For a brief moment, the world went fuzzy.
Mark Amberdaine didn't really notice. All he had to do was take off his glasses, wipe them off on the edge of his tee shirt and- presto! Everything went back to normal. He didn't give it a second thought and instead went back to tending the Emerson file.
It happened again the next day when he was walking the neighbor's dog. The appropriately named Mrs. Oldham had hurt her hip the week before and wasn't able to take Dovesy out. Mark, figuring it would be the Neighborly Thing to do, had taken it upon himself to get the labradoodle its exercise.
He walked the dog over to the small park down the street, listening to his iPod and trying to remember if it was Saturday Shelly's parents were coming over, or Sunday. Either way, he'd have to get the house cleaned up.
Dovesy took an interest in a nearby shrub and began to whine. Mark gave the leash some slack so Dovesy could go do his business.
For a split second, while Dovesy did his thing, the world went fuzzy again.
He barely noticed. He was already halfway done cleaning his glasses off one handed before he even registered something was off.
Cleaning the glasses didn't work this time. By the time he opened his eyes, the world had stopped being blurry. Instead, as though God himself was dicking around with the saturation, the colors had changed. The world had taken on a ruddy, pixilated hue. Dovesy's once yellow coat had turned a deep shade of orange that was blocky around the edges. Trees turned red with yellow leaves. The cars driving by weren't actually cars, but wire matrices shaped like cars. Their drivers sat inside them, perfectly visible with apparently no idea of what was going on.
Mark looked down at his hands and found them glowing blue. All of him was flashing blue, save for his wristwatch. When he moved, his arm would cut through it. The watch stayed in the same place, hovering in midair.
It stayed like that for about three heartbeats before everything went back to normal. There was no signal, no warning. One second everything was utterly wrong, and in the next everything was okay again. The pixels were gone, the red was gone, and his watch was back on his wrist.
He stared at the spot where the watch had been floating seconds before.
"I . . . what?"
He couldn't think. His head was feeling too swimmy to think. He couldn't think, why couldn't he think?
Dovesy began to whine and nuzzle the hand holding the leash.
"Oh," he said faintly. "You done already?"
Dovesy whined some more. He looked down and saw the dog nuzzling him was now a rich chocolate color.
Mark jerked his hand away and took a step back. "You're not-" His eyes followed the leash in his hand all the way to the collar around the dog's neck.
The dog began dragging the leash, trying to go in the direction of home.
"Yeah," said Mark. "Right. Let's get out of here."
He cast one last nervous glance around the park before hurrying off. Dovesy had to trot to keep up with him.
* * * *
He returned the dog with a weak smile. If Mrs. Oldham noticed the shaking in his hands, or how pale his face had gone, she didn't mention it.
Shelly was waiting for him when he got home.
He hadn't been expecting her to be there, but he wasn't unhappy about it.
"Hey, hon," she said, giving him a quick hug. He barely had enough time to take in the dampness of her hair or the smell of shampoo before she rushed off into the bedroom. "Hurry up and get ready," she called. "We've got to leave in an hour to meet mom and dad."
He followed her. "That's tonight? I thought it was on Sunday-"
She was looking through his closet. "Saturday. It was on Saturday. Dad just called, though. They managed to get an earlier flight, so they'll be here this evening." She tossed him a clean shirt. "Here. Change your shirt. They've invited us out to dinner tonight, their treat." She smiled again. "Do you mind?"
"Oh, of course not." He looked at the shirt she'd given him and frowned.
"Ah. Wasn't this shirt gray before?" He held up the unfamiliar red shirt.
She gave him an odd look. "No. . ." she said. "Are you feeling okay? If you don't want to go-"
"No, no. It's fine. Sorry, brain fart."
"Okay," she said uncertainly. "If you're sure. . ." He gave her a smile and went into the bathroom.
He went to the sink and ran the tap.
Nothing was wrong. Nothing was wrong.
My skin was bl-
Nope. Just a brain fart. Nothing was wrong.
But the dog-
He splashed some water on his face and tried to clean up. The water was still beautifully warm from Shelly's shower. He felt part of the fog clouding his mind wash away down the drain.
There was nothing wrong, he assured himself. Maybe just a little hallucination. Those happened, right? They happened on TV, anyways. The brain was a complicated thing. Wires probably got crossed and uncrossed all the time. So long as it didn't happen again, he'd be fine. Maybe he'd go to the doctors later, just to be safe. But for now, everything was fine.
He looked up from the sink. It was so silly to worry. He checked the mirror.
The glass was completely fogged, save for a single sentence in the middle that shone out in clear, red text:
Would you like to send an error report?
This can't be happening, he thought. He ran out into the living room and found Shelly there, watching TV.
She saw him and laughed.
"Gaxxot tzuree." she said, pointing to his shirt. The front of it was soaked. He was still dripping wet. "Dzzreet vglizz nnnngh?"
"Wh-what did you just say?
She gave him an odd look. "Xzradvilthrop'p'p'nnngh?"
"I- I'm sorry," he headed for the kitchen door. She got up and went after him. "Tkklryth!" she said urgently. "Hrrgfth azzqul thrtze?"
"Sorry!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Hang on a second. Nothing to worry about."
He closed the door behind him and leaned against it. The doorknob rattled.
"Just give me a moment, okay?"
She started hitting the door.
Doctor. I need to call a doctor.
The phone was hanging on the wall beside him. Making sure to keep his weight on the door, he reached out and grabbed it just as it started to ring. Instead of the usual humdrum ring it normally gave off, it beeped along to the Twilight Zone theme song.
He grabbed the base of the phone and tore it out of the plaster. It came out in a mess of wires and dust. It flew out of his hands and went crashing against the kitchen counter, sliding all the way down before falling to the floor, out of sight.
It continued to ring.
Slowly, mark looked to the spot on the wall where the phone had been. The ringing was coming from the empty air. He looked at the trail broken plaster along the counter, then at the receiver still in his hand. The wire dangled down, connected to nothing.
With a shaky hand, he lifted up the receiver.
"Hello?" he said.
"Hi," said a chipper sounding woman. "We've received an automatic report that this sector has been experiencing a few technical difficulties as of late. Would you like to report the crash to headquarters? The information will be confidential and used only to better the system and prevent further errors."
Mark took a deep breath.
"Yes," he said eventually. "I would like to report the crash."
The operator cut away and some elevator music began to play.
His left eye twitched slightly.
"Thank you for calling," said the operator almost twenty minutes later. Shelly had long since stopped the pounding. He didn't knew where she was. Probably at the restaurant.
She's never going to forgive me for this, he thought. For some reason, he found that hilarious. He had to stop himself from breaking out into giggles.
"Sorry for the wait," said the operator. "I'm afraid I can't solve your problem from here. You'll have to go to the home office."
"And how do I do that?" he said.
"I can arrange transportation, if you'd like?"
Mark tried very hard not to scream.
"Yes," he said. "Yes. I would like that very much. Thank you."
"No problem, sir," she said. "Hold on just. . a second. . . There. Initiating transport."
For Mark, it was as though everything on the planet had suddenly been pulled out from under him and shifted three feet to the left. The world spun and flew away, disintegrating into tiny dots before vanishing off into nothingness. When he looked down at his feet, he saw himself standing over nothing.
He quickly shut his eyes and clutched his stomach.
When the world stopped spinning he found himself standing in the middle of an upraised, circular stage about five feet diameter. The stage itself was at the end of a long, dark room. The only light came from a dozen blinking screens on the wall at opposite end.
Carefully, he stepped down from the stage and onto the floor proper. It was stone. He squinted at the wall nearest to him. It too was stone. Huge grey bricks more at home in some kind of castle than in a- in a-
Where the hell am I?
Two berobed figures stood on in front the screens on a scaffold, silhouetted in the white light. At first glance, they could have been mistaken for monks. Perhaps they were a sort of monk. Both were facing away from him, focused instead on a dozen large screens on the wall before them. One seemed to be on a large console, madly pressing away at buttons and switches.
"Excuse me?" said Mark, moving towards the light. "I think I have a problem."
One of the monks turned.
"Oh hell," it said. It tugged the sleeve of the other.
"Bill-" it said.
"Go check on it, I'm busy here."
The first one leapt off the scaffolding and dissipated in mid air into a cloud of dots. The swarm of dots reformed themselves almost instantly in front of him. The hooded man formed again, his chin in his hand as he scrutinized Mark. For a brief moment, Mark thought he caught a glimpse of silver eyes through the hood's shade.
"Oh damn," the hooded man said eventually. "Bill? We've got a spare."
"What?" called Bill. He disintegrated and reappeared before Mark like the first one had. He was older than the first, much older. He was slightly hunched, and his hands were wrinkled with age. "Blast," he said squinting at Mark. "I think you're right."
"Should I get Human Resources on this?"
The second -Bill- waved the question away. "No, no. We're perfectly capable of dealing with this from here. Besides, it's about time you got some real world practice in."
The two materialized back up on the scaffold. For lack of anything better to do, Mark followed. They were standing at one of the consoles, the older one tapping on the large screen in the center. Unfamiliar text scrolled by.
"I think I'm insane," said Mark to nobody in particular.
"What's that?" said the younger.
"Don't pay it any mind, Ted," said Bill. "You'll only encourage it. Now. . . " He tapped the second screen.
All of the screens began to glow and the text poured out into midair. Three dimensional graphs and diagrams filled the room. He wasn't sure, but for a split second, Mark thought he saw a game of minesweeper pass by.
The elder one lightly touched a floating piece of text, then spread his hands a little wider to open it. He stepped aside and let the younger one take his place.
"Alright," he said. "Now you know what to do next?'
"Uh. Click access, right?
Bill nodded. Ted fiddled around until the text changed again.
"Now, operatives," said Bill.
"'Kay." More fiddling. More new text.
Mark began to feel ill.
He looked down at his hands and saw them slowly breaking away into thousands upon thousands of tiny pieces. The breakage continued up his arms and spread across his chest, eating away at his torso and down to his legs. He tried to scream, but his throat was already falling away.
He was gone within seconds.
"Did I do that right?" said Ted eventually.
"You did fine," said Bill. They watched the particles disperse into the air.
"Oh good," said Ted. "That look on its face- I thought I had screwed something up."
Bill shook his head and went back to the console. "Nah, nah. They always look like that."
Ted glanced at the holographic chart floating beside him and looked at the file he'd just over written.
"So, do I delete the shell?"
"No, that'll just glitch up the system even worse. Just tag it as defunct and put it somewhere out of the way."
Ted did as he was told.
"So," he said, stretching. "You up for a break?"
* * * *
There is no Mark Amberdaine.
Sometimes while taking her dog, Dovesy, for a walk, Mrs. Oldham's hip will hurt. She'll briefly wonder how she's managed to walk Dovesy every day before the thought flits away, frightened off by another flash of pain.
Shelly Montevirgin is happily married to her husband, Jack. He's a nice enough man, and he does love her. It worries him, though, when she sometimes calls him Mark. When he asks who that is, Shelly's face will go blank. She honestly doesn't know.
Because there is no Mark Amberdaine. There has never been a Mark Amberdaine.