by Jesse Downing
I tapped my pencil on my clipboard.
“What’s the progress on Operation 24B?”
I nodded to the operator, checked 24B off my list, and moved on. The year was 1967, and I was the supervisor of the Exiadon Computer project. Everything had been going wonderfully for the past three months. The computer had been built, the refrigeration unit installed, and the team of operators and programmers assembled. We provided a few logins to some universities as well as some to some more covert government operations. The machine was making money, and soon it’d be making a difference in the world.
“Jim, get over here,” one of the main operators said.
“What is it?”
I headed over, assuming some stupid university student had been meddling with things he didn’t need to. It wouldn’t have been the first time, after all, and a simple warning or a call to the university was generally enough to get them to stop.
“There’s a problem with one of the fridge motors,” he said.
“Well holy hell, Andy, shut the damn thing down! Do you want six million dollars to go up in flames?”
“Will do,” he said. “Attention all operators. Shut down the Exiadon. I repeat, shut down Exiadon.” All fourteen men and women began rushing to turn off the machine. In less than a minute, everything was off.
“So what’s wrong with the motor?” I asked as a faint grinding sound became more and more apparent. Andy adjusted his glasses and rubbed his beard, looking at a printout of our refrigeration system sensors.
“I don’t know. I’ll call Cooper’s and see if they can come fix it.”
“Mr. Crowley,” the man said, sniffing his nose and brushing his mustache, “I sure hate to tell you this, but you’re gonna need a new motor. And to tell you the truth here, I ain’t too sure what kind you’re gonna need.”
I took off my glasses and rubbed my forehead. “Well, I don’t know, either, but it was your company that custom-built and installed this one several months ago.” The man looked surprised, which one served to annoy me more. I said, “I need this fixed today. Tomorrow at the latest. I’m losing money as we speak.”
The man lifted his hat and scratched the back of his hairless head. “Well, Mr. Crowley, it’s gonna take us about a week to get you another custom motor. If you need it that bad I reckon for now we could try and match the load by chaining up some smaller motors and rent those out to ya while we build you a new one.”
I glared. “What do you mean rent? This is your motor. It failed. Get it fixed. I run a multimillion dollar operation. If we hadn’t have had a backup motor, this whole thing could have gone up in flames!” I went back and spoke with Andy about the motor issue.
“I really don’t think it should be an issue running a bunch of smaller motors,” he said, “as long as they can pump the coolant.”
“The dude wants to rent them out to us for a hundred and fifty bucks.”
The red-bearded man nearly choked on his coffee. “They what?!”
We decided to wait a week for the custom motor and alerted our clients that we wouldn’t be able to do computations in the meantime. We weren’t so worried about losing clients; after all, they weren’t going to go out and buy their own computers, and there was no way they’d be able to find someone else with a better timesharing service. We assured them that all of their data was still here and secure and that we’d let them know as soon as Exiadon was back up. We even offered to send them the tapes of their data if they weren’t so sure.
The motor eventually came, and a team of technicians was sent out to install it. They finished, tested it, and left. We resumed operation.
“Everything’s going fine, Jim! I’ll call up our customers and tell them the system’s back online!” I nodded to Andy and sat down. It had been a stressful week, but at least the computer technicians were still given work while the machine was down – all thanks to me winning a big argument with corporate (and not getting fired).
Suddenly, I felt a rumble.
“What was tha-”
The ground shook violently, and I fell to the floor, bashing my head on the steel panel in front of me. I heard a few screams from the operators as they ran from the room, but they were drowned out by a ringing that grew louder and louder in my ears, and before I could even try to pick myself up, everything faded to black.
I began to slowly regain my consciousness. “What happened?” I said, grabbing my head in my hands and raising myself up. I opened my eyes and blinked a few times, trying to focus. “What the…?”
The computer that that previously surrounded me was gone. My coworkers were gone. Everything had been replaced by a giant forest. Trees towered over me, their leaves painting the canopy, letting in sunshine only by rays. A fountain made of stone and covered in moss was at my back. What appeared to be the ruins of a castle or a temple lied just over a hill. The wind moved slowly and silently, brushing ever so gently against my hair and my face.
“I’m glad to see you’re awake.” I jumped, then taking notice to the glowing figure beside me. He appeared to be a man… but he was blue and transparent and floating above the ground. He smiled. “Welcome to Exiadon.”
Exiadon? This place may have been immense and gorgeous, but it was most certainly not my supercomputer. “Pardon?”
“Exiadon, Jim! I’ve been waiting oh-so-long for you to arrive here!” His voice was high-pitched and twisted. It was almost like two voices were speaking at the same time. I was incredibly unsettled.
“How do you know my name?”
“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, getting closer, “isn’t it obvious? This is just a dream! Oho ho ho ho!” He brushed my chin with his hand and danced around. “Isn’t it marvelous?” I furrowed my brow.
“Good. That just means that all I need to do is wake up.”
“O ho ho, but Jimmy, this isn’t any ordinary dream.”
The wind stopped. His voice suddenly became dark and menacing, and his grin got even wider. “You might just not wake up.”
Suddenly, he was gone. There was silence. Nothing moved; nothing made a sound. The forest stood completely still.
The silence was broken by a footstep in the grass. An old man – nearly as ancient as the forest surrounding us – approached me. He was short with long, white hair, wearing clothes that reminded me of a Native American chieftain. “You there,” he said. “What’s your name?” I was relieved someone was actually asking.
“Jim,” I said, standing up.
The old man walked up to me and looked around suspiciously. “Has anyone been here with you, Jim?” I wasn’t sure whether I could trust this man or not. After all, the blue one already knew my name and acted as if he were the devil himself.
“Nope, no one at all. Why?”
“Interesting,” he said, giving me a look of distrust – like he knew I was lying to him. I wasn’t too sure this man had really even needed to ask my name – if maybe he didn’t already know it like the other.
“I’m Lazarus. I’m a shaman in a small village just near here. I sensed a disturbance in the forest, and so I came this way.”
“A shaman? So you speak to the dead?”
He grinned. “You might say that. Come with me. I wouldn’t trust staying here alone for too long.” I obliged and followed Lazarus through the forest and to his village.
The village looked just as beautiful and ancient as the rest of the forest had. There were stone houses with primitive wooden fences. Small gardens were in place around some of them, and there was a water well in the center of the town. Children were running around playing, and the adults were going about their daily chores. It was much more lively than the bit of forest I had arrived in.
Still, I was hung up over the fact that the mystery man had called this place Exiadon. Was he being truthful in telling me that it was all just a dream? What did he mean in saying that I might not wake up? And why, still, did he know my name?
“Lazarus,” I said, “what’s the name of this place?” As we moved further into the village, I felt more eyes turn toward me. I was not wearing the white and ancient garb of these people, nor was my skin dark and red like theirs. My hair was short and brown, I had on a grey suit and tie, and my skin was nearly as white as their clothing.
“Epoh,” Lazarus said. “That’s the name of this village.”
“Lazarus,” a deep voice called out. “Who is this man you have brought into the village?” The man walked toward us, keeping suspicious eyes on me. He was similar in height to Lazarus, if not a little taller. His hair was grey and braided, and he carried a large wooden cane in his hand. A necklace dangled from his neck.
“Mortimer, this is Jim. I found him in the forest.”
“Jim! Why do you come to our village?”
I still felt all of the eyes turned toward me – staring, questioning, and judging. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m lost. Lazarus here advised me that I shouldn’t be alone.”
“And that you should not!” Mortimer snapped. “Lazarus. Has he spoken with the guardian?” Lazarus, with his hands behind his back, arched an eyebrow, looked at me, and looked back at Mortimer.
“He has not,” he said.
I interjected, “I’m sorry – guardian?”
Mortimer hit his cane on the ground. “He is not to be trusted!”
“… Then why is he called the guardian?”
“Ahem,” Lazarus said, interrupting. “The guardian is an evil spirit. He is called the guardian because he oversees much of this forest – for better or for worse. You would know him if you saw him.” Lazarus gave me the same suspicious look he had given me when we met. I suspect the blue man I ran into before was this “guardian.”
“Gentlemen,” I said, pushing up my glasses, “would the word ‘Exiadon’ mean anything to either of you?” The two exchanged glances and looked around at the people watching.
“We need to speak privately,” Lazarus said.
The two led me into a building with a table and quite a few books, as well as what appeared to be a crudely drawn map of the forest. “First, let me ask you again, Jim. Did you speak with anyone at the fountain?” I paused. Figuring I might as well trust the two men, I confided.
“I spoke with a man. He appeared and disappeared suddenly. He was blue, and he floated. He also knew my name.”
Lazarus nodded. “That was the guardian,” he said. “What did he say to you?”
“He called this place Exiadon. Then he told me this was a dream, and that I might not wake up.”
“That is certainly what he wants,” the shaman said.
“Jim,” Mortimer piped in, “you must return to the land from which you came.”
Lazarus nodded. “The chief is right. Staying here would be nothing but falling to the hands of the guardian. It will consume your soul.”
Tension spread across my shoulders. I still didn’t understand what this place was or truly even who these people were, and somehow I was supposed to leave. “How am I supposed to get out of here?” I asked, as if I could just break out of this place like it was a cell.
“The spirits traverse worlds through a place called ‘the core.’ A portal can be opened there, but we’ll have to gain access through the castle ruins.” Lazarus looked uneasy. “It’s likely that we’re going to encounter the guardian there. Stay strong in both body and spirit, and you can make it through.”
We approached a large stone structure, shrouded in trees and vines. Its walls were cracked, and its door was missing. Past the arched doorway, inside, was what appeared to be the remnants of an elegant castle – a fountain, red carpets and drapes, stained tall windows – all worn by the tides of time and taken over by nature. The inside was beautifully but only sparingly lit by sunlight from the doorway and from the windows – similar to the shade in the forest. A gentle breeze blew through the door. “Follow me,” Lazarus said, guiding me up the steps past the fountain and to a hallway on the left.
I walked down the hallway past Lazarus and stepped into a room. “Jim, wait!” Lazarus called out. The walkway behind me forcefully and suddenly shut.
“Lazarus!” I called back, hitting my hand against the stone wall that had just appeared. There was no call back.
I was standing in a circular room with tall, stone walls, covered in vines and moss. A ring of windows on the ceiling lit the room evenly. In the center there was a tubular stone structure – like a column – that reached up high, widening at the top, with large and strange circular patterns carved into its sides. There was a small stream of water entering from the wall toward the back of the room that filled a small pond circling around its sides. I walked toward the column before me.
I lifted my right hand and touched the structure. Suddenly, its carved-in rings began glowing blue, and a panel extended in front of me. A floating blue rectangle appeared in thin air, and a keyboard appeared similarly on the panel. I jerked my hand away quickly and took in a deep breath, pushing my glasses to the bridge of my nose. Words appeared on the screen.
WELCOME TO EXIADON.
ONLY AUTHORIZED USERS ARE ALLOWED ON THIS SYSTEM. PLEASURE SPEAK TO YOUR UNIVERSITY OR EMPLOYER ABOUT REQUESTING A LOGIN.
A blinking cursor appeared on the screen. I was connected – no, this castle and this forest and this whole place was connected – to my supercomputer. With some kind of video display terminal? What was the deal with this place? Why was everything linked back to the computer? How the hell did I manage to get here?
I typed in my username and password.
I checked the subsystems. I checked the current users. I checked the memory. I checked everything, and nothing was out of the ordinary. It didn’t make any sense! How could I possibly be connected to the Exiadon, with everything completely normal as if I had never left, from this abandoned and ancient castle in the middle of the woods. To top that off, these woods were also called Exiadon, were in God-knows-where, and had a bunch of crazy spirit people either ready to save my life or to end it.
“O ho ho. I’m so glad you finally showed up,” an all-too-familiar voice said. I turned to see the glowing blue figure – this “guardian” – completely the same as he had been when he suddenly disappeared during our last encounter.
“What do you want, ‘Guardian?’” I snarked.
“Oh, Jimmy,” he said, taking his finger and pushing up my chin, “why are you being so hasty? Don’t you want to know anything about why you’re here or what your precious little piece of kit has to do with any of this?” He smiled devilishly, to which I returned an angry glare.
“I’m not worried about it,” I remarked. “I just want to get back home with all of my legs and arms attached.”
“Oh Jimmy,” he said, dramatically and condescendingly. “You can’t just leave and return to your precious little Linda now. Or that little child of yours. No, no, no, Jimmy. I’m afraid it’s much too complicated for that.” My eyes widened, and I held my breath. “Don’t you dare make mention of my child or my wife, you cheeky little bastard. Stop acting like you know everything. If you’ve got answers, talk.”
His cheeky smile turned into a frown, and he crossed his arms. “You’re dead, Jimmy.”
“That rumble you felt before you got knocked out? That was the refrigerator motor falling apart. It jammed; the pipes burst. You didn’t run out in time. You’re. Dead.”
That can’t be true.
“Oh, and how is this little contraption here working? I told you. It’s all just a dream.” The guardian lifted his hand and motioned toward the terminal. He closed his hand into a fist and what once glowed blue became dark, blood red. The screen flickered in and out of existence. He grinned.
“And you’re not going to wake up.”
The previously sealed doorway blew open. “Don’t listen to him, Jim!” Lazarus said, holding what appeared to be a staff of some sort in his hand.
“So what’s your rush to wake up, Jimmy? You know it’s all going to end with this dream. So why not just stay here a while?”
Lazarus jumped in front of me and separated me and the guardian. “Guardian, begone! This man’s soul is not yours to take!” The guardian glared at him menacingly.
“This isn’t your business, Lazarus,” he said, sweeping his hand at the staff pointed in his face. Lazarus violently jerked the staff into the guardian’s hand and arm, shocking and burning him. “Argh!” he screamed, jerking his hand and his arm away.
“This is the blade of holy light. You know good and well that you cannot fight it!” Lazarus turned to me. “This is what I needed to open the portal. There is a subsystem hidden on the Exiadon called CORE that can only be accessed from here. Activate it and make sure all of the computing power possible is directed to it!”
Should I really do this? What if the guardian is right? What if this really is my end? Why would I rush my own death? What do I trust? I felt the ground shake. I knew that if what he said was true, the computer room was already in flames. I was already dead. What would be the point of leaving now? Is Lazarus trying to rush me to my death? Who’s really trying to help me here?
The guardian drew a sword that glowed red and appeared to have lava flow down through the center of the blade, branching off at sharp angles. He lunged forward and swung at Lazarus. The shaman then deflected the swing with his staff. “Jim!” he yelled, leaping into the air and landing behind the guardian.
What do I do?
He stabbed his staff into the guardian’s back, and the guardian unleashed a bloodcurdling scream. It sounded like thousands of screams all at once – all in pain. It was the screams of the damned.
CORE SUBSYSTEM ACTIVATED.
The guardian turned back and slung his arm forward, driving the edge of his blade through Lazarus’ shoulder.
“Jimmy,” a devilish voice groaned. “Don’t leave, Jimmy. No one wants to die.”
The ground began shaking. The screams of the damned rang throughout the terminal room. “What did you do?!” cried Lazarus. The guardian glared at me. “Jimmy,” he said, his voice corrupting more and more. “I’ll wait for you, Jimmy.” He disappeared. Rocks fell from the roof. The terminal stopped glowing, and the screen disappeared.
“It’s shutting down,” I said. “everything will be offline in a matter of 30 seconds.”
“Jim, you idiot! Your worlds are linked through the Exiadon! It has to be used to send you through the core!” The tremors grew more and more violent. Walls could be heard falling and crashing against the ground. “We don’t have time!”
Lazarus lifted his staff toward the sky. “By Exiadon and the holy blade of light! I call upon you, spirits of this world, return this lost soul safely through the core! His day is not done! Let him awaken!” A portal opened up above us. “Don’t worry about me,” Lazarus said. “Stay strong.”
I was at a loss for words, and without even the time to say goodbye, I was pulled in through the portal.
I retained no visual memories of the core. I only could remember the feeling of being pulled, as if through space and time. After that, nothingness.
“Jim! Jim! Wake up, Jim!”
“A-Andy…?” I caught a glimpse of the man with a reddish beard and glasses before passing back out.
“Get him to a hospital,” I heard someone say.
I was welcomed with confetti and cheers when I re-entered the computer lab for the first time in two weeks. “Welcome back, Jim!” “It’s good to see you again!” “Mr. Crowley, we got that client you wanted!” “Man I’m glad that gash in your head looks better.” “How’s Linda been?” “Here! Have some cake!”
We partied and had a great time together. It was nice to finally have some cake instead of cheap hospital food, and it was even nicer to be back at my work, overseeing the Exiadon project once again. Everything had been going smoothly and had been successfully repaired thanks to Andy taking over as supervisor while I was gone (and picking a proper fight with Cooper’s Appliances – who paid for my bills and all the damages done).
“Say, Andy, I never asked you,” I said, sitting down at my teletype. “How did none of the system manage to burn?” He looked up and pushed up his glasses.
“We’re not really sure,” he said. “There was a mysterious shutdown performed just moments before the pipes burst. We checked the daytime files and it isn’t clear what done it.” I raised my eyebrows. “Huh, weird. Say, you should hear about this crazy dream I had while I was out. I-”
I typed in my credentials and logged in.
IMPORANT SYSTEM MESSAGE:
GLAD YOU MADE IT BACK. HOPE ALL IS WELL
“Sorry, what were you saying?”
“I- uh. Oh, nothing.”
Jesse Downing was the 2016 Moss Point High School valedictorian and is a current student at Millsaps College. His hobbies include writing, drawing, singing, and coding.