Chapter 7: A Human Work
“I just need to know that you promise not to accept what I say right off the bat. If you do, you’re crazy. But if you don’t after giving it some thought, you’re also crazy and stupid”
-The Old Man
13 August 2021: The Present
Felix Sand has romantical love only for the lady-folk, but even he has to admit that the dude who walks in the door to the much-maligned HH is like movie-star good looking, which makes him uncomfortable and suddenly aware of the fact that his own precious little face probably couldn’t carry a blockbuster, even with makeup.
Being in the company of especially attractive people has always made Felix really uncomfortable, which is a factor he’s always blamed for a lot of his interpersonal relationship woes, since he knows that it’s groups of attractive people banded together who generally have pretty good lives, certainly better than one moderately attractive-to-average bloke managing the cosmos’ only Hamburger Purgatory.
So a lot of involuntary staring goes on, one to the other (one being Felix and the other being this handsome man), and even Squatch is getting in on the action, himself mostly preoccupied with how close it is to Winter and how much better he likes the name Yeti than Squatch: he thinks of the Yeti as a more of a majestic misunderstood beast than the Sasquatch, which he feels like everyone understands exactly as much as they want to, what with the blurry photos and such. He also derives a great deal of pleasure from when Felix shouts “yeh-tay!” and this does, in turn, cause Felix an odd kind of satisfaction, which he guesses (and if he knew that this was possibly belittling to the one human being who Felix would call a buddy and vice verca, he wouldn’t say it) is kind of like the way parents feel when they play peek-a-boo with newborns.
So the handsome man walks up to the counter and looks Felix right in his eyes, and it seems to Felix like the handsome man’s eyes are a different color than they were when he came in, but are still what someone might call “radiant” or some such, and he tells Felix that he called in the order for the burgers those few days ago, and says he just forgot, it slipped his mind as things so often do, aint that the way, etc., and he (the handsome man) wouldn’t mind being the one to dispose of the refuse since it’s his fault anyways, and Felix looks over at the soon to be Yeti, and Squatch shakes his head in a “no” motion, and Sand turns back to the hombre and says it’s no worries but we’ll take care of it on-site, as it were, nothing for you to worry about, gent.
“It’s no trouble, really. I’ll just toss it on my way back out.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I insist that you stop insisting.”
“We can’t have our customers in here handling moldy things. It’s against regulations.”
“Don’t make me take it.”
“I don’t think you’d take it. It would be a very strange thing to get bent out of shape about to the point of physical action.”
“So it would seem.”
“Are you going to order anything? There’s other customers.”
“Are other customers.”
“What if we made a deal?”
“What kind of deal?”
“I’ll allow you to wield a fraction of power.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“Give me the bag and find out. You have nothing to lose here except some moldy burgers.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“You have no idea.”
“Excellent. You are now a wielder of the Morningsword, and the strength thereof.”
“Sounds neat. Take the bag.”
And as the handsome man exits the old man enters, who sees the handsome man and the handsome man sees him, and the look on the face of the handsome man is a lot like the look on the face of someone who has just caught a very big fish and the look on the face of the old man with the older walking stick is a lot like the look on the face of the fellow who’d been fishing that spot for fifteen years without any measure of success.
“You’re a damned fool!” shouts the old man at Felix. “You don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know the consequences of what you’re doing. You have literally no applicable knowledge and yet here you are, playing God!”
“How can I relax? How the hell can I relax!?”
“Listen, I don’t know what either of you are driving at or getting after, but I just got rid of him, and you need to stay out of my burger joint. If it’s any consolation, I switched bags. I can’t have rotting meat out in the front of my goddamn restaurant. That’s insane. I threw that bag away and put up another one to keep Squatch happy. When you see that dude, ask him where’s my sword.”
2 March 1989: The Present
It is precisely AM 6:04:34 when Aleph Atom Severe’s living room implodes with brilliant light, unsightly in it’s beauty, painful in how refreshing and wonderful it is. A.A. having formed the habit of waking up extremely early to write before he goes to do what he’s grown to refer to colloquially as bank books. He prefers the term “book banker” contra “book jockey.”
This is something he doesn’t know how to react to this early in the morning or at any other time of day or at any other time, ever, period. Also, no one does.
From within the light somewhere comes a voice, and within that voice is some kind of supernatural warmth and also it is terrifying. It is all frightening enough that Atom has stopped thinking of ways that it could all be set up with floodlights and megaphones. Of course, then there’s the voice, and it about peels the skin off of Atom’s face. Atom isn’t sure whether he hears or feels it more, but he certainly does both, in very big ways. The best way to describe it would be to say that he hears it with his whole body and that he feels it with his internal organs just as much as anything else. He can feel his heart physically hurting as he endures the voice, and he can’t even make out what it’s saying.
The inside of his mouth tastes like battery acid and the paint is peeling from the walls of his room. His eyes are shut as tight as he can clamp them, but he sees red still and can almost make out shapes.
He feels his left arm begin to throb and also vomits.
The light mercifully fades, and the voice becomes lower and clearer.
“That was one-tenth of one percent of my glory. You have now seen that.”
Atom responds by vomiting for a second time.
“You are the one who requires proof, not the Wanderer. The Wanderer has lived long enough to believe, but your intellect is now such that belief is hard for you. Well there you have it. I am Thor, a messenger. I am the lowest on what you’d call the totem pole. There are seventy time seven angels above me, each more glorious than the last and all of us paling in comparison with the one ahead. What you have just seen is literally the absolute most a human can bear before going insane and dying. We have learned this over the course of millennia.
“The Wanderer had hoped that he’d get to see me, but it is you, sir, who require proof. This is proof. Very few get proof. Very few are so important that their belief is essential and must be obtained at all cost. But there are hard times coming, and I have not blinded you only because you will need to be able to see. But it would have been very easy for me to have blinded you.”
“What do you want?”
“Are you listening?”
“The Wanderer will come back to you. You will not kick him from your doorstep. You will listen to what he has to say and know that it is true. You will not ask him who he is. If he tells you, you will consider it an undeserved reward for something you have not done, a privilege to have that kind of knowledge. You will reveal to him all of the terms of your deal with the handsome man, and you will do what he tells you to do. You will not see me again but you may see the like of me again. You will consider that a privilege as well, and react accordingly. Repeat my name to me.”
“That is a corruption of my true name, but it is closer than any human who I have ever revealed myself to, which says something about your character. Your brain, as enhanced as it is, isn’t even equipped to hear my name correctly. That is the ridiculous majesty of even me, the lowliest of the angels. Literally the equivalent of what a sports metaphorist might call a ‘scrub’ or a ‘benchwarmer’ or an‘eternal second-string,’except that they don’t even begin to describe just how lowly I am in that company. And yet still, I am the most absurdly magnificent thing that you are capable of processing with your senses. So know that. I could have literally melted you with light. Not with heat, with light. Do you understand how ridiculous that is? Do you? Listen to the old man. If you go back to sleep right now you’ll have the most vivid nightmares you’ve ever had, about me. Good morning.”
Chapter 6: Rei II
“What I was lacking was any kind of cogency of narrative, or writing acumen, and then I realized that the majority of the novel’s bandwidth should be spent focusing on the righteousness of Moira and then deconstructing it, because the thing that humans can take the most pride in is a desire to be good, and the thing that is most pitiable about them is the total inability to actually do so.”
-Journal of Aleph Atom Severe
1 March 1989: The Present
Atom Severe now focused both on the re-imagining of his novel and the double-century overdue book. The book, which he has now read several times, attempting to both glean some kind of writerly knowledge from Signore Dante, and also to get into the mindset of whoever checked it out, and furthermore for his own personal intellectual growth, itself now on a staggering curve even without the book.
He also regularly chuckles about the whole Paradise Lofts thing, and chuckles further at the fact that he is only just now chuckling. Things that make intelligent people laugh now make Aleph Atom Severe laugh, and the things that intelligent people dislike are now things that Aleph Atom Severe dislikes. One of those things is his old novel in progress, which he has scrapped in favor of a new project.
His new intelligence views the fact that he is still primarily concerned with writing fiction as a possible redemption for his older, foolish self. The fact that (even in his own thoroughly deplorable way, to be clear) his stupid self had a concern that his newly intelligent self can be similarly concerned with means that his older self was misguided and stupid, certainly, but at least his heart was in the right place, or some such.
And so he is keeping the basic frameworks: Moira finds a fiddle in post-apocalyptic Celtish (he has tweaked the society slightly, dealing with some land-parceling and border issues that could conceivably arise in an alien-overlord situation, dealing with some realistic social issues that might arise, dealing with perhaps the way currency would work and what a class structure would look like, taking his cues from both Ancient Rome and the heyday of the British Empire) which is essentially the good old U.K.
We’re still dealing with the 31st century here as well, so the whole music having fallen out of the human race thing is still very much evident, except for Moira, whose ability to play, process etc. the fiddle is left ambiguous in a much lighter, more artful kind of way. And the romantic lead is gone, and the fact that the romantic lead is gone is itself an almost radioactively self-evident and foregrounded plot point, that the only way that Moira can be this savior of mankind is to completely alienate herself from all of them for fear of using the weapon that she’s using to defend them near themselves, for the risk. So this involuntary but noble post-modern Knights Templar chastity that he’s playing with deals really heavily into her righteousness shtick, which now he’s confronted with how exactly she’s going to die, because she has to die for the novel to work, symbolically.
There is still a character called Laser Wolf.
He is ashamed of the chapter he sent to that journal whose name rhymes with Flew Florker, and feels now that they had every right to just not respond to him, not knowing the truth about that still, fearsome though his intellect has become.
So when there’s a second knock on his door, he’s both aware of the fact that in this neighborhood it’d be a good idea to install a peep hole, and he’s afraid that it might be the handsome man coming to steal back his brain, recognizing his mistake. It is, instead, the old man with the older walking stick, who has words for Monsieur Severe, the first of them being:
“Surely an intellect of your new, particular tonnage can see the at least glimmering possibility that you’ve been tricked.”
“I see the glimmering of all possibilities now, which is pretty nifty, if I’m using the abrasive parlance of our times.”
“I imagine it would be.”
“I hope it won’t disappoint you to find out that you’re only the second-oddest human being that I’ve found on my doorstep of late.”
“You’ll find out that that statement is pretty inaccurate.”
“What are you selling?”
“I’m trying to give. But I’m too late, I guess. Or I’m on time and I’m supposed to think that I’m too late, which makes more sense. But one of the side effects of your current enhancement is the fact that you think you’re too smart to believe strangers right off the bat. That’s one way that your former self was superior to you as you are now. So I can tell that you’ll need a visit from someone else, or more accurately I know that you’re the one who that visit will be to. I had hoped that it would be me somehow, that I’d play a part in it, but I think I see now, that I’m paving the way to you, that my part is one of those glamourless integral parts of things that no one knows about but assure success. You’ll have to forgive my self-important pity, but I’m only human.”
“Where are you supposed to be right now?”
“Exactly right here, but not for the reason that I thought.”
“Is there someone you maybe want me to call?”
“You are being called. I am not being called but to inform you that you are the one who will be called. So don’t leave this apartment for a while. Stay in paradise. Do what we can’t do as humans. That was a joke.”
“I need you to answer my questions.”
“No you don’t. You’re just too damn smart to know that you don’t. We’ll see each other again. Sorry it took me so long to return that book, by the way. I just couldn’t put it down.”
“From such smarts, such ignorance. This was the trick, I think. This was the price you paid.”
“I think you’d better leave.”
“I know you do. And you should think less.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
Adam treks through the impossible garden time and time again, and the old cliché would be to say that each time is better than the last, but that isn’t true, because each time it’s just as good as the last time, which is to say that each time is equally breathtaking, resplendent, staggering, outrageous, freakishly beautiful, etc. etc. and it’s all he’s ever known, lucky him.
And then along comes his wife, who’s convinced him that the pair will get more work done in the garden if they split up every once in a while. She is beautiful and has no concept of ugliness, she is wonderful and has no concept of otherwise.
Adam countered that the point of the garden is to enjoy the garden, and the wife countered the counter by saying that their time apart would make their reunion better, and they, not knowing how to argue agreed.
Adam spent the day weaving her headwear from plants, not having a concept of what it would be like to be inconsiderate.
The wife is carrying some fruit, it looks like, and Adam immediately concerns himself with what to name it, which is his favorite thing to do in the whole small world that they inhabit.
They do not need to have sex all the time because they have conversations, but when they do his issue is like that of a horse and they orgasm simultaneously and to the glorification of themselves and everything around them.
The old ball and chain concerns herself with offering Adam the fruit, which he resolves to bite if she’s bitten of it, and to sin if she’s bitten of that as well, himself being unwilling to part from her, not know
Nature Groans, Decay is introduced to the Earth: Time is invented as such
ing if he can spare another rib for the process, which wasn’t painful the first time, not that he had a concept of pain, though he does now as he is standing on a pine cone. He is suddenly aware that his penis is showing, and is also aware that the expanse of the Earth goes beyond the impossible garden, which is a revelation forced on him and the wife. The two wander at first, no longer naked but still very concerned with the fact that they were naked, the ground hurting their feet and the sun scorching their backs, themselves now aging normally to the point of death, Adam blaming the wife, the wife blaming both Adam and the serpent in turns, the serpent elsewhere, the spirit formerly in the serpent having left it.  Though of course it’s not called that anymore, and the irony that only in extreme situations of oppression is the former U.K. which is now called Celtish can truly be united is one of the major themes that Severe is foregrounding in the novel, but he’s trying to toe the line and not be super drum-beaty about it.
 Which A.A. Severe is acutely aware is lifted from some of the comics he read as a kid, particularly a character whose voice was so powerful in the creating of concussive waves that he couldn’t use his power at all, really, let alone near anyone else. And when he did use it it caused this massive destruction, which makes Severe slightly more predisposed towards comics as an intellectual art form than he was even just a few days ago.
Chapter 5: Rei I
“You and I are about to be enemies.”
-The Handsome Man
12 August 2021: The Present
The old man with the older walking stick enters the crusty old HH and says to Felix Sand (still annoyed that the Christ bag, now smelling of mold, but no one but him seems to notice) that he is the sword and will be the sword, but that first he must tell a story, which catches Felix off-guard enough so that the old man mistakes his stunned silence for a hearing him out.
“The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland was built by a warrior named Finn McCool, or Fion mac Cumhail, as he was called then, and the reason he built it was so that he could walk to Scotland to fight a man that he’d decided was his enemy, Benandonner. He built it all the way across, and then, seeing how physically large Benandonner was, he swaddled himself and told his wife, who he’d brought along to see his conquest, to tell Benandonner that Finn was actually Finn’s infant son.
Benandonner, seeing how large the what he thought was an infant was, destroyed the Causeway so that Fion, who surely had to be a giant, couldn’t get to him. This relieved Fion-slash-Finn.
The point being that sometimes a combination of cowardice and the emergency cleverness that cowardice brings out in us all wins out.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Nothing, that’s just a story I like.”
This is an event that nothing in his life has equipped Felix to even come close to dealing with.
“Listen to me, Felix. What’s about to happen is something that nothing in your life has equipped you to deal with, so you have to listen to me.”
Felix’s thought right now being, at least it’s interesting.
“Someone is going to come in here, Felix, and try to take that bag. It is very important that you don’t allow anyone to take that take-out bag. Do you understand?”
“Whose is it?” Humoring him.
“You will know. Actually, you might be better off just giving it to me to hang on to.”
“You see? Right there, just now, you failed. Don’t do that again.”
“He will try to bet you for it. As compelling as the offer will be, and it will be the greatest offer you’ve ever received in your entire life-“
“There’s people in line.”
“There are people in line. And you can’t take the offer. Do you hear me?”
“Now give the bag to me.”
“I guess not.”
“At least it’s interesting.”
3 January 2012: The Present
Then something very old, like an emotional muscle that hasn’t been used in a while, pumps or comes unglued or something active, and Lilly says “Daddy,” which Doc Earlyon’s always hated being called, except for in this case, and he responds with kind of a “well, well, well” type look.
“So you finally made it.”
Which is a statement that causes Lilly some significant confusion, which registers as a kind of expresionlessness on her very own favorite face.
“Although, of course, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Walk with me.”
The corridor that they walk down seems to stretch impossibly in directions that are somehow stranger underground. Lilly wonders when this was excavated and how no one in charge that she’s ever spoken to knows about it.
“Lilly, every single moment that has occurred in what you call your life has led you to this moment. And now this one. And now this one. But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s not a coincidence that you’re here. The point is that by attempting to go as far away as you possibly could, you’ve ended up right here, in front of elevator doors that open to reveal yours truly. Now I’m not sure what it is, but I know it’s not a coincidence. Because you were hired for McMurdo literally just as our project was heading in a direction that needed you.”
“Project.” At this point Lilly is simply intoning the same words back at good old Doc Earlyon, out of a combination of several types of confusion.
“Of course, you still don’t know what I’m talking about, and that’s because you scrub toilets for a living. But here’s what you need to know. There has been a very recent discovery regarding both energy sources and the application of different clays and metals. I’m not at liberty to tell you the theories behind the underlying science, because they’re just theories at this point, but the scientists have given it the name The Gehenna Source, which I think is kind of melodramatic.”
Lilly had been, up to this point, under the impression that McMurdo was mostly and environmental research facility, with occasional rocket launches.
“But, because of the circumstances and form of the discovery, we haven’t really been able to glean a whole lot from it. There was an incident.”
Lilly just now notices that her father is limping. “What do you mean, the form of the discovery?”
“The simplest way for me to answer that question would be for me to show it to you.”
Doc Earlyon enters what seems to be a pretty complicated PIN-type code into a keypad by a door, which unlocks it, and then motions with his hands for her to enter before she does, which has always been a habit of his that’s bugged her. He was always letting everyone go ahead of him. The door unlocks with more of a whoosh sound than a traditional hard-k type unlocking sound.
And the door brings them into a chamber and what she sees is essentially a giant either rock-shaped head or head-shaped rock, and then as she follows Doc Daddy, who is moving closer and motioning for her to do the same, she sees that the head is on top of a body which extends very far downward, that they are on a railed-off walkway that is itself very high up within this chamber.
The big thing is the color of clay all over, and if Lilly knew what a golem was and not just the idea of a golem that’s what she’d describe it as: a giant golem. She hears voices and sees small shapes moving around the thing’s feet-equivalents, and she realizes that they’re people, and that’s when she fully comprehends the magnitude of this thing. The thing makes voices small, is what it does. It makes ideas and voices and things that don’t even have a size dimension seem small.
Doctor Earlyon gives his small voice some room: “this is what we’re calling the Nephilim project. That also sounds melodramatic, but I named it that so I like it, so don’t criticize it. This is a giant, as you can see, with some kind of internal power source that we can’t identify or, as of yet, find a way to utilize outside of itself. It is, as far as we can tell, some kind of organic metal clay, though we haven’t been able to break off a piece for analysis, so we could have a new element on our hands. More probably we have several.
“Another thing we discovered is that it is a thing that must be piloted for it to do anything. There’s a cranial opening that it can be entered with, and once inside, the pilot can control the subject. It’s a complicated system that will take some getting used to.”
“What happened to your leg?”
“We’re calling it Rei 1, and hopefully with your help we’ll be able to replicate the Nephilim.”
“You named it after Mom?”
“That I did.”
 Or Golem, a rock/ground type Pokemon.
How To Fail at Nanowrimo
2nd Mistake: don’t get cocky
You remember “Star Wars.” Surely you remember “Star Wars.” You remember how “Empire Strikes Back” is the best one, you remember how if George Lucas could set aside his absurd pride for two seconds he would have hired an actual writer to deal with some script-work and that way Episodes I through III would have been entertaining rather than this
Anyway, there’s a scene in A New Hope where Luke, our everyman hero, shoots a Tie Fighter right off of its string and into a fake explosion like a Tatooine womp rat, and Han Solo, being Han Solo, congratulates him by telling him to not get cocky.
Similarly, there came a point in my November novel-writing adventure where I felt like I had force-guided the proton torpedo of my plot into the Death Star’s ventilation shaft of my quote-unquote novel. And I actually thought to myself, or maybe said it out loud depending on how much NyQuil I’d had: “50,000 words isn’t going to be enough. I need more words, this contest can’t contain me.”
So, cockiness breeds complacency. Or, if you prefer: pride cometh before a fall. This I learned.
Because I had (what I thought were) all the tools: a plot of huge scope, a rock-paper-scissors game between the devil and a guy who works at a burger joint, a host of mythical weapons that were going to be used, some surprises, and a giant Golem robot. What else do you need?
The answer to that question is an attitude that’s conducive to actually writing about those things, and when my mindset was “Oh, Hunter, you can go ahead and drink another beer in the shower instead of writing, you prolific son of a gun, that novel’s going to write itself at this point, you saucy minx,” it’s not super hard to see how I ended up not finishing the wrimo.
My point is that it’s tough to do the work when you’re trying to formulate pithy responses to Conan O’Brian’s questions to you about the writing process rather than partaking in the actual writing process.
What Riley Did: this is the segment where I talk about what my roommate, who is better than me at most human endeavors, did.
At no point did he act like NaNoWrimo was at all easier than how hard it is, which is unreasonably difficult. I am confident that his perspective allowed him a greater measure of success than me.
Chapter 4: Rain, After Running Away
“I’ve learned not to expect too much of the apocalypse”
3 January 2012: The Present
Lilly Earlyon is standing in the elevator, pretending to dust something nowhere close to the buttons so that she doesn’t accidentally hit one. Her excitement is not about finding out what’s actually in the secret basement, which is a revelation she had just recently. The existence of the secret basement itself is something that she hasn’t thought past. If it’s empty, she’ll be happy. Though it’s probably not empty. If it’s full, she’ll be even happier.
This thrill of figuring something out was often mistook in her for preternatural intelligence. Which is not to say that she’s dumb, but it was easy for her parents to focus on her excitement at solving puzzles and forget that the puzzles were never anything but perfectly age-appropriate. Her love of having found out the answer was mistook for a desire to put in lots of effort towards answer-finding, and so in school she was both heavily pushed and a disappointment.
“But you love to learn,” her parents would say, and she had to take their word for it. What she loved was to have learned. More accurately, this was what she liked. What she loved were RPG-style videogames, which are both an excellent way to solve puzzles of increasing difficulty and be able to look up how, and to sit in exactly one spot for extended periods of time.
Which makes this elevator – a puzzle solved by staying in one sport for an extended period of time – kind of the holy grail for Lilly.
She was able to attend a seriously prestigious liberal arts college, mostly because of her father’s connections to the dean, and she didn’t stay long enough to achieve a nickname.
She’d been walking out of the library, looking straight down at a gameboy that she was playing a re-release of Final Fantasy II on, and she’d looked up for a second to see two large parties of what she’d begrudgingly had to accept as her peers yelling at each other from across a sidewalk. On one side was a rally to raise awareness for the public desire to free a rapper from federal prison, who had not only funded an underground dog-fighting ring and dabbled in child pornography, but it had been found out that he had almost single-handedly headed an East Coast drug empire. On the other side, a collective of students who had, until the rap began, been attempting to sleep in cardboard boxes, to raise awareness for people who actually had to sleep in cardboard boxes, or something.Their first attempt, the night before, had been rained out.
From the rap side came a cavalcade of sarcastic apologies, from one girl in particular, screaming “oh, I’m so sorry, oh I’m so sorry,” the sarcasm evident in the inflections of the “oh” and the “so.” Another girl was moving her butt in unnatural-looking ways, and also apologizing.
From the box side, there were vague accusations about the disparity in the legitimacy of the two sides’ causes, as well as an accusation that the rap protestors had at some point actually lost their souls. Unconsciously, as there was no physical divider beyond the road, itself built specifically for travel, no one crossed the road or even made a step onto the road, so Lilly was able to pass, somehow invisible, between the two sides, and felt the spit and smelled the drugs.
Her dorm door had come equipped with a small whiteboard, and on it her roommate had written some asinine dreck about never regretting something that made you smile once, or some such, and Lilly packed all of her things into boxes and tried to forget about those human beings and the country they inhabited.
And so exactly the kind of emotional and monetary rift that you’d expect to form formed, which led to Lilly taking a job in a national park near Anchorage, AK, which company also sent janitors to Antarctica, which is where she is now.
She’s squatting in the elevator, for some reason, somehow reasoning that if she makes herself as small as she can, she is less likely to get caught, which is ridiculous and untrue, in an elevator, but is one of those irrational things that can comfort a person. She is in the elevator for three minutes and thirty-three seconds before it shudders and descends, and her breath quickens. She is now squatting, having finished pretending to dust at around the two minute mark.
She is squatting and breathing with difficulty, comforted by her squatting, kind of stressed by her breathing, which is fogging even in the relative heat of January.
The elevator descending slowly, but to what feels to Lilly like a freakish depth. It occurs to her that maybe the depths of the station might be a place of punishment, that the reason she doesn’t see the scientists who descend for extended periods of time is because they are being brutally tortured for incompetence of some kind, for actions that adversely affect the station and therefore the States, and therefore the whole free world.
She felt this kind of dread once before, when auditioning for a part as an extra in a horror movie that was being filmed in her childhood hometown. She was in line with what seemed like millions and millions of kids exactly her age and socio-economic status, and as she got closer to the front of the line, she began to hear screaming. The auditions were in the local public school’s gymnasium, and kids would go in one at a time and then there’d be this bloodcurdling scream and then silence, and then the next kid’d go in, and scream exactly once, and then the next kid, and so on and so on. She was terrified, but she also couldn’t bring herself to leave the line, and neither could any of the other kids. She didn’t know whether or not they were scared as well, but how couldn’t they be? But how could she break line, and be the only one? She’d be the coward. And so she endured the screaming for about an hour and a half, until it was just her in there, and she fully expected to be rent asunder or bitten or zapped with some kind of electric, but what happened was a smarmy-looking guy asked her to do her best scared scream, and she did, and the part went to some other girl who would go on to become one of the town’s all time greatest sluts.
Lilly was frightened by the fact that complete unknown-ness and not even the luxury of expecting to scream awaited her at the bottom of this supernaturally long descent.
She quickly develops the theory that it just travels all the way through the earth, and she’ll end up at the north pole, cold and upside-down, then have to ride it all the way back.
So imagine her surprise when the doors to the freight elevator open up and she comes face to face with her very own favorite daddy, with a perfectly stereotypical physics prof beard, and the first thing he tells her is that it’s about damn time, and it’s more grumbled than actually spoken though.
9 February 1989: The Present
A. Atom Severe is wondering how books get published, all of a sudden. More specifically, he is wondering how post-apocalyptic re-imaginings of beloved Broadway plays about Jewish identity and whether it’s right to go against tradition get published, when they’re set in Scotland and have nothing to do with either Jewish identity or tradition.
He is also wondering about copyright infringement and whether “Fiddler” is public domain.
He is spending a considerably smaller amount of his mental bandwidth on one of two things in his life that are actually interesting: the overdue book. Which is objectively more interesting than his book and the business of publishing. He has not filed it back in with the rest of the literature, instead hanging onto it for some reason.
Perhaps, unconsciously, he knows that it’s the most interesting thing that’s every happened to him, but he certainly isn’t thinking of it in that way now. He is busy thinking of what he is under the impression is daring, avant-garde sci-fi, but which is in reality absolute and irredeemable nonsense.
He has actually sent a chapter disguised as a short story to several reputable literary reviews (a chapter in which Moira’s ability to discern, process, and produce music is attributed to a disease that may result in her death, an potentially interesting idea that is nevertheless never fully fleshed out, in that it is mentioned precisely zero more times in that chapter or outside of it), one of which broke their usual rejection policy of simply not responding to send a carefully worded letter back explaining that not only should this A.A. Severe (Atom’s publishing name) not submit anything to this particular journal every again (which journal’s name rhymes with “dew dorker”) but that he also shouldn’t submit anything to anywhere, and that if he were to hire someone to live full time with him whose only job was to slap any writing implements out of his hands, they’d not only happily foot the bill but they’d try to see if they could write it off, tax-wise, as they’d be providing a service to mankind.
This response was lost in the mail, and A.A. Severe remains hopeful that the short story he’ll use to promote his novel is waiting to be discovered in the slush pile at the offices of the mag that rhymes with dew dorker.
All of this is to say that Atom is wasting a lot of mental energy on pretty unproductive (and possibly detrimental to society, if you believe some editors, who actually toned down their response) things, rather than an exciting mystery.
So when he gets a knock at the door, he is upset at being jolted out of exactly the wrong thought process.
The apartment complex that Atom lives in is called “Paradise Lofts,” which is an unintentional pun that all the tenants but him appreciate, and even if he were to suddenly have a fridge logic epiphany on the subject, the irony that a book jockey would miss that pun for so many years would also whiz right on over the top of his noggin.
Although maybe a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that no one reads the classics anymore.
And he opens the door, and he can say without any reservation, and as a heterosexual male, that the guy standing there is the handsomest man he’s ever seen. (Although maybe a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that he works at a library).
“Listen. I want this to be fair,” says the man.
“Okay? Just okay? You’re just right there ready to go along with what this stranger at your door whom you know nothing about is proposing?”
“I guess so.”
“Then that’s exactly why I’m here. Did you know that Julius Caesar met with Spartacus high on a rock the night before the former quelled the latter’s rebellion? Though of course he wasn’t a Caesar then.”
“I did not.”
“This is kind of like that.”
“In what way?”
“You and I are about to be enemies. We are also about to have been enemies. And I want to win, but I want it to be at least a little bit fair. So you and I are going to have a competition, a bit of friendly gamesmanship, to decide whether or not I will reward you with a fraction of my intelligence. If you win, you will become incredibly intelligent by your standards, and if I win I will either have to just deal with the fact that our future battle will be spectacularly one-sided, or query the powers that be to engineer another to replace-“
“Ro-Sham-Bo!” shouts Atom, throwing a rock on “bo.”
The handsome man, caught off guard, reacting instinctively, throws scissors unthinkingly and is both surprised and annoyed.
“If you’re telling the truth, I get smarter, and if you’re lying, I get to kick a lunatic off my porch. Even a dummy like me can spot a win-win.”
A quick aside: there is a lot that he doesn’t know about, and he’d admit to it, but Aleph Atom Severe knows one hell of a whole lot about rock-paper-scissors variations. He knows that if you think, more often than not, you lose. He knows you get exactly one trump-all fire throw per lifetime (trump-all except for water, which is itself risky as it only beats fire). He also knows that if he throws his fire here, probably no one will find out. He is dishonest with the small stuff.
“Ro-Sham-Bo!” The handsome man wins the throw, rock to scissors.
“Ro-Sham-BO!” Atom throws his one and only fire (except for if he lies about it), and the handsome man loses, and smiles, and walks away, and as soon as he’s out of Atom’s sight, it’s like a shadow hangs over his face, and people seem to unconsciously look away from him.
Atom is then aware that his novel is pure tripe, but has some ideas for tweaks.
 Himself a professor of physics at a much, much more prestigious university.
 But whose jams, even Lilly had to admit, approached a level of dopeness ‘pert near staggering.
 They were unclear.
 The other being the murder that he and a handful of people witnessed yesterday.
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