(This story won the Most Excellent Prose award from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara!.)
My colleagues at the lab said my nightly vomiting was a symptom of alcohol poisoning. I would share the hypothesis, except I vomited eyeballs.
I don’t recall swallowing eyeballs, mind you. With optic nerves dangling like spaghetti.
And twitching! I typically vomited into the toilet and flushed the eyes before the horror set in, but after a midnight joust with a bottle of gin, I heaved into the orange, plastic bucket in my closet, where the eyeballs struggled like fish flopping for the water. I slammed the closet shut, and when I regained consciousness in the morning, I saw the eyeballs had died trying to escape under the door.
I elected not to take them to the lab (my reputation already strained), so I turned to the meager equipment of my apartment. According to my bathroom scale, the weight of the eyeballs exceeded one kilogram, yet I’d lost little mass myself last night. I must have conjured the eyes from my stomach.
For a while, I could not even look at liquor without imagining the eyeballs I should surely vomit. Then a spontaneous rendezvous with a handle of whiskey forced my hand. I puked six eyes and a pair of lips into the bucket. The lips squirmed like drowned worms into the shape of a mouth.
“We gotta talk, Arnold.”
I slammed the closet.
After staging a coup on a few more shots, I mindlessly retreated to the bucket. Two more eyeballs, six more lips. My throat’s last spasm threw an ear onto the pile.
“Can I call you Arnie?” asked the lips in unison.
“Please, don’t talk.”
“Your universe ain’t well-developed, so this might be hard to understand. Trust me, the eyeballs were the quickest way to reach you. Hey, it’s not polite to stare, Arnie, don’t give me that look.”
I slumped onto my ass. “Oh god, I’m smashed.”
“Hey, lucky guess. Our universes are on a collision course.” I moved to slam the closet, but the lips interrupted. “Pick up my ear, Arnie, it’s hard to hear ya.”
“Into the ear, Arnie. C’mon.”
I leaned into the bucket. “Go away. I don’t want this.”
“You need my help, Arnie. I can’t get into details; it involves trans-dimensional mathematics, and you Stage One universes aren’t hot on that. Can you even make Quantum Foam?”
“Okay, time for a crash course. Not literally, I hope,” murmured the lips. “Universes are like bubbles. Our bubbles are about to bash. This ain’t my first rodeo, but you guys are gonna pop.”
“Who are you?”
“Look, you’re bright enough, Arnie, I’ll level with you. I’m not a person, I’m a reality, the whole thing. Consciousness is inevitable, so lots of realities develop self-awareness. We call that Stage Two. Whole ecosystem out here, Arnie.”
“Yeah, trippy, huh? There we go: call me Trip.”
“You’re a quick learner, Arnie. Anyway, your universe won’t survive Stage One if you pop now, okay? Gotta work with me here, alright?”
“This is too much.” I sprawled across the carpet. The world blurred in my vision.
“I’m not as mobile as I used to be, but your reality is pretty spry. If you pass me the reins to your universe for a bit, I can jettison some of your space-vacuum. Push you guys out of harm’s way. Dig?”
“How do I… What do you mean?”
“I’ll need your universe’s address. Know it off the top of your head?”
I shook my whiskey. Only a tablespoon remained in the bottle. I drank it. “…Can’t say I do.”
“You know Physics, Arnie?”
“Well… Some. I’m a chemist. I… I mostly study alcohols.”
“Find a Physicist. They’ll know if anyone does.”
The next morning, I fumbled my way to the physics department.
“Arnold? Are you drunk?”
“Not yet, I just…” I pushed my wire glasses up the bridge of my nose. “You don’t happen to know the universe’s address, do you?”
“…What?” They squinted from behind their desks. “Little early to be hittin’ the sauce, Arnie.”
The night’s bourbon made me consider gifting Trip a fresh load of facial features. “Sorry, no one knows what you mean.”
“No prob, it was a long shot. I didn’t know my address in Stage One either.” Trip somehow bit his lips at the bottom of the bucket. “There’s an equation for it, but you can only really solve it at Stage Two or Three…”
“…I can do equations.” I felt bile rising in my throat. “What’s the equation?”
“Nah, nah, it’s too complicated. You guys don’t even have Quantum Foam, no way you’ve got the computing power. Hey, you’re lookin’ a little green, Arnie, you gonna chunder?”
“I can hold it down.”
“Then have another drink. I can’t calculate your address from here. I gotta send you a Neuron Pod. Be careful with this, Arnie, I’ve only got about eighty-six billion. These are Stage Three tech, Arnie.”
The brown bottle’s last drops trickled from its neck to mine. I gagged on the odor. “What’s a Neuron Pod?”
Trip surprised me by licking his lips with a tongue emerging from under the pile of eyeballs. “Ever study biology? Get to mitochondria?”
“Yeah.” I doubled over the bucket and opened my mouth, retching, but nothing came out. Saliva dribbled between my teeth.
“Neuron Pods are like mitochondria. Sub-realities, within me but distinct from me. Gotta delegate, that’s Stage Three. Outsource your computation. I found some Stage Zero podunk realities and converted the mass into brain matter. One Neuron Pod is like a septendecillion human brains. Smart brains, too, like yours, Arnie. Alright, here it comes!”
Huge, like a cantaloupe. It shouldn’t have fit in my throat, and it didn’t fit in my mouth. Trip’s eyeballs watched it flop into the bucket. Trip’s lips smiled.
A Neuron Pod was like a brain with a hagfish mouth and chattering needle-teeth. “Trip—What do I do with this?”
“It’s looking for your address. Just keep it safe.”
Friday night. Party night. In a dark alleyway, I popped the cork off two-dollar wine. Grape foam spilled onto the dirt.
I put the Neuron Pod on a trash-can lid. The needle-teeth were the worst part, like a sex toy from hell. “Can you talk?”
The needle teeth chattered.
“What’s Quantum Foam?”
The Neuron Pod’s needle-teeth shifted and clattered, filling the alley with heinous clicking. Almost… speech. After a quick drink of wine—like fermented olive oil—I held the Neuron Pod to my ear. “Tiny… universes.” The queer, snapping voice had a thick accent from somewhere eldritch.
“Can you elaborate?”
“Quantum Foam is the primal fabric of the multiverse… Each bubble is a universe at Stage Zero, absent of conscious thought…”
When I put down the wine, the bottle was two-thirds empty. “I’m not drunk enough. All this stuff about our universes colliding, it’s all real? We’re going to pop?”
“…My master leaves you with an ultimatum: be annihilated by the ballistic force of a careening reality, or entrust my master with your universe.”
I didn’t like the way the Neuron Pod said ‘master.’ “Well… You’ve known him for a while. Is Trip… trustworthy?”
“My master is… Stage Four.”
“Four? What does that mean?”
The Neuron Pod squirmed on the trash-can lid. “…Stage One universes contain sentient beings. Stage Two universes are sentient themselves… Stage Three is utilization of Stage Zero universes. Stage Four is… enslavement of Stage Three universes.” The hagfish mouth went silent.
“Enslaving universes? Sentient universes?” I looked at the Neuron Pod. “When Trip said you were ‘Stage Three tech,’ he meant—You’re saying Trip enslaved eighty-six billion sentient realities, and you’re one of them?”
“Yes…” The Neuron Pod flopped off the trash-can. When it hit the ground it almost burst, brain-folds expanding with juices. The hagfish mouth puckered. “Kill me.”
I poured the rest of the wine down my neck.
I smashed the bottle against a wall.
I threatened the Neuron Pod with the broken bottle.
“I… I can’t.” I dropped the bottle. “If I kill you, Trip will just enslave my reality instead. I need your help.”
The hagfish mouth took a deep breath. The brain’s folds inflated.
“We need to make Quantum Foam.”
I poured a shot of Scotch. “Need a drink?” The Neuron Pod twisted, which I interpreted as a ‘no.’ I downed the drink. “Okay. Okay.”
When I opened the closet, lips, ears, and eyes spilled out. Trip’s twitching eyeballs had toppled the bucket. “Hey, hey, Arnie! What’s the good word? That old Neuron Pod got your address yet? Might take a while depending on the cosmological constants in your reality.”
I put the Neuron Pod on the floor. “What next?”
“Well, ordinarily you’d hafta swallow that thing to send it back to me, but our universes are close enough I can toss you a Synapse Cable. You feel like hurling, Arnie?”
“I’m pretty sober right now.”
“Well, either you hafta swallow that Pod, or you hafta start drinking so I can throw you this Cable.”
Ignoring the shot glass, I drank from the Scotch-bottle. The nausea set in instantly. With one animal-like retch, I felt a thin strand jump up my throat and stick to my teeth. I pulled the strand from my mouth like a circus-clown conjuring a line of handkerchiefs. The strand expanded until a whole rope of meat and fat dangled from my jaw. The Synapse Cable was two inches thick, plugging my esophagus.
“Put it in,” said Trip.
I waggled the meat-rope near the Neuron Pod. The hagfish mouth slurped the frayed ends and locked on with needle-teeth.
“Ah, perfect. I’m getting your address now…”
For a few seconds I choked on the Synapse Cable. The Neuron Pod contorted and flexed in concentration.
“Hey, you’ve got a cool little reality… No wonder you’re still Stage One, with quantum particles like these. These photons are trash… And your Planck Temperature! How do you get anything done?”
I nodded. It was all I could do.
“You did good, Arnie. Your universe was almost a splat on my windshield. Just gotta get you outta the way…”
“You…” The eyeballs turned to me. “Hey, did you give me the wrong addreeeeeaaaugh!”
The lips flopped on the floor. Eyeballs burst into spurts of blood.
“Aaaaaaugh! God, no, what did youuuuooooaaaaaugh!”
The Synapse Cable retracted down my throat. The Neuron Pod detached from it, letting the meat-rope whip through my esophagus like measuring-tape.
“Are you trying to kill me?! What did you do?!”
“Aaaugh! I can’t—”
“We made Quantum Foam, Trip.” I massaged my neck. “We made new universes.”
“We found, in the innumerable realities… one whose cosmological constants were a perfect snare,” clicked the Neuron Pod. “This is how you entrapped me, isn’t it, master?”
“Now that universe is slurping you up like noodle soup,” I muttered, lying on the carpet.
“Of course… if you merely jettisoned space-vacuum… your connection to the snare would be harmless… Your pain indicates, as we suspected, you intended to subsume this universe into your own… or perhaps enslave it, like me and my compatriots…”
Eyeballs, lips, and ears shredded as if stuck in a storm of razor blades. Without lips, Trip’s voice echoed from my throat like shouts from a deep cave. “Arnie, Arnie, c’mon, I’m sorruuughhh make it stop Arnie please I’m begging you—”
I covered my ears. “I can’t, I can’t—”
“Your address! Give me your address, Arnie, let me escape, before it’s too late!”
“Not even if I could.”
Nausea pumped my guts.
Fingers from my throat pried my teeth open.
An arm stretched out of my mouth, fist-first.
“If you yak me up, I’ll survive! Vomit harder than ever, Arnie, right now!” The arm grabbed the Scotch. “I’m close, Arnie, I can escape to your universe, but it has to be right now, now, now—”
The arm sank back into my stomach. Before I realized why, it stuck the bottleneck down my throat, pouring liquor into me. I tried to scream.
“Now, Arnie! Now now now!” I couldn’t take the bottle away from the hand in my throat. I flipped onto my belly so the bottle didn’t pour down my neck. “No!”
Two arms opened my jaws wide. One flipped me onto my back and kept my mouth open. The other grabbed the bottle and spilled it on my face.
I groped the floor for something, anything.
A glass beaker.
I smashed the bottle with the beaker. Scotch soaked the carpet.
“No no no no!”
The arms in my mouth pat the damp floor.
“No, no, no…”
The arms slid down my throat until the fingertips brushed along my tongue.
I struggled to my knees, teeth clenched, salivating, holding myself.
For twenty minutes, I puked. No eyeballs, no limbs, just ordinary stomach contents. I spent the night cleaning vomit and broken glass. “Hey. How are you holding up?”
The Neuron Pod deflated. “I am well… Thank you.”
“My torment is at an end… Enslaved realities have been released. It is over.”
I tossed vomit and glass into the trash. “And our Quantum Foam…”
I opened my desk drawer.
Milky sand so fine and smooth it could have been liquid, like cream for coffee. Each speck was a universe. One speck had swelled like a pearl. “That’s Trip’s trap, huh?”
“My old master used the technique quite often.” The Neuron Pod observed the foam with its eyeless gaze. “I am impressed with your ability to synthesize Quantum Foam. You have a knack for it.”
“It wasn’t that hard,” I said, “since you gave me the recipe. It’s just chemistry.”
The hagfish mouth made a toothy smile. “Proper chemistry is vital for an up-and-coming Stage Two universe.”