An Urgent Matter

“Malcom is here.”

Gregor, assistant to Archmage Saeri, as well as her most trusted advisor, looked up from the papers on his desk with a tired expression. His own assistant, Samuel, stood before him betraying nothing on his face.

“What does he want?” Gregor asked finally.

“He asked for an audience with the Archmage. He did not say why.”

“I assume he is dressed in expensive finery?”

“Indeed.”

“I will speak to him. Show him in.”

Samuel nodded and left, returning almost immediately with another man. Samuel motioned him inside and then departed once more, this time closing the door.

Malcolm was tall and slender. His cloak was a mix of blues and greens, with silver running throughout, creating an iridescent appearance. His elegant but simple shirt and breeches brought even more brilliance out of the cloak by contrast. He smiled politely as he stood in front of the desk and waited for an invitation to sit.

Gregor was content to let him stand, however. The man was insufferable and always looked like a peacock. Gregor would have ignored him, but he sat on the lower council. This meeting was unavoidable, even though Malcolm had to know the outcome was predetermined.

“Councilor Malcolm, a pleasure to see you again so soon. What has brought you to our tower on such a fine day?”

“It is raining.” The man managed to both smile and sneer at the same time.

“Is it? I had been led to believe the sun was shining.”

“Enough of the pleasantries, Gregor. I am here to see your master.”

Gregor was certain that Malcolm dropped his act of vapid charming socialite only around him. Perhaps that was why so many tolerated – even enjoyed! – his presence. He assumed it was because Malcolm thought himself Gregor’s superior. But Gregor had one thing Malcolm did not, one thing he dearly wanted: Saeri’s ear and attention.

“The Archmage is extremely busy today. I fear she has no time in her schedule for visitors. If you have a request, I would be happy…”

“Do not lie to me,” Malcolm interrupted. “She has time for this. She will make time. Just tell her I am here.”

“Councilor, do not forget yourself!” Gregor cowed him without standing up. “Remember where you are and whom I represent. I have told you the Archmage is quite busy. You will not question my honesty within this tower.”

Malcolm fumed, but he took a moment, and when he spoke again, his tone was conciliatory. “My apologies. You are correct that I forgot myself for a moment. It is simply that this matter is urgent, and I need to speak with her.”

Gregor stared at him for a moment, giving him reason to wonder whether he would be heard after his outburst. “Perhaps if you would tell me what this is about, I might intercede on your behalf.”

As expected, Malcolm flushed slightly and huffed. “Never mind. I will come again another day. Perhaps then your master might remind you not to interfere with business. Good day.” He stormed out of Gregor’s office before another word could be said.

Gregor chuckled to himself as the door behind him opened.

“As always, Archmage, you have impeccable timing.”

She took one step into the room before she spoke. Her bearing was regal and imposing, all the things Malcolm tried to seem, but with none of the tricks. The seriousness of her movements and the fire in her eyes told the tale better than any tailor could. She was not to be taken lightly.

“What do you mean, dear Gregor?”

He knew she knew, but he played along. “You just missed a visitor come to call on you.”

“And who might that be?” She had taken one of the chairs near his desk and looked out the one window.

“Councilor Malcolm. He said the matter was urgent.”

“And was it?”

“He would not say what it was.”

“And yet, I suspect you know.”

“Of course. He came to propose marriage.”

Saeri laughed. It was not cruel, but it was not kind, either. “How many times does this make?”

“I have lost count.”

“Hmmm. As entertaining as this is, I suppose I should put an end to it.”

Gregor sighed. “Finally. I will make the arrangements. Why did you let him believe for so long?”

Standing, a smile crossed her face. “Having a Councilor voluntarily enter the tower is… useful.” She exited by the same door she entered.

Gregor shook his head and called for Samuel.

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.