All hardship had been eliminated: the Replicator provided food, vaccine, tools, toys, and android companions: anything desired. No one was supposed to be unhappy.
Darvon was unhappy.
"What do you want?" the Replicator asked.
"Wealth," Darvon replied.
The Replicator produced piles of antique coins and gems. But Darvon was still unhappy.
"What do you want?"
The Replicator produced a powered exoskeleton, strong enough to shatter a mountain and haul it away. But Darvon was still unhappy.
"What do you want?"
"Prestige must be earned."
Darvon demolished the Replicator, then seized control using bribes and intimidation.
Darvon was happy.
"You must think I'm an idiot."
She said nothing.
"You gave me so much advice on how to win over Charissa."
"Did it work?"
"Certainly. I embarrassed and impoverished myself, but she ate it up. She's already making wedding plans. Expensive ones."
"How happy you must be."
"Not really. She's a vain, greedy simpleton. I can see that now that I'm no longer blinded by her beauty."
"So what do you want from me now?" she sighed.
"Tell me how to win you over."
She looked startled for a moment, then she smiled.
"Impress me with your ingenuity," she said.
"I'm a failure," Jakob said morosely.
"Nonsense!" Dunkan replied. "You've fulfilled the dream of alchemists throughout the ages! How are you a failure?"
"I didn't anticipate the consequences! And now we're worse off than before."
"You're clever, you'll figure something out. But you've had enough to drink. Let's go home." Dunkan waved the barmaid over and handed her a gold coin.
"Master Ingleman," she said, frowning, "You know that's no good."
"Oh, right!" Dunkan handed her silver instead. Then he set his gold tankard on the gold table and led his brother out the gold doors to the gold-paved street.
Gavin peeked over the opposite side of the workbench, trying to see better. "What are you making, Grampa?"
"Something for you," Grampa replied. He sawed and drilled and tapped and sanded.
Gavin circled, impatient and eager. "Is it a dog? A horse? An anteater?" Grampa shook his head gently at each guess.
Finally Grampa held it up. "Almost finished!" he said, then handed it to the boy. Gavin's face lit with delight, and he ran outside to play with his new toy.
As Grampa watched out the window, Gavin's mother joined him. "What did you make, Dad?"
Six years in the fort's small cell had been plenty of time for Horace to reflect on his mistake. Certainly he'd run because he'd been afraid, but hadn't the other men been afraid too? Why had his fear overcome him when the others had stood firm? Perhaps he'd had more to live for. As the youngest son of a nobleman, Horace had lived a life of ease before undertaking his mandatory service, and he'd expected to return to that ease afterward. But now he'd spent more time imprisoned than he was supposed to have spent in service, and with no end in sight. Execution would have been kinder.
This morning, for the first time since he'd deserted his post, he heard the howls of the weir again, and then came sounds of battle. Horace trembled as the screams and shouts came closer, within the walls of the fort. When the fighting stopped, the only voices had the distinctive snarl of the weir language. Eventually a pair of weir entered the jail. Spying him, they unlocked the cell and dragged him up to the captain's office.
The weir warchief stood over the captain's desk, twisting patterns shaved and painted in thin lines in the fur of his arms and torso. He turned his yellow eyes on Horace. "You are prisoner, so you are their enemy too," he snarled in broken Anglish. "You read papers, help us plan next attack." The warriors shoved him into the chair before a stack of reports. "Read!" the warchief commanded.
Horace reached out with trembling hands to take the stack, and found the letter opener forgotten beneath it. He paused, wondering what to do. The weir would probably honor their word, and he keep him alive as long as he helped them. And Horace had no particular loyalty to the dead men of this fort after what they had said and done to him over the past six years. He could live, and be free again. But he could never return to the life of ease he'd once expected.
Maybe that's why we suffer, he thought, so that we don't hold our lives so dear that we can't give them up when the time is right.
"What do papers say?" the chief demanded, bringing his muzzle down to Horace's face.
"They say we must stop you here," Horace replied, and he struck.
"Next question?" Mike Toburn asked, looking around the conference room. Several people were still jotting down his response to the previous question, but none scribbled as furiously as the young man in the front row who waved his other hand. Mike pointed at him. "Yes?"
"What causes writer's block?" he asked, still writing.
"Oh, yes, I know writer's block," Mike responded. "I'm afraid I've become infamous for it. I'm sure that by now most of you have heard some of the hell I've put my publishers through with missed deadlines and such. I've reformed now though. I've found a surefire cure, and that's to... yes?"
The young man was waving his left hand again, still scribbling with his right. "No, that's not my question. How do you get writer's block?"
Mike stared at the young man for a moment, watching him flip over an inked sheet of paper on his thick notebook and continue to write.
"Be afraid," he said finally. "Fear that what your writing isn't good enough, isn't creative enough, that you'll never be able to top what you've already done, that no one cares what you think, that your characters are flat, your plots are cliches, your scenery pale gray. Fear that there are thousands, millions of other writers out there that are better than you, and your voice will never be heard. Fear that your words can never express the ideas that scream in your head. Fear that you don't feel enough, that your readers will know you're a fake. Fear that the words just won't come at all, that your well is dry, that you have nothing left to give. Be very, very afraid."
As he spoke, the young man's pen slowed and finally stopped. He put his pen down and massaged his writing hand. "Thank you," he said.
"Glad I could help. Next question?"