Monday, 12 May 2008

The Secret Mathematic - Chapter Twenty-One


The Secret Mathematic is an original novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your singular host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the twenty-first installment.

Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12|13|14|15|16|17|18|19|20|21|...

Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.

Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars

And now, the story continues:



TWENTY-ONE

It's midnight in jail.

Alexander Baum shudders and awakens, his head jerking upright as his eyes snap open. He straightens in his chair, grimacing at a stitch in his side. His dream -- a tall, dark man who whispers about the end times -- pulses blotchily in his bleary vision, throbbing in time to his heart, fading as his mind steadies.

The clock ticks. The ventilator hisses.

Baum takes a breath, blinking at the bank of video monitors above the desk: four four-man cells, the bunks occupied and still. The security sensor lamp is green. He rubs his jaw, yawns, and then pulls over a clipboard. He stands after stretching out his calves, then unhitches a flashlight from his belt and shuffles down the short hall to the lock-up.

His flashlight beam roves inside the silent cells. He counts the bodies, glances at his watch, marks a check next to each serial number.

At the fourth cell his breath catches in his throat. The last cot is vacant. "Shit," says Baum. He scans the manifest again, dismayed to confirm that four men indeed belong in the cell. "Shit, shit, shit."

He approaches the bars, flashlight sweeping every crevice. He remembers the time when three inmates beat the living crap out of a fourth, and then stashed the wounded and unconscious man in the shadows under his bunk. Cautiously, Baum gets down on his knees and shines the light along the floor.

His heart starts to beat faster. "Aw, shit."

Baum slowly straightens as he continues to sweep the cell, eyes probing the darkness. He gets to his feet, face pressed into the bars, the flashlight held aloft beside his ear. He pans carefully from one end of the cell to the other.

The light finds a face right next to his own.

Baum cries out. The flashlight hits the floor, spinning.

He finds himself cowering against the concrete wall. The flashlight skids to a stop, its beam pointing at Baum and dazzling him. He squints, breathing hard.

The fourth inmate is standing at the bars at the very side of the cell, a quiet and nearly motionless shadow. "I didn't mean to startle you," says the inmate.

"Jesus Christ," gasps Baum.

The shadow moves, reaching down stiffly toward one leg. Something clicks. A second later a match flares, briefly illuminating a hard face with a rapidly shrinking ruddy glow. The match is blown out. Tobacco crackles as it burns, the ember shining orange.

Baum gets to his feet. "You can't -- you can't smoke in here."

The ember brightens as the man drags. "I'll only have the one, then."

"I'm going to have to ask you to put that out immediately."

A brief silence. The man exhales ponderously. "Let's compromise: I'll put it out soon."

"I can't allow that."

"Instead of compromising on when, then, let's compromise on whom. You put it out."

"You want me to come in there and put out your cigarette?"

"No," he replies. "I'd prefer to smoke it, I think."

"That's not really acceptable."

"Then your course of action is clear, Mr. Baum. I will not resist."

Even so assured Baum hesitates. He bends down and retrieves his flashlight. "I don't want to have to do this," he warns.

"Life is replete with difficult choices," says the man philosophically, blowing out a cloud of fume.

Baum scratches his head with the butt of the flashlight. "How the hell did you even get that tobacco?"

"Magic pockets."

"Magic pockets?"

"A hidden compartment in my right shin."

Baum frowns and angles the flashlight at his clipboard. "You're a cripple," he says, nodding with new understanding. "And you stashed it in your phoney leg. I get it now. Sneaky. Beselwood should've found that."

"I suggested to Beselwood that he not."

"And he took your suggestion?"

The inmate draws on his cigarette. "Evidently."

"I don't believe you. Beselwood doesn't do favours for nobody."

"He was not aware of taking my suggestion."

"Oh yeah -- how's that?"

"My suggestions are subtle."

Baum snorts. "What, like you hypnotized him?"

The inmate shrugs and his hand jingles as it shifts. "Misdirection," he says, "and sleight." He extends an arm through the bars and drops something. Baum's beam swerves down to track the fall: it's his keyring.

Keeping his eyes on the inmate he slowly steps forward and scoops up his keys. "How did you get these off me?" he asks, mouth dry.

"Parlour tricks," is the smirking reply. "Nothing to write home about."

"You a magician or something?"

"No, I am the very opposite of a magician: a detective."

"Like a PI?"

"Yes."

"Why did you take my keys if you're only going to give them back again?"

"I was trading up for your sidearm."

Baum looks up sharply, then reaches for his holster. It's empty. "Jesus Christ," he says again, backing away from the bars. He draws his baton. Summoning whatever tone of authority he can manage he barks, "I need to ask you to relinquish the weapon at this time. Now I'm going to count to three --"

"Quiet now, Mr. Baum. You'll wake the others."

"One...two..."

The man sniffs, then nods over to the floor. "It's there, right beside you."

Baum shines the flashlight into the man's face as he stoops to retrieve the gun. "How the hell did you get it all the way over here?" he whispers.

"I didn't," comes the reply, eyes unflinching against the glare. His cheeks are high and sharp, his nose a blade. The corners of his thin lips curl fleetingly. "Your holster wasn't fastened, and your sidearm slipped out when you got down to look under the beds. I never touched it."

"But you just said --"

The inmate offers him a small, tight smile. "You would have been obliged to disarm me. You would have opened the door. You would have had to stand close in order to put me under the threat of your nightstick. You would have walked right into arm's reach, and made yourself available to the next trick up my sleeve."

Baum licks his lips quickly as he checks his gun and reholsters it. "But that didn't happen."

"No," agrees the inmate. "I have no plan to escape."

"But you could. Is that what you're trying to tell me?"

"Yes."

"So why are you still here?"

"I told you, Mr. Baum, I am a detective. I respect the law."

"Just not smoking bylaws, eh?"

"Right."

"You think you could overpower me?"

He sniffs again. "I believe I just did."

"I meant physically."

"To overpower you cognitively has physical results. Why quibble? I can make you move where I want, look where I want, pay attention to what I want." He finishes off his cigarette and crushes it out against the bars. "So don't be too hard on Beselwood, Mr. Baum. Anyone can be steered."

Baum grunts. "You're toying with me. Nice."

"I'm exercising."

"No harm no foul, eh?" challenges Baum. "Is that how it seems to you?"

The inmate cocks his head. "I do have an ulterior motive."

"What's that?"

"To draw you into dialogue, Mr. Baum."

"What for?"

"In order that we get to know one another, just a little bit. Just enough that you be able to help."

"Why would I help you?"

"Not me," he says, shaking his head slightly. "I don't need any help. The people you need to help are the people who live adjacent to the house I was investigating when I was arrested."

"Why do they need help?"

"Because their neighbour is becoming a black hole."

Baum blinks. "Because their neighbour is a butt-hole?"

"No, a black hole. A singularity of infinitely warped spacetime, a spinning gravity well deeper than the Sun."

Baum frowns. "You're messing with me."

"No, I'm trying to save some lives. You can either choose to believe me and be a hero, or you can ignore me and let them die."

"Why don't you just break out of here and save them yourself, then?"

"Because I value my liberty, and I require it to be unfettered in order for me to continue my investigations. As you may be aware, breaking out of prison would introduce serious legal complications into my case. I have neither the time nor resources to manage operating on the lam."

"You expect me to take any this seriously?"

"No. We have more to talk about, first. How much time remains in your shift?"

"About five hours."

"That will suffice. You have until morning to get to the house and contain the damage."

"You're going to stay up all night trying to convince me you're not full of shit?"

"Yes."

Baum snorts. "Fat chance, buddy," he says, turning to leave. "I've got better ways to waste my time."

It's one o'clock in jail.

Alexander Baum sits hunched over his blotter, a dossier spread open before him. His right leg jiggles as he reads, brows knitted, face smooshed against a slightly sweaty palm. He glances up at the video monitors, frowns, then looks down again and turns a page.

His insomniac inmate isn't just another drunk Indian. He really is a licensed private detective and, unbelievably, he's also a former field investigator for the federal intelligence service. He's never been taken in for public drunkenness or disorderly behaviour, which makes him a standout among his kind. He has, however, twice been pegged for interfering with a police investigation. In both instances the charges were dropped.

The notes in the medical box indicate that he is a quadruple phocomelus affected with a rare sleep disorder, but that he is of sound mind and, in fact, calibrated by CSIS testing as highly intelligent.

Baum leans back and rubs his chin, then takes the last bite of a chocolate bar and wads up the wrapper. He tosses it to the trash bin, but misses. "Shit," says Baum.

He blows his nose. He farts. He chews on the end of a pen.

And then he finds himself walking down the short hall to the lock-up again, slowing as he nears the final cell. It takes his eyes a moment to peel the shadow of Sky Mississauga out of the gloom in the corner, lifeless hands hanging idle through the bars. He doesn't say anything.

Baum crosses his arms. "Still awake, eh?"

Mr. Mississauga gazes at him but still does not respond.

"I read your file. You're some kind of a pervert...picked up for peeping through an old lady's windows."

"She flatters herself. I was watching the next house over, not hers."

"She swears otherwise. Her deposition's right here."

"She's lonely. Her deposition is a plea for attention."

"So tell me what's so interesting about the house next door. A younger, more attractive target?"

"The principal resident is elderly and morbidly obese."

"Ah," says Baum, nodding. "Chubby-chaser, eh?"

Mr. Mississauga smiles grimly. "Does it amuse you, Mr. Baum, to waste time while lives stand in jeopardy?"

"I'm not really sure that's true."

Mr. Mississauga nods. "Let me tell you something about the principal resident, Mr. Baum. She's not just morbidly obese -- she's catastrophically obese. According to my calculations she's currently gaining a pound an hour."

Baum sneers sceptically. "That's impossible. Nobody could eat that much."

"Eating isn't the issue."

"So why's she gaining weight like that?"

Mr. Mississauga pauses. "She's a photon trap."

Baum rubs his chin. "Like photo radar?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga evenly. "A photon is a discrete and indivisible quantity of electromagnetic radiation: a packet of light."

"Light comes in packets now?"

"Yes. It's very convenient. Now, imagine you have a sealed box with perfectly reflective interior walls; the box contains two things: a single atom, and a single photon. As the photon bounces off the mirrors, it occasionally strikes the atom. Do you know what happens then?"

"It lights up the atom?"

"No. It is absorbed by the atom, and then re-emitted. During the brief time between absorption and emission there are no longer two things in the box, but one."

"So where does the photon go?"

"The photon's energy is added to that of the atom, converted according to Einstein's famous equation -- E equals MC squared -- to mass. In short, the box becomes temporarily heavier."

"That's weird."

"Yes," agrees Mr. Mississauga. "In more ways than one, Mr. Baum. The point is that, all things being equal, the photon is indeed re-emitted and the atom drops down to a more comfortable energy state. The mass is converted back to energy and the photon resumes bouncing around inside the box, which has reverted to its original weight." He pauses, holding Baum's eye. "The problem in this case is that the photons aren't being re-emitted for some reason."

"In what case?"

"In the case I'm investigating. Mrs. Uzima White is a dead-end for photons. Every packet of light that reaches her is absorbed by the atoms of her body, but not released. Her temperature does not rise -- instead, her mass is relentlessly increasing."

"So she's getting fatter?"

"No. She is becoming more massive. More so every minute. As we speak, even now, she's absorbing packets of energy -- though I've made arrangements to cut off her primary source of higher electromagnetic frequencies."

Baum blows out a perplexed breath. "What's going to happen to her?"

"She will become infinitely dense and then collapse upon herself, creating a steep gravity well surrounding a micro-singularity. I have reason to believe that this singularity will evaporate rapidly in a brief but intense burst of Hawking radiation." He pauses again. "The effects of this burst will be problematic for the surrounding neighbourhood."

"You mean she's going to explode?"

Mr. Mississauga nods curtly. "Yes."

"Jesus," whispers Baum. "You're serious?"

Mr. Mississauga says nothing.

Baum scratches the side of his jaw. "Well, that's a pretty interesting story there, buddy. I'll give you that. It sounds like Star Trek or something."

"This is no fantasy, Mr. Baum. Real people's lives are at stake."

"So what do you expect me to do? Call the army?"

Mr. Mississauga shakes his head. "No," he says. "It is too late now to make our case. I believe Mrs. White is caught up in a transient phenomenon, and that if she is kept isolated from substantial inputs of new energy this condition may pass. She is, however, a very stubborn woman. I was not able to persuade her to take the appropriate precautions. Given her reluctance to comply, all we can do now is to evacuate the area and wait for her to go off."

"She didn't believe you, eh?" snorts Baum, turning to leave. "Go figure."

"Time is short, Mr. Baum," calls Mr. Mississauga after him. "People are going to die."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

It's three o'clock in jail. Baum shifts in his seat, tapping notes into the appropriate fields on his mid-shift report. The computer beeps. He averts his gaze from the video monitors, unwilling to spend another minute staring at the edge of shadow in the corner of the cell he knows is Mr. Mississauga, waiting, ever waiting, plastic hands hanging through the bars.

Baum plays another game of Solitaire. His girlfriend calls at the end of her shift at the bar. "Are we gonna have breakfast together or what?" she wants to know.

"Yeah, for sure," he says. "I'll meet you at Sparky's right after I get off, babe."

He folds closed his telephone, frowning at the tinge of guilt that tickles at him for closing the door on Mr. Mississauga's mad plan to evacuate the neighbourhood. He toys with the idea of making an anonymous call to the Barrie Fire Service, to suggest they send someone out on suspicion of a gas leak or something, but then shakes his head and chuckles humourlessly. "Why am I even entertaining believing that crazy Indian?" he wonders aloud. "I must be losing my shit."

It's four o'clock in jail.

Alexander Baum fidgets. He rearranges the objects on his desk, then takes off his shoes and massages his feet. His haemerroids itch, so he goes into the staff washroom and coaxes the last squirt of cream from his tube of medicated ointment. In the mirror he notes how far his own run to obesity has progressed. He is a professional sitter, and it's starting to show on him.

His fingers smell like bum cream, so he scrubs them.

He wonders if he will ever be capable of raising the gumption to fail the police exam again. He wonders if there is any point. Maybe Corrections Canada is as far as he's ever going to be able to go. Maybe pushing around hopelessly damaged people is the most authority or satisfaction he will ever know. Maybe he'll just get fatter and fatter, and then one day he'll explode, too.

He shuts off the faucet with a sigh.

He's loitering opposite the cell again. "What did Mrs. White say when you told her she was a black hole?" he challanges.

Mr. Mississauga looks up. "She said, 'Get out of my house or I'm calling the cops, you redskin devil.'"

Baum chuckles. "Saw right through your shit, eh?"

Mr. Mississauga does not reply.

Baum sniffs, arms crossed. "How'd you come up with this nutty theory, anyway? You read comic books for inspiration?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "I consulted with a physicist from York University down in Toronto. We arranged to have him bring some of his instruments up to the house to more precisely quantify the effect."

"How'd that go?"

"He's due to meet me there in a couple of hours."

"You're not going to make it though, are you?"

"No," he agrees. "I had hoped you would go in my stead."

"Why me?"

Mr. Mississauga looks around him languidly. "Because everyone else I currently have access to is under arrest. Circumstances have dictated that you are our only hope, Mr. Baum."

"Like Obi-wan Kenobi?" jokes Baum.

Mr. Mississauga looks at him blankly. "Who?"

Baum waves dismissively. "Forget it." He licks his lips. "I've got to tell you, this is the strangest frigging conversation I've ever had with an inmate. And Christ knows I must be way over-tired, because I keep coming back here to hear you go off about it more. Maybe it's for the entertainment value."

Mr. Mississauga cocks one brow. "Are you entertained, Mr. Baum?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. I'm something, I guess."

"You're scared," says Mr. Mississauga. "Your scepticism is defensive rather than genuine."

"Oh yeah?" retorts Baum, sneering as he straightens to his full height. "And what am I scared of, exactly? Exploding old ladies?"

"Opportunity," says Mr. Mississauga. "You would rather believe there is no possible chance there is anything to what I'm telling you, because the alternative would oblige you to find the courage to see for yourself. The alternative would oblige you to do something, rather than yawn on the sidelines. Ambition threatens your comfortable nest of self-pity."

"You're just trying to rile me up," snaps Baum.

Mr. Mississauga shakes his head slowly, gaze glued on the guard. "No," he whispers. "I'm trying to remind you of the man you still have a chance to be." He narrows his eyes and hisses, "Rescue them," in a voice that thoroughly unnerves Baum.

Baum turns on heel and stalks back to his desk, muttering under his breath.

By the time he's changed and rolling his truck out of the parking lot the sun is colouring the eastern horizon pink. He knocks a DuMaurier out of the pack and lights it. The smell of tobacco draws his mind back to Mr. Mississauga, so he puts down the window and chucks out the cigarette. A moment later his cravings get the best of him and he lights another. He turns up the radio to drown out his thoughts.

He pulls up in front of Sparky's. Helen's rusted Sentra is already there. He pushes in through the front door and blinks, looking around for her. "You're late," calls Helen from a booth in the corner.

"Sorry," mutters Baum, sliding in opposite her. He plops his keys on the table and signals for a cup of coffee. "Daydreaming in the truck, I guess. Missed my exit and had to come around again."

She scrunches up her face. "Crap, Alex. If you're not useless one way it's another."

"Yeah," he agrees. "Goodmorning to you, too." He looks her up and down. "You wore that to work?"

"What, because I'd have time to change?"

"Jesus, Helen. Are you a bartender or a pole dancer?"

"Don't frigging start with that again, Alex. Tips don't earn themselves, you know."

"I know, but...shit."

"You're such a jealous dick," she declares, standing up and grabbing her purse. "Order for me while I pee, okay?"

He nods tiredly. "Yup."

Baum scans the laminated menu even though he's long ago memorized it. Helen's heels click away to the washroom. His coffee arrives and he asks for their usual plates. The waitress, a teenager with raccoon eyeliner, nods and then heads back to the counter where a skinny man in a tweed sport jacket is hovering anxiously. "Can you help me?"

"Depends what you need," drawls the waitress, sticking Baum's order on a pin. "If you want eggs, I can definitely do that."

"I need directions, actually. I'm from out of town."

"Toronto, huh?"

"How did you know?"

"You got one of those little thingies clipped on your ear. Only Toronto people wear those."

The man blinks. "My Bluetooth?"

"Your what?"

"I'm trying to get to Tellingham Court," presses the skinny man, eyes on his watch.

Baum looks up sharply. Mr. Mississauga was arrested on Tellingham Court. Slowly, he turns to look out the window at a van idling right outside the door. Fading paint on the side identifies the van as the property of York University. With a strange feeling that is an unpleasant mix of dread and titillation, Baum realizes that Mr. Mississauga's physics expert is real. "Well I'll be damned..." he murmurs to himself.

The waitress sketches a map on the back of a take-out menu and hands it to the skinny man in the sport jacket, who quickly sprints out the front door, into his van, and drives away.

After an uncertain moment Baum finds himself standing. He begins to walk toward the door. "What about your eggs?" calls the waitress.

Baum walks faster. He flies through the door and jumps into his truck. As he backs up he sees Helen come out the front door, her expression equal parts anger and bewilderment. She waves frantically at him but he ignores her, jamming the truck into drive and peeling away, tires barking as they jump the curb.

The sun is up, but the streets are nearly empty. The city looks golden and unreal. He weaves through the lanes around the few cars, pressing the pedal low. The truck shudders in protest. He's sweating.

When he gets to the Tellingham Court cul-de-sac the York University van is parked to one side. Baum jerks to a halt behind it. He jumps out of the cab and walks up alongside the driver's window. "You the physics expert?"

The skinny man is startled. "Oh -- um, yes. Do you...do you work with Detective Mississauga?"

Baum hesitates. "Kinda. He said, uh, that I should meet you here."

"Where is he?"

"He just got a bit held up, I guess," says Baum lamely. "I'm supposed to help you out instead, if that's okay and everything. It's a sort of last minute thing, eh?"

The man considers this, pursing his lips as he runs a hand through his thinning red hair. "Um, I see. Well, I'm Dr. Wolner. Um, Eric." He offers his hand to shake.

Baum shakes it. "Alex," he says. "Nice to meet you."

"So, how do you want to go about this exactly?"

"I really don't know."

Dr. Wolner presses his mouth thin, brows knitted. "Well," he decides slowly, "why don't you go in and make contact with the subject while I get my gear together here. It's going to take me a few minutes to get the field spectrometer kit put together." He pauses apologetically and then adds, "I was supposed to have a grad student with me today, but she overslept. I'm a little short handed."

"Yeah, okay," says Baum, nodding. "You do that. I'll...be right back."

The street is quiet, lined with modest detached houses and old maple trees with holes cut in their canopies to allow clear passage for utility cables. The cars parked in the driveways are inexpensive and ill-maintained, dented domestics with worn tires and obnoxious bumper stickers. It's garbage day, and some of the houses have put out their cans the night before. About half of them have been turned over and explored by vermin. An empty can of beans rolls lazily along the gutter, propelled by the breeze.

Baum wanders across the cul-de-sac, looking up and down the road.

Mississauga was arrested at the corner house, a tidy little property fronted by meticulously groomed flower beds. The neighbouring property is unkempt. A young black adolescent stands to one side of the bungalow attempting to jimmy open a cable television box with a screwdriver. He looks up as Baum approaches.

"Hey," says Baum.

"Hi," says the boy cautiously, pausing in his work.

"Whatcha doing there?"

"I'm trying to fix my gramma's cable," says the boy. "Some guy cut it on her." He meets Baum's eyes nervously. "You're not from the cable company, are you?"

"Nope," says Baum. "I'm, uh, from the gas company."

"Don't you guys usually wear uniforms?"

"That's just the techs. I'm management."

"Oh."

"Are your folks awake yet, son?"

He shrugs. "My gramma's inside. But she's in a bad mood. She gets real cranky when she can't watch her soaps." He gestures at the cable box to illustrate his point. "That's why she called my mom to send me over, to fix it first thing."

"Thanks," says Baum, heading for the porch.

"You're not hassling her for money, are you?"

Baum shakes his head. "No, no. I'm...conducting a customer survey. We just want to make sure she's completely satisfied."

The boy gives him a wan look. "Good luck, man. My gramma ain't satisfied with nothing."

Baum nods. The boy disappears around the corner again. Baum rings the bell and then, after a moment, knocks. He glances over at the side of the house and then carefully engages the handle and pushes the door open. It creaks. On the floor is a pile of unopened mail. "Hello?" calls Baum.

He hovers on the threshold. Nobody answers. Baum starts to leave the porch and head back over to Dr. Wolner, then stops and turns back. He repeats this dance twice more before working up the courage or the madness necessary to walk into a stranger's house uninvited.

"Hello?" he shouts. "Mrs. White?"

The bungalow smells. It's very quiet. Baum pads carefully through the front hall and into the kitchen. On the stove in a pool of congealed grease are two legs of fried chicken. The breaded skin appears to writhe. When Baum leans closer he sees that the chicken is riddled with maggots. "Jesus Christ," he breathes, taking a decisive step back and then holding the front of his shirt over his mouth and nose.

In the cramped diningroom is an overflowing litter box but no sign of the cat responsible. In one corner stands a bird-cage. Flies buzz around a discoloured, feathery lump lying in the middle of the soiled-newspaper flooring. On the dusty table are balls of yarn and a pair of knitting needles.

His feet creak on the hardwood as he passes into the adjoining livingroom.

Around the edge of the room are two short sofas under plastic covers. An oil-portrait of a high-foreheaded black man hangs in a wooden frame over the cold hearth.

In the centre of the room is a gaping hole in the floor with edges of splintered wood.

"What...the...hell?" says Baum, brow furrowing as he approaches as close as he dares. The hardwood beneath his feet begins squawking more ominously so he stops where he is, then leans forward to peer down into the wide hole.

He sees only blackness.

"Mrs. White?"

Something stirs down below. Baum shudders and backs away. He's almost out the front door again before he pauses, swears, and then starts looking around for the basement stairwell. He finds it, but the lightswitch is dead. He rummages around in the kitchen drawers until he finds a box of matches.

The match hisses as it flares to life. Baum holds it aloft, squinting past the glare to ply the shadows for each riser. Slowly, step by step, he descends. At the bottom he wags out the first match and lights a second one before proceeding.

"Hello?"

Something shifts again. Baum freezes.

"...Kitty?"

Silence. He begins advancing again, his match casting a feeble light on only his immediate surroundings: cardboard boxes, an old billiards table, milk-crates of mouldering magazines. As he progresses deeper into the basement the smell of rot becomes more intense. The matchbox shakes in his hand, the matches inside rattling.

He pauses to light a fresh one.

A low, quavering voice moans out of the darkness, "Michael?"

"Mrs. White?" Baum whispers, his voice muffled by his involuntarily tight throat.

"Why isn't the goddamn TV working yet? Are you just mucking around out there, boy?"

He feels dizzy. With each step his sense of balance seems more and more compromised. He turns a corner. There is some light here, a meagre wash coming down through the livingroom curtains, through the ragged hole in the ceiling. A large, dark form occupies the space directly beneath it, a hulking shadow with irregular edges that move as the low, weak voice sounds again: "Speak up, Michael, you rude little ragamuffin. Has my daughter taught you no respect at all?"

"My name is Alexander Baum," manages Baum, taking another step forward. "I'm...from the gas company, ma'am."

"Where's my Michael?"

"He's outside, fixing the cable." Baum stops his advance, staring at the black mass before him. It rests in a nest of a smashed loveseat and pieces of livingroom flooring. The concrete beneath is a spiderweb of stress fractures. To one side is an old television. The power light is on but the screen is a blank, dark-grey panel of weak glow. "Are there are lights down here, Mrs. White?"

"Nope," she snaps. "That goddamn redskin devil broke all my bulbs. But I called the po-lice on his sorry self, I don't mind saying. They up and hauled him away just for me."

Baum gulps, steels himself, then lights three matches at once.

A horror is revealed by the triple flare, retreating rapidly into darkness as the flames calm and turn ruddy. The afterimage drifts across Baum's sight, and he cannot close his eyes against their throb. His breath starts coming too fast, making him feel dizzy. He takes an instinctive step backward. "Oh, Jesus..."

"Don't you be cussing at my fat, you cur. I'm a respectable woman and you're a guest in this house, Mr. Gas Company Man. You hear me?"

Baum's mouth works soundlessly for a few seconds before he finds his voice. "Yes ma'am," he croaks. The matchbox rattles in his hand. "How...how are you feeling, Mrs. White?"

"What damn business is that of yours?" she demands. The mound shifts, gurgling liquidly. "Every little thing'll be right as rain just as soon as Michael gets my stories back on. And he'd better get it done quick, or I'm liable to miss my morning Young and Restless."

Baum's feet feel like they're made of lead. He's not sure he could flee if he meant to. His imagination still churns with the scene his triple match flare so briefly uncovered: an ebony mountain, naked and glistening, drawn out, oozing and amorphous as if half-melted, tiny yellowing eyes flitting from between doughy rolls of inky flesh. Mrs. White is several meters wide, her limbs lost in swaths of heavy, jet-black skin that seem to drag everything around them toward the ground. Each time she summons the strength to shift any part of her stone-dense anatomy she releases fresh clouds of stink: excrement, urine, perspiration, yeast.

Baum coughs and suppresses the urge to retch, his eyes squeezed shut. He gasps as the matches burn his fingers, then drops them.

When he recovers his breath again he says, "You need help, ma'am. I think you may be...sick."

"I ain't sick, honky, I'm just big. And who are you to judge my fat Christian ass? You think you're a doctor, Mr. Gas Company Man?"

"No," admits Baum. "But I think I'm going to call one for you."

"Like hell you are," she grumbles back, her voice loaned an unnatural, reverberating timbre by her girth. "I called them already and you know what they said? They said they don't make no housecalls no more, and being big ain't no cause to send a ambulance. So that's fine: I'll be happy enough once Michael gets my goddamn stories on. I don't need nothing from nobody, if that's how it's going to be. No sir."

Baum steadies himself against the wall, frowning at the television. "But if he's right -- if it's the light -- you can't have that TV on. It'll kill you. It'll kill your neighbours. Mrs. White, please --"

"You're talking just like that Lord-forsaken redskin," she says slowly. "You're in it with him, ain't you?"

"No, I just want to --"

"You are, honky. Don't you try fibbing to me. I can hear the lie in your voice, mark my words by sweet Jesus Lord. Now get the hell out of my house before I get it in my head to call the po-lice back here again."

"Mrs. White, if you could just listen for sec --"

"I already told you once, I ain't going to tell you again. Now get." She draws a deep breath and screeches out: "Michael! Michael! Help me Michael, this white man's trying to steal my TV!"

Suddenly, the television screen awakens with a wash of static snow. The speaker hisses. In the guttering blue light Mrs. White becomes fully visible, a drooping, spreading, pool of a human being whose every inch of bloated skin is as dark as pitch, unnaturally swallowing the rays from the television in a way that makes Baum's vision ache. She groans loudly and the concrete floor beneath her cracks. Before his very eyes she seems to ripple and grow, feeding on the light, swelling larger as the unholy mass draws her out like putty. Something deep inside of her distended body crackles: it's the sound of breaking bones. "Oh Jesus," she keens, head sinking into her own shoulder. "Oh Lord save me!"

Baum stumbles. He reels back, terrified as he feels bodily tugged toward Mrs. White's undulating desecration. He can no longer be sure which was is down. He falls and scrambles along the floor, clutching to a leg of the billiard table.

The house creaks. Dust begins to rain from the rafters. Small objects skitter across the floor, coming to a halt only as they plow into the edges of Mrs. White's monstrous bulk.

Baum fights his way to his feet and runs, though it's like running in a nightmare, running through water, his limbs gluey and his body unresponsive. He slips and falls again, and he blubbers in fear as he feels himself sliding across the floor back toward Mrs. White.

The television goes dark again.

The pull does not decrease, but it ceases to strengthen. Mrs. White occupies about a sixth of her former volume: a tightly compressed, wretched ball of mangled flesh almost the size of a regular person. "Michael?" she somehow moans feebly. "Oh, Lord."

Baum struggles upright again and uses every ounce of his strength to tear himself away. He drags himself up the stairs and then tumbles into the kitchen where the floor is bowing dangerously, the linoleum discolouring and tearing as it stretches. With a scream of animal determination he works his way through the hall and then falls down from the porch, drenched in sweat.

He looks up time to see Michael step back from the cable box. "Gramma, try it now!" he shouts.

"No!" shouts Baum huskily, shaking his head and waving his arms.

The theme of The Young and the Restless begins blaring from the basement. The house rumbles. A cloud of dust billows out through the front door. The boy's features pinch in worry. "Gramma?" he cries.

The ground beneath their feet heaves, breaking into buckled ridges and wrinkles which then violently jerk toward the house by a meter, tossing Baum and Michael into the air. When they hit the ground again Baum grabs a hold of the boy and drags him to the road.

The roof sags and then, with an earth-shaking boom, the house collapses and roiling fronts of thick dust gush outward, slow, and then reverse direction to rush back into the mound of twisted debris. The mound rapidly compresses into a jangled sphere the size of a car. Baum and Michael are knocked down again as the resulting pressure wave crashes over them. Their ears pop.

"Oh my God!" yells Dr. Wolner from beside the van, his sandy hair flying around his head in the gust. His eyes bulge. "It's really happening!"

The metal utility poles running along the inner perimeter of the cul-de-sac begin to bow inward, pointing toward the imploding house. Sparks fly from a transformer down the block. The pavement cracks by a sewer drain.

Dr. Wolner ducks as a tree branch tears free from a nearby maple and rolls end over up over the sidewalk. Baum jumps aside with a shout, then springs forward shoves Michael on. "Run!" he screams. "Run as fast as you can!"

"What is this?" cries the boy.

Baum ignores him, struggling to work his way to the van. He grabs hold off the side mirrors and drags himself up close to Dr. Wolner. "Are you alright?" he asks Baum desperately.

"Get the neighbours out! Get them all out now!"

And then Baum and Dr. Wolner are running from house to house, leaning out from the sidewise gravity as if in a gale, pounding on doors to wake the residents up, bellowing at the top of their lungs. "Get out, get out! There's going to be an explosion!"

A puffy-faced woman knuckles her eyes and tugs her robe closed. "Are you from the gas company?"

"Run, you idiot! You're going to die!"

Several families have stepped out onto their porches of their own accord, awakened by the noise. Children in pajamas cry and worm into their parents' arms as the corner house beside the White properly tears apart in a rain of splinters and shards that slithers to join the central clot of density.

The trees fall. The power lines snap. Cars squeak and shudder as their locked wheels begin to drag over the asphalt. Baum struggles to stay on his feet as he chases Mrs. White's grandson and a stunned-looking jogger up the block. "Go!"

Dr. Wolner falls. Baum takes his hands and hauls him back up, shoving him along as he risks a look back.

The tight ball of houses and attracted debris has started to rotate, grinding up the pavement and gathering momentum in a whistling, crunching, spinning ring first twenty meters wide, then thirty, then forty...

The area seems to darken to a bloody red even as a bright sun rises over the eastern treetops. The shriek of the spinning ring is painful. The few branches still holding up directly over the area suddenly blacken and then burst into flame. "That's the Hawking Geyser!" shouts Dr. Wolner over the din, looking at the display on his digital watch. "The event horizon is loaded! We've got to find cover!"

The two men fight their way against the current of the alien gravity, crawling on all fours, teeth clenched.

Baum spots a kid, a girl of maybe ten, crouching beside a mailbox and wailing. The mailbox is straining against the bolts that moor it to the sidewalk. They're starting to give, and the girl screams.

He staggers over and takes her arm. "Come on!" he yells. "Hang on to me!"

Dr. Wolner grabs a hold of Baum with the girl in his arms and yanks all three of them behind a short stone wall lining a garden an instant before the scene goes totally quiet.

This pause is followed by a colossal thump that rattles their bones and suspends all hearing. Shockwaves of searing air are followed by an omnidirectional assault of white-hot ejecta. A wash of fire, a pocket of vacuum, and then a giant atmospheric sigh.

Baum and Dr. Wolner have both lost their breath. They wheeze, clutching at their chests behind the little stone wall. The girl coughs and weeps, pushing her head into Baum's armpit. Bits of broken things begin to rain down around them to lie sizzling in the grass. The patter and clang and hiss of other falling pieces is the first muted sound Baum is able to hear above the ringing in his ears.

He cautiously gets to his feet, his arm protectively around the child. Standing no longer requires superhuman effort.

Tellingham Court is a crater. Nearby houses on the surrounding streets are flattened. People in nightclothes, many of them bleeding or burned, are limping into the shattered road, blinking through the smoke and calling to find one another.

Dr. Wolner vomits on himself and then faints, folding into an unruly pile of gangly limbs.

"Shit," says Baum.

In the distance, sirens howl.

It's eight o'clock in the morning. Borders of yellow police tape have been strung up on all sides. Radios mumble and meep. Police cruisers and firetrucks are everywhere. A helicopter circles overhead, blades pounding the air.

Alexander Baums sits in the back of one of the few remaining ambulances, a blanket around his shoulders. The Barrie officer taking down his statement thanks him and snaps closed his notebook. "We'll be in touch if we need anything else, Mr. Baum."

"Okay."

A new cruiser arrives. It's RCMP. The driver's door opens and a red-headed officer steps out, then tucks her bun into a cap. "Alexander Baum?" she calls, arched brows raised.

He nods. She walks over. "Lieutenant Wainwright, Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

"I've already given my statement, Lieutenant Wainright. If you don't mind, I'd just like somebody to drive me home now. Please."

"I don't want your statement," she says crisply. "I want to shake your hand."

"What?"

"I understand you saved some lives out here today," she says, thrusting her hand forward.

Baum leans forward and shakes it. "I just tried to help, I guess."

She takes a step back, nodding smartly. "It takes a lot of guts to jump into a showdown with a black hole."

Baum looks at her sharply, his voice dropping. "You know about that?"

In response she turns back toward her cruiser from which a man in an overcoat is emerging, straightening his legs awkwardly and then rising to his full height. He catches Baum's eye and begins lurching purposefully in his direction as he reaches into his coat and withdraws a cigarette case. "Well done, Mr. Baum," says Mr. Mississauga.

A little old white lady being wheeled by on a stretcher raises her head at the sound of his voice, eyes bugging out. "That's the man!" she shrieks. "That's the man that was peeping at my knickers! Officer, officer! He's back!"

Mr. Mississauga steps around the stretcher, unconcerned as he lights his smoke. He arrives before Baum and gives him a brief nod. "Thank you," he says.

"Jesus," says Baum wretchedly. "I still can't really believe it. This place...it looks like the end of the world."

Mr. Mississauga raises a brow and exchanges a look with Wainwright. "The end of the world?" he echoes, breathing out fumes. "Oh no, Mr. Baum -- this...this is merely preamble."


27 comments:

bilhelm96 said...

I was expecting a Mr. Miss chapter soon. Very intense. Also nice to see Wainright again

Smiley K said...

Sweeeeeet.

Loved this episode. Mr. Miss is at his best when he rattling other people's cages as a subtle form of manipulation.

Editing suggestion: Do something about the dangling participle/misplaced modifier here: "The two men fight their way against the current of the alien gravity, crawling on all fours, teeth clenched." It sounds like the [alien gravity] is doing the [crawling on all fours] with its (the alien gravity's) [teeth clenched], instead of the two men.

fooburger said...

typo: "the cul-se-sac"

The physics doesn't quite add up... in terms of photon mass being significant. Even if fully absorbed, and assuming the intensity of full sunlight (like 1kW over a sq. meter), that's like 1e3/9e16 kilograms per second of accumulated mass.... but whatever... it's a cute story.. :)
I'll call it 'time inverted quantum osmosis' and the math suddenly works out nicely. :)

al said...

fucking awesome!!!!

When is this in relation to the other events? Are we going in chronological order? If so this would be sometime after the attack in NYC.

Would be interesting to see Lalo and Mr. Miss meet. Both of them with artificial limbs from the same maker.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Bilhelm96,

Alas, poor Wainwright doesn't fare so well on the far end of this one. If you'll recall, when Mr. Miss and Wainwright meet again in The Extra Cars she informs him that the fallout of their previous meeting got her booted from the Mounties.

Dear Smiley K.,

Yes, I see your point about that line. I've appended your note to my (currently very large) Errata file...I hope I get time to tend to it soon.

Dear Fooburger,

Again, thanks for the note. I see your point about the numbers -- so let's just say there's something bizarre (and convenient) going on like the photons are translating into a disproportionate amount of mass because of some inexplicable (and, again, very convenient) entanglement with a host of associated virtual particles and their virtual masses.

Um.

Well...it beats just saying, "release a tachyon pulse from the Bussard collectors!", doesn't it?

Dear al.,

The various timelines are coming very close to synchronization, but we're not quite there yet -- however, this chapter does indeed take place in the early years of the twenty-first century.

As for Lallo...well, I'm fairly sure he hasn't made his final appearance in this tale yet.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Oh man. That was SO worth the wait. Bless your stepfather for his gift.

I disagree with smiley on the sentence. If you hadn't put a comma after "gravity", there would be a problem; however, the way the sentence is worded, I didn't see anything awkward about it (and I'm a stickler for that stuff). Different strokes and all, I suppose.

Your cinematic style is all over this piece. Such great, subtle imagery all over... we get a little tiny bit more of Mr. Miss and his Hubbard training, more paranormal events, more real, human people and cans of beans blowing down the street.

So was SM responsible for the Jeremiah dream, or was it some other effect of the probability distortion?

The moral of the story, of course, is that too much TV will kill you.

Orick of Toronto said...

hey, great chapter there. For some reason, I enjoyed Mr. Miss's appearance in this chapter more than usual. I guess it's probably because he is a bit more 'human' in this one. Or maybe, for me, less is more when it comes to Mr. Miss.

Like Sheik, I found that not awkard at all.

On the other hand, I don't think maggots eat cooked meat, do they?

Teddy said...

Prison Guards don't carry guns, at least they don't in the states. They work in too close a proximity to too those in their charge and a gun can, as you demonstrated here, be lost or stolen without exceeding difficulty. Too risky that an inmate will get ahold of it. If they have a serious situation, they can bring in guns from outside fairly quickly, and guards in towers will usually have sniper rifles.

I like how this one wasn't actually averted. It's very hard to get people to believe in the supernatural, even when it's happening to them. At least Mrs. White was plenty hateable. At the end, she needed to go. Although, if she was a perfect trap for photons, wouldn't she have been the event horizon? Mere perfect solid black, not even reflectively shiny? You wouldn't have been able to make out even facial features or anything, merely in profile.

Also, my boss is showing me how to record a phone interview today. Anytime this week would be good, and after this I'm gone (in europe) for two weeks. Thanks!

TRH

Eric said...

Great Chapter! You did an amazing job of giving us great visual descriptions while keeping it fast paced and exciting.

I noticed that Sheik assumed that the "tall dark man" that Alex dreamed about was Jeremiah. I had assumed that it was Mr. Miss.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

I think Baum had the dream because he'd subconsciously seen Mr. Miss on the monitor, and he found the apparition spooky (hence, dream of doom). As usual with dreams, the connection to the real world is more coincidence than sooth.

You're right, though -- this chapter definitely has a moral with regard to TV indulgence.

Dear Orick,

Maggot will eat anything that has even trace amounts of nutrition. I have personally seen them spawned in all sorts of filth, including many things people have told me maggots "never" eat (faeces, for example, or spoiled fruit).

Dear Teddy,

I couldn't seem to find a clear explanation of what Corrections Canada officers do and don't carry, but I figured I could smuggle in the gun fiction anyway. I do see your point, however, and it makes sense.

Baum could see some details of Mrs. White because had not yet "collapsed" -- that is, while extraordinary massive no event horizon had yet formed. I imagine he discerned some details from reflections in a trace film of moisture on the surface of her skin, a film made of atoms behaving as we normally expect them to.

Teddy: could we record something on Thursday evening, after my kids bunk down (which is around 8:30 EST, give or take)? Let me know. Also, I'd appreciate an email heads-up of what sorts of areas you'd like to cover, so I can organize some notes.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

fooburger said...

"Can you see or measure an atom? Yet you can *explode* one. A ray of sunlight is made up of *many* atoms!"

- Plan 9 From Outer Space, in reference to the Solanite Bomb humans are building to explode the universe

:)

I think you are on very stable scientifiction grounds here. :)

The Baum character strongly brought that "Heroes" mind-reading police officer character to my mind.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Eric:

I noticed that Sheik assumed that the "tall dark man" that Alex dreamed about was Jeremiah. I had assumed that it was Mr. Miss.

You're probably right. I often get them confused :)

Also, CBB, there's a "Baums" near the end of the chapter.

pso said...

Yay for Mr. Miss. Too bad there were no further revelations about the Shah and the Math, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless (as Mr. Miss stories always are). I'm sure more revelations are coming soon enough.

-param

John said...

terrifying, horrifying, disgusting. I am totally creeped out. The sound of her bones cracking made me momentarily pity her, for at that moment, her pain and the knowledge of how wrong she was, and what a terrible thing she had brought on herself.

I don't know if they do this anymore, but many books I read as a teenager(about 15 years ago) had short, one-page hooks at the beginning. If I were to choose part of any chapter so far as the hook for this book, it would be from this one.

Teddy said...

Oof, I work thursday. I'll see if I can get it off maybe, but not likely. Naturally, right after that I'm off to europe for two weeks...

I'll be emailing what I've got for questions so far, and I'll email any further questions I develop as well. I'll do my best to get thursday off, and keep you updated.

TRH

Dan said...

Alas the Burgerverse takes one more brush against reality. As Felix sends back a report.

http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2008/may/HQ_M08089_Chandra_Advisory.html

THE Danimal

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Dan: not much information. Is it at the heliopause?

Dan said...

Sheik,

It was the headline at the link more than anything else. Of course now it's gone. The headline went something like "NASA Begins Hunt Across Galaxy"

THE Danimal

Mark said...

Great chapter, CBB. Mrs. White instantly reminded me of the big brother, Chet, on Weird Science, after Kelly LeBrock's character turned him into that blubbering mass of stinky crap.

Mr. Miss almost has the force, he's so good at manipulating people.

Baum's use of the word "entertaining" seemed a bit unnatural for his character, but maybe they just breed'em smarter up there in Canada (wow, that's an open invitation, eh?).

Teddy said...

Just thought everybody might want to know...

I interviewed CBB earlier tonight and all went swimmingly (he used the word "tittilating" twice). I won't be able to slice and dice it into something worthy of the airwaves until after I get back from europe in two weeks, and beyond that it's the intellectual property of the station, not me, and I'm pretty sure that counts for the raw interview as well, although I'll double check when I get back.

On the plus, the station manager wants to podcast stuff, it's just a matter of wrangling the university that houses them (but no longer has a radio host education program) into giving them some serious webspace to host this stuff from. The only problem with this is the station manager finds it difficult to get anybody to actually do anything. I'm not a far shot off from simply dragging in one of my old PCs, throwing a cheap 250gb drive in it, hooking it up and saying "host on this!"

So yeah, that's the scoop. I'm really hoping to be able to have something up as soon as possible.

Also, my friends were most impressed with my legitimacy all of a sudden. Turns out when you can say "I"m with KSRQ out of thief river falls, Pioneer 90.1. I'd like an interview on such and such)" you can talk to some pretty cool people about some pretty cool stuff.

TRH

Mark said...

Teddy, that sounds great. I look forward to hearing the interview.

Have a wonderful trip.

fooburger said...

Next one must not be a Drago chapter. :)

Sash said...

Oh, this one could have gotten me in trouble at work because I was so focused on it. There comes a point when you can't stop reading - for me, I think it was when I realized what Mr. Miss was describing and the devastation that would follow. And we trust him enough, that if he says a black hole will show up in the middle of suburbia, we believe him.

Simon said...

Damn... a fella goes away on holidays for about a week and a half and it takes this long to get back up to speed. I sure do love the Mr. Miss chapters, CBB.

At his first description of Mrs. White's impending doom, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Creosote. His ending was gastronomic in nature, and not nearly so destructive, though a good deal grosser.

Also, something I thought after finishing this was that I wouldn't have bought into it nearly as much if Mr. Miss had convinced Baum to go on his own. I don't care how convincing you are, but trying to talk a rent-a-cop into saving a neighbourhood from a small black hole is going to fail on the first try. That diner scene was critical.

Loved the irony inherent in the names White and Baum, too.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Heh... I chuckled at "White", but "Baum" didn't register with me. Were you going for "bum" or "bomb"... or both?

Tolomea said...

so... do you have any notion of when work is going to quiet down enough for work on chapter 22 to commence/resume?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Tolomea,

Hopefully soon. With any luck I won't have to work through this weekend as I have the last few weekends, and then next week things clear right up.

Sorry for the long delay. The show I'm currently building at work is our largest of the year, and it is always a major drain. This time around everything's being done in high-definition, which multiplies my challenges by six.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown