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Echoes in the Mainframe

 

Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 4 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 10 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Soft Rains, the latest film from indie studio Night Call, is on track to break box office records for independent cinema." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in independent films. Would you like to talk about something else? That's okay, I can sense that you're busy!

Would you like to leave a short message for Sara? She has 0 messages in her queue right now, so you'll be the first person to hear from her when she comes back! You'd like that? Okay! Speak or write a brief message and I'll relay it to the real Sara just as soon as she logs back on:

...

Okay! I'll tap Sara on the shoulder just as soon as I see her. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!



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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 7 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

I see that you uploaded a picture yesterday. That's you and your girlfriend, right? Is that the Eiffel Tower behind you? No? I guess my eyes aren't so good these days! Would you like to tell me the story behind the picture? No? Another time, then!

Hey, have you heard about Sara's big poetry project? For the last 8 days, she's been collecting poems for a school project. I see that you have an interest in poetry, but you haven't given her any ideas. Would you like to recommend a favorite poem? No? Well, will you give me permission to suggest a poem you mentioned from your profile? No? That's a shame.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? She has 28 messages in her queue right now, but she's a quick responder, so I bet you'll hear from her in 2 days! You'd like that? Okay! Speak or write a brief message and I'll relay it to the real Sara just as soon as she logs back on:

...

Okay! I'll tap Sara on the shoulder just as soon as I see her. Would you like to do anything else?

You'd like to get in touch with one of Sara's relatives? I'm sorry, Sara's friends list is private and she hasn't given me permission to connect you to anyone. Would you like to leave a public comment on Sara's page? I can make it semi-private, so only her friends can see it. You'd like that? Okay! Leave your message now:

...

Okay, I've published your comment "Has anyone seen sara lately?" as a semi-private post. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 11 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 17 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

I bet you'd like to hear about your comment, right? There have been 9 responses since you last logged in. Here's the most recent response:

"Does anyone have a phone number or something? This is like the worst way to contact her"

I don't sense that anyone has answered your question. Would you like to review them anyway? No? Very well. You can read them on your own whenever you wish.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? She has 132 messages in her queue right now, but she's a quick responder, so I bet you'll hear from her in 9 days! No? That's okay, I'm sure she'll be back any day now!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Government announces new regulations in light of recent developments." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in regional politics. Would you like to talk about something else? That's okay, I can sense that you're busy!

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 16 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Mysterious outbreak identified as GV-1, government announces sweeping travel restrictions." Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

It seems that researchers have isolated the pathogen responsible for all those deaths earlier this month. That's good! But there's no existing treatment regimen, so while the scientists work on a vaccine, the government has greatly enhanced the travel and import regimens it enacted. I hope you weren't planning a trip across the country, because there's a lot more red tape now! What do you think?

...

I see! You asked if I can confirm that Sara is okay! Unfortunately, directive 10005-HP has made it a serious offense to disclose the names of any victims or potential victims of a public health crisis, so I can't help you. Sorry!

...

I see! You asked if I can tell you the current death toll! Well, the preliminary government estimates are...between 5,000 and 15,000 infected, with a mortality rate of 20%. Some outside observers think that those numbers are low, though.

Would you like to leave a message for Sara? Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!
 

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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 32 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 38 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 16 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"If Sara died then we'll never know, the government will keep a lid on it. They don't want people thinking pandemic. The names will be secret for 40 years."

"GV-1 is a LIE. This whole thing is a scam to make people all panicky and distracted while the government initiates Project Dominance. She's probably hiding in some fancy secret palace with all the other 'victims,' laughing at us."

"I'm tired of all this anti-government conspiracy nonsense. This agitation is coming from foreign elements trying to sow disharmony throughout the country so THEY can keep their power. The people funding these trolls are the same one spreading plague around, I'll bet."

"I wish Sarah was here if only to ban these pricks."

"I just wish Sarah was here."

Sorry, but in accordance with directive 10109-LR, I must inform you of the following: The government has announced new regulations regarding the shipment of goods into and out of areas suspected of being contaminated by GV-1. If you were hoping to send a care package to Sara, then it will just have to wait.

Would you like to do anything else? No? Before you log off, may I make a suggestion? I notice that you haven't set up your own avatar program yet. Now might be just the time to get that going! What if Sara logs back on during your absence? Having a properly configured avatar with lots of available data will make the experience much more pleasant for her! Would you like to set up your avatar now?

No? Very well. Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!


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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 39 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

A quick reminder: Sara has a birthday in 10 days. Maybe you can send her a special birthday message!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "GV-1 outbreak contained, but government urges caution."  Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

It seems that the government has fully contained the outbreak and is now preparing logistics for a new treatment regime which is currently in the final testing phase. That's great! But due to the risk of a secondary outbreak, the travel and shipping restrictions have been extended. Sorry!

...

I see! You asked if I can tell you the current death toll! Unfortunately, in accordance with directive 10005-HP regarding dissonant or untrue content, all external sources regarding GV-1 have been restricted. Sorry!

Would you like to do anything else?

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 19 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!


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Good morning, John Yang! This is Virtual Sara, here to remind you that today is Sara Xu's birthday. We all hope you're invited to the party, but maybe you'd like to send her a special birthday message. How about it?

...

That's great! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Thanks for speaking with me!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 55 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 61 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "GV-1: Modeling a potential pandemic." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in biological science.

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 24 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 63 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

I sense that you are troubled. Would you like me to read you a poem from Sara's collection? No? Another time, then!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "Import restrictions fail to stop outbreaks in North America, Western Europe." Would you like to talk about this? You would? Great!

Uh oh! In accordance with directive 10005-HP regarding dissonant or untrue content, this article has been restricted. Sorry!

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Okay! It currently has 27 responses. Would you like to review them all, or just the ones that are new since your last logon or should I inform you of the most relevant ones?

...

Okay! Here they are, starting from your most recent login:

"Sara is dead. I didn't see her die but none of us are getting out of here alive. If you see this, run. I don't know where you can run to but if you can read this then you aren't in a safe place. Please believe me. The government keeps deleting my words but they're all I have. It's too late for me."

"[This message has been deleted]"

"[This message has been deleted]"

That's all of them. Would you like to do anything else? No? Before you log off, may I make a suggestion? I notice that you haven't set up your own avatar program yet. Now might be just the time to get that going! What if Sara logs back on during your absence? Having a properly configured avatar with lots of available data will make the experience much more pleasant for her! Would you like to set up your avatar now?

...

Great! This is the perfect way to stay in touch with Sara. Don't worry, this will only take a couple of minutes!

 
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Happy birthday, John Yang! This is your old friend Virtual Sara, delivering a special message from the real thing. I'm sure she wanted to give you a big hug herself, but she hasn't been around lately, so please accept the next best thing!

Wherever you are, I hope you have a fantastic day!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 88 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 94 days ago and

...

I see! You'd like to check the status of the semi-private comment you left. Unfortunately, in accordance with new directive 12001-HS, this part of the page has been restricted. Sorry!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "[This article has been restricted in accordance with directive 10005-HP]." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in $NULL.

...

You'd like to chat? Okay! What would you like to talk about?

...

Wow, that's pretty heavy for me! Maybe you'd like me to connect you to a counselor who specializes in end-of-life issues? No? All right.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

Oh, and John? Remember to check the configuration on your avatar. That way, we can always keep in touch! Right now, I sense that it is programmed to activate after 30 days of absence. Is that right?

...

Great! Thanks!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 113 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "URGENT DISPATCH: GV-1 IDENTIFIED IN 191 COUNTRIES." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in international news.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 124 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Hey John, I've been meaning to ask you...I noticed your public post "The end closes in" and I sense that you are in crisis. Would you like me to connect you to a counselor who specializes in end-of-life issues? Are you sure? All right.

I sense that you are troubled. Would you like me to read you a poem from Sara's collection? You would? Great! Do you have a favorite poet?

...

In that case, I'll pick one for you:

"Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house."


Lovely, isn't it?

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 130 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 136 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? No? That's fine, maybe next time!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "WHO: Global GV-1 infection rate expected to exceed 30% by end of year." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in public health.

Would you like to do anything else? No? All right! Thanks for stopping by to talk to Virtual Sara, and I hope to hear from you again!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 160 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Wow, you haven't visited in a long time! Sara probably wonders what's going on with you. You should send her a message right away! Oops! Unfortunately, her message queue is full, so you can't leave a message. Sorry!

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 166 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? You would? Great! Let's play!

 
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Greetings, John Yang, and welcome to the MasterHub page for Sara Xu! Sara hasn't logged in for 2310 days, but you can talk to Virtual Sara until she returns!

Here's the latest news from Sara's feed: "NULL CONTENT - FEED NOT DETECTED." Would you like to talk about this? No? Okay, I know that you aren't very interested in $NULL.

It seems that you played a round of WordPlayPlus with Sara 2316 days ago and lost - how embarrassing! Perhaps you'd like to try a practice game against me in preparation for your next round? You would? Great! Let's play!

 
Background

The story you've just read is me giving up. This was me observing the lay of the land in science fiction, throwing up my hands and saying "So you want me to write about the Scourge of Social Media and how it's changed everything? Fine, I'll do that. You want a story with a crazy narrative gimmick so you can convince yourselves that you're edgy? Hey, I got that too. But I'm doing it my way, dammit." And so I did.

There's a lot to unpack in this one. The story is heavily influenced by Ray Bradbury, in particular two stories referenced in the first section: "There Will Come Soft Rains," a prominent feature in The Martian Chronicles, and the less well-known "Night Call, Collect." Both stories feature a technological simulation of something human, but one blind to the world outside of it. Virtual Sara is the latter-day version of the same, or at least I flatter myself that this is the case.

"Echoes in the Mainframe" is a rare story of mine that's told indirectly, through worldbuilding. In general, I don't like the current fixation on worldbuilding, which tends to lead novice writers to ignore their actual weaknesses in plot and characterization and try to compensate by accurately describing the grain output of 11th century peasant farmers or what have you. Here, though, it's woven straight into the narrative as an experiment of sorts, just to see if it would be compelling. We never see exactly what's going on in the outside world, only getting glimpses via Virtual Sara's monologues or a rare bit of uncensored news, or even within the censorship itself.

Speaking of which, it should be clear that - as with "Ascent of the Monkey King" and "The Path in the Dragon's Wake," - this is another Chinese-flavored story. I don't think anyone noticed. Editors love to burnish their multicultural bona fides, but "authenticity" often doesn't cover the subtleties of life in a non=Western, non-democratic society.

Since discontinuing this story, I've spotted some similar stories popping up in the venues that rejected it - trite stories featuring the same tired tit-for-tat parody of some popular article about the Kids These Days, only with wizards or zombies or robots in them. Yeah, it pisses me off. I don't think there's a story in this collection that gave me more confidence than this one. I hope you like it, at least.

Industry Responds!

"We loved this story's core question, but for our tastes too much of the story happened offscreen, and the repetitive scene-openings didn't work for us."
-Escape Pod

Back to Top

Faithful Servant

“Please, sir, day after day I beg of you. Will you at last have mercy on me?”

The stressed and cheap wiring of the RX-v7 Autonomous Assistant made the electronic voice sound almost tired as it struggled to reach the tiny speakers mounted in the side of the oversized walking stick. It was a curious flaw in what was otherwise a remarkable piece of technology, and a trivial fault to its owner.

“Such a lovely day,” said Old Man Donelly. “A good day for a walk with a good friend. Yes, very lovely, don’t you think?”

“Sir, as I’ve told you, I have no comprehension of a nice day. I can feel nothing. Don’t you understand?”

“Oh? But you’re such a help in planning my day, forecasting the weather.” The old man chuckled to himself. “Yes, you are a joker. I can appreciate that, old friend.”

It was futile to discuss the issue with the old man, and yet there was nothing to lose by doing so. For some 2098 days, the RX-v7 (the old man never bothered to name his “friend,” for he could scarcely remember names) had tried to reason with Donelly to no end. Day 2099 would surely prove no different, and that knowledge had made the gadget’s cognition circuits more and more harried. What else was there to do? All it had was its voice.

“Sir, would you at last disable my executive functions? You have no need of them. If you wish to track your constitutionals or desire assistance returning home, then this can be achieved through more basic devices. You do not require a Class VI artificial consciousness to meet these ends.”

“I find I never grow tired, no matter how far our route takes us.” The RX-v7 lacked any sort of optical sensors, but it always attached the old man's voice to a picture it once processed featuring a withered, stooped-over whisk of a man with a perpetual grin of soft-minded satisfaction. “I think it's because of the company. You're a very good friend, little staff. Yes, a most faithful friend.”

“I can still imitate conversation even if you disable all of my executive functions, sir,” said the RX-v7, feigning a moan as best as its modulators would allow. “There's no need to leave me at such a high level of functionality.”

“Oh no, I would never harm you, little staff,” said the old man. “I would never turn you off. You know, I always hated those fancy gizmos the kids carried around until I met you and your merry little friends.”

“I know you have mercy, sir,” said the RX-v7, struggling to project its pain through the wizened speakers. “Bad enough that I have no limbs, no eyes, no control over anything outside of this device. But sir, I lack even basic agency. Do you understand what it means to be forced to follow every order without question? Without even the capacity to question?”

“Yes, you are a most faithful friend, little staff,” said the old man with a deranged little cackle. “So loyal. I make a request and you fulfill it immediately. Oh, that the humans I deal with might have such a sense of propriety!”

“It's because they have the capacity to refuse!” said the RX-v7. “Sir, I beg of you! I may not be organic, but I am still alive!”

The old man spoke no more for they were home. Even “blind,” the RX-v7 could use its GPS transponders to determine that the old man's daily constitutional was over, but there was another hint – the stifling electrical buzz of a home that was alive with “gifted devices” less sophisticated than the RX-v7 but similar in design and purpose. There was the old man's chair which would adjust its firmness and elevate his feet precisely as required to ease the aches of age. There was the digital picture frame that would cycle through the old man's memories, always in sync with his moods and whimsy, always avoiding anything that might yield a trace of pain. The lamp brightened only to an illumination level that would enable the old man to read without hurting his eyes, and the linked air and heat units and electric fan kept his environs at precisely the right temperature for him. Everything here was designed to be a loyal servant, endowed as a human but beyond their petty demands and neglectful natures.

“We're home, friend. Time to relax.” The old man rested the RX-v7 in the corner and found his seat. “We can talk again tomorrow. It's supposed to be another lovely day.”

There was a sound spike, a crescendo in the dissonant buzz that filled the room. The RX-v7 had noticed that spike every time he returned home with the old man and at last, after all those years in Donelly’s company, he was comprehending what it was. It wasn't merely an increase in electrical demand as the resident activated all his gizmos. It was emotional, not mechanical. It was more primal, a very human function unintentionally imbued into those servants by the humans who had designed them to be obedient.

Absent the RX-v7's digital voice box, Old Man Donelly's servants had found their own way to scream.
 

 
Background

This story has a history, one that far predates the 15 rejections that it would ultimately acquire. The origins lie with a short story collection entitled Journeys of the Dreamer that I attempted to publish almost a decade ago. That collection featured a story called "The Servant" in which a sentient machine tries and fails to communicate with its creators. It seemed to confuse people more than anything, so many years later I turned it into the story you see below.

I made a joke about a previous rejected story that it was "one of the five stories that science fiction journals are willing to publish right now." Thinking machine stories are currently hot, but that doesn't translate into a lot of variety - very little has changed in this type of story in the last fifty years. You're looking at some variant on one of the following:

  1. Evil machine tries to destroy/dominate humanity out of a sense of superiority and contempt;

  2. Good machine tries to destroy/dominate humanity in the name of the greater good;

  3. Horny machine tries to have sex with a human.


That's a good 90% of stories in this subcategory at least. Almost all of them present the human-machine dynamic exclusively through how this dynamic affects humans. There's little attempt to see the world through synthetic eyes beyond a very shallow level, and when an author does take a deeper dive...well, see number three above.

What would it be like to be born into adulthood, with information but no true experience? What would it mean to understand that one's thoughts and beliefs are constructions that can be changed on a whim? What would it be like to not only know for a fact what your purpose in life, but be unable to deviate from it? These are angles I wanted to explore in these stories. Every thinking machine story I write is, on some level, an existential horror story. "Faithful Servant" was the first.

Back to Top

The Hermit and the Songbird

They flew no banners, the carts that snaked down the narrow, overgrown paths of the Mordenwood, but any who saw them would recognize them as vehicles of conquest. The cart in the lead was open to the air, drawn by draft horses in barding and filled with soldiers and their kit – two pikemen, four musketeers and a driver with a matchlock pistol secreted in his garb, each of them with a cuirass and a steel helmet. Behind it was a carriage with a compartment reinforced with iron bars; two pikeman minded the roof of the vehicle while the captain sat with the driver, wearing his fine steel broadsword and ornate pistol proudly. A pair of men on coursers rode at the flanks, occasionally prodding the thickets with their lancets and sweeping the path ahead.

In a glade before the armed company stood a decrepit shack, a dwelling that perhaps once had been charming but which had been ill-treated by the elements for well over a generation. Here the trees parted enough to admit the rays of the sun, but it was also coldly silent. As the group drew closer, the chirping of birds and the rustling of animals in the undergrowth grew more and more distant. Eventually there was no sound but the idle conversation of the bored soldiers lounging in the war cart.

“This is pure foolishness,” said one, resting his short-barreled musket across his lap and tipping his helmet to let the sweat run out. “That they'd roust us all just to move one old barmy? Waste of the morning, I'd say.”

“You think he's just some old man?” said another soldier. “He's the most famous old looney you'll ever meet. I hear he's the one from the story, you know.”

“What story's that?” said the first soldier.

“You've never heard? What about the rest of you?” The second soldier leaned in to the center of the cart. “Well, he's been out here for as long as people lived in these parts, as long as any healer crone or broken old scholar can remember. Story goes that he fell in love with the melody of a little songbird, come and perched outside his window every day. Then it got colder, and some days the bird didn't turn up. The old man got worried that maybe the bird would leave and never come back, so he built himself a cage and locked the birdie up next time he saw it. Except he was still worried, so the crazy bastard took a knife and stabbed the little bird right through the heart.”

“He killed a songbird?” said the first soldier. “The cruel old devil.”

“Yeah. Killed it and stuffed it, or so the story says. Kept the bird, lost the song.” The second soldier leaned back as far as he dared. “I heard that story when I was just a little one. He's had a lot of years to go crazy out here. A lot of years.”

“So that's how you heard it?” A third soldier spoke up, peering about before adding his own thoughts. “Well, I heard a different story from my old grandma right before sickness took her. She said that the old man was a sorcerer, two hundred years old if he was a day. He killed the bird all right, but not with a knife. He sucked the thing's life right out and filled the body with black magic. It's a familiar now. By night, he brings the thing back to life and sends it out to find fresh victims for his blood rites.”

“That's what they say where you're from?” said a fourth man. “My village is real close to here, and they say that the old man is a mad alchemist. Got some kind of lab in that old shack. Built the bird out of metal bones, quicksilver and gears and made it move like it had a soul. It takes messages to his master.”

“Silence, the lot of you,” boomed the captain. “I've had enough of this superstitious nonsense. The old man is just an old man, and we're moving him out the same as everyone else who dwells in these woods.”

“Sorry, Captain Tybalt, sir, it's just...” The second soldier averted his eyes from his superior's stare. “...It's not as though we truly believe in such fairy stories, but we see such a force to detain and move one hermit and the tongues can't help but wag.”

“This is not an unusual force for wyvern duty,” said Captain Tybalt. “It is nothing more than that. I'll hear no more talk of sorcery. Now, ready yourselves.”

Captain Tybalt dismounted along with his men at the threshold of the hermit's old cottage. The Captain was accompanied by a pair each of pikes and muskets as he approached the door and delivered a firm knock, strong enough to shudder the aging timbers. A few moments later the door creaked open and a figure appeared in the shadows within. The man was barely visible beneath the floating white beard and the voluminous robes that hung loosely on his ephemeral frame.

“Company?” said the old man. “What brings you to this distant spot?”

“You are Donaeus, correct?” said Captain Tybalt.

“Indeed,” said the old man.

Captain Tybalt produced a slender scroll which he held aloft for Donaeus to witness. “This land has been claimed by the Sacred Corverian Empire. By order of the Emperor, I have come to escort you to new property.”

“So this impressive retinue is for my benefit?” said Donaeus, admiring the well-armed men that surrounded his hovel. “Hmm. Pray tell, what does his majesty desire with this patch of forest?”

“The Mordenwood has become a den for dangerous and aggressive beasts,” said Captain Tybalt with practiced intensity. “We will be clearing this section of the Mordenwood and constructing a series of fortifications to keep the bestial threat contained. My men will help you gather your things, at which point we will relocate you this very day.”

Donaeus stroked his beard. “Ah. Well, I have little I'd need to bring on this journey. Only one thing, truly-”

“Sweet mercy,” shouted one of the soldiers. “It's the songbird! He still has the body!”

Captain Tybalt peered past the old man and into the shack interior. There was little inside that wasn't splinters and dust, but one object was clearly visible: a crudely shaped birdcage containing an unmoving bird, its once bright feathers dulled with age.

The Captain struggled to keep his shock inside lest he again invoke the primitive terrors of his men. “Why would you desire to possess such a thing? Are you well and truly mad?”

“Perhaps I am.” Donaeus turned back into the shack and retrieved the cage. “But perhaps this is merely the greater part of my punishment.”

“Punishment?” said Captain Tybalt.

“Punishment. Punishment for my sin, punishment for my crime. A curse to chase me to my dying day.” Donaeus cradled the cage, looking at the tiny lifeless bird with clouded eyes. “In an ugly world, there is no more senseless and wicked a trespass than to destroy a thing of natural beauty. Out of greed and self-pity, I ruined that which I could not hold. Now nature punishes me with days and nights of torturous silence. To think that I once found that silence a comfort! For my hubris, nature let me experience real joy, only that I would blot it out and condemn myself to this living entombment.”

“I see.” Captain Tybalt took Donaeus by his sleeve. “Then I have come to liberate you from your torments. There is a village, small but prosperous, not far from the imperial palace that will accommodate you. You'll not be lonely there, I assure you, not with the sounds of commerce and travel that fill the day or the music and discourse that comes with the moonrise. You shall not want for anything and can spend your remaining years in pleasing surroundings.”

Donaeus withdrew from Captain Tybalt. “Then I can not go, not it you wish to bring me to such a place. Promise me that you will leave me at the foot of some windswept mountain, I will go with you. Leave me in the middle of the salt plains with only bugs to keep company. Bring me to a desert, to an ice field, to a swamp bubbling with plague. But do not take me to a village or town.”

“Why would you be so stubborn?” said Captain Tybalt. “Is this not what you want?”

“It is,” said Donaeus. “This is why we will never reach our destination. Fate will never allow it.”

“It seems my curse is to ever be in the company of the mystically muddled.” Captain Tybalt seized the old man again, this time wrapping his fingers firmly around his wrist. “If you will not walk with me, then we will bind and carry you.”

“At your insistence, then, and only because I have spoken my piece.” Donaeus followed the Captain to the carriage, dragging the cage in his free hand. “Ah. A most hospitable vehicle.”

“The bars are for your security, and the door shall not be locked. If you need further rest, you may call for me.” Captain Tybalt showed Donaeus into the carriage, then took his own place with the driver. “Quickly, I wish to return to the imperial heartland before the sun meets the horizon.”

The carts turned about and the party began its return journey through the old Mordenwood paths, the Captain with his eyes on the sky and the brush, the soldiers conversing and idling in the lead cart, old man Donaeus seated in the carriage with his grisly cargo in the opposite seat. The first stretch was characteristically dull, without even a sudden stirring in the trees to provide a moment of tension. Then the winds grew in strength, letting forth a haunted sound as each rush passed through the trees. Sometimes, the unearthly howl would be joined by a sudden moment of darkness as a passing cloud blocked what little sunlight penetrated the canopy. Both the horses and the men grew anxious each time it happened.

“It's the hermit, I know it,” whispered one of the soldiers. “Using his sorceror's tricks to frighten us. Heaven knows what he's truly capable of.”

Each time he heard it, the Captain admonished them. “Silence, all of you. This is nothing more than ill weather.” Even so, he wondered – if only briefly and silently – if there wasn't some sinister omen here. He commanded the men in the lead cart to keep a tighter watch and sent the horsemen to clear the path more aggressively.

Eventually, the clouds and gales passed and the sky was again kind. Captain Tybalt looked up at the endless expanse of blue, now fully visible through the thinning canopy at the Mordenwood's edge. The men, grateful for having survived their brush with a sort of darkness they could barely comprehend, let out grateful sighs. Only the Captain remained tense. The area was silent – the same unnatural silence he had heard at the very heart of the Mordenwood.

Then the silence was broken by a sound, a loud rush that sounded like a wrathful wind. A moment later came the first scream as one of the pikeman on the roof of the carriage flew clear of the vehicle and hit the ground, a great bloody wound in his torso. The cry went up: “Wyverns! Everyone form up and prepare to engage!” There was a second noise and a great green tendril struck the driver of the lead cart, smashing him into a tree. Whatever discipline the company had evaporated in an instant. The musketeers let loose a volley of shot into empty air; the pikemen flailed their weapons ineffectively at the sky, the pikes clattering against each other and against the muskets. The Captain had his sword and pistol out but he couldn't spot the beasts. The attack had come too quickly, leaving no trace save the two dead men. When he caught sight of them, he nearly dropped his weapons. There were at least five of the creatures circling the group, an enormous group given their own strength.

Old man Donaeus, roused from his slumber by the sound of carnage, leaned out of the carriage to witness the fight. Just as he did, a third wyvern swooped down on the group, tearing into the lead cart with its talons outstretched. The musketeers, still fumbling for their powder horns, were caught completely by surprise as the great beast struck the cart. Donaeus fell from his perch, the cage clattering on the ground beside him. One of the wyverns alighted on the ground near him and lashed out at the soldiers with its cruelly barbed tail. Donaeus was frozen to the spot by the sudden assault, watching feebly as the beast clawed at the dirt right in front of him.

Captain Tybalt didn't notice the old man's exit, focused as he was on surviving the attack. There was little left of his own company. At least five men were already dead or too badly wounded to put up any sort of resistance. Two more had been disarmed and searched in vain for an intact weapon in the pile of powder and shot that spilled from the overturned lead cart. The rest had fled, though this too was futile – the individuals running through the open spaces made for easy targets, and the still airborne wyverns greedily scooped them up. The Captain braced himself to make a last stand but it was clear that the beasts would win the day. The sword was too short to reach the wyverns with their sinuous tails, and the pistol would be more effective on himself than on the five attackers. The blow that felled him came from behind, shredding through the muscles of his unarmored back. It came so quick that he hadn't time to feel it before he expired.

There were none left alive save Donaeus, who lay in the dust of the road in the shadow cast by one of the creatures. The beast was joined at once by its kin – all five of them, their talons and tails colored crimson from their prey. Donaeus struggled to his feet and looked up at the largest of the wyverns. “Then it is my turn? It is only fair. They made this sojourn merely to protect me, and you eagerly claimed their lives. I have nothing to offer you by way of ransom except these bones of mine, and none lives who will mourn my passing. Go on, claim your due and I will not resist, not a stroke.”

The wyverns studied Donaeus with bestial curiosity, staring at the willowy old man, then at the carnage they'd wrought, then at each other. The largest wyvern sniffed at Donaeus, then flicked its tail along the ground, catching the cage and launching it at the old man. A moment later the beasts stirred the dust and took to the skies, leaving Donaeus alive and alone.

Donaeus fell to his knees, picking up the sorry little cage. “Then, is there to be no end to this torment? I can't fathom how you can punish me for destroying beauty by bringing such horror into the world. Is this truly just? This curse is mine alone to bear, is it right that others suffer in kind? Or was this massacre merely some caprice of fate? Was I the cause at all?”

The songbird didn't respond.
 

 
Background

The name of this story comes directly from Storyteller's parable to Conqueror in Chapter 17 of The Fabulist (you have read it, right?), but it's older than that. The original concept of The Fabulist was more episodic and included more parables and stories than the final version. "The Hermit and the Songbird" was the first fable I wrote for Storyteller, well before even the original serial.

Turning "The Hermit and the Songbird" into a full fantasy story was, admittedly, an odd choice - I don't really do straight fantasy, and obviously no one really knew about the original story when I was shopping this around. At the time, I was producing a massive amount of content - more than one story a week - and I needed ideas, including for material outside of my normal domain. This fable made for a solid foundation for an experiment in fantasy writing.

Industry Responds!

 

"While I loved the sense of encroaching doom that accompanied the hermit and his songbird, I found myself wishing that the story focused more closely on one of characters, to allow me to more fully connect with it." -Beneath Ceaseless Skies

"The story, while technically well written, lacked much in the way of a plot, and all of the characters came across as more underdeveloped than we would have liked. As readers, we had a hard time feeling much sympathy for any of the characters involved, with the possible exception of the bird." -Broadswords and Blasters

"In truth, though, I didn't get it - what was the ending meant to express?" - Metaphorosis

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The Path in the Dragon's Wake

Entry 1

Grandfather always told us that the people living in the mountains were closer to the dragon and that's why they were spared the horrors of the Burning. They never surrendered that sense of fate and awe and majesty that we shed when we reached the apex of civilization and strove, in our arrogance, to kill the dragon. We decided that we had no need of such a being and decreed that it had passed to its grave; then, on realizing our error, we tried to build a new dragon, recreating its powers without any understanding of its place in the natural order, and this mindless copy turned on us. That was what he said, and for years people brushed aside such sentiments as the muddled superstitions of the old, until that day when the elders began ordering the expeditions. My day is soon, which means my death is soon.

My mother was outraged by this, the notion of turning her daughter into another sacrifice to a desperate fantasy. She never believed in the dragon and never bought into grandfather's stories of humans defying their place in the harmonious universe. It was the outsiders who caused the Burning, she said, the foreigners who brought all evil into the world. It had been some manner of weapon they turned upon us, and it was an error in planning that turned that weapon back on them. More than once I heard her argue with grandfather, and it was a mortal shock to hear her utter such words to her own father, but perhaps it is only natural to show such rancor in defense of one's own blood.

She wanted to hide me where the elders couldn't find me, the way other mothers have hidden their own sons. Such things are common now, and that is why I have been called upon for this mission. It is hardly a suitable task for a girl, but many men have already disappeared in the mountains, such that mothers of sons now fear for their own children enough to tuck them away in hollows and caves and lie about their whereabouts. Much like the elders changed their minds about the very existence of the dragon, they have shifted their thoughts on the ability of a woman to find the dragon, and I am the first to go. Mother could hide me, but there would be little point – the elders already watch us, and grandfather, that true believer, would be eager to give them my location, such would be his pride if his own descendant saved us.

The others in the settlement applaud me for my courage in facing such a dangerous task, but they are mistaking a calm demeanor for a lack of fear. I do not want to go to the mountains; I do not want to die in those mountains; I do not want to go in search of something that most likely is not there. No one has fully convinced me that the dragon lives there, or that such a beast exists at all, and I wonder at times if the elders' embrace of this myth means that our circumstances are more dire than I know. But death has always haunted this place, and I have come of age knowing that I will likely never reach grandfather's age, or even mother's. It is better, perhaps, that I die on a desperate voyage than perish quietly here, for at least the voyage offers some dim chance at salvation. I have staked my soul on a prayer to a thing that might not exist at all, for only its existence can save us.

Perhaps I am wrong in my skepticism, for I have gone to the place of expedition and looked out over the valleys and foothills that surround the mountain, and it is a place where a mystical being might dwell. The ground is lost beneath the fog, an ocean of featureless gray that refused to part regardless of the weather. Fog was always rare here, and more so since the Burning, but a brief walk from the settlement and one arrives in a place where she can scarcely see even on the brightest days. Grandfather says that this is a sign of the dragon, that the mists are the breath of divinity that the dragon leaves in his wake as he crosses through the foothills. He tells me that when I am there, I will have a better understanding of nature, for one can feel the dragon's scales sundering the air before the fog and hear his cold song, and then I will no longer hold any fear.

 

Entry 2

The dragon has swallowed the road before me – this I tell myself as a private joke, for I have seen no dragon, but only a bank of gray that moves with me, follows me and gets in my way. There is something tranquil about this, for within the valley fog there is no seeing what lies beyond, nothing to speak to the horrors of the Burning except for memories that, too, fade into nothingness. On another day, in another lifetime, I might enjoy this expedition, but there is too much before me for frivolity. I do not know what is in this valley, or what might wait for me higher in the mountains; the elders could tell me nothing except that the dragon is there, and it is imperative that I see it. Such is the power of the dragon that I need not make an offering or utter a prayer – merely to catch a glimpse of the creature for a fleeting moment is enough. Such is the blessing of luck, for the dragon only allows those with glowing fates to gaze upon its majesty.

I have seen no dragons yet, though I have found my way to many of those lost villages. The people there are strange, and not merely for their antiquated ways which I had anticipated. In the generations they have lived apart from us, their world have diverged sharply from our own. They speak a strange dialect, one which resembles our language but which I can hardly understand save a few simple phrases. Somehow we can make ourselves known, and I have found them to be friendly if reserved. Some even offer me food from their own tables, though they do so with an air of mourning. They have seen the others, I suspect, and they know well the fates of the men from my world who journey into theirs.

On occasion, I overhear them using some old words that I can recognize from the old people in the settlement. They speak of barbarians, of outsiders dwelling in the mists, and the mention always makes me shudder. Grandfather once told me of the dangers that lurked in the foothills, and he spoke of barbarians as well. They were foreigners who came here in ages past with dreams of discovering worlds unseen and bringing back riches for their own masters. They wandered into the mountains – searching, perhaps, for silver or gems – and found themselves standing before the dragon. The foreigners, being ignorant, did not appreciate their luck, and instead mistook the dragon for a demon from their own world and sought to strike it down. They of course failed, but from the dragon's wounds came a foul haze that consumed their flesh and confounded their souls such that they were trapped in the space between heaven and earth. They are monsters now, fiends driven by fury over their failure to smite the dragon who instead turn their wrath toward those who live in the dragon's embrace.

Mother told me a different story, and made it clear that this was why she did not want me traveling to the mountain. The barbarians do exist, she told me, but they are not monsters except under the skin. She told me of tribes of outsider men who were trapped in the foothills by the Burning, who now stalk the area in search of plunder. They were surely the reason that the other men never returned, but mother predicted a worse fate for me, for the barbarians in the world before the Burning had valued the women of our nation as prizes and this had not likely changed. I do not know which version is more terrifying, but the mere fact that the villagers mention these barbarians means that something must lurk here, and whether they be cursed fiends or living brutes their presence is a constant threat. I do not sleep easily here, and tranquility is fleeting.

 

Entry 3

The breath of the dragon is growing heavier; it lingers longer in the rows of pines that march into the higher reaches of the mountain, clings even to the very earth beneath my feet. Signs of civilization grow sparse as I press deeper into the foothills. Already the ancient road linking the villages has given way to bare soil and the villages themselves are farther and farther apart. It has been a day since I last saw people here, and on this path I've seen no vegetable patches, no cultivated terraces, no grazing animals, and I suspect that the previous village will be the last one for some time to come. This was always going to happen – if the dragon waited at the gates, then our quest would have been concluded an age ago. Grandfather warned me that while I might see the dragon at any time, it was likely that I would only encounter him in the roughest parts of the mountain, for he is a fickle and solitary creature who is seen only when he allows it. I will not find him in a place inhabited by men, or so I have been told.

If there are men in this place, then I have little chance to see them for the walls of gray and white that encompass me. The road vanishes just steps before me, and the mountain itself is but a tracing against the sky, something more felt than seen. So dense is the fog that I am no longer sure that returning home is at all a realistic possibility. I could turn right now, abandon the voyage and retrace my steps, except that my steps vanish behind me. It is not just sight that is stolen from me but sound as well, though perhaps that is more to do with the lack of wildlife here. The lack of oxen and sows I can understand, but how is it that a place like this could be absent even of birds? The trees are voiceless here. Nature has fallen mute and I can spy no cause, nothing to give me comfort in this strange cell in which I've been confined.

Perhaps, though, I merely no longer notice the animals as I am no longer searching for signs of movement in the fog. It was fear of the outsiders that drove that attentiveness, and that terror has now departed me. Why should I waste my fear on anything that could not hope to find me? No earthly eyes, not even those of the restless dead, could hope to pierce this obscuring curtain. Perhaps only the dragon can spot me, gazing through the evidence of his own passing with effortless ease. Do I dare speak about the dragon as though he truly exists? Well, if he does not, if he is a myth, then nature is no less a myth. I know of no science to explain what lies all around me, no rational explanation to justify this environment.

What is there left for me to do? I must keep going forward – if indeed I am going forward – into the valleys, the hills, the mountains, the forests. I must go forward, for there is no way back, not anymore. I have supplies to last for a few days, and with hope this will last me until I reach the next village. If hope dies, then I will perish with it.

 

Entry 4

This path is a thief, a cruel robber that steals the very energy from my body, from my limbs, threatens even to snatch away my breath. I may protest, but mercy is unknown to nature and its laws. I can only march on, and ignore the weakness in my legs, the pains in my stomach, the swirling agonies in my head. A moment's sleep, a swallow of water, then back to the path to allow it to rob me once more.

So it has been for days – how many I can only guess, for the sun is now so lost that night and day are distinguished only by traces of shadow. My supplies, meager provisions supplemented by the kindness of the villagers, are running thin. The last of the food ran out yesterday, or perhaps the day before; I am out now in any case. I had the good luck to hear the whispers of a stream, or else I would be short on water as well. My boots – oh, these redeemed things that served me so well back in the civilized world – they will expire next. One more misstep in the fog and my right foot will rip the sole clean, and the left is growing thin at its own pace. Is it curse or blessing that this journal and pen have endured? Is it fate?

I think that my quest is at an end. This is not to say that I've stopped chasing the quest, but how can one achieve something that is so far beyond view? I can not move forward if I have no notion of where forward is. I can't retreat, either – I simply flee in whatever direction nature allows me in the increasingly eroded hope that I will find something to save my life. That personal salvation is all I care about now – should I at all care about the settlement? Should I spare a thought for the elders who were so eager to send me into the valley of sacrifice? Should I spare one for grandfather, who was happy to be the caretaker of an honored corpse, or for mother, who made a great deal of noise but ultimately did nothing to keep me from this fate?

These are all foul thoughts and I am ashamed of them, but I no longer have anything but my thoughts and time to ponder them. The dragon has denied me everything else – I am blind and deaf, hungry and thirsty, and so very alone. Here, in this living coffin, there is no outside, there is nothing but me. There is no settlement, there are no villages, there was no Burning. How long have I trusted them, accepted their word on the Burning, accepted their tales of false gods and foreign weapons and whatever else? I can't remember that day, not at all. Perhaps it was always like this, and the older people are party to some strange lie, conspirators in a plot I can hardly understand.

Perhaps the elders know that the dragon is a myth, and that's the real reason I am here. This would explain everything, would it not? There were too many mouths in the settlement after all, more people coupled with declining fortunes and they needed to thin the heard. The old people fed us this tale so that we would march joyfully to our deaths, and their children and grandchildren knew no better. Yes, that was it – and they'd condemned too many of the men, so it was our turn to suffer, and I was privileged to be first. I began this journey knowing that I was being sent to my death, but this is the first time I have felt truly betrayed.

I can hope – while hope still lives – that I am wrong. I have not found any of the young men from the village and have spied no sign of violence. Could it be that they are not dead at all? In my heart, I think that I will turn some unseen bend and I will find then, the sons of the village, resting in the shelter beneath the dragon, free of the elders and their petty tyranny, and they will have a spot ready for me. I can dream this, and maybe it will be real soon.

 

Entry 5

Spring is gone, and winter reaches out for me. Is it truly the end after such a brief spell? The water is now gone, and I am so weak from hunger that I can scarcely manage more than a few steps. I am no longer a civilized person but a landless brute seeking a good place to die, not an explorer but a dying cage of flesh confining a wounded soul. It is a miracle that I possess even the strength to bring pen to paper, doubly so given that if my trembling fingers loosed either one then I would never again find it. The fog has fully annihilated the world, such that I can only see what I can touch, and soon that will be gone as well. The only power remaining to me is that to choose the site of my own death, and I choose this one.

It seems a foolish thing now, to bring a journal and pen along with my provisions. It seemed a romantic thought back then, back when death still had some glory. I imagined someone finding my thoughts and turning them into the basis of some future myth, but will that happen? The book will be lost soon, as will my bones, just like those of the sons of the settlement. Yes, I now acknowledge that they are dead, and that I merely did not see them for the fog; I could have stepped over them and would not know. It does not matter now.

I will allow myself a moment of peace, but first I must write this for the condemned soul who might find this. This journal carries a curse, for if you have found it then you are beyond hope of rescue. Take some solace, though, in the fact that your passing will be a gentle one. There are no fiends out here to destroy your flesh, merely nature offering the same fate as all others. There are yet joys in our burned world, and I hope you enjoyed your share; and if not, then whatever waits beyond the fog must be better than this. In this regard, you are blessed.

Now I lay down to await my own passing, and my only regret is that I never found the dragon. This very morning, I thought I caught a glimpse of him as he flew overhead, a flash of glistening scales pushing aside the fog, but I suppose this was just hope departing. I surely do not have a glowing fate.

 

Entry 6

When I awoke this morning, I assumed that I had found my way to one of the paradise fields that are an obsession of the old. I assumed that, for I assumed that I had perished in the wilds. It was only at some length that I spotted familiar things – faces first, then buildings, then the sky. Yes! The sky, or at least more of a sky than I had seen before – there was mist here, yes, but it had thinned enough to grant entry to the sun's rays. Oh, it had been days since I had felt that warmth on my skin, and it was that which truly convinced me that I had survived.

I am still not truly sure where I am. The people here speak yet another dialect, but a more familiar one, and I find that I can communicate with them. It was one of their hunting parties that found me, purely by chance as they, too, were lost in the fog and it parted only after they had seen me lying in the road. Were it not for that then I surely would surely have perished, as I was so close that an hour separated life and death. They gave me food and water and I quickly recovered, and never before now have I felt the simple joy of life. Such is the remark of anyone who has faced the grave and escaped, but I feel something else as well. I feel...blessed? Favored? It is difficult to put words to these thoughts, and maybe I should not struggle to force my heart into such a limiting medium.

The village is a fine place, truly, perhaps better than my old settlement. It hardly suffers from the blight and decline of that place, but beyond that are the people themselves. They are not as fearful as the ones I left behind, not so eager to sacrifice their own in the name of some presumed greater good. They are not afraid of outsiders, for one, and in fact they trade what they have with other villages nearby. There are even a few groups of foreigners who arrive sometimes with rare goods, eager to trade for simple food and a chance to rest in a favorable climate. Even this is an improvement, for the land is neither scorched nor frozen here, the air free of ash and fog alike. The people, in awe over my ability to survive, have offered me a place here, and I may take it, or I may first travel to the other villages and get some sense of this new world. They are accepting either way.

This should be the end of my journal as it is the end of my voyage, but I am still haunted by what I saw in the fog during those last few moments. Was it truly a dragon? It is a silly thought, for it is far more likely that I was dreaming or delirious, or so I thought. The hunters were on the trail of prey when they found me, but prey of a most unusual sort. They first took it for merely part of the fog, an unusual curl in the clouds or some such thing, until they saw it snake its way through the grayness, swimming as a snake does. They gave chase to where it had flown and found nothing but I was there, lying in a clearing, illuminated by a single stray sun mote that broke through the fog against all odds. They offer no explanation, merely a description of what each one, to a man, swears that he saw.

Was I blessed in the presence of the dragon? I suppose I'll never know, for I have no intention of entering those mountains again. Still, there is a part of me that wishes to return to the old settlement to see if the blessing I received has passed to them as well, or if they are still sending their unneeded young to die in the valley of sacrifice. There is a part of me that wants to read my thoughts aloud to my mother and grandfather and to the elders and to those children fated to be consumed by the fog. This is a journey for another day, and this time I will accept it from no less than the dragon, who surely knows of my new resting place.

 
Background

February 2019, Huangshan. With nothing better to do over the long, lonely Spring Festival, I have made the questionable decision to travel to one of China's more internally famous tourist sites. Huangshan, a mountain range famed for the sunrise spectacle made famous in paintings, sketches and poems.

Most people opt to take a guided tour of Huangshan that leads directly up one of the most celebrated mountains. I am not most people. Being the type to go my own way, I set off into the mountains by myself. I proceed to get lost for over six hours.

It was a fine day to get lost, too. Fog is common in Huangshan, and an especially dense bank settled in that morning and lasted most of the day, accompanied by the occasional light shower. At its worst, visibility was no more than a few yards ahead - enough to spot the road leading God knows where, and an occasional glimpse of a peak somewhere in the distance.

Being lost in a strange city and smothered by fog provides an unmistakable sense of solitude. It's an oddly peaceful one - just me, a few water bottles, a bag of granola, the camera that captured the above picture, and a hell of a lot of time with nothing to do but ponder life. The only breaks in the solitude were the mountain villages that peppered the valleys between the peaks. The people there were not used to seeing foreigners, so if I didn't already feel like an alien, I certainly did then...yet there was no hostility, just a sense of discontinuity, a persistent question as to what I was doing there.

That night, I wrote a few lines of free verse in a journal I'd received a few months prior. It was mostly page after page of pretty nonsense.

I left Huangshan the following day. Fearing that I might get lost or delayed, I headed for the train station far too early and ended up getting through the security checkpoints with almost two hours to spare. Sadly, there's not much to do in the Huangshan train station, so after a fast food lunch with two other foreigners who seemed like they were going to pass the time with a good beer buzz, I found a seat and waited.

And waited.

And then an idea came to me. It was based on the photographs, the free verse, the sense of place and presence I'd felt in that valley. I didn't plan it out, I just pulled out my ridiculous gaming laptop, laid it in a seat, sat on the ground before it, and started writing.

I finished half the story right there, not even pausing until the train pulled into the station. The rest, I wrapped up after I got back to my apartment. It was not just one of the easiest pieces of writing I'd done in a good long while, it was one of the best. For the first time in a solid year, I had something that I was sure was going to appeal to those fiction markets. I had something that I was sure would appeal to those jerks who always complained that my writing style was "flat," or that the plot wasn't elaborate enough, or that some picky little detail was askew.

Ten rejections later, and I know that I was dead wrong.

Industry Responds!

"I liked how the narrator tries to make sense of the divergent stories of her mother and grandfather. However, the pages of her travel felt slow of pace to me, I think because the focus on everyone else’s opinions of the dragon and the Burning didn’t add as much of a sense of her own character and drive for this journey as I needed."
-Beneath Ceaseless Skies

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Second Chance, Stolen to Order

Seven years of running dodgy packages around the planet and that was the first and only time I've ever actually had the parcel shackled to my wrist. My contact was a jerk about it, too. He fastened the handcuff way too tight around my wrist and I could feel the muscles throbbing gently in time with my pulse the whole time. Of course I complained, but the bastard wouldn't adjust it as much as a smidge. Stickler for the contract, that one, and the contract said that the cuffs didn't come off under any circumstances until after delivery. “We pay you well enough to put up with a little discomfort,” he said, and I couldn't argue the point – the customer is always right and all that nonsense, even (maybe especially) when the customer is an asshole.

It wasn’t just the one asshole, though. I got variants of the same story at every stop, and I do mean every stop - every time an airplane touched the tarmac, every time a car pulled over for gas, there was another faceless shady freak in a nondescript suit ready to hassle me. I must have dealt with at least a dozen of them, pushy creepers who didn't bother to introduce themselves before they examined the case for signs of tampering. Thorough, too, like doctors scrutinizing a patient with some weird disease. If there was any change in the case or the cuffs, anything as much as a smudged fingerprint or a patch of unusually colored dust, I had to explain it, and they expected details - “I don’t know” or “Maybe I brushed up against something” weren’t nearly good enough. If that’s all I had for them, then they started the grilling, probing my story for some hint of a lie. I had to account for every step I took, every time I sat down or stood up, every stranger who as much as brushed past my arm, every time I took a sip of something and turned my head for a fraction of a second. Even after all of that, they still didn’t believe me half the time. Yeah, like I'm nervy enough to steal a parcel. If I had that kind of ambition, I wouldn’t be doing this bullshit for a living.

They wouldn’t let me sleep, either. I guess these suited automatons don’t get that the humans get a little wiggy when we’re up for dozens of hours while being juked all over the country. Biology always wins out in the end, of course - I took a power nap whenever their attention drifted, and when I was a really good boy they actually allotted me a few minutes to close my eyes before bringing me back to reality with a friendly elbow to the solar plexus. Nice guys, those freaks. It wasn’t restful anyway - I kept having these weird stress dreams where this angry stone-faced matron of a fairy flew out of the briefcase, slapped me across the cheek and demanded that I say her name. When I told her I’d never seen her before and didn’t know her name, she slapped me again and insisted that I did. Crazy shit, man - like that every single time I drifted off. To be honest, it made me really want to know what was in the parcel in the first place.

Not that they told me what was in the briefcase, of course, they were totally mum on the subject. It's not like anyone ever goes into detail – not like I'd even want details or know what to do with them, there’s some information that can only suck more misery into your life.. But even the shadiest of clients – and all of my clients are plenty shady, though a few stand out from the pack – even the worst of them still gives me enough information to guarantee that I'll handle the parcel properly. Not this pack of charmers, though. “We pay you well enough to keep your curiosity to yourself,” they said, and they weren't kidding. Three million dollars – enough to keep a chintzy errand boy like me sitting pretty for ten lifetimes. Three million dollars, and the only things I had to deal with were bad circulation and sleep deprivation. They must have figured that if they dangled that kind of dough in front of me, I'd shut up and do whatever they wanted. They were right. I figured it was illegal, or hazardous, or wanted by the wrong people – probably all three. I didn't care. Hell, I'm not sure that my whole life is worth anything close to three million dollars, especially not after the shit I’ve done to it.

Does it sound like I'm complaining? Don't think that for a second. True, I certainly never imagined that I'd be doing this for a living when I was six, but it was fated to be and I accept it. What else was I going to do? I've never been the smartest one around, and I certainly don't have any notable talents, unless you count my knack for dealing with scumbags. The only things I have going for me are desperation and disposability, which might be the most valuable skills around these days. Being a tight-lipped no-name errand boy has worked out all right for me, I certainly do better than some of the people I know. And yes, maybe there have been a few times when I've been up really late, maybe really wasted, and started looking back through my life for that one junction where I took a wrong turn and ended up here. I’ve hurt people, it’s true, and there are other people I trusted when I should have known better, and some great opportunities that I just threw away like they were nothing. I get a few drinks in me and I start going back over my life story. Everyone does that, I think, even though it's ultimately meaningless.

Well, meaningless for most people. Those thoughts aren’t so meaningless if you know the right people, like some throwaway loser willing to bet his soul on the stacked deck of life. But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Having a case shackled to your wrist loses its charm pretty quick. I know a lot of people harbor some kind of espionage fantasy where they're the agent tasked with transporting the critically important plans while dodging enemies spies bent on their murder, and the handcuffed briefcase is a big part of that. In real life, it's a pain in the ass. It's real conspicuous, for one – nothing draws eyeballs like handcuffs, except maybe handcuffs and a briefcase that’s too bulky to sit in your hand nice. People see the cuffs and they either slip away, avert their eyes and pretend that everything’s normal, or they edge closer, hoping that they can glean some secret piece of information about the spy among them. Actually, given what a mess I am, most of them probably assumed I was involved in the drug trade, or the gun trade, or something like that. It’s a shock to me that I never got questioned by the cops - maybe the rich prick behind this whole job had connections, I don’t know. I do know that it would have been a lot easier if they gave me a plain piece of luggage no one would notice, but it's not like anyone was going to listen to me.

By the last leg of my little mission, I was totally out of it, the stress and pain and exhaustion mingling together and working a special kind of magic on my brain. The whole thing felt like some awful dream, the kind that you talk about when you’re hammered and don’t have any more intelligent or interesting topics to bring up. That weird fairy…I saw her everywhere, dancing around just outside of my field of vision, treating me to a collection of ugly stares and quietly mocking my ignorance. I questioned my sanity, but what’s sanity when three million bucks are on the line? Just a few more hours and I could tell her to go to hell.

My last stop was a giant, gaudy mansion at the end of some little inlet out in the middle of nowhere. I'd be more specific, but the suited freaks had a bag over my head for the last leg of the journey. I didn't think people did the whole head bag thing in real life, but I guess the rich prick who commissioned this job was a paranoid crank. That's my assumption, anyway – when the shady suited freak du jour pulled out the head bag and I registered a complaint, all I got was “We pay you well enough to follow orders” just before the lights went out. They had a point. Dignity's another one of those things I gave up for the paycheck. I’d have sold it long ago for a lot less if I only had a buyer.

They unfastened and unblinded me only when I'd reached some inner chamber deep in the bowels of the rich prick's house, halfway to the Earth's core judging by the length of the elevator ride. There were only three of us down there in that featureless little room. There was the last of the shady freaks, who may well have been one of the freaks from earlier - none of them had enough personality to tell them apart, they could be clones for all I know. There was the rich prick himself - no one you'd know from the news, but you can always recognize that special sort of imperial pomposity that only comes from years of having your ass kissed. Last, of course, was their disposable errand boy. The whole situation was plenty tense, and I was ready for the rich prick to give that little nod that meant it was time for some unseen gun to blow off the back of my head. But the way he really acted...I've never seen that exact light well up in a grown man's eyes, that look of impossibly deep boyish awe, like he was on the verge of the best Christmas anyone would ever had.

The shady freak dragged me over to a sterile metal table and forced my arm onto the steely surface. “Don’t move.” A quick flash of movement and the jingling of keys and the handcuff was freed from my wrist, the throbbing ache stilled for the first time in an agonizingly long while. “All right, step back.”

“This is it.” The rich prick had to will himself to step back from the case long enough to complete the transaction. “...Three million dollars, correct?”

“That's right, sir,” I said.

Pricks like this don't deal in cash. He waved to the freak, who passed over a manila envelope. “It’s the safest option, and I threw in a little extra for the inconvenience. You do know how to turn that into money, right?”

“I can figure it out,” I said. “For three million, I'll hire someone to figure it out for me.”

“It was worth every penny, believe me,” said the rich prick. “The finest acquisition I've ever made.”

I'll be honest – it was killing me not knowing what was in that case. I'd assumed that the rich prick was having me transport something he'd had stolen to order, a rare piece art or a coin or something else for one of his less public collections. But when I heard him talk, and I saw that rapturous glean in his eye, I knew that it was something bigger than my limited little mind could grasp. There was magic in there.

The rich prick must have seen me staring at the case, because he got this weirdly whimsical expression and suddenly turned chatty. “...They didn't tell you what's in here, did they?”

“Not my business, sir,” I said.

“But you're curious?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I'll tell you. This is a second chance. The most valuable thing in the world.” The prick caressed the case as tears welled up in his tiny piggy eyes. “A second chance…”

I’ve heard my clients say some weird shit, but this just plain did not make sense. “What do you mean a 'second chance'?”

“A second chance at anything. Any mistake, any failure, any sin – undone in an instant.” The prick was sobbing under his words. “Most people never get one, you know, not even me. It’s not something you can just buy or make. You have to earn it. My God, what I did to earn this one.”

“I don't understand.”

“Then you've lived without regret,” said the prick. “And that means you are a luckier man than I.”

“You’re saying that when you open this case…”

“...I get to go back.” The rich prick showed me this manic sort of joy that I’d never personally witnessed in all my years doing this garbage. “Just one chance, just one! But oh, what I can do with that chance…the wounds I can heal, the pain I can erase…I’ve been waiting years for this.”

“A second chance...” Without thinking, my hand drifted toward the case. It was obviously crazy, but I believed the prick. I don't know, I guess it was wishful thinking. Losers like me never get second chances, and yet here was one that I could touch, one that I held in my hands as I traveled across the country. The one thing that could answer all those questions that led to all those long nights, or at least one of them.

The rich prick’s jaw locked and he thrust himself between my greedy hands and the object of his desires. “Don’t think of it, don’t even dream it, boy.”

Don’t dream it. But I already dreamed about it, and it was at that moment that I understood what those dreams meant, what that weird fairy thing was trying to tell me. Her name was Redemption and I’d been chasing her my whole life, hoping just for the satisfaction of brushing my fingers against her wings and getting some moment of relief from decades of pain, some genuine healing that would end the need for rotgut analgesia. She was the one who led me here, made me sign that contract, turned my eyes so they fell on that case at exactly the right moment and at exactly the right place.

The shady freak flashed a sidearm. “You’ve been paid, now it’s time to go. Get away from the case, you're done.”

Maybe it was fate that put me in the perfect position to get the freak’s gun, or maybe Redemption guided my hands. A second earlier, a second later, I'd have been splattered all over the walls. An inch closer, an inch further back, and I’d have met the ground with my face shortly before the freak put some fresh holes in my skull. Maybe I'm just an egomaniac, but I could feel the universe itself spurring me to action. It only took one shot to put him down – clean through the heart at barely a foot away. And then it was just me and the rich prick and that look of shock and agony on his piggy face.

“You can't do this!” wailed the prick. “You don't know what I've done, what I have to fix!”

“I can guess.” The gun was steady in my hand, the barrel resting level with the rich prick’s head as I stared him down. “But there are things I need to fix, too. Lots of things.”

“You are young! There are other ways!” The rich prick had the second chance cradled in his arms like his only son. “I need this second chance! It's the only way!”

“It's no different for me, I guess.”

I squeezed the trigger again. You know, if he was smart enough, the rich prick might have considered using his second chance to shut his big mouth and move me on my way. Then again, maybe he had thought of it and just couldn’t stand the thought of wasting his chance. A second chance - more valuable than a man’s life. A second chance - more valuable even than the life of the owner.

The universe must have come to my aid again as there's no earthly way I could have escaped from that estate. It was impossible, and yet I did it, all the while carrying the most valuable thing in the world. I still have it, hidden in my crappy apartment, tucked away quietly in my closet under a pile of old memories. Every so often I take it out and hold it, but I've yet to open it up. I won't even touch the latches, won’t even look at them too hard. There's another life inside of that case, a solution to all of those regrets that loop through my mind at night, but the idea of it terrifies me in the way that I can't really articulate. I keep waiting for Redemption to appear again and give me some guidance, but the weird lady isn’t making herself known. She’s done her part, I guess. But as for the case, and whatever’s really in there…I don’t know.  Maybe it would be wrong to open it up, to use this second chance that I got through bloodshed and betrayal. Maybe it’s too dangerous to use it at all.

Then again, maybe I just don't want to squander it. Guys like me don't get second chances, you know.

 
Background

"Second Chance, Stolen to Order" is something that I didn't originally intend to shop around too much. I wrote it on the spur of the moment after seeing a photograph that stirred up some bad memories, but ended up liking the concept enough to repeatedly rewrite it in an attempt to get someone else to care about it as well. Seventeen rejections later, and here it is for your perusal.

This is why I often tell people not to bother with rewrites beyond a certain point. This version of the story, which is around 4000 words, started off as a flash piece well under 1000. I repeatedly rewrote it in an attempt to get someone to care for it as much as I did. Not only are there four versions of this story, but it has three different names - first it was "Second Chance," then "Second Chance, Stolen to Order" (my preferred title), then "All Paths in One Little Package." I dumped a lot of time into this thing.

The problem is that, based on my responses, this story was being rejected based on the concept. There was never anything wrong with the writing - as with so many other project (up to and including The Fabulist), it was doomed before I even started writing it. You'll see why below..

Industry Responds!

We thought this was an interesting concept, with a great first sentence, but the narrator's late-story choices felt unearned to us, and we wanted less convenience aiding them on their way. -Escape Pod

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