Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
Even as I come to the realization that nothing in this world can pierce the hopelessness that ruins every stimulus I can still come upon, I find a reliable sense of wonder when imagining how patient it has been. Its origins and its creation, its nature and its effects.
This always makes me shudder with a palpable sense of despair mixed with awe at my strange fate – I have regressed into sympathizing with it, into turning to its titanic lack of mercy and all-encompassing designs in order to feel anything. It is the only real thing, I guess. The only thing with a purpose left in it.
I used to be a studier of memetic theories – advanced sociology, with a specialization in all things information technology. I had written some well-respected studies on general behaviour on the internet – the spread of ideas, the way people communicate depending on the subject matter. “2 girls 1 cup”, but with more analysis, detachment and looking at how quickly things get attention, and how it is related to man’s creation of culture. I decided to turn towards outliers next, the fringes and the corners of the internet. Lost information.
I scoured for obscure P2Ps and used extensive programs to make my investigations go faster. I simply looked for anything forgotten, useless, half-cooked, unique, empty, lonely or downright useless on the internet. I figured it could become a book, a study or a decent hobby.
When I found it there was one thing that called to my attention – the channel name. I was using any and all ways to access any kind of IRC there was, trying to see what stood out. Where I saw it I have long since forgotten, but what I saw was exactly what I was looking for. The name of the channel was skewed at an angle rather than a smooth line of text with a designated box. Rather than text it was designated by a symbol, and not the kind available through any unicode or any script I knew of. Yet upon examination of the site’s code there was nothing indicating an image rather than a script. In fact, there was nothing indicating that the channel could even exist – the script didn’t allow for more than a few channels, and the one with the symbol made one too many.
The next day I took my hard-drive to the garage, and then prepared to hook up my spare with my trusty screen and keyboard. Upon connecting I noticed something that made my face lock and prickly moisture form underneath my eyelids. The letters, arrows and other symbols on the keyboard had been… Usurped. Absorbed. Eaten. The symbol had taken every spot. On the screen’s frame the name “PHILIPS” had been replaced with a row of seven symbols. A bag of snacks lying on my desk had met the same change, and only the symbols could be read. Stunned as I was my mind didn’t take to work until I accidentally glanced at my watch and saw that I was late. The more profane, sheltered part of my brain won me over, declaring the whole thing an impressive prank designed by a pair of friends noted for their odd humor and knowledge of my new hobby. It even assured me they could have made the snacks bag simply to test their commitment. I took the bag and everything affected along with the hard-drive, and with a flash of instinct I threw them into a rocky ditch on my way to work.
Work went easily, and a quick phone-call to my girl-friend, who usually lived with me but was on a conference, assured me that she would be home soon, eager to hear of the amazing joke the infamous pair had pulled this time. By lunch I had made up my mind for take-out, and drove to a sandwich diner. I entered, placed myself in line, opening a newspaper lying abandoned on a nearby table. Surveying the menu I decided upon something grilled first, and then felt the visual equivalent of a sucker-punch as I saw that symbol sitting innocently in place of the word “mayonnaise”
With what must have been unsettling concern I asked the person behind me whether he saw the symbol on the menu. I can’t recall the person’s gender, but I do remember the look. It was as if my question broke a rule. The face of the person twitched as if I had jumbled its mind to mush just by asking. The twitching hastily stopped and was replaced with a look of the most complete lack of understanding, all this apparently unremarkable to the person in the closest line who had seen the whole thing. I rounded on the cashier, asking for my order and, with a deep sense of foreboding, asked for some mayonnaise on the side. Her young frame made a strange quivery motion that seemed to involve every single one of her muscles, and then simply looked at me -her face normal save for an awkward lack of understanding- as if I had asked for something with a foreign name, or at least a kind of condiment she had never heard of. I waved my demand away, took my order and, by now forgetting any sense of inhibition or proper behaviour, bolted out of the place. I rushed for the first deli I saw.
I looked in every isle, drawing worried and disapproving glances as I surveyed every square inch for mayonnaise, asking every shopper I met whether they knew what mayonnaise was, only to be given the same dumb stare. When I did happen upon the place where mayonnaise should be found, the shelves were stacked with small statuettes, featuring the symbol in perfectly gray stone upon a small gray dais. Remarking upon this to the nearest shopper created the same spasms followed by a look I myself have given to those asking for something in a foreign tongue. I directed their gaze towards the symbols, and then I watched in fascinated horror as the spasms overtook them, only to leave them turning their gaze away, looking towards me with a look of inquiry suggesting my request had been completely unintelligible. The memory of seeing the symbols had… Glanced off. Or perhaps, been received and then forgotten. Maybe erased, the instant they were seen. To this day I wonder how, even as I spend most of time whispering “whywhywhywhywhywhy?”
I found a bookstore, scoured dictionaries for the word only to find the haunting symbol, in every copy. Cookbooks showed the same replacement even in recipes where no real substitute for mayonnaise could exist, and where the dish would suffer.
I knew by now that this was no prank or a unique hallucination on my part, and in a last bid for sanity I asked the first person I came across to indulge me by reading the recipe out loud. He tentatively took the book, shot me a curious look and read the list of ingredients. I had no real sense of hope, but I did feel my mind jettisoning all its notions of reality and convictions about the paranormal when he started spasming the minute he was to pronounce the symbol, only to proceed with the next ingredient as if nothing had happened. I asked him what you got if you mixed egg yolks with vegetable oil, vinegar, salt, mustard and pepper. He simply said “Sounds as if it would taste funny, but good”, still eyeing me with bemusement and suspicion.
“You get mayonnaise”, I said, and the spasms overtook him.
He angled his head as if he had not heard me, and then said “Sorry?”
I dropped my shoulders, and said “You get… keziv. A Russian paste. Make it fluffy.”
“Keziv… Sounds tasty with tuna.”
By the time I had come home I was deathly nervous, having bought a dictionary and looking patiently through it. With a permanent film of sweat upon me I scrutinized every page. I trembled at the thought of what effects the symbol could create next.
A knocking at the door. I left the dictionary open on my desk, and opened only to find my live-in girlfriend beaming back at me, her eyebrows stuck between concern and amusement at my no doubt harried air. I explained myself as having come back from a jog and embraced her happily. She responded in kind, and I hoped to brush over the spreading sense of being at the mercy of the symbol by asking her about her journey while I prepared her some dinner.
Having recently read of the dangers of red meat and its many tasty by-products our household was recently swearing by chicken, and I was preparing some fajitas for us while she detailed the conference – she is… Was an employee at a company selling risk assessment for other companies interested in investing in third-world countries. Apparently the war launched by New Carthage had not sustained critical problems to the poor citizens in the remains of the Ottoman Combine – the place was now quickly being invaded not by troops sent to kill their dictator but rather people hoping to make a buck and gain a footing. The conference would mean her company had busy days in the future. I asked her about the journey back as I placed pieces of chicken breast in my special marinade. I can still remember the glottal sounds as her body repelled the word “normal”.
It grew at an exponential rate after that. Time and time again I showed my girlfriend the symbol that had taken the place of “normal” in the dictionary, on the internet, in writing and, presumably, in speech. Every time she would have the same small paroxysms, only to ask me “LOOK AT WHAT?!” exasperated as well worried about my frightened weeping.
I tried to keep her with me for as long as possible – I wanted her comfort and humanity while I still could, yet at the same time watching her represent the same deconstruction all other humans felt tore at me so badly I could barely keep a straight face, not even to make her happy. It was like… watching an amputee keep on working as if the amputated part had never been there, working around the absence as well as she could, only to spasm and forget as soon as her mind turned to the thing that would have been there. Before the symbol.
But it wasn’t just the word. It was its very substance, meaning, concept and form that was replaced. Things the humans of my dimension dictated to be “statues” turned into those brooding, gray effigies one day. Then the other day, the word “nails” was gone, and building collapsed en masse while my girlfriend – along with all other humans – had her fingertips covered with the symbol. I stayed with her until the day I awoke only to see a pair of symbols where her eyes should have been. She flailed for me as I left. She wasn’t in panic, she didn’t even remember that she once could see. She just… Saw darkness, but she remembered that I used to be with her, and now I was not. I… strangled her. What else could I have done?
Compared to what met the others, it was mercy. Even before everything thought to be “eyes” was exchanged with the symbol people had been rendered pathetic and unstable by the unfelt absence of words like “strong”, “pyramid”, “particle” – yes any imaginable word disappeared, only to leave… The symbol, I guess. The words as well as what they represented… Disappeared.
Soon the night sky had an enormous symbol instead of the moon, and naturally the tides became erratic, flooding the blinded people who lived by the shores even as they fought starvation, trying their best to talk in between themselves, trying to understand why it was they could not see things – as for a cruel play, humans lost the concept of sight and vision weeks after their eyes became replaced with the symbol…
Of course, soon dehydration and hunger killed those not dead of accidents, and I was glad that their mouths disappeared as quickly as they did, freeing me from hearing their broken pleas for help. I watched in a mixture of complete sorrow and detachment as skyscrapers, lampposts, trees, dogs, cats and so on turned into gray symbol statuettes of varying sizes.
Why did it leave me? Why do I have a field around me in which I could store whatever foodstuffs I’ve been able to find before it was replaced? Maybe it sought to play with me, punish me or even thank me in its own little way. It matters not – as I write this last part on a paper and pen I’ve successfully managed to keep in my little pocket of safety and meaning most of the elements in the earth and its crust has turned into the inert and nameless element the symbol is and represents. Perhaps this cancerous element is made up of countless smaller symbols. I do not know – the earth’s magnetic field is waning, and soon all will cook. Unless the stars, and our sun with it, turns to titanic symbols before that, of course.
Perhaps my entire universe will turn into one great symbol – piece by piece it has, after all, sought to cover every element, concept and whatever else comes to mind. It will become everything soon. Perhaps it is lonely. The symbol.
Perhaps my message will come across your dimension once I’ve given up. Perhaps it will not. All I know is that I’ve remained safe, and while the ruination of my universe does not stir any emotion in me, the thought of the symbol enveloping another dimension, or all of them, like a tumor fills me with dread even while nothing else can.