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05 June 2015

Fiction Friday - 5 June 2015

This was provoked by Scott Alexander's wonderful story "... And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes." I decided to take the original Tumblr meme and put a pessimistic, Needful Things-esque spin on it. Comments and critiques are welcome: I wrote this all at once in a mad haste of inspiration (thus my earlier word choice) so it may or may not be rough.

"Let's just say you don't pay... with money." — Mr. Needful

***

YELLOW

"Gives you the ability to read and search the minds of anyone you can see, even if it's a picture. You can also turn their minds 'off' to put them into a coma."

Yes, now everyone's mind is an open book to you. But alas, the man never said whether you'd be able to understand these books. The first time you attempt to use this power, on a photograph of the President, it felt like that time you had to read Immanuel Kant in college, except that now "A Critique of Pure Reason" was compressed into the space of about five seconds and broadcast at you on every sensory spectrum. And you don't even think the President is even that philosophical of a person!

Maybe it just takes some getting used to. And for a while you think it might. You try, really try, to comprehend a tiny detail. You search, just as the man promised. You isolate a small eddy in the midst of this cognitive torrent: a memory? You try to grasp what might be an image, or a sense-impression of some kind. Just now... but nothing. Nothing!

Perhaps the President was just too unfamiliar to you. That could be it. After all, Kant was from the 18th century, and German besides. So you call up your best friend. You've known her since kindergarten; your parents had been friends since before you two were even born; you were inseparable and basically sisters. If anyone was familiar to you, it would be her.

The next day, you and her are sitting in amateurish sazen position, staring at each other across a "Gypsy"-clothed table. The air is vaguely incense-scented. She thought you had lost that fascination with Tarot and palmistry sometime between sophomore year and graduation, but truth be told, you wouldn't have taken the Yellow pill otherwise. Besides, you're striving for familiarity here. Still faintly bemused, she waits patiently.

You open her mind and rifle through it. Almost immediately your friend wobbles and puts a hand to her head: woozy, she says. Her words are just faintly slurred.

You break away instantly. Panic floods your nerves, even as your friend blinks and asks what's wrong and reaches across the table to reassure you that it was probably just low blood sugar or something, after all she hasn't eaten since 2...

Another quick peek, another wobble and slurred surprise, and your fear is confirmed. You're causing this.

Then you realize: you tried to read the President yesterday. The panic doubles. Redoubles.

After your friend eases you down from an anxiety attack, you agree to take a photo of her on your phone and use that. The sensation of opening her mind is roughly the same (though truth be told you weren't paying much attention those other times) and she reports no ill effects. Cool relief on your nerves. You renew focus on her photo.

Still no comprehension. Oh, maybe it seems a bit clearer, but it could also be wishful thinking. In a rush of frustration you run to the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror.
Comprehension eludes you yet again.

Your friend nearly breaks the door down when she hears your anguished cry. Grabs you, knuckles bleeding, tears falling on cold tile, away from the cracked silvered glass.

***
"We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." — H. P. Lovecraft

***

RED

"Gives you super speed, super strenth and rapid regeneration (not invincible)."

Was that guy for real? Just giving this pill away? And it worked, too! Not like those other pills, powders, diets, machines you spent all that money on—wasted, now that you took this. The world itself seems lighter now, all of it. After you sprinted back to your home gym in Burbank in what seemed like only a couple minutes (how many dozens of miles was that?) and maxed out all their machines without warming up, it took a while for that to really sink in.

He said it was all natural. That's really why you took it. Everything else, everything before that, had worked, or at least not failed: you got fit. You didn't really look it, though. Oh sure, you were lean, had a low BMI, and felt healthier, but you didn't feel great. Not like you really wanted to feel. And the one thing that promised that was the one thing you refused to submit to. The side-effects. The mood swings. The irreversible damage. It was a deal with the devil, and you stayed away. Then you found that weird shop in Venice Beach...

... and four hours later, you're deadlifting boulders the size of houses in the desert. Which you jogged to at a leisurely four hundred miles per hour, by a quick reckoning.

... and a month later, you've only won a few amateur strongman competitions. Something is very wrong with you. You haven't changed at all. At all. It takes another few days to realize that muscles only grow by resistance. But nothing resists your strength. Nothing.

You realize this because you find it written, in your handwriting, on your kitchen table. You don't remember writing it. You are suddenly afraid. What's happening to you?

It takes another five such fearful realizations, with the same note, in different places around your house, before you realize that you're forgetting things. Not just some things. Everything since that day at the shop; no, everything since you took the pill. You find the article for "anterograde amnesia" on Wikipedia, then the fifteen bookmarks you made for it. Then the half dozen notes you left explaining how the brain makes new memories by changing neurons around... but your Red-granted regeneration just resets them. Any thoughts you have, and memories, are destroyed soon after. You briefly thank God that the pill didn't grant instant regeneration, before realizing that it probably wasn't the first time you had so thanked a higher power...

... it's several hours of crying, interspersed with fearful confusion, before you finally fall asleep. Not for the first time, either.

***
"You dumb, stupid, weak, pathetic, white, white... uh-uhh... guilt... white-guilt, milquetoast... piece of human garbage." — Gazorpazorpfield

***

GREEN

"Gives you the ability to shapeshift into any animal."

Fuck that horrible old man. Fuck him and his weird little store in Brooklyn. The pill worked, of course. For some reason you had never doubted that. He hadn't said anything about the pain, though. Or the mess.

First, the mess. You should have realized that the extra mass has to come from somewhere. You should have realized that "whatever's close by" would be the most convenient source for that extra mass. You thank God that the your first attempt had been in the middle of Central Park at night. At least it was only a few square yards of grass and bushes that got... atomized. There's really no other way to describe it.

Now, the pain. You should have realized that all those changes to nerves, guts, sense organs would feel like something. This, though, this doesn't feel "like" anything. Nothing feels "like" this. You describe it as "pain" only because that's the closest possible approximation and even it undershoots by a million miles. If you had been religious, you might have called it Hell. You're still not religious, but suddenly God's admonitions to Adam and Eve in the Garden seem pretty relevant right now.

And the mess again. The process must be relatively quick, though you were hardly self-aware enough to track the time. You know this, not because it completed, but upon pulling out of the transformation you find yourself surrounded by what you can only estimate is one-third of an animal. More than everything, it's the way the flesh, the bone, the feathers seem almost melted together. There is no smell, but you, screaming, are already running home, and you fail to notice this.

You don't even try a second time. It takes a week and a half, and nearly a gallon of whiskey, to drown those memories.

Fuck that horrible old man.

***
"No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. This is our curse alone." — Thomas Ligotti

***

BLUE

"Gives you the ability to fly, swim, and teleport to any area while being impervious to any physical dangers."

Void.

Only void. Or not void. No way of knowing.

Your sanity is slipping.

If you could find the man, that horrible old man, you might demand a cure. Or try to. No way of knowing.

You think you haven't moved since taking the pill. Your equilibrium seems intact, if only because you have a gut-shredding case of vertigo right now.

No way of knowing.

After the tension of perhaps a few minutes or a few hours, you think you find a reason for these... side effects.

Too much light can blind. Too much pressure can break bones, rupture eardrums. Light, and pressure. Dangerous, in the right quantities. But no way of knowing.

So you hear nothing, but the erratic surge of blood from an anxious heart, and the whine of terrified nerves.

You see nothing, but the dancing motes of false color from the inside of your own eyes.

You feel nothing, but the rolling nausea of vertigo.

Perhaps you scream. If anyone finds you, there's no way of knowing. You could be teleporting, the old man did promise that. But there's no way of knowing.

***
“From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.” — H. P. Lovecraft

***

GREY

"Gives you the ability to control any machine or electronic using only your mind. You also have the ability to generate powerful electrical discharges by touch."

That horrible website. You knew, you just knew it was sketchy. Oh, it wasn't a scam. You were actually suprised by that. The pill, it did something. Something incredible. But it was something terrible.

You didn't buy the pill to gain "magic hacker" powers. You were already something of a prodigy. The dream, of course, had been brain-computer interface. Yeah, you had followed the stories of what Google and others had been working on. You followed them almost as closely as you devoured every bit of transhumanist and cyberpunk science fiction you could find: "Neuromancer," "Ghost in the Shell," and on and on. You didn't care if they were pessimistic. You longed for the experience either way.

And it came. Almost immediately after ingesting the strange grey pill you realized you had another... "sense" wasn't the right word, but "power" seemed too arrogant, even for what you anticipated. You knew, instinctively, how to connect your thoughts to your computer. You reached out. It was almost too easy...

The fire was small but your security deposit is certainly voided. You're still numb with shock. Everything on your network: the home machine, the RAID array, the NAS, the router, all of it fried. Literally, you can small the acrid smoke on your clothes even still. You double checked what networked hard drives you could salvage, manually of course: the data was smeared all over with gibberish. Then you checked your cloud storage. Also corrupted, almost 97% of the files.

Cursing yourself for using your home machine to order from that horrible website, you buy a cheap used laptop. Sitting in the concrete plaza below your office building, you effortlessly open the connection...

You soak your legs in the bathtub, hoping the burns on your upper thighs are only first-degree. Hurt, angry, you furiously run through all the possible reasons, now that you know it couldn't have possibly been malware from that site. That horrible website.

In this moment of pain and introspection, you realize. You can open a mind-machine interface, but apparently that means your whole mind. And there are so many thoughts running through your mind at once. A river of thoughts, with only a few currents carrying the commands you actually want to pass to the computer. The rest go anyway. The result: meaningless electronic noise. Overload. Data corruption.

Then the light in your bathroom pops, and you suddenly have a very bad feeling.

***
"Does evil exist, and if so, can one detect and measure it? Rhetorical question Morty, the answer is yes." — Rick Sanchez

***

ORANGE

"Gives you the ability to instantly master any sport, job, activity, martial art, etc. that a human can do."

Long ago, someone received a pill. Just like the catalog promised. "Instantly master any sport, job, activity..." and it delivered. Someone thought Olympic decathlon sounded pretty good for a first start.

Long ago, someone had trained for the decathlon for their whole life. Every family member, every friend, every aspect of their experience (since when? high schoo? seemed like a lifetime ago) had bent towards that moment. The Olympics. Arriving home, gold medals around their neck, someone had idly wondered what it might have been like to become a lawyer, their second-choice dream job.

Long ago, someone was youngest senior partner in the country's premier law firm. Every family member, every friend, every school choice, every aspect of their experience (since when? middle school? seemed like a lifetime ago) had bent towards that moment. After the champagne and congratulations were exchanged, someone arrived home. They opened their sock drawer to find... a gold Olympic medal. Someone was confused. Where had that come from? They had never found sports all that interesting. Was it real? It was. And then someone remembered, or thought they remembered, standing on the podium. The cheering crowds. It seemed so real, frighteningly so. And yet it couldn't possibly have happened. Someone had been litigating that case in Denver during the last games, and they had been in Nairobi. Maybe it was the stress. Someone should see a therapist...

Long ago, someone was the hottest television psychiatrist in the world. Multiple New York Times best-seller, instant ratings boost for whatever daytime talk show had them as a guest. The influence was undeniable. Oh, someone had critics: academics, mostly, who nevertheless admitted that someone might be onto something. It's just that (or so they said) not all the evidence is in yet. Someone didn't care about evidence. This had been their dream since when? Elementary school, probably. Every family member, every friend, every school choice, every gut feeling, every aspect of their experience had bent towards this moment. The Daytime Emmys. Standing on the red carpet, someone was stricken with an anxiety attack when the reporter asked them if they were aware of a class action lawsuit being brought against them for false advertising of health supplements...

It was the mention of the law firm that did it. Someone didn't even know why, they hadn't even heard of the firm before... and then they realized that they had. Because someone had worked there. Been senior partner there. But that can't have been true. Someone had been a psychiatrist since forever. Yet the memories seemed so real; and now there were memories of participating in the Olympics; and now commanding a mission to space; and now swearing on the Bible in front of the White House; and now...

You don't even notice as the EMTs strap you into a guerney and haul you off to the psychiatric hospital. If there even is a "you" any more.

***
"The only value of this world lay in its power - at certain times - to suggest another world." — Thomas Ligotti

***

BLACK

"Gives you the ability to see up to one month into the future."

You should have studied physics sooner. The future comes in a cone. Oh yes, after long hours squinting and (it's laughable, now) using binoculars and bifocals, you finally figured it out. You are seeing the future, just the entire smear of it across a cone. Hooray.

It's not so bad when you're only looking a few dozen seconds ahead. Blurry, sure, but you can more or less make things out, even if you're seeing double, or triple. That's the most annoying part: since there's no single future timeline, you're seeing several at once. You still have to guess at which one actually comes to pass. You're getting better at it, sure, but you really don't know what's the power working (and it does work, make no mistake) and what's basic human extrapolation.

And it's not like you can just walk around with the power on—God, no!—everything's so blurry, even at 30-seconds-forward, that you're probably legally blind that way. Driving is out of the question.
Focusing on the present is abominably difficult, too. You thought seeing something on the tip of your nose was tough! Now it's a chore just to see fewer than five seconds ahead in time. The tip of your time nose...?

Either way, you got off easy. That horrible old man might have left out one or two details, but the pill worked, you can't say it didn't.

You suspect others might not have been so lucky. You nearly tripped over a man in the street the other day, whom you swore hadn't been there five seconds before. (You can still see where objects are, after all.) He was screaming, just the freakiest wordless scream like he had escaped Hell or something. You strained to focus on the present, and only managed to notice his bloodshot, unblinking eyes before he just vanished. They had been a very strange shade of blue...

Yeah, you got lucky. And one thing's for certain: there's no future where you'll ever buy pills from a creepy old man again.

***
"Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody's gonna die. Come watch TV?" — Morty Smith

***

PINK

"Gives you the ability to make any person love you with a single touch. Can turn off the effect by retouching the person."

You hope the Internet was lying. Well, almost. It would be nice, in a perverse way, if you weren't alone in this. That other people bought some mysterious pills from a horrible old man. But the stories don't make sense: the other people are all over the country, far away from Chicago. And they never found the stores... well, that's not surprising, because you tried finding that terrible old man again and his shop was all boarded up like nobody had ever renovated it.

And if the Internet wasn't lying, well, you got off easy. The pill worked, of course. That was never in question for some reason. But you didn't consider the full implications of the old man's promise. "Make someone love you." Not make someone fall in love with you. Just "love." And now you can never know the touch of another person. You can't put anyone through that.

It was only a small miracle that made you test out your new power with an online date, and not your longtime crush. Even with the weird confidence bubbling inside you after taking the pill, it still took an effort to touch her.

You spent the next few minutes terrified, slack-jawed, as your date immediately began recounting years and years and years of dates and tender moments that had never happened. Wistfully imagining the apartment you two would buy together, and (coyly, of course; one can never rush these things) whether you would prefer a traditional wedding or if you just wanted to elope.

You couldn't touch her again fast enough. The date ended shortly after that, as you left some money on the table and stumbled away, citing stomach problems. It was a half-truth; you were holding back some serious dry-heaves.

A few hours' thought was enough to realize that love, not just lust, requires time. Not always years and years, but time all the same. More time than a second's touch. It had to come from somewhere. Even if that "somewhere" never existed.

Then you turned on the news just in time to see the day's tragic headline. Apparently your date had collapsed in the parking lot. From a stroke. No prior medical history. Apparently she had been a star athlete at the university.

It's since been a month since you've left your apartment. It's amazing how much stuff you can get delivered nowadays. Food and everything. You thank God your parents live across the country, and that you never made friends here. Nobody's getting worried at your extended absence. Oh sure, your job was worried, but your work can be done remotely and it was somewhat easy to forge a doctor's signature.

So all in all, things aren't too bad. It's not like you weren't used to loneliness before now. Most lonely people probably haven't accidentally killed anybody because of it, though.

And there's a bright side to all of this. With human contact off the table, you have lots of free time to spend tracking down that horrible old man. Because when you do find him, and you will, you plan on giving him a hearty handshake.

***
"This, then, is the ultimate, that is only, consolation: simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate." — Thomas Ligotti

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