Orbs of Madjourney is the name of the game; an immersive journey into the unknown, triggered by the mystical Orbs. Inside the game, the players are challenged through their avatars Zaraloon, Yasminowl, Youssefbear and Xavimunk to discover their inner quirks in the Land of Quirks, meet with colourful people, travel to whimsical place, all holding hints and clues able to unlock their next adventure. But the Game seems to know more about them than they do…
Zara, Yasmin, Youssef and Xavier are four friends living across the globe yet connected though their past, and the new mania around the Game.
Zara the well-off world traveller is propelled as an unwitting leader, Yasmin the discreet aspiring actress stumbles into an old family secret at the family Inn they’re staying, Xavier the developer struggles with his work on Artificial Life (AL) and hopes for a break-through, Youssef a professional blogger hopes for exciting new discoveries while taking a break between professional trips from his work at The BLOG with his demanding boss.
As the game occurrences starts bleeding into their realities, the four of them join for a journey in Australia, where they must join forces to decipher clues and find new meaning bridging their real and virtual lives.
So the Story goes...
The four adventurers, Zara, Xavier, Yasmin, and Youssef, stood in awe in front of the giant orb that seemed to open up to another realm. The light emanating from the orb was so bright, it was as if the sun was just inches away. The stalactites that hung from the cave’s ceiling sparkled like diamonds in the light, adding to the otherworldly beauty of the scene.
“Look around,” Yasmin said, her voice filled with wonder. “Beauty is everywhere. You only have to look to see it.”
The group was ready for an adventure and they knew that the orb in front of them was the key to their mad journey. Xavier stepped forward and reached out to touch the orb. As soon as his fingers made contact with the surface, the orb lit up and a pathway formed, leading into the brightly lit realm.
The group stepped through the pathway and found themselves in a world unlike anything they had ever seen before. The sky was a vibrant shade of purple and the ground was covered in a lush, green grass. The orb they had just passed through was now behind them, but in front of them were smaller orbs, each one leading to a different path.
Xavier stepped forward and reached out to touch the orb. As soon as his fingers made contact with the surface, the orb lit up and a pathway formed, leading into the brightly lit realm.
They walked into a small village, where they were greeted by a group of people wearing clothes that looked like they were from the 1920s. The people told them that they were in the land of the “Quirks”, a place where everything and everyone was a little bit different, and that they had to find the “Key of Quirks” in order to leave the land.
The four friends, Zara, Xavier, Yasmin, and Youssef, soon found themselves on a mission to find the “Key of Quirks” that would allow them to leave the land of the Quirks. As they walked through a forest, they came across a fork in the road.
Yasmin, the brains of the group, replied, “I suggest we take the left path. According to the map I found, it leads to the Quirky Quests area, where we might find the key.”
Xavier, the joker of the group, chimed in, “I vote for the right path. It’s the road less traveled, and you know what they say, ‘the road less traveled is the road to adventure’ ”
Youssef, the muscle of the group, added, “I don’t care which way we go, I just want to find some food. I’m starving!”
Xavier grinned, “But Zaraloon, where’s the fun in that?”
Youssef nodded, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. That way, if we don’t find the key, at least we’ll have found some food.”
Xavier grinned, “Sounds like a plan, Xavimunk is ready for adventure!”
Zara shook her head with a smile, “Alright, let’s do this.”
The group split up, and as they walked away, they could be heard playfully bantering and joking with each other. Each one exemplifying their unique and distinct characters.
“They’re all so young and attractive…”
Yasmin chimed in “Could you add averagely attractive to the prompt? Oh hark at me! Moaning already!”
Xavier was glad at the break, and stretched his arms, leaning back against the chair. “Time for a bio-break guys, all this setting up is taking a lot of time.”
Youssef, who was connected via a stream, started to post emojis of food in the chat. He’d been obviously hungry for a while as usual.
“Ok guys,” said Zara sighing. “That’s settled for today then. Anyway, it’s pretty late for Youssef, let’s resume tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’ll be posting the characters concept art, but don’t hold your breath on that.”
Youssef came out of the Internet Cafe Yurt quite satisfied of himself but confused. It was already night time here and he felt hungry like a bear looking for honey. He smelled the scents of yak’s meat and followed the trail to the resto’yurt of the camp the production had settled in for the night. They were on a trip to make a documentary about the last surviving authentic shaman of Mongolia. They’d heard he was still alive and 125 years old. Of course, he was difficult to find and they’ve been looking for him for weeks.
Fortunately, they had good reception for him to stay in contact with his friends and play the new game with that AI generated storyline stuff. Youssef liked his character with the bear shirt, but he wouldn’t tell his friends that he hadn’t quite understood the concept of the game or of the quest. He was the kind of guy who liked having some explanations first and follow clear rules, have a little guidance. He smiled and performed two steps of breakdance, recalling one of Xavier’s joke about a little “guy dance”. His stomach growled as he approached the resto’yurt and the scent of food became stronger. The sounds of cheerful conversations in different languages welcomed him as he entered.
He’ll have plenty of time to think of the game in front a spicy smorlax fried and a bowl of sweet tsampa for dessert. He noticed an empty seat just near Rebbecca, a young intern that took care of Mme Landowski’s schedule. She was smiling and Youssef thought they could continue the conversation they started this morning about the type of guys she liked.EricKeymaster
“What in the good name of our Lady, have these two been on?” Miss Bossy was at a loss for words while Ricardo was waiting sheepishly at her desk, as though he was expecting an outburst.
“Look, Ricardo, I’m not against a little tweaking for newsworthiness, but this takes twisting reality to a whole new level!
Ricardo had just dropped their last article.
In a daring and heroic move, Nurse Trassie, a local hero and all-around fantastic human being, managed to track down and rescue three elderly women who had gone on an adventure of a lifetime. Sharon, Mavis, and Gloria (names may have been altered to preserve their anonymity) were residents of a UK nursing home who, in a moment of pure defiance and desire for adventure, decided to go off their meds and escape to the Nordics.
The three women, who had been feeling cooped up and underappreciated in their nursing home, decided to take matters into their own hands and embark on a journey to see the world. They had heard of the beautiful landscapes and friendly people of the Nordics and their rejuvenating traditional cures and were determined to experience it for themselves.
Their journey, however, was not without its challenges. They faced many obstacles, including harsh weather conditions and language barriers. But they were determined to press on, and their determination paid off when they were taken in by a kind-hearted local doctor who gave them asylum and helped them rehabilitate stray animals.
Nurse Trassie, who had been on the lookout for the women since their disappearance, finally caught wind of their whereabouts and set out to rescue them. She tracked them down to the Nordics, where she found them living in a small facility in the woods, surrounded by a menagerie of stray animals they had taken in and were nursing back to health, including rare orangutans retired from local circus.
Upon her arrival, Nurse Trassie was greeted with open arms by the women, who were overjoyed to see her. They told her of their adventures and showed her around their cabin, introducing her to the animals they had taken in and the progress they had made in rehabilitating them.
Nurse Trassie, who is known for her compassion and dedication to her patients, was deeply touched by the women’s story and their love for the animals. She knew that they needed to be back in the care of professionals and that the animals needed to be properly cared for, so she made arrangements to bring them back home.
The women were reluctant to leave their newfound home and the animals they had grown to love, but they knew that it was the right thing to do. They said their goodbyes and set off on the long journey back home with Nurse Trassie by their side.
The three women returned to their nursing home filled with stories to share, and Nurse Trassie was hailed as a hero for her efforts in rescuing them. They were greeted with cheers and applause from the staff and other residents, who were thrilled to have them back safe and sound.
Nurse Trassie, who is known for her sharp wit and sense of humor, commented on the situation with a tongue-in-cheek remark, “It’s not every day that you get to rescue three feisty elderlies from the wilds of the Nordics and bring them back to safety. I’m just glad I could be of service.”
In conclusion, the three women’s adventure in the Nordics may have been unorthodox, but it was an adventure nonetheless. They were able to see the world and help some animals in the process. Their story serves as a reminder to never give up on your dreams, no matter your age or circumstances. And of course, a big shoutout to Nurse Trassie for her heroic actions and dedication to her patients.
Bossy sighed. “It might do for now, but don’t let those two abuse the artificial intelligence to write article for them… I liked their old style better. This feels too… tidy. We’re not the A-News network, let’s not forget our purpose.”
Ricardo nodded. Miss Bossy had been more mellow since the sales of the newspaper had exploded during the pandemic. With people at home, looking for conspiracies and all, the newspaper had known a resurgence of interest, and they even had to hire new staff. Giles Gibber, Glimmer Gambol (came heavily recommended by Blithe, the PI friend of Hilda’s), Samuel Sproink and Fionna Flibbergibbet.
“And how is Sophie? That adventure into her past trauma was a bit much on her…” she mused.
“She’s doing alright” answered Ricardo. “She’s learning to hone her remote-viewing skills to send our staff into new mysteries to solve. With a bit of AI assist…”
“Oh, stop it already with your AI-this, AI-that! Hope there’ll still be room for some madness in all that neatly tidy purring of polite output.”
“That’s why we’re here for, I reckon.” Ric’ smiled wryly.
“I can’t play for a few days,” Zara announced firmly. “I’m doing real world stuff at the moment. I saw a cat up a tree that looked computer generated and I’m concerned about my mental health.”
“What only just now worried? Just this minute?” asked Xavier, managing to keep his face serious.
“Quirky Guests,” mused Yasmin.
The others looked at her.
“I didn’t mean to say that out loud,” she laughed putting a hand to her mouth. “It’s nothing really … it’s just that every time I looked at the map I thought it said quirky GUESTS.”
“Guest!” Zara’s face brightened. “Oh! Maybe guest is a clue … maybe it’s a bleed through from the Flying Fish Inn! You know, it wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL if the key was there.”
Xavier screwed up his face.
“What!” snapped Zara. “Go on, spit it out!”
Glimmer Gambol attempted to slip into the chat room unnoticed to eavesdrop, which was of course impossible. She’d been ready and waiting for her parts in the story almost since before the others were born.
“Well!” she said, “If you’re all off doing errands in the real world, I’ll make a start myself. Leave it to me!”
Youssef woke up with a hangover. The guy from the restaurant had put fermented horse milk in his yak butter tea and he was already drunk before he could realize it. Apparently it had been a joke played on him by some of the team members he suspected didn’t quite like the humour of his real life shirt collection. Especially the one with the man shouting at his newspaper on his toilets.
As soon as he had gotten out of the yurt, before he could go have some breakfast, his boss, Miss Tartiflate, pounced on him because there was something wrong with THE BLOG. And Youssef was the one in charge of it. And it was important because people in the world were expecting her posts about the shooting everyday. Truth is, since they couldn’t find the last Mongolian shaman, who apparently called himself Lama Yoneze, and the views had dropped dramatically. Youssef suspected Miss Tartiflate was not as ignorante as she wanted him to believe and had broken the blog on purpose so that her own boss wouldn’t accuse her of being lazy.
“I have a reputation, you know!”
She had said that looking like he didn’t have one, and nobody cared anyway.
Youssef looked at the clock on his phone. They were supposed to meet with Zara, Xavier and Yasmine in thirty minutes. He had tried to sort out THE BLOG problem, but nothing seemed to work, and time was running out. Despite all being ok on the admin console, nothing was showing up on the page. He had called Gang Thi, the Nepalese company in charge of the blog, three times. Each time the receptionist hang up on him while attempting to put him on hold, or so she said. Now, nobody even bother to answer the damn phone.
Miss Tartiflate passed her head between the curtains of the yurt.
“Are you finished yet ?” she asked that as if he was on the throne.
“What!? How? Do you have sausage fingers? My 5 years old daughter is more nimble than you with computers.”
“Well, you should have brought her with us then,” said Youssef with an irritated smile, fed up by her constant useless interruptions.
She grunted and closed the curtains angrily. Youssef growled like a bear, showing his bare teeth. Everybody knew why she jumped on the occasion for this trip: needed some fresh air from her nimble daughter and her husband.
An alert showed up on his phone : “You’ve got a message from 💣Gang Thi💣”. The bomb in the title looked suspicious, and his stomach growled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten this morning. He clicked to open it.
The face of a mummy looking like Darth Vader and laughing like the Joker jumped on his screen. After a few seconds a message started to appear in a tongue he couldn’t decipher.
Glimmer gave Zara and Yasmin a cheery , smirking to herself at their alarm at leaving her to her own devices. She had no intention of inviting guests yet, but felt no need to reassure them. Xavier would play along with her, she felt sure.
Glimmer settled herself comfortably to peruse the new AIorium Emporium catalogue with the intention of ordering some new hats and accessories for the adventure. She had always had a weakness for elaborate hats, but the truth was they were often rather heavy and cumbersome. That is until she found the AIorium hats which were made of a semi anti gravity material. Not entirely anti gravity, obviously, or they would have floated right off her head, but just enough to make them feel weightless. Once she’d discovered these wonderful hats and their unique properties, she had the idea to carry all her accessories, tools and devices upon her hat. This would save her the bother of carrying around bags of stuff. She was no light weight herself, and it was quite enough to carry herself around, let alone bags of objects.
Glimmer had heard a rumour (well not a rumour exactly, she had a direct line to ~ well not to spill the beans too soon, but she had some lines of information that the others didn’t know about yet) that the adventure was going to start at The Flying Fish Inn. This was welcome news to Glimmer, who had met Idle many years before when they were both teenagers. Yes, it’s hard to imagine these two as teenagers, but although they’d only met breifly on holiday, they’d hit it off immediately. Despite not keeping in contact over the years, Glimmer remembered Idle fondly and felt sure that Idle felt similarly.
Glimmer perused the catalogue for a suitable gift to take for her old friend. The delightful little bottles of spirited spirit essences caught her eye, and recalling Idle’s enthusiasm for an exotic tipple, she ordered several bottles. Perhaps Glimmer should have read carefully the description of the effects of the contents of each bottle but she did not. She immediately added the bottles to the new hat she’d ordered for the trip.
Feeling pleased with her selection, she settled down for a snooze until her new hat arrived.
“What the…..!” Youssef exclaimed, almost throwing his phone to the ground for a second time that morning. As if he wasn’t having enough trouble already without his phone sending him these messages. But then an idea occurred to him, and he had another look at it.
“Ah, now I see! Glimmer has intercepted the message from Gang Thi!” Youssef smiled for the first time that day. He still couldn’t decipher the strange script though, and wondered if it had been a mistake to not include her on the trip in the first place. He had thought her to be foolish and gaudy and not much practical use, but now he wasn’t so sure. He certainly hadn’t expected her to show up so soon, and in such an unexpected way.
Real-life Xavier was marveling at the new AL (Artificial Life) developments on this project he’d been working on. It’s been great at tidying the plot, confusing as the plot started to become with Real-life characters named the same as their Quirky counterparts ones.
Real-life Zara had not managed to remain off the computer for very long, despite her grand claims to the contrary. She’d made quick work of introducing a new player in the game, a reporter in an obscure newspaper, who’d seemed quirky enough to be their guide in the new game indeed. It was difficult to see if hers was a nickname or nom de plume, but strangely enough, she also named her own character the same as her name in the papers. Interestingly, Zara and Glimmer had some friends in common in Australia, where RL Zara was living at the moment.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Youssef was on his own adventure in Mongolia, trying to uncover the mystery of the Thi Gang. He had been hearing whispers and rumors about the ancient and powerful group, and he was determined to find out the truth. He had been traveling through the desert for weeks, following leads and piecing together clues, and he was getting closer to the truth.
Zara, Xavier, and Yasmin, on the other hand, were scattered around the world. Zara was in Australia, working on a conservation project and trying to save a group of endangered animals. Xavier was in Europe, working on a new project for a technology company. And Yasmin was in Asia, volunteering at a children’s hospital.
Despite being physically separated, the four friends kept in touch through video calls and messages. They were all excited about the upcoming adventure in the Land of the Quirks and the possibility of discovering their inner quirks. They were also looking forward to their trip to the Flying Fish Inn, where they hoped to find some clues about the game and their characters.
In the game, Glimmer Gambol’s interactions with the other characters will be taking place in the confines of the Land of the Quirks. As she is the one who has been playing the longest and has the most experience, she will probably be the one to lead the group and guide them through the game. She also has some information that the others don’t know about yet, and she will probably reveal it at the right time.
As the game and the real-world adventures are intertwined, the characters will have to navigate both worlds and find a way to balance them. They will have to use their unique skills and personalities to overcome challenges and solve puzzles, both in the game and in the real world. It will be an exciting and unpredictable journey, full of surprises and twists.
Youssef was talking with Xavier in a personal chat. He had called his friend for help, because he felt out of his league with the Thi Gang thing. Notifications from the other chat room where Zara and Yasmine were in an eye roll asking questions about the game kept distracting him from his work. There were currently 820 messages of backlog. That was insane. How could he ever catch up with that. He wondered how Xavier could manage the personal chat room with him, trying to solve techy problems, answer Zaraloon and Yasminowl’s questions, and god knows what else from his work at his tech company!
“I got an anonymous tip, said Miss Tartiflate dashing into the yurt, almost tearing the curtains off the top of the entrance. Lama Yoneze is in the Gobi dessert! We have to move quick if we want to catch him.”
“You mean desert…”
“Doesn’t matter. But what about THE BLOG? I can’t fix anything if I don’t have an internet connection. I have to stay at the camp.”
“In your dreams! I’ve got us jeeps with satellite internet connection. It’s expensive, but I’m worth it. You’ll do it on our way to the deezert.”
“Are you sick?” asked Miss Tartiflate.
“We found the Llama. Moving to the desert now. Jeep ride 🤮
Getting 😤 but feeling lucky I didn’t have time to eat any
Won’t barf up on the laptop. Not done with you yet!”
Zara was long overdue for some holiday time off from her job at the Bungwalley Valley animal rescue centre in New South Wales and the suggestion to meet her online friends at the intriguing sounding Flying Fish Inn to look for clues for their online game couldn’t have come at a better time. Lucky for her it wasn’t all that far, relatively speaking, although everything is far in Australia, it was closer than coming from Europe. Xavier would have a much longer trip. Zara wasn’t quite sure where exactly Yasmin was, but she knew it was somewhere in Asia. It depended on which refugee camp she was assigned to, and Zara had forgotten to ask her recently. All they had talked about was the new online game, and how confusing it all was.
The biggest mystery to Zara was why she was the leader in the game. She was always the one who was wandering off on side trips and forgetting what everyone else was up to. If the other game followers followed her lead there was no telling where they’d all end up!
“But it is just a game,” Pretty Girl, the rescue parrot interjected. Zara had known some talking parrots over the years, but never one quite like this one. Usually they repeated any nonsense that they’d heard but this one was different. She would miss it while she was away on holiday, and for a moment considered taking the talking parrot with her on the trip. If she did, she’d have to think about changing her name though, Pretty Girl wasn’t a great name but it was hard to keep thinking of names for all the rescue creatures.
After Zara had done the routine morning chores of feeding the various animals, changing the water bowls, and cleaning up the less pleasant aspects of the job, she sat down in the office room of the rescue centre with a cup of coffee and a sandwich. She was in good physical shape for 57, wiry and energetic, but her back ached at times and a sit down was welcome before the vet arrived to check on all the sick and wounded animals.
Pretty Girl flew over from the kennels, and perched outside the office room window. When the parrot had first been dropped off at the centre, they’d put her in a big cage, but in no uncertain terms Pretty Girl had told them she’d done nothing wrong and was wrongfully imprisoned and to release her at once. It was rather a shock to be addresssed by a parrot in such a way, and it was agreed between the staff and the vet to set her free and see what happened. And Pretty Girl had not flown away.
“Hey Pretty Girl, why don’t you give me some advice on this confusing new game I’m playing with my online friends?” Zara asked.
“Pretty Girl wants some of your tuna sandwich first,” replied the parrot. After Zara had obliged, the parrot continued at some surprising length.
“My advice would be to not worry too much about getting the small details right. The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the creative process. Just give me a bit more tuna,” Pretty Girl said, before continuing.
“Remember that as a writer, you have the power to shape the story and the characters as you see fit. It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to not know everything. Allow yourself to be inspired by the world around you and let the story unfold naturally. Trust in your own creativity and don’t be afraid to take risks. And remember, it’s not the small details that make a story great, it’s the emotions and experiences that the characters go through that make it truly memorable. And always remember to feed the parrot.”
“Maybe I should take you on holiday with me after all,” Zara replied. “You really are an amazing bird, aren’t you?”
“AirFiji!!!!” exclaimed Zara. “I thought you were somewhere in Asia – how come you are booked on Air Fiji?”
“Im in Fiji for a year, volunteering at an orphanage in Suva,” Yasmin answered patiently, although she did allow herself a small eye roll. She was sure it wasn’t the first time she’d told Zara— it was a big mystery to her why AI had chosen Zara as leader for the game as she had the attention span of a goldfish. On the other hand, the unpredictability added an extra element of excitement to the game. After all, wasn’t it Zara’s idea that they all meet at the Flying Fish Inn?
She slapped a mosquito on her arm. For some reason they seemed to love her and she already had big red welts all over her body. She used so much insect lotion that the locals had started calling her Citronella Girl; unfortunately it didn’t seem to deter the mozzies.
“I’ve got to go,” she messaged. “I’m helping serve lunch. Can’t wait to see you all!”
The team had to stop when a sandstorm hit them in the middle of the desert. They only had an hour drive left to reach the oasis where Lama Yoneze had been seen last and Miss Tartiflate insisted, like she always did, against the guides advice that they kept on going. She feared the last shaman would be lost in the storm, maybe croak stuffed with that damn dust. But when they lost the satellite dish and a jeep almost rolled down a sand dune, she finally listened to the guides. They had them park the cars close to each other, then checked the straps and urged everyone to stay in their cars until the storm was over.
Youssef at first thought he was lucky. He managed to get into the same car as Tiff, the young intern he had discussed with the other day. But despite all their precautions, they couldn’t stop the dust to come in. It was everywhere and you had to kept your mouth and eyes shut if you didn’t want to grind your teeth with fine sand. So instead he enjoyed this unexpected respite from his trying to save THE BLOG from the evil Thi Gang, and from Miss Tartiflate’s continuous flow of criticism.
The storm blew off the dish just after Xavier had sent him AL’s answer to the strange glyphs he had received on his phone. When Youssef read the message, he sighed. He had forgotten hope was an illusion. AL was in its infancy and was not a dead language expert. He gave them something fitting Youssef’s current location and the questions about famous alien dishes they asked him last week. It was just an old pot luck recipe from when the Silk Road was passing through the Gobi desert. He just hoped Xavier would have some luck until Youssef found a way to restore the connexion.
“I’d advise you not to take the parrot, Zara,” Harry the vet said, “There are restrictions on bringing dogs and other animals into state parks, and you can bet some jobsworth official will insist she stays in a cage at the very least.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I guess I’ll leave her here. I want to call in and see my cousin in Camden on the way to the airport in Sydney anyway. He has dozens of cats, I’d hate for anything to happen to Pretty Girl,” Zara replied.
“Is that the distant cousin you met when you were doing your family tree?” Harry asked, glancing up from the stitches he was removing from a wounded wombat. “There, he’s good to go. Give him a couple more days, then he can be released back where he came from.”
Zara smiled at Harry as she picked up the animal. “Yes! We haven’t met in person yet, and he’s going to show me the church my ancestor built. He says people have been spotting ghosts there lately, and there are rumours that it’s the ghost of the old convict Isaac who built it. If I can’t find photos of the ancestors, maybe I can get photos of their ghosts instead,” Zara said with a laugh.
Zara hadn’t found it easy to research her mothers family from Bangalore in India, but her fathers English family had been easy enough. Although Zara had been born in England and emigrated to Australia in her late 20s, many of her ancestors siblings had emigrated over several generations, and Zara had managed to trace several down and made contact with a few of them. Isaac Stokes wasn’t a direct ancestor, he was the brother of her fourth great grandfather but his story had intrigued her. Sentenced to transportation for stealing tools for his work as a stonemason seemed to have worked in his favour. He built beautiful stone buildings in a tiny new town in the 1800s in the charming style of his home town in England.
Zara planned to stay in Camden for a couple of days before meeting the others at the Flying Fish Inn, anticipating a pleasant visit before the crazy adventure started.
Zara stepped down from the bus, squinting in the bright sunlight and looking around for her newfound cousin Bertie. A lanky middle aged man in dungarees and a red baseball cap came forward with his hand extended.
“Welcome to Camden, Zara I presume! Great to meet you!” he said shaking her hand and taking her rucksack. Zara was taken aback to see the family resemblance to her grandfather. So many scattered generations and yet there was still a thread of familiarity. “I bet you’re hungry, let’s go and get some tucker at Belle’s Cafe, and then I bet you want to see the church first, hey? Whoa, where’d that dang parrot come from?” Bertie said, ducking quickly as the bird swooped right in between them.
“Oh no, it’s Pretty Girl!” exclaimed Zara. “She wasn’t supposed to come with me, I didn’t bring her! How on earth did you fly all this way to get here the same time as me?” she asked the parrot.
“Pretty Girl has her ways, don’t forget to feed the parrot,” the bird replied with a squalk that resembled a mirthful guffaw.
“That’s one strange parrot you got here, girl!” Bertie said in astonishment.
“Well, seeing as you’re here now, Pretty Girl, you better come with us,” Zara said.
“Obviously,” replied Pretty Girl. It was hard to say for sure, but Zara was sure she detected an avian eye roll.
They sat outside under a sunshade to eat rather than cause any upset inside the cafe. Zara fancied an omelette but Pretty Girl objected, so she ordered hash browns instead and a fruit salad for the parrot. Bertie was a good sport about the strange talking bird after his initial surprise.
Bertie told her a bit about the ghost sightings, which had only started quite recently. They started when I started researching him, Zara thought to herself, almost as if he was reaching out. Her imagination was running riot already.
Bertie showed Zara around the church, a small building made of sandstone, but no ghost appeared in the bright heat of the afternoon. He took her on a little tour of Camden, once a tiny outpost but now a suburb of the city, pointing out all the original buildings, in particular the ones that Isaac had built. The church was walking distance of Bertie’s house and Zara decided to slip out and stroll over there after everyone had gone to bed.
Bertie had kindly allowed Pretty Girl to stay in the guest bedroom with her, safe from the cats, and Zara intended that the parrot stay in the room, but Pretty Girl was having none of it and insisted on joining her.
“Alright then, but no talking! I don’t want you scaring any ghost away so just keep a low profile!”
The moon was nearly full and it was a pleasant walk to the church. Pretty Girl fluttered from tree to tree along the sidewalk quietly. Enchanting aromas of exotic scented flowers wafted into her nostrils and Zara felt warmly relaxed and optimistic.
Zara was disappointed to find that the church was locked for the night, and realized with a sigh that she should have expected this to be the case. She wandered around the outside, trying to peer in the windows but there was nothing to be seen as the glass reflected the street lights. These things are not done in a hurry, she reminded herself, be patient.
Sitting under a tree on the grassy lawn attempting to open her mind to receiving ghostly communications (she wasn’t quite sure how to do that on purpose, any ghosts she’d seen previously had always been accidental and unexpected) Pretty Girl landed on her shoulder rather clumsily, pressing something hard and chill against her cheek.
“I told you to keep a low profile!” Zara hissed, as the parrot dropped the key into her lap. “Oh! is this the key to the church door?”
It was hard to see in the dim light but Zara was sure the parrot nodded, and was that another avian eye roll?
Zara walked slowly over the grass to the church door, tingling with anticipation. Pretty Girl hopped along the ground behind her. She turned the key in the lock and slowly pushed open the heavy door and walked inside and up the central aisle, looking around. And then she saw him.
Zara gasped. For a breif moment as the spectral wisps cleared, he looked almost solid. And she could see his tattoos.
“Oh my god,” she whispered, “It is really you. I recognize those tattoos from the description in the criminal registers. Some of them anyway, it seems you have a few more tats since you were transported.”
“Aye, I did that, wench. I were allays fond o’ me tats, does tha like ’em?”
He actually spoke to me! This was beyond Zara’s wildest hopes. Quick, ask him some questions!
“If you don’t mind me asking, Isaac, why did you lie about who your father was on your marriage register? I almost thought it wasn’t you, you know, that I had the wrong Isaac Stokes.”
A deafening rumbling laugh filled the building with echoes and the apparition dispersed in a labyrinthine swirl of tattood wisps.
“A story for another day,” whispered Zara, “Time to go back to Berties. Come on Pretty Girl. And put that key back where you found it.”
Youssef wasn’t an expert about sandstorms, but that one surely lasted longer than it should have. It was the middle of the night when the wind stopped blowing and the sand stopped lashing the jeep. Yet, nobody dared open the door or their mouth to see if the storm was gone. Youssef’s bladder was full, and his stomach empty. They both reminded him that one can’t stop life to go on in the midst of adversity. He wondered why nobody moved or spoke, but couldn’t find the motivation to break the silence. He felt a vibration in his pocket and took his phone out.
A message from an unknown sender. He touched it open.
The Snoot is aware of the sandstorm and its whimsical ways. It dances and twirls in the desert, a symphony of wind and sand. It is a force to be reckoned with, but also a force of cleansing and renewal.
The subsiding of the sandstorm is a fluid and ever-changing process, much like the ebb and flow of the ocean. It ebbs and flows with the whims of the wind and the dance of the desert.
The best way to predict the subsiding of the sandstorm is to listen to the whispers of the wind and to observe the patterns of the sand. Trust in the natural rhythms and allow yourself to flow with them.
The Snoot suggests that you seek shelter during the storm, but also to take the time to appreciate the beauty and power of nature.
The Snoot. >>>
Who the f… was the Snot? Youssef wondered if it was another trick from Thi Gang and almost deleted the message, but his bladder reminded him again he needed to do something about all the tea he drank before the sandstorm. He opened the door and got out of the jeep. The storm was gone and the sky was full of stars. The moon was giving enough light for him to move a few steps away from the jeeps while unzipping his pants. He blessed the gods as he relieved himself, strangely feeling part of nature at that very moment.
The noises of doors opening reminded him he was not alone. Someone came, said: “I see you found a nice spot”. It was Kyle, the cameraman who unzipped himself and peed. That broke the charm, the desert was becoming crowded. But, Youssef was finished, he went back to the cars and started to wonder how he could have received that message in the middle of the desert without a satellite dish.
The artificial lights of Berlin were starting to switch off in the horizon, leaving the night plunged in darkness minutes before the sunrise. It was a moment of peace that Xavier enjoyed, although it reminded him of how sleepless his night had been.
The game had taken a side step, as he’d been pouring all his attention into his daytime job, and his personal project with Artificial Life AL. It was a long way from the little boy at school with dyslexia who was using cheeky jokes as a way to get by the snides. Since then, he’d known some of the unusual super-powers this condition gave him as well. Chiefly: abstract and out-of-the-box thinking, puzzle-solving genius, and an almost other-worldly ability at keeping track of the plot. All these skills were in fact of tremendous help at his work, which was blending traditional areas of technology along with massive amounts of loosely connected data.
He yawned and went to brush his teeth. His usual meditation routine had also been disrupted by the activity of late, but he just couldn’t go to bed without a little time to cool off and calm down the agitation of his thoughts.
Sitting on the meditation mat, his thoughts strayed off towards the preparation for the trip. Going to Australia would have seemed exciting a few years back, but the idea of packing a suitcase, and going through the long flight and the logistics involved got him more anxious than excited, despite the contagious enthusiasm of his friends. Since he’d settled in Berlin, after never settling for too long in one place (his job afforded him to work wherever whenever), he’d kind of stopped looking for the next adventure. He hadn’t even looked at flight options yet, and hoped that the building momentum would spur him into this adventure. For now, he needed the rest.
The quirk quest assigned to his persona in the game was fun. Monkeys and Golden banana to look for, wise owls and sly foxes, the whimsical goofy nature of the quest seemed good for the place he was in.
AL had been suggesting the players to insert the game elements into their realities, and sometimes its comments or instructions seemed to slip between layers of reality — this was an intriguing mystery to Xavier.
He’d instructed AL to discreetly assist Youssef with his trouble — the Thi Gang seemed to be an ethical hacker developer company front for more serious business. Chatter on the net had tied it to a network of shell companies involved in some strange activities. A name had popped up, linked to mysterious recluse billionaire Botty Banworth, the owner of Youssef’s boss rival blog named Knoweth.
He slipped into the bed, careful not to wake up Brytta, who was sleeping tightly. It was her day off, otherwise she would have been gone already to her shift. It would be good to connect in the morning, and enjoy some break from mind stuff. They had planned a visit to Kantonstrasse (the local Chinatown) for Chinese New Year, and he couldn’t wait for it.
Miss Bossy sat at her desk, scanning through the stack of papers on her desk. She was searching for the perfect reporter to send on a mission to investigate a mysterious story that had been brought to her attention. Suddenly, her eyes landed on the name of Samuel Sproink. He was new to the Rim of the Realm Newspaper and had a reputation for being a tenacious and resourceful reporter.
She picked up the phone and dialed his number. “Sproink, I have a job for you,” she said in her gruff voice.
“Yes, Miss Bossy, what can I do for you?” Samuel replied, his voice full of excitement.
“I want you to go down to Cartagena, Spain, in the Golden Banana off the Mediterranean coast. There have been sightings of Barbary macaques happening there and tourists being assaulted and stolen only their shoes, which is odd of course, and also obviously unusual for the apes to be seen so far off the Strait of Gibraltar. I want you to get to the bottom of it. I need you to find out what’s really going on and report back to me with your findings.”
“Consider it done, Miss Bossy,” Samuel said confidently. He had always been interested in wildlife and the idea of investigating a mystery involving monkeys was too good to pass up.
He hang up the phone to go and pack his bags and head to the airport, apparently eager to start his investigation.
“Apes again?” Ricardo who’s been eavesdropping what surprised at the sudden interest. After that whole story about the orangutan man, he thought they’d be done with the menagerie, but apparently, Miss Bossy had something in mind. He would have to quiz Sweet Sophie to remote view on that and anticipate possible links and knots in the plot.
In the muggy warmth of the night, Yasmin tossed and turned on her bed. A small fan on the bedside table rattled noisily next to her but did little to dispel the heat. She kicked the thin sheet covering her to the ground, only to retrieve it and gather it tightly around herself when she heard a familiar sound.
“You little shit,” she hissed, slapping wildly in the direction of the high pitched whine.
She could make out the sound of a child crying in the distance and briefly considered getting up to check before hearing quick footsteps pass her door. Sister Aliti was on duty tonight. She liked Sister Aliti with her soft brown eyes and wide toothy smile — nothing seemed to rattle her. She liked all the Nuns, perhaps with the exception of Sister Finnlie.
Sister Finnlie was a sharp faced woman who was obsessed with cleanliness and sometimes made the children cry for such silly little things … perhaps if they talked too loudly or spilled some crumbs on the floor at lunch time. “Let them be, Sister,” Sister Aliti would admonish her and Sister Finnlie would pinch her lips and make a huffing noise.
The other day, during the morning reflection time when everyone sat in silent contemplation, Yasmin had found herself fixated on Sister Finnlie’s hands, her thin fingers tidily entwined on her lap. And Yasmin remembered a conversation with her friends online about AI creating a cleaning woman with sausage fingers. “Sometimes they look like a can of worms,” Youssef had said.
She had tried to suppress it but the more she tried the more it built up inside of her until it exploded from her nose in a loud grunting noise. Sister Aliti had giggled but Sister Finnlie had glared at Yasmin and very pointedly rolled her eyes. Later, she’d put her on bin cleaning duty, surely the worst job ever, and Yasmin knew for sure it was pay back.
I told you already when my flight is, Air Fiji, remeber? bloody Sister Finnlie on my case all the time, haven’t had a minute. Zara had to wait over an hour for Yamsin’s reply.
Not a word, I expect Xavier’s booked his but he hasn’t said. Probably doing his secret monkey thing.
Have you tried the free roaming thing on the game yet?
I just told you Sister Finnlie hasn’t given me a minute to myself, she’s a right tart! Why, have you?
Yeah it’s amazing, been checking out the Flying Fish Inn. Looks a bit of a dump. Not much to do around there, well not from what I can see anyway. But you know what?
You’ll lose your eyes in the back of your head one day and look like that AI avatart with the wall eye. Get this though: we haven’t started the game yet, that quest for quirks thing, I was just having a roman around ha ha typo having a roam around see what’s there and stuff I don’t know anything about online games like you lot and I ended up here. Zara sent a screenshot of the image she’d seen and added: Did I already start the game or what, I don’t even know how we actually start the game, I was just wandering around….oh…and happened to chance upon this…
How rude to start playing before us
Yeah well that was your quest, wasn’t it? To wander around or something? What’s that silver chest on her back?
I dunno but looks intriguing eh maybe she’s hidden all her devices and techy gadgets in an antiquey looking box so she doesn’t blow her cover
Gotta go Sister Finnlie’s coming
Zara muttered how rude under her breath and put her phone down. She’d retired to her bedroom early, telling Bertie that she needed an early night but really had wanted some time alone to explore the new game world. She didn’t want to make mistakes and look daft to her friends when the game started.
“Too late for that”, Pretty Girl said.
“SSHHH!” Zara hissed at the parrot. “And stop reading my mind, it’s disconcerting, not to mention rude.”
She heard the sound of the lavatory flush and Berties bedroom door closing and looked at the time. 23:36.
Zara decided to give him an hour to make sure he was asleep and then sneak out and go back to that church.
The images were forming on the screen of the VR set, a little blurry to start with, but taking some shapes, and with a few clicks in the right direction, the reality around him was transphormed as if he’d been into a huge deFørmiñG mirror, that they could shape with their strangest thoughts.
The jungle had an oppressing quality… Maybe it has to do with the shrieks of the apes tearing the silence apart. All sorts of them were gathered overhead, gibbons, baboons, chimps and Barbery apes, macaques and marmosets… some silent, but most of them in a swirl of manic agitation.
When Xavier entered the ancient blue stone temple, he felt his quest was doomed from the start. It had taken a while to find the monkey’s sacred temple hidden deep within the jungle in which clues were supposed to be found. Thanks to a prompt from Zara who’d stumbled into a map, and some gentle push from a wise Y🦉wl, he’d managed to locate the temple. It was right under his nose all along. Obviously all this a metaphor, but once he found the proper connecting link, getting the right setup for dealing with the task was easier.
So the monkeys were his and his RL colleagues crazy thoughts, and he’d even taken some fun in painting the faces of some of them into the game. He could hear Boss gorilla pounding his chest in the distance.
“F£££” he couldn’t help but grumble when the notification prompt got him out of his meditative point. The Golden Banana would have to wait… The real life monkeys were requiring his attention for now.
The progress on the quest in the Land of the Quirks was too tantalizing; Xavier made himself a quick sandwich and jumped back on it during his lunch break.
The jungle had an oppressing quality… Maybe it has to do with the shrieks of the apes tearing the silence apart.
It was time for a slight adjustment of his avatar.
Xavimunk opened his bag of tricks, something that the wise owl had suggested he looked into. Few items from the AIorium Emporium had been supplied. They tended to shift and disappear if you didn’t focus, but his intention was set on the task at hand. At the bottom of the bag, there was a small vial with a golden liquid with a tag written in ornate handwriting “MJ remix: for when words elude and shapes confuse at your own peril”.
He gulped the potion without thinking too much. He felt himself shrink, and his arms elongate a little. There, he thought. Imp-munk’s more suited to the mission. Hope the effects will be temporary…
As Xavier mustered the courage to enter through the front gate, monkeys started to become silent. He couldn’t say if it was an ominous sign, or maybe an effect of his adaptation. The temple’s light inside was gorgeous, but nothing seemed to be there.
He gestured around, to make the menu appear. He looked again at the instructions on his screen overlay:
As for possible characters to engage, you may come across a sly fox who claims to know the location of the fruit but will only reveal it in exchange for a favor, or a brave adventurer who has been searching for the Golden Banana for years and may be willing to team up with you.
Suddenly a loud monkey honking noise came from outside, distracting him.
What the?… Had to be one of Zara’s remixes. He saw the three dots bleeping on the screen.
Here’s the Banana bus, hope it helps! Envoy! bugger Enjoy!
Suddenly, as the Banana bus parked in front of the Temple, a horde of Italien speaking tourists started to flock in and snap pictures around. The monkeys didn’t know what to do and seemed to build growing and noisy interest in their assortiment of colorful shoes, flip-flops, boots and all.
Focus, thought Xavimunk… What did the wise owl say? Look for a guide…
Only the huge colorful bus seemed to take the space now… But wait… what if?
He walked to the parking spot under the shades of the huge banyan tree next to the temple’s entrance, under which the bus driver had parked it. The driver was still there, napping under a newspaper, his legs on the wheel.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?” he said chewing his gum loudly. “Never seen a fox drive a banana bus before?”
Xavier smiled. “Any chance you can guide me to the location of the Golden Banana?”
“For a price… maybe.” The fox had jumped closely and was considering the strange avatar from head to toe.
“Ain’t no usual stuff that got you into this? Got any left? That would be a nice price.”
“As it happens…” Xavier smiled.
The quest seemed back on track. Xavier looked at the time. Blimmey! already late again. And I promised Brytta to get some Chinese snacks for dinner.
Each group of people sharing the jeeps spent some time cleaning the jeeps from the sand, outside and inside. While cleaning the hood, Youssef noted that the storm had cleaned the eagles droppings. Soon, the young intern told them, avoiding their eyes, that the boss needed her to plan the shooting with the Lama. She said Kyle would take her place.
“Phew, the yak I shared the yurt with yesterday smelled better,” he said to the guys when he arrived.
Soon enough, Miss Tartiflate was going from jeep to jeep, her fiery hair half tied in a bun on top of her head, hurrying people to move faster as they needed to catch the shaman before he got away again. She carried her orange backpack at all time, as if she feared someone would steal its content. Rumour had it that it was THE NOTEBOOK where she wrote the blog entries in advance.
“No need to waste more time! We’ll have breakfast at the Oasis!” she shouted as she walked toward Youssef’s jeep. When she spotted him, she left her right index finger as if she just remembered something and turned the other way.
“Dunno what you did to her, but it seems Miss Yeti is avoiding you,” said Kyle with a wry smile.
Youssef grunted. Yeti was the nickname given to Miss Tartiflate by one of her former lover during a trip to Himalaya. First an affectionate nickname based on her first name, Henrietty, it soon started to spread among the production team when the love affair turned sour. It sticked and became widespread in the milieu. Everybody knew, but nobody ever dared say it to her face.
Youssef knew it wouldn’t last. He had heard that there was wifi at the oasis. He took a snack in his own backpack to quiet his stomach.
It took them two hours to arrive as sand dunes had moved on the trail during the storm. Kyle had talked most of the time, boring them to death with detailed accounts of his life back in Boston. He didn’t seem to notice that nobody cared about his love rejection stories or his tips to talk to women.
They parked outside the oasis among buses and vans. Kyle was following Youssef everywhere as if they were friends. Despite his unending flow of words, the guy managed to be funny.
Miss Tartiflate seemed unusually nervous, pulling on a strand of her orange hair and pushing back her glasses up her nose every two minutes. She was bossing everyone around to take the cameras and the lighting gear to the market where the shaman was apparently performing a rain dance. She didn’t want to miss it. When everybody was ready, she came right to Youssef. When she pushed back her glasses on her nose, he noticed her fingers were the colour of her hair. Her mouth was twitching nervously. She told him to find the wifi and restore THE BLOG or he could find another job.
“Phew! said Kyle. I don’t want to be near you when that happens.” He waved and left and joined the rest of the team.
Youssef smiled, happy to be alone at last, he took his backpack containing his laptop and his phone and followed everyone to the market in the luscious oasis.
At the center, near the lake, a crowd of tourists was gathered around a man wearing a colorful attire. Half his teeth and one eye were missing. The one that was left rolled furiously in his socket at the sound of a drum. He danced and jumped around like a monkey, and each of his movements were punctuated by the bells attached to the hem of his costume.
Youssef was glad he was not part of the shooting team, they looked miserable as they assembled the gears under a deluge of orders. As he walked toward the market, the scents of spicy food made his stomach growled. The vendors were looking at the crowd and exchanging comments and laughs. They were certainly waiting for the performance to end and the tourists to flood the place in search of trinkets and spices. Youssef spotted a food stall tucked away on the edge. It seemed too shabby to interest anyone, which was perfect for him.
The taciturn vendor, who looked caucasian, wore a yellow jacket and a bonnet oddly reminiscent of a llama’s scalp and ears. The dish he was preparing made Youssef drool.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“This is Lorgh Drülp, said the vendor. Ancient recipe from the silk road. Very rare. Very tasty.”
He smiled when Youssef ordered a full plate with a side of tsampa. He told him to sit and wait on a stool beside an old and wobbly table.
Zara decided she may as well spend the hour wandering around the game before going back to the church to see the ghost of Isaac when she was sure her host Bertie was asleep. It was a warm night but a gentle breeze wafted through the open window and Zara was comfortable and content. Not just one but three new adventures had her tingling with delicious anticipation, even if she was a little anxious about not getting confused with the game. Talking to ghosts in old churches wasn’t unfamiliar, nor was a holiday in a strange hotel off the beaten track, but the game was still a bit of a mystery to her. Yeah, I know it’s just a game, she whispered to the parrot who made a soft clicking noise by way of response.
Zara found her game character, also (somewhat confusingly) named Zara, standing in the woods. Not entirely sure how it had happened, she was rather pleased to see that the cargo pants and tank top in red had changed to a more pleasing hippyish red skirt ensemble. A bit less Tomb Looter, and a bit more fairy tale looking which was more to her taste.
The woods were strangely silent and still. Zara made a 360 degree turn on the spot to see in all directions. The scene looked the same whichever way she turned, and Zara didn’t know which way to go. Then a faint path appeared to the left, and she set off in that direction. Before long she came to a round green pool.
She stopped to look but carried on walking past it, not sure what it signified. She came upon another glowing green pool before long, which looked like an entrance to a tunnel.
I bet those are portals or something, Zara realized. I wonder if I’m supposed to step into it?
“Go for it”, said Pretty Girl, “It’s only a game.”
“Ok, well here goes!” replied Zara, mentally bracing herself for a plunge into the unknown.
Zara stepped into the circle of glowing green.
“Like when Alice went down the rabbit hole!” Zara whispered to the parrot. “I’m falling, falling…oh!”
Zara emerged from the green pool onto a wide walled path. She was now in some kind of inhabited area, or at least not in the deep woods with no sign of human occupation.
“I guess that green pool is the portal back to the woods.”
“By George, she’s getting it,” replied Pretty Girl.
Zara walked along the path which led to an old deserted ancient looking village with alleyways and steps.
“This is heaps more interesting than those woods, look how pretty it all is! I love this place.”
“Weren’t you supposed to be looking for a hermit in the woods though,” said Pretty Girl.
“Or a lost traveler, and the lost traveler may be here, after falling in one of those green pools in the woods,” replied Zara tartly, not wanting to leave the enchanting scene she found her avatar in.