Escape Pod 598: On the Fringes of the Fractal


AUTHOR: Greg van Eekhout

NARRATOR: Tina Connolly

HOST: Mur Lafferty

about the author . . .

Greg van Eekhout is a novelist of science fiction and fantasy for audiences ranging from adult to middle grade. His work has been selected as finalists for the Sunshine State Award, the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Nebula Award. His novels include Kid vs. Squid, The Boy at the End of the World, Norse Code and the California Bones trilogy. He’s also published about two-dozen short stories, several of which have appeared in year’s best anthologies. Forthcoming works include the middle-grade novel Starward Bound, about dogs on a deep-space mission. He lives with his wife and dogs in San Diego, California, where he enjoys beach walks and tacos.

about the narrator . . . Tina

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories. Her books have been finalists for the Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.


On the Fringes of the Fractal
By Greg van Eekhout

I was working the squirt station on the breakfast shift at Peevs Burgers when I learned that my best friend’s life was over.

The squirt guns were connected by hoses to tanks, each tank containing a different slew formula. Orders appeared in lime-green letters on my screen, and I squirted accordingly. Two Sausage Peev Sandwiches was two squirts from the sausage slew gun. An order of Waffle Peev Sticks was three small dabs of waffle slew. The slew warmed and hardened on the congealer table, and because I’d paid attention during the twenty-minute training course and applied myself, I knew just when the slew was ready. I was a slew expert.

Sherman was the other squirter on duty that morning. The orders were coming in fast and he was already wheezing on account of his exercise-induced asthma. His raspy breaths interfered with my ability to concentrate. You really have to concentrate because after four hours of standing and squirting there’s the danger of letting your mind wander and once you do that you can lose control of the squirts and end up spraying food slew all over the kitchen like a fire hose.

“Wasted slew reflects badly on you,” said one of the inspirational posters in the employee restroom.

“What’s eating you, Sherman?” I asked, squirting eggs.

He squirted out twelve strips of bacon. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it. Not your problem.”

I’d known Sherman for a long time. We’d grown up as next-door neighbors, went to the same schools, had the same teachers. This year we were both taking Twenty-Five Places That Will Blow Your Mind (geography) and Six Equations You Won’t Believe (pre-college math) and You’ll Have Itchy Eyes After Reading These Heartbreaking Stories (AP English). We did everything together, and even though he was a little higher stat than I was, he never made me feel weird about it.

“C’mon, Sherman. Don’t just stand there squirting in silent pain. Tell your pal Deni what’s wrong.”

He wheezed a while longer, really laboring. Then, like a miserable little volcano, he let it out: “My family lost stat yesterday.”

The cold hand of dread fondled my knee. “How much stat?”

“All of it. Every last little bit. We got zeroed out.”

Startled, I impulse squirted and missed the congealer entirely. Biscuit slew landed on the floor.

“My mom lost her job,” he explained. “And my dad gained nine pounds. My sister got more zits. The swimming pool water was yellow when the Stat Commission came to audit. It was a bunch of stuff. Just a perfect storm of bad stat presentation.” He rubbed his forearm across his nose. “I might as well be dead.”

I could only agree with him.

Stat was determined by a complicated algorithm that factored in wealth, race, genealogy, fat-to-muscle ratio, dentition, and dozens of other variables, from femur length to facial symmetry to skull contours. It was determined by the attractiveness of one’s house. The suitability of one’s car. You could lose stat from a bad haircut. You could lose it by showing up to school with food slew on your blouse. I had done that once during freshman year and never gained it back.

Stat was the cornerstone of our great meritocracy.

In olden days, one of the worst punishments society could exact upon you was outlawing. It meant you were literally outside the law. You had no privileges, no protections, no rights. Anyone could just up and kill you without consequence. Being declared no-stat was a lot like that. Without stat, Sherman’s family would lose everything. Their house. The right to wear current fashions. To see the latest movies. To vote. And I could lose stat of my own just by being friends with a no-stat person.

My heart felt like a clammy potato. What was happening to my friend was worse than death. It was erasure.

I scraped congealed slew off the congealer, dumped it into various containers, and sent it down the slew chute to the drive-thru window.

“I just don’t know what to do,” Sherman said, squirting and wheezing.

I felt something surging within me, like high-pressure burger slew through a lunch rush gun. This was a new feeling. A powerful feeling. The feeling that I could do something to break the patterns of my life and take Sherman along with me. The feeling that I could make a difference.

I was such an idiot.

“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” I declared. Sherman looked up from his station. Doubt and hope warred on his face. “We’re going to save your life.”

#

The next morning the alarm nagged me awake before dawn. It was early enough to hear the drones arrive, their rotors hurling morning birds from their paths. Delivery portals in the rooftops opened like flower petals and the drones dropped statpacks from their bomb bays. All over the division, people rushed to see what they’d been supplied with. I was usually in no hurry, but I needed to get an early start, so I gathered my share of my family’s package and brought it to my room.

My stat was pretty low, so, as usual, it was knock-off brand shoes, last month’s cut of jeans, and a shirt the exact same brown as my skin. I could already hear the kids in the school halls calling me Miss Monochrime. There were keys for the day’s new music releases from Top Three radio, and some movies I didn’t really want to see and nobody else did either.

But I was lucky. It could have been worse. This morning, for the first time since he was born, Sherman would get nothing.

I said goodbye to my family: my mom and dad and sister, just noises and voices behind closed bathroom doors. Showers. Hair dryers. Giggles and hijinks from Morning Hard News. I wondered if I’d ever hear them again. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I went next door to collect Sherman.

He was something of a demoralized wreck. My clothes were low-stat fashion, but he was literally wearing the same thing he wore yesterday. His hair was literally the same old parrot yellow. Yesterday’s color. The sight of him only steeled my resolve. I could not let him live like this.

We loaded ourselves into my scuffed-up three-wheel grandma car and set out down the long, curving roads of our division.

We passed Cedar Grove Lane, and Cedar Grove Court, and Cedar Grove Place, and Cedar Grove Way, and made our way out to Cedar Grove Avenue.

We drove by Peevs Drugs, and Peevs Market, and Peevs Quik Oil and Tune-up, and Peevs 24-Hour Whatevers, and I didn’t even slow down at Peevs Burgers.

“Don’t you have breakfast shift in an hour?” Sherman said.

Sherman no longer worked at Peevs. They’d scraped him when he lost his stat.

“I called in sick. This is more important.”

I grinned, thinking Sherman would thank me, but he only looked at me with something between wonder and disgust.

“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

I continued past the little circle of bricks and the water feature and the grass you weren’t allowed to picnic on that marked the border of our division. “Taking a hit for a friend is never a mistake.” That was a line from Bomm and Gunn, the first movie Sherman and I ever saw together at the Peevs Cinnecle. Bomm says it to Gunn and then they both get shot to death by a gang of mutant cool kids. They go down with their middle fingers raised. Slow motion and everything.

It’s pretty romantic.

Sherman just sighed from the passenger seat. “You’re a pal,” he said. Which were Gunn’s last words, spoken through a dazzling arterial mist.

What I remember more than the movie was the popcorn. I couldn’t afford any and Sherman could, so Sherman sprung for a big tub and shared it with me. That’s the kind of thing that makes friends for life.

Sherman inserted my stereo key into the stereo and futilely searched the Top Three stations for anything other than the top three hits. “So what’s the plan?”

“We’re going to go see Miss Spotty Pants.”

“Your . . . dog?”

“Miss Spotty Pants will know how to help us,” I said, ignoring Sherman’s tone of disbelief. There is little room for disbelief on a quest, I feel.

Sherman shook his head and made wheezy sounds of exasperation. “Then this isn’t really about me and my stat. This is about you and your dog.”

“It’s about both of us, okay?”

Sherman stayed quiet a long time, thinking it over. “Okay, Deni,” he said at last. “Okay. I fully support you in your misguided effort to redress injustices perpetrated against us.”

I glanced at him. “Really?”

He shrugged. “Sure, why not? I’m no-stat. What have I got to lose?”

And so, after going past another Peevs Drugs and Peevs 24-Hour Whatevers, we arrived at Miss Spotty Pants’s house.

She lived in a very nice house. There were eight bushes in the front yard, whereas my house only had four. Pillars supported a little roof thing over the door, which I suppose protected people from rain and birds. The fake stones in the lower outside walls were more three-dimensional than my house’s fake stones.

The doorbell played some Bach or Beethoven or Boston or one of those other classical guys whose name starts with a B and Miss Spotty Pants’s new owner opened the door.

“Oh,” said Mrs. Godfrey, with an uncomfortable smile. “It’s you kids.”

The Godfreys used to live across the street from me and Sherman, but their stat had gone up high enough after work promotions that they were able to upgrade to a better division. Mrs. Godfrey looked quite different than I remembered. Her hair was bouncier and her teeth more symmetrical. But what really struck me were her pants. They changed length right before our eyes, rising above the ankles, charging halfway up her calves, then plunging back down and flaring out like trombone bells.

“Hey, Mrs. Godfrey,” Sherman said. “What’s going on?”

“Well, actually, this is a busy time —” she said, eager to get rid of us.

“No, I mean your pants. What’s going on with your pants?”

She stood a little taller, a little prouder. “They’re smart pants. They interface with the fashion channels and adjust themselves moment to moment as tastes evolve.”

Tastes were evolving really fast.

“I was hoping we could see Miss Spotty Pants,” I said.

“Oh, I . . . Well, as I said, this is a very busy time —”

“Is that Deni?” came a familiar voice from inside the house. There was a scrabbling and a galloping and then there she was, my old Dalmatian. She leaped through the doorway and almost knocked me off my feet. Standing on her hind legs with her paws on my chest, her butt wiggled so fast I thought her tail would fly right off and break a window. I scratched her behind her ears, which did nothing to kill her enthusiasm. I had to wipe my watering eyes.

When the Godfreys moved, they put in an application to take Miss Spotty Pants with them, even though she’d been my dog since she was a puppy. She was a shelter dog, and you never know what you’re getting with a shelter dog. But once her mods kicked in at about seven months old and she started talking and her extra spots came in, the Godfreys decided she was a really cool dog. And since the Godfreys had higher stat, they got their way.

Mrs. Godfrey didn’t want to let us in, but when Miss Spotty Pants bared her teeth, she relented. Mrs. Godfrey even got Sherman and me a couple of Peevs Colas and left us alone in the living room with Miss Spotty Pants. The inside of the Godfreys’ house wasn’t all that different from the inside of my house, only better in every way. We sat on their better couch and drank their Peevs from their better refrigerator. After some more obligatory petting and scritching, Miss Spotty Pants curled up at my feet and asked me what had brought me and Sherman. We told her about how Sherman’s family had been declared no-stat, and that we hoped she could help us.

She’d spent the first few months of her life in the pound, and she’d heard things from the other strays and rejects. Some of them came from far away, redolent with exotic, far-away scents, with odd dialects and strange ideas, and tales from distant lands. And when she came to our house, getting me up every two hours to pee, she spoke to me about what she learned in the concrete kennels.

She told me of lights and wonders. There was a city, she told me. And I asked her what a city was, and she wasn’t sure. All she knew was that it was different than the divisions. She told me of towers that scraped the skies, and grand parks and boulevards teeming with people, a place of variety and a million smells and a million sounds and of things one could barely imagine.

“Miss Spotty Pants,” I said, “how’d you like to go for a ride?”

She glanced around the Godfreys’ living room, with its better TV and better sofa and better cola. And before I could ask again, she was out the door and in my car, panting with irrepressible glee.

#

Things got weird once we left our familiar divisions behind. So weird that at one point Sherman shouted for me to stop and pull over, and the three of us got out and stood on the sidewalk.

“Did you know this was here?” I asked Miss Spotty Pants.

“I never even imagined,” she said, her voice a gruff whisper.

There, at the intersection of Spring Brook Falls Avenue and Brook Falls Spring Avenue, were a burger place, a drug store, a supermarket, and a convenience store.

Not a single one of them was a Peevs.

They were all something called a Wiggins.

Wiggins Burgers.

Wiggins Drugs.

Wiggins 24-Hour Whatevers.

We stared in wonder for what seemed like hours.

“No matter what happens from this point on,” I said, “I will never forget this moment.”

We went inside the 24-Hour Whatevers to buy Fruit Film Snacks.

They were the same Fruit Film Snacks you could get at Peevs.

 

 

We drove for days, taking turns sleeping in the backseat and subsisting on the Fruit Film. I wondered if my family missed my voice through their bathroom doors. After so many days on the road my brain began to change and time lost meaning. When we got out to pee at gas stations my feet felt disconnected to the ground. The car’s odometer said we had driven hundreds of miles, yet, paradoxically, the farther we drove, the less distance we seemed to cover. Sherman and Miss Spotty Pants said they felt the same way.

“It’s the fractal,” said Sherman from the passenger seat. His stared ahead with red-rimmed eyes as if he was looking at something horrible and he couldn’t look away, like maybe a ghost or a dead, brown lawn.

I remembered something about fractals. We’d covered them in Twelve Amazing Mathematical Concepts Everyone Should Know Before Eleventh Grade. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself. Magnify it, and you’ll see the same pattern as if you’d reduced it.

Yes, we were in a fractal. The little streets curving out from bigger streets like the bent legs of a millipede. The regularity and spacing of the houses, the stores, the divisions. It had become like a fever dream where you keep repeating the same bit of the dream until you feel your brain contract, squeezing your thoughts down into a hot little cage.

“We are stains,” Sherman said. “And we are glorious.” He had a weird glow in his eye, like the time he drank green milkshake slew from the back of the walk-in freezer seven months after St. Patrick’s Day.

Miss Spotty Pants stretched her jaws in a great, big yawn. “What are you talking about?”

“We are stains. And stains are glorious, because a stain is a variation in the fractal. A stain doesn’t repeat itself endlessly. A stain is unique.” He was gaining boldness as he spoke, becoming more alive. “Being a stain shouldn’t be a cause for humiliation and stat reduction. It should be celebrated.”

Sherman was saying dangerous, subversive stuff. The kind of stuff that could cost you stat. But, like he’d said, he had nothing more to lose.

It was exciting and made me want to speed through the streets and do donuts in the cul-de-sacs.

#

 

We kept on until Miss Spotty Pants spied a dim glow on the horizon, and I aimed the car toward it. As the hours and days piled on, the light grew brighter.

“It’s the city,” she said. “It must be.”

It turned out that she was right. Only the city turned out not to be what we’d hoped.

It was Sherman’s turn behind the wheel, and he’d fallen asleep and bumped into a fire hydrant at three miles an hour, waking me and my dog. We all got out of the car. Miss Spotty Pants peed on the hydrant while Sherman and I stared up at towers stained by rain and wind, rising from fields of concrete like accusatory fingers, their windows covered with moss and lichens. The buildings were constructed from a dizzying array of materials. Glass and concrete and brick and marble. Back home, all was stucco. Stucco was the only element in the periodic table.

Weeds grew thick in the fissured, unnavigable streets, and we had no choice but to leave the car behind. We picked our way along the jumbled sidewalks, our voices hushed in fear and reverence. Miss Spotty Pants’s ears pricked at the scrabbling and scratching sounds that came from the shadows in the fallen buildings. When something meowed I held onto her collar to prevent her from racing off on her own. But the only living thing we saw was a coyote down an alley. It carried a pink mannequin hand in its jaw and looked at us with its head cocked in curiosity before deciding we were bad news and trotting deeper into the shadows.

The city was a sad place, a lost place, a haunted place. But that didn’t mean it was a bad place. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine what it might have been, alive with millions of people hurrying to jobs, or singing, or dancing, arguing, loving, fighting. A population as varied as the building materials, all smashing together like atoms and creating energy. Here, I sensed possibility. Squandered possibility, maybe, but possibility nonetheless. Crackled and crumbling, dust and destruction, but a place that inspired dreams instead of just processing desires.

“Dudes,” I said, “the divisions suck.”

Sherman and Miss Spotty Pants agreed that they did.

No matter what, we would not go back.

 

 

The city became less appealing when the bombing began.

With an eerie electronic vorp from the sky, a green spike of light struck the street. Bits of torn-up road sprayed everywhere, pelting us with gravel. We shrieked and ran like chickens with ignited BBQ lighters up their cloacas and scrambled toward the ruins of a pizza restaurant that was neither a Peevs nor a Wiggins but a Tonys, which might have been the name of an actual human being, when a bomb struck the roof. The windows blew out and felled the three of us with hot wind.

“Split up!” Sherman screeched, choking on black smoke.

“No, stay together!” I screamed back.

“Let’s find a bank,” Miss Spotty Pants suggested, a little more calmly.

“I don’t even know where my ATM card is!”

I was a tiny bit traumatized by now.

“Banks used to be more than ATMs,” Miss Spotty Pants said with an impatient bark. “They used to have inside parts, too, and they kept the money in vaults. We can shelter in one.”

Purple sky machines with complex geometries sent down more laser spikes. Blooms of white and red fell everywhere, blasting the structures to bits. Glowing red crab-like mechanisms descended upon the towers, crawling over them and eating their way down to the steel beams. Shards of glass fell, just glittering white flakes from this distance, like fairy dandruff, and we watched in open-mouthed fascination as the tower sank into itself with storm clouds of billowing debris.

Sherman and I saw the merits in Miss Spotty Pants’s suggestion. We chicken-ran until we found a solid-looking ruin with the word BANK carved into a slab of concrete above the missing doors. Stumbling as the earth beneath our feet trembled, we scrambled through ivy and fallen ceiling until we found the vault.

We huddled there, shaking and crying and clutching one another as the machine tempest continued to obliterate the city.

#

At last the bombardment ended.

Leaving our shelter, we blinked at the sunlight sky like gophers peering out their holes with hawks circling overhead. The bombs had finished the ancient towers, and even the debris-strewn streets and sidewalks had been reduced to little more than fine powder drifting against charred weeds.

We wandered among the red sediments that had once been bricks, trying to find my car. Miss Spotty Pants claimed she’d located where we’d parked it by smell, and I suppose it’s possible that the blackened slab of half-melted blobby stuff had once been my car.

Sherman began to dig through the wreckage with his hands.

“What are you looking for?” I asked him, numb.

“Fruit Film Snacks,” he said.

I shrugged and joined him, though when the best-case scenario is you get to eat another Fruit Film Snack, you’ve really lowered your expectations from life.

Sherman started laughing a little.

“What’s so funny?”

He scooped handfuls of dust and gravel. “We’re the highest-stat people who live here,” he said. “We’re the cool kids.”

“That’s not a bad way of looking at it,” I said, and I laughed, too.

Miss Spotty Pants called us idiots and bit both of us.

We weren’t alone for much longer. More machines arrived.

First came the vacuums, some of them as big as the buildings the bombs had destroyed. They rolled in on massive treads and sucked up the dust. Through some internal process, they formed new bricks and slabs that they expelled through their rear ends. Giant metal octopi trailed behind them and arranged the recycled building materials into shapes that soon became familiar. Colossal devices rolled through and left bands of pristine green grass in their paths, like anti-lawn mowers. Other machines built roads, and swarms of little helicopters sprayed all the buildings with stucco.

The whole process took slightly more than six hours.

The final thing to go up was a billboard. It read Oakview Springs, Good Living for Good Families, A Peevs Community. Within a day, there was a Peevs Drugs and a Peevs Burgers and Peevs 24-Hour Whatevers.

We chose a street at random, Meadowlark Avenue, and followed it to Meadowlark Way and turned down Meadowlark Lane. There was a still-empty house at the end of the cul-de-sac. Miss Spotty Pants pushed through the pet door and let us inside.

You have to live somewhere, after all.

After a few weeks, a family moved in. We never saw them, because the house had more bedrooms and bathrooms than it had people, so it wasn’t hard to hide. We subsisted on pilfered cereal and instant waffles and, of course, more fruit snacks. The family bought everything in massive quantities at Peevs BulkCo and didn’t notice the small amounts that went missing.

One morning, I awoke to the sound of drones. Neither me nor Sherman nor Miss Spotty Pants were due statpacks, because we weren’t on the division’s stat registry. But I wanted to go out and see the delivery anyway. Maybe out of nostalgia. Or maybe to remind myself that I’d accomplished what I set out to do, which was save Sherman from no-stat shame. I suppose that was even true if you squinted. The unexamined life was not worth living, wrote Socrates according to the Greek philosophy unit in Eight Ideas That Will Astonish You class. But, then, Socrates got to live in a real city.

So we tip-toed down the hallway, past shut bathroom doors. I heard the sounds of showers and hair driers and chortles from Morning Hard News. It was almost like living with my own family. Maybe it even was my own family. Behind closed doors we are all the same.

Outside, we watched the drone swarm approach. The rooftop delivery ports opened like blossoms greeting the dawn, and the drones pollinated them with products.

“What do you think we look like to them?” Miss Spotty Pants said, squatting to pee.

Sherman pursed his lips, thinking about it. “We must look like stains.”

I hoped we did look like stains. Like glorious stains without status, marring the perfection of the endless sprawl.