Monday 1 October 2007

The Taste of Blue - Part One

The Taste of Blue is a story told in two episodes, posted serially by me, your rapid eye moving host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Chapters: 1|2

News: I'm pleased to announce the immediate availability of Sensible Flying Shoes: Collected Stories Volume II, the follow-up to Hot Buttered Something, featuring newly edited versions of 2007's stories with original illustrations by yours truly. Order your copy today!

Meanwhile, our freshest story begins:


It was midnight, and the patients were asleep.

Dr. Hollister squeezed a teabag against the side of her cup with a spoon, watching the whorls of dark brew roil with brownian carelessness to colour the water and, hopefully, to lend her some measure of respite from the leaden exhaustion that weighed her down like a wet wool coat.

She closed her aching eyes and sniffed the steam.

Thunder rumbled again. Tonight the weather was an ominous tease, a stuffy stillness constantly threatening to open up into something wild. There was no wind, but the air smelled like rain. Like Dr. Hollister, the sky stood in wait, biding its time before flying off the rails.

The overhead fluorescents guttered, a hiccup in the buzz. Somewhere, far away, lightning was striking the grid.

Dr. Hollister yawned desperately. She turned the page to pore over the next chart.

The grad students could sense the tension. Their trivial complaints were, for once, kept to themselves. Dr. Hollister could hear their whispers and sense their flickering glances through the sliver of space between her office door and the wall, her reluctant and minimal concession to the university's "open door policy."

Behind her eyelids the phantasmagoric interplay of afterimage blobs drifted and billowed in her vision. A blurry artifact of her teacup blended into a tunnel of blue rings, through which her perspective unwillingly progressed. Deeper, bluer, further...

Her eyes snapped open.

She bit the inside of her cheek until it threatened to bleed. Left wanting by this stimulus, she next dealt herself a couple of harsh slaps across the face. Her cheeks prickled and her ears rang.

"Dr. Hollister?"

She looked up to see a pair of grad student eyes peeking through the sliver at the door. "I'm fine, thank you," said Dr. Hollister, her own eyes on the papers as she shuffled them importantly. "Just a little tired. Have you checked the back-ups for Room B?"

"I was just on my way out, actually. They should be fine."

"Should won't do," she snapped. "We're getting some brown-outs and I don't want gaps in my data. Do you understand?"

"I'll double-check them right now, Doctor," said the student quickly, slipping away.

Laurentian University had cut her funding mercilessly. Dr. Hollister knew that when the last student went home for the night, she would be left alone to monitor the patients herself until sunrise. She wondered how she would make it through. She mashed the last vestiges of tea from the teabag and then sipped. Hot and bitter. Sharp, but not nearly sharp enough.

A bank of computer displays hung on the wall across from her desk, their faces illuminated with slowly scrolling graphs charting blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, electro-dermal activity and brain waves. The displays were reflected in the glass wall behind her, a one-way window looking out upon the six beds of Room A. Inside each bed a patient slept, ensnared in a battery of wires and leads.

The patients did not sleep peacefully, but never the less Dr. Hollister envied them. They tossed. They turned. They grunted. Some muttered the words that haunted her, as they muttered them night after night: "I can taste it...the taste of bright, so bright -- please save me from him."

Dr. Hollister did not know from whom the patients wished to be saved, but she knew what he looked like. In an accordion folder on her desk were the pictures they drew during the day -- each idiosyncratic and unique in some ways, but each converging upon a common image: the blue man, the fat man, the one reaching for their throats like an enraged buddha, tearing them out of the blue tunnel that promised so much peace.

Fourteen patients, all drawing the same phantasm. Fourteen patients, all experiencing the same nightmare. Every night.

"The taste of blue...I can taste it."

Dr. Hollister shivered, then sipped more bitter tea.


She let out a little yelp as her head sprung up off her desk blotter, knocking over the teacup and nearly tumbling from her chair. She blinked and knuckled her eyes, then scanned the computer displays for an alarm code. There was none.

Her heart was hammering. She sank back into her chair and tried to catch her breath. Tea dripped on the floor. She looked at the mess helplessly.

A loud knocking sounded. It was vaguely familiar -- her sluggish memory suggested it was a sequel: the first knocks had probably been what awakened her. Someone was pounding on the front door.

Dr. Hollister smoothed down her labcoat as she passed out of her office and shuffled wearily down the long, polished linoleum corridor to the front door. As she drew near it was pounded upon again, the bangs echoing through the deserted building.

"Hang on, hang on," she called grumpily, putting her eye to the peep-hole. "The building opens at six," she called.

A shadow stood on the stoop. "Dr. Carolyn Hollister?"

"Six," she repeated. "Come back at six."

"I must speak with you urgently."

His voice was low and calm despite his insistence. She blinked, attempting fruitlessly to focus through the fish-eye distortion of the peep-hole. "Laurentian policy is we don't open the door until six, okay? It'll have to wait until morning."

"I'm afraid this can't wait."

"It's going to have to. Are you one of my students? You can make an appointment with my secretary." Dr. Hollister began to turn away from the door, wondering whether she would have to call security.

"No, I'm not a student," said the tall shadow outside. "I'm a detective."

Dr. Hollister paused. "A detective?"

"Listen to me, Dr. Hollister. I know about the nightmare. I know what's been happening. And I know that everything -- everything -- hinges on your seeing me tonight."

"I'm sorry?"

She heard the stranger sigh on the other side of the door. "The taste of blue," he said quietly. "I can taste it. Can't you?"

Thunder rumbled. Dr. Hollister unbolted the door.


With her office desk safely between them Dr. Hollister studied her guest. He lowered himself into the chair opposite her carefully, one black gloved hand gripping the arm. Once settled he manually crossed his legs by picking up one thigh and arranging it over the other. He then deposited a business card on the edge of the desk.

Dr. Hollister picked it up. It said: S. MISSISSAUGA, INVESTIGATIVE SERVICES and below that was a printed telephone number that had been crossed out and replaced by one jotted in by hand. She looked up.

He was native. His hair was a salt and pepper crewcut. He had dark, sad pouches beneath his eyes, though the eyes themselves were bright and alive, wide and chocolate brown like a puppy or a colt. His expression was dour. Aside from his eyes he looked twice as tired as Dr. Hollister felt.

"South Mississauga?" she asked. "Down by Toronto?"

"Mississauga is my name."

"You're not with the police."

"No," he agreed.

Dr. Hollister straightened her labcoat and crossed her arms. "It's unlikely I will be able to be of much assistance. It is not this institution's policy to release information willy-nilly. We are under no compunction to cooperate with any private agency."

The detective nodded, then uncrossed his leg and began to methodically straighten his body again. He straightened his overcoat with a stiff left arm. "I'll see myself out," he said, rising.

Dr. Hollister sighed. "Wait a minute." She shook her head, lips pursed. "Please sit down, detective. I don't mean to abrupt. We're working on very little sleep here."

The detective settled in his chair again. "Yes," he said.

Dr. Hollister turned over her spilled teacup. "Can I offer you some tea?"


She plugged in the kettle on the file cabinet behind her, rubbed her eyes, then swivelled around to face the detective with what she hoped was a better approximation of professional composure. She pulled a tissue from the box and mopped up the spilled tea. "So," she said, "what do you know about the dream, detective?"

He tucked into his coat and removed a silver cigarette case. "Do you mind if I smoke in here?" he asked.

"I mind very much, yes."

"Okay," agreed the detective, clicking open the case. "I'll only have one, then."

Dr. Hollister did not object further, hypnotized by the elaborate but practiced process by which the detective inserted a hand-rolled cigarette into his mouth and lit it, transferring items between his hands. The right glove hummed with tiny motorworks as it moved; the left glove was stiff as a mannequin. She wondered if the damage were neurological. "You're handicapped," she said.

"No," said Mr. Mississauga. "I have four artificial limbs."

"Most people would count that as a handicap."

Mr. Mississauga ignored that, his eyes fixed on Dr. Hollister earnestly. He dragged on his cigarette, then took out a small, bright blue notebook with Japanese robots on it. He knocked a pencil out of its spine and unfolded the notebook on his thigh. "It's contagious."

Dr. Hollister frowned, shrinking back. "Pardon me?"

"The dream, doctor. The dream is contagious. You asked me what I know, and I know that for certain. Everything else is conjecture."

"How do you know that?"

Mr. Mississauga exhaled smoke. "Tell me about the first patient."

"I don't think I can share those details with you."

"I don't care about names."

The kettle whistled. Dr. Hollister swivelled in her chair and began to dole out two teabags but Mr. Mississauga cleared his throat to interrupt, then leaned across the desk to offer a teabag of his own. "You carry your own tea?" she asked, brow arched.

"Yes," he said simply.

She paused, looking at him, but he did not elaborate. She accepted the teabag. He sat back again, releasing a faint perfume of photographic fixer and beef soup. She returned her attention to the tea and revolved to a forward orientation a moment later with two steaming blue and orange mugs with Laurentian logos on them. They each sipped from their cups. "Congenital phocomelia?" she asked.


"Judging by your age I'm going to guess in utero thalidomide poisoning."


Dr. Hollister smirked. "Not chatty are you, Mississauga?"

"No," he agreed. "I listen."

She sniffed, the best approximation of a chuckle she could muster. "Hah. I suppose that's my cue to start talking, isn't it? Well, I think I can safely tell you a thing or two, Detective. For starters, you're right -- it's contagious. Patient Zero reported first experiencing the dream five weeks ago, we've been able to connect the subsequent cases to contact with her."

"She's female," muttered Mr. Mississauga, making a note. "Age?"

"Pubescent," she replied crisply. "Caucasian; no signs of prior adverse health; very bright; minor social-behavioural issues."

"Was there any event that seemed to precipitate the onset of the dream?"

"She was struck by lightning," said Dr. Hollister. "The physical damage was quite mild, but with the sleep disturbances there arose some concern that there may be neurological damage. Her parents -- they're alumni -- brought her here so we could check her nocturnal brain-wave activity and take some fMRI scans. The waiting list at the hospital runs about three months, you see."

The lights guttered briefly. A moment later thunder rolled.

"The storm's getting closer," noted Dr. Hollister.

"Yes," said Mr. Mississauga. "We're running out of time."

"What do you mean?"

Mr. Mississauga crossed his leg again, then rearranged his little blue notebook. "Was anything revealed in the tomography?"

"Nothing significantly abnormal, no, beyond slightly elevated levels of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which isn't entirely off the map in terms of patients experiencing chronic night terrors -- which, really, we don't expect to see in pubescent girls unless they've suffered a serious psychological trauma like violent abuse."

"There is no evidence of abuse?"

"No. Dr. Amroliwallah's had several interviews with her. He says she's borderline depressive and a mildly narcissistic, but again, this isn't entirely uncommon for early adolescent mood swings."

"Does she menstruate?"

"First mens was just over eight months ago, yes." Dr. Hollister cocked her head. "Exactly what kind of a detective are you, anyway?"

"I specialize in the inexplicable."

"Do you have a degree?"


"How does one qualify for such a position then?"

"I am myself slightly inexplicable," he replied with a small, tight smile. "It lends me a certain insight." He glanced down at his notebook. "Who acquired the dream next?"

Dr. Hollister took a breath. "The mother. At first we assumed she was simply obsessing over her daughter's dream imagery, but then her co-worker began describing the same visions, including details that had not been discussed between them. The custodian from the girl's school was next, and then his brother. They're all here now, sleeping in our labs."

"And they all dream the same dream?"

"And complain of the same secondary symptoms, yes."

"What secondary symptoms have you seen?"

"Waking fixations on the dream elements, becoming progressively more pronounced. Patient Zero, in fact, is scheduled to be transferred up to the Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital tomorrow. She's become virtually monomaniacal -- all she will discuss is the dream. It's neurotic."

"And the other patients are converging on a similar state?"

"I believe so, yes, but at this point the official diagnosis is hysterical pseudo-contagion among the others. It doesn't make sense, but Dr. Yedelman is a stubborn man. I'm trying to get my data together to make a new argument to him. He simply must see it: the pattern of transmission is classic. We just don't have any clue what the means of transmission is."

Mr. Mississauga sat back in his seat and regarded her levelly. "No clue? Dr. Hollister, consider it: what we're dealing with here is a memetic pathogen -- a self-replicating body of ideas. And there are established ways of transmitting ideas from one brain to another."

Dr. Hollister shoved her empty cup aside. "Like what?"

Mr. Mississauga ground out the end of his cigarette in his empty cup, then placed it on the desk. "We're doing it now, you and I. We are having thoughts, encoding them into speech, expression and movement, and broadcasting them through the air and the light in this office. You hear me speak, you watch me talk, and you glean my meaning: the idea from my brain is now available for consideration in yours."

"That's a cute model, Detective," replied Dr. Hollister with an indulgent smile, "but I'm talking about a concrete vector of transmission. These patients aren't being inspired by each other's ideas -- that's what Yedelman thinks -- they're dreaming the same dream, with identical narrative sequences and imagery."

"The fat blue man."

"The fat blue man, exactly. He's an enemy, and we must stop him."

Mr. Mississauga looked up sharply. "Say that again, Doctor?"

Dr. Hollister blinked, then pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry -- like I told you, I'm personally exhausted. Babbling nonsense." She opened her eyes again. "What I'm saying is, how do you transmit the idea of a malevolent blue fat man without describing a malevolent blue fat man? Patient Zero's mother never told her colleague what was in the dream, only that it was recurring and unpleasant, a dream about being pursued and torn away from something sweet."

"The taste of blue."

"The sweet, sweet taste of blue -- so long and so warm, so forever and so much a kind of hug for your heart. Don't let him get me. Stop it, him. Stop it, him." Dr. Hollister blinked again, cleared her throat. Mr. Mississauga was watching her closely. "Um, yes," she went on, flustered. "And that's what they all say -- whether they've heard it from one another or not. How could it possibly get from, as you put it, one brain to another without having heard the phrases themselves?"

"Not all communication is verbal, Doctor, as I'm sure you appreciate. Much information is passed between people via non-verbal means, such as body language, skin response, and even smell."

"Are you proposing that the dream hops brains by smell?"

"I suggest only that it may be unwise to underestimate the power of implication. To imply a message can be to broadcast everything except the message itself, a kind of negative image or reverse mold of the original. If implication were a science, such complex messages might be engineered."

Dr. Hollister sniffed sceptically. "You think somebody made this?"

"I don't know. It could as well have arisen spontaneously out of the ocean of memetic, information-based constructs our civilization shunts to and fro every day. In a way, it was bound to happen eventually."

"What was?"

"Self-replication," he said heavily. "Consider: melodies are weakly self-replicating when they're catchy. People find themselves whistling them, and thereby transmit them to others. Is it really too large a leap to imagine ideas doing that by form instead of fancy? If self-replicating genetics could evolve from a pool of interacting organic molecules, why not self-replicating memetics from a pool of an interacting brains?"

Dr. Hollister sat back in her squeaky chair and rubbed her forehead. "Like I said before, Detective, the model has appeal. The question is, how does it help us?"

Mr. Mississauga leaned forward eagerly, his chocolate brown eyes locked on Dr. Hollister. "It helps us because it frames the terms of our response: if an information-based pathogen is out there in the wild, it must be contained. We cannot let it loose in the ecosystem of our civilization to continue to evolve and possibly do incredible damage. You said it yourself: Patient Zero's going to a rubber room. What would happen if that were the fate of millions?"

A shiver ran across Dr. Hollister's shoulders. "God," she said.

Mr. Mississauga nodded. "Or rather, the Devil."


Unknown said...

Very nice start to a story! I thank you for all the writing you've given me over this time. I've never commented, but I've been reading your work since the start of Simon of Space and I must say that I love it.

This one in particular I find really interesting. The image of a malevolent fat blue man is honestly rather frightening and disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Good to see Mr. Miss again... The whole "memetic pathogen" thing reminds me a bit of Snow Crash.

One comment - should "ex-alumni" be just "alumni", or were her parents stripped of their degrees somehow?

Anonymous said...

Two by two, the fat man's hands and the taste of blue. NO!

Anonymous said...

^^ That sounds so familiar. Did Castor or Pollux say that?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Ryan,

Welcome to the illustrious annals of I am a Cheeseburger commentary! I'm always delighted and honoured to have someone else choose to speak up.

Dear Anonymous,

Quite right; fixed.

Dear CodeWright,

If you have nightmares it's not my fault.

Cheeseburger Brown

SaintPeter said...

"I've got this song stuck in my head"

"Oh, no, please don't sing it, It'll get stuck in my head too!"

We're really just the hosts for sentient strands of music. Whenever someone miss-rememebers the lyrics, that's just the tune mutating.

Who knows what song does not contain the lyrics "The chair is not my size"?

Simon said...

Just one typo:
"Laurentian University had cut her finding mercilessly."

The EVENT is getting really close, isn't it? Exciting! And this is after or about the same time as the last Mr. Miss story because he does have the fancier limbs. The way he said "everything" nearly gave me the willies.

Codewright, I was thinking about making a Firefly comment too, with the blue hands thing. That, or a soylent green comment.

I will proceed shortly to get me a Flying Shoes book. My CBB collection is growing!

al said...

Sorry I believe I found a small typo...

"She patients did not sleep peacefully,"
should possibly be:
"The patients did not sleep peacefully,"

Thanks for making my monday.

Bridget said...

Neat - a new CBB collection to order, and some fresh and perfectly eerie Mr. Miss. Who'd 've thought I'd have something to look forwrd to on a Monday?

Heh. If the doc thinks this sleep disorder is disturbing...

Tolomea said...

With the new book out I was planning my new spending spree, being on the other side of the planet I like to order several things at once. Anyway I dropped by the swag store to see if the stickers were up yet and it appears the store is gone... Which is rather concerning as I had a mug and a couple of posters I was waiting to get (along with the afore mentioned stickers). Will this stuff be coming back?

Also with the new book out I notice that there are still a number of stories not in print yet, specifically...
Rocket Stumps
The Darth Side
Lonely Cowboys
Weird Floatsam
Pink Santa
Welcome to Mars
Are there any plans to get these published? (and I do realize that a couple of them are derivative and that can make life awkward and of course the last one is simply too recent)

Can't wait to see how the Mr Miss storyline plays out, I was thinking that event zero was related to Zoran's work, he is in Quebec somewhere isn't he? however the inclusion of a fat man makes me wonder if it's not related to the whole mess around Tim.
Hmmm, all of the above would make for a might interesting situation.

Teddy said...

I think Patient Zero is Becca.

Second Anonymous: The original line is "Two by two, hands of blue" from Firefly. Rent it, and Serenity. You won't regret it.


Tolomea said...

from the references patient zero is about 13, given that in the extra cars becca has a driver license that would seem to place this story a couple of years before that one, which just doesn't feel right, this one seems like it should be in the few months after extra cars and before the event

what about dalia, that could explain a few things

gl. said...

very compelling. it had such an xfiles intro i could tell not long into it that it would involve mr. miss.

anonymous, it makes me shudder to remember castor & pollux, but i can't really remember why...

cb, i was expecting a 'best of 2007' book ala "hot buttered something;" why did you decide to publish early?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear SaintPeter,

Start a round. Upload an MP3. We can all sing along. Resistence is futile.

Dear Simon,

I don't want to be bursting your supposition bubble, but these are Mr. Miss' old limbs.

Note that the story takes place in the vicinity of Laurentian University, which might be Googled to discover its location in Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury is north-west of Kingston and south-east of S. Inlet, which puts this story somewhere between The Extra Cars and Stubborn Town.

Thanks for the typo fix.

I can't place the Firefly, though the lyric rings a bell. Anybody care to jog my memory?

Dear al,

Thanks for the fix. Goodness, I'm getting sloppy.

Dear Bridget,

I'm happy to have the happiness of the fresh book being ready to inspire a good mood. Monday needs all the help it can get.

Dear Tolomea,

Cafepress seemed to have a sort of caniption yesterday, but it has recovered. The shop is here.

If you want to place an order, however, you'd best be quick. The shop hasn't been making enough money to pay its own fees, so Cafepress has threatened to close it imminently. In fact, they were supposed to have closed it already but I geuss they're being merciful. I get these angry warning notices whenever my credit card is declined.

Since I'm getting those angry notices from both Cafepress and my webhost, I'm thinking that when I can get my credit card topped up again I'll pay the webhost. You know: it's a priority call.

I'm sure the shop could do better if it were set up right and the array of products made more sense -- I just could never seem to find the time to actually do that chore.

Long and the short: I'll try to re-open the shop when I can. In the meantime, get while the getting's good!

As for the unprinted stories: The Darth Side and Wile are unprintable due to the fact that they're derivative, as you mentioned. The older ones that haven't made it into a collection just didn't seem strong enough to make the cut when I was selecting. Pink Santa (under one title or another) should be available in print in time for Christmas of this year. Cross your fingers...I'm crossing mine. It really deserves some new illustrations that I haven't found the time to make yet. Um.

I wish I had an extra ten hours a day to do all the things I want to do. [Sigh.]

Oh crap -- I'm going to be late for work! Gotta run.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

ryan: Welcome to the monkey house :)

saintpeter: Billie Jean, by Michael Jackson.

anon: Snow Crash, yes... myself, I wondered if we were witnessing the initial creation of High Allat. Very primitive and uncontrolled, of course... I can't wait to see what Mr. Miss makes of it.

CBB, the fat blue dream guy reminds me of an old, old SF story about someone dubbed "Omega". Ring a bell?

Also, if this story takes place after Stubborn Town and before Extra Cars, why isn't "MALEVOLENT BLUE FAT GUY" on Mississauga's X-Files map when Phat-so reads it?

Fascinating, Captain. If I hadn't lost my Paypal card to an errant ATM last week, I'd kick in something for your store (or just for the stories). Come to think of it, I guess I could just use my account to donate.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

That, my friend, can be explained by the use of the elipsis when listing the events on Mr. Mississauga's map: that pesky "..." means Phat-so was not necessarily reading every item listed, but merely a sampling.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Ah so. I had assumed that the events were being read chronologically (in reverse); though your ellipsis is at the end of the list, I noticed you left yourself an out by placing some narrative between the EXTRA CARS and NOCTURNAL DISPLACEMENT labels. Dang, I'm in a hair-splitting mood today.

So how long before Doc Hollister succumbs as well? I assume Mr. Miss is concerned about the transfer of Patient Zero and her ensuing contact with other mental patients and hospital staff...

Mark said...

Welcome back, Mr. Miss. I guess his next chapter was fighting harder than Mike to escape from your pen. Or, keyboard, rather.

No Hello, Kitty notebook this time?

Anonymous said...

He buys them at an Asian market.

Probably whatever is cheapest in bulk at the time.

And yeah, I'm checking the comments several times a day, hoping for something new.

Tolomea said...

"And yeah, I'm checking the comments several times a day, hoping for something new."

Well it's nice to know I'm not the only one.

Anonymous said...

Sky experiences dreams in a very unusual way, which makes me wonder what will happen when he eventually meets the fat man in his dreams.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear gl.,

I chose to release Sensible Flying Shoes at this time because the manuscript was getting too fat.

The book runs 320 pages and that's with no interparagraph spacing and dinky, wee little 10 point type! If I'd allowed another few stories to pass the thing would've ballooned further and become ungodly expensive (either to you or to me or both).

So, ultimately, I decided to back out The Bikes of New York into its own edition to save some pages and then to get the damn thing together quickly before I bloated it further. Felix and the Frontier was the cut-off point, which is in itself a fairly corpulent offering.

As a final considering, review copies of the hardcover Simon of Space are going out in five weeks and I wanted curious reviewers to have the opportunity to sample the second anthology as well.

Cheeseburger Brown

Teddy said...

say, you probably mentioned something before, but how do we get on that list of reviewers for SoS version 2.0?


Anonymous said...

Okay, so now it's fairly obvious to me that Mr. Miss has to "catch" the dream in order to figure it out. However, I'd still like to know how he knows about it already. Is it something he previously inferred from his crazy waking dream-state based on the data around him?

I also wonder if Dr. Hollister has been keeping her door closed to prevent any further contamination. Then again, once Dr. Yedelman and others start showing signs, it'll be pretty clear... if it's not too late. Hopefully the won't have to nuke the place, or anything similarly drastic.

Speculation is such fun, especially with fantastic story ideas like this.