Fall, Or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
Dodge became conscious. His phone was burbling on the bedside table. Without opening his eyes he found it with his hand, jerked it free of its charging cord, and drew it into bed with him. He tapped it once to invoke its snooze feature. It became silent. He rolled onto his side and slid the phone under his pillow so that, when the alarm resumed in nine minutes, he would be able to put it back into snooze mode with less trouble. It was a small miracle that his brain contained a sufficient 3-D model of his bed and its surroundings that he was able to do what he had just done without opening his eyes. But there was no reason to press his luck.
He felt no particular desire to go back to sleep, for he had been enduring a curiously boring dream whose central plot seemed to be the difficulty of finding coffee. In this dream, he was in the small town in Iowa where he had grown up. Its landscape and its cast of characters were commingled with places he had been and people he had encountered during the decades since he had left it in the rearview mirror of his pickup truck. But the grid street pattern of that town, covering just a few square blocks, and easily mastered by a boy on a bicycle, was, decades later, the spatial lattice on which virtually all of his dreams were constructed. It was the graph paper on which his mind seemed to need to plot things.
In the dream, he had set out to get some coffee, only to find himself thwarted at every turn by any number of incredibly prosaic obstacles. In the story-world of the dream, this was bizarrely frustrating; it was simply unreal how so many contingencies could get in the way of this simple task.
But from the point of view of the awake, or at least snoozing, Dodge, it all had a clear explanation: it was, in fact, very difficult to obtain coffee while lying in bed with one’s eyes closed.
During the next hour, he hit “snooze” several more times. In between, he slept. But it was a twilight sleep, semiconscious and mindful for a few minutes at a time, until his thoughts would lose coherence and stray into blurry wisps that were to real dreams as cobwebs are to spiderwebs.
He wondered whether the designers of the phone had performed clinical studies on snoozers in order to decide on the nine-minute interval. Why not eight minutes, or ten? The makers of the phone were famously particular about design. This had to have been data-driven. It was no coincidence that Dodge was being afforded just enough time to lose the thread of consciousness before the alarm went off again. If the interval had been much shorter, he would not have had time to drift off and so this feature could not have truly been called a snooze alarm. Much longer, and the snooze would have deepened into true sleep. He was able to maintain a rough count: I have hit the snooze button three times. Five times. Enough times that I have overslept by about an hour.
But no sense of guilt or urgency attended these makeshift calculations. He knew it didn’t really matter, because during the interval of consciousness that had followed the third tap of the snooze button he had remembered that he was not expected in the office today. For he was scheduled to undergo a routine outpatient medical procedure at eleven in the morning, which was still hours away.
Other than the desire for coffee, the only thing that was making him feel any pressure to get out of bed was, curiously, a mild awareness that all of this extra sleeping was going to make it harder for him to have his afternoon nap. This happened every day at two or two thirty. He had been doing it religiously for about a decade. When he had taken up the practice, he had wondered if it was age related, since the oldsters in his family were known for nodding off in church pews, on porch swings, or even behind the wheel. But he could remember being eighteen years old, driving all over the western United States and Canada in various beat-up vehicles, and being overtaken every afternoon by a need for sleep so intense it was almost painful. He’d always tried to fight it off, or else simply avoided driving at that time of day. The only things that had really changed since then were that he was richer, so he could have a private office with a yoga mat and a pillow in the corner, and he was wiser, so he knew better than to fight the midafternoon lull. By closing the door, silencing his electronics, unrolling the mat, lying down, and letting sleep take him for twenty minutes, he was able to refresh himself to a degree that would then keep him working alertly for several hours more.
The amount of time spent asleep didn’t really matter. He had decided that the key to it all—the one thing that determined whether the nap would actually refresh him—was the breaking of the thread of consciousness: that moment when he ceased to think in a coherent, sequential, self-aware way and went adrift. Often, this was connected with a jolt of an arm or a leg as he stepped over the threshold from conscious thinking into a dream where he was obliged to reach out and catch a ball or open a door or something. If the jolt didn’t wake him up, then it meant he had snipped the thread of consciousness and that the nap had thereby achieved its only real purpose. Even if he woke up ten seconds later, he would be as refreshed—possibly more so—as if he’d slumbered deeply for an hour.
He had studied the jolt. On those increasingly rare occasions when he slept with a woman, he would sometimes will himself to stay awake as she fell into slumber, listening to her breathing and feeling her body go soft against his until, just at the moment when she drifted away, she would convulsively move a limb.
His business activities (he was the founder and chairman of a large video game company) sometimes involved flying in a private jet to the Isle of Man, eight time zones away, where a longtime business associate—an independently wealthy writer—dwelled in a renovated castle. The writer would put him up in a bedchamber in one of the towers: a round room decorated with medieval bric-a-brac and warmed by burning wood in a fireplace built into the wall. The bed was a four-poster with a heavy canopy. A couple of years ago, after climbing into that bed and lying there sleepless for a while, Richard—for that was Dodge’s real name—had finally drifted off and fallen into a nightmare involving a very dangerous and unpleasant character he had tangled with some years earlier. He had awakened to the hallucinatory awareness that this man was standing next to his bed looking down at him. Which was impossible, since the man was dead—but Richard had been in a half-dreaming state where logic did not hold sway, and all he knew was what he saw. He tried to sit up. Nothing happened. He tried to raise his arms. They did not move even the tiniest amount. He tried to draw breath and scream, but his body did not respond to the command from his brain. He was perfectly helpless, lacking even a bound captive’s power to struggle against his bonds. All he could do was experience the terror of it, and the horror of his complete lack of agency, until somehow he drowsed off again.
Moments later, he had awoken with a start, and sat up convulsively. His body worked again. He threw off the heavy duvet and swung his feet off the bed, turning to face the dying fire a few feet away. No one else was in the chamber. The massive fortress-style door was still bolted. The nightmare impression, which had been so convincing a minute ago, now seemed ridiculous. Lying back down experimentally, he looked up and saw that the lamp on his bedside table was casting a firelight shadow onto the canopy above him, and that the shadow moved about as the fire flickered and the logs settled. He must have half-opened his eyes while sleeping and interpreted this as the shadow of a man.
So the nightmare had an explanation. Still mysterious, though, was the absolute paralysis that had trapped him in that bad dream. Later, Richard had learned that this was a well-recognized and scientifically verified phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Primitive cultures identified it as some form of enchantment, or made up stories about eldritch night-stalking creatures that would sit on your chest and pin you to your bed and suck the air from your lungs and the screams from your throat.
But there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. When you were awake, your brain could of course control your body. When you slept, however, you tended to dream. And in your dreams you could run, fight, and talk. But if the body continued to answer commands from the brain, you’d be thrashing all over the bed, vocalizing, and so on. So a mechanism had evolved whereby, at the moment that the thread of consciousness was severed, the link between brain and body was cut, like throwing a switch. And at the moment you woke up, the switch was thrown back to the “on” position and you went back to moving around as you always did. Normally the system worked with an amazing degree of perfection, so most people lived their whole lives not even knowing that it existed. But every system had glitches. The jolt you sometimes made while drifting off to sleep was one such—it happened when the switch was a fraction of a second late going off. Another, much more impressive and terrifying sort of glitch happened every so often, especially to people who—as in Richard’s case on the Isle of Man—were sleeping off of their accustomed schedule. You would wake up, but the switch would not be thrown to “on” and so you would remain as perfectly paralyzed as you had been a moment ago while sound asleep. Just like a person who, while seeming to slumber and breathe peacefully, is in fact having a terrible nightmare, you would lie there with eyes open in perfect, inescapable repose, unable to do anything about the imaginary monster on your chest, the intruder next to your bed, the fire consuming your house.
In any case, the only lasting consequences for Dodge had been more desultory browsing about how sleep worked and further introspection about his own napping practices. This was how he had developed his theory—which was unsupported by any scientific evidence whatsoever—that the one and only key to a successful nap was to break the thread of consciousness just long enough for the switch to be thrown to “off.” When it got thrown to “on” again, even if it was only a few minutes later, the brain–body system rebooted itself, like a fucked-up computer that just needs to be unplugged from the wall for ten seconds and restarted in order to come back to life in clean working order.
This notion around thread cutting was what finally brought him awake, since a connection had somehow been made in his mind, and now it was going to keep him awake. He had reached the point in his life where very few things could really compel him to get out of bed, but one of the calls to which he would readily answer was that of his own stray musings and thoughts, his mind’s desire to make connections.
It did not, however, actually get him out of bed. Ringing in the ears did that. His tinnitus was especially annoying today—the world’s way of telling him he needed to get up and make a little noise. He’d long suffered from a mild case, the result of too many guns fired and nails pounded in his youth, too many nights in British Columbia biker bars. Then, a few years ago, he had been exposed to a lot of close-up gunfire without appropriate hearing precautions. Without precautions of any kind whatsoever, for that matter. Ever since, he had rarely been without some amount of ringing in the ears—sometimes a high-pitched tone, sometimes a hiss. The cause of the condition was somewhat mysterious. It seemed to be some sort of well-meaning attempt by the brain to make sense of a loss of valid signals from ears that were no longer in perfect working order. Tending to confirm this idea was that it was at its worst when things were quiet; the environment wasn’t giving his auditory system any good data to lock on to. The solution was to get up and make noise. Not necessarily a lot. Just the normal sounds of footsteps and faucet running that reassured his brain that there was a coherent world out there and gave it a few simple clues as to what was actually what.
He got up, pulled on pajama bottoms, urinated, took the pills he was supposed to take before breakfast, and went out to the so-called great room of his penthouse, which was on the top of a thirty-two-story building in downtown Seattle. It was a very expensive piece of real estate that, in the manner typical of Northwest tech industrialists, was built out and decorated in a manner so simple, bare-bones, and informal as to be actually kind of ostentatious. Glass doors made up much of its western exterior wall, and he had left these open all night, doubling the size of the living area by joining it to the terrace. The terrace had a glass roof with infrared heaters like the ones suspended above the cash registers at Home Depot to keep the Somalian and Filipino checkout clerks from succumbing to hypothermia. These made it comfortable even when it was fifty degrees Fahrenheit and raining, which was about half of the year. In late summer and (as now) early autumn, the heaters weren’t needed, and so the terrace just served as an extension of the great room, which flowed into it without interruption. It faced toward Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains beyond.
Anomalous splashes of pink and purple flared against the wood, leather, and stone. Richard had a grandniece, Sophia, who for all intents and purposes was his granddaughter, and she came over frequently. Last weekend, her parents—Richard’s niece Zula and her husband, Csongor—had left her with him for two nights so that they could enjoy a little getaway in Port Townsend, on the other side of Puget Sound. Richard’s terrace had a direct view down onto the ferry terminal. He had a huge pair of Soviet military surplus binoculars mounted on a tripod at the railing. As their ferry had churned away from the terminal, Richard had perched Sophia on a stool and helped her get the lenses aimed down at the ferry, where Zula and Csongor, after parking their car belowdecks, had ascended to the topmost deck and stationed themselves at the stern to wave up at her. The whole affair had been coordinated via text message and had come off with the precision of a drone strike, all to the delight of little Sophia. Richard had been unaccountably depressed by it, or perhaps “ruminatively melancholy” was a better way of putting it.
Forty-eight hours of intensive grandniece/great-uncle bonding had ensued. In that short time Sophia’s apparatus of modern kiddom had permeated Richard’s apartment. Even if she never again set foot in this place, he would be finding Cheerios, glitter, sticky handprints, and barrettes for the next twenty years.
Sunday evening they had done the thing with the binoculars again as the parents had steamed back into port. Zula had explained what a good thing it was psychologically for a kid Sophia’s age to see the parents go away, but then to see them come back again. During the stress of executing their withdrawal, they had left behind a Whole Foods grocery sack containing several of Sophia’s books. Richard had placed it by the door so that it would be more difficult to overlook next time. But while his coffee machine was processing he retrieved it. He took it and his coffee to the low table on the terrace and pulled out two large-format picture books, which he had bought for Sophia on Saturday. Both of them featured the same style of colorful faux-naive artwork, for they were both by the same coauthors, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. One was entitled D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and the other D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. Richard had picked them up on impulse while he and Sophia had been hanging out in a bookstore. The cover art on Greek, perceived dimly in his peripheral vision, had jumped down his optic nerve to his brain and caused his body to freeze up almost as when he’d experienced sleep paralysis on the Isle of Man. Or, considering the context, as if he had beheld a Gorgon (and come to think of it, might it not be the case that ancient myths concerning Gorgons and basilisks were pre-scientific explanations of the phenomenon of sleep paralysis?).
The d’Aulaire books had been new when Richard had been young. He had worn out his boyhood copy, paging through it again and again, memorizing the lineages of the Titans, the gods, and whatnot, but mostly just staring at the pictures, letting them invade and shape his brain. In their general style they had a lot in common with little-kid art, which was probably what made them glom on to kid neurons like herpes. And like herpes, those pictures had remained silent and dormant in his central nervous system until adulthood. This had been triggered and made virulent by his having spied them in an unguarded moment. In the bookstore last weekend, he had approached the display like an ancient Hellene ascending the steps to the Temple of Zeus, and beheld the book, just like he remembered it, but brand new and unworn, with a new preface written by a famous modern novelist who had apparently had what Richard had had in the way of an infatuation with these books. Sophia, dragged along the whole way as she had been hugging his thigh and using his trouser leg as a handkerchief, had sensed something of the numinous in her uncle’s reaction; she had looked up and been infected. Richard had bought Greek and its companion volume Norse and taken Sophia back to the penthouse for a day’s total immersion, then handed her back to her parents an obsessed changeling, jabbering about Hydra remediation tactics and the house-sized mittens of Utgardsloki, reprimanding her elders for mixing up the Greek and Roman names of the gods. Great had been the wrath of Sophia when it had been discovered that the books had been left behind in the Whole Foods sack. Wide-famed would be Uncle Richard’s deed this afternoon when, following his outpatient procedure, he would swing by the young family’s condo with a d’Aulaire under each arm.
In the meantime, he needed to settle one small point of mythological confusion, lest Sophia find out that he was not perfectly clear on the matter, and take him to task. It had to do with Fates and Norns.
One of Richard’s first acts upon picking up Greek in the bookstore had been to thumb to its index and look up “Furies.” He had done so in a furtive, somewhat guilty frame of mind. A peculiarity of Richard’s was that he lacked a conscience or superego in the normal senses of those terms. His was a soul lacking any built-in adult supervision. In the course of his life, however, he’d had ten or so girlfriends of consequence. All of those relationships had gradually gone sour as those girlfriends had got to know him more thoroughly and drawn up manifests of all that was wanting in Richard. Some of them had kept their opinions to themselves until a relationship-ending moment of cathartic outpouring. Others had registered frank objections in real time. But Richard remembered every word of it, decades after they had presumably forgotten about him. And more than that, his brain had somehow contrived fully autonomous simulacra of these ex-girlfriends, which lived on between his ears immortally, speaking to him at the strangest times, actually changing the way he thought and behaved; before firing an employee or overlooking someone’s birthday he would pause to consider the consequences that would follow as one or more of the Furious Muses—as he called them—would coalesce from his brain vapors long enough to deliver a few choice remarks that would make him feel bad. This conflation of Furies and Muses was, of course, an invention of his own, and the sort of deviation from mythological purity for which Sophia (already turning into a sort of junior-league Furious Muse) would call him to account. He’d been carrying the idea around in his head for so long that the line between those two categories of subgoddesses had become blurry, and so he thought it would be illuminating, now that he had the ur-book in hand, to look them up.
The F section of the index was very short, having only two entries: “Fates” and “Furies.” The latter being a mere cross-ref to the more correct “Erinyes.” The former were glossed as “three old goddesses who determined the life span of man.” Richard had merely scanned those words, since he was really interested in the Furies. Cross-reffing to “Erinyes” (“avenging spirits”), he turned to page 60, their first appearance in the book, and read of souls crossing the Styx (in a ferry no less) and drinking from the spring of Lethe under “dark poplars,” causing them to forget who they were and what they had done during their mortal lives. Fine. But then it said “great sinners” were sentenced to suffer forever under the whips of the Furies. So, that part of it matched up pretty well with Richard’s Furious Muses concept. It was troubling, however, to think that you could be whipped forever in punishment for sins that you had forgotten under the dark poplars. The sinners in the Christian version of hell could at least remember why they were burning in eternal fire, but these poor dumb Greeks could only suffer without knowing why; without, for that matter, even remembering what it was like to be alive and to not suffer. It wasn’t even really clear to Richard that a post-Lethe soul could even be considered the same being, for weren’t your memories a part of you?
And yet it all rang true on some level. He did feel sometimes that he was continuing to suffer guilt pangs for acts he had long ago forgotten—deeds done when he wasn’t the same person. And who hasn’t known a sad sack, a hard-luck case who seems to be undergoing eternal punishment for no particular reason?
The next Erinyes reference happened to occur just before a two-page spread featuring the more cheerful topic of the Muses, which was good stuff, way more Sophia-appropriate, as well as reminding Richard that his own Furious Muses were at least as creative as retributive, for some of his best work had emerged from imaginary dialogues with those estimable ladies. So “Furies” had been the text he was after, and “Fates” an accidental subtext—but this morning something about it was nagging at him.
It had to do with the threads. Lying in bed a minute ago he’d been thinking about the thread of consciousness, and how severing it—breaking the brain–body link—was the key to a proper nap. And he knew that somewhere in d’Aulaire was a picture of the Fates spinning, measuring, and cutting thread. He looked all through Greek as he drank his coffee, and found it not.
The coffee was unutterably fantastic. The machine cost more than Richard’s first car and there was nothing known to coffee technology that was not embodied in its hardware and its algorithms. The beans had come from an artisanal roaster a hundred yards away—a nimble coffee startup founded by java wizards who had been brought here to work for Starbucks and spun out the moment their stock options had vested. The taste of the coffee was not wonderful, however, merely because the machine and the roasters had done such good jobs, but in the categorical sense that Dodge was awake, he was alive, he was actually physically tasting this stuff with his body in a way that sleeping-Dodge-in-a-dream could never have done. In that sense awake Dodge was as superior to sleeping Dodge as a living person was to a ghost. Dreaming-of-coffee Dodge was to drinking-coffee Dodge as one of the shades in Hades—likened, in d’Aulaire, to dry leaves whirling about in a cold autumn wind—was to a living, flesh-and-blood person.
He exhausted the first cup while looking for the thread-cutting picture. He did find a textual description of the spinning, measuring, and cutting operations being carried out by Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, respectively, but not the illustration that he clearly remembered showing to Sophia just a couple of days ago.
On his second cup of coffee he had the idea of checking Norse. And there it was: a full-color half-pager of three blondes—here, they were called Norns—spinning the threads of life at the base of the world tree. Urd, Verdande, and Skuld. Names and hair color aside, they seemed to be a direct drop-in replacement for their Greek equivalents.
Now, Richard had run off to Canada before obtaining a higher education and had not set foot in a classroom since, but he had done enough reading to understand that mythology piled up in sedimentary layers. This had to be one of those cases where there had been some early culture predating the Greeks and the Norse alike that had featured the Norns/Fates and laid it down in a base layer on which their various descendants had then added more stuff. Consequently, they always read like an add-on to the more fleshed-out mythology. Or perhaps vice versa. They were too simple to mess with. Richard, who had grown wealthy in the tech industry, saw in the Norns or Fates or whatever you called them a basic feature of the operating system. Zeus had no power over them. They knew the past and the future. They only got invoked in these stories when something had gone drastically wrong on a metaphysical/cosmological level, or else to cover plot holes. In the Greek version, Clotho was the spinner—the creator of these threads. Lachesis was the measurer. So that would be your snooze button right there—she had her nine-minute tape measure out the whole time Dodge was lying in bed. And Atropos was the cutter. The Greek version of the Grim Reaper. Though, according to the theory that Dodge was developing, the loss of consciousness when you fell asleep was basically the same as dying except that you could wake up from it.
He did not eat breakfast because the medical assistant who had scheduled him for the procedure had said something about the desirability of showing up with an empty stomach. Instead he went and took a shower. When he emerged from the shower, he was fascinated to find the bathroom illuminated by a strange light, chilly and mottled, not artificial but not the light of the sun either. The effect was surreal, like entering a dream sequence in a movie made by a director who hasn’t the wherewithal to produce anything truly dreamlike and so is faking it with simple lighting effects. The weird light was flooding in through a window that was aimed north. Was someone welding outside? Finally he worked out that the sun, rising over the Cascades in the east, was hitting him with a bank shot off the half-silvered windows of an office tower a few blocks away. Dodge had been living here for five years but was still occasionally surprised by the way sunlight would carom in from surrounding architecture. He supposed that an astronomer could have a field day calculating the angles: how they varied from hour to hour and season to season.