Tentative Title: The Paper Worlds

Chapter 1

Karl stared at the desk in the basement of the local public library. He wanted to say he was doing the reading assigned to him, but that was, at this point, a blatant lie. He was staring at the pages of an assigned book, trying to make his eyes focus on the words. But he just … couldn’t bring himself … to do it.

Karl held the book up by one hand in disgust and wonder, as if holding some piece of malodorous refuse. I don’t understand, he thought. I can *lose* myself in anything by Heinlein, why can’t I finish this? It sucks, but it has to be done. Karl didn’t hate books. Karl loved books. Karl devoured books. His friends and family could attest that Karl lived in books, and that at times it was difficult to retrieve his mind from the interstellar space where it was usually roaming. In fact, he got in a lot of trouble for it, particularly with Mrs. Grover, who assigned this particularly puzzling piece of pungent prose, not that the book contained alliteration, or any clever sentence structures that could rescue the horrid plot and make it halfway interesting.

Karl gritted his teeth. Your mind is wandering, he chided himself. He returned to the last chapter of the critically acclaimed Errors of the Daring. The protagonists had been involved in attempting what seemed at first like a grand endeavor, but which brought ruin to their world. Karl gritted his teeth through every stupid Deus Ex Machina by which the author’s vengeance was visited on the hapless explorers for their curiosity and ingenuity. Finally it looked like the characters were beginning to devise a plan to fix their situation, when the author decided to close by having the plan fail and the protagonists die a terrible death, with the implication that the world was going to hell in a hand-basket anyway, and they never should have tried. “You should like this one”, Mrs. Grover growled at him icily,” it has *rockets* in it.” Karl’s eyes narrowed as he finally skimmed the last few dreary paragraphs. He brought up the question packet and scanned the first question.

Explain the root cause of the futility of the character’s actions, and the implications for the role of “technical fixes” to the insoluble problems of the human condition.

Something inside Karl began to fray, as he glared at the worksheet. A strange sensation, an eerie feeling, stole over the shelves and volumes which surrounded Karl. Here on these very shelves were books that Karl could only dream of tackling, though he did not have the math for them. Yet, he amended, with defiant determination. Books that described the technical details of the old space program, and the aircraft of the age of aviation. Books that followed the lives of the astronauts, real live astronauts. And in the more mundane, but noisy floors above, any number of books which Karl would *love* to be reading. Instead he was forced to wade, hour after irrecoverable hour, through *dreck* that seemed designed to crush his spirit. And then there were the so called questions Mrs. Grover loved to assign. Even the most twisted math problem which his math teacher could assign didn’t hold quite the same ... hostility that the questions that his English teacher regularly contrived contained. She didn’t merely want you to understand the text. She didn’t merely want you to understand the author’s point of view, though some turgid regurgitation of the main points could net you a B-. It was as if there was some small victory she was scoring every time she wrenched an *agreement* with the dismal “truths” these awful writers portrayed. Karl squinted at the worksheet, then he pushed the chair back in disgust.

He strode over to the copier and wrenched open the paper bin and pulled some leaves of 8.5 x 11 from the bin. I may not have the computer, but I have a pen, he thought with determination, and I am going to rewrite that travesty the way it should have been written. He slapped the paper down on the desk. He pulled the cap of the ten cent half-dried ballpoint pen. That eerie feeling in the back of Karl’s mind began to build. He blinked once or twice. It wasn’t just his annoyance at the assigned reading from his class. There was something else there too – the sort of feeling you get when staring too hard at one of those optical illusions. Seen one way, it was a series of convex cubes, seen the other way, it was a staircase in a square room. Karl gazed around the library, and an awareness of the vast number of pages seemed to weigh on his mind, not merely as processed tree-pulp and ink, but as doorways into a countless expanse of other worlds, and windows into the thoughts of other minds. Karl shook his head dizzily, as a feeling of being lost amid a vastness of other places, other times, surged. But then it receded.

He glanced back down at the blank paper before him, and raised the pen again.

“I would be careful, if I were you”, a serious voice said behind him.

Gaaah!”, Karl jumped up from  his seat, and whirled around. His brother was leaning against one of the racks, staring intently. “Paul, you creep! What are you doing down here?”

“Mom told me to come by and drive you home. She’s making dinner tonight for some friends of hers, and wants us to be on time. But I was also interested in what you were doing just now. You’ve been a little more distracted than usual.”

“I … yes. I don’t know. Classes have been sucking lately. And you know how I get when I start reading”, Karl said, laughing nervously.

“But I have yet to see how you get when you *write*”, Paul said, arching his eyebrow. “There is a lot to it, you know. To doing it right.”

“A lot to writing? For scribbling something on some paper?”, Karl asked incredulously.

“For creating”, Paul said, with unusual emphasis. “It’s not something to be done for the wrong reasons. It’s something that comes from who you are, and it changes you too. Creativity, Craft, Art, the Divine Spark”, he continued, gesturing expressively.

“Err …”, Karl frowned. His brother, being metaphysical? Metaphorical? The uber-nerd, the hardcore geek refugee from teh interwebs? “You are usually a creepy dork, but not in *this* way.”

Paul frowned, and gazed at the ceiling for a bit. “Well … um … did you … did you notice anything … strange?”

“No”, Karl said, snorting. “Nothing stranger than Rochenberg public school’s essential reading list, though I suppose that qualifies as an abomination.”

“I just wanted to … er … make sure you weren’t writing some sappy Mary Sue fanfiction, drowning your highschool sorrows in the darkest basement you could find”, he said, looking at his watch.

“As opposed to shunning the light of day in your nerd-cave staring at a screen?”, Karl retorted sarcastically. “And why is it your business. And who is this Mary Sue?”, Karl asked. He had a sneaking suspicion that if Mrs. Grover were aware of her work, she’d end up on the reading list of doom.

“Pray the inevitable day you find out is late in coming”, Paul said mysteriously. “Anyway”, he said, “there are too many worlds here, bound in every page. Too many twisty passages through which to lose you, all alike, and we are out of time.”

The way it was phrased brought that surreal mood back to Karl in full force, and he stared with slightly incredulous appraisal at his brother. “Is it like that for you? With your programming, and your computers? And the hacker nerds on the other end of the modem?”

Paul glanced back. “Yes.”

“We are a family of obsessives, aren’t we”, Karl said, laughing.

“Something like that”, his brother said. “The parking lot is two floors up, and the stairs are this way”, he called back, motioning. “In case you forgot the way out …”

Copyright MadRocketSci, http://www.amssolarempire.com 2012