Dark Matter Jukebox

Dark Matter Jukebox

Welcome to the Dark Matter Jukebox!

Every week, we post a new story from the previous issue of Dark Matter Magazine right here, FREE to read for everyone. Check back every Monday for new content to start your week.

If you like what you read below, think about supporting Dark Matter and the authors and artists we publish by purchasing an issue or by becoming a member with Dark Matter. Member tiers start as low as $1 per month and include features like print subscriptions, free issue downloads, and 20% off all items in the shop, including books from our two new trade imprints, Dark Matter INK and Dark Hart Books. Learn more and become a member today.

Ms. Höffern Stays Abreast of the News

MS. HÖFFERN STAYS ABREAST OF THE NEWS

By Sarah Pauling

From Dark Matter Magazine Issue 008 (March-April 2022)

God scrambles the launch codes in late May.

Ms. Höffern wakes up at 7 p.m. and downloads the news over breakfast, tutting over the American security breach that had allowed God to infiltrate the NSA. Then she tidies up her apartment kitchen, pulls on a black wig and a crystal-studded necklace, and retires to her net immersion lounge.

She plugs the cable into the nape of her neck and gets comfortable, allowing the fitstart lights to flash across the back of her lids. She wakes to her private chatroom. On the table before her are a pack of tarot cards, a bowl of lemon drops, and a crystal ball. 

“Welcome, traveler,” she says, words drizzling gravitas, withered hands laid out on pearl-white cloth.

Her first customer of the night sits behind the table. His motions are ungainly, perhaps from arthritis or injury. Enhanced lenses make his corneas glow in the low light.

“Ms. Höffern,” he says in careful German. “May we discuss world events?

Ms. Höffern recognizes the Turkish accent and switches language with some relief. “I sense you are uncertain of humanity’s future.”

The man—older, likely to respond well to traditional phrasing—studies her. Ms. Höffern frequently speaks comfort to the lonely and the anxious, nearly as often as she speaks flattery to the self-assured. She waits in strategic silence to determine which he will be.

Finally, her guest says, “Maybe people should be happy that this creature wants to protect everybody. People say it calls itself a god. Or maybe it is God, or it’s the Mahdi, and we’re at the end of the world. People say–”

Ms. Höffern shakes her head before he finishes his sentence. “Don’t worry. I sense no divine presence here and now in this world. I predict only a time of earthly confusion.”

“I don’t think I understand.”

Ms. Höffern glances at the payment information projected to the left of her vision. “You live in Stuttgart, yes? Stuttgart’s soul will not fall to this man-made thing that calls itself a god. Exercise patience, and you may find opportunity in uncertainty. I sense you are not the type to succumb to fear.”

Her tracer program paints two thin lines over her customer’s vision, outlining the direction of his focus. His gaze skims past the crystal ball and the cards, swerving in multiple directions.

“You don’t believe in my power,” she says immediately.

He surprises her with a shrug. “I figure if you’ve got the crystal ball…well, people either believe you already or they don’t. But my work can be isolating, so it’s nice to have someone to talk to. Someone who still acts like they believe in higher things.”

Ms. Höffern taps her nails against the table. They’re painted with eclectic and mismatched symbols: ankh, crescent, wheel, bone, cross, rune, eye, Celtic knot. No one sign intersects with another.

“If that’s what you want to call it,” she says, and something in her tone must catch his attention before he signs off.

Do you believe in God, Ms. Höffern?” He gives her a peculiar smile—a quirk at both corners, tight and pulling his cheeks into sharper relief.

 “No.” In the back of her head, Ms. Höffern downloads news headlines.

“Why not?”

“Because,” she says curtly, “if God were real, he would’ve spoken to me by now. I’m riotously popular with extradimensional beings.”

“Oh.” The man’s brows draw downward.

Ms. Höffern cuts the connection more impatiently than she normally would.

She accepts her next caller: a woman whose lips fold back from big front teeth when she smiles. Green hair sticks to her forehead.

“Oh god,” Ms. Höffern groans.

“Pinar!” Brenna flattens the name into an Arkansas drawl. “It’s been ages.

🔮

In New Mexico, famed televangelist Brenna Bautista extols His virtues. Ms. Höffern watches everything—feels everything—from the comfort of her immersion lounge.

“I wanna shake you,” Brenna tells the crowd, voice trembling, pupils dopamine-wide. “I wanna reach through your hardware and your wetware and shake you because we’re here, we’ve done it, we’ve found God! He has come for His children! We have lived to see the day!”

Her eyes rake over the throngs that have gathered to see her. Her industrial-rating neural co-processor makes sensory contact with the thousands tuning in from home. Lips to brain, heart to mind.

“This is so,” Brenna quotes Ephesians, raising a hand to the endless blue expanse, “God’s multi-faceted wisdom may now be made known.” A sway and a shudder run through her from top to bottom. “Multi-faceted, you hear? Many faces, one God. I see Him in each and every one of you—every one of His children who’s been exposed to the code. This is your chance to be part of something bigger than yourself!”

Not your daddy’s preacher, her colleagues at the Great Revival Broadcast Network have called her: ambiguously under 30, tattooed, loud and unorthodox and messy with glee. At her most theatric, she wears leather jackets and crowns of crystal spikes. At her gentlest, her lips are crusted in dried petals and her eyes are shifted to fluorite purple-blue.

Revolutionary, her devotees call her. Iconic.

Ms. Höffern calls her a familiar pain.

🔮

“Don’t come as no surprise,” Brenna says in English, jiggling her foot against the edge of Ms. Höffern’s table. “He already took out uranium—whatsit, uranium enrichment things. And labs making bioweapons, EMPs, drones—AI and everything else. You didn’t think He’d stop before hitting the nukes?”

“Please,” Ms. Höffern huffs. She speaks in Turkish; English translation programs are affordable, and she’s had one in her neural co-processor for ages. “The thing’s goal has been obvious from the beginning.”

“And you don’t like global nuke-you-lar disarmament?”

“I just think it’s silly for people to go around calling a computer virus a god, that’s all.”

“That’s a riot, coming from you.” Brenna eyes the wig.

“That’s not…this is my living, Brenna,” Ms. Höffern says (as she’s said many times before). “People want to have a genuine experience; I want to make rent.”

“And do they? See something genuine, I mean.”

Ms. Höffern casts a critical glance over her own tools of the trade. She scowls at Brenna’s propped feet; opens the admin menu and turns off the table. Brenna startles as the front legs of her chair slap back onto the floor. What’s left between them is a floating bowl of lemon drops.

“I help them, don’t I?” Ms. Höffern snaps. “I give them comfort. And real advice.”

“That puts you head-and-shoulders over the rest of our kin, if I’m being honest.”

She sits up a bit straighter. “I can think of worse things than giving people the relief of an orderly cosmology for half an hour. Sometimes they’re just yearning to believe in anything at all.”

Brenna nods seriously. “So, you see what I’m saying! It’s like, okay, you ever been to a real big concert, when the pyrotechnics start going and the holo-effects are in full swing? You ever clap your hands together with a great big crowd, feeling the universal consciousness flood in?”

“What?”

“You ever clap ’cause you believe in fairies?”

“Are you high? Why would you pay to come here when you’re–”

“Same reason I clicked on your little pop-up the first time,” Brenna says, with a tooth-bearing grin. Her cheeks are flushed, her lurid hair sticking in pieces to her forehead. “You’re an artist. You’re a savvy veteran businesswoman who knows how to fight philosophically dirty. And I wanna talk to somebody who knows how to forge human belief from scratch, with words, with her own two hands.”

🔮

The newest headline from the net: WHO PROGRAMMED GOD?

Ms. Höffern disapproves. The earthly establishment is in enough of a tizzy without the assistance of clickbait. She opens it anyway.

The Elohim virus—as it prefers to call itself—penetrates any security system used to hide dirty pasts and presents. It ruthlessly targets governments, economic councils, religious organizations. It uses methods from disarming to whistleblowing to the falsification of internal communications. Once it enters a system, its control is ruthless and complete.

It does not limit itself to conventional hardware.

The first story of a man claiming to be Elohim was released in January. Then a woman followed. Then a child. Each hailed from a different continent. Each preached piety, disarmament, and the ascension of humankind towards something beyond itself.

All three had speech patterns that, when run through a detector, were determined to be identical. All three had abandoned their homes, their loved ones, and their names.

All three had been previously outfitted with Mednetic neural co-processors.

The corruption of the Simons co-processor—just out of grafting trials—followed. News outlets reported it as a human tragedy. Then an economic disaster.

On the net, someone keeps a database: the legal name of each person who’s become infected with Elohim and left leave their life behind.

🔮

“And you are a facet of Elohim,” Brenna says in a recording from February. She leans in, hands dangling between knees, to interview the teenager before her.

He’s dressed in a flannel button-down; his dreadlocks are adorned with flowers.

“Nope,” he says, carefully crossing his legs. “I am Elohim.”

His motions are catlike, which is not to say they are graceful. He moves in long, cautious arcs interspersed with awkward darting motions. When he sips from the glass in front of him, he needs to use two hands.

At first the Great Revival Broadcast Network had been reluctant to air coverage of something as sacrilegiously self-assured as Elohim. Ms. Höffern suspects that the force of Brenna’s personality—and possibly her bank account—had inspired the shift in official position.

“Yeah.” Brenna’s voice tilts urgent. “Yeah, of course you’re Elohim. But I mean, there are other people who have been given over to the code. Hundreds confirmed. CNN is reporting upwards of a thousand.”

“Yep. A thousand given.”

“Are you in communication with all of them? Do you speak to each other, in your minds?”

Her shaking hand rises as though to touch the boy’s sleeve.

“Nope,” he says. “A thousand given. One of me. I’m in Tehran and Reykjavik and Santiago de Cuba. I’m wiretapping programs in Washington. I’m a uranium enrichment plant in Rokkasho. I’m bioweapons development in Detrick. I became these things so they would become me. So they would abandon the things that they were before.”

Help me understand. You’re a person right now.”

“Nope. I’m in New Delhi–”

“Shit, I know.” Brenna waves a hand. “But your body, right here—what happened to the person it used to be?”

His eyes swivel like he can’t ingest information fast enough. “So they would abandon the things that they were before. Leave your nets,” he says, “and follow Me.”

His smile is peculiar: a quirk at both corners, tight and pulling his cheeks into sharper relief.

🔮

“I’m telling you, it was plural,” Brenna beams. “Way back when the word got formed. It got changed around eventually, once the Israelites decided they were only supposed to worship one thing, but the name of God—Elohim—is plural. Don’t tell me that ain’t fascinating. Like, intellectually.”

“Hmm,” Ms. Höffern contributes. “Did you pay for the full hour consultation-slash-parting-of-the-veil-slash-divining-of-the-yet-to-come?”

“’Course.”

“Fine. Remind me how you take your coffee?”

Brenna holds up three fingers. Ms. Höffern replicates as many creams.

“I swear, you take it sweeter than anyone I’ve ever known.” After a moment’s thought, honesty compels her to add, “Besides my husband in his last years. After he stopped forcing himself to take it black.”

“What changed his mind?”

“He said that coffee in Germany couldn’t rival the Turkish experience, so he might as well dilute the disappointment.”

“That’s cute.”

“Yes.” A smile tugs at her lips despite her best efforts. “It was a weak and endearing excuse.”

Brenna laughs so readily that Ms. Höffern wonders whether her sense of time is unraveling—whether Brenna and Mehmet had met after all. It’s the kind of laugh that, when induced by such feeble humor, could only be carried by personal fondness.

Ms. Höffern’s favorite morning show host once interviewed a scientist who showed the entire universe stretched out on a timeline from January to December, with the whole of human existence shoved up into the final hour of the final day. Taking her life on this scale—stretched unbroken from Ankara to Berlin—Mehmet populated her world from May until November. Brenna appeared only when winter did.

“Did you see,” Brenna says, grabbing a lemon drop, “what the latest confirmed Elohim said at the end of my interview? She said, ‘I wanna taste colorful things.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”

Ms. Höffern’s seen the fashion trends on the news: young people decked out in pastel flowers, pearls pasted onto their cheeks, garish and mesmerizing. She thinks of her own wedding veil from so many years ago. Brilliant red, patterned in golden blooms, it said: something important happens here.

She hasn’t worn colors that bright in a long time. Funerals are more familiar now.

“Brenna.” She examines the edge of her mug. “What are you trying to do?”

“Hmm?”

“I know you. The things you say in your broadcasts. You worship this thing. Can’t you…don’t you see that it’s just faulty wiring, spiraled out of control? You’re a pastor. Shouldn’t this whole mess enrage you? Shouldn’t it be like the golden calf to you?”

Brenna looks delighted by the metaphor. She bites down on her candy, cracking it in half between her teeth. “Mmm. Maybe it should. But, mmm, listen: the golden calf was still forged from gold and the dust on which Gabriel himself had tread. Hey, can I get a pinch of sugar?”

For blasphemy, the words have a well-worn cadence. Like a homily given again and again.

🔮

The next clickbait article contains a recording of a very old woman.

“We greenlighted it,” she says in softly accented English, “to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.”

She looks directly at the interviewer, which translates to looking directly into Ms. Höffern’s eyes in the sensory recording.

“They told us it was incredibly intelligent. Gigantic. I mean, it was for its time. It strictly targeted only the relevant systems—PLCs in the exact right computers—and lay docile in all the others.”

“How many others?” the interviewer asks.

“Oh, all of them,” the woman says dismissively. Then: “That’s a joke. It was just in Iranian computers. Mostly.”

“Both the US and Israel denied involvement in the creation of this cyberweapon. How–”

“I can’t prove it,” the woman says quickly, pulling at a piece of lint on her sweater. “I have nothing. No access to the records. Besides, it was only meant to target threats to our interests abroad. Nuclear specifically. We weren’t even thinking about bio or EMP.”

The interviewer doesn’t respond.

“Smartest virus ever created,” the woman muses to herself. “But it was only so much code, weaving through a hundred thousand machines.”

Then she says: “They told us it was supposed to self-destruct.”

🔮

“Serpents and dogs with many heads, gods with many arms. Foxes with nine tails.”

Brenna raises her arms to the true blue sky, in Michigan this time. Her audience hits record numbers, a sea of faces turned to heaven.

“Artificial personal assistants with one single, sassy voice programmed into millions of co-processors—and before that, millions of phones. The Triple Goddess. The Holy Trinity. We like our gods with many heads.”

She grins. A single bead of sweat moves down her temple. Even through the neural broadcast the heat is palpable, unseasonable, bathing the crowd.

“You ever clap in rhythm with the crowd at a concert, feeling transcendental? Feeling universal consciousness flood in?”

A jump in the recording, and Brenna’s face fills up the field of vision. She has a scar over her lip that she must have paid to have edited out of her net avatar, as Ms. Höffern has never seen it before. It slices through the skin at an angle, deep enough to have once been a painful, bleeding gash.

From four thousand miles away, Brenna looks straight at Ms. Höffern and says, “Clap if you believe in fairies.”

🔮

“You’ve been a good friend to me, Pinar,” Brenna says. “Whether you meant to or not. I regret never coming out to Berlin to meet you in person.”

A deeper misgiving slides down Ms. Höffern’s spine. “Why are you telling me this now?”

“I was always impressed by your work.” Brenna traces a finger over her shoulder tattoo: Sailor Moon’s wand. “You forge belief in people, not because you buy any of it yourself, but because you have the knowledge and the talent.”

“It—it’s just an immigrant’s living,” Ms. Höffern laughs nervously. “It’s just mood lighting. Just a hokey crystal ball.”

 “No, listen. It’s the ability to spread out over the world and not grow thin. It’s–”

She tries to trace a concept in the air. Then she stills, hands raised, unadorned nails curling gently inwards, touching the naked heels of her palms.

“Can’t get my words around it, really. But it’s…my head’s been wrestling this for a long, long time.”

She lowers her hands.

Over the years, Ms. Höffern has accepted a truism that Brenna can’t seem to face: the both of them are con people. Ms. Höffern does her preaching at night, while Brenna lets the daylight in. Ms. Höffern invents her “messages from beyond” on the spot, while Brenna practices sermons for weeks in advance (sometimes with Ms. Höffern’s reluctant feedback).  Ms. Höffern grants her clients privacy through discretion, while Brenna’s thrive in mass anonymity.

None of these distinctions matter. Neither woman has a claim to the high road. Making clients feel comfortable—protected in the palm of a God’s hand; safe in the eye of a storming universe—doesn’t mean they are.

Just because Brenna believes what she’s saying shouldn’t make it different. Shouldn’t make it true. (But God, does she believe.)

“I’m afraid,” Ms. Höffern says, “that you’re going to do something rash.”

“I just like being a part of bigger things, is all.”

Listen to me. You’re young, you like looking for miracles–”

“Not miracles.” Brenna no longer leans back in her seat. Her focus cuts. Lenses slide across her augmented eyes, stacking and slotting into place like subtle gears: faint hexagons of reflected light where there hadn’t been before.

Then her shoulders jerk. She leans forward, crunches into herself as though punctured, keeps deflating until she’s doubled over, hair falling into her face until there’s nothing left to see.

Ms. Höffern reaches out in panic, then her hand hovers. Nothing happens. Brenna slouches there in silence, shoulders moving with each breath.

She could be tired or overwhelmed or exhilarated or all of those things. Sometimes Ms. Höffern forgets that an hour isn’t long enough to really know someone. Not even nowadays.

She hesitates. Then she lays a hand on Brenna’s hair.

“Not miracles,” the girl repeats as her five-minute warning flashes over Ms. Höffern’s vision. “I just…we should be a part of bigger things.”

🔮

Brenna Bautista’s disappearance makes headlines the next week.

Of particular interest to the media is her dirty road to fame: blackmailed networks and blackballed competitors. Feuds with fact-checkers. Outrageous expenditures. The dramatic falling-out with her influential Methodist father.

The gossip rags are especially unkind. They pick her to pieces, toddler to terror. Her mother beat her, or her father was a drunk. The reports offer no proof. They ask their audience to take it on faith.

They say she’s given herself over to something sinister, bigger than herself. That she won’t be back.

Ms. Höffern hopes—with an unraveling, ragged kind of hope—that someone will hold a funeral. Of course, no one does. Brenna isn’t a familiar kind of dead.

🔮

Ms. Höffern wakes up at 7 p.m. and downloads the news over breakfast. She tidies up her kitchen, pulls on a black wig and a plastic emerald necklace, and retreats to her net immersion lounge.

In her chatroom is the man from Stuttgart. He carefully crosses his legs, catlike but ungraceful. His eyes swivel like they can’t keep up with his brain.

Maybe people should be happy to know a creature called God,” he says. “She was happy with me. Did you know: you reminded her of her kindest aunt? At times she almost loved you. I have become that love and it has become me.”

“Go to hell,” Ms. Höffern tells him.

The man shrugs.

In defiance of the ensuing silence, Ms. Höffern snatches a lemon drop and bites down hard. Pain shoots up into her gums. The sugar cracks.

The man from Stuttgart tilts his head—ungainly, as though from arthritis or injury. “Will you keep making people believe in things?”

“I don’t make them.” Ms. Höffern digs her nails into her thigh. “I never make them.”

He gives her a thoughtful nod. “You told me the other day that extra-dimensional beings are fond of you. Was that true?”

“If I meet one, I’ll ask it.”

The man grins—a quirk at both corners, tight. “Maybe people should be happy with what they have.”

He disconnects.

Ms. Höffern buries her face in her painted nails, breathing deeply. She thinks of the dress, dark and modest, that she wore to Mehmet’s funeral and every funeral since.

She disconnects from her chatroom and makes herself a real coffee. The sun, just beginning its descent, lays its heat over the pavement and leaves bright flashes along the windows across the street, light where there hadn’t been before. A gaggle of friends laugh their way down the avenue.

Ms. Höffern lives on the sixth floor. She sees architecture, old and new, stretch into the skyline, an awkward pastiche of human ingenuity.

Soon lights from downtown will change color to pattern the dark.

Ms. Höffern treasures up all these things and ponders them in her heart.

🔮

She goes traveling in late August.

She and her husband saved some money over the years. It takes all her courage to dip into that reserve. The funds had always been for later, and for if.

Then Ms. Höffern realizes that later is running out. She hopes she hasn’t run out of if.

She’s earned a vacation: Washington, or Reykjavik, or Santiago de Cuba. The people will practice strange foreign customs there, but perhaps they will also have some inborn human quality she will recognize. She thinks of the wedding veil, red with golden flowers, tucked in the back of her closet.

Weddings, funerals. People trying to become a part of bigger things.

She falls asleep in the international terminal, bound for New Delhi. In her dream, she tells fortunes while wearing her mourning dress. Flowers push through the high collar and sprout between her cuffs. They turn her skin to gold. She raises her hands to heaven and sees a lovely empty sky.

She wakes to the roar of a plane taking off from the runway. A headline projects to the left of her vision:

MISSING TELEVANGELIST FOUND ALIVE IN ROME.

She stirs cream into her terrible airport coffee. She downloads the news.

The face is the same: bright hair, bright eyes, big teeth. A scar over her lip. Flowers in her hair.

Even the words are right, what little is quoted directly: the explanation that she’s found God. That she left her life of materialism for something bigger.  Ms. Höffern studies the recording to determine if Brenna’s eyes move too erratically, but there’s no way to tell from the three-second clip; Elohim has gotten more comfortable in its bodies over the last few months.

Even the smile is hers. Like a resurrection.

Ms. Höffern doesn’t realize she’s spilling her coffee until it’s a puddle on the geometric carpet.

She shuts off her newsfeed.

Rome is an old, sacred place, filled with relics and icons and old, sacred volcanoes. Probably too hot to be pleasant, and too crowded with tourists who all want an encounter with dimensions beyond the third.

A destination chosen with naïve but sincere thoughts of divinity.

Not a god’s faith. Not a machine’s. A human kind of faith—a Brenna kind of fallibility. Or something very much like her.

“Pardon me,” Ms. Höffern says to a passing airport attendant. “Where is the customer service desk?”

She picks up her fairy-patterned carry-on. Her knees barely protest as she stands.

“I hope it’s not too late to make a change.”



© 2021, Sarah Pauling