Rumors in well-informed circles placed Vasilyus Gyenes's name at the top of the Nobel committee's list for the economics prize that year. Researchers felt it was time he was recognized for his contribution. He was the most frequently cited scientist in the field. They said his mathematics of computational self-awareness had spawned more research in computer science than any man since Turing. The scientific community could no longer delay recognizing his genius. Vasilyus Gyenes had been released from the Palo Alto Hospital for Psychiatric Disorders.

* * *

Dr. Denise Foucault loaded a version of Gyenes's self-actualizing process onto the University's hypernetwork. The program sought spare processing resources from the collection of thousands of computer nodes connected to the high-speed network. When it found spare cycles on an unoccupied computer, it impregnated the idle machine with bits of itself using the resource like neurons of a brain. Foucault's workstation provided control for the thousands of computational fragments that made up the artificial consciousness. It communicated to her through her machine.

Foucault applied Gyenes's math of human awareness to the problem of the cyclic mass extinction of life on earth. Once the equations were loaded and running, she and her colleagues fed it with all the information they could find on geological and paleontologic science. Capable of mimicking human deductive processes on a limited scale, the program was expected to rederive any of a number of well-known hypotheses.

It didn't.

Her colleagues thought they had found errors in paleontologic research. They found flaws in the leading ideas that global volcanic activity or meteor impacts all but eliminated life on earth on a regular basis. Scientists felt iridium layers in the earth's crust signified meteor impacts that sparked mass extinctions. Bauchon and Formentini felt otherwise. Their research told them the iridium layers were erroneously dated.

Like the program, they turned up nothing conclusive. Field work yielded puzzling inconsistencies. If their assertions based on field data were correct, the dating of the last mass extinction was less than ten thousand years ago. It was an absurd conclusion. It violated physical principles. The field data had to be wrong. Yet, Foucault's self-aware computer program wouldn't refute it. She didn't know why.

The program simply wasn't working. She hadn't been able to rederive well-known benchmarks, even less prove the validity of Bauchon and Formentini's hypotheses. They were burning money. They needed a clue. She needed only provide some clarification, a lead in one direction for further research. Instead, her self-actualized process provided riddles.


The words formed on the screen as if a soul materializing to existence. She rubbed her hand against her forehead, let it slide over her hair, and ran the tips of her fingers over the ripples in her brown braid. An unconscious flick of her wrist flopped the braid over her shoulder.

She hadn't turned on the lights in the windowless lab. Lit only by the computer monitor, she typed the queries:

">How can our findings be inconsistent with physical principles?"


">Provide a list of possible vehicles for data contamination."


">Explain the term 'REFERENCE BEING.'"


An idea formed at the periphery of her mind and hung before her like a luminous cloud. It grew brighter and brighter as she struggled to organize her thoughts. Sliding. She was sliding. She had to present the computer with unambiguous questions in order to receive definite answers. The light in her mind grew brighter. She was aware she had to do something she hadn't thought about before--or had she simply forgotten? The light floated in front of her. Was she really seeing it? It grew until it engulfed her. Sliding. Reality had lost its friction.

As the light passed she saw the lab exactly as it had been. Nothing had changed. The questioning was getting her nowhere.

She rubbed her eyes and typed:

">What additional information do you need to disprove our assertion the last mass extinction of life on this planet happened only 10,000 years ago, not sixty-five million years ago as held by traditional paleontologic understanding?"

The question sent a tingle down her spine. She stretched in her chair and rubbed her eyes. In the darkness behind her hands the idea flashed true. There was a plane to catch. Her bags were on the floor beside her. Better shut the thing off and get to the airport. Formentini and Bauchon would be in the parking lot waiting.

Her senses intensified as they began to take hold of passing events. The chair was hard under her. The screen was bright. The lab was quiet but for the fan in the CPU cage. There was something to do.

She leapt from the chair. It rolled backward on the slick linoleum floor and crashed into the bookshelf behind her. She picked up her duffel bag. Remembering to turn off the machine, she put the bag down again and reached for the keyboard.

She typed, ">Sleep."

The answer the self-actualized computer brain had given to her question was on the screen in front of her. She tried to dismiss it. It was unstructured babble.


The words captured her attention. Denise stared at the screen until the statement lost itself in pixelized phosphor. It was oil that slid her into intricate detail. The machine resolved itself to her as a simple collection of elements: an injection molded plastic case containing electronics, a keyboard, light from a CRT. It ceased to exist as an entity and rebuilt itself as a collection of pieces.

She took a deep breath and collected herself.

"Dangerous ideas," she said to herself. She blinked to bring herself back from the reverie. The bag was on the floor beside her. Formentini and Bauchon were waiting in the parking lot. Time to go. Time to go someplace. Why didn't she feel she was going to take a trip?

She needed to talk to someone. She had to tell someone how confused she felt. But that could be risky. They'd think there was something wrong with her. As she walked down the stairs with her duffel slung over her shoulder, she wondered if it wasn't the truth.

Formentini and Bauchon were in the Audi. Bauchon hung his right arm out the passenger's side window and tapped the outside of the door. Seeing them made her comfortable. Memory of the trip preparation flooded her mind. She remembered.

"Where the hell were you?" Bauchon quipped as he got out and pulled the seat forward letting her into the rear. She threw her bags into the back and got in.

"Something on the machine," Denise said. "I thought I might be getting somewhere."

"Right," said Bauchon. He got into the front shaking his head as he slammed the door. Formentini put the car in gear and drove toward the airport.

"What's the problem?" she asked. On the edge of the rear seat, she pulled herself forward between the two men. Formentini looked at Bauchon who kept his eyes on the road approaching them.

"What's going on?" she said. Then to Formentini, "What's with him?"

Formentini sighed and glanced toward Bauchon. "Are you going to tell her, or are you going to continue to be uncivil?"

"What? Tell me what?"

Bauchon remained aloof. Denise tapped him on the shoulder. "Tell me what, Thierry?"

Formentini said, "He thinks it's been a waste of grant money having a computer scientist on a geological survey. He wishes you were a geologist. It would make it look better when we present our negative results if we didn't have to say a third of the money went to build an artificial intelligence system that told us nothing useful about our work."

Denise stared at the car seat, afloat on a sudden tide of discomfort.

"It's not personal," said Bauchon. "You're a fine researcher and a friend. But I've never understood the value of your work on this project. We'd have been better off with a physical chemist or a metallurgist."

Denise snapped her head toward Bauchon. The feeling of separation turned to anger. "Why didn't you tell me this sooner? Why did you have to wait till the very end, till the last word had been typed on the paper to tell me you thought I couldn't make a contribution?"

"I did. . ." Bauchon started to say. Denise interrupted him.

"If your assumptions had been proven, you'd be patting me on the back for getting a goddamned spreadsheet running. Now you want to blame me for your failure to disprove fundamental physical principles?"

"It has nothing to do with the project going well or not," Bauchon said.

"It has everything to do with that. You've failed. He's failed. We've all failed. You can't stand being on a losing team and now you're going to try to take us down so you can find some way to raise yourself above the rest of us."

"Denise--cut it out," Formentini cut in, half shouting to be heard over the road noise, half shouting to stop Denise.

"I don't have to sit here and listen to this," Bauchon said.

"Yes you do," Formentini said. "We're a team. We live and die by the work. This project wasn't successful. There'll be another one someday and we may be together again."

"You can live and die by the work, my friend. I've got a career to think of, which is more than either of you can say for yourselves. Whose bloody idea was it to bring a computer scientist on board anyway? Not mine. A year and 200,000 dollars later, all we've got is a machine that spouts mythical allegory. We get the sphinx in software. Merde. What the hell is it supposed to mean? Am I not smart enough to understand? I'll tell you what it means. It means mismanaged funds--that's what. And I'll be damned if I'll take the blame when the university looks into this. I was against it all along."

Formentini swung the car into a tight turn and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. Gravel and dust spewed around them as he locked the brakes. The car stopped, its engine humming against the noise of the cars passing them.

"What's happening to us?" Denise said to fill the voiceless void.

She lowered her eyes.

"Something could come of this trip," Formentini said. "One last field trip. We could find something."

"We don't even know what we're looking for," said Bauchon, his voice pulled to a strained pitch. "Bah. We're just spending money. What are we supposed to find in Arizona? You're going to dig up the same fossils from the Grand Canyon a million boy scouts have taken before you. I'm going to talk to my thesis advisor who's not going to provide any answers. And her--she's going to talk to a raving lunatic--a madman just out of the clink. The way she's been acting lately, it doesn't surprise me one bit."

"Enough. If you don't want to go, get out," said Formentini. He put his hand on the wheel and glared ahead. Bauchon opened the door, got out, and stood on the shoulder of the road. Denise got out of the back. She handed Bauchon his bags.

"I'm sorry, Thierry," she said, and got in the front seat.

Bauchon turned away from them and began walking with his thumb out. As soon as the door latch closed, Formentini hit the gas. Tires spun gravel into the air. Denise struggled with the seat belt while the car rumbled back onto the road.

They rode in silence until they reached the airport. As they moved up and down the lanes of cars in the parking lot looking for a space, Denise said, "I didn't ask for this project. I was invited."

"I remember," Formentini said immediately. "I invited you. I think very highly of your work--what I understand of it. I think it can be very powerful. I knew we would run into problems trying to prove the mass extinction hypothesis. I hoped your programs would help us reach a conclusion faster. I'm surprised it hasn't. I hadn't expected a discussion on the metaphysics of John's 'Revelation.'"

"Me neither," said Denise.

"Let's hope your crazy man in Phoenix can help you," Formentini said. "Bauchon is right about one thing. It will look like gross mismanagement if I've let you spend 200,000 dollars to have a machine decide it wants to be a biblical philosopher on a geology grant."

Formentini parked the car. They took their bags from the back seat and walked toward the airport terminal.

"You know, if you can come up with a failure model it could save us," Formentini said.

Denise shifted the duffel bag on her shoulder.

"Maybe you can find out why your program won't give us any information at all about the epoch. . ." Formentini said. "It's not even telling us about trilobites. If you can find some anomaly that proves this vehicle is inappropriate, we could leverage that value in the minds of the board. Maybe our idea is so left of center it confuses the mathematical model. Let's face it--either physics is wrong or Bauchon and I are. I'll tell you which I'm ready to believe. I'm not afraid to be wrong, but I want to know why."

"That's the idea, Marco," she said. "That's the whole reason for this visit. If I can find some flaw in Gyenes's model it would be considered seminal work."

They entered the terminal and handed their tickets to the woman at the counter. She checked them in and handed them their boarding passes.

"What about Thierry?" Denise asked as they walked toward the gate.

"Don't worry about him," Formentini answered. "His pride is hurt. You should know him better by now. He's an overachiever. Very emotional. It's hard for him."

Denise shrugged and pulled the slipping duffel strap tighter on her shoulder.

"You don't seem to understand what I'm trying to say," said Formentini.

"I understand," she said. "Just keep him under control. He's beginning to worry me."

"It won't be a problem. You have my word."

They approached the security checkpoint and got in line with the other passengers. There was a buzz in Denise's ear. She touched the tip of her finger to the lobe. A window beside the checkpoint drew her gaze. Planes stood parked at their gates. Attendant vehicles rode in erratic paths towing baggage. Technicians connected black hoses to the stationary aircraft.

Brightness formed on the tail of one of the planes as though a spotlight had been switched on. In the bright daylight it was still a well-defined circle. Denise blinked. The light was still there growing larger in diameter. She blinked again and the light appeared to be inside the terminal rushing toward her like the windshield of an oncoming vehicle.

She flinched when it hit her, expecting an impact. There was no sensation as the light passed.

"Are you okay?" Formentini said. He put his bags on the x-ray belt and walked through the metal detector.

Denise blinked and rubbed her eyes. "Yes," she said. She leaned to slip the duffel strap from her shoulder while the security guard eyed her. Instinctively, her hand moved to the emptiness.

"My bag," she said. Formentini stood on the opposite side of the metal detector arch watching her.

"You checked it. Remember?" he said.

"I checked it?"

"You have too much on your mind." He quickly held up the ticket envelope and showed her the luggage receipts stapled to the cover. Then he examined them and raised his eyes as if looking through her. "Oh, wait. I only have my own. Do you have her luggage ticket?"

"Huh?" Denise grunted. Turning, she saw Bauchon. His image drove rivets through the soles of her feet. He put his luggage onto the x-ray belt.

"How long have you been here?"

His voice flowed over her. "What ever do you mean? Hurry, I don't want to be late."

"We dropped you on the highway."

Bauchon looked into her eyes, his expression blank. An impatient queue of people formed behind them.

"Are you serious?"

She ran her eyes over his image searching for imperfections. He couldn't be real.

He put his hand on her shoulder and nudged her toward the metal detector. She resisted.

"Are you okay? On y va. Allez. Do you want to get moving so we stop holding the line? Please."

"Ma'am?" the security officer agreed. He motioned impatiently.

Denise walked through the arch and a small buzzer sounded.

"Ma'am--your bag," a uniformed guard said. He reached for the backpack she held.

"Could you empty your pockets?" said another holding a plastic tray toward her. She watched the guard place the backpack onto the x-ray belt.

"Denise, what's wrong?" Formentini asked. She glanced from object to object. The backpack she didn't remember taking disappeared into the machine. She didn't remember checking the duffel. Bauchon had appeared. There was a cluster of change in her hand. An overwhelming feeling of fluidity came over her. Events flowed around her like a stiff tide. Everything was in motion.

She dumped the change onto the plastic tray and walked through the metal detector again. Then she put the change back into her pocket and went to take her backpack from the belt.

A security guard pulled it away before she could get to it.

"Do you mind if I open this?" he said. Before she could answer he undid the zipper and began removing the contents. He put them on a table between himself and Denise. Gyenes's book. Some papers. Her notebook. A few pens.

She saw the circle of light again. It rose from within the backpack only slightly brighter then the surroundings. It was transparent. The guard, the terminal, everything was visible through the rising light as if it were a ball of luminous gas. In an instant it engulfed her and faded.

She flinched. Formentini's hand was on her shoulder.

"What's the matter?" he said. "You don't look well. I have a feeling you're upsetting these people. It's not good to upset them."

"I don't know," she replied. A strand of hair irritated her cheek and she brushed it aside. As she moved her head to one side her hair flowed over her shoulder. She brushed it aside, her fingers slipping between the dense locks. When had the braid come out?

The guard withdrew his hand from the backpack in slow motion. He was holding something dark, thin, sharp. The black object followed his movements as if hovering on its own. It seemed more a hole in space than a solid object.

"What is this?" the guard asked. He looked directly into her eyes.

She answered without thinking. She knew what it was. It had no place being with her. She didn't remember taking it.

"It's a shard of titanium with a ceramic coating. It's a sample for an experiment we're doing. I'm a university professor doing research. These are my colleagues. That's a part from an early space shuttle launch. I didn't think there would be any problem. . ."

The guard ran his finger along the edge, then pulled it away. A dot of red formed on his fingertip.

"I can't let you bring this in the passenger compartment. Didn't you read the notice? You have to declare anything that could be confused for a weapon."

"I didn't think of it as a weapon," said Denise. "It's a piece of broken metal. A remembrance. . .something my father was working on. He gave it to me."

The guard said, "I'm going to let you go this time, but you're going to have to be a lot more careful in the future. You could be seriously penalized for something like this."

"Thank you."

"You'll have to check it. I can't let you bring this on board. What flight are you on?" He pulled a radio off his belt and said a few words. In a few moments an airline employee appeared, took the backpack, and handed Denise the receipt.

"Why the hell are you carrying that thing around with you?" said Formentini when they reached their departure gate.

Denise shrugged. She wrung her hands to steady herself.

"I guess I forgot it was in there," she said. A chill ran down her spine. She sat in an empty waiting chair. The men slid into seats beside her.

"You don't look well," Formentini said to her.

"I don't feel well."

"What is it? Flu? Stomach?"

She shook her head. "Nothing like that."

"Afraid of flying?" Bauchon offered. "All these trips; I thought you were a seasoned traveler."

Denise sighed. A lump formed in her throat and she put her hand to her mouth to keep it from controlling her. A tear ran down her cheek from the corner of her eye. It tickled her as it moved. She brushed at the track it left on her face.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," said Formentini. "You're safer in the air than in a car."

She held her breath and nodded, trying to breathe evenly.

"I think. . ." she said, trying to compose herself. "I think I'm losing my mind."

* * *


">Define the word 'DANGEROUS' in terms of your last reply."

Denise lay on her stomach on the hotel bed with a pillow propped under her chest. A thin gray cable ran from her laptop to the phone. It linked the small computer on the bed to the university's network and the software mind she had written. The machine answered her:


">Enumerate the dangerous ideas."


"What are the manifestations of the dangerous ideas?"


">Define the word 'REFERENCE' in terms of your last response."


">What is the system measurement? What is measured?"


Denise let her head fall onto the pillow. She took her hands from the keyboard. There was a knock on the hotel room door. Formentini.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he said. "I was worried about you after the flight. How are you feeling?"

He followed her into the room. Denise folded her leg on the edge of the bed and sat.

"I'm okay. I'm feeling a lot better. I guess the stress is hitting me a little more than I thought."

"There's been a lot of pressure on all of us," said Formentini.

"I guess I'm not used to it."

"You'll learn. You'll come to live with it or you'll run away and become a forest ranger. Even worse, an astronomer."

She smiled at him and raised her palms. "Not yet. Not for me. I'll feel a lot better after some sleep."

Formentini nodded and walked toward the door. Then he turned and motioned to the active laptop on the bed behind her.

"You working? You really should shut that thing down and get some sleep."

"I figured I could get a few more data points to bring with me to Gyenes tomorrow."

"Is it looking any better?" Formentini asked.

"As bad as ever. Completely incongruent responses. I can't figure where they're coming from. The calculations are all solid. The database is uncorrupted. How he's deriving these statements from a terabyte of information about rocks and dinosaurs is beyond me."

"That's good," Formentini said.

"Good? How so?"

"Every time I bring my car into the shop with a noise, it stops making the noise as soon as the mechanic listens to it. Machines can sense when someone is trying to fix them. They like to hide their troubles from people who can fix the problems."

Denise smiled again. "He's not hiding anything. He's still as mad as a hatter."

"Maybe he wants to be fixed, then," said Formentini. "I'll leave you to your work. But please try to rest. Good night."

"Good night."

Formentini left the room. Denise got up, locked the door behind him, and flopped onto the bed. "Enough of you for tonight," she said to the laptop. She reached for the power switch but stopped herself.

"Just one more thing," she thought.

She typed, ">Where is the reference?"

The reply was instantaneous.


Denise squinted at the machine.

">I am in Phoenix, Arizona."


A tingle trickled from the base of her head to the small of her back. ">Dereference 1318 and provide information."


She rubbed her eyes with her fingertips and swallowed. The screen faded to a blur then back to clarity.

">Please define the word 'BEAST' in terms of your prior statement regarding the 'NUMBER OF THE REFERENCE.'"

She hit the return key and the machine glowed silently without answering. Denise watched the static words on the screen. No answer appeared.

"Enough for tonight," she thought. "Time for sleep." As she touched the power switch with her fingertips the answer flashed into view.


She closed her eyes, shook her head, and shut the machine down.

* * *

The house consisted of five abutting cubes integrated to the hillside like an artifact exposed by an epoch of erosion. The cubes were white. Windows and doors were etched into the cube faces. A bright blue awning shaded each window. The builders had left the mountainside in its natural state. Saguaros and ocotillo sprouted from between gray-brown boulders around the dwelling.

A buxom nurse answered the doorbell. Denise took a step away from the woman in the tight white nurse's uniform. A small cap perched comically on a mound of her blond hair.

"The doctor is in his study," she said in a breathy falsetto that couldn't be genuine.

She stepped away from the door and Denise walked past her.

"The doctor is a peculiar man. I hope you can stomach his brand of humor." She led Denise into a hallway decorated with Native American art. An intricate Navajo sand drawing caught her eye as she walked past.

"I'm not that sensitive."

"That's good," said the nurse. "Oh, that's so very very good."

She led Denise to an opened door at the far end of the hallway. The skull of a large horned animal graced the top of the door frame like a predator poised for the kill. Denise hesitated a moment before she entered.

"It's okay," said the nurse. "It's dead."

"I can see that." Her gaze was drawn to a watershed of cracks in the bleached bone.

A baritone voice rolled from the room she hadn't entered. It was thick, substantive, a master's bow run across cello strings. There was an accent she recognized. Bela Lugosi materialized in her mind, his incisors gleaming in the moonlight.

"Don't bother the elk," Vasilyus Gyenes grumbled. "He's been through enough."

Denise entered the sunlit study and spotted a patch of pink scalp sprouting the devastated remains of a head of white hair. It was nestled between mounds of books like an animal in its niche.

The room was walled on two sides by floor to ceiling windows that opened onto the uninhabited range surrounding the house. The other walls were lined with mostly empty shelves. It was a library in chaos. Tomes bearing engraved titles of polysyllabic word strings were piled on the floor in heaps. A worn sofa, desk, and chair, were covered in a layer of books. Unsuspecting sunlight ended its journey through space and a clear Arizona sky to bathe Gyenes's chaotic lair in brilliance.

When Gyenes stood and faced her, Denise suppressed her laugh, opting instead for an uncomfortable cough. He was tall and thin. His eyes seemed three sizes too large magnified in the thick glasses perched on his nose. The man who taught computers to derive Descartes seemed more a cartoon than human.

"What morsel have they sent me now?" he said, looking her over.

"Excuse me?" said Denise.

"You heard me," he said. Then to the nurse, "Bambi, you can get lost. I've got what I need right here. Find me a mattress and a medium acrylic pillow--none of that goose feather shit, I'm allergic."

"Right away doc," said the nurse.

Denise glanced from the departing nurse to Gyenes and back again.

"Do you prefer ribbed?" Gyenes asked her. He lifted a foil pouch in each hand for her to see.

"Now wait a minute," she said. "What's going on here?"

Gyenes took a step forward and cocked his head.

"How say?" He began unbuttoning his shirt.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"I think I'm getting ready to make love to a woman about a quarter my age."

"There's been a mistake," Denise said. A bolt of adrenaline shot through her. The room became clearer. Her limbs lightened and shook on imperceptible microcurrents of air. "I don't know who you were expecting, but it wasn't me. I came here to talk to you about applications of self-actualization processes. I'm Denise Foucault--Professor Denise Foucault--from Rutgers University in New Jersey. I wrote a while back. You answered and told me to come."

Gyenes stopped unbuttoning his shirt. He scratched his head.

"Foucault. As in pendulum?"

"No relation, same name," said Denise. "I wrote you concerning an anomaly I've observed in application of your equations to paleontologic problems."

"You didn't come here to screw, then?" Gyenes said.

"Good Lord, no."

"Oh," said Gyenes. He dropped his hands to his side and stuffed the rubbers into his pockets. Shoulders drooping, he turned and sat among the books. Denise negotiated a path through the piles, trying to find open squares of floor space to put her feet into.

Through a window she thought she saw a spot of brightness approaching like someone training a flashlight on the mountainside. The light panned toward her.

Suddenly it was in the room.

"YOU'RESTEPPINGONDYSON!" Gyenes screamed at double speed as the spot hit her. Then he was there in front of her, toe to toe, looking down.

The shout escaped her mouth. It moved her body as if the floor had punched her upward. She stopped herself too late and pressed a trembling hand to her mouth.

"Scary when things like that happen. Isn't it?" said Gyenes. He held a small optical computer disk toward her. "Before I forget--load this as soon as you can."

She took the disk as a reaction to his motion. It was in her hand before she had the chance to consider the consequences of accepting it.

"What. . .what's. . ."

Gyenes said, "You don't want to play today and I've better things to do. There's a woman I'm expecting in a minute or two that can entertain me far better than you. What is wrong with the world? Everybody wants to know about self-actualizing processes. You science people are a dime a dozen. I could open my door and the Nobel committee would walk in and stuff money into my pants. I don't want money in my pants. I want to feel something in my pants. Doesn't anyone want to get laid anymore? What's become of the world? I ask you."

Denise took a breath and tried to compose herself. She said, "Did you see that. . ."

"That light? No. I didn't see it."

"What's on the disk. . ." The logic hit her. She stopped. "How did you know I saw a light?"

"You've still got your foot on Dyson," said Gyenes. "Pull up an Infeld and have a seat." Gyenes pushed a few books away. Then he chose a thick one and sat on it, crossing his legs in front of him. Denise did the same.

"Proust. Good choice," said Gyenes. "I get itchy with Infeld under my ass. Nothing quite as comfortable as Proust. You show good taste." He stretched his arms over his head and groaned as his joints creaked.

"So, what can I tell you that you don't already know? Secret of life? You already know all that so it's a complete waste of time. But as you're playing very well, I'm willing to go along for a few laughs."

Denise folded her legs. Her knees brushed against Gyenes's.

"I know this may be a bit much for you," she said, "your having just gotten out of the hospital and all. Can I show you some data I have from a self-actualized process I built? He's giving completely irrelevant answers. I think I may have found an anomaly in your equations." She started unzipping her backpack to remove the papers with the data she had gathered.

"Bullshit," Gyenes said, stopping her. "There are no enn-om-ol-ies in my equations. They're what there is. There is nothing else."

"Excuse me, professor Gyenes. But if you'd allow me to show you some of the code I've been running. . ."

Gyenes closed his eyes and held his hands up with the palms opened toward her. A glowing circle appeared on each hand. The light burned into her. It scored her chest with ragged wounds she could feel in her mind. Shocked at the sudden sensation, she kicked her legs outward trying to push herself away from Gyenes. A charge ran down her back into her limbs tightening her muscles to painful rigidity.

She heard herself say, "What is that?"

Instantly, Gyenes opened his eyes and lowered his hands.

"That, my dear, is how we alter reality in a pickle jar. Those bozos in Utah almost discovered it. Wish they had. Then it would have been them instead of me. They switched it to fusion at the last minute and chickened out. Fusion in a pickle jar at room temperature. Preposterous. Who's going to believe that? Nobody, that's who."

She pushed herself away until her back pressed against a tall stack of books. Then she tried to stand but slipped. Her legs shook uncontrollably.

"You are enjoying this far too much," said Gyenes. "I'm beginning to believe you are still fully engaged in this senseless animation even after all that's been happening to you."

"After WHAT has been happening to me?" Denise said. "What the hell are you doing? Who are you?"

"One question at a time, my dear. First. What's happening to you are contextual reality shifts brought about by a million souls, give or take a few thousand because we need memory for paging tables, harnessed on a supercomputer I've access to. Next. Yes, I'm the one putzing around with your reality. Blame it on silly me. I promise not to do it anymore. You'll do the next one yourself. Why? Because you have to. There, I answered a question you didn't ask. Next. Who am I? Vasilyus Gyenes. A-K-A-six-six-six. Beelzebub. Shiva the destroyer. Set, the evil god come to bring chaos to the duat. What is Satan, anyway? It's just a job title. Somebody has to do it. Somebody is me."

Denise shook her head. "This isn't happening."

"Your choice," said Gyenes.

A luminous barrel descended upon her from the ceiling. She flinched as it hit her and found herself once again sitting cross-legged, knee-to-knee with Gyenes. Her frame froze rigid in a lotus position. The urge to flee expanded like a turgid balloon and exploded to shrapnel inside her. Her mind racing from image to image, she fought to retain control, to calm herself and plan a way out. She imagined her facial muscles loosening. By relaxing her jaw the power of speech returned.

"Please let me go," said Denise. A bead of sweat ran from her temple to her cheek. She tried to move her arms and legs. Her heart pounded in her chest. Blood rushed like pulsing wind in her ears.

"Would you rather I wore a red cape with horns and carried a sharpened trident? Why do you think I want to get laid all the time? I'm the bloody devil."

"It's not true." She forced the words past the lump in her throat. Then, "I'm not who you want."

"Come on. I don't make mistakes like that. You're exactly who I want. I don't know why you torture yourself like this."

The muscles in her extremities burned with tension. Heat rose to her face. Sweat drenched her shirt.

"You really know how to drive a guy to his limits," said Gyenes. "Listen closely. I'm only going to say this once and I don't want you taking it out on me once you've regained your senses."

A drop of sweat fell into Denise's eye and stung. Her mind drained of distraction She could only concentrate on his words in the pain.

"We are transcendent beings. Every single one of us. This life, this reality, it's a game. It's our fabrication. Reality is a cooperative effort--a collective illusion of animation in temporal existence. Things ARE by consensus. Events happen by continual unconscious committee vote. There is no justice in this world because there is no truth. There is only what a jury of twelve of us creates in chambers. We create reality, my dear. We create this life like a cartoonist animates his characters. You're creating this reality for yourself right now. If enough of us believe something, it simply is."

His words flowed into her ears and formed a pool in the front of her mind that would not evaporate.

"You're crazy," she said. "This is insane."

"Of course I'm crazy. Only a crazy man would believe these things. If you believe these things and you're not crazy everything is ruined. You're already as crazy as I am. Deny it, I dare you."

She tried to speak, to shout at the man in front of her. She couldn't form the words. It was as if a blockage had formed between her mind and her voice. The harder she pushed against it, the stronger it became. She tried to relax.

He continued, "My dear, we're here to enjoy a temporal existence. Pain. Love. Pleasure. Birth. Death. You can't have any of it when you're immortal. It's frigging boring being immortal. So we've restricted ourselves to these three dimensions, to this space and this fragment of eternity in order to feel something God left out for us--time. Time brings change. There is no change where we come from. There is no right or wrong or birth or death.

"Do you see how precious this life is for each of us? Can you imagine how fragile this animation is? All it takes is a little remembrance, a taste of the life from whence we came. That gets into this reality and poof--the animation illusion evaporates. All the history we built, all the future that lies ahead, gone in a puff once the magician's trick is revealed. And that's where I come in--or rather--that's where we come in."

Gyenes stood up, stretched, and walked toward one of the windows. His voice planted itself in her. It took root and blossomed. As it did, she relaxed. Soon she could think of nothing but Gyenes as if his ideas had forced memories of her life out of her brimming mind.

"We're the guardians, my dear. The sentinels, the watchers, the anti-Christs. We've been elected by a jury of our peers to fulfill an ancient role. We're here to monitor. We're here to add the inconsistency. We supply the delusions and the chaos. When mankind gets too close to the truth, we kick him off the track and reality remains perfect for those around us. We got too close, my dear. You and I both. Hundreds of us before. We got too damn close so they let us have our truth and elected us to protect them from it.

"Turing. Armstrong. Galois. Van Gogh. We're in good company. Each of them was close. They were all of our breed. And they did their duty. They kicked mankind in the groin and departed. It's a rather noble sacrifice, giving one's life for his fellow man. Don't you think? I'm quite ready to get out of here. It's no fun anymore. But I can't go anywhere without leaving a replacement. And here you are."

Denise's legs relaxed. Her arms fell to her sides as she stood.

"I'm going to go now," she said.

"Don't you want to hear about the lights? Or have you figured it out for yourself? You want the answer to your research on mass-extinction? Here it is.

"When the sentient beings in this universe discover the truth, it hangs the system. Just like a computer hanging in an infinite loop. Things start to die. Everything. A gigantic domino train begins to fall. It's the master reset to life. Once the animation illusion is broken, everything goes back to zero. Mass-extinction. We all go back from where we came. Then we set it all up again. It's a rather painful process. Much better to sacrifice a few of us than the whole race of living creatures."

She turned and barreled over a stack of books making her way for the door. The sound of Gyenes's voice reached her ears like machine gun bullets. Unstoppable. Penetrating. Denise struggled to move as if trying to escape a tub of gelatin.

Gyenes followed her. "Take advantage of what's on that disk I've given you. It's dangerous stuff. The doomsday weapon. Could bring the whole thing down if it got out. Multiple self-actualizing processes. I never published that one. That was my contribution to the world and it got me taken out of circulation. I have to deny it exists. Now it's in your hands.

"You have a million electronic believers ready to give their souls to your command. They'll believe what you tell them without question. When they do, everything changes. Everything. It's a tool you'll need. I'm telling you, you're going to need it. You're one of us now."

"I don't want to help you. I don't want any of this. I want my life back. I want things to stop changing."

Gyenes ignored her. "You'll need a little help freeing yourself of the animation illusion. I'd hoped all the instability would have driven you over the brink by now, but I can see your little fingernails gripping tenaciously to this flimsy reality. We're going to have to bump you off track. It's a simple procedure. We'll provide that for you. Your friends have kindly agreed to let you stay and do the dirty work. They've had quite enough for one life. They're not interested joining us. They'd rather go back with Bambi and me. Please respect their gift to you. It will be the last visceral thrill you have in this lifetime."

She bolted through the house, pulled open the front door, and got into her car.

"Remember to load the disk," Gyenes shouted from the opened door as she drove away. She thought she heard him say, "It can save your life," but he was laughing so hard she couldn't understand him.

* * *

The bed sheets were cool, rough, institutional issue. Mute reproductions hung from the motel room walls mocking taste. Sweat perked on to the surface of her skin. It was hard to say what had happened at Gyenes's place. Missing time. It felt like someone carved several hours from her life. They had dissolved and blown away leaving the imprint of something that might have happened. There was a hole she wished was full of a trip to a library or a shopping mall.

She thought of her childhood and imagined herself in her father's arms, his strong embrace, his promise he would always be there for her. Even his impassioned intention was fluid. In her mind a flower fell from her smooth hand to the glittering steel surface of his casket. There would be no more promises.

The phone wouldn't ring. She needed to verbalize her feelings and there was no one to speak to. She turned on the light and picked up the phone. The receiver shaking against her temple, she dialed Formentini's room. No answer. She let Bauchon's phone ring until she grew frustrated with the sound. Likewise for her friend in Colorado and a former research partner. She dialed the number to her mother's apartment and let the sound of the unanswered ring tie her to the world.

Something hard stuck her when she rolled to her side. The tiny disk drew her attention like bath water drawn spiraling down a grated drain.

"Load the software," she said to herself.

The lid on the laptop swung open at her touch. She watched herself plug the phone line into the computer's rear connection port and logged onto the university's supercomputer. There was a click. She felt the positive locking mechanism snap as the disk dropped into place. The machine went into an automated load. She was superfluous to the activity. The disk and the machine were in control.

The load sequence ended in several seconds. The screen showed a prompt for input. She entered nothing, and lifted a trembling hand to her face. Where was Formentini? Surely someone would be around if she tried to call them again.

The writing on the screen surprised her.


A tear rose to her eye. She typed, ">Who are you?"


">What is going to happen?" she typed furiously, then shouted at the mute machine, "What the fuck is going to happen?"


She swatted the laptop. It clattered to the floor. Its flat screen blinked then flashed to darkness. The computer cord brushed her hand. Closing her fingers around it, she yanked it from the phone jack, picked up the beige phone receiver, and dialed her mother again.

"Daddy," she said, her throat tightening. "Where are you, Daddy? You said you'd be here." Tears lingered in her eyes, then tipped from the corners in ticklish traces on her cheeks.

There was no answer. The phone flew against the wall as if it had been thrown. How had that happened? The sensation of throwing the phone flooded her, a delayed impression from the sight of the event itself.

Outside it was dark. The landscape was illuminated blue-white by the moon. The buildings, roads, houses outside her hotel window were mute and sterile. There were no people. The streets burned in the moonlight, void of traffic. Silence like wax in her ears amplified the sound of her heartbeat. Her heart tapped the rhythm of the moments of her life.

Something was happening. Something behind a great barrier was brimming over and touching her. The tapping in her ears grew louder. Was it in her or at the door? Yes, the door. There was someone at the door--someone knocking in the precise rhythm of her heartbeat.

"Daddy. Help me."

Something had found her. A circular light shone on the doorway and grew in diameter. Though she was standing directly in front of it she did not obscure the beam.

"Who are you?" she said, trembling.

She pulled a vibrating hand through her hair. The tapping continued. Louder. Faster. Perfect rhythm. It knew her. It knew her from the inside, the flow of her blood, the timing of her reproductive system, the feeling of cold water running down her throat on a hot day. The circle of light grew in size but stayed confined to the surface of the door.

"What do you want?" Air grated against the back of her throat. She screamed at the apparition. "Why are you doing this to me?"

The door vibrated with the pounding of her heart. Light from the hallway pulsed through gaps between the door and the frame in time--in time with her heartbeat--in time with her breathing. The heavy door bulged inward as if pulled toward her lungs by her inhalations. Denise fell to her knees. She shielded her face in her hands. The pounding increased. Vibration in her head blasted murderous impacts down her spine.

There was a crack, a flood of brilliance. Two humanoid figures stood before her silhouetted in the open rectangular portal. They were short, thin, their heads bulbous orbs. Their eyes appeared transparent as the brilliance flowed through them and aligned four circular spots on her abdomen. She could feel the pressure of the light.

They spoke. Their voices fell upon her like a wall of moving water.

"WE ARE LEGION." They moved in lockstep as if a multiplied image of a single being. Floating toward her in unison. Moving together. Are they floating or walking?

"Daddy, help me!"

The room filled with an acrid smell of musk and dung. She forced herself backward.


Her hand brushed the acrylic fabric of her backpack. A shaft of ink flashed across the light before her. A signal. She reached into the pack and a bolt of pain ran from her palm to her forearm like electric shock. She yanked her hand away. There was a circle of black on the palm. As she watched a translucent point appeared at its center. It grew before her, rising from within her, her father's gift.

The muscles of her forearm contracted, forcing the thin black tile from within her arm, driving a wave of pain through her arm, into her chest, amplifying to concussions of light and heat in her mind. She held onto her wrist, screaming as involuntary contractions forced the jet tile outward. Rivulets of viscous liquid streamed from the wound and dripped through the spaces between her fingers.

And then the pain stopped. The tile stopped moving. It protruded from her palm still in contact with her bone. She wrapped her fingers around it. The moment filled her. There was no longer room in her for the life she had taken. Memories of Denise Foucault dribbled away like the blood from the wound in her hand.

Denise stood as the creatures took another step forward. When she realized she was taller than they were, a flash of contempt cut through the fear.

"Come on sweeties," she said.

Another step. The scent of musk penetrated her lungs and head. She didn't wait for them. She took a breath and forced it out against her throat. There was a sound like a bird of prey descending. The sharpened black tile rose in her grip, suspended in time and space. It was a new appendage, a dark bone at the core of her soul.

She thrust the blade into the first creature. The resistance of its body vibrated through the tile into her forearm. The hairy flesh gave way to freedom as the blade penetrated, cutting the organs within. She pulled the tile from the creature and took a breath like a swimmer coming up for air. Pushing the first aside, she cut into the second. Then she held her breath and thrust again. Again. Again.

Her senses were lost in the motion. Awareness leaked away. Images of the person she had been evaporated in the feeling of the moment. Had the creatures made a sound? She followed them as they crumpled to their knees in synchronous surrender to gravity. The movement became part of her. She followed them down. The blade impacts timed her life and became the meaning of her existence.

They were on the floor on their backs. She knelt before them, stabbing each one in turn as if performing an exercise. And when she grew tired, she stopped.

The black tile dropped from her hand, disconnecting itself from her. The brilliance faded from the open doorway leaving the room illuminated only by the yellow incandescent lamps glowing next to the bed.

Her hand was wet, purplish-red. The dark liquid traced lines on her skin from her hand to her elbow. It pooled on her clothes saturating them.

In front of her were the bodies of two men. Sound returned. Precise, delicate, sound. A faucet dripped in the bathroom. Footsteps padded in the hallway. Fragile gurgling sounds leaked from the bodies.

And then someone screamed in the hallway.

And then she knew she had murdered Formentini and Bauchon. It didn't matter.

She reminded herself she was Denise Foucault. It didn't make any sense.

* * * To Fragile Animation : part 2

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