Twitch Stream Story: Ashes of Masks

Prompt: Something with a moebius strip plot that reads differently a second time around.

The Gonda was a mighty warrior in the midst of his final journey. Up until now every journey had been a hunt. There was always a monster at the end, a clear goal. He could celebrate once the blood flowed. He could bring the trophy back and the rest of his tribe could make decorations out of it. As the decorations grew, so too did his fame.

By the time he left his people he was their leader, their luminary, and their hope. He had grown to five times the size of them and needed a special throne and bed. Long ago, back before he’d claimed even the tiniest frog of a trophy, he thought himself human; he thought his people were human.

With his trophies and size came knowledge. Specifically, the Gonda knew, whatever they were, they had the ability to transform based on experience. It was impossible to mistake him for a human after his fifth hunt. That day he had had claimed the head and tusks of a thing unnamed but mighty. The next time he saw his reflection, in a puddle, he saw his face had become like a ceremonial mask: devoid of emotion except for the one carved into him.

That emotion was determination, and that expression had not faltered during his journey. The jungles of his homeland had given way to the steaming ground of the nearby volcano. It wasn’t one of those tall ones always vomiting its liquid fire. It was a slow old thing, a grumbling pressure under the ground. Why the future would choose to settle there was still a mystery, but it was the Gonda’s duty to find out.

The future had not sent an emissary to his tribe; he had simply been gifted the knowledge after his last hunt. It fell out of the mouth of the skewered scaled thing and landed in his head. He mulled the knowledge over, his newly hardened knuckles feeling strange against his mask-like face. So, the future was out there. If his people were to have one he would need to pay it a visit, perhaps even hunt it.

He passed the volcano, even his callused feet growing hot. All of the plants were replaced by the ashes of their family, things burned out of the ground by the creeping fire. Back home, in the safety of his fame, in the warm glow of their spiced spirits, he might’ve laughed at the foolish plants for growing so close to the volcano.

He dared not utter a sound at the moment though. It wasn’t fear. The Gonda told himself he didn’t feel fear. That was why his mask hardened after every hunt. He couldn’t shed tears. He couldn’t contort it into a scream. He could look upon the future and not despair because his face could not hold it.  What was it that quieted him then?

The Gonda stopped for a moment. It was getting hotter. He felt it under his wooden toenails. He had all the knowledge his village had ever gathered and then some, yet he couldn’t understand this. He now moved away from the volcano. How was the ground getting hotter? How was his throat drying out?

Eventually he was forced to continue. He had never completed a journey before, but if it was like a hunt there was no turning back, because turning back meant no food and no trophies. No growing.

The Gonda stopped a half-day later. There was a wall in front of him. He could not see it, but even on his splintering mask of a face he felt its heat. Just one step forward and he would immediately catch fire. This was not the work of the volcano. This was the future.

It greeted him by pressing the incredibly hot air into a white, orange, and red shape. Another mask, but this one lacked a body. It stared back, just as stoic and just as determined. It must have hunted some truly ferocious creatures.

What are you hunting?” the new mask asked. It looked behind him to see if he was the start of a line, but he was alone. The volcano hadn’t spit anything else out, just this one with the green mask and the wooden nails.

I am not hunting,” the Gonda ansered, though it hurt him to say it. Hunting he understood. Shaking hands with death was easy, but this wall of heat and questions before him had no hands to speak of. “This is a journey. I have come to find the future: a thing I learned of in the blood of sharp-eyed beast. I sense you know these things already. You are full of riddles and you are trying to trick me.” The Gonda stood his ground and puffed out his chest. Perhaps if he answered them all correctly he could pass without bursting into flame.

You are correct,” the mask of the future confirmed. “Do you think the future is past me somewhere?” The Gonda nodded. “I can see you are determined. If you can see through three more lies from me, you will be able to pass. Do you understand?” The Gonda nodded again. “Very well. You may ask me questions.”

What is the future?” This had to be the right question. The beast he had slain thought the future was food. The mask looked too much like him to be the future, so it had to be something beyond him, on that hot horizon.

The future is many parts united as one,” the hot mask told him. “You are not the first to come here. Every people has its culture, and every culture its representative. You are here for your people, to pass through and become the future.” The Gonda cracked his knuckles. None of that seemed like a lie. But…

am the first to come here,” the Gonda argued. If there was a lie that was it. “There will be more, but I am first, because this land has nothing but volcano-borne ashes.” He kicked at a pile of them, thick as snow. “There were no foot prints in these ashes, so I am first.” The hot mask nodded.

The future is currently incomplete. Once all cultures are here they will unite and become the future.”

I see the lie!” the Gonda said, one armored finger outstretched. “Most of what you say is true, but you implied the future will be complete with the word currently. It will always grow and change, so it will never be complete.” The hot mask nodded again. One more lie to spot.

We are programs,” the hot mask said. The Gonda had no response to this foreign word. “Our world is a record of true history. You were born from the emerging details of the history of one South African tribe across its centuries. You are their culture, and thus part of the record of the future.”

I sense no deception in your voice,” the Gonda answered slowly, “so that one word must be the lie. We are not called programs. We must be called something else by the people.”

Right again,” the hot mask said. “We are also called artificial intelligences. Congratulations.” The mask turned like the opening of a door, telling the Gonda he could move forward and become the official record of a culture.

He could not. Three lies he had spotted, yet something did not feel right. He didn’t feel the success of a hand around his trophy’s throat, or the blood falling on his head. The journey would not truly be complete, even if he stepped forward. Perhaps if he went back…

The hot mask inhaled with unexpected strength at the sight of his hesitation. The Gonda was sucked off his feet and forward. He struck the hot air and was instantly immolated. A pile of ashes fell and joined the others.

The last lie had not been. Programs could also be called artificial intelligences. The Gonda had missed a lie, and thus was not the best representative of an intelligent and important historical culture. He was not the first to come. The ashes were those of his predecessors rather than plants.

The hot mask blew on the ashes, sending them off to cover the Gonda’s footsteps and make the next attempt think it was the first as well. Eventually, their ultimate history book would be complete, but only once they got the best each culture had to offer.

The Gonda was a mighty warrior in the midst of his final journey…

 

Author’s Note:  This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by ddante331 during a livestream.  I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog.  If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!

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