My (second) favourite – a randomly generated subgenre mash-up. The only trouble with these is I often don’t understand the sub-genres. I did well to draw Arthurian Fantasy and Artificial Intelligence, since I more or less know what those are about. This week we are challenged to write 2000 words in said genres. I cropped it to around 1700. I hope you enjoy them!
Merlin the Missionary
I spent two nanoseconds calculating the probability that I would get this assignment, the least desirable of all those listed on the Academy’s KHN database. It was supposed to be fair and random. It was a 3.6*10^-10 chance. Infinitesimal. Key Historical Nodes be damned. Someone had introduced bias into the assignment.
The important questions: details only revealed to the operative. Objectives? Return criteria? Return method?
I would come back when the mission’s primary outcome was achieved, namely the King Arthur was established on the Sceptred Isle. I would come back the same way I had arrived, via XKLB. I didn’t trust the Cross-Kronographic Lifebelt. Too likely to be stolen, since it was invariably disguised as a useful implement, or, worse, as a precious totem of some sort, depending on the stage of advancement of the relevant civilisation.
I checked my programming and activated the Human, Pre-10th Century expressions module, and sighed. I tried a few more sighs for good measure. Yes, sighing was an expressive way of communicating. Sounded good and felt good, a nice change. Some of the things in the late Krixxon module are both difficult and painful.
At the armourer I received a long cloak, and a staff with various embedded options, all of which responded to my palm print. Oh yes, I have palm prints. Never know when you might be in need of detailed bio-scannable data.
“This is your XKLB,” gre said. It’s hard to describe the gender of the Olefarians, so we use he, she, gre, bre and kre interchangeably. “Your call signal for this operation is RLIN, so don’t forget to sign any artifact with too.”
RLIN. What a name. I like more musical names like Andante, or Salieri, or even Hermione Granger, which has a nice ring to it. I donned the cloak, grabbed the staff and held the XKLB at arms’ length. It glowed, spun a neat web around me to form a bubble, and I was weightless.
I was weightless for 2.0135 seconds. That’s a long time in our business.
I was going back a long, long time.
I had weight again, 0.0002 kg lighter than normal. Lower gravity, but nothing that would affect my operational dexterity.
It was dark, and it was raining.
It was supposed to be the sixth hour from sunrise, which would have given me enough time to enter some sort of lodging without frightening the inhabitants. I looked at the tower looming ahead of me, and the straggle of wooden huts with conical roofs made from twigs, moss and other rubbish, huddling together like Pohawks on Diluvia. I supposed it was light enough for me to make them out, without augmented vision, so it must still be classed as daylight. It was miserable as sin, and my sensors registered in the range ‘tolerably cold’ for humans. Winter, then. A winter’s afternoon in the south west of the part of the island that would eventually become England. A few centuries earlier the Romans had described it as a God-forsaken hole, and they were accurate. And that had been summer.
I approached a hut, slipping in the mud and using my stabilisers to make it look artistic.
“Halloo!” I called.
“Get ye gone, vagabond!”
It was a woman’s voice. Adult, I estimated.
“I seek shelter for the night, fair maiden,” I replied, hoping that my databanks had the argot correct.
A dishevelled hag with straggly , colourless wet hair flopping about her neck, shapeless woollen clothes, and a smell that human noses would describe as ‘noxious’ stuck her head out through the drape covering the entrance.
“Are ye laughin’ at me, now?” she asked.
“Why, no, I had not seen anything to laugh at, madam.” I was genuinely puzzled.
“Wass yer name?”
“Ah, er Lin,” I replied, thinking better of spelling it. “I’m a traveller,” I added.
“Course yer are. Erlin, eh? Well, stop lettin’ the drafts in my house and step inside. Got any food?”
“I’m afraid not, Mistress…?” I asked her name, but she didn’t respond, just turned to tend a small log fire, over which turned some small animal on a spit. A string curled round the metal rod as it turned, occasionally dropping down. She saw me watching it.
“I’ve only got rat fer one. An’ that’s for me and Jimmy.”
“Er, your husband?” I enquired politely.
“Nah, he’s off fightin’ with the king. Jimmy’s me son. JIMMY!” My auditory sensors closed down automatically. I had to reboot them to catch up with her conversation. It did not appear to involve me, so I set my sensors to analyse the rest of the settlement. This was as rich as any. That’s a euphemism for abject poverty. Two deviations below a sustainable level, I estimated.
When there was a pause in her conversation with a small human that I inferred was Jimmy, loud or soft, I asked whether that was King Arthur that her husband accompanied.
I got a sour look, and realised she and Jimmy were busy consuming their dinner. The animal was no longer over the fire, and they picked small bones from their teeth, sucking them clean, then snapping them to get out any marrow. Sometimes I am glad I don’t partake of meat or other animal sustenance. Or vegetable, come to that.
“Who’s King Arfur, Mam?” said Jimmy. “Is ‘e the one Da’s gone to fight?”
“Na,” she replied. “Don’t know no Arfur,” she continued, eyeing me with suspicion. “King Ufer, that’s who ‘e’s off gallivantin’ wiv. Never a concern for me, not with winter comin on an’ all. Should have bin doin’ harvest three moons ago. Got in as much as we could, but plenty spoiled in the rains. Damn that Ufer taken our men away when there was work t’be done.”
Oh, suffering slimeballs and knock me down with a positronic buckyball! Uther was still king! I thought of asking about his son, but decided to be cautious. “So who’s in charge at the castle, then? I need to gain admittance to the king’s audience.”
“You speak funny. Are you a furrener?” observed Jimmy.
“Yes, I am. Do you get many furreners in these parts?”
“Nah,” he said, and scrabbled on the floor, finding another bone which he snapped delicately with black teeth.
“Ye jus’ go up ter the gate and say who ye are,” the crone said. “If the lady Elaine likes yer she’ll let yer in. If not, she won’t.”
That sounded reasonable. “May I go at any time of day? I would not like to cause alarm or offence.”
“Ye’ve got time before sunset.” I didn’t know how she estimated that. By my sensors, sunset could be any time from two hours ago to two hours ahead.
“I’ll go now, then, if you don’t mind.”
She nodded. I sensed her gaze on me as I ducked out of the hovel. The wind smelt sweet and the cool rain washed the soot from my face. I trudged up to the tower and knocked on the wooden gate. A small window slid back revealing heavy eyebrows and dark shadows underneath.
“I wish to speak to the lady Elaine, if you please.”
“Me? Er, Lin.”
I waited 5 minutes 25.62 seconds. I observed the style of the tower, imagined its internal arrangement, and listened for the footsteps of Eyebrows moving up and down the steps. It was consistent with him going to the second highest floor of the tower, speaking with someone for 30.44 seconds, and making his way back. He limped with his right leg.
The gate swung open. Well, opened a slit.
“Come in then.”
I squeezed through the gap and followed Eyebrows up the steps. My estimation had been correct.
The room on the second highest level was divided into cubicles by hanging curtains that moved in the breeze. I was shown into one, where a lady sat, accompanied by three women, less finely dressed, although none of them would have been acceptable in any decent company after the sixteenth century on this world.
“What is it you want to speak to me of, Meerlin?” she asked in a soft voice.
“I’m Erlin, my lady,” I corrected her, continuing, “I have a message for your husband, King Uther. When will he be back, pray?” I hoped I had the style right. These missions always tested the vocabulary banks, and we collaborated on data-sharing after every trip.
“Well, Merlin, he has been away some time, but we have heard he has been successful and will return tomorrow. But we cannot assure you this is the case. Would you entrust the message to me? I promise to deliver it promptly.”
The useful thing about sub-second thought processes is that complex calculations merely seem to be polite pauses.
“Perhaps it would be best for me to ride out to greet him, my lady. Can you suggest which direction I should go?”
“The messenger came from Odstock, he said. It is near the great circle called Stonehenge. Do you know it?”
Relief coursed through my emotion chip as I recognised a constant, a definitive reference.
“I do, my lady, I will ride out to meet him.”
“Do you wish to stay this night? It can be arranged?”
Tempting. But my rust-proofing would handle the weather.
“I will depart, my lady, the sooner to find him. Thank you for your hospitality. “
“Thank you, Merlin. I hope you will return safely with him. And what a fine sword you carry. Uther will welcome you with great joy, I am sure.”
I looked at the XKLB. I suppose it did resemble a sword. They’d get a big surprised if they tried to use it as one, though.
Merlin. As good a name as any, I suppose. I strode off into the night, heading for the great plain to the east where the druids had built a stone circle, moving great slabs of rock hundreds of miles along the Portway. I knew it well. After all, I’d helped them build it when an earlier mission had landed me centuries out of time. This time I was between ten and twenty years early, from the look of things. Maybe I could have some fun with Uther until the real work started.
(c) J M Pett 2015