I have long yearned to try my hand at short fiction (a smoldering ambition of mine), but maneuvering it within my column's inherent restraints was always too tricky. Then Laboratory Maniac came along. Ever have those moments where the pieces fall into place perfectly, and an idea manifests fully formed, ready to crackle into being? Being assigned Deranged Assistant to preview as well was just one of those pieces. The rest came from my whimsical ponderings on not just Magic, but the mystical aspects of life that I seem to pick up on.
That, or I'm crazy. Which fits.
A rush of piercing light, then a grating noise, a sonic scythe cutting the air. Eyes flash open and just as quickly snap shut again. The light is too bright.
A disembodied voice, living in
my mind. Multiple realities burst behind
my eyelids in jagged blasts... pictures and images that just as quickly reduce into words, scrolling at hyper-speed along the streets of the void.
"...just a few more seconds!" comes that voice again, faint, ghostly. Its words, formless and smoky, cannot compare to the neon letters, so structured and conceivable, streaking through
my brain. They were garbled lunchboxes of words only a second (or was that a lifetime?) ago; now they are taking on reasonable orders. Some high-flying outliers whizz by;
I can make out "Fate," "Secrets," and "Paradise" amidst the chaos.
"...nearly there!" cries the voice, a bit clearer now, a bit more triumphant now. And suddenly a sentence bursts into the spherical realm of the unknown.
"Hello and welcome to the Lab..."
And all is darkness again.
When I come to, a mottled blue hand is extended above me. I grasp it without thinking, without trusting. The world before, filled with duality and dizziness, had no other hand to hold.
The hand is cold and clammy to the touch, but I do not reject it. As it helps me into a sitting position I begin to scan my surroundings. A darkened, cavernous room stretches through my vision and beyond. Scattered tables and desks litter the floors, their legs hidden by blue wisps of clouded air. Black doors of a variety of peculiar shapes line the horizon, some without doorknobs, some located mid-wall, with no feasible way to enter.
I turn my gaze upward to see sprawling screened walls and windows, some thrust wide open to reveal the sky, peppered with infinite stars and cosmos.
"The floor is transparent..." says a voice. Not disembodied this time. I turn to finally look at my companion. He is gaunt and bald, with grayish skin and a long, tattered coat. He is looking at me with caution, though a glimmer of excitement dances behind his eyes.
"What?" I say.
"Look down," says the man. I look and see nothing but a low blue mist coating the floor. It swirls invitingly, and I squint. Between the wisps I can make out tiny beads of light, little drops of light... stars?
I want to whirl around and confront the man, but then this desire fades completely and reverses. I confront my own lack of fear. There should be a panic rat gnawing away somewhere, but its nest is empty for once. I feel calm. Like I've been here many times.
I turn back to the man. "Who are you?" I manage.
The man grins. "I'm Garl, your assistant."
He nods while I mull this over. This man Garl is my assistant. Assistants, on the whole, tend to the whims of a higher level of authority. I look at Garl, who is observing me. His face contorts with restrained glee.
I sit up further and examine my current area. A silver bench extends in front of me. I wonder why I am not frozen by its touch, and look directly down. I am resting on a padded interior of some egg-shaped object. I twist around and see the rest of the pod. A glass hinge dangles off of one side.
I swing my legs around, and Garl takes some steps back. I eye the spectral mist. "Is it safe?"
Garl points to his own feet, swallowed by the vapor. I take that as a yes and slide off the bench into a standing position, feeling my feet touch a solid flatness. The floor is light and almost springy. I take some experimental steps. I feel like I'm walking on a cloud.
I take a full view of my surroundings now, breathing deeply, noticing the cool atmosphere. From the window a puff of wind nudges me, a reminder that the air itself, that constant external entity, recognizes my own presence. I glance at the sea of doors on the walls and the tables that populate the room.
"Where am I?" I wonder aloud.
Garl's voice seems to tap me on the shoulder in response. "The Lab."
"As in, From the Lab?"
"The very same."
Deranged Assistant | Art by Nils Hamm
My mouth opens and closes several times while I process this. Eventually I say, "And where is the Lab? Am I in the Multiverse?"
Garl grins. "Not quite. You are between realms at the moment. The world you came from..."—with a nod he indicates the blue mist— "...and the Multiverse." He gestures towards the many doors.
"So I'm essentially standing on the threshold of the real universe, with the world I formerly thought was the only real one lying behind me?"
"In a sense," Garl says, his eyebrows rising.
"Sounds like I took the blue pill and the red pill." I smirk. "I so would."
"Nothing. So those doors... they lead to the actual Multiverse? How does that work?"
"I'll show you," Garl says. "Follow me." He starts walking towards the wall, weaving in between tables. As I follow I glance at them. Scattered papers cover most of them.
Soon Garl arrives at a thickset black door. It is ordinary apart from the words written on it in spindly blue. I read the snowy writing with exponentially growing interest.
"This is a decklist..." I mutter. I look down the aisle of doors. All of them have shining blue text written on them. "These doors to the Multiverse...they're decks?"
Garl nods. "They're individual portals into the Multiverse, each primed beforehand with a specific list of spells." He thrusts his hands in the air, at the swath of doors on the walls. "These are all your decks!"
Armed with this revelation, I gape at my archive, in dark wooden form. "How are the doors created? Is it...whenever I build a deck?"
Garl gives me a significant look. "Cottoning on, are you?" he says, with some irritation.
I ignore the jibe, as I'm intently studying the decklist before me.
"This seems to be a milling Merfolk deck," I say. "Hmm...Drowner of Secrets has always worked pretty well with Stonybrook Schoolmaster, for lots of other Merfolk to tap, and Judge of Currents can pad my life total. Hmm... Puresight Merrow creates an engine with Drowner, although it's also pretty good with Paradise Mantle..."
I stop, aware that I'm talking rapidly. But Garl's eyes are shining. He motions for me to continue.
"...right, the Mantle. Well, the Mantle on a Puresight Merrow also technically means I can mill out my own deck if I'd like. And there are Levelers in the deck?" I pause, thinking. "I must want to mill myself out. Jace, Memory Adept can target my own library too, and Mirror of Fate seems like a fun singleton I'd put in here, as another self-milling method. Merfolk Looter and Crystal Ball help me in slow, subtle ways... Scout's Warning is a helpful stalwart... but..."
I peter out, suddenly exhausted for words.
"...but I don't remember building this deck!"
His voice softens.
I think hard. Weren't some of these deck elements somehow familiar? And then it hit me. The other place, the one with the streams of words and the frayed duality. Didn't I see some of these words flash by just before...
"Garl... Why am I here now? Why, at this moment, for this deck?" I ask. A weird thought strikes me. "I haven't been here before, have I? You're not pulling a Memento on me, are you?"
Garl thinks a couple seconds before responding. "You have been here before, many times, but never as you are now, consciousness and speaking to me." He points over to the pod. "You've always been in there. You lie there, seemingly unconscious, and while you're there, some blank doors start to sprout words."
"And what do you do?"
Garl spread his arms. "I fulfill my duty as faithful assistant. I oversee the process, and make sure the pod is fine and all that."
"And what happens when the deckbuilding process ends?" I continue. "What happens when I'm done?"
"Then the pod clouds over with the blue mist," says Garl, "and it smothers you, and then you are physically and mentally back in your world."
I slowly stockpile all this information. Filing it all away is arduous, but I am comforted. I feel like I'm on a winding path of information, with all the Multiverse's secrets flowing towards me.
"What about my other question, Garl?" I ask. "Why is this happening now? Why hasn't this deck gone just like the others?"
"See if you can ask that question another way," Garl replies in a crisp tone.
My brow furrows. And then I see the jigsaw fall into place in my mind's eye. The last missing piece to this puzzle.
"What does Laboratory Maniac do?" I finally ask, my heart in my throat.
"It is your manifestation." Garl says simply. And then he tells me. And then I understand.
"That's why the deck wants to mill itself... to win!" Garl explains, but I am not listening. "The Puresight Merrow + Paradise Mantle combo or a single Leveler can give you an empty library, and then free or cheap card draw, such as from Merfolk Looter or Scout's Warning can instantly trigger victory."
Finally I say, "All my world-hopping, all my time shuttled between here and home, it really has caused me to slowly lose my mind. Yet at the same time, I've always felt I've been gaining something as well. Now I think I realize. All this time... I've been edging closer to a victory?"
Laboratory Maniac | Art by Jason Felix
I can feel my words orbit me, understand their significance, grasp their purpose. Garl is nodding absent-mindedly.
"Would you like to go home and sleep on this?" he asks. "You can come back like this any time, now that you've truly opened the door to the infinite."
That sentence hits me like a bolt of electric excitement.
"Later," I say. "Right now, if you don't mind, I'm going to play some Magic."
And with a small spasm of coiled energy, from the red hotbed of passion that lurks within, I place my hand on the doorknob.