Short Story: “Escape Clause”

I really did dream about taking some classes in this place. What I don’t know is whether there were some classes I don’t recall. (This story is longer than my usual.)

“Escape Clause”
by P. Orin Zack
[6/10/2008]

Jeremy was fuming.

Years earlier, on his first dream-visit to the Great Interdimensional Library, the prospect of finding a place where he could learn a gamut of reality-stretching ideas beyond anything in his waking life had been exhilarating. After surviving an infuriating series of lab sessions that taught him how to return to the Library exactly when and where he’d left it, looking forward to bedtime, and the opportunity to resume his secret dream-life, had even made his waking self more alluring to the only person he’d tried to confide his secret with.

But Heather was resistant to the possibility that the world they both awoke to each day had no better claim to being ‘real’ than the fantastic one in which Jeremy claimed to spend his nights.

Her steadfast refusal to entertain such an idea was, at first, a minor annoyance. But over time, as his nocturnal education progressed beyond the mechanics of reality hopping and what some people called ‘lucid dreaming’, and he learned in StorySculpting that the parabolic shapes of the lives we lived were no different from those of fictional characters crafted to trace its literary equivalent, he came to understand that we live out the parables we most need to learn from.

And now, intent on confronting his Singularities teacher, visions of waking life flickered through his mind while classmates cleared the room. He could almost see Heather, in the light blue tunic she so favored, sitting on the brick edgework of a decorative fountain, gazing skyward at a pair of Japanese fighting kites. Looking back on it, he could appreciate the metaphor, as the aerial battle hung over their verbal one, but at the time his mind was focused on the argument which had, at last, parted their paths.

Clearly, this would be an important moment in his life. The question, he reminded himself, was always the same: was he here to serve his own needs, or those of his adversary. Introspection had its limits. His own singularity was at hand.

The Library being what it is, and the people who visit being what they are, meant that appearances weren’t merely deceiving, they were deceptions of convenience. Jeremy may have considered a world of bilaterally symmetrical ape-descended bipeds to be the most natural possible form of intelligent life, but the same could not be said for many of those who were vacating the classroom. It most assuredly was not the case for Jeremy’s teacher, who had just sloughed off the perceptual ambiguity that enabled each of his students to experience him as being from a reality context not too far removed from their own. Tightening his self-expression, the portly professor’s presence at the front of the room smoothly shifted to a form he felt far more comfortable with, that of what Jeremy saw as a lilac-colored dolphin, hovering a few feet off the floor.

Undoubtedly, professor Sklynjffrum experienced the entire complex differently from Jeremy as well, but the ambiguity inherent in the Library’s reality was such that regardless of how accurately or comfortably a visitor might experience others, the place itself presented as a well-proportioned center of learning, however that might appear in the visitor’s waking reality. Jeremy rose as the last of the class walked or vanished from the room, and determinedly approached his teacher.

Sklynjffrum eyed him briefly. “You had a question?”

Jeremy slowed as his teacher’s words erupted in his mind as if spoken by a multiple person’s newly presented alter. He resisted the temptation to think his reply. “A disagreement, actually.”

The rows of vacant chairs Jeremy had been navigating abruptly stopped vaporizing, leaving the classroom with a surreal pattern of partially realized rendering artifacts.

“Why did you choose to not raise it during class?”

“We were discussing discontinuities in reality fields. It didn’t seem germane.”

“What is it then?”

Jeremy glanced at the remains of a nearby chair, which appeared to be standing on only its front right leg. “Ambiguity, sir. I don’t agree that it is a constant within a given reality.”

The lilac dolphin allowed himself to be perceived once again as a portly biped. “You’re questioning one of the root assumptions of realitycraft? Perhaps we should convene a meeting of the Master Designers Council. After all, if their work —.”

“I’m serious, sir. And if I am right about this, then several long-established realities, include my own, may be in immanent danger of collapse.”

Sklynjffrum considered his student briefly, and then eased into a nearby chair, ignoring the fact that only two legs reached the floor and part of the seat was missing. “Perhaps you’d better explain,” he said.

“Would you mind rematerializing the rest of that chair first? It’s a bit distracting.”

The missing legs abruptly reappeared, as did a bit of seat that should have been visible, while all but one other chair in the room vanished. Jeremy glanced at it to confirm that it was whole, pulled it closer and sat down.

“As I was saying, I have reason to believe that ambiguity, in at least some inhabited realities, is in flux.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be a bit more specific than that, Jeremy. Are you speaking about inherent ambiguity or associational?”

“Both, actually. You see, there was a major shift in cultural norms in my home context, one that took dozens of generations to complete.”

Jeremy’s teacher sighed. “And I suppose that one of the effects of this shift was a cultural interest in science, invention, rational thought and all that?”

“That’s right. In my waking life, most of the myths and legends that had enabled earlier generations to have a vital fantasy life have been replaced with rigorous scientific explanations for just about everything. The plasticity of my world’s reality has been compromised. It’s a wonder that anyone from my world is open enough to accept their time here as anything more than an entertaining hallucination!”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Regardless of what the inhabitants believe and how they perceive their world it will always be possible to generate new instances of associational ambiguity. All that takes is the juxtaposition of two similar perceptual patterns, like fireworks over a castle in a scene from a movie, for example, mapping to a well-established memory from one of your world’s theme parks. Once that’s been set up, triggering the memory releases the ambiguity. Ambiguity may be transformed, but the amount present in a world is conserved. There’s really nothing to worry about.”

“But…”

Sklynjffrum rose, and reverted to his dolphine form as the chair faded.

Jeremy tried to block out the inner voice rattling off a series of references and activities that might help him to better understand the long-established behavior of ambiguity in reality fields. At least when his teacher was permitting him to interpret the exchange in normal sensory terms, he could tune him out. Frustrated, he watched his teacher float towards the door before looking away.

In all the time he’d been coming to the Library, he’d been more than willing to open his mind to things that those he spent his days with would scoff at. He’d learned ways to see and understand the world that cut through even the nastiest preconceptions and unraveled the most tangled of personal paradoxes. And now, when he’d discovered a way to repay those who had helped him, when he saw something that even those at the Library were blind to, he was rewarded with condescension and ridicule.

Angrily seeking escape from the suffocating feeling that had gripped him, Jeremy stormed out of the classroom, ran towards the main entrance, descended the steps of the Comparative Realities center, and strode across the immaculately maintained courtyard. He stopped at what he guessed was the center of the quad, and glanced at the three other buildings that defined the rectangle of soft grass.

“I’ll just have to prove it to them,” he told himself aloud.

The next instant, he opened his eyes to the darkness of his bedroom. It wasn’t yet dawn, but he was far too wide-awake to try going back to sleep. Instead, he rose and dressed, his mind racing, searching for a solution to the challenge he had set himself.

“The problem,” he said quietly while brewing some coffee, “seems to center on the way changes in our conception of the world are reflected in adjustments to the world itself.”

Jeremy never would have stumbled on the interaction if he hadn’t taken Sklynjffrum’s singularities course. According to the model offered at the Library, though, the only discontinuities in a reality field caused by alterations in the collective worldview of those within it were cosmetic. Waking back into a world that had been changed in this way might be disconcerting, but discovering that your personal history, or even whole sections of the past were different, were well within the scope of associational ambiguity. The changes might be monumental on a personal scale, but they were non-events as far as the field’s inherent ambiguity — which worked on the level of what people understood as physical science — was concerned.

He turned out the light and stared into the night sky, picking out the stars that sketched Orion’s belt, while the perking of his coffeemaker supplied a soundtrack to the ideas bubbling through his mind.

Science wasn’t the point. Not entirely, though it was partly responsible for what he suspected was happening. It had more to do with the relationship between science and mythology. And that was something beyond the scope of what those at the Library were concerned with. It was not just specific to his waking reality, but to the cultural underpinnings of the society he lived in.

The coffee was ready, so he poured himself some, stirred in the milk and sugar, and went out onto the porch to think. “Who can I talk to about this?” he murmured after idly sipping nearly half of it. “Even the people who’ve realized that there’s value in mingling specialties insist on having some solid assumptions to stand on. So who’s in the business of kit-bashing ideas, just to see what pops out?”

The distant hush of the highway, which had been punctuated by a growing population of morning birds, was swiftly overwhelmed by the sound of a badly tuned engine off to his right: the newspaper delivery. He watched, with an oddly detached feeling, as the old car approached, and then followed the folded paper’s arc across the lawn and into a bush.

Writers did that, he thought, watching the paper sink into the moist jumble of leaves and gently rock up and back. Well, at least some of them did.

A smile crossed his face. His gaze rose smoothly from the banded paper and settled on the house across the street and to the left. “Dave.”

His neighbor had one of the stranger blogs he had ever come across. Not many people clicked into it, but that didn’t dissuade Dave from continuing to post his bizarre combination of essays, commentary, and the occasional bit of offbeat fiction.

Dave also happened to be an early riser. Jeremy had just finished his coffee when his neighbor lazily opened the door and stumbled across his lawn for the morning news. He raised his empty cup in mute salute when the blogger happened to gaze in his direction, and was answered by an unsteady invitation to cross the street. He nodded graciously, and tipped his cup to indicate he needed a refill.

“I just had the most godawful dream,” Dave said as Jeremy approached. “Thought I’d stumbled into some kind of drugged-up funhouse. The place kept changing. One minute I was staring at a book with writing that wouldn’t sit still, and the next I had a handful of jigsaw puzzle pieces squirming through my fingers.” He made a face. “I mean, talk about disgusting. I’m gonna have to call the pizza place and ask ‘em what kind of mushrooms they topped the thing with.”

“You’re serious.” It was a statement.

Dave raised his free hand. “As Bog is my witness. Why? You look like it sounded familiar.”

He nodded. “It is. Too familiar. In fact, I’m only up this early because I had to wake myself up out of it.”

Dave’s eyebrows rose, and his face took on a decidedly distasteful expression.

“I’m serious. It’s called ‘The Great Interdimensional Library’, and I’ve been taking classes there for years.”

“And, um, you do what for a living again?”

“Come on, Dave. You’ve known me since college. By day, I sling code, and by night I attend classes given by a lilac dolphin named Sklynjffrum. So what? It’s not like your loopy blog is the sanest thing on the block.”

“I’m not so sure. Have you heard what Bob did to his sister?”

“That’s beside the point. Look. I need to work something out. Something important. And you’re probably the only person I know who could let me finish saying it without tossing me out on my ear.”

Dawn was breaking, and their talk had started two of the neighborhood dogs barking at one another. Dave took a deep breath, and invited Jeremy inside for eggs and bacon. While his neighbor prepped breakfast, Jeremy did his best to explain the Library. They were nearly finished eating before Jeremy felt comfortable enough to lay out the problem he saw.

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Dave said, balancing his last strip of bacon between thumb and forefinger. “We collectively dreamed reality into existence, and by explaining everything, science is closing all the loopholes that make it flexible?”

“Essentially, yeah.”

“So? I don’t get it. Why’s it got to be flexible?”

“So we don’t…” Jeremy glanced around, searching for a hook to hang the idea on, and noticed his friend’s overflowing rack of boxed DVD sets. “So we don’t write ourselves into a corner.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, if you’re writing a sequel to something, you have to find bits of the original story that can be interpreted in more than one way, in order to patch it together. Things that happened off-camera, or statements that could have meant something other than what the reader was led to believe the first time around. A revelation in the sequel — like… like Darth Vader really being Luke’s father, for example — can put a whole different light on everything that happened in the original story. Associational ambiguity makes that possible.”

“Okay. I’m with you on that, but how do you make the leap from fiction to reality?”

Jeremy calmed down. This was something he’d been through endlessly. “You make the leap because fiction IS reality, from a particular point of view. This world only seems real because were seeing it from the inside, like a character in one of your stories. But if you can step outside… if you can walk through that ambiguity, everything changes.”

“And you contend that by eliminating ambiguity in our understanding of how the universe works, by completely displacing the storytelling possibilities inherent in the myths about the world, science is forestalling any possibility of a sequel… of a revelation that opens up the storytelling possibilities in our universe?”

“Yes. Precisely.”

Dave munched his bacon.

“Sklynjffrum calls that kind of flexibility Inherent Ambiguity. And according to the collective wisdom at The Library, it never changes. They’ve built up all kinds of ideas and practices based on the assumption that regardless of what fluctuations in associational ambiguity there might be in a reality, it can’t have any effect on the underlying structure of the reality.

“I think they’re wrong. I think that when people’s understanding of the world was built on myth and legend, it was possible to make sweeping changes to reality, rewriting history back to the beginning. I think that’s how dinosaur bones, which hadn’t ever been encountered before, suddenly fleshed out a whole backstory to the world we thought we knew. But as science commits these newly insinuated storylines into the linear explanation that more and more people subscribe to, it becomes harder and harder to rework the basic structure of the story we live in. At some point, it will become so constrained that there’ll be no way to add another chapter. At that point, our world would just collapse. The creative possibilities will have been completely mined out.”

“That’s a great story idea, Jer, but I don’t think there’s much chance of getting anyone to buy it. The danger is too obscure. You’ll need to find a way to make it visceral if you want to cause someone to act on it. But for the life of me, I can’t come up with a way to do that.”

Jeremy frowned. “I think that’s because we’re inside the problem. What if we were talking about some other writer’s open-ended series? What if you recognized that his big story arc was about to strangle the whole thing, make it impossible for him to go beyond the book he’s finishing up now? What then?”

“Hmmm. That might work. So what are you going to do now?”

“Go back to sleep.”

“What?”

“I’ve got to return to The Library. If there’s one thing the people there pride themselves on, it’s their ability to create and cultivate realities. Until now, none of their creations have committed suicide. This one could.”

Newly energized, Jeremy stood up and started towards the door. Before he left, he turned back for a moment. “Oh yeah. Thanks for breakfast. And be careful you don’t do what they did.”

Dave looked puzzled.

“Don’t write yourself into a corner.”

Back home, Jeremy rummaged through the medicine cabinet for an old prescription he’d never finished: sleeping pills. Then he sent several emails telling people he’d be out of action for a few days, locked the doors, silenced the phone and drew the shades. He didn’t want any interruptions.
*     *     *
Avardukh considered herself an explorer. She never had been one to stick to the lesson plan, whether she was attending to one of the village elders, or off alone, learning the wisdom of the animals and growing her own tree of knowledge from the Earth Goddess’s lush forest of experience. She’d always start out intending to follow the course her teacher charted, if only to experience the intended journey of enlightenment. But the connections she saw along the way were too compelling. She just had to follow, had to know where they led. The lure was strong in her waking hours, but it didn’t hold a candle to the possibilities she sensed here, when she visited The Great Interdimensional Library in her dreams.

Over the course of several sessions, she’d noticed how uncomfortable a student called Jeremy in Sklynjffrum’s singularities class had become, and wondered what he saw that she didn’t. When he missed a session, she wrote it off to a distraction in his waking reality. The next time, though, she’d spotted him before class, heading across the grassy quad towards the Experiential Arts building, and followed.

Staying well back, she waited until he’d climbed the building’s formal stairs before racing to catch up. Any time someone approached a doorway at The Library, there was the possibility that it would reconfigure and take her somewhere other than the space beyond the threshold. But the view through the entrance remained constant, and she followed him inside.

Knots of people stood or hovered here and there, flickering between their accustomed forms and the neutral shapes that helped to facilitate cross-species communication. When she’d first encountered the phenomenon, it just confused her, but after a while she realized that the change reflected the fluctuating difficulty in expressing ideas that were peculiar to a visitor’s home context.

Jeremy turned a corner. Avardukh hurried to the intersection and peered around the edge. He opened a door to the right. She swept in and kept it from closing, following him to wherever he’d gone.

Steeling herself to the possibility of finishing her stride nearly anywhere, she held her breath and glanced around. No surprises. The other side of the door revealed what the sign beside it had promised, the Reality Lab.

He went directly to one of the many stations scattered across the room. She found an alcove seat from where she could watch inconspicuously, and got comfortable. He stood before an altar with a translucent image floating above it. The image glowed of its own light, and appeared to respond to his words and gestures. To Avardukh’s waking sensibilities, it was clearly a magical artifact of some kind. But to the part of her that had learned the ways of the Library, it transcended artifice, because it could just as easily be understood as a mechanism devised to perform certain specialized functions, nothing more than a very advanced machine. She guessed, by the intensity on his face, that to Jeremy it was infused not with magic, but rather with science.

He busied himself for a time, making what Avardukh translated as refinements to the spell he was crafting. Watching him, standing transfixed before that ghostly image, she imagined fields of light arising from his busy hands, forming and reforming intricate patterns in the air. But then he stopped, satisfaction on his face, and eagerness in his stance. Whatever it was he was preparing had been completed.

Avardukh sat up, straining for a better view of what he was doing. She rose and skirted the wall until she was almost directly behind him. He stood quite still for several seconds, his arms hanging limply at his sides. Then he took a deep breath, slowly moved his left hand into the midst of the apparition, and vanished.

She raced towards where he’d stood, her eyes on the glowing ball of light, intent on seeing whatever clues there might be to where he’d gone. Her jaw dropped as she drew near enough to see it clearly. It was as if she stood with the Goddess. Jeremy had conjured a miniature version of her world, complete with tiny clouds. She traced the coastline near her home. “We share the same world,” she breathed. Placing his hand inside the image, she guessed, was how he had entered Gaia’s dream.

Intending to follow, she raised her own hand and thrust it into the heart of the miniature version of her home that Jeremy had conjured.

Nothing happened.

Well, almost nothing. His voice spoke inside her head. “Hi Avardukh,” he said. “Do me a big favor, would you? Go get Sklynjffrum.” She asked why, but he did not reply.

Avardukh yanked her hand back and looked at it. What magic was this? Panicked, she turned and ran. By the time she reached the classroom, most of the students had already gone, and Sklynjffrum was fielding questions from the few that remained.

“I followed Jeremy to one of the labs,” she blurted, breathless. “He stuck his hand into a conjured vision of my world and disappeared. He asked me to get you.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know. I heard his voice in my head when I tried to follow him. I have a sense that he might be in trouble.”

“One can only hope. At least then maybe he’ll have a good reason to learn from it. Show me the station he used.”

Sklynjffrum reverted to his dolphine form, and floated off towards the door. But instead of opening onto the hallway beyond it, the doorway led directly to the Reality Lab. Two of the students Sklynjffrum had been speaking with followed close behind Avardukh. They stood flanking their classmate while their teacher changed form, extended a hand into the image, and vanished.

They waited patiently for several minutes, hoping that both student and teacher would emerge, but nothing happened.

“Do either of you know how to work one of these things?” Avardukh said quietly, her eyes fixed on the floating image.

The one to her left, who presented in the Library as a flat-faced man with reddish skin and thinning hair, nodded. “Like you just saw. Insert your hand. It’s a bit like how Sklynjffrum opened a doorway directly to this lab.”

“I tried that right after Jeremy went in. But all I got was his voice in my head.”

Kim stepped closer and examined the floating image for a moment. He inserted his hand briefly. Nothing. “He must have keyed it so only Sklynjffrum could enter.”
*     *     *
Jeremy stood alone in the middle of a deserted city street. A line of dusty cars waited for a light that would never change, their drivers and passengers nowhere to be found. He gazed down the concrete canyon, and into the smudged, cloudy sky. It was eerily silent. There were no motors, no voices. Not even the flutter of pigeon wings or the rustle of rats amid the debris broke the silence.

He smiled, and walked towards the entrance of a nearby bookstore. A delivery truck was parked in the no-standing zone opposite the door, a stack of boxes left unattended on the sidewalk. He opened the top flap and looked inside. It was the novel that Dave had given up on. Perhaps he—.

The sound of footsteps from behind broke the thought.

“What is this all about?” It was Sklynjffrum.

Jeremy turned. “Thanks for dropping in. After our last discussion, I decided that a demonstration was in order.”

“A demonstration? What are you talking about?”

“Ambiguity. You and all the other big brains at the Library seem to think that nothing can affect the inherent ambiguity underlying a reality. So I cooked this one up to show you otherwise.”

Sklynjffrum glanced around. “It’s not bad, really. Considering that you can’t insinuate other life into one of these training worlds, you did a creditable job of making it appear that life once did exist here. But how does a deserted planet full of props prove anything?”

“It doesn’t. I may not be able to put life into one of these things, but I can do the next best thing.”

“Oh? And what is that?”

“A back-story. The props imply a history. This abandoned city is like a hologram. Look through it, and you can imagine the people who drove those cars and shopped these stores. You can imagine the man who spent two years struggling to complete this book, and what his life was like. It’s just as real as any world open to enfleshment, but it’s all in your imagination. And that’s where it has an advantage over one that people are actually living in, because the back-story can change.”

Jeremy waved his hand, and the city around them shimmered momentarily.

Sklynjffrum turned and examined a few things. “It looks the same to me.”

“But it’s not. A moment ago, I assumed that this box was full of a single novel, but I only saw this one cover.” He pulled out the book. “Now there’s only one copy. The rest of the box is stuffed with mystery novels. Same thing with those cars… that sedan was empty when I looked inside, so I assumed they all were. But check a few others.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Sklynjffrum walked towards one of the other cars and looked inside. He winced and looked away.

“Not so innocuous anymore is it? The people who never existed left their remains. So instead of wondering what happened to all the people, the question changes to what killed them all. Still, some things remained the same. The buildings, the cars and stores… they’re all exactly as they were before. So the universe of possibility for any new changes to our back-story just shrunk. There’s a bit less ambiguity to work with than there was a moment ago.”

“And that’s what you brought me here for? Look, Jeremy, I applaud your achievement, but what you’ve shown me doesn’t prove that at all. These things are all examples of associational ambiguity. In order for the inherent ambiguity of this reality to be lessened, the thought-form that created it would have to be restricted as well.”

Jeremy smiled. “But it has. I can only keep revising the back-story until I run out of unexamined assumptions that could be twisted into a different shape. Take this, for example.” He waved his free hand. The world shimmered. “Let’s go inside and get a newspaper.”

They crossed the empty sidewalk and entered the unlit store. Several bodies were piled up beside the register, one of which left a bloody trail across the floor when it had been dragged away from a rack of political best sellers. Jeremy followed the trail and examined the titles on display. Most of them had to do with a global war over dwindling resources, and the powerful few who controlled access to them.

Sklynjffrum picked up one of the books and paged through it. “I suspect nobody involved in the dispute could have predicted that it would end this way.”

The newspaper rack was a bit further into the store. Jeremy walked over and opened a tabloid. “It says here that when the deep oil was pumped dry in a struggling caliphate, the equipment became fouled with what was underneath it. Turned out the oil wasn’t produced from buried plants or animals after all. It was the planet’s blood, after a fashion. The people of this world murdered their own planet to power their cars.”
*     *     *
“Hey!” Avardukh called suddenly. “Come look at this. Something’s going on in there.” The miniature planet’s oceans had turned a murky brown. Its clouds, which had formed intricate patterns moments earlier, had arranged themselves into continuous leaden-grey rings at various latitudes.

Kim, who was speaking with a group of people gathered by a nearby station, raised a finger for pause. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. But if I were this world’s goddess, I’d be worried. It looks like the planet’s sick.”

Soon, more than a dozen people were gathered around Jeremy’s station. Discussion turned to possible explanations for the phenomenon. In the midst of this, one of them stepped closer to it and lifted his hand in front of him. He stared at his fingers, which he was wiggling gently.

Avardukh intervened. “You’re not thinking of putting your hand in there, are you?”

“Well we have to try something. Your friend may not realize there’s something wrong.”

“It didn’t work for me,” said Kim.

“That was before the realization turned sour. Give me a minute. I want to see what happens.”

He carefully pushed his hand into the image. He held it there for longer than Kim had earlier, turning it this way and that within the image. His hand was a mottled grey when he pulled it out.

“What have you done,” one of them exclaimed, grabbing his forearm. “We better have this looked at.”

“By whom?” Kim asked. “The practice realities you can make with these units are supposed to be completely safe. I’ve never heard of anyone being harmed by one.”

“Maybe so,” Avardukh countered, “but I doubt they’re supposed to do that, either!” She was pointing at Jeremy’s ghostly orb. It was no longer glowing.
*     *     *
Dave slowed before pulling into his driveway. His neighbor’s car was still where it had been when he’d left for work that morning.

“That’s odd,” he mumbled, glancing first at Jeremy’s car, and then at his closed bedroom curtains. “He always leaves them open during the day.”

When he reached the porch, he remembered that Jeremy had left his cup behind in his rush to return home. After bringing in the mail, he came back outside, picked up the cup, and headed across the street.

Nobody answered the doorbell.

Becoming concerned, he pulled out his cell and called Jeremy’s landline. But even though the cell reported that it was ringing, he couldn’t hear the phone from the front porch.

“Why would he have turned off the ringer?”

Dave crossed the porch and squeezed behind the bushes that ringed the house until he reached Jeremy’s bedroom window. There was a gap between the curtains. The light was off, the door was closed, and Jeremy was propped up against some pillows on the bed, fully clothed. There was an open prescription bottle on his night table.

“Dear God!” Dave breathed.

He banged on the window several times. “Jeremy!” he called. “Jer, wake up!” Nothing. Then he remembered their pre-dawn conversation. He’d said he was going back to sleep, so he could return to the Library and prove a point. The nightstand. “Those must be sleeping pills. What if he overdosed?”
*     *     *
Jeremy took a weary breath and wheeled on his teacher. They were in a nearby park now, and the afternoon light had taken on a decidedly unnatural pallor, courtesy of a sun that had begun to dim. He pointed at the pathetic glow in the sky. “Look at that. Do you believe me now?”

Sklynjffrum still held the crumpled flier that had skittered by after he tried to bring his student’s ailing reality back into balance by casting yet another back-story over its past. “But it can’t be. It just can’t!”

“Your attempt to put things right didn’t work,” Jeremy yelled. “Insinuating that revelation that the stories published in the media were all propaganda cooked up to set the people of this country at each other’s throats… It doesn’t change anything. That great swath of faux reality you had to preserve in order to insert a new history only made it worse. Each time the past is recast like this it’s like adding another layer of calcium to a joint. Pretty soon it loses flexibility and hardens in place.”

He turned and stared directly into the sun. “Look at that. The sun is cooling. It’s cooling! I’m sure the astronomers who never lived here would happily tell you it’s some unprecedented sunspot cycle. What happens in one part of a reality affects the rest of it. You’ve been over that endlessly in class. You’ve lectured us on how important it is to be aware of the danger signs of a faltering reality. Well, professor Sklynjffrum, we’re in one of them now, and you don’t look too relaxed about the prospect.”

Sklynjffrum approached him. “What I’m mostly annoyed about Jeremy is your flagrant misuse of the facilities. I’ve had quite enough of your prattle. I’m leaving. Meet me back in my office and we can discuss this rationally.”

Jeremy waited, nervously glancing up at the fading sun, while his teacher closed his eyes and slowed his breath.

“That’s odd,” Sklynjffrum said, opening them again.

“What is?”

“I’m still here. I shouldn’t be. Something won’t let be shift context.”

Jeremy chuckled. “Oh. Right. Sorry. I set this place up with limited access. That’s why nobody else followed us in.”

“So I’m the only other person who can enter?”

“Essentially, yeah.”

“Then get us out.”

After a moment’s shut-eyed concentration, Jeremy shook his head and threw up his hands. “It doesn’t work. Something’s wrong.”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” Sklynjffrum said angrily. “Setting up an experiment with the intention of having it fail. There’s a reason for learning how to safely fabricate realities, for taking classes about the consequences of inviting people to enflesh in a world that’s not stable. Having the universe pulled out from under you is not exactly the best way to—.”
*     *     *
Jeremy opened his eyes, and grabbed Dave’s wrist just as he was about to slap him in the face again. “What are you doing in my bedroom?”

Dave stood up and crossed his arms. “Saving your life, I think. What the hell were you thinking? How many of those sleeping pills did you take, anyway?”

“Not enough to kill me. So are you going to answer my question? What are you doing here?”

“Returning your coffee cup. Or did you think it was going to float back on its own?”

“Of course not. That sort of stuff only happens when I’m in the Lib— Crap. What about Sklynjffrum?”

“Come again?”

“Sklynjffrum… one of the teachers at The Library. Because you yanked me back here, I think he’s trapped in a broken reality I cooked up for him.”

“Wait a minute. You did what?”

“I was trying to prove a point. What we talked about this morning. That was this morning wasn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Anyway, I left him in what you’d consider a dream I constructed. It’s deserted, but it’s got all the stagework of a post-apocalypse horror flick. The sun was going toast when I left, and he can’t escape on his own.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Same thing I did this morning, but you’re going to have to join me this time.”

“I’m what?”

Jeremy snatched the prescription bottle and held a pill in front of Dave’s nose. “Look. The playworld I made is busted. When I return to the Library, it’ll be to where and when I left, which means I’ll pop back inside the thing. But because of what’s happened to it, I won’t be able to, um…” He cast about for a word. “I won’t be able to pull the plug on it and end up back in the lab. That world I made is about to unravel. If it does while anyone’s still inside, they’ll experience what’s called a singularity, an experiential discontinuity.”

“So what? Is that bad?”

“Kinda, yeah. It’d be like being a character in that book you decided not to finish writing.”

Dave’s jaw went slack. “Limbo?”

A nod. “As good a word for it as any, I guess. My prof — the dolphin that’s stuck in there with me — knows all about them. I was taking his singularities class when I had the idea to… never mind. That’s beside the point. Thing is, we’ve got to get him out of there.”

“Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“Have you ever done any lucid dreaming?”

“Lucid what?”

“Lucid dreaming. You give yourself a suggestion about what to dream, and then become aware that you’re dreaming so you can take control of what happens. I need you to come to the Library with me, and that’s the easiest way to get there. But more importantly, there’s something you have to do once you get there. Now listen carefully…”
*     *     *
Dave stood very still for a long moment, staring at the lone book on the one shelf in the featureless white room he found himself in. He stepped closer and ran his fingers over the cover, but did not pick it up. Instead, he turned and looked around the room. He examined the way its walls and ceiling met without a hard line of demarcation dividing vertical from horizontal. His gaze traced the curved transition to the wall that had been at his back, and then down the white wall to a door. No hinges were evident, so he guessed that it opened outward. He walked over and reached for the smooth brass knob, put his hand on it, and turned.

He blinked several times, and stared down at his hand, still clutching the knob. There was something about the knob, he told himself, something familiar. Passing it off to an idle case of déjà vu, he pushed, and the door swung silently open.

Taking a step, he stood, straddling the exit of the tiny room, his hand still gripping the brass knob. It had opened onto a corridor, and the corridor was abuzz with people. they streamed past, mostly towards the left, and a crowd was growing near another doorway. Curious, he released the knob and stepped fully into the hallway. Behind him, the door snicked shut. Yet, when he glanced over his shoulder, he could not detect the edges of the doorway he had just come through.

Slowly, he strolled towards the crowd, listening for bits of conversation that might shed some light on what the fuss was all about.

“He’s kidnapped one of the teachers,” someone said.

“—says he’s holding the dolphin for ransom,” another confided uneasily.

Dave pushed into the crowd, heading towards the mobbed doorway. If nothing else, it sounded like the setup for a good story he could write.

He stopped, surprised at the thought. “A story?” he asked the air. That was it. A book. The one he hadn’t finished. This was a dream. He was in the Library, and Jeremy wanted his help smuggling a copy of the book he’d been working on out of one of the practice realities in a lab. But how could the finished book be here if he hadn’t completed it?

But where was he supposed to get it? He tapped the shoulder of the woman in front of him. “Excuse me. I’m kind of new here. Where do you set up practice realities?”

She glanced at him. “In there. I hear someone named Jeremy is holding a teacher hostage in one of them. Don’t know if it’s true, though.”

“Sounds like him,” he muttered, and continued on towards the door. But when he was a few feet away from it, Dave straightened and looked back the way he’d come. There was something else. Something he needed in order to get that book. What was it?

The release code… that was it. He needed to know the code in order to unlock the reality Jeremy was trapped in. And that code was in the odd book in the little room. He needed to go back for that book.

Retracing his steps, Dave made his way back to the place where the door should have been. But there was nothing, just a blank stretch of wall. Panicked, he felt around for a seam for a minute, and then stepped back in frustration.

Almost immediately, someone tripped over him. He turned to offer the fallen pedestrian a hand. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Familiarity stayed his tongue. He’d seen the young woman before. He was certain. But where?

“Oh hi!” she said. “I didn’t get your name last time. “I’m Angie.”

He took her hand, and helped her back to her feet. “Dave. Well, that’s my name when I’m awake, anyway.”

She nodded happily. “Dave then. Listen, I heard someone’s managed to get trapped in a lab experiment. It’s supposed to be around here someplace. Do you know where it is?”

“Unfortunately yes. It’s a friend of mine, um, on the outside. Guy named Jeremy. Anyway, the release code for that reality he cooked up was in a book. Only the room it was in seems to be missing. The door was right here. I was staring at it when I realized I was at the Library a few minutes ago. But… but how do we get back into the room?”

Angie giggled. “You are new here, aren’t you?”

He frowned and looked away, embarrassed.

“It’s okay, Dave. Really. That room is called the foyer. It appears wherever it’s needed, kind of a welcome wagon.”

“So how do we get it back? Jeremy said if that world vanishes while they’re still inside, they’d go through a singularity. I think that’s bad.”

She nodded. “It is if you wanted to finish something. You come back, though.”

“You do? But I thought…?”

“You come back, but not as yourself, and without your memories. It’s a bit like hitting the reset button on a game.”

“Then it’s okay? We don’t have to worry?”

“Well, not unless you ever wanted to see your friend again. Resetting puts you back through the whole ensoulment process. You pop out as a baby. Well, as a baby something… In some world… Somewhere…” She trailed off.

Dave stared at her, wilting. “Oh. Then I think we’d better find that book.”

She nodded agreeably. “Here’s what you do. Close your eyes and know that the door is still there. Then reach out and open it.”

“That simple?”

“That simple. Of course, the foyer is the only room that comes back that easily. But then, that’s because it’s connected to you in a way. We each have one, but once you’re used to getting around, you’ll just pop in where you were last.”

Dave ran inside, grabbed the book, and raced back towards the mobbed entrance to the lab, Angie in tow. The crowd parted as they approached. It’s amazing how compliant people can be when you issue commands in an assertive voice. The one person who didn’t respond was a woman the others identified as Avardukh. She remained rooted to the floor in front of the increasingly brittle-looking image of the world Jeremy had created, crying.

“Okay,” Angie said. “If you got that release code, now’s the time to say it.”

He looked down at the book, which he held resting on the edge of the station’s base. Wetting his lips, he ran his thumb along the corners of the pages until he found one that was dog-eared. He opened it, and looked at the page, and laughed.

Avardukh stopped crying. “What is it?” she asked. “Is there something wrong?”

“Not wrong. Lame, perhaps, but not wrong. Though I should have expected as much from Jeremy.”

“What’s the code, then?” she said.

He turned towards the darkening image, and said, “Deus Ex Machina.”

Jeremy and Sklynjffrum popped into existence in their midst. But before Jeremy had a chance to speak, Dave turned on him. “You have got to be kidding! ‘God out of the Machine’? I mean, really. I know that place was your creation, but calling yourself god? Man, I am never going to let you live this one down.”

“I think you will.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Because I brought you back something. A souvenir. Of course you’ll have to read it here.” Jeremy held up his hand. It was the book his friend had given up on. Finished and bound.

THE END

[Afterward: Check out my other stories about the Library in the Metaphysical section.

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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