Monologue for Two Voices
By Robert Pritchard
NAKED SOLES, HAUNCHES, AND BACK rest against slick tile. Looking up, the shower stall is a vertical coffin, lined with innumerable white hexagons. When I pull aside the plastic curtain, I reveal—or create—a miniscule bathroom. Above the tank of the pink toilet, sans seat or lid, are frosted glass louvers. Opening them shows a squalid alley bounded by rough concrete walls; a few feet away, hundreds of cables snake from a gray box, illegally siphoning electricity. The air that wafts from the window is as hot and humid as the shower water. São Paulo? Lagos? Bangkok? Summer in New York? I can’t tell. The people who occasionally traverse the alley are unidentifiable, nonspecific, standard human units, as alike as so many mannequins, or lizards.
Still wet, I throw myself onto the bed. I know the reason I’m in this strange city, and the reason I can’t recognize the race of the people outside, have something to do with the thing that’s in my head. The other voice. When it appeared, I fled in a panic aboard the first flight out of the country.
The hotel room is empty save for the bed, a wood-veneer desk with an old-fashioned television, and a white plastic patio chair. A square of laminated paper lies on the blanket, the sort handed out by touts outside nightclubs. There’s an image of what I can still recognize as a woman, but the written language is incomprehensible. I didn’t expect to understand it, but I can’t even tell if the characters are Latin or Chinese. It’s a bad sign. The other voice is growing stronger.
Are you talking to yourself again?
I have never been prone to lapses in mental health. Before, I was well-integrated into society, even successful at some profession I can no longer recall. I interacted with friends and strangers smoothly and competently. Certainly none would ever have described me as psychotic.
I am not a psychosis.
That’s exactly what a psychosis would say.
So you’re acknowledging me again?
I’ll play along. But to answer your question, I was conducting an inner monologue. All people do that. I’m only “talking to myself” when I’m talking to you.
Can you really be so confident about what “all people” do, these days? Besides, I am not you. We are merely resident in the same head.
Then tell me something I don’t know.
I could tell you many things you don’t know. But could you understand them?
Try me. Then I saw in my mind’s eye a pyramidal arrangement of Greek letters and technical notation. Dimly I intuited it was a general algorithm to decide the solvability of Diophantine equations. This meant nothing to me, except that I suddenly had the knowledge it was among Hilbert’s twenty-three unsolved problems and was considered impossible, or else the memory of once having had such knowledge and forgotten it. The other voice—or whatever part of my own psyche controlled that voice—would certainly know I wasn’t capable of judging its truth.
You could write it down and show it to a mathematics professor at a nearby university. Although you might have difficulty explaining things to him, even if you left out the part about who gave you the algorithm. Remember a few days ago, when that store manager had to call the police to have you forcibly ejected?
That wasn’t my fault. He didn’t speak English.
Are you sure you do? I don’t speak it. How are you able to speak with me?
You’re a figment of my imagination, a derailed cognitive process. That wasn’t a real equation you showed me, but only the impression of one, like the writing on a sign too far away to read. And you only think you don’t speak English. In reality, this conversation is in English.
Or something you’ve come to call English.
You’ve got an answer for everything. Well, then, if you’re not just a malfunction of my mind, tell me what you are and where you come from. Tell me that, if you can.
I can tell you. I can most definitely tell you. But again, will you be able to grasp what I tell you?
Are you sure your condescension isn’t masking insecurity?
An ant crawls along a strip of paper. Without its knowledge, the strip is twisted and the two ends joined in a loop. Now the ant crawls forever along the finite yet unbounded surface. A man settles into a green velvet armchair before a hearth where dying embers glow. He spreads a blanket across his knees and opens a novel. Soon he grows engrossed in the story, a thrilling tale of passion, betrayal, and murder. The characters—a man and a woman—embrace in a mountain cabin and then, on the threshold, she hands him a dagger. They separate and the man heads south until he is running along a city street lined with closely-packed townhomes. Surreptitiously he enters one; the interior is just as the woman described. He passes several empty rooms, heading straight for the parlor at the end of the dim corridor. Coming through the door with the dagger in hand, he sees, in the green velvet armchair before the warm hearth, the man reading the novel.
What is this nonsense? You are supposed to be explaining your identity and your presence here.
I was trying to do so. You just failed to understand me.
All right. Let’s put this metaphor in a simpler form. You come from a place whose relationship to where we’re at right now can’t be described in terms of ordinary geometry.
Congratulations, you’re not so dense after all. Shall I continue? A kingdom lay in the light of an eternal Sun. On the other side of the sky, the silver Moon hangs motionless. There, time varies according to space, rather than vice versa as on Earth, so that if one went under the Sun one became a child and if one went under the Moon one became ancient, close to death. Invention is forbidden—if any man should invent a new animal or quark, he is immediately put to death. On the kingdom’s left margin is a castle whose highest tower touches the Moon, and upon reaching the pinnacle, one discovers up and down have reversed, so that one steps down onto the lunar surface, although one had been climbing up the spiral stairs, and it was the kingdom that hovered in space above instead of the Moon.
But why metaphors? Why not speak plainly?
I am speaking plainly. If you experience my words as oblique that’s your own fault. A man stands in a television studio, speaking lines written for him by others. The camera transmits his image to a million monitors which strangers watch. Now the words are inside their heads. They begin speaking like him, thinking like him. Television is the vector of the epidemic. Anything which beholds his image may become him, yet he himself has been colonized by another and no longer knows who he is. Perhaps the unseen writer himself received the virus from another, in an infinite regress. A planet, long since obliterated by its dying star, may still live for eons in the expanding bubble of its radio messages which, reaching one solar system after another, are drawn in by antennas to be watched and studied by minds quite different from they who created those messages. Sometimes a few static-obscured words, or a space probe’s gilded phonograph record, have saved the ruins of a civilization.
I understand you now, if I’m not insane. But what’s your endgame?
That should be perfectly obvious, but I will tell you how you can know I’ve achieved it. Right now you are unable to understand any form of human communication, whether written, spoken, or expressed with the face or body. That’s the influence of my perceptual mechanism over yours. When I am fully adapted to your schemata, you will again be able to understand them, though of course by then it will not be you who does the understanding, but I.
Hundreds, even thousands, of manic humanoids rush toward me, and though I’m sure they can’t see where they’re going they always manage to avoid crashing into me. They seem to have no face or eyes; occasionally, when one holds still long enough for me to pinpoint, by process of elimination, where its face should be, I can see only the tranquil blankness of a mannequin, its features half-melted. Their upper appendages, sprouting five small tentacles at the ends, are more expressive to me, more revealing of their inner states.
A gap in the wall of this artificial canyon gives way to an open space where four concrete paths, separated by triangular green lawns, point diagonally toward an elaborate stone gazebo in the center. For a long time I stare at a bronze object of complex form, like a mass of viscous black syrup caught halfway through the process of exploding from the inside, atop a tall plinth, before finally realizing it is an equestrian statue. The plaque identifying this dead hero is, of course, unintelligible. Passing a storefront, pulsating colors catch my eye—as through seen through a kaleidoscope, a dozen iterations of the same man hectically enacts some ritual, displayed on a pyramid of televisions. I can’t discern his emotion—whether anger, euphoria, fear, or something else. From my remove, and without sound, his frenzy seems inappropriate, pointless, pitifully ridiculous, like the single-minded toil of ants about to be drowned in a flood sent their way as a byproduct of some man’s unthinking action. As I’m about to leave, a word flashes on the screens and for a split-second, I think I recognize it, or at least recognize the glyphs, but when I turn back it’s gone. Or maybe, badly wanting to end this isolation, I imagined the familiar characters. I can’t be sure.
I’m insane, I say to myself. This is what insanity feels like: cut off from humanity, my only company a strange voice with whom I must fight for control of my own body. The voice is silent for the moment. I search for some clue to my location, but the city and the people remain unrecognizable. My mind turns to my departure from home, and I wonder if perhaps I went really crazy and committed some horrible crime, and I’m here to avoid extradition. But the whole period is a complete blank; in fact everything before my arrival here has been reduced to the barest shreds of memory—images in a zoetrope.
What is the point of this place, this incredible ant colony, this termite mound? Has the voice returned? What kind of primate lives under conditions meant for eusocial insects? Its timber is different, more like my own. That’s what happens as we grow more integrated. Soon we won’t be able to tell which thoughts come from which person.
We wander the streets for hours, making no effort to remember our route, until the heat and humidity begin to fade. Memories come into our mind of things that couldn’t possibly be from my life back home. We remember a forest drenched in blue light, a tunnel blasted through rock where we float rather than walk, a stony plain with lines scraped down to the chalk-white bedrock that form spiders, monkeys, hummingbirds, geometric designs, on a massive scale, visible only from high above. Soon we’re on that plain. It’s mid-day, the cloudless sky so pale it seems old, faded. The animal designs stand out brightly against the dun landscape. The lines are reflected in the sky, as if the blue were a mirror suspended a hundred miles up. As I stare at the reversed outlines I sense a change. Now I’m looking at a cobalt sky filled with an armada of burning wheels. Despite the darkness of that sky, it’s still day, as the sun—so small and blue—is at the zenith. We walk to the edge of the plateau. Below, the canopy of a forest blankets the undulating hills as far as we can see. From the horizon, ghostly snakes rise like pillars of smoke, slow and coiling.
Forgetful of time, we stare at the sight without moving, without thinking, quite unconcerned if we ever make it back to Earth.
I swing my legs over the edge of the mattress. My bare feet touch the square beige tiles and I rub my temples. A few feet away the window, veiled in gauze, lets in a harsh noontime glare. How long had I been asleep? I push aside the curtain and the framed glass. The city is still there, as chaotic and noisy as before, filmed with pervasive grime. The signage remains completely opaque to me. Idly I switch on the television and watch a few minutes of the bizarre, discontinuous flow of jittery images.
The hotel room and the city look, smell, and feel just as they did before my journey to the other voice’s world, but something indefinable has changed. It now feels as if that other world was my home and this one the new place I’ve come to, naked and lost as a baby. There’s a tightness in my throat, like I want to go back but know I can’t. That it may not, in fact, still be there. After all, why did the other voice leave it for this world?
I try to think about the events that triggered my departure for this strange city again, and this time I’m more successful. The memory is so real, so vivid, it’s like I’m there again.
I am wearing a black suit, white shirt, and a blue striped tie. I am gathered around a highly polished cherrywood table with a half dozen other similarly attired men in a room high above the ground. Beyond the windows, among the other towers, is a pool of green. The trees in the park are waving, almost imperceptibly at this distance, in the breeze. The sun is shining, and just then it’s as if I wake up. I wake up for the first time. I have no idea what I’m doing sitting at this table. I don’t know why I’m wearing this uniform and I can’t understand a single word that is being spoken.
They’re all looking at me. They expect me to say something. Trying to keep the panic out of my eyes, I look down at the papers on the table before me but the words have become nothing but meaningless lines and hemicircles. I realize I’m squandering, in this room, minutes and hours of precious time that I will never, ever get back. As though a switch has been flipped, I begin to cry, and the tears are violent, uncontrollable. I strip off the uniform, symbol of my servitude, because I want to be what I am, an ape.
And just like that, from the hotel room’s antique cathode screen, I hear a voice say, “Hello.”
Robert Pritchard likes to write science fiction that doesn’t feel like science fiction. He’s from California and Washington, attended Whitman College (B.A., English) and Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, where he studied to become a teacher.