On the Cockaigne Guignol (an excerpt from Among the Arbiters) By Joseph Hirsch

“What the hell are you doing here?”

I looked up. There was a man who looked to be in his late thirties, drinking a big gulp-sized iced Slushy. A plastic straw protruded from his sixty-ounce drink, and his lips were stained red from the cherry food coloring. He wore a ribbed wife-beater, and little tufts of black and grey hair protruded up along his collar bone, terminating in a salt and pepper five o’clock shadow on his face. He wore pinstriped boxer shorts, and his ample gut bulged over the space between his boxers and the wife-beater.

“I have no idea what I’m doing here.” I stood up, and rubbed the lump on the back of my head, where Craic had cracked me. Had he perhaps hit me so hard that I time travelled? Was I still on the moon colony?

The guy shrugged. “Some limey cocksucker brought you in here. He said you were going to stay here for a while and observe.” The man shrugged again, took another drink from his big gulp. “That’s no skin off my ass, except you better not try to take my girl.”

I looked around. We were in what looked like a wood-paneled basement bedroom, the kind of den where a ne’er do well son-in-law might crash, out of mind and out of the sight of the parents he was sponging off of. The floor was oatmeal shag. There were neon light fixtures arranged around the room, one for Miller and another for Silver Bullet.

I stood up and dusted myself off. The guy gave me a thorough onceover. “You’re dressed like a limey, too.”

I ignored that. I wanted to know where the hell I was. “Where are we?”

“The Alien Moonlet, experimental chamber number thirty-seven.” He drained the last of his Slushy, chewed a few bits of crushed ice. “You know, you hear the horror stories when you’re in holding, about all the weird shit they subject us humans to. But me?” He pointed a beefy thumb at his exposed chest hair. “I’ve been banging one supermodel after another for the last month. This ain’t bad, not as bad as that fruity Christmas Carol cloud I hear they got you guys stuck under.” He pointed at my doeskin trousers. “Christ, those things would make my balls chafe.” He sat down on the edge of his pullout bed, which responded with a springy creak, as it accommodated his large girth.

“I don’t even get fully dressed anymore. I mean, I spend so much of my time fucking down here, what’s the use in putting on a whole outfit?”

A door opened off to our side. “Holy shit,” he said, and I thought the same. A blond with hard, surgically-enhanced features pranced into the room. Her tanned, high breasts jiggled with every step she took, making our eyes pop as she performed her catwalk. Her scarlet corset cradled her perfect hourglass form, improbably sculpted with the inhuman dimensions of a Barbie doll. She was all bust and no waist, and though her beauty lacked imagination, it worked its magic on us.

Her collagen lips pressed together in a soft pout, thick and warm, and her eyes were an azure that could have been achieved with contact lenses only slightly less ersatz than the eyelashes she batted as she walked over to the slovenly man sitting on the edge of the bed.

She pushed me away, and I went over to the other side of the room. The man shrugged at me. “Sorry, buddy. She’s a one woman guy.” He shed his wife beater, exposing a freckled mass of pale fat on his front, and a gorilla’s mane worth of back hair crawling up his spine. The bombshell registered no alarm or disgust. I was tempted to ask this asshole if he had won the lottery.

She straddled the man, entreating him to hold his arms down. He responded by allowing his arms to fall limply out to his sides, as if he was being crucified. She shed her corset, giving me a perfect view of her golden bronze back which wound down to a teardrop-shaped ass, a perfect half-sphere like the dayside of a planet warmed by the rays of a bright yellow sun. She held his arms down and began fiercely thrusting her body into his.

“Oh god!” He moaned. The neon lights from the beer signage beat a weird tattooed chiaroscuro onto their mated forms.

“The beast with two backs.”

A voice came from behind me. It was Craic. “Hey, what the hell?” I asked. “You didn’t have to hit me over the head.”

“I didn’t see how else to get you off the ship.”

The entry of a fourth didn’t slow their congress any. Both were sweating, grunting fiercely. I was grateful that no requests had been made for a ménage-a-trois. The woman was beautiful, and it had been a long time for me (and certainly the last time hadn’t been with someone who looked like her), but I didn’t want to be anywhere near the slob currently being ridden for all he was worth.

“What’s this about?”

“You’re about to see.” Craic pointed the copper tip of his cane toward the ravenous hellcat on the verge of her orgasm.

“Oh God! No!” The throes segued from those of ecstasy to horror, and the woman jumped up off of the man. She stood over the bed, a geyser of blood streaming from the man’s pelvic bone region as he writhed and struggled to staunch the red watery flow with his crummy pastel bedspread while the pints rushed from his body. The sheet quickly filled with blood and the man ceased his writhing. His eyes were open and he gazed off into the distance, frozen in death.

The woman hopped down, holding her legs together. Her landing strip pubic hair was streaked with a high gloss of blood, and the edges of her Brazilian wax job were slathered in several coats of what looked like viscous red paint. From her vagina there protruded the stump of a still-erect penis, jutting out at Craic and me like a friendly hand extended and waiting to be shaken.

Craic pointed the end of his cane at the bloodied appendage that had been ripped from the dead man on the bed. “The Arbiters are experimenting with a bit of a Praying Mantis project. They want to see what happens when human males die in the act of congress with females.”

He flicked the blood-engorged member which clung from the hole in the woman’s body. It flopped twice, like a spring being flicked and responding with a reverberating thud. The supermodel continued smiling, and she licked her lips, sated like a succubus on a fresh meal. She stared at me with inviting eyes, batting those fake lashes with an alluring wink. I had no desire to sleep with her now.

“You notice that when the penis breaks off it remains trapped in the female, like a stopper, to ensure there is no runoff of semen. Naturally, this increases the chances of conception.”

I struggled not to vomit, glanced over at the dead and bloated body on the bed. “I somehow don’t think he would have taken that as much consolation.”

Craic put his arm around my shoulder and led me out of the room. The woman remained where she was. “Be that as it may, important work is being performed here.”

The walls of the room we now entered were a series of marine tanks, like the underground aquatic exhibit at the zoo back in my hometown. Blue water waved out and rippled in a chlorinated haze. I expected to a see a walrus lazily swimming by, or perhaps sharks with sinister jaws, roving for prey as their fins curved gracefully back and forth. I was therefore surprised when a man pressed his face flush against the glass of the tank I was observing.

He wore no snorkeling gear, oxygen tank, or any other kind of underwater apparatus. I noticed he was small, not much larger than a dwarf, only all of his features, legs and arms, were correctly proportioned. It wasn’t as if he had been born with some sort of defect that made him small. It was more like he had been shrunken down to size, scaled to fit comfortably in the tank with ample room to swim. Whatever the case, his lot appeared to be preferable to that of the super stud back in the bedroom.

The man waved to me and I waved back. He turned his head, and I noticed larval pouches protruding from beneath rubbery protective sheaths on either side of his neck. The water bubbled from what looked like knife slits carved into the flesh of his throat.

“Gills,” I said.

“Very good.”

“The Arbiters modified him.”

“Well,” Craic said, “Only a certain amount of modification was really necessary. What are lungs, really, except for inside-out gills? And I wouldn’t call it modification.”

“What would you call it, then?”

“Domestication, for it is not only the taming of animals, but the selective breeding of the same. They are being molded to serve the Arbiters.”

I wanted to be angry, but we had reached a moment where if I was to take the Arbiters to task I would have been forced to also judge myself, as well. I’d had dogs before, terriers that had been bred for their cuteness irrespective of Nature’s intent, with no input from the dogs doing the breeding.

“The Arbiters need some gofers underwater, creatures to fetch things from those hard to reach places.” Craic smiled, and waved at the gilled man in the tank. “And you never know when they might get a bit hungry, and need a snack.”

“So this underground layer is an experimental facility, and up above us, that big mollusk colony, that’s the Arbiters’ city?”

Craic shook his head. “No, they’re a bit too mobile to bother with permanent conurbations. They have substations and outposts, spearheads and barracks. No cities, no civilization, no society.”

“No hierarchy?”

“I didn’t say that. But…” He paused, cocked his head to the side, trying to think how best to phrase it. “They’re a bit more like honeybees. They all are important when considered as a group, but the queen is the only one who truly matters at an individual level. Each is willing to consider itself expendable when the group is at stake. Think of them as a single body, composed of many cells.”

“And will I meet the queen?”

“The analogy can be carried too far. The queen in this case is a male.” Craic adjusted his stovepipe to a jaunty, rakish angle. “And yes, you will meet Cetacea Prime before we leave this moonlet.”

Behind us, through the open door to the seedy bedroom, was a tableau of unspeakable horror. The woman, her body still stoppered with the fleshy tissue of the man’s torn penis, had begun to tear into his chest where she had his body laid out on the carpet of the floor. The man’s ribs had been pried viciously outward from his body, as if he were a cadaver prepared for autopsy, the bony tines like the sides of the scooped canoe berth she had made out of his chest, emptied of lungs, viscera, and organs. She gathered his innards up, dangling a rubbery coil of intestine, slick with the embalming juices of a ruptured pancreas. She forced his greasy meat into her mouth, and his blood ringed her lips like carelessly applied lipstick. She looked up at us and hissed. I took a step back.

Craic said, “It might seem needlessly disgusting, but there is a logic behind what she is doing.”

I dry heaved twice, but nothing would come up. I tasted the bile of the meal we had eaten at Alice’s the previous night. I spit a mouthful of saliva on my shoes. “What could be the point of that?”

“Certain species similar to your flatworms have learned how to navigate their way through mazes which were successfully accomplished by their forebears, merely by consuming the same. You see, this is known as ‘chemical learning’ and is something the Arbiters are greatly interested in.”

Craic walked forward, and closed the door on the cannibalistic supermodel, for which I was grateful. “Sounds absurd to me,” I said, allowing my stomach to settle as I massaged its contours.

“Why?”

“These guys are supposed to be an advanced race, right? This sort of ‘eating your enemy’s heart to gain his power’ stuff seems to be part of the belief systems of very primitive tribes.”

“You don’t believe in cultural relativism?” Craic, or the worm inside him, seemed genuinely intellectually stimulated for the first time in our discussion.

I thought about it, said, “I believe that if you eat humans you are inferior to humans who don’t eat humans.” I also didn’t see what the supermodel would be getting from that man, assuming that “chemical learning” was to take place, based on whatever modifications the Arbiters had made. Was she now imbued with the ability to walk around in boxers and scratch her ass while drinking a cherry-flavored Frosty?

“Ready to see more?” Craic walked past the tanks where a school of pygmy gilled men swam in tight formation.

“If I say no, will you beat me over the head again with the cane?”

“Yes.”

“Then lead the way, by all means.”

I walked behind him, to a door ringed in elastomeric seals, with a starfish-shaped portal in its center, appointed with the glyphs familiar from the ship. He pressed a button and the rubber seal retracted. We stepped forward.

“Do you know the legend of Cockaigne?” Craic asked. Three-walled partitions were arranged down an endless corridor that stretched half the length of a football field. There was no work going on in the cubicles, however. There were only various men seated in reclined La-Z Boys, the velour shag leg rests fully deployed in each room. The men ate movie theatre popcorn, whose heavily buttered scent wafted to us where we stood in the center of the corridor.

Each chamber had a giant flat screen plasma television, which displayed CGI-heavy cartoons, or elaborate and bloody videogames where mechanized giants dueled with proton blasters and shoulder-mounted scud missiles, crushing cities, suspension bridges and skyscrapers into a patina of thermal paint and dust as they wreaked carnage. The men laughed with one another, snacking as they lay back in their seats, talking to one-another on headsets as they embraced the havoc of a multiplayer bonding ritual that was simulated war.

We walked farther on, until we came to a skylight-decked atrium, where a gargantuan chocolate Fondue waterfall spilled in rippling beads of rich hazel showers that smelled like the rivers in a Swiss chocolatier’s dreams.

“What the hell is the point of all this?” I asked.

“It’s an experiment,” Craic said. We walked to the far wall, where there was another door. Craic depressed the blue starfish and we waited. “Over the course of the last one-hundred years on Earth, the Arbiters noted that man became more sedentary, that worldwide sperm counts were dropping, that body mass index was increasing, especially in industrialized portions of the world.”

I thought I understood what he was getting at. It was a variation on the Carthaginian scorched Earth campaign. “Kill them with kindness,” I said. “Or at least weaken their wills with endless Fondue and videogames, as well as high-fructose corn syrup.”

“Cockaigne.” Craic turned one last time to take in the sad pleasure palace, from which females were not surprisingly absent. “The Medieval land of plenty, where the rivers of wine flowed, and swine ran around with carving knives protruding from their backsides.”

The boom of a rocket launch made the next room tremble as we entered it. A projected image of the Saturn V rocket’s takeoff exploded loud enough to make me cup my ears with my hands. In the next moment, I heard the careless laugh of a woman, the kind of playful sound a female might have made with her boyfriend on a lazy afternoon spent in the folds of a picnic blanket in the park. Crickets chirped, a frog croaked, and the walls lit up with banks of monitors clustered together like a techno-honeycomb, the cells of a new flesh formed by the impressions on these screens, this mosaic of old, bygone Earth.

People pushed their grocery carts down aisles, Chuck Berry shouted “Johnny Be Good!” and cars rushed along the highway beneath a graffiti-scarred overpass where traffic was at a standstill and emergency roadwork barrels had been placed at five foot intervals. The light from the screens revealed the room to be filled with small Arbiters in their hardened, shelled states, standing all around us. Their black bodies glistened like wet PVC, and their claws tapped the hieroglyphs, forcing new images and sounds to the fore on the walls around us.

The steady pump of a heart beat overpowered the other sounds, and each screen was blanketed by the image of a preteen boy and girl sharing their first awkward kiss, their foreheads butting, forcing both to smile until their lips touched.

“What’s going on here?”

Craic scratched his Van Buren whiskers. “I’d ask them, but I can’t address them with this human tongue. I’d have to vacate this old rat catcher’s body, and if I do that, the other pseudocoelomate rotifers will make a mad dash for the center of the brain, and then you and I won’t be friends anymore.” He gave me a sad look.

The impressions of Earth faded from the screens, and we were treated to a worm’s eye view of a giant igneous rock orbiting through space. “This,” Craic said, “This I understand.”

“What is this?”

“The panspermia of the stars.” He didn’t wait for the questions he knew were forthcoming. “Life, at least a lot of life in this endlessly expanding universe, begins with molecules floating through the interstellar medium. Do you want to know where you came from?”

“I…” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear this. I wasn’t religious, but I took a measure of solace from the fact that other people had been. “I’d like to believe I came from God.”

“Extraterrestrial bacterium, similar to ecoli, but abiotic while it was in transit.”

“Shot by the Arbiters?” I looked at the mollusks busy tapping away at their keyboards. The face of the tycoon and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes appeared onscreen, along with a massive ream of subscript flowing beneath the black and white photograph of the dashing aviator, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Golden Age Hollywood legend Errol Flynn.

“No, the panspermia technology, like everything else the Arbiters get their grubby opposable digits on, was just something they hijacked from creatures much smarter than them. But whatever now-extinct race they stole it from also shot the wad into space that landed on Earth and created the sea monkeys that eventually led to the primordial soup that gave birth to you.”

I would have liked to think of myself as having been “knit in my mother’s womb,” as I believe a verse from Genesis in the King James Bible had put it. “Wait,” I said, hoping to catch him in a contradiction. “You said this stuff was…prebiotic?”

“Close,” he said. “Abiotic.”

“Right. That means ‘not alive.’ So how does this stuff-”

“Essentially carbon monoxide, alcohol, formaldehyde,” he said, interrupting me, “forming in the diffuse cold nebulae-”

“How does that become biotic?” I asked, interrupting him right back.

He shrugged, seemingly not perplexed, or much piqued by the question. “Something to do with the impact when those comets filled with their inorganic grains hit a mountain or a volcano on an alien planet.”

“You don’t get life from impacting something really hard, or burning it. If I punch a rock or submerge it in lava, it’s not going to come to life.”

“Do you want the answer that the man I have commandeered would give you, that is, Craic the Rat Catcher?”

“Sure.”

“Okay,” Craic said. “Jesus did it. Now, are you ready to meet the Cetacean to best all other Cetaceans?” He waved his cane like a magic wand at the jamb of the door we stood before. I had a feeling that this would be the last door we’d be passing through on our tour of the moonlet. He drew his Malacca staff around the jamb, the contours of the elastomeric hinges, as if he were a carnival barker readying to display the most gruesome oddity in the circus.

“Let’s do it.” I didn’t figure it could be any worse than what we had already seen.

The door opened onto a room made from smooth white enamel, something like alabaster or ivory. I treaded softly over the nacre-bright floor, afraid that I might slip on its burnished surface. At the far end of the room there was a podium, like the elevated platform on which a priest might preach his sermon. There was what looked like a Tsarist Faberge egg cradled in a stand made from four golden legs, which terminated in the claws of some apex predator who was distant kin to the lions that had roamed Earth’s Serengeti until the Arbiters had blown our world to smithereens with one of their sun starters.

To the right of the large egg there was a young man, dressed in a stock boy’s smock with a sewn label I recognized from a grocery store chain popular on the eastern seaboard. As we approached, the stock boy looked at my host and said, “You are Rotifer Six Three Nine Eight Two Seven Four Five Three, I assume?”

“I would prefer to be called Craic.”

“Well,” the stock boy said, “I feel no kinship with the human I inhabit. You need not maintain any pretense on my behalf. My human’s memories consist primarily of bagging groceries and helping old women with their shopping carts. Not much to recommend him.” The stock boy looked at me. “You may approach Cetacea Prime in a moment. He has become a narcophile in his dotage.”

“That’s his business,” I said. Craic leaned over to me and whispered, “That just means he loves to sleep.”

“Oh, I thought it meant he liked to have sex with dead bodies.”

“Close.”

I walked forward, staying just below the raised pulpit that cradled the egg. I studied it from this closer vantage. It was flecked with jadeite specks, little heliotrope stars which gave it the appearance of a bloodstone rather than an egg. It was about the same size as the boy who stood next to its smooth, organic contours. “I thought Arbiters got bigger as they get older?”

“Again,” Craic said, “You could consult your own species for a rough analogy, in order to save yourself some time and spare me your queries.”

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s alright.” He pointed the end of his cane toward the egg. “As Arbiters mature, they certainly grow. But this is the oldest Arbiter there is. He was born well before the dawn of the Cenozoic age, and consequently he is very much wizened.”

“You may approach now.” The shell of the egg opened, or rather cracked, and its walls folded outward like the sides of the spaceship’s icosahedron.

I was about to step forward, when Craic grabbed me on the shoulder. He twisted the Malacca head of his cane, and pulled upward. One half of the cane was in his left hand, and in his right he held a dagger which had been in a hideaway compartment of the wooden staff until this moment. He grabbed my hand and made a small incision on my palm before I could offer a protest. He held my bleeding left hand in his grip and we walked together up to the open egg on the raised platform. We stepped lightly, hand in hand, like two lovers enjoying a lazy Sunday constitutional.

“Why’d you cut me?” I asked.

Craic released his hold on me, stopped halfway up the steps. The bag boy took up my arm and held it over the inside of the egg. I stared down into the viscous golden albumen that swam within the shell. The yolky surface of the burbling liquid came to life, and the interlocking jaws of a piranha appeared. I tried to jerk my hand away, but the stock boy held my arm firmly in place as the shearing razor teeth clicked together like castanets, producing the effect of a drumroll in hungry anticipation of my blood. A few fat-bellied droplets of blood dripped down from the incision that Craic had made in my hand with his little knife, and the primal mouth took the drink, savoring its iron tang, before disappearing back into the radiant albumen. The surface of the yolk grew calm, and the bag boy pulled my arm out of the egg. The shell closed around the Faberge masterwork.

“You can step down now.”

I walked down the stairs, back toward Craic, who had sheathed his dagger inside of the cane. “What the hell just happened?”

“The Arbiter needed some of your blood,” the bag boy said. “From it, he will extrapolate much about your species, in order to prepare the prosecution’s case.”

I turned to Craic. “Am I guilty of something?”

“You may not be guilty, but you’re on trial.”

“That doesn’t help much.”

He placed his arm in the small of my back, and led me out of the white chamber, back in the direction of our rocket where it was waiting on a landing pad beneath the shadow of the dripping forms of the lunar stalagmites.

“Your job is to argue humanity’s case in a courtroom. You are to tell the Arbiters why your species should be allowed outside of the technetium cloud, to be given a planet of your own.”

We walked back through the chamber where the teenaged Arbiters monitored various images. Howard Hughes’ mustached mug was still on the screen. I wondered what they got out of the reclusive billionaire. Craic said, “When the Arbiters noticed humans engaged in nuclear war, as well as the testing of radioactive weapons, they relied on minutes from meetings Mr. Hughes had with his employees and advisors about Project Faultless. Hughes didn’t want the tests being conducted in Las Vegas, and his reservations about the megaton testing in Central Nevada helped alert the Arbiters to man’s potential danger to the Stars.”

“The Arbiters are certainly a potential danger to the stars,” I said. He turned down a hall and I followed him back to the cavernous bay where our ship was housed. The graphite nose of our rocket was pocked with bits of astral dust that had hit its surface as we ripped through space on our voyage here.

Craic punched his sequence into the cryptograph keypad. “I’m not a lawyer,” I said. “I have no legal background. Why don’t they get a human who was a lawyer in the past?”

He shook his head. The hatch opened and exhaled a hissing billow of decontamination foam. “You’re taking it personal. There’s nothing special about you. There’s something special about when you arrived.”

He waited for me to board, and then stepped on behind me. “Your ship was the last to land. The moonlet saw it crash, and it reminded the Arbiters that they had been kicking the can for a few million years. They thought it was time to give you a sporting chance to plead your case, to escape from the little nuclear zoo we’ve got your species trapped in. If you don’t want to argue in court…”He trailed off.

The hatch closed behind us. Craic walked over to the stowing compartment where the spacesuit and the attached helmet were housed. He took the heavy outfit over to me and held it out in his hands, entreating me to step inside. “You technically don’t have to wear this until we breach atmosphere, but it would be easier if you just put in on right now. But before we do that…”

He slung the suit over his shoulder, where it flopped like a dead body. “Open your mouth.”

“You know,” I said, “I usually don’t take orders, especially when the one doing the ordering has just sliced my hand open and held it over the mouth of a ravenous piranha.”

“Open.” His command was like that of a doctor who wanted to check for strep throat.

I sighed, inhaled, opened my mouth. He opened his own yawning maw, the yellow rat catcher’s teeth as crooked as headstones in an antebellum graveyard. His rancid breath came to me in a heated wave of halitosis, and I coughed once, twice.

“Shit, you need to brush your teeth.”

“All done.” He patted me on the shoulder with a reassuring grip. “Now, the suit.”

I stepped in with my legs. “What did you just do?” My breath was sour now, and when I swallowed it made bile rise in my gut.

“There were some loose termites in my body. I pushed them into yours. They won’t commandeer your brain. I immunized you against that when I patterned you with Victoria, but they might help you in court.” Craic slid the sleeves of the spacesuit around my arms. “I don’t know what was on each one. You have to remember that there are millions of us in this rat catcher’s body, and I can’t be bothered to count the contents of every spore.”

I zipped up the front of the suit and pulled the helmet over my head. “But let’s perform a test.”

I heard my breath coming over the microphone system lodged somewhere in this suit. I felt cool water radiate from a thermal unit lodged within the diamond-quilted folds of the heavy uniform. “Okay,” I said.

“They should have made their way to your brain by now.” Craic walked over to the pilot’s chair and plugged in some coordinates on the screen. “Tell me what you know about pizza.”

“Um, it’s Italian.”

“Not what you know. What you know now that they’re in your body. Try harder.”

The rocket began its takeoff, pressure plates rumbling from the action and reaction of gravity and antigravity fighting one another in a colliding chamber. I surprised myself by saying “Americans consumed over a football field of pizza per day, that is roughly one-hundred yards. Every human on Earth consumed roughly eight-hundred and fifty slices of pizza per year.”

I stopped speaking for a moment. Craic pulled his stick shift from the side of the ribbed black chair where he reposed. The walls of the ship grew transparent again, and we shot through the water, out of the seamount and into the thin, low gravity atmosphere of the moon. The desolate caldera opened up beneath us, revealing as well the scorpion-tailed trilobite that was the alien colony.

“Did you know that before I breathed into your mouth? Bad breath is a small price to pay for the knowledge you currently have in your head.” Craic stopped speaking to me in order to do his manual override of the ship’s defenses.

He wasted no time in blasting a golf ball-sized bit of astral rock that flew toward the rocket, which had ceased to propel itself, and had drifted lazily onto its side, dispensing with the use of fuel, as it switched to dragging itself along by the bootstraps of the universe itself, eating the natural, ubiquitous hydrogen that the interstellar medium provided. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Arbiters could combine traditional propulsion with other unconventional forms of travel, all in one sleekly designed vehicle.

“Understand,” Craic said, “that the termites won’t do the work for you. You’ll still have to assimilate all of that unrelated, mostly useless info, to formulate an argument to beat the Arbiters in court.”

“What if I lose the case?”

“Then the timeline of Man stops in Edwardian England. There are worse things, I suppose.”

“And if I win?”

Craic blasted another rock and pointed out through the windowed hull. “If you win, then you get that planet there.”

He pointed to a glowing neon ball, its orbit inferior to the one of the planet we had initially set out from. This planet sat closer to the radiant binary brothers.

“Is it habitable?”

“It’s inhabited right now. But it is not in its present state inhabitable by you. The Arbiters will be glad to give it to you, however, if you plead your species’ case in court successfully. They are not much enamored of the planet’s current inhabitants.”

“Why not?”

“The plant life there has, as a natural defense mechanism, figured out how to make chlorine gas from chloride. The Arbiters are omnivorous, and they find the things to be poor meals. The rotifers can modify almost anything, but Mother Nature is still a bit stronger than the Arbiters, and every time they try to turn the nasty chlorine back into chloride, there is some kind of hidden evolutionary mechanism by which the plants resist the attempts of the rotifers. And if the Arbiters can’t eat it, they’re not interested in it.”

Our spacecraft swerved to the right of the noble gas ball, its exosphere sheathed in a greenish yellow chlorinated haze. We aimed down, toward the planet where ice and fire were kept in a precarious balance, on the eternal verge of another glaciation or greenhouse gas meltdown.

“The standard dimensions of a Pizza Hut are thirty-five by sixty-five,” I said. “In Nineteen Seventy-Seven there were roughly thirty-four hundred restaurants in the United States and abroad.”

“That’s good to know,” Craic said, occupied by the ritual of reentry. He stood up from the chair, guided me to it, and strapped me in. He depressed a sequence of characters on the keypad and stepped back so that I could be safely entombed in the cube. The walls quickly became transparent and I watched him scurry over to the Gropius egg chair.

“‘This is a species of most nauseating cake. It is covered over with slices of Pomodoro or tomatoes, and sprinkled with little fish and black pepper and I know not what other ingredients. It altogether looks like a piece of bread that has been taken reeking out of the sewer.'”

“Michael,” Craic said. “If you’re going to troll through the termites I breathed into you, can you please do it silently? Or maybe consult something more substantial than pizza anecdotes and trivia? I would be greatly in your debt if you would.”

“Sorry,” I said, and I saw a curator reading with latex gloves on his hands, perusing through the parchments that constituted a diary entry of Samuel Morse from 1831. I was less interested in the information being presented, than in this secret glimpse of the Earth, and this Earth man.

I could get lost in the memories of these termites, I thought. I could hide here in my brain forever, contented by the scattered tinsel that the rat catcher had just breathed into my brain.

I closed my eyes as the ship rumbled, the seeding dirigibles clinging to the cloud cover as we descended, back in the direction of the marshy peat bog from which the giant cetacean that smelled my blood had first propelled us.

Tentacles reached out from the water to receive our craft, like a gynecologist catching an infant as it emerged from its mother’s womb. The ugly octopus god gripped us with its rubbery suction cups and placed us gently on the banks of the swamp.

I closed my eyes and thought pizza with every fiber of my being. I was at a conference table in my law firm, stroking the paisley pattern of my tie. I looked at my client, who gripped the metal spokes of her new wheelchair. “This thirty minutes or less guarantee has been a disaster.” I reached into my briefcase and threw the paper-clipped ream of papers on the table. I pointed at the sheets. “According to the National Safe Workplace Institute, Domino’s Pizza employees have a death rate of fifty per one-hundred thousand workers. This is completely unacceptable, and you are well within your rights to file-”

“Michael?” Craic had been standing over me for I knew not how long. I blinked away the residual light from the fluorescence in my law office, and I allowed him to unbuckle me.

He helped me out of my seat, and began unzipping the back of my spacesuit. “Try to do something more substantial than pizza memories. Try a bit of theology.”

“Okay,” I said. “Pose a theological question to me and I’ll see what I have on file.”

I did not feel smarter, not one whit. I felt only as if there was a phonebook’s worth of information that had been crammed into my head. I believed I could find what was wanted, if given enough time, but there was nothing eidetic about what was lent by the worms crawling through me. I did not feel like a savant and I was not convinced that I could beat the Arbiters in an open courtroom.

“Very well,” Craic said. He took my suit from me and walked it back over to its closet. I wiped the glistening sweat from my hands and the back of my neck. My clothes stank and I yearned to dip them into a cold water butt with a fistful of greased tallow. Craic returned minus the suit and said, “Verse one of the Bible tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. The question would then be, in the beginning of what? Putting aside questions of evolution, creationism, or intelligent design, how do we even begin to answer this question? In the beginning of what?”

I bit my fingernails and tapped my right leg, trying to summon an answer. I sat inside the mind of a man in seminary, a twenty-something fellow with sandy hair and an earnest smile which I caught reflected in the mirror of a bathroom where I had gone because I was overcome with anxiety, doubt that I could go the rest of my life without a woman, devoted only to God. I would have preferred to remain inside this man, not for his knowledge, but for the prosaic pleasures that the smell of fresh cut grass could bring, tinged with sunshine and the scent of diesel exhaust from the mower the groundskeeper pushed, as I sat on a stone bench next to the statue of Mary with her eyes downcast.

“Michael!”

I came out of the memory, as if out of a dream. I said, “Life in the time that the Bible was written involved a perspective which is completely alien to the mindset of someone who would ask a question like the one you just posed.”

“Meaning?”

Craic went over to the touchpad on the side of the ship’s hull and typed a series onto the pad. A door lowered from the side of the ship, onto the scene of the swamp, where the cetacean waited for us to exit, so that he could draw the cigar-shaped craft back underwater with him.

“Meaning that ‘the beginning’ refers to man’s entry onto the world, which does not mean that ‘nothing’ existed prior to the emergence of man. But the covenant between man and God was something similar to what the more scientifically inclined might call convergent evolution.” I walked over to the pilot’s chair and sat down. I was not quite ready to leave the chamber. “Evidence that something existed before man existed comes from Genesis One, Two. ‘Now the Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.'” I swiveled in my seat and looked up at Craic. “You see, ‘the Earth was formless and empty,’ yet there were also oceans. This is not a paradox. It is merely meant to state that God’s mirror image, his albedo, for the more scientifically inclined, was not yet upon the Earth, and in terms of function the Earth was empty. The Earth was not yet ‘good’ in the same sense that it was not good ‘for a man to be without a wife.'”

I thought of Alice for a moment, and then pushed thoughts of her to the back of my mind. I stood up. “May I see your cane, Craic?”

He passed me his staff. “Certainly.”

I supposed he thought I was going to use the cane to augment my oratory, maybe recall that moment when Moses cast his staff at the Pharaoh’s feet and it miraculously transformed into a writhing serpent.

I gripped the rod by its copper end and I swung it as hard as I could at my companion’s head, knocking his top hat across the room and making the black chimneypot slide to the other side of the spacecraft. I knelt down to his outstretched form and checked for a pulse. It was there, for which I was grateful. I had no desire to kill him. I’d just wanted to knock him out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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