Wolves

“Just how many wolves were you planning on making?”

“As many as it takes.”

“That… makes no sense at all. Neither does it provide a meaningful answer to my question.”

“Look, wolves take a lot of practice, okay? I mean, see that batch over there?”

“Yikes. What happened to them?”

“That was from last month. I got cocky. Maybe a little drunk. Anyway, I tried improvising off the formula.”

“And all their hair came off?”

“It turned into scales, first. Then…”

“Then?”

“The scales caught fire and melted into some sort of acid, okay? Not my proudest moment.”

“I can see why. I’m surprised they’re alive.”

“Well, there was an interesting side-effect. They seem to be immortal.”

“What, so you tried to kill them?”

“Ganymede thought it would be better to have them put down since they seem to be perpetually in pain. We’re still working on a way to accomplish that.”

“So no more experimenting for you, then?”

“Not until I have the fundamentals down, anyway. Ganymede says it’s a good thing we’re so far on the outskirts or I might have gotten in trouble for that one.”

“What’s this batch for, then?”

“Just refining little things. Tooth color. Fur texture. The sort of little details that really make a wolf work, y’know?”

“I guess. But, um… keep practicing.”

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Job Hunting

“Blacklisted?” Kathy exclaimed. “What do you mean?”

I threw my laptop down on the couch and myself shortly after “I mean that every single company I’ve contacted has responded with a perfunctory ‘no thanks’ or hasn’t responded at all. And I’m not exactly throwing around a commonplace resume these days.”

“Well, the job market…” Kathy started, trailing off when she didn’t even sound like she’d convinced herself. She came in from her office, dressed down into her winter PJ’s for the unseasonably cold.

“There are more vacancies right now than you could fill with the next graduating class from MKU,” I said. “Some of which call for only half my experience. Hell, I can’t imagine anyone throwing themselves at rune maintenance work like I do.”

Kathy cuddled up on the couch beside me. “So why do you think it is? I mean, you had nothing but praise at N-Corp.”

I chewed on my lip, stopping only when I realized it was already bleeding. “Do you think it might be the formula?”

“I don’t see how. You didn’t tell anyone about it, right?” Kathy said. “I certainly didn’t. Your notes have been locked up in my desk.”

“No, I haven’t even dropped a hint. All my work on it has been in my off hours.”

“What if… I don’t want to scare you, but –”

“Go ahead.”

“What if someone felt what you were doing? Started watching you?”

“A sensitive, you mean? You really think what I’m doing would stand out that much?”

“It’s certainly possible. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Who knows what it would feel like to a sensitive?”

“I… I guess it’s possible,” I said. “But even if that’s true, if someone had some idea what I was working on. Why would that get me blackballed?”

The room suddenly chilled, sending both Kathy and I into shivers.

“It’s because they’re scared,” a voice said from the door.

The door that had been locked all evening.

End of an Era

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go,” Mr. Jevol said. His face was as inscrutable as ever – and it might have been my imagination – but I thought I heard a hint of remorse in his voice. Probably my imagination. For as long as I’d known the man, he’d never emoted anything but dry cheerfulness.

Remorse on his part or not, I was feeling nothing but shock and fear. I mean: what the hell? I had literally, last week, received a star employee award with strong hints of an upcoming promotion. I struggled to react professionally.

“What the hell?” I asked. So much for professional. “I mean… I’m sure you understand that I’m surprised. Can you tell me the reasons?”

“I wish I could say,” Mr. Jevol. “It is out of my hands. Orders from above, you know. Out of my hands.” He shrugged, gesturing up to the ceiling. It was the first time I’d heard him make mention of a higher authority. Jevol always acted like the buck stopped with him in all things. I mean, on some level I knew there had to be someone. An owner, a board of directors, or something like that. He just never talked about them.

Unfortunately, that also meant there was no real reason to argue here. “I… I’m really sorry to hear that, sir. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my recent time here. I had really planned on staying for the foreseeable future. Is there any – any sort of recourse? An appeal I might make?” I was starting to sound whiny, I knew, but at this point I didn’t really care.

Jevol shook his head slowly. “Their word is final, I’m afraid. Someone’s already cleaned out your desk for you. The box should be forwarded to your house.” He stood up, extending his hand. “I wish things were different, you know. When you need a recommendation for your next job, you will receiving nothing but good words.”

I nodded and shook his hand numbly, standing to leave. “I appreciate that, sir. I… I suppose I’ll see you around.” I turned to the door.

“Indeed so, Mr. Philips,” Jevol said. “I imagine you will.”

Mathemagic

“So what do you think?” I asked for the fifth time. Kathy had looked away from the sheaf of papers, so maybe she was actually done reading this time. She looked up at me, this time without the glare of annoyance.

“I think your penmanship is atrocious,” she said. “And that you seriously need a remedial class in basic algebra.” Her mouth was tucked in at the ends, though. I knew what that meant.

“You think I really have something?” I asked. I had been pacing the whole time she read my summary. I started again. “Even with the horrendous math? I mean, the equations are kind of –”

Kathy laughed in her usual glittery-waterfall way. “Oddly enough, more than half your errors are canceled out by other errors. It actually looks like a really solid basis. Have you ever looked into particle modeling?”

“Um,” I began. I briefly considered acting like I had. I hated looking ignorant. On the other hand, Kathy always saw right through it. “I have no idea what that is.”

“It’s…” Her mouth twisted as she pondered her explanation. “It’s kind of hard to explain without a graduate-level course or two. Fortunately, there’s computer programs that take care of the heavy lifting these days. It might be able to help you prove this out with the side benefit of not risking killing yourself in the process.”

“Always an added bonus,” I replied. “I only get the one free resurrection per year and I’d rather save it for something important.”

Kathy waited for me to laugh. I didn’t. Then she laughed herself as she realized I wasn’t joking.

Art Education

“And, that, my friends, is how you paint a universe into being,” Kalela said. She set her brush down with finality, letting the last drabs of primal essence dissipate into the solvent. “Any questions? Yes, you there in the front.”

“Why did you use so much of that blue color everywhere?” the student asked. It was one of the more ethereal types, swirling and roiling its shape as Kalela watched.

“That’s something called ‘water’,” Kalela replied. “I don’t imagine it’s very common where you come from. In the more corporeal realms – like this one I made here – it’s actually quite important.”

“Yuck!” shouted a voice from the back. Jiriji was his name, she remembered. He always found something to say. “Who wants water everywhere? It’s gross!”

Kalela smiled tolerantly. “Well, not all of us are as soluble as your kind, Jiriji. There are many kind of life out there that thrive on water.”

Jiriji lashed his tentacles and sulked. “We’d be better of without them both,” he muttered.

Kalela’s heart sank. She had been trying to reach all of them about the glory and diversity of life this semester. Some just didn’t want to think that way. Hopefully, Jiriji would not become the sort they had to lock away in a prison dimension when he grew up.

“There’s an excellent knowledge tap on water, its benefits, its drawbacks, and some of its inhabitants. I think you should all access it for next time. I might have a quiz!”

Potential

“So… what you’re looking at here is, essentially, the source code of the universe.” Devon paused a few moments to let that sink in with appropriate gravitas.

“What, like the Matrix?” Elene asked. She popped her bubblegum and looked distractedly over the walls, lined with runes and arcane drawings.

Devon sighed and restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Children. “No, not like the Matrix, Elene. This is not a simulation. This is not a computer. This is the inner workings of the very reality in which we live. From here, with the proper knowledge, you can change anything and everything. Remake the world to the limits of your imagination.”

“So, like, I could make my hair pink all the time?” Elene asked. At least Devon had her attention where it belonged now: on the book in his hands.

“You could raise up the downtrodden. End poverty forever. Make humankind immortal.” Devon inhaled at the rush of ideas. This child had so much potential. He could see it in her, the ability to not just read what was written here, but edit it, change it. She could be like a god and it would all start here. “Anything you have ever dreamed or wished could me made true. And with my guidance –“

“I could make my hair pink, then?” Elene asked.

Devon turned his eyes down and closed their lids. “Yes, Elene, you could make your hair pink.”

Keeping Up Morale

Hand reached up from the earth as Nikraal walked by. He was careful to stop at each one, shake it firmly, and give some perfunctory compliment before moving on. It never hurt to keep the minions happy, even the gravelings. It would be a dangerous time indeed to need to pull them from the ground. But morale was morale.

Which, of course, lead to Nikraal’s primary business of the day. The ghouls of St. Kapperlin’s cathedral had gone on strike. It was difficult to blame them, inconvenient as it was. They had done their job too well. Kapperlinton was a barren waste. The people had been whittled down to nearly nothing. Most had been killed, either eaten or turned over to Nikraal’s laboratory. The rest had fled. Only one man remained and he was so mad even Nikraal hesitated to interact with him.

So the ghouls were starving. They refused to move on, having established their families in the cathedral. They were demanding regular shipments of corpses in order to keep working in the field. And not just any corpses, of course. They had to be fresh. Some were even making pickier demands.

In ages past, Nikraal would have simply sent Bi’thoren to raze the area and call it a loss. Unfortunately, ghouls were getting harder and harder to come by. The Crusade of the Sun to the north had wiped out many families. Nikraal expected to need their specific skills in the coming months. So here he was, venturing on foot to this ridiculously sacred ground to play the peacekeeper.

Ha! There was an epithet nobody would ever put on his gravestone. Assuming he ever had one, of course.

Cramped Quarters

I’m going to reveal a truth that you may find very surprising. Being cramped into a 4 foot cell for the better part of a week for an interplanetary trip is not good for your mental health. Okay, maybe not that surprising. Forgive me as I try to work out my brain muscles again. They atrophy very quickly, it appears.

There are those who had it “worse” than me, shipping in the coffins below the main deck. They at least had the fortune of being dead. They didn’t really need the extra space. And of course there were plenty of others on the same ship. I doubt any of the others were six-foot-seven, though. There aren’t a lot of us who grew up on Medea. Even fewer of us ever leave.

Oh, did I mention the ship was built to transport Carlaxi? They average about five feet as adults. So none of the fixtures or amenities, such as they were, really came to the correct scale, either.

Okay, I’m just dwelling now. The trip is done. I have at least a week on land to try to work out all the cramps in my back and legs. If I’m lucky, this place will even have a proper masseuse. My last landing point didn’t have anything that qualified unless you were looking for “happy endings.” Not really my style and certainly not what I’m in the mood for now.

I can hear my parents now, questioning why in Heaven I wanted to become an interplanetary salesman. At times like this, I struggle to remember the answer.

Rites of Passage

“I have to admit, Fenru,” Aka said. “When you said it was a ‘baptism by fire’…” Aka looked out at the brilliant light flickering over the audience. “I didn’t think it would be quite so literal.”

Fenru looked over, their brow furrowed. “Whatever else would I have meant?” On the platform at the front of the crowd, the bonfire was being stoked ever-higher for the coming rites. A train of servants bearing seasoned wood trailed around to the back of the temple.

“It’s just, where I’m from, it… you know what, nevermind.” Aku shook their head. “How your people have survived this long I will never understand.” It had been a major step forward when their cities had agreed to a cultural exchange. Throughout their history, they had been in one of two states: war, or steadfastly ignoring each other. This peaceful mingling was a new concept.

Fenru straightened up to glare down at Aku from their towering height. “We survive because we are strong. This rite proves our strength. Something I would, indeed, not expect your people to understand.”

A very new concept, Aku thought. They held their hands up in placation. “I mean no offense. It is obvious to us you are a strong people. I look forward to seeing this rite. We have nothing like it in Meilopa.”

Fenru’s face smoothed as quickly as it had furrowed, his teeth showing in their smile. “Indeed you have not. Our youth will amaze you in this year’s trial. It is a promising group this year. We expect fully half to survive.”

Aku broke into a fit of coughing, clearly caused by the smoke drifting their way.

Blind Agnosticism

“I don’t really believe in God,” William said. He braced for the inevitable reaction and was not disappointed. Ursula stopped her digging. The bewildered gaze she gave him was a familiar one.

“What?” she asked. “Have you not actually met the guy? Or the girl? I mean, there are at least three of them on record.”

They really were pressed for time here, so William returned to his digging, resenting that Ursula had left her shovel dangling. It’s not like she was saying anything he hadn’t heard before. “It’s not about that,” he said. “It’s more that I don’t believe in the idea of God, you know what I mean?”

“No,” Ursula replied. “I really, really don’t. I mean what’s to believe? There is at least one God, possibly more if you’re not into the trilocation theory. They created the universe. They’ve even proven it. Shown us how it’s done. There are scientific papers on it.”

“Look, can we just go back to digging?” William said. “I don’t mind if your belief system thinks praying will help us out here. It doesn’t bother me. Just don’t expect me to join in.”

Ursula started prying away at the clay again, though it was obvious her heart wasn’t in it. “It’s fine if you don’t pray or anything. Lots of people don’t. I just don’t get your belief being in direct contradiction of the facts.”

William sighed. This discussion really did get old. “I just don’t see that there’s any reason to believe he/she/they are God in any useful sense. Even if they made the universe, answer prayers, all that. It just means they’re a powerful being. Doesn’t mean they’re God.”

Ursula shook her head but finally bent her shoulder to the work again. “I think your standards for God might be entirely too high.”