Just Another Future Song

As they pulled him out of the oxygen tent, he asked for the latest party.

“Oh, Mr. Jones,” one of the nurses said, amused. “We wouldn’t forget that.” The nurses, women in gray smocks with pale faces, moved in and out of view, murmuring in conspiratorial voices.

Something important had happened. Something that he should remember.

A great moon face leaned down into his line of sight. The man smiled with teeth of brass. “Welcome back, Jonesy.” He had a thick Brixton accent. Another man leaned in, a twin of the first. The same brow as blunt as an anvil, the same thick neck. But this second man was stone, not all smiling.

Mr. Jones opened his mouth to cry out, but all that escaped his lips was a rasp. He tried to lift his arms to protect himself, but his limbs would not respond. He knew these men, these brothers, though he could not remember their names. They were there in their strange black smocks when he died. The one who never smiled had held him down while tiny knives ripped him apart, cell by cell.

“The orderlies will take care of you from here,” the nurse said. And suddenly they were alone.

They lifted his willow–boned body, moving his limbs like a puppet’s. They dressed him in silk pajamas and a lush smoking jacket of deep purple, then set his feet into slippers of black cashmere. Finally, they placed him in a red velvet chair with silver wheels.

The smiling one crouched to look him in the eye. “No fun and games this time, eh, Mr. Jones?” he said. “No wandering about, doing mischief?”

Mr. Jones didn’t know what he was talking about. What mischief could he possibly do? His entire body felt weak as paper.

They pushed him across marble floors, through a corridor of high, arched windows. Outside it was dark, but spotlights raked the windows, casting disturbing shadows. Eventually they reached a large room walled in glass. A solarium, Mr. Jones thought, though there was no sun here, only the dark and those roving lights, diffused by fog or grime, pawing the windows. The brightest light in the room was cast by the face of the huge television screen. It was ten or twelve feet wide and half as tall, a miniature cinema. In front of it, dozens of ancient men and women sat slumped in wheelchairs as ornate as his own. The occupants were mottle–skinned and half–bald, jaws agape. The light of the screen flickered in their wet eyes.

“I… ” The word came out in a whisper. “I want… ” He wanted to see the doctor, but fear closed his throat. 

The smiling brother ignored him. “Attention everyone,” he called. “Don’t want to miss the celebration.” His voice was waxy with sarcasm. The brothers parked Mr. Jones in the center of the room, then set about positioning the other patients around him. Some of the old ones cried out, twisting to keep the screen in sight. Others were asleep, or simply inert.

The stone–faced brother pushed a large, wheeled cart into the circle. Atop the cart was a white cake bristling with dozens and dozens of black–topped candles, so many that Mr. Jones could not quite read the words on the cake’s surface. Was that his name? It seemed to be the wrong one entirely.

The silent brother produced a match, flicked it alight with a long fingernail. He began to touch the tops of the candles, moving unhurriedly, lighting row upon row. The match somehow never gave out or dwindled. The cake disappeared beneath a rippling expanse of flame.

“How many?” Mr. Jones asked. His voice seemed strange to him, like a rake dragged across a cave floor.

“Oh, yer but a lad of five–and–twenty,” the smiling brother said. He clapped a hand on Mr. Jones’ shoulder. “Times twelve. Give or take.” He laughed hard.

Mr. Jones pictured twenty–five twelve–tone octaves, climbing higher and higher. He could not be that old. No human being could.

“Won’t you honor us, Jonesy?” the orderly asked. “You used to love to sing.”

Mr. Jones shook his head.

“Aw, don’t be shy. Bang a gong.”

Mr. Jones was surprised to see a young face in the audience. The teenager stood at the back of the room, watching the proceedings: hands in black jeans, a swoop of black hair streaked with orange hanging over one eye, a scarlet mouth. The teenager caught Mr. Jones’s eye and nodded.

The smiling orderly turned Mr. Jones in his chair and shook his head in exaggerated disappointment. “All right, then.” He bellowed to the crowd, “The rest of you, then! One and two!” He beat his arms in the air, and a few of the elderly patients began to wheeze and squeak like a carousel winding up. The song stuttered to a halt before they got to his name. Mr. Jones scanned the room, but the teenager had disappeared.

The brothers wheeled the patients back to their spots before the gigantic screen. Mr. Jones watched the cake burn.

Finally they came for him. The smiling brother inserted Mr. Jones into the front row of the audience, only a few feet from the screen. “Best seat in the house for our birthday boy,” he said. A huge plastic dial was set to C–15. There were thousands of other channels.

The orderlies left him there. He was relieved to be away from them, but he did not want to look at the screen. He’d watched enough TV in his life.

Yet. Images danced to get his attention. Thin young men in white suits, old–fashioned sailors, fought each other in a dance hall. As he watched, the figures became three dimensional, and the TV became not a cinema but a stage.

Someone behind him touched him on the shoulder, and a low, soft voice spoke into his ear. “You’re not that old. Remember that.” He looked up, then leaned out to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of the speaker, but he—or she—was already gone.

The old man next to him laughed. “Look at those cavemen go,” he said.

Mr. Jones waited for the voice to return. The images, however, kept drawing his eyes to the screen. Soon he was nodding, smiling. He forgot about his fear of the orderlies, and the uneaten cake, and the teenager with the orange–black hair.

The images never ceased. There was no plot that he could sense, no order to the scenes, yet still he could not look away. He did not know how long he watched. He only came to himself when the orderlies pulled him away from the screen to wheel him to a small bedroom in another wing of the building.

The walls were gray. Above the bed, a picture of a spaceship hung at an odd angle.

“See?” the smiling orderly asked. “Home sweet home.” He tugged the blanket almost to Mr. Jones’s chin. Thick fingers caressed the wrinkled skin of his neck. “Warm as gravy.”

“When can I see the doctor?” Mr. Jones asked.

“That’s not the question you should be asking,” the smiling one said. “No, you should be asking yourself, how did I get in this position? Third time’s the charm, Jonesy. Twice’t you took the hard left turn out of here and twice’t we brought you back. The third one, now… ” His grin was yellow. “… the third time they’re going to take yer word for it. Them’s the rules.”

The silent brother flicked out the lights. The brothers stood in the white rectangle of the doorway for a long moment. Finally they closed the door.

Mr. Jones lay in the dark. The pillow, the sheets, smelled strongly of bleach. What did the orderly mean, hard left turn? Memories tumbled past his eyes, but he was unsure if these were images from his life or things he had seen on the screen. A tuxedo shirt draped over metal chair. A long–haired man, pale and naked to the waist, turning over white cards, one by one, each card inscribed with a sentence. And this: a dark–skinned woman with beautiful cheekbones lying in a bed, naked, one knee cocked, smiling at him. He longed for all the stories behind these images.

There were no windows in the room, but Mr. Jones felt that many hours had passed since they put him to bed. The wheelchair was against the wall, four feet way. He slid the bedclothes off him, and then put one foot to the floor, then the next. He leaned forward, one hand braced against the headboard. His thighs trembled as they took his weight.

The orderlies caught him as he was moving toward the chair. Standing was against the rules. But walking? That was right out.

“Watch yourself, Jonesy,” the smiling orderly said as they set him into the chair. “We won’t have your shenanigans.”

They wheeled him out to the solarium, where the other patients were already waiting. Again Mr. Jones asked for the doctor.

“No special treatment,” the smiling orderly said. “You know better than that.”

Mr. Jones regarded the screen. He didn’t know what time it was. The lights were low.

He leaned back.

A soft voice awoke him. No, that was the wrong word. He was awake, but dreaming. Or perhaps the TV was dreaming for him.

“The Moon boys are away,” the voice said. It was low and sweet. “Care to spend some time together?”

“Who are you?” he said.

The figure leaned around the wing of the chair, bending low to look him with kohl–rimmed eyes through a curtain of orange and black hair. The thin, powdered face belonged to a child not much older than sixteen. “Call me Jeanie.”

Jeanie steered the chair out of the pack and around the other side of the huge screen. There was another hallway there he didn’t remember seeing before. But then again, he remembered so little. This teenager pushing him had been watching him from across the room yesterday, he was almost sure of it.

This corridor’s wooden floor was weather–streaked and smelled of mildew. It seemed to stretch on forever.

“Where are we going?” Mr. Jones asked. “Out?” He could not hide the eagerness in his voice. Perhaps it was panic.

“I don’t have the permission sets for that,” Jeanie said. “I’m just a visitor, here to see an ancestor—ostensibly.” The accent was American. He was afraid of Americans.

“You’re a spy,” he said.

Jeanie cackled with delight.

The teenager pushed his chair through French doors, and then they were outside, in a winter’s garden, the chair rattling across uneven bricks. The sky was gray, heavy with mist, and the air was cool against his face. Stone planters like great funeral urns stood in rows, most empty but a few topped with brown, dying plants. Jeanie gave him a final push, nearly jolting him from his chair, and then jumped in front of him and stopped him with hands on his bony knees.

“I’ve been sent,” Jeanie said. “To rescue you.”

A low stone wall curved in front of them. Beyond the wall the ground rose steeply, so that they seemed to be at the bottom of a bowl. Leafless black trees rose up into fog. The top of the hill was invisible.

“This is the limit,” Jeanie said. “Outside, but not out. The rest is up to you.”

The rest? He wanted to go inside. He wanted the TV.

“There are people waiting for you out there,” Jeanie said. “People who remember you.”

“Who?” he asked.

“People who love you. Who know who you are.

“I…  No. I don’t want… ”

“If you stay here, you’ll die,” Jeanie said, standing with hands on hips like Peter Pan. “You’ve tried to end it a couple times already. If you do it again they won’t revive you, no matter what your mental state is. Do you understand? Those are the rules.”

The talking went on for a long time. Rules. Explanations. Technical considerations. Why was he outside? It was cold out here. The teenager filled the air with words.

A hint of movement caught his eye. He looked up the hill, into the fog. Something dark and low to the ground slipped behind a tree.

“What is it?” Jeanie said. Then: “Oh shit.” But the teenager was looking over his shoulder, at the doors they’d come through. Jeanie grabbed his hand, scrawled something there with a black pen.

“I’ll be waiting,” the teenager said, and then kissed him on the lips, quick as a kitten’s bite.

Jeanie scampered atop the wall, then vanished. Mr. Jones wanted to yell a warning. There were wild animals out there! But the door opened behind him, and he did not want to give the spy away.

“Ah, there you are,” a man said. A BBC presenter voice.

Mr. Jones put a hand against the top of one wheel, pushed down. The chair barely turned.

“Come out of the garden, Mr. Jones,” the man said. He patted Mr. Jones’ arm as if they were old friends. Perhaps they were. “You’ll catch your death in the fog.”

“You’re the doctor.”

“Why yes. Very good. Do you remember my name?”

He could not.

“Benway,” he said. “Doctor Benway. At your service. I understand that you want to talk with me now, rather than waiting for our usual?”

Mr. Jones nodded.

“Absolutely not a problem. I have an hour free. Would you like to go inside?”

The doctor’s office was everything Mr. Jones expected, and more so. A set decorator for a 1962 film about a psychiatrist would have made no alterations.

“I hope you understand my concern,” Dr. Benway said. “If you feel at all…  out of sorts, I hope you know that my door is always open.” He made a show of sucking on his cigarette. Mr. Jones stared at the tip of it. He did not remember being a smoker, but he felt as if he must have been one; in fact, he might have smoked quite a lot.

The doctor said, “And are you?”

Mr. Jones looked up.

“Out of sorts?” the doctor asked.

“No, I’m…  Yes. I want to go home.”

“Home.” Dr. Benway said. “Home. That’s a tricky one.” He tapped his cigarette into a glass ashtray that was large enough to serve hors d’oeuvres. “Unfortunately, Mr. Jones, that window has closed.”

“Window?” Mr. Jones asked.

“We transferred you here just in time. A few days longer and you’d have been in no position to accept the offer. That position, of course, being six feet under.”

Mr. Jones opened his mouth in shock, then shut it.

“Apologies, apologies,” Dr. Benway said. “In a previous revival you laughed at that joke. Loved it. Still. The point is… ” He showed Mr. Jones the gap between index finger and thumb. “You nearly missed it. He who hesitates is lost. Upload–wise.”

“Upload?” Mr. Jones asked.

“A terrible term,” the doctor said. “Inadequate and inaccurate. There is no software, only hardware. Look inside the body, and where would we find this self that we are all so fond of, if not in the hard stuff? All those carefully grown patterns of neurons and synapses in your head, the web of glial cells, the millions of calcium ions loaded up and ready to spring… Oh! And not just in the frontal cortex, not even the whole brain, but down to the emotional centers in the brain stem, down into the spine, down and down and down into the hundred million neurons of the enteric nervous system—”

The doctor finally noticed Mr. Jones’ confusion.

“The gut, Mr. Jones. The so–called second brain. But why stop there? What about all those nerve pathways running hither and yon through your old body? Where do we draw the line of what must be copied, and what may be left behind? Do you see the problem?”

“He don’t, Doc.”

Mr. Jones startled in his chair like an infant. He hadn’t even heard the orderly enter the office. No, both orderlies. The Moon boys, Jeanie had called them. They slid into position on each side of the doctor like a pair of rooks.

“Never does,” the smiling one said. “Wasting yer breath.”

“No,” the doctor said. “He’s getting it. You are getting it, aren’t you, Mr. Jones? We’re making a breakthrough.”

The silent orderly stared hungrily into Mr. Jones’ eyes.

Mr. Jones looked down, and saw that there was writing on his palm. Instinctively he closed his fingers to hide it. “I want to go back to my room,” he said.

“To do what, exactly?” the smiling brother asked.

“I think what my associate means,” Dr. Benway said, “is that there’s nothing more important right now than solving the problem before us. Namely—”

“Namely that you’re fucked,” the orderly said. “Neurologically speaking.” His silent brother nodded.

The doctor raised his hands. “Not your fault, of course. Dementia is quite common in the aged, especially someone like you who is extremely…  well. Systems break down. And in your case—in the case of everyone here in the Temperance Building—we had to take you as–is. Because it’s all or nothing. There is no you that is not that which is, do you follow?”

“Please… ” Mr. Jones said.

“He ain’t following shite,” the orderly said. “This lad’s insane.”

The doctor took a breath, then seemed to mentally back up to take another run at the problem. “Even if we could tell the difference between what was ‘damage’ and what was the result of the ‘natural’ action of your mind—which we can’t, not with anything approaching certainty—we could not return you to some idealized ‘true self’—because who can say what that would be? Only you, Mr. Jones. You have to give your permission for us to operate on you. And not just vaguely—you must understand the risks. The laws are quite strict on this matter.”

Operate? Mr. Jones thought.

“Get to the conundrum, Doc,” the orderly said. “Then we can get him off your hands.”

The doctor frowned, but even he seemed unwilling to make eye contact with the orderly. “The conundrum, as my associate puts it, is this: what if the state of your brain is the very thing that prevents you from giving your permission?”

He opened his hands as if displaying the final card in a magic trick.

The three of them watched Mr. Jones.

They want inside my head, he thought.

Dr. Benway recognized his distress. “You don’t have to decide now,” he said. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”

Mr. Jones pretended to watch the screen. But then, as soon as he felt the orderlies had left the room, he squeezed shut his eyes. He kept his eyes closed for the rest of the day, until the orderlies came to move him back to his room.

“We know what you’re up to, Jonesy.” The smiling orderly leaned in so that his lips grazed Mr. Jones’ ear. He whispered: “You want out.

The orderly straightened and waggled his eyebrows. “Show him, brother.”

The silent one stood on the other side of the bed. In his hand was a huge kitchen knife, the blade tall as a head of cabbage, hefty enough to cleave bone.

“I’d ask if you recognize it,” the smiler said. “But of course you don’t. And you’ll never get your hands on it again. Fool us once, Jonesy. You ain’t getting out of here that easy.”

Mr. Jones lay in bed, watching the strip of light beneath the door, waiting for the Moon boys to return. They were right, he was filled with an urge to flee—but to where? There was something he needed to do, but he could not recall what it was.

He was afraid of falling asleep. Finally he eased out of the bed and stood, one hand braced against the headboard. His legs held him.

He made his way in the dark to the doorway, flipped on the lights. He blinked against the glare.

He opened his palm. In shaky letters was written: MIDNIGHT GARDEN.

At first he could not remember who had done this to him. Then he remembered the garden, and the girl—or was it a boy?—with the black and orange hair, the red lips. Little Jeanie. But when was midnight? There were no clocks here.

Then he thought, If there are no clocks, then now is as likely to be the right time as any. He pushed his cold feet into his slippers and pulled on the purple jacket.

He opened the door an inch, listening for footsteps. Then he pushed the door a fraction wider, and saw that the corridor was empty. Which way was the solarium? Left? Right? Doors stretched away in both directions.

He chose a direction, instantly forgetting which one he’d picked. He dragged a hand along the wall to steady himself, lifting it as he passed each doorway, hopscotching past number after golden number. At some point he must have forgotten to put his hand back to the wall because he was walking steadily now. As soon as he realized this, he tried to forget that, too. The trick was to pretend that he was not so old, not such a cripple. He was not dying. No, these were his golden years.

The light globes on the walls around him began to sputter. He stopped, looked back. The hallway behind him had become banded with dark, half the lights out now. Far down the hallway, something animal–like slipped into one of the deeper shadows. He glimpsed gleaming fur and red eyes.

He wished he had the orderly’s knife. He had wielded it once, evidently. Why hadn’t he hidden it for himself where he could find it?

The lights in his section of the hall suddenly went out. He forced himself to move faster. Then all the lights went out, up and down the hall. He froze, his heart drumming in his chest. He turned in the dark, trying to adjust to the gloom.

Then something touched his arm. He cried out and jerked away.

A face leaned close to him. Jeanie said, “Look at you, walking.” The teenager tugged his jacket a little tighter.

“There’s something coming,” he said.

“We’re close,” the child said.

Somehow Jeanie knew the way through the dark. A pair of doors opened and then they were outside, in the garden. The teenager helped him up onto the low wall, then said, “You have to step down yourself. That’s the rules.”

Permissions. Rules. He remembered her trying to explain, but did not remember the explanations.

He stepped down, stumbled, but managed to stay upright. He expected some sign that he’d crossed a barrier, some inner chime or outer alarm, but there was nothing.

Jeanie held him as he struggled to get his legs to move up the hill. He breathed hard in the wet air. At any moment he expected pursuers—the animal he’d glimpsed, or the brothers—to appear behind them. But then the fog enveloped them and he lost sight of the Temperance Building. He walked with Jeanie’s hand in his, pulling him onward, until suddenly they broke through the fog.

Suddenly they were walking on a wide city street. The many lanes were empty of cars, and all the streetlights were dead. The only light came from a hazy moon drooping between black skyscrapers, and from a scattering of small fires burning in high windows. The tops of the buildings were jagged as if they’d been chewed off.

Mr. Jones looked at Jeanie in confusion. “What happened?”

“It’s Hunger City,” Jeanie said, as if he would recognize the name. As if it would explain everything. “Do you like it?” Jeanie was not being sarcastic, but proud.

Mr. Jones thought, How could anyone like this? It was some hell version of Manhattan. A ghost town. He got a sudden flash of the real New York: the densely packed streets, young people in bright clothes, and the cars, so many shining cars. He knew by the feel of it that this was an old memory, imprinted on the brain of a very young man.

“This is awful,” he said.

Jeanie seemed disappointed. “We thought it would trigger something for you.”

The teenager led him down the block. Mr. Jones heard things moving behind them, paws tapping across the rubble. But Jeanie, whose ears must have been better than his own, said nothing, and so he said nothing.

Jeanie led him across expanse of cracked concrete, toward a glass and steel monolith rising up behind it. As they entered its deeper shadow, Mr. Jones glimpsed red eyes in his peripheral vision. He turned, but there was nothing there.

“Watch out.” Jeanie put a hand on his chest, pushing him back, and something heavy slapped the ground a few feet in front of them. A coil of rope, dropped from above.

He looked up. The rope trailed down the side of the building, twitching like something alive. Another shape dropped toward the street.

“Here he comes,” Jeanie said. “A regular Tarzie.”

It was a man, his body twisting around the rope as he slid down it. He hit the ground in a crouch. His face was painted with a white grinning skull.

“This is Jack,” Jeanie said.

Jack rose, extended a hand.

“Your hands are smoking,” Mr. Jones said.

“So they are,” the man said, grinning. He clapped his palms and ashes puffed the air. “I just want to say, I’m dead honored. Your work means so much to me. Obviously.” Despite the Halloween paint, he managed to look sheepish.

“Were you followed?” Jack asked Jeanie.

“Yes,” Mr. Jones said.

“The Moon boys are back in the Temperance Building,” Jeanie said.

“They’ll figure out he’s missing soon enough,” Jack said. “Better hurry.” He whistled, and figures began to move out of the shadows of the building. A skeletally thin man in a 19th century bathing suit; a limbless woman, wriggling across the ground; a dwarf, less than three feet tall, in an immaculate tuxedo. A larger figure loomed out of the dark—a man, almost eight feet tall, naked except for the brass tubes that wrapped his body. The bell of a sousaphone sat on his left shoulder like a second head.

Mr. Jones backed away from them. “What do you want? I don’t have anything.”

He felt a tug on his jacket and turned. A pair of bald–headed school girls, joined at hip and shoulder, grinned shyly at him. They had two outside arms, and in each they held a single drum stick.

Jack smiled. “Isn’t it obvious? We want to be your band.”

“No,” Mr. Jones said. “Never again.”

“Oh, we think you’ll change your mind,” Jack said, and the freaks—Mr. Jones could only think of them as such—burst into laughter.

Jeanie gripped his hand. “Let me show you the body.”

Jeanie led him into the building, a vast space hollowed out by destruction. The teenager guided him over tumbled heaps of cement, under drooping ceiling tiles and loops of electrical cables, around the black mouths of unguarded elevator shafts. Most of the band stayed outside, but Jack and a few others followed them inside, keeping to a discreet distance. The school girls giggled in anticipation.

The body lay on a metal slab, surrounded by candles. It was a man, naked and pale, with red–orange hair streaked with black. The body sparkled in the light as if it were dusted with diamonds.

“It’s for you,” Jeanie said. “A birthday gift.”

Mr. Jones stepped forward. The face of the naked man was beautiful and alien. Red, glittering paint divided the face in a lightning jag. Mr. Jones touched an index finger to the face, ran a finger along that red stripe. He rubbed finger to thumb, feeling the grit.

Jack appeared on the other side of the table. “Let me show you how to get in.” He touched the head of the body, where the bright hair met the pale skin, and pressed down. The skull parted, then opened like a flower. There was nothing inside.

“Now you,” Jack said.

“Get away from me,” Mr. Jones said.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jeanie said to him in a soft, reassuring voice, and then touched his forehead, directly above his nose. He felt himself tipping back.

Someone had placed a chair beneath him; he thumped into it. The dwarf in the tuxedo stepped back, nodding as if to say, You’re welcome.

“Open your hands,” Jeanie said, and he did as he was told. The child reached up, above his line of sight, and then brought down a glowing, pulsing object. It was shaped like a brain, but it seemed made of neon. A ribbon of light was connected to the base of the brain and ran past his cheek to, he supposed, his own skull.

“This is your noetic module,” Jeanie said.

It was so beautiful. He touched the top of it, between two glowing folds, and it seemed to expand in his vision, like a microscope zooming in. (But it did not feel like a microscope, it felt like a telescope, bringing distant stars into focus.) Lights flashed, but there were vast sections that lay in shadow.

“It’s only a representation,” Jeanie said. “But also an interface. Do you understand? You can go all the way down to the bottom—”

“Atomic even,” Jack said.

“—of the acquired substrate.”

Jack squatted beside him. “Just slip it into the new body. The metaphor will actualize the transfer, as well as perform other updates to the module. We built it to fix some of your current, uh, difficulties.”

Mr. Jones frowned, trying to remember what Dr. Benway had said. “But the new body won’t be me,” he said.

“That’s not a bad thing,” Jack said. “You’re a mess.”

“It will be mostly you,” Jeanie said. “The rest we’ve modeled with everything we know about you, your true nature.”

“Sure, there were disagreements,” Jack said. “Some of us insisted on looking to your later work.”

“The dance albums,” Jeanie said. “Regrettable.”

“But in the end we all agreed—this is the you you’re meant to be.”

Jack held out his hand, and the small man in the tuxedo handed him a gleaming pair of scissors. “Once you’ve inserted the module, you’ve got to cut the connection. We can’t do you it for you.”

“Permissions,” Mr. Jones said.

“That’s right!” Jack said. “Exactly right.”

“And what happens to… me?” He touched his sternum.

You are in the module. But this old body will just… poof.”

But Mr. Jones was no longer listening to them.

He was gazing deeply now, so that he seemed to be inside the module, the light surrounding him. His thoughts flashed by, delighting him. Then he became aware of the thought about his own thoughts, and laughed. He was himself watching himself… and this thought, too, came under his scrutiny… and this thought… 

He felt himself lurch, spinning into freefall. The beams of lights coursing past him slowed, became dollops of mercury. So beautiful… , he thought (and saw this thought, too, slipping past him like a spangled parade float)…  but so constrained. The more he looked, the more he noticed the frayed connections, like bridges that had been sundered, and sections as dead as the ruins of Hunger City. He reached out toward a seam of black, pricked at its edge… 

He lay on his side, the cement floor rough against his ribs. What had happened? He’d been inside the noetic module, learning it. But now it lay glowing beside him, still tethered by a thread of light to the unseen socket in his head.

Someone was screaming. Bodies all around the room were in motion. He couldn’t understand what was happening. Then he realized: the Moon boys had found them.

The smiling brother held a length of pipe that he might have picked up in the debris. He swung it in the direction of the giant, forcing him to step back. The big man moved awkwardly in his suit of brass tubes.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” the orderly said, and laughed. He jumped forward and swung again, striking one of the tubes with a clonk. “I revoke your privileges,” the orderly said calmly, and the giant disappeared in a flash of light. The tubes clanged to the floor.

A dozen feet away, the silent orderly held Jack by his throat. The great kitchen knife, the weapon he’d shown him back in the Temperance Building, was in the brother’s hand. He thrust it into Jack’s gut, and Jack made a sound like a door creaking open. The orderly grimaced—it was the first change of expression Mr. Jones had seen cross the man’s face—and twisted the knife a quarter turn.

Jack… shattered. A thousand pieces clattered into the dark.

Mr. Jones sat up in horror. The members of the band were charging toward them. And in the dark, skulking outside the perimeter, were the wolf–shapes that had been following him. They were not engaged in the fight, but circled around it, waiting.

“Damn it,” a voice said. It was the tiny man in the tuxedo. He was staring at the spot where Jack had disappeared. “This is all going to hell.”

The silent orderly turned and nodded toward the dwarf, as if inviting him to dance.

The man in the tuxedo smoothed down his oil–black hair, straightened his cuffs. “Well then,” he said.

He took two quick steps and threw himself at the orderly, yelling with surprising savagery. He tackled the man at his thighs, sending him stumbling backward.

Mr. Jones heard a moan. On the other side of the metal slab, out of sight of the orderlies, Jeanie lay on his—or her—back. Still alive, but there was something wrong with the child’s skin. It fizzed with light, like lasers turned back on themselves. Jeanie had been wounded.

A voice behind him said, “Making love to your ego, Jonesy?”

The smiling orderly, done with the giant, strode toward him, twirling the pipe in one hand like a batsman warming up. “These peoploids must have taught you that trick. But you can’t just be waving yer old N.M. around where it might get hurt.”

There was a double shriek. The bald girls lurched on too many legs to throw themselves in the orderly’s path. They raised their drumsticks like knives and stabbed at his face.

They are heroes, Mr. Jones thought. Risking everything for me.

He tucked the module under one arm, then pulled himself up. The pale, lovely body waited for him on the slab, the skull open like a cradle.

Just slip it in, Jack had said. Actualize the metaphor.

He could become someone else. This was a world in which all forms were malleable. These freaks had fashioned themselves into shapes that would please him. They’d built an entire city for him. And this shell they’d designed for him, this beautiful diamond–flecked man, was exactly what they dreamed him to be. It would make him into their dream. He wouldn’t be who he was now, but he could escape. He could beat them.

The girls screamed in harmony, the tones a third apart. Mr. Jones looked back just as the orderly drove his pipe between the twins, tearing them in half. “Revoked!” he shouted. The bodies fell in opposite directions like a split tree. They hit the floor and each vanished in a spray of sparks.

Mr. Jones stifled a shout of fear. The orderly winked at him. “Come here, Jonesy. Time to get back home. Yer missing all the good shows.”

Mr. Jones lunged for the new body. But the silent orderly was already there, squatting obscenely over it. The kitchen knife was in his hands. He swiveled his head to regard Mr. Jones.

The old man realized he wanted nothing to do with the body. It was just another type of trap. Designed by those who loved him, but a trap nonetheless.

“Go ahead,” Mr. Jones said. “I don’t want it.”

The orderly shrugged, then plunged the knife into the body’s chest. It did not twitch or react. There was no blood.

“No unauthorized transfers,” the smiling orderly said. “Them’s the rules.”

Mr. Jones had already backed away. He held the module in one hand, and the fingers of his other hand were pressed into one of the creases.

“Careful now,” the orderly said. “You don’t want to be fiddling with that.”

Mr. Jones plunged his hand wrist–deep into the module. Yet in another way, he was deeper than that. All the way in, submerged and surrounded, where thoughts became languorous as dripping mercury. He’d already learned a great deal about the flaws and dead zones in his mind. Now he was eager to make repairs.

The silent orderly jumped onto Mr. Jones’s back. They went down together, and Mr. Jones’s hand came free of the module with a cartoon pop!

Mr. Jones laughed. The sound was low and came from far back in his throat. “Wham bam,” he said.

The smiling orderly hesitated. “Okay now, Jonesie,” he said. “Time to put that brain back where you found it.”

Mr. Jones nodded. He reached above his head, then set the noetic module into the cavity, as if crowning himself. His skull accepted the module and enfolded around it. The orderlies bent to lift the old man, but he raised a hand to stop them. He got to his feet by himself. His smile was one they had not seen before.

“What have you done, Mr. Jones?” the orderly asked.

“That’s not my name,” the old man said. He slipped off the smoking jacket, let it fall to the ground. Mist rose from the neck of his pajamas.

The skin of his face began to crackle and fall away like buckling ice, exposing a new surface the color of indigo. His eyes shifted color: one to green, the other to blue. His body assumed a new shape, and the pajamas slipped from him.

He’d lost memories, he was almost sure of it, but other, older memories that had been irretrievable for the old man were now accessible to him. He remembered some of the things that belonged to him. He remembered the dogs.

“Mr. Jones—” the orderly said, but his smile was faltering. Wolf shapes padded out of the dark, more than a dozen animals, their red eyes fixed on the Moon boys. As they stepped into the circle of candles, the light glittered on their diamond collars.

“Revoked,” the indigo man said. The dogs leaped.

Jeanie gazed up at him through light–splintered eyes, still trying to maintain cohesion.

“You changed,” Jeanie said in wonder. “All on your own.”

“Is there anything you want me to do for you?” he asked.

Jeanie smiled shyly. The indigo man kneeled beside the teenager and placed his lips against Jeanie’s. He allowed a bit of deep purple to smear against the child’s own lipstick.

Jeanie sighed. “This body you’re wearing—I don’t recognize it. Is it from ’72? ’74? Something in the 80s I missed?”

“Oh little Jeanie,” he said, and rested the teenager’s head gently against the rocks. “When have I ever repeated myself?”

Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory writes genre–mixing novels, stories, and comics. His most recent work is the young adult novel Harrison Squared and the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which won the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards, and was a finalist for the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus awards. A TV show based on the book is in development at the SyFy channel. His novels include Afterparty, an NPR and Kirkus best fiction book of 2014; Raising Stony Mayhall; The Devil’s Alphabet; and the Crawford–Award–winning Pandemonium. Many of his short stories are collected in Unpossible and Other Stories.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.