“All hail the Vikings!” they said, together, almost all of them bored out of their skulls, and they said it that way, as if these were the stupidest words they had ever said, and truth be told, all of them probably believed that to be so, even Hank, who started this little “society.” They lifted their beer or their coffee, and gave the ritual nod, raising their right eyebrow (those that could, anyway), and knocked on the table three times. The Viking Simulation Society got together every Wednesday, just like prayer meeting (that would be Rodney, he always said this, and he’d never been to church, but swore that Jews often had Wednesday night prayer meeting, and that the Baptists had stolen the whole shebang from them, a long, long time ago) (in a land, far, far away, probably New Jersey). The Society was all about smoking cigars (and Jethro’s pipe, of course, but he smoked a bourbon-soaked tobacco that smelled better than the bourbon-soaked cigars that everyone else smoked), and drinking cheap beer, except for the two AA guys, Ron and Fred, who both quaffed coffee, endlessly. All that, and they talked, or argued, mainly about whether or not everyone lived in a simulation. Oh, other things worked their way into the talks, time travel, coincidence, cannibalism, technology, science and science fiction, lots of Tolkien stuff, and whatever really cool movie was out (and some very old movies, such as The Matrix, and The Thirteenth Floor, which were commonly referenced, weighed, found wanting, and adored).
For a while they went through the Rodolphus books, all of the few they could get their hands on. They had fought about what AnimalHeart was all about, and cursed the author for not living long enough to finish the third book of his fantastic trilogy. Some of them loved Storyteller’s Last Stand, and a few of them hated it, Rodolphus, in general, was like that. The Wolf Doth Grin was fun and cute, and the posthumously published Virus Z was a kids’ book, for crying out loud (still, they all liked the zombies). And then, just like that, they switched over to Neal Stephenson, and returned to William Gibson, and then roared long and loud for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and then by association hit on Peter Clines, and ultimately found wept for and over all of Brandon Sanderson. They were like a freaking book club, with beer and cigars.
All of the guys had been religious, at one time or other in their lives, all of them raised in strict religious families, and so the Wednesday nights were kind of a nod to their collective need for...church, for lack of a better word. Rodney had never been to a church, but his youth and childhood packed chock full of Temple, and he still wore his Yarmulke (he had quite a collection, even one in camouflage). They had abandoned church, all its varied flavors of people sitting and listening to the same thing over and over again each week (fighting over the music, always), and now they discussed reality. You might say they had all been drawn to and discovered the stuff, or the stuff had found them.
The room was supposed to be a basement dining room—the largest room in Hank’s little house—but Hank had it fixed up like a conference room, with the long oval table, and the wooden chairs, with lots of plastic Viking stuff on the walls, little party helmets replete with golden Viking horns, some really cool plastic axes and swords that looked like the real thing, and posters of longboats, the dragon ships with dragon heads. Hank was Danish, a little bit on his father’s side, but the name of their little society was just a tribute to the idea of the man cave, and what better gods and heroes than the Vikings, those lovable rogues who pillaged everyone without prejudice, raped and murdered and burned almost as a courtesy, all the while laughing and toasting each other with beer, or mead, or whatever Vikings quaffed in their big, bearded mouths.
They lit up their cigars, because it was seven o’clock, and their Society meetings always started at that time, exactly. And they were always there, on time, these seven guys, Hank, Rodney, John, Barney, Frederic, Jethro, and Ron. Over the years other guys dropped in and out, and even a few babes, broads, and dames, but these here now were the long-time members. These were the guys who were really interested in manufactured society, simulated worlds, digital universes, and the Multiverse. They popped their beer tops, passing around the bottle opener, and Ron and Fred refilled their coffee cups.
“Did you hear what old Elon Musk said?” Frederic asked, sipping at his coffee (he drank it black, always). “It made it into all the papers. I saw it on the Fox News last night.” He always said it that way: on the Fox News.
“Oh boy,” Hank said, “it must of been about electric cars, how they will save the world.”
“Or solar panels, that man loves the solar panels!”
They all lusted over the Tesla roadster, but all of them were realists and knew they’d never get their paws on the beast. But they could lust, wistfully. And dream. And Hank was already on the solar panel kick, his house already had the battery system, and it would be real easy to incorporate a charging station for his roadster, when pigs soared into the sky, or Hell flirted with icicles.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I heard, I heard,” Rodney said, leaning forward so that his chin nearly touched the table, and his excitement set off a burst of coughing (he wasn’t really a cigar smoker, not like the rest of them, but smoked one stogie every Wednesday night, just to fit in, and made it last about two hours, or as long as the meeting stretched, which sometimes didn’t break up until three in the morning). “He said we probably are living in some kid’s video game, way in the future!”
There was a collective snort around the table, and then chuckles. This was the kind of meat they consumed, with gusto, but they had yacked it so far beyond what if this is a video game, that it struck each of them as hilarious when some famous person said their kind of thing in public.
“The really interesting thing is the fake reporters on their blogs, how they are doing their very bestest to make him sound stupid, and crazy,” Frederic said, sneering. Every one in this room was a fake reporter with blogs, but collectively they looked up to guys like Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Richard Branson—all of these contemporary captains of industry were characters that could have been written by Ayn Rand, and all their silly, supercilious detractors were guys that could have been written by the same author!
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, one idiot actually said that a simulated apple doesn’t feed anybody!” Rodney guffawed. “Can you believe it? Can you?”
“The obvious answer to that,” Hank said, “is that a simulated apple feeds a simulated person.”
“Wow, right, Hank, right,” Rodney said, nodding energetically, tapping his Yarmulke with his cigar hand, getting ash all over himself without knowing it.
“Ooh,” John said, doing an exaggerated shiver, “but this all feels so real, it can’t be a simulation, I just know it!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rodney spluttered, toasting everyone with his beer, “and computers just can’t create anything convincing enough, right? Right! Computers are too wimpy. It’s not possible!”
“I think the fake reporters on their blogs...are simulated people—I just can’t figure why the System doesn’t make them smarter, just a little smarter anyway,” Barney said, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling. “The System loves trolls, and the whole troll demeanor. The System keeps pumping out trolls and blogs.”
Hank shrugged his meaty shoulders. “I think people, you know, in general, are trolls. What else would System guys be like, sneering at the Musks and the Besos and the Bransons and Garriotts?”
They all called the simulation, or the program that ran this digital world of theirs—The System. Although the truth was that none of them really believed it, that they were living in a simulation, because how could you, really? The System wouldn’t allow you to believe it, otherwise what would be the point of running all of this nonsense in a simulation? It was supposed to be real, and you were supposed to accept it as real. And they all did, they all remembered their unique, individual childhoods, they had all had marriages, a couple of them had children that they loved very much, and how could the human mind get past any of that, the very fiber of their reality, their memory, their experience? Their very lives?
Still, it certainly was interesting to discuss the possibility that this all was a simulation, and that other worlds were spinning very near in the Multiverse. The idea certainly inspired the Viking Simulation Society.
“Any news on the Fermilab tests?” Hank said, wearily, belching. He puffed his cigar, not expecting such a very much. It was so silly, being inside a simulation, and trying to find scientific proof that you are living inside a simulation.
“They’re not going to find anything, ever,” John snapped, grumpily. “It’s stupid, just a waste of money—trying to find scientific evidence that this is a simulation. Think about it! From inside a simulation, do you think the System is going to let anyone find freaking...proof, that they’re inside a simulation?”
“Still, still, you know, it’s cool, that they’re doing it, I mean come on, they’re spending millions of dollars, maybe billions of dollars, trying to figure out the stuff we talk about,” Rodney said, waving his cigar around like a scepter. His cigar was already out, but he still jammed it into the side of his face and puffed on it, like he was billowing factory smoke.
“Yes,” Jethro said, his eyes far off and dreamy, doing little puffs on his meerschaum pipe, “when scientists and engineers invest money to run tests, you know they are thinking along the lines that we are thinking. We have to give them credit, really.”
“Maybe we ought to be a little more careful,” Ron said, spinning his coffee cup around and around on the table.
“What do you mean, more careful?” Hank said, leaning back, his arms behind his head.
“You know, we’ve probably all thought about it,” Ron said, still staring into his coffee. “Stare long enough into the Abyss—it will notice, and the Abyss will stare back.”
“Come on, come on,” Rodney said, patting his Yarmulke. “You don’t believe that. Do you?”
“Yes, I do,” Ron replied, not looking away from his coffee. “We all have noticed the coincidences, and the more you notice coincidences, the more you have them. We accept this. And yet we don’t understand what coincidence is, and yet we all love to stumble on them, and it happens so often, perhaps they are being thrown in front of us, so that we do stumble upon them. Think about it. This could be the Abyss staring back at us. Do we really want the Abyss noticing us?”
“Yes,” Hank said, “I for one, do. Yes. I want the Abyss to stop screwing around, and step up like a man, and answer some questions. Don’t you hate this? This feeling, that we know something, and yet we have to know—the System tells us so—we can’t be noticing anything, because there is nothing to notice, because it is impossible. This is all there is. But we know about the other worlds, they’re right here, right now, all about us.”
“I hate it, I vote for hating it,” said John.
“Me too,” said Barney and Frederic as one.
Jethro sucked his pipe. “I don’t know. I think if any of us got an answer from the Abyss, we’d have a heart attack, or a brain embolism—probably both—and if we didn’t die outright, we’d flee shrieking in the other direction. We’d be running in terror right alongside Chicken Little. The System is terrifying. Like in The Prestige, people want the magic to be a trick.”
“Hey Abyss!” Hank shouted, holding his cigar in one hand, his beer in the other, his face turned to the ceiling. “Do you hear me, Abyss! Come on, step up! Do you hear me? Step up! We know you exist. We know you are there, pulling our puppet strings. Now come on, knock it off, quit playing, and get serious!”
“You’re hurting my ears,” Jethro said, holding his pipe to one ear as if it were a radio transmitter, and his beer to his other ear, as if this would offer a little bit of protection from Hank’s big mouth and the frightening things he shouted. Weirdly, it was frightening. There was an eerie vibe in the room, and they all felt it.
“You’re freaking me out, freaking me out,” Rodney said, looking at Hank with real fear, twiddling his dead cigar between his hands. “Just. Stop. Please.”
“I don’t like you talking to the System, directly,” Jethro said.
“It is terrifying,” Ron said.
“It’s like you’re calling on the Devil,” Rodney said, suddenly very quiet, his eyes huge behind his thick spectacles. “And the Devil always comes when you talk about him.”
“You don’t believe in the Devil,” Hank said, shaking his head, slamming his cigar between his teeth and spouting smoke.
“I don’t,” Rodney said. “But I do. You do too. We all do. It doesn’t matter if you call him god or the devil, or the System, or the Abyss. Just shut the hell up, please.”
“I don’t believe in the Devil,” Hank said, decidedly. “I believe in God, but almost against my will.”
“There is far more evidence for the Devil than for God,” Jethro whispered, pointing his pipe stem at Hank. “Just walk down the street. It’s easy to believe in the Devil.”
“You guys are nuts,” Barney said, opening his second bottle of beer and pouring it into one of the ornate beer steins. The mug had little Vikings crawling all over it. It was weird, but if you stared at it, especially after drinking the contents, you could almost see the little Vikings moving about on the stein. “I could be working on my muscle car. Yet I’m here.”
“Week after week, you’re here,” John said, smirking. “Thank God you can break away from that stupid gas guzzler.”
“Better than your stupid New Age Prius,” Barney sneered.
“I love my Prius, it’s like driving an iPod.”
“Do you feel that?” Rodney said, going all still, his eyes huge.
“Yeah, I feel it,” Ron said, “what the hell?”
“What?” Hank said.
“Yeah,” Frederic said, “a breeze, right? I feel it! What the hell?”
“I don’t feel anything,” Hank said, but now he sounded a little frightened, as well, and that was a rare thing. Hank was just too big to ever feel fear, or at least show it. He used to be a cop, and still had plenty of muscle in his huge frame. He had the shoulders of two men pressed together—they often joked, the Society, that Hank must have gobbled up a twin in the womb. Hank always replied that he was a vegetarian, and would never cannibalize a twin.
“It’s coming across the table,” Rodney whispered, pointing across the table over Barney’s shoulder.
Barney half turned in his chair. “Yeah, I feel it too.”
But behind Barney was the brick wall of the basement. Thick red bricks. And brick just did not allow for the passage of much breeze, but now they all felt it. And there were no vents on that side of the room. Just bricks.
“Something is about to happen,” Ron said, half poised at the table as if he were about to jump up and flee the room.
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Rodney, edging back in his chair. “Something is about to happen.”
There passed a long, pregnant silence, the seven men watching, the seven men waiting.
But nothing happened.
“You guys are starting to freak me out,” Hank said with a snort, and then examined his cigar, which had gone out. That was weird. His cigars never went out.
Then a man came hurtling through the bricks, backward, taking little staggering steps, and slammed butt-first and jolting the heavy table, knocking over empty beer bottles. This man, appearing from nowhere, slammed between Barney and Frederic, and half-sat there on the edge of the table. He blinked his eyes a few times, looked around the room, and then leaped to his feet—it was an incredible movement, literally springing two feet into the air, whirling about, flashing a black stick in his hands.
“What the hell!” the strange man shouted. He was garbed in a big black cloak, with a massive hood thrown back from his head. He was large and handsome and was bleeding from several cuts on his face. His left eye was swollen and half-shut with glue and blood. And something big swung from his right hand—everyone who saw it thought the same thing: he’s carrying a severed head!
Nobody said anything. The seven men seated at the table gaped. They stared with open mouths. Jethro’s pipe fell away from his teeth and tumbled down his body to slap on the tiled floor.
The strange man held a knobbed stick in his left hand, one of those weird black walking canes you expected to see in the hands of a leprechaun. He pointed the knobbed end around the table, until he pointed at Hank. He discerned the leader of this group, pretty easily.
“What year is this?” the strange man gasped, and it was obvious he was beaten and parched, bloody and exhausted, his eyes bloodshot, but his tone certainly was compelling, emerging as it did from this shattered husk of a man.
“It’s Twenty Sixteen,” Hank said, blankly, talking like an automaton, blinking at the strange man.
“Wow, I thought this was all gone,” the strange man said, “but I can’t say it’s good to be back. I’ve got some heads to crack, if you’ll excuse me. But first! Ah, yes!”
The strange man had seen the unopened beer bottles and he strode to the table and plucked a bottle out of its cardboard six-pack box and easily popped the top with his thumb. He put the bottle to his lips and tipped back his head, and the seven members of the Society watched dumfounded as the strange man gurgled down the entire bottle in a few seconds. He slapped the empty bottle back into the box and then belched loudly. Then he clunked the severed head onto the table.
Everyone relaxed—a little. It was not a severed head, but a massive helmet, with two impressive bones jutting out from either side. It was a huge metal helmet, covered in shaggy fur, with horns uplifted like antlers. It was a Viking helmet. It must be a movie prop, because everyone knew Vikings didn’t really wear these things.
“Oh I needed that,” the strange man said, and then smirked around the table, “I’m Stacey Colton, the Pugilist,” he said, nodding, and then whirled and charged directly into the brick wall and vanished. Just like that.
“Right out of the Abyss,” Ron muttered.
Hank pushed himself to his feet.
“We all saw that, right? I mean, we all saw him, that man,” Hank said. “It was real, right?”
The other men nodded, but nobody spoke, they were all still too awestruck. Too devastated. Too terrified. They might never speak again. You just didn’t witness stuff like this—it was straight out of the Twilight Zone.
Hank went to the brick wall and stood before it, considering.
“Don’t do it,” Ron said, “whatever you do, just don’t. Don’t, Hank.”
“Yeah, what, are you crazy!” Rodney said. He snatched up his beer and downed it, much like the strange man had just done only moments before, and Rodney was the type to nurse one beer, all the night through.
But Hank was extending an arm toward the red bricks. And as everyone watched, Hank’s hand vanished. He stood there, extending his right arm, and inches before he ever touched the bricks, his right hand was just—gone. Gone at the wrist. He was an amputee, that fast. One second he was whole, and then he was one of the lucky guys who could park in all the best places, right up close to any business building in town.
Several of the Society guys screamed, and Hank snatched his hand back, feeling his fingers with his left hand, flexing his hand, and laughing silently, his eyes wide and delighted. He glanced back at them, but only for a beat. Silence. A long silence. Hank stood considering.
“You saw that?” he said, not looking back, just standing there as still as a statue.
“Yeah, you’re lucky you still have a hand you idiot!” shouted Barney, and he upended his beer stein over his own head, as if it were the most natural thing to do.
And before anyone could protest Hank leaned forward and they witnessed his head vanishing into the brickwork. Six mouths dropped and hung slack. A headless man stood in the room with them, bent forward slightly, still very much alive, shoulders moving. He looked like the headless horseman—these were the best special effects, without a bluescreen in sight.
Hank stood straight and spun about, and they were happy to see he still had a face on his head.
“You are not going to believe it,” Hank said. “The Abyss not only stared back, but it opened a doorway into what we always knew was there!”
“What is it?” several of them shouted.
“It’s another world,” Hank said, all business and matter of fact, shaking his head, and beaming at them. They had talked about this for what seemed like forever, and even now, with all the evidence in the world shouting at them, the System klaxoned in their heads: “It is impossible, this is not real, there is no such thing!”
And then they were all there, crowding together, clumped in a mess of bodies before the brick wall, but nobody made a move closer to where both Hank’s hand and then his head had disappeared.
“I don’t care what happens to me, this is my chance, finally, my chance,” Hank said, and he moved forward and vanished into the very bricks.
“We gonna do this?” Ron said, swallowing hard.
“Shit,” John said, and then he went through as well.
Thirty seconds passed before Barney and Frederic each put out their hands and did the exploratory hand trick, and just like Hank, their hands disappeared and then reappeared.
Ron came back through, appearing like magic, nearly bowling them all over. His eyes were wide and terrified.
“We don’t wanna go through!” Ron shouted, “didn’t you see it? It’s a battle! They’re fighting! They’re Vikings, actual Vikings!”
And then they were all pushing through, even Rodney, who had both hands pressed down on his Yarmulke. They all vanished through the magic portal, leaving only Ron standing there.
He threw back his head and screamed at the ceiling.
“Okay,” he said, gathering all of the pieces of himself together. He even straightened an imaginary tie. “Chance of a lifetime. Chance of a lifetime. What the Hell! Here we go!”
And he charged back through the bricks.
Hank came through into this too-vivid place, this other world, where the colors were just too extravagant for his eyes to bear. He stood, trembling, like a puppy emerging in the middle of a garish carnival. Men were screaming. He saw a titanic figure charging like a bull, and there was the strange man, swinging that cartoon cudgel, and the titanic figure went down, nose-diving into the dirt. This was a rocky hollow crouched between two towering hills, and a big battle wagon sat like a gypsy camper, with wheels that were certainly made for war, with two nightmarish beasts slain in their traces—the animals gave the impression of rhinoceros or hippopotamus, but were not, they were bigger, more muscular, and they were dead, slumped before the circus wagon with many hack wounds.
All this Hank witnessed in but a moment, and he was just turning to flee back through the portal when stout John magically appeared and slammed right into his chest, knocking him backward. As they fell upon the ground Hank registered the flashing buzz of an arrow passing just over John’s back. Those idiot bastard phony Vikings were shooting arrows at them! If John hadn’t knocked him over Hank would have been struck by that arrow! He should be dead right now!
Ron pushed himself up from Hank and blinked about in the too vivid colors. He took in the Vikings, the screams, saw the axes and the spears and the swords waving and he pushed himself away from Hank and dashed back from whence he had arrived. Hank saw him disappear, even though there was nothing there in the air to mark any kind of passage, although for just an instant, just before Ron vanished, it looked like two disembodied hands were clawing about, making grasping gestures.
Hank sat up, crouching. He crawled forward a couple of feet to hide behind a boulder the size of a wheelbarrow, and this definitely was a fight. The strange man was there, up on a flat rock formation, kicking faces and blocking sword thrusts with that black stick. Hank gaped. What he was watching was not possible, because the strange man was batting away metal weapons with that walking cane, twirling it about. The strange man in the black cloak with the walking stick was just fifty feet away, and bodies lay sprawled everywhere. It looked like a hundred of the Vikings were down.
Hank shouted as someone seized his shoulders, but glancing over his shoulder he saw it was just the guys, hunkered down about him, except that Rodney was standing there, both hands on top of his head, gawking through his coke-bottle-bottom glasses, just watching the show as if this were all a Renaissance Fair show. A Viking reenactment. Cosplay.
Then a hideous looking barbarian came charging at Rodney, who stood there smiling at the charging man.
“Watch out!” Hank shouted and leapt toward Rodney, and accidentally knocked him toward the barbarian, and he realized the man was swinging an absurdly large battle ax at Rodney, and he closed his eyes and threw his first punch since high school boxing, a left, and he felt the punch connect, and his arm went numb. He opened his eyes.
The barbarian was stopped, the ax still back behind his head. Hank’s punch had caught him right in the side of the face, and right now his face was turned away from the blow. But he looked back. And he looked angry. Very angry. But at least the ax dropped behind him. The Viking, sans helmet, was taking deep breaths, and he seemed to be working himself into a rage, and he was looking straight into Hank’s face, and things didn’t look too good, not right now.
“Here!” Frederic said, extending a bottle of beer toward the Viking.
That’s weird, Hank thought, because Frederic was one of the AA guys. What in the hell was he doing with a bottle of beer?
The Viking considered the offering. And then he took the bottle, delicately, with some curiosity, even tentatively smelling it. Such a dainty sniff. He seemed like a wine connoisseur offered a cheap bottle of Bud. But at least he didn’t seem quite so angry. Beer can do that, soothe the savage beast.
“Oh go on with your bad self!” Rodney laughed, and he playfully shoved the Viking, and the barbarian guy stumbled away from Hank and took a few staggering steps, and then suddenly was gone, just vanished. Rodney had shoved him through the doorway.
Hank still had his dukes up, as if he meant to get in some sparring practice, but his left arm had no feeling in it. He doubted he could give a kitten much competition if they were attacked again.
“Isn’t this cool?” Rodney said, blinking at Hank through his thick lenses.
“You do realize that all of this is actually happening?” Hank said, staring at Rodney as the battle raged only twenty feet away from them. He winced and half crouched at the clash of steel.
“Come on! This can’t be real!” Rodney laughed, waving his hand toward the Vikings.
Hank roughly seized Rodney by the shoulders and spun him about, bodily throwing him toward Jethro (who, oddly enough, had his pipe jutting out from his mouth, he must have retrieved it, and Hank was certain he had cleaned the stem prior to putting it back into his mouth) and John, who caught the lanky Rodney and pulled him down behind the wheelbarrow-sized boulder. Now all seven of them were here, in this other world, crouching down, observing the melee just on the other side of this rock pile. Hank cradled his left arm, it felt broken, although he was certain this was not the case; it was just a simple punch, but he was definitely out of practice in the punching department.
“Think about it,” Ron said, conversationally, “we call ourselves the Vikings, and here we stumble into a world full of Vikings. That can’t be a coincidence.”
“You’re worried about coincidences? Now?” Hank said, out of breath, and half in shock.
“It makes you wonder,” Ron said, as if they were on the set of some reality show, just chatting away about their usual meanderings, sipping mint juleps, and taking dainty bites out of cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches.
“I think we need to get out of the Abyss before it notices us crouching here,” Jethro said, peeking over the boulder.
There was a lull in the fighting. At least ten of the horrifying Vikings—they looked so vicious here, killing machines, you never thought about that, the blood lust—were moving uneasily about the strange man on the flat rock. The Vikings were like sharks, waiting for that special moment when they could swim in close and take a hunk of flesh out of the strange man. Down the hill, in a small valley, many more of the large Vikings were clambering up toward the fight.
“I count ten men down,” Frederic said, ever the accountant. Of course he would tally the numbers. Still, that couldn’t be right, it looked like wall-to-wall bodies out there, hundreds and hundreds of bodies strewn every which way.
“A simulated ax never killed anyone,” Rodney said, giggling. Even now, he was not taking this seriously. He was only half-crouched, standing up high enough that any of the Vikings could see him, and take another potshot. Toss a hammer, or an ax—there were plenty of these weapons in evidence, and all of them, everything—it was all entirely real.
“Except a simulated person. A simulated ax does wonders on a simulated human head,” Hank answered, automatically. It seemed the old arguments crossed over into this world with them. “Get down, you dummy. You’re going to get killed by one of those simulated axes.”
“This has to be one of those HBO movies,” Rodney said. “Does anyone see Tyrion?”
“You know nothing, Jon Stupid,” Barney replied. “You see any movie cameras? Where are the best boys? The gaffers? This is another world, like Hank said.”
Then Rodney plunked down on the ground, and stared dejectedly into his lap. “So it’s real, what we’ve always been talking about? We’re fake? We’re all of us fake people? Come on, this...just, can’t be real.”
“I for one don’t feel too fake,” Barney said. “And my muscle car sure ain’t fake.”
“I beat your best, Sore!” the strange man said, posing on his flat rock. He had his black stick back behind his head, resting across his shoulders, his arms hanging lazily over the stick. “And you sure haven’t done much to impress me with your fighting ability! What’s happened, you get lazy after killing farmers and women, and children?”
“Ooh,” Ron said. “I like this guy, he’s really cool.”
“Thou did not beat me,” one of the bodies said, pushing itself upward. “And cease making sport of my name!”
The big man growled. Even on the ground it was obvious he was huge, and blond, with a shaggy mane of Farah Fawcett locks. And he glared up at the strange man upon the rock.
“So you still expect me to accept that you are Thor, the God of Thunder?”
“I never claimed to be a god,” the big man said, getting even bigger by the moment, pushing himself off the ground and rising up. He swayed a moment, half crouched, and then stood, and thrust a mighty arm at the strange man upon the flat rock, pointing his finger—a digit the size of a salami—at the man with the black stick. “I am still here! Thou did not beat me. I am Thor, that is mine name. And I am a better man than thee!”
“Well, you’ve been catching up on your beauty sleep,” the man with the black stick said.
What was his name? He had told them his name.
“What did he say his name was?” Hank whispered to the other Society guys.
“I think it was Stacey Colt,” Frederic said.
“Colton. Stacey Colton,” Jethro said.
“There was a boxer with that name, a while back,” Hank said, thinking the guy looked somewhat familiar. And yes, the name, Stacey Colton—they called him Wolf, in the ring. A mediocre boxer.
“You want to try Round Two?” the strange man said, loosing his black stick, swinging it about in an intricate maneuver. He looked like a baton twirler in a parade.
“Come, if thou are really the Pugilist, face me, hand to hand,” the big blond said, in his deep but strangely sing-song accent.
The strange man set his black stick upon its tip and took his hand away. The knobbed stick stood upright. And the strange man stepped down from his flat rock, and strode to stand just before the blond Viking.
The strange man was a big guy, probably about the size of Hank—six foot three or four, at least. But he looked like a dwarf in front of the blond Viking, who had to stand seven feet tall or more, and was almost as wide. And talk about muscle. This guy made Arnold look anemic.
“Thor,” another man spoke, an older man with gray braids lying about his shoulders. This older man leaned upon a great spear that stood several feet above his head. “Look about thee. No man could do this, none other than our legend of the Pugilist. This man does not lie to us. Come, let us eat meat, and drink mead, and share our tales.”
“I don’t want anything to do with anyone’s tail,” the strange man said, shrugging out of his great cloak. He stood tall, and strong, in a sweat-soaked shirt, and a scaly vest. He wore thorny looking fingerless gloves, and there was some strange armor upon his right arm. He had on tight scaly breeches and what looked like tall crocodile boots, folded over just beneath the knee. But as strong and manly as he appeared, it was evident he was utterly exhausted. He tried to keep his posture straight, but it was clear he was near falling from fatigue. But even rested and in peak condition, there was absolutely no way he could hope to cope with the blond.
“How can we help him?” John whispered, ever the optimist.
How the hell could they help the poor guy? Maybe if they had machine guns? Even then, maybe not. These Vikings were men unlike the soft men from their world. This Thor character could kill the Society guys with harsh language, after taking a shotgun blast to the chest.
More and more Vikings were coming up the slope. In the distance, several longboats were visible on a large river. From this distance the boats seemed to be swarming with ants. Large blond ants in armor.
“I will fight thee, Pretender,” Thor roared, lifting a hand up near the sky, forming those monster-sized fingers into a fist the size of a toaster. And he brought that meaty fist down, with power enough to knock the teeth out of a bull’s head.
But the strange man stepped neatly to the side. The blond Viking, Thor, actually flipped in the air, so strenuous was the punch he threw that landed on nothing. Hank felt the ground shudder as the big Viking crashed onto his back. He lay there blinking stupidly for several moments, evidently the wind knocked out of him.
“You just playing with me, Thor?” the strange man said, and then nimbly leapt over Thor’s grasping hand as the Viking attempted to seize him by the leg.
Several of the Vikings—there must now be twenty of them gathered, and still gathering—actually laughed, so surprising was that missed punch, and the Viking flipping himself over like that, with the strange man doing absolutely nothing, save for moving a bit.
The Viking lumbered to his feet. He roared, bending double, his face going dark red. He roared and it sounded like a giant trumpet sounding. And snarling, he launched himself at the strange man, swiping and punching and throwing monster strike after monster strike. Any of those blows would have caved in the strange man’s head, if any of them had landed. None did.
“Are you getting thore, Thor?” the strange man laughed, taunting the giant with a feigned speech impediment.
“Stop making sport of me!” Thor bellowed, stomping down a foot to smash his much smaller antagonist. But again, the strange man moved neatly to the side—Hank thought of the bullfighters that stepped gingerly to the side when the bull came charging in a frenzy.
And then the strange man did a neat side kick that landed on Thor’s knee while his other leg was over-extended from the attempted body stomp, and the giant blond Viking crumpled to the ground, going over disjointedly, crashing on the rocky soil.
Hank felt almost sorry for the Viking, but he knew this could and probably would change immediately, if the giant got one hand on the smaller, exhausted man. Things were about to get tragic. Because the behemoth was up, almost immediately, and though he favored one leg, he didn’t seem to be too debilitated from the thrashing the smaller man was dealing.
The smaller man stopped dodging and came in opening his arms as if he wished to embrace the larger man, and then it was all over, because the giant seized him in a bear hug lifting him off the ground, and absolutely nobody could survive that overwhelming embrace. Except that the comparatively little man didn’t remain still, but rocked back his body in the hug and slammed his forehead squarely into the larger man’s nose, and like a hot rock the smaller man fell between the giant’s arms, dropped instantly, and then the smaller man jabbed out his left hand in two manically fast jabs, crashing into the giant’s eyes, blinding him instantly—direct strikes, brutal—and then he finished with a chopping right hand that landed squarely on the tip of the giant’s chin.
The big man fell over backward, utterly disarmed, discombobulated, and practically decomposing as his body plunged into the ground. This particular fight was over.
The strange man snatched his cloak from the ground, shook it out, and shrugged his shoulders into the big coat, then strolled casually back to his black stick, where it stood waiting upon the flat rock. He leapt nimbly up to the top of the rock, easily a four-foot hop, and snatched up his stick, and turned to face the Vikings.
“Shillelagh, that’s what that’s called,” Frederic muttered over his shoulder to Hank. “Irish fighting stick.”
“This can’t be real,” said Rodney, still sitting and staring into his lap. “I just can’t accept it. I’m sorry, but this world isn’t real, and probably our world isn’t real. Maybe it was long ago, but now I think that the plain and simple truth is that we are all data, and data is pretty much date, what’s the difference? It’s all in the numbers.””
“You may not believe in God or the Devil, but they certainly believe in you,” Barney said, almost helpfully, but they all knew he was being his usual sarcastic bad self.
“Come on!” the strange man called. “Can’t you offer anything more impressive? Is this your best? Yes, you killed a handful of Dragon Warriors, and a few horses, and the beasts. But why haven’t you killed me?”
And the Vikings had obviously had enough of this strange, taunting man, for they charged, swarming up the hill, perhaps a hundred of them, and more besides were still leaping from the longboats. All of them working themselves into the same berserker rage. The closest immediately set upon the strange man with upon the flat rock.
“We gotta get out of here!” Hank snapped, seizing each of his Society guys and dragging them away from the boulder, one by one.
The strange man leapt over a sword slash meant to disable him at the ankles, and with a neat clobbering pop he laid the Viking over, and the one behind him took the knob of the shillelagh right in the face, and then the stick was skittering across the ground—Hank paused in his flight, long enough to watch what would happen.
“We gotta see how this ends!” Barney shouted as Hank seized him by the hair and dragged him back toward the portal.
The shillelagh danced across the ground, bobbed up suddenly and knocked a charging Viking right under the chin, and then somehow it came dancing back, right into the strange man’s gloved hands.
“We know how this ends, we don’t need to see it, or be a part of it,” and then they were all running, diving for what they hoped was the doorway that brought them into this other world.
And they were back in Hank’s basement dining room, and for several moments they just stood there, counting themselves and each other, and after they had all confirmed that there were indeed seven of them, they plunked down in their customary seats and began making all the contents of the bottles of beer vanish into their own magic doorways, even the AA guys were drinking the beer, and nobody was really speaking, except that they each muttered every now and then, each man considering his own reality. How could they feel this parched, this utterly thirsty, after what could have been only five minutes in another world?
“What about that world? Kind of like, you know, over the rainbow?” Frederic said, an AA guy, staring into the dregs of his third bottle of beer.
“More like a world made out of rainbows, did you notice the sky? Ever see a sky that color? I mean it was, I mean, you know, the whole concept of blue—I don’t know, after seeing that sky, I may have to try and capture just that color, some sort of glowing cerulean, or, or, or turquoise going more to cyan? Maybe people dream of going to that world, and wake up artists, I want to go to Michaels or Hobby Lobby or even Wally World, and I want to buy all their blue paints, and I want to, I want to,” babbled John Galt, shaking his head, staring up at a remembered sky in a decidedly other reality.
But it was Hank who suddenly grabbed a piece of chalk from the green board where they often did math—at least the math guys, or doodled, that was generally John and Frederic—but he held the almost new stick of chalk like a magic wand and hurried over to the bricks, and began testing, pushing a finger toward the bricks, and when he found that sweet spot where the pad of his finger actually touched brick, but his nail disappeared, he traced a surprisingly neat outline on the bricks, and as everyone stared, unspeaking, Hank sketched a square doorway on the bricks that ended up being pretty much the size of a standard door. It took him perhaps a minute, and his work seemed inspired.
“So it’s still there?” Rodney asked, as Hank stepped back to consider his work. There was a chalk outline of a doorway. It was just chalk on brick, simple white on red. It certainly didn’t seem very magical, just accurate, and surprisingly neat, especially for Hank.
“Yes, it’s still there,” Hank said.
“What’s really going on?” Rodney said in that dead voice that was nothing like the way he usually spoke. All of his joy seemed gone, left on the other side of those bricks. “I mean, how do we go on?” And he cursed. They had never heard Rodney curse before.
“I’m going to put a real door here, a really heavy-duty frame embedded into the bricks, like with big honking brick screws, or however that’s done,” Hank said, glancing back at Jethro, who had once been a carpenter, “you can help me with that, right Jethro?”
“Sure, probably a good idea,” Jethro said, but he didn’t sound very excited.
“A security door,” Ron chimed in, shuddering, “gotta be thick steel, with several good locks, deadbolts, and you can put a beam across so that anything on the other side can’t get through, you know, unless by invitation.”
“That’s the idea, locks at the top and bottom, as well,” Hank said, shaking his head. He placed a big hand on either side of the chalk outline, and he ducked his head forward, becoming the headless horseman, and then immediately pulled his head back, and staggered away from his handiwork.
“What did you just see?” Rodney said in his new dead voice.
Hank, looking gray, staggered to his customary chair and fell into it.
“You. Do not. Want. To know.” He sounded like a robot. They had never seen his usual ruddy face this bone white.
“Come on, what?” Jethro said, his pipe jutting from his teeth, but the pipe was long cold, and part of the beautiful, striated meerschaum was chipped away.
“Seriously. Don’t ask me,” Hank said. And after a moment he really looked at them all. “Seriously. No matter how strong that door is, it won’t be enough. But in a few days, we’ll go through again, cautiously. And if everyone is dead there, we’ll build a cairn of stones, just in front of the doorway on that side, so that anything large will go around and miss the doorway, but we’ll leave ourselves a few feet of space, so that we can slip through. We’ll use some of those really big boulders, we can take tools.”
“You sure that’s a good idea, I mean us going back there?” John said. “We’re probably setting off some kind of silent alarm. You know, like invaders from another world?”
“Not for a while, but we’re going back, oh yes, are you kidding? Isn’t this the kind of thing we’ve always fantasized about?”
“That’s not my fantasy,” Barney said.
All of them were shaking their heads, not disagreeing with Barney, but very frightened by what Hank was proposing.
“The Abyss looked back,” Ron said.
“This changes everything,” Hank said. “Think about it. Most people have reality TV, fast food, and politics—hell, thirty-two flavors of sports, and we—” he gestured at the chalk outline, “have this.”
“But we don’t know that this means what we’ve always chatted about down here, over our beers, I mean we don’t really know anything, other than we just found a Twilight Zone door. This could just be what magic is, what it really is, people stumbling on doorways to another place,” Frederic said. He at least sounded a little more passionate, like he was coming back online.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Rodney said, nodding his head, constantly pushing his glasses back up against his nose. “This just could be magic, like Ron says. It doesn’t mean we’re not real, that this is all a simulation, right? Come on, right?”
“The System hard at work,” Ron sighed.
“Well, we can always set up a booth, you know, the cosplay guys, they’d love this crap,” Barney said, hefting the Viking helmet that the strange man had brought through and left behind. “We can call it the Phantom Booth, or the Otherplace Market!”
“And there’s this, and there could be a lot more like it,” Jethro said, hefting a rough leather bag. “Just a little something I picked up on the other side. One of the big horny blond guys must have dropped it.”
Jethro loosened the draw strings and glanced inside, and he smiled a strange smile. Then he upended the bag, shaking out a glittering, golden collection of coins that struck odd tones as they pinged on the wooden surface of the table.
“Our whole world just changed. Everything changed,” Hank muttered, not even curious about the treasure on the table that the other guys were now examining. But that other world, that was the thing. It was beautiful, true, but there was that other thing, that huge thing undreamed of in this world, a monster that could snatch huge men and destroy them in a second. He had seen it, in his momentary peek, and he was terrified it might have seen his disembodied head (and if it did, he would not only lose his head, but his whole body—he’d be the disembodied man, for goodness’ sake!). That thing was there, just on the other side of that chalk outline. And what if it happened to head this way? Would a steel door stop it? Would a thick beam across the door make any difference?
Had his dream just come true? Or had he just felt the first inklings of an approaching nightmare? A nightmare to end all nightmares...?
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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