The Stephanie Glitch - Part 6
A psy-fi novel about a collapsing universe and a psychic teenager.
We are rapidly approaching macrochapter 2, in which LP’s and Stephanie’s worlds collide. But in case you missed anything, here’s a giant button.
And another button for those who are new and want to start at the beginning.
I hope you like those new buttons. I think they’re cool.
THE STEPHANIE GLITCH - Part 6
Stephanie’s mind travelled to skeletons on shot glasses and movie nights in with Emma. College was now littered with invisible spikes of anxiety that crept up on Stephanie when she least expected it. Even the library, which was once a peaceful refuge, was now a huge noticeboard for the hastily written slogans of various faculties. There was a white noise of terror looming around every corner. They even had some early exams in there on some days, as if to foreshadow Stephanie’s eventual failure, and nobody ever warned Stephanie not to walk up to the door and stare in like an idiot before noticing the sign. She had probably scared about a dozen sociology students half to death. She entertained the thought for a second, thinking about how amusing Emma might find it.
“What was the yelling about?” Stephanie’s grandfather asked.
“Oh god. That was out loud?” Stephanie asked.
“It wasn’t too loud, I did worry, however. Bad dream?”
“Yeah. About uncle Andrew’s funeral.”
“Oh, that’s a weird thing to be dreaming about. You were barely there.”
“I know,” Stephanie said.
“It was a long time ago. Surprised you remember. It’ll be because things are changing. Dreams about death come about when your life changes its path. Going to university is a big thing. You’re the first in the family.”
“So, no pressure?” Stephanie asked, hiding her worry under a polite tone.
“None at all. And how was your night with Emma?”
“Decent, didn’t do much, just nice to relax with a friend you know, before exams.”
“It’s nice to have a close friend,” Stephanie’s grandfather said. “Your grandmother was my best friend.”
Before Stephanie could decode or anxiously invent any hidden meaning in what her grandfather had just said, he guided her into the living room and sat her down with breakfast.
“Do you like bits or no bits?” he asked. Stephanie snorted, her mind elsewhere, before realising he was talking about orange juice.
“Are they the big bits or the little bits?”
“Good band,” Stephanie said, “Go on then. Thanks granddad.”
“No need to thank me,” he said, pouring Stephanie a tall glass of orange juice with the little bits. He followed her steadily to her chair and pulled up a footstool. Stephanie sluggishly lifted her legs into position. Her grandfather placed a cooling migraine pad on her forehead and passed her the juice, which she drank half of almost right away. It rejuvenated her, dragging her mind upward through her multiverse of nightmares and dreams and memories, pulling her into the present and the real. She was still hungover, but the dryness and the pain of it had mostly been suffocated under the orange nectar and the arctic feeling in her forehead. She felt like a plant being watered after a thousand years. Her mind turned to the future, to plans and parties (often the same thing), to the coldness sucking the bad thoughts through her skull and discarding them in the air.
“I’ve got a thing in a few days, an event in town, Battle of the Bands. I was wondering if I could stay over here again?” Stephanie asked.
“You never need to ask Stephanie. You have your room, you have your key, and by the looks of it a lot of your treasures are here,” her grandfather said.
“Thanks granddad.” Stephanie was doubly thankful, as a pile of clothes was barely a ‘treasure’ and her mother would have had another, unkind term for her things.
“Now give yourself ten minutes to rest. Your brain will fall out if you rush yourself. You still have a lot of buses you can afford to miss at this time. Don’t stress.”
Her grandfather always knew the right thing to say. In fact, even if he said the exact same thing that someone else said, it would be relaxing. He was the kind of man that exuded a feeling of safety and security, like a walking, talking castle.
Stephanie closed her eyes and processed things at last. The coffin nightmare faded away, but in its place lingered that uncomfortable feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the world. She still felt as if she was being watched, but that whatever was watching was neutral. That the universe, whilst not in any way under her control, would go her way.
Stephanie returned to her bedroom after breakfast, still feeling the lingering effects of the previous night’s alcohol. She pawed around her shoulder bag and found a scrap of paper with a spicy sauce stain on one corner. She remembered writing the poem whilst eating the kebab inside the shop, remembered splitting a whole jalapeno with Emma and watching as Emma’s face scrunched up. Stephanie sat cross-legged on her bed and looked at the poem.
Between now and then and elsewhen
a river a kebab and something else
nothing is happening
it’s so cold time has frozen
and we are warm in here
and I’m always hungry
It wasn’t her best poem, but it was fuelled by two-for-one drinks and motivated by a yearning for a time which had not yet happened, so Stephanie forgave it. In fact, she came to the conclusion that if she rated her poetry based only upon how honest it was, that this was in fact one of the best. It might not have been the most technically complicated or imaginative, but it captured a slice of the night out better than any blurry drunken photograph could have. Briefly she thought about showing it to Emma.
Quietly she collected her things together. Pens, notebook, phone charger, eyeliner, mind, body, soul. She tucked away anything that would fit back into her bag before heading to the bathroom. Now for the hard part, waking up. She stepped into the shower whilst brushing her teeth, not because she needed to save time, but because she could not be bothered allocating different blocks of time to both activities. This was the most efficient way. She wasn’t going to be around forever.
The lingering taste of the orange juice shot through her body as the water started. She saw flashes of green and speckles of silver through the neon haze, smelled the lavender shampoo and felt the coldness of colour at the top of her eyeballs. All her senses were entangled again. Not knotted or overlapped, but grown together and twisting, like tree roots or fat red veins sharing a tributary. Colour and smell and taste and sound and texture and electricity intermingled in her mind. The shower, on full blast, pelted the skin of her scalp with rhythmic bursts that reminded her body of last night’s nightmare.
Stephanie relaxed. Her skull became the metal hull of a starship falling through reality-holes. The starship punctured pink-purple-green vortexes, only to reappear in the midst of a storm of brown and grey asteroids. Pelted by the rocks, the starship crunched and clattered, chased by pufferfish-shaped pursuers, smaller ships with evil intent emanating from them. Stephanie felt unsettled as she focused on these smaller spaceships, shivering and shaking herself free from the dream vision. The spiky forms took a while to fade. She nearly slipped in the shower. The starship continued on in the memory of her dream, kicking up dust and chaos as it careened towards a distortion in the velvet black canvas of space.
A black hole.
Stephanie was staring down at water spiralling into the plughole. She breathed in the steam, smelled the shampoo and focused on the percussion of the water above and the spiralling of the water below. She smiled and chortled to herself, picking a strand of purple-black hair with her right foot. There was a time not so long ago, when she wanted very desperately for her external decoration to be entirely purple. Hair pins, hair, a few piercings, tattoos, dresses, jeans, corduroy trousers, wide-brimmed hat. All of it had to be purple. But she had only worked her way halfway through the list before becoming exhausted, bored with the artifice of it all. She also didn’t suit hats as often as she wanted to, and she had yet to obtain any tattoos.
That was a good word. Artifice. She liked that.
She kicked the hair around. She worked on the spaceship again. It was circular, a ring of old rocks tied together by metal and glass and wire, with a central structure that shifted as she tried to imagine it. There were cables and dishes and sensors, airlocks and vacant screens. She saw last night’s shot glasses again, the skeleton on the glass, and pushed the thought away.
Keep thinking about the spaceship, try to learn something new about it.
Hold the spaceship in your mind.
Her mind’s eye shot through the rocks, caught a glimpse of a dark blue spacesuit. It was bulky and angular, heavy duty. The suit was abandoned. Beside it was a vague human shape, blurry, not fully realised. A flash of lime and red took over from the image, a fractal, undulating picture formed from Stephanie’s grandfather’s pocket square. The one he never wore. Stephanie’s attention fell back into her own world. But she didn’t want to be back yet. She tried to push the image away.
She refocused on the plughole. She thought about the hair, imagining it was an invisible string that refused to be eaten by the black hole. The spaceship travelled along the string, into the mouth of the black hole, and out of the mouth of another without issue. It never really entered the hole. But it entered a spacetime anomaly generated by it. The black hole was the engine, the pathway was the string. The string intersected with another string, with the black hole, with the waves and ripples of spacetime. At the intersection of two strings, it was possible for space to be folded so tightly as to snap. Stephanie blew water out of her nose as she stared down, fixated by the crystallising idea. The string was a denser form of spacetime. From the spaceship’s perspective it looked like a tube, a four-dimensional crack in reality, but it wasn’t. It was both. It was the root of an impossible tree, bigger than the universe itself, bigger than time. All within Stephanie’s head. It would make a decent story, if only she could remember it.
And then it was gone.
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Stephanie felt a blackness at the back of her eyes, a sleepy, nauseating ache. Her hangover was mingling with the pressure of the water on her head, trying to push her back under. She stretched her hands and stood up straight. The spaceship daydream vanished, the black hole turning back into a plughole, the cosmic string turning back into hair, the spiralling gravitational waves turning back into wastewater. The neon colours left the tops of the ripples, the normal white of the shower floor replaced the emptiness of space. She was back.
Stephanie finished washing her hair, turned the shower head onto a gentler mode, finished brushing her teeth, and sang a lonely Bowie song to herself. Afterwards she wrapped up in several towels, making eye contact with herself in the bathroom mirror, remembering the skeletonising lights of the bar and the little skeletons on the glasses. The face looking back at her felt unfamiliar.
“Hello Stephanie,” she said in a voice not her own. It freaked her out for just a second, before she realised she had been singing and yelling all night. Her new voice was cracked and hoarse. Her normal voice was on its way back, slowly. She put one hand tentatively against the glass and made a print in the condensation. Something about the combination of sense experiences: the toothpaste smell, morning breeze rattling something outside, left foot half on linoleum and half on bathmat, the smell of sweat and hair conditioner, the brightness of the morning sun refracting through frosted glass. All of it combined felt wrong. It was as if this combination wasn’t an arbitrary colliding of average things, but a secret code written into the universe. She began to unpick it. She stepped back, turning her attention to the sink. She ran the tap and the black hole appeared again, then the buttressed dome of an observation deck superimposed over the plughole cover. She reached for green mouthwash and briefly lost her concentration. She went back to the mirror. Someone else was still staring blankly back, a human body half empty. Her body. Older. She passed it off as a hangover and shook her head aggressively, reminding herself about the headbanging through the medium of cracking and strained muscles.
“I won’t get that old,” she said to herself. Her usual voice was rebuilding itself.
“Hello. Hello spacegirl. You’re sleepy now.” Nothing like a Bowie reference to resurrect yourself.
After a minute or two of peaceful lingering she went back into her bedroom, cleaning herself up. But something drew her back to the bathroom mirror.
“I’m Jareth,” she said to herself. She thought about how it had taken her over a dozen watches of Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth to notice that David Bowie played the enigmatic baddie. She had no idea when she was little that the man on her favourite CD was also the Goblin King. The revelation when she was thirteen or fourteen had stirred something primordial inside Stephanie’s head that even now kept its momentum. You can be more than one person at once. It wasn’t always useful information – it is easier to get along with people if you come across one-sided, rather than trying to be multiple things at once – but it was enlightening. Through Bowie, Stephanie knew she didn’t have to settle on anything. She could just be herself. She could be multitudes.
But who was Stephanie? She turned away from her reflection. Briefly she felt as if it was watching the back of her head, as if her soul had disconnected from her eyes and fell backwards. She hurried downstairs, walking into the kitchen and picking up a large green apple and holding it for a moment before putting it back down. It seemed too green. The ceiling of the kitchen seemed lower than usual. The windows were the wrong width. Everything was subtly altered. It reminded her of the junk bedroom scene in The Labyrinth, but weirder. This wasn’t a fake house. It was real, but someone had adjusted the parameters. The universe had forgotten the minor details, but Stephanie hadn’t.
“You can have it,” her grandfather said. Stephanie picked the apple up again and looked at it, imagining it was a small planet. Again, the image of the skeleton on the glass resurfaced, then the pattern of the red and lime paisley pocket square she had gotten for her granddad so long ago.
“Thanks Granddad. I’ll see you later maybe, or if college ends late, on the weekend.”
Stephanie hugged her grandfather, put her coat on, and stepped outside.
Author's notes (minor spoilers ahead)
This marks 16410 words of the novel. The creeping realisation that not all is what it seems has settled in, Stephanie knows things aren’t quite right, and LP is about to be caught by the Virtualists.
I had thought about getting this beast traditionally published, but for reasons I won’t bore you with, I think I’d rather go selfpub again. The main thing tradpub has which I don’t is marketing. I have found an editor, so now all I need to do is hire a marketer, which I plan on doing before the end of April. It’s all working in Stephanie’s favour.
There have been two main drafts to this novel. The first one had a lengthy first chapter before Stephanie finds proof she lives in a simulation. The second one started with LP contacting Stephanie directly (that’s your minor spoiler) and included these bits from Stephanie’s life as flashbacks, while she’s going on her adventures through time and space.
Ultimately, the first one was boring and the second one felt contrived. This third, final one is not a compromise between the two but a new beast. Some of Stephanie’s life is hinted at here, and expanded upon in those long quiet nights on board generational starships later on in the book (another spoiler).
My hope is that while Stephanie’s life is building to its conclusion, LP’s is also holding your attention. Their universes are not far apart now, and a cataclysm is on the way. When they meet, it’s going to get weird.
Really weird. It will make the plot twists in WHO BUILT THE HUMANS? feel calm by comparison.
Hope you enjoyed it, thanks for being here. - Phill