The Zonehopper's Guide to the Perception Range


For a while, my post-branchination life wasn't as exciting as you might have expected. An increasing awareness that "time" was an illusion unique to the "grey zone" did little to change how I experienced the progression of events. Slipping into a world where my boss was made of cheese had ultimately no bearing on the unemployment process. The evolutionary history and life habits of giant ground-hands were almost more remarkable for how completely inconsequential they were, besides the fact that they had a tendency to strangle small birds and their gnat-sized, flying sperm constituted a lesser springtime nuisance.

My limited cable service now offered a channel "3.8" and a channel "Q! Q! Q! Q!" Channel 3.8 aired only episodes of Yogi Bear that, to my knowledge, should not have existed but were no more noteworthy than any episode I could remember. "Q! Q! Q! Q!" was at least more interesting for a while; a shopping network in some ambiguously French-like language that appeared to sell a variety of dead and pickled sea creatures. Calling the number, for whatever reason, only ever forwarded me to a pre-recorded message from the Iowa Pork Council about the soaring risk of a condition called "shungles" from all non-pork food products.

I eventually landed a new job at an independent data collection agency. Tedious, mediocre work, but at least the guy who interviewed me seemed human. Now and then I might spy a door that shouldn't have been there, a new water cooler filled with something that was very definitely not water, or some blurry blackish whatsit peering in through a window with an eye like a stoplight, but I got by safely enough.


If I just went about my business as usual, carried on like nothing was new or different or amiss, those extra doors and blurry whatsits typically afforded me the same courtesy, eventually disappearing back to wherever it was they came from or moving on to bother someone else's perception sphere.

But, sometimes, I'd get a glimpse of something I really, really didn't need to.

Think, for a moment, of a busy, thriving business district in a major city, all lined with cafes, clubs and specialty shops, as tidy and inviting and attention-getting as their owners can manage. Add in the street signs, the traffic, weather, whatever business you're there for and the throngs of other people, and most of your attention span is already well spoken for - already occupied with all those things you're supposed to be aware of.

Most people just never even think to stop and gawk at that heap of garbage moldering in an alleyway, the smeared remains of what may have been a sewer rat at a busy intersection, the wet cigarette butts caked to the mouth of a storm drain. The details between details, the unpleasant things most people just don't want to linger on.

It's jarring enough to notice a discarded syringe or a drying blood stain at the threshold of your favorite teahouse.

Now imagine this sort of thing at a cosmic scale.

The first time I discovered the "gap," or I suppose more of an "infinite chasm" between layers was on a routine afternoon lunch run. Not in the city, mind you - that was just a narrative device - but well outside its noisome borders. You didn't have to drive all that far for a fresher breath of air and a bit of quiet contemplation, the concrete jungle giving way to quaint rural suburbia and finally the green, rolling countryside in a short fifteen to twenty minute drive if you knew the best route at the best time, and it was here you could find my preferred stop for a cold beer and a cheap, greasy, satisfying pulled pork. A charmingly grubby little gas station diner kept half in business by weary truckers and half by those who lived just farther enough outside the city that "Alfie's Gas n' Dash" qualified as a fine dinner outing.

I took the usual winding, peaceful drive through patchy forest and derelict cornfields, spacing off as I absent-mindedly repeated a sequence of turns that had long become reflexive. We all probably have routes like this. The drive home, the quick run to the nearest Walgreen's, maybe even just the walk from your bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen at four in the morning...but maybe there's been a time when, for whatever reason, you found yourself immediately jerked to full attention by something off about your course. An unfamiliar landmark. A wrong turn into a neighborhood you suddenly didn't recognize.

This happened to me only once before on the drive to Alfie's. A storm had taken out the only roadsign I subconsciously watched out for, and I'd driven a full mile out of my way before that sense of wrongness yanked me back out of whatever daydream I'd floated into.

This time, I couldn't possibly pin down where I had taken that "wrong turn," especially considering that I had, in fact, reached my destination. There I was, sitting in the same familiar gravel-flecked dirt patch "Alfie" considered a parking lot since my first visit with my granddad some twenty-six years prior. Staring up at the same sign that had stopped lighting up and stopped rotating sometime between Disco Fever and my birth.

And yet, I somehow knew, just knew that I had gotten horribly, horribly lost.

And I had, in a sense.

It's just that, sometimes, your perception takes that "wrong turn."

Every possible sense was screaming my imminent doom as I stepped out of the car. Nothing was amiss at the describable level, but from the color of the sky to the squish-crunch of my shoes on that mix of gravel and mud, every detail felt entirely unnatural.

Still...this was Alfie's we were talking about.

I wagered that, whatever I'd gotten myself into, it was no more likely to just up and resolve itself by turning back than by pushing forward, and pushing forward came with the added possibility of alcohol and pork. However wrong I was, I still stand by the logic.

Perhaps I should have been more suspicious that the front door to Alfie's had to be pulled, rather than pushed open for the first time in my memory, or that the usual motley assortment of truckers and farmers were nowhere to be seen. At peak lunch hours, the place was seemingly deserted...and bizarrely silent. The typical selection of country music was never to my taste, to say the least, but I found myself missing the otherwise tiresomely familiar crooning as my footsteps somehow echoed off the walls of a cramped and thickly decorated diner.

I sat down at the end of the bar, my usual spot whenever it was available, and waited patiently for anyone (or anything) to take my order.

I was still weighing the dignity of fleeing when I finally heard movement from the kitchen; the unpleasant squeal of someone dragging rubber soles across linoleum.

The kitchen door swung open with no visible assistance.

The space beyond was black as pitch.

"Whaaaaaat. Beeeeeeeeee." came a voice, deep yet buzzing, like...well, like the Kool-Aid Man, for lack of any stronger comparison.

I wasn't sure I should respond or not. I just stared, blinking, at the blackness and silence.

Seconds, maybe minutes passed, I'm not sure, before a shape emerged from the dark. A huge, simple face, round and cream-colored, like a pale melon with expressionless, flat eyes and a slit of a mouth. It almost seemed to float, bobbing slowly and lazily out of the abyss like a half-filled balloon, until the neck came into view behind it; long, tubular and wrinkled, like the neck of an old turtle, blue veins bulging along its length.

It didn't speak again, but the thing's eyes and mouth widened into mad, terrified "O's" as it fixated on me, and that was enough. Embarrassment be damned, I wasn't going to just flip a coin and wait around to find out if this thing was going to make me a sandwich or make me a sandwich. I bolted from my seat and found myself back in the car before I knew it, the awful balloon face now squishing bonelessly against the diner window, staring in ever wider shock.

It was only as I pulled away that a new problem dawned on me; it had been daylight when I entered the diner, but now, the sky was black as that yawning kitchen doorway.

Black, but not actually "dark." With no visible sun or stars, I could still see my surroundings as clearly as broad daylight. It was as if the sky had simply failed to load, and in a sense, it had, or rather, what had failed to load was my perception of the sky and even of the universe beyond. As I'd come to understand, this wasn't even "empty space," since that in itself is a concept. The vacuum in which our stars and planets reside is, technically speaking, "a thing." Even blackness, too, is something. An idea. What I found myself gazing upon could be described superficially as blackness, yes, but in a way that's difficult to put to words, it was an absence of even that much. It was really, truly nothing.

That nothing, however, was still capable of containing things, and contain them it did.

As I pulled out of my parking spot and turned the car around, a massive shape entered my view. My subconscious momentarily wished it could mistake the shape for the full moon, but the pasty sphere hovered only a few hundred feet above the empty field across from Alfie's. I could tell because its blackish, greasy hair hung down to nearly brush the scattered treetops, and I could make out every crack and pore on its cheesy-looking flesh. I could also, regrettably, make out a pair of wet, pinkish, too-human eyes, each easily the size of a backyard swimming pool and and twitching about madly behind its filthy locks.

Thankfully, the thing was already slowly turning away from my direction, but another shape ominously hovered some distance behind it, and had no recognizable features to betray its attentions. It looked like nothing so much as a vast, rusty orange tree trunk, torn off at the top and branching into many "roots" towards its tapered end. Pairs of these rubbed together furiously, emitting an unpleasant, ragged scratching sound.

Similarly peculiar outlines pockmarked the void beyond. Whether some were smaller or merely much farther away was often difficult to determine with no other point of reference. Dozens of what looked like beakless, plucked turkeys flapped liesurely through the nothing with wings like membranous ears, squealing wetly when they bumped into one another. A sickly yellow ribbon of flesh undulated eel-like directly above me, too long to make out a beginning or end. Something the size of a barn, honking like a goose, zipped between me and the moon-face too quickly to make out more than many long, spidery fingers.

I know enough now to know that this uncanny menagerie surrounds us at every waking layer of our lives, but under normal circumstances, our view of them is quite simply, in the most literal sense, blocked by everything else we can perceive, even that vacuum of space we think is so transparent.

I was accustomed to a lot of nonsense at this point, but my first glimpse of things behind all things was just a smidgeon more alarming than the usual fare. Was this permanent? Was this dangerous? Was I a helpless, sitting duck gawking at them from my car or would I attract more attention once I started to drive?

If I did capture the interest of any nothing-drifter, I'll never know. I did what any sensible person would do and pretended absolutely nothing was amiss as I drove back to work, where nothing was amiss once I re-entered the building. An ordinary, cheerful sun shone in through the windows, my coworkers were already filing back in from their own breaks, and I sustained myself on vending machine fare for the rest of my shift.

I never again saw that vast nothingness where our sky should have been, but my mind, or rather my core, apparently now knew what to look for. Every now and again, in the space behind a dumpster or the gaps in an old fence, in the little places nobody cares about or thinks about, I still catch a little glimpse of a black that isn't dark.

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