Short Story: “Puzzled”

Getting involved is not always a choice.

by P. Orin Zack

“I thought I’d find you in here.”

The stark white room was supposed to have been secure. But then, architecture at the Great Interdimensional Library always was more mind than matter. Ask anyone who accidentally found themselves wandering its halls during an especially vivid dream. Except that it wasn’t a dream. In some respects, it was more real than the places those dreamers had gone to sleep. In others…

Hilbran looked up from the tiny flag fluttering on the jigsaw piece squirming in his hand and turned around. “Which, of course, is why you did,” he said, annoyed at the intrusion. “Tell me something, Sev, does it ever bother you that your obsession with free will is contradicted by how the Library works? After all, that door behind you only manifested because you wanted to find me. Anyone who knows about this room would have come in from over there.”

Sev glanced at the animated puzzle piece in Hilbran’s hand, and then at the open hallway he was gesturing at across the room. Two people had just entered, a woman with gray-streaked hair and a much younger man carrying a leather case. “You needed a team this time? I thought dropping into a working reality and mucking things up was more of a solo gig.”

“Only for control freaks like you.”

The pair strode towards them and stopped smartly, flanking Hilbran on either side.

Sev eyed the man’s case suspiciously. “What’s in that, holy scripture you’re going to lay on the locals?”

“Research.” He set it on the table beside the moving picture, the finished portion of which showed a crowd of protesters arrayed along a fence that edged the broad lawn of a large white building.

Hilbran touched the puzzle, freezing the action, and placed his flag atop the building. When he withdrew his hands, the newly placed piece merged with the rest, its distant stars and stripes flapping in the same pictured breeze as the banners held by the fenced-out crowd in the foreground.

“Well,” Sev said impatiently, “do I have to open that case myself, or are you going to tell us what you found? That is the point of doing research, after all.”

The young man slid the case away, and turned to Hilbran. “Who’s the pest?”

“It’s okay, Tori. Sev can be a pain in the ass, but he’s harmless. In fact, since he’s here, I was thinking that he might actually be useful to bring along.”

The woman, who had been watching Sev during all this, held up a finger. “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “Can you think on your feet? Make believable excuses on the fly?”

“Don’t answer that, Sev,” Hilbran warned. “Look, Neela, I don’t think you ought to trust Sev to hide our trail. He’s not here to help.”

She smiled mischievously. “So I gathered. But that’s exactly why I’d like him along. Do you realize how much trouble we could find ourselves in if we left a coherent record of our visit? Believe me, I have no wish for anyone to go building some religion about me behind my back. So I figure taking him along ought to dispel any chance of that in a big hurry.”

“Well, then,” Sev said, visibly satisfied, “If I’m going to be part of the team, shouldn’t you folks let me in on what you’re planning? I mean, if you want me to do some fast talking, I really ought to know why.”

Tori sized him up for a moment, then crossed his arms and leaned against the table, his back to the case. “All right. I’ll give you a chance. You can start by telling us why we can’t just leave things be, why it’s important to do preventive reality maintenance once in a while.”

Sev briefly raised a withering gaze to the ceiling. “Deliver us from fools. I’ll tell you why I think you believe it’s necessary. Will that be good enough?”

“I’ll let you know. Shoot.”

“Thanks for giving him some rope,” Neela said as she grabbed a chair and got comfortable. “This way I can see his technique.”

“As I understand the assertion,” Sev said, emphasizing the last word, “there’s an imbalance in the way psi energy disperses inside some created realities. When a carnate soul has an intense reaction to a person or a place, some of it lingers long after the incident that caused it is over.”

“What sort of reaction?” Neela prompted.

“Anger, hatred, there’s a whole spectrum of emotion. Anyway, it builds up over —.”

“That’s all?” Tori interrupted. “Just bad feelings? You think we’re planning to risk fracturing a whole reality over someone’s hurt feelings? Did it ever occur to you that the jerks who make people mad enough to lay on curses might have some motive beyond just making someone have a miserable day?”

“Like what?”

“In a word, power: political power, economic power, military power. But they’re all just ways it’s expressed. The key ingredient is power. And the reason people in this reality we’re planning to visit are so filled with rage is that this power was gained at their expense. They’re penned up in a maze of traps set by the fools who had tricked them into relinquishing their sovereignty. That level of frustration has to be relieved somehow. Ordinarily, there would have been a revolution to ground it… to even things out, but the people benefiting from that accretion of power have foreclosed the choices of the masses they’ve been oppressing. If we don’t intervene, every one of the souls that are carnate in that reality could end up with no world to wake back into. You don’t want to be around when their communal anguish ignites.”

Sev waited for Tori’s excitement to wane before responding. When he did, it was with one word. “Could.”


“You said it could happen. You don’t know that it will. Nobody does.”

“You’re right. It’s not certain. But you know what? It has happened in other realities. That’s part of what I’ve been looking into, part of my research. And when it does, it doesn’t only affect everything and everyone inside that reality. You know that, just like you know that there’s really no innate difference between any of the viable dream worlds we visit and the ones whose carnate souls consider the Library to be a dream.”

Sev sneered. “Sounds personal. Are you sure you should even be part of this team? Maybe you ought to be recused for having a personal stake in the outcome. I mean, if you’re just here to save your dream-self some grief, maybe what you need is some counseling.”

“Bravo!” Neela said, clapping slowly. “A personal attack. You’d fit right in with the power elite that’s brought the place we’re going to the brink of collapse. I’m sure you’re safe from deification.”

“In that case,” Hilbran said, “can we get started?” He turned and drew their attention to the unfinished picture on the table. “As you can see from the puzzle I’ve been working on, it’s getting ugly in there. Sev, this building is the nexus of the problem we’re facing. It’s called the White House. It was intended to be the home of the leader of what was originally a coalition of geographical enclaves called states. During the span of a few carnate lifetimes, those intent on acquiring control used a bit of contrived linguistic drift to reframe the idea uniting them, and their community of states became a unitary power called United States. That nation, and the people that control it, now threatens the reality it exists in.”

Sev bent closer to examine the people in the foreground. They wore various shades of flesh, and not one of them looked happy. “And these? Who are they?”

“Those?” Tori said. “The angry people outside that fence have been marginalized by the government their predecessors had set up to look out for them.”

“So why don’t they just storm the gate and depose their dictator? Isn’t that the way these things are usually handled?”

“It’s not that simple, Sev,” Neela responded. “The man in charge isn’t really a dictator. I mean, he is, but he isn’t.”

“What? Make up your mind. What is he?”

“The government they created,” Hilbrand said, his finger hovering near the flag he’d placed, “is a kind of hybrid, a representative republic. Power is divided among several groups, with rules on what they do and how they balance each other out. So the leader, who is a member of a business dynasty called Bush, was actually elected.”

“Appointed,” Tori corrected. “Appointed by judges his father had installed years earlier.”

“But I thought Hilbrand said he was elected. So which was it?”

“Both. And neither. The election was rigged. The judges resolved the challenge by selecting a winner.”

“Well,” Sev said, “in that case, I can understand why people might be upset. But an elected dictator? How did they end up with that?”

“It’s a long story,” Neela said, “but the key event was something that should never have been allowed to happen.”

“By the people in this United States?”

“No, by us, by the people here at the Library. By anyone who thinks that misusing our ability to grasp an entire timeline as a gestalt is wrong. You see, about two carnate lifetimes before this, a clerk working for their high judges, their Supreme Court, inserted a comment into the preamble to a ruling regarding an amendment to their constitution – the rules they rule themselves by, so to speak – which reframed the amendment to benefit a group of wealthy men who ran a transportation system called railroads. That comment enabled commercial organizations to acquire rights that were supposed to have been reserved for carnate souls.”

“I don’t follow,” Sev said. “What does a bad decision by a clerk in what might as well be a dream have to do with us?”

“Everything. You see, that clerk just happens to be an extension into that reality of one of the souls who are using these dynastic webs to explore the effects of causal interaction on mass movements. They inserted that clerk into this reality after events in it had gone in a different direction, so they could spawn off a private little hell to experiment with.”

“And nobody noticed for how long?”

Hilbran held up a hand. “That’s besides the point. Once their forked reality became viable, it was as valid as any other. We can’t remake that decision. What we can do is keep this version of Earth from self-destructing.”

“All right, all right. I’ll accept that as a given. So what’s so important about this building? It is just a building, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Tori agreed. “But it’s also been turned into a surrogate for any number of fictional ‘corporate’ people that actually hold power as a result of that clerk’s intervention. And from what I’ve found out, the puppeteers crafting events and driving movements in there have managed to tangle different parts of their internal timeline together. Destructive energy from conflagrations of their recent past – say a few hundred years – are being used to reinforce the divisions they’ve created within the population. Some of them have noticed this, and are showing others how the events in their lives mirror those of the past, but it’s like digging a hole in mud. They’re not making much progress.”

Sev sighed. “Doesn’t that just mean that all you’re doing is attempting to thwart the experiment the group that inserted the clerk are conducting through the agency of carnate souls currently living in this reality? How is that fair to anyone?”

“Finally,” Hilbran said, relieved. “If you agree that the whole situation is unfair, then will you help us to straighten it out?”

“If it means throwing a monkey wrench into someone’s plans, of course I’m interested. What did you have in mind?”

He considered briefly, and then turned to scoop up a loose piece that lay near the flag he’d attached earlier. The amoeboid bit of moving picture squirmed in his palm, flashing glimpses of protester, sign and sky. “Have you ever played with one of these Brownian jigsaw puzzles, Sev? They’re very instructive.”

A shrug. “Toyed with ‘em once or twice. But I thought they were mostly for therapy. What’s your interest in it?”

“There’s a good bit of useful metaphor in how they work. I mean, besides the obvious reminder that life, like the puzzle, isn’t a spectator sport. The pieces may keep changing their shape, but the puzzle will never spontaneously put itself together. That requires intervention, and the intention to complete the picture. Unfortunately, the people being subjected to a continuing stream of scare tactics in our subject reality have gotten caught up in the trap of expecting that change, for its own sake, will solve their problems.”

“Those protesters in Hilbran’s puzzle,” Tori said, “have aligned themselves with one of the two major political parties that have passed control of their government back and forth for several generations. The people behind the charade they’ve bought into have successfully framed their political narratives like they were some kind of game, with winners, losers, points to score and even players to cheer. One side calls itself Democratic, and talks of protecting the masses. The other one, Republican, is all about honor, piety and prestige. They’re both very clever about how they gather supporters, but neither one is what it claims.”

“And this building, their White House?” Sev asked, the touch of his finger again freezing the action.

“That’s the prize, the purported seat of power. The prospect of gaining control of it is waved before the masses, like a drug, every time they elect a leader, as the key to solving all their problems. But of course, solving those problems was never the plan. Both parties benefit too much from maintaining their intractable deadlock. Elections are just a ruse to keep the people distracted.”

“Yeah,” Hilbran said darkly. “And the hell of it is, the carnates that benefit from it have convinced themselves it’s okay to torture people.”

Sev winced. “Physically? But…”

“Yes, physically,” Neela said, rising to her feet. “And psychologically, too. That’s how they maintain control… how they generated all that nasty energy we need to ground somehow. The trigger they’ve found to be the most effective is fear. They’ve used it to accrete power in the hands of the man in that building, and they’re doing a masterful job of it, too.”

She waved her hand lightly over the lower part of the picture. “You can imagine what’s going through the minds of these people outside the fence. The force of their rage is no different from that sculpted by people in other contexts in the form of a curse. And most of it is focused on that white building back there. What none of them realize is that the reason they can’t stop it is that the energy they’re focusing doesn’t dissipate completely. It just feeds the beast. And pretty soon, it’ll fragment their whole reality.”

Sev looked from one to the other, waiting for someone to speak, but nobody did for a long moment. Finally, he crossed his arms and said, “Now I’m not so sure I want to be part of this. It could be dangerous. We could get trapped in there. And if what you say is true, we could be tortured as well.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Tori said, fingering the handle of his case. “We’d be stepping into a minefield. Don’t forget, we wouldn’t be like the people who incarnate there normally. We’d just appear out of nowhere with our memories intact, and our knowledge of what realities are really all about will not be accepted easily. The vast majority of people have been conditioned to hate anyone who looks, thinks or acts differently from them. And in order to pull this off, we’ll have to interact with some of them. Because we have to get inside that building, to actually encounter the focus of all that hate.”

“And you three are willing to do this? But why?”

“It’s a matter of perspective,” Hilbran said. “What threatens one reality ultimately threatens all of them. Even ours.”

“That’s right,” Neela said, looking once again at the pictured protesters. “Sure, we could turn our backs and tell ourselves it’s not real, that these people don’t matter. But they do. We’re all connected, and far more intricately than those people could ever imagine. It does affect us. They’re us. We’re them. And whether you come with us or not, we’re going to put our lives in jeopardy to try to head off a catastrophe that none of those people would have a hope of understanding. What I want to know is whether you’ll join us.”

“So,” Tori said, “what’s it to be?”

Sev took a deep breath. “Okay. I’ll go. When do we do this?”

Hilbran nodded. “Right now. And we’ll use the puzzle to phase in. That way, we’ll slip into their world in the midst of a crowd, and nobody will remember anything unusual happening. Just lay your hand over the unfinished edge of the picture. Think of it like making your way around the Library, like manifesting the door you created to enter this room. We’ll see you on the other side. I’ll go first.”

He laid his palm along the unfinished fence, closed his eyes, and vanished. Neela followed soon after. Tori stood there, immobile, studying the puzzle for a while. Then he picked up a loose piece and handed it to Sev.

“What’s this for?” he asked, examining the rush of tiny faces across it.

“Timing. Wait until you see Hilbran before coming through. That way, you’ll enter nearby and we can coach you. Good luck. We’ll be waiting.”

Sev looked doubtful. He watched as Tori picked a spot to lay his hand, but grabbed his wrist before his fingers touched the picture. “One more thing.”

“What is it?”

“When we manifest doorways here, it’s nothing special, like going through any other door. But jumping contexts like that… won’t we adopt some carnate persona? I mean, I can understand popping in without having to forget everything, like we do to birth a carnation, but will I still be me when I get there?”

“Well, you’ll look the same, since that’s what you’re taking with you, but at first you might not remember. That’s why you need to watch the piece. We’ve had some practice, and can help you along. It shouldn’t take too long to shake off the disorientation. You’ll be okay. I promise.”

Before Sev had a chance to say anything else, Tori touched the picture and vanished.

He stood there, lost in thought, staring at the fragment of another reality in his hand, uncertain of whether to go or not. Inwardly wrestling with his conscience, he turned away from the puzzle, and leaned against the edge of the table, staring across the room into the hallway from which Tori and Neela had come.

He closed his hand, hiding the miniscule window to another world, and felt the edges digging at his fingers like a trapped insect, desperate to escape. Struggling with the choice, he brought his hand up, and gazed at the trapped bit of reality within his grasp. Then, without realizing it, he put his other hand on the table for support, and vanished.

Copyright 2008 by P. Orin Zack

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