The sun shone down on the small parched town, snatching moisture from all but the most resilient life forms. One such life form reclined comfortably on chair in her back yard, muttering various insults at a rather uncooperative laptop.
“Okay, now just click here- ack, no, what the-!?”
A loud error-tone bleeped through the dry air, followed by an exceptionally irritated noise from the laptop’s owner.
“Blast you, you stupid thing, work!”
A few more frustrated keystrokes later, and the laptop was roughly shut off and stowed in a sturdy laptop case.
“Forget this. I’ll just use the big one.”
The laptop was ditched shortly after she entered her frigid home. Her cat meowed lazily at her from its perch on a windowsill, received a pet for its trouble, and dozed off.
“All right, now, let’s check some e-mails.” She said as she settled down in front of the desktop.
There was the usual assortment of spam, though most of it seemed to be of the “send me your cash and I’ll forward you a million dollars from my account in Nigeria” ilk.
They were swiftly deleted. The e-mails from friends and family were given considerably more time. Just as she was about to log out, a message popped up.
“Postmaster says: HELLO, BETH.” She read. “Postmaster? Who the heck would that be?”
None of her friends or family members used that handle. She was ever wary of strangers attempting to IM her, and as this message didn’t match the format typical for her e-mail provider, she was particularly nervous.
When she tried to exit the messenger window, another popped up in its place.
“I KNOW THIS MUST BE A BIT BIZARRE, BUT PLEASE, LET ME EXPLAIN.”
“Fat chance!” She thought, exiting the window yet again.
This time, she took extra measures to block the user. She nodded in satisfaction.
“Yeah, try to get me now, creep!”
Her eyes went wide when the window appeared yet again.
“YOU’RE JUST MAKING THIS TAKE LONGER. TIME IS A LUXURY WE CAN’T AFFORD.”
“All right, fine!” She muttered. “You wanna talk, I’ll give ya something to talk about!”
“I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care. Stop bothering me!” She typed tersely.
“OH, YES, HOW RUDE OF ME. I AM THE POSTMASTER.”
“Yeah, and I’m the Tooth Fairy. Now quit trying to talk to me or I’ll report you.”
“YOU CAN’T REPORT ME. I’M THE ONE THAT MANAGES THE REPORTS. NOW, WILL YOU PLEASE LISTEN? I’M BEING QUITE COURTEOUS, GIVEN THE TIME CRUNCH.”
Beth clicked a few icons, ready and willing to turn the computer off.
“Give me one good reason not to shut you off right now.”
“WELL, STUBBORN, STUBBORN. ALL RIGHT, I’LL TRY TO GIVE YOU SUFFICIENT REASON TO LISTEN TO ME. YOU COULD EASILY SAY THAT I’M JUST SOME HACKER. BUT IF I WERE A HACKER, WHY WOULD I BE SPENDING MY TIME ON PLEASANTRIES? SURELY IT WOULD MAKE FAR MORE SENSE TO JUST GET IN, SNATCH YOUR DATA, AND GET OUT. I COULD JUST BE ONE OF YOUR FRIENDS TRYING TO PULL AN ELABORATE GAG. BUT, YOU KNOW YOUR FRIENDS. WOULD ANY OF THEM TRY TO PULL SOMETHING LIKE THIS?”
Beth paused to think. “No…probably not. But I still don’t think you’re the Postmaster.”
“I CAN PROVIDE PROOF. NAME ANY E-MAIL YOU’VE EVER TYPED. I CAN PROCURE A COPY.”
Beth smiled. She kept almost all of the e-mails from friends and family. She had thousands of them. Any prankster would be left high and dry trying to pin down one in particular.
“Okay, I’ll play your little game. Find the one I sent my best friend in sixth grade when we were worried about not having lockers next to each other in middle school.”
She waited hardly a moment before a window popped up, bearing the exact message she had described.
“Whoa.” She muttered.
It was looking like she would have to believe that the Postmaster really was the Postmaster, or at least not a common hacker or prankster.
“Okay, I’m listening.”
Normally, her overly cautious nature would have dictated an immediate log-off, and would have left her paranoid to check her e-mails for days, or even weeks, after. But something about the Postmaster seemed trustworthy, almost familiar.
“WELL, ABOUT TIME. NOW, LET ME EXPLAIN WHY I BURST IN ON YOUR E-MAIL SESSON. I HAVE BEEN OBSERVING YOU FOR SOME TIME. YOUR INTERNET ACTIVITY SUGGEST A PERSON OF UNIQUE CHARACTER, SOMEONE THAT COULD BE RELIED ON FOR…UNUSUAL MISSIONS.”
“DON’T INTERRUPT. AS I WAS SAYING, YOU SEEM TO BE SOMEONE I COULD RELY ON FOR UNUSUAL MISSIONS. NOW- WELL, THIS IS ACTUALLY A BIT EMBARRASSING. AS POSTMASTER, I AM IN CHARGE OF ALL THE E-MAILS, AND VARIOUS OTHER MESSAGES AND THE LIKE. AS YOU ARE NO DOUBT AWARE, THERE HAS BEEN A STEADY INFLUX OF SPAM AND CHAIN LETTERS.”
“I SAID DON’T INTERRUPT. NOW, IN AND OF ITSELF, THIS ISN’T SUCH A TERRIBLE PROBLEM. THERE ARE RELIABLE DEBUNKERS SPREAD ACROSS THE INTERNET TO COMBAT THEM. IN THEIR DIGITAL FORM, THEY ARE, RELATIVELY SPEAKING, HARMLESS.”
“MY, MY, YOU DO SEEM TO HAVE TROUBLE FOLLOWING ORDERS.”
“Hey, what, I’m not allowed to be curious?”
“AS I WAS SAYING…IN THEIR DIGITAL FORM, THEY CAN DO NO PHYSICAL DAMAGE. THIS IS WHERE I NEED YOUR HELP. AS A DIGITAL ENTITY, I CAN’T ENTER THE PHYSICAL WORLD. I NEED AGENTS TO ASSIST ME.”
“Ah-ha! And now’s when you’re gonna ask me for a cash advance to help hire or train or whatever these ‘agents’, yeah?”
“WHAT? WELL, I SUPPOSE YOUR SUSPICION IS WHY I CHOSE YOU TO BEGIN WITH. YOU NEED NOT PAY A CENT. I WILL COVER ANY EXPENSES.”
“And if you’re digital, how do you have money to pay, eh?”
Had the Postmaster been speaking, he would have uttered a rather exasperated sigh.
“I HAVE CONNECTIONS. DON’T WORRY YOURSELF. IT’S ENTIRELY LEGAL, I ASSURE YOU.”
“All right, so let’s say I buy all of this. What exactly is my job?”
“I WAS GETTING TO THAT BEFORE YOU INTERRUPTED ME. AS I WAS SAYING, I NEED AGENTS IN THE PHYSICAL WORLD. I HAVE SELECTED YOU FOR YOUR INNATE CAUTION, INTELLIGENCE, MORALITY, AND TENACITY. YOU WILL BE PLACED WITH A PARTNER, NATURALLY. I CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE THE FEW AGENTS I HAVE. YOU TWO WILL WORK ON WHATEVER MISSION I ASSIGN YOU. THESE MISSIONS ARE TO CHASE DOWN CHAINS AND HOAXES IN THE PHYSICAL WORLD.”
“Wait a sec- what?”
“AS CHAINS AND HOAXES HAVE BEEN INCREASING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD, THERE HAVE BEEN- UNSETTLING REPORTS OF CERTAIN ONES MANIFESTING IN THE PHYSICAL WORLD.”
“Just what are you trying to say here?”
“THEY’RE BECOMING REALITY.”
“And…you want ME to stop them?”
“NOT JUST YOU, REMEMBER. YOU’LL HAVE A PARTNER- AND I HAVE JUST THE AGENT IN MIND…”
“Don’t I get a say in this?”
“NO. IF YOU ACCEPT MY INVITATION, YOU WILL BEGIN WORK IMMEDIATELY.”
“YES. THAT SHOULDN’T BE A PROBLEM FOR YOU. YOU WILL STILL HAVE TIME TO WORK ON YOUR LITERATURE.”
Beth was silent for a long while, mulling over what the Postmaster had said. If any of this was true, could she afford not to help? But if it were a hoax, who knew what could happen to her? She passed the question around her mind so many times it began to lose its original shape. If it were true, she couldn’t waste time trying to riddle it out. She would need to help immediately. But what if, what if was false? And then again, what if it wasn’t? She often found herself in similar predicaments, a consequence of her continually over-thinking situations.
Before she knew what she was doing, she had typed her response.
She waited patiently at the tarmac, attempting to quell some last-minute doubts. Her house was in order for her short trip. Food was left for the cat, the doors and windows locked, the sprinklers set to automatic, every light-switch off. She tried to think of anything she had forgotten, perhaps to give herself an excuse to back out of what reason tried to convince her was a fool’s errand.
She shook her head. “Shut up in there.” She muttered. “Just don’t think about it. Don’t think about anything.”
So absorbed was she in thinking about not thinking that she didn’t notice the small private jet land. A person disembarked, entered a small cart, and drove toward her.
“Beth?” He called out.
Beth started. “Huh?”
“Are you Beth?” He repeated.
“Yeah.” She said quietly.
Strangers made her nervous, and she was already on tenterhooks as it was.
“Hop in. You can put your bag in the back.”
Beth complied numbly. They drove to the jet in relative silence, the driver glancing at her curiously a few times.
“Ever been to China before?” He asked when they reached the jet.
Beth shook her head. “Nope.”
“Know any Chinese?”
He laughed. “Well, have fun anyway.”
Beth frowned suddenly. She, the one who always worried about every possible contingency, had never thought that she didn’t know a word of Chinese. What if her partner didn’t either?
A new assortment of worries assailed her as she claimed her pack and climbed the stairs to the plane. She smiled as she stepped aboard.
“Well, well, isn’t this posh!” She said.
The plane was tastefully bedecked with luxurious fabrics and woods, and possessed a distinctly secure feel. She slid her suitcase into an overhead compartment that was, for once, actually large enough to contain anything other than a purse. She settled down in one of only six chairs, and looked out the window to pass time.
A startled snore caused her to jump in her seat, nearly smacking her head. She looked around the cabin nervously, seeing a tiny man curled up in a seat near the back. She had overlooked him entirely when she entered the cabin.
Could this be her partner? She looked at him carefully. He couldn’t be over four-foot-six. His skin was the color of caramel, and had a worn parchment-like look to it. He had a messy shock of black hair, and big ears that stuck out to the side.
She shook her head. Wouldn’t do her any good to think about it now. He was asleep, anyway. She tapped her feet as she waited for the pilot to make some kind of announcement that they were leaving soon. At length, an announcement was made, but not the kind she had expected.
“WELCOME ABOARD, BETH.” It was a sharp, analytical voice, almost like a simulation of a real voice.
She frowned. “Hello?” She said, attempting to sound polite, instead of perplexed.
“OH, EXCUSE ME. IT IS THE POSTMASTER. I HAD FORGOTTEN THAT YOU NEVER HEARD ME SPEAK.”
“So you can talk?” She asked.
“YES, INDEED I CAN. WHEN IT SUITS ME. NOW, WAKE NOU. I WISH TO BREIF YOU BEFORE TAKEOFF.”
“So he is my partner.” Beth thought. “Uh, Nou?” She called out. “Hey! Hey, wake up! Postmaster wants to talk to you!”
His eyes snapped open and he sat up so swiftly he nearly fell out of his chair. “What? What Postmaster want Nou for? Time for take-off?”
“ALMOST. I HAVE A FEW THINGS TO SAY FIRST. I UNDERSTAND THAT JOINING ME WAS A LEAP OF FAITH, FOR BOTH OF YOU. I WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND HOW GRATEFUL I AM. NOW, ON TO BUSINESS. ALL EITHER OF YOU KNOW IS WHERE WE ARE GOING: CHINA. BUT FOR WHAT PURPOSE? IT IS YOUR MISSION TO STOP THE CHINESE TREE OF LIFE ANIMAL CARVINGS FROM COMING TO LIFE. MARS WILL APPEAR AS LARGE AS THE FULL MOON ON AUGUST 27TH. THE COSMIC REPRECUSSIONS OF THIS EVENT WILL CAUSE THE CARVINGS TO COME TO LIFE, IF YOU CAN’T STOP IT.”
“How we stop it?” Nou asked.
The Postmaster hesitated. “I AM UNSURE. BUT REST ASSURED, I WILL NOT REST UNTIL I KNOW.”
“Oh, that’s great.” Beth thought sarcastically. “Oh, why did I do this? I have no idea what I’m doing! Oh, this is gonna be bad..."
“Nou can’t wait! Nou not let Postmaster down!”
Beth frowned as she looked over at Nou. How was he so certain this would work out?
He looked over at her, smiled, and gave her a thumbs-up. Beth returned the thumbs-up somewhat unenthusiastically.
“NOW, I SUGGEST YOU GET SOME REST. IT’S A LONG FLIGHT, AND YOUR MISSION WILL BE TRYING. TO SAY THE LEAST…”
The Postmaster had sent them to a rather nice hotel, where, conveniently, the employees spoke fluent English.
“Remind me to pick up some Mandarin for the next time we’re in China.” Beth drawled.
“Okay! Nou remind.” He chirped happily.
Beth shook her head. “Okay, we have time to get our stuff settled, and then we have to pick up some wilderness packs for our- eh, mission.”
Nou nodded. “Yes! Nou be ready fast. Beth be ready?”
“I hope so.” She muttered.
“No worry.” Nou said with a reassuring smile. “Nou and Beth have Postmaster. Postmaster not let us down.”
Beth wanted to ask him how he was so sure, but she resisted. At any rate, they had reached the rooms. They were across the hall from each other.
“Okay. See you in about half an hour.”
“Nou be ready! See soon!”
Beth slid her card key and entered the room. For some reason, she had always loved hotel rooms. The smell, the ambience- it was bizarre, but they made it feel like little bits of home. She dropped her suitcase in the corner and sat down on the bed.
“What the heck am I doing here?” She muttered. “This is insane. This is beyond insane. A computer told me it was the Postmaster. I believed it. It told me chain letters were coming to life. I believed it. It told me to come to China. I’m in China. This is crazy. I’m crazy. And how does Nou know that the Postmaster is for real?” She shook her head. “I’m gonna give myself an ulcer worrying about this.”
She stood, got a glass of water, and tried to prepare herself for the adventure.
Beth adjusted the straps of her pack nervously and checked the hand-held guidance system meant to lead them to the Tree of Life. “I love a good hike and all,” She began. “But not in weather like this. This place is humid as heck. How do we know this guider- thingy won’t short out?”
“Nou like it! Nou feel like Nou drinking air!” He slurped in a breath of air to prove his point.
“Yeah, well, I like my air thin and dry.” Beth replied. “I’m used to way higher elevation than this.” She shrugged. “Whatever. Let’s disco.”
Beth tromped into the jungle, slashing at the dense growth with a Postmaster-provided machete.
“Blast these stupid bugs!” She snapped, alternating between swatting insects and slashing jungle.
“Nou not have problem.” Nou said. “Beth use bug spray?”
“Yes, I used bug spray! These things just like to eat me!”
Nou giggled. “Beth taste good, then? Tree of life creatures want eat someone, eat Beth first!”
Beth frowned incredulously at Nou. “Why, you little stink!” She said. “You just watch yourself, punk. I have the machete, remember?”
Nou giggled again. “Oooh, Nou terrified!”
The lighthearted kidding helped ease the mood, and passed the time pleasantly. When nightfall came, the two settled on a suitable place for camp. Beth attempted to set up the tents as Nou gathered wood for fire.
“And just stick that there- done!” Beth stepped away from the two tents, proudly admiring her handiwork. “Now where has Nou gotten off to?”
An ear-piercing scream answered her.
“Snake!” Nou yelped, bursting into the clearing. “Big snake! Try eat Nou!” He deposited a large pile of sticks on the ground before hugging himself reassuringly.
“Not funny!” Nou said, shuddering. “Beth get almost eaten, Nou not laugh!”
“Okay, okay, I won’t laugh at-” Beth let out a yelp of her own as a massive spider crawled over her foot.
She stumbled backward swiftly, violently kicking the spider away. As she stumbled away, her foot caught on a root; she fell rather unceremoniously into her tent, smashing it into a bizarre lump.
Nou chased after the spider until it was well out of the camp. “Spider stay out! Partner not for dinner!” He shouted after it.
He trotted over to Beth and helped her up. “Nou fix tent. Beth start fire? Nou forget how.”
Beth nodded. “Sounds fair.”
She arranged the sticks and tinder, and cautiously started the fire. It had been a long while since her last camping trip. She was amazed she could start the fire at all. Once it was going strong, Beth turned to check on Nou’s progress. He had someone managed to tangle himself in some flaps and cords, and was laboriously extricating himself.
She smiled and laughed quietly. When Nou finally got the tent back to its former glory, he plopped down on a log next to the fire.
“Nou beat. What for dinner?”
“Well,” Beth began, sifting through her pack. “It appears to be…” She frowned and squinted at the package in her hand. “Freeze-dried chicken tetrazzini?”
Dinner had been an adventure in and of itself, as the two attempted to make something somewhat palatable out of a blob of freeze-dried gunk.
After a gummy meal, they retired to their respective tents. Beth had difficulty getting to sleep, to say the least. The jungle was alive with the noises of insects and other unidentifiable creatures. But one noise rang out above them all: Nou’s cacophonous snoring. At length, she drowsed off.
It seemed only a few minutes had passed when Nou woke her with the call: “Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey!”
Beth stirred groggily, rubbed her eyes, and exited the tent. Nou had indeed cooked something, though whether or not it was really eggs and bacon remained to be seen. She peered down at the concoction sitting moodily in Nou’s frying pan.
“What is it?” She asked. “Smells like…” She sniffed the air tentatively. “Pancakes?”
“Package say: crepes.”
Breakfast was considerably tastier than dinner. Soon after, camp was packed up, and the pair headed deeper into the jungle.
As night fell the second time, Beth looked up at the sky anxiously.
“Okay, Postmaster said he would tell us how to beat this thing. It’s August 27th, and we’ve got nothing. How are we supposed to beat hundreds of live carvings?”
Nou shrugged. “Nou not know. But it work out.”
“How come you trust the Postmaster so much? I mean, I just met the guy…program…whatever he is.”
Nou smiled. “Postmaster good guy! What else need to know?”
Beth sighed. “It’s not that easy. I still have my doubts. What’s really going on here? He hasn’t exactly given me much to go on.”
Nou stopped and looked Beth straight in the eyes. “Postmaster give you enough. When Postmaster ready, Postmaster tell more. That how Postmaster is. Not easy get to know.”
Beth nodded. “I see…”
They continued on in relative silence until they broke through the jungle into a massive clearing. Squatting at the other end was their quarry: a gargantuan tree, riddled with animal carvings. Beth tightened her grip on the machete. She doubted hacking through jungle had given her much experience in wielding in, but at least she had something.
Nou let out a loud whistle. “Wow! That thing big!”
“To say the least…” Beth muttered. She studied the tree. The carvings seemed perfectly inanimate. “Maybe we got here before the things due for its change.” She mused.
Nou nodded. “Nou hope so. Nou see giant snake on tree! Snake bad…”
“Let’s get a closer look.” Beth said, leading the way.
Her hands had begun to sweat, and they trembled as they grasped the hilt of the weapon. Every step closer to the tree made her heart beat faster; every second the tree remained still, her nerves frayed further. When was it going to happen? At least then she would have something tangible to focus on.
She wouldn’t have to wait long. As the pair made their way to the tree, Mars crept over the edge of the trees, drenching the clearing in reddish light. A drawn out crunch stopped Beth dead in her tracks. She looked up at the tree, eyes flicking frantically from one carving to the next.
She searched in silence for a few minutes. It was the silence that made her uneasy. Where was the creature? Or had she imagined it? It was then she realized that Nou too was uncharacteristically silent.
“What’s the matter, Nou? Snake got your tongue?” She turned with a dry smile, but what she saw drove any and all mirth from her.
The crunch had been the sound of the massive snake Nou saw freeing itself from the tree. That snake was now curling itself tighter and tighter around Nou, who, at the sight of Beth supposedly coming to his rescue, managed to make a hopeful squeak.
“Nou-?” She began falteringly.
A sudden resolution dawned on her. There was no time to waste.
“Hands off the partner, scale-belly!” Beth snapped, lunging forward and hacking at the snake.
It snarled and hissed, and tightened its grip on Nou even further.
Beth scowled. She would have to change tactics. Before she could formulate a new plan, the snake shot out at her, knocking her to the ground. She fumbled for the machete, lost in her tumble. The snake hissed cruelly; it seemed to be laughing at her. It drew back its head to strike; Beth caught hold of the machete and smiled suddenly. She rolled aside just as the snake plunged its fangs into the soggy earth. It struggled in irritation, its fangs thoroughly lodged in a large root.
“Eat this, fang-face!” Beth slashed downward, severing the snake’s head.
The body went limp before exploding in a shower of sawdust. She rushed to Nou’s limp form.
“Hey, partner, wake up! Wake up!” She shouted, going so far as to lightly smack him.
Nou coughed and spluttered, but did not wake.
“Ah, man, I don’t know how to handle this kind of stuff!” Beth said.
She stabbed the machete into the ground and looped her arms under Nou’s. She dragged him off behind a large boulder and retrieved her machete.
“Where there’s one, there’s a whole hive full…” She said, grimly watching the carvings on the tree come to life.
She took a deep breath and tried to pretend she was only a character in a TV show, tried to pretend the animal carvings weren’t a real threat. For a moment or so, it worked. Until she remembered her unconscious partner.
“It’s just me.” She said quietly. “Well, all right then.”
Of the new carvings writhing to life, it was a massive monkey that noticed her first. It howled and hooted jubilantly and scampered over to her. She eyed it warily. The monkey didn’t seem to have hostile intentions, like its slithery comrade. When it reached out a paw to touch her, she took an instinctive step back. It seemed this act was the catalyst. The monkey shrieked and howled, and leapt at her.
She held up the blade and scrunched up her eyes. A blast of sawdust powdered into her face. She opened her eyes cautiously.
“Dang monkey impaled itself.” She said, almost disbelieving her stroke of luck.
She ran back to Nou’s shelter before another creature could spot her.
“Okay, Postmaster said he would help. He hasn’t. I can’t keep fighting these things off until morning. Heck, at the rate they’re going, I don’t even know if can hold them off for an hour.”
She peaked around the boulder, her fears realized. At least fifty creatures had come to life. They wandered aimlessly, as though without purpose, though they never strayed far from the tree.
Beth frowned thoughtfully. “Wait a second…if they need to be near the tree, which would make sense, then…then all I need to do is wait for morning. And hope none of them spot me…’cause if they do, it’s bye-bye Beth and Nou.”
She shook her head. Something about so simple a solution seemed far too easy. But, at the moment, it was all she had. She settled down for a long night of guarding and battling if necessary.
“Beth! Beth wake up now!”
Beth snorted in surprise as she woke, sitting up quickly and brandishing her machete.
Nou laughed. “Beth not worry! Carvings gone!”
Beth stood and stretched, looking over Nou before looking around the boulder. Nou was right. The carvings had all taken their old positions.
“That was too easy.” Beth muttered to herself. “Way too easy. Something here stinks…” She turned to Nou. “You feel all right? That snake gave you quite the work-over.”
“Oh, it hurt to laugh, and to breath, and to talk, but Nou be alright! Nou just bruised. And tired. Nou want go back to hotel. Nou want sleep without bugs and snakes.”
Beth nodded. “Well, that’s one thing we both agree on. Let’s go.”
As they departed, she cast a lingering glance over her shoulder. “It couldn’t be that easy…it couldn’t possibly be that easy.”
The thought plagued her as they made the long trek back to the drop-off point on the fringe of the jungle. It plagued her once safe in her hotel room, on the flight back, and as she tiredly dropped her suitcase in her living room and collapsed on the couch.
She was about to doze off on a rare nap when the doorbell rang. She sighed impatiently, stood, and headed for the door. When she peered through the window, she saw nothing but a package. Beth frowned.
“I didn’t order anything.” She muttered, opening the door and retrieving the mysterious box.
The label had no return address, simply a note: “This will explain it all.”
She scowled instinctively. “Postmaster!”
She took the package to the privacy of her living room before tearing it open. Inside was a small tablet-like device. She ran her hand over it, examining it. She nearly dropped it when it beeped cheerily and started up on its own.
“OH, I DO APOLOGIZE. THE DEVICE IS SET TO RESPOND TO YOUR GENETIC CODE. YOU CAN FINETUNE ITS EXACT FUNCTION PATTERNS LATER.”
“What the heck are you talking about?” She blurted out.
A small icon sat proudly in the center of the screen, pulsating whenever the Postmaster spoke. It seemed to be some sort of interface.
“THIS IS HOW I WILL CONTACT YOU FROM HERE ON OUT.” He hesitated, and when he spoke again, a somewhat unsure note was in his voice. “I CAN COUNT ON YOU FOR OTHER MISSIONS, YES?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t really call that wild goose chase you sent me on a mission.” Beth drawled.
The Postmaster sighed. “ALLOW ME TO EXPLAIN. I KNEW THAT THE TREE OF LIFE’S CARVINGS WOULD COME TO LIFE. I ALSO KNEW- THAT THEY WOULDN’T LEAVE THE CLEARING. IF THEY STRAYED TOO FAR FROM THE TREE, THEY WOULD COLLAPSE INTO A PILE OF SAWDUST.”
“So why the heck did you send us out there, then?”
“I NEEDED TO BE SURE I COULD TRUST YOU.”
Beth regarded the screen flatly. “This was all a TEST?!” She snapped. “You sent me half-way around the world to TEST me? I nearly got scrapped- Nou nearly got eaten by a giant snake! And all for what- so you could PROVE me? Look here, pally, when I sign onto something, I follow through with it! You didn’t need to waste your precious time and resources proving me!”
“I KNOW HOW BAD THIS SOUNDS, BETH, BUT IF YOU WOULD LET ME EXPLAIN-”
“No, you know what, I’m done with this! I’m not gonna be some anonymous weirdo’s puppet! Goodbye forever, Postmaster, or whoever you really are!”
She scowled at the screen. “Yeah, yeah, how do you shut this thing off?”
“I’LL TELL YOU IF YOU LISTEN TO ME. ONLY FOR A MINUTE. THEN, IF YOU DECIDE I REALLY AM NOTHING MORE THAN AN EXTREMELY ELABORATE JOKE- I’LL LEAVE YOU BE. YOU’LL NEVER RECEIVE ANOTHER MESSAGE FROM ME AGAIN.”
Beth frowned. “Fine. But you only have one minute.”
“I’LL TALK FAST. I THOUGHT YOU WERE TRUSTWORTHY, IN FACT, I WAS ALMOST POSITIVE. IN A DIFFERENT TIME, I NEVER WOULD HAVE TESTED YOU. BUT TIMES HAVE CHANGED- I DON’T KNOW WHO I CAN TRUST TO BE MY AGENTS ANYMORE. THIS TEST ALLOWED ME TO MEASURE SEVERAL KEY TRAITS I WOULD NEED IN AN AGENT: DETERMINATION, QUICK THINKING, LOYALTY, AND COURAGE. YOU PROVED EXCEPTIONAL IN ALL CATEGORIES.”
Beth scoffed. “Shows what you know! I was scared spitless.”
“DON’T INTERRUPT. AS I WAS SAYING, YOU PASSED MY TEST WITH FLYING COLORS. IF YOU ACCEPT, I WOULD BE MORE THAN WILLING TO HAVE YOU AS AN AGENT.”
She stared at the screen as she thought. Minutes passed in strained silence, and, at length, the Postmaster broke the uneasy quiet.
“HAVE YOU MADE YOUR DECISION?”
Beth sighed. “I must have a glitch or something. I’m in.”
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