Deus Ex Machina

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Author: Bryan

Carl Robertson woke cautiously. He cracked one eyelid open slightly, observing the ceiling; it looked perfectly ordinary. Even more cautiously, he wriggled his toes. Everything seems normal so far... he thought to himself, and slowly sat up.

There were no tentacled horse-shaped aliens standing around his bed, or mysterious glowing portals to alternate universes throbbing silently on the walls. His room was cluttered with piles of paper, the result of years of creativity combined with a total resistance to ever throwing anything out. He could barely see his desk under the layer; not that he minded, why should he want to see it in any case? It was the stuff he put on the desk which was important. Like the small stone figurine his uncle had unearthed from his archaeological dig in Greece shortly before he disappeared a month ago.

With a cry of alarm, Carl leapt out of bed and hastily wrapped the pillowcase around his hand. Then, avoiding even looking at the figurine, he grabbed it and threw it out the window with all his might. The glass smashed easily, and he sighed in relief as the figurine fell out of sight. He could avoid it entirely by leaving via the back door later.

Then, still moving cautiously as if the whole house might be booby-trapped, he opened his dresser and pulled out some clothing. He read the labels carefully, but to his relief the manufacturers' names were completely mundane. In addition, the labels specifically stated that the cotton used had not been grown on land downwind from a nuclear power plant or over an ancient indian burial ground, and had not been treated with exotic experimental pesticides or harvested by the light of a full moon. He went to the bathroom for a shower.

He had another alarming experience there, almost dropping the bottle of shampoo when he got to the words "genetically enhanced" in the fine print. He kept his composure and poured the contents down the toilet. No shampoo, then, he thought to himself as he undressed and reached for the taps. He hesitated, though, and turned on the radio instead.

"...and in other news, a spokesman for Biomia incorporated denies the rumors that their research labs dumped wastes into the river upstream of the water treatment plant. He also claimed that the wastes were harmless, couldn't pass through the plant's filters, and definitely wouldn't cause any sort of mutation should they get onto someone's skin. Later today..."

Carl shut the radio off and shakily got dressed; he'd almost slipped that time, assuming he was safe after disposing of the shampoo. Tricky. He went downstairs for breakfast, checking the walls for arcane runes as he went and resolving not to let his guard down again.

Deciding to avoid using the milk for now (it was simply too obvious, despite the lack of incriminating fine print; who knew what strange hormones were in there?), Carl got out a box of Frostee-O's and checked the ingredient and nutrition lists. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, so he set the box down and prepared to open it. He froze just before it was too late, however, breaking into a cold sweat as he noted the offer on the front of a "surprise inside every box!" He didn't want to even start dealing with that one.

Just then, the doorbell rang and Carl almost leapt out of his skin. He sat there shivering, and after a minute the doorbell rang again. I guess I'll have to answer it... he realized gloomily, and slowly got up and walked to the door like a man going to his execution. He carefully peered through the peephole.

The man on the porch peered back at him. He was thin and pale, obviously not an athletic outdoors sort of person, and was wearing glasses and a purple shirt. "Mr. Robertson, Can I speak to you for a moment?" He asked. "I'm not a mysterious sorcerer or a mad scientist or demon or anything like that," he added reassuringly.

Carl unbolted the door and opened it a crack, extremely tense. "Okay then, who are you?"

"My name is Bryan," he replied.

Carl sagged in dismay. "Oh god," he muttered.

"Sort of, I guess," Bryan said as he pushed the door open and walked past the unresisting Carl. "I'm the author of this story."

"I know that!" Carl snapped. "Why else d'you think I'm so jumpy?"

Bryan sighed and led Carl into the living room. "Yes, that's what I'd like to talk to you about," he said, gesturing to a chair for Carl as he sat down. "We have a bit of a problem here." He offered Carl a glass of what looked like whiskey. "Would you like a potion- uh, I mean drink?" he asked, then cursed silently at his slip of the tongue.

"No! Get that stuff away from me!" Carl spat. "Don't you ever quit?"

Bryan sighed. "Now look here, Mr. Robertson," he said sternly. "I'm writing this story for a reason, you know. I have a plot that you're messing up."

"Ha!" Carl laughed sharply. "Forget it, I've heard too much about you from your other characters already. You don't have a plot, you've just got some twisted desire to transform me into god knows what, and then ramble about how weird I feel for page after page afterward! Why couldn't I have been a character in a real author's story, instead of some TSA nutcase like yourself?"

It was a rhetorical question, Carl had heard that Bryan had difficulty coming up with names and knew that he probably just had the bad luck of having a relatively common one. Bryan shook his head condescendingly. "Now look here, Carl. You're not helping things by insulting your own writer, not to mention all the others on TSA-talk who might read this if I ever get it back on track. If you've heard so much about me, then surely you've heard that I don't like to kill off my characters?"

Carl snorted. "Yeah, but at least if I get killed off while still undeveloped I go to limbo to wait until I'm written into another author's normal story. If I get transformed in one of your stories, what's the likelihood of my ever getting out? Virtually none!"

Bryan rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. "This is just no good; if he won't cooperate at least a little, the story is ruined. I'm sorry, people, I can't continue this story if the main character won't even go along with supporting the suspension of disbelief."

"Oh, so now you're talking to the readers, too, eh?" Carl jeered. "Broken just about every rule of good writing now, I imagine. You fraud...!"

Bryan ignored Carl's taunts and continued. "Hopefully this little diversion hasn't wasted too much of my time, or yours, and I promise to get back to work on my other stories now. Since my other characters are a little less... troublesome, I promise I won't have to use heavy-handed techniques to put the transformations in as I'm about to do with this one."

"...and your dialogue is so tedious, and- uh, as you're about to do with what one?" Carl broke off his stream of insults as Bryan's words registered. "Hey, you can't force me to do anything without a plot device, it's in my contract! What..."

Bryan grinned evilly and spoke to the ceiling, addressing an unseen audience (no, not you this time ;). "The subject has turned delusional; not only has this fictional universe become real to him, but at the same time he seems to know that it is fictional. A fascinating case; I suspect Dr. Xerepakkli will want to write a paper on this one. Disconnect us from the simulator."

"Wait a minute," Carl stuttered, "Dr. Xere-what...?" Suddenly, everything went black and for a moment he felt like he was falling. "Ahh!" He screamed in panic, and then the universe suddenly returned. A different universe. "AHH!" He screamed even louder as something that looked like a purple tree trunk with tentacular branches leaned over his bed and removed some sort of helmet from his... head? Carl strained his own tentacles against the firm pressure of the restraint fields, struggling to bring them into his sensorium's field of view to confirm what he felt.

"Nurse! He's panicking, give him a shot!" The purple tree-creature called. Carl felt a coldness in the small of his back, and abruptly felt much calmer.

"I'm Carl, I'm human," he objected weakly as the purple-tree orderlies lifted him onto a stretcher.

"No, you're Frantosek, a Kampfult-" the orderly was interrupted by the touch of the purple-tree climbing down from the other simulation interface bed behind him.

"Don't bother," Bryan said, "his identity is completely replaced by the simulated human Carl's; he really thinks he's in the wrong body. Of course, no physical transformation has actually taken place. But humor him." The orderly nodded, and they shuffled onto their travel platforms to take 'Carl' to his room.

Bryan shook his head sadly. "If only there were a safer way to learn about these aliens than to put our own criminals into these simulations," he said out loud, even though there was supposed to be nobody listening. "It's so traumatic for those poor simulated characters that become real."