Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chapter 5

When it all got sorted out it was a little embarrassing.  The water had been pushing him downstream, so Pinkle ran along the side trying to get his attention.  “Just stand up,” he yelled.

Instead of standing up, Sneaux splashed and struggled like a beached tuna.  A stray kick hit the river bottom and 10 seconds later he was standing knee deep in the slow moving river water.

“We have to get the nuts!”  He yelled too loudly—Pinkle was only a few inches away—and it was ridiculous to think they could get the nuts back, but it was the first thing that came to mind and he had to speak before Pinkle commented on 1) Sneaux’s contribution to the losing of the nuts or 2) his comical performance in a third of an inch of water.  He was very aware that he had risen to new heights of looking like an idiot.

They both just stared at each other.  Sneaux had frozen in that slightly bent at the waist look people have when they are yelling in an argument.  Pinkle was a little taken aback.  His jaw dropped open.  He seemed to be pondering his response, calculating the square root of infinity, and imitating a bass simultaneously.

After a painful thirty second deadlock, Pinkle said the only thing that can be said in these situations.

“Okay.”

He used that voice people use with college freshman when they don’t want to stifle her spirit but realize it’s about time that someone let her know she can’t actually be a lion when she grows up.

 “We’ll find something that floats and chase down the nuts,” Sneaux suggested.  “We’ll starve out here if we don’t.”

It was true. Pinkle knew it was true. He also knew it was Sneaux’s fault. This wasn’t how it was all supposed to go, and it was all Sneaux’s fault.

***

Fate.  There is such a thing as Fate.  This doesn’t rule out the importance of Coincidence.  Coincidence is an eight armed, three headed creature that likes to dance the tango.  Unlike his good friend Irony who is angry at the Universe (for being an amorphous pink blob who cannot dance the tango), Coincidence is generally amicable but occasionally gets in a bad mood.

But compared to Fate, Coincidence is just an octoappendaged jokester.  Every sapient being has a Fate.  They’re little green furry creatures.  They follow their mark (technical Fate jargon) queing in the natural forces when they should be sending a flood, tipping a boulder, or leading someone back so he can kill his father.  You can’t escape your Fate—they’re tenacious.

But when the tree branch made its way down the river before the torrent of water, the relevant Fates and Coincidence shared surprised stares.  Irony just shrugged her shoulders.  Hidden away in her own little corner, though, Luck was sniggering to herself.  She just believed the poor Dinkles needed a break.

***

Six years before our story began, a bird carrying a gycamian nut got lost in a freak fog that rolled in from nowhere.  Several days later, the bird was weakened by its panicked flight and dropped the nut in the Thyrdulian Mountains in a rare patch of good soil.  A gycamian tree struggled in that patch for 5 years before succumbing to the cold and sparse rainfall.  It dried out over the next year and lost a few branches in the wind some months later.  One of these branches was blown into a stream that fed into the Hippotulamulia River.  The branch floated down the river for months, and was about to be run down by flood waters from a wicked storm in the Thyrdulian Mountains when it was boarded by two very desperate Dinkles.

***

It had been Sneaux’s idea, technically, but wasn’t really an idea that needed to be had.  The idea had walked right up to them in a bright gold tutu and was doing its best impression of Swan Lake while juggling flaming torches.  The branch was at a few feet long and six inches wide.  Right in the middle at the top a knot had been broken out to form a six inch by three inch indentation that was about an inch deep.  It even had four little handles that couldn’t be explained by any act of nature.

It beached itself right in front of Sneaux and Pinkle as they sat on the side of the river and pondered what life would be like once it had freed itself from them and was on its own for once.  Sneaux looked up at it.  Pinkle looked up at it.  They looked at each other and then looked back at the branch.  Sneaux, no longer able to ignore the tutu-ed dancer, turned back to Pinkle, “Maybe we should get on the branch.”

“Okay.”  Pinkle hadn’t been able to piece together any new words since the nut incident.

“It looks like there’s a ladder cut out of the side so we can climb up.”

“Okay.”

Sneaux noticed the new idea that had emerged on stage, dressed like a peppermint and jumping a tricycle through a flaming hoop.  “Maybe we should do it before that” pointing over Pinkle’s head to the wall of water in the distance that was racing towards them “gets here.”

“Okay.”

Sneaux let Pinkle climb aboard first, he figured it was the least he could do, and then he climbed up afterwards.  They used the rope they had scavenged from their parachutes to tie themselves in.  And then they waited.

“Pinkle, do you think we’re gonna die?”

Okay didn’t work here, so he had to think for a minute.  It took a few seconds before he finally came up with something, “No.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not supposed to die yet.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t know.  I just know.”

“But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to die?”

“Touch√©.  You’re a goner.”

“Is there someone I can ask?  I’d really rather know.”

“Why do you care?  You thought you’d be dead by now anyway.”

“Maybe I want to say some heroic last words, confess some grievous sins, or maybe just insult you one last time and know that I got in the last word,” Sneaux yelled to be heard over the oncoming rush of water.

Pinkle thought a little about this.  He looked back at the water that was seconds from slamming down on them and, at the last second leaned forward to scream into Sneaux’s ear, “You are a worthless . . .”  He wasn’t able to finish before the water came crashing down on them.

***

Lutranean B is a very old world. Like any old world, it has many secrets. And, like this world, one of those secrets was very old.

Old secrets are different than new secrets, or even those secrets of a nondescript age. For a normal secret to become an old secret, it must have two important characteristics. First, it must be important. If it is not important, it is forgotten--and secrets, by definition, are not forgotten. Second, to become an old secret, the secret must be dangerous. Otherwise it becomes a footnote, or chapter heading, of history. No, secrets do not just age, they are buried. Someone, or something, makes them secret, and keeps them secret. Something else is waiting to resurrect them from their crypt.

Old secrets are one thing. Very old secrets are something else. Very old secrets are not just dangerous and important, they are alive. There are old people, old books, old civilizations. But eventually, even the mightiest monuments of the greatest civilizations turn to dust. Through it all, the very old secrets live on, haunting the new civilizations that emerge in their place. Very old secrets are not dead, they are not past--that is where they are born, but very old secrets are what is to come; very old secrets are power and prophesy.

Lutranean B had a very old secret. Not remembered. Not forgotten. But alive, and very dangerous and very powerful. It had taken a nap, but it was now ready to wake up, stretch, yawn, and, with a little luck, destroy everything in its path.

***

Franklin was not concerned at the moment with new secrets, very old secrets, or anything in between. He just wanted to know why a pack of monkeys had kidnapped him. 

Generally, the monkeys treated him well.  They fed him fruit and some bread they snitched from people’s houses, but sometimes were offended if he pulled off the bugs they put on to adorn it.  His prison was simple.  He was encased in a square structure built with vertical logs rising 15 ft off the ground.  At about 13 feet, log cross beams stretched from one wall to the other on which the monkeys spent most of their time.  He couldn’t tell what they did up there.

They were aware of his presence; they brought him food and would occasionally, when they lacked other targets, throw poo at him, but they typically ignored him.  They let him roam around his 12 ft x 12 ft cell and Franklin got the sense that if he were able to climb up the walls they would let him go.  Only, they did not let him make much noise.  He had tried to yell only to be beat down by a barrage of rocks and other less hard projectiles.

Franklin, in the few days that he had been with the monkeys, was aware of two developments.  First, the number of monkeys seemed to be increasing.  He learned to recognize the leaders who were, from time to time, obviously upstaged by a new arrival.  Second, each day, on the inside of the cell walls, they added dozens of copies, each about three inches high, of the same symbol in no systematic order that he could discern.  He described the symbol, in his own mind, as an upside down circle with seaweed legs.  His own mind was not working as well as it used to.

***

The Universe rules the universe with an iron fist. He has rules, and those rules are obeyed. Those rules must be obeyed--the very fabric of the universe (and, for that matter, the Universe) depend on those rules. He doesn't know where those rules came from, he just knows that they must be followed.

But he doesn't do much to enforce the rules. Everything in the universe--including the Universe--is sewn into the fabric of the universe. Even the forces of nature--Gravity, Magnetism, even Chaos--are woven into the universal cardigan. They can no more violate the laws of the universe than a man can literally pull himself up by his bootstraps. (footnote: for our PG-13 approved audience, a more appropriate analogy would be an arm dismembering itself.) The Universe does get some occasional guff from the more finicky forces--Luck, Fate, Irony, Evolution--but they really just talk big. In the end, they can't help but fall in line. They might alter the flight of time's arrow, but they can't make it stop, they can't make it turn back on itself, nor can they transform it into a dancing hippopotamus.

The Universe's job is to prevent a paradox--if you're not careful, the Laws of Nature can get themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Most of these have to do with time travel--killing your grandfather and all that. The Universe sits back and pulls on the strings of the universe to prevent that kind of thing from happening. In order for something to get around the authority of the universe, it must be a part of a different sweater. For something to violate the laws of the universe, it must have been born somewhere else, somewhere outside of the universe; it must be able to plant its feet in some other reality.

***

Herbert wasn't able to plant his feet in any reality.

After commanding him in the name of the Universe, Horace did start immediately towards town. But not in a good way. Herbert couldn't tell if Horace was completely unconvinced by his impression of the Universe, or just didn't care. He couldn't tell because he was upside down, stuffed in Horace's left pant pocket. Herbert should have been more grateful that the Darfinians believe in functional pockets, large enough to actually carry a Dinkle, but, like always, Herbert missed the silver lining in life.

It is one thing to piss off a Darfinian, to be small enough to fit in his pocket, and to actually be in his pocket . .  . upside down. It is another thing to piss off the Universe. People will often reference the Universe as a power, but the Universe can't remember anyone ever trying to actually impersonate him, and he remembers everything; he is everything. The very idea of impersonating the Universe is absurd. How does one go about impersonating everything?

How would a two-inch, ovoid, furry creature in blue pajama pants impersonate the Universe?

But the problem wasn't Herbert's acting job. Herbert's problem was Horace. And flames from the heavens. And fort-building monkeys and disappearing men and talking rocks and spooky dreams with old men that made Herbert think of rabbits and invisible sheep that didn't appear. Horace hated the Universe; at that point, he hated everything.

Horace Greenwald didn't want to go home. At his home, the rocks talked. He couldn't go to his office and he couldn't go to sleep. And he had a blue, furry, talking rock in his pocket that was trying to give him orders. So Horace went to see the only man in Thursley that might have answers.

***

Lord Hutley the Immaculate of the Graygathian order of the High Temple was in the fetal position, packed in a corner of his most illustrious office when Horace Greenwald knocked.

Hutley was confident that angry gods seeking painful revenge on a pathetic Darfinian generally don't knock, and even if they did, it probably wouldn't do any good to pretend to not be in, so he slowly got up, tried to pull himself together, and answered the door.

Hutley opened the door, creating one of the more awkward moments in recorded history. In one corner was the conman who had built a career and lifestyle on big show, drawing attention to himself. In the other corner was the man that sought nothing more from his fellow Darfinians than Indifference.

The first had been so good at what he did that he had an entire town eating from his hand (while he feasted on their livestock and fresh fruit). The second was so good at what he did that the first, in fact, did not know until this moment that the second even existed. But the tables had been turned.

Now, Hutley was humiliated and wanted nothing more than to slink into a hole and vanish. Horace, who had been trying to climb in a hole for 17 years now had finally decided that there wasn't a hole big enough in the universe (especially since the Universe was the one that kept pestering him).

To make it worse, Hutley violated the first law of inter-man relations--don't cry in front of another man, unless that man is family. Nothing is more awkward. On one hand, the non-crier wants to be sympathetic, but, on the other hand, he is really disgusted by the show of weakness. And what is he supposed to do about it? Lower his own manliness bar to accommodate the sap, or maintain his own adequate manliness and, in the juxtaposition, make the other man's weaknesses all the more obvious?

"Uh, Lord Hutley, I need some advice." Horace was already regretting his decision to come here. This man couldn't help anyone. Not knowing what else to do, he reached into his pocket and pulled out Herbert.

From his reaction, you would have thought Horace had just offered Lord Hutley a piece of gum. "No, thank you." He casually shook his head to confirm what his mouth had said, turned around, and walked towards the back of the room. "No, I've already got one of those."

[Brief, overdramatic, soap opera pause with all characters locked in very silly facial expressions]

Eventually, Horace regained a minimal level of composure. "You already have one? What does that mean, you already have one?" Horace stammered on, "Tell, what do you mean you already have one? How can that be possible?" He eventually had to stop to catch his breath.

"Does yours claim to be the Universe?"

"Oh no," Hutley finally responded. "Mine definitely is the Universe."

***

The wall of water whisked Sneaux and Pinkle on their makeshift boat down the river, across the plains, through the mountains, past forests, to the edge of a waterfall, and, ultimately, over the edge of the waterfall.

The weight of the water was crushing Sneaux.  Flailing his short, stubby arms wildly, he struggled to breathe.  The sound of the panicked splashing would have drowned out his screams, if only he had been able to scream.  Why had he ever agreed to this?  If he lived through drowning, Sneaux thought viciously, Pinkle would pay.  The fact that the idea had technically been his own didn’t even enter Sneaux’s consciousness.  Even if it had, he would have patted it on the head and sent the idea on its merry way, the way you do with a small child when you want her to go outside to play.  The thought of revenge kept him struggling to survive, and despite the futility of his flailing, Sneaux continued to do it.

He was finally able to pull his head up out of the water, and hungrily took a huge breath of fresh baggy blue pajama pants.  It took only a few moments for him to realize that it was not, in fact, the weight of the water that had been crushing him, but Pinkle.

Gasping for air, Sneaux pulled himself onto dry ground with his arms in a GI-type crawl, and turned a vicious eye on Pinkle.

“You,” he began slowly, “were sitting on my face.  And now you have about 30 seconds left to live. Any last words?”

“Shhh,” Pinkle commanded, holding a hand up to Sneaux and stopping him in his tracks.  “Shhh” wasn’t what Sneaux was expecting to hear as “last words”, but it wasn’t the shock of the response as much as the hand itself that knocked him backwards to the ground.

 “I hear something.  Quick!  Get down.”  Pinkle proceeded to throw himself to the ground and lay flat on his stomach – as flat as a Dinkle was able.  Sneaux thought to himself that not only did Pinkle look absolutely ridiculous trying to lie flat on his incredibly round stomach, but that since he was only 2 inches tall, throwing himself to the ground didn’t actually make him much shorter or less visible.  He also thought that this would be an ideal time to string Pinkle up by his toes.  His desire to physically injure Pinkle was outweighed, though, by the thought that Pinkle just might have heard something and that it might be hungry.  He decided to hide under a blade of grass and watch, hoping that whatever it was would rid him of the doofus he was traveling with and then leave, disgusted and uninterested in eating another Dinkle.

So Pinkle lay on the ground, and Sneaux waited.  Pinkle’s face was contorted into a look of intense concentration, as if this would help him blend into his surroundings.  Sneaux made a bet with himself about how long he thought Pinkle could hold the expression before he exploded, and whether or not his face would freeze that way.

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