Anyone looking down into that cold little room from the ceiling camera, say, will see two people sitting across from one another in folding chairs at a metal table bolted to the floor—the Meat and the Police Officer, but things are not quite that simple. The Meat is seven people, and the cop is at least two (the good cop and the bad cop), and one of the people in the Meat is dead. Her murder is the focus of the interchange between the still-living people in the Meat and the two cops.
I am one of the people in the Meat. My name is Nick. The Meat, that is to say the original personality, is actually called Mikhail Vodovos. Mikhail is in deep trouble over Yolanda’s sudden death, and he knows it.
I see the entire scene in black and white, but that’s just me. There are probably splashes of color. The cops might be wearing a red power tie. Those fuzzy spots swimming around the corners of Mikhail’s vision might be blue or green or yellow. I couldn’t tell you.
The walls of the interrogation room look flat white, but a lot of the paint has chipped off, revealing gray bricks underneath. The metal table is a darker gray than the walls under the paint and gleams dully in spots. The light comes from faintly humming florescent tubes, and the shadows all have sharp edges. Every detail has been carefully chosen, of course.
The police officer conducting the interrogation had introduced himself as Sergeant Billings and Sergeant Dumont. B and D, I’d thought. Dumont is probably female. It isn’t hard to keep them straight, because they’re doing the classic Good Cop/Bad Cop routine. They know we know they’re doing it, and they seem to be just going through the motions with it. I am not fooled. I know a thing or two about interrogation techniques, and these two are obviously sharper than they want us to believe. They have a lot going on under the surface. For example, there is the rubber ball they hold in their right hand. It’s about as big as a tomato, and I’m betting it’s red.
Sergeant Billings, the good cop, looks at the ball in their hand, and then he looks at us, and then he looks back at the ball.
“It’s like this, Mike,” he says. “Do you mind if I call you Mike?” He doesn’t wait for a reply. “We generally leave such family affairs alone. Someone kills someone in some head, and the dead person respawns, and the two of them kiss and make up. If no one files a complaint, it’s nobody’s business but their own. You follow me? But this is different, Mike…” Sergeant Billings continues, again stepping on any reply Mikhail might have made. I recognize what’s going on: it isn’t time for Mikhail to speak yet. It’s time for Mikhail to realize that the jig is up, that they have the goods on him, that it is only a matter of time, and so on.
“…You went way too far this time. Not only did you give her neck a few sharp twists, but then you erased all of her backups. There will be no respawning for Yolanda. That last bit is the important part. That’s where we have our problem. That’s the part that makes this a serious crime, makes it murder, in fact. That’s what makes it our business. Am I making all of this clear to you, Mike?”
But it’s still not quite time for Mikhail to talk. “We have the 911 holograph recording, of course.” Sergeant Billings pauses to let that sink in. “In this recording, we see the person you call ‘the Animal’ standing over the body. We want the Animal to come out and answer a few questions.”
He holds the ball up about a foot or so above the table. I can feel Mikhail’s heart pounding like crazy and smell his sweat. When Billings is sure everyone inside the Meat has gotten a good look, he drops the ball and then catches it as it bounces back up toward his hand. He does that again, and then a third time. And then he does it again. I know what he’s up to. Obviously, he knows about the Animal and the Ball. He’s trying to trick Archie (who the others call “The Animal,” among other things that are similarly unkind) into coming out into the open. The fact that he knows about Archie’s obsession with the Ball probably means he knows everything there is to know about all of us. They would have had crawlers all over the Clouds gathering information on us before they picked Mikhail up. They’d done their homework. That doesn’t surprise me. Anyone can know everything about anything at any time, and the police even more so.
I can feel Archie tensing and crouching and focusing on the Ball. For Archie, the Ball is not some childish game. The Ball is serious adult business. The Ball must be thrown. The Ball must be chased and caught and returned. The Cycle must be repeated. The welfare of the entire Multiverse depends on the Cycle.
Archie is in my lap, so I put a hand over his eyes. He could shift his sight around my fingers easily, but my gesture is enough to bring him back from the brink. Relief washes through the Meat. Mikhail must have let some of it show, because the cops close their hand on the bouncing ball and do their face changing routine again.
The bad cop says in her sharp tones, “I think you are all in it together.”
Does that make any sense? Didn’t the other cop just say that one of us had reported Yolanda’s death? Who did that? I consider each of us one at a time starting with Mikhail (who no one calls “Mike”), the original personality that had developed “naturally” in the Meat, if it could be called natural—it seems pretty strange to me. Next had come Yolanda, who Mikhail had made to study physics which he had been interested in at the time. Apparently not interested enough to go out and study the subject himself, but interested enough to make an avatar to do it for him. It didn’t take Yolanda long to “wake up” as the popular press puts it and demand she be allowed to branch off into cosmology. Mikhail had no choice but to let her do what she wanted, so he made Ricky, a first person shooter soldier dude, and turned him loose in an advanced War world where he happily slaughtered everything that moved.
Gabriela Fontane was next. The Butterfly Girl. She was supposed to be beautiful and smart and just all around fabulous, and she was, but she also was prone to dark periods of depression that not even new shoes could diminish. Mikhail thought a pet might help Gabby, so he made the Animal. The Animal started out as a “Tiny” in one of the classic Second Life Worlds, a Dachshund with huge black eyes and floppy ears who walked around on two legs like a very short human but considerably cuter. I don’t think Mikhail expected the Animal to become a person, but it did. And when it did, it disappeared into a jungle world for nearly two years and didn’t participate in Mergings with the rest of us at all. It turned out the Animal had spent months pouring over databases of scanned animal brains, adding who knew what.
I came next, Nick, the PI, and his black and white world. I hated being a private investigator and threw away my stupid fedora and dropped that nonsense as soon as I had any say in the matter. I worked for a while as a small town cop before drifting off into drink and existential angst. I might still be doing that, but the Animal suddenly returned and became my dog, you might say. I named him Archie, and he didn’t seem to mind. Since he had become a person, he couldn’t actually be my dog. He was more like my inscrutable friend. When he finally joined the Merging, he brought images of the hunt, the chase, the kill, the blood, the eating. It was pretty good. I think he liked me because I was the only one of us who would throw the Ball more than once or twice. In fact, I would throw it almost (but not quite) as long as he wanted to chase it.
After me there was Aaron, who Mikhail made to go off on trips around the world and bring us his experiences. Aaron was just back from Brazil when Yolanda was killed.
“Since you are all implicated in the murder,” the bad cop says, “there won’t be any trickiness involved when you all go down for the crime.”
I look over at the mirror and see the officer and Mikhail. Probably a two-way mirror. Who knows who is out there watching? Mikhail glances around like a cornered animal. He licks his lips. He opens his mouth and then he shakes his head and closes his mouth.
Stop that, I tell him. You’re just telegraphing that what she’s saying is one hundred percent correct. Someone else should be talking to the cops, but I need to keep Archie calm and out of the picture, so it can’t be me. Gabby, get out there and talk to them.
Me? Why me? She says that in a way that makes me realize that she’s the one who called 911 in the first place.
You know why, I say.
She doesn’t have anything to say to that, which confirms my guess. Does that mean I can cross her off my suspects list? Absolutely not. Calling for help might just be part of her plan.
Gabby comes up to the front. “That’s ridiculous, Sargent Dumont,” she says. Using the bad cop’s name is a nice touch. It lets them know we are having no trouble telling them apart. It tells them we have some confidence. That alone goes a long way toward canceling out Mikhail’s sweating and fidgeting. “Why would we call the authorities if we had some kind of conspiracy going on?”
“Miss Fontane,” the good cop says. “Shall we go over what you reported to the 911 system and get a few things cleared up?”
The bad cop comes back before Gabby can reply. “Even if you are not all in on it, at least one of you is. There is no way someone from outside Mikhail Vodovos could have killed Yolanda Kane. We know the Animal is involved. We just don’t know if it was acting alone.”
They change their facial expression again, and the good cop says, “Here’s what happened…” He manifests the 911 holographic recording of Gabby’s call for help, and there it all is. They are in the Library. Yolanda is on the floor, sprawled on her stomach but with her head turned all the way around to face up at the ceiling. Archie is standing over her. It’s easy to think of him as the Animal in this picture. He is a classic Manticore with the dull red body of a lion and a human head — vaguely human anyway. The head is too big, the eyes too round and too flat, the gaping mouth with too many rows of sharp teeth. He has wings like a bat, but it doesn’t look like he could actually fly. He has the tail of a scorpion.
But wait a minute. If Yolanda is dead, what’s maintaining her shape there on the floor? Maybe she’ll just get up and twist her head around straight and give the Animal (she calls him Sparky because that seems to irritate him) a good swift kick. But no, here is a tablecloth moving across the room like a magic carpet. When it’s positioned itself directly over Yolanda, it goes limp and drifts down and covers her. I can still see her shape under there. Someone screams.
I see it’s Gabby, standing by the Library door, her big butterfly wings spread wide. This must be Gabby’s re-creation. This couldn’t have been recorded live as she called 911. This must be part of the mental dump she provided in the heat of the emergency.
“You!” she yells in the recording.
The Animal looks up at her. It crouches as though to leap across the room, but then ducks its head under the tablecloth covering Yolanda. There is a horrible slurping sound. The Animal pulls its head back out and spins away and is gone in an instant.
Things don’t look so good for Archie.
“So, it seems pretty clear,” Sergeant Billings says. “The Animal killed Yolanda. Miss Fontane came upon the crime scene and called it in. Now we need to talk to the Animal. None of you is going anywhere until that happens.”
Gabby, I say, ask him how he knows Yolanda is dead. If the body is still there under that tablecloth. . .
“What?” Gabby asks, speaking out loud.
“What, what?” the cop asks.
Maybe Yolanda is not even dead, I say. Maybe we can still make this all come out okay.
Archie whimpers in my lap, and I scratch him between the ears. After we’d been arrested, he’d returned in his Dachshund form, short gray coat (reddish brown to everyone else) and black eyes like glass. He’s pretty cute when he’s like this. He knows this is my favorite of his looks. He always uses it when he wants to be comforted or when he wants to work with the Ball.
It’ll be okay, I mutter.
Are you crazy? Gabby sounds astonished. She inserts herself into our local rendering of the holographic presentation in the head and marches over to Yolanda’s body. She bends and grabs the tablecloth and jerks it away like that magic trick where everything stays in place on the dinner table when the cloth is snatched from underneath.
There is nothing under the tablecloth.
Sergeant Billings says, “Subsequent research shows all traces of Yolanda in the Clouds disappeared the moment the Animal did whatever it did under that cloth. Some glimmer of her undoubtedly exists in your Meat, but even if she were rebuilt, she would never be the same—that’s what makes this a clear murder. Now send out the Animal.”
We need to stall a little longer while I figure this out, I tell the others. We’re overlooking something.
Like you’re going to figure it out, Gabby says.
I am the detective, I say.
I simply can’t believe Archie killed Yolanda. Mikhail has to be the main suspect. Or Gabby. They are the ones most upset by the worldview Yolanda introduced into the Meat, the worldview that cannot be true, but probably is.
Just the Facts
Yolanda’s post doc work in Cosmology had focused on Special Relativity and the Relativity of Simultaneity, where two observers moving relative to one another will disagree on which events are happening Now. Events considered to be in the past or the future (depending on how they are moving in relation to one another) of one might be in the present of the other. Past, present, and future events are all equally real in space-time. Which means you can no more change the future than you can change the past. There is no such thing as classic free will.
Yolanda also told us how multiple universes arise in almost every theory of physics. Everything that can happen does happen somewhere in the Multiverse. So, she explained, the purpose of life is finding out which universe you happen to be in and seeing how it all plays out. It’s like you are a character in a book that no one wrote. You have no idea what’s in the upcoming pages, and you can’t change anything that you will do, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to make choices.
Mikhail and Gabby did not accept any of this even if they couldn’t come up with any arguments against it. Ricky didn’t give a rat’s ass, and Aaron had places to go and people to see.
I am not just a character in some book! Gabby would shout.
Well, Mikhail did make you, Yolanda would say.
And who made me? Mikhail would ask.
We all make ourselves! Gabby would shout.
And so on.
So, there had been some friction in that area, but would Gabby or Mikhail kill Yolanda over philosophy? Well, I suppose people have committed murder for stranger reasons. I can easily imagine Gabby setting Yolanda on fire or pushing her off a building, but someone had coldly and with malice aforethought erased Yolanda. This was not a sudden crime of passion. More like Mikhail than Gabby.
We should switch again, I say. Buy us some more time. Someone else get out there and talk, and you come back inside, Gabby.
I’ll go, Ricky, our action figure, says.
Good, I say. But no shooting.
I am only half joking, and he knows it. Things could go from bad to horrible if Ricky decides this is a situation that demands no subtlety.
Once Ricky starts talking, I tune him out to think about motives and opportunities. Ricky’s chatter is irrelevant. It will have to do with caliber or fire rate, and Ricky will be saying that if he had killed Yolanda he would have used a shotgun or maybe a grenade. And the cops, one or the other of them, will be telling him to shut the fuck up and send out the Animal.
Maybe Ricky did do it. Why else had he volunteered to go out and talk to the cops? This is not an action sequence. He has no expertise in this area. If anyone should be talking to the cops, it should be Aaron, the world traveler who is all the time interacting with strange people in strange places. Why hadn’t he volunteered? Had Aaron come home and killed Yolanda?
“Well, it’s like this, officer,” Ricky says.
There is a commotion, and Ricky doesn’t finish his thought.
“What the hell just happened?” one of the cops asks.
Gabby screams again.
I poke around in the Meat, expand myself into all of our brain rooms, but Ricky is gone. Not gone like he’d walked on down to the corner for a beer, but gone in the same sense Yolanda is now gone.
Two things. First, I can take Ricky off the suspects list, and second, but more important, whoever killed Yolanda and Ricky must be trying to kill us all! Who’s next? And who’s doing this? Aaron, Gabby, or Mikhail himself?
Out in the so-called Real World, Mikhail had been jerked to the forefront when Ricky disappeared, and he had slumped forward onto the table. The cops had leaped up and called out or jabbed buttons or something because there are suddenly a lot of people and even more confusion pushing into the little interrogation room.
Mikhail’s sudden seizure doesn’t fool me.
Mikhail, I say quietly. Why don’t we just Merge now and see who the killer is?
I don’t think that’s a good idea at this point, Nick. Mikhail sounds calm and cold and not at all like a guy who has just passed out on a table. He had simply come back inside and let the Meat go limp.
It’s you, isn’t it? I ask him. It makes sense. Who else would want to kill us all off? Mikhail must want to start over with new people. He doesn’t love us anymore.
Don’t be ridiculous, Nick, he says. What kind of detective are you anyway?
No kind of detective, I might have told him. I never asked for this black and white bullshit. If I live through this, I’m going to take my dog and head out to the woods for a few years and get in touch with nature or whatever.
They’ve flopped the Meat onto his back on the table and someone is peeling back his eyelids and listening to his heart and slapping his wrists and his cheeks.
Back in our head, Aaron runs into the Library. He’s naked except for a cheap white bathrobe hanging open with the logo of a major hotel chain above the little pocket in the front.
You think Mikhail is trying to kill us? he asks.
Well, maybe, I think, but it just as well might be you. But it isn’t. Aaron explodes, sending bloody body parts shooting out in all directions. I slow everything down and step into the stacks just in time to miss being splattered. In the Nick of Time. Ha ha. Aaron dead, too? I feel the hard rubber edge of the oxygen mask as it is clamped down over Mikhail’s face.
Nick? Gabby flutters near the high ceiling on unfurled wings. What’s happening to us, Nick? Is it really Mikhail? You wouldn’t hurt me, would you, Mikhail? Nick?
Then she goes up in a pssft of flames from bottom to top with nothing but a little squeak and falling ashes like a paper with the secret code on it that you burn in an emergency so the bad guys can’t read it.
This is it. Mikhail killed them all except for me and my little dog. We have to be next. Out in the Real World, it will probably be judged some kind of brain seizure. Maybe Mikhail will get some medical rehabilitation, learn to walk and talk again, so sad, and later when all of this is behind him, he’ll cautiously make some new people. Of course he’ll make them. He will be encouraged to make new people. You just can’t be fully human these days without the transcendental experience of the Merging. Making new people will be part of his therapy. It will take time, but he’ll have good doctors and lots of support. Someone will write up his case, and students will study it for years to come.
Surely, he can’t get away with it. Surely, this is not the first time the original person in the Meat has wanted to get rid of the newcomers who have not worked out as expected. Surely, the cops will see right through all of this when Mikhail is the last man standing.
You’ll never get away with it, Mikhail, I say.
What? He sounds frightened. Nick? Don’t. Wait. Stop. . .
Blood fills the head. Blood everywhere. Much worse than when Aaron went. It washes through the head’s hallways and floods the Library. Books float away on rivers of blood. There’s a terrific wind and the sound of millions of leaf blowers and chainsaws. There is a tremendous bang, and then all goes still. Things are subtly different. The details are not so bright.
What is this? I ask. Mikhail? Mikhail!
“This doesn’t look good,” someone out in the Real World says. The frenzied activity out there has subsided. Only the two cops in one and a guy who has to be a doctor are left.
Things are pretty quiet inside, too. I feel around for Mikhail, but I don’t find him. There are holes where Yolanda and Ricky and Aaron and Gabby and Mikhail used to be. There are faint echoes of them all. Or maybe that is my imagination.
So where does all this leave me?
I look down into the gleaming black eyes of the little dog in my lap.
This might be Central Park judging by the skyline beyond the greenery, but we don’t think it is. At least it isn’t Real Life Manhattan which has no zeppelins swimming between the buildings. Nick is sitting on a bench with a restless little dog in his lap.
Nick puts Archie down on the ground. Archie twists around and runs a short distance and then turns back and barks twice at Nick.
The Ball! The Ball!
Nick has no ball. “Sorry,” he says, and shows the dog his empty hands.
Archie paws at the ground. He curls his lips back over his teeth and snarls a low deep sound then yaps again.
Things have fallen completely apart. The others are dead, the worlds they’d lived in drifting away. Yes, there are traces of them all, but they would never be the same people they had been even if they could be rebuilt, and Nick has no idea how to do that anyway.
That leaves the Animal and the Ball and the Person Who Throws the Ball. The Animal has taken over, and any new person introduced will have something to do with the Ball.
Nick had been too busy trying to be the detective he never was, ignoring the obvious and trying to dig deeper. It had been bad enough to be a black and white detective, but now he was going to be the guy who endlessly threw a ball for a little dog.
“I don’t think so,” Nick says.
Archie expands in all directions like he is being blown up from the inside, and he has only to take a single step to be right up in Nick’s face. The Animal is the Manticore again and then he is the Griffin. He is the Lion, he is the Bear, he is the Tiger, and then he is the Big Bad Wolf. His jaws are big and horrible and the mouth wide, and the teeth razor sharp, and there are rows and rows of them, and the jaws come down over Nick and bite him in half at the waist. The Animal swallows the top half of him and then gulps down the bottom half.
We realize that this is what the Merging will be like from now on. No more happy transcendental orgies. The Animal will send his parts into the worlds, and at the end of the day he will eat them, and we will be what we were always meant to be. The Ball is not a game. The Ball is serious business. The Ball is like a poem describing everything. A poem needs words like this thing needs a Ball to throw and a Ball to chase and a Ball to catch and a Ball to return. It is not that the process must be done over and over, but more that it is just one timeless process, one thing stretched over space-time and holding us together making us what we are which is an offshoot of the next stage in human evolution.
We want to surrender now. We want to sigh and relax and say to hell with all, but one more thought that is not strictly speaking our thought, but is instead a thought unique to Nick, comes into our mind. He opens our eyes, jerks our arms up, and snatches the red rubber ball from the fist of the cops leaning over us, who are still holding it after everything that has gone on out there outside of us. Nick throws it hard across the cold little interrogation room, and it bounces off the mirror and zooms back at us, and the Animal leaps out after it.
The Animal cannot, of course, leap all the way out of our Meat here in the downtown police station, but he gets far enough out for Nick to slam the door on him. Once the door is closed, Nick expands into our brain and fills as much of it with himself as he can. The Animal struggles back in with the ball in his mouth, but it is too late.
“Sit,” Nick says.