Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THE OPTIMIST BOOK ONE: You Don’t Know Jack By Chuck Miller - Chapter Six


You Don’t Know Jack

By Chuck Miller


Then there was the whole ghost thing. That stunk to high heaven. If the Centipede’s theory was correct, that I flushed him out of hiding so the “Moriarty” could have a crack at him, then I had been played in a most devious and bizarre fashion. Can a crime lord hire a ghost? Or forge one? It might have made sense, if it had made any sense.

I knew ghosts were real because I had encountered them before. The worst by far had been the spirit of Jack the Ripper.  In fact, it was one of the first cases Johnny and I worked after he took me on as his partner. It was a rough one. I may talk about it in greater detail later on, but only if I just cannot avoid it.

Anyhow, we thought we got rid of him, but he came back two more times before we teamed up with Doctor Unknown to cast him out of this plane of existence forever.

So, I could accept the ghost of Captain Mercury as a concept with no trouble. But even if I had seen a genuine ghost, it might not necessarily be who it said it was. There are some ghosts out there who are terrible liars and total assholes, and they’re liable to do anything, regardless of how shitty it is.

The Ripper, for example, had first gained reentry to our world by convincing a gullible spirit medium that he was actually Amelia Earhart. I swear to God. Spirits of the dead pretty much have to be deceptive because they can’t get back into our world without help from the living.

Most spirits don’t bother us, they find better things to do out in the fourth dimension or wherever they go.

But some, like the Ripper, figure they didn’t do enough damage when they were alive, and they want to come back for more.  If they went on ahead and ascended to a higher plane, they’d be just like everyone else there. But if they can manage to manifest back here on earth, they can be powerful, horrifying abominations, and lord their awfulness over the living so as to feel like big shots. Narcissism trumps cosmic good sense.

Not that I had ever made a special study of it. As a rule, Johnny and I didn’t mess with the supernatural stuff unless we just had to. I got all that info from Doc Unknown while we were working on evicting the Ripper.

I walked around pondering these things, then sat down on a bench and mulled them over for a while. I got all the way to musing about them before it dawned on me that since Doctor Unknown was an expert on ghosts, I should go talk to him.

Back in the day, he had an office in a converted brownstone downtown. The sorcery business is not very lucrative if you’re an honest and uncorrupted practitioner of white magic. You can do a real number on your karma if you use it to enrich yourself. So, it was as a certified public accountant that Doc Unknown had paid the bills. Accounting was, as he always said, his true passion. He had fallen ass-backward into the magic thing by being born the seventh son of a seventh son in a family of exceptionally powerful Druid mystics. That was on his father’s side. His mother was a mambo, or voodoo priestess, from New Orleans.

So, in spite of his best efforts, and an MBA from Harvard, Doc was unable to avoid going into the family business. Blood will tell, and the kind of blood he had just couldn’t shut up. The accounting was relegated to the status of day job.

“I could have been somebody,” I once heard him lament. “I could have won the Nobel Prize in economics, I just know it. I could have amounted to something!” (This, I should point out, was shortly after he had single-handedly prevented a coalition of demons and succubi, under the command of a 2000-year-old Black Witch, from flinging the earth into the heart of the sun, just for spite. Goddamn underachiever…)

I found the brownstone, right where it used to be. It looked a lot smaller than I remembered it. I went up the steps. There was a small plaque next to the door that said, simply, "Doctor Unknown." I pushed the doorbell button.

A young woman opened the door.

She was quite attractive, though if you took her various features one at a time, you'd never think they'd add up that well. Her head was very round, her hair dark and bobbed short. She wore glasses with black frames.

"Um," I said. "Do I have the wrong place? I'm looking for Doctor Unknown."

She looked over at the plaque. "This isn't the wrong place," she said, pointing at it. "If it was, that would not say 'Doctor Unknown.'"

I had to bow to this logic. I said, "Okay. So now can I see Doctor Unknown?"

She put her hands on her hips. "You've been doing that since I opened the door."


"I'm Doctor Unknown."


Turns out she was the original Doctor's daughter, Dana. I remembered her as a gawky little kid. I identified myself and she remembered me. We went inside and sat on some chairs. I asked about her father.

“Dad got into some really weird mathemagical stuff. Science and magic do not mix, I tried to tell him. Science has very strict laws. Magic has a lot of laws, but those laws do not obey any ultimate law. It’s like with city councils all over the country. They have their own local laws, and in most instances they are not obligated to conform to any strict federal standard. It’s all very arbitrary."

"I always thought magic and science were the same thing, on some level," I said.

"Well, they aren't," she replied with a dollop of vehemence. "Not at all. The best way I can explain it is to say that science is strictly cause-and-effect. Magic, on the other hand, is effect-without-cause.

“Mixing the two… It’s like formulating algebra problems where every factor is an unknown variable. No, worse than that. Every variable is a chicken or a checkerboard or a can of lima beans or something else random and unthinkable. You try imposing incompatible systems on one another and weird stuff starts to happen. They reject one another like an interspecies transplant, and when they rupture it is always messy. At best you drive yourself nuts, at worst you warp reality in small, localized areas.

“He never let go of the belief that magic was, at some level, as organized a system as math. He became obsessed with Zeno’s Paradox. You know, the one that says you can never actually reach a destination because you are constantly covering half of the remaining distance.

“I told him Zeno’s Paradox was actually more like a sort of Zen riddle, not a genuine mathematical construct, but nooooo, he wasn’t having that. He thought he could break it down by creating his own system of what he called “subnumerical numbers.” Somehow, he was going to use this to build a perpetual motion machine. But the numbers just flat refused to crunch, so he went and pilfered some junk from the Necronumericon-- a little-known companion volume to the Necronomicon-- and plugged that into his equations, and that was pretty much all she wrote.

“He turned all this crap into an algorithm, then tried to run it on his computer. Long story short, the thing got out and infected the entire Internet. Google started giving quantum search results—responding to all queries with an infinite number of possible matches. Responding to an infinite number of queries each user might have asked, thinks like that. Hard drives everywhere did not just crash, they literally ceased ever to have existed. All the data in the Defense Department’s operating system spontaneously rewrote itself into a virtual clone of Cthulhu and seized control of our nuclear arsenal.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I felt obliged to say. “None whatsoever.”

“I know you don’t,” she snapped. “Nobody does. That’s why I never get a chance to vent. If you want me to help you with your ghost, you have to listen to me and pretend to be sympathetic. That’s my fee.”


“Okay. So, anyhow, the infection got into everything. The Internet itself shifted on its dimensional axis, so to speak, and tried to expand itself into 12 different fractal dimensions at once. The data stream became infinite, then tried to go beyond that. Bad news. The sheer weight of the data caused everything to collapse in on itself and created a singularity—a black hole. In a fraction of a nanosecond it consumed the earth and began swallowing the rest of the solar system.”

She stopped for a moment and looked at me, daring me to say something. I did.

“Obviously,” I said, “I don’t need to point out to you that the earth is still here, and so, apparently, is the rest of the solar system.”

“That’s right. Remember what I said earlier, that this stuff could warp reality in a small area? Well, the area that got warped was our computer room. We were not quite in phase with the rest of the universe, so nothing happened to us. Dad and I wrote some code based on tachyon theory and fed it into our computer, which was still connected to an infinite number of identical computers in an infinite number of quantum realities. Long story short, our program, an inverted-algorithm tachyon virus, spread backward through time and infected AOL's billing database. Our internet access got cut off ten seconds before Dad ran that damn program of his.”

“So then all that other stuff ended up never having actually happened. The world getting destroyed and that.”

“Sort of.”

“And yet, you remember it.”

“I said ‘sort of.’ The other half of sort of is sort of not.”

“Okay. Believe it or not, I understand that. Sort of.  So, what happened to your dad then? He get sucked into some sidereal dimensional limbo or something?”

“In a way. He retired and moved to Florida. He drinks a lot.”

“I don’t blame him. I would too. Actually, I do, and my life isn’t nearly as Chinese interesting as that.”

“It’s all relative. Anyhow, I stick strictly to the occult in my practice. Which reminds me. You saw a ghost. Let’s have a look at that, shall we?”

I told her what had happened, what the ghost had said to me, what I had done, and how that turned out. She listened with her eyes closed and said nothing until I was finished.

“Wow,” she said, opening her eyes. “That’s pretty heavy. You’re hanging out with the Black Centipede now? He used to scare the crap out of me. Him and Dad were pretty good friends, I think. The Centipede claimed his grandfather invented the adding machine, so of course Dad was star-struck.

“However, about your ghost… While you were talking, I put myself into a mild trance. I’m not half bad at reading auras, if I do say so myself. Yours has picked up some interesting traces. You have definitely been in contact with something  unusual, and probably otherworldly.

“It is a spirit or a presence of some kind. It knows you and wants to talk to you. That’s kind of odd, since you say it already did, but I could be picking up some old signals there. I get a blurry picture of what appears to be a man in a cape, so that fits. But it feels like this whatever-it-is has been around you a lot recently. A brief contact like the one you describe would not leave such a deep impression.”

That was unsettling. “Do you think he’s following me?”

She shrugged. “Could be, I guess, but since it seems to have accomplished its purpose during your first encounter, I can’t understand why. You did in fact accomplish the mission it gave you. You found the Black Centipede. You say he’s innocent, and I will accept that, provisionally. And if that’s the case, this ‘ghost’ was either mistaken or lying. It still wants something.  There’s a… I dunno… A word or something. A name, maybe.”

She closed her eyes again. I glanced around the room, thinking I might see something, which I did not. “Is it here now?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It is not. But it is such a powerful presence, it has left profound traces on you. Nothing harmful, I don’t think. I’m not reading any curse or possession vibes. Very strange. I feel a sense of frustration, a… Hmmm… Seems like a question of identity. Something is lost.  I think this entity wants to reclaim something. A position or a title… A rank! I am getting a strong impression of a rank.”

“Is it Captain Mercury? Captain is a rank.”

“If I knew that, I certainly would have told you, wouldn’t I? I can’t tell. As I say, the sense of personal identity is shaky.”

I sat there for a few moments, mentally reviewing everything she had said, trying to come up with something that might fit. And finding nothing.  These things could apply to Johnny, maybe, if I stretched a couple of points, and allowed for the fact that I didn’t know shit about what a ghost might think or feel or do. I realized that there was no way I could eliminate anything, since the parameters of the thing could not be accurately established. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” as Sherlock Holmes’ favorite axiom had it. But I was in a place where nothing was impossible and everything was improbable.

Then I had a thought that went through me like a dose of liquid nitrogen.
“Jesus, you don’t think it could be the Ripper, do you?”

She shook her head emphatically. “Oh hell no. If that abomination were anywhere near this plane of existence, his stench would be unbearable to me. Nope, Jack is still safely nestled in Fractal Dimension Ten to the Negative One Millionth Power. Which is just as bad as it sounds. You simply cannot get out of there.”

“Ten to the… Dana, that’s impossible. There is no such number.”

“I know. That’s why you can’t get out of it.”

Well, that was some kind of logic. But I was mollified enough that I didn’t bother to mention how many times I had seen people get out of things you simply could not get out of, including death.

Doctor Unknown Junior was staring into space, her fingers drumming on the table. “What we need to do,” she said, “is go to the place where Captain Mercury died.” Her eyes moved to catch mine. “You may have issues with that, but I think it needs to be done. If you want to figure out what’s going on here, we need to cover all the bases we can.”

I gave her a sour look. “Dana, I’m a big boy. I can take it, you know. Shit, it didn’t… It was a long time ago, and… Well, it happened, and I’m still here, right? If we’ve gotta do it, okay, that’s what it is. I mean, damn, you don’t have to…”

“I wasn’t impugning your manhood. I’m just saying I know it could be difficult.”

“It isn’t difficult. It’s just a thing. What’s difficult? No difficult. I don’t see where you get difficult. I can’t…”

“Whatever!” she said, throwing up her hands. “You have nerves of steel and ice water in your veins. I am in awe of you, I swear to God. The machismo rolls off of you in waves. In fact, I think I’m…”


She went silent and shot me a goofy little grin. Then she shrugged. “It won’t help anything for us to argue. It just bugs me that you seem to have such a stick up your ass. You didn’t used to be that way.”

“Uh-huh. Do you not know any people who used to be a particular way but aren’t that way any more?”

“Touché. And I sincerely apologize for expressing a view at odds with your own self-image. I know how aggravating that can be, especially since I am so obviously right.”
“If you’re waiting for me to argue some more, you’re doomed to disappointment. If that’s another part of your fee, we can just waive it and I’ll pay you in cash, which I will soon have quite a bit of.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Now you’re just insulting me. Were I a lesser woman, I’d take umbrage at that and probably send you on your way unfulfilled. However, it’s obvious that you are not exactly at the top of your game, and you’re probably letting the booze do the lion’s share of your talking. I’m helping you because you’re a friend, or used to be. Your money is of no consequence to me. Jack, I’m not only a Twelfth Level Magus, I am wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice. I don’t do this kind of thing for a living. I do it because it needs to be done.”

I was pissed. I wasn’t sure at whom. I didn’t want to argue. I never really wanted to argue with anyone, but I almost always did, and I didn’t like it. It seemed like people were always forcing me to show parts of myself I didn’t want them to see. I had the whole thing set up. This is who I am, this is what you are permitted to perceive, and nothing else. I really need you to believe my truth, because what you see is what I am. Dana was getting too close, too familiar, and that is something I wanted to avoid. Also, I thought it was rude, her calling me out like that about nothing.

“Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry,” I said, with all the heartfelt insincerity I could muster.

“No you’re not. But at least you’re willing to pretend you are. That’s a start. Let’s go.”

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