Fiction: The Oracle of Personal Experience
By Luke Dylan Ramsey
“I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again”
—James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”
For Laura, wherever she may roam.
There are two types of men in this or any world:
One chooses a woman.
And one lets a woman choose him.
Sumia and I’s relationship had been spiraling even more than Tiermar’s global economy had, and for much longer, too. I knew we had grown toxic. So did she, probably. I just didn’t give much of a shit, personally. And she hadn’t yet related her feelings on our relationship as a whole. Well… not to me, at least.
Yes, I loved Sumia far too much to let her escape off into the aether, even if our fights were apocalyptic and the emotional vectors flowing between us unpredictable and jagged, even if we broke up and got back together seemingly every other week, even if it meant going through every psychic torment imaginable. We had been together for years, years and years. I had always liked to think we would never end.
The night before, we had had yet another messy and messed up argument. We were both unemployed: too much time on our hands, too much time to fill with anything but drinking uppers and beating each other up with our words. We were both pretty fucked up, out there, twisted, wired to the max, mostly because we were bored, endlessly bored. Maybe we had been spending too much time together, to the exclusion of the outer world.
I didn’t know what the base problem was. Not really. Not then, and not ever.
I had burned a painting of hers just for fun right in front of her and called her a whore during the fight’s climax, accused her of cheating with anyone who would take her, mostly because she wouldn’t let me directly enwrap my mindialer with hers. I merely wanted a look. Just a peek. I myself had nothing to hide. But I was suspicious of her, and she wouldn’t let me confirm or negate my suspicions with the actual evidence she could’ve provided me through her mindialer.
She had threatened to kill me in response to my belligerence and then, of course, left quickly thereafter my hurtfulness having reached its peak. By the next morning, however, I had calmed myself down, and begun the strenuous process of mentally calling out my drugged delusions for what they had been. I hadn’t heard from her since she left, although usually it took Sumia at least twenty-four hours to feel up to reconciliation. Only ten hours had passed since she left my place. Maybe she was still stewing, poring over my words and acts of malice, all recorded by her mindialer in order to disgrace me into posterity. I had no way of knowing until I tried to contact her. She typically stayed in our fights’ headspaces for longer than I ever did, and the night before had been a lot, a whole lot, even for a calamitous couple like us. Once I woke up the next day, all was usually and casually forgiven, at least on my end. That was as true that day as it ever was.
So I summoned up my mindialer, then called Sumia. The word BLOCKED flashed across my retinal display. Tried to text, email, message on social media; all brought the same response.
Shit. Shit-shit-shit. The sound of her silence was deafening. I guess this meant we were broken up? The prospect of never seeing Sumia again loomed above me, a tsunami coiled at its apex hanging over my future. Or lack thereof. Giving up on her seemed to be my marching orders, but doing so would take months if not years of pain and melancholia. I never moved past anything with ease, especially not the few romantic entanglements I had adventured my way deep inside; the mindialers made it all too easy to be stuck in the past. My only real option was to search her out in the physical world, a rough task given the labyrinthine nature of our shared city.
This blocking maneuver was a much more extreme reaction from her than usual. Usually I awoke to a string of increasingly negative texts, messages, and voicemails following a fight. Digital blocking was a practice Sumia had always professed she detested, given the extremity of such a move, the awkward social situations, the creation of a mysterious abyss where a relationship used to reside. I had hit that point with her but once, myself, and it had only made things between us worse. And I had quickly reneged on that stance, although not swiftly enough to escape Sumia’s detection and her subsequent volcanic anger.
Her sister and roommate Becket and I’s relationship was more formal than friendly, but I called up her social media and slipped her a message nonetheless, You seen or heard from Sumia since last night?
I expected a quick, Yeah, she’s here with me, but Becket’s response instead was, Na, I haven’t. Maybe check the Oracle if you haven’t heard from her. She’s been leaving people messages there lately, I think.
The fucking Oracle? The Oracle of Personal Experience? I wasn’t a devout customer, but I did journey there sometimes, when I needed guidance or a glimpse of the future, however obfuscated. Once the Oracle had arisen into being, it had replaced the role of church pastor and/or therapist in my life, as it had for many others on Tiermar. But Sumia had always expressed supreme doubt about the Oracle’s usefulness and veracity. And she wasn’t traditionally religious, either. To her, all things spiritual reeked of fraud and subservience to the invisible. I was a bit weirded out by this news, but I responded, Who is she leaving messages for?
I dunno, Becket replied. Ask her.
I shot back, You know she blocked me on everything, right?
Woah, Thomas, that’s too heavy, was Becket’s response. She’s not going for the long sleep, is she?
Let’s hope not, I messaged back.
Let’s fucking hope not.
The rich had become poor but the poor hadn’t become rich, all under the reign of our planetary ruler, Boris Paradigm. Millions were scrambling to put together funds for the long sleep, hoping cryostasis would carry them through the current economic uncertainty into an era with high employment numbers and even higher salaries. This, of course, only exacerbated the current planet-wide economic meltdown. Government provided suicide chambers had been popping up on more and more street corners. These were free, and therefore increasingly popular. Others chose to create cargo cults out of their former workplaces. No money coming in; no salaries or products going out. But still they slaved away.
Sumia and I had often talked of how much we abhorred these escapes from the present. We viewed them as facile. It wouldn’t be like her to randomly go for the long sleep, or to use a suicide chamber. Those were for the weak, according to us.
Nobody but Sumia and I wanted to live through this depressing epoch, ostensibly. Indeed, unemployment had been skyrocketing and nobody had much to do, given how almost all of the planet’s industries had been ground down to utter bankruptcy.
Our government had lost control a long while ago. Ancient history. Boris Paradigm was basically a figurehead at this point. No real power, and Boris acted like he had no responsibilities pretty much constantly. Even his secret police didn’t care anymore. Jails were almost empty. Paradigm ran some stupid game show that was usually required watching. Required literally, as in it would occupy every available screen, even our retinal displays. This seemed to take up almost all of his time, the bastard. We had been pining for an off world savior for a while, but had received nothing from the deeps of space.
The valet took my hovercart’s keys and I entered the Oracle of Personal Experience’s chrome geodesic, next to stand in a long snaking line for a full body scan and the ever following search and pat down.
Security was tight here at the Oracle. It had always been a hot destination but this was doubly true in these uncertain times. The building held all the acheiropoieta that we had discovered as we colonized the planet, remnants of past alien races and of human martyrs all smashed together in sparkling display cases lining the walls of the Oracle’s mazing hallways. But the main attraction was the Oracle itself: it held the unimaginable sum of human civilization on Tiermar’s accumulated knowledge and experience within its all-encompassing servers, and had been crafted out of a mixture of tech sourced from our alien predecessors or our increasingly distant home world, Earth.
I made it through the crowded security area sans hindrance and entered the inner rotunda, my mindialer charged for my entrance… I had to dip into my savings to get in, given that I was there for a reading, not just to peek around. The Oracle’s fees had gone up right along with its exponentially rising popularity, apparently. It might have been the last financially viable institution on the planet, besides the cryostasis corporations. I couldn’t imagine Sumia blowing her funds on the Oracle’s messaging service, given how frugal she was, and how her savings had been dwindling by the day. Perhaps Becket had misunderstood her.
Staring up at the skylights, sunlight blurring my surroundings, a vision of the charcuterie picnic Sumia and I had enjoyed a week prior starred my eyes. A halcyon day spent luxuriating and making love on riparian shores. I called up pictures and videos of the event, but, next, her death threats and my idiotic phrases and actions from the night before stuffed up my brain, distracting me completely, just as invasive as a tideshark in a community pool. I blinked, shook my head. My heart beat restlessly. I still needed Sumia.
Block-block-blocked. What the fuck?
A priest, diminutive in stature and clothed in a fuligin cassock, approached me, seemingly drawn by the tears in my eyes, my stumbling gait, my obvious confusion of spirit.
“Shadowchild of the digital gods, how can I be of aid to you? Pray tell.”
I reached out my mindialer to his; we synced up. Now we could think back and forth without any roadblocks.
Hello, shadow. This was the customary way to address the Oracle’s priests and priestesses, who all wore clothes of the deepest black. You can’t help me. Not really. My heart is freshly broken. There is no known panacea for a broken heart.
Shadow, this is known to all just as it is to one, yet the Oracle of Personal Experience will be of much help to someone like you, I’d think.
Yes, shadow. Say. Has a girl named Sumia been around here lately? A bit bigger, brunette, tan skin? About yea high? I held out my arms to signify my love’s height. Cute hair. Real cute overall. I was told she might’ve left a message for me, or has been leaving messages here in general, or something like that.
Shadow, can you not contact this shadowchild of the digital gods with your own mindialer? Or is that too obvious?
She has blocked me on everything, shadow.
Shadow, all I know is that I know nothing. Me, I know no Sumia. Something about his manner of communicating made me think he was lying, but I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly led me to that belief. This is a tough situation, that’s quite true. Let me check my mindialer, however. Hope springs from eternity’s void, indeed.
Thank you, shadow.
A few moments passed me by; the priest’s eyes were glossed over, his mindialer on overdrive. His fuligin clothes matched my current despondence.
Finally, the priest communicated, Shadow, I found only nothingness and long past messages left by Sumia, but all meant for others. You are Thomas, correct?
Shadow, there is nothing for you here but the Oracle itself.
Shadow, who was she leaving messages for?
Shadow, I cannot, will not answer. These messages are blocked by privacy settings and a paywall much too rich for the likes of you. You’ve already paid for your surely forthcoming vatic experience. Let us go to the inner chamber. I’ll lead you there. Then the succor you crave will be revealed in all its due glory.
Thank you, shadow. Lead on.
The priest took my hand and led me through a variety of doors and chambers brimming with tourists and pilgrims all admiring the Oracle’s store of objects of religious and/or historical significance. I barely glanced around; didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. I felt I would deliquesce if met with the tenderizing actuality of a fellow soul. Tears and visions of Sumia and I’s past were blurring my retinal display. I unconsciously mindialed pictures of us together until the painful prison that was my current station flowered over me, and I shut down my mindialer for a bit.
The priest stopped at a gateway and thought to me, This is where I leave you, shadow.
Thank you, shadow, I replied as I stepped forward to be bathed by the Oracle’s polychrome blinking lights. The door closed behind the priest seemingly of its own accord. I was alone with the Oracle. I mindialed into the Oracle’s servers, groping for connection; my quest was sated quickly.
Shadowchild of the digital gods, what do you search for? a mind now inside my mind inquired with a growl.
I need answers about my relationship with my partner, Sumia.
Shadow, what troubles you about this shadow, exactly?
Why did she block me? Where is she? I need to find her. Need it more than anything. I then need to have myself a good talk with her, convince her of myself as a top romantic prospect. What’s our future as a couple? Should I just give up on romance? I have a terrible temper, and a head full of sins.
The Oracle scanned through our pictures together, our chat and phone histories, our social media posts, my journals, my every attempt at communication about or with the love of my life. I stood in contemplative silence as every detail of Sumia and I’s relationship was revealed to the Oracle’s supercomputer.
A tab appeared in my retinal display, labelled, THE LIBRARIAN. This tab concerned our shared past. I scanned the accompanying explanatory text, which read, This is the guide to all possible infotainment, the true source and the total endpoint. While seemingly powerless, the librarian is actually a role of might. A leader. Curating the past, present, and future, librarians provide much aid while maintaining complete objectivity. Without the librarian, the past would have no meaning, the present no documentation, and the future no shape.
Once I’d finished reading, another tab appeared, labelled, THE SECRET FOUNTAIN. This tab concerned the present; it was not a particularly good omen. The accompanying text read, This reality only exists in daydreams and reveries. There is no texture to this present; all is metaphysical, enlightened, a-physical. In the desert that is life today, this is the lone oasis, the only succor, the one aid. You know who or what this is. Surreality and exile and its discontents. Adjust or die. Schematics must not include prime numbers and the heads of erstwhile lovers. Banish all memory. All is but a shadow of these inherent truths, all provided by the fountain of secrets, the desert’s very foundation. You are slung beneath the belly of a beast with no shepherd.
The final tab appeared, labelled, THE TOWER. Yet another ill omen, this one describing the future. The accompanying text read, This is the one mountain you cannot and will not climb. It is not being destroyed violently; it slowly deliquesces unto naught, like the Buddha of Earth beneath his tree. Giving up without being conscious of doing so. Everything that’s avoided is now your only reality. There is no escape. A great view for the apocalypse, however. This is what is towering over all. The fog of life will burn off eventually, and, truly, something new will be there to the front of you, grasping and glowering.
I faltered to the floor, overwhelmed. The Oracle was offering me no reassurance today. My heart beat rapidly. Sweat impugned my brow and armpits. I rolled to lay on my back. There I contemplated the meaning of the tabs.
The first tab obviously meant I am the steward of much information, especially about my relationship with Sumia. I need to keep and treasure every vestige of our love. I should’ve always done so. The line between thought and communication has been blurred, sadly. I should’ve done better… much, much better. And I can do so, in the future. Yes, I must always keep what is sacred in its higher place. I shouldn’t have burned that painting of Sumia’s… what the fuck was I thinking?
The second tab seems to be saying that Sumia and I’s relationship is currently imaginary? Maybe. It’s all in my head; but maybe it’s not all in hers? Has she moved on already, somehow? All signs point to yes, but that would be impossible, correct? Too quick. I need time to adjust to all this new information I’m receiving about Sumia, scattered, scattering, and confusing as it is. The journey beckons. I must either move on or delve even further into.
The third tab wasn’t good. Not good at all. I have much searching and much desiring to do. Much to enact and much to move past. The recent past is a burden. I must create a new future. I need to stay on my feet, keep my head in the air. The planet’s deserts are beckoning, seemingly, but do I really wish to venture therein? I may leave more than just dehydrated… I might leave with less than what I entered the sands with. It’s all so confusing.
Fuck the Oracle.
Blazing sunlight crossed my eyes. I was outside the Oracle of Personal Experience, but a part of me remained inside, huddled in the moment when Sumia and I’s apparently negative fate was both sealed and revealed. Usually the Oracle’s readings of reality provided me comfort.
Not today. Never today.
The priest that had previously guided me through the crowds sidled up to me as I waited for the valet to return with my hovercart. Taking advantage of our prior connection, he thought at me, Shadowchild of the digital gods, are you still but a shadow?
Alas, shadow. Only my worst fears were confirmed.
Shadow, I am sorry. This is terrible news. I am sorry the Oracle could not be a comfort to you. I will keep a lookout for this Sumia for you. That is the only solace I can offer.
Thank you, shadow, I replied, though I knew this was an empty offer.
Slaloming on home, I noticed my good buddy Butch loitering on a street corner, harassing with shouted sloganeering those who were opting for the suicide chamber located there. I pulled over and hopped out.
“Hey, Butch,” I verbalized. I reached my mindialer out and we coalesced.
What’s up, Tom?
Hmm. You seen or heard from Sumia?
You haven’t heard from her? Y’all are usually stuck together. Clapping, he continued, Like this, yeah? Na, I haven’t heard from her, in like a week.
Man, she blocked me either last night or this morning.
Shit, man, that’s rough. Real rough. But Kat was saying something about Sumia hanging with the crusties recently. You heard about this?
What the fuck? The crusties? That doesn’t sound right. She would’ve told me of a significant change like that. Hanging with dropouts. Why would she do that?
How should I know? I ain’t her.
Doesn’t sound right.
Hey, you saying I’m lying? That’s just what I heard, okay? Kat is usually reliable and everything, yeah?
I just don’t know what’s going on, anymore.
I’m all kindsa fucked up over this shit with Sumia. Yesterday’s reality seems so much different than today’s. I can’t adjust.
Them’s the times. I know you love her, though.
But maybe she’s thinking of dropping out all the way, joining up with ‘em crusties.
Fuck. Let’s hope not.
I thought my goodbyes and slipped back into my hovercart. Exhausted, I headed home for a quick nap. The crusties were only ever active at night, anyways.
She said she was born to love me. She said so all the time. I told her I loved her and kissed her at every opportunity. I had failed in love enough to know to always take positive advantage of any moment spent with a lover. I possessed ever so many regrets, even so. So much misdirected anger. Her and I were two halves of completely different puzzles that could somehow still conform into one sumptuous piece of art. We just fit together, like perfect, fit like nobody else could possibly match. Our shared past had subsumed my prior years of being single into its drowning ocean of a love requited. Our love was irrevocable yet irreconcilable with our current realities, seemingly. I still hoped we were endless. Maybe we would be.
The crusties were only active when Tiermar’s triplicate of moons arose. No moons; no crusties. Nobody knew where they disappeared to when lunar vistas were unavailable. The crusties were infamous for their bad smell and for their prolific use of drugs, also their complete lack of contributions to society at large.
I awoke at around eight PM to my mindialer screaming an alarm inside my skull, then headed out on foot, glancing down likely alleyways and searching random dive bars for any sign of the crusties, passing by overly active suicide chambers and long sleep facilities, skyscraping blasphemies and protests and counter protests.
Finally I discovered a lone crustie standing guard over an entrance to an alleyway. Marking him as a crustie was his unseasonal clothes, the lit joint carousing about his lips, and his general malaise.
“Hey,” I verbalized as I reached out with my mindialer.
He shook his head at me. “Let’s keep it verbal, yeah?”
“Sure. I need some help.”
“Suicide chambers help. The long sleep helps. Boris Paradigm is trying to help, supposedly. I don’t help, me. Or, I only help myself.” He made a lewd hand gesture.
I slipped the crustie a five spot; he visibly relaxed, and we synced up.
Alright, alright. What you need from me here, hmm? Downers, uppers, all arounders? I got everything, man, everything.
I need help finding someone.
Who, man, who?
Her name is Sumia. About yea tall, holding out my arms, this length brunette hair, tan, around two hundred pounds?
Why you asking me?
Sensing an opening, I gave him another five. I heard she’s been hanging around with you crusties.
Hmm. Maybe, maybe. It’s certainly possible. Come on. Follow me.
We sauntered down the alleyway. Other crusties appeared, huddled together playing dice games, smoking God’s Tongue in sparse groups, hanging around staring at graphitized walls with their voided eyes. Don’t mind them. I didn’t. None of them seemed busy, although maybe that was to be expected, given their reputation.
And… here we are.
And where is that? We didn’t seem to be particularly anywhere.
This here is the center of it all. The fulcrum of planetary humanity. The universe’s baseline. The point of maximum tantalization.
Whatever. I slipped him yet another five, sensing he needed further encouragement. Let’s get on with it.
Okay. I’ll go get ‘em.
You’ll see, he responded as he stalked off.
A tall woman approached me as I stood alone in the alleyway. I could see her pale skin through the holes in her frock.
“I hear you’ve been pretty generous with your new friend Steve. He’s kinda my guy. Let’s coalesce.”
Yeah, I’m, uh, looking for someone, I replied, attempting another bribe of a five.
Her hands raised up high. You’ve already given more than enough. Steve kinda took you for a ride, even with all the recent inflation. What do you really want? You don’t look like the druggy type.
Yeah, I’m not some undead dropout. I need help finding this girl, Sumia.
Who is she to you?
She’s the love of my life.
Does she know that?
Why do you need my help finding her, then?
She blocked me on everything.
Well, that’s regrettable.
Do you need a description of her?
Yeah, no, she’s already been described to me.
Okay, good. And?
Hmm… I might know her.
How would you know her? You don’t seem like the type she usually associates with.
She’s been very friendly with us as of late. We have certain things in common.
It’s hard to put into words.
Uh, okay. So… do you know where to find her?
I think I just might.
Spit it out.
You know Mount John the Last?
Yeah, of course. The mountain formed the western border for our city, although it was miles and miles away from this alleyway. What about it?
That’s where she is, I think. Up at the tiptop.
You think? What’s she doing there?
That’s for you to find out, not for me to explain.
Okay then. Thanks.
Everyone knows you can only scale Mount John the Last during the day. Nobody has ever attempted it at night, and especially not this deep into the darkness.
Discouraged and disturbed by these portents, but not quite defeated yet, I journeyed back home to sleep alone, hoping to get an early start on recovering Sumia and her love in the morning.
Guilt, shame, regrets. I could barely remember what my life was like before she entered it. Seemed like hell in retrospect. Like a perfect hell. There wasn’t much positive to remember, after all. She had saved me, and I still hoped I could save her from herself. Even if our relationship was imperfect, I still thought of her as higher than, a perfect specimen created with solely me in mind. Yes, as she had bloomed her beautiful way into my life, my life itself had bloomed into a certain magnificence as well, a magnificence completely different than anything I had experienced before. She had invaded my core and set up residence there, just as I had with her. She was everything to me, everything, an entire universe unto herself. I had thought and hoped with everything in me that we would never truly end.
I awoke before the dawn, my mindialer screaming again. I was hoping to get an early start on the day, a day that promised many trials and travails. I didn’t exercise much at that time. Was too lazy and aimless.
Journeying through the city in my hovercart, skirting around the early morning traffic snarls, my mind was as blank as the Buddha’s once he reached enlightenment. Maybe I was just too tired to think much. There was so much to think about that my mind merely wrapped itself in nothingness. I was an empty wall, a vacuum.
I was nearing the base of Mount John the Last right when the sun fully escaped the horizon’s jagged grasp. Dawn was indeed cracking open the sky. I reached the foothills playing as feet for Mount John the Last and searched for a parking spot. Although you could drive halfway up the peak, I wanted my climb to be clean and cleansing.
Leaving the hovercart behind me, I started my hike, one of many pilgrims hoping to reach the mountain’s top before the sun fully set. The crags and cairns of Mount John the Last were not passable at night. The mountain loomed over me, trenching my self-importance into bits and pieces, informing me of my own total insignificance. Pretty quickly I worked up a sweat.
I tried to focus on positive memories as I journeyed, ignoring Mount John the Last’s tenebrous aura. The first time I saw Sumia was on our undergrad Logos College’s sprawling quad. A sunbeam shot through the cloud cover to give light to her freckles and wavy hair. Shadows covered my own face, of course, although I was soon to introduce myself nonetheless, a slovenly commoner hitting on a cute princess. I mindialed pictures of us meeting and spending the day together. Halcyon memories forever preserved inside me, if only digitally. But a vision of me putting a lighter to her painting two days before appeared next, ruining my good mood. I shuddered unconsciously and shook my head violently, warding off all elements of negativity, even if the vibes surrounding me weren’t exactly positive, currently.
The blood-red soil of Mount John the Last impugned my fingernails. I scrabbled up the mountain as best I could, sometimes avalanching back downwards when the slope became too sheer, losing ground, at others, covering yards in leaps and bounds. Yes, I was quite tired, so when I discovered a mountain spring that created a pleasant waterfall, I laid down in the cave formed beneath the falling water and attempted a short nap, hoping to power up for the hardest part of the journey: the final ascent up to the mountain’s peak.
Our love burned hot. Too hot, at times. We both got burned… all the time, everyday. You could’ve said we loved each other too much, perhaps, that we were too important to one another for either of our good. We were too bad to be true… but the ocean of our love was endless, at least in my eyes, in my heart. I had taken Sumia and her love for granted. I had treated her like she was an expendable part of my life when she was the exact opposite of that. These toxic practices of mine must cease, become a thing of the past. She was my sole link to all that lies outside myself. I knew no other love, not like ours, not ever, and hopefully I would never find myself having to find another lover. Sumia, she was my all in all.
I let out a heaving sigh, my city sprawling beneath me, the sky above darkening with the sun’s setting. I had reached the peak, and it was looking like I would have to spend the night there, way up tiptop the world. Who knew what was lurking around? I had thought there was a visitor’s center at the mountain’s apex, but no buildings appeared to me. Looking closer, I discovered a door built into a cliff about a hundred yards down the mountain’s back. I hurried over to it, opened it up, then shuffled inside.
A young woman, obviously listening to directions sourced from her mindialer, greeted me right when I entered with a curt nod, and quickly took my arm, saying, “Good, you’re finally here. Right on time, almost. Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“We’re wasting time. I’ve gotta get you over to hair and makeup. Follow me.”
I didn’t reply and took a step back towards the door. She grabbed my arm and forcefully led me further into the mountain, guiding me through a few hallways filled with busy workers all seemingly preparing for something. She didn’t respond to any of my questions as to what the fuck was going on, nor did she allow our mindialers to sync up. Instead, she pushed me further and further into the mountain.
“Here we are,” she said, opened a door, and shoved me inside.
Over the frantic course of the next thirty minutes, a couple people came in to do my hair and makeup, then left. They wouldn’t answer any of my questions, even when I was clearly desperate for answers. Their only words were, “Stop fidgeting,” nor did they allow our mindialers to coalesce.
Someone stuck their head in and said, “You’re on in a couple minutes.”
“On what?” I replied, but the person was gone. On out of here? On drugs? I hoped for the latter. I needed something, anything to take the edge off, perhaps allow some perspective on my present’s mystery to seep in.
Yet another person entered, grabbed me upright, then said, “Alright, here we go.”
“Where are we going?” I protested, but I allowed myself to be pulled out of the room, down some hallways, then behind a curtain. I was curious, after all.
The curtain opened. I was shoved into the spotlight. Applause greeted me. I sauntered forward to the seat the host beckoned at, waving away the bright lights with frail hands.
I sat, looked around, recognized the set of the show: Life’s Paradigm. The host was Boris Paradigm, a trans-dimensional man with pursed lips, a pale complexion complicated by freckles, a harsh red shock of hair. The show was known for its verbal obstacle courses and the hardcore torture techniques it occasionally showcased. The studio audience, tonight seemingly comprised solely of crusties out of their mind on some drug (probably God’s Tongue), flew between loving heckles, popcorn throws, and heartless jeers.
A few seconds passed as Paradigm waffled about, ululating about rumors concerning the Oracle and the recent proliferation of suicide chambers at his direction. A woman from the audience ran across the screen, crying huge tears and screaming bloody murder in response to a knife poking up from the plush cushion beneath her. I sat there with my legs crossed, feigning ignorance, staring at the burning lights’ haloes, trying not to quiver.
“You must respond to these challenges to your bodily authority with the utmost seriousness,” Paradigm said to his studio audience. “This will be the key to our victory.” He threw ghostly punches at a visiting journalist, the thumping noise of simulated yet still nauseating body blows the soundtrack. “See how cheesy I am? It would be quite easy to gut me.” A long procession of leashed iguanas passed through a guillotine operated by Paradigm himself. “I find my own audaciousness so fucking attractive.” He split into two separate wholes and they simultaneously ambled offstage for a commercial break, leaving me alone with the studio audience, who I completely ignored in favor of staring at the spotlights’ reflections on my polished black shoes.
Someone I couldn’t quite discern sat in a shadowy corner, smoking something peculiarly strong and glaring over at me as if someone nearby was being scurrilous.
I ran my hand through my hair, ruffling my carefully arranged coif. My prior hair stylist emerged, fixed my hair as quickly as she could, sighed, and said, “Life’s Paradigm is a show for low level inbreeds,” with a heavy air of pretention. Sharp shears manicured my flowing curls. Paradigm’s crow’s feet appeared beneath the curtain. The stylist’s free hand played with my split ends. The figure still slouched and glared.
“Alright, alright,” Paradigm shouted as he emerged to general clapping. “Although it fulfills Aristotle’s need for a unity between space and time and smacks of a Nietzschean absurdity, this is a show by and for cave people, yes?”
The studio audience went wild.
“Alright, we’re about to go live.”
Lightly trimming around my ears, the brow towering over the stylist’s spectacles furrowed. “Paradigm shits all over his guests—and sometimes literally,” she whispered. “Can you not escape?”
“I kinda wanna know where this is going.”
“Fair enough,” she replied, then disengaged and disappeared.
“The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us. Whatever decision we make forever seems like the right decision in the moment it was presented, of course.”
“That was Pascal, no?” I responded, eyeing the audience. “If our lives are really so overrun by bad impulses as that, then why not kill yourself like so many of your constituents?”
“You seem attached to an insouciant, bumptious attitude in a most umbilical manner. I say. Why do anything today when there is always tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is so often much worse than the day that came before it, in these times,” I said, though I reeked of onrushing death. “Mostly thanks to you. You’re a neurotic grotesquerie almost totally comprised of water.”
“I appreciate your recognition of my wholesome contributions to society. Anyways… I find myself utterly capable of ignoring these facts. Even, at times, you might say, freeing myself of everything factual altogether.”
“You’ll be an outcast and a pariah, if we ever can get you out of office, just like the rest of your castrated victims.”
“I welcome Tiermar’s attention. All publicity is good publicity.”
I was enveloped by the spindly shadows created by all the many angled spotlights. From this near distance, Paradigm’s head looked like a spewing volcano, his hair the lava, all that makeup the tiered mountain slopes. He was seated behind a mahogany desk in a chair surely lacking in lumbar support: he slouched, fluttered his eyes like an easy whore. A thin cigarette dangled from his lithe digits. His voided mouth scooted out puffs of smoke at random intervals.
Winding around him on a lamiscate path, an oily haired kitten patrolled our feet. A former stray. At Paradigm’s back, a tall balustrade arose, lined with luminous rows of strobing lightbulbs. Unopened presents with large bowties sitting beneath shimmering Christmas trees were strewn about the stage, though no holidays were particularly close to that date. Posters depicting Paradigm snapping Polaroids of photographers as they visually captured his verve covered the carpeted facades.
A woman in a flame retardant Velcro suit sprinted from the wings of the stage, past the slouching staring figure, and down a suddenly appeared passageway of annulated fire to hop then skip onto a heretofore unseen trampoline to jump up-up-up and smack! against the Velcro ceiling-sky that protected us from the bristling terrors supposedly native to the mountain’s top, according to Paradigm. Then she just hung there, looking down on us like a glimmering star. The applause prompters flashed brightly. The studio audience was waving: stomping away with stony feet, cackling and hooting like a suddenly awakened murder, tossing lit sticks of dynamite around like beach balls, clapping all too quickly with bloody stumps for hands—but their dilated eyes stayed centered on Paradigm, who basked in their attention’s easy glow.
“What’s wrong with you? You seem flustered and insignificant,” he said, picking at my hair like a chimpanzee mother.
“I can’t agree more,” I responded, looking him full in his face. “There’s distress… there’s unrest in my heart.”
“Cool! Me, I ate a God’s Tongue edible… it just kicked in.”
“Wow. There are children watching, you know that?”
“You’re such a silly little boy,” he replied, google-y eyed and giggling. “You know I’m about to make you look ridiculous, right? Don’t you even try to fight it.”
“I don’t fear much that you can throw at me.”
“You seem kinda defeatist and negative, in the context of my show.”
I scratched my beard.
“I thought this was supposed to be at least somewhat entertaining—even for me.”
“Even if my task is impossible, at least all the other contestants always look like total losers.”
“Hey, don’t be ugly. These are my constituents and I must love them fully and deeply and with all of my heart and mind and soul. And all of you are already there in my heart, irrevocably and infinitely.
“Here,” he passed me a small mint-green candy, “an imported lozenge for your throat. Maybe now you’ll recover your voice.”
“Thank you,” I responded, then popped his gift into the required orifice.
Cool liquid burbled forth as I refreshed Paradigm’s drink, my legs still crossed, a smile playing over my beaming visage. His cigarette, an alien brand, laced with cloves, sizzled and popped; he inhaled deep and full. Our background burst forth painted harlequins playacting war and drooling clowns trailing billowing chrome streamers.
“I am a keen observer of human nature. You, Thomas, seem like a most odd man.”
“I can’t deny your accusation.”
“Well, I can better it. I am a wastrel’s god, a sincere villain, and quite probably Tiermar’s Antichrist. Now, you must know the reasons I reveal myself as such?” Paradigm’s left eye twitched. A small tic impugned his lips’ wavering stability. Smoke stained his aquamarine eyes. He continued, “Well… how would I? Am I not just a nonsense trillionaire just sitting here in billion dollar bowling shoes?”
It was now my face’s turn to betray a quivering confusion. A tote board was rolled out to hang over me, stuffed with a coiled maze of Christmas lights. It began to coruscate, Bad Art! Bad Art! in contrasting hues. The figure shuffled their feet, raring to go.
“You can’t win, Thomas. I’m ahead of you in every way.”
“Thomas can’t win! Thomas can’t win!” yawped the belligerent crowd and warring harlequins and parading clowns and the figure, all like a riotous pack of apes.
I was sitting in a patch of artificial sunlight. It was golden yet cold, seemingly malleable. I was blushing, wanting to hide under the couch I was sitting on like a fool, an idiot, a freak. Instead, I watched his cigarette lazily bleed smoke, then said, “What a nice trick, Paradigm. But I have my own: Sumia! Come outta there!”
The cameras turned to zoom onto the shadowy figure… and Sumia arose from her lean, soon dancing onto the stage like a drunken angel. The tote board coruscated, Drama Mama! Drama Mama!
His cigarette billowing thick plumes of purplish haze into the charged air, Paradigm leaned back and said, “The joke’s on you, Thomas. At least I came here prepared. Now… are you prepared?”
My tongue was thick and smoky. The kitten sneezed like a flu-ridden baby. I said, “I am only a man… and not even a great one at that.”
“How swell. We can all agree on something at last.”
“How grotesquely nice of you to point it out,” Sumia said, now seated next to me but refusing to look my way, still looking much the same as I’d previously described her. “I have to say, I agree as well.”
“Of course. Maybe I should be president, huh?” A noise effect like the sound of a door audibly creaking open greeted his insipid question. A funereal dirge soared from an unseen organ. The audience began a soft hymn. Paradigm played the maestro, still seated in his backless chair.
I yawned right as the kitten did, then growled, “Can we cut the shit?”
“Ooo. What are you gonna do about it?”
I couldn’t escape the feeling that Paradigm and I had been having two distinct conversations ever since I first appeared onstage.
“You’re kinda a pest… and me, I can always exile you off planet.”
The tote board coruscated, A Pest! A Pest!
“Whatever. Sumia, won’t you talk to me?”
She looked over at Paradigm and said, “I redact all my prior statements of love to this man, this fool, this idiot, this freak. I meant them as a joke, or something… I said it all for the piquancy. It was all bullshit, utter bullshit.”
I rose up to lean against Paradigm’s cluttered desk, thus obscuring him from his loving audience.
“I’ve been to the Oracle. Why didn’t you leave me a message? And why did you block me?”
“Oh, sure, sure. But since I have us all here, do you have any really weird opinions, Thomas?” Paradigm purred, pawing at me coquettishly. “Pray tell,” he added in a high falsetto.
“Let me take over, here. This man. He believes that the shape of the human skull defines the working parameters of the mind inside. He believes that the gods are all dead, except the digital ones. He believes that the astral body lives solely within the fingertips,” Sumia said, gazing at Paradigm. “He got all of that shit from the Encyclopedia Franconia.”
“Most certainly. Any others?”
“None of that was true. Absolutely none of it.”
The tote board coruscated, Care To Share! Care To Share!
“This man. Let me tell ya. He believes that existence is gratuitous and absurd. He believes in tummy nausea and swollen brains. He believes that we hide ourselves away from one another only to live ensconced inside individual hellscapes. He believes we are all standing alone. He believes in solving problems at the roots and with radical solutions. He believes in the electric guitar and visiting with ladies other than me at the twilight hour. He believes that we are crepuscular creatures in our gory insides. This is why he chooses to stay up all night, sometimes. To enter both twilight zones. He believes that we will all eventually become unified in a pleasurable way.”
“That shit ain’t true, either. Where’d you get it?”
The tote board coruscated, Intergalactic Domination! Intergalactic Domination!
“Who gave this guy the libations, am I right?” Paradigm asked of the abyss. Crickets greeted his question.
Sumia strode away from me and towards the edge of the stage to stand in a healthy and mature stance. “He isn’t trustworthy. He can’t go without beer and good drugs and bad women for even one day. Not even one.” Finally facing me, she continued, “I can’t just reconcile myself with you when there are so many bad signs all around us… post-modern sunsets and the dragging colors of dawn. You have to agree. You must.”
“Enough of your shared past and his belligerence. What of your future as a couple?”
The tote board coruscated, The Future! The Future!
“Paradigm, I’ll tell you just like I told it to you last night: we have no future. Not me and him.”
The tote board coruscated, Golden Power! Golden Power! A tasty aroma hinting of fresh waffles and spicy cinnamon wafted across the stage. The tote board coruscated, This Is A Communist Conspiracy! This Is A Communist Conspiracy!
“What about me? And my wants and needs?”
A short (to all but me) pause; Paradigm skipped a beat, then began a long oration on the current breadth of human knowledge as it related to our history as a globalized community comprised of hungry and thirsty individuals. I just grinned at the beckoning red lights on top of the eager cameras like a good boy.
“What was your prior relationship with this man like? Spill it all.”
“My thoughts didn’t match up with my actions when we were together. I was discombobulated, constantly.”
“That’s not true. You’re so full of shit. We were happy together, most of the time. Ninety-five percent of the time, at least. Other than the fights.”
“The fights? The fights? I’ve seen too much of your clay feet.”
The tote board coruscated, Fight! Fight! Fight!
“The veil of infatuation has been rent. Rent completely.”
“What are you saying?”
“I see you, and us, all too clearly now.”
“I don’t get it. What changed?”
“That painting was made for my grandma. Painted special. She’s dead, remember?”
“You hate your grandparents.”
“Whatever. Your aura has changed.”
“I don’t see the light in you anymore.”
“How could you ever have?” Paradigm chimed in.
“They’ve promised to contour my physical prison up here, make me outside like I am inside.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Why can’t you be happy for me?”
“I’d rather be happy for us.”
“You had to have seen this coming.”
“You always said you hated blocking people. You said you’d never.”
“Well, it’s over, really over, this time. And I had to make it so, even if I had to resort to extremism.”
“You’ve changed so much just in a couple days.”
“I meant what I said. You can’t win this argument.”
The tote board coruscated, You Can’t Win! You Can’t Win!
“I can’t just let you go. I came all the way up here to find you. I tried in the past, tried my best, and I’ll try even harder in the future. You have me completely, now.”
“I don’t care. My actions now fall in line with my thoughts, up here with these people. I’m not discordant inside.”
“You don’t have to be up here to feel that way. We have a life in the city, a good life.”
“Up here, closer to the moons, I’m surrounded by the enlightened.”
“Oh, what the fuck does that even mean? Where’s this hocus pocus talk coming from?”
“I’ve found a new home, a better home… this is what everyone searches for, and me, I’ve found it for myself.”
“We had a happy home.”
The tote board coruscated, The Past! The Past!
“We never lived together.”
“Our home was wherever we were together. You know that.”
“I’ll say it again. Why can’t you be happy for me? How could you want me back after everything you’ve put me through?”
“So it’s just too much, at this point, huh?”
Tote board coruscated, Goodbye Thomas! Goodbye Thomas! and the cushion beneath me sprung me offstage with a boing and there I was hurried away by a team of bouncers, or secret police, I couldn’t tell.
As they pushed me through the labyrinthine tunnels, I caught repeated glimpses of a club. It was brimming full with crusties all bodily responding to tellywalls depicting the man of the hour, Paradigm. When he would frown, the crowd would cheer and dance even more flagrantly. When Paradigm smiled, they would slow down their dances, seemingly in a torpor. Indeed, the more negative his reactions, the wilder they became, even or especially when Paradigm was shown vomiting, and the more positive his face appeared, the less enthused they were. I had heard of this: it was called reverse-following. But I had never seen it in person before. How odd.
The bouncers eventually guided me to where I had entered the mountaintop tunnels and shoved me out, saying, “You can find your own way from here.”
It was already morning, so I began my journey back to my hovercart. My head was in a fog. I was trying my best not to think over my life’s current station.
Slaloming down the mountain, I didn’t feel much. I was in shock, I guess. I did wonder how many people had been watching and also paying attention.
Close to the bottom, I began replaying Sumia and I’s last date through my mindialer…
I parked my hovercart and Sumia and I walked through the savagery and cannibalism and chaos: Tiermar’s suburbia. Gas stations and pachinko and a two-story limit. Then into and through a dark forest, swaying limbs stretching overhead, pine needles groping for our foreheads and eyes, small fires crowding round the path, which swerved into obscurity… over a river and through the woods, unto the belly of the world we went, there to discover an abandoned office complex looming over the boreal.
While there were other humans around, there weren’t many of them, and they didn’t look like us, nor did they seem friendly. The abandoned structure we careened towards didn’t appear safe. We entered therein, nonetheless.
Vibrating noise upending ceiling-sky chrome. The deepest bass. Clouds above acting as a subwoofer. Loud, loud, loud: noise, noise.
These nights of splendor, of misery. The staying night of my shattering desire.
Its chosen obscurity depressed me to no end. It barely tolerated us tourists, perhaps especially because we followed and crowded around it.
A scientific fuck up. Perhaps a cripple renewed by biotech or DNA washing. Or it had a bunch of extra chromosomes. A thing. Its eyes held memories of violence, though it did seem somehow encapsulated by the danger inherent to those passing moments. Something altogether new, even so. Grotesquely beautiful. Nose like an elephant trunk swinging round and round, hanging there in its few still moments like a vine hanging off a pocked cliff. Hopefully its creators hadn’t enlarge its sex organs in the same manner. It hid all clues in its fur. It crawled the walls and ceiling-sky, milking our eyes for its and our later nightmares, blowing up the mood with its feral mannerisms and general malignance. Had it been human, at some point?
A stranger stage whispered something about the creature being one of Boris Paradigm’s failed experiments. Idiotic misinformation, surely, as Paradigm would have never indulged in a boastful grotesquerie such as this beast. What a loser this stranger was, trying to lead, as only idiots and narcissists do, creating a personal hell for themselves just for speaking out their debasing theories.
Sumia obviously wanted to talk shit to the stranger, right their backward ass, but I grabbed her hand and squeezed in what I hoped was a reassuring manner, something I’m casually punished for, usually, not and never rewarded. I couldn’t ever keep this woman secure. She stayed out of my grasp at nearly all times.
This thing, it was clearly an experiment from our home world gone wrong. They kept creating shit like this and releasing it onto the colonies seemingly at random. I had seen some things kinda similar to it on my mindialer, but I tried to stay away from those kind of videos, especially the viral ones, given how violent and vile humans can get around these things. And this shit was much too threatening to be sourced from a laboratemple or the Oracle’s AIs, though it did appear androgynous.
There was something human in its eyes, yes, a glimmer of feral intelligence that maybe should not have ever been encouraged. Someone tried to prod the creature with a nightstick. It skirted all human attention, clearly intent on a no touching rule for itself.
I needed to get the fuck out, but… in the eyes of the beast, there was this fearful light I couldn’t enter, nor ever wish to acknowledge, or even observe. I’ve learned to withdraw, hide back inside, and I retreated, just so… almost always the best strategy for me, retreat and/or flight, especially when it came to me and Sumia.
I was already retreating, sans her. She caught up at a run.
“I wanna leave, Sumia. You could’ve just shown me a video of this shit.” The date had been her idea. “I don’t get what’s going on here.”
I reached out my mindialer to hers, but she declined the connection. Maybe she had been hiding things, even then.
“I guess we are having this fight in front of other people, huh?”
“Oh. Is my widdle baby scared? You never get it. That’s kinda the point, huh? Poor widdle baby.”
I glared at her: napalm eyes met eyes that were only capable of insolent smirks. We warred for a few seconds, transferring indescribable thoughts just with looks, stuck somewhere between malice and mirth. Our relationship was a jail that I thought neither of us would ever escape, stuck in the past as I was.
“Shit. You don’t wanna look at the freak any longer? I kinda liked it, looking at it, trying to poke it, all that shit.”
“It has ears. You can see them. Anyone can. You might piss it off. I gotta get out.”
“You and the get out button. Aw, is someone pressing the get out button?”
“It’s you, of course. And that thing.”
“What’s wrong, really? Usually you like this shit.”
“I think you mean your other boyfriend.”
“Never mind. Forget I brought it up.”
“No really. What’s wrong?
“With me, or with this whole…” waving arms, “thing?”
She shrugged. “Um…”
“The answer to both is a lot, by the way. You only brought me here to freak me out and piss me off. I should’ve stayed avoidant, out of contact. This date never should have happened. This whole relationship never should have even begun.”
“Perhaps, I mean…”
“Dude. Not what I was expecting either, okay? You can’t work with me, here?”
“Remember when I was choking when we were at the river and—”
“Shut up. I can’t keep hearing about that.”
“Whatever. It’s over anyways. Why am I here, again?”
“They say it ain’t sentient, has no language capabilities, never developed any. That’s the word on it. For real. No consciousness to pity. Not like a whale or something.”
“Are you talking about me, or you, or the thing?”
“Whatever. It was never encouraged to develop its possible humanity, because of course it wasn’t, lab experiment that it is.”
“Huh? Its eyes say more than enough, anyways. Of course they do, that’s its only way to communicate.”
“You’re obsessed with eyes, you.”
“More obsessed with leaving, currently.”
“With me…? Or without me? Hey. There’s something I need to say. We, us, we’re kinda like that thing, to me.”
“What a tough admission. Watch how little I care.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Pull the log out of your eye and I’ll tell you.”
“That’s never happening.”
I never close doors behind me… but maybe I should. Yes, that was it, the end, the final goodbye.
Back on the city’s fringes, I parked and slipped inside the nearest suicide chamber, never to come back out.
Luke Dylan Ramsey is a fiction writer, poet, visual artist, screenwriter, and academic who lives and works in Central Texas.