Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Is Truth Beauty, or Beauty Truth?

trepanation

Valerie had long desired a trepanation cure. The pressure that pulsed outward at her third eye spoke to her: Yes, yes, yes, it thrummed, and, Free, free, free! After several years of inquiry into the matter, she came to the conclusion that she was finally ready to take the plunge. She didn’t know why she’d put it off so long. The Trepanation Advocacy Group she’d joined along her path of personal evolution was composed of truly enlightened individuals. Each story differed, but the consensus was in.

Trepanation allowed the third eye to open its heavy lid, revealing universal truths, as well as personal truths. The group discussed their visions over Cokes—no need any longer for wheat grass and green tea once the third eye was open! All health, all soul, all body became one through the hole in the head.

But it was Joanna’s ethereal story of meeting her personal guardian angel on the planet Pluto that pushed Valerie into making the appointment. There wasn’t a dry eye in the Burger Barn lobby when Joana had finished telling of how the angel, whose name was Rembrandt, fluttered to her on the back of a brown moth. Moths were sturdier than butterflies, the angel explained to her. Angels riding butterflies was an urban legend that God had repeatedly debunked in bulletins, but He couldn’t convince some that angels didn’t ride butterflies. Aside from being fragile, butterflies couldn’t be tamed properly, and their riders never quite knew what kind of loop-de-loops they would perform in flight. God also couldn’t convince some that Pluto was actually a planet and not any mere rock, no matter how many times He had tried to explain that His categorization methods were not the methods of humans.

Here was the heart of the story: Rembrandt engulfed Joanna with his numerous wings and gazed at her with his multiple and complex eyes and whispered in her ear: In His schema, you are Categorically Free Spirit. You are like the butterflies who perform their loop-de-loops at their own whim and discretion. You aren’t meant to be ridden, but to ride the backs of others. He then let her go, and her consciousness flew back to earth, shooting through the atmosphere and, like a solar ray, reentering her body through the hole in her head.

Without the trepanation, Joanna could neither have let her consciousness go, nor gathered it up again. Valerie wanted to experience that. Her consciousness desired to travel the cosmos. It was weary of being a homebody. It wanted to experience the glowing light, love, and beauty that only trepanned people could. The universe was a veritable mass of glowing love lights, according to the enlightened ones.

The medical trip to Mexico City, where there was a neurosurgeon who would perform the drilling, began like a vacation, the thrill of it trilling in Valerie’s soul. She’d had to take medical leave from the graphic arts company where she worked, and there was no guarantee she’d have a job when she returned, even though the surgery would make her a better artist. As a draftsperson who primarily designed logos for not-so-sexy companies, such as tax brokerage and law firms, she understood that drilling a hole in her head would release her to understand the cosmic importance of such businesses. This understanding would thereby allow her to design spiritual symbols for them that they would adore without being conscious of precisely why.

The day before surgery, she visited the Chapultepec Zoo to become one with the animal world. With her arms wide open to give room for her lungs to breathe, she inhaled the fresh fragrance of manure. Then, she meandered languidly through the park to become one with nature in a way the children chasing colorful balloons and shouting mysterious words in Spanish wouldn’t because they thought only of cake and ice cream. And how much more would Valerie understand what lay beneath it all after the hole was drilled in her head? The thought of being enlightened more than others—and she was by the very nature of having chosen to be trepanned!—filled her with smug, yet benevolent feelings toward the poor little brown Mexican children. If only they knew the truths embedded in the earth where they played….If only, but, no, she couldn’t think of it. They would grow up to be ordinary and do ordinary things and never recognize truth symbols, let alone create them, unless they were trepanned.

“This is the world the way it was,” she said aloud so as to permanently capture the image in her mind. “It will never be this commonplace again.”

Back at her hotel, her head buzzed with dizziness after she downed her last glass of fresh vegetable juice. After that day, she would be able to maintain her health off Cokes and burgers slathered in special sauce, which were decidedly better than the salads and juice she’d subsisted off of for the last several years.

Dizziness aside, it was difficult to pinpoint the moment when everything changed from positive to negative. For a start, she couldn’t sleep at all the night before her scheduled surgery with Dr. Aurora. When she finally arose from the stiffly bleached sheets on the hotel bed, her head had gone from dizzy to stuffed-up. Her sinuses pulsed and pounded, and she instinctively knew that the hole in her head would only let out the pressure beneath her skull, and wouldn’t begin to help the sinuses.

When the cabdriver deposited her at the trepanation clinic, she wasn’t at first leery of it, despite her head congestion. Potted plants waved in the breeze by a quaint gate, which opened onto a shady courtyard decorated with river rocks. Once inside the operating room, however, she found herself staring at a tray of hand-crank drills that looked exactly as if the surgeon had ordered them from an eighteenth-century medical equipment catalog. Surely, they were simply for display, she reassured herself, but she wasn’t to know. Before she saw his face, Dr. Aurora had covered her mouth and nose with a sickly-sweet-smelling pad. Darkness consumed her, and her dreams led her down hand-cranked paths, rolling in front of her bare feet. She shivered and shook with delirium, and yet, she walked down the path because it was the only direction she could see to step.

Then she awoke, and rather than the lightness that others claimed to have felt from the holes in their heads, she felt only a searing pain. Lightning flashed behind her eyeballs, and she instantly rolled over and vomited. Her head was so heavy she couldn’t hold it up. Eventually, she gave into the desire to sleep forever in a black and heavy place. Where were the glowing lights, the love? Where was her guardian angel?

“I’m here, Jane.”

“I’m not Jane,” she muttered.

“You are Categorically Jane.”

She rolled over in her sleep, and there he was: a small black troll of a beast with shriveled wings.

“Come, give us a hug, Janie,” he said. “I have so much to tell you.”

“I can’t move. Too heavy.”

He hopped on top of her and flopped his arms around her. “I’m here to reveal reality to you. Are you ready?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“No, not really.”

And then the visions of truth began: images of hunched black creatures in shadows, of darkness, death, and writhing people covered in sores. There was no enlightenment, only endarkenment, if such was a word.

“Stop, please, stop. Where’s my consciousness, hell?”

“Hell? No way! You’re here on earth, Janey, my girl.”

“Lightness, love. Truth. Where is it?”

“Enlightenment, don’t know what that is.” He wiggled a little on top of her and pinched her waist. “I know what lightning is. And gamma rays. I love gamma rays.”

She tried to throw him off her back, but she was too heavy to move. “Please, I beg you, go away. Bring me back to myself.”

“So soon, Janey? Don’t you have any pressing questions?”

“Do you travel around on brown moths?”

“Urban legend!” he shrieked. “I use a spaceship shaped like a comet.”

“Go away!”

Because her eyes were closed, and the world was generally dark, she didn’t see him go. She felt his pressure ease off her back; she even felt it leave the room. But the shadows didn’t leave her for a long time while she slept and slept with no sense of time or dreams. A long time later she opened her eyes–and the world appeared normal.

“Why don’t you turn on the lights?” she asked nobody in particular.

“¿Como?”

Through the dim shadows of a warm summer night, she saw the figure of a nurse bustling around. As she tried to focus, the searing pain in her head belatedly woke up. Never mind, she thought. Never mind.

Before she checked out, she accepted the pain meds the surgeon’s assistant offered her; she never did see Dr. Aurora’s face. Would the searing pain ever subside? she asked him.

“Pain is a gift from God,” he said. “Truth an even greater gift.”

She didn’t smile or thank him. Instead, she popped a pill. She had a flight to catch. Was it possible for the world to appear even more broken and gritty than before–even more commonplace? She popped another pill on the flight home.

She popped another one the first time she spotted a hallow-eyed demon in the food court of the mall. Another pill slid down her throat on her first day back at the office, where she worked tirelessly at exposing truth. From under her fingers, demon horns sprouted from twisted lawyer faces. When she lost her job, she went on the state health insurance so she could keep buying her pain meds.

When she could no longer afford the Burger Barn, which didn’t accept food stamps, she turned to freelance, but for some reason, nobody was interested in the calligraphic words she painted for them over and over, swirling in between ugly brown moths:

Enlightenment, don’t know what that is!

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United Gypsy Services

Sarah despised the new pastor’s wife, a wisp of a woman named Angie Drummond. It wasn’t a conscious decision on Sarah’s part. Instead, it stole on her slowly when Pastor Drummond, a refined theologian with enough books to fill a library, came to live in the rectory behind the church.

The rectory was a roomy old house, bright with fresh white paint inside and sky blue paint outside. A combination of the ladies’ rose club and the church janitor had, for years, lovingly tended the yard that ran below the house. Everything about the place sparkled and continued to sparkle because Angie and her refined husband had no children to turn the yard into a mud pit or to cloud the white walls with their dirty paws. And Angie, herself, whispered through the world, her ninety-pound frame leaving little impression anywhere. She barely swirled the dust, which was lacking anyway, owing to the maid the pastor had hired to help his wife with housework twice a month.

By contrast, Sarah was still heavy from giving birth to her fourth son. Nor had she ever been a floaty sprite, not even at her seventeen-year-old prime. Her husband, as a seasonally out-of-work contractor, was too unrefined to read anything but alternative online news sources. To add to the irritation, he refused to tend to the yard that came with their gloomy ranch house, which topped out at 1400 sq. ft. if Sarah added the garage measurement.

Sarah’s life was rendered chaotic from lack of help. Angie’s soft world was made continuously soft by her husband’s gifts to her, by the doting congregation, by a world that seemed to believe Angie was more special than the average human being. And for that, for her own extreme lack of specialness, Sarah found herself seething while sitting on Angie’s brand-new leather couch, which was just one piece in a brand-new living room set. The set hadn’t been there last week when Angie had invited Sarah to coffee.

Angie set a coaster on the brand-new bright red coffee table and placed a cup of coffee there for Sarah.

“Would you like a slice of pound cake?” Angie offered.

“I’m dieting,” Sarah said.

They sat in silence for a while, Sarah sipping at Angie’s weak coffee. Sarah smiled and pretended she liked brown water, though the entire affair felt as awkward as her meaty hands did gripping the tiny cup. Sarah was a giant at a little girl’s tea party. Angie, more of a doll than a child, sat with a slice of untouched pound cake as though it was a prop for the bone white china. Then, bizarrely, the doll cackled.

“United Gypsy Services,” Angie said. “That’s what you want to know, isn’t it? Where we ordered the furniture.”

Sarah stared at the woman open-mouthed. For a moment, Angie’s face transformed into a leering, witch face, her head covered by a coarse babushka. After squeezing her eyes open and shut a few times, the face opposite hers returned to normal. Surely, Angie jested. Everybody had heard of the United Gypsy Services, and everybody knew it was an occult mail order service that involved the casting of spells. A Methodist pastor would never stoop to such a public sin as ordering his new living room set through magic.

As soon as Sarah could reasonably escape, she did. Something was definitely off in the rectory. Back at her ranch house, she decided to check out the United Gypsy Services for herself. Once online, she didn’t hesitate before clicking straight into the mail order site. She convinced herself it was curiosity, or the need to investigate for the sake of the church.

It had nothing to do with Angie having better furniture than Sarah had. Why should Sarah have good furniture, anyway? Her boys would just destroy it.

The site was a little overwhelming, with bright flashing signs attracting the eyes to Today Only, 85% off! and other such sales pitches. Sarah smirked. Angie would be foolish enough to fall for such pitches; she wondered how much the pastor had been taken for after all was said and done. Sarah, on the other hand, was far too smart to fall prey to disreputable sales people.

She scrolled to the bottom of the page, seeing no advertisements for the quality living room set at Angie’s house. All the products–kitchen appliances, gardening tools, bedding, clothes–looked chintzier than the products at the Dollar Store. It was no surprise, then, to find this disclaimer in small print near the customer support button: UGS and their affiliates are not official trademarks of the Romani people. Yes, more likely, the products were made in a mishmash of third-world factories and shipped by slow boat to the states.

Bored at the obvious lack of magic, Sarah scrolled back up until the slow internet speed brought the page to a halt. That was strange. Her mouse arrow had landed on an ad for furniture she hadn’t previously seen. In fact, the arrow remained stuck there until she clicked into the furniture sales page.

There were the leather couches, the brightly painted tables and chairs. And they were cheap. Even Sarah could afford them. Overwhelming desire consumed her insides until she managed to satiate it by ordering the entire set and finalizing the sale by entering her credit card information. She told herself her husband would be happy about it. He would congratulate her on finding such a great deal.

He wasn’t. “You ordered furniture from the United Gypsy Services? What have you done to us, woman?”

“It was a great deal. We’ll have it paid off in a couple months, maximum.”

“You think I’m worried about more debt?” His laugh was dark and worrisome. “Just bring it on! Bring on more debt! That’s what you do. No, I care more about what this will do to our family, what the magic will require of us.”

“The pastor orders from them,” Sarah said–a faint excuse, spoken to herself because her husband had stomped off into the dark and gloomy bedroom.

She sat and stared at the awful mismatched, scratched up, stained furniture that decorated her living room. Didn’t she deserve better than this? And why was the debt her fault? She had never spent money on herself or her clothes–except maybe her monthly manicure, which was her only luxury. Instead, she was a responsible mother who took her children to the doctor or dentist and had the oldest wired with braces on his teeth. She bought them school clothes and soccer cleats. And for some reason, taking care of the boys made her husband angry. They were supposed to care for their offspring, which she had been doing, without complaint, for years.

Irritated at the deprivation caused by marriage and children, she slammed her dishes in the dishwasher–no bone china for her–and wiped the grunge from the counters.

By the time the gypsy caravan arrived with her furniture, she had overcome her anger. She was excited. She would tell the boys the living room was off limits to their wrestling games and wooden swords, and then she and her husband would sit together on the love seat. If he changed his clothes first, she would give him ready permission to enjoy the new living room, and he would come to enjoy relaxing there after a hard day.

For about fifteen minutes, the caravan and its train-like cars marched, noisy and bright, up the road. Obviously, this was not an anonymous service. Her neighbors, if they were at home, stumbled from their front doors to gape at the parade. How had it escaped the notice of the church when Angie’s furniture arrived? Sarah had no idea, but she itched with agitation to catch sight of her brand-new, beautiful living room set.

A man with a clipboard stepped from the main carriage and shouted orders for the products to be brought out. From inside the second carriage, three men in circus costumes popped out and unceremoniously dumped a few pieces of cheap, plastic furniture on her patchy front lawn.

“That’s not what I ordered,” she protested.

The man with the clipboard glared at her, his beady eyes making direct eye contact. “Am I to understand you’re refusing what we’ve delivered to your doorstep?”

“If that’s what you’re delivering, yes.”

“Move it back, boys!” he shouted. “And don’t you move, ma’am. This could get dangerous.”

Sarah couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to. Her feet were glued to the spot, her limbs frozen. She could only watch, in horror, the train of caravans moving in slow speed toward her, their moving parts ching-chinging, clanging, whistling. Just as she thought she would be slowly crushed underneath the multiple wheels, the first car swung wide around her and all the rest followed, but pulled closer and closer, as though she were the center of a spiral that was ever shrinking. And then, when the nearest car sat inches from her face, the train halted. Aside from the faintest rattling, the world inside the spiral was silent.

Then she heard a loud, gruff voice: “How will she be redeemed?”

“Says here, her youngest son will go in trade to one Angie Drummond, in exchange for the leather living room set.”

“Terms of trade?”

“Eternal.”

Rough laughter, as if from an invisible but near caravan window, assaulted Sarah’s ears.

“She must be a nasty piece of work.”

“Measured by the pound, no doubt.”

More laughter. Sarah wanted to shout in protest, but her mouth was as frozen as the rest of her.

“Ah, look at that–a note from Mrs. Drummond. She’s willing to give the cow her china, too. Since boys break china, and she has a son now. Generosity never knew such bounds.”

“All right, men, let her go. We wouldn’t want another heart attack victim on our hands.”

With that, the spiral spun her loose, one slow car at a time. Sarah stomped her tingly feet, readying herself to dash off to her youngest child’s kindergarten.

“Run after him, if you like, but I doubt they’ll let you have the Drummond boy,” the man with the clipboard said as he checked an item on his paper. “They might even arrest you for kidnapping.”

“I–” Sarah closed her mouth, motherhood of three settling in her soul like the calm after a storm.

He jumped on the train that sat, waiting, rattling. He waved at her with one last shout: “Remember to tell your friends: United Gypsy Services aims to please every time!

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Bruno Solar System’s First News Now Reporting on the Planet Sardon

In recent Solar System news, the National Treasury of the Sardonian people has been unsealed, not for its yearly accounting, but for a printing of new funds at a volume never seen before.

“The underground presses were literally glowing with warmth,” our National Treasury correspondent, A. Fraser, reported by interplanetary wire. “The smell of newspaper and ink was overwhelming to the senses. I swooned. It was as if great works of literature were being churned out by the millisecond.”

As we’ve reported before, the Sardonian economy is kept afloat by scraps of official paper fibers over which words are printed in special government fonts. Being an extraordinarily complex system, only three economists understand the full spectrum of values the currency possesses. The average Sardonian simply attempts to keep up with the effect of market forces on those words found most frequently in his vocabulary. For example, the poorly educated comprehend all too well that articles, conjunctions, and other insubstantial one-syllable words are of little value (even if they don’t know exactly what the current low value is), while a confusing handful of one-syllable words contain such historic significance (e.g. tongue, horse, and moon) that they are priceless and, consequently, also of little value to anyone but esoteric historians.

By extension, most middle class men happily languish in workaday jobs to earn two-syllable words, such as balloon, python, and monkey, which suffice as exchange for words that put dinner on the table. However, due to the plebeian uprisings of 3024, the two-syllable word marrow–which represents the staple diet of the people–has been downgraded to the value of a conjunction so that the impoverished may also feed their families by trading lesser-fonted marrow coupons for grade B vegetables.

Why are they printing so many new words? The economic fate of the Bruno Solar System seems to hang on this very question. We asked A. Fraser, and he responded, “For more than a century, the Sardonian women have suffered oppression under the Primogeniture Word Act. They’ve been forced to subsist off strict word allowances belonging to their husbands or supporting male relatives. It’s all color of law, but it’s been practically illegal for women to own words of any kind (for more, see A Social History of Gender Inequalities). After weeks of silent protest by the women, which involved doing nothing but playing hand signal games with their children, newly elected President Grayhall pushed a landmark bill through the senate to give women back their own kinds of feminine words.”

Our interplanetary wire being cut from too much congestion, A. Fraser sent us this late, breaking news by old-fashioned quantum telegraph: While the senate spends the next fifty years defining what constitutes a feminine word–almost impossible because the language, itself, has evolved morphologically in the neuter–Grayhall has, in less than five minutes, met with advisers to finesse his healthcare reform plan. Throughout his private advisement meeting, his personal security officers leaned out the upper story windows at five second intervals, throwing out buckets of newly minted words for the women below to catch in their arms.

“It was beautiful,” one security officer remarked. “They were like blooming flowers with their arms wide open, catching a rainstorm of petals.” After that, the officer shut up because he had used his entire savings account in that one poetic sentiment.

And it appears the government has not only used all its stored words, but has caused a debt bubble as big as the planet itself. Nobody can quite get an accurate figure of words printed, but the estimates have ranged anywhere from 8 billion to 700 trillion, not to mention the words printed in a rush at the end for the sole purpose of repairing the smoking presses, which are estimated at ρ 5,000,000 paper cost.

We tried to contact A. Fraser by wire again for a badly needed verbal update, but were unable to do so. We did receive one last entangled particle telegraph from him, detailing the Chief Governor’s theory that President Grayhall printed all these beautiful words because he hopes the women will use them in support of his healthcare reform plan. While this may seem like a bright idea, A. Fraser teleported, modern Sardonian women aren’t the idealized oracles of ancient times. How could they be? They haven’t had any practice at it. Some men have reported hearing nothing but female voices, tinny from disuse, wasting currency on cupcakes, but I would question such rumors. One man claims he had to lock up his wife in a silencing room because she wouldn’t stop muttering the word chocolate, which is one of the most expensive luxury words available. But, again, that’s, as yet, an unsubstantiated rumor.

Is the Chief Governor’s theory correct? As soon as more information arrives via telegraph or wire, we’ll have late-breaking coverage on the debt bubble, President Grayhall’s healthcare reform plan, as well as a few human interest stories on how the men are coping with hearing the new sounds of their wives’ voices.

First News Now.

For related posts, click below:
The Planet Sardon: A Travelogue
The Planet Sardon: On Ethics, Morality, and the Greeting Card Fund
The Gillilander Pituitary Scale of the Male Out of Eden Complex

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MapWriter LoveMap: Virtual Honor

artwork by Emille Domschot © 2012

I purchased my LoveMap. So sue me. I thought it would resemble the antiquated match.com, which makes me feel like an antique because that’s how I found my soul mate Gwen at age twenty. We had thirty years together before she died of ovarian cancer. Now that I’m sixty, I’m finally ready to find a new companion, someone to ride off with me into the sunset, our bikes whirring in joyous union.

You know those MapWriter dealies that advise you on your life steps? Yeah, I never bought one because I have all I want as senior librarian at the local library. But the LoveMap sounded all right. Surely, it would work in a similar way to the MapWriter, using its database of my information to link me up with a compatible lady.

As soon as I engaged my LoveMap, I knew something was off. The damn thing looked like a board game. But a sign flashed at me: “Enter Your Moniker.” With the type pad, I punched in Arthur Michael Knight. Yeah, that’s my name. My parents were really clever. Next, a spinning set of dice lit up. “Click to Roll,” it said. I clicked.

The game squares lit up one by one, until the movement stopped on one emblazoned The Ghetto. This message scrolled across the top of the game: “You are a knight of the first order. You must earn your way out of The Ghetto by seducing the seven first-order priestesses.” Priestesses? What?

The game image split in the middle and unfurled to reveal a ghetto scene, complete with a little man in a kind of red space suit, whose back wore my name. A set of arrows indicated I was to pick a direction and search the area. As I clicked my way up a garbage-strewn alley, ghoulish drunks hiding in the shadows reared up and grabbed at my virtual ankles. I sighed. I hadn’t played a role-playing game since 2007 and, even then, work and fatherly demands kept me from getting hooked on them.

At the top of the alley, a crowd of men appeared to be kicking at something or someone. My initial instinct was to turn around and find a safer route, but a small cry emitted from the game. I jumped. So far, the game had been silent. I stopped my space-suit man and hesitated. The cry mewled out again, a pathetic female sound–no yelling, no cries of pain, just a small, shamed noise.

With all the game bravado I could muster, I ran at the crowd, unsheathing a sword from somewhere inside my suit. I knocked the men aside and looked down at the pathetic creature that huddled in the dirt. Her clothing, what was left of it, bore her label: Peasant Dodo. I helped her up.

“WTF?” One of the men shoved me into Peasant Dodo. “Whaddya think you’re doing? She’s yours now, sucker. She’s the punishment dolts like you get.”

“You were hurting her,” I said out loud, and the words strangely echoed from my game counterpart.

“Huh. You must be new here, Arthur. I dub you Sir Biscuit, and you’re doomed. Good luck finding a priestess to get you out of this spell: I call on the spirit Hetch to bind your sword grip and lock your weapons in the lowest level of hell. This I proclaim with the power of darkness, Sir Biscuit.”

“My name is Arthur Michael Knight,” I said before the map face turned black and reverted to the auto game screen.

I grabbed the instructions from the LoveMap case and studied them for answers. LoveMap was a role playing game that involved seducing priestesses in order to earn higher levels of knighthood. Spells, incantations, and false moves could knock me to lower levels of knighthood, even down to peasanthood. The same was true for the female players. And the only way out, once in, was to find a mate and exit the game with her. In the various disclaimers at the end, I found a caution against using real names or other traceable information in the profile section. If attraction occurred between characters, names and phone numbers could be swapped privately. Great. Why had I not read the instructions?

When I logged on the next day, I wandered around the LoveMap world, observing the goings-on of others. The priestesses postured as sex kittens, not the type of woman I would enjoy as a late-in-life mate. Some females didn’t have the essential tiger-like spirit to act as priestesses, and raunchy knights gave them as punishments to errant lower level men. Dodo, it seemed, was the pass-around, worst punishment of all the females. Poor Dodo.

At ten, I gave it a rest and made a pot of coffee. Just as I was enjoying my first cup, the phone rang. I hit the speaker button.

“Thank you for saving me,” a breathy voice said. “You were the first who ever bothered.”

“Peasant Dodo?”

Her breathy voice heaved into sobs. “I used my real info, too. They’ve been tormenting me every day. I can’t get out. Sir Arthur, you have to rescue me. If you don’t, nobody will.”

Her words echoed and faded, as though our verbal communication was as virtual as the game, and then I heard a click. She was gone. I ate a sandwich for mental strength and reentered the game, this time in search of Dodo’s profile information.

Her name was Barb Ackerman. She was thirty-eight years old, never married, and taught French literature at the University of Washington, which was just under ninety miles from my small town. In the picture of her–an actual untampered photograph–her face was plain, but her smile pleasant.

What the hell, I thought. This game was not for me. I sent her a mate request and waited for her to answer. I could do worse than discuss French literature over coffee with a young lady who had a pleasant smile.

Almost instantly, she accepted my request. “Thank you for letting me out of this prison,” she messaged me.

“My pleasure,” I wrote. “Care for a country bike ride this Saturday?”

“I’ll bring the wine!!”

And I’ll bring a rare edition of Voltaire. A book. An actual book. I deleted my profile and stowed the LoveMap away. What a farce.

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MapWriter 7.0, Error Log: You Chose to End the Unresponsive Program

Instead of a job in publishing, as her Life Map suggested she would have, Claire Chevalier took a boyfriend at Stark & Sons Publishing Group and a night position at Anita’s Diner. A smart woman with a degree in marketing had too much dignity to turn up homeless at the mercy of one Sebastian Cortez, otherwise known as Acquisitions Editor at Stark’s, as well as the Man Who Never Left the coffee counter.

Ostensibly, Sebastian lingered over ever-whitening coffee because he was in love with Claire. This should have flattered her, but it didn’t. She cleaned away his stack of empty cream cups, and then he, having nothing to play with, stared at her while she filled salt and pepper shakers.

“Your map just told me you need to go home and sleep,” she said, unable to temper the ragged tone in her voice.

“Your map told me you shouldn’t turn down love when it’s offered to you,” he said.

“I want my map back,” she grumbled. “And in return, you can have yours.”

“No deal.”

“Fine, I’ll take yours back to the Cartographia and tell them they made a mistake. They’ll deprogram the one you have and give me a new one. And then no map for you. You won’t have your future or mine.”

“Our futures belong to each other. The maps said so.” He hung his head over the counter with his hangdog way and finally pulled a few bills from his wallet and tucked them squarely under the brown mug.

Claire watched him disappear into the early morning, his pointy vaquero boots leading him to his actual apartment, away from his default coffee-bar bedroom.

“No seas cruel, chiquita! No seas cruel con mi corazón,” sang the cook.

When did she turn into a cruel woman? The late nights did it, the lack of sleep combined with Sebastian’s overt caricature of himself as he hovered over her every night. Before Sebastian, she had wanted love. Since Sebastian, she wanted love with a different sort of man, the kind not wrapped up in his own special identity. No, scratch that. She wanted the true Sebastian to emerge from his beautiful soul. Deep inside, Sebastian was sweet and refined, and the sweetness shone from his warm brown eyes.

Outwardly, he put on rugged airs. He was a Mexican! He was a cowboy! He was a manly editor who earned three times what she made as a waitress, only to procure historical romances about cowboys! who were often Mexican! and when they were square-jawed Anglos! they purchased mail-order, spitfire Mexican brides! And everybody participated in shootouts happily ever after. He thought so highly of his literary taste, too.

After her shift, she crumpled her apron in her bag, which didn’t contain Sebastian’s map. She didn’t care to study the life steps detailed on it these days because they always led him back to her. It had seemed so cute at first, when the map store, the Cartographia, had accidentally sold her his map, and vice versa. Their map steps led them to each other, and so they kept the wrong maps with the understanding that their chosen Life Paths would intertwine until death did them part. As interactive and scientific as the maps were, the magic of fate enticed them.

Your map is telling me to buy you roses. Your map is telling me to kiss you. It wasn’t cute any longer. Claire wanted out, wanted a new map that would advise her to find a different job and, possibly, a different man who lacked Sebastian’s dewy, romantic eyes. Scratch that. She didn’t want a different man, just a new map.

At home, she attempted sleep, Sebastian’s hangdog image caught in her head. Sleeping in the day was impossible. She ate a peanut butter sandwich because she was poor, and braved the rainy spring day outdoors, if only to walk to the downtown Cartographia store.

She plunked Sebastian’s map and her receipt on the counter. “I want a new map. You sold me the wrong one.”

The salesman studied the receipt. “You should have brought this back three months ago.”

“So? It’s your fault for selling me somebody else’s map, and you should fix it.” Yes, lack of sleep made Claire snappish.

“I can give you a discount on a new map, but the problem is your warranty ran out last week.”

“I can’t afford a new one. Don’t you understand? You sold me a man’s map. It’s your fault.” She unfolded Sebastian’s map and pointed to all the information that didn’t pertain to her.

The last step on the map lit up at the renewed activity. Go to the downtown Cartographia on your lunch hour, it said. The salesman made a funny coughing noise, and the door censor buzzed. Claire felt Sebastian’s fateful presence, and she turned to face him.

Sebastian didn’t smile. “I decided to bring your map back,” he said.

“It’s too late. The warranty’s expired. Did my map tell me to come here?”

“No,” he protested, but then gave her a sheepish look. “Yes, actually it did.”

She grabbed his map off the counter and shoved it at him. “I thought so. It’s time to make the trade.”

He didn’t argue. The sadness in his eyes was terrible, though. He shuffled back out the door with his own map in hand.

“Fine,” she said, and followed him out.

The tile outside was slick with rain, and her heels slipped on it. She might have fallen, but Sebastian caught her. Her map, however, fell in a puddle and immediately blanked–her life a big, black nothing.

She seethed. She hated Sebastian. This was his fault, and to make matters worse, he lowered her to the wet sidewalk rather than helping her up.

She looked up at his face, at the warm eyes peering down at her and blinking away what might have been tears. She pointed to her map.

“That’s all right,” he said. “At least we still have mine. Maybe it will tell us what to do.”

He unfolded it. Recommend your fiance to the marketing department.

She felt betrayed. Maybe she was always supposed to have a job at Stark’s. “You’ve been tricking me into a relationship, haven’t you? Just admit it.”

He shook his head and pointed to the word fiance. “I can only recommend you if we’re engaged,” he said, and offered her his hand.

Against her better judgment, and not knowing what her map would say, she took it.

For the first part of this story see MapWriter 7.0 Error Log, Case One.

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