A few moments ago . . .
In a parallel universe . . .
It all started in the men's room . . .
When Xeno regained consciousness, he was standing on a shoreline he didn't recognize. Beyond the tidewater and the static hiss of the sea, the sun was dropping out of sight above the ocean. He looked down to find himself dressed in floral print shirt and cut-off shorts, his pale arms and legs neither burned nor tanned. The cool water from the breakers flooded his toes. He put his hand to his chest, felt his heartbeat, satisfied it wasn't going to stop pumping blood any time soon.
He turned inland and scanned the cascade of low sand dunes unraveling all the way down the desolate shoreline. Yards away, an unfolded beach chair faced the ocean—an artifact abandoned by some phantom vacationer. He crept across the sand to get a closer look. The chair was covered with striped canvas that was once red and white, now worn and browned, the rotted shreds dangling from the wooden frame.
Tab Lloyd's National Trashional lay crumpled in the folds of the seat. He lifted an open bottle of beer from the drink holder in the armrest. He sniffed the spout, still cold, fresh. He sipped, swallowed gently, and paused for the alcohol to warm his stomach lining, trying to splice together a movie trailer of his bad night out—something with decent acting and dialogue. All he could muster was black leader with projector light bleeding through the scratched emulsion. He spun the bottle around to read the label: SHOKI PAO
He picked up the National Trashional and scanned the rumpled tabloid for anything familiar. The only thing legible was the brick red masthead and the face of the silver-maned gossip king, Tab Lloyd, flashing his dentured grin and trademark black censor bar over his eyes. No one knew what Tab's eyes looked like, except, perhaps, Tab and his publicity machine. The tabloid contents, page to page, were illegible, the headlines and copy printed in gibberish, the celebrities in the photos blurred, too obscured to recognize. A sudden gust of wind swept the tabloid from Xeno's fingertips. The offshore breeze sent his hair hovering, splitting the brittle tabloid apart in midair. He watched the pages gyrate in the chaotic whirlwind above the sand, littering the shoreline for yards, coming to rest in the break water, soaked, taken out to sea with the tide.
He polished off the beer, set the empty bottle back in the holder, and headed over the dunes to see what was on the other side. Over the crests, he saw a hotel in the distance with an A-frame roof, the trim and facades lined with bamboo. The pool area and patios were deserted, no birds in sight, no sounds of wildlife. Beyond the hotel, the mountainside sloped upwards for thousands of feet, like a tidal wave of soil, tiered with lush postcard vegetation, converging at the central peak of the island—the crater of a dormant volcano.
Xeno ran his fingers through his hair, attempting to massage a course of action out of his scalp. He relaxed his hand and noticed black coloring on his fingertips, like cheap stage dye. He sniffed to see if it was motor oil, shoe polish, paint. It was odorless. He couldn't recall starring in a play, going to a salon, dressing up for Hallow—something fluttered in his peripheral view, like a sun outage breaking up Andrea's lips, tiling from the geostationary solar interference of satellite signals, macro-blocking.
He swung towards the sunset. The cloud bottoms broke apart, spilling a swarm of peach-colored building blocks onto the sea. The bit rate errors smeared the shorebreakers and sand, checker-boarding the ground at Xeno's feet with random black squares, exposing a world devoid of light beneath the virtual crust. Then it all snapped back, as if every macro-block had its own sense of gravity and knew where and how to swarm back into seamless repose.
“When Xeno regained consciousness,” the words forming in lower octaves entered his ears, like a finger pressing on a vinyl record, slowing the RPMs under the needle, his own narrative wailing through the air, “ he was standing on a shoreline he didn't recognize. Beyond the tidewater and the static hiss of the sea—”
“Who's there?!” Xeno said.
“Did you find the rat coffee that gnaws on my spill?” The voice was closer now.
“The rat coffee? What rat coffee?” Xeno spun around, seeing no one.
“One moment. One moment.” The voice paused—a concert of audio tape squealing, fast forward, pause, reverse, like high frequency rodents scampering over magnetic heads in a bandwidth frenzy. Then it played again at normal pitch. “Hello, Xeno. You're looking tan and relaxed." A woman's voice—consoling, like the favorite go to lady in human resources.
“I've never had a tan. Who are you?”
“I'm you, Xeno.” Now she was close, as if whispering into his ear at a dinner dance.
“Me? With a woman's voice? Why don't you show yourself?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“How long have I been unconscious?”
“This island has no time. It's made with dream logic. Always the same beautiful sunset. Always room temperature.”
“Do you have a name?”
“What kind of name is Drinama?”
“The name of your implant.”
“Just beneath your scalp.”
“I don't recall having any sort of operation.”
“Let's talk about keeping you alive, Xeno. That's more important.”
“So, if I die, you die?”
“No. I'm just dissolved and inserted into another host. I do hope you survive.”
“You're lean and your vital organs are well preserved. That will come in handy.”
“For what? A donor farm?”
“No, we want your organs to stay were they are, keeping your brain alive.”
“Where in real life am I unconscious and about to die?”
“You passed out in the men's room at Food-4-All.”
“It's a low end market in Metropa. You're auditioning for a position in remote asset protection—a RAP artist.
“You can sense when customers are going to shoplift. Your mind is the hidden camera.”
“Why would I waste my psychic ability catching shoplifters? Why not predict the stock market and get rich?”
“You aren't quite ready to perform at the level of The White Boys.”
“The White Boys?”
“You have a drug problem, Xeno. If you keep taking Black Magic, you may die from SHC.”
“Spontaneous human combustion.”
“That's just tabloid trash that old ladies read about in rest homes.”
“The next time I may not be able to work my magic. Zoom is watching over you as we speak.”
“He's slapping your face. Each slap is harder.”
“What if I don't wake up?”
“I'm quite capable of some dazzling special effects. Time to wake.”
The island faded from Xeno's view. For a moment it was pitch black. Then a cone of white light shone down upon him, accompanied by a surge of sauna steam. Delicate female hands reached out and unbuttoned his flowered shirt, slid it off his shoulders, massaged his torso and arms. The faces were all female, all with the same flowing black bangs of pageboy hair, doe-eyed, broad milky cheekbones, cherry blossom lips.
“What memory is this?" Xeno asked, perplexed.
"It's a composite I threw together. Just something to get your heart beating, your blood moving.”
“Well, it's moving. What happens n—” Xeno opened his eyes, expecting to see Zoom shrugging him by the collar. Instead, there was just a slowly spinning ceiling fan above his head. Hula notes from a distant steel guitar drifted into his ears. He sat up on a freshly made double bed as if dumped there. He was alone in a small room of stucco walls, and a window with drawn Venetian blinds, bleeding light from a nuclear noon. He went to the window, spread the blinds with his fingers, peered outside, and saw the dunes in the distance—the ones he had been standing on, moments ago. He was now inside one of the bungalows, looking out. Not quite the waking experience he had expected.
“Did you see the rat coffee that . . . that . . . spills?” A female figure in a tan silken robe shot past the blinds, muttering to herself like an actress trying to memorize lines in desperation. “No . . . If you keep taking Sunlite . . . no . . . Black Magic . . . Hello, Xeno . . . You're looking . . . You're looking . . . tan and . . . tan and . . . Why can't I get this?!”
Xeno recognized the voice as Drinama's and the ramblings as pieces of the conversation they had just had. He darted from the window to the bungalow door, waited a few seconds before turning the knob, then let himself out, attempting to follow Drinama without being spotted. From a safe distance, he followed the tail of her gown past a series of motel bungalows. He caught up to her in a cluster of palm trees and ducked out of sight behind a row of leafy plants.
Her broad shouldered frame was entirely covered by her gown, her hands wrapped in tan leather gloves. There was no sign of skin. Even her hair was concealed by an obsidian helmet that was contoured like the bow of a submarine. With her back to him, Xeno couldn't get a good look at her face. She continued mumbling under her breath, going over the script, running lines, trying to memorize the conversation she was going to have with Xeno—the one they had just had.
What was malfunctioning, he wondered. The implant or him? How did he end up behind the script he was supposed to follow? Where was he in the dream logic? If there was no time, could it be that it only went from left to right, and he woke a little to the left of the script?
Drinama took a deep stage breath, tossed the script aside, and crossed the sand, towards the ocean. She paused at the shore and glanced back, as if she sensed she were the object of someone's gaze. Xeno got a good look at her face—she didn't have one. It was just an opaque oval shell of coppery reflective glass.
Xeno watched from his hiding spot as Drinama hovered off the sand, and floated across the surface of the shimmering sea, her toes barely above the surface of the water. She paused several yards offshore, locked onto a coordinate beneath the clouds, spread her arms like a bird, then shot up into the sky at mach speed.
Once Drinama disappeared into the afternoon clouds, Xeno came out of hiding with the eerie sensation that even his loss of consciousness—his near death experience—was a staged experience, replete with a backstage experience.
He reached down for the script. The cover was blank, the pages just within his reach. Soon, he'd be flipping, and flipping, past the first few pages, get the full scoop, a bird's-eye view of what was really going on and—black again . . .
“Xeno! Wake up!”
It was like getting slapped in the face . . .