Borges once wrote of a secret society dedicated to bring about the replacement of our world by another by methodically documenting every facet of the new world in an encyclopedia; the facts about the new world would gradually replace those of the old through substitution, forgery, and dissemination of altered or completely fictional books. After all, if books (and their successors) can be altered, and they form the only record of the world beyond what people have seen with their own eyes, to change them is to change all.

I believe that someone may have taken that tale to heart.

In my role as a regional coordinator for a major consortium of libraries, I hear a lot of scuttlebutt about books and such; in my previous life I worked for Merchant & Field Booksellers and still maintain some contacts there. Lately my librarians on the one hand and my booksellers on the other have been bringing me texts that, quite frankly, don’t make any sense.

They run the gamut from leather-bound to cheap pulp and bear realistic-sounding but totally false publishers. Real love went into their creation, unlike some of the publish-on-demand crap that bubbles up. Yet the world they describe so blithely and without elaboration is an alien one, like the place I live but in many ways completely different.

The publication dates, for one. Who would create a fake book with a date fifty or a hundred years in the future, or one using a date system (PC) that seems to have begun counting three or four years ago? I’ve read many of the titles, and they are rife with descriptions of kingdoms and empires alongside cell phones and sports cars–the sort of thing many cheap and terrible books aspire to, it’s true. I think they describe a world like ours in which most nation-states have collapsed and in which technology has largely stagnated among the ruins of a fragmented USA. Stagnation and fragmentation, or stagmentation, or fragnation if you prefer.

The kind of internal consistency I’ve seen seems to belie the theory that it’s a single kook slipping these onto shelves. It’s almost enough to make me believe that these crazyquilt places, these Beral Lands, Vativia, Eastern and Outland Empires, or the Rift actually exist somewhere.

That’s crazy of course. But is a Borgesian attempt to alter the fabric of our reality any less so, or an elaborate and expensive literary prank so obtuse that only a handful of booksellers and archivists worldwide could get the joke? Next to that, sometimes I’m willing to allow that these books, these tawdry novels and single volumes of larger works, have simply slipped through some crack from one place to another.

After all, as Borges said, what would someone in another world make of one of our encyclopedias? What would the advanced but fragmented, stagnant but vibrant places I read in these mystery books think if this writing wound up on their own computer screen?

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

This post is part of the March 2012 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “rainy days.”

Mikey sighed. Maybe the science channel and the encyclopedia had let him down; maybe there wasn’t something unusual and mysterious under every rock. But, darn it, he’d come close and it hurt bitterly to have to go back home, back to Dave, empty handed. There’d been a whisper of truth in all of Elliot and Natalie’s leads–the giant worm hole that was really a drainpipe, the mystery whirlpool caused by the school sprinkler system, the tree shadows that looked like a man–but none of them were even close to the unexplainable phenomenon he’d promised to bring back to his know-it-all brother.

“You don’t think that, maybe we might be able to find some more leads, do you?” he said.

Elliot rubbed his neck. “Maybe later, Mikey. It’s getting kinda late, you know, almost dinnertime.”

“Yeah, maybe later,” Natalie said. “Come on, Mikey, we’ll ride you home.”

The quickest way to Mikey’s house led through downtown—or, more accurately, behind downtown. In small, rural places like that, downtowns were often only a single street, fading into the surrounding residential neighborhoods. There was a wide, muddy alleyway behind the shops, many of which had closed and been boarded up, that neighborhood kids would sometimes use as a shortcut; on an impulse, Mikey darted his bike in, followed closely by his friends.

There hadn’t been so much as a cloudburst for weeks, so the alley was dry and hard packed, save for a damp spot behind the old hardware store. As Mikey sped through, he felt a light dusting of raindrops on his face. Letting his pace slack a bit, he looked up; the sky was as warm and bright and clear as it had been when they left the school.

“Hold on a sec!” he cried, bringing his bike to an abrupt stop.

Elliot and Natalie pulled up behind him. “What’s the matter?” he heard one of them say.

“It’s raining here,” Mikey said. “Feel the drops? Like just before it starts to pour, when it’s all gray out?”

Natalie stepped forward, arms outstretched; her hands came away slightly damp. “Yeah, I can feel it!”

“Me too,” Elliot said, looking up. “And not a cloud in the sky! Where d’you think it’s coming from, Mikey?” he said. “Mikey?”

But Mikey was already running toward the old fire escape, on the back of the hardware store. He charged up, heedless of his friends’ calls. The roof was paved with gravel, and a few rusty chimneys stuck up here and there, but the whole was bone dry. Looking out over the rest of the block, he couldn’t see any clouds, any standing water, any leaking pipes. There didn’t seem to be anywhere that the water could be coming from.

“It’s rain from nowhere,” he said, climbing down. “That’s what it is. We were running all over town looking for it, and here it is right under our noses: water from nowhere.”

“You mean…” Natalie said.

“Look for yourself!” Mikey cried. “It’s not coming from anywhere!” He did a little dance among the light, misty drops. “This is it! We’ve found our unexplainable mystery!”

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Bogna
Ralph Pines
Nissie
Lyra Jean
Domoviye
magicmint
areteus
julzperri
hillaryjacques
Turndog-Millionaire
AFord
pyrosama
Tomspy77
J. W. Alden

This post is part of the June 2011 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s challenge is a simple descriptive setting.

It was raining in Heden. This was evident in the way its citizens scuttled to and fro in the few open spaces, avoiding the heavy droplets as best they could.

It always rained in Heden. There was a faint shimmer to the bright, bizarre fabrics worn by the people that indicated waterproofing, and each person shed a wake of droplets that collected near thousands of drainage grates.

It would always rain in Heden. There was no way to be sure of this, but the water-worn and rusted surfaces of the Towers suggested it. Looming up into the ever-dark sky, they seemed resigned to an eternal pelting from the neverending storm.

The original design of Heden had called for six of the great Towers, forming the simple hexagon shape found on many of the great neon billboards and television screens that dotted each Tower much as lichens dotted the occasional real rock. The Towers had grown together, fused into one great shapeless mass by centuries of construction, destruction, rust, and rainwater. The simple glass walkways that had connected them had been long shorn of their panes, and hundreds of homegrown, rickety, winding paths of iron and steel had appeared to supplant them.

A monitor was suspended above one such improvised walkway, placed to ambush passersby with its message. Its bright, flashing image wasn’t an ad. Ad Boards were hard to afford, anymore; people who wanted to advertise just added more crumpled paper or laminate fliers to the mass that coated every surface reachable by human hands. This screen was an Info Board.

Info Boards were there to ‘illuminate possible interpretations of information for the purpose of educating the people’ according to the Boards themselves. This particular Board was playing the ‘History of Heden’, and everyone passing beneath had seen it before.

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
juniper
LadyMage
dolores haze
jkellerford
Ralph Pines
TheMindKiller
AuburnAssassin
pezie
WildScribe
Inkstrokes
Irissel
Guardian
Lyra Jean
egoodlett
cwachob

“We don’t expect you to understand, but it was necessary to perform the test under those conditions. Anything more controlled or closer to your experience would have invalidated the point.”

“So that’s it, then?” Rich snarled. “What would have happened if I wasn’t so lucky?”

“The experiment would have been a failure, and a different subject procured.”

“And Marie? What about her?” Rich demanded. His cheeks were burning and he found it hard to see the form of his accusers through welling tears.

“Ms. Cullen was a necessary incentive. You will find her in her apartment, asleep, though we must stress that she was never more than a template.”

Rich gritted his teeth, thinking of Marie at Pearlsea Fortress, at the Rift, and on that stack of hay in the Endlands. “Bait,” he sighed. “Cheese for the mouse in the maze.”

“An inelegant metaphor, but one not without some primitive merit. Are we done here, Mr. Richmond? Or must we persist in lowering ourselves to your base questions?”

“I just have one more,” Rich said. “Why me?”

The lights of his accusers modulated, with the answer in quizzical, almost mocking tones: “Why not?”

Through the blackness, nothing was visible save the lights of Lanth’s dreadnought and the pinpoint of piercing white in the distance. The dreadnought’s crew hadn’t seen the pursuing glow of the Kite, but it was only a matter of time until their lookouts took note.

On the Kite‘s bridge, Othe stood with his hands on the wheel, surrounded by what was left of his crew: twelve men, five women, and two that could only be called children. Barely enough to steer and man the guns on one side.

Yet they were all that stood between Lanth and the nascant universe waiting to be born ahead.

“You want to say anything, skipper?” asked Visani, the navigator.

Othe looked at his assembled rabble, short so many of the faces that should have been among them. “We only get one chance at this,” he said. “This might be the last story anyone can ever tell. Let’s make sure it’s a good one.”

17 December 20–

Sir,

We have recieved your letter of the 2nd of this month, and regret to inform you that Inctel Inc. cannot be held responsible for side effects of its products’ use as laid out in the end user license agreement. By opening and using the device in question, you agreed to be bound by the terms of the EULA, and as such the company and its affiliates bear no responsibility for what you describe in your communications. Nevertheless, we can offer some suggested solutions as long as you understand that these do not represent any admission of wrongdoing and that you fully assume any and all consequences resulting from their use.

Some users have complained that, while phase shifting, they have accidentally created causality loops that appear to strand them in a skein of time where they do not and never have existed, or experienced certain other radical deviations from their point of departure. Returning the unit to its default factory setting and pressing the power button until the system reboots has worked for many of these cases. Returning to a skein prior to any noticed changes and then moving forward in increments may also work.

As for your complaint about “specters,” some users have complained about similar phenomena. Manually adjusting the phase setting on your unit may work, as hallucinations may result if the default has “drifted” into the positive or negative plane. Customers have also reported success using the anti-time bubble option at maximum setting, but this is not recommended and will void your warranty is still covered.

I am, respectfully.
[signature blurred]
“Inctel is Success.”

Once all the delinquents were loaded, their restrains were removed and the shuttle lurches skyward, taking a path along the high-security clearance route. It snaked between the highest towers of the City core; lit by the rising sun, it was an intensely beautiful scene. Squout found his stomach knotting itself up as the pilot wove the shuttle around.

“Hey,” one of the other delinquents said to him. “What’re you in for?”

“People call me Squout. I disrupted the City Sepulcher services.”

The delinquent scrunched his face up. “That’s it?”

“Yeah.”

“Pfft. People call me Richat, and I shot a City patrolman with his own heater!”

Squout felt sweat pricking down his neck. “Why’d you do that?”

Richat shrugged his scrawny shoulders. “He was about to pull over the shuttle that I stole.”

“That’s nothing,” said another delinquent. “I cut the brake lines on a citytram!”

“I hijacked a shipment of nutri-gel!”

Squout drew back, suddenly hoping that the shuttle ride was a short one.

Everyone knew the story, of course. The official version was required reading in every high school and university in the City, with less salubrious versions passed around by word of mouth. As the tale of the first–and only confirmed–computer to go pandemic, it was both an important cautionary tale and part of city lore.

The Grid 17 controller, known as Corrougue, was responsible for one of the busiest City grids, including the Interchange, the Grid 17 Prison, the auxiliary systems hub, and dozens of other specialized functions on top of the other mundane tasks each controller intelligence was expected to perform. It had a maintenance crew of 30, including an intern from the City University who was known by the alias Natalie from the official report.

Corrougue’s functions had led to an increased server architecture and more sophisticated programming to deal with systemwide emergencies; a series of unsecured connections to the City information network had led the CI to develop to the brink of pandemia–uncontrolled expansion and growth within the network with the possibility of exponential growth in its complexity and intelligence. But it needed a pair of hands.

It found them in Natalie, who the official report describes as a shy and lonely introvert. Corrougue began to speak to her, cannily influencing her to make a series of ever-greater modifications to its system: disabling safety interlocks, making illicit outside connections, and the like. As Corrougue went pandemic, it found that its manipulations took on a different tone: returning Natalie’s naive affections. Investigators later puzzled over a number of missed opportunities for further pandemic growth, all of which could be explained by their potential to cause suspicion to devolve on Natalie. The CI even designed a number of manipulator arms–the report didn’t enumerate but wags retelling the story always gave the number as six–to allow it to interact with the young student in a more tactile fashion.

By the time Corrougue’s pandemia was discovered, it had spread to over twenty City grids and affected dozens of other CI’s. With great effort, the City was able to contain the damage; while Corrougue attempted to defend itself, the Citizen Army assaulted the lines that led to its self-contained fusion power source. Moments before the final assault was to begin, the energy within Corrougue’s reactor, as well as all other reactors under its control, had expended all their energy in a single action, plunging half of the City into blackout.

They found Natalie in Corrougue’s core, lifeless. It was later determined that she and the erstwhile CI had both connected themselves to the City’s primary satellite uplink station and sent a carrier wave an order of magnitude greater than any before or since into the sky. Whether or not there was a powerful enough receiver out there was probably immaterial: Corrogue and Natalie chose to face their uncertain future together.

Inside, a corridor stretched as far as the eye could see in any direction. In single file, Red first, Green second, black last, they approached an intersection. As they did, a guard turned the corner. Unhesitatingly, Red raised his rifle and fired. As the guard slumped over, the three spilled into a small room just around the corner.

Another security officer was hunched over a desk, paperwork in front of him. Gaping for just a second, he hit a small button on the wall, rolled out of his seat, and drew his weapon. Red dived forward as the shot rang out; Green and Black fired in tandem. Green’s shot ricocheted off a wall, but Black’s tranquilizer dart hit the guard in the chest, crumpling him over.

As alarm bells began ringing, green produced a length of rope and hog-tied the unconscious man. “This joker hit the alarm,” he swore.

Red nodded. “There goes the element of surprise, gentlemen. Any suggestions?”

Black was in the process of locking the doors. “Wait a sec.”

He pulled a map out of an inner pocket. “Always helps to have lotsa pockets,” he grinned.

With a flick of his arm, Black cleared the table of its bureaucratic load and placed the map upon it. The map showed the building as a brick-shaped collection of small halls and rooms surrounding a large inner chamber.

“Look here,” said Black, pointing toward the central chamber. “Here’s our target. Since the Stripe’s on full alert, reinforcements will be here in force. We’ll split up.”

“You,” he pointed at Red, “take the route here, over the roof. You,” he gestured at Green,” take this way. It’s the most direct. And I’ll” he made another gesture, “take this way; it’s long but probably lightly guarded. Any ques-”

Before Black could finish, there came a heavy pounding at the door, like a gun butt or a battering ram.

Jenny had seen an old movie on TV–she could barely remember what it was called anymore–about a young patient who chillingly finds her childish doodles coming true in real life. The film had held her rapt attention for an hour while the sitter made some long distance calls.

In the end, though, it hadn’t been a terribly good movie, with the heroine using her powers for the mundane purpose of exposing a nefarious doctor who had been stealing and selling medicinal supplies on the mean streets. Granted, Jenny’s parents never would have let her watch the movie if they’d been home, but she still felt cheated that the film had squandered all its potential.

She sat down to rectify that the next day.

Using the same character names and first thirty minutes or so of the film (what she remembered of it anyhow), Jenny wrote out a script for a far more interesting adventure, where the doodles became increasingly sophisticated, eventually blurring the line between reality and fantasy and ending on a very uncertain note as the young girl found herself home safe…but also noticed a drawing of herself at home on the fridge.

The story was only ten pages long–hardly epic length–but Jenny felt immensely satisfied in what she’d done. In the years that followed, she often found herself doing the same thing mentally to films, TV shows, and even games she felt had turned out poorly: re-imagining and “improving” them. These improvements were never written down; the first attempt had been proof enough to Jenny that she didn’t have the muse in her.

That is, until she caught the same film on TV many years later. Basking in nostalgia, she put on some popcorn and waited for the picture to implode in on itself as the fabulous premise deteriorated.

Only it didn’t.

The movie ended not with the disappointment Jenny remembered, but with the treatment she’d sketched out on notebook looseleaf as a nine-year-old.