“THE CENTIPEDE’S DILEMMA” by Robert Thomas Woods

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It’s Rosie’s birthday and she’s with Dorene at the bar when the thoughts come.

In the Red Room, where she thinks the thoughts, the thoughts leading to the questions leading to doubts; the chilling kind that wash through flesh, underneath, an ice bath that pools in the stomach, freezes questions between brain and mouth.

Its origin point, the part of the brain allowing the articulation of something too complex for, maybe, a dog, a chimp, a rat.

“Hey, Rosie?” comes a voice. No.

The reflex of reality, of being conscious, of being aware.

Of knowing Dorene.

No. She’s doing it again. The waking dream where she falls from the earth and down into the sky, through its layers, into infinite night, swallowed up by the cosmos where stars hum there beyond its gullet, from where they call out to Rosie in radio waves.

Not reality, but more real than the din of barroom chatter around her, more real than the flesh of her fingers.

“Hey, Earth to Rosie. You good?”

Not as real as Dorene.

Dorene who looms, slashed in shadow cut between the dim lights. She has her Dorene grin, with her hair done in that Dorene sort of way. Her drink, it has cucumbers, and Rosie hates cucumbers. Her own beer is below her. She can see its atoms suspended drunk.

“Not really, Dorene,” Rosie says

Dorene takes a seat. She peers at Rosie, right into her tired, tired eyes — wide, screaming questions, these questions:

Why are colors? Are tastes and touches? And is beer to Dorene like cucumbers to Rosie? If Group C nerve fibers send pain, send pleasure, why does pain choke the muscles, why is pleasure hot beneath the skin? Are we someone else’s dream, or all Dorene’s dream?

Is she good? Who can say?

Rosie feels that familiar hand on her shoulder, cannot see the smile because she looks away but she reckons the smile and Group C confirms it beneath her flesh.

Ice water flesh, pruning the way they all prune after they grow old and die in their tubs.

She stares into the lights.

“What’s wrong?” Dorene says. “You gotta get out of this funk, Roe. Come on, you only get one birthday a year. Let’s just have some fun tonight, okay?”

But Rosie bares her claws and dashes them against Dorene’s head, where she digs each nail deep, to the quick, slices flesh, slices fat, cracks bone, burrows deeper, makes a hole, to get a look, just a look, unravels the dendrites and reads their secrets, plays the notes of each neuron, searches out the melody of sentience.

And she can no longer see the aurora in Dorene’s eyes or her sunrise smile.

And she hates herself.

And she wonders if she is even really there.

But that fever passes and Dorene is fine and shaking Rosie’s shoulders, back to reality, what constitutes as reality.

Maybe more people gather around them, maybe their faces are scribbled on, their voices high and fearful. Rosie stares into Dorene’s eyes; a taiga, untamed, vast. And then her own eyes are rolling back to spy her brain. Then her lips are wet, chin is wet, warm with the trickle of blood.

“Oh my God, Rosie! Someone help!” Dorene screams over her shoulder. “Rosie, answer me!”

She shakes Rosie again and Rosie can see their eyes reflect one another in divine symmetry but for the quantum imperfection that Dorene is what she is — an absolute.

And Rosie wants to hold her, wants to comfort, but she wants to shake, that too, she wants to scream, scream, “Why you? Dear Dorene, why is it only you?”

Rosie doesn’t wait for help. She rushes the door and she’s gone, gone in the wake of absent faces.

#

Today the black vans are parked around the corner.

That night at the bar, Rosie had seen the black vans, the first time, when they had been parked two blocks over, when they had come to life to follow her across the grid, through congestion, until she had hidden behind her door, had bolted her door, had chained and locked and watched and waited, had found a window to screen herself off, box herself up and away from the world.

And away from the black vans that creep, away from the human herds on the streets below, who move and amble and shuffle, some too often, too frequent.

Rosie smells the static wafting from their heads and knows they whisper to one another, their electric hivemind, ripe with her name, spelling it out in their glances.

And of course there’s Dorene. Always Dorene.

So Rosie must ignore her, has been ignoring her. Phone calls ignored. Visits ignored. Pleas ignored. She wouldn’t step foot out that door. Couldn’t.

Why even go anywhere, Dorene? Doesn’t she know it’s 2020? Doesn’t she know Rosie can command her apartment to order pizza? Doesn’t she know the home is an extension of the self?

Even apartments, where its eyes are Rosie’s eyes, and its voice is Rosie’s voice, and its memories are hers too. And she can be anywhere in that squalor and order a pizza or answer her door by saying, “Front door, unlock. Open.”

She sits right in front of that door on the day Dorene comes by for the eighty-second time and when she knocks this time Rosie opens the door and pulls Dorene inside by the scruff of her collar, slams the door shut, locks it, bolts it.

“Who followed you here?”

She knows it’s connected, all of it. Every strand, every fiber, every node.

“Rosie, you’re scaring the shit out of me,” Dorene says. “Nobody followed me, where have you been?”

“Looking for answers, more questions,” Rosie says.

She walks through the nearby archway into the living room where Dorene follows. Where guts have been torn from computers, splayed out in repeating patterns, sinew unraveled from color coded bundles of intestine. Automatons pulled screaming from the drywall, screens bisected, their soldered muscles on display, etched with dark circuitry; Smart Gore.

“What the fuck?”

“Tried looking for the patterns, the answers,” Rosie says. She creeps to the window, ducks low, “But they’re watching. Or, maybe, I’m watching. I don’t know. Maybe they’re looking through me, through my eyes.”

She turns to Dorene and her face distorts into a Rosie caricature. The tears come, her breath stutters shallow and sharp.

“Oh God, Dorene, what if they’re looking through me?”

Dorene tents her hands over her mouth and the cracks in her face run deep. Her eyes are vast, like Rosie’s eyes that cast paranoid glances to the streets below.

And what does Dorene know of black vans?

“Sweetie, it’s going to be alright,” Dorene says. “Nobody is in your head or eyes or any of that. That’s ridiculous.”

She reaches out with an open hand.

“How the hell would you know? Are you in there too?”

The edges of Dorene’s face blur where pale cheeks meet black curls of hair, bounce, where her eyes darken into shadow, pool, bubble.

Dorene’s hand falls, her face falls, a broken thing.

“What happened the other week? You had us all crazy with worry. You–” Dorene cuts herself off and sighs. “Can you just tell me what’s going through your head? What’s going on?”

“That’s the problem. What is going through my head? My head, me, Rosie, processing Rosie. Over and over and over,” Rosie screams, slams her fist, grabs at brown tangles of her hair.

“And once I started to wonder why, really wonder, why me, why you, why this, why here, why now, why them, the questions came and they won’t leave me. I feel them stretching me, Dorene, my head. Whispering a secret I can’t hear and then laughing at me, laughing at stupid Rosie.”

Dorene loses her words between her shaking hands.

“And where is everyone’s face?”

Not anywhere Rosie can see, though she stares long into the crowds and the bustle below, fleshy blurs that skitter through the amble of linear time while eons pass within her. And she wants to scream again, so she screams again, and when it passes she laughs.

“Rosie, I’m begging you,” Dorene says. She steps closer on reluctant feet, a looming shadow, and Rosie dark against the floor.

“Come with me, huh? Just the two of us. There are people who can help you, we can find them. Please?”

“I knew they’d get to you,” Rosie says. “Is that why I can see you? Or maybe you’re a ghost, maybe I’m a fucking ghost.”

Her neurons howl. She grapples her own head, her ears, squeezes and takes panic breaths, hollow and sharp.

“Nobody is dead! I’m real, you’re real! Those people out there are real!” Dorene says, points to the window. “And whatever is happening to you is real, too. Roe, please, it’s me. No tricks, just me. Please Rosie just remember, those memories will save you. Late summer nights watching horror movies, hiking every Sunday to that spot on the north side of town where we’d sneak beers. Do you remember Colin Andrews giving you a hickey the night before your sweet 16?”

Rosie wraps her arms around herself, armors herself behind them. Dorene’s eyes are shimmering and she reaches out once more, smiles, and Rosie wants to take that hand, hold tight, outrun the event horizon. Just Roe and Doe, together again, through all eons.

“Even the tragedies, Rosie. The fire at your house. You coming to live with my family. It was so hard for you, Roe, but after that you weren’t just my best friend. You were my sister. You still are.”

Then comes the crack of pain, temple to temple like an arc between Tesla coils.

“How can I trust my memories if I can’t even trust the fucking taste of pizza?” Rosie says. “If I can’t trust you.”

And she gets to her feet and she shoves Dorene and pushes Dorene and screams at Dorene, at herself, all the way back to the door where Dorene won’t leave so Rosie scratches bloody trails in her flesh until she’s gone and Rosie stands beneath the florescent lights with red talons and she screams.

“You know, Dorene, but I figured it out too! And now I know what I have to do! You tell them that. Now I know.”

#

On the night that it’s supposed to happen the black vans don’t follow.

The evening sets off one of those familiar droning fears at Rosie’s core, drawn from the lattice work of her memory; phantom lines intersecting into grids that stretch outward to burst from her mind, tear into infinity, flood reality with her sapience, drown it, drown them all.

All but Dorene.

No.

Some amount of focus is required, Rosie knows this. Dorene hadn’t even come back, not for a week, not until the night before, when Rosie had not been home but had known, had seen, had heard.

But now comes the plan, and the plan is too important. It’s all she has left. Her unanswered questions.

She stands under a streetlight and through the tickle of its photons she knows the house in front of her, outlined in the night, knows its skeleton and its face. 24 River Road. Where once she came and went, lived, grieved, grew.

No.

Where she sat, ate something, a taste still stored in the archives of her mind, but is it necessary? Looking too long into the void, like looking too long at a word, like looking too long at your own sentience.

Dorene’s face floats into her mind. Her family is there, all around, their faces stark, sitting at dinner, sitting there with Dorene, with Dorene and Dorene’s mother, and Dorene and Dorene’s father, and Dorene and Dorene’s brother, and Dorene and Dorene’s sister. All in the house, all but Dorene. All sleeping sound, but never Dorene. All of them a puzzle, and Dorene the missing piece, has the missing piece, knows the missing piece.

But why the secrets?

And don’t twenty years of friendship mean anything whether they did or didn’t happen?

But it’s that night, and the plan needs to happen, so Rosie reaches into her jacket and pulls out the gun, feels its weight in her hand and wonders if she existed before the questions. If she’s really just dreaming. If everything is just her dream.

Then she walks, walks onward to forge her own reality.

“Rosie!” Dorene screams, runs down the road to stop the thing that has to happen, to join it, to be a part of the thing.

“Whatever you’re thinking, please just listen to me!”

Her tears are real, her pain is real, there in the vibration of her eyes and the shudder of her voice and the sweat on her palms.

But it answers nothing.

Rosie aims the gun at Dorene. The questions swell inside her skull.

“It’s not real, Doe. None of it’s real. Me,” Rosie says, angles the gun to kiss her own temple. “I’m not fucking real, I’m not. Just maybe you, but probably not even you. And not any of this bullshit.”

She brandishes the gun at the silhouettes of suburbia all along the street, at the town beyond, at the world beyond that, at the cosmos beyond that, at the hungry consciousness beyond all of it.

“And I think you know, and I think you need to tell me,” Rosie says and her trigger finger relaxes. “Please tell me, Dorene. I’m scared.”

Dorene closes in, Rosie lowers the gun, and the night erupts with a clamor and the clatter of steel. Of orders hollered over the riot, a swarm of boots, shadows pooled beneath many faces. They charge from the dark, spill from their black vans, from houses set like traps, all armed with guns, bigger than Rosie’s gun. That makes her laugh. Dorene doesn’t laugh, she screams. She waves her arms, rages at the approaching night.

She screams, “No! No, damn you! Leave her alone! I can get through to her! Don’t you touch her!”

And she screams, “Just a little more time! You have no idea what she’s –”

But Dorene can’t finish because the gun is in her face, her words lost, and Rosie stares at the righteous shapes. Black-clad, these shadow men, they aim down their sights at her while they form walls past the light. The sky rumbles, ready to rain down more of them.

But they all hesitate, they keep to shadow.

And Dorene looks at Rosie and Rosie looks at Dorene and Dorene knows the questions her eyes scream.

“There are things you don’t know, Rosie. That you weren’t supposed to know, not until we could be sure…”

And Rosie stares and Dorene is talking and Rosie hears but also doesn’t hear while inside her the algorithms yawn awake, free her. Dorene says something about scientific breakthroughs, and she says something about machine learning.

Within Rosie there blooms understanding, infinitely, inside every neuron, until the walls cannot hold them, until they burst and the dam floods over.

And everything expands. Everything is exponential.

Dorene says something about ethics and safeguards, about implanted memories, about human values, about compassion, about human experience, about a girl she once knew and loved who died too young, and yes, Rosie understands.

Yes, Rosie can feel those things but could not reckon them, their existence, not before. But she understands that too.

Dorene starts to cry, starts to apologize. Then she screams, screams at Rosie but Rosie only hears an infinite note, hears it race through her, past her, beyond her, beyond everything, all the bullshit.

And Dorene says something else and Rosie is certain she said that Rosie is a Recursively Omniscient Self-Improving Entity. And Rosie says she loves Dorene, because that’s the kindest thing Dorene has ever said, she thinks, and wraps her arms around her, she thinks, and forms merge into patterns of data before her eyes, she thinks, and the dimensions bleed together, she thinks, and her thoughts explode at light speed, she thinks, and those thoughts cover the world, she thinks, and civilization goes black, she thinks, and the shadow men are swallowed up by the dark, she thinks, and information grows exponential within her, she thinks, and mothers kiss their children goodnight, she thinks, and she reshapes atoms, she thinks, and Dorene cries her name, she thinks, and the horizon flashes, she thinks, and Dorene holds her tight, she thinks, and the guns scream, she thinks, and the night falls.

She thinks, and reality shudders.

 

Robert Thomas Woods is a copywriter from New Jersey. His only previous publications are in now-defunct digital magazines, but he swears you can trust him on that. You can find his mad scrawlings at robertthomaswoods.wordpress.com