Writing Excuses 10.4: Q&A on Ideas writing prompt: Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.
“So what brings you all of the way out here?”
The man on the other side of the table blinked. That was all the more reaction he showed, but it was more than I had seen since he’d entered the building.
Mentally, I shook my head. Of course he’d come for the job. That wasn’t the point. The entire thing was something of a test.
“It’s a bit of a long way to go for work.”
Based on his robe and rope belt, I had a sneaking suspicion that he was from some religious order or another. It seemed unlikely that he was looking for a new job, so there had to be something else there.
He just nodded.
Perhaps a different tack.
“You know what the job will entail?”
He nodded again.
I paused a moment, but when he remained silent I prompted, “care to elaborate?”
“I’m here to step through a hole in the end of the world.”
It was an oddly poetic answer. But then again, if he actually were a man of the cloth it made some manner of sense. A lifetime devoted to the study of one holy text or another would do that to you.
The next was the most important question of the interview. Given the … unique situation I found myself in…
He studied me for a long moment before answering. Good I thought. That was good.
“Because He is calling to me.”
I swear I could hear the capital in his voice. Not entirely sure that I even wanted to know the answer, I asked the obvious question.
“He-Who-Waits” His eyes had grown wide and almost warm, although how such an adjective could be applied to one’s eyes, I couldn’t quite describe. “He-Who-Lives-Beyond”
“And this ‘He-Who-Waits’,” I asked, “what will you do if you find him?
A shake of his head and a smile was all the answer I got. No matter how I rephrased the question, he refused to answer.
If it had been up to me, that right there would have been enough to remove him from the pool of applicants, small as it was. Unfortunately though, for me as much as for them, it wasn’t up to be.
And the powers that be had been very clear.
Madness was not to be considered a deal breaker.
The second and third candidates for the position came in together, holding hands in fact.
The first woman was tall and thin, with a veritable name of unruly red hair drawing attention onwards and upwards. I could have sworn I saw twigs tangled throughout and–stranger yet–what appeared to be a potted tree sticking out of one over large pocket.
The second seemed as tied to get machines as the first was to nature. She walked with an odd gate, every second step taking longer than the one before, swinging outwards with a dull thump unlike a footfall had any right to sound.
They took their seats as one, not letting go of one another even as they did, instead scooting the chairs ever closer, just so they could reach without a strain.
“Hi!” the first woman exclaimed. I don’t believe I’ve ever before or since heard a voice better matching the description of sunshine. “I’m Flora.”
“Cogs.” The other woman’s reply wasn’t rude, strictly speaking, just on the very edge of curt.
And those names…
Based on the nature of our work–and the position we were attempting to fill in particular–we had suggested, né required that applicants not use their real names. Names have power, and if there’s one thing the Others don’t need, it’s more power over us mere mortals.
Still, they could at least have tried to make up slightly less unusual names.
“Why?” I asked. Despite their nom de choice, the two women were among the best candidates I’d had yet. Truth be told, given how far we were from even the fringes of civilization, it was a miracle that we had choices at all.
To my surprise, Cogs was the first to answer. Up until now, Flora had been taking point, with her friend only chiming in for the few questions with a more mechanical gent.
“They say the rules are different there. Machines don’t work. Physics is less rigid. Navigation isn’t always reliable.”
I nodded to each point. That was often among the more difficult aspect for applicants to wrap their heads around. The rules we’d all grown up with just didn’t work on the other side of the portal. To most, it was disorientating, sickening even. To some–like Cogs apparently–it was intriguing.
“And you?” I turned to Flora.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Her voice was low, lilting. “I want to be the first to find Otherlife.”
I blinked at her. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the idea–the monk had seemed to think there’d be life there at least. But thus far, the other side had been entirely sterile. The only life was what we brought with us, even if it did tend to go… strange, given enough time.
“And if you find it,” I asked, “what then?” I was sure my employers wouldn’t actually care about that particular question, but I was actually a little curious myself.
She waited a moment before answering, watching me closely. I had the feeling she was weighing me, judging me. As if I were the interviewee, rather than the other way around.
“We’ve already screwed up this world,” she finally said with a nod. “I want to find a world where we can do better. I want to give life a chance.”
That sounded like just the right sort of crazy to me. Ultimately it would be up to the powers that were to choose whether or not the lair of them were chosen. I thought they had a chance though.
The final interview candidate looked a little bit off even as he walked through the door. It wasn’t until he sat down and looked right at me that I could begin to figure out why though.
The first thing that jumped out at me was the eyes. Pale blue, so pale they were almost white. I hadn’t seen anyone with eyes that color before. And the pupils. They weren’t entirely… Round. Slightly oblong, although without another pair of eyes to compare too, I couldn’t say for certain how different they were.
After a sufficiently long pause where I was sure he was beginning to wonder if perhaps he had somehow miraculously come to the wrong place, I finally greeted him. “Good morning.”
That was when I got the second surprise–his teeth were ground each to a fine point, overlapping I’m a saw tooth pattern. And it wasn’t just that, it couldn’t be. To have been ground like that, they couldn’t have started out at a normal human size. They had to have been several times that to begin with.
“Good morning,” he intoned. Third surprise: his voice was unusually high, edging well into the range of an alto. And neither was a single harmonic, as voices tended towards, but rather a complex layering, a choir all in one.
What was this man?
“So tell me,” I asked. “Why do you want the job?” Although the strangeness kept mounting, I still couldn’t quite figure out what the man was. I had seen all manner of strange men and women in my travels, but nothing quite like this. It was almost like he didn’t quite fit together.
The man answered almost immediately, that layered voice every bit as intriguing as the first I had heard it. I don’t think I would ever tire of listening to him. “New parts.”
He smiled. It wasn’t a jovial smile, but rather a predatory one. His eyes glinted, that pale blue catching the light.
He raised his hand, turning it slowly, watching it as he did.
It took me a moment, but eventually I noticed. Running along the back of each finger, right where the tendons would have been was a thin spoke of what looked like bone. I thought at first that he was wearing some sort of glove, but it moved too smoothly, pulling against the skin in too natural a way.
It was part of his hand.
The hand. They eyes. The legs.
This wasn’t a single man, this was a patchwork. A mix of who knew how many different organisms.
That predatory glint in his eyes? For all I knew, they were actually a predator’s eyes.
This was something I hadn’t ever heard of before. Some sort of magic? Whether or not the powers in charge of the expedition wanted him, I was going to have to keep an eye on this one.
Why do I want to go? Is that your question?
Well, everyone is looking for something. Be it an alien god or a new set of rules for reality, there’s always something.
But me? I study people. That’s the reason you hired me in the first place, isn’t it? Because I can see how people think, and because it fascinates me to do so.
Well I really want to see what happens to long term explorers in this Otherspace. To date, we’ve only sent out small trips, a day or two at most.
Even in those, there were changes. Small neurosis, changes so slight you wouldn’t even notice them if you weren’t watching carefully.
Me, I’ve been watching carefully.
What will happen if you take a group through for weeks, even months at a time? I don’t know. No one does. Well, except maybe He-Who-Waits. You’ll have to take that up with the monk though.
But I do know one thing for certain. I can’t wait to find out.