THE MARMALADE CONTINUUM
It was the body of a young woman, possibly in her twenties, though the exact age was difficult to determine given her current state. She was completely naked and covered from head to toe in a viscous orange substance that left a sweet citrus scent lingering in the air. Her strawberry blond hair trailed across the cobblestone in sticky tangles, extending outward from her head in all directions like a syrupy halo. Her arms were at her sides, palms up, and her eyes were closed as if she were sleeping. Her expression was peaceful, the hints of a smile visible beneath the sticky orange film.
Yellow and black police tape blocked foot traffic through the crime scene. It was only an hour after dawn, so the campus was still relatively quiet. A light fall mist filled the air with a damp chill. Most of the students and faculty walking along nearby footpaths chose to avoid the broad open space at the center of the quad where the body was still plainly visible. However, a crowd of about a dozen people was forming along the outer edge of the tape. Several more campus and city police were approaching on foot to help maintain the perimeter.
A young man in a red T-shirt and blue jeans ducked under the police tape and quietly studied the scene. As he took a long look around, one of the uniformed officers near the body walked over and stood beside him.
“Thanks for coming down here. So what do you think?”
Isaac Malachi stared at the body. “What I think is that I’ve never seen a dead body before. At least not in real life. I keep expecting her to wake up, but she’s obviously not breathing.”
“I’ve seen three dead bodies. Nothing like this.” The officer shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. “So you think it’s a cult? Harrison thinks it’s some kinda serial killer, but I think it’s a cult.”
“I haven’t decided yet.” Isaac started walking around the body in a slow circle, keeping his distance from the deceased. “Aside from the nudity, the victim isn’t sexualized. She looks surprisingly peaceful.”
“Yes.” The officer pointed at the forensics team that was busily taking samples and snapping photos. “They’re going to run some tests to see if she was drugged. If she drowned in that syrup. she wouldn’t look so peaceful.”
Isaac took a few slow steps toward the body. He bent down and touched the orange substance. After sniffing it a few times, he licked the tip of his finger.
The officer winced, looking around to see if anyone had noticed. “Is that even edible?”
“It’s sweet and citrusy. It reminds me of my grandmother’s marmalade. I’d say it’s either marmalade or preserves.”
“Marmalade.” The officer shook his head. “Of course it’s marmalade. A body covered in marmalade in the middle of campus. What’s next? Tea and scones falling from the sky?”
Isaac noticed something out of the corner of his eye.
“Look.” He pointed to an object at the base of a tree a few dozen yards away. “Is that a jar?”
“A jar? You have got to be kidding me.”
The officer took a step toward the jar, but Isaac raised a hand to interrupt him.
There was another barely visible jar a few dozen yards away under a park bench. As they both spun around slowly, they noticed several other jars tucked in various spots around the quad. The jars were all partially hidden and all about the same distance from the body.
“It’s a circle. Whatever this is, it’s definitely ritualistic. You may be right about the cult angle, although serial killers tend to be ritualistic too.”
“I knew it. I knew it was a cult.” The officer pulled out his notebook. “Any ideas on where to start looking?”
“Not yet.” Isaac took another look around the scene. “I’ve got to get to class, but I’ll definitely look into this for you. Take as many pictures as you can. I’ll contact Dr. Tobias and maybe a few other people. I’ll let you know if I find anything.”
“Alright. Thanks, Isaac.”
The officer walked over to the forensics team and started asking questions. Isaac took one last look at the dead woman before turning away with a shudder. As he ducked under the police tape and headed to class, the sweet citrus scent of marmalade lingered with him along the way.
Isaac sat in a quiet corner of the library staring down at his tablet. His advisor, Dr. Tobias, was on sabbatical and wasn’t responding to phone calls. So Isaac had decided to do some of his own research into this real-life mystery.
What he had found so far was nothing new. As a graduate student in religious studies, he had taken and even taught courses on the subject of religion and violence. Violent crimes involving religious cults were exceedingly rare, at least in the United States. Aside from a handful of mass suicides, most of the examples included various forms of domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, or hate crimes on the basis of race or sexual orientation. Ritualized murder, however, was virtually non-existent.
At least according to most sources.
After several hours of skimming abstracts for scholarly articles related to religious cults and ritualized violence, Isaac found exactly what he was looking for. Twelve years ago, a man named Reginald Quince had published a doctoral dissertation on a seemingly unrelated topic:
“Many Worlds, Many Ends: Eschatological Narratives and the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.”
Like all of the other theses and dissertations Isaac had examined, there was no mention of marmalade in the abstract or keywords. However, a search of the full text revealed a single paragraph containing the word he was looking for.
“Given the non-dogmatic theology and non-ritualistic nature of most of these sects, violent discourse and actual acts of ritualistic violence are exceedingly rare. The only documented case of such violence occurred on November 7, 1998, when a theoretical physicist named Dr. Egbert Bergamot abducted and killed one of his former students. Found among Dr. Bergamot’s personal belongings was a hand-written manifesto describing a violent underground cult that sought to bring about a ‘marmalade apocalypse’ through a campaign of covert propaganda and ritual sacrifice.”
Isaac chuckled. He was usually very quiet while reading, especially in the library. But something about the term “marmalade apocalypse” was so ridiculous that he couldn’t help but laugh. As he reread the paragraph, however, the absurdity of the idea made his stomach churn.
Religious fanatics were always finding new and inventive inspirations for violence. Understanding and preventing such violence was one of the reasons he had chosen to double major in religious studies and criminology as an undergrad. But marmalade? A living, breathing human being had died because of some fanatic’s obsession with marmalade?
Isaac shuddered at the thought.
After skimming through the rest of the dissertation, Isaac decided to look up the author, Dr. Reginald Quince. As luck would have it, Dr. Quince currently had a teaching position at a small private college just a few hours away.
Isaac closed the cover of his tablet. His schedule was clear for the rest of the day. This was as good an excuse as any for a road trip.
A heavy mist fell from the thick blanket of clouds overhead as Isaac drove the last few miles to his destination. His car windows were rolled up, but he didn’t have his heater on, so the chill and damp of another fall day permeated the air around him. The sun was setting somewhere in the west, but between the dense clouds and pine-scented hills, he couldn’t see it. He wasn’t sure if the diminishing light was due to the storm rolling in, or sunset, or both. But he was sure that there would be a hard rain before he made his way home.
Isaac’s phone conversation with Dr. Quince had been friendly but brief. Dr. Quince was also on sabbatical, but he was willing to meet with Isaac at his residence just five miles away from his office. The tiny campus had a small-town feel to it, but the winding road that Isaac was driving down was mostly surrounded by hills and pines.
When Isaac reached his destination, he double-checked the address before leaving his vehicle. Dr. Quince’s house was a small stone and wood cabin at the end of a long gravel driveway. There were no streetlights nearby, but a bright floodlight illuminated a large wooden door at the front of the building.
Isaac walked the cobblestone path from his parking spot to the door. Moments after he rang the doorbell, the door swung open.
“Welcome! Please, do come in.”
Dr. Quince was a man in his early forties with thinning black hair and thick horn-rimmed glasses. He was wearing a tweed jacket, red sweater vest, and orange tie. Isaac felt both slightly amused at the man’s conservative outfit and slightly underdressed in his own T-shirt and jeans. Dr. Quince took Isaac’s raincoat, tucked it into a nearby closet, and led him deeper into the house.
The study was a fairly cozy room consisting of several large bookcases, a small fireplace, and two large leather chairs facing the fire. After the two men sat down, Dr. Quince offered Isaac a cup of tea from the small wooden table between them. Isaac accepted, warming his hands on the cup and with the light of the fire.
“So tell me, Mr. Malachi. What’s all this about a marmalade ritual?”
Isaac described the crime scene he had seen on campus. Dr. Quince nodded slowly, taking a few notes on a pad of legal paper as Isaac spoke.
“Yes, this does sound like the group I referenced in my paper. Here, let me show you something.”
Dr. Quince stood up and scanned the spines of the books on the nearest bookshelf. After a few moments, he picked out a slim leather-bound volume and handed it to Isaac. A single word was engraved on the front cover in golden letters:
Isaac stared at the cover in disbelief. “Is this… ”
“Yes, yes. This is the manuscript of Dr. Egbert Bergamot. Please, do have a look at it. I imagine you’ll find it most fascinating.”
Isaac opened the front cover and started skimming, sipping his tea and reading a few sentences here and there. As he paged through the dog-eared text, Dr. Quince sat back down and turned to Isaac.
“It all started as a joke, really. Back in the 1970s, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics was still very new. A group of graduate students at an American university started playing a game. Who could come up with the strangest or most entertaining consequence of this interpretation? The winner would receive a weekend of free drinks at the pub of their choice.”
Isaac chuckled. “Sounds like a good game.”
“Yes.” Dr. Quince set aside his notepad, leaning forward slightly and speaking to Isaac in hushed tones. “These young students played the game every Friday afternoon. After a few months, a theme emerged. If many-worlds implies that every possible quantum outcome is realized in some alternate universe, then the multiverse must contain some very strange universes. The history of these universes would seem quite similar to our own at first. But then suddenly, for no apparent reason, many quantum outcomes would suddenly shift in a very strange and unpredictable direction. The seas would suddenly boil, or the sun would turn to lead, or the Crab Nebula would become an actual crab of enormous proportions.”
“Or the world would turn into marmalade.”
Dr. Quince’s eyes widened. “Precisely!”
Isaac laughed. “That would be a strange universe. But why marmalade?”
“Ah, yes. Why marmalade?” Dr. Quince smiled broadly. “They do address that question. Turn to page seven.”
Isaac turned the dog-eared pages and started reading.
“The Multiverse is home to countless strange and wondrous universes. In the Multiverse, all things are not only possible, but actual. The gift of conscious intention empowers us to shift among this infinite set of diverse universes at will.”
“But why marmalade?”
“Our universe lies somewhere within the Marmalade Continuum. The Marmalade Continuum is a set of universes that share a particular resonance with marmalade. The extent of this resonance varies from universe to universe within the continuum. In some cases, this may involve a single drop of sweet marmalade spontaneously manifesting in the void of space. In others, entire planets, star systems, or galaxies may suddenly transubstantiate into a massive cloud of marmalade.”
“Your conscious intention in each moment determines where you reside in this continuum. By focusing on marmalade while in a state of deep meditation, you can shift from universe to universe, discovering ever-greater depths of marmalade resonance.”
“How did you find yourself in the Marmalade Continuum? Everyone living in this continuum has a conscious or unconscious resonance with marmalade. If you have never tasted marmalade, or spoken the word marmalade, then you may find yourself in one of the lesser universes where Marmaladean transubstantiation is rare.”
“If, however, you are one of the few who possess a particular resonance, you will find yourself shifting ever deeper into the blessed presence of marmalade. You will eat marmalade at sunrise and sunset, new moon and full moon. You will venerate the Paddington, blue of coat and red of hat, herald of the coming of the marmalade. apocalypse. You will dream of marmalade, your mind overflowing with visions of valleys and mountains and skies all becoming one with marmalade.”
“And one day, when you wake, your dreams will become reality.”
Isaac closed the book. A chill ran down his spine. He stared into the fireplace, but the flickering flames offered no warmth. The whole idea still seemed so absurd that he wanted to laugh—and yet there were clearly people who were willing to kill for it.
“So people actually believe this?”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Malachi. Very much so.”
“But how does this lead to violence?”
“That question is answered at great length in the manifesto.” Dr. Quince took the book back from Isaac, paging through it for a few moments before closing it and placing it back on the shelf. “To make a long story short, their goal is to trigger a mass awakening of Marmaladean consciousness through an escalating campaign of private and public rituals. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the young woman was attempting to induce an ecstatic state by full immersion in marmalade.”
Isaac’s eyes widened. “Are you saying that this was voluntary?”
“If the woman had a calm expression on her face, as you say she did, then it may well have been voluntary. Either way, it will soon escalate to involuntary sacrifice. This woman is not the first, and she will not be the last. Of that, I am certain.”
“Wow. That’s… wow.” Isaac shook his head and sighed. “Do you know where we can find these cultists? I have a friend in the police department who can—”
Dr. Quince raised a hand to interrupt. “Unfortunately, I can’t be of much help. You’re not the first to ask. There is very little public information about these Marmaladeans. However, I would be happy to forward some of my research to your friend.”
“Yes, that would be a big help.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Malachi?”
“That should be a good start. I’ll let you know if I think of anything else. Thank you for your help, Dr. Quince.”
“It was my pleasure.”
The two men rose to their feet and shook hands. Dr. Quince waved a hand in the direction of the door. “Please, let me show you out.”
They walked the short distance from the study to the front door. Just as Isaac was about to leave, Dr. Quince pointed to a nearby closet.
“Yes, my coat! Thank you.”
Isaac waited for Dr. Quince to get his coat. Instead, Dr. Quince just pointed to the closet door again.
“Oh. Should I… ?”
“Yes, please Mr. Malachi. Be my guest.”
Isaac opened the closet door. The closet was actually a bit larger than he had anticipated—a walk-in closet with a bar on either side for hanging coats and a few old-fashioned coat hooks on the far wall. He stepped inside and grabbed his raincoat. Before he left, however, something caught his eye.
A long blue duffle coat and a floppy red hat.
His eyes widened and his pulse quickened. Blue coat. Red hat. Just like Paddington. The walls of the dimly lit closet were plastered with Paddington posters and vintage ads for jellies and jams. There were also several boxes and suitcases stacked alongside the coat. Before he even read the labels, he knew what they would say.
Isaac spun around. Dr. Quince was standing in the doorway, blocking his exit.
“Is… Is this some kind of joke?”
“No, Mr. Malachi.”
“I… ” Isaac’s heart pounded in his chest. He suddenly felt faint. “Is… why do you have all this?”
“You know why, Mr. Malachi.”
Isaac stepped forward and tried to push Dr. Quince out of the doorway. But he suddenly felt very sick and tired.
“Yes, Mr. Malachi. I do apologize for the tea, by the way. A necessary evil, I’m afraid. You’ll understand soon enough.”
For a moment, Isaac struggled with Dr. Quince. Soon, however, his muscles went limp and everything faded to black.
Isaac awoke with a throbbing headache. He felt groggy, confused, and cold. As he slowly blinked his eyes open, the details of what had happened started coming back to him.
“Time to wake up, Mr. Malachi. It’s time for the ritual.”
Isaac was lying in fetal position at the bottom of an eight foot tall glass jar. As he struggled to his feet, he realized why he was cold.
He was naked.
The jar was surrounded by several dozen people in oversized blue duffle coats and floppy red hats. They all appeared to be standing in an unfinished concrete basement lit with harsh fluorescent lights and filled with dozens of boxes and suitcases overflowing with jars of marmalade. The walls were adorned with various bits of marmalade memorabilia, including colorful drawings and vintage posters similar to the ones he’d seen in the closet. The enormous jar he was lying in was covered with a metal lid connected to several large pipes that disappeared into the nearest wall.
Isaac struggled to his feet, leaning heavily against the cold, hard side of the glass jar.
“Dr. Quince? Is that you?”
Dr. Quince’s voice was barely audible through the air vents in the lid of the jar. Isaac pounded on the sides of the jar several times, but quickly realized that it was too thick to break with his bare hands.
“Please, Dr. Quince! I don’t want to be a part of your ritual!”
“I know, Mr. Malachi. That’s why we chose you.” Dr. Quince started walking around the jar in a slow circle. “You fully understand the concept of the Marmalade Continuum, yet your conscious mind disbelieves. In order to advance our cause, we must awaken the unconscious Marmaladean resonance in an educated disbeliever.”
“You can’t be serious.” Isaac shook his head. “Please, you can’t be serious. Let me out of here!”
“Oh, but we are serious. Very serious. If our ritual is successful, tonight will be the most important night in Marmaladean history.”
Dr. Quince raised his right hand. One of the other Marmaladeans stepped over to the wall and pressed a shiny orange button.
Suddenly, a stream of cool, sticky marmalade started pouring down on Isaac from above.
“Oh my God. You can’t be serious. Stop it! Let me out!”
Isaac started pounding on the jar again, beating on the thick glass until his hands couldn’t take it anymore. He hopped in place a few times, trying in vain to reach the air vents at the top of the jar.
“Relax, Mr. Malachi. Full immersion will awaken your senses to the sweet embrace of marmalade. You will emerge from your ordeal with a miraculous Marmaladean resonance. You will experience wonders of marmalade transubstantiation that the rest of us can only dream of. Everything around you will slowly but surely become one with marmalade.”
The jar was rapidly filling with marmalade. The aroma was tantalizing, but the feeling of the viscous gel accumulating around his legs, hips, and torso filled him with breathless terror. As Isaac started screaming incoherently, he could hear the chanting of the Marmaladeans somewhere in the distance.
“Marmalade! Marmalade! Marmalade!”
The marmalade washed over Isaac, drowning out the sights and sounds of the Marmaladeans. When he instinctively gasped for air, his lungs filled with marmalade, and everything faded to black.
Isaac awoke with a start. Had it all been a dream?
His stomach churned as he realized that he was lying on a cold, hard surface. He was covered in a sticky film that filled the air around him with a sweet citrusy scent. After wiping the marmalade from his eyelids, he opened his eyes and looked around.
Isaac stared in disbelief at the scene before him. The giant jar he was lying in had partially shattered, leaving large shards of deadly glass scattered all around him. What his mind struggled to grasp, however, was what he saw just beyond the circle of broken glass.
There were no longer any Marmaladeans in the room. All of their floppy red hats and oversized blue duffle coats were scattered in piles on the floor. Not surprisingly, everything within a few feet of the jar was covered in marmalade. But all of the sets of hats and overcoats were covered in marmalade too—including the ones at the far end of the otherwise spotless room. The pile closest to the jar also contained a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses and a familiar leather book with a single word engraved on the front cover in golden letters:
Isaac stared at the cover in disbelief. Was this some kind of sick joke? Or had the Marmaladeans all turned into…
“No.” He shook his head slowly, backing away from the scene. “No. It’s not… it can’t be. No.”
He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, then opened them again. Nothing had changed.
For a long time, Isaac stared at the empty room in stunned silence. After a while, he noticed that he was shivering uncontrollably and decided to look for his clothes. He stepped carefully over the shards of glass and made his way to the back of the room.
It had been several months since that night at Dr. Quince’s cabin. Without saying a word to anyone about what had happened, Isaac had quietly dropped out of college and started driving aimlessly across the country, staying at cheap motels and eating at fast food chains and local diners along the way. Once he’d spent most of his savings and maxed out his credit cards, he started looking for work. When he found a part-time job at a grocery store, it almost seemed like life was returning to normal.
But life would never return to normal. When he woke up every morning, no matter what he ate at night or what mouthwash he used, there was always a certain unmistakable taste in his mouth. As he went through his day, there were always little details that set him on edge: an old man on a park bench wearing a blue coat; a young woman in a convertible wearing a floppy red hat; a sweet scent lingering in the air as he walked by a cafe; an unexplained splotch of orange goo in the middle of the street or sidewalk. Each individual moment, of course, could be chalked up to coincidence. As a whole, however, it was enough to make his stomach churn every time he walked out the door.
And then there were the dreams. At first, he thought it was just a result of the trauma—waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with visions of broken glass and sticky blue duffle coats racing through his head. Over time, the dreams grew more vivid and frequent. The ground beneath that broken jar trembled and bubbled, filling the basement with a viscous orange fluid that kept flowing through the house, flooding through the woods, drowning the world in its sweet, sticky nectar.
But the worst thing of all was the graffiti. Everything else could be chalked up to chance, or an overactive imagination, or some type of post-traumatic stress disorder. But there was no denying the graffiti. No matter what city he went to, there was always some of it somewhere. The longer he stayed, the more he saw. It looked innocent enough to the average person: the silhouette of a bear in a hat and coat stenciled in a dark alley; the elaborate boxcar mural of an orange jar basking in golden sunshine; the crude outline of an entire globe in shades of sticky orange spraypaint on the side of an abandoned building.
And then there were the words. Ever since he’d decided to settle down again and live an ordinary life, he’d started seeing barely legible graffiti tags whose meaning might be lost on casual observers. But not Isaac. He knew what they meant. Whoever wrote them must have known too. Every one of these hidden messages sent a chill down his spine.
Praise The Herald! Paddington Lives! The Bear Knows The Way! It Ain’t Jam! Surrender Is Sweet! Immerse Yourself! The Orange Tide Rises! Awaken To The Orange Dawn!
And then one day, he saw it. He turned around a corner on the way to work, and there it was in broad daylight for all the world to see. It was a single ten-foot high word spray-painted on the bare brown-red brick side of an apartment building. Several shades of orange had been carefully blended to create remarkable depth and texture in the letters of the word. It was the one word he had somehow managed to avoid seeing for several months; the one word he had hoped he would never see again.
Yet there it was.
Isaac closed his eyes, sinking to his knees as tears rolled down his cheeks. His whole body started trembling. His heart raced and his head swam as he struggled to reject the evidence of his senses. But nothing could make him unsee what he had seen.
Food For Thought
The Marmalade Continuum explores the implications of the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of Quantum Mechanics. MWI implies that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, with each alternate outcome existing in its own “world” or “universe” just as real as our own.
Does MWI actually imply that real universes exist where people or objects spontaneously transform into marmalade? Why or why not?
Do you believe that people’s choices create “branch points” into alternate universes? If so, what qualifies as a choice significant enough to create such a “branch point”?
The concept of “Marmaladean” universes was chosen by the author for its absurdity. What are some other alternate universes, absurd or otherwise, that raise important questions about MWI or the world in general?
If absurd universes are possible (and therefore real), how does this affect your worldview? Would the possibility that you might live in such a universe change your beliefs or behavior?
The “Marmaladeans” believe that internal states of consciousness can create external change, causing an individual to “branch” from one universe into another. Do you share this belief? Why or why not?
About the Author
Treesong is an author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. He grew up in the Chicagoland area and moved to Carbondale, Illinois to study philosophy at Southern Illinois University. His lifelong love of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero stories has inspired him to pursue a dual career path as both an author and a community organizer. He has published two novels, Change and Goodbye Miami, and is currently working on more novels and short fiction. You can find more of Treesong’s work at Treesong.org
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