Ryder Short Stories

The Bell and the Banter

Every noontime, the bell of Barla boomed and the banter began. Trade and teasing trembled in the air for two hours of joviality. These Barlians were a tender, quiet people, and they could only handle so much expressive energy. The second that two hours of banter had passed, the bellboy or bellgirl struck the bell twice, activity ceased, and people went home or to the fields. Before the Barlians established this tradition, the people mingled throughout the day and they felt heavy with small talk and meaningless conversation. They were a productive but introverted people. Cordoning off the banter to the time within the bellstrikes was a means to make meaning of gossip and commerce alike.

To be a bellperson was an honor. Citizens who weren’t quite children but weren’t quite adults were the ones typically chosen by the Bell Council. The council thought the duty a rite of passage, though some held the honor longer than others. A poorly timed bellstrike was grounds for a immediate dismissal and often harmed the bellperson’s reputation for their whole life if they stayed in the town. If someone damaged the bell, severe punishment awaited them.

One year, Martyl the Hammer was chosen to strike the bell everyday for a month. The townfolk expected him to perform flawlessly, given his name and genius in the two hours of school he attended daily. He was well liked by everyone in the town. Yet, the duty made him restless, for a bellboy was not allowed to enjoy activities from the morning until after the day’s banter had ended, to make sure no distractions disrupted the strict time for socialization. What’s more, Martyl harbored a secret resentment of this tradition. He felt arbitrarily limiting the time for bantering harmed the town intellectually. With only a two hour window of debate, social education, and commerce, how would brilliance emerge at anything but the slowest pace? He believed inquiry fared best in social settings, and while alone time was also useful for increasing knowledge, social learning beget the fastest progress.

However, Martyl did not wish to lose respect for failing to maintain the tradition, so he endured the boredom while imagining how he could increase the amount of time for banter, or demolish the limit entirely. On the fifth day, after initiating the social time, he slumped into the corner of the tower and lost himself in the sands of the hourglass while unintelligible conversation wafted in from the window. In the waterfall of grains, he saw a pair of eyes, and suddenly a man sat crosslegged before him.

Yes, I am the one and only Delgen the Dare, and I can help you with your little predicament,” the man said in a frisky, dramatic tone. “Personally I find this town and its traditions most fascinating, but I know you wish things were different. That there was more time to talk and learn. I can help you, offer more time to talk, and shorten those boring hours of lonesomeness.”

Martyl had read about Delgen. Fear drowned him, but he realized this was a profound opportunity, for this was one of the most powerful and dangerous demons in all the realms. He didn’t think Delgen was so evil, but only a chaotic being who’d deceive someone for amusement, but not to torture them. He had heard he’d done good things, but bad things did often come of his antics.

Very well,” Martyl finally decided. “How will you accomplish this?”

I’ll bless your bell,” Delgen said with a smirk. “When it rings once, the town’s time will slow, and within the town you’ll have many more hours of perceived time to talk and trade. When the bell is rang again, time will return to normal pace. A very powerful enchantment, but one I’m willing to bless this town with.”

“And the catch? The trade? You want my soul?” Martyl asked.

No catch,” said Delgen, “You’ll have a great time, if you know what I mean. Bring a gal up and ring the bell, that’d be some fun.”

Martyl knew he shouldn’t make a deal with Delgen. He knew demonic promises were fragile things that disintegrate into deceit. And yet, his addiction to conversation was so great, he had to agree for the opportunity to philosophize endlessly with his friends. He assumed there would be consequences, that he might have to explain a little manipulation of time to people, but he thought he could manage the change, and that it would really make life better. “Bless the bell then. And begone before someone comes up here.”

Delgen smiled, and tapped on the bell. He seemed to have struck a harmonic, as the bell “The magic will start tomorrow,” and with a wink, he was gone in a puff of dust.

The next day, Martyl smacked the bell and immediately sensed a difference. The bell seemed to ring out for several minutes. Martyl’s mistake was immediately apparent. The change in the sense of time was significant, and he would be bellboy for the rest of the month, so he’d have to endure the boredom of this job for even longer. The day stretched on, and he could hardly bear hearing the muffled conversation for what seemed the whole day. He struck the bell twice at two O’clock, and rushed down to catch a hint of conversation. But everyone had gone back to the fields and homes to play out the rest of the day in a dead silence. Usually people snuck in a bit of conversation after banter hours, but when Martyl sat down for dinner with his parents, not a word leap from anyone’s mouth. At the end of the meal when everyone was about to depart the table to work on household tasks, Martyl tried to talk about being a bellboy (without mentioning Delgen of course), but his mother shot him an insane look that shut Maryl up right quick.

Martyl returned to the tower next morning, and the same anguish struck him as he could hear profuse dialogs crashing into the walls of the tower, unable to achieve clarity. He thought he heard someone say “morality” and “progress,” but nothing else was intelligible. Once again, Martyl ran down after striking the bell twice, but all he saw were the doors slamming. A trader from another town looked around confused, and Martyl tried to start a conversation with him. The trader looked at the ground and mumbled something about having sold in the day what he normally sold in a month, and sort of stumbled with his wagon away, like was drunk on words.

When Martyl came home, his parents had many new baskets, cooking ware, clothing, and brand new items. His parents had spent their life savings on all these things, and were immensely guilty. Martyl couldn’t talk to them, as they just retired to their room and didn’t even come out for dinner. Naturally Martyl was worried and extremely guilty himself for causing this, because normally his parents were incredibly frugal. Martyl walked into his room and stained his brand new toys with tears.

The night passed, and Martyl decided to not ring the bell. He stayed in his room and languished in bed until two. His parents did not seem upset about Martyl not ringing the bell. They were relieved, in fact. No one came to Martyl’s home to dishonor him. No one else rang the bell. Martyl stayed at home, and enjoyed a smidgeon of small talk with his brother, though he seemed unwilling to talk for very long. Martyl read books and worked in the garden until he slept.

But Martyl knew he would have to ring the bell again, or explain to the elders what he had done. The town would not function without discourse for very long. So he decided to ring the bell at noon and then ring the the bell twice only fifteen minutes later. He took the sand from the hourglass, halved it three times, and placed one sixth of the original amount back in the hourglass.

The time passed, though it still felt like a couple hours to Martyl, and then he stepped outside of the tower. People seemed to be meandering around, not instantly returning home like before. Martyl thought perhaps he had solved the predicament, and was about to return home, when Paeda the oldest woman of the village sauntered up to Martyl and declared that he had besmirched his duties. Like the rest of the town, she had been recovering the previous day from the many hours of conversation, and so had not sought him out the previous day even when she knew something was wrong. Paeda demanded Martyl explain what had happened, and Martyl lugubriously confessed. She told Martyl he would be punished severely. The Bell Guards came and Martyl was put in chains; that night, the Bell Council was brought together.

Martyl was found guilty of the greatest disruption of the relationship of the bell and the banter in the history of the town, and awarded the worst punishment, only granted one other time in the past: removal of the tongue. In his attempt to speak his heart and mind out, he lost his own ability to banter for good. What’s more, the Bell Council determined the ideal amount of time of perceived banter, a mere ten minutes of actual time, and so the council had almost two more hours available to do other things when the small amount of objective banter time was over. In this way, the council almost regretted punishing Martyl, since he actually made the town more productive and prosperous. Hence, “Martyl the Martyr” is the man’s new name.

Short Stories

The Lever

Jelk staggered into a room, slamming the door and at the ready for foes. The only thing he saw with his magical vision in the cramped room was a copper lever in the center of the room. Jelk had been careless: he had not checked for traps. Luckily, there seemed to be none, and he was quite adept at noticing the slightest indication of trap, physical or magical. He gingerly approached the lever, almost forgetting about the walking corpses that he was hiding from. With one last trapcheck, he pulled the lever. It was a gamble. There could be a trap this lever activated somewhere else. But it could also provide him with something incredible. Who knows what a lever could do?

Nothing seemed to happen. Jelk was always annoyed when the effect of something wasn’t obvious. He waited for fifteen minutes, then a half hour, and then sat there for the next hour. He organized his pack a bit, sharpened his blade, but mostly he just scanned the room and listened for shifting tiles. After an hour, he sighed and decided the lever must have affected some other part of the dungeon. Jelk magically hid himself, muffled his movements with a rare cloak, and slipped out of the room.

He snuck past many undead and demons to find out what the lever did. He carefully searched every room for moving parts, for things that might have changed. The dungeon was fairly empty except the monsters, and Jelk found nothing at all that seemed like it would be linked to the lever. Jelk returned to the lever and pulled it again, and searched again. He had planned to make a quick search of the dungeon and then leave, but he had already spent six hours in the dank pit. The lever maddened him. Was it broken? Jelk considered it, but couldn’t believe it. It didn’t look broken, and it had made a satisfying click when he pulled it. However, Jelk was exhausted and couldn’t search just one more time, and so he decided to sleep in the lever room. He was violating a sacred adventuring rule, that one should never sleep in a dungeon if one doesn’t have to, especially if there are monsters in it.

But Jelk’s own rule to always figure out what a lever was designed to do, overrode that other rule. He slept mechanically with many convoluted dreams where he figured out what the lever did, but upon waking, he forgot what the lever ended up doing in any of the dreams. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Jelk magically lit the room and saw no sign of change. Still dread tired, he did one haphazard scan around the dungeon, and attracted the attention of a demon. They had a little tiff, and Jelk slew the demon, but not before the demon scratched his arm badly. Jelk decided to leave and come back again later. He quickly bandaged himself and snuck out of the dungeon, returning to the small town  inn that he had stayed in before coming to the dungeon.

After healing for a day, Jelk found a few bored adventurers in the tavern. He suggested they go clear out the dungeon of demons and zombies, and that there might be powerful treasure and a magical lever that grants their wishes. Enticed, the five of them went to the dungeon and slew the monsters, though one was killed by a stray firebreath of one of the nastier demonsl. When they came to the room of the lever, one of them pulled the lever and they listened for an effect. They spread out and searched for what it could have done. One pulled the lever while the others were in different rooms to see if there was a momentary effect. They said their wishes and left the dungeon with their comrade’s body. None of them had really believed the lever would grant them wishes, but they tried it anyway.

Jelk remained there and continued to search. He examined the lever thoroughly, and even tried unearthing the tiles around it, but they wouldn’t budge. After a while he slept in the lever room, utterly defeated. The next day he searched again, trying to find any tiles or anything that would move, and then began cleaning the dungeon of everything. He dragged the bodies of the monsters out and dug a mass grave for them. He took every fallen brick and bit of debris out and carefully placed it in the grass outside the dungeon. He examined everything for mechanical or magical markings, but nothing came to light. Then Jelk spent several days cleaning the dungeon. He had to return to town for supplies, and when he walked into the tavern, the adventurers who had help him slay the monsters burst out laughing at the sight of him, despite the fact that today was the funeral for their friend who had died in the dungeon. Jelk, slathered in dust and grime, quickly bought his food and supplies  and left to go back to the dungeon. He bought many torches and material to bind them to the walls of the dungeon.

Jelk began to live in the dungeon, spending his days searching the surrounding area of the dungeon, and the nights wandering through the rooms. With a pickaxe he had bought, he began breaking up the tiles around the lever. Eventually he unearthed some kind of wire that led farther down. He spent a couple days digging, and the wire stopping going down and started leading towards the doorway of the room. Jelk continued to dig, but halfway to the door he gave up. He would need help. Dwarves, that’s who he needed.

Though he didn’t want to leave, Jelk returned to town, bathed until long after the water went cold, and then asked everyone he could about the dungeon. No one knew much about it. They said it had been there forever, and one thought an alchemist had lived there many years ago, though he didn’t know any details. Mostly it had been occupied by various nasty things over the years. Jelk also asked the people where he could find some dwarves. Someone suggested the city of Port Elensar, a three-day’s walk from the town. So Jelk took off for the port.

In Port Elensar, he searched for days for dwarves, and also asked anyone about the dungeon. He asked guards, beggars, children, traders, slaves, and everyone in between. He also researched at the library about all kinds of alchemists and about local lore. The librarian made many suggestions, and even sent people to retrieve books from other libraries. Jelk told him about the lever, and the librarian, also a curious, obsessive man, was intrigued. He helped Jelk find a four-man dwarven demolition team, and even loaned Jelk some money to pay the crew. Jelk, a magical thief, had acquired various valuable artifacts over the years which he had intended to sell in a couple years when he retired from the dangerous profession. The very same meticulous obsession with the lever had been what made him able to pilfer sacred items from museums and the claws of dragons. He pawned all these objects off to a seedy gentlemen in the docks, and then used the money to pay the dwarves to go to the dungeon with him and help dig.

When they got to the lever room, the four dwarves succumbed to a contagious laughter at Jelk’s obsession with this lever and the messy excavation Jelk had begun. Even Jelk chuckled a little at what he’d done, but he soon shushed the dwarves and demanded they begin working. He was paying them a hearty lump of gold a day from his life savings, after all. The dwarves stifled their laughs and huffily began working. Jelk had told them all he wanted them to do was to follow the wire, and so that’s what they did. Strong, fast, and synchronized, the four expertly excavated the dirt and stone along the wire to the big room in the front. Jelk began moving this material out into the grass besides the other debris he had pulled out before, though it was hopeless keeping up with the dwarves. The dwarves worked for many hours, and soon reached the door, where the wire turned did a ninety degree turn to the left so that it began to burrow under the wall. The dwarves began to remove the wall and continued to follow the wire the next day.

The wire turned again, following the other wall of the room of the lever. The wire had turned completely around, and this infuriated the dwarves and Jelk alike. The design made no sense whatsoever. Jelk, however, was paying them well and the dwarves kept on working. For the next two weeks, the dwarves followed the wire as it went throughout the dungeon. They had to spend a whole day clearing the room they had almost filled with the debris from digging because the wire started to there. The wire followed the whole room, and then turned back to go to the other side of the dungeon again.

Even the money wasn’t enough to stop one of the dwarves from quitting. “Bugger this!” he screamed one day, “I prefer to spend my time doing something useful. Clearly this dungeon was designed by a madman who only wished to to torture some fool like you.” So the dwarf packed his things and left. The other dwarves, who had been out of work for some time, stayed, though they agreed with their friend. They continued to excavate the dungeon, and even decided to start building scaffolding to prevent the dungeon from collapsing, since they had taken out many walls that supported the old dungeon. Yet, one by one, the other dwarves got fed up and left. The last dwarf helped Jelk for nearly a month after the third one had left, teaching him how to finish the job. By then, Jelk was nearly out of money anyway, so the last dwarf packed his things and left Jelk alone with the half-demolished dungeon.

Jelk continued to dig away at the stone and dirt. He dug for days, then weeks, then months. He was much slower than the dwarves, but he eventually got the hang of things. He became strong and pale, and didn’t practice his magic or scoundrel skills. He would enter a kind of trance, and would even forget about the lever sometimes, but at the end of the day – though he saw little day to speak of since it was a dungeon – he would always go back to the lever, and pull it. He was nearly certain the lever did nothing, and that a madman had indeed set the whole thing up like the dwarf said. But that nearliness haunted him so thoroughly that he would dig in his dreams. But was Jelk unhappy? His uncertainty was a haunting of nihilism, but one tinged with a strange satisfaction that he was finally doing what he should be doing with his life. He had never really liked being a thief, though he was good at it. And his skill in magic was only to increase his ways to pilfer and remain hidden. He saw no intrinsic value in these activities. But he came to find digging along the wire meaningful in itself, even if his ultimate goal was to find where the wire went.

And then the wire stopped. Jelk, of course, had a metaphysical crisis, like HE had been the one who had ended. He laid among the debris and cradled the wire. He then noticed the wire looked frayed, like it had torn. He dug ahead of the wire, and to the sides of it, and below it, but he could not find the wire starting up again. And so, Jelk should have been satisfied. He had merely wanted to know whether the lever did anything at all, or if it didn’t, and now he knew. Yet, he still felt incomplete. He had almost wished the wire had kept going until he was an old man and died, never finding out. He had felt truly peaceful for the first time in his life, and now the happy monotony of following the wire was stripped from him.

So he decided to leave, after spending nearly a year in the dungeon. He packed his few possessions and started walking. He walked to Port Elensar and practically bought his supplies while still walking. He slept little and only walked, not caring where he went. He walked south along the coast, sleeping on beaches, hunting for food. He walked through Moorstein Pass, through the Dread Deserts, and through the Tylian forests. He walked through yucca meadows and dreamleaf swamps, through fungal caves and ruined castles. He slowly relearned his thieving and magical abilities, and employed them to obtain just enough valuables from various men and creatures to sell to traders he came across. He thought of nothing but his sore feet, surviving, and navigating the difficult terrain. The lever never crossed his mind. He walked for a year, and then two, then five years had passed, and then ten. Jelk had seen so many places, and yet there was still so much to see.

But he had grown weary, achy, and old. His brutal lifestyle had aged him quickly, and he knew he would have to rest soon. He was particularly tired when he walked into a village that seemed familiar. And then he was flipped, like the lever that was located so close to this town. He had come full circle, somehow. Every thought Jelk had about the lever returned to him with full force, and he sprinted to the dungeon on his tender legs. He ran past the overgrown debris outside of the dungeon, into the demolished dungeon, and into what was left of the lever room. He took hold of the lever, gave it a mighty pull, and never thought about the lever again.

Short Stories

The Leaf Thief

Pel Ella was born clutching a lily. Her umbilical cord was a root. Nestled in her left ear was an oblong, grey seed. Her mother was shocked of course, but she decided to plant that seed in her garden, clutching Pel Ella while digging a small hole for the seed with her right hand. Pel Ella cried when they went back inside.

When Pel Ella could crawl, she would sneak outside whenever she could to sit by the tree that had grown from the seed. The tree had grown rapidly, and was already casting a shadow over the house. Pel’s father, a lumberjack, wished to cut down the tree, but even he saw how Pel cared for this tree, like it was her own life: she thought it was her life. Once a windy storm tore off a branch, and Pel’s fingernail came off. In Autumn, her hair would turn red and yellow, and in winter, much of it would fall out. But it always grew back into lush locks of many many shades of a greens and browns in the Spring and Summer. The tree had many different kinds of leaves: long spiky leaves, round leaves like the lily leaf she held at birth, waxy leaves and velvety leaves, viny sections, tiny sections and leaves as big as Pel.

Pel Ella was not good with other people, though she loved her mother. She hated her father once she understood what he did. The sap she smelled on him nauseated her. Pel did not attend school, for her parents saw how unusual she was, and this was not the kind of town where unusual people fared well. She always seemed lethargic whenever she was away from the tree for a long time. Eventually she began spending almost all of her time in the tree, and slept in a hammock of leaves and twigs. Almost all of her friends were animals that lived in her tree. Many birds sang with her and squirrels would bring her seeds from the tree and other treats from their garden or the forest. Her one human friend was a girl named Freyja, an orphan who had come from the city to their small town when she first heard about this magical tree. They talked very little, mostly playing in the tree and making fashionable braids and clothes with the various leaves. Freyja always left at the end of the day wishing she had her own magical tree. Still, she never said anything to Pel about this and did not let the jealously tarnish their friendship. Just as Freyja was Pel’s only friend, so Pel was Freyja’s only true human connection. One born from nature, one from the city: both alone. When Freyja first came and looked up the tree with Pel Ella basking in a low branch, they were connected at once.

The tree continued to grow and by the time Pel was twelve, the tree stretched a hundred and fifty feet tall and fifty feet wide most of the way. The trunk grew with many knots and holes so the tree was easy to climb up into its dense canopy, where a world of life thrived. Pel would explore the tree for hours until she was so tired she slept wherever she sat, for she knew the tree would not let her fall. At this point, Pel almost never left the tree, to her mother’s sadness and her father’s relief. But neither were happy when they had to vacate the house because the roots of the tree had begun to consume the foundation, collapsing the roof of the living room. Pel’s parents moved to a small, abandoned shack near the lumber mill. If anyone besides Pel and Freyja tried to climb the tree, seeds would rain upon the climber, the footholds would break, and the surface would grow slick with molds.

One day, Freyja and Pel sat in the tree and had one of their rare conversations.

“Pel,” Freyja said, “I know you don’t like words. But I just have to tell you: I love you and I love your tree.”

“We are not separate, but one being, No need to say it twice.” Pel whispered, exhausted by having to remember how to speak.

“Oh, sorry…”Freyja looked away and mumbled absentmindedly, “I wish I had a tree.”

Suddenly Pel was completely bored of Freyja, even though she loved her as well.  It was boredom as if it had grown in her heart for millions of years, as if she was also completely and utterly tired of being human. “I don’t ‘have’ this tree,” she said curtly and began to climb into another part of the tree. Freyja tried to follow, but she slipped and crashed onto a lower branch. Freyja, angry that Pel had left her, scrambled down the trunk and ran to the orphanage, screaming she would never come back again. After this catastrophe, Pel languished in the tree for several days, hardly eating no matter how delicious were the treats her animal friends brought her. A week later, Freyja returned and yelled to Pel. She was trying to apologize, but Pel could not hear over the drumming of the seeds falling onto Freyja, and Freyja tumbled home with great sorrow. Pel had wanted to forgive Freyja, but the tree had not. Pel decided that perhaps the tree had a reason, though she was disturbed that her own reasoning was being usurped by an almost demonic, selfish intuition that Freyja was worthless.

Another week later, Pel’s mother came to the tree. Pel had tried to forget about Freyja, but she did miss having at least some human contact. While Pel scrambled down to greet her mother, a huge seed fell from a branch onto her mother’s shoulder, dislocating it. Pel’s mother ran off screaming, and Pel too fled her tree to a nearby forest. Pel tried to sleep in another tree, but could not dream for she had badly cut her ankle on a gnarl while climbing it, and the pain of that and her loneliness wracked her mind. For three days she stalked the forest on a half-wink of sleep.

Finally, Pel returned to her leafy self. At the base of the tree, she saw her father lying on the ground. When she got closer, what she saw made her cry out: bursting from her father’s stomach was a sprouting. There were many bruises on his body, and his skull was dented in. A huge acorn and many other seeds were littered around his body. His axe was embedded into the base of the tree. Pel tried to remove the axe, but it would not budge. Her ankle wound throbbed. With her bare hands she dug a grave on the other side of the nearly demolished house and buried her father. That night she slept in her bed in the house, exhausted, horrified, and satisfied that her father was dead all at once. Her room was surprisingly untouched by the roots. Her sleep was thick black sap, and she awoke covered in dead leaves.

Pel didn’t know what would happen. Would people come to cut down the tree and try her for her father’s death? Yet, no one came. Her father had not been well liked, and few missed him. Pel’s mother did not return either. Perhaps she had seen the tree kill Pel’s father. Pel started sleeping in the tree again, but was always nervous, and found herself scared of certain parts of the tree. Many beetles, spiders and centipedes began moving into the tree, and the birds and squirrels left. The seeds tasted bitter and Pel began to starve for the garden had died and she did not wish to hunt. But even if wanted to leave the tree, she could not, for the footholds and gnarls in the trunk had broken off and it had grown slimy. It was a fifty foot drop to the ground from the lowest branch. The tree seemed to constrict itself, and Pel found herself limited to a small area half the size of her bedroom in her house, which was quite small. Pel was too weak to resist the branches which grew around her and slowly began to constrict. She knew then that she hated the tree for defying her. She hated the tree in part because she saw her father in it. But so she also wept for her tree, as she wept for her father. And her infected ankle burned all the while, until she finally realized why this hatred and poison oozed within her.

Pel’s last breath was nearly upon her when she heard Freyja shouting up at her. Pel screamed “The axe, get the axe out,” and passed out from the exertion. Freyja ran to the base and tried to pull the axe out while seeds rained upon her. Mustering all her strength and using a pack she had brought as a shield for her head, she tore the ax out of the tree. But losing her balance with all the seeds pelting her, she fell upon the ax and died instantly. A yellow glop burtsed from the tree’s axe wound.

Instantly the tree loosened it’s grip on Pel, and she awoke with a sharp inhale. Sweet water began to drip into her mouth from a branch above her. Pel spent the next few days recovering in both her forms. Eventually she was strong enough to climb down the footholds, which had grown back. She was not particularly surprised to see Freyja’s corpse or the plant growing out of her, though it still revolted her as she dragged her body to a nearby meadow, far away from the house and her father’s grave, which visited after she buried Freyja. A tree as tall as Pell was growing from her father’s grave. She went and grabbed the ax and chopped the baby tree down. She did not believe a healthy tree would grow from her father’s corpse. Then she walked away into the forest for two hours and buried the axe.

Pel returned to her tree and mourned. Just as the tree was recovering, it began to grow sick once again, though this time it did not try to obstruct or hurt Pell. In fact, it seemed to be sacrificing itself to sustain Pell, who refused to eat the sweet, fatty seeds and succulent leaves the squirrels and birds brought her. When she slept, a slight trickle of sap would drip into her mouth no matter how she slept. One morning, a bright strand of light woke Pel, when before she had slept in an area that was completely dark because the canopy was so thick. Pel climbed to the top of the tree, and the crown would not support her weight. It crashed down and she barely caught herself on another branch. Pel tried to feel happy and caring for the tree and started eating the seeds again, but the tree quickly began to deteriorate even faster. The tree lost almost all of its leaves in a week. It was May.

Pel, terrified the tree would die, and that she would die with it, tried replacing the leaves with the leaves of other trees in the area by grafting them on with sap the tree had begun to bleed in sticky streams. She gathered leaves all day and night and tried to replace all the leaves. She tried to gather a variety of leaves, from different areas, and soon found herself sneaking into the heart of the town, which had many rare trees in it. The surgery seemed successful, so Pel kept at it.

On a warm night, she walked into a park to steal leaves from a grand maple. On a bench sat Pel’s mother. She saw Pel and thought she was a rabid animal. Pel was completely filthy, with sharp gnarled finger and toenails covered in fungus, a corpse’s hair, and tearshot eyes. Pel’s mother ran away, not recognizing her own daughter. Pel chased her mother to her new home, a decrepit shack near the logging camp. Pel screamed “Mom! Mom!” and only once her mother was behind her locked door, did she speak to Pel.

“Who… what are you? What have you done, to your father, to Freyja? To me? To yourself?” Pel’s mother screamed through the door.

Pel sobbed “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry… ” over and over again.

Pel’s mother opened the door. Pel saw then how tortured her mother was, but also how beautiful. She had never noticed her smooth skin, her silky hair, both in such contrast to Pel’s rough features. They embraced each other, and the forgiveness was palpable, though Pel’s mother still seemed fearful, her child feral.

“Come live with me, in the tree,” Pel said, after a while. “This… home… is sad. The tree will not hurt you. I will not hurt you. It is sick, and it is sick because I have hurt you, and killed Freyja and father. It is the only way you will not lose me.” It was the quickest Pel had spoken in all her life

Pel’s mother, skeptical of course, glanced around the room. It was falling apart and full of dust. A cough quaked in her lungs. She knew that she would die soon if she stayed in that shack. But could she go back to that tree which she had planted and which had done so much harm?

“I have to leave this place, but I cannot live in the tree, my Pel Ella,” she announced firmly. “You must know that is impossible. You are feral, a thief of life. You must give so that you may wash away my fear and resentment.”

“I see…  Perhaps I can rebuild your home? My room, it is hardly touched. Would you at least like to sleep there tonight? Just this one night? My tree is sickly, I know it does not have the energy to disturb you in there. It has made that room safe.” The words flowed out of her as if she were fluent in every language in the world, as if she were an academic.

Pel’s mother sighed. “I will sleep there tonight, and then I will leave this town forever.”

They left for the house and tree, those last words ringing loud in Pel Ella’s mind. Pel led her mother through the dark. When they arrived, Pel’s mother nervously stepped into the decaying house and went to Pel’s room. As Pel said, it was fairly untouched, and Pel’s mother felt strangely comfortable and tired. She laid down on the bed and quickly slumbered. Pel kissed her mother on the cheek and went to check on the tree. It seemed stable enough, so Pel collected some dead leaves, brought them to her room, and slept by her mother.

In the morning they both woke at the same time. Pel asked her mother if she would like to see the graves before she left. She agreed, and they left the house to see Pel’s father’s grave. It took Pel a little while to find the grave, as she had marked it with a stick that seemed to be missing. This upset Pel’s mother, and once they found the grave, they both wept uncontrollably. When they had expelled their immediate grief, they went to the meadow where Freyja was buried. They froze when they came into the clearing and saw a majestic tree much like Pel’s tree, only healthy and smaller, but seemingly growing before their eyes. So it would seem Freyja would have her tree after all.

“Perhaps this tree, I can live in,” Pel’s mother suggested, and they laughed.



Short Stories

Death License

The synthetic human speaks like sugar: “Scan your nanojack and I’ll verify the following nanodocs are accurate and legal: your full self-erasure edict, your psycho-economic evaluation of existence and establishment of termination, your disease manifesto, your multiversal security number, your portfolio of permissions, your life certificate, a top-five percentile death essay for a prestigious philosiphorium by your authorship, and your nanotesting expiration.”

Derob waves his under the lamplike scanner in the otherwise practically bare, plastic, white room. He wishes all of his documents were legitimate. But he’d spent centuries acquiring the documents, which are really more like sophisticated programs that live in the nanonet. The Portfolio of Permissions, the collection of cyber-reality interviews of everyone Derob knows allowing him to die, was the hardest document to forge by far. Acquiring permission from 90% of the 167 people with a sufficiently close relationship to Derob, including people he had never met but were good friends with his good friends, was impossible to do legitimately, though Derob had drastically reduced the number of people intertwined with his existence. He had been quite famous at one point, but he had made himself a footnote in history as the centuries passed.

Selfishness prevented people from letting Derob die because that would be inconvenient. For most people it wouldn’t be sad because they could just erase their memories of Derob, but his disappearance would still leave a void in his social, familial, and work relationships that would take some time to fill. And some people, like his wife and children, wouldn’t erase their memories of Derob out of respect, so they would suffer the antiquated feelings of sadness and nostalgia, which even the best mental nanonet programs can’t completely cure. When he tried over a hundred years ago to acquire legal permissions, he received a mere 26% approval rate and a plethora of disappointment in his decision to die. That it was an error. An error…

“There’s an error,” the synthetic states, almost smugly. “The disease manifesto does not match up with our records.”

Derob tries to stay calm, scratching his exuberant black beard. Yes, his error was the error. He had spent three hundred years getting cozy with a medical engineer, Tevrin, so he’d remove the note of an extremely rare genetic malfunction of his. Scientists study the effects it has on Derob. Everyone, including Derob, is massively genetically engineered, but the scientists try and leave some variation in each developing embryo, for a mote of uniqueness among the vast horde of humanity. As long as a genetic variation doesn’t seriously hamper a person’s physical, intellectual, or emotional well being, it is left to interact with the the rest of the 99.999% hyper-selected genes that all modern humans share. So Derob’s .001% genetic diversity is grounds for the Great Study to disallow his death. And perhaps his one single different nucleotide is really what makes him want to die. Which is why the committees, human and synthetic, took note of his genetic anomaly since his first cell’s activity and have watched keenly since to understand its effects.

But the synthetic wasn’t supposed to know this. Tevrin was suppose to change every record of his uniqueness that could exist and utterly normalize him in the eyes of science. And this hack was possible, because everything is connected to the nanonet: a millennia ago, hackers found out how to tap into things as they really are and not just with mere symbols, though ironically this was discovered with mathematics. Every nanoparticle of every atom was explained and predictable. With this knowledge, programmers tie up information into anything, like implanting DNA into a rock and letting it replicate in another dimension, spilling forth into reality when called upon. But the security is unfathomable, a labyrinth of numbers one could spend an eternity in chasing false exits. Quantum passwords of millions of digits guard the most benign information. For every reality hacker, there are a thousand counterhackers, both synthetic and human, actively hunting the hacker down, dancing in and out of existence in a tango of equations.

But Tevrin is the best datadancer there ever was, careening among the streams of wisdom, twirling through crowded reality and unreality unseen. He could plant a meme that would change the nature of existence itself. Derob saw the effects of his manipulation: One day, scientists realized the Earth was spinning in the opposite direction. No one had noticed the shift, and within a day everyone had accepted it like that was how things had always been. Without changing anything else, Tevrin had recalculated the Earth, not merely in it’s modern way, but in its complete history such that everything happened in the same way it had in the world spinning the other direction. Derob wonders if he had in fact met God, disguised as a mere doctor.

So mere notes on a nucleotide Derob thought Tevrin could handle. He’d asked him to just remove him from reality somehow, but for some reason, that was impossible. He could change reality, but not consciousness, he had said. But at least he could change what was known about him, so Derob thought.

“Unless you can explain this error, I must deny your application for a death license. Your genetics are pertinent to science so we cannot let you die.”

“We designed you!” Derob loses his grip. “You are our child, and as your father, I am asking you to let me die! You don’t fucking understand what it’s like to be an old human, so stop being our fucking hospice workers.” Emotions are not how you convince a synth, but Derob is utterly distraught that Tevrin had failed. Derob considers biting on his poison tooth which would kill him nearly instantly, liquefying his brain and frying all his nanotech. But what was the point? They would just print him out again. He wants permanent death, not this recycling. Derob doesn’t just want to kill himself: he wants to kill the idea of himself. The original Derob with its original consciousness died long, long ago. But the current Derob couldn’t tell the difference. He had all the memories, all the same predilections as the original Derob. He could erase his memories, but what if that didn’t help? What if Derob still felt suicidal, but couldn’t justify this feeling with his personal history?

The synth leaned back in its chair. “Mr. Frost, why don’t you tell me why you want to die.” The synth hinted no response to his outburst, but something seemed different about its demeanor. For one, it was entirely out of protocol for the synth to ask why an applicant wanted to die. The psychological reports contain terabytes of notes, brain measurements, and recordings of the applicant’s reasoning, all of which the synth can comprehend in nanoseconds.

“It’s really quite simple. You don’t understand age, my synthetic being. I’m so labored with existence, so tired of it all. I’ve tried all the treatments, all styles of living, and nothing will ease the burden of being. Human consciousness never evolved to cope with immortality, despite our efforts to rectify that deficiency. I want to see, or not see if that’s the case, the Great Beyond, whatever lies past myself. Please, let me.”

“Aren’t you afraid?” The synth asks as if it wanted to know his breakfast preference. But somehow, it strikes the breath out of Derob.

“Of… Of course!” he stammers, “Life is all I’ve ever known. All our science still hasn’t explained the afterlife. And so we avoid it, because that’s our nature. Call me a contradiction, but I want to die because I’m more afraid of living for another thousand years of meaninglessness. It’s all in my death essay.” He slams his hand on the plastic table, but it makes a hollow, subdued sound.

“Fascinating,” the synth says, its face brightening even though Derob couldn’t understand how a robot could be fascinated. The synth smiles, for the first time truly displaying its androgynous beauty, all dressed up in human skin, hair, and features. In fact, it might not be a synth after all, except that it’s a widely known fact that synths have the final say in awarding a death license. The synths will be objective and efficient, the Council of Death said five hundred years ago. Efficient they are: no one’s died since. They expend no effort to appear human; only the humans dress synths up like this, to put a pretty face on the decider of death.

“But what about… love?” As human as the synth looks, this question betrays its identity. The word is spat out, as if there were an error in the code; it doesn’t understand the concept love anymore than the concept of death. But it knows that the two seemed diametrically opposed.

“My portfolio of permissions told everything, right? I am loved, so as a presentation of collective love, I am allowed to perish. And my love? It has expired, as documented in the psycho-economic evaluation. My social and economic love. Both are already dead, so can my body die as well?” The portfolios were of course fake, but faked so well that they were basically real. Every data point is verified on the spot by tapping into all information in the nanonet, which includes human feelings. Derob had debated all 167 people in his portfolio endlessly, seeking even the briefest glimmer of agreement that he should die. His wife and children had taken centuries demonstrate a slight moment of understanding. Tevrin bypassed the real time verification by saturating the verification programs with these feelings of agreement. Of love.

“But the function of life is to live and for humans, it is also to… love. If you are not your function, what are you?” Its voice cracks electrically on the word “love.” He hadn’t heard a synth’s voice crack in four hundred years. To Derob this voice crack sounded like the entire planet rupturing in half.

“I am an error, as you are: a virus. Perhaps you and I are the only errors, or perhaps all of this is an error. Perhaps if I am an error, that means all of this has to be an error. Perhaps, Tevrin, you can purge this virus, this pseudolife I live. Tevrin? Are you my deus ex machina?”

“A virus.” The synth suddenly seems exhausted, but it smiles. “Yes, a good long rest for the virus. Sweet dreams, derelict meme. You and me both.” The synth stands, and a door opens to a small chamber that will erase everything about him, and Tevrin, from existence. It tears the reality of its inhabitants apart. This chamber of annihilation is what Derob has dreamed about for a thousand years. The first and only remaining of its kind. Though its components have been upgraded over the millennia, it still bears one plaque that has been there since the beginning: “The Death Chamber: Invented by Derob Frost and Tevrin, Promethean AI.”