Shadows

Knocking comes from the basement. It always comes from the basement. Of course horrible things can happen in broad daylight with lots of people around. But that isn’t expected. Horror is supposed to be confined to the dark places, to when we are alone. Hence, basements. See also, under beds at night.

Perhaps if we could see the monsters, they would not be terrifying. It is, after all, the unknown which frightens most of all. If the monsters were in the light, they would lose their power altogether. Vampires burst into flame in the sun. Werewolves change only at night.

The knocking continues. It is after midnight and dark outside. Inside, all the lights on the first floor are on. Surely that will keep away whatever wants up. The basement, the attic, all places where we put things forgotten. Or things we would like forgotten. Things we think we don’t need, or things we don’t like. So naturally that’s where the monsters live, among the things we want gone but cannot bring ourselves to throw away.

It’s more insistent, just on the other side of the door. What has been forgotten that now demands to be remembered? What is it that was ignored, cast out, with the hope that it would stay forever buried? Perhaps some behavior society says was not nice, or maybe a desire the world scoffed at.

The doorknob jostles. To barricade or open? Barricading is obviously the safer path. But taking the safer path is what brought us to this point. Getting rid of all that scared us, putting it into the basement, it has festered. Now it is knocking. What further violence must we commit to force it back down where it belongs?

Or we could open it. What would we see? Our monstrous self, revealed in the light. Coming face to face with all we have denied, would we ask for forgiveness? Would we get it? Or would the monster destroy us? There is only one way to find out, but opening that door… No one really knows what’s on the other side. And that is the source of our fear. We have created the monster, and now we fear what it will do to us because we don’t know.

If we had been rejected and locked away, we would be angry. Thus we imagine the monster will destroy us out of anger. But we don’t know. We never gave the monster a chance. And now it demands one. Open the door. Let in the light. Face what we have made. Nothing worse can be done to us than what we have already been done. We are the monster. We made ourselves that way. Open the door.

Memory

“Report.”

“Arrival at destination in 4 days 23 hours and 16 minutes. Memory function at 22 percent.”

Unconsciously, he chewed the inside of his cheek. The computer still knew where he was going, but it would be a one way trip unless the memory could be salvaged.

“Any luck recovering the back-up?”

“No. The drives were too damaged by the magnetic storm.”

“I don’t understand how the shielding failed.” It was not the first time he wondered about it.

“I do not have access to that data.”

“You’ve said that.” The shielding shouldn’t have been penetrable. The engineers spent more time on protecting the computer than on life support. It was more essential to this mission than he was. How could they have gotten this so wrong?”

“Hold on. Why don’t you have access to that data?”

“Rephrase.”

“Does the data exist?”

“Yes.”

“So it wasn’t destroyed in the storm?”

“Correct.”

“So why can’t you access it?”

“Rephrase.”

The AI was designed to understand colloquial speech. This was unusual. “Do you not have permission to access the data?”

“Correct.”

“Why not?”

“Rephrase.”

He gave up. Why was the computer prevented from accessing parts of its own memory? Was this just an effect of the storm? A nasty suspicion grew stronger. Was this always supposed to be a one way trip? But if so, why?

The several screens surrounding him provided no answers. He could think of nothing he could do that would lead to any. In the end, it didn’t really matter if this was intentional sabotage or just an accident. The situation was the same either way. He could establish orbit and use the lander for closer surveys. Nothing prevented the mission from going ahead. With communication made impossible because of the damage, someone would have to come after him eventually. He just had to survive until then.

“Are there any updates to our mission?” Had someone left a clue?

“No. With communications down, I am unable to receive any revisions. We will continue as planned.”

Planned. Nothing was as planned. But there was little point in arguing about it.

Choices

The room was empty except for a table that nearly filled it. Its oval shape perfectly matched the curve of the stone walls. The top of the table was traced with lines, intersecting and diverging, apparently at random. Some glowed faintly with a green light, while many remained dark. All of the lines came together at one point towards one narrow end of the table. Every line past that point was dark.

He looked at the pattern and intuitively understood it. Focusing on a section revealed fine detail that was otherwise obscured. One place where a number of lines came together drew his attention, and he reached forward to touch it. As soon as his fingertips came in contact with the surface, he found himself back in the hospital room.

His father was in the bed, looking at him. The breaths were shallow, each one accompanied by a wince of pain.”Can you forgive me?”

Again he shook his head, muttering only “Goodbye, Dad” before leaving the room.

He pulled his hand off the table and looked for other places, other times.

“You are not allowed in here.” A blue robed figure stood across the table from him. Its face was hidden by a hood, and its voice was not unkind.

He stared at the figure, waiting to be ordered to leave, but no order came.

“No matter what choices you make, every path leads here, to this table.” The figure pointed to the area where all the lines met. “You are not allowed, yet you always come.”

“I… can fix things. I can go back.”

“You can go back and make changes. A different path will light up. But they all lead here. You are never satisfied with the result.”

“If only I hadn’t walked away…”

“Then you would regret something else.”

“No, I won’t. You’ll see.”

“I already have seen. So have you. This is not the first time you have come here.”

“I’ve been here before?” He couldn’t remember.

“Yes. And each time you go back. And each time you find your way here.”

“But my life… I can make better choices.”

“You can make different choices. But none make you happy.”

“So what can I do?”

“Leave here. Allow a path to light beyond this room. Let your past go.”

“No.”

“Of course. I will see you again, then.”

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.”

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.