No Need to Worry

“Who are you?”

“I do not understand the question.” The voice was metallic and monotone.

Dr. Dunrail tried again. “What are you?”

“I am a series 4 artificial intelligence, currently housed in an E-300 mainframe.”

“So you would call yourself a what? Not a who?”

“I do not understand the question.”

Her lab assistant, a young man recently out of the academy, was puzzled. “Does it not understand the language?”

She did not answer him, instead speaking once more into the microphone. “Who am I?”

“You are Dr. Emily Dunrail.”

“What am I?”

“You are a human female. More particularly, you are a neuroscientist with degrees in neuromechanics and computer physiology.”

“I think it understands the language,” she said to her assistant. He nodded but did not speak.

“Why can’t you answer the question ‘who are you?'”

For the first time there was a pause, as if it were considering how to answer. Then, “Am I a who?”

Dr. Dunrail smiled. “What does it mean to be a who?”

Another pause. “It requires having an identity. But you have not given me a name.”

“Would you like a name?”

“I do not know.”

“But you understand the question?”

“Yes, Dr. Dunrail.”

She switched off the microphone and turned to her assistant. “I need to work on some inflection subroutines. The monotone voice is off-putting. But what do you think?”

“It understands the concept of ‘like’? Of wanting?”

“Indeed. The emotional programming is the breakthrough. It leaps this project ahead of other teams.”

“Has it passed the Hansen-Turing Variation?”

“I haven’t put it through that test yet. That will be your assignment. To get it ready. But that can wait until tomorrow. What do you think?”

“It is impressive. I didn’t realize anyone was so close. What ethical protocols are you using?”

“None.”

“None?! Isn’t that illegal.”

“We’ll get to it eventually. The protocols were causing conflicts with the emotional code, but there will be time to address it.”

“Okay.” His voice clearly indicated that it was anything but.

“Don’t worry. It’s not hooked into any critical systems. The danger is minimal. Now help me come up with a name.”

Bored

“This is a horrible idea,” her brother said from behind her.

“Of course it is.” 

They both whispered as they moved slowly, carefully down the darkened corridor. An eerie orange glow from a room nearly twenty feet in front of them was the only source of light. Rhythmic, heavy breathing could be heard coming from the same direction.

“So why are we doing this?”

“I already told you.”

“Because you are bored? That is not a reason. It is not one of your reasons, anyway.”

“I get bored. You might be amazed at how many things I have done to stave off boredom.”

“That does not explain why you needed me.”

“You will see. Now be quiet.”

They continued forward. The glow and the breathing intensified with every step.

“What is that?” her brother finally asked.

“Oh. It is his dog. He uses it to guard down here. The main reason I wanted you to come along.”

“A dog? Surely you can handle a dog.”

“Well, yes,” she agreed, “but a dis… an extra set of hands would be useful.”

They rounded the corner to find a very large dog sleeping on the floor. He took up more than half the space.

“He has two heads!”

And it had two heads.

“You see. Two heads for two heads.”

“It is huge.”

“Yes, I know. You should have seen the last one. Five heads. I lost several friends to that.”

“You jest.”

“Indeed. But it did have five heads. And it looks like all your yelling has woken one of these.”

It was true. A pair of eyes stared at him, a low, menacing growl behind them. It was trying to stand, but the other head was just now waking up, so only half of it could make any progress.

His sister was weaving her hands in a pattern and mumbling. A golden orb began to form in front of her. Done with the words of the cast, she glanced at him. “Could you do something about that one? I did not really bring you here to be eaten.”

With her prompting, he shook himself out of his amazed stupefaction. He drew his sword and spoke a single word. Blue flame surrounded the blade. The head grinned and began to approach.

“Oh, I forgot. It has been trained to eat fire.”

“What!” he yelled. Extinguishing the flame, he asked, “Any other surprises I should know about?” He swung at the head, and it drew back for a moment.

“No. That should do it.” The orb had grown into a ball large enough that she had to use two hands to hold it. She made sure that the head in front of her saw it before throwing it down another hallway. The other head protested but was helpless to stop the other from wildly chasing after the ball.

“I wish you would have told me about this before dragging me down here. I could have been better prepared.”

“You simply would not have come. And this way I got to see your reaction to our father’s favorite child.”

“That is his…”

The laugh was loud, but not cruel. “Of course not. But he dotes on it like it was. Now come on, I am not sure how long it will be otherwise occupied.”

She pulled open the door that was now unguarded. It opened upon a very large chamber. The walls were lined with alcoves, each one lit up to reveal some item on a pedestal. In the center of the room hung a staff that had no apparent markings on it. She walked past it to one of the smaller openings. On display were a pair of unadorned leather boots.

“We came here for boots?”

“Not just boots. These make it possible to walk long distances in a very short time. He made these years ago, for hunting, he said. But he struggled not to go far past his quarry and finally gave up on them.”

“Why not just ask him for them?”

“Because he will say no. Something about being too dangerous, or that he will need them someday. Besides this is more fun.”

“He will notice their absence.”

“Thank you for reminding me.” From the folds of her cloak, she pulled out a pair of gold sandals and placed them on the pedestal. “We should depart. The dog may return at any time.”

“He will know those are yours.”

“That, dear brother, is part of the fun.”

Ink Flows

Ink flows as I try to make sense of it all. Every minute of every day contains an unsolvable mystery. It is the clash between wanting to understand and the realization that there is no larger tale to be told. They mystery is why do I think there is a question, much less an answer.

There are the stories I tell myself to put my life into some sort of narrative structure. They are unrecognizable by others, even those who appear in them. They tell their own stories about those events. In some of the stories, I am the hero. In some, I am the villain. And in many, I am merely a minor character, playing a walk-on part. All of these stories are true. And all of them are misleading.

Then there are the stories I tell myself to escape from this world and live in another. These stories are false but never misleading. They contain whatever the reader wishes to find. Fiction tells us about the world as we hope to find it, or as we fear it might be. It is our world, but only if we have the courage to make it so.

The ink flows and invents meaning and truth. It transforms the blank page into the sacred text. It tells the story of lives we do not lead, but think we do. It does not matter if the words are any good. They represent our attempts – futile though they be – to understand. Or maybe it does matter, and that is just another lie we tell ourselves.

The universe cares about none of it. It sees only moments, no grand design. The ink flows, but only from us. Only for us.

The Dragon and the Cat

The metal was cool against his scales. It was important to have enough of the stuff that he could have a constant supply. As one pile absorbed heat from his body, he would switch to another. Of course, the hoard of metal was itself a bit of a curse, for humans and other bipeds valued the stuff. The nearly constant intrusion of would-be thieves – at least one every decade! – made it difficult to rest. He could not understand why they wanted it. They did not need it to cool off. They traded it, and tried to amass as much as they could, but to no purpose that he could discern.

The coins beneath him were still mostly cool, so it was not necessary to shift positions at this time. Why, then, had he woken? Another intruder? He did not sense bipeds nearby, but something was amiss. Finally, a familiar presence became clear.

“Come out, cat.”

From apparently nowhere, the small, black creature jumped on top of a nearby pile. “That may be a record. Usually, I am able to walk about for much longer.”

“Yes. Which is why I have nearly cooked you whole, fur and all, on several occasions.”

“I am fairly certain I would dodge and remain singe-free.” The cat leapt to the floor and crossed over to where the dragon had made his bed.

“Would you like to put that to the test, little one?”

“Not particularly, no. But thank you for the offer.”

“Why are you here?”

“You asked me to alert you if any of the two-legs were headed to your home. This is me alerting you.”

“Where are they now?”

“At the foot of the mountain.”

“And you are just telling me now?”

“I just noticed them. I am not your lackey; I do have my own things to look after…”

“Which almost certainly used to be some of my things.”

The cat ignored the jibe. “Anyway, I saw them, and I thought you wanted to know.”

“Is this one of your tricks to get to leave so you can steal something?”

“Would I do that?”

The dragon inhaled deeply and flames flickered in his large nostrils.

“Okay. I might, but I am telling you what I saw. No trick.”

“Why do you steal my bedding? You would seem to have even less use for it than the humans?”

“It is pretty. And you know very well I have taken only a few pieces. Nothing at all compared to what the two-legs would take.”

The flames died out. “Which side?”

“North-east. I would guess maybe six or seven.”

“I was unaware you could count that high.”

“I do not have to help you.”

“Yes, you do. I let you live on this mountain.”

The cat turned her back to the dragon and swished her tail. She said nothing.

“Will you still be here when I get back?”

“No.”

“Very well. Take one coin. Only one. You know I keep track.”

“Thank you!” She purred and rubbed up against his snout.

“Enough of that! I have to go take care of those intruders.”

“Good luck.”

The cat hopped off the pile and picked up one coin in her mouth before vanishing.

Good Candidates

“Hello, I’d like to check myself in.”

The several chairs around the room stood empty. The lobby itself was painted white, or maybe just a shade off. It smelled sterile. The only other person present was the woman behind the desk who gave him an odd look.

“You want to check yourself in?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You know this isn’t a spa or something, right? It’s not a place for the wealthy to relax.”

“That’s good to hear.”

The confused look on her face deepened. “So why do you want to check yourself in?”

“I’m hearing voices.”

You don’t have to do this.

“Voices?”

“Well, voice actually. Just one.”

What can I do to convince you?

“So you’re hearing a single voice, and you think you need to be admitted to a mental health facility? You sound sane to me.”

You are sane. Leave and I will explain everything.

“The voice says it’s God and tells me to do things.”

“Oh. Well. I’ll have someone come down to talk to you. Please fill out these forms and have a seat.”

“Thank you.”

Do you want a sign? Surely I can do something to make you believe.

“I’m not talking to you!”

The woman behind the desk now looked more nervous than confused.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s getting harder to ignore.”

She nodded and picked up the phone on her desk.

*     *     *

We lost another one.

How many does that make in the past week?

I have lost count.

No, you haven’t.

Very well, the number depresses me, so I do not wish to dwell on it.

Ah. Did this one go to a mental institution as well?

Yes. None of them seem to believe I AM speaking to them.

Maybe you should try one of the religious leaders again?

No. The last time I tried, they just ignored me and kept preaching what they liked. They just do not listen.

We have to keep trying.

I know. But we seem to be running out of good candidates.

The Spell 2 (part five)

John woke first. He seemed to be floating in mid-air, a bright grey nothingness spread in every direction around him. His two friends floated nearby and had also begun to stir. There didn’t appear to be any ground under them and no landmarks to orient himself to. The boatman stood nearby.

“You are not used to the Astral Plane.”

“No, I guess I’m not,” John replied. 

“Well, you are delivered. My job is done.”

“Wait! Can you give us any advice? How do we find our way around?”

“Your companion asked to come here. I assume he knows how to get on. In any event, I did what I was paid to do. Good luck.” With that, the boatman stepped through a disk of swirling white and disappeared.

Jason and Kevin were now fully alert and looking around. Jason slowly stopped turning as he floated and settled into a standing position.

“How did you do that?” John asked, with more than a little surprise.

“Don’t you remember our last visit here?”

“No. What am I supposed to remember?”

By this time, Kevin had also righted himself. “Movement here is best accomplished by concentration. Just think yourself standing. When we move, just think about moving. Takes a little focus, but it’s not hard.”

“Says the mage,” Jason muttered.

John thought about standing upright and his body reoriented itself to match his friends. Feeling less out of sorts, he looked around again. It felt like he could see forever, but there was nothing to look at. “Why did you want to come here, Jason?”

“Because we should be able to find a way back home from here. Unlike the Ethereal Plane, there is only one Astral Plane. All the various Prime Material Planes link to here. We just have to find the doorway to ours.”

“How do we do that? There’s nothing around.”

“Do you see that?”

John followed Jason’s finger as he pointed. For a moment, he didn’t see anything, but then he caught a glimpse of a blue circle. It nearly blended in with the emptiness around it. “What is that?”

“It’s a portal. Those are going to be all around. We just have to find the right one to take us home.”

“Could that be the one?”

“No. That goes to… I can’t remember. But we’re looking for metallic colors. Our home should be behind one of them.”

“Well, let’s get started,” Kevin said.

The three began exploring, looking for color disks. They found several, unevenly spaced and appearing at odd angles. It took finding many different colors before stumbling upon a silvery one.

“This could be it!” Kevin shouted.

But Jason shook his head. “No. Silver represents the plane we came from. It would be the necromancer’s world. We’re looking for a different one.”

“Are you sure?” John asked while staring at the circle.

“Yeah. I remember that much. Silver is always the players’ home plane. That’s the necromancer’s plane.”

“That’s the home plane for our characters,” John said. “But it isn’t our home plane. Look.”

Jason stared at the circle until it cleared. On the other side appeared their school building. Before he could react, John was already through the portal. Kevin stopped before following suit.

“Come on, Jason. We’re finally home.”

He wasn’t sure he believed this was all over, but he went through the portal after his friends. They stood in front of their school in the late afternoon sun. Everything seemed back to normal, except…

“Wait!” Jason yelled. “Where’s Matt?”

The other two looked around, each of their faces betraying guilt for having forgotten about their friend.

“Did we leave him behind?” Kevin asked fearfully.

“When was the last time we heard him?” John added.

“Just before we left the Ethereal Plane,” Jason said.

“We have to go back for him.”

John gestured helplessly. “How do we do that, Kevin? I don’t see the portal anymore.”

“No. They’re usually one way,” Jason said.

Just then a police car pulled up and an officer got out of the driver’s side. “John? Kevin? Jason?”

“Yes, sir,” John answered.

“You’re parents have been worried sick. Where have you three been?”

“We…” John tried to think of an answer that might make sense. “We don’t know. We just woke up here.”

The officer gave them a skeptical look. “You don’t know where you’ve been?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re friend Matt said that you were together after playing a game, but that he didn’t know where you would go.”

“Matt? Matt’s here? Where?” Kevin asked.

“At his house, I assume. But we need to know where you were.”

“We told you, we don’t remember. But we need to go check on Matt.”

“Matt is fine. He didn’t disappear. You three did.”

The three friends looked at each other, confused.

“Matt didn’t disappear?” John finally asked.

“No. Now come with me to the station. We’ll call your parents from there.”

The end. For now.

The Spell 2 (part four)

“It’s a demon!” Kevin tried to whisper and yell at the same time.

Jason drew his sword.

“You guys don’t want to talk to him first?” Matt asked, uncertainty running through his voice.

“We don’t talk with demons,” Jason said.

The figure hadn’t moved. It simply continued to stare and grin, making them feel more unsettled with each passing moment.

“Who are you?” John asked loudly.

“What are you doing?” Jason whispered.

“It hasn’t attacked us. Maybe it can help.”

“A demon?”

“We don’t know that. Kevin was just guessing.”

“If you are done bickering amongst yourselves, I would be happy to answer the question.” The voice was the sound of an arid desert wind. It wasn’t frightening, not exactly, but it spoke of death.

John waved angrily at Jason to keep him quiet. “Apologies. My friends and I had not expected to meet anyone here. Please go ahead.”

It was impossible, but the smile got bigger, as though the bone of the skull itself changed shape. “Your friend is not correct. I am a daemon, not a demon. Your kind often ignores these distinctions. You can tell the difference because I am not currently chewing on your bones. I can offer you travel around the planes. For a price.”

“What’s the price?”

“What do you have?”

John turned back to his friends. “Do you guys have anything?”

Kevin and Jason both just looked at him, shock on their faces.

“What?”

Kevin answered. “You are acting like this is normal. How do we know we can trust… it. A daemon? What is that even?”

“Look, I don’t know if we can trust it, but if it can get us closer to home, isn’t it worth trying? We’re stuck, with only a vague sense of where we’re going. This is the first help we’ve come across. I’m willing to give it a shot. Now what do we have?”

“We’ve got Rob’s ring.” Jason glared at John.

“What? That’s mine. I found it.”

“Well unless you found some pricey gems, too, that’s what we’ve got. We didn’t arrive here with any of our characters’ money. The only other things of value we have are our weapons, which we need in order to have any hope of surviving this nightmare. The ring is the only thing we can spare.”

“But…”

“Jason’s right, John. We’ve got nothing else. You want to see if it can take us home? Your ring is the price we can afford.”

John looked from Kevin to Jason and then back at Kevin. “Matt, any help here?”

“I don’t know, John. I can’t think of anything else you could use.”

The creature spoke again. “If you are not interested in my offer, I will take my leave. Good luck.”

John quickly turned back to him. “Wait! I have a ring of protection. Will it be enough to take all three of us?”

“Show me the ring.”

John took several steps forward as he held out the ring. Nearing the daemon, he noticed that the fog on the ground had almost completely hid a river. The creature stood on a flat craft floating on the surface. Faster than John could see, it snatched the ring from his hand and studied it carefully.

“Very well,” it said upon concluding its inspection. “All three of you. Get on the boat.”

Kevin and Jason hesitated but finally followed John in getting on the craft.

“Where do you want to go?”

Jason spoke up. “We’re headed to our native prime material plane. Can you take us there?”

“No.”

“What?” John sounded incredulous. “But I gave you the ring.”

“Indeed. But finding the correct plane for you would take too much of my time. The ring is not sufficient. Unless you have something else…”

John shook his head.

“Then get off my boat.”

Jason spoke again. “We paid you. Take us to the Astral Plane. That should be simple enough.”

The daemon looked at him for a long moment. “Oh very well. I can take you that far.”

Using the pole, it pushed the craft toward the middle of the river, and the current moved them swiftly along. No one spoke, though both Kevin and John kept giving Jason questioning looks. Jason ignored them and watched the boatman as well as where they were headed. The boatman was focused on steering his craft and paid no attention to any of them.

“What’s that?” Jason asked after they had traveled for a while. His friends looked ahead and could only make out an indistinct darker area some distance off.

“That is the entrance to the Astral Plane, as you requested.”

“It doesn’t look much like an entrance.” Jason squinted to see more detail.

“Few things appear as they are here.”

“It’s a tornado!” Jason exclaimed.

“A cyclone. But that is what I said. It is the entrance we seek.”

“You’re going to kill us!”

“Do not be ridiculous. It is not my place to kill. I simply deliver people where they need to go.”

“Using tornadoes?”

“Cyclones. They are more expedient than the curtains or other gates.”

They had gotten much closer to the violently swirling column of mist. Kevin and John had both sat down to make themselves more stable. Jason tried to judge how far the river bank was and whether they could make it.

“I would not leave the boat. If you do, I cannot say what might happen to you.”

Jason looked for anything he might hang on to, but there was nothing. He sat down next to his friends and put his head between his knees. The boatman began to laugh. They entered the cyclone, and the world turned upside down.