In response to Wendig's flash fiction challenge Another X Meets Y Pop Culture Challenge!
I made this tougher on myself than I needed to, but I got Snow Crash meets American Gods. The idea was not to write fan fiction mashing up the two properties, but to do it taking the core motifs of each of them and writing something about where they intersect. Here's where I went with it:
"Have we met? You seem kind of familiar," Danny hears himself asking, not entirely sure what it is about about the other man in the boat he thinks he recognizes.
"Nope, probly not. You might 'a heard of me, tho."
The ragged man guns the little Evenrude at the back of the jon boat that, even in the darkness, Danny knows is absolutely certain to be olive drab. He's sitting near the bow of the boat, opposite end from its pilot, in the wind and something that was closer to splashing than the more-poetic "spray" and, even though it was hot as Hell tonight, he shivers and tries to make himself small.
Danny has no idea where he is or how he got here. Adding to the fucked-uppedness of the situation, he finds himself remembering parts of his chat with the gaunt, bearded fellow at the back of the boat.
“You say your name is 'Kieron'?”
The tall boatman faces the waters off to the side of the boat, although no direction looks any different than any other. He doesn't turn to face Danny, but he lets off the throttle so his passenger can hear him.
“Somethin' like that.”
Southern accent, Danny thinks. No, not Southern. Texan.
“Where we heading?”
“Across,” Kieron answers. His voice doesn't invite further questions and a wiser man would have paid more attention to his tone.
“Not in any hurry to get there, are we?” At this, he turns his head toward Danny. His eyes flicker with red light which might be a reflection of the running lights, even though Danny hadn't noticed any.
“Reckon I’m doin’ you a favor. The two bits your friend gave me back there get you across, but that all they get you. Anything else, you're relying on my good nature.” There's no malice in his drawl, but no empathy, either.
Danny does the math and quickly comes to the conclusion that Kieron's good nature is of extremely limited supply and not something one ought to test. He's damp, the damn boat is bouncing up and down on the waves and making his ass hurt, and he just can't stop shivering. He still doesn't know what's going on, but he does know two things: 1) He's fortunate to be on this boat right now because 2) Whatever is behind him is about as bad as it can possibly get.
Danny is in his head now. It’s not a dream, but it’s also not not a dream. He’s in a room that won’t stay one size or shape, a room that expands or contracts depending on where he’s looking. He’s on a plain, stained pine chair which he knows isn’t comfortable even though he can’t feel it.
In front of him, no matter which way he looks, is a short man with a Jimmy Durante nose and almost no hair on his head. What little there is looks like it was trimmed with a weed whacker. He’s leaning on a dark cane, probably wood of some sort with snakes carved in to it, his head tilted to the side, regarding Danny. His eyes are bright but blank and he’s smiling faintly.
Danny, resigned to the fact that he’s simply not going to get his bearings in this place, decides to talk to the little man.
“The fuck, man. What is this? This isn’t real.”
The other fellow shook a little as if awakened from the lightest slumber, straightened his head, and responded:
“You don’t know what it is and you’re sure it’s not real? Cart before the horse, kiddo.”
“Ok, then what’s going on? Is this real?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s better. We’re in your mind, you figured that one out I guess, but is it real? That’s one for the philosophers, ain’t it? Not my thing. I feel it, I touch it, I talk to it? Real enough for me.”
“That’s real helpful.” Danny and sarcasm, inseparable since birth. “Who’re you?”
“Eh, you wouldn’t know it or know how to say it. Just call me ‘Ask.’ Most folks do, if they call me at all.”
“Ask and ye shall receive, huh?” Danny didn’t laugh at his own joke. “Why…why all this?” he asked, waving his arm around the room and regretting it immediately when the vertigo hit.
“You’re in trouble kid. Big trouble. I’m tryin’ to help you out, but someone, someone very bad, decided to try to take you down. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I got an e-mail from a girl. Didn’t know her, but she had a pretty name, so I opened it. Started reading, and next thing I know, I’m here.”
“Remember what it was about?”
“Huh. No, not really. I remember starting to read it and thinking it was weird as hell, but I don’t really remember what was in it.” Danny thought for a moment and then added with obvious disappointment, “No pictures.”
“About what I thought.” The gnomish man, who didn’t really look that old, but Danny could tell he was, took a step toward Danny, squinting, mumbling to himself, and scratched his ear, thinking.
“Son, you thought the wrong thoughts. You thought some very bad thoughts, some thoughts that messed you up in here,” he waved his cane to indicate the entire room. “I came here to try to help you, but it’s gonna take some work.”
“Dude, I read an email. Read. Just reading something isn’t doing anything. It’s not as real as this stupid place.”
“Danny, how’m I going to explain this to you? You got computers, right? You people have them now?”
“Sure,” Danny responded, because how the Hell do you respond to something like that?
“Ok, that’s good. I can explain this to you. Danny, when a computer runs a program, is it doing anything real?”
Ask sighed and mentally backtracks.
“Does running a program make changes in the data, make things change on the screen, and the like?”
“Yeah, ok, it does stuff. So?”
“Good. You get that part. Computers can ‘think’ and their thinking changes things.”
“Yeah, but the email. That’s just data. It’s just text. Your analogy sucks.”
“Sucks, does it? Listen to the smart fellow. You ever read a book?”
“Yeah, asshole, I’ve read a book”
“You people think books are just information. Not so. Books can change the way you think. Sure, you learns things about whatever you’re reading about, but you ever find yourself thinking in the voice of one of the characters?”
“He doesn’t know.” Ask rolls his eyes and shifts his cane. Danny thinks he sees one of the carved snakes flick its tongue at him, which is stupid, but then, what about this isn’t stupid? “Take my word for it, you have. I can tell these things about people.”
“Yeah, fine. So what?”
“Here’s the thing: If ‘thinking’ is like a computer running a program, sometimes, part of the program is an operating system patch. Reading stuff can change your worldview which is as close to an operating system as this comparison will get.”
“Meaning, you think you’re just processing data, but you’re executing code at the same time, boyo.” Ask grinned his gnome-iest grin and continued. “And that is why you’re fucked, and it’s why I’m trying to un-fuck you right now.”
It finally dawns on Danny that sitting clenched in a ball isn’t making him any warmer, so like a hermit crab that’s been knocked over, he slowly uncurls his limbs and leans out over the bow of the jon boat. The motor is buzzing along loudly, but they don’t seem to be making very good time. He thinks about asking Kieron why they’re going so slow and, thinking a second time, decides to keep his mouth shut. As if to reward Danny’s silence, the boatman speaks up.
“It looks like open water, but it ain’t quite that simple. There’s all kinds a’ things under the surface, waitin’ to foul the prop or knock us off course. It don’t take much; one nudge and we’ll never find the shore you’re aimin’ for.”
Danny waits until the silence felt like an invitation.
“What kind of thing? Logs and weeds?”
“Somethin’ like that.” Kieron grins and Danny shivers again. “The channel’s never exactly the same any two trips. I could do it blind, but seein’ as I have a passenger, it’s best if I keep my eye on the water.”
“I’m supposed to trust you to ‘un-fuck’ me, whatever that means?” Danny tried to sound agitated, but he was having a hard time actually feeling it.
“Only choice you got.” Ask was waving his cane around and mumbling something in a language Danny couldn’t identify, much less understand. “Lucky for you, I’m good at what I do. Hey, not that I couldn’t find out for myself by poking around in here, but what were you doing that made them send you that love letter? You don’t strike me as a theologian, no offense.”
“I mean, you don’t seem especially devout, ya know?”
“Nah, not really. No one could ever explain why one God was better than any other. Even the myths, the Greeks and the Norse, made as much since to me as the ones at church. I kind of though anyone could make them up.”
Ask didn’t have much in the way of eyebrows, but he managed to raise what he had impressively. “Go on…”
Danny feels like he’s suddenly gone from being casual observed to being under the microscope. He doesn’t want to keep talking, but he can no more stop than he could down the Hind of Ceryneia and he doesn’t even know what a hind is and now he’s getting scared.
“So I read about some of the newer religions and thought those seemed suspicious, so I started making up stuff. Heroes and Gods and adventures and stuff.”
Ask whistles and it could have been appreciatively but Danny thought it sounded more like a polite way of saying “You dumb shit, you’re in so much deeper than I thought.”
Kieron lets the Evenrude idle and stands up in the back of the boat. He’s taller than Danny guessed, but he must not weigh anything at all. The boat doesn’t rock even the slightest when he stands.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but…are we lost?” Danny looks out over the lake and, if he stares at the same spot long enough, he can just make out a shoreline. He can make one out in every direction, which only makes sense if they’re in the center of the lake and he’s pretty sure they aren’t.
“’Spose one of us is, at least. Or used ta’ be.” Kieron takes a moment to stare at Danny, and it’s a stare Danny interprets as “How do you rate?” He lifts a tremendous paddle from the bottom of the boat and plunged it into the water. “Been a while since I made the trip in this direction. It’s comin’ back to me now.”
“Why the oar?” Danny asked, although he doesn’t notice any difference in speed.
“Eh, some folks are funny about expectations. They expect an oar so hard that they’ll see an oar. Nothin’ I can do about it.”
Danny doesn’t say anything, but he thinks a stack of them. He thinks “Why don’t you do anything about it?” and “What do you mean ‘this direction’?” and “I don’t rate, I’m just a kid who writes stupid comic books.” He doesn’t get any indication that the boatman wants any more questions, but he also doesn’t get any suggestion that his mind is being read again, so there’s that, he guesses.
"You just make up Gods, do you?” Ask always seemed a little amused, but he seemed a little more amused now.
“Why not? They make as much sense the other ones, and they’re probably just as real.”
“No, they’re not. Not yet. Might be later, if you’re any good, which most of you aren’t.”
“Bullshit. Gods don’t just pop into existence when someone makes them up. That’s dumb.”
“Ah, you’re right, you little shit. But when people start to believe in ‘em? Then it gets weird in a hurry.” Ask looked around for something, sighed, and lifted his can, struggling a little with his balanced. He drew a circle in the air. Somehow, the image of the circle remained.
“This is your world, Danny, this circle.” He drew another one, same size, not quite concentric. Two coffee cup stains on Danny’s mental notebook. “And this, this another world. It’s like yours, but it’s not quite as real. It’s the world imagined by people’s beliefs, their faiths if you will.”
“Less real? You’re either real or you’re not.”
“What do you know about real? You people and your binaries. Man/woman. Gay/straight. Alive/dead. There’s fractional values in between in every case. Fractals. OK? Think of this second world as a fractional reality.”
“Whatever.” Danny didn’t actually see Ask rap him on the side of his head with the cane, but he felt it.
“Smart mouth. Only part of you that’s smart. Here’s where it gets interesting. Let’s say this second ring is, oh, the Greek mythology reality. It’s the reality of people who believe in Zeus and that crew.” He hooked the cane on the second loop and moved it off to the side where there was almost no overlap with the first loop. “Now, what this means is that the people who still believe in this pantheon, their beliefs are all over the place.” He drew another circle where the one he moved had previously been, one that almost, but not quite, matched the first circle. “This one’s more like one of those recent faiths you were talking about. These fellas beliefs line up pretty close.”
“Great, the universes are like a big Venn diagram.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. They key thing to remember, which I’m sure you won’t, is that the more closely aligned the believers’ beliefs, the more closely it lines up with what you think of as the ‘real’ world.”
Danny stares blankly. He wants to ask dozens of questions, but he can’t think of any that make sense. He even raises his arm slightly, thinks, and rests it back in this lap.
“Why’s it matter? I’ll tell ya why it matters. Look at this circle, the one that almost matches your world. Lotta overlap, right?”
“Looks like it, but the only parts that matter are where the circles intersect,” Ask gestured with his cane, pointing out the two spots where the two circles crossed. “Those are the only places where the realities intersect and interact. Now, your reality, it’s got more dimensions than these two here, so there’s more than two places where their reality and yours might as well be the same thing.” Ask pauses, satisfied with his buildup, ready to savor the finish. “Look what happens when all the believers’ beliefs are in perfect alignment” and he nudged the circles directly over on another.
“Shit indeed, my friend. Shit indeed.”
The shore is now clearly in sight, but that doesn't make it any clearer. If Danny focuses directly on one spot, it looks like any other prairie lake shore. When he lets his eyes or attention drift, the shoreline changes, like now, there's a faint blue glow lined with trees that couldn't possibly exist and massive, four-legged beasts lurking in the fog behind the treeline. Danny knows if he looks right at it and tries to recognize it, it'll turn back into tall grass and cattails. Doesn't stop him from trying, of course.
Danny guesses they'd probably be there by now, but the Kieron is bringing them in on a serpentine path, navigating a maze only he can see. For once, the boatman's the one who breaks the silence.
"Don't normally make the crossing this direction. Don't think the water likes it."
"You go back and forth, don't you?"
Kieron smiles and it's almost friendly.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you? Always the same direction. No clue how. Life's mysteries, huh?" He thinks about what he said for a moment, and adds, "Hell of a choice of words there."
"Funny," Danny says without any real enthusiasm. "Why's the shore keep changing?"
"Figure Ask musta told you about the circles."
"Oh yeah," Danny responds, suggesting that Ask told him rather a lot about the circles.
"Loves them circles. Or just showin' off that fancy cane o' his. He's right, though, 'bout the way they overlap."
"This is one of those places?"
"Sorta the edge of it. That place we just were?"
'They all overlap there."
Ask is on a roll now. Danny gets the impression that Ask doesn't have too many opportunities to talk to people and he makes the most of those opportunities he gets.
"Back in the day, priests had to memories holy books. They had to transcribe them, word for word, Hell, stroke for stroke. They weren't just being what you folks amusing call 'anal.' It wasn't just important to get it right, it had to be exactly the same every time."
"Sort of like the way a computer program doesn't work if you get one character wrong." Danny senses motion now. He's in the same room, on the same chair, but he feels like his moving even though his eyes tell him otherwise. His inner ear is not enjoying this.
"Yeah, yeah, you get it. Gotta get every brain processing the exact same information, lining everything up perfectly."
"I bet mass media's been a field day for them."
"Yeah, you'd think so, but that ain't how it works. Gutenberg, now Gutenberg was a field day. Didn't have to depend on drunken monks to get everything right. But the deal is, the mind has to process the words for it to work. Just looking at pictures? Watching a story? That's the difference between running a program and just looking at a screensaver. Didn't do shit."
"Huh," is all Danny can manage in response. "So, my stories. They're just stories. Nobody believes them. I don't believe them."
"Danny old boy, the folks we're talking about? They got a different relationship with time. If they think your stories are gonna mess up their game, they have a reason for it. By the way, you can thank me now. You are officially un-fucked."
"I don't feel any better. So, that e-mail. Words, because it takes a brain processing words to do this stuff, right?"
"That's about the shape of it."
"What they sent me is what fucked me up. Tried to kill me? Just hurt me real bad?" Danny notices that the walls of the room are fading and he's starting to see what's beyond outside them, and his brain feels like it's physically recoiling from whatever it is that's out there that's rotting, swarming, slashing, screaming, tearing, ripping, crying and pretty much everything that Danny never wants to see or think about every again.
"Nah, they can't do that. Doesn't work like that. They can't kill you. But they can send you to the land of the dead." Ask smiles as though admiring his handiwork. "Now let's get you the Hell out of here." He hands Danny a couple of quarters and says "When you meet my friend, you might wanna put these in your eyes. He's kind of old-fashioned..."
The boat is now approaching the shore, the right shore, the one that looks like a shore to Danny. He wants so badly to jump out and swim the last thirty feet or so, but he knows damned well it would be a disaster to do so. Besides, something's bugging him and he guesses correctly this will be his last chance to ask.
"So, why are you and Ask helping me out?"
"Damn fine question. I 'spect our bosses, the folks up on the mountain, wouldn't much care for us helpin' you. They've pretty much lost interest in your world and don't much care if someone else moves in what used to be their turf." Kieron spoke slowly, sounding very serious, and very, very old for someone with such a Texan drawl. "Some of us, though, we took a likin' to y'all. We like the way your world works, the way it interacts with ours without being ours, if that makes any sense."
"No, not really. But not any less than anything else."
"Reckon it don't. Don't mean it ain't true, though."
The bottom of the boat scrapes the shore and Kieron digs the oar into the mud to push the bow up over dry land.
"Danny, keep writin' your stories. Stir up that pot real good. Don't let any of them circles line up. You do that, we're square. Don't even need to bring me any silver next time." Danny stood up and his front foot touches dry land for the first time in what might as well be an eternity.
"And Danny? Don't look back when you get off the boat."