This short story is dedicated to Ann Lindquist. Thank you for sharing with me the painting of the flying woman. I hope I did her justice.
There is a place that’s hard to describe, where story ideas, characters and even plots roam unfettered by having yet become. This place is by its nature vast and unpredictable, but to Opal, Danny, Sir Goodknight and Selimus Z. Seymour, it is home. That is, until the next sentence.
Opal recognized the arrival of her Assignment as soon as her eyes opened, though she didn’t want to believe it. There were often false alarms and the signs could be misread. Her hair color had changed a few times in the last year, and her eye color once before that and nothing had come of it. Staring at the police badge and gun resting on her nightstand, though, she had the feeling that this was the real thing. She had only known a few people who had gone through Assignment and she hadn’t known them well. Well enough to know that it hadn’t been pretty, though. She’d seen one of them since his assignment and he was different now. Fixed in place. Plus, he had an accent that put her off.
She shivered and threw back the covers, exposing bionic legs. That was new. She dropped her feet to the floor and tested her weight. The difference in sensation was minimal. Opal sighed, wondering how many surprises were in store for her before she too became fixed. She hoped she wouldn’t have an accent.
Her morning was dreadful. It was obvious at the station that her understanding of police work was generalized, and phrases kept shooting out of her mouth like, “book ‘em,” and “ten four,” followed by long silences from her new coworkers. Her only solace was the shooting range, where she was apparently a practiced shot. When she met her best friend, Danny, at their favorite bistro, his face fell at the sight of her uniform.
“When did it start?” he asked, pushing a steaming cup of coffee and croissant sandwich across the table.
“I’ve suspected,” said Opal, taking a grateful sip and savoring the flavor, “but this morning for sure.”
“It could be a false alarm,” Danny offered with a sad smile.
Opal squeezed his hand. The words weren’t worth saying. They both knew that they couldn’t control what was about to come. They ate in silence, and when she rose to leave, a nod between them said everything that it could.
That evening when Danny arrived at Opal’s door she didn’t really want to let him in, but she did. He dropped a stack of books on her coffee table, and only then did she notice that he wore round little spectacles, and a necktie.
“You too?” she asked.
Danny nodded, glancing with disapproval at the drink in her hand. She’d discovered several new habits with this job. She set the glass down and picked up the top book.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I think I’ve found a way around the Assignment,” he said, taking it from her and leafing through to the page he wanted. “Selimus Z. Seymour wrote about a guy who beat the Assignment, and I think he’s still alive. All we have to do is find him and ask him how he did it.”
“In a book?” asked Opal, picking up another volume.
“No,” said Danny, pointing to a line of tiny print, “at the Tower of Wisdom.”
“Forget it,” Opal scoffed. “Only the Assigned go there. The Inky Sea…”
“Exactly!” said Danny, pushing up his glasses, which had square lenses now.
“Exactly nothing,” said Opal. “Fess up, dirt bag, I’ve got a line on you.”
“I don’t think you’re using that correctly,” said Danny.
“Sorry, it’s the Assigning,” groaned Opal. “What I meant to say was that the Inky Sea is the most dangerous place I know. That’s where all of the creatures that haven’t been fully described live.”
“And the shadows that bite, I know,” said Danny, pulling another book open and displaying a drawing of a person being dragged into black by tentacles. “But I was talking to Bobo from the bistro today and his mother had some interesting things to say. You know she’s ancient, right? Bobo, too. They’ve been working that bistro since before most of us were here. She says that there’s nothing that those half formed spooky creatures dislike more than blackberry pie.”
“Are you pulling a fast one?” asked Opal.
“I really hope this cop thing is a phase,” said Danny.
“Me too, believe me,” Opal agreed. “What are we supposed to do? Strap blackberry pies to our feet and walk across?”
“We could try… Opal?”
Opal was pressed against the ceiling, suction cups at her wrists and ankles keeping her suspended.
“A ninja, huh?” Danny said speculatively. “Meet me at the Inky Sea in an hour.”
“Wait!” Opal called, but he was already out the door. “How do I unstick… wah… oof!”
An hour later Opal watched from the shadows behind a long dead tree while Danny navigated a shuddering and gurgling machine to the edge of the black water. Pure impulse compelled her to draw up directly behind him before letting him know she was there.
“Gah!” he yelled, clutching his chest.
His spectacles had changed shape again and his bowtie was gone, but a tweed blazer and slacks continued to paint a professorial picture. The machine behind him belched white smoke and a steaming pie slid onto a cooling rack on top. Then another.
“I borrowed this from the science fiction futurist baking lab,” Danny said grinning triumphantly. “This puppy pumps out eight pies a minute.” He plunged his finger into the first pie and scooped a heap of steaming blackberry into his mouth. “Could use some sugar,” he said through a tart face, “but they’ll do.”
“Borrowed?” asked Opal.
“You’re not a cop anymore,” Danny said with a shrug and a wink. “Besides, I’ll bring it back if we survive.”
“You really think we’re going to skate across the Inky Sea on pies,” Opal said incredulously. “After dark,” she added.
Danny grinned at her, and she looked down to see that she was standing on the black lapping water already, a pie strapped onto each foot.
“This ninja thing is unsettling,” she grumbled, helping Danny with his own pie shoes and lifting the pie maker while Danny affixed pies to each wheel.
“We have to go now,” said Danny once they were ready. “We don’t know how long we have.”
Opal took his hand, and again the rest didn’t need saying.
Skating across the Inky Sea wasn’t as simple as ice skating, where the frozen water stays still and flat for you. Especially after they got away from the shore and the winds picked up while choppy waves made their progress slow. The machine was too efficient, popping out steaming pies so fast that they had to stack them in a swaying pyramid on the cooling rack and were quickly running out of room to build.
A haunting groan rose from under the water and a tentacle slid past Danny’s pied foot. A short distance away, Opal spotted a large eye surfacing. She threw a pie at it and an angry wail indicated it was a direct hit. Danny threw one over her shoulder, and she turned in time to see the pie splatter over the nose of an enormous creature rising toward her with jaws open. Several more pies filled its mouth before it sank back into the inky water. Moans drifted away from them.
“Help!” they heard.
In the distance metal glinted in the moonlight. Pies flying, Opal and Danny carved a path through the half made creatures, finally meeting up with a man in a row boat wearing full body armor.
“Saviors in the dark night!” he cried, dropping to his knees and bowing. “My life debt is thine. Thou hast saved me from death unsavory on my quest to rescue a fair maiden.”
“Oh brother,” muttered Danny as he and Opal lifted the pie machine into the small vessel and stepped in after it.
“Debt paid if you row us to the island,” said Opal, taking a seat and tossing a few pies at shadows in the distance that might have been tentacles or fins, or perhaps just a floating log.
“At once!” cried the knight, setting himself to the oars.
Opal and Danny were able to catch their breath and snack. Opal fed pieces of pie to Sir Goodknight, as he called himself, while he rowed. The extra pies that continued to belch out of the machine they tossed ahead and around the small boat, clearing a path. Finally, when morning rays painted the black water red, the island and its tower loomed over them.
“How did we not see that from the other shore?” asked Opal.
The tower had to be the tallest building she’d ever seen. It seemed a column that disappeared into the sky. She wasn’t convinced that it actually had a roof.
“If it were not a tower of legend, it would be unworthy of questing,” said Sir Goodknight, though the look on his face didn’t match his brave words.
“Even questing knights are allowed to take a rest,” Danny offered, patting Sir Goodknight’s shoulder.
“Aye,” said Sir Goodknight, nodding, “just a quick nap perhaps.”
Opal and Danny turned off the pie machine and helped Sir Goodknight pull the row boat safely past the high tide marks, then turned to the tower while Sire Goodknight sprawled out on the tower’s green lawn. He was snoring within a minute.
They walked around the tower twice before they both admitted that there was no entrance. They spotted a window several stories above where Sir Goodknight slept, and when Opal turned to ask Danny what he wanted to do, she laughed instead. His glasses and tweed were gone, replaced by tossled hair, athletic garments and a climbing harness. He already had rope in hand.
“What?” he asked.
Opal found that climbing was no issue for her and she made it quickly to the window while Danny made a more methodical approach. A room full of young women turned in surprise at Opal’s arrival. They had been in their morning routine, brushing out each others’ long hair and lacing up elaborate dresses.
“You aren’t the type we normally see,” said a golden haired beauty, setting down a comb and gliding to Opal with practiced little steps.
“I’m looking for Selimus Z. Seymour,” said Opal. Do you know him?”
“Oh, he’s one floor down,” said the beauty. “You reached the damsels in distress and fair maidens floor.”
“Oh, sorry,” frowned Opal, trying to think if she had seen another window.
The maidens shifted their eyes to the window.
“Hello,” the golden haired beauty said invitingly. “We’re so glad you made it.”
Opal turned back to see Danny puffing with satisfaction on the windowsill. He grinned at the welcome and ran a hand through his mussed hair.
“No,” Opal said, dragging the beauty to the window and shoving Danny aside, “that is who you’re waiting for. He’ll be up soon.”
Sir Goodknight was just sitting up and yawning. When he saw Opal and the beauty he waved. Turning back, Opal saw that Danny was seated on one of the soft cushions, surrounded by overly interested damsels in distress and fair maidens. He was dressed in plain clothes again, though they somehow made him look heroic. Opal ground her teeth.
“How can we get to Selimus Z. Seymour?” she asked the golden haired beauty.
“Through that door and down one flight,” said the beauty, bored already with Opal.
“Come on,” Opal grumbled, pulling Danny from the cushion and through the door.
“It was amazing in there,” he said as they completed one turn of the tower’s spiral stairs.
“They were just trussed up in pretty dresses,” snapped Opal. “It’s not that amazing.”
“I like your dress,” offered Danny.
Opal looked down to find that she too wore a dress. It was long and elaborate; red, with fine jewels, and timeless somehow.
“This I could do,” she said, giving it a twirl. Her hair fell in thick waves around her shoulders and she felt pretty suddenly. “Now wait, what occupation do you suppose this is?” she frowned.
“I’d say any one you want,” said Danny.
The door opened beside her and an old man scowled at them. “Are you going to hover all day in there or are you coming in?”
His room was spare. A cot and a table were the only furniture and electric bulbs provided light in the absence of a window.
“Is this the floor of wisdom?” asked Opal, looking around dubiously.
“No, that’s up high,” growled the man. “You weren’t looking for wisdom, you were looking for me. And you did. Congratulations. I’ve avoided my Assignment for a thousand years, and you’ve destroyed that.”
“We came to you to learn how to avoid Assignment,” said Danny.
Selimus Z. Seymour made a rude noise with his throat.
“Fool,” he said. “The only way to avoid Assignment is to become as boring and unusable as possible. Be nothing. Do nothing. Drift past their notice. Now you’ve made me interesting and I’m being pulled into your Assignment. You’ve ruined everything! I’ll be stuck for eternity like this.” He swept his arm around at the bare room.
“How have you been living?” asked Opal.
“Like this,” said Selimus Z. Seymour. “I was avoiding Assignment. Remember?”
“Then what’s the problem?” asked Danny.
Selimus Z. Seymour swatted Danny’s words away with a look of disgust.
“So, that’s the big secret?” asked Opal. “Live like this so you don’t get Assigned?”
“I have another idea,” said Danny, pulling Opal from the room and starting up the stairs. “Selimus Z. Seymour hid from Assignment by being boring,” he speculated. “Hmm. We fear Assignment because we lose a say in who we are.”
“Exactly,” said Opal.
“But we don’t,” said Danny, taking them past the maidens’ door. “We haven’t lost who we are yet, though we’re being Assigned.”
“Once we’re fully Assigned, though, that’s who we’ll be,” said Opal. “Forever.”
“But we get a say in it,” said Danny. “Don’t you see? We get a voice. Rather than being boring, what if we make ourselves so interesting that even after we’re assigned we can choose to be whoever and whatever we want?”
Opal took his hand and squeezed it, saying everything that needed to be said.
It took some time to reach the top of the Tower of Wisdom, but they did. They stood at its top, laughing at the breathless beauty of it. They could see endless landscapes, shifting at the whim of inspiration. The wind spoke to them softly and Opal tilted her head back, drinking it in with rapture.
“Danny, I believe we can fly,” she realized.
“I know,” said Danny. “I can feel it.”
“Endless possibilities,” she laughed.
“Forever,” added Danny.
Hands clasped, they stepped out onto the air.
Written by W. C. McClure. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!