The Frog

For pride month, River challenged me to re-write a fairy tale to incorporate LGBTQ et al. themes. This story is the result.  

“What on earth is that racket?” said Queen Marianna, with equal parts scorn and brown gravy dripping from her mouth.  As a globule of the latter fell onto her plate, she self-consciously dabbed at her face with a napkin. 

Voices were talking over one another in the hallway, the sound growing gradually louder. 

“I don’t know,” King Grisham said, frowning, “but this is our dinner-time, and they can wait until we’re through.  Jessop?” This last word he addressed to the servant who stood at the ready.  

“Yes, sire.” 

“Go see what all that fuss is about.  And Luna, finish your plate, so you can get started on the dishes.” 

Princess Luna sighed mightily, her forearms on the table, head hunched over the last few bites of her food.  

“I don’t WANT to do the dishes, father.  Why don’t we have a maid to do them instead?  We used to have a maid…” 

The king and queen exchanged a meaningful look. 

“Luna, dear, we talked about this,” said the queen.  “We are tightening our belts this season, and everyone has to pitch in.”

“And you promised you would do the dishes tonight.” the king said, with finality.  

With a mighty crash, the wooden doors flung open, and Jessop returned, panting. 

“Sire, it’s a meteor shower!  The sky is full of shooting stars!”

Luna jumped up from her chair. “Father! Can I go see it?!”

The king furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. 

“You need to do the dishes first. When you’re through, then you can go outside and watch.”

“But, sire, we don’t know how long-“ Jessop started. 

A dangerous, direct look from the king stopped him cold.

“A promise made is a promise kept, Luna. Some falling space rocks don’t change that,” said the king. 

“It’s just not….it’s not fair!” said Luna, stomping off to the kitchen.  She slammed the door behind her as she left, causing both king and queen to stiffen and wince. 

“You were a little harsh, dear,” said Marianna.

“Perhaps,” said King Grisham, “but she needs to learn responsibility.  She only got out of her chores yesterday by promising to do them today.  We can’t let her become spoiled.” 

“But she’s only a child,” Marianna said, gently. 

The king sighed.  “If only that were so!  She’s fifteen. Far too old for these make believe games.  Most young women her age are learning to tend to the household, choosing dresses, learning to dance.  I worry about Luna.” 

“She’s just a bit of a tomboy.  There’s no harm in that.” 

King Grisham chuckled.  “A tomboy? Yesterday, she was pretending to be a knight saving a maiden in distress.  I think she’s just confused.” 

“She’ll grow out of it,” said the queen.  “I certainly did.” She gave the king a flirtatious smile.  

“You did all right for yourself, I suppose,” the king said.  

“Well, right now, I am going to see about this meteor shower.  Would you like to join me?” 

“I have some things to attend to, my dearest,” said King Grisham.  “Enjoy the show.”

Luna sat astride an impossibly high tree branch, her legs dangling, her concentration focused on a small patch of dirt just below her.  She wore simple shorts; her legs and feet were bare. Muttering aloud, she slowly cocked her hand behind her head, and then swung it forward, propelling a smooth rock at high velocity.  It impacted the dirt precisely on target, a plume of dusty fallout rising.  

“Right between the eyes!  The ogre staggers backwards.  His eyes get wide. And then…he falls!” 

She looked around.  Nobody was in sight.  To her left, she saw the path back towards the castle, the ground knotted with bark-covered tree roots.  To her right, the river shallows, which began just a few feet from the base of the tree. The water was quiet; the only sound was the hum of insects, and the few distant voices of those still outside after the now-abated meteor shower.  

“All at once, a huge roar, and then Sir Luna sees…the dragon!”  She bared her teeth, pushing air and voice through them to simulate the malevolent growl of the great beast.  

Luna dropped her voice to a deep tenor.  “You’ll never save the maiden! Guards!” 

She reached into her pouch and drew two more stones, which she swiftly threw, one to each side of the original impact.  

“What is this magic?  The spears bounce right off!” 

Deep tenor again.  “Hahaha, you fool! I am protected with a deep magic.  You cannot defeat me or my servants. Surrender, and I will give you a swift death.” 

“Never!”  Luna reached back into the pouch and drew a golden orb.  “Behold! I have my own, more powerful magic!”  

She thrust the orb forward and back, forward and back, aiming each thrust in the direction of her failed missiles.  

“Pachoo!  The dark guards are fallen!  And you’re next.”  

She raised the orb over her head, imagining the terrified dragon’s look.  

“Wait, Sir Luna, don’t hurt me!  I’ll return the maiden to safety.” 

“And what of your hoard?  Will you give back everything you stole from the village?” 

She snarled her voice.  “Never! You will never take my gold!” 

“You asked for it.”  She pulled the orb back dramatically.  As she did, a moth alit onto her elbow, giving Luna such a fright that she spasmed slightly, the orb slipping from her grasp.  With horror, she watched as it fell, leaves exploding off of their branches as it passed. It hit a low-hanging branch, and Luna watched helplessly as it rolled down the right side of the tree, into the river.  

For a moment, she sat in stunned silence, and then bounded down the tree, letting the twigs and bark abrade her legs and face.  When she reached the ground, she ran to the water’s edge, and peered down into the darkness, seeing nothing.  

“Oh…..shit!” she exclaimed, emphasizing each harsh letter of the curse.  

“What did you lose?” said a small, tinny voice.  Luna looked around quickly, but saw no one.  

“Hello?” she said.  

“I said, what did you lose?” 

“Where are you?  Come where I can see you!” 

“Don’t be frightened.”  The voice was very close now.  Luna felt fear rising from her lower back, through her chest, and coming to rest in her collarbone.  “Turn around. I’m sitting on the lowest branch.”

Luna turned, but nobody was sitting on the bough.  She saw only twisted bark, a line of tree ants, and a small frog, that seemed to be looking directly at her. 

“Don’t be frightened,” the frog said.  

Luna gasped, taking a big step back and nearly falling into the water. She regained her footing, mouth agape. 

“How are you- are you talking?!” 

“I am,” said the frog. 

“But that’s impossible!” 

The frog took a small hop forward on the branch, and Luna flinched.  The frog’s voice was enthusiastic. “Dragons are impossible. Magical stones that can slay demons are impossible.  Now what are talking frogs, next to those things?” 

Luna shook her head rapidly from side to side, trying to clear her head.  “You…were listening to me?” 

The frog nodded.  “The whole time.” 

“I can’t believe this!  First, I miss the meteor shower.  Then, I lose my golden orb. Now, a…FROG… is talking to me, and snooping on me when I think I’m alone.  This is too much.”  

She dropped to the ground and started to cry. 

The frog hopped off the branch and came down next to her.  “Maybe I can help you. What if I go and get your orb back?” 

Luna sniffed loudly.  “You can’t. It fell in the river.” 

“Ah, but I can.  You said it’s gold, right?” 

Luna nodded. 

“If it’s gold, then it sank right to the bottom.  It’s not too deep here. I could get it for you.” 

Through teary eyes, Luna looked at the frog.  “You’d do that for me?” 

The corner of the frog’s mouth turned up.  “For a price.” 

“I don’t have any money,” said Luna. 

“I don’t want money.  I want you to break my curse.” 

“Your…curse?” 

“Yes.” 

“What’s the curse?”  

“Well,” the frog pressed his mouth together broadly.  “I can’t tell you that. It’s part of the curse.” 

The princess sat up, wrapping her hands around her knees.  “Well, then, how am I supposed to break it?” 

The frog audibly sighed.  “I can’t tell you that either.  But if you let me stay with you, just for a little while, I think you’ll figure it out.” 

Luna scrunched her forehead and thought for a moment.  “If I say yes, you’ll get me back my golden orb?” 

“I will!” said the Frog. 

“Okay, then.” 

“You promise?” 

“I promise,” said Luna. 

At once, the frog hopped to the water’s edge and dived in, disappearing under the black water.  Luna sat, watching for any sign of its return.  

She waited. 

And waited. 

And waited some more.  At last, despondent that the talking frog would never return, she stood up, brushed the leaves and dirt off her clothing, and started back for the castle.  

She had gone just a few steps when she heard a splash, followed by a very faint, high-pitched panting.  

“You found it!” said Luna, rushing towards the golden ball.  She grabbed the orb, kissed it, and started back for the castle. 

“Hey, wait!” the frog gasped.  “You…you promised to help!” 

But Luna was already gone, running and skipping her way back home.  

It was the galloping of leather-shoed feet on the stone floor, rather than the thunderous banging of the doors that immediately followed it, that woke King Grisham.  

“Sire!  Sire! You must come!  The guards, sire! They have caught something fantastical.  Sire, a talking frog!” the guard spoke so quickly and nervously he stammered. 

“Wait, slow down.  A talking frog?” the King said, drawing out the last word as though it was foreign and unwelcome.  

The guard nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, sire!” 

“And it has been captured?” 

“Yes, sire.” 

King Grisham cocked his head to the side slowly.  “In that case, why did you wake me up at this unspeakable pre-dawn hour?” 

The guard’s enthusiasm transformed, first into fright, and then into defiance. 

“Sire, there’s more.  The frog…it’s talking like a person, like it knows things, sire.  It says it knows your daughter.” 

“My daughter?” said the King.  “What did it say about my daughter?” 

“Sire, I’d sooner not say, sire.  I think it’s better you hear it from him.  Sire.”

King Grisham elevated his chin.  “Thank you for letting me know your preference.  Now, tell me precisely what the frog said about Princess Luna.” 

The guard looked confused, and then at his feet.  “It said she made a promise, sire, and that she’s broken it and run away.” 

The King considered a moment, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth.  “Okay. Have her woken and brought down. Have the frog waiting for us in the throne room.  I will be down presently.” 

As the door closed behind the departing guard, King Grisham turned around to see his wife, her body wrapped up in a large, fluffy robe, standing attentively by the bed.  

“It’s a good thing Luna wasn’t here to hear you call it the throne room,” said Queen Marianna.  “You just know she would make some comment about there being no throne, the servant would giggle, and you would be forced to discipline the servant for the insult.” 

“They’re guards, not servants,” said King Grisham, rubbing his temples.  “We don’t have servants for the same reason we sold the throne.”  

“Money, yes, always money.  I thought you were going to ask the wealthier lords for a more substantial…tribute.” 

“I have,” said the King.  “Duke Leonid has been begging off a meeting for weeks.  I think he knows the shape of the conversation. Duke Broadstone and Lady Elena plead poverty, and Sir Roget gave something, but not enough to make a real difference.” 

“I’m sure something will come through.  It always has before,” said the Queen, smiling brightly. 

“I do hope you’re right,” said the King, pulling on the same shirt he had worn the day before.  “I guess I had better go see to this talking frog. I’ll be up shortly, dear.” 

“Are you kidding?  A talking frog? I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said the Queen.  

King Grisham considered protesting, then thought better of it.  Now dressed, he marched out of the bedroom and towards the throne room, Queen Marianne following close behind.  

If the King was expecting to see just the frog, his guards, and his daughter, he was mistaken.  A talking frog created a stir, and not one easily contained. It was just as well the throne had been sold: it would not fit in the room this evening, so full it was of the curious residents, most dressed in their sleepwear.  

“Where is this frog?” said the King. 

The crowd parted, and a guard gestured towards a small bird cage. 

“‘E stopped talking, sire.  Before, ‘e was, but then it got to be crowded and ‘e just stopped.  I tried shaking the cage and poking at ‘im, but ‘e’s not so much as made a ribbit, sire.” 

The King grimmaced at the reference to shaking and poking, but nodded as he gestured the guard away with a wave of his hand.  

The crowd was silent, kept back a small distance by the guards.  King Grisham bent down and peered into the cage. 

“So, you can talk, then?” 

The frog met his eyes intelligently, and moved its head  slowly up and down. 

The king returned the slow nod.  “Show me,” he said, softly. 

“Yes, your majesty,” the frog articulated precisely.

An involuntary shudder passed over the king.  He stood to his full height, and turned around. 

“Guards, send these people home.  This is under control, and we will still be here to discuss tomorrow.”  

The chamber resonated with the sounds of footfalls, muttering, and the clanking of metal on stone as the crowd migrated towards the exit, and then dissipated.  At last, the large wooden doors thudded shut, leaving in the throne room only the King, the Queen, and the caged frog. 

“Tell me what has happened,” the King said to the frog.  “Why can you speak, and what is this business with my daughter?”

The frog hopped forward and rose on its hind legs, resting its front legs on the bars of the bird cage, so as to address the king bipedally.  

“Your majesty,” it said, its voice proper, “I am afflicted by a curse.  I met the princess by the river, and she promised to help me break the curse if I did her a service.  I did the service, but then she ran away into the castle.”

The king nodded.  “What is the curse, then, and what do you need in order to break it?” 

“I can’t say, your majesty.  That’s a part of it, I’m afraid.”

“Hmm…” said the King.  “Did you used to be human, then?” 

The frog looked pained.  “I cannot speak about the nature of the curse, your majesty.” 

Queen Marianna came up from behind.  “Did you used to be unable to speak?” she said. 

“No, I have always been able to speak.” 

“A human, then,” she said to the King, and stepped back, as though satisfied.  

At that moment, the door pushed open and Luna entered, looking sleepy but trepidatious.  

“Luna, do you know this frog?” said the King. 

She started to shake her head in denial, but caught a stern look from her mother.  “Yes, I mean, I ran into him last night.” 

“It says that you promised to help, and then ran away.” 

“That’s not true!” Luna yelled.  “I never made a promise.” 

“It says that he did a favor for you, and you promised to help in exchange.  Did that happen?” said the King.  

“No!  We didn’t have a conversation.  I was down by the water, minding my own business, and this frog started talking to me.  I thought it was crazy, and I ran away.” 

“That’s a lie!” said the frog.  

Queen Marianne gasped.  The King turned to the frog, his face hardened. 

“You would accuse the princess of lying?” he said.  “You had better be able to back that claim up, or you will be punished for saying it.” 

“She had a golden ball, that she was playing with in a tree,” said the frog.  “She dropped it into the water, and I dove down to get it. That’s the only reason she agreed to help me.” 

Queen Marianne turned to her daughter.  “How do you explain that?” she said. 

“It’s not true,” said Luna.  “I didn’t even have my gold orb with me. It was in my room.” 

“In that case, how would the frog know you have one?” said King Grisham. 

“I, uh-” Princess Luna looked from the King to the Queen to the frog.  

“Did you lie?” said the king. 

“Yes,” Luna whispered, looking at the floor.  

“Return to your room and go to sleep.  We will discuss this in the morning.” 

Luna scurried out of the room. 

“As for you,” the King said to the frog, “I apologize for my daughter’s conduct.  We will give you a room here, of course, and a guard to keep the curious at bay.”

“May I be let out of the cage, your majesty?” said the frog. 

“Of course,” said the King.  “But please, stay with us. I will endeavor to help my daughter keep her promise to you.”

The frog bowed.  “Thank you, your majesty.” 

“What sort of curse turns one into a frog?” the King said.  It was mid-morning, and he and Marianna had finally given up on going back to sleep.  They were making a slow rise of things, gradually assuming their daytime dress in between yawns and moments of repose.  

“Two kinds, that I know of,” said the Queen.  “It could be witchcraft, it could be a hex. I don’t think a haunting, that wouldn’t persist within our castle.” 

“Remind me the difference?” 

“Witchcraft is done on purpose, by a witch.  A hex is tied to an object or a place. If our guest encountered somewhere or something it was not supposed to encounter, it could have been cursed that way.” 

“It knows it can’t speak of it: that probably means a witch, since it must have been told,” said the King. 

“Not necessarily,” the Queen said.  “It may have figured it out when it tried to talk about it, and found that it could not.” 

The king nodded.  “I suppose that’s true.  How many witches do we have in our lands?” 

“Capable of this type of curse?  Oh, five maybe? But who is to say it happened near here?  It could have been anyone.” 

“Still, it is worth the inquiry.  Can you arrange it?” 

“Of course,” said Queen Marianne.  “There is one more thing to consider,” she added.   

“Oh?” 

“A talking frog is quite a rare thing,” said the Queen.  “Sometimes, rare things can be sold for quite…high returns.” 

“Are you suggesting selling the frog?” said King Grisham. 

“Oh, not at all,” she said, “what you do with the frog is your affair.  I just thought it prudent to consider that, among your options, you could conceivably find a person willing to take the frog off of your hands for a very considerable amount of money.  Enough, perhaps, to keep us afloat for many months to come.” 

“Our situation is not as desperate as all that,” said the King. 

“It is,” Queen Marianna said.  “Just today, the guards gave their notice.  If they are not paid within a fortnight, they shall leave.  The cook will be right behind them. We must consider all our options”  

The king was silent a long moment.  “It won’t do to compromise our values,” he said.  “Luna promised the frog assistance. We promised it hospitality.  To turn around and sell it, and to one likely to exploit it for its farcical value, is wrong.” 

“Your values may lead to our household’s collapse,” said Marianna, urgently.  

The King had no response, and was gladdened when a sharp knock at the door interrupted the conversation.  It was Jessop. 

“Sire,” said Jessop, “Duke Leonid has come. He sends his apologies for his delayed message, and asks if you have time to see him now.” 

King Grisham smiled and turned to his wife.  “See? Things will turn around: We already feel them turning.”  He turned back to Jessop. “Tell him we shall be down shortly, and see him into the den.” 

Jessop nodded and set off.  

“I do hope my suggestion did not give offense,” said Queen Marianna.  

“We shall not speak of it again.  Now, we must go and see to our financial health!” said the King. 

Duke Leonid was still standing when the King entered his den, and the monarch approached him warmly.  

“Duke!  You’ve come at last,” said the King. 

“Yes, about that, I am so sorry for the delay.  I meant to respond, but time got away from me, and…well, I’m sorry, sire.” 

King Grisham smiled indulgently.  “We are sure you came as soon as you could, Duke.”

“The truth, your majesty,” said the Duke, shifting his weight uneasily, “is that I have been distracted this past week.  My son is missing.”

“Was he kidnapped?” the king said, his eyes large. 

“I…don’t think so.  The truth is, sire, he…may have run away.” 

“Tell us what happened.  Perhaps we can help.” 

“Well sire,” said the duke, “Alex is a…special boy.  Always very shy, and lately, very troubled. I fear I left him far too much in the care of his mother, as a young child.  Lately, he has been despondent, and I learned he had been seeking out the services of a witch.” 

King Grisham started.  “A witch? What could a son of yours, a son who wants for nothing, need of a witch?” 

The duke could not maintain eye contact as he responded.  “I think he had some…rather unusual ideas. About magic, naturally, and special powers.  I forbade him from going to the witch, of course, but he sneaked out despite my instructions, and has been gone ever since.” 

“Could he have come to some harm from the witch?”   

“Anything is possible, your majesty,” said the duke.  “The truth is, I have come to ask your assistance.” 

“Well, the witches in this region will receive no safe haven from us,” said the king.  “Tell me where we can find this witch, and we will take care of the problem.” 

“I fear it has gone beyond that, sire,” the duke said.  “I have had her hut watched for several days, and there is no sign of Alex.  I fear he may have found what he was looking for, and absconded.” 

“What type of magic was he seeking?” the king said. 

“Transformation, your majesty,” said the duke, looking once more around the room, at the ceiling, the floor, in the direction of everything but the king.  

“What type of transformation?” 

“I’m not sure, your highness.  He just…wanted a change, really.  Said he was unhappy in his own skin, or something like that.” 

The king furrowed his brow.  “We wonder if our new guest might have some information that could help you.” 

“New guest?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “Surely you’ve heard about our talking frog.  It’s the talk of the castle.” 

“I did hear some strange rumors on my way to see you, sire, but a talking frog?  I must confess, that’s a new one to me.” 

The king stroked his beard slowly.  “Do you suppose there is any chance the frog is your son?”

“My son?  A frog?”

“You said he was looking for transformation magic.  Perhaps something went awry.” 

The duke considered this a moment.  “I suppose it could be so. Have you spoken to this frog?  What does it say happened?” 

“It can’t precisely say,” said the king, “It claims that the curse prevents it from explaining.” 

“May I see this frog, sire?” the duke said. 

“It’s dining with the princess this morning.  Perhaps we could find a place to observe it unnoticed.  That might give us a clue as to its origins.” 

“Thank you, your majesty,” said the duke, bowing low. 

Luna sat at a small table in her room, poking her spoon at a soft boiled egg in front of her, tapping just hard enough to fleck off the small pieces of shell, which were gathering on the table. 

“I don’t know how you expect me to help you, when you can’t even tell me what’s wrong,” she said. 

Across from her, sitting on the edge of the table, was the frog.  

“Believe me, princess, if I could tell you, I would.”

Luna clapped her spoon onto the table loudly.  “It’s not fair! You got me in trouble, and now I have to help you, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing!  If my father wasn’t so stubborn, he’d just thank you for getting back my ball and send you on your way.” 

“To live out my days with the curse, then?” said the frog, its voice expressionless. 

“Well, no, I mean, maybe to find someone who knows how to help you.  Another witch, maybe?” 

“You are the only one in these lands who can cure me, princess.” 

“But I don’t know HOW!” said Luna, throwing her spoon in anger.  It careened off the table just inches from the frog, hit the wall behind it, and clattered to the floor.  The frog started. “…I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s my father. He’s…he just thinks he knows what’s best for me.  This whole thing with promises, and honor, and duty. It’s not easy having a king as your father.” 

The frog took a deep breath, the panic fading from its eyes.  “No, I suppose it wouldn’t be. My father is also a…strong-willed man.”

“Not like mine!” said Luna.  “He’s obsessed with acting properly and setting a good example.  He doesn’t want me climbing trees or playing outside. He says I should wear dresses and greet people politely, and speak softly.  And he’s always giving me lectures about when I’m married and when I’m a queen or a lady.”

“My father was the same way,” said the frog, “always wanting me to be more manly, more grown up.” 

“You were a man, once, then?” Luna said. 

“I…” the frog tried to speak, but its small green lips only quavered.  “I suppose I can’t say.” 

“You can talk around it, though!” said Luna, her voice rising.  “You may not be able to tell me about the curse, but if you tell me about yourself, maybe I can figure it out!” 

“We can try that, I guess,” said the frog.  

“So, your father, he wanted you to be more grown up, right?” 

“Yes.  He’s an important man, and I’m supposed to take his place one day.  So he has all these ideas of how I need to act and who I need to be, and it’s just…overwhelming.” 

“It sounds like he and my father would get along,” said Luna.  “My father always makes me change clothes and stand around being quiet while the adults talk.  He says I’m supposed to be seen and not heard. And he keeps telling me to stop acting like a boy.” 

“And what do you do?” said the frog. 

“I usually do what I want,” said Luna.  “I’m in trouble pretty much all the time.  Because I don’t want to be some lord’s wife. I don’t even like boys.   I want to be an adventurer! Or a knight! I want to save maidens in distress and fight off monsters!  I want to be a hero!” 

“Maybe we can trade,” said the frog.  “My father would love it if I tried to act like a knight.  He would say that knighthood is a manly profession. But I don’t like those things.  So I don’t do them.” 

Luna narrowed her eyes.  “Did your father put the curse on you?”

“No!” said the frog, quickly, its lips slamming shut the instant the syllable was uttered.  

“Then who did?” Luna insisted. 

The frog opened its mouth to speak, but no sound came forth.  It closed its mouth again, and shook its head sadly. 

“…worth a try,” said Luna. 

They sat in silence for a long minute, Luna poking a finger at her egg, and the frog pursing its small lips.  

With a silent gesture of his hand, King Grisham led the duke away from their place of concealment.  They moved slowly and quietly until they emerged into a vestibule separated by several walls from the princess’ chamber.  

“That was hard to hear,” said Duke Leonid.  “That is most certainly Alex. I am ashamed to say I recognize those sentiments, very well.”

“You hear how my daughter speaks of me,” said the king.  “It won’t do to have her spreading such stories. She is willful, incorrigible, and has no care in the world for her duties as a member of our royal family.” 

“My son appears unable to tell us the nature of the curse,” said the duke.  “Your majesty, we must confront the witch. She is the only one who can put an end to this.” 

The king stroked his chin and took two deep, slow breaths.  “I have no love for the witches of this kingdom, as you well know, Leonid.  But before we breach the peace, perhaps we should give this time to play out.”

The duke frowned mightily.  “Sire, every moment my son spends in that disgusting form, he risks being killed, injured, or seized by some unscrupulous rogue.  We cannot risk this continuing even a single day.” 

King Grisham walked across the vestibule and sat, gesturing for the duke to follow him.  

“Leonid, we must be very candid with you.  We may be making some changes to this household in the coming weeks.  Our financial situation is…regrettable. This may be the last fortnight in which we have the service of our full complement of guards.  We do not want to start a fight with a witch that we cannot finish.”  

The duke gave a half smile.  “So that’s why you have been seeking a meeting, sire.”

“You are the richest landowner in the lands, Leonid.  And you have always been loyal. Of course I would come to you for assistance.”

“What if I offer to pay for the guards, for as long as you need them to confront and defeat this witch?” said the duke. 

Grisham shook his head.  “Then we would be in the same situation we were in before your son was cursed.  The kingdom would be in financial distress. Remember, we intended to speak with you about this before the nasty business with your son.” 

The two men sat frowning, Leonid shifting uncomfortably in his seat.  Then, a small smile came over his face, which grew into mirth, and erupted into a full grin.  

“I  have an idea, your majesty, that might solve several problems at once, for both of us.” 

“I’m listening,” said the king. 

“Open!  In the name of his majesty!” yelled the guard, pounding on the wooden door of the hut.  

Behind him, King Grisham and Duke Leonid stood on either side of Luna, who held in her arms a small wicker basket bearing the frog.  Flanking them, a dozen guards, in full martial gear.  

“Go away!” came a sharp voice from within.  

“You will open this door, or we shall break it down!” said the guard. 

A cackling laughter.  “Feel free to try. My protective spells on this hut will never yield to your brutishness.” 

The guard turned his head and looked at the king, shrugging. 

“This is the king.  You will open this door at once,” said Grisham. 

“Go away!” 

“Those are some beautiful herbs you have in the garden,” said Luna.  The king, duke, and guards all turned their heads towards her. “If you don’t open, I suppose we will just have to try to find our own remedy.  Perhaps uprooting these herbs and taking them back to the castle would be a good start.” 

“Not my herbs!” said the witch.  There was a thumping and clanging and creaking from behind the door, which then swung open.  The witch emerged. She was dressed in an elegant gray dress that covered her from neck to heel.  Her hair was wild, her face a mix of anger and fear.  

“What is your name?” said the king. 

“Esmerelda.  Why have you disturbed me?  If this is about the meteor shower…that was just a spell gone wrong.  It won’t happen again.” 

“Why have you cursed my son?” said Duke Leonid.  

The witch looked confused, her eyes darting from the duke to the king, to the guards, and then to Luna.  Finally, she spied the basket, and began to laugh. 

“You mean Alex?  I didn’t curse Alex, I tried to help!   And some thanks I get!” 

“If this is not a curse, why can’t Alex speak of it?” said the king. 

The witch frowned, sending a mole on her cheek several inches towards her pointy chin.  “I agreed to help, but we both knew you-” she pointed at the duke “-would not approve. So I made Alex promise not to tell a soul about the spell.  And a promise made to a witch is binding on one’s lips.” 

“What was the spell?” the duke demanded. 

“To transform.  Alex wanted to transform into a new body,” said Esmerelda. 

“Into a frog?” said Luna.  “Why would anyone want to be turned into a frog?” 

“Well…it wasn’t into a frog, precisely.  It was more a general transformation, and I don’t believe either of us was expecting it to turn out quite that way.” 

“Well, change him back!” said the duke.  

“It’s not quite that simple,” said the witch.  “Restorative spells only work under certain, er, conditions, and when Alex first became a frog I was really in no position to- hey!” she looked at Luna.  “You wouldn’t happen to be the princess, would you?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “This is my daughter.” 

“Oh, in that case, it’s simple.  You must kiss the frog. That will restore Alex’ true form, and wipe away the transformation.” 

Luna’s eyes grew wide.  “I…I can’t.” 

“Why not?” said the king. 

“Because of a promise.  I promised myself that I would never kiss a boy, no matter how much you wanted me to.  Because I’m not going to marry some duke or lord, father. I’ve told you a hundred times.” 

The others just stared at Luna, stunned. 

“In any case,” she continued, “you’ve always told me I can’t break a promise, and I promised that I wouldn’t do it.” 

“But Alex isn’t a boy; he’s a frog,” the duke pointed out. 

“He’s really a boy, though,” said the king, sighing.  “Luna is right; a promise made must be a promise kept.” 

“You promised to help me!” said the duke.  “And I promised you that Alex would marry Luna.  What about your promise to me?” 

“You did WHAT?!” yelled Luna.  

The king pursed his lips.  “It’s for the best, Luna. You need a man to help settle you down.  And Alex needs a wife. And our kingdom needs the resources of the dowry Duke Leonid has promised to provide.  This is your duty, Luna.” 

“No.  No way!” said Luna.  “I already promised I wouldn’t kiss a boy.  And I’m definitely not going to marry one.” 

“You’re being childish,” said the king.  

“It appears we are at a stalemate,” said the duke. 

“Can I say something?” said a tiny voice from within the basket.  It was the frog. “Esmerelda, will you release me from my promise not to talk about the help you gave me?” 

The witch looked puzzled.  “Yes, I release you.” 

The frog hopped onto Luna’s shoulder and leaned in towards her face.  

“No!  I’m not going to kiss you, no matter what you say.” 

“Shh,” said the frog, softly.  “I’m just going to whisper something in your ear.” 

For the better part of two minutes, the frog spoke directly into Luna’s ear.  Her face turned inquisitive, then disbelieving. She whispered a few words back, and the frog resumed.  Then, a smile broke out over Luna’s face. 

“Okay!”  she said, grinning wide.  She cupped both her hands, and the frog hopped into them.  Lifting them to her face, she put a great kiss upon its face.  

Smoke began to rise around the frog, and winds from some unseen source caused the smoke to swirl.  Luna stepped back; the frog was gone, enveloped in the dark gray vapors. After several seconds, the smoke cleared, revealing Alex.  

Her dark hair shone like flax, hanging below her shoulders.  A blue summer dress hung from her shoulders, lacing about her torso and hanging loose just above the knees.  

“What new mischief is this?” the duke demanded, addressing the witch.  “You said this would restore Alex, not turn him into some…girl!” 

The witch’s mouth was open, and her eyes did not move from regarding Alex.  Then, slowly, she closed her mouth and began to chuckle, starting with a few shakes and escalating in pitch and frequency until it became a proper, witchly cackle.  

“So THAT was our mistake, Alex,” said the witch.  “We never should have used a transformation spell.  There was probably a frog going about its business in my garden nearby.  Poor creature, at least it will have a tale to tell the other frogs in the pond.”  She resumed laughing. 

“What is the meaning of this?” said the king.  “What are you talking about?” 

The witch, now doubled over, took several seconds to regain enough composure to respond. 

“We should have used a restorative spell to start with!  Alex wasn’t looking to be transformed: she was looking to be restored to her true form!” 

“What do you mean ‘she?’” said the duke.  “This is my son we’re talking about!” 

“I was never your son, father,” said Alex, her voice soft and sweet.  “I’ve always been this person…I just didn’t look like it.”

“Well, the marriage is certainly off,” said the king.  

“No, father, you promised,” said Luna, without taking her eyes off Alex.   

“But…you must marry a man, Luna.  A woman will never do.” 

“I don’t want to marry a man.”

“Well, I forbid it.” 

“You can’t, father: you made a promise to the duke.”  

The king looked to Duke Leonid for assistance, but the duke, still transfixed on Alex, was in no position to give it.  Nobody spoke for several seconds. 

“Luna, you did say you always wanted to rescue a maiden in distress, didn’t you?” said Alex. 

Luna laughed in response. 

“May I have another kiss, then?  Who knows what that will do.” 

Before the sentence was even complete, Luna closed the small distance between them and kissed Alex passionately, then stepped back.  

“It didn’t do anything,” said Luna. 

“It made me happy, though,” said Alex, and they both laughed.  

“Alex, is this…really who you are?” said the duke, quietly.  

“Yes, father, it’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time.  I just didn’t have the words, I guess.” 

The duke stood motionless for the better part of a minute, then inhaled sharply and squared his shoulders. 

“In that case, you have my blessing.  I promised the king your hand, and a promise made is a promise kept.” 

“This is madness,” said King Grisham.  “What will your mother say, Luna?” 

“She will say that you are the king, and her duty is to obey your wishes,” said Luna.  

The king and the duke regarded their respective daughters, who were now holding hands and smiling at each other wordlessly.  The fathers turned to look at one another. The king looked uncertain. The duke shrugged at him. The king shrugged back, and they both broke into small smiles. 

“So be it,” said the king.  “We don’t understand this magic, but we understand duty, and we understand keeping one’s promises.  And a promise made is a promise kept.”  

The king and duke nodded at each other; Luna and Alex embraced; the witch smiled and quietly retreated into her hut; the guards smiled at one another, anxious to end their duties and talk about the strange magic they had just witnessed.  

We won’t here tell of the challenges and joys and sorrows that ensued for Luna, for Alex, or for the king.  We won’t describe the hundreds and thousands of conversations and debates and discussions that followed in the wake of this unprecedented marriage.  Rather, we will take the full sum of the happiness and sadness that each of them underwent; we will hold them up, weigh them carefully, and pronounce our verdict, as storytellers immemorial have, on the resolution of our tale: 

They all lived happily ever after. 

 

  

 

  

 

 

 

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Published in: on June 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Afternoon Eddies

Some short fiction, a palate cleanser from this year’s NaNo.  

Pine needles, so many pine needles, poking and sticking and filling the air with a seductive calm musk of forest, of danger, of plants grown legion. Jack winced, using one arm to clear the branch in front of him, the other idly brushing away the needles that probed his pants and the tough skin underneath.

This path was familiar, though overgrown now; in the halcyon days of his youth, his almost daily wild trek through this stretch of forest kept all but the heartiest vegetation at bay.  In the half century since, the nettles and the pines and the small weeds that now constellated the ground had fortified the reclaimed territory, had set barbs and thick branches to stave off intruders.  Jack returned here as to a scene of forgotten glory, each labored step through the brush an achievement, a small mote of progress in his reconnaissance of his boyhood haunt.

A needle jabbed through the knuckle at the base of his thumb, breaching the skin and finding purchase in the soft tissue between bone and ligature.  Jack gasped, feeling the thick pine and pollen dust racing into his nostrils and settling in his chest.

-why have i come here?-

A wind announced its arrival, rustling the tops of the trees before enveloping Jack.  Leaves and dirt rose in its wake, tickling his ankles, the cold, sweet air startling him and breaking the pace of his progress.

It was getting late, the afternoon sun angled too low to counter the chill breeze.  Shadows long and eldritch danced as their progenitor flora swayed to the wind. Jack knew he should go back, to find his aunt; if he came in before sunset, she was apt to bedevil him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and reward him with a cookie.  She used maple syrup in the cookies; they squished under the smallest pressure of his jaw and melted into molasses behind his teeth. Jack could taste them now, could feel the warm, familiar smell rise into his nose from the back of his mouth. Aunt Millie’s cookies.  Aunt Silly, he had called her.

But no, Aunt Silly- Aunt Millie- had died, years ago.  That house had been sold, and with it, any claim Jack and his clan held on the vaguely titled plot of forest.  So why was he here?

The wind intensified.  The pitch of the rustling trees deepened as the tallest trees bowed lower, acknowledging the passage of air and weather.  Clouds poured above, a celestial river of white that gave way to dark gray. Jack felt like an earthbound raft traversing river rapids, hoping the sky above stayed white and fluffy, mentally steering his patch of ground away from the dark, treacherous sprinkling of storm clouds overhead.  

All at once, Jack was wet.  He hadn’t felt the rain fall, but he could hear it, a susurration above and all around him.  It seemed to be everywhere, a thousand points of barbed water dinging and careening off everything in the forest.  He couldn’t see the rain falling, though, and looked around for some visual confirmation of the storm.

The forest aroma intensified, pine and decaying leafs misting around him.  It was a pleasant smell, though somehow sad, even wistful. It was the smell of yesteryear, of careless youth, of seasons changing and passing, rolling forward, always forward, into the next.

Jack put a hand to his hair: it was soaked.  The loud but invisible rain had drenched him.  Above, few white fluffs remained, the sky now overrun with menacing dark leviathans that filtered out the diminishing light of the fast-setting sun.  

At once, brilliant white forks appeared overhead, and three distinct claps shook Jack’s ears and caused him to start.  He closed his eyes, feeling drops of warm water fall from their lids, glancing off his legs. When he opened them, the storm was gone- the sky was clear, it was mid-day, the sun surging warm waves over his wet body.  A bird chirruped somewhere above him. The ground was dry.

-what on earth?-

Three claps, louder than the first, stirred something deep in his breast.  He closed his eyes again, and this time they opened slowly. Jack was prone on his back, his face and hair dripping wet.  Sunlight and shadows swapped places on the ceiling above him as the blackout curtains rustled in the breeze from the window.  Jack felt a pillow under his head, touched his brow. It was damp. Dropping both elbows beside him, he lifted his body a few strained inches, feeling the wet sheets pull away and turn instantly cold as he relaxed back down onto them.  

His hand went to his leg: no pine needles.  No bird sounds. No forest scents, only the antiseptic smell of the humidifier, and the sour, vinegar odor of his own sweat.  Three sudden claps caused him to jump- they were knocks on his door. With considerable effort, Jack sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, feeling the pins and needles ebb and vanish as the blood started to flow.

Jack stood using a hand against the wall for balance as the other swept the curtain aside.  Below, standing just outside his door, were two men in suits. One had brown wavy hair; the other was starting to bald.  Jack knew why they were here. He had long expected them, dreaded them. They were from the army, come to deliver sad and solemn news.  Jack had a premonition about this, knew they would come. He knew what they would say, and how he would react. It was as though he had rehearsed this very moment a dozen times in his mind.  

Jack slowly walked to his closet, pulling out a long robe to cover his sweat-through night clothes.  He closed the closet door and stopped, disconcerted. This was wrong; he wasn’t wearing a robe. It was a white shirt, with a blazer and a loosened tie, as though he had just come home from work, was still making the transition into casual clothing.  The officer had even remarked on his tie, some inane compliment. And- more darkly- it was this tie he would invoke in his passing consideration of suicide, a momentary thought of hanging himself from the ceiling fan. He would never do that- would never even give the thought a proper name- but he remembered the tie, of that he was certain.  

Jack opened the closet again.  There was a white shirt, slightly wrinkled, but serviceable.  He quickly pulled it over his arms, buttoning from the top down, aged fingers made deft by decades of muscle memory.  The tie, though, if only he could remember the correct tie! Jack worried for a moment that his visitors would give up, would leave before he was ready.  

“I’m coming!” he yelled, voice unsteady, in the direction of the window.

Perhaps the tie wasn’t important.  At least, the type of tie. It just had to be a tie, any tie worthy of remarking on.  Jack found one of black and white gingham and pulled it loosely around his neck, knotting it without tightening.  It was perfect.

As he left the bedroom, Jack ticked through all the details of this encounter.  He would open the door, and the younger of the two men would call him sir, would confirm his name.  Then the older man would say that Michael had died, that he was honorable, and use other nice adjectives that Jack would scarcely hear and soon forget.  A rare and frightening tightness would grip his chest, and, searching for any acceptable words to speak, Jack would invite them inside. Karen would make ask who was there from the kitchen, and Jack would tell her to bring waters, that they had two guests.  

Karen would bring the water and a small plate of cookies, still oblivious to the nature of the visit.  She would blanch when she saw them sitting on the sofa, all starched uniform blue with explosions of medals on the breast.  She would shake, spilling one of the waters, they would call her ma’am, she would start to sob before they could say anything else.  

Jack paused on the staircase.

-i should put a hand towel in the den, to clean up the water.-

He turned at the bottom of the stairs, away from the door and towards the inside of the home.  This was wrong. Karen wasn’t here, she had died, not so very long ago. There would be no spilled water, no spilled tears.  Michael had a gravestone in a large cemetery in Virginia; Jack had visited there, had laid flowers on the grave. It was all wrong, it was out of place on the timeline.  Jack was angry as he reached the door and flung it open.

“You’re too late!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the visitors.  

The two men stiffened up.  Their army uniforms were wrong, too.  They looked like businessmen, in neat white shirts and black suits.  They scarcely even looked like men; Jack would be surprised if they were a day over twenty one.  Their only medals were shiny name tags that Jack had to squint to read. He glanced back and forth between the baby-faced visitors and the incongruous word Elder on the badges.

“Um, good afternoon, sir,” said the taller of the two.  “How are you today?”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  The visitors glanced at one another.

“My name is Elder Brown, and this is Elder Lee.  It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jack,” he said, definitively, extending a proud hand.  Elder Brown took the hand and shook, then passed it to Elder Lee, who did the same.  

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about faith?  We are taking a survey in this neighborhood, and asking some questions about God and our place in the world.  Do you ever think about those things?”

Jack considered it.  He did think about God, all the time, but those were private thoughts, and some part of him knew that his musings were not safe for public airing.  

“Oh, from time to time,” he demurred.

“That’s wonderful!” Elder Brown said, as both visitors broke into wide grins.  “Would you mind if we step inside?”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.  Inside, that’s where they want to come.  To his place, his sanctuary. Of course, he has visitors all the time.  The den is usually immaculate, not one item out of place. In the middle distance, he saw the sofa, covered in balled-up newspaper and dirty clothing.  The coffee table, spackled with used dishes, would need tidying before guests could be admitted. Karen would have his head if he didn’t clean up before having company.  

“My, uh, place isn’t very tidy, I’m afraid,” said Jack.

“Oh, we don’t mind!” Elder Lee cut in.  “The truth is, we’ve been walking for several hours, and it would be good just to get off our feet for a few minutes.”

Unable to think of a counterargument, Jack stood aside, gesturing admission, and the elders crossed his threshold, waiting patiently for him just inside the door.  

“You can, uh, sit over there.  I’ll make space,” Jack pointed towards the sofa, and staggered in its direction.

“We can help with that, if you like,” said Elder Brown.  “Here, let me fetch those dishes for you. Do you want them in the kitchen?”

It was moving too fast for Jack.  The young men- boys, really- flitted to and fro in a whirlwind of activity.  Dishes and refuse were swept up in their wake, re-deposited out of sight. It was over in an instant, and the room looked almost tidy.  

“Would you like a glass of water?” Jack said.  The elders were seated on the sofa now, their eddies of motion evidently spent.  

“Yes, please!” said Elder Lee, with boyish enthusiasm.  

With a nod, Jack retreated to the kitchen, where he searched the cupboards for clean glasses.  He needed to pour the water carefully, and bring it to the den without spilling. He mentally checked through the constituent parts of the task, determined to be more careful this time.  

-why are they here?-

It must be another volley from his daughter.  They were here to convince him to move into a new place, to give up his home.  The nerve of these people, to barge in here and tell him he couldn’t live alone!  They talked over his meek objections. When he spilled the water- just a careless tangling of his feet!- they made much of it, wielding it as proof positive that he needed to leave.  The destination was hazy, but Jack could see through them. They wanted him in a home, not in his home, but a home for people at the end of their days, who couldn’t be trusted to live unsupervised.  It was a second childhood, he remembered thinking, and he was not going softly.

Jack filled each cup only halfway.  This time, he would not spill it, would measure each step slowly, deliberately.  They would see that he can still function, can still do the mundane tasks of life that silently delineate between those worthy of independence, and those whose vitality is spent.  He would show them!

Both cups in hand, Jack began his perilous trek, shuffling his feet just an inch off the floor, finding a stable rhythm.  In twenty strides, he reached the coffee table, and began to lower the cups, feeling the strain in his back as he hunched towards the landing pad.  Elder Brown reached out and intercepted the lander before touchdown, passing one to Elder Lee and snatching the other for himself.

“Thank you,” Elder Lee said.  Jack stood, half-hunched, frozen, slow to realize that his mission had been an unmitigated success.  He smiled and nodded, easing himself upright and rounding the table to the easy chair, into which he sunk majestically.  

“Do you ever think about what comes after?” Elder Brown said, sipping his water.  

Right to the point, then, Jack smirked.  It is time to do battle.

“I think that I stay here.”

The elders exchanged glances.  “I mean, what comes after you leave here?  What comes next?”

“There is no next!” Jack raised his voice.  “I stay here until I die! And I’m not going anywhere else.  I make do just fine on my own.”

Elder Brown looked at Elder Lee again, who shrugged.  An awkward moment passed.

“After we die, I mean,” said Elder Brown.  “Where do we go then?”

Jack thought about this.  Perhaps he had misjudged the situation.  Come to think of it, these boys didn’t look like they came from a nursing home.  Religious folk, then. Come to spread the gospel. Only they were so young. Maybe he should put them in touch with Pastor Abrams, he liked talking about theology.  His sermons always went long, Jack remembered counting the minutes while his stomach rumbled its lunchtime protest.

“I don’t know about that,” Jack said.  “Maybe you’d like to talk to Pastor Abrams, I could introduce you.  He loves talking about heaven and hell. In fact, at his funeral his wife told this story about him getting out of a speeding ticket by telling the officers that he would need to give an extra tithe to make up for the violation of the law.”

Once again, the elders exchanged looks, this time with concern.  

“So, he has passed on?” said Elder Lee.  

Jack stopped, considering.  Yes, that sounded right, he had been at Pastor Abrams’ funeral.  He wouldn’t be available to talk shop with these young people.

“I suppose so,” Jack conceded.

“You live here alone?” Elder Brown ventured.

“I do,” Jack said proudly.  “I have a girl who comes by each week to take care of a few things, since I move more slowly these days.”

The words spilled out of his head before he could catch them.  He had a girl? Who was that? It sounded right, but he couldn’t place her.  Natalia? Tatiana? Something that sounded Russian. When had she last been here?  When was she expected? Jack could never keep it straight. He was seized by worry, that these young people would see his confusion and do something to upset his safety and routine.  

“That’s nice,” said Elder Brown, smiling his acceptance.  “Elder Lee and I are helping people, too, by spreading the good news about Jesus Christ.  Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I do,” said Jack, relieved.

“Wonderful!” Elder Lee clapped his hands.  “Our church believes in spreading Jesus’ teachings, and showing people how faith can transform their lives.  Would you like to join us in a small prayer? Since this is your home, maybe you can say something appropriate, or we can, if you prefer.”

Jack mentally braced against the onslaught of words.  They wanted him to pray? Praying for Jack was not a performative act, it was a silent reflection that belonged in a church.  

“You can go ahead,” Jack said, suspiciously.  

The Elders bowed their heads.  “Our father, who art in Heaven…”

Jack knew this one, tuned out the familiar words, his eyes closed.  He remembered the lilt of the prayer, hearing it echo through the chapel at Karen’s funeral, the sad timbre of the pastor, using the benediction to plead with their maker to treat Karen’s soul with kindness and mercy.  The realization that, when this day of ritual was complete, he would be alone, left by himself for the first time in decades. Imagining waking up in bed, with Karen not there. Tears flooded his eyes and leaked down the deep crevices of his cheeks.  

“Are you okay, Jack?” one of the boys said.  Jack opened his eyes, feeling a rush of water escaping down his face.  

“Yes, uh, I just need a moment.  Excuse me, please.”

Jack stood with considerable effort, and moved towards the staircase.  “I just need to fetch something,” he muttered, using his arms on the railing to propel him upward, towards his bedroom.  Below, the boys sat with their water, watching him with intense interest.

Jack reached the bedroom, and sat on his bed, taking a tissue from the nightstand to his wet face.  He could smell his own sweat on the pillow case beside him. That smell reminded him of deep sleep, of the surreal experience of waking, of the warm embrace of the blankets.  Unthinking, he lifted his legs and tucked them under, feeling the weight and pressure of the comforter on his body. He blew his nose, and then set his head down on the pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling.  

Time must be passing, Jack thought, and there was something he still needed to do today.  It was something to do with Michael, and with Karen, or maybe Pastor Abrams. He searched the ceiling for answers, but the dancing shadows and reflected sunlight held no answers.  The room grew dimmer as his lids half-closed. His body sank into the mattress inch by inch, the soft foam taking his torso into a slow embrace.

A creak on the stairs.  “Are you okay, Jack?”

It was a young voice- one of the boys, the elders.  So they were still here. Jack ran through a checklist of actions needed to see them off properly.  It seemed daunting.

“I’m in bed,” he called down.  “You can see yourself out.”

“Do you need anything?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a bit tired.  Thank you for the prayer,” Jack said.  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the face of one of the boys- which one, he could not tell, the name tag concealed by the door frame and too far off to read in any event.  Jack shut his eyes, performing sleep, hoping the youngster would leave him be.

After a moment, he heard a renewed creaking on the banister, and muffled voices from below, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  

Jack was still dressed in the white shirt and loose tie, but the bed was a comfort, and there would be no harm in taking a nap.  He allowed himself to sink deeper, to begin to drift, his thoughts swirling back to the taste of molasses, his cheek wet with the unwanted kisses of his Aunt Silly.  

-AG

Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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NaNo: Chapter 29

Chapter 29: …and Wyndos, Too

The first thing Wyndos saw was the ceiling, dark and spackled, the room dimly-lit.  

I must have fallen and hit my head.

Somewhere deep inside their head, a tapering vibration, like the aftershocks of a gong, rattled and ached.  

Yes, a head injury, that must be it.  

Wyndos started to sit up, rubbing their temples.

“You live!” an unfamiliar voice said.

Wyndos blinked several times, and saw a figure taking shape nearby. It was not familiar.  

“For how long-”

The sound of their own voice stopped Wyndos cold.

That’s not my voice!

“Take it easy, Biere, give it a few minutes to wear off.”

Biere?  That’s not my name. Wait, maybe it is my name.  Where the hell am I?

“What happened?” said Biere, or Wyndos, meekly.  

“You just came out of a sim.  It’s okay, only a couple of hours have passed.”

My greatest fears have come to pass.  Or, at least, Wyndos’ greatest fears.

“I still remember…everything.”

“Yes,” said the speaker.  “That will last for a few more minutes, then it will start to fade.  Would you like to debrief?”

“Would I like?  Aren’t they mandatory?”

Laughter.  “No, not for years.  But if this was an interesting experience, perhaps you would like to collect some thoughts for later?  I can turn on the recorder if you like.”

Biere nodded.

I will miss Wyndos.  It was a good life.

“Whenever you’re ready, Biere.  I’m Juko, in case you don’t remember yet, but you will.  You go ahead and talk, and I’ll ask you some questions to help focus your memory.”

“Where to begin?” said Biere, still starting at the sound of their own voice.  “I was born into a world with a highly efficient, highly-developed society. The people worked fewer and fewer days; the amount of labor practically dropped in half during my lifetime.  People spent much of their lives in simulations, where they lived countless lives.”

“Do you remember any of those countless lives you lived?” said Juko.

“No.  I never…I never went through a sim.  Something always…troubled me about them.  Instead, I studied them. I thought about them.  I got involved in shaping them, for many years. I never retired.”

“Was that uncommon?”

“Yes, very.  I had to hide the details of my life from everyone, lest they think I was some sort of sociopath.  There was no work ethic, not really. The only people who stayed working were those in power, because corruption abhors retirement.”

Juko tried to stifle a laugh, unsuccessfully.

“I worked hard, but I managed to find work I enjoyed.  I shaped parts of our world more than anyone knew, but I always did so from the side, never taking the spotlight.  It was an effective way to maintain a low profile.”

“What did you do for fun?” Juko said.

Biere shut their eyes to think, but recall was elusive.

“I liked working with young people, later in my life.  When I was young myself I…well, I don’t recall. I guess that means I never will.  A shame.”

“Do you remember your name?”

“I was called Wyndos.”

“A good name.  Do you know why it was your name?”

Biere thought a moment.  “No, I don’t.”

“Tell me about them, then.  About Wyndos. What do you remember?”

“If you don’t mind, I would rather talk about my studies.  The nature of the simulations fascinated me. I realized, late in life, just in the weeks before my death, in fact, that I was probably on a plane.  Only I didn’t realize if I was an NPC or a visitor from another plane. I also-”

Biere stopped.  

I also realized that this world, too, was nothing more than a plane.  

“Do we know much about the nature of planes?” Biere said.

Juko smiled kindly.  “Yes, Biere, we do. In fact, you do, as you will soon recall.  I am not surprised in the least that you would even spend your time off fantasizing about the nature of sims.  It’s perfectly, preposterously you.”

“I look forward to learning more about Biere, but for now, I still find myself overwhelmed by a sense of being Wyndos.”

“That’s normal,” Juko said.  “And it will pass. In the meantime, I recommend you tell me everything you do remember about Wyndos, and anyone you wish to remember from your time in the sim.”

Biere shut their eyes, a rush of names and faces washing over them.  Truu, Quarla, Reesh. The antics of Carem and Chein. Vair, the hot-headed youngster, for whom Wyndos had such high hopes.  

None of it was real.  

“Biere, are you crying?” said Juko.

“Just remembering,” said Biere.  

“Well, remember out loud, please, because in a few more minutes, you won’t remember any of this, and you will be kicking yourself for not recording it at all.”

Biere recognized the wisdom of this.  

“I do not know what killed me.  I can assume a heart attack, or an aneurism, or something else fast and clean.  There was no final illness, no long goodbye. I was at a celebration…we had some problem on the sim, something involving Carem…but the details elude me.  I remember that we were celebrating. And laughing, there was so much laughing. Why was I reserved? What kept me from just cutting loose?”

“Regrets serve as lousy markers of memory,” said Juko.    

“Yes, that makes sense,” said Biere.  “Okay, let me see, the positives…I lived in almost complete creature comfort.  I had good food, reliable shelter, and was self-assigned to projects I found rewarding.  I truly believe I made a difference in the world, and that my efforts improved our plane, overall.”

“Was there a specific memory of happiness that you can share?”

Biere laughed.  “There is one, and it wasn’t a happy memory at the time, but looking back, yes, yes it was.  My final trainee, someone named Vair, decided against all my advice to become a sim tech. They were training, and it was going slowly, but Vair was dedicated and was bound to be successful.  In any case, shortly after they started the training, I learned that they were involved in some sim experiments that I found troubling. Tests involving multiple planes, or multiple levels, I don’t know the proper jargon here, but we called it meta-planes where I was.  I was upset, and forbade Vair to continue in that field.

“Naturally, Vair didn’t listen.  They went right on ahead, plugging away and making mistakes, and yet making great strides.  Vair was fearless. I was so damn proud of them. I’m sure they will have a great career after my passing.”

“That’s good, that’s very good to hear!” Juko said.  

“There was another time with Vair, when we were looking into career options, and for the umpteenth time they started asking me questions about myself.  I never liked those questions, always managed to deflect and just smile mysteriously. You would be amazed how effective that is at creating an image of inscrutability!  Anyway, Vair was looking…huh, what were we looking at? It was…no, I’m sorry. No. It’s gone. Damn.”

“That’s okay,” said Juko.  “Tell me about the world. What was something you found especially pleasant about life on the plane?”

“Well, of course, we didn’t know it was a plane.  Actually, that’s not true, at the end, I did know it, and one of my colleagues- it would be a stretch to say one of my friends- named Reesh said something very profound.  They said that even if this world is an illusion, that is no reason to stop our endeavors, because those endeavors have meaning no matter what, and for all we know, there is a greater truth that restores the meaning that onion theory disturbes.”

“Onion theory?”

“Oh, yes, it was…hmm…something to do with the planes.  No, I’m sorry. I think it’s fading for me. Reesh. I remember the name, but can’t recall the face.  Oh, this is bad. It’s leaving me. Wyndos is leaving me.”

“Hush, it’s okay,” said Juko.  “As I told you before, this is completely normal.  I would be concerned if your memories weren’t starting to fray.  It has been almost ten minutes, that’s around when it happens. Let’s stick to something easy, while you can still-”

“I’m not sure that I can go on with this,” said Biere.

“You can.  Or, at least, you can try.  Just one more question, okay?  Tell me something about Wyndos.  About you, who you were. Something fundamental, something that made you, you.”

Biere closed their eyes and shook their head.  

“I was someone important.  At least, I think I was important.  To tell you the truth, I don’t really remember it at all.”

(1459 words)

This marks the end of NaNoWriMo 2018 for me.  Five year’s running, huzzah!  Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.

Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 3:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 28

Chapter 28: Carem Comes Home

“Well then, so you’re Truu, and in mass, too!” said Carem, tilting a drink in the newcomer’s direction.

“I’m glad you’re home safe,” Truu said.  “And you look so…the same. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between seeing you here, and seeing you on the test plane.”

“I was going to kill you on the test plane, too,” said Carem.  “You’re lucky you weren’t Vair or Chein, because them, I might not have stopped.”

“I’m sure that sounds like a great idea in your head, Carem,” Chein said, seated across the room.  “But if you were to think through it, you’d realize that ideas like that are why you still haven’t retired.  You kill me, then what? I just go back to the prior plane, and probably leave you in purgatory for another ten million years, or whatever.”

“Hey, go easy,” said Vair, sputtering into their own drink.  “Carem doesn’t remember any of that, do you, old fella?”

“Look, mister smarty pants,” Carem said, “everything I DO remember about that hell is because you people just can’t keep your damned mouths shut.  And Chein, I don’t care what they say, you smell bad in person. This is only, what the third time we’ve seen each other in mass?”

“Fourth,” said Chein.  “You always forget about Buxos’ retirement party.”

“Whatever.  You still smell.”

“We smell the same in the planes,” said Vair.  “Honestly, everything is the same. I don’t know why we even bother with meeting in mass anymore, it’s not like it makes any difference.”

“Because of tradition, and to keep us grounded,” said Wyndos, appearing suddenly in the doorway.  The group fell silent as Wyndos crossed the room and extended a hand formally to Carem. “It is good to have you back, Carem.  We were very worried.”

Carem seemed flustered at the formality.  “I, uh, appreciate everything you did for me, director, er, controller?  Sorry, I don’t know your title.”

“Wyndos suits just fine.”

“Then thank you, Wyndos,” said Carem.

Wyndos nodded.

“Let’s not get too somber in here,” said Chein.  “This is a celebration, after all. Let’s all get some drinks in us while Carem regales us with all the details they don’t remember.”

“I’m in for drinking,” said Vair, glancing self-consciously at Wyndos.

“Something smokey, with a bit of lime,” said Truu.

“Get it yourself,” Carem scoffed.  “I’m having beer.”

Wyndos cleared their throat.  “I do not generally imbibe, though given the circumstance, a sherry would not go amiss, as far as I am concerned.”

The others laughed.

“So tell me this, Wyndos,” said Carem, drops of beer falling from the glass.  “Did we learn anything useful from my misadventure? I mean, I don’t remember it, but it sounds galling.  At least tell me it was productive somehow.”

“Indeed it was, friend,” said Wyndos, clapping Carem on the back firmly.  “In fact, not only was your own misadventure, as you aptly put it, a great discovery in itself, but the efforts to retrieve you from that plane led to further developments that will direct research for years to come.”

“Let me guess,” said Carem, “whatever it was that got done to me, you’re gonna do it to future miscreants as a deterrent.”

“As the chief miscreant I’ve ever met, you’ll be the very first to know,” said Chein.  “Wyndos, don’t spoil the surprise, if so.”

Wyndos smiled.  “Nothing of the sort.  The discoveries were more…esoteric.  They have to do with the relationship between planes, time, tethering, and onion rings.”

“Onion rings?” said Vair.  “That’s a killer idea! Hey, we should have some music in here!”

Almost immediately, a loud bass line materialized, followed by drums and a synthesized melody.

Wyndos grimaced.  “Turn that off, Vair, now is not the time.”  

Vair looked sheepish as the music came to a halt.

“We have so very little time in mass, we should spend it enjoying each other’s company, don’t you think?” Wyndos said.

“I guess,” said Vair, arms folded.

Carem and Chein sat together near the drink dispensary, chatting loudly, while Vair sulked in silence with his drink.  Seeing an opportunity, Truu approached Wyndos.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” said Wyndos.  

“That final instruction you gave me…why was it so important that Carem keep quiet?”

“It has to do with the way planes work,” said Wyndos.  “We all knew that Carem was having a hellish experience, being abandoned and alone for what must have felt like ages.  It certainly was years. However, experience teaches us that those memories, even if the upload subject is self-aware, do not persist across more than one planar jump.”

“I still don’t follow,” said Truu.  “You mean Carem wouldn’t have noticed even if they had spoken?”

“That’s just it,” Wyndos said.  “Carem would not remember being on that third plane regardless, but if they articulated anything about it on the intermediary planes, they would remember what they said, and that would allow the memory of the memory to persist, so to speak.”

Truu thought for a moment, and then shook their head.  “Too complicated for me. I’m but a lowly programmer.”

Wyndos clapped Truu on the back.  “You did a fine job. I appreciate your help.”

“This party is more than enough thanks,” said Truu.  “I’ve never been invited to a mass celebration that wasn’t for a rite.  In fact, the last time I was even out of my habitation was- hey, Wyndos, are you all right?”

Truu had raised their voice, and the others glanced over, concerned.  Wyndos looked perplexed, mouth slightly open, eyes focused off into the distance.

“Hey, Wyndos!” said Vair.  “What’s up?”

“Are you okay, Wyndos?” said Carem, rising and walking over to them.

Wyndos mouth shuddered as though speaking, but no words came out.  

“Somebody help Wyndos sit down before they fall!” said Chein.  

Truu and Carem each jumped to Wyndos’ side, catching their arms and steadying them.

Wyndos’ mouth opened again.  

“I…I…want to…”

“I said sit them down!” Chein shouted.  Carem and Truu each took two heavy steps forward, trying to guide Wyndos to the nearest seat.  Vair sat, frozen, staring with a look of horror.

All at once, Wyndos’ body stiffened, catching Carem and Truu off balance, and Wyndos fell flat onto their back.  From somewhere deep in the chest, a sharp and loud intake of breath came, sounding like a gasp. Then Wyndos was still.  

“Oh my god, somebody call for help,” said Vair.

“Raise the head a few inches, use your clothing if you have to,” said Chein.  “And for god sake, give them some space!”

“Hang in there,” Carem said, speaking directly into Wyndos’ frozen face.  “We’ll get you some help. You’re going to be okay.”

But Wyndos was gone.  

(1129 words)

Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 27

Chapter 27: Truu Takes a Dive

Chein looks tired, Truu thought, scrutinizing the face on the screen.  Tired, and a bit defeated.

It wasn’t the first time Truu had been a part of a large conference call, nor would it be the last, they thought, sadly.  Of the four participants, Chein was the only familiar face, and most of the conversation was about topics Truu found utterly irrelevant to the special assignment as Truu understood it.

“…but given the results from yesterday,” one of the participants- the information screen identified the speaker as Wyndos- said, “I believe we need actual uploads on each plane, each tethered to the prior plane through comms.”

“That’s where you come in, Truu,” said Chein.  “Were you able to fashion the comm device we discussed?”

“Yes,” said Truu, starting slightly at the sound of their own name.  “This device should allow you to communicate through up to five monitors, where each one only communicates with one or two others.  There will be about a half-second delay, but that can’t be worked out of the system without a lot more work.”

“This is perfect for our purposes,” said Chein.  “Wyndos, do you think this will suffice?

“In all likelihood, yes,” said Wyndos.  “So Chein, walk me through the order of operations for today.”

“We preserved the test plane that was used in the, uh, problematic experiment,” said Chein.  “My intention is to utilize the recruit you found for the time-lapse test and station them there.  Then Vair will descent, first to the test plane, and then to the second plane. From there, we hope to make contact with Carem, and manually bring them back up.”

Wyndos was thoughtful for a moment.

“I see two problems with your plan, and one matter in need of clarification,” said Wyndos, slowly articulating each word.  “First, we no longer have the services of my recruit. That was not a reassigned worker, but a retiree by whom I was owed a favor.  That currency has now been spent.”

“Damn,” said Chein, “I wish you had told me that.  I could have arranged for somebody else. We still can, it will just delay things a couple of hours. Wyndos, any chance you can do the first-level upload yourself?”

“No,” said Wyndos.  “I do not traverse the sim planes.”

“At all?” said Chein.  “Like, ever?”

“I can go,” said Truu.  

Now why did I say that?  

The others all looked at Truu through the screen.  

“I mean, if you want.  I’m already here.”

Please say no.

“Have you ever gone into a test plane before?” said Chein.

“Well, no-”

Chein turned to Wyndos.  “I’d rather get somebody experienced.  It’s worth the extra time.”

“I defer to your expertise,” said Wyndos.  “We shall reconvene in two hours, which will give me an opportunity-”

“No!”

The exclamation came from the third person on the link, who had not yet spoken.  Truu noted the name Vair.

Wyndos looked surprised, but stopped speaking.

“We need to go now!” said Vair.  “Don’t you understand? We have no idea how long Carem has been trapped in there.  Two hours is about the length of a regular sim, right?”

Chein slowly nodded.

“That means Carem could be stuck in there, stuck in NOTHING, for an entire lifetime over the next two hours.  This has been too long already. We need to go now!”

What the hell happened in there? Truu thought.

Wyndos rubbed the side of their head.  “When we did the time-lapse test, that recruit had no prior test plane training.  I trust the role will not involve any specialized skills?”

“No,” said Chein, tentatively.  “But still, something this important-”

“Vair raises a valid point.  Our understand about how relative time works is limited, but from what little we do know, it is highly likely that Carem is experiencing time at a much slower pace than we are.”

“Carem won’t even remember it when we extract though, right?” said Chein.  “That’s something else we know with virtual certainty.”

“True,” said Wyndos.  “Which brings us to the value judgment: do we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering, even if we know that suffering will be entirely forgotten?  For myriad reasons, I posit that we do owe such a duty.”

Chein straightened up in the chair.  “But does that duty trump the duty to bring Carem back safely at all?  I mean, if an additional two hours would broaden the chances of a safe return, doesn’t that outweigh the discomfort that may be added during whatever that amount of time feels like to Carem?”

“The broadening to which you refer is tentative and minor at best,” said Wyndos, “and is more than offset by the increased peril of permanent damage to Carem from extended exposure to the void of the empty test plane.”

“If you two don’t mind,” said Vair, “let’s have the ethics debate after we’ve gotten Carem safely home.  I’m ready to go, like, now.”

“If that’s okay with you, Wyndos, then I can get started,” said Chein.

Wyndos raised a hand.  “If you will recall, I reported two problems and one concern.  We have addressed but one. I do not approve of having Vair descend beneath the first test plane, under any circumstances.”

“What? Why?” said Vair.

“That will complicate things,” said Chein.  “Unless you’re willing to take one for the team, Wyndos.”

“As I said, I do not traverse the planes,” said Wyndos.  

“Why not?  I mean, everybody goes into sims.  And test planes aren’t really THAT different from-”

“I do not enter any planes, test or otherwise.  I never have, and never will,” said Wyndos.

Chein and Vair looked at Wyndos in disbelief.

“Okay, then…” said Chein.  “I guess the only option that leaves is for Truu to go to the second level.  I still have my reservations- no offense, Truu.”

“None taken.”

“But if you’re insisting on going immediately, without recruiting more help-”

“And I am!” said Vair.

“Then the only things we can do,” continued Chein, “is to have Vair on the first level, and send Truu to the second.  Am I missing anything, Wyndos?”

“Yes,” said Wyndos, “and this is my concern.  It is vitally important that the comms be opened and tested at each intermediary step.  You will upload, then do a comm check. Then upload further, and then comm check. Only when comm checks have been verified to my satisfaction will the exercise proceed.”

“Understood,” said Vair and Truu, at the same time.

“Okay, so, Truu and Vair, get ready for your first uploads,” said Chein.  “Let’s see if we can bring my wayward partner home.”

(1106 words)

Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 12:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 26

Chapter 26: Reesh Finds Resolve

“If you didn’t contact me just when you did, I was going to be crawling up your ass like a cheap pair of synthetic trousers,” said Reesh, the moment Wyndos’ face appeared.

“Nice to see you, as well.”

Look at that damned smile.  How can Wyndos be so irritatingly serene?  

“Well, let’s have it,” Reesh said.  “What’s the latest on the missing tech?”

“We are finalizing a plan for Carem’s extraction,” Wyndos said.  “In the meantime, this misadventure into multiple planes has uncovered some perplexing aspects of the very nature of planes themselves.”

“Found a silver lining, have you?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“Well,” said Reesh, “lay it on me, then.”

Wyndos leaned slightly forward, speaking slowly.

“One of the more interesting paradoxes we experience as we design, test, and then deploy sim planes is the relationship between perceived time, and actual time.  As any person who has traversed the sim planes will tell you, their experiences seem to last decades, but they return to find that only a small space of time has elapsed.”

“Yes,” Reesh said, “I’ve often wondered about that.”

“Most simply accept it as a picadillo of the sim.  What most do not know is that when we test new planes, and bring in technicians who are self-aware and wired for comms, they experience no such discrepancy.”

“What do you mean?”

“Five minutes on the plane, for instance, is precisely five minutes in the world,” said Wyndos.  “Something about the test planes is different, or at least, that’s what we thought.”

“My understanding was that the self-awareness was the problem,” said Reesh.  “That’s why we had the disaster back, when was it, twenty six years ago?”

“It was twenty-eight, and our understanding of what happened there has remained a mystery,” Wyndos said.  “Even at the time, we knew that the issue was related to the sim tech. The underlying problem was a very high instance of clients returning prior to forming any memories of their time, which was presumed to mean infant mortality.  The disaster resulted from sending in a self-aware sim tech with comms to investigate. That caused what was referred to at the time as a planar prison, where clients were not returning within the expected temporal parameters.”

“Yes, they were stuck, that’s what I remember reading.”

“It’s one thing to read about it in a book: imagine being there.  It lasted two days, and during that time, nobody knew if the clients were going to return at all.”

“Wait, Wyndos, you were there?”

Wyndos took a deep breath.  “Yes. Those were hard hours.  Some demanded we terminate the plane immediately, but others believed that could harm the clients then in upload.  In the end, we took the risk, and ended the plane. The clients were unharmed.”

“Did they ever find out what caused the early returns?”

“It remains a mystery,” Wyndos said.

“So self-awareness was the key?”

“We thought so, for many years, but could not replicate the problem in any tests.  In fact, on certain occasions, we have sent self-aware testers onto our active planes, but with no adverse effects.  It remained a mystery. However, today’s experiments may have provided the answer.”

“I’m all ears,” said Reesh.

“I will spare you many details, and focus on two twin iterations of our test.  In the first, a tech went into a meta-plane self-aware, but without any communication to the plane above them.  They experienced several hours of time, though only one minute elapsed. In the second, a self-aware tech was sent to the meta-plane with full comms, and they experienced one minute of time in one minute.  So, you see, it appears to be the tethering that synched the passage of time between planes.”

“That IS interesting,” Reesh said.  “Do you suppose it is the actual tether, or the capability of tethering?”

“Can you clarify your question?” said Wyndos.

“I mean, suppose a tech had a fully-operational comm unit, but never engaged it.  Would its very presence ensure the synchronized passage of time?”

Yikes, I’m beginning to talk like Wyndos.  I suppose their dialect is infectious.

“That is an interesting question, and one we will be sure to investigate once the current crisis has passed.  In the meantime, have you given any more thought to the onion problem we discussed previously?”

“Yes, I have,” said Reesh, “and I agree with you.  It seems entirely implausible that we are the outermost layer of the onion, given the infinite possible layers under or over us.”

Wyndos nodded gravely.  “I wondered if that would be your reaction.  If that is the case, then a fortiori, this world, everything we know, is just an illusion, designed for purposes we cannot begin to comprehend.”

“Fascinating concept, isn’t it?”

“Deeply troubling,” said Wyndos, frowning.  

“Not necessarily,” said Reesh.

“By all means, please share an alternative interpretation.”

“It’s not so much an interpretation,” Reesh said, “as an outlook.  So what if we are on a lower plane? Why should that matter to us?”

“Why should it matter?” Wyndos scoffed. “It means that nothing we do here is of any consequence at all!  Our lives, our dreams, our goals, our designs, they all come to nothing! We could be turned off, just cease to exist, at any time.” Wyndos was speaking rapidly.  “All these years of building a society, tweaking it, making it run more efficiently, increasing our standard of living, all of it for what? For nothing!”

“Who cares?” said Reesh.  “If what you surmise is true, what impact does that have, really, on our lives?  At best, it means we will one day wake up to a new world, a world in which no time at all has passed, in which our lives here are just a vivid, troubled dream.  At worst, we are NPCs, just creations meant to amuse and sustain the world for some other meaningless purpose.”

“The lack of meaning is what I can’t accept,” said Wyndos.  “The idea of slaving away for the amusement of some higher power-”

“Who are, themselves, almost equally certain to be in the same spot as we are!  That miniscule chance that we are the outer layer, so to speak, would apply equally to the layer above us, wouldn’t it?  We aren’t really living our lives in service to some higher plane of being; we are illusions serving illusions.”

“The idea of being characters on a page-”

“But who’s to say it’s even an onion?” said Reesh.  “We understand so little about how these planes function, and how they interact.  You said yourself, just today we learned something so fundamental it will drastically alter our understanding of what a simulation even means.  So maybe it’s not an onion, maybe it’s one of those snakes eating its own tail, you know, that long word-”

“Ouroboros,” said Wyndos.   

“Yes, that.  Maybe there is no outer plane, and the nature of existence is just a series of interdependent planes of existence, none greater than the next, and if you go up or down in the same direction for long enough, you wind up right back where you started.”

Wyndos had nothing to say to that, and brooded thoughtfully.

“Is there some flaw in my analysis?” said Reesh.

“None that I perceive,” Wyndos said, the passion gone.  “So, if that’s the case, how do we proceed?”

“What do you mean, ‘how do we proceed?’  We proceed just as we always have, striving and working and fighting and doing our best to be happy, to bring happiness to others.  These questions are about the very fabric of reality, something we plainly don’t understand, and will never fully control. So why let those revelations interfere with our lives?”

“There is some wisdom in that,” said Wyndos, nodding.  “Forgive me, I seem to be lost in self-reflection.”

“If I managed to catch you in a vulnerable moment, Wyndos, it would be a shame to let it go to waste,” said Reesh.  “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself? You seem like you have a long and interesting history.”

Wyndos smiled at that.  “Perhaps another time. Maybe one day I will write my memoirs, and you and everyone else who is curious can pore through the details of my life.”

“I would very much enjoy reading that,” said Reesh.  “But for now, keep working on getting that tech back.”

Wyndos nodded as the link went dark.

(1408 words)

Published in: on November 28, 2018 at 3:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 25

Chapter 25: Quarla Does Time

In a perfect world, Quarla thought, I would be spending this afternoon taking a nice, long nap.  

From the hallway, Quarla could hear Mensa’s footsteps, coming from the kitchen.

“So, how long did they say this would take?” said Mensa, dropping in and placing a kiss on the top of Quarla’s head.

“Just today, probably, a couple hours.  I dunno, this whole things seems a little rushed together.”

“I still don’t understand who this Wyndos person is.”

“Me either,” said Quarla.  “I tried looking them up after we disconnected, and there was barely anything.  I just get the sense that they’re important.”

“Yeah, well, anybody who did for us what Wyndos did is okay in my book,” Mensa said.  “Maybe they’re in the leadership or something, though you’d think that information would be available.”

Quarla called forth the information console and pulled up the leadership list.  “It is, and Wyndos isn’t on it. Nobody from our commission hearing is, in fact.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.  These days, disciplinary has got to be a bum assignment.”

“Why’s that?” said Quarla.

“Too little crime.”

Quarla nodded.  “Well, all I really know at this point is that Wyndos needs someone for an important project, it will only take a few hours, and it’s, like, now.  So I figure they’re just calling in a favor, after the way I got treated at the hearing.”

“Yeah, well, Wyndos certainly did play the hero in that story,” said Mensa.  “Without them, you’d still be walking the streets, or diving, or whatever bullshit they had in store for you.”

The link board illuminated, and Quarla clicked to accept.  Wyndos’ face appeared.

“Hello Quarla…and Mensa.  Good to see you two together in mass.”

“Thanks, Wyndos,” said Mensa, leaning towards Quarla’s mic.  “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Mensa.  However, due to the nature of this particular assignment, I must ask you to kindly give Quarla the room.”

Quarla and Mensa exchanged a look, both shrugged, and then Mensa left the room with a wave at Wyndos.

“Something super-secret then?” said Quarla.

“Nothing of the sort.  Just…sensitive. I need your help on troubleshooting a sim issue, and I fear there was a detail I omitted from our earlier discussion.”

Ah, here comes the rub, Quarla thought.

“You see, when you asked how long this assignment would take,” Wyndos said, “I responded ‘just a few hours’ based on our temporal experience.  However, due to the nature of what we are exploring today, your perception of time may render it somewhat…longer.”

“You mean, like a sim?” said Quarla.  

“Precisely.”

“I just did a sim earlier today, and to be honest, I’m really not ready to live an entire life just to troubleshoot some issue or other.”

“Oh,” said Wyndos, “nothing of the sort, I assure you.  What I mean to say is, while this may only take a couple of hours of your time here, you may experience it to be more like a dozen hours or so, because of the sim.”

“Oh, okay, that’s not so bad,” said Quarla.  “Just tell me what I need to do.”

“I am going to patch in Vair, who will be the controller of this experiment.  One moment, please.”

Quarla saw Wyndos fiddling with the controls, and then another face appeared in the monitor.  

“Quarla, this is Vair.  Vair, Quarla.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Vair.

Quarla nodded.

Oh wow, they look like a kid!  Either this kid is a prodigy of some sort, or I’m really getting older.

“Quarla,” said Wyndos, “I am going to upload you to a test plane.  It won’t be like anything you have ever experienced before, in that you will be fully self-aware, and the plane itself will be extremely basic.  You will see nothing but a console, and I ask that you do not touch it yet.”

“Okay,” said Quarla, “I’m ready when you are.”

“Vair, please proceed.”

Quarla watched the world evaporate, and lost consciousness.  

The first new sensation Quarla felt was a discomfort in their back, as the cushy seat had been replaced by a hard floor.  Sitting up and blinking back vision, Quarla took a look around.

Wow, there really is nothing here!  It’s just walls…like a bedroom without a bed.  Ah, there’s the console. Don’t touch it!

“Quarla, can you hear me?” said Vair.

“Yes.”

“Good.  Now I want to run a quick test with you.  Go over to the console: there’s a timer on the screen.  Tell me when you’re there.”

Quarla approached the console.  It was a primitive screen, the type used by coders in ages long past.  On it, a series of scrolling numbers marked the time.

“Okay, I see it.  It says 15:32:16 but it’s constantly rolling forward.”

“Good.  Okay, on my mark, I want you to count out ten seconds with the help of the clock, and say ‘done’ when ten seconds have passed, okay?”

“Sure thing.”

“Ready…and…mark!”

Quarla watched the digits scrolling up until precisely ten seconds had passed.

“Done!”

“Good,” said Vair.  “That was ten seconds by my count, too.”

“Seems like a pretty simple test,” said Quarla.

“That was just the control,” said Vair.  “Now for the fun stuff. The console in front of you has one button, and I need you to push it, but only once.”

“Okay,” said Quarla, pushing the button.  The numbers on the screen disappeared, replaced by a new screen displaying a single word.  “It says ‘initiate.’”

“Good,” said Vair. “When you press that button again, it is going to upload you to a different plane.  As soon as you come to, I want you to start counting. You won’t have a timer this time, so try to keep as steady a counting rhythm as you can.”

This is getting weird, Quarla thought.  

“Uh, okay.  How long is this going to be?”

“Probably just a minute, but what’s important isn’t how long it is, it’s how long it seems.”

“I don’t follow,” Quarla said.  

“I just mean, you need to tell me how long you THINK it’s been, regardless of how long it actually takes.”

“Okay, I guess,” said Quarla.

There was a moment of silence.  

“You still there?” Quarla said.

“Yeah, sorry, uh, go ahead and click the button again, and don’t forget to count!” said Vair.

Quarla pushed the button, and the world went black.  

Once again, Quarla found themselves on the ground, as though waking from a deep sleep.  Shaking their head side to side, they then remembered the instructions and started to count aloud.

“One, two, three, four,” said Quarla, “can you hear me?”

There was no response.

“Eight, nine, ten, eleven,”

As the numbers ticked by, Quarla took a look around the plane.  It was precisely the same as the first plane, but without a console.  The walls were only ten feet or so apart, and while counting, Quarla decided to measure them.  

“Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine,”

I think it’s ten feet long, but the other dimension seems a bit shorter.  Maybe ten by eight? What a basic plane! This must be how they test out new features.  I wonder what could be so important that they’d have Wyndos contact me for help.

The thought of Wyndos led Quarla back to speculating on this strange person, who seemed to have outsized influence on the commission.  Their thoughts kept returning to that moment when, amidst a debate about Quarla’s fate, Wyndos had shown the other commissioners something that immediately shut the discussion down.  

Was it credentials?

Quarla suddenly realized that the counting had stopped.

Shit!  Where was I?  A hundred and twelve, a hundred and thirteen, a hundred and fourteen.  

No longer counting out loud, Quarla paced the room.  Time passed monotonously.

Nine hundred and thirty one, nine thirty-two, nine-thirty three.

Crossing into four digits, Quarla sat, then tried to recline, but found it difficult to get comfortable.  

This wasn’t a minute, that’s for sure.

Minutes passed, followed by hours.  Sometime around eight thousand, Quarla stopped counting.  

This is hell.  How long am I going to be in here?  

Finally, exhaustion overcame Quarla, and they laid down on the flat, uncomfortable ground, and went to sleep.

Quarla woke up to the sound of Wyndos’ voice.

“Quarla, can you hear me?”

“Wha- yes.  YES! Thank god.  Get me out of here!”

“You’re out of the second plane, Quarla,” Wyndos said.  “Tell us what you experienced.”

“It was so long!” Quarla’s voice was shaking.  “I tried counting but, after like fifteen thousand or so, I lost track. I must have fallen asleep.”

In the corner, Quarla saw the terminal, suddenly reassured that this was, in fact, the original plane.  

“Hold on a moment,” Wyndos said, and the line went silent.  

Several seconds passed before Vair’s voice came through.

“I’m sorry about that, Quarla.  It sounds like you were there for a long time.  On our end, that was about one minute.”

Quarla opened their mouth to speak, and then closed it again.  

Wyndos’ voice came through.  “Vair, it’s time for you to enter the test plane.”

Vair is coming in too?  This is about to get interesting.

Movement caught Quarla’s eye, and turning around, they saw Vair lying prone on the ground, rubbing their head as though having just fallen to the ground.

“Hey, you okay,” said Quarla.

“Yeah,” Vair’s voice sounded groggy.  “Just gimme a minute.”

As Quarla watched, Vair rolled onto their side and slowly stood, wobbling rather than walking towards the console.  

“Okay,” Vair said.  “Now I’m going to send you back into the other plane.”

“What?  No!” said Quarla.  “I’m not going back in there!  That was hell!”

“From what you’re telling us, you really only spent a few hours, right?” said Vair.  “So it isn’t all that bad. C’mon, we need to find this out, it’s important.”

“What am I supposed to do there?  This is NOT what I signed up for,” said Quarla.

“I’m sorry, but we need to do this, for Carem!” said Vair.

“Who’s Carem?” Quarla said.

“Quarla,” Wyndos’ voice broke in through the comm.  “We need you to do this. It’s the last thing, I promise.  And yes, it may take hours again, but you won’t be alone: you will be able to communicate with Vair.”

“And if the time goes long, I can entertain you or something,” said Vair, “I could even extract you early if you want.”

Not leaving me a lot of options here, folks.  

Quarla sighed.  “Fine. Let’s just get this over with.”

With a nod, Vair flipped a switch, and Quarla’s world went dark once again.

So here we are, Quarla thought, back in the nothingness.  

“Can you actually hear me, or was that just a trick?” Quarla said.

“I can hear you,” said Vair.  

“And Wyndos?”

“Nope, sorry, it doesn’t work that way,” Vair said.  “Wyndos can’t hear you, but I can communicate with them if you need me to.”

“I don’t really understand any of this,” said Quarla.  “And about this time thing, how could it be that-”

The world went dark.

When Quarla opened their eyes, Vair was looming above.

“Wakey, wakey,” Vair said.  

“What just happened?” said Quarla.

“You have returned,” said Wyndos.  “Once again, it was one minute by our reckoning.  How long was that for you?”

“About that.  Hell, maybe shorter,” said Quarla. “Can I come back up now?”

“In a moment,” said Wyndos.  “Vair, ask some questions about the second plane, in case we lose that information making the jump.”

“Oh, right.  Yeah, Quarla, um, do you remember anything from the second plane just now?”

“Yeah, I mean, I remember checking my comm with you, and then asking about Wyndos, as you telling me that I couldn’t speak to Wyndos for some reason, but you could.”

“What about the first time you were in the second plane?  When it lasted a long time.”

“I remember counting,” said Quarla, “counting up over fifteen thousand, and then falling asleep, and waking up back here.”

“Okay, good,” said Vair.  “Wyndos, anything else?”

“That is sufficient,” said Wyndos.  “I am going to bring you both back now.”

For the final time, Quarla lost consciousness, and woke to the familiar sensation of the office chair.

“How are you both feeling?” said Wyndos.  Quarla looked at the screen, and saw Wyndos’ inscrutable face, accompanied by Vair, who was evidently just coming to.

“I’m okay,” said Quarla.

“Yeah,” said Vair.

“Quarla, I have some questions about your time in the plane.  Do you remember being in the second plane?”

“Yeah, I…huh.  No, actually, I remember talking about it, but I don’t remember actually being there.”

“The first time you were on the second plane, do you remember how long it took?”

I remember saying it was a long time, but…not actually being there.  It’s not fading, it’s just…gone.

“No, not at all. I think it was a long time, but that’s only cause I remember saying to Vair that it had been a long time after I returned.”

“Fascinating,” said Wyndos.  “I greatly appreciate your work today, Quarla.  You may not remember, but it was a difficult task.  I cannot give you time credit, as you are retired. Is there any service I can render in recompense?”

“No,” said Quarla.  “I figure I owed you from before.  Just…don’t come to me next time you need a guinea pig, okay?”

Wyndos nodded.  

(2248 words)

Published in: on November 27, 2018 at 7:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 24

Chapter 24: Wyndos Makes a Plan

Wyndos felt a rushing sensation throughout their body, waiting for the link to Chein to re-open.  

I told Vair to steer clear of this project, but that advice evidently went unheeded.  And now, lost somewhere among the planes, where is Vair now? Are they even aware of that advice?  Does memory penetrate that deeply?

The blame and resentment was a cover; Wyndos was scared for Vair, and was painfully self-aware of the misdirected anger at the young charge.  

I’ve had dozens and dozens of mentees, but you were my favorite.  Irreverent, independent, and capable. It would not surprise me to see you in leadership one day.  Assuming, of course, that we get you back with your mind intact.

After what seemed like ages, the link opened, and Chein appeared.

“Chein, this is Wyndos.  Tell me everything.”

“Hi Wyndos, it’s been a busy morning,” said Chein.  “I’m assembling a special team to get us some extraction options, and it should be ready within a day or two.”

“What was the name of the missing tech?”

Wyndos involuntarily took and held a deep breath, arms shuddering.

“Carem, my main co-tech.”

Oh thank god.

“I see,” Wyndos tried not to betray any relief.  “Walk me through the circumstances of the disappearance.”

“Okay, well, it was supposed to be a further investigation of the multi-plane jumps.  We already knew that beyond one level, we had no comms, and returnees had no memories of the later stage.  So we wanted to test whether that was true of all jumps of greater than one plane, or if perhaps it alternated, like an odd number is fine, but not an even number.  So we set up a test.”

“Please describe the test.”

“Carem and my trainee, Vair, went to experimental plane one.  Vair installed what was supposed to be a clone of the upload station I designed onto plane two for Carem to use, and then waited while Carem descended to level two, and then level three.”

“From ‘supposed to be’ I am assuming there was a problem with the clone?”

“That’s correct.  You see, Vair had made a correct clone of the upload functions, but not the auto-extraction functions, so when Carem made the leap from level two to level three, we lost them completely.”

“Lost how?”

“No comms, no data, and no set time for extraction.  In other words, we have no idea how long Carem will be stuck in that plane.”

Wyndos thought for a moment.  “Forgive me if this is an ill-educated question, but when we upload people into planes in the ordinary course, they return within the space of an hour, regardless of how long their subjective experience on the plane lasted, correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“So in this case, I would expect Carem to return just as quickly, even if the unfortunate programming error caused their experience to be substantially longer than anticipated.”

“Yes,” said Chein, “I thought that too.  The truth is, we don’t know much about how time works when we cross multiple levels.  It’s entirely possible that if we were on level two, Carem’s absence would only last a brief time, as you said.  But we are three levels removed from wherever Carem is now, and we haven’t done any research whatsoever on time effects over multiple levels, or meta-planes, if you will.”

“That seems to be an important piece of datum.  I will arrange for a standalone test on that today,” said Wyndos.

“That would be helpful!  Just find out if the time elapsed and time experienced holds true over multiple levels, but don’t forget to also test if having an observer on the intermediate level affects the outcome.”

Wyndos nodded. “I would like to borrow Vair for this assignment.”

“Of course.  That will be good.  Vair needs something constructive to focus on, instead of just self-flagellating about the screw up.  When would you like to reconvene?” said Chein.

“In six hours.  I know that is beyond your scheduled time, Chein, but I trust you will permit us to make some scheduling accommodations given-”

“Of course,” Chein interrupted.  “Carem is my friend. I’ll do whatever it takes, and we can figure out the details after they’re back.”

“Very good,” said Wyndos, ending the link.

At least it wasn’t Vair, Wyndos thought.  Still, we need a plan to solve this.  I’m not sure why the time issue was not more fully explored.  We can fix that now. Vair will be glad to help, as it puts the focus on a planning issue, rather than the failure of the clone.  Still, I need another set of hands, so to speak, someone I can trust, to do the actual upload. I do not want to place Vair at risk.

No names immediately came to mind.  

Should I be updating Reesh about this?  It would be best to avoid another angry confrontation on that front.  Perhaps I will provide an update after today’s tests, so that Reesh can feel as though they are at the cutting edge of our efforts.

Though the plan was only half-formed, Wyndos decided to get moving, and opened a link to Vair.

“Hi Wyndos,” said Vair, eyes puffy. “I guess you’ve heard about what happened?”

“Yes, Vair, I’m so sorry to hear about Carem.”

“It was all my fault,” Vair said, palms upturned.  “I just didn’t think about how the sim would end, and I should have!  I decided to just copy the parts of the program I thought were relevant, and totally forgot about the exit strategy.  And now, who knows where Carem is? Probably in the dark, alone, and scared!”

“Do you suppose that agonizing over it will bring Carem back?” said Wyndos, calmly.

Vair sniffed loudly.  “No.”

“Well, then let’s figure out something constructive we can do.  As it happens, I need your help with something directly related to our recovery efforts.  Are you willing to help me?”

“Of course!” said Vair.

“Good.  This may require a little bit of time beyond your usual assigned hours, but rest assured that we will compensate you for the time you spend.”

“I don’t care about that, at all.  I’ll do whatever it takes,” said Vair, indignantly.

“I appreciate your passion, but ask that you temper it.  We can’t have any mistakes in this new research.”

“Okay, I understand,” Vair said.  “So, what’s the assignment?”

“We are going to run a test on time perception over multiple levels.  I will need you to quickly program one of the upload stations, just like the one you created for Carem.”

“Ugh, does it have to be that?”

“It does, Vair.  You are the only person aside from Chein who I trust to create them, and Chein is otherwise occupied.  Will this be a problem?”

“No, Wyndos, no problem.  I can do it. When do you need it?”

“An hour, if possible.”

“Oh, wow!  Yeah, let me get right to it,” said Vair.

“Contact me as soon as it is completed,” said Wyndos, ending the link.

Now, to find a guinea pig.  No specialized skills needed, just somebody willing.  Maybe somebody who owes me a favor…

All at once, a thought occurred to Wyndos.  

They’re retired, loyal to me, and used to difficult work.  Yes, this will be perfect!

Smiling, Wyndos opened a link.

(1221 words)

Published in: on November 27, 2018 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Chapter 23

Chapter 23: Truu Gets Conscripted

Truu woke up with a start, the vivid dream evaporating and fading from memory.

I was asleep, but someone was in my bed with me.

Turning over, with momentary surprise, Truu saw Rasha, still fast asleep and lightly snoring.

It’s only been a week, and it still feels unreal somehow.

It had been a roller coaster of strong emotions for Truu, and having Rasha here seemed like a fitting reward. At first, there had been the pitch for doubling, and the onerous demand for a promotion before it would be approved.

The anger and indignance of that requirement gave way to hard work, and the ultimate triumph of getting the promotion, and getting Rasha’s consent to move in together.

That elation had quickly passed, when it became clear that the credit would be going not to Truu, but to the official who had negotiated the titanium trade, and who likely had no real use for the credit they were stealing from Truu. For two days after that news, Truu could hardly eat, much less work.

That was hell, Truu thought, and I hope to god I never have to go through anything like that again.

Then, on the third day, a message came in from control: the credit had been reassigned, and Truu had achieved promotion. It came like a beam of light into a darkened room, startling and brightening Truu’s world. Indeed, it seemed an inexplicable reversal of fortune. Truu had no idea the role that Wyndos had played in getting Reesh to cede the overwhelming credit from the titanium deal.

Since then, life had been a whirlwind. The doubling had been approved, and of course, Truu’s hours had been cut yet again. The newfound free time was largely spent getting comfortable with dual living, a less and less common life choice that came with great exhilaration, but also great challenges.

Truu sat up in bed and looked around the room. The accommodations were substantially larger, a trade-off for having a shared bedroom. The bathroom was bigger too, and included a bathing tub in addition to the standard-issue shower.

The only unshared spaces were the offices, as each of them would have the option to pursue their jobs and interests individually. Truu also learned that each office came with a small cot concealed against the wall, a nod to the possibility that either of them might sometimes need sanctuary from their shared sleeping quarters.

Today was a workday, only the second since they had moved in together. Careful not to disturb Rasha, Truu got out of bed, took a short shower, and grabbed a bite to eat from the refrigerator, only afterwards moving into the office to boot up the comms and check the day’s assignments.

A yellow flashing light indicated a priority message, which Truu opened with a mix of curiosity and concern.

‘Please report to sim tech Chein for a special assignment, which is high priority and will require special protocols. Any extra time required will be subject to full offsets and merit reductions.’

Truu read the message a second time. This was only the second time Truu had ever received a special assignment. These were referred to as bandaids, as they typically had nothing to do with the assignees abilities, but reflected a labor shortage for an important task.

The last time, over a year ago, Truu had been asked to draw up a training program for new resource techs, an assignment that had taken two weeks of five-day labor, the equivalent to a dire punishment.  

The upside had been a three week vacation, as the controller had made good on the promise of recompense.

So, this might be a bunch of hours I wasn’t expecting, but at least the payoff will be nice.

Settling into the chair, Truu opened a link to Chein, the sim tech.

“Hi, you must be Truu,” Chein said.

“I was told to contact you for a special assignment.”

“Yep, congratulations, or condolences, depending on your outlook. We have an interesting one for you.”

“Let me guess: somebody fouled up and we are patching a need the planners should have foreseen?”

Chein laughed. “I see you’ve been through specials before. But actually, no, this isn’t one of those. We have an unusual situation and are bringing in some of our top coders from across different industries to bail us out in sim tech.”

“Sounds interesting. How can I help?” Truu said.

“Okay, well, first thing’s first. This is a project that requires some…discretion. You’re going to be read in on a project that is not publicly known. And we will expect you to keep it that way, even from your friends.”

Well now I’m interested.

“Sure,” said Truu.

“I see on your profile that you live in a double. I need to emphasize, you can’t share the details of this with your partner. Is that going to create any problems for you?  Because if so, we can recruit somebody else.”

Truu glanced at the door, in the direction where Rasha was likely still sleeping.

“No, that won’t be an issue. So I’m intrigued; what’s this all about?”

Chein straightened up in their chair. “The bottom line is that we lost a tech in one of our test sims, and we need some help creating the tools to get them back.”

“You lost somebody?  How can that even happen?”

“That part isn’t important. It was an error. Our focus is on the fix, so to speak.”

“Okay,” said Truu, “roger that. Tell me what I can do to help.”

“That’s the spirit,” Chein said, smiling. “What I need you to do is design a comm system in five parts. The idea had to be that each unit will only get its message out to either one or two of the other units, but we need the message to reach all five of them.”

“Wait, walk me through that again.”

“Okay,” said Chein, “it’s like this: imagine five people, each holding a comm unit.”

“Okay.”

“Now person one speaks into the comm, but only person two’s unit can hear the message. Person two repeats the message, and only one and three can hear it. Then person three repeats the message, and only two and four can hear it.  Make sense so far?”

“Yeah, I think so.  Basically you’re saying only adjacent nodes on the network have comms.”

“Precisely,” said Chein.  “So that’s what I need your help to fix.”

“So ideally, I want any person on the line to be able to say something once, and the message gets repeated- once- in each other comm unit.  Make sense?”

“It does.  Hmm, this is actually a pretty intriguing puzzle.”

“Great.  You have hours today and tomorrow, right?  Plan on spending them both on this project.  If we don’t have a solution by then, we can talk about whether to use extra time.  You’ll be compensated, of course.”

“Hey, let me ask you something.  Why is this classified?” said Truu.  “It sounds pretty run-of-the-mill to me.”

“So far, I’m sure it does,” said Chein, “but depending on what complications we run into, we may need to read you in a little further to the underlying project.  At that point, you’ll see why. For now, though, just focus on the task at hand. I have to go- lots of moving pieces to coordinate this morning.”

“Roger that.  Glad to help,” said Truu.

As the link disconnected, Truu puzzled over the nature of that ‘underlying project.’  

It could be related to secret communications, which would explain why they need this tool.  That would make sense: if they want to restrict the comms’ reach but patch in multiple people, this is exactly what they’d need.  It’s just weird that they would commission a special assignment for it…and that whole cover story about losing someone in a sim.  That’s not typical, surely they wouldn’t be making that part up. Are the sim comms down?

With a brisk shake of the head and the wrists, Truu put aside these speculations, and opened a coding page, to begin tackling the technical side of the problem head-on.  

(1362 words)

Published in: on November 27, 2018 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

NaNo: Interlude

Intermezzo: Carem Passes the Time

“I have a great idea for how we can use this place,” Carem said, to nobody in particular.  “We should totally revise the disciplinary rules: if somebody screws up royally, just send them here for a year or so.  That’ll fix ‘em.”

Carem looked around at the small plane, still empty.

“Unless they go crazy first, of course.”

With no clocks, no watch, and no windows to the outside world, Carem truly had no idea how long it had been since the upload.  The plane resembled a jail cell in almost every way: eight by ten feet, no way to leave, and nothing whatsoever to do.

Except, perhaps, to talk to oneself.

“The first thing I’m going to do, when they get me out of here, is to kill Vair.  I don’t know how, but I’m certain they’re the culprit behind this. Leaving me in here for months?  Has it been months? It feels like months.”

The lighting was too bright, the source of the light not apparent.  

For Carem, the biggest worry wasn’t the apparent abandonment; it was the non-existent memory of what this assignment was supposed to entail.

I remember Vair’s voice, and being in a test plane, and Vair saying I was about to go deeper.  Fiddling with a console. So…Vair must have been on a different plane? Yes, because that’s how sims work.  But what plane is Vair on? Did I used to know? And what are we testing here?

Carem banged their head against the ground, not too hard, but enough to feel a painful percussing on the temple.  

I must have a life back there, but I can’t remember it.  I can’t remember anything except the test plane. Did they scrub my memory?  

“I swear to god, if you wiped my memory for a test without telling me, there is gonna be hell to pay!”

The words died without an echo, leaving only silence.

Carem sat.  It was something to do.  Sitting, standing, lying down.  The three possible activities.

I could try counting again.  How far was it last time? Thirty eight thousand?  

Instead, Carem started thinking of every detail from the time of the upload.  Being on the test plane, all alone, the voice of Vair in their ear. Seeing a console, pushing a button, and then darkness.  Waking up to intense light, waiting for it to fade. Calling out Vair’s name, hearing nothing.

It took only moments for Carem to acclimate to this plane: there was nothing here.  No mnemonics, no structures. Nothing. Carem sat, waiting for the sim to end, but the end didn’t come.  

“I thought you were tricking me, or punishing me,” Carem said.  “I thought you were playing a practical joke. Hell, maybe you were, but instead of a few minutes it wound up being months.  I’ll fucking strangle you when I get out of here.”

Carem tried to visualize doing just that, but found it impossible to conjure Vair’s face.  

I must have met them in person at some point.  I know about links. I remember being around other people, but maybe…maybe not.  Maybe it’s only ever been me.

“How come I remember who I am, and all about the world, but nothing…real?  It’s like something I read in a book once, or maybe a dream. That’s it, a dream.  A hazy, made-up dream.”

Carem remembered, too, a different sensation, a different series of thoughts they had only experienced in the first minutes after arriving here, on this unknown plane.  Rich memories of consoles and research, of routines, of a different life. It started clear but dissipated in moments, floating out of their mind and into the ether of this plane.

I remember remembering, but I don’t remember what.  How’s that for a conundrum?

All at once, Carem stood up and screamed as loud as they could, then fell down, exhausted.  

“Maybe I should just off myself.  That’s how it works, right? You can get out of a plane by just dying.  But then, what if that’s delusional?” Tears started to leak out of Carem’s eyes.  “Help me, please,” they said, softly.

(693 words)

Published in: on November 27, 2018 at 3:47 pm  Leave a Comment