Ronald Trentworth is having a bad day. Silly, cerebral sci-fi
| “Build my house!” Ronald Trentworth insisted.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?!”
Ronald and the contractor eyed each other like two confrontational stray dogs who were also having a disagreement about a construction contract.
“Sir, we already built your house.”
“You call that a house? You call that built?!”
“Sir, it’s exactly what you ordered built: to your blueprint, with no expensive extras.”
“But what about windows? Fences? A driveway?”
“Those are extras.”
“Floors?! Walls?! A roof?!”
Ronald looked back and forth between the contractor and the alleged house. The contractor was a mousey man with sandy hair, skin like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and a voice that didn’t fit him, like it had been transplanted into him from a much larger man. In vocal quality, pitch, and timber, it resembled a warthog with chronic sinus problems. The house, for it’s part, wasn’t there. A white door perched on a cement front step. Beyond it, Ronald’s furniture was arranged neatly in the field.
Ronald looked helplessly back at the contractor.
“Build my house!”
The contractor did not build Ronald’s house.
When night fell on Thorold like a meteor upon a tyrannosaurus, Ronald was sulking in his chair in his field feeling the mud seeping between his toes. He left his lack-of-livingroom and squelched down his lack-of-hallway and into his lack-of-bedroom. His mind, his will, most of his consciousness was bent towards one goal: pretending that his house was not in fact absent from the floor up, and even if it was, he liked it that way.
The stars were brilliant. The street lamps tended to keep a respectful distance from the houses in the bellybutton of nowhere (otherwise known as Thorold South, Ontario). There was no light pollution.
Ronald looked up into the sky, laying on his back in bed. He surveyed the vast expanse of the cosmos above him: the twinkling stars that--utterly incomprehensible distances away--were burning deadly and massive, the abyss of empty space between the lights that wasn’t really so empty, the nigh-eternal fog of the Milky Way, the ageless face of the moon.
“Yeah....” Ronald thought, “I really need to get a roof.”
The following morning, Ronald looked up at the now-blue sky and wiped the dew from his eyes. He picked up a cup from the bedside table, and squished his way down the lack-of-hall to his lack-of-bathroom where the Porcelain Eminence ensconced on the grass, glistening white. Near that, a towel rack was mounted on nothing, and therefore, due to gravity, was on the ground (though still draped in towels). Ronald picked up these towels and wrung the dew out of them and into the cup.
Grumbling softly, he migrated onomatopoeically to his lack-of-kitchen, with mud sticking loving to his feet. There was a Woodchuck reposing on his formica counter (which was free-standing against the lack-of-walls which is likely why there was a woodchuck there in the fist place). Ronald regarded this new development for a moment. The new development which happened to be of the order of Rodentia stared beadily back at him. They assessed each other for a moment like two window-washers, one of whom was a reflection, though an optical illusion made it unclear which. Ronald had a feeling this was to become a daily ritual, like brushing one’s teeth, except with a small mammal from the marmot family involved. He promptly escorted the animal out the door on the step and off the premises with the business end of a broom.
Returning gooshily to the “kitchen”, Ronald paused to take stock of the situation. There was nothing to be done about the day before. The woodchuck had been dealt with earlier. At present, he was standing in no doorway to no kitchen in no house. He was homeless. No. Well, not quite. He was not homeless, this field was his home. He was more....houseless. Cold, wet, unpleasant grass that felt like a shag rug soaked in lemonade tingled under his feet. That was just about the situation. So....now what?
Ronald decided he absolutely refused to be discouraged from his usual routine. He would press doggedly on and get himself some coffee, with decisiveness and courage. Or maybe even a bagel. But this of it’s self brought new challenges. Ronald was, by profession, an accountant for a company. He had, a few years before, forgotten what company this might be or what it did. All the data Ronald handled was labelled by code number and he didn’t have the clearance to look at the index. He liked to think that his work was manipulating important numbers for some institution that kept the world as he knew it up and running, but deep down he knew perfectly well he was just processing secretaries’ requests for more paperclips. Ronald was trained in advanced mathematics, business arts, and financial law.....but not the methodology of making coffee in a field.
A few moments crawled by before Ronald had an idea. He smiled proudly. He liked having ideas. He didn’t often get to, since most of the time it was his friend Hidden who came up with the ideas.
Ronald hydroplaned over to where the kitchen cabinets rested placidly on the ground. He opened one of the drawers in the lower half of the cabinet and pulled out a barbeque lighter with a tarnished metal barrel and a red plastic handle with a window to see how much lighter fluid was left in it. About half. He looked through the drawer for anything else useful. It was one of the weird drawers everyone has in their kitchen, where things collect and are hoarded and are never looked at again (unless you’re trying to figure out what they are). He found the second component he’d need: the coffee-maker filters that existed for no particular reason since he didn’t have a coffee-maker. He shut the drawer and opened the cupboard portion of the cabinet and got out a large can of coffee.
“Now,” Ronald said to himself, “Just wrap some coffee grounds in the paper, and...There.” He dropped the packet in the cup of dew he’d collected from his towels when he woke up.
Sitting down at his lack-of-kitchen table, he turned on the barbeque lighter and pulled the trigger on the handle. With a clack like a duck trapped between two colliding billiard balls, a small blue and orange flame licked out the end of the six-inch barrel. He held the little fire under the cup of dew and coffee grounds. It started to singe the bottom of the mug, but Ronald didn’t care because that was the same mug they gave out at Christmas every year to everyone who worked at the same company as him. He must have had eight or so of them by now.
Ronald settled in like a post-modern art statue to wait for his coffee to boil.
“Why?” he pondered to himself, “Why me? Things like this don’t happen to me. Ever. They happen to....to people on TV. And to Squirrel. And Hidden. Mostly Squirrel. But definitely not to me. I’m an accountant. This isn’t my job. Everything was just looking up for me, I’d come into some money....”
It had been only two weeks before that Ronald had been normal. He was an account by day and a stamp collector by night. His favourite television program was “Antiques Roadshow”. His favourite food was chicken-noodle soup. He had no eccentricities or oddish habits to speak of. He was a dog person, but had never had pets because he was no good at naming things. Ronald Trentworth was normal. Normal, normal, normal.
Then those two weeks ago, his uncle had died, leaving him a very hefty inheritance. Ronald found this extremely peculiar because he’d been wholly unaware he had an uncle. He supposed he should be sad his uncle was dead, but the only emotion he could convince himself to feel was surprise that the man had ever existed at all.
However, Ronald had had no intention of wasting this windfall on rare stamps. He decided it was enough to have a house built. A small house, with no extras, but still a good house.
At this point, the trouble started elbowing Ronald out of the comfortable rut he’d dug for himself:
Acquiring the land deed required a trip to the Galapagos. (The Giant Tortoise Real Estate Company required a signature from their mascot before they’d sell Ronald the land.)
Having a blueprint made up required him to make his own paper to print it on. (Ronald had had no idea that when the ad said he’d be in charge of every aspect of the design, they meant every aspect of the design.)
Finding a contractor required cross-country treks on camelback. (They said they’d give Ronald a discount if he did a quick errand for them.)
And his end result? A door perched on a cement steps, and all his worldly possessions arranged in a field.
At least the grass on his ground was green....very Feng Shui....
Ronald’s coffee started to burble feebly and dark swirls almost very close to nearly not in any way resembling coffee began to appear in the cup. Figuring that the way it was then was just about as good as it was going to get, Ronald removed the packet of coffee grounds and sipped the noxious black contents of the cup. He pretended to like it.
There was three and one half knocks at the door. Only one person Ronald knew knocked three and one half times: Earl “The Squirrel” Merone. Abnormal, incomprehensible, and a professional raving lunatic. As far as Ronald cold tell, “The Squirrel”’s full-time and sole occupation was to (or claim to) design and sell mechanisms to prevent wetsuit-clad government operatives from crawling out of peoples’ toilets, being abducted by aliens, and being pursued into the oddest places by secret branches of the FBI. He referred to them as agents of the π-Files. Earl was chapter-head of The Tinfoil Hat Society.
On that particular day, he had shown up on Ronald’s step wrapped from the neck down in what must have been box after box of dental floss, and was carrying something geometric and bulky. Ronald squooshed over and opened the door. Earl thrust the box into Ronald’s hands.
“Hi, Ronald! Here’s a housewarming gift for you!”
“Uh....thank you, Squirrel. What’s been going on with you?” Ronald said, for lack of anything better to say.
“As you can see, I’m covered in dental floss.”
“I’m glad you’re aware of that. So....why?”
“It’s a good insect deterrent.”
“You mean repellant?”
“No, deterrent. The bugs still come, but they can’t get on me, so they get discouraged and fly away.”
“You’re passively resisting mosquitoes.”
“In a way.”
“Of course. I understand now. That...makes...sense. How silly of me not to see it. Do come in. If you must.”
Earl stepped into Ronald’s lack-of-front-foyer and looked around appraisingly. Ronald looked down at his housewarming gift.
It was a half-eaten box of cornflakes. English, though, can be a terribly difficult language to understand, particularly with adjectives being vague about what nouns they apply to all over the place. This box of cornflakes was indeed half-eaten. However, the cornflakes were undiminished....it was the box that was half-eaten.
Ronald looked at Earl for a moment.
“Yes?” Earl was picking cardboard out of his teeth.
There was quiet for a moment while Ronald put his cornflakes on the table. He came back to talk to Earl and didn’t get a word out before someone beat him to it.
“Well, Frank Lloyd Wright would love it.”
This was neither Earl nor Ronald. It was Hidden S. Brant. Ronald looked at her, standing beside Earl in no front foyer. She had on a white men’s shirt and blue jeans. On her head was a strangely rumpled and floppy black hat that looked like a badly abused fedora crossed with a much-loved cowboy hat. Her dark hair was very long and loose. She carried a battered messenger bag.
“Yes, he would. Unique, open, whimsical, and not the least bit appropriate for any location that gets weather.”
“Oh....why are you here?”
“Well, that’s an awfully big question....I don’t think it’s possible to know why you’re here until you’ve already gone and done what you were wondering you were supposed to do in the first place.”
“Alright, how did you get here?”
“Well, there were these two ‘X’ chromosomes–”
“I let her in.” Earl said.
“Ah.” Ronald said. There was a reason Hidden was sometimes nicknamed Britannica: after the encyclopaedia. “Well....would you two like a tour of my...uh...house?”
Ronald squelchingly led Hidden and Earl around to each of no halls, showed them the lack-of-rooms, and eventually, they ended up sitting in no livingroom drinking no coffee.
“So, that’s all the house I haven’t got.”
“Oh, look on the bright side!” Hidden said, “Who knows what this land might once have been a part of. Perhaps two pioneers fell in love on this spot. It may have been home to a clan of Vikings, or part of Native hunting grounds, or some ancient burial mound that’s since been eroded away. You’re living on the ground of things long past, long forgotten. Who knows: Heisenberg may have slept here!”
“I’m not sure.” Earl whispered.
“Well, even if he did,” Hidden said, “We’ll never know how fast asleep he was.”
Ronald Trentworth sat in no livingroom with the man who went by “The Squirrel” (who was still picking cardboard from his teeth) and the woman who went by the same name as a major encyclopaedia (who’s real name was Hidden), in his lack-of-house.
And that was when something strange happened.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Scientifically, there is no such thing as words like “nothing” and “impossible”. Only “is absent above” followed by some infinitesimally small measurement and “is a probability below” followed by one to some celestially large number against. Science proves the existence and truth of things, but not the absence of them, except by strong implication and process of elimination.
For example, we cannot directly prove that the Earth is not in the shape of a honey cruller. We can directly prove that the world is round. Since we have proven that the world is round, it must, ipso facto, not be shaped like a honey cruller.
Another example would be that it is not in fact impossible for a Komodo dragon to become lemon custard, provided the lemon custard has the same mass it did when it was a Komodo dragon, staying firmly in obedience to the law of conservation of mass. This is due to the fact that both the lemon custard and the Komodo dragon are both essentially a chemical reaction. All matter is a collection of chemical bonds of varying uniqueness. The only issue is that a Komodo dragon and lemon custard are two different chemical reactions. But there are overlaps in their makeup: hydrogen, oxygen, glucose, lipids, among others. If the remaining chemicals from the lemon custard were to come into contact with the Komodo dragon and it’s molecules and atoms bumped and jostled and collided in just the right way, the reaction would produce lemon custard where there used to be a Komodo dragon.
The likelihood of this happening, however, is a probability of approximately nine hundred eighty four quintillion, six hundred thirteen quadrillion, seven hundred twenty one trillion, three hundred eighty nine billion, two hundred forty million, three hundred fifty thousand, and forty two to one against. Or, 1: 984 613 721 389 240 350 042. Either way, very unlikely....but not impossible. In fact, that one means that according to the law of averages, it must happen at least once every nine hundred eighty four quintillion, six hundred thirteen quadrillion, seven hundred twenty one trillion, three hundred eighty nine billion, two hundred forty million, three hundred fifty thousand, and forty two years.
By stunning co-incidence, 1: 984 613 721 389 240 350 042 is also the exact probability of the door of Ronald Trentworth’s lack-of-house becoming a conduit to somewhere quite different from Ronald’s Trentworth’s front lawn.
It had been when they stepped out onto the front step for a few words before going their separate ways that Ronald, Earl, and Hidden discovered that there was no front step to have a few words on, and most certainly no separate ways to go.
The landscape reminded Ronald oddly of a Chinese food buffet table. The sky was the awash in a translucent orange colour, rather like sweet and sour sauce. The three suns, all of which were setting, were round and golden brown, like breaded chicken balls in the sky. The trees of the strange jungles in the near distance were rather like the steamed broccoli served in the fried rice. The fields of green and orange grasses seemed rather like bean sprouts and chow mein noodles flicking in the wind. In the far, far distance, a strange, pale yellow, domed structure looked irresistibly like a fortune cookie. Ronald realized he hadn’t eaten yet.
Earl looked around. There was no step, no door, and even less house than there was before.
“Britannica, what happened?”
“Chaos Theory happened, I except.”
“Chaos theory? That sounds confusing.” Ronald said.
“Not really. Everything causes everything else. The smallest influence can change the course of everything. A butterfly flaps it’s wings in central park and makes it rain in Bangladesh. In infinite combinations, only one can lead to the reality you know, which makes everything that ever happened terribly unlikely. Apparently, at some point far back in history, the required sequence of events was initiated that allowed your door to suddenly send us to an apparently alien planet.”
“My door did what?! Sent us where?! No!”
Hidden shrugged and gestured at the suns.
“How did it do that?” Earl asked.
“Does it matter? No. And how should I know anyway? Let’s just say the whole highly sequence was started approximately sixty-five million years previous when a stegosaurus sneezed on a mosquito.” Hidden said, and was absolutely right.
“So....now what?” Ronald mumbled.
“Well....going back is impossible. We don’t know where we are, or, for that matter, when we are. So where can we find those things out? Where there’s people....or something like them. Where would they be? I’d say in that dome over there.”
The three of them began trudging through the chow mein fields in the increasing darkness in the direction of the fortune cookie dome, which again reminded Ronald he was hungry. He didn’t think he’d get anything to eat, though, and by the time they made it to that big cookie in the distance, he’d still be looking for food, and all they’re likely to have on a planet like this was platefuls of live millipedes in sweet and sour sauce.
But he had nothing else to say at this juncture and it couldn’t possibly get him into worse trouble.
“I’m hungry.” he piped up.
Hidden unclipped the buckles on her messenger bag and got out a peanut butter sandwich. She tossed it to Ronald.
“What else is in that bag?” Ronald goggled.
“Everything.” Hidden answered simply. Before she clipped it closed, Ronald could see that it was a slim laptop that was the device that the earphones Hidden was wearing were connected to. They were the sort that curled around the ear and had the bud in the middle that went in the ear. She only had one of them on, the other was clipped to the bag’s strap just where it crossed her chest.
Ronald munched his sandwich in accepting, contemplative silence.
Earl was humming to himself. As far as he could see, he’d finally escaped the special agents who crawled out of toilets. Not to mention that he’d finally get to ask what all these abductions were for. Unless, of course, this was another one of those.
He’d begun to rather suspect they were being used like guinea pigs in an experiment. Maybe there was someone out there somewhere examining their behaviour, their reactions and habits. A big pixie in the sky, perhaps. Who’s watching to see what they do. Making observations. Writing things down in a big book, maybe it would end up doing a term paper on them. Maybe it was making a list....checking it twice....to see who behaved to expectations, and if they did, they’d be rewarded. Perhaps, Earl considered, humanity was one big Pavlovian experiment.
Nah. That’s ridiculous. Someone had once told him (he thought it had been Hidden, but wasn’t sure) something about life, and he’d taken it to heart. Someone had told him that life was just a sexually transmitted disease with a hundred percent fatality rate, killing everyone who’s got it. Sounded like something Hidden would say.
Hidden herself had started up the music she kept on her laptop. The song was one she kept forgetting she wanted to make Ronald listen to: “Everything You Know Is Wrong”.
The reason she’d started up the music is because she was thinking. Not just thinking. Observing. With three suns setting, the temperature was only somewhat altogether too hot, so it must be winter on this planet. They weren’t dead, and they’d been walking for some distance. The atmosphere was defiantly breathable. The orange and green plants they were walking through seemed to be comparable to prairie vegetation on Earth. Each plant had one orange and one green leaf. The small haired creatures that kept disappearing into the underbrush seemed rather like rodents. Very much, in fact like Marmot Monax. The noble woodchuck. The forest in the distance, to the left now (she’d have to wait to orient herself to where north was) seemed deciduous.
Hidden stopped walking suddenly. Earl narrowly avoided crashing into her, and Ronald didn’t avoid crashing into Earl.
“Britannica, what’s wrong?”
She’d crouched down to inspect a small, black mechanical device on the ground. It had a red button on top and telepathic writing that appears in the language of whoever’s looking at it. At the moment, it said “Deusus Ex Machina Electronics of Alphard Seven.
“What is it?” Ronald wondered.
“Oh! It’s a communication thing isn’t it?”
Earl knelt beside hidden.
“That’s what I was going to say.”
“There’s the speaker, that’s probably to receive sound.”
Hidden picked it up and pressed the button.
A few feet in front of them, and in miniature, a crackling moving image appeared, hovering at the level Hidden held the device. The image was of an oldish-looking humanoid figure, in peculiar-looking clothes. He was rather more blue than your average Homo sapiens tended to be, and his eyes were bright green (“Their entire species clashes?” Hidden thought.) But other than that, he wasn’t really much different from, say, Ronald.
“Who are you three?” it said.
“I’m Ronald Trentworth.”
“Earl Merone, but call me Squirrel.”
“My name is Hidden.”
“Well, reveal it.”
“Not from me it’s not! I’m the director of royal communications.”
“My name is Hidden!”
“Well, un-hide it!”
“Hidden! Hidden! My name is Hidden S. Brant!”
“Oh...well, what’s the “S” stand for?”
“Well, lately, “surprised”. I’m not sure how we got to....” she checked the machine, “Alphard Seven.”
“That would be because you haven’t. This planet is called Afda. This is the Afdanian Bureau of Royal Communications, which is just as well because we were trying to trace your talker disk anyway. We’ve detected your arrival. Not your ship, though, so we assume you’d just gotten dropped off here, correct?”
“Well, you’re to come to Dome Thing and report here. We’ve been searching for you since you arrived at the Queen’s behest.”
“Well, then that’s why you haven’t found us.” Earl said.
“Well, we haven’t been anywhere near the Queen’s behest.”
The Afdanian looked confused.
“The King wouldn’t like that.”
The sigh was audible even over the hologram of the talker disk.
“Just get your bizarre pink selves to the Queen’s abode in Dome Thing.”
The image disappeared. Hidden shrugged and examined the writing once more before putting it in her messenger bag.
“You heard the man. Let’s get to the Queen’s behest.”
They kept trudging through the beans and chow mein. That is, of course, until they were interrupted, just outside the dome.
The huge lizard appeared with lightening speed from the grasses. It was over ten feet long, with loose pebbly skin and a tail like a boa constrictor sewn to it’s bottom. The fangs in the open mouth trailed saliva. It’s claws were at least two inches long and the limbs were short and powerful. Ronald and Earl jumped backwards. Hidden did the same as her jaw dropped. She knew a Komodo dragon when she saw one.
“What do we do?” Ronald hissed.
“What can we do?” Hidden answered quietly.
“We could run.”
“Only if you want to speed up the inevitable.”
“We could climb a tree.”
“So could it.”
“No, I think that damns us.”
All was still for a moment as the Komodo dragon eyed it’s prey. The only movement was the wind blowing from the city.
The wind blew chemicals with it from Dome Thing. Chemicals collided at certain angles and speeds in certain ways.
New reactions happened. One set of chemicals became another.
The Komodo dragon became lemon custard.