"Are you...are you sad?" "No." "But your songs are sad." "My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you. Watch my arms. There is only the Dance. These things you treasure are shells." -William Gibson, Count Zero
“Jesus,” Simon muttered, holding the c-machine in his hands, “How long was this thing fucking down there?”
Michael shrugged and took it from Simon. “In the neighborhood of 100,000 years. “
Michael noticed Simon’s stare.
“Oh! It was down there longer than that, but it only took 100,000 years for the matrix to form.”
“It takes 100,000 years to make just one of these…boxes?”
Michael smiled and nodded, rubbing muck from the top of the c-machine with his wadded-up hospital scrubs.
“Not exactly a promising business model…” Simon said and half-shrugged with a hint of derision.
“That’s true,” Michael said in a resigned voice. “It does take a reasonably long time to produce a new c-machine. But it takes less than five minutes to copy one.”
“Just put your hand on it,” Michael said, standing in the dim light of Simon’s kitchen. The c-machine sat, squat and generic, on his kitchen counter.
“I don’t have to plug it in?” Simon said, looking around the back of the box. “I don’t see a power cord.”
“There’s no–” but Michael stopped, catching Simon grinning at him. “Ah, I see. A joke.”
Simon put his hand on the top of the c-machine. “Anywhere?”
The skin on the palm of Simon’s hand started to crawl, and with it he felt a building sensation of heat. The surface of the c-machine seemed to loosen somehow under his fingers. “That feels really weird.” Looking up at Michael. “And now what?”
“Ask it for something.” Michael said absently, looking out the window at the coming night.
“Very Star Trek,” Simon noted, and then announced: “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”
The squirming under his hand stopped, the sense of warmth died almost instantly. Instinctively, Simon withdrew his hand. “Uh huh,” he said, glancing back at Michael. “What happens now–”
Bong! The c-machine made a soft, disturbingly synthetic chime that Simon felt in his teeth somehow. Michael stepped past Simon and reached into the front of the machine, which was now somehow open, although Simon hadn’t seen it move or change, and Michael pulled out a steaming cup of tea. A small puff of steam issued from the opening as well. As soon as Michael’s hand was clear of the opening, the black matte material of the c-machine somehow flowed from the edges into the center, sealing it.
“Oh, no fucking way!” Simon said to no one in particular, and then looked more closely at the cracked mug the tea was steaming in, and a kind of slow-rolling, deep shock thrummed through his chest. At first glance, the mug had seemed familiar, had jogged something in Simon’s memory. Now, looking more closely, his eyes told him that it was candy-cane red-and-white, its shape was rough and uneven, clearly a potter’s first attempt, or perhaps the work of a child…
Simon’s teeth clicked when he shut his mouth reflexively as the memory surfaced in his mind. “Oh my god, man. I recognize this mug; I had one like it that I made for my mother when I was a kid,” Simon took it gingerly from Michael’s loose grasp. “I took a pottery class my Junior year in high school. This looks just like it; I wrote my initials on the bottom –” He lifted the mug above his head to see the underside, carefully keeping it level. His initials were there, again just as he remembered. “Michael, that’s fucking impossible.”
“The c-machine established a neural link when you put your hand on it and since–,” Michael said.
“It read my mind?” Simon cut in, his voice containing equal measures of fascination and incredulity.
“No,” Michael said, shaking his head. “Minds aren’t read. Minds are not books. But, yes, the c-machine now has access to your archival pattern, so, given that you didn’t specify a container, the c-machine picked one at random from your A.P.”
“My A.P. Oh, fuck me,” Simon said, lowering the mug and rotating it to stare it from every angle. “I haven’t seen this mug since high school. My memory’s not this good.”
“Everyone’s is,” Michael answered. “Only, mostly they don’t know how to access it. They’ll learn. Are you going to drink that?”
Simon shook his head. “No, I hate tea. I didn’t really expect anything to happen.”
“May I then?”
Simon handed him the tea. Michael sipped at it and winced. “I see what you mean. Ick. Is that what it’s supposed to taste like?”
Simon’s brain was doing a nauseating series of mental back-flips, enumerating all the impossibilities he had just witnessed and, with each flip, repeating bullshit bullshit bullshit to him.
“I’m on acid,” he decided, his voice matter-of-fact. “That’s it. That’s what’s going on.”
Michael’s brow furrowed. “Wouldn’t that hurt?”
Simon shook his head. “What happens if I want something bigger than this box?” He dropped his hand atop it, felt it squirm, and reflexively jerked his arm back.
Michael leaned forward, two index fingers extended, and placed them in the lower left and upper right corners of the box, paused a moment, and then drew his arms apart. The box, like some optical illusion or magic trick, smoothly and effortlessly resized. His fingers still touching the corners, Michael looked over at Simon and asked: “I like pepperoni; do you like pepperoni?”
“What?” Simon said, shaking his head, totally confused. “Uh, sure. I like pepperoni.”
Michael removed his fingers and stepped back.
The c-machine began to change shape, the matte black material oozing in rectilinear angles, dropping in height, deepening. Then it stopped.
“Go ahead,” Michael said, and Simon noticed that the narrow opening, now barely eight centimeters high, was once again open. In a dream, Simon reached in and withdrew a large pepperoni pizza, complete with aluminum tray, the pizza aromatic and sizzling hot.
Simon brought it to his kitchen table, set it down, his mouth watering involuntarily at the smell, watching the pepperoni crack and pop. Then, slowly, his arm moving as if through liquid, he plucked a pepperoni off the pie and, before he could think to stop himself, popped it into this mouth.
And it was good.
Really, really good.
Simon belched and let out his belt a notch. In the background, the news yammered on the flat-screen TV, which Michael watched, flabbergasted.
“You didn’t tell it anything,” Simon said, and when Michael didn’t respond, nudged him with his elbow.
“Hmm? Oh, sorry. This is fascinating. I barely remember any of this.“
“You didn’t say anything, when it made the pizza.”
Michael nodded. “I did, actually, via sub-vocalization.”
“I believe you would call it ‘talking under your breath,'” Michael said, turning back to the TV.
“What else can this thing make?” Simon said, staring back at the c-machine on the counter, which had somewhere along the way gone back to its original size and shape.
“Evie? It’s me,” Ellen said into her cell phone, her feet propped on her tired, cat hair-covered ottoman. “What’s up?”
“Hey big sis, not much. I might get some airtime tonight,” Evie’s atonal, slightly nasal voice buzzed into Ellen’s ear. A picture of a cartoon lady bee, always cheerful but a little said, appeared in Ellen’s mind for a moment, then was gone.
“Cool! 6 or 11?” Ellen said.
“Oh, eleven. I’m not ready for six yet, Harv says,” Evie reported, her tone dripping with the self-abuse she substituted for humor.
“I’ll watch,” Ellen said, and kicked her sneakers off. She took a long pull fromthe beer in left hand.
“No you won’t. You’ll be asleep long before eleven. Do you have a shift tomorrow?”
“Nope. A much-needed day off,” Ellen said. “I plan to sleep ’till noon, consume several gallons of coffee, go grocery shopping and then clean this place up.”
“Sounds glamorous,” Evie said, her voice now a little distant. “Listen, Harv’s waving at me. I gotta go. Sisters forevs, okay?”
And she was gone. Ellen closed her eyes and took another long, unhurried swallow, draining the bottle, the beer sliding deliciously down her throat. She sat, head back and perfectly still, then belched loudly. Then she went to bed.
Middlesex, VT 2:35 AM
That night, Simon dreamed for the first time of the Flock, although he did not know it by that name yet, a great, thrilling wave of emotion and song, endless and timeless and yet somehow still and calm as he/they flowed like quanta above a city he did not recognize.