Mardel's Salamander (ebook)
Friday Fictionette for July 20, 2018. Download via attached links as pdf, epub, and/or mobi. Also available as an audiobook.

Now the Fictionette Freebie for July 2018!

No one remembers the diamonds anymore. Only me.


The prompts for this story were two tweets from the Magic Realism Bot. It's hard to stop at just one. They're too entertaining. Besides, the best story ideas are multiple. Interesting things happen where they intersect.

The first one was, "A necromancer owns a Renaissance painting which depicts every sin by a software developer." And the second was, "A chameleon sits on a diamond supermarket." Neither quite made a spark on its own, but put them together and they form fascinating causal possibilities.

I regret the loss of the painting. I was going to make it a tapestry, actually, one that chronicled the reasons for the current shape of the world. A museum tour guide would be talking about it with the afternoon's visitors. But in the course of writing the story, everything about that conversation changed, including the characters having it.

Mardel's Salamander
by Nicole J. LeBoeuf 

Mardel’s sins were as multiple and fractal as only those of a software developer can be. His code was spaghetti. His indentation was inconsistent. His comments, when he bothered to make them, were opaque in the extreme. He committed order-of-operation errors, misplaced his decimal points, made typos of every description. But all of these sins could have been forgiven were it not for the one that raised the stakes for all: He sent his code untested into production.

Remember that we’re talking about that exciting decade-or-so just after the discovery of how to apply computer code to non-computer reality but well before most of the safeguards we take for granted today. The CEOs had just realized that their employees’ keyboards were in fact magic wands, and every (literal) goose could be (literally) made to lay golden eggs. The ratio of looking to leaping had fallen to historic lows, and chaos was rife.

Which brings us to the so-called Midas problem, which may be summarized by the following question: Can the newly apprehended laws of digitally synthesized magic be used to sidestep the law of conservation of energy, such that lead might profitably be turned into gold? There was more to it, of course, but nuance is always the first casualty when popular wisdom sinks its teeth into the wrong end of the stick.

Doesn’t matter. Point is, that’s what Mardel’s team was working on. But not lead into gold per se. Specifically, their assignment was to turn gravel into gems, and then gems into lots and lots of gems. Could it be done? The answer, it turned out, was boy howdy yes, with a corollary of Dammit, Mardel.

Basically what happened was, there was a FOR loop that went infinite, and there were poorly defined variables, and the location parameters were off by one or two or, let’s be honest here, twenty-seven, and anyway by the time they got it all shut down there was a salamander the size of a small elephant sitting on a pile of diamonds the size of baseballs in the middle of what used to be the amphibian and reptile section of the pet shop down the block.

Yes. We’re talking about that debacle. You wouldn’t remember the diamonds, of course. That part was hushed up for obvious reasons. But you remember the giant salamander. Everyone remembers the giant salamander. Even people who were two years old at the time and drooling on Baby’s First Pocket Computer. And you were, what, eleven? twelve?

Twenty-six? Really? My apologies. I always get that wrong; I don’t know why I keep trying to guess.

Anyway, where was I? Right.

Salamanders, like all their kin both amphibious and reptilian, dream of being dragons. Why shouldn’t they? Humans dream of dragons all the time. No matter where they live or who they’ve talked to, they look at their local lizards and imagine them twenty feet tall and breathing fire. Might have something to do with having dinosaurs in our blood, I don’t know. But the upshot is, that salamander’s dragon dreams came true that day. She saw what the terrarium gravel had turned into and knew immediately what to do with all those precious stones. She hoarded them. She rolled in them. She rubbed them all over her scales as though they were the last drops of water in a desert. And she took deep offense at anyone who even looked like trying to take those diamonds away. Salamanders have teeth, which maybe humans don’t take seriously but prey sure do. Humans now looked awfully prey-sized to Mardel’s salamander.

Of course she was Mardel’s. Maybe she didn’t belong to Mardel, but she was Mardel’s problem. Mardel had to fix it. And he did, but his fix was... well, the pet shop was more or less restored to its former plan, but the salamander would never be the same. It all turned out for the best, though. Dragons aren’t the only thing salamanders dream about, it turns out. Humans neither.

It wasn’t the first of such incidents. It wasn’t even the last straw. It was only part of a wave of disasters and transmogrifications that for about ten, twelve, thirteen years made it unbelievably risky just to take your dog for a walk. You never knew whether it would be a dog by the time you got back home or maybe a tiger. No wonder that period’s commonly known as the Digital Dark Age. Well, romantics with their heads full of fantasy novels refer to that decade-or-so as The Wizards’ War, but that’s stupid. If there was anything resembling a war, it was a corporate war, software company versus software company, a race through the marketplace of dangerous ideas. But it was like a war in that there were casualties. Did you ever hear about that family whose house changed into a forest while they were sleeping? A very fast-growing forest. Gruesome business.

By the time Mardel’s salamander happened, the computer companies had already recalled the machines with the so-called “magic wand” chip. But no one wanted to comply. And even as the salamander was breakfasting on similarly transformed geckos in the pet shop—disgusting beasts, bitter and bilious—more of the chips were being assembled in suburban garages and DIY warehouses across the world, so a recall wouldn’t have solved anything. Finally the international White Hats group implemented the cloud-based grid that dampens the magic wand effect, and that more or less did what it needed to do. But you still get hackers.

And that’s why you and I are having a chat today. The White Hats deputized me to come round and have a talk with anyone who tries hacking their way out from under that grid. Generally I find that talking works. Most people hear the story of Mardel and the giant salamander, they see things in a new light, they ditch the idea. Many of them apply for official magic chip work—that chip’s the best counter to global climate change since Kyoto. Sometimes the erstwhile hackers even join the White Hats. Or they try. Not everyone who wants in gets in. They’re an exclusive bunch.

And if you don’t? Well, I’m not just their ambassador. I’m also their enforcer. I still have all my teeth and claws. You don’t want to see me use them.

Good decision. Smart of you. If you change your mind, remember, you’ll be hearing from me.

Kind of you to ask. Mardel’s doing just fine. We’re both fine. Although I do wish he’d proof his own code. Most of the time I end up doing it. Someone’s got to, and I’m convenient. At least he doesn’t expect me to cook. Cooking turns out to be one of the things he actually does OK with. Who’d have thought?

Oh yes. I remember the diamonds. I remember them very well.