Goodnight. Talk Soon.

Complete Text at thefoolish.jux.com/64793

Free Novella for the Movella community. Here's a short work I did—formatting doesn't transfer well to Movella, so I've included a link to make it easier to read. I'd love for you guys to take a look.

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1. Theriomorph

 

The following is not the intended formatting of the text, and is only a short preview. To read the complete text, visit thefoolish.jux.com/64793

 

Episode 1: Theriomorph

            "Seems like tonight's going to be the one way or the other of it," this wasted Cantonese opera singer tells me through the muggy whiskey ache billowing from between his teeth. I stare hard at his extravagant costume locked in panels and golden braids over two silk sashes. Peacock feathers arch up like ox horns from the temples of his helmet and four triangular flags rise at a steep angle from the plate on his back. His face is polished in a traditional peaches and cream hued makeup. The costume really is beautiful, but his voice, it’s deep and gruff—got this oak tree timbre to it.

He stands out in the small coffee shop where students come to study and drink. Everyone is watching us talk. The clerk asks what kind of tea I want.

"One way or the other of what?" I ask.

"You know," He says. "Yeah, you know." He's more smug now as he says this.

"I really don't."

“You don’t know till it’s over.” His makeup—somehow—is perfectly preserved from wherever he’s come, from whatever late-night production he’s marched here from. I ask him what his name is and he tells me that it’s Jukyo. I say, “Hi Jukyo, my name is Noah.”

 

            You're in a city. We won't say which one but know that it's not very nice. The people are pleasant enough but the roads are wide in the way that suggests that industry jumped ship decades ago. The buildings are empty in the way that lets you know that yeah—it existed once. The ethnic restaurants are out of vogue and you can’t for the goddam life of you find a single place that serves falafel.

This is your life.

This is your life with the color turned down way low and the contrast turned up way high just so you can try to feel something. This is your life as you know it. This is the moment you start watching the way the subway cars engage with the track—wondering what it would feel like to bounce around between them. A precious moment when you wonder what you would look like with face caked in hot tar after a thirty-story dive into fresh Tarmac.

Yours is the generation that redefined death as an artistic expression. Installation art—one time only. Yours is the generation that treats this life like a credit card loaded with gym memberships and porn accounts that you're waiting to expire.

So you quit your job and you spend your evenings drinking until you're sick. Well you used to get sick. Your stomach is like leather and your head is like a chalkboard eraser capable of soaking up anything. You don't get sick anymore. You try to find falafel—it's chick peas, shouldn't be so hard.

This is your life until you finish your cigarette and march headstrong into traffic. You're not one of these artsy types who need to make a big bloody show of it. Shelter is architecture, food is cuisine and clothing is fashion. People make art out of everything. Why should death be any different? So you get Facebook event invites to 'Charlie's big going away' and you wonder how long he took deciding how many layers of irony to soak that title in. Hardly matters.

Your friend Charlie is staging his own funeral and he's doing it in style. Good for him. Is funeral the word though? People don't launch themselves out of cannons at funerals. You wonder where the hell he even found a cannon. You wonder how he afforded the cannon and the fire works—the whole decadent, catered affair. This is the moment you start to question the questioning of the big question. This is the moment you grab another handful of shrimp and try to hit on the cute bartender.

Get another drink. Fuck another stranger. Wonder where you can find a cannon and some goddam falafel.

 

            This moment, I still don’t know whom Jukyo Is. I don’t know that before I see him again, Jukyo will have lugged away at a living scarecrow the size of a hummer with an old hammer. I don’t know he’ll have crawled though a wooden coal mine tunnel filled with confused, screaming, angry birds—chasing a dog possessed by the spirit of a pedophile banker. I don’t know any of these things about him—but they’re all true. I don’t know a damn thing about his life, but his life is almost all lived up. This is the part of the story where the man meets someone who will become very important but doesn’t know it yet. I know this sounds confusing, and I promise I’m not trying to do so deliberately. That’s just sort of become the nature of this.

 

***

 

            I walk into my bosses’ office and I tell him I'm quitting. He asks me why and I tell him I've been offered a job somewhere else. I'm full of shit. He asks me to stay and offers me a raise.

He offers me more money and a change in title.

I say no.

His brow furrows and he stares hard at his desk for a few moments. I've been working for this company for over a decade—my security clearance alone is valuable. They don't want to lose me. I shrug and feel terrible and confused and everything you're supposed to feel when you panic and scramble and quit on a whim.

I'm shaking trying to figure out why I'm doing this. He thinks and says it occurs to him that I'm the only person he knows with my clearance that isn't in upper management and doesn’t want to be. I nod and wonder where he's going with this much quieter train of thought. Over his head I see them tearing down the top few stories of an old glass skyscraper and my gut starts to curl. I loved those buildings when I was a boy. This is what it's like to watch the world move on. He asks if I'd consider a job in another department and I snap back to reality to find him staring at me with the same mushy expression I'd left. I want to nod politely and march out the door, but there's something sticky and desperate and real in his voice when he talks, so I let him talk some more.

"Give me a day," he says, "One day to talk to some people."

I say nothing.

He gives me a stern look and I tell him I'll swing by tomorrow, either to pack up my things or move them to another department. He chuckles at this but the laughter is short lived.

 

            The tunnel out of the subway is filled with muggy smoke that’s at once sweet and smoky—like burnt food even. I stare at two people smoking out of an impossibly small glass pipe as I walk up the stairs to street level. I’ve seen pipes like that sold before in a convenience store. There was a tiny fake rose in it and the label read in a cheap laser printer blur “ROMANTIC ROSE GIFT VASE.”

I smiled when I saw that the first time but now it doesn’t seem so funny.

 

            I stroll into the office and my boss is standing with a man who’s looking at me with a look of dark creamy disdain. They tell me there’s an opening in a different department. I ask which department and who the other man is. It’s my bosses boss and he nods curtly. Outside of his window there’s a man pissing off of the roof of the adjacent building and I tune out for a moment while I watch. I’d say something but he’s already zipping up. His pee falls in a sweeping ark as it tears apart into a light mist against the wind.

“Sorry?” and I ask my boss to repeat himself.

They say there’s a job opening on the other side as a representative of the company—a problem solver of sorts. I’ve written press releases for the company for years, they figure I’d be good at it.

“What exactly would I be doing?”

They tell me I’d be responding to high profile complaints. They tell me I’d be a face for the company on the other side—dealing with and solving problems for people. They tell me I’d be a diplomat and that I’d be partnered with a local. I think for a moment and suddenly the questions I’m asking myself are tumbling and snowballing into bigger ones.

This is why I say, “Yes.”

I know this sounds confusing, and I promise I’m not trying to do so deliberately—but it’ll only get worse.

 

“You’re out of your skull.” Julia tells me between bites of pasta soaked in a cider cream sauce.

2 tbsp. butter

1 onion, diced

1 cup alcoholic apple cider

1 cup sodium reduced chicken stock

¾ cream whipping cream

1 tbsp. grain mustard

1 tsp. cornstarch.

She has this smile on her face—buckling under the weight of indignantly bowing eyebrows. She’s a year younger than I am but somehow a decade older all at once. She can tell you why she does every little things she does. This is where we differ. She moved in two months prior but we’re not married.

You’d have to ask her why that is.

“I think it’ll be interesting.” I say.

“I didn’t even know you could go without…” she trails off, looking for the word, “Dying.”

“You didn’t?”

“I dunno,” She says laughing a little. I smile.

“Very Sci-Fi. They pump me in there like a live feed.”

“For how long?”

“Couple days at a time.” I take a bite of pasta and a nugget of peppercorn gets stuck in my teeth. I pick at it with my tongue and it wiggles against what I imagine feels like ivory.  “Like a pilot.”

Her face is slender and her eyes are impractically big. We argue for a moment but it’s light hearted. She agrees it’ll be interesting if nothing else and I don’t tell her I’d threatened to quit in order to get it. I think about how beautiful she is when she’s high, and how long it’s been since we’ve done that.

 

            My boss tells me to call him Duncan.

“Pardon me Mr. Furlong?”

He tells me again to just call him Duncan. I’m standing in the doorway to his office, not really sure where else I’m supposed to go now that my desk has been filled by a young Dominican man one of my coworkers insists is “one fuck of a copywriter.”

“But I didn’t call you Mr. Furlong. I just walked in.”

The silence that follows is physically painful. The smile on his face so uncomfortable you can see muscles buckling to hold the weight of the clenched embarrassment pressing against them.

Wrought-iron regret.

“How are you…Duncan?” He smiles but it’s not a happy one.

 

            We go into room down the hall that I’ve never been in before. There’s a line of carefully groomed show lawyers leaning over the table covered in stack of papers. Colored stickers where I’m supposed to sign stick out from between the pages so densely I imagine it feels like broom bristles. I want to run my hand through it to see if I’m right. Within twenty-five minutes of non-disclosure forms and confidentiality agreements my hand crackles and grinds. I picture a cement truck.

I’m told anything that happens on the other side is strictly confidential.

I’m told any description of the other side to the press is strictly forbidden.

I tell them they don’t have anything to worry about and I’m told that they do in fact.

They’re always very concerned when they send in a new diploma. It’s a curious feeling when someone tells you that they don’t trust you—head on and without any qualifiers. I’m told that they’re not liable for any malfunctions of hardware or for any damage I may sustain on the other side. For the first time I ask a question—

“I can’t really get hurt can I?”

“It’s difficult to get injured, possible to get hurt…”

I’ve written press releases for this company for nearly a decade. I know it’s hard to die in there. I also know it’s possible, so I don’t ask what would happen if I did. The death of a man living in the afterlife—I let that wrinkle my brain for a minute. The pen runs out of ink and as I look up to ask for another I find one of the lawyers holding one out in front of me. I flip the last page and sign it with a mechanical rhythm that’s shaped the curve of my signature into something smooth and fluid over the last few minutes. When I look up there’s a row of faces staring back at me with a strange stew of curiosity and hesitation—like the features don’t know how to fit all the conflicting feelings being sent to them. The moment drags endlessly.

All the minutes crammed into the span of a few seconds—you could go mad in moments like that.

 

            I sit at home with a large book in my lap—maybe 400 pages glue bound with a fresh white matte cover, printed words on the cover that reads MANUAL. I’m told by the lawyers to come back when I’ve read it, that I can start the job when I’ve got a lock on how things work.

Within three pages I start wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.

Within ten I start wondering if I should take the job.

A hundred pages in Julia sits down next to me and I get distracted.

Yesterday I was a copywriter going through a funk, and four hundred pages later I’m doing a job that should—by any approximation—be done by someone far more qualified than myself; Ideally someone ex-military, as outlined in pages 324 through 367.

 

            Duncan walks me down into a wing of the office I’ve never seen. The lights start getting colder and colder and the people—usually so abstractly artsy in the ad department or cut from navy cotton in the business floors we’re sandwiched between, fade into something new. The tech guys I see crossing hurriedly between offices once a week start bustling past.  A Marty McFly lookalike in a bright orange down vest strolls by, damn near unhinging his jaw to push down the crumbling corner of a pizza sandwich. I wonder if my hunger is going to come with me to the other side. My stomach growls staunchly yes.

I’m sat down in an empty conference room opposite a large image of a tiny wooden boat floating on the water drawn in thin blue lines and labeled with the polite arches of an architect’s handwriting. There’s a tech guy sitting on the end of his desk staring at his hands. He pops to attention and introduces himself. When he speaks his voice jumps from the back of his throat—raspy and frog like yet enthusiastic the way only lonely people can be. We shake hands and I wonder how someone so big can have a voice so compressed. Any voice of a man like that should have room to rumble around in him. He’s not overweight—just…large. We shake hands and as we do he says to me, “my name is Edgar.” I tell him my name and he tells me that he knows. This isn’t said dismissively, it’s said like it’s a treat for him to know. As if this is the highlight of his week.

He tells me things I know. He tells what it’s like when people who’ve signed on for the service die, how the whole thing is like a spa day with a bitter aftertaste and the faint smell of oleander. Death makes it easy. They’ve worked out that process pretty well.

“It’s not going to be quite that way,” he tells me through an enthusiastic smile. He tells me I’m going to get rendered randomly the first handful of times until I can learn to communicate with “the space.”

That’s what he calls it.

“We can point you in a direction—but that’s it.” He says, one hand rubbing his belly. Despite the news—the panic that’s slowly setting in—I like Edgar. If he were a cartoon he’d be anthropomorphic hippo in a black t-shirt. I ask where they’re going to point me.

“The ocean.” He tells me, adding that it’s the place where I’m least likely to clip into someone else by accident. The system can make sure I don’t appear halfway in a wall—but it can’t factor in people.

“I feel like I’m going to drown…” and he tells me they’ve got a system in place. When he tells me what that system is I tell him I don’t think he knows what the word system means. His laughter is disarmingly deep.

Down another set of spider-vein hallways. I’m walking next to Edgar, dwarfed by his sideways shadow cast by the lights mounted on the wall.

            He calls the chair “The Mighty One.” It’s this ancient leather looking beast of a reclining chair with thick matte metal arches that swoop all around it. In the center near the head there’s a strip of onyx black glass arching down the path of the spine of the person laying down in it. I stare at it for a moment. It lacks the polish and the clean lines of so much of what this company does. I quietly fall in love with it as Edgar paces around the side.  I want one in my apartment. There are cold clinical lights in the adjacent room, through the large glass panel-observing window. Here though, it’s dark—warm even. It’s laid out like an operating room. As soon as I see this I notice an empty fountain soda container on the counter which Edgar picks up and begins sipping.

“I spend a lot of time in here.” He says sipping at it.

“Do you go in often?”

“No, they frown on that.” He smiles slyly and despite a cold look from Duncan I laugh. Edgar takes another sip. I put my hand on the cool leather and settling myself back into it. It’s familiar, like a dentists chair even. The whole thing has the faintest buzz to it I can feel running up from the base of my tailbone into my neck.

“What’s it going to feel like?” I ask Edgar as I swing my leg over the side. Duncan goes to open his mouth but Edgar begins—choking out words through his soda.

“Everyone asks that, and honestly—How does shivering feel?” I smile when he says this.

Duncan stares at him from across the room. Thick wrinkles form between his brows.

“So you’ve been in?” He asks Edgar accusatorily. Edgar says nothing. It’s not guilt or anything close—only nothing.

“Just go with it.” Edgar tells me.  He gestures for me to lie down and I settle my head down into the soft, worn in leather as he swings a large hanging light over my face. He places his fingers on either side of my neck and tilts my head to either side.

“No piercings, never had a plate in your skull or a bolt in your back?” he asks deadly serious.

“Wait, this is my physical?”

He shrugs.

“No I’m all clear. Except for the—.” He nods and smiles.  Here, everyone has had the procedure.

“Good.” He stands up and paces to the other side of the room, gesturing for Duncan to proceed to the other side of the glass panel as he dims the lights from a small switch on the wall.

“Your contact should find you within a few minutes of rendering. Just keep calm. For this first run we’ll be dumping you in for an eight-hour shift. You’ll hear the bells.”

“The bells?”

“That’s how we cue you—you’ll hear bells ringing and you’ll have roughly a minute before we bring you out. Time doesn’t translate perfectly, but you’ll work out your conversion in due time. Didn’t you read the manual?”

I go to open my mouth and like too many cars merging into the same off ramp, all the questions crash into each other. Nothing gets through but a rolling hubcap that sounds like a sharp exhale as I settle back into the chair.

“Yes.” I say.

“Yeah.” Edgar says as he pats me on the shoulder and crosses over to the other side of the glass. His face lights up as the panels below start leaking out light softly. His voice comes in smoothly from somewhere in the chair.

“Ready?” He asks, the sound of his voice through the speakers framed by clicks and whirs as he readies the machine.

“Should I be strapped in or something?” I ask. There’s a pause.

“It doesn’t really work that way.” The buzz snaps off as he mutes his microphone. I lie there quietly staring up at the ceiling. “Well?” He asks again.

“Sorry, yes—ready.” I try to say officially with some sense of authority. The winding swells loading underneath me as the chair gears up. My asshole clenches up tight and the muscles in my back contract. I wish I could say this has something to do with the chair.

 

            What if you could copy an image of the mind, and at the moment of death—right when the body is about to expire—paste it somewhere else?

I should explain.

So many movies—so many videogames and television shows start with that scene. That same scene. The hero fights a big baddie and comes this close to dying. Then they wake up—frustrated with themselves. It wasn’t real. They were plugged into some computer.

And the movie goes on.

The pages keeping turning.

The reels keep rolling.

And that’s the last you hear about it. Some clever quip from some screenwriter who got told he needed a big dramatic set piece of an opening. The movie never mentions this again—the idea of a made up world and all the fucked up shit that this implies.

This is how it started.

The company I work for offers really only one service, but it’s a doozy. They don’t sell chairs or food. They don’t pick you up from the airport or groom your pet. Those things don’t change much—let alone everything. In five years they became one of the biggest companies on the planet.

There are two parts to the procedure. The first involves a picture of the brain. The mind maybe—let's call it the mind. The mind is scanned once. This image—massive and all encompassing functions like a rom. It's an executable program. Launch it and it's a consciousness existing in whatever program you set it loose in. The consciousness is yours. It is you.

But you're not following. Neither did I at first. Neither did anyone. They caught on though. This picture doesn’t matter until it does. And it does when you die.

When your brain activity stops—when you shut down—a final signal from small router wedged in a painless procedure between the sixth and fifth vertebrae, is sent to the server. The digital version of you, fresh right until the moment of expiration gets launched. You die, and suddenly you're born again. Just not here.

You’re pasted somewhere else.

Whoever thought to call it the digital afterlife was a fucking genius.

It's not a bank of servers held in a bunker financed by governments and protected by armies.

It's heaven. Man made and perfect and cheap. There's no doubt, no matter of faith. You don't believe—you know, because you paid a small service fee when the procedure was performed and the tiny button was stapled damn near painlessly into your spine. When you and 92% of all adults in the northern hemisphere bought your tickets to heaven.

That was one of their tag lines. Keep calling it heaven. No one has a trademark on that word. No one owns the idea of life never ending.

A Man Made Afterlife ©

 

“We’ll see you soon.” Edgar says calmly as the chair buzzes below me. I look up hard at the exposed metal ceiling.

You’ll never know what were the big moments in your life until your half way to dead. You could go mad trying to know that about yourself. The machine crackles and the world snaps out of view.

This is the part of the story where the man goes somewhere he’s never been before. I know this sounds confusing, and I promise I’m not trying to do so deliberately. That’s just sort of become the nature of this.

 

 

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