If there’s a fine line between madness and genius, what lies at the edge of the abyss of mob rule?
by P. Orin Zack
“Listen,” Corwin Farragut blurted, ignoring the carefully worded question, “could you bring me a book on your next visit?”
Bernard Katzmarek, still aching from the train ride to nowhere, looked up wearily from his notes and considered the jumpsuited prisoner. “A book?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Lovecraft. “’Through the Gates of the Silver Key’ was in an anthology I used to own. I’d like to read it again.”
Katzmarek glanced around the Spartan glass-walled interview room, and nodded towards the two uniformed guards in the hallway. “Have you lost your mind?” he said tightly. “You have no privacy here. What do you think your chances of reversing that terror conviction will be once the corporation that owns this place tells the press that the man responsible for terrorizing the political debate they underwrote amuses himself reading horror stories?”
“Come on. It’s just a story. I’ve got to do something to pass the time.”
“It may be ‘just a story’ to you, but once the right-wing echo-chamber gets hold of it, the airwaves will be full of fantasies about how you’re conjuring demons out here. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to help you to poison your chances of finally getting a fair hearing. What’s so important about that story anyway?”
“Call it a craving. Have you ever read it?”
“You’re kidding, right? The only thing I’ve had time to read since the ACLU pried those CIA documents out of Dick Cheney’s chamber of secrets are case files.” He jabbed the thick folder with his finger. “Like yours. So, if you really want to challenge that verdict, I suggest we get back on point. Are you going to answer my question, or not?”
“Okay, okay. Like I’ve said before, I did not release a hallucinogen into the civic center’s air system.”
“Was it something else, then?”
Farragut closed his eyes and sighed. “Nothing. Hell, I’m not so sure there even was a hallucinogen. I certainly didn’t have a trip that day, and I was supposed to have been the person that released the stuff.”
“Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Farragut. I’ve spoken to some of the people who did. The shrink who coined the phrase ‘meltdown mob’ at your hearing knew what he was talking about. Regardless of what really went down that day, two-dozen people have still not been released from treatment.”
“Maybe so, but I’d still like to know what kind of trip those people had. Nobody ever talked about that at what passed for a trial. It was always hidden behind a steel wall of doctor-patient confidentiality. All they ever did was toss around vague generalizations about demons, and – oh, I see your point.”
Farragut’s right hand tightened. “Okay, okay. But if you actually spoke to those people, did you at least get some idea of what they experienced, of what caused them to need treatment in the first place? Lots of people have recovered from bad trips without much more than a good night’s sleep.”
Katzmarek sighed, and started digging through the overstuffed folder.
“What’s with all the paper, anyway? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just keep all that on a laptop?”
The investigator pulled out a few sheets of paper and held them limply in his hand. “Of course it would have been easier. Why do you think they wouldn’t let me bring one in? You’re on private property here, outside the jurisdiction of the committee to force the issue. Anyway, here’s what I found out, for whatever good it might do us.”
As he read through the notes, and Farragut pressed him to draw inferences from some of the wording, a pattern emerged: by far, the majority of the bad trips were rife with religious references, most notably possession and variations on the idea of being godlike. In fact, the same word kept cropping up again and again as he read through the summaries of what the members of the ‘meltdown mob’ had experienced that day: blasphemy. And according to the psychiatrists’ reports, it had been this attack on the central core of their beliefs that had made the experience so devastating to the more religious members of the group.
“Hold it, hold it,” Farragut said when he’d finished the last report. “Every single one of those people was Christian. Weren’t there any Jews there? Moslems? An atheist, maybe?”
“Of course there were. But the Jews either recovered or were kept off-limits by the ultra-orthodox rabbis that swept in to keep any taint of association out of the press. There was one group that attempted to capitalize on what happened, though. Mormons. They considered the ravings of the two latter-day saints in the group to be some sort of coded message from God, and set up a cloister in Utah to pick them apart. Well, you know how protective the LDS church is. They weren’t even represented in the case.”
The prisoner’s expression had clouded over, so Katzmarek gave him some time to digest the reports. About a minute later, he leaned forward and spoke very quietly. “I think what you just told me… was that the people who snapped were all faced with the same quandary: either they’d had a religious experience that invalidated the core of their beliefs, or they’d been drugged.”
“So to save their souls, they needed someone to pin the drugging on. Me.”
“If, as you say, you are innocent, then yes.”
“Which means that our only hope of reversing the verdict is to convince them that their blasphemies were legit?”
“Well,” Katzmarek said lightly, “either that, or there was some other explanation for what happened to them.”
* * *
On the cramped train ride home that night, Katzmarek opened his netbook and launched into an Internet search for people who had experienced something at the ill-fated debate but who were not among those who needed treatment afterwards.
He turned up an old post by a local blogger by the name of Gina Heuff, who had an annoyingly lyrical writing style. In it, she compared a civil crowd to the smoothly flowing water in a stream, the chaos of mob rule to white-water turbulence, and what happened that day to a descent into what she called ‘the fractal social void’. He paused after reading the phrase, and, while gazing out the window at the shifting constellations of headlights, streetlights and office lights, tried to imagine what she meant by it. All he got for the effort was a headache.
Clicking to her home page, he scanned her most recent post, which was about her plan to attend the next day’s healthcare reform town hall meeting. She’d been watching the insurance-industry’s orchestrated ‘grass-roots’ crowds that had been disrupting Democratic congressmembers’ attempts to discuss the public option during the summer recess, and mused that the explosive, yet strangely controlled, situation could cause a recurrence of what she believed had happened the night of the meltdown mob. Katzmarek committed the placid face in the picture to memory, and resolved to seek her out the next day so he could ask her some questions.
There was already a snarling mob of sign-brandishing political puppets outside the high school gymnasium when he arrived, so he slowly walked past them, wincing at the illogic of their canned deceit, while looking for the brunette in the picture. Considering her desire to re-enter that fractal void, he could imagine her joining the angry mob, even if she opposed what they were doing. Satisfied that she wasn’t among them, he headed inside, to tackle the considerably more difficult job of first spotting her from a distance, and then angling an interview in the midst of all the shouting.
The memory of Heuff’s stilted prose colored his perception of the crowd as he drifted with it through the floodgates of the open gym doors and into the turbulent, echoing reservoir in which the scent of a different sort of competition stirred the subconscious of the crowd, energizing them for combat.
He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Then, blinking free of the borrowed claustrophobic imagery that had overtaken his normally analytic mind, he made his way towards the right side wall, from where he could see the majority of the crowd. He was intently examining each of the female faces across the gym, when he felt someone come up close beside him.
“Aren’t you…?” a woman’s voice quavered uncertainly. “Aren’t you that guy who’s been tracking down the meltdown mob?”
He turned to look at her. “Yes, I —.”
“What are you doing here?”
Katzmarek grinned in amusement. It was Gina Heuff. “Looking for you, as it happens.”
“Me? Why? I wasn’t a party to the case.”
The sound system came on with a squeal of feedback, and someone from the school system started fawning over Congressman Woburn by way of introduction. A scattering of catcalls turned the amplified remarks into a staccato of fractured sentences.
“I wanted to ask you about your theory,” he said close to her ear, “about what might have happened that day.”
She looked at him quizzically. “My theory?”
Woburn, a Democrat who had presented the image of an active Post Office retiree during his campaign by not coloring his thick white hair, took the microphone, and asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had health insurance. Then he asked those who had private insurance to lower their hands. “The rest of you with your hands up,” he said, “all have government-run health care.”
A scattering of epithets crisscrossed the crowd.
“Okay, then,” he said, slowly scanning the raised hands, “how many of you are opposed to allowing other people to also have government-run health care?”
Gina Heuff smiled, and gestured excitedly towards the speaker. “He’s pretty sharp.”
He watched as Woburn kept the opposition dancing on the edge of chaos for a while longer before resuming the conversation. “Yes, your theory,” he said finally. “I’ve read your blog. If there’s anything to it, or if I can convince the judge that there is, then I may be able to appeal Corwin Farragut’s conviction.”
As she watched parts of the crowd stir into agitation and then subside like waves caressing a beach, her face slowly softened, becoming as placid as it had seemed in the photo on her blog. Then her attention was drawn to a knot of people near the podium who were angrily waving their signs, and she bit her lip. Turning to face him, she nodded, and pointed towards the doors. “Outside.”
He followed her through the gym door and towards the building exit, where she slowed, and then stopped. “Is there something wrong?” he asked.
“Let me ask you something, Mr. Katzmarek.”
“Bernard. I’d like to keep this friendly.”
She nodded. “Bernard, then. Do you honestly doubt that any drugs were involved, or is this just a means to an end for you?”
“Why? Does it make a difference?”
“Very much so. I do not appreciate being used. If you simply wanted to offer my insights to the court as a way to free Mr. Farragut, and do not sincerely believe the validity of them, then I’ll have to ask you to refrain from doing so. What I see happening has serious consequences, and the possibility of a recurrence is growing, especially with people like Congressman Woburn beginning to counter the covert puppetry of the right-wing talking heads.”
Katzmarek frowned. “I don’t follow.”
“Think about it like this. The meltdown mob was a fluke. The level of social feedback among the people in that crowd was balanced right on the edge of slipping into a chaotic mob mentality purely by accident. Both sides had prepped the attendees with memes – viral talking points, if you will – and sent them into the cauldron. The candidates then played to those memes, which kept the crowd in a perpetual froth, swaying back and forth over the abyss of mindless mob action. That was why it happened. Those people you’ve been investigating experienced what should have been a profound spiritual event, but because what they found there violated the precepts of their religion, to them it was as frightening as what H. P. Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter found when he went through the Gates of the Silver Key.”
Katzmarek’s right hand rose, and he mouthed, “Lovecraft?”
“You’ve read ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’, then?”
He shook his head. “No. But Corwin Farragut just asked me to bring him a copy.”
She smiled. “Good. He understands what happened.”
“I don’t think so. He wasn’t too clear on why he even wanted to read it.”
“Do me a favor, Bernard. Bring him the book. Lovecraft pulled off an amazing feat of literary magic. He wrote something that was simultaneously a horror story and a tale of visionary enlightenment, and your experience of it is entirely a matter of the beliefs that you bring with you into that cave. Which is precisely what happened to the people in the meltdown mob. They found a horror. I found enlightenment. But the event itself was neither. And both.”
Katzmarek turned to look back at the gym doors, and then outside, at the array of angry protesters. “And you think it will happen again?”
She smiled. “I do. Does that make me a ghoul?”
“No. And to answer your question, I don’t think drugs were involved.”
“Good. So what was your question?”
“Back there,” he said, indicating the gym, “I was going to ask you whether it would be possible to repeat the event under controlled conditions as proof of Farragut’s innocence. But now…”
“Now I think I’m more interested in taking that trip myself. To experience what you did. Well, what the meltdown mob did, but with what you brought to it. I’d like to have the transcendent, not the horrific. Is that possible?”
“I think so, yes. But to do that, you’ll need a strong grounding in ways of looking at the world, and of understanding what happens in it, that might run counter to whatever religious training you may have had. Are you game for that?”
He stared at the floor for a long moment. It had been years since he’d regularly attended church, but the memories were all there — the battery of questions, the ready answers. It was the basis for an awful lot of choices he’d made, and for how he looked at everything, at matters of life and death, of economic policy, and even the course of his career. How could it be? How could any of that cause him to see unspeakable horror in an event that she might see as ineffably illuminating? And yet, that’s exactly what she had suggested.
“You’re asking a lot,” he told her.
“I am. But is it too much? What’s really important to you?”
A pedestrian stopped to speak with a few of the protesters. Katzmarek pushed the door open to listen. He stood there for a moment, frozen in indecision, and then turned back towards her. “The adventure,” he said. “The adventure is what’s important to me. How do I start?”
“Well,” she said, stepping past him, “we could go and talk to these people for a while. If you’re going to follow Randolph Carter and discard your sense of self in a dive through the limitless fractal void at the edge of some mindless mob mentality, then you’ll need to be able to swim on both sides of the divide.”
He actually had to look down at his left foot, the one still inside the building, before it was willing to release its figurative grip on an old reality, so that he could step into a new one. He took a breath, and strode towards the angriest member of the group, a man brandishing a sign that had the word ‘change’ in a crude red circle with a slash through it.
“What sort of change are you opposed to?” he asked, as non-threateningly as he could.
“The kind that takes what’s mine. Jeez. You whiny liberals are all alike.” The man glared at him, his face contorted in a menacing sneer.
Gina Heuff pushed into the standoff. “In what way, sir? I’m genuinely curious.”
“Are you trying to prove my point by being all cold and logical, lady? Look. I’m emotionally invested in the things I value – my God, my family, and my country. And you seem to think you can get all up in my face and argue me out of it? What the hell planet are you from, anyway?”
“We really do want to discuss this,” Katzmarek said, trying unconvincingly to put some emotion into his voice. “For example, how did you learn about the health care reform proposal that Congressman Woburn is in there talking about?”
“How the hell do you think? I watch the news. Those guys are paid to spend the time I don’t have figuring it out.”
“And you trust them?” Gina said.
* * *
“Here’s that book you wanted,” Bernard Katzmarek said as he pulled the paperback out of his case.
Corwin Farragut looked a bit rough around the edges. His eyes were dark from a lack of sleep, and he squinted against the bright lights in the interview room. “Thanks,” he said, riffling the pages with his thumb. “So, have you gotten any of the meltdown mob to recant and take ownership of their blasphemy?”
“No, but I did speak with someone who actually had what you might call a good trip that day.”
“Yeah, a blogger by the name of Gina Heuff. Fascinating person, by the way. She’s firmly convinced that there weren’t any drugs involved. In fact, to hear her tell it, you were railroaded to cover up a mass religious experience that everyone but the Mormons was afraid would damage their credibility.”
“Ah, here it is,” Farragut said, holding the open book out to Katzmarek, “’Through the Gates of the Silver Key.’”
“I read it on the train ride over. The whole sequence of Randolph Carter stories, in fact. Miss Heuff says that Carter’s loss of individuality can be taken as either a horror story or a journey of enlightenment, depending on your point of view. So I’ve been wondering. Which is it for you?”
“She what? Come on. Lovecraft was a horrormeister, pure and simple. And this blogger thinks he’s some kind of guru? Are you sure you want to involve a wacko like that in my defense?”
“Look. If I can convince the judge that her claims have merit, that there is another explanation for what happened, I think we can at least get your sentence reduced, if not vacated entirely.”
Farragut crossed his arms. “And what are you going to offer as proof? Can you get anyone — well, anyone but her and those two Mormons — to testify that they communed with God at that debate?”
Katzmarek grimaced. “If she’s right about what happened, we might not have to.”
“What are you babbling about?”
“You know how there’s a fine line between insanity and genius? Well, she figures the meltdown was the flip side of an uncontrolled mob, that because both sides of that raucous crowd were being played so expertly against one another, what could have been a descent into mindless violence instead became a brief encounter with the divine.”
“Sounds to me more like you’ve had an encounter of your own. Man, have you listened to yourself lately?”
“More importantly, have you looked in a mirror? You look like you haven’t slept in days.”
Farragut slumped in his chair, and nervously stole a glance at the guards in the hallway. “I haven’t. Like you said, this is a private prison. They don’t seem to care that the White House has finally banned abusive treatment at federal lock-ups. And they’re pretty up-front about why they’re doing it, too.”
Katzmarek set his pen down. “Oh?”
* * *
When Katzmarek returned, he met Gina Heuff at her local coffee shop to assess the best combination of factors for producing a recurrence of the meltdown mob phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, Congressman Woburn turned out to be their best shot at energizing the progressives in any crowd, even if many Democrats thought he was dangerously extreme. Identifying his most effective foil, however, was not such an easy matter. After all, they were not so much interested in a good outcome as they were an unstable proxy fight.
“Here’s your double-tall,” he said, setting it on the small table. “So who’s in the mix?”
She told him that she had narrowed the field to three contenders, none of whom was scheduled to have a public face-off with the congressman in the foreseeable future. As she ticked each one off, she laid a photo on the table. The first, Congressman Ian Corbham, was the unrepentantly vociferous defender of the shadowy religious power fraternity that had shut Woburn out of his first run for office. It was a good match, but it was also far too likely to turn into a personal fight, rather than a proxy one, and that would defeat the purpose. The second was Francine Chen, the CEO of the largest payday loan company in the state, a corporate cheerleader who had become the public face of the industry that Woburn had staked his career on controlling. And the third, Matthew Fields, was a former clergyman who had left the church in disgrace, only to forge a publishing empire that catered to the same deviant interests that had gotten him sacked in the first place.
“Okay,” he said after draining the last of his mocha, “if those are our best bets, how can we instigate a face-off between Woburn and one of them? The wingnuts at that private prison have been leaning on Corwin Farragut pretty hard since I took up his case, and unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. They’ve been shielded from prosecution and oversight, and believe me, they’ll do anything short of actually killing him to protect their butt.”
While Katzmarek kept in touch with Farragut by phone, they spent the next few weeks working the fringes like a pair of sheepdogs on a mission. His time was doubly limited, because there were other cases he was putting off in order to force the issue on this one, and because there was just so much abuse Farragut could take before he’d confess to whatever else they wanted to charge him with.
Finally, they caught a lucky break. Whether it had been good or bad luck remained to be seen, because the proxy match they’d cajoled into being was with Ian Corbham.
On the run-up to the event, both congressmen spent a great deal of time and money building up their respective base’s confidence, and pumping them with round after round of empty catch-phrases, meaningless sound-bites, and ready responses to the other side’s arguments. Because the subject was the proper role of government, the media predicted that each of the men would go into the debate emotionally prepared to tear into the other without regard for the consequences. The radio and television outlets that were planning to broadcast the event live had billed it as the political fight of the decade, and were pricing ad time accordingly.
Gina Heuff arranged to have time away from her regular duties so that she could focus on preparing Katzmarek for what he’d likely experience, and for what he might have to do if the crowd engaged as strongly, and were as evenly matched, as they hoped.
“Since you’ve read the Lovecraft,” she said, “we can make use of some of the imagery in it. When Randolph Carter passed through the gates, he encountered a guide. By this time, of course, Carter had transcended what he’d thought to be the only reality, and found that he had neither substance nor a fixed position within his own life. That was what I experienced that day, the incomprehensible void that the meltdown mob found itself in at first, but without a guide.”
He swallowed hard. “Good god. Why didn’t you go mad, like the rest of them?”
“Meditation,” she said, as if it was as obvious as day. “It wasn’t all that different from the state I try to achieve when I’m in need of some perspective.”
“You gain perspective by losing it?”
“In a way, yes. For them, though, it was a nightmare, and it may turn out to be one for you as well. Nevertheless, since we’re the only ones who will be prepared to experience this, we will have to serve as guides for anyone else who slips into the chasm that separates sane self-awareness from the madness of a mob mind.”
Katzmarek’s eyes widened. “A guide? You expect me to be calm enough to guide someone else? I’ll be a wreck!”
“Maybe so, Bernard, but you’ll be a damn sight better at keeping it together than they will. They have no idea what they’re in for, and you do. So, when you start to feel their thoughts –.”
“When I what?”
“This is the flip side of a mob, remember? Only in the usual kind, people give in to the over-mind. Here, it’s more like a mental Internet chat room. No boundaries. The whole group intermingled. That’s the loss of individuality. Lovecraft wrote about it, and if all goes well, we’ll experience it.”
He sat in dazed astonishment for a moment. “But… but what about those reports of feeling god-like? That was the core of the blasphemy, after all.”
“’Oh that’?” he parroted. “I ask about the single most devastating part the nightmare all those people lived through, and all you can say is ‘oh, that’?”
“Well, yeah,” she said lightly. “it’s silly, when you think about it.”
“Of course. Think about it. Here you are, floating in the void. You’ve just lost all sense of individuality, you’re embedded in a community consciousness, and you could be identifying with anyone in the group at any moment in their lives. I don’t know what you’d call that, but to me it’s a pretty good stand-in for omniscience. Toss that at someone who isn’t prepared for it, and you’re darn right they’re going to mistake it for being God. I thought it was the single greatest experience in my life, and I hope you’ll feel the same way.”
Katzmarek pushed back into his chair, and wondered if Farragut was right about her being a nutcase after all.
* * *
By the afternoon of the public face-off between congressmen Woburn and Corbham, their deft exploitation of the media had whipped the expected crowd into a matched set of hair-trigger cheering sections. Each of them had held rallies prior to the televised debate, at which they honed their call-and-response control over the human megaphones who would be echoing and amplifying their carefully field-tested arguments in lock-step reflection of the sound-bites that had been fed to the media. Each of them was emotionally invested in the views that they would be arguing, though doing so was newer to Woburn than it was to his Republican opponent. And each of them believed that winning this intentionally freewheeling debate would stand him in good stead to be nominated for president at some point. There was a lot at stake, and the media were making even more of it in order to drive up their audiences and ad revenues.
Katzmarek and Heuff stood near the entrance to the new high-tech sports stadium, watching the excited crowd streaming in.
“I don’t think I have to tell you,” he said, fingering a new quarter, “how incredibly nervous about this I am.”
She smiled easily and glanced at a few of the people walking past. “You’ll be okay. Trust me. Either nothing will happen, in which case we can either wait for a new opportunity or try to force one, or a good part of this crowd will melt into an egoless stew, and nobody will be able to claim that Farragut had anything to do with it. Come on, flip it.”
He brought his hand up and opened his palm. “Okay. Heads I take Woburn, tails it’s Corbham.”
It was Woburn.
She wished him well, and disappeared into the crowd, close behind a knot of Corbham supporters who were taunting those they passed with the catchphrases they’d been fed by the right-wing media.
Bernard Katzmarek closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He thought about Randolph Carter, and about the shadowy shapes he had encountered on his fictional journey beyond the gates, the guides who had helped to make sense of what was happening to him. Then he stepped into the image, and, as Gina had directed, faced Carter as one of those guides. It was an unsettling feeling, but she had assured him that practicing it beforehand would give him a place to stand when the world closed in on itself and he slipped into the illimitable darkness of the fractal social void.
Emerging from his reverie, he opened his eyes, and realized that more time had passed than he had realized. The crowd had thinned considerably, and echoing waves of concerted voices were falling over one another in the stadium before which he stood.
Steeling himself, he strode forward, and let his ears lead him to the loudest, most insistent source of the carefully crafted catchphrases that expressed the humanity of spreading a social safety net beneath the populace. He started mouthing the lines before he emerged into the vast bowl of the indoor sports stadium, and eagerly gave voice to them as he found a seat. By the time the announcer greeted the assembled crowd, he was unselfconsciously screaming at the people who were just as determinedly denouncing government support as pandering to the fallen. His heart raced, his voice cracked, and his spirits soared.
In the lull, that followed, those around him hastily greeted one another, offering first names and happy handshakes in exchange for the reinforcing camaraderie of communal solidarity, even if it was of the most fleeting and superficial kind. He joined in, split between wholeheartedly embracing the ideological carnage to come, and the feeling that he might soon be reaching out to those around him from the depths of a chasm few would have the faintest hope of comprehending.
Then he thought about Gina Heuff, and he spent a few moments fruitlessly scanning the crowd for a glimpse of her, before realizing that there was no point to it. If what she described really did happen, then he would not only be one with his own past and future self, but with hers and who knew how many others as well. So he sat back, and gave himself to the excitement of the verbal conflict that was getting underway on the wooden floor below, and reflected on the video screens overhead.
Each congressman in turn was given time to address the crowd, and each of them used it to good advantage. The massed gathering played the part that had been predefined for them by echoing the words they’d been fed, and directing their anger at people they might otherwise be sharing a restaurant or an emergency room with.
And then the conflict began in earnest. Because this wasn’t a debate in the usual sense, the combatants were permitted to talk over one another, to interrupt and to fulminate and play to the audience in any way they chose. Both men tore into the conflict like a raptor attacking its chosen prey, and the audience ate it up.
The glorious energy of it infused the stadium, enrapturing combatants and audience alike.
It seemed to go on forever.
And then, with a blinding flash of internal light, Katzmarek froze, caught himself up briefly, and gaped. His vision had subtly changed, as if he’d suddenly sprouted more eyes. He felt a heightened sense of those around him, a sense of familiarity that went far beyond anything he could possibly have known about them. But before he’d even had the chance to wonder about it, the world fell in on itself, and everything went black.
He screamed in panic, but heard nothing.
He held what he hoped was his hand in front of what he hoped were his eyes, but neither felt nor saw anything.
He flailed about, desperately trying to find something solid, but failed to even find himself.
All at once, memories started unreeling though his mind. Memories of his childhood, of school, and of the train ride to Corwin Farragut’s prison. They spun about chaotically, in no particular order. He tried to hold onto one, and then another of them, hoping that he could at least find a figurative place to hide. But just as he was about to fall into one of them, a second wave of memories overwhelmed him, memories of things that were, at one and the same time, both familiar and utterly foreign. One of them seemed to include a mirror, but when he leaned into the memory, and caught a glimpse of a reflection, he realized that it was a memory of some future that hadn’t happened yet, because a very much older self was looking back at him.
That was when he realized what had happened, when he realized that he, and who knew how many other people, had been sucked into the void, had found the secret that lay just this side of the madness of crowds.
Just as the thought of the crowd he was in struck him, so did a tsunami of inarticulate terror, for the void had also swallowed countless others, and only he and Gina Heuff stood between them and the same sort of perpetual darkness that had swallowed the much smaller meltdown mob.
But where was she?
Daunted, he struggled to return to the image he’d conjured before entering the stadium, to put himself in the place of Randolph Carter’s guide, so that he could play that role for the terrorized multitude that shared the void. He struggled, but failed. Being his own savior was hard enough. But playing that part for who knew how many others? The idea was repulsive, and the image eluded him.
Awash in soundless screams, Katzmarek withdrew into himself. His mind pleaded for rationality, his gut wrenched with fear. All of the past and future memories of those who were sucked with him into the void were joined by layer upon layer of the false memories of stories read and heard by bits and pieces of the growing consciousness in which he was embedded. But one of them kept popping to the surface of Katzmarek’s fragmentary self, one fictional reality that resonated far more strongly against what was happening than any of the others.
And then he was one with Carter, looking up at the cloaked figure on the pedestal in the murky world beyond the Gates of the Silver Key. He begged for help, threw himself on the mercy of the nameless forces that had trapped him here.
In response, the figure moved, and started to draw back its cloak. Katzmarek shuddered, feeling Carter’s fictional anguish.
And then it spoke.
It addressed him.
The voice was unexpectedly soothing, calming, which only frightened him the more.
But yet, there was something familiar about the voice. And so he gathered his nerve and forced himself to look upon the face that had been revealed.
“Take it easy, Bernard,” the gentle voice told him.
He looked again.
And he smiled. He laughed. He wept.
It was Gina.
Everything would be all right.
Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack