The Transformer and the Santa God Go Questing by J.A. Pak – FREE STORY

Do you really know the one you love? Are they the person they say they are? Are they hiding behind another identity, one that may have been hidden from everyone, including them? Who know who they truly are, and who knows if they were legends. Legends in life, art, or even…video games?

Snow. Falling in soft clumps. No wind. Metal shutters fully opened, view of the outside world sun-lit clear. Blinding. What happened to the thousands of different words for snow? Heaven sent storm.

How do you feel?

‘Good.’ Cozy would be the better word. Old habits die frozen. Back to work. She just saw an interesting ticket. Here it is. Sewer water filtration machines showing unfavorable AI mutations. Something similar a few thousand hexacycles ago. Long hours drifting into history logs. Snow. Hardening, thumping, shutters locking into themselves, sun discing hard into night.

Door humming: Visitor.

‘Visitor!’

Visitor Maf. Open sesame?

‘Maf! Open! Open! Open! Says Aye!’

His boots scraped the thawing chamber. Flashes of blue—the latest snowsuit! Privilege of being an air freighter. This suit remarkably thin, with a dashing stippled helmet that swept into half circles like the hair on marble statues. Freighters are gods. This one Santa God with a large duffel bag of goods.

Maf couldn’t get his suit off fast enough. Still like this, rush of sex, the calm of catch-up talk, then the methodical inspection of gifts.

‘When did you get back, Maf?’

‘About a week ago. Desperate to see you, but radio silence ‘til debriefing, logging, inspection, cleanup, reports, reports, reports—’

‘I wasn’t expecting you for another month.’

‘System freeze along Kale atmospheric river. If we hadn’t left when we did, we would have been stuck in EurAsia for who knows how long. Trip back was bad. Ship almost got sheared in half. Thank God we got through with the supplies intact. We’d be crunked up in emergency mode otherwise. Maybe even hibernation. Weatherheads think we’re in for another freeze cycle. You might have to come back in, Guini.’

‘What happened to the Great Thaw?’

‘They said we’d have cycles of freezes. There’s always cycles of freezes. Hopefully, you’ll be back upground in no time.’

‘I’ve been watching the snow. It feels different. Looks different. Ethereal. Like it doesn’t exist at all.’

‘Like you. Philosophical.’

‘Perchance you mean poetic.’

‘Same thing. All words.’

‘Like the snow which isn’t existing at all. Except in the talking. Very grounding.’

‘Never say that to a freighter.’

‘Rejinx.’

‘That’s better.’

‘Maf. I saw a bear. A polar bear. I know I did. I reported it to Central. They said it was a hallucination. They pumped up the oxygen in my pod and increased computer surveillance. Central is babysitting me.’

Mealtime.

Maf jumped off the lounge bed. ‘You’ll like what I brought you!’ He opened the duffel bag. ‘All the old-time food you like! Found in a wreck. Crashed pirate craft.’

‘Isn’t pirate stash supposed to be turned in?’

‘Sure. But no one cares about this stuff. Security groan when you bring it in. No one eats it but you. All pretty bulky and hard to recycle. Heavy as hell. This is how much I adore you.’

Five small cans, rust free. Faded packaging advertising sliced peaches, mushroom soup, mandarin oranges, condensed milk, cream soda. Several packets of dehydrated meals: chili con carne, mapo tofu, Korean fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, Spam. Stuck to the Spam, a mystery envelope. Inside, neatly folded and wrapped, bra and panty sets, three.

‘This can’t be.’ The labels: 100% silk. ‘This can’t be.’

‘What is it, Guin?’

‘Maf. This is silk.’

‘What’s that?’

‘A mythical magic fiber that wars were fought over. Tonight, I am an empress.’

Clothed in silk, the Empress served the Santa God canned peaches. Cream soda bubbled in their moss glasses.

‘To our eternal happiness! Long live the Empire!’

‘Long live Empress Guini!’

 

###

 

 

Thirty years of progress. What a shame to burrow back underground. A third of the suburbanites burrowed directly. A third swore they’d never go back down. No need. Pods generate their own power. Supplementary food’s being grown. They could weather any freeze. And if there is another atmospheric river drowning? Or a pod with a blown hole? Once the doors to the underground city shut, they would not reopen until the freeze was over. No repair bots from Central. No fresh supplies. Death.

Maf came. Her waffling was driving him crazy.

‘You’re moving in with me. Housing shortage.’

‘I haven’t decided.’

‘I don’t understand. You’re not a Potty Podder, Guin. Do it for me. I’m grounded for who knows how long. I need you to keep me sane.’

‘How big is your place?’

Maf grins.

She loves his place. Bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, balcony. He entered last year’s housing lottery and won a place in the ultra modern Las Vegas Strip. Freighters got two entries each.

‘Maf! Maf! You have the latest mist shower! Supposed to be ultra bliss, Maf! So excited. Going to jump in right now! Hey! Your windows are tuned to the African Savannas. Lion, and tigers, and bear, oh, my.’

‘How it came. Never bothered to look through the catalog. I’m gone freighting half the time. You choose whatever you want.’

‘And if you hate it?’

‘I’ll change it back.’

‘Or learn to like it.’

‘Or throw you back in your pod.’

‘Oh, you’re going to wish you’d never invited me in. I’m never leaving.’

‘Not bothered. I have a girl in every port.’

‘And I have a chicken in every pot.’

‘Which simulation is that from?’

‘I can’t remember. Think it’s from a book.’

‘You really read books?’

‘I did. Another time. Another life.’

Still the code for ‘end of discussion’.

 

###

Las Vegas Strip is a work-in-progress. Builders gone, artists move in. Every surface of the underground city is art. Tiled, painted, inlaid art designed to capture, reflect, magnify, divert, transform light. Central manipulates the light sources according to the season. Days are sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy. Nights have lunar cycles. The constellations move in coordination with the ‘real’ sky above. We mustn’t forget our true life. Our true selves.

By law, each citizen works a plot of land in the allotment gardens. Plot size varies. Enthusiastic gardeners build up their plots while those lacking green thumbs let their plots dwindle to small containers. Maf’s is a tub of rosemary gone feral. Hers is in the pod. Every morning and every evening, she tends her garden through Snail, her service robot. Guin as Snail has eyes that zoom like a microscope, data continually gathered, analyzed. Her fingers can snip like garden shears. She wonders why she has never inhabited Snail before—it’s been a feature for several years. Carrying around bags of fertilizer like they are fluffy pillows is lovely.

Garlic. Ready to harvest. She wants to pickle the young garlic, but now—better let them dry in the cold larder. Guin as Snail could not eat them. When would she return to her pod? The peas she shells and fast freezes. So refreshing, the springy, green grass smell of fresh peas.

 

###

 

Freighters keep nimble. Almost immediately, Maf took her to a cinemaplex: the latest King Artorius Quest had gone live and people were delirious. Barely seven hours into the simulation, they abandoned, frustrated by the monotony of headless knights and odd demands that run circular and at odds. The moody slate color palette didn’t help. And the medieval food was clichéd.

Her head hurt.

‘When was the last time you rode, Guin?’

‘Last time? I don’t think I’ve ridden since that simulation where we first met.’

‘No way. Why?’

‘It was such a lovely ride. Meeting you like that. Drenched in pink mist. Wanted to keep the memory pure.’

‘Most people would get right back in. Hunt for more lovely rides.’

‘Yes. Don’t know why I don’t.’

‘Want to try the Quest again? They say it gets better around the three-day mark.’

‘They always say that. You go. Get the exercise.’

‘I’ll probably do the full two weeks, which means 24-hour recovery.’

‘I’ll meet you after recovery. We’ll get café. You’ll be starving by then.’

‘Deal.’

Maf finished his quest. She met him outside Recovery Ward. She’d forgotten how eerily blue skin glowed after recovery. Maf was gorgeous in blue skin.

‘Quest improve?’

‘I went headless for a while. That was interesting. And no Grail for me.’

‘Couldn’t resist temptation?’

‘Never could.’

‘What I love about you. Meal—’

A voice—no—more like an emergency siren—cut through them: ‘Guin! Guin! Penguin!’

‘Hedgehog! Hedgey Hedgey Hot Hog! H…e…d…g…e…!’

They ran, hitting midpoint. Together, a dance, hands high twinkling stars.

Hedge talks like river rapids: I’m recovering from Komodo Demon Quest! Can you believe it’s Episode 100 already? Don’t tell me—you just did Artorius! Did that last week—spent a month trying to make a booking—wanted to be first but ninth session isn’t too bad. Luvved, luvved, luvved it. The Green Knight! So ultra sexy! The way he carries his head. Oh, my. And I can’t believe how good the horse experience is. Best jousting ride ever. The new B4T filters are unbelievable. What? Only seven hours?

Maf keeps thinking he’s still in recovery. This girl, a hallucinogenic, her energy level exploding his meters. She talks, she walks, and they’re trapped inside her cyclonic system. At the café, atmospheric rivers swirl all around them.

Where have you been hiding, Guini? No one knew where you where, what you were doing!

‘Just keeping my head down.’

It was so horrible. What happened? Just thinking about it is giving me hives. It could have been any one of us. Why did you just disappear on—wait—are YOU the reason Guin went underground? I’d keep this guy hidden too, Guini. What were you riding when you found him?

‘What! You two don’t know each other? Hedge, this is Maf. Bear Maf.’

‘Don’t tell me—you’re a freighter god.’

‘I am.’

‘I’ve never met a Bear who wasn’t. Is it some law that all freighters must be named Bear? Remember Squirrel, Guini? She was with a mad freighter also named Bear. The stories she used to tell about their multi-times simulator rides! I was shocked, and you know me—nothing shocks me.’

‘Squirrel?’ Maf pauses. And then again: ‘Squirrel? Squirrel Advent?’

‘No. Don’t tell me you’re that Bear?’

Hedge didn’t know this kind of flirting didn’t work on Maf. She tries several other flirt methods and gives up, realizing too: He doesn’t know Guin is a transformer. So Guin’s never recovered. Not wanting her heart to go toxic, Hedge hustles out with excuses about promised simulations.

 

###

He doesn’t ask questions.

Alone, cocooned inside his apartment, she feels the weight of this, confessions being squeezed out like she’s a collapsing plastic tube: ‘Hedge. She’s a transformer. So was I. I was J.’

‘You were J. No. Fuck.’

‘Fuck. It was fuck. You remember the lawsuit?’

‘Vaguely.’

It happened like this. A girl named Beaver came directly to J and asked her to transform her story. It was a beautiful story, like nothing J had ever heard before. Unbelievable that it was true. It took several intense months to transform. Beaver rode the finished simulation and cried because she thought it was so right. She thanked J for her diligence, her compassion. And then, Beaver balked. She had no right to tell the story. Friends would be hurt. She should never have come to J. A terrible mistake. Destroy the simulation, she begged. J would not. Beaver had signed the contract. She knew that once a story had been transformed, it was public property. J had destroyed simulations before. Twice when the storygiver had requested the destruction. But she would not destroy this one. It was too exquisite. Too transformative. The simulation went live. Beaver sued. Central dismissed the case. A year later, Beaver decided on life termination. The violation was unbearable.

‘I don’t remember hearing about the termination.’

‘They don’t promote terminations like they used to. Guess population growth is pretty stable now. I should have honored her request. It was her story. But, it was mine too. I lived it to make it true. Over and over I lived it, through every angle, iteration, possibility. I’ve never lived an experience so completely, so passionately. And for what? No one even remembers it. When it came out, it was insane. People berserk—all they talked about for months—you couldn’t log into a channel without stumbling into wild debates, unauthorized fan pseudo sims. And then—just disappeared from public consciousness. Only one ride in the last year. I checked. I should have destroyed it. It’s had zero impact. She lost her life for nothing.’

‘All this time I thought you live up in the Suburbs because you’re a wild and crazy gal. But it was guilt. You were punishing yourself. Like those self-flagellating religious zealots who went up ground and died during the Second Great Freeze. And all that weird food you like to eat? More punishment?’

‘No. Research. Transformers eat all sorts of shit, do all sorts of shit. Gotta make the simulations real. Old habits die hard.’

‘I love your simulations. I still ride them. The past is the past. Why do communal quota work when you’re J?’

‘Don’t feel J anymore. Old habits die hard, but habits are parts of the whole and the whole—my whole—needs regeneration. Simulations aren’t enough. I like being above ground. Being just me and alone. Me and you. Me and Central computer, asking me how I am. Feeling the bite of real frost. There’s space in my head. Do me a favor. Forget I’m J. Was J.’

A task that’s easy to feign.

Riding simulations, time constricts and expands. One week is fifty years. Fifty years, one hour. Keeps everyone out of trouble. Maf took Guin on freighter simulations. He liked the brute way she handled pirates. ‘My kind of woman,’ he would think to himself. But in the end, simulations are simulations. He becomes desperate for something real.

‘Maf. How about going on a real quest?’

‘Sick of riding quests.’

‘Not riding. A real, physical quest. How would you, Bear Maf, like to go on a real, live quest?’

‘At your service, Penguin Queen.’

‘Only those pure of heart can succeed.’

‘Let’s test my purity, oh Queen.’

‘Destroy the story. Beaver’s story. Obliterate it from the system as if it’s never existed.’

‘That would mean I’d have to physically break into Central’s archive building, hack into the system, find the root file, and delete it. Then do a complete cleansing.’

‘You said you were bored.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘Freighters are gods. They can make anything happen.’

‘Stop transforming me.’

‘The story file is Quest #CAD6DE. Heaven sent storm.’

He’s done shades of illegal—part of being a freighter—but this was pretty darn black. Was he up to it? He’s ridden simulations where he’d have to break into buildings—who hasn’t, right? But to physically break into a building, with real, legal ramifications. He’d lose his pilot license, his freighter certification. Never ride an atmospheric river again.

He’s bored out of his mind.

So he does it. It’s not that hard. No one bothers to guard the archive building. Sure, there are cameras, but cameras have blind spots—and how many simulators has he ridden? Some of the cameras are broken. Not what you’d expect from Central. The truth is ridiculous, sometimes.

He comes back. But the quest is left unfulfilled.

‘Guess freighters aren’t gods,’ she says wistfully.

‘No problems deleting it. I just didn’t.’

‘Why?’

‘It’s too beautiful. The story. I just couldn’t delete it. And that was just the preview. Now I’m going to ride the real thing. Tonight. Come with.’

‘The genius of my work defeats you.’

But would it defeat her? Only one way to find out.

#CAD6DE spans 30 years, but takes only three days to ride. It’s economical in that way. Also why it fell out of circulation. The popular simulations span two, three weeks. And epic quests the latest fad. No one wants ambiguity, the quiet story. Picnics watching the cherry blossoms fall. People cry when #CAD6DE ends—they don’t ever want to leave the story. Perhaps another reason why no one rides it. Not an easy escape into the next adventure.

How many times has she ridden #CAD6DE? Testing, editing, testing, editing—dozens and dozens of times. She was even in the same headspace as Beaver for that final test. She was Beaver. She’s still Beaver. Why she wants to live upground, in her pod, bathed in solitude. It was Beaver who made her go outside. It was Beaver who chose.

#CAD6DE. So much detail she discovers. As if she’s never ridden it before.

It is a beautiful story. Exquisite. Heaven sent storm.

Surfing on the detox of recovery, she sees, smells her voice as she’s saying this. She, saying many things, simultaneously, and she has as many ears as she needs to eat it all. She calms her breath. And she lets the magic dust from a thousand stories settle in her eyes. The quest is, and always has been, a quest to stay alive. And this they’ve ridden since the magic of first caves. It is our beautiful story. The only Quest.

 

 

END

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