For the past half-year, Peter Petrawicki had assumed that, sooner or later, he was going to be assassinated by a 10-foot-tall alien device inexplicably clad in armor reminiscent of Japan’s late Edo period.
The ancient Asian man lunging for his throat was, therefore, not entirely unexpected. Not that he looked Japanese at all – more… Indochinese.
Fight, you idiot, he told himself.
Though since he seemed to be in Dream Reception, was a defense even necessary? Shouldn’t he be waking up about now?
This train of thought stopped when he realized that everything else had, as well.
He turned, bumping against the body of his attacker, now hovering in space, and backed up until he hit the closest wall.
Yes, he was, yet again, in Dream Reception, and for a fun change, this time he had company. His ancient aspiring murderer of course; and also (and also frozen) a stout white woman (eastern European?) who looked to be close to his mother’s age, face contorted in rage; a black guy – African American, Peter guessed - in his early twenties, caught in transition between surprise and resignation, eyes slightly watering; and a very small, very naked child, who looked Hispanic but could, really, have been from anywhere.
While the invisible speakers continued to play their usual samba version of what would have happened if John Lennon had survived and joined Abba, Peter stepped around his attacker and slipped off his jacket and placed it over the child’s shoulders – a little girl, it was now obvious. Maybe two years old? Maybe three?
Two months ago, pictures of prepubescent children in a range of degrading poses had been planted on his laptop: so an unclad child was by far the most frightening thing in the room, in any room.
“Okay, Robby,” he said, turning to the Receptionist in its usual spot behind the medium-budget podium. “What’s going on?”
What’s the last thing he remembered? Watching April May live-streaming her own immolation? And hearing from associates that throngs throughout the world were doing as she’d asked, were rushing the devices with earrings and wedding bands?
What had happened after that?
He didn’t always remember the last few moments before the Dream, but he’d never just appeared in it before, mid-day. Had he been knocked unconscious?
“What’s going on?” he repeated. “Why am I here? Who are these people?”
And the room responded. Not Robby. The room.
“We may ask you three questions,” it said, from everywhere and nowhere. “According to your legends, we may ask you three questions.”
“Ask as many as you’d like,” said Peter. “Maybe I’ll answer, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll ask right back.”
“Three questions,” the room replied.
His vision was doing weird things – well, in the current circumstance, what was weird? - and Peter thought he might faint, so he found the wall again and hoped it would keep him upright while his heart and lungs remembered their role in the maintenance of consciousness.
“Ask away,” he said, in his best CNN baritone.
“You are skilled at puzzles,” said the voice.
“That’s not a question… but, yes, I think I am.” Peter hadn’t been the original solver of any, but he’d secretly really enjoyed tackling some of the puzzles that were considered interesting and tractable for Americans.
“You, Peter Petrawicki, embrace the puzzles. But many do not,” the voice continued. “We are now uncertain of our metric. Maybe the puzzle-solvers are not the best.”
“The best what?”
“Our first question for you, Peter Petrawicki, is, why did these four – and multitudes like them - shun the puzzles? Our second question is, why do you, Peter Petrawicki, hate us? The final question is, who shall we choose?”
“Choose for what!” Peter shouted. “You wonder why I hate you? This! You speak in riddles! What do you want from us? What will you take from us? How have you enchanted so many of us?”
He stopped because shouting really wasn’t doing his breathing any good. “I can tell you off the bat why this baby here didn’t solve any of your damn puzzles. She’s a baby. That’s not what babies do.” Okay, maybe it was what babies did, in their own way. But not puzzles involving tritones and Sanskrit.
“She may learn.”
“Well, maybe, given years,” Peter replied. “But some people just don’t like puzzles.”
Silence. Eerie frozen bodies, one floating, and silence.
“Can I leave?” he asked.
He meant, can I wake up and get back to my life, but instead the child – and just the child – unfroze, and the elevator door at the end of the room opened. The child ran to the door, and Peter, sighing, followed.
- - - - - - - -
As the elevation descended, the child, giggling, ran back and forth across the several yard expanse of the elevator, seeming completely at home. And why not? She’d probably been in the Dream as often as he had. As soon as the doors whooshed open, she scampered across the lobby, around the central monument, and out into the city, clearly with a goal. Once outside, she seemed to realize that Peter wasn’t going away, so she took his hand and marched him several blocks until they reached a small building surrounded by a 5’ high chain-link fence. Plastic climbing structures and several sand boxes cluttered up the small yard.
A daycare center or a preschool or some such. Of course.
The little girl gave him back possession of his hand and ran to a gate, which she opened easily, and then she ran to the structure’s front door and pushed it open and gestured for him to follow.
The interior was a cacophony of furniture and shelving in wood and plastic in intense primary colors. One quadrant of the room was dominated by a low, red table surrounded by miniature molded-plastic chairs. The table bore several child-sized jigsaw puzzles of varying size and complexity.
The little girl slid into a chair near a six-piece puzzle of a yellow, optimistic-looking baby chick. She quickly assembled the puzzle, then took it apart, then assembled it again, then took it apart…
There were a couple of larger chairs around the table as well, and Peter sank into one. “She seems pretty good at puzzles,” he observed aloud.
“This is the only puzzle she will attempt,” the voice answered.
“Well I guess she likes it,” Peter said. “It’s a cute bird.”
“We do not understand.”
“Well, ask a child development specialist. Or a preschool teacher. Or a mother.”
After about 20 minutes of watching the child complete and disassemble the puzzle, Peter tried his hand at the most complex on the table, a 100-piece picture of a seagull on a beach. When the little girl noticed, she pushed his puzzle away from him, then grabbed his beard and tilted his face so that he was looking at her place at the table, and ONLY her place at the table. Apparently he was only supposed to watch her. Reminded him of another little girl he knew.
God, he hoped April had gotten out of that inferno somehow.
A few moments later, there was a rat-tat-tat on the doorframe; the others from Dream Reception had found them.
In a nice turn of events, the ancient Asian man no longer seemed interested in throttling him, opting instead to lean against the doorframe, watching both inside and out. The matronly probably-Eastern European woman bustled past him and set to dusting with a rag she seemingly conjured out of thin air, while the black guy did a quick visual survey, then made a bee-line to a wooden box Peter hadn’t noticed.
“Costumes,” the guy said, holding up a bright purple princess gown, sized for a toddler. “Let’s see if she likes this better than that jacket. Yours, sir?”
“I’m Adam by the way,” said the guy, more to the child than to Peter, as he helped her pull the dress over her head.
“Ever been to this building before?” Peter asked.
“No, but I’ve been past it. I did quite a bit of exploring before I decided to quit.”
“Why’d you quit?”
“That’s what the robot upstairs asked me just now,” said Adam. “I guess… see, it’s my dream to be an engineer. I’m working and doing night school at community college right now to get my prerequisites out of the way, then I’m applying to Georgia Tech.”
Peter nodded. Good school, and he hoped Adam would make the cut.
“I just decided,” said Adam, “that it wouldn’t do me any good to build my intuition in this place, where nothing’s real. I thought it might damage my mind.”
“That’s actually a good point.” And one that had never occurred to Peter.
“Plus I just don’t like puzzles. I get bored too quickly. I’d rather build something real.”
“I’d have thought it would be hard for an engineer to turn his back on something so technologically advanced,” Peter mused.
“Who says whoever’s behind this is so advanced?” asked Adam. “So what if we’re all having the same dream… there’s nothing here that’s not on Earth, somewhere, right? What’s so different about this from everyone humming the same pop song? Isn’t that the same thing, just about?”
“So you’re not a Defender?” asked Peter, feeling a little disappointed.
“Nah… Mr. Pepenwekenecken…”
“Never mind, call me Peter.”
“Thanks. Okay, Peter, I know who you are, I know you make a big deal about resisting or whatever, but, honestly, I have no time to really worry about any of that,” said Adam, with a laugh. “But, on the other hand, look where ignoring it has gotten me!”
“This could just be another facet of the dream,” said Peter. “A night like any other.”
“You don’t really think that,” said Adam.
The little girl stopped doing her puzzle and ran to get the attention of the ancient Asian man, who just shook his head and continued to scan his environment. She turned her focus to the old woman, who, sighing, followed her to the table.
“What’s with our hypervigilant friend,” Adam asked, voice low. “He’s acting like the most PTSD vet ever, but he doesn’t look like one.”
“Actually, you might be closer than you think,” said Peter. “Just, not one of ours. If we’re all real here, he migh’ve even just been plucked from a war zone.”
Adam nodded slowly. “No room in his reality for puzzles.”
“I think you’ve nailed it,” said Peter.
At the table, the little girl was showing the woman how she fit the pieces together and took them apart. Clearly just to humor her, the woman took two pieces and – mashed? – them together, smooth edge to interior. Showing frustration that seemed close to exploding out of her, she rotated the pieces and tried again, then threw them down and returned to running her rag over the room’s surfaces, now muttering angrily.
“Wow,” said Adam. “I wonder how she unlocks her house, with that little spatial sense.”
“Maybe she doesn’t,” said Peter.
“We will return you,” the voice now said. Adam looked alarmed, and Peter said, “Grab the child!” because if this wasn’t actually a dream, God knew where they’d be sent…
And then Peter was alone in the one-room preschool.
“We will develop another metric,” said the voice.
“No!” said Peter. “Surely – surely that isn’t necessary.” Then, “Why am I still here?”
“Because – you might do,” said the voice. “You, or April May.”
He raised his hands and turned them to see
just a little…
He was in whiteness, lit from all sides, and so was (“drum roll,” he muttered) April May.
Dressed like a Sunday School pageant angel in white gauze, hair now well past her shoulders.
Reclining, but there was no bed.
How were her nails doing? He reached to examine her hand, which was (of course) when she woke up.
Peter snatched his hand back, and carefully schooled his features into a disinterested half-smile. “Not dead yet,” he said.
April started to speak, but coughed instead. The barest of streams appeared above her lips and she sipped without seeming to think this was strange. The stream stopped and she licked her lips to moisten them, then said, “Actually, I think I’m a robot.”
“Android, at the very least, and a good one,” said Peter.
April seemed to recognize him then, shrinking back into her airy not-bed. “Why are you here?”
“I think, perhaps, you are their first choice, but I’d do in a pinch.”
“Do for what?”
“Why don’t you ask them,” said Peter.
He sighed and tried to focus on April, pushing down the impulses that seemed bent on having him sound like a nine-year-old.
“April, this is important, so please hear me out. I think we were both wrong. I don’t think They want some great thing from humanity. I think they want a great thing – from a human. I think they hoped it would be a puzzle-solver. I think they decided that you and I, despite not being extraordinarily gifted at the puzzles, had emerged as the winners, for want of a better word.”
“They said they picked me,” said April. “From the beginning, they wanted me to be the champion of the Carls.”
“Really? Okay, I don’t know how that works into my theory. It might not need to. Because somewhere along the way the creators of the Carls realized that not everybody was doing their silly puzzles.”
“That’s a lie!” said April. “Everyone loved the puzzles! They brought the world together!”
“They brought together a certain type of person,” said Peter. “And that person can be found in every region of every country, every continent. But that person is actually pretty rare.”
“You don’t need privilege to do a puzzle!”
“No, not exactly,” said Peter, “but you do need a certain type of mind, a certain type of curiosity. You and I and most of our friends have it. But it’s far from universal.
“Anyway, you don’t need to believe me, the creator of the devices have said as much. They want another metric, to see if a different sort of person rises to the top.”
April blinked three times. “A dance-off?” she asked. “Or a math-off?”
“Oh, lordy, maybe,” said Peter. “But think, April. Those would be pretty interesting, but that math-off, that would be even more exclusive. No, think, what else are humans good at besides dancing and geometry?”
“War. We’re very, very good at war.”
“Oh,” said April, then, “You can’t know that! You can’t keep on hating the Carls because of – of something you just made up!”
“I admit it’s just a possibility,” said Peter, “not even a theory. But what if I’m right?”
“Are you going to start another movement? Keep on attacking me?” said April.
“Honestly, April May, this isn’t about you, not specifically.”
“I know,” she said. “But it kind of is. Was. Is. Cut me some slack, okay? I just woke up and I think I might be a robot.”
Peter smiled. “Understood.”
“So… what’s going to happen now?” asked April. “I figure they robotized me for a reason.”
“Are you okay with that?” asked Peter. “I mean, you look fine to me, but even if you’re right – are you okay with that? If they send you – back – will you be happy to be there?”
“Of course,” said April.
Peter looked up and spoke as loudly and as strongly as he could. “Take me,” he said. “Send the child back, leave my planet alone, and take me. Stop looking, stop searching, take me. If I am not sufficient you may try again, but I will do my very best to meet your needs.”
And then Peter Petrawicki experienced
for a very, very long time.
* * * THE END * * *
All comments welcome.