sacred geometry, part 3: sine wave

"What do we have here?" Scarlett wondered as she opened the package she'd found waiting on her front porch when she got home. She often received packages from the fans of her blog, Things That Go Bump in the Night, but she never knew quite what to expect. Sometimes they were interesting, sometimes creepy, occasionally disgusting – but they were never dull.

She cut the packing tape, folded back the top, and brushed away a handful of packing peanuts. Beneath lay a small clear, crystal sphere, about three inches in diameter.

"Huh." She pulled the sphere out of the box and held it up to the light. Inside the sphere was a series of dots that formed a pyramid shape – each side a triangle made from ten dots arranged in a row each of one, two, three, and four. She recognized it as a three dimensional version of the tetractys, a mystical symbol that she'd seen before – the symbol of a modern Pythagorean mystery cult that had tried to kill her.

"Oh, shit," she thought. "That's not good."

She quickly dropped the sphere back into the box, stepped back, and took a deep breath. "It'll be ok," she said to herself, "It'll be ok."

Suddenly, though, the crystal sphere levitated out of the cardboard box and floated up to head height. Scarlett stared as it rotated slowly in midair. It began to vibrate. "Oh, shit, that's definitely not good."

"I think you should run," suggested her brain.

"I…uh," Scarlett stammered back.

"Like, now," her brain said more insistently.

Before she could move, the sphere began to emit a sound – a pure, distortion-free, fifth-octave G. As the sound filled her ears, it became impossible to tell that it was coming from the sphere at all – it seemed like it was coming from everywhere at once.

It wasn't an unpleasant sound, but, as she stood watching the sphere, the volume slowly increased. After a half-minute, Scarlett put her hands over ears. "What the fuck is that thing?" she wondered, at once both frightened and curious.

Then, without warning, it began to emit a second pure tone, midway between a sixth-octave E and F. The combination of the two produced a dissonance that immediately sent chills up her spine. She shuddered. The awful, grating noise continued for another few seconds, and then abruptly doubled, tripled, quadrupled, quintupled in volume.

Scarlett dropped to her knees as the sound blasted through her hands and drilled straight into her brain. She felt like someone was stabbing white-hot needles directly into her eardrums. Tears welled up in her eyes and she clenched her jaw involuntarily, trying to brace herself against the pain.

The sound assaulted every nerve in her body – it felt like ten thousand jolts of electricity tore through her muscles and crawled over her skin. It became so overwhelming that she could see the dissonance in her head, the competing sine waves oscillating in front of her eyes. A series of numbers swam through her vision: 780, 1351, 153, 265. The sphere seemed to pull apart into two as her eyes trembled from the intensity of the sound.

She looked down to see blood gushing from her nose and cascading down the front of her shirt. She tried to stand up, to run as far as she could from the sphere and the noise, but her legs refused to work, and she collapsed.

"Help!" she tried to scream, but her jaw was clenched so tightly that she could feel her teeth threatening to crack. Every muscle in her face seized up, each trying to pull away from each other, away from the sound. Even her fingers and toes twisted and clenched as her feet and her hands cramped and contorted.

"PHONE!" her brain screamed at her, and Scarlett jabbed a half-functioning hand into the pocket of her jeans. She managed to fish out her trusty iPhone, and then, with trembling hands, unlock it. She hit the messages button, and was elated to see that a half-composed message to her best friend, Jeff was still on screen.

"Please help me," she whimpered though clenched teeth as she added a 9 onto the end of the existing message. Darkness crept into the edge of her vision as she typed a 1. Her hand clamped tight and she struggled to reach out a finger to hit the 1 button again.

"Send," her brain told her.

"What?" She fought to hold onto consciousness.

"Send."

"What?"

"Hit send."

Scarlett reached out toward the blue "send" button, and then the blackness overcame her.

#

"Scarlett!"

She could hear her voice being called in the darkness, feel hands on her neck, on her wrist. She willed her eyes to open, and saw Jeff standing over her, holding her hand in his.

"Jeff?"

"Scarlett! What happened? Can you hear me?"

His voice was muted, muffled. She could still hear ringing in her ears. "I…the thing...oh, God…my ears."

"The thing? What thing?"

"The sphere. In the air."

Jeff looked around. "Scarlett, I don't know what you're talking about. What happened to you? Did someone attack you?"

"No. Yes. No," she stammered, "I don't know."

"Ok. Right now we need to get you to the hospital."

"Ok," she said as she squeezed his hand, "ok."

Scarlett closed her eyes and tried to breathe as Jeff called for an ambulance. She coughed, felt pain in nearly every part of her body, and then blacked out again.

#

"Can you remember what happened?" Jeff asked Scarlett as she lay in the intensive care ward of the Cleveland Clinic.

"No," she shook her head.

"Nothing? You were lying on the floor in a pool of your own blood. You look like you got beaten."

Scarlett struggled to remember. Everything seemed hazy. She vaguely remembered getting home, but that was about it. "I don't…I don't know."

Jeff frowned. "The doctor said you may have experienced some sort of head trauma. We won't push it for now. You rest."

"Ok," she closed her eyes again. "Thank you for saving me."

"That's what friends are for," he said softly. "I'm going to go check in with Mary. I'll be back."

Scarlett coughed and then grimaced again, "Ok." Images danced through her head – sine waves, a series of numbers, spheres, and pyramids – but she couldn't place them. She felt like her memories had been scrambled.

"Sleep," her brain told her. "We'll figure it out later."

"Ok, brain," she agreed with herself for once. "We'll figure it out later. At least we're alive. That's good enough for now."

###

Part 1 | Previous Part | Next Part

sacred geometry, part 2: golden spiral

"The one thing that I never thought I'd find in church…" Scarlett paused, frowned, and deleted the text. She'd been trying to figure out how to start the newest post for her blog, Things That Go Bump in the Night, for the better part of an hour. Each time she thought she had the first sentence, she ended up deleting it.

"So sleepy," her brain muttered to her. "Let's go to bed."

"No, I need to get this out of my head," she argued with herself.

"There's plenty of time for that later. I'm no good to you now, anyway."

"I really want to write this now, while the experience is still fresh," she thought as she sat back in her chair, took a sip of green tea, and sighed.

"Well, good luck with that," her brain said in a huff, "I'm out of here."

"Fine, I'll do this without your help," she declared to her now absent mind.

#

Earlier that day, her best friend, Jeff, had picked her up so that the two of them could go investigate the Church in the Woods, just south of Cleveland. Scarlett had gotten wind of the possible existence of a holy relic less than fifteen minutes from downtown, and she instantly knew it would make a great story for her blog. After the trouble she'd ran into on her last investigation, she appreciated the company.

"I thought you hated churches," said Jeff as they turned off I-480 and sat on the exit ramp, waiting for the light.

"I don't hate churches. I've been in plenty of them."

"Really?"

"Well, it's not like I burst into flames when I step inside one," she said as she reached down to change the radio station, "I mean – I've been to weddings and stuff. I just don't…" She stopped, and looked out the window of the car. "I can't…believe…in church," she sighed, "Not since Sam disappeared."

Scarlett's younger sister, Samantha, had disappeared while walking home during her freshman year of high school. No trace of her had ever been found – her missing person case had never officially been closed. Trying to find her, and then later, when her family had finally given up hope, trying to find out what had happened to her, was one of the reasons that Scarlett had been drawn to the paranormal in the first place. She'd visited quite a few psychics and mediums over the past twelve years.

"Oh, ok," Jeff was quiet for a moment. "I understand."

"Yeah?"

"Sure. Sometimes things like that make you stop believing. Sometimes they make you start."

"I guess."

"Well, when Maggie was stillborn, I didn't go to church for a whole year."

"I didn't know that." Scarlett turned to look at her best friend. "Why didn't I know that?"

"I didn't really make a big deal about it. I just didn't go."

"Huh."

"Mary was the opposite. She couldn't wait to go."

"I remember she was always talking about how she couldn't wait to get to church on Sunday – that's why I thought you went, too."

"Nah. I stayed home and played video games."

Scarlett squinted at him. "Oh, so that's how you got so good at Halo. No wonder you keep kicking my ass now."

"I could kick your ass before then, too," he said with a smile. "Anyway, if you ever do decide to start believing again, and I'm not saying you should, of course. But if you did, you're always welcome to come with Mary and me and the kids."

Scarlett smiled in return, "Thanks man, but even if I did go back to church, I'm not Catholic."

"Oh, I know. It's just an open offer, that's all."

#

The Woods Church was nestled in a deep wooded lot in the middle of a sea of tidy, post-war, baby-boomer, planned-community houses. Constructed as a large A-frame building, the roof touched the ground on both sides. It was a striking building, and with snow covering the lot, the whole scene had an mystical air. Scarlett briefly contemplated taking time to sketch it, but decided not to keep Jeff waiting around in the cold winter air.

Scarlett knocked on the front doors and, after a moment, a man in his fifties poked his head out. "You must be Scarlett, I presume?"

"Hi, Pastor Tim? Thanks for agreeing to meet us," she said as she extended her hand.

"Oh, it's no trouble. I'm a big fan of your blog," he said excitedly as he shook her hand. "Please, come in," he continued as he ushered them into the vestibule.

"Wait, really?" asked Jeff.

"Hey," Scarlett pouted. "People read my blog."

"Yes, really," the pastor chuckled, "I'm kind of a paranormal buff, myself."

"Cool. Well," Scarlett closed the door behind them and then pulled a sketchbook and pen out of her bag, "I've got a few questions to start with."

"Sure! Go right ahead."

"Well, I read that the church was built in the early sixties."

"That's right. Nineteen sixty one. She just turned fifty this year." He sighed, "It's a crying shame."

"A shame?" asked Scarlett.

"They're closing her down. We're holding our last service at the end of March."

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Jeff, "A lot of the Catholic churches are closing too. Mine was shut down last year."

"Yes, there's quite a lot of that going around right now." Tim nodded. "There aren't as many church-goers in Cleveland these days."

"Do you think they're losing their faith?" Jeff asked. Scarlett squinted at him.

"Faith? Maybe," he paused to think, "More likely that the same thing's happening to us that's happening to all of Cleveland. The economy stinks, and everyone young is moving away. So, our congregations are growing older and shrinking."

Jeff nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense."

"I'm sorry to hear that, too," said Scarlett as she made note of the conversation, "I'm glad I was able to get in and see you before it closed."

"Well, you're giving it a new life, in perhaps a different form, by writing about it. So, what's next?"

"So, I also read that it was built by the owner of a lumber yard who had just returned from a trip to the Holy Land."

"That's also true," he smiled, "Pete Wysocki was inspired by his trip to finance the construction. He did the design himself, too – he was an amateur architect of sorts. He passed away a few years after it was built." He stopped to allow Scarlett to write notes, "Well, keep going, though I'm pretty I know what you're going to ask next."

Scarlett took a deep breath, "I read that he built the church to house a holy relic that he brought back from the Holy Land."

Pastor Tim chuckled again, "Well, that's the story as I understand it. From what I've learned talking to the previous pastor, and from some of the folks who knew him, he did claim to have brought 'something important' back with him that he hid here. The trouble is he never told anyone what it was."

"Nobody?"

"Nope. He kept mentioning it in his journal, which I've got in my office, if you want to take a look at it, but he never really described it and he never recorded where he put it. That's assuming he actually put anything anywhere at all, of course, and he wasn't just pulling everyone's leg."

Scarlett frowned. "I imagine that people have looked for it?"

"Oh, absolutely! Heck, I spent the better part of my first year here turning over every pew to see if I could find something. Other than dust bunnies and about five bucks in loose change, I didn't find a thing."

"Hmm. Ok," she jotted in her notebook, and then continued, "Well, the other thing I heard was that the church was built according to the golden ratio?"

"Ah, now that is definitely true, yes – it's an unconventional design for a church to begin with, what with the A-frame construction, but the interior is especially different. Wysocki wasn't a typical architect, so he didn't feel compelled to design it like a typical church. You'll see once you look inside."

A phone chirped, and Scarlett went to pull hers out of her bag. Tim, however, pulled his iPhone out of his pocket, frowned, and then said, "Sorry, I've got to take this, so feel free to look around. Just don't put holes in anything without asking first, ok?"

"Sure thing," Scarlett agreed.

After Tim wandered off, Jeff turned to Scarlett. "Golden ratio? What's with you and all the weird math, lately?"

Scarlett shrugged, "Dunno. It does feel like there's some overarching theme, though, doesn't there?" She poked her head into the nave, "Oh, weird – come look at this."

Jeff walked in beside her, "Huh. That is weird. Everything's off center."

Instead of the traditional layout of a center aisle running the length of the nave, the pews were configured in a semi-circular arrangement that faced the back, right hand corner. "It looks more like a theater than a church," said Scarlett.

The raised chancel had a set of stairs on the far left. At the far end of the building, a sanctuary framed by a set of soaring picture windows housed a large wooden cross, which was suspended from the ceiling. Midway between the sanctuary and the front of the chancel stood a wooden altar, and in front of that, at the very front of the chancel, the pulpit.

"Why did they put the sanctuary two-thirds of the way to the right, though?" asked Jeff

"It's not quite two thirds," Scarlett said as she began to sketch the layout of the interior. The vestibule and nave formed a perfect square, she realized, and the chancel and sanctuary together made a rectangle just deep enough to form the golden ratio.

"Look," she pointed to her sketchbook, "The ratio of the length of the whole church to the length of the front part is the same as the ratio of the length of the front part to the length of the back part. The whole thing forms a golden rectangle."

"You can do this all in your head?" Jeff asked.

"Well, and on paper."

"Still."

"I'm an artist, it's what I do." Scarlett shrugged, then marked down the position of the cross, altar, and pulpit. "Hmmm."

"What's that?"

"I think the reason that everything's off center is that it's all on the border of smaller golden rectangles. See, if I split this back rectangle into the correct parts, then the cross is right at that border of the two smaller pieces."

Jeff nodded, "Looks right."

"And if we continue to subdivide," she said as she scribbled furiously. "And then we draw a spiral that connects the corners of each square, then the spiral reaches its limit," Scarlett looked up and pointed to the altar, "right there."

"No kidding."

"No kidding," Scarlett smiled.

"It's like he designed a path that leads straight toward it."

#

Scarlett and Jeff spent the better part of an hour looking at the altar, around the altar, under the altar, and on top of the altar. Pastor Tim rejoined them, listened patiently to Scarlett's explanation of the golden spiral, helped them move the altar, helped them move it back, and then left to take another phone call.

Scarlett was getting frustrated. "Well, this sucks. I was really hoping we were on to something."

"Maybe it isn't where the spiral terminates," said Jeff, "Maybe…"

"Maybe?"

"You're familiar with labyrinths, right?"

"The minotaur kind or the cathedral kind?"

"The cathedral kind."

"Yeah, I've read about them."

"Well, Mary walks with one of her friends at Trinity Cathedral, downtown, every other Tuesday night after work. She says it's meditative and reflective."

"So?"

"So, what if that's what's going on here? What if the process of getting to the center of the spiral is the important part?"

"You mean walking the spiral like walking a labyrinth?"

"Right."

Scarlett looked at her sketchbook. "Well, that means that you'd have to start," she turned around and walked back into the vestibule, to the front-right corner of the building, "here." She looked down. At her feet was a small golden cross inlaid into the tiled floor.

She envisioned the spiral in her mind – a glowing twisting line that wound from the corner of the church through the doors and into the nave. "That's pretty convenient," she thought as she began to follow the path.

The spiral followed the curve of the rear pew, and she walked its length slowly. As she exited the pew, she saw another golden cross inlaid into the first step leading up to the chancel and sanctuary. "No shit." She couldn't help but smile to herself. As she walked slowly across the hardwood floor of the chancel, she kept the golden filament in her mind, feeling a little like Theseus, following his ball of twine.

The large, wooden cross loomed above her, and she saw another small, golden cross set into the floor directly below it. As she took her next step, she heard the echo of another set of feet behind her. She looked around, but saw that Jeff was still standing in the entrance to the nave, watching her. Tim, the pastor, had joined him.

She took another step, and clearly heard the sound of two feet echoing. With each step along the spiral, her sense that a presence was behind her increased. Out of nowhere, she caught the scent of honeysuckle floating through the air, and she breathed deeply.

"That's weird," she thought. From her past experiences, she knew that out-of-place odors often accompanied spectral activity.

The next golden cross was exactly where she expected it to be, below a stained glass skylight where the spiral touched the right wall of the church. Suddenly, she felt a hand grasp hers. It was a feminine hand, soft, with manicured nails. It was a touch she recognized.

Her eyes began to water, though she kept the golden spiral in her mind. At the front of the chancel was the pulpit, and at its base was another golden cross. She forced herself to keep walking toward it, though it was only a few paces away.

The hand squeezed hers tightly, and she realized that it was her sister that was walking next to her. Her sister who had disappeared a dozen years ago on her way home from school, who had never had the opportunity to graduate, who had never learned how to drive, who had never held a job. Her sister who used honeysuckle-scented shampoo. "Sam," she gasped.

Scarlett made another turn on the spiral, and then saw the altar, with a golden, glowing cross sitting atop it. She felt the hand tug on hers, urging her to kneel before it, like they had done together growing up, together every day, together every Sunday.

She fought the urge to cry, fought the urge to give in to the years of grief, the years of frustration, the years of wondering if her sister would ever be found. She squeezed the hand in hers as tightly as she could, and then heard a whisper in her ear. She listened, smiled, and nodded.

#

"Scarlett?" asked Jeff.

"Huh?" she shook her head as her vision cleared.

"Are you ok?"

"Yeah," she said quietly as she stood up. She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve. "I'm ok. I think I'm ready to go."

"Ok."

"Did you find anything?" asked Tim, who had walked up behind Jeff.

Scarlett smiled. "I guess you'll just have to read the blog to find out."

"Hey, now. Shouldn't I get an advanced peek, at least?"

"I'll email you the article before it gets posted."

"Ok, then. Well, I don't want to rush you out, but I do have to close up for the time being. I've got to go visit one of my congregants in the hospital."

Scarlett nodded and walked with Jeff to the car.

"Are you sure you're ok?" he asked, once they were buckled in.

"I saw Sam," she whispered, "she was there."

"Wait, your sister?"

"Yeah. She was walking along behind me."

"Holy crap."

Scarlett stared out the window of the car as they pulled out of the lot. "I'm not exactly sure what to think about it yet."

"Did she say anything?"

She nodded, "Yes." Scarlett was quiet for a long moment, and then she sighed. "She said, 'I'm at peace.'"

Jeff reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. "Is there anything I can do?"

Scarlett sniffed and wiped her eyes. "Yeah, what time do you guys leave for church in the morning?"

#

Scarlett set down her tea, put her hands on the keyboard, and started to write again. "I went to the Woods Church to look for a holy relic," she typed, "but what I found was arguably more important. It was, in fact, the last thing I expected to find – my faith."

###

Part 1 | Next Part

sacred geometry, part 1: tesseract

"For a building built by an eccentric architect who supposedly belonged to a modern Pythagorean mystery cult, this hotel looks disappointingly normal," thought Scarlett. She yawned, set down her bag, and pressed the elevator button.

The drive down from Cleveland had taken three hours, thanks to a wreck on the highway, and she was already tired from staying up the night before doing research. She'd heard about Hotel Tetra from one of the readers of her blog, Things That Go Bump in the Night. The reader claimed that the architect of the hotel, Paul van Eck, was a mystic who'd gone crazy shortly after construction was completed in the late twenties, and taken his life inside one of the rooms.

After a lengthy Google search, she'd found out that, over the last eighty years, the hotel had seen an unnaturally high number of suicides, several unexplained disappearances, and continuous reports of ghostly phenomena. It was the perfect subject for her next feature article.

Having been built in the twenties, Scarlett had expected a hotel with gravitas; art deco and period decor. Instead, she found a hotel whose character had been stripped away by a series of recent renovations. There were small reminders of the hotel's history here and there, like the inscription on the stone façade over the front doors, "But take courage; the race of man is divine," but it was otherwise new, and modern, and sterile. "Might as well be a Holiday Inn," she thought.

"Was I supposed to go right or straight?" she thought as she stepped off the elevator. The building was a basic rectangle, which she also found disappointing, as she would be able to describe it as neither sprawling nor labyrinthine. "Maybe I'll have to break out 'parallelogram,'" she thought. Hallways stretched out straight in front of her and directly to her right.

She looked for a sign to indicate which way was which, but couldn't find one, so she shook her head and headed down the hall in front of her. Her suitcase was old, and the wheels wobbled, so it made a thunk, thunk, thunk sound as she pulled it behind her.

On the door of each of the rooms was a number superimposed over the hotel's logo – a motif of a triangle which was composed of ten dots arranged in rows of one, two, three, and four. She frowned and, through a mind clouded by fatigue, tried to recall where she'd seen it before.

Thunk, thunk, thunk. As she plodded down the hall, she remembered seeing the symbol in a Wikipedia article. It was a tetractys – a mystical symbol important to the Pythagoreans.

"Oh, no kidding," she thought to herself. "Maybe this isn't going to be a wild goose chase."

At the end of the hall, she turned right, walked down another hall, and turned right again. Thunk, thunk, thunk. On the wall to her left was one of the infrequent reminders of the hotel's history: an oil painting of a hunting dog, bordered by a thick, gilded, art-deco frame. "See, that's more like it," she thought, and made a mental note to come back and take a picture of it later.

Scarlett stopped for a moment and looked at the room numbers – they were counting down instead of up, in contrast to the two hallways she'd just walked down. "Crap," she thought, "where the hell is my room?" She kept walking, turned another corner, and looked at the numbers again – now they were counting up. "Weird."

She turned right again, saw the elevator doors at the end of the hall, and then spotted her room two doors from the elevator – 171. "Figures – I should have gone the other way. Oh well."

She slipped her keycard in the lock, the light turned green, and she wheeled her bag into the room. Then she yawned again, rubbed her eyes, and headed straight for the bed.

She had just pulled the covers over her head, when her brain finally caught up. "Wait. How many times did you turn the corner?" it asked her.

She sat up and thought through the hallways in her mind, retracing her steps. "Four. I turned four times before I saw the corner where I started. That means that there are five corners total – five right angles. In a rectangle."

She rubbed her eyes and yawned. "That can't be right."

"It's totally right. You turned the corner four times," replied her brain.

"No. That's not possible. I'm just tired. I must have imagined it."

"You didn't imagine it. I'm telling you – it was four times."

"There's no way. I was up late last night, and it's late now. I just need to sleep." She lay back down, closed her eyes, and immediately drifted off.

She was asleep for ten minutes when her brain woke her back up again. "It was four."

"It can't be four, brain. Go back to sleep."

"Fuck you, that's some weird-ass shit right there. You need to go check it out."

"But…"

"I'm not going to let you sleep until you check."

"Are you serious?"

"Well, I can't sleep until you look, and if I can't sleep then you can't sleep."

"God damn it." She sat up, threw off the covers, and shuffled to the door. She stopped and looked at the latch. "Crap," she thought, "I forgot to lock the door, too."

"See, aren't you glad I got you up?"

"Go to hell," she told her brain as she opened the door.

"You forgot your keycard."

She turned around and grabbed the card off the nightstand. "Fine. I'm sorry I told you to go to hell."

"Whatever, don't get distracted."

Scarlett looked to her right, down the hall, then to her left, toward the elevators. She decided to start where she'd begun, so she shuffled to the elevators, and then walked down the hall, counting the number of turns she took.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. She noticed that the carpet was woven with a pattern of the triangular logo repeated over and over. In her groggy state, she found staring at it a bit hypnotic. "One," she said to herself, as she turned the first corner.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. "Two." She saw the picture of the dog again.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. "Three." Scarlett expected to see the elevator at the end of the hall when she turned the corner, but instead saw another hall exactly like the one she had just walked down.

"I TOLD YOU!" said her brain.

"What the…" Scarlett thought as she quickly walked to the next corner. She peeked around, and sure enough – there was the elevator at the end of the hall and her room on the left.

She looked back down the hall she'd just come from, then looked back again. "No way."

"Way."

"Ok, let's try this again." She walked quickly this time: one corner, two corners, dog painting. Three corners, four corners, and then back to the elevator at corner number five.

She ran through the halls. One, two, dog, three, four, elevator, five. "What…the…fuck."

"I'm just going to shut up now," her brain said quietly.

#

Scarlett had been blogging about the paranormal since the heyday of AOL, and she'd seen things that had both scared and scarred her, but she'd rarely felt as discomfited as she did at that moment; goose-bumps ran down her arms and up the back of her neck.

After closing and locking the door to her room, she pulled out her iPhone and called her best friend, a college classmate who had stuck around longer than anyone else in her life.

"Hello?" came the groggy answer.

"Jeff? It's me, Scarlett."

"I know. You're in my phone. That's why I answered." He yawned loudly. "What's wrong?"

"I think I'm in a hypercube."

"Sorry?"

"I said I think I'm in a hypercube."

There was a long pause on the other end of the phone before he replied, "Wasn't that the name of that horrible sci-fi movie where everyone is trapped in a mysterious prison that keeps changing?"

"Er, yeah, I think so."

"And they all die in some weird, gruesome way, and in the end it has something to do with time?"

"Well, yeah, although there's less gruesome dying involved here." She shivered, involuntarily. "I hope."

"Why did we watch that again?"

"Well, it was a sequel, and the first one was good, and it was the next thing in my Netflix queue, and never mind that. For real – I think I'm in a hypercube."

"Are you high right now? Because you sound like you're high, and it’s twelve-thirty at night, and I have to work in the morning."

"I'm not high."

"Are you tripping?"

"No, jerk, I am not tripping."

"Drunk?"

"Fuck you, Jeff. I am stone-cold sober. I'm just tired. Or I was until I figured out that the geometry of this building is all screwed up." She yawned and rubbed her eyes.

"Ok, fine. Then, seriously, what the hell are you talking about?"

She explained the layout of the hotel – the rectangular floor with five right angles, the impossibility of the geometry.

"Huh," he said after he'd had a moment to think her analysis through.

"Exactly."

"Are you sure you're not on the surface of a sphere?"

"Sorry?"

"I paid attention in math class, too, you know. Can't you have a triangle with three right angles on the surface of a sphere?"

"But it's not a triangle. It's a rectangle with five sides."

"Oh, right." He paused for a few moments, then sighed. "Well, you can't be the first person to notice it. Did you call the front desk?"

Scarlett was caught off guard by the practicality of the suggestion. "No, of course not," she sighed to herself, "This is why I call you, you know."

"Yeah, I know," he yawned. "Need anything else?"

"No. Thanks, Jeff. I'm going to go see the desk clerk and ask what the holy hell is going on."

"Let me know how it goes. Oh, also, remember to throw your shoe into any of the rooms first to see if they're going to kill you. They did that in the movie."

"I'll keep that in mind."

#

The desk clerk was blond, pretty, and in her mid-thirties. She had her hair pulled up in a bun and wore a crisply pressed suit with a tiny, engraved name tag that read, "Diana." Like almost everything else in the hotel, Scarlett had thought when she'd checked in earlier, the woman was perfectly modern and somewhat boring.

Now, though, the clerk looked uncomfortable; she smiled with every part of her face but her eyes. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."

"The first floor. There are five right angles…five corners at right angles…they make a rectangle, but that's impossible."

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I don't understand." She glanced nervously at her wristwatch.

"Ok," Scarlett sighed. "Look, the building is a rectangle, right?"

"Yes."

"Rectangles have four corners and four sides, but there's a fifth one."

Diana pursed her lips and sighed, "Well, that clearly can't be. The building is, as you say, a rectangle."

"But I know what I saw. I was just up there. Look, I'm a paranormal blogger, and I came to write a story about the guy who designed this place and about the ghost sightings over the years – but this is way bigger. Can I talk to your manager? I've got to know what's going on here."

"Well, if you check back in the morning," she glanced at her watch again, "I'm sure my manager would be happy to talk with you."

"Fine," Scarlett's feelings of unease had transformed into excitement at the prospect of landing a major story that had never been covered in the paranormal press, "But I'm going to go take some pictures now and write up a post. You have wi-fi, right? This is going to be huge."

Diana stiffened. "Wait."

"Sorry?"

Diana's smile faded. "You're right, of course," she said as she stepped out from behind the counter. "There is something special about this hotel." She checked her watch again, "Why don't you let me show you what you really want to see?"

Scarlett raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"

"Room 153 – where Paul van Eck killed himself."

"What does that have to do with the fucked up extra hallway?"

"I'll explain on the way."

Scarlett shrugged and motioned to the elevator. "I'm all ears."

"So how familiar are you with n-dimensional geometry?" asked Diana as she led Scarlett down the hallway.

"I was a math minor in college. Oh my god, is this actually a hypercube?"

"We prefer the term tesseract," she said curtly as she pressed the button to call the elevator.

"For real?"

"Yes, the building was built in four dimensions. The trouble, of course, is that a four dimensional object is inherently unstable in three dimensions. As it rotates, parts of it project into and out of our world."

Scarlett's head swam. She couldn't grasp how a physically-impossible hotel could have been built nearly eighty years ago and no one had ever found out. She followed Diana into the elevator, and shook her head in disbelief. After a moment, she said, "I can't have been the first person to figure this out."

Diana shrugged and gave a half-smile, "Oh, you're not. It doesn't happen all that often, though."

"Why is that?"

"The tesseract was built to rotate in the middle of the night, specifically so that most people would never notice."

"What about the people staying in those rooms? What happens to them?"

"Well," she grimaced, "Only one person has ever stayed overnight in a room that rotated…away."

"And?"

"It was van Eck. When his room finally rotated back, they found him dead. He'd hung himself from the ceiling fan."

Scarlett frowned. Something didn't add up; the hotel had a grisly history – suicides, drug overdoses, and unexplained disappearances. She noticed that Diana kept checking her watch. A chill ran up and down her spine.

"When did you say the hotel rotates, again?"

"Sorry?" The doors opened and Diana stepped out of the elevator. As she did so, Scarlett caught sight of a tattoo on the back of her neck, peeking out from under her collar. It was the triangle logo – the tetractys. "Oh shit," she thought.

"What happens to the people who are just walking down the hall when it rotates away?"

"Sorry? The room's just a little farther, now," Diana said as she walked briskly down the first hall.

Scarlett felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. "Diana?"

"Quickly, now." They turned the first corner.

"You said that only one person stayed overnight, but what happens to people who are just walking down the hall?"

"Almost there." They turned the second corner and entered the hallway with the picture of the dog. Scarlett noticed, for the first time, that doors didn't have modern electronic locks – they had tarnished brass locks and handles instead.

Diana pulled out a key ring and stopped in front of the door to Room 153. "Here we are."

"What happens to the people who are walking by? What happens to the people who figure it out?"

Diana opened the door and motioned to Scarlett to enter. "Just go right in and I'll answer all of your questions."

Scarlett froze. Her blood ran cold and every part of her being screamed out at her not to step foot in that room. She knew, though she didn't understand how, that if she went into that room, she would never be seen again.

"After you," Diana said again.

Scarlett stepped forward, and then, when she was a foot from the door, reached out and pushed Diana in, instead. The clerk tumbled over her own feet and went sprawling on the old, dusty carpet. Scarlett grabbed the handle, and shut the door. She heard the lock click into place.

"No!" Diana yelled. "You stupid bitch! Let me out!"

Scarlett looked down. The key ring was lying on the floor. The handle started to rattle, but Scarlett held it tight.

"Let me out! You have to let me out!" the clerk screamed. She started pounding on the door. "Oh my god, you have to let me out!"

In the distance, Scarlett could hear a clock chime softly, the sound drifting gently through the air above the shouting and pounding and rattling.

"Oh god, No!" Diana yelled again, and the rattling and pounding grew louder. Suddenly, a shrill scream pierced the air, and the noises stopped. Then, the door in front of her started to distort inward, the handle pulling away from her hand.

Scarlett let go and jumped back. She looked to the right and could see the hallway itself stretching and twisting. "Oh, shit!"

She ran, and could feel her body twisting along with the hallway. She had to concentrate to put one foot in front of the next – the stretching threatened to tie her legs into knots. "Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck!" she screamed as she reached the corner.

With a grunt, she jumped, twisting herself around the corner and landing safely on the carpet of the next hallway. She lay still for a moment, waiting to see if her body was going to twist itself into a pretzel. When that didn't happen, she pushed herself up, and cautiously approached the corner. She peeked around and saw a perfectly normal hallway – no brass handles, no dog painting.

"Ok," said her brain, "Time to go."

"Yep," she thought. For once, she was in no mood to argue with herself.

#

"So are you going to write an article about it?" asked Jeff, as they sat at his kitchen table the following afternoon.

After her narrow escape, Scarlett had driven straight home and locked herself in her house, whereupon a healthy dose of bourbon helped put her to sleep.

"Based upon the fact that the creepy Pythagorean cult member tried to get the hotel to eat me when I told her I knew what was going on, I'm thinking no." She shivered. "I've seen some weird shit, man, but I have never had a building try to suck me into another dimension. This is a first."

"Seems like too good a story to waste, though."

"I'll break it out at dinner parties. It'll be a riot."

"Well, people already think you're crazy," Jeff snorted. "So I don't think it's too much of a stretch."

"Yeah, yeah," she waved dismissively at him.

"Ok, Scarlett, I've got to get ready to go on shift."

"Oh hey – what are you doing next Saturday?"

"I'll have to check with Mary, but I don't think anything. Why?"

"I've got a lead on a church in the area that's supposed to secretly house a holy relic. Want to come with?"

"We have holy relics in Cleveland?"

"Why not? We're just as religious as anywhere else."

"This church isn't going to try to eat me is it?"

"Nah."

He shrugged. "Sure. Sounds like fun."

###

Next Part

three, two, one, go

Shoji checked his watch; he didn’t want to be late for his first shakedown. As he hurried down the crowded streets of Tokyo III, passing businessmen in suits and housewives in smart skirts, people gave him a wide berth. The pompadour haircut; black, leather pants; black shirt; and black, leather gloves made him look like a gangster – which, of course, he was trying to be.

After passing the Spaceport, where the whine of antigravity engines filled the air, Shoji cut through Yamamoto Square. He hurried past the hundreds of robotic solicitors that continually beamed holographic advertisements into the air in front of the thousands of tourists that passed through the center of the city each day. Finally, he used the low gravity to his advantage and bounded between the wood-paneled family sedans, growling hoverbikes, and hopped-up hot rods that sat, stopped, in the daily rush hour traffic jams, before emerging onto the sidewalk in front of Tanaka Park.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, so he took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Although Ichiro, his mentor in the Green Dragon Clan, had informed him the day before that this would be an easy mark – a street performer – he wanted to make a good impression. Think tough, he thought to himself. Keep cool. Don’t be a spaz.

Shoji dashed past the ice cream stand, tilt-a-whirl, and merry-go-round before seeing his counterpart sitting slouched on a park bench. He was watching what Shoji presumed to be their mark: a woman dressed in a heavy kimono and a noh mask who was reciting her lines in time to a walking bass line that emanated from a speaker which sat off to one side. At her feet was a golden bowl, which passers-by occasionally dropped a few newyen into.

“Hi Ichiro,” Shoji said as he crouched down next to the bench.

“What’s buzzin’, cousin?” Ichiro said with a slight nod. He cocked his head to one side and frowned. “Bad news, Clyde, you look like an Ivy Leaguer.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Un-tuck your shirt, man.”

Shoji grimaced inwardly, and then hurriedly rearranged his clothes.

“You’ve got to look cool to be in this business,” Ichiro drew out the word “cool” for several more syllables than it actually possessed. “This business is all about intimidation. You’ve got to make the squares believe that you’re going to go ape if they don’t get with it. For example, you see this nest?” he pointed to his head.

Shoji had indeed noticed Ichiro’s hair – it was also a pompadour, but was easily a foot tall. He nodded.

“You know what this nest says to the squares we deal with every day?”

“No, not really,” Shoji said, more than a little puzzled.

“It says, ‘I don’t care that you have to pay the rent.’”

“How does it say that?”

“Because it says that I’m too cool to care about their problems,” Ichiro replied with a snort.

“What if they don’t think it’s cool?”

“They don’t have to think it’s cool. Only I have to think it’s cool. They just have to know that I know that they know that I think it’s cool.” He looked sidelong at Shoji, “Why? Don’t you think it’s cool?”

“Oh, it’s cool!” Shoji replied nervously, “Very cool. Really.”

“That’s what I thought,” Ichiro replied as he examined his own image in a small mirror that he produced from his back pocket. “You know, I can give you some pointers on getting yours to look like this. Not that it’ll be as cool as mine.”

“That would be great,” Shoji said as he forced a smile. “I…uh…don’t know if I can get mine to grow that long, though.”

“Implants.”

“Oh. Right.”

“I know a place where you can get a deal.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Here’s the word from the bird, man: you’ve got to get noticed if you want to move up in the organization,” Ichiro produced a small comb from the same pocket that he had produced the mirror, and smoothed a single stray hair back into place. “You do want to move up in the organization, don’t you?”

“Well, I’m really just doing this to save up money for college,” said Shoji, “I’d like to study hyperspace and become a jump gate engineer.”

“Ah, so you really are an Ivy Leaguer,” Ichiro frowned. “I dunno, daddy-o, Boss Takashi was hip with that, but Boss Oda’s a lot more demanding.”

Shoji grimaced. He had joined the Green Dragon Clan four months earlier, just before Boss Takashi had a heart attack. Under the fat man’s rule, the worst transgression was showing up late with his double bento-box lunch. Once Oda took over, though, he demanded tribute, and failure resulted in sacrifice. More than a few members of the clan had lost their little fingers in the past three months. Shoji was now worried that he wouldn’t be able to get out.

“Besides, who wants to be a square?”

“Well, my dad’s a square. That’s why I’m on Mars. He’s a terraforming engineer for the Colonial government.”

“Man, that’s not a square, that’s a cube. A square squared.”

“Actually, a square squared is…”

“Hey, cut the gas, man, the girl’s done.”

Shoji looked up to see the woman take a bow and then turn around to switch off the music. She removed her heavy kimono, revealing a silk blouse and a pink poodle skirt, and then took off her mask and glanced over at the two of them.

She got a puzzled look on her face. “Shoji?”

“Mei?” Shoji groaned. Mei was Shoji’s lab partner in Quantum Physics class, and they got along well enough that they had gone out for ice cream after school the previous week.

“What do you two want?”

“We’re here for the Green Dragon Clan’s payment,” Ichiro said, stretching out his hand expectantly.

“This isn’t Clan territory, this is Triad territory,” said Mei as she pulled a handful of multi-hued bills out of the golden bowl.

“Well, now that Boss Oda is in charge, we’re expanding our territory,” Ichiro said nervously.

“Great, now I have two groups who want my money. Why don’t you go out and find a real job, huh?” she said as she counted the bills. “Here, ten percent,” she stuck out her tongue as she handed over the newyen.

“Actually, it’s fifteen percent, now,” said Ichiro.

“You’ll take ten and you’ll be happy,” Mei spat. “Besides, you should be ashamed, shaking down your little sister.”

“Little sister?” Shoji gasped as he looked back and forth between Mei and Ichiro. Once he ignored the hair, he could see the resemblance.

“Ok, baby,” Ichiro laughed uncomfortably, “don’t have a cow. We’re cool.”

“We’re cool? We’re cool?” she crossed her arms and glared at Ichiro. “Only one of us is in any way, shape, or form cool, Ichiro, and it’s certainly not you.”

“Oh, I see, so you’re the cool one?” Ichiro said as he turned his head to the side and slid his hand along the top of his hair.

“Yeah, and maybe if you spent a little more time studying and a little less time preening, you might actually get into college and do something with your life.”

“Oh. Oh. Oh. Okay, right.” His head began to bob in anger, and with the giant hair, all Shoji could picture was a strutting rooster. “Come on Shoji, let’s blow this place,” he said as he turned away.

“Ok.” He turned to Mei, “I should go.”

Mei winked at him, “See you later, alligator.”

Caught by surprise, Shoji smiled, “After a while, crocodile.”

***

Shoji rode on the back of Ichiro’s hoverbike as they returned to the noodle house that served as the Green Dragon Clan’s headquarters. Located in a primarily residential district of Tokyo III, the noodle house saw significant foot traffic, but far less car traffic than the busy city center. Ichiro parked at the curb, and the two walked inside.

Patrons packed the restaurant, most wearing the same type of outfit that Ichiro and Shoji wore. They walked past the sea of pompadours and black leather pants to a room in the back where a black and white cat was curled up on the cushion of a gilded, baroque chair.

Shoji looked around, and was about to bow and introduce himself when Ichiro motioned to him to be silent. He pointed to a curtain on the other side of the room, which rippled with activity. A dun-colored pit bull emerged from behind the curtain, carrying a tray of sushi in its jaws. It walked over to the chair and set the tray down in front of the cat, then sat and wagged its tail expectantly.

The cat sniffed at the sushi and then nibbled off a corner. After a second, he began growling at the dog. The dog whimpered but sat obediently at the foot of the chair as the cat rose from the seat and stretched.

“This is maguro!” the cat said in a deep, gravelly voice as he climbed down from the chair. “I said toro! Toro is the fatty tuna, you imbecile!”

The cat swiped at the dog with its front paw, opening a gash on its nose. The dog whimpered. It swiped again, and the dog let out a cry of pain, but still sat motionless. Then, the cat jumped into the air, twisted its body, and slammed its back paw into the side of the dog’s face, sending a spray of blood and saliva into the air.

Oda had been Boss Takashi’s robotic cat, handed down from Boss to Boss since the inception of the Clan. He had spent over a hundred years lying in the laps of the Green Dragon’s leaders as they cut deals, ordered hits, paid bribes, and ate lunch. In addition to learning nearly everything possible about being an underworld boss, Oda had become accustomed to eating the finest raw tuna.

“Dogs really are as stupid as they look,” Oda hissed as the cyborg pit bull ran out of the room. He briefly glanced at Shoji and Ichiro before hopping back up into his chair, where he curled up and lay his head on his paws. “What?”

Ichiro stepped forward, “Boss Oda, sir, we came to turn in our tribute.”

“Good, good,” the cat said as he motioned with his tail toward a giant golden urn. “You know where to put it.”

Ichiro walked across the room and dropped in the newyen. The urn hummed for a second before announcing in a pleasant, female voice, “Three hundred.”

“Three hundred?” Oda lifted his head. “That’s it? Pathetic.”

“I’m sorry sir, it was our first day in the new territory,” Ichiro said as he bowed deeply.

Oda narrowed his eyes at Ichiro, “Fine – you get off easy this time. Next week it better be three thousand.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Ichiro said, bowing with each syllable – his hair frantically bobbing to and fro.

“You leave.” He then pointed to Shoji with his tail, “You stay.”

Ichiro stared at Shoji with wide eyes. “Sorry, daddy-o, you’re on your own,” he whispered as he dashed past him toward the main restaurant.

“I heard that you went out on your first shakedown today, Shoji.”

“Yes, sir,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“Please, sit.” Oda motioned to the floor in front of him with his paw.

“Thank you sir,” Shoji replied nervously as he knelt down and then sat back on his feet.

“How long have you been with the clan, Shoji?”

“Um, four months, sir.”

“Ah, just before Takashi left us.”

“Yes, that’s correct, sir.”

“How do you feel about having a new Boss, Shoji?”

“You seem to be very,” he paused for a moment as he searched for the least offensive word possible, “effective.”

Oda smiled. “This operation became a bit loose under Takashi’s leadership. I’m just returning it to its former glory.”

“Yes, sir.”

Oda shifted his position, flopping over on his back and hanging his head over the edge of the cushion. He looked at Shoji upside-down. “You want to move up in the organization, don’t you, Shoji?”

“Actually, sir,” Shoji shifted his position, sitting back and putting more weight on his feet, “I’d like to become an engineer, like my father. I joined the Clan in order to earn money for college.”

Oda licked his paw and then flipped back over and frowned at Shoji. “Your father, hmm? You know, I’m aware that my predecessor was inclined to look favorably upon these mixed allegiances, but I’m not my predecessor.”

“Sir?”

“I demand total allegiance from my clan members, Shoji. It’s the only way we’re going to win this war.”

“I didn’t know we were at war, sir.”

“We’re not yet, but we will be,” Oda began to purr.

“With who, sir?”

The tip of Oda’s tail began to flick back and forth. “With the Capitoline Triad, my boy.”

“With the Triad?” Shoji began to sweat.

“Indeed. It will be a war to end all wars, and I’m going to need every soldier I can get.” Oda twisted his head and stared at the wall to his right.

Shoji looked over but saw nothing. He couldn’t get comfortable for some reason, so he shifted his position again, leaning forward on his knees this time. After half a minute, he said quietly, “Sir?”

“Mmm? Oh.” Oda turned his gaze back to Shoji, “That’s why I’m trying to weed out the weak now. You don’t want to be one of the weak, do you?”

“No sir.”

“Good,” Oda said before yawning. He curled up on the cushion, placed his tail over his head and said nothing more.

A minute later, Shoji stood up, bowed, and left.

***

The next day, Shoji stood in front of the library, trying not to sweat. The heat of the Martian sun combined with the humidity trapped by the dome which enclosed the city made the summers unbearably hot, and he was glad that he decided not to wear the leather pants today; instead, he wore jeans and a white t-shirt.

He was watching for Mei. They had planned to go to the park to get ice cream again after school, but he had to drop books off at the library, so Mei had agreed to pick him up. From what he knew of Mei, he was expecting something normal: a Europa maybe, or a little Shockwave coup. He was extremely surprised, then, to see a ’35 Inferno pull up to the curb.

The car was painted jet black with orange and yellow flames running along the side. Its blunt front end stood in contrast to a set of foot high fins on either side of the trunk. To complete the hot-rod image, it floated less than three inches off the ground. The passenger side window rolled down and Mei’s voice drifted across from the driver’s seat, “Hop in, Shoji.”

“Wow, Mei, this is unreal!” he said as he opened the door and climbed in.

“Thanks,” she tilted her head and smiled, “I modified it myself. Hopped up the engine and lowered it about three inches.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Plenty of room for back-seat-bingo, too,” she said with a wink.

“At least let me buy you some ice cream first,” Shoji said with a laugh.

“I didn’t mean you, goof,” Mei giggled as she hit the gas and blasted into traffic; Shoji was thrown back in his seat. The volume of the radio increased as the low thrum of the antigrav engine rose to a high-pitched whine; Mei tapped her hand on the steering wheel in time to the walking bass line of the of the rockabilly as she deftly dodged the tanks, rag-tops, and hot-rods that crowded Tokyo III’s streets.

Less than three minutes later, Mei swerved, cut off a truck, and skidded expertly into a free parking space. “We’re here,” she said excitedly as she jumped out of the car. Shoji sat in silence for nearly half a minute before Mei tapped on his window. “Hey, you coming?”

Shoji nodded slowly and reached gingerly for the door handle, afraid of doing anything to spook the car. Oh, thank you ancestors, he thought as he stepped out onto solid earth.

Mei cocked her head and frowned at him. “Don’t you like my driving, Shoji?”

“No, it’s fine. You’re very good at it.” Shoji replied with a smile. Just very fast.

“Good, let’s get ice cream!” she said as she grabbed his hand and led him into the park. Shoji took the time to notice that she was wearing the same pink poodle skirt that she had been wearing in the park the other day, but had accompanied it with a low-cut kimono top.

“You look great, Mei.”

“Thanks,” she replied with a coy smile.

After buying ice cream cones, Shoji and Mei strolled through the park. Mei was uncharacteristically chatty, which Shoji was thankful for. He was having trouble concentrating on anything for very long since his meeting with the Boss.

They had passed the tilt-a-whirl and were headed for the merry-go-round when Mei turned to Shoji. “So what’s your story, morning glory?”

“Huh?”

“You haven’t been talking this whole time. Did my driving really rattle your cage that bad?”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” Shoji laughed. “No, I just had a meeting with Boss Oda yesterday.”

“Ah, I see. I’m guessing it didn’t go that well,” she said in between licks of her cone.

“No, not really. I told him that I’m trying to save money for college.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that I had ‘mixed allegiances.’”

“Hmm,” Mei caught a drip of ice cream that was about to fall from her hand.

“Yeah. He also said that there was going to be a war with the Capitoline Triad.”

“A war?”

“Yeah. I guess he’s intent on taking over the whole city for himself.”

“Wow. That’s heavy.”

“I really don’t want to be in the Clan if that’s where this is headed.”

“So what can you do?”

“I don’t know. That’s the problem.”

“You could just tell them that you quit.”

“No. Boss Oda would never let that slide. Besides, I wouldn’t want to get Ichiro in trouble.”

“Ah, don’t worry about that drag,” Mei smiled, “he needs a little trouble to get his ass in gear.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

As they passed the merry-go-round, a familiar voice sounded loudly from behind them, “Think fast!”

Shoji turned around just in time to get an ice cream cone in the face. “Agh! Man, why do you have to be such a nosebleed?”

“Ichiro, that is so uncool!” Mei fumed.

“Heh, only to a square,” he said as he smoothed back his hair. Shoji noticed that Ichiro’s pompadour was significantly shorter than the last time he saw him.

“What happened to your nest, man?”

“Huh? Oh, well, I realized that I was spending too much time looking cool and not enough time actually being cool.”

“My mom made him cut it,” Mei said with a snort.

“Hey, Mei. Why don’t you go drop dead twice.”

“What, and look like you?”

Ichiro rolled his eyes. “Anyway, I’ve got good news, Clyde. This is like crazy, man. The ancestors want to see you.”

“What? Really? The ancestors? I didn’t think my meeting with Boss Oda went that well.”

“I guess you were on the stick man. If the ancestors want to see you, you’re made in the shade.”

“Shoji, that’s great!” Mei exclaimed as she grabbed his arm and pulled herself closer to him.

“Shoji, that’s great!” Ichiro exclaimed in a high pitched voice, as he clapped his hands together and batted his eyelids.

“Get lost, you spaz!” Mei yelled as she threw her ice cream cone at Ichiro’s head.

“Easy, baby!” Ichiro yelped as he barely ducked the flying creamy confection, “It’s deadsville here anyway – I’m going to split.” He smoothed the hair that had fallen out of place and then strutted off.

“Ugh, I hate him.” Mei said as she watched her brother disappear around the merry-go-round.

“He’s ok,” Shoji said as he put his arm around Mei’s waist. “He just tries too hard.”

“Well, he needs to try harder, ‘cause whatever he’s doing isn’t working.” She turned to him and pressed herself close. “Anyway, it sounds like you don’t have to worry – things are working out.”

“Yeah, I guess. Cool, huh?”

“What do you say we get out of here?” Mei said as she grabbed his hand and pulled him along. They made their way through the park and then climbed back into her ’35 Inferno.

“Oh, I have to show you the coolest thing about this car,” Mei smiled as she hit a button on the console. Shoji held his breath expecting to be rocketed into space, but the only thing that happened was that the windows turned an opaque black, leaving the orange glow of the dashboard as the only illumination.

“Oh?” Shoji said, puzzled.

“That’s not what’s cool,” Mei smiled, before nodding to the backseat. “That’s what’s cool.”

“Oh!”

***

Shoji took a deep breath before entering the ancestor’s shrine. He wasn’t quite sure why they wanted to see him, and he hoped that the bottle of sake he had brought would be a good enough offering for them. It’s now or never, he thought to himself as he opened the door and stepped inside.

With the advent of neural imaging, death was no longer necessarily the end of one’s existence. After death, the brain could be scanned, and a perfect replica of one’s memories and personality reconstructed. The replica could be interfaced with via computer system, loaded into a robotic head, or, for the very wealthy, even loaded into an entirely new body.

While this didn’t actually resurrect the deceased, it provided his survivors with easy access to years of experience and information, and in many cases, the comfort of hanging on to a small part of a loved one.

The robotic heads of Goro, Zenko, and Nobu, the Green Dragon Clan’s former leaders, sat on top of an altar. In front of them were incense bowls, cups full of sake, and elaborate jade dragon statues – each gifts from clan members, politicians, businessmen, and anyone else who wanted to stay on the Clan’s good side. Shoji was a bit surprised that Boss Takashi hadn’t joined them yet, but nonetheless crossed the room and knelt down in front of them.

“Greetings, ancestors,” Shoji said as he opened the bottle of sake, poured out three cups, and then placed one under each of the heads. “I bring you an offering.”

“More sake?” Goro, the first head, asked incredulously as he opened his eyes and stared at Shoji.

“What good does sake do any of us?” said Zenko, the second head, as he too opened his eyes and regarded the young gang member.

Nobu, the third ancestor, looked over at Shoji and shook his head in dismay.

“It’s not like any of us can drink any more,” said Goro.

“Now, a cigar I could probably manage,” added Zenko.

Nobu licked his lips.

“Ah, I haven’t had a cigar in three years,” Goro murmured.

“Do you have any cigars?” asked Zenko.

“No,” Shoji stammered, “but I have some cigarettes.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled, half-full pack.

“Ah, that’ll do!” exclaimed Zenko.

“Yes, give one here!” demanded Goro.

Nobu looked at the cigarettes greedily.

Shoji pulled a cigarette from the pack, lit it, and then passed it from mouth to mouth. Though they couldn’t inhale deeply, each enjoyed several puffs.

“Excellent!” roared Goro.

“Tremendous,” sighed Zenko.

Nobu simply smiled.

“So what can we do for you?” asked Goro.

“Don’t you mean, ‘What can I do for you?’” Shoji said as he ground the cigarette out in an incense bowl. “You asked to see me.”

“Did we?” asked Goro.

“Oh yes, so we did,” replied Zenko.

Nobu nodded in agreement.

“That’s right,” said Goro. “You made an impression on Oda.”

“Yes, but not the kind you were probably hoping for,” said Zenko.

“Indeed, he was quite displeased. He mentioned that he was collecting little fingers, and that yours would be next.”

Shoji gulped, “I’m sorry ancestors.” He prostrated himself on the floor in front of their altar.

“Ha! Get up Shoji,” said Goro.

“Indeed, that’s precisely the kind of impression that we were hoping to hear about,” said Zenko.

“I’m sorry?”

“You see, we are very displeased with Oda.”

“Yes, very displeased.”

“The Green Dragon Clan was founded to bring peace to Tokyo III, not war.”

“That’s why we’ve maintained a truce with the Capitoline Triad for the past one hundred years.”

“Yes, everyone is happy that way.”

Nobu nodded in agreement.

“So why did you want to see me?” asked Shoji.

“We need you to overthrow Oda for us.”

“What? Why me? I’m not even that high up in the Clan,” asked Shoji.

“Ah, but that’s exactly why. You haven’t been indoctrinated yet,” said Goro.

“Those with a longer history might resist,” added Zenko.

“Ok,” said Shoji, now feeling a bit nauseous.

“Not by yourself, of course.”

“No, you’ll have assistance.”

“Ichiro?” Shoji asked, afraid of the answer.

Nobu giggled.

“No, Shoji,” Goro said as he shook his head in dismay.

“You will bring Takashi back.”

“Boss Takashi?”

“Indeed. You may have noticed that he is not with us yet.”

Shoji nodded.

“We have made arrangements for his return.”

“You must talk to Boss Juno; she is assisting us.”

Shoji was quiet for a moment as he tried to process everything: overthrowing Oda, talking to the head of the Capitoline Triad, and bringing Takashi back. He could feel his stomach tighten and felt a bit light headed. “Ok. What if Boss Oda asks what we talked about?”

“Tell him that we told you to shape up and do everything he says,” Goro said with a laugh.

“Indeed, he’s pompous enough to believe it,” Zenko said wistfully.

“Thank you ancestors,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“Make us proud, boy,” Goro growled.

“We’re counting on you,” Zenko added.

Shoji stood up, bowed again and walked to the door. As he placed his hand on the handle, Nobu finally spoke in a deep baritone voice, “Good luck, Shoji.”

***

Juno looked into the mirror and smiled. She liked the image that stared back at her: young and beautiful, with flaxen hair and green eyes. Her cheeks were rosy and pleasantly plump, and her smile shone a brilliant white.

“Holography off,” she instructed, and the image in the mirror transformed. Instead of the beautiful visage of a young woman, she now peered into the eyes of an old and wrinkled crone. The longevity treatments, including the restricted calorie diet, had taken their toll: now her skin stretched over her skeleton like canvas over a wooden frame; the hollows around her eyes had sunken; her skin had turned a mottled grey; and she had lost every hair on her body.

She sighed, one hundred and thirty years, and yet I’m still can’t bear the thought of it ending. I wonder, though, am I getting soft in my old age?

“Holography on,” she said sadly, and the image of a young, vibrant woman replaced the crone. She slipped on a silk kimono and hobbled out into the hall. One hundred years ago she had founded the Capitoline Triad, and had quickly formed a truce with the Green Dragon Clan’s first leader, Goro. She had renewed the truce with each successor, but now the diabolical Oda was threatening war, and – well, she didn’t know what to do.

I never should have agreed to let that cat succeed Takashi, she thought, but he seemed so…sleepy.

A man wearing a pompadour and black, leather pants ran up to her and bowed. “Boss Juno?”

“Yes?”

“The man the ancestors have sent is here.”

“Very good,” Juno replied with a nod. “I’ll meet him in the drawing room.”

At least the ancestors agree with me that Oda needs to be removed, she thought as she slowly made her way down the hallway. Outside the drawing room, she readjusted her kimono, tightened her belt, and then entered.

“Greetings, Boss Juno,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“Please, don’t remain standing on my account,” Juno said as she settled down in a chair. “So, the ancestors have sent you to me.”

“Yes, that’s correct. They…”

She interrupted him, “I know what they want, and I happen to agree with them.” She leaned forward slightly, and then continued, “Oda needs to be replaced.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, and we need to bring back Takashi in order to lead the Clan.”

“Right, but how do we do that?”

“Ah, technology is a marvelous thing, Shoji.” Juno half-smiled. “You only have to be willing to spend the money on it.”

Shoji looked puzzled, “I don’t understand.”

“You’ll understand quickly enough once you see him. He’s at one of my warehouses, being…prepared.”

“So I need to go get him?”

“Quite,” Juno smiled. “I’ll have my assistant give you the address. You should tell no one about this, by the way.”

“Of course,” Shoji said as he stood and bowed.

“Oh, and Shoji,” Juno said just as Shoji was about to leave.

“Yes?”

“Be careful. We’re all counting on you.”

***

The Triad warehouse was located near the eastern edge of the city, and it took Shoji nearly two hours to make it there by subway and on foot. The sun had long set, and, as he looked at his watch, he realized that it was nearly midnight. He looked around uncomfortably – if Triad members found him out here, would they believe that he was working for Boss Juno?

He stopped under each streetlight to check the directions that Juno’s assistant had given him. When he finally found the steel-sided building, he was unimpressed. A single, rusted door opened directly onto the sidewalk. He tugged on the handle, and, to his surprise, it was unlocked.

Inside, the warehouse was filled with robotics parts: barrels of pistons, titanium rods, and gears were crammed against the walls, while boxes of wires, cables, microprocessors, and circuit boards were stacked in giant piles. Shoji wound his way through the mess toward a single light bulb that hung over a work bench near the middle of the floor.

A bespectacled, middle-aged man in a white lab coat was sitting at the work bench; he appeared to be soldering together a pile of wires and gears. “Doctor Nakamura?” Shoji asked.

The man startled and looked around frantically, “Yes, who’s there?”

“My name is Shoji. I’m here to pick up Boss Takashi.”

“Oh, right,” the man said with an air of relief, “Boss Juno told me you’d be coming.” He stood up from the work bench and motioned Shoji to follow, “This way.”

Shoji stared at the various cables, wires, and actuators as the doctor led him through the warehouse. “I have to tell you,” said Nakamura, “I was a bit dismayed that you were coming so soon. He’s not exactly complete, yet.”

“Not complete?”

“You’ll see,” the doctor said. “By the way, did you bring any food?”

“I didn’t know I was supposed to. Can he eat?”

“Not technically, no, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying.”

“This is a new model, by the way. Much more advanced than the previous ancestors. Better funding.”

“Oh?”

Nakamura stopped in front of a cylindrical, stainless steal chamber, which stood a foot taller than he and was about twice as wide. A tangle of tubes and wires emerged from the top and sides, and a section of the front had a handle on it – clearly designed to be a door.

“Ready?” asked the doctor.

“Sure,” Shoji shrugged.

“Ok then,” he said as he grabbed the handle and pulled.

The creaking of steel hinges echoed throughout the warehouse as the door opened, letting light stream into the interior of the cylinder. Shoji’s eyes widened with surprise as Boss Takashi’s voice echoed from inside. “Shoji, my boy. It’s good to see you!”

***

Shoji stood outside the warehouse in the cold Martian night. He pulled out his phone and dialed Mei’s number, hoping that she was still awake.

“Hello?” Mei’s voice answered groggily.

“Mei, it’s Shoji. Can you pick me up?”

“Don’t be a goof, Shoji, it’s nearly midnight.”

“Come on, Mei. Please?”

“Shoji, I’m not coming all the way out there in the middle of the night so that you can get me in the backseat again,” she paused for a moment. “You should have called around ten.”

“No, I’m serious. I need your help.”

She sighed. “Ok. What’s going on?”

“I’ve got to deliver something, but it’s a bit…bigger…than I thought it would be.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you over the phone.”

“This isn’t going to get the heat after me, is it?”

“No. Well, not the heat at any rate.”

Mei sighed. “Ok. Where should I meet you?”

Shoji sighed in relief when, less than fifteen minutes later, a ’35 Inferno screamed to a halt in front of the curb. The driver’s side door opened and Mei stepped out. “Lay it on me,” she said with a frown, “why did you drag me all the way out to nowhereseville in the middle of the night?”

Shoji opened the warehouse door and looked inside, “Boss?”

Out stepped a figure that was covered from head to toe in a silken robe. In the soft glow of the twin moons, even its face was shrouded in shadow.

Mei stared as the man pulled back the hood of the robe before removing it altogether. After a minute, she let out a low whistle, “Like crazy, man.” In front of her stood a life-size, titanium skeleton – completely devoid of muscle and flesh.

Ichiro emerged from the car and stared in amazement, “Woah. That’s the most.”

Shoji looked sidelong at Mei. “What’s he doing here?”

“You said it was something big. I thought we might need the help.”

“I kind of like the new look,” the skeleton said as he patted his ribs.

“Mei, Ichiro, this is Boss Takashi,” said Shoji.

“Boss Takashi?” Ichiro said, stunned.

“Well, a copy of me, at any rate,” Takashi said, “the ancestors decided that since things went so well under my leadership, I deserved more than just a head.”

“This is so radioactive!” Ichiro said excitedly. “Wait ‘till I tell everyone about this.”

“No!” Shoji barked, “You can’t tell anyone until…” He looked at Takashi for approval.

“Go ahead – it’ll be front page news by tomorrow.”

“…until Oda is removed from power.”

“Woah – heavy,” said Ichiro.

“The ancestors wanted me to pick up Takashi, so that he could go reclaim his position as head of the Clan.”

“So,” Mei said pensively, “where are we supposed to deliver him?”

“Back to the noodle house,” Shoji replied, “That’s where Oda is.” He looked over at the former leader of the Clan, who was staring at his metallic, skeletal hands, clenching and unclenching them, and chuckling.

“Do any of you have some food? I’m starving,” Takashi said as he looked at three teenagers.

“Oh. Oh. Oh. I’ve got this,” Ichiro said as he fished a candy bar out of his pocket.

“That’ll do.” Takashi took the proffered candy and stuffed it between his skeletal jaws. He chewed for a few moments, but only succeeded in smearing chocolate all over his face. “Hmm, as much as I like this look, I’ll have to get the process finished soon if I ever want to eat anything,” he said with a grumble.

“Shall we go, Boss?” Shoji offered.

“Yes, indeed. Let’s get this over with.”

Mei looked fearfully at Shoji, who just shrugged. “You don’t have to come, if you don’t want. You can just drop us off.”

She frowned and crossed her arms, “Not if you’re going to be there, goof.”

“Oh!” Takashi exclaimed, “I almost forgot.” He disappeared into the warehouse and then reappeared a moment later carrying a four-foot long, black metal case. “I’m going to need this,” he said as he patted the case lovingly.

***

As the ’35 Inferno pulled up to the curb in front of the Green Dragon Clan’s headquarters, Shoji began to feel nauseous. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and the life-size metal skeleton sitting beside him in the back seat wasn’t helping to calm his nerves.

After every one piled out of the car, Takashi pulled out the black metal case and set it on the ground. He flipped open the latches, kicked back the lid, and pulled out a massive, automatic machine gun. He looked over at Shoji, “I always bring this with me to negotiations.”

Shoji nodded nervously, but followed the skeleton’s lead and walked toward the door of the noodle house. He turned to motion to Mei to stay in the car, but wasn’t surprised to find out that she was already right behind him.

As they stepped through the door into the empty restaurant, Takashi opened fire. Shoji pushed Mei to the ground and covered her with his body as tables, chairs, and noodle bowls exploded around them. The titanium skeleton kept the trigger pressed for a full minute as even the support columns of the building were chewed to shreds by the hail of bullets.

“What was that?” Shoji exclaimed once the bullets stopped. He lifted his head up to see the extent of the damage.

“I find that it always helps to set the terms of the negotiation right up front.”

Ichiro stumbled in from the street. “What’s going on?” he yelled.

Takashi waved to him to be quiet, and Shoji looked at him and shrugged.

“Are you ok, Mei?” Shoji asked the girl who was lying under him.

She was quiet for a moment, and then smiled. “Yeah. I’m on cloud nine.”

Shoji gasped and quickly rolled off of Mei. Then he looked up to see a black and white cat wander out of the back room. It jumped up onto a broken table, sat, licked its paw, and then looked at the group assembled in front of it. It cocked its head and stared at Takashi for a full minute before glancing at Ichiro and then settling its gaze on Shoji.

“Why, Shoji?” Oda hissed.

“I told you, I’m only doing this to save up money for college.”

“I should have collected your finger while I had a chance.”

Shoji shuddered, but then Takashi lowered the gun and stepped forward. “I’m taking the clan back, Oda.”

“I see that.”

“You’re not going to make any trouble, are you?”

Oda licked his front paw and ran it over his face. “Can I still sit on your lap?”

“Of course.”

Oda turned his head and nipped at his fur for a second, then looked back at Takashi. “Will you still feed me toro?”

“Absolutely!”

“Even for breakfast?”

Takashi laughed, “Yes, even for breakfast.”

“Fine then,” Oda said with a sniff, and then turned and jumped down off the table. “I’m going back to sleep.”

After the cat disappeared into the back room, Takashi leaned down and helped Shoji and Mei to their feet. “You make a cute couple,” he smiled.

Shoji blushed, but then put his arm around her waist. She leaned against his chest and smiled. “Thank you, Boss Takashi.”

“What? A couple?” Ichiro exclaimed from near the front door.

Takashi shook his titanium skull and laughed. “I should go talk to the ancestors and thank them for sending you. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Well, I do want to study hyperspace – is there any chance you could put in a good word at Tokyo University?”

“Tokyo University? That’s in Triad territory. How about Mars Polytechnic?”

“Don’t you start,” interjected Mei, “wasn’t the whole point of this to maintain the truce?”

“Indeed it was,” Takashi shook his head. “I’ll talk to Boss Juno. I believe her son is the Dean of Engineering at the University.”

“Thank you sir,” Shoji said as he bowed deeply.

“You know what we need?” said Takashi, “some music.” He turned, “Ichiro, find the jukebox.”

Ichiro looked around at the debris filled room; dust was beginning to settle upon the wreckage. He picked up a splintered table leg and tossed it out the door, then turned back to see Shoji and Mei locked in a kiss. He groaned. Man, what a bunch of squares.

###
This story was written for the second round of the 2007 Ceramic DM writing tournament.

strange little loops

Kat watched the smoke rise through the hazy air, curling and swirling in on itself to form strange little loops. Gordian knots tied and unraveled themselves within the span of a breath, as ripples of air passed by. She pursed her lips and blew, clearing the canvas that hung in front of her, then waited for Beth to light another cigarette.

“I still can’t believe they made me black…” Sharon said, staring at her arms.

Sharon had been something of a skinhead, Kat recalled as she leaned back in the pew, watching the smoke as it began to dance again.

“…and a girl!” Sharon continued, the frustration evident in her voice.

She had also been a man, and was having a bit of trouble adjusting. Kat looked around at the others - their four and five-year-old bodies had been somewhat of a shock to them all at first. Some had adjusted smoothly, while others, like Jimmy, who kept killing himself in wildly creative ways (this was his fourth body in as many months), were taking a bit longer.

Most were talking or playing cards - though there really wasn’t much else to do. None of them knew why they were here, and none of the people who ran this place - whatever it was, with its high, barbed-wire fences - were talking. There were rumors, of course, as happens in any information-deprived group: Pam, the preacher, declared that this was heaven, and they were all now cherubim; Ron, the conspiracy theorist, quietly suggested that they had all been abducted by aliens; Starfish, as she insisted on being called, offered the theory that they were all part of a consensual hallucination caused by massive doses of LSD which had been administered by the CIA. Kat had her own theory, but she wasn’t sure anyone else would have understood, so she kept it to herself.

She looked over at Beth’s cigarette, sighed, and plucked it from her mouth. Placing it to her lips and inhaling deeply, she smiled bitterly. If it hadn’t been for the cigarettes, she wouldn’t be here now.

***

Hoffman turned the mask over in his hands. As the chair of the Institute for Advanced Artificial Intelligence, he had been responsible for its design, both inside and out. From the outside, it looked vaguely Incan (the study of said culture being a favorite pastime of his), and was made of a translucent, blue polymer that gave it the appearance of being carved from ice. That the polymer had the ability to gently mold itself to the wearer’s face in order to maximize comfort was an added plus.

Inside, the mask was laced with a series of circuits that acted as a fractal antenna. When initialized, those looping, twisting fibers would emit a signal that would create a sympathetic resonance in the synaptic pathways responsible for the interpretation of external stimuli. Any change in either the mask or brain’s signal would trigger an identical change in the other.

The special wideband connection and fractal compression that enabled the transmission of the massive amounts of data necessary to accurately recreate the sensation of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch in the human brain was his design as well. The massively parallel computing cluster that generated the artificial stimuli wasn’t of his design, but had been donated by the government - something to which he initially objected. With the news he had received recently, though, he was secretly thankful - he would be years behind now without it.

***

When the cancer came, it did so quickly and decisively. Kat remembered walking down the beach, after visiting the doctor and hearing the news. In the middle of the afternoon, on a cloudy, April Thursday, the beach had been deserted. The gulls that cried in the distance were her only companions, which was fitting, she thought, for someone who had done so little with her life. The waves lapped methodically at her bare feet, washing grains of sand from between her toes and depositing others. A gentle breeze tousled her hair and tickled her skin, causing her to shiver involuntarily.

After a moment, she began to cry; beginning softly, but increasing in intensity until her whole body was sobbing. Every muscle contracted with each breath, as she gulped lungfuls of sea-salt air. The thought of dying, of ending, of ceasing to be, was overwhelming. A terrible cold gripped her, sending ice water rushing through her veins, freezing her to the very core. She shuddered.

The thought of all the things she had never done assaulted her all at once. She had never ridden a mechanical bull, been to New York, been married, had children, run a marathon, gambled in Vegas, had sex in the back of a car, owned a dog, or had a chili cheese dog from that little shop down the street that was owned by the old Greek guy with the B.O. and the mustache.

She had gone straight from high school to college, where she had majored in math, then to grad school, where she studied fractal geometry, then to a Ph.D. program at Berkeley where she spent four laborious years as a teaching assistant, then to a research position, all because that’s what everyone else told her she was supposed to do. Go to school, go to more school, go to even more school, get a job, get a better job, get an even better job - she had never even fucking been to Peru!

She screamed, and fell to the sand, and screamed some more. When she finished screaming, she opened her eyes. The gulls were quiet, the wind was quiet - even the waves were quiet, in that moment when she looked up and saw the sand sculpture.

Whether someone had sculpted it, and left it there, or whether nature had lovingly crafted it, she couldn’t tell, but there it sat, atop its own little sand dune. Spirals of sand curled in on themselves, connecting internally and externally, to form a pyramid, of sorts. Running through and around, with no beginning and no end in sight, the whole sculpture formed a strange little loop; each grain of sand playing its part in the eternal, unending, whole.

The tears subsided as she rolled over on her back and stared at the sky. The clouds, the waves, even the beach itself were each a reflection of both themselves and the whole. In that moment, she could see everything, the whole of the infinite, in that sand sculpture, in the beach, in the clouds and waves and gulls and sky, and she whimpered. She was still afraid.

***

“Are you going in, doctor?” a voice interrupted his reverie. His assistant, a slim woman in her mid-thirties, whose voice had grown steadily weaker over the past month, looked expectantly at him.

“Oh, yes. Yes,” he replied. He leaned back in the chair and placed the mask over his face, while his assistant dimmed the lights and put on a collection of Bach. “Yes,” he smiled, “I think we’re getting very close now.”

“I’ve been reading your synopses at night,” she replied wearily, “the progress that you’re making is astounding.”

Ah, if only you knew, he thought to himself, just how close we are. He had been making observations for months, tracking the progress of his artificial subjects. Soon it would be time, he thought, as the mask synchronized itself to the activity in his brain. His office faded out, replaced with an entirely different scene, as the new reality took hold. I just hope that it’s soon enough, he thought.

***

Kat was 15 when she first started smoking. When she was in high school, she had joined the dance team her sophomore year, to try and fit in with the other girls. They all wore letters on their uniforms, and part of their act was to spell out words at different points. She wore an “O,” so she ended up in a lot of the formations, and at the end of their routine, she was the one who kneeled in the center. Her friend Jenny, who wore a “P,” kneeled to her right, while Kim, who wore a “G,” and who she despised, kneeled to her left. JJ and Leah sat in front of them while the rest of the girls leaned in behind them. It was a great finish, and people always clapped wildly, even though they didn’t actually spell anything at that point.

After rehearsal one rainy day, while Jenny was driving her home (she was a year older, and passed her driving test on the third try), they pulled into a gas station. “Wait here,” Jenny said, and hopped out of the car. Kat passed the time drawing on the fogged-up passenger side window with her finger.

“Want one?” Jenny said after returning and pulling the package of Marlboros out of her pocket. Kat wasn’t sure what to say. She knew they were bad for you, but she really liked Jenny, and didn’t want her to think she was uncool.

“Sure,” she replied a bit dazedly, taking the cigarette and putting it to her lips.

Jenny lit her own cigarette, took a drag, and coughed violently. She looked over at Kat, “Oh, these are a different brand, so, uh, I’m not used to them.”

Kat nodded, and lit her own cigarette. She took a long drag, and, much to her surprise, didn’t cough. In fact, it felt entirely natural, like she had done it before, a long, long time ago. Jenny looked at her in surprise. Kat just shrugged. Something tugged at the back of her mind, but she shoved it out of the way, and took another puff. She watched the smoke float gently up through the air, curling in on itself and forming strange little loops, and sighed.

***

Finally! Someone was actually going to talk to her. The guard had been very curt in giving the order to follow him, but since it was the first time any of them had been talked to by the guards, she hastily followed. Beth and Sharon stared in amazement as she dropped the cigarette - stamping it out as she stood up - and followed the man. He led her down a long, hospital white, tiled hallway. They passed door after door, though she wasn’t tall enough in this body to see through any of the windows, until they came to the end. The guard opened the door and motioned for her to continue in ahead of him.

The sounds of Bach’s “Air on the G String” floated out into the air as she entered the room. A middle aged man in a tweed jacket sat in a leather chair in the middle of what looked like a psychologist’s office. Bookcases lined the wall, a desk sat to one side of the room, and a sofa sat across from the man’s chair.

“Hello Katherine,” the man said, motioning to the sofa.

“Kat,” she replied, “I prefer to be called Kat.”

“Oh yes,” he smiled, “that’s right. My mistake.”

She looked at him for a second before hopping up onto the couch.

“Do you know why you’re here?” the man asked.

“Do you mean practically or metaphysically?” she replied.

He chucked. “Both.”

Kat shrugged, “Practically, I don’t know. I’d say you’re doing research on something, but I’m not sure what.”

He raised an eyebrow, “Go on.”

“Metaphysically, I’d say that each individual is part of a whole. A giant, infinite fractal, if you will. I think you’re tapping into that to bring us back when we die. I just don’t know why or how you’re doing it.”

“Interesting,” he said. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, “care for one?” Kat accepted his offer, and leaned back on the sofa. “How much do you remember?” he asked.

“Of my previous life? A lot. But not all of it - there are still some blanks.” She paused for a moment, “I remember the cancer. I remember the feeling of helplessness, of failure, though I don’t remember actually dying.”

The man paused for a moment. “How would you like another chance? To live your life over again - to create new memories?”

“I’d like that more than anything,” she said, beginning to cry.

I think it’s time, he thought to himself. “You wait here,” he said, as he stood up from the chair. He opened the door to the office, and then turned to her, “Someone will be along shortly.” He stepped through, closing the door behind him, and was gone.

***

“Katherine,” Hoffman called to his assistant as he removed the mask.

“Kat,” she corrected him.

“Oh yes,” he smiled, “that’s right. My mistake.” He stood up from the chair and motioned for her to sit down.

“Oh, no doctor,” she replied, although sitting sounded incredibly appealing right now, “I’m ok, really.”

“No, no,” he waved his hand dismissively, “I want you to try the mask this time.”

Kat was shocked - he had never let anyone use the mask, not even the men from the government who had funded the project. “Are you sure, doctor?” she asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” he motioned to the chair.

He helped her lower herself into the plush leather seat. “I’m sorry, but this is going to get in the way,” he said as he removed her wig - the result of her recent chemotherapy.

“Doctor,” she said, embarrassed, reaching for the wig.

“It’s ok,” he said reassuringly as he placed it on the table next to her, “it’s just me.”

He handed her the mask, and she took it with trembling hands. She gently placed it on her face, and was surprised to feel it fit so comfortably. “Just relax,” he said, as the lights dimmed, and the sound of Bach floated through the air. She took a deep breath, as Hoffman worked the controls, gradually fading out this existence and fading in the artificial one.

As soon as the mask had taken effect, and she could no longer sense him, Hoffman opened Kat’s purse, and began searching for the syringe and morphine he knew she kept, in case the pain got too bad.

***

Kat looked out at the office through four-year-old eyes. She held a cigarette in her hand, and took a puff as she felt an unexpected pain in her right arm. The world began to blur for a moment as the sounds of Bach faded from the background. Then, reality reemerged with a bright clarity, and the realization of what had happened overwhelmed her as two sets of memories merged.

She fought back tears, her lips quivering, as the office in front of her faded away, replaced with the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. Gasping, she looked at the mountains and boulders and stones around her, each part of the unending whole. Smoke drifted up into the air, curing in on itself, forming those strange little loops. She smiled, and, dropping her cigarette, stamped it out. This time, she thought, I’m going to do it right.

###
Author’s note: this story was originally written for the first round of the Ceramic DM writing tournament in 2004.