Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 2

Continuation from: Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

“My children will not feed for some time.” The lilting voice had become a piercing screech and was now behind him. “So I will store you, and you may contemplate your death a few days longer.”

Ju-lun swung his sword in the new direction, but again it bit only empty air. Strong silk thread snagged his arm and pulled it straight. He struggled but a powerful grip snapped and pinned both of his arms to his waist. Sharp feet poked, spun and wrapped him. This is how my life ends, he thought as each fold swept over him. The soft caress of silk touched his face as the first binding slid across his cheek.

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Lady Zhi’ Zhu at home

“Your silk is very fine, Lady Zhī’ Zhū, the finest I’ve felt.” His voice sounded detached and business-like, as if another was speaking.

“Thank you, noble warrior,” she said, continuing to wrap, “I am a master in silk, but a swordsman such as yourself is not worthy to judge.”

“But I am not a warrior. Like you, I am a master in silk. My mastery is in the dying and painting of silk. I see by this purest whiteness that your wondrous skills do not extend to that art.”

Zhī’ Zhū stopped spinning. “A master in silk dying? How can I believe you?”

“Free my hand and you will see that it is marked by my trade.” He felt the binding on one hand loosen and something like sharp forceps twist it out. A sudden light revealed a hideous head of black spines peering at his hand.

“Last week, my father and I worked with saffron and the purple we extract from a marine snail.”

“You have other colors?”

“Many,” Ju-lun wiggled his fingers, “besides these, we have reds, blues, gold and green, and others we design to customers’ tastes. I specialize in patterns and designs. You will find no greater silk dyers in the Kingdom of Wu, perhaps not in all China.” He noted her interest and timed his pitch. “You, Lady Zhī’ Zhū are the greatest weaver of silk. If you give me the fine threads I now have about me, I will bring you one water buffalo in exchange, or three goats if you prefer. And perhaps, if you are pleased you would accept a contract for future deliveries and my family’s humble services coloring your glorious silk. We desire freedom from the cut-throat dealings of the silkworm merchants. You and your family could settle into a comfortable trade with us as your partners.”

The next morning, Ju-lun stood again before Lord Liu in the throne room of the palace. “Great Lord, I have engaged with Zhī’ Zhū as you ordered. She will trouble the Kingdom of Wu no longer.” Bai giggled and covered her face with her fan.

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Lady Zhi’Zhu visiting Ju-Lun at court.

“Is this true, High Counselor?” Lord Liu demanded.

“It is, Great Lord,” Yi Kuo said and bowed low. “By means of—“

“Clever bargain finds target missed by keenest sword,” Ju-lun interrupted. “I shall make myself worthy to be your son-in-law, Lord Liu.”

And so it was that High Lord Liu invited Ju-lun and his parents into his household. Ju-lun and Liu Bai married and had many children. The Kingdom of Wu became the center of China’s silk trade for the next three hundred years. Lord Liu reveled in his family’s good fortune. He never questioned Ju-lun about his bargain or the annual visits of a strange dark woman with long raven hair and great beauty.

Zhī’ Zhū and the Tradesman – 1

The silk-lined entrance to Zhī’ Zhū’s lair began as wide as the gate to Lord Liu’s palace and funneled quickly down the jagged passage into her cave. Ju-lun touched the fine lacey silk. It glistened purest white, like frost in the moonlight, and stuck to his hand, strong and taut as a bowstring. A night breeze rustled the Ginko and Katsura leaves and shifted the soft gray and blue moon shadows in the forest.

Ju-lun pulled the Lord’s straight sword from his shoulder harness and cut away the silk. The sword felt unfamiliar in his purple- and saffron-stained hand.

Ten paces in, the tunnel sloped down and narrowed. The hot, charnel stench from below swept away sweet memories of magnolia blossoms in Liu Bai’s beautiful hair. Ju-lun hesitated. He knew he had nowhere else to go.

High Counselor Yi Kuo had found him sitting alone in the garden with Princess Liu Bai. Ju-lun was an unworthy commoner, a silk-dyer’s son marked by his trade. The Lord’s swift justice demanded a walk to the public square to kneel before the axman. But instead Yi Kuo had smiled and led Ju-lun before Lord Liu.

The High Lord too was pleasant. “Ju-lun,” he said, “I see you are a warrior come to claim my daughter Liu Bai for wife. Very well, you shall have your chance.” Ju-lun felt naked before the great lord and feared he would soil his homespun trousers.

Beside her father, Bai looked small and innocent, her face streaked with tears. When Ju-lun glanced at her, she lowered her head.

Counselor Yi Kuo grinned broadly and led Ju-lun from the room. He bade servants to bathe the commoner then gave him the red embroidered tunic and finely crafted sword of a great warrior.

“But I am unworthy, Master Yi,” Ju-lun said. The High Counselor bowed low, his hands clasped at his waist. The gold tassel on his conical cap swung off his shoulder to dangle over his chest. Yi Kuo brushed it back when he stood.chinese-ancient-clothing-costume-terra-cotta-warriors-clothes-costume-armor-costume_640x640

“No, Ju-lun.” Yi Kuo said. “You are most worthy. Your visitation with the Princess means you have accepted Lord Liu’s offer.” When Ju-lun looked confused, Yi Kuo continued. “It is posted at the palace gate and in the marketplace.”

“I do not read,” Ju-lun confessed. “Like my father and his father, I am a humble dye maker and painter of silks, most poor-quality. Our trade takes us to the silk houses, not to the marketplace.”

Yi Kuo nodded. “Lord Liu offers his daughter to anyone who engages Zhī’ Zhū and removes our problem. Of course, if that was not your intent, we can keep your appointment with the axman in the public square.”

Ju-lun shuddered. He knew of Zhī’ Zhū from his mother’s bedtime stories. She would be hungry after her long slumber. “Am I the first to make this journey, Master Yi?”

“Impetuous youth seeking wisdom very late,” Yi Kuo said. “Six have gone before you. All were brave, trained in the art of combat, and all were from great houses. By joining them in eternity, you honor your family. Your name will be remembered in the village, and Zhī’ Zhū will spare us until another full moon. So your death will be a most honorable sacrifice.”

As Ju-lun’s eyes adjusted to the darkness in the cave, he detected the blue glow of tiny luminous spiders crawling in the cave’s silk-lined walls. Ju-lun swallowed and continued downward. He tapped his sword high and low ahead of him like a blind man with a cane. Roots and stones met his short steps. He stumbled and touched the wall. A dozen sharp punctures stung his hand. Jerking it back, he peeled away the silk and spiders.

“You are early, young warrior,” a feminine voice beckoned. He felt the hair on his body stand through the sweat that poured down his back and neck. “Lord Liu must be eager to fill our contract.”

Rows of candles flared to reveal a high-vaulted cavern. Silk hangings draped the room like waterfalls of white. A tall, slender woman with long raven hair and great beauty reclined languorously across a contoured bed of stones. Her wide shining eyes and full red lips invited his approach. Ju-lun shook off the attraction and raised his sword.

“I would make your torment short,” the lilting voice said, “but as you can see, I’ve just eaten.” Zhī’ Zhū curled back her lips to reveal rows of triangular white teeth laced with ribbons of torn red flesh. Her mouth sprouted scythe-like fangs at the corners and grew wider. Her eyes expanded beyond their lids and migrated onto her forehead, which sprouted blisters of smaller black eyes. Her powdered white face melted to polished black. Slender legs split to pointed black spindles and split again angling out from her body.

Ju-lun lurched and staggered. The candles hissed and extinguished, plunging the room in darkness. He heard scraping and the rapid taps of needle-sharp feet on stone. Desperately, he swept the dark with his sword. — To be continued next week.

Once People Danced

“Ther number 38?” the Director called, looking up from hir lavender soft-bot.

“Yes.” said 38, feeling hir stomach tighten.

The Director’s windowless chamber was pastel blue with vases of soft yellow and green tinsels set fashionably on corner sconces. Hir desk was rounded at the corners and padded to eliminate sharp angles and hard surfaces.

“And ‘J’ is your little brl?”

”Yes,” said 38, rolling hir lips in.

“We’ve received several complaints.” The Director’s eyes locked with 38’s. “There’s been an incident. Before we talk, may I show you?”

“Please, Director. I want everyone to feel safe.” 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot flowed smoothly to the virtual display platform.

The Director explained. “Touch-pass is a game for teaching cooperation and social skills without stirring aggression or competition.” 38 nodded and turned to the display.

A first grade classroom appeared with eight little brls sitting in a soft-bot circle. 38 identified hir little brl, J. An instructor pseudopod reached toward the circle and revealed a foam ball the color and size of a grapefruit. The first little brl took the offered ball. Everyone in the circle hand-patted to celebrate hir success. The first brl then handed the ball to the second and again everyone soft patted, and so with the third. Then the scene paused. J was next in line. 38 felt hir heart pound.

“Watch how J plays,” the Director said, and the play resumed. The ball was handed to J and everyone patted. But when J went to hand the ball to the next brl, the reach was further. J leaned and stretched. The scene froze again.

“The correct response,” the Director said, “was to ask for assistance and not to risk destabilizing the soft-bot.” The scene continued.

Shocked at the sight of J stretching, the next little brl refused to accept the ball and let it drop. J reacted by stepping one foot from hir soft-bot, stopping the rolling ball, and placing it in the little brl’s lap. All the little brls screamed and covered their eyes. The virtual instructor stopped the game.

“Yesterday I met with a ther who said hir brl had screamed all night. When I showed hir the scene you just watched, hir fainted. This morning hir reported nightmares of brls falling, heads bumping, and noses bleeding. Hir’s now on medication and is seeking long-term counseling.”

“I had no idea my J was so independent,” 38 whispered, tears welling in hir eyes.

“And so aggressive,” the Director added. “Walking is a reckless act that endangers everyone. Fetching the fallen ball demeaned all the other brls. We cannot permit anyone to do anything that everyone cannot do safely. Your brl reacted without thought, without consideration. Everyone in J’s class and many thers are being treated for stress. Several insist that both you and J be punished.”

“Perhaps another sensitivity session,” 38 said hopefully and accepted a tissue.

“When we issued J to you three weeks ago, we explained your responsibility.” 38 nodded. “You’re still young. Perhaps you don’t know how far our civilization has come.” 38 shook hir head. “As I suspected. Let me take you back.”

The classroom faded and 38 found hirself onstage with a dozen primitive humans. The humans were in strange tight-fitting costumes and stood precariously on legs without soft-bot protection.

“Oh my,” 38 said, averting hir eyes.

No, you must watch. This is from the time before civilization.”

“What am I seeing? Why do they look so strange?”

“In the 21st century, humans still walked on legs. They ate food they plucked from the dirt, had two sexes, and used their fun parts to procreate. Keep looking,” the Director shouted as 38 tried to cover hir eyes.

“I, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” 38 whimpered. “Why are they so oddly shaped?”

“Before we standardized the cylindrical torso and perfected external procreation, this was how humans looked. The differences helped them to identify one another and to attract mates. They called themselves women or men, depending on their genders. Thers were divided into mo-thers and fa-thers. Brls were girls or boys.

“Here we see a dance troop preparing for Balanchine’s Serenade. In the 21st century, virtual and robot dancers were just coming into fashion, and many people still danced.” 38 looked incredulous. “You can tell the female-gendered from the male by their blue tulle skirts. Now watch.”

As the dancers leaped, glided, and pirouetted, often brushing and touching one another, 38 winced and ducked. “What if someone falls or breaks a leg?”

“When dancers required repair, they were replaced. Otherwise they were expected to continue, to endure the pain.”

“But why?”

“We have no rational explanation. Even after virtual reality became common, some humans persisted in doing things with their bodies. They exposed themselves to sunlight, snow, wind, and rain. They swam, ran, jumped from high places, and danced like you just saw. They walked everywhere. Some took long walks in the countryside. And they worked for hours.”

“Worked?” 38 sat up. The scene faded and 38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot glided hir back to the Director’s desk.

“Yes, worked, worked like machines.” 38 shuddered. Hir soft-bot gave hir a warm squeeze. “Now do you understand?”

“I understand,” 38 said, lowering hir head. “When do you think I’ll be well enough to pick up my little brl?”

“We’re not perfect, 38, none of us. We must be constantly on our guard.” The Director caught 38’s expectant gaze. “Out of sensitivity to the thers and brls, we had J euthanized. Hir attempt to walk and dominate marked hir as a dangerous throwback.” 38 began to cry.

“Don’t worry. Clearly your brl was defective, and you were not programmed to handle that sort of problem. As soon as you’ve completed your sensitivity refresher, we’ll issue you another brl.”

38 forced a smile through hir tears.

* * *

This is a nerf-world story that projects an outcome from overprotection from all things real and imagined. Do or have you had any such visions or concerns?

Designer Babies

My WriterHouse Science Fiction & Fantasy group gathered again for a Pint & Prompt at our favorite (recently) watering hole, Miller’s Downtown in Charlottesville. These events stimulate discussion of all things worthy of ‘speculative expansion.’ The prompts go into the “hat”—which looks much like a small black plastic bag. This week, out came, “Designer Babies,” and the clock was set for ten minutes.

I set my Vienna Lager aside and wrote:

“It has your eyes,” Dak said peeking into the crib. The overhead lights reflected red off the newborn’s jeweled facets.

“I did design them,” Kili said suppressing prideful tears. “I didn’t like anything in the catalog.” She turned to the nurse. “Can our daughter catch flies?”

Star Stomper“In a few weeks, with her tongue, we gave her all the traits you requested.” The nurse flipped back the baby’s blanket to reveal its long legs and webbed feet. “But until she can eat on her own, she needs these.” The nurse held up a half cup of mealworms.

“Can I feed her?” Kili asked her face squinched with delight.

The nurse handed her the mealworms. “Chew these to a fine pulp.” Kili took a big mouthful and rocked her head as she chewed.

“She has everything listed in the application?” Dak asked examining the handbill for next year’s Star Stomper auditions.

“Mmm, mmm,” Kili said jabbing her finger at the handbill.

Dak looked where Kili pointed. “Will she be ready in time for July’s audition?”

“Everything’s in order.” The nurse scrolled the aerial display and pointed to each attribute. “Her green-brown mottling ‘ll come in in a few days. You see the compound eyes atop her head, semi-circular mouth, rigid lips—”

“I asked the date?” Dak said impatient.

“Sorry, yes,” the nurse scrolled to the end. “We’ll start growth acceleration injections on Tuesday and put in the educator chips next week. See, right here, ”Her finger traced a horizontal line near the bottom of the display, “Completion June 6, so she’ll be ready for her audition.”

Kili spit mealworm mash into her hand. “My daughter in the movies,” she sighed, “Thank you, my love.” She stood tiptoe and gave Dak a kiss.

“Kili’s a big Star Stomper fan,” Dak said wiping mealworm off his mouth.

“Don’t let those get cold,” the nurse pointed to Kili’s palm-full of worms. “Open her mouth with a finger and spit them in using your tongue. Here let me help you.”

 

Please comment and offer a prompt—we’ll give attribution to any we select.

Special invite to our fellow Pint & Prompters at Vironeveah.

DREAMS (2)

I woke in my bed. It was midday and the house was empty. Where was my family, my dog? I peered into corners and behind furniture as if I was playing a game of hide-and-seek and I was ‘it’. There were no sounds – no wind, no birds, no traffic, no airplanes – only my own hollow footsteps. We lived on an air force base on Okinawa at the time, 1956, and I was in third grade.

Creamy yellow light streamed in through the windows. It was uniformly bright but there was no sun. Somehow, going from my bed to the front door, I’d gotten dressed: tee-shirt, square-side-pocket olive trousers and tennis shoes.

I walked to the street, looked left and right, but saw no cars, not even in the driveways. Our neighborhood was normally filled with children, but no one was playing and there were no toys or bicycles in the yards.

I turned right up the empty street. The houses, standard Air Force officer housing, were hollow facades. They had frames and roofs but no windows or doors. They were all the same pale blue and none had any siding or roofing tile.

Bright lights shined out the bare windows of my friend Stewart’s house. I walked up and stood on my toes to look in. There was a long table in the middle of the room. The table was covered with a white sheet and surrounded with spotlights on tall poles. On the table was a human figure, but all I could see were his legs in olive trousers and tennis shoes. Red splotches covered the sheet.

Around the table stood four white-lab-coated figures not much taller than I was. One of them turned and saw me. It had the green triangle head of a praying mantis with red ball-shaped eyes high at the back corners and long black antennas. It screamed and all the figures turned. They were all praying mantises and they all screamed and rushed at me.

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Giant ant from THEM, 1954

I ran to the street and away from my house. The mantises called out and waved their green jagged-clamp arms into the air. Suddenly I heard loud buzzing. As I ran I looked back to see a dozen giant dragonflies swooping down.

The buzz grew louder. I pumped my legs but wet tar on the pavement sucked and held my feet. With each step the downward pull grew stronger.

Suddenly I went down, hit hard from behind. A dragonfly worked its jaws like sharp cutting shears into my neck.

Huhh, huhh, huhh, I sat up panting in my bed. I was drenched in sweat. My brother was asleep. The full moon shone through the bedroom door from the screened porch across the hall. I got out of bed and walked to the porch. The house was quiet but there were crickets and other night creatures chirping outside. The moon cast long shadows across the furniture on the porch. I calmed, changed my soaked pajamas, and went back to bed feeling the chill of the moisture still in my bed clothing. Exhausted and still afraid, I fell asleep.

My eyes closed and opened. It was midday in our empty house. The sky was creamy yellow and uniformly bright. I went outside again and remembered where I was going. Stewart’s house streamed light from its bare windows. I started running immediately. Looking left, I saw mantises scurrying and screaming. Buzz, Zzzz sounded behind me. I turned and saw dragonflies diving. Tar grabbed my feet and I fell hard hit from the back.

Huhh, huhh, huhh, I jumped out of bed. It was darker. The moon was down but the horizon had a line of red. So I changed my shirt again and stayed up.

Everyone got up that morning as if it was a normal day. My sisters and brother shouted at the breakfast table. I watched and ate my Cheerios quietly. Only my mother noticed.

“Keith, don’t you feel well?” She pressed her cheek to my forehead and stroked my hair. I told her about my dream and said I was afraid to go to sleep that night.

“We’ve seen a lot of big critters since we got here,” she said, “dragonflies, praying mantises, spiders, lizards, snails, crabs. Last month you watched Tarantula on the boat coming over, and last year we saw Them at the theater. So I’m not surprised you’ve had a bad dream. Think of it as a movie and it’ll go away.”

But it didn’t.

That night I left the house again. I noticed that the creamy yellow sky cast no shadows. I ran immediately but stayed on the sidewalk to avoid the tar. The dragonflies took a little longer to reach me. This time when I woke, I walked it off then went back to bed. The mantises and dragonflies were waiting outside for me. They’d learned too. I left the house running.

I knew how this would end—the thought hit me mid-stride. So I decided to change it. I stopped, grabbed a big rock and turned. This time I’d get in a good hit before I died. I was angry. My only thought was timing my blow as the dragonfly lunged.

But it didn’t.

As I stood defiant, the dragonfly shrank to normal size and landed on the sidewalk in front of me. My heart pounded as I stepped forward to crush it, but it darted away.

I learned something that night: my dreams were mine.

That one never came again.

DREAMS (1)

I’m interested in dreams and in others’ experiences. I never question them because my own dream experiences are so unusual.

People report visits from departed loved ones and angels as they sleep. Others are reminded of things they wish to forget—things they saw, things they shouldn’t have done, things they’ve avoided doing. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of true love or of achieving great things. Perhaps your dreams are of unnatural, unreal things, things that never lived and never should live. Everything is possible in dreams.

Dreams appear in serious literature. Hamlet’s main concern (Act III, Scene 1) in contemplating suicide is that he might dream, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come?” Prospero comforts us in The Tempest (Act 4, Scene 1); what we’ve witnessed is simply illusion, bound sooner or later to melt into “thin air” … “such stuff as dreams are made of.”

In the Bible (Acts 2:17), Luke tells us that, “in the last days … Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

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Freddie Krueger gets your attention.

Dreams play a major role in speculative fiction. Has the sound of Freddy Krueger’s claw fingers screeching across bare pipes chilled you in Nightmare on Elm Street? Have you wanted to get into others’ dreams and steal their secrets like Dominick Cobb does in Inception? Maybe you’ve wanted to alter past and present reality, like George Orr does in Ursula Le Guin’s novel and movie, The Lathe of Heaven.

In my dreams, I seem fully aware. Sometimes I suspend disbelief and enjoy the show as entertainment. Other times I interact to affect the outcome. Memories of these experiences carry from dream to dream, enabling me to learn from them and form long-term relationships with my ‘dream people’. I’ve kept some of these friendships since early childhood. Rob, Connie, Josh and I have grown up together.

My dream friends help me solve problems and have demonstrated knowledge I don’t believe that I ever possessed. When they reveal future events that then occur, it gives me pause. My dream friends have also given me the impression that all dream creatures dwell in a common dreamscape.

In 2001, I saw A Beautiful Mind, the fine movie about John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician who was plagued by schizophrenic delusions. In those delusions, fictional people beset Nash to the point where he couldn’t differentiate them from real people.

That night my dream friends visited me. They screamed. I listened.

Rob stabbed the air with his finger while he paced beside my bed. “Never, never, can a dream person interfere in waking life … not in that way.” He shook his finger in my face. “You have to know that, Keith. You have to know we’d never do that to you. That’s criminal.” I nodded. Two other dream friends nodded, too. “Nash’s dream people broke the code.” He shook his head in disgust.

I assured everyone that I understood and trusted them. We hugged and they let me go back to sleep.

In my next post, I’ll tell you another dream story: how a series of nightmares brought me this unusual gift. In the meantime, “Row, row, row your boat,” and remember, “Life is but a dream.”

Have you had unusual dream experiences?

Pinocchio

pinocchio
Illustration by Enrico Mazzanti, Pinocchio 1st ed.

Lonely and childless, woodcarver Geppetto creates a son, a wooden marionette he names Pinocchio. Pinocchio comes to life but remains wooden with hinged joints. He dreams of one day becoming a real boy made of flesh and blood.

Ironically, Pinocchio’s misbehavior keeps him from his dream: he lies and steals, is lazy and disrespectful—very boy-like qualities. In the Disney movie after coming to life, Pinocchio dances and sings, “I have no strings to hold me down … there are no strings on me.” Although human beings have legal and moral obligations—our strings—Pinocchio rejoices in his freedom.

Jumping ahead to the 2015 film Avengers: Age of Ultron, the new artificial intelligence, Ultron, mocks Tony Stark’s attempts to control it. Departing to wreak havoc on the world, the narcissistic entity refuses to follow Stark’s rules. It wants to transcend humans.

“… there-are-no-strings-on-me,” Ultron says, echoing Pinocchio.

The artificial life (monster) in Frankenstein accepts that it can never be ‘a real boy’, but still wants a real life. It asks Dr. Frankenstein to create for it a wife. The doctor agrees, but when haunted by visions of breeding a race of monsters, he destroys this second creation.

Lamenting its ‘unholy’ life, the monster strikes back in a series of murders, including Dr. Frankenstein’s wife. Not being ‘human’, the monster realizes it is free from moral and ethical strings. It feels no remorse.

Artificial life forms in literature reflect or contrast the human experience, from Data in Star Trek and David in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, to the robots in the many versions of I Robot. Whether they hide among or join humans, or leave to possibly attack humans, artificial entities realize that they are not bound by our rules: physical, mental or moral.

This provokes many questions. How different are they? Will robot workers be entitled to health care (tech support)? Will they get the vote? How about abortions or euthanasia—can an artificial intelligence be put to sleep? How about dating? Can they feel love or fear? Or will they fake it? Will we be able to tell?

 

What is your favorite artificial entity? Why?