Plugs

The women in long white dresses (who weren’t really there) said they were travelers. They’d traveled a long, long way.
They told Robert all this (without making any noise), and asked if he could turn over a moss-covered rock on the side of the road.
He was early. The Keeper of the Royal Signet probably wouldn’t reach the field for another hour–another insult, added to those that had finally pushed Robert past respectful silence, and had, ironically, made the Keeper the injured party. He kicked the rock over with his heel.
The women in long white dresses (who weren’t really there) were fascinated by what they found in the mud, pointing at bugs that scurried through their incorporeal fingers. Robert wanted to ask if there was anything else they wanted, but couldn’t bring himself to talk to what he were just figments of his exhaustion, bits of dreams he might have had if he’d been able to get any sleep since the day of Carolyn’s refusal, the day he walked out of the Keeper’s service, the day of the challenge.
The women either couldn’t read his thoughts or were too busy to bother, so he tipped his hat slightly enough anyone would think he was adjusting it and continued between dew-soaked fields, past trees as laden with thieving birds as fruit, and over the bridge. The Keeper was there, early and impatient.
Then twenty minutes of waiting while Robert’s second didn’t arrive, the Keeper staring at Robert with a hatred undercut by frequent yawns, Robert trying not to look back. Then ten seconds that might have been a year while Robert chose his weapon. Then a time that hadn’t seemed to happen at all: the burning in his chest crowded out any memory of turning or hearing the tenth pace called.
“I bet the Duke a dozen by midsummer,” he heard the Keeper say. “This makes seven.”
Robert saw that the women in long white dresses (who weren’t really there) were there again, bending down over something even more fascinating than the underside of a rock. He went over to join them, and looked down at his own body (he wasn’t really there anymore either).
The women in long white dresses said they’d traveled a long, long way. Would Robert like to join them? And perhaps he could show them some interesting things before they left this world?

“You’ve never been up to my apartment before, have you?” Matilda asked, unlocking the modern lock on the door with a worn brass key. Juliet followed the old woman into the sunniest apartment she’d ever seen. The windows stood wide open. Juliet, from her place across the street, often saw Matilda leave without bothering to close them, a mad choice in a neighborhood full of dealers and thieves, let alone Juliet’s two baseball-crazed sons. Matilda just pitched the balls back.

A bird flew in, chirping at Matilda.

“Thank you,” said Matilda; Juliet realized she was speaking to the bird. It flew off. “You can put the groceries on the counter,” Matilda said to Juliet. “Thank you for lending a hand. I’ve gone and gotten old.”

Juliet found herself staring at the countertop. She could see coiled shells in it, and, impossibly, tiny spirals of writing.
“Are those fossils?” she asked, and Matilda nodded. “And the writing… What language is that?”

“Hah! I knew I was right,” said Matilda.

“What do you mean?” asked Juliet.

“I’ve been watching you. I’m retiring, my dear,” said the old woman, “and I’ve chosen you to take over.”

“Take over what?” Juliet stared.

“The world,” said Matilda, laughing. “Sorry, my awful joke.”

She gestured at the rug in the living room and suddenly Juliet could see that it was the ocean, with the chairs and couches as continents riding on it, clouds tugging and forming in the sunlight pouring in from the window.

“It all takes a while to figure out, like the writing on the counter,” Matilda went on briskly. “My advice is to get your kids launched before you try anything serious. There are some books around the house, and a few rules, but it’s all pretty much learn as you go.”

“Learn what as I go?” asked Juliet.

“Being God,” said Matilda.

Juliet only stared.

Matilda smiled and asked, “Who did you think was in charge?”

“I don’t know,” said Juliet, adding, “And if I don’t want to?”

“Believe me, there are days when you don’t want to. It’s like being a parent,” sighed Matilda. “But once you’ve been chosen, that’s that. I’m quite sure I’ve chosen a worthy successor.”

She chucked Juliet under the chin.

“It’s a compliment,” she prompted.

“Thank you,” Juliet replied. Matilda laughed, pressed the worn brass key into her hand, and walked out the door.

“What if we’re just a recording? Or a simulation?” Donald skipped a disk of sandstone across the lake. It skipped five times before plunking in. A water strider dodged the stone and skated under the dock.

Denise squinted at her bobber. For a moment it had seemed to dip, but she had been distracted by Donald’s question. She looked at Donald, the sun dazzle on the water beyond him, and the trio of mallards by the far bank.

“Stop scaring the fish.” She sniffed the moist air, redolent of growth and decay. “This seems real to me. The water was cold when we swam this morning.”

Donald hitched around to face her. “No, see. What if you have a false memory of swimming, of being cold? Of course it seems real to us if we have programmed memories, and we’re no deeper than the simulation. We don’t know what we’re missing. Maybe the senses of real people are more acute than our own. Maybe the memories of real people are more vivid than ours.”

Denise laid the bamboo pole down on the dock and stood up. She put her foot on Donald’s lower back and shoved him into the water. When he came up sputtering she asked

“Cold enough for you?” Then she stepped back out of reach.

Donald spat water out of his mouth. “Doesn’t prove a thing. Maybe real cold feels much colder.”

“All these maybes and what ifs are fruitless. If we can’t tell the difference between reality and simulation then we should assume we are real. We’ll have more fun that way.” She reached a hand down to help him out of the water. She pulled him up, dripping, drew him close, then closer.

They didn’t even notice when the pole was pulled off the dock and slowly moved out towards the center of the lake.

“What if we’re just a recording? Or a simulation?”

End

(being an explication of the origins and initial reception of the new theory, together with an account of its rigorous testing)

Even in these enlightened times, Professor Robin’s theory was met with skepticism.

The Chronicle: “Nonsense of the Worst Sort!”

The Times, as expected, was more urbane: “Professor Robin’s radical Theory of Geothermal Heat has no foundation whatever.”

His fellow scientists were no kinder. Robin was expelled from the premier societies and ignored at meetings. The last straw came when Professor Philip, Chair of Earth Science at The University, had this to say: “Sir, do you mean that you believe the interior is a greater source of heat than the sun?! Poppycock! The Theory of Solar Heat is central to thermodynamics. It enjoys almost universal support and its predictions have been proven countless times.”

The gauntlet had to be taken up. After all, the matter involved considerations beyond mere science.

*

Robin mopped his brow. The drill rig towered above, but its shade fell elsewhere. Drilling was going well, and the bit should penetrate the base of the crust today. If his theory was correct, they would soon bring up samples of the hot mantle.

A shadow interposed itself between him and the sun. “Robin,” Cynthia said, “on a day like today it is difficult to believe that heat comes from within rather than above.”

“Dearest Cynthia,” he replied, “I have never claimed that we receive no radiant heat…” he swallowed. “I wish you would not tease about such things, given the attitude your father has displayed towards my suggestion of an alliance between us.”

With an expression of contrition she stood on tiptoe to kiss his forehead. “I have never doubted your brilliance. And I would love you anyway, were you quite wrong.”

Prof. Michael strolled up, hands in pockets. “Ready for ignominious defeat?”

“Au contraire!” Robin retorted hotly, but he was interrupted by an excited shout from the driller:

“New sample, Professor!” They hurried to the rig. The newest core lay on the plank table.

“Lighter color, more porosity… what are those dark blobs?” Robin mused.

Cynthia plucked one out, popped it in her mouth. “Mmm, blueberry.”

“Observe the steam, Michael.” Robin gestured towards the core. “Clearly the temperature of the interior is much greater than that on the surface. You have the pleasure of witnessing my vindication!”

“Vindication? You have proved yourself wrong. Although I have to admit some chagrin myself. The Bakists were on the right track after all. Oh look! Whole wheat!” He licked his lips.

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