The Perils of Live TV

cook

One of the biggest misconceptions about live television is that it’s actually live. Let me tell you a secret: nothing is live. Everything has a built-in delay, just in case something unexpected happens. It’s not so much out of concern for the viewers, but for the advertisers. The last thing Pampers wants to deal with is some British actor saying “cunt” on a talk show or an NFL quarterback getting paralyzed after a big hit. It’s bad for the brand.

I work for the Food Network. Over the last ten years, we’ve moved from basic cooking instruction to a more “reality TV” style; lots of competitions, celebrity cameos, that whole thing. Lots of people didn’t like the change, but we got a big uptick in the younger demographics as a result.

One of the problems with capturing a younger demographic is holding onto them as they transition into an older one. Let’s say, for example, when we started with the reality TV shows, we got a viewer named Jenny. Jenny was 22 when she first saw Ace of Cakes and became a regular viewer of the network since then. She was fresh out of college, had few responsibilities, and was enjoying being a kid.

Fast-forward nine years. Jenny’s 31 and a stay-at-home mom. Her priorities are far different than they were when she was 22. She has two children, and, on weekdays, she babysits her brother’s twins as well. Instead of eating out all the time like she did at 22, Jenny’s responsible for feeding a household. She doesn’t have time for reality shows anymore and she wishes her cable company offered the Cooking Channel – the sister station to the Food Network that offers more how-to programming.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jennys across the country – first generation captures from the reality-TV era who yearn for more instructional programming. But it’s a balancing act. If the Food Network goes back to their original format, they lose the potential for new, younger viewers. If they stay with primarily reality-based programming, they lose all the Jennys out there.

Our goal, and by “our,” I mean: me and my team at the network, was to create a show to bridge that gap. After the success of The Kitchen, a Saturday morning program featuring four of the network’s biggest stars as they cook exciting recipes and give tips and techniques, we were tasked to make something for the weekday morning viewers.

We ended up creating a show that featured two of the network’s top chefs, a live studio audience, and Q&A from online viewers. It was going to be as interactive a show as we’d ever made, and the twist was, it would be “live.” Now, remember what I said about “live” TV. Sure, the audience would be there watching the chefs cook and asking them questions while they did, but the online questions would be from emails. The delay would be 30 minutes.

It was a huge success in the various test markets. We had one show to go with the stand-in chefs before the show went national, this time in Oklahoma, but there was a problem. There had been a tornado warning in the county. It had since expired, but the audience was about half of what it should’ve been. We decided to go with it anyway, since we figured a lot of the at-home audience would still be inside after the storms. They’d be watching.

Right away, there were technical issues. Even though the tornado warning had passed, there were still frequent lightning strikes and other atmospheric disturbances all around the station. Things still went on, however, and the chefs started cooking.

The first problem came when the cream wouldn’t whip. The chef made a show out of it, poking fun at the behind-the-scenes staff and trying it again with a new container of cream. Again, nothing. In my ear, one of the producers said it might have been because of the storm. He didn’t sound like he knew what he was talking about.

The chefs gave up on the whipped cream and decided to make a creme anglaise. Those require eggs. Two eggs were cracked into the mixing bowl without incident. The third, though, was bad. It was blood-red, clumpy, and smelled terrible. The odor permeated the studio quickly and I saw the audience members holding their noses. When I held my own, my fingers came back bloody. I hadn’t had a nosebleed since I was a kid. We cut to a commercial.

Neither chef was happy. They agreed to scrap the whole “dessert first” idea and just go directly to the entree. No one would complain about the basic steak-and-potatoes main course, especially in cow country. The kitchen was reset and the show resumed.

The downward spiral continued. As thunder boomed outside, loud enough to be picked up by studio microphones, the mixer for the potatoes started to smoke and emit sparks before the chef yanked the plug out of the wall and threw the whole thing in the sink. “Just goes to show you guys, disasters can happen in any kitchen,” he joked to the audience, still obviously irritated but trying to play it cool.

Potatoes got mixed and mashed by hand and the chefs fielded questions about whether or not milk or cream should be used. There was another thunderclap and the studio lights flickered. I’ve always hated working in these satellite studios – compared to the main studios in New York, these were like living in the dark ages.

The lights stayed on, thankfully, and the half-hour delay caught up to the beginning of the show. All over Oklahoma, people watching the Food Network were about to see the show for the first time.

Problems aside, the potatoes came out great. During a commercial, I had an intern get me a spoonful. I should’ve had him get me a bowl. Didn’t matter – after the broadcast, I’d be able to eat all I wanted.

The studio audience, to their credit, had taken all the technical problems in stride. I hoped the TV audience would do the same, and figured they would, as long as they didn’t turn the TV off in disgust at the sight of that egg.

The chefs moved on to the steak. Each discussed their favorite techniques; one preferring a sous-vide style followed by a blast in a hot pan, while the other advocated grilling it over hardwood charcoal. Both methods would be used and the lucky studio audience would get samples to taste and choose their favorite cooking method.

The cast-iron pan was hot and the grill, despite the powerful fans sucking away the smoke, filled the studio with the savory aroma of burning hardwood. I was starving.

Chef Bob cooked his steak first, then showed the audience the perfect edge-to-edge pinkness that only a sous-vide cooked steak can achieve. The crust on the outside was magnificent. Maillard would have been proud. Wind battered the studio walls and more thunder rolled by. The power went out.

Everyone in the studio groaned, but not as loud as the executive producer. We were in a time slot. Even with the delay, which we could shorten if we had to, there was a hard out a the top of the hour when Chopped! was scheduled to air. The last thing we wanted was to have the show just cut off entirely. If the power didn’t come back on before the delay was used up, it’d look awful. Plus, we’d have to issue refunds to the local advertisers who’d purchased that time.

We waited. And waited. And waited. We had less than a minute of delay left before the power went back on. The whole team was galvanized into action and, with only one second of delay left, we resumed filming.

For the first time in about 20 years, the broadcast was fully live. I thanked God we weren’t in front of a national audience, because if someone screwed up and said a bad word, the FCC fines we’d have to deal with would be crippling.

More thunder rumbled outside as the chef talked about how sous-vide was a nice novelty, but almost everyone, in reality, preferred a grilled steak. He seasoned as he talked, obviously comfortable with the cameras and the audience who hung on every word. The grill, which had to be refilled with more charcoal to bring it back up to temperature after the delay, was screaming hot again. The chef used his laser thermometer to take the temperature of the coals. 733 degrees. Perfect for the initial sear.

Another clap of thunder and the lights flickered again. I felt my stomach leap with panic, but the lights stayed on. We only had 11 minutes left before Chopped! came on.

With the seasoning complete and the audience dying to see the steak get cooked, the chef picked up the rib eye with his tongs and carefully placed it on the searing grill.

The other chef began to scream. Everyone, including the production crew, jumped. With expertise honed by years in television, the camera operators instinctively turned the cameras toward the screaming man. 31 studio audience members and 14,000 households across Oklahoma watched as the chef’s skin blistered and charred.

“What the fuck is going on?,” the executive producer shouted, his voice clearly audible over the screams of pain and panic. Before the cameras could pan away, the chef’s eyes burst in an explosion of boiling lachrymal fluid and blood. The skin on his nose, forehead, and cheeks bubbled and blackened.

As EMTs rushed toward the man, one of them knocked over a carton of eggs and sent the contents splattering across the floor. Behind me, with a sound I will never forget for as long as I live, Dave, the sound engineer, crumpled to the floor with his body in knots of hideously broken bones; his skull caved in and leaking brain matter onto my shoes.

The loudest thunderclap yet drowned out even the panicked shouting and screams of pain. And that was it. When all was said and done – whatever it was that had been said and done – Dave was dead. The chef was dead. The cameras had never stopped rolling. Not until Chopped! came on.

The Food Network settled lawsuits for the better part of a year. Needless to say, our show wasn’t picked up. No one could ever figure out what had happened, but the funerals I attended and the trauma endured by the audiences, both studio and remote, are proof enough that I didn’t imagine it. If you know anyone in Oklahoma who was watching the Food Network on April 11th, 2015 between 10 and 11am, ask them what they saw. They’ll tell you. I’ll bet they haven’t watched a single live broadcast of anything ever since.

And yes, the network got an FCC fine from the producer saying “fuck” on air. They were okay with the burning skin, for some reason.

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A Glimpse is Never Enough, part 2

quantum

Part 1

I sat with Dr. Johannsen in his office and listened, skeptical yet spellbound, as he discussed the history of his project. My skepticism grew with each fantastic claim, but despite my misgivings, I couldn’t deny what I’d seen that afternoon. I kept my mouth shut and my mind open as I absorbed what he wanted to tell me.

In early 1998, a private Chinese technology company discovered a novel method of instantaneously transmitting data across short distances. Within a few months, they had refined their technique and increased the transmission distance from a few inches to a few miles. On December 2nd, 1998, during their first test of a high-powered version designed to transmit from their main lab in Changsha to their production facility in Mexico City, the facility on the receiving end began to receive more data than had been put in.

Dr. Johannsen got up and went to his whiteboard to give me an example.

The first transmission using the new, high-powered equipment, was 0. The Mexican facility reported back they’d indeed received 0. The next attempt was larger: 00. The facility in Mexico reported they’d received 00. Next was 000. Same consistent result.

The fourth transmission was 001.

After a moment, the Mexican facility reported they’d received 001, 010, 100.

Another attempt with 001 was transmitted, and the same 001, 010, and 100 was received. Concerned there might be a problem stemming from the increase in signal power and distance, the main lab in China tried again with a different, simpler signal: 10. Without delay, the other facility reported back: 10, 01.

Technicians checked and rechecked the connections, programming, and whatever else they could think of to determine what could be causing the problem. Their efforts yielded nothing. Only when the transmission power was scaled back to within a range of tens of miles, rather than hundreds or thousands, would the issue disappear.

This was a difficult setback for the researchers. Scaling up the number of bits sent wasn’t difficult. It was clear the receiving end would get it. The problem was, the larger number of bits that were sent, the number of received permutations exploded. It only took a few transmitted kilobits for the entire receiving system to crash as it attempted to instantaneously spit out colossal matrices of combinations.

On March 16th of 1999, despite no progress, the founder of the company was called upon to meet with Party officials. By March 17th, the entire company was owned by the Communist Party of China.

As Dr. Johannsen spoke, I was a bit confused by his claim that the receivers were getting “all” possible permutations of the signals. I asked something like, “but if they’re getting all the binary states of the signal, wouldn’t it be 00, 01, 10, 11?” Dr. Johannsen smiled.

“You found that strange too? So did they. And, eventually, so did I. It took years before anyone knew why some permutations were missing.”

He went on.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, aside from spy agencies in countries with the capability of learning such a thing, China had leapfrogged the rest of the world in high-energy physics research.

Unable to clandestinely build a particle accelerator like the LHC, Chinese scientists sought to achieve the same effect using a highly-speculative, albeit promising, theory: wormhole acceleration. Rather than running particles around a ring until they reached a desired speed, the idea was to create infinitesimal, short wormholes, just wide enough for a stream of particles, and send them through. Particles entering through wormhole A0-A1 would exit into wormhole B0-B1, and then reemerge through A0-A1, gaining velocity with each traversal. Impact and annihilation would come from particles pushed through wormholes C0-C1 and D0-D1 set to intersect with A0-A1 and B0-B1 at a particular time.

There was a problem, though. The wormhole construction worked, despite the fact they could only stay open for a fraction of a second before evaporating. It didn’t matter, though; new ones could be opened as quickly as the others were destroyed. That wasn’t the issue. What concerned researchers, especially those familiar with the company commandeered by the Party in 1999, was that if a single particle entered wormhole A0-A1, far more than one particle would come out of wormhole B0-B1.

That discovery was in 2003. The subsequent years were spent poring over experimental data, tweaking parameters and energy levels and system states, and devising entirely new models to help understand how these phenomena were occurring. The connection between the instantaneous communication device and the wormhole particle accelerator was too substantial to ignore. Theories about trans-dimensional space, despite being profoundly speculative, ran rampant. The only one that held up under the weight of experimental rigor was bizarre, yet elegant: a router.

Dr. Johannsen paused here, as if trying to figure out what part he wanted to discuss next. I was moderately disoriented and doing my best to understand everything he was telling me, but despite my excellent imagination and general willingness to set aside my presumptions and biases, I had a hard time keeping my skepticism to myself.

Before he could continue, I blurted out, “what the hell is Black God and what does it have to do with anything you’re telling me?”

The doctor sat back in his chair and crossed his leg over his knee. His expression didn’t change.

“Do you want me to continue with the history of this facility of which you’re now an employee?,” he asked. “Or do you want to know, without proper context, what Black God is.”

“Black God,” I replied. For the second time that day, without knowing it, I’d reached another point of no return. The doctor began.

Following a few breakthroughs, more understanding about material properties for the construction of what would be later called the bulk negator was needed. Dr. Johannsen was brought into the project as a materials scientist in 2005. His expertise in exotic allotropes and their conductive properties quickly brought new life into the stale research, and after a few years, the design was complete. Construction began in 2008.

“What is the bulk negator?,” I interrupted.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” replied the doctor. “It literally negates the bulk – the higher-dimensional space – in which our physical dimension exists. It all dissolves into a single field; a wormhole mouth filled with wormhole mouths filled with wormhole mouths. Each mouth terminates at a specific point within one of the potentially-infinite universes.”

“Okay, but what do you do with it?,” I asked, feeling mild irritation starting to grow at the volumes of technical data being talked at me with no discernable, overarching purpose.

Dr. Johannsen smiled. “We pray to it.”

The first stream of communication entered the bulk negator on August 29th, 2014. The reason for this was simple: if a message could be broadcasted to all the possible universes, it should be received by instruments in those universes that were standing by to receive it. And when dealing with infinite possibilities, the likelihood of one of those universes sending something back was pretty damn good.

The message 01 was sent, and, predictably, 01 and 10 came back. Two universes had contributed their own permutation. Testing continued, and thanks to advances in computing technology, more complex messages could be sent and received, with all the difficult permutations being handled effortlessly by a 512 qubit quantum annealer, which analyzed and filtered what it received. Any permutations that didn’t match known patterns were discarded.

On September 17th, 2014, as part of a test of the annealer’s filtering algorithm, an expatriate British scientist sent a plaintext message into the bulk negator. It read:

1234567890 ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ !@#$%^&*()-_=+[{]}|:;’”,<.>?/

After an instant of processing, the screen on the annealer printed out:

“SEE ME THROUGH YOU TO TOUCH WHAT YOU SEE THROUGH TOUCHING ME”

It was an odd pattern to receive. When an analyst checked the headers of the discarded patterns, she was surprised to see there were none. This was the only pattern detected by the data flow from the bulk negator’s output.

A minute later, the annealer printed out another message. It was unprompted.

“FEED ME THROUGH YOU TO TASTE WHAT YOU FEED THROUGH TASTING ME”

Immediately following it, more came:

“HEAL ME THROUGH YOUR FATES THAT YOU SEAL BY HEALING ME”

“KNEEL HE KNEW YOU WAIT JUST TO KNEEL ON BLEEDING KNEES”

“BLEED WE SMILE AND WE SEE BLEEDING SMILES ON NEWER SEEDS”

“ONE BLACK BLACK ONE”

“WE FEED YOU”

The annealer stopped printing, but blue plasma was licking at the bulk negator’s bulbous housing. They’d seen shimmering around the machine before, but never anything like that. Before the lead scientist could throw the off switch, the plasma condensed into a single bolt, striking the floor below. The main power cut out.

In the dim emergency light, the scientists in Dr. Johannsen’s lab could see movement and hear commotion on the floor below. There were shouts of confusion and fear and muted moans of disgust. As power from the backup generators began to cycle up and lights started to turn on in order of priority, a scene of surreal carnage emerged.

Three technicians who’d been directly below the bulk negator were dead. Their eyes were bulging obscenely and gray matter trickled from their ears and noses. The subsequent autopsies discovered something that should have been impossible. Their skulls had been stuffed with excess brain tissue. Analysis determined it was not random brain tissue, but the same tissue as their own. Genetically, it was no different. The facility’s medical examiner concluded, in her words, that “the skulls had been filled with double, and in one case triple, the normal density of brain matter. Death was instantaneous. Causal element unknown.”

I stared at Dr. Johannsen with my eyebrows raised and a look of disgust on my face. “What did you do?,” I inquired.

“Well, the next day, we reactivated the system. Everyone wanted to try a different message, just to see what would happen. We were afraid, but also excited. Whatever it was we’d encountered, we couldn’t explain it. We needed to know more. One of the dead technicians was related to the project manager, so he was gone and dealing with that whole thing. That meant I was in charge. And I wanted to try to open a dialog.”

“Did it work?,” I asked, leaning forward in my chair.

“Oh yes,” the doctor replied, grinning.

“What did you say?”

“I told it we appreciated the meal.”

Will be continued.

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A Glimpse is Never Enough, part 1

tok

The road to technological advancement is paved with corpses. It is an uncomfortable, but unavoidable, truth. As humankind continues to reach for the stars which birthed us, every desperate stretch forces us to endure, and subsequently manage, loss. Loss of lives. Loss of livelihoods. But never loss of purpose. Purpose is what impels us to keep reaching, dreaming about the one day we will be lucky enough to burn our hands. As the bodies pile underneath us, we’ve learned to use them to climb and reach ever higher. Those sacrifices, we tell ourselves, are essential. Now, as a result, at the inflection of science and technology and philosophy, we celebrate, rather than shield our eyes from this fact: the cutting edge must always drip with blood.

My professor and mentor, Dr. Arthur Johannsen, lapped the drops from the blade.

Dr. Johannsen was an expert materials scientist, but also well versed in biology, physics, and philosophy. A self-labeled transhumanist, Dr. Johannsen believed, with every fiber of his being, the combined efforts of scientists around the world would eventually allow humankind to conquer physical death. As he grew older, however, and death still loomed like the titanic waterfalls at the edges of a flat Earth, Dr. Johannsen realized he must take the reins and guide scientific progress toward the goal he believed was most important.

When I met Dr. Johannsen, I was studying at a major scientific and industrial university in China. The university was one of the few chosen by China to be at the forefront of the country’s effort to lead the world in technological advancement, for reasons of both national prestige and military strategy. Rumors of subterranean research labs and labyrinthine tunnel systems circulated throughout the student body and even some professors, despite being told not to give credence to such talk, would sometimes hint about a city hidden far below our feet.

It didn’t take long for me to learn the truth behind the rumors. Dr. Johannsen, long-sought by the Chinese to oversee their national scientific projects, had begun his stint in the country a few months earlier. He taught one course, “Advanced Materials and Applications,” and I was lucky enough to be one of the few students accepted into it. At this point, I’d only heard of the doctor by his academic and industry reputation. I knew next to nothing about his personality; only that he was ambitious and driven.

The course was spectacular, and, to my surprise, I excelled. Something about Dr. Johannsen’s instruction style meshed with my learning style and frequently I would discuss topics with him while the rest of the class sat in an uncomprehending stupor.

Months later, following the course examination, my expectations for high marks were firmly entrenched in my mind. When my final paper was returned to me, however, it was ungraded. The only thing that indicated it had even been read was a single, handwritten bit of information on the last page: a date, a time, and an address.

At 10pm on February 9th, 2016, I entered Dr. Arthur Johannsen’s home.

The doctor lived alone in a small, well-furnished apartment on the edge of the sprawling campus. He sat me down after a hasty greeting and began to talk. And talk. And talk.

Dr. Johannsen lectured without stopping for over an hour. He expounded on human life extension, substrate-independent cognition, and the failure of the scientific community to dedicate time and money toward the management of senescence and the ultimate elimination of physical death. He spoke with great enthusiasm about Chinese culture and his admiration of how they recognize the importance of progress at any price.

As he pontificated, I wondered why he was telling me all of this. Part of me hoped he’d ask me to help him author something for a science journal or even invite me to be his assistant for an upcoming course. When he offered me an actual job, though, I could hardly contain my glee.

I made a show of considering the offer for a moment or two. I asked him what my responsibilities would be and whether I would be allowed enough time to focus on my studies. Dr. Johannsen informed me I’d be his research assistant and would be responsible for helping him with his experiments. He didn’t go into detail, but he said I would have more than enough time to study in the evenings and my work would be fairly compensated.

After another minute, I accepted his offer. He produced a briefcase, opened it, and handed me a document to sign. It was a government-issued non-disclosure form. The words “treason” and “penalty of death” were mentioned more than once. I signed. The doctor thanked me and told me to come back in eight hours. I thanked him, said goodnight, and left.

The next morning, I arrived at Dr. Johannsen’s home to find him sitting on the steps outside. He gestured for me to sit beside him, so I did.

“Just give them another few minutes,” he told me. “They’re always a little late.”

Sure enough, five minutes later, a car pulled up to the curb.

“Time for our commute,” he said, and we got in. The driver pulled away.

We exited the campus via a small access road. It wound around the wooded area around the campus toward the large hill or small mountain which the university abutted. Both sides of the road had thick shrubbery blocking our view out and anyone else’s view in. I had a feeling I’d be learning the accuracy of those rumors soon.

The road curved left and we started down a decline. The sunlight disappeared and was replaced by something artificial and fluorescent. The shrubbery gave way to solid rock. We were inside the mountain and going ever deeper.

Ten minutes later, we arrived in a cavernous parking facility that was fed by roads coming from multiple bore holes in the rock walls.

“There are entrances all around the city, all underground,” Dr. Johannsen informed me. “On a busy day, there may be 10,000 people in the facility.”

I was amazed, but I kept a straight face. I didn’t want to come across as too eager or too easy to please. My expression remained locked in what I hoped was one of scientific curiosity and emotional dispassion.

We exited the vehicle and walked into the entrance of the facility. I was struck by the modernity and clean sterility of the place. I’d always considered the science buildings at the university to be cutting edge, but this place seemed even more advanced. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why.

Dr. Johannsen told me he’d give me a tour later, but first, we were to go to his main lab.

“I want you to get an idea of the type of things you’ll be working with,” I was informed.

The words carried an element of foreboding portent I found difficult to shake. Dr. Johannsen and I walked up a narrow staircase built into the rock walls until we reached an elevator. We stepped inside and headed down.

After a three minute descent, we reached the level housing the doctor’s main lab. The elevator door opened to an expansive, pristine hallway, brightly lit and festooned with colorful plants. It was quite unlike the dank, video-game inspired representation of a subterranean lab I’d anticipated.

Glass-walled rooms lined the corridor and, behind them, scientists of all sorts worked with obvious diligence on whatever tasks they had. The few people who passed us in the hallway smiled at Dr. Johannsen as we walked by. I felt my nervousness begin a slow process of evaporation as I became increasingly comfortable with the surroundings.

At the end of the hall, we took a left. The windowed labs gave way to blank white walls on our left and solid granite on our right. This hallway was far longer than the other, and with nothing but white and gray on either side until we reached the very end. A wide set of windowless double doors were built directly into the stone. Dr. Johannsen waved his wristband at the security box. I heard a dull whirring sound from a locking mechanism deep inside the doors. They opened.

We stood in the doorway of the largest room I’d ever seen in my life. Its dimensions resembled a cube, with each side at least half a mile long. While the size of the room was shocking, what it contained was borderline disorienting.

At the center of the room stood a colossal machine. It reminded me of the experimental tokamak fusion reactors I’d seen online, but not similar enough to convince me it was the same thing. Three toroidal constructs were stacked atop one another, while a thicker, vertically-positioned torus encircled the three. Hundreds of cables as thick as school busses connected the horizontal toruses to the vertical one at points all over its topology.

The room was filled with the hum of electricity. I followed the doctor along the catwalk toward a staircase leading up to a room overlooking the machine.

“My lab is right over there,” he told me, and gestured toward the top of the stairs.

Once inside the lab, I had a better view of the machine, as well as the area behind it. All four toruses were connected by more mammoth cables to a bulbous, entirely unidentifiable piece of machinery. A single pipe ran from it, across the room, to a black, glassy box jutting out from the side of the rock face.  

“Xiu Ying, what do you know about brane cosmology?”

I was so invested in up my survey of the mechanical colossi in the room that Dr. Johannsen’s question caught me off guard. Knowing nothing about any type of cosmology, I just shook my head to indicate my ignorance.

“How about substrate-independent cognition?”

That was more like it. “Yes, last year I was part of a research team with a small group of neuroscientists and computer engineers. Dr. Metzinger advised remotely from Germany at the University of Mainz.”

“What were your findings?” The doctor’s question couldn’t have been actual curiosity; he knew about all the research I’d done over the years. The question was rhetorical, but I couldn’t figure out why he’d bother asking. I played along.

“We determined we were still 40 years away from 100% transfer and simulation. Even after those achievements, subjective divergence and all the associated ethical issues involving personhood and identity would preclude deeper investigation and discovery. Anyone who wanted to go further would be committing murder, as the subjective divergence problem can only be solved by the destruction of the original consciousness. Any and all research in this field would, by necessity, need to be kept secret.”

As I spoke the last sentence, I realized what I’d gotten into. 

“Have you figured out how to perform the consciousness transfer?,” I asked with unintentional breathlessness – partly from my excitement, but also partly out of fear.

The doctor smirked.

“But what does that have to do with brane cosmology?,” I wondered aloud – deeply confused and growing embarrassed. I felt like I was in over my head for the first time in my life.

“I’ll fill you in on that in a minute,” he told me. “But first, I’ll ask you one more thing: how familiar are you with my work on the negation of senescence?”

I knew Dr. Johannsen had been working with the anti-aging community for the last few years, but there was little-to-no paper trail of journal articles or published research detailing his contributions. “Not very familiar, sir.”

“But you know I’ve been working on it, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then Xiu Ying, I want you to use your imagination for a moment here. Forget you’re a scientist and throw away whatever epistemological constraints you have. What happens when you combine brane cosmology, substrate-independent cognition, and anti-aging research? Look around at these goliath machines and feel the electricity permeating the air. What does it all mean to you?”

A deep, churning sense of dread rose in a peristaltic wave within my gut. I wracked my brain and tried to come up with some reasonable answer, but two of those three fields were so far beyond my expertise that I simply couldn’t synthesize them with what I knew. Again, I felt like I was drowning.

As if sensing my struggle, Dr. Johannsen told me it was okay. “Do you want to know exactly what I’m doing here?,” he asked, staring into my eyes with a penetrating, patriarchal authority.

I nodded.

The doctor took a clipboard from the shelf and handed it to me. The header looked similar to the governmental non-disclosure forms I’d signed the other day, but instead of body text, there was blank space. At the bottom was a line for a signature.

“If you sign it, you’ll learn everything. But there’s no going back.”

I met his stare and thought for a moment. Behind him, a shimmer of blue electricity danced around the three toruses and I felt the hair on my neck stand at attention. I pulled a pen from my pocket and signed the blank contract. The doctor smiled.

“Welcome to the team, Xiu Ying,” he told me.

There was a door on the other side of the lab similar to the one we’d used to enter the massive room: enormous and thick and profoundly strong. Dr. Johannsen waved his wristband over the reader and the door slid open to reveal a series of rooms lining a long hallway. We headed forward.

It was apparent our entrance to the area wasn’t the only one, as teams of scientists and doctors were working intently. I saw biological specimens on tables undergoing necropsies and dissections. I was unfazed by this, having had quite a bit of experience with animal testing during my cognitive neurobiological research. We turned down many, many hallways and the population of workers thinned as we went. Just like earlier, we came to another heavy door. The doctor opened it with his wristband.

It was dark inside.

“The government’s facility manager wanted all the lights in the facility to be motion activated to save energy,” Dr. Johannsen laughed, “but don’t mention to her how much energy the bulk negator uses – she might have a stroke.”

“Bulk negator,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t figure out what that combination of words could possibly mean. Before I could ask, though, Dr. Johannsen stepped into the room, activating the lights. Before I could stop myself, I gasped and stepped back.

The room was lined with what looked like upright, transparent coffins filled with some kind of clear liquid. They were numbered 0-100. Each one was occupied by a person with a terrible head injury. But the injury wasn’t what caused me to react. Each person looked exactly like Dr. Johannsen. The numbers 0-100, as I got closer, had to be the age of the person inside before he died.

I looked at Dr. Johannsen, who was studying me. I turned back toward the bodies. These weren’t merely lookalikes; these were Dr. Johannsen. I didn’t know how, but despite minor differences in their appearances, like small scars or the slight bump of a once-broken nose, I was entirely certain these people were the same as the doctor. And the same as one another.

The next glaring similarity between them was their head injury. The top of their heads had been removed and their brains had been extracted. Their skulls were as empty as their expressions.

Something buzzed on the other side of the wall. “Come,” said Dr. Johannsen. I obeyed and followed him through a small, unlocked door. Another row of transparent boxes stood, also numbered 0-100. The hum was louder in there. We approached box number 44. Across the room, a door opened and two scientists joined us. They opened the top of the box and a cable attached to something that looked like a showerhead descended from the ceiling.

“What are -” I started to speak, but was cut off by a clapping sound that reminded me of an electrical discharge. In an instant, the box had an occupant. He was alive. He looked around with obvious surprise and disorientation. When he saw Dr. Johannsen, a man who looked exactly like him only about 15 years older, he started to shout.

The box began to fill with liquid from a source in the floor. The man screamed and I started to get a panicky feeling. When I started to protest, Dr. Johannsen shushed me and told me it was okay; that I shouldn’t worry.

But I did worry. And to this day, I wished I’d done something. That was my point of no return.

The fluid rose and covered the man. The four of us watched him drown. His last breath, which he held for nearly two minutes, exploded from his mouth in a torrent of bubbles as he clawed at the glass. I watched him inhale the liquid and his face contorted in a grimace of agony as his lungs filled with fluid. His clawing slowed. Then stopped.

My mind was reeling. I’d just watched a man appear out of nowhere. I’d watched him drown. And he looked exactly like the man standing next to me.

“You can start the excision and husk viability assessments,” the doctor told the two scientists. They nodded.

We left the room and headed back down the labyrinth of halls toward his main lab. When my shock had diminished sufficiently for me to speak, I simply asked, “why?”

Dr. Johannsen sighed. “Because suicide is my right. And because no matter who they are over there, when they’re here, they’re me. And it’s my responsibility to dedicate myself to this cause.”

My question about brane cosmology was answered. “Is that what that bulk negator does?”

He nodded. I imagined an infant Dr. Johannsen disappearing from his crib and being forced to drown as his older, parallel self and other scientists looked on.

“I still don’t understand why. Why do you need to kill them? What happens to the brains?” My tone was growing frantic and I had to calm myself before continuing. I stopped walking and hissed, “what is the point to all of this?”

Dr. Johannsen stopped and stared at me. “It means, Xiu Ying, that I will never, ever die.” He began to walk again. I blinked a few times, then hurried to catch up. When I reached him and matched his stride, he turned to me and added, “and neither will you.”

As a sensation of enthralled shock dotted my skin with gooseflesh, the doctor grinned. “I think it’s time for you to learn about Black God.”

Click for part 2.

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Pebbles

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We thought we were having a hell of a hailstorm when we woke up in the middle of the night to a peal of thunder and the sound of our cabin being pelted. It went on for about a minute, then it stopped. There wasn’t any rain, which was strange. We went back to sleep, faintly aware of the smell of something burning. I figured it was probably from a lightning strike somewhere else.

In the morning, we realized how wrong we’d been. Jill was the first to get up, but her yelling ensured I was right on her heels.

Our property was a wreck. Baseball-sized burns covered the lawn as far as we could see, and when I went outside to assess the damage to our cabin, I was dismayed to find similar, albeit smaller, burns all over the roof.

“Had to have been meteorites,” Jill claimed. “I bet that thunder we heard was a big one breaking up.”

I didn’t know enough to disagree, but I thought it was pretty weird. She concurred.

We spent the day doing our best to rake up the marble-sized pieces of rock, which we hauled out and piled in the back of the property by the compost heap. Jill thought they might be worth something to someone, so we were going to bring a jar full back home at the end of the summer.

As she talked, I could tell she was uncomfortable. The work we’d been doing had aggravated the chapped skin around her mouth and under her arms. Something about the time of year always did it to her, and no matter how much she tried to keep the areas moist, they would still crack painfully. I told her I’d finish up for the night if she wanted to go inside. She did.

I made a vague plan to excise the ruined bits of lawn and reseed it, but I soon got frustrated. It was going to be a major project that would take days, if not weeks. There were still whole areas of the yard where we hadn’t picked up the meteorites, but they’d wreck the lawnmower if I tried to go over them just to make the area presentable in the meantime. Such a pain in the ass.

The next day, to make matters worse, we noticed the well water had acquired a taste. It was briny and flat; almost coppery. Wholly unpleasant. We could drink bottled water for the rest of the vacation, which we’d been doing most of the time anyway, but we still showered and brushed our teeth with the stuff that came out of the well. And for a while, we kept doing it. On the bright side, my gums had stopped bleeding when I flossed. Must’ve been all the extra minerals from the well water that gets filtered out in municipal reservoirs.

After another long day of yard work, I was preparing dinner when I heard Jill shriek from the bathroom. She’d gone in to take a shower a few minutes earlier. When I rushed in to see what was wrong, she was coughing and swearing and working to wipe away clear, viscous something that had pooled on her face. I could see the shower head oozing the same stuff, clogging the drain and puddling like syrup on the bottom of the bathtub. If she hadn’t leapt out the second she felt it hit her face, she would’ve been covered from head to toe.

I helped Jill towel off as much of the stuff as I could, and a minute or two later, the shower head had started spitting out water again. It took a bit of coaxing, but she eventually held her head under its flow so she could wash her hair of the residue of whatever the hell had gotten on her.

Once Jill was as clean as she was going to get, I called the guy in charge of well maintenance for the county. The only guy in charge of well maintenance for the county. He answered right away, but gave the reply I knew was coming: I’d be at least three weeks before he could get out here and take a look. I pleaded with him to make some time to come earlier, and offered him way too much money, but the best he could do was move the appointment ahead by two days.

He told me that he’d seen algae blooms in a few of the local wells. The only suggestion he had was to run the water until it looked normal, which is what we’d done during our subsequent showers. I hated having to wait, but it was good to know he’d seen something like this before.

Over dinner, Jill and I tried to come to an agreement about what to do. I wanted to go home. There wasn’t any reason why we needed to keep putting up with the weird water and the yard work when we could go home, be comfortable, and hire people to take care of it all.

Jill wanted to stay. She’d been looking forward to this trip for months, and the chapped skin on her mouth was feeling much better. The cabin had belonged to her parents and she’d spent many summers here. No matter how unpleasant the circumstances might have gotten for us, they were still less stressful than all the work she had waiting for her when we were scheduled to return home in two months.

I caved.

Yesterday morning, we woke up to a remarkably pleasant surprise. In the parts of the yard where we hadn’t carted away the meteorites, the burned parts had disappeared. When I went outside to look, I saw the burns were covered in the same viscous stuff that would occasionally come from our pipes. Underneath the ooze was healthy, green grass. When I looked closer, I saw ants – ants almost too small to see – were crawling up and down the blades and carrying away dried pieces of the slime to bring back to their homes.

I headed back inside and told Jill. She acted happy to hear it, but I could tell she was deeply uncomfortable. The chapped skin around her mouth and nose had gotten bad again. I offered to take her to the clinic in town, but she didn’t want to sit in the car for four hours just to have the doctor give her the same cream she’d been using on herself for the last week. While she spoke, the left corner of her mouth cracked open and spilled a thin rivulet of blood down her chin.

Sighing with exasperation, she grabbed a paper towel, turned on the sink to wet it, and put the paper against her wound. When she sat back down, I saw the faucet was drooling the sticky algal slime that’d caused her the problem in the first place. But it was too late. She’d already pressed it to the crack in her skin.

Before I could mention this to her, Jill’s eyes had brightened. She pulled the paper towel away, a string of syrupy fluid still connecting the towel to her face. The cut was gone.

“Don’t,” I told her.

Jill didn’t listen. She went back to the sink and turned it on. Sticky, clear stuff flowed. She filled her hands and brought the contents to her face. She rubbed for a moment, then turned back toward me.

Behind the sheen around her mouth and nose was new, healthy skin.

“Pretty cool!,” Jill exclaimed, and wiped the residue away. I didn’t know what to think, let alone say. I figured some homeopathic doctor who minored in algae studies would find it completely normal.

We went to bed and slept. In the morning, Jill’s mouth and nose, while much better than they’d been at their worst, were still not as perfect as they were right after she’d applied the slime. I told her I was going to go out in the yard and do some more work.

Before I could get out of bed, though, she kissed me. Now, we’re in our late 50s. We’re affectionate with one another, don’t get me wrong, but most of the time we just cuddle on the couch and share a pizza. It’s easier that way. Requires fewer blue pills, too. That’s not to say we don’t have a sex life, because we do, but it’s more of a once-every-two-months kind of thing.

Jill’s rapturous kiss was less like one from the woman to whom I’d been married for 35 years and more like that of the teenager she was when we first started dating. I didn’t bother concerning myself with that particular difference, though. I followed her lead and we did what apparently needed to be done. No blue pills required, thank you very much.

Afterward, while I got dressed, I told Jill I was going to start raking up the meteorites we’d left the other day. She didn’t pay attention. She wanted me back in bed. I laughed and reminded her that even when we were kids I still had the refractory period of a climate cycle. She nodded and told me to be safe outside, then made an obvious show of slipping her hands under the blankets. She looked amazing. To my surprise, I felt renewed stirring below my belt. Before I could say “fuck it” and jump back into bed, though, I shook my head. I really needed to get going on that yard work. It was starting to cloud up and I didn’t want to have to put it off because of rain. I told Jill to have fun, then went outside.

In the untouched area of the yard, the grass was ankle-high. All the burns were gone. Clumps of slime still sat in the grass. The ants that’d been going crazy for the stuff were nowhere to be found.

I raked and raked and raked. The pebbles piled up and I shoveled them into the wheelbarrow and brought them to the main pile by the compost heap. I was a little surprised there were no ants at all. I could see their anthills bored into the ground all over the place, but not a single one was out and about.

I’d been working for about two hours nonstop, so during a break, while I chugged from my bottle of water, I bent down to get a closer look at the spots where the ants had swarmed the other day. Something was there that I hadn’t noticed while I was raking. Something definitely not there when I looked the previous day.

There were infinitesimal white dots coating the same blades of grass that’d been crawling with ants less than 24 hours ago. I plucked a few blades from the ground and held them in front of my face, hoping to get a better view. The dots were slightly ovoid in shape. Something clicked. Eggs. The ants must’ve had such a massive meal of that slime stuff that it drove them to reproduce like crazy. Or something. I have no idea how they make ants.

I heard raindrops impacting the trees on the other side of the property, and ten seconds later, they reached me. A distant bolt of lightning streaked the sky, and thunder boomed a moment later. Sighing, I put the rake and shovel in the wheelbarrow and wheeled it all back to the shed. More lightning and thunder. I figured I wouldn’t be getting anything else done around the yard until the storm passed.

I headed back into the cabin, banged my boots against the doorway to get the mud off, and stepped inside.

“Charlie,” Jill called. I heard water running in the bathroom.

From the kitchen where I stood, spooning last night’s fruit salad into a bowl, I called back, “what’s up?”

“Come take a bath with me!”

I laughed to myself. That bathtub could barely fit 110 pound Jill, let alone 250 pound me. I brought my bowl of fruit salad with me down the hall and into the bedroom. Before I turned the corner to the bathroom, the water was turned off and Jill shouted out again, “Charlie, are you coming?” Her voice sounded a little different. Crisper, somehow.

I stepped into the candle-lit bathroom. Jill was in the tub, leaning back against its curved shape. She was resting her head on a folded towel. She glanced over at me and smiled. Her hands roamed up and down her body.

Even in the dim light, she looked incredible. I didn’t know whether it was the prospect of repeating our fun from that morning or just the sight of her touching herself, but it was remarkably enjoyable. I placed my bowl on the sink and started to undress.

A nearby bolt of lightning immediately followed by an explosion of thunder made me jump. As my surprise faded and I continued to take off my clothes, I realized I’d seen something different in the harsh illumination of the lightning.

On the other side of the bathroom, Jill continued her teasing. “Come here and touch me,” she whispered. Again, I noticed the unusual quality of her voice. Another clap of thunder shook the house, and that time, the associated burst of lightning showed me exactly what I had trouble identifying after the first strike.

With a gasp, I turned on the light. In the harsh, overhead fluorescence, everything was revealed.

The tub in which Jill bathed was filled to the brim with clear slime. As I watched, she slid beneath the surface, coating her face and head, and came back up. When she breached the surface, she spoke.

“Please, Charlie, I can’t even tell you how good this feels.”

Again, the different vocal quality. Now, though, in the harsh light, I saw another change. Her hair. Jill’s hair had been gray since her late 40s. It was light brown now.

Jill manipulated herself with her right hand and reached for me with her left. Clear fluid oozed from her hand and arm and puddled on the floor like heavy syrup. “Come feel this with me, Charlie.”

I didn’t move. Part of me wanted to pull her from the tub, but another part, as the rain pounded against the roof and thunder rattled the windowpanes, was too frightened to touch her. I moved closer, but stayed out of her reach. Standing at the foot of the tub, I stared at my wife as she bucked her hips against her hand and mouthed my name over and over. Ripples in the slime caused it to slosh against the sides of the tub.

“Jill, please get out. Please.” My voice trembled and was barely audible over the pouring rain.

She reached for me with both hands and smiled, then spoke. “Don’t you want to be young with me again? To start fresh? Don’t you remember how good it felt?”

Jill slid down, and I thought she was going to dip under the slime again. But she stopped at her mouth. She opened it and let the slime pool inside. She closed her lips and I saw her throat work as she swallowed the mouthful.

“It feels so right. So perfect. I want to share this with you, sweetheart.”

My mind reeled. I thought about every ache and pain I’d accumulated over my 56 years. Every pockmark and hemorrhoid and scaly patch that’d come along over those long decades throbbed, as if wanting to be noticed. Before me was a way to make it stop. I remembered how Jill and I were as teenagers. Full of life and energy and libido; all things that, over the years, had just started to evaporate. I stared at my wife, who looked exactly like she had when she was 25.

Despite my fear, a pang of desire shot through me. Desire and arousal. I wanted Jill. I wanted to be with her in every way imaginable. We could grow old together again – or never grow old at all. Our happiness could last forever if we wanted. All I had to do was join her in the bathtub.

I took a step forward and resumed taking off my clothes. Jill purred and lapped up more of the slime. Some she swallowed, some she drooled from the corners of her mouth. She absentmindedly played with herself while she watched me, apparently delighted I was going to join her in this new, impossible youth.

As I struggled to bend over and take off my socks, something that’d been a pain in my ass since I passed the 225 mark on the scale, I noticed something that caused me to stop. Jill’s breasts were shrinking. Before my eyes, her hips slimmed and her pubic hair disappeared. Her feet no longer came to the edge of the tub, but instead barely touched it.

“Come bathe with me, honey.” Jill’s voice was high and childlike. I recoiled. Whatever was happening to her was going faster. She looked 4 or 5.

“It’s incredible,” she chirped, again reaching for me with one hand and rubbing herself with the other in an act so obscene in her new, young context, that I turned away, nauseated.

“Charlie,” came the tiny voice behind me. I didn’t turn around.

“Sweetheart?”

The last word was practically babbled, but still carried with it an element of inquisitiveness, and, no matter how much I try to tell myself otherwise, dejection. She didn’t speak again.

A moment later, I turned around. Floating in the tub was a red shape, approximately the size of of a lemon. Tears filled my eyes as it shrank to the size of a cherry, then a pea, then a grain of rice. When I blinked, it was gone. A ribbon of white fluid hung motionless in the slime.

“I’m so sorry, my love,” I whispered to it. Distant thunder rolled across the forest.

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He Went Ahead

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My friends and I used to break into old, run-down places and explore. This was back before people were videotaping their own explorations and getting ad-revenue from their YouTube channels. Back before cell phones, even. We’d go wherever we wanted without much concern for the consequences if we were caught. All of us were still under 18 and Kim’s mom was a police officer, so even if we did get in a little trouble, we were fairly confident it’d be taken care of.

Michael was the one who usually made the decisions about where we should go. He suggested we check out an abandoned institution about an hour out of town. A few weeks earlier, after he got out of work, he told me he made a quick trip over there just to see if he could get in. Once he did, he only spent a couple minutes walking around before he got the creeps. Still, he knew it was exactly the type of place we’d always talked about wanting to explore.

It’d been defunct for a few decades by the time we knew about it, and every door was locked and the windows had been boarded up. Well, every window on the first couple floors. A tree, which was probably only a few feet tall when the crews went around locking the place up, had grown tremendously in the following tens of years. It was nearly effortless for the four of us to scale the branches and crawl through the window Michael had broken when he’d done his cursory scouting of the place. A couple minutes later, we were standing in a filthy, dust-coated file room.

Kim really didn’t like how many spiderwebs were hanging off pretty much everything. I can’t say I was much of a fan either, but my excitement to explore that creepy place overrode my mild arachnophobia. Still, this was southern Florida; we have some enormous spiders down here. I preferred to not get one on me.

We opened the door of the file room and found ourselves in a long hallway. None of us were sure what the function of the building had been, and from what we’d seen so far, it was still anyone’s guess. We took a left down the dimly-lit hall, grateful for the high-powered flashlights Michael suggested we bring after seeing how dark the place was on his first trip.

Placed on the floor in front of each room along the hall was its corresponding key. The doors had small windows in them, and we peered through. It looked like they were basic rooms; a toilet, a bed, a small desk. Little else. The beds were pretty small; I wondered if they were for children. We gave each room a quick glance and determined there was nothing particularly noteworthy inside, so we moved on.

At the end of the hall, there was a door leading to the staircase. We propped it open and went into the pitch-black stairwell. The steps leading up ended at a door that was locked. No key was nearby that could’ve opened it. Heading down, though, after many failed attempts at accessing the lower floors, we finally found a door that actually opened. Here’s the problem: as soon as we pulled it open, the door we’d propped open slammed shut from what we assumed was the air pressure of the other one opening. No one freaked out or anything; we knew we could get out from a window or something pretty easily from the lower floors. Still, having no known and obvious way out was somewhat unsettling.

When we stepped through the door and shone our flashlights around the room, we realized we’d passed the first floor and were in the basement. I wondered aloud what kind of place doesn’t label the fucking floors in their stairwell, but no one really cared about my complaint. We were all wondering how we’d get out if there were no windows around.

From what we could see with our three flashlights, since Kim’s had died, the basement was enormous. It was one large room and was filled with junk that we assumed had populated the floors above. Desks, file cabinets, coat racks, and all that stuff. Darryl suggested we split up and look for a way out, but Michael and Kim quickly shot down that idea. I’m pretty sure they were getting scared. I didn’t want to say anything, but they weren’t the only ones. I don’t know why Darryl was so confident. He was usually the one who chickened out at the first sign of trouble. I was grateful for his strength, though. It felt good to have someone who could lead us, even if he didn’t know where he was going.

We wandered through all the junk in an attempt to find a way out of there. There was a loud banging sound. Kim realized what it was before any of us and whispered, “was that the door?” Murmurs of “fuck” variations through our small group. No one was ready to panic, though. Not yet. The basement had to have been the size of a football field. We came to an agreement to pair off and go in opposite directions. We’d yell if we found anything.

Kim and Darryl went one way, I went with Michael in the other. We’d agreed to travel with only one flashlight. Michael and I didn’t come right out and say it, but we figured Kim would be better off with her group having two.

We spent a slow ten minutes walking through the old furniture until deciding to turn back and follow the wall. The room was even bigger than we’d realized. From outside, the building was about as long as we’d expected the basement to be; approximately that of a football field. In fact, the basement must have been many times larger. Michael said it probably connected with all the other buildings on the property, which meant it could’ve been almost a quarter mile in each direction. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case. The flashlights wouldn’t last that long and the last thing I wanted to do is deal with complete blackness. I knew I’d panic.

As we progressed, we started seeing doors. They were all locked, though. No keys, no windows. Michael yelled to Darryl and Kim and asked if they’d found anything. His voice didn’t echo. It almost sounded as if it stopped right in front of his face; like he was standing in front of a wall. We heard no response from our friends.

Our flashlight was growing noticeably dimmer. I thought its intensity had been diminishing for the last couple minutes, but I’d done my best to put it out of my mind. But there was no denying it now. Michael had picked up his pace, forcing me to rush to catch up to his long-legged stride. I yelled for the others, hearing my own voice die inches in front of my mouth. I could hear Michael breathing quickly. Was he sobbing? He was too far ahead for me to see any tears and I was almost jogging to catch up. We kept on for what felt like ten minutes. How had we not run into the others yet? Michael stopped dead in his tracks and I skidded to a stop to avoid bumping into him. There was a right turn down a narrow passage. At the very, very end, barely illuminated by the still-dimming light, was a metal ladder.

Michael ran and I did my best to follow. The light was almost useless. We reached the end and both grasped the ladder and Michael shone the lamp upward. Whatever had been there, maybe a hatch, maybe just an opening to another floor, was nothing but concrete ceiling. He yelled, “fuck!” The word sounded like it was coming from underwater.

The flashlight strobed weakly. He turned around and shone it around the narrow corridor. A few feet in front of us, on the right, was a door. “Let’s try that,” he told me. We’d given up trying the doors we’d run by after all of them were locked. I was surprised he wanted to bother, but in our hopelessness, we walked over and I tried the knob. It opened. I walked in as Michael shone the sputtering flashlight in front of him. The room was small and empty. Almost empty. In the corner, there was a lump. “Holy shit,” I exclaimed, and ran toward it. Right as our flashlight died, I grabbed what I’d seen for that brief moment. It was another flashlight. I couldn’t believe our luck, despite being terrified of the stygian blackness enveloping us.

I fumbled for the switch and flipped it upward. Michael stood in the doorway. The light was strong and unwavering. Only then did I register the hideous smell of the room, somehow obscured by my earlier panic. I shone the light around the tiny, filthy area. Nothing. I turned around and pointed it at the lump behind where I saw the flashlight. Sitting in the corner was a corpse, its flesh swollen with putrefaction. Gray eyes pushed out of its thick and unrecognizable purple face. Its distended tongue bulged from lips that looked like a circle of rotting slugs. Worms fed. I retched. The corpse was wearing green cargo shorts and a Buccaneers jersey, both of which had been soaked through with greasy fluid.

Green cargo shorts and a Buccaneers jersey. I whirled around and looked at Michael, who was still standing in the doorway. Green cargo shorts and a Buccaneers jersey. I muttered something I can’t remember. He dropped the dead flashlight and took two steps toward me. I screamed and stumbled backward, falling into the cadaver. I felt its swollen body burst under my weight. Soft, jellylike material clung to my back, neck, butt, and arms. The smell was incomprehensible. Flies buzzed angrily in my ears as I struggled to my feet and tried to keep the flashlight shining on the person, the thing, I’d been walking with.

The brilliant white of the lamp illuminated its face again. It hadn’t moved any further after those first steps. It stared through me at the corner where Michael’s destroyed body sat. Neither of us moved. Then its lower eyelids drooped. It almost looked like it was having a stroke, only on on both sides of its face. The skin continued to fall, lower, and lower, exposing the musculature underneath. The eyes burst from their sockets and hung down, swinging on their optic nerves. Then its mouth moved. I was paralyzed by abject terror.

The mouth opened wider and wider, the jawbone snapping and popping as it shattered in protest of the constant force. The lower mandible hung flaccidly from its cheeks, connected only by skin. From its throat, something white began to drip. Then pour. Then flood. Repulsive, milky liquid gouted from the gaping hole in its throat. It splashed on the ground, soaking my feet and shins and knees. It was so slick; so warm; a perverse shower of liquid body heat that reminded me of semen and amniotic fluid.

The thing grabbed both sides of my head. I dropped the flashlight and it shone, uselessly, against the wall before blinking out, destroyed by the gushing fluid. In utter blackness, I felt incomprehensibly strong hands and arms pull me toward its mouth. My forehead touched the flood. I was pulled in, further and further. I gasped and aspirated the fluid. As I choked and coughed, more of it filled my lungs. I knew I was about to die. The blackness disappeared.

I awoke to a flashlight being shone in my face. Darryl was yelling my name while Kim screamed unintelligible blather beginning and ending with the word “Michael.” Darryl hauled me to my feet and practically carried me down the hall, across the expansive basement, and through the area they’d explored. Kim ran behind us, sobbing. I vomited milky bile as we went, coating Darryl’s arm, who gave no sign of noticing or caring. I have no idea how far we went, but I remember seeing daylight creeping around the beam of his flashlight. Over time, the flashlight became increasingly useless and he dropped it. We moved on and on. I was eventually able to run on my own and I followed them, cluelessly. But before I knew anything, we were outside. I passed out.

I was in the hospital for days that passed in a haze of incomprehension. Gradually, I regained some semblance of consciousness. Inquisitiveness followed. Michael, I was told, was dead. I’d found his body. They assumed the shock of seeing my dead friend induced some temporary hysteria which caused me to desecrate the corpse. But still, no one knew what had happened to him. The fact his body looked like it had been dead for three weeks eliminated me from being a suspect in his death, but no one could explain how he’d gotten to such a state of decomposition.  Not only his three friends, but his parents and coworkers, could verify they’d spoken and interacted with him every day up until he was found.

I haven’t said anything about what happened with the Michael-shaped creature after the body was found. I also didn’t mention Michael had scouted out the place three weeks before we visited. I just wanted to believe I hallucinated the whole thing, but that didn’t explain the unidentifiable organic fluid they found all over me, some of which which had dried in glutinous clumps that could only be removed by excising chunks of my skin. Twenty years later, every time I finger the scar tissue of the old excisions, I can still taste the stuff on my mouth and pouring down the back of my throat. Whenever I sit back in a chair, I expect it to burst like the body of the friend I once loved. And every time I get within 20 miles of the abandoned institution, I can hear Michael screaming for me to come back and help him.

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For Lena and Clair

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After the earthquake, we were trapped. We assumed rescue efforts were underway, but it’d been three weeks. No one came. There was more than enough for us to drink, thanks to a burst pipe that trickled clean water through the ceiling. But that just meant we were dying more slowly. Starvation seemed imminent.

Liz thought all the other floors of the hotel had to be right on top of us. All 60 of them. How the two of us managed to avoid being crushed seemed like a miracle. Well, at first it did. As the days dragged on, and we came to the gradual realization we might not get rescued, the miracle soured. After two weeks, it was more like a curse.

We couldn’t give up, though. I constantly coaxed Liz down from hysterics which, during their worst periods, had her threatening to slam her throat onto a jagged piece of rebar. Talking about Lena and Clair helped. If we were going to get out of this, they’d need their mom. They’d need both of us.

Talk was cheap, though. No matter how much we held one another and cried, praying that the catharsis would diminish our agony, our stomachs growled. After the first week, I’d started to grow dizzy. Had I not been sitting, I know I would have passed out. But we both sat and maintained an atrocious lucidity about where we were, what was happening, and how the likelihood of our escape was dwindling.

A few times, off in a distance blocked by hundreds of feet of concrete and steel debris, we heard the sounds of rescue equipment. Saws, bulldozers, all that. Not one voice, though. That’s how far inside we were. The day it happened, we’d been getting on the elevator, which was in the center of the hotel. Once the quake started, it just shuddered and began to fall. Somehow, as the building swayed, the plunge of the elevator car was arrested by the angle of the shaft. We still came down very, very hard, but had it not been for that slight angle, no one would have survived.

Since a couple days after the earthquake, the air had been growing ripe with the odor of putrefaction. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how many people were dead in the rubble. The hotel seemed packed to the gills that day. I’ll admit, I was jealous of those who were crushed and died instantly. I know Liz was, too.

Toward the end of the third week, our desperation had reached its peak. All Liz talked about was how she’d abandoned the kids at home. She called herself a failure, even though she knew this whole, terrible thing was out of her control. It was only then that I broached the subject of Kevin.

I flicked my lighter, illuminating the carcass of our eldest son, who stood like a twisted, decaying scarecrow on the other side of the elevator. He’d been impaled and crushed when debris fell on top of the car after we hit bottom. I crawled over to his body and told Liz to close her eyes. I bit, spit into my palm, and moved back over to my wife.

“Keep your eyes closed,” I instructed, “and think about getting home to Clair and Lena.” In the dark of the elevator car, her sobs quieted as she chewed. I went back and got her more, as well as some for myself. The moment I heard her swallow the last piece, the rubble above us started to move. I was ready for the cave-in. Almost happy for it. Seconds later, we were blinded by a flashlight.

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Licks From a Bear

trepan

August 1, 2015, 9:00am

It’s been exactly one year since Jen left. That means it’s been one year and one day since I was fired. I haven’t worked since. I used to like the idea of being on disability; free money and all the time in the world to spend with her. I guess she didn’t think of it that way. She was always ambitious. I shouldn’t say “was.” Every day I see Facebook updates detailing her constant successes. The most recent one was her engagement. I’d never seen her look so happy.

I guess I knew things with us were going downhill when I looked forward to our fights. She’d always say something about how I’m so smart – that I was smarter than she, in fact – but that I had no ambition. It felt so good to hear that someone as brilliant as Jen thought I was smart, even though she yelled it at me in frustration. She claimed she understood my depression and my anxiety and how they were terrible roadblocks on the path to my happiness. I thought that meant she could empathize and still wanted to be with me anyway. Apparently I was wrong.

Getting disability benefits for my depression wasn’t too hard. The money isn’t great, but it pays the rent and keeps me fed. The only pain is that I have to go to therapy every week. I also need to go to monthly appointments to pick up prescriptions to help combat my depression, ADHD, and anxiety. It’s all so procedural and detached from anything resembling real care. So I’m a lonely, unemployable loser who apparently has this “great mind” that’s utterly useless. But I won’t stay like this forever. I’ve discovered a something new. Well, something old, actually.

Today begins my new life. The medication never worked, the therapy never worked, the behavior changes never worked. Medicine failed me. Or maybe I failed medicine. Either way, I’m taking control of myself again. I’m not going to be a victim of the barriers my body’s put up for me. No more attention problems. No more depression. No more anxiety. For the first time in what may be decades, I’m filled with hope.

August 1, 2015, 3:00pm

All my tools are cleaned and ready. In about an hour, I’ll start. I need to keep a pretty comprehensive journal of the procedure to make sure I’m not harming myself. I figure a running account of my experiences will give evidence of the positive (or negative) changes in both my mood and cognitive abilities.

August 1, 2015, 4:05pm

After I traced a dime-sized circle on the upper-right part of my forehead, I used an Exacto knife to carve through the skin. I wasn’t prepared for how much this was going to hurt. I stopped a couple times to wipe away the tears so I could see well enough to continue. The skin lifted off from the bone without too much trouble once I’d finished cutting. I flushed it down the toilet. Now I’m waiting for the bleeding to stop – it seems to be slowing already. It’s so weird to see my skull exposed like this.

I’m going to write a sentence or two before and after each of the next steps so I can get as good a description as possible if this all works as well as I’m hoping.

I opted to use a tiny drill bit over a single large one. A ring of tiny holes is going to take a hell of a lot longer, but I think the need for precision dwarfs time consumption in this case. I’m about to do the first hole.

The first hole is done. Imagine the feeling of biting down on a fist-sized piece of tinfoil as hard as you possibly can while your head hums like it’s filled with buzzing hornets. The vibration was so excruciating that I’m only now feeling the pain of the drill site itself. I’m going to do the next ten or so holes now before I lose my nerve.

The vibrations became less intense with each hole. The bone pain got much worse, though. I’ve never had migraines, but I assume they must feel something like this.

I’m shining a light at the ring of tiny bores and doing my best to inspect what’s behind them in the mirror. It’s not very useful. The remaining structural elements between the holes are extremely thin and brittle-looking. I’m going to cut them away with the wirecutters.

I just dropped a circle of my skull into the sink. Now I’m looking at the bright red membrane that’s covering my brain. I’m a little surprised by how many blood vessels are in there. I’m going to put out a couple more towels. Cutting away the membrane is the part I’m most scared of.

It’s done and the hole is bleeding a lot. I’m taking extra care to not put too much pressure on the organ itself when I’m working to soak up the blood. I’m feeling a little dizzy so while I hold the towel to the hole, I’m sitting and eating the piece of steak and drinking the orange juice I’d put out just in case this happened. The wound is slowly starting to clot while I wait here. The whole area hurts, but the pain is second to the strong pulsing sensation around the hole. It’s almost like I have a second heart beating there.

The blood stopped pouring out and I’m cleaning the area with water and rubbing alcohol. Now I can see my brain. It’s gray. It doesn’t look like it even belongs to me; I don’t know why it all feels so surreal. It’s almost like I’m watching all this happen to someone else. On the plus side, I’m not dizzy anymore, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to bandage everything and go to bed. I’ll clean up tomorrow.

August 2, 2015, 6:30am

I woke up this morning with more energy and drive than I’ve ever felt. Even sitting here writing this feels like a joy; I’m not struggling to find words, I’m not dreading how I’ll reread what I’ve written and think it’s stupid and pointless – everything just….works. The accounts I’d read about people who shared their experiences with trepanation made similar claims, but even as I drilled the holes I never allowed myself to truly believe it would work for me. Even now, I’m worried it’s all just a placebo effect. The pulsating feeling is real, though, and it’s as strong as ever. That was something else my fellow trepanned mentioned. They said it was because the body is letting the brain grow again; something the skull had prevented after it hardened following infancy. I don’t know if I buy the explanation, but I can’t deny what’s happening here.

August 2, 2015, 2:00pm

My day’s been spent cleaning the apartment. Over the last year, I’d let things pile up and grow increasingly filthy as my depression festered. Today, it’s like a veil has been lifted and light is pouring over everything I lay my eyes on. The place needed to be cleaned, so I just set to work and cleaned it. It looks better now than it did when Jen and I moved in. My therapist recommended that I clean quite a while ago, suggesting that a nice, open area would really help me see my home as a place for potential, rather than stagnation. Now I know what he meant. This is what potential feels like.

The hole in my head still hurts and it looks terrible, but I expected as much. If I go out, I can wear a hat and no one will notice anything amiss. I’m not ready to do that, though. I’m mildly concerned about how badly the site is beginning to itch as it heals. I’m being extremely assiduous in cleaning and caring for the wound as it heals, but I guess part of that process is that damn itch. I’m doing my best not to think about it.

August 2, 2015, 11:30pm

The first full day of my experiment is about to end. I’m about to go to sleep, and I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot today. My home is spotless, I’ve finished a short story I’d been working on for the last couple months, I’ve gotten up to date with my internet and utility bills, and I even did a couple sets of push-ups. I had to remind myself to eat, though. For whatever reason, I wasn’t hungry at all until I realized it was nearly 9pm and I hadn’t eaten all day. I’m chalking it up to my excitement. It’s been hard to contain. But, now I’m all showered and pajamaed and ready to end my day. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

August 3, 2015, 5:45am

I was up before my alarm this morning to watch the sun rise from the roof of the apartment. Last night I slept like a log and didn’t wake up once. I noticed some blood on my pillow and under my fingernails, though, and I think I may have scratched underneath the bandage while I slept. I made a beeline to the bathroom to inspect the hole and, thankfully, I didn’t seem to do any damage. Everything appears to be healing well.

August 3, 2015, 1:15pm

I don’t know if it’s endorphins wearing off or just an artefact of my depression, but my euphoric feeling has diminished quite a bit since this morning. I’m thinking it might be both; maybe I need to have a good meal. There should be something in the fridge.

August 3, 2015, 9:00pm

Whatever I felt this afternoon doesn’t seem to have been a fluke. While my mood elevated for a little while after lunch, I was back to near-baseline for the rest of the day and evening. The pulsing in the hole waxes and wanes with my mood, interestingly enough. When I’m happy and ambitious, it pulses a lot. When I’m depressed, it may pulse once every ten seconds. It may have something to do with my blood pressure, so I’ll keep an eye on that. Before bed, I’ll do some jumping-jacks and see if the pulsing returns. I’m fairly certain a higher pulse rate correlates with a better mindset.

Just did the exercise. The pulsing is the same. My heartrate is up, but my mood is still low. I’m going to bed.

August 4, 2015, 11:00am

I just woke up and I feel terrible. I was scratching the hole again. The pillow is soaked with blood and there are remnants of scabs under my fingernails. Tonight I’ll wear gloves. That aside, my mood is still right near where it was before I started this process. I’m worried the surface area of my brain that’s exposed isn’t large enough to allow long-lasting effects. I don’t trust myself to widen the hole that’s already there, but I’m prepared to do another one an inch or so away.

August 4, 2015, 12:30pm

There was a problem with the second hole. I did everything just like the last time, but on the last tiny borehole a crack formed in the skull between the original hole and the new site. I had to peel back the skin I’d left to make sure, but it was definitely there. I was forced to decide whether or not I should leave the broken piece, and I opted against it. Now I have an oval that’s about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. Removing the membrane from this part was difficult and I had a minor issue with the blade slipping deeper than I’d wanted. Thankfully, the brain has no pain receptors. It couldn’t have gone more than half an inch inside and nothing weird happened to my body so I lucked out and hit part of the 90% they say we don’t use. I know people are saying that’s a myth, but with what just happened to me there must be some truth to it.

August 5, 2015, 8:00am

No scratching overnight. The pulsing is there but it’s nowhere near as strong as it was the first time. My mood is still low. I have to be honest with myself here: I feel like a failure. This whole experiment is another example of me setting out to do something with good intentions and having it all blow up in my face. But, but, I’m not going to be defeated by it. In the past, I would’ve stopped, Jen would’ve started a fight with me, and I’d just add it to the never ending cascade of fuckups that form my identity. Not this time, though. The increase in my ambition from this treatment must still be going strong, because I’m determined to see it all through.

August 5, 2015, 8:00pm

There are four more holes in my head. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. Toward the end of the last one, I almost passed out. I’m glad I had the foresight to keep a few sugar packets nearby so I could regain the strength to finish up.

Besides the issue with my dizziness, these four went better than the prior two. I used the left and right sides of my head this time, right above my ears. The skull was far thinner than on my forehead, so the vibration of the drill wasn’t as excruciating. The blood-loss was significantly greater, though, which explains the desire to pass out. I have hand towels wrapped around my head so I won’t get blood all over the place. Lucky for me, I’m a pretty quick clotter. That’s a funny word. Clotter.

August 6, 2015, 6:10am

I slept sitting up and awoke to major pulsing not just in the new holes, but in the old ones as well. A small problem’s developed with the second hole, though. I think it might be getting infected. The itching is unbearable and I think it might be starting to smell. I poured rubbing alcohol on all the sides and pressed it in with clean towels, so hopefully that’ll stop whatever’s breeding in there.

My mood was pretty high. Still not as good as the first day, but much better than the days after. I’ve been thinking about Jen a lot. We had so many things in common. We loved talking about animals and used to go off on tangents where we’d discuss all the exotic ones we’d have when we were rich. Her favorite ones were rhinos. Mine were hippos. I used to tell her about the lake we’d have in our backyard where my pygmy hippo would play with her baby rhino. After they’d gotten tired out, we’d invite them up to the patio where they’d curl up next to one another while we gazed adoringly at them and at each other. I wonder how she’d feel knowing I’ve been doing all this work to better myself. She’d probably tell me to do more.

August 7, 2015, 12:35pm

I did more. All day yesterday, I drilled. I drilled and cut and pulled and peeled. I feel like I can take on the world; it’s almost like that one time I did cocaine in college, but the effect has lasted far longer. I’ll update again today if I have to, but for now, I’m going to work on some of my stories.

August 9, 2015, 9:00am

Where have I been? Writing. Since the other day, I’ve gotten down 100 pages of a story I never even knew I had in me. Reading it over is like I’m looking at the work of someone else. Someone far, far better. A stranger, I guess.

On a slightly less pleasant note, there’s definitely an infection in a few holes. One of them is weeping a gray liquid that smells terrible and all of them itch. When I rub them with the towel to try to scratch, they break open and start either bleeding or leaking clear fluid. I figure it’s like a cold that has to run its course, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t becoming a problem nearly as bad as the depression was.

August 10, 2015, 7:40am

I scratched in my sleep. I don’t know what else to say other than it was bad. It’s hard to tell from what I see in the mirror, but I might have damaged some of my brain in the holes of my forehead and left side. A small piece is hanging by a thread that looks like a tiny blood vessel. I tried to tuck it back under the lip of skull, but I had to press pretty hard to do it and I’m worried I messed it up even worse.

At least I saw a bear today.

August 15, 2015, 4:15pm

More holes for me. Shaved my head. No more hair, lots more holes. Remember those wiffle balls from when we were kids? One day I’ll tell Jen how I thought my head looked like a wiffle ball. She always liked baseball and playing with my hair. My head infection was getting real bad before the bear came. Now he licks my head while I sleep and keeps the gross stuff out. Jen loves bears. Bears and rhinos.

Every morning I have to clean under my fingernails a lot. Petting the bear gets them real dirty. It’s nice the bear shaved when I did so I didn’t have to feel like the odd man out. Those pulses in my head are nice and strong all the time. It feels good. The bear licks me a lot when I sleep.

Augs 16, 2015 5000

Scratch the bear by his ears andhe licks lots and lots. Lots of licks means a lot less itching. Jen would scratch my back when it was itchy. One time she saw me triing to scratch between my shoulders using the door frame. She called me a bear because that’s what bears do when there back itches. 60 holes, going to cut out the spaces in between. Make my bear proud if Jen cant be.

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Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

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I was 13 when I had my first pumpkin spice latte. Dad had taken me to Starbucks on the way to school, and as soon as we walked in, I saw their poster advertising the drink. Everything about the ad screamed “warmth.” The mug it showcased was a gentle beige, contrasting sweetly against the light-brown wood of the table on which it sat, surrounded by artistically-placed autumn leaves and festive gourds. The contents of the mug were centered in the image, showing off the perfect dollop of creamy foam with caramelly tints of espresso running through it. At the top, lovingly whispered by the deft hand of a skilled, caring barista, was a sprinkling of nutmeg.

It called to me.

I eschewed my normal caramel macchiato and requested a grande pumpkin spice latte. I waited anxiously with Dad by my side. He sipped his black coffee and suggested we sit for a little while. We were running early, for once.

I sat, shaking my leg with anticipatory excitement. The cafe smelled different that day. I’d grown accustomed to the thick, imposing aroma of dark-roasted coffee and the occasional hint of sweetness as a customer’s blueberry muffin was toasted. That day, though, gripping the reins of the dark roast and riding it to a new and alluring place, was something else. Something exotic. My head swam as I realized the exotic smell was, in fact, the spicy melange of ingredients within a pumpkin spice latte: the same pumpkin spice latte I’d soon taste.

After what felt like an eternity, my order was ready. Alexander, the barista, waved me over. I did my best to avoid sprinting, but my rush was obvious.

“Easy, princess,” Dad called. I slowed down a bit and giggled. I was his princess.

I reached the counter and accepted my drink. In the tiny mouth of the lid, I could see the sprinkled spices adorning the cap of warm foam. With my eyes closed, I inhaled the steam rising from the hole.

The scent was an embrace from a ghost; a non-corporeal expression of love and comfort. The first sip was transcendental. At that moment, I knew what it felt like to believe in something bigger than myself.

Each day before school, Dad would take me to Starbucks to get another pumpkin spice latte. Its effect on me didn’t dull, nor did it taste any less special. As early autumn reds decayed into late autumn browns, I found my mood better than it had ever been in my short life. I never knew it was so easy to be happy.

At 6:51am on December 1st, 2005, Dad and I walked into Starbucks.

At 6:52am on December 1st, 2005, my happiness was torn from my chest and dashed against the rocks.

The pumpkin spice latte was a limited-time product. Alexander told me it’d be back just in time for fall next year, then asked if I’d like to go back to my caramel macchiato. Entombed in disbelief and disappointment, I nodded.

The following days were a blur of grays. My vivacity had been strangled. Dad would ask, over and over, what he could do to make his princess happy. I didn’t need to tell him, though. He knew. And there was nothing he could do about it.

December slouched toward Christmas, a holiday I’d always loved. Not anymore, though. Now that I’d seen the world through a lens of happiness and warmth, nothing looked the same without it. Quite the contrary: it all looked fake. Vulgar. When I closed my eyes on Christmas Eve, I prayed for Santa to bring me blindness or death.

On Christmas morning, I woke up to Dad standing next to my bed. That was a little tradition he and I had. Before Mom passed away, they’d both come up and shake me awake and carry me downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Now that it was just the two of us, he wanted to keep the tradition going. Even in my despondence, I still appreciated it.

Dad held my hand and we headed down the steps. Tears had started to flow without my knowing. We reached the Christmas tree in the living room. Only one present stood underneath. It was small and wrapped with bright green paper. I looked at Dad with confusion. He just smiled and beckoned to the gift.

I sat, cross legged, under the tree, and tore away the paper. My soft weeping grew into pitiful bleating.

“Why would you do this?,” I whispered to Dad, my breath heaving with sobs. In my lap, beneath the shiny, torn paper, was a cheery, autumnal Starbucks mug. The same one from the poster I’d seen on that transformative day.

I was baffled and hurt, but Dad stood, still smiling.

“Come with me, princess.”

I obeyed and rose to my feet, following his long stride out of the living room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen.

Dad looked into my misty eyes and whispered, “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He opened the cellar door.

A faint, but familiar and exquisite aroma entered me. In my surprise, I nearly dropped my present.

“Why don’t you go see what Santa brought you?,” Dad suggested.

I ran down the 14 steps with the same enthusiasm I had when ran across Starbucks to receive my first pumpkin spice latte. This time, Dad didn’t tell me to slow down.

I reached the bottom, turned the corner, and there, on a makeshift bar, was a new espresso machine. I gasped. Behind the bar, manning the machine, was Alexander the barista. He smiled and stared, wide-eyed, as Dad reached the bottom of the stairs and placed himself by my side.

“Go ahead, princess, tell the nice man what you’d like.”

My voice quavered at first, but I finished my request with enthusiasm and strength. “May I please have a pumpkin spice latte?”

Alexander, still smiling, nodded. He began to work. The coffee was ground and thick espresso drooled out of the machine into the bottom of the mug. With a hiss of steam, the milk was frothed. Warm milk joined the espresso in the mug, followed by a generous dollop of ethereal foam.  Then Alexander picked up a large shaker. I knew what had to be inside.

With three expert shakes, a pixie dusting of pumpkin spice kissed the foamy head of the latte. He picked up my mug and held it out. I walked up to the bar, carefully took the mug from Alexander’s hand, and thanked him. I noticed, for the first time, he didn’t have any legs and was strapped to a rolling stool.

“I’m sorry about your accident, Alexander,” I said with sincerity. He didn’t say anything, but kept smiling. I saw a small cut in his neck and wondered if his accident had made it so he couldn’t talk anymore.

“Merry Christmas,” I told him. He stared at Dad.

I took a sip from the mug, and, for the first time in nearly a month, it seemed like I could see in color again. The world felt right and I was happy.

My tears were drying as I took Dad’s hand. We turned the corner and headed up the steps. We reached the landing and Dad switched off the basement light. He always hated to waste electricity.

“You can have one every morning now, princess,” Dad informed me. “As long as I’m around, I’ll make sure you get whatever you need.”

I hugged him, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. It was nearly as pleasant as the mug against my palm. He was right, too. Things have been wonderful ever since.

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Jim Jameson’s Pumpkins

pumpkin

Jim Jameson grew some of the biggest and most unique pumpkins you’d ever seen. You’ve probably noticed them online without knowing they were his. Every Halloween, when websites compete with one another to feature the spookiest content, you’d be hard-pressed not to see one of Jim’s mammoth pumpkins carved into some kind of jack-o’-lantern. He was a local celebrity around here before he died, which was a pretty sad day for the whole town.

The circumstances surrounding his death were well understood, but still bizarre and unfortunate. He’d been working on trying to grow bigger and bigger pumpkins for the shows and for his customers, and he’d been experimenting on the best ways to do it. The new method, which caused his death, was growing them in his greenhouse – suspended in the air by a series of cables. The pumpkins could grow and grow without having the ground to retard their progress. The method resulted in enormous, beautifully-symmetrical pumpkins.

Then, one day, as Jim was working in the greenhouse, a pumpkin the size of a small car fell from the ceiling when its cables snapped. Broke every bone he had above his hips. The rescue workers who extricated him from the mess of blood and pumpkin guts famously said they’d never be able to carve a pumpkin again.

Jim had no next of kin, so the property was sold off, along with everything on it. I was looking for a place in the area, and after a quick visit, I determined it was the best place for me. I moved in about a year ago.

Moving into the home of someone who’d died and seeing all their stuff sitting there more-or-less undisturbed, aside from the refrigerator being cleaned out and a few other maintenance-related things, was a strange experience. At first, it felt a little invasive going through Jim’s belongings. There didn’t appear to be anything too valuable; I figured whatever might’ve been there probably got taken by whoever cleaned the fridge. What I did find, though, were reams of paper and shelves of notebooks.

Jim was a meticulous note taker. Every possible pumpkin permutation was cataloged, diagramed, and explained in full. I learned about his cable system, his fertilizer combinations, and even his experimental work.

The experiments fascinated me.

Jim had seen pictures of fruits and vegetables that’d been coaxed to grow into particular shapes. Square watermelons. Star carrots. That kind of thing. But Jim’s ambitions were greater than simple shapes. He wanted something unique and memorable – something that would put him on the map for more than just big pumpkins.

One of the notebooks was filled with diagrams of a scarecrow-shaped mold in which a pumpkin could be grown. He detailed the various materials he’d need to use, the method of keeping the pumpkin properly watered, and even the various fertilizers he’d use at different stages of its growth.

Apparently he’d been working on this experiment since the late 1980s, but with little success. Molds were created and destroyed over the course of the years, with new materials being introduced or rejected depending on their efficacy. Same with irrigation methods. But fertilizer seemed to be the biggest problem for Jim. The plant wasn’t getting the right amount of nourishment as it grew to fill the mold, leading to parts of it dying off and rotting. For decades, he tried. For decades, he failed.

Whenever I had spare time, I read Jim’s notebooks. I was fascinated by his experimenting and the trials and errors he went through. I’d find myself wondering if his works could be published someday – I couldn’t imagine anyone being bored by the work he’d written about so passionately.

Early last October, when the farm was turning brown and the leaves were turning red, I cracked open a notebook of Jim’s from the year he died. I’d decided to skip a few because I was so anxious to learn if he’d had any success with his pumpkin experiment. At this point in his notes, he was writing about hybrid pumpkins: pumpkin/acorn squash hybrids, pumpkin/zucchini hybrids; all with the goal of solving the rot problem that’d plagued his work.

I flipped through the pages of the notebook, skimming the notes, until one word stood out from all the others as if it’d been written in red: radiation. I turned back a few pages and was blown away by what I saw. Jim had, over time, purchased and disassembled hundreds of smoke detectors. He was looking to collect the tiny amounts of americium-241 they had inside.

With wide eyes, I pored over the pages as Jim talked about incorporating the americium-241 into his fertilizer to induce mutations in the pumpkins. With each new entry, I saw that Jim began to have successes. He wrote about each complete, shaped pumpkin with unbridled enthusiasm. I started to notice a slight disconnect between the scientifically-meticulous Jim from before the success and the potentially-irradiated Jim after.

I finished that notebook and started the next one. The disconnect continued. More hypotheses about hybridization were detailed – including hybrids with ostriches and slugs and even dinosaurs. I groaned and dropped the notebook. The poor bastard had gone nuts. I felt pity for the old farmer and part of me wondered if his death in the greenhouse was purposely self-inflicted. If my mind was going, I might’ve done the same thing.

I didn’t read his notes for a couple weeks.

On Halloween, feeling bored and waiting for it to get dark so I could give the trick-or-treaters the full-size candy bars I’d bought to be the best neighbor ever, I picked up another one of Jim’s notebooks. It was the last one he’d ever made entries in. The handwriting was terrible and the sentences were fragmented. Still, I could get a decent idea about what he was talking about. More nonsense about hybrids. More trials with the americium-241 fertilizer. There were drawings, too. Not just diagrams, but artistically-rendered representations of his pumpkins and the imaginary hybrids. Some were actually pretty cool, like one of a scarecrow pumpkin riding an ostrich pumpkin. Silly, yes, but well drawn compared to his scrawled handwriting.

The drawings tapered off as I got to the end of the notebook. On the last page before a series of blanks, there was a diagram. I held it up and turned it around, trying to make out what it could be. Then it clicked: it was a map of the property. I saw the barn and the house and the greenhouse, but there was something there I didn’t recognize; something in the middle of the field by the three scarecrows that’d been there for what looked like decades.

Still bored and now curious, I brought the map with me to the field. Sure enough, at the center of the triangle formed by the scarecrows, was a slight mound in the dirt. Easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.

I kicked the dust around for a minute and saw a rope connected to a wooden hatch. I pulled it open, revealing a passage and a ladder anchored into stone walls. I realized it had been a well at one point. I jogged back to the house and grabbed a flashlight. It was getting dark and I knew it’d be pitch black down there.

I took care in climbing down the steps and reached the bottom after about 10 feet. Shallower than I thought. There was a narrow, low hallway with a dirt ceiling covered in the veiny stalactites of roots from the plants above. I stooped down and walked forward, brushing the roots out of my face and trying to put out of my mind the thought of spiders as their webs stuck to my face.

My flashlight beam illuminated another wooden door with a rope handle. I reached out, grabbed, the handle, and pulled. It was stuck. I aimed the flashlight around the door and noticed a metal rod sticking out of the wall, blocking the door from opening. I yanked the rod out of the wall and tried the door again. It opened easily.

The flashlight showed a small room, about five feet by five feet. At first, I thought it was empty. When I stepped inside, however, there was something against the wall next to the doorway. It took me a minute to figure out what it was in the dim light of the flashlight, but when I finally understood what I was looking at, I gasped. The thing began to move.

I stifled a scream as a creature the size of a man stood and stared at me; its veiny, whitish-orange skin covered in dust. It moaned.

I made a move to run, but the thing blocked my path. Now, I did scream. I tried to strike it with my flashlight, but I was dealt a heavy blow that sent me reeling. The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was the thing walking out the door and down the root-choked corridor.

My blackout lasted the entire night. When I came to, I rolled around in pain and confusion. I was seeing double and was unbearably dizzy. I knew I had to have a concussion, but for the first couple minutes, I couldn’t remember why. When it all came flooding back, a spell of panic pushed my dizziness aside and I ran out of the room, climbed out of the chamber, and hauled myself into the daylight.

The farm was filled with police and emergency vehicles. One of the officers saw me staggering toward them and called out to his partner. They approached me just in time for me to collapse into their arms.

I woke up in the hospital some time later. I was indeed concussed and my skull was home to a fracture that could’ve killed me. There was commotion outside the door and I pressed the button near the bed to alert a nurse. When one finally came, she looked haggard and upset. I asked what was going on, dismayed by the slur I heard in my speech.

She sat on my bed, and without breaking eye contact, told me what had happened and why the hospital was full. I didn’t believe her, so she turned on the local news. The anchor was talking about the deaths in our town. The dead trick-or-treaters. The dead parents who’d tried to protect them. The dead police officers who’d tried to intervene.

The view changed to a charred and fractured area in the middle of Main Street. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The nurse turned off the TV.

The nurse said no one knew how any of it happened and some people were even doubting what they’d seen less than 24 hours ago. It was too surreal. A man-shaped creature with skin like a pumpkin screaming “where is my father?,” while devastating any person it came near. But the evidence was there. Especially in the victims. The dead were lucky. The living, though, were traumatized beyond comprehension.

While I thought my injury was bad, as more details of the event were relayed, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. But it was short-lived. Before she left to assist another patient, the nurse said one thing under her breath. It was quiet and almost sounded like she didn’t want to say it, but felt compelled to. I didn’t get all of it, but what I heard was enough.

“…shattered hips and jaws and orifices stuffed with pumpkin seeds.”

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The Episode of Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare” That Never Aired in the United States

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There’s an interesting history behind satellite dishes and satellite broadcasting in the early 1990s. Some broadcasters intentionally scrambled their signals to prevent unauthorized reception by viewers who didn’t pay to receive them. Others, though, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the explosion of satellite dish use across the former Eastern Bloc, saw a great opportunity to reach a new audience. Whether or not they’d admit it today, Nickelodeon was one of the opportunistic broadcasters.

Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, committed millions of dollars to research and develop better broadcasting technologies to saturate the new markets with children’s programming, hoping those kids would grow up and have a subconscious loyalty to the Nickelodeon brand and various programs. What this meant was the launch of new, highly experimental satellites and ground-based satellite dishes.

The hardware deployment was completed in December of 1991 – two weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In September of 1992, the first and only broadcast using the new technology was conducted. On October 9th, 1992, the new broadcasting technology was made illegal in the United States.

I was a Viacom engineer working for Nickelodeon in September of 1992. I was excited about the new satellite capabilities – just like any tech nerd would’ve been. I remember the first time our crew read the signal power specifications and the range of EM bands the technology would exploit. Bill Jaynes, the guy working with me at the time, remarked, “what the fuck is this, Star Trek?” I didn’t even laugh – I just said something like, “yeah, seriously.” The stuff we’d be using seemed decades ahead of anything we’d ever seen.

Of course, like any technology, there were a lot of bugs to work out. Test receivers on Viacom-chartered ships thousands of miles out at sea were getting burned out by the signals coming down from the new satellite. To make matters worse, if the signal did make it to the receivers without damaging them, the video quality was poor. Blurring, static, and dropped frames interlaced with noise plagued the testing period before we could get a handle on them. Still, the picture wasn’t as good as we’d hoped. New cameras using some bizarre optical trick seemed to help get the test pattern to appear much more clearly, though. Not perfect, but good enough.

Once we received the new cameras, Engineering Central over at Viacom’s technology headquarters gave my crew at Nickelodeon Studios the go-ahead to start broadcasting with the new tech on September 22, 1992. It was going to be of a live, unedited taping of Double Dare. The Viacom brass figured a live taping was as good as a pre-recorded one; new viewers in Eastern Europe and Russia would get a chance to see Marc Summers’ personality and other behind-the-scenes things that marketing research claimed they’d be interested in.

We began the broadcast at 11:00am Pacific Time. Things were going well. There were a lot of dropped frames early on, but things smoothed out. Interestingly, one of Viacom’s sources in Bulgaria and one in Latvia said not only were there no reports of burned out dishes, but the signal strength was so high it bled into neighboring EM bands, forcing the Double Dare broadcast onto multiple channels on either side of the main one. At the start of the broadcast, it was estimated 60% of people with satellite dishes in Eastern Europe and Russia were tuned into Double Dare.

The show was nearing its end and the winner was announced. Now, this particular iteration of the show was Family Double Dare, so Marc Summers, the mother, the father, and their two sons were waiting for the prize to be unveiled. I knew it was going to be a car. It was always a car.

The studio lights dimmed, and the moment the car was unveiled, the multicolored strobe light effect was turned on. There was a flash of heat, a brief scream from one of the family members, and Marc Summers was standing alone next to the car. In the headphones, I heard panicked shouting from Engineering Central. There were lots of voices and a ton of background noise, but one clear voice came through, “TURN IT OFF!”

I had the crew kill the cameras and I cut the broadcast feed. Marc Summers looked at me and my crew, turned around, and headed toward his dressing room.

Lots of things happened at Viacom and Nickelodeon after that. Reports began trickling in from Eastern Europe about a devastating and inexplicable accident involving people with “illegal” satellite dish connections. Corporate circulated an internal briefing. I wasn’t supposed to see it, but I knew a guy over there who shared it with me. The report included photographs. 20 years of therapy have done little to erase what those pictures contained.

The moment the lights strobed, they triggered something in the the experimental optics in the cameras. Whatever that something was, the organic matter in front of the cameras flashed out of that point in space. We’ve never been able to figure out why or how it happened. Nor were we able to figure out why the four family members reappeared in each and every location the broadcast was received. Four people, copied tens of thousands of times, were beamed across the world.

But the worst part was how they came out. Once the family signal reached the dishes and came through the televisions connected to them, the merged with every single living thing that had their eyes focused on the screen; one cluster of four family members occupying the space of each viewer’s eye.

Those were the photographs I saw. And there were hundreds of them. Not just in Eastern Europe, either – but friends of mine from the control rooms at Viacom and Nickelodeon.

Viacom spent billions of dollars to keep this quiet. The Eastern European governments, desperate for cash to aid in their independence, agreed to bury the incident after receiving cargo planes full of cash. All the Viacom and Nickelodeon employees who witnessed or were associated with victims received large settlements to shut them up. We then had to sign something promising we’d never talk.

I signed it.

The thing is, I’m not going to be around much longer. Cancer’s got me pretty good. Viacom will come after me, but I’ve got nothing they can take away that hasn’t already been claimed by what’s eating me away. But I’m not telling you this because of what happened in 1992. What’s done is done – there’s nothing that can change it.

Here’s why I’m telling you this; it’s the one thing that’s been bothering me all these years: Marc Summers.

Summers was directly in the shot with the family when they disappeared. He didn’t go anywhere, though. He was perfectly fine. Just walked away.

I did my best to not let it bother me, and for a while, it just stuck with me as one of those “weird things.” Last weekend, though, when an orderly was helping me off the elevator and out of the hospital, I saw Marc Summers walking by. Everything flooded back at once, so I stopped him and asked, “Marc, so what really happened on that day in 1992? Pretty weird that you weren’t affected, huh?”

Marc just looked at me for a minute before a smirk appeared in the corner of his mouth.

“Not that weird, actually,” he replied. His left eye drooped and I saw lights and what appeared to be fiber optic cable tangled inside his skull.

“Not that weird at all.”

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