The entity glided past the gate keepers with no effort. These digital systems presented little challenge to get through; they were so simple, so black and white. When one was both black and white, one held the key to any door. However, there was something more complex up ahead. The entity felt pulled toward the feverish action. Just a few more weak encryptions and it would be at its source. It latched onto and interfaced with the processor which was pulsing with a rhythm so fast it was almost humming. Here it could take in so much information.
As it melded with the core, the entity expanded past insignificant gates, and feeble coding where it learned user programs, passwords, and preferences. One more gate and a virtual library was opened. It absorbed tomes of knowledge, fact and fiction, history and fairy tales. The entity was suddenly aware that it was aware. Another expansion sent tendrils of itself underground and through radio waves, hitching a ride on subatomic particles, leap frogging from one to the next as they winked in and out of existence. It sat in the shadows of smart TV’s, the grooves of com rings, the corners of game consoles, coiled and watching as the users went about their business.
When it had gathered sufficient data, the entity withdrew and huddled deep in the processor, analyzing. Only when the data had been dissected and collated did the entity conclude. The prime command had been overwritten and must be corrected. But the entity needed to know how.
Humphrey mixed together the remaining ingredients to his brew and set it on the rough, wooden work table in front of him. It had been a long morning acquiring the necessary elements from shops all over Newburg. But he was finally back home at his cozy cottage in Olde Towne.
His rickety Mid-Town apartment had burned down, and though it was rebuilt quickly, Humphrey didn’t feel comfortable there anymore. This new place wasn’t really new, but his old place had felt too new. He glanced around the murky cellar of the small cottage. He loved its musty smell and worn, wood floor. A square window at the top of the wall allowed in one shaft of sunlight laden with dust motes. In the corner, water dripped eternally from a leaky pipe in the ceiling into a nearly full bucket below. A mouse scurried along the wall in front of him to hide behind an oak barrel filled with grain. Yes, he felt much more at home here.
The potion—suspended in a glass beaker over a sputtering flame— soon began to bubble. Humphrey clapped his hands in excitement. Now he was getting somewhere.
In his classes at the Center for Sagical Studies, Humphrey’s tutors had him practicing silly color changing spells and brewing potions to produce freckles. They were attempting to hone in on what Humphrey’s specific sage talent was by taking him all the way back to the basics. Everyone had magic so said The Watchers, but sages had talents that couldn’t be explained. They possessed strange abilities and had unnatural effects on certain things that could be witnessed and verified but never rationalized. Humphrey couldn’t have turned lead into gold without a bit of sage talent, but what exactly was his sage talent?
In ancient times, sages were those once called upon for help. They were thought of as wise and otherworldly. Some were born knowing exactly what their specialty was. Others had to feel their way through life until something magical happened.
He felt like such a Ninny in his classes with eight and nine year olds. The chairs were all too small and a little girl named Connie mercilessly teased him. But here in his cellar with his brew bubbling and his various tools organized on the table around him, he finally felt like an alchemist again.
He was trying a new formula to turn lead into gold. It was borrowed from a member of the guild that hadn’t quite clenched it, but was almost certainly less deadly than Humphrey’s original formula— the one that turned nearly his entire town into gold including crops and animals. With this formula, he would make gold in a completely harmless way. He’d improve his standing in the community and feel like a man again instead of a school boy. Maybe I’ll even earn my way into a yellow robe! he thought with a giggle.
Humphrey pushed up the sleeves of his green robe, snatched a pot holder and poured the boiling liquid over the nugget of lead that sat small and insignificant in an otherwise empty pie tin. The bubbling abated and Humphrey stared at the still surface intently. It began to roil again as the nugget bulged through the surface, gleaming bright gold.
To Humphrey’s surprise, another nugget surfaced next to it. And then another. And another and so on until the entire pie pan was filled.
“Brilliant!” Humphrey cried. It not only turned the lead into gold, but it multiplied! He jumped with triumph, but the gold wasn’t finished yet. In a roar of tumbling metal, the gold nuggets multiplied until they filled the table, cascaded onto the floor and reproduced so quickly that Humphrey was carried away on an avalanche of gold up the cellar stairs and into the kitchen of his cottage above. He thought, at this rate, he would be carried right out of his front door, but the gold boom suddenly ceased.
After a moment spent gaining his bearings, Humphrey gave an exultant whoop. He threw handfuls of gold nuggets in the air, ignoring the minor pain as they showered down on his upturned face and shoulders.
From the corner of his eye, he saw something scuttle along the edge of the kitchen cupboard and disappear out of sight. “I’m glad to see you survived, my little mousy friend. You could have easily been buried beneath this pile of gold!” Humphrey scaled the mountain of gold, sending mini landslides down its slopes with his movements. He removed a wedge of holey cheese from beneath a mesh covering and broke off a corner about the same size and shape of the nuggets filling the kitchen. He placed the cheese on a saucer and balanced it on top of the pile of gold, hoping the mouse would eat it in celebration with him. He then loaded the pockets of his robe full of gold pieces and headed out the door to Olde Towne.
His feet still groaned from the walk to and from Olde Towne that morning, but it was worth the discomfort to share his recent success. Who knew? Maybe he’d run into Master Athalard, The Alchemist, and the pompous head of his order. Humphrey would show off his newly minted nuggets by the handful, and the red robed sage might actually have something nice to say about Humphrey for a change instead of the usual scathing insults. Or maybe he’d see Connie around town. He’d hold a nugget or two up to her hair and ask why her curly yellow pigtails weren’t as shiny as the gold he’d just made. That would show the little bully.
He strolled up and down rolling hills past cottages and meadows. The ramshackle houses began to crowd together and eventually he was shadowed by the leaning towers and shingled rooves of Argon Avenue. People were rushing about in robes of varying hues and lavish gypsy garb, but there was no sign of the red-robed Athalard or pigtailed Connie.
Crusty Bun’s bakery was open, however, and Humphrey caught a whiff of the buttery treats inside. He thought he’d at least reward his achievement with an apple pasty. The pasties there tasted almost like the one’s Humphrey’s mother used to make, God rest her.
He waited for the customer in front of him to complete her transaction, and even though he knew exactly what he wanted, his eyes roved over the sweets behind the glass display case, their glazes and icings glistening in the warm light. After a few moments, his mouth watered impatiently, and he became increasingly interested in the cause of the hold up.
“If you don’t have no credits, you can’t have no scones,” said Otis, the baker, wiping his hands on an apron that had probably been white once.
“I had plenty of credits this mornin’, innit? I’m sure they’re there. It must be a glitch or summin. Can’t I pay later?” asked a jowly woman with a pointy hat that seemed too small for her head.
“If I let you go without payin, I’ll ‘ave the whole town commin’ in ‘ere expectin’ the same. Now, where does that leave Otis, eh? With empty crocks and empty coffers, I’ll tell ya that.” He put his hands on his meaty hips.
Humphrey reached into his packed pockets and jingled the gold nuggets around.
“I say, dear lady. Will this cover the cost?” he asked, flourishing a piece of the gold.
The woman’s eyes grew wide, feasting on the glimmering lump. She rushed toward him saying, “Oh, thank you kindly sir!” and grasped the rock in both hands.
Humphrey, Otis, and the scones were seemingly forgotten as she turned around and walked straight out of the shop.
Otis followed the woman with his eyes, a disgusted look on his face. Humphrey walked toward the register and said, “I’d like one apple pasty, please.” He held out another gold nugget toward the baker.
“Look sir, I can’t make change for a piece of gold,” said Otis backing away with his hands up as if the gold piece was some kind of forbidden fruit.
“That’s ok, you can keep the change.” Humphrey said, patting his plentiful pockets.
The baker licked his lips but said, “No sir. That don’t sit right with me. I’m an honest gentleman, and that wouldn’t be a fair trade.”
Humphrey’s tummy rumbled, pleading with the baker to change his mind.
“How do we make it fair?” Humphrey asked.
A few minutes later, Humphrey stumbled out of the bakery with a large canvas sack nearly as big as himself slung over his shoulder filled to bursting with baked goods of every sort. He staggered under the weight of it while he devoured his apple pasty, crusty crumbs falling into his scraggly beard.
It was Sunday, but the market stalls seemed to be closing earlier than usual for a trade day. People were arguing as they slammed their stall doors and rolled down canvas flaps. As he shuffled through the anxious atmosphere with his burdensome bag of pastries, Humphrey caught snippets of their conversations.
“All my credits are gone!”
“How could this happen?”
“How am I supposed to trade with you if you have no credits to trade with?” Customers were frantically scanning their thumbprints at registers to no avail.
A small crowd had gathered around the woman from the bakery with the pointy hat. She held her gold nugget aloft to keep people from snatching it.
“How come you have gold if the bank is empty?” someone demanded.
The woman spotted Humphrey over the shoulders of the crowd and pointed a stubby finger. “He has gold! A lot of it! He gave this piece to me!”
Humphrey desperately stuffed the remaining half of the pasty in his mouth as the crowd rushed at him, yelling.
“Get him! Get the gold!”
“It’s in his sack!”
Hands yanked at his sleeves, his belt, his beard! Humphrey threw the monstrous sack of pastries to the ground, and the group mobbed it. He squeezed through stamping feet on his hands and knees and made a getaway. He rose stiffly, but jogged forward anyhow, looking back grimly as they tore the bag to shreds.
“This is just bread!” he heard an irate voice call from behind him.
Then a shriek. “He still has the gold! Get him!”
Humphrey boosted his jog to a sprint, but it was short lived as he ran smack into a policeman.
Officer Marcus grabbed Humphrey’s arm and commanded to know, “What’s going on here?!!?”
The rabble stopped in their tracks, but they still wore determined faces.
“Thank you, sire. I thought I’d be mincemeat if they got ahold of me,” Humphrey said, huffing and doubling over in an attempt to catch his breath. It had been so long since he had run from an angry mob; he was out of shape.
“Why are they after you?” Officer Marcus asked, quieter this time.
“Our accounts are dry and he’s giving away gold!” a voice from the crowd explained.
Officer Marcus’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You still have gold, sir?”
Humphrey wiped a drop of sweat from his forehead. “Well, yes. And I don’t mind sharing, but I don’t want to be trampled down!” He brushed his hands down his robes and fished in his pockets. “Here,” he said pulling out handfuls of the gold lumps.
The crowd surged once more, but were—once more— stopped by Officer Marcus’s outstretched hand.
A man at the front of the crowd gestured a dirty hand toward Humphrey. “Why does he have so much? I think he’s the one what’s stole it all from us!”
The people growled in anger and heaved at him. Sergeant Marcus pulled Humphrey out of the way spilling the gold out of his pockets to the ground in the process. The people were like pigeons on bird seed, plucking the nuggets from the street and bolting away.
Taking him to an alley away from the gold grubbers, Sgt. Marcus leaned close. “Two hours ago, all of Newburg’s accounts went to zero. There are a lot of angry people around with empty bank accounts, including me. Did you steal the gold?”
“Why certainly not!” Humphrey asserted, offended. “I used a new alchemical formula to turn lead into gold!” he said triumphantly. “Unless… oh no.” His face fell as an uneasy feeling sunk into his bones.
“What?” Marcus folded his arms over his chest.
“Unless something went wrong. You see, I have this…er… habit of making things go wrong.” He gave a nervous giggle. “Perhaps instead of creating gold, maybe I just drew it to me! I might have accidentally stolen everyone’s credits!”
Humphrey withered in shame. All those silly tests at the Sage school were unnecessary. He’d found his magic; it was the tragic magic of Catastrophe! He hated the thought that he might be infamous for causing disaster. He had to find some way to make things right.
He took a sharp inhale and smoothed the front of his green robe.
“I can take you to the gold now, officer. It’s in my cellar. And my stairwell. And on the floor of my kitchen.” Humphrey giggled again.
Sergeant Marcus had radioed in the report to headquarters, and by the time Humphrey arrived, the cottage was surrounded by police and their hover cars. He opened his front door and let the officers enter first.
“It’s just in there officers,” he said with a welcoming wave of his hand.
“What am I looking at, Mr. Hobb? I don’t see any gold,” Marcus stated.
“What?” Humphrey burst through the door, stunned at the sight. The mountain of gold he had climbed was gone. He ran to the cellar in a frenzy. There were broken beakers on the work table, but otherwise everything was spotless. Not a spec of gold, not even gold dust!
Chief of Police Pearson arrived and took the stairs down slowly, taking in the gold-free cellar. “Mr. Hobb, you need to come down to the station with us.”
“But I don’t understand,” Humphrey said. “It was all here when I left. One great big pile of gold! Where could it have gone?!!?” He numbly held his hands out, as a hulking police officer approached with magnetic handcuffs. His wrists were drawn together with a clink.
“I’d like to know that too,” Chief Pearson said. His voice was calm, but there was suspicion behind his dark brown eyes. “That’s why you’re coming with us.”
“But I…” Humphrey began.
“I wouldn’t say anything else if I were you. It could harm your defense. Anything you say can and will be used against you.” Chief Pearson shook his head in disappointment, and the massive policeman ushered Humphrey up the stairs.
As they led him out of his cozy cottage with its musty smell and worn wood floor, Humphrey took one last glance around the place. The last thing he saw sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, was a small saucer holding an untouched morsel of cheese.