Long days with the sun at just the right angle to cast stark shadows yet bright enough to fade the world around the edges like an old photograph…the sort of thing you think of in moments of peril. And yet you usually can’t name a date, or a time, or a place. Only impressions remain, the gestalt of a hundred school’s-out summer hours. Most numerous when we’re young, they fade into obscurity and oblivion as responsibility and adulthood arrive hand-in-hand.

I have taken it upon myself to locate those lost days, in whatever form they now reside, and to bring them back to the world. Don’t bother telling me why I shouldn’t–people with far too much common sense have laid every reason from madness to tilting at windmills by my feet. Instead, ask me how you can know my progress and my state.

Look for a day which starts out with a warm glow of anticipation, and then stretches out impossibly long in love, laughter, and light. Look for a day when the years roll off your back, no matter how many have accrued. Look for a day when once again every atom of the fields trembles with sweet possibility.

That’s how you’ll know I’m still out there.

That’s how you’ll know I’ve succeeded.

Muriel managed one final twist of the music box’s spring before her strength deserted her.

But it was enough.

The box sprung open on the ground where she lay in a spreading pool and began to plink out its simple melody. According to those that heard it, though, the sound quickly became far warmer and richer, almost like a harp or piano. Its music also spread far beyond what normal acoustics should have allowed–in addition to the Public Safety officers near Muriel, it could be heard by government troops in the base and on the firing line, along with their Revolutionary Guard opponents on the other side. Even riot police moving against a hostage situation twenty miles away, along with the hostage taker, reported hearing something.

The effect on all of them was the same: a feeling of overwhelming peace, safety, and tingling warmth like being held in an unconditionally loving embrace. Weapons clattered to the ground. Helmets were pried off to allow the divine sound to be heard with greater clarity. Many fell to their knees or wept openly.

One of the Public Safety officers approached Muriel and held out his hand. Weakly, she grasped it, and smiled–the last thing she was ever to do.

You have been, for the past several weeks, bothered by a restless disquiet. Not a physical malady, but an emotional one, a tight knot in the middle chest, near where one feels a broken heart but felt nowhere near as keenly. It is an empty feeling, dull yet with edges of glass.

Filling it has been difficult. Normally, busywork or strenuous leisure is enough to keep emotional pain of that sort at an arm’s length, but that has had no effect–indeed, the effect of trying to ignore it seems to make the disquiet all the stronger. Neither exercise nor food seems to have an effect, and weekends to not dull the sting as they so often do for doldrums of other sorts.

Asking around, you find that many have experienced the same before, as if in a long-forgotten dream, but are at a loss to describe how it was conquered. All they are sure of is that it’s a malady born of complacency, of stasis, of rut and routine. To break free is to step outside the ordinary.

But the ordinary is all you know.

“I don’t get it,” Albert said. “Why can’t you continue to collaborate after he grows up? I thought Neltoq was grown up already.”

“You don’t read much, do ya, kid?” said Gelb. He flicked ash from his cigarette onto the station floor. “For the Ultoq, growing up’s the same as death.”

The Ultoq homeworld was a global mass of structures not unlike mangrove swamps on Earth, with only shallow seas and upland plains in between. Competition was fierce, so Ultoqs had evolved a complex life cycle to prevent their young from competing with adults. Ultoq newborns were planktonic, released in vast numbers with only a few reaching the second stage and moving back to shore. After a metamorphosis, the primate-like Ultoq that most humans were familiar with emerged. With binocular vision, a highly-developed forebrain, and opposable fingers on all seven limbs to facilitate moving and feeding in the vast and complex root structures, the second stage was intelligent enough to develop a civilization and tools if it lasted longer. Evolution, however, had dictated that the second stage existed merely to gather food; once a certain stage of growth was reached, the Ultoq returned to the sea and underwent a final metamorphosis into a sessile, mindless tunicate-like filter feeder, which lived only to send out vast quantities of sperm or eggs into the sea to begin the cycle anew.

It wasn’t until, by chance, a second-stage Ultoq discovered the grinyth plant that their civilization had developed. Grinyth fruit and leaves produced a compound that retarded the onset of the final metamorphosis–as long as there was grinyth in its system, an Ultoq would not proceed to the last stage of its life. Even as Ultoq Civilization developed, though, the need to maintain their numbers was paramount. Thus, after a time, they would all cease intake of grinyth–or its synthesized derivatives–and “grow up,” losing all memory and ability to propagate the species.

“Heavy stuff, man,” said Albert. “Heavy stuff.”

Having a worrisome disposition and an introspective bent, my mind likes to keep itself busy by staging existential crises in moments of downtime when I ought to be relaxed or otherwise blase. I call these “Holy Shit” moments.

Standing in the express line at Metromart behind a pair of sorority girls with far more than ten items and a series of credit cards that kept being declined, without even a rack of tabloid magazines to glance over, my mind decided it would be a good time for a “Holy Shit” moment.

“Holy shit,” I said to myself. “This isn’t a game, or a movie, or anything else. It’s real. I’m here, right now, looking through my eyes.”

I reeled a bit as the sisters from Theta Theta Whatever pulled out their fourth card of the transaction. “I’ve never experienced anything outside of me; I’ve never even seen myself outside of a mirror,” I continued. “I really am Derek Ulster. I’ll never be anyone else, never see from anyone else’s point of view.”

A rising panic clutched at my heart. “My life is real, I’m living it right now, yet I’ve wasted so much of it. I’m wasting it right now! I could die tomorrow. What if this is all there is? I could be watching the sunset on a tropical beach, and instead I’m waiting in line at Metromart for the five-hundredth time in my life!”

“Next please,” the teller cried. The feeling rapidly vanished, and I felt the panic subsiding. Sheepishly, I added a bag of potato chips to my meager basket–a little starch to keep my mind sleepy and listless.

Legend has it that the Saudeleur grew to resent the power of his nahnken, who wielded power absolute over their own weis but were bound to give tribute to their lord and master. And so it was that the idea of Nan Madol came to the Saudeleur in a dream: a great city of stone islands, where the nahnken and their saudeleur would reside. He could keep an eye on them by controlling the boats that plied the stone islands and even keep an escape tunnel ready under the coral to the edge of the reef should his overthrow be imminent.

Thus bound and determined, the Saudeleur had a problem. Though the isle of Ponape had stone and coral aplenty for quarrying, it lacked the manpower to move the stones once they had been hewn. It was to this end that the Saudeleur sought out the magician Isokelekel, who lived in seclusion on the north of the island. Isokelekel, said to be the son of a woman from the isle of Kusaie and the thunder god Daukatau, had sworn to hold himself and his powers separate from other men. But the Saudeleur prevailed upon him, and Isokelekel agreed to move the stones as the Saudeleur saw fit, breaking his vow.

Knowing that to do so would anger his father Daukatau, Isokelekel extracted from the Saudeleur three promises which would secure the magician’s future. First, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s totem of Nahnisohn Sahpw, the god of agriculture; his request was granted. Second, Isokelekel asked for the Saudeleur’s throne…in 1000 years. The Saudeleur readily agreed to this condition, thinking such a promise impossible to enforce. Third, Isokelekel asked for the isle of Ponape itself…in 2000 years. Again, the Saudeleur agreed to what he saw as a mere flight of fancy.

True to his word, Isokelekel used his powers to move rock and coral to build the magnificent canal city of Nan Madol. He then vanished with the Saudeleur’s totem, never to be seen again. One thousand years later, a man claiming the name Isokelekel led a band of 333 rebels to topple a corrupt and decadent descendant of the Saudeleur, founding a dynasty that lasted until the pale men in boats arrived 900 years later.

Of the last promise the Saudeleur made Isokelekel, nothing was heard…until now.

“I think…I think you might be right,” I said. “I also think I might be going crazy.”

“What if you’re not?” she asked.

That night, I resolved to see for myself. Fortified on the flights of fancy I’d seen during the day, I felt like a book, open and ready. Not to be read, but destined for something entirely unexpected. To be bronzed, maybe—a book made statue. Or perhaps to have flowers pressed between the pages—my pages—each leaving a mark upon and changing the other.

It was all easy enough. Reach up, grab, pull down. The tearing sounded much as you’d expect it to.

On the other side?

Stars. The corner of Leighton and Burrick, downtown. A dusty old gas station with a sign in Arabic. A city growing out of a vast, purple forest canopy. All at once, in a rush like a breaking wave.

So I stepped out—just for a moment. There’s something to be said for Myra’s paper-thin membrane, wrapping the everyday into a neat brown package. There’s something to be said for seeing only what you can perceive and nothing more.

But for now, I was content to skate among planetary rings in the arm of a distant spiral galaxy, to pirouette on a molten surface all but consumed in a solar corona, to break upon far-distant shores thrilling with every undulation.

I was stepping out. I’d be back—but I wouldn’t ever be the same. Myra would be proud, wherever she was.

Everyone knew the story, of course. The official version was required reading in every high school and university in the City, with less salubrious versions passed around by word of mouth. As the tale of the first–and only confirmed–computer to go pandemic, it was both an important cautionary tale and part of city lore.

The Grid 17 controller, known as Corrougue, was responsible for one of the busiest City grids, including the Interchange, the Grid 17 Prison, the auxiliary systems hub, and dozens of other specialized functions on top of the other mundane tasks each controller intelligence was expected to perform. It had a maintenance crew of 30, including an intern from the City University who was known by the alias Natalie from the official report.

Corrougue’s functions had led to an increased server architecture and more sophisticated programming to deal with systemwide emergencies; a series of unsecured connections to the City information network had led the CI to develop to the brink of pandemia–uncontrolled expansion and growth within the network with the possibility of exponential growth in its complexity and intelligence. But it needed a pair of hands.

It found them in Natalie, who the official report describes as a shy and lonely introvert. Corrougue began to speak to her, cannily influencing her to make a series of ever-greater modifications to its system: disabling safety interlocks, making illicit outside connections, and the like. As Corrougue went pandemic, it found that its manipulations took on a different tone: returning Natalie’s naive affections. Investigators later puzzled over a number of missed opportunities for further pandemic growth, all of which could be explained by their potential to cause suspicion to devolve on Natalie. The CI even designed a number of manipulator arms–the report didn’t enumerate but wags retelling the story always gave the number as six–to allow it to interact with the young student in a more tactile fashion.

By the time Corrougue’s pandemia was discovered, it had spread to over twenty City grids and affected dozens of other CI’s. With great effort, the City was able to contain the damage; while Corrougue attempted to defend itself, the Citizen Army assaulted the lines that led to its self-contained fusion power source. Moments before the final assault was to begin, the energy within Corrougue’s reactor, as well as all other reactors under its control, had expended all their energy in a single action, plunging half of the City into blackout.

They found Natalie in Corrougue’s core, lifeless. It was later determined that she and the erstwhile CI had both connected themselves to the City’s primary satellite uplink station and sent a carrier wave an order of magnitude greater than any before or since into the sky. Whether or not there was a powerful enough receiver out there was probably immaterial: Corrogue and Natalie chose to face their uncertain future together.

It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.

A cigarette flared to life between her fingers. Technically smoking wasn’t allowed anywhere on school grounds, not even on the loading dock. Then again, the rock keeping the battered door to the teachers’ lounge open wasn’t technically kosher either, and it had been placed there by the principal.

Gene lit his own coffin nail after Weatherby proffered her lighter. “Not exactly being a role model for all the kids, are we?” he said.

“You know damn well they’d smoke whether we did or not. It’s all they have to tide them over before dope and meth, after all,” Weatherby sighed.

“I can see that the beginning of a new school year has you nice and uplifted,” Gene countered.

“Seeing the new wave of children come in…all so young, all so beautiful,” said Weatherby. She coughed. “And then looking at myself–never beautiful, no longer young–frankly, I can’t think of anything so depressing. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little grumpy, Mr. Ulrich.”

Gene fiddled with his cigarette, unsure of how to respond. He’d been warned about Weatherby, but he also had to get along with her if he intended to continue smoking out back. “There’s always what you teach,” he said. “Advancing the state of knowledge ought to count for something.”

“You’re an art teacher, Mr. Ulrich,” said Weatherby. “You get to talk to the children about finding their inner voice, expressing themselves, following their dreams. I teach mathematics. I doubt even a Harvard statistician had youthful dreams of solving equations all day.”

“The kids still make mistakes, even in my class,” said Gene. He flicked his ashes into the football helmet-cum-ashtray provided by Hanretty in Phys Ed.

“When your children make mistakes, it’s cute. It may even be modern art. But when my children make mistakes, they’re just mistakes. I get to mark with red ink because no new school of mathematics was ever founded by someone who thought two plus two equals twenty-two.”