Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
All three versions of this story are surely interesting. I know why mine has succeeded over the others; it’s the easiest to understand. It’s also written the ‘loudest’. You may not know what I mean by that quite yet, but you will. I don’t feel bad that the others aren’t quite as popular, because I know their authors don’t mind. There will always be the cult followers, the beatniks and the berets ready to praise anything quieter than what’s in all the bookshop windows.
This is the tale of my infiltration of the strangest place the Earth has ever known. The year was 1928 and I was fresh out of training, after being fresh out of conscription. The old day job was in a bicycle shop, and it was great fun too, but the war called and there was no hanging up on it. I was probably best suited to infantry, but the municipal adding machines took one look at my employment history, categorized bicycles as complex machines, and told me I was experienced enough for the flight core.
They put my in a magnetized biplane. I’d never even seen anything so fancy, and I was subscribed to all the engine magazines under the sun. It was a compact craft with an aluminum shell and a satin brass finish. The wings were long and curved up slightly. It was an independent sort of vehicle, designed to work with a pilot who’d been cut off from communications and supplies. They wanted us all to be self-sufficient, as the sleeperbots, the enemy, had a tendency to both kidnap our people and isolate them.
In training we heard many tales of men and women purposefully marooned by the sleepers after dogfights over the sea. Dogfish fights as we called them. They were after our morale, after our sound sleep, by making us worry about those unaccounted for after each encounter. Anyway, that’s why my craft was magnetized. If the engine was taken out by enemy fire, there was a secondary structure inside the craft that allowed it to glide on the Earth’s natural magnetic waves. Ideally, I would be able to guide my plane to a place with other people.
If not, well it was full of supplies too: a tent, rations, canteen, compass, telescope, and even a couple dime store novels, though, having read the two the plane came with, I can tell you my story is better than either of them. Even the other two, the echoes of this tale, are better than the dalliances of some Spanish Casanova or the swashbuckling of a flirtatious lady pirate.
I flew four successful missions before they put me on patrol around the island of Dr. Mantilo. The island was the source of all our troubles. The sleeperbots were manufactured there, but shipped out in submersibles that docked in the island’s bedrock. None of our boats could compare, and any bombs we dropped were intercepted or shot back at us.
The island, somehow covered in tropical vegetation despite its Northern coordinates in waters that weren’t ice-free, was surely a marvel. We couldn’t see much other than the trees though. A dome of rippling rainbow energy, equal parts magnetism, electricity, and temporal disruption, protected it at all times. Nobody could reach the Doctor and convince her to stop her assaults, thefts, and abductions.
It wasn’t my job to stop her either. I was just supposed to make the rounds: circle the island repeatedly and report any suspicious activity. The bolt of purple-pink energy that struck my craft three hours into my shift was certainly suspicious, but it obliterated my radio, so reporting it was out of the question. It originated from the island, perhaps a new weapons test, but I was forced to aim for the landmass anyway.
As impressive as my plane was, it couldn’t float. There wasn’t another landmass for hundreds of miles. We didn’t even know if a human could survive passing through that rippling field, but I had to give it a shot. Back when the radio worked my call sign was Screamer Echo. It was written across the side of the plane, letters waving like a banner. It’s not my name, but we’ll pretend it is. It fits nicely with our themes, as well as the two people I was about to meet but was already intimately familiar with.
My craft came apart piece by piece, tumbling to the ocean like a pinch of fish food over the tank. The options were to try landing the craft or ejecting and relying on the parachute. I chose the second in the hopes that any sleepers on the island would follow the smoke trail and ignore the single ash falling in a different direction. I pulled the lever and my seat shot out. My poor plane passed through the field, warping in a strange way and taking a steeper angle of approach. That warp, that stretch of metal, terrified me more than anything else in my life.
I pulled the cord to open my parachute. It opened, but left me behind. The orange chute snapped its connections. Lousy higher-ups made sure I had the dime books in my supplies, but they couldn’t guarantee me a non-faulty parachute. I tumbled helplessly end over end, towards the energy dome. Most people probably have an interesting final thought, but my mind was blank, as if the shock had washed away my soul like lichen scraped off a boulder.
Static electricity popped across my uniform when I passed through. It shocked my eyelids, my teeth, and my tongue, so I ripped off my helmet and tossed it away. I saw double. Then triple. No. That wasn’t how blurred visions worked. I saw myself. There were three of me, existing in slightly different instances of the fall. One below. One above. Temporal distortion. The speed of my fall, combined with the energy dome, left me unfixed in time, spread across three different tenths of a second.
The three of us broke through the dense canopy of the island, bouncing off branches and palm leaves as wide and long as canoes. The thick vegetation surely saved our lives. I was out of consciousness for a while and hallucinating. I saw a woman in a fancy brown dress, standing on a balcony overlooking the sea. There was something under her. A ripple.
Someone slapped me back to reality. It was a strange slap, very soft, as if I’d been hit with a bedroom slipper. My entire body was sore, but I grunted and pulled myself into a sitting position under the tree that saved our lives. The distortion had not ended. There were two others, two more Screamer Echoes, crouched around me. One of them looked paler. His eyes were foggy and his teeth were much whiter than mine. There was a thinness to him, and that thinness was exaggerated in the third Screamer Echo.
He was transparent! Exactly like the ghosts people always imagine in the friendlier spirit stories, where the specters have lessons to teach and minimal interest in possessing things. They were, for lack of a better term, echoes. They were me exactly, except a little less attached to the world with each iteration. I knew they were me, because despite what had just happened, they smiled. In our mutual delirium they thought it was as funny as I did.
“So which one of us screwed up in parachute training?” the pale one joked. I’ll be calling him Pale Echo from now on by the way.
“Don’t look at me,” the transparent one said with a smirk. He’s Ghost Echo for the rest of the tale. “You can barely look at me anyway.” They stood and held out their hands to help me to my feet. I was able to keep hold of Pale’s even though it felt like grabbing at slippery kelp, but Ghost’s hand was barely more solid than fog. I stumbled around, but eventually got my bearings.
We didn’t need to discuss much, as we knew what the others thought. We were on our own, and most of the supplies were gone with the plane. We knew where it crashed, thanks to some embarrassing evidence. You see, I’m not the neatest sort. Whenever I had a bike in the shop there was usually another bike’s worth of parts scattered all over the floor. I wonder if the municipal adders would’ve put me in the pilot category if they knew that.
The cabin of my plane was always loaded with trash: old newspapers, brown apple cores, letters from my pen pal in Borneo, and candied yam wrappers. When the vehicle broke up it left a trail of trash in the sky, a trail that had joined us on the jungle floor, giving us a way forward.
All three of us brought out our clippers and walked in formation, acting as if we were three separate men. Some considerations had to be made regarding our weapons though. For those of you who managed to dodge the flickering electric eyes of the draft, a ‘clipper’ is what some of us called our sidearms. They’re voltaic arc energy blasters with pistol grips but wide white heads.
The joke was that they looked like toenail clippers, and the white hot plasma crescents they fired looked like the nails. If they overheated they even tended to shoot crescents off in random directions, the way at least one toenail does whenever you try to cut them.
We were forced to accept that we weren’t exactly a three man squad. We tested our clippers on nearby trees. Mine was strong enough to cut down a regular palm with three bolts. Pale’s clipper only got through half the tree with five. Ghost’s only had the strength to burn through the leaves. His was even quiet when it fired, sounding even more like the clipping of an actual toenail.
Silly sidearms aside, we had a new mission. While we were alive, and entertaining the possibility of escaping, we had to gather as much information about the island as we could. We used the trail of trash as a tether to keep our bearings. First we would return to the plane and scavenge the wreckage for supplies. We walked for several hours, expecting darkness to arrive eventually, but time was very strange within the rippling energy dome. As the sun moved across the sky it doubled and tripled in much the same way we did, looking more like a chart of the day than an actual day. When one sun vanished under the horizon, the light of several others still hung about.
Luckily for us, the jungle was mostly devoid of animal life. Perhaps the echoes of time didn’t sit well with animal instincts, made creatures that fell victim to it attack each other, which would of course be attacking themselves. On the other hand, that meant any movement we heard probably came from any number of sleeperbot models patrolling the island.
We all got hungry about halfway there and were relieved to find a tin of dried parsnip chips intact from its fall. I didn’t even remember buying them, but they were my favorite flavor, chicken broth, so I must have. I was fully prepared to share with my fellows, or my brothers, whatever I should’ve called them, but they didn’t need full thirds. Being less fixed to reality gave them less of a rumble in the stomach, so Pale ate only a handful and Ghost had only one. I could get used to traveling that light.
We peeked over a ridge rather than marching over it, as we heard all sorts of industrial sounds. There, just a few hundred meters away, was the wreckage of our plane. It had skidded through the dirt at the edge of a clearing and smashed into a brick wall. The bricks were black, partly constructed from volcanic sand, and part of a much larger structure built into an ancient crevasse in the island.
Our supplies were already being gathered, but by sleeperbots. They were the most recognizable model, but being this close to their creator they showed little wear and had fancy paint jobs in green and gold. They were metal men and women, taller than any true human. Their eyes and fingers were loaded with spinning discs meant to induce fatigue, sleep, and sometimes traumatizing nightmares. Nobody knew what had possessed Dr. Mantilo to suddenly give up her promising career in electric brain engineering to build such monstrosities.
They were cleaning up our mess, ripping through it with torches and saws. I was about to confer with my echoes on a plan to skirt them and find an entrance to the facility when we were graciously invited in. A sleeperbot had snuck up behind us. It snatched me and Pale by the backs of our uniforms and hoisted us into the air. Ghost tried to flee, but it unfolded a third arm and snatched at him. It took three good grabs to get to the core of his hazy body, but a quick electric shock prevented him from pulling free.
We were forced to stare into the robot’s eyes as they spiraled around and around. Despite my best efforts to shout every swear word I knew, my voice dropped into a whisper right after I reached ‘smartass’. Then I was asleep.
I became aware, but I had not woken up. I’d never experience the nightmares associated with the thrall of the machines before, but I had to guess this experience was a close relative. I was trapped in some sort of bubble. Within the bubble I had all my regular dream abilities. I could change the ground from mud to grass to tile. I could create objects and use them, but nothing could pierce the cloying skin of the bubble, and it moved on some kind of dark current. This current was somewhere between mankind’s oldest emotions and the black flow of time in the distant reaches of space.
I was not alone on this current. There were many bubbled alongside me, drifting. Each one contained a person. Most looked complacent, busying themselves with some enjoyable station they’d crafted in their own cell. A man baked pies endlessly, eating them in one bite. A woman cycled down a road in springtime, never finding the bottom. They did not seem aware of anything beyond their bubbles, of the yawning expanse of cruel eternity directly below the current.
Why was I spared this ignorance? It didn’t take too long to figure out, as my other selves appeared. Pale Echo and Ghost Echo had bubbles of their own, for while their bodies were less a part of the world than mine, their minds had the same amount of substance. We were split but identical, a connection that must have allowed us to stay aware in the space of both dreams and time. The others were being kept prisoner by the Doctor, perhaps experimented on. We guessed the woman wanted to use this subconscious space, where time could be seen, as some sort of weapon to dominate the world.
There was no chance of this being a real place, so all three of us were asleep somewhere, likely inside a cell or laboratory within the Doctor’s compound. If we were to escape, we had to first escape this hypnosis-induced dream state.
But how? Our dream powers could not reach beyond our bubbles. We even conjured dream versions of our clippers and fired them, hoping that might convince our bodies to fire them in the real world, but nothing happened. The crescents didn’t even penetrate the bubbles. Mine weren’t even made of energy, as my occasionally juvenile mind had turned them into actual giant toenails that bounced off the bubble with a harmless sound like a crouton ricocheting off a teacup.
The three of us sat and thought. At first I sat on an imaginary cushion with electric warmed massaging paddles inside, but my echoes ordered me to stand up with hand gestures. Of course. I couldn’t let myself get comfortable; I might never leave. We were spies, only because of our crash landing, but spies all the same. We had plenty to report already, and the world was out there suffering while we dreamed.
The solution came after an indeterminate amount of time. Ghost’s bubble bumped into mine, with a sound like the clinking of champagne glasses. This shifted our positions in the current slightly. The thought clicked in my head first, then Pale’s, and then Ghost’s. We focused, not on the material within the bubble, but on the bubble itself. All three pushed against the current, knocked the oblivious people out of the way, and eventually touched sides.
We could move them! That might seem useless at first blush, but thanks to the current we were convinced a disruption of the physics, something out of the ordinary for this place, might free us. We dragged our bubbles to the weakest part of the realm’s flow.
I must mention something I saw beneath us before we moved on to the next step. I saw that woman again, as I had after the crash. She was walking across the balcony and looking over it into the sea. There was the ripple. It rose to greet her. She screamed. Before it seemed like a vision, a film projected on windswept bed sheets flying by my eyes. Not this time. She reached out for me, asked for my help, but I could not pierce the bubble. She was gone a moment later, swept away in time’s black flow.
Back to our plan. I swung my marble in an arc, convincing it there was more than one plane. I moved like a pendulum and struck Pale’s bubble. No, they weren’t bubble’s anymore. Marbles became the more appropriate term. Pale’s marble touched Ghost’s, and thus transferred all the force of my hit. Ghost went up and swung back. The force transferred again and I swung. We’d created a Newton’s cradle with our dream marbles, and its motion, its forceful collisions, would hopefully be enough to break us free of the hypnosis.
The sound of our impacts grew louder with each strike. It became like an ice pick inside my ears, but I had to keep going. Dreams couldn’t really make your ears bleed. I struck again. Ghost struck back. The final sound wasn’t even a sound; it was a motion. All three of us shot up out of our dreams and to our feet in an instant.
We were in a large padded cell, housed with more than a dozen comatose prisoners. We were glad for Dr. Mantilo’s ego for once, as our limbs were not bound. She trusted too much in the impenetrability of her induced dreams. The sleeperbots hadn’t even taken our clippers! There were two standing guard outside the cell, but before they could react to our renewed state we fired on them.
The barrage of energy crescents tore through their limbs and innards. Their eyes sparked and spun at random speeds in random directions. In the process of destroying them we’d also cut through the cell’s bars, which clattered to the floor.
We tried to rouse the others, but shaking them did no good. It would likely require a solution from Dr. Mantilo herself. Anger burned in all three of us, mostly brightly in myself. We didn’t feel like abandoning the prisoners just to escape and tell people of our Newton’s cradle trick. We weren’t draft dodgers, though Ghost certainly could’ve been if given the chance. It wasn’t that we trusted the adding machines that were moving people around. It was just good old fashioned loyalty. Our society wouldn’t fold as long as all three of us held it up.
There was a unanimous decision to search for the Doctor herself and end this war once and for all. We moved through the corridors of the facility quickly and quietly, clippers at the ready. We met resistance from several robots, but these were smaller lab assistant models. They weren’t equipped for hypnosis or combat. Even Ghost’s clipper, when aimed at their light-bulbous eyes, could incapacitate them.
The lack of sleeper soldiers meant we were already at the core. This was where Mantilo did her experiments, her lounging. There was no need for weapons this deep. That was evidenced by the furniture we saw. It wasn’t the metal benches with the locking hooks used to store the sleepers. It was real. Red. Cushioned. Somebody lived near that hallway.
We crept along now, all trying to keep our boots as quiet as Ghost’s. We had to stay focused, which was difficult given the many strange things we saw inside the rooms we checked: robots in costume acting out what had to be drunken dreams, welding rooms where the floor appeared to be nothing but sparks, and maps of her world conquest with pins in all the places she’d stolen machines and people from.
There was one final door: large, round, and decorated with strange scattered grooves like the scratches on the surface of a snowflake. I clipped through the doorknob and kicked it open. Pale Echo fanned out to the right, and Ghost Echo to the left. We all aimed at the white coat and cascading red hair of Dr. Mantilo. She stood, facing away from us, weeping, as her fingers skittered across a typing console.
“It’s over Mantilo!” I declared. “We, I… we represent the collective people of the world. Your victims. Take that machine off your head. Shut down your sleeperbots. Present your hands for binding.” The others echoed my words, less harsh with each iteration. I wondered if Ghost’s softness had finally struck his version of my soul, as he sounded almost sympathetic.
“After all this,” Dr. Mantilo moaned, “I still can’t find her! I’ve got thousands of minds dreaming, searching the black sea, yet no one can find her! Must I suffer forever? Must this dream always be painfully torn?” She whirled around, revealing tears streaming down her coat. It hadn’t been washed in ages, so the trail of every tear, even those weeks old, showed as lines of tiny wrinkles. She clawed at the sides of her wired helmet as if it was her skin.
“Who is she?” Ghost asked her softly. “Who are you looking for?” I was so angry that I was about to call him a traitor for offering her anything other than an insult, but then I remembered I was the same person, if a little bit harder. I examined the Doctor again. Under her coat. A brown dress! The same one I’d been seeing since reaching the island, every time my eyes had been closed for me.
“It’s you,” I said. She looked up at me. The woman had been unraveling for a long time, reality was thinner than a soaked cracker to her now, but she still sensed my revelation. As a scientist I think she had a sixth sense for inspiration. She approached me, desperate, hands out.
“You’ve seen her?” she asked. She didn’t blink.
“I’ve seen you,” I told her. “In these artificial dreams. I’ve seen you ever since I had these fine echoes by my side.” I nodded to Pale and Ghost, and they nodded back.
“Not me,” Mantilo insisted. “Her. All my echoes. Every part of me that’s not in this second.”
“What do you mean? If we can help you, we will. As long as you let these people go.”
“The party. I was at a party.” I remembered the balcony from the visions. “I looked out over the sea and saw it: an anomaly. A fold in time. It washed up the side of the cliff and grabbed me. It tore my past from me, all my echoes, all my grounding, and she was lost in the black space between dreams and time.”
“Where the sleeperbots put everybody!” Pale exclaimed.
“I found the right dream frequency to go there,” Mantilo said with a nod that nearly took the helmet off her head. “I’m not as cruel as nature. I send people there within safe dreams, bubbles that won’t sink. I needed them to help me look for her, but it’s endless. Even with everyone looking… Nobody believed me! They thought this agony regular insanity! I had to build helpers, then take those with minds that could search.”
“It’s all been for nothing,” I told her, my voice softening. Maybe Ghost echoed it, but I couldn’t hear him. “They can’t see outside those dreams. We can. We’re unfixed like you.”
“I tracked the time fold to this island,” she said, sprouting fresh tears. “I contained the fissure from which the one that got me bubbled out. That’s the dome. I’m protecting everyone else from it!”
“This is ending,” I told her. I pointed at her helmet. “Does that let you search for her?” She ripped it off her head and pushed it into my arms, forcing me to drop my clipper. That was a yes. I donned the helmet with my echoes looking on, watching over me, and sank back into the dream state. There she was. On the balcony. Mantilo’s peace of mind and her history all rolled into one. She reached out. I took her hand and pulled her into the current moment, back into waking life.
That is the firsthand account of Screamer Echo. Pale Echo wrote the secondhand one. Ghost Echo wrote the third. I don’t keep in touch with them much anymore, as all three of us have diverged. They want lives of their own, to be more than echoes, and I think they’re getting it. As for me, well, you’re not exactly the only person reading this. This echo is bouncing around in minds across the world. Everybody knows that we saved Dr. Mantilo, that we ended her war of madness, and they will know it in the future as it echoes across time itself.