Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chapter 4

The Universe was bored.

Real bored.

He and Gravity spent the first couple billion years by themselves. Gravity was a pretty cool guy. And the two had eons of fun making stars and galaxies and crashing them into each other.  But a universe grows up after a while and throwing stuff into black holes just isn’t as fun as it used to be.

Evolution came along. She never really fit in. She got real upset whenever Gravity would send an over-sized comet into a planet she had been working on. No sense of humor, and she couldn’t even appreciate a good supernova. He never understood what she got out of watching little slimy things split in half over and over again. He always assumed she was a bit of a perv, too.

So, the Universe got bored.

He had one last source of entertainment.  He loved how the products of Evolution would try to figure out where they had come from and why.  Not because he didn’t know the answers, but because he had the same questions about himself.  He’d really just popped into existence with no instructions or manuals. He didn't make the rules, he just followed them.

He loved to make the products of Evolution think that he (the Universe) was a little mysterious.  He’d make weird things happen when people said certain words.  He’d send people coded messages that usually meant absolutely nothing.  He’d plant props that people could find to see how they’d react.  For some reason, screwing with their own attempts to find out where they came from kept him from asking himself the same question.

But even this was getting old.  He’d made heroes of losers, villains of heroes, intellectual pioneers of idiots and wackos of otherwise intelligent people.  He’d set up wars between trolls and monkeys and had led a dozen worms in the conquest of great empires.  He’d convinced people their planets had come from sneezes, excretions, a giant planet factory, and, his favorite, super intelligent turnips (footnote: He still got a kick out of that one.). 

But the Universe knew this next project was different. This was real. He would even have to let go of the reigns a little. He came up with the perfect plan, but he knew that you couldn't really plan for something that followed a different rulebook. 

Sic eram prognatus Horace.


Among the Darfinians, leaf piling was an identity constructing activity.  Every summer the Darfinians of Thursley would obey an almost instinctual drive to go into the woods on the north side of town and pile up the leaves.  They had long since forgotten what the function of the activity was, what they were celebrating when they did it, or even why they pretended to have fun while they were doing it (footnote: Thus, leaf piling among the Darfinians was akin to almost all other traditional activities engaged in by societies across the Universe.), but, without fail, once the leaves had fallen a huge festival was organized that would culminate with the piling of the leaves.  Some piles were large, some were shaped like things, and some could perform simple algebra, and then they would be left to decompose.  On this day, a few weeks after the Darfinians had finished the leaf piling and moved out of the woods—which they considered a relatively cold, wet, and generally miserable place—Horace had gone into the woods to be alone and clear his head.  Horace, you see, had become a rather mentally unstable clerk after rocks in his garden had started to talk to him (footnote: Many argue that the order of events may have been the other way around).  This is why, you see, that Horace had assumed that the soft, blue, and noisy object that had just fallen from the tree and that he was currently digging out of a pile of leaves was, in fact, a rock that was trying to convey to him another message from some guy that called himself the Universe.


Mary and Murrey were having the time of their lives.  The storm passed and they had found a nice, furry bed laid out for them to spend the night.  They were all the happier because they didn’t realize that the furry bed was, in fact, a large mammal that had recently fallen victim to a larger predator.  They would also have been glad that they were ignorant of the fact that the predator had not eaten the mammal because it, like the mammal, had been weakened by a terribly contagious, very painful and, ultimately, very deadly plague and had died before it could enjoy its final meal.  They were also happier because the next morning the clouds had passed but the storm had left the air fresh and crisp.  They were also happier because they didn’t realize that the vulture-like creatures circling over head, which were, coincidentally, vultures, were waiting to feed on them after they died.  They were, again, also happier because they didn’t realize that the vultures were expecting them to die because they had left the Ephulsian Plains and entered the Hictorian Desert.  The Hictorian Desert, Mary and Murrey would not have been glad to know, is only slightly more deadly with the arrival of a terrible, rampaging plague.          


Sneaux was beginning to hate Pinkle and all things Pinkly.  Since setting out that morning they had walked all day through thick grass.  The grass was so high in most places that they could not see more than a few inches in any direction.

Pinkle claimed he could keep them traveling on a straight path by positioning them against the sun, but Sneaux had his doubts.  He was pretty sure the sun was moving.  Nor was he convinced that straight would lead them someplace better than left, right, circular or backwards would.

Pinkle had also decided that they would ration their food.  Sneaux learned that this meant that he would slowly starve them to death.  Grass monsters didn’t sound so bad at this point; at least they would end things quickly.  But Sneaux was beginning to believe that in this jungle it was more likely that his soul just got lost than that a grass monster was able to find them.

“Pinkle, I hope you die a miserable death.”  Pinkle was used to this.  These declarations had become commonplace since he had limited them to a couple of bites of nut at lunch time.  But he had bigger concerns.  He had just realized that the sun might be moving and that he had, possibly, just led them in a giant circle.  He knew that if they stumbled back to the tree he might have to suppress a peasant revolt (the peasants being, of course, one fat, lazy, fatalistic dinkle).  They needed a guide, preferably one that wouldn’t eat them.

“I think we should stop for the night,” Pinkle suggested.

“I think you should rot,” Sneaux retorted.

Pinkle had already stopped, squatted, and started to perform the motions that people should perform when they stop to set up camp, except he didn’t actually have anything to set up camp with.  “Sneaux, we’re out of water.  Go see if you can find any.”

Sneaux hesitated.  On principle, he didn’t follow orders from Pinkle, and wasn’t too excited about walking any more than he had too.  But on the other hand, once he walked off to find water he couldn’t think how he could possibly find his way back which, since Pinkle was going to slowly starve him to death anyway, didn’t sound that bad.  “I’m off,” he yelled out behind him.

He had identified three types of grass while they were traveling.  One grew in thick bunches with several stalks rising out of a single plant.  This was the easiest to navigate because paths were naturally carved out between bunches.  The other type was thick, green, flat grass.  Underneath it was dark, wet, gloomy, and walking through it was best accomplished with a machete at least or, preferably, large amounts of explosive.  They didn’t have these, and Sneaux hated Pinkle all the more for that.  The third kind Sneaux was currently battling.  It rose up in thick, tall stalks that often adorned barbed weapons that were, for a dinkle, akin to a mace or, as Sneaux had come to call it, organic death.

Sneaux traversed the terrain with three goals in mind.  First, avoid puncture wounds.  Second, avoid a larger animal’s intestines.  Third, get terribly, terribly lost.  Pinkle had all the food and water (Sneaux had insisted that he carry it all in case they got separated Pinkle would have the greater chance of survival), but Sneaux had a unique gift—complete and total apathy.

He was frustrated when he saw his path quickly interrupted.  Squeezing between two grasses he found himself in a clearing.  It was about as wide as the tree was tall, as long as Sneaux could see in the either direction and covered almost entirely in running water.  He had heard of rivers, they were a part of Dinkle folklore, but when he experienced one first hand he was exasperated at its audacity to put itself right in his way.

He stuck a toe in.  It was cool; he liked it.  He stuck a foot in.  It was cold, painfully so, but the feeling was still, somehow, enjoyable.  He took a step in.  It washed his legs out from under him and he splashed face first in the ice water.  Exasperation evolved to something more like hatred.

“Hey Pinkle, get your round butt over here.”  The experience was miserable, Sneaux thought, and he really wanted Pinkle to experience it.  He was worried, though, that the water might all run down before Pinkle worked his way through the impregnable forest.  “Hurry, you fat lard.”

A few minutes later an empty shell popped through the last layer of grass followed seconds later by an almost frantic, panting Dinkle.  He looked at the sheet of water in front of him in awe and slowly rose to his feet.  The river was slow and steady, high on its banks from the storm.  The setting sun reflected off its smooth surface. Pinkle was transfixed. 

“A river,” he finally stuttered.  “You found a river.  It’s got water and it’s moving, and there’s lots of it.”

“Yeah, why don’t you jump in?”  Sneaux knew it shouldn’t be difficult to suppress a smile in the situation, but he had spent the last several minutes imagining Pinkle collapse face first into the river and assumed, if Pinkle looked half as stupid as he had felt, it would be worth remembering. (footnote: Dinkles, for obvious reasons, do not have much experience in water related tomfoolery and thus, for a dinkle, it is novel, even life-altering entertainment.  This has led some to suggest that the introduction of water balloons to Dinkle society might be dangerously revolutionary.)

Pinkle walked carefully to the river’s edge and stuck in a finger.  He pulled out his finger and sniffed it.  “Yes, I do believe this is water.”  He scooped up some in his hand was going to bring it to his mouth, but Sneaux, becoming impatient, went ahead and kicked him in.

Pinkle hopped up, but his pajama pants, heavy with water and stretched by the nuts they had been carrying, refused to make the journey. 

Sneaux was beside himself.  This was the opportunity of a lifetime.  Pinkle, his newest nemesis, was standing in a river, soaked with freezing water with his pants down around his ankles.  But this, too, was ruined for him, because out of Pinkle’s pants squirmed the nuts that they had been so carefully rationing. 

“The nuts, man, you’re losing the nuts.”  Pinkle didn’t react except for the silent fuming.  “Pinkle, grab the nuts, you fool.  We need those to not die.”

“The nuts,” Pinkle responded slowly, almost painfully, “are gone. They are floating down the river.  You have killed us both.”

Sneaux didn’t think.  Instincts had taken over.  Generally, Sneaux’s instincts told him to move as little as possible.  Sneaux and his instincts usually agreed.  “Someone else can do it.”  “I’m tired.”  “I’m lazy.”  “I’m digesting my last meal and I wouldn’t want to disturb that.”  Or “Burn wounds heal and if I get involved I may only compound the problem.”  They had even tag teamed his conscience into submission.  But right now, having already experienced the pain of mild hunger, his instincts threw him thoughtlessly into the water.

Under normal circumstances, two species that had been separated by hundreds of miles and hundreds of years would not speak the same language.  These, of course, were not normal circumstances.

Horace’s life, recently, had been filled with abnormal circumstances, and he was not the least bit pleased. 

Horace, you must understand, was very upset that the Universe was interrupting very well laid plans.

Horace’s plans were not unique.  Every community has a Horace.  Some have two.  He was not abnormally large, nor abnormally small.  His hair was a rather un-noteworthy shade of blue.  He was mediocre by any measure except, that is, at being mediocre at which he excelled.  He had the rather indistinguishable goal of being rather, well, indistinguishable.

He didn’t dislike people, he just didn’t like dealing with them.  He was friendly when it was easy to be friendly and something well short of vicious the rest of the time.

Horace didn’t like to dream.  His dreams frightened him.

He also didn’t like mysterious squishy, little rocks that talked.  He wasn’t too much concerned about the plan at this point; Horace just preferred it when the rocks didn’t talk.

He could ignore the rocks that didn’t talk.  Five days after his 17th birthday, two days ago, the rocks didn’t talk.  They didn’t need to.

They didn’t talk, but Horace got the message when he was returning from a rather abnormal day at work.  “Hello.”  The words were carefully spelled out with rocks, very normal rocks, in his garden.  The word was about 2 feet tall from the bottom to the top of the letters and made with more rocks than had ever before been in that garden.  He didn’t think much of it.  He didn’t know anyone that cared enough that he existed to bother writing things out in his garden with rocks, but he also didn’t know several people that just might value their own time and effort so little that they would bother to write out words to strangers with rocks in gardens.

Horace had bigger concerns right then. 

He, you remember, was a clerk.  Clerking was great because he always worked behind doors and never had to confront real people.  He only had to confront the paper trails of real people.  He could deal with paper trails.  Paper trails didn’t talk.  They didn’t ask annoying questions and then pretend to care about the answers.

Horace kept track of merchandise (before, that is, the merchandise was destroyed by the fire ball).  He made sure the amount that was sold was equal to the amount that was no longer available to be sold.  He also made sure the money turned over to him was equal to the amount needed to purchase the merchandise that was no longer available to be sold.  He was very good at his job.

But he had been interminably interrupted from his duties on the day that the rocks started to report messages after his manager, Franklin, disappeared.  Vanished.  Inexplicably.  No notes, no clues, no nothing.  The manager came to work in the morning, worked a few hours and then, apparently, ceased to exist.

Horace felt a little bit bad for the guy.  Personally, he had no experience with vanishing.  Couldn’t be much fun.  He’d never heard of people getting together on the weekends for a vanishing party or anything.  But the thoughtless buffoon did it at work.  Cops showed up to ask questions.  Reporters showed up to ask questions.  The butcher showed up to ask questions.  The crazy cat lady showed up to see what was going on, and the local bully showed up because crowds were a good place to get free shots on people’s more sensitive areas.

It was way too much distinguishableness for Horace.   And now his rocks had fallen into formation.

The next day the rocks tried to communicate with him again.  One word at a time they wrote, “Hello, it is a pleasure to meet you.  My name is the Universe.”  Rocks rolled around and popped out of the ground where necessary.  But Horace had more important things to think about than demon rocks.

Horace had gone to work that same morning.  The mob had left.  Only one cop showed up.  He seemed a bit confused—he must have missed the memo that the mob was going to meet somewhere else and now he didn’t know what to do.  So he poked, as if he was going to find the bloody glove, or maybe Franklin himself, behind a can of beans.

 Then he was struck by fire ball.  In the middle of the store.  The sun was out, the sky was clear.  There was no other explanations—Horace had called down a fire ball.

He didn’t know how, but he knew that one minute he was wishing the man would become personally acquainted with a ball of fire from the heavens, and the next minute, lo and behold, there was a burnt out shell where the store had been.  Just like Franklin except a little flashier. 

Horace didn’t know anything about the monkey fort, except that it must be his fault.

He didn’t know why his boss disappeared or he could suddenly call down fire, but he was confident this new rock, with arms and legs, would know the answer.

“Who’s the Universe and what does he want from me?” he yelled, shaking Herbert like one would a misbehaving teddy bear.

For Herbert, not being suffocated was still sinking in, and his mind had to put the screaming lunatic on the back burner for a second.  Horace got his attention when he hung him by his left ankle 4 feet off the ground.

“and what’s the deal with the fire balls?”

“I don’t know,” Herbert yelled in sudden desperation.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about, you bloody lunatic.”  It’s never a good idea insulting a man that is holding you at bone crushing heights by your ankle, but the “good idea” filter in Herbert’s mind was temporarily out of order.

Horace was frazzled.  Last night, haunted by demon rocks, fire balls and invisible men, he accidentally had a dream.

“Horace.”  His dreams always started this way; a creepy old guy would call out his name and then start to insult him.  The old man was back, but his nostrils seemed to have gained ground in their endless struggle against the nose hair.  He had teeth now, too.  Horace recognized the voice, but it seemed a little angrier. 

“Horace, you chump.  Listen to me, you pathetic excuse for a Darfinian.  My name is the Universe and you really need to get on the ball here.  I’m getting impatient, and you don’t want to try the patience of someone who can obliterate your galaxy on a whim.”

The voice rattled in his brain even after he woke up.  It was still rattling in his brain as he shook the blue, unrockish Herbert.

“Just tell me what the Universe wants so I can get on with things!”

Herbert’s “good idea” filter was in serious need of repair, but the idea generator was working overload.  Consequentially, he made one of those classic blunders that generally results in the kind of punishment that fallows the soul even after it is ripped from the body.

“You, Ugly Blue Haired Man,” he started in his best “pretending-to-be-divine” voice, “Will Turn Me Upright.  You Will Take Me To Your Home And You Will Get Me All The Nuts And Water I Can Eat And Drink.”

It seemed like such a promising idea at the time.

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