The Crabtree Fund – SciFi from 2001

 

 

            The four made their way across the red planet. Two women, two men. The leader chose to remain at the rear, keeping an eye out for any who lost their footing and fell away from the group, even though they all knew he could have easily out–sprinted them all to the fissure in spite of the heavy winds. He was the only member of the group sent from the military. Someone watching the four move across the windswept plains would have reckoned the leader was marching the other three at gunpoint. The other three were not well–trained for space travel. The tall blond woman who ranged far out in front was the geologist, busy gathering soil samples and listening to her small device go beep–beep in faster pace as they approached the fissure. Behind her, a lanky unkempt man loped along, apparently uninterested in being on a new planet. He was the technical support, he’d already spent three days en route arguing with the leader, telling him there was no way they had enough fuel to make it to the red planet and back, when he wasn’t getting drunk off the cheap vodka he’d snuck aboard the ship. Occasionally, the technical support would stop and give a hand to the woman behind him, helping her over rocks and steering her around crevices. She didn’t seem to need help, or mind it either. She was the oldest of the group, a Malaysian doctor sent with them to the red planet as part of a token gesture from the U.S. to let the world know Mars was about the human race in space, not just Americans and Russians.

            Upon reaching the fissure, the four knew the drill that would take place until the dark opening had been properly explored. It had been the same ever since they landed on the planet. Their leader, either out of cowardice or some blind allegiance to a protocol in a book somewhere, would “stand guard” while the others explored the more unsavory parts of Mars.

            Forty–five minutes after the three went in, the astronaut with the gun began to feel queasy and shake with fear. He knew protocol could not excuse him if he were to run back to the ship and cry for help or blast off to Earth. Yet it petrified him to go into the fissure. After sleeping on it for three hours, and frightened that he might not make it back to the ship before dark, he flipped the light on his helmet to ‘spotlight,’ and gingerly stepped into the fissure.

            His heart raced as he walked through a narrow tunnel towards a dim green glow. It was all he could do to keep from fainting in shock at the site of the astronauts laying on the ground without their helmets on. Two extraterrestrials sat beside them. The aliens wore protective gear of some kind, small tubes connected them to a small blinking device.

            “Damn,” said the technical support, “I haven’t been this bombed since college. Where are we?”

            The technical support and the two women began to giggle, the extraterrestrials hissed in approval and offered the soldier a strange mushroom. They began chattering away in a strange language, and motioning the leader to try some.

            “Come on, Admiral,” said technical support with slurred speech, “Your tight–ass wife and Marine buddies aren’t around to keep you in line. Let your hair down, or in your case, take your helmet off, and enjoy. The air is perfectly fine…”

            Technical support’s voice trailed off, and the man fell to the ground, his eyes rolling in the back of his head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

He woke up on the thirteenth floor of his Kansas City studio apartment in a sticky cold pool of his own vomit. Damn, he muttered, they turned off the heat. How much of memory could he hope to dredge up from the night before? Was there ever truly anything worth remembering after a night like that?

She’d left him after he started having too many unproductive nights bombed out on cheap vodka in front of the television. They became too many for her when all the booze and self loathing started spilling over into the daytime hours.

“You look like a pop star from the seventies,” he said to his bearded disheveled face. Indeed, that was an apt description. The beard was matted and caked with vomit. Splashing tepid water on his face brought the realization that no amount of hair tonics and dyes could keep the white from spilling forth into the dark brown.

“Scissors.”

For whatever reason, he’d inherited the hair–trimming kit they’d bought to save money on trips with the kids to the barber shop. It lay buried in a box by his bed. The you–pump–it air mattress did a wonderful job of scaring off potential new mates; another item they’d purchased together with some dream of taking the kids camping.

Tearing through the box of mostly useless cassette tapes and old bills, he seized upon the unopened kit, viciously clawing its box open.

“For too long, I kept this lousy beard. Julie said I had a weak chin, and beards make weak–chinned men manly. I grew my hair long, because Julie wanted an artist for a husband, and thought long hair would keep the dream alive.”

Gregory was his name. Gregory was developing a habit of talking to himself for lengthy periods of time as a kind of cathartic pseudo–pschoanalytic experience.

Julie was his ex–wife. She got the kids, the dogs, the house, and an All–American fraternity brother with an M.B.A. to take Gregory’s place. Gregory got a box of junk, an air mattress, and the deliriously heady feeling of freedom. Not truly free, of course. There were child support payments, and some twist of fate placed the responsibility of paying off the loans from his parents solely on Gregory’s flabby shoulders. The loans, six thousand dollars total, had gone toward downpayments on the house and minivan, both of which Julie had gotten to keep “for the children.”

Not being able to afford a lawyer who gave a shit, Gregory had gotten verdicts from a judge like the ones you see on T.V. Most heartless and cold, unable to see how unfair it was, relying solely on the fact that there had been no legally binding agreements on Julie’s part in receipt of the loans.

Gregory’s parents had been surprisingly unsympathetic as well.

“Damn it, boy, I told you she was a witch from the beginning, now didn’t I? If you’d gone to college like I’d asked you, you never would have hitched up with such a small–minded wench.”

Gregory’s mother had rather liked Julie, and still tried to keep in touch with his ex–wife on the pretense of wanting to talk about “her grandbabies.” There was a lot of similarity between the fundamentalist churches Julie and his mother attended.

He paused a second with the scissors, remembering the day before.

“You come in here stinking drunk, the other cooks are complaining about the vodka and wine being topped off with water and soda. How many restaurants in this town have offered you a second chance, Gregory? How many do you leave off of your application? How many were convinced you were living with your parents and starting a new life at community college during those gaps of unemployment?”

There were plenty. The angry mustachioed chef of this last particular restaurant had sworn to Gregory that he’d make sure “not even McDonald’s would hire your drunken ass in this town.”

Of late, when Gregory wasn’t looking for work, stalling creditors, or swimming in a bottle, he devoted his time to putting books about New Age mental powers and Ufology on his credit cards. Credit cards he’d obtained from putting his father’s income on the applications were his only source of funds most of the time.

As if struck by a lightening bolt, Gregory stopped in mid trim, ignoring how bizarre his patchy face and head looked. He suddenly remembered a brief dream from the night before.

He was inside a large laboratory, strapped to a metal table. A bespectacled bald man in a white coat was peering over him with the look of keen interest.

“Gregory, do you know who you are?”

“No.”

“You are the sum of a million fantasies and desires. Each little fraction of a second in time, you and your unconscious self are busy cooking up new ones. Many of which contradict each other, others get cancelled out by the more urgent demands of everyday life.”

He could move his head a bit, and saw several people strapped to tables in like fashion. Some were attended to by various men and women in white coats, others slept as peaceful as death itself.

“But I never hoped for my life to end up like this,” Gregory thought, somehow knowing the man was able to read his mind.

“Sorry, Gregory, we have indications quite to the contrary. You see, our job is to simply measure which desires add up to being statistically the highest, and impart the fulfillment of them on your reality. For the past two years, our charts seem to indicate you’ve preferred a good alcoholic slumber to anything else. This is why your wife left you, your kids are becoming strangers, you can’t hold down a job, etc.”

“But I drink as a reaction to these things, I wouldn’t choose to make it such a full–time occupation if I had a happy normal life.”

“Hmmm. Well, I am not here to debate what you believe to constitute the reality of your situation. I simply measure statistics and provide the necessary antidotes.”

Strange to have a dream remembered in such detail. The coolness of the metal table, the scratch of the starched white sheet covering him. The pale luminescence of the white light whose source he couldn’t locate. A smell of something akin to the jars of pigs and frogs from high school biology class. Now that he considered it, the man hadn’t really spoken or looked at him at all. It seemed he was peering at something moving around and through him.

For two full hours Gregory hacked away at his hair and beard. Upon completion, he was transformed into what could pass for a monk perhaps, or a skinhead with a couple of days of growth on his head, or a new Marine recruit. He wasn’t sure why he needed so urgently to cut all his hair off, but there it was, in the sink and on the floor.

Strange notion, I am made up entirely of my desires, he mused. Did that mean at some point in the previous bardo I wanted mostly to be reborn male, white, middle–class and American? And how could I test this notion?

It was a gorgeous spring day, so many days like this had gone unappreciated in a smoke–filled alcoholic daze with all of the lights turned out, and the television flipped on as a companion of radiation and faces and voices. Gregory put on jogging clothes he hadn’t worn in almost ten years, and stepped out into the noise of downtown activity. Bums, loafers, and drug addicts glanced at him without interest and businesspeople in suits and skirts eyed him warily. A few schoolgirls playing hooky walked by and giggled at him.

He knew at thirty–three he was no longer much to look at. His new close–cropped haircut betrayed the inroads his forehead was starting to make. Years of bad posture and sofa loafing gave him an awkward crooked frame that kind of slumped and keeled to one side. So many cigarettes and booze ingested left his heart pounding and his lungs smothered after two blocks of light jogging.

Finding a seat down in the park, Gregory began to intensely meditate and desire thunderclouds. At first, all his mind wanted to do was randomly pick away at what had gone wrong with his marriage, but he was determined to see this experiment through. He’d grown to believe in the importance of one’s dreams, after so many New Age books.

Screaming schoolchildren on a field trip to the art museum passed him. A healthy active couple chased down a Frisbee and dog that almost collided with him. Cute young pre–med college girls spread a blanket out twenty yards away to study and catch the sun. Someone stopped and stared at him for what seemed like an hour, but he fought harder with his mind not to yield to exterior distractions.

Finally, he slipped out of his trance to peek at the face staring at him from twenty feet away. It was a short Asian woman, dressed in business attire, possibly Vietnamese or Filipino. Something seemed odd about one half of her face, but it was hard to tell as the sun was rather bright and painful upon his eyes. She seemed on the verge of walking over to him, when a young American girl in similar dress walked up to her and said something. The two ladies left the park, the Asian woman looking once over her shoulder at Gregory.

It grew dark, and first he thought he’d spent seven hours or more in the park and nighttime was coming on. But no, the sun was still rather high up in the sky, dancing in and out of clouds. Excited, he stopped meditating for crummy weather, and decided to reward himself with a hot dog, drink, and nap. Reaching the entrance to his apartment, Gregory realized the sky was entirely blue once more.

Had something happened? Or was it purely coincidence, a passing cloud entirely unaffected by anything in Gregory’s mind? Science, Gregory knew, would claim such questions as entirely irrelEt. Unless one could factor out all other causes of changing weather, and place weather in a laboratory vacuum with Gregory’s mind, such questions could only be answered by metaphysicists, New Age quacks, and theologians.

But books by said groups had become Gregory’s pet topic. He chose to ignore the eviction notice on his door, drink only moderately, and sit that night in a tub of tepid water in the dark. There were a pair of earplugs in the box of stuff. Julie had purchased them when they thought they would do a lot of  swimming together. Gregory donned them to keep out the incessant boom–booms from lively parties taking place in apartments above and below.

“I wish to be wealthy. Not terribly so, just enough so that I don’t have to work, all my bills are paid, and I can go anywhere and do anything I want to.” This was the mantra he chanted for as long as he could.

He dreamed of rancid water. Green corrosion and slime from an old high school swimming pool. The surface was hard to find. He wasn’t quite sure which direction was up, which was down. A lithe male form clashed with him as he gasped for air. Some stern face scowled back at him.

“Watch it, punk.”

The school swim team was doing laps, and ignored the struggling fool in the middle of the lap lanes. It was just too far to the end of the pool. Miles. His arms and legs were molasses, unable to aid him. Growing unease turned to sheer terror as he realized he could drown. Another swimmer collided with him, the young muscled boy was too self–absorbed in perfecting his butterfly stroke to see him in time.

Bone–jarring fists pummeled his face as arms and legs entangled with his. The two struggled for freedom, but pulled each other farther into the murky depths.

As the water entered his lungs, a pounding in his ears grew stronger and louder.

“Gregory, I know you’re in there, open up this door now,” screamed an all–too–familiar female voice.

He threw the towel around his flabby midsection, and raced to the door, dripping scummy bath water all over his scattered clothing.

“Hmmph. I wonder if I should get a baby–sitter instead.” Julie was getting plump herself, but not the pounds of empty alcoholic calories, rather the fat happy pounds of a homemaker.

Gregory towered over her. He always felt shock at the disparity in their heights, wondering how he ever felt attracted to a woman a good foot and a half shorter than he.

Martin and Bethany clutched at her legs, eyeing warily the man who’d sired them. Each weekend they came to visit grew more intense with pleas to go home to Mommy and Daddy. Gregory was no longer even Daddy to them, the children seemed content to call him nothing.

Julie was furiously trying to flip on lights around the apartment, then spied the eviction notice lying on the air mattress.

“Oh, heaven help me,” cried Julie, “You’re two months late on your utilities and rent as well as my babies. I thought you wanted to prove yourself the better man, Gregory, the more fitting father.”

“Jul…I…don’t…know—”

“When are you going to clean yourself up?” she screeched, her voice of tension escalating. Gregory hated that voice. It was the one that cried out, “I’m a martyr, a Christ of sorts, you’re persecuting me.”

“Look, I’m getting a job on Monday, a New Age bookstore just around the block took my application with interest.” The old man running the bookstore, always congenial when you were purchasing something, had in fact, become a grouchy muttering codger when Gregory asked if he needed any help.

“Might be able to use someone on Saturdays, the little college girl is leaving soon for the summer, got any retail experience?”

“Umm, well, I worked the cash register at a donut shop once.”

The old man had snorted noncommittingly.

“Oh, well, that’s just what my babies need in their lives. An alcoholic deadbeat father who practices Paganism. Why, I’m ashamed to even let them in this apartment knowing you have those devil books laying around. What’s going to happen when precious Martin learns to read next year?”

Gregory supposed the child would briefly have his own intelligent questioning mind until Julie and Matt saw it fit to stamp it out with religious dogmatism.

“I guess…I don’t know Julie. Look, if you don’t want to leave them here that’s fine. I’ll be cleaned up in a week or so, come back with them then.”

He turned to the children, who were now almost completely hidden behind Julie’s shapeless kindergarten teacher skirt.

“You kids like the Royals, don’t you? You wanna go see a baseball—”

They began shrieking in terror when the strange hairless man approached.

“Look at you!” cried Julie. “Why’d you go and chop off all of your hair? Have you joined a Satanic cult or something? How are my babies supposed to recognize you now? Look, you don’t know how much I would just love it if you never got to see them again, but Matt and I both agreed that the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

“Huh?” asked Gregory, now succeeding in getting Bethany in his arms. His little daughter was whimpering and too tired to scream anymore.

“The Lord says in the good Book that a child should know the face of its father, and so as much as I don’t like His plans—forgive me Lord—I must do as He says.”

Gregory simply shook his head in wonder.

“Now, because I’m going to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord, I’ll go down to the office of the Super, and pay him enough to turn your utilities on for the weekend. Listen, Matt’s illegally parked in a Service Zone with the car running, so I must run. We have an important church retreat this weekend, not that you would care.”

It took all of her extra weight to keep Martin from leaving with her. Ten minutes after she left, the lights came back on, and brown water started spitting out into the bathtub.

His children were mostly well–behaved. Once they grew resigned to the fate of a stale apartment, both seemed okay with sitting on the air mattress watching religious videos Julie had left for them.

Gregory wondered if he should put the earplugs back in. White southern revival hucksters in baby blue suits were ranting on with near hysteria in their voices to a congregation responding like a mob of Nazis to Hitler’s propaganda. The children knew all of the hymns, some of the songs Gregory could remember from his childhood church–going days, others were unfamiliar, but seemed to hint at rhetoric of being white and supreme and chosen for the rapture. Most of the videos were more geared towards an audience of children. These seemed just as frightening though, a constant stream of puppets and clowns and cartoon animals telling kids to stop thinking for themselves and let Jesus take over their lives.  In the middle of a movie about the second coming of Christ that scared the shit out of Gregory, he recalled his dream of two nights ago, and the concept that we are completely formed of our desires. A Stalinesque figure was ranting to a group of god–loathing Communists to take the mark of the Beast.

“Gregory, have you checked your mail?” Stunned, he felt his heart begin to beat blood into his ears. He looked over at the children. Both were peacefully asleep in each other’s arms.

“No, over here.”

He looked back at the television, and it was no longer the neo–Stalin, but the doctor in the lab coat from his dream.

“What do you want with me?” Gregory managed to force out of his lips, choked with fear.

“I only want what you desire, I told you that. I serve you. Now, tell me, when’s the last time you checked your mail?”

He hadn’t bothered to walk over to his mailbox in the front lobby for almost two weeks, knowing over a thousand dollars in bills awaited him.

“Hmm,” said the man in the white coat, stroking his chin, apparently cast deep in thought.

The movie flashed to the roar of the Communist crowd, applauding and chanting for their beloved leader. This awoke the children, who sobbed briefly upon realizing their nightmare continued.

“Daddy’s gonna run downstairs and check his mail, he’ll be right back.”

The children seemed okay with this, neither looked up at their father from the religious movie. Bethany was already yawning and starting to doze off again. His box was crammed full of junk mail and bills, nothing spectacular coming to light. The credit card companies, the utility company, his doctor wondering why no insurance company had paid for his last checkup. Offers from a million different contest and game houses—on a desperate Sunday two months ago, Gregory had played every contest and lottery he could find on the internet—now he was eternally on every mailing list for suckers in the country.

Whatever, he thought standing at the elevator, I’m drinking too much booze and eating too little, reading too much New Age trash; my mind is hallucinating. What I need is a good stiff drink.

The elevator dinged, and Gregory cast a furtive glance behind his shoulder at the apartment lobby. Outside the revolving doors, a couple of bums loitered shiftlessly, and the mail truck pulled up. What the hell, I’ll give it one more shot.

He plopped down in a chair in the lobby where he could watch the mailman deliver the letters and began to focus all of his mental attention on the mail sack. A soft chant escaped his breath, but no one paid any attention to the raving man with the shaved head and hooded sweatshirt. Probably a Hare Khna, considered the mailman who felt especially scrutinized by the lunatic in the lobby chair.

Thirty minutes later, Gregory watched the mailman slip one thin letter in his box and move on to the next mailbox. Shocking a plump mother standing nearby, he jumped up and raced to his mailbox, and with sweaty palms shoved his key in the hole and fumbled the door open. No amount of eyes on him at that moment would have bothered Gregory. “Damn,” he muttered, letting a loud sigh of exasperation slip out of him. Like someone receiving a punch to the solar plexus, Gregory slumped over and let his vision blur. It looked to be another stupid contest offer. He didn’t recognize the name on the front—The Crabtree Fund—but could see a check inside for some ungodly amount of cash. At least ten contest offers showed up in the mail every week like this one. You think someone has cut you a real check, then open it to find it a fake, or a carrot to begin a lengthy process of bending over to take whatever marketing scheme they chose to ream you with.

The Crabtree Fund. Sounds like a charity–type organization to me, he thought.

Julie was shaking him from his funk after some time had passed.

“Just what do you think you’re doing? You run off and leave my babies alone like this? They could have been electrocuted, burned, raped and robbed, oh…”

“Huh?”

He looked up and saw Julie and Matt standing there with ‘My name is…’ stickers on their breast pockets. He could almost smell the basement church potluck dinner stench coming off of them.

“Julie, I think the good Lord would understand quite well enough if we never let this sonofabitch forgivemelord around his children again.”

“No, Matt, we know what the Reverend has said. Not everything about a good solid churchgoing Christian marriage can be easy, how will we be a good witness if we don’t let the children spend time with their father?”

Matt just shrugged and muttered something, “I’ll be out in the car, please hurry, maybe your sister will take the kids in for the rest of the weekend. God, I hope I can still get back in time for the How To Be a Good Husband portion of the retreat. The Reverend has a new fly reel he said I could try out.”

Like a petulant little kid, Matt stomped out loudly enough to keep all of the eyes in the lobby on the small family crisis, and Julie clawed at Gregory’s arm demanding they get upstairs at once to the children.

“I will be back to try this again next Saturday, and the next, and so on,” she said under a shower of hugs and weeping kisses from the kids. “I am going to pray for you Gregory, because that is what a good Christian wife does. I realize that I sinned with our premarital relations, and sinned again with my divorce, and the good Lord  has seen fit to make you my special penance for these sins. But don’t think I won’t never change my mind about the way I feel leaving the kids with you on Saturdays. Matt has become very convincing and we’ll talk to the Reverend again.”

“Whatever you say, Julie.”

She snorted and left as quickly as possible with fifty extra pounds, two small children, and a huge purse covering her. He threw the mail on the floor and poured himself a stiff drink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Gregory could hear the phone ringing. The last of the alcohol in the house obviously hadn’t been successful enough to put him in a deep all–night coma. Months had passed from the last time he’d pulled himself out of the hypnogogic state to answer a phone call. That had been the last time someone called with a job offer. They’d reacted with a startled voice to the drunken man breaking into their message. Now, he screened all the calls, composing himself for thirty minutes with bracing water on the face to return what was usually a concerned message from Mom or Dad.

In the half awake state he was in that Saturday evening, he imagined his father, a computer salesman by trade, was trying to teach him physics on the answer machine. The voice came as if it were reaching up from a vast metallic tunnel, the diction perfect as the immutable laws of the universe rose and fell in precise cadences.

“Gregory, you know, you haven’t yet considered the possibility that your desires and dreams have caused a split in the fractal dimensions that penetrate the space–time continuum, thereby necessitating an alternate reality in which you co–exist alongside an irrational Julie, and unloving children. Gregory, what was the moment you decided a simple family life wasn’t enough for you? Surely you remember. At that moment, all of the waves and particles that constitute the underlying fabric of the Universe shifted their place in time, and you began living quite a different life than the one you ever would have admitted to liking. Well, give your mother and I a call soon, we’re worried about you, well, your mother is, mostly. Bye.”

The worst time to wake up after a period of drinking was in the moments the last light of day seeped across the sky, casting strange shadows in the room and filling the atmosphere with a vague dread something had gone horribly wrong.

She’d been in such a hurry to leave with the children. Julie had forgotten to stop at the Super’s office to demand the electricity be snuffed out. He was put at unease by the artificial light from the naked bulb in the living area and the tiny fluorescent lights above the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

The walls of the apartment were closing in on him. Gregory began to consider the possibility that someone was mentally reaching into him with snaky fingers, then quickly ran to the sink and splashed cold water on his face. A period of intense shock set in for thirty minutes, because he still expected to see the bearded shaggy face look back at him, not the weak–chinned alien with a big forehead that now appeared before his eyes.

“Hello, Dad,” said Gregory, grateful to hear a familiar voice, no matter how critical it was going to be.

“Son, how is your job hunting going? You know, we just spoke with your Aunt Elsie, and she has a wonderful job opportunity with that big high–tech corporation in Overland Park everyone’s talking about. You know, the kid who started it is younger than you are. He’s a millionaire. She wrote them a letter asking them to send you an application packet. Now, I know—”

“Dad, you know how I feel about those kinds of companies. Besides, what could I do?”

“Well, you know, you used to have a knack for writing. Maybe they’re hiring technical writers.”

“But you have to have a degree and experience to do that.”

“A degree and experience, did you hear that, Sheryl? I thought my son went to college and got a degree and experience, no wait, that’s our other son, Gregory the Wise.”

He could hear his mother in the background scolding his father for being snide and cruel, and considered how none of it affected him emotionally anymore. He could remember his father always taking silence for shame, and becoming even more sarcastic if given the opportunity.

“Well, I guess you have the wrong number, bye.”

“Oh, now, Gregory, don’t be so sensitive. You get that from your mother. Here, I’ll put her on.”

“Gregory, don’t listen to him. He’s just had a long day at work.”

“It’s Saturday, Mom.”

“Yes, well, your father is a busy man. His office sold thirty computers today.”

“That’s great Mom.”

“Gregory, you should at least consider when you get the application information. They’re called the Crabtree Fund, look for them in the mail.”

He managed to keep the rest of the conversation under thirty minutes by giving short bored monosyllable responses bordering on complete irritation. As fond as he was of his parents in the abstract, dealing with them in person or over the phone was something else entirely.

The Crabtree Fund.

Three pieces of paper inside the envelope. A check for two–hundred thousand dollars attached in perforation to a stub with amounts withheld for social security, state and income taxes. A W–2 form containing three dependents, a very good likeness of his signature, and his social security number. And a letter of introduction.

            Welcome aboard, fellow employee! We’re excited at your choice of employment, here at Crabtree. The Crabtree Fund was founded in 2001, by Ivan Crabtree, a young superstar in the high–tech world, with experience at three major Fortune 500 companies. We hope to bring you nothing less than the best in what an employer can offer, and look forward to a long and mutually rewarding relationship.

Gregory sat on the now–deflated air mattress hard. His tailbone yelped at him angrily, but he hardly noticed.

He tried to remember everything he could about his Aunt Elsie. She was always stopping in unexpectedly at his parents’ home, full of advice for a young man entering the corporate world. This had gone on since he was about seven, the year she’d moved to Kansas City to ‘be close to my kin.’

On a more pessimistic level, Elsie could meddle and gossip about family relations like nobody’s business. True, she’d loaned Gregory money for his brief stint at community college, and was always offering to take him with her and Uncle Prescott to Mexico. But, for the most part, he knew nothing about his mother’s sister, little was ever said about the woman outside of her everyday activities.

She and Prescott did not seem wealthy enough to have the kind of connections that would enable them to bypass the usual hiring process that generally required the hiree to be there. Nor did she seem capable of twisting two hundred grand off of a young high–tech sensation, no matter how persuasive she might like to think she was.

Gregory tried to imagine the mysterious dreamed and hallucinated laboratory doctor advising him on what to do.

“Look, Gregory, you asked for enough money to cover debt and live comfortable, and now here it is. Don’t get paranoid about a gift horse you can’t see.”

And that seemed sound advice. What did he have to lose?

Tomorrow he would charge up a nice dinner on his credit card, maybe use it at an ATM machine and check out some titty bar. Monday, when the bank was open, he’d cash the check, or not, depending on what the bank had to say. After all, if the check was good enough  for the bank, it was good enough for him.

Gregory found he had a furtive affair with gentlemen’s clubs. After intense periods of loneliness and pornography, it became an imperative to be reminded what the female form looked like in the flesh. He’d start the night out trying to nurse a drink over a period of hours, playing it skimpy with the bills he threw down.

At some point, the loud DJ criticizing the men for not being more free with their money would get to him, and Gregory would find himself at the in–house cash machine removing fifty dollars at a time with ten dollar transaction fees so he could throw away tens and twenties on sagging stretched marked women with bad breath and tattoos. This night was no different.

Around one in the morning, a good–looking young man who was all tan and teeth strode in with a posse of bodyguards and lackeys hanging on his every word. A young girl in a bikini—one Gregory had only seen coming and going from private rooms—quickly escorted the young man away from the main floor. Gregory heard someone exclaim, “There’s that Crabtree fellah. What an upstanding young man, showing you the American Way is alive and well!”

Gregory had a full bladder, and stumbled into the men’s room. He could remember shying away from public restrooms for several years, sometimes holding his urine until the pain was unbearable, and he limped home. Julie had pitied him for this fear of pissing in front of other men, until so many social outings had been cut short and wrecked from this disorder.

He always tried though, occasionally receiving strange looks and rude comments if another man happened to notice he came and went without making water.

Crabtree and his posse filled the bathroom, eyeing Gregory with scorn and contempt. Mostly, they ignored him after sizing up another pathetic drunken pervert, and returned to loud raucous laughter over this woman’s tits, or that girl’s vagina. A stall opened up, one next to Crabtree, who was the center of attention. The stalls were designed for minimal privacy, one step up from high school gym pissing troughs. Mirrors surrounded them on all the walls. After what seemed like uncomfortable minutes had passed, Gregory noticed the room was silent, all eyes on him.

“He asked you a question, punk,” sneered a lackey in a black jacket.

“Huh?”

“I said, it must be a hard life, being a skinhead.”

“Huh?”

“Huh? Is that all you can say? Must be a hard life, being a drunken retarded skinhead that can’t even piss!” Cried Ivan Crabtree with utter glee at his great wit. One of the bodyguards pushed Gregory up against the wet stall.

The group sauntered out, roaring with laughter, slamming the garbage can with fists, and pounding on the hand drier.

He awoke in a pool of sweat. All of the lights in the apartment were on, the LED clock changed to 11:00, and the lights shut off. The last memory was one of being accosted by a bum outside the apartment building.

Startled now with the memories of the night before, Gregory felt for his keys and wallet; both were there. He’d also left the door to the apartment open, but nothing appeared to have been touched. The check for two hundred thousand dollars remained on the table along with the rest of the mail and the Welcome Aboard! letter from the Crabtree Fund.

Splashing water on his face, he noticed the bloody gash from the knife of the lackey and the blackened eye from Crabtree himself. Painfully, he attempted to reconstruct what happened after he left the club. They’d jumped him, but weren’t speaking any longer in the vernacular of mindless hoods.

“It seems our friend has made choices,” cried one, taking a swing.

“He chooses this, he chooses that.”

“And once chosen, he chooses booze.”

“Gregory Watts, you are now working for the Crabtree Fund. How does it feel to work for us?”

Gregory managed to cough up some words. “Who are you, and what am I to do?”

“Questions. I thought we provided all of the answers already. I’m certain you’ll do fine.”

He could see the smiling face fade, and then the face of the bum demanding change appeared. Gregory jumped forward to another memory of looking away and hastily entering the lobby with his key card. He thought he could vaguely dredge up the angry obscenities from the homeless character he’d spurned.

In his alcohol–soaked dreams no strange visits from men in white coats had appeared. Or more precisely, none were remembered. He stared one last time in at himself in the mirror before leaving for his bank.

The teller passed a look of dumb shock at his wounded face and look of the streets he brought into the bank with him. Gregory was so impatient to see if the check would cash, he hadn’t bothered changing clothes or washing up. She turned purple with shock at the amount on the check, and soon a manager was called over to verify the authenticity of it.

“Hmmm, Crabtree. Our people have been trying to get his accounts for months now. An aggressive campaign of negotiations with his people. Unfortunately, he still prefers New York and Swiss banks. Let’s take a look at this. Mr. ah—Watts is the name? Yes. You can take a seat right over here and rest assured we’ll take care of you. We just need to send this upstairs for verification purposes, you understand, right?”

He had no choice, of course. After what seemed like ages, the manager returned with a vice president and both apologized profusely to Gregory.

“Our deepest apologies sir. We certainly had no idea how important your work was with Crabtree. One of the officers of the company herself vouched for you and seemed taken aback that we even doubted the authenticity of a check from Gregory Watts. May we talk to you about mutual funds?”

He had no interest in hearing a puffy little money–grubbing man in pinstripe expound on the virtues of sound economics. Money as a topic of conversation had always bored and irritated Gregory. It was, of course, the source of so many fights with Julie.

No, all Gregory wanted was a piece of paper telling him the money was in the bank so he could begin writing checks to creditors.

The day seemed so different, lighter, when he left the bank. He thought he could actually feel the gash on his face scarring over, the swelling across his eye going down. The clouds that greeted him when he left the apartment were gone, the day was sunny and clear.

He knew of a European Imports dealer a few blocks over. How the owner of the establishment could allow such luscious vehicles to sit out so tempting and vulnerable in a part of town susceptible to crime at all hours was a mystery to Gregory. One mystery he’d speculated over so many times while mooning and gawking at the candy apple red Porsche resting lonely in a corner by itself. He thought it would have taken the most complicated mathematical equations known to man to prove how nary a trace of dust ever attached itself to this wonderful car.

The smell of leather washed over him as the salesman apprehensively opened the car door.

“I’ll buy it,” cried Gregory whipping out his checkbook. He’d originally carried the book along to pay in person some of his more pressing debts, but how much more thrilling to drive around town in a German–engineered sports car paying them off!

It was like the bank all over again. The salesman actually sniffed the check looking back and forth from it to Gregory. What kind of an idiot thinks he’ll get away with writing a check for a car and driving off before the dealer realizes its no good?

For about thirty minutes he simply sat in the car with the door cocked open, waiting for his keys. The misunderstanding was natural, of course. We old guys aren’t used to you young high–tech millionaires going so casual on us. You probably got the scar and bruise from one of your Tae–Bo sessions, huh? Gregory Watts, of course! The bank tells us how silly we are for not having heard of you. Rest assured, Mr. Watts, we won’t make the same mistake again, and to show our deepest humility over the misunderstanding, we’ll throw in three more years on the warranty for half the price.

Gregory wanted nothing of the extra warranty, or the floor mats, or the sable seat covers. He needed the keys to his flashy red car, and he impatiently demanded them. The salesman jumped at his command, and unconsciously whipped a chamois out of his suit pocket to furtively wipe the door handle before handing the keys over.

Where to next? He thought of the way he’d dressed for the past two years. Thrift store clothing, olive slacks and button down flannel shirts. No more ratty shirts and jackets with sweat stains around the neck. No more baggy ill–fitting trousers. Nothing less than the best men’s clothing store, and a sin if he paid less than a hundred dollars for any one item.

“Dress me like those models in Details and Rolling Stone magazines—the male ones, that is!” He cried gleefully, frightening the young man taking his measurements.

A trip to the best hair salon cost a mere three–hundred dollars to dye and primp his hair. In an hour, he lost the seventies ’do and felt like one of the boys from teeny bopping pop music groups. He demanded a shave to cut his shaggy beard down to a fashionable three–day shadow.

It was only after stepping out and looking at himself in the salon window that Gregory paused to consider the implications of what he’d just done.

His head ached now, trying to remember if he’d woke up that morning with a full head of hair and beard or not. Considering the furtive glance at the bruise and gash upon waking, a morning memory of light stubble covering his entire head and face seemed just as plausible as one of bushy unkempt wild matted hair.

Plopping down heavily into the seat of the Porsche, he examined his face closely. The scar and bruise were completely gone. He thought back to his visit to the salon, something that had just happened. Memories of whether a hairstylist fussed about his bruise and scar or hadn’t—both seemed possible. An object was vibrating and playing a strange melody inside his jacket pocket.  He felt around and fished out a cell phone.

“Hello?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

“Gregory? What’s wrong, you sound troubled.” The unmistakable sound of Julie’s voice came to him from the other side.

“Ah, I uh…”

“Hey, listen, I have a really big favor to ask. Matt’s company is having a pool party tonight, and it’s well, you know, an adult party. Would you mind picking up the kids a day early, if that’s not too much trouble?”

“Um, no problem, no problem at all, Julie.”

“Great, I’ll leave them with our housekeeper Maya, she’s here until 3 p.m. You can call me if you need anything—”

“Say, Julie, I’m sitting here writing checks, paying bills.”

“Wow,” she chuckled throatily, “Is Rhinehart sick or something, or are you just trying to see if you still remember how?”

“Um, yeah. What is today?”

“Why, let me see, okay. It’s Friday, the twentieth.”

He held back the temptation to have her verify the month and year, not wanting her to know how confused he was. Gregory decided after peering at the date and time on his tiny cell phone screen that it was in fact the same Friday in the park that he began the little experiment with his mind and reality. At least it was the same Friday according to a machine. Not much else he was encountering would seem to verify the similarity between the two days. Rhinehart, a bookkeeper? Maya, a housekeeper? Since when was everybody rich enough to afford servants?

The Porsche appeared to still be quite functional as he sped across the city into Kansas and the sleepy upscale suburbs of Overland Park. Somewhere over here, he mused, one Ivan Crabtree was hard at work keeping the American Dream alive.

Matt strode up to greet him as he pulled into the gated community. Gregory didn’t remember their address containing such nice townhouses; he thought he could picture from memory Julie and Matt’s apartment being somewhat cramped. Nonetheless, he was slowly accepting anything unusual as part of the ride he’d chosen to take. It was as if the three of them were old friends.

“Gregory, how’s the golf swing?” Gregory had never played golf once in his memory.

“Um, a bit rusty, Matt.”

“Too bad. Ole Ivan keeping you guys busy upstairs? I know us lowly middle management sorts have gone crazy with all the new paperwork he’s generated since going IPO. Millions, no billions going back and forth, huh?”

“Uh, yeah. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“You’re a good man, Gregory. I like to think your kids lucked out and got two great dads.”

Julie breezed by in a formal evening gown that fit her stunningly, and brushed Gregory’s cheek with a sisterly kiss. No extra pounds from making babies could be found on her frame. This was more than he could keep hidden, and he pulled back in shock.

“Come, come now, Greggy–pooh. You haven’t gotten so gay you find your ex–wive’s friendly touch too repulsive, have you?” She said the words with laughing charm, and rushed into a Lexus before Matt had a chance to get the door for her.

Matt looked different himself. He was less conditioned by a steady gym workout, and carried around a portly girth the suit was unable to hide. “Say, buddy, how’s your search for that perfect guy going anyhow? Listen, one of the fellows in our office has been talking up great things about you and your new youthful look. You want I should give him your number?”

“Uh, thanks, but I’m not ready for a relationship right now.”

“Suit yourself, gotta run. The kids are inside, they can’t wait to spend a weekend with Uncle Greggy at his boathouse, so enjoy!”

Martin and Bethany looked like fashionable gap children. They both played little hand held video game systems, and looked up but once at the sight of their biological father.

Maya turned out to be a plump woman of no particular descent, probably Irish or Mexican, or Irish–Mexican. She too acted as if Gregory was this wonderfully fun gay uncle who popped in on the weekends to relieve the family of the burden of children.

There were no bibles or religious artifacts in sight.

In the Porsche, the children remained the same polite aloof robots he’d encountered inside their townhouse.

“How’s school?” Gregory asked Martin, assuming his son was still six, and almost finished with kindergarten.

“It sucks shit, I have to wear a tie.”

“Who taught you to say a phrase like ‘sucks shit’?”

“Dad says them all the time when he plays poker with his friends. Uncle Gregory?”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you like boys? Don’t you know a boy and girl have to be together to make babies?”

“Hmmm.”

He stopped at a filling station and gave the kids each a twenty to buy whatever they wanted. His wallet was loaded with bills, the smallest being twenties. Inside the pocket of his jacket—which, he admitted, did look a little gay—there was a Palm pilot computer. The Palm produced the bank account number, and he dialed up his account to discover the standing balance was close to one hundred million dollars. The cell phone had several messages from bankers and organizations of philanthropy all letting him know the best way to keep his money was not in a simple checking account.

“Guess what kids?”

“Yes Uncle Gregory?” came monotone zombie voices in unison.

“We’re going to Disney World!”

Bethany started to cheer, but Martin put his hand over her mouth, and said, “Disney’s for babies, let’s go to Mexico and have some real fun.”

Gregory was somewhat taken aback at the adultness of the child’s speech, but knew that when prompted, Martin would probably return the same response he gave before.

“Look, kid. I happen to think Disney is more fun than Mexico. So, that is where we are going.” Actually, Gregory had been to neither before in his life, at least of what he could claim to remember. He chose Disney World because that seemed like such an outlandish place to go in the middle of all this madness.

“You would think that, you’re a fag.” Came the defiant reply from the back seat.

At the airport, they discovered they could make one last flight of the day to Orlando on a cut–rate airline. Staring at the timetables on the computers, a man in pilot’s uniform bumped into him, and exclaimed, “Mister Watts, what are you doing in this part of the airport? You know, your private jet is waiting for you on the tarmac. Are you meeting someone?”

“Yeah,” cried Bethany, “Why are you making us fly with stinky common people, Uncle Greggy?”

Of course, he thought. I should have known. Being this rich, it certainly wouldn’t do to fly on anything but the private jet.

“Um, actually, uh, I was considering purchasing this airline and wanted to see its operation from the customer point of view.”

The pilot broke into laughter. “You’re kidding right? Who hasn’t read about their impending bankruptcy, and the major malfunction on that plane last week? God, sir, let’s get you and your children a lift here. You should get off your feet.”

Gregory felt quite a fool now, and realized that as long as he opted for the choice of highest self indulgence, everyone was happy. But why gay? He asked himself as their tram passed a leggy flight attendant. Nothing. A well–built man in a tank top walked by on the left and winked at him. Oddly and disconcertingly, he felt a rise, then a warm flush rise up from his groin to his face.

“Let’s stop for a drink,” he cried to the pilot whose name he couldn’t recall.

On board the private jet, the two children were treated to an array of movies, television, video games, candies, deserts, and anything else they demanded.

Gregory wanted a masseusse, but then thought better of it. He was unsure what would happen if a beefy Swede named Sven were to come out and start touching him all over. It wasn’t long before he’d ingested his third drink, and was aching his brain to remember everything he could in the order it happened. When exactly, did things jump so out of whack he couldn’t rationalize their existence anymore?

One thing was for sure, tomorrow would be spent with a Private Investigator trying to sort out who this Ivan Crabtree character was. For now, though, the soothing rush of numb alcoholic pleasure in his veins was all he needed.

“This is your captain speaking. Everybody put your seat belts on, and sit tight. It looks we’ll be hitting a rough patch of turbulence for awhile.”

The flickering of the movie the children were watching ceased, and all of the lights in the plane went off. Gregory struggled to find consciousness as he felt his body roughly jostled about and heard the children scream.

Several hooded figures appeared in his blurry field of vision, grabbing the shrieking kids. He felt his ears pop. A blast of cold hurricane–force winds ripped through the cabin, and emergency lights came on. In mere seconds the plane had negotiated a rough landing at some dimly lit field far from any apparent civilization.

At this point in his strange haze of alcohol and bent reality, Gregory wondered if it were even worth the trouble of acting concerned about his children’s safety, then decided to act.

He unbuckled the safety belt and leaped to his feet, stumbling toward the door where the hooded figures had departed with Martin and Bethany. Rough hands were grabbing him from behind, knocking him down and turning him over to land blow after blow on his face. Beneath the hood he thought he could make out the features of one of Ivan’s bodyguards but couldn’t be sure.

Still struggling weakly with the attacker, Gregory tried to fight dirty, kneeing the man’s groin area and biting at the arms that beat him. A small switchblade knife was produced from a boot, and slashed across his cheekbone.

“Oh, Greggy wake up,” cried an all–too–familiar voice.

Julie and Matt stood over him, their faces long with care and their clothes disheveled from hasty travel. His mother and father stepped into the doorway, Dad looking as stern as ever and Mom in tears.

“One hundred twenty–five million dollars is how much they want.” Matt spoke somberly, trying to appear in charge and composed.

“Who were they?” Greg asked.

“Couldn’t say. A man as powerful as you are should be more careful, though. How could you have let some stranger convince you that was your private jet? You know your jet is in St. Louis for repairs all this week. What made you decide to fly off somewhere, anyway?”

“I guess, I don’t…”

Their faces of concern turned to reproach in a millisecond.

“Jesus Christ, Gregory,” shrieked Julie, “Did you think the pilot was attractive or something? How could you be so irresponsible with your own children? Just because you’re rich and famous doesn’t make you immune to responsibility.”

Aunt Elsie stepped into the room with Uncle Prescott, both with smug looks on their faces.

“What did we say to you, Greg? You can’t live life so impulsively. Now, we’re both proud of your success at Crabtree, you’ve really made something of yourself. Your Uncle and I know something about having money. Anytime you like, we can advise you on being careful with your finances. But nobody just goes off and makes a trip somewhere without letting loved ones know where they’re gonna be.”

“Where am I now?” Gregory asked as a general question.

“Why you’re back here in Kansas City, son,” said Dad, “Get some rest, you’re going to need all of your faculties to help us return our grandbabies.”

“Can I get a drink?”

“No just rest.”

Gregory drifted off into his scummy swimming pool, only this time he was alone with the man in the white lab coat. Something held his head above the water, but he felt as if that something would let go anytime it decided to drown him.

“Powerful stuff, desires.” Said the man.

“Who are you?”

“Well, let’s see. Yes. My statistics to indicate most of your desires tend toward knowing the answer to this question, so I’ll tell you. My name is Dr. Anderson, and we are trying to unhook you from the internet.”

“Huh?”

“Yes, of course, you wouldn’t remember, nor do most of our patients. A powerful virus was released by a subversive faction within the CIA about twenty years ago. They’d perfected the art of mind control long before, and waited until most of the population was properly plugged into cyberspace. The results were devastating, much more control was gained over larger sectors of the population than they could have hoped. Gregory, we’re trying to unhook you from this fugue, but you’re mad with selfishness. You’ve got to free your mind from its constant need to be instantly gratified, or we’ll have to pronounce you dead to our help and return you to the cyberstream which NOBODY is allowed access to anymore.”

“But I hardly used the internet.”

“Doesn’t matter, you were there when it happened. Your body lies down here with the others in a coma while your mind flits in and out of cyberspace desperately clinging to this irreality and that.”

Gregory felt the force holding him up let go, and was drowning again. Pulled down and sucked into a murky abyss.

“Wake up son, we have good news! Your kids have been returned.” His mother shook him awake, her face was beaming.

Matt and Julie stepped into the hospital room, a child in each one’s arms. Except for tousled hair from sleeplessness, Bethany and Martin both looked to be the same two rich zombie robot children he’d last interacted with.

“Ivan came down here and got involved, the kidnappers actually ended up demanding close to two hundred million, but he floated you a loan, which we all knew you were good for.”

All the adults were beaming and happy. Julie noticed Gregory’s frowning face first.

“What’s wrong sweetie, our kids are home. Why aren’t you smiling?”

Everyone turned to scrutinize his face. “I guess, I just…I’m bankrupt now, right?”

Julie’s face blackened and she charged forward with a yelping Bethany in her arms. “Maybe you are, then. So what? Is money all you care about? What about your own children, whom you’ve sired from your loins? Does that mean a goddamn thing to you at all? Oh wait, I guess if it had, you never would have created this mess in the first place, would you? Would you?”

Gregory turned pale at the harsh and strange words ‘sired from my loins?’ Julie never talked like that. “I didn’t mean it like that, Julie, I just, I guess I’m a little confused right now.”

“I’ll say. Well you’ve made some people very unhappy. It turns out the plane you boarded belonged to a wealthy punk kid hacker who has caused nothing but grief for Crabtree.”

Matt spoke up, “Up until now, he’s only involved himself in cybercrime, but this truly shows he’s to be reckoned with.”

Everyone began talking in speculation at once, except for Gregory and the children. He had to piss, then go somewhere and simply sort things out. The people he told himself he loved were becoming these gross caricatures, and this made him think back to the doctor in the dream. Yet, that character seemed just as irreal, too. Then, the room hushed.

Ivan Crabtree stood there with two bodyguards. “Please, if you all don’t mind, I’d like to speak with Gregory alone.” Like reverent parishioners obeying their clergyman, his family bowed heads and filed out of the room.

“So what’s with you boarding Jason’s jet, huh, Greg?” asked Ivan, trying to sound all buddy–buddy, all the time holding a pair of menacing eyes on him.

“I didn’t know…I mean…”

“My men unearthed a small chip disguised as a sebaceous cyst behind your left ear. It seems you’ve been consulting with Dr. Anderson behind our backs. Do you understand what this means, Greg?”

“Uh, well…”

“Yes, I think we all know what it means. Termination of employment. And everyone knows what termination of employment means.”

Ivan raised a small pistol from his coat pocket and pointed it at Gregory. With a sharp short jolt of pain came darkness.

“Jules, Jules, wake up!” came the voice by his side as he thrashed about in the bed.

A strange man was in bed with him, smothering him with manflesh, and choking him with fiery nasty morningbreath.

It was Julie’s husband Matt. “Shhh,” he whispered, “It’s okay. I’m here, honey. You were having a nightmare.”

He bolted out of the arms of Matt, and clumsily ran through the strange bedroom, almost losing his step when a toy squeaked at his feet. A small nightlight glowed inside a bathroom ahead, he could feel the heavy thud of male steps behind him. Something was quite wrong now. For some reason he’d felt odd sensations of  comfort arise from the groping and caressing of Matt’s hands.

Slamming the bathroom door behind him, Gregory’s fingers struggled to work the lock and the lightswitch. He gaped in horror at the face and body in front of him, not knowing whether to cry in terror or slip back to bed and hope the nightmare would end.

Mascara smeared across his nose and mouth, trying to conceal an ugly eye bruise. The face looked puffy and sleepy, but was unmistakably that of  Julie, his ex–wife. He glanced down at the pudgy body that now contained him. Not the Julie–body of the last strange irreality, all fit for sequined evening gowns, but the bible thumping Julie–body, plump, motherly, perhaps pregnant with her and Matt’s first child.

He was pounding on the door now.

“Jules, open up! Julie, don’t fuck around with me, I mean it!”

Not the knocks of a concerned caring Christian husband, but an animal filled with rage. How long could she stay in there? Already, the Gregory self was becoming less real to her, and the familiar fists that beat her in the night were the only reality. The angry voice told her she was too fat, too stupid for getting pregnant, too much a slut and sinner in the eyes of God for keeping relations with her ex–husband.

She composed herself and unlocked the door. He charged in like an enraged bull, panting with rage and lust.

“Matt, please, not right now.”

“You’ll take it right now and you’ll like it. You haven’t been taking your medicine have you? I smelled the vodka on your breath when I came home, that’s why I had to punish you, you understand that? You know what the good Reverend says. Wives submit to your husbands. I heard you call out his name in your sleep. He’s dead, Julie, they’re all dead!”

Her lip grew bloody where she clamped her teeth down upon it to keep the children from hearing her cry out in pain as he tore into her. Everything about him reeked of a nasty male animal in heat, eager to get the job done. At least he was quick about it.

Morning came, and she knew it was Saturday, the day Gregory’s parents came to get their grandbabies. The day she packed their things for the retreat to listen to the Reverend and higher members of the good Church talk about having good families.         Matt left to work a half day without anything more to offer her than a soft kiss on the cheek. She lay in bed for a long time trying to remember her Gregory nightmare, but it was all a blur. Neither Matt nor Gregory’s parents nor Julie’s doctor would allow her to speak of the cult she and her first husband had been in together. But it seemed vitally important to remember. To reconstruct those five years of her life blanked out by those interested in reprogramming her brain.

She typed in Gregory Watts into an internet search engine on her computer and found ten or more crude fan pages, all of which enshrined and martyred him. With a lot of poor grammar and bad spelling, they told the story of the first cyberreligion, a special community of humans who wanted dearly to become cyborgs, and obtain all the knowledge that was to be found from the net in a mass melding of consciousness and machine. The leader, Ivan Crabtree, was a wealthy kid from the Midwest, full of sci–fi movie ideas and computer smarts. His sidekick, Gregory Watts, was a self–taught New Age guru who’d spent the first ten years of his adult life as a brilliant engineer. A handful of more objective sites mentioned Gregory’s constant drinking problem in a few words.

Her name only came up once, in a news clipping that went to press after the compound was raided.

It was standard knowledge that the entire group had hacked into the mainframe of the Pentagon, and began “interfacing,” the name they used for the bioresonant machine they’d built in an attempt to imprint the peaks and nadirs produced by the data into their own biorhythms. The women and children of the cult were mostly outsiders to this portion of the activity. Wives were hooked up to their husbands in other activities that went on at the compound in an attempt to meld two consciousnesses into the perfect male–female deity.

She read as much as she could until Grandma Watts came into the room. Julie quickly clicked over to her church’s homepage.

“What are you doing, Julie, my grandbabies are still unfed and unclothed, watching horrid little daytime television shows.”

“I, uh…hi.”

“That damn internet. I’m surprised Matt allows it in his home after all we’ve been through.”

“Grandma Watts, do you miss him?”

“Matt? Why, I just saw him last weekend—oh, you mean…”

Her face fell, and she looked more closely at Julie. Grandma Watts walked into the bathroom to Julie’s drug dispenser, portioned out by the days on the calendar.

“Julie, this isn’t good. You haven’t taken your meds for two days now. Come here, dear, and take these. You’d better take all of the ones for yesterday and the day before as well.”

“But Grandma Watts, you know I shouldn’t take more than a daily dosage. It could hurt me.”

“And what do you think taking none is doing to your mind? Come child.” She grabbed a glass turned over by the sink and filled it with tap water.

“Mommy!” cried Martin and Bethany, running into the room. “Mommy’s awake!”

“Children,” said their grandmother, “You know the Lord and your father don’t allow kids in Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom. Run along.”

Julie saw her opportunity to break away, and ran after the kids. Soon, they were in a spirited wrestling match on the living room floor.

“Julie, young lady!” cried the grandmother. “The Lord doesn’t like it when mommys hold their sons in that fashion after the age of three.”

In this newfound crusade to do the Lord’s Will, Grandma Watts forgot about the medicine, grabbed the children’s things and said goodbye, rushing out the door.

Realizing this was the only time she’d be alone for awhile, Julie staggered under the weight of thoughts to the kitchen table and sat down to think things through.

“Am I Julie?” she wrote on a notepad used for making to–do lists. “I feel like her, smell like her, and four people have confirmed it so, and yet—”

What she craved was a good stiff drink. Grandmother Watts had said nothing about the bruises, though they still ached with fervent pain. Her secret stash of vodka was helping her get through the days more and more. It wasn’t like she felt especially subversive by not taking the meds, she simply knew somehow that other people had too much control of her head while she was on them.

“Am I Gregory?” she wrote on the notepad. Gently at first, then more urgently, waves of the memories from the nightmare began washing over her. The apartment in downtown K.C. Ivan Crabtree as a high–tech millionaire, nay a billionaire. So many clues that pointed to one thing. He was Gregory Watts inside of a Julie–Body, somehow being helplessly thrown from one irreality to the next.

The minivan was parked out front. He threw on jeans and a t–shirt, and wondered if he should wear a bra.

His apartment building stood in the downtown area, just like he remembered. During the day, one didn’t need a keycard to get in the front, because people were always coming and going. He felt the lewd eyes of a wino on him for a second, but plunged on into the lobby.

His door was cracked open, like he left it when too drunk to remember to close and lock it. Everything was as he remembered it that first Saturday which seemed ages ago now, though in one sense it hadn’t happened yet. The Crabtree Welcome Aboard! letter on the cardtable. He examined it more closely, and noticed on the back like a watermark in tiny print at the bottom several terms of agreement he’d missed.

 

  1. You are now, part and parcel, solely the property of Crabtree Fund, Ltd. We reserve the right, at our discretion to terminate your employment, thereby terminating your person, at any given moment.

 

  1. Ivan Crabtree is Jesus Christ returned and incarnate, and is to be worshipped as such, any love of other gods is false love and consorting with our enemies brings instant death.

 

Damn, I should have known, he thought, and yet, how is it they obtained my signature in the first place? Where did the lapse begin? It all seemed to start with that strange dream involving Dr. Anderson in a laboratory that looked not a little like the ones in alien abduction stories. But that was extrapolation, so far only humans had shown their faces, yet he knew he needed to be on his guard.

Right now, there remains in this particular reality everything to indicate a Gregory Watts still exists. I walk over to the mirror, and I see Julie. What was it Dr. Anderson said about being constituted solely by my desires and fantasies? I do remember a few times when we made love I fantasized we’d traded bodies, but that hardly seems like the intense desire manufacturing that allegedly occurred in this cult.

How can I possibly escape this and return everything to normal? What was normal, anyway? Each time he gave it substantial effort, his brain was flooded with the memories a particular Self contained in that irreality. He could just as easily make himself believe he was the battered Julie, off of her meds and having cult flashbacks, married to a jerk husband, as he could make himself believe he was Gregory Watts—which Gregory was not important. In this state of ambivalence, he felt suspended like he did in the pool dream where something held his face above water. Walking over to the bathroom mirror, he watched his face change back and forth between Julie and Gregory, feeling his insides shift uncomfortably from male to female to male.

Why not do something criminal, and see what ensues? What could I possibly do that would be so outlandish and macabre that surely everyone would have my attention; so no one would doubt the urgency of my demands for freedom from this nightmare? Should I break into Mom and Dad’s house tonight and chop their heads off? I could mail them in a box to Ivan Crabtree’s address in Overland Park and see how the shit hits the fan. But he could never bring himself to do a thing like that. He still wasn’t completely sure that someone had simply given him a drug and was fucking with his head. Nor was he quite certain that he wasn’t some schizo Julie–Gregory personality. And then it came to him. Those two children.

I’ll kidnap them from “Grandma Watts,” and go to Disney World. He snatched the check off of the table, and ran down to the bank. The bank would remain open for thirty more minutes, he noted, looking at his watch. Impatiently, he stood in a long line of other weekend procrastinators, tapping his foot and staring at the clock on the wall. Finally, a teller window cleared, and he stepped up. Before he could open his mouth to explain his transaction, the teller slammed a THIS WINDOW CLOSED paperweight in front of her and popped open the cash drawer.

“Wait!” he cried.

A guard came over and asked him to move along, Saturday business was finished.

It didn’t matter. There was another bank a few blocks down that stayed open an extra two hours. He would simply run down there and open an account. This time it was like the last trip to the bank all over again. Only the perspiring manager didn’t return apologetically with a vice president. Instead, he came back mincingly running the check through his fingers.

“Mr. Watts?”

“Yessir?”

“I’m sorry, but we can only make three hundred available to you until Monday. Its policy.”

“Uh, well then. Make the three hundred available in cash, please.”

The manager raised eyebrows, but didn’t say a word, deftly working a cash drawer and producing six fifties. “Sign here.”

Gregory dashed to the minivan and drove it as fast as it would go to the shiny happy suburb where his parents lived. His mother was pulling into the driveway at the same time he drove up. Gregory willed with all his might the Julie–body memories to return, and glanced in the rearview mirror. The pedals were hard to reach as she put it in park, and straining her neck with satisfaction she saw who she was.

“Grandma Watts,” she cried.

Her children came over and threw their arms around her neck.

“Julie! Child, whatever are you doing here?”

“Um, sorry, ma’am, but the Reverend is calling flock to the church for a super early Saturday sermon, no doubt. He wants the families to be present for this special message, I’m sure he’ll be disappointed if our kids don’t come.”

“Well, my goodness, I never—but then, yours is such a devoted church. Children, run along with your mother to church. You will bring them right back, won’t you? I need some little helpers in my garden.”

“But of course, Grandma Watts.”

The kids didn’t seem especially thrilled to be going to church. Already, Matt and Julie took them to church at least twice a week.

“Mommy,” cried Bethany, “Saturdays are for playing outside, why do we have to go to church?”

“Don’t worry sweetie, Mommy just told Grandma Watts a secret code word for Disney World! We’re going to Disney World!”

These particular versions of Martin and Bethany thought that was swell, and they cheered.

They flew on the bargain airline. A grubby man on the plane groped her, and asked if she was married. Julie was tempted to change back to Gregory, but knew she’d never pull the kidnapping off with a pair of terrified children. She gritted her teeth, and made herself as small as possible in her seat.

The kids bubbled with excitement, and Julie detected genuine maternal affection for them coming from someplace deep within. After all, I can still remember the pains of giving birth to them, and the sweet feeling of nursing them at my breasts.

She ordered several little vodka bottles for herself, and little cartons of orange juice. With each gulp of a screwdriver, she knew she was losing some important memory, but couldn’t care at all as the numbness surged through her veins. At some point, a grubby paw was caressing her thigh eagerly, and sliding under the blanket to clutch her sex. She furtively looked over at the man, and decided he was familiar. Some friend of Ivan Crabtree’s or henchman; this came to mind. Both children, the one in the aisle seat next to her, and the one across the aisle slept.

“If you make a noise,” the man whispered, “Your kids will pay.”

She thought she had enough alcohol in her to put up with the harassment, but it was too much for the Gregory–self. He felt the changes take place within, and grabbed the man around the neck, slamming his head onto the meal tray in front. The man was too powerful an opponent for Gregory, and jerked his head back to send Gregory’s mind spinning into unconsciousness with a few short blows.

“You better talk kid, we ain’t gonna stand here all night staring at you while you try to wake up from your alcoholic slumber. You’ve got enough coffee in you, now I want you to tell me who you are.”

“Gregory Watts,” he muttered, not thinking twice about the Julie stuff.

“Okay, look. Our good ATAF guys have been so kind as to release the file on Watts from the whole Crabtree cult business, and we have the pictures. Gregory Watts is a charred corpse from the raid on the compound. What’s left of him rots away in a graveyard in Kansas City, busily growing the flowers his mother puts on him. So, unless you got something better for us, you’re going into lockup.”

Gregory became more alert and aware of his surroundings. A questioning room like the ones in cop shows. OPD on the jackets of the men guarding him. Some grizzled veteran detective sitting in a chair backwards and puffing smoke in his face. He tried turning himself into the Julie persona, but nothing gave.

“How do you know that charred body is Gregory Watts,” he cried, and idea rising to the surface of his brain. “Maybe you’ve identified someone else, even one of your ATAF guys.”

“Ha! That’s rich! Look, we got a good hand offa that body, and some nice teeth. That is Gregory Watts. So, who are you?”

“Geez, I don’t know. Look, I have two good hands, and my teeth aren’t so bad either. Maybe you can tell me.”

The detective’s silent partner, playing the bad cop, flew into a rage and bitch slapped Gregory several times, producing a forehead split and blood. The bad cop threw down several photos of headless children, forcing him to eyeball closely the snapshots of the heads themselves. Unmistakably little Martin and Bethany.

But for some reason he felt no remorse. These weren’t real, no more than anything else was. What day was it? Sunday. Since this all began, he’d yet to get past Sunday. So, he’d say and do whatever he pleased, ignoring the pain and the incarceration, and the stupid fools fucking with his mind would inevitably return him to Friday or Saturday or some other day but the next one.

“Look son, you don’t think we haven’t tried that? Hundreds of thousands of fingerprint and dental records don’t match yours, not the least of which belonged to Gregory Watts. Yeah, okay, so you kinda look like him, but that’s it. Now how about telling us why you chose to kidnap two innocent kids that never done nothing to you, put them on a plane using money from a stolen check, and chop their fucking little heads off in the plane’s lavatory?” The good cop broke into tears, the bad cop began clubbing Gregory with his nightstick.

“I was framed.”

“Yeah, how many days do you think I been a cop? One? Gimme a break, kid. Now, we get a confession from you, and wrap this up, or we send you down to lockup where some crackhead will ream ya a new one. Either way, I’m going home in 10, 9, 8…”

Gregory tried to think of the most outlandish thing he could do at the moment. The sickest most perverted thing that would make these policemen’s jaded heads spin for months to come. He noticed his hands were free and stood up. I’ll pull my pants down and jerk myself off, he thought insanely. Try and put that back together, try and make sense of this, Ivan Crabtree.

“I did it, I did it, I chopped their little fucking heads off,” he cried in a singsong voice, “And now your little kids are next, you faggot punk–ass cops!”

They beat him to unconsciousness before he could even make himself hard, and tossed him into a cell with crackheads, male whores, and gangbangers.

“Look man, I see me some fresh ass,” cried one, as Gregory struggled to awaken.

“You haven’t had fresh ass since you did your mama,” moaned Gregory, trying to hold up his I–could–care–less persona.

Three of the inmates flew towards him in what seemed almost glee at the opportunity to teach this punk kid a lesson. Gregory was of course, no match for several strong arms, and a now quite insistent sexually charged leader of the thugs wanting the first piece of ass for himself. I’ll black out, thought Gregory, pleaded Gregory, I’ll black out and this will all be over.

But it wasn’t over for a long time, and mercilessly, his consciousness did not shut down. Sometime in the early morning when the prisoners had tired of their fun, the doors of the cell rattled with the turning of the lock, and a middle–age man with intense eyes stood by the guard calling his name.

“Hey kid,” the guard said, rousing him from his painful delirium. “Someone has paid your bail, let’s go.”

The too–late savior was none other than Dr. Anderson himself.

“Dr. Anderson?” asked Gregory.

“None other than. Listen, Gregory, this is the most unstable of the quantum universes. We have to move fast to my laboratory in Kansas City and align your mind properly. You did okay in all of the exercises, though you were a bit harsh and uncreative in some of your methods you used.”

“The Crabtree Fund?” Gregory asked, quite unsure what was going on.

“You mean are they still entrenched in your head? I’m afraid they are, in a way. Actually, my own presence is quite helpless in this area of time–space, we remain in the utmost of vulnerability until I bring you back.”

“Back to where?”

“Ah, it shall all be explained in good time. For now, we have a long road trip ahead of this. We can’t risk being seen in airports.”

“Are my kids really dead?”

“Of course, Gregory. You severed their heads off at the command of Ivan Crabtree. This I thought you would surely remember.”

“But, why?”

The two stepped into a nondescript–looking tan Chevy Impala from the 80s. The car smelled of formaldehyde, now that he considered it, the Doctor plainly reeked of it.

“Who knows why anyone under the strong influence of a charismatic cult leader does anything? You were quite well programmed to see the children as robots, among other things they programmed into your brain.”

“So the reality of Julie and I belonging to a Cybercult called Crabtree was true then?”

“Mmm. More or less. You see, in my attempts to resurrect you, I’ve stimulated portions of the brain that operate under quantum conditions. Reality as a solid hard fact cannot exist until it has already happened, and in this horrid loop Ivan is running, time simply cannot finish. So, in answer to your question, I have to use methods of statistical probability and repeat this time period over and over again on my computer in various fashions to obtain the ‘truth,’ using the word with much caution, of course.”

“God, I could use a stiff drink. I just had my first prison experience, you know.”

“You’ll live. Open the glove compartment and enjoy. We have a long ride ahead, and you need your sleep so you can drive the second leg.”

Gregory couldn’t tell if the smell of formaldehyde was coming from the flask or not, but he didn’t care. It burned hard, but numbed better than most of the drinks he’d consumed in recent memory.

He awoke to smooth jazz and the hard pounding of windshield wipers in a dark rainy world of zero visibility, completely unsure of who he was, where he was, or what day it was.

“Ah, you’re waking up. Good. I’m about ready for a nap. We’ll grab a gas station sandwich and some coffee for you, some gas for the auto, at the next stop we pass.”

“Where, when, and who am I?”

“Easy, Gregory, you’re still you after a fashion, of course; and we’re still riding hard to K.C. I believe we’re just outside of New Orleans, it’s three in the morning, Monday morning. So far no lights following behind us, excellent.”

Gregory reached for the glove box, and felt a cold hand on his arm.

“No, not now, you need to take the wheel. I just hope your rattled gearbox of a consciousness can handle some night driving. Here’s an all–night truck stop in a town named Slidell. What better luck could we have, freedom from gas station sandwiches—a true meal.”

Nobody paid them any mind inside the diner. Neither felt especially hungry, merely compelled to perform the task of filling the belly out of habit. The waitress brought omelets and hash browns and coffee for Gregory, vodka for Dr. Anderson.

“Good old Louisiana, always lax with the liquor laws. You know, some things about this time and space period were okay, Gregory.”

Gregory munched on his food in silence, waiting for all of his questions to resurface. Could he really trust this Doctor who seemed to be the catalyst for his continuing fucked up reality?

“Dr. Anderson?”

“Yes, Gregory.”

“If I’m truly Gregory, how come I was unidentified at the Orlando precinct? Why did they think Gregory Watts is a charred ruin rotting away in Kansas City, if I am me?”

“Tricky answer to that one, son. You’ll understand better when we get out of this damn loop of time. Let’s just say that physically, you are a nobody, a creation of mine sent to this reality to perfect my understanding of the unending Ivan Crabtree problem. Yet, mentally, you are with ever–increasing statistical probabilities, still the one and only Gregory Watts.”

In spite of all the New Age books he’d delved into—books that included countless little pet theories of frustrated professors about what reality truly was—hearing the words of Dr. Anderson gave him a dull sense of impending doom.

“Dr. Anderson,” he whispered hoarsely.

The Doctor looked at him intently with concern.

“I think that guy over there looks familiar, and is paying too much attention to us.”

The Doctor nodded, and gulped down his vodka drink. They quickly paid the check and left the unfinished breakfast on the table. The car had already been gassed, and so Gregory sped off into the night to make good time.

“I’ll stay awake with you until we hit I–55 outside of New Orleans, just in case you miss it.”

Gregory couldn’t help but think every pair of headlights that flashed around them were actually eyes, intent on seeing him snatched away to some universe that served Ivan Crabtree’s own ends. And he was starting to think that maybe he would welcome such a capture. Who was to say which of the two charismatic personalities were running the correct reality?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

“Dr. Anderson, wake up! Dr. Anderson, wake up!” Upon leaving the diner, the Doctor had produced three more flasks reeking of formaldehyde from the trunk of the Chevy, and proceeded to consume them all at an alarming rate—finishing the third one less than fifty miles north of New Orleans.

Gregory knew the Doctor needed his sleep, but that seemed downright fatal.

Police sirens and flashing lights overtook him in the heart of Mississippi, but raced on into the night, leaving Gregory with blood pounding in the brain. As for the Doctor, he continued to snore forth his formaldehyde breath. Gregory opened a window.

“Come and be a member of America’s fastest growing corporation, The Crabtree Fund!” sang the radio, “Where the smallest cog in the works gets greased first!” A sappy Gen–X ballad played in the background.

He tried to make his face and body and memories shift back to those of Julie. Nothing happened. He stuck his hand in the window frame, and hit the automatic button to roll the window up. “Jeeah!” he yelped, swerving the car while hitting the button again to release his hand. Felt pretty fucking real to me, he thought.

He looked over at the Doctor. The man continued to snore peacefully—curled up almost as tight as a fetus in a jar, Gregory considered morbidly.

What if? he considered running the car over the next bridge, or slipping across the median into the other lane and playing chicken.

Dr. Anderson awoke immediately. “What are you thinking about, Gregory?”

“Possible ways of eliminating the uncertainty and questions surrounding my reality.”

“I’m sorry, I thought I had clarified that up for you well enough. Look, you have to trust me, Gregory. It would do neither of us any good to be killed at this point. That is exactly what Crabtree wants. You are in one of Ivan’s shaky time–space versions of realities as a holo–construct of mine. Now, I’m using events that might have unfolded with good probability, along with a replicant cyberholobiostructure, to repair your consciousness. When you have eliminated all of the false Gregorys and some of the Julies from memory, we can patch you back up to 2022 where you will be of great service to the Confederation in fighting the evil Ivan.”

Gregory just shook his head and turned and punched the doctor in the face.

The man grew livid. “Why, you, ah, you don’t understand a damn thing, do you? Your safety could mean the life and death of the human race.”

“But if I understand any of the scientific jibberjabber correctly, I’m already dead, and I’m to be a damn robot in your future. So, what do I care about you human motherfuckers?”

In the intensity of the conversation, neither of them had noticed the big rig pull up alongside the Chevy. Gregory swerved the car hard in shock when a loud thump on the car’s roof shook them out of the debate. An axe smashed open the left rear window, and a familiar voice shouted inside, “That’s right Gregory, don’t listen to the asshole, you’re still one of us. I’m here to save you.”

Gregory watched in horror as an automatic pistol blasted the back door off its hinges. Ivan Crabtree swung inside the car with his blazing gun, sending Dr. Anderson’s face into a million bloody bits on the windshield.

“Pull over, man, the rescue team is here.”

They boarded a small aircraft in Jackson, Mississippi—Ivan,  Gregory, and a team of bodyguards.

He fell asleep fast to the hum of the propellers,  not caring where he was being taken, or when he was being taken. Gregory slept a deep sleep, no dreams of strange men or ex–wives or slimy swimming pools.

“What the hell did you think you were doing, running off with that evil Nazi?” cried Ivan back at a large industrial complex.

Something about the charismatic young man was positively disturbing, but Gregory couldn’t put his finger on it. Was it simply that first contact he remembered making with Crabtree at the strip club, or something else?

“Gee, uh, I don’t know.”

“You know, Gregory, you used to be my number one man, the one I could count on to make a business run smoothly. I hesitate to say this, but I really do feel as if I’ve been stabbed in the back.”

Gregory quietly sat in the swivel chair, looking at nothing in the nondescript office. The room was quite ordinary; a potted plant, a picture of Ivan and a woman and children on his desk. Some papers in disarray, a computer, a filing cabinet.

“So, you have nothing to say. Look at me, Greg. This is me, Ivan, your business partner. I had the entrepreneurial smarts, and you had the tech smarts. We were like Steve Jobs and his sidekick programmer buddy, only newer high–tech pirates in a faster era. So your wife left you for some jerkoff. So what? Does that mean you quit coming to work in favor of a bottle?”

Gregory couldn’t bear it any longer. In spite of the fear he felt when speaking to the man, he had to say something. “Look, I never worked for you at all. I get this check in the mail and some kind of contract with my signature faked on it. I’m just an everyday shmoe, the only profession I was ever good at was cooking. I don’t know who the hell you are, or what the hell you do.”

Ivan’s eyes flashed fire, but he remained composed. Finally, he just shook his head and said, “Look, go home. Obviously, you’ve grown addicted to that new computer–mind interfacing software we’re testing. I warned you about that. It’s in its trial phase. Only to be handled under supervision of technicians who can pull you back to this—” he knocked hard on his desk several times, “reality in five minutes time or less. Our security cameras have you going down to the lab and spending hours hooked up to the machines, by yourself. Now, you know we can easily get guinea pigs for that sort of thing. Not my number one man.” Ivan said the last words with what seemed to be genuine dismay over the loss of his friend’s sanity.

Gregory sat appalled during Ivan’s speech. While he spoke, Ivan lifted a remote control and clicked on an entertainment system sitting in the corner of the office. The VCR began playing a grainy tape that undeniably showed Gregory lying on a table hooked to strange virtual reality devices. According to the times on the videotape, the VR sessions were lasting as much as five and six hours at a time.

It wasn’t as if he were especially shocked to see himself caught on camera doing things he couldn’t remember—too many bizarre irrealities had occurred in recent memory. What bothered him was the eerie feeling of de ja vu that crept over him at the familiarity of the VR room, and the metal tables, now all empty except for the one Gregory lay upon.

“Maybe I can regain my sanity if you hooked me back up and de–programmed me,” said Gregory, hoping to somehow spy on the facilities and try and learn more about his situation.

“Yes, I’ve thought of that. Only, how can I be sure you’re loyal to Crabtree, and not simply caught in the pathology of Stockholm Syndrome? These men,” Ivan gestured around him, “Are not robots, acting upon the orders of Supercomputers. They’re like brothers to me, freely choosing to fight the evil of a diabolical genius from the future. We are the only ones wealthy enough and strong enough to reverse this infiltration into the American Mind, and I thought I counted you among us.”

“B–but, I am loyal. You’re right. I’ve simply screwed up my head with the pleasures of Cybermachines, wealth, fame, and alcohol. I’ve already lost three of the people who mean so much to me, Ivan. Please, don’t abandon me as well.” Gregory did his best to sound sincere and submissive. Feeling so strung out inside seemed to give his words an aura of credence.

“I hope you’re right. But, we’re not going to reprogram you. We’ll let you make a choice. My intelligence has word our Jason Anderson is finishing his dissertation right now at a small college in Canada. I’m sending you there to kill him.”

“But you killed him. I watched you.”

“I see your memory is more dissolved than I thought. Gregory, you’re the one who started receiving the anonymous phone calls about a visitor from the future, infiltrating our time–space continuum via the net, and preparing the world for a giant mindfuck. As of right now, Dr. Anderson is still Jason Anderson, a bright kid, but nothing more than a petty hacker getting in our systems and taking us offline for a few hours at a time.”

Gregory sat staring at the grainy image of himself, three clips of a depraved journey into cyberpleasures, rewound and played over and over again.

“Now, Gregory, we’ve witnessed how the Doctor has created a very convincing cyberphantom of himself, right?”

“He did consume three pints of formaldehyde, and was wide awake the instant I thought of killing us. I don’t think a real human form could have duplicated such feats.”

“Exactly. And you saw how no palpable tissue and pieces of skull smacked the windshield when I blew his head off? It’s the same with the convincing placement of you in a holding tank in Orlando. What cops behave the way yours did, but the ones on T.V.? And finally, it’s Monday night, Gregory, you know what that means? The effects of the stupid cybermachine are starting to finally wear off, and you’re listening to the voice of reason.”

Gregory nodded his head. It did sort of make sense.

“So, you ready to go prove your loyalty?” Ivan grinned a toothy wholesome grin that could have been in a J. Crew catalogue.

He had no choice. They would outfit him with a semi–automatic pistol in Canada, and brief him on the places and times Jason Anderson was spotted around his college campus. Ivan had one of his bodyguards take Gregory back to his apartment.

His apartment looked much the same. He called Matt and Julie’s number. The familiar voices of his children, ex–wife, and her husband babbled on the other end about their church, and how many points they’d scored with the Reverend that week. Nobody’s heads were severed. The only cultish–sounding talk came when Matt and Julie described the retreat, and the ideas put forth by the charismatic Reverend.

He felt his gorge rise when he poured himself a vodka. Thinking back to the stench of formaldehyde, he tossed the drink in the sink. Nothing was on television, so Gregory decided to surf the net. Of course, he still was far from certain who to believe, and wondered if any sleuthing might turn up promising clues.

Typing “Ivan Crabtree” into search engines gave him nothing more than propaganda pages off the Crabtree Fund’s own website. He typed his own name in, and discovered mention of Gregory Watts here and there within pages of the Fund’s history. Jason Anderson got him nothing, until he dug deeper past the top 25 hits the engines returned. He discovered a student page for the Institute for Computer and Information Technology at the University of Saskatchewan detailing a technically dense Master’s thesis, and the outline and abstract for an equally esoteric Doctorate dissertation. Both were on the subject of ways to improve the storage and transfer of data using quantum computing and holographic memory, but none of the meaning penetrated Gregory’s mind. Was I really the top technical advisor at Crabtree? he thought. I always remember having trouble with high school algebra.

He decided to re–search “Ivan Crabtree” again, and dig past the first fifty or so hits. Gregory pulled back in shock as his eyes caught the fifty–sixth entry into a search engine.

 

  1. untitled.

I know that all of you are anxious to get back to the adventures young Gregory Watts…

http://www.freemindsunderground.com/~Gregory/

message2020.html

 

            I know that all of you are anxious to get back to the adventures young Gregory Watts had in that strange realm of fractured realities and irreverent time loops. Or perhaps not. One’s head can start to spin from trying to keep track of what is what and what isn’t.

            You see, I am the writer of this little play, after a fashion, so naturally one would tend to be of the opinion that I of all the intelligent beings in the universe can state for a certainty how things will turn out, how things won’t, what is real and what isn’t.

            Perhaps you might see where this is going, and say, “Gosh, Mr. Writer of the Play, even if you didn’t know at the time your letters plunked across the computer screen, you do now, at the time I am watching the play unfold.”

            In case you haven’t been so quick to figure things out, you at least could tell that as a writer, I am rather fond of punishing Mr. Gregory/Ms. Julie Watts in a time loop that began sometime on Friday, a day in May, and enfolded again and again within itself by Sunday night. No doubt this nauseated some of the audience, this is perfectly understandable.

            What I have yet to mention is my research into the abominable Dr. Jason Anderson, leader of a millennial cult and brilliant high–tech wiz kid of the early twenty–first century. The fact remains that all of you dear readers who are using the internet, speaking on cell phones, watching television broadcast from a remote location, making a transaction on most ATM machines, (or receiving transmissions from any other device hooked up to the general Network of Users at Large), at 6:00 p.m., GMT, on December 21, 2012, are in for similar twisted garbled hells of irrealities, much the same as young Gregory and Julie were.

            You read this thanks to the technology of the internet, though, so mayhap I can save a few who come across this website. In the near future, my name and identity will be misrepresented often as a scapegoat for the real perpetrator of the crimes, Dr. Jason Anderson. Before 2012, history has always found the true villain in the end, though I’m not so sure now that much of the history that runs in the minds of the general population is caught in a strange loop.

            Therefore, given this limited opportunity to clarify who I am, and what I represent, allow me to briefly indulge myself in talking about myself.

            My name is Ivan Crabtree, I am a member of the Free Minds Underground. I was born October 24, 1978 in Saskatchewan, Canada to an Inuit father and Russian–American mother who’d escaped an especially persecuting sect of her people. This background information provides you with an understanding that my childhood was quite absent of high–tech gizmos that became more and more deeply entrenched in the minds of a large portion of the world population.

            Though never fond of the reliance of the masses on their technological gadgets (we Free Minds like to keep our minds just that—Free) my people were not Teddy Kaczinskis, we simply had hearts and souls that needed freedom of expression beyond the confines of the boundaries set down by a Dogmatic Scientific Body of Believers.

            Two of the members of my group, Gregory and Julie Watts, who’d relocated from Missouri as college students, headed the Internet task force team. They were in charge of putting out our ideas, maintaining our website, and sending “friendly spam” to get the word out to the masses. During their five year stay at our peaceful retreat situated on one of the last paradises of Earth, they bore and raised two lovely children who were the delight of all the Brothers and Sisters.

            Unfortunately, they were the most susceptible to the viral matter that was released into the general Network of Users at Large on that fateful day in 2012. No one else in my group had any problems with my teachings, or ever felt uncomfortable or threatened at any time.

            The Watts family soon left after the Mass Reprogramming took place, and returned to Gregory’s parents home in Kansas City before finding a place of their own. In a gruesome rampage a few months later (which still has yet to be documented accurately), Gregory took a butcher’s knife to his two children, severing the heads and mailing them to me.

            An intense investigation surrounding the incident coupled with a Dateline episode in which Julie sat in tears claiming she barely got out with her life and sanity, referring to my group of course. Gregory and her children, she claimed, were not so lucky.

            I believe to the best of my knowledge Gregory was promised life in a mental hospital if he would testify that my group was responsible for the deaths of the children. Mentally competent to testify against me, but not mentally competent to stand trial against the deaths of his children. Illogic, one might think. Ah, but those truly were the beginnings of madness across the land.

            During the raid on my retreat, I was seventy–five miles away, communing with the Buffalo Spirits in an attempt to find an alternative to the coming bloodshed I saw in dreams. Why the Spirits chose to let my group go up in flames during a raid by ATAF men (that broke several international laws and U.S.–Canada treaties) I still can’t say.

            Some accounts I hear, tell me that Gregory was forced at gunpoint back to the retreat so they could incinerate him with the others. Other people come and tell me he resides at a mental hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, exhibiting psychotic disorders of a severe kind. More speculative accounts inform me he is an instrument inside a laboratory of Dr. Jason Anderson, having his memory and soul gutted in a psycho–cyber search for clues to where I might be.

            What you read in these pages comes not from a Superintelligent Mind–Machine somewhere that can travel back in time as possible quantum states allow. Dr. Jason Anderson might have you believe this, and perhaps he can provide the math and data and schema to back up his claims.

            But what science learned to do only twenty years ago in 2012, my ancestors and their Buffalo Spirits have effortlessly done these things for thousands of years, using the eternal truths that lie within all of us, not in some laboratory. So, you ask, how can you, Ivan Crabtree send me a message from the future over the internet of now? I welcome you to come and join my group, but perhaps you’d best wait until after 2012, and be careful my dearest readers.

            And if some part of you hesitates because, “if he can warn me, why couldn’t he warn his own group and save those two children?” Well, we cannot possibly fathom the desires of the Buffalo Spirits, their will is likened unto our own when we try our best to act from the heart. Put bluntly, I simply do not know why things are the way they are.

 

With growing excitement, Gregory inserted the cursor in the URL box on his browser and deleted the information back to:

http://www.freemindsunderground.com/~Gregory/

and pressed return. The browser told him access denied. He backed up to

http://www.freemindsunderground.com

and tried again.

An unmistakable photograph of Ivan Crabtree appeared along with a lot of New Age rhetoric about making the world a better place through getting in touch with nature instead of technology. There was a bookstore link to some of the underground pamphlets the group had published, as well as a cybertour of the “retreat” facilities. Ivan decided to take the tour, catching photos of happy couples communing and doing chores around the facilities. Who was smiling and waving at the camera on the Web Task Force page? None other than his own happy family unit, pre–Matt, of course.

He clicked the back button to the mysterious page that contained Ivan’s warning from the future, and the server returned the message “Unable to locate requested server,” leaving a blank browser window in place of the photo of Gregory and his family.

He tried several times, but received the same message. Clicking all the way back to the search engine page, he discovered entry fifty–six had been replaced with somebody’s genealogy page describing the marriage of Gregory Watts and Olga Johnson from 1852.

Gregory was technically savvy enough to do a file search on his computer for all the recently cached HTML pages, but none of the freemindsunderground.com stuff was there. His overtaxed brain was already struggling to remember the information the “other Ivan” had provided from the future, but was soon lost in the sea of memories from all the different realities he’d experienced.

One thing was certain to Gregory. Upon arriving in Saskatchewan, he would have more to do, it seemed, than merely kill a student.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Gregory imagined Saskatchewan to be a city the size of Kansas City somewhere near Toronto. He was quite surprised to find the company private jet touching down in a rather small–looking airfield outside of a town called Saskatoon. The branch of the University—the one the future Dr. Anderson was attending—was located in this town, and the school itself seemed rather small. A man in a black nondescript car met him at the airfield and drove him to a hotel. Inside the room, he was unceremoniously handed his piece, and briefly instructed how to load and fire it.

I’ll certainly be wanting to use it at some point, thought Gregory grimly, though I’m still unsure on whom I’ll use it. Perhaps myself.

Gregory spotted a diner and decided to grab a bite and see what the locals knew. Obviously, if Crabtree’s group did exist, they could be anywhere in the gigantic province—Gregory had finally looked at a map. Upon entering the diner, a conversation that sounded animated from the outside stopped abruptly, and several eyes turned to their plates.

He asked the waitress as to the whereabouts of a farm or ranch run by an organization calling themselves the Free Minds Underground, but spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. He noticed a few eyebrows raised, but the waitress pretended not to have heard, and the old regulars grunted noncommitingly.

“What was the name of your group?” asked a young man looking up from a pile of books and papers.

Gregory had a sense of de ja vu come over him, and then recognition came to his face.

“Do I know you?” asked Jason Anderson.

“You’re Jason Anderson, correct?”

“Why yes, how do you know my name?” The kid had almost as intense and penetrating a gaze as his older self, but with all of his hair and a little baby fat, he seemed almost respectful of Gregory, who was seven or eight years his senior.

“I am a fan of your work,” Replied Gregory with a grin.

The kid blanched a bit, and looked down at his coffee. “My work is pretty obscure, what is your area of interest—computers, holography, or quantum physics?”

“My interests tend to run in the direction of speculative fiction. You see, I write short novels that raise philosophical questions concerning these issues.”

“I see. But you’re not looking for me, you’re looking for—”

“Free Minds Underground. They’re probably just a bunch of hippies, but I’m doing a freelance project I hope to publish in Wired on technology cults; or in their case, anti–technology.”

Gregory felt at ease spinning the lies. He wasn’t sure why, usually he had trouble stammering out even the truth. Maybe it was the gun inside his jacket pocket. Or the lessons in lying he’d taken from the Doctor and Ivan. Or both.

Jason seemed to believe what he said, and grabbed his books, motioning Gregory to follow him outside.

“Let’s walk around town a bit, you’ve never been here, have you?”

“No.”

“Look, no one is very happy with the FMU right now. It’s attracted the attention of your country’s secret police, the FBI, CIA, ATAF, or NSA—or perhaps a combination of some of those organizations, or secret ones no one’s heard of. It doesn’t matter, but they’re here. An old man who the runs the control tower was talking about your plane and the car that greeted you when you walked into the diner. The locals are scared and angry. They don’t like to think about American secret police sniffing around in their country, no matter how wacko they might consider the FMU. Everyone is keeping tight lips around strangers. Now, for all I know, you could be one of them, but you don’t look it. Your story sounded a bit bogus to me, so I know you’re no writer, either.”

“Of course I’m a writer!” cried Gregory a bit too defensively, patting with vigor the pocket that held the pistol as if the gun were a talisman there to provide him with magic words to use.

“Whatever. All I know is that I received a strange e–mail saying that I shouldn’t let the stranger go to the ‘retreat’ alone. Now, there’s only one place around here that uses the term ‘retreat’ in such a way as to merit quote marks around the word. Everyone knows it’s a euphemism for compound, or commune, or cult, or whatever. And you’re the only stranger, in the singular, I’ve noticed in town.”

“Did the e–mail say anything about whether to let the stranger kill you or not?” Gregory removed the pistol and put it to Jason’s head.

The kid got a look of white fear on his face, and begin moaning. “What do you want with me?” His little cybergames with secret messages and hacking fun had suddenly become very real and physical, and unexpected.

“You’re of interest to secret police in my country as well, Jason Anderson. It seems my people have traced several hacks back to your little computer.”

“Ah, geez. That’s just games. God. What are you gonna do, shoot me? Do you realize the international uproar you’d raise? American laws dealing with cyberterrorism wouldn’t get me in prison over there immediately. It would take you months to fill out paperwork, wrangle with officials over extradition, etc. What do you care about going after some young punk like me? What if I told you I could sneak you into the ‘retreat,’ and see anti–technology militia training to blow up a fiber–optic telecommunications company?”

“I’d say you’re full of shit, and talking to save your ass. But I still want to visit the retreat for personal reasons. We can deal with you tomorrow.”

Jason seemed a bit relieved. “Might I go and grab a sweater? It gets awfully cold up here.”

“I think not. Look, we’re well aware that you didn’t just play some fool prank on the Crabtree Fund. We have evidence of espionage, files downloaded. Important ones regarding cyborg creation of the populace.”

At that moment, Gregory realized something or someone had been controlling his speech. No wonder he was lying so well in the diner. His voice sounded as if he were a member of the Gestapo; cold, heartless and precise in its need to deliver information.

The presence forced Gregory to open his mouth again. “Jason Anderson, tell me who the leader of the ‘retreat’ is.”

“Uh, I’m pretty certain it’s an old professor from the school here. Zachary Zeitstein. I think he’s actually pretty harmless, and I wasn’t really going to sneak you there, simply—”

The presence inside Gregory’s head chuckled. Then that would mean “…there’s nobody named Gregory Watts there, or, or, Ivan Crabtree?”  came Gregory’s own concerned words.

“Uh, no. Who are you? Why would Ivan Crabtree and Gregory Watts, the founders of the biggest high–tech monopoly since Microsoft be hanging out at an anti–technology retreat?”

The fearful look in Jason’s eyes was replaced with rising mirth. Who was this fool, and how could information so well–known have escaped a supposed agent of intelligence?

The cover is up, Gregory thought, and lifted the gun up. The entity in his head fought with all its might to keep him from firing. In the end, he merely grazed Jason’s shoulder.

It was enough to send the young man to the ground in a heap of wailing sobs. Gregory hadn’t been the least bit careful where they were when he fired the gun. Soon, people were gathering around, and he could hear sirens. He found the entrance of a side street and ran toward the back alley. A tall figure stepped in front of him to block his way, and he lifted the gun and fired. The presence inside his head didn’t seem to mind the killing of this man.

He started to run again, but was greeted with a series of staggering blows from behind that sent him spinning into unconsciousness.

Something was burning his face. He woke to find himself tied to a cheap office chair staring up with eyelids taped open at Ivan Crabtree.

“Gregory, my once most–trusted compadre. Now, a traitor to his own brother.” Ivan doused his captives face with more rubbing alcohol.

Gregory screamed.

“And yet, I keep him alive, keep him alive. Why, ask his once–true friends? Because his mind is almost completely gone, anyway, and I should have simply finished it off. That is what I’m going to do. For some, hell will be like this pain.” He threw even more alcohol on Gregory.

“But I believe,” continued Ivan, “that hell is trying to cope with a reality that one can’t get a grasp on, get memories to congeal with. Our traitor here was already headed down that road with his sick VR masturbatory fantasy–making on company time, let’s put him, shall we say, into his misery?”

The bodyguards grunted with approval. Though each of them personally felt torture, dismemberment, and a slow death were more fitting punishments for a traitor, they didn’t think it the time or place to disagree with a boss who was so upset.

Gregory was growing blissfully numb with unconsciousness, when they shocked him back awake with a jolt of electricity. He saw that they’d strapped him down to the metal table and were busy fitting him with the cybergear that would soon resonate with various hertz frequencies producing a pendulum–like swing out of this reality and into a fantasy one.

“Stay awake, for now, traitor. Soon your mind will be able to sleep forever, cast in the nightmares of a billion tortured souls.”

He heard a switch flip on, and plunged into a black slimy swamp. Thrashing about, a voice came loud and clear into his head. A familiar voice.

“You are the sum of a million fantasies and desires. Each little fraction of a second in time, you and your unconscious self are busy cooking up new ones. Many of which contradict each other, others get cancelled out by the more urgent demands of everyday life.”

The sum of my desires, he thought. I desire to be back at my apartment with a stiff drink in hand, watching mushbrain T.V.

Before he could form the thought into a completely articulated sentence of words, he was there. He immediately asked, Where is the slimy swamp? And he was back in it again. Okay, careful this time. Back in his apartment, he broke a glass on the counter and sliced his hand open. No pain. Yes pain. No pain. Which do you desire?

The stiff drink will do fine. No, just the drunken lapse into abyss.

“You’re finally here,” said Dr. Anderson wearily, as Gregory sat up on the metal table. “I thought you were going to screw everything for a moment,” he chuckled pulling his lab coat and shirt aside, and pointing to a scar on his shoulder. “That version of me was definitely real.”

Gregory looked around and saw that he was still in the same cyberlaboratory they’d strapped him into with cries of ‘traitor!’

“Where are the bodyguards, and Ivan? Shouldn’t we be hurrying out of here?”

Dr. Anderson put a hand on his shoulder. “Relax, Gregory, over twenty years have lapsed in time. Ivan and his boys are laughing it up out on Planet W as we speak. This is my lab now. Location was of prime importance in keeping you intact as we crossed the boundaries of space–time.”

“Huh?”

“We have a lot of catching up to do, I know. But let’s get you up to speed on the basics, first. I was the presence in your head in Saskatchewan.”

“So why didn’t you simply appear in your cyberform, like you did in Orlando?”

“Too risky. Even though my head getting blown off didn’t kill me, it did send me into cardiac shock; my machine and technical support had to nurse me back to health.”

“So, why didn’t Crabtree and his cronies go back and simply finish the job I couldn’t?”

“I may have been young and green about the world back then, but I wasn’t stupid. There were friends—veterans in the world of hackerdom who’d had to deal with tougher stuff than cyberbullets—ready to shelter a young man running scared from Saskatchewan.”

“But you couldn’t go back?”

“No, I never did.”

“It’s not important, but how did you become Doctor, if you never finished the dissertation.”

“You’re right, it’s not important. It’s a title, Gregory. Now listen. Ivan went on to build a horrid little virus that affected everyone who wasn’t part of the World Banking Elite, or a special secret agency, and this virus enslaved millions, nay billions into random loops of memory. Physically, these people were either made into robot military fighters with the mission of enslaving everyone who hadn’t been glued to a screen at the moment of viral attack; or they were simply sent to work as robot slaves, mining the earth for precious elements like Uranium that helped fire the Alien Race’s spaceship and keep the Race breathing.”

“Good Lord. You realize that my brain isn’t completely stable right now. Aside from the fact that I probably won’t recall all of this, I might just end up going crazy after all, in spite of the kind efforts on your part to rescue me.”

“Hmmm. You won’t do either, because you are mostly an android now, Gregory.”

“Huh?”

“That’s right. Oh, no, the real Gregory Watts did die in that raid the ATAF performed on the ‘retreat.’ He was charred beyond belief. Ivan Crabtree first spent months in this same lab perfecting a cyberYou from the real Gregory Watts, who’d gotten enslaved by the internet like the rest of the general population. He was their webmaster, after all.”

“But even your younger self seemed to think Gregory Watts was a partner of Ivan Crabtree with their high–tech corporation.”

The Doctor laughed. “No, you don’t understand. At that moment in Ivan’s plethora of possible universes, a fractal split arose in which Ivan manufactured my younger self appearing to believe in an irreality. Unfortunately,” he grinned rubbing his shoulder, “Both of my ‘selves’ in those parallel universes were sharing the same body and both received your bullet. But the statistical likelihood of any irreality making it to the real future is pretty close to zero. Put simply, Ivan was using quantum physics to fuck with your head, and I’ve been using it to try and save you from the great mindfuck.

“You see, Gregory, I was a good friend of yours, Professor Zeitstein’s assistant, and held a growing interest in actually becoming a member of the group. Why, you’re the one who taught me how to hack. But you wouldn’t remember how brilliant you were, or what good friends we were, because the virus and Crabtree totally played around with your head.”

“Why would Crabtree single me out?”

“Oh, I guess as a kind of revenge for being the leader of a group that hacked into their database. That and he just needed a slave to try out his new irreality software and hardware. You were among many experimented on.” The Doctor gestured at all of the tables, many of which had grown rusty from disuse. “Once he’d decided the real Gregory’s mind was completely gutted, you were a total vegetable, he sent the real Gregory back to the compound as poetic justice, knowing the ATAF was getting ready to raid the place. Ivan gave your wife and children over to one of his bodyguards to keep the man from going out to titty bars every night. As for the cyberYou he’d created, he thought he would use it to kill me. At that, he failed. Now. Does all this make sense?”

“No. So, since I woke up in my apartment on Friday, the only part of my soul that remains among the possibilities of still existing is this cyberMe?”

“Precisely. I have just discovered that within this time loop, there opened up the miraculous possibility for time travel across circuits of virtual reality machines, but only in a virtual sense of the word. That is why I couldn’t come to you physically, and you had to come to me in order to remain intact.”

“What’s planet W?”

“Ah, that’s short for Planet George W. Bush. It’s what you would remember as being Mars. The alien race that came to Earth made deals with the Banking Elites to show them how to give the planet a new artificial atmosphere in exchange for several billion slaves. Most of our population is dead now, worked to death while lost in their own personal memory loops. You were spared a similar fate, because I recognized the possibility I could still perhaps revive a piece of my old friend.”

“So, you needed a guy to drink beers with?”

“Ha! No. I needed whatever is left of your mind to help me defeat Ivan once and for all. He is after all, my arch nemesis.”

“Here’s a question. I found a web page that stayed up only briefly, supposedly written by Ivan. It told a similar tale, but it was as if your roles were reversed and he was good, you were evil/”

“Ha! Interesting. See, he learned to time travel as well. But, from a distance like Mars, he can only send the barest of information across time. Hence, a message on the Internet instead of a visit. He’d never come back here, ever.”

“But, what purpose would he have in saying he was writing a play  in which I am his instrument—my realities are the result of his authorship, or something like that, if he wanted me to think he was a benevolent Earth–loving Buffalo Spirit on the side of good?”

“Confusion. Mind games. Gregory, I’m an old pal, and everything you’ve heard since you awoke is the straight dope, it’s what’s going on right now. Soon, when you’ve rested, I’ll take you outside and show you the deserted city.”

“Why weren’t you enslaved, or caught up with the happy crew headed for Mars?”

“Because I outsmarted them all, and only a small number of us. Some of our more recent members had found that page as well on the internet, and thought Ivan Crabtree was a secret code name. So you see, in spite of his best efforts to thwart us through time, he’s given us new members. After much of the population was wiped out, and the aliens moved on, we resettled here in Kansas City at the Crabtree Fund’s headquarters, poring over secret documents and learning all we can about his technology. I daresay I’ve quite outdone his old work. So, what do you say, old friend, are you ready to kick some Crabtree ass?”

Gregory needed a stiff drink, but was hesitant to ask.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

The Doctor and the android stepped out into the light of a weak red ball of a sun. Gregory saw that the parking lot of the Crabtree Fund facilities was covered with a team of workers garbed in heavy protective clothing and masks that looked a lot  like gas masks he remembered from movies about W.W.I. The workers milled back and forth between an enormous structure and the laboratory.

“Should we be wearing protective clothing?” asked Gregory, gingerly testing his ability to breath in the air that obviously frightened most of the people on the lot.

“You don’t need to, you’ve been bio–genetically engineered to resist the radiation. Myself, I really don’t care. I’m dying of a terrible virus they call Lemming’s sickness.”

“Radiation?”

“Oh yes, the atmosphere of Earth was damaged successively when our World Banking Elites and then the alien race roared out of here in their spaceships. Plus, several factions of varying political and religious beliefs helped destroy the air we breathe by exploding nuclear weapons in protest of the activities of the Elites and Aliens.”

“And with all of your supertechnology you used to bring me here you can’t find a cure for your virus?”

“Hmmm. Well, God only knows we’ve tried.  But my resources and time are better spent in trying to build this ship,” he waved a hand at the massive structure covered in workers, “So we can get the remaining human population off of Earth and onto W.”

“But, who is going to run things if you die?”

“Come, let me show you.”

They re–entered the laboratory, passing busy humans lost in dedicated energy to the project. A door was left open to a room on the right where a woman was conducting a class. Most of the pupils were still dressed in the indigenous clothing of a tropical climate.

“Converts. It’s hard to convince those with belief systems utterly unlike our western scientific one that soon their entire planet is to be decimated by men from Mars.”

“What do men from Mars care about earth, anymore?”

“My intelligence comes back to me with reports of plans to firebomb this planet on a large scale, sterilizing it for the same technology that reseeded Mars.”

“Your intelligence. How can they communicate with you from so far away, in a colony where security must be tight as hell, without getting caught?”

“Well, it’s not easy, Gregory. A faction of freedom lovers has apparently broken away from the Elites, probably people who woke up one morning and realized their entire cushy existence came at the expense of billions. They fled to remote canyons across the Great Ocean, risking execution for treachery and attack from strange bioforms that have evolved quickly thanks to the reseeding process. Only certain times of the year do their signals reach Earth, we intercepted the first five years ago, back when our only motive for building a spaceship was my personal vendetta on Ivan. Needless to say, we had to scrap our plans and begin building a much bigger spaceship to hold what remained of the Earth’s population.”

“Why do you care?”

“Gregory, I’m a bit hurt you would ask such a question. If you had any real memories of me at all, you’d know my life work has been promoting the concept that technology in its current form can only destroy us. You’d know how much my heart,” he pounded his chest three times, “Bleeds for the love of humanity.”

Gregory chose to ignore the Doctor’s defense that his main goals were ultimately humanitarian. What difference did it make to Gregory whether or not the entire human population lived or died? He was apparently quite non–human now, with a strange Doctor at the wheel of his mind, one who could turn it on and off, erase it and start all over again, with the flick of a switch.

“How many people do you think are left on the Earth?”

“Oh, I would say close to three hundred thousand survivors. Most of them indigenous peoples like the ones you saw in that room. Out of the three hundred thousand, over half will die of  radiation poisoning. Some have contracted Lemming’s sickness. Many simply will refuse to leave Earth unless we put them in chains; doing such is still a matter of debate among myself and my advisors.”

“So, approximately how many do you think will willingly come here to fly away?”

“You sound so sarcastic and flippant. Don’t belittle our great work here.”

“Uh, sorry.”

“I am guessing a little under a hundred thousand.”

“And that spaceship out there will actually be able to contain them and feed them and take care of problems like waste removal, etc.—for all one hundred thousand?”

“Ha! Gregory, you’re not looking at the entire Ark. That’s about one sixth of it, as large as we dare build here on Earth. We have no anti–grav alien race technology at our disposal, like the Elites did. All we’ve got are brilliant men and women engineering improvements on the old rocket–fuel shuttle technology you might remember.”

“Hmm. And that’s the first sixth out there?”

“Heavens, no. We’d be years behind schedule if it were. There are sixths of Ark being built all over the Earth right now. Each will be launched into space one at precisely the correct time to connect with its sibling. Each containing about twelve thousand people. Lots of math and science. Something you used to be good at.”

“I’m still trying to calculate the amount of food you’ll need.”

“Tons. Mostly dried. Tons of oxygen. Tons of water. There will actually be another piece. It’s already in space. A giant vat, basically, that my people put together. We have shuttles full of food and water going up at all hours of the day.”

“Sounds expensive.”

“Gregory, aside from scattered groups of peoples across the planet, I am the king!”

He waved his fist in the air, and hurrahed.

“Now, I have someone very special I want you to meet. His name is Model 13. The perfected copy of countless trials and errors.”

A good likeness of the Doctor as a young graduate student lay in a heavily–guarded room on a metal table, its eyes wide open and non–blinking.

“Model 13, come meet a fellow ’droid.”

The zombie shuffled over and mechanically jerked out his hand. Gregory examined it rather than shaking it, noting absolutely no emotion whatsoever in the android’s eyes.

“Doctor, I think your handiwork was more successful on the formation of myself, this thing isn’t any better than a damn robot.”

“Of course not. But your body behaved in a much similar fashion, operating on a standard Turing system of computational logic, until I’d successfully snatched your matrix of consciousness and plopped it inside. Much the same will take place when I die. Then we can be a pair of immortal android buddies. You know, your skin is resistant to a thousand Kelvins of heat or cold in comparison to the average human epidermal resistance. You can self–grow any limbs that get lopped off. But don’t try it. It would take several months, and we need all your limbs. The other androids we’ve created in the community all tell us their sex lives are so much better. Admittedly, most of them were like you, wandering around Crabtree’s time loop in a limp drunken stupor when we found them, or bombed out on heroin, but I imagine there’s some truth to what they say.”

The Doctor escorted Gregory to a private suite. He needed an intense amount of sleep, or so he thought, but didn’t feel a bit tired. Surely, I must be grimy, in need of a bath. But his body felt extremely clean, as if he’d just been scrubbed for surgery from head to toe.

I’m an android now, he said to himself, looking in the mirror. I pinch myself, and feel pain. I consider the nature of my existence, and find a self–conscious being inside, free to make choices. Could this be another irreality? He tried summoning up a Julie presence, but no changes occurred in memory or appearance. There was a knock at the door, and he walked over.

“Hello, Gregory,” she said in a sultry voice. It was the evening gown–fitting Julie.

“Julie.”

“I’ve missed you so bad.” She put a hand on his chest, sliding it down to his midsection.

“Where’s Martin and Bethany?”

“Who? Am I supposed to know them? Gregory, you and I have got to make love. I’ve tried it with so many droids and humans here, but none were ex–lovers. You know, it’s so much better now.”

“What?”

“Oh, you always were a little old–fashioned. Come on, let’s have some fun.”

He let her give him some fun, and couldn’t help wondering who she was the whole time. It felt okay, pretty good. But he honestly couldn’t remember what it had been like before, to make a comparison.

Gregory found the Doctor in his office, speaking with a group of scientific–looking people about some technical matter concerning the nuclear reactors on the ship.

“Ah, Gregory. My people were just finishing their briefing. So I take it you’ve met the new Julie?”

“What have you done with my wife, my children?”

“Oh, come come. I told you, they both left with Ivan’s bodyguard to W.”

“And you thought some semblance of her would make me feel right at home?”

“Geez, lighten up, man. You don’t even really remember Julie, but for a few scattered moments. Yes, I thought we could make someone you’d find appealing. How was I supposed to know she’d become the community whore before we finished work on you?”

“I may be an android, but I still have feelings,” whimpered Gregory petulantly.

“I see. My men warned me about making you too much like your emotionally sensitive old self. Look, find some other girl that suits you, there are plenty to go around. We made certain that everyone stays happy. Not interested in girls anymore? Find a boy. There are lots of lonely female and gay male engineers in the community as well. So, I had plenty of boys made, too.”

Gregory turned and stalked out, ignoring the Doctor’s pleas to come back. Why the hell was the Doctor in need of a droid like Gregory, then?  He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something about this so–called humanitarian effort disturbed him.

He wandered through the halls of the laboratory, noting the work was shutting down for the day, and folks were bustling off to bedrooms or the cafeteria, which became a dance hall bar by night, someone told him.

Gregory rode an elevator to the roof and stepped out into a gorgeous night. A woman wearing a jacket and jeans stood looking out at the night sky.

“You must be an android as well—no mask, huh?” stammered Gregory shyly, trying to make conversation.

She was utterly unlike Julie in many ways. Where Julie was kind of short and squat in her build, this woman was thin and curvy. Julie had big cow’s eyes that often seemed to be empty of intelligent thought. This woman had flashing dark eyes that danced back and forth across your face in an endless search for your true thoughts. Or maybe I’m just romanticizing, and this chick is built to serve the purpose of erotic arousal in men who desired exotic women.

“No,” she smiled, “My name is Meh–loh. They ‘captured’ me from my work as a doctor in Malaysia.” Peering closely around her eyes, Gregory guessed her to be around forty–five.

“I’m forty–six,” she smiled, “Sometimes I can read minds pretty well.”

“Why did you come here?”

“I believed what they had to say. They sent me back to Southeast Asia to convert people.”

“Is that where you’re originally from? Your English is so good.”

“Not all the people who survived the terrible deaths were backwards folk living deep in forests. Native doctors like me have had just as good an education in your Western ways as anyone here. But to answer your question, yes, my parents were both poor fish traders.”

“If you’re not an android, why aren’t you wearing protective clothing and a gas mask?”

“Well,” she hesitated, “I guess you’ll hear soon enough. I’ve been branded a bit of a witch by the people in the community. The people I helped back home taught me much more about medicine and the healing arts than I learned at the University. You see, I don’t believe radiation can affect you if you take the necessary precautions. But enough about me. You’re obviously not a droid, either.”

“What makes you say that?”

“A droid would know that he is supposed to first ask me if there is anything at all he can do for me.”

“I’m new at being a droid. Sorry. Can I get you anything?”

She smiled. “Hmm. Well, they obviously didn’t build you for pleasure, but then, I’ve had my share of those kind. Why don’t we come back to my room for good wine and conversation? Do you like Bach?”

“Certainly,” said Gregory, trying to be gallant and offering her his arm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

“Mmm.” she moaned sleepily, in response to his lazy kisses. “I’ve never had a droid stay the night. They always run off on some pretense of needing to help others.”

Gregory held her in spoons. Maybe things are going to be alright, he thought, I never felt this comfortable lying in bed the next morning with Julie. Memories arose of an aloof sleepaholic, pulling the covers over as far as she could to her side of the bed and twitching with repulsion when he tried to put an arm around her. How many mornings had he spent feeling he’d awoke with a total stranger? And now this woman he’d met only last night gave him nothing but intense familiarity.

Someone pounded on her door. “Gregory, are you in there? Open up! Meh–loh and you both have lots of work to do.”

Standing in the Doctor’s office feeling a bit sheepish, he did his best to avoid eye contact with Anderson.

“Hmm, a witch doctor. Strange choice, but I guess even I, your maker, can’t possibly foresee all of the choices a quantal brain can make. Anyway, nights are for pleasure, now it’s time for business.”

“What am I supposed to do? Go join the other droids at the cafeteria or offer my services as a housekeeper?”

The Doctor laughed until tears appeared on his face. “Three long months of intense focus on one individual caught in Ivan’s time loop to be wasted on menial labor? I think not. No, Gregory, somewhere in that densely packed and ever–elusive matrix of a consciousness, you’ve stored a vast knowledge that will help us defeat Ivan upon reaching W.”

Gregory said nothing.

“Disbelief. I can see it written all over your face. You’ve been so well–imprinted with the notion you were a bad drunken cook in the nineties and odies, that you can’t snap out of it. I bet you want to go down to the cafeteria right now and teach them a few new dishes. Well, I won’t have it.”

“But, I couldn’t even balance your accounts, if you asked me to.”

“Ha! Of course you could! Learning is a process of remembering, almost always, and rarely the act of imprinting new information. I’ve assigned a group of technicians trained in the fine art of holocomputing, a field I helped pioneer, to help you remember.”

“So, I’m to be attached to more machines?”

“Well, seeing as how you’re a state–of–the–art cyborg, I don’t see how a few more machines hooked up to your mind is going to hurt. Come along, I’ll show you the holomatrix pools where we conduct the research I’m most passionate about.”

The Doctor and android passed through several guarded doors down long and confusing corridors to arrive at a room that contained a suspiciously familiar swimming pool.

“I think you remember your old friend,” said the Doctor with a wink.

“The slimy basement pool of nightmares,” replied Gregory thoughtfully.

“Yes, your new body and I spent many an hour late into the night down here in search of your mind.”

The water wasn’t near as deep as it had been in dreams. They’d converted a lap pool used as part of a gym at the old Crabtree facilities into a sophisticated sensory deprivation chamber.

“First lesson. There is no way you can drown in this thing.”

I certainly had no trouble drowning in dreams, Gregory thought ruefully.

“We will outfit you in a skin–tight suit filled with vibrating fibers that interact with your neuropeptides and a few wires to accelerate and monitor the central nervous system. On the screen over here,” the Doctor waved to a man wolfing down a turkey sandwich in front of a computer on a cluttered desktop, “We stare at a bunch of fractal images the software has so delightfully culled from the gibberish that is your mind.”

If he was somebody else observing this demonstration of technology, Gregory decided he would have been fascinated and keen with curiosity. Knowing he was the guinea pig, he imagined the welders outside at the spaceship causing a short in electricity that would cook him more thoroughly than any pig.

“Preliminary activities are: jogging, thinking of food, mother, sex, death, etc. Just so we get a pretty good read on which thoughts correspond to which patterns. And believe me, this is a science. I could see how someone from your time might think it a big pseudo–scientific New Agey foray into quackery, but we get quite precise, thanks to our fine quantum computers.”

Gregory thought he remembered reading an article stating that Quantum Principles bled uncertainty, but knew he could have been mistaken.

“From the fractal images, we move to real–time holovideo. Carl, show us some footage from your little–league memories.”

A small three–dimensional image popped up on a platform hanging over the pool, and Gregory could see some kids playing baseball. It looked very real.

“Carl confirmed, as did several other subjects who tried it, myself included, that the images were even more real than they could conjure by themselves through daydreaming. This is part of how we pieced together your mind. We scanned hours of probable memories, arriving at the ones statistically highest on our charts.”

“Statistically highest? So it isn’t so precise.”

For a moment, Gregory thought the Doctor was going to slap him at such a grievous insult. But then he smiled, “Ah, a piece of the old Gregory, always mocking statistics. Always trying to tell the world that something is or it isn’t. Whatever. Maybe we’ll see more of his old self. Let’s me ask you this: do you feel like yourself, or someone else?”

“Like myself, I guess. But then, I also thought myself as being a drunken bad cook.”

The Doctor had nothing to say to this. “Take off your clothes.”

“Huh?”

“Undress. Yes, I know, the old Gregory was afraid of pissing in public. Well, you are now property of my little State of Mind, so do as I say.”

Gregory began undressing warily, trying not to feel like a young virgin at prom night, but unconsciously put his hands around his manhood when finished.

“Suit him up boys, and let’s roll ’im.”

The preliminary exercises felt almost therapeutic in nature, like a proverbial return to the womb. It took a bit of mental effort not to panic as the water filled his lungs and the breathing stopped. I am an android now, equipped to breath underwater and in outer space. Soon, he began to feel gnawing unease as his mind seemed to float out of bodily sockets, and dance along the surface of the water.

Thoughts of Julie, of Meh–loh, of his children, of growing up in Kansas City, going to church, school, and the jobs he’d held all started to well up inside. The last thing he remembered before losing consciousness was the reiterating question of: “where is this technical genius the Doctor keeps talking about?”

“That’s enough for today, men,” a voice and light filtered into the pool. Still quite relaxed as the water drained from the pool, he felt warm below, and noticed the water from his lungs was exiting below.

“Pissed himself, that’s a first. But then, we never stuck a droid like that one in the tank.” Said Carl peering over him.

“Gregory, go back to your room and wash the chemicals and piss off of you, and meet me at my office.”

He ran into Meh–loh on the way to his room and she embraced him, and kissed him. “I have a few minutes, lover,” she whispered in his ear.

Fortunately, for the sake of his pride, the wet suit was still wet all over, and she couldn’t tell he’d urinated himself.

They jumped in her shower together, and soaped each other down, squealing in ecstasy at the delight of slippery flesh.

Back at the Doctor’s office, talk was solemn and business–like.

“Your boring childhood; already have it on tape,” muttered the Doctor, “The only thing new we saw today was last night with Meh–loh, I practically decided to pull the plug right then and there, it was so disgusting. But, alas, I’ve seen grosser stuff from the minds of men, and my work must continue.”

“So you want me to stop having sex with her, is that it?” asked Gregory in trepidation.

“Of course not. The chemicals in the brain stimulated by sexual activity tend to break up the more rigidly repressed memories. And if she is the one you want to go to bed with, so be it.”

Gregory released an audible sigh of relief. His mind cooled down from building fantastic schemes to escape with Meh–loh on a shuttle and commandeer it to W.

“No, we can look away when such imagery presents itself. But we can’t look away from how dismal today’s performance was. Take this and look it over. See if anything can jog your memory.”

The Doctor handed Gregory a book.

“Freshman Physics?”

“Precisely. The class where we first met. I bombed and dropped it. You aced it and started a brilliant career. Hopefully, you will begin returning answers to all of those test questions you’d promised to help me cheat on.”

Gregory thumbed through it, glancing at equations and problems utterly unfamiliar to him. Of course, he’d absorbed via  the media a limited understanding of Sir Isaac Newton, laws of motion, velocity, etc., but couldn’t have explained any of it in concrete mathematical terms to save his life. Now, he feared that this was exactly what he’d have to do.

“Freshman Physics?” asked Meh–loh that night, when he turned on the light by her bed and picked the book up.

Gregory explained to her his situation.

“Ouch. Sounds like you are—what is the Americanism? Up a creek without shit for paddle?”

“Something like that.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“Start thinking of a way to get out of here.”

“But where will you go? You have to be on the ship with the rest of us to live.”

“I’m not so sure I want to live, I mean—”

“But, what about us, don’t you care to have a future with me?”

“How can I? I’m a goddamn machine. A cyborg or robot or droid, or whatever they call me.”

“Oh, Gregory. Nobody cares anymore. What is the definition of a cyborg anyway, but the melding of the mind of man with machine? In that sense, we’ve all been cyborgs since the middle of the twentieth century.”

Gregory muttered.

“Don’t you care about me?”

“Of course I do. I’ve never felt happier around anyone my entire life.”

“Then you must stay, and play their games, buy some time, and we’ll think of something together, you and I.” she kissed him and for the first time in his adult memory, he didn’t need a good stiff drink.

“Say, Meh–loh?”

“Yes, my sweet?”

“You went to a college. Maybe you remember some of this stuff.”

“I’m sorry, Gregory. I can try and help you study, if you like. But in my country they were desperate for medical practitioners, not professional liberal arts students. Nobody taught me anything about physics.”

“Oh.”

“Come now. Let us forget our cares for a little bit and enjoy each other. Happy moments come rare enough anymore in times like these.”

He was to spend the next two weeks trapped in a strange mixture of heaven and hell. Nighttimes were heaven, the bliss of his new love. Meh–loh and he talked of marriage, children, and endless embraces on the beaches of her native land. Daytimes were hell, angry times where he began to lash out at the Doctor, receiving humbling vitriol right back in his face.

Gregory tried learning Physics by reading the stupid book first, not expecting anything to jog his memory. Nothing ever did. Getting more canny, and more desperate, he let Meh–loh hypnotize him and flash technical data at his face from her computer screen. The Doctor was excited for almost an entire day, until he realized what Gregory had done.

“How could you be so stupid?” The Doctor paced back and forth in front of his desk. “Do you really think I want some random useless data spat back at me? Do you actually think that is what I’m looking for? Don’t read or study anything else. It obviously has not served it’s purpose. Remember what I said? I want memories, ones I’ve yet to see, not new imprints.”

Hanging his head in shame, Gregory stared at the floor. He’d never expected the idea to work, merely hoped a better plan would surface between him and Meh–loh.

Escape was useless. Not everyone on the planet was congenial to the Doctor’s humanitarian efforts. Several attempts to sabotage the production of the spaceships, and essentially anti–convert the converts being bussed in, were always reported as hushed rumor. And as much as anyone wanted to believe the hundreds arriving daily at the facilities were completely gung–ho over a free trip to W, it was plain to see that once inside, they were more captives than converts. None of the technical people or service droids in the main laboratory were allowed to mix with the indigenous peoples behind razor–wire–topped fences.

Naturally, the Doctor tried to calm Gregory’s suspicions that he was up to no good, after spotting the qualms in the holovideo.

“I can see you’re considering leaving,” the Doctor had said that day, “Well, I can tell you, you won’t be welcome out there. The minute a band of roving crazies discovers you’re a droid, they’ll burn you at a stake. That is the kind of mentality I’m up against, I’m trying to convert. But it’s hard. We’re keeping you here for your own good, Gregory.”

That speech had come fairly early on during the sessions. Lately, the Doctor could see in the holovideos that Gregory wandered the facilities almost every night, searching for a useful means to escape.

“You know,” the Doctor said to him after the fifteenth session, “Maybe I should just let you go. I’m a fan of free choice, and it is obvious that you aren’t like the other droids. My efforts to make a more free–thinking being seem to have paid off a little too well.”

“Meh–loh says she is being sent on another mission to Southeast Asia.”

“Ah, Meh–loh. Never could see what the attraction was with that woman. She’s kinda ugly. Me, I prefer top–o–the–line, movie star–cut droids, handsome replicas of women of eras gone by. Even your Julie seems a more exciting pick, but whatever. A day ago, I would have said yes, go with her, but no.”

“What? I thought you were expressing something about free choice.”

“Don’t get smart. Look, your work isn’t quite finished. We have Plans B and C. Plan B is a trip to Saskatoon, and I think it’s about time to send you along.”

“B–b–but–”

“Still blubbering away like a spoiled child. Maybe that answers my question regarding the Meh–loh attraction. Some kind of unresolved Oedipus complex. It’s to be expected, you always did take more comfort in books and machines than women.”

Gregory refused to allow the insult to get to him. He felt pretty secure in his new love, and hardly wanted to sound defensive about it. “What then, good Doctor, is what Plan C?”

“We liquidate you and start over again. I have two months left before we set out for W, and am certain I could duplicate my creation of you this time more efficiently.”

“But, wouldn’t I simply come back again as myself?”

“Who’s to say how much of the cyberYou of now would find us again? Not much I hope. I’d do plenty of calculations and algorithms to ensure we got ourselves a different Gregory to play with. There’s not much choice involved in it otherwise, is there?”

That night in bed, he performed his duties perfunctorily, and lay there staring at the ceiling after it was over.

“What’s wrong, Gregory? You made love like a droid.”

“They’re sending me away, and then they will liquidate me.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“I’m almost one hundred percent certain I’ve been to Saskatchewan only once in this bizarre collection of memories I call my life, so I can already see my future—they put me out of commission in frustration and anger.”

“We’ll think of something, I’m certain.”

But they thought of nothing. Gregory kissed her goodbye the next day standing in front of her plane. An armed transport chopper had flown onto the facilities and whisked them to what once was the downtown Kansas City airport; now a satellite of the facilities.

He thought he saw bands of scraggly sub–human forms waving machine guns up at the chopper as they flew over deserted buildings, but couldn’t have been too sure. Meh–loh held most of his attention, sitting on his lap, and very quiet.

They both cried a bit before she turned and left, neither expecting to see the other again.

“There, there,” said the Doctor with not a little hint of mockery in his voice.

Gregory got to fly in a fighter jet, as the matters before them were pressing time–wise. The Doctor insisted on coming along with some kind of gadget he would hook up to Gregory upon arrival at the old “retreat.”

“My presence is of the utmost necessity,” cried the Doctor at Gregory’s suggestion that perhaps Anderson’s research in Kansas City was more important than a potential fool’s errand to Canada. “Your memories mean more to my research than anything that will be waiting on my desk when we return.”

So, with three accompanying fighter jets, they arrived at the familiar airfield in a matter of a few hours.

“The place looks pretty good for having almost twenty years to break down,” said Gregory thoughtfully, already starting to wonder wearily if he was back inside another irreality.

“That’s because we maintain this area. Somewhat out of sentimentality, somewhat because it is out of the way, and large numbers of new converts still arrive here by word of mouth thinking this is still our base of operations.”

Indeed, the entire town and University were surrounded by high prison–style fences, and guards wandered everywhere. I would be having second thoughts about conversion if I arrived here and saw this, Gregory thought.

The “retreat” new converts arrived at was a completely different story. Guards, though obvious to someone like Gregory or any other resident of the facilities in Kansas City, were somewhat less easy to spot. Instead of being a few simple log cabins on a secluded farm, the retreat had been turned into a hotbed of  manufactured good will and love of man. Now, things made more sense.

Stragglers were coming and going, some yet to be washed, others cleaned up with beatific looks upon their faces.

“How am I supposed to remember anything with all this?” Gregory asked as he waved his hand at the buzz of friendly commotion.

“Well, obviously you haven’t started remembering anything yet, or you would know that the original “retreat” stood five miles from here.”

The original base of the Free Minds Underground required passing through guarded gates and tall fences. Nothing appeared to have been touched in the eighteen years since its occupants fled or were firebombed inside the main cabin. Flora had overtaken much of the ruins, and the Doctor bowed his head briefly in silence.

“Now,” said the Doctor, “I could just as easily give you leading questions and place false memories in your head, but I was never one for quack psychology. My men are under order to stay back, and after I attach this monitor to you, I want you to simply ‘stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.’” The Doctor looked at Gregory expectantly, surely he would remember that Mrs. Robinson was a favorite song they’d shared together, that was a gimme. Nothing.

“Well, then, I’ll be off.”

“So does this mean you’ll be back inside our van watching holovideos of my thoughts?”

“Um. No. That requires a closed environment like the holopool where all of your sensory information is reduced to nil. All we look for are the spikes your nervous system will produce upon encountering something familiar.”

The place that piqued Gregory’s curiosity first was, of course, the firebombed main cabin. Not that he expected to find any bodies. Human remains that morbid students of cult psychology didn’t take back to dorms and homes as souvenirs had been lovingly buried by Dr. Anderson in later years in a community of graves he could see from a blackened window frame.

He kicked around the embers and rats’ nests searching for perhaps a child’s toy, or scrap of paper or metal part from a computer. Nothing. Human vultures had picked the place clean. Vultures who didn’t deserve to be called human had evidently picked his memories clean as well, because he was hard put to find even the slightest sense of de ja vu in himself.

Out in the other cabins, the story was similar. Rotted remains of a mattress that now housed some kind of animal. Probably a cat. One rusted coat hanger in an empty closet. A mildewed safety razor sitting on a sink in the bathroom. In the bathtub, an old forty–ounce malted liquor bottle lay near a pile of rotted fabric. Gregory grabbed a stick from outside, and poked at the nasty remains of a bum’s night in paradise. Baby mice ran out squealing, and various indiscriminate bugs raced around frantically in the pale light.

He remembered stories and movies from childhood where secret compartments led to buried treasure and escape routes. Most of the floor boards were still intact, none looked suspiciously unique. Just the same, Gregory found the leg of a bed or chair and hammered and stomped away on the floors of several of the cabins. Sometimes, he could put his foot through. But this was merely due to the rotten wood, no escape hatches opened up.

Next, he tried demolishing some of the ceilings, only to find nests of crazy wires running this way and that; bundled with much rotting duck tape. He was technically savvy enough to know that the no member of the Free Minds Underground had been much of an electrician.

The communal hall where the retreat residents ate and discussed plans was the final structure left for investigation. It was quite different in comparison with the cabins. Twice the size of the firebombed main cabin, it sat at the far end of the courtyard, and was made of corrugated aluminum. Nothing was especially outstanding about this. Gregory remembered small towns in southern Missouri where every single church, gas station, auto shop, and diner were built in this simple corrugated metal, A–frame style. Yet, it frightened him the most.

Why, he couldn’t say. He wondered what spikes of dread looked like on the Doctor’s little machine back at the van. I’m probably going to die, anyway, he thought in resignation.

Both doors to the building were locked.

Gregory walked around the building examining it carefully. The structure itself rose perhaps twenty feet from its base. Very near the top were the windows, probably big enough for him to crawl through, if he could reach them and open them.

Too bad they don’t make androids with anti–grav limbs, he thought, setting on the front steps of the meeting hall. He saw no ladders left behind, no tables or desks to stack on top of each other. Gregory stood up and wandered through the cabins again, feeling the eerie quiet of nightfall coming on. Most of the birds and reptiles had died first, the Doctor had said. Only the rats and the humans that hadn’t made it off the sinking ship of life were left. And cockroaches. Gregory shuddered at the sound of one flapping its wings in a bathtub, the roach looked to be three times the size of any he remembered from childhood.

Seeing a rusted bobby pin lying in a sink gave him an idea. They always picked locks with implements like this in movies, so why can’t I?

Thirty minutes later, he threw himself down and sobbed in frustration. Gregory had managed to break a piece of the pin off in both doors. He saw the headlights of the van, and knew his time must be short.

“Hmm. Interesting readouts coming from the old mess hall. Why don’t you go in?”

Gregory explained what had happened. One of the guards blasted the door off the hinges with a machine gun, and a green glow greeted the men.

“Holy mother of it all!” cried Doctor Anderson in apparent shock.

Gregory felt repulsion and fear staring at them, and the guards held their weapons trained on the bodies.

“Alien race?” asked Gregory.

The Doctor nodded, and motioned his men to hold their fire. “They’re dead. You men better slip on the masks, there’s enough radiation coming off of them to kill our entire army.”

The guards panicked and raced back to the van.

“Hell,” said the Doctor, “I just don’t–”

And then the good Doctor dropped dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

“A momentary lapse of reason,” said Carl, explaining to everyone in a secret meeting why the Doctor had forgotten he could die just as easily from the radiation. The soldiers had immediately flown Gregory and the Doctor’s and aliens’ bodies back to Kansas City after Anderson died. “He simply didn’t remember how quickly strong doses can kill. But everything is okay. We all will be very hush–hush about this. None of the satellite bases of operation or men in the lower ranks of the army need to know about this. Within two months, using our friend Gregory here as a template, I can pull the good Doctor’s consciousness matrix out of his old body, and place it in Model 13. That damn robot is itching to be of service.”

“I’m not so sure I want an android for a leader, maybe we should place the matrix in a holocomputer and consult it for advice and technical information only,” said a woman Gregory had spotted running around with a clip board.

“Rest assured. The droids you see around here are built from the memories of the common shmo, no offense, Gregory. With Dr. Anderson, it will be a completely different subject. I hear word from our intelligence source on W, that they plan to turn King Bush into an android when he dies, making him a god. If the elites are willing to follow a droid, why shouldn’t we?”

“The elites were willing to follow aliens and listen to Ivan Crabtree, and held no love of the human race,” said a general, pounding his heart with fervor in defense of the more idealistic notions of Dr. Anderson’s cause.

“Speaking of aliens,” said Carl, “What is our alien task force finding out about the bodies?”

“We think they were killed by their own species. The room contained trace amounts of pure oxygen at all crucial points of measurement. Why they were punished, we don’t know. If they were found to be traitorous to the cause of the alien race and the elites, the person whom they would have most likely have consulted with was Dr. Anderson, and he claimed never to have made contact with the alien race.”

“If he said it, I believe ’em,” cried a young man who’d recently been converted, and was quickly moving up the ranks of the army.

“Maybe there is another faction of humans somewhere on Earth, with their own agendas—that consulted with the aliens about anti–grav technology,” cried Gregory with a sudden burst of inspiration.

“Silence, droid!” shouted most of the members of the council.

“Gregory, I think you can leave, we’ll discuss your participation as a template for Dr. Anderson’s second coming tomorrow,” said Carl almost paternally, waving him to the door. “And Gregory—”

“Yes…sir?”

“Sir, I like that. Good droid.” Everyone laughed. “You should know by now that we have the entire planet of Earth under our domination. It’s ludicrous, as any intelligent person knows, to even consider such a preposterous idea.”

Gregory reached the door of the room, and had another idea. Should he shout it out? “Carl!”

“Leave, droid!” shouted the group in almost unison.

Fine, he thought, maybe I’ll act upon my idea. How would that be? Certainly dangerous, but few courses of action left available to him didn’t seem to readily point toward his demise. The meeting would go on into the night, debates back and forth mostly on the issues already raised. He found it relatively easy to walk past the guards on different levels of the building, most people still saw him as an old friend of the Doctor’s, as some kind of brilliant technical mind doing important work.

Even most of the people at the meeting didn’t know Plan C had been in the cards for Gregory before the Doctor dropped dead. Only Carl, really. And Carl, ever loyal to the Doctor, would be totally preoccupied with reviving Anderson in a new android body.

The word had reached all levels of the building that Dr. Anderson had come down with a cold from the chills of Canada, and was lying low. Because no official constitution of governance had ever been drawn up, the understanding seemed to be that Gregory was the figurehead and Carl would run the day–to–day affairs of the administration.

How long Carl and others would let this strange understanding last, Gregory couldn’t know. So he knew he had to act fast.

Stepping into the alien research laboratory, he saw several coroners had cut open the bodies, and were busy taking samples for chemical analysis. They’d tossed the heads in a bucket marked for incineration.

Some of the people in the room seemed a bit taken aback at first to see a man in there without a gas mask on, then bowed respectfully upon seeing it was Gregory.

His idea was impulsive and not carefully thought out. It would require a lot of luck and patience to make it work. Gregory ordered one of the coroners to fetch liquid nitrogen coolers, and placed the heads inside.

They were small aliens, probably hadn’t stood more than four feet in height. The heads were slightly bigger than human heads, but the cooler held them both snugly.

Nobody was inside the holopool chamber. Usually, only Carl and an assistant or two worked in here. He had all night to figure out the machines and get the heads wired properly to the cyberhelmets.

The coroners had all worn thick protective clothing, including special gloves and headgear. In spite of his inability to burn or melt, the pain neuroreceptors in Gregory’s brain were telling him the heads were wicked hot, in spite of the protection of the deep freeze cooler. He found a large steak knife sitting on a plate of half–eaten t–bone steak by Carl’s computer, and began sawing the protective skins off of the aliens heads.

Within seconds, the knife melted like butter, but gave Gregory enough purchase to tear with his hands the rest of the way. He choked back tears of intense pain, hoping the system his consciousness rested in wouldn’t shut down until threatened by absolute structural damage.

Membrane sacs contained the aliens’ brains, formed of a delicate jellyfish substance that was singed by pieces of the outer protective cranial shell left on his hands. Like a stomach producing the wickedly hot fires of digestion, only inverted, he mused, rinsing his hands off in the pool.

In the hurry to call the meeting to order and prepare Model 13 for Dr. Anderson’s mind, they’d left the pool undrained. The suit of whomever they were examining lay floating on the surface.

The first sac of brain burst open when Gregory tried to attach the electrodes to it, creating an awful pink mess inside. He quickly rinsed the helmet out, hoping there wouldn’t be some strange chemical reaction with the brain and the holopool. They’d never told him what kind of chemicals were floating around in the pool, but he knew it wasn’t just H2O.

He spied a garbage can underneath the desk with a bag overflowing the remains of countless meals. Gregory emptied the bag into the can, and did his best to wash it out. He dropped the brain into the garbage bag, and attached the electrodes to the surface of the bag. Carefully, he placed the fragile cargo into the helmet.

The helmet looked strange floating in the water without a body. But it appeared functional nonetheless. Carl’s computer was turned on, and a massive string of unintelligible data ran for several lines, stopping at a blinking cursor. Where did he start? God, I wish I’d paid more attention, he thought woefully.

Somehow, he had to find the commands to report the matrix to the computer as binary data, convert it into fractal images for quantization, then shoot an algorithm off to the platform over the pool. That much he knew. He paced back and forth in front of the computer, and started opening desk drawers.

The drawers had been crammed with random leaves of paper, countless notes taken by a scrawling hand. He unearthed several unmarked ring binder manuals  underneath the mess of papers. For an hour, he sat staring at dense technical schemata, mathematical equations, and binary printouts; barely recognizing at times layout diagrams of the holosystem.

After scanning every page of every manual and loose leaf he could find, Gregory plopped down into the chair in disgust, cursing himself for thinking he could make his idea work. How many movies could he remember from childhood where the hero could just sit down at a computer, and penetrate the inner workings of the villain’s mainframe  with a lot of frantic tapping on the keys and darting of eyes across the screen? Staring aimlessly at the computer screen, he noticed a piece of paper taped to the monitor.

“For Jacob. Here’s how to run the system when I’m not here. Don’t use it on your human dates, no matter how tempting…”

He almost shouted with joy, but contained his excitement to a wave of the fist. He followed the key command instructions explicitly, and soon the screen was prompting him: human or droid?

After a minute of wrangling, Gregory tried “human.”

Password verification please. He typed in the password from Carl’s instructions. A box opened up with a picture Carl’s ever–sour face, and a brief audio clip blasted out over the sound system. “Wrong door, Jacob. You know better than that. Now, come back when you’re trying to get a droid to go to bed with you.” He broke into raucous laughter, and the screen returned to the initial prompt.

Gregory had panicked a bit, and fought to find some kind of volume control, but the voiced message ended quickly enough, and he would just have to hope no one who cared had heard. He patiently reran the instructions, picking droid.

Soon, the computer was whizzing away, spitting out 0’s and 1’s. This seemed to take inordinately long, and finally a message appeared on the screen. Insufficient data for fractal procedure due to system overload. Try human scan. The computer blinked, and returned the initial prompt.

Gregory wanted to weep.

He paced for a while, considering what to do. Carl was probably still in the meeting, if the clock by the computer was correct. Gregory knew that most of the bedrooms, excepting the Doctor’s, weren’t guarded or even locked. Would the man leave his password lying around, or stuck perhaps in a book?

Maybe he left it lying among this crap. Or taped it to the computer, underneath the desk, or…

He typed in the key commands again, and arrived at the password prompt for a human scan. For the next thirty minutes he tried everything he could think of. Carl, wrongdoor, humanscan, Jacob, dranderson, holocomputer. Finally, in exasperation, he simply hit the return key. A written message appeared on the screen: Welcome, Carl. The computer began to whiz, and started spitting binary data once again across the screen. “Jesus H. Christ,” moaned Gregory to nobody in particular.

The computer reached the end of its binary readout this time, and another prompt popped up: Continue with fractal data? He pressed return and nothing happened.

For a few minutes he sat cringing, thinking the machine had locked up, but another prompt appeared, and he hit the return key again.

With bated breath, he gazed in anticipation at the holoplatform. Nothing. Gregory turned to the computer screen, and saw a selection box had opened up.

Replay in chronological order. Replay in reverse chronological order. Perform a key word search for data specific.

He tried doing a search on Ivan Crabtree and Dr. Anderson, but the computer found nothing. Finally, he simply selected reverse chronological order, and turned his attention once more to the platform.

Like a phantom out of the murky depths beneath, he watched his own face emerge in three–dimensions. Another alien stood next to him, wearing some kind of protective bubble. It could have been the one whose brain sac I popped, he thought.

In the holovideo his self, as remembered by an alien mind, was obviously communicating with the alien whose brain lay in the garbage bag. The alien in the holovideo appeared to be an interpreter, speaking first to his compatriot, and then to Gregory. Only, the whole thing was moving in reverse chronology, so the words came out backwards.

He raced around, trying to find a reverse playback tape recorder, or instructions on how to manipulate the computer to play the information back. Scratched in almost indecipherable handwriting above the function keys were the words, “Stop, fast–forward, rewind, play, reverse play, pause.”

Gregory pushed F6 and then F2. He rewound the conversation back to the beginning and pushed F4. For a brief second, he felt queasy de ja vu watching himself communicate with the aliens, and then it passed.

“We provided the ship to Ivan Crabtree in exchange for his promise to help us fight your elites and our elites. He claimed to have great influence and power over the rulers of your land.”

His holoself spoke, “And you learned otherwise.”

“Yes. He has hid the ship inside his well–guarded company building, and we believe he’s betrayed our plans to our superiors.”

“What do you need me, for?”

“Your group has hacked into his mainframe system before, we’re told. You can do it again, for a worthy cause. May ours and yours be the same.”

Gregory pushed fast–forward through a conversation the two aliens had by themselves, all in their own language. He saw his holoself appear on the platform speaking again, and pushed play.

“These are the blueprints to the building. We’ve noted a secret tunnel; the only entrance being inside Crabtree’s office. But, we don’t have the manpower to penetrate their guards. You’re on your own for that.”

“Very well,” replied the interpreter, “We’ll use maximum caution and stealth, returning with the rest of our cronies. May we stay in your dwellings one more night?”

“I suppose. Just don’t leave the kitchen storage area. Not many of my people are happy I’m consorting with you.”

“As a token of our appreciation, we provide you with this to wear around your neck.”

Gregory kind of jerked in surprise, but allowed the alien to step forward. “What is this, some kind of religious symbol?”

“Sort of. This includes a chip inside of it containing the entire schemata for building one of our ships. The chip also provides a detailed map of where we are in the galaxy. You might find time to use it some day when the war is over. Come and visit.”

The object, hanging on a string, appeared to resemble a whistle.

The aliens made an effort to bow, and the memory cut to screams of terror like none Gregory had ever heard. He watched as a swarm of men in heavy protective gear rushed in. The only English voice he heard was all too familiar. His.

“What makes me think for a second I would ever trust you scum?”

But the interpreter alien said nothing, and Gregory watched in horror through the eyes of an alien its last memories, choking and death.

He made a quick effort to clean things up, returned the computer screen to a prompt, and ran back to his room. Obviously, they would figure out sooner than later that someone had been messing around with the holoequipment, he hoped later than sooner, and that Jacob character would the suspect.

So, I was cold–hearted enough to betray their trust, he pondered. My eyes and ears have also told me I was cruel enough to chop my kids’ heads off, and Dr. Anderson told me otherwise. If Dr. Anderson’s story was to be believed, then the Gregory he saw in the holovideo must have been the one to return to the retreat on the day before the ATAF raid, because otherwise, the members of the Free Minds Underground would have stumbled upon the aliens the next day at dinner. His mind would have been gutted at this point in time by Ivan Crabtree. Therefore, Ivan had done more than make me a vegetable. He’d turned me into a killer in search of spaceship plans.

It made sense in lieu of the way the Doctor had behaved ever since Gregory had stepped into 2035. The way the Doctor only mentioned in his story that: “he just needed a slave to try out his new irreality software and hardware,” and “…once he’d decided the real Gregory’s mind was completely gutted, you were a total vegetable, he sent the real Gregory back to the compound as poetic justice….as for the cyberYou he’d created, he thought he would use it to kill me.”

And if Ivan still needed plans to the alien race’s spacecraft, he couldn’t have been successful in making the thing work, therefore, it was still there! The Doctor had his own scheming agenda, no doubt, but what?

One thing was for certain, he had to get into that tunnel and down to the craft. The office, he knew, was part of the room the Doctor slept in. Guarded heavily, no doubt.

Gregory told the guards he wanted to visit the Doctor and pay his respects. They let him into the office. He tried to picture where the entrance to the tunnel would sit, based on the blueprint that had flashed across the holovideo. The throw rug in the middle of the room yielded nothing. Probably under the desk. He pushed on the heavy oak desk, but it hardly budged.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” demanded a voice from behind.

He whirled around and saw Carl standing at the entrance of the room, a drink in hand, and several people from the meeting laughing it up.

“Uh, paying my last respects before we reseed him.”

“He’s not under the desk, idiot. And it’s not called reseeding. That’s something you do to a planet. Gregory, your services as a template will not be required for another week, so I suggest you go take up your more preferred occupation as a cook. Stay out of this business. I don’t know why the doctor liked you so much, because nobody else does.”

“Could I at least have a moment alone, to pay my respects?”

“I think not. Go find a droid whore to keep you company or use your hands and memories of that ugly doctor friend of yours, but just leave, for the love of god.”

People were filing in and laughing at Carl’s wit. He wanted to slug the man, but knew after they discovered remnants of activity in the holochamber, prudence would dictate laying low for a while.

Gregory grabbed the cooler from his room and took it to the incinerator, tossing priceless knowledge from another star system into the flames. He washed the cooler out inside the alien autopsy  lab, noting there was not a shred of evidence the extraterrestrials had been autopsied just hours before. The coroners had probably already entered the data they found into computers and were fast asleep forgetting the entire thing.

Gregory hoped he could do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Jacob turned out to be a pet droid of Carl’s, a plaything. Word came to Gregory down the grapevine that Carl had been incensed to find his entire work area disorganized. Though Jacob pleaded he was with another man at the time, this didn’t seem to make Carl any happier. But that was all that seemed would come of Gregory’s use of the holopool facilities.

The rest of the week was one of tension, waiting, and an utter lack of information regarding developments of the resurrection of  Doctor Anderson.

Gregory spent his hours studying inside the Administration library. No one seemed to pay him any mind. Twenty–four hours after his night with the aliens, the entire place had all but excommunicated him. He was nothing more than an object in the service of the Administration, as he more frequently began to hear Dr. Anderson’s nameless group called.

There were scant few books relating to the history of the past thirty years or so. It seemed everyone had been so busy with their research, spaceship building, and conversion projects, that nothing was said about the dozen or so years the alien race mined the earth with human slaves. What information he could cough up told him that Dr. Anderson had lain low during these years, building up his army, and biding his time. There was really no way to defeat the alien race, they were far superior in technology and soon in numbers as well.

Most of the alien race had no interest in Kansas City, where natural resources valuable to them were scarce, and most of the population had already been shipped to mines elsewhere. If one of them had by chance decided to explore the Crabtree Industrial area, they were greeted by “the natural phenomena of curiously intense oxygen pockets.” The aliens who survived the fatal fumes would advise their superiors to stay away.

By anyone’s account, the activities of Free Minds Underground, pre–Invasion, were rarely reported in the histories and documents he could find. Mostly, mention was made of the great Phoenix that arose from the ashes—Dr. Anderson and friends. A few of more prophetic persuasion had taken the time to sing the praises of the Doctor, how one day he would be the Moses of the 21st century, and the masses of the Earth would first conquer the Elites of W, then blast off to the alien race’s home planet, and be victorious there as well.

“Hello, Gregory, did you miss me?” Meh–loh stood in front of him. It was the day before he was to place himself in Carl’s hands.

“Meh–loh.” He leaped to his feet, and embraced her, kissing her passionately.

“I take that is a yes. Come back to my room, and let’s talk.”

After they’d satisfied physical needs, Gregory turned to her and said, “They’re gonna kill me.”

“Gregory, they’re gonna kill us all, I’m certain of it.”

“But why?”

“I returned to my home country to help the sick people with dreams of winning more converts. What I saw were our guards executing people that refused to convert by the thousands. Mass open graves. I was told by the head doctor to keep my mouth shut about this, or I would join them.”

Gregory told her everything that had happened to him, everything he’d learned so far.

“It’s too bad I wasn’t there with you,” she said, “I would have given much to have heard the rest of the alien’s knowledge.”

“The computer can’t translate, Meh–loh. It simply spits out what the audio receptors in the brain tell it to. I was lucky enough as it was that the alien’s brain had evolved enough like a human’s to receive anything back at all.”

“I know the computer can’t translate, I’m saying I would have given much to have heard the knowledge. They were a very intelligent race.”

“You knew their language?”

She nodded. “I was chosen among many potential translators because I spoke French and English quite fluently, and happened to be in Washington D.C. at a conference to fund my work.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“It’s not something I’m especially proud of. Because of me, many people were convinced we could trust the aliens, my own life was barely spared from the deaths.”

He looked away, seeing how deeply she’d been traumatized by the past.

“You don’t even remember Dr. Anderson, do you?” she asked. “Back when you were in that cult?”

“I only remember what he’s told me, though most of it seems to jibe with everything else in this particular version of reality I’m witnessing. If he’s come close to lying, it seems to only be in the lack of information given, not misinformation.”

“It sounds to me like he’s gonna wake up in that fresh young body of his, and fly away in the alien craft.”

“Exactly. I’m not sure why the guards were killing your people, though.”

“Gregory, do you really think the Doctor retains complete autonomy over a worldwide army? He didn’t even take the time to come up with a name for his new group. He simply doesn’t give a damn about saving the Earth, only his own behind.”

“Do you really think the six ships will be able to attach in space to a giant food supply, and blast off to W?”

“Most certainly not.”

“Why would he even bother maintaining the pretense of trying to save the world, then?”

“Think back to the meeting they threw you out of. You told me the way so many of the people there spoke. With fervor, passion for an ideology, a cause. Who are most of these people that work for him but engineers, scientists, researchers, technicians? What kind of research does an alien coroner do when she has no aliens to autopsy?”

“Uh…”

“Can’t you see? He’s using all of these people the way he’s tried to use you. Something is keeping that alien craft from flying, and he needs to figure it out.”

“I think you’re right. All of the scientific people are kept on a tight leash, always given a specific set of instructions. People like you, the humanitarians, and the strong arms, they pretty much hold no interest to the Doctor.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

“And what better pretense for researching space flight technology than a massive program to build six crafts at the same time, each with its own team of researchers working around the clock to improve our technology?”

“It would make sense. Simple human selfishness, always look for that first before trying to look elsewhere for motives. That’s what my grandmother used to tell me.”

“But you’re better than that.” Gregory smiled and kissed her.

“I try, my love.”

After she rolled over, he began to wonder what Carl would do with him the next day. Download his mind into a computer, and dissect it? No doubt Carl would see and hear everything he and Meh–loh had just discussed. He couldn’t just cross his fingers and hope for the possibility that the men would want to fast–forward through scenes with his lover.

“Meh–loh, Meh–loh,” Gregory whispered gently, shaking her awake. “We can’t stay here, we have to figure out how to break into the Doctor’s office and get to the tunnel.”

“Okay my love, I’ll do anything you ask.”

What Gregory needed was a weapon. He felt certain after his session with Carl the next day, Meh–loh and he would join the aliens in the incinerator. And he was pretty sure the incinerator reached temperatures that would melt even a droid. Therefore, it was no going back. Time for desperate measures of force.

But he had no guns, no knives, nothing. He explained the problem to Meh–loh.

“If I were a woman most men find attractive, I could distract the guard or guards while you sneaked in and bopped him over the head with a blunt object.”

“Yes, of course! We’ll find us a droid whore and bribe her.”

A buxom blonde was patrolling the halls, and smiled at Gregory. “Hello, handsome. Need a little lovin’?”

“A buddy of mind does.” Meh–loh had scouted ahead and told him there was only one man guarding the Doctor’s office/bedroom. Anderson’s body had apparently been moved elsewhere. “What are you charging?”

“Five packs of smokes and a quart of Vodka.”

“Wait here, I can get you those things and then some.”

The Doctor had been generous with precious vices upon Gregory’s arrival. The first night, the liquor and cigarettes and marijuana and coke had seemed quite inviting, but Gregory soon realized that he would need his complete mental faculties more often than not, and Meh–loh came along and filled the void vices left.

He grabbed a carton of smokes, two sachets of coke and pot, and the vodka.

The droid whore was impressed. “My, my. You must really like your friend.”

“He’s the greatest. Now, I want you to be as teasing and sexy as possible, and if he asks ‘who put you up to this,’ tell him you just think he’s so hot and manly and all that. If he has no self–esteem whatsoever, tell him his best friend sent you—he’ll take the post when you two leave—and you’re not supposed to say anything because it’s a surprise gift.”

She appeared to receive all of the information into her memory, though it was hard to tell. The droid whore seemed more interested in the coke than anything he had to say.

Gregory met up with Meh–loh in an empty office where they could watch everything. They couldn’t hear what the droid whore said, but she appeared to be successful, though the guard seemed a little reluctant at first to leave his post

With Meh–loh’s help, the desk felt much lighter, and they discovered a tiny keyhole where a desk leg had been.

“Damn,” muttered Gregory.

“Oh, easy, sweet. No doubt the Doctor grew careless where he hid the key, thinking he wouldn’t need to worry about it much longer.”

She was right. Both of them leaped for the obvious place, inside the potted plant.

The trap door opened easily enough, and cold dank air rose up into the room. Below, rungs of a ladder dropped off into blackness. Voices could be heard close by outside the door.

“Hurry.”

“Let me go first,” said Gregory, “If there’s something nasty and destructive down there, I’ll more likely be the one to survive it.”

“You just want to look up my night gown.”

“That too.” He kissed her and began mounting the rungs. After about twenty feet of descent, his feet touched cold pavement.

Angry voices came from above. Gunshots. He heard the trap door slam, and a body scrambling down the ladder. It was she.

“I grabbed the key, shut the door and locked it. But, they could very well have keys of their own, or blast the door off its hinges. Hurry.”

They ran down a dark winding corridor towards a faint light ahead of them. There it was, he thought. Not Ivan, nor the Doctor, nor anyone else could figure out how to get the damn thing off of the ground after years of trying.

Above it, was a large window on which he could see The Crabtree Fund logo faded from sunlight. I know where we are now, he mused wryly, if by chance we find ourselves out in the courtyard again.

The craft was small, designed to hold two of the alien race. Gregory and Meh–loh barely crammed into the thing, and she whispered, “How sexy it will be, so close to one another, and flying through space.”

He could hear gunshots echoing down the tunnel as the men blasted away at the trap door.

“Well, hmmm…” at least Ivan and the Doctor had probably been able to turn the damn thing on.

“Look, a storage chamber,” cried Meh–loh, lifting a small door positioned above the windshield.

Gregory fished around inside, and found a small lanyard. The whistle–like object from the holovideo, he thought. Someone apparently had taken the time to extract the blueprints and maps from the chip inside the whistle, and print them out.

The two could hear the trapdoor creaking open, and a man shouting with triumph. They strained their eyes in the pale light to make out the pages.

“Look, human handwriting!” cried Meh–loh.

“It says they modified the, uh,”

“Air system.”

“To generate oxygen instead of uranium radiation. Two men were—”

“Killed, and look! More English here.”

“The Doctor’s handwriting scratched in next to someone else’s.”

“I’m having trouble reading it, it’s so faint, and my eyes are growing bad.”

“Forget it, we’re doomed,” he said, throwing his hands into his lap.  They were pounding down the tunnel now, angry boots on wet pavement. He half expected to look up and see the Gestapo charging forth, with angry insane Dobermans snapping at taut leashes.

Meh–loh nervously fingered the whistle and unconsciously started to puff air into it.

Something flashed, he thought.

“Blow on the whistle again, my love.”

This time, the entire room lit up, and Gregory could see the pale shocked faces of Carl and his men standing at the entrance. The dashboard of the spaceship was alight as well, and his eyes caught a small green button blinking in the center. He pushed it.

The ship began talking in alien voices, and someone outside started firing at the ship.

“It’s giving us instructions on how to fly it,” said Meh–loh, “The ship was apparently designed as a kind of toddler vessel for children learning how to fly. Push that button over there.”

“This one?”

“No, look. Let me fly it. We’ll save time.”

“Go for it.”

A loud thump hit the rear of the spaceship.

“Someone’s on top of us,” cried Gregory, “Make it fly.”

They could feel one of the men sliding around on the back of the ship, trying to gain footing. There was a creak, then a loud slam, like the sound of a trunk door being shut hard.

“The glass,” said Meh–loh, “We’ll crash.”

“We have no choice, they’re gonna be swarming over us any minute.”

She punched a few buttons on the dashboard, and a free floating ball appeared in front of her. With her palm across it, she spun it back as hard as she could. The ship whirred into life, and shot up towards the glass.

Gregory and Meh–loh screamed at the impending crash, but the breakthrough was negligible. She’d apparently given the ship more thrust than intended, and it shot them high above the surface of the Earth in seconds flat. During their whopping ascent, they felt their physical selves turn to a vaporous ether, as if in an out–of–body experience or psychedelic trip, and then materialize as the ship stabilized into an orbit of the Earth.

“Whoah, Lordy,” moaned Gregory feeling his body tingling all over. He wondered if the human sitting next to him felt the same thing. Meh–loh was breathing hard and fast. “Are you okay?”

“That was better than sex,” she gasped, clutching Gregory and the side of the ship.

He had nothing to say to that.

“So, here we are. Free at last.”

“Yes, now we need to get back to the Earth and save my people.”

“What? They’ll kill us in seconds flat.”

“My people wouldn’t—”

“Maybe not your people, but somebody will. How do you propose to engineer going up against an entire army?”

“I don’t know. We’ve had brilliant ideas and plenty of bravery so far. Or, are you simply interested in saving your own skin like the Doctor was?”

“That hurts, Meh–loh.”

“I’m sorry. I just thought you were interested in justice.”

“Yes, but not if our efforts are more likely to be in vain. I mean, what if the Doctor was correct about the Elites? Even if we convince the people to rise up and fight the Administration, it could all be for naught if a massive invasion from W comes along.”

A voice from behind them startled them both. “While you two lovebirds debate the best way to fight hopeless causes, I’m taking this ship to W.”

Both turned in paralyzing fear to see the young handsome face of Model 13.

“The…Doctor?” stammered Gregory.

“That’s right,” a gun waved in front of their faces and a head poked through as if a puppeteer were revealing himself to children.

“But I thought—”

“I know you thought a lot of things. And it looks as though my decision to spare you two was a good one after all. To think you almost got so rude as to leave Earth without me.”

“But how?” asked Gregory after the Doctor gloated over a stunned silence.

“I lifted the back hatch, and planted my android ass into the cargo hatch. It’s kind of nice back here. You two sitting up there all cramped in the kiddie seats; and me, the grownup, driving with my gun.”

“But I thought I was needed as a template for your resurrection.”

“So did I. But some of my researchers discovered in the archival material that some fool had hooked an alien brain up to the holocomputer. At first, Carl, loving man that he is, wanted to hunt you down and kill you immediately.”

“Only—”

“Only he was soon engrossed in the fractal data the computer was spitting out. It was the perfect algorithm, the complete recipe if you will, for a completely restored mind. There would be none of the faulty computations that made you lose all of your technical memories. They worked all night and all day for almost an entire week. You have Carl’s loyalty to thank for not being tossed in the incinerator. He does have a thing for following my orders to the nth degree.”

“How did you find us so fast, wasn’t everyone celebrating or sleeping?” asked Meh–loh.

“Well, I was dog tired myself. And, seeing as how my bedroom is attached to my office, I had every reason to return there. At first, I was simply hunting down a certain horny guard to give him a reprimand. Then, when I heard the droid whore’s story, and saw the coke spread out over her breasts, I put two and two together.”

Gregory was stunned. He couldn’t think of anything to say or do.

“Meh–loh, how handy you got sucked into this mess, a translator of the alien tongue. You can pilot us to W.”

“Of all the places in the galaxy, why W?” asked Gregory, puzzled.

“Why else, but to kill Ivan Crabtree. He stole my girlfriend when we were undergraduates. Nothing else but revenge has been my sole motivation for everything I’ve endeavored since.”

Gregory shook his head.

“What, you don’t think love is a powerful thing? Look at you, my friend, and your little lady. Why, just now, you wanted to forsake saving masses of innocent people to fly to a safe haven with her and start a new life, admit it.”

“That’s…I…”

“Is that true, Gregory?” asked Meh–loh.

“Only partly. But I insist that I mainly wanted to find a way to stop the ships coming to firebomb Earth.”

The doctor roared with laughter.

“What?”

“You are so gullible, my friend, believing everything you see and hear.”

“What do you mean?” he demanded furiously, forgetting a gun was pointed at him.

“Be careful Gregory,” Meh–loh whispered in his ear.

“Listen to the little lady. Gregory, the World Elites are fond lovers of old European architecture, the pyramids of Giza, mountains like St. Helens those damn rich fools are always getting stranded on. They are also fond of eugenics.”

“So, what are you saying?”

“What I’m saying is, they’ve been using me as a means to an end. I round up herds of indigenous peoples under the false pretense of escaping a firebombing, and let their hired guns down there on Earth blast them away. They plan to get their precious planet back intact, sans non–white peoples.” Meh–loh slapped him.

“You know, little lady, I’d kill you right here and now, but you are needed to fly this ship. I’ll have you know that I never replaced the Aliens’ uranium with oxygen. Making estimations based on the rate of flight one of these babies is supposed to have, I’d say you’ll be passing into the afterlife about the time we’re circling Mars for a reentry approach.”

Did it all for a woman, thought Gregory, shaking his head. What kind of crazed man was this? What kind of woman would take him now, a deranged bitter warped old man inside an android’s body? I’ll bet if he never had one researcher or whiz kid to pilot the dizzyingly dense ship of Science for him, he’d be as ignorant of technology as me.

“And what if I cause this stupid thing to crash into the moon?” cried Meh–loh defiantly.

“You would die, and your boyfriend and I would survive the crash. These are tough bodies. But not so tough. If you want to use bullets to kill a droid, you have to put one right where the spinal column meets the brain,” he sneered, putting the end of the gun on the back of Gregory’s neck.

“Stop it!” cried Meh–loh.

“After seeing you both dead, I would go to one of the outposts on the moon where some kid guard is half asleep, shoot him, don his suit, join a band of the Elite army on its way to Earth, and build me a new spaceship.”

“But you don’t know how to turn the damn thing on,” said Gregory, irritated.

“And you couldn’t pilot it without an interpreter,” cried Meh–loh triumphantly.

“Nyah, nyah, nyah. I watched you blow the damn whistle with my own two highly evolved eyes. And it would take two seconds to have Carl upload the entire lexicography of the alien race into my little droid mind. So there.”

Gregory and Meh–loh looked at each other with intense sadness. So, this is it lover. “If you die, I die,” he whispered in her ear. She put her head in his lap.

“Aw, isn’t that sweet. Just make sure this thing goes to Mars, or you’re both dead.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10

 

“Awaken my love,” whispered Gregory into her ear in a husky voice. He’d told her to rest, breath shallow breaths free of panic, and he would hold as much of the oxygen in his droid lungs for when she would need it the most.

The Doctor droid in the back of the alien spaceship had given up all pretense of being a humanitarian, and was busy sucking in huge gulps of air, and blowing them back out. He blasted hot air on Gregory’s neck. “Strange the way they manufactured we droids to simulate animal respiration. We can breath underwater, and in space, but when oxygen is available, we produce carbon dioxide. Too bad you didn’t fall in love with a plant, Gregory. I imagine that when you blow all that air into Meh–loh’s lungs, she won’t be thanking you much.”

The Doctor’s constant annoying babble and loud breathing was becoming background noise to Gregory as the harsh rasps of Meh–loh’s gasps for air grew louder and faster.

“I’m…not…going…to…make it,” she gasped, her eyes rolling in their sockets.

“No, you will make it, you will survive. The human body can regain consciousness after several minutes without air in the lungs. We’re almost there.”

“We have half an hour,” giggled the Doctor, “Let her go, Gregory.” Her face was turning purple.

Before the levels of oxygen dropped dangerously low, the Doctor had made sure Meh–loh queried the ship’s database and repeat to him the instructions several times on how to slow the ship down, send it through reentry and land it.

“Meh–loh, Meh–loh, wake up!”

“Good…bye, my love…I trust…you will do…the right thing,” she died with a choking sob, her eyes bulging from their sockets, blood oozed around her lips.

“What are you going to do now, my compadre? They don’t know how to make droids on W.”

Gregory laid her head against her seat with shaking fingers, pulling her lids over her eyes. He kissed her once gently on the lips, then whirled around and lunged for the Doctor’s gun.

“What are you doing fool, you’ll kill us both!”

“What the fuck do I care, you piece of shit!”

A struggle ensued, rocking the ship, and Meh–loh’s head snapped about like a rag doll. The gun went off several times, causing Gregory to pause briefly and glance at the droid blood bubbling from his own chest.

“Stop this madness, slow the ship up or I put a bullet in your spinal cord!”

Gregory returned to the struggle with the fury of a bull, and ripped the gun from the Doctor’s hands. He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. There were no more bullets.

He saw a fiery white light come as shards, melting into the peaceful vision of the red, green, and blue planet; then passed into oblivion.

“Wake up, the curtain call is upon us,” came a voice that sounded like Meh–loh’s. She was there, his angel, standing over him in a beautiful rose gown. He could hear an audience applauding and struggled to his feet.

“Wh–where am I?”

“It’s okay, you were wonderful. You’ll probably feel the effects of the FMU for a few more days. Come, our adoring audience awaits.”

“Free Minds Underground?”

“Wow, he really is still under the influence,” said Dr. Anderson’s voice from behind him.

Gregory tried to take a swing at the man, but Meh–loh clutched his arm tightly. “Come now, at least bow and wave and smile, King Bush wouldn’t be pleased if the star ducked out on him. He might ban the use of drugs from theatrical performances yet again.” She rolled her eyes, and several groans were heard.

Trying to muster up strength to face what appeared to be another irreality or reality, he let her take his hand and lead him out to the front of the stage.

Thunderous applause greeted him, and he almost fell over. His right hand held Meh–loh’s, his left Dr. Anderson’s, and all around him he could see familiar faces. Julie, Martin, Bethany, Matt, Ivan, Carl, his parents, and many others. Out in the audience, he spotted the 40th and 42nd presidents of the United States, giving him a standing ovation with their wives. Other famous people were there. A familiar telEgelist whose name he’d forgotten. A washed up comedian from the nineties, Pauly Something. British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

After what seemed like hours of bowing into a state of vertigo, he was back in what appeared to be a dressing room, quaffing down a stiff vodka brought by a young pretty girl who was popping about to each actor’s demands.

“You’re still under the influence of Ferrous–menthanol–6–di–uranium, produced by mushrooms indigenous to W. We tried to tell you not to take too much of the stuff, but you never listen. It’s timed to stop working after the show, because of the half–life in it, but with you it could be days.”

“And I suppose you’re not Meh–loh, and I’m not really Gregory.”

“Of course not silly. We’re actors, those are our stage names. Look, why don’t you get ‘Julie’ here, or ‘the Doctor’ to tell you about it; ‘Ivan’ and I have a diner engagement with some lesser nobility.”

“Why with Ivan?”

“His name is Fernando, and he’s my husband, silly. Surely you remember that.”

Gregory clutched his aching head, and wanted to die. He felt like he was coming down from the world’s worst acid nightmare, and yet the nightmare seemed far from over.

Someone slapped him on the back. It was Dr. Anderson, or—whoever.

“Zachary, you gave the performance the poets will speak of for ages. I must admit I had my misgivings like the others about shooting you up so full of the stuff, but no one was as convincing as you.”

“‘Zachary?’ Can’t I just be Gregory for a little longer? I’ve grown used to it, Dr., er—”

“Zach, it’s me, Jonathan. And, I’m no doctor, but I do know we’re not supposed to encourage your hallucinations. So, I’ll tell you this, vodka is not your drink of choice. Come throw back a Guinness on me and I’ll have you straightened out in no time.” He slapped Gregory on the back and roared with laughter.

Gregory wondered what town he was in. At first, it looked a bit like the Saskatoon of the irreality play. Then he noticed skyscrapers surrounding them instead of mountains, but he couldn’t tell for sure..

“Okay, I’ll set you straight, good chap. We’re on W, the year is 2065, you and I and Fernando and Gina—that’s Meh–loh to you right now old pal—and all of the others, we’re playactors. Fernando and Gina write and direct the plays. Mostly historical pieces like Shakespeare did, in tribute to great kings. Like our King Bush, who’s now an android like his father, of course.”

“Of course,” Gregory muttered, feeling sick to his stomach from the Guinness.

“Most of what happened in the play is historically based. Gregory Watts was, as you should know, a traitor to the human race.”

“So, he really did try to save hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples from extinction?”

“Who knows? No one’s been back to Earth, what happened after our forefathers left is speculative. He’s the one who sold Earth to the aliens, for a cool billion dollars. Then, he tucked his tail under his legs and ran off with his little Asian princess. We like to think they ran out of oxygen, or burnt up upon reentry into a planet’s atmosphere, but no one really knows.”

“Does George W. Bush still run the show around here?”

“Of course not! And you better start remembering his Grace’s name, King Grover Bush. Not that we could ever imagine you becoming a traitor.”

“What about that strange disappearing internet message I found during the middle of the play, that seemed so out of sync with everything else that was happening? You know, the Buffalo Spirits, and all that?”

Jonathan handed him a piece of paper. The same message was plainly scrawled in what Gregory remembered as being “the Doctor’s” handwriting.

“Fernando wrote that and had me slip it to you during the show. He was afraid you were forgetting the play, lost in and FMU haze. I mean, part of our greatness comes from our ability to improvise upon memorized lines while on the stuff, but we were beginning to think you’d repeat a weekend in Kansas City forever. His idea was that you’d have your memory jogged a bit, and cause the events to turn a new direction, more in line with the main thrust of the story.”

“You mean I was helping to shape the play as it went along?”

“Of course! We all were, and we all stuck to our memorized lines at the same time, more or less. Isn’t that life?”

Gregory was still confused.

“So, how did a bunch of humans end up on Mars? What role did Dr. Anderson and Ivan Crabtree play in all of this, who really were the Free Minds Underground, and what did they stand for?”

“Zach, Zach, Zach. Settle down. Please. Have a vodka for chrissakes if you think that’s what you need. I’m going to order a companion droid for you, and program her to keep you from losing it out in the streets somewhere. She’ll escort you back to your place, don’t worry if you don’t remember where it is. When you wake up tomorrow, look through your stuff for Crabtree the Younger’s History of the First Half of the 21st Century. Every citizen has one. Most of us in show business keep a gold–embossed leatherbound edition on display for visiting nobility and other important guests. Read it. Read it twice. Hell, memorizing it will probably pull you out of this messy trip you’re on. I gotta run. A companion droid is on her way over.”

“Where are you going, Dr. Ander—”

“Ah, ah, now…”

“Jonathan. Where are you going, Jonathan?”

“Your memory is truly shot. I’m performing my reenactment of a Great American Sitcom Episode. I do it every Friday night as a side gig. For the love of the Art, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Look, I’d ask you to come, but you really need someone with a computer for a brain to straighten you out.”

“No, no. That’s okay. I think you’ve done enough straightening for me, Doctor.” Gregory spat the words out in a volume so loud, half of the bar dropped silent for a few seconds to turn and stare.

“Get better. Your life depends on it.” Jonathan said the words under his breath in an even, measured tone. He turned abruptly, and walked out, pausing at the door to let them scan his brain for credits on the drinks and the purchase of the companion droid.

“You get better!” yelled Gregory to no one in particular, finding himself staring at the bartender. Suddenly he felt quite drunk and stupid.

A portly old woman walked up and announced, “My name is Kta, I’ll be your companion through the tough times ahead.” She dropped Gregory to the floor with a karate chop, and hefted him on her shoulders like a sack of potatoes.

His next memory came as a warm fuzzy maternal experience. Soft probing hands reached inside of him, and repaired torn and frayed nervous connections. Part of him wanted to scream, but he felt physically paralyzed, and liked the feeling the hands were giving him.

“There, your chakras are realigned, the prajna flows freely across the system.”

He eased himself up, finding his body held in a warm stream of anti–grav electromagnetic currents. A screen flashed a face at him on the wall in front of him. It was Meh–loh, or Gina now, as recent memory told him.

“Zachary, you look much better. We called the companion droid up this morning and told her to give your virtualbed a nice uplifting Guru program. I trust you are feeling better as well?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess. How do I get down from here?”

“‘Computer, drop me from my slumber.’”

He stared at the screen, floating in midair.

“No, you have to say it, ‘Computer, drop me from my slumber.’ It responds only to your voice.”

He spoke the words, and was gently lowered to a nest of pillow–like air currents. “How did I get up here in the first place, then, if it only responds to my voice?”

“I would imagine that your subconsciousness remembers things better than your waking self right now. Anyway, like Jonathan told you, read the Book.”

“What about the companion droid?”

“Oh, her. She is probably making you a fine morning smoothie. We told her your favorite, spirulina, ginseng, ginko baloba, St. John’s Wort, and a light dose of mescaline to help rebuild the lost reality tunnels inside your neural networks.”

“Mescaline?”

“Enjoy, I gotta run. And don’t you leave that apartment. You should know how much bad publicity can ruin an acting troupe.”

He found his smoothie on a tray, presented by Kta with a beaming motherly smile.

“I hope you enjoyed the Guru wake–up call. The computer let me decide who got to be the Guru. I think my own physical being and voice make for a fine one, don’t you?”

“Uh, yeah, Kta, you were great. So, are you going to try and stop me if I leave?”

“You’re not a droid, Zachary. You can do as your free will dictates.”

“But you are, and I command you to call me Gregory.”

“As you wish. Duly noted.” The beaming maternal face and buxom being turned, and reentered the kitchen.

He was somewhat struck at the fact that the apartment seemed a lot like the one in Kansas City. A bedroom/living area, one tiny bathroom, and a kitchenette large enough for one person to feel a bit of claustrophobia most of the time.

Daylight appeared to be simulated from inside the planet. A constant pale blue light rose up from the surface of the ground like steam on a cool morning back on Earth.

Gregory had discovered the city was much larger than he’d thought the night before, and inside the Book, he learned it was the only city on the face of the planet. The founding fathers had named it Chase Manhattan.

The Book, as he realized everyone called Crabtree the Younger’s History of the First Half of the 21st Century, was written almost twenty years prior to the time he now found himself in. It spoke of the World Elites as if they were the persecuted sector of humanity, exiled to Mars while the rest of humanity suffered for its sins of sleeping with the Alien. A kind of vindication of the biblical accounts of the Rapture, he thought wryly.

The book pointed out that the World Elites were in fact, not masters of eugenics, all races had been represented on the great ship of escape that fled Earth. The information Dr. Anderson had provided in the previous irreality about the course of history in the early 21st century was evidently contrary when it concerned the behavior of the World Elites. The World Elites were called People’s Friends in Crabtree’s book. How the People’s Friends received anti–grav technology was narrated in high–energy thriller stories of the brave men and women of the C.I.A.

“Hey look, it’s Zachary Moore!” shouted a voice. Gregory looked up from his book. He’d found a small Parisian café, out of the way of the workaday crowd. Most of the people he’d passed paid him no mind. Dressed like the Wall Street speculators he remembered from the twentieth century, they rushed to and from subway exits.

“Mr. Moore, Fate newspaper just released a picture of you dead drunk, passed out over the shoulders of a companion droid, is it true?”

“Mr. Moore, a rumor is going around the net that you are addicted to FMU. Is that true?”

“Here, sign an autograph.”

He stared at the people, mostly high school and college–aged women in strange sexless uniforms, dresses that hung on them shapelessly, like nun outfits. A few young men were pushing their way forward, they had on tight leather clothing and spiked hairdos.

“Rumors, all rumors,” he said nonchalantly, reaching for the nearest fan’s pen. He decided that playing the fame role would be fun. Gregory felt almost unbreakable now, even though he’d scalded his hand in hot water that morning to make sure he wasn’t an android or mind–matrix still caught in some horrible wet dream of Dr. Anderson’s. It made him giddy, knowing that no matter how bad things got, he would simply wake up in a new version of reality, ready to start over again.

“So you kids read the Book?” he asked, trying to sound sophisticated and urbane.

“Ha, do we read the book!? That’s great Mr. Moore.”

“Mr. Moore, you know that every schoolkid can read nothing but the Book until they’re seventeen.”

“And I bet you’re all still virgins, right?”

Even the boys in the crowd blushed and gasped at this one. “Cover your ears, children,” said a strong matronly voice behind the kids, “What do we know about the loose and depraved behavior of our thespians?”

The kids were already stepping back from him in fear, and eyeing him as if he were Satan himself. One of the girls who’d been lucky enough to get his autograph ran over to a trash deatomizer and made a display of tossing hers in the receptacle. Gregory could hear something hissing inside the container.

“Sister I’m–holier–than–thou, I’ll bet you’re not a virgin, right?”

At this statement, the entire café of students and businesspeople seemed to drop into a sound vacuum, and an angry little waiter strode up.

“What’s this? We’ll have no derelicts in my café. This is a clean establishment. You take your heresy back underground, Mr. Moore. Thespians.” He sniffed a snooty sniff, and removed Gregory’s bagel and coffee.

Gregory shrugged his shoulders and ignored the angry stares of onlookers. Soon, he was lost once more in the crowd of people interested only in making money, and discovered a small park in the middle of Chase Manhattan.

What do I care, anymore? He thought, tossing the Book in a duck pond. A young mother wearing clothing no more revealing than the schoolgirls’ frocks, grabbed her young son, and stalked away.

“Consider the ducks of the pond, even they must know the True Path,” cried Gregory in mock religious fervor at the mother.

A blind man was making his way towards Gregory, tap–tapping his way along, receiving hostile looks from the people in the park, who were all creating a wide swath around his small ambling form.

The man slowed to a tiny shuffle, and began circling Gregory with his tap–tapping. “Come here, Bessie. Bessie’s my favorite pet duck. Got a lot of good things to eat today, my sweet,” he called out in a sing–song voice.

Gregory shuddered nervously when the man stopped unbearably close.

“It is not the fools who grow wise, but the ones who have eyes.”

“What?”

“You’re trapped in a hole, do you dig like a mole?” The man asked, and then moved on, calling out for his favorite duck.

Gregory decided not to be shaken by the blind man. The poor guy certainly isn’t the strangest thing I’ve encountered, he thought, grinning inside.

He found a bar where nobody seemed to recognize him. It took the better part of an hour to find such a bar, deep inside the city. The people at this bar were all of one happy accord, calling each other out by name, and laughing at shared memories. A football game was taking place on a holovideo platform raised above the billiard table. A few old men were slumped over their drinks in booths, cast in vacant torpors.

On his third vodka rocks, a woman tapped his shoulder.

“Come with me,” she said. Her face seemed severe. Blonde hair mixed with white was pulled back in a bun to reveal strikingly forceful cheekbones and narrow bewitching eyes that might have been of Mongolian ancestry. Her face was so pale, though, that it almost glowed. When he stood up, she towered over him a good foot. He noticed she wore high–heel boots and jeans. A silk blouse that revealed there was nothing much to reveal hugged her torso tightly underneath a leather vest.

She let him put his arms and legs tight around her after her floatercycle reached over a hundred, and whipped in and out of city traffic. Deeper into the city, the daylight seemed to vanish, the homes appeared less clean.

They arrived at a tiny two bedroom cottage in a neighborhood bursting to the seems with children and cars in the streets. The houses were packed close together.

The woman led took his hand and smiled a tiny bit as she led him into her house.

“All the usual questions,” Gregory said, sounding a bit bored.

“I’m Irina, wife of Gregor. We are part of this small Russian community you see around you, descendants of the very first Martians.”

“The first?”

“Americans and English won the coin toss at the summit in 2001. We were the only countries seriously interested in trying to get off of the planet at the time, you might remember. The World Elites—which includes some of my leaders too, or it did, anyway—they had a coin toss over who would fly up in the reseeding ship, and who would come later.”

“And you say you lost? Back in the Cold War days, it was always an honor to shoot someone off into space first.”

“Of course it was. But the Cold War had ended twenty–three years before. There was no honor in getting the smaller ship, and doing the dirty work of laying the groundwork for fat British and American capitalists.”

“But you guys were capitalists by then, as well.”

“Okay, so I use the term loosely. Yes, my grandparents volunteered because they were starving in the streets, thanks to capitalism. And yours were, too.”

“I don’t even remember my grandparents, but I’m pretty sure they were dead by then.”

“Gregor, it’s me, your wife! Don’t you remember anything?”

“Hmmm. Well, you most certainly look like a wife I’d want to have, but I think you got the wrong man, lady. I don’t even sound like a Russian.”

“Do I, much?”

“No, I guess not.”

“My love, you’re supposed to be infiltrating the top circles of the elites with this acting career, not continually getting drunk and high.”

“How did you find me?”

“It’s all over the papers. You’re a wanted man now. How could you be so stupid?” she slapped him. It stung.

“What the hell did I do? You mean last night? Aren’t people allowed a little drink on this planet?”

“I’m talking about this.” She waved her arm at a small holovideo platform, hanging above the dining room table.

Playing over and over again was an interview with the schoolteacher nun. Tearfully, she recounted the story of how several young boys and girls had their innocence damaged beyond repair. Another shocking news story caught Gregory throwing the Book into the duck pond, the sarcastic words he’d shouted digitally reedited to include several filthy vulgar epithets.

“God, this reality sucks,” he muttered. “Well, so I’m a goddamn Russian. We will surely have vodka in the house, then.”

“You know I don’t drink. And for now, I won’t allow you, either. Listen. Someone will have seen us at the bar. The cameras in the city will soon trace us back here. After years of being careful, we are going to have to return with next to no intelligence at all. It was hell getting into the city, it shall be the same getting out.”

“But you said the entire neighborhood is Russian.”

“Yes, but they aren’t part of Ivan’s community.”

“Ivan Crabtree?”

She looked at him coldly, then said, “I suppose since that damn drug is still coursing through your veins, it’s forgivable, but don’t ever call him that in his presence.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s our leader. The leader of the real Free Minds Underground. And we’re nothing like your little acting troupe, who think they’re making a sarcastic jibe at a mythical society.”

“But he’s appeared as Ivan Crabtree in every reality I’ve encountered thus far.”

“He was Ivan Crabtree when he swore allegiance to King Bush, but he’s always been Ivan Kravski. You remember the part in your little play about the Crabtree Fund? That was actually a high–tech organization quite active in community improvement and providing social welfare. What’s this? the World Elite cried. A man who gives his money away in large quantities and remains a billionaire? That ran counter to every philosophy they’d beaten into the heads of the masses.”

“So, in the play, he was made over to be somewhat evil, even though he was the arch–rival of the truly evil Dr. Anderson.”

“Correct. Crabtree offered his entire fortune to the Russians, naively believing that he was participating in the continuing quest of betterment for the entire human race. He knew nothing about the alien race, or that we were guinea pigs for the reseeding of Mars.”

“What about you and I? Do we have any children, together?”

Her face looked downcast. “Alas, no. We have been too busy fighting as spies for the Revolution. Children are an anathema to such activities.”

“So, we escape from Chase Manhattan, and find ourselves back in the Underground, doing what? Reading Marx and Guevera, wearing little berets and smoking pipes?”

“Don’t make fun of this, Gregor. This is serious and potentially deadly work we do, you and I. God, you don’t know how much I hate what those mind–altering substances do to you.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just hard to take anything seriously, anymore.”

“That’s why I hate drugs so much.”

“What about Crabtree, the younger?”

“I wouldn’t mention that name back at the Underground, either. He left our group at the age of sixteen with several members who all seemed to share the same problem of being free riders—absolute anathemas to a communist society—and went off in pursuit of the bright blue lights of Chase Manhattan. That is why that damn Book is such dogma in this city. When given free choice, they say, a man always chooses a free market.”

“What if I tell you that my free choice, hopefully still intact, is to ditch you and this goddamn city, and start my own little underground society with a whore droid, good food, and good liquor, and start up Gregory’s Anarchist Paradise?”

“I would say that you need me now more than ever, until those drugs wear off. But, run if you want to, and die. We never passed any traditional marriage vows between us, and Ivan won’t hunt you down if you abandon us. I’m not so sure I can say the same thing about the King.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

 

As tempting as Irina seemed, Gregory wanted no part of the Crabtree Fund, or the Free Minds Underground, or whatever they happened to be calling their little cult. He still felt betrayed by Meh–loh, and knew that was stupidity—allowing himself to feel attached to a character in a play. Some part of him wanted to believe that she still existed in a reality somewhere as she’d been in the play—sweet, loving, kind, yet strong.

Irina seemed indifferent to their parting of ways. She leaped like a cat onto her floatercycle, and sped off.

He found a subway entrance, and studied a map of the lines that would take him back to his apartment. Maybe Kta the companion droid makes a good screwdriver, he thought, smacking his lips.

The subway platform was deserted, and he could hear the Martian winds whipping through the tunnels. Everything was down here brightly lit with the same glow that made daylight, even though the artificial sun had started to “set” above ground.

Something buzzed in his jacket, and he fished out a tiny net phone. The face of an old wizened man appeared in 3D from the base of the net phone, and spoke with Ivan Crabtree’s voice.

“So, Gregor. You’re full of drugs, and want to stay that way, huh?”

“That’s right, pal, you and all those damn Russians can stick it. Hey, how did you get a hold of me so fast, anyway?”

“Buffalo spirits. Strong in my blood and your wife’s. Stronger than any cybernet or internet or neural net, or whatever they call the damn mind–gutting connection these days. As for ‘those damn Russians,’ you and your wife are the only one–hundred percent Russians we have here. Look around me.”

He moved his phone to pan across an audience of people of more ethnicities than he’d seen in Chase Manhattan.

“We are the people who will repopulate Mars and Earth. Mark my word. You’re fighting on the wrong side.”

“And what the hell side is that?” Gregory demanded.

“Your self.” The phone blinked out, and the cars of the subway train flew up on a cushion of air to meet him.

On board the subway train, nobody paid him any attention. They all appeared to be wrapped up in virtual reality games and stories, letting their workaday minds shut down and to mush inside cold dark helmets.

He looked at the subway map on the wall. Up at the WilL Jefferson Clinton Memorial Theme Park and Obelisk exit—five stops down—he’d have to get off and switch cars. Looking at the passengers more closely, he noticed they were all of varying ethnic backgrounds. Maybe Crabtree the Younger was correct in his analysis of the situation, and the Elder’s seditiousness resulted from nothing more than the delusions of a bitter old man. All of these people appeared to be returning home from a hard day’s work, going to live in the same upscale neighborhoods as any actor or nobility.

When his stop came rushing towards him, he looked around at the people caught up in news and games and entertainment. He shook a woman sitting next to him.

“What the hell do you want?” she demanded angrily.

“Isn’t this your stop, aren’t you going to catch the Royal Express north?”

“Fool, we don’t go to that part of the city. My grandma got to see it when it was built, then they quickly moved her ass south.”

“But where else is there to go? Are you telling me everyone here works a night shift at a McDonald’s in the Obelisk?”

“Hell no. Me, him, hell, all these dudes are headed to the FMU mines, to support the habit of some famous war–on–drugs hypocrite son–of–a–bitch.”

“You mine the stuff?” he asked, puzzled.

“That’s all I do with it. They shoot the damn fool who tries to ingest it into his system. Why do you think we’re all wearing this fancy headgear? Mindless pleasure?”

“But is there really such a demand for the stuff?”

“I would say so. They ship most of it back to Earth. Probably got some dude even richer back down there, ruinin’ his fool mind.”

“Maybe I should go with you and check it out.”

“Ah, you get yourself killed doin’ that. You best get off right now, if you know what’s good for you.”

He got off and climbed the stairs to find the Royal Express, because he thought a stiff drink would be good for him. A whirring and clicking noise came from above his head, and he looked up to see a camera following him, taking pictures.

Three seconds later, a pack of policemen and dogs were barreling down the stairs.

Gregory ran back down the stairs and looked for another exit. He tried a service entrance, and found it locked. The mob of law enforcement in pursuit were closing in. In the 20th century, he thought, those tracks could electrocute a man. But, he had to take a chance.

He leaped out into the space where the subway cars had sat less than a minute before, and found himself in suspended animation, bullets from the policemen’s guns floating lazily around him in the dense air cushion. Feels like water.

Gregory started to paddle like a dog in a pool, and found he could slowly make his way across to the other side. He realized he would have to paddle fast, because two cops in pursuit were just as fearless or just as stupid; and were performing the same retarded ballet motions behind him.

He put an arm out, and felt stable air again, and pulled with all his might, as if he were trying to surface a pool tilted sideways. Dropping to the ground, he turned and saw the overfed policemen were still struggling to make their way across.

“Off of the tracks, now!” boomed a voice at the front end of a loud roar.

Like watching it in slow motion, his eyes refused to look away from the sight of the two cops getting pummeled by the FMU Mining Company Central Express. But it wasn’t the time for the voyeuristic indulgence in macabre pleasure. No doubt, the rest of the squadron had mounted their charge back up the stairs, and were dashing across the WilL Jefferson Clinton Memorial Parkway to get to his side.

Above ground, Gregory was met with a steady stream of nighttime traffic. Glittery droid whores were selling their wares on the corner, and the loud booming sounds of a teenager’s Land and Sky Rover whooshed past him.

He could see a blue cap popping up out of the subway entrance on the other side of the parkway, being jerked along by an eager dog. Tires screeched up beside him, and a voice yelled out.

“Get in, now, if you want to live!” It was Irina.

Gregory didn’t want to get mixed up with the police or his “wife,” but decided choosing her would be more enjoyable. Bullets were shattering the cab’s windows.

“You ditched your bike,” he commented, jumping into the seat, and slamming the cab doors.

“I had no choice, it was highly visible in this city of greed. Our comrade is going to take us to a subway entrance east of here. It is closed for construction, but one of the workers is a fellow revolutionary, and loaned us his keycard. We can walk through the deserted tunnels to an unused sewage line, and drop into the Great Ocean. It is the only way.”

After she kissed the cab driver, and sang him praises for his bravery, they descended into darkness. Above, Gregory could hear the door hiss shut, and muffled shouts, then gunfire.

“He was a good man. You could learn from that,” said Irina, leading the way.

“I could use a drink,” said Gregory, “Don’t we have light to guide us?”

“Too risky. The cameras’ eyes are turned on down here, even though their heat sensors and night vision are turned off. Saves the capitalist bastards a buck or two, and saves our skins.”

“Aren’t they worried about someone with night vision glasses coming down here?”

“Touch my face.” He groped around, feeling her silky smooth hair, then his hands met the goggles. “No, they don’t worry, because these cost thousands of credits, even on the black market a pair like mine are hard to find. As for anyone who would come down here without them, they figure more power to the fool.”

“I can still kind of feel my way around, I don’t see—”

A shriek rose up from the depths of blackness, and Irina put something in his hand.

“What’s this?”

“Ingest it. Not all drugs are without purpose. This is to keep the mutants down here from sensing our presence. Unlike the capitalists upstairs, they keep their heat sensors turned on.”

“Mutants? You’ve got to be kidding me. I left a few lackey cops and some mangy curs behind me so I could do battle with strange deadly beings?”

“Yes. Sometimes the right path is not the easy one. In my lifetime, that seems to be most of the time.”

The shrieks grew louder, and Irina made him flatten up against the wall. She took his hand and placed the goggles inside. He almost shrieked himself when he donned the goggles and saw the horrible reptile–like monsters advancing toward them. Irina placed a finger over his lips.

Humungous eyes jutted out of malformed jaws, and useless tentacles hung off of their torsos, while they swung scaly arms along to match the gait of obscenely gigantic clawed and webbed feet.

After they were completely out of hearing, Gregory whispered in her ear.

“Can I speak?”

“Yes, their hearing is supposed to be virtually worthless.”

“What on God’s green Earth were those things?”

“We’re not on God’s green Earth, but those were formed from the reseeding of Mars. Or to be more precise, their ancestors were. They are obviously children of a human mother.”

“Obviously.”

“The Elites failed to place much significance on what it meant when the alien race mentioned a planet full of all kinds of life. They preferred to picture the San Diego Zoo, but were essentially receiving the DNA codes from the alien race’s home planet.”

“Then why didn’t more creatures like the alien’s own species come from the depths of the reseeding?”

“You just saw some. Those creatures, the ones we call mutants—before they started breeding with humans they snatched down to the sewers—they had the ancestral strain of the alien race. If no one had touched Mars for half a million years, you would have seen another alien race just like the ones who came to earth.”

They walked on in silence for miles, only encountering strange rats the size of dogs with shells. And swarms of strange flying wasps that were the size of sparrows, that stung both of them repeatedly.

Gregory gritted his teeth to suppress an agonizing scream.

“Don’t worry,” said Irina to her sobbing partner, “I have a remedy for this as well.” She gave him what looked like an antacid tablet. It foamed up in his mouth with a nauseating sulpheric taste. Soon, both of them were retching all over the tunnel, but the swelling and pain of the bites went down.

“So what does it mean for our picture of the universe if the ancestors of an alien race have close enough DNA to mate with humans?”

“I don’t ask the big questions, I’m fighting for my people’s survival, as you once were. But I do know from what I read on the subject, that the DNA of the alien race in its current form is born of much more sophisticated engineering—perhaps from other interplanetary travelers who once visited their home planet. It seeks out the most intelligent species in its area, and mimics that species’ DNA for a hybrid reproduction.”

“And humans were the most intelligent species it could find?”

“Strange, I know,” she actually laughed, “But that is apparently the way it is.”

Light appeared to be entering the tunnel far ahead, and Gregory wanted to shout for joy. In thirty minutes, they’d reached the end of the unused sewage drain, and found themselves staring at a gigantic ocean almost a hundred feet below.

With the stars and moons as light, he could see the shore below abutted the cliff atop which Chase Manhattan ended.

“Whew, this is much higher than I thought it would be,” said Irina with heavy nervous breath.

“Even you? I was expecting you to push me off and then jump after me, without a second thought of rocks below.”

“Gregory, there are no rocks below. This Great Ocean is actually a freshwater body of water the size of Lake Michigan back on earth. Twenty feet or so above us, daring schoolkids sneak down to the edge of the city and jump off. We can do it, too.”

“You’re certain? I mean, you’ve watched this with your own two eyes?”

“Not exactly, but I’ve heard stories,” she admitted. “Well, what do you propose we do? Go back and get eaten by mutants? Call Ivan, and see if he can fly up here in a sky/land cruiser that will get shot down in seconds? Or how about—”

“Okay, I get the point. We die or we die.”

“Right. Now, since you’ve been such an apprehensive chickenshit since you took FMU, I think it is only natural you go first.”

“Whatever. You mean, ‘…ever since you joined a charade of characters all telling me they know what reality is…’ You could be the next to trick me.”

“Okay, fine. We’ll stand near the edge, and pull each other off. But, let go. I don’t want to get dragged under by a thrashing fool hopped up on FMU.”

Suddenly feeling inspired to completely test Irina, and test the reality he was in, Gregory pointed excitedly to a “light” he saw far down to the right. She fell for it. Almost a hundred feet.

Maybe I killed her, he thought, wondering if he should feel bad. What have I got to lose? Gregory jumped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

 

The murky depths that greeted him seemed more like the ones from dreams, than the shallow holopool of Dr. Anderson. A faintness of green in the black soon gave way to total darkness as he felt himself plunging farther into the abyss.

Finally, the process of friction and Gregory’s intense kicking and thrashing brought his body to a halt in the warm black drink.

Which way was up? He’d remembered some show about the sea from childhood, and how they advised you to blow bubbles. Follow the direction of the bubbles; the surface will soon appear. Unfortunately, he’d returned the goggles, and his eyes couldn’t see a thing.

Strange tentacles began to probe him, and he struggled to pull himself away from the entity. Maybe I am back in my Chase Manhattan apartment, and this is another wake–up guru, he thought, his mind rapidly losing consciousness.

His last waking memory was of a giant octopus, swallowing him whole.

“Gregor, my sweet, wake up,” whispered Irina’s voice into his ear.

“What? Where am I now, or when am I, for that matter?”

“Relax, we made it. Our comrades have found us with the PUS–E.”

“The who?”

“The People’s Underwater Seafaring Explorer.”

“So this was the giant octopus?”

“Yes, it is how we move from Chase Manhattan to our home and back. God, it’s been three years since we first came on the PUS–E. I was hoping you’d remember during that high moment of stress, and I wouldn’t need to mention it.”

A screen flipped on in a panel that dropped from the bottom of the bunk above him. Ivan Crabtree appeared on the screen.

“Glad to have you back with us, Gregor. I was afraid briefly you’d decided to defect to the other side.”

“I didn’t have much choice.”

“Obviously, the drugs are still strong in your brain, or you’d be speaking what you know is the Truth.”

Gregory stared blankly at the screen.

“That there is no such thing as free choice or free will, Gregory! It is a myth set up to keep us in the bondage of greed and selfishness, so that we will continually remain in pursuit of material things.”

“Look, you know, I—I just want to get drunk, get laid now and then, and laugh at some stupid shit on television. If that means I’m a slave for forty hours a week or less in a hot kitchen, so be it. But I could care less about any of this mind trip you all have had me on. And you know what? I’m going to start aborting this reality and continue to abort until I wake up back in Kansas City as a drunken line cook.”

“Here! Here! ” jeered Ivan Crabtree. “The cry of the mindless working stiff. Gregor, we have enough problems educating the masses, but I’m afraid you’re gonna have to watch our little training video again.”

“And what if I choose to—”

That was when he realized some kind of bio–magnetic force field held him strapped into the bed. He could move his arms and legs enough to find a comfortable sleeping position, but no more.

The screen in front of him was somehow amplifying the effects of its soundwaves directly in his cochlea. Rolling over and putting the pillows over his head simply wouldn’t suffice in tuning the training video out. A handsome but severe woman with dark hair and business attire stood in front of what looked like an old New England prep school. Autumn leaves fell around her, and Gregory thought at first it was a crack in his reality, until the camera panned around what was obviously rusty Martian topography in the distance.

“Welcome to your introduction to reality. We provide our newest members with this special training video. Come inside the meeting hall for a quick session with our leader.”

Inside, Ivan Crabtree stood in front of an old–fashioned blackboard, dressed like a professor in tweed and corduroy.

“Hello, Marianne, so good of you to drop by,” said Ivan, trying to sound like a man who spent most of his life in libraries, instead of his usual charismatic self.

“Why, hello, Senior Chairman Crabtree, it’s an honor and a privilege to take instruction from a renowned genius.”

“Stop it Marianne, you flatter my ego too much. We’ll discuss why the interaction we had is so wrong, and many more things in the next half hour. So, sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for the Truth.

“In present–day Martian society, we tend to take for granted the notion that no one or nothing controls our destinies. There are so many more opportunities on a gigantic planet of life where a mere half million people exist, than there ever were on Earth.

“Sure, we have royalty here, but we’d learned the necessity of a new Compassionate Monarchy back on Earth. Besides, as long as we quote the Book a few times at work, and stay away from the more seedy side of the city, we can go home and do as we please, rarely intruded by any Agents or Police. Drugs, sex with minors, homosexuality, and other illegal pleasures of the flesh are tolerated in our own bedrooms. Sure, that strange quiet co–worker in cubicle seven might have been hauled off, but she was probably participating in such purposeless activity as ‘reading books not on the Times best–seller list,’ or ‘writing thoughts on the net about how our planet could be better.’

“But who wants to waste their time with that kind of boring research anyway, when we have a new future to build, right? And then, one day, you stumble across a little pamphlet that nice homeless man on forty–second gave you when you handed him a credit card. You’d tossed the pamphlet aside in the same drawer you keep the Book, and hundreds of other exegeses on the Book homeless little men have given you.

“And you realize by the end of the pamphlet he said nothing about the Book. He talks about free choices, free will, getting out of a mindstream you’re in called ‘everyday life.’ It sounds good, and if you’d followed his specific ideology to a T, you probably wouldn’t be watching this video.

Instead, you’ve gone on to attend several heretical churches, looked up some underground groups, and discovered the Myth of Ivan Crabtree somewhere along the way. Sure, they talk about one who’d drowned in the sea for defecting from the good City. But that is a legend, you know. Why, they even have an acting troupe called Free Minds Underground that has absolutely no intention whatsoever of participating in subversive behavior.

And yet, you have to be sure, and you seek out the poorer quarters, where the ragged people go, looking in the places only they would know—sorry, my passion for Simon and Garfunkle sometimes escapes me.”

Marianne and Ivan both had a good forced fake laugh over his attempt at humor. The whole time he spoke, they strolled around the grounds of what Gregory was deducing must be the settlement of Free Minds Underground.

“Gosh, Ivan, I’m always amazed at how little reseeding actually took place on Mars.”

“Glad that you mentioned it, Marianne. You will soon find we have strict rules about going any farther east than this fence. No, we are not setting up some kind of barriers like the cliff of Chase Manhattan, and the Great Ocean. It’s just simply too lethal to walk much farther past this fence. The protective atmosphere is all but non–existent, strange methane–breathing beasts made of silicon and uranium will eat you then spit you back out because you have no nutritional value.

“But, Marianne, let’s go sit at the cafeteria and return to our story of YOU—” He whirled to face the camera, and with a grin tried to stare into the viewer’s eyes while saying ‘you.’ At that moment, the makers of the video had remastered it to holographically project Ivan’s face out in 3–D, causing Gregory to flinch and unconsciously pull back against the head of the bed.

“So you, dear viewer, found one of our little groups that infiltrate Chase Manhattan, and secured passage on our PUS–E to this little haven of Truth.

“Maybe you’re starting to have second thoughts about what you’ve been swallowing from some of our recruiters. Perhaps you still cling to the notion of free will.

“I will now explain to you why individual choice is irrelEt. Let me ask this question, how old were you when you first became conscious—and don’t fudge on this one—completely conscious of the fact that you had a mind of your own, and didn’t need mommy or daddy or big sister or teachers or anybody else to tell you what to do?

“Maybe twelve or thirteen, maybe thirty. No matter. Once you realized that, you took another ten years to realize more subtle ways in which classmates, bosses, wives, and children were keeping you from complete and unequivocal free choice. You abandoned them and began your true search for a life masterminded completely by you. But there was an inherent problem here.

“Sure, maybe the ancient existentialists were right in saying that we choose ourselves at any moment. But the problem is, by the time we are conscious of this concept to any degree of efficacy, we already have a second mortgage, a marriage disaster, we’re nearing bankruptcy, and it looks like our only choice is the FMU mines or suicide. What good is such existential knowledge, if, by the time it comes to us, we’re already so burdened with cares and problems, it is totally irrelEt?”

Gregory’s mind was going numb with this rhetoric, as he watched Ivan tear into what looked like one of the poorer quality cafeteria–style meals.

“The food of the people, Marianne.”

“I wouldn’t trade it for Great Ocean Squid or Martian Boar any day of the week, great leader.”

“This is what we all eat here, from myself down to new recruits like YOU—” He whirled and faced the camera again, and the 3–D Ivan jumped out at Gregory’s face.

Then, the screen flicked off and the real Ivan walked in, devouring a plate of lobster tails, glass of wine in hand.

“Why are you holding me captive?” demanded Gregory.

“For your sake and the sake of my ship,” replied Ivan brusquely, sounding little like the saccharine sweet man in the video. “The last thing I need is some FMU junkie running around in my PUS–E, scaring the men.”

“You’re the one who needs to be locked up, you crazy old coot. I bet you have thirty men right now on a top secret mission exploring the rest of Mars, looking for resources.”

Ivan appeared unfazed. “I see we’re going to have to treat you like a young recruit again. I’ll have Sven run an algorithm to make your bed feel slimy and soiled. After you are pleading with us to let you free, we’ll begin our lessons anew.”

“You mean I have to watch that piece of shit you call a training video from the beginning again?”

“And again, and again, and again.”

“Bring on the slime, oh great leader,” sneered Gregory sarcastically.

For the rest of the voyage back to the FMU home base, Gregory felt himself soiled, covered in various bodily excretions, and rancid–smelling. The propaganda video continued to play on and on, extolling the virtues of a state where all people shared things equally.

At the end of training video six (about seven hours had passed), John Lennon’s Imagine began to play, and all of the members of the community were singing it in a joyful embrace. Crabtree’s voiceover came on as the credits rolled and the people sang.

“Most of you are third and second generation Martians, without memories of the first planet Humankind destroyed by letting greed rule their lives. You know stories, and feel a little unease deep in the night when a thought of what might be out there comes over you. But never more! This is a new start for Humankind, a chance to free ourselves of the weary shells of outdated philosophies and religions, why should we waste our time pretending we’re still on Earth? Let us liberate our minds and bodies of shackles like Free Minds do, and become one with the Buffalo Spirits, a people united and strong!”

Irina came for Gregory, and released him from his prison cell bed. “Hello, my husband,” she kissed him on the lips.

“Irina, my wife. I feel the drugs are finally leaving my body. I can’t wait to get back to our work again with our great leader.”

Gregory had mustered all of his strength to begin a campaign of bullshitting his captors, in hopes that they would leave him unshackled for an escape to the certain bliss of death and a new reality.

He found the work at the Farm, as the residents lovingly called it, boring and tedious at best. Nobody complained about taking care of the fields, which were nothing more than glorified gardens. At first, Gregory thought he might serve as some kind of assistant to Ivan, Irina, and the other members of the Board, but he soon found himself completely shunned when unable to produce  the fabled technological expertise he was supposed to possess. Irina still called him Husband, but it seemed a formality, as it was soon apparent she was sleeping with Ivan.

“What’s beyond the fence?” the little man they called Swimmer repeated his question one day as they shoveled manure from the stables into a wheelbarrow for the fields.

“Don’t you ever wonder?”

“Nope, can’t say that I do. If Ivan found it uninhabitable, then I would have to agree. Can’t say I want to go out into the red desert and suffocate, or get eaten by a Mutant or some such.”

It was a typical conversation Gregory had had with just about all of the residents of the Farm. They reveled in the hard work, and camaraderie of dining hall songs. Most of them seemed content, and the greatest dream they had was of a swimming pool near Ivan’s house yet uncompleted.

Gregory had entered Crabtree’s dwellings only once. That was right after he’d told Irina he was down from his FMU high. Although modest in size and accoutrements, Ivan’s house and surrounding buildings—where they stored and refrigerated the food and dairy products—were absolute mansions compared to the small cabins that slept four people each.

“Kind of reminds me of something I encountered in Saskatoon,” Gregory had mused during the tour Ivan gave him.

“Well, it should, we modeled it after the site plan of the original Free Minds, though I must say that our lives glory in a bit more splendor, thanks to the bounty of the alien reseeding.”

It seemed to Gregory that Ivan and close friends were the only ones doing any glorying, but he decided not to care. Time was all that was keeping him from dashing off past the fence on a mission suicidal in nature, perhaps, but one he felt necessary nonetheless. Time and several tough–looking guards reminiscent of the dimly remembered titty bar fiasco.

He’d lay in bed at night, scheming, listening to the snores of the other male residents in his cabin—all male because Ivan felt that too much sex weakened a man’s resolve to perform necessary duties for the good of the coming Free Minds’ Revolution. In truth, they were all male because Ivan wanted it to be an easy game when he sent rough guards into the female cabins late at night to retrieve women for his own personal pleasure and the enjoyment of his henchmen.

This too was known, and yet the first reason for not having co–ed cabins was spoken of as being Truly Wise and the Foreword Thinking of a Great Leader. What astounded Gregory the most was that the women, when pressed, were quickest to defend Ivan’s policies.

“I never really enjoyed my husband Syd,” asserted one middle–aged woman defiantly, “You can repeat all the outmoded feminist misgivings in the world about such a practice, but the truth is, Ivan makes me feel like a real woman—perhaps for the first time in my life.”

This woman was named Gina, a broad–shouldered woman with zero body fat, though somewhat mannish in features and too stocky in build, thought Gregory sizing her up when he saw her the first time.

“Besides,” cried Squeaky Kelly, a young ex–graduate student with a nasal squeak in her voice, “Ivan has made it clear that the Farm is communal, and we all share alike. I could mate with you, Gregory, if I felt it served our cause. I save myself for my Leader, however, because he works harder than all the other men put together.”

Gregory soon found himself backing off from needling and probing the residents of the farm for a psychological foothold of an explanation for their behavior. It was apparent to him that they all suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, and it would take nothing less than equally charismatic, patient and professional psychiatric help to free their minds from the shackles that held them. What struck him as another oddity, was the fact that the majority of the group denounced FMU as an evil drug, and would rather sell their souls to Satan before taking it; whereas most of Ivan’s close cronies admitted to having tried it once or twice.

No one would even look at him if he mentioned the Buffalo Spirits in a question. He managed to find Irina alone one day in the “dairy barn,” a modest building behind Ivan’s dwelling where they milked a single cow. Only Ivan and close companions drank of the dairy apparently, because Gregory couldn’t find any in the kitchen of the cafeteria.

“Irina, my wife,” Gregory said softly in her ear.

She whirled around and socked him in the face, almost knocking him to the ground. “Jesus, Gregory, you needn’t scare me.”

“Sorry.”

“Are you finding the camaraderie to be more fulfilling than anything your little troupe of thespians could offer?”

“Yes, wife.”

“Good.”

She turned from the cow, and started for the door.

“Wait! Please tell me about the Buffalo Spirits.”

Irina eyed him coldly for a brief moment, and then spoke. “You aren’t ready for communion in your wayward FMU state. Ivan will decide in good time, then you may join a nightly consortium.”

He spent the next several days cheerfully performing any duty asked of him, almost deliriously babbling the rhetoric everyone had learned in the training videos. Nights when he pulled guard duty, he’d let his eyes wander around the Farm in search of a lit building or a bonfire. Aside from a few lights that flickered on in the dwellings when someone wished to make water, no group meetings appeared evident.

One day, Ivan tapped him on the shoulder. Gregory whirled around to see the leader polishing off a bowl of homemade ice cream.

“Several tell me you are ready to commune with the Buffalo Spirits. Tap five short taps on the back door of my home at 10:30 tonight.”

Gregory did as he was instructed, and found himself blindfolded and led by silent ones into Ivan’s home. Though he’d only been inside once, he could tell they were in the leader’s office when the trap door was lifted. He stepped gingerly down a winding staircase, and the blindfold was lifted.

Ivan sat on a chair that looked like a small medieval throne while five of the Farm’s residents sat crosslegged with heads bowed in two lines at his feet, two men and three women. Gregory was motioned to a spot, and mimicked the man who sat next to him.

“Very well, you all are here. You may raise your heads to receive instruction.”

In spite of how superficial the paternal tones in Ivan’s voice were, Gregory couldn’t help but begin to feel soothed and relaxed, as some mellow New Agey sounding music was piped into the room while Ivan spoke.

“You all are babes right now, in the eyes of the Buffalo Spirits, and I am but an older brother. What you must do to grow is suck at the teats of the Mother Buffalo. And what does she bring us? She brings the ancient power of the Heart.” He traced a crude outline of a heart on his chest. Everyone in the room followed suit, so Gregory quickly rubbed his own chest in like fashion.

“Good. Let’s talk about love. Love is the eternal force driving the Universe, as you all know. Why, I can feel its spirit coursing through the veins of my higher nervous centers right at this moment! Can you?”

“Yes, great leader.” Chanted the room in unison.

“Then let’s all have a good laugh. Let it rise up in your chest, and give the one sitting next to you a hug.”

The other men and women had a hearty round of mechanical laughter, then the two men on Gregory’s side hugged each other quickly, and returned to their positions of rapt attention; not hesitating once to see if Gregory needed a hug. He was kind of glad they seemed to care so little.

“Good, now, before we begin to intensify the healing orgones in ourselves, let’s open our vessels for a goodly while and purify our thoughts of anything deviant or unwholesome.”

In spite of being shunned during the hug session, Gregory was beginning to have second thoughts about Ivan and the Farm. Maybe he’d truly been trying to help Gregory lose the FMU spell, and it was Gregory who’d been the rebellious asshole.

The entire room was silent for about ten minutes, then Ivan cried out, “Bring me the peace pipe, that we may commune with our ancestors, the Buffalo Spirits!”

People seated at Ivan’s feet began chanting, and an audio recording of tribal drum beats thudded from the walls.

Gregory’s olfactory receptors picked up a growing nasty stench that smelled of dung and bile. He peeked up at Ivan from his bowed position, and saw that the leader was puffing on a gigantic pipe. Violet smoke emanated from its base.

Ivan had the pipe refilled three times before he cried out, “I’ve seen the great Buffalo Warrior riding through the night sky, are my subjects prepared to receive my wisdom?”

“Yes, oh great leader,” chanted the five around Gregory in unison.

Even though he’d yet to partake of the pipe, Gregory was already beginning to feel something akin to a marijuana high from inhaling the smoke fumes that now sat heavy in the room.

“Excellent!” cried Ivan. “First subjects, assume the position.”

Gregory knew that the first two pairs of men and women closest to Ivan were husband and wife. His own female counterpart was an older widow woman with back problems whose grandson usually volunteered to perform whatever responsibilities she couldn’t finish herself.

The first couple stripped naked, shared several hits off the pipe, and handed the pipe to a posted henchman Gregory had missed at first, standing in a dark corner of the room. The husband threw his wife to the floor and leaped on top of her.

Ivan, now completely naked himself, stepped over the furiously copulating couple and pulled the man off.

“Meditate on the Buffalo Spirits good subject, while I impart wisdom to your wife.”

The henchman in the corner walked over and prodded Gregory in the back, “Meditate, subject, it’s not your turn.”

His mind was drifting up out of the room into a vast open expanse that felt many times larger than the entire universe. The woman’s screams of ecstasy or pain or both kept Gregory from completely leaving his body, each pulsing wail yanked him back into his hunched crosslegged form.

The entire process was repeated once more with the second couple after Ivan was given a few minutes to recharge.

During those few minutes, Gregory looked up into the eyes of the older woman seated in front of him. Her face was ashen, she moaned and rocked back and forth, letting her eyes roll into the back of her head. She began to cry out, “Buffalo spirits, impart your wisdom!” in a sing–song chant in time with the audio loop of the tribal drums.

For the briefest of seconds, Gregory had an instant of lucidity where the utter perversity and madness of what the people were doing became painfully apparent. It all seemed almost too pathetic and juvenile—an attempt to “play Indian,” or “play Wiccan” without serving any real purpose other than to satisfy Ivan’s flesh and ego.

But this brief second was obliterated by the overwhelming hallucinatory powers of the drug, and for the rest of the evening, the widow woman was to be Meh–loh. At first, he could tell himself it was an illusion, but soon, his mind was firmly convinced it was his one true love in front of him.

She was no longer full of religious craziness, but staring at him warmly, with a patient look of expectant hope rising up in her eyes.

“Meh–loh?”

“Gregory, I’ve waited for you for so long.”

“Where are we?”

“Don’t bother with questions. Consume the smoke of this indigenous plant, and let’s make the most passionate love of our entire lives.”

The blood in his brain began to beat louder and louder with excitement as he stood smoking the long pipe, admiring her naked body. He could no longer hold his passion, and threw the pipe to the ground, charging at her with the fury of a bull.

Someone was pulling him off of her, denying him this delicious mind–expanding experience he’d waited for all of his life. He mustered all of his strength to remain in union with Meh–loh, but was soon overpowered by much stronger arms, ripping him off of her and throwing him across the room.

The last thing he remembered seeing was Dr. Anderson raping his one true love, while Carl stood off to the side with arms folded.

“I told you he shouldn’t have participated, there are still too many trace amounts of FMU in his system.” Ivan’s voice came to him from afar, and he felt himself lying on a soft feather bed.

Irina appeared over him, and said, “Good, you’re waking up. You can leave now.”

“But, where am I?”

“We had to put you here, in my bed. We didn’t want you ranting on into the night, keeping the rest of the Farm awake.”

Ivan stepped into the room, shaking his head and looking forlornly at Gregory. “Well, it looks like I’ve lost my closest friend for good. What you did last night was inexcusable.” Then he chuckled, “Though I must say, I had no idea you had such strong feelings for that widow woman.”

Gregory sat up angrily, “You two talk about the evils of drugs, and yet you use them for some bizarre orgy and warped attempts at spiritual enlightment.”

Neither were pleased by his strong display of will.

“Gregory, the plant we smoked last night is a gift of the Buffalo Spirits, not an evil drug.”

“Well, that FMU I consumed not so long ago was a gift of the gods of Gregory Watts, so you can fuck yourself, Ivan.”

Gregory leaped up out of the bed, and tried to take a swing at the leader, but was no match for Irina and three henchmen.

“Give him the training videos again. The entire series, non–stop, for five days straight, nothing but water.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

There was no escape of sleep for Gregory during those five days. When his mind lapsed into unconsciousness, Ivan was there in his professor’s garb, recanting the joys of healthy communal living, disparaging the individual who thought he or she still held any sense of self. Sometimes, he thought Ivan was Dr. Anderson, leering down at him while he lay on a cold metal table. During the ordeal, he began to hallucinate everyone in his memory as various heads of the same monster, bent on the sole cause of controlling and manipulating his mind. By the time they were finished retraining him, he could do and say nothing that wasn’t part of his instruction. For days after being released, Gregory sang the communal songs in the mess hall, cheerfully signed up for more than his share of responsibilities, and provided a stellar example to the rest of the group.

Irina and Ivan became mother and father figures to Gregory, and would smile in amusement to each other at how gung–ho and simple he was. Gregory was too full of a beatific light for the cause of the Free Minds Underground to notice the smiles. After Meh–loh appeared one night in his dreams as first a stranger, all of the old doubts and questions began to resurface.

“Do I know you?”

“Gregory, it’s me, Meh–loh. Don’t you remember where you come from?”

“The Earth?”

“Yes, but what of us, and our dreams we had together?”

“Oh, uh…”

“Think, you have to stop letting them play tricks with your mind. We still can have a future together, you and I.”

He decided he definitely wanted to have a future with this strange dream lady whose beauty radiated from some source he couldn’t locate, like the artificial lights of Chase Manhattan.

And with that quick analogy, a memory darted into his head, and then another.

“We were flying to Mars, you ran out of oxygen, and we crashed, but wait, that was all in a play.”

“No, not in a play. And the crashing we did involved the inhalation of too many extraterrestrial mushrooms.”

“So you really are a real person, not just some playwright’s interpretation of a historical figure played by a woman vaguely resembling an Asian?”

“Of course, silly,” she laughed. “I’m real, but you’re not. You, Gregory, are still up there in FMU land, driving your family and caretakers crazy with your ranting. A veritable field day for the press. Though it is whispered in some circles Drs. Crabtree and Anderson are doing a little more with your mind than trying to heal it.”

“But that can’t be! The Farm is what’s real. We practice communal brotherhood, and we all look to our hearts for the healing to begin.”

“Gregory, I always wondered why you never asked me about my face, and how I got to be so ugly.”

“But I don’t think you’re ugly, I find you very attractive.”

“Oh, come on, you have to admit that it is crossing your mind, the question that comes into everyone’s heads when they see the entire left side of my face so badly scarred and unable to make expressions to match the right.”

“Meh–loh, we all have things that make us unique in appearance. Why should I care if yours is more visible—when near you, I feel nothing but the warmest light of love?”

“Dear sweet Gregory, you have discovered your problem. And your salvation. Your mind is soft and your heart strong. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many left on the earth like you.”

“But you’re one of them, right?”

“No,” she laughed, “I’d like to think I have a big strong heart like you, but my mind is what keeps me going, what helped me come down off of the FMU. I’ve had to keep a strong mind, after waking up at age three to jellied gasoline running down the side of my face.”

“I, uh…”

“Don’t say anything, I understand your heart. That’s all that matters. The heart knows not why it does the things it does.”

“But what should I do?”

“You must let your mind rise up and be strong for once. A good heart is good, but not good enough, it’s like quicksilver in a child’s hands. And there are a lot of children who are playing with that quicksilver right now.”

He felt the strength of the love energy that flowed between them all the next day, aching in remorse as it slowly faded from his conscious grasp.

Everyone on the Farm was expected to pull guard duty unless she was a mother close to giving or having just given birth, or a few very sick old people that could do little but gum applesauce and knit garments, or the tiniest of young children.

Guard duty was a nighttime circling of the grounds with a full–time guard of Ivan’s henchmen. The full–time guard was rotated twice in the night, because these men worked most of the day training the residents to fight as well. After three full turns of guard duty over about a course of almost two weeks, Gregory had figured out how he could easily escape.

“Guard duty” in theory was described in training videos, and understood by the residents, as being a full–scale war on impending forces sent from Chase Manhattan and alien life forms from beyond the fence. After sharing a few flasks of vodka (Gregory had this much to thank for being Irina’s husband) with the guards on those nights, he learned that he and the other residents were being guarded from escaping.

“You really think, Gregory—and I’m only telling this ’cause I know you’re gonna get your mind back and become one of us again—you really think that the Elites give a shit about a lousy little commune in a stinkhole outside ’a nowhere?”

“But they could invade at any instant, we are a subversive threat.”

“Where the hell do you think that vodka comes from my friend? Oh no, Ivan has it too good. All he ever wants is some new broad in his bed every other moon, and of course, he gets it. There’s tons of richer, more beautiful oases of unexplored paradise just beyond this fence. But the Elites leave him alone, ’cause they know—and this is just between you and me—that sir Ivan is willing to pay them for a few misfits of the City, and allow the myth of his nonexistence to reside in most of the brains of the higher echelon.” The words ‘higher echelon’ came out slurred and stupid, and Gregory let the guard lapse into a slumber.

That was how he befriended every single henchman on guard duty, through vodka and promises not to tell Ivan about the poor sap passing out.

The fourth night on his watch, though, Ivan was tired of making friends and swapping stories. He was going to get the anonymous brute who patrolled the grounds dead drunk and climb the tabooed fence with a machine gun and hoarded supplies strapped to his back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

 

The ‘anonymous brute’ turned out to be an old man with a spine like a board; and Gregory had yet to make small talk with this stiff geezer on guard duty. He’d met six of Ivan’s henchmen during his past three stints, and assumed they were all he would ever see before choosing to make his escape.

The unexpected number seven was an ex–Admiral Jurgens of the United States Navy. Did hard time in ’Nam as a lowly Marine Sargent, returned to school in the seventies and ran the ROTC gamut to achieve an officer’s standing in the Navy.

“So, you must be about, oh, a hundred and fifteen, now, huh?” asked Gregory with a light mocking tone in his voice, remembering that, according to this particular version of reality, the year was supposed to be around 2065.

“One hundred and six, my boy. I advanced fast, still do, if you give me an army of men to lead. These young turnips may not look fit for boiling, but we’ll ripen ’em up.”

“So, why the hell would a man who probably totes the manifesto of the NRA as his bible give up a life of decorum and respect for a bunch of mangy pseudo–commy recruits?”

“We’ll, I’ll tell yah. Imagine you’ve had a successful career serving a fine country like the US of A, and you get put out to pasture with some scientist freaks to scour a dead planet. You find only aliens, trapped in a dark cave somewheres, and get sent back again. At first, you feel disgraced by this. Why, wars are brewing all over Earth, juicy ones, with Moslems and Chinamen and what–not. Then, after the reseeding takes place, you find an opportunity of comfort for the old bones.”

“Not much comfort here,” said Gregory, thinking of the sharp divide between men and women.

“Ah, you think not? What if your country’s leaders put you in charge of a Disney World of the Sea on this new planet? But you’re merely a veritable circus freak, and along comes a man in his PUS–E, promising you glory and all the women you can have. And this at a hundred and six?”

Gregory could only nod, seeing the man’s line of reason, as crazily recounted as it was.

“And not only that, but on board that Disney World of a boat, you can’t carry a real piece, only a fake sword, like a goddamn fairy pirate from movies. This man in his PUS–E promises you free and total use of any artillery you can get your hands on. Oh, boy, the women are nice to an old sagging bag o’ bones, but the weapons are mistresses a man should take unto his grave.”

Gregory continued to ply the man with vodka, stopping during a conversation to race back to a secret hole near his cabin to lift out more. Yet, the old soldier continued long into the night, in spite of drinking more than a fifth, waving away the youngster sent to relieve him of his post. Dawn was hitting far off Chase Manhattan, he could see it on the horizon as the artificial light blinked faded in to emulate the weaker sun’s glow. Down on the Farm, they only had the light of the sun itself and a pair of powerful spotlights that were hydropowered by the waters rushing from a nearby stream to the Great Ocean.

He knew the spotlights would flip on in about two hours without a comfortable period of fading in, like the underground lights of Chase Manhattan.

Two hours, and this old soldier continues to detail every account of his starched life, with no end in sight, he thought wearily. I hate to do it, but the vodka has failed me.

And with the decision formed, Gregory fell back a couple of steps, meeting the old man’s turning suspicious face with a hard thwack of a rock.

It truly was a blessing in disguise, getting stuck on his last night watch with an old solider fond of several types of weaponry. Hand grenades, poison gasses, pistols, knives, even a “Disneyfied” samurai sword sheathed at his side. These and the all–important machine gun to fight off any alleged Mutants or other creatures encountered in the open desert plains.

He wanted to let whatever kindness remained in his heart feel a little guilt for possibly having murdered such an old icon of American history, but this feeling soon passed in the concern that he had only two hours at the most to make for a safe stakeout far from the Farm.

The fence was an easy object to climb over, even leaden with such a large backpack full of stuff. Long after the two hours had passed, though, the sun was doing a good job of terrorizing him in spite of being so far way.

He immediately could see that there was some truth to Ivan’s statements concerning the inhospitable desert plains ahead. Though he didn’t find himself wheezing asthmatically for air from lack of oxygen, or hallucinating from too many poisoned gasses, the air was thick with dead heat reminiscent of stories of Earthen sailors lost in the horse latitudes, or pioneers stumbling through Death Valley.

Within the two hours, there was nothing but red in sight, and the waves of steam mirages rising up from the desert planes. He felt tempted to toss aside all of his weaponry in favor of a somewhat lighter cooler excursion, but a bird much like one from tales of the Jurassic Age almost tore his upper torso off, and he thanked himself for securing the small stun pistol he’d snagged off the Admiral.

For almost a week, Gregory marched through the desert alone, exhausting his food rations, and sucking on flaming stones for spit to keep his mouth from gumming shut. Nighttimes brought out the strange reseeded creatures of the alien race’s home planet, a veritable cacophony of shrieks and wails emerging from fissures and crannies Gregory thought impossible to hold any sort of life, including his.

He killed a small band of hyena–like creatures that raced towards his last ration of dried and salted mystery meat he’d secured from cafeteria hoarding. This he considered a blessing far greater than the blessing that came from no one pursuing him in flying or ground ships.

After living through several self–complete irrealities, Gregory found the delusions brought on by lack of food and water amusing at first, until he’d spent days swimming in a sea of chimeras bent on snatching his weapons or his soul or both.

Gaunt, bearded, and burnt to the core, he stumbled upon a salty sea resort for the Elites. He made out lithe tan figures performing swan dives and windsurfing in a giant lake oasis far below the plateau he discovered himself upon.

They were colorful ants, sending shrieks of joy and pleasure into the winds that swept up to his ears. With his stomach the size of a peanut, and his eyes swollen from angry winds, Gregory didn’t mind the fact that the small resort was refusing to depart his red eyes after several blinks.

He could see people being choppered in on a green landing field, and palm trees surrounding the beaches of the small sea. On the other side of a large structure he presumed a hotel, even tinier ant people were casually swatting golf balls around, oblivious to the eyes of a desert prowler upon them.

Hardly any Elite military, he thought, clutching a small stun pistol, easy pickings for a desperate man.

Miles spanned either side of him, how was he to get down the cliff? Inch by bloody inch. Gregory couldn’t register in his crazed mind the five hundred foot danger of descending a steep wall, nor appreciate the craggy footholds and toeholds that were offered him during the climb down.

He reached the bottom at nightfall, but his strength left him, and a dry feverous sleep overcame him at the base of the cliff. Morning found him just as delirious, but exulted at the knowledge he was close to food and comfort. The image of the resort, now much larger and more real, failed to recede from his mind.

Gregory spent the better part of the day traversing the winding pathless rocky gorge, screaming to his mind to release the resort phantom, if only a phantom it was. Desert hawks, more likened to vultures, shrieked down at his bare head, screaming louder in retreat at the stun gun’s shocks lazily fired upward.

He discovered light was brighter and more powerful upon the approach, and deduced that the owners of the resort had set up an underground simulation like the one lighting Chase Manhattan. The beaches were less dense of people now, most of the patrons of the resort had retreated to huge umbrella canopies where they dined on feasts that drove him almost to howling. Still, no one appeared to look up from their reverie, balmy circulating winds off the salted sea hushing any human vocal noise he could have made to silence.

“Look dear, a fellow thespian,” cried a voice at an umbrella–covered table, as he approached.

“My lords, Fernando, it’s our Zachary,” he recognized the voices of Fernando and Gina who’d so convincingly played the parts of Ivan and Meh–loh.

Gregory was desperate with hunger and weak to the core, unable to exhibit any modicum of dignity as he raced to their table and stole strange sea dishes, flopping to the sand in a greedy bout of consumption.

“Zachary, have you gone completely mad?” demanded Fernando, arising from his chair, quite able to retain much dignity and pomp.

Others were coming over now, curious at the savage who’d so unexpectedly graced their presence.

“The fool is a traitor!” cried someone, “And just look how traitors dine!”

Gregory already found the rich seafood intensely repulsive to his starved stomach, and was retching most of it on the sands of the resort. He gazed around at the crowd that stood before him, hearing military men pushing violently through. Blindly, he reached for random weapons, unable to purposefully secure a kill shot at anyone, rapidly losing consciousness in his weakened state.

“Get him to a doctor,” he heard someone cry fervently, “A great actor has succumbed to an extreme case of FMU!”

The next time Gregory opened his eyes, he lay in a superclean hospital room strapped to a bed. He could move his head and make out five other heads like him in either direction, all strapped to starch white beds, the loud din of hospital noise retaining a stronger presence over the insane wailing of the men who surrounded him.

A man in crisp military attire, perhaps a general, appeared over him and spoke in tones that could not be reduced to less than barks.

“Found him on our beloved shores of Ecstasy, did we? Loaded with weapons only a commissioned officer would have. It sounds to me like our aspirant soldier is ready to take on planet Earth. Perhaps we should remove all our troops and let sir Gregory do the work for us. That is your name, boy, isn’t it?”

Gregory could only stare at the eyes of fire beating down upon him.

“Is it not your name—I said—boy!”

He found himself among a group of crazies, ranging in age from fourteen to sixty–five, all claiming to have a personally unique notion that God would destroy the human race for its evil deeds.

His body battered by desert suns, soon grew emaciated and sickly during the weeks of boot camp he found himself in. The men and commanding sergeants spoke little, but it was quick to gather that the recruits were the scum of W, being prepared for ground wars across the planet Earth to regain soil God made for the Elites and no one else.

The fellow ‘recruits’ made Ivan Crabtree seem like a great right–wing conservative. These fools babbled on about every possible theory a man could come up with in short years of life, taking nothing in so–called ‘reality’ for granted, opting for confusing labyrinths of paradigms, that left Gregory congratulating his own sanity.

When the men weren’t being marched into the dust across the training compound, they were forced to attend training classes. The videos they watched under gunpoint supervision would have made Hitler proud. They were all required to repeat the narrator’s words at key moments throughout the videos.

“We are the proud race, the ones destined to regain the planet once ours before it was overpopulated with mongrel dogs.”

If a recruit appeared to have his mind elsewhere, and was merely mouthing the words from conditioned reflex, a live teacher would pause the video and walk over to the man. With gentle, soothing, rational–sounding words, the teacher expanded on the idea they were parroting, while an armed guard took the butt of his rifle to the recruits face in systematic poundings.

Indigenous peoples of the Earth were blamed for practically everything that had gone wrong in human history. Hitler and Stalin were praised as great men, Pol Pot was described as a “most useful and necessary tool of the evolution of mankind.”

Gregory learned from hushed conversations, while scrubbing latrines and working in the kitchen, that the existence of the barracks was a highly kept secret, even among the upper echelon of Chase Manhattan society. Most of the Elites agreed that they needed the Earth back minus its surviving population, but would never sleep at night knowing a great genocide was being plotted.

Some of the more socialist–minded recruits claimed they’d hacked into the Elite’s secret mainframe and scoured databases telling of states being organized on Earth where universal healthcare and a university education were the norm. They claimed to have read reports on places like Africa and East Asia, where large happy communal societies were flourishing minus the former 20th century interventions of large western corporations and the CIA. Vast barren land gutted by constant warfare and industrial agriculture was regaining its natural habitats.

He thought of trying to escape the compound and making another run through the desert, but knew this would be futile. Several young hotheaded recruits had already lost their lives trying to hatch escape plans. The guards had made sure everyone witnessed the executions. And, he thought, even if I did make it out of here with some supplies, where could I go? No known human civilization on the planet would probably take him back without destroying him.

A few of the totally utopian recruits claimed a veritable shangrila of communal brother and sisterhood awaited them all on the other side of the planet, urging the others to help mount a full–scale revolt on the guards, and commandeer a ship. Not many seemed to take them seriously, most of the guards laughed at these particular dreamers.

The only thing that made this boot camp more palatable than Crabtree’s cult was the food. And perhaps the fact that none of the recruits here believed a word of the propaganda training videos.

Babblefish, as they called the oldest member of the group, was an expert in fifteen different languages. He was of slight build, and kept mostly to himself.

“What is your take on this?” Gregory asked Babblefish one day after they’d both pulled latrine duty.

“Shit stinks.”

“Care to expand?”

“I was told my mother had left with the first bunch that shot off to this god–forsaken planet. Never found her. Was raised by some nice Russians, went to school, did as I was told. Never did much but keep my nose in books. Got a job working with droids translating all the books of the Earth they’d taken up here with them. Did it well, did it for years.”

“So, what is the problem? You don’t seem to espouse any specific ideologies, why weren’t you just left alone?”

“I became a killer. They were taking my books off and burning them. I imagine by now, that library has little but what was written by Greeks, Romans, medieval Catholic monks, and scientists. Wouldn’t be surprised if they burned everything that isn’t pure science or Elitist doctrine. I’ll kill again if I ever get back there.”

“But they weren’t your books.”

“Who else read them? Nobody. If I’d known it was going to end up like this, I would have memorized more of them.”

Gregory encouraged the old man to recite passages of the books he’d memorized, and soon the men were stealing out of their beds at night to gather around Babblefish.

The guards found out, and executed the old man.

“Now, if anyone else has a whole library of heresy memorized, by all means, share it with the group,” sneered their sergeant.

If only the old man had been spared a day of life. The next morning, after his execution, a much older version of Dr. Jason Anderson arrived at the compound with a new invention.

“Why does he keep calling me Jonathan?” asked the Doctor, as they strapped Gregory down to a metal table.

“Guy was in some kinda play before he came here. Thinks you’re an actor who played you.”

“Oh, yes, I do remember. When I arrived in Chase Manhattan last week, they told me history had long since presumed me either dead, or worse, a traitor.”

“Well, we’re just glad you’re here. If I have to keep executing these motherfuckers, we won’t have anyone but droids left to take back to Earth with us.”

“So, you’re a doctor, and just like the play you’re up to evil,” was all Gregory could say as he passed into unconsciousness from the drugs they shot into his arm.

Dr. Anderson grinned at the specimen lying on the table. “Make sure you apply full power to this one.”

“Sure thing, doc,” said a young soldier strapping wires to Gregory’s newly shaved head.

In ten minutes, Gregory was awake again, reprogrammed to perform genocide.

“State your name and sole purpose in life,” said the Doctor, making notes on a clipboard.

“Gregory Watts. To kill all non–Elite persons on the planet Earth.”

“Good.”

Of almost a thousand ‘recruits’ that had started the basic training, a little over six hundred remained. The scum of W would join ten thousand death droids upon arriving on Earth, and split up into six groups with the sole purpose of ridding each continent of any remaining human life forms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 15

 

Gregory appeared to have lost all of his memory upon receiving the worst of the Doctor’s new invention. He chanted like a mantra the code of his army, along with the other recruits. Because Gregory was still quite flabby and clumsy in spite of six weeks of physical and mental reconditioning, they sent him to help in a kitchen at a large extermination camp in Southeast Asia.

None of the other men in his platoon cared for him much. He was given all kinds of names making fun of his age and weight. At first, this had little effect on a mind so intensely reprogrammed to feel nothing and love all who were in the service of the Elites.

But strange feelings were creeping inside of him as the days went by, and his eyes witnessed children ripped from the arms of their mothers to be thrown against blood–spattered walls. Old feeble men were tortured for the amusement of the soldiers, like a small child will torture insects.

At first, he thought the feelings were physical, and sought a medic who advised him to add more protein into his diet. The extra food made him violently ill, and a bout of vomiting earned him new nicknames.

Then he fell in love. A woman too old and ugly to be noticed by the other men, yet too young to be exterminated immediately caught his eye while he walked around the camp. Gregory watched her take care of her people, having nothing to offer them but words of comfort. She stood by the edge of the fence one day, gazing perhaps at some beautiful world only her eyes could see.

“You find an older woman interesting?”

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“I think not.”

“You speak my language.”

“Of course, once upon a time your people thought I would be of some use to them, now I see it is otherwise.”

“Your skin and eyes are of the race that has polluted the Earth for too long.”

“Is that what they told you?”

“Uh, I don’t know.”

“Well, where did you learn it?”

“I uh,” he felt his head swimming, and did his best to dash to the latrines.

“More morning sickness, Fatty?” asked a droid leisurely reading the paper.

God, even the droids feel free to mock and despise me.

He ignored the droid, and plopped himself violently onto a seat. Something about remembering. Well, what did it matter anyway? Do I remember where I learned to use every single word I speak? Of course not. I probably learned what I said to her in my childhood.

And yet, why the strong feelings of familiarity with the woman? She seemed to attract me to her in spite of her skin color and ugly face. What could this mean?

He found himself in front of the fence the next day, his eyes searching for the woman.

“My name is Meh–loh,” she said, appearing like magic.

“I am Private Watts. Call me Gregory.”

“So, Gregory, what is it you want with me—sex? I have no desire for anything you could trade me. I am no whore.”

“I think I do want sex with you. But, I don’t know why. You are attracting me strangely.”

“Oh, I see. You are too lowly of a bootlicker to be able to obtain even a cigarette or two, and are using the same pathetic lines men have used for centuries. Here’s a clue: don’t let the first words out of your mouth be an admission of your true intentions.”

“No, you don’t understand. I—”

He didn’t see her again for several days, and grew morose. Oblivious to the taunts of the other men, he took his dinners alone in a far corner of the mess hall, and spent his free time reading the meager collection of old magazines he’d stashed away in exchange for his rations of cigarettes and five extra turns of latrine duty. The sneering young recruit Crenshaw, who’d made the deal, knew the value of the printed word to someone like Gregory, though Crenshaw himself would have tossed the magazines in the incinerator if Gregory hadn’t said anything.

An old issue of TIME had an article on a trip to Mars, the date was October 2001. In it, four men and women had encountered the alien race for the first time, subsisting on the fumes created by a strange mushroom that grew in a fissure on the planet. He stared in blank horror at the smiling face of the younger Gregory looking at the camera in his NASA uniform.

The article mentioned his brilliant academic career, and how he’d developed exciting new technologies for Fortune 500 companies. It said little about what he was doing at the time the magazine went to press, adding only that, “ironically, The Crabtree Fund where Gregory now recovers is a satellite organization of the last corporation he worked at before joining NASA.”

Meh–loh was one of the female astronauts from the expedition. She was mentioned even less, given only a grainy black and white photo obviously taken from college days. After serving as the ship’s doctor, and recovering from the fumes, she’d gone on to found a charitable organization helping impoverished children in Southeast Asia.

He was stunned. This old magazine was over sixty–five years old, and yet, he was truly Gregory Watts, he appeared to have aged only a few years at the most. Forgetting all of his responsibilities, he ran to the fence and began shouting Meh–loh’s name.

“You must be getting desperate,” she said, taking him by surprise yet again.

“Look.”

Her eyes scanned the article, looking back and forth at the man in the picture and the one who stood before her.

“They must have erased my memory, and possibly yours as well,” he said.

She didn’t have an explanation. But stayed this time to talk and listen.

Gregory found himself the object of suspicion after he started hanging around Meh–loh regularly. Before, he’d simply been made fun of for being so old and out of shape and unwilling or unable to carry on the small talk all of the other soldiers seemed to produce with ease. They’d also mocked him ferociously for being unable to make water in front of other men.

But a new attitude was forming towards Gregory. He didn’t think they knew about the article; the man who’d traded him the magazines probably couldn’t read more than his name. Gregory was simply acting a little too funny for their tastes, a little too distant, a bit like he knew some great secret he wasn’t sharing.

Every moment he could sneak away, Gregory rendezvoused with Meh–loh in secret places to make sweet love.

“I feel as if I’ve known you for so long,” said Meh–loh.

“And I you.”

Word came two weeks after they became lovers that the entire camp was to be liquidated. The men were told it was time to move on. They were behind schedule, and they needed to do so much more purification of the planet to ensure a safe happy return for King Bush.

“We must escape tonight,” he whispered to her in the small corner of a storage room they’d made into a love nest.

“But how? You’re as much a prisoner in this as I am.”

“Then I’ll die with you. Nothing would please me more.”

She kissed him and they held each other close.

The next day, the men were ordered to put on their dress uniforms for the special occasion. Gregory was nowhere to be found.

The men discovered him behind a crate of rifles, huddled close with Meh–loh. “Watts, have you completely gone insane, now?” asked the sergeant.

“Kill her, and kill me as well,” cried Gregory defiantly.

“How about this, we take you away to be reprogrammed by the good Doctor’s technology, and take your little whore for a spin. I’m curious to know what makes you so attracted to her, and I think most of the men are as well.”

“No!” he struggled futilely against the onslaught of vicious arms that were ripping him away from his one true love.

By the time he reached the hospital ward, he couldn’t even hear her screams. Dr. Anderson stood in a small room over a metal table with straps on it.

Gregory had a hard flash of de ja vu upon seeing the Doctor. He didn’t struggle as rough arms tossed him onto the table and jerked the straps hard around his legs and arms.

“So, Gregory Watts continues to be a nuisance and fail to see his real purpose in life? He certainly is awfully old to be someone still unable to figure things out. I was expecting a somewhat younger man.”

And like lightning, a kaleidoscope of memories came sweeping back over him in confusing waves. The last thing he heard before a needle sent him under was, “If we up the dosage anymore, he’s probably going to be permanently damaged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

“And in a recent State of the Union address, President Bush assured the people that the United Nations and the alien race were close to signing an accord of peace. Boy, Sheila, I never thought I would read that as a broadcaster.”

A woman’s laughter could be heard, and Gregory decided to let his eyes open and view whatever new reality they might be foisting upon him. Gingerly, he tested his arms and legs, they felt paralyzed. He realized he was strapped to a hard mattress, his head propped on what he deduced could be pillows.

He found himself in a bed of sorts, the hushed din of a hospital ward was endlessly buzzing in the distance. The voices of the broadcaster and his cohort Sheila came from an old Magnavox television set with extremely fuzzy reception. Gregory turned his head to the left, and noticed a wash basin by the bed, and a window overlooking a courtyard that sparked a sense of familiarity inside of him. It appeared to be the same courtyard containing a large glass window he and Meh–loh had blasted out of in an alien craft long ago in some other reality.

“Good, you’re awake. We still don’t appear to be making as much progress as we’d like, but you no longer talk of Mars, or see Dr. Crabtree as some kind of cult figure. Excellent.” The man who entered his room appeared to be Dr. Anderson, or Jonathan—no, it seemed a Doctor, though he didn’t couldn’t be certain.

“And you must be the good Doctor,” Gregory muttered, as the man probed him with a stethoscope.

“I hope you are referring to me as I am, not some mad scientist bent upon destroying the Earth or racing off to Mars, or playing the part as an egotistical actor, or assuming the role of an evil Nazi,” the Doctor couldn’t help himself from chuckling at the last one.

“Well, it’s kind of hard to tell when you keep changing on me.”

“FMU still having effects on patient. Note to nurse. Increase the dose, again, in his LSD treatments.”

“Acid, you’re treating me with acid? What’s next, doc, a trip to Timothy Leary’s grave and a Phish concert?”

“Gregory, you know we’ve been over this a thousand times or so. We have no other alternative to these delusions. It worked on Meh–loh. It helped Irina. And Admiral Jurgens, well, he’s a Superman, and seemed to resist the powers of the drug through sheer will.”

“So, Meh–loh really is Meh–loh?”

The Doctor rolled his eyes. “My boss—Dr. Crabtree—I can’t say enough good things about his work. But his idea to make a repeating video explaining the truth seemed destined to fail to me, and it obviously did. Though I can’t admit I enjoy continually telling you what is really reality, either. We’ve been over this so many times, and yet you continually to project latent fantasies and futuristic phobias into everything. With or without the LSD, you appear to continually elude us and insist on predicting doom for Humankind.”

The Doctor injected Gregory with a few chemicals and walked out of the room.

Julie entered, with Matt and Bethany and Martin.

“Hello, Gregory, the Doctor says you are improving enough to do this, so, here we are.”

His parents entered close behind, his mother carrying a birthday cake. They sang him Happy Birthday, then all took positions of observation to stare at him.

“I’ve been through a lot,” said Gregory. “And I’m happy to see you all, whoever you are. But I really want to see Meh–loh.”

The adults exchanged glances, and Gregory cried out, “She’s dead, isn’t she? Or this isn’t even real, another mind–fuck to send me spinning off suicidally into another irreality!”

The children gasped and covered their ears. His father spoke up, “I think we should go, this may have been a bit much for the poor kid.”

Gregory heard them toss goodbyes, and focused his attention on the television.

“And in related news, the remaining poisoned astronaut Gregory Watts continues to languor at the Crabtree Fund for the Mentally Ill, trying to recover from a harsh bout of FMU poisoning. You know, Sheila, I sure hope they have that stuff cleared off Mars by the time we leave for it.”

“You know, Doug, I have this just in from Reuters. Soon, calling Mars will be obsolete, our fine Congress has elected to rename the planet George W. Bush. Isn’t that a fitting name?”

“Why, yes, Sheila. After all this great man has done for our country, the world—nothing less than renaming a planet seems an appropriate gesture for such a great man. Why, I would be quick to suggest renaming the Milky Way, George W. Bush Way!”

Both of them laughed, and the news cut to a local human interest story about a woman who bred deformed cats for a living.

A nurse who looked suspiciously like the Carl from some recent memory entered the room and deftly unbuckled the straps that held Gregory to the bed. “You gonna be a good boy, today, Gregory?” asked the nurse.

“I can make no predictions about my future state of reality,” he replied tersely.

“But you sure have tried to everyday since you got here, scarin’ all the patients with that Mars talk, makin’ poor kind Dr. Anderson out to be some kinda monster. Too bad that FMU didn’t give you any lottery numbers. That’s what I need. Ah, but they’d probably be wrong, anyhow.” The nurse broke into easy good–natured laughter as he wheeled Gregory into a large recreation room.

People of all ages, both men and women, were in various states of mental awareness The majority of them sat like Gregory now did, facing CNN.

“Why a 24 hour news channel?” Gregory asked an old man whose eyes appeared to be relatively unglazed.

“What else would they unceasingly show to a bunch of maggots feasting on the brain of God?”

“Ah, mmm.”

“Say, how are things on Mars today? Any George W androids up there chasing people around?” The man cackled a phlegmy laugh, then spit into a cup.

Gregory wheeled to a more deserted area of the room, and tried to focus on the television. Why do I care? he thought. I’ll be stuck here a few days, then find some way to sabotage this reality, and find myself in a totally new or vaguely familiar place and time.

But he watched the news, in spite of himself. For thirty minutes, an emotionless man seemingly made of cardboard droned on about the stock market. The alien race had already provided sixteen different Fortune 500 companies with the ways and means to improve their technology and productivity. This was giving a boost in the arm to the economy, which some said had been in an all–out depression.

After this report came a story that held Gregory’s interest more keenly. “Where are they now? We all know the tale of the four brave men and women who first discovered the alien race on the brink of death deep inside a fissure on the face of Mars whose name will soon be changed to President George W. Bush Memorial Planet. Unfortunately, as the story goes, the fumes from the vents of the red planet that were busy sustaining the lives of the alien race, were not suitable for humans, producing effects similar to the so–called mind–expanding drugs of the sixties and seventies.

“Admiral Jurgens was the first to recover. He woke from the psychedelic nightmare within hours, and managed to single–handedly bring the crew back to safety on Earth. Jurgens captained the next mission to Mars three months ago, returning to save the alien race and helped pioneer a powerful antidote for his new crew. He deserves a hero’s salute for his bravery and presence of mind during his continued service to Humankind’s exploration of space.”

The journalist voiced over pictures of Admiral Jurgens and his family, all clean–cut respectable American citizens, trace of flaw or blemish appeared to never grace his character. The voiceover commentary cut to a clip of Jurgens speaking shortly after receiving the congressional medal of honor for the second time in his life.

“I accept this medal with the greatest of honor. I can only thank my extra training as a Navy SEAL and U.S. Marine, my unflinching belief in God and Country, and the love of a strong woman—all can be said to have kept my mental presence strong where others only weakened.”

The next report came on Meh–loh. She was the next astronaut to shake off the effects of the FMU. At first, there had been some rumors she would try to get the Admiral court–martialed for something that was no doubt a chimera associated with her FMU reality version. But, the news journalist quickly moved on to how Meh–loh was back in the jungles of Southeast Asia, too far from anything ‘civilized’ to be reached for comment on her new life. The journalist simply stated she was happy doing what she did best, helping the less fortunate. Gregory thought he detected a slight smirk in the journalist’s voice at such a concept.

Irina, the Russian cosmonaut, had recovered to a degree well enough to be released, but it was contended by those closest to her before the trip to Mars that she was still quite out of her mind. She’d abandoned any interest in trying to make her way back into the Russian space program for another mission, and spent her time roaring through the former Soviet Union on her motorbike looking for rebel causes to join and fight. The journalist could not control herself while narrating Irina’s story, and gasped out a quick helpless guffaw before regaining his composure.

None of the patients in the room appeared to have understood what made the journalist unable to control his laughter. They simply chimed in at the fact someone on T.V. had found something humorous. Gregory shook his head and knew he must be next.

“A much sadder result of the FMU consumption on the red planet has been the story of Gregory Watts, a brilliant technical engineer who pioneered and implemented several devices to help make the mission to Mars happen within a year instead of a decade. We have this word just in. Congress has voted unanimously to rename the red planet the George W. Bush Memorial Planet, or for brevity’s sake, Planet W. Let’s go now to the oval office where the President is holding a press conference to announce this exciting new development in world history.”

Gregory refused to join the other patients in the cafeteria. He threw his arms up in protest at a special offer to be allowed outside in the courtyard. Nothing could pull him away from the television. They had to repeat the special report and come back around to his story, they had to.

Days went by, and Gregory learned that the Ivan Crabtree of the reality he was now in was the head doctor and owner of the private mental institution they were keeping him in. Dr. Anderson was his immediate supervising doctor, a man who seemed to think giving Gregory a lot of drugs and little information was the cure to Gregory’s condition.

“I am no longer telling you anything about reality, Gregory. I have tried every way possible to get through to you, and yet you insisted on making me into some kind of mad scientist. Now, you appear to be recovering much more rapidly since I’ve refused to talk about it. Even Dr. Crabtree is taking note of the results. I suggest you keep your mouth shut, and if I keep my mouth shut, why you should be as good as new in a couple more weeks.”

Julie came and visited, and brought the children. And his parents, too. They seemed less compelled to strictly adhere to the Doctor’s orders.

“Gregory, Matt is so wonderful. He is such a good father to the children. I’m just as sorry as you that it worked out this way, but I couldn’t raise them by myself. We’ve started going to a new church, I think you’d like it. The Reverend takes the adults on retreats every week, and sometimes the children get to come along, too.”

Matt was the same Matt that Gregory could remember from his series of timeloop irrealities. A good all–American boy, clean cut, always in a suit and tie, and always kind of hunched over like he was getting ready to charge the defensive tackle. His talk was full of business, sales, marketing and everyday banalities.

Bethany and Martin were rapidly growing up without their biological father. They seemed to possess only memories of a reclusive grumpy father who retreated to the basement at all times of the day to puzzle over engineering schemata.

Gregory asked Julie to bring any and all of his former work that they might have in storage, but the Doctor would allow none of it.

“You’re still walking on the thinnest of ice, Gregory. I want nothing coming into this ward that would trigger another FMU attack.”

And the Doctor meant every word he said. The next time the report on CNN of the first astronauts to W was recycled, every television in the ward Gregory could get his hands on was blocked with an emergency testing signal for six and a half minutes during the part of the commentary on Gregory’s own post–W experience.

For a brief period of time, Gregory did not let this deter him. He would try to grill his family on what year it was, what parts of all the crazy irrealities he’d experienced were true, and what parts weren’t. They grew tired of him begging for a newspaper or magazine .

“Gregory, sweet,” said his mother, “I’m not supposed to talk with you about this, but I don’t see how it could hurt too much. Dr. Anderson is truly interested in letting you go anyday now. But all of this mad desire to know the Truth is what’s keeping him from reaching a verdict. Now, he wants you to come to this conclusion of your own accord, but I don’t see the harm in helping you along a little. We have tomatoes in the garden, and I could use a pair of good strong hands to help me pick them.” She smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

So that was it? The Doctor wouldn’t let him go until he stopped trying to discover the truth. But wouldn’t they question him on things like: what year it was, who he really was, what he planned to do after he got out, what really happened to him, specific technical knowledge, etc?

“Ah, Gregory.” said the Doctor, sitting inside an office Gregory remembered all to well.

He thought about taking some kind of weapon with him, a crude broken mirror, or the scalpel he’d palmed off of the nurse’s cart when she wasn’t looking. He imagined himself stabbing the one sentry posted behind him, then leaping over the desk and slitting the Doctor’s throat. This accomplished, he’d push the desk aside and begin trying to open the door to the secret tunnel.

Instead, he stood weaponless facing the Doctor and smiled.

“Let’s see, this will be your, ah, ninth review. Two years this March you’ll have been here. You appear to be exhibiting all the symptoms the others did during their recoveries. Except for the Admiral, of course, that man must have some powerful cajones.”

Gregory smiled and nodded.

“Where are you?”

“Crabtree Fund.”

“Okay, get a little more broader.”

“Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City.”

“What is your occupation?”

“Technical.”

“What are your parent’s names?”

He paused for a second, unable to remember their first names. “Uh, Mr. and Mrs. Watts.”

“Yes, but what do you call them?”

“Mom and Dad.”

“What will you do when you leave Crabtree?”

“Help Mom pick tomatoes in the garden.” It was the first thing that popped into his head.

“Excellent. Sign here, and you’re free.”

“That’s it?” stammered Gregory.

“That’s it. No, right here. Sign here. Good.”

“B–b–but?”

“But, what? Gregory do you feel you are not ready to enter the world? I’ll be happy to send you over to Dr. Fishburne in the ward of voluntaries if your parents want to pay for it.”

“No!” cried Gregory, trying not to sound too desperate. “No, sir, Doctor, everything’s cool.”

He felt as giddy as a schoolkid, dashing down the manicured sloping drive to the gated entrance of the Crabtree Fund. A car followed him, a man’s voice calling out his name, “Gregory, come back here!”

“Help us Lord,” said Matt when Gregory hopped into the car, “Where did you think you’re going?”

“To find the only reality for me. Why are you here?”

“Your mother is too weak to make the drive, and Julie is at home sick, so I told her I’d stop by here on my lunch break and pick you up. You’re more than welcome to stay with us for a few weeks. Or I can take you to your parents’ house.”

“Take me to the airport, Matt.”

“God, I hope the Doctor wasn’t too hasty in letting you go.”

“You’ll see. Now, what I need is a plane ticket to Southeast Asia.”

“Oh, Lord, not the Meh–loh woman, again. Gregory, I hate to do this.” Matt swung the car around hard, bouncing it up on the curb as he completed a U–Turn in the Crabtree Fund drive.

“Matt, what are you doing?” Gregory demanded, his voice practically reaching a scream.

“Oh, you definitely are not ready.”

Desperate, he flung himself out of the now rapidly accelerating car, hit the ground rolling, and began a mad dash for the gated entrance. He could hear tires squealing, and the roar of an engine bearing down upon him.

Up ahead, a cab was pulling into the gated drive, its driver seemed oblivious to Matt’s oncoming car. Gregory leaped from the drive into a manicured hedge, heard the squeal of tires and turned to watch the two cars slam into each other.

He ran over to the accident. Matt was moaning underneath the crush of a driver’s side airbag. The driver of the cab was impaled on his steering wheel, and his front seat passenger had been thrown through the windshield onto the hood of the car. Gregory looked in horror at the bloodied face lying still on the dented hood of the cab. Brushing the busted glass aside, Gregory stared into the unmoving eyes of Meh–loh.

***

He woke up on the thirteenth floor of his Kansas City studio apartment in a sticky cold pool of his own vomit. Damn, he muttered, they turned off the heat. How much of memory could he hope to dredge up from the night before? Was there ever truly anything worth remembering after a night like that?

He paused at the mirror where he stared not at his vomit–caked beard, but fixed his gaze on the clipping from the New York Times he kept taped there as a reminder. It provided the only picture he could find of her face.

            “Humanitarian doctor dies in freak accident

Meh–loh Fmung, age fifty–three died today in a Kansas City Hospital. She was one of the first men and women to walk on the surface of W. Ms. Fmung was in Kansas City to raise funds for her charity organization that provides medical relief for third world children. Her press secretary says she was on her way to visit Gregory Watts, another member of the first W exploration team, recently released from the Crabtree Fund Institution, where he was recovering from the effects of FMU.

            ‘I told her she didn’t have time to go visit him before her flight. We were on a tight schedule. I said I didn’t even think the doctors would let her see him. But she insisted.”

As part of the daily ritual, he dressed and walked to the park to meditate and write his memoirs. Once a week, a check for two thousand dollars came in the mail from the Crabtree Fund.

Matt had put together a team of lawyers and sued Ivan Crabtree for malpractice and negligence towards the patient. Independent research showed on numerous occasions Gregory had been administered controlled substances and subjected to several bizarre experiments deemed cruel and inhumane. Matt and Julie received twenty times as much in the settlement, and Meh–loh’s family and organization received none of it, but he didn’t care.

Life was predictable and consistent now, no changes in reality came to him anymore. After a day of meditating in the park, he would stop at a convenience store and purchase a lottery ticket. Already, thirty–eight people around the world had won the lottery and were starting over again on newly seeded W. Perhaps he thought he’d find something of himself back on the planet. Perhaps he hoped to sneak off to a heavily–guarded fissure of FMU and ingest more of the mushrooms in an attempt to change the past.

He couldn’t tell you why he did the things he did.

The three men in sunglasses and black sports coats stood in the Doctor’s office. Anderson was seated behind his desk, next to him stood Dr. Crabtree. Crabtree’s wife Irina languidly leaned on the desk, letting her husband run his fingers through her hair.

            “So, you’re certain we can erect a future reaching nigh statistical certainty, based on what you obtained from his mind?” asked the apparent leader of the anonymous three.

            “Quite, certain, sir.” Replied Dr. Crabtree, nodding to Dr. Anderson who thumbed through the huge stack of printouts.

            “Yes, indeed,” spoke Dr. Anderson. “We employed the cutting edge in mind–control techniques, coupled with the precognitive scenarios provided by the extraterrestrial drug, and obtained all of the patient’s valuable technical and prescient knowledge, leaving him to be your basic burnt–out American wastrel.”

            “Excellent. Now, I’ll have one of my men carry the data out, and it looks like you gentlemen have served your country quite well.”

            Irina cleared her throat.

            “Yes?”

            “Um, well,” stammered Dr. Anderson, “The payments we received were quite satisfactory, but…”

            “But the lawsuit from the victim’s ex was unanticipated. Say no more, gentlemen. Our leaders have reserved space for you and yours on W. What more could an earthling ask for during the coming months?”

            Laughter came from all around.