It had been the 100th day without a single incident.
Koby’s whistling echoed across the server room, interweaving with the sound of the servers’ humming. The back-up tapes were currently being created and all he had to do was ensure that no data tried to jump from one tape to another. Infusing magic with technology made things a little unpredictable and it was up to Koby and the rest of his tribe of brownies to police any anomalies within this data center which they had claimed as their territory and charge. Koby enjoyed his job and he knew he was good at it.
Koby was also proud of his tribe for keeping the data center running optimally. Most servers on average had an uptime of 99.99% and the data center itself, a huge sprawling space with stacks upon stacks of servers, fans and other equipment, had not had a single catastrophic failure since his tribe had moved in. Not all data centers could claim this kind of benchmark, especially those that were brownie-less.
So why was there a creeping sense of unease that tickled the back of his mind?
Koby hummed louder, as if the sound would chase the feeling away. Brownies don’t usually get premonitions and he refused to even recognize what he felt as such. Walking up and down the aisles and aisles of servers, he took the time to check each individual rack. Monitors blinked cheerfully, messages popping up and disappearing, reassuring Koby with their normal operations. So when he crossed paths with another brownie from his tribe that was in the process of sweeping the floors, Koby gave him the widest smile and a jaunty wave, determined to remain cheerful.
It wasn’t until Koby was checking on the last server, tucked away in the corner that he noticed something a little off. He checked, then checked again. The back-up was running much slower than the day before. Now, it could be that the humans screwed up something and it was a purely non-magical issue, but that uneasiness was now mounting into full-blown trepidation that prickled his skin in a way that he could no longer ignore.
Sucking in a deep breath and muttering an old rhyme for luck, Koby took one step and faded into the server. The ability to phase between the Physical and the Digital was a skill a few of the Unseen races, including brownies possessed. It allowed them to take care of any technology-inclined territories more easily, shifting to Digital to check on any software issues, taking actual form in the Physical to ensure the mechanic bits were functioning. And in this case, Koby’s instinct told him that there was something funky happening in the Digital.
Upon arrival, he checked immediately for the obvious signs but everything seemed normal. Almost too normal. Stacks and stacks of data sculpted a rolling landscape while doors of all sizes and shapes stood without walls or frames, providing entrances to other locations. Yes, the backups were running slowly but there were no blobs of sickly green goo that viruses normally left around, no putrid scent of decay that indicated data corruption. Koby sighed, unsure at this point if his paranoia was getting to him but still he made one last check. The humans had recently installed a new monitoring system for the servers and he walked through one of the doors to go check network traffic logs.
That was when he noticed the trail of footprints, impressed ever so gently on the floor. Only things that didn’t belong left marks like these and even then they fade over time, so this must be fresh. The footprints were barely detectable, but Koby was a very careful and observant brownie who was also an expert tracker. Still, the brownie was impressed.
He also knew he had to be sneaky and quiet but every step seemed to thump loudly over the usual din of the server’s operation. The trail led him to a ledge and he was about to climb down when he heard a voice down below. Quickly, Koby got on to his stomach then slowly crawled forward until he could spot the source of the sound. Beneath the ledge, partially hidden in the shadows was a hunched figure. Koby inched closer, struggling to get a closer look and it wasn’t until his head was nearly hanging off the ledge that he could finally make out more. What he found justified his earlier worries.
It was a wizened old imp. With a big nose and a font of white hair protruding this way and that on top of his head, the imp was bowed with age yet showed no signs of difficulty in his movement. In fact, oblivious to being observed, he seemed to be tirelessly pacing. Koby could hear the clack-clack sound of his walking stick but the imp did not appear to be leaning particularly heavily on it. And beyond that sound were mutterings punctuated with silence only when the imp paused to take a puff of his pipe. At first, Koby searched hard for another imp but stopped when he quickly realized that the old one was talking to himself. Still, where there was one imp, others could not be far away.
With that thought, Koby plucked up his courage, got to his feet, dusted himself off and tried to make himself as large and imposing as possible. He could take care of this. He wasn’t a brownie for nothing! In his deepest, most demanding voice, he called out. “Trespasser! You do not belong here. Please leave now!”
The figure stopped pacing, took a step to emerge from the shadows and looked up. Cocking his head to one side, he reached up to cup his ear. “Eh? What’s that? Something about belonging here? These ears aren’t what they used to be. Come down here if you want to say something..”
Koby deflated, very much put out. So much for making an initial impression. Exasperated, Koby finally climbed down from the ledge he was on and made his way until he was face to face with the imp. “You need to go away! You don’t belong here. This place is brownie territory.” Koby realized even as the words tumbled out of his mouth that he was sounding more and more like a petulant child rather than the guardian he fancied himself out to be. But it was too late to take back those words.
“Eh….what’s your name youngling?” the imp asked instead, ignoring Koby’s words and peering at him most curiously instead. He seemed to hold no fear for the brownie even though everyone knew brownies were powerful beings in their own domains.
“Er…Koby, Koby Menderhands,” His own reply caught himself by surprise. This was not the way to get rid of imps! Who knew if there was already an infestation of those no good doers. But instead of repeating his demands as he ought to, he leant forward a bit more, driven by his curiosity. “What’s yours?”
“Ah…well I’ve been around a little too long for a name,” the imp replied with a chuckle even as he looked around and finally sat down on a small clump of data. “But everyone calls me Grandfather and that’ll do.”
“Wait, no no no Grandfather! Don’t sit down! You need to leave!”
“Ah what is the rush mi’lad? No rush at all. Don’t you worry, I’m not doing any harm by sitting here.”
“No harm? No harm?! You’re an imp! All your kind does is harm!” Koby struggled to not sound hysterical but Grandfather’s relaxed attitude was very much vexing him.
“Humprh. Now isn’t that a little racist. Well, I am not like my kind. I don’t do mischief and I must certainly don’t do harm. If I wanted to, I would have done so days ago when I got here.” Grandfather crossed his arms for emphasis.
Koby’s jaws almost dropped in disbelief. As it was, he could only stare wide-eyed at Grandfather, speechless. The declaration was so contrary to everything imps were known for. Not only do imps enjoyed pulling pranks, but they also were usually so very proud of those deeds that you couldn’t get one to stop boasting. And being accused of being racist did not sit well with him, so he tried another tact.
“What about others? Where are the other imps Wouldn’t they be…ummm…doing mischief?”
“What? Oh no no no, there are no other imps,” Grandfather replied, waving his walking stick around a little. “Wait, you haven’t seen any other imps, have you?” He peered at Koby squinting a little as if he could discern all truth from lies.
“No…I haven’t seen any others,” Koby replied, albeit a little reluctantly.
“Well now, there you have it!” Grandfather exclaimed, looking rather satisfied and more than a little smug.
“Have what?” Koby replied. Grandfather now had him entirely confused.
“Well, have your…I guess…peace of mind!” Grandfather beamed at Koby benignly. “Now, run along and leave an old man to his own.”
“Wait, no! I can’t! You..you have to leave!” Koby was getting a little desperate. An imp had no place in this data center he was supposed to protect. He was thankful that there was only one imp, but even just this one was giving him a headache. “Even if there are no others right now, they will come!”
“Ah, you worry too much lad. Maybe they will but I’ve hidden from them well enough! I did tell them no more mischief for me. I’m retired, after all. Would they listen? Noooooo…. So Grandfather has left the building and good riddance!” Looking up at Koby, the imp gave him a toothy smile, beaming with pride.
A retired imp? That’s the first Koby heard of. In fact, he didn’t even know it was possible to retire from what essentially one was born to do. An imp always caused mischief and that was the way of the world. Yet here sat this one claiming to have stopped doing so. And if Grandfather had indeed been here for days, then truly he has not caused much harm. Even a single backup running slowly wasn’t much of a prank.
“So…you’ve run away?” Koby asked hesitantly, but also utterly fascinated. Was this even possible?
“Eh? Now, I suppose you can say that.”
“And…they are trying to find you?”
“Bah, like they can. Those younglings wouldn’t know how.”
“So…they are trying to find you.”
“Well, I suppose,” Grandfather finally admitted. “But don’t you worry. I made sure they can’t! I still have a few tricks up my sleeves.” He winked at Koby conspiratorially but it gave Koby no comfort at all.
“Cripes. If they are following you, then you definitely can’t stay here! We can’t have any imps infesting this place. We run a tight ship here and I won’t have any pranks ruining our record.” Koby was rather proud that he was able to bring the conversation back to his original point though by now, he was skeptical on how effective his words were. But he was reluctant to resort to other more aggressive ways of moving this imp along.
“You worry too much young Koby! Let an old imp here rest a while. Come, sit and let us enjoy each other’s fine company. Perhaps you can tell me a yarn or two. I’m sure it’s been interesting, guarding this place and all.” With that, Grandfather relit his pipe and began smoking it again while settling more comfortably into his seat.
“No…I…well….there has been a few interesting times.” Koby was both flattered and tempted even as he knew Grandfather was throwing him off again. But this imp wasn’t causing any harm and Koby was a sucker for storytelling. Perhaps one or two story swaps before Koby rushed him off would not hurt.
So Koby settled on the floor in front of Grandfather. After a moment, he also took off his hat as a sign of respect before starting in on his story about the time all the data in the data center decided to do a shuffle dance over to other servers. Grandfather came back with another story about the time his clan found a library and decided to turn every single book upside down which then somehow reminded him of another story about how a few of the younger imps in his clan tried to sneak on a ship and got caught in a storm because they messed with the weather detectors. Koby listened, fascinated. He rarely left the data center and had never been very far from it, especially in the Physical. As a result, he always thirsted for any news about the outside world.
Cycles upon cycles passed. They both found that Grandfather had many more stories and Koby enjoyed so very much listening to them. Both barely noticed the passing of time as stories led to other stories and then reminded them of another story. Conversation flowed and Koby forgot about needing to get Grandfather away, lost in the words that painted images of rolling countryside hills and bustling cities. Only when there was a lull between stories did Koby finally gave voice to his burning question.
“Grandfather, why did you retire?”
Grandfather frowned for a moment as if ready to refuse to answer but instead, he gave a heavy sigh and took another slow deep inhale of his pipe. Only after he blew out three smoke rings did he start up again. “You see, young Koby. When you live to my age, you see quite a few things. One of those things you learn to see are consequences and that sometimes makes you regret your actions just a little and lose your appetite to do more. Mostly what we imps do are pretty harmless, but sometimes they are not and that makes you think long and hard. But ha! Who says an imp has to do mischief?”
To that, Koby had no answer but now he had another question. “Grandfather, how old are you?”
“Now that’s not very polite Koby,” Grandfather replied then chuckled and waved his hand. “But fair question considering I keep bringing up my age. Let’s just say I was old when the Great Digital Migration happened.”
Koby’s eyes widened into saucers. That was old! Opening his mouth, about to ask another question, Koby suddenly jolted up instead as he suddenly heard additional voices. Looking around wildly, his first thought was that others of his tribe were coming and Koby would look oh-ever-so-guilty letting an imp stay. His heart beat wildly and he stood up quickly, about to try to hide Grandfather, when the voices grew loud enough for Koby to realize he did not recognize them.
“What is it, Koby?” Grandfather asked though even he kept his voice down now.
Koby held up a hand for silence then walked slowly towards the direction of the voices. Peering around a corner of another stack of data, he nearly gasped but covered his own mouth in time. Other imps! There were two walking towards them, one tall and skinny while the other was short and plump. Luckily they were going slow and a few partitions still separated them from where Koby and Grandfather were. Still, Koby could hear them bickering loud enough that he could finally make out the words.
“Why do we have to go retrieve the old geezer anyways? This is dumb,” the shorter one said with a scowl on his face
“Hey watch your mouth, Sam. Grandfather is important to the clan. He knows every prank we’ve ever pulled. And he comes up with the best pranks.” The taller one frowned at his companion in disapproval.
“Yeah but there are other elders for that.”
“No one holds our clan’s memory quite the same way and no one has topped him in pranks so far.”
“Fine fine fine. But why did he run away?”
“Who knows? He’s old and eccentric. But when he does pull a prank, he is the most epic.”
“Well aren’t you just a know-it-all Grady. I heard that the twins tried to bring him back at the caves but he gave them the slip.
“Well, they were stupid trying to do it all themselves. We know he’s here so I’ve sent a call to the clan for backup already. They’ll be here soon.“
Quickly, Koby moved back to Grandfather and crouched before him, whispering. “Other imps. We need to get you out of here.”
Finally, there was no argument from Grandfather. Instead, the old man packed his pipe, took up his walking stick and quickly got up. “Alright. Take the lead.”
Koby tried not to panic and forcefully put away the thoughts of imps descending into his data center. He took out his ragged handkerchief and wiped the sweat that had beaded across his forehead. What he should be doing was to boot Grandfather out and alert his own tribe but he could not quite stand the idea of that pair of imps getting their grubby disrespectful hands on Grandfather. If Grandfather didn’t want to pull pranks anymore, then he shouldn’t have to!
So instead, Koby began planning carefully in his head. If there was one thing Koby knew, it was all the nooks and crannies of this place and he could probably hide Grandfather somewhere safe. Then he can deal with the other imps somehow, hopefully without involving the rest of his tribe. He didn’t relish the idea of explaining what drew the imps here in the first place. “Come on Grandfather, we are going server hopping.” Taking Grandfather’s hand, Koby muttered another old rhyme for luck and jumped across the network to another server.
He was careful to avoid his own brethren as well as the imps as he and Grandfather phased back and forth between the Physical and the Digital. He repeated the process several times, alternating between hopping locations in the Digital and crossing distance from one machine to the next in the Physical in irregular intervals. Finally, he tucked Grandfather into a folder deep in a random backup tape before leaving to create more false trails. By then, Grandfather was thoroughly tired out and feeling safe in the hiding place Koby found for him, he laid down to take a nap.
Now that Grandfather was safely hidden, it was time to deal with the other imps. Koby still had no idea how he was going to get rid of them. All he could hope was that they would give up and leave once they were convinced that Grandfather was not here. It was a long shot but Koby was fresh out of ideas. Perhaps more information would help. And so, Koby tracked again for the second time of the day and quickly found Sam and Grady again. It turned out to be easier than he expected as neither seemed to care to hide their presence. But what he found was even more alarming.
Three more imps had joined Grady and Sam and the imps were all conferring now. This was bad, so very very bad. Unsure what to do next, Koby crouched down, hiding within some data and tried to listen in. Koby swallowed hard and tried to calm his breathing and his anxiety.
“Grandfather should be somewhere here in this data center. We tracked him here and heard him talking to someone.”
“Well where he is then?”
“He’s somewhere here! We thought it’d be better to wait for more of us before we, you know, flank him or something. Close the net, so to speak, right? We don’t want him to slip away like last time.” Sam sounded like he really wanted to justify their actions.
“We are not hunting a fugitive here! He is one of our elders and our chief prank architect.”
“Yeah well, we are still looking for someone that doesn’t want to be found.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence shared by all five imps. Koby could guess what a chief prank architect was and it explained why they wanted Grandfather back so badly. But that’s all there was to it. They had just wanted Grandfather for his brilliant mind. If they had truly valued Grandfather as himself, they would have respected his wishes enough to let him go. But alas, Koby was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to convince an entire clan of imps of that. Instead, he had to come up with something clever and it should be clever enough that they would give up on searching for Grandfather altogether.
Yet inwardly, Koby wailed at the daunting task. Koby was no wily imp. He was an honest, hard-working brownie, one whose day went horribly wrong in the middle of the most mundane of jobs. As Koby lamented his situation, he thought back to his precious backups. Suddenly, he had an idea, one that made him grin and quiver with excitement. Yes, the backups. That would work!
Scrambling quickly, Koby returned to where Grandfather was hidden and woke him up. “Come on, Grandfather. We are going to pull the biggest prank ever on those imps!” His grin was now from ear to ear, he was so very excited as he told Grandfather the plan. Once done, Grandfather too was grinning and there was a twinkle in his eyes.
“Oh Koby, this will be a grand one for the stories. You’ve got some imp in you yourself!”
Normally, Koby would be offended but right now, he flushed with pleasure. Quickly, the two of them travelled from one backup to another, until they found the precise one that started this all in the first place. And sitting there, no more than an image itself, was a reflection of Grandfather, a lifeless backup that would normally just have faded away in a few more cycles. Magic did have times where it self-corrected, just like the footprints.
Instead, Koby knelt down and began rearranging bits of data that the image was composed of. He focused on the parts that made Grandfather the chief prank architect. It was a bit like programming but also a bit like spinning up a web of magic and at times, he would pause to let Grandfather check his work. They had to work quickly but mending and changing things were a brownie’s speciality. Finally, Koby stepped back and surveyed his work. The image still appeared the same but he knew that he had altered the image’s primary motivation. And now it was time to give it life.
Grandfather leaned over and tapped the figure with his cane, One tap, two taps, a muttering of a certain few more instructions and the backup image glowed green. The newly minted imp blinked as he woke up, once, then twice. Then slowly, the imp smiled as the magic and technology all fell into their right places. He lifted a hand, stared at it for a moment as he curled his fingers then looked up at both Koby and Grandfather. “Ah, well, hello.”
“Ah, no time for greetings I’m afraid, come along lad.” Grandfather reached down to help his image up, while Koby moved to the other side to help.
“Who are you calling lad, laddie? I may be created just now, but I am at least as old as you.” The image stood up and dusted himself, frowning at Grandfather. “And you can call me Chief Prank Architect or C.P.A. instead.”
“As old as…why you, I just created you, you little…” Grandfather started but Koby interrupted him quickly.
“Please, both of you, let’s talk about the plan instead.”
It was disconcerting to have both imps who looked so alike glare at him at the same time but after a moment, both grumbled beneath their breath and nodded their assent.
It was important that C.P.A understood the situation. Koby explained what happened and why Grandfather and he had given their magic to give C.P.A life. And there was more. The new imp and the brownie settled to bargain. For C.P.A, a long game, masquerading as Grandfather. Chief of all pranks for an entire clan of imps. What more could one ask for? In exchange, C.P.A. would agree that his clan of imps would never pull a prank in Koby’s data center. As an elder of the clan, he would have the power to keep that bargain. All in all, Koby was quite pleased with the outcome.
The three of them quickly moved to where they found the Grady, Sam and the other three. Grandfather and Koby hid, though Koby made sure they had a view of the imps. And now, it was show time. Holding a walking stick, much like Grandfather’s, C.P.A. walked a bit away from the hiding place then called out. The mannerisms were identical.
“Now, is that who I think it is? What are you younglings doing here?”
All five imps turned around at once, startled out of their conversation. Grady quickly walked towards C.P.A. and Koby would hear a gasp. “Grandfather, is that you?”
“That’s Chief Prank Architect, C.P.A. to you, my boy. Or sir will do,” C.P.A. answered back and as soon as he was close enough, he rapped the younger imp on the head with his walking stick. “Now answer my question.”
“We were looking for you,” another imp replied then hastily added “sir”.
“Well, can’t an old imp enjoy his vacation in peace?”
“Sir, we…ah…thought you were, well we thought your intentions were more on the permanent side,” another imp stammered.
“Nonsense. Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Ummm..well, you…” Sam was cut off by another imp elbowing him.
“We’re glad you’re coming back, sir. We really need you, sir. We have several plans awaiting sign off, you see.” Grady said, much more gracious than his peer.
“Humprh, well if that’s the case, l suppose that’s the end of that vacation. No rest for the wicked,” C.P.A. replied with an exasperated huff. “Well come along now, let’s get going.” He waved at the rest of the imps impatiently and took a step forward as if ready to leave.
The five imps were confused but none wanted to question their good fortune. Bringing back Grandfather, or C.P.A. as he wanted to be called now, was going to score all of them many points and help further their standings in the clan, so no one wanted to question what was happening too closely. Besides, the old imp was eccentric to start with anyways.
Herding the five along, taking advantage of their confusion, the Chief Architect convinced them all to jump, leaving the data center to rejoin their own clan. And just before he left himself, he looked back over his shoulders, winked with a conspiratorial grin then he too was away.
Finally, Koby and Grandfather emerged from their hiding place and looked at each other quietly. A slow smile grew on Koby’s face even as Grandfather chuckled, then finally escalated to a full cackle.
“Joke’s on them! They won’t be doing any harm for a long while!”
“Wait, what do you mean?” Koby paused.
“Ha, Grandfather’s still got it. You see, young Koby, when I kicked ol’Chief awake, I bound him with a geas to do no harm with his pranks. So anything he does will be innocent enough!”
Koby grinned at the thought. C.P.A. would have a great time impersonating Grandfather but at the same time, would steer the imps away from inflicting any harm not to mention staying away from this data center. It was the best possible outcome. But another thought sobered him.
“So what now Grandfather? As much as I’d love for you to stay, I don’t think the others in my tribe will accept that.” Koby was a little sad but knew that parting was inevitable.
“Well, you see, before you found me, I was on my way to find this legendary fountain.”
“Yes, they say it will grant a wish, any wish. And I will wish I was no longer an imp. Maybe I’ll even be a brownie like you,” Grandfather winked at Koby and chuckled one more. “And it’s time for me to continue with my search, would you not say so?”
Koby nodded almost solemnly but then smiled a little, this time, almost shyly. “Promise you will come visit again? We can swap more stories.”
Grandfather smiled and patted Koby on the arm. “Aye, of course. Now you take care, Koby. And I have a feeling we will see each other soon again.” With that, Grandfather straightened a little and hand on walking stick, walked away.
“Good luck! Come back soon!” Koby waved after Grandfather and watched until the wizened imp faded from sight. All in all, it was not that bad a day after all.