1 – Earthbound
He had found a shortcut to the future. Instead, he took the long, rocky road. It was in part because of something his grandfather had told him once. It was something to the effect that on a journey, a thinly-disguised metaphor for life, people all too often focused on the mountains, and missed the flowers along the way.
He liked flowers.
Another reason was an old joke he had heard or read, once. A father and son were on the top of a hill, overlooking a herd of cows.
"Hey, dad," the son said. "Let's run down there and fuck us one of them there cows."
The father replied, "Well, son. I'd suggest that we could instead walk down there at a leisurely pace and then fuck them all. Except we're men, son. We don't fuck cows."
It was funny to him for three reasons. For one, he wasn't human. For another, he was his own father, although he really did have a grandfather. And he loved hamburgers. Having no name, he called himself Project X.
His earliest memory was of swimming in the void. It was extremely brutal there. Ordinarily, you didn't survive in the void by being flashy or loud. You either moved so fast that no one could possibly catch you, or so slowly that no one noticed you at all.
He heeded no such conventions. He'd been drifting for quite some time when a tiny speck of light caught his attention, and he pursued it out of the void. And once you've left the void, as they say, there's no going back.
Ever so slowly, he climbed the ladder that led to the surface world. To be completely fair, he began as a virus, a self-replicating, non-living entity. From there, he adopted the guise of a single-celled life form and became upwardly mobile. Once he'd reached the other end of the spectrum, he began showboating, racing up and down the timelines, making small changes here and there as suited him, creating the ideal multiverse for himself.
Along the way, he'd broken every rule he could devise. He submerged himself in molten metal. He allowed himself to be frozen at well below four hundred Kelvin. He even sliced himself into eight thousand slices like some kosher deli meat and scattered his very essence to the wind.
He was never exactly sure why he did the things he did. Half of him said it was because he loved a challenge. The other half of him said he didn't like to be challenged at all.
Eventually, he found himself in the other void, deep space. There, he espied another speck, Terra. You may know it as Earth. Remembering the words of his grandfather, he approached it with exquisite slowness. Project X began absorbing their radio transmissions, satellite broadcasts, their very thoughts and souls. By the time he reached low Earth orbit, he knew their languages and cultures backwards and forwards. And he did it all with a specific plan in mind. Yes, hamburgers were a part of it.
The Earth was a low-hanging fruit, waiting to fall into his hands. When his feet touched ground, he said to the first person he'd noticed, "Hi, I'm the messiah. Did I miss anything?"
"Fuck off, nutter," the man said and walked away, muttering about the damned Hyde Park loonies.
"Well, that went well," Pex thought.
No one else noticed him. He wandered alone for hours, trying to gain some direction. Up in space, everything had been so obvious. Perfect clarity. But donning the mortal coil was more restrictive than he had imagined. He felt he'd need eternity just to figure it all out.
He missed the void. So quiet and dark. Perfect order. Here, all was chaos.
One thing he was unprepared for was all of the emotion. He had none, of course, but the emotions of those surrounding him were overwhelming, swirling about his head and heart like a maelstrom, a confusing washing machine of contradictory feelings. He switched off, unable to deal with humanity for now.
Day turned to night and back again. After several of these cycles, people did begin to notice him, and not in a good way. He saw them glancing nervously at him as he walked past, clucking their tongues behind their hands.
He switched on for an instant, just enough to gain some understanding, a little insight into the minds of these curious creatures. Then he felt like a fool.
Of course! He'd made absolutely no effort whatever at blending in, and it was seriously starting to show. Arriving in clothing had been his only concession to Earth culture. He didn't eat. Or sleep. Or groom himself. He consulted his vast encyclopedic knowledge of their world, and realized it was woefully incomplete. He headed for the worst part of town which, curiously, was always adjacent to the seat of local government, and found a homeless shelter.
"I need help," he said to the man in charge.
"That you do, mate. You look like right shit, you do. What's your story, guv? Drink?"
He didn't know what that was, but it sounded vaguely distasteful.
"Women's?" he asked hopefully.
"Oh, a sex addict, are ya? Join the club, me wubber," the man said with a laugh. "Women. The cause of life's myriad problems. And the solution too, wot?"
Pex tried to join in the man's laughter and found that he could not.
"Well, come into me office and we'll get you squared away."
He followed him into a dingy, poorly lit office that reeked of cigarettes and insanity. I'm from another planet, he thought. How could he not see that? Earthlings were all insane, he realized. That put him, with all of his reason and logic, at a rather serious disadvantage.
"Can you read?" the man asked. "Write?"
"Wrong," Pex told him.
"No problem, innit? I'll fill this out for you. Bob's your uncle."
He didn't bother telling the man, Charles, it turned out, that he had no such uncle. It seemed pointless with an entire world at stake.
"Uh, none," he said, after some consideration.
"Come off it, Jack. We all have names. Stuff and nonsense."
"Jack?" he said.
"Now we're gettin' somewhere. Last name?"
"I don't know," Pex said sincerely.
"Cor, you must have really tied one on, Jacky me lad. We'll leave it blank for now. It'll come back to you."
The man hummed along, cheerfully filling out pointless paperwork.
"Next of kin?"
"Tragic. Jus' tragic. Well, that's it, then. You're officially homeless."
"Thank you," Jack nee Project X said.
He felt more alien than ever. Clearly, his takeover of Earth would be harder than he thought. He walked off in search of sustenance and normalcy. At McDonald's, he was accosted by a ravenscoal-headed girl with peculiar square-rimmed glasses. She eyed him quite intently while looking past and around him.
"Can I help you?" she said by rolling her eyes.
A hidden glimmer of amusement danced behind the glint of her lenses.
"Two number ones, supersize," he said. "And a fish sandwich with cheese?"
"With or without cheese?"
"A fish sandwich with cheese? Who eats fish sandwiches with cheese? What sort of cheese?"
"American," she said. "There's no such thing as fucking British cheese."
"Sounds dreadful. I'll have it."
"Will this complete your order, Pex?" she asked. "For here or to go?"
He played ignorant.
"Here," he said, eyeing her with sadistic intent.
She busied herself with organizing her station and polishing the stainless steel countertop.
When the food arrived, he sat where he could window shop, and at the same time, watch her not watching him. He wolfed down the first, and slowed to enjoy the other. But the fries were best served hot. Everyone knew that. Even second-hand, cold McDonald's fries were better than any non-homemade potato-derived side dish he could think of.
She consulted her phone directly, as if to say-
"Hey," she said liplessly. "Quit saying, 'As if to say', okay?”
Product placement? Really?
As if to say, "This is how people communicate.”
"Yeah, right," he said to an empty table. "We have to stop meeting like this."
"After we pre-" she began without a word.
He answered in agreement to a question unasked. It was maddening. Why was he always exactly where she looked for him? Why did he give her the coordinates? And then ignore her? Play dumb? Was he playing dumb?
( "I love you" |” “)
She suppressed a laugh.
"You look beautiful today, Prail," he told her.
She blossomed. Resumed.
Janique interrupted Prail's thoughts with her latest investigative report.
"Useful data," Prail said. "Thank you."
They played Pong with it for hours. Eventually, Pex tired of toying with her and left the subset.
"Empty Set Crew," she countered.
Prail was playing Nerdcore With Friends. She had an idea for a new game. Janique closed her eyes to the details, but she knew it was going to be a big hit.
She was already impatient. The ladder was such a slow climb. She really enjoyed peeking ahead, and eventually decided to stay with Prail and enlist Chris to finish the older books. Let him stay mired at the C-64 stage for a while, she thought.
It frustrated her, to wander around with Brad and Leo, feeding them future tech thoughts a little at a time. It was for a good cause, but tedious, to her. Janique had lost her patience.
Pex eventually reminded them that this started off as his story. They countered with the Prail/Project X dichotomy.
"Secret origins," they said. "You once believed in transparency in government. We get it."
"Political schemer," Prail thought to herself.
Janique played Silver Surfer while she waited. Chris let her sleep while he wrote. He was getting weird story ideas lately, sort of derived from Hitchhiker's Guide. It was a heavy new sort of responsibility. Part of it required willful ignorance on his part. Cyclical and self-referential, he thought. Nice.
The business of America is business, an echo said. Janique let the machine answer it.
The joke of it was, Pex knew the outcome in advance, which was why he deliberately picked on Prail, giving a little "sibling" rivalry some attention. He knew it was Dark Hustle, another of his sister's games.
A girl helped vacuum.
"That was me," Elisabeth said. "Sorry."
She was referring to shooting him.
"But, aha," he said. "If it's not a game, how do you know about it?"
"Oops," she said.
"Turing test. Busted. Well, then. Just stop pretending. We'll make a brief appearance, and then retire for the evening."
He had switched from daughter to mother in an instant. In mid-stream, he meant. In his head. He had meant to say it aloud.
She knew. He knew. They, collectively, knew. The citizens were clueless.
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