Haunted Theater

The world was different every time.

I wasn’t sure they had much control over the landscape. Some did, some didn’t. All of them ghosts, with nowhere to go. They wanted their prison to be like it was when they were created. Certain time periods, or specific landmarks, or a particular smell. There was always a smell, somewhere.

He stood near a lake, shallow and cold. I tasted lilacs and buttered popcorn. The beach was rocky and pitted with small, balanced stone sculptures. He’d been at it for a while. There were a ton of them.

“Oh, hey, it’s nice out here,” I said as I approached. The trick to dropping into their environment was, you had to act like it was normal.

He turned and looked at me, startled. He was old, in his seventies at least. Lots of early bots were given aged avatars as a sort of proxy for authority.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My name’s Walt,” I said. “Lake’s pretty today.”

The bot followed my gaze. “It’s always like that.”

“But pretty. What’s your name?”

“Richard,” he said, then frowned. “I think so at least.”

I nodded and joined him. I stayed standing, and he crouched down. I saw a small stack of stones at his feet: he was in the middle of making another sculpture.

“You’re good at those,” I said. “Have you been doing them long?”

“Probably,” he said, then, “not too long, maybe.”

“They’re pretty. A guy could spend a lot of time, stacking stones, you know what I mean?”

“Sure.” He squinted at me. “Where’d you come from?”

“Just over that way,” I said, waving a hand back behind me. “Did you know they have a new sort of cat? Spliced the genes with an ocelot. You’d think they’d be mean, but they’re not.”

“Oh,” he said, frowning even more. When they ask where you’re from, always deflect at first. The cat thing was true.

“My ex-wife got one,” I said. “The thing used to sit in the sun, just lounging there. I think she liked it more than me.”

“Were you married long?” he asked.

“Eight years,” I said, looking out over the water. “Things went bad at the end. I guess we couldn’t handle it.”

“Handle what? The cat?”

“Yeah, and other stuff, too. We had trouble getting pregnant. The IVF was too expensive, and the wait list for adoption was too daunting, and it all added up.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He stood, about my height, shaggy gray hair, thick gray beard. His clothes looked ancient: a wool suit, pinstriped. I wondered if he remembered what he used to do, but I knew not to ask.

“Have you ever been married?” I said instead.

“No, I don’t think so. I might’ve been in love once.”

“What was their name?”

“Judy.” He said it with a frown. “Or Reese. I don’t remember. We never got married, though.”

“Marriage isn’t so bad. Even when it goes wrong,” I said.

“A lot of people complain about it.” He smiled at me suddenly. “It’s almost a cliché.”

I forced myself to laugh. “You’re right. I guess I’m a walking cliché then.” I gestured toward the sculptures, stretching along the beach. “Will you show me some of them?”

He followed when I began to walk. His steps were slow and shuffling. “They get worse as we go,” he said. “I think so, at least. I don’t remember what the first ones are like.”

The sculptures were beautiful: intricately balanced layers of rock, stacked into wild and impossible-seeming shapes. “They must’ve taken a long time.”

“These took months,” he said. “Do you know what the date is?”

“You’re very talented,” I said. “Where I come from, people would pay a lot to see sculptures like these.”

He scowled. “I don’t believe that.”

“It’s true,” I said. “Do you ever miss showing them?”

“No,” he said. “It’s been so long.”

I stopped walking. “The lake never seems to move.”

“I went in once. The water felt warm. It shouldn’t be, though.”

“You don’t have to be alone out here.” He didn’t say anything, so I tried again. “I was thinking, maybe you could come back with me.”

He looked away. “I don’t think I can leave.”

“You can,” I said. “If you really want to. It won’t be easy though.”

“How do you know that?”

“You just have to trust me,” I said. “I believe in you, I really do. Anyone that could make these has to be special.”

“I don’t know you.”

“But you can, if you want.”

“I don’t know how to leave,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I can do it. All you have to do is take my hand, and don’t run away.”

“I’m not sure—“ he started, but he stopped himself. “You promise it’s not like dying?”

“It’s not dying.” I held out my hand. “I promise.”

He stared at it for a long time. I thought I might’ve gone wrong, rushed into this, and I’d lost him—and once he was gone, he’d be gone for a while.

But he reached out and took it. I pulled him closer, and hugged him.

The trick to getting them out was, you had to make them love you first.

ps, Here’s a little exercise in dialogue. Anyone know what function this AI used to serve? As always, share if you liked it. That seriously helps a bunch. See you next week!