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A controlled river of ink flowed forth, filling in the swirling, twisting trenches traced out by the tip of the quill.
A new being was born...
A sound. A nudge. Light.
Bright, painful light. Blink. Blink.
"I said wake up, sleepy-head. You can't show up late your first day on the job."
The world slowly drifted into focus like a polaroid snapshot. Bill tilted his head up toward his beautiful wife of three months, smiled weakly and managed a groggy attempt at "Good morning."
Evelyn didn't respond. She just stood there beside the bed with her hands on her hips, waiting for him to rise. After a few moments, and a yawn that stretched his jaws wide enough to impress a python, Bill pushed himself out of the bed and planted a light kiss on Evelyn's cheek.
She loosened up now that he'd made it out of bed. They'd only been living together since the marriage back in June, but she was already familiar with his habit of falling back asleep after the first wake up.
She returned his kiss with one of her own, this time to the lips. "Good morning, Hun. Coffee's ready, and toast just popped. Go brush away that morning breath while I put a couple eggs on the stove."
Evelyn headed for the kitchen, and Bill stretched his arms above his head while watching her cute butt bounce away with each step, the way it always did when she was happy. He could tell this was going to be a good day. After two months out of work - damn that Tod Harper, he thought - he'd finally found someone willing to give him a shot. It's not easy getting work as a writer, especially in a relatively small city like Blackfish.
Thankfully, a popular science-fiction magazine called Robots and Aliens had moved its main office to Blackfish last year, and there had been a note in the back of their last issue advertising for new columnists. Bill had contributed three successful short stories to their publication a few years back, so when he had stopped by their office a week ago to answer the ad, it hadn't taken much convincing for them to take him on. It wasn't much - a mid-sized column for each issue, along with editing duties - but it was work, and it was writing. That's all that mattered.
* * *
When Bill arrived at the building R&A was located in (five minutes early, he noted with a glance at his watch), he headed straight for the elevator and pressed the 'up' arrow. His new employer, Mr. Bradley, had instructed Bill to stop by his office first thing this morning. Bill was more than a little excited about his new job, and as the elevator climbed to the third floor, he cheerily hummed the chorus to some unidentifiable song he'd heard on the radio on the way there.
A gentle chime informed him that the elevator had reached its destination floor, and the doors glided apart. Bill stepped out and headed down the hall to the right, toward the office Mr. Bradley had interviewed him in last week. When he found the room he was looking for, he politely knocked on the partially opened door. Mr. Bradley looked up from his computer with a start, then recognized Bill and grinned.
"Welcome Mr. Thompson," he said as he stood and motioned Bill inside. "How're you this morning?"
"Great, great. And call me Bill. Listen, Mr. Bradley, I want to thank you for giving me this chance. It means a lot."
"I'm glad to have you on board, Bill. Judging by your resume and the writing samples you showed me, not to mention your stories from back in '98 and '99, I have a feeling you'll do really well. And as I was telling you the other day, you have almost total freedom on this column. Your predecessor wrote about everything from artificial intelligence to Zen Buddhism, and tossed in her own creative fictional pieces as well from time to time. Just write about what grabs you, and hopefully you'll be as big of a hit as she was. Now, before you get started, we just need to get these 'new employee' forms out of the way..."
An hour later, after filling out papers, receiving a quick tour and being assigned a login for the computer network, Bill found himself sitting at his brand new desk, staring into a big nineteen inch monitor. His desk was located in one corner of a square room containing three similar workstations. He was glad to find that his was next to the window overlooking the street below. Bill always liked to look out a window when he got writer's block. Somehow, it always gave him a good idea.
* * *
Mr. Bradley had advised him to start on his first column right away; all work had to be in by five p.m. on the fifteenth of each month so that the magazine could be ready to ship on time. Today was the eleventh. That meant Bill needed to come up with an idea, and fast. He wanted to do something spectacular to introduce himself to the readership and impress his new boss as well. Something spectacular, he mused. But what?
The computer screen stared back at him, it's empty page mirroring the barren desert of ideas in his head. He looked at the clock hanging over the door - 1:12 p.m. He'd been sitting at his desk typing and erasing, typing and erasing, for over three hours. All he had to show for it was that same empty page. With a sigh, he leaned his chair back and gazed sideways out the window. His eyes traced their way across the sky, jumping from cloud to cloud, his mind imposing shapes upon their billowy masses. In one, he found a large boat; no, a plane. No, not a plane either; a spaceship. He mused on the idea for a while.
Aha! I know! He turned back around to face his monitor, the prompt still blinking its unwavering challenge. This will be perfect. I've got just the character.
Fingers met with the keyboard and began their intricate dance.
Thin black letters marched across the screen, a column of ants following an invisible trail.
A new being was born...
A vanishing figure. A fading voice. Silence.
Total silence. Beep. Beep.
"Damn it!" Blake exclaimed. "I'll never get this Sim up and running in time for the Admiral's visit."
He sighed and just sat in place staring at the HoloSim control panel. He'd been at this program for three weeks now, and it was so close to being done. So close. It just needed the main character.
Blake had tried out fourteen different personalities to fill the important role, but none of them were right. This character had to be perfect down to the last detail. Blake was a perfectionist, meticulous in his Sim designs. He was famous for his realistic and compelling HistoriSims. It's all in the characters, he mused. I thought that last one might be it, but he just wasn't right.
Another sigh. Blake always regretted deleting his creations, even those that didn't live up to his expectations. The one he had just erased had been too boring, too hollow. The setting for this Sim was to be the end of the twentieth century, in an Earth country called America. It was a mystery story, and it centered around the main character. That's why the personality had to be just right, down to the smallest mannerism.
The exhausted programmer decided it was time to give up for the night and wait until morning to try again. He stood and stretched, grabbed his work kit, and then exited the HoloSim room, taking the nearest turbolift to the level his room was on. I wonder if Emily will still be up, he thought. He smiled. Of course she will be. She always is.
When he arrived in front of his doorway, he placed his palm flat against the hand-sized, circular scanner off to the side and the door slid open for him. Inside, his live-in girlfriend Emily was sitting at the two-person dining table sipping a glass of wine. Plates full of untouched food decorated the surface, including what appeared to be a roasted duck.
Emily looked up at him over the two half-burnt candles lighting up the table, and her sapphire eyes pierced him with frozen spikes of anger. "You're late again," she said, visibly struggling to maintain her calm. "Three hours late. You said you would be home on time tonight. You said you were almost finished with that damned Sim!"
"Em, darling, I'm sorry. I really am. It's just -"
"Don't bother explaining," she cut him off. "I don't care." She rose and blew out the candles on the table. "I'm going to bed," she declared, starting for the bedroom.
"Aww, Em, don't be like that."
She spun around to face him, her eyes ablaze. "Don't be like that? Don't be like that!? Come on Blake, I made this special dinner just for us. You said you would be home on time. You said you would be here. I'm tired of your damned false promises. Every night, you stay out working on that stupid program. I'm beginning to wonder if you care more about your little game world than you do your girlfriend here in the real world!"
"You know that's not true," he began, but she didn't let him finish.
"I suggest you sleep out here on the sofa tonight." With that, she stalked off to the bedroom, the door gliding shut behind her.
Shit. He fell onto the couch with a sigh. 'Little game world', she calls it. Little game world! God, she just doesn't get it. Sims were Blake's life, his passion. Designing a good Sim was an art, and Blake considered himself an artist.
Still, he thought, I shouldn't ignore Emily. Maybe I have been getting too wrapped up in my work. Damn it, I really screwed up this time. He got up and walked over to the dinner table, looking over the complex meal she had prepared for him. Roast duck, asparagus, garlic potatoes, pancetta salad, wine. She had gone all out.
He sat down in one of the chairs and tried to enjoy the meal despite his guilt. When I'm done with this Sim, maybe I'll take a break from work and go on vacation with Emily. I bet she'd love a trip to that planet in the Deneb system we visited a couple years back. I could surprise her with the news after I finish up the program. Maybe she'll forgive my stupidity.
When he was done eating, he cleaned things up and headed for the sofa.
"Lights off," he spoke aloud. The room's illumination vanished. Now I just have to find a way to complete this Sim...
An hour later, Blake was still wide awake, lying on the couch in the darkness. Try as he might, sleep just wouldn't come.
Finally, he gave up and rose. He stretched his arms over his head, then walked over to the far edge of the room, deftly maneuvering around unseen furniture he had passed in the dark countless times before. His hand found the circular indentation it searched for on the wall, and suddenly a wide panel to Blake's left parted horizontally and pulled away to reveal a huge window.
Outside the window, thousands of stars dotted the black canvas of space in every direction. Traveling just below the speed of light, the motion of the ship was still nearly imperceptible due to the sheer distance between solar systems out there. Yet every time Blake opened that window, he found a new sky presenting itself to him. Parallax accrued over time to reveal unique configurations, fresh patterns among the same stars.
Whenever Blake got stuck writing a Sim and needed new ideas, he would come to his room and stand in the dark looking out the window at the stars around him. He invented constellations, found images among the patterns of light, and somehow by the end of the night, he always found the inspiration he was looking for.
Tonight was no different. Blake stood in front of the window, his forehead pressed up against the metaglass, and connected the dots in front of him. It was an animal - a horse, in fact. But there was something on its back - a knight. Blake mused on the idea for a while.
Aha! I know! He closed the window and ordered the lights on. Blinking his eyes used to the illumination, he snatched up his work kit and headed out the door, back toward the HoloSim room. This will be perfect. I've got just the character.
When he arrived, he sat down at the console and began his work. The previous personalities Blake had tried out were all two-dimensional, with no real life to them. This one would be different, created from the ground up. This character would be an architect of stories, like Blake was. He would be eccentric. He would be creative. He would be perfect.
Four hours later, as morning was approaching, the work was done, and every minute detail of the character design was complete.
Blake prepared to load up a dry run. The 'Simulation Loaded' message came up on the control panel, and he hit the command to begin.
Electrical currents met with a microchip and began their flowing dance.
Beams of laser light bathed the room, generating tables, benches and even a man out of pure electromagnetic radiation.
A new being was born...
A pin. A fork. Check.
Check and mate. "Patzer. Woodpusher."
The old man shook his head with annoyance. "You didn't even try to defend your pawn island on f3. Were you trying to lose? You have to protect your pawns!"
His younger, defeated opponent silently glared across the park table.
"Why do I even bother?" the old man went on, speaking as much to himself as his adversary. "You young players and your 'speed chess' - it dulls your skills and makes you dumb. Bah, when will I find a real challenge?" He rose from the bench, brushing off flecks of chipped, red paint, and then turned and walked away without another word for his speechless rival, who still wore the same flat scowl.
The younger man eventually grunted and made an obscene gesture at the departing antediluvian's back, but it went unnoticed. The elder man was already across the park and being helped into his short, black limousine by its well-dressed driver.
"Take me back to the manor, Martin," the old man ordered to the driver once the latter had taken his seat up front.
"Yes, Sir. Very good, Sir," the chauffeur replied, and pulled away from the curb. "How was the play today?"
The old man snorted. "Pathetic. No one plays real chess any more. It's blitz this and lightning that. Slow them down and suddenly they can't tell a bishop from a knight. They double-guess every move. And they certainly aren't familiar with the old maxim that checkmate is just a form of torture for novices who don't know the word 'resign'."
Martin chuckled at the joke. "I see, Sir. Better luck next time."
* * *
As Martin was letting the old man out of the car at the front of the mansion, another vehicle pulled through the gate and began up the long driveway. It was a bright, cherry-red sports car, and when the man noticed it coming up the drive, he sighed. Without waiting to greet its occupant, he headed inside.
"Welcome back, Sir," he was greeted by a butler as he entered.
"Thank you, Roderick. Listen, will you please prepare the study and fetch some drinks? James is here."
"Your son, Sir? What's he doing here today?"
The old man shrugged and rolled his eyes. "Who knows. He probably wants money."
Roderick nodded, then scurried off toward the den. Moments later, the doorbell sounded and the old man answered it himself. The door opened to reveal a man of about forty years, wearing a business suit, with his dark hair slicked back and his facial hair trimmed into a vandyke. He carried a briefcase.
"Hello, James," the elder man said flatly.
"Hello, Father. May I come in?"
The old man stepped aside and motioned James in, then led the way into the study. When they were both seated and Roderick had left them with something to drink, James began.
"Well, Dad, you see...I've been thinking." No response. "About your writing."
A slight scowl at that. "About my writing, hmm?"
"Yeah. Look, let's face it, you're not getting any younger. It's been almost ten years since you published a book. Your last one won a pile of awards and is still selling hot today. The critics are still begging for a new book. If you were to release something in the next year, you'd be guaranteed a spot on the best seller's list."
The older man merely rolled his eyes. "We've been over this before, James. I won't pump out a book just because the audience wants it."
James continued unabated. "Come on now, Father. At least think about it." He pulled his briefcase up onto the coffeetable and began to open it. "Listen, I've been in contact with your old agent Ben Williams, and he thinks-"
"You what?!" the old man interrupted as he stood, anger plain on his face. "Who in the hell told you to do that? He is - was - my agent, and my writing is none of your business. It was my choice not to publish anything these last ten years, and Ben knows as much. How dare you go behind my back and contradict my decision!"
James stood now as well, his expression one of annoyance as much as remorse. "But Father, you don't understand. We're talking about a huge contract. This is even bigger than your previous stuff. All they want is a promise for a draft manuscript by the end of the year."
"Damn it, James. You just don't get it. You wonder why I stopped writing ten years ago? Well, this is it. This damnable greedy industry. It's always 'contract this' and 'deadline that', and the good writing, the real writing, is left to rot in the attic. It's a travesty."
James shook his head. "Don't be so stubborn. You know you want to write again. What is it? Are you afraid you can't live up to your past work? Afraid you've lost your touch?"
At that, the older man turned toward James with fire in his eyes and bellowed, "Get out! Now!" He pointed a boney finger toward the study's exit. His wrinkled hand shook with fury.
Grabbing up his briefcase, James took one last look at his father then shook his head and departed the study. Moments later, the front door slammed shut. The old man fell back into his favorite chair, and silently poured himself another drink. His features started to soften, and soon he was staring thoughtfully into his glass, watching the swirling currents and rising bubbles, lost in thought. Suddenly he snapped out of his musings.
"Yes! That's the perfect solution!" he said to himself before downing the remainder of his glass and standing. He called out for Roderick, who was there in a flash.
"Roderick, is Jonathan around?"
"No, Sir. Even personal assistants have days off once in a while," he joked, then seemed to realize the bad timing and his face turned to stone.
"Hmmph. Call him in."
"What, Sir?" the butler inquired, puzzled. "Now?"
"Yes, now. This is important."
"Right away, Sir." Roderick hastened away, and the old man took his seat again, periodically nodding to himself and smiling slightly.
* * *
A light knock sounded on the door to the study, and upon invitation a young man in his late twenties entered the room.
"Good afternoon, Emmett," the young man said.
"Afternoon, Jonathan. Thank you for coming in on such short notice."
Jonathan shrugged and smiled. "It's okay, I was just sitting at home reading anyway. Why did you call?"
"James came by today," Emmett replied. "He wanted to talk to me about my writing."
"Oh," Jonathan said understandingly. "Tried to sell you on the virtue of publishing again, huh?"
Emmett nodded. "I turned him down, of course. I swear all he ever thinks about is money these days. But still, something he said got me thinking."
The younger man sat down, listening attentively.
"It really has been a long time since I wrote something substantial. I mean, I've had you take down short pieces for me here and there, but never anything intended to be read - not in my lifetime, at least. These past ten years, writing has become a private thing for me. I wonder...I wonder if it isn't time I published again. I need to know. I need to show myself that I can still do what I used to do, that I can still write like I did when I was young."
"So you're going to listen to James after all?"
"No," Emmett replied. "Not that. I still despise those things that made me leave in the first place. I couldn't bring myself to do what James wants of me."
"Then what?" Jonathan prodded.
"I would like to share my writing again, but not like before. Sure, I could get a story out there through just about any publisher I wanted, and it would probably be a hit regardless of the story. It would all be in virtue of my name, in virtue of my past work. No, I can't write like before. What I plan, Jonathan, is to write anonymously, under a nom de plume. I want to get my writing out there again, but I want it to remain pure this time."
"I see," Jonathan replied. "That's an interesting idea. A good one, really. And I suppose you want me to transcribe it for you, like usual?"
Emmett grinned. "Bingo. You know my hands aren't steady enough anymore to write it on my own. Believe me, if I could hold a quill again - like I used to, all those years ago - I would. But wishing won't make it so."
"Could I at least use a normal ballpoint pen this time, then? It's much more efficient, and-"
"Bah!" Emmett stopped him. "Don't bother trying. You know I've written with feather quills my whole life, and I'll be damned if I'll let that change just because the hands holding the pen happen to change. Holding a feather quill builds character. It allows one to touch, ever so lightly, the writers of days past. To remember what it was like to write by candlelight in days before mass paperbacks and literary agents. When writing was pure and real. Indeed, I can hardly call anyone a writer who hasn't penned at least one story with a quill."
Jonathan sighed, but didn't bother arguing. "I take it, then, that you called me in so suddenly because you have an idea and want to start right away?"
Emmett grinned again. "You know me well, Jon. I knew you wouldn't mind; and I'll give you a substantial bonus for this as well." Jonathan smiled back. "Now, shall we start?" The older man pointed toward the writing desk at the other side of the study, atop which sat an old-fashioned quill and a bottle of ink next to a stack of paper.
Jonathan sat himself at the desk, took up the archaic tool and waited for Emmett to begin. The aging man did just that, pacing back and forth and flourishing his hands about as he dictated the words aloud for his assistant to transcribe.
Pen met with paper and began its hypnotic dance.
A controlled river of ink flowed forth, filling in the swirling, twisting trenches traced out by the tip of the quill.
A new being was born...
Illustration: Drawing Hands by M.C. Escher
Originally Written: 04-09-02
Last Updated: 04-09-02