|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
|The Wizard's House|
On the Significance of Pies
The warm smell of apple pie wafted into the living room as Fred was dusting the book shelf that held all of his small project books. Fred was not much of a fiction reader. His mind had a certain practical outlook on the world that fiction did not facilitate. He sometimes found it difficult to sit through a movie as he believed that most of the time the characters acted like fools. While he swept up long stationary beds of dust the aroma of pie caused a moment of hesitation and his eyes rested on a computer networking book. Pie, he thought, a little confused.
Fred had never been fond of pies. He liked to think it might have something to do with his wife, whose mastery in the kitchen extended only to boiled eggs; all other dishes carrying a hint of burnt onions. However, if he thought about it hard enough he would be able to trace the roots of his disdain back to his youth. When he was putting the first bite of a fresh piece of his mother’s pie into his mouth, the strange thought that he was at the center of some menacing cosmic bet occurred to him. He nearly choked on that bite of pie, waking up on the floor and forgetting the strange thought. Being less than self-critical, he never connected his dislike of cherry pies with his metaphysical scare.
“Fred, darling, please come into the kitchen.” His wife was slightly beautiful, with long dirty blond hair, a small round nose, a shallow chin, and high cheeks, not to mention a figure cut right out of a neo-classical masterpiece, a time before elfin-prepubescence was in style. Fred loved his wife, or thought he did. It was difficult to distinguish between going through the motions and real feelings. They seemed to fluctuate between indifference and compassion. Their difficulty communicating didn’t help and the aroma of pie was a bad omen.
Fred’s kitchen reflected the quantum state of his marriage. To Fred it always seemed that the kitchen was in a state between meals: dirty dishes were piled in the sink; a wet towel lay bunched on the table next to a half-full plastic-glass of tea; and the flimsy cardboard of ready-made meals rested on the counter. Yet, the signs of attempted opulence were everywhere: bread-maker, espresso machine with coffee grinder, blender, smoothie machine, vegetable steamer, vegetable grinder, and automatic potato peeler, carrot peeler, cucumber peeler, apple peeler, orange peeler, and banana peeler all arrayed in a beautiful black plastic peeler keeper.
Fred walked in just as his wife was moving a steaming slice of apple pie, the creamy cinnamon filling oozing onto the counter, to a waiting plate. Usually when his wife did something of this nature, buying tools, renting porn, or the occasional baseball tickets, there was something she wanted to talk to him about.
The last time it had been about kids and Fred had been reticent about committing. Did Fred want kids? He didn’t know. There were things he wanted do. Fred deflected further comment by saying there was a new project book he needed to get to. She merely murmured something about never committing to anything.
Fred sat and awaited the pie, knowing that if he didn’t at least make an attempt at ingesting the onion-laced slice of apple pie, he wouldn’t have any leverage in whatever battle was about to ensue.
She placed the slice of pie in front of him and then moved to the other side of the table.
Fred looked up at his wife and watched her as she sauntered to the other side of the table and then sat. He picked up his fork. He noticed that she had not cut herself a piece of pie. In fact, she had lain over the table, her arms stretched across the top, her hands folded and her head resting in the cusp of her arms. This caused him some unease and he hesitated before placing his fork upon the piece of pie.
“Fred,” she said, still lying down.
“Hmmm?” He played with the small bite of pie he had broken off, moving it across the plate.
“Do you remember our talk about kids?”
“Yep,” he said, never taking his eyes off the pie, and his mind wandered.
Fred was not a remarkable man. His head was slightly balding, his stomach protruded slightly over his belt, and he ran slightly over fifteen minutes a day, which allowed him the convenience of proclaiming to friends at the bar that he worked off the beers he drank. He worked in an office that sold cardboard boxes and answered the phone. Most days he played solitaire or surfed the web. These spare moments allowed ample time for Fred to contemplate his life’s hobby: collecting small project books, a do-it-yourself genre with a never ending well of content. Fred never actually started any of the small projects, however.
At least once a week he stopped by the bookstore to browse the do-it-yourself aisle. If he had a mind to, he could have installed shelves, constructed a hot-tub deck, irrigated a small garden, or even networked his home computers into a mini-supercomputer capable of calculating pi to thousands of decimal points. This last had been the latest. Thousands, he had thought when reading last week about the possible computing power of an efficiently networked home computer system, thousands. This particular project had been discouraged upon learning that other more capable computers had calculated pi to over a trillion decimal places; further hopes and aspirations were crushed when he learned that pi was infinite. Such a long important elusive number. The book went on the shelf with all the rest.
This small inconsequential thought, the wonder at such a large and unknowable number, stirred in him long lost memories from his mother’s home of another conjecture that had once precipitated a disgust of pies. It nudged a few neurons that had been quite beautifully networked, but lay dormant behind a firewall of thick networked neurons responsible for cherry pie revulsion, so that Fred had the sudden feeling that he had forgotten something and would spend the next several days trying to figure out what it was. Fred did not reproduce the thought until today with his wife’s pie in front of him. Slowly the neural network began to unwind itself and pie converged with pi. It became easier as his mind raced to avoid the apple pie and his wife. His wife would not be so easily put aside.
“Fred,” she said, her voice quick and sharp. She sat up now. His wife was much more cunning than Fred would give her credit for. Though she loved him, she hid her intelligence from him for fear of offending his delicate masculine image of himself. She knew he was unaware of this fault and wouldn’t dare bring this up to him, but what could a shelf full of project books never started represent other than a failed attempt at being the man of the house? Her attempts at cooking were offered as distractions, believing that whatever bad news or unfavorable request she was about to lay on him would be blunted by the absolute disgust for her cooking. That she cooked pie meant she had some rather offending news.
He looked up. “You know that home computer network I told you about? With that monitoring the kids, we’ll...”
His words had been cut off by the tilt of her head and the wide opening of her eyes.
“Anyways...” He looked back down at the pie: apple, cherries, pits, pips, dice? He picked up the bite of pie and brought it to his mouth.
“I’m having an affair,” she said just as the apple goo burned his tongue.
He looked at her, the fork still resting on his lips, the apple still burning his tongue. She suddenly seemed far away.
“Ziz iz ah zoke?” he said around the piece of pie. He saw very clearly, in his mind’s eye, a pair of dice.
“No, it’s not.” She moved farther away, appearing to be down a long dark tunnel on the other end of an elongated kitchen table. They did not have a long table, so it was a bit baffling what his wife could be doing so far away, and moving farther away with each passing second. He wished he could concentrate on his rapidly shrinking wife but the thought of dice kept intruding.
Fred stood. His wife was now a tiny dot. Then his sinuses registered a sudden and strong pop, like he had been ascending in a plane. She was gone and he was in total darkness. From the darkness came the soft but distinct music of Mozart’s Requiem, enveloped in light AM static. Fred turned and could see the soft glow of a light bulb and two men sitting at a table nearby. He looked back towards the direction of his wife but only for a very brief moment—thoughts tumbled through his mind in seemingly random variations making new and fascinating connections which eventually led him to pi and a small insignificant wager—he turned back towards the men at the table and began to walk towards them.
Distance in this darkness was a bit illusionary. Fred had no way of knowing how far away the gentlemen were, how long it would take to get there, or if there was an alternative to walking towards them. In this darkness there could be no alternative. His course was set for him. Minor thoughts, such as the infidelity of his wife, were firmly on the back burner of back burners: closeted behind a superhighway of neural networks.
He approached cautiously, taking in the essence of the space illuminated by the singular light bulb. There was a wall and floor painted a dull gray whose edges seemed to melt into the darkness. A mahogany cabinet with glass doors sat against the wall; the top shelf held a small bluish radio with a long antenna from which the music played. The radio had big knobs and the analog spectrum display glowed white. It reminded him of the radio that his grandfather had listened to every morning when he drank his coffee.
The table sat positioned in front of the cabinet and was made of solid gray wood. The chairs matched. On the table were a couple of tumblers filled with ice and whiskey. A curious multi-leveled monochromatic chess board rested in the center of the table. It teased Fred’s mind and he thought that he must be mistaken about its shape. It reminded Fred of an M.C. Escher painting: it had at least four levels with ramps that extended up to each level in turn. When Fred looked at the board as a whole and followed the ramps up to each level he could never find the top level and more than once realized that he had returned to the bottom level. More curious were the pieces: small fluctuating globules which floated above the line intersection points of the board and seemed to possess all and no colors at once.
“Welcome, Fred, have a seat.”
Fred sat in a mysterious third chair that now sat in front of the table. He looked up at the men sitting at the table. They both wore work pants, suspenders and white tank tops. One of them sat in his chair reversed, arms crossed and resting on the back of the chair, and stared at the board. If Fred was not mistaken, this man resembled a young Charlton Heston. The other sat with legs crossed and elbow on the table, chin resting in the palm of his hand. Fred was astonished that the man made a fine representation of Carl Sagan. Fred was a bit beside himself and decided at once that he was dead.
“You are not dead,” said the Sagan-looking man, “at least not with any logic that you would understand.”
“I’m sorry, did I say that out loud?” said Fred.
“In a manner. I am Apollo. This is my companion; Dionysus.”
Dionysus nodded and then moved his hand close to the board and then brought it back.
“I’m sorry, you see, I was just eating pie with my wife...and then I was here.” Fred looked around, turning his head and finding himself looking again at the table and the strange chess set. He tried to turn his head once more and, again, found that he was looking at the table. “Where is here?”
“It would take an eternity to explain where here is,” said Dionysus, moving his hand over a globular piece on the third layer, before bringing it back to rub the stubble of his chin.
“I...uh...huh?” said Fred. “This isn’t Augustine?” His home town.
“Augu who?” mumbled Dionysus.
“Sorry this is so disturbing for you,” said Apollo, “but you put our delicate game in jeopardy.”
“So I was right.” said Fred, wondering again at the images of dice dangling over his head. “I...”
“You?” huffed Dionysus. “Nah.”
“Then Earth or...”
“No, no, no,” said Apollo. “This has nothing to do with you or whatever star or galaxy you may be from. We were hardly aware that your solar system even existed.”
“You were hardly aware?” said Fred. “But I was thinking that I was the wager of a bet?”
“Not you specifically,” said Apollo, “If you want a loose analogy, imagine your galaxy as a flagellum on a bacterium on the thorax of an ant in a rather large colony in the middle of some undiscovered part of what you call the Amazon Rain Forest, and that wouldn’t even come close to how insignificant your galaxy is.”
Dionysus finally moved. His hand grasped one of the globules, which had now coalesced into floating abstract figurines that may have been animals, humanoid, or an ink blot test. Dionysus leaned back in his chair with an air of satisfaction, picking up his tumbler and taking a long draft. Apollo leaned into the board and sighed.
“Then why am I here?”
“Why isn’t exactly right.”
“Ah for the gods’ sake,” said Dionysus in a deep voice. Fred imagined the parting of the Red Sea. “Speak plain to the man.”
Fred’s head was spinning with confusion.
He felt Apollo’s hand on the top of his head and his mind settled a bit.
“Don’t want that unscrewing and falling to the floor.”
Apollo got up at this moment and walked to the cabinet.
“Do you drink, Fred?”
Apollo opened the cabinet and retrieved a glass flask and a third tumbler. Dionysus looked at the board and appeared ready to move again though Fred didn’t recall Apollo having moved. Apollo poured a golden liquid into the tumbler and presented it to Fred. Apollo lifted his own and raised it to Fred.
“Cheers,” said Fred and drank. It was smooth and Fred felt the effects as the drink coated his insides. He noticed that Dionysus did not toast. Apollo continued to stand, holding the tumbler at his chest, and peered down at Fred.
“You see this game here, Fred?” said Apollo.
“Yes,” said Fred and because he had no other word to encapsulate what he saw he said, “Chess.”
“Chess?” said Apollo cocking his head. “Chess...no.” After a moment he chuckled. “This game makes chess seem like tic-tac-toe and even that may be giving it too much credit. Chess is much more like a flip of a coin.”
Random facts that Fred knew about chess zipped through his mind. It took years to master. The number of possible moves amounted to more than the number of atoms in the universe. And it certainly wasn’t random nor as simple as flipping a coin. It was all in a book on his shelf.
“It can’t be...”
“A flip of a coin?” said Apollo. “It certainly is. When two masters, as you call them, face off you would claim ‘who knows why they choose one move over the other,’ assuming their choosing freely, and therein lies a modicum of chance; however, you say ‘chance’ since you can’t know everything, but even the flip of a coin is not merely chance and is easily predictable with the proper knowledge, like the thickness and movement of air, the weight of the coin’s sides, the pressure of the flip, and the position and mass of planets relative to each other, which is why I said compared to this game, chess is merely the flip of a coin.”
“You’re saying that you can know which person is going to win in a game of chess before they’ve even started?”
“The man is intuitive,” said Dionysus. “Yes, if you know the state of the player’s mind in relation to their opponent’s and the universe, but you jump to the wrong question.”
“Yes, you really should be asking about this amazing game,” said Apollo.
Fred looked at the game. He still had more questions about chess and flipping coins but his hosts were eager to expound on the properties of the strange game that was not chess so he acquiesced.
“What is this game?”
“Glad you asked,” said Apollo. “This game is random and not random, a game of reason and unreason, of predictability and conscious will. It’s the most amazing game ever to come into being. You see, if free will exists then by definition true randomness exists, and no one could predict, to use something you’ll understand, a chess game or much of anything else; however, if free will doesn’t exist, then perfect information will give you all you need to predict anything.”
“What does that have to do with this game?”
“It is the supreme arbiter of this most ultimate question. Each piece represents a configuration of what you might call a ‘universe.’”
“Does that mean...”
“The man’s quick,” said Dionysus.
“Yes, you came from a most unfortunate piece that Dionysus lost. We never know how each piece is to move or what its interaction will be when it meets another piece. This is where it gets good. I wager that each ‘universe’ is knowable, and with proper study I will be able to overcome my opponent through mere observation, reason and logic.” He nodded towards Dionysus. “However, mister smarty pants believes that each ‘universe’ possesses a bit of unpredictability, and rather than study how each piece moves when it moves, he relies on chance. In other words, he believes that the randomness of the pieces renders them worthless one move and priceless the next, and only through clever combination and a bit of coaxing, imposing his own will and increasing the probability of a desired outcome, can he achieve victory. Frankly, I am not sure how he can be so sure. If he’s right, then I have as much chance as he of winning.”
“Doesn’t that mean nothing is solved even if you win?”
“Hmm, perhaps,” said Apollo rubbing his chin. “Strangely enough, we’ve been playing for a long time, and though I am pretty sure I am ahead, I can never seem to close the deal.” Apollo pondered the board for a moment.
Sudden thoughts of insignificance crept into Fred’s head. “All I am is a game?”
“It’s not that bad. At least you know your life isn’t meaningless, whether it’s random or not. You’ll be bringing in hefty winnings for one of us. Well, not you specifically, and not really even your solar system, or galaxy...and come to think of it, now that your piece is annihilated...”
“Ahem,” said Dionysus.
“Excuse me, sometimes I get carried away.”
Mozart’s Requiem faded out and then started again; the haunting voices of the choir moved Fred to tears. Fred was still unsure why he was here and had a sinking feeling of oblivion. His universe, if he had understood Apollo correctly, no longer existed. His wife was gone. His house, job, and collection of small project books. He remembered his wife’s infidelity. He shook his head. All gone. Yet, here he was.
“Precisely,” said Apollo.
“Why me?” said Fred. “I just sell cardboard boxes.”
“Your thoughts of pi, Fred,” said Apollo, “were dangerous. It led you very close to the metaphysical answer to the great question of everything, at least for your universe.”
“That we are part of your game. And pi? I don’t understand how that would ruin...”
“You wouldn’t,” said Dionysus, taking a sip of his drink.
“You see, the game only allows for the complete unawareness of its constituent parts,” said Apollo. “If any piece figured out what was going on, if any part of the piece figured it out, became what you would call aware, the whole universe would become aware, and it would refuse to participate in the game.”
“The piece would?”
“Yes, by necessity, it is the physics of the game, like a spoiled child refuting everything a parent says, the piece would suddenly stop participating, and then generations of moves would be lost. We might have to start over and that would be tiresome.”
“But I am aware? Somehow it must be part of the laws of the universe?”
“No,” said Dionysus. “You’re thinking that this thing has to do with you. It doesn’t. What you feel as awareness is merely a side effect of a complex information processing machine. Could you really call it awareness, since you’re not aware of anything not in your immediate vicinity? You stumbled on the answer by chance.”
“But you’re moving for free will,” said Fred hoping for an ally in Dionysus.
By now Dionysus was visibly agitated, shifting in his chair and rubbing his hands through his thick mane. “Immaterial as far your universe is concerned. You believe you have free will, but you don’t. Either way, your awareness, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with it. The universe, though, must remain oblivious to its fate or it changes the outcome.”
“He’s right. All that is important is how we play the pieces, not how the pieces believe they are playing themselves.”
Were they gods? Machines? Supercomputers like the ones he had read about, which would mean that his own universe was the product of computer calculations? There was really no way to know. Did they know? It stood to reason that if he couldn’t possibly be aware of the true nature of his universe, they couldn’t be aware of theirs. Yet, he had become somewhat aware. And Dionysus said that would change the outcome. Apollo had mentioned pi. Pi was infinite and random, yet... Fred chuckled.
“What’s that, Fred? I didn’t quite catch that,” said Apollo.
“I was just thinking about pi.”
“We don’t have any.”
“No, pi, as in the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It’s infinite.”
“So,” muttered Dionysus.
“And its sequence is random and unknowable.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Despite its randomness, it is used to make precise predictions about the universe. My universe anyways.” It was like the game. A puzzle. How could such an unknowable, random, inexpressible number be so important in predicting phenomena of the universe? And then Fred remembered in full detail his thought: he simply imagined two beings betting on the next number in the sequence of pi, and that the outcome of that bet determined the fate of his universe. It was kind of a silly thought; though, apparently Apollo and Dionysus didn’t think so. Fred looked at them. “Do you have pi?”
They looked at each other. Fred saw the consternation in their brows. They not only had pi; they didn’t know its value either. He hadn’t been too far off the mark.
“No, give us a second. We know it.”
Then Fred had another thought.
“Who is playing you? What universe are you in?” It seemed a reasonable query to Fred.
“What did you say?” said Apollo, looking up.
“It’s turtles all the way down as far as I’m concerned,” said Dionysus, making another move.
“No, that’s not what he meant.” Apollo placed his glass on the table and began to walk towards Fred.
Dionysus’s attention was finally drawn from the board.
“I’m sorry,” said Fred. “It just seems like the next logical question; if pi is a puzzle to you also.”
“This fresh guy; this worm; this speck of cosmic dust has the gall to suggest we’re not the ends and means. That we don’t know all.” Apollo tossed his chair into the darkness and it disappeared.
“Is that right?” Dionysus threw his heavy gaze on Fred.
“I only meant it as a thought...”
“You’re really determined to ruin this whole thing for us, aren’t you?” Apollo slammed his fists upon the table.
“Who plays you?” said Fred in a whisper.
“We give you sanctuary, a chance to see, to know; we pulled your little meaningless pattern of atoms from the ether, and you have the audacity to suggest there is something above us?”
“That’s it.” Dionysus stood tall before Fred, overpowering and menacing. He blocked the view of the cabinet. The table was gone and so was Apollo. All that Fred could see was Dionysus standing over him. Mozart’s Requiem increased in volume, rising to a crescendo, until it filled every crevice of Fred’s mind. Then Fred heard Apollo’s distant voice: There is only the game and we are its players.
“Do you remember our talk about kids?”
Fred held a fork with a bite of peach pie at the end in his hand. Wasn’t it apple, before? He put the fork down and looked around. Other details were different. The kitchen was cleaner and a little larger, though the table was glass instead of wood, and seemed smaller. The kitchen seemed tidier, lacking clutter, though, the espresso machine was still dirty from this morning. Fred looked into the living room. His small projects bookshelf was short and wide instead of tall. The volume of computer networking lay open on the floor next to a broom. What universe had he returned to?
“Fred.” He heard the anger in his wife’s voice. He knew what was about to come. He returned his gaze to his wife. She was still beautiful, that hadn’t changed, and he saw her eyes and her little nose and wanted to weep. It wasn’t quite his universe; perhaps pushed slightly to one side. Whatever universe this was his wife remained the same. And he was aware; he knew what was coming. Even if he didn’t have free will, that changed things, didn’t it? Dionysus said it changed the outcome, whatever universe he was in.
He reached out and grabbed her hand; she didn’t pull away.
“I’m sorry, Ann,” Fred said.
Ann raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve been thinking of getting rid of that book shelf. The books too.”
“Do you want to go out to eat? Let’s go out to eat.” Fred stood. “You choose.”
“And yes, we’ll talk about kids. We’ll talk about anything. Just know I’m sorry. I want another chance. To makes things better.”
“Do you know?”
“Know what?” Fred grabbed his wallet and jacket. He was aware, he knew his wife’s secret, he knew he’d been aloof; things had to be different. There could still be a chance to change things. Perhaps only a small chance.
He looked back to her and waited.
“Nothing,” Ann said. “It can wait. Going out to eat sounds fine.” She smiled.
“Great,” said Fred. The fate of the universe no longer on his mind, he kissed his wife on the forehead and led her out of the house.
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micheledutcher - I liked the mix of the everyday and the fantasy in this story. I liked the change in the main character as well - always the sign of a good plot.
Kind of an unusual story. I liked it.
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