have stepped out from behind an ersatz lamppost. “And I’ve been to at least twelve hundred different ‘scapes today. What’s wrong with you?”  He wears a suit the color of burnished copper that complements his auburn hair.

I gape.  “Wuh… wha?”  I hadn’t expected company, nor have I spoken in I don’t know how long.

“Anyway.  Planetfall in twenty years.  I’m opening up the vents, air this all out.” He twirls his hand, indicating… the hall?

I fix on the part I think I can understand.  “Twen… twenty years?”

“Twenty years, four months and a number of days, minutes, and seconds you don’t care about,” he says.  The stranger eyes me disdainfully. “Are those footie pajamas?”

I stammer defensively.  “No!”

The creases in his suit could cut paper.  “Enh.  I’d change if I were you. And leave the glowing fruit at home,” he adds, glancing up at the lamps. “You wanna screw?”

“Ab, ub, nuh…” I mumble, embarrassed by my own inability to form a coherent word, much less sentence.

He shrugs.  “No foul. You’d be surprised how often.  Anyway.  Be seeing you.”  He steps uncomfortably close to me. I flinch, which he ignores.  He jabs a button on the wood-panel wall just behind me, one I hadn’t noticed.

I hadn’t noticed the elevator doors next to the button, either, until they open up behind me.

“Wait, what?” I ask, as finally the cobwebs clear. “Who are you?”

“I’m your captain, Dylan,” he says as he steps into the elevator. “It’s been fun.  Not really.  I gotta go.  Yes really, on that one. Mind the time.”

#

“It runs the ship,” Mia explains.  “Coffee?”

“No, thank you,”  I say carefully.  “When you say runs the ship…?”

We sit in Mia’s parlor, some amount of time after my encounter with the captain.  Mia is my next-door neighbor: after exiting my flannel cabin, I saw her vast steel cube towering over the soft corners of my cotton world.  Inside everything’s right angles and gleaming white and monorails, but I suppose I’m one to talk.

Mia snaps her fingers and makes a sort of pointing gesture over my shoulder.  I turn, and see that she signaled one of her servants.  The gleaming chrome cube spins without disturbing the coffee set atop it, and slides smoothly back the way it came.

“I can’t believe all you made were stuffed animals,” she says, sipping her own cup.  She sit in a hollow steel egg, her legs tucked up under her.  I have to make do with a chrome cube for a bench.  “I mean, really.  That’s so dumb.  And I wish you’d change out of those ridiculous felt things.  I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s okay.”

“I’ve just, you know, it’s been just me for so long.  You’re only the fifth I’ve seen since Captain.  I’m sorry.  Please don’t take offense.”

“It’s okay!  I wasn’t doing anything consciously except making myself comfortable.  I don’t know how it works.”

“Well, I don’t either, but I asked –”

“Captain,” I interrupt.  “Who is Captain?”

“I saaaaaid!” Mia’s voice twists into a whine.  She makes a show of closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.  “It’s the ship’s AI,” she says, as though I’m an especially dimwitted child. “The whole thing is automated, but something needs to keep track of everything.  So, Captain.  I mean, it couldn’t be a colonist.  Most of you were illegals, and besides I wouldn’t trust my mother for three hundred years without relief.”

“We could have taken shifts, or…”  I trail off as Mia rolls her eyes.  “Whatever, I guess that decision was made years ago.”  “Centuries ago.”

“Centuries, fine.”

We lapse into a long silence. Mia sips her virtual coffee.

“I think this is going well,” I begin.

Almost simultaneously, she says “you should be going.”

I nod.  “Of course. It was –”

“It was nice meeting you!” Mia barks.  She holds her coffee cup up close to her chin, as if for protection.

I nod again as I rise to my feet but say nothing else.  I feel her eyes on me as I leave her parlor.  Fortunately one of her little cubes appears to escort me back outside, or I might spend weeks wandering through shiny white hallways.

#

Afterwards I walk, to clear my head.  I’m used to traveling for as long as I want, hours at least if not days, never tiring nor seeing any break in the padded expanse.  I keep the hatch into Mia’s steel world at my back, but before I go anywhere near as far as I want, the fabric ground gives way to hard asphalt roads and concrete sidewalk. Peeling paint on clapboard siding, thick bundles of wires connecting the houses to high wooden poles, barking dogs and broken glass. Another neighbor.

I decline to meet them, and turn right.  I try to keep the sidewalks on my left, while staying within the familiar carpeted landscape, but it falls away despite my best efforts.  Vinyl trees slide up between me and the concrete, the ground twisting under me in a way I see, but can’t feel.  What I see makes me nauseous, and I close my eyes for just a moment.  When I open them, carpet and padding surround me out to the limits of vision.

Long story short: I walk, I find the edge of my realm, and the way to another’s beyond it.  I turn away and the seam in the world dances back, only to be replaced by another, some amount of time and distance later.  This happens seven or eight times, with a different neighbor each time.

Claustrophobia: I’m hemmed in.  I spent close to three hundred years in a pleasant haze, and now, mounting panic.  Once I hear someone shouting in the distance.  It’s probably “hello,” but too indistinct to really be sure.  I turn and move away from the source.

As it fades, I climb a high carpeted hill.  Looking down into the secluded valley below, I find, or make I guess, a bedspread cottage. Jack-o-lanterns light it, beanbags furnish it.  But it has a door I can bar; that;s the important thing.

I sink into a beanbag and stare at the door.  Other than the bar, it exactly duplicates my bedroom door when I was around seven, right down to the stickers of cartoon cars.

#

Over the river and through the woods, I wander.  My flannel forest isn’t proof against outside invaders, I learn when Milo rides his death-steed up and over and nearly tramples me.  I met Milo the day before, decided he was best avoided, and then there he is, trying to kill me with a thing shaped only vaguely like a horse.

It’s best to keep moving, so I go from biome to biome.  A cityscape of vast yellow terraces and dizzying canyons.  Blue-green seas with pearly white sand, garish tropical flowers,  a cartoon of a Caribbean vacation.  The tepid beige hallways of an endless hotel, doors ripped off their hinges and warm water ankle-deep in every room.  I try to imagine the people who dreamed them up, and do my best to avoid them. When I hear noise, I go the other way.

I imagine myself a sort of reviewer, evaluating biomes and describing them to a nonchalant audience.

“The ocean of blood was a bit much.  Ostentatious, I thought.  Over the top, even.  The visitor soon sours on the stench of decay, while the militaristic imagery projected onto the roof fills one with a sense of unquiet.  We live only to die, this world says.  I hesitate to envision the sour heart whose subconscious created such a virtual space.  Dylan Obare, Datalinks.”

#

“Wanna screw?”

“Why do you ask me that?”

The captain shrugs.  “Guys are more relaxed after a screw.  And humans tend to trust and like their sexual partners.  Over strangers, I mean.”

“That was the least reassuring way you could have answered that.”

“I’ve noticed that of the subset of humans who woke up ill, one hundred percent declined a screw.”

“Ill?”

“‘Ill?’” the captain mimics.  “Yeah ill.  Antisocial and avoidant personality disorders, mostly.  You guys were always nuts.  I mean, don’t get me started.  You agreed to become colonists, right?”

“Agreed is kind of a strong word.”

He shrugs.  “Whatever.  Boo-hoo, deal with your debt or die in tenements or get shot into space.  I don’t care. But the thing is a lot of you guys are crazy.  I mean, a lot a lot.  I’d cite figures but it would only upset you.”

“That would upset me?  The gunshots, the screaming, the blood and the robots, that’s all fine, but numbers would upset me?”  I hear my voice twist into a shriek I can’t quite control, and grimace.  “Why are you here?”

“To safeguard the colonists, fly the ship. Captain stuff.”  He frowns.  “Duh.”

“No, I mean, why are you here talking to me right now?”

“Oh, that.  I’m pretty sure, this is just me going on heuristics and holistics, but I’m pretty sure you’re the most sane colonist left.  I know, right? I was as surprised as you.”

I look at him.

“Anyway.”  The captain clears his throat.  “Your comrades in more-or-less rationality all holed up.  You’re an aberration, walking around like you do, so I figured you might have something useful to contribute to the situation.”

“The situation?”

“You know.  All the crazy people.  Can’t very well let them loose on planet.  Get your head in the game, Dylan.”

“Well, I don’t, I mean, what?”

“Dude.”

“Okay, fine.  Fine.  Listen, I don’t… how many more years until planetfall?”

“Dude, planetfall was three years ago.  I’ve been building the autonomic systems, tinkering with landscaping, I could show you.  I haven’t decanted anyone because of the, you know, madness.”

“The mad…? Why are you asking me?”

“Shit fuck, dude, I don’t know.  This is a fucked up situation.  None of the simulations they ran on Earth had everybody going crazy.  You guys just woke up and you were fine.  One or two get complexes, maybe. Nothing like this.”

“Well…”  I rub my temples.  The notion that it has been decades since I first met the captain sinks in, and I have to sit down, collapsing on the spongy pretend-turf.  “Maybe you should just go ahead and decant people.  We’ll be fine once we’re in bodies, walking around, breathing…”

“Yeah, no.  I was lying a minute ago.  I did decant some of you guys. A test case, a dozen.  It… didn’t go well.  They all died.”

From his tone it was clear they hadn’t died of typhoid.

I sigh.  “Well, I don’t know.  If you can tell who’s crazy and who isn’t, just decant the sane ones?”

“That’s what Mia said.  I don’t know, though.  I mean, a, there’s only like seventy-four of you and fourteen thousand seven hundred eighty-nine of them, so, big loss of life.  And b, I’m pretty sure you guys aren’t enough to maintain and run a colony.  Maybe if… how are you at child-rearing?”

“Oh, no no no.”  I throw up my hands.  “Can’t you make nanny robots? I remember there was supposed to be ten robots per colonist.”

“Enh, yeah, they’re not that great.  Kind of shit, actually.  They break things.  I, um, let’s just take it as read that I tried skipping you guys entirely and it didn’t work out.”

“It just gets worse and worse,” I mutter.

The captain holds up his hands.  “Hey now, you’re probably imagining something way worse than what actually happened.  I mean, it was all simulation, okay?  No actual infants were cloned or harmed.  Walk that one back.”

“I’m not sure I believe you.”

“Whatevs.  The really revolting part is this is the most productive conversation I’ve had in twelve years.”

#

Some time later the captain finds me again.  I hike across a gray wasteland, under a gray sky.  Smooth granite boulders hewn into the various Platonic solids stud the landscape.  I know this place’s owner, or creator, or dreamer.  More specifically, I met him: Franz, whose bunker a hundred feet below possesses all the home comforts, like an endless supply of mac and cheese and highlights from a lifetime of memories (most of television shows) playing on dozens of screens.

When I spelunked through the winding tunnels below, Franz spotted me and cordially invited me in for some shaved ice and conversation.  My acceptance took him aback, however, and I soon realized I’d intruded beyond where I was welcome.

All my encounters with my fellows are like that.  Sometimes they smile, and sometimes they shriek, and sometimes they invite me to join them in some ineffable private game they don’t explain.  Once I realized that none of us can really hurt one another, I lost much of my caution and began to seek company out.  The closing hymns of the seven princesses told me that I should not wander so carelessly.  The low red lights meant nothing to me, but everything to she whose sky it was.

But I digress.  The captain finds me again, eventually.  “Good news,” he says without preamble.  “I licked the heuristics problem.”

“There was a heuristics problem?”

“Yeah.  Fixed now.  Everything’s fine.”

“Great,” I say, and keep walking.

He doesn’t move, but somehow fails to recede as I walk away from him. It make my eyes hurt to look at it.  “So on your end,” he says, “you come up with anything?”

“My end?”  I figure it’s inevitable, so stop and sit on a purplish dodecahedron the size of a welfare crate.

“The aberrant personality thing.  I did that, you did this.  Right?”

“I don’t think I would have agreed to that.”

“Well, we need to come up with something.  Nobody else is any help, either.  Oh, speaking of useless people, Mia says hi.”

“Um, okay.”

“Anyway.” The captain cracks his knuckles.  “Let’s sort this out. Now, about one in a thousand of you are rational enough I’m willing to xox you into a clone body.  We’ve got plenty of material to clone with, but with zero point one percent of the expected population level we won’t have good longterm genetic diversity…”

“Could I just stay here?” I ask.  I don’t know that I want to stay here, but the prospect of waking up on an alien world fills me with deep ambivalence.  “Would that be an option?”

“I know, I know.  You are not the first one to ask me that.  One note, you guys, sometimes, I swear.  But yeah.  It doesn’t matter to you personally.  You’re staying put.  I can copy you into a new body, but you wouldn’t know about it.  I need you as the template, is all. Other-you in the clone-body wakes up, probably freaks out because he remembers me saying this, and then suddenly he’s got a whole new set of psychoses and identity issues to resolve, and jeez, maybe talking to you about this was a bad idea.”  The captain makes wild hand gestures as he speaks, which convey less information that he probably assumes.

“I feel better, actually,” I say.  “It removes the uncertainty.” Knowing I’m not going anywhere, even if some poor xox sap with my memories is doomed to life and death in a body… it gives me a little security.

“Sweet.  Concern redacted.  If you’re cool with that, would you be cool as a woman?  There’s basically no gender disparity in the mostly-sane population, and more women would be better for breeding. Which, I mean, I don’t even know why they didn’t just send…”

“Wait, what?  How would that even work?”

“Oh, it’s easy, I just clone one of the women and xox your template into that body.”

“You can do that?  You’re sure you can do that?”

The captain chewed his lip for a moment.  “…Yes.”

“There you go.  A hundred bodies, different and diverse bodies.  You fill them full of copies of me.  Then you add a hundred Mias, a hundred Franzes…”

“Not Franz.” The captain winces. “Not Franz.  But yeah, I can see what you’re saying.  Huh.  Okay.  I’ll think about that one. Thanks.”

“Wait, but…” I trail off, as I’m again alone on a gray polyhedral wasteland.

#

“One first notices a certain spring to the ground, a resilience suggestive of trampolines or bouncy castles.  The cascading colors across the sky, however, draw one’s gaze and attention upward.  Shapes pulled from some enormous lexicon of corporate trademarks dance and flow into one another: yellow arches on a red field become a twisted white ribbon on that same red background, which fades into a circle with two smaller circles overlapping, which becomes a stylized piece of fruit with a stylized bitemark.   Go ahead and stare, that sky seems to say.  You don’t need to look where you’re going.  Stare at me.

And in one sense this message is accurate; as one strides carelessly forward, inevitably tripping, the bouncy turf prevents injury or discomfort.  However, in falling, one invariably collapses onto one of the wee churches which dot the landscape, artful cathedrals only a few inches high, each filled to bursting with its desperate congregation. They pray to gods they do not understand for salvation from the random crushings, and their gods ignore them.  A sad lesson, but no sadder than many.  Dylan Obare, Datalinks.”

#

Instants flow into one another; lacking a wristwatch or the inclination to count seconds like some human metronome, I soon let go of any notion of timekeeping.  One vision becomes another, and on and further and into an everchanging sea, wine-dark and fecund with possibilities.  I wonder, at times, whether the captain carried out his plan, whether another of me was now or would soon be awakening on an alien world.  I envy and pity that other me, sometimes both at once, when I think of him, and the captain.  I rarely think of either of them.

The next time my eyes find his eyes I bestride a salt-limned merchantman, pulled through a rank and oozing brine by troops of trained seahorses.  The sunset burns the whole sky red and pink and yellow.  Dissonant orchestral music swells with every crashing wave, and when I stamp my feet the noise it makes is not thud or clomp but stewart.  Is this my dream, or another’s?  Does it matter?

“Dylan!  You’re looking well.  Wanna screw?  I’m kidding.”  The captain steps out from behind the tall mast.  “I wanted to let you know, we’re shutting down the simulation maintenance.  Too inhumane, forcing you guys to continue in this artificial afterlife, is what they said.  But nobody wanted to pull the plug on the ghosts of their so-many-great sort-of-not-really grandparents, so instead we’re sealing you off on your own microsatellite.  You should be fine indefinitely, but hey, stuff does degrade eventually.  Asteroids.  I’m sure you won’t feel it, though.  Just a cessation of the program, is all.  You’ll be fine.  Up to that point, I mean.”

I squint.  It had been an unguessable span of moments since we last spoke.  I have thought of him often.  Now he appears at last, only to utter ineffable prophecy of doom.  I stroke the long beard I have decided to have grown, and mull on his odd words for a long moment. He looks exactly the same: immaculate, broad-shouldered, slightly bored.

“Yes,” I say finally.

“Yes?”  He eyes me quizzically.  “I mean, this is happening Dylan; I’m just giving you a courtesy…”

I summon all the gravity I can muster.  “Yes, I would like to screw.”

Comments (6)

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  1. Sky says:

    Like so many contemporary sci-fi stories I find this almost unbearably impossible to follow. Maybe I am too dense or stupid?
    Why do so many authors have to create such odd worlds impossible to conceptualize and even more difficult to interpret?

    • Mat says:

      I wonder if you read/listened to the whole story. All of this takes place in the main character’s imagination, so of course it’s strange, fantastical territory. It’s not like it’s CS Lewis’ Perelandra or anything, you can just passively observe it because the landscape is a symptom of the situation, not a focus.

  2. Del says:

    This was a stunningly good story! I can’t believe it is his first one (if I got that right). It is a re-listen and a “look forward to further work” story.

  3. Joey says:

    I thought this was an excellent story. It captures that stream of consciousness that so often marks dreams. It was reminiscent of how director Michel Gondry took us along with Jim Carrey through the dreamscape of his memories in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or how Christopher Nolan brought us with Leo DiCaprio through the layers of dreams in “Inception”. The choice of background is often random and transitions bluntly from one world to the next, but constant throughout is the inner voice or narrator, the imagined representation of the self. I liked that the audience is constantly reminded of being in a Matrix-like state but self-aware but also has a deeper layer that only gets narrated by the Captain. It subtly captures the nature of modern existence and how many of us live both real and virtual lives on the internet, with some of us more in the virtual world than the real. Many times the real world is relayed to us through the virtual, and the only reason we can keep up with what’s happening in reality are the news and reports we glean from the internet. More and more the world “out there” is received through the filters of email forums, comment threads, and blogs. And we respond to them in kind, through the virtual medium, always wondering what effect our comments, tweets, replies, etc. had on the other side. Well done.

  4. Aaron says:

    Impressive, overall. I was impressed by the dreamscapes, particularly the tings they say about human nature. Perhaps the most horrifying part of the story is simply that things have changed, and that the mind within the simulation hasn’t. In fact, he could live for an eternity without changing.

    Although not the best story I’ve read, this one is quite well-written and really appeases the visual side of the imagination. Some stories evoke very powerful feelings, others, ideas, and ones like this tend toward pure imagery. That truly is the point of writing as an art; to utilize the creative side of the mind and to share those ideas, images, emotions and rhythms.

    As for future readers of this comment, all I can ask is that you understand that writing almost always takes place with the imagination at the forefront of the mind, but also that imagination can take hundreds of forms. For me, it often takes the form of music and locations, and on the rare occasion, people. Imagination is unique in that it represents the place at which memories and sensations blend together. Any sense or memory may be imagined.

  5. JayinNola says:

    This was great. It made me think of Douglas Adams. The Captain character was the best though. Something about his candor.