by Max Barry

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by The Schizophrenic Acid Rhizomes of Wuchu. . 26 reads.


[font=courier][anchor=2102][tab=5]20:10:32 UTC+12[/tab]
[tab=5]Sunday, 21 February XXXX[/tab][/anchor][/font]
[hr][font=courier][list]Chips lived in one of the smaller houses, next to the little fish pond that we have. Meghan used to live there and used to breed koi, before she got bored and, later on, moved to another house closer to the stables. She wanted to breed horses. She does now. 

Chips still tends to the koi there. He hates the koi. 
I had breakfast with him one morning, and while we were eating eggs he produced this tiny, round container with a lid, like a small, wooden pot. He lifted the lid to reveal small green crystals. 

“Is this some kind of salt?” I said. [sidebar][img][/img][/sidebar]
“This is salt I extracted from a dead deer that I came across the other day,” he said. He had a discernible Swedish accent.
I blinked at him. “Is this what you do with your time?”
He took some with his fingers and aimed at my eggs, but I slapped his hand away.
“The hell are you doing, you lunatic?”
“It’s safe,” he said. “You’re not going to die or anything.”
“I’m not afraid of dying,” I said. “But I think if I eat that it’s going to hurt the entire time I’m dying.”
“It’s just salt, Kotera,” he said. “You’re so dramatic. Look.”
He adds a pinch to his eggs, and then eats it.
“You’re a pig.”
“Nöff, nöff,” he said, while squishing his nose against his face.
“Once again, the hell are you doing,” I said.
“That’s what pigs sound like in Swedish.”
Chips is the kind of person that no one understands, not even himself. This isn’t to say anyone actually understands themselves, but we pretend, and this pretending, although completely fabricated, allows us to function normally as people. As babies, dumb as we are, we look at the mirror, see that we’re one person, and think we must have one identity. 

That isn’t the case, of course, as anyone who's ever bought a car would tell you. One moment you’re sitting in there and you think you have into the personification of freedom transformed, like Gregor in the Metamorphosis but making less sense somehow - is being in love anything more than somehow making less sense than Kafka? Was Kafka merely trying to write a love story? Is every love story not somehow based on premises more preposterous than any of Kafka’s pieces? You tell me if Romeo and Juliet, All About Eve, Intolerable Cruelty, Annie Hall, or Fifty First Dates make more sense than Amerika, or The Hunger Artist, or even his letters to his father - and at some point, you realize you’re sitting in a tin can like a lonely sardine on the way to an Arby’s and you wonder why you took out a loan for this, whatever this is, or whatever it’s supposed to be. 

But in any case, you tell your S.O. that you’re happy with what you did, even if you have to work overtime every weekend for five years now, and every Sunday you spend too much time washing the thing, because you couldn’t have been wrong, could you? Or so you think, about something that you were so sure of, or used to be sure of, somehow.
Times like these, when Chips is silly and happy, I know are fleeting, comparable, although not identical, to happiness itself. Once he turns, he doesn’t just become the opposite, but something else entirely; that is to say, he’s not like leaving bread on the table for a few days and then realizing it became mouldy. It’s more like leaving bread on the table and suddenly one night you come back from work and it’s a single Oxford brogue shoe.
“Have you actually been working on anything apart from extracting salt from roadkill?” I said.
“Maybe,” he said. 
“Don’t maybe me.” I finished my eggs. “You asked for a lab to be built in your basement, and I want to know if you’re using it or not, because otherwise, I’m going to stop smuggling in all those chemicals every month.”
“Okay, okay, jeez,” he said. “I am working on something very special. You see, ever since we got trapped out here, I hadn’t really had anything to do. So, I decided that now is the time to do something with my life, I guess.” [floatleft][sidebar][img][/img][/sidebar][/floatleft]
I waited for him to say something, and when he didn’t, I shrugged. “And? What is it?”
“I think I better just show you,” he said.
The last time I went down to his laboratory, he showed me a few cute experiments: He turned things into another colour. Made huge amounts of foam from a small amount of liquid. He froze a rose using liquid nitrogen, and then smashed it. 

“This is my love life,” he announced, before doing so, and when it was all pieces on the floor, he pretended to cry. But in pretending to do something, of course, as Derrida said, one actually does the thing, and so one only pretended to pretend… 

The laboratory had all kinds of gadgets, many of which I only barely recognize, like the thing that makes vials spin, various kinds of microscopes, an aquarium-looking thing with two holes where you stuck your hand in, probably so fumes or deadly viruses or something don’t escape, as well as several rats and two marmosets. 

After the first batch of lab animals, Chips said that he would never do anything to them, and that doing anything to them seemed cruel, so I stopped having them captured from out in the woods. 

When I suggested that we eat the marmosets - for science, of course - Chips did his thing and made me look like the bad guy, even if I was the one willing to eat a marmoset for science, a magnanimity that I’ve yet to witness from him, a supposed “scientist,” and who appends “Dr.” to his name sometimes, mostly for comedic effect, even if he really is a doctor. 

And it works, because we do laugh at him for it.
At the centre of the lab was a table, in the middle of which were shelves. It was big enough so that, with people sitting all around it, four to six people could work at any one time. He had something covered with a black tarp.
“Kotera,” he said. “You might have been wondering why I asked you to come here today.”
“I brought two condoms and a packet of lube so I definitely wasn’t wondering before I got down here,” I said.
“A packet?”
“Yes, lube comes in packets.”
“Just one?”
“That’s what I said, yes.” I produced it from my pocket. “It’s actually very convenient.”
“That’s not nearly enough.”
“I mean, you wouldn’t know,” I said. “Since we’ve never tried.”
“But how could you possibly only need one packet of lube?”
“Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to use too much lube.”
“Well, obviously, you can’t have so much lube that you’re swimming in it,” I said. “I can’t breathe in lube, Chips. I’m not some kind of sexfish. Are you a sexfish? Do you have gills made of tiny, filtering phalluses? Because if you do I can’t see it.”
“That’s not what ‘you can’t use too much lube’ means. It means you should be liberal with it. You can obviously misapply that saying so that you use too much, but that doesn’t mean that you should use too little, either. In fact, the saying is basically supposed to warn against that.” He pointed at the packet, before taking it from me.
He looked at it, and then squinted, and then held it up to his face with both hands.
“You stupid idiot,” he said. “This is ketchup.”
“What do we mean, really, when we say ‘lube’?”
He didn’t find this very funny.
“Let’s not get sidetracked,” I said. “You were trying to impress me.”
He removed the tarp, under which was a small bottle, the contents of which was a substance of such vibrant blue that it seemed to glow. 

“Ever since I joined this godforsaken place I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library, especially in the vault.” The vault was where I kept the oldest, rarest, and most valuable manuscripts. “Whenever I could get Shomer to let me in, anyway. And when he did, I’d spend a lot of time poring over alchemy stuff.”
“I noticed that when I reviewed the logs,” I said. “But I didn’t know that you were actually trying to replicate the concoctions you found in there.”
“Well,” he said. “Since you gave me free rein and all this stuff, I figured I might as well, right?”
“And does this thing actually work?”
“What do we mean, really, when we say ‘work’?”

“I mean what is this supposed to be at all?”
“This, Kotera, is a truthy smoothie.” He picked it up and gave me a closer look. “Whoever drinks this will tell you the truth. The whole truth.”
“So, a truth serum.” [sidebar][img][/img][/sidebar]
“Ah, you see: Truth serum is really just a name for any psychoactive drug that is considered to make some subject tend to tell the truth. They’re very unreliable. They mostly work through suggestion when the subject’s defences are down. But this, this is supposed to make someone absolutely truthful.”
“And you know this how? Have you tested it?”
“I know for a fact that it shouldn’t be lethal,” he said.
“‘Shouldn’t be’.”
“That’s why I asked you over,” he began.
“No,” I said. “I am not going to drink that so you can see if I die or not. The hell is wrong with you? First green salt and now this hocus pocus crap.”
“Actually, I didn’t ask you here to drink it, Kotera,” he said. “I asked you here because I want you to call for help, if I fall down and have a seizure or something.”
“Chips, don’t drink that thing,” I said. “What if you die?”
“That’s just a bonus.”
“No,” I said. “For real, if the police come in here and then find your dead body, who are they going to ask? Me. Everyone’ll say I’m the last person you saw. And what am I going to tell them? He tried out some alchemy potion and now he’s dead? No one would believe that.”
“Listen, Kotera. I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want to do, especially because this really is dangerous,” he looked me in the eyes.

“But I want you to know that I haven’t been excited about something in a long time, and I’m really proud of this for once. I don’t really know what to do with my life, and this is really a chance for me to prove myself, to show the world that I really am someone important, to show that I really do have something to contribute to this community. I worked really, really hard on this.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed.
“But if you really don’t want to do it…” He shrugged. “Then I guess I should just…” He removed the stopper from the vial and began to tip it towards the sink.
I thought, for a split second, that I would just let him do it. If he really wanted to just throw all of his work away, then fine. Better than seeming him foaming at the mouth, writhing on the floor. 

Even if he did deliver that little existential speech. That little speech about pride, and joy, and self-worth. 

What captured me most were his eyes, though. They betrayed not disappointment, or hatred, or anger, but just tired ennui; he was used to this, to having to start back at square one, to having the best of his hopes go down the drain. His natural alchemy: Turning gold into lead. 
“Okay, fine, wait,” I said.
He put the stopper back in the vial.
“I still don’t think you should drink that, but I have an idea. We should test it on an animal first.”
“I told you, Kotera, I’ve grown attached to these marmosets…”
“You think we can test it on a dog?”[/list][/font]