Monday, 20 October 2008

The Secret Mathematic - Chapter Thirty-Three


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

Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12|13|14|15|16|17|18|19|20
21|22|23|24|25|26|27|28|29|30|31|32|33|...

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:



THIRTY-THREE


286 km

There are ghosts in La Tuque. They flicker and they fleet, but they can also be captured. There are a hundred exhibits of such: misty smears in photographs, swirls of optical distortion in videos. These images are their prisons.

"Did you ever see that movie Poltergeist? This is totally like Poltergeist."

Red Vicious looks up at Phat-so Kim, a sneer of confusion on his lips. "Sounds foreign. I don't watch foreign movies. You know, all that reading. Screw it, mate. I got better things to do than read off an effin' movie screen."

Aglakti chuckles. "But Red, you don't do anything, man."

"Yeah, but: fuck. I like to keep my options open, eh? I'm like a free spirit."

"Only drunker, crueler and more profane."

"Well...yeah."

Phat-so Kim straightens from his work, hands on his hips as he surveys the high-speed video camera attached to his improvised motion-control rig built from a tripod, a skateboard, an electric foot messager and a sewing machine. He flips on the attached monitor and calibrates the picture, frowning as he presses buttons on a little remote control. The colour bars flash when the settings are optimal. He grins with satisfaction and runs a hand through his electric blue hair. "Ready here!" he calls. "I'm set to converge at forty-six negative yaw."

Franzi Eisler, Aglakti's personal assistant, reviews his settings against her clipboard, lips pinched. She looks up and nods curtly. "This is according to specifications, Mr. Kim."

"Totally don't take this the wrong way, but do you ever smile, Franzi?"

"Not when I am working."

Aglakti chuckles again. "And you're always working, Franzi."

On the other side of the wide foyer inside the doors of La Tuque's city hall, Baum grunts as he lowers the second high-speed recorder assembly into place. "Easy...easy..." coaches Father Bellamy, holding the mount head steady with his long, cocoa hands. "Easy now, Alex."

"There's nothing easy about this," wheezes Baum, teeth gritted. "Just hook the damn thing in as quick as you can, Father!"

"Cussing only slows me down, my son," says Father Bellamy in his melodious, island lilt as he carefully threads the mount into the camera's base. "The wheels of cooperation are greased by harmony, after all."

"My goddamn arms are coming off!"

"Easy now...easy does it. And -- there we are: secured."

"Amen!"

Outside, on the steps of city hall, the mayor waits while Mr. Mississauga lights a cigarette. He casts his eyes over the tall detective's shoulder, ruminating on a birdshit-streaked bronze statue of pop diva Celine Dion looming over the flowerbeds. The trees flanking the entrance are almost bare, with just a few scarlet leaves clinging in wait of a stronger, colder breeze.

Mr. Mississauga exhales a cone of roiling vapour with an impatient hiss. "The key behaviour we're attempting to exploit, Mr. Mayor, is the entities' reluctance to be actualized. By triggering a series of focused decoherence events via high-speed photography loci arranged in series, we hope to be able to deliberately channel entity trajectories."

The mayor blinks. "O...kay."

The tall detective turns to face him abruptly. "We have established, Mr. Mayor, that the apparitions turning up in the photographs are in fact weak probability outcomes made manifest by periodic and self-reinforcing disturbances in chance. The figures you see --"

"But who are they?" interrupts the mayor, plaintive and tired. "Who are these 'figures'?" He drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, eyes darting back and forth: "Is it native spirits taking vengeance on the white man? You can tell me if it is." He takes a breath. "Tell them we're prepared to negotiate."

"They are you, Mr. Mayor," persists Mr. Mississauga in an even tone. "They are your secretary; they are your gardener. They are the people of La Tuque, glimpsed from related but unrealized potential histories. They are your almost-selves. It's a hyper-inflation of non-outcomes -- and I have seen it before: cars in Kingston that described drives not quite undertaken, winking in and out of existence." He drags on his cigarette. "Macroscopic quantum-like superposition, if you will."

"But how can you say this, that it's us? I've seen the photos, too, Monsieur Mistassini! There's nothing there but blobs."

"Mississauga," corrects Mr. Mississauga. "That, Mr. Mayor, is why we're using the high-speed cameras. When we capture at five thousand frames per second the images become crystal clear. The apparitions are not your departed loved ones, sir, nor angry native spirits: I can't stress that enough. They are simply alternative versions of the people you live and work with every day."

The mayor pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs, eyes closed. "But how did this happen?"

"We're not at all sure how it's happened, Mr. Mayor, but we have learned how to stop it. That's what we're doing here this evening, and we'll get started as soon as the sun sets."

The mayor opens one eye timidly. "Because ghosts only come out at night?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "Because the images stand out better against darkness, and our entire plan hinges on the fidelity of the images. You see, when we take a clear photograph we force the apparition to become more real than it is naturally wont. This forced manifestation in the image diminishes the likelihood of the apparition itself -- thus pushing it back into the wholly virtual realm."

The mayor considers this, nodding slowly and studying his own hands. Finally he looks up. "What you're telling me then, monsieur, is that you'll use the cameras to steal the ghosts' souls."

Mr. Mississauga offers him a small, tight smile but says nothing.

They both turn to face the group of townspeople gathering at the foot of the steps, each of them holding some manner of photographic or videographic apparatus ranging from the tools of serious hobbyists to humble, gaily branded camerae obscurae-like boxes of cardboard and plastic. The mayor's aide is gesturing frantically at him to take the podium and address the crowd. "Phil! Everybody's waiting, eh?"

Mr. Mississauga puts a heavy hand on his shoulder as the mayor turns to go. "Tell them to be calm. Tell them to follow the written steps. Tell them if they all act together, they can chase these phantoms away and give up their fear."

"They'll want to know why it's all happening, I'm telling you. They'll want to know whose responsibility it is."

"Sometimes the events of the world are simply the world's responsibility, Mr. Mayor."

"Maybe," he agrees, "but people are people, and they need to have an answer. No matter what I say, they'll be sure that something brought this on...that's it's somebody's sin somewhere to blame."

Mr. Mississauga shrugs. "Say what you have to. Just make sure they act as one."

The mayor nods slowly as he mulls this over, then turns and shuffles down the stairs to the podium. He straightens the microphone, causing it briefly to shriek. He clears his throat. "Okay everyone, listen: whoever captures the most ghost pictures wins a thousand dollar shopping spree at the liquor store!"

The crowd cheers, tossing their toques into the air in joy. A yellow and green striped one drops onto the head of the Celine Dion statue, drooping over one bronze eye. Aglakti, Phat-so, Baum and Father Bellamy slip out the front doors and join Mr. Mississauga on the stairs, eyes widening as they take in the townpeople's surprising new enthusiasm. "What's with Celine Dion?" asks Baum, making a face. "The whole town is a big fan of adult craptemporary?"

"She was born here," says Aglakti. "But she made it out to make it big."

Mr. Mississauga turns on heel to face them, his serious expression dispelling their chatter instantly. "Start the clock," he says, glancing at the purple western sky. "Tell Franzi and Red to ignite the sniffers and get on radio. Phat-so: I want you monitoring the coin array. Baum, Aglakti: you're on the high-speed rigs. I want Aglakti's cousins covering the exits with the metacatoptric mirrors -- just in case."

Mr. Mississauga is delivered a series of sloppy salutes as his team members rush to their duties. Phat-so Kim bops his hips and dances his way up the stairs. "Who you gonna call?" he sings. "Ghostbusters!"

Aglakti hangs back, hooking her arm through the detective's elbow. "You know, you'd have never been able to pull this off all by your lonesome, Mr. Miss."

He allows her a small nod. "Yes," he agrees.


322 km

The Team Mississauga bus roars along the dark highway, the wind whistling as it passes between looming outcroppings of Canadian Shield rock with their middles blasted out by dynamite. The headlights flash over convoluted and compressed layers of different minerals, exposed by the explosive cut. Small Inukshuk figures of piled slabs stand watch from the outcroppings' shoulders, placidly observing the bus streak by with the orange micro-schoolbus in tow.

Red Vicious sits up front beside Yves, strumming clumsily and aggressively at a scratched acoustic guitar while yarbling out a vaguely lyrical noise. From time to time when what he plays seems familiar, the others attempt to sing along. "Sweet Jane, Sweet Jane," he whines, eyes shut and head lolling. "There's no future, no future, no future for you."

Baum sits next to Aglakti's chubby cousin. "You know," he says, "this is definitely the weirdest part of my life to date. And that includes puberty, man. Six months ago I was in a dead end job, watching ruined people fight in cages, and now I'm...riding around in Scooby-Doo's magical mystery van."

Aglakti's chubby cousin nods consolingly as he gnaws at a strip of dried moose jerky.

"I wanted to make a difference," Baum continues, staring past his own reflection in the window. "I wanted to actually do something. And here I am, yeah, doing something, but nobody'd even believe me if I told them about it. It's kind of nuts, you know?"

Aglakti's chubby cousin offers him a piece of jerky.

Baum looks over and shakes his head. "No thanks, man. Not really my thing. I'll wait until we hit the next Tim's. So, anyway...what's your story? Cherry's your cousin, right?"

He cocks his head, furrows his brow, then makes a series of guttural clicking noises in rapid succession, like a wet printer.

Baum blinks. "I'm sorry?"

Aglakti takes off her headphones and leans over from her seat. "It's Inuktitut," she explains. "He said, 'I don't understand damn a thing you're saying.'"

"Oh."

Her chubby cousin smiles amicably as he chews.

Phat-so Kim is sitting at a small table, nodding his head in time to Red's erratic strumming while he clicks through screens of graphs on a battered laptop computer. Beside him, Franzi pores over a binder of data tables, rows upon rows of outcomes recorded from the coin apparatus, and compares them to printed graphs in a second binder. Phat-so makes a number of false starts before daring to interrupt her. "Franzi, you can use this computer if you want. If you're looking for something. If you've got an idea or whatever."

She doesn't look up. "Thank you no, Mr. Kim. I'm fine."

"But you're just looking at the raw numbers. You can't see the trends." Immediately after he's said this he flushes, feeling he might have offended her. "I just mean..."

"I am looking for irregularities," she replies crisply. "I am assuring correspondence between the data we take and the graphs that are drawn."

"That's cool," says Phat-so quickly. "But isn't that kind of a waste? The computer can do that. You're -- smart, right, so you could probably do something else." He lifts up his hands from the table but they leave sweat marks so he immediately replaces them again.

Franzi pauses from her work, her blonde head tilted. "Mr. Kim, the computer knows only one way to count. To assure perfect correspondence, we must analyze the data differently. The computer is not capable of this level of error checking."

Phat-so tries to make a joke. "Yeah, but who checks the checkers?"

"Our experience in La Tuque has suggested to me the importance of fidelity," she continues, unfazed. "Recall the high-speed videography from La Tuque: even at five thousand frames per second, some frames were unreadable where most were clear."

"Yeah, I remember. That random blurring."

"The drift of the failed frames with reference to the embedded timecode is not random, in fact, though the pattern is non-obvious," she says, pointing to the first binder significantly. "This suggests a loss of synchronization between source and medium."

Phat-so sits back and scratches his head. "You think the ghosts themselves were actually flashing at five thousand frames a second or something? Wouldn't that be a pretty big coincidence?"

"No, you miss it. When the camera created a record for us, it caused the a phantasm to pulse in time to that recording process. Like a wave, with photon capture occuring at the crests and resetting in the troughs." Franzi once more gestures to her binders. "The troughs, however, are not in step with the crests. There is drift, and I can see it in the tables -- like the result of imprecise rounding: a crawling error."

"Imprecise rounding? Do you know how accurate this --"

She shakes her head curtly. "It doesn't matter, Mr. Kim. The point is that the camera is counting with a set of numbers that do not align precisely with the values involved in the phenomenon. There is, in effect, a fundamental mismatch between the numbers we're using and the numbers they are."

"They who?"

"Whoever has done this. Whatever is at the root of it, the mathematics are entirely foreign."

Phat-so seems briefly appalled, then licks his lips and leans in. "Show me more," he says, pulling the binder closer.

Father Bellamy snores in his hammock, Augustine's Confessions spread upon on his slowly rising and falling chest. He sways as the bus turns, a page flipped and then flipped back by the motion. Aglakti slips past him to arrive at the back of the bus, threading her way toward the washroom. Her tallest cousin is sitting by the rear window, eyes cast out at the dangling schoolbus. "Is everything okay?" she asks in Inuktitut.

He nods. "The discovering man sleeps. He's screaming."

"That's what he does," she sighs. She looks down. Her cousin is carefully weaving fine leather strips together in his lap without looking. "What's that?" she asks.

"Dreamcatcher. It's for him. Got any beads?"

"Yeah. Ask Red to get them from my wardrobe. Want me to send him back here for you?"

He shakes his head, inclining it at the washroom cabin. "He'll come when he's ready to vomit."

At the front of the bus Yves adjusts his earplugs while Red croons: "Day after day, I get angry and I will say, that the day is in my sight, the wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home, I run through the empty stone because I'm all alone! Yeah!" The guitar strings snap and Red, startled, topples over backward to land in the exit well.

"Stay behind the yellow line," warns Yves.

"Hell," says Red.


435 km

In Roberval two thousand, four hundred men and women choose the same lottery numbers, and everybody wins. The jackpot is thus set to be subdivided to miniscule shards of wealth, adding insult to the injury that the provincial gaming corporation refuses to make good. They say Roberval has somehow cheated, though they will be damned if they know how or -- considering the splitting of the pot -- why.

The people of Roberval are angry. It is bad enough that Channel 3 now shows on Channel 4, and that Channel 5 is mixed with Channel 6, and that Channel 7 is no longer a local religious broadcaster but, somehow, a Spanish softcore pornography network -- but to be cheated out of their measley returns on luck is too much to bear. The talk on the streets is surprisingly dramatic in tone.

"This is why Quebec must be independent," say some. "The Canadians are playing with us, and it's time we put a stop to it one way or another."

The temperature is warm for autumn. People spend their time out of doors, because the fall sun sets early and the lights are frequently on the fritz. The power authority is forced to issue regular apologies. The fix-it shops are doing great business, as electronic devices from every corner of the town seem to be behaving improperly. Also, a record number of previously undiscovered species of frog have been found on the shores of Lac St. Jean, all within a single week. Some claim they have seen the frogs falling from the sky.

Most unsettling of all, however, is the aurora.

The northern lights can often be glimpsed on winter's coldest nights in Roberval as a vague, slowly undulating green glow in the northern quarter of the sky, sometimes enhanced by reflection from the lake. This year, however, every evening the sky is a blazing sheet of blue-green curtains shot through with flickers of red and gold -- this year its motion can be heard through the radio, or in some people's fillings.

At first it is beautiful but when it so strangely persists it quickly becomes more ominous -- the colours lurid rather than breathtaking, domineering rather than inspiring.

"The federal government is doing secret testing!"

"Aliens are ionizing our atmosphere for evil!"

"Mother Mary is angry!"

"The Sun will explode!"

The Team Mississauga bus approaches at dusk, faces plastered to the windows with eyes on the skies. The bus crawls along in the midst of a long queue leading up to a roadblock enforced by Surete Quebec, burly officers in thick jackets lining the highway with the reflections of spinning red and blue bubble lights in their sunglasses, their complexions ghoulish in the green auroral glow.

"What's with all the cops?" asks Phat-so.

No one replies. The brakes hiss as Yves stops the bus at the head of the line. He slides back his window and leans down. "What can I do ya for, officer?"

"What is your destination?"

"We're putting on a rock concert up north."

"Where up north?"

"Chapais."

"Chapais? Oui okay. Let me review your license and ownership."

The officer takes Yves' credentials over to his cruiser to check them against his computer. Yves drums his fingers on the sill, exchanging a look with Mr. Mississauga in the mirror. The detective's eyes flick over. Yves follows them. A white woman is running toward them from ahead, pursued by two Surete Quebec officers. She dashes in front of Yves' windshield and then pounds on the door. "Let me on the bus!" she cries.

Yves shrugs helplessly, his expression compassionate. Mr. Mississauga doesn't blink. "Screw you!" she screams, kicking at the bus door. "Screw you to hell! I have to get up north! I have to!"

She looks over as her pursuers spot her. "Arret!"

"Let me in you bastards!" she cries, pounding on the door.

Yves looks in the mirror at Mr. Mississauga again. Mr. Mississauga shakes his head.

She's tackled. Writhing beneath the officer's grasp she hollers, "Wiyasakami!"

There is a chill in the bus. Aglakti clears her throat awkwardly. Mr. Mississauga stares straight ahead. Phat-so looks conflicted. Yves accepts his license back through the window and then unhitches the brake; the bus lurches, chuffs, and then begins rumbling forward.

The stop in Roberval is short. A town this tense isn't kind to strangers. People this scared forget, sometimes, to be polite. Outside of a family restaurant Phat-so Kim is beaten by a ring of drunk power-plant men, until Red Vicious intervenes, chasing them with a hat stand from the restaurant swung in whistling arcs. "Thanks," mumbles Phat-so, dabbing at a split-lip.

"No worries, mate," says Red. "I'm totally effin' intolerant of arsekeels who mess with a guy just cause the colour of his hair."

Red offers out a hand to help Phat-so stand up, but Red is very drunk and so he falls down and ends up having to lean on Phat-so as they shuffle back into the restaurant. He puts back the hat stand but it tumbles. Franzi fetches ice and towels. Aglakti is angry. Baum and Yves elect to go outside to survey the scene. Father Bellamy prays.

"It's getting worse," snaps Aglakti. "It's getting worse fast, Mr. Miss."

"Yes," says Mr. Mississauga. "Event Zero is near. The world wobbles."

The blinds are drawn. No one eating in the restaurant wants to have to look at the undulating green sky. "People are going to notice," says Phat-so indistinctly, holding ice to his mouth. "People outside of rural Quebec, I mean. This going to get big."

"Naw," argues Red, lighting a cigarette butt from the floor. "Everybody's too busy screwing around with the fucking war, man. Nobody gives a shit about a bunch of jumpy French rubes."

Mr. Mississauga's gaze is oriented over Red's shoulder. "The general public may not be our greatest concern," he says slowly. "Nor the media, Mr. Vicious. Do not turn around."

Red starts to turn but Aglakti secures him. "He said don't turn, Red."

"There's some effin' guy there?"

Mr. Mississauga nods. He then takes an uncharacteristic pose, resting his slightly stubbled chin in the palm of one leather glove. He spreads his fingers to partially cover his mouth. "There is a man on the other side of the restaurant paying special attention to us. From the way his eyes flit, I believe he can read lips."

Aglakti shudders, pressing her lips together as if she were a ventriloquist. "Moo do 'ou hink it is?"

"I don't know," replies Mr. Mississauga, "but I recognize him from La Tuque." He then discreetly tosses his napkin down on the floor, lingering as he bends down to scoop it up. His limbs buzz quietly, clicking into place. Mr. Mississauga straightens. "He may be a Hubbardian. He wears their style of clothing."

Aglakti frowns. "What's a Hubbardian?"

"A cult," says Mr. Mississauga, mouth concealed. "An organization of enormous resources and unswerving focus."

"How do you know about them? You investigated them?"

"I was kidnapped by them. As a kid. For years."

Everyone stares at him silently. Aglakti blinks slowly, then puts her hand on Mr. Mississauga's arm, turning her head to keep her mouth obscured. "You think they want you back?"

"I don't know what they could want. The prospect of their being involved in Event Zero is not a comfortable one, however."

Red licks his lips and cracks his knuckles. "Let's get some answers out of him then, eh?"

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "That is not our way."

"Mr. Miss, seriously, we could just scare him a bit," insists Aglakti, her cheeks flushed. "I mean, what the hell? Our goddamn friends are getting the shit kicked out of them already -- can't we even fight back?"

"The Hubbardian Org did not attack Mr. Kim, Aglakti."

"So it's fairness you're concerned about now? Fairness for the fucks who kidnapped you?"

"There will be no interrogations tonight," says Mr. Mississauga flatly. He pushes his empty can of soup away. "It's time for us to leave."


510 km

"...And please, Lord, deliver this catalytic converter from evil, for at least a few more kilometers," concludes Father Bellamy. "Amen."

Aglakti's cousins open their eyes and raise their heads, then get back to work. Father Bellamy lays down upon his dolly and nods. He is pushed back beneath the bus, the little wheels on the dolly squeaking. A moment later the sound of tools clanking can be heard punctuating his ecclesiastical humming. The cousins are poised by the toolbox, ready to pass the priest whatever he next requires, playing jackstraws between tasks. "Locking pliers!" calls Father Bellamy.

Alex Baum scans the horizon with a pair of binoculars, then lets them drop against his chest and heads back toward the schoolbus, hunching his shoulders against the cold breeze. He steps up the handicapped access ramp and then blinks as his eyes adjust from the sunshine to the comparative gloom of the interior. Franzi, Phat-so and Mr. Misssissauga look up.

"Hey," says Baum. "Road's still clear. Haven't seen another vehicle for hours." He pauses, squinting. "What is that contraption, anyway?"

"Probability scope," says Phat-so casually, as if everyone he knows owns at least two.

"Is that like a periscope?"

"Not entirely dissimilar, Mr. Baum," says Mr. Mississauga. "Except instead of sticking up above the surface of the water it peeks behind the curtain of chance."

Baum wanders closer, hands touching the seatbacks as he proceeds down the narrow, rubber-floored aisle. The group is hunkered over a hollowed-out arcade game console bobbing, every so slightly, in time to Baum's footfalls. He slows, taking in the messy but ingenious gyroscopic base upon which the arcade table floats. The innards of paddles and lights have been replaced with a tight filigree of interconnected tubes filled by a clear, bubbling liquid. The high-score display above the table marches with rows of figures, clicking rapidly as they change. Connected to the apparatus via bundles of mismatched cabling is a series of car batteries and a laptop computer with a cracked screen, its display shot through with gaily-coloured distortion.

Baum makes a face. "So...who's got the high score?"

"Weirdness," says Phat-so.

Baum ignores this, addressing instead Mr. Mississauga. "Why do you guys always call this the coin whatsis? I don't see any coins."

"Once," says Mr. Mississauga, eyes on the display, "in India, I saw a giant pool of bells, each perfectly balanced on a narrow spring. Tremors would cause the coins to sway on their springs, coming into contact with their neighbours. By listening to the resulting song, the yogis could predict the epicentre and intensity of distant earthquakes."

Baum shrugs. "Yeah, okay. So this thing is full of coins, instead of bells?"

Phat-so nods. "Exactly, except the coins aren't real."

"What kind of exactly is that, kid?" frowns Baum.

He's not sure, be thinks he sees Franzi almost smile. Mr. Mississauga produces a coin and holds it out to Baum. Brow crinkled, Baum takes it. "Flip it," says Mr. Mississauga. The coin sings as it spins; Baum slaps it down against his forearm.

He looks up at Mr. Mississauga expectantly. "So what's riding on this? Dinner and dancing with Franzi?"

"I don't think so," says Franzi.

Phat-so hiccups. Mr. Mississauga says, "No. What are the odds your flip has turned up heads, Mr. Baum?"

"One in two," says Baum immediately.

"Yes. And the odds of flipping heads twice in a row?"

"Um."

"It's one in four. The odds of three in a row is one in eight, and so on. It's a regular pattern. When chance itself is disrupted, however, the pattern changes."

Baum starts to nod. "Okay, okay -- so instead of detecting earthquakes you're detecting odds-quakes, and instead of using bells on springs you're...flipping coins?"

"Very good, Mr. Baum. And, while once in the Middle East I did see a literal moat of coins, flipped by steam registers, as an ear to detect such disruptions, we suffer here from a certain deficit of resources that has obliged us to employ a deeper level of creativity."

"Instead of coins we're using an ionized fluid moving through a bunch of magnetic gates --" gushes Phat-so, but Baum stops him by shaking his head.

"Look, no offense to you and your brain, kid, but save your breath. The only reason I got my high school science credit was because...I did a favour for a favour, alright?" He closes his eyes and shudders briefly, then opens them and looks at his still extended forearm. "So is it heads or tails?"

"Tails," calls Phat-so.

"No," says Mr. Mississauga.

Baum peels back his hand. "Heads," he says. "Your machine tell you that, Detective?"

"No. I saw it before your hand covered it."

"That's impossible. It's way too quick. What's your secret?"

"I watch carefully, Mr. Baum."

Baum begins to watch carefully over Mr. Mississauga's shoulder. He squints, then remembers the binoculars hanging around his neck and raises them. "Car," he says. "Somebody's coming." He pauses. "Somebody's coming fast."

Phat-so looks at the high score display. "Improbability's swelled up to plus point two," he reports. Franzi straightens the laptop screen and scrolls through tables of numbers. "Confirmed."

Mr. Mississauga's mouth tightens. "Mr. Baum: secure our interests."

Baum is already gone. He sprints alongside the Team Mississauga bus, tapping on the shoulders of Aglakti's cousins and giving them the emergency sign. He jumps aboard, startling Yves. "Open the strong box," he says. Yves gets it down and unlocks it. It contains two rifles: Mr. Mississauga wouldn't allow him bullets, so Baum loads them with bear tranquilizers. He passes a rifle to Yves and then scampers away, fumbling with his binoculars. Yves slides open the driver's window and rests the rifle on his shoulder, one eye closed.

Aglakti sits up from her hammock, blinking. "What the crap is going on?"

Yves cocks his rifle.

A cloud of dust rounds the nearest hill, a fuzzy shadow at its tip. The growling report of the engine wanders over the rocky landscape toward them, distorted by echoes. Mr. Mississauga steps down the schoolbus ramp and crosses his arms. Baum shifts his rifle, concealed beneath his jacket. Aglakti's chubby cousin picks his nose.

A dust-streaked, formerly red Ferrari California roars up the highway, wheels locking as it slides to a desperate stop a dozen meters shy of the busses. The body hums as the driver's side door disengages, expelling a furiously angry Latin man in a black silk shirt split to the navel. He barrels up to Aglakti's cousins and begins bellowing incomprehensibly, his arms blurred in a frenzy of gesticulation.

"Hey," calls Baum. "Hey! What's up, buddy? Why don't you just leave these guys alone?"

He wheels on Baum, eyes wide. "Don't make me hit jou, mang. Just shut up if you're smart. Got that?"

Baum shows him the rifle.

"Jesus Christ!" the man exclaims, stumbling back. "What the fug is this, mang?" He seems on the verge of panic until his features suddenly harden, and Baum notes the handgun levelled at his heart. "Drop it, mang. Jou don't wanna mess with me. I'm from Mexico City. I shot people on my way to fugging kindergarten, mang."

Baum swallows. "I'm putting my weapon aside. Okay? You can see me?" He bends slowly down, the barrel touching the pavement.

"Yeah, I fugging you see alright --" the man starts, but stops when he is struck in the shoulder with a tranquilizer dart. The crack of its firing seems to come a heartbeat later, even though Yves' rifle is close. The man looks at his shoulder in dismay. "Jesus Christ, mang," he says, lips turning loose.

He blinks, then folds into a neat pile on the road.

Suddenly a girl bursts from the other side of the Ferrari, clutching at her face in horror as she shrieks. "Lo!" She turns to run away, crying, "Eeeeee!" but her progress is very slow on account of her needle-thin high heeled shoes and constrictively-tight skirt. She waddles down the highway in panic, arms flailing and reedy voice warbling. "Eeeee!"

Baum lowers his rifle and cracks up laughing. Yves snorts, then pretends he was coughing.

Aglakti comes around the front of the bus. She looks from Yves to Baum to her cousins, then spots the man lying crumpled on the road. "Mother of Crap," she says, then jogs over and kneels down.

She looks up as she hears Mr. Mississauga's characteristic footsteps approaching. She smells his tobacco as his shadow falls over you. "It's Lorenzo," she explains, shaking her head. "It's my manager. Is he gonna be okay?"

"Your manager?" echoes Baum, snapping the safety on his rifle. "That raging spic is your manager?"

"Don't be rude, Alex. He's probably just mad because I stole the tour bus."

Mr. Mississauga raises a brow. "You stole the bus, Aglakti?"

"Well, it's my bus!" she says, then pauses. "Well, it's got my name on it, at any rate. Or it used to...before we had it repainted." She looks down at Lorenzo. "Technically, it's his."

"Get him inside," says Mr. Mississauga. He turns to look down the highway once more, where Lorenzo's girlfriend has progressed just a few more meters in her handicapped flight. "Eeeeee!" Mr. Mississauga sighs. "And I suppose someone should retrieve the girl."

Baum inspects her through his binoculars. "I'll pick her up," he offers.

A muffled voice calls, "Can I come out now?"

Aglakti's cousins jump, then quickly withdraw Father Bellamy from beneath the bus where they had stashed him in case of trouble. He sits up, wiping oil from his face. "All patched," he declares. "She'll hold together until we can get to the Canadian Tire in Chapais, Lord willing."

"Amen," mumble Aglakti's cousins in automatic unison.

Father Bellamy smiles.


707 km

"This is the end of the road."

Aglakti jams her hands into her pockets, hunching her shoulders. She glances back at the bus and frowns. "What are you talking about, Mr. Miss?"

He pauses to light a cigarette, his hatchet face briefly revealed in the orange glow. "North of Chapais, the highways are unpaved."

"Oh, is that all you mean? That's no biggie." Aglakti looks back at the bus again. "Father Bellamy can put chains on the tires. You should've seen the muck we pushed this thing through in Mississippi last year."

"Mississauga," says Mr. Mississauga reflexively.

"What?"

"No, Aglakti," he continues, "that won't do. There are no gas stations. There are no lights. It is days or weeks between waystations for supplies. And it's going to take more than chains to keep moving, once the snow flies. The fact is that this tour bus canot make the trip all the way to Wiyasakami."

Aglakti bites her lip, brow furrowed. "So we're going to have to winter here? In Chapais?" She looks around at the desolate little intersection anxiously. A yellow caution light winks rhythmically on and off, on and off, on and off. "Man."

"No," says Mr. Mississauga. "Look at the green sky. There's no time to waste."

"So what are we gonna do?"

"You will turn back. I will go on."

"Aw shit, not this again, Mr. Miss!"

He touches her arm, his new grip more gentle than his old hand. "Aglakti, I appreciate the people you've pulled together to support me and this mission. I really do. I've...never felt so much a part of something in my life." He clears his throat and looks away. "But the others are not directly involved. From this point on, it is my affair to face."

"Not directly involved? Get off your high horse, Injun. Alex Baum escaped from a black hole in the middle of a city! Phat-so Kim braved phantom cars, and I watched my entire town get teleported every night -- and Father Bellamy...well, he won't say what he saw when he worked with you before, but I know it changed him. It's total bullshit to say it's just your affair, and you know it. Why are you trying to chase us away again?"

"This isn't a pop psychology issue," growls Mr. Mississauga. "It's about people's lives."

"Whatever Event Zero is, we can face it."

"Perhaps, but death would take some of us before we even got there. Aglakti, we're talking about crossing five hundred kilometers of sub-arctic tundra! Forget about facing Event Zero: think about facing frostbite and starvation. Think about facing a one ton polar bear guarding her young. Think about getting lost."

"You never get lost."

He pinches his mouth closed, nostrils flaring. "Listen, Aglakti: this isn't a democracy. This isn't open to debate."

He turns to leave but stumbles. She catches his elbow. "You need to sleep," she says.

"No."

"You sound like a toddler. Forget it, Mr. Miss. When your coordination starts to go it means you're way behind. I know you haven't been sleeping. My cousins see your light on back there in the schoolbus."

He narrows his eyes menacingly, but then concedes with a nod.

When Mr. Mississauga awakes the sky is no longer green, but the stark blue of a frigid, clourless day. The wind whistles the tin roofs of Chapais' modest dwellings. He exits the schoolbus and peeks into the tour bus, but no one is around. The dirt-spattered Ferrari California is quiet and cold. He wanders into the empty street and hears the clanging of work and the chuckle of conversation, and so moves toward the source.

The back lot of the village Canadian Tire store is covered by a large, cylindrical plaster shelter, connected to the service bays. A semi-disassembled tractor is parked in a corner, but the majority of the sheltered space is given over to the skeletal foundations of a huge tundra crawler on six massive ribbed wheels.

A flotilla of people are simultaneously working on the crawler -- including several local Innu, Aglakti's cousins, Yves LeRoche, Father Bellamy and Phat-so Kim.

Suddenly Aglakti is at the detective's side. "What do you think?" she enthuses, cheeks pinkened by the cold.

"This isn't a soap box derby, Aglakti."

"Soap box? Come on, Mr. Miss! This is a state of the art tundra crawler -- it just happens to be missing a body, is all." She takes his arm and points out one of the locals. "That's Harry Lake. He let us have it for practically nothing. He says the hunting trade has really died off since the war. But before that it was a luxury crawler, Mr. Miss -- it's got everything."

"...Except a cabin."

"Well, yeah -- except that. But we've already got that solved. We were just waiting for you to wake up."

Mr. Mississauga frowns. "Why?"

She points behind him as a tow trunk grumbles around the bend, the orange micro-schoolbus on its hitch. They step out of the way to let it drive under the shelter. Aglakti grins. "Body transplant."

"My soup is in there."

"We'll move your soup," she assures him, rolling her eyes. "The point is we're going to rip all the best stuff out of the tour bus, stick it in the crawler, then box the whole thing up inside the schoolbus shell. Voila -- Team Mississauga: Arctic Edition!"

Mr. Mississauga allows a small smile. "You never give up, do you?"

"Do you?"

"People might get hurt --"

"They know, Mr. Miss. Seriously. Forget about that. Nobody's listening." She smirks. "This isn't open to debate." She grabs his robotic arm again, squishing herself against him for warmth. "Besides, Harry's coming with us. He's a winter survival expert. He's been out there tons. What could possibly go wrong?"

Mr. Mississauga opens his mouth, but she immediately shushes him.

"It's a rhetorical question. Shut up."

Mr. Mississauga does not smile, but he seems as if he wants to. He catches Baum's eye as he patrols slowly around the site. Red and Franzi come out of the kitty-corner NorthMart with piles of woolen clothes in their arms. They turn their heads to watch Lorenzo and his girlfriend, Tammi, bickering inside the Tim's coffee shop. Tammi throws a doughnut at Lorenzo and then stomps away, breaking a high heeled shoe and falling over a couple of truckers at a booth. She shrieks, the plaintive sound audible even outside. "Eeeeee!"

Mr. Mississauga raises a brow. "You're not thinking of bringing Tammi along, are you?"

"She and Lorenzo are still, uh, discussing it. But we can't all come. There isn't enough room. We've decided to draw straws." Aglakti laughs. "But don't on't worry, Mr. Miss," she says. "If she does come along..."

"Yes?"

"We can always eat her."


18 comments:

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

I'm sorry about the delay with your copy of SOS3 -- I have it right here, but I've kept hanging it onto it because I'm supposed to have lunch with Clipper Ship (occasional poster here) who wants to see a genuine Lulu edition before he has his own printed. Our lunch has been cancelled several times due to dense schedules, but it looks like it's actually going to happen tomorrow.

So you'll have your book soon.


Dear all,

Again, I'm sorry things have been slowing down lately when they really should be ramping up. Life continues to be very demanding, on the one hand, and on the other I find myself in a similar state of mind as the end-run of Simon of Space: basically, I have trouble with endings.

No, not figuring out what should happen -- that's not the hard part at all. The problem is that I'm altogether too sure of what happens next by the time we get to end, which makes finishing up the novel a bit like a mindless assembly task. If it were a drawing, we'd have reached the end of the fun part where we're actually making stuff up, and passed into the tedious part where we're just colouring everything in.

Clearly, TSM is less of a novel proper, and more simply the product of what happens when a writer gets to write about whatever strikes him over the course of a year, trying bit by bit to bring it all together. It's a four-season fit of improvisation...

...And then we get to the end, and all the pieces are just about to fall into place, and most of the improvisation is done. I'm just colouring, now. I'm just completing the picture, stroke by stroke.

Obviously, this is something I need new strategies for surmounting, so what I've been trying here is taking regular breaks from the current chapter in favour of spending time on the final chapters. While this does introduce some extra delays in getting the current chapters posted, I think it will be worthwhile in the end because it's allowing me to pour a little bit more vital energy into the climax and conclusion.

The upshot of the TSM process becoming more mechanical to me is that my mind -- slippery thing as it is -- copes by escaping to more unstomped country in a fit to have a good time. I've got a great Christmas story coming together, for example, and I'm really excited to unleash some new short stories on you guys in the New Year that've been percolating in my brain over the last twelve months while TSM dominated the queue.

At any rate: I'm working through my writing issues, and juggling my life issues, and I'm optimistic about the chapters to come.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

Simon said...

Dear CBB,

Don't sweat any kind of delay. My "to-read" pile on the nightstand in my room could reach critical height with another addition. I'll pare it down before anything anticipated arrives in the mail.

I seem to be getting your Twitter chapter updates quickest now, where before it always cropped up first in my Google Reader. I'm starting to look forward to that tinyurl link.

As for this current chapter, I was pleased as punch to see someone again mangling Mr. Miss's name. I don't know why, but that's a schtick that just doesn't get old.

A number of minor spelling mistakes in this one, though I didn't track any of them. I know there was a "message" where there should have been a "massage". Maybe I'll troll through again later.

I liked the rather vague display of distances in various spots throughout the chapter. The first one is completely ambiguous, but you pick up on them as you read through.

I actually thought it was kind of funny that Team Mississauga stopped to help another small town deal with disturbances related to Event Zero while they were driving north to their destination. I can see Mr. Miss's deadpan as he explains that they've seen this sort of thing before. And the liquor store spree was the icing on that one.

I had to do a little Google mapping, and Chapais really is out there in the middle of nowhere, eh?

Big t said...

TSM has been a fun journey, it has taken us for quite a ride. I will be sorry to see it end, but happy to read new stories. The tales of CBB are a something that I always look forward too, I check the blog everyday for new content and comments. I think I may be addicted to serial ramblings. I don't want to get all mushy and stuff but I really enjoy these FREE stories. I have even been inspired to write a little although my writings turn out to be more like 80's heavy metal lyrics, oh well have to start somewhere. Rock on CBB!!!

SaintPeter said...

LOL - I too hit Wikipedia (home town of Celine Dion) and the google maps:
The Route

I'm not sure that all your distances added up. It was confusing at first that the numbers were going UP, not down, as I expected.

So many great moments in this chapter. I liked the way you wove the exposition in between the action - it felt more natural and was far more digestible.

One confusing bit: When you were talking about bells and coins I think you messed up and said coins when you meant bells. You may want to reread that passage and check for bell/coin coherency.

RE: Real Life
CBB, the drug you deliver is so pure that the absence just makes the tasting all the better. I think I speak for all of us when I say we'd rather a gainfully employed CBB who can afford to write now and again, rather than a broke CBB who has to burn his internet to keep warm at night.

As much fun as TSM has been (and is), I too am looking forward to new stories. Yay CBB!

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Ah, good old home-stretch writing. I'm feeling it, CBB; great work. Thanks for continuing to give us such tasty goodness while you're dealing with so much.

I was a bit confused by the talk of the schoolbus, but it appears that they're still towing it along.

Small nitpick: Father Bellamy's lines sound more like caricature than something a priest would actually say (not that I've been around many).

I can't wait to see where we're going here.

al said...

How the frack is Lallo and Jerimiah going to get up north??

Sheik Yerbouti said...

al: Who said they were going to make it that far? If it works out, maybe Bahram will show up with a helicopter and spirit them away to Wiyasakami.

If indeed it does work out, I can't wait for the Jereskyah scene. That's gonna be some awesome theater.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, TSM when I should be working feels goooooooooood.

Mr. Brown,

You feed our minds and tickle our imaginations for free. As always, take whatever time you need.

Sheik,

I agree that Father Bellamy sounds a bit silly, but I felt that his lines fit quite well with the rest of the motley crew of Team Miss. Considering that his chess pieces were...eroticized?...I can't blame him for being a little cracked.

Unless of course I've become cracked and confused him with another character.

Saintpeter,

Thanks for the map! Am I right in assuming that Wiyasakami (sp?) is at Resevoir Manicouagan?

-Tomas

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, TSM when I should be working feels goooooooooood.

Mr. Brown,

You feed our minds and tickle our imaginations for free. As always, take whatever time you need.

Sheik,

I agree that Father Bellamy sounds a bit silly, but I felt that his lines fit quite well with the rest of the motley crew of Team Miss. Considering that his chess pieces were...eroticized?...I can't blame him for being a little cracked.

Unless of course I've become cracked and confused him with another character.

Saintpeter,

Thanks for the map! Am I right in assuming that Wiyasakami (sp?) is at Resevoir Manicouagan?

-Tomas

Smiley K said...

Maybe Jello is actively trying to be someplace BESIDES event zero. I see a lot of room for parallels to the back to the future scene where Marty was disappearing from a photograph because he fouled up cause and effect in his own timeline.

Granted, time flows in reverse in the CBB world but that is just all the more reason for Jello to arrive after the party instead of before.

Mark said...

Fun chapter, and like everybody else, I'm patient when it comes to getting more CBB content. This chapter was perfect for my lunch hour reading on Tuesday.

Is the Christmas story going to be kiddo-friendly?

Anonymous said...

Oh, is _that_ who father bellamy is? I'd forgotten. The other comments help me often because I'm bad at remembering some of this...

I read a lot of stephen king when I was a kid, and I think one of the monster creature things in one of them tended to shriek something like "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee", so it was tough for me to picture Tammi as harmless and humorous rather than, say, an undead killer thing.

Teddy said...

I have NO IDEA what's going on with the comments. It changed to an extension of the page where I wasn't actually able to leave a comment (and I hate any technology so useless as to leave me feeling completely powerless and out of control) and now it's a completely seperate window. Frankly, Barack Obama has my change quota filled to brim for the next six to eight months.

It's 3:02 AM and I worked for nine and a half hours tonight. I'll comment on the chapter later.

TRH

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Anon: no, that's not who Father Bellamy is. Tomas is slightly mistaken.

We still don't know what happened to him, though I'm hopeful that we may find out before TSM is over.

Anonymous said...

Sheik's right, I was thinking of Father Gomez. Sorry 'bout that.

-Tomas

Simon said...

I wanted to post this a couple days ago, but Blogger wouldn't allow it. It must have thought you'd follow Simon on some damned fool idealistic crusade like your father did. Blogger thinks you should've stayed home and not gotten involved.

But this link is the SHIT! CBB is frikkin' prescient. Modern day Prometheus and all that. Check it:

http://www.physorg.com/news143815934.html

James Andrix said...

The surrealism went overboard for me on this one. The phrase 'probability scope' made me feel like I was reading harry potter, and not in a good way.

fooburger said...

"an electric foot messager and a sewing"

"this on...that's it's somebody's sin"
(maybe this is intentional?)

"I mean. This going to get big."
(not sure if Phat-so is enough of a fob to miss the 'is')

"console bobbing, every so slightly, in "