Thursday, July 08, 2010

ACME: Chapter Four

Wake-up Call

Senator Card stood patiently behind the technician. He was staring in suppressed amazement at the display in front of them both. There, as if it were yesterday, stood the house in which his best friend and partner had lived over 30 years ago. The assistant was twiddling with the computer controls and the view began to corkscrew drunkenly closer to the dirty yellow two-story house. The constantly shifting view made the senator feel a bit queasy.

After almost losing his balance for the third time, he relented and reached to his side a bit to press a palm against the metal wall beside the console. Eventually the view on the display had completed its gyrating path toward the kitchen window. The screen darkened for a moment as the view passed through the wall just beside the window. The technician glanced nervously over his shoulder toward the senator and mumbled, "Sorry, I was aiming for the window." He was new at this, after all. Hell, he was also the most experienced at "this."

The view steadied and Card could see the old Formica table with the burns and scratches. There was a nearly empty pot of coffee and three dirty cups and assorted dishes scattered elsewhere on the table. The sink across the floor near the refrigerator was stacked half full with pots, pans, and a broken pot of soil. The senator smiled as the sudden memory returned. The plant should be in the pot on the stove, if he remembered everything correctly.

The technician tightened a few knobs and snapped a few toggle switches to fix the image. With a squeaky turn of his chair, he informed the senator that the computer was locked onto the appropriate coordinates. This was received with a grunt from the senator who stepped through the doorway out of the control booth toward the over-sized plywood shack sitting in the middle of the warehouse floor.

From a first glance, it appeared to be an absurdly gigantic warehouse. But it was necessarily so as it rested on top of more than sixty stories of densely packed technology. The shack was the only part of ACME that didn't need so much space.

As he walked toward the wooden crate that temporarily served as a step up to the only door on the ludicrously rustic looking shanty, he could feel his knees getting weaker. He found that he had to consciously herd his thoughts away from what he was doing. Or, more precisely, what he was about to do.

As a consequence of blocking out these thoughts, the senator felt as though he were walking in a dream. The simple and normal act of walking toward a doorway had suddenly taken on a strange surrealistic quality. Perspiration had begun to form at the top of his brow. Annoyingly, sweat beads were clinging to the front edge of his toupee. Each step brought about a tiny wiggle from the moisture-dots. Each tiny wiggle of sweat became an insect trying to squirm under his hairpiece. This helped him to not think about what was happening… what was about to happen.

Within this haphazardly built wooden box existed the face of the ACME. It contained the ACME emitter. Or, to be more precise and less poetic: sixteen orange-peel slices of curved metal that, when put together, formed a gigantic metal sphere. The outer shell of the metal sphere was actually only about a half foot thick. It was completely studded with what appeared to be giant bolts of metal and neon piping. Beneath the sphere, and leaking around various supports, was an ominous red glow. Most of the base of the metal sphere was actually the top of the ACME pad. The sixty stories of technology beneath the pad extended nearly eighteen stories beneath ground level.

The emitter of the ACME projected all the way up from the seventh sub level like a spinal cord accessing and projecting to floors of crystalline computer circuits and dense slabs of virtually infinite storage. This spine of ACME projected here at the 39th floor to form the floor, walls and ceiling of this relatively tiny metal orb. In fact, significant portions of the metal sphere were actually the beta and beta-prime data encoders. The actual emitter was a wire mesh spheroid inside the center of this technological disco-ball Senator Card was about to enter.

Layered, and fully integrated within the spherical emitter were seven crystalline shells, each capable of presenting data in almost any format and in any of over two million shades of color. Everywhere things were spherical except for the giant crate built around the ACME ball. He'd forgotten to ask why they decided to put a round peg in a square hole. Stupid scientists.

As the senator stepped up to the wooden crate, his foot caught the edge causing it to squeak on the floor like a metallic fart. The fart-echo resonated and reverberated much longer than it should have for such a dignified moment. Hand on doorknob, the senator glanced back at the control booth. There, the technician was leaning in the doorframe watching pensively.

With a deep breath, a sharp twist and pull of the doorknob, the senator swung the door open and launched himself inside the outermost portion of the orb. From here he could see the glowing red and metallic sheen of the primary ACME sphere. Someone had left behind a small yellow toolbox just beside the secondary entrance to the sphere. "Sloppy," he thought. There was no door to open into the ball; the entry was a gaping black portal barely big enough to step through. He could see nothing but swirling black.

"Are you sure this thing is on?" He yelled back through the doorway of the shed.

The small intercom next to his head crackled, startling Card enough that he almost fainted. "Yeah, you won't see anything until you step through the entry field. Just push through it; and whatever you do, don't touch the metal on your way through!" The technician smirked, feeling safe in his control room. There was no reason why the Senator should avoid touching the metal, but he knew it would be a bit of a squeeze for the portly old man.

Senator Card stood for a moment sizing up the portal. Slowly and carefully he poked his right leg slowly through the black swirling entryway. His toe bumped something solid on the other side, but his foot did find a surface to stand on. Still moving slowly, he added weight to the right leg and surfer-like squatted and pushed his right hand forward into the darkness as though pushing a curtain aside. Ducking a bit, he leaned into the portal and without thinking, held his breath and plunged through the hole.

Card was totally unprepared for the extent of the detail suddenly revealed. In response, his legs began to melt beneath him. Almost windmill-like, Card grabbed at the nearest kitchen chair and yanked it under him. The slack-jawed senator fell ballistically into the chair with a jolt that caused his jaw to close with a snap. Like a balloon popping, he exhaled and stared. It was all truly unbelievable.

The Senator fumbled a barely functioning hand forward to the table to grab at something - he got the saltshaker. He hefted its weight. He shook some salt into his hand, which then moved to his mouth. It tasted like salt! A smile began to spread across the senator's darkening face.

Years ago, on the advice of his closest but now deceased friend, the senator had stopped smiling; certainly never in public, anyway. By all outward appearances, the senator appeared at worst as a harmless but serious looking old man. When he smiled, though, a subliminal evil essence oozed from every nook, dent, and clogged pore in the man's face. The lines around his eyes and mouth sharpened to dagger points with smiles that had trapped children in their beds. Fearful of this waking nightmare, children would fear to sleep lest a smiling Card visit them in their nightmares.

Senator Card lifted a dinner plate and felt the chipped edge with his thumb. There were dried splotches of ketchup and baked beans here and there. Jesus it felt so real! He tapped the plate with a fingernail and heard the slight chime of the china. On impulse, he dropped it suddenly. With satisfaction, it bounced off of the table to smash onto the floor.

The crash was answered by a male voice from a room down the hall, much further away than the diameter of the sphere he was in could allow for. "Norm? Is that you, you rotten bastard? You shitin' up my kitchen again?" After a moment, his thirty-years-dead partner and closest friend stepped into the kitchen and immediately paled at the sight of the decrepit old man sitting at the table. From his partner's point of view, Card had become a bloated senior-citizen overnight.

"Christ! Who the hell… Norm…? Are you…? Is that you? What the hell happened to your face? Jesus, Norm!"

Senator Card had mentally rehearsed this meeting, hell, fantasized about this meeting thousands of times over the past seventeen years. What he'd say, how he'd be standing when he said it, and even what aftershave he'd have on. Hell, he'd even practiced in front of the mirror a few times. Now that he was actually here, the first and only word that croaked from between his two sweaty lips to this long-dead old friend was, "Incredible!"

* * *

That morning… I was reading the newspaper in my "library" when Norm helped himself to my kitchen. The crash nearly made me spill my coffee. I yelled to him while I tidied up my "office" with a flush. He tended to ruin the things he touched and Mary was plenty mad enough at me already because of Norm.

I remember shuffling down the hall to the kitchen. What I saw really shocked hell out of me. "Jesus Christ Norm, what the hell are you doing?" He looked sheepishly at me. And did his 'asshole' smirk at me. He looked like hell. Real hell. I even told him so.

"Norman, you really look like hell. I mean, more than usual."

Norm crunched across the plate-fragments on the floor and luckily fell, or sat, in the chair in front of me. He had the smirk going full blast. I knew this was bad, but it was spooky bad. He held my saltshaker in his hands and kept toying with the damn thing. "Incredible" was the last thing I thought he was going to start with, but oddly enough, it was the word on my mind when he said it. I just couldn't believe his face. He was ugly enough last night, but now… It was like he had someone stretch all the flesh on his face out and it just hadn't snapped back into place right. I figured he knew how he looked, so I stopped kicking him while he was down.

He had something on his mind; I could wait. There was a lot occupying my mind just then anyway. The newspaper headlines occupied my professional thoughts. The Fence was making news again. Not front page every day, but he was there today. The bastard. I was sure he had something to do with the body we found last week. It was disgusting. Nobody had ever seen such a thing. It was as if the guy had instantly turned into a sponge. Blood and guts, or whatever it was, had leaked out and hardened into a kind of shell around the body. The coroner upchucked on that one and I'd never seen that happen before. I figured that somehow Fence got hold of some kind of acid or maybe it was radiation? I dunno. I needed to check out a few sources downtown. Most of my thoughts, though, were tied up replaying the fight I had with Mary last night. My mind started working on that problem while my vulture eyes feasted on Norm's carcass of a face. It was truly an incredible sight.

Norm turned back to the table. He unscrewed the salt, spilling little irritating sprinkles on my jelly donut. "What's up Norm? You look like you were caught with the chief's wife or something." The look he gave me made the hair on my neck stand up, but I kept it to myself. I hate it when I hit close to home without trying. My partner put the salt shaker down precisely. He stared at his hand and blew out a breath I didn't realize he was holding.

"I never would have thought this could be so hard." He said to someone other than me it seemed. My hairy-neck began to prickle a little more. He lifted the back of his hand to his mouth and absently licked off the few grains of salt. He seemed about to say something but stopped to look at his hand. "My god. It really tastes like salt!" I was beginning to feel like I was in a Twilight Zone episode.

"Eddie," he began. "Look, I gotta get something off my chest." I waited. This must have been tough on him. He really looked shitty. In fact, as I looked at him, besides the face-wreck, it seemed like he hadn't slept in a week. He seemed bulky or bloated. I was getting that crawly sick feeling in my gut like he was gonna tell me he was going to die, or that he's been screwing my wife, or that he's been working for Fence and now he's got to kill me. I always try to get together a quick list of worst-case scenarios before I hear what sounds like bad news. It's never as bad as the real thing. I find it to be a helpful coping strategy.

"I can't tell you until I make something else clear to you first. This is probably going to sound crazy to you, Eddie, but, the truth is, you aren't really who you think you are." All that I could think of to say was "Mmmm?" I hadn't considered the possibility that an insane guy named Norm would be in my kitchen. I made a note to add this to my list next time.

He sighed impatiently and tried again. This time he had paperwork or something. He had removed a shiny blue business card out of his pocket. It read, "Atomic Chrono-Momentum Extrapolation (ACME), New Pasadena, California, Access code: International Operator, 40014001" I looked at Norm dead-on in the eyes. He was straight with this. "I'd always wondered where Coyote got his stuff."

"Ok, ok. Here then, look." Norm fished out his wallet. Things were feeling real weird, but weird got weirder when Ab-Norm (as I was thinking of him just then) pulled out a few hundred-dollar bills and without breaking eye-contact with me, placed one at random into my hand.

"Look at the bill, Eddie, is it real?"

I was always ready for Norm's little pop-quizzes. I checked it. It seemed ok to me. I was really having to concentrate, though. Norm was acting as if this were really important. I must be missing something. After a bit I gave it back.

"Yeah, it look's real to me," was the best I could do.

I held the bill out to him so he could show me what was wrong. Show me what I was missing. Norm didn't take the bill. Very slowly and deliberately, like he was ready to spring a surprise party, or a trap, he said, "Look at the date, Ed. What's up with that?"

I took the bill and stared at it again, this time with particular emphasis on the date. It had been printed in 2002. "I give up Norm, what's wrong with 2002? Did the government not print any in 2002?" Clearly I was failing this quiz. Norm's reaction wasn't what I'd expected though.

"What? 2002?" He snatched the bill back and looked at. "Christ!" He fumbled at his cabbage wad again and pulled a few out. "Here, check these..."

The hair at the base of my neck was starting to prickle. Where the hell did Norm get all these hundred dollar bills? Were the rumors true? Was he on the take? I never would have given that a second thought if it hadn't been for the money. So much, too much, of it for Norm to have so casually in his wallet.

* * *

The senator could see that his old friend was merely humoring him. It was infuriating. He'd worried so much about how his friend would react to the wonders of science, and there was simply no easy way to get through to him.

"Wait a second. Step back a bit to the hallway. Now watch." Card stood, turned, and stepped carefully to the front of the kitchen where he'd first come in. Sweeping his arm to reach just above and below his head, the senator inched forward feeling for the now invisible edge of the sphere's entrance. As he neared the far end of the sphere he began to crouch over so as to keep from hitting his head. Finally he could feel the smooth inner shell and the rim of the sphere entrance just above his forehead. He turned back to look at Eddie, leaned awkwardly back to wedge the top of his head against the otherwise invisible entry-portal. The senator folded his arms across his chest and grinned awfully at Eddie.

To Eddie, this performance looked like a bad mime act. Norm was really looking like a decrepit. No; he was looking like a senile old man. Although, he had to admit, the angle Norm was leaning at made it appear as though he was about a foot or so away from the front door. He really looked like he was leaning on thin air!

"OK Norm, nice trick. Now stop before you pop a hernia or something."

"Damn it, Eddie! This is not a fucking trick!" The senator's eyes blazed like they do before someone gets hurt. It had been a very long time since anyone had failed to take him seriously. There was also some strained frustration. He seemed unable to communicate his ideas to his old partner. It was essential that Eddie understand what was going on. He had to see the reaction or he would never buy into the ACME effect.

Besides, this little test meant that he was putting off dealing with some critical topics. Very critical topics. Topics that were getting more expensive as this program kept running and the ACME kept draining power resources.

"Come over here and feel this. It's the wall of the projection room we're in."

Eddie paused to consider this bizarre request. He wasn't really in the mood for this stupid-ass game playing. But things were not normal. Maybe Norman was "sick" and should be humored? He frowned and walked over to his partner.

"Here, put your hand right here, you'll feel it!"

Eddie looked blankly at Norman for a moment, then swung his hand up to the point in space indicated. There was nothing there, of course. His palm smacked nothing but thin air. But he patted at the air a bit without much enthusiasm. Humoring him, Eddie said, "Yeah, I feel that, kinda hard but soft, right?"

"Shit. You're part of the damn program, you can't feel it. Hang on let me think. Of course! The tools! Now we can get somewhere, Edster!" Eddie hated being called "Edster." He didn't actually like "Eddie" too much either. He sometimes felt that it made him sound too soft, or too friendly.

Card practically danced as he circled his large frame back toward the entry portal. He dragged the chair over to support his weight on one arm. Then he crouched a bit and with the other with the other arm, started patting at the air again.

Eddie was becoming less concerned about his friend and also less patient. He watched again as the world's worst mime started act two. But suddenly he saw Norman's hands disappear into nothing.

"Norm! What the hell… how did you do that?" Eddie whispered fiercely.

Card looked back over his shoulder with a strained grin then ducked forward and suddenly his head disappeared, followed by his arms up to his shoulders and then his waist.

"Norm! Jesus Christ, what are you doing?"

Eddie bent down and grabbed Norman by the belt and pulled. Both flew back toward the sink in a heap. Something dark flew from Norman's hands. Instinctively Eddie grabbed at it but wasn't able to hold it for long. Its weight and metallic bulk slipped from his fingers just before it clattered loudly against the kitchen sink and then slid along the floor to Card's feet, spilling things along the way. It was a small toolbox now opened with a few tools marking its path haphazardly like discarded children's toys. Looking at his friend with some amazement, Eddie could see that Norman's face had purpled and was sweating from the minimal exertion.

"How did you do that Norm? It was a great trick! Better than that mime shit!"

The senator began to reply as he plucked the tools from the floor and arranged them back into the box, but stopped suddenly. He frowned a bit at the army-green toolbox and its contents. "Funny," he thought, "I coulda sworn this had been a yellow toolbox." Then the senator's arm began that familiar aching. "Shit! Not now. Not now for Christ sake." he thought.

"Eddie, just sit tight for a while, ok? I need to go take care of something." The pain was beginning to numb his shoulder and spread hotly to his wrist and fingers. "I'll be back, partner. I need to think this through a little better. I'll try again real soon, promise!"

Card felt old, out of shape, and very foolish. This was mixed together with a frustrated impatience with himself that he hadn't endured since his rookie days. But, he had realized that this wasn't really a live performance. All he had to do was reset the program and try it again. His old partner would have no memory. This entire conversation would be erased the moment the ACME was powered down. He could have a do-over.

The throbbing in his arm had begun to dissipate and the tingle in his fingers signaled the false alarm. Nitro pills in his briefcase back in the control room were no longer important. All the Senator cared about now was getting the hell out of the machine. Forget about the sincerely concerned looks his ex-partner had given him. This needs to be done better. And it will be.

Senator Card turned his back on Eddie and ducked down toward where he thought the opening or exit should be. He had completely forgotten about not touching the sides of the doorway. Pressing his hands along the inner surface of the sphere he waved around feebly until he saw his hands disappear in front of him. He'd located the exit. He spread his hands out to find either side of the round portal so he could center himself and step through. He paused briefly to consider turning around and saying goodbye to his dead partner. But what the hell did it matter? As soon as they turned the machine off this would all be gone. His partner would be dead again anyway. Besides, fatigue was taking root. He had seen what he needed so now the automatic parts of his mind were taking over and gearing up for a nap. His muscles were getting numb and as excited as all this was, he had to admit that he was too much an old fart to do any more. He still had to get back to his office and organize his thoughts.

With a sigh, Card reached between his feet and grabbed the toolbox. With his free hand, he pulled himself through the hole. Instantly it felt as though there were firecrackers going off in his mouth, throat, chest, and belly. Dropping the toolbox, he yelled clutching and slapping at his chest and stomach. Card's initial and panicked thoughts were that he was having that heart attack anyway. That was quickly changed to a paranoid certainty that he had been betrayed and some malfunction in the ACME was causing his death. He'd had heart attacks before and they never felt like this.

* * *

After he watched his friend disappear into thin air carrying the toolbox, a sick dread moved through Eddie's gut. "What was it he said?" Glancing at the table he saw the saltshaker. "Right, he said, 'It really tastes like salt!'" Eddie shook a bit of the salt onto the back of his hand. With only slight hesitation he stuck his tongue into the little white patch of crystals. It tasted like salt.

He gave a deep sigh and stared at the floor to think about his partner. What was this going to do to their ability to work together as detectives? What was he going to tell Mary? Should he just forget this ever happened? What happened to Norm's body? His face? Then he finally noticed what his eyes had been fixed on while he'd been spacing out. It was a small screwdriver; one of the tools that had skittered out of the toolbox and under the table earlier. He bent a knee and reached through the legs of the chair and grabbed the tool. It was the only thing he had to prove to himself that it hadn't all been just a hallucination. But what proof? A screwdriver? What does that prove?

Pressing the tip of the screwdriver into his chin he tried to identify the spot where his friend had vanished. On a sudden whim, and feeling foolish the moment he did it, Eddie tossed the screwdriver at the space Card had disappeared into. It vanished before ever hitting the floor.

Eyes wide, and blood pounding through his ears, Eddie felt like a ghost had just walked across his grave. And then that ghost cried faintly into the wind. It almost sounded like Norm crying out, but it had to be Eddie's mental expression of the concern he felt for his clearly troubled partner. Not to mention the growing concern he suddenly felt for his own, apparently failing, sanity.

Slowly, Eddie walked closer to the spot where the screwdriver had ceased to exist. Tentatively he felt the air with some concern that he might lose a finger or worse. Much worse.

* * *

The technician happened to be watching the monitor when Eddie was swatting around looking for Card's exit hole. He had been about ready to initiate the shutdown sequence when, at the sound of the senator's cry, he leaped from the control booth and ran to the wooden shanty doorway where Card lay half out of the small building breathing heavily. Assorted tools were scattered all around his body. The senator had bruised his shoulder falling out onto the wooden crate that had farted at him earlier. As if foreshadowed, Card could not contain the sudden pressure in his bowels and let loose with an explosive release. At the sound, the operator skidded to a stop a few feet before the heaving senator's supine body.

Card looked up at the technician and snarled, "What the hell did you do to me?" He'd forgotten the tech's name, which was probably a good thing at the moment.

Icy-cold terror seized the technician's own bowls at the menacing tone of the senator's voice. "What do you mean? I didn't do anything! What happened?"

"It felt like my chest and stomach was exploding! God damn it! You had to have done something!" The senator's chest, stomach, and bowels were feeling better now and so he started to roll himself around to a sitting position. It would not do to be in such an undignified position when he screamed at this little puke asshole.

Had the senator been looking at the technician's face, he'd have seen the light go on, but he was instead looking at the scratch on his watch crystal. "You must have eaten something in there. Did you?"

"Eh? What? Eat anything? No, of course not, there wasn't any food in there at all! Just dirty damn dishes everywhere. As usual!"

"Well, it could have been anything, like water or even a bug. Did a bug fly into your mouth?"

"What the fuck are you talking about? A bug! A bug? Jesus, I'm gonna fly a bug up your ass in a minute! Make some sense you snot!"

"Senator, the ACME sphere's operational parameters require a fair balance between energy and matter going in and energy and matter going out. If you went in with less than when you came out the extra mass is automatically reclaimed at the portal. You must have put something in a pocket or more likely ingested something that put you 'off balance' during exit."

Slowly the senator's light went on… the damn salt. "Oh Christ, the salt. I tasted the salt. Will I get fried if I go take a piss?"

After a moment of scrotal introspection, the humming of the ACME brought Card back to the moment. To the silent and fearfully immobile technician he tilted his head a bit and purred, "Is this thing still running? Am I spending a million dollars a second of the tax payers' money for no fucking reason? Should we be keeping track so that we can take it out of your pay?"

"No sir, I mean, yes sir, the ACME is still operational, but I'll go shut it down right now. No, you shouldn't have any problem taking a… I mean, going to the… well… there shouldn't be any more side effects, sir." Shane scampered away to slam the emergency shutdown.

Senator Norman Card could feel the system shutting down around him. In fact, it was difficult to not notice the sparking between power conduits as energy expenditures were being rebalanced. Eventually the subliminal vibrations of the machine faded making them noticeable only by their sudden absence. One of the tools on the floor in front of him was a mini flashlight. Curiosity tickled him and he bent down to grab the light. Turning, he re-entered the small ACME sphere, now dark. He shined the flashlight around at the very reflective curved walls. Turning, he glanced down and froze. At his feet was that damned saltshaker from Eddie's kitchen table.