Cace observed an inexplicable shift in the Ether. There was a change, a sense of pressure…but what it meant he could not tell. He took his attention off of Rolar and rifled through all the other modules of the machine, trying to find something that seemed unusual or wrong, but there was nothing.
Yet something was there, he was sure of it. Something in the atmosphere of the place had changed, and finally he was left to conclude that whatever had shifted must have done so outside of the machine, out where he couldn’t detect it directly. He knew of its presence only by how it pressed against all the systems that he could sense directly.
“Aylme, are you there?” he tried to say through his overworld body…but he could tell that the words weren’t escaping his own head.
He turned his mind back to the unknown presence. Something new had been unleashed, and that mysterious entity was weighing more heavily on his consciousness every moment, like a dark, heavy cloud growing more and more solid. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. It felt like a threat. And if none of the parts of the machine could perceive and interact with that threat, then it would be completely at the mercy of that outside entity.
Which puzzled Cace. How had the machine been able to survive if it hadn’t had any way to respond to the things outside of itself? One would think that some malevolent presence would have torn it apart long ago if the machine had no way to defend itself.
Oh wait…it had had a way to defend itself.
Cace turned his attention to the last fading remnants of the beast he had killed. Of course! Cace thought to himself. This was a monster even in the overworld! It had been the machine’s eyes for the outside world, the warden that could identify and eradicate any threat.
And he had killed it.
“Aylme, get me out of here!” he tried to shout, but once again the intention went nowhere. He tried to pause and listen inside of himself, tried to find the cadence of the Ether so that he could break free from its rhythms. But this time he couldn’t feel the pulse. Not even a little bit. Try as he might, he couldn’t find any remnants of the outside world whatsoever. It was as if this was the only reality that existed, even though he knew that wasn’t true.
Oh, Cace thought to himself, so this must be what it feels like for other people…totally confined in the boundaries of a single world.
He knew that he ought to be in a panic, but a shocking, yet reassuring, realization came over him instead: part of him never wanted to see the overworld again. Part of him felt like this was where he properly belonged, like he was finally awake and aware in the place he was supposed to be. The place he had always been, just hadn’t been able to see it. Out in the overworld things didn’t make sense, they were too hard to control. Here things followed rules that he could understand. There was a balance and an order, one that he had to be careful not to upset, but which he could bend to his will. The Ether had a right and proper solution to all sorts of problems that were unsolvable up above, just so long as he clever enough to find it. And maybe it even had a solution to the strange and pervasive presence that was crowding around this ordered, beautiful world. So long as he was clever enough to find it….
Cace turned his focus back to the last embers of the beast he had slain. They were slowly filing into the furnace that powered the machine’s core. Cace opened the functions of that furnace and found the control to manage the rate of consumption and turned it all the way off. Before long the machine core would run out of its energy stores and most of its modules would go silent again, but that was a matter for another day.
For now Cace took a closer look at the last pieces of the warden module. There were only bits and pieces remaining, and after trying to reassemble them he concluded that some key parts were absent entirely. He would never be able to cobble back together a complete entity.
But…could he make something new? Not quite the beast that had been before, but something that could still identify threats and protect against them?
He did find a few remaining instances of the module that allowed for the warden to identify entities which were separate for the machine, so that was good. There were not any more modules for aggressive action, though, nor for the planting of a new larva. Also many of the most basic components, such as locomotion and communication were absent.
One other key module was still present, though, and that was for the larva to connect to a host and refashion it as a duplicate of its own inner schematic. Of course that duplicate would be incomplete now, possessing only the qualities that had still survived, but maybe that would work out? Maybe the parts that the larva could no longer override would remain unchanged in the host. The larva could teach the host how to recognize external threats, but the host would depend on its original systems for knowing how to respond to them.
But what new host could he use?
Without even thinking about it, Cace’s attention slid over to where Rolar’s compromised system still pulsated. It, too, was incomplete. Rolar was surviving, but he would never be able to wake up and function as his own agent without replacing some of the shattered pieces inside. Maybe the larva could help replace those missing pieces?
No! Cace scolded himself. What am I even thinking?! He couldn’t do that to Rolar. He didn’t even know what sort of monstrosity that would result in. Half-Rolar and half-creature? That might be a fate worse than death!
But on the other hand…he needed to attach the remnants of the beast to some host now, or else they would finish fading forever. Already they were almost completely detached from the rest of the greater system. They had to go somewhere.
The next morning Gavin’s alarm had barely sounded a single note before he was on his feet and gathering up the tubes from his desk.
“What are you up so early for?” Curtis groaned from his bed but Gavin ignored him.
With the tubes tucked under his arms he marched to the bathroom and locked the door behind him. He plucked a fresh cup from the mirror cabinet and began to scoop out the water, then the apple juice, and finally the alcohol.
“Obviously they haven’t had as long to grow stuff as the first batch…but that’s alright, now I’ll know whether I get more or less depending on the amount of time it cooks for or not.”
No sooner did he say so than he found his answer. He had emptied enough of Tube #1 to see the dark splotches on its surface. The amount that had been there before was almost exactly doubled. Did that mean the amount of material mattered more than the length of time?
Tube #2 came next, the one with bits and pieces from nature. The black spots seemed to be made of the exact same black, miniscule threads as the first one. The amount produced also seemed similar, perhaps a bit less, but also the volume of material he put in had been less as well.
Unsurprisingly Tube #3 maintained the pattern. Black spots of the same sort of material, less in total surface area, because it had had the smallest volume of them all. Gavin also noticed that the rocks, glass, and brick had all dissolved, but the metal screws had only partially done so. He could still make out their shape inside of the third tube, though they looked worn and eaten away, as if they had been subject to decades of rust. Coating their broken surfaces were those same black, little strings. As the densest material, he supposed it made sense that they hadn’t been able to disintegrate entirely.
Gavin scribbled all this information into his notebook and then paused. What came now? For the first time in a while he wasn’t sure. He could produce patches of strange, black fibers, but where was he supposed to go from there? He was sure he could probably come up with other experiments related to feeding the tubes, but that could only be interesting for so long. He wanted something new to pursue.
He flipped back through the pages in his notebook and saw his old notes about fitting the pieces together. He had stopped pursuing that avenue for a while, and now it seemed interesting to him again. He could hear the noises of his family waking up, so he didn’t feel bad relocating back to his bedroom.
“You were up so early for that dumb puzzle?” Curtis grumbled.
Gavin ignored him and sat down, taking summary of the remaining rods and discs. He was quite sure he had fit together every piece that he could, yet there still remained 13 disconnected rods, 6 empty discs, and even his “islands” still had an unfilled hole or two. None of these pieces fit together, so he was back to the assumption that some pieces were missing from the set.
One of the holes in Tube #1 didn’t even look like it could take a rod. It had an obstruction in the middle of it, and was wider both above and beneath that protrusion. Thus there was no way for any solid material to slide all the way into it, unless perhaps the rod’s end had some spring-loaded mechanism to let it compress and then expand. None of them had any such setup.
Gavin open the drawer on his desk and sifted through his various supplies until he found his modelling clay. He took a handful and smashed it into the hole, prodding with his fingers until it filled every nook and cranny inside. Then he pulled out the top and bottom halves separately, reconnected them on his desk, and peered closely at the model.
It looked like a slightly misshapen cube with a bite taken out of its side. It was a little wider at the top than at the bottom, with a slanted edge causing the difference between them. Those same precise, right-angle lines had been molded into its side, which seemed a bit odd, because Gavin had not noticed them inside the hole when he had been peering into it.
He checked again, even felt the surface of the hole with his finger. No lines anywhere, yet somehow the clay had still been imprinted with them. Curious, Gavin took the clay and pushed it back into the hole. This time he would let it sit for longer, so he set his watch for five minutes and drummed his fingers impatiently on his desk.
“Seriously, why are you still playing with that stuff?” Curtis asked as he changed out of his pajamas.
Gavin shrugged. He hadn’t been going to any special lengths to hide his discoveries, but he also didn’t feel like sharing them either.
“It’s just something fun to do. Why? Does it bother you?”
“Only when it has you waking me up early on a weekend,” Curtis rolled his eyes, then made to leave the room. “Hey, don’t stay cooped up for too long, it’s a beautiful day out there.”
“Sure Curtis, I’ll come play soon.”
Curtis nodded and walked through the door. As soon as he was gone Gavin grabbed the tube. He turned it over in his hands while waiting for his watch timer to run out. He pressed his palm against it and paid close attention to the way it made his skin ripple. Could those ripples be what made the lines in the clay? But the ripples moved across his skin and the ones on the clay had seemed stationary. Still, the distance between each ripple seemed about the right size. Or maybe–
Gavin froze. He had been turning the tube over, and while doing so had glimpsed the inside. And in that brief moment he had seen those strange, black fibers from the previous experiment moving, crawling up the sides of the tube. He looked closer, and sure enough they really were moving. Not in the strange, sudden hairpin way that the bugs had done, but in a constant line, converging towards one common destination: the hole he had stuffed with the clay.
Gavin looked closer at the individual fibers that made up the dark splotch. They hand deepened their bowing motion, allowing them to touch their upper ends all the way to the surface of the tube and then slide their bases forward so that they step-by-step marched towards the foreign object. Once they reached the clay they began to prod themselves into its soft form, poking through it like thousands of little hairs on a white scalp.
Gavin’s timer went off, startling him. He dismissed it, and watched patiently until every last fiber had reached the clay and burrowed itself deep into it. Then he tried to remove the clay, which proved a great deal more difficult than before. It was far less pliable now, and as he pulled the top and bottom halves apart there was a strained cracking noise from its center.
At last he got it out and placed it on his desk, where he could see that the clay had been being transformed. It looked marbled, divided between two materials. About three-fifths still just ordinary clay: soft to the touch, gray in color, covered in fingerprints. The rest of it was white, glossy, just like the material that the discs and rods were made of. It even had those same strange properties of heating and rippling his skin when he touched it.
“So…these are changers,” he said slowly. “It eats stuff, and turns it into those black splotches, and then it uses those to build new parts…” he smiled broadly. “I’m not missing any pieces after all! I can make as many as I need. As many as I want.”
He still didn’t know why that was significant. None of these discoveries were actually useful to him in any practical way, yet it felt like it mattered even so.
Holding the tube under one arm he dashed down the stairs and out of the house. Once there he found the nearest patch of dirt and began shoveling it into the opening of the tube.
“It doesn’t seem too picky about what it eats, so I’ll just give it what I can get the easiest: dirt and water. And maybe play with the ratios. A bit more dirt and a bit less water. See if it makes more of the black stuff that way.”
He finished with the dirt and ran over to the spigot sticking out of the side of their building. He turned the water on and began transferring it by the handful into the tube.
“Hey, are you finally ready to play?” Curtis asked, tossing a football up in the air and catching it. Gavin hadn’t noticed him here in the yard.
“Yeah…almost…I’ve just got to run this upstairs and I’ll be right down.”
Curtis was looking at him with a bemused expression. Gavin was sure his manner of filling this tube up looked pretty strange, but he still wasn’t going to address it right now. He would probably have to explain things to his brother sooner or later though.
Gavin tipped in one more handful of water and the tube overflowed. He dashed back inside the building and up to his room. He grabbed another chunk of the clay and began to fashion a rod from it. He was trying to imitate the general dimensions of all the other rods he had, then he stuffed its end into the hole he had been experimenting with before.
Now there was nothing left for it but to wait…and this would probably take a while. So he might as well go and play with Curtis in the meantime, even though his mind wouldn’t really be on it. This afternoon he’d come back and see how far things had progressed, feed it more dirt and water if it needed it. Probably he would be feeding the tube for a few days before it could transform the entire rod, and he would have to think about buying more clay, too.
It did take a while for the rod to fully form, though not as long as Curtis had feared. He had been correct to increase the amount of solid material, and after a few more “feedings” he found the ideal ratio to be 80% solid and 20% liquid. With that the rod was completed in three days.
While it was growing Gavin set up a series of experiments to conduct with his other islands, so that he could test the limits of their abilities. From his first trial he established that the tube could not grow a rod in just any shape. He had filled the hole flush with clay, and then put another misshapen lump on its end that didn’t resemble any of the actual rods. The part in the hole transformed as expected, but the lump remained entirely clay. Bit-by-bit he prodded the lump closer to the shape of the rods, at each step pausing to look at the black splotches inside to the tube, waiting to see when they would begin moving towards it.
In the end the splotches activated before the clay was shaped perfectly. Apparently it just had to be close enough. Not only that, but the “close enough” clay ended up being altered during the transformation into the exact form it was supposed to be. That was how all the little lines ended up being etched into its sides.
So evidently there was a way that the rod was generally “supposed” to be…but now Gavin wanted to see whether there was any leeway allowed in that. He started by making a proper, straight rod, and it grew in just fine. Next he tried to do the same thing, but smoothly curved it to one side as it extended. The new rod grew in, and did so without straightening the piece out. He tried it again, bending it back the other way, and it also worked. So long as he didn’t try to have it zigzag back-and-forth, or make too sharp of a turn, he could fashion a wide array of possible rods.
Next Gavin experimented with the endpoint. After a few experiments he found that he could cap off a new rod with any of the already-existing slot-shapes and it would be accepted. Not only that, but he could also fashion it into entirely new shapes, so long as they were “similar” to the already-existing ones. Though if he tried to mold anything dramatically different, like a sphere shape at the end of the rod, it would be rejected.
Gavin tried growing a rod that was short and then capped off, and then he grew another that went for three times the length before being capped off. Both worked.
Gavin grew two incomplete rods that weren’t capped off at all. Then he put their incomplete ends together with a little clay in between, and inserted the whole contraption into one of his “growing islands.” The clay turned into the same rod-material, and it fused the two parts into one perfect piece without so much as a seam.
So I have to follow the fundamental shapes of the already-existing pieces, Gavin wrote in his notebook, but then I could really steer these into any setup that I want.
He paused to bite at the end of his eraser. What exactly did he want? He could join all of the tubes into one larger piece to see if there were any new properties there. He could try building a disc now instead of more rods. If he could accomplish that then he could make a dozen copies of the same tube, but each with slight variations to see if that influenced their behavior at all. Or maybe–
“So when are you going to tell me what you’re doing with all this stuff?”
Gavin jumped in surprise. He had been so lost in thought that he hadn’t noticed Curtis standing behind him.
“Curtis! You scared me. I–uh–I’m just still playing around with it. I still don’t know what it was meant to be. There’s not much to say, really.”
“Uh-huh,” Curtis raised an eyebrow. “Why are you lying?”
“Look, little bro. I included in you that stuff from day one, didn’t I?”
“Well yeah, but…”
When Gavin didn’t continue his excuse Curtis sighed in exasperation.
“You know what, if you don’t want to share, then fine.” He turned to go out the bedroom door.
“No wait,” Gavin said suddenly. “I’ll show you, come here. I just–I guess I just liked having my own little thing for a while. But you’re right, you shared with me first.”
Curtis smiled and sat back down, then patiently waited for Gavin to talk him through it all.
“So…it’s pretty weird actually,” Gavin said. “But if you don’t believe me about any of it I’ll show you and you can see for yourself.” He flipped his notebook back to the first pages and began from the last progress Curtis had seen.
He told him everything. How he figured out how to put the pieces together into islands, about how things floated in the middle of them, about reducing material down to the black splotches, about putting clay into the holes, about making new pieces, and even about all of the questions he had for where to go next with it.
I mentioned on Monday that with this entry I wanted to bring Gavin’s brother back into the picture. This would allow Gavin to start speaking and expressing his emotions, and cause him to become a character that the reader can settle into the perspective of. We can see the beginnings of that here, although thus far still we aren’t yet in Gavin’s head any more than we’re in Curtis’s.
The fact is this story has resisted getting into a specific perspective, and part of the reason why is because I don’t know where it is going. It is hard to commit to a specific point-of-view, when I don’t know what to point that view at.
Sometimes with my short pieces I start with a clear roadmap from start to finish, but sometimes I like to just explore an idea and see where it takes me. Instructions Not Included followed that latter approach. I knew I wanted to have boys exploring these strange devices, but I didn’t know what it was all leading up to. Sometimes this approach has led to some very fruitful discoveries, sometimes it meanders around and resists proper closure.