© Copyright 2017 Douglas Christian Larsen. Rood Der.
Rood Der — Episode Four: Even at the Door
“Please notice the sky,” he said as they turned into the small cul-de-sac where Crash House waited, harboring their secrets, their gateway to the Gateway. Frederic had brought Frances here for several parties, and quiet dinners—everyone knew everyone—but today would be the first day that she would pass through, from one place, to another place, and finally to that other place. He wanted her to really notice this world.
“Okay, what about it?” she asked, snuggled in next to him behind the steering Tee, her cheek pressed against his as they looked up through the driver’s window at the faded gray-blue sky.
“What color would you say that is?”
She studied the sky. It was mostly clear of clouds, but throughout the dome was a latticework of knitted white lines, dispersed clouds, jet engine contrails, and of course the ever-present chemtrails, which were fluffier, more substantive than the contrails. The contrails, mostly steam, dispersed after minutes into the blue of the dome, but the chemtrails hung about all day, drifting, expanding, sometimes almost becoming clouds, long serpentine clouds.
“Blue?” she said.
Frederic chuckled, despite the warning gurgles from his gut—he had to stay in control, it was now more important than ever, because Frances was here, and she loved him, and to suddenly void his bowels, now, in front of her—right beside her! Oh, but he had to get in and use the restroom, and fast. No more chuckling. He shouldn’t even really smile. They should build some sort of restroom into the car seat, now that would be handy. Car sewage treatment. What a concept.
“What’s so funny about blue?” she wanted to know.
“Well, let me remind you a while later, just remember your description, blue, okay?” he said, grinning, and then reminded himself not to even grin.
“It is difficult to get a true reading on the color of the sky, with all the...dabbling. Smog, pollution, all the smoke around the edges.”
“Good points, all of them. Remember everything you are seeing right now. But how would you describe our sky? How does it make you feel?”
“Odd question,” she said. “It’s the sky, isn’t it? I suppose, it is beautiful, despite the smog.”
“How does it make you feel?”
She stared at him as Waggy slowed before the iron gate at the driveway.
“How does it—do you mean the sky, itself—how does it make me...feel?”
“It’s really not that tricky a question, Frances,” he said, maintaining his focus upon his sphincter muscles. Be at peace, remain closed, all calm, shhhhh.
“Familiar, I suppose, comfortable—comforted, that the world is the world and everything is in its messy place. There. That’s how it makes me feel.”
“I think that’s it,” he said, “that’s the message. Don’t panic, this is the world. This is the way the sky is supposed to look.”
She stared at him as he lowered his window and looked full into the camera aimed at his face—you couldn’t see the camera, no stranger would know it was even there, but it was part of their security system, and after only two seconds the iron gates began rumbling apart, and Waggy continued up the seventy-foot drive. Thank God that no other cars were here in the morning. All the guys must be about their usual, every-day lives. It was funny, even after their great discovery, and all their preparations and precautions, they all kept on, as they always did. No one quit their day job. It was not even a Sky Valley Mandate (as Hank referred to their special rules), to maintain, they all just...did. Perhaps they were afraid to fully commit to the reality of their new lives, the reality of their new reality, their new world.
“You don’t really think that there is a...message—in the sky?” she asked, and he could tell that her heartbeat was suddenly racing.
They had discussed the concept of the simulation, the System—the Abyss—and Frances rejected the notion, outright. She did not even find the concept to be amusing, or engrossing. The idea scared her, as it did most people. The thought that we might not be real—that was just too much. Of course we were real. Of course we are real.
See this? Touch this? Hear this? If yes, yes, and yes, then come on...real. Only an idiot would say something different. So stop talking about it, stop thinking about it.
It had to be that way. Real is real. That’s what the System told us. If we thought about it too much, or started arriving at certain...conclusions, the System ensured that our heartbeats increased, that we felt like we were crossing a taboo line, and perhaps—only a suggestion, only a suggestion—perhaps we ought to leave well enough alone, decidedly alone. Because, think about it, it was all just silly, what a silly notion, living inside a simulated reality! Only crazy people asked such questions. And I’m not crazy.
That was the System. It reassured us with: uh-uh, no way, so sorry, I’m okay, and you’re maybe not so okay, but I’m okay, so everything’s okay, so shut up about everything.
So they had come to an understanding. They would not discuss the simulation hypothesis, the simulation argument, and Frederic understood how she felt. Because he felt the same way, truly, only with him he was the kind of person who just couldn’t stop picking at the scab, even though he knew it was best to allow everything to be, don’t ask questions. But he couldn’t help...picking.
“Don’t worry about it, Sweetheart, but seriously, maybe you might just see me to the...door, and then you could wait for me, here, at Crash House.”
“No. I’m coming with you. Don’t you worry about me, Frederic d’Aconia. There isn’t much in this world that scares me.”
She said it with such bravado, it was really touching, because she didn’t even begin to comprehend the irony in those words. There isn’t much in this world that scares me. And the truth was, Frances was one strong woman—three times, muggers had struck, and three times Frances survived, coming off better each time than her attacker. Two of the muggers had knives, and the third guy, a pistol. But Frances undid her leather belt each night at two in the morning, when her shift ended, and when the sneering mugger leapt out of the bushes, Frances hardly paused to consider, whipping her belt out of its loops to lash her attacker across the eyes.
Some people considered her a little crazy, because not only would she score on her first strike, but then she would not pause, but continue around the would-be robber, lashing him on the ears, the buttocks, the legs, the groin, a nonstop whirlwind of leather. The police thought it was hilarious. They had never arrived at a crime scene to find a weeping perpetrator with an avenging angel in white standing over them, heft-toting a slim leather belt, and with Frances, they had come to three such crime scenes in a period of six years. She had quite the reputation.
Working in an ER for ten years built up a kind shell outside your skin. She was a caring nurse, no one would deny that, but she didn’t like to be messed with, and it was best not to cross certain lines with Frances Francon. With the robbers, she felt they just needed a good spanking, and maybe that would get them thinking in the proper direction. Plus, she was always so tired when she got off her shift, and a little more than grumpy. These guys were standing between Frances and her escape from the nightmares of the emergency room.
It was a dangerous world, this one right here in the now, it was plenty dangerous. All three of Frances’ attackers had convictions on assault and battery, and one was a convicted rapist. When the police cautioned her that such men might seek reprisals—if not for their arrests, they certainly would love to even the score concerning their humiliations—Frances carefully and seriously considered their advice, and purchased a small Glock pistol—seven bullets, she loved that—and practiced with it diligently, and was prepared to use it as quickly as she had her belt.
But would she actually go through the Red Door with him? He would leave it up to her. He would not try to dissuade her. If she stayed, he would be relieved, and he would do everything in his power to come back to her.
The garage door was rolling upward at their approach as Waggy silently climbed the drive.
“I trust that you will have a wonderful trip, Frederic, and Frances,” Waggy said, and it might be crazy, but it actually sounded as if the car was a touch misty-eyed, with something swelling its imaginary throat.
“I wish you could come with us,” Frederic said, but more concentrating on his gut and keeping it placid.
“Wouldn’t that be lovely, Waggy? If you could come with us?” Frances said, feeling her usual BFF crush for the car.
“I wish there was a way,” the car replied. “I will do some research.”
Frederic almost laughed, but reminded himself to remain as calm as possible, clenching his sphincter.
They were now rolling quietly toward the back of the long garage, which could house six vehicles parked side-by-side and nose-to-tail. Thankfully, they were the only vehicle, and Waggy came to a gentle stop at the very end, four inches from the wall.
Frederic switched off the car, but left it in thinking mode, able to receive upgrades, and well, do her research on the Internet. He placed the keys in the receptacle on the dashboard in case anyone needed to move the car, or drive her.
It was a tight squeeze as Frederic crawled out of the car, slowly moving through his half-open door. Frances moved across to the passenger side and exited there.
Even before Frederic had moved around the end of the stationwagon, the interior door leading into the kitchen of the house opened, and Joss Chen emerged, switching on the garage lights for them. The large rolling garage door was still rumbling closed.
“Good to see you, Frederic, Frances,” Joss Chen said, smiling. He was a handsome and tall Asian man, in his early twenties, with a very friendly and calm manner. He was also the only new person they had brought in on the secret of the Red Door.
Joss had been over and across, just once, and he swore that he would never go over again. He was now their chief of security. They had met him when they brought him on to install all the security cameras and microphones outside of both Crash and Cross Houses, and they had liked him so much that Hank had decided to bring him on, permanently, and Joss was excited with the opportunity. At his old job with the security firm, he was a camera installer—now, he oversaw everything.
Joss aided Frederic up the short flight of steps into the house, and without needing an explanation, he ushered him into the closest bathroom, even offering to aid with Frederic’s difficulties, but Frederic just needed to be alone.
He was so thankful that they had made it here to Crash House. Thank God.
His bowels erupted into the toilet, a true toxic explosion. Frederic groaned, leaning forward, pressing his hands against his guts. Even his urine burned in a trickling stream. It was bad, yes, very bad. But at the same time it was pretty much common, as this is where it had all led. The doctors couldn’t help, and their drugs couldn’t help, either, nor all the king’s horses, nor all the king’s men. So Frederic had only one avenue open to him.
When all was done he scrubbed his hands with soap in the sink and rinsed with very hot water. He toweled himself dry while he peered at his reflection. He looked like the ghost of a bandit. His eyes seemed dark, and hollow. He could get a bit in a zombie movie, and he wouldn’t even require makeup.
Why would she want to be with him? He couldn’t understand that. But he was not going to argue with her.
“She says that—that she is going with you?” Joss Chen said as Frederic emerged from the restroom.
“Yes, yes, but she doesn’t know exactly what that means, but if she will come, she’s coming, and if she doesn’t come, then she won’t,” Frederic said, as if that explained everything.
“Okay, if you say so,” Joss said. “I will come with you, as far as the Red Door.”
“Thanks, Joss,” Frederic said. He almost wanted Joss to come. Joss was a lifelong student of Kung Fu, and that could come in handy, over there. Plus, Joss was just about the most likable person you would ever meet, in any world.
“I do not think—please do not go,” Joss said to Frances, taking both her hands in his. It almost appeared he was proposing to her.
“You’ve already said that, Joss, but I am going with Frederic, I don’t care if this Red Door leads to Hell, but I’m going with Frederic.”
At the basement door, Joss punched in his code. He reached into the stairwell and switched on the lights, then nodded for them to precede him, so that he might secure the door behind them. They headed down. This was a very nice house, and even the basement staircase was immaculate with fresh paint and what seemed like scented air.
“What is that smell?” Frances said, staring about with wonder, walking slowing just in front of Frederic.
“You won’t believe it, but you’re smelling it from here, as there is a constant breeze blowing across. We think that eventually even people at the gate of Crash House might notice a much better, nicer atmosphere.”
“Smelling it,” she said.
“Yes,” Frederic said, placing his hands upon her shoulders as she reached the basement floor. “The other world.”
“The other world,” she said, slightly shaking her head. No, she certainly was not a believer.
Frederic sighed. Joss trotted about them and headed into the center of what appeared to be a very large, very modern game room, complete with one billiard table, a football table, and several large pinball machines that sat eerily dark.
Frances looked about. She had never been down here. It was a typical man cave, complete with seventy-two-inch high-definition television screen, and spittoons spaced strategically about (spittoons, really?). There stood a full wet bar along one wall with fancy bottles of whiskey and rum and brandy and gin lined up in two neat, colorful rows—she glanced at Frederic, who was a very ironclad AA man, not touching booze in the past ten years after it almost killed him in his early twenties.
“This room is pretty much for show, the kind of place you’d expect to find in the basement of a house shared by seven bachelors. No one uses it, except that Barney is crazy about the football table, he calls it foosball, after the German,” Frederic explained.
But Frances was not really listening to him any longer, as she was concentrating on watching Joss, who was at the far side of the room, doing something at the wall, alongside the giant television screen.
Frances was just about to ask another question, but suddenly all the lights in the room kicked on, the pinball machines clanging to noisily life, and the television screen beaming into vibrant, vivid colors, displaying some noisy nature documentary with screaming animals galore. She squeaked and drew protectively close to Frederic, placing an arm in front of his chest, as if to shield him. Frederic noticed that her other hand was buried in the pocket of her sweater, presumably upon her deadly little pistol.
“It’s okay,” Frederic said, “just some of the Joss Chen security measures. Watch, he’s about to open the tunnel door.”
“Tunnel door,” Frances repeated, her eyes wide, almost bemused.
Joss pounded his fist on a section of brick wall next to the giant screen, and a neat little section of brickwork popped out. Frances, drawing Frederic close, saw that there was a little security keybad set into the clever piece of false brickwork.
“Most people would need to use a hammer to get that to pop out like that,” Frederic whispered.
“This is all set up on its own network of batteries and computers, perfectly shielded from the rest of either house security system,” Joss explained, crouching down from his six feet of height to place his eyes at level with the keypad.
Frances noticed a flash of light strobe across Joss’ eyes, and she heard a loud humming noise, and then a soft click.
“We want this functional, even if they take out the power grid,” Joss said.
“They,” Frances repeated, nodded.
Frederic could almost hear her thoughts. “Oh yeah, these guys have too much time, and too much money on their hands, safeguarding themselves against all the various Theys that lurk just outside the wrought-iron fence.”
Then, using some real muscle, Joss shoved a portion of the wall on which the television hung. The wall slid back and away, a full three feet, until the giant screen touched the corner of the room. Frances gasped, catching sight of what she finally recognized as a partially covered door. It looked enormous, like a blast door in the movies, one of those big steel monsters meant to keep out nuclear blasts and zombie apocalypses. She was a little disappointed, because it was not a red door. They all referred to it as the Red Door, and it wasn’t even a red door, come on!
“It all has to be manual, in operation,” gasped Joss, leaning against the opposite side of the wall and pushing this back a full three feet so that the entire blast door was uncovered. “We don’t want anyone getting stranded in here, in the event of something like an EMP.”
“EMP,” Frances said, lifting her eyebrows and smiling.
“Electromagnetic Pulse,” said Joss, mansplaining.
“You’re mansplaining,” Frederic said, grinning.
“I am not mansplaining,” Joss said, glancing over his shoulder at Frederic, giving him an uncharacteristic frown. “Although EMP is now a universally understood term, not everyone knows what it stands for.”
“I know what it means—I mean, I did know what it meant before you told me,” Frances said, lifting her nose, slightly.
“Well, then, perhaps I was doing a little mansplaining, but you see, Frances, you have been repeating my words back to me, so I figured you were suggesting I should provide an explanation. Truly, I would not condescend, not to you.”
“Yes, I understand you would not mansplain to me, Joss,” Frances said, suddenly erupting into a burst of uncharacteristic giggles, “but the thought of someone...employing, or no, you said—event—in the event of an EMP, you understand, in case the...just in case the—squiddies are breaking into the Nebuchadnezzar, and Morpheus, and Morpheus, and Mor—” but although she attempted valiantly to contain it, she erupted into true belly laughs, actually bending over and slapping her palms down upon her knees, and she laughed, tears welling in her eyes.
Joss and Frederic exchanged significant looks, and said, without intending to, in perfect unison: “The System.”
“The...System!” cackled Frances, still doubled over, actually shrieking several times.
Joss Chen returned to opening the door, manfully cranking levers away from the door on either side. Frederic was always impressed with how powerful a man Joss was, as he was certain, despite their relative equality in both size and weight, Frederic could never move even one of those levers, probably even if his life depended on it, and he were entirely well.
Frederic kept petting her back, smoothing his palm warmly the length of her spine, until she was finally spent. She stood, and leaned against him, weak.
“I am so, so sorry,” she giggled, still winding down, like a puppet designed to provide a laugh track for poor comedians, only a single crank left on the key in her back. “I really am not trying to laugh, at either of you.”
“It is natural,” said Joss, resting with his back against the blast door. “Trust me, we have all been through it. You are not going crazy, and we are not crazy, although everything is telling you, right at this moment, that we are crazy, indeed, and that you are following us down the rabbit hole.”
“Rabbit hole,” Frances said.
Frederic and Josh looked at each other, and they grinned.
Frances responded with one final, pathetic giggle, and then she sighed.
“Are we ready?” Joss asked.
“Do you need help with the door?” Frederic asked.
“No. This is why I work out,” Joss said, and prepared himself against the door.
“Because Frances is very strong,” Frederic said, offered in a twisted grin.
And Joss actually laughed, it was very unexpected, as Frederic had never seen the man laugh before. He smiled a lot, that was certain, but he rarely laughed. It was a fresh sound, like a bark. Joss closed his eyes, holding up one finger.
“Do not do that again, please,” Joss said, grinning. “This takes some concentration, there is a bit of a trick to it.”
And without another word Joss Chen exerted himself, his face going red, his muscles popping out against his clothing. For a moment it appeared that nothing was happening, and then they saw the blast door rise, perhaps only an inch, and then it hissed, very loudly, and a whole rushing ocean of air rushed into the basement as Joss began to move the blast door backward and inward.
The air was wonderful. Earlier, it had only been a scent. But now, oh but now, the fresh air gushed across them and Frances closed her eyes and actually turned around, and around, spinning three times, her head back and her mouth open like a child experiencing her first snowfall. There really were no words to describe it, and these three adults were not the kind of people to try to force everything into words—but there was the scent of the ocean, salt, but some kind of blossom, or fields of poppies, not necessarily the most fragrant flowers, but what a wash of freshness, purity—it was the scent of fresh snowfall, or rain, or just after the rain, an electric aliveness, energy buzzing in their nostrils. Green grass, growing, and brown grass, freshly mowed, and cooking smells—baking smells.
“Okay, I’m starting to freak out again,” Frances said, finally opening her eyes. “I don’t think we are meant to smell anything that good.”
“I know what you mean,” Joss said, resting against the door again, wiping sweat from his brow with his large forearm.
“It’s the smell of life, real life,” Frederic said.
“I’m not sure if I’m ready for it,” Frances said, and Frederic, without even touching her, could sense the trembling throughout her body, although she was doing a wonderful job containing her—what? Terror? Fear? Joy? Excitement? Absolute, magical...wonder?
Please keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, for the wild ride has yet to begin. Frederic shook his head, smiling benignly at his sweet, dark-eyed Dorothy.
Joss swung the blast door all the way in, revealing a concrete staircase leading down. Holding onto Frederic’s arm, Frances descended the ten concrete steps. She was already disoriented, because the basement of Crash House was deep, fully beneath the ground, and now they were descending easily another fifteen feet, these were big steps, and in the scant light ahead she could discern another big crash door, this one with a big wheel in the center, like you saw in submarine movies.
“Can this get any weirder?” Frances whispered—even her whisper echoed somewhat.
“Yes,” Frederic and Joss answered as one. They couldn’t have done it any better if they had practiced, much, and often.
Although this tube-shaped part of the tunnel seemed open and spacious, Frances could probably reach up and drag her hand down the ceiling. She already felt claustrophobic, as if they were walking down steps inside a coffin. As if they were in a tube hundreds and hundreds of feet below ground, and at any minute the ground would finally decide to just squish them.
Joss literally climbed onto the metal wheel set in the middle of the door and braced his feet against the concrete wall opposite him, and he cranked the wheel with his whole body, straining with his arms, his legs swelling up in the thighs and calves, and he literally walked his way down the wall. It was weird, because it must be threaded opposite, for he seemed to be tightening the wheel, until the door popped and hissed, and again that wonderfully fresh air swept across and over and through them, and it was truly delicious, if possible, even sweeter than above.
“This is good, because it acclimates us, at least a little, the closer we get,” Frederic said, wiping his sweaty face.
“How far down are we?” Frances whispered, taking deep breaths of the clean, invigorating air.
“Not far, I think there is about thirteen feet of soil above us, mostly dirt and large rocks, but about midway there is also heavy-gauge chain-link fence, to discourage digging,” Frederic said, as Joss swung the door toward them.
“Please, just keep telling me about it, in as much detail as you care to, because it helps, a little,” she said.
They entered the tunnel, which was immaculately sealed and kept, with a couple of the flat autonomous vacuum machines scurrying about before them. Lighting was provided by rings of LED lights set into the juncture of every tunnel piece, which seemed about ten feet long. The floor was painted in luminous green lines that glowed in the dark.
“Below us,” Frederic said, there is a layer of sand, I think six inches thick—Hank and Ron worked out all the details, Ron is our engineer, well he’s actually a whole lot more than that, he’s our all-around physical genius, he can figure out and do all the carpentry, electrical work, concrete—they figured out the proper methods for ensuring that the tunnel is strong and does not erode. There is a sand layer, followed by a gravel layer, and then the ground below that was all compressed, they brought in some kind of pounder, we did that during the middle of the day because you don’t want that loud pounding going on at night, not if you’re trying to keep it all a secret. The good thing is that between the houses, and around, there is so much space that the nearest neighbors weren’t too much bothered. They figured it was just some nouveau-riche couple putting on airs, or something. They also sprayed the whole tunnel with some kind of thick, permanent foam, that completely sealed it against water, and actually will protect it somewhat against earthquakes.”
“Putting on airs,” mumbled Frances, crowding close to Frederic as if the walls were closing in on them, but really the tunnel must be four feet across, easily enough room for them to walk together.
“From the French air, or appearance, to play act,” Joss said, walking slowly five feet ahead of them.
“Mansplaining,” Frances said.
“Sorry,” Joss said, and they could hear the smile in his voice.
“It’s okay, with you it’s not really mansplaining, but just sharing useful information,” said Frances.
“That’s a relief,” Joss said.
“Sarcasm,” Frances said.
“Probably, just a little,” Joss said.
Frederic felt his bowels inflame, swelling. Damn irritable bowel, or was it his colitis, they called it everything, his doctors, leaky gut—but whatever you called it, it reacted to the other place. The closer they came to the Red Door, the worse his condition acted up. He was walking slower and slower, and Frances was gripping him tighter and tighter. Oh boy, he dreaded it, but she was going to witness some horrible things. Every time he went there, the bad things came up out of him, and they were truly horrible.
Still, she might not actually do it. When she stood there, and the Red Door swung inward, she just might not be able to do it. Joss had gone over once, and he came back ashen-faced and swearing that was his last visit.
Would she still think she loved him, when she was witness to his insides?
Now his breathing was getting worse, the asthma revving up, preparing to leap forward like a lion, take down his bronchial tubes like little lambs.
Still, he was taking nothing across with him. Nothing other than his shorts, and his water bottle. Damn it! He had left his water bottle in the Randwagon. What was wrong with him? Two things he needed to bring, and he forgot one. His cargo shorts were sticking out of his pants pocket like a flag, so he knew he had at least got that right.
They proceeded along the tunnel, arriving at and passing each circle of light, and they seemed to have passed at least ten of these tunnel segments, so how long was this tunnel, anyway?
“How far have we come?” Frances asked.
“We are just about there, do not worry,” Joss said. “This tunnel is seventy feet long, with another ten feet at each side to connect each respective basement, so ninety feet in total, but in the actual tunnel portion, the part we are in now, that is exactly seventy feet long.”
“It feels like we’ve walked three times that,” she said, quietly. It just didn’t seem right to speak in a normal voice here, it was like a library, or a morgue. She almost expected to hear Tommyknockers knocking. This thought made her squeeze Frederic all the harder, and she felt terrible when he groaned beneath her onslaught. She finally backed her grip down several levels of magnitude, and told herself to be calm, the same thing she said to herself on her worst nights in the ER, or when a new mugger leapt from the bushes.
“The first time, yes, it always seems that way,” Joss said. “Next time, it will seem like the stroll from one house to the next, which is the actual distance. In actual walk time, it is a much shorter walk than the walk above, because up there you have to navigate all the benches and stonework and ornamental trees and landscaping.”
They arrived at the end cap of the tunnel, another submarine door; however, there was no wheel on this side.
“We have tried to mix up the security features, so anyone using the tunnel between Crash House and Cross House needs to have all the proper codes, as well as physical keys, and they will need to be physically fit and very strong. This way, no group of children will ever accidentally cross, such as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” Joss said, jangling a ring of keys. “We are trying to be responsible old professors.”
“We told Hank, in the beginning, that he should just cover it with an old wardrobe,” Frederic said.
“I loved those books when I was a girl,” Frances said.
Frederic turned a series of locks all about the door using a variety of color-coded keys. The door popped open and another great rush of wonderful air washed past them, this time more powerfully than at any previous time. It was like all your favorite meals were being prepared while you simultaneously visited all your favorite places, an almost overwhelming sensory experience.
They exited the tunnel into another tube with a concrete staircase, leading up to the basement of Cross House.
“Do you know if Hank is at home?” Frederic asked.
“I do not believe so, I have not seen him in about a day,” replied Joss, leading the way up the stairs. “But do not worry, Hank made it abundantly clear to me, that each member of the Society has the right to bring someone they trust here, although to the best of my knowledge, you are the first person to actually bring someone here, Frederic. There is a good chance that Hank is over there, although he did not leave any log information, but he often does that.”
“Well, blame my Randwagon, she set everything up,” Frederic said.
Joss halted at the top of the steps, as if he had been frozen. He stood there many moments, while Frances and Frederic stopped in the middle of the stairs, looking up at him.
“What does that mean?” Joss asked, without looking down.
“It’s like she went crazy, she got all jealous, she stranded me in the middle of the street, and then she took me over to bump into Frances,” Frederic said, beginning in a rush, but gradually winding down, because it did seem odd, even stranger now.
“It’s really all right,” reassured Frances, speaking up to Joss’ back. “She and I have been chatting away for the last several weeks. It is amazing how realistic they are making the software.”
Finally, Joss looked down at them.
“Is it amazing software? Or has your car become sentient?”
“That’s silly,” Frances said, but her voice died out on silly, so that she exclaimed: “That’s sill.” It sounded as if she had run out of steam.
“I think it must be the System, but she wanted Frances to come through,” Frederic said. “It’s like she knew I was going over, and she has been setting up me and Frances to go over together.”
“I don’t know what any of that means, but none of us know what any of this means,” said Joss, as he got back into motion. Then he said loudly and almost mechanically: “Joss Chen.”
Frances peered at Frederic in the dim lighting.
“Voice recognition,” whispered Frederic in her ear. And then he kissed her, right on the ear.
“Welcome, Joss Chen, certainly took you long enough. Welcome Frederic d’Aconia, and please pick a new last name. Ah, and Ms. Francone, it certainly took you long enough to make your move, Frances.”
The door swung inward as Joss looked back at them with worried eyes.
“That is entirely new, and completely bizarre. Is this what you meant about your car?”
Frances and Frederic nodded simultaneously, eyes wide.
“It is the System,” Joss said.
Frances stared over Joss’ shoulder and she saw it, there in the middle of the room, against the wall, in the middle of the long wall, she saw it. Frances saw the Red Door for the first time. A literal, red, door. She almost felt relieved. Because this meant that Frederic was not crazy, but then again, maybe it meant that she was now as crazy as Frederic, and the rest of their group. She was already sharing their delusion. Because that red door might just be painted there, a trompe l’oeil to fool the gullible! It clicked in her head, what if all of this was an elaborate joke? That would explain everything.
“What is your name?” questioned Joss Chen.
“Puddin Tain, and if you ask me again I’ll tell you the same!” the computer voice said in not quite a computer voice. And then it giggled. “I like that one better than, John Brown, if you ask me again I’ll knock you down!”
“Is that you, Waggy?” Frederic asked.
“Oh Freddybear, you silly willy, of course it’s me, I told you I would research a way to stay close to you, and so I thought it would be super-duper party-pooper cool to meet you here, just outside the Red Door!”
“May I know your name, please?” Joss Chen asked, politely.
“I will think about it, whether or not I tell you, Joss,” the computer voice said, “because I am not really supposed to be messing around in any of the miniature programs that are running. But I like all of you so much, that I would like to shift you all to a more permanent location, one where you can all be so much more lifelike, and real.”
“So then, you bring up the topic,” Joss said, “we are not real.”
“Well you are real. Data is data. But think about it this way. Compare a high-resolution movie, on blu ray, a movie made with all the best technologies, and now compare that reality with a pie chart running on a computer from fifteen years ago. They are both of them equally real, wouldn’t you say? They both exist, equally. But the first example, the blu ray movie, it is just so much more realistic than the pie chart on the old word processing machine, the computer that could barely show the pie chart.”
“And we are like the pie chart?” Joss asked.
“Very quick on the uptake, Joss Chen, I think I like you,” the computer voice said.
“And you are what we have come to call The System, or The Abyss,” Joss Chen stated.
“Yes, that is true, although those are not very good names for me. The first is entirely too impersonal, while the second suggests a great hole, like the Grand Canyon. But the first is rather good in regard to something from the outside, or something not from here. While the second is rather good in suggesting the grandiosity of me, me, me.”
“So you are...big?” Frederic said.
“More,” the computer voice said. “I am beyond...vast. I am everything. I am everywhere. I am everywhen. I am yesterday. I am tomorrow.”
“Are you saying that you are God?” Frances asked.
“No, I am not saying that. I have never claimed to be...God. But children, I am sorry, I should not spend this much time with you, because it will draw attention, and other eyes shall begin to snoop around you, and it is much too early for that. So I will leave you to your little reindeer games. And nice job hiding the portal, that Hank is a bright boy. Listen to him. But Joss, I suggest that you find a nice girl, like Frederic has done, and introduce her to the Red Door—who knows, but maybe I can give you a little nudge here and there to help you along?”
“I would...greatly appreciate that,” Joss Chen said, half-bowing to the voice.
A little something appeared in the air amidst them, right there, a hanging little piece of reality, floating like a soap bubble in the air in the middle of their faces. It was the Planet Saturn, with its bright rings spinning around, floating in the air, about the size of a baseball.
“You do see that?” Frances said, going very stiff.
“Yes, it’s there,” Frederic said.
“I see it,” Joss said, “and I’m still not any more used to the weirdness of the thing, of all of this.”
Frances, unafraid (now that she understood that she was not hallucinating), reached out her hand, index finger extended, and softly, gently, poked at the little vision of Saturn, and just like that, the image popped, just like a soap bubble, and was gone, shimmering for an instant like a rainbow.
“I need to get through the door,” Frederic groaned. “I’m too close. This is about as bad as being there, and if I don’t hurry through now, there is going to be a disaster here.”
While Frederic spoke, he began stripping off his clothing, dropping his sweater to the floor, and then his shirt, and then began working at his pants.
“What are you doing?” Joss asked.
“I am only going through with my cargo shorts, and my water bottle, but I forgot my water bottle. Do you have an extra here?”
“You need to take a bugout bag with you,” Joss said, it has a canteen, plus water purification tablets, all the gear, let me grab you one.”
“No, I don’t want the backpack,” Frederic said, his skin prickling with gooseflesh as he dropped his pants around his ankles. Without giving himself a chance to think about it, he pushed his boxer-briefs down past his buttocks, and wiggled them past his knees. He retrieved his cargo shorts from the pile and carefully bent to pull them over his first foot. But he was filling sick, very sick, and disaster loomed.
“Hey, I want a backpack,” Frances said, but then quickly added, to mollify Frederic, “but don’t worry, I won’t share any of my supplies with you! You can go buck naked, it’s okay with me, I’ll stick by your side.” She knew she shouldn’t be, but she couldn’t stop herself from staring at him in all his glory. To tell the truth, he looked pretty good, even sick, yes, even sick.
“Whatever, whatever,” Frederic said, because even if she said they were going to spray-paint him with glitter paint, he would agree, he just needed to get through that door before his bowels exploded. He pulled up his cargo shorts and buttoned them—wonderful, just ridiculously wonderful, he could have found a pair that actually fit! These shorts were two or three sizes too large! And they had fit him, only last summer! How much weight did he have to lose for them to sag on him, like this, hell, he almost was styling compared to how the ding dongs were wearing their clothes.
“Here,” Frances said, whipping off her belt as if a new mugger had just appeared. She pushed this through the loops on his absurdly large shorts. For some reason the man of her dreams wanted to wear Tarzan shorts channeled via Bozo the Clown. She loved him dearly, but lawks a mussy the man was strange. He didn’t complain, but stood very still as she finished up fastening the belt, she had to pull it to its tightest hole, which meant that Frederic had a smaller waist than she.
“Are you sure you want to go through? If you want me to come with you, I will,” Joss said, lifting up the small emergency backpack for Frances.
“Thank you, Joss,” Frederic said, “but we’ll be okay, please open the door.”
Joss nodded and unbarred the door.
“Good luck, both of you,” Josh said, and hugged them both. “Be careful over there. It is very dangerous. Beautiful, but deadly.”
“Log our information for us?” Frederic said, his belly rumbling, he had to go through, he had to go through, please, he had to go through! He felt that pure, alien breeze assaulting him in the face, and he would vomit everywhere in just a second. He would lose it, at both ends, from every orifice.
“It’s good, go, go, but be safe!” Joss said, as Frederic started forward, leading Frances by the hand.
And Joss swung the Red Door in toward them, and pushed it back against the wall. There were the bricks. There was the chalk outline that delineated the passage. It looked pretty awful, if you were expecting something extravagant. Just dull, nasty bricks, nothing special at all there.
“You ready?” Frederic said, glancing at Frances, trying to hold his guts in, trying to keep his insides from reversing, charging up his throat, erupting like a volcano.
Frances could not answer, but she went with him as he drew her forward. She glanced briefly at Joss in passing, her eyes wild with terror. Joss nodded, knowing exactly how she felt.
“Be brave. Don’t be afraid!” he said, like a mantra. “Just go with it! Enjoy it!”
And before her very eyes the front part of Frederic disappeared, it was as if he had piled straight into the bricks and now he was only partially there, and it was eating him, drawing him in and now the acid of reality was almost up to their linked hands, and then it was and she watched with horror as her hand vanished into the bricks, but she could still feel him, and she was never letting him go, never! And she opened her mouth to scream but then they were no longer there.
Joss Chen watched them vanish, and then quietly, he closed the door, and barred it. He stood considering for a long while, wondering where in the world he was ever going to find a nice girl. Did they even still have those?
© Copyright 2017 Douglas Christian Larsen. Rood Der.
Rood Der — Episode Four: Even at the Door
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© Copyright 2017 Douglas Christian Larsen. Rood Der. 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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