The Antisocial Network – Chapter Five

By the time they got to the safe house, which turned out to be a semi-decrepit apartment block just inside the Chicago city limits, Eric had settled on his strategy for the moment. He started asking more questions. With his eyes roving about for trouble – although realistically the whole neighborhood promised it – he climbed out of the car. The state of the building didn’t say good things about anyone who lived there long term.

“Nothing to be nervous about here,” Hugo said, catching Eric’s looking about as he climbed out of the car. “This place is safer than it looks.”

On the other side of the vehicle Tails slammed the passenger door shut and paused for a moment. Her distinctive, pigtailed meme broke away from her and drifted off around the corner of the building. Its legs didn’t move, instead it just drifted along the ground much like the ghosts Eric first thought of them as.

“What are you doing?” He asked, watching as another meme drifted around the corner where Tails’ had just disappeared.

Her eyes opened and she gave him an appraising look. “Checking the perimeter. Nice catch, most teeps less than a day old wouldn’t notice something like that.”

“Thanks?” Eric followed the two of them through the doors into the building, winding up in a small antechamber that looked just as decrepit as the rest of the building. As Hugo fished for keys Eric asked, “Speaking of noticing, how did you guys find me, anyways? Is there a teepdar or something?”

“Please never say that word again,” Tails said with a venomous look.

“Tails is very protective of our little group of telepaths. Doesn’t like things that would give us a bad image.” Hugo unlocked the door and pushed it open, leading Eric out of the rundown entrance and into a hallway that looked like it would be more at home in a hospital or modern office building. The floors were tile, the walls a bland beige and the doors heavy metal industrial monstrosities. Hugo ignored the hallway and instead led them into a stairwell and started up. “Anyway, we don’t exactly find new teeps. You guys kind of tell us where you are.”


Tails laughed. “The first thing a newborn does is cry, right? New telepaths are the same – you haven’t got a concept of inside-your-head voice and outside-your-head voice. Most of us shout a lot when we become teeps and that clues the Network in to where they are when we aren’t the ones who wake them up. Of course we can only hear you over short distances, kind of like the Feds.”

Eric stopped halfway up the flight of stairs. “Not the ones that wake them up? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Hugo stopped at the top of the stairs, giving him an odd look. “Telepathy is an innate human ability but it takes another telepath to wake someone’s telepathic abilities up. The active teep synchronizes thought patterns with the sleeper and pushes their dormant telepathic abilities into an active state.”

“Do they have to be close by?”

“In the same room, generally,” Tails replied. “Like the government telepath with you.”

“I didn’t run into Rachada until after I started noticing memes, though. That means I was telepathic before I met her, right?”

Hugo’s face went blank and instead of answering he waved them out of the stairwell and into another hallway, one with the same basic layout as the hall before but carpeted, and into the farthest of the three rooms along the building’s south side. It looked like your average studio apartment, nicer than the one Eric was living in at the moment, with a bed and couch on one side. No sign of a TV but Eric guessed you had to give something up for a place that nice.

Hugo sat down on the couch and waved for the other two to sit down. Eric made himself comfortable on the bed and Tails hesitated for a moment before perching on one arm of the couch. “What was the first meme you saw, Eric?”

“Uh… I’d guess it was something I saw this morning? I thought it was a dream.” Eric quickly sketched out the strange, faceless figure in a tux and hat leaking steam.

When he was finished Hugo grunted disgust and Tails muttered, “Vent. He hasn’t let it go.”

Eric waited a moment then, when no explanation was forthcoming, asked, “Who’s Vent? What hasn’t he let go? And most importantly, should I be worried?”

Hugo heaved a sigh. “Vent is something of a troublemaker. Not intentionally, you understand, he just has a tendency to meddle with things that are less than safe.”

“Before you panic, you’re probably not in any danger right now,” Tails put in. Somehow Eric felt less than reassured.

“There’s a dark side to memes that you probably haven’t seen yet,” Hugo said, ignoring Tails. “Are you familiar with the origin of the term?”

“Not really.”

Hugo waved it off. “It’s not really important. They were postulated as the mental equivalent to genes in the evolutionary journey of the collective unconsciousness. Or something like that. Regardless of their origins that’s kind of how they function.”

“My meme looks like this, right?” Tails pointed to an empty patch of floor next to the sofa that was suddenly occupied by her pigtailed meme, this time sans hammer. “It’s a pretty refined meme and you’ve seen some of the things it can do. Nerve hammering can be used to knock people out. Then there’s more refined things, like nervejacking, which will let you exert a certain amount of control over people. That’s how we got the driver of your van to pull over before we pulled you out.”

“Okay, I’m with you so far.” Eric frowned, looking at Tails’ innocuous looking meme with new respect. It was a little uncomfortable to think that anyone could exert that kind of control over other people. On the other hand, Rachada had resisted Tail’s nerve hammer so maybe telepaths were more resistant to other teeps. “Why can’t you use your meme to wake a telepath?”

“Because memes are somewhere between a personal projection and a chunk of the collective unconsciousness,” Tails said. “I’ve basically taken an idea that exists in the back of everyone’s mind and used it as a vehicle to broadcast my personal thoughts. But letting that chunk of the collective unconsciousness synchronize with your brain, like you’d have to do to awaken a teep, can cause issues. The biggest is that the person who’s exposed can wind up becoming unstable.”

“Unstable how?”

“It depends. Anything from paranoia to psychosis to lapsing into a semi-catatonic state.” Eric thought of Rachada and how she had mentioned his “condition” and wondered if she’d been referring to something like this. Tails waited a moment, perhaps expecting another question from Eric, but then kept going. “What’s almost worse is the meme becomes pretty much impossible to control and runs rampant, inflicting itself on any telepath it stumbles across. We’re not sure why they suddenly become independent because normally a meme takes a lot of effort to project. It’s kind of like insanity turned into a virus. We call them brainworms.”

Hugo took up the train of thought. “The saving grace is, right now, there aren’t many telepaths to be infected by brainworms and people who aren’t teeps seem to be safe from them. Like most diseases, without a host brainworms quickly go extinct.”

“That is a good thing,” Eric admitted, “but it doesn’t explain who Vent is or what that has to do with me.”

“Vent was an old associate who wanted to make a study of brainworms,” Tails said. “We worked together for a bit trying to understand memetic telepathy. But he was convinced brainworms could be used constructively. His first area of study was going to be whether you could make a brainworm to wake telepaths, get rid of the need to have someone there in person.”

“He left us a couple of months ago and we’d hoped he’d given up on the idea for the time being. It’d be safer for everyone involved.” Hugo leaned forward on the sofa. “But now there’s you and I think we can safely say that not only has he not given up, he’s actually succeeded.”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Four

“What’s a teep?” Eric asked, stalling for time.

“Telepath, T.P., teep,” the woman answered, turning to give him a mostly unobstructed path to the back of the van. “You, now, I’d guess. You still look a lot like your meme so I’m guessing you’re not government issue.”

“No, I guess not.” Eric looked at the three unconscious government issues she and her friend had created. “So what happens now?”

“Depends,” the man at the back of the van said, his voice surprisingly high and reedy for a person of his size. “Do you want to go on the lam with two strangers who happen to be telepaths or disappear into a government facility you’ll probably never come out of again.”

“To be fair,” the blonde added with a nod towards Rachada, “if you do survive whatever happens there they might give you a nice job like hers.”

Eric thought about that for a second. “As fun as it sounds to grab random, freshly minted telepaths off the street on behalf of the government I think I’ll take my chances with strangers for the moment.”

“Then let’s get going.” The man turned and disappeared onto the sidewalk, Eric and the blonde woman struggling to keep up. She had an easier time of it than he did, Eric guess that she was at least four inches taller than his admittedly short five feet, six inches and she used her enormous stride to cover ground with long, leisurely steps. The man trailblazing for them wasn’t much taller than Eric but had the advantage of knowing where he was going. It was unlikely either one had a stomach revolt in progress, although after the first minute or so Eric’s nausea faded into the background and he did his best to keep the man’s green knit stocking cap in sight as the group’s leader wove through back alleys, jumped a fence and ducked around corners.

After going what felt like two miles at a fast jog, but was in fact closer to two blocks, Eric was about ready to ask for a break when they came to a battered Nissan station wagon and piled in.

Once he was semi-comfortably settled in the back seat Eric asked, “Do I get to know anyone’s names?”

“Maybe,” the woman said.

“Okay, Miss Piggy.” She turned around in her seat to give Eric a skeptical look. He mimed holding his hair up in pig tails to explain the choice. She snorted and turned back to face front.

“And you can call me Hugo,” the man said, starting the car. “Now I hate to be rude but Miss Piggy and I have a few things to discuss.”

The woman gave Hugo a disgusted look and Eric wondered if Miss Piggy was a nickname that was going to stick. She wasn’t plump and didn’t have curly hair so he felt that it might be a little off base. Maybe as irony.

The train of thought got away from him when the two in the front seat began communicating. Eric couldn’t figure out how or what they were saying to each other, he just knew that ideas were being exchanged somehow and he was being kept out of it, deliberately if what Hugo had said was any indication. Eric was just thinking that he might as well have stayed with the Feds for all the straight answers he was getting when the woman finally threw her hands up and said, “She’ll recover, okay? The last thing we want is a government telepath chasing us halfway across the city.”

Hugo sighed. “The issue was how you did it, Tails. You need to learn control. Case in point: This was supposed to be a quiet conversation. Introduce us to our new friend, please.”

Apparently Miss Piggy wasn’t going to stick. Tails turned around in her chair – she hadn’t buckled in when they got in the car – and said, “Hi. I’m Tails.”

With a heroic effort Eric managed not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, that kind of thing was very hard to stop once it got going. “I’m Eric. Or do I need a name that’s clearly not my name?”

“What makes you think I’m not Hugo?” Hugo asked, thankfully keeping his eyes on the road as he did so.

“The Hugo Award patch on your jacket, for starters. Goes nicely with the present circumstances all things considered.” Eric shrugged. “I’ve done enough theater to spot the difference between coincidence and deliberate showmanship. Your parents could have named you Hugo but the odds that you’d become a telepath and have the skills to get the job of going around meeting new telepaths? Pretty small.”

Hugo shrugged. “I’ll take your word for it. Call yourself whatever you want, it’s bad form for teeps to question a name.”

“Right. Can I question where we’re going? Because it’s been one of those days so far and I’m hoping it’s not going to get any worse.”

“We’re going to take you to a safe house,” Tails said, turning to look at him over the back of her seat. “We’re not sure how the Feds are finding us, although based on the girl back there they’ve gotten teeps of their own somehow, but they only seem to be watching the big cities. Once we’re far enough into the ‘burbs we should be okay. We’ll lay low for a few days, then arrange you a meeting with the First Teep.”

Eric didn’t need telepathy to hear the capital letters that made it sound like a name. “How do you know he’s the first?”

“He says he is,” Hugo said. “And when you meet him you’ll have a hard time doubting it. But for the most part, it’s just something we call him.”

Eric rolled that over in his mind. “Is he in charge? The old mentor who shows people the ropes? What?”

“More like he’s Gandalf,” Tails said.


Hugo glanced at him in the rear view mirror. “You recognize the Hugo Award but don’t know who Gandalf is?”

“If it’s not on stage or screen I don’t know what it is,” Eric said.

“There were a couple of animated films a while back,” Tails mused, “but they were dreck.”

“What she’s trying to say,” Hugo put in, eyes back on the road, “is that the First Teep is the guy we count on to help us figure out major roadblocks and warn us of trouble brewing. He’s a better telepath than anyone I’ve met and trust me, I think I’ve met just about all the ones we’ve got in the States.”

Eric snorted. “But not Rachada.”

There was a disturbing brushing sensation, like he’d just walked through a cobweb, then Hugo said, “I met her just now, didn’t I?”

“Did you just read my mind?” Eric demanded.

“Not exactly,” Hugo said. “It’s called checking associations. I just pushed the idea of the woman in the van at you and got the same reaction as when you said her name.”

“Huh.” With his profound thoughts about that articulated Eric sat back in his seat and thought about things. He found that he had a lot to think about. Between telepathy, government agents and a carjacking – and he still wasn’t sure how Hugo and Tails had done that – it had been a big day. But even with all that the things that bothered him about the day, the thing that concerned him the most wasn’t something that had already happened.

For all that he didn’t want to wind up in an X-Files holding facility, the biggest thing on his mind was that he wasn’t sure he wanted to meet a guy who could get the X-Files black ops team hijacked on short notice. The question was what was he going to do about it when everyone around him could read his mind.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Three

“Hey. You okay? You look a little raw.”

Something was poking Eric and he didn’t like it. Why would someone poke him? Couldn’t they tell his head felt like it was stuffed full of cotton?

With a mighty effort Eric opened one eye and looked around. He was face down in a dimly lit, featureless room, looking at an equally featureless face, half hidden by blonde bangs, out of the corner of one eye. “Oh, great,” he muttered. “The faceless people have returned.”

It’s not a faceless person,” an obnoxiously chipper female voice told him. “It’s a meme. It’s not supposed to have a face.”

“Then it is faceless,” Eric said, closing his eye again. “By definition, instead of absence, but still faceless. Lemme go back to sleep.”

A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to haul him into a sitting position. Eric refused to cooperate and wound up twisted around and facing up instead of down. He opened both eyes and found the blonde meme hovering over him.

Literally hovering. It actually looked like it was standing on a wall to his left, except there was no wall there. It was leaning on a hammer of some sort, the head looked like it had been cut out of a log and then had a hole drilled through for the handle. Based on the feel of things from a moment ago he figured the meme had been poking him with the hammer handle rather than its finger. “What do you want?”

“Dude,” the meme said, grabbing one arm and trying to pull him upright again. “You just got drugged. You’re unconscious.”

“The doctors must have had a good reason for it.”

“By the Feds, you moron.” It let go of his arm but for some reason he stayed in a half-sitting position instead of flopping back down to the ground. Eric was slowly coming to grasp that he wasn’t actually in a room and there wasn’t any ground to speak of. Up and down were more suggestions than directions. He’d just turned to take a closer look at the not-floor when the meme said, “Look, I’m sorry about this but you sound like your brain’s too mixed to sort what’s going on so I’m just going to snap you out of it, okay? We’re on our way to pick you up so be ready to move.”

“Oka-What?!” Eric looked up to find the meme hefting its hammer over one shoulder. Before he could make more than a pretense of scrambling out of the way it whistled around and into the side of his face-

-and his head snapped around sideways, trapped in total darkness. There was someone or someones holding firmly onto each of his arms. Eric had just enough time to register the sound of a car’s engine and the steady rumble of tires on pavement when a wave of horrible nausea went through him and he vomited.

It was dark because there was a bag over his head. That wasn’t a pleasant discovery.

The hand on his left arm vanished and a second later the bag was coming off from his head. By deft manipulation of the bag and Eric’s posture most of the mess stayed in the bag with only a little bit clinging uncomfortably to his face. Eric blinked at the uncomfortable amount of light that hit his eyes.

He was staring out the side of a van that had a bench running down each side. He was seated on one bench and a whip thin man in a cheap black suit was carefully tying off the bag that had been over his head. On his right was another suit, and by the cosmic law of stereotypes this suit was occupied by a slightly rotund man of incredible breadth. Eric didn’t actually take note of them at just that moment, since Rachada was leaning over the seat with a rag or handkerchief in one hand.

Another wave of nausea crashed over him and Rachada pulled back as he doubled over and deposited the very last bits of his breakfast on the floor of the van.

“What did you dose him with, Franks?” Burly suit asked. “Water? Sewer water? He shouldn’t be awake, much less spewing like that.”

“The usual,” skinny suit, presumable Franks, said. “He should have been out for at least an hour. Longer, with how skinny he is. Never had anyone react like this.”

Eric slowly dragged himself back to a half-sitting posture. “Sorry, why do I need to be unconscious?”

“I think it’s part of the playbook secret government programs have to use to get funding.” Rachada watched him carefully as she spoke and, when it was clear Eric’s stomach had absolutely nothing more to add to the situation, she leaned back in and carefully cleaned his face off. “I’m sorry about this, but Eric you’re not well.”

Eric worked his mouth, grimacing at the taste. “I noticed. Can I get some water? Or at least know why you work for a secret government program?”

Rachada tossed the cloth into a plastic bag she pulled from under her seat. “To be honest it’s because they don’t mention what kind of work you’re going to do when they’re out recruiting interns.”

“Seriously? The X-Files has interns?” Eric started to shake his head, stopped as it triggered a new wave of nausea.
The two stereotypes on either side of him leaned away slightly and for a split second Eric caught a glimpse of more faceless echoes in their wake. Rachada moved to be out of the potential line of fire and rested a hand on his knee.

“Eric, what’s happening to you isn’t normal, even by the standards of your condition.”

“My condition?!” Eric said. “What, you mean being surrounded by faceless not-people who talk to me?”

“The technical term is preliminary-”

“Ma’am,” not-Franks said. “I’m not sure now is the time to discuss that.”

Rachada huffed a bit. “He is going to be read in anyway, Agent Beane.”

“Really?” Eric asked. “Franks and Beane? Who’s genius idea was that?”

“What’s wrong with their names?” Rachada asked with a blank look.

“Nothing, ma’am,” Franks said quickly. “Regulations call for you to explain matters to the subject once we are in a secure location.”

“Well the subject would like an explanation now.” Eric turned his full attention on Rachada, as if he could stare the information straight out of her. “Please. Can I get some kind of a clue as to what is going on here?”

She gave him a sympathetic look and for a moment it felt almost like she was draping a cool cloth over his head, calming him. “We’re trying to help you, Eric. We just… haven’t found a good way to do that yet.”

The comforting sensations vanished. “What is that supposed to-”

His question never got finished as the pigtailed meme that woke him up a few minutes previous suddenly came through the side of the van and swung the wooden head of its hammer through Agent Franks’ head. Literally through, the hammer ghosted through the man’s skull without any apparent resistance and Franks collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. At the same time the van suddenly jerked and slowed down. Rachada sat bolt upright then leaned to one side and yelped as the meme’s hammer came for her.

Beane gaped at Franks for a moment before asking, “What happened?”

The meme got him with the hammer before Rachada could answer but she managed to get one hand on the hammer and shoved it towards the meme hard. In response the meme seemed to melt and flow back out through the wall. The van had come to a stop by then and the back door flew open.

Rachada got up from the bench and put herself between Eric and the back of the van. A disinterested part of Eric’s brain noticed that they hadn’t been buckled in the whole time and that probably violated some government safety regulation but maybe The X-Files didn’t have to work by those rules. It was the same part of his brain that wondered, a moment later, if Rachada was trying to protect him from whatever was at the back of the van or if she was just worried about him trying to make a run for it. His stomach was vocally against the idea of running anywhere or he might have tried.

There were two people silhouetted in the van’s door. Eric was still woozy and unfocused but he could tell that there was a man and a woman there. Rachada started to say something but it never got beyond an indistinct sound before he felt a powerful push and a gut wrenching twist. His stomach heaved again but, to his relief, he managed not to puke again. That was a double good thing, since he probably would have wound up hitting Rachada as she collapsed onto the floor with Agents Franks and Beane.

The new woman made a quick lunge and managed to grab Rachada before she could collapse all the way to the floor. Once Rachada was carefully situated in a position that didn’t look horribly uncomfortable the strange woman looked up at Eric. For a brief second before they made eye contact Eric thought he saw a resemblance to the pigtailed meme but as soon as she looked him in the eye he was less certain. There was too much expression in her face in person to make a comparison to the meme certain.

She quickly stood up, grabbing his arm and pulling him along for the ride. Eric’s stomach protested again but not to degree it had been. The new woman, who was blonde and, Eric now realized, quite tall, gave him a once over and asked, “So, are you the new teep?”

The Antisocial Network – Chapter Two

Eric jumped half out of his seat and fumbled his audition listings onto the floor. A bemused looking Indian girl, or perhaps a young woman, watched him scramble to pick them up and compose himself. “Hi. I didn’t see you there.”

“I figured.” She closed a very thick textbook and set it by the backpack in the seat beside her. “I didn’t mean to pry, you just looked like a person who wished he’d stayed in bed today.”

Eric’s mind jumped back to his dream – if it was really a dream – of the night before. “No, not really to be honest. It just feels like Monday, you know.”

“Except it’s Thursday.”

“Monday is a state of mind.” Eric tucked the listings into one of his coat pockets and gave the woman a closer look.
And it was clear pretty quickly that he was talking to a woman. He’d only mistaken her for a girl because of her stature, or lack thereof. She couldn’t have been more than five foot two and had her hair pulled back in a conservative ponytail, which added to the impression of youth, but between the textbook, which was thicker than some volumes of an encyclopedia, and her smartly cut blouse Eric figured she was probably a college student of some kind. Her skin was the shade of polished cherry wood and she had the slight accent of someone who had immigrated from the Indian subcontinent, rather than been born in the States.

And thankfully she wasn’t accompanied by a looming, faceless shadow that no one else seemed to see.
She also had a warm, mischievous smile. “You must be quite hard on yourself, to think like it’s Monday even when it isn’t.”

Eric settled for a noncommittal shrug while he rallied his thoughts. Time for a quick subject change. Flexing his brilliant thespian improv skills he came up with, “What are you studying?”

“Neuropsychology,” she answered immediately.

“Does that mean you want to be a therapist or a surgeon?” Eric asked, wondering exactly how old she was but not foolish enough to ask.

Her smile stayed just as friendly but picked up a hint of longsuffering patience. People not understanding her field of study was probably a common thing. “A little of both, but closer to the latter with a fair bit of research thrown in, at least where I’m studying.”

“I didn’t know the U of C had a program like that.”

A moment of uncertainty, then she held out a hand and said, “Rachada Kalluri. And you’re Eric Han.”

“Wow. Does neuropsychology make you psychic?” Eric gave her hand a quick shake and a practiced winsome smile. To his surprise Rachada sat up quickly looking a little surprised. It felt like they’d gotten their cues mixed up somehow. Surprise should have been his thing. “Maybe we’ve met before, and I’ve just forgotten your name?”

“No magic trick to it,” she said, quickly relaxing again. “I saw your name on the mailing you dropped. What was it?”

Eric pulled the booklet out of his pocket again and looked at it. Then immediately felt stupid because it had been mailed to him, of course it had his name on it. He held it up for Rachada to see. “Audition listings.”

Now it was her turn to be surprised. “You’re an actor?”

Eric smiled ruefully. “Trying to be. Mostly, I tend bar. My parents would probably be happier if I was studying for a doctoral degree of some kind.”

She gave a quirk of the eyebrow and asked, “First generation immigrants?”

“On my dad’s side. He spent his whole life making things work here. Now he just…” He shrugged and trailed off.

“He wants to know that you’ll make it too.”

Eric nodded, suddenly uncomfortable. Rachada’s schooling must make her very good at relaxing people, the conversation had turned very personal very fast. He was saved from saying anything more when Rachada suddenly perked up like she heard something and dug around in her backpack. She eventually pulled out a pocket pager and looked at it for a moment before putting it away.

“Something important?” Eric asked.

“Probably not,” Rachada said, tucking her textbook back into the backpack. “Just the doctor advising my thesis. But I should probably get off and call at the next stop, just to be sure.”

“So what about you?”

She looked up from her backpack. “I’m sorry?”

“Did you always want to be a neuropsychologist?”

Rachada leaned back in her seat, pulling the backpack along into her lap. “I think I always wanted to be a therapist, even before I knew what that really was. But as I grew up I figured out sometimes therapy wasn’t enough to help people and one thing led to another. Before I knew it I was reading research journals and looking at grad schools.”
Eric idly wondered if there was anything you could do, therapy or otherwise, for people who saw specters on the subway. He suspected there was. He also suspected he might not like whatever that treatment was. Before he could try to think of an uncontrived way to ask Rachada if she had any thoughts on the subject the subway announced the next station coming up.

Rachada got up and gave Eric a parting smile. “Good luck with your auditions.”

“Thanks. Good luck with your thesis. I think you’ll need it more.” Eric watched her go, then took a deep breath and looked both ways in the car. No one seemed interested in coming over his way and there were only two stops left until he could get off. Apparently he was far enough from other people not to pick up weird voices from them although he could see the surreal faceless people clustered around the regular commuters towards the center of the car.

While they were still creepy none of them seemed to be paying any actual attention to him like the top hat man from his dream (vision?) that morning. Eric wondered if they would respond if he talked to them but quickly decided he didn’t want to find out. For that matter, he’d noticed that they tended to be paired, one ghostly faceless presence per actual physical person. There was one guy down at the far end of the car who looked like he had three of them clustered in quiet conversation just over his head, but that was the exception.

For a moment Eric wondered if there was one following him around. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be a good way to check until he got off the train. He hadn’t thought he could get more uncomfortable but the thought of one of those things following him around somewhere he couldn’t see it did the trick. He did his best to shrink down into his seat and avoid attention until his stop came up.

As he made his way off the train Eric did his best to look all around him and even went out of his way to pass a bank of vending machines so he could use the reflection in the glass to see behind him without turning around. Nothing. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Then again, he wasn’t sure what he would have done if there was a faceless hallucination following him around.
The train had made its way underground and Eric was dreading the trek back up to the surface. To his surprise he didn’t really hear any weird whispering from any of the people on the escalator and none of them seemed to be accompanied by the ghostlike visions he’d been seeing earlier. He got up to ground level and stepped out onto the sidewalk with a little trepidation but, to his surprise, the situation there was much the same.

He started towards the theater with a bit of a spring in his step. Maybe if he could make it to the theater and through his audition without any further problems he’d be in a better state of mind to worry about faceless ghost people. Eric decided to put that on the back burner for the moment and try and focus on his currently uninspiring acting career. It was halfway to being the right decision.

The faceless ghost people didn’t cause him any more trouble that morning. The two men with chloroform turned out to be a much bigger problem.

The Antisocial Network – Chapter One

Eric Han was not, as a rule, terrified by people dressed in full tuxedos and top hats. Even if the stove pipe hat did have a pressure gauge attached to one side and the lid was half detached and leaking steam out of the top in a steady, ominous cloud. But when he was strapped down to a table and the guy in the tux had no face? Then his hindbrain decided it was time to start getting nervous.

Paradoxically it was when Eric realized he couldn’t scream, speak or even whisper that he started calming down. Weird things like this could only show up in dreams, right?

The faceless man stopped fiddling with the weird brass circlet it was holding and shifted its attention to Eric. “No, you’re not having a nightmare. And yes, I’m reading your mind. Please try to hold still.”

And the panic was back. Eric jerked hard at his restraints but he was in the typical cackling mad scientist rig – straps at the wrists, ankles, chest, waist, knees, ankles and head. And he still couldn’t scream, although there wasn’t a gag of any kind in play.

Holding still proved to be all Eric could do as the faceless man lowered the circlet it was holding over his head. There was a soft clicking noise, followed by a sound something like dragging a shovel over wet concrete that seemed to echo in Eric’s ears. The faceless man’s hat let off an extra large puff of steam and there was a louder snick. Then it turned away from Eric holding a strange bundle of black fur that was sticking up in every direction. Not until a drop of bright red blood fell from the hair did he realize he was looking at the top of his head.

“This is going to be a little uncomfortable,” faceless said, oblivious to Eric’s discomfort. “But rest assured, it’s all in your head.”

Whether it was the horrible pun or the sight of faceless picking up a weird, spiderlike contraption made of gears and wires, Eric finally hit his limit and woke up screaming.


Nightmares before auditions were something Eric was used to, although torture tables and faceless Abraham Lincoln wannabes were both new images in his dreams. As a rule he didn’t think of it as performance anxiety so much as an overactive subconscious trying to process possible outcomes. Which usually meant variations on being told “You didn’t get the part” in some weird and embarrassing way rather than cranium removal.

As an actor digging into how a person’s thoughts might express themselves was usually something Eric put a lot of thought into. But since his fever dreams often caused him to wake up late, like his encounter with the magnificent steampowered hat and it’s faceless wearer had, such things usually waited until later. There really wasn’t time for anything beyond a quick shower and breakfast before he had to bolt out the door and head for the L.

A theater keeps its own schedule and auditions were generally in the late morning or early afternoon, at least for professional roles, and that meant Eric didn’t have to fight the crowds of people heading into the office that morning. Instead he half jogged down mostly empty sidewalks, his breath barely visible in the brisk fall air, the sun shining brightly in the pale blue sky. The world was peaceful and idyllic and Eric was happy for the quiet after his stressful awakening. It wasn’t until he started ascending the steps to the train station that he noticed the change.

Not that Eric recognized it as such at first. Public transportation is a noisy business anywhere and the Chicago Transit Authority was no exception. There was nothing unusual at all about hearing people talking before you started up the steps to board the L. Eric was from a relatively small town, sure, but after two years in the Windy City he had learned to ignore noise on or around the train and, like most native Chi Town residents, he brought something to keep him busy while he rode the rails.

For this particular trip that meant the AEA’s latest round of casting call notices. It was true that he was on his way to audition for a show already – but The Cherry Orchard was a period piece set in Russia at the beginning of the century. For all that forward thinking directors and union reps insisted the theater was becoming more open and accepting of actors regardless of ethnicity it was hard for a man of Asian descent to find rolls in period pieces. Eric didn’t hold it against anyone, he understood the desire to produce a show that matched the author’s original vision, but breaking into professional theater was hard for anyone. The added layer of difficulty made the task all the more daunting.

Eric’s instinctive response was to do double, sometimes triple the legwork and put in five times the effort, instincts that came equally from the Chinese and Jewish sides of his family, but so far that hadn’t brought him much in the way of results. So he spent most of the time waiting for the train to arrive looking through audition listings and trying to ignore the constant murmur of other waiting people. The train would be quieter, or at least have more white noise to drown out specific conversations.

A few minutes later Eric climbed onto his train and grabbed a seat near the back of the car. The place was about half full, typical for that time of day, and Eric had been riding with CTA enough not to pay much attention to who was in the car with him anymore so he didn’t take note of any of them. At least, not until they started talking.

CTA was not really a friendly place. Some people traveled with friends, sure, but that wasn’t very common. Most people carried books, magazines or the newspaper with them. If reading wasn’t their thing then some would have a Walkman or Discman and maybe even sing quietly along. Every once in a blue moon Eric spotted a well dressed businessman talking on a bulky black cell phone but they tended to wrap up their calls quickly, since extensive parts of the rail line ran underground where they wouldn’t get a signal.

But as he glanced up from his listings Eric couldn’t see any of those things. Instead, for just a moment he thought he saw a gaggle of washed out, oddly dressed, faceless people standing in the aisle, sitting on the seats and, in one particularly unsettling case, standing with a grab bar running right through its chest. Eric blinked once and shook his head. The weird images vanished but he was sure he could still hear people murmuring in the background.

More than a little unsettled, Eric slowly looked slowly around the train car in hope of spotting the source of the murmuring but all he managed to get was a bunch of weird or hostile looks from people in the car who were probably wondering if he was going to start something. None of them looked like they had just been talking to anyone else, or even themselves. Eric gave himself another hard shake and got up, walked all the way to the back of the car and let himself out.

The vaguely heard whispers faded into the distance as he moved from one car to the next and the palpable feeling of people staring at him vanished entirely. The next car wasn’t any emptier than the last one but people deliberately ignored him as he stepped through. Half the time when someone moved from one car to the next it was because they were panhandling and had finished working the last car.

People weren’t paying Eric any attention but he couldn’t bring himself to ignore them. As he passed an older woman he caught slightly louder whispers and a strong feeling of loneliness.

Then he went past a man and woman, sitting as far from each other as their short bench would allow, looking in opposite directions. The air around them was filled with a whispering argument about rent, food choices and a dozen other past grievances. Eric hurried past.

Everyone he passed in the car seemed to be carrying on a whispered monologue of some sort and he was terrified of looking at them since he had no desire to be find more faceless figures slinking about. He kept his head low and hurried down to the end of the car were things were mercifully quite. There he grabbed an empty seat and hoped that they would get to his stop quick.

Eric had just started thinking about going back to his audition listings when a feminine voice to his left asked, “Rough morning?”

Genrely Speaking: The Western

Wow. We haven’t done this in a while. I know I promised you all more fiction at some point and trust me, I ‘m working on it, but these bits tend to be fairly popular too and I wanted to come back to genres once before turning back to fiction. So let’s take a look at a genre that I am personally not very invested in, but is still a major part of American literature.

While Westerns immediately conjure up images of the cowboy, the genre’s most common protagonist, there’s actually a lot of other figures that could populate a tale in the Old West. And it’s even possible to create a story with the Western feel without having to actually go to the historic time and place of the Western United States, circa 1870-1890. What you really need are the following:

  1. The feeling of openness. This, of course, comes mostly from the landscape. The Western plains are flat and featureless, giving the sensation of infinite possibility just across the horizon. Add in the very small number of people living there and that sensation only intensifies. It’s one of the reasons we see “space westerns” crop up from time to time in the form of shows like Firefly and the original form of Star Trek, to say nothing of anime series Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop and Trigun – outer space is the ultimate unlimited space. But this sense of openness extends to characters as well. The cowboy is the cliché of the Western, but many other characters populate these stories without anyone giving them a second glance. Robbers, prostitutes, miners, railway men and private investors all swarmed through the West and people never batted an eye. Watch El Dorado with John Wayne some time to get a feel for the many faces that can appear in a Western with nary a blink of an eye. From tough girl Joey McDonald (Michele Carey) who actually shoots Cole Thorton (John Wayne) to Mississippi (James Caan) who’s to green to even shoot, there’s a wealth of strong characters that avoid or earn most cliches nicely and who never earn a strange look from anyone else.
  2. The importance of independence. Characters in Westerns are at their most noble when they make their own decisions. Even El Dorado’s Nelson McLeod (Christopher George) is shown as something of a noble character simply because he decides who to work for and does it with all the considerable skill he possesses. The fact that he’s working for something of a villain doesn’t bother Thorton – those are just the kinds of decisions a person has to make. And a few months beforehand, Cole had been thinking about working for the same villain, so he understands the other side of the story. The important factor is that the characters are their own selves, and seek to remain so in spite of circumstances.
  3. The necessity of consequences. With all this independence running around and all these options to choose from there’s got to be another shoe dropping and it’s called consequences. People think of Westerns as all white hat/black hat in part because it shows people making decisions and then quickly facing the consequences of them. Joey McDonald shot Cole Thorton and, as a result, when the McDonald family needed Cole’s help he wasn’t able to help as much as he’d like because of the lingering consequences of his wound. Nelson McLeod worked for a villain and he wound up getting killed. But it’s important to note that Westerns try not to say whether the consequences came about because a decision was good or evil. Westerns are (typically) stories set right after the Civil War after all. Many people who went West had just fought a terrible war and, while they still felt there were things that were right and things that were wrong, they were much less willing to say for sure what those things were. The war had opened their eyes in many ways. The Western simply sees the facts of life – you make a decision and then the consequences come for you, for better or for worse. Even the vast open plains will only let you run from that for so long.

What are the weaknesses of the Western? Westerns are stories from a comparatively simple time. Frontier living was much more straightforward than life today and this is part of where the Western’s simply accept and deal attitude towards consequences comes from. But it can make these stories harder for a modern audience to accept.

Particularly because consequences in the Old West were doled out by whoever had the most raw power at any given moment, very different from the lives most people today live.

What are the strengths of the Western? Westerns are American myth, and thus have much of the appeal of all the great mythological traditions. Larger than life characters, chances for teachable moments and plenty of memorable moments to use as touchstones.

Westerns aren’t exactly “in favor” at the moment. They speak to a time gone by in imagery that is very steeped in that era. The age of the Old West isn’t far enough gone to be classic but not so near as to seem nostalgic or even relevant. But given time this genre will no doubt come back into some of its own and continue to do good work in the landscape of American storytelling.