The Oracle’s Disk – A Random Picture Prompt

The Oracle’s Disk – A Random Picture Prompt

I’m starting to feel like I’m writing my own personal twilight zone collection. I didn’t set out to do that, but I do dig how these random picture prompts have turned out.
. . .

Mothers like to tell stories. While Bethany was growing up, she clung to one in particular. It hadn’t come up more than half a dozen times. It wasn’t a faerie tale and it didn’t come from one of her picture books. It was the story of a man her mother met shortly before she was born. A man who loved her, though she had never been able to love him in return.

As Bethany grew, she regarded the tale as cautionary, a reminder that love did not always conquer all. That sometimes you had to make choices based on logic, no matter what your heart told you to do. It was a lesson that went against her creative and impulsive nature, which was why she believed her mother had introduced the concept while she was still young.

She wrote it off as made up until her twenty-first birthday, when she asked her mother about the mystical man she had never been able to love.

“Cameron?” she replied, a dreamy tone coming into her voice as her eyes grew distantly wistful.

“He was real?” Bethany exclaimed.

“Well, of course he was real! And handsome too. And rich. He owned some kind of fancy tech company. Or at least he claimed he did. I tried not to pay attention to those sorts of things when I decided who I should spend my life with.”

“What was the name of the company, do you remember?” Bethany reached for her phone, ready to search for whatever obscure term her mother muttered next.

“Draft, I think it was? No, Drift! Drift Systems, or something like that.”

“Drift Microsystems?” Bethany nearly dropped her phone. “Mom they make the chips that go in practically everything these days! Wait, Cameron? Do you mean Cameron Moreno? The Cameron Moreno? CEO of one of the largest companies on the face of the planet?”

“Moreno, yes. That was him.” Her mother still had that dreamy, far off look on her face, as if everything her daughter said was meaningless.

Bethany wanted to slap her so that she’d realize how insane this conversation was. “The Cameron Moreno offered to sweep you off your feet and make you his queen, and you said no?”

Her mother laughed. “Money isn’t everything Beth. And he wasn’t the anything back then. He had come into a small inheritance and invested it in a technology he believed would sweep the globe. It just so happened that he guessed right.”

“And you guessed wrong?”

Finally the vapid look on her mother’s face vanished and she narrowed her eyes, casting Bethany the kind of mom look that had once driven her to cower. “Bethany! Money isn’t everything. I raised you better than that. You were maybe two years old. Your father died in a car accident before I even realized you were on the way. I was still reeling from that, trying to figure out how to do the best for my child. You were my everything, my whole world. I didn’t feel like I had time for a man. What was I supposed to do?  Marry him for the money?”

No longer a child, and no longer reduced to a puddle of terror by her mother’s anger, Bethany was already typing away on the tiny screen of her phone, bringing up the public details for Draft Microsystems’ CEO. “Apparently he never married. Do you think it’s because he never got over you?”

“Bethany!” Her mother sounded positively exasperated.

“What? You’re the one who told me that story so that I would learn to consider the long-term consequences of individual decisions!”

Her mother slapped an open palm onto the table, making Bethany jump. “That isn’t the reason I told you about Cameron at all. I told you that so you’d know that it’s never wrong to follow your heart. That romance isn’t anything like the depictions in movies and books and TV shows. For better or for worse, I dedicated my life to raising you, to having the family your father would have wanted, because it was more important to me than money or success or Cameron Moreno’s fortune.”

“All right, all right. Geeze.” Bethany flicked her phone screen off and set it down on the table. “So I guess you won’t be upset when I tell you that I’ve decided to try for artist full time?”

“Upset? Bethany, that’s fantastic!” Her mother stood up so fast she knocked her chair over backwards, though luckily the wall caught it before it could clatter to the floor. She swooped forward and scooped Bethany into her arms, pressing her so tight against her chest that, for a moment, Bethany couldn’t breathe.

It was a relief knowing her mom was on board with this decision, not one she had taken lightly. At least she never had to worry about family judgment when it came to her career.

But Bethany kept coming back to that conversation, even months later, not because it was the moment her mother offered her support, or clarified the meaning of the childhood tale. Because she couldn’t stop thinking about how different her life would be with the funds of Draft Microsystems at her back.

*   *   *

Everyone knew about the Oracle. Look into the swirling void of space time she conjured, think of a singular moment in your life, and she would capture it for you. Take the disk she gave you, shatter it, and you could change that moment, forever setting your life down a fresh course.

Given the draw of such a power, one might expect the world to be in constant fluctuation as people adjusted and modified their lives until they got the perfect outcome, but few people were willing to brave the Oracle’s sanctum.

It wasn’t her prices – which were considerable – it was her cryptic warning that changing the past came at a cost that went well beyond money. Time was not a singular line that easily wraps and changes as people manipulate its slips and bends. Even the tiniest change could have widespread consequences. Blah, blah, blah and so on and so forth.

Even those who scraped together the initial fee for the Oracle’s services rarely made use of the disk. Bethany had visited at least one house where an Oracle Disk sat in the center of the fireplace, the image scored across its surface more detailed and lifelike than any photo she had ever seen. One careless move and the past could change.

“It turns out I didn’t really need to go back to make the change,” her friend explained with a shrug. “Knowing I had the power gave me the strength and courage to start working in the now. That’s why I keep it on the mantle. As a reminder.”

Most people who did use the disks focused on a particular set of events. Lost love was popular. Changing the circumstances of one’s death. Bethany assumed the price for that one was particularly morbid, since usually someone else would have to die in the user’s place. Career goals was another one. As soon as someone recognized the critical moment where they had gone wrong, they would go back and save a failing business venture.

By the time Bethany set foot in the Oracle’s sanctum, she had spent a year wishing she had a pivotal career moment to go back and change. Making it as an artist hadn’t worked out the way she expected. Passion didn’t keep you fed. It turned out it didn’t get people to look at your portfolio either. Selling out put money in her bank account and a roof over her head, but it drained her soul dry of the essence that drove her to create. Eventually her mother’s smile and soft words of encouragement just didn’t do it anymore. She was thirty-five, lived in a tiny studio apartment she could barely afford to rent, and didn’t have enough accomplishments tied to her name to get a steady paying job, unless she wanted to work in some kind of call center coaxing people to purchase the latest scam package.

No, the moment she wanted to change came from so far back in her life, she could barely remember it. Actually, she wasn’t even sure the memory was real. She had done a lot of research about how easy it was to fake a memory. All you needed was confirmation from a person you trusted. And her mom said she had been there the day of her final meeting with Cameron. The day she told him it would never work, that she just couldn’t get over Bethany’s father, the man she had loved with all her heart and soul.

If she stretched the edges of her memory, she thought she could conjure the cloudy image of a sidewalk cafe and a man in a suit sitting across from her mother while Bethany played jacks on the sidewalk. But she wasn’t sure if she had just pasted the main in the suit into some other memory, his image stolen from all the business journals she had read about Cameron’s rocket rise to success.

It didn’t matter what her mother said. It didn’t matter how deep your passions ran. Money made the world work. You needed money to make money, even if you were trying to make art. But with the money of Draft Microsystems at her back, with the encouragement and clout of a man like Cameron, she could get her career off the ground before she ever left home.

One tiny little change and it could all be different. She just needed her mother to accept Cameron’s proposal. And perhaps if her little two-year-old self took to him, her mother would change her mind.

Her art would be on movie posters, and plastered on the sides of skyscrapers in major cities. Her inbox would be full of commission requests. She’d never be able to keep up.

So it was that hazy memory, only half-real to her that she focused on when she gazed into the black disk the Oracle conjured. And she was somewhat mystified when she left to discover the disk had captured the moment more perfectly than a photograph, crisp and clear as her vision today, including details she couldn’t possibly have noticed at the age of two.

*   *   *

Bethany didn’t wait to use her disk. Everyone she spoke to told her that she should. The few people she had managed to speak to who had disks  – they were hard to find – told her that she should. The councilor she had to speak to in order to get the appointment with the Oracle said the same thing.

The Oracle is a timeless being, willing to grant us whatever wish we think we desire. So it’s our responsibility to think about the consequences of our actions, about how the change will affect those in the world around us. We recommend you spend at least a year charting the changes before you put them into effect.

But it had taken Bethany five years to save up for the appointment, and she had spent almost every waking moment of those years thinking about what she intended to do. What more was there to think about? If money caused all of her problems, having money would solve all of them. Simple. Easy. And no one could possibly get hurt. Her mother had never remarried, hadn’t even dated again after the loss of her father. And according to all the information she could find about Cameron’s personal life, he hadn’t taken an interest in any other women.

So she went home that night, changed into her pajamas, tossed the disk onto the floor and crawled into bed, eager to awaken and see the results of her new and improved life.

She didn’t expect to dream. No one she spoke to had mentioned one. But then no one she’d spoken to had actually used their disk.

Almost the moment she drifted off, she was back in the Oracle’s sanctum. It was a disconcerting place, one Bethany had been eager to escape and never experience again. The room was small, but every inch of wall, floor and ceiling had been set with holoemitters which constantly projected vast, open spaces. It had looked like a mountain top sanctuary when she entered, but it had shifted at some point to a cityscape, as if they were hovering above an entire metropolitan district, looking down on it from the clouds. By the time she left, the scenery had become a jungle. Now it looked like a great ocean, spreading from horizon to horizon beneath her while whales and dolphins jumped and played in the distance.

The Oracle sat cross-legged in the center of her couch, raised on a platform set with more holoemitters so she seemed to be floating on the air. Only the cushions of her couch were visible beneath her, as if someone had set it among the clouds.

Though experts claimed she was hundreds of thousands of years old, her face was young, her skin flawless, her lips cherry red. No one had seen her eyes, if she even had them. They were hidden behind a tight braid of hair wrapped tightly around the upper portion of the Oracle’s face. She didn’t even lower her head to look in Bethany’s direction.

The first time she had entered this room, the Oracle had merely held up her hand and summoned a swirling black void into existence. Bethany had known from her briefing that she was to look into it and think of the thing she wanted to change.

But this time, the Oracle’s hands remained planted on her knees.

“It is time to speak of your price,” she said, her voice echoing through the small yet vast space. “The true price of what you have done.”

Bethany braced herself. She half expected to lose her mother. If this were anything like books and movies, she would have to sacrifice the thing she loved most in order to gain her greatest wish. If she woke up in the morning to find her mother had been dead and buried for ten years, or worse for most of her life, she thought she would go mad. But she hadn’t been able to see any logical reason her mother would be taken from her if she had agreed to stay with Cameron, and she used that unassailable logic now to ease the mad beating of her heart.

“This is the city you fell asleep in.” The Oracle motioned to the space surrounding her and the view changed. Bethany recognized the city where she had spent most of her life. The city where she had tried, and failed, to succeed.

“This is the city you will wake up in.” The Oracle made a motion with her other hand so that she now held both arms out beside her, palms facing upward.

Again the images shifted. The city’s structure looked much the same, but there were new images accompanying it. Images of protestors holding signs aloft as they marched down the city’s main streets. Images of news articles about higher taxes, lack of health care, growing taxes, the chokehold of the rich.

Some of them were issues she recognized, but all of them were worse than what she remembered. And the chain of flashes went on for some time, making Bethany feel as though she were watching the steady collapse of her world.

“None of this has anything to do with me!” she cried. “How could it possibly?”

“Don’t you remember?” The Oracle motioned again and, suddenly, Bethany was standing in a park. Her mother was on her phone, her face crinkled with concern. Bethany had wandered away, hopping, skipping and singing until she found a babbling brook and a fake waterfall to splash in. There was a man sitting beside it and he glanced up at her, smiling as he witnessed her actions.

Vague memory flickered in the back of Bethany’s head.

“You never knew his name,” the Oracle said, her voice suddenly too loud for their surroundings. “But his name was Mortimer Boswick.”

“Moritmer Bos… You mean the senator that pushed for all those health and tax reforms a few years back?”

“The same. You never realized, given that you were only five, but he planned to kill himself that day. He had gone to the park for one last visit, one last chance to breathe fresh air. Then he met you and your mother.”

The scene jumped ahead and Bethany’s mother came running up the path to grab her and pull her from the fountain. She apologized to the man for her child’s poor behavior but he only laughed and said that he had enjoyed watching her. He bent low and spoke to Bethany briefly. She couldn’t remember what she had said, only that he had been kind.

“Since you were never there,” the Oracle said, “you never unknowingly changed his mind. He never became a senator. He never fought to make things better for the poor, like you and your mother.”

“But I only wanted to make one small change,” Bethany protested.

“There is no such thing as a small change,” the Oracle countered and the scene shifted again. “Remember your best friend Summer?”

“She moved to Europe three years ago,” Bethany replied. “She got a job at some fancy medical university.”

“Not just any job. She’s been developing a cure for cancer, the kind that can fight all its strains, not just one. Her grant would have come through this month.”

“Would have? How could I possibly interfere with that?”

“Because, Bethany, Summer only decided to pursue a cure for cancer after she watched your family struggle over the death of your grandfather.”

The room seemed to be filled with mourners now, but Bethany looked away before she could see the focus of their attention. She had worked too hard to forget how frail and battered her grandfather looked on the day he died, surrounded by people who loved him but also shrouded in the tubes and wires of the medical equipment that kept him alive and eased his pain.

“But I couldn’t have cured his cancer simply by nudging my mother toward a different relationship.”

“You most certainly did not. But you didn’t live in the same neighborhood. You never met Summer.”

Bethany felt a sharp pang deep in her chest. So this would be her ultimate price, a friend she had treasured. But she had lost touch with Summer since she moved to Europe. The loss to the world would be greater than her personal loss if Summer was the person who would eventually make the ultimate breakthrough. Was that what the Oracle wanted her to think?

“But my art,” she demanded, tears in her eyes as she turned to confront the Oracle. “I’ll succeed now, right? I’ll have the money I need for proper supplies and promotions. People will take my work seriously now. Can’t I use that to do something good?”

“What art?” The Oracle was standing right next to her when she turned, slack-jawed and wide-eyed. She hadn’t even heard the woman move.

“What do you mean? Art is everything I am. I’ve eaten it, slept and breathed it since I was ten!”

“Because your mother taught you to embrace your passions.”

Bethany didn’t need to look at the scenes now playing around her to know they consisted of her mother looking at her scribbles, heaping praise on her, then hanging up the drawings for everyone to see. Every time they had company, her mom would point to the fridge – where Bethany’s latest creation was on display – and brag about how talented and creative she was.

Out of the corners of her eyes she saw those scenes vanish, replaced by a modern house with stainless steel appliances, the kitchen completely free of decoration. In fact there weren’t even any portraits by other artists on the walls, none of the eclectic art her mother had collected whenever she had a chance. They had been replaced by photographs and university degrees hanging in identical black frames.

“What type of influence did you think Cameron Moreno would have on your life? Did you think he was the kind of man who would encourage you to chase your dreams, no matter the cost? Did you think that’s how he found success? Why would your mother walk away from a man who shared her philosophies?

“You changed your whole life, Bethany, sacrificed your passions for money and power.”

“No!” It was almost a scream. “No this isn’t what I wanted! Undo it! Put it back the way it was. I’d rather live in the gutter than lose my creative drive!” But even as she said it, she realized she had lost her passion a long time ago. Probably the moment she started saving up for a meeting with the Oracle. Why hadn’t she listened to anyone’s warnings? She could have changed directions five years ago. Maybe she wouldn’t have struck it big, but she probably could have had something to show for her efforts.

“Return to my sanctum,” the Oracle replied as she climbed back up to her couch. “Gaze again into the void and scrawl the moment you wish to change across the disk and all can be reversed.”

Bethany breathed a sigh of relief. She could undo her mistake. It would cost her, but it would be worth it now that she had seen the world without her passions. “It’s a promise,” she whispered as the dream dissolved around her.

*   *   *

By morning, she had forgotten everything. Her dreams had been strangely dark, but she couldn’t grasp the threads anymore, couldn’t weave them back into a picture that made sense. She had never been particularly creative anyway. Her skills lay more in the direction of math. Cold, harsh business logic had always ruled her house. Cameron said it was best to be prepared for any sudden change in the market. Weigh every decision and choose the most profitable; that was his motto. Passion of the moment was for fools and starving artists. Bethany had long since learned to live by these tenants, and they served her well.

Sometime in the next five years, she would slip into the role of CEO, take over the family business and be responsible for guiding it forward. She had to be ready. There wasn’t time for anything else.

So she dismissed the dream images every time they crept back into her consciousness, though she never did stop feeling like there was something important she had forgotten.

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