She was a small soft thing walking in the shadow of great hard things, under the sullen grey sky of a November morning. She was in North Central California, and she was quite alone. She was Little Connie Depthcharge, taking a walk into the year 1996. That's how she thought of it. Every second, she reasoned, took her further into the year. And the year was unfolding around her, bleak and relentless, pervading this edifice of decay. The year 1996 was a place, Connie thought. This time is a place. Not all times are places, not so you'd notice, but this one was.
Connie was nine years old. Until this year she had perceived the world as a sort of efflorescence blossoming symmetrically out from her; she had imagined herself at the center of it. Now she saw that the world had no center, or none visible. Perhaps there was some great sucking whirlpool of events somewhere, like the black hole in that old Disney movie she'd panned in the video-cassette section of her column for Weekly Reader (the column was called the Cinematic Bitch. Now that the children's newspaper had gone yellow tabloid, with blaring headlines like "My Mom has Sex with the Vacuum Cleaner and I'm, Like, So Embarrassed", it had room for Little Connie's penetrating if spiteful analyses.)
Connie was thinking about these things as she walked along the weed-thatchy railroad tracks. She was walking through the old Industrial Park. It was closed today. Much of it had been closed continuously, since the Dream Plagues. The smokestacks were streaked with rust, marbled with cracks; the acid rains had pitted the grey and black walls of the monolithic buildings squatting on both sides of her. She liked to walk here because the place had a dreary, pleasantly obtuse cinema verite quality that she found reassuring. It had no affect. It could be trusted, she thought, to remain itself. She was weary of the unpredictable, since the Dream Plagues; since the War of the Weirdos; since the jarring sight of the people spinning by overhead, high on antigravity drugs... Here, at least, there were no surprises.
A lizard surprised her by scuttling from a hole. It seemed too cold for lizards to be about. The lizard was a leathery sizzle, here and gone. Then another, darting from another hole. And another. And then the warmblooded things, rats and mice, oozing from holes in the ridges of cinders to either side of the rusty tracks, shimmying from the cracks in the dusty foundations of the old factories, small living things moving like a fear hormone through this industrial vein, scrambling randomly about, ignoring her, and she read the signs for what they were. She could feel it herself, then: felt it in the soles of her feet. In that spot, the place in her foot that Mother said contained a gland of some kind. (Poor crazy Mama; poor dead Mama; she'd insisted on a coffin shaped and painted like a Masters Of The Universe lunchbox. It was, like, so embarrassing. But it was her funeral.)
Staggering to remain upright, Little Connie felt the vibrations ripple up from some epicenter below the railroad tracks; saw the dust rise in matched ripples to either side as it traveled outward; saw the symmetry become confusion as the vibrations collided with quake vibrations coming from the opposite direction. She thought of blenders and taffy machines and Mama's candy-striped vibrator.
She was too fascinated, just then, to be afraid. This was her first earthquake, and she thought of it as a storm in the earth, weather underfoot, and, swaying, she sought to find its groove, the way her mother had taught her. "Every storm has a groove," Mama had said.
But then the buildings began to move. They weren't falling, they weren't caving in. They were moving toward one another. The newer ones were moving faster, she noticed. They were moving with an impossible ease, sailing the ground like ships across water, either making the earthquake or made to move by the earthquake, thunderous but absurdly graceful. Like improbably swift iceburgs, coming together... and she was going to be caught between them.
But still the terror refused to come. She wondered at its absence. Perhaps she was numb; perhaps resigned to death. She was alone in the world. Why not?
Closer. The buildings sailed across the open ground, plowing up the gravel, coming corner-first like a prow making a wake in the dirt, raising fantails of dust, shrieking with the grind of metal and concrete like a ghost in chains. Closer, looming over her; she could smell friction, see sparks rising like spray from the prow of these Industrial ships...
Maybe this was all hallucination, she told herself. But the Dream Plagues were over, and she knew what that felt like. Hallucinations had a distinctive quality. No, this was no dream, she knew, as a chunk of rock, smashed by the onrushing building against another, flew apart and a fragment hit her cheek. It stung nastily, and blood ran along her jawline. No, this was real. Objectively real.
The buildings loomed over her... and then the corners of the buildings had pushed past her on either side, grinding the railroad steel into tangled ribbons that whipped through the air... she dodged a cobra of torn steel and, staggering in the shockwaves cracking the ground, she stepped into the interstice between the two onrushing prows, where outhrust bulkheads, passing one another, made a sort of alleyway a few feet wide...
The buildings stoped moving; cacaphony gave way to eerie silence. She waited, breathless, as the dust settled. The buildings on either side had moved together, leaving only a few gaps here and there, like the gaps between wrongly fitted jigsaw pieces. She was safe in one of these, for the moment.
The buildings had moved very deliberately, she thought. Not like things nudged by some geologic randomness. Who is moving them? Why?
She knew it wasn't over. She could feel it.
That's when the smokestacks tilted over, and began to snake toward one another. She watched as, overhead, a set of smokestacks from two separate buildings met mouth to mouth and, somehow, locked together.
The squeal of tortured metal. The windows of the buildings shattered. Connie ducked flying shards of oily glass as sections of machinery thrust themselves through windows and moved click-click, snick-snick, creak-creak together. Locking into unity like the smokestacks; sections of pipe and wire and gauges and robotic arms and struts and more wire and tubing and gears and cogs and the rollers from conveyor belts and metal hooks and stamping units and stainless-steel presses and a thousand intricate variations of metal and plastic and rubber innard she couldn't identify; self animated, it began to rewire and reconstruct itself, grinding and caterwauling and moaning and sparking in the process, making a mazelike roof of of odd machine parts a few feet over Connie's head...
"Right this way, Little Connie! Big Sale on Small Favors!" It was a man's voice, melodious and warm and perhaps a touch unctuous. But a voice to inspire confidence. She crawled toward the sound, under the writhing nest of living metal. Half expecting to be caught up by the wires and pipes, forced into the woof of its rigid weave, crushed and incorporated in living death.
No. She emerged from beneath the ceiling of living unliving, and found herself on her knees before a doorway at the end of the alley. It was a cobwebby, old back door of one of the factories, and standing in the open door was a sign shaped like a man. One of those cardboard cut-out lifesize photos you see promoting thngs in a supermarket. But then it moved and she saw it wasn't a sign, it was quite three dimensional and human. Some quality of absolute emblematic expression -- as if this man were only semiotics -- had made him seem artificial at first. Looking at his face, the fixed expression of faintly self-deprecating glee, the drugged eyes and idiotic grin, the unwavering diagonal of the ordinary brown pipe clenched in teeth so white and even they looked all of a piece...the perfect quizzical brows and immaculate swept back short black hair...
Looking up into that face she once more had the sense of emblem, of semiotic absolutes...
And then he spoke, His mouth moved; the pipe bobbed -- some noxious herb in it tracing a wavery line of blue smoke in the air -- his head tilted... but the expression remained the same. "Connie," he said, "we have to move quickly. The Prototime is upon us. Am I right? You coming? Or do you prefer to die horribly, by remaining here?"
She blinked. He hadn't asked the question sarcastically, or facetiously. It was as if he sincerely thought she might actually want to die horribly. As if it were a viable option, like, Would you prefer to take the train or a jet? "Lead the way," she said.
They went through the door and behind her the buildings closed up the gaps, sidling and edging till they fit perfectly together. The right jigsaw pieces after all.
The factory was reconstructing itself around them. It was merging with another factory; thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and the synthesis was heavy metal pandemonium. The feverish self redesigning was clearly guided, conscious -- but what consciousness was the guiding force was a palpable mystery Connie could taste in her mouth and smell in her nostrils, along with the stink of random lighting bolts and the ancient scent of uneasy petroleum and tortured metal and ozone.
She walked in the lee of the briskly striding stranger, a tall man in a timeless suit, her eyes stung by the smoke from his pipe. They plunged through a mechanical armageddon, as machines threw themselves through the air at one another -- but instead of crashing the machine sections merged perfectly; machines that could not possibly have been designed to interface somehow tilted and gyrated to interface perfectly. She thought again of puzzle parts. All this time the puzzle parts have lain about us on the table and we didn't know they fit together. To make...what?
Sparks flew, smoke belched, wires whipped, pipes clanged, things flashed past, moved in a blur in search of unity, a dance of death all around them, and somehow, miraculously, they walked through the gauntlet untouched. The man never seemed to look around, never seemed to watch where he was going at all. He just blundered through and somehow, so far, was unhurt. Once, a year before, looking through the window of a factory, she'd seen a mouse run along a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt carried bits of soft metal to stamping presses, that stamped the metal into Dabney The Poodle doorbell ringers, a faddish novelty item. The mouse ran under the stampers -- and past them, narrowly avoiding getting crushed five times before it lept free. Just the luck of the very stupid, she'd thought.
Was that what was happening now?
Not for everyone. She glimpsed people -- maybe workmen, maybe caretakers--caught in the machinery, skewered and crushed like cockroaches caught in a garbage disposal... she couldn't bear to look, to think about it. She tried to think of something to talk to the man about, to get her mind off what she'd seen.
"How'd you know my name?" she asked, shouting it over the uneven racket of the place.
"It was written on your stench!" he shouted. "I whiff-read it! Your mom had it coded into your DNA so I could find you!"
A lunatic, she thought. But he had saved her life. "What's your name?"
He stopped and turned to her. An enormous razor-edged pendulum of metal swept by in the spot he would have been in had he kept going. It would have pulped him, she thought, if I hadn't asked him his name just then. He thrust out a hand to her, to shake, like an encylopedia salesman who'd come to the door once. (Mom had broken the guy's fingers.) She shook his hand. Feverishly warm. Possibilities squirmed under the skin. "The name is Dobbs! J.R. "Bob" Dobbs!" You could hear the quotation marks around "Bob". He turned and swept onward, plunging recklessly through the storm of flying metal. She followed, trying not to look around, tasting the fear, now.
Up ahead, a conveyor belt was taking cryptically-shaped segments of crystal up an incline, toward the ceiling, and through a hole in the roof.
They stepped off the conveyor belt, onto the roof. Beside them, the fist-sized irregular chunks of crystal fell off the belt and rolled with effortless serendipity to fit perfectly into irregular holes pocking the roof. To the left the expanse of tarpaper was unbroken. "Bob" strode off to the edge of the roof; Connie followed. When she got there she saw with a flush of embarrassment that he'd unzipped his pants and was peeing off the edge of the building. With his free hand he gestured sweepingly at the great world. "Behold, the Prototime!"
She gazed out over the city. The buildings on the Strip, beyond the edge of the industrial park, were moving and changing too. They were all franchises and chains of some sort. 7-11s, Soy-Boys, PetroPup, In-n-Out, PigeonPie, Pioneer Chicken, Colonel Sanders, MacDonald's, Carl's Jr., Horse Habit, ArtiFish 'n' Chips, and the discount department store chains, K-Mart and Target and Bozo's Re-Cycled Goods and the other places like Kragoff's Soviet Auto Parts...
They were all moving together, like a film of an explosion run backwards... leaping together, or stumping on their signs like they were crutches and falling together in some cryptic organization that, once achieved, seemed natural and normal... because they all fit. K-Mart fit with Pioneer Chicken and PetroPup fit with Carl's Jr, they locked together like machine parts, signs snicking into place in door slots, oddly angled roofpeaks fitting neatly into drive-in windows, all the jumble of architectural ineptitude she'd always wondered about suddenly made sense when they were locked together, and an Uber building came about, the gestalt fruit of this fevered mating... an enormous quasicrystaline structure that reached out multicolored limbs of fiberglass and plastic and impossibly flexible roofing tiles to interface neatly with the reconstructed shapes of the industrial park... all of it becoming One Thing, some minatory self-contained environment...
The clangor and roar of it resonated the surface of the planet like a cymbal.
Afraid, feeling so tiny in the sight of this mighty reconstruction (and seeing that "Bob" had put his majestic privates back in his pants and zipped them up), Little Connie took "Bob"'s hand and moved close beside him. ""Bob"... is it happening everywhere?"
"No. But it will happen everywhere, unless we stop it, Little Connie. This is the Prototime, the precursor to X-day, Connie, the Con's prep for July 5th, 1998... they're setting a trap for us, so we will be lost to those charismatic strangers from Planet X when they arrive on Earth... a trap set by the Conspiracy and triggered by the Malign Sendings of the Yacatisma! What you're seeing is the Conspiracy preparing the way for the Yacatisma (not to be confused with Yacatizma) who seek to prevent me from interceding with the Xists... the Conspiracy hid this one from us, Connie... they hid it from us using the power of the Smog Monster, who blanketed the Earth with Toxic complacency... the poisons spread through the air slowly, subtly, and we accepted them. The 'intelligent' among humanity found a thousand intelligent ways to rationalize them -- so no one fought them... and they affected our minds. Made even those of us who See into the Higher Wire a little blind... just enough so they created a psychic smokescreen, enabling the Conspiracy to plant their submolecular nanotechnological machinery in the paint and insulation and plastics and lubricants of these structures... hence, this went unpredicted, Little Connie. Fuck! The Smog Monster fooled us all... for the Smog Monster is a sending of... G'BROAGFRAN!!!, the Rebel God From Deep Space!" With the uttering of this arcane name, his voice took on an amplified reverb quality that should have been possible only with recording studio equipment. "I was driving to Kargoff's Soviet Auto Parts to see if they had something that would work for a water pump for a 57 Studebaker, when I felt the submolecular Conspirals of self-organizing quantum-mechavibrational systems in the Material Reality Underpinnings--and knew we'd been snookered. The Smog Monster is creating an enormous mechanized concentration camp for the processing and subjugation of SubGeniuses and Non-normals of all kinds! We should have guessed, seeing the franchises and chainstores scab up around the periphery of the cities... like ringworm, like an encamped army around us, tightening the noose, subjecting us to bombardments of mind-numbing consumer-conditioning symbols... I should have guessed they were simply preparing the ground for this..." He paused to stuff a wad of multicolored herb into his pipe... somehow the pipe never quite went out as he did this... Puffing, talking out of the side of his mouth, chattering rapidfire but offhandedly the whole time: "Lucky for you I came to investigate. Lucky for you is a blessing, dear child, that makes the mealy-mouthed prayers of the 'Holy Father' in the Vatican smell like a dog-fart, my Little Connie..."
"All of this --" Connie looked out at the gigantic artifact building itself around them. "Is going to trap us? It's some kind of prison?"
"Exactly. A Conspiracy Concentration Camp...a camp without guards for it has a life of its own... it is its own guards..."
"You talk just like my Mom," Connie observed. "Did you know my Mom? Betty Furnace? She used to talk about the Yacatisma and used to say 'not to be confused with Yacatizma' just the same way you did..."
"Bob" turned to her and laid a hand on her head, ruffled her hair gently. "Yes," he said tenderly, allowing ashes from his pipe to drop into her eyes, "Yes, I knew your Mother. Betty was --"
He was interrupted by an explosion.
There was a narrow section of ground -- narrowing more as the Concentration Camp Construct creaked and shuddered nearer -- four stories beneath their roof-edge. It had erupted, a fissure opening in it to gout violet and sulfur-yellow smoke that geysered upward, a furious spew that towered over them like a Djinn... and a sort of Djinn it was...
Little Connie and "Bob" staggered backwards ("Bob" had a quality about him of having planned to stagger or stumble though he couldn't possibly have planned it...), Connie clinging to "Bob", choking in the stink of the thing, the rotten-eggs mixed with semitruck-smoke gas chamber stench of it, as its rolling mass shaped into...
"It is the one called AH'OOGAH!" "Bob" shouted. "The Smog Monster!"
"YOU MUST NOT INTERFERE WITH THE GESTATION!" Came a voice from within the foul whirlwind. It was a voice belched from exhaust pipes and smokestacks... A voice without a muffler. "TRY YOUR FAMOUS LUCK OUT ON DEATH ITSELF!"
And AH'OOGAH swung toward them like a tornado wielded as a hammer--
As "Bob" grabbed Connie's hand and stumbled with her off the edge of the roof.
She was falling. The earth rushed up at her...
And then the earth was above her. The ground was a sort of ceiling she was falling up to... "Bob" was beside her, still holding her hand, his head thrown back, the pipe clenched in his teeth gushing a locomotive-cloud of blue (and green-sparkled) smoke that surrounded them, made her choke with its cloying incense... but somehow as she inhaled it, a certain ethereal clarity created a magnification lens for her perceptions, and she saw that "Bob", through the medium of this envelope of smoke, was clearing a path of some sort for them... all this she perceived in the half-second it took them to fall upward to the ground...
And then they struck the ground, which was, despite appearing unyielding as concrete, a mist, an atomic illusion like all matter, mostly space, and the space came together around them so they passed harmlessly through, and emerged--
In the midst of a city. Downward into an upside down city. The city was hung from above like one of those trick rooms where the chairs are glued to the ceiling. The buildings upside down. They fell past them, down toward the sky. And then her stomach flip-flopped, followed by her perceptions, as suddenly sky and ground changed places and they were ascending, levitating upward from the ground.
They ceased ascending, alighting on the roof of a bus laying over on a corner, where it blocked traffic and the crosswalk. The driver, unaware of them, smoked an Angel Dust joint and massaged his crotch.
Feeling detached and objective and weirdly bodiless -- and yet not at all dreamlike -- Connie looked around, and knew that the city had been vivisected for her.
The skin of its consensus reality had been peeled away; she saw now the pulsing inner organs of it, the skein of its hidden organic relationships, and she recoginized it all.
"Where's the Smog Monster?" Connie asked.
"Hundred of miles from here," "Bob" said. "We took a short cut through the Luck Plane... By the time the Rebel God finds us it'll be too late. With luck."
"Luck cuts both ways, "Bob"," Little Connie said.
"Little Connie, you were always too old for your age," "Bob
replied, through his ceaseless grin. "I was absent when you grew up and yet I was there. Where two and three gather in my name, there am I also: Can you not feel my hands in your pockets? ( I love my own scriptures)... Notice anything about this place?"
Connie was staring at a crowd of people milling the sidewalks of the great city, people on their way somewhere, oblivious of the Ipssissimus of Sales and his charge atop the bus; and she saw now that a series of corruscating lines were connecting some of the people in the crowd; they were like translucent puppet strings of energy, defining relationships the people in the crowd were entirely unaware of. They belonged to herds within the herd; to cultural phyla whose attributes governed what they supposed to be their freewheeling impulses. And looking closer at those people she saw past their superficial semblances, saw them as they could not see one another: as they really were. There were tall men who were dwarfs and short men who were ten-foot giants from Hell; there were beautiful women who were revealed as twisted haridans, and hunchbacked, shrunken old women who were actually the stately winners of beauty contests; there were bankers who were actually giant worms with lamprey mouths, and there were smiling, friendly cops who were really werewolves in Nazi-SS uniforms; there was a priest who was a mincing drag queen and there was a mincing drag queen who was a genius of dizzying mathematical perceptions. She saw four men in tailored suits coming out of a Hilton, approaching their forty-foot eight-wheeled limosine. They were surrounded by bodyguards who wore black suits, and sunglasses; looking beyond their veneers she saw that the men in the suits were hideous slug-bodied things of palpating tendrils and oozing suckers, hungry aliens with the mouths of giant horseflies; their bodyguards were robots, she saw, things of sheer intent and nothing more. She shivered, and was grateful that "Bob's" psychic cloaking screen protected her from being seen.
Then "Bob" took her hand, and blew a plume of smoke above them, which somehow drew them with it into the air. Like a sex-changed and depraved Mary Poppins, Dobbs drew Little Connie higher and higher into the sky, till they reached the thirteenth story level. There they drifted along, paralleling the impatient procession of traffic, gazing down at a whole new web of inter-relationsips. Connie saw, from this greater height, the oscillating blueprint of the Luck Plane superimposed on the street. She saw which cars were likely to collide (but weren't necessarily destined to) and which were likely to make it home unscathed; she saw which individuals would fall in with drug addicts and be sucked into the conditioning quicksand, and which would instead likely fall to a Fundamentalist Preacher or the deadly programming of network television; she saw which ones would accidently become wealthy, and which would...
Wait. There was something more: She saw the skein of interrelationships as it stretched out to the event horizon... she saw something hideous and something glorious taking shape out there... she saw...
She blinked, and looked back at the present. Amongst the crowd she saw a few who were like self-propelling steel balls in a pinball game, making havoc of the rules... introducing a Brownian Motion where the others strove for regimentary order... there was something about them that reminded her of her mother... could they be the ones Mother had described? The other race hidden amongst the humans... the privileged and divinely aberrant... the SubGenius?
"I see you perceive your tribe," "Bob" told her. "The tribe of the Untribal. Do you also see the webs of probability?"
"Then keep your eyes on them and learn, Little Connie...because we're dive-bombing the Luck Plane!"
And with that "Bob" dove down, straight down, rocketing head first toward the bus they'd alighted on earlier. The bus had moved on, was entering the stream of traffic. And now they entered the bus through the roof -- passing through it as if it were the skin of a soap bubble. "Bob" came to a screeching stop in the air over the driver, floating beside a sign that said, 'PINKVILLE VOCATIONAL SCHOOL IS A STEP UP TO MORE WORK!"
"Bob" reached out and tapped the back of the man's head with his pipe... tapped it precisely. In a particular spot.
The man shuddered, and giggled, and jerked the wheel to the left -- into the flow of oncoming traffic.
"Uh oh!" "Bob" said, grinning. "I made a mistake. Accident. Wrong car. We're going to cr--"
Crash, as the bus rammed the forty-foot limo they'd seen earlier, buckling it so it was shaped like a boomerang. The limo spun and struck a semitruck, which swerved and drove through the wall of a power station and crashed into a set of enormous transformers, causing a short circuit which caused a mighty power surge (Connie could see all this taking shape on the Luck Plane like a video animation) which roared through the wires to an airport a hundred miles away garbling the transmissions of the air traffic controllers causing the wrong signals to be sent to a Lear jet crammed with undersecretaries for the Trilateral Commission who went into a screaming panic when the plane, its computer controls confused, veered wildly and went out of control, going into a tail spin, nosing down... crashing thunderously into the industrial park where Connie had met "Bob". The cargo of nanotechnological submolecular reprogramming proteins the undersecretaries had been carrying to Washington exploded along with the hundreds of gallons of fuel in the plane's tanks, spreading in a diffuse cloud over the living Concentration Camp construct... the nanoprograming molecules colliding with the submolecular guidance systems for the minatory mechanism, reprogramming it -- quite by lucky accident -- into a complete reversal of the process... so that the living Concentration Camp began to deconstruct itself... and in so doing released another cloud of deprogramming nanotech molecules that drifted over the land, reversing the process wherever they encountered it...
"Whew!" "Bob" said. "That was lucky." He turned to little Connie. "Young Miss, how would you like to visit your brothers and sisters in Malaysia?"
"Brothers and sisters? But I'm an only child!"
"Not at all. You're my daughter. You have hundreds of brothers and sisters, products of the Supreme Seed, thriving in Dobbstown, learning, awaiting X-Day... would you like to meet them?"
"You're my... Dad?"
"Shit! What a disappointment... Mom told me you were a rock star."
The eternal grin almost wavered. Then he ruffled her hair tenderly. "You'll like your brothers and sisters," "Bob" said. "They're just as disrespectful as you are. Care for some 'Frop?"
And so, borne on a purposeful plume of green-sparkled blue, they rose from the twisted wreckage of the traffic accident, oblivious to the screams of the approaching sirens, and hurried on into the year 1996, on their way to a date with destiny, seeing the years 1997 and 1998 unfold ahead of them, like a place in the distance, where, clearly and far away, the Saucers were landing...
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