A Colour Like Orange: Fiction from CG Inglis
The Sci-Fi-O-Rama team is excited to be taking the site in a new direction with our first foray into original fiction!
Over the coming year, we will be presenting “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, a monthly series of interlocked stories from Toronto writer CG Inglis.
Riding the edge between gritty realism and vivid speculation, CG’s stories take us to a world much like our own, but with the boundaries of reality wearing thin. Strange forces slip into the world through the cracks, and otherwise ordinary people find their lives drastically changed as they slip out. At the crux of it all is a mysterious substance called “powder” and the powerful Institute of Applied Research which strives to understand and harness its potential.
Combining elements of cyberpunk, psychedelia, and psychological horror, CG Inglis has created a work that we found arresting and stylish – a great match for the aspirations of this site!
Without further ado, we proudly present the first instalment of the series, “A Colour Like Orange“.
Strange currents are at play in the darkness, subtle variations in depth and texture. Now the room is expanding to the size of an ocean; next it has shrunk to the confines of the bed. A sigh arrives from some point in the distance – much farther away than seems possible, as if she is not in the bed with me at all, or her head is not. Covers slither across the mattress. The bed frame creaks. My hand spans the space between us, fingertips at last meeting the soft resistance of her arm. I flatten my palm over her wrist, trace the line to her elbow. A stretch of blanket severs the rest.
The flesh under my hand is warm, but I can’t locate a pulse; an image forms, of a mannequin in a shop window, its plastic arm heated by the sun, and then the muscles in the forearm twitch as her fingers spasm. Somewhere in the distance she must be dreaming. These quick, soft motions beneath her skin carry me back to sleep. Later the alarm goes off.
One of the curtains has been drawn back. Grey light pools at the foot of the empty bed. I sit up and walk naked into the kitchen, fill a glass with water from the sink. I don’t have to check to see that her shoes are no longer in the hallway, or that her bag is gone. She would have left some time ago.
My phone is charging on the counter. I make a half-hearted scan of the news feeds, but all the headlines read like science fiction: alternate universes, invisible psychics. It’s been carrying on like this for months, and by now most people have grown numb to it. Setting the phone down, I move to the bathroom and force myself through the motions of a shower. After getting dressed, I gather my things and leave the apartment.
Outside, the air is practically dripping. All week it’s been humid, and today promises to be worse. Just waiting at the bus stop causes a film of perspiration to congeal on my skin. Idly, I track the slow descent of sweat along my spine.
Once the bus arrives, I present my transit pass to an indifferent driver and shoulder through the crowd at the door. A few empty seats remain in the back, but I am wary of these, convinced they have been left vacant for a reason. Standing also offers a modicum of space, and is better than riding crammed between two sweating bodies.
Seated in front of me is a woman with a book in her lap. Titled Your Truest Self: How the Existence of Parallel Worlds Can Lead to Inner Peace, the cover depicts a smiling man in his mid-forties. Cast by a trio of suns, three identical shadows fan out from his wing-tipped shoes. Just another bestseller cranked out by the latest self-help guru to cash in on recent cosmological changes, the woman nevertheless grips the book as if afraid it will disappear. In the window behind her, infrequent snatches of Nascent Street stream past: shuttered store-fronts, electrical poles, a few masochistic businessmen cycling to work in the heat. Have they found their truest selves? Are they even looking?
At 3rd Bridge I get off along with a dozen others and jostle my way to the curb. A wall of traffic clogs the road. Apart from the usual delivery trucks and commuter vehicles is a procession of government sedans. Sunlight glints from their polished frames, along with my reflection. Back-lit, I appear hollow-eyed, thin as a stretch-limbed caricature. Behind the last sedan is a gap just wide enough to dart across the road. Waiting at the opposite railing is the man with the line cut out of his face.
He is dressed simply enough, in jeans rolled above the ankles and a plain t-shirt, the chest of which is already dark with sweat. Slim to the point of gauntness, he has the brooding self-possession of an addict or consumptive. His head is shaven, the muscles in his forearms tight as knotted cords; an attractive man, or he would be, if it wasn’t for the line. The line is, in the end, the only thing about him that matters. It is his token, his essential aspect, and though he has warned me in the past, I can’t help staring at it.
Razor-straight and purplish, it cuts through his right eye from forehead to cheek. From a distance it might be passed off as a scar or tattoo, but this close the truth is inescapable; the thing is too strange, too obviously cut from him, and then there is the movement inside it, a continual and disorienting sense of motion, as if the man’s face does not conceal flesh and blood, but rather a void, where faint trails of smoke ascend uninterrupted in violet-tinted darkness.
His mouth curls. A denial catches in my throat.
“Relax,” he tells me. “None of this is real, remember?”
The elevator opens. In front of me is a group of harried-looking men in a drab suits, most likely accountants dredged up from the finance department on some fact-finding mission. Pinned to each of their lapels is the cube-enclosed sphere of the Institute’s logo. I’ve worked for the organization for almost five years and have never been offered one of these. Not that I would wear one if I was; life is easier without having to explain what I do, or answer questions about the people I work for.
One of the accountants mutters a vague apology and steps back to give me room. Glancing at his pin, a short, contemptuous snort escapes me. The man blinks, and I brush past him into the hall.
Through a door on the left-hand side is the changing area. The floors are neatly polished, the air sharp with the tang of disinfectant. Typically overrun with chattering, half-dressed technicians at the start or end of a shift, at the moment the space is empty. On the far wall, the clock’s red digits show fifteen minutes past the hour; no doubt a note reprimanding my tardiness has already appeared in my employee file. Oddly, this fact still has the power to unnerve me. As if I was not already guilty of far worse infractions.
Under the glare of fluorescent lights I begin to remove my clothes. A fresh lab suit hangs on a hook in my locker, white and stiff as the moulted remains of an insect. Its hypoallergenic fabric scratches, particularly where the hood edges my face. I cram my feet into a pair of ill-fitting boots and grab a set of latex gloves and a surgical mask from the box by the door. The straps of the mask tug at my ears; despite the temperature-controlled air, I am sweating as I enter the central hallway.
Walled-in by transparent glass, the labs have the look of zoo exhibits. Inside, technicians in identical suits are already hard at work. For the length of a shift we exist like copies of one another, faceless and interchangeable. It is possible I have passed any number of these people on the street and never recognized them. Names are not used in the labs, and socializing is frowned upon. Breaks are staggered throughout the day. Staff consume lunches in private cubicles. We are told these policies are in place for security reasons, and I have never asked what dangers such precautions are meant to prevent; like everyone else, I do my work and return home. Compensation arrives twice per month and in the form of a generous benefits package. It is my view that this is a fair bargain for a name.
For the current cycle I have been assigned to Lab 31A. This is located at the far end of the central hallway, just next to the server hub. Bending from the waist, I present my eye to the scanner; a familiar oscillation fluctuates across half my field of vision, and the light next to the scanner blinks green. With a soft hiss, the door is unsealed from the wall.
My coworkers look up as I enter the room. Since I am unaware of their names, I have dubbed them Green and Black, in reference to their eye colour. I have no idea what, if any, nickname has been bestowed on me.
Green waves a gloved hand. Black grunts. I nod a response; over time, we have allowed the usual pleasantries to wither away, and I think we are more comfortable as a result. In many ways the three of us are perfectly matched, another testament to the efficacy of the Institute’s psychological profiling.
I make my way across the room to the shelves where the samples are kept. There are more than a hundred in total, arranged neatly in rows and just as meticulously labeled. In size they range from as small as pebbles, to spheroid objects as large as a human head.
Discovered in the northern mines less than a year ago, every sample in this lab was taken from a single vein. So far, the Institute’s efforts to locate a secondary source have proven futile, as have our attempts to catalogue it. Quasicrystalline, the substance defies easy categorization, at times and under certain conditions behaving as either abiogenic or organic in nature. Even in qualitative terms the substance is almost impossible to describe. Green once likened the colour to amber, although she frowned as she said it, and recanted almost immediately. When pressed, Black called it rust-like, but it was clear she also was uncomfortable doing so. I can sympathize with their difficulties. Language falls short, offering no more than uncertain approximation. The substance has no colour, or if it does, the best that can be said is that it is a colour like orange.
Today I am scheduled to continue my work on sample 53. Roughly egg-shaped, it rests in the center of a plastic dish. A dusting of powdered grains limns the dish’s edge; the samples are notoriously fragile, and difficult to move without damaging. So, with all the care and solemnity of religious observance, I carry the dish before me to my workstation.
Vaguely nautilus-shaped, the station protrudes from an opening in the floor, a wide drift of synthetic material that sweeps up to form a kind of molded chair. On either side are slots where a technician’s arms may be inserted, while in front stems the aperture. This is a concave basin that curves upwards to about chin-height, and is reminiscent of the sporocarp of certain fungi.
Black and Green are by this time fully plugged into their own stations. Swallowed by their work, they take no notice as I break a corner from the sample and, lifting the bottom of my mask, pop it into my mouth; the flavour explodes at the center of my tongue. A flavour that is as inscrutable as the substance’s colour: rotting metal, mineralized fruit. No adequate words exist to describe it.
This marks the eighth day in a row I have ingested a piece of a sample. So far no one has said anything, and there have been no repercussions. It is ludicrous to assume this means I have been clever enough to avoid notice. That I haven’t been made to stop amounts to tacit permission, which in turn implies that the Institute has planned for this eventuality, possibly in an attempt to study the effects of the substance on a human subject.
Beneath the mask, I am sucking on my lower lip; grains much finer than sand announce their presence in torrents of flavour. Setting what remains of the sample on the station’s pedestal, I insinuate myself into the curve-backed chair.
My arms slip into their slots with the ease of long habit; a light tickling at the tip of every finger announces the activation of the interior field. Even through latex gloves the feeling is unmistakable, working its way up my forearms before abruptly cutting off at the elbow. I check the diagnostic display next to the aperture, and with a flick of my wrists, cue the sequence for the first diagnostic.
There are any number of tests to perform. No matter how many I run in a day, there is no exhausting them. What’s more, our workstations are forever being upgraded, and every change requires a modification in procedure. It’s probable I could go on testing these samples for the rest of my working life, if I were not scheduled for rotation during the upcoming cycle.
I try not to dwell on this, but there’s no getting around the fact that my window of opportunity is rapidly closing, and with it, any chance of making use of what I’ve learned; taking a long, unsteady breath, I close my eyes. Anxiety isn’t practical, and if everything goes as planned, by the end of the day my worries will be behind me.
I lean forward, settling my chin into the familiar press of the aperture. The surface conforms itself to the contours of my face, forming an airtight seal. A breathing tube is connected to a hole below my nose, the airflow of which is controlled by the workstation and includes a number of gaseous compounds meant to stimulate the optic nerves and enhance concentration. I take another breath, settle myself into the chair, and open my eyes.
Twin needles pierce my retina: nauseating light, blinding colour. Gasping, I fight to maintain control. It is the same every morning, the same pain, the same lurching intestinal somersault. Before me is sample 53.
At this level of enhancement, its surface appears like the vast terrain of an uncharted exoplanet. Peaks as sharp as daggers, valleys descending into pits. Reams of augmented data scroll on either side of my field of vision, but I ignore them. The reality, the heart of the thing, is encoded here, at the plane of my gaze, where I and the substance intersect. For a moment all intention is washed away, and I simply stare, immersed in the nameless colour.
In time, my hands begin to move inside their slots, manipulating the perspective, adjusting the sample’s rotation. A series of coordinated eye motions increases the magnification, and I zoom closer. Crystalline latticeworks give way to an oscillation of waveforms in a shade that is at once like and unlike orange: the interior of an undiscovered flower, the corona of a dying star. Locking the magnification at its current setting, a quick signal from my right index finger launches the workstation into the first test program.
Like Green and Black, I am quickly lost to the work. Only the growing pressure of hunger alerts me to the passage of time, and in the semi-daze that always follows a testing session, I take my allotted break for lunch. The afternoon passes at ever deeper levels of magnification and in a series of more and more detailed analyses. The end of my shift is signaled by a gradual reduction in the sample’s brightness, until at length I am left staring at an empty field. This process carries its own measure of pain, and each day it is harder to let go. If my station allowed it, I would likely go on working until my eyes burned out.
With a sucking pop I tear my face from the aperture; the lab’s white walls are scalding, the strip lights overhead like cut diamonds. Behind my eyes, a familiar ache is blossoming. Gingerly, as if relearning the use of my body, I withdraw my arms from the slots and remove myself from the workstation.
I am alone in the lab; Green and Black would have ended their shifts some time ago, their stations having calculated the limits of their endurance as accurately as my own. I reach for the sample. Protocol stipulates that it should be measured and weighed before being returned to the shelf. Instead, I simply replace the dish, palming the sample and exiting the lab.
The central hallway and changing area are deserted. Setting the sample down in the locker, I slither free from my suit. Once dressed, I stow the sample in a plastic sandwich bag, making sure to dust any grains from the edge of the shelf. Already it has broken into several smaller chunks, and the bottom of the bag is bright with powder.
Leaving the changing area, I find the elevator waiting for me. Its mirrored interior offers an infinite recurrence of my own reflection. I barely recognize myself: my skin is sallow, my clothes ill-fitting. Blood flecks the margins of my eyes. I lean against the wall, trying not to think of the substance in my pocket, or the man who will be waiting outside. My gaze wanders to the elevator’s control panel, and the camera that is surely hidden there. Whoever is watching shows no inclination to stop me.
The street seethes with people. Faces set in jovial masks, white teeth flash as laughter dribbles from their mouths. Oblivious to one another, wires strung from their ears, they are immersed in conversations with the air. A girl cuts in front of me, cradling a sleeping cat in her arms. On the road, another black sedan passes, the sun’s late rays bounding off its hood.
The man with the line cut out of his face falls into step beside me.
Again, I am struck by the way the crowd gives way to him. No one acknowledges his presence, or even so much as looks at him. He is much more than invisible – his existence constitutes something like a vacuum, a formlessness or inversion so complete the crowd is unaware of experiencing it. I have witnessed the truth of this any number of times, but it is a hard thing to digest; next to him, I am brushed into and bumped against, offered apologies and muttered curses, all while the man with the line cutting his face glides through the tumult of bodies, completely at his ease.
It is only because I have ingested the substance that I am able to perceive him. He is not really here, not in the sense typically associated with the word. He is “here” and “elsewhere” at once, and as I am able to interact with him, I must also exist outside of the usual confines of the world. The thought has a peculiar buoyancy, and the more I consider it, the farther I find myself drifting from the shore.
Probably I should never have broken protocol. Ignorance is much lighter than the burden of truth, but the more I worked with the substance, running through every conceivable analysis and coming no closer to its true nature, the more it seemed a natural decision: as an infant gums an object to know it, so I took a piece in my mouth. The taste of rotten metal was as invigorating as it was stomach churning. Swallowing, I waited, afraid almost to breathe, but nothing happened. The day continued as usual. Testing went on. My shift ended. And the next morning he was there. I saw him at the far end of the bridge, a man with a line cut out of his face. He stood in the middle of the sidewalk, the crowd parting around him as unconsciously as a river breaks around a stubborn rock.
There was no doubt in my mind what he was; how could there be? I’d read the news reports. I knew about the worlds running parallel to my own, and that visitors from at least one of these had already been confirmed. “Outsiders”, they were being called. Intellectually I had processed this. Coming face to face with it was something else. The line cut from the man’s face was stunning. Its depth was irreducible, the forms drifting inside it hypnotic.
“It’s better not to look directly,” he said.
I was incapable of a verbal response; sharply, my chin jerked upwards. The lid of one eye twitched. I was defenseless as he drew me to one side. The press of his hand was very hot on my arm.
“I have a lot to tell you and none of it will be easy to hear,” he began. “You’ve spent a third of your life sleeping but it’s time to wake up. This world? It isn’t real.”
“Real?” I echoed. I hadn’t planned on speaking. It was almost impossible to avoid looking at his line. The man sighed.
“Try to keep up,” he said. He had a deeply resonant voice, and an odd, clipped manner of speech that was somehow pleasing to the ear. His words spun and echoed in my mind, weaving a kind of net; I was unable to move, unable even to think. “Your world is a copy. A fake. Not even a very good one. You’ve felt it yourself that things are broken. You aren’t wrong. There are holes everywhere. They’re easy enough to fall into. That’s how I got here.”
Sweat was pouring from me. A woman passing on the bridge looked at me as if I was crazy; I considered the possibility that she was right. A pair of hawks circled above us, their wings dark against the shining sky.
“Relax,” the man with the line cut out of his face told me. “Whatever you’ve heard, we’re not here to make trouble. Most of us came by mistake. Getting in is the easy part. Doesn’t take any brains at all to fall into a hole. It’s getting out that’s hard.”
I registered very little of this. Later, as I lay in bed trying to convince myself that it had really happened, his words would come back to me, but in the moment it was all I could do to stagger away. The man made no move to stop me.
“Be seeing you!” he shouted.
Upon reaching the lab and without bothering to check if anyone was watching, I took another piece from the sample. I did this by reflex, and reflexively threw it into my mouth; as the taste burst on my tongue I found some semblance of clarity, and at last managed to tune out the alarms blaring in my head. Somehow, I made it through the day. Once I was out of the building, the man appeared again. I think I had expected this. As if he regretted his earlier approach, he took pains to be careful with me the second time. Now he had the air of a school teacher explaining a difficult concept to a child: patient, leading the way from one conclusion to the next. As I listened, the road shifted under me, and the edges on things grew thin.
“You don’t have to be an outsider to know there’s something wrong. You can feel it all around you. This place is a cheap forgery.”
I shook my head. The man clapped me on the back. His touch sent a shiver through me.
“It’s ending you know, your world,” he said. “With every breath, each word, it’s drawing to a close. You realize that, don’t you? That it has to end? Only the real world can continue. Copies and fakes wind up in the trash.”
He was almost apologetic. He said he imagined it was hard learning how to see. It was hard, but that didn’t mean I wanted to go back to being blind. I made several attempts to ask him about the substance, but his answers were vague and unsatisfying.
“It’s the key, I guess,” he told me once. “The substance, as you call it. It’s the only real thing. Or maybe it’s the biggest fake of all. How should I know? All that matters is it’s the way out, and you’re the one who’s going to help me.”
“So then it’s true what they say?” I asked. “That you can see the future?”
For the first time the man looked uncomfortable. Drawing a palm over the stubbled surface of his head, he continued.
“For you there’s a line.” He placed the tip of his index finger at a point in front of him and began to drag it through the air. “You perceive the passage of time, like this. But it’s your consciousness that’s moving, not time. The difference between us is that for me there is no line. There’s a whole. The whole thing’s already written out, and that’s incredibly fucking unfortunate, because I can see what’s coming. This world is ending. So just trust me when I tell you that I need to get out.”
Always with him I felt feverish. I couldn’t hold onto my thoughts – they just went, swept up in a blind rush. Here was an outsider, a trespasser from another world, and he could see the future and he told me the world was ending. And of course he was right. Anyone could see that. The population was exploding just as the resources were being used up; the planet was getting hotter; fish were dying in the ocean. If it wasn’t a mutated virus that killed us, some zealot with his finger on a button would. Extend the timeline far enough, and everyone winds up dead. There is no escape, no way out for any of us. Except for him. And for myself too, I now understood, if I played my cards right.
It has taken me eight days to get up the courage to remove a sample from the lab. I told myself I needed to be sure I could get it out safely, but the fact was I was terrified. During all that time the man with the line cut out of his face never once pressured me. I suppose there was no need for him to; he knew what I would choose, and when. All he had to do was play out the string until the moment arrived.
Now that it has I find I am calmer than I expected. As the man said, everything is already written. Breath even, palms dry, I stand with the outsider at the bus stop.
Soon enough one groans to a halt before us. The doors open, and we press through the crowd to the back. As if we are old colleagues, comrades in arms, the man with the line cut out of his face places a hand on my shoulder and guides me to a pair of empty seats.
“Look at that,” the outsider says. “Like they had our names on them.”
I sit down between him and a young construction worker. Through the window, the sun gets to work roasting the back of my neck. The press of bodies in front of me has the wavy, ill-defined cast of a mirage. As the bus makes its rattling progress along the road, the outsider’s bony knee brushes against my sweltering thigh. For some time we sit in silence. The statement vibrates in my chest until it bursts:
“When you go I’m coming with you.”
There is a pause.
“What about her?” the man asks. I scan the faces of the assembled passengers; no one has reacted to the outsider speaking, though the construction worker is casting nervous glances my way. As far as any of them are concerned I’m talking to myself.
“You said yourself she isn’t real.”
The words cut, even as I utter them. The outsider does not respond. I am looking at my hands, the fall of sunlight through the window on my skin. The light appears staged; the hands could belong to another person. I am looking at nothing at all.
There is a soft tap on my arm.
“This is our stop,” the outsider announces.
The bus rumbles to a standstill. Several passengers pour onto the street. I move after them, the outsider trailing beside me.
“Fake and crumbling,” he mutters. He is gazing at the road. A van passes, and a kid on a motorcycle. Across the sky’s upper limit massive strands of honey-yellow cirrus clouds stretch to the horizon.
“Fake,” I find myself saying. “Fake to you maybe. But not to me. What other frame of reference is there? Even a drama is real to the characters in it. It’s the ending that scares me. You said you see it whole. So tell me when it ends.”
The man has stopped walking. We stand at the mouth of a narrow alley.
“Soon enough,” he says simply. “We’re here.”
I never asked about our destination. What difference does it make where you leave the world? Still, nothing about this place marks it as special; a quiet street in a largely residential district, multi-storey apartment blocks dominate both sides of the road. The alley itself is brick-lined, the ground strewn with garbage. A noiseless effusion of laundry-scented steam issues from a vent on the left-hand wall. Somewhere in the distance a child is laughing.
“Why here?” I ask. The outsider ignores me. Instead, he moves deeper into the alley, his expression strained, shoulders tense. Now he bends forward, peering at a point on the wall. With the tip of a finger he lightly traces the edge of a moldering brick.
“Hand me the bag,” he instructs. When I hesitate, he rounds on me.
“Give it to me,” he says again, harder this time.
“I’m going with you.”
A single, vicious swipe, shocking in its precision, and the bag is snatched from my hand. The outsider is scowling, the echoes at play inside his line drifting ever further into darkness.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
I take a step away from him, and then another. Now is the delicate moment, the point at which everything turns. I am almost afraid to breathe.
Reaching into the bag, the outsider tosses a rough handful of the substance against the wall. With the flat of his hand he rubs the orange-tinted powder into the bricks, working his fingers into the cracks, careful as a painter at his canvas.
At length he appears satisfied. Tilting his head back, he pinches what remains of the substance between thumb and forefinger and sprinkles this into the line cut from his face. When he is finished he looks at me. Through the sliver in the man’s head I stare into another world.
“You know,” he says, his voice almost wistful. “I can’t remember what it’s like to be surprised. Things always play out the way they’re supposed to, but not even I know what’s on the other side.”
He places his hand flat against the bricks. A wave passes through the wall, its surface rippling like a skin of water. The alley spasms, or else it is my own body. Darts of fire skewer my eyes; I am spluttering, gasping for air. Tears course over my cheeks as I witness the outsider pass halfway through the wall. A hot wind thunders through the alley. Garbage is flying: a storm of faded newsprint and plastic bags. As if against a raging current, I am walking toward the wall.
Along with his head, one arm and a segment of the outsider’s boot remains. The edges of the line cut from his face crackle and spark with a terrible urgency; aware of me now, his eyes go wide, his mouth pried open in protest. I have thrust my hand into the wavering bricks.
The roar of a thousand voices; a crest of darkness unfurling. Darkness, and flickering at the utmost end of sight, a colour like orange.
I am bound, unable move. The outsider has stopped me (what’s left of him, fighting, forcing me back.) His strength is incredible, the line in his face brilliant, blinding; his palm on my chest is a searing brand. I stumble back, helpless as the last of him slips out of the world. Blackness settles, and silence.
Later, much later, a picture begins to form, a lone figure looming up through a fog. It is an image of myself, ascending the stairs in front of my building.
Inside, I find myself standing in the kitchen. The glass of water from the morning is there. What’s left of the day’s light touches the edge. Two arms are resting on the table. One of them is mine, but the other is not; where my hand should be there is only a flattened stump.
From behind, the sound of the door being unlocked and opened. A plastic rustle, as of shopping bags set on the floor.
She is saying something to me. I can’t make out her words. In the glass of water, the sun’s last rays are dying.
Visit us again next month for “Clinical Trial“, the next instalment in “A Colour Like Orange: Stories from a Broken World“, by CG Inglis.
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