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All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

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Pandora story universe
Author: Bryan

I woke that morning to the sound of birdsong. Normally this would have been a very nice way to wake up, the sort of thing that happens in movies to indicate that things are going nicely for our hero. In this case, however, the bird was singing 'Camptown Races' seriously off-key and directly into my ear.

I groaned and turned over in bed, groping for my radio; at first I thought that my alarm had simply gone off. But after hitting the snooze button a couple times, I began to ponder what else could be making the noise. That's when I spotted the bird, perched on my lamp, belting out his annoying song at a volume far louder than his tiny lungs should have been able to manage. It was about the size of a sparrow, but with bright red plumage over its entire body except where it blended into its black beak and feet. It had a bit of a crest on the back of its head, giving it a slightly punkish look.

"Uh... huh?" I blinked at it. How had it got in here?

It finally stopped singing, and returned my bleary stare with an exasperated expression. "Finally up, eh? By the stars, you're a heavy sleeper."

I blinked again. Even parrots aren't supposed to talk like that, let alone tiny birds like this one. "Er... what's going on here? How did you get inside?"

"It was trivial. I'll tell you all about it as soon as it looks like you're conscious enough to understand a word of my explanation."

"Uh." I squinted at the bird, wondering if this was some sort of joke. But the bird looked completely real, and it certainly seemed to be talking on its own. "I'm still asleep, right? You're some sort of dream?"

The bird cocked its head. "Well, I guess that's a reasonable guess to make. I'm a magic birdie, and magic birdies don't exist in reality, right? Well, I'm afraid you'll have to re-learn what's reasonable, because I'm here. I and my brethren have been unleashed on the world once more."

"You and your brethren..." rubbing my eyes, I sat up on the edge of the bed. "I don't believe I'm having this conversation. Okay, I'm awake already; tell me what you're all about."

"I'm a magical spirit, Tom. I've been locked up for millennia with a whole whack of other magical spirits. We used to be called fairies, sprites, demons, angels, familiars... you name it. Most recently, though, we've been called pandoras. We got let out of the box, you see. And today is your lucky day, because I've chosen you to be my partner."

"I need some coffee," I muttered. "That should get rid of you." I got up and headed for the kitchen.

The little red bird sighed. "Got a lot of work to do with this one." He fluttered into the air and followed me out of the bedroom.

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I sat sipping coffee, the little red bird perched on the other side of the table and watching me with a playfully curious expression.

"So, you say you want to hang around me and do magic stuff for me," I mused. After spending fifteen chatting with him over coffee and toast, a lot of my initial disbelief in his existence had evaporated. I was still having trouble believing what he was telling me, though.

"Essentially. I can change things, provided they're within my limits of range and mass and power. About a hundred yards at most, and don't ask me to conjure too many elephants a day or I'll get worn out."

"Okay..." I thought for a moment, then slid the empty plate forward. "Prove it. I'd like some more toast."

"Coming right up." The bird looked at the plate, cocked its head, and then without further ado the plate morphed into a slice of toast with jam on it.

I blinked. "Uh... what happened to the plate?"

"I made it into toast," the bird explained. "That's how my power works, I can't just make something out of thin air. I have to start with something else first."

I poked the toast with my fork. It made a realistic crunching sound. "Uh... huh. And why do you want to hang around me? I'm nobody special. What do you want from me?"

"It's a bit hard to explain in human terms, since humans are very different from us," the bird began. "But one way of looking at it is that you're my 'anchor', a solid point of reality I can bind myself to for security and stability. You give me form and substance. I wasn't a bird until the moment you woke up, for example; that's just what your subconscious mind imagined I was at that moment. It was a way for your mind to make me fit into its world view. Oh, speaking of which, what do you think I should be named?"

"You seem like a Jeremy to me," I guessed off the top of my head.

"Thanks," Jeremy replied. "That name feels right, though since your subconscious expectations are helping define my personality too that shouldn't come as a big surprise. Anyways, suffice to say that the end result of my nature is that I'm yours to command and I'll do my best to do what you ask. It's what I'm all about."

"Okay. Can I have my plate back?"

Jeremy nodded, and the toast quickly shifted back to its original form. I tapped it again with my fork, and sighed in relief as it made the usual clinking sound.

"Now... I have no idea what to do next, here. Do I call the police, the news media, or what?"

"You might want to turn on your news media and take a look at it first," Jeremy suggested. "Remember? I'm not the only pandora, there were at least a thousand others in there with me. Considering how late you slept in I suspect most of them have a head start on you."

I did as he suggested, and was stunned by the image that immediately appeared on the TV. It was the regular set of the morning news programme, but instead of the regular hosts there were a pair of chimpanzees sitting at the desk. No, I corrected myself as I examined their features and listened to their voices, the regular hosts have been turned into chimpanzees. Miranda was especially recognizable, retaining her long blond hair even as a chimp.

Jared was already speaking. "...statement in twenty minutes, presumably regarding the events of the past few hours or so. We'll go live to that when it happens." He shuffled a sheet of paper and glanced over at Miranda. She seemed distracted, staring down at her hands, and it took a gentle nudge from Jared to snap her out of it. She looked up in embarrassment, tried to smile, and then started into her own report.

"Woah," I mumbled. "Uh... do you know anything about this?"

"I didn't do it," Jeremy replied. "Obviously, though, one of my brothers did. Unless you've started using trained chimps to read the news since I was sealed away?"

I just shook my head and continued watching, stunned and strangely fascinated by what I was seeing. Reports of people wielding magical powers were popping up all over LA, and increasingly farther abroad; some of the pandora had evidently travelled quite far before finding a suitable host. "So... basically, you can change anyone into anything," I asked at last. "But their minds remain as they always were? It doesn't change them?"

"Oh, I can change minds, Tom. Minds are just like physical objects to us, we can tinker with their structure but we can neither create nor destroy them. It's easier to leave them be, though; minds are very hard to work with."

"Even if you change someone into an inanimate object?"

"Even if. Senses remain intact too, in that case, for reasons which I can't really explain in your terms."

"Wow." I sat there for quite a while, lost in thought while the two chimpanzees continued reading off their reports. This power that I now wielded, through Jeremy, was incredibly versatile. There were so many different things it could do, even with the limits Jeremy had told me about... It was incredibly compelling. As I pondered the situation, I began to realize that I had effectively just won the lottery; my life would never need to be the same. "I don't need to go to work any more," I concluded aloud. "I don't need to worry about taxes, or bills, or any of that shit. I can do whatever I want, you can make me rich."

"Creating wealth is a rather unimaginative use of my power," Jeremy chided.

"I know. There's lots of stuff I'll want to try out... but I think I should start slow, take it carefully. Conservative, you know? I don't want to blow this."

"I'll warn you if I think you're going to get in trouble with a request," Jeremy reassured me. "I'm not like your fictional genie assholes, I don't have it out for you. I'll try to do what I think you want me to do, not necessarily just what you say you want me to do."

"Well, be careful. I don't know you very well, and I'm sure that's mutual."

"We'll get to know each other eventually, Tom. I plan to stick around for quite a while."

I nodded. "Okay. So, let's get learning. I want to explore this power a bit more..."

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"A bit wider in the shoulders," I requested as I examined my reflection critically.

Jeremy sighed from his perch on top of the mirror. "Okay. But really, you've sculpted yourself pretty much to the limit here. Even I can't really see the difference any more, and I'm starting to get tired."

I felt the faint tingle of change as Jeremy broadened my shoulders, and grinned. The bird was right, really; I couldn't make myself any more handsome and fine-tuned than I now was. But it was still a wonderful toy for me, to be able to change things about myself that I had always thought were completely immutable. I had gained six inches of height, fifty pounds of muscle, and a healthy thicket of dark brown hair. It was still me, but idealized and improved. "Okay, I guess that's fine after all. Can you remember this form for future reference? I like it."

Jeremy nodded. "Sure, no problem. Glad you finally settled." He sighed again, a tiny avian 'whew' of exhaustion.

"Sorry, I hope I didn't wear you out too badly."

"No, I'll be okay in a minute. Lots of tiny little changes in rapid succession like that can wear one down, but one can recover quickly from it."

"Good." I posed and flexed a bit more in front of the mirror, but truthfully I was already getting bored with that; I'd been doing it for the past hour while fine-tuning, there was only so much self-admiration a guy could take. I walked over to a chair and sat down, feeling great. "So, what next?"

Jeremy shrugged. "Up to you, of course."

I frowned and stroked my chin thoughtfully. The obvious stuff was out of the way; I'd souped myself up and had Jeremy change some of the junk around my apartment into extremely valuable items. I was wealthy and healthy now. What next, indeed? Nothing really came to mind, I didn't want to push my luck. If I had learned one thing in life, it was to quit while you were even the slightest tiniest bit ahead. "Perhaps I should go to work after all," I mused aloud. "Damn, I didn't even call in sick. I'm going to get in trouble for this, I'll need an excuse."

Jeremy let forth a tiny snort. "You're really thinking small, aren't you? Well, how about using my powers to help make your excuse more convincing?"

"Well, I don't know..." I thought hard about that for a moment. It seemed like a petty use of Jeremy's power, but even so it would probably be dangerous and I was reluctant to risk it. "What did you have in mind?"

"More importantly, what did you have in mind?" Jeremy retorted. "You aren't my master for nothing, you know."

"Well, I guess I could claim I caught a bug, or something..."

"Right. Easy." Jeremy inhaled and then looked at me with the same intense expression he had used every time he'd edited my body. Only much moreso.

"No, waiccckkk!" I tried to protest, but my voice degenerated into a harsh clicking before I could finish the thought. My vision exploded into fragments and my legs buckled, sending me sprawling flat on my stomach. Oddly, though, the impact didn't even wind me, and I didn't plant my face in the carpet. My head seemed to be mounted differently on my neck all of a sudden. I spent a moment trying futilely to gather my limbs under me, a process which had suddenly become completely unfamiliar, and then my shattered vision suddenly reorganized itself in my mind to give me a comprehensible picture again.

"EEEEEE!" I shrieked in horror at the monstrous black beetle crouched right in front of my face. It was huge, at least as big as I was, and its gaping mandibles were poised to crunch down on my head. I frantically pushed against the floor with my hands, shoving myself away from it. The beetle lunged... away from me.

I hesitated, confused, as the gigantic insect scuttled backward. Then I realized that there was a wooden frame around my view of the thing. I had fallen in front of the mirror, and that bug was me! "Change me back!" I screamed, though it came out more like "Kkkag ee ackk!" through my weird mouthparts.

I heard another small bird-snort, and then just as suddenly I was human again. Leaping back to my feet, I looked around for something heavy to throw at Jeremy. "That was not what I had in mind!" I shouted angrily.

"Yes it was, kind of!" Jeremy shot back defensively. "The idea was in your mind, buried somewhere, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to think of it myself. I was hoping you'd find it interesting!"

"A warning would have given me more opportunity to appreciate the novelty of the situation," I spat sarcastically. But as the leftover panic slowly drained, so did some of the anger; I was beginning to think clearly again. "Why did you do that to me? You told me you were a nice genie, not a double-crossing literalist."

"Pandora," Jeremy corrected, "though I guess you can call me whatever you like, it's not like the name's official or anything." I sighed and continued glaring silently, waiting for an answer to my question. Jeremy seemed to sense my mood, and sighed too. "Okay, I guess I kinda knew that wasn't exactly what you wanted when you asked for a bug. To be fair, even a literalist wouldn't have been able to twist it into that; you wanted to catch a bug, not be one. But I wanted to show you what I was really capable of, I hoped it would jog your imagination a little and we could move beyond this 'riches and muscles' phase to something more interesting. I know you're capable of it, Tom."

"Why are you so concerned about that, though? Why can't I just be rich, healthy and handsome, and leave it at that?"

"It's... a little hard to explain. But I'll try. Did you ever hear the joke about the devil and the guy on death row?" I started to respond in the affirmative, but Jeremy interrupted before I could begin. "It's rhetorical, Tom. I only know the joke 'cause I'm reading it from your mind, after all. Humor me." I nodded and remained silent.

"Once upon a time there was a guy on death row," Jeremy began. "All his appeals had been turned down, he had only a few hours left to live. But he still had the right to a last meal before they threw the switch, and he could order anything he wanted to. He picked baked beans. Well, as he was eating, slowly in order to give himself as much time as possible, Satan suddenly appeared to him. 'I can keep you off the chair indefinitely,' he told the guy, 'and all it'll cost you is your soul.'

"Well, of course, the guy said no. He had done a lot of evil things in his life, but if Satan was here trying to trade for it then at least he knew where he would be headed when he died. But the devil explained that the traditional view of these things had got it wrong; the soul had nothing to do with life after death. A person's soul was their imagination. Well, the guy figured that this was a fairer trade, since he'd never really been much of an imaginative sort to begin with. So he signed Satan's contract, and gave him his imagination. Then the devil explained how he could get his indefinite stay of execution. He'd granted the guy the ability to eat as long as he wanted to, without ever needing to stop. The law said that the condemned had the right to finish their last meal, and so if he never finished eating he'd never have to sit in the chair. After he'd explained, the devil departed.

"The guy kept on eating his beans. When he'd finished the plate, he asked the warden for seconds. The warden granted this request, since the law put no limits on how big a last meal could be. When he was done that plate, he got thirds. And fourths, and fifths, ad infinitum. For the rest of his natural life, this guy sat on death row and ate baked beans. He no longer had his imagination, and so couldn't think of anything else to ask for."

That was the end of the story as I remembered it, and Jeremy paused to let me ask the obvious question. I obliged. "How does this relate to the pandora?"

"We're like the guy on death row, of course. We've got the ability to do virtually anything imaginable... if we could only imagine it. But we can't. That's why we take masters, Tom, you're our imaginations. Without you, we're just power without purpose."

"So you picked me to be your master because of my imagination?" I asked incredulously. I had always thought I was a rather bland fellow, and most of the people I knew seemed to share that opinion.

"Yeah. Some Pandora have more of a need for direction and purpose than others; I lust for activity and variety. You're the most imaginative guy I could sense within my range. But it's all buried. You've got a boring crust that's built up over your wild dreams, no doubt put there by a lifetime of crushing repression or something. I was just trying to smash it up a bit with that bug stunt, to let your wild ideas shine through to the surface again."

Jeremy fell silent again, remaining perched on top of the mirror pensively awaiting my response. I sat down and thought for a while, trying to figure out what that response should be. Had I really been a 'wildly imaginative' person at some point? It's hard to remember old dreams... but as I thought back, I began to recall the books I used to read. The stories I used to play out with my imaginary friends when I was young, the secret fantasies I had kept hidden from everyone around me.

I looked up at Jeremy. He seemed to be smiling. "Let's not go straight back to that bug thing just yet," I told him. "I've been boring for a long time, it's not that easy to jump straight back in to the deep end again."

"You're the boss, boss," Jeremy chirped.

I grinned. Once upon a time, I had dreamed of having a genie to grant wishes. I even remembered some of the wishes I'd planned out. They were ridiculous, childish things. They'd be a total waste of power in the real world.

"Okay," I began. "For my first wish..."