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Julian had the distinct impression that he was nothing more than a fictional character in a story. The protagonist maybe, an important character at that, but a character. No more, no less. He had no psychological makeup other than what the writer had given him already. His story was fifty-one words long. Now fifty-five. He had the deep-seated feeling that he’d existed before this story of now currently seventy words, had a childhood, adolescence, and the like, but the story just started now for some reason, like some celestial camera that decided to only now start recording.

But if he’d had thirty-five years of life up to this point, why did the story start right at this precise moment? And why the hell did he know about it? He woke up this morning, sleepily guided his feet into their moccasins, and was immediately jolted with the impression that he was simultaneously being written and read, there for someone else’s entertainment and nothing more. But who was writing him? He tapped into his subconscious mind, what he suspected had been responsible for his revelation of being in a story in the first place. The title… “Title.” How original. Julian was the protagonist of a story that had a placeholder for its title. For some reason, that thought made Julian feel even worse than he already had.

He concentrated, focusing all his mental energy on remembering where he was from- or rather, where his story was from. It was saved in a folder. That made enough sense. But what was the folder called? Ni… Nick… Nick’s Fics. That was it. He’d never heard of it before in his life, but he knew with complete certainty that he was the protagonist of a story called “Title” that was buried in a computer folder, which was for whatever reason called “Nick’s Fics.” Julian wasn’t a detective by any means, but he was sleuth enough to realize that his creator was likely named Nick, given the context clues. Nick what? But to be completely honest, what did it matter? He could’ve been written by this Nick character or William Shakespeare. At the end of the day he was still nothing more than a construction born of someone else’s imagination, fated to live out a life in a world of someone else’s choosing. A world that for Julian was as tangible as the air he breathed, but to the outside observer had only existed in written form for four hundred fourteen words. Now four hundred eighteen.

Julian sat in bed sleepless that night, turning over the metaphysical questions that had just been posed by the discovery he’d made. He tried to forget it, to just get some sleep, but he couldn’t. He didn’t go to work the next day. Or the day after. He just sat at home, trying his hardest to somehow tap into his racial memory, to figure out who made him. Even as he told himself it didn’t matter, that he should just move on with his life, the other half of his brain worked overtime, trying to make sense of the information it was receiving.

He lost his job. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to Julian, but it was a bit inconvenient. But the more Julian thought about it, the more it seemed to not be inconvenient at all. If he was just some fictional character after all, what did it matter that he had lost his job? That was likely just some obstacle the writer had hatched to place in his path, to trip him up as he fought to achieve his ultimate goal. That’s how stories work, right? A character has a goal, obstacles get in the way of said goal, and the character overcomes the obstacles to achieve his ultimate goal. Simple enough. But what in God’s name was Julian’s goal?

Did the writer not know? Or was Julian simply unaware himself? And was that the intention, to make a character who wasn’t aware of his ultimate goal, or was it just a blank on Julian’s part at the moment? Well, if this story was ultimately to have a happy (or at least somewhat pleasant) ending, then Julian had nothing to worry about. He could lose his job, his house, his car, but it would all end up okay in the end. And so Julian resigned himself to not doing anything, to letting the great cosmic writer decide how his life was to play out. He sat slouched on his couch for days on end, eating junk food and watching TV. He didn’t bathe, or really do much of anything else for that matter. Things would work out in the end, Julian decided. They always do in stories. Days passed. Then weeks. But still nothing changed.

Depression was creeping into the heart of Julian. His life meant nothing. He wasn’t doing anything of use. He just sat there, like some sort of lump, waiting for the writer to do what was necessary. And then it hit him. What would the difference have been if he were born a “normal” person, unfettered by a story? He’d still have the laws of nature to hold him back, still be born in a time and place he had no control over. Still have an ultimate goal and obstacles to overcome. Like a story whose beginning was set in stone but whose conclusion was to be decided. Julian went outside. He ran. He came back, began to eat healthy. The color returned to his life, in shades. He went out, got a job. But still something nagged at him. An urge, a strong desire. He wanted to write. He booted up his computer, not knowing what story he was to create. He just started writing. The protagonist? A man he had never met, but knew well. A man named Nick.

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THE GOD PARTICLE

It was a routine job. They’d just tested a 7 TeV event, the beams had circulated already, but a component needed to be replaced. Overheated likely. It was a common occurrence at the LHC. Billions of dollars, and still the thing was as vulnerable to minor malfunctions as your average coffee maker. But that’s what Dmitry was there for. He was a tinkerer, and so he plied his trade in any way possible. It just so happened that the machine he was currently tinkering with was responsible for the discovery of the mythical God Particle.

He hated the name. He didn’t want to be a pain in the ass, but he corrected anyone whenever the term was used in his presence. “Higgs Boson,” he’d say, like some stern schoolteacher. “The other term is more of a media construction, not entirely representative of what it is…” By then, whoever he’d corrected was already zoning out, a combination of annoyance at being corrected and disinterest in Dmitry’s attempts at being pedantic. But he wasn’t really. Being pedantic, that is. He felt as deeply about the proper use of terms in public life as he did about his nonbelief in God or any sort of spiritual deity. He wasn’t an antitheist, didn’t feel it necessary to convince anyone else of anything they didn’t already believe (he recognized the irony of atheists who complained about religious fundamentalists espousing their views while simultaneously trying to push their own beliefs on others), he just refused to take anything on faith. He was an empiricist of the highest degree. You could have a gun pointed at his head and tell him that you were going to kill him, and he’d refuse to even accept the fact that a bullet would come out of the gun until it actually entered his brain.

But anyway, Dmitry was replacing the component. Simple, he’d done it a thousand times before. The machine was delicate despite its enormity, but Dmitry was a consummate surgeon tending to his patient, each movement precise and handled with the utmost restraint. He really cared about his work, it was tangible. Out of nowhere, an alarm sounded. Blaring, seemingly coming from every direction. Dmitry’s stomach dropped out, like it had just decided that being a part of his body was no longer in its interest. Before Dmitry even had the chance to conceptualize the fact that this was a nightmare scenario, that the particle accelerator had been activated while he was still tending to it, before he could panic or pray to a God he didn’t believe in or rationalize his impending death, a beam of pure white nothingness escaped from around the bend of the LHC, heading his way. The last image Dmitry had in this mortal world was of Jon Osterman, his favorite character in Watchmen (and perhaps his favorite character from any fictional work) as his intrinsic field was torn from him, fating him to become Doctor Manhattan.

Th-re was a w-rm, m-lky swe-tness. A sp-ce had op-ned in his m-nd. The pi-ces were sc-ttered in the w-nd, and he had to p-ck them all up, like l-tters m-ssing from a Scr-bble bo-rd. He used his bra-n feroc-ously, the only th-ng he ever f-lly tr-sted. Sl-wly, l-ttle by l-ttle, his id-ntity came back to him.

He was Dmitry. He was a tinkerer. He had been fixing a component on the LHC at CERN, and there’d been an accident. He had died. But no, that was impossible. If he’d died, there’d be no consciousness, no mind to think these thoughts. He was alive. But he looked down, and there was no body. Rather, he thought he looked down. He had no eyes to look with, but he was seeing. No mind to think with, but he was thinking.

He was surrounded by the most brilliant colors he’d ever seen. They had an ethereal glow to them, full and rich beyond conception. Dmitry felt as though he could swim in them, taste them. They filled him up as he explored this new plane, like pure sustaining manna. He hadn’t a care in the world. The words “Higgs” and “God” meant nothing to him. He didn’t need them, or any other words for that matter. This was an all-consuming bliss, permeating his every fiber of being. He felt as though he was being held in the arms of an inconceivably massive giant, a creature whose every wish was to keep him warm and comfortable. He could lie here forever. And so he wanted to, just like that.

But it wasn’t to be. It all flooded back, Dmitry’s consciousness filling up his flesh-and-blood body like a bucket pouring haphazard into a dirty aquarium. The vessel muddied up the pure water, that spirit of light and love that Dmitry had been a part of for the briefest of moments. He coughed up, his lungs fighting to provide oxygen to his brain. His body didn’t want to let go of that spirit just yet, like some child desperately clinging to his favorite blanket. Dmitry laid there, flat against the cold ground in CERN, his eyes peering up at the ceiling. In the periphery, the LHC itself. The sound of footfalls as others rushed to Dmitry’s aid. But he wasn’t worried. On the contrary, he was excited. He knew what was waiting for him now.

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THE EXAMINED LIFE

The man was simply born without the ability to conceptualize death. Period. The whole thing was chalked up to childhood ignorance at first, mental capacities, that sort of thing. But bring up the subject and you’d see for yourself. He’d give that same blank stare that was his norm, smile and just nod. Oh, you could try explaining. Many have. But it wouldn’t really get you anywhere. You could sit this guy down for like an hour, tell him that he was going to die as was everyone and everything he’s ever known, you could say that he would no longer exist one day, not even in the minds of others… Hell, you could kill a person right in front of him and all he’d likely do is smile and ask you why they stopped moving.

He was a freaking scientific anomaly. The tests were inconclusive, but what could you expect? We know far less than we like to believe, even in these matters. The big test was his parents. They aged, and he got that well enough, but the cut-off between life and death was where his brain just froze up, like some loading screen stuck at ninety-nine percent. Even at their funerals he wound up consoling everyone else, wondering all the while what they were all so darn upset about.

He had no ambitions really. Why would he need them? He didn’t know he was going to die some day, so he in turn had no urgent desire to accomplish anything before said death. He liked reading and so he did a lot of it. That was that. He was a daredevil without ever really trying. He’d cross streets at red lights, cars missing him by inches most of the time. He once leapt off his house’s roof just to see what it would feel like. It wasn’t like he couldn’t feel pain. That wasn’t it at all. If anything, he was hyper sensitive to it in general. And he wasn’t suicidal either. How could he be? He didn’t even know he could kill himself, let alone die at all for that matter.

It didn’t even change when he got the diagnosis. His chest had really hurt something awful, and he was coughing up blood. He went to the hospital more because the whole thing was unpleasant and frankly kind of distracting. Inoperable lung cancer. Terminal. Those words could have been exchanged with, “How do you do?” and you would’ve gotten the same response from him. He had six months at most, the doctor bearing all of the somberness for him as he told him the news.

And so the man went home and kept reading the book he’d been wrapped up in before the appointment. The next day he went to work, engaged with his coworkers and friends, and just generally lived his life. Six months came. And then a year. Then two. Five. Ten. The man still coughed up blood from time to time, but his existence wasn’t dramatically impeded. He just kept on living.

Years went by. The man withered and aged, but he just saw it as a natural progression. What needed to happen as far as he was concerned. His hair grayed, receded, fell out. His skin sagged, hung down like wet paper. Before you knew it, he was ninety-seven years old. And on a particularly warm summer evening he tucked in for the night, content with the great book he’d just finished reading. He dozed off, peaceful as can be. And then…

He woke up the next morning. What did you expect me to say? That he died? Because he didn’t. Not then, and not ever. He didn’t know that he could die, the thought never struck him, and so he just didn’t. For decades, centuries, millennia… People and civilizations rose and fell before him and still he lived on, just reading his books. Minding his own business. And so he will for all eternity.

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