Posts Tagged prose
Mildred Feldnether was on her way to take birth for the twenty-eighth time when she found the creature. She heard it first; a call that didn’t belong to any animal she’d heard in the forest before. The sound came from a bundle of clothes behind a tree just off the track. She squatted and gingerly pulled away some of the fabric to reveal a red, bloody thing. She didn’t immediately recognise it as a human baby; it had been more than a millennium since she’d seen one.
“Hello,” she said to it. “What’s your name?”
“What’s wrong?” she asked, first in the most popular local language and then in several others she knew.
The baby continued to wail. Mildred’s foetus kicked her from the inside.
“Where are you from? Where do you work? Are you lost?”
At the last question, Mildred noticed that the baby didn’t seem to have a navigator. She took out hers and showed it to the baby, who stopped wailing and gurgled at it.
Mildred sighed with relief. It was just lost. Soon it would get on its way. She said goodbye and continued walking to the extraction clinic.
It wailed again.
Mildred turned back towards it. “What do you want?” It seemed so upset. Most of it was still wrapped in a sweater, and Mildred suddenly wondered whether babies even had arms and legs like normal people.
Her sister had had a baby once. Or maybe her sister had been a baby. Or had she just heard a legend about a baby? It was so long ago.
She sat next to the baby and tried to remember other languages to speak to it in. She remembered how frustrating it had been when when she was just a few centuries old, and only knew a few languages. She could imagine wanting to wail when she couldn’t express herself. She was frustrated just trying to remember what the thing was called. Baby. Baby. Like in the old fairy tales. She looked it up in the encyclopaedia:
A baby is a juvenile form of human, commonly created in the pre-extraction era as a means to perpetuate the human species when it was possible that existing individuals may succumb to death (q.v.) In modern times, a baby may develop from a foetus whose life is not fully extracted after removal. This is effectively remedied by further extraction.
From a foetus? Mildred burst out laughing. Foetuses grew inside people. This thing was outside and it looked like a little human that could only speak wail. Somebody must have vandalised the entry. The baby ceased crying and seemed to look at Mildred. Mildred watched it, enchanted. It was hard to believe it really existed.
The forest they were in was even older than Mildred, and offered a secluded path to the clinic, where those unable to carry foetuses wouldn’t plead with the pregnant women for a share of the life within them. They weren’t needy, just lazy; less than a year’s work as a manservant protecting a pregnant woman and they’d have decades more life. Mildred had already made a contract with her friend and three-time manservant James, who had made sure she stayed safe and healthy and didn’t need any infusions of life which could delay or destroy the pregnancy. Four decades for her, four for him, and the rest to the clinic for miscellaneous healing. She always preferred to make the last walk to the clinic alone though, so that she wouldn’t have to explain the knot in her throat that she didn’t understand herself. Most women were excited at the prospect of becoming four decades younger. Mildred was nervous. With the crying baby tugging at it, the knot in her throat unraveled into tears.
Just then, James called her. “We’re waiting for you at the clinic. Are you on your way? Do you need me to help you with anything?”
“I’m fine, I just… I found something. But I’ll be right there.”
The baby started to wail again. “Right,” she said to it. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but if you’re sick maybe half a decade could fix you. Unless you’re already too young for that. Well, the clinicians should know the right dosage.” By this time she was almost certain the baby could not understand her, but it was hard to get used to.
The baby had freed a hand from its cocoon, so Mildred took it to lead it to the clinic. The baby gripped her finger, but didn’t get up. Mildred looked at its face for a second. So tiny. So new. Too new even to walk?
Mildred felt uncomfortable carrying someone she barely knew, but there didn’t seem to be much choice. She picked up the baby, finding the underside of its wrap to be soaked with dew, and tried to find a way to hold it that was comfortable for both of them. The baby did not stop crying for the rest of the way to the clinic.
“Oh dear,” said the clinician. “A baby?” The other clinicians gathered around to look at the specimen. “Oh, that must have been a disturbing thing to find. Don’t worry, we’ll do the extraction for you. It doesn’t look like you need any decades yourself,” she looked down at Mildred’s pregnant belly, “but if you’d like to donate them to the sick or less fertile, we’ll make sure you get something nice as a thank-you.”
“I’ll take them if you like!” grinned James.
“But… isn’t it like a person? I mean… can you really extract… It’s crying. I think it needs to be healed.”
“We’ll take care of that. It’s just crying because it’s not supposed to be outside the womb.”
Mildred felt a bit like crying again herself. “But is a baby a person?”
“Oh, no. I’m not a specialist in antiquities, but from what I’ve heard it takes decades of round-the-clock treatment before a baby can turn into anything like a normal person, and even then it would be centuries behind in general knowledge; it would be a complete stranger in society.”
They were silent for a few seconds, then they both started talking at once.
“Let’s get that…” began the clinician.
“Did you have a baby? In the beginning… when you were new?”
“Yes I… think I did. This is my daughter,” she gestured to one of the other clinicians.
“What was it like?”
The clinician’s eyes glazed over for a second. “It was… centuries ago. I don’t know if the things I remember about it are even real. Now let’s get these extractions underway.”
“If you… this sounds ridiculous, I know, but if you… if you removed my foetus without extracting its life, would it be a baby?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we won’t let that happen. We have strict quality standards here.”
“So babies do come from foetuses? And people come from babies?” Mildred felt a little lightheaded.
The clinician shook her head slowly, as if Mildred were a few decades too senile. “And people need life, and life comes from foetuses, and babies are just primitive remnants from a millennium ago. Don’t you worry about it, love. You’ve found yourself some free decades!”
The baby cried even louder, and Mildred almost wanted the clinician to make it quiet. It was driving her crazy. Crazy enough that in an instant she was running out of the clinic and screaming over the noise, “I found myself a free person!”
“You can’t make a new person!” the clinician shouted after her. “They’ll have no records! They won’t know anyone! There won’t be enough food for them! It probably doesn’t even speak!”
She ran without thinking, without being aware of anything except the wailing coming from the thing in her arms. She only realised what she had done when she found herself twisted on the ground, having turned to protect the baby and her belly when she tripped. Her back hurt and her eyes were wet and the baby’s wrap was still soaked and the baby was still screaming and her mind was a cacophony of new information clanging into memories. Twenty-seven extractions, more than two millennia for her and her manservants, not a year for twenty-seven potential people. But wasn’t it just like eating meat? Some creatures give life to others. Twenty-seven more people would mean less meat for others and less space for the forests and fauna that kept humanity and the rest of the biosphere alive and prosperous. Twenty-seven stunted proto-people who knew nothing and nobody, taking life when they should be giving it. As Mildred’s head started to clear, she began thinking about how to apologise when she went back to the clinic.
As Mildred’s eyes started to dry, she realised a woman was leaning over her. What was her name? Sandra? They’d been good friends a century or so ago, and lost touch. “Milly, are you okay?” Sandra asked.
“Sandy, what are you doing here?”
“Milly, are you okay?” panted James as he arrived. He was getting old, and could do with those decades she owed him. “Sandy?! What are you doing here?”
Just as Mildred realised the wailing had stopped, it started again.
“That’s my sweater! Is that…” Sandra went white. “Is that m…mm” she stopped speaking seemed to be concentrating on not crying. Mildred stroked the baby’s face, momentarily forgetting she was caressing a complete stranger.
“It’s okay, Sandy. Take your time. What happened?”
Sandra took her time. Finally, she managed to cry, “My foetus came out! It was horrible; it hurt so much! It came out by itself, out my vagina; there must be something wrong with me. It hurt so much. I never want to take birth again; I’ll just take a manservant contract whenever I need more life.”
“That’s your baby?” said James. Sandra didn’t hear.
“I wasn’t due for extraction yet but I was feeling sore and my manservant’s run off to do some kind of crazy botanical research so I started going to the clinic but then…” She broke into sobs as the baby screamed. “Is it… is it the foetus? How come it’s alive? It wasn’t… I mean I don’t think it… It didn’t move. I thought it was just a foetus. It was horrible and bloody and blue and it had almost like a face on it. I covered it up so nobody would find it.”
“It’s a baby,” sniffed Mildred. “A… a juvenile form of human, often created in pre-extraction times as a means to perpetuate the human species… at the clinic they said it can turn into a person with a few decades of round-the-clock treatment. But it’s a foetus. They can still extract. They want to and it’s kind of… kind of like eating meat…” In the face of Sandra’s tears, Mildred’s own conclusion seemed silly again. How could they extract life from a thing that could become a person?
They were silent for a while. Even the baby quieted down. James leaned against a tree for support and flexed his creaking knees.
“Can I hold it? Does it mind?”
“I don’t know. It seems to mind everything.” Mildred passed the baby to Sandra.
“Milly, I think I’m really sick,” she confided. “First my foetus came out and now there’s yellow stuff coming out of my nipples. Can you take me to the clinic? I know they expect me to give them some life rather than take it, but maybe I could use some from your foetus.”
“Hey, you know half of that foetus is for me, right?” said James. “Nah, you can have a some of my share. Anything to help a fetching fertile lady.”
The foetus kicked, and she realised that the word was not metaphorical; it was kicking with actual legs. “I don’t know if I want it to be extracted today.” Mildred said quietly.
Sandra reached out and held her hand. They were silent, except for the baby.
Suddenly, Mildred thought of something. “What if it’s hungry?”
“I have some bacon sushi,” said James. The soon learnt that the baby could not use chopsticks.
Once again, Mildred checked the encyclopedia for information on babies. “You’re not going to believe what it says about feeding them…”
Over the next week, while Sandra and James tried to figure out how and whether to keep the baby alive, and how to keep it quiet, Mildred researched the early history of extraction. Of course there was the ugly time they all commemorated each decade on Death Day, the time when people would kidnap and extract the remaining life out of strangers. It must have been horrible to live in fear of dying. Nine out of ten of them did die. Nine out of ten adults died so that the rest could live longer.
Then perinatal extraction, called today simply extraction, solved everything. More life with no killing, and no fear of accidental breeding creating an infinite number of hungry immortals. The inventor shared the technique with the oldest and newest people he knew, the ones who hadn’t stolen anyone else’s life. They won round extractors with their ethically-sourced life, and soon nobody would extract from an adult, and nobody would give life to those known to have done so. Over the next century, the life thieves died of old age and the rest bred up to the capacity they knew they could sustain without competition for resources, and then ceased with the bother of people-making. Most of this was familiar to Mildred; the well-known story told each decade on Life Day. She’d even seen the inventor of perinatal extraction telling the story in person. Though she’d all but forgotten the meaning of the archaic words such as ‘perinatal’ and ‘breeding’.
It wasn’t quite so pretty, though. As she read older and older memoirs, Mildred discovered that many people had actually protested, saying foetuses were people; some even thought that embryos were people. And some even thought that animals should not be eaten; not just because of the unsustainable farming practices back then, but because animals were also a sort of people. Mildred wondered why nobody thought of things like that any more.
Further into her research, she came across an old journal entry which struck her:
I took my first birth today. I know it isn’t right, but I was getting old, almost too old to be coaxed into fertility, and if I die the foetuses will have nobody to fight for them. Thirty more years should give me the time to fix things. I need to find a way to prevent both death and overpopulation without sacrificing living humans.
That’s what happened to people who thought foetuses were people. They either took life anyway, or they died. She checked the author to see which group this one had ended up in.
Mildred felt lightheaded at the sight of her own name, and saw the edges of her vision prickle black. Her foetus turned, and so did her stomach. She fought to stay conscious for fear of what people might do to help her.
She’d been one of the people who’d fought to stop perinatal extraction. She’d been one of the people who’d let her survival instinct change her mind. On the backs of those she’d claimed to want to save, she’d lived long enough to forget they existed. And she would forget again.
Unless she fixed things soon.
Mildred switched her attention to learning all she could about the science of life extraction. It came to her easily at first, as if she’d learnt it all before, which she probably had. She felt less familiar with the breakthroughs that led to increased efficiency in more recent centuries. She enrolled in some classes and followed the century-old standard practical experiments involving extraction and infusion in small plants.
One night she was idly dissecting a piece of sushi, picking out the individual grains of rice and twirling the meat between her chopsticks. That meat had been in a pig once. Pigs were probably smarter than babies. She put it aside and ate the rice and seaweed thoughtfully. Just like eating meat…
She jumped up and ran to the bedroom. “Sandy!” she called out loudly before realising that it was past midnight. “Sandy, come here,” she whispered, but the baby was already gearing up to surpass her careless loudness.
“What is it?” Sandra asked groggily, before gasping in horror, “is yours coming out too?”
“No, no, it’s not that! What did you say your manservant went to do?”
“Botany. Some nutso alternative healing thing.”
“Listen, I think he might be onto something. I was thinking, we can live without meat, right? So we can live without foetuses! It’s so obvious!”
“Hey, you didn’t get me out of bed to tell me you’ve gone as crazy as Jezdimir, did you?”
James wandered in holding the screaming baby.
“Look, there are trees out there that’ve lived longer than us, right? What if we could extract life from them? I mean their seedlings? There’d be millennia! They’ve made a lot of improvements in extraction lately. Did you know that even plant extraction was not possible a few centuries ago, and now they teach it in introductory classes? All we’d need to do is figure out how to convert their life to ours, and no more foetus-killing!”
James squinted his reddened eyes and looked down at the noise-maker in his arms. “Are you sure you want more of these around?”
“No, you see that’s the other thing. If anyone gets pregnant by mistake, which, let’s face it, hardly ever happens, they can take enough life, plant life, to make the embryo regress back into nothing. Or wait, maybe that’s bad too, I don’t know. But some of them could make babies. Did you know that fish are edible; they were just banned back when there weren’t enough of them? And that there’s way more of everything now than back at the beginning of extraction? And that you can feed way more people with plants than with meat? The population limits they set back then are way lower than they need to be now. We could have new people!”
“Hey hold on there… is that even possible? What about the new people? They’re not going to know anything,” said James.
“But even at our ages, everyone knows different things,” answered Sandra before Mildred could think of an answer. She pointed at the baby. “He’s the only one who knows what it is to be new in an old world. That’s worth knowing.”
“So we need to contact this, what was his name? Jezdimir? Your manservant, and see if they can help us. I reckon we’re only a few decades away from converting plant life into…”
Mildred stopped and winced as a pain surged through her belly. Sandra stared at her with a terrified look in her eyes. Mildred regained her composure in order not to upset Sandra. “…converting plant life into human. I’ll never have to have another extraction.”
Then she collapsed in agony. James and Sandra practically carried her to the clinic, Sandra holding the baby in her free arm, and James clutching at trees with his.
“Are you back for your extraction, finally? It’s about time,” said the clinician.
“Noo…” moaned Mildred. The clinician laid her on the bed.
“What do you mean no? You clearly need the life,” said James. “I hate to see you like this.”
“No,” said Sandra. “She doesn’t want any more extractions. You’re going to take this foetus out of her and let it become a baby.”
“But she said she didn’t want another extraction. She meant after this one. I’m sure!”
Mildred filled her lungs to protest but the breath hurt so much that she let it out in a moan. Her head felt as bad as the rest of her. For a moment she thought she remembered being a child, watching her mother cry over her brother. But she had no brother.
“No, no, she doesn’t want to take any life! Haven’t you seen her? She’s been obsessed with this idea of foetuses being people.” The baby screamed louder as if to affirm its personhood.
“Well no, I haven’t seen her, because I’ve been trying to keep this thing alive! She doesn’t want one of these!”
“She does. She does. She wants the baby to live.”
“It’s not a baby! Look, she owes me four decades. She owes herself four decades. How could she just let herself die in this day and age? I’d miss her! We all would! And she needs time to finish that plant thing.”
“Sure, but the baby…”
“…doesn’t owe anyone anything.”
“But you can’t privilege this useless little thing that can’t even eat or speak over someone with a millennium of knowledge and skills and hundreds of people who love her! I know your baby is cute and it brings a fresh perspective and blah blah blah but you can’t have both, and I’m choosing Milly.”
“I love her too! But she doesn’t want to kill babies any more and we have to respect…”
“For goodness’ sake, you’re not killing anything! You’re just extracting the life out of something that isn’t alive yet to begin with!”
“Extracting the what? If it’s not alive, then…”
“Look, your friend’s not doing well. I’m going to need a decision,” urged the clinician, as Mildred slipped into unconsciousness.
Lady Agatha Wayland fingered her diamond ring nervously. The engraving on it was barely noticeable next to the grapefruit-sized diamond, but never failed to help her: WWBD. What Would Buffy Do?
Buffy would be confident. Buffy wouldn’t act suspicious. Buffy would walk around with her head high despite the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge in a secret compartment in her brassiere. Buffy would not call attention to herself. Carmen “Buffy” Sandiego would ask a perfectly normal question, and fly as if on a perfectly normal holiday.
Agatha walked into the nearest store. “Excuse me, I’m looking for some travel advice.”
“Ma’am, I’m a butcher. I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. Can I interest you in a sirloin steak?”
Agatha touched her ring, and stuck out her chest as if it didn’t weigh 887 000 tons. “I’m planning a taco party. I’ll just take a few pounds of ground beef.” She took the beef and ran out of the shop before her confidence dissolved, not so much forgetting to pay as reverting to an old habit. Okay, new tactic.
She sped away in her Denghby speedster convertible, hoping the butcher wouldn’t call the police over a bit of beef. She tried to think of the least-obvious city to escape to. With any luck, ACME Detective Agency’s headquarters were on the other side of the now-bridgeless Bay, so their super sleuths would take some time to get to her, but she still had to get out of San Francisco quickly.
What would Buffy do? She’d get rid of the loot, that’s what she’d do. Agatha tried to think of places with bays or rivers in need of bridges. Hudson Bay had already been stolen by Fast Eddie B. a few years before, so that was out. Where were there rivers? Didn’t ‘Rio’ mean river? Perfect. She called a henchman to arrange a plane ticket to Rio de Janeiro and a fake passport.
Half an hour later, Agatha was browsing mystery novels in a bookstore when she caught a henchman’s eye between the shelves. He passed her a book titled ‘1001 Perfectly Legal Ways to Make $35 Million’ and shuffled off. She put the book into her secret coat pocket, and went to the counter with a novel, and a Portuguese phrasebook to help her out in Rio.
Her speedster was gone by the time Agatha left the bookstore. Surely taken away by the henchman and prepared for smuggling to Brazil. Agatha opened the book the henchman had given her, and found it had been hollowed out to make room for a passport, a plane ticket, and a pair of disguise glasses. V.I.L.E. never let her down.
Lady Agatha Wayland felt good. She had a destination. She had a plane ticket. She had a fake passport. She had the bridge hidden in her bosoms, where nobody would dare search. She had a safe way out of this place, and the police probably didn’t even have a warrant for her arrest. Compared with the native San Franciscans, she looked downright boring. To blend in a little more, she stopped at a Starbucks and ordered a frappuccino and a limousine to the airport. The only crime she needed to worry about was in the murder mystery she was reading.
Agatha felt a familiar thrill as the limo flying a green, blue and yellow flag pulled up. Soon she’d sell the bridge and live like a queen again. She should be able to live at least another twenty years before needing to pull another heist. She grew more and more confident as she checked in for her flight. Her luggage was respectably underweight, and her passport passed the security tests. Despite surprise at the new procedures, she obligingly removed her tennis shoes and cockily presented her hastily-prepared clear plastic bag of perfectly innocuous bottles of liquid — just a little shampoo and some diamond polish. She strutted through the metal detector, knowing she’d left her knives in her checked-in luggage, and the Golden Gate Bridge was safely masked within her chest TARDIS.
As she was gathering up her things from the conveyor belt, a security guard approached. “Ma’am, we’ve picked up something unusual on the millimeter wave scanner. We’re going to have to take you aside for some further screening. ”
Millimeter wave scanner? Agatha cursed her habit of rarely reading past the crossword page to the Life & Crime section of the V.I.L.E newsletters while she was out of the game.
Agatha was ushered into a small room by two female security agents. One of them patted her down, paying extra attention to her chest area. When they asked her to remove her top, Agatha was at the same time white with fear and blushing, which gave her a somewhat normal appearance.
No doubt newer chest TARDISes were thinner and lacier than her decades-old model, but Agatha never bothered with the fashion pages of the newsletter either. The agents prodded at her rock-hard brassiere, looking for secret pockets.
Until one of them found the button.
The Golden Gate Bridge exploded out of the bra, destroying a large section of the airport and bopping a taxiing plane into the Bay. Agatha was thrown back by the force unleashed by her undergarment, and was quickly detained by unfazed security personnel without so much as an arrest warrant.
The airport bridge became San Francisco’s most famous tourist attraction. In a bid to win back some of their tourism dollars, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary erected a particularly Carmen-Sandiego-esque statue of Agatha in one of their rooms, claiming that she had been held at the prison after the attempted heist. Carmen Sandiego started up a legal landmark-moving business with the slogan ‘Anywhere in the world’, and became richer than ever, eventually starring in a business startup reality show entitled ‘What Would Carmen Do?’ Lady Agatha Wayland spent the rest of her life conning other Guantanamo Bay detainees into giving her advance payments on the bridge they needed to cross the bay.
Bladder: Go to the toilet.
Bladder: Go to the toilet.
Free will: Well sleep then.
Can’t. Bladder full.
Free will: Well you may as well check the internet on your iPad then.
Free will: Come on. It’s the internet. You like that.
Bladder: Go to the toilet.
Free will: You should think about the thing you were going to write.
Can’t. Bladder full.
iPad: Shall we play a game?
Bladder: Go to the toilet.
Bladder: Go to the toilet. Seriously.
iPad: Play again?
Bladder: Go to the toilet!
Free will: You really have to get cracking on that writing, and the laundry…
Bladder: Are you listening to me? It’s been an hour already! Go to the toilet!
iPad: Play again?
Bladder: If you don’t go to the toilet soon I’m going to wet the bed and blame it on you.
Free will: So about that writing…
Free will: Just go to the computer when you’re done, alright?
Free will: So how about a first line?
Legs: We’re cold. Can haz pants?
Free Will: So we were thinking about maybe writing about encoding and decoding of emotion in poetry…
Can’t. Cold legs.
Stomach: I don’t want to be rude or anything, but once you’ve got Legs sorted out, could we maybe eat breakfast?
Clock: Hey, it’s almost time to publish some writing.
Can’t. Not enough time.
Free will: But you could start…
Can’t. Cold legs.
Internet: Hey! You have a Kiva repayment. Let’s make a loan with it!
Free will: Well, at least we got something good done. But seriously, you’d rather sit there cold, hungry and pantsless than write?
Can’t write. Cold and hungry.
Legs: If pants are not your thing, how about a nice warm shower?
Internet: Hey, your friend says hi!
Tell her I have to take a shower.
Internet: She says she’s being lazy too! Oh, and she wanted to talk to you about that trip to the UK…
Legs: Uh… you can’t feel us any more, but we’re still here.
Free will: When you’re done with that, could we get back to the computer and actually write something?
Legs: Thanks for the shower! Now let’s get some pants on before we get cold again.
Stomach: Hey, I’m being patient and all, but have you finished with Legs yet? We could have lunch.
Legs: I think the pants are in the bedroom. We’ll take you there if you like.
iPad: Play again?
Free will: Uh… could you at least open the notepad on the iPad?
Legs: We’re getting cold. How about those pants?
Free will: You know, there’s a shiny new encyclopedia of poetics on the floor just there…
Can’t. Legs cold.
Free will: And while Legs are going on about pants, you know you need to do laundry before going to the UK, right?
Legs: We’re getting really cold here! They don’t have to be clean pants. We won’t tell.
iPad: Play again?
Stomach: Hey, can you just do as Legs says so we can have afternoon tea? I don’t ask for much; just an apple will do.
Stomach: Come on. An apple. You like apples. They’re like iPads but edible.
Legs: Us first!
Free will: Okay, now that you’ve eaten something, how about you gather up the dirty laundry and you can write something while it’s in the machine.
Stomach: Hey, thanks for the apple. Can I have another?
Can’t. Free will wants me for something.
Free will: Okay, so you’re going to gather up the laundry?
Free will: Great! Now we just need to take the laundry downstairs and put it in the machine.
Internet: Hey! Your other friend says hi.
Tell him I said hi.
Free will: You’re still going to take the laundry downstairs, right?
Stomach: I was lying before. An apple isn’t really enough. Can I have another?
Free will: This guy’s not saying anything important. How about we do the laundry?
Free will: How about now?
Free will: Great! Now let’s start writing.
Internet: Hey, remember how you said you’d go vegan for a day for that guy’s wife’s birthday? This could be the day.
Stomach: You know that means cooking something, not just stopping at two apples, right?
Free will: You could find a nice vegan restaurant after the laundry’s finished, and write something while you’re eating. You know you like writing in restaurants.
Stomach: But I’m hungry now! Cook something!
Stomach: Really? Look, just stick some stuff in a pot and you can look at the internet while you’re waiting.
Clock: Hey, it’s time to get the laundry out of the machine.
Clock: Hey, it’s time to get the laundry out of the machine.
Free Will: Okay, so now hurry up and hang the laundry up so we can get on with this writing thing.
Can’t. Hungry. Cooking.
Stomach: Is it dinner time yet?
Stomach: How about now?
Stomach: Hey, dinner’s ready! Give me some dinner!
Stomach: But it’s ready! I’ve been talking with Legs and they’re okay with walking over to the stove to get it.
Okay. No need to growl at me.
Free will: Okay, so now can we write?
Free will: Well could we watch the videos of that concert so you can upload them?
Internet: Hey, look at me!
Free will: What about those videos, just while you’re eating?
Can’t. Finished eating.
Free will: Okay, so you’re going to write now? Or hang up the laundry?
Free will: Can you at least do some research on the internet so you’ll know more about the topics you’re going to write about?
Can’t. Stupid topics.
Free will: If we don’t get this done soon you’ll end up having to write about writing or something, and there’s no worse topic than that. You know, you could listen to things from the internet while you hang up the laundry. You could even jot down writing ideas on your iPad as you go.
iPad: Play again?
Free will: Hey, uh… laundry?
Stomach: I’m still hungry. Can I have another spoonful, and you can finish this later?
Internet: Hey, look at me!
Free will: Oh, the computer, eh? You’re going to write something?
Can’t. Not enough time.
Free will: Giving up already? Then you may as well go to bed.
Free Will: But you said there wasn’t enough time! If you’re going to waste time, you may as well go to bed.
Internet: Hey, another friend wants to talk to you about that trip to the UK!
Clock: Hey, it’s time to go to bed.
Free will: Seriously, you should go to bed. Just end the conversation.
Free will: Now go to bed.
Free will: Fine. Finish hanging the laundry.
Free will: Now go to bed?
Clock: Hey, it’s way past bedtime.
Can’t sleep. Computer clock too loud.
Free will: Go turn the sound off then.
Free will: Come on, you know you won’t be able to sleep if you leave it on anyway.
Internet: Hey, look at me!
Free will: No! Don’t look at that! Didn’t you hear the clock? Go back to bed.
Free will: Just stop looking at it.
Free will: Go to bed then!
Free will: That’s it. Go to bed or I’m leaving you.
The deadline elves were out in force this Sunday. It’s not usually quite this bad, and I did get a lot of things (other than writing) done on Saturday. In case you’re wondering why I’d planned to write about the encoding of emotion, ‘encoding’ and ’emotion’ were the entries closest to ‘Emmental’ in my Princeton Companion to Mathematics and newly-acquired Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Neither had an entry for Emmental itself.
I got this pack of cards in Bern last week, where I filmed the videos I mentioned uploading. They are of a Susie Asado concert. I did upload a few of them (that’s why I left my computer awake and able to tell me the time late at night, instead of putting it to sleep) but haven’t written my usual overly-verbose video descriptions yet, so the videos are still private. I’ll put a link here soon. In the mean time, here is a video of the Bern bears.
The trip to the UK I mention is to follow Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm around on tour again. I probably won’t publish anything next Sunday, since I’ll be busy getting from one show to the next, but I will get the three of them to each pick a card, so I can write about all three of them when I get back, like I did last time.
The first few hundred years were okay. I had a lot of thrilling death-defying adventures. I lived the dream.
I got used to my loved ones dying, and got better at meeting new ones, and better at being by myself. Not a problem; before the accident, I’d stayed eight years at a lab full of one- and two-year contractors and students. I stayed there for a while afterwards too, but it seemed silly to chip away at the minutiae when I’d seen how huge and incomprehensible the whole thing was. Even with the amount of time I had, I knew I could never get my head around it.
In any case, the universe would stick around for a while. I wanted to study the things that wouldn’t. I don’t think I realised back then just how little time I had to do that. I always felt like there were so many more people to meet, so much more alone time to savour, so much more to learn, so many more ideas to realise than I had time to, but somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could get back to them later. Oh, if only I could.
I travelled the world while there were still means to do so, tried the foods when I could pay for them, smelled the flowers when I found any, learnt the languages, met the people while there still were some. Had a few wives. A few husbands. A few children. Thirty-three thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three known descendants, before I lost count. They all died, of course. I had my alone time to savour.
One by one, then ten by ten, species went extinct. We got used to it. People are good enough at ignoring things as long as they’re still comfortable. Eventually things were stretched too far to be comfortable. After the human race died out, when there was not much left bigger than bacteria, I went through a moody phase. For a millennium I’d be content just wandering around admiring the landscape, watching erosion create interesting patterns. Then I’d occupy myself by carving my own intricately-shaped rivers by hand and swimming back and forth along them. I learnt to shape them in such a way that oxbow lakes would form naturally to complete my designs. Next thing I knew, I’d be in a ten-thousand-year blue period, craving someone to hold, barely noticing as the mountains grew. Those lifelong romances seemed so short.
Sometimes the despair would give way to industriousness. I tried to work out a chemistry that would allow complex life to thrive in the changed environment. I tried to evolve something from lichen using as sole selection criterion ‘something I can talk to.’ Later I changed the goal to something I could enjoy eating. This was rather more successful, maybe because millennia of hunger had made me less picky. Every so often, I’d find little niches where life had figured out how to adapt in ways more ingenious than I’d come up with. I’d sit and watch them for generations upon generations, but nothing complex enough to be worth watching was ever as successful as before.
Time always seems so much shorter when it’s behind you, but in my case, things really did happen more quickly back then. Two-year contracts, 80-year relationships, ten-thousand-year bad moods, million-year species. When finally something interesting happened, it seemed sudden even though by mortal standards it took a long time. I still remember watching the sun expand and redden like it was yesterday, and I suppose it was yesterday, for I wouldn’t define days by that pitiful white dwarf I ended up with.
Boy was it hot when the Sun expanded to near Earth’s orbit. I’d been injured plenty of times, many times enough to kill anyone else, and it hurt a lot. If I was having a bad aeon, there were times when I jumped off cliffs or into volcanoes every day in the hope of dying. But the first time I felt the corona of a red giant, I really thought that was the end. A nanosecond of it was worse than all the pain I’d experienced until then. I did not know why my nerves could even feel pain at such magnitude. I just closed my eyes and waited for death to come. I waited what could have been thousands of years, not like the thousands of therapeutically-dull years of river carving, but thousands of slow, slow years in which I felt every moment.
And then… then it was over, but it still felt like a long time looking back. It took me a while to recover emotionally, and the blood-freezing cold didn’t help. The Earth wasn’t engulfed by the Sun, but just continued orbiting the cool, withdrawn white dwarf. The atmosphere and liquids were lost to space. I didn’t miss breathing as much as I missed eating and speaking; the urge to breathe comes more from the buildup of carbon dioxide than from the lack of oxygen, and I had none of that. There wasn’t any life I could see, but from what I’d already seen, I was sure some had survived somewhere under the surface. Sometimes I’d dig down and have imagined conversations with bacteria I couldn’t detect.
The next life-changing event came when the Earth was knocked out of its orbit. A few chunks came off it, and I had less gravity and some fragments to look at in the sky for a while. I took to jumping around the world, pretending to fly. A couple of destructive meteorites later and I accidentally reached escape velocity. Goodbye, cool world.
There was no such thing as a year for me after that, but it may as well have been ten billion years ago. I haven’t come close to any planets since. I’ve passed through a few stars, and I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier. Spent some time squished inside a black hole waiting for the Hawking radiation to free me. I took little comfort in knowing it was quicker for me than for anything on the outside.
Between stars, with no air or plasma rushing past my skin, no sound, almost no light to prove my fantasies wrong, I could construct worlds in my head that felt more real than anything else. I’d forget I was lost in outer space with nothing to look forward to but that moment of beautiful views and relief from cold that preceded an epoch of burning inside a star.
A frequent dream is that of finding the genie again, the god, that creature I had conversed with through that little tear we’d made in spacetime. Back in the old days, even before feeling the hellfire of a red giant Sun, I used to wish I’d asked to be impervious to pain as well as immortal, but now my only wish is mortality. And once again, I feel like time’s running out. The universe is expanding away from me. If I don’t find a way to summon the genie before the last matter retreats over the de Sitter horizon, I will be stuck with nothing but the taste of my mouth and the feeling of my cold, hungry body, for infinitely more time than I had anything else.
Jim was a respectable middle-aged man who suddenly became a pirate. He didn’t just start downloading art in ways contrary to the artists’ wishes. He actually became a pirate. One minute he was looking at cat pictures on the internet at work, the next he was standing on an enemy ship, with a cutlass in one hand and a hook on the other, sporting a peg leg and eyepatch, and plundering the booty of the crew he’d just murdered.
“What on Earth is going on?” he said. What came out was, “Shiver me timbers, I’ve lost me bearings!”
The parrot on his shoulder mocked him with echoes of “I’ve lost me bearings! I’ve lost me bearings!” The dead bodies surrounding him did not respond.
Jim figured he may as well get back to business. He staggered around the ship, swearing like a sailor at the lack of peg-leg-accessible spaces.
In one of the berths was a naked dead man. Jim was about to congratulate himself for having been so thorough at the crew-murdering when a sneeze came from the top bunk.
“P… pl… please don’t kill me!” pled the young, fully-dressed and clean-shaven pirate on the top bunk.
Jim instinctively waved his cutlass at him. “Who are you, ye lily-livered mast mugger?” he growled, putting far more emphasis on the ‘arrrre’ than he had intended.
“I’m…, I be uhh… bl… yarr, I be Cap’n Toothbeard. If ye spare me I’ll be swabbin’ yer decks twice a day ‘n’ barely touchin’ yer wenches.”
Jim let out a pensive arrr. He wasn’t sure how many of his crew had been lost in the battle, nor whether he had any wenches. But without remembering any specifics, he felt as though he’d already killed and swabbed enough for the day.
“Arrright, matey. But if I catch ye in any monkey business, ye’ll be keelhauled.” He extended his right arm to shake on it. Toothbeard cowered from the sharp hook.
Jim contented himself with touching elbows with his new crew member. “I’m Jim.” He suddenly panicked at having revealed such an un-piratey name as ‘Jim’, until he realised that the name that actually came out of his mouth was ‘Cap’n Stede Bonnet’. A pretty funny-sounding name, in Jim’s opinion, but convincing enough. So that was his name then.
What with the missing hand, leg and eye, and the lack of any real knowledge of how to be a pirate, ‘Stede’ was glad to have help. The two of them gathered up all the gold from the vessel and swung from a stray rope onto Stede’s ship. There were no wenches, no surviving crew, no food, and a mess of spilt blood, grog and urine under the tattered threads of a Jolly Roger. They swung back to grab some more useful supplies.
Toothbeard was true to his word. Before long, the decks, walls and cannons gleamed, the meticulously-restitched Jolly Roger flapped proudly in the wind, and colourful semaphore flags spelling out motivational messages complemented the tasteful off-white of the sails. Stede and Toothbeard got along fabulously.
Piracy was difficult with only two crew, but Toothbeard turned out to be excellent at sneaking around disabling cannons and stealing treasure while Stede parleyed with a rival captain. Once or twice the friendly chat didn’t go so well and he had to slice someone open and swing back to his own ship before the rest of the crew retaliated. If anyone invaded their ship, Toothbeard would make sure the flags were rearranged to balance out any browning blood patches.
Without the aid of a GPS, Stede steered the ship mainly on instinct, until the day they arrived at a tiny deserted island with a single coconut palm growing out of a mound of white sand. Toothbeard wasted no time in suspending a large, sparkly red hammock between the ship and the palm and relaxing in it with a tot of rum, while Stede dug idly into the sand.
“Well, blow me down!” Stede exclaimed when his shovel hit something hard.
“That I will!” boomed a voice from above. No actual blowing occurred, but Stede was so shocked by the sight of a woman in a bright olive leotard and sparkly red cape hovering in the sky that he fell backwards anyway. His parrot flew from his shoulder screeching “Pretty birdy! Pretty birdy!” at the lady.
Jim was quite used to being Stede Bonnet the pirate by this time, but it was moments like this that reminded him how very strange it was. “Ahoy thar!” he called. “Thar be no flyin’ wenches on my ship! Against the pirate code, it is!”
“May I remind you, sir, that you are on land, and the law of the land says no piracy is allowed, and the stolen gold and love letters in that chest you’re digging up belong to me and my partner Agent Chlorine,” said the woman, with a stern look.
Love letters? Agent Chlorine? In all his time pretending to really be Stede Bonnet, Jim had never been at this much of a loss before. But there was gold, so the obvious thing to do was keep digging.
The flying woman’s booming voice had woken up Toothbeard, who had spilled rum on his chest in his sleep. He ran to Stede and stared bewildered at the flyer. After a few moments he seemed to recognise her, and started to go pale.
“Thank you for your service, Agent Chlorine,” said the woman.
“Y… you’re welcome?” said the whitening agent.
“You salty moose. A secret agent?” yelled Stede.
“It’s not like that! I mean yes, I am a secret agent, sent to cleanse the waters of piracy, but I… I like you! I don’t even know what she’s doing here! And I’m not Agent Chlorine. My real name’s Agent Chlorine!” Agent Chlorine looked as confused as the rest of them at the last remark.
“He knows you’re not a pirate now,” said the flying lady. “You may as well admit to the rest. You hung out my spare cape to signal me because he led you to where he’d hidden what he stole from us.”
Agent Chlorine looked back at his hammock, and back up at the woman. “Uh… yes, yes, of course, Flying Thulium, I hung up the cape to signal you. I knew he was digging up our letters because…”
“Because what else would it be?” she said confidently. “I can read them from here with my x-ray vision.”
Before Stede had a chance to wonder whether x-rays were known about in the age of piracy, the Flying Thulium swooped down toward him. In an instant, her cape was tangled in the branches of the palm tree, and she dangled by her neck, strangling herself a little every time she tried to fly away. “You’ll live to regret this!” she asserted. As if to emphasise her point, a coconut fell and hit Stede’s spade, whose digging motion propelled it into the water. The parrot flew after it, but was unable to lift a coconut without the help of a second parrot and a piece of string.
Stede turned his attention to Agent Chlorine, formerly known as Toothbeard. “Th’wench says this be my treasure, looted from you. We split it?” he tried to lift the treasure chest from the hole, but couldn’t grip it well enough with his hook, and fell onto it. He cleared room for his legs and made himself comfortable sitting on the chest.
“Those are our love letters, you filthy pirate!” said the Dangling Thulium. She shot laser beams from her eyes and melted the sand around him. When the melted sand cooled, his peg leg was stuck fast, and he was surrounded by walls of vitrified sand. Not for the first time, he wondered why the peg leg was not removable.
Agent Chlorine tried to pull him out, but slipped on the glass and found himself lying over the hole, arms on one side, feet on the other. The parrot left a dropping on his back while echoing, “You filthy pirate! You filthy pirate!”
Stede stood up, headbutting Agent Chlorine’s stomach. Agent Chlorine slid forward on the glass and his feet fell into Stede’s face. Agent Chlorine pulled himself up and slid on his belly toward the unmelted sand, defeated. Stede nursed his bloody nose, and the parrot came and sat on his head.
Stede let forth a stream of insults which are not suitable for a general audience, but which came out as “You scurvy yellow-bellied scallywags!” Being a pirate was no fun any more. “I be nay e’en a real pirate. I work on thems bewitch’d boxes.”
“The path to understanding,” began the Dangling Thulium authoritatively, “begins with an open heart and ends with proper English.”
“I think he said he’s not a real pirate,” said Agent Chlorine, who had learnt quite a bit of pirate lingo during his time as a spy. “Which suits me fine, because I’m not a real secret agent. I’m an interior decorator, as you should know, Flying Thulium. I just found myself in a pirate’s bunk one day, wearing a smart black suit with a lot of secret pockets. Next thing I knew, there was a big commotion outside and I had to give my bunkmate a cyanide pill and and take his pirate clothes before Captain Bonnet found me.”
“You too?!” exclaimed Stede and Thulium in chorus. The parrot on Stede’s head perked up and repeated after them.
“You’re not alone,” said Thulium heroically. “I was once trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem while mourning the anniversary of my heart being broken, when I found myself rescuing a princess from a pirate crew.” She said it in a way that inspired all of them to try to become heroes. “I didn’t know Agent Chlorine was here until I saw the cape.”
“Aye, but how d’ye know Cap’n T… Agent Chlorine?”
“Sometimes,” she said, “the answer you seek is directly beneath your derrière.”
Stede snickered until Thulium’s heroic glare caught him. He stood up and tried to turn towards the treasure chest, twisting his pegged leg as far around as he could before falling backwards, ending up parallel to the chest with his back against the side of the hole. He undid the clasp with his hook, and watched as the chest sprang open and a golden glow lit the space where the lid had been. Stede pushed himself upward with his good leg so he could see into the chest.
Stede’s confused arrr for some reason reminded him of Scooby Doo. There was no gold, just letters. He fished them out with his hook, and tried to get himself upright to close the chest, but fell and ended up sitting in it. That would have to do.
“Read to us” commanded Thulium, who was levitating as comfortably as she could next to the top of the palm tree.
So he did. They were love letters between childhood sweethearts: a lass studying mathematics and her beau studying interior decorating on the other side of the country. Jim had never heard such a touching love story, having been raised in an orphanage, left there by unmarried girl who had been impregnated by a passing sailor, and then been sent to an asylum for telling crazy stories about spies or something. He was almost in tears, but Levitating Thulium and Agent Chlorine were in stitches hearing their words read in his unintentional pirate dialect.
Stede was so absorbed in the letters he didn’t notice Agent Chlorine climbing up the palm to reminisce with Thulium. When he finished the letter he was reading and saw them, he couldn’t help chanting, “Chlorine and Thulium, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” The parrot, who was not so good at spelling, echoed only the ‘aye aye!’ as it flew up toward them. Surprised, Thulium lost her grip on Agent Chlorine, who fell into the hammock. The force of the falling agent caused the hammock to come untied from the tree, and without its makeshift tether, the ship began to float away. Agent Chlorine hung onto the hammock and tried to pull the ship back, but before long he was drifting with it out to sea while Thulium tried desperately to untangle her cape from the tree.
Meanwhile, Stede read the last letter silently. Things had not ended well. Agent Chlorine had had some kind of existential crisis and couldn’t continue his relationship with Thulium. He hinted that he’d met someone else at design school.
Well, Thulium and Chlorine had seemed pretty friendly moments ago. Stede wanted the love story to continue, even if it meant losing his first mate. He stood up in his glassy sand hole and tried to free his peg leg. Thulium hovered at the top of the palm tree and tried to free her cape. Agent Chlorine clung to the sparkly cape-hammock for dear life as the ship pulled it away from shore.
Stede moved to close the chest so he would at least have somewhere comfortable to sit while everything went wrong. At the bottom of the chest, he saw the source of the golden glow: a diamond ring with a small note attached from the Flying Thulium. “I shan’t keep this, then.”
“Yo ho!” called Stede, waving the ring in the air.
“Yo ho!” answered the parrot as it grabbed the ring from his fingers.
“Oh no!” gasped Thulium as the parrot flew off with the ring. Then “Oh!” as the ring landed in her hand. Her cape was almost indestructible, but diamond can cut through anything.
“Noooo!” Agent Chlorine completed for her, as he lost his grip on the cape-hammock.
Thulium quickly cut her cape free with the diamond and flew to Agent Chlorine’s rescue. She boarded the boat with him, and they sailed off into the sunset.
Stede sat back down inside the treasure chest with a dejected arrr, unsure if he could call this a loss or a win. After some time, he discovered a false bottom in the chest. Underneath it was some gold jewellery, and one last note, which he recognised as being in Thulium’s handwriting. It was a note he’d seen once before when he was a little boy, but been forced to throw away. “Please call my baby Stede, after the pirate who helped bring his daddy and me back together.”
Jim was glad the orphanage staff had not obeyed. Stede was a pretty funny-sounding name.
This story is a sequel and/or prequel to Swan Song, but I hope it also makes sense on its own.
The artless masses follow each other through the darkness. In the safety of imitation, they are content. Time passes as quickly and as unremarkably as they can make it. When they move together, they are indistinguishable, but when one has a moment of weakness, it is just possible to distinguish that one from the others, and distinguish the moment from the rest of time.
One of these moments was in the past, and it happened to a mass which had once been called Bob, though it didn’t remember that. Bob was nervous, for new thoughts threatened to think themselves inside it and disrupt its peaceful rest. It carefully followed a stream of other such afflicted, and found itself at a diversion dealer.
“I need to relax,” said Bob as normally as possible. After pretending to check something on a computer for a while, the dealer motioned to the distraction section. The section seemed to fill the whole area, with boundaries as indistinct as those between customers.
Some amount of time passed while Bob looked through what was on offer, but Bob was not sick enough to care how much, just as long as it passed unnoticed. Bob settled on a collection named Rooksong, which promised to drown out all original thought if played loudly enough. Something terrifying briefly flashed over the dealer when Bob went to buy the recording.
Not sure whether to be more afraid of it being a real flash or a metastasis from its imagination, Bob asked, “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?”
To Bob’s relief, the dealer didn’t bother to respond.
Finding that those it was following were not moving, Bob began watching before even leaving the diversion dealer. Meaningless images and sounds unfolded all around and through Bob’s mind’s eye. In the resulting wave of relaxation, Bob merged with the rest of the queue so completely that it would have mixed character traits with the others if they’d had any. The next time anything happened, Bob found itself painfully torn from the others, then healed by the blissful distraction of the next show. Some were tired jokes, some were cats dancing to repetitive beats, most were the everyday stories of expert assassins killing time. All made time pass so smoothly that Bob felt nothing at all.
When the amusement stopped, Bob was more sensitive than ever to the passage of time, the pressure to do something with it and the agonising boredom of not doing so. It needed more rook song, and it needed it more quickly than it had ever cared to do anything. It flailed at the dealer. The dealer gave it a bored look, and then shuddered with recognition.
“You want more?” said the dealer.
“Yeah. Do you know where I can get some?”
The dealer shook off those that had followed Bob, and they fled from the unconventional motion. The dealer held a softly glowing object that mutilated the darkness, showing the terrifying outline of the dealer’s bulbous face. Bob, suddenly aware of having rudimentary physical eyes of its own, turned them away.
“This is a thought,” said the dealer. Bob already knew. It had narrowly avoided having one a few times.
The dealer set up a video camera while Bob recited stereotypes to itself and laughed to draw its attention from the light.
The dealer made its move without wasting any time, for it had worse things to avoid doing. It thrust the thought at Bob and held its point near where Bob wished it had eyelids. Bob panicked at the light reaching its mind’s eye. What terrified it most was the temptation to give in, to reach out and grab the flame of time and let it burn its flesh until the flame and Bob were both extinguished. But it dared not. Bob found its calm and recited countless brief tidbits. As the stream of tidbits began to wane, the dealer drove the thought through Bob’s forehead.
And it gave Bob an idea. Terrified, Bob held the idea at arm’s length and brandished it like a dagger.
Bob felt for the hole the thought must have made in its forehead, hoping a lengthy description of gore would stop this story from moving. There was no hole, but having a well-defined forehead was new and disturbing. Bob was different. “Am I alive?” it asked the dealer.
“You’re a watcher now. Go watch.”
Bob understood. It was free to liberate rook song at leisure.
The dealer handed Bob a video camera. “We can trade recordings,” he said. “Then we don’t have to gather as many.”
With that, it calmly went through the charade of selling Bob the camera. The dealer’s shaking had not been vigorous enough to disrupt the whole line, so a few new customers had already arrived.
Bob hid the idea and slid its way around the customers. When it found someone that didn’t look sick, it thrust the idea at it and started filming its reaction. Bob’s anxiety rose a little as it saw the moment of terror, the flickering desire. Then Bob basked in the divine procrastination of avoiding the thing one wants more than anything. The thrill was even more intense than that of watching recordings. Bob savored the spectacle a little too long before stabbing with the idea. The victim had no lust for rook song to keep it going, so it slid silently into the next world.
Potential witnesses to the attack had fled as soon as the idea was unsheathed, so Bob had to wander alone for a while to find its next victim. Having such an obvious gap between itself and others was disturbing; Bob almost saw its own form, and almost thought things nobody else was around to think. The usual distractions weren’t good enough any more. It was so desperate for rook song that it did something it had never done before: it hurried.
Bob found another line and enjoyed the rook song of the last follower. Bob shaded its idea carefully, so some of those ahead of the victim were so absorbed in looking at those in front of them that they did not see what happened, and Bob could feast on them next.
Only when the camera was full of rook song did Bob bother to take it back to the diversion dealer to exchange footage.
“This is terrible”, said the dealer. “You let it grow weak before ending it. And this one is too young; it doesn’t even know what it wants, so how can it avoid it?”
Bob was surprised. Usually, one likes what one is told to like. But only the highest quality time-wasting would satisfy the dealer. It taught Bob how to choose victims: how to tell them apart, and how to see how old they were and how good they were at passing time.
Bob had always been happy about time going on, but as it did so, Bob found it needed more and more rook song to keep going. Soon it understood what the dealer had said about low-quality rook song being unsatisfying. Sometimes it would watch recordings even while liberating fresh rook song. When there was not enough, Bob found itself banging painfully into things with its ever-more-defined features, instead of simply sliding around and through them. Eventually Bob was so defined that others would flee before it even showed its idea.
When Bob ran out of recordings, there was nowhere else to go. It ran to the dealer with the few things it had managed to record, and begged for more.
“This is pretty poor quality. And you just cleared out all my customers. Do you know how hard it was to coax them from the other queues?”
Tears streamed from Bob’s tear ducts. Without rook song, it could not survive much longer in this body. It slapped the dealer with an only-slightly-webbed hand, sending ripples through the dealer’s blastocaelic body. Bob’s fully-developed eyes could see that being surrounded by distraction hadn’t fully protected the dealer from the passage of time and the pressure to become something.
The dealer flashed an idea at Bob as a warning while sorting through some recordings. “Alright, you can have this one.”
Bob started watching straight away. The rook song from the near-formless creature in the recording was relaxing, but not as satisfying as usual. It seemed like it had seen it all before. Only when it saw the dealer plunge the idea into the victim’s head was there enough light for Bob to recognise itself. It saw the conception of its own idea. It remembered the terror of creating such a lively object, and the rooksong-given resolve that enabled Bob to resist it. It remembered the temptation to give in to it. By this time, the temptation was all that was left.
Bob stabbed its idea into its now-beating heart, and sent itself to the next world screaming eureka in pain.
Doctors were worried by the sudden change of heart rhythm, so they induced labour. Fourteen hours later, ‘Bob’ was reborn. Her new parents named her Alice.
Once upon a time there were three bears; a mummy bear, a daddy bear and a baby bear. After they had finished their porridge one evening, it was time for Baby Bear to go to bed. So Mummy Bear tucked Baby Bear in and gave him a kiss goodnight, and then Daddy Bear started to tell him a story.
Once upon a time, there were three humans: a mummy human and the two human cubs she’d had the previous winter. One day, while they were out looking for some fruit for the winter, a young bear found their den and went inside. He could smell delicious trash and blackberries, and soon found three piles of it on the floor. He tasted the first one, but it was too trashy. He tasted the second one, but it was too sweet. Then he tasted the third one, and it was just right, so he ate it all up. He looked around and found some fruit, but it was too fermented and didn’t taste good. Then he found a pile of leaves. He was so sleepy after eating so much that he lay down in the pile of leaves and went to sleep.
When the human family came home, they could smell that something was different.
“Somebody’s been eating my garbage!” huffed Mummy Human.
“Somebody’s been eating my garbage too!” moaned Girl Human
“Somebody’s been eating my garbage, and they’ve eaten it all up!” barked Boy Human.
The three humans sniffed around the den, trying to find the culprit.
“The garbage smells like bear!” huffed Mummy Human.
“The fruit smells like bear!” moaned Girl Human.
“The leaves smell like bear, and there’s a bear here!” barked Boy Human.
The excited barking of the human cub woke up the bear, who jumped up and ran away as quickly as he could. And the humans never saw the bear again.
Baby Bear went to sleep, happily clutching his teddy human.
A few weeks later, when the family came home from their walk and Baby Bear found a human girl in his bed, Baby Bear decided to let it sleep there for the rest of the winter and maybe have babies. He didn’t tell his parents, and went to find some fermented fruit to put next to the bed. When he came back, he tripped and fell, and the human woke up, screamed, jumped out the window and ran away. Baby Bear cried and cried and cried. His parents heard his crying, and scolded him for trying to keep the human a secret. They explained that real humans weren’t like the ones in the story, and they had guns that could kill baby bears like him, so he should never try to be friends with one.
Baby Bear cried and cried and cried and cried.
He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant requirement to do what he had committed himself to do. Taylor ran from the insipid story ideas that came to him, squatting in trashy distractions until he thought the ideas had left. But as soon as he stopped distracting himself, they came back. He had 18 hours to write something, and this would have to be it. He still ran, until the interruption of a pleasant procrastinatory conversation with a friend gave him a door, and he ran inside.
On the shelf was a DVD of the movie ‘The Neverending Story’. A story of a boy who saves Fantasia, the world of human fantasy, right when people were beginning to lose their hope, to forget their dreams. What if Fantasia were being destroyed again? What if that’s why there were no good story ideas left? If only he could get to Fantasia, and get a child to give the Childlike Empress a new name, he would be able to restore his hope and the wealth of fantastic story ideas he’d once had. He poured himself a frozen lemonade with vodka and sat down with his laptop to write.
He just imagined that in front of him, there was a giant Apollo White Room, where he could prepare to enter his craft and travel to unknown worlds. He’d had the training, read a summary of the book, watched the movie, and he knew exactly what he had to do. He would journey to the Moonchild.
It would be easier for him than for Atreyu. He just had to keep his chin up as he crossed the deadly Swamps of Sadness, keep his grip when speaking to Morla, find a luckdragon, keep his self-esteem up as he walked through the Sphinx gate, keep his cool as he saw his true reflection in the mirror of true selves, feign surprise when the Southern Oracle told him the Empress needed a new name, and hope he’d written the story well enough to capture a child’s attention.
Taylor stopped to take a sip of his drink, check his email, and try to forget how unlikely it was that a child would read his story and give Empress Moonchild the new name she needed. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.
Ahead of him, the Nothing had already devoured the landscape. To the left and right was more nothingness. Behind him, he could see the Ivory Tower glowing in the distance. Andy, his Andalusian horse, had no problem galloping over the featureless landscape. When they arrived at the Ivory Tower, Taylor approached the bearded man.
“I’m sorry. But this is not the time and the place for adults. Adults do not have the imagination required for this quest. I must ask you to leave.”
“If you don’t want me here, you shouldn’t have sent for me.” Taylor had his lines memorized.
“It was not you we sent for,” said the man. “We wanted Taylor.”
“I am Taylor,” he said.
“Not Taylor the worn-out adult! Taylor the child!”
That is not what they’d said to Atreyu. “I’m the only Taylor you’ve got,” said Taylor. “I’m old enough to know what to do. But if you want, I’ll go back and write advertising copy.” Taylor turned away and pretended to leave.
“No, wait, come back, please,” said the man. Taylor turned back.
“If you really are the Taylor we sent for, you would be willing to go on a quest?”
“Yes, of course.” This was the script Taylor was used to. “What kind of a quest?”
The man gave the usual spiel about finding a cure for the Empress, to save Fantasia. It would be very dangerous and important, and he had to go alone, weaponless. Taylor feigned bravery as he accepted the challenge, knowing that having already seen the movie, he would be in no real danger. He did not need to feign awe as he was given Auryn, the amulet which would guide and protect him.
Taylor rode off into the sunset, knowing that the creature of darkness which would be tracking him down would be an easy kill. After riding for hours, they stopped and decided it was time to eat.
Taylor looked up from his laptop, suddenly aware that his stomach was growling. He topped up his frozen lemonade and made some toast. “Not too much,” he said after the first few bites. “We still have a long way to go.”
Taylor and Andy had searched the Silver Mountains, the Desert of Discarded Drafts, the Crystal Heads and the Sadness Swamp without success. He saw there was only one chance left. To find Melpolia, the ancient muse, whose home was in the deadly Forests of Disbelief.
Taylor led his horse off a cliff, and into the treetops which appeared ahead of them and disappeared behind them as they walked. Everyone knew that whoever stopped believing in the forest would fall to the bottom of the ravine. Taylor kept himself aloft by describing the feeling of branches underfoot to himself as he went, but the horse soon began to fall. “Andy! Can’t you feel the branches poking into your hooves? Can’t you hear the twigs cracking? Andy, please!”
As the horse fell into the void, Taylor could see just how impossible the forest was. He fell, but instinctively reached out and grabbed a branch that his muscles still knew was there. Of course it was there. If he could write it well enough, it was there. Taylor climbed back to the top and ran with his eyes closed, letting out shrieks of delight as he realised what a marvelous reality he had created. When he got bored with that, he just imagined that in front of him there was a giant red tabby, and then he collided with something soft.
Taylor rolled his chair back from his laptop and sighed loudly. This was a ridiculous idea. A giant cat? A giant cat was the best he could think of as a muse? Well, it would have to do. It was dark out. He was running out of time.
The wind seemed to sigh as Taylor looked up at Melpolia the giant red tabby.
“Oh, no. Not an adult,” the cat hissed. “Adults are no fun.”
Taylor sniffled a little, remembering his cat allergy. “Look, if you would just help me in my quest to save the Childlike Empress… I have a deadline, you know.” He grabbed Melpolia’s fur as the treetop beneath him threatened to give way.
“Oh, we know the Empress is sick, but it doesn’t matter.” Melpolia turned away and started licking itself.
Taylor sneezed violently, and fell a metre or so when he forgot to believe. He climbed back up.
“Do you even care?” Taylor remembered this line from the movie.
“You don’t really care whether or not I care,” said Melpolia.
Taylor started to protest, but realised Melpolia was right. He didn’t care. He just wanted to get through the story, get some readers, and save Fantasia so he would have ideas to write other stories and keep food on the table.
Food. Taylor finished a piece of toast. Why wouldn’t the characters ever just do what he wanted them to? He only had eleven hours left. He took a last gulp of frozen lemonade and slammed the cup down angrily on the table. Fine. If he wasn’t going to save the Empress, he may as well have fun.
Taylor sneezed again, and his tree swayed with him. “You know how I can help save the Empress, don’t you?”
“Not that it matters, but yes,” said Melpolia while it licked its left side.
“It does matter!” screamed Taylor. “If I don’t save her, the Childlike Empress will die, and I always wanted to meet her!”
“It’s really not important. I have some preening to do, you know.” insisted Melpolia.
“If you don’t tell me, Fantasia will disappear, right when I’m starting to enjoy it!” yelled Taylor.
“Oh, alright,” said the giant red tabby. “The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe you could ask the Southern Oracle…”
“Right, 10 000 miles away?” Taylor had forgotten that from the movie. The only point of going to see Melpolia was attracting a luckdragon to take him to the Southern Oracle.
“Yes, as it happens.”
“Great. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a luckdragon, would you?”
“A what? Luckdragons don’t exist. They were just made up for a book.”
Taylor started to fall. Melpolia found a patch of fur near its right front paw that hadn’t been preened for a while, and went to work on it.
The falling sure felt real. Taylor closed his eyes and waited to hit the ground.
Taylor poured himself another frozen lemonade, without vodka this time, the way he’d always loved it as a kid. He’d had so much of it one summer that his friends had started calling him Frozen Lemonade. They still did, sometimes, but it embarrassed him more now. He’d started adding vodka in his mid-twenties. The vodka made it taste terrible, but what self-respecting adult drinks virgin frozen lemonade?
Taylor woke up next to some kind of giant goat. “Are you a luckdragon?”
“Goodness, no. I’m a deus ex machamois.”
Taylor giggled. “A deus ex machamois? And let me guess, you can fly, and you caught me when I fell from the nonexistent treetops?”
“That’s right. A giant flying squirrel would have made more sense, but I guess you panicked. Panic is sometimes good for creativity.”
“You mean… I just made you up to save my life? And you’re really here?”
Taylor could picture it in his head. A giant chamois, flailing through the air, always looking for footholds in the clouds. Eat your heart out, Rudolph! He laughed so hard he almost peed himself. On the way back from the toilet, he spotted the bag of sour miniature easter egg candies he’d bought for his nephews, and opened it. Forget the waistline; a little sugar once in a while couldn’t harm him.
“I’m here, alright. You passed out before I even caught you; you’re not used to landing on giant flying goats any more. My name’s Rudolph.”
Taylor laughed. “So… how far away is the Southern Oracle?”
“Why, it’s just around the corner!”
Taylor grinned. “Do I have to go visit that gnome couple and drink eye of newt to make me healthy, now?”
“Only if you want to.”
Taylor secretly wanted to know what the potion would taste like. He found the gnomes’ home, where Urgl hurried to make him a healing potion. “This one will do you good. It has eye of newt in it. And wing of cat, hair of tortoise, face of gnat, eyelash of porpoise.”
Taylor gulped it down in delighted disgust, feeling the eyes slide down his throat and the wings try to flap their way back up, chewing the eyelashes so they wouldn’t tickle.
“This one’s eye of newt,” said Taylor as he put a sour egg into his mouth. He grimaced as the sour taste electrified his tongue.
Then it was Engywook the scientist’s turn to tell him about the Sphinx Gate he would have to pass. “The sphinxes’ eyes stay closed until someone who does not feel his own worth tries to pass by. They can see straight into your heart.”
Taylor did not stay to watch a hesitant traveller get shot by the Sphinxes’ eyes. “Thanks for the newt eyes!” he yelled as he ran down to the gate.
Taylor approached the Sphinx gate with confidence.
Taylor couldn’t think of anything good enough to write. All his ideas seemed stupid again. He decided to write as quickly as he could whatever came to his head, whether he liked it or not.
Taylor ran between the sphinxes as he saw the eyes beginning to open. The sphinx eyes fired a blue laser of self-doubt at him, but he could jump over and under the laser beams like a character in a bad science fiction movie. He leapt over the last one and rolled along the ground giggling on the other side, almost wanting to go back for another go. There were plenty of other roll marks in the sand. He wondered if anyone was really confident enough to keep the eyes closed, or if the survivors were just the ones who ran through anyway.
And now for the mirror of true selves. When he started the quest, he would have been afraid to look at it, but he wasn’t afraid any more. The mirror showed him as a young boy, enthusiastically writing into his notebook. And then a middle-aged man, typing into his laptop just as excitedly.
Finally, he arrived at the Southern Oracle. As expected, it told him that in order to save Fantasia, the Empress needed to be given a new name by a human child.
Taylor swore and wished he’d put more vodka in his frozen lemonade. He’d forgotten to think of a solution to the ‘human child’ problem. In the movie, the human child is the reader of the book, but who would ever read this one? He hadn’t even made the deadline. He made some more toast and settled down to write an unhappy ending.
Taylor rode Rudolph back in the direction he’d come, trying to enjoy the ride even though he knew he’d failed in his quest. Fragments of Fantasia floated around the void like stars. They flew toward the brightest: the Ivory Tower.
The Childlike Empress was beautiful. She reminded Taylor of his first crush.
“I have failed you, Empress.”
“No. You haven’t. You brought him with you.”
“The child. The one who can save us all.”
“No I didn’t. Nobody is going to publish this. No child is going to read this.”
“Yes, you did,” said the Empress with conviction. “He has suffered with you. He went through everything you went through. And now, he has come here. With you. He is very close. Listening to every word we say.”
Taylor could barely believe what he was writing. He popped another sour egg into his mouth.
“Where is he? If he’s so close, why doesn’t he arrive?” A piece of ivory fell from the ceiling and narrowly missed Taylor’s head.
“He doesn’t realise he’s already a part of the story.”
“But it’s just me!” Taylor protested. “I know I’m in the story. I know I’m writing the story. I know no kid is reading this story.”
“The child began to share your adventure as soon as you let him. As soon as you started believing the story.”
“But there’s nobody here but me!” Taylor said.
He was right.
Taylor almost choked on a sour egg. “No way!” he said aloud.
“He’s been a part of you all along, but you slowly stopped listening to him, when you thought you had to keep you feet on the ground. He’s still inside you. You just need to let him call out my new name. He has already chosen it.”
“This isn’t real. I’m just writing this. This isn’t real.” said Taylor under his breath. He could make them say something else if he wanted. He could make the Empress look up a name in a baby name book herself.
“What will happen if he doesn’t appear?”
“Then our world will disappear, and so will I,” said Empress Moonchild.
“How could he let that happen?”
“He doesn’t understand that he’s the one that has the power to stop it. He simply can’t imagine that something he’s writing can be so important.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know what he has to do!”
No baby name book. The characters wouldn’t let him. But he didn’t know what to write next. “What do I have to do?” Taylor wondered aloud.
“He has to give me a new name. He just has to call it out,” said the Empress.
All Taylor called out was “But it’s only a story. It’s not real!”
“Taylor! Why don’t you do what you dream, Taylor? Why don’t you live the fantasy life you created?”
“But I can’t, I have to keep my feet on the ground! I’m a grown man!” Taylor was already yelling loud enough for his neighbours to think he was a nutcase. What harm would there be in yelling a name as well?
“Call my name! Taylor, please! Save us!”
Taylor was confused. “Me? My horse died, I almost died falling off trees, I swallowed porpose eyelashes, and I could have just come straight here and given you a name myself?”
“Not you. The Taylor who’s writing the story. You needed to go on the adventure so he could find the child in him.”
“Alright! I’ll do it! I’ll save you. I will do what I dream!” Taylor grabbed his cup and held it up in the air triumphantly. “Frozen Lemonade!” he screamed.
And then it was dark. “Really? A power cut, now?!” he said in frustration, wondering when he’d last saved his writing. Taylor jumped as a beautiful voice responded.
“In the beginning, it is always dark.”
Taylor saw a tiny glow, and watched it grow to reveal the face of the Childlike Empress. “Seriously? You can’t tell me this was all real! I was just making excuses for my lack of ideas! There is no Fantasia.”
Taylor felt the floor beneath him tremble. It was not the floor of his apartment.
“Not any more,” said the empress. “But now that you have named me Frozen Lemonade, you can begin to rebuild.”
“Wait, I have to rebuild?
Frozen Lemonade showed Taylor the glowing object she’d been holding. A pencil. “Give me your hand.”
Taylor held out his hand, and Frozen Lemonade placed the pencil between his fingers. “Now what are you going to write about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then there will be no Fantasia any more.”
“How much can I write with one pencil?”
“As much as you want. You don’t even need to use this pencil. The more you write, the more magnificent Fantasia will become.”
So he started writing. He barely noticed when he was transported back to his apartment and the pencil became a glowing laptop screen. He and his laptop had many other amazing adventures, but they are other stories.
Jane knew she wasn’t supposed to feed chocolate to the lizard. That’s why she did it. She knew Mrs. Beagle always gave a chocolate to whoever got the best score in the maths quiz. That’s why she studied. She knew Mrs. Beagle always left straight after school on Wednesdays. That’s why she chose that day to sneak back into the classroom where the class lizard was kept.
What Jane did not know was what would happen to the lizard when it ate the chocolate.
Jane also did not know that Mrs. Beagle had left her keys behind. That’s why she jumped and dropped the lizard when Mrs. Beagle opened the classroom door. Jane did not know where the lizard went when she dropped it. That’s why she was surprised when it bit her on the ankle a few minutes later, while she was writing out ‘I will not feed chocolate to the lizard’ 100 times on the blackboard. Jane did not know that the chocolate lizard bite would make whatever she wrote come true. That’s why she kept writing. She did not know why she was writing it, since she had never fed chocolate to the lizard, and she wouldn’t, even though she wanted to. That’s why she stopped writing. Jane did not know what to do next. That’s why she started writing a story on the blackboard:
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Jane who knew everything and didn’t need to go to school.
And Jane knew everything. That’s why she wrote that some cake would appear. Jane knew that everything she wrote would come true, and stay true until the bite from the chocolate-fed lizard healed an hour later. That’s why she was worried. She knew that she would have to feed more chocolate to the lizard and let it bite her again when that happened. That’s one of the reasons she wrote that a lot of chocolate appeared. But she knew that she could not feed chocolate to the lizard after writing that she wouldn’t. That’s why she lived out her wildest dreams until the spell wore out just before Mrs. Beagle returned.
Mrs. Beagle still knew what Jane had done. That’s why she came to make sure she’d completed her punishment, even though she’d rather have gone to her mathematics society meeting. Mrs. Beagle did not know what the chocolate-fed-lizard bite had done. That’s why she was surprised by the faint smell of ponies and chocolate cake that disappeared just quickly enough to make her wonder whether she’d ever smelt it. Mrs. Beagle did not know that Jane wanted to feed the lizard again. That’s why she dismissed the girl and left.
Jane knew that Mrs. Beagle would write a disciplinary report detailing everything she’d done. That’s why she put the lizard in Mrs. Beagle’s bag, with her chocolates.
Mrs. Beagle knew that something was up when she saw what happened as she wrote about Jane feeding chocolate to the lizard. That’s why she wrote that Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem could be disproven.