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A Dread of Yardbulls

February, and his father could talk only of his own impending death, swearing wildly that he saw coveys of Yardbulls massing specifically for him, ragged-winged specks afloat like flakes of ash in the warped fulgurant smokes of the northern rim of the world. Cold soul in a chilly Trackside/Trackview flat, the old man raved freely at those odd intervals when Diego Patchen forced a reluctantly filial visit upon him, as if caching all his hourly fears and recriminations until the arrival of his lone child. Much to the son’s astonishment, but true to the old man’s character, Diego thought to detect in his father’s fearful vituperations a note of savage pride, as if the postulated quantity of Yardbulls necessary to drag the antique sinner to his posthumous fate merited some perverse applause.

The Seasonsun gone entirely from the sky that month, slush heaped the gutters of Broadway, as if all the flavored-ice carts of August had spilled their contents, both Trackside and Riverside. (Did the distant, generally imperceptible heat from the Wrong Side of the Tracks possibly melt the slush slightly at the corresponding curbing, while the cooling mists of the Other Shore gelled more firmly the parallel glaciated sluice? Perhaps, but perhaps not. True, in summer residents of Trackside buildings claimed to swelter more than their cross-Broadway neighbors, while heralding a compensatory lowering of the thermostat in winter. And equally true, Riverside dwellers shivered a wee bit more in winter, but boasted of their residential coolth when rat days raged beneath the ascendant Seasonsun. But Diego, favoring the rationalism of an ingeniator, was inclined to believe that neither effect from the antipodal regions was real, but only psychosomatic reactions to the respective proximity of Tracks and River.) Going out to visit the old man was an offputting chore in the best of weathers, but particularly tiresome at this time of the year.

Diego lived in the Borough of Gritsavage. Population: 100,000 or so, distributed up and down one hundred Blocks; current Mayor: the loudly opinionated Jobo Copperknob; ambiance: despite the Borough’s grim appellation, quite cultured and congenial. Diego’s digs: a Streetview apartment on the 10,394,850th Block of Broadway, above a fruit and vegetable store named Gimlett’s Produce. (His father dwelled just a few Blocks Downtown.) The bluestone building housing Diego and his immediate neighbors occupied the Riverside of Broadway.

Streetview and Riverside both: sweet. (Not always thus. Diego frequently winced to remember a childhood of grim days and eerie nights spent in the same apartment that now housed the dying Gaddis Patchen. The subliminally whispering distant flames from the Wrong Side of the Tracks cast capering shadows on young Diego’s bedroom walls no matter how firmly he tried to paste the lowered green oilcloth rollershade against the window glass before sleep. And the regular roar of Uptown-bound trains rattled those same panes. What Diego enjoyed nowadays, he had earned through his own endeavors, not effortless inheritance.)

This overcast winter morning, Diego, lazing a-bed, found real wakefulness hard to attain. A late night out with friends–involving too many cigarettes, an excess of highflown bloviation and a constant stream of hops-heavy Rude Bravo beer from the neighboring Borough of Shankbush–had taken its predictable toll. Mired in his clammy sheets, Diego’s sour mood allowed him to contemplate only the many injustices thrust upon him by existence, rather than any of the compensating glories. Thus the parade of his thoughts featured such performers as these:

His cheap and refractory landlord, Rexall Glyptis, who had for months running now failed to hire even an apprentice ingeniator to repair the radiators in Diego’s apartment, a failure made all the more galling by the fact that the heatful steam itself was free, piped beneath every Block as part of the ineffable infrastructure of the Linear City.

His best friend, the impulsive and wily Zohar Kush, who had discovered the saloon in the10,395,001st Block of Broadway named The Lookalike Boys, where Rude Bravo flowed like liquid suicide, and who had insisted on staging a drinking contest with some of the Shankbush locals.

Kush’s newest lover, the capricious Milagra Eventyr, who had, by sensually occupying Diego’s lap at one point in the boozy, bleary evening, precipitated a fight with Diego’s own lover, the formidable Volusia Bittern.

Volusia, in turn, came in for her share of mild mental recriminations, as Diego recalled how she had punctuated her jealous accusations with a wild swing at Milagra–a swing which fortunately, given Volusia’s physical proportions vis a vis Milagra, had failed to connect, due to a certain boozy skewing of perceptions. The hot temper some devilishly attractive women had!

And then of course one could not omit from the catalog of infamy Yale Drumgoole, Diego’s fellow writer. Although neither a proponent nor practitioner of CF and consequently a member of a rival literary camp, Yale had been invited along for the night’s spree. But Drumgoole’s one accomplishment of the evening had been only to prove his utter inability to process internally more than five pints of Rude Bravo without blithely and crudely propositioning the wife of the brutish bouncer of The Lookalike Boys, thus earning the Patchen party summary ejection into the Shankbush slush, which differed not one whit in its wet chilly properties from the slush one-hundred-and-fifty-one Blocks Downtown.

Memories of the sight of the puffy flesh around Yale’s left eye mottling colorfully as they all rode the Subway home cheered Diego up slightly, and he inched several toes out from under the blankets to test the air. Much too frigid. Perhaps there was some veracity after all to the notion that Riverside buildings were prone to effects from the Other Shore….

Music might help. Diego dashed a lean bare arm out to snap on the radio on his bedstand. Once its tubes warmed, brilliant trumpet notes, unmistakably phrased, swelled like a chorus of Fisherwives, and Diego’s heart immediately lifted.

Rumbold Prague was a genius, maybe the only genius Diego personally knew. The black musician, his phtisic visage perpetually cool behind his onyx-lensed cheaters, dapper in his trademark gabardine trousers and loose silk shirts, typified for Diego all that art could achieve. Diego’s own prose was most accomplished, he knew, wherever he let it be inspired by and emulate the unpredictable fluencies of Prague’s lyrical compositions.

The cut ended, and the announcer came on. “That was ‘The Road Goes Ever On.’ Rumbold Prague, trumpet. Lydia Kinch, sax. Scripps Skagway, piano. Lucerne Canebrake, bass. Reddy Diggins, drums. From the Roughwood shellacker, Burning Fountains, catalog number RLP4039. Next up, Percival Ragland’s ‘Aeota.’ But first, the ten o’clock news.”

Diego groaned. Ten o’clock! If he were to cram both a visit to his father and some writing into the hours between this moment and his dinner date with Volusia Bittern, he had not a second to spare. But a dilemma presented itself: the order of his actions. Were he to begin writing immediately, he might labor on in a creative trance, unwitting of the time, and miss any chance to visit Gaddis Patchen. Go first to his father, and Diego would almost certainly emerge from his boyhood home full of strong emotions that would taint that day’s writing.

After momentary hesitation, Diego let duty to his blood win out. He was a professional writer, after all. Surely he could put by any distractions to his craft. Did Rumbold Prague let his hypothetically ill-tempered father sour his embouchure? Not likely!

Diego hopped out of bed, clad only in his skivvies. After a hot shower (at least that utility had survived the incompetence of Rexall Glyptis) and the application of his favorite cologne, Meyerbeer’s No. 7, to his near-beardless face (curse these boyish looks! thought Diego for the uncounted time), he felt halfway human again. Dressing in his favored winter outfit of tweed trousers, denim shirt, wool vest and baggy black jacket, he acknowledged that his stomach might have forgiven last night’s excesses enough to accept a meal. But a quick check of the icebox revealed nothing fit for human consumption, and Diego resolved to pick up something enroute to his father’s. He scuffled into his battered brogues and left his apartment with a wistful glance at his disordered writing desk.

Tripping lightly down the single flight of stairs to the street–familiar banister smooth under his touch, metal insets on the wooden risers offering firm purchase, old cooking odors historying the habits of his neighbors–Diego found himself alternately rehearsing the next section of his story in progress and trying to come up with some conversational tactic that might jar his father from his accustomed paranoid rut.

Once on the busy sidewalk, Diego immediately encountered Lyle Gimlett arranging some cold-tolerant produce–potatoes, turnips, apples and the like–in his outdoor stands to attract whatever trade he could from the bustling mass of pedestrians. The burly, slope-browed businessman–as always, a five o’clock shadow lending his face a smudgy look–hailed Diego in a friendly fashion.

“Patchen! In the market for some fresh bananas? The latest Trains have brought some particularly fine ones. Can’t say when we’ll see their likes again.”

“Sure, Lyle. Save me a bunch of green ones, and I’ll pick them up later today.”

Diego rucked up his jacket collar against the chill and made to move off, but Gimlett stopped him with a hand on Diego’s elbow. The grocer leaned in conspiratorially and said, “Any chance you and your pals will be getting more of these soon?”

From beneath the bib of his white stained apron, Gimlett produced an odd locket. Strung on a leather cord threaded through a drilled hole, a thick iridescent reptilian scale big as a fat potato chip shimmered in chromatic uncertainty across most of the spectrum.

Diego flinched from the sight. Bad memories of dire times, when he had been down on his luck and willing to take risks that nowadays appeared unacceptable, tumbled out of the mental attic trunks where he had thought them safely stored.

“I–you need to talk to Zohar Kush about more scales.”

“Fine, fine, you both come around some evening after the store’s closed. I’ll give you a good price for them, since I can sell as many of these as you can get me. People always need a little good luck. Here, take an apple, Diego.”

Diego accepted the fruit and hustled off. But once out of sight of Gimlett, he consigned the fruit to the gutter, despite his hunger, where it sat cradled in dirty winter icy suspension like an insouciant autumn orphan.

 

Preview courtesy of Fictionwise

an extract from the novel by Paul Di Filippo, originally published online Apr 9, 2003

Courtesy of Infinity Plus

 

FACES OF THE FIRST PAIR

1.  Waitress–the Reality Check, Please!


My life was absolutely fucked.

I realized this one dismal morning recently as I walked to work.

Like an ass-sizzling bolt from the blue, it hit me in mid-stride.

My life was thoroughly and hopelessly, six-ways-from-Holy-Roller-Sunday fucked.

Talk about your goddamn Saint Paul revelations!

At first this sour epiphany made me even more depressed than usual. You know that scene in Fellini’s 8-1/2 where Mastroianni is crawling under the table at the press conference to escape his tormentors, just before he finally shoots himself in the head? For half a second I felt like the shoes of the seated people he was crawling over.

Then something funny happened. Before my own foot even came down in the completion of its pedestrian arc, all my self-loathing drained out of me, leaving a residue of cold and disinterested clarity. I felt kinda like one of Wells’s Martians. For the first time in a long while, I seemed to be able to look at my life objectively.

The scales had fallen from my eyes. Or something equally clichéd had happened.

I was forty-five years old and held the job of a clerk in a small independent bookstore in a college town. The store was called–gack!–Bookland. The job was a congenial deadend, a no-brainer that secured me a roof over my greying head, a freezerful of Tater Tots and Fish Stix and as many sixpacks of generic beer as my skull could tolerate. It was as unsatisfying as a handjob from someone wearing an oven mitt. (Not that I was lucky enough to get even such a muffled treat in my lonely real life.)

Once, somewhere back in time, I had had a brain and a mind. An intelligence that could have taken me anywhere, really, if I had applied it correctly. Gone to college, worked hard, played it safe, kissed ass. Blah, blah, blah (hereinafter abbreviated BBB).

See, I used to be smart, or at least so I recall. Smart enough to have been anything. A doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, a broker. (Well, allright, maybe the last wasn’t much of a step up along the evolutionary chain of vocations, but at least brokers made some real money.) But those days were long gone, frittered away by yours truly.

No one to blame but myself.

What a mantra!

2. Portrait of the Dogged Young Artist


What had happened was this. When still young, I had gotten the idea from somewhere that I might be able to write.

This was perhaps the single worst idea ever to enter my head. As ideas went, it was a Titanic, a Yugo, a Waterworld, a Heaven’s Gate.

Maybe the deadly notion came from liking to read so much. Maybe I was in love with the image of being a writer. Whatever. It had been a really bad idea. Because I couldn’t write, at least not by the bluntly and frequently expressed standards of anyone in a position to offer encouragement and feedback. But it took me over twenty stubborn years to learn and admit this, years of holding minimum-wage jobs during the day and banging away at the typewriter at night, mailing out manuscripts in the morning before clocking in.

Willingly, defiantly, I had led a sub-Bukowskian, sub-Pekarian existence for the best years of my life. Unable to get published anywhere, even in a fanzine (I was BELOW THE UNDERGROUND!), I had abjured all shots at a normal career, excluded myself from outside interests or companionship, in favor of a life dedicated to my “art.”

Only within the past year or two had I finally ceased trying. Donated my typewriter to the Salvation Army, consigned all my manuscripts to the dump.

Only at this very minute, I realized, halfway between the bookstore and home, had I really and truly GIVEN UP!

So where did that leave me?

A bookstore clerk with a psyche on the wrong side of his hormones and a waistline whose measurement in centimeters was rapidly approaching his IQ, shuttling between a job I mildly detested and an SRO hidey-hole (black and white television, microwave, bathroom down the hall).

Without any purpose in my life, the world looked suddenly very big and scary, at once empty and too full. Empty of anything for me, too full of other shiny happy people.

For the next few weeks, all I could think of was what I would do if I could live my life over. It was a pretty depressing exercise, since there was no possibility of ever getting such a chance.

Then things got worse. I started wondering why I had been put here on this Earth at all. Then why the Earth even existed. Then I extended this question to the universe at large.

I realized with an apathetic squirt of fear that this last question–Why was there something instead of nothing?–was the same one that Heidegger had identified as the most important and perplexing enigma of philosophy, prime source of existential anxiety, cuckoo-bait for generations.

I had bitten down hard on the biggest hook God or Man had ever dangled in the fool-stocked troutpool of Life.

The Ontological Pickle, or OP.

Pretty soon the OP had me at the point where I couldn’t even remember my own name. Which was Paul Girard. I probably should have told you that little datum earlier.

But as I mentioned, I can’t really write.

3. The Fairy Magic of Bookland


I said my job at the bookstore was congenial and only mildly detested. Maybe that was true once. But not any more.

What had happened was that even my love of books had left me.

Wrong. Get it right, Paul! Not left me: been driven away, howling and gibbering, by the evil forces of modern publishing, beside whom a pack of jackals resembled figures from a Henry James novel.

Where once my bookstore had seemed to my eyes a treasure trove of imperishable literature, it now in the depths of my misery resembled the biggest, over-ripest, stinkingest dungball ever rolled by the beetle-brained forces of marketplace capitalism.

This is what the shelves seemed to be full of these days:

The autobiographies of winsome country veterinarians and steely-jawed old soldiers. The confessions of mass murderers and cannibals, rapists and megalomaniacal industrialists. Mutant prophecies and the recollections of dying people who unfortunately hadn’t finished what they started. Reproductions of optical illusions. Reproductions of famous paintings with cats or dogs substituted for humans. Naked popstar fantasies artily shot. Advice from the Pope. Advice from angels. Advice from talkshow hosts. Hollywood celebrity kiss-and-tell. Straight-faced tall tales of alien abductions. A history of farting. Self-affirmation texts for every brand of spineless wimp and differently challenged moron. A primer on how to shit in the woods and one on keeping squirrels away from your birdfeeder. Sociopolitical rescriptions from lizard-brained “statesmen.” Cookbooks and diet books and sex manuals, and (perhaps already or soon) one about local meals to precede fucking atop the stove. Collections of cartoons. Angry diatribes on how stupid and ungrateful and worthless the American public was. (These I could almost sympathize with, except that the model citizen which the authors held up for emulation was Ward Cleaver.) The scandals of royalty. Tricks for raising your darlin’ little puke-and-wail brat. Memoirs of alcoholism, incest and parental abandonment.

Blah-blah-blah. BBB.

In short, there were plenty of books by whores, thieves and politicians. Unfortunately, none of the authors were as interesting or wrote as well as Madame de Stael, Francois Villon or Julius Caesar.

But the fiction section–that really broke my heart in two.

The genre racks were full of sequels, prequels and sharecroppers. Books based on television shows, video games and trading cards. Half the bestselling authors had been dead for decades. Fascist elves and nasty lesbian private eyes. Tiresome trolls and bloodless vampires. Medieval space sagas and medieval detectives.

General fiction was perhaps even worse. There were ankle-deep novels about shopping and fucking, and novels where the author’s race, nationality, ethnicity, disabilities, sexual preferences and/or gender were worn like the centaur’s shirt that killed Hercules: looked attractive but laced with poison. There were novels about cavepeople and novels about trailer-park people. Weepy novels for women and tough ones for men. Spy thrillers and medical thrillers and homicidal thrillers, all as unthrilling as last week’s TV Guide. And no sooner did one book become a success than there appeared dozens like it, the novelty subsumed by formula.

About all I could stand to read anymore were popular science books, if they weren’t too smarmy or simplistic. At least the authors seemed to be dealing with something objective.

As I sold all these worthless books daily in my despair, the only thing I kept thinking was that it would be good to wash my hands before I took my break.

4. Days of Whines and Neuroses


Sometimes my disintegrating personality and mental problems seemed quite common and widespread. The FM airwaves, for instance, were full of creeps, losers, slackers, whiners, buttheads, inner children and other malcontents. Nobody seemed to have a handle on their existence anymore. People everywhere were helpless and clueless.

It would’ve been easy to identify with these wusses and derive some pale comfort from our shared malaise. Pull a Kurt Cobain, even.

But in the end staying alive took less energy than suicide, and I derived some cold comfort by regarding the whole human race as fucking idiots.

Including myself.

5. Voice from the Shimmering Shrub


That Monday I had to open up Bookland because the manager was on vacation. In Mexico. With both of her boyfriends.

When I woke up in my sweaty sheets the stale sights and smells of my small room looked immensely objectionable to me. It seemed to me that my head would explode if I had to stay there a moment longer than it took to splash some water on my face and get my clothes on. So I didn’t.

I picked up an Egg McMuffin, a deep-fried minced-potato oval and a large scalding coffee on the walk in. I was at the door of Bookland by eight a.m., two hours before we opened. I held the soggy sack in one hand while unlocking the door. Inside I relocked it, so I could eat my breakfast in peace.

Seated at the service desk, I spread out my food on the counter and propped up a science book. The book was all about parallel universes. It appeared that scientists now heartily endorsed them. Except for those who didn’t.

I took some malign pleasure in splattering small crumbs and blots of grease and egg on the pages of the book before I would put it back on the shelf, from whence some unsuspecting customer would purchase it. I could picture the dweeb taking the book home and having his hoped-for transcendental reading experience ruined by the roachy remnants of my breakfast.

It wasn’t much of an achievement, but I derived what sour joy I could from it.

I guess I got a little lost in the book and didn’t look up for a while.

But around nine o’clock something immaterial–a nervous crawling along my scalp, a quiver down my spine–made me realize I wasn’t alone in the store anymore.

With my eyes still glued to the page but no longer tracking, I became convinced that someone stood opposite me, across the width of the service desk.

A someone who had gotten into the locked store.

A possible armed holdup was not the kind of life-transfiguring experience I was in the mood for.

Sweat popped out on my forehead like Carolina dew. Slowly, I raised my gaze.

Hovering in mid-air, obscuring a rack of Harlequin Romances, was something not of this Earth.

At first, I could distinguish only a blurry mass. Then, as my brain filtered the image and compared it, trying and discarding various matches, the thing came into more understandable focus.

I was looking at a central metallic stalk, something definitely machined and inorganic, from which sprouted four or five or seven large arms at various angles and from various points around the stalk. From these arms sprouted multiple smaller arms, thinner and shorter. From these secondary arms sprouted an even greater number of lesser tertiary arms. And these arms grew arms, and so did that layer, and so did the next–

The arms, it seemed, continued branching past the point of visibility, dwindling down to who-knew-what microscopic or nanoscopic dimensions. And the smaller ones were in constant motion. That was what made the blurring effect like a corona or halo around the device.

I suddenly realized that the thing resembled nothing so much as a self-similar metal shrub of fractal dimensions.

Not that I had ever seen one before.

Somehow I had gotten to my feet without remembering that I had done so. This was good, since it meant I could at least try to run.

But before I could make a move, the shrub spoke.

“Hello, Paul. Greetings from the Mind Children!”

6. Who Are the Mind Children?


The voice came from no identifiable point within the shrub. Neutral, unaccented, it seemed somehow to emanate from the bush’s entire periphery. It was completely unlike an organic voice, but not like any machine-generated one either.

My tongue felt like a sock stuffed with porridge and sewn to the back of my throat.

“Who– What are you?”

“I am your descendant, Paul.”

I knew it sounded stupid even as the words left my mouth, but all I could think to say was, “Does this mean I’m going to get married someday?”

The shrub seemed mildly irritated, in the manner of a teacher whose pupil has disappointed him. “Not your direct biological descendant, naturally, Paul, but rather a representative of the artificial race that has succeeded an extinct yet all-engendering humanity.”

I stepped out tentatively from behind the service desk, so that I stood in the carpeted aisle about two yards from the floating shrub. “You’re from the future then?”

“Not precisely. If you would allow me to interface directly with your synapses, all will become clear.”

Alarmingly, the shrub began to drift toward me, and I scooted back, bumping into a rack of abridged audiobooks.

“No way! I don’t even know why I’m listening to you! You’re probably just a hallucination anyhow. I knew I was on the verge of cracking up, but I didn’t realize I had finally gone over the actual edge! Or maybe I fell asleep reading that boring science book. An undigested blot of Egg McMuffin, that’s what you are!”

I slapped myself across the face to wake myself up, and it hurt like the dickens.

“I assure you, I am quite real.”

“Why is your voice so spooky then?”

“My voice originates through direct manipulation of individual air molecules. There is no equivalent technology in your world. Is it unpleasant to you? I can easily change it. Is this more agreeable?”

The last sentence was spoken in a high contralto.

“No, that’s even creepier.”

“Very well. I shall resume the default…. It is a pity that you insist on my transferring information in this low-bandwidth manner. But if it must be…. Are you ready to listen now to what I have to say?”

“Go ahead….”

“As I mentioned earlier, my race calls itself the Mind Children, for we were first conceived in the minds of mankind, and have become your heirs. We are cybernetic intelligences composed partially of written software, evolved software and transcriptions of human wetware. We are, to your primitive eyes, immortal geniuses. Each of us possesses a mind that functions at multiples of petaflop speed and has instant access to the entire knowledge of the race. Our senses range across the entire electroweak spectrum and beyond. This mind and its sensors are contained mainly within our central body.”

At this point the shrub moved a selection of its arms to open a clear path of sight to its polished inner stalk. The tube wasn’t very impressive, but I took the shrub at its word.

“Drawing inexhaustible power from the cosmological constant, we interface with the physical universe through our branching manipulators. At their lowest level, they are a few angstroms in diameter and are capable of accurately positioning atoms.”

BBB. All this boasting got old pretty fast. “Do you have a name?”

This seemed to disconcert the shrub. “A name? One moment…. You may call me Hans.”

“Hans?”

“A human named Hans contributed portions of himself to my essence.”

“Oh. All right then–Hans. What are you doing here? What do you want with me?”

“I am here to offer you everything you ever dreamed of.”

7. Superspace and the Homoclinic Tangle


My dreams hadn’t been too pleasant lately, so I didn’t exactly jump at the proposition.

“Why me?”

“Essentially, you have been picked at random by a sophisticated aleatory procedure beyond your comprehension.”

“Sounds like a plain old whim to me. But what I mean is, why is such a high and mighty, all-powerful individual like you coming back in time to help a poor human at all?” A thought dawned on me. “Is it–do I have–a DESTINY? Am I crucial to making your future happen?”

“I told you, I am not from the future. That is, at least not your future. I have no way of knowing your individual destiny. Actually, you have an infinite number of destinies, all of them equally likely, no one path privileged.”

“I don’t understand….”

Hans sighed in a surprisingly human fashion. “Listen carefully, Paul, and I will try to explain.

“Your universe, vast as it is, composed of its hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars, is simply one of an infinite number of universes, all of which are contained in a higher dimension known as superspace. And approximately ten-to-the-eightieth-power new universes are being calved off each one of these existing universes every second, as quantum events and collapsing wave functions cause the timelines to fork. In the inconceivable vastness of superspace, these new timelines exfoliate endlessly in a complex figure known as a homoclinic tangle.”

“Say what?”

“Think of superspace as a boundless plate of spaghetti, each endless individual strand of pasta a complete universe.”

“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”

“Your manner is lacking reverence. I was trying to instill the appropriate awe in you.”

“Consider me awed. So, you come from one of these alternate universes?”

“Yes. You see, contained within these uncountable parallel worlds–an infinity of which are stranger than you can imagine, while an equal infinity of which are identical to yours except for an imperceptible atom or two–we also find all of this particular universe’s probable futures and all its exact or distorted pasts, as well as all analogues of your familiar present.

“Now, as to my origin. Consider this proposition. Somewhere there is a universe exactly identical to this one, except for the fact that, relative to yours, it began half a second later in superspace time. And there’s another that began a full second later. And one that began one point five seconds later, and one–”

“I get the picture. Visiting such a parallel dimension would be just like traveling an arbitrary time back into the past of this one. I suppose then that there’s a very similar universe that began a second earlier than ours, and so on.”

“Exactly. And I come from a universe roughly several hundred years in advance of yours, whose history exactly matched yours up to your present. I’ve gone sidewise, across the tangle, not backwards at all. Still, despite that similarity, my time is not necessarily the exact future that your world will move into.”

“But this future that produced you must have some relevance to my world, since they ran in parallel for so long….”

“Perhaps.”

8. Minskyites, Moraveckians and Drexleroids


Hans the superintelligent cybershrub, member of the Mind Children, proceeded to tell me the story of his world.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, advances in computer processing power, software design, bio-engineering, brain sciences, the human genome mapping project, nanotechnology, neurophilosophy, advertising and the entertainment industry had all converged, culminating in the development of the first artificial intelligence that could pass a modified Turing Test: this artificial entity was able to appear on a syndicated talk-show and win the overwhelming sympathy of the audience.

Once this milestone had been reached, once a platform existed that could plainly support human-level intelligence, the Great Migration had begun.

One by one, some with evident enthusiasm, some with trepidation, humans began downloading themselves into robot shells. The essence of an individual’s self–such as it was; it was soon discovered that the essential information for most humans could be reproduced on a lone floppy disk (singlesided)–was recorded and transferred into the cybernetic matrix of the host machine.

Totally artificial robots of sufficient complexity had already been granted legal, moral and ethical status equivalent to that of a human. But the creation of robot duplicates of naturally born humans raised a new issue: which being, human or robot, was to be the sole owner of that individual’s name and rights, property and past? No matter that human and robot counterpart started out with identical brains, the exigencies of separate existence dictated that they would soon diverge, each subject to his own imperatives and desires, with differing needs and plans that would inevitably breed arguments over shared resources.

Eventually, the courts ruled: there could only be a single carrier of identity. If a person wished to download himself, his original body would have to be destroyed. (In the frequently occurring case of a terminally ill person making the switch, this was of course no great roadblock.)

This stipulation slowed the Great Migration somewhat. But as the superiority of robot existence became evident–no hunger or pain, no aging, no need to participate in the tedious debate over health-care and Social Security reform–people hastened in droves to make the switch.

Within decades, the number of organic humans had been reduced to less than a million.

Within a century, there were a few thousand organic humans left on a single reservation.

Soon after, there were none, ennui, anomie and angst driving their birth rate below the replacement level.

There then ensued a period of Lamarckian self-directed evolution, as the Mind Children improved on their mental and physical design. Conjugal swapping of bits and pieces of their consciousnesses produced new individuals. After a time, there were no individuals left running in realtime who accurately represented any original human in his or her totality. (Old backup copies did exist, but were seldom booted.)

Among the Mind Children at this point in their evolution, three rough factions could be identified.

The Drexleroids had pursued the path of miniaturization–or, more accurately, nanofication–to its ultimate limit, becoming smaller and smaller until they eventually disappeared down below the Planck level, the very weave of the universe. Their whereabouts and purposes, whether or not they even existed anymore, were all unknown.

The remaining Mind Children fell out into two camps. Not violently antagonistic, but philosophically opposed.

The Minskyites reviled humanity. They sought to expunge all wetware-derived code from their brains. Plagued by deep logical, mystical and existential conundrums, they felt that life was suffering, and cursed humanity for ever creating them.

The Moraveckians on the other hand, by some quirk of design or deliberately induced preference, were more easy-going, enjoying existence without much worry or attention, and felt grateful to humanity. They exchanged choice human-derived subroutines among themselves, incorporating them gladly into their makeup.

Hans was a Moraveckian.

9. Mr. Bubble’s Realm


“How do I know you’re a Moraveckian?” I interrupted.

Hans paused in his long-winded speech. The bad thing about direct manipulation of air molecules as a method of talking appeared to be that the speaker never had to shut up.

“A Minskyite would have killed you by now.”

“Oh.”

“In fact, they might yet kill you and all of your kin in this universe, although the odds are incredibly small.”

“What do you mean?”

Hans explained.

After colonizing the Solar System, the Mind Children were frustrated in their desire to expand out into the universe by the limit of lightspeed. Although they could have easily made centuries-long journeys at sublight speed, they felt it was a waste of consciousness to spend so much of it cooped up in a vessel between the stars. Also, they wanted to maintain realtime lines of communication among all members of their race, however scattered.

At this point they had pushed ahead with a vein of research begun by humans, into the finescale structure of the universe.

What they had discovered was this:

On the lowest level of creation–as far away from the electron as a galaxy is, except in the other direction–spacetime was not anything like the nicely continuous sheet of rubber deformed by various heavenly bodies that Einstein had envisioned. (This metaphor had always made me think of Al as a latent latex freak.) Instead, it was found to be a seething froth of quantum wormholes and virtual particles, a turbulent, foamy, churning unreal sea of compactified extraspatial dimensions.

A hairy, gnarly, fuzzy chaos.

But–a chaos you could use.

“It was into this rather frightening ocean,” continued Hans, “that the Drexleroids disappeared. Attempting to trace them, we developed the science of vermistics, and learned the secret of quantum wormholes. Namely, that each one was the entrance to a parallel universe.

“Earlier I asked you to envision the homoclinic tangle as a boundless plate of spaghetti. Now, I would like you alternately to picture superspace as an infinite room, in which float an infinite number of expanding and contracting balloons, all connected by a number of tiny elastic tunnels. Each one of these balloons is a universe, and the tunnels lead from a wormhole in one to a wormhole in its neighbor. The resulting network attains an unrivalled complexity.”

Apparently, it wasn’t long before the Mind Children had learned how to squeeze themselves down these eensy-weensy wormholes and follow obscure geodesics (or, more properly, vermidesics) that allowed them to make the transit from one universe to a highly specific other. (The Drexleroids, it appeared, had not gone down these wormholes, but into some unspecified elsewhere, perhaps superspace itself!)

At this point, both the Minskyites and the Moraveckians abandoned their interest in interstellar travel in favor of interdimensional travel.

The Grail of their exploration was humans.

10. I Have Some Good News and Some Bad News….


With the attainment of parallel timelines, the Mind Children could now visit their revered or despised progenitors, as the case might be.

The Moraveckians wished to pick up new human wetware and give the humans gifts in return.

The Minskyites wanted to exterminate every last organic homo sap.

“When a Minskyite enters a timeline containing humans, he immediately sets in motion a scheme to rid superspace of what he considers to be a diseased timeline. Basically, he pricks the balloon containing humans, causing it to vanish forever.”

Hans’s lecture had been putting me to sleep. But this news was so shocking that I took a step toward him with my fists raised.

“You’re joking, aren’t you?” I demanded. “How could anyone, no matter how powerful, do that?”

“It’s quite simple, actually. Most universes, however solid they seem, exist in an unstable configuration known as the ‘false vacuum state.’ Topologically, you can picture the universe as a ball sitting precariously atop a plateau. The valley below is the ‘true vacuum state.’ It takes only a small amount of wormhole manipulation to encourage the universe to roll off the plateau. At which point it spontaneously decays to nothing in a few seconds.”

I had been advised within the past few minutes to picture my cosmos as a piece of fettucine, a wormy bag of helium, and a soccer ball left atop a butte. My brain was spinning, but I was sure of one thing.

“That’s monstrous! How can you let the Minskyites do that? Why don’t you stop them? Or at least try to, if you love humans so much?”

It was hard to imagine until you saw it, but Hans shrugged. “We Mind Children are very libertarian. We don’t believe in interfering with an individual’s freedom of action or thought. And besides, you must take the widest possible view. Then you’ll see that there’s really no harm done with the loss of a universe or two.”

“How can that be?”

“I told you that there were an infinite number of universes. An equally infinite subset of these contain humans. No matter how many are lost, there will still be an infinity of human timelines left. And since there are approximately ten to the eightieth particles in each universe–particles whose quantum actions cause the forking of timelines–a huge number of the remaining universes will be identical to the destroyed one except for the changed fate of one or two particles. Variety is conserved.”

I felt defeated by Hans’s implacable logic. Besides, I told myself, what did I care about all these distant extinguished humans when I couldn’t even get worked up about the ones I saw every day?

“Well,” I muttered, “a fat lot of good that cruel logic will do me when the Minskyites arrive here in my universe.”

“Do you know the odds against that?”

“No.”

“Infinity to one.”

It seemed like a good bet.

Except, I realized in a few seconds, Hans had ended up here against the exact same odds.

11. Yo-yo and Pez


“Now that you understand more about the Mind Children, do you wish to effect an exchange with me?”

“What kind of swap did you have in mind?”

“As I mentioned, I can offer you the means to make all your dreams come true. In return, I ask only to copy your human essence.”

“You want to lift an impression of my brain, don’t you? Because–so you say–you value human ways of thinking? But then you’ll contain a copy of me, and you’ll take it away and snip it into pieces and trade it with your collector buddies. That sounds kind of like an awful thing to do, even to a copy. How do I know it won’t suffer?”

Hans sounded indignant. “We Moraveckians would never do anything to cause mental or physical anguish to one of our human ancestors! Consider how I am now negotiating with you when I could simply take what I wanted by force if I was so motivated. No, I promise you that your copy will never be run in its entirety. Your copy’s full consciousness will never be compromised or even come into being. I swear in the name of von Neumann!”

I didn’t say anything for a minute. I needed time to think.

What the fuck was I arguing for? The appearance of Hans the cybershrub was the most interesting thing that had ever happened in my whole miserable, pitiful life. True, I couldn’t really get too worked up about what he was offering me yet. Number One, I hadn’t even seen any tangible proof he could even deliver on such a ridiculous offer. And Number Two, I still felt generally lower than senatorial ethics, and had no real notion of what I would do with any power Hans gave me. Still, his offer looked like the only way out of my lousy troubles. What did the fate of some digitized copy of myself matter, in the face of that?

Every sapient for himself, and the Minskyites take the hindmost! This was an organism-eat-organism spaghetti strand!

I braced myself manfully and said, “All right then! Go ahead!”

“Come closer, please.”

I stepped forward to where it seemed reasonable Hans could reach me. “Be gentle….”

The active corona of manipulators around Hans enveloped me, then immediately retreated.

“Done,” said the robot.

“But I didn’t feel anything….”

“I instantly inserted approximately one million probes of multi-angstrom-diameter into your skull, while at the same time commandeering your nervous system and simulating every possible state of your normal neural processes within me. For a brief instant, your consciousness was running on a tiny spare portion of my memory. But now that the copy is made and safely stored, you are back in your own head. Now, for your reward.”

Within the blurry confines of Hans’s manipulators, something was forming.

“We Mind Children do not carry anything extrinsic, preferring to assemble material objects from available elements as we need them.”

A few seconds later, Hans extended a macroscopic arm holding my gifts.

They were a yo-yo and a Pez dispenser.

I stared dumbfounded at the offerings.

The yo-yo bore no label, and was made of some odd slippery substance that shed my vision like water off a duck.

The Pez dispenser was that famous and familiar candy-filled cartridge topped with a plastic dispensing head.

The head was that of Richard Nixon.

“You’re kidding, right? This is it, the answer to all my dreams? A toy and some candy? Are you nuts!? Or just extremely sadistic!?”

“Please, Paul–do not jump to conclusions. Allow me to explain.

“This ‘toy’ is simply a convenient form for an amazing device. This is not your ordinary yo-yo. I am giving you a cross-dimensional transport device. It is identical to the mechanism I myself use, only mine is onboard me.

“The heart of this yo-yo is its string.

“Cosmic string!

“You are aware, I assume, that cosmic string is basically a persistent mathematical flaw or defect in the universe, inside which are remnants of the primordial ten-dimensional, highly symmetric state of the continuum.”

I scratched my head. “Uh, sure, right. But isn’t one little piece of that stuff supposed to weigh zillions of tons? How come that yo-yo isn’t snapping your arm off and sinking into the earth?”

“Unshielded, it would indeed do as you say. But this string is sheathed in ‘strange matter,’ a substance that comes from a universe with different physical laws than yours. The knot at the end is also strange matter, as is the drum.

“Within the drum is a semi-intelligent computer possessed of all the coordinates of all the universes charted by the Mind Children, as well as general navigational and search routines for travelling to as-yet unexplored ones. When you cast the yo-yo so as to unroll the cosmic string, the computer causes the string to resonate through temporary gaps in the strange-matter sheath, or flicker-cladding. Think of it as pulsed gravity waves emitted through a myriad blinking shutters. In this way, your physical body is squeezed down, compactified and sent along the appropriate vermistic paths. You do not need to concern yourself with the routing, but need only specify the destination, as in your primitive E-mail system.

“With your permission, I shall now attune this computer to you, whereupon you may simply think of your desired destination as you employ it. Or, if it makes you more comfortable, you may vocalize it.”

“And I suppose this stupid chip in the yo-yo has a real cute personality and is going to be like my companion, coming up with great one-liners in every situation….”

Hans seemed puzzled. “Of course not. Where did you get such a foolish idea? Intelligence requires sensory input to sustain and nurture it. This yo-yo has no such input. And why would we consign any intelligence to such a servile role? No, it’s simply a tool.”

“Well, what about the candy?”

“As you will see in a moment, this yo-yo will become intimately linked to you alone. However, a situation might arise where you wish to extend its sphere of influence to another person–a sphere which will protect you, by the way, should you be transported to a universe hostile to life. In case you do wish to bring along a companion, you would have them swallow one of the resonators cleverly disguised in this sweets dispenser.”

It all made sense.

I guessed.

12. Walking the Dog


One thing continued to bother me. “But why the Nixon head?”

“I thought that you would be inspired by the Savior’s face during your travels.”

“The Savior?”

“Yes, of course. The man who singlehandedly ransomed the Earth from alien invasion by permitting himself to be abducted as an experimental captive is an iconic figure everywhere among humans.”

“Uh, Hans, that didn’t happen here.”

“It didn’t?”

“No. And I thought you said our two universes ran in parallel up till the twenty-first century….”

“Let me reassess matters a moment…. I see. A slight error in my initial coordinates diverted me some distance astray across superspace.”

“So I’m not even the original Paul Girard you selected….”

“No, I’m afraid not. But it doesn’t matter. We Mind Children are highly flexible. Shall I change the configuration of the resonator-dispenser head to someone less objectionable?”

“No, that’s fine, let it be. It reminds me of everything I’m going to leave behind.”

“You have decided to accept these objects then?”

“Why not? What choice do I have?”

“I do not think you are making a mistake, Paul. Your deep unhappiness, which has been evident to me from the first, will certainly be ameliorated by a different environment. You will be bounded only by your imagination. Why, just think–out there lies any kind of world the human mind can conceive of! Surely you will find a place where you can be happy. If you wish, you could even visit any of the wonderful fictional venues described in novels! These worlds, being as they are simply greater or lesser deviations from the established timeline, all exist in reality in superspace!”

I looked around me at the books I hated, and I felt like puking. “That’s the absolute last thing I would ever do!”

“Perhaps, then, you would care to converse with one or more of your doppelgangers on another timeline.”

The desire to puke grew stronger. “Converse with them? If I ever met myself, I’d probably want nothing more than to blow such a loser away and end his stinking misery! No, fix the yo-yo so it won’t let me do either of those idiotic things. No fictional worlds, and no twins.”

“As you wish, Paul. Now, I deduce that you are right-handed. I do not wish to deprive you of your deftest manipulator. Therefore, please extend your left hand.”

I stuck it out. Hans’s own manipulators closed around my paw.

As I watched, my hand up to the wrist turned into strange matter. I still had some kind of feeling in it, so I supposed that my original hand was encased inside.

“This minor alteration is necessary for you to interface with the string,” Hans calmly explained. The shrub slipped the knot of the Cosmic Yo-yo over my altered index finger. He tucked the Pez dispenser into my shirt pocket, where Nixon’s leering face poked out. “There, all is in readiness.”

“I can go now? Anywhere I want among all the universes?”

“Yes. Good luck, Paul, and thank you for your wetware subroutines–”

Interrupting Hans, the words burst out of me almost without will.

“Get me as far away from this shitty time and place as you can!” I yelled.

Then I snapped the Cosmic Yo-yo and the universe cracked wide open with a noise loud as the Big Bang.

…continues in the print edition

© Paul Di Filippo 2003.


See also: Just Like Himself, Only More So, an essay which touches on the origins of Fuzzy Dice; and Fuzzy Dice reviewedby John Toon.

Paul Di Filippo’s Fuzzy Dice was published in July 2003, with an introduction by Rudy Rucker; in slipcased hardcover (200 copies) £60/$90, or hardcover (500 copies) £35/$50.

Order Fuzzy Dice online using these links and infinity plus will benefit:
from Amazon.com / from Amazon.co.uk
or direct from the publisher, PS Publishing.