Fahrenheit 52

A Hard Place

Callan knew this place. Rock-World, he'd named it when describing his recurring dream to his parents years ago. A place with nothing but sand-colored rocks, a trickling turquoise stream, and a cloudless blue sky. There were no birds or plants or creatures, even the ground was made of tiny rocks. He now realized it was the lack of insect-sounds that really kept things quiet here.

Except for the winds. He remembered that this place he'd play and explore for hours or days at a time would sometimes grow loud and frightening, with terrible winds howling through the crater. Callan cowered in a crevice until the winds stopped or he woke up.

He'd breathlessly recount the dreams to his parents, who seemed interested at first, then concerned. Doctors and psychologists and all sorts of professors at the university nodded as Callan patiently described Rock-World to them again and again. Covered in probes and sensors, he'd watch charts and multi-meters spike when he explained the windstorms, as his parents frowned.

Then the dreams stopped and Callan forgot the Rock-World. He grew up. He read economics at uni, fell in love, and then fell out of love. He returned home to Glastonbury and became a teacher at the local secondary school. When his father died of a heart attack in April not long after his mother's passing, Callan gave up his flat and moved into his parents' home after receiving it in the estate.

Coldfast, they'd called the three-story stone and mortar building. It felt different now. Not smaller, the way homes do when you return from your first year away at boarding school. But draftier. Callan felt swallowed by Coldfast.

He knew could never live here, but he wasn't ready to sell his mother's ancestral home, so he resolved to set it up as an Airbnb or VRBO or one of those "rent an English manor" websites. It was close enough to the Tor that the Avalon-hunters might be interested. Callan systematically cleared Coldfast, room by room, filling a dumpster twice in a month. It was easier this way. Callan kept the doorway to the garden open and he found himself playing once again at his mother's piano.

By June he was nearly ready for renters. But one room remained.

His father's study; a forbidden place to Callan as a child. Even now, he steered away from its door. He knew how it would smell: smoke, cologne, parchment. Callan imagined his father was still in there, pouring over some text or computer program well into the evening hours. For nearly two months, Callan left his father undisturbed. But then Callan grew angry. He walked up the oak staircase and put his hand on the cool doorknob and turned it. The hinges squealed.

His father's study was empty.

No, ransacked, he realized. Someone had been in here, looking for something. Callan's neck chilled. All of his father's bookshelves were cleared, with books and paintings strewn about on the carpet, and the desk toppled over.

When had this happened, he wondered. Surely not while he was staying here. It must have been the week of the funeral, when things were still uncertain. Who could have done this, and why? Crime was minimal in the area, and it didn't look like anything had been stolen. None of the other rooms in the house had been torn apart. Just this one.

He thought about calling the police, but held back. A police report might be visible on property searches. It was bad enough he'd have to tick off that someone died on the premises when he went to sell the place. Callan thought back to his father's business associates. Could one of them have done this? A professional rivalry? Did anyone say anything to him, act strange, at the service?

With these questions racing through his head, Callan steadily cleaned the mess, returning books to their shelves, flipping the brushed-metal desk to its feet. When he picked up a copy of Boswell, a 3.5 inch floppy disk fell into his hand. Callan opened the book, horrified to discover that the pages had been hollowed out with a penknife, containing five other floppy disks inside. This was a first-edition of Life of Samuel Johnson, which might be worth more than the house itself, now mutilated and worthless. But it was the labels on the disks that shocked Callan into a stupor:

Rock-World III

Rock-World IV

And so on. The name was familiar and lay just out of reach in his mind, like the still-photo memories of his grandfather's retirement party.

Callan took the book with the disks to his father's desk. He returned the Apple Macintosh SE/30 computer from the floor to its spot on the desk, relieved to see that its screen had not been shattered in the fall. He plugged its power cable into the wall, connected the yellowed Apple Extended Keyboard II to the back of the computer, and then daisy-chained the single-button mouse to the keyboard. He instinctively reached around the left-hand side of the machine and flicked on its power switch. The friendly chime and the smiling Mac icon did nothing to lower his heartrate. Callan could not find a disk titled Rock-World I, so he inserted the one labeled Rock-World II into the Mac's floppy disk slot. The computer gurgled and soon a little floppy disk icon appeared on the grey-speckled desktop. Callan double-clicked it and gasped as the Finder listed hundreds of SimpleText files, dated as journal entries.

Callan clicked into one:


Added cellular automata logic to the core stone models. C immediately noticed the change "The rocks are moving now, Father." Finally, something encouraging on the re-animation front, which has long eluded our grasp.

Callan opened another file at random:


Automata algorithm requires fine-tuning. However, I'm reluctant to abandon this iteration. Instead, will deploy another world generation. "They have legs now. The rock-snakes are walking. We played a game together." I should be encouraged. Something is indeed going well. This is the first time in months that I've felt this way. A is concerned for the boy, but we're so close now.

Callan pushed away from the desk.

What was this?

What had his father done to him? Some kind of experiment? Callan reached back to the moue and clicked the arrow in the Finder window as a year's worth of log entries scrolled by. Then he saw a different file type, with a rough hexagon icon.


Callan double-clicked it. The screen turned white, then flashed so brightly that Callan covered his eyes as it blinded him.

When he opened them again, he was here, the place he was told by his parents and doctors and psychologists wasn't real.

But it was. It all was.

Rock-World was real.

Callan howled. He laughed, finally vindicated, and his cries echoed across the rock crater. He ran through the hollow surrounding the stream, remembering every square inch of the place, every rock, every crevice. His rock towers and little rock castles were still here, undisturbed.

Something came to him. Callan sat on the ground near the turqoise creek and placed six farthing-sized rocks in a line. He tapped each of them with his pointer finger. The line of stones began to wiggle. Then it looked at him. He'd made a rock-snake.

He did it again.

The two snakes now followed his footsteps. Then Callan arranged more stones into the shape of a little person, with arms and legs and tiny rock head. The rock-person sat up and jumped into the stream, splashing Callan. They played together for a while, with the snakes following them, until the rock-person froze. The two snakes slithered into small crevices, and the rock-person tried to follow them. When it realized that it couldn't fit, the rock-person shivered until it collapsed into a pile of lifeless pebbles.

Callan was fascinated. He tried reassembling the stones, but they stubbornly refused to reanimate.

The crunch sound came quickly, right as the shadow fell over the crater. Callan peered up and saw the hundred-foot rock creature stomping towards him. He fell back, scrambling like a fiddler crab on the loose rocks, searching for a crevice.

The winds came.

Callan reached a familiar hiding hole and slid into it on his back. The crunching stomps continued until they didn't.

The giant was here now. Looking for him, Callan knew.

From deep inside the crevice, Callan cried out his father's name. But the winds swallowed his voice.