The Strange – Episode 8 – Boom! Part 2

“And keep them up!” The officer held his gun out in front, pointed at Goldberg.

Goldberg complied on reflex, but felt foolish. The clock ticked down in the color that was not a color and the survivability map started to get much more definite between life and death. There were only thirty seconds left.

Above the officer, in the rafters, things were in motion. Set off by Goldberg’s seemingly futile attempt to save the wooden puzzle ball a battery powered lantern now rocked on its side. The canoe paddle that had hit it wobbled on the floor behind the officer’s heels. The lantern caught the lip of the rafter, and started to fall. It did not get far before the rope entangled in its handle brought its decent almost to a stop.  Almost.

“What are you doing here, Mr. Goldberg!” Officer Small demanded, sounding panicky.

“You know, I was just asking myself the same question.” His hands had gone from signaling surrender to pleading his case.

The cop stuck his gun out and looked down the sight at the movement. “Hands up I said!” As he moved forward he got a better look at Goldberg. “Who is the guy downstairs?”

“His name is Bill and no, I… He was like that when I came in. Can’t believe it. Aren’t you going to ask about the bomb?”

“What bomb?”

The lantern pulled on the rope, slowly pulling the weight on the other end, which turned out to be the canoe full of camping gear. The big canoe slid across the rafters, to the point where the curve at the end of the boat started to make the going easier.

“What b… The bomb I warned you about. You didn’t see the big bomb? Size of a couple a trashcans? And who the hell runs TOWARDS someone shouting about a bomb anyway?”

Officer small shook his gun and said, “I’m the one asking the questions, son! Now turn around!”

He complied. There really wasn’t much choice.

The canoe had now moved to a point where it was unstable in the rafters. The end near Goldberg crashed down onto the monitors, still set up on the desk. But now the canoe was unstable the other way and the other end slid off of its perch in the ceiling pulling on the rope with the camping lantern on the end.

“What in the world?”

The rope holding the lantern raced in reverse as the canoe and everything in it plummeted towards the floor. Only instead of going up and over the rafter that held the rope, it wrapped around it, snaring the rope taught.

The canoe stopped its downward fall and instead became a pendulum, swinging at the end of the rope. With one end still up on the desk, it came down like a battering ram. It slammed into Officer Small not with speed, but with the force of everything you need to survive a week out in the woods, knocking him backwards and his gun out of his hands. He tripped on the canoe paddle and went headlong into the window.

The window broke several spots. The man was stunned and disarmed.  He had also stumbled into a zone that the power had labeled “Ouch, but not dead.” He was now in one of the few zones in the house where one would survive the impending bomb. Goldberg somehow knew all this without having to turn around.

‘Ok. So, that is the kind of force it takes to break the glass. Can we go now?’ the power asked while highlighting the rope.

“Still with the rope?” The math of the situation, given the few seconds left, answered the question for him. “This super sucks”.

The sprint was not graceful. It looked more like a fall than a run, but it took Goldberg across the ten feet and he didn’t want to give the officer a chance to react. Without slowing he ran into the little alcove of the dumbwaiter track and stepped onto the underside of the chair. It twisted as it descended and Goldberg could clearly see the officer still stunned in the safe zone near the damaged window. Though he was now a fugitive, at least he wasn’t a cop killer. Now all he had to do was save his own ass… in four point five seconds.

He shot down the dusty shoot slower than a free fall, but not by much. Unlike the trip up, he noticed the rope to the counterweight in a little track near the wall. He wondered how the pots and pans that had so nearly brained him on his way up would get past both him and the desk chair.

They weren’t. The power instantly brought up the schematic of the chute and the chances of the pans clearing the chair.

“Oh crap!” he thought. “I’m going to get stuck!” The power showed the unseen counterweight coming up and Goldberg braced himself.

It hit with a muffled clang, but except for the initial jerk, the chair didn’t stop. Goldberg eyed the rope as best he could in the darkness and saw it still moving and now waving around. He realized that the counterweight had come free and he was now falling!

He grabbed for the counterweight rope with his free right hand, but missed. As he continued to fall, the chair starting to tumble under him, he tried once more. This time, he caught the rope and managed to hold on over the protests of his shoulder and the skin on his palm. The jarring jerk knocked his glasses from his face and sent them spinning into the newly blurry darkness.

“Ah fuck!”

The rope slowed and then it started to reverse until the bottom of the chair came up and slapped the bottom of his feet. He grabbed at that other rope and hung, swinging in the narrow chute. He sighed, happy to be safe from his free fall.

Goldberg’s new found power burst into his mind, making everything red. “The bomb!” he thought. “OK, so how do I get out now?”

The power replied that it didn’t think he was coordinated enough to catch that rope and displayed the full scenario of his intended escape. He was to have fallen another four feet where the chair would have gotten stuck and he would have fallen out back in the kitchen. From there, he would have three seconds to run out the front door. It added that he had only a twenty percent chance of making that catch.

He swung by the rope in the cramped darkness and said, “Fuck!”

The concussion from the bomb pressed on every part of his body simultaneously. He didn’t hear the boom, but he did notice that he was being shot backward where a brick wall should have been. He had one last sensation of being pressed between two massive objects before his whole world went blood red.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Tight red cotton fought to contain creamy globes of tan flesh as they bounced to the rhythm of a woman’s hips. The chest they rode rose and fell as the buxom Polynesian woman spouted a random stream of crazy and prophetic words. Dan could sense the perspiration that pooled between the young woman’s breasts and the pheromone rich smell invited him even further down into their depths.

Snapping back, he shook his head. He felt as if he had been looking at the short, curvy woman’s cleavage from less than a foot away. Now as he looked back he saw the girl with short, red-dyed hair walking down the street from at least as far away as the tower’s sixty foot height.

“Ah. Checking out the talent.” Luxury Automobile smiled at him, sitting next to him on the scaffold. “What the hell is she going on about now?” The warm light of morning shot through the green beer bottle as he took a long pull. “Sounds crazy!”

Dan’s eyes stuck out of his head and an almost imperceptible drool welled at the corner of his mouth. “I’d hit that in a second.”

“You’d have to wait in line behind me, Junior. Too bad the girl don’t have it together enough for that. Seen her around last few days.” Still shaking his head, he said, “Sad, man.”

“I’d still hit that in a second. Hell, the crazier they are the crazier they are. Know what I mean?”

Suddenly, a large explosion ripped through the tree canopy that covered most of the town. In the distance branches flew up, carried on the hot wind of a fireball. Multiple explosions blew the flames higher and higher as the smoke began to curl in the morning breeze.

Dan looked at the explosion and could see a policeman being blown up and out of the top story. His arms and legs flailed as if he was trying to fly and not doing well.

From down below, the girl screamed “The noise! The buzz! It’s all around! It’s NNNNNnnnnnnnnggggghhhhHHHHHHH!!!!!” and ran off.

“Whoa! Damn! Did you see that?”

Luxury Automobile looked at Dan and said, “Yeah. You are right, this view is great! Now that was crazy!” The unlikely pair wore funny smiles from their morning beer buzz as they toasted the explosion’s spectacle.

“And with the cop flying out of the house? Did you see that? Damn, must be a movie or something.” He could hear a symphony of car alarms going off all over the city.

The old, black street musician looked at him funny. “You have been drinking too much. I didn’t see shit but the big explosion. The big explosion, miles across town!”

He looked at his beer and assessed the state of his buzz. “Yeah, well… Maybe I’m just daydreaming. You know, about blowing up The Man. But damn! That explosion was so big I could feel it from here!”

Dan took a sip of his beer and was a little more thoughtful. His early smile went away. “I wonder if anyone died or anything. That was seriously fucked up.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah Winter bolted awake as the explosion’s shock wave rattled through Goldberg’s duplex. She looked around in a daze and wondered what had made such a huge noise and where on earth she was.

A large, gray cat sat in the doorway and watched her as she got out of bed. His large yellow eyes shined as he stared at her. Another cat came and sat next to the first. This cat was small and white with icy blue eyes that seemed to question her. “What are you looking at?” she said. They both tilted their heads simultaneously which brought a lopsided grin to her face. “Ok. Wherever I am, there are cats.”

The tall, thin girl stumbled into the bathroom and gasped at her reflection. It was her sister’s face. Though she was an identical twin, she was sure it was her sister’s face.

From deep within her, raw emotion bubbled up. It caught in her throat and, inexplicably, she began to scream.

“AAAAAHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhh”

Joy Winter jumped out of her sister’s bed a few blocks away, pulling the thin blanket as she went. Modesty made her cover as much of her naked body as she could. She screamed in shock at the unexpected man in her bed.

Teague London jumped from the bed and stood in his boxer briefs with his hands out.

“Damn! What the hell? Whoa, honey. What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Teague! Ge… GET SOME CLOTHES ON! Where is Sarah? Where’s Goldberg?!” She looked around the room in a panic.

“Gold…?” Teague’s face screwed up in a questioning scowl. “You mean nerd boy? Sarah, what are you talkin’ about?”

The girl in the covers puzzled. She started to open her mouth, and then stopped. Words seemed to find her and she said, “I’m not Sarah, I’m Joy!”

Teague came towards her with a frightened and concerned look on his face. His eyes were wide and contrasted sharply with his dark brown skin. “Come on now. This has to be some kind of sleep walkin’ thing. You are Sarah. I’m sure of it. Come on baby. Snap out of it.”

She whispered, “Teague?” and collapsed in to a heap of young woman and satin sheets.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Goldberg came crashing through a wall accompanied by newly loosened bricks and flame. He smashed into something soft and tumbled with it away from the pile of debris.

“This bursting through a wall thing is getting old,” he thought. “And something smells like a sweat sock.”

Lifting his head, he got a blurry look at the fat, round face of a young woman. To his shock, he realized that he was planted squarely between her large, naked breasts. The two strangers were intimately positioned and the force of Goldberg’s arrival had flung the fat girl’s robe open. From somewhere in the small apartment he could hear a coffee maker spitting and he knew how it felt.

“Uh, Hi?”

The young woman screamed in horror. “Get OFF me!”

A loud low boom shook the building and shot dust, flame, and debris through the hole. By reflex the young blonde man went to cover the fat woman only to be beaten off in a flurry of fists and curses.

“OW! Hey! Damn!” He put his arms across his face to protect himself as he leaned back. “Knock it off! Do you have any idea what kind of morning I’m having?”

“No! Don’t care!  get out!” she shouted, getting up and fixing her robe.

Boom! Another collapse from the former row house shook the building. They both steadied themselves and the girl’s robe popped open again. In Goldberg’s eyes there was trouble.

“And that was the super structure giving way,” he said, his new sight giving him a probable picture of the ruined buildings disposition. He’d given up on thinking it was a hallucination and trusted its input. “We have got to go.”

The woman gaped at the hole that once was her living room wall and nodded. Turning back to Goldberg, her eyes then went wide with shock. She grabbed a rolled up newspaper and ran towards him holding it like a club.

Goldberg’s hands shot up to protect his face, but instead the much shorter girl ran behind him and batted at the back of his head. “Your hair is on fire!”

“Oh” he responded flatly. Then the thought clicked in and he shouted, “Oh shit! Put it out! Is it out?”

Coming around to face him she said, “Yeah, but…” Her voice trailed as she examined his face with more scrutiny than is usually permissible in polite society.

His hands went up to the top of his head and swept down through the charred mess in the back. “Oh, man!”

The girl unrolled the newspaper and held it up. She looked from it to Goldberg and said, “You are Ryan Goldberg.”

“OK, now how do you know…” Another rumble from the structure next door cut him off. “You need to get dressed. We’ve got to leave.” He reflexively tapped into his new power and it put up a countdown timer. “You’ve got three minutes. Is there anyone else in this building?”

She dropped the newspaper and ran into the back. “No. I’m the only tenant for the summer. Kinda creepy actually.” She dropped the newspaper and trotted through a door. “Uh… what the hell is a lottery winner doing bursting through my living room wall?”

“Less talking more dressing.” Without his glasses, the paper on the floor was just a gray blur, but his new power told him of a very strong relationship to himself. He picked it up and brought it inches from his face where he could read. He found himself staring at his own face. There on the front page under the headline ‘Local Student Wins Big’ was the goofy picture from his staff badge.

“Ah crap.”

His power spilled a quick message across the page. Likelihood of being recognized by random strangers: 35% and rising.

He looked into the blurry kitchenette. His power filled in some of the details. Coffee brewed. A full bag of bagels sat on the counter. According to the timer, he had enough time to get his morning jolt if he took it to go. “Hey, how do you take your coffee?”

“What? Bitter and pale. Why?”

To himself he muttered, “So, sorta like you, in other words,” and grabbed four oversized mugs from the cabinet.

“What?” She said over the now audible fire.

He got the milk from her refrigerator and sniffed it. “I said one minute. Let’s go! And how old are these bagels?”

“Well aren’t you pushy! Yesterday… Bagels are from yesterday.”

“Great.” He poured some milk into a mug, capped it and put it in the bag with the bagels. He found a tub of cream cheese already out and dropped it in as well. “Thirty seconds. Don’t forget your wallet.”

“Can’t find my keys!”

“Fuck ’em. Let’s boogie.” He held the newspaper in his armpit and grabbed all four mugs by their handles. The coffee maker wasn’t quite done with the brew cycle, but he pulled the almost full pot away anyway leaving the rest to drip down and hiss on the hot plate.

The girl came out of the back room just as Goldberg was rounding the counter, laden with breakfast and heading toward the door.

“What are you…”

He opened the door with the hand that held the bag and kicked it open with his heel. When she didn’t immediately go through he lifted his long leg and half-kicked, half-scooped her into the hallway.

“Hey!”

“Bitch later! Go!” Panic rose in his voice. The clock in Goldberg’s head was almost at zero. They had to go down a flight of stairs and through a few feet of lobby before they were safe. “Go! Go!”

He followed the girl down the stairs and once they were at the bottom, he kept pushing her with his body. The numbers that his head scrawled across the pavement outside showed a clear line between “Probably Unsafe” and “Probably Safe” and he made sure they were over it before stopping.

“Hey! quit fucking pushing…” She turned to shove him back but her eyes shot up at the building. Behind Goldberg’s back, the three story building started to melt like an ice cream cake in the hot Florida sun. It slumped in, first from the side that it shared with the now fully destroyed and on fire row house, then from the core of the building itself. It seemed to go in slow motion, the front face of the building twisting inward and downward, the floors sliding onto and over one another. The top floor and roof slid on top of the other two and slid into the inferno of the row house while the rest just crumbled into the most relaxed position it could find.

Goldberg and the girl stood just outside the perimeter of falling debris and flames, awestruck at the devastation and washed over by dust. He bumped her with the bag and she let out a quick whimper.

“Come on, we should probably back up.”

“My home,” she said as sand and grit from the building rained down on them.

The shock on her face was evident, even without his glasses. “Here, take this.” He handed her the mug with the milk in it. She took it absently and he awkwardly poured in some coffee from the pot held in the same arm as the bag of bagels. “What’s your name.”

She looked up, mouth still open, and said, “Molly.”

He brightened for her sake. “Molly, I’m Goldberg. Good to meet you. Now let’s back up before something else decides to fall on us. Ok?”

“Uh, Ok.” She wandered back into the crowd that had started to gather and he directed her towards the lie of their own long morning shadows and his apartment.

They walked in silence, past a squat, muscular man taking pictures with his cell phone. Goldberg felt cold and twisted, like black licorice. This morning had started so well.

As they left the growing crowd behind, Molly said, “Hey…Thanks for saving my life, I guess.”

“It’s the least I could do. You saved me a trip to the bagel place. It’s madness this time of day. A real death trap.”

The Strange – Episode 9 – So … how was your morning? Part 1

The Strange – Episode 7 – Boom! Part 1

There was a sound and a color that the danger made for Goldberg in what he now fervently hoped was his hallucination. It painted the kitchen and his mind buzzed with its inaudible sound. While not as complex and overwhelming as the apparition outside on the sidewalk, it was far more annoying and far less benign.

‘Ok, knock it off!’ He thought to himself. To his surprise, it faded into the background. ‘Better. This seeing things bit is really getting old. I wish I could just hear voices like normal crazy people.’

Inside his mind, he heard ‘Likelihood that you are crazy, indeterminate.’

His brow creased to the point of touching the bridge of his glasses. ‘Great. Going to die crazy.’

‘Likelihood of fatality 3% and climbing. Entirely dependent on you, dude.’

He considered sighing, but remembered the cop just beyond the door. Instead he scanned the room.

‘OK, well, how the hell am I getting out of here?’

The voice in his head said, ‘At a full run in a straight line you will be four hundred and thirty two feet from the bomb at the time of the explosion.’

‘Helpful to know, but the only way I have to run is either past or through Officer Small out there. Really, I need to get upstairs. The fricking hallucination pointed to… Hey! What’s upstairs?’

‘Insufficient data. Upstairs is the focal point for the pattern of the papers in the other room.’ As the voice said this, Goldberg could see the skeletal outline of the pages and the up and down pattern that swirled up and back over his head. it was like being able to see through the wall and the ceiling up into the unknown.

‘How is it that I can, you know, see that?’ He thought.

The voice in his head replied, ‘I am able to pull in information relating to relationships based upon the current state and make predictions based upon actions conferred to that state.’

‘Wait, what? Who are you?’

‘I am you. I am Ryan Goldberg. I am allowing myself to question in such a manner in order to keep the information manageable as I know all the current states and probabilities of relationship. Such raw information, unfettered would be incapacitating.’

Silence filled his mind as that piece of information set in. After a few moments, the voice in his head interrupted him. ‘Probability of fatality now rising to 5%.’

‘Yeah, fine.’ He barked to himself. ‘Just tell me how much time I’ve got left before the bomb goes off. Every thirty seconds. And give me a timer I can see.’ He was no longer amazed that it did exactly that.

‘Now how do I get upstairs from here? There has got to be something there.’

‘Present state holds that there is an office with furniture. Also the rafters hold an assortment of camping gear and a large unused space.’

‘So, boring shit.’

‘No indication of interest based upon state.’

‘Fucking Bill!’ He looked at the surprised corpse. ‘What on earth is so important up there that you had to make some freaky looking arrow out of your living room to point it out? Ok, but how to get up there without the cop stopping me to play twenty questions?’

The voice took this as a command and blurred for a bit. When it came back, a plan clearly presented itself to Goldberg. It wasn’t spoken to him or shown to him but he just knew it. The physical things that the plan required glowed in the color that was not there.

‘You are fucking kidding me.’ He looked at the decrepit dumbwaiter frame near the blocked back door. Moving aside a flimsy panel, he found what the vision had told him he would find, two ropes. Actually, it was one rope, bent in half over a distant pulley at the top of the dark shaft. He looked up the shaft and even though his vision told him where the pulley was, way up the two and a half by three foot shaft, to his regular eyes it was nothing but dark and narrow. ‘You are fucking kidding me.’

He stopped gaping and started to assemble his ad-hoc machine. ‘If I’m going to die, I’d best do it quickly,’ He thought. Moving around the heaviest pots and pans silently required a very soft touch, but he managed to tie them all together and attach the whole thing to the rope. He quietly put the pile of pots and pans through the dumbwaiters frame. Bracing his feet against the sides of the dumbwaiter, he pulled on the rope, to pull the counterweight up the shaft. When the picture in his head told him it was up far enough, he stopped.

Goldberg smiled again, his ride was ready. The visual faded and reality came flooding back. A quick look at over his shoulder saw the bomb counting down toward two minutes. And Bill’s corpse. ‘Bill, you deserve better. I should have talked to you yesterday but… well, I had a date apparently. Makes you feel any better, I did hook up… with Joy no less.’ He felt a twinge of shame and added, ‘I’m going to figure this out. Whoever killed you, they aren’t going to get away with it. I hope.’

He was ready to relax and let the system take him when he thought of the cop. That guy was just doing his job, but if Goldberg didn’t do something, anything, that guy will certainly get blown up in here. He couldn’t live with that idea. Taking a deep breath, Goldberg yelled, “Hey Small! Run, there’s a bomb in here! Leave now or you’re going to die!”

“What? Is someone here? Mr. Goldberg?”  The kitchen door opened as Goldberg shifted his body weight and relaxed. The rope in the dumbwaiter to pulled him up the chute with a lurch. As he hurtled into the cramped darkness, just barely missing the dropping counterweight. He heard a noise and wondered what it was, before he realized it was him, screaming like a frightened little girl.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“You have got to be kidding me.” Dan took a long swig out of the semi-cold Heineken and continued, “How does someone get a name like Luxury Automobile?”

The two men sat on the metal catwalk that allowed Dan to stand and take the numbers up and down. Though they could sit comfortably, the grate was see-through and the long drop to the ground was ever-present.

The black man beamed a smile. “Ah, that was a gift from my father. See, the man said he always wanted a luxury automobile. Momma had me and he realized that he wasn’t getting a Caddy, so I became his Luxury Automobile.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Damn straight! So what’s your name?”

“Dan”

The man didn’t stop smiling once. “You see, I could ask you what the hell a ‘Dan’ is and you would have no response. Everyone knows what a Luxury Automobile is.”

“A Dan is my father, so I guess I’m one of him.”

“Hey, so you’re a Junior!”

Dan put his nose in the air. “Actually I’m a second!”

“I wouldn’t go around letting everyone know that you are a number two. People might start to call you poop boy. ‘Specially since you are, as you put it, ‘crapping yourself’ up here.”

“Nice. And on that topic, I think I’ll have another beer.”

As Dan fished around in the cooler, Luxury Automobile said, “So why are you drinking up here? Hell, I’m a damn bum and even I don’t start drinking at… What the hell time is it?”

“Six Twenty.”

He thought about it for a second then continued. “Ok, so most days I won’t start drinking until at least noon, if I got it. Exception made here, of course.”

“Of course.” They clinked bottles and Dan grinned.

“But still, ain’t this dangerous?”

Dan took a long, thoughtful sip. “Maybe, but if I’m ever going to get down, I need to tie on a buzz. I’m afraid of heights.”

Luxury Automobile scoffed. “That’s a bitch. So why have this job?”

“The pay is fantastic,” he said as he looked across the street and right down the ample cleavage of a young woman who was talking to herself.  “And besides, I kind of like the view.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The loft was a single large, spacious room interrupted only with a few beams holding up the peak of the roof and the simple wood railing around the staircase, the only obvious exit. On both the front and the backsides of the loft were three large windows, showing the orange light of morning filtered through the green canopy of a tree lined street. This room was dusty, but clean. Camping gear hung from the ceiling, strung across beams extended down from the high exposed timbers of the underside of the roof. Below this overhang of stuff sat a futon, a coffee table a desk chair and a huge computer set up crushing an old wooden desk.

The computer system seemed to be set up in three. There were three old twenty-four-inch CRT monitors with three keyboards and three trackballs. Three big printers sat on an old folding table against the wall.

Absent from the setup were any actual computers. Instead, all wires led to three clean and dustless rectangles. The room was almost haunted by the sound of those now absent computers with their fans blowing hot air.

In the morning light, a new sound not completely unlike the whining of the computers, disturbed the room. At first it was indistinct, but as it rose in volume and pitch it had the distinct sound of someone screaming like a little girl and approaching at a terrific speed.

The wall panel that covered the old entrance to the dumbwaiter exploded outward. Though Goldberg, had landed flat after the top of the shaft had pushed him into the room, his motion wouldn’t let him rest and his feet kept going. He bent, feet high in the air, face and chest pressed into the ground and back formed into an awkward bow. It is well known that energy never goes nowhere. It is either lost to heat, deformation or otherwise transferred to something else. In this case, Goldberg’s kinetic energy was converted into back pain and a lungful of dust. That having been satisfied, his feet and back snapped back, smacking his pelvis, thighs and feet onto the ground like so much bony meat. Goldberg finally lay prone and at a painful rest. The stars in his eyes flicked out one by one and he got himself together enough to say, “Ow,” into the back of the newly displaced wood panel.

He dusted himself off and straightened his glasses, frowning at a new scratch. He swept his hair back into a pony tail on reflex and then let it go. The wavy locks bounced and dumped back onto his shoulders as he examined this room.

“Really? The only clean room in Bill’s house is the attic?”

He stumbled over to the terminal setups and noticed that the wires went nowhere. “What the hell was he doing up here?”

As soon as the question came up, the pattern suggested by the stacks of paper became visible in the odd non-color color. The view was disconcerting. While Goldberg could clearly see the floor, he could also see the spire represented by the stacks that started four floors down and came to a point in this very room. As he moved, the three dimensional display changed to match, giving him the impression of walking on nothing but empty air.

“Jesus!” He shouted. “A little warning next time!”

‘You are the one asking questions and time is of the essence.’

Goldberg accessed the ticking clock and agreed. “Yeah, well. Who would have guessed that being able to ignore hallucinations would come in handy? First trick you learn as a frequent user of psychoactive drugs. Least the walls aren’t breathing. But what’s the point?”

In answer to his question, the power illuminated a softball sized nicknack in the center of the coffee table in the lounge area of the large room. It sat right on top of the pinnacle of the spire where the fractal pattern became so small it was more of a sharp smooth cone rather than a jagged, mountain, easily represented by square stacks.

“Shockingly literal for something so fucked up,” he mumbled to himself.

He picked up the knickknack, palming it in his knobby fingers. Made of wood and well finished, the ball had geometric seams running all over its surface. It was a sort of puzzle like he used to have as a kid, but oversized and more complex.

“Bill you weird ass. What is this all about? What’s with this ball?”

He half expected the voice in his head to go on about the contents of this puzzle, but instead it said nothing.

“Now you shut up?”

The voice said ‘I don’t know. Nothing in its physical state betrays its obvious connection.’

“Well that’s great. What the hell can you tell me?”

As the words came from his mind, messages popped up all around relating to all the items in the room. The brightest came from the landing at the top of the stairs. ‘A police man will be here in sixty seconds. He will take the ball and die in the explosion if you just stand there like a jackass.’

“A sense of humor. Great. Even my delusions are sarcastic.”

He looked at the ball and wondered how he could get it to a place where he could examine it and maybe figure out why Bill died.

The power said “Drop it out the window near the dumbwaiter. Tie the desk chair to the end of the rope to help you overcome the weight of the pots and pans on the other end. The pulley will hold.”

He wondered about the fate of the police man and the power instantly replied, ‘Probability of the policeman surviving too small to be significant.’

“Wait, what?” Goldberg said aloud, now hearing the cop’s feet clambering up the steps. The power just put added glow on the words.

More thinking than saying, Goldberg told the power that he couldn’t be a cop killer, even by proxy. This threw a new set of variables into the analytical mix and all the color that had been superimposed upon the scene flickered.

A new plan locked in but now, it was far from certain. The power showed an eighty percent chance of his getting out unharmed and gave the police man’s percentage as a new overlay on the floor. Goldberg noticed that the cop was significantly tougher than he was as his chances were a lot better in a lot more places.

The bitch of it was, the plan was for him to jump back down the dumb waiter. The whole chute was exposed since the wall panel had been blown all the way down to the floor. He needed to tie the desk chair to the end of the rope. Then all he needed to do was jump and hang on to the rope with both hands. It would take him all the way down and he could run out.

With fifty seconds, he went to work, putting the ball down on one of the keyboards and pulled the desk chair over to the dumbwaiter. He flipped the chair upside down and tied the rope to the center pole. Into the hole it went and the tension on the line grew. He tested the rope and it seemed to move well.

Thirty seconds saw him picking up the ball. “How am I supposed to hang on to the rope if I have this in my hands?” He thought.

The power replied, ‘Ditch the ball.’

“No way.  This thing has got to be important. What’s the best way to make sure it survives and I can get it back?”

The message popped up on the ball and a glowing target appeared on the right front window of the house across the room and nearer the stairwell. ‘Throw the ball here’ read the message.

“Ok, so I chuck it through the window and get it later. Cool.”

He wound up to throw the ball. He tried an over hand throw but stopped as the ball was too big and it felt weird. He practiced a side arm which was even worse. Finally he tried the overhand again but this time it was more of a shot-put throw with his one leg and arms going off in a spastic cartwheel around his plant foot.

The ball sailed through the air, slack and unmotivated. It arched up and over, coming right down on the designated spot.

“Thunk!”

No glass broke. The ball popped up into the rafters holding the camping gear, knocking into a canoe paddle which hit some more junk before both it and the ball dropped to the floor.

“Fuck. Why didn’t the glass break?”

The power said, ‘throw: 30MPH, speed required: 75MPH and up.’

“Well, that sucks.”

“Freeze!” Officer Small charged up the staircase and swiveled around to point at Goldberg, gun out in front. “Hands in the air!”

The Strange – Episode 8 – Boom! Part 2

The Strange – Episode 6 – Solutions and Problems – Part 2

‘Ok, man. This is far from your first hallucination,’ he thought. ‘Go easy.’

The web seemed to be a thing that was both there and not there. He didn’t so much as see it as know it was there. Its parts were connections from everything to every other thing. It overwhelmed Goldberg. As he watched, it became less of a tie between things as a property of the object, like a color, but accessed through its relationship with some other thing. This opened up a huge store of information for Goldberg about the scene around him and that all came flooding into his brain.

He felt his tail bone hit the brick sidewalk. He hadn’t noticed falling.

‘Ok, Down. Ow! But, down is good. Can’t fall and hurt yourself if you’re sitting, right? Good. Woosh!’ His mind swam with thoughts as he leaned over and rubbed his butt. ‘Hell of a flashback. Never had a flashback before. Never even met anyone who had. But what else could this be? Like someone just took the hood off of the world and showed me the engine. But these connections… crazy! Some of them are pretty unlikely.’

He found he could look at the properties of individual connections and it was almost like having a note written next to it. There were no visual words, but he knew what the sign would say anyway. It simply spoke to him. There was a 62% probability that the acorn near his feet would wind up trapped next to the front tire of the car parked near the curb, but only a .1% chance that it would ever make it across the street.

‘That’s pretty specific for a hallucination,’ he thought as he kicked the acorn into the street. ‘and so much for long odds.’

As the acorn flew, he could see the probable path change. It was drawn out in front of it. The current hop showed as a fuzzy arch while the next hop showed as an arched fan. The hops resolved as the acorn skipped to the opposite gutter.

Goldberg swiveled on his ass and scooted. His back rested on the wrought iron fence that marked the edge of the easements on this unique block. ‘Definitely drug related. Nothing to do but ride it out. Good thing I’m in a good spot. No worries here.’

He found his vision turning a shade of alarm along the same dimension that the weird vision occupied. His brow furrowed as he stared out into the street. The numbers were changing slightly. Ripples in a pond.

He only really saw the front tire as the car swerved off the road and parked crookedly half in and out of the traffic lane. It took a bit before he noticed the blue and red lights flashing inside the glare of the sun through the trees. His new sense giving the car, parked as it is, a fifty times greater chance of being hit then if the driver had taken the half second to park it properly.

Goldberg smirked, and then looked up to see a police officer towering over him.

He made eye contact with himself in the policeman’s mirrored sun glasses and watched as he saw that man drop his hands of the top of his head.

‘This doesn’t look good, does it,’ he thought.

The letters appeared under the chin of the police officer like a caption. ‘Chance of this being good or helpful – very low.’

‘Very low? What happened to mathematical certainty?’ Goldberg asked himself.

As if in answer the officer said “Son, are you on drugs?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Loveless humphed at the computer screen. “Ok, Fine, I’ll work on the model in a second. On to the organization. Any problems?”

“All other loyalty scores in flux. Last report none under 90%, but those figures are being recalculated in light of how you deal with the reported extra activities of Mr. Urk in Orlando.”

“Why? What did Tony do?”

“We have visual conformation of Mr. Urk selling cocaine to a non-vetted distribution network in Atlanta. A runner was captured by Florida Highway Patrol yesterday and provided a description of Mr. Urk. He has been compromised and if captured could provide insight into 46% of the organization.”

“God damn it, Tony!” Loveless winced. “OK, well… Anything else?”

“No other alerts beyond those in Pet Projects.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Loveless flicked open the Pet Projects tab by tapping on the desktop. He slid the Anomaly folder out, opened it and started reading. His face screwed up into a question but before he could do much of anything, a blip appeared on his desk. He hit it.

“Loveless, can I help you?”

“Uh, yeah. Hey boss. This is…”

“Mr. Jackson. How fortunate of you to call. Saved me the effort. Please. Get to it.”

“Of course. There’s something you need to know. Tony Urk …”

“I know about Urk. He’s your man Mr. Jackson. Follow the procedure. Current plan is two-four-four.”

“But Tony… He’s got a kid coming.”

“Most unfortunate, but it changes nothing. Please tell me you did not call me and burn a secure line to ask whether or not we follow procedure, Mr. Jackson. Now you have a job to do. Good day.”

“But Loveless! He’s just one guy! Can’t I just beat him or something?”

“Mr. Jackson, deviation from my plan will cause a shift in perception that will make other such cases inevitable until we are all undone. Urk is a liability who has already put us all at risk so we will instead turn him into a positive as an example. While encapsulated, Urk is a dead branch. Prune it. Two-four-four. And may Ms. Urk find herself a more loyal man for a husband next time.”

“You are a cold-blooded bastard.”

“I get results. Loyal members of our organization simply do not get caught. They don’t get caught because they follow the plan. My plan. If they do get caught following the plan, we have ways to compensate in the plan. And as a part of that, you must keep your men in line starting with yourself. Good day, Mr. Jackson.”

Loveless continued examining the data on the desk, then looked off to the clean floor. His eyes flicked to the bowl of dice that was the only decoration on the desk. A fingertip stroked the surface of a gleaming purple twenty-sided die and then slid to the desktop, taping on a virtual key pad. In Loveless’s headphones, the sound of a phone ringing only chimed once.

“McCaully, how can I help you.”

“Jackson, Urk. Two-Four-Four.”

“Yes sir.”

Loveless straightened, put the dice back in the bowl, and got back to work.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

As Goldberg looked at the officer, the countdown to his glasses overcoming friction and falling off his nose blinked down. Right next to it, the likelihood of the event went up as a percentage. Both figures would flicker with every twitch of his nose and move of his face. The persistent updates made it increasingly difficult for Goldberg to concentrate on keeping his shit together.

Goldberg found himself at a loss for words. He had just been shown so many things. He knew that if he slid a brick off of the roof just opposite him that it would hit the police car’s front headlight. he knew that the wires here took between 250 and 300 lbs of weight before they snapped. He knew how likely it was that a rock would fly through a window from a typical garbage truck crunching along the uneven street. He was aware of all the correlations between all of the buildings in the immediate area. He could spot at least fifteen different ways to get from here to the convenient store without ever touching the ground.

All of this was remarkable, to be sure. He felt blessed with this outpouring of trivia and schematics and felt the need to express that knowledge. For instance, he knew that the officer’s glasses were being held back by the friction in his nose but that if he didn’t move the glasses would fall off in nine minutes and thirteen seconds. He wanted to tell the man, to test the knowledge he’d gained from seemingly nowhere. But he knew better than to mess with ‘The Man’ with a head full of faeries.

“Yeah, I’m good. How are you officer?” That sounded lucid enough to Goldberg. Hadn’t he just asked if he was OK?

“That’s nice.” The officer said in a clipped drawl. “I’m officer Small, badge number 54. Can I see your driver’s license please, sir?”

It always ticked off Goldberg that there was this facade of respect surrounding any and all intersections between himself and law enforcement. It would almost be nicer if they just fessed up and let him know that they thought he was a drug-taking scumbag and then he could inform them that they are just thugs using the law as a justification to push people around. If that was all out in the open, then there would be much more honesty in the proceedings. This was Goldberg’s standing wish, but right now he wasn’t exactly thinking straight, or standing for that matter.

“Sorry man. Can’t do it.”

The officer flinched. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I can’t show you my driver’s license.” Goldberg looked down the street at the distracting new insights he was receiving.

This seemed to throw the man and he dropped the law and order act. “Do you have your wallet?”

“Well… yeah.”

“And you don’t have your driver’s license?”

“Uh… No. I don’t drive.”

The officer again seemed off track and now worked from curiosity. “Who are you, son? What’s your name? Do you have any ID?”

“Oh! Yeah.” Goldberg was pleased to be tracking the conversation once again. The barrage of information trying to force its way into his mind made it tough but ground was being gained. He smiled. This was better.

The officer did not return the smile. “Can I see it please?”

“Oh sure. Right!” Goldberg fished in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He grabbed his staff card and handed it to the officer.

“You work at the University?”

“Well, Yeah. Is there a problem?”

“You seemed … seem a little out of sorts. Are you injured?”

Goldberg got back on track. “Yeah, I just have these headaches. I, uh, just turned the corner and the light in my eyes… you know…” He hoped the officer did.

“Well get yourself some sunglasses or something,” the officer shot back. “You looked like a public intoxication case. Plenty of weirdos out even this early, coming home from a bad night out.”

“Yeah. Don’t I know it.” Goldberg said, thinking back to the most recent semester break.

“You sure I can’t drive you home, Mr. Goldberg?”

Goldberg grinned. “That would defeat the purpose of taking a walk to the bagel place, thanks. I’ll be fine officer.”

“Ok, Mr. Goldberg. Have a good day. And stay safe.”

“I always try to,” Goldberg replied as the officer was swallowed up in the data that related to him and the things that were then related to those things, and those related to those relationships, spinning out into an infinite web of things Goldberg had no way of knowing but did.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The chair squeaked as Loveless sat back. “Already a bad day. Urk. Urk beat the odds, but not by much. Jackass. Have to recruit. Have to recruit and recalibrate the predictive model to incorporate these anomalies. But they are weird ass. How am I supposed to incorporate… Hell. I might as well put in Ouija boards and lay lines. How does one model ‘seeing through girl’s swim suits’ and ‘spontaneously warming rammen noodles’? I mean, it’s just stupid!”

He looked at his desk, at the anomalies. “Recruit. Hm…” He changed the name of the folder from “anomalies” to “Comic-book-like powers” before erasing that and labeling it “Strange.” He descended upon the desk, typing furiously on a virtual keyboard.

“So, we have a new input to incorporate. The Strange.” He grinned as his eyes hardened. “No rest for the wicked. Good thing I own coffee shops.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Goldberg needed coffee more then he’d ever needed anything in his life. That cop rattled his brains, but at least the visions were receding to a level where he could function. Only the truly interesting things popped up a message or drew a line for him. It was no longer a jumble.

And then he saw the key. Lost along the fence post, the key had bright connections that shot out in all directions, but none so prevalent as the tie between it and the door to the row house a few paces up the street.

“Hey! That’s Weird Bill’s house. Huh. Lights are still on.” he said out loud then added, “Gotta stop talking to myself. People will think I’m weird. And gotta tamp down the paranoia.”

The connection between the key and his hand came up in his vision and it was just as strong. This was the first time he’d noticed himself in this picture and it rattled his already fragile mental state.

“Whatever mental breakdown I’m having, I can’t just leave Bill’s key hanging out here,” he thought. “Anybody in the world could take this thing and… I don’t know… swipe his stuff or something. He couldn’t have left it here on purpose. Besides, maybe he’ll have some coffee on. And I did kinda duck him yesterday… yeah.”

He lifted the key up by the long cord and untangled it from the fence post. The imaginary line between himself and the door was pronounced, but it no longer bothered him. It actually felt rather natural to be following the trail, like walking down a hill.

Key in hand, he knocked on Bill’s front door. After an uncomfortable wait, he figured he’d just unlock the door, slip the key inside, lock the knob, and talk to him about it on Monday.

He worked the locks and pushed the solid wooden door open. In the dim front room, the vision from the street squeezed past him and exploded into life. It superimposed itself upon the already crazy scene. Stacks upon stacks of printed paper were everywhere in great columns. The web of the relationships stuck to every one of these piles and gave them weight. The most elemental of these weights was the size of the stack and it was here that the vision of the web found something else.

“It’s a pattern. Everything! Everything is in a pattern.” The heights of the stacks of paper were the most obvious, but even the stuff on the shelves conformed to the pattern. “Wild! I mean, I knew Bill was a hoarder but… damn man!”

Goldberg floated into the room, dominated by the overlay of this vision. It was like stepping into a cartoon, but instead of ink, the scene was painted in this new color that wasn’t a color, but state, relationship and probability. In a place where every element was placed specifically with its relationship in mind, the whole scene opened up for him.

After marveling at the pattern, he realized two things. “It points up. It points up and to the back of the house, like the attic or something.” He looked at a small stack of paper that should have been on top of the preceding stack, causing an error in the pattern dictated by the house. “And there are flaws.”

The flaw bothered him. “Why would anyone go to so much trouble and screw up like this?” He wandered down the large canyon made by the paper and looked toward the stairs. Another flaw! This time the power marked it in the shade of alarm. “This just looks like carelessness. Maybe it’s the effect of someone else in the house?” Another tiny flaw in a tipped over stack of magazines, led him even further back to a flat, handle-less door.

Goldberg followed the trail of error through the door. It was a disgusting kitchen with stuff piled all over the place, especially in the back against what was once a door. His gaze swept through the room past the sink. A man in a night shirt, hunched over the stove startled him. His new sense retreated in shock, leaving him with only his regular senses and the sudden awkwardness of the situation.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Bill.” He felt foolish. “Um, your key was outside. Sorry to barge in.” He let out a nervous half cough. “I love what you’ve done with the place! The décor…”

The place of the vision clouded with pure alarm. Bill hadn’t moved.

Goldberg cautiously approached through the stacks of cans, papers and old magazines. He held out a hand, and tapped Weird Bill, The Collector of Things, on the shoulder. It felt cold.

The man slowly turned his whole body. His outstretched hands swiveled around as if to grasp Goldberg. Wide, astonished eyes and a screwed up, open mouth silently screamed pain and confusion as he faced the young intruder.

Bill’s body continued to turn and swiveled away from Goldberg, and then fell face first on the floor, dead. The white box that held him into position was now clearly in view.

“Holly shit!” Goldberg said, catching his breath. “Fuck! He’s…!” This was no longer a wondrous experience or an exercise in exploration. His hallucination had led him to a dead man. A man he knew. A man who had tried to give him a message. A man who had, in fact, given him a message. That message was, if he was reading it right, to look upstairs for an explanation.

That wasn’t all. Looking at the box, he noticed thin, unshielded wires leading to a small clock, counting down.

“That’s a fucking bomb!” The digital clock showed less than five minutes to go as Goldberg struggled to keep calm. The police! This was clearly a crime.

His dug his ancient cell phone from his pocket. It flashed ‘Looking for service,’ and he sighed. “Fucking Sprunt! Never a signal when you need it!”

He heard a call from the front of the house that at first, seemed an answer to a prayer. “Hello? This is Officer Small from the Hogstown police. Mr. Goldberg, if you are here, please just come out.” A stumbling sound accompanied the officer saying to himself “Jesus, would you look at this place.” In a more commanding tone he called out, “Whatever you’re on boy, you can’t be wandering into other people’s homes.”

Without a word, Goldberg scanned the scene. Him, A dead Weird Bill, A Bomb. This did not look good at all. In fact, it looked like a murder scene, with him as the murderer! Or at least something very VERY fucked up. His flight response was kicking in hard. Goldberg took a quick look at Weird Bill and whispered, “Dude, if I go to jail for your murder, I’m totally going to kill you.”

The Strange – Episode 7 – Boom! Part 1

The Strange – Episode 5 – Solutions and Problems – Part 1

The rays of the new sun glinted off of napping cats on Goldberg’s porch. The porch hung off the second story of a stacked duplex, giving the two cats, Billie and Junior, a panoramic view of their domain. From inside the house, they could hear one of their humans approaching.

The front door opened and Goldberg came out smiling. “Hi guys. Long night?”

Junior tilted his head to guide Goldberg’s scratching hand. He was a large and beautiful, solid gray cat. His yellow eyes were always wide and expressive and right now they expressed the desire to go inside and have breakfast.

Goldberg, on the other hand, was chatty. “Now I’ve got to warn you guys, there is a girl in there and I like her a lot, so don’t mess it up.”

Billie, a smaller cat with white fur, hopped off the bench. She pushed her face into the screen door, and meowed.

Grabbing a sandal from under the bench, Goldberg said, “I don’t think she’ll hear you, she’s sleeping. But I’ve got good news! I’m going to be upgrading our digs pretty soon! Movin’ time! I got unbelievably lucky last night.” He paused. “Actually, was lucky twice, but anyway… I won the lottery!”

Junior tilted his head and looked puzzled. Of course, he could understand what the human was saying. It just confused him that they would leave a place with so many birds, nice sunshine and trees full of squirrels.

Typical of a human, Goldberg thought the cat’s question was all about him. “Yeah, that’s been bothering me too. I mean how is it that I could possibly be so lucky all of a sudden? I don’t even believe in luck and if I did, I’d complain about having bad luck. I guess random chance might say that I was due, but … well… thinking back on it, I could almost see which numbers I should play, like someone was giving me a hint or something. Weird, huh?”

Sick of waiting, Billie stuck her paw under the door and tried to pull it open. Junior can talk to his pet human all he wants. Inside lay food and comfy places to nap.

“Ah, I bet everyone who wins something like this feels weird about it. Correlation mistaken for causation, the vagaries of memory and all that. Whatever, I’ve still got a huge pile of cash out there with my name on it. All I gotta do is go get it.  And Joy … Yeah, Joy. Not a bad night at all.” He took off his wire framed-glasses by the wrap around temples and cleaned them with the tail of his tee shirt.

The gray cat meowed and rubbed his head on the big side pocket of Goldberg’s cargo shorts. It was a vague attempt, in cat language, to tell him that he didn’t care much about Goldberg’s mate issues. He hadn’t cared since Goldberg had paid that doctor to cut his nuts off. As a matter of fact, Junior put ‘screwing up stuff on the coffee table’ on his list of things to do that day. It’s not nice to neuter someone, much less rub it in by talking about your mating habits.

Goldberg looked at Junior rubbing his head against his thigh and said, “Oh don’t worry Junior. You’re still my little buddy.” The young man petted the cat as it purred like a truck.

Through his blurry vision, he surveyed the mess on the porch. This porch was one of the main reasons he stayed in this house. It was as simple a design as he could imagine. It ran front to back, taking over the whole left side when viewed from the street. The bit away from the street housed a staircase that doubled back on a small concrete landing with the whole thing encased in cinder blocks.  A metal gate at the bottom faced out to the sand driveway that ran alongside the house. Where he sat now was all open and covered by the roof’s overhang and held views of the neighborhood from up in the trees.

Of course, with use comes clutter, and there is no kind of clutter like outdoor clutter. Countless “found-art objects” and things that are too dirty to have in the house lingered on the porch accompanied by a few half-finished projects, one of which had found new life as an ersatz coffee table. And then there were the books. Left over, moldy paperbacks of countless hours spent reading on the porch, treated with all the care of orange peels once the pulp was gone.

He sighed. Here on the porch was his life for the past ten years in dirty and disorganized miniature. “On second thought, maybe we don’t have to move just yet. This place isn’t all that bad.”

Junior meowed what Goldberg took as agreement, but was really a request for breakfast.

Goldberg found a quarter sitting on the railing and absentmindedly flipped it. Billie stopped trying to open the door to witness the shiny coin tumble. It fell into Goldberg’s hand. Heads.

“Hm,” he said. “Joy thinks I’m lucky, so did the store clerk. Why does that feel so… I don’t know… strange to me? And anyway, I, of all people, know that luck is just ex-post story telling. That’s why I bought the ticket in the first place, to show that to my stats class.” He fiddled with the coin. “Have to re-write that lesson. So why don’t we just give it a test? Tails!” Another flip was tracked by the transfixed eyes of both cats. This time Goldberg missed and it and it banged around on the floor. Billie pounced on it but let it go after it had stopped putting up a fight. When the cat’s paws retreated, they revealed a coin with its head up.

“Hm, so much for luck. Really, I’d just like something to justify this weird feeling I’ve had recently. Ah, it’s probably just relief that Megan is finally gone and Joy… Joy has banished her spirit.” He picked up the coin and flipped it over in his fingers.

A forgotten, empty coffee can on the railing at the top of the stairs caught Goldberg’s attention. He considered using it as a can for coins for a moment before a meowing junior convinced him that cat food was critically important.

“Don’t want to give you guys an excuse to bother Joy.” He said, and flicked the coin in his hand against the wall where an odd glint appeared. He hit it dead on and it disappeared into the clutter of found art, clanking against something before passing from Goldberg’s attention. A brief visual of an odd machine made of the crap on the porch and the steps resulting in that discarded coin ending up in the can flashed through his mind. He laughed at the absurdity of the thought as the screen door slapped closed behind him.

The coin, meanwhile, didn’t think it was so funny. In accordance with the laws of physics, the coin sailed through the air at a tumble. It hit an empty beer bottle with enough force to knock it over before coming to rest on the edge of a thin hardback book that straddled the railing.

The beer bottle rolled down that same railing before finally falling onto the floor, where it continued its roll towards the back where the stairs are. It didn’t roll down the stairs, though, instead falling down the part where the stairs switched back resulting in a one story drop to the landing. It didn’t quite make it to the bottom, however, and instead hit just at the tail of a half broken skate board. The skate only had one set of wheels and the bottle hitting it caused it to flip its nose high in the air, sending an old neighborhood newspaper up into the sky.

The impromptu flight of the newspaper started as a single shot skyward, but after its apex near the edge of Goldberg’s roof, it became a gentle, back and forth fluttering in the still and damp morning air. It nudged a long stick of drying bamboo that was perched on one of the posts that kept Goldberg’s roof over his porch and after a teetering moment, the bamboo fell almost in line with the railing. The green stick hit a crushed flat trumpet that was hanging like a single-entry found art mobile by a string looped around a headless nail.

After a single swing, the trumpet slipped from its nail, crashing into the thin hardcover book, hitting it opposite to where the coin had landed. The teeter-totter effect of the book on the railing sent the coin once again in motion. It flew through the air and clanked home inside the coffee can, a victim of cause, effect and the forces of physics once harnessed and unleashed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

From his high perch, Dan Leggit marveled at the lush green treetops of his home. The view was spectacular, and while the scruffy young man drank it in, he was careful not to look to close to straight down. The view was great, but Dan was terrified of heights.

Turning west, he saw the turnpike. The endless stream of cars going in both directions reminded him of a migration of metallic beasts. Some go this way, and some go that way. He often wondered what is was that made the northern people go south and the southern people go north, but he was glad they did. If they didn’t, no one would see the billboard and his cushy job would go away.

Every day he got a number from the office on a pad of paper and had to do one simple thing. He would bike out to the base of a sixty-foot tall tower and perform a task that was unnatural for humans. He climbed that tower, made his way in front of the billboards, and changed the amount of the jackpot for the Florida Casino and Game Commission.

It didn’t matter to anyone how stoned, drunk, hung-over or terrified he was, as long as the number changed. Though he’d puked off the tower so many times it was starting to affect the surrounding ecosystem, he had always managed to get the number changed. How much he partied before, after or during his mission didn’t make any difference.

And up to now, the number had steadily increased. Today was different, though. Today, it started again at a measly one million dollars.

He took down the 843 and put up the solitary, Six foot high “1” on the sign. He looked at it before going on to the other side. It looked so lonely, hateful.

“Hey, boy!” A voice yelled up at him. “You got a dollar? Hate to be so forward ‘n all, but I’m trying to get some morning coffee and am coming up light.” His local drawl shaved all the trailing G sounds from words and rounded out all his A’s.

Dan looked down at the smiling, familiar face. The aged, black man was a staple in this town. A street performer who seemed to live on tips and the occasional gig. “Hey! Um, I’m kinda busy right now. Shitting myself. You know how it is!”

“Not really. Haven’t shit myself while sober for quite some time.”

A chuckle wandered out of Dan. “Well, come up here, look straight down, and see how it works on you. I’m getting the spins just talking to you. And who said anything about being sober?” He moved around on the scaffold to finish his morning’s work.

Far below him the voice said, “Ah. I bet it’s not that bad. And how come you do a job that works on you like a bad sam-ich, anyway?”

“Tell you what, you think this is cake? Why don’t you come on up and I’ll show you. I’ve even got beer up here. It ain’t a dollar, but it’s what I’ve got.”

“You drink up there? This early in the morning?”

“Hell, yes! How you think I get down off this fuck?”

“Well, I ain’t one to pass on a free one.”  As the lean old musician mounted the short ladder that lead to the permanent ladder attached to the base of the sign, he mumbled, “Crazy. My kind of gig.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alexi Loveless tipped back in his office chair and looked up at the ceiling. In between the rows of vents and ceiling panels were inch wide grids of LED’s each no larger than a tooth. It was Alexi’s design carried out by hired technicians and installed by craftsmen. Though the individual points of light projected a single true color – red, green, yellow, orange and a very deep blue – together they bathed the room in a uniform white light that erased all but the most persistent shadow.

The desk was a slab of glass supported by brushed steel posts. To his left, another desk, also of glass and steel propped up like a drafter’s table. Nothing sat on top of these desktops except a glass bowl of multicolored, twenty-sided role playing dice. A rod with a small hook poked up where the two desks met. A wireless headset and microphone hung from the hook and was the only evidence that this was a business office. The rest of the room only furthered the theme of spartan utility. Against the far wall was a blocky leather couch big enough to lie down on. A glass slab hung on the wall behind Alexi and two guest chairs sat empty across the desk.

To the left and the right behind the chairs were two doors. The one marked “Servers” had an electric key pad. Loveless gave a sleep deprived glance at the door and remembered he had work to do. He touched the top of the desk and it became an opaque black with computer generated papers and folders on it. Over the papers, a bi-fold opened with three tabs, Daily Jobs, Alerts, and Pet Projects. He hit a tab and invisible speakers jumped to life.

“Server farm A running at normal. Encrypted backup complete and checked.”

Loveless picked the headphones off the hook, swept back his straight, shoulder length hair and let the head set pin it out of his face. He said, “integrity check at backup facility. Any residual damage from the collector incident.”

“No. The Collector made no change to the backup facility as verified from physically separate systems, automated checks and manual surveys by the independent forensic team. Both primary and backup facilities are fully secure.”

“Well there’s one thing Bee’s people got right.”

“Continue?”

“Continue.”

“Server 813 is reported as 5% below standard and falling.”

“Describe 813”

“813 is part of the hierarchical interpretation chain B for text media. It is part of an eight server loop resolving primary text from email, forums, blogs,…

“Hot swap 813 and run tandem. Go exclusive at standard confidence.”

“Yes sir. Server 5834 raid rebuild complete.”

“Describe 5834.”

“Audio Visual analysis hierarchy scheduler.”

“Any effect on analysis?”

“Reports are five minutes behind ideal.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

“No sir. All other servers functioning normally. Textural hierarchies are functioning normally. Audio only hierarchies functioning normally. AV hierarchies functioning normally. Interpretation hierarchies functioning normally. Warning! Predictive analysis functioning within acceptable parameters. However, exceptions exceed threshold. Model reconfiguration recommended.”

This caught Loveless short and his eyes went blank with thought. “We need work on the predictive model?”

“Yes, according to the predictive model. The anomaly count has grown beyond tolerances and requires mitigation for the model to remain stable. Adding to the folder in Pet Projects, as per instructions, however I must stress that these must be seen by an operator. They appear, from my analysis, to be quite…” The computer paused for a moment, locating the right word from its vocabulary. “…strange.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Goldberg rounded the corner on his way to the bagel shop on the other side of Philly ave and was greeted by the sun shining right into his eyes.

“Ah Balls!” He said, turning his head away from the glare. He set across the street at a trot, half blind. He dashed into the shade of the row houses for which Philly avenue was named. He looked up again and the sight stopped him cold.

The scene was of the same street he’d always seen, with a canopy of trees, lined by brick sidewalks and parked cars, watched over by the row houses. But over that, Goldberg saw a web. A web of numbers, charts and graphs. It was as if all his lesson plans for his statistics students had barfed on the world and was simultaneously trying to explain it all. It was overwhelming and remarkable, enough to short circuit any brain, much less one that had not yet had its morning coffee.

Goldberg said the only thing that came to mind. “Make that two balls.”

The Strange – Episode 6 – Solutions and Problems – Part 2

The Strange – Episode 4 – Up On the Sun

It was dark across the board.

It was always dark.

Delgado rubbed his bald head and scanned the dead console before getting up. He crossed the room, avoiding the trash can positioned under the drip in the ceiling, and popped into the kitchen. The linoleum counter, decked out in a pattern of stylized atoms and swirling starts, had long ago refused to convey any luster. He wiped a rag across it out of habit and noticed that it now shunned any appearance of cleanliness as well.

Pouring himself a cup of coffee from the only new appliance in the house, he read the time from the pink stove’s manual clock. Little hand on the ten, big hand on the six, red hand pulsing at the nine over and over like it always did. Seconds had long ago ceased to register in this place.

“I left the service for this shit?”

His question died in the fluorescent light of the aged kitchen.

“Join the weathermen: Learn the truth.” His arms waved in the air, conjuring up the truth of the ancient Gnostics then dashing it away in disgust. “Learn a bunch of impossible nonsense is more like it!”

He slumped back into the converted living room of the post-war ranch house, absently nudging the trash can. It sloshed in sympathy. He gazed upon the ripples and said, “Here I am at the ass end of top secret. It’s late on a Friday night … I’m here in LA and instead of … I don’t know … partying with the low-lifes … anything really … I’m doing monitor duty.”

He flopped into his chair and examined the dead display. A map of the United States lay stretched across old plywood. Tiny lights poked through the board at every city. It looked like a kid’s science fair project. This was where monitor duty began and ended. This was the job. After six months of the most bizarre tactical training, this was it. Delgado wrinkled up his nose as if he had just smelled something rotten, fishy. A new drop in the bucket gave a defensive “Bowip.”

“This is a test. This has got to be some kind of long range test,” he looked up and said to the camera he imagined was recording him. Impatience and anger covered his face. “Well I’m not abandoning my post! I don’t care if nothing ever happens! I won’t be derelict in my duty! A marine never doubts his mission! Even if that thing never lights up, I’ll keep looking at it’s dead ass.”

An accusing finger pointed at the board, he struck his most defiant and patriotic pose. His drill Sargent would have been proud.

Without any fanfare, a single small light blinked on. The strong young man tilted his head like a confused puppy, and dared a glance at his fingertip before pulling his hand back.

The light flickered a bit, then stayed on as Delgado stepped around the bucket and sat down in the chair. After a quick scan of the room, he went through his training. A light meant activity. There was a protocol for activity.

He reached for the red Lucite phone with the single button. North Florida. He’d report North Florida. He mashed the single red button. The hotline phone poured out loud static into his ear. Seconds later it dangled by its curled cord as Delgado raced down the low hallway. He got to the end and knocked on a dark wood door.

“Belatran, wake up! We’ve got a hit and the hotline phone is down.”

Behind the door came a grunt followed by a single word. “Where?”

“Hogstown Florida.  Ever heard of it?”

Sheets rustled behind the door then an older man with slicked back grey hair poked his head out. “Fuck,” he said, his eyes bloodshot and puffy but filled with shock. As if in a daze, he wandered down the hall, still in his boxer shorts and black socks.

After he hung up the red phone, he reached under the front lip of the map-board, with its single red light in North Florida and pulled up. Old hinges complained as the board lifted and opened to show a nest of wires. The wires were all hooked into the board at one end and into a strange device no bigger than a brick at the other.

“What the hell?”

Belatran held up the device once it was free of the wires. It looked to be a smooth and solid chrome brick, showing no signs of the previous connections. “Training’s over Delgado. This is the most advanced technological device on the planet and it just told us that we have a job on our hands. Time to get cracking.” He tossed the device to the young bald man, who juggled it like it was radioactive.

“What about the map thingie?”

He smirked. “That thing? Hazing ritual. Every weatherman has stared at that thing for a year before getting the full scoop. The ones that give up we cut. Keeps out the quitters and malcontents. We only have so many staff slots.”

Belatran had his head in the box of wires as he spoke. “At nine months, you got off easy.” He looked at the contraption. “Then again, you were the only one to have a light turn on, and that means the hard part’s just getting started.”

Delgado’s face screwed up. He and the bucket stood side by side in the middle of the room, both equally equipped to handle the paradigm shift. “So you are saying this whole thing is made up?”

The bucket caught another drop of water with an equally questioning “Bwoip!?”

“No.” the answer came out in an apologetic sing-song filtered through years of Pal-Mals. “This is really the office. That air conditioner on the roof really leaks and all the things you thought were fake-out training exercises were actually true. And on top of all that, we’re deploying, which means I need to install your upgrades on the Jet in route. So it’s all more real than you thought, especially the stuff you thought was crap.” He lowered the map back into place and pointed. “Except the phone. That hasn’t worked since Nixon.”

The younger man shook his head. “Nixon? Wait… what do you mean ‘upgrades?'”

Wandering down the hall in his shorts, Belatran said, “Pack your shit. We’re going to Hogstown.”

The door slammed, leaving Delgado standing in the converted living room stunned to silence.

“We have a Jet?”

“Bouip!” the bucket reported, catching yet another drop. Delgado looked at his refection resolving from the dying concentric ripples in the water bucket. The man who stared back looked resolute, but he wasn’t quite so sure

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Goldberg found that he was staring at the ceiling. Just above his head, a box fan propped open a window. Long ago, the window had lost the ability to remain open unaided and in the summer heat, the fan was both permanent and necessary. The lazy morning air was not inclined to wander in the window without encouragement, even though it carried less weight after dropping its dew. The sound of the fan was a welcome balm on Goldberg’s mind as he stared at the tongue and groove ceiling and the peeling whitewash.

The light on the ceiling held a hint of green from its ricochet off the trees outside as well as the yellow of the low sun. There was no recollection of waking up for Goldberg.  Just like any other day it just sorta happened. One moment he was asleep, next moment he was awake, usually looking at exactly what he’s looking at now. Just like any other day.

His mind soaked in the hum of the fan and the grooves of the ceiling, piecing his life back together. It stumbled a little when it got to last night. Up to that moment things went together in smooth blocks and straight lines, even the messy bits. But last night wanted to fit in like a blob of goo in the midst of the odd order of Goldberg’s existence.

‘Must have been a dream,’ He thought. ‘It wouldn’t have been the first evening I’d erased forever by smoking and drinking with Dan. That’s much more likely.’

He lay back and kept staring at the ceiling, watching the light move as the air outside found motivation enough to rustle the foliage. ‘So wait a second,’ he thought. ‘What if she really is here? What if I turn my head and see her? Does that mean it all came true? Do I want it to be true? I mean, my life may be pretty mediocre, but at least it’s predictable. How could I handle all that, dating someone actually…capable? Challenging even?’ He let it linger without mental comment.

After more moments watching the light play on the old wood plank ceiling, a cramp in his back and pressure from his balder forced the issue. With a quick motion, he rotated his feet and sat on the edge of the bed. He looked over his shoulder before he had a chance to give it any more consternation.

Joy Winter’s dark, tousled hair was strewn across the other pillow, obscuring her face. Her pale shoulder peeked out from under the thin white sheet as her curves propped it up in all the right places.

He looked at it as if it were a crime scene. What had he done? This was an irrecoverable act. The Rubicon.

Then she stirred and looked up at him through the strands of hair. “Hey Tiger.”

Speechless, Goldberg finally noticed his nakedness and his brain stripped gears – wondering if it would be a deal breaker to put last nights slightly used underwear on in front of this beautiful creature.

Long fingers came up from under the sheet and brushed her hair back. She was smiling. “Can you hand me the hair scrunchy? I think it landed over there someplace”

“Oh! Uh, sure.” He recovered it from a heap of clothes and tossed it over, covering himself with old shorts.

The beautiful girl mumbled with a smile. “Mmm. Early. You sleep OK?”

“Uh, huh.” He shook off the cobwebs of disbelief. His life had just taken a very dramatic turn. Best, he thought, to try to roll with it. “I – I’m just an early riser. Thinking of getting coffee and stuff. You?”

She pulled the covers up a little and said, “MMmmh. Slept so well, ‘m considering extra innings. You wore me out.” Her bleary eyes looked through the mess of tussled hair. “Can you get a paper if you’re going out?”

He pulled his shorts on and said, “Sure. You will be here when I get back, right? You aren’t some dream?”

“Of course I’m a dream,” she said, grinning a sleepy grin, “but I’ll be here. You just try to get rid of me now, Mr. Goldberg.” She rolled over and snuggled into the pillow.

Goldberg made to go, feeling like the luckiest man alive.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The white van pulled onto a remote road spitting gravel from the tires and splashing sandy mud up from a rut. A few miles down, it pulled off the side of the road and rolled to a stop, partially covered by some low scrub brush. The morning light came sideways through the branches and turned the ground from the gray of night to the orange of fallen pine needles mixed with sand and the occasional leaf. Heavy dew soaked into this orange ground clutter, pacifying its explosive potential. If nature and weather ever allowed it to bake dry, the very ground here would become as flammable as a match

“This place safe Bee?” Mr. Aye said, peering out of one of the van’s square rear windows. In the middle bench seat, the small woman worked one strong, tan shoulder free of the black coverall of the infiltration suit.

“No, but it will do for now… unless you want to go back.” She pulled her other arm free and shrugged the top of the garment down around her waist exposing a body as hard and efficient as a fine dagger.

Mr. Aye scoffed. “No. Here’s good.”

The driver rolled down the window as the two in the back changed into street clothes. Half way through the driver tipped his head and said into a mic. “Yes, Mr. Loveless, hold on.” He hit a button and said into the back, “Loveless wants to talk to you.”

“I told him I’d talk to him in person, Carl,” Bee said.

In the front seat, the thin man just shrugged. “Boss wants to talk to both of you and said, and I quote, ‘Later is no longer an option I am going to put up with.'”

“Fine. His prerogative, but if this invites more problems, I’m charging him extra.” Bee and Aye both grabbed their headsets and fed them over their ears. Bee checked a readout on her watch and said “Line secure. Bee and Aye here.”

“So, you went with the wet option. The option of absolute last resort? Not the most…”

“Sir,” Ms. Bee cut in, “it was our only choice. The Collector made us. He saw our faces. He would have known something was up and… Mr. Loveless, with respect, I tried to talk to you about this contingency. It wasn’t as much of a longshot as you wanted to believe, given the erratic behavior exhibited by the mark. That’s why we brought the equipment in the van.”

“Yes, I know. I’m just unpleasantly surprised.” A sigh came through the channel. “I’m not comfortable with surprises like that. And we seem to be running into quite the string of them. I don’t like it. This is an unexpected complication inside the already unfathomable situation. That I, of all people, have had my computer systems compromised by this ‘Collector’ character…” Quietly, he added, “This isn’t right.”

“I understand, Sir, but we went over this with my cyber-security guys. By the look of things, the guy was hitting sites at random. I really don’t think he knew what he had and we never found evidence that he cracked that wacky encryption you put on what he copied. As for, his attack, he was either very skilled, very lucky, or had inside info. We are as good as it gets and he simply found the hole.” Bee’s hands flopped down on her lap. “It happens. That’s why you hired my team.”

Alexi Loveless’s breath drew short. “Nothing ever ‘Just happens.'” He barked. “Actions are always reactions, and I am certain I have no moles in my outfit. Everything has a precursor, including treachery. Everything, that is, except our current problem it seems. I’m sorry… problems.” Again, the channel carried the sound of Loveless’s warbled breathing. “So, tell me Ms. Bee, are these problems solved yet?”

“Almost. The incendiaries are set for six thirty. Half hour. It will look exactly like a gas explosion, but we needed it to reasonably coincide with The Collector’s breakfast schedule for the cover story to wash. And we wanted to be away from the scene when it happened.”

The line went silent for a moment before Loveless spoke. “Let me get this straight. We are waiting for a dead guy to wake up and have breakfast? Bee, I need information! Send someone to take pictures at the scene. Carl can drive them. Use the sedan, it’s out that way.”

“I don’t recommend it, Mr. Loveless.”

Loveless’s voice went cold. “I don’t care. I will not operate in a vacuum. I need data! Aye, for all his shortcomings, has done recon before. Send him back.”

“You think he should return to the scene of the crime?”

“What I think is advisable doesn’t exactly hold sway anymore, does it!? I think that we shouldn’t have had to kill the guy and destroy the property in the first place – it’s counterproductive and sloppy, but now that we are in that situation, I want to know how it happens, and who, if anyone, tries to interfere. You think your plan is foolproof, but I see many flaws and unknowns. The only way to cover that is with people on the ground observing. Taking pictures and making notes and you have the experience to do it right. I’d send Carl, but he’d miss something.”

“I will send Mr. Aye.”

“Good! Maybe he will think twice before screwing up and getting a civilian killed for no reason.”

“I am on this call, you know,” Mr. Aye cut in.

“Good! Listen and shut up. I’ve paid you well, Bee. I expect you to keep your people in line and carry out my wishes. If you can keep them from fucking up, that would be a plus.”

“Your wishes are starting to become expensive for you.”

“I noticed. So far, we’re all liability and no payoff. Get me my pictures. Everyone going near that thing for the next hour and a half.”

“Fine. Aye will go, but you and I need to talk, Mr. Loveless.”

“That’s probably a good idea. You know where I am. And Mr. Aye, try not to kill anyone this time. I’m sending Carl with you to keep your ass in line.”

The line went dead and Ms. Bee and Mr. Aye took off their mics. Bee tilted her head toward the driver’s seat. “Hey Carl, where’s that contingency car we left out here?”

Up in the driver’s seat, Carl sat asleep at the wheel. Aye slapped him on the neck and he startled.

“Nice to know you are paying attention,” Ms. Bee said. “Get us to the contingency vehicle. Your boss has sent you and Mr. Aye to do recon.”

“Can’t Aye do recon solo?”

Mr. Aye growled, “What? You got a date or something? Just drive the fucking car.”

Ms. Bee shook her head as Mr. Aye turned back around. The van rocked out of its parking spot and drove away.

The Strange – Episode 3 – The Night Before Part 3

Candles flickered around the room and warmed the neutral colors in the Winter twin’s apartment. While Joy’s happy hour ambush with Ryan Goldberg slipped into the next morning, her sister had set up a romantic ambush of her own. Now that the trap was sprung by her strapping, young boy-toy, she wondered if her plan had backfired.

“Come on. Get off me, Teague!” Sarah Winter pushed against the hot, inviting but heavy young man that was with her on her couch. Though Teague London was Hogtown State’s first-string Tight End, Sarah didn’t want to play at being his tackling dummy.

The man grinned with gleaming white teeth in a handsome, deep chocolate brown complexion. Teague said in a sweet voice, “Now don’t play hard to get, Sarah. I know you dig your man.” He kissed her sweetly, pressing his body onto hers.

She began to have a bit of a faint spell, and had the odd thought of bricks. Snapping back to reality, Sarah was once again determined to get the upper hand. The tall, slender woman reached around and grabbed the back of Teague’s pants. Getting leverage, she pushed and pulled at the big young man, flipping him off the couch.

He landed on the floor and the woman quickly pounced on him. Straddling him, Sarah gave him a frown. “You big, lunking, oaf!” She tickled his armpits. “How many times do I have to tell you? You’re too heavy?!”

The frown turned into a wicked grin as the big man squirmed under her fingers. “Baby, please, Stop! I’m sorry. Please, I promise.”

“Ah, that’s better. You promise to stay under my control? Hmmmm?” She traced a finger nail over his skin. “I’ll make it worth your while.” Her grin became evil and sexy.

He couldn’t resist her charm. “Ok. OK! Whatever you say. Just, be gentile. I’ve got football practice tomorrow. Don’t want to be late ‘n blow my scholarship.”

The twin’s dark flowing hair touched the 6 foot 9 inch young man’s well-defined chest. She said, “Ooooohhh. Don’t worry, I know you’re a delicate flower”

“Yea, that’s me, baby.” They kissed repeatedly in a quiet, even rhythm as their passion overtook them.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

*pat* *pat* *pat* The relentless rhythm of the collector’s footsteps blissfully inspired terror.

The thick man pushed his way down the confining path of paper as quick he could, panic opening the gates of his adrenal glands. The relentlessly plodding sleepwalker gave chase with his blank eyes half open and his mouth agape. His steady, purposeful steps easily kept up with the operatives sideways scramble. Sweat poured from Mr. Aye. His tight throat let out a small, helpless cry. He was doomed. Being caught would spell disaster for the mission.

“Maybe he can recreate everything from the hard copy, all the paper,” Bee said to the voice over the wireless.

From within that maze of Hard copy, Mr. Aye heard the conversation. He tried not to let it distract him from running from the oblivious man who hunted him.

“The most likely scenario is that he doesn’t know what he’s got,” The voice said over the radio. “It sounds like he just printed the encrypted copy. Why would he print it if he couldn’t crack the cypher?”

Mr Aye rounded a blind corner in the paper as he heard Ms. Bee’s reply. “I’ve no idea. I think this guy’s crazy. You should see some of the crap he’s collected. There’s a box of pencil erasers, Beer cans, and… Oh Christ… That’s nasty.”

“And irrelevant. Does he have computers?”

“He must. I’ll find them. Floor three clear.”

Mr. Aye willed his pulse to slow. His body started to get away from him, but he willed himself to move with a purpose, even as his fear and adrenaline mounted.

Looking back, he saw the Collector. Hooded eyes over a slack-jawed mouth. The dim light of the tight passage made his skin look like it was dripping down his face. Though walking, the collector continued to snore with low moans. Every zombie movie Mr. Aye had ever seen zipped though his mind and being caught by this man became wrapped in a new kind of terror.

“Bee!” he squeaked, as loud as he dared. “Help!”

Rounding another corner in the claustrophobic maze of paper, he finally saw a much wider passage in front of him. Daylight beckoned. It was the path to the front door that connected the kitchen and the stairs.

The only thing between him and the more maneuverable passage was a foot high stack he had put in the passage as he searched through the documents. He hopped over the stack and lunged to the relative safety of the wider passage. Ms. Bee, having heard the plaintive cry over the intercom, quickly and quietly came down the stairs. Seeing The Collector coming through the narrow passage, she froze, waiting for the sleeping man’s next move.

The Collector shambled forward, and was almost clear of the narrow passage, when his feet hit the short stack still blocking the passageway. In his sleeping state, he wasn’t ready for the obstacle.

He fell forward hard and flat, his sleeping mind not alert enough to try to brace his fall. The pain jolted him awake and he shook his head. Looking up, he plainly saw the unmasked faces of the two mercenaries in his house. Dazed and half asleep, he asked, “Who? What … here?”

Taking a syringe from her belt pocket, Ms. Bee said, “Damn. Wet option. We’re going all in.”

With a resigned sadness, she grabbed the almost-naked collector by the head, stuck the syringe into his neck, and pressed the plunger.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The all night store was much too bright for quarter till two. Under the florescent glare, the weight of the night’s beer sank in on the newly coupled couple. The air conditioning was arctic, however, which made the whole place seem unreal in the middle of a sticky Florida summer. It was like stepping into OZ with the short, skinny kid at the register playing the wizard. He wore a full-sleeve turtleneck to ward off hypothermia and his goatee and glasses made him look like he might suddenly bust into a poetry slam.

Goldberg lingered near the register, hoping this would be a short trip, ignoring the cashier as much as was comfortable for them both. Eye contact, a quick nod and a look elsewhere, as was customary, was given and revived.

The thought crossed his mind that he might want to buy some rubbers, but he realized that would be colossally awkward and easily misconstrued. Besides, a little mental arithmetic told him that the ones he already had were still good, should it come to that.

“So, your roommate is nocturnal?” Joy asked over her shoulder. She made her way past the store’s chest high metal shelves and on to the Ice Cream freezer.

“Well, when you say it like that, he sounds like a cockroach or something. Dan’s just got this job that makes him get up at two in the morning, so he figures he was better off partying until two, then go into work.”

“He goes to work drunk?”

“Nah, stoned mostly. He said he prefers to drink coming down for some reason.”

She popped her head over the store’s racks, her face twisted by a question. Even with the weird look, she was still extremely cute.

“He changes the highway billboard for the gaming commission. No one seems to care what he does as long as he doesn’t screw up. Been at it for years now.”

“Wait a second. Dan Leggit? The Billboard Bug? You still hang out with him?” She took a deep breath and her eyes opened wide with concern. “I think you were more correct saying he was a cockroach. You know, he’s infamous for being a slime ball among the women on campus.”

Goldberg smiled. “He’s just a little misunderstood, is all.” She shot him a cold glance from the refrigerated section. “…Which, of course, could be interpreted as saying that you are almost entirely right on the money.” A chuckle escaped Joy as she watched him backpedal. “He’s been a good friend to me. Maybe you just need to meet him when he’s not looking for women.”

“Whenever that is.” Joy opened the freezer as Goldberg patiently waited at the register.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a peculiar flash between himself and the counter. It was a squiggle not unlike the trail brought on by some hallucinogenics, but it seemed more at home in the store’s bright light. When he turned his head, it disappeared. What remained on the counter was a sign for the week’s lottery drawing displaying the winning numbers. On a wim, He dug in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a slip of paper.

Joy came up to the register with two cartons of ice cream and cheap hair scrunchy.

Without looking, Goldberg said, “Um, you know… I think this is on me.”

The tall pale woman searched through her purse from within the tent of her hair. “Don’t be silly, Mr. Goldberg.” She grinned. “I’ll get it. You paid for the bar.”

“No, really, let me get it.” He showed her the slip of paper and pointed at the lottery display. “I just won the lottery.”

Joy’s mouth opened in astonishment. “The whole thing? Really?”

Goldberg held the ticket under the grease penciled in numbers and he and Joy compared them. The cashier pressed in for a closer look. All three of them read off the numbers and found that it was a complete match.

Goldberg looked across Joy’s face at the cashier. “You sure these numbers are right?” The young man nodded affirmative.

“Damn, Goldberg! You know, I was going to sleep with you anyway, but now I think you are trying too hard to impress me,” Joy deadpanned as Goldberg’s head whipped around. “Makes you look all needy.”

As they stared, the cashier said, “Well if she kicks you to the curb, I get off at three.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The tile felt cool on Frank’s cheek. The world swam back into his vision sideways. White, rubber-soled shoes shuffled up and down against a vertical floor. He thought of basketball.

The voice brought him to his senses. Natasha was calling for him.

“Frank! You have to do it Frank! You must die! Kill yourself, Please!”

The people in the bay were restraining the panicked old woman. “Let me go! Frank! Please, I have to explain… ”

“Sedation! Get her sedated! She’s pulling at her … *nph!*” Natasha clocked the woman in the breast bone with a practiced heel strike and she went down.

“Page Dr. Moore!” Another yelled.

A young nurse ran over with a needle and plunged it into Natasha’s IV. Another reached up and squeezed the bag, sending the medication racing into her bloodstream.

“Uh… Frank…” Natasha’s voice trailed off.

Pulling himself up from the floor, Frank’s eyes darted around at the nurses. “What… What are you doing to my wife!” he cried.

“Please Mr. Riley,” a nurse said, not turning around. “She’s un…”

“What the hell did you just do to my WIFE!” He screamed, getting to his feet.

The nurse turned. “She was hurting herself. And others. We sedated her.”

“You did what!? She just woke up!”

“And was strangling you. Straining…”

Dr. Moore burst through the door. “Nurse! Situation!” For a small man, he commanded immediate attention.

“These people are trying to kill my wife.” Frank pointed into the crowd.

“Patient woke up agitated and delusional. She was choking Mr. Riley.”

The doctor looked at Frank’s neck. “And doing a fair job. Mr. Riley, can you come with me.”

“But, Natasha…”

“Frank…!” The doctor said sharply, snapping the old man from his protests. He guided him toward the seats in the hallway. “Please.”

The old man walked over and slid into the seat. Dr. Moore joined him and leaned on the adjoining arm rest. “Frank, I’m sorry. This sucks.” The doctor’s voice was compassionate, but stern. “I’ve known both of you too long to BS you. She’s not doing well. And to have her wake up and be aggressive…”

“She’s not crazy.”

“No. No, of course not. But…”

Frank’s voice was barely audible, but it cut off Dr. More’s protest. “I’d like to see her again Jason. Just once. I’d… I’d like to say good bye.” He sighed and shook his head. “I saw plenty of death in the War in Europe. I know what it looks like and I know my girl.” his lip twitched and his chin crinkled. “She’s a fighter. She’ll want to say good bye… Explain this… I’m sure of it.”

Dr. Moore nodded. “We’ll do what we can. If she’s got it in her, we’ll work with it. But…”

“Yeah. ‘But.'”

The two fell into silence. The bustle of the nurses around Natasha quieted into a slow din of beeping monitors. One by one the people finished their jobs in the small cubicle of a room. Soon it was just Natasha in a tangle of tubes and wires.

The doctor put a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Take a break, Frank. She’ll be asleep for a while. There’s a cot in my office if you’d rather not go home. Through the doors, on the left.” He stood and added, “You are my patient as well. And right now, I suggest you take care of yourself.”

Frank slowly stood. “You will get me?”

“Any change at all. I promise.”

He eyed the doors, then glanced into Natasha’s room. It was hard to see her in the muddle of machines. Frank made his way to the doors and pushed through. It was the end of the world and nothing would be the same again.

The Strange – Episode 4 – Up On the Sun

The Strange – Episode 2 – The Night Before Part 2

The brownstone refused to give the interlopers a break. Plans for the house showed a first floor sprawled out as one big room with a large kitchen towards the back behind a wall. Since that wall supported the two stories above, it was solid, save a single door. This room should have been open and inviting, but the overwhelming contents and junk turned it into a claustrophobic labyrinth. The only wide passage in the large room went from the front door, past the strangely clear staircase and back to the door that led to the kitchen. A conceit, no doubt, to the necessity of eating.

What at first glance seemed to be a huge block of printouts soon came to resemble more of a stair-step mound. The outer edge was shin high while the center was on top of a table. It towered over all the other stacks and over the heads of the pair infiltrating the house. Certain piles could not immediately be inspected by the pair, since the piles in front of them blocked them from view. They resorted to looking where they could, silently shuffling, following the branching, foot-wide trails that wound through the stacks.

More than just paper clogged the room, though the sheer volume and the newness of the stacks made it stand out. Around the edges were little collections, all neatly arranged on shelves and table tops. Some were of old books, some of glass nick-nacks, some made of cans. One particularly odd collection was of old sneakers, carefully arranged on what looked to be a low serving table. In short, junk was everywhere, but meticulously placed and the two had to inspect everything in the dark. The green glow of their night vision goggles gave them headaches, but there would be no flashlights to aid them. The intricate plan for this op precluded light or anything that would call attention to themselves. The lone occupant, The Collector, must never know who stole back his ill gotten information. At least that was the plan going in.

They started calling him ‘The Collector’ almost from the start. He had an indiscriminate hacking style that was effective because it was erratic, unexpected and unbelievably prescient, almost clairvoyant in its ability to avoid detection. The early theory was that he was just gathering trophies, breaking into places just to say he’d gotten in. After spying on his on-line activities, they wondered if he was compulsive. He copied all the data on the host system, regardless of worth, whenever he got into a system. Less of a collector, they surmised, than a hoarder.

They had no idea how right they were. It seems that this guy had printed out everything and the results were everywhere. After two hours of searching, they had uncovered many documents, all marked with “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Empire” as a header, scattered throughout the printouts. They contained nothing but data embedded in a cypher, a big block of numbers, letters, and symbols representing their prize. No unencrypted pages, however. Nothing actually incriminating by itself and without analysis. Still, this was the data they came for and it was intermingled with everything else The Collector, Professor Bill Nestor, had retrieved and printed.

“This is impossible, we should just go final contingency. Blow this place up and burn it down,” Mr. Aye said as they worked. Cramped spaces made the big man uncomfortable. He got more agitated, the longer they searched. The narrow passages in the piles of junk made him walk sideways just to get around.

Over the earpiece, the voice said, “You will go wet only as a last resort. The final contingency is just that, a last resort. I’m paying you to be as thorough and to be as unobtrusive as possible. I doubt that The Collector even knows what he has, or how … interesting it is.”

Ms. Bee turned on her throat mike. “Interesting or no, and as much as it pains me to say it, Mr. Aye’s got a point. We can not guarantee that the information you wish to have retrieved is completely eliminated from this mess unless we destroy everything.”

“I understand what you are saying, just like you understand my instructions. Keep looking. I would have blown the place up myself if I’d wanted to be so conspicuous.”

Suddenly, the pair were blinded. The room’s overhead track lights snapped on, flooding the dark in bright light. Acting on their training, they whipped off their night vision equipment and scampered to find cover among the junk in the room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The night was warm, dark, damp and breezy. In a scene as old as the ages, a young couple danced to the tune of their new relationship in fresh, uncertain steps. Goldberg bundled his wavy blond hair back off his face while Joy Winter used her long dark locks to play hard to get. As they strolled past the odd block of row houses, Goldberg came to the end of a story.

“…so, I said, it’s a little from column A,” he said gesturing with his left hand. She helped him finish the sentence as he made the same gesture with his other hand. “… and a little from column B!”

They both laughed at the end of the story. Joy grabbed his arm and gave it a little squeeze. The squeeze ended but she found his hand and held it. He felt like a school kid again and his hand perspired despite his best efforts.

Joy peered around her locks and said, “Does this make you uncomfortable, Goldberg?”

“Of course.” He stopped walking and faced her, still holding her hand. “But it’s nice.” Her pale face made a wonderful canvas and the lights of a summer night danced across it. Somewhere in the distance, a traffic light turned from red to green and the shade on her right side turned from ruby to emerald. Goldberg was overcome by the coy beauty of this girl’s easy smile and her wide, sparkling eyes. He leaned in and kissed her softly.

His soul poured into her with that tender touch and in return he received hers. Nothing in Goldberg’s years prepared him for a kiss like this one. He never wanted it to end. Their hands and arms traced the new landscape of each others backs, finding the perfect embrace. In the heat and mugginess of the night, they found that their souls matched.

After endless moments, they broke and looked at one another. The smiles they wore had more meaning, but were just as sweet.

“I believe someone owes me some ice cream,” Joy said with a playful grin.

Goldberg was shaken from his reverence and said, “Ah, yes. And remind me to show you the secret knock.”

They walked on in silence, enjoying the nearly moonless sky on this hot summer night. Joy let her long dark hair drape across her face. With a smooth motion, she flipped her locks over her shoulder and asked, “What are you thinking?”

The blond young man looked at her smiling face and was once again amazed that she was smiling for him. “That I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

“Yes you are,” she teased and smiled. She draped his arm over her shoulder and leaned into him. Her lean body found the perfect contour in his frame and matched his step. “Really, we both have it pretty good, considering,” Joy put in after a long pause. “I mean, we’ve been able to stay at Hogstown State for going on eleven years! Most people only get four, if that. Speaking of which, how’s the thesis?”

“Ah yes. The thesis. Hm.”

“That is not a happy sound, Goldberg. Sorry, did I just crush the mood?”

“No. But… Well, here’s what Rodger had to say about ‘Fractal Encryption – Chaos Protection’.” He made a straight face and threw on a formal voice. “This is not a science fiction convention, Mr. Goldberg.”

“H’Oh shit! He didn’t”

“Oh yeah.” He said, resuming his tone. “You cannot throw impractical spiffy sounding things out at the wall no matter how nifty. It is not enough to publish, you must publish that which is usable either to your colleagues or to the public to have any reputation and for our board to confer to you the honor and title which you seek.”

“Ouch! ‘Spiffy’ and ‘Nifty’? Harsh.”

“Ah, Rodger… I don’t know how much of that is just being upper crusty and British. He told me to continue, though. That’s more praise than most get. I guess the worst that can happen is nothing… continue grading papers, doing the odd bong hit, and teaching the functionally inept.”

She threw a glance from under arched eyebrows. “Yeah. And I’m sure you don’t appreciate the lifestyle.”

“Busted.” He smiled. The orange street lamps turned his teeth tan. “I’ll be glad to avoid the real world for as long as I can manage it. Is that so wrong or selfish? I mean, I do feel like I owe it to… whatever, the world… for providing me with a place to live and a lifestyle that I enjoy most days. So I continue with the thesis even though Roger may be right and it’s just silly. Maybe that alone is not enough? Maybe teaching, passing on the knowledge without ever coming up with anything useful is a waste of potential or something? But then, what else to do?”

“Very philosophical for a Math guy.”

“Well, I guess hearing about Mrs. Riley has me in a bit of a reflective mood. It’s the big things like that and like, say kissing a pretty girl for the first time… makes you think about your life.” He looked at her bright smile and added, “At least I do.”

They continued walking. Joy examined the sidewalk’s even bricks as she walked. “I guess you do what you can, I mean about giving back to the community and all. I think it’s pretty clear when you should poke your head in and do stuff, but until then, leave things alone, and just live life.”

He nodded. “Exactly. I mean, I just like it here. I like being able to hang out with my friends. I like the town. I even like my job, but everything always conspires to push you further along on the ladder and it seems like you’re either climbing or falling. Or you are some kind of layabout. Don’t get me wrong, I spend plenty of time enjoying life. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess I just don’t like change all that much. Maybe that’s why I don’t take the thesis terribly seriously. And I’ve just… I don’t know… Today I’ve been feeling sort of… I don’t know how to describe it…” He squeezed her. “Things seem to be pent up to change and while some changes are fantastic, it just seems… well… do things seem just a touch different? Not as much something you can put your finger on, but more something you feel. Like the way your skin prickles just before a lighting storm.”

“Has someone been stepping on your zeitgeist, Goldberg?”

He chuckled. “I suppose it is sort of foolish. Forget I mentioned it. Anyway, the thesis is doing just fine. I’m just not convinced that I care all that much.”

Joy looked at the bricks in the sidewalk. “Your feelings aren’t foolish, Goldberg. Having intuition isn’t silly, at least not to me. Just because it doesn’t adhere to the ‘mathematical model of science and stuff’, doesn’t make it any less important. Uh… oh!” She swooned and Goldberg caught her.

He blanched. “Uh, maybe that last glass of water was one too many. That stuff sneaks up on you, you know,” he joked lamely as Joy regained her equilibrium.

Her composure back in place, Joy swiped at her hair and said, “Yeah, um… I can definitely feel it. The difference you were talking about, I mean.” A flustered look crossed her face. “Let’s go get that ice cream, I’m thinking vanilla! Definitely! Vanilla!”

“You know, I might be out of vanilla.” The change of subject was noted but not pursued. “The all-night store is this way, though. It’s only a bit of a detour.” He pointed back up the street, the way that they had just come.

She raised her face and once again smiled. “Then that’s the way we go. I want to pick up a hair band, anyway.”

As they turned, Goldberg saw something out of the corner of his eye. A light in one of the brownstones had just turned on. “Hey, isn’t that ‘Weird Bill’s’ house? The lights just went on.”

Joy looked at the light through the curtains. “I think it is. Yeah, you know he was looking for you yesterday. Said it was a puzzle and it was important.”

“Well, I’m glad he didn’t find me. Whenever he wants me to look at something it is invariably harebrained. Still, strange coincidence to see him get up in the middle of the night.”

As the two lovers walked past a nondescript, white van he said, “What are the odds?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Quiet, even footsteps echoed from the top of the stairs. From their hiding places, the two ignored the voice in their ears. “What’s going on there? Bee? Aye?”

They each reached to their throats and turned off their radios, silencing the voice. Eyes interrogated the shadow on the stairs for tactical advantage. Two knives slid silently from hidden sheaths. Muscles tightened as the two prepared to kill.

Oblivious, The Collector plodded down the stairs in a rumpled nightshirt. His arms dangled at his sides and his mouth was open. Unseeing eyes were open but blank. The two who had invaded his home spied him from the cover of paper stacks. They watched as he shuffled from the bottom of the stairs, around a corner, through the canyon between two paper piles and through the swinging kitchen door. He pushed the door an extra time, getting it stuck open.

He turned on the kitchen lights without looking for the switch, revealing a waist-high maze made of piles of cans, stacks of dishes, and stacks of magazines. The two operatives looked at each other then back at the man, as he made his way through the overstuffed kitchen. Suddenly, the man in the nightshirt stopped. The operatives watched in frozen silence, thinking they were caught. The collector merely stepped a half step to the left to avoid a box of books that would have stubbed his toe. Without looking back, he continued to shamble.

“Son of a … He’s sleepwalking,” Ms. Bee whispered as they looked on. Putting her hand to her throat, she turned the radio back on. “Had to go quiet,” she whispered. “Collector is a sleepwalker.”

The voice over the radio said, “So, what is happening? The driver says he sees lights.”

“Yes, lights. He’s turning on lights in his sleep. It’s like he’s got the place memorized.” Ms. Bee looked in amazement as The Collector got a glass from his cupboard. “He’s getting a drink from the kitchen sink.”

The voice paused. “Interesting, but only a minor wrinkle. Just stay out of his way. Maybe he’ll leave the lights on. That will make your search a little less ‘impossible.'”

The thick man flipped on his radio and said, “It certainly doesn’t hurt.”

“I’m going to check upstairs while it’s clear. Give me a squawk if he starts to move.” The lithe dark woman silently walked up the stairs, a knife poised slightly in front in the unlikely case that the Collector had a guest.

Mr. Aye continued to look through the pages, keeping an eye on the sleepwalking man. There were all different types of printouts in the stack, but frequently he would come across one of the ones he was looking for, the ones marked “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Network”.

“Even with the lights on, this is going to take well into the morning… more time than we have.” Mr. Aye said in a whisper. “Do you have a contingency for just loading all this crap into a semi?”

“No. I had not planned for hard copy on that sort of scale.  It did not seem likely or even possible. Everything is incriminating?”

“Not everything. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to it, but the things we need are
all mushed in with other stuff. We’ll either have to check everything or take everything. He’ll know he was taken either way.”

“The Collector himself knowing is not a concern. I just don’t want him to be able to prove anything, especially if he sounds like a nut to begin with. You are saying that you need to take everything to do that?”

He bent over and randomly cut a large stack and looked at the page on top. Again it read “Alexi Loveless – Criminal Network”

“You’ve got encrypted stuff with your name on it, calling you a criminal. That will shine a spotlight on you that you won’t like so, yeah. Every single page needs to go to ensure a full retrieval.”

Over the intercom Mr. Bee said “Level two is a royal mess, but doesn’t have anything for us. Haven’t found the computers yet. Checking the next level.”

After a few minutes the sleepwalking man shambled away from the sink. “Collector starting to move.” Mr. Aye said, pushing himself shoulder first into one of the narrow paths, letting the sleepwalker go back the way he had come.

The even voice said into the intercom, “OK. Prioritize the search on the soft copy. If we get the computers, all this guy would have left is a crazy nest of paper with some gibberish on slanderous letterhead and my network address. It’d be interesting, but useless as real evidence. We won’t take any of it. Not an ideal outcome and we’ll have to dial down our activities while I re-evaluate. This is going to be expensive.”

The zombie-like man came out of the kitchen. Mr. Aye watched the man slowly advance on his position, expecting him to retrace his steps through the wide passageway and back to the stairs. But instead of going left he went right, toward the thin passage through the paper stacks where the thick man stood. Slow yet unstoppable, the shambling sleepwalker inadvertently pursued Mr. Aye, driving him further into the paper labyrinth.

Mr. Aye quickly realized how confining and unforgiving the narrow path through the paper was. He looked back to find the Collector mercilessly shambling towards him, slowly, but still faster than he could get his big frame pushed through the path. He had nowhere to go. He had to get through, just steps ahead of the drooling, eyes half open and snoring man; capture, a fate worse than death.

As his panic rose, he heard Ms. Bee respond to Loveless’s comment, “Yeah, it will be expensive and hard to manage, but it is nothing we can’t handle as long as we get the computers and ourselves out of this house unnoticed.”