The following is a selection of chapters from NeoVictorian’s debut novel Sanity, republished here with permission from the author
You can purchase the full novel here.
13 years ago, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California
January 20, 12:30 pm
I sit on the redwood bench that was installed during the first FDR administration, according to the little brass plaque, eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich and watching the wannabe Masters of the Universe shamble across the ancient bricks. I read Bonfire of the Vanities a few weeks ago and, man, this place is full characters that I think I could find a part for them, somewhere in there.
There are plenty of attractive women sprinkled amongst the bulging stomachs and asses poured into too-tight jeans, but many of the prettier ones + most of the less pretty ones have the tight-lipped look of the budding feminist: shoulders slightly hooked in, short-necked, jaw set, eyes grimly focused on the ground ahead, except when remembering to scan for predatory male potential rapists here in the brightness of a California winter sun. I think back to the afternoon I spent with Anna over winter break, big open sunny Anna now at the community college studying to be a medical lab tech, we didn’t talk about plans to join the elites, politics gender theory racial injustice the suffering Haitians or was it the Sudanese? All the things most Stanford women want to talk about at parties, until they’ve had six or ten drinks. Then the social justice mask comes off and they can finally reveal what they really want, way down deep. It would be a paradise if I wanted to have lots of mediocre sex with half-responsive womangirls who may regret it in the morning.
Anna and I had lunch and talked about how excited she was about working in a lab and helping people get well and I said the Stanford campus was beautiful and how much I liked it in general and how great it was that the drought was over and the hills were green again, then we went to her apartment and drank and laughed and fucked, over and over, I hadn’t seen her since August and we didn’t ask about other people or the future or When will I see you again? I was driving down to LAX that night to fly out to Hawaii for a week. I said “Sorry, but I have to leave in a minute,” and she laughed and said “Don’t be sorry, silly,” and brought a warm washcloth from the bath and cleaned me, and as I was walking out she was standing there naked, she smiled and said “Just let me know when you’ll be in town so I can put on clean sheets” and it was time to go but I moved toward her to grab that wonderful ass in both hands just one more…
The sunlit quad has turned foggy in my eyes as I replay that memory, but the ancient automatic part of my brain that’s always on the lookout for threats recognizes this cheery Hi! is aimed at me and I look left and there’s a woman there, a little farther away than I’d expect for someone addressing me. She has a pleasant round relaxed face, tight jeans and a fitted black top that show a nice narrow waist and excellent hips, faint laugh lines around the eyes indicating 32-35, blond hair short off her collar. She’s not wearing shades, unlike most of the people walking around and her eyes are not any color ever seen in a human—almost purple. I realize she’s wearing colored contacts and wonder why.
She speaks again, still strangely far away and not coming any closer.
“Apologies for interrupting your lunch,” and I realize there’s a third of a sandwich still in my right hand, “but I’m afraid I have a limited window, so here we are.”
I have no idea what she’s after and for a second I think maybe this is some kind of scam, or a robbery; but who runs a scam on some college freshman sitting on the edge of the vast Stanford quad?
“What’s your name?” I say, figuring if it sounds too fake I can certainly out run her; my eyes are practically even with hers though I’m sitting down, she can’t be more than five-two.
“I’m Martha and I’m here to serve,” she says, brightly, and we both laugh because I get and she knew I’d get it. Suddenly I have an inkling where she’s coming from.
“Mind if I sit for a minute?” she says and I nod once, she moves smoothly, with purpose, knees slightly bent, she moves like a female tiger that knows nothing in the environment can threaten her. She eases herself onto the bench to my left, leaving a couple of feet between us. She turns her head toward me and does a little eyebrow lift, like “I’ll bet you think this is pretty strange,” and that’s all it takes to break the ice. I chuckle and she turns back and looks out across the quad, faintly smiling.
“I have a message from Mr. Strauss,” she says and it’s like my antennae all tune in, the hair on my arms stands up, the feeling you get when you know that this is not idle chatter, words said to fill in the awkward silence; these are words of meaning.
“Why don’t you eat the rest of your sandwich? It makes things look natural,” she says, still looking straight ahead and I take a bite, there isn’t anyone within 100 feet of us but we do want to look natural, the way she says it makes perfect sense.
“In a couple of days a Dr. Lee is going to arrive on campus from South Korea, for a series of lectures and to help fine tune the new Ultra-Low Temperature Lab equipment. He’ll be here through the summer.
“They’re setting him up a temporary office in the Moore Materials Building. A week from today at 2:00 o’clock he’ll be there. You should drop by and have a chat. He has some very interesting things to say, about materials science and so on.”
She turns again, finally looking me in the eyes, the purplish contacts big and obvious now. Strange that everything else about her is natural, studiously so; no makeup at all even the eyes no rings bracelets earrings piercings and her short thick hair moves like there’s nothing on it.
She smiles, happily, the faint lines under her eyes bunching but no teeth.
“You’re wondering about the contacts—I need contacts, anyway, and these are all most people remember, if anybody asks.”
“Well, I’d say they’re working for you, except I’d remember a lot more.” I chuckle and toss the last of the sandwich in my mouth.
“Jim White told me I’d enjoy meeting you. Just as he told you last spring, all of this is your choice; if you don’t want to meet Dr. Lee, no one will take it personally. But if you decide not to, Strauss and Strauss will take it as a sign you’re opting out. You can get on with your life and no one will know about any of this.
“I’ve never met you, Cal, but I know you by reputation, let’s say. I think you’ll be there. Because you want to know, don’t you?”
She turns back to me again, and it’s tempting to look down at the creamy skin below her throat and the tops of her breasts just visible through the scoop-neck of the shirt, but I look into her eyes, look hard, the contacts are like a shield but I let my field of view expand to take in more, the smooth faint-freckled skin of her forehead the cheekbones the nose with the slightest crook in the bridge, like it was once broken, the unpainted full pink lips, I’m just observing and she’s doing the same, we have at least one thing in common, we thirst for knowledge and understanding and wisdom, I start to see her as a friend, as a soul. People around us on this campus, I can feel them too, they think what they are is nothing but DNA and evolution and chance, conditioning and the power structure. The woman next to me is more, so much more, and I know she sees me the same. I know.
She tilts her head up and makes that eyebrow raise again, and I laugh, an easy simple laugh, not a social signal but merely joy.
She puts a more serious look on her face. “I was going to just give you the message and move on, Cal. That would accomplish my mission. But I’m making a judgement in the field—you’re ready for, and need, to receive a bit more information on what we’re doing here.”
She stands, faces me, leans forward, closer than she’s been yet, speaking softly.
“I’m at the Hotel California. Room 218. It’s a bit of a walk. Your choice; if you decide to, come up at 6:00 and we’ll have some room service dinner and I’ll give you a brief.
“After that, I’m flying out early tomorrow. After that, I’m sure we’ll know the right thing to do.”
She turns and walks, a tigress again, flowing across the big courtyard. I watch her the whole time, until she disappears.
13 years ago, Palo Alto, California
January 20, 6:56 pm
Martha cuts her last bit of Coq au vin neatly in two, then decides to skewer both halves with her fork and finish them off. A chunk of my steak is still on the plate, but I’m full enough. I push it away an inch to signal.
When I stand in front of her door at 5:59 I keep my knees bent just a little, ready to make a move in any direction. I’m intrigued, interested and wondering. I realize she’s set me up perfectly for all three, that I know nothing, really, except a few scattered clues and statements amongst two conversations, with her and Jim White. The only solid thing I have is my conscious/subconscious assessments of two people—two people who give the impression of enormous reserves of intelligence, competence, strength.
It’s as much as we get, much of the time, to make decisions. I knock firmly.
There’s the sound of the bolt, the privacy bar and what I think is a wedge being pulled out of place below, and the door opens and she’s there, wearing the same clothes as this afternoon, smiling. Indoors, she looks younger than she did in the bright sun.
“Hi Cal. I’m glad you came,” is her simple greeting. The hotel room turns out to be a hell of a nice suite, at least compared with any I’ve ever stayed in—full kitchen, living room, bedroom behind a closed door to the right.
“Why don’t you sit in this easy chair?”
I do, and she sits to my right, on the couch.
“I apologize, but you’re going to have to excuse me for a few minutes. I have a couple of time-sensitive matters to take care of. Do you mind reading in the meantime?”
The coffee table has a few books: The Nicomachean Ethics, Wylie’s Generation of Vipers still with the first edition dust cover, and a classic old yellowed paperback of The Prince that looks like it’s from the 1950s. There’s no way these came with the room.
“Not at all.”
“There are drinks in the big cabinet. Ice in the freezer. Help yourself.”
She nods, stands, walks through the bedroom door and closes it to an inch behind her. I get up and open the cabinet. There are half a dozen bottles of wine in a mini rack, vodka, gin and three bottles of top shelf whisky. I take the Irish, pour two fingers in a tumbler and sit back down to read Machiavelli.
Who the hell needs ice?
“Another drink?” she asks.
She gets up from the table, pours me a splash of the Irish, and gets some exotic small-batch bourbon for herself, neat.
“Let’s move back to the living room.”
I take a seat in the same chair as before and she eases into the one across. It occurs to me that I’ve never made any physical contact with her. She’s kept her distance.
She tucks her legs under her in the chair and looks at me, the lights are dimmed, the curtains closed and the right side of her face is slightly in shadow, she just looks, observing me with the concentration of a scientist, and I feel it and do the same with her, not looking at the details, the freckles eyebrows lips chin collarbones showing below her neck but somehow I understand to look at her as she’s looking at me, at the Whole, the Gestalt of the human who forms out of nothing but a pattern and through self-willing coalesces out of a grain of the dust of the earth and the stars and expands in spacetime along four dimensions for its years, its worldline touching others’ and deflecting, nearly merging at times with others, shrinking a little at the end then suddenly closing to a point in space.
But the track in the Universe remains.
There’s an old practice of looking at yourself in the mirror in a dim light, preferably just a candle, and if you don’t move your eyes, don’t focus, just keep looking at the shape of your face it only takes seconds before you start to see the most interesting things, yourself as an older man as a baby a skeleton an actor another color another race the other sex. I look at her this way, in the artificial gloaming, and the details begin to dim, her nose and ears begin to merge with her skull, her face becomes just a pale oval then begins to form into the face of the moon, I’m quiet and still as a living thing can be, the moon begins to change shape again and now it looks more and more like Anna, the face gets longer and narrower, the smile of simple joy begins to show, but now the face is changing again, cheeks puffing out and the chin receding and there’s more fat around the eyes and the smile begins to lose its joy, it’s the smile of the lips alone and the face is the face of Mother.
There’s a sound, a low growl coming from the bottom of a throat and I can feel myself again, feel a sharp pain across my chest like angina, the growl is coming from my own throat and Mother is looking at me with her look of sorrow, regret and guilt-inducing pain, oh God I’ve disappointed Mommy again.
It’s not a yell except inside my head, I don’t know if I make any sound at all, but the growl was real, I can feel the gone vibration still in my chest cavity, her face is her face again, Martha, and I’m sobbing, I haven’t cried for a long time and for an instant I feel ashamed to be crying in front of a woman, but she is perfectly composed, relaxed, she expresses no approval or disapproval or judgement still just looking, and I allow myself to let go of the tears, and it’s surprising to me how little time it takes until they stop, a few seconds and my cheeks are wet and I rub them off with the sleeve of my shirt, and she smiles now, the perfect composure replaced by a genuine interest.
“My name’s not Martha,” she says. “I made that up on the spot, for fun. I know your real name, and you deserve to know mine.”
She uncoils, puts her feet on the carpet and holds out her hand.
“Karina Nowak.” She says it with a hint of Eastern European accent that’s not in her regular speech.
I lean forward and our hands touch, hers harder and firmer than I expect, there’s tough callus on the heel of it. And warm, so warm it’s almost hot, like she has a fever, she grips mine lightly now and I feel the warmth flow up my arm and across my chest and it’s life energy, the elan vital flowing out of her and into me, she smiles and lets go but the energy is still there, flowing down to my toes and up to the crown of my skull.
I look at her in a kind of awe, a respect for her simply as what she is, I don’t even know what. I can smell her now too, a faint mixture of woman and flower, a flower I know I’ve never smelled before, a flower you would walk through a field of, to lie down and rest with that smell all around.
Without noticing the process I have got an erection like sword steel.
She sits back down, not folding her legs under this time. Her stockinged feet just reach the floor.
“I told you I’d give you a brief Cal, and I have some questions to ask you. In turn, you can ask me anything.
“Last year, Jim White gave you a short, mysterious talk about something, you probably deduced that it was some kind of organization, society. He also gave you a business card. Can you tell me where that card is now?”
“I memorized everything on it and put it in an extremely secure location,” I say. She laughs.
“That’s a good answer. Look, Dr. Lee is coming in a week and you’re set to meet with him and he has some very useful information that’s meant to assist you over the next few years, but there’s no rules about this sort of thing, we trust our judgement on the spot, in the moment.”
“Judgement about what?” I ask. “Mr. White really didn’t say anything about any ‘organization’ as such; he just asked me if ‘You feel that if it was necessary and right you could physically stop someone who was doing something bad and wrong?’ And he talked about friends.
“I can remember the whole conversation just about word-for-word. I thought about it enough, since then. There has to be some organization, some entity, if only to set up this emergency phone number thing. Which, honestly, sounds iffy. Call it and if it’s not ‘life or death’ you’re quietly taken off the list? Okay, you’re here now, I’m here now. What kind of thing are we really talking about?”
“Good for you, Cal. There’s a time for mystery, then a time for truth.”
She leans back, relaxed, rests her forearms on the arms of the chair.
“What we’re talking about, really, is what I’d describe as a ‘network.’ There’s no real organization, as such. There’s no leader, no followers, no written rules. There’s no official name. People call it different things. Personally, I like to call it “The Outfit.”
I laugh at this, a real “hahaha.” It’s funny, if you know. The more you know, it turns out, the funnier it is.
“The Outfit,” I say through the laugh, “The Outfit. The Mafia’s preferred term for themselves. Why don’t you just call it La Cosa Nostra?”
She’s laughing with me. Amused and relaxed, she makes a face: “This thing of ours.”
I don’t know why this is so funny, really, but the laughter feeds off of itself, she’s laughing hard now, too, the first time I’ve seen her out of control, her face is so young, we laugh for a while until it subsides naturally. I gasp a few breaths until I’m ready to talk again.
“Okay, we’ll go with The Outfit; it must do something, or Mr. White wouldn’t have asked me if I would do something to stop evil or wrong. I mean, what the hell, who wouldn’t?”
She looks a little more serious.
“Come on Cal, you may only be 18 but you’re highly intelligent, well read, you’ve got a sense of history. You know that 5 percent of the population produces 90 percent of the value, the things that keep everyone else fed and comfortable, the ideas that matter. Only some of those also have the vision to see beyond the end of their noses and the will to take action and do something about it.”
She squares her shoulders. “I call it The Outfit as my own little joke, and because it is fun, it’s joyous to have a big purpose and to associate with others like you. Most of us have felt like aliens here on Earth at times.
“I know you have, I can see it in your face.
“Call it whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s less than a thousand people around the world, is my best estimate, or maybe a few more, the real best and brightest, not the fakes they produce at Harvard and Yale who go straight to DC, and the fakes from the École nationale d'administration and fucking Oxbridge.”
She pauses, thinking, calculating.
“That’s what I’ve got for now, that’s what you need to know, now. It’s a network of Übermenschen—but of course I wouldn’t use that term except between us. It has no real name. Sometimes we do something good, or stop something bad. We can’t, obviously, stop everything bad. We do what we can. I don’t know everyone in The Outfit, and they don’t know me.”
She stands up, grabs her glass of bourbon, comes to stand in front of me, kneels at my feet and holds out the glass as if for a toast. I pick up my own untouched whisky.
“Everything we do in our little network is voluntary. And the truth is, every morning may be the beginning of our last day on Earth.” She moves her glass to mine.
“We drink to life,” she says, fiercely. “Aqua vitae!” The glasses clink hard, for a split second I wonder if they’re going to shatter, but they’re the finest kind, and they don’t. She drains the whole thing in one, and when I see this I do the same, it’s smooth going down but after a second my stomach begins to warm, then I can feel the heat in my face.
“You’ve had a huge hardon ever since I touched your hand,” she says. “I said we’d know what to do, remember? You know what to do, now.”
I take the glass out of her hand and set it down, then I grab her wrist and pull her toward me, gently, but she resists a little and I pull harder. She resists strong for a second and I can’t help myself, I apply a lot more force and suddenly she gives up and I’m off balance, she adds to the pull in the opposite direction and I tumble out of the chair. Some real jiu jitsu.
I’m on my hands and knees and she laughs and tries to jump on my back and in a second more we’re wrestling around, she’s not using any of the things I think she knows, no chokes or bonebreakers, we’re both laughing and I outweigh her by about 80 pounds and I finally get her pinned face down and she slaps the floor, lightly.
“Let me up and maybe we can work this out,” she says, and I do and we do.
Wresting with her has transferred so much energy between us that I look at my hand in the dim and wonder if it’s physically glowing, but it doesn’t look any different. The feeling though, the feeling is of a vibration, it’s always there, every cell in our bodies pulsing with that Something that must have been present in the first billionth of a second of the Universe, or it wouldn’t be here in us now.
“Come with me,” she says, and heads toward the bedroom door, it takes me a second to completely get back into present time and follow her. She has a laptop open on the desk.
“I want to show you something, the thing I was attending to when you got here,” she says.
She taps a key and the screen lights up with an image of a wall, a piece of blue sky and minaret in the background to the left. The wall appears to be pocked with shrapnel or bullet marks—and bloodstains, many small drops and a large smear ending at the dusty ground.
“This was taken a few hours ago in Islamabad. A friend of mine, of ours, was there to stop something bad. That’s all I can tell you, now. Maybe someday you’ll get to hear the whole story. That’s his blood on the wall.”
She turns and looks at me, with no sadness I can detect. “He took three with him, including the target, a man who slaughtered innocents, tortured mothers and fathers in front of their children.”
She reaches her hands to her waist and in one smooth motion pulls her shirt over her head, tosses it aside. She isn’t wearing anything underneath. In the dim of the room with the closed curtains her skin glows with its own light, blue-white, and I blink, but the effect is still there.
“I would think you’re not a virgin, Cal, but how many women have you had?”
“Did you have to lie to her? Did you compromise, make promises you didn’t mean to keep, tell her things you didn’t believe?”
“I hoped, and expected not. Never do those things to have a woman. Maybe you never would, but I hope you remember what I’m saying now, forever.”
The purple contacts are still in her eyes and seem too bright for the little bit of light in the room, glowing, they catch and hold me and I cannot, do not want to look away.
“There is great pleasure, and joy, between a man and a woman,” she says. “And for most that’s all there ever will be, a bond, an hour, a moment when all their troubles are forgotten.
“But there can be more, there can be energy, energy created in defiance of what scientists think they know. Power and healing. A man and a woman can shape space, affect future history.”
She reaches for the button of her jeans.
“Take off your clothes Cal, slowly, with intention, and I’ll show you what I mean.”