My Heinleins Crumble to Dust in my Hands (PART 2)

Posted: August 12, 2009 in Braak, Short Fiction
Tags: ,

[Part Two of Two.  Part 1 is available here.]

What lies beyond doesn’t worry me.
Suppose you break this world to bits, another may arise.

Mahmoud Truely awoke as his shuttle approached Ceres.  He was in one of the short-term isleep chambers.  Even though the trip to the asteroid belt only took a week, they put people into isleep anyway.  The ship could go faster if the passengers’ vital functions had all been suspended.  When the isleep door opened, Mahmoud saw the man with the black-and-white beard, the yellow shirt, the weird sunglasses.  He was munching on a paper control panel across the hall.  The man turned to look at him, and Mahmoud panicked.  He didn’t want the man to see him.  He tried to hide his face, to duck down, as the man turned, but he couldn’t move his body.  He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t.

Mahmoud Truely awoke again in the isleep chamber.  The door was open, and a meditech was shining a light into his eye.

“Don’t try to move,” the meditech told him.  “You’ve got a temporary body paralysis, it happens sometimes.  Give it a few seconds, and you’ll get control of your fingers and toes again.  You have dreams?  A lot of people that get the paralysis have weird dreams in isleep.”  He looked at the readout by Mahmoud’s head.  “Eckh.  I have a cousin named Eckh.  You from New Guangzhou?”

“Pasadena.”  Mahmoud told him, as his jaw started to work again.  Once he regained feeling in his legs, the meditech had him wait in the lounge during the final descent towards Ceres.  Mahmoud sat next to a woman there; she had a veil over her mouth and nose, and wore her dark hair in long dreadlocks.  She must have been Ba’haislamic, he thought.  Or perhaps she didn’t want anyone to see her mouth.

“Are you a pilgrim?”  She asked him.  She had wide, dark eyes.  They were pretty, but Mahmoud was leery about her.  What if the rest of her face was covered with sores, or she had face cancers, or something?  “I’m Fatima.  Fatima Heimbecker.”  She held out her hand for Mahmoud to shake.  It was small and brown and very delicate.

“Mah—ah.  Ephraim.”  He’d forgotten about his cover identity.  He’d probably never see the girl again, but it was worth it to start practicing.  “Ephraim Eckh.  I’m a pilgrim.  Going to Niskayuna.”

“Oh.”  She said.  “Shaker.”  He couldn’t tell if she was disgusted by that.  “I’m with PSG, the dispensary missions on Ceres.  We distribute Count-E to…you people.”

“I thought…” Mahmoud coughed.  “We don’t usually take Count-E.  For…spiritual reasons.”  He knew that was true, though couldn’t remember precisely what those reasons were.

Fatima shrugged.  “It’s an uphill battle.  Some families will let their kids use it, for a while, but they have to stop after the anabaptism.”  The shuttle began to jigger and shake as it crashed into Ceres’ artificial atmosphere.  “We’re coming in.  Maybe I’ll see you around,” she said.  She didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about the idea.  She gave him a PSG pamphlet about the dangers of ultraviolet light.

The New Shakers had a city that they’d built on Ceres, but it was only just barely a city.  They called it Niskayuna.  It was mostly inflatable plastic cargo containers that had been patched together, piled in a rough circle like a child’s scattered building blocks.  From a distance, it looked like white mushrooms growing on a rotten tree trunk.  The asteroid was mostly reddish-brown rock, except for the big patches of black mould.  Families stayed in their compounds, and communicated with each other by shortwave.  There was a big generator to give the asteroid gravity and a magnetic field and an atmosphere, but the outside was still cold and filled with ultraviolet light.  No one liked to go outside unless they had to.

Mahmoud Truely, now Ephraim Eckh, was welcomed by the Scheyings, in Niskayuna compound B.  Like all of the New Shakers, they spent their time trying to cultivate the black mould called waterlivet that was the only thing that could grow on Ceres.  Peasy provided them with equipment and k-rations.  The New Shakers thought they were trying to colonize the asteroid.  Peasy just wanted them off planet, and was willing to spend money to get rid of them.  In their free time, the New Shakers used their psucharist for whatever it was used for.  They kept the source and function of the drug a secret.  EnGeneCorp must have spent a fortune getting Mahmoud onto the asteroid.

The psucharist was kept by Albert Scheying, the family patriarch.  He only gave out one dose for everyone during communion.  At first, Mahmoud wasn’t trusted enough to participate.  He watched, and didn’t ask for any, and hoped that they would interpret his reticence as humility.  The New Shakers were impressed by humility.

Mahmoud had been there for three days before they let him participate.  He didn’t sleep the entire time; instead, he used MH-3 to stay awake.  It would kill him if he used it for more than a week, but he’d become afraid of the signal that he knew was around him.  He was afraid it would get into his head while he was asleep, and he’d wake up as one of them.  The Men from Fomalhaut.  He stayed awake.  So far, nothing had turned to paper.

“You ever disagree?”  Albert Scheying asked him after those three days.  “With the doxis?”  It was a dangerous question among the fervently religious.  Could you still be a believer if you questioned?  Not all sects felt the same way about the idea; Mahmoud couldn’t remember whether or not the New Shakers did.  He decided to err on the side of being reasonable.

“Sometimes,” he admitted.  “I don’t always agree.  But I do it anyway.  Like, I think we should take Count-E.”  His withdrawal headache had been intensifying ever since he got off the shuttle.

Albert scratched the cancers that dangled from his cheek.  “My body is a temple,” he quoted.  “My mind is a church.’  Besides, the Count-E is just a tool of the Fomalhautians.”

“No,” Mahmoud said.  “The Count-E…that’s how we stop them from invading.  With their laser-light signal.”

Albert shook his head, and pointed into the sky.  So far from the sun, the stars were always visible.  The earth was a bright spot up above.  “Fomalhaut already invaded.  They control everything.  The companies.  The PSG.  They’re the reason we’ve had to go off-planet.  We won’t take Count-E, so we can recognize them.  They do what they want, and then erase peoples’ memories.”

It was a paranoid fantasy.  How could the planet still function if every organization had been taken over by Fomalhaut?  Why would they bother?  It was when he stopped taking the Count-E that Mahmoud started becoming susceptible to the signal.  The New Shakers were losing their minds.  Without the ampoules, the ultraviolet light was damaging their brains.  Albert’s wife took three showers a day, so that she could wash off imaginary aphids.

“We’re supposed to wait a year,” Albert said, abruptly, “before we let newcomers into communion.  But.  There’s nothing to do here.  I feel bad for you.  You’ve got an honest face, anyway.”  He passed Mahmoud a small wad of sticky, black gum.  “We’ll start in about ten minutes.  Meet the rest of us in the living room.”  He left.

Mahmoud stared at the black gum.  The psucharist was supposed to cause an immersive hallucination, which Mahmoud didn’t like the sound of.  It sounded too much like being asleep and having dreams, even though he knew that the regions of the brain responsible for dream generation were not the same regions responsible for immersive hallucinations.  Would the psucharist make him more vulnerable to the signal?  The New Shakers didn’t take Count-E, but hadn’t been overwritten.  At least he didn’t think they had.  Maybe the psucharist was something the Fomalhaut Men had brought with them.  Something that they did to make you forget about them.

In his room, Mahmoud found a voice recorder, and recorded a message to himself.  “This is Mah—this is Ephraim Eckh.  I am about to take the psucharist for the first time.  It is 24:38 Niskayuna time.  Uhm.  If…something happens, please deliver this to my friend, Mahmoud Truely.  Or his boss, Phil Gaugin.”  He emphasized the words “my” and “friend.”  Mahmoud played back the message and was reasonably satisfied with it.

In the New Shaker’s living room, Albert and his family were sitting in a circle.  His wife sat next to him.  Albert had two brothers, and they had their wives.  There was a nephew and a niece as well.  Albert and his brothers had younger children, but none had gone through the anabaptism yet, so they could not participate.  Albert welcomed Mahmoud, and his family made agreeable sounds as Mahmoud sat.

The psucharist tasted bitter and chalky.  Mahmoud held it under his tongue like he was supposed to, and it eventually dissolved, leaving a disgusting taste all the way down his throat.  He wanted to throw up.  The Scheyings had all closed their eyes and slumped on the floor.  After five minutes and nothing had happened, Mahmoud began to suspect he’d gotten a dud.

“When does it—”

Mahmoud Truly awoke in a garden.  Lush vegetation spilled down a rocky mountainside, then petered off into a gold beach at the edge of a vast ocean.  Birds sang.  It was warm but not hot, moist but not humid.  Mahmoud was conscious of his body, and it felt crowded, like there were a dozen other minds trying to control his limbs.  His arms and feet tangled and he fell.  Mahmoud imagined he heard a chorus of laughter.

“It’s okay,” Albert said to him.  Albert’s voice was inside Mahmoud’s head, so it felt to Mahmoud like he was thinking to himself.  “We’ve all got to use the arms and legs at the same time.  There’s about fifty of us in here, now.”  There was that same answering chorus again.  All of the New Shakers were sharing this body together.

Not all of them.  Mahmoud could see a woman coming out of the jungle.  Beautiful, naked.  She had wide, dark eyes, long black hair, pale skin.  She smiled when she saw him, and Mahmoud felt a stirring in his soul.  This stir was echoed by the men with whom he shared the hallucination.

“This is the real world,” Albert intoned and every New Shaker man spoke the same words at the same time.  “The phenomenal world is gone, and we can see the true moment of being.  Love’s redeeming work is done.  Man and Woman have been restored to the Garden of Eden, to blissful paradise.  The illusion of our suffering is a passing woe, banished in the light of God’s grace.”

He (they) reached out for her (them).  His (their) hands met hers (theirs).  The separateness between them dissolved away as he (they) basked in the heat from her (their) body.

In that moment, Mahmoud felt a strange sensation, that there was someone watching him from behind.  He struggled to turn his head, but the men that shared his mind were intent on the woman before them.  He tried to wrench the face away, and for a moment his desire was strong enough that the men turned.

They all saw him, then.  The man in the yellow shirt, with his black-and-white beard.  He was tearing strips of paper off of a tree.  He hadn’t seen them yet.  He hadn’t seen anything except the paper he was eating.

Mahmoud Truely awoke screaming.  The New Shakers’ living room was how he remembered it.  Three men, three women, two kids.  No bearded man.  The Scheyings twitched and moaned while they remained in the psucharist trance.  Mahmoud shook his head, then put his hands on the walls.  They still felt like the rubberized polymer they were supposed to be.  No paper.  Not yet.

He went back to his room, and listened to his voice recording.

“This is Mah—this is Ephraim Eckh.  I am about to take the psucharist for the first time.  It is 24:38 Niskayuna time.  Uhm.  If…something happens, please deliver this to my friend, Mahmoud Truely.  Or his—” a burst of static obscured the end of the message.  It was strange, but not that strange.  Sometimes x-rays made it through Ceres’ artificial magnetic field, and messed up voice recorders.  Mahmoud was about to switch it off, when the message continued.

“This is Ephraim Eckh.  I am taking the psucharist for the second time.  My memories of the first experience are hazy.  I am hoping to be able to describe—”  More static.  “—it is 18:35 Niskayuna time.”  Mahmoud listened to the crispy snow that followed the message for several seconds, his eyes wide with horror.  “This is Ephraim Eckh.  I am preparing for a third use of the psucharist.  The entheogen appears to dissolve memory boundaries.  The New Shakers believe that there is only one true place, and the psucharist takes them—a”  This was swallowed by a vicious burst of interference.  “—9:36 Niskayuna—” static “—here with us.  The Fomalhaut Men ca—a” static “—my sixth attempt.  I think I understand what’s hap—” static “—antom memories can only survive by creating artificial contexts—”

There was nothing after that.  Just a minute of empty recording space.  Mahmoud switched the recorder off, restarted it, played the message again.

“Listen to me,” his own voice said to him.  “The Fomalhaut Men have found you.  They are going to try and erase you.  You have to get outside.  You have to find a new context.  I’ve left an ex-atmosphere suit under the bed.  Put it on, and get as far away from the compound as you can.”  Mahmoud turned off the recorder again, reset it.  This time, there was no message at all, just long seconds of empty static.

He checked under the bed, found the silvery plastic suit.  He strapped himself into it, put the helmet on.  It had a large glass shield in front of his face.  He could almost see his reflection in it.  Mahmoud left his room.  Before he went outside, he looked in on the Scheyings.  They were still twitching in their entheogenic trance, but the Fomalhaut Man was with them.  He was surveying them with his weird sunglasses, and then he began tearing strips of paper off of the walls.

Mahmoud ran outside, away from the compound, out of the artificial magnetic and gravity field.  As soon as he did, he found he could leap in long, bounding strides away from the plastic shacks.  He ran until they were very small in the distance, then he stopped to catch his breath.  The signal, he thought.  They must be able to track me with it.  They figured out where I was, and followed me.  Was it through the psucharist?  Can they go there, too?  Do they spy on it?

He could see a handful of other New Shaker compounds in the distance.  Mostly, he could just see lumpy gray-brown rock, stretching right off into the bright, starry sky.  The earth was a bright speck above him.  The sun was on the other side of the asteroid.  There was nothing out here at all.

His reflection in the glass face shield caught his eye.  There was a tiny light on the top of his helmet.  He put his hands up against the shield, to make his reflection sharper.  He was wearing a black-and-white beard, and sunglasses with a narrow strip of polarized plastic in the middle.  The glass shield wasn’t glass at all, it was paper.  He ripped it off, and ate it.  Mahmoud tried to stop himself, but when he looked again at his hands, he saw that they were paper, too.  Even though he didn’t want to, he began to eat them.

Mahmoud Truely awoke at 7:00, as the buddhamon on his nightstand blinked to fluorescent green life, and chirruped wisely.  “It is seven o’clock.  The real sky is knowing that samsara and nirvana are merely an illusory display.  Your clock subscription will expire in three minutes.”

  1. Hsiang says:

    So it’s one of those “Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story!” sorta things? At first I thought of this as a well-constructed mashup of every gimmick in PKD’s toybox. there really wasn’t a plot, was there? Cool, I really didn’t need one. Helluva ride.
    But now I think I get it. The invasion is over and the human survivors are trapped in recursive dreams stitched together from their dwindling memories. Or is Mamoud the only survivor? does it matter? He’s forever cut off from everybody and everything. Yep, very chilling and quite Dickish.
    It’s been pointed out to me lately that my reviews are more about just basic synopsis than any deep and meaty analysis. Fair enough, I’m an art school dropout, not some literature-degree-having guy. I know what I like to read and this was some of it.

    So what’s going on in Trowth these days?

  2. braak says:

    It’s funny, this thing just started out as a PKD semi-parody mashup, but as I started to work, I got really into the idea of a psychic alien invasion of Philip K. Dicks.

    It’s also funny, because as I wrote the story I thought to myself, “Okay, I know what’s happening in here, but there’s one other possibility that is equally plausible and narratively strong, so the ending could potentially be one of two things.” And neither of those things were what you just said, except that is equally strong.

    I am tempted to write several more short stories, exploring the nature and ramifications of Mahmoud Truely’s missing five minutes. Perhaps this is a way of procrastinating on Trowth? I am two-thirds of the way done Mr. Stitch, but, looking at it, it’s going to need some serious re-editing once I’ve finished.


  3. Moff says:

    I second everything Hsiang said, really. Except for the part about art school. Although I would have dropped out of art school, if I’d thought of it.

  4. Hsiang says:

    So you’ve ingested enough Dick (can’t avoid the obvious salacious pun) that you couldn’t write this without it become an authentic PKD story. Hmmm… OMG, he’s inside you now! Run to the mirror, do you have a beard? What colors is it? Too late! You scuttle beetle-like across the floor of your conapt seeking escape. It’s so hot today. It must be like 65 harlows outside. Out, you must get out of here. The window seems most likely. Yes, yes! The window high above the thronging slidewalks. All-revealing window made of tasty, tasty, glass. Almost as delicious as paper…

  5. Hsiang says:

    @ Moff: Well, I didn’t drop out as much as realize that I had stopped attending classes. I was pretty messed up back then. Was reading waay too much PKD, if you know what I mean.

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