Bottleton Marine Habitat 1, Gift Shop 2 95:15 B.M.
It was all about the numbers.
“They say that when fire ants are dowsed in water, they grab onto each other in a semi-sentient lattice. The resulting ball will float on water, so that half the ants are above the water, half below. After a few seconds the ball rotates, then rotates again a few seconds later, so that no ants drown. After equilibrium has been reached, the ants lash out their hundreds of arms collectively, groping in the ether like an amoeba, flagellating, praying for something to grab onto. Working in unison, the many can accomplish what the few cannot.”
“We don’t sell fire ants.”
Like a knife through my heart!
“I was merely making a point, Beryl,” I skimmed her name tag, “a point of purchase.” Wringing her arms in a soldier-like fashion, she sat down by her register, looking for the inventory sheet. “Unless, of course, you have some fire ants in the back room. Maybe you could... check again-”
“This is a fishery, sir. All we sell here are immature cuttlefish.”
“Immature cuttlefish... does that mean they’re prone to... prank calls and food fighting?! That’d be just what I need!”
She looked like she was about to cry. “That’s what I thought when I started here ten years ago, but it’s not that at all!”
Trying to ignore her suffering was hard; the tears running down her two cheeks totally reminded me of the Novans’ translucent eye-stripes. I was never sure whether those eye-stripes were a different skin-tone, or mere decoration. Either way, to see their eye-stripes in battle was to know certain death...
Atom by atom, the room erupted into cheer at my epiphany! The despondent Beryl, her boss (who was currently breaking his promise to his wife and doctor not to eat red meat), the 22 children there on a field trip, their teacher (who retired the year before from a major pharmaceutical firm and saw teaching more as a way to keep busy than as a calling), Morgan the bus driver (a man who would give you the shirt off his back if you only asked for it), and Jim, all ran up and congratulated me: a slap on the back, a hug, one or two gold watches. Still, no balloons... not at all like a fishery not to have balloons handy...
Naturally, the cuttlefish took the opportunity to unleash a series of whoopie cushions — too little, too late — but my mind was already dressed and made up.
“Morgan, give me your keys,” I asked/demanded of the 36-year-old Capricorn with a beard but no mustache.
“Sorry chief. I’ve got to get these kids back home.”
“Then give me the shirt off your back, that I might pawn it for transport fare! I cannot keep the Novans waiting — they aren’t expecting me!” I waved, harpooning my way out.
Desk draws spilled in celebration as I exited, octopi and squid danced in unison. Electric eels shot off sparks as I passed their tanks, immaculate white-hot embers landed in my wake. Bioluminescent starfish brightened each display with a panoply of colors; for once I could physically taste the rainbow.
Base of the Anorak Mountain Complex 306:20 B.R.
“Bingo.” Side 8 was always unguarded. The doors were handcrafted from the bones of long-dead whales, but they’d clearly done the floor molding on the cheap. Disgraceful.
Hallways upon hallways, a labyrinth that would put King Minos to shame; but the creatures which dwelt here were far more dangerous than any minotaur. And I’ve seen minotaurs before, so I can say that with complete certainty — unless we involve the uncertainty principle. But that principle only applies if we’re trying to find the location and momentum of a minotaur simultaneously. Now that would be dangerous.
For every voice in my head that said this was crazy, ten more told it to pipe down. Then it came: “I do believe you are looking for something forbidden!”
My heels froze, in a bad way! Before me was an unromantic metallic pink/purple figure. Its skin — chainmail, really — was dark green in the torchlight and small horns lined its skull. “Can you take me to the Novans? I have no appointment with them.”
It hissed, shaking a fist in my direction, and causing me anxiety! “In this holy place, we are the Sus! You will call us that, in accordance with our highest customs, or leave.”
“That’s a completely reasonable request, but I choose not to follow it. After all, your highest law says the customer is always right, eh what?”
It sighed, gestured to a beaded curtain my pride had helped me ignore earlier and said hello the proper way.
“What lies beyond the veil?!” My outstretched arm rubbed the beads. They were so soft and gel-like, I almost didn’t want to let go. For a second — just a second — I wanted to relive my youth and eat those beads like candy.
“There is no candy in there,” it prophesied as if reading my thoughts, “but you will find the seeds of a small army, and the implements to grow them.”
“Can I buy the fertilizer here, too? Or is there a special store for that?”
“That is in aisle infinity,” the sage soothsaid.
Behind the Curtain 308:43 B.R.
The ambiance was all wrong. In the middle of the small room was a flame pit, but there must have been too much oxygen. The flames weren’t red enough for a dramatic flair, the shadows on the wall were not menacing at all, and the walls themselves weren’t all that rocky and ancient. The whole thing was a prefab nightmare, painted some hideous shade of light blue.
My delicate pallet was offended, and I let the Novans know this in no uncertain terms: “Your holiest city is ugly, and I’d like your people to do menial work for me for little or no pay.”
Thank the Heap looks could not inflict fatal wounds! One unsheathed a poorly-carved whiffle-bat. “We’d like to welcome you, stranger, with a ceremonial beating!”
“That will have to wait. We need hard currency to fight off Lord Vista.” The mystic I’d acquainted myself with in the endless hallways strode through the curtain, now with a cape and toaster pelts on each shoulder. So, he was their grandfather all along.
“You should all definitely listen to whatever benefits me most. I’m the only real person in the universe, the rest of you are figments of my imagination.”
Unfolding a collapsible bridge table from my back pocket, I laid out a map of Mainland military installations. The critical ones were in red, the moderate ones in orange, and Jim’s house was in blue.
“The edges are torn.” The mystic licked the edges with callused fingertips. It was easy to see where the page had parted ways with a pretty nifty paper shredder; a word to the wise, never try to shred plastic eggs.
“You’ll get the rest of the map once I’ve got my henchmen trained — unless you don’t have a few dozen warrior I could borrow for a while, just to help me unpack all my furniture at the summer house,” I lied. They had no way of knowing my properties in Connecticut weren’t real. Nothing is real, except your own mind! History never happened!
Bowing like a bowlegged tarantula, the lead Novan nodded sideways and pulled out a Magic 8 Ball. “The ball foretold of your arrival and desires, days ago!”
“Then I was not unexpected!” Crestfallen, I solemnly took stock of my beliefs. Every decision I’d ever made was based on the assumption that the Novans were not expecting me. If this was a fallacy, then what else could I have been wrong about? Was Morgan the bus driver a Scorpio?!
“Resources are tight, mon friar. But for several hours our forces have been marshaling for a total inventory... we’ve got a handful of Navens left over from the beforetime you could use.”
“What manner of creature are these Navens?”
“A failed genetic experiment,” laughed a fat Novan. A Jovian Novan! “They were mocked and persecuted in the beforetime, almost completely wiped out. For a thousand years we thought them a legend. But we found some in cryo-jello in an old abandoned science mine!”
“Can they fight? Are they obedient?” These Navens sound like an increasingly poor investment.
Scratching his belly while looking particularly evil and merciless, the mystic shrugged. “All we’ve ever seen them do is grab onto each other in water, rotating themselves so they never drown while reaching out for something solid. Like a giant amoeba.”
I dropped to my knees and sobbed openly; droplets of sulfur hexafluoride vaporized upon impact with the ground. Shaking like a leaf, my unconscious mind (the one that doesn’t exist) used my hand to surrender the remainder of the map.