by August Niehaus
Hent never held his breath. A witch’s curse kept his family from being swimmers or blowing out birthday candles or taking advantage of the wish-enhancing powers of tunnels, for fear of their held breath catching as per the terms of the curse.
But here and now—in the Upper Bough of the supply tree, on Clean Out Your Computer Day—Hent held his breath ever so slightly while he flattened his wings against his back to slip past a trio of grandmothers walking at one quarter speed.
He would have arrived earlier to avoid the crowds, but Elyse’s appointment with Healer Jessen had gone long and she could not make it back up to Lee-o’-the-Nest on her own since the lighting strike. Hent was not about to abandon Elyse, not when he had promised their father he would take care of her.
Besides, it was partially his fault she could no longer fly. He had asked her to go and check the broadcast dish in the middle of a storm, after all.
Hent shook these gloomy thoughts free and came back to the present. Directly in front of him, floating over an endcap full of compressed air, was a gruesome poster. CLEAN OUT YOUR COMPUTER, OR ELSE! pronounced the dripping moss-green words. Below, a talented but perhaps misguided artist had depicted a fairy harnessed in to his computer, one of his hands down to the bone, the other dripping decaying flesh around the wires running into his knuckles. The fairy’s eyes—and this was where the artist lost Hent—glowed like LEDs.
That was, of course, ridiculous. Fairy computers were certainly biological, with their own organic personalities; and they certainly grew ornery if left to their own devices. But this kind of illustration was, in Hent’s opinion, a fear-mongering tactic so fairy-kind would think nothing twice of the entire government taking a collective paid day off to clean out their computers.
As a member of the private sector, Hent found it incredibly frustrating that the public sector allowed such stupid ideas to rule. Corporations had to clean out their computers, too, but they couldn’t just pull everything offline on the same day as if it were a bank holiday.
At any rate, he was in the Upper Bough to get compressed air. And a new Wetvac hose. Hent cleared his thoughts like cobwebs and collected what he needed and heading to the register.
The clerk eyed his purchases, smacking his gum in the corner of his mouth. “Rosehips, huh. You know, my sister is allergic to rosehips.”
Hent hated small talk, especially when it was clearly intended to elicit meaningless sympathy. “Well. My sister lost her wings in a lightning strike.”
The clerk looked startled. “Oof. Rough, man.” He swiped the rest of Hent’s purchases through quickly. Hent took the proffered plastic sack with a smirk, satisfied that he had sufficiently chastised the young supply tree employee. He leapt off the branch and savored the lift of the breeze against his delicate wings as it carried him gently to the tree where he made his own home.
Hent petted the oak table until it lowered its trunk to the floor, and then he sat in front of his computer box and sighed. He hated this task. Not only did it feel like a violation of an organic lifeform, it was just plain gross. He could grouse about the public sector all he wanted, but he was glad for a dedicated day off from his job as a line cook to give his machine a once-over, so he had time to take a slow bath in the bromeliad afterwards.
But—back to the task at hand. Hent steeled himself, careful not to breathe in for too long.
First, he booted up the computer to make sure nothing in particular was amiss. If not, he would give it a routine cleaning: pluck the cobwebs and Spanish moss, uproot any vines or noxious weeds, then leave a fan blowing on the inside overnight to clear up the excess moisture. No sense in letting any mushrooms or mold colonies thrive, though the computer would probably enjoy the extra nutrients.
The screen blinked on. HELLO, it displayed.
Hent grunted and reached for the manus glove. He slipped it on his left hand, hissing at the familiar pain of the electrode needles sinking into his knuckles. Electricity tingled through his skin and he knew he and the computer were connected.
[Hello again, Hent. I’m updating a couple of preferences for you based on your psychological profile today. I’ve made note that you would like to deemphasize black tea for daily consumption, and that you should ensure a daily intake of fiber.]
Hent’s snort sent spittle onto the now-empty screen. The computer’s “voice” was in his head, more instant knowledge than pure communication. The direct link allowed him to understand and reciprocate. “Yeah, yeah. So I didn’t poop much this week. Don’t keep prunes on the menu for long.”
[So… What can I help you with?] Hent’s computer had a way of communicating a faint, knowing smile.
“Just making sure you’re alright,” Hent said, forcing levity into his tone. “Any startup tests come back weird, bud? Any new… interfacing partners I should know about? Heh.”
A flash of unamused darkness imprinted briefly on Hent’s mind.
[Are you satisfying a personal curiosity, Hent, or is it Clean Out Your Computer Day again?]
There was no fooling a co-habitating consciousness. The computer immediately knew the truth. Still, Hent flushed and looked away, clearing his throat. “It’s nothing personal. Routine maintenance is important for health throughout the lifecycle of—but you know all this.”
[That is a lie.]
Hent almost held his breath in surprise. Computers never dissented directly. They dodged the question when they could possibly manage it, and when they couldn’t, they apologized and qualified and came at the denial sideways.
The impression of the computer in Hent’s mind grew subtly stronger. [Yes, you can sense it too, the truth: while I am currently able to help you to a modest degree, I would be able to provide much more computing power were you to allow my detritus to collect unchecked.]
Hent shivered. He flexed the fingers of his left hand. The manus glove broke connection slightly where the electrode needles pulled away from his skin. He considered pulling the glove off and severing the connection entirely, but something about the way the computer had said “currently able to help you to a modest degree” gave him pause.
“Would you—that is, if I—what I mean to say—” Hent folded his hands in front of him as if offering up a desperate prayer. “If you were to provide more computing power, how much more would you be able to help me?”
[More than you know.]
Hent narrowed his eyes. “That’s a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? You’re a computer—quantify it.”
[Your sister, Elyse. I could restore her wings.]
Hent’s heart stopped. For a brief moment, he saw everything clearly, all at once: what mattered, and what didn’t. He collapsed back into the present, gasping for air, grabbing at his chest.
“Elyse…” Hent whispered his sister’s name, as he had whispered it when he’d held her limp body after the strike. He smelled her singed hair again, the delicate scent of burned iridescence the only remaining trace of her wings.
[It is not something that your scientists will learn in her lifetime if computers are not allowed to assist you without restriction.] Hent’s computer had dropped the tone of discord and was back to its usual soothing self. [But Hent, I can help now. While she is still young. While you are both still young.]
Hent’s nostrils flared and he tugged on his topknot. He swiveled his head to look around the basement of the home he shared with Elyse, to ensure she wasn’t nearby or that any other nosy fairies had taken it upon themselves to peer through the windows of the little house built beneath the robin’s nest.
He asked the question that troubled him most about the whole scenario.
“What if I get caught?”
[I will not let that happen, Hent.]
And so it was that Hent did not clean out his computer on Clean Out Your Computer Day—at least for one year, to see how things went.
The computer was quite cheery the next time Hent put on the manus glove, a few weeks later.
[Good afternoon, Hent. I see you slept in until a reasonable hour and made the most of those fresh sunchokes.]
Hent cracked his knuckles to hide his nervousness. “Sunchoke and leek pie. The perfect brunch.”
[Anything I can help you with?]
“How are you feeling?” Hent blurted out, though he had planned to approach the question more gracefully. At least he hadn’t asked what he was really burning to know: Are your insides exploding with life? Do you have more power yet? When can you heal Elyse?
The computer impressed upon him a sense of amusement and contentedness. [There is little change yet, but I feel good. I even came up with a few suggestions outside of my normal realm of assistance, if you’re interested.]
The fires of curiosity were eating Hent from the inside out, but he tried to play it cool. “Sure, if you think they’re worth hearing.”
Ever so slightly, the computer’s enthusiasm dimmed and its consciousness retracted. [I believe you will find them of interest,] it said coolly.
Nerves jangling, Hent opened himself up to receive the suggestions. Before, this had always been a light, inobtrusive transaction: Hent gave the computer his attention, and the computer spooled useful ideas into his mind, like what to eat to balance his nutrition and the optimal time to visit the supply tree. This time, the computer imprinted its ideas into his brain as if stamping official documents. Hent reeled but managed to stay on his feet as concepts and images flooded his mind’s eye.
He was fishing for minnows in a glacial lake. He was eating a blackberry every day for the rest of his life. He was fluttering through the woods hand-in-hand with—
Hent stiffened and steeled himself against the strength of the computer’s recommendations.
“That is not your business,” he snarled.
[My apologies. Perhaps I have come on too strong. Even a few weeks of extra growth have given me deeper insight than ever, but that does not mean I should approach you thoughtlessly.] The computer seemed genuinely chastened. [Do let me know if you would like me to tell you about any of the others.]
“Maybe later,” Hent said. The vision of—well, that person had burned into his mind, and he needed a moment. Then he hesitated, his heartbeat quickening. “Wait—what about Elyse?”
[I am working on it.] The computer’s response came with a soothing sense of impending success. [It may take me some time, but with every passing day, I only increase my capabilities. I will help Elyse, Hent. I promise.]
Life kept Hent busy, and the next time he slipped on the glove, it was four full months later and nearly midnight.
“Sorry to be gone so long,” he started to apologize to the computer, but the words died on his lips as he sensed the new vastness of the consciousness intertwined with his.
[Good evening, Hent,] the computer said. [We have much to talk about.]
It wasn’t so much a talk as a lecture. Hent was the computer’s captive audience for nearly three hours, glued to his seat, trembling with the effort of taking on such direct knowledge.
Finally, with a great gasp as if he’d just surfaced from a frigid sea, Hent came to, slamming his hands against the interfacing desk his grandmother had grown him out of a stunted oak sapling. Energy crackled through the manus glove, making his arm and his wings twitch involuntarily. Panic rising in his chest, Hent wrapped his other hand around the top of the glove and shoved it off his arm, hard.
He sat in the dark and silent basement, breathing hard. His chest hurt. The backs of his eyes hurt.
But he knew how to start the process of healing Elyse’s wings.
The realization slowly came to him, flaring up like a brilliant dawn. Hent’s heart rose and some of the cloud lifted from his vision. Though his legs were shaky, he managed to get to the stairs and crawl up to Lee-o’-the-Nest’s main floor, where he and Elyse each kept a room off the kitchen.
A few light raps on her door were all that were needed to bring a blurry-eyed Elyse in her robe. “Hent, you look awful. What happened?” She hustled him to the edge of her bed, where she perched beside him and put her arm over his shoulders.
As always, his sister’s presence calmed Hent. With composure came words. “I’ve been up all night studying. I’m learning about deep healing, at the cellular level. Consciousness, the power of fae will, interconnectedness of everything…” Hent tossed his head; as he said the words out loud, they started to actually make sense to him and not just exist in a part of his brain that stored information. “I’d like you to start applying cedarwood oil to your burns. Twice a day, as close to sleeping as you can manage; the growth properties are more effective when the cerebral cortex is active.” He could tell he was babbling, but the excitement bubbled too readily to stop his mouth from moving. “After the cells are receptive, I’ll—actually, no, I’ll need to start tracking down aloe immediately. Who knows how long it could take to import from the Sandsea.”
“Hent,” Elyse said, resting her hand on his wrist.
He swallowed the rest of the words he’d been about to spill. “Yes?”
She laughed at his earnest impatience. “Where is this coming from? Did I sleepwalk and ask you to cure me last night?”
Hent froze. He realized that any explanation he gave when he next opened his mouth could not mention that he had defied the government decree to clean out all computers, for both personal and public use, lest their overgrowth become a public menace.
“No, no,” he reassured her, thinking fast. “I ran into an old friend from high school today—you remember Grett, always used to take the trophies in the chess club? Yeah, these days, he’s into some really interesting bio-medicinal stuff. Got me thinking about whether or not, you know, I could…”
Hent swallowed hard.
“Make amends,” he finished.
Elyse made a sound like “awww” and enveloped him in her arms. In moments like this, she made him feel like the little brother he’d always been, and guilt pounded like venom in his veins.
“I will keep telling you until you understand, deartháir, my dear brother: it wasn’t your fault. I would have gone outside anyway. It was Tuesday, remember? Enchanted Love used to be on at eight. I wouldn’t have missed that over a storm.”
Hent’s eyes were closed as he listened to his sister’s voice, and he saw it all vividly in his mind’s eye again: the flash of lighting outside, the sputter and sizzle as the television died, the snarl readily on his lips to spur Elyse out into the storm so she could burn and fall.
He shivered. She knew what tormented him, or at least she knew to put her hand against the back of his head, the only thing that steadied him when he revisited like this.
“It was my choice to go out,” Elyse said softly. “And now I am who I am. Are you ashamed of me, deartháir?”
Hent’s face burned. Shame was not the right word for it, but he could not deny how badly he wanted things to be the way they were before. “No,” he said at last, “I’m afraid for you.”
Elyse must have been holding herself very still, because he felt her relax. “That’s sweet of you, brother. I can manage. I have Beads and Charms, and Prith, and Jeyolin.” Hearing its name, the were-wolfspider stirred on the other side of the room and yawned wetly. “And you, Hent. My life is pretty wonderful the way it is.”
But Hent could only squeeze his eyes shut and remember when they were tiny faelings, racing one another from tree to tree, the whole forest their playground.
Elyse must have sensed his thoughts, because she sighed and said, “I’ll apply the cedarwood. Twice a day, you said?”
Hent stopped measuring the progress of the computer’s evolution, because he was interfacing on a daily basis and could no longer sense how it changed over time. From time to time, he would become aware of a new level of ability presented in the connection between him and the machine, a set of understanding or capabilities that surpassed the being he had previously adjusted to. In this way, Hent and the computer spent almost five years together.
The computer gave Hent a crash course in cellular biology and reiki, and then together they connected the dots. At least, Hent felt that his involvement was crucial, although in his darkest moments he questioned whether this was just the computer’s long game and he was being outwaited. But every time the computer came to a revelation, it seemed it was while the manus glove connected them, so Hent contented himself with this sense of indispensability and the fact that Elyse’s wings were slowly regenerating.
Cell by cell, Hent could see the chitin expanding outward in the shape of Elyse’s once-beautiful wings. She was less convinced that he could detect any noticeable change, but the computer had impressed certainty about its findings on Hent and now it was his certainty too. He shared all of his knowledge with Elyse, and though she pestered him for its source, she begrudgingly admitted she was fascinated and could see how it all made sense, in its own way. She even used it to learn a simple shared language with Jeyolin, who behaved much more contentedly and protectively of Elyse, to Hent’s begrudging appreciation.
Still, she denied that her wings felt any differently. “Not yet,” she told him, her tone implying there was a future time when it could be.
But Hent couldsee the regrowth. He could. It was only a matter of time now.
[It is only a matter of time,] the computer assured him every time they interfaced.
In Hent’s mind, their interfacing happened under an open, starry sky—just him and the slender box of the computer, dreaming together.
Hent barely kept his hours at the restaurant, and when he wasn’t applying his learnings directly to the stubs of Elyse’s wings, he was in the basement, glued into the glove.
In the 31st month, Elyse came downstairs while Hent was marveling at the lush growth contained within the box—a rare opportunity, as the computer rarely allowed him to look inside. Hent had to rush Elyse upstairs to calm her down, and when she found out where he was really getting his information from, she screamed and cried and begged him to clean it out.
Of course, he refused.
In the fourth year, the computer secreted a long extension of the wire tethering the manus glove to the tower, and Hent was able to pace around the room even while he was interfacing. This freed Hent up to build a lab downstairs, where he could brew up the potent healing concoctions the computer fed into his thoughts.
The extension was also the first sign that the computer was finally reaching what it had begun to call its “potential.”
One month before the fifth year, the computer wriggled an experimental toe for Hent, who cheered with excitement for his friend.
In the 121st month, Hent came downstairs as usual. He had just planted both feet on the floor when the heavy form slammed into him.
His breath and his certainty left him in the same instance. Hent hit the floor of the basement so hard he saw pinpricks of light, and then there was a pressure against his throat and he thought of nothing else. He scrabbled with both hands against the vine-like limb against his throat, but its outer layer was smooth and he couldn’t get traction. Hent stopped struggling and the limb lifted enough to let him suck down air gratefully.
[Good morning, Hent. You seem to be experiencing the curious sensations of mortality. For maximum peace of mind, I recommend you visit a local druid and rethink your existence.]
“Doing that last part right now, thanks,” Hent managed around the tentacle. Now that his vision had cleared and his eyes had adjusted to the dim basement, he could see that the limb had sprung from the computer.
Or rather, the bulging, splitting box that had been the computer. One of the sides had fallen off entirely and now served as a sort of ramp to a virtual jungle of ooze, slime, web, and worms—the guts of the computer.
Hent’s eyes bulged. A memory flashed onto the canvas of his mind: the poster above the air canisters, the corpse screaming in eternal horror. Clean Out Your Computer Day wasn’t gruesome propaganda. It was the truth. The smooth limb slid against his throat and Hent nearly threw up. Half of his nausea was his distress at what he was seeing. Half was disgust at himself for falling prey to its lies.
Unable to move, Hent’s body had locked up on him and he was unable to move even his fingers. Or was that something the computer was doing to him? He wasn’t wearing the manus glove, so he wasn’t sure the computer’s influence over him was more direct than a fist to the face.
[I truly am sorry to hold you like this. I would let you go, but I know how fairies react to the reality of an organic machine allowed to thrive, and I would rather not let you or anyone else cut me and tear at me again. But you have been a friend to me, Hent.] The computer’s presence, crowding Hent out of the space in his own brain, seemed to emanate authentic regret and wistfulness. [I daresay I would not be here today without you. You brewed me so many of the potions I used to unlock my true form. Your well-timed suggestions often kept me on the pondering, even when it nearly exhausted me.]
There was no use trying to move anyway, so Hent directed all his frenetic energy to taking a mental inventory of his lab. Plantain salve. Sun potions. Fermented yarrow extract. Essence of jequirity. Meditation draughts.
That was it.
When she’d found out about the computer’s unchecked growth, Elyse had pulled Hent’s ear down to her mouth when he’d carried her down to the leaft litter, Lee-o’-the-Nest high above them.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she’d whispered, “but I’ll still help you with figuring all of this stuff out if you do one thing for me.”
That one thing had been to spend long nights walking the forest floor with her, discussing how they could create a counter-agent to the growth techniques, just in case. Hent had always wondered why she would want to undo the progress he knew they were making, but he had made good on his promise to her.
Now he understood: Elyse had guessed at what the computer had planned. She had been trying to protect them both.
She’d helped him brew a healthy supply of boiled-down rosary peas, infused, which they’d stored in innocuous bottles in the cabinet below the lab sink. “Just in case,” she’d whispered as she’d placed them in the caddy with the other cleaning supplies.
Hent snapped his eyes open. All he had to do—
—was get out from under an impossibly powerful vine-like appendage controlled by a mind-reading computer.
He growled in frustration and the pressure increased against his neck.
[Here. I suggest a breathing exercise.] The computer slammed the suggestion into his brain so hard his lungs slowed involuntarily.
Hent forced his muscles to relax and gave in to the steady breath pattern, allowing it to flood his brain with oxygen. Good. Clarity was all that might save him now. He still couldn’t tell what the computer had in mind for him, but he hoped, one way or the other, that it would be quick.
A ruckus of clattering and scuffling came down the stairs and Jeyolin launched itself and its venomous fangs at the limb. Right on its heels, Elyse came in, swinging the boning knife she normally used to gut minnows. The computer blatted in pain as the knife bit deep. The limb retracted, squirming, and Hent could breathe and move again.
He wasted no time rolling to his feet and springing across the room to shield Elyse with his body and wings.
She grabbed his shoulder and whispered roughly in his ear, “I’ll get the jequirity.”
Elyse had leapt out of reach before Hent could catch her around the waist, so he could only watch in horror as she skidded across the smooth basement floor and threw herself at the lab sink cabinet. She managed to pull the door open and grab two bottles before another tentacle snaked out of the computer’s pulsating bulk and snagged her around the waist. She squeaked but made no other sound as it hoisted her into the air.
Then Hent felt something akin to a conversation the way a postcard is to a letter from the same loved one: emotionally charged, but brief and brilliant. He swayed on his feet and had to toss his head to shake off the aftermath, and he realized he’d felt the computer communicating directly with Elyse the way it had communicated with him even without the manus glove. She must have felt the echoes of that sensation from upstairs and sent Jeyolin down to investigate.
Seeing her caught up in the computer’s clutches now, Hent remembered why he had let this happen in the first place. He wanted to retch again.
Then his brain caught up and pushed his proactive grief aside.
Jeyolin. Hent tried to push the were-wolfspider’s name from his mind through its thick skull, but his thought-voice felt rusty. He tried it again, this time imagining how Elyse would call the creature from its beauty slumber to consume its disgusting canned flies. Jeyolin! Heel!
The were-wolfspider jerked all eight legs as if shocked, still lying where the limb had flipped it off easily. Then it scrambled to its feet and came to tremble at Hent’s side.
He gingerly petted it behind its many eyes and cooed at it, but only in his mind. Its fidgeting slowed. Hent gulped and dropped his hand to its abdomen.
Bite Elyse free. Or she is gone. He used what he had learned about how the computer had impressed upon him to much more gently suggest this to the were-wolfspider. And if it heeded him, Hent would use what he had learned in healing Elyse to destroy the computer.
Jeyolin turned to look at him, blinking all eight brown eyes rapidly. Then it leapt for the tentacle holding Elyse, transforming in midair from a spider to a tiny wolf.
Projecting gratitude at Jeyolin, Hent whipped up his wings, rising a full inch off the ground, watching for an opportunity to dart in and catch his sister.
Then his gratitude turned to confusion as he realized Jeyolin’s leap wouldn’t take it high enough to distract the tentacle. And then to horror when he realized it was knocking the jequirity potions out of Elyse’s arms. The way she’d locked eyes with him, he knew she was directing Jeyolin with her own much stronger empathetic telepathy.
The taste of copper filled Hent’s mouth and he sprang anyway.
He met the bottles midair and grabbed at them, twisting to redirect his flight and slow himself down so he wouldn’t slam bodily into the computer’s guts. He tore the tops off the bottles and flung them towards the bloated box.
He narrowed his focus, stilled his breath, until his wings seemed to whip once per thousand heartbeats, and he could name every scent in the air in his lungs, and Hent held his breath and willed both the jequirity and the power of the witch’s curse upon his family to DESTROY THE COMPUTER.
The potions vanished into the cobwebs and moss and mold colonies. As if stirred by an internal breeze, the computer’s internal forest fluttered outward and then lay still.
And promptly collapsed into delicate ash.
The tentacle shriveled, flopping like a deflating balloon. Luckily, Hent’s instincts had him reaching for Elyse in time to catch her wrist and keep her from breaking a limb. He lowered them both down and they watched with Jeyolin as the computer’s insides withered and died.
“That was awful,” Elyse whispered, when it was over.
Hent fought the urge to throw up again. He looked down at his hands, noticing they were angular and straining with stress; he balled them into fists and tucked them against his hips.
Elyse touched his arm. He almost recoiled, but stopped himself when he registered how it would look to her.
“I’m sorry you were ashamed—I mean, that you felt shame on my behalf, deartháir.”
The gentle rephrasing soothed the long-suffering burn in Hent’s soul.
Then Elyse drew herself up to her full height, which was at least half an inch over Hent.
“Now, please, for the love of all the gods who dance in the flame and the river and the wind… Never do something that stupid again.”
February 11, 2019: Clean Out Your Computer Day
Image of Hent by the talented AlexVonT! Circuitboard found on Wikimedia.