Between: 2

As promised, here’s the next episode of between. Head bonking and new character included. If you missed it, here’s Episode 1. I’ve already got most of the next one finished.

Philo scratched his head as he looked out the door of his capsule. If he’d sat down and made a list of the things he imagined he might have found when he opened the door, “blank space” probably wouldn’t have been one of the things at the top of the list… although technically it would have already been on the list before he started, so it would have been at the very top and he would have been less correct with each guess. Lesson learned? Don’t bother guessing.

Once he got over the strangeness of discovering that there was nothing to discover, he started to note some of the other unusual things. Despite the endless field of white that surrounded his capsule, there didn’t actually seem to be any light. When he put his hand outside he could see it clearly, when he pulled it inside it was in shadow. The light stopped at the door, like it was afraid to come inside.

“I’ve discovered shy light,” he remarked, jutting his hand in and out a few times. He stuck his head out and looked down. “I wonder how far down it goes.”

After digging around in one of the boxes to find something he wouldn’t mind losing, he pulled the scuba mask from the Disembarkation Kit and leaned out the door.

“So long, mask,” he said, tossing it down. The mask darted downward, then hooked under the capsule and out of sight. He leaned out further to try keep an eye on it. “Hey, stay where I can see you, you stupid…” Something cracked him on the back of the head. “Ow!” He twisted to look up, and found the scuba mask twirling in the air above him for a moment before dropping to the outer surface of the capsule. “… What are you doing back here?”

He grabbed the mask again and gave it another toss, this time ducking back into the door and looking warily upward. A moment later the mask plummeted by the doorway. A moment after that it plummeted by again. The third time it passed he reached out and caught it. Experimentally, he threw it to the left. A moment later, it whipped by from the right.

“So gravity is kind of a wildcard out there,” he observed. “Good to know. I should be writing this down.”

A bit of searching turned up a pad and pen. He jotted “Important Discoveries” at the top of the first page, then started a bulleted list. The first two points were “Shy Light” and “Indecisive Gravity.” He watched the mask whiz by for a while.

“This is fun, discovering things and such. I’ll bet when my faculties return it’ll turn out I’m a scientist or something. Heck, I’ll bet I’m supposed to be doing all sorts of science stuff right now. Where’s that tablet? Let’s get to business, Darva.”

He stepped back to the stubbornly dark interior of the capsule and pulled himself up into the chair. The tablet was still dangling from the roof of the capsule by a rubber-coated coil. He investigated it for a bit, then discovered that the coil was just some sort of tether, and it could be unhooked without much difficulty.

“Let’s hear it,” he stated, leaning back in the seat and tapping the screen.

A video began to play, with the woman he knew only as Darva continuing in a flavorless monotone. “By now your faculties should have returned…”

“Wrong, Darva.”

“… so you can proceed with the activities covered in your pre-phase briefing. If not, pause this video and consult the Test Subject Overview Packet to refamiliarize yourself with the key points of your identity and mission.”

He tapped the screen. “Excellent! Cheat sheet for the faculty challenged!” He hopped down and clicked on the flashlight, looking through the increasingly disorganized mound of materials on the floor around the chair. “Stupid faculties. Wandering off and not returning. Faculties is a stupid term to use anyway. It makes my head sound like a university or something. Ah, here we are. Test Subject Overview.” It was a small paper packet, about the size of an index card. He tore open the end and removed, predictably, an index card. He cleared his throat and read the card. “Test Subject 42. Name: Middleton, Philo Heironymus. … My middle name is Heironymus? I must have some weird parents. … Age: 28. Weight: 178 lbs. Hair: Brown. Eyes: Hazel. Criteria For Selection: Extreme Psychological Resilience. Mission: To test the viability of the Dimensional Capsule and observe and record any findings.” He flipped the card over, finding nothing else. “Well thanks a bunch, Darva, that clears everything up.” He began to imitate what he imagined to be the voices of the people organizing the mission. “What do you think an amnesiac test subject would want to know? Well, make sure to put his eye color on there. What about hometown, or family? No, no. Eye color and hair color. That should cover it. Oh, and weight. He’ll want to know if he’s fat or skinny.” He tossed the card away. “Well, at least I know it’s a dimensional capsule now… which I guess means I’m in another dimension. Also, I’m psychologically resilient. Whatever that means. I choose to interpret it as a complement. Another one for the Good Column.”

He tapped the screen and Darva began to speak again. “Please remember to record any and all observations thoroughly with the AV recorder. The high capacity battery and memory chip will provide up to two hundred hours of high fidelity audio and high definition video. If you decide you need to record more, charging and data transfer cables are in the Documentation Kit, as well as instructions on how to archive data. Remember to cover all items on the Observation Checklist, also found in the Documentation Kit.When you are through with your observations, tap this screen to continue.”

The video cut to a text screen with the instructions she’d just given verbally.

“So I’m supposed to observe… Well I was already observing. But I guess I’ll strap on that headset and see what’s on this checklist.”

The headset was a decidedly futuristic accessory. It looked like a pair of glasses, though only one eye had a lens. That eye also had camera attached. It was about the size of a tube of lipstick, and had a small hole with a metal grill over it that Philo supposed was a microphone. A second microphone was at the end of a stalk which stuck down in the general direction of his mouth. A few clearly marked buttons were on the side, the largest of which was the record button. He slipped the headset on. It held firmly but comfortably to his head. When he clicked record, a small video preview briefly showed in the one lens over his eye. It then shrunk down to show a dB meter that moved when he spoke.

“Okay, this is Philo Middleton speaking. Despite some very sketchy advice from Darva–if you’re watching this, Darva, you need to work on your instructional videos–I am now all set to start my very important mission. There’s a checklist here, so I’m just going to go through it. 1. Record Time from Capsule Chronometer. Well nothing in the capsule works, but I woke up a few minutes ago, so we’ll call the time T+ a few minutes. 2. Record the temperature from the Capsule Thermometer. Again, nothing in the capsule works–you’re really batting a thousand on this one, Darva–but it feels about… How do you estimate temperature? It isn’t hot, it isn’t cold. It’s like… Do you ever lie in bed with the covers over you for so long that it feels like the whole world is the same temperature as your body? It is like that. Blanket Comfy 3. Weather Conditions.” He stuck his head out the capsule door to look around. “It doesn’t seem–”

The still orbiting scuba mask struck him in the head.

“Ow! Stupid… Okay, I might be jumping the gun on this particular observation, but wherever it is that I’ve ended up, there’s weird gravity. Originally I labeled it Indecisive Gravity, but after getting clocked in the back of the head twice, I’m officially upgrading it to Three Stooges Gravity… I guess it is also worth recording that while I still can’t remember if I have a wife and kids, apparently I can remember the Three Stooges. So at least the important stuff is coming back to me. Anyway, weather.” He stuck his head out and looked around. “I’m going to call that ‘not applicable.’ Unless that white is actually from clouds, in which case we’ll call it cloudy. Next, 4. Flora and Fauna. Also not applicable. Finally, 5. Unique Observations. Okay, we’ll but the Stooges Gravity and Shy Light here instead. So… that’s the checklist. Just to recap: Time, A few minutes after I work up. Temperature, Blanket Comfy. Weather, nope. Flora and Fauna, also nope. Observations, wacky gravity and light that won’t come indoors.  Philo out.” He stopped recording. “What’s next, Darva?”

He tapped the screen. “If you are satisfied with your observations, and the ship has passed all systems checks, then open the Recall Procedure document and follow the simple instructions. If the ship failed any of its systems tests, follow the appropriate emergency procedures. If there is a failure of both primary and secondary power, attempt the automatic restart routine by holding the right-most button on your armrest for ten seconds. If that fails, consult the Contingency Kit. This concludes your video instruction.”

Philo pulled himself into the seat again and held down the button. After well over thirty seconds, there was no sign of success.

“Big surprise there. Let’s look at this Contingency Kit.”

He slid down, sifted through the pile of cases, and found one with the proper label. It was the size of a wedding ring box. He opened it.

“… Oh screw you, Darva.”

Inside was a capsule with a single line of instructions. Bite down on capsule for swift, painless death.

He angrily tapped the record button again and pulled the headset off, pointing the camera at his face.

“Listen up, Darva. I don’t know who you are. Hell, I barely know who I am, but considering the fact that you gave me a suicide pill and told me to take it if your precious capsule doesn’t work, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say we aren’t friends. Now I don’t know how I’m going to get home, but you can be damn sure I will get home, just so I can see your face when you watch this video and see me do this!” Philo flipped up his middle finger and made a great show of waving it at the camera. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I just flipped you the bird from another dimension. That’s an interdimensional bird-flipping. And you know what, Darva? I’m going to record a ton of stuff now. I’m going to do it just to spite you. I’ll make groundbreaking discoveries and I’ll name every single one of them after me. And then I’ll come back and make you watch every second of this video.” He slipped the headset back on and grabbed the Contingency Kit. “And you see this, Darva? This is what I think of your contingency plan.”

He reeled back and hurled the case out the door of the capsule, sending it twirling away. In seconds it was completely out of sight. When he was certain it wasn’t going come twirling back, he heaved a sigh.

“Well, that felt good.” He took a deep breath. “Now… what to do next.”

#

Click.

“Okay, I figured out there is a little time stamp option for this headset, so at least I know how long it’s been since I recorded the first video. Two hours, by the way. I spent the last hour looking around here for something worth doing. Let me tell you something, Darva. There is nothing fun in this capsule. No games on that tablet. There’s not even a deck of cards or a yo-yo. Way to plan ahead, Darva. Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to climb outside, because I’m getting a little stir crazy.” He looked down, to reveal a rope tied to the handrail beside the exit. “I’ve got a tether here, just in case. So, let’s get to it then.”

He stuck his head out the door and looked around. To one side of the door was a row of rungs built into the surface of the capsule. He twisted around, sat on the edge of the door, and grabbed onto the rungs. As soon as a reasonably large portion of his body was outside of the capsule, though, he began to notice something odd.

“Um… okay, different parts of my body are having a disagreement about which way is down. My legs, which are inside, definitely want to go toward the floor of the capsule. My arms and head, which are outside, want to go toward the center of the capsule. It feels really weird. I’m going to call it ‘The Philo Effect.’ Deal with it, Darva.”

Philo grabbed the rungs with both hands and began to slide himself out of the capsule. It was phenomenally disorienting. His brain told him he should be climbing the ladder, but his arms and legs increasingly suggested he was crawling across the ladder. With a final, unsteady shift of his weight, he slid his feet out of the capsule and onto the rungs.

“Okay… starting to regret this decision,” he said, his hands shaking as he gripped the rungs.

He looked “down,” or at least toward the portion of the capsule that had the floor, and saw nothing but more of the same endless white void. It was like clinging to the top of a massive skyscraper, or maybe walking the wing of an airplane, except that rather than wind whistling in his ears there was no sound at all, not even the slightest breeze.

“There is no wind. I’m not actually sure if there’s any air. I mean, obviously I’m breathing and such, but… I don’t know, it is like the temperature and the light. None of it works the way it should. The light isn’t coming from anywhere, it is just there or it isn’t. I can feel that I’m not freezing or sweltering, but I can’t pinpoint anything as specific as hot or cold. It’s the same way with the air. I can feel it fill my lungs and rustle my nose hair and such, but at the same time it feels like it isn’t there at all… Great. Now I’m thinking about breathing. I guess that’s better than thinking about falling.” He looked “down” again. “And now I’m thinking about falling again.”

Rather than get caught in a breathing/falling anxiety loop, he decided to keep climbing until he ran out of rungs, which took him to what the engineers who designed the capsule must have considered to be the top. Once there he reeled in the slack on the tether and tugged to see if it was securely tied. Satisfied, he shakily released the rungs and stepped onto the surface of the sphere.

“There, tada!” he proclaimed. He looked around him. Now with an unobstructed view, the all-encompassing nature of the white around him was making his head spin. It was utterly featureless, not a speck of black, a shape, a line. Just white in every direction. “Look at all the nothing…” He cupped his hands to his mouth. “HELLO! … Nothing. Not even an echo. It is humbling you know? I feel so insignificant. … Actually, strike that. If I’m the only one here, then I’m incredibly significant. By default I am the most significant thing around. Still small, but very significant. Like a grain of sand in the eye. Philo H. Middleton: A Grain of Sand in the Eye of Creation. Cool, I’ve got a name for my memoir now. Philo out.”

#

Click.

“We’re about three hours into my expedition, and I thought this would make for a good update. It turns out, gravity is totally treating the capsule like a little planet. The surface of the capsule is the ground, and the white void is the sky, and stuff always falls to the ground. The only exception is when I’m inside the capsule, in which case the floor is down. Found that out the hard way when I fell in the doorway, and about halfway through I hit the chair and then fell again and hit the floor. To illustrate this principle, I’m going to create a landmark.”

He stooped and picked up the scuba mask. Just beside the very top of the capsule was an antenna. Philo hung the mask on the antenna.

“And now, in an unprecedented showing of bravado, I’m going to … drum roll please… remove the tether!” Taking care to keep the entire process in the shot, Phylo looked down and untied his safety line and threw it away. “Now watch.”

With slow, steady steps Philo began to pace along the surface of the capsule. Rather than quickly slipping off the edge, he simply continued forward. After very few steps he came to the door of the capsule and looked down into it.

“Watch this.”

Philo pulled a crumpled up envelope from the pocket of his jumpsuit, then turned on the flashlight and pointed it down into the capsule. He dropped the paper and it fell down into the door, then quickly curved toward the floor of the capsule and bounced to a stop.

“Neat huh. That’s a practical demonstration of The Philo Effect.”

He hopped over the door, continued walking, and eventually came back upon the scuba mask without ever having turned.

“There. I’ve circumnavigated the world. Philo out.”

#

Click.

Philo had removed the headset and was pointing it at his face. “We’re about twelve hours in now. A few more observations. I just realized that I haven’t gotten tired or hungry since I showed up. I haven’t gotten thirsty either. And since there’s been no input, there’s been no output, which is good news because you didn’t put a bathroom in that capsule. Way to think ahead, Darva. I did find some diapers, but something tells me that was just Darva seeing if I’d do something that humiliating. What I did get is bored. Luckily I’m resourceful, and I have a lot of food bars that I’m apparently not going to need.”

He slipped the headset back on and looked up. A galaxy of foil-wrapped food bars, water bottles, and both of his boots were flying through the air just above head height. They were orbiting around the capsule in a dozen different directions, some quickly, some slowly. He stepped back and watched one whizz by at chest level.

“It’s like plate spinning. Beat that, Darva. Philo out.”

#

Click.

The video is once again from Philo’s point of view. “Okay… forty hours in. Still haven’t slept. Haven’t even yawned. So I…” He paused, then yawned loudly. “… Shouldn’t have mentioned it. Anyway. The days are bleeding together. Or the things that would be days, if there were nights. How do I say this, then? The twenty-four hour periods are bleeding together. Getting a little loopy. I figure I need to stave off the isolation. To that end, I’d like you to meet Bosco. Say hello, Bosco.”

Philo poked his hand up in front of the camera. He had formed a crude puppet by drawing eyes and a mustache onto his sock and slipping it over his hand.

“‘ello, Philo,” he said in a cockney accent, working the mouth in rough sync with his words.

“Maybe you’d like to introduce your friend,” Philo suggested.

“This is me ol’ friend Deirdre,” the sock puppet said.

He poked his second hand into view. This one was outfitted in his other sock, on which he’d drawn a face with prominent eyelashes and a beauty mark.

“Well hello,” he said in a piercing falsetto.

“So anyway, I’m confident these two will be enough to keep me sane for a while. Philo out.”

#

Click.

“Okay… No way, is that accurate? Okay, we’re one hundred and thirty hours in,” Philo’s voice was a bit strained, clear excitement in his tone. “Bosco and Deirdre got into an argument and now they aren’t speaking to each other, so I figured I’d watch the orbiting snacks for a while, when I noticed something. Look over there.”

He pointed, ‘Bosco’ still on his hand. Doing so placed his hand in the path of the various flying bars. They bumped into the sock puppet and fell out orbit.

“Oh, sorry about that Bosco. Here, let me clear those out. Deirdre, lend a face.”

WIth both sock-clad hands he snatched the various items from the air and dumped them into the hatch of the capsule.

“Anyway, I don’t know if the camera can see that, but look.”

In the distance there was a tiny speck. It was barely there at all, but after staring at the unbroken field of white for so long, it was like a brilliant red bullseye to Philo.

“It’s been there for the last twenty minutes, but now I’m absolutely certain it’s getting closer.”

He watched in quiet awe as the speck in the distance grew imperceptibly larger. As it did, details began to emerge. First was the color. It was lavender. A few minutes later he could see that it wasn’t a dot, but a line. It was flitting through the void like a ribbon caught in the wind, threading its way toward. Without any reference it was impossible to say how large it was, but proportionately it was like a python. It was a tube, more or less uniformly thick at this distance, but much longer than it was wide.

Soon it was near enough for him to see that it wasn’t a uniform color. Three lighter purple stripes ran along its length. The front and back of it seemed to be flared somewhat, with three points instead of a single one. It was at this point that he became certain that what he was looking at was some sort of creature. The thought flitted briefly through his mind that she should get inside the capsule, lock the door, and wait until the thing was gone. Like most of the thoughts in his head, it didn’t stick around for long enough to take root. He was far too busy reveling in the excitement of seeing another living thing to do anything but watch with anticipation as it drew nearer.

While it had taken several minutes to become near enough to see, it closed the remaining distance to him in seemingly no time at all. It moved like an eel, rippling smoothly along. The lighter stripes were finned ridges, and the rear flare was a trio of tentacles or tails, the fin running along the back of each one. The front flare was a matching trio of heads, but it was moving too quickly for him to see the details before it darted up to the capsule and coiled around it. The creature constricted lightly, it’s momentum causing the whole capsule to rotate a bit as it came to a stop. The thing’s body was long enough to entirely encircle the capsule with enough slack for the heads to rise up about five feet. They did so briefly, then plunged into the open hatch.

Philo adjusted to the spin and cautiously approached the hatch, hands held out to the side to try to maintain his balance.

“Um… Hello?” he said.

All three heads darted up and looked at him. The trio was identical, though the heads on the left and the right had to twist a bit to adopt the same orientation as the center one. Each looked a bit like a horse’s head if someone had made an ice sculpture of one and then let it melt for a while. Alternately, they might have been a particularly sleek interpretation of a dragon’s head. The heads were about the length and a bit less than the thickness of Philo’s thigh. Their snouts were long, narrow, and pointed. Each had two nostril slits near the tip and the thin line of a mouth running along the jawline. At the other end of the snouts were a pair of large, inquisitive eyes. The eyes had enormous irises, so large there was nearly no white around them. The iris was black with a pearlescent sheen, and the pupils were vertical slits. The top of the head had three tall frills folded back, with a few smaller spines scattered between to form something akin to ahead of spiky hair. The frills met in the back and merged into the long, back fin. A pair of small, otter-like ears flapped a bit in either side of each head. The skin was a gorgeous and vibrant lavender color, gleaming with an oily sheen.

The heads adjusted so that the center one looked him in the eye while the left and right heads looked to his outstretched hands. The right head had one of his boots in its mouth, dangling by the laces.

“Hello,” he repeated.

All three heads suddenly shifted to stare at his left hand. He looked to it and realized he still had the sock puppets on.

“Oh, sorry,” he said.

He reached over with one socked hand and pulled the sock from the other. Instantly the three heads pulled back, utter terror in their eyes and mouths open in horror. His frazzled brain snapped into action, pointing out a number of things it probably should have indicated earlier.

You just met a creature with three heads. You have one head, plus two hands with faces on them. You just pulled the face off one of them. What did that look like to the creature? He thought.

“Oops.”

That’s it! I think I’m getting very good at ending these things right before something actually interesting happens. Stay tuned for the next installment in a week, when we’ll find out why you should always be wary of the head on the left, and the intrinsic weakness of universal translation.

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