Dad came into the living room and I introduced him to white dwarf oddball Nick Stahl. They both gave the tiniest of nods and that was it. Dad asked for a word in private so I left Stahl with an episode of Doctor Who and followed the tired breathing noise into the front living room.
‘He’s not staying,’ I said, pre-empting the inquisition.
‘Or not tonight anyway. Maybe another hour or two on the couch. I don’t know.’
Dad turned to the window, a post-Solaris breath at me or the bike repair shopp opposite.
Breath and a sigh.
One final exhale and it came out: Charlie was really bad. Not only did she refuse to believe I was real, but she also suspected I was a demon from ancient Japan. I asked if I should go up and see her, but he said no, I should leave.
‘No, I mean…where should I go? Barry’s?’
He told me I should go away for a while, use the money I had saved up in the bank and go somewhere foreign.
‘You mean…far away?’
‘I mean you should go abroad, son. Just for a little while. Wait till Charlie gets back on her feet.’
‘On her feet?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘But…this isn’t fair. I’m not a demon.’
‘But I’m not…’
‘I know, but…Charlie…she’s not good, she needs time away from…’
‘What? The Japanese demon?’
He nodded, eyes going left to a stain on the wall.
I asked him when I was supposed to leave and he said, ‘now would be best, son. Today.’
He put his hand on my shoulder, a little tight.
‘Please, son. She needs this.’
I folded my arms, trying to restructure this whole thing with Charlie as the demon and me as the good guy, but it wouldn’t stick. No matter what she thought of me, she was still my sister. ‘Alright,’ I said, unfolding my arms, ‘as you’ve already decided it anyway, I’ll go. Today.’
I walked back into the living room but didn’t sit down. I couldn’t, it wasn’t my furniture anymore. It wasn’t even my housse.
Nick Stahl, eyes fixed on the Doctor, told me I should come to the States with him.
‘You are leaving, aren’t you?’
I looked back at the open door, trying to figure out if it was possible to eavesdrop on another room from this one. Didn’t seem likely, but he clearly knew somehow.
‘So come with me to the States,’ he added. ‘I can get two seats on the next flight, if I get an affirmative right now.’
‘Because it’s that time, dude.’
‘But I don’t know anyone there. What would I do?’
He ate some of the toast I’d made for him, dropping crumbs on the floor.
‘There’s always the girl, Keni-Cat.’
The taxi took me away from my ex-housse and past all the roads I’d walked down at some point in my life. Some of them I hadn’t, but I knew their names. Seated adjacent was my new friend and apparent magician, Nick Stahl. Somehow able to conjure up two tickets for a flight taking off for the US in less than three hours. Without taking out his card either.
‘Don’t even think of trying to pay me back,’ he’d said, after re-pocketing his phone.
‘Man, I have to.’
‘That qualifies as thinking. Which I just told you not to do.’
‘Consider it a gift. From a generous and extremely underrated movie star.’
At that point, I’d relented.
Mainly cos his pupils were glowing purple.
Not another word, they seemed to be telling me.
It took forty-five minutes to get out to the airport. For most of the way there, we said nothing to each other. I couldn’t describe my feelings. All I could say was there were still a few episodes of Doctor Who I’d wanted to watch, and I told myself that wherever I went, the first thing I’d do was sign in to GENTE+.
In the Departures Hall, Stahl started into a monologue. Didn’t catch all of it, but what I did hear was quite strange. He talked about home and what it meant, how many countries you had to visit or live in before you lost sense of what home really was. ‘The total,’ he said, ‘is seventeen. Once you’ve existed in seventeen countries, the concept of home is relinquished. Gone.’
Couldn’t say I agreed, but speaking didn’t seem that appealing, so I left it alone.
We ordered some burgers and a drink and he continued the rhetoric.
This time it was even stranger. He asked me to imagine what it would be like to be really old, like eight-thousand or something. I laughed, but he told me he was serious.
‘Eight-thousand years old, imagine it, dude. After all that time, after eight-thousand years on this planet, what would you be doing with yourself?’
I laughed again.
He gave up on hypotheticals and bit into his burger, taking half of it in one go.
On the plane, I skimmed through a filmn magazine I’d bought at the airport. When that got boring, I switched to the Big Brain Bakunin archive on my phone; most of it was social theory or political science, supposedly in my wheelhousse, but I swerved all that and clicked on the filmn-related stuff. Like this one:
Die Hard and the Comfort of Crisis by some guy starting with Z.
Didn’t look that tough, despite BBB tagging it as rigorous philosophy.
I took a shallow breath, soaked in the first few pages.
Apparently McClane was a misogynist and fought for private wealth. Hans Gruber was both the end and the beginning of capitalism. The Nakatomi Plaza wasn’t a plaza, it was a symbol of Debordian malaise.
Mystified, I read on.
Next to me, Stahl sat shrine-like in something akin to a trance. Didn’t even respond to the flight attendants when they asked what food he wanted, and I had to do his seatbelt for him.
Then, after two hours, he rebooted with an elbow spasm and asked what I was reading.
I scrolled back up to the title and mispronounced, ‘Žižek.’
‘Phlegm-Master Slavoj Žižek.’
‘You know him?’
‘In a roundabout way.’
‘You met him?’
He looked at the screen with the map and the little airplane icon. I waited for an answer, but nothing came.
‘Okay…’ Going back to the essay, I tried to rehash some of what I’d read. ‘Don’t know that much about him, but he seems pretty deep.’
‘I mean, not super deep, but…what he says about Die Hard…I’ve seen it ten, twenty times and I never thought about the whole attack on capitalism thing. Just thought it was McClane against some cold German guys.’
Stahl turned, spat out ‘forget Die Hard,’ then asked why I wasn’t writing anything.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Dude, you’ve got like, what, twelve free hours? Why aren’t you writing anything?’
‘Anything, dude. Whatever’s camping in your head.’
‘I don’t know…nothing really.’
‘Shit, you don’t know? Nothing? Pure laziness, dude. Look around, observe life details, remember stuff. Pick one of the above and run with it. Or just do what Barthelme used to do.’
‘Barthelme. Donny Barthelme. Dude, you’re a writer and you don’t know Barthelme?’
‘I’m not-…I didn’t ever say I was a writer.’
‘Fuck that. Barthelme…was a pioneer. Wrote whatever hazy shit came into his head. Which is what you should do.’
‘But…how do I do that?’
Sighing like he was genuinely irritated, Stahl rifled through the paraphernalia in the seat pocket, dropping half of it on my feet. Finally, he picked up my filmn magazine and flicked through that.
‘Okay. I see. This is all bullshit.’ He chucked the magazine on my lap. ‘What else you got in the bag?’
‘You must have something…books, mags, porn.’
‘One or two books.’
I couldn’t be bothered pulling the bag all the way out from under the seat, but the eyes he was looking at me with…not psychotic exactly, but it was intimidating enough to spark some level of obedience.
Reaching down with token grumbling, I lifted up the bag and pulled out one of the sci-fi books I’d taken out from the unii library.
‘Mysterious Doctor Satan // Catch Martone.’
I showed him the name on the cover, but he didn’t appear to recognise it.
‘Author’s not that famous,’ I added, attempting to dampen expectations.
‘What’s it about?’
‘Err…a mysterious doctor.’
‘Possessed by him. I think. Haven’t actually got that far yet.’
Clearly losing patience, he grabbed the book and flicked through, stopping on one of the pages near the back. I’d only read the first quarter of the book, up to Chapter Five, so I wasn’t sure what was so fascinating. Maybe the bit about the Kenyans, where they escape the gala cube and collide with the fragmented tissue salesman.
‘Dude, this is not it,’ he whispered, jabbing the page then throwing the whole book down at my bag.
Disappearing under his own seat for a few seconds, he mumbled, ‘this is what you need to write about,’ then shot back up with a new book with Moon Prison // Tyson Bley stamped on the cover.
‘You mean…you want me to review it?’
‘No, I mean read it, dude. Think about it, learn from it…there’s some pretty good shit here…pretty direct too, no prancing around wherever.’
‘Moon Prison…’ I repeated, tilting my head to try to read the back.
‘Though their description of Neptune is a bit off. But you don’t know about that either, so skip it. Focus on the other parts.’
‘The parts I should focus on…where are they?’
‘Jesus, I’m not your night nurse. Look them up yourself. Fuck’s sake.’
‘Okay. I’ll have a look.’
‘And write something.’
‘Yeah, I am. I will.’
I eventually managed to wrangle the book from him and, turning slightly away from his seat, started my search for the good bits. The cover had a picture of the titular prison, surrounded by fields of ice, and a close up of a Chinese guy without a helmet, so no clues there. And the first chapter opening seemed to be just laying out the rules of the prison. Maybe if I skipped to the last page and worked backwards…
Moon Prison [Page 422]
It was hot, hotter than usual. He wasn’t sure but it felt like a moist kind of hot, swamp fire, sweating crocs.
He looked around and saw humans in Dali costumes.
Glancing down, he saw that he was sitting in a man-sized pot of warm water. There was no shirt on his chest, no trousers or pants.
‘Tetris Chan,’ one of the humans announced. It sounded like a man, but it was hard to be sure as he was wearing a Virginia Madsen mask.
‘You have failed in your mission.’
‘Do not pretend you have forgotten.’
‘But I’m not-…I don’t know what you’re talking about. My name is Tetris Chan, I run a chain of industrial prisons on seven different moons. I’m incredibly wealthy.’
The figure in the Virginia Madsen mask looked at the others, most of whom were disguised as people Tetris didn’t recognize, then turned back to him.
What the hell was going on here?
Was this still Titan?
Had Glum Bosco tricked him again?
‘It is irrelevant if you remember or not. The punishment remains the same. Death by hot water followed by sex using your skin as a blanket.’
‘I said death by hot water.’
But…you can’t. I’m Tetris Chan. I run a chain of industrial pri-…’
‘No, you are a witch from the Daqaar Nebula. We are your comrades. But it seems you have chosen to forget us.”
‘I’m not a witch, I’m a people. A person. A human being.’
The water got hotter. Tetris’ skin started to melt. Somehow, it wasn’t as painful as he’d expected.
‘Wait…is there any way out of this? I have money.’
The person in the Virginia Madsen mask stared back at him, unblinking.
‘No,’ they replied.
‘Here, this will help.’
I looked to the side, at an empty seat.
Following the voice, I saw Stahl leaning over the seat behind his. In one hand was a pen with the airline name on it, the nib pointing roughly at my neck.
‘Now…within the next hour, the next day, whenever.’
‘But I don’t know what to write yet.’
He came back round, planting himself down in his seat. ‘Then make notes. Or an outline. Sci-fi but not dogmatic, okay. I hate those kinds of books. And no zaum poetry either.’
‘I don’t know. Feels like I’m forcing it a bit.’
‘That’s the best way, dude. Brute force.’
He put the pen in my hand and closed it into a fist.
A little while later, when he was visibly asleep, I put Moon Prison face down on my lap and tried writing something.
A basic outline, mostly.
Of whatever junk was floating around my brain:
YELLOW ALIEN BLOB
A yellow alien blob absorbs people and forces them to do missions.
Takes them back to a moon in the Kuiper Belt.
Blob uses telepathy, and sometimes an electric bird to translate its thoughts. It’s unclear for most of the story if it’s a good blob or not.
Main character got kidnapped somewhere weird.
Not weird enough.
Romanian countryside – he’s looking for vampires at the start, gets attacked by the vamp and then the blob intervenes.
Blob is pansexual, absorbing = fucking?
Chapter 1 – main guy in Romania, gets in trouble with vamp or wolves, Blob saves him, absorbs/fucks him.
I stopped doing notes and tried writing out the first chapter. It was tough, really tough. So tough I gave up for an hour and patched into the most basic VR I’d ever encountered [outside of Phase 1 tech]; a desert island with all the characters either one-note NPCs or the other passengers on the plane. Well, those who felt the urge to play a VR about a plane crashing on a desert island. Which, it turned out, was around eight.
Apart from one French Academic who kept chasing me up a palm tree and saying, ‘meet me in the toilet,’ there was no one who looked like they wanted to chat, and the feeling was mutual.
So I patched out and went back to the story.
After re-reading the first chapter of Moon Prison for reference, and scribbling out seven different beginnings, I came up with this:
Yellow Alien Blob – Chapter 1
‘Is this the road to the castle?’
‘This road. Does it go to the castle over there?’
‘Sorry, I only speak Romanian.’
The man with a head the size of a diced peanut sunk deeper into his scarf and hurried off down the other path. The one that, according to the sign nearby, led to Murk.
‘Only speak Romanian my ass,’ I muttered under my visibly icy breath, watching him shrink into the distance.
That was the thirty-seventh person I’d asked and the thirty-seventh time I’d got the Romanian only line in clear English. And now the sun was slinking down beneath that oddly-jagged mountain over there.
Half an hour later, it had slunk completely.
‘Gods, it’s colder than Pluto…’ I mumbled to a nearby tree.
If person number thirty-eight didn’t turn up soon, preferably with a flask of hot water, a thicker jacket and a tent with possibly-not-yet-invented thermal tech then I was done for.
Frozen to death due to poor signage.
No, frozen to death due to aloof locals.
No, frozen to death due to the Romanian God of Winter.
No, frozen to-…
An animal buried among the far-away trees howled very much like a wolf, stopping me mid-whinge. Hopefully just a talented squirrel impressionist. Or a Vampire messing around.
The wind increased to eleven and almost chiseled my cheeks off. My jacket performed in an un-jacket-like manner, again. The sign with MURK – 2KM on it attempted to shake itself out of the soil. Yet, the CASTLE – 500M prop that pointed towards a cliff I’d almost slipped off four hours earlier, stood stock still.
I stared at it, willing the stupid wooden liar to fall.
Nope, too sturdy.
‘Okay…’ I said, pulling the jacket collar tighter around my neck. ‘If the only way to the castle is jumping like a superhero over a gaping, thirty metre abyss, then maybe I should just head to Murk. Can’t be as bleak as it sounds.’
The wind seemed to agree, adjusting itself to cruise mode and giving me a few seconds of non-biting chill. Not trusting it completely, I kept my jacket in a firm grip and was just about to start off on the road to Murk when I spotted something in the trees.
Not the ones behind me, the more densely-packed ones on the fake path to the castle.
No, it couldn’t be.
Unless they’d come from the castle…perhaps via some secret path around the cliff?
I cleared my throat, which turned into a series of coughs, and held up a hand. The figure among the branches stayed pitched to their spot for a moment then raised up their own hand.
Not exactly a wave, but a sign of acknowledgment.
Another howl came from the trees behind, closer this time. It dissipated and was quickly replaced by a new one with a slightly lower pitch.
For the first time in my life, I gulped.
No squirrel was that talented. It was wolves, at least two of them. They were circling me. I checked back to see if there were glowing eyes glaring at me from the shadows and there were. Shit. I was joking. I didn’t expect to actually see any. How were they doing that?
Four yellow eyes glared back at me, giving away nothing.
Shoving my hands in my jacket pocket, I frantically felt around for keys that I knew weren’t there. I’d left them back at the hostel. Eleven hours ago. What time was it now? Seven?
I switched to my jeans pocket and pulled out my phone.
Shit. Shit. What did I care about time? There were wolves waiting to rip my neck open. Think. Think. The phone…could I use it as a weapon? Shine the light in their faces when they got close? Play one of those roaring fire videos and hope it tricks them?
Hang on, wait…the figure. Was it still there? Did it have an axe or machine gun I could borrow?
Spinning round, I caught a glimpse of something insanely yellow in front of me and tripped backwards as my hands went up to cover my eyes.
Giant wolf eyeball, giant wolf eyeball, giant wolf eyeball, giant…
Whacking my head on the only rock in the nearby area was annoying, yet expected such had been my luck that day, and when the giant wolf eyeball turned out to be a vague yellow blob that was starting to slowly absorb my legs, I thought, forget it, just lay back and let it take you. At least you’ll die in an interesting way.
Better than being eaten by those two wolves.
I stopped and looked back at what I’d written.
The word choice wasn’t bad, and the flow of it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it was shit. Kuso. No good. I re-read a few more times, glancing to the side to see if Stahl was watching. He wasn’t, he was still asleep.
No, it really was shit. There was a beginning, but where was it going next? The guy gets absorbed by a yellow blob, goes to a Kuiper Belt moon, and then what? And the logic…why was the blob there? How exactly does the absorbing part work? What was a guy who knew almost no science writing a sci-fi novel for?
The whole thing…it didn’t make any sense.
Fucking Moon Prison…
I scrunched up the paper, tucked it into the seat pocket and closed my eyes. If Stahl ever asked…no, when Stahl asked, cos he definitely would…I’d say I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything good.
Not to Moon Prison standard anyway.