August 2012

Kimmy narrowed her eyes when she came into the foyer: Celeste was already there, talking with Jerrod.

As she’d routinely confessed into the HermeticTV TruthCam (a requirement before dinner slid through the automated kitchen chute), Celeste was a manipulative, backstabbing bitch who only wanted Jerrod for the edge he’d give her during the final vote. Kimmy had said as much to everyone who would listen, and played up the wounds she’d received in their brief slap fight to garner sympathy.

“I see we’re all arriving in the order we’ll place,” Celeste cooed.

“She was here first,” Jerrod added. His gorgeous face was pretty much the only functional thing above the neck, Kimmy had to admit.

The others rolled their eyes and muttered, from nerdy Troy who barely had any definition on his six-pack and scored double 600s on his SAT to homely Mari who barely had a C cup. Kimmy was fairly certain she knew how the ten of them would rank once the national HermeticTV call-in poll was completes at the end of the season.

Celeste gestured at the large digital time clock on the wall, which was counting down to the automatic release of the HermeticTV seal that had cut them off from all contact with the outside world since taping began. “Anyone want to say a few words?” Kimmy noticed, with disgust, that Celeste was looking not at any of the others but rather the camera hidden in the ceiling.

When no one spoke up, Celeste continued: “I just want you all to know that, no matter how the vote turns out, I’ll treasure our time together. It’s been the greatest learning experience of my life. I-”

Kimmy interrupted the speech with a staged fit of coughing; by the time she was done the clock was too close to the end for a lengthy speech. Celeste shot her rival a poisonous look while Kimmy smiled smugly.

The timer lock clicked down its last few seconds and sprang open. The door, in all its theatrical thickness with unnecessary sprays of CO2 hissing from vents at the side, swung open.

There was no HermeticTV camera crew.

There was no HermeticTV host.

The HermeticTV support vehicles around the site were blasted wrecks that had been picked clean by scavengers and the sky was rent with angry red clouds.

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“So why do you want a PhD is Custodial Arts?”

Earl clutched his mop-bucket tightly. “I love to clean,” he said. “I do it really well. And I want to do it better.”

Dr. Scrubb shook his head. “Earl, Earl, Earl. A Custodial Arts degree isn’t about cleaning any more than an English degree is about reading books. It’s about what’s beyond the cleaning. What informs it and binds it to the greater sanitary discourse and the world.”

“Shouldn’t it be enough that I love cleaning and I want to to it better?” said Earl.

“It’s a start, but what about custodial theory?” Dr. Scrubb gestured to a full bookshelf. “Your committee will expect you to have a grasp of Freudian custodiology. Sometimes a broom’s not just a broom, and don’t get me started on anal and oral fixation. And what about the Marxist theory of deconstructive custodial analysis? In cleaning up after people, are we committing a revolutionary act, or are we enabling a hollow, materialistic, late capitalist society teeter toward its ultimate collapse?”

“Do you really need all that to clean?” Earl asked.

“Of course not. But to understand cleaning, and the effect your cleaning has on the world, you need a solid basis in theory.”

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Clarence continued to read the text:

“Look, I know it seems a little odd,” said the Grimoire. “Why trust a book, after all?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” said Clarence. “I’m more worried about this book pulling a Neverending Story on me and changing to reflect what I’m thinking or saying.”

“No shit,” Clarence muttered. But he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the page.

“How do you expect a book to speak with you?” the Grimoire cried. “How else but through the text? It’s not like a book has a mouth or vocal cords. And yes, I know in the context of the book you’re reading I’ve got lines and quote marks just like something with lips would. But that’s just for your sake. It may be confusing but just run with it.”

“All right,” said Clarence. “And my thoughts are apparently my dialogue, since even though I have lips I’m definitely not flapping them.”

“More or less,” said the Grimoire. “They’re edited a bit for coherence and to remove the occasional intrusive thought like fantasies about that girl in high school you never had the courage to ask out or even talk to.”

Clarence reddened. “Sheesh,” he mouthed.

“What do you want from me?” Clarence said.

“Oh, it’s simple,” said the Grimoire. “On the last page of me there’s an inscription. I need you to take me to the Pillars of Vladizapad and read them aloud in a commanding voice.”

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For you see someone–it is not entirely clear who, and it never will be–must have begun a kind of experiment long ago. They took the basic building blocks of life on our planet, amino acids, DNA, RNA, and crafted it into something as beautiful as it is horrifying. The resulting genome had over 1,000,000,000,000 base pairs, several orders of magnitude greater than a human at 3,200,000,000 base pairs. Like most other organisms, including humans, 98% of that genetic information does not encode for any proteins or other genetic expressions. But unlike humans–indeed, unlike any other organism–that additional information encodes something far different.

It is, quite literally, a genetic memory.

As near as we can tell, the data written into that genetic code contains internal and external sensory information, converted into base pairs through a mechanism that is thus far unknown. The amount of information thus encoded is incalculable, and it is passed on from organism to organism, accumulating more information as it goes.

Even more uniquely, the 2% of that massive genome is mutable. The organism reproduces by stripping out that part of its genome and creating what can best be conceptualized as a virus, which then ‘infects’ and copies the missing information, as well as the massive genetic memory, into a host. When that host reproduces, the resulting organism has its functional DNA but also a massive genetic memory spanning centuries if not aeons.

It’s that process, a sort of blasphemous evolution, that has guaranteed the organism’s survival to the present day.

It’s that process which has given it a human genome and the knowledge necessary to remake the world.

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Anderton Schultz had worked his way up in the entertainment industry the old-fashioned way: through hard work and dedicated, scene-stealing supporting performances. Schultz wasn’t a vain man, but there was a measure of deep satisfaction in dropping a mention of his Oscar nomination into conversation with people who’d insisted he was too short or too homely for a successful career in pictures. It had been gratifying, working his way up from “what’s his name” to “that guy” to “that guy from Summers With Charles” “Hey, it’s Andy Schultz!”

Being recognized on the street at least some of the time had its perks, to be sure.

But there was always that guy, that one guy, who’d bring a copy of the 1990 remake of The Lizard Men for Schultz to sign.

It was a trashy movie; he’d spent the entire thing under a mound of Rick Baker latex prostheses. But it had a cult following, as did the campy 1969 original. No matter how many Oscar nominations there were, there’d always be his latex-smeared face leering from a DVD cover and fans snarling his character’s most “memorable” line at him:

“Cast the warm-bloods into the Caverns of Ice!”

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Many times, investigators have arrived from whatever empire, kingdom, or republic happened to control the area. Rumors bring them hence, or disappearances, or simple curiosity. The simple farmers and villagers who live nearby always tell them the same thing: do not enter the Vale.

When pressed, they avow that the Vale contains a power that molds flesh and bone, root and bark, stone and earth as if each were so much clay on a potter’s wheel. Whether the power is some sort of spirit, a natural force, or something entirely different is of no concern to those near the Vale; they see the nature of that place as unknowable and capriciously so.

They evince a belief that the Vale reshapes anything that enters it into a form that best suits its deepest and innermost nature. A record compiled by the Imperial Guard mentions a farmer claiming that every tree of the Vale was once a lazy and dissolute creature, for instance. A later document prepared by a Directorate Investigator mentions a cooper that claimed people would occasionally stumble out of the vale with no memory or identity; beings that had begun as something else that the power behind the Vale had reshaped.

Without fail, the interviewees treat the Vale in a resigned matter: they are not disturbed by their fantastic tales, and give their warnings without judgement or passion. It was a part of their lives, and if a local refused to abide by the local wisdom, their inevitable disappearance–or purported reappearance in another wildly different form–was enough to ensure that few would follow.

It is also worth noting that, also without fail, the reports of the various investigative agencies are incomplete. For even as the investigators universally dismiss the reports as superstition, they are always compelled to see for themselves. The discovery of their effects in birds’ nests and bear dens is always held up as evidence that they were waylaid and murdered by brigands and left to rot in the vale.

They never return.

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“Even though we Americans didn’t have a working hydrogen bomb at that point,” I said, “we were working on it.”

“I know,” said Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. “I was there, remember?”

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“Who’s this?”

The group of prospective buyers being led through the suite stopped as Jenkins pointed at an oil painting on the wall, depicting a smiling middle-aged man.

Backtracking, the realtor made a dismissive gesture. “Leftovers,” she said. “FG&C left a few things here when they moved out. They’ll be back to collect or dispose of anything major before we close; they’re liquidating most of their assets to pay off outstanding debt as it is.”

“Who is it?” Jenkins asked again. “He’s smiling. These old skinflints never smile in their leering boardroom portraits.”

“Don’t let that smile fool you.” Cunningham, the senior realtor, stepped in from an adjoining room with Carey, one of Jenkins’ associates. “That’s old Florin himself, founder and CEO of Floring Greene and Company and CEO until his death about ten years ago. From what I hear, he was a right cold bastard and a workaholic to boot. The stories I’ve heard, let me tell you…”

“Like what?” said Jenkins, his interest piqued. “Tell us the worst story you heard.”

“Well, there was the time that he performed a hostile takeover on a company owned by his brother, and the time he gutted a company that made drugs for orphaned diseases,” said Cunningham. “But the worst…well, rumor has it that he let his kid, his only kid, be adopted by the friend of the family that was practically raising him anyway. Too much bother, I guess.”

Jenkins nodded. “That’s cold. So it’s a smile, but it’s a cold smile. An evil smile.”

“A lonely smile,” Carey volunteered.

“Most likely,” Cunningham said. He began to herd the group into the nearby hall, trying to move conversation to a happier topic for his soon-to-be-tenants.

“You coming, Carey?” Jenkins said as he was led out.

“Just a moment.”

Carey stood before the portrait and quietly laid his hand on its surface.

“Glad to see you’re still smiling, Dad,” he said. “Just like you were the last time I saw you.”

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I have the sense that this has all happened before, to my father, who died in bed as a result. I’m flipping through a catalog, a mail-order catalog of dark and forbidden things, offhandedly looking for a certain item, even though I know it’s dangerous, it’s what’s caused my father’s misfortune and untimely death.

I see the item, a bracelet in the catalog, and then it’s there, I’m wearing it. The act of looking, the act of wanting–it’s the same as the act of owning, the act of having. I talk with my family, begging them for advice now that I’ve unleashed a force I couldn’t understand. A sense of dread fills me, which is borne out when I see small letters begin to appear on a piece of scrap paper on the kitchen table, written by a small and invisible hand.

“This is it, this is what happened to my father, it’s starting all over again!” I scream–a really long and drawn-out scream. My mother comforts me–maybe I should read what’s being written, maybe things won’t be the same this time. I look at the page; “aleg” is written over and over again in a sloppy hand. It’s my name, I realize with horror, or at least how my name might sound to someone eavesdropping or with a speech impediment.

More words being to appear in the same hand, all over the available space on the paper. I put out fresh sheets to help it along. Mom calls the unseen writier a “Liliputian,” though I disagree–but I haven’t any better name, so it sticks. The rest of the writing is vary vague, but it seems to be a cry for help against some sort of danger–a danger which, I realize, killed my father. I’m terrified but determined to help, to avoid his fate. I set a sketchbook in the path of the invisible writer, and suddenly it’s filled with text and brightly colored images.

I have a fleeting glimpse of a dragon in flight before I slam the book closed, fearful of what I might find.

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“Why do you come out here?” Tarris asked. “Aren’t you afraid of the serpents?”

Elos kept a light grip on his fishing pole. “Not a bit. They’re only real if you think they’re real.”

Tarris glanced uneasily at a tree-girth flash of undulating scales beneath the oily, moonspeckled surface of the water. “I think you might have that backwards,” he said. “They’re only real if they think they’re real. And they do. Just look at what happened to poor Kwen last year.”

“If you’re worried about the serpents, you’re missing the point,” said Elos. He paused. “Besides, what reasonable man would believe in them and believe that they can walk on land?”

That seemed to satisfy Tarris, though he moved a few feet upland to the roots of the great tree that dominated their tiny islet. “So what is the point, then? The biting and stinging insects swarming around your lantern? The pile of fish you haven’t caught?”

Elos turned the lantern down, as dim as it would get without completely extinguishing. “Look out over the water.”

Tarris squinted. A light mist, the last remnant of the day’s heat, lay low over much of the water. Near the opposite shore, firebugs glistened eerily in the air. The half-moon above lit it all with just enough silver to make the mist, the shore, the points of light, stand out beautifully. The only noise was the lapping of water, the bussing of insects, and the bobbing of Elos’ lure.

“You see it?” Elos leaned back into the soft sand of the islet.

“Can’t say that I do, no,” said Tarris. “Can we go now?”

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