First Published in 2014 by
copyright Info © 2012 Tom Wolosz
copyright 2022 Thomas Wolosz
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The executioner stands within the ebony darkness of the forest edge. Tall body rigid, head capped in black, face a pool of shadow, and wrapped in what appears to be a long dark cloak, he gazes out over the field.
The stage is set.
The full moon shines down on the tall grass, its cold light creating a world of harsh contrasts: the grasses bleached of color, each pale stalk bordered by sable shadow, just as the eerily pallid field is itself surrounded by dense forest darkness. Light and shadow, intertwined, rob this place of detail, imparting the colorless tones of death. The field, besieged by forest on all sides but one, runs headlong toward an open sky ablaze with stars, ending at a towering cliff overlooking a plain far below.
And the world waits.
A fleeting whisper of breeze disturbs the landscape, ruffling the grass and leaves, producing an odd mix of stillness and intermittent fluttering, hinting at a world afflicted by a nervous energy, a tension, driven by an anxious awareness that a great event – the day of retribution – is at hand.
The path before him is visible only as a strip of shadow. Like a long tendril growing from some black plant, it slithers from the darkness of the forest across the field toward the cliff edge, but fails to reach it, ending instead in a small circular blind.
The wind picks up. Nervous eddies of rustling grass form at the edges of the path – eager, frantic spectators struggling for place, leaning forward, searching the distance in anticipation of the promised spectacle. Gusting across the field, the wind is a provocateur goading the grass into waves of frenzied expectation.
Breathing deep, drinking in the very darkness, the executioner steps out onto the path, whispers, “And so it begins…, Lex Talionis.”
Regally striding toward the cliff, he is not alone. A naked, pitiful figure also emerges from the dark under the trees, not walking, but dragged along the path by some invisible force. Where the executioner is a boat serenely gliding down river, the Flyer, the condemned god of this world, is a small piece of helpless debris carried along a riverbed by the current, rolling and sliding, unable to resist. Drawn along, the Flyer whimpers, grasping at root, stalk, and rock, but finding no purchase, his futile efforts serve only to shred the flesh of his hands and feet. Struggling, he cries out, screaming the word ‘machine’ again and again, as in desperate entreaty to some hoped for savior.
As if in response to the wretch’s cries, the surrounding silence is broken by the hissing of the wind over the grass – the distant cheering of a ghostly crowd. Waving about madly, the field is a crazed sea of onlookers wildly demanding the promised act of retribution as they await it with fevered glee. The tall figure is the center of calm in this maddening storm, which comes to a sudden and complete stop as he steps into the round, empty patch at the end of the path – the focal point of the world’s evil. A place where innumerable victims suffered the penultimate touch of their blessed earth.
The world seems to hold its breath as if knowing the time has come –– its former master, the Flyer, his role reversed, about to feast on the acid sweetness of torment and death he has so often served up to others.
The raspy breathing of the condemned breaks the silence. The wretched god lies panting on the ground, his agony marked not least by his bloody hands and feet, stripped raw in the vain attempt to halt his journey. In agony he gets to his knees, reaching up in supplication to his nemesis, a damned soul begging salvation, his hands ghostly white in the moonlight – the cold light turning the blood dripping from his fingers black.
“My world is yours,” he croaks, shivering despite the warmth of the night air. “Anything you desire is yours, just spare me.”
The executioner looks down upon his victim. With a sudden motion the cloak opens, spreads wide, revealed as huge black bat-like wings, extending smooth and cold from his back. Ignoring the other’s entreaty, he speaks with a gentle, mellifluous voice – a silken tone barely masking a sulfurous anger. “Come dearest, come fly with me.”
The Flyer, naked in the moonlight, tries to crawl away, seeking the shelter of the grass, but makes no headway. His arms and legs move, scraping, pushing, clawing, and finally flailing in desperation, yet, like an insect caught on a collector’s pin, he does not move. Again he screams out a terrified cry of supplication to ‘machine.’ There is no answer.
Despite his frantic efforts the wretch finds himself rising up, his body turning, drawn by some invisible, irresistible, attractive force into the waiting arms of his captor.
They are now face to face, the predator and his prey. The executioner’s voice is the soft, loving caress of ice on bare skin as he whispers, “Now fly with me, my love.”
With tremendous power the great wings move, the downdraft flattening the grass and propelling the captor and his burden upward into the cloudless sky where the cold white orb of the moon awaits them.
The powerful thrumming of the wings’ beat almost drowns out the cries of the helpless passenger, his eyes wide with terror in the knowledge of what awaits him – that he, the god of this world, will soon enjoy the ‘blessing’ he has so often granted others.
Higher and higher. The field below is a rolling sea of grass as the passing wind sends waves of shadow rushing toward the dark shore of the forest. The edge of the cliff, visible now, spills a stygian waterfall of despair onto the plain below, where a gleaming silver and black thread of reflected moonlight marks a meandering river breeching the darkness.
Higher and higher. The air grows thin and cold. The field below a gray, dimly lit sea whose swells of light and dark crash against the ebony reef of the forest.
Higher and higher. The Flyer, knowing the end is near, frantically screams for succor by his unhearing savior.
But now the ascent slows. The nemesis holds the other close, body pressed to body, and, in a voice rich with barely suppressed rage, whispers into his ear, “Will you not love me now? This is the place. Your favorite place – the air so thin it starves the brain and makes the sensations so much more intense, so much more sublime. Will you not love me – join with me as you have with so many others, my love?”
The master of the world has only a single response – another terrified cry of “machine.”
The executioner, rejected, his voice a dirge of sardonic sadness, moans, “My love,” kisses the other on the forehead, and throws wide his arms.
A wailing scream, diminishing as the distance grows, marks the other’s descent.
His wide-open arms directed upward toward the uncaring moon as if in appeal to some higher being, the executioner throws back his head and with an agonized, anguished scream, vanishes.
And the world below is silent again, save for the sporadic, gentle rustling of the grasses and leaves by a loving breeze.
As soon as he walked into the room he knew it was someone’s idea of a joke.
The room and its contents – a few armchairs, a couple of couches, and some small tables – were all in vivid pastels. The walls, alternately light blue and pink, were decorated with large pictures of brightly colored, impossible animals, all unnaturally proportioned with enormous, sky blue eyes, giving them an overall sense of soft, cuddly, harmlessness. There were pink rabbits and blue rabbits, a black and white bear of some type, and a very large mouse holding an enormous daisy. Others, like the bright yellow creature with black spots and a very long neck and legs, he did not recognize. Stars and rainbows filled the spaces between the animals.
Only the wall in front of him varied, with two large swinging doors marked ‘Delivery, No Admittance.’
The enforcer walked over to the closest couch, a bright green affair covered with a cheap synthetic rubbery material, put down the bag he carried, and sat.
The couch was amazingly uncomfortable – the cushions hard, unyielding, almost rigid. The synthetic material appeared impermeable, and when touched seemed oddly sticky. He assumed comfort had been jettisoned in favor of long life and ease in cleaning. Furniture to be used by numerous unfortunates who would, hopefully, need only avail themselves of its services for a brief time. Sighing, he decided to make the best of his wait. It should not be long.
A small red table next to the couch held an assortment of newspapers and magazines of widely varying age and languages. With little else to do, he examined them to pass the time. One glossy magazine cover pictured a man in an archaic looking life-support suit walking on a barren, cratered planet’s surface. A newspaper’s huge headline heralded the disastrous sinking of a large passenger ship with a tremendous loss of life above a picture of the ship leaving port. Other newspapers proclaimed wars, assassinations, and other more or less important events; although as he scanned the pile he found a few glossy magazines which seemed to be concerned with the social and marital adventures (both intra- and extra-) of, he guessed, once famous people. Why anyone would care about Mickey and Marlene “splitting up” (he assumed it meant ending their relationship, and not some type of amoeba-like reproduction) puzzled him; as did pictures of people looking normal when caught off-guard by a photographer (he wondered what they usually looked
like). Probably all just part of the joke, he thought. With one last glance at the pile of reading material he decided to research the design of the room later. Maybe then he would understand it.
Turning his attention to the bag next to him, he took out a white knee-length robe, a pair of white slippers, and a bottle of water, which he arranged on the couch. Done, he sat back, knowing he would not have long to wait. The Director’s note had been both terse – “New trainee arriving” – and precise as to the time and place.
A noise came from beyond the swinging doors, and then they burst open, expelling a naked young woman into the room.
She looked dazed and afraid. On seeing him she started to whimper, turned her face away and crouched down, using her hands and arms to cover her body.
The enforcer stood up with the robe in his hand, appraising what he had been sent. She seemed young, probably late twenties, slim in build, while the musculature of her legs and arms indicated good, but not excessive, athletic training. Trying to ignore her naked body, he concentrated on her face. Straight, shoulder length, warm auburn hair framed her face, which was more rounded in shape than elongate. Her eyes were a pale blue, a fact almost lost due to the lightness of her complexion. Even allowing for her crouched stance, he estimated she stood well under two meters tall.
He took all this in as, approaching, he held the robe out to her. Deeply lonely, her beauty distracted him, and he thought only of how best to reassure her she was safe.
The woman made no move until he was a step away from her. Suddenly straightening, her right leg swung upward, her knee striking him in the center of his crotch. As he doubled over her right hand shot forward, palm outward, hitting him square in the face.
The pain of his broken nose surging through him, merging with the wrenching agony in his lower abdomen, he stumbled backward, seeing stars. Cursing as he hit the floor, he connected with The Machine and mentally screamed, Sedate!
About to bolt for the door, the woman stopped, eyes rolling upwards so only the whites showed, and crumpled to the floor like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
Curled up on the floor in agony, and damning himself for a fool, he mentally ordered, Medical emergency! Fix me!
The stabbing throb in his face and testicles vanished. The Machine had taken care of him, but the memory of pain still lingered, so he lay quiet, just to be sure. After a few seconds he rolled over onto his back and felt his nose. It was no longer broken and the bleeding had stopped. He decided there was no need to check anything else, assuming the lack of discomfort in the other part of his body spoke for itself. Gingerly, he stood up.
Looking down at the crumpled woman on the floor, he considered the situation, picked up the robe and thought a command. She rose as if lifted by strings. Closing his eyes, he issued another command. When he reopened them he found her upright, with her back to him. Careful to look no lower than her waist he pulled the sleeves of the robe over first one arm, then the other. Shutting his eyes, he walked around her, pulled the robe closed and tied the belt. He retrieved the slippers and placed them on her feet. She now stood before him, still unconscious, but at least decently covered.
He gently picked her up, carried her to the couch and placed her in a sitting position. A mental command to The Machine produced a few pillows to prop her so she would not fall to the side. Reaching for the water bottle, he paused. Before placing it next to her he considered its utility as a projectile, shrugged and issued one more mental command. Now if she threw it, the bottle would miss him.
Satisfied he had prepared her properly, the enforcer walked to the other side of the room, sat down, studied the woman for a moment, again thought she was beautiful. It struck him he could have ordered The Machine to dress her. There had been no need for him to do anything. Embarrassed, he considered her for another long moment, thought he was definitely in for a long day, sighed, and issued a final command to The Machine.
Her eyes snapped open. She was about to run for the open door…and now found herself sitting on a couch, pillows on either side propping her. The man sat across the room, smiling at her, watching her.
Dazed, her mind fuzzy, she closed her eyes, tried to think. She had awaken being thrust, naked, into an unknown place where a stranger waited. Instinctively, almost as an autonomic reflex, she had played the terrified female, lured him within range and struck, yet she somehow failed to escape. She did not know where she was, although for some reason felt she should. There were things she should know, but they were only hints, not fully formed memories. And in the back of her mind was a strange feeling, almost as if it had been planted there – she was safe. It all made no sense.
She did not trust the feeling of safety because other memories were clear enough, memories of pain. She mentally checked herself to determine her condition. Somehow she was now dressed – well, at least covered – in a robe and soft slippers. She did not feel bruised or in any way injured, so was fairly sure she had not been raped. Taking a deep breath, she realized she felt good, actually much better than in a very long time, although the thought also struck her as odd.
Gradually, her mind cleared, her thinking sharpened. She wished she had not been so startled. She would have greatly preferred not letting him know she was conscious, giving her time to assess the situation. However she knew better than to wish for what was not. No, she must play the hand she had been dealt.
Staring back at the man, she wondered what he was. He sat in a green chair. On the wall over his head a brightly painted star with a long rainbow tail filled the space between large paintings of strange animals – fat, colorful, harmless looking. She wondered if he might be some type of priest, though he did not look like what she would expect of a priest. He was not wearing ornate robes, just a rust colored button down shirt, gray slacks and simple brown shoes. The strangest thing about him was the way he looked at her. He was not leering, despite having seen her naked; nor did he have the evil grin, the smugness, of one who knows he is in control. If anything his look was one of concerned curiosity. He seemed to be waiting for her to do something – but what? A chaos of partial memories and conflicting thoughts ruled her: the great boat, the palace, her village…the need to survive, fear, and the odd, inexplicable feeling of safety. With no basis, no information on which to act she decided to play for time, act fearfully forthright.
Taking a deep breath, she tried to sound both deferential and scared. “Who are you, and where am I?”
For a moment he appeared to consider the question before replying, “I’m your mentor, and you’re in Central. I know that won’t mean much to you right now, but eventually it will. How do you feel? Can I get anything for you?”
His questions surprised her. The last thing she expected was a captor concerned for her well being. Could he be just a low-level jailer? One who would suffer his master’s wrath if any harm befell her while in his custody. Caution warred with the strange feeling of safety. If he feared his master’s lash, his cruelties would be quick, subtle – and painful.
Keeping her voice soft and tremulous, she replied, “Some water would be good.”
“Bottle’s on the couch to your left,” he said, pointing.
She looked down and noticed the bottle for the first time, it had to be at least a liter. Picking it up, she gauged its weight.
He seemed to read her thoughts. “If you throw it at me it will miss, and you’ll just have wasted it.”
She held the bottle, trying to look shocked by his suggestion, but also knowing she was too close to miss.
“Remember what happened when you attacked me. Deflecting a bottle would be much easier,” he added.
A wizard? Can he read minds? Hiding her thoughts by staring blankly at the bottle, she considered her options. Her memory was returning, but cast no light on the situation. Was she somewhere in the palace? She doubted that, having thoroughly explored it with great care. Where else could she be? She glanced at the open door. With no idea what lay beyond, no basis on which to plan, to act would be foolish – no point in jumping from the kettle only to land in the fire. She decided to bide her time. Relaxing a bit without letting down her guard, she opened the bottle and took a long drink. The water was cold, refreshing, with the taste of a mountain spring she once drank from. The pleasure of it brought a smile to her face.
“See, I wasn’t lying,” he said. “Would you like something to eat? The dining area is just a short walk down the hall.”
When she did not respond he frowned, seemed to think for a moment, shrugged, got up and ambled to the door. Looking back at her, he said, pointing, “It’s to the right, just down the hall. I’ll leave the door open so you’ll not be able to miss it if you get hungry.” With that, he left.
She sat for a time, waiting, wondering. Neither High Inquisitors nor guards acted like this – unless he was so sure of himself he felt no fear in leaving her alone. Or is someone watching me?
Time passed. She examined the room. Nothing added to her understanding of the situation, nor were there any obvious places for a watcher to hide. She tried the double doors – vaguely remembered being shoved through them. To her surprise they appeared to be ornamental, not functional, doors. Her exploration of the room complete, she decided to follow him – what choice did she have?
About to leave, she caught herself. No! Not yet. Think this through.
Sitting, she tried to concentrate, force her memories to surface, but consistency eluded her. Memories of her past remained a jumbled chaos, so she struggled to remember everything since her awakening.
She had broken his nose! She was sure of it, remembering the impact at the base of her palm. Yet he now showed no sign of injury. That decided her. She could neither hurt nor escape him, which left only one option: be meek, but listen, learn, and plan.
And yet, even at this point of decision, the strange sense of safety gnawed at her resolve. Shaking it off, she headed for the doorway.
She found herself in a corridor which seemed to go off endlessly in either direction. A soft, pale green carpet covered the floor, while the walls were white with a slight opalescence. The ceiling, a continuous luminous strip, gave off a soft, pleasing glow to light the hallway.
Definitely not the palace, she thought.
Following his instructions she turned right and passed a number of nondescript doors without handles or any other obvious means of opening them. She tried pushing one to no avail. A short distance down the hall light spilled from an open doorway. Stopping just short of it, she carefully peered in.
He had called it a dining room, and it was sufficient in size to accommodate about forty or fifty diners, but it looked like no such room she had ever seen. Shelving units behind tall glass doors made up the near half of the side walls, red trimmed to her left, and blue to the right, while dark wood paneling marked the remainder. The far wall was a continuous wood-framed window bowing outward to form a semi-circular area, and providing a beautiful view.
Bright sunlight bathed a mountain meadow alive with white and blue flowers, a lovely blanket cascading down a gentle slope to an azure lake stretching outward to lap up against gray mountains reaching into the brilliant blue sky.
The only place to sit was at a small, circular table with two chairs of reddish wood near the center of the window. The man, sipping from a cup and taking in the view, occupied one of the chairs.
He turned, apparently having heard her enter. Again, he offered the odd, concerned smile, which she decided must be his attempt to reassure her.
Ignoring the offer of his smile, she walked past the table to the window, wondering if she might break the glass with the other chair and escape.
Once more he seemed to read her thoughts. “You can’t break the glass with anything in this room,” he said, “and even if you could, what you’re looking at is not real. It’s not a window, it’s a projection.”
Running her hand along the glass, she felt the warmth imparted by the bright sunlight. She could pick out every blade of grass, every yellow rib of every petal of every small blue flower straining toward the sun. Tiny emerald and purple insect-like things flew from flower to flower in search of nectar. Everything was clear, three-dimensional. She knew if she could just reach through the glass she would be able to touch the grass, the flowers, feel the breeze which ruffled them cool against her skin.
Angry, she turned to him. “Why are you lying to me?”
Eyes wide, he nodded toward the window and asked, “Lying?”
There was a sudden chill at her back and she turned. Gusting wind buffeted the window, pressing snowflakes hard against it as churning black winter clouds filled the sky. The room now appeared to be near the edge of a cliff overlooking a frigid, storm-tossed sea.
Awestruck, she watched a white and gray flying animal struggle against the wind. A small brown furry thing caught her attention as it scurried along a narrow trail leading down the cliff side to the beach below.
Without looking away from the scene, she whispered, “How?”
“I told you,” he said, “it’s simply a projection for the enjoyment of the diners. You can pick any view you wish.” He paused for a moment, then asked, “Would you like something to eat? I’m sure you must be hungry, although I’d suggest you limit yourself to some broth for now, just to let your stomach adjust.”
She turned on him. “Adjust to what?”
“Well, you are a new arrival,” he explained. “Best to take your time. It will be easier that way.”
His words meant nothing to her, yet he seemed to be trying so hard to put her at ease. His relaxed body language and sincere smile struck her as those of an old friend trying to comfort her, take care of her; although she had little experience on which to base this. This man was totally alien to her. Then she remembered her failed escape attempt. Why shouldn’t he be relaxed? He has nothing to fear from me. So, still lacking any better option, she decided to play along.
“All right,” she said, looking away as if fearful, “may I have some vegetable broth?”
He nodded and pointed toward the red-trimmed unit. On one of the shelves a large steaming bowl awaited her.
She retrieved the bowl, ignoring the spoon next to it, and sipped the liquid. The broth was delicious, reminding her of the best early fall broth, alive with the taste of fresh harvested vegetables.
Walking back to the table, she was about to sit but hesitated. No, here’s a chance to test him.
“May I sit by myself?”
“Of course,” he said, “sit wherever you like.”
Now the truth comes out, she thought. Little cruelties, little jabs, the petty acts of a low level jailer. “Where can I sit,” she asked, “but with you? The floor?”
“At the table behind you?” he replied, pointing past her with an impish grin.
She turned to find there was now a table, identical to his, behind her.
“Not important right now,” he said, shaking his head and waving her toward the table. “Please relax. Sit. Eat. You have nothing to fear here, and I’ll answer all your questions in time. Then, when you’re ready, we’ll start your training.”
She placed the bowl on the table and sat down gingerly, half expecting the table and chair to vanish. When it did not, she looked at him and asked, “What training?”
“Your training as an enforcer. I told you, I am your mentor, and you are my apprentice.”
Head down, avoiding eye contact, she thought about that as she sipped her broth. ‘Enforcer’ stirred a memory, but it remained elusive, out of reach, a name she could not quite place. Other memories also rose, and she felt fear. She considered throwing the bowl at him and breaking for the door, a frightened animal seeking escape, but the odd sense of safety returned, calming her, allowing her to think through things. She knew there was no point. Where could she go? What could she do? And a small voice told her over and over: play along, play along, play along. She shrugged, and went back to sipping her broth. Until she knew more, understood more, being an apprentice was at least better than being a slave.
As she ate she gazed out the window. Wind-whipped heavy snow pummeled it. Her memories were like the snow – small, fragmentary flakes of memory racing along in eddies, coalescing, flying apart, at one moment clear, and then suddenly gone. The single gentle thought – you are safe – continued to hover in the back of her mind, reassuring, like a warm blanket protecting her from the chaos of those memories. She had no idea where it came from, or even if she should trust it, but still, it calmed her.
A thought struck her, another way to test him, to learn. “Could you change the view?”
“Of course,” he said. “What would you like?”
“Stars.” In her mind she pictured a night sky, one she felt sure was of her childhood home.
The view through the window dissolved in a swirl of color, reforming into a spectacular view of a star-filled sky. The dining room now appeared to be on a barren, rocky mountaintop.
Relieved, she sipped her broth, feeling sure he could not read minds. The sky was beautiful, but not what she had envisioned.
Having secured one bit of information, she sought another. “What if I asked to see what’s actually out there?”
He frowned. “You wouldn’t like it.”
She appeared to consider his answer for a moment, then shrugged and went back to sipping her broth.
He watched her, again thinking she was beautiful, but dismissed the thought. There were more important things to consider right now. She was more accepting of the situation than he expected her to be. When told to expect a new arrival, he inquired as to whether she would be properly ‘pre-conditioned’ to accept her new life, worrying that otherwise she might run screaming from the room, or curl into a fetal position and whimper endlessly. He received no answer, and took that as a ‘no.’ But now he concluded she must have been given some pre-programming. The lack of response to his query was probably little more than the typical Original non-sense, just looking to make him sweat a bit, add to his entertainment value. So overall, despite her rather painful greeting, he had to admit he was pleased. He wondered what world she had been given memories of.
She put the bowl down, looked him in the eyes, her lip quivering, and asked in a tremulous voice, “Am I dead?”
Caught totally off guard, he only managed a strangled, “Excuse me?”
“Am I dead?” she repeated. “Is this the afterlife?”
He regained his composure and started to laugh. How he had misjudged her! Her memories must be of one of the more theocratic worlds. She probably expected an afterlife, maybe feared one.
Her countenance darkened, clearly not considering her question funny.
He tried to stop laughing, but continued to chuckle while shaking his head. Holding up his hands, he said, “No, my dear, you are not dead. This is not some type of afterlife. Of that I can assure you.”
“Then how do you do those things?” she demanded, pointing to the window.
He took his time considering how to answer her question. There were many things she was not ready to know, yet he had to start somewhere. Finally, he decided to jump right in, but carefully. “The Machine allows us to do many things,” he said.
He rested his elbows on the tabletop, folded his hands and looked into her eyes. “Do you have gods?” he asked.
“Of course!” she answered. “Well… just one… Marthusar, the Invincible.”
Great, he thought. Of course – one I’m not familiar with. He considered connecting to get a quick read on this god, dismissed the idea as unnecessary. Instead, he asked her, “Have you seen him? Have you seen his works?”
“Yes,” she said, but did not elaborate. Breaking eye contact, she looked away, seeming disturbed by the question, and he wondered if she feared committing some inadvertent heresy.
He took his cup and sipped. “Your god is an Original.”
Her face was blank. “What’s that?”
“Well…” he began, then caught himself. Her lack of reaction made him pause. She’s being very careful, he thought, I wonder just how vengeful a god Marthusar might be. It struck him her lack of reaction was distracting him. He needed to remember there were paths he did not want to go down at this time, so he paused and tried to think his words through.
“A very long time ago the human race – people – were very technologically advanced. The scientists could do wonderful things.” Noting her blank stare, he stopped. “You do know what a scientist is, don’t you?” he asked.
“Of course I do,” she said, indignant. “The ruler of the city had many working for him. By his decree they had to be addressed as Scientist, but in the countryside we knew they were really wizards or sorcerers.”
“Yes,” he muttered, “of course.” Realizing it did not matter since it would all seem like magic to her anyway, he continued. “The best scientists of the time worked on a great project. They harnessed the power of the universe and created a machine which used that power to give a person anything they wished for. It could make any person seem like a god. They called this machine…uh…well…The Machine. For lack of a better name…I guess.” He now had her rapt attention, which helped him recover from his embarrassment over the lame ending of his explanation. “The Machine could create a world for any person who wanted one. Those ancient humans called themselves the Originals. Your god is one of them.”
“This machine could give everyone their own world? Anything they wanted?”
“Yes,” he said, waiting for the obvious next question.
He was surprised when, instead, she asked, “Did everyone ask for one?”
“Well, no,” he answered, not sure he wanted the conversation to go in this direction, but also not wanting to cut her off – maintaining a conversation was good for her during her transition. Still, he took time to consider her. The question impressed him, suggesting an inquisitive mind that considered many angles. Just what I need in an apprentice. Let’s see where this goes.
“Some didn’t want The Machine or what it could do,” he continued. “There was an event at this time called the Great Schism.”
“What’s that?” she asked, with a wary expression.
This line of questioning seemed harmless enough, so he replied, “Well, people split into groups. Some connected to The Machine. They became gods, like the one who controls your world.”
“And the others?” she demanded.
Taken aback by the expression on her face and the sound of her voice when she said ‘others’ – he thought she might just as well have said ‘madmen’ – he again chose his words with care.
“They became what are called the Outwardbounders. They used The Machine to create ships to explore the universe, and left.”
“Why? Where’d they go?”
“Outwards into the cosmos,” he answered with a shrug. “They wanted to explore, to learn, to take risks. It was more important for them to find new worlds for themselves, not have them safely manufactured by The Machine.”
“Are they still out there?”
“As far as I know they are. Well, at least their descendants,” he answered, again with a shrug, since it really did not matter. “It’s been a very, very long time, and without The Machine to enhance lifespan–”
“Do any ever come back?” she cut him off. “Are any sent back?”
He sighed with disappointment, recognizing the direction the conversation was now taking. It always comes around to the same thing, he thought, but answered truthfully. “Yes, I’ve heard there’s the occasional Return, but I’ve never met one.”
“What happens to them?”
“As far as I know they are granted Original status which includes access to The Machine and the creation of their own world.”
“Am I a Return? Have I been sent back by Marthusar so I can have my own world?”
The force of her question surprised him – it was almost a demand. While he expected the question, he also expected hesitancy, maybe hopeful pleading. But the eager, hungry look in her eyes led him to ponder whether they had arrived at this point by random chance. Could this have something to do with the religion of her world? Then again, she could have been preconditioned for this to supply more entertainment for the Originals. Whatever the cause, he would just have to work with it.
He shook his head, spoke gently. “No.”
“Why not?’ she demanded.
“Because you’re not an Original,” he answered in a matter-of-fact voice.
“But what am I?” she asked, voice rising. “Why am I here?” Then blurted out, “Are you an Original?”
He sighed. “No. I’m just like you.”
“What are we?” There was a growing stridency in her voice.
He paused, angry with himself for letting her questioning get out of control. He did not want to go any further until she had more time to acclimate herself to the situation. She had been doing so well up to this point, but now he needed to carefully back off, as more information would only push her over the edge. She had a strong personality, but he wanted to be absolutely sure before he told her the truth.
He looked into her eyes, and in the soft but forceful tone a parent might use to explain a difficult but necessary subject to a child he said, “We are the people who inhabit their worlds.”
Her face clouded with a deep frown. “But if some of the Originals were given worlds, and the others left and went somewhere else, where do we come in?”
He decided to be evasive, hoping she would lead herself to an answer which would satisfy her for the time being. “Where do you think?”
She stared at him, turned to the window, her face pinched in a look of concentration. “Did these machine builders have slaves?” she asked hesitantly, her former brashness gone.
“No, the Builders had no slaves.”
“Do you mean,” she asked, slack-jawed, “there were actually people who didn’t want worlds of their own, but also didn’t want to go outwards? People who preferred to be – volunteered to be – slaves instead of Originals?”
I can go with that for now. He shrugged and said, “There are many different types of people.”
She mulled it over, then asked, “So we are descended from them?”
This time he replied with silence, adding to the effect by turning and looking out the window, hoping to appear as if his pedigree made him unhappy to the point of not wanting it discussed.
She also turned to the window, a sullen look on her face. Suddenly she brightened.
“But can we earn our own world?” she asked. “I mean why should we have to suffer because of a decision made long ago by some fool?”
“Sorry,” he said, “it doesn’t work like that. Originals are not particularly generous or caring types.”
“But you said a Return could have a world,” she argued, her voice plaintive. “How are they different from us?”
“They are very, very rare,” he said, thinking half a truth was better than none.
For a second he could see the anger flare in her eyes, her jaw tightened, as did her hands around the bowl. Sure she was going to heave it at him, he connected, about to order the bowl to miss him when something inexplicable happened. Looking into her eyes he could tell the exact moment she regained control of her emotions. She relaxed, sighed, and sipped her soup. “This is not fair,” she said.
Wondering who, what, she was, he continued to stare at her. Could it have been self-control, or had pre-conditioning kicked in? He wondered if somewhere an Original watched them, laughing. He knew he needed to reply, to say something, but the best he could come up with was: “Welcome to the world.” He did not try to hide the sadness in his voice.
With a sigh, he connected. A short crystal glass filled with brownish liquid appeared in one of the blue trimmed units. It is a bit early in the day, he thought as he retrieved the glass, but I need a drink. The alcohol burned his throat. He did not like to lie to her, but it was best for now. He needed to know more about her – her background memories, but that would have to wait. She was his responsibility. Her survival depended on him. So her training was of the utmost importance, and had to start soon.
She sullenly looked out the window, at the stars. About to sit, he saw she had finished her soup. Good, he thought with relief. We can end this and get out of here now.
“Time to show you to your room,” he said.
The Agony of the Gods
and paperback format November 30th