The noise gently shook the walls and floors of the small studio apartment.
The wood carving of Richard Nixon rocked back and forth on its hook.
The frame holding the poster of Hitler rattled slightly on the wall.
The shaking upset the clock made out of a repurposed lab rat and caused it to skip forward
three and a half minutes.
Finally, the noise managed to shake awake the sleeping artist.
"Shit!" The artist thought to herself. She quickly rolled out of bed and dug out a small
sculpture before rushing to the door.
On the other side of the door was what resembled a six-foot tall blobfish, except that it was
covered in barely-visible downy fur, and had muscular arms that were webbed like the wings
of a sugar glider. It was wearing slacks and a button-down shirt. It looked at the artist with
beady black eyes, before holding its enormous four-fingered hand out expectantly.
The artist quickly pressed the sculpture into the creature's hand. "It's called Cleanliness is Godliness," she said.
The creature closely examined the piece. It was a realistic soap carving of Mr. Clean, standing triumphant over a much smaller representation of the original bar of soap. The blobfish looked back up at the artist.
"Right, context. Well, if you leave it somewhere overnight, by morning it will have eradicated any living material in about a two-foot radius. It's a commentary on the sterilization of popular culture, as well as the dangers of adhering too strictly to-"
Before she could finish, the creature opened its two-foot wide mouth and greedily shoved the sculpture in. It chewed thoughtfully for about a minute before swallowing. Apparently satisfied, it thumped away.
Her month's rent having been paid, the artist took a sigh of relief.
Turning to her cluttered desk, the artist looked over the pages and pages of blueprints she had drawn up over the last few months. Her apartment wasn't big enough for her to assemble all of the schematics together into a full blueprint, so she had only a rough idea of what the final product would actually look like.
The idea came to her in a nightmare; over ten thousand moving parts, seventy-two illegal memes, four human brains, and a pocket dimension the size of Jupiter. This was going to be her immortality—if it didn't kill her (and everyone else) first.
Refocusing on reality, the artist began gathering her belongings. Today, she had errands to run.
BackdoorSoho was perhaps the most colorful place on the planet. The graffiti that appeared in patches across the rest of Manhattan expanded to cover every surface that would take paint, and some that wouldn’t. Even the sky was slowly working its way through the color spectrum. Right now it was light green.
The streets, in contrast with the grid of upper Manhattan, wound back and forth, over and under each other in spatially impossible ways, making the neighborhood both massive and tiny at the same time.
The storefronts were often stacked one on top of the other, with stairs, ladders and walkways creating layers on layers and streets on streets.
Her first stop was the metalworking shop, in a narrow alley off Duchamp Boulevard known as Sélavy Alley.
A man with receding black hair stood over a workbench.
"Hi, Jakob," the artist said as she walked through the open storefront.
"Hey, kiddo," he replied. Jakob called everybody "kiddo." The artist was fairly sure he didn't know her name.
She looked at the scorch marks on the wall. One of the shelves had collapsed. The floor had puddles of what looked like motor oil. "What happened," she asked Jakob.
"Some Church wackos wanted me to build them something. Called it 'the will of he who shall be made whole' or some malarkey. They got mad when I said no, so I had to get Hank to take care of them."
As if on cue, a seven-foot tall amalgamation of used car parts in a vaguely human shape lumbered in from the back of the shop. A license plate reading "HANK" was screwed on to its chest.
"Wasn't anything he couldn't handle, of course. What did you need?"
"I'm here to pick up the parts I ordered."
"Right, right." He went to the back of the shop.
The artist tapped her foot and looked at the piles of scrap metal strewn about the small shop. She wondered if she would be able to recoup some of these expenses if something went wrong. She then realized that if anything did go wrong, she, and a lot of other people, would probably be dead.
He came back out a minute later, holding a large pile of shining metal parts.
"Let's see here", he said, "we have five Penrose gears,"
He placed five stainless steel gears that were neither spirals nor circles on the counter.
"Three reinforced psychic shields, 30 centimeters by 60 centimeters by 2 centimeters,"
He produced three metal rectangles and placed them next to the gears.
"And twelve custom parts, made from imaginary metal." He pretended to lift several metal pieces up onto the counter.
"If you don't mind me asking, what do you need all these for?"
"Secret project. If I'm really lucky, you can see it at the “Sommes-Nous Devenus Magnifiques?” exhibition in about five years."
The artist took one of the gears into her hands and inspected it closely. It twisted back on itself in a way that defied Euclidean geometry, an object that was both spiral and complete circle.
Inspecting the shields, she was able to see the complex and delicate layering of telekill alloy. Hopefully this would be enough to prevent resonance.
She pretended to inspect the imaginary metal. Jakob did good work.
"You've really outdone yourself, Jakob. These are fantastic," the artist said as she wrapped the parts in cloth and placed them in her bag.
"Art demands the best,” Jakob replied. “Of everything.”.
The artist gave Jakob a fistful of crumpled bills, hugged Hank, and left the shop.
Her next stop was three stories above one of the main streets. As she climbed up the fire escape, she saw the sign that said “Biological Components and Alterations.” The storefront windows were barred from the inside, and the door was a solid piece of metal.
Opening the door, she saw Frank talking on the phone. She shut the door as quietly as possible.
"For the last time, no! I've already told you, I can make the zygote, but you're going to have to find someone else to implant it."
Frank looked at the artist and rolled his eyes.
"No, I don't know anyone who can do that because nobody's ever done anything like this before."
He held his hand to the mouthpiece. "This might take a while. You got a minute?" The artist nodded and sat down on a whale vertebra.
He turned back to the phone. "Look, I've been far more reasonable with you than any sane person should be. What you're doing is dangerous, irresponsible, and quite frankly, doesn't make any sense. The only reason I'm doing this is I'm reasonably certain this won't kill you, and also because you're paying me."
The artist stifled a giggle.
"Honestly, I don't care. You either pick it up when it's ready, give me my money, and leave me alone; or tell me now, and we can skip straight to the leaving me alone part."
"Fine, I'll see you on Friday. Goodbye."
Frank hung up the phone and put his head in his hands. "I swear to god, you people are going to kill me. I mean, an in-utero art project? Why would anyone in their right mind do that? I try to talk her down, and she's like, 'no, I already booked the gallery space nine months in advance.' I swear, sometimes I forget why I moved here."
"The rent's cheap." The artist pointed out.
"Yeah, that's probably it. What did you need?"
"I need some kind of sedative for that clock you sold me. It keeps gaining time whenever anyone bangs on the wall."
"You do realize it's not meant to be an accurate timepiece, right?"
"I know, but it's getting out of control, and I can't re-set it."
Frank shrugged and grabbed a small phial from under the counter.
"A drop of this should slow the heartbeat enough to let time catch up. You'll have to experiment with it to get the correct dosage. Don't give it more than five drops in twenty-four hours."
"Thanks," the artist said, handing him a handful of money and some change.
"Has my order come in yet?"
"No it hasn't," Frank replied, scratching his head. "It's too dangerous to ship it here, so they've decided to take it through the Ways. Even then, they're really worried that something might happen. Are you sure I can't talk you into something less potentially world-ending? I've got a couple things in stock that should do what you want."
"No thanks," the artist said, "the potential disaster is central to the theme."
"I would tell you you're making a huge mistake, but you wouldn't listen to me anyway."
The artist walked to the door. "Good luck with that zygote," she called back as she returned to the street.
"Thanks. I really need to stop selling that girl stuff."
Outside, the sky had changed to a golden yellow. A girl was doing backflips down the sidewalk. A couple was waltzing in the middle of the street (nobody owned cars in BackdoorSoho, and no one really knew why it had streets). The artist smiled to herself.
But there was no time to dwell on that. The artist started making her way toward the gallery space. She had a lot of work to do.