Friday, April 11, 2014

"What You Are About To See" by Jack Skillingstead (Part 3 of 3)

What You Are About To See
by Jack Skillingstead

[Continued from Part 2]

Probabilities shuffled...

* * * *

I woke up next to my wife. In the ticking darkness of our bedroom I breathed a name: "Andy."

Connie shifted position, cuddling into me. Her familiar body. I put my arm around her and stared into the dark, hunting elusive memories. Without them I wasn't who I thought I was. After a while Connie asked:

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know. I think I was having a dream about Andy McCaslin. It woke me up."


"Guy I knew from the Rangers, long time ago. I told you about him. We were friends."

Connie suppressed a yawn. "He died, didn't he? You never said how."

"Covert op in Central America. He found himself in the custody some rebels."


"They kept him alive for weeks while they interrogated him."

"God. Are you—"

"That was decades ago, Con. Dreams are strange, sometimes."

I slipped out of the bed.

"Where are you going?"

"Have some tea and think for a while. My night's shot anyway."

"Want company?"

"Maybe I'll sit by myself. Go back to sleep. You've got an early one."

"Sure? I could make some eggs or something."

"No, I'm good."

But I wasn't. In my basement office, consoling tea near at hand, I contemplated my dead friend and concluded he wasn't supposed to be that way. My old dreams of pain surged up out of the place at the bottom of my mind, the place that enclosed Andy and what I knew had happened to him, the place of batteries and alligator clips, hemp ropes, sharpened bamboo slivers, the vault of horrors far worse than any I'd endured as a child and from which I fled to the serenity of an office cubicle and regular hours.

But that wasn't supposed to have happened, not to Andy. I rubbed my temple, eyes closed in the dim basement office, and suddenly a word spoke itself on my lips:


* * * *

My name is Brian Kinney, and today I am not an alcoholic. My father was an alcoholic who could not restrain his demons. During my childhood those demons frequently emerged to torment me and my mother. Dad's goodness, which was true and present, was not enough to balance the equation between pain and love. I had been skewing toward my own demon-haunted landscape when Andy McCaslin took my gun from my hand and balanced out the equation for me.

My new world order.

* * * *

I'm driving through the moonless Arizona desert at two o'clock in the morning, looking for a turn-off that doesn't exist. After an hour or so a peculiar, hovering pink light appears in the distance, far off the road. I slow, angle onto the berm, ease the Outback down to the desert floor, and go bucketing overland toward the light.

* * * *
A giant pink soap bubble hovered above the 7-Eleven. Reflective lights inside the bubble appeared to track away into infinity. It was hard not to stare at it. I got out of my car and entered the store. The Indian gentleman in the lavender suit emerged from the cold storage run, a small suitcase in his left hand.

"What goes on?" I said.

"You remember," he said, more command than comment.

And at that instant I did remember. Not just the bits and pieces that had drawn me out here, but everything.

"My survival imperative sought for a probability equation by which my death could be avoided. You are now inhabiting that equation. With your permission I will, too."

"What do you need my permission for?"

"You would be the author of my death, so you must also be the willing author of my continued existence. A law of probability and balance."

I thought about Connie back home in bed, the unfathomable cruelty of my former probability, the feeling of restored sanity. Like waking up in the life I should have had in the first place. But I also thought of Andy, and I knew it had to go back.

"No," I said to Squidward.

"You must."

"Not if my friend has to die. By the way, isn't it a little warm for you?"

Squidward smiled. "I'm already in my ship."

"Only if I allow it."

"You will, I hope."

"It's the feathery thing," I said.


In my mind's eye images of unimaginable carnage appeared, then winked out. I staggered.

"I am a Monitor, coded from birth to your world's psychic evolution," Squidward said. "I subtly shuffle the broad probabilities in order to prevent what you have just seen. Without me there is a high probability of worldwide military and environmental catastrophe. Such eventualities may be avoided and your species may survive to evolve into an advanced civilization."

"That sounds swell, but I don't believe you. You've been doing plenty of shuffling in captivity. With that power why do you need anything from me?"

"That's merely my survival imperative, drawing on etheric energy from my ship's transphysical manifestation. My survival, and perhaps your world's, depends on you permitting this probability to dominate."

I didn't allow myself to think about it.

"Let the original probability resume," I said.

"Please," Squidward said.

"Let it go back to the way it's supposed to be."

"There are no 'supposed to be' probability equations."

I crossed my arms.

Squidward put his suitcase down. "Then because of what you are you will doom me. My probabilities concluded."

"Because of what I am."


* * * *


* * * *

My name is Brian Kinney, and I am the sum total of the experience inflicted upon me.

But not only that. I hope.

* * * *

The Tahoe's deadly acceleration. Sudden synaptic realization across the probabilities: You are about to murder your wife. The Vault Of Screams yawns open.


Hanging on the wheel, foot fumbling between pedals.

That big green Rubbermaid trash can bouncing over the hood, contents erupting against the windshield. It was just garbage, though.

Then a very sudden stop when the Tahoe plows into the low brick and wrought-iron property wall. Gut punch of the steering wheel, rupturing something inside my body. And don't forget a side of razor ribs.

Around the middle of my longish convalescence Connie arrives during visiting hours, and eventually a second convalescence begins. A convalescence of the heart. Not mine in particular, or Connie's, but the one we shared in common. The one we had systematically poisoned over the preceding ten years. Okay, the one I had systematically poisoned.

Watershed event.

Happy ending?

* * * *

It sat in a cold room.

Outside that room I watched a perfectly squared-away Marine enter a code into the cipher pad. I was the sum total my inflicted experience, but it was the new math. The door opened, like a bank vault. Andy McCaslin looked at me with a puzzled expression.

He was alone in the room.



"What You Are About To See" is copyright © 2008 by Jack Skillingstead and is reprinted here by permission of the author. The story was originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction, August 2008.

"What You Are About To See" is one of 26 stories included in anthology Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern and published by Night Shade Books in November 2011. For more information on this anthology, start here.

Jack Skillingstead’s first professional sale was a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award. Since 2003 he has published more than thirty short stories in various magazines, year's best volumes, and original anthologies. His work has been translated into Polish, Russian, Spanish, French, and Czech. In June Fairwood Press will publish a reprint of his Golden Gryphon Press collection, Are You There and Other Stories. His latest book, Life on the Preservation, is a finalist for the Phillip K. Dick Award. Jack is currently working on a science fiction novel based on his short story "Dead Worlds." He lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress.

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