The Last Dance
“You know, there were rumors that Skinner raised his own kid in an operant conditioning chamber.” Leslie was always full of trivia like this. In fairness, the topic is legitimately interesting. But of all the narrow interests to have, 1960s behaviorism makes for some truly weird conversations.
“Not true of course. He built what amounted to a fancy crib that would automate certain childcare tasks. But his work was controversial, and his detractors weren’t above slander.” I thought it was going to be a date. That’s egg on my face. Unless Leslie’s idea of a date is touring the dusty abandoned behaviorism lab of her university.
I wouldn’t put it past her. She really lives for her work. Although postgrads are more like indentured servants than conventional paid employees. “The experiments he was best known for involved the operant conditioning of pigeons. If you were ever shown any short films about B.F. Skinner in school, that’s probably what you saw. Row after row of little transparent plastic cages like these with pigeons in them, hopping, twirling, and eating food pellets out of a little dispenser.”
In fact I did vaguely recall something like that. It failed to capture my attention at the time but I now found myself scouring my memory for any details that I did retain, for the purpose of impressing Leslie. “Oh uh, yeah!” I blurted out. “Training the birds to perform specific tricks by giving them food every time they do it over and over. To create an association for them.”
She beamed at me and I experienced one of those rare epiphenal moments when I realize my education actually benefits me from time to time. Other than the basic math involved in calculating change for people buying coffee. Look at that degree pay for itself, huh? She took the moment of silence as an invitation to continue.
“The really interesting part was when he set the dispenser to give them food pellets at random intervals. If the pigeon happened to be doing some action when food came out like bobbing its head, it would mistakenly infer a causal association, and begin to repeatedly perform that action hoping for more food pellets.
Of course another eventually came, reinforcing the association. But if by chance it was doing something else, like spinning, it would add that to its ever-growing routine. Better safe than sorry! And because pellets always came eventually, it continued to develop a more and more complex ritual that it believed was causing the pellets to be released.”
“Like a rain dance.” I muttered, staring contemplatively at the empty wall of cages. “Exactly!” she replied, “or like prayer.” I furrowed my brow. “Hey now, that’s going a bit far.” She giggled and brushed it off. It was one of her few qualities I didn’t like. Unless you really got in her face about it, she usually couldn’t tell if she’d offended you and would carry on like it was no big deal. Like you were silly to feel anything.
Since I’m a sucker for a pretty face and a high IQ, I let her get away with it. I’m no doormat, but my “lower brain” does have significant veto power over the upper one. The hall of cages creeped me out, and I said so. She shrugged, having shown me what she wanted to, and we headed for the parking lot.
“How does dim sum sound?” Unfamiliar, I thought. But probably tasty, so soon we were barreling down the freeway towards whatever sort of restaurant serves it. Leslie drives like a maniac. She shuts down any complaints about it by pointing out that she’s never been in an accident. “Statistically, that means you’re due”. She wasn’t amused.
I remembered what dim sum is shortly after we were inside. In fact I’d had it before and at the time thought it was less of a meal and more of an extended snacking session. Over the various edible odds and ends, we discussed probability. She’d taken exception to my little barb in the car and, as is her tendency, overthinking it to absurd extremes.
“You know I was just teasing” I interjected. A flash of recognition. But she pretended that she knew. “Of course, I just think that’s a good jumping off point for some stimulating discussion. Now, do the odds of a collision really increase over time?
If you consider my history of driving as one long event, certainly. But aren’t the odds the same each time I drive to campus in the morning? Then there’s the question of whether or not I’m simply living in the continuity without any crashes.”
I vaguely recalled some TV show from the 90s about a bunch of college students jumping through wormholes to parallel Earths. I judiciously decided to keep it to myself as she’d never reacted well to pop culture references in the past.
Still, the way her eyes sparkled as she animatedly described the ‘many worlds interpretation’ to me was releasing all kinds of endorphins in my brain. I saw no reason to interrupt, even though she had a sizable chunk of fried shrimp stuck to her chin.
“So it may well be that every time I make some uncharacteristic decision while driving, it causes my continuity to diverge from the rest. Just because quantum uncertainty in my brain made me do something none of the other Leslies did.”
I mulled that one over. Everything I knew about the subject came from stoned viewings of Michio Kaku’s TV show. It took some work to formulate a question that wouldn’t betray my ignorance of the subject, while also challenging her somewhat.
“Is there anything you could do that would cause your continuity to re-converge?” She stared. It turned out to be one of those questions that was smarter than I realized. Not sure whether to be proud of that, to be honest.
But I was on a roll, so I pressed my luck. “For that matter, if you were to deliberately create conditions in a limited area identical to what’s happening there in a different continuity, would that cause the two continuities to converge only at that point?”
I wanted to impress her. Not render her mute. She spent the rest of the date doing napkin math. I’d sold her on our first date by singing Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World” from the lawn outside her sorority house as she looked on from the second story window.
Corny to the point of fructose toxicity, but it did the trick. She goes in for that stuff even more than I do. It’s really hit and miss though. I never know what I’ll do or say that will delight her. It’s like Narnia, you can’t find it by trying to, you gotta stumble across it.
“You know, this is why I go out with you. You always ask the most interesting questions. I guess I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not even sure how anybody could properly devise an experiment to test that idea. I might steal it from you and write up a grant proposal.” I was all for it until she clarified that she was joking. Just about the grant proposal, I think.
I didn’t get into her pants but nonetheless considered it a successful evening. My feelings were definitely growing stronger but at the same time more confusing. It wasn’t yet clear to me how we fit together. What kind of dynamic we could build.
I’m no caveman, I’m perfectly comfortable with a girlfriend substantially smarter than me. But sometimes it left me wondering if she couldn’t do better, and if in some ways I wasn’t wasting her time.
I brought up Youtube when I got home and started binge watching stuff related to 1960s behaviorism. If I could see in it what Leslie saw I figured we might mesh better. When I next looked at the time, it was 3:49AM. Leslie would make some cute remark about the passage of time being relative to the observer. I filed that one away to use next time we got dinner.
If I hadn’t glanced back at the screen as I reached with the cursor to click the little X that closes the browser, I would’ve missed it. I nearly did anyway because it didn’t really register until I was halfway to my bed.
Subconscious confusion boiled over into the conscious. Wait a fucking second. Did I really see that? No, I’m just tired. Right? I deliberated whether it was worth the time and effort to watch the last few seconds of the video.
Curiosity won that battle. I plunked my boxer clad buns down on the cold metal folding chair I’d been using ever since a hefty friend managed to collapse my nice leather office chair to bits on a recent visit.
The remains still sat out by the dumpster, awaiting somebody who could find a use for such a thing. It was a hassle to find the exact video until I remembered the browser kept track of my recently visited URLs.
The footage played back more or less as I remembered. I expected to discover I’d imagined the anomaly. But no, there it was again. I blinked, rewound the video by a few seconds and watched again. The pigeon in the last cage in the row hopped, twirled, bobbed its head, hopped, scratched the ground, hopped, twirled….then vanished.
There was no hiccup in the video to suggest a cut. Skinner kept talking in the foreground without any discernible jump or interruption. The pigeon just disappeared. Over and over I rewound the video to watch the last few seconds. Then I scoured the comments for any mention of it. I was evidently the only person to notice.
Unsurprising given how few views the video had. Groundbreaking experiments lose to headbanging black metal kittens and narrated video game playthroughs in the market of passing interest. I watched every other video I’d been through looking for the same thing. It only occurred in the one video. Why? What set that pigeon apart from the rest?
On a whim I wrote down the actions it performed prior to vanishing. Then watched the other pigeons frame by frame looking for any who did the exact same dance. When 8am arrived, eyes bloodshot, hands shaking, I was finally satisfied it was unique. That was the only unique thing about it that was apparent in the video anyway.
I wracked my brain trying to determine what if anything it could mean as I stumbled to bed. I double checked my phone and thanked God that I didn’t have work today before collapsing in a heap and losing consciousness.
My dreams were varied and bizarre. Endless rows of cages stretching to infinity, warping around in a sort of kaleidoscopic flux. A pigeon was contained in each, performing a different dance. Some were breakdancing. Others doing the waltz. I woke up at 5 that evening, feeling rested and inspired.
I downloaded a plugin for capturing Youtube videos and saved the video to a folder I resolved I’d use for everything related to this investigation. That was priority one, as if it were taken offline or something I’d have nothing to show anyone I wanted to convince of any of this. Or myself. Without that video I wondered if, after a long enough time, I wouldn’t just convince myself I’d imagined it and get on with my life.
I should’ve. But it’s like the hanging thread which unravels the sweater. The one you cannot help but tug on despite knowing damn well you shouldn’t. I briefly considered showing this to Leslie. After all it was something concerning her pet interest that she didn’t yet know about. I doubted there was any gift she’d appreciate more.
At the same time I feared she might think I was being foolish. That she'd dismiss the anomaly as something to do with how the video was recorded, a post-processing prank or some other mundane explanation. Maybe that really was it? Something in me nonetheless drove me to tug that thread.
The first stab at it was a Wikipedia binge on quantum teleportation. I couldn’t understand any of it and before long I was on a page about how sailboats are made without fully understanding how that happened. So I searched for information on rituals involving dance. Rain dances, fertility dances, dances to raise the dead. Nothing jumped out at me.
Until I clicked onto a ridiculously dated website about Samhain. It was an archived copy of what had once been a Geocities site so a lot of the links didn’t work and it was littered with animated gifs which had at best a tenuous relation to the topic of the page. Straining my eyes to read the purple text on the black repeating starfield background, I began to recognize that this was what I’d been looking for.
Samhain is believed by Celts to be a special, liminal time when our world is closest to the world of spirits such that they can more easily pass through. I corroborated this on other websites to make sure it wasn’t just the 1994 ravings of some isolated lunatic and found it was accurate, at least with respect to Celtic beliefs. However the site mentioned something I found nowhere else. A ritual for piercing the membrane between our world and the next….which included a dance.
A medieval illustration depicted some crudely drawn robed fellow performing something like a pirouette atop an elaborate geometric glyph on the ground, which the caption said was drawn with charcoal. At the points where the inset triangle, square, pentagon and hexagon touched the outer edge of the circle which contained them all, there were small red candles.
It looked like what Hollywood led me to believe was how you go about summoning demons and other otherworldly creatures from the realms they inhabit. Possibly the same ritual, inverted? For bringing them here, instead of sending yourself there. I smiled as I imagined some nightmarish eldritch abomination summoned at a bad time, appearing atop the symbol in a bathtub, clutching a soapy loofa.
Aha! There it is. “Ritual instructions”. Only upon clicking it I got a white screen with black text reading “Page removed from archive due to copyright claim.” I raised an eyebrow. How does one copyright a ritual? I felt I had enough to show someone now without being dismissed outright. But could I really go to Leslie with it? She didn’t go in for this sort of stuff.
As there was nobody else I felt comfortable discussing it with, I texted her and arranged to meet for lunch. This time my choice, which is almost always huge burritos.
She never eats more than half but I’m only too happy to finish the rest. Seating inside was all taken, as it often is since my preferred burrito joint is a little hole in the wall. It was a nice day though, the fresh air somehow intensified my appetite.
“Alright, this is gonna seem pretty out there. And really it’s just a what-if.” She furrowed her brow, immediately setting about trying to predict where I was going with this. I pulled out my phone and showed her the pigeon video, skipping to the last ten seconds and directing her to watch the one in the far cage. I studied her face as she cradled the phone in her hands.
Her eyes widened. “See?!” I exclaimed. “Fucking weird, right?” She rewound a few seconds and watched again, and again. As I did before her. She asked if anyone else noticed it right before she thought to check the comments.
She continued to even after I told her nobody else had. I knew better than to interpret it as distrust or rudeness, she just confirms everything for herself as a matter of principle.
I’d found something that intrigued her. It was difficult not to feel pleased with myself. She looked so beautiful like this, wavy auburn hair tumbling down her shoulders, freckled face scrunched up in deep contemplation.
I actually preferred her in glasses but she’d recently taken to wearing contacts and was talking seriously about getting laser surgery. I dreaded it. A face like hers is perfectly framed by a sharp set of glasses.
“Well, I don’t see any hiccup in the video. Off the bat, I’m not really sure what the deal is. Occam’s Razor applies, though. There’s any number of things more likely than a teleporting pigeon.” I deflated somewhat.
But really, the discovery served its purpose. I thought that would be the end of it until she told me she wanted to take me to speak with someone who might be able to make sense of it. There was still ample daylight left and it was an excuse to stretch out the date, so I obliged.
It was a shorter drive than I expected. When she turned into campus I initially thought she wanted to pick up something she’d forgotten. But then she pulled into one of three parking spaces in front of what proved to be a fragile antique of a house shrouded on all sides by maple trees.
“What, really? This is the place?” She nodded, then paused as if troubled by something. “Promise you won’t get mad”. I mulled that over, but stipulated that I’d like to know what it is first.
She looked sheepish. “We’re here to talk to one of my ex-boyfriends. I just want you to be cool about it.” Who, me? Of course I’d be cool about it, I said. The picture of cool. The coolest. Absolute zero.
I talk a big game but it really is primally unnerving to share a room with someone who’s gotten naked and sweaty with your girlfriend. The ego kept shouting “Start a fight with this guy” while the superego kept it barely restrained and admonished me not to show any signs of jealousy. Cool as a fucking cucumber and in no way tempted to strangle.
“This is the new guy?” I was as surprised as he was. Leslie really dated this dude? He was maybe 5’11 with blonde dreadlocks, severe stonerface and a “Sacred Geometry” T-shirt. Sandles completed the hippie ensemble although to his credit he wasn’t wearing socks with them.
He smiled warmly and reached out to shake my hand. I could see in his face he sensed how tense I was, but I forced myself to return the gesture. “I’m Zach. You’re a lucky dude, Leslie is pretty fuckin’ special. But no doubt you know that already. She was my negator for a while, one of the best I ever worked with. Last I checked she’s still in mint condition.” He grinned at her and I convulsed slightly when she grinned back.
“Zach, let’s not open that can of worms right now. You showed me some pretty impressive tricks but all of it’s conventionally explicable. Do you still use that shit to pick up girls?” The two laughed, joked and reminisced as I quietly stood there, rigid as a board. Eventually Leslie noticed and she got to the point of it all.
Zach didn’t seem nearly as phased by the video as either of us. He rewatched it once, scratched his chin, then led us to a library in the basement. We passed all manner of weird old machines on the way that he ignored my questions about. Suits me, I guess. Didn’t really want to be there longer than necessary.
The book he picked out was bound in dusty, tattered leather with a tangled insignia of some sort on the front. Taking care to blow the dust away from the two of us, he cracked it open and began searching for a particular page. Before I could ask what he was looking for, he jammed his index finger down on an illustration and grinned at me.
“I knew it. Of all the phenomena it might’ve been! The moment I saw the video, I knew. It was a long shot but now I’m as certain of it as I’ve ever been of anything.”
I cast a sidelong glance at Leslie. She explained that it was in his nature to be theatrical like this and that he’d eventually give us the bottom line if we indulged him. And he did.
The illustration very closely matched the one I’d seen on the website. When I mentioned it to him he said something baffling about how the Institute tracks down such information and has it removed under the pretense of intellectual property rights. Leslie wasn’t kidding about this guy. This book had something the website lacked, though. A step by step illustration of the dance steps.
To my disappointment it looked nothing like what I’d seen the pigeon do. Then and there I strongly considered the possibility that all of this had been a fool’s errand. But watching the video again, something occurred to me. “Leslie, do you have something to write with and some paper?”
She has this tiny little purse that somehow fits the whole universe inside of it. I’ve seen her pull stuff out of there I still can’t believe. Fuckin’ lady mysteries. But indeed, she had a notepad and bic pen.
I broke down the pigeon’s movements into categories: hops, twirls, head bobs, and scratching the ground. Then I assigned each a number from one to four, and used that to sequence the movements seen in the video.
1231412. I did the same with the movements shown in the dance instructions. A perfect match! Zach stepped in, beckoned for the notepad, and added to it. Instead of one through four, he used A through D. I didn’t understand why until he wrote out those letters in an order corresponding to the dance. ABCADAB. I slapped my forehead.
“Abra Cadabra? Alright, surely someone’s having some fun with us” I said. But he looked dead serious. “Not quite. As you’ve pointed out it’s missing some letters and therefore some dance steps. Some part of the ritual had been lost to the passage of time, even when this book was written. But it would seem that what remains is still enough to effect passage, I’d just anticipate irregularities.”
Irregularities? Passage? And here I’d been worried that Leslie would laugh at me if she thought I took any of it seriously. She’d really dated this guy? “Look, I don’t know what your game is, but I know bullshit when I smell it.”
Leslie elbowed me in the ribs. “Zach” only shrugged. “You’re the one that came to me. Ask a question, get an answer. What you do with the information is your business.”
I didn’t want him to think he’d won. Even so, I took a photo of the dance instructions with my phone before we left. My grumblings about how full of shit he was turned out to be preaching to the choir.
Yet I could tell it still irritated her on some level, so I gave it a rest. The idea of it nagged at me the whole ride home. Some aspects resonated with all that quantum probability stuff I remembered discussing with Leslie over dim sum.
Supposing you did something completely unlike almost every other instance of yourself. Something with no practical purpose, such that very few others were ever likely to do it. Something highly specific and elaborate to narrow things down, as it were. Like how adding words to a search string increases the accuracy of the results.
Until there were only two, or a few of you doing that exact thing at that exact time. Pulling those points in space and time together in perfect, synchronous unity for the duration of the ritual. The more I tried to flush it out of my brain, the more the puzzle pieces fell into place. But then, Richard Feynman once said “Take care not to fool yourself. You are the easiest one for you to fool.”
Letting go of that fear was really when the first domino fell. I might’ve still thrown it all out the window and gone on with my affairs as if none of it ever happened, if not for that.
More than the video, more than the website, more than the book, it was the simple act of committing to an experiment that really fucked me. That’s when I threw my hat over the wall, and the subsequent chain of events became inevitable.
Normally I would’ve scolded myself for buying the charcoal. How silly. A grown ass man buying ingredients for a magical ritual. And the little red candles! But I powered through my shopping list one item at a time with clarity of purpose, not yet believing but certainly determined to call Zach’s bluff at the very least.
The canvas was my white livingroom rug turned over. I figured I could mark that side of it without concern as nobody was ever likely to see it afterwards.
I held the phone in one hand, carefully studying the details of the symbol and candle placement as I went about my task. But then, I’d done everything. The cushion of time between myself and the moment of truth had finally shrunk to nothing.
I collected myself, scanned the sequence of steps on my phone, then set it down. Performing the movements in rapid succession was nerve wracking. Like when you’re ten years old and recite Bloody Mary three times before the mirror in your darkened bathroom. I doubted anything would happen but there was still this visceral feeling that something big was getting near.
Nothing happened. No transport to the spirit world. No demon appearing in my livingroom. Not a single God damned thing. I stood there mildly dumbfounded, then had a good long laugh at myself.
Why had I done all this? Over a Youtube video of pigeons, no less. The silver lining was that I could now definitively say Leslie’s ex was full of shit. This, too, might’ve been the end of it.
Months rolled by, Halloween approached and I had to move the rug in preparation to decorate the living room. I had this wicked coffee table type thing in the shape of a coffin, with a rack for booze inside when you open the top.
But when I peeled back the carpet, the markings were still there. It all came flooding back. The dancing pigeons. The book. The ritual. And now, finally, I remembered. Samhain! The most crucial part, performing the dance when the worlds are closest.
I’d long since determined it was all a wild goose chase I’d sent myself on, yet this realization restored that relentless nagging voice in the back of my mind.
The one insisting that I hadn’t really disproven it. That I had to get every detail right or there would always be lingering doubts. That agonizing splinter in my mind that absolutely wouldn’t shut up until I obeyed.
So, out came the charcoal and the candles for round two. I’d returned to my senses somewhat by this time, so unlike the prior attempt, I felt quite embarrassed by all of it. I just wanted the ordeal to be over so as to permanently silence that damned voice.
That photo turned out to still be there, buried under loads of pics I’d taken on a recent skiing trip. I went over the faded lines to darken them, ensured everything was absolutely right, then took several deep breaths. I was ready for nothing to happen. To again have a good, cleansing laugh at myself and put all of this shit away.
Instead I abruptly found myself in an altogether different apartment. I stood there quietly looking at my surroundings. I blinked. Then rubbed my eyes. Then shut them, opened them, and so forth.
Trying to wake up from it, I guess. Beneath me was a white overturned rug with the familiar symbol drawn in charcoal and the little red candles. But everything else was different.
I opened my mouth as if to scream but nothing would come out. Felt like my brain was coming apart. What happened? How did I get here? The human brain really isn’t durable enough for an immediate reversal of expectations this severe.
Thought is neurochemical. It takes time to process. I’d already invested completely in the belief that the ritual was bunk. Those neural pathways were well worn by now, to the point that I almost couldn’t comprehend my situation.
Could it be a prank? I didn’t see how that was possible. It was instantaneous. How could a person be moved into a different room, or the layout and contents of a room change too quickly for them to notice how it was done?
But the alternative was unacceptable. I kept coming back to the notion that it was an incredibly well done prank, only to continually reject it because of incompatible facts.
Finally, after overcoming the prolonged bitter opposition to it in my psyche, I resigned myself to believing what appeared most likely given what was in front of me. That I had actually somehow transported myself by doing a silly little dance atop a charcoal drawing surrounded by candles from Bed, Bath and Beyond. It truly hurt to think about.
The first thing I did, despite the hour, was to try calling Leslie. Only to find that my cell wasn’t seeing any towers. Did they not have cell service here? Where was “here” to begin with, I wondered. I searched the garishly purple and orange painted apartment for a computer.
The monitor was in portrait orientation and there was some upward facing laser dealie that tracked my hand instead of a mouse, but it worked conventionally otherwise. Typing in the URLs of the usual search engines didn’t come back with anything. Finally I typed “search engine” in the bar.
The results were all brands I’d never heard of. “Tristo”. “Brisky”. “Hoptu”. What the fuck? I picked Tristo. That’s when it really sunk in that more was amiss than my apartment decor. The few sentences on the page were in bizarre stilted english with a bunch of words I’d never seen before.
“Grimble text unto search frix with des plob separating each bristum to search fro multiple bristi.” The what now? What? When I did perform a search, most of it was useless because of the unfamiliar words and strange syntax. I did find out that there was a campus nearby. With almost the same name as Leslie’s and roughly in the same location.
Looking out the window was an even bigger trip. There was the city alright, but with architectural styles unlike anything I knew. Still recognizably skyscrapers though.
There were no visible roads or cars. Little squat bulbous vehicles scooted along on elevated guideways, sometimes two or three in a pack. The track split in places. Some of the little pods went one way, the rest went the other way.
I didn’t know what to make of any of it. But I knew I’d had enough. I returned to the charcoal glyph, referenced my phone for the steps, then performed the dance. It even surprised me the second time.
At first I thought it had returned me home. But while the layout of the apartment was recognizably my own, there were pictures of me on the wall with people I didn’t know in places I had no recollection of visiting.
My phone worked this time. But some woman I don’t know answered. I checked to make sure the number was right, and it was. Next order of business was to check the internet. It was a huge relief to find the English language more or less as I remembered it, but with gendered verbs and a couple new kinds of punctuation mark.
Given the hour, there was no way I’d be able to talk anybody into meeting with me. Even Leslie. So I turned in for the night, experiencing probably the most intense form of that strange feeling you get when you sleep in an unfamiliar bed.
It was mine in a sense, wasn’t it? If I’m here, does that mean another Zach is back in my apartment right now? Eventually my thoughts slowed, and I drifted off to sleep.
Waking up was a trip. Memories of my dreams still fresh, it took nearly a minute for the reality of my situation to dawn on me. The ritual. The strange city. This apartment. Like slowly remembering after a night of drinking what you got up to and why you’ve awoken naked in a field somewhere with a goat wearing a party hat.
I searched for what I knew of Leslie’s work info, educational history and so on. Eventually I found her, or this version of her. I called the listed number and waited as her phone rung on the other end. “Hello?” Relief washed over me upon hearing that beautiful, familiar voice. “Leslie, I was wondering if you’re free to meet for lunch. There’s something I want to talk about.”
Silence followed. Then “...I’m sorry, who is this?” I blinked. How could she not recognize me? “It’s your boyfriend.” I heard a disgusted sigh. “I don’t know what your angle is, creep, but fuck off. I don’t have a boyfriend and I hardly want one who crank calls random women.” She hung up.
I’d entertained the possibility that we’d never met in this timeline. Or dimension? Parallel universe? Whatever. It just didn’t become real for me until then. I felt gutted, and at the same time, felt silly for reacting that way. My own Leslie was still waiting for me back home, after all.
I stopped what I was doing and furrowed my brow. It hadn’t occurred to me until now that I had no idea how to get back to my own, specific Earth. Would it eventually loop around? Would I be recalled somehow?
I started to panic, and efforts to suppress it failed. The one thing I latched onto in order to avoid a full blown breakdown was the idea of contacting Zachary. As much as I loathed asking him for help. Although, if Leslie and I never dated in this timeline, she probably never dated him either.
Turns out they were married. Fucking figures. I swallowed my discomfort and plied him for information. Oddly, the embellished old house still sat where I remembered it.
He explained that when I pointed it out. “The Institute standardizes the locations of its outposts in every continuity we’ve so far discovered. That makes life easier for our operatives who do a lot of dimensional travel.”
More of the matter-of-fact delivery of what seemed before like total bullshit. It didn’t irritate me now that I’d experienced firsthand proof.
“What is it to me if somebody I know thinks I’m a lunatic, or a con artist?” he wondered aloud. “Am I going to ever meet that person again? Do I have to work with them? Are they the grand arbiter of what is real?
People like that go through life believing that the miniscule fraction of reality they’ve explored is enough to fully understand it. That they’re so blinkered is indeed a problem. For them, not for me.”
I felt like Brer Rabbit encountering the Tar Baby. If I were to engage, I would only become stuck, and increasingly tangled up in the resulting mess. I could assent to some of what he said as evidence of it now surrounded me.
But he constantly slipped in allusions to other ideas in passing that I felt certain were superstition or pseudoscience, as if to tempt me into disputing any of it. I knew that wouldn’t get me any closer to home.
“How do I get back to the specific Earth I came from?” His eyes snapped up to meet mine. He appeared alarmed. “You’re joking, right? You use your Abraxas stone. The one it shows you how to make in the same book with the ritual instructions.” I objected that there had been no such information in the book I’d seen. He went and pulled out one that looked identical.
It almost was. The sole difference proved to be the additional page on which a series of steps for building a small clay pendant were shown. An inverted triangle with the word “ABRACADABRA” at the top. Then again below it, but missing the last letter. Then again below that, missing the last two letters and so on until at the bottom there was only an “A”.
This shit again. “Oh, I understand your reaction” Zach broke in. “Abracadabra became syonymous with superstition and hokey folk magic because of abundant literature written during the Great Plague of London by numerous scholars, lamenting the fact that ignorant peasants wore counterfeit Abraxas stones from chains around their necks in the hope that it would invoke magical protection against sickness.
How that came to happen was the notice by peasants of Abraxas stones worn by gnostic scholars, for an entirely different purpose. They appropriated the practice not realizing what the Abraxas stone is actually for, simply wanting some of the apparent power wielded by gnostics to employ for their own benefit.
Even the gnostics had a skewed idea of it. It’s true you can summon more powerful beings from other dimensions, but not in the sense of a genie or demon that lives to serve a master. Just beings that evolved differently, sometimes with a more advanced understanding of medicine, physics or whatever.
Summoned is the wrong word. It’s more of an interdimensional abduction. They would often do the bidding of their abductors just because they’re frightened and want to go home, or were unusually patient and generous.”
I tried to check the information on my phone but found that what passed for Wikipedia here was a nightmare to navigate. He rattled on as if it was my problem if I didn’t take it as gospel.
“The stone itself holds no power. It is the act of making it which creates the link. That is a very long and specific series of steps, which serves the same purpose as the dance, except that you create two identical stones and leave one behind. That’s how it knows which Earth you came from.”
It? Who or what did he mean? He never stopped to explain anything. It was infuriating. “Now, there’s some heavy duty math behind this that I don’t fully understand myself, but the gist is that the steps involved in making the stone correspond to the letters in Abracadabra that are missing from the dance portion of the ritual.
When the stone is included, it forms a cohesive whole. The word itself is something like a sudo command in Linux but for the substrate of existence itself. It doesn’t do anything by itself, just authorizes whatever comes after that. In your case, travel between nearby continuities.
Very easily if you do it when they are in alignment, which you did. But it also works at any time of year. You just need more repetitions of the dance steps the further you are from Samhain as more energy is necessary to bring the two together at the point where the ritual is occurring.”
Okay. I guess? No, it wasn’t okay. I felt as in the dark as ever since I could never make myself just up and swallow anything without some way to independently verify it. I’m sure Zach would tell me that’s just my ego’s need to feel in control or something. I didn’t care to find out. “What are my options if I didn’t make the stones?” I asked.
He rubbed his chin, turned a few pages in the book, then look me right in the eye and told me I was fucked. “You’re using something like interdimensional mass transit. The Abraxas stone is your bus pass. It’s also your GPS. Without that you’re adrift in an infinite sea, a boat without a rudder. I feel for you man.
But really, one Earth is as good as the next. Usually. Some of the stranger outcomes notwithstanding. Nice to visit for curiosity’s sake but I wouldn’t want to live there. Skip those and keep going until you find an Earth as close to the one you came from as possible. Then settle in and get on with the business of living. That’s my advice.”
It could be worse. That’s really the best thing I could say about it. His other advice was to invest in bottled oxygen with a medical respirator mask of the type often used by the very old. “Not all Earths have an atmosphere you can breathe. This will keep you conscious long enough to dance yourself out of there.”
It was surprisingly cheap. I’d driven home and resolved not to leave the apartment unless I had to. It’s a deeply unsettling feeling to occupy a world almost identical to the one you know, but not quite. The food in the fridge and cupboards would be ample for the time I planned to stay here. Just long enough to order supplies and have them shipped.
The passwords necessary to spend the other me’s money were all conveniently saved via cookies or some similar mechanism. No need though. Like me, he had a small booklet with every password for every site he regularly used stashed atop the bookshelf. Some of it was so dead on. It only made the larger, more conspicuous differences even stranger to me.
When I tried the landline I discovered several voice messages from what I figured was the other me’s employer on this Earth. I felt mildly guilty. But he’d chosen to perform the ritual for the same reasons I had. Glass houses, stones and so on. I then realized I’d have the same problems when I got back, if I ever did.
But supposing I found an Earth on which I was independently wealthy? Perhaps all of this would prove to be a blessing in disguise. That’s what I told myself anyway, in an effort to find the silver lining. I still felt on the verge of losing my shit, and hadn’t fully accepted the idea that I would never return to my actual home, or see my own Leslie again.
Not my first miscalculation but possibly the most severe. Assuming that because the last two Earths I’d visited were highly similar to mine, the rest would be too. My mind turned to Zach’s cryptic warning about Earths with “strange outcomes”.
Not too strange, surely. Otherwise there’d be no humans, and thus no alternate me to set up the ritual. That’s how my reasoning went, anyway. For all the good reason had done me so far.
When the packages arrived I dug into them with the fervor of a five year old on Christmas. Proper equipment for these leaps into the unknown increased immensely my confidence about them.
I felt ready for anything and, for the first time in several days, a renewed sense of hope. All of which drained from me in an instant when I completed the ritual.
There was no apartment. Nothing remotely familiar. I stood atop the charcoal glyph surrounded by candles, but on a rusting metal platform. It was one of many at various heights, part of a patchwork structure of platforms and girders. Hanging in space.
Space may be the wrong word, as I could see no stars. Simply an endless black expanse all around. The only object in existence here so far as I could tell was this mass of interconnected girders and platforms. On each was a different glyph. Most had candles of varying sizes but also unfamiliar accoutrements like incense, prayer beads or a slaughtered animal.
The air was cold, stale, and smelled of gunpowder. I could not wrap my head around the presence of air in a place like this. But then, none of it should be here. As I looked on, someone abruptly appeared on a distant platform. They indifferently walked from there to an adjacent platform, did a dance completely different from mine, and vanished.
This continued with all sorts of people I didn’t know. Then I began to see creatures doing it. Not possible to mistake for humans but plainly intelligent, as they knew how to use the glyphs. When two of them used the same glyph one after the next, their dances were identical. I worked out from this that each glyph had its own associated dance, rather than dances being unique to individuals.
A transit hub. Of some sort, anyway. Had to be. Did I dare to try a different glyph? My desire to return to something resembling home greatly exceeded my curiosity. I considered approaching one of them for help but who knows where they came from or what they were in the middle of doing? It seemed like poor self preservation instinct to just walk up and ask one of them for directions. What could they do for me, anyways? Only I could’ve built my own Abraxas stone.
With no business here and no further interest in studying it, I glanced at my phone for the dance steps, performed them, and was whisked away to another time and place. Yet again, not an apartment. Just darkness, the sound of dripping, overpowering humidity and the stench of meat.
I tapped the assistive light widget on my phone. It kept the LED on the back normally used for flash photography on continuously so I could use it as a flashlight in lieu of the screen. I couldn’t make sense of it. The floor was a spongy cluster of what I discovered to be bread when I reached down and picked up a piece of it. Each one fluffy, light brown and domed.
I only properly understood when I saw the meat patty underneath the bun I’d removed. The floor consisted of hamburgers. And beneath those, more hamburgers. The walls too. All varying in size, some so large I couldn’t imagine they were ever intended to be eaten. All around me, droplets of meat juice fell from the ceiling. The normally appetizing smell of beef rapidly became nauseating simply because there was no escape from it.
When I stood perfectly still I noticed that the buns were gently pulsating. That the patties were linked by thin tendrils of brown cooked beef, also pulsing in rhythm. As if the great cavern were alive. Asinine. How could this exist? Yet I stood in the midst of it. That’s when I felt a wind pick up. Such as it was. More of a wave of warm, humid, meaty air. Something was approaching, and fast.
I turned my light towards the tunnel and could make out only the distant silhouette of some gargantuan abstract form. Hobbling towards me step by belabored step, grunting and wheezing along the way. Then it began to call to me. “Robble robble. Robble robble robble. ROBBLE ROBBLE ROBBLE ROBBLE ROBBLE”
No. Full stop. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. But there it was. And the more of it became visible as it advanced into the reach of my light, the more I felt my sanity abandoning me.
This just couldn’t be. No possible sequence of events could create this. I couldn’t be seeing it. Yet there it was. A hundred tons or more, rivulets of fetid condiments trickling down its compounded rolls of flesh, undulating hypnotically as it surged towards me.
In a flash, my presence of mind returned. I glanced at my phone, hurriedly danced, and nothing happened. I’d gotten something wrong. The mass of flesh bore down on me, bellowing “ROBBLE ROBBLE ROBBLE”.
What step did I forget? I fumbled with the phone but caught myself before I dropped it. Fuck me. I studied the photo I’d taken of that page in the book and, intensely aware that I didn’t have time left for a third attempt, performed the movements as indicated.
When I opened my eyes, I was someplace new. I exhaled and fell to my knees, not sure how much of the condensation on my body was sweat, and how much was meat juice. At last, another apartment. Not familiar to me, but it had a shower, which I eagerly availed myself of. The walls were a drab brown, the wallpaper peeling and cobwebs adorning various corners.
Every room had an old fashioned boxy CCTV camera which as I looked, I noticed was moving to track me. Once finished I toweled off, threw on my boxers and explored the place. There was nothing like a computer.
The fridge, phone and all other appliances were in poor shape. Glancing out the window revealed the rest of the city to be in an equally poor state of repair. More than one distant building appeared to be on fire, with nothing obvious being done about it.
No cars on the street below. Only weird wheeled machines of some kind, carrying sacks of something. I couldn’t make out what from this distance. The television behind me sprang to life, giving me a start.
“Attention cishet white male. It is twelve PM. Please go to the medipod for your daily injection.” My what? I asked for clarification but it was evidently just a recording. It added “You have forty five seconds.”
That lit a fire under my ass. What is any of this? What happened here? I inferred the stained beige kiosk by the door was the medipod. It had a faded vector monitor which displayed crudely animated instructions for receiving an injection. I was meant to place my forearm into an alcove below the monitor and hold still while it positioned the needle.
“Attention cishet white male. You now have twenty seconds remaining. Failure to receive your injection on time is punishable by a ten degree increase of your privilege index.” I began to grow nervous. What could be in the injection? I looked for any indication on the machine. What if human biochemistry was different here? It could kill me.
“Attention cishet white male. Your allotted time for receiving your daily privilege adjustment injection has elapsed. Your privilege index has increased by ten degrees. It now exceeds the legal limit for this sector.
Remain where you are. Diversity enforcement officers are being dispatched to your location. Do not resist. The punishment for resisting is compulsory gender reassignment surgery and ten days in the emotional resensitizer. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Outside I saw some bizarre pink military vehicle pull up to the curb, with the slogan “LISTEN AND BELIEVE” stenciled onto the hood. A motorized ramp descended from either side. I figured out why when the doors opened and the occupants rolled out onto the sidewalk. They were those mechanized wheeled machines topped with sacks of something, but these ones had a threatening looking insignia printed on the front and small flashing red and blue lights.
My hand brushed up against something tucked under the drape. A pair of binoculars. The version of me from this Earth must’ve been somewhat of a voyeur. Or he was on the lookout for cops, if that’s what these things were. Peering through them, a great deal suddenly made sense. The sacks atop the wheeled carriers were people. Or their ancestors had been.
The limbs which hung uselessly off either side were shriveled and malformed. There was no neck to speak of. The positions of the eyes were asymmetrical and their mouths were lopsided, filled with snaggled teeth. I frantically searched the apartment for a gun but couldn’t find anything even potentially useful as a weapon.
Another piece fell into place when the television again sprang to life. “While waiting for the officers assigned to investigate your offense to arrive, please enjoy this retrospective on the social justice revolution your diverse, polygendered precursors bravely fought in to create the perfect society you now have the luxury of inhabiting.”
Grainy footage showed hordes of bizarrely dressed protesters, with messy hair dyed either like a rainbow or various shades of pink, purple and blueish green.
They held aloft signs reading “#killallmen”, “My dream is to someday have to explain to my grandaughter what men were”, “There is literally no such thing as racism against whites”, and “POC cannot rape whites. Rape requires a position of institutional power”.
I was dimly aware of such events on my own Earth. But these people were armed, trading gunfire with police who were faring poorly by the looks of it.
“Following the great Revolution, the Department of Feminism and Sexual Justice was established with the goal of maximizing diversity and vanquishing the last few counter-revolutionaries in far flung bunkers, where they sought to escape severe but well deserved justice.”
The footage now depicted a disturbingly overweight woman. Or what I thought was a woman until it zoomed in on the face. It rode a mobility scooter outfitted with armor plating and flamethrowers, launching gas grenades into the open hatch of an underground shelter.
“Thus the dream of a society without sexism, racism, ableism, misogyny, transmisogyny, transableism, transracism, so-called egalitarianism, abuses of free speech, cognitive neocolonialism, internalized racism, internalized ableism, internalized sexism, internalized misogyny, internalized transmisogyny, microaggressions and the patriarchy was realized.
Notions that certain body types were more healthy than others, long one of the most pernicious and oppressive ideas, were finally thrown into the fire. Physiological diversity, ignorantly branded as medical afflictions by patriarchal science, was finally permitted to flourish.”
The footage showed a man not quite as deformed as the ones on the street but close being fitted for what looked like the prototype for those motorized carriers.
He operated a small joystick with his tongue, deploying two spindly robot arms from the front. The film cut away to a fellow who looked to have a severely debilitating mental handicap sitting in what I recognized as the Senate assembly.
“Neurodivergent persons had up until the revolution been some of the most underprivileged members of society, suffering under the boot of concepts like superior, inferior, and “IQ” invented by white cishet scientists for the purpose of oppressing those unlike themselves.
These tragic victims of the patriarchy were aggressively recruited into positions of power and influence, to set right past wrongs committed against them. Likewise they were elevated to high positions in academia, law enforcement, fire fighting, the surgical profession, research institutes and so on.
Justice at last! Among the first laws passed by these brave, disadvantaged persons of neural diversity was a law abolishing the hate term “mentally handicapped”. It was replaced instead with the term “differently abled“ until that was declared a hate term four years later and replaced with “handsomely abled.”
That too was eventually declared a hate term once the public understood what it meant and so had to be replaced again by “supernaturally abled”. So it went, until the present. The preferred term is now “Radiant glorious golden shining sex gods of remarkable prowess in all pursuits.”
To ensure sexual justice, some percentage of non-radiant glorious golden shining sex gods of remarkable prowess in all pursuits are now assigned to them as life partners to ensure the continuation of their unique contributions to all levels of society.”
I made a note to call the cops that term. Only the disembodied woman’s voice emanating from the television informed me that the elevator in my building was broken, preventing the diversity enforcement officers from reaching my floor.
“As stairs were banned four years ago for being profoundly ableist, ramps are normally installed in all buildings. Yours has not yet received this renovation due to the decision of the civil engineer in charge of this sector to focus instead on dressing up like a ninja turtle and chasing stray cats.
He is one of our city’s treasured radiant glorious golden shining sex gods of remarkable prowess in all pursuits however, so I do not presume to speak in judgement as my privilege level slightly exceeds his.
Because of this development, please proceed to the first floor in order to receive your ticket, pay your fine, and receive instruction in how the medipod works.”
Instead, I performed a hasty dance atop the charcoal glyph and soon found myself someplace refreshingly different. Anything would be an improvement, except perhaps for that cavern of hamburgers. I was beginning to grasp what the reality of infinite possible outcomes translates to in practice.
It boggled my mind that deterioration could have proceeded that far just because of ideology. But while those bloated, malformed skin sacks atop the motorized carriers had been troubling to look at, I had to admit they were impressively diverse. Perhaps it was a matter of perspective. For a certain kind of person, that could well be a utopia.
The next destination gave me reason to use the oxygen cylinder and mask. I could breathe the air without it but only barely. An orange-brown haze hung in the air which stung my lungs until I began breathing only from the cylinder, and continued to sting my increasingly red, swollen eyes after that.
I stood on the edge of the exposed floor of a strange tower. Round, with a hollow center. Like an upwardly extruded zero. Peering over the railing, I saw masses of nude men, women and children in a field of patchy brown grass below, dotted with dandelions.
When I turned, I discovered that just behind me was row upon row of nude men on stationary bicycles. The ones nearest looking curiously at me, but continuing to pedal as sweat dripped down their faces.
The structure was rusty steel like the transit hub. Itself also a seemingly incomplete nest of girders. Except everything here was coated with sticky residue from the orange-brown haze. A pudgy little man in an odd uniform emerged from a doorway in the far wall.
He approached, smiling but also visibly curious. “My, that’s some unusual clothing. What’s your station?” I stared in confusion, so he repeated himself. “Which floor do you work on, son? What’s your station?”
I pulled a number out of my ass. When I said five he looked suitably impressed. “We don’t often get anybody from level five down here! I wonder what the occasion is? But I suppose that’s need to know, isn’t it? Carry on.”
With that he waddled off, disappeared through the doorway and left me scratching my head. This wasn’t someplace I would voluntarily live. Something about it put me on edge.
The structure. The nude men pedaling those bikes. The identically nude families in the field below. That primal part of your brain which warns you something’s not right was lit up like a christmas tree by all of it.
Just then an ear piercing alarm sounded. Below I could see figures in black vinyl aprons, boots and elbow length gloves rushing out into the field, picking through the cowering groups of muddy naked people. One of the aproned figures stared up at me through shiny black plastic goggles. My cue to move on. Except my phone was out of battery.
No. Please, not now. Even the transit hub would be preferable. I tried to power it up again but it only flashed the empty battery icon and went blank. No problem, surely? I’d performed that same dance enough times now to do it from memory. That’s what I thought until I tried.
What was the sequence? Dip, arch, pirouette….Something? The aproned figure had gathered several others in the field below and was gesturing at me. Dip arch, pirouette, crouch...Dip? They headed as a group for what I assumed was the elevator or stairwell up to this floor. My breathing accelerated. Dip? Arch? Crouch?
The first of the aproned figures appeared in the doorway. He readied a long baton which, when it emitted a crackling blue arc, I inferred was electrified. In a fit of fear and urgency I performed the steps which came to mind first. I’d been overthinking it until then. Sometimes less is more. Just before they reached the glyph, black gloved arms outstretched, I was gone.
Exhausting. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I didn’t want any of it. I just wanted to return to my own home. My own Leslie. So when I appeared in an apartment which appeared identical to the one I’d set out from when this all began, I collapsed and cried. Real, relentless tears of happiness and relief.
Whatever was different, I could tolerate it. Everything looked close enough that I just didn’t care. What were the odds of finding someplace this close to the mark again? Even after hundreds of jumps. Thousands?
Leslie. I plugged my phone into the wall and used the landline to call her number. “Hey, what’s up?” her melodic voice inquired. My hands shook. “You...you recognize my voice?”
She laughed. “Of course I do, you fuckin’ weirdo. Do you think I have early onset Alzheimer’s or something? What’s this about?” I told her to meet me at the burrito place. When it turned out that didn’t exist here, we settled on one of the student run cafes on campus.
I still shook subtly even after the drive there. Memories of the bizarre journey still fresh in my mind, I thanked God for returning me someplace I could bear to live in spite of what was undoubtedly a breach of how he intended the universe to work.
She turned out to be a blonde on this Earth. I didn’t mind, as nothing else seemed different and the hair color turned out to be dye when I asked anyway. “You look messed up. What’s going on with you?”
Was it really that obvious? Could I simply come out and tell her all of it? I settled for telling her I’d been thinking things through recently and was simply grateful we’d met. That I didn’t fully appreciate her central importance in my life until recently and that no world without her in it would be worth living in.
Leslie teared up slightly. She reached out and took my hands in hers, and just smiled. Then an odd wristband she wore began beeping.
A watch, I thought. But it displayed four sets of digits. Only one of which appeared to be changing until, when it stopped beeping, that display reset to zero and the next display continued where it left off.
“Oh! That’s the end of the first day. Time for church. You wanna come with? I know you’re a fan of your own cubic deacon but I think you’ll like the direction they go with the music in my church.”
I politely declined. She stared at me as if I had two heads. “I get it. Damn, that’s edgy. Don’t let anyone else hear you say that, though. They might misunderstand.” I repeated that I’d rather not go to a church just then and felt more like going home to sleep. She became gravely serious.
“What’s come over you? Do you realize what you’re saying? I mean, I don’t know if it’s against the law or anything. Do we have a law for that? Who doesn’t go to church? You’re coming across as educated stupid right now. Do you realize that? We can talk about it later, just come with me.”
I didn’t want to further agitate her, so I obliged. As we approached, I began wondering if we were actually going to a church. The building before me was an immense white cube. Each face was outlined in black, with a huge “24” on the two sides visible to me. Inside was equally strange.
There were rows of pews as I expected but hanging above the altar was a tremendous transparent plastic cube with a model of the Earth inside of it which slowly rotated, either by movement of the air or some concealed motor.
Leslie shooed me into a pew near the front. I wished I’d had time to change, everyone else was wearing formal attire. Whatever all of this was about, more than anything I didn’t want Leslie to feel embarrassed of being seen with me. Not under any circumstances.
If she minded, she didn’t show it. Instead, like everyone else she rose from her seat and beamed at the balding man in the white robe and cap who emerged from some back room and took position at a podium beneath the enclosed model Earth. He opened a book, cleared his throat and began to read.
“In 1884, meridian time personnel met in Washington to change Earth time. First words said was that only 1 day could be used on Earth to not change the 1 day bible. So they applied the 1 day and ignored the other 3 days.
The bible time was wrong then and it proved wrong today. This a major lie has so much evil feed from it's wrong. No man on Earth has no belly-button, it proves every believer on Earth a liar.
Children will be blessed for killing of educated adults who ignore four simultaneous days same earth rotation. Practicing evil oneness upon Earth of quadrants.
Evil adult crime vs youth. Supports lie of integration. One-educated are most dumb. Not one human except dead one. Man is paired, two half four self. One of God is only one fourth of God.”
Everyone responded “Four simultaneous days per rotation!” in unison. Some applauded. I stared at them, wondering if I’d somehow wandered into a madhouse. Leslie seemed to be just as enthused, and shot me a troubled glance when she saw that I wasn’t behaving the same as the rest.
His sermon was just more of that stunted gobbledygook. There was a weird rhythmic structure to it, almost hypnotic. As I didn’t know any of the songs, I instead sat down, took one of the white leather bound books from the back of the pew in front of me and began thumbing through it.
I didn’t get through much of it in the four hours that the service lasted, but it was enough to paint at least a rudimentary picture for me of how things turned out this way.
Evidently some centuries ago there’d been a man named Gene Ray. He’d taken drugs, or had a mental breakdown of some sort and claimed to have received the ultimate truth of the universe, that time is cubic.
Which in the context of the Earth means that four independent twenty four hour days transpire in the course of a single rotation of the planet. It must’ve resonated with some, because he’d evidently amassed quite a following. His teachings became the foundation for something the book called Temporal Cubism.
There looked to be a lot of generally useful common sense self help advice in the book. Various stories with time honored moral lessons. But as I read, a pattern emerged.
In various places, Gene was quoted as saying the Earth would soon come to an end. That time was in fact very short. Going so far as to insist that some of the people standing there listening to him deliver the speech would still be around to witness it, not having died of old age. That generation, he assured the crowd gathered to hear him speak, would not perish before everything he predicted had come to pass.
There was more. He said that he’d predicted anti-Cubists would appear as the end approached, and indeed they’d begun to appear. At the time of writing. By this, he assured his followers they could be certain that they were living in the final hour.
So, shouldn’t the world have already exploded or whatever? Why didn’t these people seem bothered by that? The book clearly specified that some kind of cataclysm should have destroyed the Earth centuries ago. Yet here they were carrying on in spite of the fact that the Earth remained very much intact.
It did say that nobody could know the exact day or hour. As in, with any precision. But it also very plainly said that he believed they were already in the final hour back when it was written, and that people alive then wouldn’t have died of old age before the cataclysm occurred. I couldn’t wrap my head around how anybody could read that stuff and still buy into the rest of it.
Then I spotted stuff that raised some serious red flags. “Anyone who does not give up everything they own cannot be my disciple”. That seemed transparently calculated to separate new recruits from their belongings so they’d be dependent on the group and unable to easily leave it if they began to experience doubts.
“Anyone who loves their mother or father more than me cannot be my disciple, they are not worthy of me. Blessed will be those who leave their household and job to come and follow me, they will ascend to the eternal cubic paradise.”
In other words, if your family doesn’t approve of this Gene Ray guy or his organization you recently joined, cut them off. They’re the ones most likely to try to get you out of it.
The eternal cubic paradise was said to be a reward for those who convert to Temporal Cubism and continue to believe in it until they die. There was also something called Pit of Oneness to which people who refused to convert or stopped believing and died in their unbelief would be sent for everlasting torment. One of them to give you incentive to believe, the other to make you afraid to doubt it.
The Spirit of Oneness, bitter enemy of Gene Ray and Temporal Cubism, apparently was responsible for fabricating any apparent evidence contrary to the Book of Cubic Wisdom. Which I figured was a way to pre-emptively bias these poor fools against anybody trying to convince them they’d been taken.
Then, the cherry on top. “Lean not on your own understanding. There’s purported alternative answers which might look credible to a man, but they only lead to death. Walk by faith, not by sight, for the wisdom of men is educated stupidity before Gene Ray, wisest human ever to live.” Calculated to sabotage critical thought. The toolset you might otherwise use to figure out all of this was bunk.
I could see the method to the madness. There was a sort of mechanism here, for compelling conversion, motivating people to go out and try to recruit others as well as their own kids, to make them fearful of their own doubts and intensely skeptical of any arguments against this racket and so on.
It struck me as functionally similar to those chain letters about how if you spread it to five of your buddies something good will happen and if you don’t, a headless ghost will visit you tonight.
I stared at the people around me with renewed confusion. They all appeared to be competent adults. How had anybody fallen for this? How had it survived for so long and spread so widely?
For that matter, how much of the world now believed this Temporal Cubism stuff? Leslie was quiet on the drive home. I had an inkling of why, which was confirmed when she exploded at me for not singing in cubic church.
“What is all of this, Leslie? Temporal Cubism? What the fuck?” She seemed more confused than I was. “It was a concussion, wasn’t it? How can you seriously not know? I met you in Cubic Wisdom study group. How can you not know?”
Nonetheless, I didn’t. It was a more serious faux pas than I’d counted on. She wasn’t willing to leave it alone and followed me into my apartment, white leather bound book under one arm.
On the way, we’d passed a number of buildings with signs that hadn’t escaped my notice. “Saint Bart’s Cubic Hospital”. “Wisdom Cube: Cubic Movies, Games, Gifts And More!” as well as decorations for an upcoming holiday that a banner proclaimed was called “Ray Day”.
In the windows of an art gallery I’d seen various archaic paintings depicting a guy in a white outfit and baseball cap I surmised to be Gene Ray in various heroic scenes, light radiating from around his head. What in the ever loving fuck had I signed on for? Could I really bear to live here? I felt more and more tempted to risk another jump in search of someplace less fucked up.
In the course of badgering me to explain how I could have somehow forgotten a faith that was supposed to be as central to my life as everyone elses, I picked up from the details that over half the world practiced Temporal Cubism.
The remainder practiced something called “Stevenism”. Somebody else who had pulled the same ruse as this Gene Ray guy, presumably. Just not with the same degree of success. I told her how I thought Temporal Cubism began. As a cult centering around this Gene Ray fellow. She recoiled as if I’d struck her.
“How fucking dare you? Gene Ray sacrificed himself to make up for your educated stupid one-day bullshit! Who the fuck do you think you are to dismiss out of hand almost two thousand years worth of apologetics, the work of theologians that are among the brightest people ever to live? You really think so many people would devote their whole lives to this, even suffer persecution and die, if it weren’t true?”
I didn’t really know what to say to that. It would be heartless of me to answer that they’d died for nothing because their parents indoctrinated them into a cult, as their parents did to them. I guess that was the intent of asking that question.
I couldn’t answer honestly without looking like a fool, and a bastard. I was rapidly picking up on the fact that they’d all been exhaustively coached in how to most effectively defend Temporal Cubism, as well as being conditioned to react with sudden severe hostility to the slightest sign of dissent from it.
It was almost impressive. If you really wanted to be worshiped as the greatest person ever to live by all of humanity, or as close as possible, for thousands of years after you died, this was a damned effective way to accomplish that.
Aspects of it also reminded me of pyramid schemes I’d seen being shilled on campus by douchebags in t-shirts bearing the company logo, who would argue bitterly that you simply didn’t understand their business model if you tried to persuade them that it was a scam. “You’ll be sorry when I’m making three times your salary by next year!” Sure you will, buddy.
Botnets also bore a striking resemblance to this. Special type of computer virus which invisibly hijacks PCs and devotes some of their resources to performing some synchronized task with the other infected computers for the benefit of the guy who programmed it. Usually mining bitcoins or something.
“Maybe you were just raised in the wrong sect of Temporal Cubism. I know those Reformed Second Advent Cubists have some sorely misguided interpretations, I suspect you just need to sit down and have a talk with my Cubic Deacon to set you straight.” I assured her that wasn’t necessary. Whatever fucking crazy pills she was on, the last guy I wanted to talk to was her dealer.
“Listen, Leslie. Supposing there were some guy traveling about your campus, claiming that the world would end very soon and that if you want to be saved from that, you have to sell your belongings, acknowledge his greatness, and cut off family members if they try to stop you. What would you call that?”
“A cult!” she blurted out. “The Book of Cubic Wisdom foretells that in the end times, false Gene Rays will appear, trying to mislead us.” I thought to myself that was a pretty clever way to sabotage any future religions that might otherwise supercede Temporal Cubism.
She went on: “It also foretells that as the end approaches there will be mockers and scoffers, a great falling away from the faith”. I was surprised. They’d even anticipated widespread backlash once large numbers figured out they’d been fooled. Whoever wrote this shit had been machiavellian in the extreme.
“Alright”, I offered, “but do you recognize that is also how Temporal Cubism began? Gene Ray was the cult founder. The ten Cubic Acolytes who accompanied him in his travels were the original core members.” She immediately reached up and slapped me before I could stop her.
“That’s enough Oneness from your mouth. I don’t recognize you anymore. You’ve been deceived. Don’t you know that cults are whatever diverges from Temporal Cubism? Then how can Temporal Cubism itself be a cult?”
I objected here. “Descended from a cult. It’s something else now. Whatever a cult turns into if it survives the death of its founder and matures over a long ass time.
I expect that’s why they dropped the requirement to sell all your shit. No longer necessary to retain new recruits once they got established. Likewise with the whole cut off unsupportive family bit.”
“None of that’s in the Book of Cubic Wisdom!" she objected. "There’s no part that says the world is ending soon! Nothing that says you have to sell your things, or cut off family members! Absolute lies.” I showed her all of those admonitions, found in several verses each. “Then you’re taking them out of context!”
So I invited her to show me how the context for each changed its meaning at all. “You can cherry pick the Book of Cubic Wisdom to make it say anything you like!” I invited her to find verses which instruct followers not to spread it. Not to believe, or they’d be eternally punished. That if they disbelieved, they’d go to the eternal cubic paradise, and so on.
It was fruitless. She was beyond blinkered. “What about Stevenism?” I plied. A look of recognition came over her. “Oh yes, that’s a different matter entirely. Stevenism certainly started that way. That much is obvious. Steven founded the cult, the seven students of Steven were the inner party. Or lieutenants, whatever the word is.
It’s only still around because it’s impossible to make those poor blinded Stevenists accept that they devoted their life to something fraudulent. They’ve sunk too much into it and don’t want to look stupid. If only they read the superb arguments of Cubic theologians!”
She said all of that wide eyed without a trace of self awareness. I stared at her expectantly until she made the connection. She suddenly looked horrified, then furious.
“You can’t seriously imply there’s any comparison? Gene Ray is nothing like Steven! I mean, I can see how you might manufacture false similarities by misinterpretation. But Gene Ray performed incredible feats of magic!” I asked her if any record of those feats existed outside of the Book of Cubic Wisdom, or other books by Gene’s followers.
“Well, no, but what more do you need?” I told her that a book written about Gene’s life by people in a religion devoted to him was not exactly unbiased and if anything would have been written in an attempt to convert people who read it. She looked dubious, angry and hurt. I asked her if Steven had performed any feats of magic.
“Well, of course Stevenists think so. But the earliest Stevenists simply lied about it in the Stevenomicon, in order to make their false religion appear more credible. To get people to join it.” I blinked.
She could see it so clearly in Stevenism. But every effort to make her turn that microscope back on Cubism caused her to lash out at me. As if trying to change her mind somehow picked her pocket or broke her leg.
It broke my heart to see Leslie of all people so completely under the spell of something like this. The Leslie I knew was sharp as a tack. “Listen, none of this is real. It feels real to you because it was introduced to you when you were very young. Your sense of identity was still liquid. You believed anything you were told.
They did that deliberately, so that once all of it solidified, it would be near impossible to reverse it as an adult. That’s how Stevenism works too. That’s why it seems so self evidently real to them, but obviously false to you. They see you the same way.”
She was turned away from me and I wondered if she was still listening. I gambled that she was, and continued. “That’s why they go after kids. Saturday School. Cubic youth groups. I’m willing to bet they also push teacher led cubic prayer. And they go after prisoners too, right? And send people to third world countries.
Kids and the emotionally vulnerable make the softest targets for recruitment. Neither are really put together enough to seriously evaluate a claim. Kids are gullible, people in desperate situations just want some kind of refuge from suffering.”
She turned around. “How do you explain all of the fulfilled prophecies? There’s hundreds of them!” I asked her where the prophecies were recorded. She said the early chapters of the Book of Cubic wisdom. “I see. And how do you know they came true?”
She explained that they were recorded as having come true in the later chapters. “And when was this book written?” She’d begun to figure out where I was going with this, and so answered hesitantly. “Perhaps thirty or forty years after Gene Ray died and then returned to life, before ascending to Cubic Paradise.”
Aha. So, long after the fact. “I can do the same thing, you know. Watch this. In 1998, I predicted that the World Trade Center would be hit by airplanes on September 11th, 2001. Amazing, right? How did I know that?”
She looked confused. “What’s the World Trade Center? “September”? What?” Oh yeah. I scrambled for references that would be familiar to her but couldn’t be certain without studying this Earth’s history.
“I’m gonna research some things online, Leslie. You can crash here if you like. I’d never turn you away. But this really is something we should talk about more.
All this Temporal Cubism nonsense is simply false cult teachings. Satanic deception that prevents you from coming to know our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. That’s the most tragic part of this, and you don’t even realize.”
She just looked at me like I’d totally lost it. When I woke up, she was gone. It was a series of sharp knocks on the door that roused me, so after pulling on pajama bottoms I went to see who it was.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but police were certainly at the bottom of the list. “We received reports of blasphemy, heresy and a potentially dangerous insane man at this residence.”
I wracked my brain as to what they meant. It dawned on me that Leslie must’ve called them. “Oh geez, no. Haha. Big misunderstanding! My girlfriend called you, didn’t she? She’s in some kind of weird cult, took me to one of their meetings yesterday.”
Their demeanor softened, but they looked concerned. “A cult, you say. That’s very serious indeed. I take it she’s fallen in with Stevenists?” I shook my head.
“No, it’s that whole Temporal Cubism dealie. The white cube shaped building a few miles from here. Happy clappy kool aid drinking shit goes on there, that’s really who you should be investigating.”
I struggled to understand why I was being taken in for further questioning. As they packed me into the back of the squad car, even as I was being fingerprinted. Completely asinine. How could it be happening?
I made sure my phone was included in the locker of my things as I was processed for entry into prison. There’d been a mockery of a trial lasting less than an hour with almost nobody present.
The real shocker was the sentence my lawyer told me I was likely to receive if I didn’t go along with an insanity plea. Forty five years. I nearly shit my pants when he told me. I could still jump after that provided my phone still worked, but I wanted no part of whatever prison was like on this Earth, given what I’d already seen of the rest.
Their mental institutions weren’t a pleasure cruise either. I quickly discovered that they defined sincere belief in Temporal Cubism as sanity, and that how insane you were depended entirely on how removed your own beliefs were from the contents of the Book of Cubic Wisdom. They were quite good at figuring out if you were just pretending to believe in a bid for early release, too.
So as the days, weeks, months, and years went by, I came to truly believe that Gene Ray was sent to us so that we might learn the error of Oneness, and the perfection of nature’s simultaneous four sided Time Cube.
It really did bring me bliss, I think. When I asked for my phone and was told a visitor had stolen it, I didn’t even bat an eye. Even after all this time, I still remembered how to perform the dance.
There was no access to anything sharp inside, so I’d not shaven for the duration of my stay. Accordingly when they finally deemed me mentally fit for release, I had an immense bushy beard. I was also rail thin as I’d not been eating well. My head was in a strange place and had been for some time, which tends to put a damper on appetite.
When I returned to my apartment, I discovered it’d had a long line of other tenants over the preceding years. One of them had taken the white rug when they left. The one with the charcoal glyph on the bottom.
I broke down crying in front of the poor frightened fellow living there now. I don’t blame him for shutting the door in my face. Rather than risk being arrested again, I headed to the nearest street corner and began begging for change.
When I had enough, I bought just enough fast food to fill my stomach, then some small red candles and a packet of artist’s charcoal from a 63 cent store. Apparently here, there’s 64 cents to a dollar. It’s all in fucking hexidecimal for whatever reason. The cashier looked at me like I was an idiot when I had trouble counting out the coins.
While there was still sunlight left, dressed in my tattered clothing that they’d returned to me when I was discharged, I drew what I remembered of the glyph on the street corner.
I performed the dance perfectly, but nothing happened. I began to sweat, and scratched at my beard nervously. Hunching over, I used the charcoal to make some slight modifications to the glyph. It was like that, wasn’t it?
I danced again. Nothing happened. So again I modified the glyph, hoping to chance upon the correct design. Again and again, I danced. I kept going through the night and on into morning, refusing to give up on it however long the odds were. I did not know where I would next be sent, but I refused to stay here.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of people going to work, a small crowd gathered to observe me. I overheard a child ask her mother what I was doing. “The poor fellow’s lost his mind, dear. Tragic, but vagrants often end up that way. There but for the grace of Gene go we all.”