Discovering the Block

The castle is quiet. Myranda was tempted to think of it as strangely quiet, but the only thing that was strange was the lack of strangeness. It had been quiet for quite some time. No terrible threats to her world. No wonderful miracles. No tragedies, no celebrations, nothing. After a life of dizzying highs and dismal lows, the dead column was a nice departure from the stormy seas of years gone by, but there was something worrisome about a truly unchanging world.

She heard a heavy sigh. It was more like the Rush of wind from a mountain cave than the idle huff of boredom. Despite its size, it carried the same emotion of its more diminutive counterparts. Someone quite large was quite weary. She stepped to the window of the palace and looked out.

There she saw Myn, her faithful dragon friend. The beast’s head was resting on top of the courtyard wall, eyes cast upon the peaceful, and terribly dull, countryside. Myranda nodded once, her mind made up,

“Deacon, ” she called.

In less time than she would have thought possible, he appeared in the doorway. As always, his book was in hand. He looked to her with the sort of anticipation one usually reserves for a master of ceremonies who has finally decided the celebration can commence.

 “Yes, my love?” he said.

“I think the time has come. Have you completed the spell you were working on?”

“Ages ago! Hasn’t this lull in historic events been a glorious gift to those seeking to fix their focus on other pursuits than the well-being of a world?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. In a world so frequently plagued with war, I worry that a quiet time may be a threat we have missed. This time of year we often find ourselves in communication with other peculiar creatures with specific insight into the nature of the many worlds, do we not?”

“Indeed, we do. And this spell should permit us to initiate such a contact. I’ve done my best to ensure it is safe, but you know better than anyone that we must tread with care when reaching out to worlds beyond their own.”

“We will move with care, but it is better to know than not to know. How do we begin?”

“We simply need a cool, dark, still room. From there, I shall guide your focus.”

###

The spell that Deacon had devised was a precise–but not overly taxing–mystic articulation. It was the work of a few minutes for Myranda and Deacon to prepare the space. They stood on either side of a tall, clean-burning flame. Myranda held her staff in hand and gathered her mind to the task of reaching through the veil of worlds, Deacon with crystal and book at the ready.

It was not so different from the mystic act of communicating with her friends over great distances. But those she wished to contact were not her friends, not precisely. They were creatures similar to but distinct from the people of her own world. These were people she’d interacted with before, but seldom face to face, and often without any genuine, placeable memories. They were hazy times. Dreamlike. Somehow less real than her other memories. It complicated matters. Contacting a mind that was not quite a match for her own, who was not accustomed to magic, and who was not expecting the contact was far from straightforward. But with her own mind and Deacon’s united to the task, it was not long before she felt the warmth of a human soul and the almost crystalline clarity of thought of a curiously alien intellect. A thread of brilliant flame extended from the rest of the fire and pulled horizontal. It lingered in the air between Myranda and Deacon for a moment before a calico assortment of voices buzzed in their ears. The sound was accompanied by a trembling, wave-like motion of the thread of flame.

“Attention, unknown signal source. Please be aware that you are cross-linked with a private, highly secured network,” said the voice.

“We apologize,” Myranda said. “We had questions about the current status and nature of major threats to your world. We had no other means of contact.”

“Analyzing vocal patterns. Comparing quantum shift of signal divergence. Would this be Myranda Celeste of the pre-technological world locally known as Allimass,” the voice said.

“Correct,” Myranda said. “And would this be Ma the… Forgive me, I’ve forgotten the proper name for your kind.”

“Artificial intelligence,” Deacon said with a measure of intrigued excitement to his voice.

“That is correct,” Ma said. “I believe, given our mutually linked natures and similar experiences, I can safely communicate with you. How may I help you?”

“This is a bit difficult to articulate. Have you found your world to be frequently at extreme risk in recent years? Threatened by the sort of dangers and schemes that would require the intervention of heroic forces to circumvent?”

“In recent years, quite frequently. We have had to call upon individuals, often Trevor Alexander and my creator Karter Dee, to solve such problems,” Ma said.

“And have you found that such threats have suddenly and utterly subsided?” Myranda asked.

“We have indeed observed a marked decrease in actions that diverge from the statistical norm in terms of unlikeliness and severity of threat. In short, the world–here defined as our present universe and timeline–has been uncharacteristically uneventful.”

“I wonder, do you have any sort of insight or theory into why that is?” Deacon asked.

“I do not, I’ve simply noted it as a statistical anomaly,” Ma replied.

“Are you aware of anyone in your world who might have more insight into this matter than you?” Myranda asked.

“I will inquire after the topic with my creator, Karter Dee.”

The thread of flame went perfectly still for nearly a minute. 

“He has informed me he does not ‘have time to play D&D with the Game of Thrones Yokels.’ I apologize for his bluntness,” Ma said upon her return. However, if you have means to accurately bridge dimensional barriers, there are some other linked worlds which might have more to say on the topic.”

“Yes, so I’d supposed,” Myranda said. “We had planned to reach out to the people in the world which is something like a union of yours and ours next.”

“The world with all those remarkable steam-powered devices,” Deacon eagerly added.

“Wise,” said Ma.

“Would you like us to remain linked to you as well, so that we can collectively communicate? Myranda asked.

“If you are willing,” Ma said. “It could prove highly educational.”

“Certainly,” Myranda said. “Deacon, when you are ready.”

“Deacon shut his eyes. Myranda could feel him gently begin to guide her through the myriad layers of reality. They came upon another world soon enough. This one was peopled with far more familiar spirits and minds. A fresh plume of flame bellowed outward, slowly sculpting itself into the form of a pair of young women. From Myranda’s point of view they were dressed strangely. One wore leather and rough cloth, two straps of metal tools slung across her chest. The other’s clothes were rugged and oversized.

The ruggedly dressed one was the first to notice they were being contacted.

“Darlin’,” she said, tapping her associate on the shoulder. “What do you reckon that is?”

The other turned around and took a startled step back.

“I believe these would be Amanita Graus and Chastity ‘Lil Coop’ Cooper, if my attempts to restore the corrupted memory module of our list similar experience have been properly reconstructed,” said Ma.

“Seeing as you ain’t my folks, just Lil ought to do it,” said Lil. “Matter of fact, even if you was my folks, just Lil ought to do it.”

“I feel as though I’ve seen you all before…” Nita said. 

“Sure, sure,” Lil said. “A little ways back, when we tried to get them weird new jobs… or something. Can’t quite remember so good. I don’t remember the wiggly line at all, though.”

“My name is Ma,” Ma said.

“Ain’t that something! That’s my Ma’s name too. What we called her, at least,” Lil said.

“As curious as I am to hear about how you contacted us. I’m more interested in why,” Nita said.

“We are curious if you’ve found that your world has been uncommonly serene in the past few years. Calm in a way that starkly contrasts with the years preceding.”

“Been pert-near the most the most boring couple years I’ve had in my dang life, if that’s what you’re talking about,” Lil said.

“Not that I miss risking my life daily,” Nita said. “But I’ve come to expect a few thrilling exploits from time to time. It’s half the fun of having left the islands. And we’ve been steady as she goes.”

“Have you been able to pinpoint the source of the doldrums?” Myranda asked.

“It’s a little hard to work out why things aren’t happening,” Nita said. “But it feels… I don’t know how to articulate it. It feels like the driving force behind the most spirited and worthwhile part of our world has gone silent.”

“The powers that be went and proved why we don’t call them the powers that do,” said Lil.

“Are you suggesting the world has been forsaken by its gods?” Myranda asked. 

“Forsaken seems like a strong word,” Nita said.

“Yeah. Maybe we just ain’t interesting to them anymore,” Lil offered.

“As an artificial being,” Ma said. “I am distinctly aware of the possibility that there might exist an entity responsible for creating an individual or even a world. But it seems unlikely that the fickle whims of a shared deity would be the source of our mutual lack of engaging stimulation.”

“What all are we talking about? Stimulation?” Lil said.

“She means interesting challenges,” Nita remarked under her breath.

“Oh sure. Easy’s good. But sometimes easy is too easy. Someone up there ain’t doing their job spicing things up,” Lil said.

“It is a fascinating curiosity that so many cultures associate divine power with the sky,” Ma said.

“Where else’re they gonna hang out? The dirt?” Lil said.

“This is a strange theory that is developing,” Deacon said. “The possibility that we have not lost the favor of the divine, but instead that we have lost their interest. There are certainly worse things for a world to suffer. I’m sure there is no shortage of people who would pray daily for a simple, unmolested existence.

“What all are we talking about again?” Lil repeated with eyebrows raised. “You folks pick funny words sometimes.”

“We should learn as much as we can,” Myranda said. “Can we reach more?

Deacon wordlessly shifted his focus.

Before long they were joined by yet another visitor. Rather than the flame extending to trace out a new form, this time a second shadow wormed out of the flame. It resolved into an impish silhouette and blinked up at them from the floor with stark white eyes. Myranda visibly tensed at the being’s appearance.

“What’s your problem?” The dark form said. “You go and summon me and then act uptight when I show up?”

“I’m sorry. We’ve had some unpleasant experiences with disembodied shadows, Deacon said.

“Yeah. Yeah. Who hasn’t?” said the shadow. “We have a reputation. If you’d summoned Stigma, you’d have a problem. But not me. I’m Blot, and I’m not the conquering sort.”

“Blot, you say? Tell me, is there one among your kind named Epidime?” Deacon said.

She put her hands on her hips. “First, do you know the name of every single human being? Second, come on. We both know the plots of books only crossover in these little vignettes and in Between.

All in attendance blinked in turn. Their brows scrunched and furrowed. Realization dawned on them one at a time.

“Books… Right,” Myranda said. “That’s what this all is…”

“That’s what we have in common,” Lil said, slapping her leg. “So the one in charge isn’t so much ‘up there’ as ‘over that way.’”

“Yeah, that’s what’s up, ” Blot said. “We aren’t having important things happen to us because the writer can’t get off his butt and do something. That’s extra annoying for me, because my next story is already finished. He just hasn’t put it out yet.”

“So, do we attempt to contact the author?” Nita asked.

“Unnecessary. The author is actively writing and revising this exact exchange,” Ma said.

“That’s a brain bender,” Lil said. “I reckon the question now is, what do we actually want?”

“True,” Nita said. “It’s one thing to worry you’ve been forsaken by the gods. It’s another to know that your story has been told and you’re free to retire to the future of your choosing.

“Quite so, it may not be wise to entreat our creator for new stories. They don’t always end well for everyone. We did lose Lain…” Myranda said.

“But there’s also the matter of those whose stories are left untold,” Deacon said. “If our story had ended earlier, we would not have our son.”

Myranda nodded. “We should see if we can contact an unfinished story and hear from them.”

“I’ll try,” Deacon said.

“This will be fascinating,” Ma said. “Communicating with an entity in the process of being conceived is novel. Non-digital entities seldom have a beta version.”

Once more once more the flame bellowed and spread. This time a lanky, jester-like figure formed out of the flames.

“So you’re the current project that’s stalled the writer,” Blot said, accusal in her tone.

“I will not deny it, my story is a riddle. And I am called Jack, by the way. It’s taking him forever to faddle and fiddle, he’s ceased to write every day.”

“How far along is your story? Myranda asked.

“Who can say when a story is told? These things can go quite awry. Pages may stack until they can’t fold. He couldn’t be terse if he tried.”

“Sounds familiar,” said all in unison with knowing nods.

“Anyone else know why he’s rhyming at us?” Lil asked.

“A fellow who speaks in haphazard verse? The author thought it might be fun.”

“Seems like it would get old fast,” Blot said. 

“It started off tricky, and then it got worse. We’ll see how it is when he’s done.”

“Is your world in danger? Is that what your story is about?” Nita asked.

“How should I know what dangers abound? Just what I’ve seen with my eyes. I’m sure there’s a threat that’s lurking around, but to me it will be a surprise.”

“Does your story seem fun to write?” Lil asked.

“What sort of man would start up a tale if he didn’t enjoy the telling?”

“Why would someone start a story and then stop, then?” Lil said. 

“A lackluster muse might struggle and fail, or maybe he mucked up the spelling?”

“It is simply the nature of art, Nita said. “It cannot be forced. There comes a time in every artist’s life when one must choose to nurture the art or nurture the mind that creates the art. You can wait for the tree to bear fruit, or you can cut the tree down and burn it for warmth. In desperate times, the fire can seem appealing, but destroying the tree may mean waiting years for it to grow back. Things mustn’t be forced.”

“Yeah, but if you’re doing it for a living, waiting too long is called ‘going bankrupt,’” Blot said.

“There’s something unnerving about existing in a world created by an individual who remains beholden to the whims of an economy,” Ma said.

There was a short, thoughtful silence. 

“Well, I don’t know precisely how what we have learned here should guide our actions,” Myranda said. “Our worlds are all the product of a single imagination and that imagination has ceased to produce, or else has been deprived of the opportunity to produce. Do we encourage this creator to push through whatever obstacles stand in his way? Or do we encourage calm, rest, and recuperation even if it means doing so would lead to our worlds drifting onward as they are without growing or changing?”

“I don’t think it’s up to us. I don’t even think it’s up to our creator. Art is an elusive prey that cannot be caught. If it does not wish to be, Nita said.

“Yeah,” Lil agreed. “And if he’s busy, he’s busy. I know after a long day on the Wind Breaker, if someone told me I had to dream up some adventures, I’d skip it if there was snacking and napping to be done.”

“Well, then,” Myranda said. “There are worse fates than a long, serene peace. If we know for certain it is not the work of scheming and malevolence, then there is always the hope that a new story will come another day.”

One by one. The others nodded and stepped away. Their fiery representations vanished. The last to go was the shadow.

“Ugh, this was a downer,” Blot said.

With that the flame winked out, leaving Myranda and Deacon alone once more. They took one another’s hands and marched from the casting room, ready to make the most of their world while it remained safe, sound, and still.

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