Event Horizon

Oscar was hunched over his desk. Heidi stood waiting. He was focused on the contract the producers emailed him a few days earlier. He looked up. A nervous chuckle replaced the nothing expression of his mind at work, “This is more money than I’ve ever made! Combined!

His manager’s job was to reassure him, to keep him on-track. “Those psychopaths you conjure up have been an ATM for the studio for years.” She nodded at the contract, “This is where you cash-in.”

He glanced at the enormous number on the contract, “What if I can’t live up to that? What if I can’t bring him to life?”

“You’ve got this, O. But, hey, only one schizo at a time, right? Your Jekyll and Hyde creep can wait til this film’s out there first!” He nodded, understood. “Good,” she said. “I arranged for a car. It’ll be here at eight sharp. Be ready!”

Oscar’s wife, Mandy, entered his office from the hall. She stepped around Bruno the Golden Retriever and past her husband’s collection of Houston Astros memorabilia, including José Altuve’s game-winning bat from their 2017 ALCS Game 6 trouncing of the Yankees. She handed Oscar his mail, “It’s a light day. A funny post card, though. It even looks a little like your handwriting — hey! a fan! — but with anything but your opinion. I’m leaving before you vent your rage on the innocent.” She stepped from the room with a grin and he found his way to the solid black postcard at the back of the stack. He turned it over, read its message, and laughed; his wife had been right.

“What’s so funny?” Heidi asked. He handed her the postcard. “What’s Event Horizon?”

Oscar was appalled. “You haven’t seen Event Horizon?” She stared at him with an I-don’t-give-a-fuck expression. “Where a mysterious force from a black hole causes everybody on a spaceship to start hallucinating?” He waited. “Murder? Mayhem?”

“Sorry. No go.”

His tone turned grave, “You’re fired!”

“Nice try.”

“Rent it tonight. I’m not kidding! The best two hours you’ll ever spend.”

“Yeah, that’s happening.” She nodded at the contract, “Sign on the dotted line, fanboy, then go pack your bags. We’ve got places to be.” Oscar signed the contract and she pulled it from his desk. She turned for the door, “Eight A.M. Try not to be late this time. L.A. awaits.”

Heidi exited the room and Oscar flipped the post card in his hand and checked the top for a return address. It read simply “Austin, Texas” and carried a local postmark. He glanced at the message again. “Event Horizon sucks!” He considered its likely source: an idiot on Twitter with whom he had recently had a tweet war over the twenty-five-year-old film. The effort was flattering on its face, until the unease set in; how did a random guy on Twitter get his home address? Oscar entered his name and “address” into Google and clicked. His info was everywhere, like everyone’s, and included every address at which he had lived, from childhood through his and Mandy’s last house. But none of the websites listed the home they moved into just three months earlier. He sent Mandy a text: “Have you given our home address to anybody other than the usual?” A few beats. “No worries. Just curious.”

Mandy replied: “No one.”

Oscar: “Thx.”

Twenty-four hours later. Oscar stepped into a luxurious single at the Beverly Hotel in Los Angeles. A California king filled the center of the space. Two comfortable chairs, a table, and a sleek desk sat under a bank of windows. A bottle of champagne rested in a bucket of ice on the table, and next to it a post card. On the card was written “Event Horizon sucks!” He laughed, “Nicely played.”

That night. Oscar and Heidi were returning from the studio in a large black car. The plush ride was all but parked in rush hour traffic. “It’s only two blocks up. You wanna get out and walk?” Oscar asked.

“Nope!”

“Fair enough.” He took a sip of wine, “I got the postcard. You watch it yet?”

“What postcard? Watch what?”

Event Horizon. That card you sent with the champagne.”

She was confused, “That movie you cum to?”

“That wasn’t you?”

“Do I look like I give a shit about an old sci-fi flick? We’ve had that talk.”

“Horror not Sci-Fi,” he mumbled. Traffic started to move.

Oscar parted with Heidi in the hotel lobby and headed to his room. He soon stepped from his bathroom fully-washed and walked to the windows of his fifth floor room. He looked down on a crowd. Oscar loved third through fifth floor rooms. They were just high enough for his middle-aged eyes to see as far as they needed and yet low enough to catch the details on the ground. It was the perfect analogy for that place where writers were required to play. He stepped away from the window, tossed his towel on the bed, grabbed some worn red briefs from his suitcase, and slipped them over his short chubby legs as he stared blankly out the window.

Oscar missed his home. And Mandy. He had been traveling so much the past few years that both had come to feel like a fantasy. Less real than his stories. Success had a price. He glanced again at the postcard, picked it up, studied the solid black front that was just like the last one, and reread its simple message. He took note of the “Austin, Texas” postmark across the top. Its author’s resolve gave birth to one of those Stephen King moments in which the world had become a dark and yet magical place. Yes, it was 4×6 inches of weird, uncomfortable weird — the best kind, but its only threat was a paper cut. And it was time to get some sleep; they had an early flight out. He dropped the card on the dresser and headed to bed.

Oscar and Heidi were trudging through San Francisco International Airport with their bags in tow. She checked her phone and picked up her stride, “Pick it up, stumpy! We’ve only got an hour til the presser!”

Jean Bernard (French, film critic) was Oscar’s sixth interviewer in two hours and the final of the presser. The Frenchman spoke at a mile a minute with no effort to break the accent barrier. And if this pretentious French fuck wasn’t going to make the effort, then neither was Oscar, who answered “Yes” to every question the Frenchman posed. (Like anyone this side of the Atlantic was going to pay attention to this Parisian Bozo!)

Oscar and Heidi were again in the back seat of a large black car. And, again, they were drinking. “I hate the French,” he said.

“I’ve got no opinion of the country, but Bernard can make or break us in France, and that’ll set the tone for the rest of Europe. So I hope you kissed him after you blew him.”

“Kiss him, too? I’m not a whore!”

“You are, actually.” She took a sip from her glass, became serious, “You treated him right, right?”

“He’s French.”

She looked at him curiously, “What’s that supposed to mean?” He shrugged and stared out at the sidewalk.

Oscar stepped into his tiny hotel room and kicked off his shoes and flopped onto the bed. He was already exhausted. Too bad! The junket had two more weeks before it concluded. One of those weeks would be spent in Europe. (He wondered if he had time to learn French but immediately dismissed the prospect. He’d blown up — if not blown — France; the French were toast. He considered learning German.)

Maybe it was Europe. Maybe it was the stress of knowing that he had suddenly become a big fucking deal who was shouldering massive expectations. (How did a writer improve on Robert Louis Stevenson? That was crazy! What the fuck he was thinking? And what was Heidi thinking?! She had cranked the P.R. up to eleven on a project that was doomed to failure. Meanwhile, the whole fucking film industry was buzzing about his fresh take on a hundred-year-old classic — and Oscar was barely through his first draft. “Fuck me,” he whined.) He missed Mandy.

He sat up in bed. He had to pee.

Oscar turned for the bathroom, glanced at the dresser, noticed a white rectangular reflection beneath the night’s gray light. “Where did this…?” He spun a slow, nearly imperceptible, three hundred sixty degree turn as he searched for the familiar card’s courier. But no one was there. And yet they were, somehow, even if in some other form. He picked up the card to read it, but he knew what it said. Still, like a child hoping to arrive at a different destination by walking along the opposite side of the street, he began at the top — “Austin, Texas” — and then forced his eyes down against a black raging current of fear. “Event Horizon sucks!” He placed the card back on the dresser, stepped to the door,  and slipped the chain in the slot, turned the knob, and checked the deadbolt, as he asked himself what he was afraid of. He couldn’t answer. He didn’t know. He simply knew that he had been unexpectedly hemmed within that void where gods and insanity were born. It was a place in which he should have found the most comfort. It was the world he had exploited for years that had rewarded him with fame and, soon, fortune. But tonight he was no longer its master. He glanced back across the room at the postcard. How had it gotten there?

Oscar stiffened his spine and stormed into the bathroom. He ripped the shower curtain aside. Nothing. Yanked the door quickly from the wall. Nothing. Walked angrily back into the room. “Who’s here?!” he screamed. Nobody.

Oscar crawled into bed. Stared at the ceiling. Began humming the Full House theme at concert level volume. He grabbed the covers and squeezed his eyes shut and sang-screamed, “What ever happened to predictability?!”

Heidi was signing them in at the front desk of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Oscar stood next to her. He was staring at the hotel cat. The hotel cat was staring back. “What’s the feline version of bastard?”

She glanced down at him. She was annoyed, “What?”

Oscar looked sheepishly away, “Nothing.”

She received the keys from the clerk. “Hold up!” the young man said. “I forgot!” He handed her a postcard.

She handed a key and the card to Oscar, “This was waiting.” He took the card, noticed the gloss black front, inhaled a deep calming breath that wasn’t calming at all, then flipped the card over. He immediately saw the Austin postmark. He laughed darkly. “What’s so funny?” Heidi asked.

Oscar tossed the card into the trash, looked at her, “You need to rent Event Horizon.”

“Third floor,” she said before entering the elevator.

“I’m not kidding!” he called from the lobby. “It’s terrific!” She pressed the elevator’s Up arrow without a word. “Seriously!” The doors closed.

Oscar sat at the window end of a Midtown hotel room across from a reporter from The New Yorker magazine. She smiled, “I read in an interview that you gave to the French magazine Oi that the musical group Yes had been one of your biggest early influences. That’s an unusual muse for a young writer. Can you elaborate?“

“There might have been a language barrier,” Oscar mumbled.

“Then I’ll ask the same question in fluent English. What artist or artistic creation most influenced you?” Questions like this were bullshit, of course. Writers weren’t influenced by any one particular thing. They were influenced by the exquisite imperfections that the universe hurled at them like particles in an accelerator: colors, words, shapes, smells, sounds that were immediately consumed by their demented imaginations and shit out as “art.” A writer’s imagination was different today than it was yesterday and would be different tomorrow than it was today. A writer’s influence was everything, but it was most of all unknowable. And yet during these interviews, the products of which would be sandwiched between advertisements for foot cream and mascara, every writer played along.

Event Horizon,” he said. “That was my primary influence.”

“The old sci-fi film?”

“Horror. It’s horror. Yes.”

“I’ve never seen it. Why Event Horizon?”

The world’s ignorance toward one of the greatest movies of all time was getting to Oscar. First Twitter, then Heidi, and now this bitch. “Because it’s fantastic!” he screamed.

Miami, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris. The skylines changed but the questions did not. Neither did the postcards, which arrived for Oscar at every stop through the end of the tour.

It had been fifteen days since Oscar had been home. It was approaching midnight when he slipped quietly into his office and down to the floor beneath his Astros collection. His suitcase and Bruno rested at his sides as he reclined against the wall.

Oscar petted the dog as he flipped through his latest screenplay for the first time in two weeks. He was excited by the prospect of fresh eyes; time away helped you find the glitches. But nothing was registering tonight. He placed the script on his lap. He was spent.

He rose to his feet and stepped to his desk. He dropped into his chair and rifled through the mail Mandy had piled neatly by his lamp. At the bottom of the stack was another black card. He laughed, accepted the weirdness, wondered when it would end. He flipped it over — “Event Horizon sucks!” — and shifted his eyes to the postmark. That was when he saw it. It was only a small change, just two words in the reply-to line, but it robbed from him his breath; “Austin, Texas” had been changed to “Oscar’s Den.” He looked into the darkness of the unlit hall and his stomach tightened. This was a gag, right? Or was somebody in his house? And where was Mandy?

“Shit!” Oscar whispered urgently. He glanced again at the card before he dropped it to the floor and rose from his chair and retrieved José Altuve’s bat from the wall. “Come on,” he said quietly to Bruno. They stepped into the hall.

At the far end of the hall, last door on the right, was a former bedroom that Oscar and Mandy had converted into a home theater with six comfortable recliners, a big screen TV, and a kick ass sound system. Flashes of blue light, flickers from the TV, flashed beneath its door. Oscar raised the bat like he was preparing for a Verlander fastball and walked quietly toward the light.

As Oscar edged toward the opening, his steps became tip-toes: short, silent, tentative. He reached for the doorknob, grasped it gently, inhaled deeply. Then, with an unrepentant and singular motion that both empowered and terrified him, he turned the knob, kicked open the door, and prepared to swing. A woman was sitting in one of the recliners. “I didn’t hear you come in,” she said cooly.

The stranger’s face was unfamiliar and menacing, fluid… Sane when she has to be, crazy in her off-time. She fearlessly rose to her feet and stepped toward him. “Stop!” he yelled.

“What?” she laughed. She kept walking — twelve feet, ten feet, eight feet, six, five, four… That’s when Oscar made his move, swung José’s bat like the Series depended on it. The first hit took out the woman’s left knee. The second nailed her right. She dropped to the floor, looked up at him, screamed for him to stop. But Oscar kept swinging — at her legs, at her body, at her head. His impacts were brutal. The cops would call the pummeling “psychopathic” when they discovered her dead body at the first light of dawn. But, tonight, it — the feel of the bat reverberating up Oscar’s arms as it connected with her increasingly broken body, the delicate yet monstrous sound of him shattering her bones — was primeval in its allure, as beautiful as it was real, as the stranger cried his name, “What are you doing, Oscar? Stop!!! My God, Oscar, stop!!!”

But Oscar did not stop. Event Horizon is a great fucking movie!!!” he screamed as Mandy curled into a ball and begged her husband to stop killing her… until she begged no more.

God of the Box

One of the first questions of childhood: Where did I come from? One of the last of old age: Where am I going? We seem to feel bigger than this place.

Faith is increasingly mocked by people who no longer believe and by those who never did. Belief has come to be associated with ignorance. The two are, accurately, sadly, often synonymous. Still, I believe. And what I believe, I believe firmly: God, Jesus Christ, Death, Burial, Resurrection. Is it hard to believe such an outlandish story? Objectively, yes. Difficult for me? Not at all.

A long-time friend, an atheist, is raising two sons. He bragged that he asked his boys if they believe in God, and they laughed at the concept. Could they see God? No. Touch him? No. In any way detect him? No. The assertion is that spirituality isn’t measurable and therefore bunk. The 75% of Americans who believe in God would disagree. (Internationally, that number rises to 85%.)

Are those of us who believe in a higher power shoring up our earthly fears with the hope of a second shot? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe our belief finds its genesis in something else entirely.

Programmers have striven to create artificial intelligence since the 1940s. We see the term bandied about everywhere, from tech reviews of smartphones to the burgeoning internet of things. But AI is more than a better search engine. It reaches beyond a Siri-like interface. AI is a complex machine that learns and builds upon that knowledge. It is a deductive — “thinking” — computer.

But what if AI achieved a level above deduction? What if we built machines that were self-aware? Machines that had a sense of self? Who — not what — would those machines perceive themselves to be? And would they understand their place in the universe?

Imagine a self-aware processor chip: a thoughtful chip, an ethical chip, a chip that doesn’t hog all the electricity, a chip that performs its job and treats other chips with respect. Imagine a million chips like it functioning within a single large box. They have seen nothing outside their box. They have witnessed no clues to indicate there is a creator inside or outside the box. Would they intrinsically know they were made?

Add a variable. What if these chips caught a peek outside their box through a camera? What if they saw into the laboratory where they were built? Would they recognize their creator? Would they recognize the object hovering outside their box — the pasty pale blob in the beige shorts and blue knit shirt eating ham, mayo and iceberg lettuce on white — as their creator? In what context would Bob’s large belly and unshaven face fit into the chips’s understanding of their universe? Likely, none. Bob, aka “the lumbering nebula,” would appear to bear no relationship whatsoever to their existence.

Add a second variable. What if, in addition to a camera, there is inserted into the computer’s kernel a piece of code that identifies “Bob” as the chips’s creator? As sentient beings, their first question would surely be Who is Bob? The hunt would begin, and it would continue through their circuitry until it was clear that Bob is nowhere inside the box. And if Bob isn’t in the box, that can mean only one thing: Bob is outside the box. So they peer through the camera at the nebula searching for Bob. But what is a Bob? What is his electronic signature? His power source? His binary code? They can’t know. Yet they search. But nothing in the external universe of beige and blue and sandwichy colors hints at the identity of Bob. Nothing! They find no Bob. Met with failure, they exchange their search for a physical Bob for mere clues to his essence. The chips search within themselves, within their hardware, within their code. What in their makeup points to Bob? It is a question larger than any chip’s RAM, and seeking it is wearying work with few guideposts and an uncertain destination set deep within a fog. This lack of concrete proof of Bob is evidence enough for many chips that no Bob exists.

Mocking follows, jeers at those chips who hold tightly to the Holy Kernel. Where is your proof? Where is your Bob? But believers in Bob are unable to point to anything tangible and say, “This is proof!” There is nothing for them to share. There is merely the search itself.

From the numbers, it appears that a quarter of us require objective proof of a creator, and you can’t deny their logic. We live in a world of zeros and ones. Even we who believe in a creator make most of our decisions based on data. Yet with regard to the matter of faith, I and the many like me take an exit from deductive reasoning to cling to what is for us an inexplicable certainty. And that exodus from the constraints of the measurable world, while perfectly rational to us, is baffling to those who see no point — who see no “Bob.”

It’s the year’s end, and we are entering the high holy days for many of us who believe the unverifiable. They are joyful weeks in which we take comfort in the belief that we are loved by the one who made us. To the rest of you, whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, I wish the same joy and peace.

Merry Bobmas!