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The Ephemera - Chapter Seven
This is part of my new book, The Ephemera. I’m publishing it here as I write it, without revision, because readers asked to see my process. You can find previously-published chapters of The Ephemera here.
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Vadim Morozov liked the mall best.
Unlike the more möbiuslike constructs, you could make the mall’s linear concourse go on forever and ever if you were very good, and Vadim was very good. People thought the trick to using Rumor Spaces was to accept them as if they were real, the way you got the best ride from psychedelic drugs by not resisting. But it wasn’t true — not entirely, anyway. You did have to accept a Rumor Space if you didn’t want it to buckle, collapse, or fill up with all your baggage (which in most cases wasn’t even your baggage), but the real trick was to become like it. Blindly accepting a Rumor Space was sort of like accepting the aggressions of an attacker. Making your mind like a Space, on the other hand, put you on its frequency — more like actively wanting your ass kicked. Get it wrong, and a visit could really mess you up. Get it right, though, and the stark liminality of a Space could make your brain hum on a whole new level. It literally changed the way you thought and expanded the mind. If you could join a Rumor Space as creepily as it joined you, that motherfucker would send you to the moon.
You had to want what a Space did to you, and average people couldn’t do that. Vadim, however, was far from average.
He walked the concourse’s endless length with his mind blank and somewhat deranged, taking in the abandoned mall’s grandeur. Half-dead fluorescents buzzed and flickered overhead, their filthy yellow lenses hanging like dead leaves. The tiles beneath his feet were old and scuffed. He looked down as he paced, accepting them as if they were real things. His footsteps’ echoes were at once very close (close enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, is what an average person would say) but also unfathomably far away. Behind him, a pair of escalators had long ago rusted in place. Ahead, in the concourse’s middle, was a stand that almost looked like a Sunglass Hut.
It looked so much like a Sunglass Hut, in fact, that Vadim had to keep close watch on his subconscious lest it actually become one. Because he was thinking Sunglass Hut instead of something more contemporary, the notion was especially pernicious. The most stable parts of the overlay had always been references to the 1980s and 90s for a reason even Vadim didn’t understand, and because those references were so stable, the church used them constantly whether they made sense or not. 80s and 90s nostalgia even had a way of showing up inside sealed, isolated, and otherwise pristine memory tubes. Vadim, who knew the trade far better than most, had a theory why.
Most people believe they experience the present moment through their senses. They do not. In truth, there’s a lag of about 120 milliseconds between the time audio waves enter the ear and when the brain processes them. Vision is even slower: 200 milliseconds between light and truly seeing. It means the world is actually experienced like live television with a censor’s delay — censorship the brain avails itself of constantly whether people realize it or not.
A delay of any length (an hour, a femtosecond) means that we’re all, always and unavoidably, living in the past.
That was 101, understood by everyone in the field. Beyond it, however, Vadim and common knowledge parted ways. To the mnemonotists, present-moment sensory experience became memory once the present moment passed. To Vadim, that wasn’t true at all. Sense organs are just tools, agnostic about what passes through them. The brain, however, isn’t agnostic at all. The brain picks and choses what it sees, keeping some but omitting (and often changing or at least biasing) the rest. The brain’s involvement means that memory is fundamentally different from raw experience. Memory is more like consciousness that’s been passed through a filter.
Consciousness is raw and present, whereas memory is curated. Memory belongs to a single mind, whereas consciousness is collective — at least in Vadim’s opinion. He further believed in his pop-science way that in order for consciousness to be collective, it’d have to be quantum as well. Walls and boundaries don’t mean much to quantum things. That’s what Heisenberg said in his famous Uncertainty Principle.
If consciousness were collective and quantum, that would explain everything.
Because: What was the collective consciousness filled with these days? Thanks to the overlay, what were the things that everyone was always seeing and thinking about? Why, that would be Orange Julius shops. Saturday morning cartoons. MC Hammer pants. All the shit that kept the overlay stable. All the shit the Archive found in its tubes no matter how many precautions it took to keep them out. No wonder Vadim couldn’t keep his collection pure. Quantum things didn’t stay where you put them. Living with the overlay was like living next to a dump. He could keep his house as clean as he liked, but one man’s precautions can’t fight the dump. Seal the doors and windows all you want, and stench still leaks inside.
Don’t think about a Sunglass Hut, he almost told himself. But his mind, which had been well trained, stopped the thought before it happened. The surest way to think about something was to tell yourself not to.
So he moved away from the kiosk and looked for the funhouse. There was always a funhouse.
Vadim turned to his left and spied it right away. It was tucked into a storefront between a gated GameStop and a Hot Topic. The Hot Topic didn’t look abandoned at all. Apparently the fashions of goth teenagers were already liminal enough.
He stepped forward, toward a distorting mirror at the funhouse’s front. His almost-thoughts of Sunglass Huts vanished. As he gazed at his reflection, self-fascination took over and the whole world disappeared.
In the mirror, Vadim looked wide in places and narrow in others. His slim hips were as broad as a freeway on-ramp, but his neck was pencil thin. Those were illusions. He was wearing a French Maid outfit. That was not an illusion. His white-blond head was smaller in the funhouse reflection, which made it harder to see his wide eyes and the huge messy circle of lipstick that strayed so far from his lips, out onto his cheeks and chin. Ironically, there were people in his employ who would have looked at the reflection and whispered to each other how much more normal he looked than usual.
The reflection warped further. He drifted away, no longer precisely in the mall at all. His awareness went somehow above the funhouse, above everything, then circled back. He couldn’t have said what he’d been thinking. What he’d been trying not to think. There was some sort of clown in front of him, wide at the hips and narrow at the neck, wearing a French Maid outfit and carrying a feather duster.
“Curator,” said a voice.
The illusion broke. The entire space warbled like a membrane in a window, the air becoming not black so much as just not there. For a millisecond he felt the chair beneath his real body out in what people tended to call the real world (though Vadim had opinions on that, too), but then his focus returned. The mall’s concourse returned. He’d lost his perspective on infinity, though: Instead of the concourse going forever, the open area to his right now ended in a JC Penny. Dammit.
“I’m sorry to disturb you while you’re mixing,” said the owner of the voice that’d just ruined everything.
It was Simone. She looked in here the way he’d first met her, though she was much more jaded now. To Vadim’s eyes, Simone would always be the 15-year-old prostitute who’d tried to rob him. He’d almost turned her over to the Watchers, but then he’d seen the fathomless look in her emerald eyes and realized that she was just like him. From birth, she’d always seen true.
Over her shoulder, the Sunglass-Hut-like stand was blackening and curling at the edges in the way a thing does when heat is applied, when it’s something that can’t truly burn.
“I was not mixing.”
“I just assumed—”
“I did not make it as far as to begin mixing. And now look. Look, Simone. Do you see?”
He pointed toward the JC Penny. The tavern, where he went to perform his alchemical mixing of memories, was usually down that corridor. In truth the tavern was actually a place deep inside his own mind, but he’d always needed a bridge to reach it. Most Rumor Spaces would provide. The mall worked best, but its starting size had to be at least tripled. If he’d walked on instead of stopping at the funhouse, he’d’ve had to pass two or more copies of every store in this dead place before he found the tavern. It stood out like a blight. Three loops in, and suddenly there’d be what looked like an enormous uprooted tree laid flat and seen from beneath. At its center was a pair of black batwing doors. Inside the tavern itself were his deep memory feeds, tied from the larger Archive right into his brain … plus levers to pull in any others he wanted.
“I’m sorry, Curator,” she said. Maybe she was apologizing for bothering him, but she might also mean that no, she didn’t see the way her intrusion had caused the mall to change. This was Vadim’s mind, after all. Visitors brought their own meanings to what was here, and that gave everything a unique patina. No two people experienced a Rumor Space exactly the same, especially when there was more than one inside. Although … in truth, most people avoided places like the mall entirely. All archivists sifted and sorted externalized memories differently, but none to Vadim’s knowledge approached the craft like he did. For the Curator, sorting and remixing required his mind to be beyond blank. It required a Rumor Space because in a Rumor Space, everything was old and stale. In here, everything — save what he brought in with him — had died long ago.
He walked to Simone. Put a hand on her shoulder. Because she looked fifteen years old in this place, the shoulder was lower than it should have been. His hand and Simone’s bones felt real. Her body was probably somewhere near his in the outside world, perhaps in the second chair in his private chamber. Her true body would feel this as real as he did. She might not feel it now … but certainly she’d remember having felt it, in the past, later on.
“You should not be here,” he said.
“I’m sorry. It was urgent.” She swallowed. “It is urgent.”
“Urgent enough to come here. To disturb me while I’m working. While I’m immersed.”
Simone stood before him, wide-eyed. Vadim took a moment and then shrugged. Simone would be seeing him the way he saw himself because it was his mind, his rules. Seeing him as him, as frustrated as she’d just made him, would be reprimand enough.
“Then tell me,” he said, “what bothers you so.”
“Someone sent out a broadcast.”
“I don’t know, Curator. But—”
He reached out and took her face in one hand: fingers on one cheek and thumb on the other, palm across her mouth. He did not squeeze. He turned her head slowly one way and then the other, looking curiously at her through ascertaining eyes.
“You do know,” he said as he watched her.
“What? No, sir. I—”
“This broadcast that troubles you so,” he said, letting go. He shook his head with precision, calculating, still watching her. “You know who sent it, yet you are telling me you do not. Why is that, Simone?”
“I-I don’t know who sent it.”
“You don’t,” he repeated. It wasn’t a question, but doubt was implied. He wanted her to confirm her untruth. To say it for the third time. He already knew that she was lying, but not why. Simone was loyal; he knew that as well as he knew she wasn’t telling him the truth. Whatever she was hiding, she believed hiding it was in the best interest of the Archive. That was how her mind worked; he knew it better than most.
“I don’t, no,” she said.
He watched her eyes for an extra second, then nodded. He didn’t believe her, but he at least believed her intent. It was a question for another day.
“And?” he asked.
“Something was sent out to oh-oh-six.”
“District 006? By our definition?”
Again, he saw deception in her eyes. He’d noticed what she didn’t want him to; that’s what’d just happened. 006 was an Archive convention, not one used by the city. If a message was sent out to a specific subset of the Archive’s culling grounds, it had at least something to do with the Archive itself. It wasn’t just a random event with possible social and political ramifications, as her manner implied. No. If it went out to 006, it’d begun within the Archive and was not incidental to it. She wasn’t just describing a broadcast. She was describing a leak — an unauthorized breach from within their ranks.
What was Simone hiding, and why? He didn’t need the answer. Yet. But he wondered just the same.
“Yes,” she said, then stepped into her deception instead of trying to hide further: “It was sent to people from whom we collect memories in that area, using our own definition.”
“It could ruffle feathers.”
“With the Church of Memetheosis. With Memorarch Hart.”
“Do I need to see this message?”
Oh, but she’d heard him fine. She just couldn’t read his mood, which you’d think she’d be used to by now. Was the Curator angry? Bored? It was impossible to tell. Vadim knew it, just like he knew Simone was playing at something deeper — something that was likely against him technically speaking, but ultimately best kept secret for his own good. He’d gotten very good at being in places like this, and one thing he’d learned was to see vagaries inside that others couldn’t. Rumor Spaces were used up like an over-squeezed, desiccated orange. It meant that any juice that was brought in (like other people’s thoughts and emotions) ended up visible if the host had learned to see them. Vadim had learned to see them in the same way mystics see auras.
He saw something on Simone now, but he couldn’t be sure what it was. It was indefinite — or perhaps plural — rather than singular and definable. She was experiencing something that mixed many moods, or perhaps a new mood entirely.
More than ever, he wanted to understand, but faith was part of this. Faith was part of everything. The human mind was a many-faceted thing, full of nuances that flavored the main story; that’s what the eggheads didn’t quite get. In cases like his, he had learned to trust the universal mind to do its thing instead of collapsing the situation with logic. At times like this, he had learned better than to ask.
Trust it as it is — as unsure as it is, he told himself. It’s ephemera. Breathe wrong and you’ll miss it. Let it build. Let it grow.
So he said nothing while Simone struggled to answer his question, he himself refusing to answer the one she’d given him in return. Did he need to see the message? Right now, she’d be wondering why he hadn’t demanded to see it right away, rather than leaving something so curious and vital up to her.
She’d be wondering at his ulterior motives. Silly girl, believing his thoughts had order — and that she, who was as unlike Vadim as everyone else, could use logic to figure him out.
“You don’t want to see it?” she finally said.
“That is not what I asked. I asked if I need to.”
A flicker in her eyes. A warbling of her ephemeral aura — not that most people believed in such a thing.
“No, Curator. You don’t need to see it.” She spoke as if she’d believed it all along, even though she’d just decided. As she did, she stood a little straighter: Her mind making her taller in this unreal place to imply competence. “I’ll handle it.”
“There will be no problems with the church, then.”
“So it was not urgent.”
“You did not need to disturb me while I was immersed.”
“There was commotion in the marketplace today,” he said, changing topics fast as a whip-crack to see how she’d react. He turned back to the funhouse mirror, listening hard once he couldn’t see her. “Specifically, the marketplace in District 006.”
“I hadn’t heard that.” And that, to Vadim’s ear, sounded true.
“Watchers,” he elaborated. “You know how odd it is to see Watchers enter places from which they are supposed to turn blind eyes?”
“What did they do?” Simone asked.
Vadim turned back, showing her all of himself: The outfit. The feather duster. The mad circle of chaotic lipstick around his mouth. “I’m not sure, Simone. I heard from a person who heard from a person who heard from a vendor who heard from a person. After that many links in the chain, all I heard was ‘there was a hubbub.’ A rush and some bumped shoulders as a pair of Watchers pushed through the crowd. Surely you — with your connections and responsibilities and alerts about offensive broadcasts that I now know will not cause me problems and that I do not have to worry about — must know better than me what happened.”
But she didn’t. She verbally staggered, as off-balance as he wanted her. “I … I don’t know.”
“But I can find out,” she added.
“Maybe it has something to do with this unauthorized message that you’ve assured me is no problem at all. The one I do not need to see.”
“I’m not sure, sir. Would you like me to find that out, too?”
He looked at her for a long, pregnant second, still half-turned toward the funhouse monstrosity. Then he said, “There is much that worries me in recent months, Simone.” He looked in the mirror and fussed at his frilly outfit the way he’d straighten a tie. “What worries me most is that I am the only one who sees it.”
“I assure you, the broadcast won’t be—”
“The broadcast is only the latest fault in an ongoing pattern,” he interrupted. “First, we began noticing instability in some of the core tubes. Perhaps even a bit of singe.”
“Singe just happens sometimes in older memories.” But there was a flinch when she said it, as if again she knew more than she was letting on.
“Then there was a shift in the flavor of the effluent, when discarded memories were washed from their tubes.”
“Apologies, Curator, but I’ve never been able to—”
He stopped her before she could insult him: before she could say I’ve never been able to see anything in the effluent’s aura, sir instead of I don’t believe in any of that bullshit, which was what she actually meant. People thought effluent was wastewater and nothing more, but Vadim could see tiny nuances in it, after it was used to wash out old tubes, in the exact same way as he’d learned to see auras. He was intuitive in ways most people — including his people — were not. If Vadim hadn’t been in charge, they’d long ago have dismissed him as a quack.
“Shh,” he said. Simone silenced instantly, mid-sentence. Then he theatrically cupped one hand behind his ear and strained as if listening for some unknown cue.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“The pitch. Of the nada.”
“The sound that is always there. The voice of the universe. The voice, I believe, of nature’s single recollecting mind.”
Simone didn’t answer. She wasn’t a meditator. Wasn’t a Buddhist. Had never heard of the nada at all, probably. To Vadim, the nada was like a comforting hum at the best of times — but higher pitched, like an alarm, when things fell ill in ways mere humans couldn’t yet know. He’d been hearing an increase in its whine for a while now, though he hadn’t said anything because nobody else could hear it; nobody else would be able to understand. He’d consulted his own memories to compare the nada’s voice in the recent and distant past to what he heard now. The shifts in the world’s halo, from all over, were subtle, and the sound of the nada was only one of them.
But no. Simone would not hear it. Sometimes, even she refused to see. It all meant that her intrusion today was an unnecessary farce. Simone wasn’t telling him anything he hadn’t known was brewing all along. The recent bad juju was news to her, but not to him.
“Never mind,” he said, done with her. “You may go.”
He flapped a hand. His mood was broken now; he’d never be able to see infinity again during this session. That meant he couldn’t reach the tavern, wouldn’t be able to mix the memories he’d come here to mix. That was okay, if irritating. What wasn’t okay was this trajectory. This trend toward … well, toward something Simone would see if she’d just remove her social blinders.
She can’t see anything now, he thought. She used to be strange. Now, she’s infected with normal.
She reached up to press her temples, to power off the rig that her real head was wearing.
“Simone,” he said before she could press anything.
Vadim paused just long enough to unnerve Simone, then said, “I wonder: Have you found her?”
Simone stopped. Her face almost looked frightened. “Who?”
“You know who. I have nobody to guide me anymore, now that she is gone. You are no help. Nobody is any help. I need the guidance of someone who can touch the Ephemera.”
“Sir, that’s …” But Simone looked relieved; she’d thought he’d been asking about someone else — some guilty party that Simone, even now, was trying to hide. But then she softened, pausing her words. She put on the face they all used when they humored him. His own staff saw these topics as ridiculous but placated him anyway: adults putting out cookies for Santa to please a child. “Sir, she’s not lost. The church has her.”
“No,” he said.
“I’m afraid so, sir. They collected six other veilweavers in that sweep. Same time. Same day.”
“But they did not capture mine.”
Instead of repeating himself, he just looked at her.
“Well … if she wasn’t arrested by Watchers,” Simone said, backtracking, “she could be anywhere in the city. Or, more likely, out of the city.”
“She has not left the city.”
“What makes you sure?”
He didn’t answer. Again, he just stared. He knew because he knew; that was the answer. He knew a great many things that Simone was too indoctrinated and stubborn to know, even though she’d seen as much as he when they’d first met — when she’d looked the same age in life as she looked here, in this place. She’d lived too long with the overlay, that was the problem. She knew how much of it wasn’t real, but the brain was lazy; the brain preferred to accept what it was given than to spend every moment vigilant, insistently disbelieving everything around it.
If Simone would refresh her mind — if she’d shake off all that social brainwashing the way a wet dog shakes off water — she’d know the answers to her many stupid questions. She’d see them. Simone of all people should believe in reading the Ephemera. She didn’t need to have faith to do it. It was logical. The way Vadim saw things, the Ephemera was like the inevitable mathematical remainder that came from every contrived thought, every church-influenced belief in convenient lies. You couldn’t manipulate reality as much as Hart and his cronies had without leaving loose ends. That’s all the Ephemera was to Vadim. It wasn’t woo-woo. It was hard and fast, like the scraps left behind when paper is cut.
“Thank you for alerting me to this incident I did not need to know,” he told Simone, “of which I was already more or less aware, in tone if not in specifics, and which you’ve decided to handle without me in the end anyway. Thank you for your mediocrity. Thank you for your ignorance, and your refusal to see what’s right in front of your eyes.”
“Curator, if I’ve displeased you …”
“If only you’d displeased me.”
“Handle your ‘broadcast,’” he said, annoyed now — not at anything she was doing, but at her abject refusal to see the ways she’d made herself dumb and docile, just like everyone else. It offended him, because she’d once been like him. Simone, for all her anger and excessive eyeliner, had become normal. He refused to do the same. “Smooth the ruffled feathers you seem so sure you can handle — with Hart, with the Watchers, with whoever you damn well please. Keep your eyes closed if you insist. But find her for me, Simone. Find my veilweaver. She still matters, especially now that you have become unimportant to me.”
“I …” Simone looked hurt now. In some ways, they were like father and daughter, or once had been. She was supposed to be his protege, but instead she’d become a PR agent. She’d become the Archive’s spin doctor. A saleswoman. An actuary. A bore. “I want to be important to you.”
“Then find her,” he said. “Find Vespera, and then we’ll talk.”
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