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.
There were eight ships currently docked at the Tape Maestro station. Prod Darkorse had the job of knowing exactly how far each of them had traveled to get there. That was the easy part though, as each space-faring vessel trailed a giant cloth tape measure that terminated at their starting point. He knew that the drumstick-shaped golden ship had traveled exactly 6,569,435 indents to reach Tape Maestro. He knew the silver discus had gone only 302,649 indents.
It was regulation that every single voyage that started or ended off Earth use one of the tape measures. They hung on the back of every ship the way spare tires used to on the rubber-footed vehicles of old. The measures were one of the last things to actually be invented by mankind’s left brain, before they mostly let it shrivel up and go to sleep.
Prod wasn’t in charge of Tape Maestro, just the comings and goings of various vessels. Since he was young he’d always been a little more left-brained than his civilization. His classmates turned into adults that cared about nothing but painting, poetry, sculpture, and theater. There he was memorizing things, knowing how to count all the way to a billion, and even knowing his multiplication tables.
His friends thought him strange, as the only other things that knew those were the brassbots. They were the second-to-last thing to be invented. Brilliant devices they were. The old geniuses put all the methods of counting into them, interpreted as little metal wheels and springs, and voila! No more need for any of that brain-taxing math. The bots could handle it all, and do a thousand other things too if you attached the right arms and legs.
There Prod sat, part of a group of easy-going managers, at the center of what looked like a spider web frame out in the middle of space. People and ships stopped by all the time to bring resources and stories, but mostly just to refuel. It was an uneventful day, Prod was leaning back in his rocking chair counting sheep, when a new ship arrived. He didn’t think much of it; it trailed its tape measure same as all the rest. They had dyed it a series of wavy warm colors, but that wasn’t against regulation.
He checked the number at the end as they docked, the pilots and passengers no doubt making their way towards one of the station’s several restaurants. He put a pencil to his clipboard: 28,922,217 indents. He double-checked the number. That was quite large. Had he ever seen that great a distance traveled? No. They must’ve been explorers fresh from an illuminating journey into the absolute darkness beyond all the planets and stars.
Part of him wanted to go interview them, to see what new things they’d observed, but he had a shift to stick to. Another five hours of it before he was off duty. They could be gone by then. Instead he turned his mind back to that big number of theirs. This led to one more strange thought: shouldn’t the tape measure on the back of their clarinet-shaped ship be much larger? It was an average size, where most exploratory vessels he’d cataloged had a secondary fuel tank just to compensate for the weight of all that cloth.
Still, he let it go. There were sheep to count, new numbers to attain. He always kept track and made notes, as there would one day be a number of sheep so large that he couldn’t even think it. That was his muse, the artistic goal he could never attain. His fellows mocked him for it, but he never lost track. It did come close. The number nearly veered out of his mind entirely when he heard a terrible combination of stretching and smashing sounds.
They were all approximations of course, as there was no sound in space, but the brassbots had to keep the human cargo on their toes by piping simulated noises out of all speakers and pipes on the station. Prod jumped out of his chair and leaned towards the viewing glass. He almost couldn’t believe his eyes. A newly-arrived ship was tangled up in the colorful tape measure of the explorers. Their thrusters tried to compensate, but ended up spinning them in a circle that only worsened the knot.
“Oh trumpets… oh no…” Prod muttered as he ran his fingers through his hair. There’d never been a collision before. The measurement system was perfect. What had gone wrong? He checked his clipboard once more. Nothing was empty, nothing overlooked…. except… This time he really couldn’t believe his eyes. They had to be liars; it was more likely than the truth. The explorer ship’s tape measure wasn’t using indents! It was the standard unit, the only unit! He remembered reading about mistakes like this in history books, back when feet fought meters, but the whole galaxy used indents!
He wasn’t over his shock when complaints started pouring in. There were ten voices all at once, confusing his abacus-console and sending its colored beads back and forth chaotically. There was a shout from the tangled ship; they were already demanding a duel with the explorers. There was a complaint from the station’s custodian saying the explorers had tracked mud in. Where did they even get mud? A third came from one of the open grill restaurants deep in the station. There were some fresh rude customers offering advice instead of payment.
Ten problems all at once… and it looked like they all came from this one ship and its disrespect of the proper unit of measurement. He looked at the now-drifting colorful tape measure, trying to find a word on it. What were its incorrect units called? Did it even go far at all, or were these just ruffians from one black hole over?
Prod asked one question of his superior through the metal weave of a microphone: Is this my job? The immediate answer was yes, because it involved the tape measures. He stopped and took a deep breath, trying to check his mounting rage. It had always been a festering thing, fed by the others’ disregard for numbers in general, but never had it been so directly challenged. The people who knew nothing of big counting were yelling in his ear, telling him he wasn’t doing his job well at all.
Meanwhile, traipsing around his home, mussing up all the rugs, was this gang of fake explorers. These were enemies, a thing he’d never had, a thing humanity rarely had these days. That meant he was authorized to take extreme measures if he saw fit. There was a weapons closet somewhere aboard. He moved a bead on his console, opening a channel of communication with an inventory brassbot.
“Where are the weapons?” he blurted.
“Weapons are a last resort solution,” the machine’s voice answered. “Have you tried all the others? If a machine is malfunctioning, please turn it off and turn it back on after two minutes.”
“It’s the people who are malfunctioning!” Prod screeched into the speaker. “I need something sharp to cut right through that tape of theirs. Direct me to the nearest great big sharp thing!”
“The brassbots advise diplomacy in situations of human malfunction, as human that are turned off cannot be turned on again. Diplomacy can be found on the D deck in the discussion hall…”
“This is an order! Sharp thingy! Where? Now!” He banged on the console.
“Weapons can be found on F deck in the violence closet.” Prod took off running. He was in his sock feet as Tape Maestro was a very relaxed station, so his flight was quiet on the various rugs and thatched mats in the warmly lit halls. Even without the noise of boots he still drew plenty of attention, mostly from people yelling about the problems he was already aware of. All he could do was wave them off and dodge them.
The violence closet was tucked into a dusty corner and marked with a great gash of a V on its door. The squeak on its hinges told him it hadn’t been opened in decades. There were even spider webs inside, and those creatures had been thought extinct aboard Tape Maestro. Several of them crawled out to infest the place once more, but Prod’s attention was on the wicked edges of the weapons sitting on the shelves.
He would’ve coughed, but the things had him breathless. He feared them, but that fear couldn’t best his swelling fury. His hand reached out, practically on its own, and grabbed something that looked like a cross between a machete and half a pair of scissors. He gave it a test swing, slicing through years of cobwebs. This would work. He would point it at those explorers and march forward, forcing them back the way they came.
The young man tried to leave with it, but something else burst out of the webs and hovered in front of him. It was a brass pill shape with wide round eyes and one arm wielding a brass sword of its own. It was some sort of old brassbot, likely assigned to manage the weapons. He tried to sidestep it, but it bumped into him and its eyes flashed orange.
“Humans who wish to wield a weapon must go through the safety training course,” the robot insisted.
“I don’t have time for that; get out of my way!” He tried to sneak under it, but it dropped on his head painfully to keep him back.
“The threat level of these objects is sufficiently high for me to overrule your objection,” the bot informed. “You must complete the safety training course.” Sharp as his sword seemed, he doubted he could swing it with enough force to cut through a brassbot. He had to think his way around its logic. Only cleverness could beat raw processing power.
“Then we’ll do the course on the way,” Prod proposed. “I need to go stop enemies by the grills. Teach me while I run.” The bot hovered there for a moment, the orange flickering in its eyes like fire. Eventually it wobbled back and forth in a nod. “Okay, let’s go!”
The path to the grills was quite long, even with his elevator clearance, so Prod tried to use the time to strategize. He really had no idea if the hooligans would have weapons of their own, given that their alternative units seemed dangerous. He didn’t know how many of them there were either. He asked the brassbot, as they crossed blades in an elevator, if it would help him fight.
“I cannot harm humans,” the machine said, but a moment later it jabbed its sword unexpectedly and drew blood on Prod’s left arm.
“Aah! Hey! You just said….”
“As weaponmaster I am allowed to inflict minor injuries with the larger goal of teaching you how harmful weapons can be. I can hurt you seventeen more times today if you fail to block my strikes.” After that Prod paid more attention to his brief lessons. He learned how to block in the elevator, how to thrust while he ran down the spiraling halls outside the food court, and how to parry moments before he ran into his new enemies.
Even without weapons the citizens of Tape Maestro looked ready to start a war. They were gathered around the seven intruders, cracking their knuckles and throwing things. The intruders didn’t seem bothered. They were a colorful bunch wearing multiple scarves and bandannas. Their clothing was mismatched and some of them wore a single glove or a single sparkling ruby earring. They clapped and laughed raucously as they threw slabs of meat onto the open grills and breathed in the immediate swell of smoke.
“They didn’t pay for that meat!” one of the cooks shouted to Prod, waving an iron spatula. You were always free to cook things the way you wanted on the open grills, but you had to buy the ingredients first. Someone made an attempt to grab the oldest man in the explorer’s group.
“I forgive you,” the old man said, suddenly blinking out of existence just as his assailant’s arms closed around nothing. He reappeared a short distance away, standing on a live grill. He hissed and laughed, dancing back and forth across its surface, kicking up little clouds of steam. His companions guffawed as well and applauded his efforts. Prod had no idea how the old man had achieved such a parlor trick, but he still had a job to do.
“Hey!” he shouted, drawing most eyes. “You lot have got some nerve.” The people of Tape Maestro cheered him on. One of them touched his arm, urging him to point the weapon at the explorers.
“Keep your wrist steady and grip firm,” the weaponmaster bot said in his ear as it drifted alongside.
“Yeah I got it, go away now,” he hissed at the machine. “Your stupid tape measure has the wrong units on it! You caused a knot! We’ve never had one of those. Now you’re stealing too. And you can disappear… that’s also… wrong. So stop it. Stop it all or I’ll cut you down into the right increments.” He wiggled his blade, then moved it from face to face. They all looked disheveled, their faces full of smile lines and their earlobes playfully pulled long. They were disgusting, except for…
A girl in their ranks stepped forward. She was all smiles. Her curly brown hair was like the strands a corkscrew pulls out. It bounced with each of her steps. She circled around Prod with her hands behind her back. She had no fear or anger, perhaps leaving them in a locked chest back in her ship.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Prod Darkorse,” he said defensively, “and I am your enemy. Have you not done this before?” She giggled and poked the side of his sword, so he hopped backward and pointed it at her throat once more. The weaponmaster complimented his stance, but he shoved the brassbot into the crowd.
“My name is Amory,” the girl reciprocated. “You must be confused; I don’t have any enemies. My family and I are definitely using the correct unit of measurement. It goes farther than your indents.”
“What do you call them?” Prod asked, his curiosity temporarily overcoming everything else. A few in the crowd gasped, as they had never even considered the possibility of someone using a different unit. The brassbots picked the units and did all the work so humanity could run, play, and create. You could make anything you could imagine, so why a unit? It was so… left-brained.
“If you know what they are, you’ll know how to use them,” she said. “If you use them, you’ll feel better. You won’t need to wave any weapons around.” She came closer, running her finger down the center of Prod’s shirt. The move stunned him; he felt like his feet had been woven into the mat he stood on. All of a sudden he smelled the grilling meat and the chopped vegetables liberated from their owners. He heard them sizzle on the grill.
It took every ounce of will to look past her green eyes and soft grinning lips. When he finally managed it he saw her family sneaking a couple wallets out of their pockets and snatching jewelry from around distracted wrists. That gave him the courage to take a swing.
“I forgive you,” Amory squeaked. She vanished; his blade hit nothing. The others were gone too, as were the goods they’d grabbed. The food was gone from the grill, but the smell lingered like a politely-worded insult.
“What are you going do about this?” a woman in the crowd asked him. “They took my pearls! Years to cultivate and dye each one. They’re worth a fortune!” Other stolen items were barked in his direction, but Prod didn’t need their prodding.
“I’m going to stop them!” he shouted back. He felt his face reddening; it was a terrible feeling like trying to breathe in a sink full of boiling water. “First I’m going to take this weapon and cut through their taped tangle!” His citizens roared their approval. “Then I’m going to find them and cut your property right out of their hands. They might be able to vanish, but they can’t vanish into space. This is our home, and I know every inch of it!” There came three cheers; there would’ve been five, but Prod didn’t have time for all of them. He was at war with a unit of foolish thieves.
First he needed to cut off their escape route. If he ripped their tape measure they could no longer report how far they’d traveled, meaning no civilized station would take them. He ran to the iron bay of the airlocks and donned a glass helmet with lovely swirls of green and silver. The weaponmaster, still hovering behind, advised him that he would die quickly but painfully if his sword punctured his suit.
“I don’t care,” he yipped back, pulling on the boots and gloves, blade tucked under one arm. “This thing is the only power I have. I’m not giving it up. Why did anybody ever give these up?”
“They cause pain,” the weaponmaster explained.
“No, those thieves cause pain. I’m causing justice, and I’m using this thing!” The second glove sealed itself and tightened. The weaponmaster cleared the airlock, allowing Prod to pull the lever that opened him up to the cold still darkness outside. The helmet was flooded with the sound of his breathing. It sounded scared. Immature. It brought back a memory of his classmates, aboard a fuzzier kinder station, presenting their finger-painted pictures to the instructors. They looked at his, but they didn’t tell him he did a good job. All the lines were straight. He colored within them. The scale of the space-cabin he’d drawn was quite accurate. Yet they’d shaken their heads like they looked down at a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
“I do my own things well,” he told the inside of his helmet as the hot coals on the bottom of his boots propelled him towards the tangle. “I’m about to do this well. I bet you never had any enemies.” Prod readied his blade. The two ships were still entwined, but it was easy to tell their tape trails apart by both their colors and the different size of their unit marks. He put himself on the right trajectory to slice straight through the villainous orange and red strand.
Something almost stopped him from going through with it; he drifted by the viewing glass of the explorer ship. It should’ve been abandoned. They were in the station, stealing and mocking. Whatever their vanishing power was, surely it couldn’t take them across gaps in space. Yet, even with docking doors closed, he saw them in there. There were several bodies bending over, storing stolen goods away in chests.
Amory stood there, just looking out at Prod. She waved. Heat swelled in his cheeks again. What was she doing? What did they even want? Much of what they stole seemed random: watches, books, food, and key chain toys. She mouthed something to him, but he was too angry to guess at the words. Then she vanished. They probably went to steal more from his people.
He turned back to the tape just in time to collide with it and get himself knotted up too. He growled and flailed, hacking away at the tape until the blade finally did its job. He pushed off of the explorer ship after banging his helmet against it twice. With a look he confirmed the severed connection. They had no way out now.
Prod Darkorse returned triumphant, but he didn’t feel that way. Even with the stuffy helmet off his thoughts were hot and scattered. All he had was his clipboard and his ability to stay focused when all other minds wandered off into colorful imagination. He was the man who could really talk with the brassbots instead of simply being babysat by them. Then along came these explorers with no sense of property, decorum, or reasonable increments.
It wasn’t clear where he could go next. The station was huge, and reports still poured in from every speaker. One explorer was in the pool, splashing the elderly during their calisthenics. One was releasing cats from the pet hotel. The rest were stealing something from somewhere. The voices whirled around Prod. He threw his hands up to cover his ears, forgetting he still held the all important weapon. It cut deep into his earlobe.
“Aauh!” he yelped, dropping the blade so it clattered on the marble between the rugs. His blood poured there as well, spreading evenly across the flat surface until the rugs drank it in on either side. He couldn’t remember ever being that hurt. This wasn’t right. The enemies were supposed to hurt him and the weapon was supposed to stop it. He pawed at his own red puddle, trying to push some of it back into his ear. The anger finally crested and broke into a million tears.
Prod sat there, crying, for several minutes. The weaponmaster was still there, but the bot said nothing. No explanation was necessary. This was just one of the lessons the blades had been locked away for. Besides, a different teacher showed up, for whom the weaponmaster gladly hovered aside. She silently knelt down next to Prod and caressed the side of his jaw, pulling his face up toward hers.
Prod had burnt himself out inside the spacesuit. The cold rush of air from removing his helmet turned him into a damp blackened wick. He was at her mercy and the blade was within her reach. Yet her hands were full of silken cloth, woven between her fingers. The cloth smelled like the rest of Tape Maestro, so she’d stolen it, but she returned it now as bandage. Delicately she wound it around his sliced ear and pulled to tighten. It stung for only a moment.
“I would’ve done this to you,” Prod said, thinking she just didn’t understand the way humans worked.
“I forgive you,” she whispered in his ear. The words shook his spine and made his hair stand on end. He reached out for her, but she was gone. Prod stood, but lingered in his blood puddle for half an hour. He thought. He ignored the bleating of all the sheep he’d counted and the voices in the speakers shouting chaos.
Eventually he wiped his nose on his sleeve, picked up the blade, and handed it to the weaponmaster. His dismissed the brassbot and slowly returned to his abacus-console. He dropped into his chair and looked out into space. No explorer ship. No pieces of their tape measure. The ship they’d tangled had successfully docked now; there was already a report of their grievances printing off to Prod’s side.
He thought. Humanity’s imagination got it this far. They still needed the numbers, but brassbots took care of those. What were they using? What let them come and go from reality as they pleased, dodging every hurt and offense? Prod remembered what she whispered, what they all said. I forgive you.
His breath faltered and he leaned forward, toppling his chair once more. He could never keep up with them thanks to all that anger. Vengeance, in the form of a steel blade, turned to an anchor. Forgiveness was their unit of measurement. It was far less left-brained than the indents the brassbots had used. The explorers weren’t stuck on anything.
They forgave themselves for stealing. They forgave others for getting angry. Amory forgave him for hurting himself. Maybe all he had to do was forgive himself. He was good at his job. Today was a failure of sorts, but only if he couldn’t let go. His teachers always told him he was too literal and too smart for his own good. They were right about one thing; it wasn’t for his own good.
This bit of smarts was. He forgave himself his old technical drawings, his hermit’s attitude, and the day’s bloodshed. He let it all go with a breath soft as her whisper.
Prod Darkorse vanished, felt the rush of the true human increment, and reappeared. Amory smiled and her family applauded his arrival.