Fiction: This Door is Locked

The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

Few things were more unpredictable, or harder on the stomach than traveling through the Doors. An air car dropping too fast off a high platform, maybe, or launching into space on the equatorial fast track for the first time.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move, I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.

Instinct drove his hands into his pockets, where he found his supplies were almost gone. He had a few vacuum-sealed bags of Earl Gray, enough water to last another day or two, three protein bars, and a picture of Rose smiling under an umbrella on a rainy Budapest riverside. Their second date, David remembered, back before they were both starving professors trying to eke out a living in the oversaturated, over-priced wasteland of New York.

An old, hollow pain in his heart made David think about taking a running leap off the cliff’s edge, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to splatter himself on those distant, glaive-like rocks, to feed whatever creatures lurked beneath the waves of this planet’s briny, black ocean, wherever this planet was. But he knew it was just the pain of seeing her face again.

This world, the world of the fjords, is the best candidate we have for being their home world. If I’m going to do it, it’s not going to be until after I find them.

There was no other way down from the devil’s tower that David could see. Returning through the Door was never an option, either. Escher Doors were one-way.

Where the hell is my ship? He could remember landing it, but not where, which meant the memory wasn’t very old or very recent, but somewhere in the middle.

The Escher Doors robbed you of your short-term memories. That was the price you paid to wander through them. But David had been wandering long enough that the oldest memories of his pilgrimage had started becoming fixed. It was only a matter of time until-

The wind howled, cold biting through David’s jacket, making his knees buckle and collapse. He fell onto his knees and vomited again on the snow, the empty contents of his stomach an embarrassingly small offering to the gods of this stark, frozen world.

Gotta find shelter. Fast. Too weak to try climbing. Body temperature dropping. I need something to eat. I’m so hungry.

The thought of food was enough to motivate him to move. He found his feet, brushed the snow and loitering bits of vomit off his beard and clothes, and began frantically searching for something, anything, that would point the way to the next Door.

But there was nothing. Soon the gray, glass bottle bottom sun sank behind the fjords, and David was forced to make camp, digging a tiny shelter in the snowbank under the foot of the island’s single tree that he hoped – no, prayed – would keep him alive until morning.

A green light caught his eye while he was digging, far off across the fjords and the bruised, purple sea, as the dusk finally deepened.

It was only a tiny, green glimmer, so miniscule that if David didn’t know what it was, he might have mistaken it for some bioluminescent animal prowling the shoreline. He watched the soft, jade light flickering on and off, as regular as a heartbeat, until he was done digging, then as he laid shivering in his shelter, waiting for sleep to take him. He watched it when he woke up at night to urinate, and again when the wind howled like a blizzard of throwing knives over the mouth of his shelter.

David knew the light’s source could only be one thing. It was one of the ten million-year lamps that guarded each Escher Door, the beacons set to guide the Wanderers on their long, endless pilgrimage.

He awoke to the grey light of dawn seeping over the fjords, and a soft, mechanical buzzing in his ear. David leapt up out of his snowy bed, and immediately kicked himself for being so easily startled. Each Escher Door was fitted with a resupply station to replenish those who traveled through it.

Rose would be laughing at me right now.

The pain of losing her was always the worst after waking up. Her voice echoed in his mind’s ear: I don’t want you to go. What if something bad happens to you?

He saw her wiping her eyes on the back of her wrists, took them, and kissed her on the eyelids.

Nothing bad is going to happen to me, babe.

What had the old man had said about redemption being the inversion of selfishness? David couldn’t remember.

The whirring sound grew louder with each handful of snow. His fingers scraped metal less than a foot down, and the bare corner of the small, spherical delivery plate of a food printer peered up at him.

The machine had sensed him exit the Escher Door and cycled on sometime during the night. David couldn’t blame a machine that was several million years old for taking a few hours to turn on. He only hoped that whatever it printed was still edible.

Thankfully, it was. The raw, dirty paste that fed from the printer’s nozzle into an insta-fabbed leaf cup tasted disgusting, but it gave him enough strength to get up and move around.

He washed his face and hands with the snow, placed the leaf he’d eaten out of in the printer’s recycling bay, and started looking for the path that would lead him to the next Door, which he now knew for certain was hidden on top of the devil’s tower.

Within minutes, David found the hatch.

It was an old fashioned trapdoor built into the ground and hidden under several feet of snow, not five paces away from the nutrient station. The hatch hissed open as he muscled through the ages of rust and time that had sealed it.

David crouched and lowered himself into the dark dampness of the ancient stone stairwell. It was several degrees warmer here than up top, and grew even warmer as he descended. Automated lanterns in the ceiling and walls flickered on as he passed. The lanterns had been one of the first subjects of David’s study when he began specializing in Wanderer culture back at the university in New York.

Feels like that life belonged to a different person, David reflected, as those old memories came back to him: of cramming to finish lesson plans, and braving hordes of students at office hours; of pinching every penny so he and Rose could make rent each month on that stupid, microscopic studio apartment that always stank of burning roaches; of practicing with the band, of missing practice; of the rare one or two days a year when they got a gig, and he could let it all go; of his fingers dancing up the worn neck of his Engelhart stand up double bass, the only item of any value he and Rose owned; of Rose’s eyes glimmering, inches from the stage, as if they existed only for him.

At last, the stairwell opened to a wide tunnel hewn into the glistening rock of the channel floor. Huge dripstones hung from the ceiling like a theater of forgotten puppets, overgrowing the ancient pictograms the Wanderers had cut into the walls.

Those mood pictures were the only form of writing the Wanderers had left behind. David had once published a theory that the indecipherable, swirling doodles had held religious significance, that they didn’t tell a story, but were more akin to visual hymns.

They are formless. Pure. Like jazz, they wander without knowing the road, only the destination.

But like all David’s theories, that one would likely go unfulfilled unless David found what he was looking for. The Wanderers appeared to have destroyed all written records of their history once the Escher Doors were built, including any discernable map to where the Doors led, which was why David’s mentor Dr. Liapis had informally given the long-since-vanished alien species their moniker. No physical remains of the Wanderers’ bodies had ever been found.

They went through the Last Door, David thought, gazing at the swirling, mystic spirals that graced the cave walls. And the Last Door is here. On this world. It has to be. All of my research pointed to the Fjord World being the end of the pilgrimage. It was some kind of last rite for their species, the last staging ground before moving on to their promised land.

I’ll never know until I find that Door. I’ll never know until I walk through it.

The tunnel went on for so long that David lost all sense of time. He was hungry again when he finally saw the tunnel’s endpoint, a filled-in halo of white light gleaming in the distance above him. The tunnel curved upward and David ascended into cold air.

The tunnel exited onto a snowbound isle in the middle of the fjord, a meter or so higher than sea level. The island’s only feature was an ornate stone archway guarded by a blinking, floating buoy that spat bursts of brilliant green light every few seconds – the same light David had seen from the top of the devil’s tower. A few scaly birds resembling Terran sea gulls nested on the buoy.

The Escher Door was a little one, built for local on-world travel, not the slightly larger kind that could jump you across entire arms of the Milky Way in the blink of an eye. Wherever it led was somewhere relatively near, and paying for the ride would cost only a negligible amount of David’s short-term memory. Any apprehension he might’ve felt was forgotten as soon as he stepped through, as was everything else he’d felt since waking up the previous afternoon: the cliffs, the tree, the shelter, the dirty paste, the tunnel and its incomprehensible wonders.

David forgot everything but jazz, and Rose.


A wall of cobwebs met him on the other side. He felt sick and tasted bile in his mouth. His memory came back much quicker this time, as did the pain of Rose’s absence. Some old argument effervesced from the buried annals of his mind.

If you don’t go, David, how will we ever have a future? How will we afford to have kids, a state-of-the-art home gym, to live in the Bay Area and buy a cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas, so you can busk with your band on Nob Hill?

I don’t know, Rose. I don’t know how we’ll do those things. But this feels wrong. It feels like I’m about to make the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

Then don’t go.

Don’t say that. You know I won’t.

I love you. And I’ll support whatever decision you make.

His fingers instinctively found the worn, smooth corners of the amber bracelet she had given him to match the necklace he got for her their first Christmas together. They had chosen amber because it was the only precious stone either of them could afford. The sunburst stones still held their cool, dusky glow, but the silver setting was tarnished and ruined. Three of the amber leaves in its spiraling tree motif had fallen out. David couldn’t remember when.

Still, it was the last piece of her David still had other than that old picture.

Rationally, he knew Rose might no longer be alive. Nobody knew how the Doors worked, if Door travel actually was as instantaneous as it seemed, or if there were relativistic effects like those that accompanied normal acceleration. Would he return to Earth to find that Rose had grown very old, like the twin who was left behind from Einstein’s infamous paradox? Or worse, that she was several hundred, or several thousand years dead?

You made this choice for a reason, he reminded himself. And now you’re going to see it through.  

He exited onto a huge plaza at the heart of a vast stone city nestled between the walls of a great fjord. A hundred tawny torches blazed silently from the walls of the abandoned metropolis.

The plaza was made of many small islands floating upon an oblong lake, all connected by causeways that formed a shallow quincunx of canals. The horizontal pattern mirrored the vertical one the city itself carved from either side of the fjord. It was the most awesome architectural marvel David had ever seen.

Thousands, perhaps millions of stairways, tunnels, and arched doorways dotted the sheer cliff faces, weaving a singular, flowing mood picture a hundred times larger than Manhattan. The telltale glimmers of uncountable lanterns sparkled in every groove and spiral.

At first glance, it looked like a giant, stone-wrought maze. But as David’s eyes studied the rolling, fluid images cut into the escarpment, he began to see that none of it was supposed to be connected at all.

A city of neighbors who could never meet. A multitude of Doors leading to nowhere and everywhere at once. But that was the point, wasn’t it?

As much as he wanted to stay and fall upward into the pale vertigo of that infinite city forever, David didn’t have time to stand around gawking. The sun had set, the moons were rising, and despite the queer calm of the air, he didn’t want to get stranded again without real shelter or food if the weather changed for the worse.

There was a small, minaret tower watching over the plaza of canals that looked different in style and structure than the surrounding buildings. Its light was yellow, not green, and it appeared to have been recently built.

David headed towards it, finding the most direct path he could across the interconnected islands of the plaza. When he was halfway across, he noticed that the yellow light wasn’t a beacon, like those guarding the Doors, but an indoor light shining through an open window.

Someone still lives there, David thought. Door Traffic Control, maybe? A caretaker? No. That’s a human structure.

Someone else is already here.

The possibility that he might not be the first to have discovered this world, that he wouldn’t be the first to wander through the Last Door, filled David with deep, existential dread. His fear was tempered only by the thought of taking a long, deep drink of clean water and filling his belly with something hot.

Dr. Liapis and I were the only two people who were supposed to know about this Door-path. No one else so much as speculated about it, let alone that it could lead to the Last Door. It was a shot in the dark, which is why he sent me all the way out here instead of coming himself.

A dark shape blotted the light in the window. David’s blood turned to cool sludge. Who the hell is that?

When David reached the foot of the tower, a distinctly human shape stuck his head out of the window and called down to him, in American English, “Look at you! You made it in one piece. Open the gate and come upstairs. There’s hot food and tea. The door’s automated. The password is Charles Mingus.”

David tried, but the door of the tower wouldn’t open. “Did you say Mingus? As in, the jazz bass player, Charles Mingus?”

“The legendary, the one and only. But just hold on. That old thing can be a real pain in the ass if you don’t know how to jangle it right. I’ll do it for you. Be right down,” the man said.

An instant later the door to the tower slid open, and David was enveloped in a bubble of warmth and light.

An old man stood in front of him, silhouetted against the light spilling out from the interior, but David could see him clearly enough to know he was no one who had ever worked in the very small, very catty academic field of Xenoanthropology, at least while David was alive.

The man was short, much shorter than David, and completely bald save for two slender gray quasar jets of hair sprouting from either side of his head. He wore a water-reclaiming outskin that resembled a suit of tight, but comfortable pajamas, and his eyes held the two-tone look of someone who is used to having two conversations simultaneously – one with the person they are speaking to, and a separate one about that person inside their own head.

The old man extended his hand. “Pleasure to finally meet you, Doctor Tovakol. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”

David shook the old man’s hand and said, “Hi. Look, I don’t mean to be blunt, but…”

The old man cut him off. “You thought you were the only one here. It appears you are not.”

“All right,” David said. “So, who are you?”

“I’m Nobody,” the old man said.

Great, David thought. This guy isn’t just a lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere. He’s a cracked lonely old nut living out here at the salty edge of bumfuck nowhere.

“Is that your first name or surname?” David said.

The old man tilted his head, his tone losing its hint of jovial amusement. “Did I stutter, Doctor?”

“Look. I’m sorry. I’m really thirsty and I haven’t eaten in… well, I can’t remember how long, but it’s been a while. Can I come in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “I thought you’d never ask.”

David followed the old man inside. “Wait,” he said. “I have to know something. Were you really the first one? Or have there been others?”

The old man paused, setting one foot on the stairs. “I was, and remain, the first and only human being other than you to ever take a living breath on this world. Not that it matters. It was never ours to discover.”

The old man’s humility made David angry. “So I was right. This was their home world? Or at least, their capital?” David said.

“This entire galaxy was their home. But yes, this planet was where they first evolved from the primordial soup. It remained sentimental to them, until the very last shedding of their lower culture.

“Now, please, Doctor. I’d prefer if we had this conversation upstairs,” the old man said.

They went up the tower, ascending a simple spiral stairwell lined with a hypnotizing array of stone panels floating in protective vacuum cases. At first David thought they were mood drawings, salvaged from some corner of the Wanderers’ civilization he had yet to see, until he noticed they were laser-etched.

“You’re mapping them,” David said.

The old man turned and looked down at David over his shoulder, stopped and leaned on the handrail of the stairs. “I was, yes. Or rather, I was trying to, until I learned the Door-paths can’t be mapped. Come along. These damned stairs get a little harder to climb each day, and soon I won’t be able to ascend this phallic eyesore at all.”

“But… “ before David could speak, the old man cut him off.

“If you wanted to ask why, you should’ve majored in philosophy. Come along now. This way.”

David kept his mouth shut, ascending the rest of the long, winding stairway in silence.

The tower’s penthouse was a circular room with panoramic windows looking out over the dusk-lit fjords. The only furnishings were a twin bed and slapped-together kitchenette, and a crude worktable.

Instead of the expected, stereotypical piles of dusty vellum scrolls, glass beakers, and spider-infested grimoires, the old man’s study was crowded with piles of curved, sanded wood in various stages of becoming large, stringed musical instruments.

David recognized the pieces instantly. He’s making standup double basses.

Here was the scroll, half-finished. There, the neck and belly, missing only the final polish. The vices of the old man’s workstation held the youngest iterations, naked in their raw hillocks of sawdust, while his completed works surrounded his bed like a guardianship of wooden soldiers.

“Curious, isn’t it? That two musicians should find each other all the way out here, at the fuzzy edges of spacetime. Please, give one a try,” the old man said.

David touched one of the finished basses, admiring the old man’s handiwork, tilted the hollow body into his arms and plucked out a few notes, the opening riff of Mingus’s Hog Callin’ Blues. The instrument’s sound was deep and elegant.

The old man beamed. It wasn’t pride David saw gleaming in his eye, but the deep respect of process. “You haven’t seen the trees of this world yet, but they are truly grand. The wood gives a different sound than what you get back on Earth. That’s all it is. My skill as a luthier is still light years away from decent. But the wood compensates for my shoddy craftsmanship. I suppose in another fifty or a hundred years, I’ll start to get the hang of it.”

David gave a polite smile. “You’ve got one hell of a hobby,” he said.

The old man went over to the kitchenette and put a pot of water on to boil. “Tea?”

David nodded.

“Earl Grey?”

David took a seat at the kitchen table. “Yes. Black.”

“How would I get milk out here, young man, or sugar, for that matter? Even these tea bags are probably a few centuries old, taking Door travel into account. Thankfully, they’re vacuum-sealed.”

The old man handed him the steaming mug. David sipped it, letting the heat spill down through his body. When was the last time he’d had a cup of real tea? Not since leaving the ship, he thought. Days? Weeks? Or was it years ago?

“Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,” the old man said, taking a seat at the table beside him. “I don’t have all the answers, and the ones I have will not be satisfactory. You will just have to accept that you won’t know everything, yet.”

“I’m not sure I can do that,” David said.

The old man cleared his throat and began: “The Doors have funny effects on time. You and I both have passed through probably one too many for our own good. Because of that, there are at least three of us who know about this place: you, your professor, and yours truly. I’ve dedicated my life to studying the Freeway, ever since I was your age, and I still haven’t figured out exactly how it works, nor how I arrived before you did, you being the one who is actually credited with its discovery back on Earth.”

“I am?” David said.

The old man nodded. “You are. I have scarce communication with them these days. The Freeway isn’t as exotic a subject as it once was. Research into it barely receives any funding at all. The people’s imagination has seemingly moved on.”

David shook his head. “How? We barely know anything about the Wanderers back home. I’ve never even heard the Escher Doors referred to as the Freeway before you just said it. But, I admit, we know even less about the effects of traversing them, so, I’ll concede that anything’s possible,” he said.

“Ha! Wanderers…” The old man cackled. “I remember when I used to call them that. Of course, it’s been decades.”

What do you call them?” David said.

“Why, nothing. They were Nobodies. Like me.”

“I don’t understand,” David said.

The old man gave him a sympathetic look. “The enigmatic ancients you have traveled so far and sacrificed so much to study were a self-annihilating culture. Not suicidal, mind you – they sought to eradicate the idea of personal importance, of being someone, from their cultural id. It’s the entire reason they constructed the Freeway in the first place.”

“That’s a theory I haven’t heard before,” David said.

A fire lit in the old man’s eyes. “It is only my professional opinion, but it’s one I’ve formed over tens of thousands of hours of meticulous research, decades I spent here alone, freezing my bloody butt cheeks off and surviving off of protein paste so I could one day tell you about it. Do you think I would have chosen this path if I didn’t have at least a solid inkling of what’s going on?”

“I suppose not,” David said.

“The Nobodies’ civilization advanced to the point where they realized that rampant individualism was the driving force responsible for the worst evils of their world: greed, poverty, famine, war. Yet, it is in the nature of all intelligent beings to be self-interested, and technology only amplifies this primitive urge. Considering the level of technology they had, it was only a matter of time before they destroyed themselves, and the entire galaxy along with them.

“So the Nobodies started a gargantuan project, the largest in their history, to eradicate the ego from their species. They built the devices we call Escher Doors, a vast network of portals placed at seemingly random points throughout the Milky Way, which wipe the short-term memory of anyone who walks through them.”

“I think I follow you, so far,” David said.

“This network is what I have come to call the Freeway, because the Nobodies believed that traveling it was the only way for the individual, and thus society as a whole, to become totally free,” the old man said.

“Free of what?” David said.

“Of the baggage of egoism,” the old man said.

“And do you believe that?” David said.

A smirk curled up the side of the old man’s lips. “Does it matter what I think? You’re going to complete your journey regardless of what I tell you, even if I say with 100% certainty that doing so will mean not only erasing every last shred of your desire to become Someone of Importance… it will also mean you can never, ever return home.”

“You found the Last Door,” David said. It wasn’t a question.

The old man’s fingers tapped out a burning rhythm on the tabletop. “That is an interesting way to phrase it. The answer to your question is yes, but in my experience, that way of seeing things is not entirely accurate. The Doors work like jazz. You wander through them, experiencing riffs on a scale, but there is no definite structure, no pre-determined road to where you are going. The music can go on forever, or it can stop as soon as the musician – or the audience – grows tired.”

“Did you find it or not?” David said.

“Calm down, Doctor. I already told you I found the Door you’re looking for, and passed through it. But while it is true that all Doors lead to the same place, eventually, the Door you came here to find is certainly not the last.”

David was about to open his mouth and demand that the old man take him, but the old man put a gentle hand on his, all blue veins and pale wrinkles, and said, “I know what it is you want. Why you came so far. Why you gave up what you did, even nearly losing your life. I have no quarrel with any of it, Doctor. I understand. I was young once, too. I simply want you to be ready before I take you there, to be prepared for what will happen to you. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be before you finish your tea.”

They set out into the eternal twilight, two lone pilgrims wandering through howling drifts of snow and shadow, their own shapes cast indecisively, growing long, then short, then long again as they passed under the periodic lights of the city.

“It took me almost a decade to realize they never lived here,” the old man said as they walked.

“How?” David said.

“Tested the soil. No signs of carbon-based life ever having settled in these dwellings.”

A sudden wind bit into them, driving the cold deep beneath his skin. It never seemed to end, that cold; hadn’t, since he’d started wandering through the Doors; even the brief respite of warmth and light in the old man’s study hadn’t driven it away for long.

“Where are we going?” David said.

The old man pointed.

Far ahead of them, the ghostly tip of a high hill could be seen rising from the city’s labyrinthine skyline, conjoining the massive canyon walls into a single line of impassable, craggy white.

They began to ascend, and soon David could see the city’s shape falling away around them, a spiraling maze of concentric stone rings of which the hill they were now climbing was the center.

“So why’d they build a city they never intended to live in?” David said.

The old man shrugged. “Did you notice anything different about the doors of those houses we passed?”

David squinted to look at the distant, twisting avenues winding up the cliffs. All of the arched doorways had been intentionally sealed by piles of rubble.

“They’re blocked,” David said.

“Yes. They are,” the old man said. “All of them, closed until the end of time. Except, those aren’t houses. By the time this city was built, the Nobodies’ society had already advanced past the point where they lived in houses at all. They carried everything they needed on their backs. Every door you see in this city is an Escher Door.”

So they are, David realized. There were hundreds of them, thousands; uncountable portals leading to myriad worlds scattered further across space and time than the imagination could grasp.

This isn’t a city. It’s a transit hub. How did I miss it before? Or did I already know, and forgot?

The old man seemed to read David’s mind. “Yes, this place was the great hub of the Nobodies’ Freeway. And now every gate in the terminal is closed, every single Escher Door here, except the one you came through, is a collapsed, dead end.”

“Why?” David said.

The old man’s chest puffed. “Because I closed them. I was spending too much time wandering, and I had work to do. Funny, isn’t it? Traveling through the Doors was the one thing that prevented me from crafting my theory about how they worked.”

They reached the summit of the hill. A single, familiar light burned through the pirouetting snow devils, above an archway whose Escher Doorway was still open.

“I thought you said they were all closed,” David said.  

The old man cracked a smile. “Part of me wants to leave you to figure it out for yourself, but without knowing what I’m about to tell you, it will be impossible. Besides, I won’t get another chance to say it. This is the last time we will see each other, Doctor Tavakol, for a very long time,” the old man said.

“Tell me,” David said.

“We were both mistaken about how the Doors worked when we first arrived at this place. The Doors are purposeful errors in the spacetime quantum structure, like playing a wrong note on purpose during a concert. Except, spacetime is a self-correcting architecture. It is always stable. The Nobodies found a way to exploit that stability, by hacking one of its fundamental rules, that forward motion through time is an inherently destabilizing motion. The universe balances itself by constantly replaying its own melodies and harmonies so there are no wrong notes.

“You aren’t transmitted the way a photon is when you travel through the Doors. The act of the universe rebalancing itself is literally making you a false correction somewhere else, at some other time, to balance out the error you’ve made in the present by opening it.

“That is why Door travel costs memories, and why walking through that…” the old man pointed to the Last Door where it stood, now a mere fifty meters ahead of them across the hilltop’s flat, snowy plateau, “…will not take you where you wish to go.”

“Where does it go, then?” David said.

“Only where you need to,” the old man said.

They were almost to the Door now, so close David could practically feel its shimmering veil washing the pain of regret from his mind.

The old man grabbed his arm as he was about to step through. “David, please. The Nobodies went through this Door for the exact opposite reason we did, that you still feel you must. But I promise you won’t find them through this Door. I beg you to reconsider. This Door does not lead to Someone.”

David looked down at the veiny, pale hand grasping his arm. The old man’s sleeve had fallen back to reveal the ancient glimmer of a silver bracelet bearing the shape of a spiraling tree. Most of the tree’s amber leaves were long since fallen, but the few that remained still held their dusky, sunburst glow.

The old man winced and withdrew his hand.

But David couldn’t turn back, not after coming so far, after sacrificing so much. “If I don’t, I’m nothing. We both know I have to do this,” David said, and stepped through the Last Door.

The old man sighed. “I’ll leave the light on for you.”


The room was a tiny, hot mess high in the sky traffic zone of some ancient upper Manhattan smogscraper, the furniture all clinging to the corners between the poorly placed abutments and piles of discarded clothes, barely a hundred square feet if you included the bathroom and oven-less kitchen. The window was open, as always, an almost futile measure to beat the brutal heat of the New York autumn. Dusk had already settled, and far below, the slow, perpetual red storm of the city churned indifferently under sideways pillars of pollution. Somewhere in the apartment, a woman was crying.

David knocked on the bathroom door, wiggled the knob and found that it was locked. “Rose?” he said.

The sobbing ceased for a moment and resumed.

She’s pretending not to hear me over the noise of the fan. He knocked again. “Hey baby? Are you all right?”

Another long pause, then a faint, whimpering, “No.”

“Will you come out?”

A moment later the door opened. Rose stood in the doorway, her face framed by a halo of wild curls. She gave him a teary frown and hugged him like she’d never let go, said, “I don’t want you to leave.”

“I know, sweetheart. But we talked about this. This is what’s best for both of us. You said that. Remember?”

Rose nodded.

“Do you know how much I love you?” David said.

Rose pulled back, wiping her eyes with the back of her wrist. She nodded. “Yeah.”

He kissed her on the eyelid. “I’m sorry, baby. I wouldn’t have taken this assignment if I knew it was going to hurt you. We both knew this was coming. We don’t want to live like this forever, right? What about the cottage in Bolinas?”

A fresh wave of tears spouted. She buried her face in her hands, said, “I’m just going to miss you so much. What if something bad happens to you?”

“Nothing bad is going to happen. I’ll be back. I promise,” David said, feeling more false than he ever had in all his life.

She walked him out to the hall to pick up his bag, since there wasn’t enough space for it on the floor of their former – now Rose’s – apartment, then they stepped out onto the platform where the air taxi was waiting to take him to the university’s orbital fast track. He kissed her deeply, gazing long into the eyes of the last woman he would ever love, whose heart he was again breaking in pursuit of a dream, as he had countless, unremembered times before, as he would countless, unremembered times again.

I’ll fix this. I’ll be back as soon as I find it, he convinced himself. But as the air car lurched and fell away from the platform and the waving, weeping figure it held, another, deeper part of him said, No, David. You won’t. The mistake has already been made. Every choice is a door, and this door is already locked.


The cliffs stabbed like a crusted knife from dark sea to pale night. David pulled his step at the last second before he ran off the edge, barely avoiding a fall that would have smashed him to pieces on the jagged rocks lurking a thousand feet below. He stumbled backward and vomited on the snow.

The Escher Door had dropped him on top of a devil’s tower, a five hundred foot-tall needle of black stone rising over a gnashing, alien sea. Beyond the salt water channel, at least ten miles away, a mainland of pale fjords marched away in every direction. There was nothing on top of David’s tall, miserable little island but a single tree anchored bitterly beneath the permafrost.

Fragmented images rose through the murky penumbra of his memory: Rose’s smile, an old man in a tower, a ship half-buried in snow.

I gotta keep moving, David told himself. If I don’t move I’m gonna die. The Last Door is out there. All I need to do is find it, and I’ll be a fixture in the history books until the end of days. I’ll finally be able make some real money, buy Rose that cottage on the bluffs of Bolinas. I must be getting close. Maybe this time I’ll actually find it.

Maybe this time.


(First published in the Time Travel: Short Stories anthology from Flame Tree Publishing.)

Dab of Darkness reviews ‘Corruption’

Corruption, the first book in my dark fantasy series “The Corruption Cycle,” is finally getting some reviews. This latest one from Dab of Darkness is my favorite one yet. Dab reviewed Lurk, too. There’s also a fun interview after the review in which I get to talk about bed bugs, Gene Wolfe, and other random stuff. One minor quibble: his name is Rat Keeper, not Rat Catcher 😅

Read the full review + interview here.

I Moved to Germany

Actually, this is Denmark.

It’s been a crazy month, but I am here and slightly settled. New country, new city, new job. I wasn’t happy at my last job. It felt an awful lot like spinning my wheels. I don’t think anyone ever loves their day job unless or until their day job and their pipe dreams finally convene. But that one was a pretty bad fit.

So about a month ago I accepted an offer from a company in Germany that I had been talking to about writing games for back when I lived in Boston. I packed my bags, said goodbye to my LA homies and Jiu Jitsu friends, took a road trip up the California Coast with my beautiful girlfriend, even squeezed in a snowboarding trip to Lake Tahoe, and then I moved abroad… again. This was the second time for me moving to Europe for a long-term job. Counting shorter-term gigs, it is actually the fourth (or fifth…? Who knows).

Driving up the 1.

Big Sur coastline, home of a rare specie of alpha predator man-eating squirrel.
She’s Heavenly.

Anyway, I flew out of SFO and stopped in Denmark for a day on the way over. Copenhagen is awesome. I walked around, ate a bunch of herring, had a drink by some boats, and overall felt Danish as fuck. Hamlet was Danish and that guy was a way more badass white dude than Iron Fist. I have not seen Iron Fist but I hear it has martial arts and Loras Tyrell is  straight now. Whatever.

Beautiful Copenhagen.
IMG_3632 (1).jpg
Home of gender-neutral metal vikings.

And gargantuan gingerbread.

I got to Germany about two weeks ago. I am in a nice city in the south with a beautiful old town, and a lovely crystal-clear river flowing through the city center with white, stony beaches where I plan on swimming and reading books every day during summer. There are a few Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools I need to get my ass over to check out, and most of all, many delis serving the dankest of small sandwiches.

Great city for biking.
Or walking.
Or ordering spaghetti with a schnitzel.

My first impressions of the new job are decent. My co-workers are cool and there is beer in the fridge. My last job had beer too, but they kept it under lock and key until the monthly sanctioned company happy hours, because having fun at work is not allowed in America unless you work in porn. I have never worked in porn, so it’s refreshing.

And on the subject of beer, this is where the famed German efficiency truly shines. I went to a beer festival the first Friday I was here. Hundreds or maybe thousands of people in traditional clothing dancing and stomping on tables and smashing liters of strong beer together was what it looked like at 8:30PM. You don’t want to know about closing time.

Put on your dirndl, we’re going to get turndl.

Anyway, there is no real point to this post other than to say hello and give a quick update on what I’m doing. My next book comes out in two weeks. Be sure to check it out.

Also gotta say I really missed kebabs.

Picture credit Google.

Tales from Being Car-less in Los Angeles, Pt. 1

I usually yawn at these bullshit holier-than-thou types of rants about this that or the other thing, but this was very funny to me, so here we go. I don’t have a car (by choice) and usually take the bus to work. I haven’t owned a car since I moved to Europe in 2013. I moved to LA earlier this year, but despite the ease of travel a car provides, decided to stick with the challenging, weird lifestyle of being car-less for a few reasons. I used to have a nice car, an Audi A6 that was luxurious and fun to drive, and you know what? I never saved any money, because maintaining that thing was more expensive than a small country, and I always got parking tickets. Besides, the Northern Californian in me doesn’t like smog and if I can do my tiny little part to make sure my kids and their kids grow up in a world with redwood trees instead of a scorched post-apocalyptic wasteland, that’s cool, too.
Practically, public transportation is better for cities than massive loads of commuters all driving their own vehicles, anyway, so why not use it? It reduces traffic on the roads, lowers pollution, and if buses and trains are consistently full it gives the city a reason to build and run more of them. And personally, I think riding public transportation at least for a work commute is simply a lot less boring. If you’re going to spend a huge chunk of your day sitting around waiting, would you rather do it in your own vehicle where you have to drive a few feet every five or ten minutes, or someone else’s, where your hands and eyes are free to read a book, play Super Mario Run, or look at dank memes?
The face of a man who wishes he could be battling King Koopa but instead must listen to NPR.
So I was walking to my bus stop today and there was gridlocked traffic all up and down Sepulveda Blvd as far as the eye could see. My bus was five cars past the stop and not moving. So I said frog it I’m walking to the next stop. Four stops/two miles later, the bus is still behind me and I’m listening to the Devil Makes Three bobbing along the sidewalk with my coffee and a smug smirk on my face while a bunch of pissed-off ladies give me dirty looks from their BMWs, some of which are plastered with Democrat or pro-environment bumper stickers. Some of whom are angrily scrolling on their cell phones probably blasting some friend or family member on social media for having the wrong opinions. Some of whom are at that very moment writing Facebook essays about how the Republicans are going to ruin the planet.
Turns out the traffic was unusually bad this morning due to a messed up traffic light, which is why I was able to walk farther in an hour than the entirety of the Hermosa/Manhattan Beach section of Sepulveda Blvd was able to drive. But still. Forget about daggers. Some of those folks were staring glaives.
Now, my beliefs on politics these days are pretty open and I mostly try to keep them to myself. Seven billion people, seven billion realities. But. And this is a big but. The car issue has dimmed my view somewhat about the “open-mindedness” of others. Specifically certain people I’ve met since moving to this great city of sun and sand, the vast majority of whom have been awesome, but a small segment of whom have, upon learning I don’t drive a car, given me that not-so-subtle smirk to quietly inform me they think I am subhuman. Let’s not even mention the run-of-the-mill blonde BMW ladies who rocket around right turns on a red light when the walk sign is on and almost kill me on a regular basis then flip me off and yell at me even though their windows are up, like being a pedestrian is some form of cancer.
What’s up? And why here, of all places, where anyone who has been stuck in traffic all of once can recognize that the future of Los Angeles needs to look beyond the automobile as a primary mode of transportation?
C’mon. Guys. You will talk until you’re blue in the face about how those BAD PEOPLE are sooo going to destroy the environment… but am a crab-person for not driving when it is literally faster to walk?
That’s interesting.
One star.

The Berlin I Remember



This is the Berlin I remember
A glowing winter flame
Where open hands and steaming wine
Lay stones upon old pain.




When I think of Berlin,
There’s only one that I recall
Not the one of sorrow and blood
But the light that’s growing tall.




Don’t send them empty platitudes
Or Facebook prayers or snark;
Instead become that winter flame
That banishes the dark.

Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

This letter is for the girl in the blue dress. You know who you are and that I’ve wanted to contact you. My name is Rider. My handle on the BrickLog is RK466. You can contact me at #1107381980085.

However, since I know this letter will have far more readers than just you, the following is for all those who are not the girl in the blue dress. Blue, you can skip to the end.

Everyone else, I want to tell you a story. It’s about love, and longing, and the childish games Watchers play—at least one in particular—in the service of those first two things. I’m hoping my story will convince you to help me with something, because I desperately need your aid.

The first time I saw her was in Pompeii. She was walking towards me, up the sloping street, wearing a blue dress. She carried a basket of olives on her hip, which was swaying, her eyes locked on the mountain behind us. When she noticed me noticing her, she recognized me instantly as a Watcher, like herself, and asked me: “Are you enjoying the show?”

I said “Yes”.

“Me too,” she said with a smile. “This one’s my favorite.”

That city in its prime is more beautiful than you can imagine without seeing it firsthand. It’s an old Schwarbrick (sorry, Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show, if that wasn’t clear), so the ticket only costs a few dozen seconds. The streets are vigorous, still brimming with life, hundreds of people all passing along their kinetic energy in a crashing, haphazard fashion. And when the mountain finally blows, and the jet black streams darken the sky in an instant and that sound—oh God, that terrible sound—penetrates you so deep it could bury you, you know why we do this, why those few dozen seconds of our lives are nothing for the joy of witnessing a Schwarbrick like this.

You think: This is why we watch.

The advertisements all push the war shows these days, but I prefer natural disasters. The heroics are better, more organic. If you’ve never seen one of the Natural Crisis ‘bricks, you don’t know what you’re missing. I consider myself an addict. It used to be because of my morbid fascination with all the blood, the fires and the suffering. But these days it’s because of her.

I won’t give up searching until I find her.

During every great catastrophe in human history there has always been someone standing by, laughing. And when I first laid eyes on her, loitering up the stony road in Pompeii with her basket of olives towards the place at the top of the rise where she would have the best view of Vesuvius, the vantage clearest of vineyards and tombs, I knew she was the type to laugh, not out of sadism, but because to her this really was just a show.

Then the caldera cracked and my eyes were drawn away from her to the eruption rising to cover the sky with obsidian dust, and by the time I thought to look for her again, she was gone.

The next time I saw her was in Rome. It was 217 AD. Most show-goers watch in marathons: a week in Ancient Rome, a week in China, a day or two on a certain stretch of the North Atlantic of a silent, iceberg-laden night, because buying ‘bricks in bulk is cheaper, costing only a few minutes for each show rather than the hours or days they would cost to purchase tickets for individually.

She was watching the Rome shows this week, same as me. It was the evening of the Coliseum fires.

We were both exploring the hallways outside the arena as workers prepared for a gladiatorial match that was to take place the following day. A low blanket of charcoal clouds belched murmurs of thunder through the dimming sky.

I don’t recall how many people died that night, if there was even a record. But I recall their faces well, so placid and unaware.

I found myself walking suddenly behind a woman whose stride and swaying hips seemed familiar. But I couldn’t place exactly where from.

Then I saw the blue dress; the same she was wearing in Pompeii.

She strolled casually, not making much effort to fit in, because she knew she didn’t have to. She was still carrying her basket of olives. I assumed it was her immersion prop, to make her presence in times that were not her own more convincing. Mine is a pair of rope sandals, uncomfortable as a plague, but they fit well (enough) in most historical ‘bricks.

The girl looked back at me and smiled. She had vibrant freckles, amber hair that fell in slow-moving curls, olive skin so smooth it appeared oiled under the torchlight. I knew it was her as soon as our eyes met.

She kept pace with me and eventually said, in a language distinctly not Ancient Latin: “Hey, you. Fancy seeing you here. You like this type of ‘brick, huh?”

I told her I did.

“Natural Crisis week is my all-time fave,” she said. “When you’re done here, though, you should skip the Titanic and check out the S.S. Sultana instead. It’s a much better ‘brick, and a lot less crowded.

I saw her wink as we entered the glow under a lantern. I stopped, taking her arm gently. “You know, these are always more fun with another person. Would you like to watch this one together?” I asked her.

A sudden snap of thunder spooked a pack of hyenas in one of the cages nearby. A crowd of people gathered to watch the handler desperately trying to sing them calm again. Non volo! He cried. Non volo! Non volo, non volo

“No,” she said over my shoulder. “Sorry, but I like to watch alone.”

When I looked again, she was gone.

We all saw the finger of lightning and heard the deafening cries. It was no surprise for me, as I knew it was coming. But when the bright flash licked down against the top of the Colosseum, and the flames budded from the wood supports and spread and scattered, it was suddenly as if the whole world had ended.

I felt a hand brush my back, soft and reassuring. A flash of blue passed my peripheral vision. But when I tried to find her, I could not.

I went to the S.S. Sultana next. I was young, could afford to shave a few more days off my life to buy another Schwarbrick ticket, and it was one I had never seen.

I stood on the main deck and brushed her shoulder with mine. She looked stunning. She wore a fur coat over her blue dress, for the night was frigid and the surface of the Mississippi caked with drifts of ice.

It’s a short show, the Sultana; only a few minutes to view. We didn’t have much time.

She smiled at me and took my arm, said, “Boom,” and pointed toward the boiler. We were knocked apart as the true sound of the explosion split the frosty night, and somewhere among the din, I heard her laughing.

“That always gets me!” She chuckled as we found each other again amid the chaotic screaming of the crowd. She propped herself steady on the rail as the deck tilted and people began jumping overboard, screaming.

“This is great!” I said, shouting over the noise. “I’ve never seen this one before!”

“I know!” she said, and grinned.

The fireball ascended above us like a beacon, and in that crimson light I saw something about her I hadn’t noticed before: she had a scar tattoo of a star under her eye that bunched up as if it was twinkling when she smiled.

“Let’s go to the Egyptian Plague,” I said.


“The Egyptian Plague!” I repeated. “Come on! It’s great!”

She left my arm, turned and made fast for her extraction line on the second deck. “I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Then my own extraction point out of the Schwarbrick opened, and I exited back into the present, disappointed, but still flying off the feel of her touch. Many centuries in the past, the Sultana’s second deck began to sink beneath the lapping freeze of the rough-and-tumble Mississippi.

I didn’t see her in Egypt, nor in Babylon. I snuck up on someone I thought was her in California at Donner Lake, hiding in the snow drifts behind a thermal shield, but I was mistaken. That watcher was an older woman, brunette and irritated I’d crashed on her show. She made a joke that this was a bad time to be sneaking up on people, and that if I’d done it to the wrong party I would probably get eaten. We started talking and ended up getting along, shared a bowl of soup and watched the cannibals devour each other.

When I finally saw my girl again, it was in the Anasazi Famine of 1299. She was walking among the corpses, holding a fox skin over her nose. The sweet smell of rot lingered like an echo over that doomed city. She was wearing her blue dress. I could see it from all the way across the dust-bitten valley, like a single drop of color on a gray, apocalyptic canvas.

Neither of us spoke. She only took my hand, and we walked in silence among them, an entire civilization dead to starvation. The few Anasazi who were still alive picked through the ruins and the streets in a last desperate attempt to find food. The dead offered no complaint.

History has come to know them as The Old Ones. That is what Anasazi means, a name they surely did not call themselves. Their language is lost and cannot be learned even by the most dedicated Schwarbrick aficionados—one of the few such languages the fandom has yet to crack (I know, because aside from being a Watcher, I’m also a Cracker; meaning, I dedicate the vast majority of my free time when I’m not ‘bricking to solving the lost languages of the past we hear in the ‘bricks; it makes the experience richer).

But in their places, dead or alive they looked no older than us—smaller perhaps, rougher, harder—but no older.

I didn’t see it as a good time to ask for a second date. There would be another time, I told myself. There always is.

I now must apologize, dear reader, if I have misled you thus far. Even thinking about her makes it difficult to write. I’m writing all of this to you because I need your help. What I ask is simple: if you see her, you must show her this letter. I need to see her again.

You must give her this letter. She’ll know who I am by reading it and, I hope, will seek me out, since my efforts to find her have been haphazard at best, and most of the time, altogether fruitless.

I’m not some creep in the bushes, you see. I know my feelings are mutual, even if she does play hard-to-get. I’ve known ever since she kissed me above the flooded valleys of the Yangtze in 1931 AD, the last time I saw her.

Three million people died that year in the floods. She came to the show drunk. She sat close to me on the hillside, her arm entangled in mine and her soft head resting pleasantly on my shoulder. We both speculated on the horror of losing one’s home to the rising black waters, or one’s family, then suddenly, she kissed me.

Her lips tasted of wine and the gray, forgotten future. When she pulled back she had rain in her eyes and a smile caught between her dimples.

“I know we’re not supposed to interfere when we watch,” she said. “But haven’t you ever wanted to?”

“What’s your name?” I said.

“That would be interfering.”

She slid a finger along the top knuckle of my right hand, softly wiping away the raindrops gathered there.

“We’re not interfering at all! And who cares? You some sort of BrickLogger?”

“Loggers aren’t the only ones who care about all the innocent people who get killed when we interfere.”

“How do you know anyone does? All that’s been proven is it creates a failed timeline.”

She squeezed my hand and stood up on her heels, kissing me deeper than before. “I gotta go.”

Someone screamed on the river below, a man clinging desperately to a raft made from doors wound together with chicken wire, the pregnant black waters fighting to pull him under.

When I looked up again, she was falling back through her extraction point into her own time.

“Wait! How can I contact you?” But she wasn’t there.

And again, after our picnic at Fort Point in 1906, as we watched San Francisco collapse to the malicious arithmetic of the quakes; and the bombing of Hiroshima; and the time we stood with hands clasped tight as the women buried their children at Wounded Knee.

She’s playing games with me.

You must find her, dear reader. Whoever, whenever you are, there is a significant chance she is nearby. I know, because she told me this week is her favorite. I’ve left copies of this letter in every ‘brick currently being shown.

She isn’t hard to recognize. She wears a blue cotton dress, a simple garment that could fit easily anytime, anywhere. Sometimes she carries a basket of olives as an immersion prop. Her hair will be done up in whatever style is trendy in your time. She will be close to wherever you find this letter. She always knows where to get the best views.

In return for your help, I will help you. I know I am only a stranger to you—some words written on a piece of paper. But have you not also loved and longed for one who toyed so indecisively with your heart? Would you not do anything to secure their love, so you might be happy?

If she isn’t there, the advice I’m about to give you will still be useful. By law and the terms of the Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show user agreement, I must be purposefully vague in what I am about to say. But it is monumentally important that you listen, and listen well. Your life depends on it.

For My Blue: Call me already. I’m running out of time and can’t keep chasing you around through the ‘bricks like this. I know you’re in just as much time-debt as I am. You’re being childish by pretending to be interested; either you’re interested, or you’re not. If so, just call. I hope your answer is yes.

For everyone else: Very soon, you should put down whatever you’re doing and start to run.

*First published in Nonlocal Science Fiction, December 2015

(Want to read this story on your Kindle? Download it here)