Copyright: Jason Keith Werbeloff
Published: 20 March 2017
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Fiction by Jason Werbeloff
Fragment 1: The Organ Scrubber
Fragment 2: The Face in a Jar
Fragment 3: The Boy Without a Heart
The Solace Pill
Your Averaged Joe
Visiting Grandpa’s Brain
Falling for Q46F
The Cryo Killer
The Photons in the Cheese Are Lost
Dinner with Flexi
Bleed Me Silicone
The Time-Traveling Chicken Sexer
The Experience Machine
Fking Through the Apocalypse
The Man with Two Legs
“… wine is pissing into the Promenade again. AGAIN.”
I moaned. Tried to figure out why this text was floating in the middle of the Svetlana dream.
She adjusted her buttocks, the way she always did. Those perfect, sun-kissed orbs. Balanced on my lap like baskets of ripe peaches. This was my favorite part of the sequence. When she –
“Olaf, come down here and sort this out.”
The text flowed over Svetlana’s mouth, as if she’d spoken it. But that wasn’t right. She should have been cooing. “Oh, Olaf,” she should be saying. “[Giggle.] That’s right, Ol–”
I grunted. Peered at my apartment through battery-acid eyes. In the darkness, the caption shouted in pulsing white lettering.
“Get down here now. NOW.”
I slid the arms of my polycarbonate glasses onto my ears. Checked the call logs. Nothing. No calls from the Roach or anybody else this morning. No texts. No emails. Why was I seeing these captions?
My heart fluttered, and I shook my head. Tried to clear the sleep from my brain. It sounded like the Roach. But that made no sense. The Roach hadn’t ever called at 6 a.m.
“Hooy morzhovy,” I cursed.
“[Walrus penis],” translated my overlay.
“This happens again, and you’re done, kid. I’ll put a call through to Bubble PD. Let them know your papers have expired. I’ll have you on a submarine back to Moscow faster than you can sing the Korobushka.”
I removed the glasses. Flumped my head back onto the pillow. I rubbed the scar on my temple. Damned speech-to-text brain implant. Must be a bug in Logarithm … Logic … Logos. Yes, that was it. I’d message Logos in the morning. Give them a piece of my mind. All that politically correct bullshit they spouted about equal opportunity for the ‘audiologically challenged’. ‘Blends seamlessly with hearing society,’ they had promised.
“Pizda ti jopoglazaya,” I muttered.
The overlay on my glasses took longer than usual to display the translated caption. “[You are a vagina with eyes on your buttocks.]”
I yawned. Rolled over. And tried to dream of Svetlana.
It almost worked. Hell, she was right here. Balanced over my knee. Those dimpled –
My glasses vibrated against my leg. What was it now?
My eyelids unglued. Ghastly shades of morning punched my retinas. The sunlight was much brighter than back in Moscow. Must be the forcefield shimmering over the city. The bubble magnified light.
I gritted my teeth. Donned my glasses again. Checked the chronometer.
How could I have slept for a full hour, and still, yes still, I hadn’t progressed any further with the Svetlana dream?
“Accept call from THE ROACH?” The man’s profile picture (man? insect? slug?) glared at me through globular eyes, waiting for me to accept the call.
“Yes,” I mumbled.
“There’s a problem with that phase modulator you installed yesterday,” he began. (The Roach never said hello.) “PHASE MODULATOR,” he repeated.
I cleared my throat. Tried not to look at the gap in the torn curtains that let through the Bubble morning. Dammit, it was bright.
“What’s the problem?”
“The problem, Olaf, THE PROBLEM is that wine is pissing into the Promenade again. AGAIN.”
His words were a blurred hum in the center of my skull, but Logos captioned them clearly across my vision. They flowed over the contours of his bulbous cheeks. Around the wattle dangling from his chin.
“Olaf, come down here and sort this out.”
Deja vu snagged me. Jerked me awake. He’d said this to me earlier. In a dream? When had I –
“Uh, yes sir. I’ll take a look at it when I get in later.”
And before he spoke – before the caption formed on my overlay – I knew exactly what he was going to say.
“Get down here now. NOW.”
The Roach ended the call.
How had I known? A cold certainty curled around my heart. That’s right. I could swear I’d received this call, the identical call, earlier this morning. An hour ago. But … but the call log on my glasses was blank.
Logos would have to sort it out. Those impotent wetware programmers. We engineers – we knew how to do things right. First time. The Roach paid me next nothing anyway. Those two-bit hacks who’d created the brain implants – they couldn’t find a bug in a jar, yet they earned plenty.
“Perhot podzalupnaya,” I muttered.
The Logos implant printed the translation in especially small print across my vision. “[Penis slit dandruff.]”
That didn’t seem to quite capture the venom of the Russian expletive, but I didn’t have time to train the implant. I hurried to the kitchen. Between fighting with the malfunctioning 3D food printer and stubbing my toe on a loose floorboard, I fired off a message to Logos Support. Told them to check my caption feed. The translation function was working well enough, but I was getting captions to unspoken text.
The printer sprayed cold coffee everywhere but in the cup. Showered my throbbing foot with broiling scrambled eggs, even though I’d asked for it muesli.
My jaw was so tight, my teeth sang. I couldn’t afford to fix the printer. If I’d had the parts, I’d repair it myself. But I had nothing left once the debit orders went through each month. Not with the rental the landlord charged for this dump, and the pittance the Roach paid. At this rate, I’d have to consider moving.
I shivered. This was about the cheapest rental in phase 2300. There was only one place cheaper from here. Phase 7049. The phase they shoved all the Gutter migrants. Cleaners and sweepers. Garbage collectors.
I slapped Svetlana, the phase modulator on my chest. Checked she was set to Bubble default – ‘2300’ shone on the LED display. A moment later, I was scuttling out the back door.
Svetlana’s suction cup tugged at my nipple hair as I bounded down the stairs. I’d built her myself. Named her after the Svetlana in my dream. She wasn’t as sleek as most phase modulators. Heavier. Bulkier. But she could do a whole lot more than the stock standard devices they sold at Phil’s Pharma. And today was a big day for Svetlana. Today was the day I would test her latest modifications.
It was almost peak hour on the Promenade, and I had to dodge oncoming pedestrians more than once as I ran along the river.
I didn’t mind, though. That water. Crystalline. As clear as Svetlana’s smile. The wavelets caught the Bubble’s rising sun. Bathed the Neon Tetra beneath the glimmering surface. Overhead, hovercars shot past. I couldn’t hear them, of course. But I felt the vibration of their sonic booms massage my scalp.
I scurried by the Valencian patisserie, with its ridiculously good croissants that I could never afford. Past Bubble Bank. I looked up, but its glass sides stretched higher than I could see. Capitalist pigs. I bet every one of those offices had a 3D food printer that worked just fine. And what did those bankers do all day to deserve such luxury? They played with people’s money.
I’d almost reached Bacchus Mall, when a caption materialized across my vision. “… damned Cossacks should be sent back where they belong.”
I stopped dead, and someone bowled into me from behind. I glowered at them silently. Who’d said that? How did they even know I was an emigrant?
The girl who’d barreled into me seemed genuinely surprised by the contempt on my face. Like every girl this side of the Bubble’s meniscus, her gaze didn’t linger on me for more than a moment.
I shrugged off the insult. Hurried across the cobblestone piazza, feeling Svetlana’s weight on my chest. I could test her new modifications once I’d stepped inside the mall. There were phase differentials all over the place in there. It would be the perfect testing ground.
I looked up. The Roach loomed large beside one of the mall’s entrance fountains. It flowing wine glistened in the morning light. The Roach stood beside the alcohol-filled bowl of the fountain, meatloaf arms akimbo, barking orders at one of the rookie techs. Logos captioned his speech across my glasses as the Roach bellowed.
“… is furious. They say it’s in phase four thousand. Wine’s leaking into the river. The RIVER … Ah, Olaf. Thank you for coming in. Did you have a pleasant morning? Relaxed? No? Well I hope you did, you lazy shit. Took you twenty minutes to get here. TWENTY minutes. And in that time, gallons of wine have been lost. GALLONS.”
I ignored the Roach as best I could. Knelt. Tapped my glasses. My overlay interfaced with the phase modulator on the side of the fountain. The unit was set to Bubble default 2300, and a second modulator to mid-phase, 4000. Everything seemed to be working.
To be sure, I tapped Svetlana. Twisted her dial until it had reached 4000.
As the numbers on Svetlana’s LED display flicked up, the Roach disappeared. The cobblestone piazza and its restaurants melted away. The Bubble traffic overhead blurred.
In phase 4000, blades of luminous grass surrounded the fountains. Butterflies dressed the air. Hyacinths and violins played on the breeze. A young couple sat nearby, giggling.
I hated phase 4000.
But the fountain seemed to be working correctly. Didn’t see any leaks into the nearby river.
I phased back down to 2300. The Roach’s veiny nose swung my way. “And? Did you find it?” appeared his speech caption on my overlay.
“Can’t hear you, kid. What did he say?”
The Rookie’s forehead broke out in a sweat. I hadn’t met the boy until now, but The Rookie seemed decent enough. He eyed the Roach with equal parts terror and disgust, which meant the kid had his head screwed on right.
I cleared my throat before the rookie could speak for me. “I ddiddn’tt ssee a leakk.”. I spat the consonants. Attempted to sound dismissive. Aggressive. But all I did was raise my voice to a whine. I hated my voice.
The Roach tapped the arm of his glasses, answering an incoming call. Logos captioned his side of the conversation as he spoke.
“Uhuh. Yes, we’re working on it now, sir. Yes, I have two techs working on it. We’ll sort it out … Not a problem …”
The Roach glared at The Rookie. Then swung his gaze at me. “They’ve lost almost a hundred gallons so far. A HUNDRED. Management is ready to throw me in the Promenade if we don’t sort this out. They say the wine is leaking into phase 7049. Hell, they shouldn’t even have fountains in that phase. What do those Gutters need wine for, anyway?”
I nodded. Knew what I had to do. Anything to get away from the rage on the Roach’s face.
I’d only phased up this far once before. And swore to myself I’d never do it again – that day I’d stepped off the submarine from Moscow. I’d been messing around with the phase modulator they’d given me at the dock (the phase modulator that was to become Svetlana).
I twisted Svetlana now. High as she would go. High as any legal phase modulator in the Bubble would allow.
The cobblestones of the piazza in phase 2300 shivered. Morphed. Until they became the verdant gardens of 4000. Then shimmered to gray. Then chrome. Then brown. Patches of broken concrete floated in a sea of mud. Creatures – people perhaps – waded past. Bent over themselves. They looked up every so often with black eyes. Hungry stares, as they shuffled through the muck.
I turned my attention to what was left of the fountain in 7049. The bowl was cracked. Missing in places. And the river, which in 2300 was fifty yards away and tucked within its pristine bank, had overflowed onto the square in 7049. Waterlogging the sand, and flowing into what should have been a dry fountain.
I checked the phase settings for the system. Ah. It should have barred any leakage into phase 7049, but the modulator seemed to be oscillating off kilter. Allowing water and wine to flow between the higher and lower phases.
I was itching to try out Svetlana’s newest modification, but if I didn’t fix this first, the Roach would fart all over me. I fiddled with the errant settings on the fountain, checking over my shoulder every so often. The spatter of men and women limping through the mud dragged brooms and mops behind them.
As I finished the repair, plugging a hole in the forcefield, one of the creatures looked up at me, into me, with her bloodshot eyes. She opened her blistered mouth. Said something I couldn’t lipread. And the Logos implant didn’t seem to work in this phase.
She glowered. Snarled. Stomped toward me.
I didn’t stick around to see what she intended to do with her raised broom stick. I flicked the dial on the modulator, quick as I could. To 2300. To the scent of elegant people. To smiles and chuckles. To the lustrous archways and marble tiles of Bacchus Mall.
To the Roach.
“Fixed,” I said.
“Took you long enough.” That was his way of complimenting me. But then he reconsidered. Shook his head. “Damned Cossacks should be sent back where they belong.”
The blood drained from my lips. Not because of the insult – the Roach had muttered far worse to me the last year I’d worked for him. No. What stopped me cold was that I’d heard the very same words, read the caption verbatim on my overlay, earlier this morning on my way into work. That’s right. An hour ago. What were the chances that someone else had made the same insult, word for word?
And this morning – that phone call that had woken me. A call that hadn’t been a call. An hour before it had happened.
“Kakogo chyorta?” I muttered.
“[What the hell?]”
The Roach stalked off, leaving me alone at the fountain.
I fired off another message to Logos Support. “The text-to-speech system isn’t working,” I wrote. “I’m getting delayed captions.”
But after I’d sent the message, I reconsidered. That wasn’t right. The captions weren’t delayed.
They were early.
An hour early.
I shrugged off the thought. Impossible. Probably a bug in the wetware. A coincidence. The inept developers at Logos would sort it out. Eventually.
In the meantime, I got on with my day.
I stepped through the velveteen forcefield at the entrance to Bacchus Mall. Walked with the crowd along the central avenue, eateries on my right, the entertainment square on my left. At least, that’s what I would see if I could be in phases 2300 and 4000 at the same time. The shops were only visible in 2300. The live music on the square, in 4000.
Anyone else would have to choose a single phase. They couldn’t be in two phases at once. Except I’d been tinkering with Svetlana the past few weeks. Between visits from the Roach, I’d fiddled with her fail-safes. Adjusted her programming.
If she worked as intended, Svetlana would be a remarkable machine. The first phase modulator that would oscillate a human between two phases simultaneously. I could live in both phases at once. Work in both.
Hell, maybe I could sell the invention. Or get a loan from Bubble Bank to build my own business.
The gleaming tower flashed through my mind. Those slimy capitalists at Bubble Bank would ask me. Beg to be my backer, rather than Last National three blocks down.
I could almost taste the credits, the fame, as I configured Svetlana. I toggled her oscillating setting, and she warmed against my chest. As the vibrations began, the world around me flickered. Oscillated between 2300 and 4000 at a hundred transitions a second.
I pumped my fist in the air. Beamed my success at everyone who walked by.
It had worked. Svetlana worked.
I could see everything in both phases at once – the phase 2300 restaurants with their bustling breakfasters, and the square with its students lounging in phase 4000. Both worlds flickered around me, as I glanced around the mall.
The yawn of a didgeridoo warbled the air. I couldn’t hear it, but the Logos captioned it. An Australian band, The Stanton Brothers I remembered from a mall poster, sang mournfully in the square.
We ate your lungs
We heart your beat
We love your toes
We love your meat
At the same time, I watched the rustle of the restaurants in 2300. The babble of Bubblers guffawing over their Americanos sprinkled my overlay with captioned snippets of conversation.
“… love you, Francis. Even more than this baked. Pecan pie.”
“… can you believe he wanted both of us?”
“But did you say yes?”
I stepped forward, curious to feel the mall’s floor under my oscillating feet. The ground was solid. Supported my weight. Of course it would – there was a floor in both phases.
I climbed the stairs to the maintenance office. Sat in my chair, which only existed in 2300. My buttocks sank through, but were propped up a hundred times a second. The material felt spongey beneath me. If I pressed down suddenly, I could pass clean through the seat.
My glasses pinged with a message notification from Logos Support. “We have investigated the issue, and your hearing implant seems to be receiving phase interference. We recommend replacing your phase modulator with a working device. That should correct the problem.”
I leaned in my chair. The seat both penetrated and repulsed my back. A hundred times a second. The vibration it created was like receiving a massage. I closed my eyes. Enjoyed the sensation.
So, the problem was Svetlana. She’d messed with my brain implant.
“… Yankees win the Phaseball final by twelve points. What a game. What a sport. Nobody could have predicted this. Tune in tomorrow, for …”
The caption faded from my overlay. I glanced around the office, searching for the source of the voice it had transcribed. But there were no holovids playing, and my glasses were inactive so it couldn’t be a call I’d received.
“Did you say something?” I asked.
The Rookie, the only other person in the room, shook his head.
Was this another malfunction of the Logos implant?
I tapped the arm of my glasses. Checked the sports channels for the Phaseball match. The Yankees were playing the Red Sox. The game had started two hours ago. The Sox, clear favorites, were ahead.
On a hunch, I set my glasses to notify me when the match ended. I reached forward to grasp a pen, to jot down the caption’s prediction of the Yankee win. But my fingers passed through the polycarbonate tube. Then through the desk on which it lay.
My hand tingled as it sunk into the wood. As though it was submerged in a frothing electric current. Mildly unpleasant. Made my skin itch.
The Rookie’s eyes grew to the size of phaseballs when he noticed.
I withdrew my hand. Then tried, slowly this time, to grasp the pen. If I moved carefully, I could just clutch the implement. The rubber grip vibrated under my fingertips as I wrote the prediction on the paper in jagged lettering.
Yankees win. 12 points.
I fiddled with the items on my desk for the next hour. Tested the permeability of objects around me. I perfected the ability to pass through objects at will, with quick decisive movements. Learned to touch and grasp objects with careful touch.
Until my glasses pinged. “Yankees vs Red Sox. 48-36.”
I glanced down at the paper on my desk. Switched to the news channel.
“… Yankees win the Phaseball final by twelve points. What a game. What a sport. Nobody could have predicted this. Tune in tomorrow, for …”
That caption had appeared on my overlay an hour ago. I hadn’t dreamed it. And it was no coincidence. Something strange, something impossible, was happening. Svetlana had fucked up my Logos implant, and I was reading snippets of the future. An hour into the future.
I yanked Svetlana off my chest, extracting a clump of blond hairs with her. Maybe phase modulators had fail-safes for a reason. Maybe that tinkering hadn’t been such a good idea after all. A fun experiment, but the game was over.
I placed Svetlana on the desk. Stared at her. Should I throw her away? Destroy her?
I dropped my head into my hands. I needed to think.
This couldn’t be right. Something –
My elbows tingled. I looked down, and … they’d passed right through the desk.
“Govno,” I whispered.
“[Feces],” translated Logos.
I was still oscillating between phases. Even without Svetlana on my chest.
Impossible. Without the phase modulator, I should have snapped back to Bubble default. 2300.
But then again, not much was happening today as it should have. I’d been seeing captions of the future.
In a cold sweat, I grabbed another phase modulator from the box on my desk – we kept plenty in the maintenance office. Slapped it on my chest, and watched the display. The numbers flickered so fast, it was difficult to read them. But if I concentrated, I saw two numbers emerge from the blur.
I twisted the dial. But the numbers didn’t shift. And neither did I.
“Khrenoten,” I mumbled.
“[F***ed up situation.]”
I was stuck. Oscillating between phases.
I remembered when Father had showed me a holovid about a monster made of human teeth. When it crawled, the chattering, leafy noise it made had left a yellow terror in eight-year-old me. Mother yelled at him for days, each time I woke screaming.
I hadn’t dreamed of the tooth monster in years. But I’d felt that terror twice since then. Once when I’d heard the Roach laugh for the first time.
The second time was now.
What had I done? And what was happening to me? Could a human body survive oscillation for long? The phase switching had already messed with my Logos brain implant. What other parts of me would it damage?
Snippets of the future seeped into my overlay all through the rest of the day. Slices of dialogue. Fragments of adverts.
The messages from the future didn’t seem to have any order or theme to them. And they always – always – repeated in reality an hour later.
I don’t know how long it was that I sat in that vibrating chair, paralyzed by the enormity of what I’d done. Maybe I could fix Svetlana? Place her on my chest again, and somehow cycle back to just one phase?
I couldn’t … just couldn’t stomach the idea. If I fiddled further, who knew what she’d do to me next time? If I wasn’t careful, I might end up stuck with the Gutter migrants in phase 7049. I remembered the woman with the bloodshot eyes rushing at me with her broomstick.
No. I wouldn’t mess with Svetlana any further.
Perhaps this would all wear off after a few hours. Eventually, my body would settle down into a single phase.
So, I sat at my desk. Waited. Watched Svetlana’s brushed silver sides. Her shimmering lights.
By the time the Bubble sun had set through the western window of the maintenance office and The Rookie had long since disappeared, I was still waiting.
This was, as they said in the motherland, a clusterfuck. That feeling hadn’t left me – that clawing, scraping, chattering yellow terror.
I was about to give up, I’d place Svetlana on my chest and cycle her settings, when an idea came to me.
I stood. Walked to a nearby wall. Braced myself. And thrust my hand through the plaster.
Ignoring the tingle where my skin coincided with the brick, I felt my hand pass through to the other side. Fresh Bubble air stroked my fingertips.
I held my breath. Shut my eyes. And plunged the rest of my body through the wall.
I stood now on the other side, on the corridor outside the maintenance office.
I’d passed clean through.
I patted myself down. Checked that all my limbs and digits were still attached. I was fine. More than fine.
I hurried home, over the cobblestone-grassy-cobblestone-grassy piazza. Along the river. Past the flamboyant glass monstrosity of Bubble Bank. Salivated at the overpriced Valencian bakery. And up to my apartment.
As usual, the 3D printer was uncooperative. But I didn’t swear at it tonight. Without protest, I ate the cold chicken, and drank the steaming orange juice the printer spat out. I lay in bed that night, and for the first time I could remember since I’d arrived in the Bubble, I didn’t dread waking up the next morning.
I had a plan.
I woke to messages on my overlay from the future.
Mundane messages. Snatches of dialogue. Something about fluffy summer heat. Nothing ominous. Nothing that suggested that my plan might end poorly.
I donned my glasses. Noted the time – 7 a.m. If I robbed the bakery in the next hour, all would be alright.
7:45. I stood across the street from the Valencian patisserie, my pulse in my fingertips.
In 2300, the pavement was crawling with morning commuters. In phase 4000, a handful of perambulating Bubblers sauntered across the grass.
Beyond them, the croissants beckoned. Parisian crème. Belgian chocolate. Buttered. Glazed.
My heart in my mouth, I crossed the street. Casually. It was almost impossible not to look around. I didn’t. I kept my eyes down. Strode with purpose, but not too much purpose. I neared the glass storefront, fingers itching.
Without breaking my stride, without turning my head, in a single swift motion of which even the most deft thief would approve, my hand shot out.
Would my fingers pass through? Would the glass break? Would –
The display window wobbled as my nails slipped past the surface. It didn’t crack. And then I felt it – the supple crunch of the Belgian chocolate croissant beneath my fingertips. I wrapped my hand around it. Delicately. The way I cupped Svetlana’s breast in my dreams.
I withdrew my hand, and it passed, together with the croissant, through the glass. Shit, I hadn’t considered that – whether the croissant would oscillate too. But thankfully, it did. The oscillation field seemed to extend to objects I held.
I hurried away, drooling.
I couldn’t believe it. The croissant, the Belgian chocolate croissant, with its perfect fleecy crumbling, with its fresh-bake fragrance and bronze glaze – the croissant was mine.
A block away from the bakery, I leaned against a building. Closed my eyes, and bit into the pastry.
An orgasmic dribble wound down my chin. Sugar and cocoa. Butter and forever.
A bark returned my attention to the street. A girl – a girl – looked at me. Not at the Chihuahua by her side. Not at the street ahead of her. She looked at me as she strolled past.
“Sorry about that. Fluffy hates the summer heat,” she said. And she smiled.
By the time I’d registered it, by the time I’d made sure there was nobody behind me that she might be talking to, made sure that she was smiling at me, she was gone. Swallowed by the Bubble traffic.
Could this be it? Had she noticed me because of the croissant, the bliss plastered on my face, the thrill of what I’d just done?
I ambled to work. Ignored a message from the Roach about a problem with the refrigerator in the phased ice cream bar in phase 2300. Ignored the second message too.
She had smiled. At me.
I’d done it. Stolen the pastry, and nobody had known. No police sirens. Nobody pursued me through the streets.
I licked the last crumbs from my fingertips. Savored the last smudge of chocolate on my thumb.
When could I do it again?
That night, I sat at my kitchen counter gazing at the spots where the six croissants had been.
And it wasn’t guilt and saturated fats that were making me queasy.
Stealing croissants was all good and well, but a man can’t live on pastries alone. I looked over at the temperamental 3D printer. I would need more – a variety of food.
I recalled the way the girl had looked at me today. Had it been admiration? Had she been attracted to me? In my fading pants and sweat-stained shirt?
I needed a new wardrobe too.
As thrilling as the bakery thefts had been, was I really prepared for a life of petty crime? Would I have to rob a grocer each time I wanted food? Steal from a clothing shop each time I needed a clean shirt? And how long would it be before I was caught?
No, there had to be a smarter way.
Of course. Money.
If I had enough credits, I could buy whatever I needed. My mind flickered to the shimmering façade of Bubble Bank.
My oscillating fingertips tingled.
Robbing a bank isn’t easy. This much I realized early in my planning.
I scouted the gaudy monolith during my lunch break under the guise of opening a new account. Security guards with pulse pistols at the entrance. Glass partitions thicker than my thighs. And something that looked like a vault door behind the teller with the wavy chestnut hair – she didn’t look at me any longer than she absolutely had to.
Just how effective were my powers? Could I pass through glass that thick? Through a metal vault door? Perhaps it had a forcefield?
There was another problem. What would I steal?
The Bubble had done away with physical currency over a decade ago. All transactions these days were performed electronically. Credit card swipes. Automatic debits from a smart chip in one’s glasses. But no physical exchanges of cash.
So what was behind that vault door?
I spent the next days researching. Practiced walking through the broad supporting walls of Bacchus Mall when the Roach wasn’t looking. The thicker the wall, the worse the itch. I felt a tickle when passing through drywall, but an insatiable scratching in my throat when I walked through brick. A ghastly clawing at my mucus membranes.
If I jumped through without hesitation, it was easier. I practiced passing through forcefields too. My oscillating body encountered no resistance there. Although the forcefield generators the Roach kept in the maintenance office probably weren’t as strong as those in the bank.
The largest problem remained, however.
What was I going to steal?
I trawled the web for information on what was behind the bank’s vault door, but found nothing specific. Some forums suggested that it had to be something valuable. You can’t generate electronic money out of thin air, they reasoned. Credits had to be backed by something physical.
Something in that vault.
“Do you do any WORK around here?”
Although I was deaf, the Roach shouted so loudly, the vibration of his voice jolted me. I was about to answer him, but he huffed, and plodded outside.
The sooner I had some cash, the sooner I could tell the Roach where to get off.
I doubled down. Prepared.
I found ancient public record blueprints online for the building from before it had become the bank. From what I’d seen when I scoped the place, the layout looked much the same today.
I scoured the route I would walk the day of the heist. Memorized the locations of the security drones buzzing overhead. They shifted position, but not often. And not at certain times of the night.
A week later, I was ready.
I configured my smart-pants to onyx. Donned my darkest vest and shoes. Slipped on my gloves.
I’d been up for half an hour. Listening to the future. Nothing. No captions so far this morning. I took that as a good omen.
Over the last week, I’d learned to trust the future. Everything the future captions suggested had come true. And the captions had become more frequent too. Did the future know I was listening? Was it feeding me more, as I became more attentive? Maybe it had a plan for me?
Maybe it wanted me to rob this bank.
I exited my apartment building through the back entrance. Wound my way through alleys. Steered clear of busy streets where possible. Slunk along the sides of buildings on main thoroughfares. Kept my head low beneath security drones.
Pantheresque, I leapt from shadow to shadow. A smattering of Bubblers stumbled through the alleys. These early-morning revelers were so high, or stoned, or drunk, they didn’t notice me.
I was invisible. I was nowhere. I was everywhere.
I was the Oscillating Man.
Would the news cover the robbery? Perhaps I’d allow the closed-circuit cameras one shot. I’d hide my face, but show them just enough to titillate the newsfeeds.
They’d call it the heist of the century. Investigators would be clueless as to how I’d done it. They’d consult experts, who’d scratch their heads. Wonder in silent awe. “No sign of forced entry,” they’d say. “Must have been an inside job.” They’d grill every bank employee. And find nothing.
Social media would erupt with speculation. For the first time, someone other than my mother would take me seriously. They’d look at me as something more than a Cossack. Women would ogle the elegant image captured by the bank’s vault camera. Their eyes would undress me. Caress my naked chest. They’d dream of me. Women all over the city – they’d shut their eyes at night, and recall that image. Of a mysterious man rippling with talent and intensity.
Years later, once the investigation had gone cold, once I was established in a penthouse in Bubble Central, I’d invite one of them over. One of my thousands of admirers. I’d whisper in her ear as I ran my fingers down her silky thigh, “I was the thief in the Bubble Bank heist.”
There. There in the distance was the back of Bubble Bank. I reached into my pocket for the balaclava.
It was time.
The tingle in my fingertips crept up my arms. Suffused my torso in a delicious vibration. I leaned on my back foot, ready to dash the final twenty yards to the side the building. I would leap through the outer wall. Tumble into a perfect roll as I passed through the offices. Take the vault door at a sprint, and finish with a graceful backflip. I’d land among the ineffably valuable items inside. Gold bullion? Platinum? Durantium?
Whatever it was, would be mine. The wealth of the Bubble at my oscillating fingertips.
I crouched, ready. My back foot trembled. Calf muscles strained like loaded springs.
“Put your hands up!” yelled the caption in bold across my overlay.
My heart hammering in my ears, I swung my head around. Scanned for the source of the cry. But the street was deserted.
It was a caption from the future.
This didn’t bode well for the robbery I was about to commit. An hour from now, someone was going to yell those words. Probably at me, holding a bag full of stolen precious metals.
My shoulders slumped.
The heist had been a good idea. Clever. Ingenious, really. But it had gone too far. The future had warned me, and I wasn’t going to ignore the caution.
With equal parts dejection and relief, I walked home. This time, I didn’t bother to hide my face from the cameras. I didn’t take care to keep to the shadows. I plodded home along the moonlit wavelets of the Promenade.
The Bubble’s meniscus overhead morphed and sullied the moonlight into a ménage of pastel hues on the river. The colors danced and flopped on the water’s surface, lifting my mood.
Maybe the problem was tonight? Perhaps some circumstance beyond my control had ruined the robbery tonight, but may not do so tomorrow?
This was not the end. Not yet.
I allowed myself to relax when I got home. Stretched out in front of a holovid in my tiny lounge. I ignored the Phil’s Pharma advert for amnesia pills. “Ever wish you could experience that feeling, that sensation, that look in your lover’s eyes, again for the first time? Well now you can. Call …”
I ignored the newscast about the lunatic who was running around stealing people’s organs. How selfish. What I was doing was different. Sure, I was stealing too. Alright, that much was true. But I needed the money more than those capitalists did. I thought about the bank’s ostentatious offices. The shimmering building that touched the Bubble’s forcefield above.
I’d worked hard on this project over the last week, and before that on Svetlana’s modifications. This would happen. But I had to be patient. Keep up my strength. I switched the channel to my favorite vintage series, Law and Order SVU.
An hour exactly after I’d received the caption outside the bank, Detective Olivia Benson, in hot pursuit of a rapist, yelled out, “Put your hands up!”
I almost fell off the couch.
What did this mean?
The future had known I was going to turn back. Had known I would end up on this very couch. That I wouldn’t rob the bank. And the caption it sent me was an excerpt from the holovid.
“Otsosi, potom prosi,” I cursed.
The translator took some time to consider this. “[Well blow my ct, and make a wish.]”
I’d assumed that in some way, I was in control. That the reason the future had sent me messages, was so that I could alter the future. So I could avoid arrest after the robbery. Otherwise, what was the point of getting these messages? There must be a purpose, a reason for this power. For this gift.
Nausea ate at my gut.
I reconsidered the problem. If the future knew what I was going to do before I did it, and was simply informing me of the results that would inevitably occur, then I had no freedom to choose. It seemed like I had – seemed like I could choose whatever I wanted. It was an illusion. My decision was predetermined. I had no real freedom at all.
I watched on, the light and shadow of the holovid playing on my retinas, but not penetrating my brain.
What did this mean?
Had my whole life been meaningless? Had nothing I’d done mattered? Had it all been predetermined anyway?
“[All f***ed up],” suggested the translator.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I stared into the dimples on the concrete ceiling above the bed. Was it predetermined that I would receive the message from the future, and turn back? Was it predetermined that right now I wouldn’t be sleeping? Was I a helpless victim, destined to play out the pre-written script of my life? Was it predetermined that I would worry about my life being predetermined?
Eventually, a headache overwhelmed my thoughts, and throbbed me to sleep.
Sunlight lanced through my brain. Prodded me to go into work. I didn’t bother.
I turned over, and went back to sleep.
Eventually, hunger drove me to the malfunctioning 3D printer in the kitchen.
I still wasn’t certain whether I should return tonight to the bank. Try again?
I cobbled together some motivation. Big questions in life, like free will, weren’t my area of expertise. What I did know was that I wanted whatever was behind that bank vault door.
It was worth one more shot, I thought, as I chewed my cold printed eggs.
In the dark hours the following morning, I stood in the same spot outside the bank, dressed in the same jet-black outfit. The shirt smelt slight musty for its second use, but this was no time to worry about mundanities.
With not quite as much excitement as the night before, I visualized the bank’s interior. Prepared myself for the task ahead.
I clenched my fists. Gritted my teeth. Ready to –
“Don’t do it!”
I glanced around half-heartedly to see if there was anyone around. I already knew the streets were empty. This was another fucking caption from the future.
I stood there, trying but failing to avoid thinking about what this meant. If I ran into the bank now, I could just see it happening. One hour from now. Bubble PD in hot pursuit, chasing me down an alley. Screaming for me to stop. Booming out, “Don’t do it!” as I dived into the river.
And if I didn’t rob the bank? That caption would appear on a holovid, or who knew where, an hour from now.
In the end, I decided not to risk it. I skulked home, and flolloped onto the couch. Just before the hour was up, my glasses rang. Of course. Wednesdays – my mother. She had never understood that there was a time difference between Russia and the Bubble.
“My Zaichik, how are you?”
“Good thanks, Mama.”
We talked. Or rather, she talked. She told me about her week. About the weather in Moscow. About a break-in at her neighbor’s. She’d seen the man climb through the kitchen window, and she’d called out, “Don’t do it!”
I nodded to myself. Yup, there it was. The caption that had appeared on my overlay an hour earlier.
“My Zaichik, how are you?”
I sighed. My mother’s short-term amnesia was worse.
“Good thanks, Mama,” I repeated.
There was something uncanny about the two captions from the future these past two nights. Both had happened just as I was about to run into the bank. Both dire messages. ‘Put your hands up!’ and ‘Don’t do it!’
This wasn’t random. Wasn’t coincidence. It was a warning. And if it was a warning, it meant I did have a choice in the matter, because why warn someone who can’t choose?
“We’re worried about you, my Lapochka, all alone in America. Where are your friends? And a girl? When are you coming home?”
“Soon,” I lied. I didn’t have the energy to argue with her. She’d forget what I said anyway.
“Did I tell you about the robber who tried to break into the Petrovs’ place? I saw him climbing through …”
As my mother’s amnesiacal voice droned on, the idea hit me.
“Uhuh,” I said, and tapped my glasses. Found the advert Phil’s Pharma was running for amnesia pills.
My heart pounding, I told my mother I had to go.
I had a plan. A plan to fuck with the future.
I am no philosopher. But I am an engineer. Moscow-trained, mind you. I can fix a phase modulator quicker than any two-bit American hack.
And so, I did what engineers do best. I constructed a solution to the problem. The problem of the future.
For the third time in as many nights, I stood in the shadows outside the bank. My shirt was now truly pungent. The balaclava would need a wash too. But laundry wasn’t my primary concern.
I glanced at the blister pack in my hand. Six amnesia pills. Fresh from Phil’s pharma.
“Ten-minute formula,” read the back of the packaging. It was the only duration they’d had in stock. “Take one pill now, and you’ll forget everything that happens in the next ten minutes. WARNING: disables memory-formation centers of the brain. Not safe to use while driving or operating heavy hover-equipment.”
The plan was this:
I’d take a pill. Prepare to enter the bank. Just before I’d leap forward, I would receive a message from the future. A warning. Then, I’d wait ten minutes. Thanks to the amnesia pill, I’d forget the caption, so the message couldn’t influence my decision.
My memory wiped clean, I’d repeat the procedure. I’d again take a pill, and prepare myself to enter the bank just as I had ten minutes earlier. When another caption from the future arrived, again I’d wait ten minutes, and forget the caption. And then take another pill … And so on, until all six pills were taken.
Once I’d taken all the pills, an hour will have passed since the first caption appeared. The caption would then have to be spoken by someone in my vicinity. But there would be nobody around at this dead hour in the alley behind the bank. I would switch off the calling and advertising features on my glasses. To make doubly sure, I would switch off the microphone attached to the Logos hearing implant.
I wouldn’t hear anything.
The prediction would be falsified. And ten minutes later, the next caption would be falsified too. And the next. Six captions from the future would not be spoken. To check this, I had set up a log of any captions that would appear on my overlay over the next hour. All I had to do after that was check the captions an hour after each appeared, and see that they didn’t come true. That nobody had spoken them.
I would break the future. Six times. That should be enough to release me from its predeterministic clutches.
Then I could rob the damned bank.
As I had done last night and the night before, I crouched. Clenched my fists. Visualized the interior of the bank. The gold bullion or platinum or whatever lay inside that vault. I imagined packing it into the satchel at my side. The penthouse I’d buy. The women. The future.
My leg muscles twitched. Ready to spring, when –
No caption appeared on my overlay. No message from the future.
“I’m going to do this,” I whispered.
Nothing. No warning.
And still I had all six amnesia pills, unpopped, in my gloved hand. This wasn’t going to plan at all.
“Last chance,” I muttered to the future, and steeled myself to run through the bank wall. I even took the first step forward.
Had the plan worked already? Had I broken the future, broken the predetermination of my actions, just by formulating the plan?
The wheels of regret turned in my mind. Maybe I’d pissed off the future. I shouldn’t have pushed it this far. Fate had given me a gift, and I’d kicked it in the balls.
My regret turned to a worrying thought. Maybe I wasn’t receiving a message from the future because there was no future me? Maybe in an hour’s time, I’d be dead. Killed during the robbery.
I pulled off the balaclava. Ran my fingers through my hair. This was serious. I couldn’t do this. Couldn’t perform this robbery. This was crazy. This whole thing – I’d made a mistake. I could still get out of it.
I turned away from the bank for the last time. I would never look back. I was done playing with the future.
I was about to begin my walk home, when –
White lettering appeared on my overlay. A caption formed. “… Bubble PD isn’t sure yet how he got into the vault, but …”
Confusion swallowed me. Sharp tendrils of indecision encircled my thoughts.
“Hooy na ny,” I whispered.
“[No f***ing way.]”
My eyes swung back to the bank. Then in the direction of my apartment. Back to the bank. My apartment.
I donned the balaclava. Cleared my head. And before I could change my mind, sprinted into the bank.
Even at this pace, passing through the yard-thick outer wall hurt like being shot by a stun-gun. But I propelled my way through, and came out the other side into a dimly lit office.
There. The vault.
My head still ringing from punching through the outer wall, I threw myself into the vault door. Something in my head clanged. Rang out, as pulses of electricity surged through me.
I thought for a moment that I’d be stuck there, maybe forever, in the oscillating hell inside the titanium vault door.
What seemed like an eternity later, I stumbled into the inside of the vault. Dizzy, I tapped my glasses to shine a light into the container, and regretted it immediately. The beam refracted. Multiplied. Magnified. Until the room was so bright, my eyes hurt even when they were shut.
I tapped my glasses, and dimmed the light down 95%. Looked around.
Durantium. Paper-long sheets of it. Ultra-reflective. Stacked high as the ceiling.
Durantium. The most valuable substance known to mankind.
Durantium. In all its shimmering glory, was mine.
I reached out to touch one of the sheets, but stopped myself. Durantium was one of the strongest substance known. But it was also one of the thinnest. A single layer was barely more than a micron thick.
Which meant it was sharper than any razor. Surgeons used it on the tips of their scalpels. Builders lined their saws with the metal to cut through steel.
I slowed my movements. A papercut on one of these sheets, and I could lose my fingers, and spill DNA all over the vault. It wouldn’t take Bubble PD more than a few minutes to identify the thief. Me.
With infinite care, I gripped an inch-thick stack of durantium sheets. Even in this short pile, the wealth I held in my hands was practically incalculable.
Slowly, I lowered the stack into the satchel, and checked to see whether they would tear the bag. They didn’t. Russian quality.
I’d done it.
This was it. Time to go.
“They found him sleeping in the vault when police arrived.”
My eyes watered as I read the caption on my overlay. What the hell?
I realized that something didn’t feel quite right. My fingers – they weren’t tingling anymore. Not like they had the past week. Instead of an oscillating pulse, I felt a slow rhythmic beat in my hands. My own heartbeat.
I looked around. I hadn’t noticed it before in the refractive light. The room wasn’t oscillating the way the world had since I’d fiddled with Svetlana. Everything appeared stable. In a single phase.
I remembered the surge of electricity through my body as I’d passed through the vault door. The metal had been too thick. Or the forcefields the bank used, too strong. Or maybe I’d waited too long – I should have robbed the bank the first two times. Perhaps then my oscillations would have been stronger. Whatever it was – dammit, whatever it was – had thrown me back into Bubble default phase. 2300.
No. No. I – no. This couldn’t be right. I panicked. Gripped the bag. And ran headlong into the vault door.
Spotlights. Helicopter blades thwop-thwop-thwopped above.
“… Bubble PD isn’t sure yet how he got into the vault, but …”
My head. My skull thumped, as if the blades were –
But the world, and the thought, faded to a pinprick.
“Detective Shoulders, I think he’s waking up.” Crisp Bubble air bathed my pounding head. A square-jawed man grinned down at me. “Numbskull,” he said, and chuckled.
I tried to move, but my head had been strapped down. And my hands. Cuffed to what felt like a gurney.
A reporter marched up to me. Camera drones buzzed around him. Glared down at me through their obsidian lenses. “Are you recording? Get a good shot of the bump on his face. Ready? … And for today’s idiot of the week slot, did you hear about the bank robber? Here he is now. Get this – he breaks his way into Bubble Bank’s vault, but can’t get out.”
Detective Shoulders sang out a barrel of shoulder-spasming laughter, almost as terrifying as the Roach’s. The paramedic couldn’t help himself either. Together, they guffawed, egging each other on, slapping their thighs, tears streaming down their moonlit cheeks. Even the reporter smiled as he ended his report. “They found him sleeping in the vault when police arrived.”
If you enjoyed Oscillating Olaf, you’ll love Obsidian Worlds, an anthology of eleven mind-bending sci-fi short stories by the same author. Your brain will never be the same again.
Click the link below, or scan the QR code, to download your free copy:
Olaf is an unlikely superhero. A deaf immigrant from Moscow, he can barely get through the day. Besides negotiating his abusive boss and a vindictive food printer that sprays boiling orange juice, Olaf is spurned by women immune to his dashing youth. But when he tinkers with his hearing implant, Olaf begins to hear strange messages. Messages from the future. Plunge into Oscillating Olaf, a mind-bending science fiction short.