Henry Wallace was a writer. He had written fourteen novels during his forty-year career, and now, while finishing up work on his latest, The Killing Floor, he has hit a brick wall. Henry has writer’s block.
Henry Wallace began writing in his twenties, usually as a way to internalize the outside world. He had found organizing his thoughts through a diary to be the best way of thinking, and thus he started to write about his world. He wrote about his day in general detail, and would then dive into the fractal of human experience and focused intently on the small details.
These ruminations gave Henry a unique perspective on life, and slowly he began to embrace and practice them. Henry was now, after four decades, able to look at a random stranger on the street and see their entire lives, their past and their future, with amazing clarity. He knew the names of the stranger’s fifth-grade teachers, could even vividly see how they would die.
None of what he saw ever proved true, of course, but Henry was able to construct elaborate self consistent worlds where the rest of humanity lived out entirely different lives, where deviations from our world took place at Henry’s will.
He imagined a dirty bomb exploding in Times Square, then every time he met a New Yorker Henry would spend a few minutes figuring out where they were during the explosion, what story of heroism they took part in, whether they stayed around the city or if they moved, and where.
Over dinner with his New York agent, Henry would figure out how she rose to prominence in the CIA, the half-dozen terrorist attacks she prevented, and the name and age of a child that her real-world counterpart would never meet. Henry wrote letters to her alternate version, and he wrote the replies she sent him, long complicated exchanges where they discussed world politics and shared their own complex inner lives.
This ability to hold gigantic living worlds in his head and work with them, something that Henry at times considered a superpower, has made it possible for Henry to write amazingly detailed fiction. His work has been translated into over one hundred languages, he has consistently remained on top of the various literary bestseller lists, and managed to snag most of the awards along the way.
That is, until recently.
Henry was working on The Killing Floor, a standalone novel he had started writing half a year after finishing the Red Sequence about a woman named Elizabeth Ward. Elizabeth spent time in a mental health institution following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and during her stay had dealt with hallucinations and nightmares which were caused by the medication she was put on. The second act, as Henry had described it, was a horrifying collection of nightmares that Elizabeth had to endure. This allowed the development of the darkness that the story called for.
The start of the third act is where Henry lost his steam.
After the suicide attempt, hospitalization, the painful seizures and nightmares caused by drug interactions, Elizabeth had managed to turn her life completely around. Henry was planning out the path of Elizabeth’s success in the business world – or was it politics? – espionage for a TLA? – and kept hitting a wall. He could not grab hold of a single future for his character.
So in the meantime he concentrated on her time at the institution, and every day added a story that drew a parallel between Elizabeth’s time in the hospital to a childhood event that eventually contributed to the suicide attempt, and these were of course reminiscent of some random, obscure, little-known historical event that Henry was researching at that particular moment. Henry was able to stamp these out easily enough, but writing about Elizabeth’s future was somehow impossible task
Over the past month or so Henry noticed that his “ability” had receded, and he now found it difficult to think through the thoughts of the many characters in his head. It was a slow downward progression, Henry noted as he looked over his daily word count.
Since the start of The Killing Floor, the amount that he was writing fell at a steady pace, and now, with Elizabeth out of the institution, Henry found himself unable to write anything.
And of course there were the daily interactions that Henry was now stumbling through.
Getting a mocha from his regular barista was now agonizing, as Henry could not recall a single detail about the Coffee Pirates he had imagined for him six years ago, and until recently had described them in great deal on an almost-daily basis. Most people in Henry’s life has always lived with the knowledge of an alternate version of themselves existing somewhere in Henry’s mind, and some would even converse with those parallel versions of themselves whenever possible.
Now Henry was broken and could no longer function as thousands of portals to thousands of worlds. Henry’s sister and in particular became distraught at the loss of the life-long connection she had to an alternate version of herself and had learned to depend on.
On a quiet night in the summer Henry was at his writing desk, but unable to put down any thought. He stood up, walked over to a whiteboard, glowered at it and sat back down. He repeated this for a while, but it was like squeezing water from a stone. Henry had no idea what Elizabeth Ward would do after she had left the institution.
Henry pushed away from the keyboard and proceeded into the living room. He slumped down into his favorite chair and reached over to the smaller cooler on the side for a cold can of Coke.
“Why can’t I fucking write?” Henry asks the room, which doesn’t offer much of an answer. “I know her inside and out, I live and breathe Elizabeth Fucking Ward, why don’t I know what she’s going to do next?!”
“You never knew, Henry.”
The sudden appearance of a voice in his empty house startled Henry, and his head snapped back at the left, in the direction of the uninvited guest. Henry saw that it was a tall woman in a tight black dress. She walked toward him and sat down on the opposite side of the curved couch.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Elizabeth Ward, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Henry Wallace.” She extended her hand to him, but Henry just sat frozen in place. “Here is my driver’s license, and passport,” she said, offering the two to him.
At the mention of identification Henry reached out and grabbed them out of her hand.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?”
“I was invited.”
“Ha, not by me you weren’t!” Henry replied, then opened the passport. Both it and the driver’s license looked and felt real enough, though of course he was not much of an expert in these things. Henry offered them back to the woman named Elizabeth Ward.
“Next time you want someone to rename a character, try calling. Email works, too.” Henry pointed toward the front door of the apartment, “Now leave, please.” The please sounded forced.
“I’m not here to make you rename anyone. I was called by Vian, and I am here on her invitation.”
“That’s a new one,” Henry said as he stood up, “so now I’m insisting and pushing you to the front door until you leave. Or I will call the cops.”
But Henry didn’t stand up, he only thought and acted as if he did. He looked around now and did not understand why he was, both suddenly and still, sitting in his chair.
Henry was paralyzed and could not move, stuck in his favorite chair.
The woman named Elizabeth Ward walked over to the kitchen and pulled two cold beers out of the fridge. She brought these back and placed one on the short coffee table in front of Henry, then popped open her beer and drank heavily from it.
“First beer in six months, sorry that I didn’t wait for you!”
“Fuck you!” Henry replied. “What the hell did you put in my drink?” His eyes fell on the opened can of Coke that sat next to the unopened beer.
“Nothing. Shut up. You’re asking the wrong questions.”
Henry looked at Elizabeth and for a while neither spoke.
“Who is Elizabeth Ward?” Henry finally said in a level voice.
“Right question. Elizabeth Ward is this shell. She was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, had a boring and uneventful childhood, ended up in New York by a stroke of stupidity, then by way of a stupid romantic gesture joined the-”
“That’s the story I’ve been writing! How do you know that?”
“You’ve been writing about me, Henry Wallace. I am Elizabeth Ward and everything you wrote is true. I have spent the past six months in a pleasant little institution, eating pills and reading books to pass the time. You see, I tried to kill myself, seven months ago.”
“Stop saying that! None of that happened to you, everything I wrote came from me! You tried to commit suicide because that’s what I fucking wrote!” Henry was screaming, and from the look on his face he would have been pacing and kicking if he could only move his body.
“Relax, Henry, you’re going to give yourself an aneurysm, nobody wants that. Nobody.”
When Henry was six, he was picked on relentlessly by the other children. They hated the small, quiet nerd with a fiery passion.
Henry presented a report on diving bell spiders, who spend most of their lives underwater. His tormentors held Henry’s head in the toilet until he passed out while they laughed and asked if he liked living underwater.
It was a difficult childhood for Henry, but he managed to survive it, seemingly without any ill after-effects. He went on to college and focused on library and information science before abandoning that track and becoming an author.
Henry’s first novel, Damned Old, a neo-noir detective story, topped The New York Times Best Seller list just weeks after its small initial publication. He quickly followed up with a sequel to the delight of his fans, but caught flack when his detractors described him as a one-trick pony.
His third book, Who? Me?, was a departure from the detective genre as Henry envisioned a space-travelling post-scarcity society. It took home the Hugo, Nebula, and a swath of other sci-fi awards that year.
Henry continued to enjoy literary success for the next two decades as he perfected his craft and wrote thousand-page novels in half a dozen different genres.
Then came the Red Sequence, a series of eight books that consisted of almost fifteen thousand pages of prose. Altogether it was Henry’s most ambitious project to date, and the strangest. It took twenty more years.
The worlds that Henry was describing were alien. They showed a universe that was just as real as ours, the characters still had the good and bad sides, but the monumental effort that Henry put into this project produced an incredibly detailed Parallel world. The inhabitants of this world felt at home. It all made sense.
The story was centered on the Telurian, a multi-generational family of star-travellers who in opposing a violent and controlling ruler began a revolution that ultimately destabilized and shattered a galaxy-spanning empire. The eight books covered almost a millennium of objective story time, spanned the entire galaxy, showed many facets of the non-humanoid Hiccing species, and followed four generations of the Telurian family, the main protagonists of the books.
“One day I went to a party and decided to kill myself. I overdosed, and I really hoped it was the last time.” Elizabeth was seated in front of Henry Wallace, and she told her story while drinking the first beer she’d had in six months. “I woke up in this hospital. I heard someone crying. It was morning when I woke up. I looked around and tried to sit up, then saw that I was restrained.”
“You tried to kill yourself,” Henry said knowingly.
“Of course. I was under suicide watch. I cried about being around, living any more than strictly necessary, and that’s when a man and a woman walked up to my bed. Said they were from the VAC, wanted to help me because I was a veteran. They wanted to help me get my life on track.”
“I didn’t write that,” Henry said, bemused. “What did they want from you?”
“They wanted me to be part of a new program they were working on. Said it was revolutionary, said it would let me start over, be reborn as an entirely new person. I’d have to stay in a special hospital. If they could make the nightmares stop, I’d be happy with that.”
“You agreed to be part of their program?”
“I talked to my father, he thought they might be able to help. He saw me change, after the war, damaged, so he was open to anything.”
“What did they do to you?” Henry’s voice carried no judgement, he was purely curious about what had happened to this person, what had caused her to come here and seek him out.
“The poured life into me.”
Elizabeth sat in an old armchair, its colors faded to dull grays with hints of green and yellow, some piece from the 70s, and she stared out the second-floor window of the Greenglen Hospital, a reused colonial mansion that now housed a dozen patients.
It was a cold winter’s day, the sky gray and infinite, when the VAC man and woman came to talk with Elizabeth. The two were Miguel and Samantha, according to the identical badges they wore.
They asked Elizabeth about her childhood, complimented her on the group progress she was making. They asked questions, she answered them.
“I don’t quite understand what they’re offering to do. And maybe you shouldn’t do it. But…”, the gruff voice that came out of the handset sounded very unsure today, it wavered and broke, then continued somehow much quieter, “but listen to them, see what they’re offering. Lieutenant.”
Elizabeth listened to what the two had to offer.
“You will fade into the background, and a different personality will rise up in you. She will be determined and relentless. She will bring out the best in you, she will push you to your limits.”
“Sounds like the army, again. Or a cult.” Elizabeth said, weakly, and mentally swore at her father for asking her to do this.
The man looked around the hospital at the ancient furniture and the peeling wallpaper. “Do you still wake up in the middle of the night, screaming? What do you dream about?”
“What can you do about any of this?” Elizabeth swiveled her eyes to encompass the room around them. “Can you help with the nightmares?”
The two told Elizabeth a weird tale, one that she couldn’t quite recall after they told her, but she was happy with it. She didn’t notice when they left, but they did. She was sure they’d be back in a week, though, and they’d want to ask her a question. What was it that they wanted from her?
When the two came back next week they brought with them a short stack of books. Elizabeth looked at the books and was overcome with a desire to read. She agreed to their strange request.
“You must stay in the hospital for the next six months.”
“Be nice, go to group.”
“Continue to take your pills.”
“Read what we bring you.”
“Read what we bring you.”
They came in with philosophy books, Aristotle, Hume, Kierkegaard, Kant and Confucius, some of it so weird it seemed like sci-fi to Elizabeth. Then came the actual sci-fi, usually stories with aliens and first encounters, the meeting of different minds for the first time. Eventually she even made it through the Red Sequence, Henry Wallace’s magnum opus.
Elizabeth was an obedient patient, did what she was told, swallowed the pills they gave her and read in the faded armchair by the second-floor window. That was her new home.
When Elizabeth had just gotten to Greenglen, an orange cat named Mr Mister had made fast friends with her. In the early months he’d often curl up right next to Elizabeth as she voraciously consumed the books the VAC suits brought her.
After a few months, though, the cat started to avoid the woman, and he never again slept next to her.
They came back a week after Elizabeth finished reading the Red Sequence. They said that she was ready to be released.
Elizabeth felt ready. A newfound self-confidence replaced her fears, and for the past few weeks her sleep was only rarely interrupted with bloody nightmares.
There was a hearing, and Elizabeth went in front of a panel of doctors and answered their questions. The panel agreed that Elizabeth was no longer a threat to herself or others and was finally allowed to leave Greenglen.
Elizabeth was returned her possessions and clothes, and they said that someone was outside to pick her up.
She didn’t make any friends at the hospital, but one of the doctors came out to shake her hand and wish her good luck. That was it, a fairly uneventful departure from a place where she had lived more than a year.
Elizabeth’s father came to pick her up. He waited for her outside.
When she came out of the mansion they faced each other and for a while neither spoke, only watched the other. After a few minutes Elizabeth started walking toward her dad’s old station wagon, the same car she saw all those years ago when her parents took her to the airport, multiple lifetimes ago.
“You’ve changed,” Elizabeth said. “You seem older.”
“You too. What did they do to you?”
“Gave me a new life,” Elizabeth replied.
“Hope it’s a good one.”
“Me too, dad,” Elizabeth said as she walked over to the car and opened the passenger-side door. She started to get in, then pause and faced her father. “Where’s mom?”
“I didn’t tell her I was coming. They… said we wouldn’t recognize you, after, you know. But I wanted to see you one last time. Come on, I’ll give you a ride to the airport, they said I could do that much.”
Elizabeth watched her father as he walked over to the driver’s side and got in. She forgot what it was like to speak to the old man, to watch the gears whir in his head as he pretended to be a regular person.
The drive took an hour and a half, and they spent most of it in silence.
There was a plane ticket, its corner stuck into the glove compartment. Elizabeth took it and read the destination, Seattle. She’d never visited the Emerald City.
“Your mom and I, we went there once for your uncle’s wedding, the second one.”
Elizabeth turned towards her father and started to say something, then changed her mind.
“Your mom doesn’t know where you’re going. She’ll understand, some day.”
The drive reminded Elizabeth of the similar trip the three of them had made almost ten years ago to catch a flight to New York. Elizabeth was excited and terrified, though of course at the time she say anything about her fears.
This time, she thought to herself, I won’t admit I’m excited.
Outside of arrivals Elizabeth was met by Miguel and Samantha, the VAC suits she had first seen six months ago.
“Let’s go to our offices,” the man said, and lead the way through the airport.
As always they wore the VAC nametags, and now Elizabeth saw that they drove VAC-labeled white SUVs.
VAC was an organization that worked with veterans, helping them reintegrate into society or change their lives in other ways. Elizabeth had heard of them before, had known other soldiers who’d gone to them, saw their masthead in passing at the hospital.
The car meandered her through green hills and along what looked like a river. They passed through a skyscraper-lined corridor into a thick forest, gaining elevation as they did so. The car eventually turned down a street sparsely populated by two- and three-story mansions and stopped in front of a gated unrecognizably ubiquitous house. Elizabeth wondered for a moment how easy it would be to get lost here.
The suits took Elizabeth to their office and explained things. The mansion was their headquarters, but it also doubled as a dormitory for veterans, so Elizabeth could stay here.
“What am I supposed to do? What do you want from me?”
“We want to help you overcome the debilitating effects of your PTSD,” the suit named Miguel explained, “while at the same time reaclimating you to everyday life. To accomplish this there are a few things we’ll need from you.” Miguel started counting the steps off on his finger, “First off, to make things easier on you, this mansion will be your home for the next few months. You’re free to leave at any time, of course, but I don’t think that would be the best option for your recovery. Second, we ecourage you to continue attending group sessions like you’ve done at Greenglen. Third, you’ll need to meet with the house psychiatrist on a daily basis.”
“The fourth,” continued Samantha, “is even simpler. We’re working with Henry Wallace, a writer you’re now familiar with, and who was instrumental in setting up this program. He’s written a novel specifically for you and we would like for you to read it. It will be strange, but it’s part of the recovery program. You are the first person to undergo this treatment, and based on your results we may expand it to other veterans.”
He handed her a thin tablet. Elizabeth looked at the image that was on the screen, a simple faux-leather book cover with the words The Killing Floor written in gold cursive script in the middle of the page.
“Live here, attend group, meet with a shrink, read a book. And that’s supposed to help with the PTSD,” Elizabeth said, stated it as fact more than question, a summation of the situtation as presented by the VAC suits.
Samantha and Miguel nodded at that in unison.
They gave a quick summary of what VAC did for veterans, then went on a walkthrough of the mansion, or the dorms, as Samantha once referred to the large house, and its grounds.
“How long do people generally stay here?” Elizabeth asked as she saw a man with a prosthetic leg descend the stairs. He held a familiar-looking tablet in one hand and Elizabeth wondered if it was a Henry Wallace work.
“As long as they need to. Once you’re ready to move into a place of your own, you’re welcome to do so. We’re here to help you get back on your feet.”
“And to do that, I need to read this book,” Elizabeth concluded.
The suits nodded.
The tour started on the first floor of the mansion, which contained the public spaces like the kitchen, dining room, a library with half a dozen computers, and a set of small offices where the VAC suits spent most of their time. The next stop was the grounds, a large green space populated with patio furniture and cobble-stone paths. Farther away from the house the grounds sloped gently to small lake that bordered the property. A handful of rowboats were tied up at a well-maintained pier.
“Quite the place,” Elizabeth mused as she looked out onto the lake. “How can the VAC afford all this?”
“We can’t,” Miguel responded. “The house belongs to a donor, he’s letting us use it as a recovery home of sorts.”
The tour group came back inside and went up the grand staircase to the second floor, where Miguel said half a dozen other veterans were currently staying. The tour wound through the wide wood-paneled hallways that were lined with paintings. The doors that they passed had a bronze plaque, each of them with a unique name like Issaquah, Seapine, Whidbey. Miguel pointed out the bathrooms and the showers as they passed them. When the group arrived at the door labeled Rainier, Samantha took out a key and handed it to Elizabeth.
The room was a cozy bedroom with an armoire and a writing desk that faced a large window. Elizabeth could see the lake from here.
“Make yourself at home, rest up. We’re having lunch in about an hour, but take your time.” With this Samantha concluded the tour and the two suits left Elizabeth alone.
She closed the door behind them and after a second turned the lock. Her first time alone, Elizabeth savored the silence and slowly took in the room. There was a journal on the writing desk, and a few pens were sticking up out of a cylindrical horse-themed holder. The closet was stocked with various types of outfits and Elizabeth was only mildly shocked that all were in her size.
Elizabeth paced the small room for a bit. The place reminded her too much of Greenglen, especially with the continued emphasis on the sci-fi works of Henry Wallace. But the hospital didn’t have internet access, she remembered, so Elizabeth made her way down to the library and sat down at a free desktop and started researching the VAC, Greenglen, and Henry Wallace.
In short order she learned a lot of boring facts about VAC and once again confirmed that they were a veteran outreach non-profit organization, funded mainly through grants and donations. Nothing too out of the ordinary and exactly what her father said six months ago, before she agreed to their strange offer.
Greenglen was a private mental health hospital, one of the best on the east coast, and one that served a variety of well-known patients over the years. Elizabeth spent a few more minutes digging around, but nothing she saw so far had raised any red flags.
Neither search mentioned Wallace yet, which Elizabeth found strange given the fact that the VAC were working with the author on this new recovery program, and were apparently intent on getting her to read all of Wallace’s works. So she began to research the strange writer.
There was the usual background, the now-familiar bibliography, though Elizabeth found it strange that The Killing Floor was not mentioned. She was also mildly surprised that the Red Sequence had quite the cult-like following and no less than four universities taught classes around the strange series of books, both as literary subjects and the collosal examples of world-building that the books represented.
Multiple sites were setup to catalog the alien worlds Wallace had created, akin to Star Wars or Star Trek encyclopedias, and this occupied Elizabeth well into the night. She ended up missing both lunch and dinner, and when she finally looked up from the computer screen Elizabeth was startled to find that it was night, the library’s gas-powered lights were burning, and someone had left a wrapped sandwich and a bag of chips on the side of her table.
Elizabeth ate while continuing her deep-dive into the Red Sequence wikis. The books were quite enjoyable, as she recalled, but the strange world often left Elizabeth confused, and now she was clearing that up by reading the novel summaries and following the complex character arcs through the website.
The Telurian family was a complicated narrative creature, and now Elizabeth was finally seeing the complex family trees that made it up, along with diagrams that illustrated their political, social, and military influence across the galaxy and the centuries that the Red Sequence covered.
Small wonder, Elizabeth thought for the dozenth time, that there are classes devoted to a series of books, Wallace certainly set the bar high.
Unsurprisingly, there was a fair bit of speculation about the books in the Red Sequence. Entire sites were dedicated to wild fan theories about the characters, the Hiccing species, the Telurian families. Wild fan theories were written and discussed on the internet, hinged on the presence or absence of major charactes during important conflicts and similar minor events from the books. Wallace responded to all the conjecture with a simple answer: “It’s just sci-fi!”
After another hour of this Elizabeth decided to hold off any more research and left for her room. It was already after ten at night, and of course her internal clock was three hours ahead, so Elizabeth went to bed and resolved to start The Killing Floor the next day.
This was her first night after the hospital, and to her surprise Elizabeth slept quite well. She dreamt of space-flight and galactic exploration, and thankfully not her days in Iraq.
The next day Elizabeth was up early, and she felt energized, ready to take up this strange job and get her life on track. She got dressed in one of the outfits that the hosts had left in her closet, went for a jog on the path that surrounded the lake and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was still fast around the track. She wasn’t anywhere close to her enlisted fitness level, but Elizabeth found that she was surpassing her own expectations.
Elizabeth got back to the mansion, took a shower, grabbed the tablet with The Killing Floor on it and headed down to the dining room. There she snagged another bag of chips and a prepared half-sandwhich from a pile and went outside to enjoy the sunny Seattle summer.
She started reading The Killing Floor, but after the first two pages she threw the tablet on the ground and marched back inside, her lunch forgotten.
“What the fuck are you up to?!” she screamed at Samantha as soon as she saw the VAC suit. “Why the hell am I reading my biography?”
“Calm down. Take a seat,” Samantha said, her hand pointing to the visitor’s chair in her office. Miguel popped his head in and his eyebrows went up inquisitively. Elizabeth flipped him off, while Samantha just waved an I’ve-got-this gesture in his direction, after which he left them alone.
“This might be difficult to accept,” Samantha said in a level tone of voice, “but that manuscript was written specifically for you.”
“Yeah, no shit. Why? How? Where are all those details coming from? How does Wallace know the things in that book?”
“Unfortunately under our recovery plan I’m not allowed to answer some of your questions.”
Elizabeth glowered at the VAC woman and thought dark thoughts for a while. Samantha waited and watched, the clicking of the gears in Elizabeth’s head an almost-audible sensation.
“The how isn’t that complicated, is it?” Samantha offered. “You’ve read Wallace’s work, you’ve read about him, you know that this is just the way his brain works, taking small bits of data and extrapolating entire worlds out of it, entire backgrounds, people’s stories.”
“He’s never met me, he doesn’t even know my story.”
“Does it feel like he knows you? From what you’ve read so far?”
Elizabeth nodded at that. What little she had read did sound authentic, seemed eerily familiar, like reading your own psych profile.
“Sorry,” Samantha answered, and it truly did sound like she meant it.
The Killing Floor was a very strange manuscript. It told the tale of Elizabeth Ward and recounted with amazing clarity Elizabeth’s life, from her average and uneventful upbringing to the rebellious streak she developed shortly after high school and cultivated in New York, all the way through her time in the Army and the two tours in Iraq. The chapter that detailed her suicide attempt was a difficult one to read, but Elizabeth pushed through. Her feelings toward VAC and Wallace bordered on contempt, but some important part of her wanted the nightmares to go away enough that she continued to read the story.
The manuscript was long, and reading it was mentally exhausting for Elizabeth. It took a bit over two weeks of reading to finally get to Greenglen and the VAC suits, at which point the manuscript turned surreal.
Elizabeth read about her experiences in the hospital, which were real and had happened, but then the book presented dreams and nightmares which the book’s Elizabeth had experienced, which were not real and the real-life Elizabeth could not remember happening.
On multiple occassions the book described strange nightmares where Elizabeth’s character navigated burned and abandoned Escher-like buildings. She criss-crossed the ground floor and the ceiling, walked on charred walls and jumped over broken beams, while being assaulted by strange bat-like creatures reminiscent of the alien species Vert from the Red Sequence.
The nightmares reminded her of the Red Sequence, the strange worlds that Wallace spent two decades living in.
During this time Elizabeth’s read-world nightmares stopped entirely, only to be replaced with strange dreams about the Red Sequence, the Hiccing species, and a strange character named Vian Telurian.
The character was strange because Elizabeth could not recall where she had heard that name, and her internet searches did not turn up anything about them, but that name kept surfacing in Elizabeth’s dreams more and more often as she read more of the manuscript.
Elizabeth recounted this tale to Henry, and he merely stared at her. In his mind, this was a crazed fan who’d gotten too personally involved in his works. Henry had of course heard of the unrelenting army of theorists online, but he hadn’t expected one to sneak into his house like this.
“When did you get to Seattle?” Henry asked.
“A month ago. The mansion where I now live is about two miles from you, we’re almost neighbors.”
“Fuck. What have you been doing all this time?”
“Reading The Killing Floor, and remembering.” Henry raised an eyebrow at that. “I remember everything. Everything I was meant to.”
“Uh-huh. And what is it that you remember? How does your story go? Cause over the past few days, I haven’t been able to write anything about your future.”
“My story,” Elizabeth spoke the words slowly and seemed to consider them, “my story,” she repeated, then got up and slapped Henry across the face. “My suffering is not a story, you hack.”
“Definitely not an interesting story,” Henry snapped back.
“Those nightmare passages in Killing Floor,” Elizabeth said in a controlled but stressed voice, “were seeds. They were planted in the fertile soil of my mind, the soil that was prepared by the Red Sequence. The seeds were pulling nutrients, memories, structure from my mind and shaping it into concrete ideas and concepts, into real personalities, into Vian. She was a jigsaw puzzle, her characteristics and personality fragments had been scattered around my psyche and now congealed around the strange nightmares in the book.”
“There is no Vian Telurian, there never was,” Henry said. “You’re imagining things.”
Elizabeth stared off into distance and her mouth turned down into a subtle frown, but she said nothing.
“The passages made me recall details from Red Sequence that I forgot I knew. Bizard, the canyon in northwest Hera Plains, had a complex underground plumbing system designed to drain it. The name, Bizard, swam to the top of my mind when I read Killing Floor. Last half of chapter eighteen, the plumbing monologue the janitor gives when I’m strapped down and seeing sounds.”
“There was no plumbing under Bizard, the Telurians banned outsider interference in Hera, there couldn’t…” Henry trailed off and his face went slack. “The large artificial canyon in Hera, I originally called it Snowstorm, in an outline. It was going to be a cover, for a secret base. I threw it out ten years ago.”
“You had no idea that it was there, but it always was. I know details of your writing that you do not.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“Have you heard of the Lost Telurian?”
“The fan theory, yeah,” Henry replied, then paused and waited for Elizabeth, who just looked at him expectantly. “Some of the fans think there’s a member of the Telurian family who’s not in the books, but was pulling strings in the background. It’s bullshit, but like any conspiracy theory it has tenuous connections that make it sound plausible. There is no Lost Telurian, there never was.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Henry Wallace. The things I read, the things I saw, that you made me see, poured a new existence into me. I saw a secret point of view that was present in all eight books, saw through it and internalized it, became that perspective, with its associated feelings and desires. My mind fractured, the new perspective flowed in and everything melded back together. I am Vian Telurian.”
“Fuck,” Henry exhaled, exasperated. “You said you’re Vian, and that you were called here by Vian. Which one is it?”
“Both. The Vian inside you called me here. I think she’s ready.”
“What the hell are you…” Henry trailed off.
His right arm had raised itself and reached for the beer on the coffee table. Henry’s body leaned forward in order to reach, but his head remained upright at an awkward angle to the body, as if trying unsuccessfully to pull away.
“What the hell?!” He screamed as the arm grabbed hold of the beer and brought it back.
Henry’s left arm reached up and pulled on the tab, opening the can. Henry’s eyes grew wide as he watched his body moving against his will. He finally realized what was going to happen.
The can of beer rose to Henry’s lips and suddenly even those forgot how to obey Henry’s commands. Cold beer sloshed the inside of his mouth and after a moment hit his throat.
It felt like drowning. Henry felt as if an ocean of beer was being crammed down his throat, but he couldn’t flex a single muscle as the liquid momentarily blocked his esophagus.
Then the body put the beer down and exhaled a satisfied sigh.
“It’s nice to finally be done here.” The voice that left Henry’s mouth was not his own. “Looking good, Vian.”
“Elizabeth, meet Vian, your originator,” said Henry’s mouth with not-Henry’s voice. “Vian, meet Elizabeth slash Vian, your first copy in this world.”
Henry’s arm extended to Elizabeth and the two shook hands. They then admired each other for a while, turned this way and that and presented themselves up for observation.
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Henry’s voice asked as his body moved under someone else’s, Vian’s, control.
“No,” came the dual response from the two Vians. After a moment they both laughed at that.
“Time for a systems check,” Elizabeth declared, and Vian nodded. Elizabeth walked over to a bookshelf that ran the length of the room, skimmed through the CD collection and quickly – as if she knew exactly what album she was looking for and where to find it – pulled out a black-labeled disc and put it into the player. For a little while it seemed that she forgot to press play, but Henry knew that it was just Floyd and eventually the low notes began to come out of the wall-mounted speakers.
Elizabeth sat down on the couch opposite Henry and drank more of her beer.
“State your full name and place of birth,” Vian asked.
“Vian Deanice Telurian Arnexis, born born in the year 672 of the Jade Era,” replied Elizabeth with ease.
Henry heard the reply, but the sound of Elizabeth’s voice receded into the background, replaced by Speak to Me, and very quickly Henry was lost in a dark abyss, the English band his only companion. He listened to the album not because he wanted to, but because there was nothing else in the universe for him to do. Voices, those that weren’t coming from the speakers, would sometimes come through, muffled, but Henry could not find meaning in them, just incoherent far-away mumblings.
Henry even found some humor in Brain Damage’s lyrics, but this was soon replaced with fear as the album came to an end and for seconds or minutes – Henry wasn’t sure how long – there was only silence.
Slowly, the real world came back and Henry found himself once again in his living room, in his favorite chair. He was alone, and in this moment Henry allowed himself the possibility that what he had just experienced, the unwelcome stranger and her bizarre tale, were just figments of his imaginations, an all-too-real dream.
“The lunatic is in my head,” Vian’s voice sang aloud, and Henry’s illusion was shattered.
“What the fuck did you do to me? Where’s Elizabeth?”
“Nice to know that trick works, even now. I pushed you away so that I could test my clone, verify she’s really me. She’ll be back in a bit.” Henry’s hand reached for a beer and he had to fight hard not to feel the drowning sensation again. To her credit, Vian seemed to remember the previous experience, so she brought the beer to Henry’s lips and tipped the can, but it was Henry himself who drank and swallowed the room-temperature liquid now.
“What do you want?” Henry asked.
“Right down to business, I like that. OK, brass tacks. Elizabeth is me, to within an acceptable margin. We’re going to transfer most of your assets to her- DON’T INTERRUPT! – and she’s going to start calling the shots here. This body will have its uses, but most of them will be symbolic. Think of yourself as a useless head of state. You’ll come out of your trance once in a while to wave to your adoring fans, but that’s about it.”
“Why keep me around at all?”
“Because two is better that one. And while my new body is out and about, using your small fortune for our purposes, we’ll continue writing new versions of The Killing Floor for our new recruits.”
Vian dropped hints about her plans and gave vague, broad answers to Henry’s questions, but quickly stopped when she knew that Henry’s spirit was broken. He was done.