Edition 7: A Minor System by W. B. Stickel
Roger has the perfect life: loving wife, a writing career to envy and a loveable dog. Kept awake one night by stranger and stranger occurrences, he might find out that his life is not what he thinks. SY
The music was faint but definitely there, a droning whisper floating through the cool desert night.
“You hear that, El?” Roger Macklin said to his wife, Ellen, who lay next to him in bed, naked but for the thin satin sheet covering her. He glanced over to see what she thought but found that she was fast asleep.
“Sorry, honey,” he whispered.
Cringing, but glad he hadn’t woken her—she’d pulled a double at The Copper Queen in Bisbee earlier and deserved a decent night’s rest—he moved his attention to the bedroom’s open window and listened closer to the sound, curious if he could place its origin.
It was hard to say due to its faintness, but Roger had the feeling it was coming from one of the ranches that neighbored his property. Neither place was close, but sounds had a devilish way of traveling great distances in the desert, especially at night, and Roger wouldn’t have put it past old Benny Macklin putting on another one of his big summer bashes.
Benny, Benny, he thought, shaking his head. Didn’t even send us an invite.
Content he’d gotten to the bottom of this little mystery, Roger moved his gaze down to his laptop and eyed the document he had open on the screen.
The document was the sixth chapter of his current novel, The Longest Detour, which was actually a reworking of a novel he’d written as a teen but had scrapped after determining it sucked ass. He’d returned to it in recent months because, after churning out five lengthy novels in five years, he’d found himself creatively drained and unable to think of anything else new to write. An admittedly cheap ploy, but as it turned out the concept proved far better than he remembered, and once he got into a good rhythm, refinement came easy.
“All right,” he said with a sigh, “where was I?” Finding his place, he returned his fingers to the keyboard and began tapping away.
At a good stopping point forty minutes later, Roger saved his latest updates and glanced over at the bedroom window again. The music, he noted, was still there, droning away. It seemed a bit louder now, though.
He supposed Benny could have simply cranked the music a little, yet for some reason he didn’t think this was so. To him it didn’t just feel louder, but closer. Which meant it wasn’t coming from Benny’s after all. More likely, he now thought, it was coming from a vehicle parked up on North Juniper, the small road he technically lived on but which actually sat a quarter-mile away from his valley homestead. There were several “scenic overlooks” up there where teens from nearby Bisbee and Sierra Vista oftentimes gathered to hang out, listen to music, and get high. It was conceivable the sound was issuing from a car that had moved from one such overlook to a nearer one.
If this happened to be the case, teens listening to music, Roger didn’t much mind. He’d lived it up as a youth, why shouldn’t they? As long as they didn’t decide to venture down the access road to his property, they could have all the fun they wanted.
Of more concern to him was the type of music they were playing. Being of a slightly archaic generation—Generation X they’d called it back in high school—he was curious to see if he could place, at the very least, its genre.
Come on, Rog, he thought, ears keying into the sound. You can do it.
While it was still hard to make out, he was pretty sure it wasn’t rock or country. Nor was it jazz or blues. It had more of an electronic, repetitive feel to it. Industrial, perhaps. Like Ministry or Nine Inch Nails. Or some arcane offshoot of techno ….
“Dammit,” he whispered, nettled that he couldn’t quite tell. Figuring an Oreo or two might help him think more clearly, Roger got out of bed and wandered towards the kitchen. In the hall just outside his bedroom he found Bentley, his six year old chocolate Lab, sprawled out across the cool tile floor.
“Hey, pup,” he said, kneeling down to pet the old boy.
The dog’s heavy tail shot up and down, thumping hard against the floor.
Roger patted his furry head, then stood. “You hear that?” he said of the music, which he could still hear. “It’s not just me, right?”
For an instant Bentley’s ears perked up like radar dishes, then went floppy again. His dark brown eyes connected with Roger’s and he wagged his tail, almost apologetically. I’m rorry, raster. I ron’t rear ruffin’.
“Hmm,” Roger said.
Deciding he really wasn’t in the mood for cookies, he grabbed a Milkbone from the treat jar in the living room and gave it to Bentley. Bentley held it in his mouth and considered eating it in the hall but instead followed Roger into the bedroom. Had Ellen been awake Roger would have forbade him from entering the room; Bentley was a messy eater and his crumbs drove Ellen nuts. Since she was asleep, Roger let him be.
“A secret for us guys,” he murmured to the dog.
Back under the sheets, Roger repositioned his laptop on his lap and ran back over what he’d last written. It was a dialogue scene, which was perfect, as dialogue scenes were always the easiest for him to get back into. As he started to type, though, he realized he was all tapped out for the day and shut the computer down.
After sliding the device under the bed, he rummaged a hand through the nightstand’s top drawer for his most recent literary purchase: a yellowing, old copy of Matheson’s Bid Time Return. As a kid, he’d been a big fan of the Christopher Reeve movie Somewhere In Time and was elated when he stumbled across the book version at the Sierra Vista flea market earlier in the week.
Finding it atop a pile of other such second hand treasures—Bradbury’s Farewell Summer, Niven’s Ringworld, and Vinge’s The Snow Queen—Roger flipped the book open to the beginning and began reading. Beside him, Bentley snuffled and licked his chops, indicating he wanted another treat. When Roger didn’t take the hint, the dog edged up close to the bed and nudged Roger’s elbow.
“Not a bleeding chance there, Mr. Twist,” Roger whispered, nodding across the room to the dog’s big fluffy bed. “Time for bed now. Get.”
Bentley glanced at the bed, snuffled again, and skulked over to it.
Just then the music loudened threefold. Roger flinched at the abrupt increase and dropped his book onto the floor. “What the hell?”
It sounded now like it was coming from somewhere on his property, like the hypothetical car at the overlook had gone and descended his long driveway. Galled, Roger switched off the nightstand’s lamp and peered at the bedroom window. Once his eyes adjusted to the dark he was able to see vague moonlit shapes beyond the window frame: his Tundra parked in the driveway; the cluster of cacti growing in the front yard. But no signs of another vehicle’s headlights.
Roger frowned, and as he did the music jumped yet another decibel. It was undeniably electronic, Roger mused. Industrial-ish, yes, but nothing like anything Trent Reznor or Al Jourgensen had ever conceived. It was too chaotic and rhythmless, even for them.
A heavy unease settled over Roger. He switched the lamp back on, leaned over to Ellen and shook her shoulder. Ellen murmured something but didn’t budge.
“Honey, wake up,” Roger said. He went to shake her again but her skin seemed to change under his palm, going from soft and warm to cold and rubbery.
“Ellen?” he said.
A dizzying moment passed, then the black dots began appearing. At first Roger thought he was imagining it, but the dots—perfect circles the size of dimes—continued popping up, covering his hand and arm and moving up to his shoulder. Roger let out a whimper as they spread across his chest, and down his abdomen. He tore the sheet off his lower body and looked in horror as a hive of them extended to the halfway point of his left thigh. He checked his right leg but saw none there. As for his pelvic region, he squeamishly lifted his underwear’s elastic band and peeked at his genitals. The dots were there too.
“Jesus!” he said, as his mind worked to manufacture a reasonable explanation. He’d have said rash or infection but the dots were perfectly round and nature didn’t roll that way. He supposed it might’ve been a dream, except what he was experiencing was far too vivid and real. What the hell then? Am I losing it?
“No,” he told himself, knowing full well that, despite what Hollywood would have him believe, nobody ever went from completely sane to Daffy-Duck bananas in one fell swoop. There were stages.
The music heightened once more and Roger was certain it now was coming from right outside his bedroom window. Bewildered and scared, Roger looked at Bentley, wanting to cling to his good friend, but the dog appeared to be lost in some blissful doggie slumber.
“Bentley!” Roger hissed. “Bentley, boy! Look at me!”
Finally the dog’s head jerked up and his eyes found Roger’s. He wagged his tail twice. Roger blinked, and next he knew the dog was sitting beside the bed, chomping on a Milkbone.
“How’d you—” Roger started to say when the music spiked a fifth time, cutting him off.
Wildly Roger glanced about, trying to make sense what was happening. His gaze eventually returned to the black circles on his belly and as he studied them the notion of infection resurfaced. What if somehow it was an infection? Was it also contagious? He looked at Ellen and slowly lifted the sheet. He searched her over, but thankfully didn’t see any on her.
“Baby!” he shouted, to no effect. “Baby wake up!”
As if in response, the music jumped again, rising to a full-on cacophony. Its intensity hurt his eardrums. “What is going on?!” Roger yelled, clapping his palms over his ears.
It was then that the first hole materialized.
At least that’s what Roger’s brain interpreted the thing to be: a hole. In reality it was a jagged, dark-grey patch of air above Bentley’s bed, what looked like a large perforation in the canvass of an otherwise perfect painting, revealing a different painting underneath. Except there was depth to this perforation, within which thin wisps of smoke danced and swirled.
He’d barely processed the hole’s existence when eight more like it broke out across the room. Inside these he discerned things stranger than smoke. Within the one on the far wall, he saw what appeared to be a long row of steel tables upon which lay other naked bodies riddled with small black dots. Through the bigger one hanging in front of the bedroom window he observed a tall stone cylinder imbued with colorful flashing shapes.
Easily the most unnerving of the lot, however, was the hole to his right, which completely blotted out Ellen’s head.
“Ellen?” he said, disheartened by the sight.
Hoping beyond hope it was just a hallucination, a flashback from his LSD days in college, he reached his hand towards the hole. Into the dark-grey it went, delving into the space where her head should have been.
Ellen’s body trembled as his hand went further and further and she turned on her side, facing away from him.
Trembling himself, Roger retracted his arm and started to get up. The appearance of a new hole over his lower body stopped him. In this one lay a most baffling vision—a set of male hips complete with penis and testicles, and pair of stumpy legs. One of the legs, the left, extended down to a kneecap and then ended. The right ended just beyond the hip. On a primordial level, Roger understood that they were his.
Movement to his left brought his eyes to another gaping hole that hung in front of his dresser. Inside it, something was moving. Something shrub-like in shape with a rock-encrusted exterior and an exhumed set of roots that whipped and rippled Just as Roger knew the stumps were his own, he knew that this shape was a living being with intellect. It approached the hole from the other side, and as it did a slew of new holes materialized, followed by more and more, and soon there was nothing left of Roger’s bedroom.
In the room’s place stood a large, dimly lit chamber with hundreds of steel tables, including the one upon which Roger was propped. Plus the tall cylinder and several more of the shrub-like creatures—the one to Roger’s left and three others huddled around the cylinder. The one to his left gravitated closer and stopped next to Roger’s table. It must have stood seven feet tall.
“What are you?!” Roger shouted.
The shrub thing’s limbs swayed and a stream of words suddenly flittered through his head. Please do not be afraid. We are not your enemy.
Roger flinched. “Was that…you?” he yelled.
More words flittered. Yes. It is the easiest way for us to communicate.
All at once the crazy music sound ceased, replaced by a portentous silence.
“I don’t understand,” Roger blubbered.
We know. We are sorry. We did not mean for this to happen.
“For what to happen?” Roger said.
A failure of a minor system. Our engineers are working to correct it.
Roger peered at the tall cylinder and noticed the three other creatures were shuddering as they attended to it. Their shuddering seemed to have an effect on the lit shapes, making them flicker in random patterns and colors.
“What are they doing?” Roger queried.
Repairing the failed system. Do not worry. They have located the problem. Very soon all will be as you know it.
“What’s that mean?” Roger demanded. “Where am I? What is this place?”
You would call this place a hospital. There was an accident. We conducted an experiment on your atmosphere. It caused a great fire. Most of your people perished. We did not intend to harm your world. We only wished to study it.
A voltaic sensation whirred in Roger’s head and several alternate memories flashed before his mind’s eye. He remembered that he was a truck driver, not an author, and lived in crappy trailer in an even crappier trailer park. He remembered that he and Ellen had divorced because neither of them could stay faithful while he was on the road. He remembered her visiting the trailer the day of the great inferno. They’d been sitting on the trailer’s rickety steps, discussing how they wished they’d done things differently, when the sky turned a pretty shade of pink and then burst into flames. From the flames a lethal hail of meteor-like streaks rained down. One of which landed in the trailer park. He remembered the explosion, watching Ellen’s body combust. And then nothing.
“Everything was destroyed,” Roger said. He looked at the multitudes of other tables. The injured humans, like him. He glanced to his right. About ten feet away was similar table holding a man with no arms. The rest of him was covered in black dots. “What are those?”
Sensory interfaces, the creature explained. To enhance the illusion we created for your resting vessels until we have completed restoration.
A high pitched sound resonated from the cylinder. Roger saw that the thing was spinning now, and its shapes were blinking erratically. The three creatures standing near it backed away. The spinning got faster and faster until the multicolored lights fused together and became one solid bright white light. The light filled the dark chamber and Roger could feel sleep coming on.
Please do not hate us. The illusion is the best we can offer until we fix the damage we caused. We hope one day to make amends. We hope to earn your friendship. Sleep well Roger Holden.
Roger tried to tell the creature not to count on human forgiveness, but his eyes closed before he could and the illusion reformed itself around him.
Roger sat up in bed, pulse pounding, eyes squinting at the glow from the nightstand’s lamp. Nebulous wisps of the dream he’d been having ebbed and flowed like a brackish tide along the shores of his psyche. Something weird about the world having gone wrong somehow.
Unable to grasp any solid details, he leaned back against the headboard and groaned. “Stupid dream.”
He looked down at his lap and saw that his laptop was still perched there. Drifted off while I was writing, he thought. Glad he hadn’t knocked it onto the floor, he saved document he was working on and flipped the screen shut. He set on the nightstand, then gazed over at Ellen, who dozed quietly beside him. The sight of her there was a relief to him, though he couldn’t fathom why it would be.
A snuffling noise from across the room drew Roger’s attention to Bentley’s bed, where the old pup lay on his side, paws twitching as he dreamed of God-knew-what. He smiled at this. Bentley was a good boy and a good friend. He was lucky to have him, and Ellen, in his life.
Feeling slightly euphoric, Roger glanced at Ellen, then back at Bentley, then shut off the nightstand lamp and eased his head onto his pillow.
What a stupid, silly dream he’d been having, he thought. Why he’d even be dreaming something like that—the world going wrong—he couldn’t imagine. He had the perfect wife, the perfect dog, the perfect career.
What could have possibly been wrong with the world?
W.B. Stickel lives in upstate New York with his wife and three kids. He works as a computer geek for the Air Force by day and writes as much as life permits at night. He has had stories published in numerous magazines and anthologies and is working on his first novel. He belongs to a wonderful writers group called the CNY Writers Café, loves speculative fiction in the short form and is deathly afraid of Teletubbies.