Chat-your-own-Adventure #3: Signature in Soot

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Jack London Style                        H.G. Wells Style                         Dr. Seuss Style

The winter weather was perfectly lovely, but my ensemble that evening did not interact well with the bite in the air. I had no jacket or overcoat, my boots were nearly worn through, and the only thing capable of generating any warmth was my scarf. I was forced to wrap it around my head to protect my ears, nose, and lips from freezing, but the snowflakes landed on it incessantly, melting under the touch of my breath and flowing down into the scarf’s folds where its icy touch assailed my cheeks.

I also dreaded stopping at that stream, in the middle of the black woods outside my home city, for a drink. The water was frozen solid. I couldn’t help but remember my poetry professor and his reminiscing regarding the most deathly of seasons. He had a character, an award-winning character he always reminded us, who was not bothered by the cold; he was a satyr who could melt any ice with one hot breath.

In the silliness of the moment I attempted it myself, nearly sticking my lips to the ice. It was to no avail. I had to use a rock to smash my way through. Even after I could see the stillness of the water I was apprehensive. I had no gloves. Again, my scarf was my only friend. If my hands went in, even for a small draught of the frigid mountain water, I might lose a finger to frostbite.

There’d always been someone else to do this sort of thing for me. I was protected, you see. My protectors constantly told me I was worth protecting, worth their lives even. They proved they were not fibbing, but in proving it they left me to fend for myself here in the wilderness. They left me to dread cold water even with cracked lips.

I took that draught from the frozen Earth. It was relief and pain all the way down, a bit like a very stiff drink. Unlike alcohol, it helped to clear my head of all the intrusive thoughts that had gotten me and my protectors into this situation in the first place. The rest of my body was getting numb as I marched further up the gentle slopes at the base of the mountain, but my mind had clarity.

I now saw those horrible creatures for what they were: saboteurs. They were here to snatch the last curl of a cursive line in whatever history text they could and unravel it like thin pasta. They wanted to undermine us, our memories, our sanity, and convince us that we needed them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly felt that I needed the help.

I was forced to take shelter as darkness fell upon the trees and snowbanks, in a small cave. There was evidence of human habitation: an old spot of cinders and broken twigs where a campfire had clearly been built. I would guess the camping trip of a father and son. Many of the twigs were quite small, so I suspected small hands had gathered them. Not all were this way, so they had been accompanied.

It didn’t have any of the weary streaks of the lonely mountain man who draws on the rock with a sooty stick. That got me thinking even more; oh how nice it was to have thoughts lead into each other once again without someone else interrupting. I’d forgotten the delightful tumble, the avalanche of ideas that was the unrestrained human imagination. All of this, too, from a person such as I, who rarely used the thing. Mine had cobwebs before the Electerlites ever showed their faces.

I took up one of those sooty sticks and prepared to draw upon the stone wall outside my cave. With boot soles thins as perspiration, and a scarf the wind could snatch at any time, I needed resources. To get those, I needed to communicate. Possible symbols ran through my mind.

Skull Pictogram             Bow and Arrow Pictogram                    Bear Pictogram

The image of the bear would be adequate, at least I hoped so. I didn’t have the dexterity of the plated Electerlite hands, but my skills would allow a decent simulacrum, especially upon the unruly medium of the frosted stone. It wasn’t a bear exactly, none of their language was exact, but it had the same general shape and feature placement of a bear’s face viewed from the front. Not an angle I’d be pleased to see a bear from, for he would see me right back, but that was neither here nor there.

The eyes were lidless and ringed with other information. The ears were quite angular, but it was necessary to send my signal. The Electerlites communicated, even across vast distances, by use of complex pictograms. These images were, in themselves, in a way impenetrable to human sciences, devices. They emitted signals, beyond our auditory and visual capabilities, that could be received by the Electerlites themselves or recorded by another pictogram within range.

By drawing the bear I sent the message that there was a dangerous predator roaming in the area. Normally, this would serve to ward away those vile yellowed beings, but there was one in particular I was attempting to attract. I thought the promise of a furry trophy would draw him in, for he was as conceited as the men he surrounded himself with. If he came, he would undoubtedly bring supplies that I could use to both survive another night or so and worm my way back into a society that someone like me should never have to worm near at all.

The bigger problem at the moment, I realized as I dropped my stick and attempted to warm my hands in my scarf, was that he would bring a weapon as well: something to fell the bear that wasn’t there. I would need to overpower him somehow and take it. The Electerlite physique is no Atlas, but as a woman barely five feet and five inches tall, most of them still had the weight, leverage, and rigidity to best me in a struggle. I would have to surprise him.

He arrived in the middle of the night, his body providing his own light. His name is very difficult to write, not for me but for most, it involves a lengthy cascade of backward letters and parenthetical notation, but for the purposes of this account I will write his name as Dyson.

Dyson looked like most Electerlites, as the subtleties of their facial expressions were little more than ephemeral bubbles in the stew of light inside their glassy helmet heads. His body was a cylinder of ribbed metal, yellow and brassy. Each hand had its own assortment and number of specialized fingers, but most of his were wrapped around the stock of one of their light rifles: the beam weapon he would no doubt use to fell the bear once he spotted it.

He wore a human coat, wonderfully thick fur around the collar, even though they had no biological needs for such warmth. He was simply vain. I knew this because I knew him; we traveled in the same circles before I was ousted by the outbreak of violence that stranded me in the forest. Whether he knew of the incident I had no idea, but it did not matter. He was the key to rejoining my kin and draining the Electerlite influence from their minds.

I sprung my trap when he lowered his weapon and dragged a finger across my sooty symbol. He was confused because he no doubt had detector pictograms back in his stolen home that thought they’d picked up on the traces of an actual mammal. I lunged out of the cave and tackled the fiend. He was incandescent, almost difficult to look upon, but I’d hidden myself by drawing a darkness device upon my clothes with the soot. The outfit, quite expensive, was now thoroughly ruined, but I could always steal back some of the treasures Dyson had stolen and purchase a new one.

Ahh!” the creature buzzed in fear. “What do you want with me? I swear I wasn’t going to shoot you, bear. This is all just for show.”

Demand Escort                  Demand Weapon                    Smash Head with Rock

You will be my escort back to the city,” I declared. He did not recognize me for there was another soot device drawn upon my face: a mask of sorts. He reached for his weapon, but I snatched it away and turned it on him. He threw up his jointed hands and squealed some more, begging for mercy.

I wasn’t so foolish to trust him immediately. I may be spoiled, the most spoiled a person can be in this age of infiltration and the infinite power of information, but I knew the structure of interacting with the Electerlites. It was knowledge afforded to me by various experts to prepare our species for the battle against them. I had no expertise, but I did have hands nimble enough and a memory good enough to reproduce their pictograms. Only one in four thousand humans could.

I was to be a weapon against them, and I demonstrated that preparedness there in the snow with Dyson. I snapped the end off my sooty stick and used it as a pencil to collapse his routes of escape. I drew a device upon the stock of his gun that would make it fire and hit him should it ever leave my hand. After that I ordered him back to his feet and took his coat, putting it where it belonged.

If I had shouted all the things I wanted to he surely would’ve realized it was me rather than some feral cave-dweller, so I was forced to bottle it up. Luckily I had just as much practice in that as well. Our war against the Electerlites was still mostly a secret, albeit a poorly-kept one if you weren’t a fool. It just so happened that nine of ten men and eight of ten Electerlites were fools.

They were not beings from another planet or dimension. They were simply creatures of potential that had always existed within information even when there were no minds to interpret it. We started to unlock them with development of our written word, but it was the spread of newspapers and radio signals that broke the dam. Suddenly they were everywhere. They hadn’t entered violently through a tear or chasm or sinkhole. They simply walked into shops like they owned them and started spreading delicious poison with their speech.

At first it seemed to be a beautiful friendship. We accepted them because, as they told us, they had always been there. They, as friends, were our reward for tapping the potential of our minds. They got themselves elected to our governments, working in our factories, and raising our children. All the while we laughed and slapped them on their hollow metal shoulders, handed them further invitations, and invited them out for drinks despite their total lack of a mouth.

They were very good at garnering sympathy, but the last of mine was frozen by the winter I’d suffered for three days now out in the open. I turned Dyson around and told him to march back the way he came, carefully observing his footprints in the snow to make sure he did not deviate. He tried to ask questions at first, but I silenced him with another threat. If he were any later in arriving I might not have had the energy to pounce on him. As it was I could barely feel my legs, my thighs feeling like old pillows in a very drafty house with open windows… as well as the icebox door for good measure.

His home was on the outskirts of the city; it was one reason I chose to lure him in. Dyson had adopted more human habits than most. In addition to dressing like us he’d convinced several actual hunters to spill their stories to him. Afterwards, as was the Electerlite way, they could not remember being hunters at all. In fact, they had an interest in hunting and were eager to converse with the famous and courageous Dyson on the subject.

Once inside, who knows whose home it had originally been, I had him start a fire in the hearth so I could feel blood move within me once again. I took the most comfortable chair and made him stand in the corner. He was brighter than the fire, which irritated me, so I threw a blanket over his head. I still very much wanted to kill him, but I needed him. He was to be my escort.

Soiree                                    Information Vault                                    Wine Tasting

There was only one place I cared about reaching, after I had successfully reached warmth: the information vault. It was to be the ultimate target of our offensive, and my strike against it would undoubtedly be premature. I had few other choices though; I wasn’t going to hide and manipulate Dyson for the rest of my life, just to keep drawing on my own face and making excuses.

I only knew of the vault because of my connection to the intellectuals running our efforts. They were the ones who had tracked Electerlite activity since their silent eruption into our lives. It was no easy task considering the specifics of their otherworldly nature. They were made of solidified information, and as such could manipulate it in its other forms instinctively, the way two humans utterly separate from society could still trust their lizard brains to work out the specifics of child birth and rearing.

Very few noticed how they went about altering our history. With fingertips like fountain pens they rearranged the text in our books, even our oldest texts kept under lock and key and museum guard. They used digits like paintbrushes to put their own faces into our photographs. Suddenly, they hadn’t arrived two years ago, it was actually ten. Then a hundred. Now you could find them in most books dating as far back as Beowulf. Everyone remembered Hyram, the Electerlite that had actually delivered the killing blow to Grendel.

I also have tainted memories from their efforts. Sometimes, when trying to fall asleep, pleasant memories of a family friend comforting me after a skinned knee help me get there. The problem is, the friend is one of them. That memory is a key, unlocking my subconscious for their greedy, radiant, sharp digits. For what is a human but more information in a wrapper of skin and bone. The worst part was, I needed those memories to sleep out in the cold before I found my cave and soot.

In the morning, I couldn’t settle my nerves enough for sleep, Dyson and I donned thick coats and took to the street. I kept his weapon pointed at his back, its barrel barely emerging from between my buttons. The vault was in the library, which was something we learned through several bouts of spying and lost lives, but that we should’ve guessed immediately. They wanted their prize nestled by yet more information. To them it was likely the warmest place for hundreds of miles.

How the other nations of the world fared, we had no idea. In addition to swaddling us in new memories they’d taken over the radios. Every message came in their voices now and assured us it was all alright. Surely there were other vaults, but perhaps weakening one would strengthen the minds of people around the world. That was what I hoped as I walked Dyson in.

The library appeared normal, and people were still allowed to take out books as they pleased. They were composed of lies helpful to the Electerlites after all. The vault was more figurative in nature, the same nature the invaders themselves possessed before we allowed them in. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was all around me. The knowledge wasn’t much help. I had a weapon, I had a hostage, but a plan had not quite formed yet. Our faction, back in the days of planning before my bodyguards had their blood drained and their family’s minds buried along with them, had planned to use explosives, but in the stillness of the library I suspected it would have no effect.

I needed something a little more along their lines, lines I had great difficulty picturing. Still, the library would close at the end of the day and I needed a plan by then. Dyson seemed more nervous as well, as if every moment I was allowed to think freely was one closer to his death. A plan. A plan. I cursed my mind for its sloth in my youth. I should’ve always used it. I should have analyzed every detail to death, because now death felt like the only likely outcome. A plan…

Killing Spree                         Detonate Books                Make her own Pictogram

I held the rifle on Dyson for more than an hour. I also pretended to peruse the swashbuckler section of the library’s available adventures. Between pages, bouts of maritime drunkenness, and saber clashes, I stole glances at the other Electerlites to see if I could discern any more information about the vault. Alas, there was nothing to be found. All their faces were the same heady mix of liquid light in glass. All their clothing was taken from humans who had happily given it up to such old friends. My only access was through Dyson, and I was in no mood to argue with the coward.

How do I access the vault?” I asked him under my breath. He curled his fingers nervously and then tapped them against the edge of the shelf he faced. I imagine he simply read the title Captain Crouse and the Sincere Siren over and over again to pass the time. He couldn’t focus on it once I’d asked my question.

How do you know of it?” he hissed, the glass of his head vibrating like a goldfish bowl about to shatter.

Never mind how. Tell me how to get to it.”

No!”

Do it or you’ll die.” I poked him with the edge of the barrel and he flinched.

If… if you kill me they’ll swarm you. You’ll never get out of here.”

What is it you want from us?” I asked, the directness of my mission interrupted by throbbing curiosity the likes of which I’d never felt. It was somewhere between a thirst for learning and pure rage, likely brought on by my proximity to the foreign energies that had lulled our minds so.

Information is for building,” he answered simply. “You squander it with your simple understanding. We’ve not been here a decade and yet I have my own human life and I am an incredible hunter. I built this with information.”

Information you did not earn,” I hissed back.

Did you earn the oil in the ground?” he asked in rebuttal. “Did you earn the wood from the trees? At least we let you keep your comfort. Do you do that for the trees? Do you tuck the saplings in at night?” He was trying to confuse me. We could not misuse information; he was merely projecting his identity onto me. It might’ve worked if not for the curiosity that might’ve been anger.

I didn’t need his help. I had a plan now. If the vault was invisible it was surely as invisible as the content of the books, and perhaps even tied to them as some kind of mooring. Explosives were the key, just of a different nature: theirs. I took the volume of Captain Crouse away from Dyson’s face and opened it wide. In my pocket there was some soot from Dyson’s fireplace. Correction, the fireplace from someone forgotten. I’d thought there might be need of it.

I dipped a finger into my pocket and brought it back out. I used its gray nail on the open book. I combined their devices for explosion, fire, and decay. I drew a fuse on it, going from one page to the edge of thirty more. Then I snapped the book shut. Dyson squealed and lunged at me, but I stepped back. I wasn’t feeling numb anymore.

Up into the air I tossed it, timing it so the fuse would end at around the height of most of the shelves. It worked, far better than I had anticipated. There was a very factual boom, a definite roar, an obvious radiance. Everything they’d taken from us and not rearranged was suddenly blasted free. I felt it hit my mind in waves, washing away the Electerlites lurking in my education and childhood. Every other being in the building collapsed under the strain.

I realized I had only one opportunity before they regained their composure, did away with me, and started picking up the pieces and dropping the nets once more. I had to send it all somewhere else; I had to store the information and the Electerlites it was connected to. I had to trap them, but where?

Cook Book                                        Atlas                                A Comedy of Manners

I snatched the nearest book that looked vapid enough to drown them in their precious information. It was a thick volume entitled Soups and Stocks and their Relationship to the Vitality of the Spirit. My goodness, what a beautiful stuffy mouthful of a title it was. If the Electerlites could escape its realm of information, surely it would take them ages to swim out of its broth.

My finger threatened to shake, but I willed it into precision. I placed the open cook book where I felt the energies mingling in the afterglow of the rupture. I wrote the devices for suction, for a vacuum, and for a cure, because that’s what this was really. I was going to cure everyone of this nasty information. I triggered them immediately and was relieved to hear things go silent.

Dyson was gone, along with the others. They were free to make whatever they could out of forgotten tomato soup recipes and cracker concoctions. I snagged the volume and held it closed, though I doubted that had much effect. As long as there was the temptation to give in to lies, to hand over responsibility, there would be gateways for them.

All I could do was rejoin my remaining comrades and keep fighting the good fight. For the moment, I had a home to go back to, a thing stolen back. It had the fire I’d craved during those lonely nights in the woods, my spoiled attitude freezing so it could progress no further. I wondered if burning the soup book would help or hinder our efforts.

There was plenty of time to think it over. If the fire died, I had soot with which to tell my stories. 

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