A short story by Fabio Lastrucci
The record snowfall responsible for the paralysis of southern France on the 4th of January did not diminish in intensity until the next day, finally allowing tourists like Laura to drive into the unknown Routes Nationales of a country undergoing a weather alert.
With expressways blocked and completely lacking in the map department, she saw her reassurance mechanisms, all too reliant on habit, shattering into pieces.
Leaving her sister’s house in the vicinity of Toulouse to head back to Rome, she had found Expressway E80 barred from traffic, which for her, a homing pigeon, was more catastrophic than the storm itself. Barred from her only familiar route and too clumsy to ask for proper directions, she had disastrously retraced her way towards Perpignan. Only after a lot of dead ends and a painfully slow line while following a snowplow she did end up on a national road that, in some way, brought her to Saint-Martìn-de-Crau.
All in all, it didn’t go that bad. She had passed the night in a clean hotel in Provence, not too far from the border, and eaten a well-made paella for dinner. During her meal, the French national television informed the restaurant’s customers about the damage wrought about by the storm. The clients shook their heads and ignored it, eating in silence.
Laura had conceded herself a glass of crème de cassis and one last cigarette in the stinging evening cold before setting on a brief evening walk and then returning to her room.
As she stopped to check her Renault, which was parked in the courtyard, the writer enjoyed her Chesterfield, letting his thought roam free. As she poised to extinguish her cigarette, her eyes fell on one of the ponds caked in ice standing in the small square.
Awareness slapped her soundly, with a déjà vu-induced vertigo gripping her as what her mind had hidden until that moment surfaced all in unison.
A series of unsettling images, all from the six past hours, flashed before her.
She remembered a small café between Narbonne and Beziers, where she had asked for direction. Its name was “L’oiseau sans voix”.
She had seen “The tearful man with a red case” looking for a lift as she was driving towards Nimes.
She had heard once again “The car playing Wagner” as she saw her barring the way to a closed tollbooth in the snow.
And also, what of the “Three albino sisters” he had seen in the hall of her hotel?
Every one of them resembled a title of one her stories collected in her last anthology, “Stories from the great blizzard”.
The fact that all those situations had happened in the precise way she had chronicled them in her book, written months before, left her upset. It was normal for an author to use material drawn from his personal experiences to inspire their own stories. What was impossible was that real events happened following a literary invention, and in the same sequence as that written in the summary, too.
Laura covered her cheeks, starting to laugh.
Those were just coincidences. Stupid, foolish and fortuitous coincidences.
She lighted another cigarette, thinking, if this was not mere chance, now, after the Icy Ponds, the sixth story, “The shot and the dogs”, would follow.
Just as she had formulated that very thought a blast broke the silence, sending some Doberman pinschers dogs resting behind a fence in a barking fury. Her face paled.
A kid chased by his furious parent, ran in front of her firecrackers in his hand. The man, seeing her completely upset by the noise, raised his shoulders in apology and resumed his chase, cursing at the child.
– I’m going crazy, – said Laura to herself. – All of this is crazy.
Her fingers trembling, she took the cellphone and instinctively dialed the only person she could rely those absurdities. Nadine Delorge, her editor.
The acute sound of the dials fired in quick succession. She waited a few seconds and then, from the other end, a male, guttural voice answered – Hikidasu!
Nagasami Tetsuo heard his very own voice repeating the exit command. He squinted his slit-like eyes to focus on the gigantic glass of the conference room, showing Tokyo’s skyscrapers.
Where had the parked Renault gone, together with Saint-Martìn-de-Crau’s streets? Why was she wearing a gray suit?
The neural terminals popping on the sides of his head had every answer he needed. He got completely back to being himself when he removed his Hy-book 3.0’s connectors and unceremoniously tossed them on the table. The assembled engineers, designers and marketing experts held their collective breath, awaiting his final opinion regarding the test-drive.
– It does not work. The system is awkward and rudimentary. This total-experience hypertext will not be well received by our public. Also, the story is banal and too old fashioned. The choice of an anthology that further reiterates the function of the Hyper-books seems tautological and reeks of bad taste…
One of his cellphones vibrated.
– Lastly, the system implemented to exit from the main menu reminds me of an obsolete science fiction movie. A most bad citation, I think.
An engineer coughed, pointing at the bleeping device. Nagasami Tetsuo extended his arm to formulate his response. He simply added. – One word. Rejected.
He then proceeded to accept the call.
Adele had put his Hyperbook in standby mode, feeling an unpleasant sense of loss. It happened every time she delved too much into reading. This time, the phantasmal residues of the simulation were very strong. She had eaten wasabi at the Nagasami Group’s dinner and still felt the spicy feeling on her tongue.
The kids would have come back from school in a short while. Matteo was still at the office and she, with a dint of guilt, hoped that he would be late. His husband was going through a very difficult period at his job and transmitted irritability all around. If they had hold him at the company, at least for lunch, they all could have enjoyed a hour of peace. The idea reassured her, triggering a hidden irritation which she would have gladly unloaded on the first person in range, be it a friend, her mother or even a call center’s operator.
She went to the timed microwave. The roast was done. She tasted a piece of it, dipping it in its viscous gravy. Insipid. There wasn’t enough salt in it. For this distraction, Matteo would have found a reason to lament away.
She answered the ringing phone as she tried to remove a piece of rope from the teeth.
An uncertain voice answered in Japanese.
The manager launched at suspicious look at the staff. A stranger had just phoned him, and in a foreign language that, for some reason, he was able to understand.
– What is the meaning of this? Who allowed access to this private line?
The men on the sides of the table relaxed, mutually exchanging satisfied smiles.
They invited him to continue the conversation. – Speak freely, Nagasami-san, we have an automatic translator working. – A fatty computer engineer said, his spectacles shining of a bright orange.
– We have taken the liberty of doing a demonstrative call for you. You are speaking with a character from our Hy-book.
For all the technical people in the room, the astonished face of their executive was more satisfying than a promotion. Buzzing like an unruly mass of schoolboys, the men gesticulated for their superior to say something. –The operative system has a feature that allows you to speak with one of the characters via a mere telephone line interface, – the programmer explained. – Obviously, the speaker on the other end is rendered via a series of routines that can combine and recombine themselves into new patterns, allowing the simulation to return an almost unlimited array of answers to the reader. We believe the audience will rave over this!
Nagasami shook and, looking at the phone, he skeptically added – looks like I have to speak with her a little. Given that I’m speaking to a simulation, can you suggest me how should I address her, please?
Adele checked the oven’s temperature. It was warm enough. He put the roast back in after flooding it with soy sauce.
– You know that you differ from how I had imagined you? During the book you seemed much more charming and well-mannered. The programming concerning your biography must differ at some point.
– Differ? Maybe it is your answer set that is lacking, Miss. Tell me something funny. Do your job and get in character. By the way, which role would you be playing?
– A reader choke full with engagements that wastes her time away answering a digital toy, – the woman answered in a dismissive tone.
Without worrying about being heard, the Nysung Electronix executive had turned to one of the software developers. – Not bad, reset this critical vein, though. We need to give a positive image to our readers.”
– We will take note, – the developer answered. – Keep it up, Nagasami-san. The construct allows for many hours of interaction.”
– Good. Miss, her opinion is wanted. Where have we been less than ideal in our verisimilitude?
His sons would have gotten back in half an hour and the roast was warmly meditating on its insipidity. Adele thought that her old philosophy degree was not such a waste after all. Maybe he had found the target upon which letting out.
– And, if we want to leave Duns Scoto and Leibniz to their ends, I’d like to add the definition postulated by a scholar from the twentieth century, Anatole France: The past is the sole human nature. What is, is past. Do you possess memories older than the ones described at page twenty-five, where your childhood in that Osaka district is chronicled? Obviously no, those are not elements part of the narration and thus, you have not been programmed to deal with them. Your existence is as thin as the image you are looking at, outside the window. It has the same value, scenography-wise. If you look out of the window and try to observe it from a different perspective, you’ll find everything going flat. This Hy-Book was purchased on a bargain offer and navigation is limited.
Nagasami was shivering head to toe, his feelings raging from humiliation to paradoxical rage.
That damn woman chewed ontology and epistemology like they were mere sushi and tempura and he was not apt at subjects not strictly related to finance. He knew little about himself and he had taken to answer the woman with pre-made, lame phrases, in which he had started to believe less and less.
The squad of idiots surrounding him was now perplexed and was hanging from his lips, awaiting his gratifying appreciation.
– Thus you are the one in the flux of reality, object that perceives and not subject of knowledge.
– I wouldn’t say it that way, but yes, we are there. Do you want me to talk about Descartes once more, or you’ve had enough? You know, I have a matter or two to deal with…
The magnate did not reply. He felt completely disheartened and devoid of arguments. The prospect of having to listen to another philosophical tirade scared him more than admitting he was a fictional character.
– No, please, return to your work. I…I… will come up with something, I suppose.
– Don’t worry. My children are coming and I’ll have to put you and the book in standby. Sayonara!
A sharp click put an end to the communication. Nagasami remained motionless, his eyes lost and the full conscience of being the simulated shadow of himself. His sense, all his memories, everything was just mere dressing of a digital puppet.
The staff was still waiting for him to speak.
He felt dry in his mouth.
But was it true? How could an unexisting mouth be dry?
There was a cough coming from the software engineers.
He searched in his personality, in order to remember a “Nagasami-like” gesture, something fit for the situation.
He just wanted to kick in their electronic butt, as realistic as possible.
With a wicked grin, he set to work without missing a single one.
About the author:
Fabio Lastrucci is an Italian author/fiction writer.
This story, “Matrioska” won the second prize in the 2013 Kataris award of Ferrara (Italy) and was included in the e-book edited by Dunwich editions.