Like so many other Earth descendant humans I suffer from an undiagnosed neurological disorder. It might have been caused by the stresses imposed on it by the interdimensional transit that allowed the human race to survive their planetary mother, or it might have been a mutation caused by something in the habitats of Neopan itself. There were no explanations offered. Most humans of Earth origin experienced an at least minimal amount of confusion or memory loss or just plain dim wittedness. Maybe it was shock. In my case however, it was more severe. I had almost no long term memory and battled continually with a fog that had swallowed my past, muted the present and made the future seem subject to complete randomness.
I wandered into The Salon that day because I didn’t know where I had been or where I was going. I saw the neon sign out front and some genetic memory was dislodged from the murk. I decided I must have been on my way here, for a hair cut, and went inside.
A slender but curvy Latina with long soft black curls wore a white coat with the name “Estelle” embroidered over the left breast pocket. She chewed gum and looked me up and down as I approached the counter just beyond the front entrance.
“You have an appointment?” she asked
“Um.” I thought it over, “Maybe. I don’t know. If not I could make one, or maybe you could squeeze me in?” I asked hopefully.
“What did you want?” she asked me with narrowed eyes.
“Just a trim.” I told her.
“A trim?” she repeated and her jaw dropped just a tad lower during the course of her chewing.
I nodded clutching my knitted handbag.
“Okay.” She said after some silent deliberation, “Come on over.” And she led me to one of the chairs.
I sat down. She used her foot to pump up the height of the chair and then she covered my body with a black nylon cape. A smile stole its way over my face, triggered by a warm feeling that washed over my bones like…like something warm that we don’t have anymore on Neopan. Even Estelle seemed to be enjoying herself a little as she examined my hair and then wetted it with a spray bottle and rummaged through a drawer and produced some scissors and a comb. She started clipping and soon she was smiling back at me through the mirror, chewing her gum at a relaxed pace.
“I haven’t cut somebody’s hair in forever.” She said a little dreamily. I watched wet chunks of mine slip down the front of the nylon cape.
To my right in the back of the building there was a little office. Estelle turned my chair a little and I caught a glimpse of two men moving around a desk through the cracked door. She turned the chair again and I watched my own transforming reflection.
“My mom taught me how to cut hair in her shop in L.A. when I was six. Where were you from?”
“I don’t know.” I told her. She looked at me in the mirror and I looked back at her. “I forget everything.” I explained, “I only remember pieces sometimes, objects, or a place like this seems familiar.”
She went back to work on my hair without any further attempts at conversation. It felt good having another human being touching my hair, grooming me. When she was done I examined myself and nodded appreciatively. She whipped the nylon cape off and shook the hair to the floor. Then she retrieved a broom and a dustpan and swept all the cast off bits of me up and disposed of them. I stretched and admired her work.
“What do I owe you?” I asked. She leaned on her broom and shrugged.
“What have you got?” I opened the pink and purple hand bag and took out my wallet and opened that. She gawked, “You have credits?”
“I don’t know how many. Can you process them?”
“Yeah.” She said and took the little card from me. Setting the broom against the wall she headed for the office.
After a moment she came back out with one of the men. He wore a well manicured beard of an almost red and sandy hue. He smiled in a natural friendly way,
Estelle gave my arm a friendly parting squeeze,
“You’ve got plenty of credits. Dale’s gonna take care of it,” she told me. I went into the office with him. He closed the door and showed me to a chair after shaking my hand.
“I’m Dale.” He told me.
“Nice to meet you.” I responded, “I’m Izz.”
“Nice to meet you.” He smiled and I smiled back. “Well,” he said, “You have 2,895 credits. If you gave us forty that would be more than generous.” He sighed, “But I’d like to ask you for a tremendous favor instead. Keith?” he called and the other man I had glimpsed earlier poked his head in from another door.
“Come in here Keith. This is Izz, Izz, Keith.” He introduced us. “What I would like for you to do is transfer 2,800 credits to Keith. Then I will transfer 2,800 of my own credits back to you. That’s all.” He explained. “Keith needs it, and I want to give it to him but it’s better if Neopan officials can’t link the two of us directly. Will you do it?”
They didn’t need to twist my arm. I trusted Dale instinctively. The fact that he was wanting to hide something from the authorities only strengthened that trust. Some rational part of my mind ran the whole thing over again and noted the possibility that this might be a con and I decided to go with the impulse to trust rather than act out of suspicion. The decision was made in the blink of an eye. I nodded.
“Okay. That sounds fine.” I told him. Dale smiled again and proceeded to make the transfers. In a matter of minutes he was showing me the computer screen, and the verification of transfer from his account to mine.
Keith himself thanked me and I noticed for the first time that his eyes were a very pretty blue. I speculated that he might be my age or a couple of years older. Then he asked me if I would mind giving him a ride home. Why not? I couldn’t remember anywhere else I should be, although I had a vague nagging feeling that there was someone out there who would be missing me. I could almost picture that someone’s face. But I had no idea where to find that person and at the moment, Keith was my newest friend in a string of three brand new friends. I agreed and we set off waving goodbye to Dale, then Estelle on our way out of The Salon.
* * *
Keith took me to a dirt lot across the street. The sky was black as coal and all we had to see by were the yellow street lamps and the neon signs flickering in the occasional shop window. There are no stars in the human populated habitats of Neopan. That’s because we live underground. I wouldn’t have known if you could see stars from the surface, or whether even there was such a thing as a surface. This was how the new world was.
Most of the store fronts were empty. Windows were smashed and walls were covered in graffiti and even some of what would qualify as street art. “Fuck the Lizzies!” was scrawled across the wall of the building adjacent to the lot. That was the same as saying, “Fuck the Police” or “Fuck our helpful big brothers, the Neopan authorities.”
I kept looking at Keith’s face as he unlocked the door of an ancient maroon Buick. His flesh seemed a little flushed and small beads of perspiration were forming beneath his hairline. Stubble looked like sand scattered over his cheeks and chin. It was frightening and exciting to be so close to a complete stranger. Taking in the otherness of his face was like inhaling glue fumes. It made me dizzy. He handed the keys to me and got in the drivers side door, scooting across the bucket seat to make room for me.
“You know how to drive, right?” he asked casually.
“I think I used to.” I told him.
“Well, it’s automatic, and nobody knows how to fucking drive anymore anyway.” There weren’t any other cars to contend with. The street was silent. I nodded, started the engine, then buckled my seat belt.
“You want to go that way.” Keith pointed the direction out and I put the transmission in drive.
We didn’t talk much after that. He only said things like turn left here, keep going straight or turn right. I obeyed. For a while the commercial wasteland continued. Without warning we turned onto a street crowded with people. They were clustered around burning garbage cans and antique boom boxes. Packs of them were huddled on the sidewalk playing dice while others fought in the middle of the road. Some were passed out in the gutters under piles of filthy rags that might have been their clothes.
I crawled to a stop as they mobbed around us, pounding on the windows, shouting, talking, coaxing, demanding. They were trying to open the doors. Someone came towards us with a crow bar raised over their heads…and I gunned it, pressed my foot down on the peddle and accelerated into the mass of bodies. I hadn’t known that I’d do something like that until I was doing it. Somebody bounced off of the wind shield. Someone else went crunch under the wheels. The others all hauled their asses out of the way.
“Oh shit!” Keith was shouting, his hands pressed against the roof of the car.
I screeched down the street.
“Which way?” I demanded as we approached the intersection.
“Left.” He answered.
In a matter of minutes we were back on empty streets.
“I’m sorry.” I said. He was much calmer now, though very sweaty.
“It’s alright.” He was much calmer now, though very sweaty and twice as red in the face, “You probably did the right thing. It’s my fault. I misdirected you. Right here.”
We were on a dark residential street. The places looked big and like they had been built in the 1980’s on old earth. These were spacious custom homes, I realized. They would have been considered tiny hovels by the time 2010 had rolled around. It seemed weird that I should have such specific memories of architecture and yet be clueless about the details of my own personal life.
Keith directed me into a driveway and the garage door rolled open for us. I parked it and we sat there for a moment, not moving or talking. Then Keith scooted closer to me and reached an arm around my shoulder. My heart was thumping rapidly. His lips were about to touch mine when I leaned back and out of reach.
“I really want to kiss you right now, but I have a feeling that there’s a reason I shouldn’t. Someone I’m forgetting.”
He looked only a little hurt, like he had to consider that I was just saying it to let him down easy.
“Come on,” he said motioning with his head and we both got out of the car. He pushed a button on the wall and the garage door rolled noisily back down. He opened a door that led into the house and yellow light spilled out into the empty garage. It was inviting. Keith motioned for me to follow him inside.
* * *
The carpet was a dark brown and there was lots of dark wood trim along the walls of white stucco. We passed through a sparsely furnished living room and into a kitchen, where the light originated. There was a tile bar, and standing in the middle of the room was…Keith, or a man that looked just like him, except this version of him wasn’t flushed, or sweaty. This Keith looked particularly cool and calm standing in front of the fridge, watching us come in.
The original Keith nodded to the new Keith who was also distinguishable from the original because of his clothes. He wore blue nylon sweat pants with a white stripe up the sides and a matching sweat shirt that was open and revealed a white undershirt. His face was also cleanly shaved.
“Hey.” The new Keith greeted us both, returning the nod.
“This is my brother Richard.” Keith introduced us, “Richard this is Izz.”
Richard put out a hand and repeated my name with raised brows,
“Short for Isabel.” I told him shaking his hand. I found that while Keith excited me by feeling slightly repellent and jagged around the edges, Richard calmed me and drew me in like a magnet of opposite polarity.
“Nice to meet you,” He said.
“You too.” I smiled.
“You want to go swimming?” Keith asked me.
“You have a pool?”
“Sure.” I said, “I love to swim.”
“Let’s go then.” He said, “You coming?” he asked his brother.
“Maybe in a little bit.” Richard answered. His gaze was very steady, as absorbent as a sponge, unlike Keith, whose eyes shifted from one center of focus to the next abruptly.
I followed Keith into what appeared to be the master bedroom. Sliding glass doors opened to the yard and the pool was visible, lit from within. The bathroom sinks stood under an archway at a 90 degree angle from the glass doors.
“There it is.” Keith said and started to strip out of his dirty blue jeans and bright tropical shirt. I followed suit.
There we were, both completely nude. I was standing by the sink having just dropped my shorts around my ankles and he was standing across the room looking at me. His skin looked even redder, his eyes wide and wild. I gazed back at him feeling the entire surface of my body become electrified under his eyes. Then he closed the gap between us pressing his body against mine. I was backed up against the sink. He rubbed himself against the wetness between my legs and I gasped. Then we worked together so that I sat on the edge of the counter and he slipped inside of me. That nagging feeling that I was betraying someone lingered, but I pressed my body against his, grinding.
“Tell me when you’re going to cum.” I requested breathlessly. It seemed like he was about to and I worked myself eagerly against him. Then just when I thought one or both of us would, he started to shout about a dog and stepped back, pulling out of me abruptly. He tripped in my shorts and fell to the ground and thrashed a little, protecting his face, screaming for someone to get the dog off of him, except there was no dog.
I watched him, confounded. Richard strolled in carrying a steaming mug and took the whole scene in. I didn’t know if I was embarrassed or frightened or none of the above. If I had been alone with Keith, or if it had been someone other than Richard, I might have been both, but something in his demeanor, in his calm no nonsense acceptance of the scene put me at ease. That and the fact that he looked just like Keith with whom I had just briefly become so intimately acquainted.
“This happens to him sometimes.” Richard explained. I crossed the room to join him watching Keith’s spasms. The shouting was turning to murmuring and all in all he was calming down, though still obviously completely removed from our reality for the moment. Richard looked at me and handed me the mug. It was coffee with milk. I had the feeling it was something I hadn’t tasted for a very long time. A whole new ecstatic sensation to rival the one I’d been experiencing just moments ago gripped me as I sipped the hot elixir.
“So he’ll be okay?” I finally managed to ask.
“Yeah.” Richard answered. “Just give him time and he’ll come out of it on his own. I presume he asked you to drive him home?”
I nodded. Richard nodded too.
“He probably felt it coming on. You can imagine what would happen if he was driving when this happened to him. How did you meet?”
“At a salon.” I answered.
“Oh.” He said stonily, “So you’re a guerrilla too?”
“Not a resistance fighter? Then what were you doing at the salon? Looking for drugs? Coffee?” He nodded to the mug.
“Um.” I shuffled my feet feeling like a very little fly caught in an enormous web. “I was getting a hair cut.”
* * *
Richard slipped a pillow under his brother’s head and took me out to the yard. There he fired up the Jacuzzi and left me sitting at the edge with my feet warming in the water, sipping the coffee. He returned in a little while and sat beside me Indian style, keeping his clothes dry. When the water was warm enough I slipped in and he started the bubbles going. The weird scene from the bedroom was starting to melt away.
“So,” he said after a while, “If you’re not a guerrilla how do you know Dale? Why run around with Keith?”
“I met them both today. I really was just getting a hair cut.”
“I just find it a little strange,” Richard said, “that you would go to the Salon for a hair cut.”
“I just … well, you know, since the transition I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember my life on old Earth, I don’t remember who I was with yesterday, sometimes, like earlier today, I don’t even remember where I was five minutes ago, and I was standing in front of that place and I had the idea that maybe I’d come there for a haircut, so I went in.”
Just then my face felt really hot and the tears welled up in my eyes. Embarrassed. Most of the time I just dealt with my condition, made no bones about it. But now I felt ashamed and realized that it was because I wanted Richard to like me, rather silly considering that I probably wouldn’t remember him by tomorrow. I turned my face away to hide my tears and bit my lip.
“I get it.” Richard said simply and set his coffee cup down on the pocked concrete. “It’s like Keith. He started having the seizures after transition. A lot of people are messed up.”
“You?” I asked.
He shook his head,
“No. So far I’m okay, like everybody, my recollection of the days leading up to it and the actual transition is foggy, distorted, but otherwise I’m fine.”
“So are you a… uh…guerrilla?” I asked.
“No.” Richard said.
“But Keith is?”
“He’s like the leader of the Rebellion. He thinks that they’re feeding on us, keeping us like live stock. He believes that all of the neurological disorders are being … induced in us intentionally, to keep us docile, manageable.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
He shrugged. Then he looked at me dead on and when I held his gaze he said,
“I think he’s part right. I think the disturbances are induced, but not to keep us docile. Think about it. I don’t notice people turning up missing. You’d think they would if they were being consumed by the Lizzies. I think they feed on our emotions, on our confusion, our fear, our anger. I think the disorders help to generate a lot more of that than would be usual, even for a population of alien refugees. That’s why I’m not a guerrilla. I think that they’re basically doing something that the Lizzies approve of, getting riled up, setting off bombs… How would you know if you had killed a Lizzie anyway? I mean, those aren’t their own real bodies. They generate them in tanks, or at least so they say, and inhabit them to make us feel comfortable in their presence. So when you blow up the body, whose to say that would hurt the actual Lizzie that was using it? It’s like the old wives tale that you would die in reality if you died in a dream, it’s bullshit. I died in the dream and I’m still here.”
We were quiet for a while.
“I wish I’d be able to remember that tomorrow.” I said softly.
“Where will you be tomorrow?” he asked me.
“ I don’t know.” I said and the bubbles shut themselves off.
“You’ll be here.” He said suddenly, swiftly. “With us. And you might remember.”
I smiled feeling the sweetness of the offer fill me up.
* * *
The public pool was nestled in a cavern cut of black stone. Because it was a community structure it was policed by Lizzies wearing long black jackets and tall glossy boots. The look was completed by a hat with a visor, making the uniform evocative of that of an old earth motorcycle cop or a member of the ancient horror known as the Gestapo. Their presence in the suggestive uniforms was usually enough to send thugs elsewhere in search of quarry, to the abandoned commercial centers or heavily peopled apartment buildings. The area was lit with red and orange halogens and steam from the large Jacuzzi rose and circulated through the cavern keeping the atmosphere warm and moist.
I sat at the edge of the pool watching a school of Asian girls giggle and blow bubbles like sleek exotic fish. I could not remember what we were doing here, but I did at least recognize the man I was with. At least I almost did. It was either Richard or Keith, but because they were twins and I couldn’t remember how we got here, I couldn’t be sure which it was. He reached an arm around my waist and the calm coolness of the contact made me believe it was Richard. Hazily I recalled that we were here to meet someone. Keith?
I recognized the woman sitting on the other side of Richard too. Her long black curls lay over her shoulders like a lions mane. She wore a purple bikini. I couldn’t remember her name just then, but I knew she was my friend. Buffing her nails with a little file, she retold the plot of an old earth movie. Now and then I caught sight of the chewing gum being gnashed by her white teeth as she spoke.
My attention was drawn back to the Asian girls, giggling uncontrollably, blowing bubbles with their noses in the water. Suddenly a Lizzie was there to investigate their erratic behavior. He made an attempt to question the girls who could do little more than giggle louder. He dipped a finger into the water and brought it to his tongue for a taste. Instinctively I pulled my feet out and drew them close to my body.
“Cane.” He said to another Lizzie officer that stood by the main entrance. “They put cane in the water to get high, the whole pool’s contaminated.” Richard and I stood up backing away from the pool, doing our best to distance ourselves from the offenders. I wanted to leave but the other officer was bolting the door shut.
“Nobody leaves.” he announced to the crowd inside. No one was near the pool now except the quartet of young women. They were too out of their minds to notice that they were the center of attention. All exits were blocked and a third Lizzie rolled in a barred metal crate. He brought it to the edge of the pool and slid one end open, tilting the crate towards the water.
Something the size of two rottweilers splashed down into the pool. A Cleaner. It looked for all the world like a prehistoric ankylosaurus, but took to the water like a turtle. I knew they were used to clean the pools after hours. They filtered the water, deriving sustenance from the filth that was left behind, the dead skin, the hair, the microscopic bacteria … everything went in one end and came out the other as clean water. Now I watched the thing swimming eagerly towards the four girls. Horrified I realized what was about to happen. They were equipped to survive on slim picking’s but could handle much larger prey with the ferocity of a tiger shark. I rushed toward the door and pleaded with an impassive Lizzie to be let out.
“Nobody leaves.” Is all he said. Within moments the girls in the pool were shrieking in confusion and terror and pain as the water churned and turned red with blood. One girl had enough sense scared into her that she tried to clamber out of the pool. The Lizzie that had tasted the water booted her back in and she was the last to be devoured.
I hid my face in Richard’s naked chest. No one else made a sound. When I looked up again the pool looked sparklingly clean and the creature was crawling along the bottom attending no doubt to invisible morsels like the residual cane. The doors were opened and we were told,
“The pool will be closed for another 30 min. You may use the other facilities in the meantime.”
“Lets go.” I whispered to Richard
“We have to wait for Keith.” He told me, giving my hair a consoling stroke.
The Latina was sidling up to us, eyeing the Lizzies. Estelle. I remembered her name. We walked away from the pool, around the corner to the only window in Neopan. It was one of the few places people could go to catch a glimpse of the world beyond the catacombs we called home. The view wasn’t exactly pretty.
A glass window looked out over an immense raging gray sea. Lightening flashed like the licks of a whip striking the turbulent surface. Occasionally a leviathan would surface partially. I don’t know if a human has ever seen a whole leviathan. They were massive and were seen only in partial glimpses breaching, or fighting or possibly mating.
It was like the story about the blind men, each touching a different part of the elephant and describing it according to the fraction they had perceived. Everyone had a different vision of the leviathans. I thought they might be something like gargantuan bat rays based on what I could see now, but there was no way to get a full picture. Standing in front of the window I saw one fin rise out of the sea and felt the glass tremble from the terrific moan that rose from the water.
We watched the chaotic silver waves and the occasional slither of leviathan and the flash of the lightning.
“Has anyone ever been out there?” I asked.
“I heard there are ways down to the water, even though the Lizzies forbid it.” Estelle answered, “It’s for our safety. Those things out there would kill us.”
“Protecting us from Leviathans, just like they protect us from the cane.” I said absently. But suddenly the realization was dawning on me. If they didn’t want us taking cane or swimming in that maelstrom out there, there was a reason, but it had nothing to do with our safety.
“They’re for traveling. “ I said breathlessly. “That’s what they don’t want. They want to keep us here, they don’t want us transitioning again without them, away from them.”
Estelle and Richard stared at me and I stared out the window as some monstrous flash of steely flesh parted the frothing sea.
“I need to get outside. Close to a leviathan.”
* * *
Dale led the way down the dark winding passage, illuminating our path with a small oil burning lantern. I followed and Keith and Richard and Estelle were close behind. Nobody said a word, but I could feel the doubt passing between us all like an air born disease. The sound of surf found its way to our ears and soon we rounded a bend and were blinded by the glow of a sleet colored sky and white crested waves pounding a narrow rocky shore.
We gathered at the mouth of the tunnel, shivering in the salty air, feeling suddenly alive and refreshed. In a line we stood there, eyes adjusting, butterflies fluttering in our stomachs. I tip toed towards the water and Richard reached out and grabbed my arm to stop me. I looked at him and he swallowed hard. Then, slowly he released me and we all waded into the choppy swell.
The sea alone should have killed us, the way it tossed us around like little black ants in our wet suits. I swallowed briny water, felt it stinging my nose and throat. The hand of the sea pushed me down below the surface into its wet bosom. My friends were torn away from me, scattered in the watery maelstrom. The Leviathans came, two of them, aggravating the icy waters and birthing chaos in their wake.
Estelle was brilliant. I watched her manage to get up on a leviathan’s back and stand for a while like a surfer. A beautiful wind blown Venus risen from the sea. Then she fell and the Leviathan opened its enormous mouth, wide and round as an eclipsed sun, and she disappeared into the darkness, carried on a silver wave’s crest like Pinocchio into the Maestro.
Shock rippled through me. I had imagined somehow, that they would be gentle, like blue whales. The enemy of my enemy must be my friend. Like the contraband coffee that cleared the cobwebs from my mind. Like the cane that made people feather light and fancy free. They must be the final key.
A monster was bearing down on me though I paddled toward the white cliffs. I cried panic stricken, sobbing, swallowing the sea, picturing Estelle disappearing into the Leviathan’s maw. Why hadn’t it worked? Why couldn’t Estelle master the beast and set us all free?
Estelle, the star, the center. I had to be the star, the center of gravity, the point of convergence. I was the only one who could do it. I couldn’t expect any one else to obtain my liberation for me. I was the one. Stopping my furious dog paddling I turned to face the thing that was coming, its mouth wide open, a black hole, a collapsing solar entity drawing me in. Death. The womb. My ancient mother, the abyss, unchanging, eternal.
As I was swallowed once again I knew we had never left old earth. We had perished in a blinding flash, and yet we still were. I could not now die in the belly of this beast. Darkness would devour me. I would still be. I might forget what had happened to me, where I had been, who I had been with. I might forget them all, just as I had forgotten the family I had sat down to dinner with on old earth before the light engulfed me and my body burned away. Still I would exist.
“I died in the dream and I am still here.”
No one could ride the Leviathan in my place. If I wanted liberation, illumination, then I would have to be my own star born from darkness. Tumbling, laughing, turning inside out in the belly of the Maestro, my own self, I need not seek the protection of any big brother, the familiarity of a new shade of Earth, a further derivative of Neopan. I need not fall to the next point of convergence, the next easy dream in a desperate measure to escape the unending void that holds me in its suffocating embrace. I am becoming. Swallowing myself. My own center of gravity. A new heart of darkness expanding in every direction.