Tuesday, 26 July 2022 21:00

Nonsense, Book 1 (Chapter 2)

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Chapter 2: Down With Habit Roles

I was in a semiotic hurricane. Concepts and sensations, unidentifiable bits of idea, sight, sound, vague recollection, hit me from all sides like physical things. Just thinking took incredible effort, like trying to compose a sonnet in a typhoon. Not that I'd talked to many former coma patients, but I was pretty damn sure a coma had never been described like this. I was also starting to suspect that whatever this “place” was, being in it like this for too long could do more than just hurt. Not really being keen on being destroyed here, I grabbed on to a peculiarly purplish shade of E flat tumbling along with me and tried to keep it between me and most of the worst impacts.
As I tried, with not as much success as I'd have liked, to avoid getting non-corporeally beaten, battered, bruised and broken, I began to notice an almost imperceptibly subtle rhythm and flow in the the chaos around me, moving everything and moving me as well. Seeing this, I let go of my ersatz life raft and began moving through the vortex untouched. Not effortlessly, but I was managing it.
And then gradually my perceptions began to shift again. I saw the flowing, looping, irregular path I was taking through the debris in a kind of double vision, both as the crazy acrobatic gyration and also as a perfectly straight corridor at the same time. Simultaneously, I was both bodilessly dodging abstract concepts in a maelstrom of impressions and walking down what was clearly becoming a hallway. Like the familiar kind of optical illusion, I found that I could see it either way with just a shift of focus.
I moved completely into hallway frame of reference, aware that I was still somehow also hurtling in a vortex of chaos in some sense. I also, in this frame, seemed to have a body. My normal body, wearing the jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers I had put on this morning. Was it still that same day? Did the question even have any meaning here? I couldn't explore that train of thought, because I was interrupted by a voice from behind me.
“It,” the gravelly yet cultured voice enunciated, “is about fricking time.”
*  *  *
“How can this even be happening? You checked him years ago and he didn't have the mutant genes.”
“And he still doesn't. His total loss of hair and nails, the graying of his skin, and the loss of height and body mass have nothing to do with anything triggered by an active meta-gene. I can only surmise that it is magical in nature given the obvious evidence of a working around him, but without an active Wizard trait he shouldn't have been able to do anything that would result in such a drastic change. On the other hand, what limited magical diagnostic tools I have find no evidence of a persistent curse or spell still upon him.”
*  *  *
“Is it really? I've never fricked time before, do I get to cross that one off my bucket list?” I replied as I turned to the speaker.
Standing behind me was a little brown man. Not a person of African descent suffering from dwarfism. No, this was a perfectly proportioned man of indeterminate race, who happened to be two-and-a-half-feet tall and pretty much uniformly milk chocolate brown, save the whites of his eyes. His skin was brown, his slicked back hair was brown, his irises and pupils were brown. The thin, waxed handlebar mustache that would have made Dali sick with envy, that stuck out well over a foot from each side of his upper lip, was brown. All the pieces of his impeccably tailored suit, his dress loafers, gloves, shirt, tie, slacks, suit jacket with tails (honestly, who wears tails these days?), were brown. And the unlit cigar held between his teeth, you could probably guess, was brown.
He looked at me as if he were unimpressed, and continued. “If you're quite done screwing around, I have a delivery for you.”
I looked over his suit and asked him, “Is your van brown too?”
“You know, you think you're funny. But you are, in fact, hardly the first to make that particular inference.” He held out a clipboard and pen. Both brown, of course. “Where do you think they got the idea? Sign, please.”
I took the board from him. The paper, thankfully, was a readable light tan. “I'm not signing anything I haven't read.”
“Suit yourself.”
The paper was incredibly simple. A bare-bones delivery invoice and receipt. The only odd thing about it was that the item delivered was described as One (1) Odyssey-class Adventure.
“What, exactly, is an Odyssey-class Adventure?”
Exactly what it says on the tin. Are you going to sign for it? I don't have all b'ak'tun to wait around here.”
I considered for a second, shrugged, and signed, then handed back the clipboard.
“Great job, kid. Keep it up and you'll be a signature professional. And now that we've got that over with, I have a message for you.”
He held out an envelope with my name on it, in a familiar hand. I'd seen it before scrawled in margins, and again several days ago on a slip of paper. I tore it open, and found a card inside with a single word on it. Duck!
I actually ducked down a bit and looked around me. But the only thing that happened was the brown man complimenting me on my reflexes.
I rolled my eyes and and asked, “Okay, when am I supposed to get this 'Adventure'?”
“Don't ask me, I'm just the messenger. You signed, it's your problem now. You figure it out.” He turned around and started walking away, fading as he did so. “You must take after your father, you're not nearly as sharp as your mother.”
“Wait, what?” I ran after him, but he was gone. “Come back here! Tell me about my mom!”
I hesitated just long enough to confirm that there was no reply coming, and kept on running.
*  *  *
The hunter was quite certain that the creature standing before it was not any kind of spirit guide it had ever heard of. It resembled nothing in any of the legends of the freed hunters. It was barely half the height of an adult, with a pair of antennae sprouting to the sides of its face. Its eyes had round irises and pupils, like an animal's. It appeared to have only one lower jaw, which it was using to hold a paper cylinder. It appeared to have some odd sort of slick fibrous carapace on its head, and was wearing covering garments that would entirely inhibit any sort of meaningful communication if it didn't seem that the creature was mute. Its skin being one constant neutral color, it didn't appear to be able to speak a single hue or shade.
Thankfully, the creature was literate, holding up a sign in perfectly legible monochrome shorthand that read “follow, please”. The hunter followed the creature through the oddly rectangular doorway behind it.
*  *  *
I sighed with my head in my hands, sitting with my back against a wall. Who knows how long I'd been running before I gave up. What was I even doing here? Was I trying to contact my mother, or was I trying to find my way out? I groaned as I let my hands drop to my sides.
And then I looked down, because my right hand felt wet. There was a little bit of water leaking out from under the door next to me. Curious, I got up and looked at the door. I went to open it, but there wasn't a knob. What was there instead quacked and tried to bite me.
“Duck. Very funny, Mom...”
I was now certain I had to open this door, but not at all certain of how to go about opening a door with an angry duck's head for a knob.
After a bit of consideration, I sat back down and untied one of my shoes. And then I removed the lace. I put a slipknot in the end, and tried my hand at duck fishing.
There's more of an art to catching a duck's beak in a dangling makeshift lasso than one might think at first. You've got to kind of entice them into it. Admittedly, the only experience I've had in the sport is with one restrained by the neck (or the equivalent thereof), but perhaps putting them in a box with their head sticking out of a hole might actually make for a level playing field. I might suggest that dealing with an angry duck as I did could make things more difficult, but on the other hand waterfowl in general were not endowed by nature with much of a sense of humor, so I assume that one would be hard-pressed to find a duck that wasn't angry after you'd stuck it in a box with its head poking out and harassed it with a dangling string.
Eventually, I successfully snagged the darned thing's lower beak. (Alas, for my dreams of professional duck rodeo, entirely by accident.) Then I made a wide knot around the whole beak and tugged it taut, tying the beak closed. I wound the excess around the beak and tucked the end neatly under a loop. Now that I had it wrapped up, I tried turning it like a doorknob, and it worked. It rotated with a satisfyingly mechanical click.
I didn't get much time to enjoy success, though, as the door was swept open by the wall of water behind it, which cascaded forth and shoved me hard against the opposite wall. I was disoriented by the impact, and could not have fought the force of the water if I wasn't. It swept me upward toward the ceiling, which in my dizziness I didn't notice as somehow not being there or not impeding my passage. At any rate, as I was swept upward the wave carrying me slowed, and I regained my bearings in peaceful water. Endless peaceful water. The hallway was nowhere below me, or I should say around me because I was not at all sure which way “below” was. The water in all directions was uniformly lit, so there were no visual cues to follow, and there seemed to be no sensation of gravity to give me a clue either. Even the fish I could see from where I was couldn't seem to come to consensus as to an up or a down, swimming in a given direction without bothering to change their vertical orientation.
There was also the problem that I could not, in fact, breathe in this strange underwater setting, and could not hold my breath forever. With a supreme effort, I forced myself not to panic, which would just waste what oxygen I had left in my system. This was made especially difficult by the growing certainty that I wasn't alone here. Some sort of sense beyond sight or sound was telling me there was something out there somewhere besides the squid and fish.
And that thing was hunting me.
I looked around for any kind of escape route at all, but there was nothing. Just open water as far as I could see. No sign of the surface, if there even was one, and nowhere to go. I was getting short of breath now, and something out there was hunting me, circling, waiting for its moment.
There is a state of mind one achieves when one has no recourse, and surrenders utterly to fate. If you've been there, I have no need to describe it to you. If you haven't, I'd never be able to. In that moment, you lose yourself, and become more utterly yourself than you have ever been before. The pain in my lungs, and the fear in my mind, became what they always were. Actors on a stage, for an audience of me. I watched them perform their drama without comment, and also “watched” the intangible hunter as I felt its casual approach. 
The world began to grow quiet, dark, and distant as I observed myself starting to drown. And then I was struck. The hunter took me, passed around me and through me, and we were folded into each other.
*  *  *
“Wait a minute, you're saying his changes are getting worse and that's supposed to be a good thing?”
“Imagine the body is like a flexible clay sculpture. You start smoothing out the details, that's a loss of information. If you keep doing that long enough, eventually you're left with a featureless ball. Up until this point here, that was the nature of the changes. Your son was losing definition. But now his changes, though accelerating, appear to be adding features. Instead of simply degrading, River's form is now becoming something.”
“I have to say, doc, the word 'something' there is far from reassuring.”
“It's better than an homogeneous mass of protoplasm.”
*  *  *
I was caught between the remains of my state of serenity and the realization that oblivion was no longer looming. Whatever it was that had been stalking me was gone. I was still holding my breath, but it wasn't such a pressing need anymore. I felt like I could keep holding it for awhile. More than that, I felt fantastic. I could feel the life around me, fish, squid, jellyfish. And for some reason, I wanted one. After discarding a shoe to match the untied one, which must have been swept away by the torrent some time ago, I circled a likely school of vertically-confused fish with incredible ease. Just moving through the water was a joy, as I somehow knew exactly how to move to propel myself. And again, with ease, I swept by, grabbing a straggler.
Without even thinking, I just bit into it. It didn't taste like fish at all, it tasted more like pork if anything. It didn't look like any fish I'd seen before either, with smooth scaleless skin. And then I wondered what exactly the hell I was doing. Gnawing on a raw fish is not a normal thing to do, as far as I could remember. Was it? I was hit by a momentary wave of confusion so intense it gripped my head like a vise. My heartbeat pounded in my ears. But as it passed, I could still feel my heartbeat pulsing. No... this was something else. The faint pulsing was in the water around me. I instinctively spread my arms wide, feeling the pressure waves. And then I had it. A direction. I was off like a shot, eager to find something other than empty water and fish.
Gradually, a little dark speck came into view. As I drew nearer and nearer to it, I noticed that more often I was seeing the bellies of the fish in the schools I passed. If that meant they were becoming more oriented, then was I traveling upward?
The pulsing in the water was growing too, into a repetitive booming sound that I could barely tell was coming from the direction of the roughly almond-shaped object ahead of me. Finally, I could see what it was. The underside of a ship. I was approaching the surface. A good thing too, because I was very slowly starting to feel the shortage of oxygen again.
The sound was growing almost painful, and I could now see what was causing it. From the muzzle flashes, cannons on the ship were firing in sequence, in perfectly timed rhythm. 
I finally breached the surface in daylight, taking grateful gulps of air before swimming toward the ship. I reached out and touched its hull. The moment my fingers touched the barnacled wood, the cannons ceased firing.
The anchor was trailing in the water nearby, so I went to it and began cautiously and quietly to climb the chain. At the top, I looked over the deck, and there was nobody. I boarded and looked around, very quickly finding that the ship was empty. No people, no things. No crew or cargo. Empty. I couldn't even find the cannons that had been firing earlier, no shot, no powder.
Figuring I was alone, and getting uncomfortable in wet clothes, I stripped and laid them out on the deck to dry in the sun. And then I leaned over the side to look at the depths I'd just come up from. I wondered if I'd have to go back down there to return... where? Return to consciousness? Return home? I finally had a moment to think about my situation, but no way to figure out exactly what that situation was.
“This has to be just a dream!”, I yelled to the uncaring sea.
Just a dream, he says,” came a particularly brown voice from behind me. “If you had the slightest idea what dreaming really is, you'd quickly find that particular figure of speech useless.”
“So this is a dream?” I didn't bother to face him, but he joined me at the side anyway and peered out between the railing supports. I also didn't bother getting bent out of shape about some weird little supernatural guy seeing my bare ass. He barged in on me, he could damn well deal with it.
“Not the kind you've ever had before.”
“Then what changed?”
“You were touched by the hand of Our Lady.”
“Who's your lady and why me?”
Our Lady of Divine Confusion, and why not?”
I was beginning to suspect that I was getting the mushroom treatment. Being kept in the dark and fed bullshit. “So this is the kind of story where some hapless schmuck becomes a pawn for some invisible higher power and never knows the real plan until it's too late?”
“Close, but there's no plan. This game is yours to play.”
I looked out over the sea for a good long while, digesting this. Then I looked at him and asked, “Why don't you have that lit? Saving it for something?”
He chuckled and replied, “It's not lit because you're not remotely prepared for the second-hand buzz this would give you. She'd never forgive me if I messed you up.” With that, he turned to me, winked, and vanished.
Great, there went any hope I had of some exposition. And I didn't even get to ask about Mom. I surveyed my situation. I was alone on a ship with no supplies of any kind in the middle of nowhere. No particular destination, and no idea how to sail this darn thing if I had one. And judging by the drooping sails, even if I had a direction, and the slightest clue how to make this tub go in said direction, there would be nothing to push it any direction anyway. Not a bit of wind to be had.
Hold on, there was a slight breeze after all. Not enough to push a ship, but I could feel it. And smell it. There was the barest hint of a floral scent. And flowers had to mean land, didn't they? Did I want to find land? Had to be better than sitting on this pile of planks. I did that trick where you wet your finger in your mouth and hold it up to tell the direction of a faint breeze, and it worked. Score one for trying something you saw on TV. I dove into the water and started swimming into that breeze, not bothering with my clothes. They'd just get wet again, and slow me down. I could swim faster below the surface, and I didn't have to get air all the time. If I'd had a watch I would have timed myself, but as it was I ended up surfacing to check my direction long before I ever felt the need for air. So I made steady time in the direction of what I hoped was land.
*  *  *
After engaging in that strange task, the hunter rejoined the odd neutrally-colored creature and was finally led to someone recognizable, the walking one, great ancestor of its clan, who made a permanent sacrifice of  wing bones to dispel a curse on the clan. The hunter of the two lakes people bowed respectfully to the walking one. The walking one bowed in return, then held its hand out to the odd guide. The guide placed coinage into the hand, and then in a strange gesture the walking one and the guide each made a fist, which they both touched together. And then the guide vanished, before the walking one beckoned the hunter onward to an orchard.
*  *  *
I looked behind me as I walked onto the sandy shore. Somewhere along the way, my stalker had returned. It hadn't gained on me, it felt like I was being followed this time, not hunted. Still, after what happened last time—I still wasn't sure what happened last time—I wanted to keep my distance.
Ahead of me was a vast grove of some sort of fruit tree. There didn't seem to be any wild growth around, just these trees, obviously cultivated in rows, that were giving off the floral smell I'd been following. The fruits were angular, with icosahedral seams, and their black skin was hard to look at. It seemed like I could see into them, and my eyes didn't really want to stay pointed at whatever they found there. I definitely had zero desire to sample one of them. Or even walk through the grove. But if I didn't want whatever it was to catch up with me, I didn't have much of a choice. I set off through the trees, not looking to my left or right at the fruit.
As I made my way between the rows, the terrain began to incline. I could also somehow tell that my follower was gaining now. I couldn't tell as clearly as I could when I'd been in the water, but I still knew it was out there and getting closer. And I could now hear rustlings in the trees in the distance. It knew I knew, and didn't care. From the sounds, it seemed like it was flanking me wide to my right.
I stopped walking for a second. And then the rustling stopped too. I walked on, and the distant rustling continued.
Up ahead, it seemed like the trees stopped near the top of a ridge. As I left the tree line and cleared the ridge (and the rustling stopped again), I saw that it ringed a massive stadium-sized crater. The dirt of its surface was packed unnaturally smooth and perfectly hemispherical. I stepped to the edge and started to lean forward to look over it, and knocked my head against something hard. Grumbling incoherent not-quite-profanity, I grabbed my skull and waited for the pain to pass.
I reached out and felt a wall in front of me. Apparently this wasn't an empty crater. It was the resting place of something that was huge, smooth, and spherical. And also completely invisible.
While I was investigating, my stalker suddenly began advancing steadily on me. There was no sound of trees rustling, it was beyond the tree line. I just knew somehow it was getting closer. I hurried to the left along the edge of the “crater” to keep my distance, with one hand feeling along the object, just in case there was an escape that way. I suddenly realized, a bit too late, that it hadn't been following me, or chasing me. No, whatever it was, it was herding me.
Fine. I'd been playing the game this long, might as well see it to the end. I continued along the side of the object, and as long as I was moving my stalker was maintaining its distance. I must have made it about a mile and a half before my hand found a seam in the object. I hadn't been expecting it to disappear, though. I could feel the sides of the crack, and it was wide enough for me to fit through if I went sideways. I just couldn't see the hand that was doing the feeling. Everything beyond the perimeter of the crater, from my wrist forward, was invisible. I pulled my hand away, and it was fine, so I reached in further, watching my arm slowly disappear.
My stalker chose that moment to start coming at me much faster. I could see a shadow on the ground and a blur in the air above it, much closer than I felt comfortable with and getting closer in a hurry. I braced myself, and slid into the crack.
And then I fell. Downward? No. Sideways. Or more precisely, outward in all directions.
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