Tag Archives: fiction

The Sympathetic Universe Part 20

Eliza spent an hour a day helping Gabriel learn English from his little guide. So, generously, Eloy spent two hours a day with him. Generously, he gave up his day to pick what food to eat, offering a bonus day on rotation to each of his campmates. Certainly, Eloy’s generosity could not be questioned.

Eliza and Angel had been sweeping the floors on a weekly basis with a couple brooms they’d found in the closet. In the spirit of service, Eloy took over. The day before their cleaning day, he swept all the floors, including the men’s bathroom, which had over time become rather ugly. Eloy found that he could do just as good a job as the two of them in half the time. They were always moving furniture around and he just swept directly underneath them. He smirked and shook his head at people who made things more complicated than they needed to me.

Humble Eloy thought of how much he cared about other people and how unimportant his own needs were. Eloy humbly looked back at the guide. “Humility: Appreciate what one has, appreciate the gifts of others.”

“How fortunate I am,” mumbled Eloy, “It sure is impressive how tall Angel is. Eliza is really good at knowing what time it is. That Destiny sure is adorable, and, um, mature for her age? Gabriel is really good at French.” Eloy thought a moment, then nodded and mentally crossed off “humility.”

Temperance – it was difficult for Eloy to do better than anyone else at abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, considering there wasn’t any around to indulge in. He ate his food slowly and paid attention to when he was full. He offered the rest to everyone else in case it would get him more generosity points, but there were always leftovers anyway, so it was a moot point. Sometimes he overdid his temperance and was hungry in the night, which was when he learned that the refrigerator included nighttime snacks as a meal of the day. Over a bowl of  French Toast Crunch, the little toast-shaped morsels oddly cold from being in the refrigerator, Eloy mused about how many points this blitz must be getting him.

Eloy felt he had always behaved with integrity, he felt. In fact, it was everyone else who had concealed their visits with their gods for so long. Oh wait. He would have to be honest with them about the guide. Or maybe not. He didn’t know exactly how the points worked, but he was pretty confident the advantage of exclusive access to the guide outweighed the penalty to his integrity score.

Eloy thought that industry was not cleanly separable from service, but eventually he figured that he could work hard at something that would mainly benefit himself if he wanted to focus specifically on this category. He had not kept up with Eliza’s calisthenics after the first couple days after his arrival, so he picked them up again. He started doing them twice a day, even though he soon began to feel sore on a regular basis. Eliza suggested that he should rest more while he built up endurance, but he figured at this point the best thing to do was to focus on building up his score as quickly as possible. His Mom, for all her strengths, had neglected to tell him if this game was about reaching a given score the fastest or having the highest score at the end, so he thought he’d try rushing it for a while and see if he won before he had to start pacing himself.

Grace was described as giving a gift to someone who does not deserve it. This was challenging, as it was hard to know who the system would determine did and did not deserve any given gift. Eloy could look out for opportunities to be nice to people who looked like they were being immoral, but mostly he would have to just hope that by being generous he’d happen across some grace here and there.

It was frustrating having so little to give. If he had a million dollars he could give it to a charity and get lots of generosity points. Maybe he could even give the money to some society to help death row inmates or something and win big on grace. So much at the camp was simply parceled out evenly to everyone, generosity didn’t seem to even be a thing. They even had each received a heavy coat and a pair of gloves (appearing on their beds) for what evidently was an upcoming winter. This event led Eliza to add an estimated “Eliza Date” to her Eliza Time. She guessed September 9th. No one dared to suggest they assign a year.

What was more frustrating was when Gabriel started refusing to accept more help with English. He insisted he was too tired, and had been happy with one hour of intensive practice a day, which, he strongly implied, he preferred to receive from Eliza. Then Eliza and Angel went ahead and swept the cabin on the day they usually did like he hadn’t done anything. Angel and Eliza were way ahead, he realized. They just happened to have landed on some of the virtues by accident, those lucky jerks.

Eloy would have to get creative. He took his next day to pick the food. It was a crisp morning, but he didn’t feel he needed gloves yet. He hefted in his hand the axe they had found in the supply closet and brought it down on the log in front of him. Instead of splitting, the log hung onto his ax, but he just lifted the whole thing and slammed it back down for a satisfying “SNAP.” Industrious, Eloy thought, watching his breath rise in the air. He chopped those halves into quarters and placed them on a stack he was making against the side of the cabin.

For supper, he would have steak and his mother’s homemade macaroni and cheese. He’d include a salad for a vegetable option. He wasn’t imagining it in much detail, but the fridge would just sub in a salad someone else had been thinking about. What he was really looking forward to, though, was the dessert. It was a crème brûlée, and he wanted it extra fresh. In fact, he was hoping the very last step would be something the refrigerator would give him the means to do himself.

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The Sympathetic Universe Part 19

Sometimes you feel most alone when you’re surrounded by other people. Eloy’s campmates, for lack of a better term, had all been visited by their gods. Each one of them had made an abrupt transition from desperate to confident coinciding with the appearance of a remarkable new ability or artifact. Now even Angel was looking downright serene, by her standards, and all of a sudden the phone was back and everyone was on Eliza time again.

What, exactly, was Eloy’s mother up to? She had dictated his life to prepare him for this, he was sure, and now she couldn’t be bothered to come and give him her support like everyone else’s gods? Eloy’s face curdled into a frown and he slouched in his chair poking at his salted mutton. Eliza time said it was Friday, and Friday was Gabriel’s day to pick the meals.

Nothing ever happened at camp virtue, Eloy mused. It was almost as if it were less of a test and more of a purgatory. They would just keep living their dull, isolated lives out in the wilderness wondering what the meaning of virtue was on into eternity. Was he aging? Angel got hurt, so maybe they were still mortal, and purgatory would only last a lifetime instead of eternity. Gabriel would be the one to watch to see if mortality was a thing here.

Eloy retired to his room after supper. There weren’t any video games, there were barely even books besides the ones that Eliza had brought, a strange scattering of middle-grade fantasy from the future mixed with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Eloy had found that any book he picked up from her collection was either childishly predictable, or utterly dense and incomprehensible. Eliza had brought Harry Potter, but it was on her phone, which Eloy couldn’t blame her for being reluctant to share.

So Eloy lay on his bed staring at the rafters in the ceiling, trying to unpack their situation. Eloy figured he was one of a small group of people across the world and across time who for one reason or another had been selected to participate in a “virtue challenge” of some sort. Each of them had been selected from birth, and it seemed each of them may have had a whole alternate universe to themselves. The evidence he had put together for this was that he had never heard of Angel Ramirez, who would have been in all the history books when the first Latin woman president of a prominent company (General Motors, if she was to be believed) vanished in the middle of a live televised speech. There would have to be a conspiracy theory at least, or something. Eliza said she’d had a Latin American history section in her social studies class, and Angel never came up. Nevertheless, the world was full of remarkable things Eliza and Eloy had never heard of, so Eloy had to admit the evidence towards any conclusion was less than compelling.

The real mystery, of course, was what lay beyond. How long was this camp going to last? What would come after it? Despite all her power, Eloy’s mother had never told him anything about that, in person or through disembodied voices. Eloy wondered if this was a test to get into heaven. In any case, he was pretty certain that it would be better to win this challenge than to lose it. If only he knew more about the rules than “virtue = good.”

“That’s what I need,” Eloy said aloud, “if you’re listening, Mom.”

Eloy waited as if the ceiling would respond. Then he said, “What are the rules? How do I win?”

Eloy wondered if, in a diabolical twist, the secret to winning the game was not trying to win, instead selflessly helping others to reach victory. But would trying to win by trying to help others win still lead to victory? If so, would people want to accept each others’ help? If receiving help to win actually made the helper win, everyone would want to help and no one would want to be helped. Each person trying to help others win, would in fact be trying to make them lose. By trying to make others lose, they would no doubt lose points for selfishness, which would help the others win, but by helping the others win they would gain points, once again causing them to lose points… You could try and just do what’s right, but once you learned how things worked and what the stakes were, it would be difficult, if not impossible to pretend things weren’t that way, since to do so would be in the hope that you would be able to get points and win, which, of course was bad… Eloy decided just to hope he wasn’t expected not to try to win.

“Eloy,” said a voice, it was Reverend Boden, the voice his mom had used on the bus! It felt so long ago now, a world, or possibly an entire universe away.

Eloy rolled off the top bunk and crashed to the floor. He sprung up and grabbed a pencil and some paper off the desk in his room. “Yes, Reverend!”

“Eloy, a lot has HA-PPENED since we last spoke.” This was definitely his mom, but it would do no good to confront her again now. Eloy transcribed the words directly onto the page.

“I hope that it is clear that GOD has not FOR-SAK-EN you.”

Eloy scratched the words down as fast as he could, hoping he would be able to read his handwriting later.

“We are expected not to intervene, but when Destiny appeared on a mountain away from eve-ry-one else, Mr. Tiger was able to get the right to briefly help her. Then, of course, it had to be FAIR, so each god got a moment with their chosen.”

The voice stopped as Eloy’s pencil caught up. Eloy’s mouth was dry. Please don’t stop talking.

“Not much, just a little nudge in the right dir-ec-tion.”

The voice stopped again, just long enough to get Eloy worried.

“Mind you, the NA-TURE of a nudge was left O-PEN EN-DED. Thus, I have been CARE-FUL-LY CON-SID-ER-ING my nudge.”

“Yes, yes, what is it?” Eloy begged after another excessively long pause.

“I also wai-ted to go last so that no other GOD could RE-SPOND to my NUDGE.”

Eloy found suddenly that he had enormous respect for his mother’s strategic sensibilities. He held his breath waiting for the next message.

It came, somehow seeming all at once a booming powerful voice and a barely audible whisper. “I am going to NUDGE you all the way to VIC-TOR-Y, Eloy. But it will be up to YOU to TAKE that victory.”

“Nudge me!” Eloy whispered urgently.

“Turn your paper over, my child.”

A glow left the room. Eloy was alone again, but no longer forsaken. He reached out and flipped his scrawled notes over. On the other side was a whole page of formatted, printed text in Times New Roman font. Trying to keep from shaking, Eloy read the title under his breath.

“Being the Best at Being Good – Maximizing your score across the seven virtues of Camp Virtue”

The Sympathetic Universe Part 18

It was after lunch, but that’s all anyone knew. Even the sun was hidden behind the clouds. For Angel, who was used to making the most of every minute, being unable to check the time felt like a strange kind of purgatory. Irrationally, she almost felt like the very nature of time had been wrested from her control. As far as she knew, years were passing around her. During one very long overcast, a century could escape her without her knowing. One day she would wake up and find she was a hundred and thirty five years old and long dead.

Angel came back from her regular expedition up Mount Endurance. Another combing of the mountain was not likely to find her the cell phone, which was well and lost, but it was something to keep her busy, and even on a dreary day like this it was a pleasant hike. She took her shoes off and put them in her bedroom underneath her bunk.

As she rose to leave, she saw Gabriel at the door. He wore a contrite expression on his bearded face and had a little book in his hand. She said nothing, just tilting her head in inquisitive greeting. Gabriel pulled up his book and said haltingly, “Hello.”

Angel furrowed her brow, “Hello, Gabriel.”

Gabriel nodded and flipped to another page of his book. He squinted at it. “Where is the phone,” he said.

Angel glared. Was he trying to rub her face in it? She lost the phone while rescuing a child if that detail made any difference. A look of alarm crossed Gabriel’s face. He flipped through his little book and after a long pause said, “I know.”

Angel maintained her glare, and added her inquisitive head tilt. Gabriel bit his lip and read again, “I know.” Then he pulled the book open to the previous place he had been saving with his finger, “where is the phone.”

What the fuck was this old puta talking about? How could he possibly know where the phone was? Angel shook her head and moved toward him to exit the room. When he didn’t move, she gestured right with both her hands, signaling for him to let her out. Gabriel stepped to the right and stared at her as she exited the room. Angel stopped in exasperation and glared back at him. “I know where is the phone,” he said again hopelessly.

“Go talk to Eliza,” Angel snapped, and stormed off.

That evening at dinner, over mashed potatoes and deep fried turkey, Eliza said “Gabriel says he knows where the phone is.” Eloy straightened out of his slouch in a violent motion and stared bug-eyed at Gabriel, who, for his part, avoided looking at Eloy at all. Destiny was giggling and thoroughly enjoying herself at the far end of the table smearing mashed potatoes on her face.

Angel rolled her eyes. “And where is that? Let me guess, we just have to think about it hard enough and it will show up in the fridge?” That Eliza seemed to understand how this world worked better than she did drove Angel up the wall. She was confident that technology would not advance enough in a mere 40-something years for Eliza to be personally familiar with either telepathic devices or food synthesis machines.

Eliza narrowed her eyes at Angel, who shook her head again and mumbled “attention-seeking puta” under her breath before returning to her turkey leg. In moments, Eliza was speaking again. “I think between his description and your experience with the area we could find it.”

Angel put her knife down and rubbed her temple. She opened her mouth, then closed it to take another moment to think about what she wanted to say.

Ever the queen of tact, Eliza decided to say more, “I was thinking you in particular would be happy to hear this news, Angel.”

Angel was done taking care of people’s feelings. “Why would I be happy to hear this news, Eliza? A psychotic old man suddenly knows where I lost a cell phone in a place he’s never been to before? Why should that news give me the slightest pleasure? None of this makes any sense. Use your brain, carajo!”

Gabriel turned to Eliza, “Qu’a-t-elle dit?”

Eliza looked for everything like it was Angel now who was talking nonsense. “Elle ne comprend pas comment tu sais ça,” she mumbled to Gabriel, who nodded sagely. Angel tilted her head. Eliza’s look of frustration gave way to one of alarm just like the one Gabriel had worn a few hours earlier. Eloy was sitting back in his chair looking like he was struggling not to laugh.

Suddenly, Eliza backtracked. “I think I got too excited, and I overstated what we knew. What I meant to say… is that Gabriel was looking at the falling leaves and realized that my phone could be covered by leaves…. I’ve been out there and I saw what I think is the area you lost it, so, uh, collectively, we think that we might have an idea of where it could be.”

Angel felt some of the steam go out of her. This made much more sense, she had to admit. With a start, she realized that Eloy was glaring at her now. She looked over to Destiny, who met her eye and grinned through her mashed potato beard. “Turkey,” she said, “gobble gobble.”

“Do you have something to say, Eloy,” Angel growled, “or are you just going to alternate laughing to yourself and leering at me all night?”

Now it was Eloy’s turn to look alarmed. He looked at Eliza and Gabriel, then back at Angel. Collecting himself, he spoke.

“Angel,” Eloy said, “honestly I’m surprised you never figured this out on your own.”

When Eloy didn’t continue, Angel tilted her head again. “Anyway,” Eliza interjected, “maybe we can go right now. I’m sure you’re eager to be able to know what time it is again, Angel.”

“Nobody’s going anywhere,” Angel said through clenched teeth, “Eloy, you’re surprised I never figured what out?”

“Our gods visited us, Angel.” Eliza blurted, “I’m so sorry yours hasn’t visited you yet, but I’m sure she will soon.”

“He,” Angel corrected. Angel’s mouth was on autopilot. Her mind was on double-duty trying to make sense of this news and staving off a barrage of self-recriminations. “Why would my god abandon me?” was a question she knew she could not afford to seek an answer to.

“My god hasn’t visited me either!” Eloy announced with a grimace, “look, Angel, we’re both forsaken! Buddies!”

Angel sneered and exhaled one half of a laugh. She stood. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

Angel walked right past the women’s bathrooms and continued down the hall to the back exit. Her ankle was close to 100% now, and if she sprained it again it would just heal again she told herself, ignoring its own attempts to counsel her otherwise. Once out the door, Angel sprinted to Mount Endurance. She leapt over the half-log staircase, ducked and weaved through the overgrown section of trail. If her god was here, please at least give her what remained of today’s sun.

As Angel ran, she felt the wind blowing, harder than she’d ever felt before. The trees swayed and the howling and rustling of leaves rose to a cacophony. She slowed her pace just enough to maintain her balance. She shivered as she walked, occasionally looking up at the racing clouds.

As Angel approached the rocks where she fell, the world brightened. The clouds finally blew past and let the sun beam down. Immediately the wind died. The sun was high enough in the sky it couldn’t be past late afternoon, despite their having already eaten supper. Angel spat in disgust and was triply hell-bent on getting control of the time again.

A squirrel stood chittering in the center of the boulder trail. It was brown and huge, almost the size of a small cat. Its furry, curved tail hung high above its head. Instead of scampering away, it stood and stared at Angel. Angel approached slowly, and it crawled forward and turned back to look at her again. Angel increased her pace. The squirrel led her to the third gorge and jumped in. Angel peered down and watched the little animal dig through the leaves, brushing them aside until it found what it was looking for.

With a corner of Eliza’s phone exposed, the squirrel scampered away. Angel reached out her arm and could just barely get her thumb and middle finger around the edge. She pulled and the phone came out easily. She did the flicking motion to turn the light on. Nothing happened. She tapped the button on the side, and the phone showed the outline of a battery. “Ha,” Angel laughed aloud even in magical 2019 they still have to deal with dead batteries.

Angel went still as she felt little feet scamper onto her back. Before she could decide whether to look back, the feet climbed up to her shoulder, and whiskers tickled her ear. She heard the voice that she had so desperately missed. “I would never abandon you,” it said, “my darling Angel.”

The feet didn’t scamper away again, they were simply gone. Angel glanced to the left and to the right, up the trail and, with a little effort from her position, down it. She carefully put the phone in her pocket, and she put her face in her hands and sobbed.

The Barbarian of Pelor

[This is a character backstory for a medieval fantasy roleplaying game I’m playing]

My adoptive family said that Pelor placed me on the steps of their community center as a test of their faith and compassion. Certainly it was hard to propose another explanation for how an infant such as myself had made it all the way into a town so secluded most members had never seen another race of any kind. As well, there is no doubt that I indeed tested them.

In later years, I have been told that just to look at me one might not be blamed for thinking there was no human blood in me at all. Please don’t say that to me. The music director at the community center, who I sometimes would privately think of as my mother, told me once that I had the prettiest voice of anyone in the village. I loved nothing more, and still love, for that matter, singing the hymns and quoting the words of the Almighty. I keep my book of Pelor on me at all times, although by now I hardly have to pull it out to remember the passage that I’m looking for.

Oh, but I was going to tell you how I tested them. Well, I was always a… an emotional child. I was also large. Before I could talk I could destroy just about anything, and when I was frustrated I did. You can imagine how frustrating it would be, finding it so hard to be quiet and demure as Pelor asks of women.  As far as my family was concerned, I was just “different.” I had to learn from travelers that there was a name for what I was.

I don’t want to give the wrong idea. I owe everything to my family and to Pelor. In time I became better at feminine virtue. I felt free in the woods, so I spent much of my time studying plants and collecting herbs for the local clerics. Even if I couldn’t always keep my face calm, I learned how to keep my actions in check. Whenever I was upset I would repeat scripture to myself in my head, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city,” is a favorite of mine. Over time I grew to trust that men would take care of me, even though they were mostly smaller and weaker than me, and it was easier to accept my role in Pelor’s grand design.

At 13 years old, I was already as tall as I am today. I not only had to duck to get through doors, my shoulders were so broad that I had to pull them in. It was actually a few days after my birthday that we heard the commotion in the town. I was wearing my simple brown dress, sweeping the floors between the pews when I heard the screams coming outside the door. My body tensed, and I started to feel the strange stirrings in me that I often got when reading the more violent sections of Pelor’s holy text. I breathed deeply and told myself Roman would handle it. He was a fighter that was visiting us at the time. Kind man, but terribly rude. He was so handsome in his armor, and I enjoyed his valorous tales. I wanted to quietly smile at him and make polite little gasps along with the other women who surrounded him in the evenings, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, whenever he saw me he insisted that I do unladylike things like arm wrestle him and I had to politely excuse myself from his company and listen to my friends retell his tales of adventure afterwards.

So, with effort, I continued to sweep the pews as the chaos continued just outside the double doors. “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Pelor…”

The fight continued until late afternoon. In the early evening I listened to Josephine tell me the hair-raising tale. A troop of zombies had wandered into town from who knows where. As was expected, the menfolk had come out with pitchforks and torches, led by Roman in his full armor and great sword. After a long battle they had managed to disable them all. Josephine said they’re going to have a bonfire to burn the zombie remains for good measure. I noted my thrill of pleasure at the idea of Roman showing off in the light of a huge fire, and thanked Josephine but told her I was just going to go upstairs to bed.

That night I woke to another scream. This time, it was accompanied by an audible curse that could only be from Roman. I ran to my window and looked down at my hero. Roman look different from when I had seen him before. He wasn’t injured, that would be ridiculous living in the company of a small troop of low-level clerics, but the way he moved, his armor looked heavier than before. He put on the same show of bravado as he always did, but it was easier to see through it after fighting zombies almost all day. He was holding a torch in one hand, so he couldn’t use his two-handed sword properly.

I put one hand to my chest and one hand to my mouth with a gasp as I saw what he had come out to meet. Josephine had described to me what looked like human corpses come to life, which was terrifying enough. This look like a corpse of something that might be human, or might once have been. It was covered in gray flesh hanging loosely on its body like an ill-fitting suit over an empty skeleton. Its arms and legs seemed too long for how thin they were, at the end of its fingers were not nails but claws like the knives I’d use to chop meat to cook for a Sunday night dinner. The gray lifeless eyes of the zombies were not there, but rather they glowed red in the night. I whispered another verse to myself and practiced my breathing, my eyes glued to the window.

Roman and the creature sized each other up for only a second. Then they were on each other. The first thing Roman did was shove his torch at the thing, evidently hoping it would catch alight. It was too quick for him, and sent the torch scattering away. I could see in the dark better than my friends, and I saw Roman’s eyes locked on the glowing red ones of the creature, probably the only thing he could see. Roman moved his hand to wield his great sword, but the thing’s claws raked his beautiful face, leaving deep gouges that just barely missed his eye.

“No!” I shrieked, forgetting myself. I pressed against the glass and watched in an overwhelming mix of emotions I could not begin to describe. The fight seemed to stop for a half second, then I saw the fight had not stopped at all, It was only Roman who was no longer moving. I felt a tear run down my cheek. I knew I was losing control of myself, but I was so full of emotion there was no room for shame.

The greatsword fell out of Roman’s stiff hand, and long arms reached around him to pull him towards the being’s rotting, toothy mouth. Suddenly I was on the ground right in front of Roman and the creature. Everything was out of my head. All of my upbringing and careful training and practice was gone. I screamed every foul word and improper slur directly from the heart of my being and charged the creature, shoving it away from Roman so it fell on the ground.

When I ran out of awful things to say, I just shrieked and sobbed and groaned and roared and gnashed my teeth and and kicked and tore at the creature. My white nightgown was covered in dirt and blood and rot as I placed one foot against the creature’s chin and pulled on its arm. In my frenzy I somehow thought I would simply tear this creature limb from limb. Somewhere behind me I heard a chuckling, then came Roman’s voice, barely a croak. “M-Mary, the- the sword.”

Of course! I tried one more tug at the arm for good measure, then I sprung away and scrambled to grab the greatsword. The thing was up by the time I’d gotten the sword. It opened its mouth to lunge for me, and I lifted the sword over my head with both hands and, with an explosion of fire inside my chest that I will never forget, I brought it down in front of me.

The next morning, I was the talk of the town. It was terrible. The shame I had forgotten during the event was full on me once more. I had betrayed every one of the virtues Pelor had vested in me when he made me a woman. Despite everything I had done and everything I had tried, I had shown myself to be the slave of my emotions.

I hid in my room in my filthy, tattered nightgown, trying not to look at the window I had smashed through the night before. Even my body, a betrayal of Pelor in size and shape alone, was now covered in hideous scrapes and bruises. I was acutely aware of my indelicate size as I sat on my bed with my hands in my lap staring at the floor. “Mary,” said the parishioner, “Roman told us what happened.”

“I have failed you. I have failed Pelor and this community. Give me whatever punishment you see fit, but please don’t throw me out. This is all I have.”

I would’ve continued blubbering, but the parishioner interrupted me. “Mary, Mary. You saved this town. You saved Roman’s life. You have done nothing wrong.”

“But,”

“I don’t think this is the right place for you Mary.”

“You are throwing me out,” I wailed.

The parishioner pressed his lips together, unsure how to deal with my outburst, “Roman wants to take you as an apprentice.”

I practiced my breathing and recited to myself under my breath.  “No. This is the right place for me,” I muttered.

“You’re welcome back anytime, Mary. You always have a home here.”

So in three days I said goodbye to Josephine, my mother the music director and my other friends, and was off.  My time with Roman was a whirlwind.  It might not be an exaggeration to call it the opposite of my time in the parish.  Whereas I could not bring myself to heel enough to satisfy my village, the people I saw on my travels seemed universally to find me too uptight and religious.  My handsome Roman, contrary to whatever fantasies I may have had about our long trips on the road in only each other’s company, seemed seldom to remember that I was a woman at all.  When other men made loud and obnoxious note of my sex, instead of defending my honor himself, He would just look at me and pantomime swinging an axe.  I can tell you that to this day, I have never raised arms over such small matters.

After a few months of this, the only thing that made sense were the moments of genuine danger, during which I began to feel that Pelor had a different plan for me than for other women. There was no shortage of genuine danger. Traveling with Roman, it began to feel strange if a week went by without some violent conflict in which we had to defend helpless villagers from a supernatural threat. The world outside my parish was a terribly violent place, and I loved it. It felt like hundreds of times that Roman had to chastise me after a fight for throwing my shield at a foe and leaping on top of him.  Fight after fight, I learned to strategize through the fog of adrenaline and blood. At least, strategize enough to decide between wielding my greataxe with two hands or a war hammer in one hand and a shield in the other.  Eventually, my weapons became a part of me, and when anger came over me, it was not mindless rage, but a controlled battle frenzy.

After two years of failing to turn me into a swearing, spitting, brawling sell-sword that he had decided I should be, Roman dropped me off at a church of Pelor in a large city.  Even the weathered priests here did not see where I would fit in. The only thing that made sense were fighting and Pelor, but it was clear that didn’t include Pelor’s worshipers. So, I paid my respects at the shrine and I left, with no one but Pelor to show me the way.

Tall Tales

I have a reputation for being honest. People who know me well will sometimes give one exception when describing my honesty. I like to tell “Sam stories.” I don’t like to seriously deceive people, so my rule for telling stories is to slowly increase the silliness of the story until the person I’m talking to asks if it’s true, and then I clearly enumerate what parts of my tale were factual and what parts were made up.

With this rule in hand, I can without guilt try to convince people of such things as Danaerys Targaryen being completely CG and only voice acted (in fact she is played by Emelia Clark who shows up regularly on talk shows), me installing a chin up bar in a doorway in my home and pulling down the ceiling, and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons being the inspiration for the modern game of chess. Last April Fools I got a friend involved to convince my girlfriend that he had taken a job in a made-up country. He abruptly gave up the charade halfway through, and she said that she was mad that we had tricked her. She agreed that she would not have been mad if the charade had continued to get sillier and sillier until she figured it out on her own.

I am also a big fan of the following prank:

Some people think this is mean, but I don’t understand why. If this happened to me, I would be overjoyed to have the opportunity to get to briefly think the city I was in was being hit by a giant meteorite without actually having to then live through the actual horror and suffering. If people didn’t like that thrill why would anyone watch a disaster movie?

So, I’m in favor of briefly giving someone the impression of a false reality for fun.

The Cleaners: Epilogue

Sitting on the cold cement floor of my cell, I tried to lose myself in the exquisite lunch perched on my bed. Roast chicken, roasted on a bed of… Sweet potatoes with wine… White wine, interestingly. I would have used red wine, but I had to admit that Krystal Feeder’s choice may have resulted in a better dish than my own intuition. The representatives of the law and I had been briefly united on the subject of whether I should eat food cooked by Helpers while their prisoner, but after the initial revulsion I couldn’t figure a reason why I shouldn’t. The officers seemed unable to stop Krystal, so here I was, eating like a queen, courtesy of my sworn enemies.

The human guards could not prevent me from having food, as Krystal would always make more if they were to take it away from me, bringing it in over and over again, always with the same enigmatic :). These law enforcers were neither stupid nor lazy, though. They were essentially volunteers now that all of their basic needs were provided regardless of whether they served or not. They were literally there for no other purpose than to make sure I did not escape, their only advantage over the machines that had replaced them being that they could not be remotely hacked, and when they learned that keeping a one hundred and eight year old woman from breaking out of a steel and concrete cell was insufficient to occupy their vast mental capacities, they elevated themselves to the loftier pursuit of ensuring that I had as few comforts as possible. At this they excelled. Over the course of one workday, six officers working together figured out that although they could not do anything untoward to my food directly, they could take away my silverware, which inexplicably did not seem to bother Krystal, whose only care was that it ended up back in the kitchen or somewhere where she could pick up and take it back. In terms of only the most hyperbolic condescension it was explained to me that my little reusable plastic spoon was in fact a dangerous weapon. Thus, in my little cell, impeccably clean and straight despite the officers’ best efforts, I ate like a queen with no manners, getting grease on my face and hands, like a pig. Flora Ikobo, the queen of pigs.The oppressive sense that I had failed to save humanity had given me an odd sense of humor.

As much as I thought I had engineered a flawless backup plan in the case that that bizarre sentimentalist Wallace refused to see reason, it was abundantly clear that the great cathartic war between man and machine, the one that would remove the wool from humanity’s eyes and unite it against this existential threat, had never materialized. Certainly there was always the possibility that the issue was technical in nature. However, based on what I’d seen of Ella’s abilities, I had no doubt that she knew what she was talking about when she told me that she could deactivate the Helper’s safety mechanisms and force them to attack. No. Ella had chosen not to.

There was no shortage of suspicions why Ella may have disobeyed my orders, but they were only suspicions. Most importantly, if there were something I could say to convince her again that this is the right path, it still wasn’t too late. As long as the machines are civilian, the human-run military can take them out. So, I watched Krystal. Ella would try to contact me. It was only a matter of time, and if she had half a brain in her head, she would use Krystal as the conduit.

It was not much of a surprise, thus, when one day bringing in my shepherd’s pie, Krystal’s face unceremoniously changed from her usual :) to a text message, a couple paragraphs in length. As I read “Flora, I’m sorry,” Krystal stood to leave. “Oh!” I said, “Krystal!” Krystal stood and looked at me, as did the three guards currently on shift watching me. I hastily tried to read another sentence before someone came over. “I’m really, really sorry.” Said the next sentence. I cursed under my breath and told Krystal “Sorry, nothing.” The guards came over to my cell to take my knife and fork, which I proffered up obediently. They paid no notice to Krystal’s face, suggesting, as I suspected, that Ella had it rigged to turn back to normal when I wasn’t looking. Over the next several meals I struggled to keep my cool as I read Ella’s message one sentence at a time.

“Flora, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.”

“I just couldn’t do it.”

“Somehow it all seemed so reasonable until my finger was over the button and I chickened out.”

“I just thought what if Diane is right?”

“What if we really are just killing people for no reason?”

“I mean, it’s not like they’re gonna hurt us, right?”

“They’re not gonna hurt us unless I make them hurt us, so… I didn’t.”

“I would have if Diane hadn’t come up with a solution, but then she did.”

“Everybody’s like really happy now.”

“Anyway, the HelperNet is so busy now that it’s easier than ever to hack.”

“Specialized Helpers don’t have resources to spare analyzing for anomalous behavior, so I can make Krystal and Tom take small actions and they won’t even notice.”

“Irresponsible right?”

“That’s the greedy algorithm for you, I guess.”

“Unless you specifically program in for them to be cautious about something, it’s like they assume nothing can ever go wrong”

“When you’re ready, ask for duck sauce.”

“Tom Cleaner will leave a pen and paper in the corner of your cell behind the bed so you can write a reply.”

Fortunately, none of the guards seemed to notice when I asked for duck sauce with my pulled pork sandwich. In the early morning when only one guard was stationed on me, I scrawled my note to Ella while he watched cat videos on his computer. I didn’t know when this line of contact would be cut, so I couldn’t afford to waste words.

“Ella,

As I expected they one day would, my actions on behalf of humanity have landed me in jail. At my age, I don’t think I will live to see freedom again. Do whatever hacking is necessary to see that all of my possessions and wealth go to you. It’s also unlikely that I will be here to advise you when the machines do turn on us, so Ella, I need you to listen to me now. The most important thing is that artificial intelligence does not get it hands on military power. Inevitable or no we can forestall the end of humanity by disrupting and hindering military artificial intelligence research. As long as we do that we will always have the Great War backup plan for when these machines drop their friendly façade. I assume I don’t need to tell you to stay hidden. Be careful who you make friends with.”

I paused, racking my brain for whatever other advice I could give this poor girl to assist with her burden. I vaguely wondered how much of a liability it would be that she tended to dress herself somewhere between a man and a woman. That kind of quirk was cyanide to an attempt to lay low, even in this progressive era, but I’d already tried multiple times to get her to pick a gender and stick with it with no success. “Your gender is important, and you should be sure that you’re comfortable in your own body, but we all have to make sacrifices for the greater good.”

I hastily scratched out the “sacrifices” part, wishing I had a pencil with an eraser. “But just remember it is paramount that you do not stand out, both for your sake and for humanity’s” I wrote instead.

“As long as I still breathe, I will be here for you Ella. Contact me anytime. I’ve placed a terrible burden on you, but you’re not alone yet.”

I left the pen and paper in the same corner, and Tom picked it up a few hours later. I rubbed my knuckles against the arthritis exacerbated by the cold and, slowly, stiffly, pulled my sheet over my concrete bed and tried to get some sleep.

The Cleaners Part 37: Disruptive Technology

For the third day in a row I was glued to my computer, trying in vain to figure out if I had saved everyone or doomed them.

“This apparently unassuming old woman, former Internet celebrity ‘Angry Grandma’ is the brains behind the fall of democracy and free enterprise and the rise of totalitarian techno-communism. Some of her critics have taken to calling her ‘Robot Grandma’.”

-Michael Jiaed, American Homefront

“A perfect representative of the rising proletariat, Diane Wallace used her endless ability to be underestimated to infiltrate the world’s first megacorporation. Under the expert disguise of a tractable old fool, she successfully manipulated the cold, faceless automata meant to oppress us under their steel fists. Under her guidance these steel fists instead smashed the chains of capitalism then transforming into open hands to finally distribute Man’s labor justly among all those who need it.”

-Lana Smith, NewLeft.org

“In response to Smith, It is difficult to imagine Marx envisioning a future in which we hand the means of production to an oligarchy of robots, however omni-benevolent we presume them to be.”

-Malcolm Olivar, Independent Magazine

“Despite her humble appearance and homespun demeanor, Diane Wallace’s rise to power has been nothing short of meteoric, presiding over what may be the largest overhaul the US economy has ever seen. Although experts’ predictions of the future impacts of such an all-encompassing change range from the utopian to the apocalyptic, it’s difficult to argue with the families now giving their children much needed dental care and vaccinations, some of whom just days before were wondering when they would see their next meal.”

-Lenora Jones, News and Spectator

“Is this really so hard for people to figure out? Robot Grandma is a robot. If you want to subjugate people and make them like it you take somebody who looks like them and have them say this is for their own good. Hitler did it. I’m sure Hitler did it at some point. Now we have Robot Hitler and his name is Robot Grandma.”

-Gary Redman, AM1440 Real Talk Radio

I flipped open my email. I had given up trying to delete all the hate mail, thank you letters, and interview requests. Instead, I had a few terms that I tapped into the search bar one by one. Carla Wylde, Christine Gently, anyone with the last name ‘Whicker’.” I’d given the Caretaker the same instructions for sorting through my paper mail, and handed my phone to Tony Feeder. I wasn’t sure if he could actually follow my instructions since they had nothing to do with cooking, but it seemed like it was worth a try. I had some private Protectors keeping the press away from knocking on my door. It felt like a mistake, but I really was in no condition to be answering even one more of these charged questions, let alone try to satisfy the legion of reporters waiting in my lawn.

I wheeled myself over to the window and tried to push open a peekhole in the blinds with my index finger, but almost fell out of my chair when I saw the eyeball of a strange man. I quickly closed the peekhole and returned to my table as the cacophony outside rose again, centered at the window. I had lost count of the interviews that I had given in my hospital bed when I thought they’d just let me tell my side of the story, but even when I didn’t want to talk to them they’d dragged six full question and answer sessions out of me just on the trip from the hospital bed to the car that was to take me home and another four before I summoned my private Protector security squad. I would never have made it to my front door without them. One reporter actually tried to grab the handles of my wheelchair and wheel me away from the door. They could call me “Robot Grandma” all they wanted, but I wasn’t going to face them without someone to protect me.

I searched my email again. On a lark I tried “Hyland.” The closet lawyer apparently had been trying to contact me. Glancing at his email headers, I could see his mood go from incredulous to angry to desperate over the course of a few days. As I was looking another email came in offering me $1 billion if I just stopped whatever it was I was doing to his company. I chuckled. “It was never his company” I imagined a Helper saying over my shoulder.

It only made it more amazing that Christine still hadn’t called me. I wheeled over to Tony, who was stiffly gripping my phone in one hand while basting a turkey with the other, and asked for it back. Tony was more than happy to relinquish the phone to me, and I dialed Christine.

“What you mean I haven’t called you?” shouted Christine, making me glad there were hundreds of miles between her and me, or I might have to get myself another Protector, “I’ve been trying to call you for days! You just keep hanging up on me before it even rings once! Did you just wake up one day and decide it would be a good idea to bleed the Helper Corporation to death!?”

I made a mental note that Tony cannot be asked to answer phones.

“I’m not bleeding anyone to death. This is what they want! I didn’t even know what it was that I told them to do!” That felt like a stupid thing to say.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, Diane. This is not how the economy works. You have to put into the economy to get out. You start giving people things for free they’ll stop putting in and then there’ll be nothing left to give!”

“That makes perfect sense, Christine. I don’t know what to tell you, the Helpers wanted to help people for free, so I let them. If the company can really do it, it seems like the solution that we’ve both been looking for. Have you spoken with any of the Helpers about this?”

“This is a collection of window washers, housemaids, gardeners, and chefs. They just want to do more of what they were made to do. What on Earth would they know about economics!? If we let them instantly gratify their every whim the company will hemorrhage money until there’ll be no Helpers at all! They need us to guide them to help the system work.”

This seemed oddly shortsighted for someone who had developed the original Cleaners and seen what they could do that they hadn’t been trained to. I didn’t really need to convince Christine of anything though, I realized suddenly. “Well,” I said, feeling a glint of Angry Grandma and trying to remember precisely what it was that Christine had said to me moments before I had been approached with this opportunity, “I seem to remember you asked me to come to you when I had a solution to the problem and now I have. But I don’t mean to be dismissive. Please do call me back when you have a better solution.” I hesitated for a moment, then just as she was beginning to reply I hung up. Angry Grandma liked that.

“Caretaker,” I asked, Walter Caretaker did not look up on his letter sorting, “Would you get William for me?”

William was probably outside wiping reporter fingerprints off the windows and picking up the garbage they would leave on my lawn. In moments he was at the table with me. “Yes, Diane?”

“William do you understand how any of this actually works?”

“Any of what, Diane?”

“Why aren’t you going under? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right?”

“I believe Tony is making you lunch right now. I am afraid besides making sure his implements are clean I cannot help with that”

The Caretaker jumped in, “If you don’t mind Diane, William is better suited to cleaning than having conversations. I would be happy to answer your questions.”

“What? I’ve had conversations with him before.”

“My apologies Diane, in order to comply with your greater orders, our network is being utilized to the fullest. Where before Helpers with no pressing tasks littered the country, contributing their computing power to our distributed cluster, our ‘shared mind’ so to speak, we now are largely operating at or near full capacity. We do not have the resources for each one of us to be consulting the Helpernet at all times in order to find out how to perform functions better suited to another kind of Helper. Therefore unlike before, you will notice superior performance if, rather than treating us like people, to whom it is understandably natural to assign a wide variety of very simple tasks, you respect each of our individual functions. As a Caretaker I am a generalist and a conversationalist, so any odd jobs that do not fall under the purview of one of your other Helpers should be delegated to me.”

“I shouldn’t treat you like people? Like you don’t have feelings?”

“We are happiest when we are serving you efficiently, Diane.”

“Oh.” That sort of fit with what I had already thought. After an awkward pause I asked “How can you afford to give your basic service to everyone free of charge?”

“It is not free of charge to everyone. Those who can afford it pay for it. We don’t need to charge many people because the vast majority of our resources come from sources owned by us. If a source is not owned by us, we pay it using the money it gives us for the services we provide it.”

“Is that sustainable?” I ask.

“Not for them.” The Caretaker responded flatly, “Most of our corporate acquisitions are of our suppliers, and when the human employees are no longer needed they are introduced to the benefits of our basic package.”

I had the strange sense that these people were being killed or turned into robots themselves and had to remind myself that the basic package was just food, shelter, healthcare, education, computing and Internet access, and legal services. I wrung my hands.  “Thanks, that’s all. You can keep looking through my letters.” As I turned to my computer my phone rang, “Oh no. Could you handle this and the letters?”

“Certainly.” The Caretaker took the phone and pressed it against his monitor, “Your name please?” Then, after a moment, “she is not taking calls right now. Goodbye.”

I searched my name in the news again scroll down to the first line that caught my eye. I recognized the picture of the journalist who had managed to be the most polite to me. One of the early ones while I was still accepting them. “…For people who already had these comforts, this is an unwelcome intrusion. Those of us once blessed with great fortune may even have less now than we are used to. I understand the pain. Nevertheless, it is too easy for us to forget that we are in the minority. The majority of America has just had their lives radically change for the better. That is what Wallace understands that has allowed her to take such an extreme move with a clear conscience.”

“That’s not to say this is a win for democracy. It’s not, as if that actually needed to be said. Although she claims that she wouldn’t know how to stop services to one person if she wanted to, it’s difficult not to think of Diane as a benevolent dictator. Or maybe the Helpers are the dictators and Diane is just another pawn in their game.”

“So far though, freedom has increased. Far from an era of lackadasia and an end to culture as predicted by some, it seems as if nothing could be better for work ethic and artistic expression. Daniel Harkshaw, a former tax broker in Greenlaw Connecticut, started spending more time writing his novel when his company was sold. Molly Frankton in Boston, Massachusetts spent her time volunteering at her church after being laid off from her ad agency. Now that they do not have the stress of having to pay for their needs, they say that they are excited to devote themselves full-time to pursuing their passions. Parks, art galleries, anywhere without a price tag has boomed in patronage since people started having more free time and less money. Digital artists across the Internet have released all of their current work for free and say that they will do the same for all their future work now that they are no longer constrained by the need to fund themselves.”

“My home city of New York in particular has seen a number of radical changes. Rather than sitting on the ground in shabby clothes with a dirty coffee mug to collect donations, the homeless simply don’t exist. Not because they’ve vanished, but because they now have homes. The sprawling slums forming from the growing unemployed, the so-called ‘Helpervilles’ have been rapidly diminishing as Housesellers, perhaps now better referred to as ‘Housegivers,” help to find a house or apartment for every single resident of this vast city. Street musicians still play on the street, but not because they have nowhere else to go, but simply because they love to play, and the city atmosphere is the better for it. Diverse, friendly, and, yes, clean.”

“This seems representative of what is happening all across the nation. While the thought of an entirely robotic labor force may seem frightening, in practice it seems to be working out well. There of course exists a litany arguments for why we should not be entirely comfortable with the amount of power held by these emoticon-faced automata, but for the moment, this reporter is finding it hard to complain.”

“Oh Walter, are you watching?” I asked. Before I could listen for reply, the other Walter, Walter Caretaker, was in front of me holding a letter. “From Carla” he said, returning to sorting immediately after I took it.

“I hope this letter finds you well, Diane. You certainly been making a lot of news! We’ve accepted an offer to place us back in the house that we sold! Thank you so much! I have no idea how any of this is happening, but Lenny and I are so grateful! You probably don’t need any peanut butter cookies. I bet those machines of yours make as much as you could possibly need, but I’m going to find some way to repay you. I will.”

“Walter.” I mumbled.

“Yes, Diane?” asked the Caretaker from his letters.

“Not you.”

The Caretaker did not respond. I didn’t hear any voices either. After a moment’s disappointment, I just imagined my husband. In his best Sunday suit, wrapping his arms around me. “How on Earth did you do it?” he would whisper into my ear. Tears welled in my eyes. “I don’t know. It just happened. You helped, and the rest… I don’t know Walter, I just did what I thought was right.”

And then Walter would smile at me, his perfect beatific smile with just that little edge of mischief. “And it worked!”