the wanderer and the architect.
There are those of us who write stories from the infinite fictions of our mind and those of us who prefer to write our observations of the living world around us. I chose the latter, preferring the depth of an objective world created from chaos and time. Life that had been incubated in the womb of the indifferent wild as opposed to the generalized and biased creation of our limited minds. Even the greatest and most detailed works of fiction would never compare to the complexity and history of the real world; a language in fiction at worst was random gibberish meant to be background noises to a larger plot. At best it was a direct word-to-word translation of one of our own languages with some arbitrary slang thrown in. Analyze these languages enough and there wouldn’t be the rich syntax, grammar, or the hidden flavours of other languages as they crashed together throughout whole histories.
This undeterred truth always formed a boundary between our objective reality and the fictional creations we spilled onto paper from our minds...
...until Mage Williams began writing. His name is not a joke or pen name, but his actual name given at birth.
“My mother had a handful of reasons she named me Mage, but her favourite was that I was her little magical being. When I began writing as a kid, she would walk by my room and tell me I was weaving magic,” Mage told me, giggling and smiling at the memory. His grey-blue eyes, like a calm ocean on a cloudy day, were as deep and storied as the fictional world he wrote about.
Mage wrote his first book, A Forest in the Ice, twenty-five years ago. It took place in his fictional world of Mora and immediately became a bestseller. In the age of social media, when most popular fiction became besieged by fans theorizing and dissecting whatever they could about their favourite stories and worlds, Mora reached a new level of scrutiny.
This book was a simple story set in a large, pacific-northwest style forest full of towering cedar trees, ferns, and full of life. The forest sat deep within a yawning mountain valley, surrounded by desolate peaks and glaciers. A few tribes of human- and elf-like creatures settled in the forest, and the novel detailed their conflicts and dramas from the perspective of a few major characters. As people poured over the language and cultures of these tribes gleaned from the novel, they noticed a depth to them. Linguists waded through the language used by those in the valley to discover they all seemed to have slight differences between the tribes in syntax and slang. Variations that seemed to develop over time from isolation, or from the geographic differences between the regions of the vast landscape. Over the brief timeline of the book, there was exposed a culture that seemed almost organic and real.
As of this year, Mage has written thirty-five novels, - six trilogies within those - and fifteen anthologies of short stories, histories, and other subjects of the world. He has also made countless comments, online posts, and interviews that further expanded our knowledge of Mora. With each work, richer detail was revealed about the fictional world. Gaps between cultures, landscapes, and history filled. Other languages that seemed to have evolved over generations and across geographies. Cultures that had changed and adapted after war, disaster, or migration.
It was unprecedented, the level of detail and richness within a fictional world. Even the deep histories, languages, and cultures of our most beloved and classic works of fantasy paled in comparison to the organic and lifelike lore of Mora.
For the 25th anniversary of the release of A Forest in the Ice, I was assigned to do an interview with the prolific writer. Meant to be a simple, obligatory piece for our magazine, it was handed to me despite my lack of qualifications. I did not often read fiction. I knew of many popular fictional works due to their ubiquity within our culture and I enjoyed some of the movie adaptations as a social activity with friends. I had read a couple of Mage’s books, but while interesting in its impact on the state of fiction in the world, the written works themselves did not hold my interest very deeply. I could never fully immerse myself in a world that did not physically exist. After every page was a little nagging reminder: this is not real.
Mage lived in a beautiful character home nestled in one of the city’s older neighbourhoods. High ceilings, exposed brick and old post and beam. The exterior was painted a deep red with navy blue highlights, like a classic children’s toy. Inside, the colours were warm and cozy. More deep blue and red. The earthy tones of exposed brick and timber. Cluttered, but not messy. The chaotic organization of a creative. Inside, the smell of pine and fresh snow hung in the air like a cool winter morning, despite the warm spring weather outside.
When he welcomed me inside, I complimented him on the whimsical comfort and character of his home. He beamed and told me it had been in quite a state of disrepair when he bought it. The homes in this neighbourhood had once been owned by the university. Generations of students wore down the house with their apathy before the area was gentrified and given over to private owners.
Mage Williams’ demeanor was very soft. He was 56 years old and lived alone. His voice was gentle, like a bank of fog quietly passing over a still lake.
He invited me to sit in his living room and brought in a cup of tea for each of us.
“I hope this isn’t too strong. It’s the only tea I drink. I know it’s not for everyone,” he said as he placed my mug in front of me. The smell of campfire filled my nostrils. I took a sip and it tasted just as smokey. “Lapsang souchong,” he commented, gesturing to the tea. I told him it tasted wonderful. It reminded me of the peaty scotch I normally enjoy at home. He admitted he preferred tequila and mezcal, and after a quick bout of small talk to settle in, I brought us to the interview.
“How old were you when you first began writing stories?”
He sighed into the answer, the way one does when tired of repetition. I felt a little embarrassed about using such a typical opening question. A question I had already known the answer to.
“I would have been about nine years old, though to be honest, I never felt I had finished anything until The Forest in the Ice.”
“As in you never finished writing any of the ideas you had?”
“My friends and family thought they were finished. They told a complete story, yes, but I always felt there was something missing. I felt my work was incomplete because of the limits of my imagination. Deep fiction - fantasy, science fiction - was my favourite style. Though I always felt frustrated that whatever I created ended up having limits. When I started to build a world, I felt like I was staring down an endless rabbit hole that I could only generalize. Describe that the hole was there without knowing or writing about where it lead. The worlds within my writing always felt static.”
“With Mora, it seems like you’ve overcome this limitation. What changed?”
Mage had not answered immediately. His expression changed slightly, as if he had been deciding between possible answers and which answer I, specifically, deserved to hear.
“I began focusing on Mora when I was a teenager and continued to work on it throughout university until I was finally satisfied with it. Have you read any of my works, Miss Rey?”
“Oh, only two, actually. The Forest in the Ice and The History of the Great Plains. I really enjoyed them! I wish I could say I’ve read more. I’m not normally a reader of fiction.”
Mage laughed. “That’s a surprising choice! The History of the Great Plains and my other books detailing cultures and histories only seem to be read by the most die hard of fans. They’re much drier than the actual stories. Fillers to flesh out the world.”
“Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it! It felt like I was reading the history of an actual culture. Something that existed. It seemed dynamic and organic.”
“I’m glad that a professional in non-fiction enjoyed my work. It actually makes me feel more proud of what I’ve created than those who just want an easy to grasp escape from our reality. Is that why you took the chance to meet with me?” He had leaned forward in his chair and a giddiness had overcome him. He waited for my answer with an impatient, childlike excitement. There was something so innocent about his demeanor when he talked about his fictional world. It was as if Mora was a place he had a home in. A sanctuary. His excitement seemed tethered by a deeper intimacy with his creation. So, despite my sudden guilt at being reluctantly handed this assignment, I had felt no other option but to answer him honestly.
“I didn’t jump at the opportunity. It was handed to me. Not that I don’t respect and admire your imagination and what you’ve done for the genre. Just...well, like I said, I’m not a fan of fiction. This seemed out of character for me, but I didn’t have a choice in taking it. I’m sorry, I can’t help but feel guilty admitting that to you,” I pulled back in my chair; tried to increase the distance between us. He had simply smiled, and the softness of it felt more comforting than any hug or kind-hearted dismissal of my apology.
“Don’t feel sorry at all. If you’re not a fiction fanatic, you wouldn’t have any real motivation to meet a fiction author. To be honest, I’m happy to have an unbiased viewpoint and relieved that you’re not paralyzed from being starstruck.”
I immediately felt at ease. After a mere moment of the awkward pause that follows an interruption in the flow of conversation, we continued to talk. For a while, the conversation remained pretty normal. We discussed the internet’s influence on fandom and the resulting overzealous fans. In the positive feedback loop of the internet, Mage described, ideas become coveted and holy. An algorithmic reality where fans begin to feel owed their version of an artist’s work. Mage described a man at a book signing who threw one of Mage’s books onto the table between them. The book was full of post-it notes, writing in the margins, and torn out pages. We both laughed as Mage recalled the fan’s demand to re-write the book the way he saw fit.
We discussed his university education in mechanical engineering and computer science. He barely graduated, scraping by on the minimum marks needed to get his degree and having to stay an extra year to repeat a few classes. He told me how when he was young, he spent a lot of time tinkering with computers and other mechanics. He loved figuring out how they worked. Despite this love of the subject, he ended up spending most of his time in university on Mora. “I sometimes entirely forgot about projects or classes, I got so wrapped up in my work,” he said at one point, beaming proudly. A year after graduating, the first novel from the world of Mora was released to the world.
When we finished the last of our tea, he invited me on a tour of his home. The art that hung on the walls consisted exclusively of drawings and paintings of the various characters and settings of Mora. All of them created by Mage. He spoke of all the stories depicted in the art as we walked slowly past each piece. He is a very talented artist and his depictions of the world of Mora were incredibly detailed. Despite the public’s desire to see them, he has never sold a single one. He has never posted a photo online. People who had visited Mage had seen them, as he was not shy to show them to anyone who asked. He just preferred the experience to stay personal. A museum of Mora - no photographs allowed.
The only known painting he had shared was to a dear friend of his. He talked about her as one would discuss a once fiercely intimate partner. No one but her had seen that painting. He described the painting as a simple illustration of a clearing in a forest. Peering into the foreground from the shadows of the trees were two children. They were shadowy and thin figures, walking on all fours, but looking almost humanoid. Their eyes were a stormy grey-white.
“Despite their unsettling appearance, Mackenzie would always feel like they were peaceful. Cautious of this newcomer, but also very curious and playful. She said they made her feel happy and protected. Honestly they kind of spooked me,” he said, smiling with the fond memory cradled gently in his mind.
Our discussion became more candid after the tour. Less like an interview and more like a conversation. The way he spoke of Mora as he had become more and more engrossed in the discussion of it. As if he had been there. Placed his foot in this world among the camps and towns. Walked alongside the characters. I began to think he did sometimes feel like he lived there. I had even sometimes caught him saying “our world” and “this world,” as if one orbited the other. Mora another moon in our sky.
We sat a bit longer and had another glass of tea. Instead of talking about Mora, we discussed our own lives. I had felt myself pulled into his gentle vulnerability as our discussion delved into personal ideals and dreams.
I had left after a few hours. A warm and quick goodbye. I got back to my apartment and lay my notes out on the desk. When I pulled out my recorder, I suddenly remembered I had turned it off unconsciously at one point. It was when we were looking at the paintings.
A few days after the interview with Mage, I was sitting in my apartment with the rough draft of the article in front of me on my laptop. It was absolutely due the next day. It read too simple. Something you would read in a tabloid. The article felt threadbare and nothing in the various notes and transcripts that were scattered across my desk had been helping. The recording trailed off into candid discussion and I realized there was no publishable information there. My memories of everything after I turned the recording off were also fuzzy in my head, like the casual conversation of catching up with a friend days later. I felt as if there was something I was missing in my memory of the interview. Something I was not told, perhaps.
I leaned back in my chair and let the world around me sink into my head again. The bassy, vibey beats of Tash Sultana radiated from the little speaker at the back of my room. The afternoon sun was painting the white drywall a moody, red-stained orange. Above me, emphasised by the light of my desk lamp, hung a map. It was one of those scratch-off maps, where you would scratch away the countries you had been, revealing a rich colour and texture hidden under the removable goldish surface. Much of the scratchable surface was gone. I had managed to visit many of the countries on that map. There were still splotches of far-flung lands that I had yet to find a way to, whether they be inaccessible from politics and strife, distance, or I just had not had the time yet. Though I was proud of my mosaic of experiences. A colourful and simple depiction of all the spontaneous and reckless exploration. A world observed.
One navy blue-coloured country had caught my eye, adjacent to red and brown countries and the matte gold of one yet to be visited. I let my eyes unfocus, blurring the colours together and bringing back fresh memories of the exposed brick, timber, and deep blue walls of Mage’s home.
The blue country in the centre is France. I traveled there four years ago with my boyfriend at the time. At one point, we had rented a car and drove across the border from Nice to the little, coastal Italian town of Finale Ligure. We had lunch in a little pizzeria tucked inside the old, narrow, brick and stone streets of downtown. We wandered along the coast and sat on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We did half of what we said we couldn’t afford. We ran out of money and fought during the lengthy journey back. We did not last much longer after that.
I decided to take a break from writing and met up with a few friends for happy hour at one of our favourite pubs. Whiskey cocktails and half price sliders. We immersed ourselves in the thrum of the urban wild on the patio. The routine and beautiful order of it. A structure of our own making.
“How is the article going?” Daniel asked when he settled into the booth beside me. He had been the last to arrive, making it four of us. Perfectly situated around the table for conversation. Before I answered, our server came by and took his drink order: a gin cocktail of their creation called “The Outlier.”
“Just need to edit it. Finish it up. It’s an interview. Nothing groundbreaking,” I told him.
“I actually love his books,” Miles chimed in. His partner, Nancy, made an affectionately teasing remark about his large collection of Mage’s books. Miles shrugged, then he asked me what Mage was like in person.
“He’s incredibly nice. And his house! It’s such a character home. Stands out. Filled with his own paintings and drawings.” As I described this, Miles let out a sharp sigh as if he had been playfully punched; he clasped his hand to his chest and threw his head back. Exclaimed his jealousy of my prestige status at seeing the elusive visual works of Mora. “He was kind of giddy. Like a child who wanted to show you a cool tree fort that he built. Reminded me of you a little in that regard, Miles.”
“You know,” Daniel said when his drink arrived and Miles smiled and squirmed at my compliment, “I once read that our Mr. Williams has turned down all movie deals. So far, no sight of film adaptations on the horizon.”
“I, for one, am a little relieved that Mora will be left out of the franchise machine,” Miles quipped. “The last thing we need is another brilliant story stripped down to marketing, remakes, spin-offs, and half-baked shows for the streaming giants.”
“Yet it will happen eventually!” Daniel took a sip of his drink and slightly recoiled. A muttered “interesting” before he continued. “It is just the evolution of culture. Ideas shift and evolve through all the various mediums as it keeps up with the ever-decreasing attention span of our species. We need to be reminded of our cultural icons and that reminder will always be kept up to date. We may bemoan and romanticize times where our stories were told only once, but we certainly don’t paint our thoughts on walls anymore, do we?”
“Just because our society evolves a certain way doesn’t mean quality automatically becomes better. Created works become manufactured! Meaningless other than to sell more! They may be fun bits of entertainment, but they’ll never reach the creative quality of original works.”
Nancy changed the topic just as Daniel was about to make his rebuttal, causing him to instead look down and begrudgingly take another sip of his cocktail. He grabbed the menu to look for another one.
We went on to talk about the various goings on in our lives. Daniel, expectedly, dominated the conversation briefly with some theory about why he saw an expiration date with the woman he had been seeing for all of a week. The excuse had obviously been concocted too late in an introspective evening, and the three of us soon booed him off to buy another round of drinks. He shot the last of his drink, tapped it on the table a few times, then headed to the bar with his hands up in surrender.
After a few drinks, the whiskey had begun to swim around in my head, energizing my ego. I was acting in accordance with my surroundings. Staying within my chosen social circle. Aligning myself with my friends’ ideals. This person makes this statement, wants me to agree, thus I shall agree, lest I lose a piece of comfortable familiarity in my life. When I noticed this social adjustment I had made, I could not help but wonder if Mage would ever do the same. If he aligned his views to fit with mine as our discussion wore on. If he was here, would he be the one wild animal in a group of dogs?
I wrapped up the article as best I could the following morning and submitted it. Please the audience. A day in the life of Mage Williams. His discussion with the audience was done. Yet I still wanted to continue ours.
I called Mage after submitting the interview and he agreed, without hesitation, to meet for coffee in town. We met at a little cafe themed around an ancient philosophical style. It attracted us types who liked to feel as if we were the next big cultural shift, standing on the shoulders of great figures, when really we just drank lattes named after them.
We both got a coffee - mine black, his with milk and extra sugar - and immediately our conversation flowed as smoothly as before. Though this time his demeanor had a noticeable difference. He seemed guarded, as if he felt he had shared too much before and was trying to hold back from saying more. The conversation was more directed at my career in journalism and my personal decisions that led me there. Mage softly prodded me about my travels around the world, my lifestyle, and the reasons I do not enjoy fiction. Why I read biographies and books about history. Why I prefer to write long, detailed journalistic pieces. In a vulnerable moment between us, he listened intently as I described a memory of mine from when I was young. I was nine years old when I had read a short fantasy book about a little village of gnomes in a grassy clearing in the forest. The story moulded my blooming imagination and I saw the countryside at the edge of our neighbourhood as this vast and magical world. I packed a bag full of all the useless but comforting things a child packs for adventure and set out to find that magic. To find a village of gnomes. To find elves and dwarves. Ancient and storied ruins. Fantastic creatures. Instead, I was found by a search party three days and two nights later, wet and cold. I was lying under my torn and dirty blanket against a small tree deep in the woods. I had been lost. I had found no magical creatures or villages. Only the indifference of a world I had no idea how to survive in. A world that fiction would not prepare me for.
As I grew older I wandered the world for stories of our own. Tales I could reach out and touch. Characters I could walk alongside and share experiences with. It may not be as fantastical as the worlds of fiction, but it was real. He had smiled at this story, adjusting and fiddling with his necklace that had come loose. It was a small piece of icy blue stone with a coated piece of a computer chip embedded into it.
By the end of our conversation, I felt there was something deeper that he had yet to admit. There seemed to be a definitive revelation about Mage that all of our talk orbited around, like a black hole not allowing light to escape. I could clearly see all of the information he had given me so far, but not the collapsed star at the centre. I was faced with the dilemma whether or not to seek out that revelation. I had begun to care for Mage beyond a simple subject to be studied and uncovered, and I felt that this truth he was not showing me was something deeply personal.
We began to develop a friendship and took regular long walks together. We never did meet back at his comfortable little home, instead immersing ourselves in the warm, sunny weather.
We talked about the world of journalism. The state of the world. Personal dilemmas, philosophies, and revelations. We met almost weekly for the next three months. Whenever I asked him about Mora, he would light right up. One time I even caught him talking about it as if it were a bit of news he had just read.
“Just the other day, two small tribes locked in a war over a very small oasis in the desert finally reached peace. One of them got so frustrated with the war, that she dug down into the ground in an attempt to drain it. No water for anyone. The tribes would just part ways and go looking for other oases. Instead, she hit the water table. There was so much water locked underneath that tiny pond. I believe they are about to discover irrigation,” he recounted, lost in the idea.
“Oh? Did you read this in their newspaper?” I joked. “I must admit I enjoy it when you talk about your ideas as if they happened just outside your home.”
“I do that often, don’t I? Sometimes in fiction, it certainly feels like the story is guiding you. Not the other way around.” His voice and focus drifted away from me and he stopped to look at a bunch of geese and their young on the bank of the river we walked along.
“We talk a lot about objectivity. What is physically real. Tangible,” he said, watching the geese. “Subjectivity is just imagination and opinion. Objectivity is physical reality. Yet some subjective things transcend their imaginative state when they are accepted ubiquitously. Money has no objective value. It is literally meaningless and valueless. Yet we all unanimously believe it to have value. Entire lives are spent building upon the subjective relevance of money, and thus it controls all of our societies. We believe in it so ubiquitously that this completely subjective thing becomes objective to our species. These geese would just as soon eat it, but it rules us humans.”
I did not know where this monologue had come from, but I did not want to interrupt it. Mage suddenly seemed caught in a reverie. A distant philosophy he had been unravelling for some time. Putting it through experiments in his mind like a scientist with a new hypothesis. We had often gotten lost in conversation about objectivity and subjectivity. It was a fun topic considering the difference that was apparent between us: I was a very objective person, fascinated by the physical world around me. Mage was very subjective, living largely within the stories he projected over the world around him. We saw the world through these different lenses. Storytellers from different worlds. Different mediums of the same form of art.
Mage continued: “What if writers of fiction just wove the subjective reality around the objective? You told me a few months ago about getting lost in the woods. I want to be careful not to understate the danger and terror of such a situation for a child...but the book you read was a story that gave you something to chase after. Our stories create real hope in times of darkness. Stories can haunt an entire town that has no actual ghosts. They can make a home feel unwelcome. Or they can make a clearing in a forest paradise. Like the money that connects the world, or the connections that pull lovers together, stories create a reality just as powerful in how it shapes our humanity as the glaciers that carved out our continent. You may not read fiction, but you are just as fascinated with the way stories have shaped our objective world as much as I enjoy shaping it.”
Mage smiled as one of the young goslings slipped on the muddy slope and into the water. For a brief moment, I saw a man who had spent his entire life living in the world of Mora. He watched the geese as if it were the first time he had known of their existence. He then extended an invitation I had not heard from him since I met him: he invited me to come have some very smokey tea at his home.
His home had the same cool winter feel when we entered. He invited me to make myself comfortable in the living room while he went into the kitchen to make the tea. Across the front hallway from the living room entrance was another room. A small den. The door was closed last time I was there, but now it was partially open and I could glimpse an easel and unfinished painting. From what had been completed so far, I recognized a young human-looking character, but broader and with somewhat drooping ears. It was a woman, her breasts exposed as shamelessly as any man who took off his shirt to work in the summer heat. She stood in a pit in the ground, back against the wall with a look of surprise and joy. Water welled up beneath her feet. Her discovery will change the course of their history. I could not help but feel excited for her.
Mage carefully walked into the living room, balancing the two teacups until he could set mine down on the table in front of me. The aroma of smoke filled the room like a campfire in the winter woods.
“I really enjoyed your article from our interview, when we met a few months ago,” Mage began. While he talked he fiddled with his necklace. The light through the window caused the blue stone to glint and gleam. “I appreciate that you kept out most of our more candid discussions, yet the article still shone with such care. As if I was already a good friend.”
I smiled and thanked him. Took a sip of tea. Fire and pine.
“Though, it was missing something,” he continued. “It was missing a very definitive and quintessential truth. An objective truth.”
I leaned forward, my curiosity completely aroused. He was speaking slowly, like he was still deciding if he should continue talking, and I had not wanted to scare him back into silence. He then asked me to follow him to another room in the house.
As we walked upstairs, the denizens of Mora watched us pass. A hushed excitement emanated from them, as if they were all giddy at the discovery I was about to make. Children watching as their parents open their poorly wrapped Christmas present.
He opened a large, beautifully carved oak door. I remembered it from my first tour, though at that time it had remained closed. Inside was his office. Notebooks were everywhere and a laptop sat on a small desk. The room was full of bookshelves, plants, and thoughtfully placed treasures. The large wall that faced outside was exposed limestone, making the room feel old and storied. It was like we had stepped out of the house and into a little temple carved out of a mysterious forest. This was where he wrote. I noticed on one of the walls another painting that he did not show me on our first tour. It depicted a clearing in the forest and two child-like creatures on all fours in the shadows of the trees. Their grey-white eyes seemed luminescent. The painting that he gave to Mackenzie. A copy? It looked original. Perhaps returned. I had wanted to ask him, but put the query aside as he pulled a bookcase open like a door to reveal another room.
“Hidden room behind a bookcase? Classic. And not at all surprising for you, Mage,” I joked. He chuckled and asked me to follow him in. Cold air spilled out of the room. It felt like we were entering a walk-in freezer.
The room was small and consisted simply of a small air conditioning unit, a dehumidifier, and a table with a strange looking apparatus on it. It looked like some kind of large, futuristic microscope. It was very smooth and organic in its design; no straight edges. A tall, cylindrical tower made of wood capped with a dark blue glass window. An arm reaching overtop like a branch with another mask-shaped piece of lighter blue glass. Sitting to the side was a ball the size of a softball, perfectly smooth and made of the same blue glass. The icy light from the apparatus was the only light in the room, making the space feel distant and remote. As if we were in a northern outpost.
Mage sat down in front of the apparatus and rested his face snug into the looking glass. He took the ball in his hand and started moving it around, spinning it in its little dock. He pinched and spread his fingers along its surface, as if zooming in and out of a picture on a phone. After a moment of this he stood up and stepped aside.
“Please, have a look,” he said. His smile warmed the space up a little.
“Oh! And put these on,” he said as he handed me a pair of headphones from the one drawer in the desk. I put them on and set my face against the looking glass. Instead of seeing just blue light reflected off the glass, my eyes adjusted to a view that will never leave my mind. It was a huge, forested valley bordered by glacier-locked mountains. Mage’s arm moved past me and the image in front of me flew and descended into the trees. There, in a small settlement, were the Gandar tribe from Mage’s first novel. They milled around their village. They talked to each other in a language I faintly recognized from the novel. They bickered and hugged and played. They worked. They lived.
“You created a virtual version of Mora? Are you making a video game? What even is this machine?” I rambled. I was still registering what I was looking at. It did not look like normal computer-generated models. The detail was so lifelike.
“Not a game. Not even just a virtual representation, but a fully self-aware world. I am, as a fiction writer, a bit of a fraud,” Mage said as he chuckled. “I created Mora and let it evolve on its own. I did not create the stories I wrote, I simply observed them. Everything I wrote happened as organically in that device as you getting lost in the woods, chasing a story you thought was real. Mora has real physics. Real cultures. It is a virtual world to us, but to them, it feels as real as our walk back to my home.”
He took my place and looked through himself, moving the ball - a type of controller, I surmised - and then backed away again.
“Look again,” he instructed. My eyes adjusted to the looking glass and I could see a pair of Gandarians talking to each other. Two men. Friends, perhaps, as they laughed together at something one had said. The image zoomed in some more until it was directly on one of the men’s eyes. It glowed with the smile that stayed on his face.
“Mage...are you saying that Mora is real? This is just a computer. This can’t…”
I kept trying to wrap my head around it. Mage then crouched down beside me and took my hands in his.
“Mora is very real. I spent most of my young life building it. I wasn’t writing all that time in university when I should have been working. I was building this. Studying as much as possible about the algorithms for life. Physics. Even chemistry. Failure after failure of trying to put it into a machine. This is actually a piece of one of the first attempts,” he pointed to his necklace. “I accounted for every detail. Always perfecting the algorithm for as realistic a world as possible. It wasn’t until my final year, as I finally graduated, that the world of Mora truly began. I told this special machine to take all the information I had collected and build a world. Create a starting point. Just a simple, lifeless planet. Then I sped up the clock and waited. Within a year, I peered through that looking glass to see an entire planet had evolved. Entire species, cultures, settlements, and languages. All sentient. All aware of the world they live in. They do not know they are within a machine. To them, their world is just as real and tangible and objective as ours.”
His words floated through my head before being dumped like a useless pamphlet. My mind could not accept it. I turned away from Mage and leaned over the looking glass. I slowly started moving my fingers across the controllers surface, pulling my view back to the two friends. The detail was incredible, but this could still just be a static rendering. A virtual reality video. I watched the two Gandarians continue to talk in their language, listening to them through the headset. I could not understand them, but I was not interested in what they were saying. I was listening to the cadence. I was watching their movements. The little behaviours that only come from actual, sentient personality. Even someone as creatively brilliant as Mage could not consider the minutiae of an individual’s behaviour. The smallest moments that I have witnessed over countless interviews. Studied as I watched people in coffee shops or in transit. Reading about the habits and behaviours of real, living people on Earth.
I watched as one of the men shifted his weight unconsciously. Noticed the relief in his face as he talked. An old injury, perhaps. A moment later, his gaze became slightly unfocused as his friend answered him. He stole a glance at himself and re-adjusted to how he was before. The slightest of winces before his attention snapped back into the conversation. He was trying to force his posture.
I forgot about Mage, instead meandering my sight around the village. Watched more individuals and their interactions. The random moments. The complete fucking chaos of it all. Not a single part seemed scripted.
I must have sat there for an hour just soaring around the world of Mora. I ran through villages. Towns. Witnessed people and creatures. Moments. Natural occurrences. Mage rested his hand gently on my shoulder, which surprised me. I had forgotten he was even there. I extracted myself from the looking glass and leaned back in the chair. My eyes struggled to adjust to the dark room and my joints ached as they finally felt movement again.
“It’s real,” I said, unable to find a single argument against what I had observed.
“All of it.”
I walk out of the room containing Mora and shudder to let the cold of the air conditioning slough off of me. I remove my sweater, toss it over the desk chair and close the bookcase doorway behind me before heading back downstairs. It is late morning as I make myself some coffee and a couple of eggs. Outside, the moisture in the air is crystallized from the cold of winter; glinting shards of ice float in space, sparkling like a million stars. The warmth from the fireplace makes the winter landscape seem distant. A living painting on the wall.
Six months have passed since Mage introduced me to the world of Mora. I moved into his home soon after. It was an easy move. I got rid of all my furniture, which was not hard to do as all of it was old and tarnished, bought second hand years ago. Mage still lives here too, when he is around. He often travels, taking in a world he has never truly explored. He lived his whole life within Mora, now he wants to see his own world for himself. We keep in touch often - usually so he can ask me advice on how to travel. Ever the subjective romantic, Mage insists on using letters and postcards for most of our correspondence unless its urgent. He is almost like a child in our world. He is clumsy, forgetting how to make plans and sometimes becoming aimless. I give him places to see and sometimes even write out itineraries so he is able to keep on track. He also still asks about how Mora is doing whenever we talk. Just last month I excitedly told him of a new area I discovered deep in one of the great forests. Buried near a large lake in this temperate jungle, there was an area where mushrooms the size of small trees sprouted up from the rocky ground. Their stems were a network of twisting and turning root-like structures, giving them the appearance of a jellyfish. They were untouched and undiscovered by any of the intelligent species, but one large mammal seemed to love chewing on the stems. Mage told me he could not wait to see it when he returned home.
Whenever he was here at home, he would help me with my writing. He had many more years of experience than I did, after all. He also inspired in me a new appreciation for fiction. While I was much worse at it than him, we would often spend evenings coming up with little stories and tell them to each other. It was a nice break from the world outside, as well as the world in that beautiful machine. Every time he was home, I would also catch Mage in the office staring at the painting he once gave to Mackenzie. Despite us becoming very dear friends, he never went into any depth about his old friend. I wondered if I would ever get the chance to meet her, but any time he mentioned her, it would not be in the future tense.
I had quit my full time job as a journalist, but still work freelance in between writing about Mora. His books will continue, though for now they are written by me. Mage wanted Mora to continue living on in our world, and for someone to take care of it while he spent what remained of his health to enjoy the world he had for so long ignored. He has given that trust to me. I will still use Mage’s name as the author of the books and we agreed to share in the profits. He simply had one rule: never interfere with the world, so as not to muddy the story of Mora’s evolution and become some god figure. “Is god not just man who interferes with nature?” Mage had said during our long talk into the night after he first showed me the reality of Mora. There was another controller that controls the state of Mora. He said it was ever only to be used for maintenance of the machine itself, though that was rarely needed. He also used it to speed or pause time in the world. He assured me that these manipulations of time were not noticed by the living beings of Mora. Time was relative, after all. It made me wonder if someone was controlling our time; if when “time flies,” it was simply some higher being pushing the clock out of impatience.
So far I had only pushed time forward once to see how the tribes of the desert oasis got along after discovering the aquifer below them. As Mage had predicted, they soon manipulated the groundwater to irrigate crops and expand the oasis. Despite some small bouts of conflict - echos of their small tribal war and a bit of discrimination between groups within the tribes - they eventually got along well enough. I pushed ahead to the next generation, not wanting to go too far as to miss other happenings in Mora. Already, their language had begun to change. There was the beginnings of a single belief system and currency. Never had witnessing evolution been so beautiful. I was already well into my first foray into the written world of Mora with a book about the oasis tribes, their war, and its resolution.
While drinking my coffee and reading one of Mage’s novels (I decided I should become better versed in its history), the doorbell rings and interrupts the stillness of the morning. It is Miles. I finally agreed to let him come over since moving into his favourite author’s house. Not that Mage did not want me to have company, as long as I kept the office locked and off limits - kept the reality of Mora hidden - and refrained from letting anyone take pictures of his art. I just found it fun letting Miles build up his anticipation. That, and I wanted to feel completely comfortable here first before I disturbed the magical ambience Mage had created in the home.
I open the front door and Miles can not contain his excitement. He gives me a quick hello and kiss on the cheek before pushing past me and hurriedly taking his coat and shoes off.
“Oh my god this place is beautiful! Okay, so I hope you don’t mind, but I absolutely invited Jav. He should be here pretty soon,” he says as he rubs his hands together to get rid of the chill from outside. I laugh and shake my head. I tell him that is fine. Jav is a pretty relaxed man whom Miles had been dating for some time. He did not come around quite as much as Miles’ other partner, Nancy, but we all enjoyed Jav’s company and the very grounded and philosophical aura that he had. We also found it adorable how much Jav balanced out Miles’, and even Nancy’s, more excitable personalities.
I offer Miles a cup of coffee, which he accepts, and we wait for Jav to arrive. We sit and catch up for a few minutes before the doorbell rings again and Jav joins us.
“I didn’t know you were also a fan,” I say as I pour Jav a coffee as well.
“Not quite as much as this nerd,” he nudges Miles with his shoulder. “But yes, I do really enjoy Mage’s books. I mean, his name alone: Mage Williams. It just grabs hold of you like a spell. I can’t not read something written by a name like that.”
Miles finishes the last of his coffee in a single gulp, wincing at the heat of it. “Can we see the paintings now?” he asks, already standing up with an excited hop in his step. Jav smiles and we both get up for the tour. With each painting, Miles can not help but exclaim his excitement, telling us what characters and stories the paintings are of. Both of us already know many of them, but do not want to ruin Miles’ dream.
“Oh! Oh! It’s Baralk, the conqueror of the Great Plains! I didn’t imagine him looking like this at all!” He exclaims as he is leaning off of Jav’s arm and pulls him to a sudden stop at the sight of the painting. I had already explained to both of them that no photographs were allowed, which they both respected.
Next to the painting is the locked, intricately carved oak door. Jav asks about it and I tell them it is Mage’s office and that, yes, it is unlocked with an old iron key. Miles eyes immediately light up, but I remind him that it was off limits. This is fairly obvious to them, as any author would not want people snooping around his unfinished works, but Miles still looks a bit defeated, his sliver of hope that an exception would be made snuffed out. Jav laughs and put his arm around him.
“Sorry, love. You wouldn’t want to ruin any surprise of future stories though, would you?” he consoles, and Miles agrees as we move onto the next of the paintings. Oh how little they knew of the surprise that truly hummed away in the lush room behind that beautiful door.
We cozy ourselves by the fire in the living room after the tour. I bring out some snacks and offer tea. I want to see their reaction to Mage’s smokey favourite; especially Miles, who I refrain from telling about the author’s preference until after he has reacted to it. As I predict, upon smelling the tea leaves of the lapsang, Miles recoils and refuses a cup. I tell him it is the only hot drink that Mage drinks, and Miles thinks only a moment before agreeing to give it a try. Jav is not swayed and sticks with a water while myself and Miles drink the strong tea, Miles trying his best to hide his distaste for it.
Miles begins to pepper me with questions about Mage and what it was like living in his house. I answer all of them as truthfully as I can without giving away too much information, delighting in the childlike glee that my answers give him. Jav interrupts here and there to steer the conversation towards deeper topics about writing and art in general, as well as personal topics about our own lives.
“Have you put the details of your new living arrangement on your dating profile?” Jav asks during one such break from Miles’ dictatorship of the discussion. “I imagine that’d be quite a hook. Or have you continued the pause on your account? How long has it been since you last matched with someone? A couple of years?”
I laugh, only slightly betraying my reluctance to have this discussion. “Oh, you know...busy with my new freelance lifestyle. Being a homebody. All the usual excuses. Besides, I thought I’d be a little traditional and try the classic ‘meant-to-be’ method of meeting someone in person.”
“Traditional!” Miles jumps in. “Rey, you’d be hard pressed to find someone traditionally anymore. Either you have an active profile or you aren’t looking.”
“You met Jav outside of an app!” I snap.
“Yeah, but we were both active,” Jav smirks. “And our algorithms had pointed us to the bar we met at, since there were a lot of active members within our interests. Don’t get me wrong, I love the romantic quality of traditional, but these days no one dates on pause.”
“Hey now. I’ll do me, okay?”
He is not wrong. In truth, I am not really looking, wanting to spend all of my time writing and taking a break from this world. I would go active again eventually, but until then I will stick with the traditional dating story. Dating traditionally rarely works, but time and technology had yet to make it entirely implausible. My excuse is not completely untrue, either. While I am not throwing myself out there to find someone, the young and rudimentary societies of Mora - and the charming, classic quality of Mage’s home - sparked in me an appreciation for more luddite lifestyles. I even sometimes catch myself feeling a sense of attraction and - I am shy to admit - desire for one of the men who I had first seen through the looking glass into Mora. The man with the old injury who was constantly training his posture. I would find myself invisibly soaring into his little village from time to time to watch him live his life. His name, I inferred from its common use in addressing him, is Azubik. He spends a lot of his time hunting for game for the village and crafts the hide into clothing along with his friend with whom I had first witnessed him talking. He has a wife and two children. As much as I love watching their family, I could not help but feel a hint of human jealousy whenever Azubik and his wife share intimate moments. Maybe I should get out more...or at least activate my account again.
We talk and catch up some more. A couple more questions asked about Mage’s lifestyle. Goodbyes and promises of reunion at the door. Then the house is mine again. I throw some ripe slices of tomato on toast and go back to the office. Hanging opposite the door, the Mackenzie’s painting still hangs on the wall. I could almost empathize with the child creatures in the shadows, staying hidden in the woods away from the world.
I sit at the desk and continue writing in my notebook that contains the story of the new oasis tribe. Other quickly jotted notes are scattered around me. I look at one of them. It is a hypothesis about a name I had heard repeated in the Gandarian settlement. Mak. My best guess is she is a trader or envoy from another tribe to the north. A race of magically elegant people with pointed ears - Mora’s elves, named the Endarians. Mac. She seems to be close to a few of the Gandarians she trades with. Mack. She sits in a glade sometimes on her way between settlements. She watches crooked looking creatures that hide in the trees. I look up at Mage’s painting on the wall.
Awkward looking creatures.
I throw on my sweater and walk back into the cold of Mora. My hand on the controller and my face snug in the looking glass, I let my eyes adjust to the daylight. I am on the edge of the oasis, looking across to a woman helping a young man carry back some water from the pond. I pull myself up and away from them. I fly across the sea to the north. The mountains that border them; a maw of spines made from rock and ice. One range reaches heights that make our Himalayas seem like foothills.
Carved out of that timeless landscape by flows of towering molten ice flourishes a primal forest. Trees so ancient and large they seem as if they could pierce the clouds of Jupiter. Deep within it, along one of the glacial rivers, nestles a tribe of men and women as strong and soft as the wood they shape their homes out of.
Though I do not spot Azubik there immediately, I see his children and his wife catching fish in the river. The younger child is simply playing with the fish that are caught and held in a pool of rocks built within the river. Their father must be hunting. I scroll across to one of his regular hunting spots, where he could generally pick up the trail of some game. I find him not far from there, in the trees with an animal. It is a large, moose-like creature with a long, old, and bearded face and great antlers. Its body resembled the frame of a gorilla, just much bigger. Taller than any man or woman. It is incredibly territorial. This one has Azubik cornered against a large rocky ravine. Azubik yells and stabs his spear at it, but the sage moose angrily bellows and rakes the ground with its antlers, lichen that grows upon them scrapes onto the ground. It is ready to charge.
I think of Mage only a second, then reach for the system controller. Azubik roars defiantly and crouches back against the rock wall, his spear held out and hopeless. A haunting moan from the animal, a thunderous crack, and silence. Azubik sits there, his yell running out of air and his face clenched against his shoulder. Silence. Still pumped full of adrenaline, he slowly looks up. Lowers his spear. The sage moose is gone. In its place is a harmless snake. Azubik looks around him, the sun streaming in through the trees. Then he looks up.
Into the face of a god.