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Other Works by E. W. Farnsworth


Engaging Rachel

John Fulghum Mysteries, Vol. I

John Fulghum Mysteries, Vol. II

John Fulghum Mysteries, Vol. III: Blue is for Murder

John Fulghum Mysteries, Vol. IV: The Perfect Teacher

Pirate Tales

Baro Xaimos: A Novel of the Gypsy Holocaust

Fairy Tales and Other Fanciful Short Stories

Among Water Fowl and Other Entertainments

The Black Marble Griffon & Other Disturbing Tales

The Wiglaff Chronicles: Book One: The Wiglaff Tales

The Wiglaff Chronicles: Book Two: The Emergence of the Shaman

Coming Soon

John Fulghum Mysteries, Vol. V: Finding Harry Diamond

John Fulghum Mysteries, Vol. VI



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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. All characters appearing in this work are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the written permission of the publisher.

For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below:

“Attention: Permissions Coordinator”

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PO Box 1172

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mail to: info@zimbellhousepublishing.com

© 2017 E. W. Farnsworth

Published in the United States by Zimbell House Publishing

Distributed by Smashwords

All Rights Reserved

Print ISBN: 978-1-945967-92-4

Digital ISBN: 978-1-945967-94-8

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017914470

First Edition: November 2017

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Zimbell House Publishing

Union Lake


Dedication


Euche & Ploce



Acknowledgements


The following stories: Element of Earth and Element of Fire [published in Elemental Foundations Anthology], The Hidden World, Troll Wedding and Runes of Time, [published in The Lost Door Anthology], TEOTWAWKI, and Across the Middle Sea [published in After Effects Anthology] first appeared separately in the bracketed anthologies from Zimbell House Publishing. They are included in this collection with the express permission of Evelyn Zimmer, Publisher, ZHP.

The following stories: The Witches of Wycherley College, Mr. Truman’s Ghosts, and Nocebo first appeared separately in various numbers of The Tightfisted Scot Advisory Newsletter. They are included in this collection with the express permission of Wilson F. Engel, Ph.D., Publisher, and Editor, TFS.


Foreword

The Witch Games, A Novella intentionally crosses the traditional boundary between tales about the supernatural and science fiction. Drawn from actual occurrences in radical institutions for the extremely gifted, the characters and situations of this novella may be confusing since artificial intelligence and robots, like Hal, are not yet widely integrated into academia and brilliance like that of Drs. Asplundh and Sund is rarely encountered outside of black programs of the US government. Be advised: the future depicted in this story is on our doorstep.

Other stories in this collection owe as much to fact as to folklore, traditions, and the author’s imagination. The spectrum is intentionally wide, running from “TEOTWAWKI,” about the aftermath of a catastrophic demise and strange rebirth of a high-tech company, to “The Yurei” and “The Empress Borte’s Revenge,” dark fairy tales about vengeful ghosts in the Japanese and Mongolian traditions. “The Fourth Horseman” and “Across the Middle Sea” are from the Christian tradition

“Mr. Truman’s Ghosts” is based on actual ghosts reported to be dwelling in the White House. The idea that those ghosts inform critical decision-making is the author’s fancy, though the reader must be assured the scenario presented is valid and as critical today as any affecting America as a global leader. Stories with Norse themes or Hopi Indian myths expand the geographical range while upending expectations. Above all, these stories are for thinking through supernatural situations. As the Study Questions imply, these stories are an invitation to think.

–E. W. FARNSWORTH


Contents

Prolog

The Motto of Wycherley College

The Treehouse of Wycherley

The Witches of Wycherley College

Element of Earth

Element of Fire

TEOTWAWKI

Mr. Truman’s Ghosts

The Yurei

The Empress Borte’s Revenge

The Fourth Horseman

The Dwelling

The Hidden World

Across the Middle Sea

Runes of Time

Troll Wedding

Nocebo

About the Author

Reader’s Guide

A Note from the Publisher


The Witch Games

A Novella


CONTENTS


Prolog

The Motto of Wycherley College

The Treehouse of Wycherley

The Witches of Wycherley College


Prolog

A new program at Wycherley College was founded in the auspicious year 2000 ACE by a group of anonymous billionaires “for the furtherance of paranormal and other non-standard intelligence, regardless of lineage, means, age and beliefs, so the world can be made a better place by those most capable of creating the means to do so.”

The enlightened and moneyed founders had the wisdom to understand that administration and faculty had to be as gifted as the students. They also knew the fledgling program would foster enmity with the traditional faculty at the college and with citizens in the nearby town.

The global search for the college’s first attendees was complemented by a similar search for an appropriate administrator and a small number of faculty.

While the college continued to search for an administrator, the incumbent Dean Astrid continued in place, assuming control of the nascent Paranormal Studies Program.

Two genius faculty members were selected among thirty-five-hundred candidates: middle-aged Dr. Asplundh and twenty-something Dr. Sund, colleagues and former employees of a highly classified artificial intelligence and robotics program of the US government.

Of the ten students stipulated as the desired number, only five arrived—all geniuses—Brian Foster, Nancy Newberry, Vanessa Holdup, Robin Fairchild, and Todd Umlaut. To separate their living quarters from the college dormitories, a habitat called ‘the treehouse’ was built especially for them and their spectral creations. The college failing to find ten students created an existential issue. Nursing was the rival program. Its champion was doing everything in her power to undermine the program for the gifted.


The Motto

of

Wycherley College

“Brian, are you asleep? Can you hear me?”

The young man was suspended by his feet from the ceiling. As it was early afternoon, he was resting.

“Is that you, Robin? Can’t it wait until break time this evening?”

“No. We have an emergency. I need a group meeting within fifteen minutes in the treehouse. Will you be there?”

“I’ll be there, but it had better be important, or I’ll be cross. I need my beauty rest.”

Brian dropped effortlessly from his ceiling perch to the ground and stretched. Robin smiled and ran to fetch Nancy, Vanessa, and Todd.

Fifteen minutes after Brian dropped, the five students met in their treehouse redoubt.

“Okay, Robin, why have you interrupted our schedules? It’s exam week. I need to be fully rested to pass the tests.”

The others nodded in agreement and looked at Robin for her response.

“It has to do with the future of our paranormal degree program. Dean Astrid is bent on terminating the program at the end of this semester for lack of enrollment.” Robin saw that she had made an impression on everyone.

Todd said, “That’s unfair! Where could we go to complete our degrees?”

“What right do they have to cut a program in the middle of the year anyway?” Vanessa said.

“We all knew this could happen when the president stepped down last August. She was our stalwart defender. As a graduate in paranormal studies, she had a vested interest.”

Nancy, always the practical one, asked, “So exactly what have you heard, Robin?”

“Dean Astrid met with Dr. Asplundh at one o’clock to inform her of the decision to terminate the paranormal studies program and all related courses at the end of the term. Faculty will be asked to switch to other departments or face termination. Students will be required to choose other majors before the beginning of the spring term.”

Vanessa said, “Were you in the room with them?”

“Deniably, yes. I happened to be practicing invisibility in the meeting room when they barged in. I didn’t have time to shift.”

Brian asked, “Did Dr. Asplundh object to the decision?”

Indeed, she did. At first, she laid out the rational arguments for continuing the program. When the dean discounted her points, Dr. Asplundh threatened to leave the college and return to government service, taking her special projects and grant money with her.”

“That must have given the old biddy something to think about,” Todd exclaimed.

“The dean was unfazed by the threat. In fact, by the look on her face, she might have been the cat that ate the canary.”

Brian asked, “Did Dr. Asplundh threaten to appeal the decision to the president and the board?”

“She did, but Dean Astrid was ready. She said Mr. Rogers, the president, and Mr. Finetooth, the chairman of the board, had already approved the program’s termin-ation. She showed Dr. Asplundh the letter to terminate the program – signed by both.”

Vanessa said, “Most of our courses are in the night school. That’s a separate school within the college, isn’t it?”

Robin scowled, “Dr. Asplundh raised that issue. Evidently, Dean Astrid had discussed the matter with Dean Medic of the night school already. She had all of her ducks in a row.”

“Bummer,” Nancy said. “Maybe it’s time for me to bring my father into the picture. After all, he’s the college’s biggest donor. If you subtract Dr. Asplundh’s project money and Dad’s annual contributions, the college would be hurting.”

Robin shook her head. “The Dean visited the Bursar’s office. She did the math. With the earnings from the night school programs and the contributions of a new donor for a nursing program, the college would come out ahead with the termination.”

Vanessa and Brian seemed to have an insight simultaneously.

“You go first, Vanessa.”

“Is there a connection between our program’s termin-ation and the new nursing program’s initiation next term?”

“I had the same thought,” Brian said. “What do you think, Robin?”

“Dr. Turnip, the new hire for the head of the nursing program, hates everything about paranormal studies. She’s a strict scientist. The dean mentioned that Dr. Turnip demanded the termination as a condition of her hire.”

Brian looked at Vanessa with a knowing smile. “And there’s the rub,” he said. “A witch and warlock hater!”

“Well,” Robin said, “we’re facing an accomplished sabotage. Let’s brainstorm what we can do to reverse the decision.”

Brian furrowed his brow and said, “Maybe we could arrange a delay of the termination until after the spring term?”

Robin wrinkled her nose. “Dr. Asplundh mentioned that her own contract ended in May.”

Nancy suggested, “Why don’t we approach Dr. Asplundh and review the bidding?”

“If we do that,” Robin said, “we’ll blow any chance of acting out of the box. Right now, Dr. Asplundh is not aware that I heard what was said in that meeting room. Whatever we do to set things right again, she’ll not be in the line of fire for any repercussions.”

The students brooded on the situation. Finally, Todd said, “If we use our special skills, we’ll have to be careful to leave no traces.”

“That’s right,” Vanessa agreed. “The last thing we need is to be expelled from college.”

Brian said, “We shouldn’t go off in different directions. We need a plan that will work. We’ll also have to manage the plan within our busy end-term schedules.”

“That’s why you’re here, Brian. Formulate a plan that we can all execute together.”

“Does everyone agree that something must be done?” Todd asked.

Robin looked from person to person. “Anyone who does not want to participate, just say so now and go on with what you were doing previously. Just don’t tell anyone, please.”

Vanessa said, “I’m in!”

“I’m in too,” Nancy stated.

Todd and Brian nodded.

“Then we’re agreed. When do you think you’ll have a workable plan, Brian?”

“If I don’t rest before my classes, I should have a rough plan for review by evening break.”

Robin smiled. “So, we’ll meet here at break time!” In the meantime, the five returned to their campus routines.

Robin reviewed in her own mind what needed to be done. The termination letter is not the key. With everyone, from the chairman of the board to the dean, in agreement, something must happen that will catalyze a reversal of the decision. I’m not sure five students can do what is required. We may need to bring Dr. Asplundh into our cabal eventually. Still, we have only a few days to make a difference.

When the students reconvened in the treehouse, Brian had devised a plan that included Dr. Asplundh and her special projects.

“I’m sorry, Robin, but I don’t see any way of changing the minds of the administrators without her.”

“Tell us the plan, Brian.”

“The crux is Dr. Turnip. No matter how much the others disliked our program, her ultimatum determined the outcome. Do you agree?”

Robin nodded. “How do we remove the new head of the nursing program from the equation?”

Brian smiled and asked, “What does Wycherley College hate more than anything else?”

Nancy said, “Bad publicity?”

“Precisely.”

“We aren’t going to ruin the college’s reputation, are we?” Vanessa asked.

“No, Vanessa, we aren’t. But we’re going to show the administrators that continuing their prescribed path would be disastrous, not only for the college but for each of them personally.”

Robin said, “Tell us how we’re going to do that.”

“While doing preliminary research this afternoon, I stumbled across some interesting facts on the social networks.”

The others sat up. They knew exactly where Brian was heading and they wanted to catch every word.

“It seems Dr. Turnip has been gambling with crypto-currencies on the Dark Net and owes a fortune to the Mob!”

Robin beamed. “That seems wickedly delicious, Brian. Does the dean know?”

“If she did know, she’d never have placed faith in a nursing program run by her.” Vanessa licked her lips and leaned forward.

“So, it might be as simple as informing the dean about Dr. Turnip’s extracurricular activities?” Nancy asked.

“It would be that simple if the instigator of Dr. Turnip’s dream scheme with Bitcoin were not the chairman of the board who is also up to his neck in debts to support his gambling habit.”

“What? Oh, that’s funny.” Todd was now rolling on the floor in gales of laughter.

Brian said, “We’re not interested in destroying people for their personal habits and financial rectitude. We only want our program to remain part of the curriculum of Wycherley. That’s true, isn’t it, Robin?”

“So how does Dr. Asplundh fit into the plan?”

“It’s Dr. Sund, her assistant, who will play—as long as Dr. Asplundh doesn’t object too strenuously.”

“Why should she object?”

“We’d be risking the security of one of Dr. Asplundh’s government projects.”

“Would she have to know anything about it until it is done?”

“Hold that thought, Robin. Meanwhile, I’ll put it together for you all.”

Nancy said, “We’re all ears. I hope there’s a role in this plan for each of us.”

“Robin’s invisibility will play to monitor the meetings of decision makers. My gymnastics will also help with surveillance. Todd’s wizardry with virtual reality will be perfect for delivering a performance to the dean. Nancy’s mind control skills will help gain consensus among the administrators once the trap has sprung. Vanessa’s powers of suggestion will immediately plant seeds of doubt and fear about following through with the program’s termination.”

“How will Dr. Sund figure into the plan?”

“It’s actually one of her robots who’ll play the role of Mr. Finetooth, the chairman of the board.”

Robin looked perplexed. “I’m not sure I see how the pieces will fit together.”

Brian squinted at her and said, “Vanessa will project doubt and fear immediately. I’ll leak details about the gambling indebtedness of Dr. Turnip and Mr. Finetooth on social media. The details will not be shared with the debtors but will be shared with Dean Astrid. Robin will visit the site of the gamblers’ next rendezvous, which happens to be tomorrow night. She’ll plant a 3D camera to record the couple’s discussions. Todd will stand by to do his VR magic with the camera’s output and display it on a loop in the dean’s personal computer via an application I’ll plant beforehand.”

“What will prevent the whole plan from being uncovered? We’d all serve long jail terms, I’m sure.” Nancy was not a happy camper.

“That’s where Dr. Sund’s creation comes into play.”

“So how does that work, exactly?” Nancy asked.

“The robot will look and act so much like Mr. Finetooth, it will be the default demon in the works. Precisely because Dr. Turnip cannot tell the difference between a robot and a human, her credibility as a nurse will come into question.”

Robin saw where Brian was heading now. “So, what at first looks like an inappropriate and possibly illegal gambling scheme turns into a Turing Test that Dr. Turnip fails.”

“Yes, and the nurse is unmasked as a charlatan as well as a hopelessly lost gambler, from whom Mr. Finetooth will want to distance himself in the strongest way.”

Robin said, “I think we’ll need a new head of the nursing program.”

“Precisely so. And the usual time required for a search for candidates is one year. Sometimes it takes two or more years to get exactly the right person.”

“So, we may buy a year or two for our program.” Vanessa was upbeat but cautious.

“Have you asked Dr. Sund whether her robot will be ready?” Nancy asked.

“Yes. I called her before I came here. She has the pictures of Mr. Finetooth. The robot will be ready for action tomorrow evening.”

Robin said, “Great plan, Brian! I like it. Does anyone have reservations or questions about his or her role? No? Okay, then, let’s get back to our classes.”

Robin felt elated. I’m stoked. Once again, Brian has come through for me. Dr. Sund’s robot is the perfect addition to our cast of characters. Brian, Todd, and I will handle the physical details. Nancy and Vanessa will handle the psychic dimensions. I can almost feel Vanessa’s brain waves channeling now.

Vanessa was in her mind-reading posture, with three fingers of her left hand held up and back and her right hand forming the shape of a bowl. A faint green neon glow connected her hands as the image of a brainpan took shape in the bowl.

The next morning, Brian was alerted automatically about a lunch meeting with Mr. Rogers, Dean Astrid, and Dr. Asplundh in the Wycherley Board Room. He suggested that Robin attend the meeting invisibly with her cell phone recorder turned on.

Robin met Brian just after the meeting, and the two listened to her recording.

“Dr. Asplundh has informed me that she will depart this college at the end of this term if the paranormal program is terminated.”

“Dean Astrid, I’ve begun to have misgivings about the planned termination. Are you sure we’re on the right track on this?”

“Mr. Rogers, we’ve been over the numbers. If we can’t make money on our programs, we’ll exhaust the endow-ment and go out of business as a college.”

“Dr. Asplundh has brought government dollars to Wycherley. If she leaves, her money goes with her.”

“That may be so, but Dr. Turnip’s projections for her nursing program exceed the funds that the government projects for the next five years.”

“What do you say to that, Dr. Asplundh?”

“If this is all about money, I can apply for grants totaling anything you want, starting in January if necessary.”

“Dean Astrid, I need to discuss this with you privately after lunch. Thank you for your input, Dr. Asplundh.”

The remainder of the lunch conversation was mostly chit-chat. When Dr. Asplundh departed to teach one of her classes, the president and dean got down to the nitty-gritty.

“Ruth, I thought we explored every angle of this. Now I discover government money is not an obstacle. What’s going on?”

“Ralph, Dr. Turnip opens a whole new vista of opportunity. This country will need nurses for the next century or more. The whole country is becoming a hospice.”

“Yet artificial intelligence and robotics are also waves of the future, and they attract brilliant young students like our paranormal majors. The scores of that small group dwarf the average of our student body. I signed off on the termination of that program, but now I’m reconsidering my decision. I had a frightening dream just before I awoke this morning. I’m afraid if we don’t continue our paranormal studies program, the college will fail.”

“Screw your courage to the sticking point, and you’ll not fail.”

“Don’t quote Lady Macbeth to me, or I’ll tear up that letter right now.”

“Maybe it’s time we talked with Mr. Finetooth.”

“Just before lunch, he phoned to say he was also reconsidering our decision.”

“Ralph, did he say why he was reconsidering?”

“The chairman is intuitive. Something about the deal is unnerving for him. Since we all work under his direction, it behooves us to be chary of proceeding precipitously. Anyway, I’m going to ponder the matter. Don’t do anything with the letter or take any further actions to execute its terms until I’ve had a chance to reassess.”

Robin stopped the recorder and looked at Brian, who was lost in thought.

“What are you thinking, Brian?”

I think we may have a chance to have the decision rescinded. Everything now depends on what happens in the Cinderella Motel business conference room tonight.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s where and when Dr. Turnip and Mr. Finetooth have their rendezvous to compare notes on their shared gambling enterprise.”

“Have you fitted the room with monitoring devices according to plan?”

“Yes, I have. Dr. Sund’s robot will be situated in the adjacent conference room. How we play the robot will depend on how the conversation of Turnip and Finetooth goes.”

“Vanessa’s mind-altering witchery has clearly begun to bear fruit.”

“Yes, and I’ll coach Nancy to press on her mind-control front to forge a new consensus now.”

“Shall we both watch what happens at the Cinderella Motel?”

“Yes. And we’ll do it from the treehouse. Vanessa and Nancy will be there too. Meanwhile, Todd will be stationed with Dr. Sund and her robot in the adjacent room.

“Will you tell me what the robot will do?”

“I expect Mr. Finetooth and Dr. Turnip will fight about the president’s doubts about the new nursing program. She will pressure him to keep to their agreement. When he still has doubts, she will kick him out of the conference room and go into a blue funk.”

“Then what will happen?”

“The robot will knock on the door. Turnip will confess everything. One thing will lead to another. The real reasons for their gambling obsession will become clear for everyone. Then we’ll have what we need to send to the dean via her computer.”

“So much depends on Dr. Turnip not noticing a difference between the chairman and the robot.”

“Everything depends on that. Don’t worry, though. I have a backup plan just in case she sees through the ruse.”

“Will you tell me the backup?”

“Frankly, no.”

“You beast!” She pummeled him with her tiny fists. He laughed and tickled her good-naturedly.

He said, “Before things get out of hand here, I’ve got to break free to visit the Cinderella Motel. Do you want to come along to meet the robot?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

They drove to the motel and met Dr. Sund and the robotic Mr. Finetooth.

“Dr. Sund, I’m glad you could help on short notice.”

“No problem, Robin. Solving problems on the fly is what I do best. Meet Mr. Finetooth.”

The robot stood and took Robin’s hand. “I’m enchanted,” it said as it looked into her eyes.

Robin did a double take. The robot’s voice and manner were the same as she recalled from meeting Mr. Finetooth at a board meeting where she was the student repre-sentative.

Robin asked, “Mr. Finetooth, are you aware of the person you might be meeting later this evening?”

“Yes, I’m aware of Dr. Mildred Turnip, an intelligent but moody woman who has been my accomplice in gambling with cryptocurrencies off and on for the last five years. I was backing her proposal to lead a nursing program at Wycherley starting in January, but I’ve had a change of heart. Artificial intelligence is going to be far more important in the long run, and it will change the nursing profession beyond recognition. Besides, the college can’t countenance faculty who are irresponsible about money.”

Dr. Sund was clearly proud of her creation. “As you can see, the artifact is indistinguishable from the human it represents. It’s primed for the encounter later this evening.” She looked at Brian and said, “Just give the word, and we’ll launch toward the conference room next door.”

Brian and Robin raced back to their treehouse command center where Todd, Vanessa, and Nancy were energetically discussing progress so far.

“Individually, the key persons are heading in the right direction,” Vanessa said.

“I’m trying my best to achieve a consensus, but their motives are different.”

“Nancy, I’ve been monitoring the key persons on all the social media sites. We have the potential for consensus. It’s up to you to bring them together.”

Brian said, “We may have the catalyst for consensus in a few minutes. Listen up. After dinner, Mr. Finetooth will escort Dr. Turnip to the Cinderella Motel. We have the business conference room fully wired. Dr. Sund is standing by with a robot version of Mr. Finetooth. She’ll launch the robot on my command. At that point, we’ll have what we need, no matter what choices Dr. Turnip makes.”

Robin told the others what she had witnessed in the room adjacent to their target. The group was impressed enough to outdo themselves preparing for the final resolution. Todd kept everyone up to date on the latest posts on social media sites. Vanessa and Nancy went into their respective zones to meditate. Vanessa assumed her usual position, and the green neon lines glowed.

At seven o’clock, Finetooth and Turnip entered the conference room in a heated interchange threatening to become violent.

“What do you mean? I thought we had a deal. Everything is ready for January. You said that the day before yesterday. Now you’re saying you’re not so sure. Tell me right now where things stand!”

Finetooth shook his head. “It all seemed so right the day before yesterday. As I said at dinner, this decision is much larger than you and your nursing program.”

The woman burst into tears and beat her fists on the man’s chest. He tried to comfort her, but she was inconsolable. She sobbed and choked on her tears like a woman scorned.

“I don’t understand you anymore. Look, for five years we’ve planned this. We’ve both gone out on a limb, gambling with the college’s money and going into monstrous debt to the mob. Now everything is going down the drain. Have you decided you’re not going to cash in our plan? I’m not only broke but underwater in debt. Without the money for the nursing program, I’ll have no way to cover my losses. How could you?”

“Nothing has changed in our plan. I’d just like to push the schedule back while the board and I think things through like adults.”

“While you’re thinking, why don’t you leave this room and get lost. When you’ve decided what you really want to do, give me a call. Or maybe I should call you.”

Finetooth looked as if he was going to change his mind again. Instead, he backed away and looked at her as if he had never seen her before. He turned and walked out the door. She slammed it shut and kicked the chair against the wall, weeping uncontrollably and pounding her fist on the desk.

Brian picked up his cell phone and made the call to Dr. Sund, who launched the robot Mr. Finetooth.

The five students leaned forward to watch the monitor as, from inside the conference room, Dr. Turnip answered the door.

“I might have been a bit hasty. I’m truly sorry. May I come in? We’ll begin our conversation again. Let’s first go over your accounts, including all your debts to the mob.”

Brian said, “Todd, from this point forward, the footage is yours to convert to VR and convey to the environment I’ve created on the dean’s home computer. Will you have any problem doing that?”

“I’ll have no problem. It looks as if the product will be extremely incriminating. Will that be a problem?”

“It will only be a problem for Dr. Turnip, I think.” The three young women remained with their eyes fixed on the interchange of the conspirators.

When the debts had been fully aired, and the plan to exploit the college’s endowment was clear, Robin broke the silence. “Dr. Turnip confessed to a robot. She didn’t seem to know the difference between the robot and the human with whom she had partnered for five years.”

“Let this be a lesson to us all,” Brian said. But he did not elaborate on what that lesson was as the girl’s eyes were shooting him daggers. “What I meant to say is Dr. Turnip proved our hypothesis and gave us the key to victory. Todd, when you’re ready, send the VR version of the recording to the dean.”

Todd’s fingers flew over the keyboard of his laptop computer. He held up his index finger when he was done and dramatically lowered it on the ENTER key. “It’s done!” he said.

Vanessa said, “What’s next?”

Brian said, “It’s time to call the manager’s office of the Cinderella Motel.”

Robin said, “Oh no. You’re going to rat out Dr. Turnip?”

“Yes, but it’s not what you think.”

Brian dialed the number. When the manager answered, he said, “I’d like to report a missing robot that looks almost human. It was last seen going into the conference room of your motel. Could you please check to see if the robot is still there? If it is, direct it to return to the adjacent room as soon as possible.”

The real-time monitoring of the conference room was still visible from the treehouse command center. The five students saw the manager enter the room when Dr. Turnip unlatched it. He asked whether a humanoid robot was still in the room. If so, he said it belonged in the adjacent room.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Turnip said just as the robotic Mr. Finetooth came out of the restroom with no consciousness of doing something inappropriate.

The manager naturally thought the robot was a human. He glared at the robot and then at the woman. He mumbled something about the robot needing to go into the adjacent room.

As the manager turned and left in a huff, Dr. Turnip turned to the robot and said, “I don’t know what that was about. The manager told me a robot had entered this conference room. As far as I know, you are the only one who came in.”

The robot said, “I guess I’d better be getting back to the adjacent room.”

“What?”

“You heard me. I’ll have to go now.”

“Wait just a minute, mister. We’re going to discuss my nursing program right now. I’m fed up with you and this whole idea. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t just walk out of this motel and never see you again.”

“Do you want to give up the chance of a lifetime?” the robot asked.

“You said that when we cooked up the plan for the nursing program in the first place. My ‘chance of a lifetime’ has become everyone’s doubt. The sand is going through the hourglass. I’m only going to live once. I’m waiting for your explanation.”

“Maybe you should sit down while I explain.”

She sat down, uncertain about what was coming next.

The robot’s explanation came in a rush.

“I’m not the human that you have known as your business partner for five years. I’m a robot impersonator who took his place tonight. You couldn’t tell the difference between us, so I make no apology.”

Dr. Turnip was suddenly very pale. She started trembling as her mind adjusted to the shock.

“Would you like a glass of water?” the robot asked.

“Yes, please.”

The robot went into the washroom and fetched a glass of cold water for her.

As she drank the water, the robot continued.

“I believe, under the circumstances, you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone you deserve to be the head of a nursing program anywhere. Don’t you agree that a nurse should be able to distinguish a machine from a human?”

She nodded and drank some more water. “You tricked me!”

“I merely allowed you to do what you most wanted to do—work out where you stood with your gambling obsession. I’m told that the dean of Wycherley College is going to enjoy watching our discussions in a virtual environment made for her home computer.” Her eyes widened, and her mouth formed an O. The robot did not wait for her to respond.

“Now that we have an understanding, I’ve got a proposal that will make everyone happy. Do you want to hear it?”

“You have all the cards, it seems. What’s your proposal?”

“Creations like me are the future of the medical profession. One day soon, doctors, nurses, surgeons, and psychiatrists will all be learning artificial intelligence. Which would be preferable for you: leading a hopeless program following an obsolete model or helping to shape the medical future in a department for paranormal robotics and learning artificial intelligence research? It’s your choice, but you’ll have to choose quickly. I expect the police will be here in five or ten minutes to find me. I’m going next door for now. Goodbye.”

The robot felt its tie. Satisfied that the tie was neatly knotted, it took Dr. Turnip’s hand in his and shook it. The woman was repelled by the gesture and screamed. The robot shrugged and exited the room, closing the door with a bang.

Less than a minute later when the door knocked, Dr. Turnip opened it to find the human Mr. Finetooth, whose face she swatted with the flat of her palm.

“Robot, why did you return?”

“What? Robot? Have you lost your senses? I’m no robot. It’s me. I’ve just returned to continue our discussions.”

Dr. Turnip burst into tears and beat her fists on the table. He let her hysterics continue until she calmed down. Then, he asked her to sit down and tell him what she meant by calling him a robot.

She was about to sit down when the manager of the motel and a police officer arrived at the motel room door.

“There they are, officer,” the motel manager said. “The male is the missing robot. She’s the person who must have stolen it. Do your duty.”

The officer brought out two pairs of handcuffs.

Mr. Finetooth said, “This is an outrage. What is the meaning of this?”

“Let’s see.” said the officer, “You’re a missing robot, and she’s the robot thief, for starters.”

“Officer, do you know who I am?”

“Mister, I don’t have to care who you are. For the moment, you are missing property, and this woman is a thief. You’re both mine. Let’s go down to the station so I can put you in a cell until your owner comes to claim you and read her rights and take her statement.”

The five students sat amazed at the outcome of their plan. Brian picked up his cell phone and called Dr. Sund. “The robot worked perfectly. Thank you. If you get the chance, stop by the treehouse to discuss next steps. And bring the robot with you.”

“Brian, there’s something you need to know in the meantime. Dr. Asplundh found out about our plan. She suggested the face-saving plan the robot recited to Dr. Turnip. Do you mind if I bring her along with us?”

“Not at all. The more, the merrier. You didn’t clue in the dean or the president, did you?”

“No. If Dr. Asplundh did, she didn’t tell me about it. Goodbye for now. See you soon.”

That night, the five students and two professors met in the treehouse command center for one hour to discuss strategy.

Dr. Asplundh spoke first because she had devised the way forward.

You aimed to save the department. I aimed to shape the future. We can do both if we stick to the vision I taught the robot, and the robot relayed to Dr. Turnip tonight. With your permission, I’m going to drop by the dean’s residence after our meeting to smooth the way for the blending of a medical component with our paranormal studies program. The alternative will be embarrassment the like of which the college has never seen before.”

Brian looked from one face to another. Then he answered, “I like your plan, and I hope I speak for all of us when I agree with you.”

Robin asked, “What about Mr. Finetooth and Dr. Turnip at the police station?”

Asplundh said, “On my way to the dean’s residence, I’ll stop by the president’s residence and suggest that he contact Mr. Finetooth to resolve a little problem he’s currently having with the law. I’ll suggest the whole case is based on mistaken identity—provided that he can see things our way.”

Brian and Robin laughed. Brian said, “By the time you reach her, the dean will probably have seen the recording between Dr. Turnip and the robot.”

“Better for us. And if she has not, we’ll view the recording together.”

Dr. Sund said, “What should the robot and I do in the meantime?”

“Why don’t you stay right here in the treehouse until I’ve seen the president and the dean?” Asplundh added, “We may still have use for the robot to get the chairman off the hook.”

Brian told his fellow conspirators to continue doing their paranormal tricks while Asplundh made her visits. Meanwhile, he went to retrieve the monitoring equipment from the Cinderella Motel. While he was away, he left Robin in charge of the command center with instructions to call him on his cell phone if she needed him.

After talking with Asplundh, Mr. Rogers called the police station and explained the awkward situation as a case of mistaken identity. The police and the college had a longstanding relationship, so they buried the paperwork and freed Mr. Finetooth and Dr. Turnip.

Asplundh talked next with the dean, who had been shocked to see the virtual recording of Dr. Turnip discussing her gambling debts with a figure that appeared to be Mr. Finetooth. Looking for any way out of an embarrassing situation, she was ready to hear Asplundh’s solution to the problem. Asplundh requested the original copy of the letter terminating the paranormal program. In front of the dean, she ripped the document into a hundred pieces.

The next day, Mr. Finetooth called a meeting of the president, the dean, Dr. Turnip, Dr. Asplundh, Dr. Sund, the robot, and the five students. He seemed to be a man whose mind had been totally altered by paranormal powers.

“Overnight, I’ve gained an appreciation of technology and its possibilities for transforming medicine. If anyone had told me that the robot version of me—sitting at the other end of this table—was possible, I would have laughed in his face. Still, the ideas flowing from the demonstration Dr. Turnip experienced, are profound. It’s, therefore, my intention to take the following steps. First, I rescind the plan to eliminate the paranormal program at Wycherley College.”

Brian, Robin, Vanessa, Todd, and Nancy swelled with pride.

“Second, I will take a proposal to the board for the expansion of the paranormal program for medical experimentation with robotics and artificial intelligence. Dr. Turnip will be the nursing liaison for the medical explorations, for one day we’ll want to revisit the idea of a nursing program at the college, one facing the future rather than the past.”

Dr. Turnip, whose face was beet red from embarrass-ment, said nothing.

“Third, I’d like to thank Drs. Asplundh and Sund for sharing their work in the linkage of robotics with learning artificial intelligence. I do hope they will stay at Wycherley beyond their contracts ending in May to develop government and commercial funding resources for the expansion of the paranormal program.”

Then, Mr. Finetooth walked to the opposite end of the table and extended his hand to the robot. The robot rose and shook the chairman’s hand vigorously.

That evening in the treehouse command center, the five students sat with the robotic Mr. Finetooth.

Robin said, “I never would have guessed things would turn out the way they did. We all owe a great debt of thanks to this robot.”

“Think nothing of it, Robin. But I have a few questions if you don’t mind. As you know, I’m a learning AI. Therefore, I’m insatiable about learning. After reviewing the recorded materials and listening to the aftermath discussions, I admit to being mystified by how your paranormal skills actually did their magic.”

Vanessa nodded and asked, “Are you curious about the power of suggestion?”

“Yes, let’s start there.”

“To be honest, I don’t really know the wellspring of my clairvoyance. I’m able to connect to specific humans’ minds to alter their judgments and shape their perceptions. It’s an imperfect art, and I practice it all the time to improve results.”

“If doubt had not entered the picture early, the result might have been very different.”

“I agree. But just manipulating the thoughts of individuals was not sufficient. Nancy did the heavy lifting by converging the minds of all figures in the chain of command.”

“I’m not sure how much I had to do with the outcome. I had no idea you were going to appear like a deus ex machina and save the day.”

“For a deus ex machina to work, belief must be a given. Why did everyone so readily believe a robot was the mistaken identity? Even the police were ready to believe it. Further, for the chairman of the board of the college to have taken the huge risk of betting on robotics and AI for medicine is unprecedented in a small college, at least according to available open-source data. Stanford, MIT, and CALTECH have minor programs in that line, but none of those associates everything needed to form needed capabilities.”

Todd said, “Your business conversation about cryptocurrencies and debt with Dr. Turnip was the fulcrum for the whole exercise. We’ve all seen the recording. I’m not sure how the others feel, but I don’t think your performance could be matched by any human, including your model Mr. Finetooth.”

“I was taught by a master of Bitcoin trading, who shall remain nameless.”

Brian said, “So we all have much to learn from each other. We helped the administration make the right decisions. Now we must return to finish the semester. Fortunately, we can look forward to a next semester in an expanded program and not be forced to complete our studies at another college. In truth, there is no other like Wycherley.”

“That reminds me of another question. Why should a paranormal program be situated at a college named for an English dramatist of the Restoration era?”

Robin answered, “William Wycherley was disgusted by the dour Puritanism of England and learned about pleasure in France. A student of law, he was drawn to the theater and wrote some of the most scandalous plays of his time.”

“I’m familiar with his plays. I particularly like The Country Wife, whose Horner has been an inspiration to me. My creator favors Margery Pinchwife, who pleasures one and all. So, tell me how the school’s motto figures in all we’ve done?”

Brian smiled and said, “That’s easily answered. The motto of Wycherley College is ‘Go to your business, pleasure, whilst I go to my pleasure, business.’ It traces to the Latin words for business and pleasure—negotio and otio. The Latin for business is the negation of pleasure and vice versa. By mingling the two, the one becomes the other. So, we have fun working, and work becomes fun too.”

“I think I understand. I’ll try to put the motto in my frame of reference. By placing a robot in the role of a man, we proved a woman could not discern the difference between a man and a machine.”

Robin groaned as Vanessa and Nancy rolled their eyes.

“Did I make a faux pas?” the robot asked Brian.

“I’ll answer with another quotation from Wycherley, ‘Bluster, sputter, question, cavil; but be sure your argument be intricate enough to confound the court.’”

“Indeed, I’m confounded.”

“Me too, robot. I understand you’re enrolled as a student next semester.”

“Yes, I am. I’m also supposed to be a tutor of Dr. Turnip. What I’m to teach her, I don’t yet know.”

Robin nudged Brian with her elbow. He smiled and took her hint, “That’s all for tonight. Exams start tomorrow. I’ve got to get my beauty rest, or I won’t be at my peak performance.”

The Treehouse

of

Wycherley

Once the department of paranormal studies had been given a second lease on life at Wycherley College, its program changed materially to reflect a new emphasis on practical medicine. In addition, the robot constructed by Dr. Sund became a student, and Dr. Turnip became an adjunct faculty member and medical liaison. Robin, Brian, Vanessa, Nancy, and Todd excelled in their fall semester classes, even though they had expended a lot of energy saving their department.

After their first classes of the spring term, the students met in their treehouse, which was situated in one of the oldest trees in America. Botanists guessed that the tree was over a thousand years old. Its spreading limbs held the gabled structure of the student center for paranormal activities like a giant hand.

“I like the new focus on medicine for our department,” Robin told Vanessa.

“I’m cautiously optimistic. How can we know about Dr. Turnip’s turn of mind after what happened last semester?”

Brian said, “Turnip’s doing well, considering what happened at the Cinderella Motel. Over Christmas break, she distanced herself from Mr. Finetooth as she learned everything she could about artificial intelligence. Now she poses as an instant expert on AI for medical applications. I don’t think she’ll ever recover from the shock of what happened.”

The robot said, “I don’t find that funny.”

“Hal, you wouldn’t,” said Nancy.

“Hold on, Nancy,” Robin interposed. “You’ll hurt Hal’s feelings.”

Todd said, “News flash, everyone! Monitoring the campus social networks, I’ve unearthed a plot to nominate the tree we’re sitting in a national botanical resource.”

Brian said, “As long as we can continue using our treehouse, that might be a good development.”

Todd replied, “Evidently, Dr. Asplundh filed the national registry papers. The citation is impressive. It says, ‘Descended from the Sagole Baobab, the largest Adansonia digitata in Tshipise, in Vendaland, Limpopo Province, South Africa, it has a trunk diameter of over ten meters.’”

Nancy said, “Send us all the URL for that, please, Todd.”

Hal said, “I can send supporting information about big trees if anyone is interested.”

“Wait a minute,” Vanessa said. “How did a slip from an African tree end up planted on the banks of the Hudson River in the year 1000 AD?”

“That’s the subject of a research grant proposal Dr. Asplundh submitted to the National Botanical Garden just after New Years Day. I can distribute her proposal to everyone if you’d like.” Hal was always trying to be helpful.

Brian frowned. “Vanessa, what can you tell us about the origin of this sudden interest in our tree?”

“I’ve had the oddest feeling that our tree has been under significant attack since the end of term last year. Because of the press of exams, I didn’t focus on the attack at the time.”

“Please focus on it now,” Robin said.

Vanessa went into a trance and Hal began searching the Internet for the answer too.

“Dr. Turnip has something to do with this,” Vanessa said without opening her eyes. “The topic came up in negotiations she had with Dean Astrid and Dean Medic about her job description. I can see her gesticulating with her hands and pointing toward our tree as an example of the kind of separate, hermetic environment that divides the students. I can hear her words, ‘Do you want to continue to have a fragmented student body or a unified group with well-defined aims and objectives?’”

“That’s a load of bull,” Brian said. “She resents us turning the tables on her nefarious plot. She wants revenge.”

Vanessa, still in a trance, said, “Dr. Turnip said, ‘We should cut the tree down and replace it with a soccer field. That way, the entire college could use the ground instead of a privileged few.’”

Hal said, “Integrating Vanessa’s psychic data and performing a lateral search, I’ve found a draft work order for cutting down the tree. It has not yet been signed, but it’s labeled ‘rush’ and ‘complete by March 1st.’”

“Who drafted the letter?” Robin asked excitedly.

“Dean Medic,” Hal answered.

“That’s a new wrinkle!” Todd exclaimed. “What does the head of the night school gain from cutting down the tree and making a soccer field?”

Hal said, “I don’t have sufficient data to answer your question.”

Still, in her trance, Vanessa said, “I see a meeting between Dean Astrid and Dean Medic. They’re discussing enrollments for both the day and night schools. Dean Astrid has a spreadsheet of attractants most likely to draw in new students. Sports is high among prioritized listings. Dean Medic is struggling to defend his share of the college’s recruitment budget. He wants to deflect Dean Astrid’s criticism of his allocation by focusing her on something concrete that she can do to improve her chances. ‘If you don’t cut down the tree, you won’t be taking the most logical next step. Given that, I don’t see how Mr. Rogers or the board can reallocate the budget.’”

Nancy said, “That’s disgusting. Let me get this straight; our tree and treehouse are being used as pawns in a game for money at the board level.”

Brian said, “I’ll bet the proposal came up for a vote at the between term faculty meeting. That must have stimulated Dr. Asplundh to act.”

Vanessa said, “Yes. At the faculty meeting, Dr. Asplundh motioned to table the proposal pending further study.”

“How come our student representative didn’t post about this?”

“Sharon is the representative. She’s a soccer player. So, go figure.” Robin was livid. “Technically, she is not obligated to report faculty measures that remain in committee.”

“Sharon is now on my shit list, for sure,” Todd said with a glare.

Robin said, “Hold your fire, Todd. We don’t know what kind of support a new soccer field has among the students.”

Hal said, “Minutes of the night school students meeting show a canvass vote of one hundred percent in favor of a soccer field for the college.”

“Was there any mention of cutting down the tree in that vote?”

“No. Should there have been?”

“No, Hal. But since a soccer field requires a specific amount of level playing field, its siting would be a critical factor.”

Brian could see that Robin’s mind was totally absorbed in solving the problem.

“I think we need to know what college land is available for building the new soccer field. Hal, will you please correlate Wycherley’s available land against the dimensions of a typical soccer complex.”

Hal said, “Computation complete. Two possibilities exist; a mostly wooded area right on the Hudson, but removed from the main campus and the area in which the tree and treehouse are currently situated.”

“We definitely have a problem,” Brian said. “I’m not convinced that the college has no other options.”

Hal said, “Do you want to review the data I’ve assessed?”

“No, Hal. I’m suggesting the college is always in the land market. We just don’t know what parcels the board is considering for acquisition. Our A-list donors are always looking for ways to improve their tax positions by donating land and goods instead of cash and valuables.”

“The property committee of the board meets tonight in the Wycherley Room,” Hal noted.

Robin said, “That would be an opportunity, but students are not represented on board committees. I’ll attend invisibly with a recorder. Brian, what else can we do right away?”

“I’ll ask Dr. Asplundh to conduct an immediate sit-in for all students interested in preserving the tree. Vanessa, you can come out of your trance now. Nancy, you can begin to think about coalescing campus opinion in favor of preserving the tree. Todd, you can assess social network traffic for current consensus on both the soccer field and the tree.”

Dr. Asplundh was happy to sponsor the sit-in. She sent an all-campus invitation through the college’s online newspaper, The Wycherley Chronicle. Through the cafeteria staff, she arranged for snacks to be served for all attendees in the basketball court. Dr. Sund assisted by bringing her robots to maintain order.

On account of the free food, more than four hundred students, faculty, administrators, and staff appeared at the basketball court. The crowd was at first impatient, but abundant food satisfied them. Some students and all robots arrived with signs that read, “Save the Tree!” Other students came with signs supporting a new soccer field. Dr. Turnip wore a cool sweatshirt whose front read, “Soccer UP!” The reverse read, “Tree DOWN!”

Dr. Asplundh brought a soapbox and stood on it to make a speech. She applauded the administration’s initiatives to increase enrollments but pled for intelligent recruiting. She made an eloquent plea for maintaining the college’s treasures, including the tree, in the process. When she had finished, she surrendered her pulpit.

Dr. Turnip climbed onto the soapbox next and talked about the future. Nothing should stand in the way of progress, especially an old tree that stood on the ideal spot for a soccer field. She spouted off statistics about how many new students would be attracted by the soccer field. In contrast, she claimed that the treehouse was already at capacity. “Nothing will be gained by standing still. Enrollments would rise inexorably if only the unsightly tree came down.” Her harangue received mild applause.

Dr. Asplundh climbed back on the soapbox and announced she had applied for the tree to be placed on the national botanical registry and for research to be done on the properties and origin of the tree since its lineage was unknown. Then she paused as she appraised the crowd before her.

“Imagine how one thousand years ago, a slip of an African plant came to rest on the shores of the Hudson River. Who brought the slip to America? Was it the Vikings? Was it some uncharted travel of forgotten sailors? Our tree,” she said as she gestured toward the location, “is an orphan, whose only sibling lives thousands of miles away. In her arm-like branches, she supports a small group who represent the future.”

As Asplundh invoked this image, the robots formed the shape of the tree with a small ark in its branches. The ark was labeled, ‘THE FUTURE.’ A group of robots fashioned to look like Neanderthals beat the structure with knobbed clubs—in vain. The Neanderthals retreated and trans-formed into Homo Sapiens. Then, the robots that had formed the tree receded into the background of the basketball court, their mime work done.

“At a minimum,” Asplundh said, “the registration and grant processes will take a year. Until then, the tree will remain standing. A chain festooned through rings on iron poles will surround the tree as a temporary measure. Once on the national registry, the tree will be protected as long as this country lasts.”

The crowd burst into applause. Dr. Asplundh climbed off the soapbox. Again, Dr. Turnip ascended.

You’ve all heard one opinion. Still, at a minimum, the college needs a soccer field. A stadium might be more appropriate. The board will have its say. The college plan will be fixed by vote. Then we’ll see what happens.”

The students applauded this idea. Sharon stood on the box and said, “The idea of the soccer field is being debated in a faculty committee now. As your representative to the faculty, I’d like to carry your endorsement of the idea. Do I have your support?”

A cheer went up.

“Does that mean I have your support?”

A second cheer went up.

“Good. I have my answer. We’ll have our soccer, no matter what!”

Under her breath, Robin said, “Air head!” to Brian about Sharon.

Vanessa was receiving conflicting opinions from the crowd. Try as she might, Nancy could not draw the group toward a consensus.

Hal stood on the box. “Hello. I’m new in the student body. I’m the robot named Hal. I like cerebral games like chess, but I like sports too. I don’t think there are irreconcilable differences here.”

Some students catcalled. Others booed.

“I invite anyone forward who wants to declaim against the tree. That is not an invitation to speak for the soccer field because the ideas are mutually exclusive.”

No student came forward. Dr. Turnip took a step forward, but she hesitated when the robot met her eyes.

“I would now invite to this soapbox any student who would like to argue that the issues of the tree and the soccer field are NOT mutually exclusive.”

The robot surveyed the group and saw no takers.

“I rest my case. There is no impediment to keeping the tree in place and developing a soccer field independent of it.” The robot drew mild applause for his tactics. He stepped down.

Dr. Sund stepped on the soapbox. “I’d just like to express my appreciation for the college’s kind reception of our robot students. This is a first for American colleges and universities, but it won’t be the last. We are standing on the edge of a new societal structure where humans and robots invested in artificial intelligence will stand shoulder to shoulder to solve the nasty problems of our age. Ours are not times for the faint of heart. The microcosm of the treehouse will one day mirror the macrocosm of Earth and space. Congratulations. I’m proud to be here today. In fact, I don’t think I’d want to be anywhere else or doing anything else in the universe.”

The crowd burst into applause. Dr. Sund stepped down as the robots surrounded her, cheering.

That evening, Robin invisibly recorded the board committee, which received a report of the afternoon sit-in. The committee made the determination to table the issue of the soccer field until the resolution of the issue of the tree. In the meantime, it made a recommendation to the entire board to protect the tree.

Robin reported what she had heard and seen to her cohorts, including the robot. “It seems we’ve bought a little time.”


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