Shank rattled down the sidewalk. In some distant and huddled corner of consciousness he remembered what the inside of the city felt like, what it looked like. He looked at himself from that place: the jitter of his eyes, the disheveled clothes, the wild hair, the tweak in his walk. He was repulsive. Dangerous.
He bumped an old woman in furs. She made a noise of surprise, and on seeing him a face of fear and disgust. He barely recognized it as a face. It was more like a residual blur, an afterglow of some strange image he’d never understand. Her poodle yipped as she yanked on its leash and hurried away, and he started laughing. His laugh was insane, and he knew it, and he laughed harder.
People were looking. More faces. More disgust. How does a man fall so far? What did he used to be? Did he used to be anything? The thoughts were his own but seemed to come from elsewhere. The attack confused him, cut his laughter dead, sent him reeling forward.
An alley saved him from the faces and muffled the traffic. His nerves, tense to breaking, loosened. He breathed in the smell of rot and knew he was in the right place. A sign above a rusted door said “The Other Side” and he rapped the hollow metal. The clank of a bolt preceded a pale eye behind a crack and a chain.
“I haven’t seen you in a month.”
“I need to come in. Just let me in. You have to help me.”
“Did you clean the stain?”
“The stain. I am a fucking stain. You’re a paradox. The whole thing is absurdity and it followed me back. I can’t explain it through the cracks. Open the door. Open the door.”
“You don’t look so good.”
“Open the fucking door!”
The crack disappeared, the chain rattled, and the door came open. Shank entered and the hole closed behind him. Before him were the instruments of his madness. He had dreamed of them too. Monitors and grids and panels whose complexity and engineering were far beyond his understanding, they gave the room a strange glow that had once intoxicated him. Now it frightened him. He shuddered.
“I talked to Holly. She said you only made two sessions. Where the hell have you been? We gave you up for roasted.”
There was a parenthetic question mark behind the last. Am I roasted? he wondered.
“I zawned,” he said.
“You . . . zawned?” The incredulity in the voice was drowned in excitement. “It takes people years to – nobody like you has ever – are you sure?”
“It wasn’t a dream.” He turned to Nikolai. “I want to show you.”
The geek’s eyes were wide. “A zawning has never been graphed before. Fuck, Shank, people don’t even think it’s real. You think you copped an image?”
“It’s at least a gigapixel.”
“It ain’t about the damn pixels, man. Anybody can come back with ten gigapixels of foggy shit. You really think you zawned, and came back with a resolved image? I mean, spatially, radiometrically, resolved?”
“Just light me up. You’ve got questions, I’ve got questions, it’s shaking me loose. Just light me up. If it isn’t there, it isn’t there. Maybe it isn’t there. Maybe I’m not here. I’m gonna lose it. You watching this? The whole thing’s melting right the fuck out of my head. Ask me another question.”
Nikolai wasted no time with the apparatus. For what it did, the thing was pretty simple. Seven nodes attached to the head, they transmitted the data wirelessly to the networked drives. Nine of them, slinging bits and information on the order of a terabyte per nanosecond. It was the cooling that was the suck, and energy wasn’t cheap. Nikolai usually reminded him that every pull cost him a legal month of watts, but this time he just flipped the switch.
The lights flickered and dimmed. The hum of the cooling rods met the hum of the processors, pulsing in a low binaural beat. Shank closed his eyes and called up the image. This was what they called the magic minute. Anybody could dream, but only a few could bring one back, and only a few of the few could render it. And barely any of those could transmit. In the strange glow and invasive rhythm of the machinery, Shank viewed the still from his memory more clearly than his eyes could have seen it. Captured in a dream beyond a dream, enhanced through conscious processes, painted now physically across the synapses of his brain. All else faded away, thoughts became dim then mute then disappeared. The image shuddered once when his fear returned, but even the fear phased out. The world beyond the image dissipated, and the image was everything.
The sensation that occurred as the nodes kicked up their dust storm of neurons was surreal; and with every pull it was newly surreal. It was as if the world became unhinged, and tiny ghosts with stingers attacked from all sides at once. Unseen, unfelt, the prodding force could only be experienced beyond the senses. The assault seemed to last an age. When at last it ended Shank let the image fall and with it some of the memory. He opened his eyes.
Nikolai was at his panel, manipulating the figures on the screen with unconscious dexterity. It was all Greek to Shank. Splatter patterns and algorithms and all sorts of esoteric mathematical jargon bounced around in the display. If he hadn’t seen the results before, he might, like many others, think the whole thing was a parlor trick.
“Here it comes,” said Nikolai.
The back wall shimmered and became white. A wave of black light swept through it, leaving behind a faint pattern of black flecks. Another wave, and another. They came at faster intervals, filling the canvas with black. It was all black. Something was wrong. The image wasn’t coming through. The waves ripped until nothing remained but the deepness of the absence of color. Shank looked into the darkness, not understanding.
“Is this a joke?” said Nikolai. The edge in his voice was fear, and maybe anger.
“It was dark, but it wasn’t that dark. There was horror in the hole, but the disk was made of light. Every color you’ve ever seen. A curling bridge of dust and great storm of white fire, the shadow of the hand that found me. It was there. It’s here. I saw her face. My thoughts are made of color, not this darkness.”
Shank looked at Nikolai, not seeing him. “My thoughts are made of light,” he said. “My memories are masterpieces.”
“You’re fucking roasted,” Nikolai said. “Forget about the stain, you’re whole brain is fried, man. Who am I going to sell this to, huh? Who the fuck is going to buy an empty piece of fucking nothing?”
Shank replied, but it was an unintelligible mutter. He muttered all the way out the door, down the alley, back into the cracks of the city.
The Metroplex was a mountain of glass and metal, ravines and spires. Tar roads trickled through the pits, skyways hovered in the twilight zone, the Church of Man rose up over all, a lonely peak so high it made the tourists dizzy. And orbiting the edifice like a Saturn’s ring a ribbon of Heaven boasted the achievements of the flesh. It was a dreamscape projected onto a stream of particles, built and maintained by the church, the forty-second wonder of the world.
Shank knew the man who dreamed it, a man that used to have an eye for the world. Jon Newton had been among the pioneers of dreamscaping, turning the unknown realms of sleep into the next frontier of expression. He sculpted dreams of diamond oceans, floating cities, falling skies. But then a bishop from the Church of Man slipped a check in his pocket, and now he called himself Wazir and only dreamed of Heaven.
The Church of Man. It brought the bile up, thinking of it. The final resting place for the god of the gaps. The old religions had surrendered to science and reason and the deluge of secularism that came with the second Enlightenment, only to reemerge as a hybrid of humanism and new age mysticism. The clergy wore jeans, the songs had a backbeat, and Jesus was Muhammad was Buddha was Vishnu was the answer to the letter y. Physics, chemistry, biology – they had the how of it, but people still needed a place to go when their bodies gave up the ghost. Escape route, plan B, the way out. Consciousness was the last mystery on earth or in the stars, therefore god. And therefore heaven and Jon Newton’s billion dollar dreams.
Maybe god was in the cards, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was god’s hand reaching out of that darkness, curling its fingers around his mind, giving him this squeeze. Maybe it was the other guy.
Maybe it was me.
Holly and her zawners were on the fifth floor of the church. Through a silent door he found the ocean-blue lobby, pocked with dull-eyed baitfish. They came here to dream because dreaming was the only moral high. The holy LSD. There was a god in the cracks between sleep and death and a cure for existence. Whatever work they did was meaningless, whatever families they had were the same notch of mute. They came here for the numbness.
The receptionist recognized him.
“The artist returns to us,” she said. She had the mystic’s calm, a voice that crawled through time. “He brings a question.”
Heads turned. They knew him here.
“She makes the dream. Have some tea. The time will pass.”
“I need to see Holly.”
“The time will pass.”
“There isn’t any fucking time!” His fist on the counter was an alien violence. The intrigue of the faithers behind him smelled like plague. He took a breath, lowered his voice. “I have been where you pretend to go. I returned with an image, and the dreamscape was black. There’s a hole in my head and it’s sucking the life out of my eyes and I need to speak to Holly. Now.”
The voice was in his ear, the lips too close. He turned, and the face was pale with awe. Others came. Faces. Too many faces. They were all flat with wonder, glossed with the oblivion of belief. They surrounded him.
“What did you see?”
“Was there a light?”
“Did it feel like they say? Did it feel like flying?”
Lambs. The folds of the old testaments, dull and willing. He saw the emptiness that built this edifice, the absurdity that furnished and sustained it. All the monuments through the ages, from the Church of Man to the Parthenon, grown brick by brick from these seeds of wish and fear.
He was saved by another door. She stood within its frame, a feminine paradigm and a halo of blue light. The calm these faithers pretended was savage in her. She won through pain what they hoped to purchase through donation.
“Shank,” she said, “Please come inside.”
He followed her.
“You are lost.”
“Everybody’s lost. I’m off the plane.”
“You found your way here.”
“You did this to me. You, this place, those people. I came here to get the needle out of my brain, you replaced it with a knife and sent me screaming through the void. I just wanted a pill, something to pop. Something to clean the stain. I didn’t ask for this.”
“Zawning. Your out-of-body freak-show. I don’t believe in this nonsense, I don’t subscribe to magic, I don’t fuck around with prophets and voodoo. I dream, and I paint. There’s nothing mystical about it. I don’t chase angels through the ether. My dreamscapes were smeared, and came here, I found here. They said you’d done it before, gone inside and flushed the pipes. They didn’t say you’d shove a rocket up my ass and aim for the abyss.”
“You believe you’ve zawned?”
“It wasn’t a dream.”
“Can you describe it?”
“Ashes at Midnight. Coal in a Tar-pit. I copped the image and that’s what I pulled. Oblivion.”
“Don’t you get it? It’s impossible. You can’t pull nothing. You can’t pull what you can’t fathom, and nobody can fathom the darkness. Not if you’re blind from birth can you project full absence, because the mind itself is something.”
“And the dream?”
“It wasn’t a dream.”
“The zawn, then.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“I believe you’ve had a transformative experience.”
“I only asked you to describe it.”
“I can’t! It isn’t words. I’m no good with words. Can you describe Picasso? Can you describe a supernova?”
“I could try.”
“I’m not roasted.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You’re thinking it, you’re looking it. I can smell it. Shank’s hit the wall, too much time in lala land, brain-splat, game over. Didn’t come back this time, did I? Buried my soul and shit in the hole.”
“Do you think you’re roasted?”
“Then tell me what you saw.”
“Colors. Shapes. The shadow of a hand and the face of beauty. There it is. Picture it if you will.”
“Shank, I can only help you if you’re open.”
“I need to go back. I can’t get back. You have to get me back.”
“Back to what?”
“Back to the hand that found me and the eyes that knew me!”
“Shank – ”
“I was there! I can’t describe it and I can’t prove it and if we were reversed I’d never believe it, but I was there.”
“Shank. Shut up, look directly into my eyes, and do everything I tell you.”
Consciousness. Pure and unthinking and ablaze. In high movement above the city it burned with the unbridled positivity of existence without awareness. Then it blinked twice and became afraid.
The city was a gorgeous wound in the earth, its dream of heaven a solemn ring of infection. Around it the skin was flat and smooth until forests or mountains or rivers. The fear became wonder became fear again. A fall from this height was death, and there was a universe to go.
Another blink and Earth was a haloed sphere, wretchedly blue against the white glare of the distant sun. The bleakness of the distance was awful. Earth was a lonely and vulnerable thing, moving at terrible speed through darkness, held to its course by the weakest force in the universe.
A ring of orbiting rocks and mountains, some glistening like diamonds. Tumble weeds blowing through a ghost system. Beyond them the great mass of Jupiter stood like its namesake, its one eye a wandering threat.
Another blink and Saturn was a pale dot and the sun was cold. The Church of Man was a pin prick on a pin prick on a speck of light-stricken dust. The distances were coming in magnitudes and suddenly the sun was just a star. A star among a billion stars. Stars that went shooting past, balls of light that flashed white for a moment and cooled to red as they raced away to punch another hole in the shrinking expansion. Until the flashes became streaks, ribbons of energy bent through time and pointing home.
Then, as if it were the heart ripped out of his chest and dropped from a height, Shank watched the spiral of the galaxy fall away. The whole galaxy, with its legions of stars and men, became a faint glow in the stoic emptiness.
The fear fell with it and he realized he was looking backwards. He turned and discovered that journey had just begun. The void swallowed him. They weren’t stars but galaxies that went streaking past. Embers of the dying fire fighting against the cold and the dark.
And the great darkness loomed. The black disc dominated field and spectrum and sucked existence inwards. A trillion suns made wild orbit, their guts ripped out in whorling torrents and ringing the abyss with a dance of fire. Blue geysers of energy made a violent escape from the belly of the hole and etched a brilliant highway through the absence around it.
Here was the center of things. From this point all points arose.
As before the hand reached out to him. He could feel the consciousness behind it. No other force would dare the demonstration. It was the fifth force, the eyes that made eternal observance and substantiated the others.
But the hand was made of light, and even light surrendered to infinity. The darkness bent it to breaking and swallowed.
When the face emerged it knew him. It moved to speak.
He was shaking. The eyes were Holly’s.
“Shank, are you there?” She snapped her fingers at him. “Say something.”
“I’m here.” He sat up. He was on the floor, drenched in sweat, and his whole body ached. Holly was frightened. He had never seen her frightened.
“You seized,” she said.
“I have to get to the Other Side,” he said. He tried to stand but his legs were weak and they failed him. “What happened?”
There were faithers in the room. They clutched the walls, afraid to approach, and they looked at him with terrible reverence.
“I’m sorry,” Holly said. “They just . . . came.”
“The Other Side,” he said. “I have the image, Holly. The face at the center of things, at the center of myself, the eyes of darkness and beauty. Nikolai – take me to Nikolai.”
Her hand on his cheek was cool. “You need to rest. Your body is tired.”
Holly. The ages could be traced in the lines of her skin and her voice echoed back from the halls beyond death.
He pushed her away. When he stood, his legs held him. But one of the faithers, tall and glazed, blocked the exit and held up a hand. The calm in him was dumb and the eyes were baked with borrowed dreams.
Shank grabbed a heavy bookend from Holly’s shelf and cracked his faither skull. He cracked it again. Blood ended the mystic playtime and a woman screamed. A final crack and the man fell and Shank stumbled and ran out the door.
The heavy thing, the white ivory in his grip, it was an angel, bowed sublimely with folded wings and splattered red.
“Nikolai!” His fist rattled the cheap metal. “Nikolai! I have it! The image is clear! Open the door!”
The bolt, the pale eye and the crack and the chain.
“You’re roasted. Get the fuck out of here.”
“You don’t understand,” Shank said. “I was there. I breathed it. I’m infused. These are the colors of life and the hole is black murder. I have it, Nikolai, and this time it’s real. You have to trust it. You have to risk it.”
“I scrapped a month of watts on your darkness,” Nikolai said. “It’s game over for you, Shank.”
Shank kicked the door. “Explain it then! The image wasn’t smeared, there wasn’t a stain. It was absence, fully resolved. It isn’t supposed to be possible.”
Nikolai said nothing.
“It’s something,” Shank said. He put his face to the crack. The metal was cool. “There’s more of it. I pulled this from the edge, Nikolai. I didn’t cop the lines, they’re seared across my brain. You just have to turn on the machine. This is it. This is the one, the one that puts me back on the map, the one that gets you out of this dive.”
The chain clicked and the door opened. Nikolai wielded two fingers like a dagger and jabbed Shank in the chest.
“You better not be fucking around.”
“Just turn it on. Turn it on, turn it on.”
Seven nodes attached to the head. The cooling and processing thrummed. Shank closed his eyes and brought the image forward and traced its lines with his mind. The magic minute came and the nodes kicked up their storm of neurons, ghosts, and stingers.
When he opened his eyes Nikolai was a blur at his panel. The jargon bounced around his screens like a coded game of pong and the clacking of keys was violent against the hum of the machines. A final clack and the black light began its sweep over the white wall. Patterns emerged, and colors. Colors from a dream that wasn’t a dream.
“What is it?” Nikolai asked.
“You’ll see. Everyone will see,” Shank said.
Every pass of light laid a million flecks. Lines became clear, and then shapes. Shapes that formed a face and the face was Shank’s and it screamed from a hole in the universe. Streams of light and dust shot through the particle miasma and wrapped the hole in a halo of agony and a hand reached out but never touched the stars.
“It’s brilliant,” said Nikolai.
“It wasn’t me,” Shank said. “Where is she? Milk and eyes, Nikolai! This isn’t what I saw. She was beautiful. You fucked it up. What is this? That isn’t me. Where is my masterpiece? What did you do you with my masterpiece?”
The rattling of the door, a thunder from the other side. Nikolai went and opened the crack and the voice came through it like a flood.
“Metroplex Police. Sheldon Banks is wanted for the murder of William Laughlin. We tracked him here. We have a warrant. You can open the door or we can break it down.”
“Open the door, put your hands on your head, and back away.”
Murder. The red splattered angel and the faither. The face in the hole with the eyes of fear without hope, an elbow against his spine and the taste of concrete and teeth and copper blood.
“My dreams are beautiful. You should have seen my dreams.”
“What the hell is this place?”
“Looks like dreamscaping. Black market, keeps the watts off the grid. You fucked up your friend real good with this back-alley rig, buddy. You’re going down for the juice, and accessory.”
“I barely know this guy! My watts are clean, check the logs!”
Shank had no resistance to give. He was limp as they dragged him.
“I dreamed of purple roses once,” he said. “I dreamed of purple roses that hung from a sheet of sky. The girl, she stood on a blade of grass – she had a face of milk and eyes.”
The officer made a note of it and pushed his head into the car.