Because of a heart-rending lack of followthrough from our crack volunteer staff (me), we failed to publicize our last batch of stories. To compensate, we are keeping those stories available to readers for an extra span. These shorts are guaranteed to light up your day while complicating the coexistence of life. Click here to read these gems. The additional stories are:
1) “I, Vermin” by Sean Donaghue Johnston. Because bug puppeteers. Can’t say any more.
2) “Would You Like DNA With That?” by Liz Vogel. Mad scientist, check. Fumbling assistant, check. Dinosaurs, check plus!
3) “Harem” by Rachel Rodman. Scars. Consorts. A mystical space-faring collector much more disturbing and real than anything Marvel’s come up with. This one should linger on your palate.
Okay, now to our current story:
by Matthew F. Amati
“What’s a twenty-two-letter word for a relativistic quantum field theory?” the Washing-Up wanted to know.
It was a sleepy Gormsday off the western coast of Andromeda. The Washing-Up asked his question because he was doing the Times crossword puzzle, and he was doing the Times crossword puzzle because he and the other Rude Mechanicals were bored.
There were three Rude Mechanicals. They were large, they were metal, and they patrolled the Universe hiring themselves out as super-fixers. With the brains of the Six Million Dollar Mannequin, the astonishing strength of Buns of Steel, and whatever the pile of cookware called the Washing-Up was good for, they could accomplish any task, solve any problem. They could paint your sun a different color, rearrange local spacetime to let you sleep longer in the mornings, or find your missing wedding ring that you lost down a black hole.
But today, the Mechanicals had nothing to do. The I Contain Mechanicals drifted lazily around a singularity eddy. There had been no calls for service in almost three days. The Mechanicals were indeed getting bored. And in the case of the Six Million Dollar Mannequin, boredom was dangerous.
“Quantum electrodynamics,” the Mannequin replied before a yottasecond had passed.
Naturally, such a computational juggernaut of a brain needed plenty of thought-food to keep it occupied. When boredom sank in, you could expect more than a resulting funk. You could anticipate a depression with the gravitational heft of a minor black hole. Space would go dark in the vicinity. The emanating gloom would make nearby asteroids weep.
The other Mechanicals had to do something, and fast.
The physically powerful member of the trio had nothing to suggest (“Beat head on girder?” was all Buns of Steel could think to say) but the peculiar shambling pile of pans that called itself the Washing-Up made the mistake of trying to be helpful.
“Too easy! Even an imbecile knows a nine-letter synonym for an inflamed goiter!”
“Count all the ions in a barrel of unstable cesium?”
“Done it,” moaned the Six Million Dollar Mannequin, as he held his massive cranium in his wispy manipulons. “If I count one more of those dreary ions, I will simply shut down.”
“Don’t do that!” The Washing-Up rattled its lids. It had no brain at all, but it did its best to think with what it had. “What’s the biggest conundrum in the Universe? Try solving that!”
The Mannequin rolled its glowing blue eyes. “You mean the riddle of why people converse with their pets? No, the Cerebron of Gorflux solved that, aeons ago. It has to do with miswired circuitry in the human nervous system.”
“I mean,” said the Washing Up, “why don’t you attempt to discern the true nature of God?”
“Absurd!” cried the Mannequin. “Even a pile of pots like you ought to know that. God, or whatever you call him – Allah, Jehovah, Mumflorg, XhXhlo’h The Kreator, Hrahhhaww, Omnifax III, The Makin’ Make-a-roo, The Big Gal – is just a notional concept. A bit of mental bookkeeping that organic creatures use to keep themselves from going crazy. A wastecan for their darker existential thoughts. You know – ‘alas, why am I here, why must I suffer and die, what does it mean? Ahh, just hand it over to God. All better.’ Why would you ask me, a cerebral titan, to waste my time on such childish foolery?” The Mannequin was getting agitated. Space around the ship darkened. A nearby asteroid sniffled.
“Well, what I mean is, everything that exists was made to exist by something else, right?”
The Mannequin snorted. “Law of Cause and Effect. Enacted by the Third Congress of the Big Bang, at <10?32 s, by a vote of 33 aye, 27 nay, 2 abstaining. Kiddie stuff.”
The Washing Up was undeterred. “So if you keep going backwards through all the effects, eventually you’ll get something that doesn’t have a cause. Won’t you? And if it doesn’t have a cause, then it stands to reason that this Thing, whatever it is, is the cause of, well, Everything.”
The Mannequin was silent.
“You could do it,” the Washing-Up suggested. “I’m sure you could.”
The Six Million Dollar Mannequin shuddered. Then he crackled deep in his circuits. Then a blazing grin appeared on his facial display, bright enough to burn holes in the ship’s wallpaper.
“I could do that,” he said. “Could I?” he asked himself. “Impossible,” he concluded. “But just possibly possible!” he exulted. The Mannequin ran his digits along his gleaming titaluminum headcase. Within his brain, he ran electric queries down the corridors. He sent these quizzical impulses scampering through his neural passageways, knocking on doors, asking if this capacitor or that amplificator was up to the job.
And with his eye in a fine frenzy rolling, and a truly unsettling expression of bliss, the Mannequin set to work. He picked up a saltshaker from the table. He traced the origins of the saltshaker to the Zaklufrax Household Items Corporation of Zubenelgenubi IV, and the origins of the salt to some sodium ions forged in the Big Bang as well as some chlorine from a swimming pool in Nyack, New Jersey. Then he sank back on his haunches in a trance of thought most uffish.
After half an hour, the Mannequin leaped up. “I have it!”
Buns of Steel had been idly compressing carbon into diamonds and diamonds into globs of fusioning gas. “What be God, then, brainy-guy?”
“The true God, the First Cause of All the Universe, is none other than… Yottopott, the Lord of the Ganymedan Ice Tribes.”
“Really?” the Washing-Up said skeptically. “The tentacled penguin-deity of a passel of nitrogen-breathing sphenisciformes? That created Creation?”
“No, wait,” the Mannequin corrected himself. “I’ve discovered a cause beyond even Yottopott. Give me a minute.”
“Ah,” he said the next day. “I’ve located the Prime Mover. So simple, who would have guessed?”
“He’s a hermit. A simpleton. He lives on a hill outside of Jar on the planet of Klurf. All day he sits watching the suns rise and set, listening to the wind in the trees. All the while wearing a beatific smile. The people bring him trinkets and crusts of bread. He never speaks, merely blesses them with his calm and unflappable happiness.”
“Him be God?” Buns thundered. “Wowsa! Me never would guess!” Buns spent a moment doing what in Buns’ case passed for thinking. “Oh! Me understand! It so simple! God hide in… in plain sight!”
“No, hold on,” the Mannequin said, “I was wrong. That guy’s just a fool on a hill. No, there are causes beyond him, too. I need a few more minutes to work this out.”
In fact, they had to give the Six Million Dollar Mannequin another fifteen years. Buns of Steel and the Washing-Up occupied themselves by tidying the ship and taking unsuccessful stabs at the Times crossword. Finally, there came a Blipsday afternoon when the Mannequin opened his orbs and bestirred himself.
“Who is it this time? A celestial emu, perhaps? Or an all-powerful hobo, guiding the destiny of a race of street jugglers?”
The Mannequin’s voice boomed through the ship. “He is Arha-Eh, the All-Engendering. He dwelleth beyond the pillars of Creation. He sitteth upon the Throne of Eternity. He created the All. He evaluateth the Everyone. His Word is Existence, his Wrath is Destruction, his Blessing is Life Eternal.”
The Washing-Up gathered himself into a skeptical heap. “Evaluateth? Is that even a word? What kind of Creator commits egregious neologisms like that?”
The Mannequin jumped as though someone had stuck him with a pin. “Great Arha-Eh forgive me! You are correct! There is a Cause even beyond this Cosmos-encompassing All-High!”
“Well, who is it?” said the Washing-Up irritably.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
A year went by, then ten, then a hundred. Still did the Mannequin squat motionless. Millennia passed, then epochs, then eons. With their superintelligent comrade out of commission, the calls for the Mechanicals’ services dried up. Buns of Steel was good for feats of strength, and the Washing-Up was useful for large dinner parties requiring extra cookware. But without the Six Million Dollar Mannequin’s mental might, the Rude Mechanicals lost their reputation as cosmic super-fixers. Revenue evaporated, the ship rusted and slowed to a sub-light crawl. Eventually the I Contain Mechanicals fetched up in back of a swirling supercluster of planetary refuse known as the Garbage Galaxy.
Here in this dreary backwater, the two Mechanicals idled away their days, waiting for their companion to awaken from his inward odyssey of theological inquiry. Buns of Steel, his quintuple-reinforced carbonium-alloy fleximuscles atrophied into flab by metal fatigue, took up needlepoint. The Washing-Up applied himself in his dotage to the Times crossword. He got pretty good at coming up with four-letter words for flightless land fowl, could occasionally divine the ten-letter name of the Mufti of Magnablag’s favorite sand slug, but beyond that, proved himself hopeless at anything having to do with the cast of The Love Boat.
One sleepy Flapsday, as the orange gasses of the dying Mandelabrum Galaxy hung lazily in space outside the ship’s west-facing windows, the Washing-Up asked Buns:
“What’s a 14-letter word for a gruesome tentacled extradimensional abomination?”
The annals of the Rude Mechanicals will never record what Buns intended to say next, because just then the Mannequin awoke.
“I am returned,” he said.
“Find God yet?” the Washing-Up sighed.
“Who be it?” Buns of Steel grumbled. His needlepoint picture of a sailboat had just burst into flame due to his overzealous stitchwork, and his tea had boiled away.
“Listen!” and having nothing better to do, the other Mechanicals listened.
The Six Trillion Dollar Mannequin (his price having been increased by inflation) sat back. His eyes, sunk deep within cavernous sockets, glowed an apocalyptic red.
“Far beyond Time and Space, beyond the borders of the Observable Universe, and beyond even the statistically impossible borders of the Unobservable Universe – far past the gates of the Fourth Dimension, in a place bereft of thought, and reason, and love, and knowledge, is a swirling nether-noplace that does not merely not exist – it does the opposite of whatever existing is. Plunged in bitter temperatures far below zero on the Kelvin scale, in darkness that makes black look bright, the ghastly Mountains of Annihilation soar to infinite heights, their summits capped in frigid negatory rime. And on the other side of this impassable barrier, there dwells, deep in the Screaming Swamps whose anti-waters boil with cold, an Entity… No! A non-entity. Formless, yet hideous in form, shapeless, yet a scribble of impossible shapes, unbodied, yet bubbled and speckled with baleful eyes, writhing with tentacles, gawping and gaping with jaws that grind, a heinous hunger that will never be filled. It is older than age, bitterer than the bitterest hate, more powerful than the ergative potential of every grain of matter and antimatter alike. And it sleeps… and it dreams…. Such dreams! If there be a Hell, then Hell’s ghastliest coldest circle must be the tiniest moment of one of these dreams!
“And deep within its frozen unconscious depths, there stirs but one desire… to awaken. To emerge. To descend upon us. To feed. This is the phenomenon whose monstrous denial of all thought and substance gave rise to Thought itself, Substance itself. IT created all with ITS hatred. IT is the prime mover of Creation. And when Time itself is done and packed away, IT will emerge to feast upon the remains. Yes, and so potent is the name of this impossible evil that the mere mention of ITs name turns the tongue to ashes, darkens the sun in the sky. No mere living or cybernetic person will ever know the fearsome and world-destroying name of this–”
The Washing-Up interrupted him to exclaim: “Xchxchuxth’laga!”
The foundations of Time and Space gave a shudder. A couple of nearby stars extinguished themselves.
The Mannequin’s eyes blazed infernal crimson. “How DARE you utter that foul and contemptible utterance! More to the point, how do you even know?”
The Washing-Up gestured to his Times crossword puzzle. “14-letter word for a gruesome tentacled extradimensional abomination. Right here. See? It fits.”
“Let me see that” The Six Trillion Dollar Mannequin snatched the newspaper. “Great numinous ostriches! Some human in a planetary suburb has guessed the name of the All Awful! Guessed it… and enfolded it into her primitive word game!”
“Paula Hobson of Surrey, United Kingdom. See?” The Washing-Up pointed at the byline.
The Mannequin was silent for a year. Then he said:
“I see it now. This… this woman is the Cause beyond all Causes.”
“You mean Paula? The puzzle lady?” The Washing-Up sounded frankly incredulous.
“Yes. The puzzle lady.” The Mannequin’s mental circuitry blazed white. “I see it now. Yes… endlessly concatenating and rearranging the names of all things… in her simple games, we see reflected the complexity of Matter’s dance… the jitterbugging atoms… the breath of the solar wind… the drift of stars. Powerful, she is, and wise.” He slammed his wan metal fist on the table, with little impact. “We must go to her this instant!”
“Why?” grumbled Buns of Steel.
“Such power she has! We who call ourselves super-fixers, how can we allow this much potential to go unguarded?
And so, the Rude Mechanicals set out to find the Puzzle Lady, by which name they now referred to her in hushed tones. Inquiries revealed that the lifeform called Paula Hobson resided on the wetter half of a binary planetary unit, the part called Urf (as opposed to its airless runt of a twin called Mune) on the very island where it turned out the Times crossword had its obscure origins. It wasn’t easy to find this pebble drifting somewhere out back of Beyond, but a few stops at fueling stations and hazy guesses by clerks resulted in useful directions. A left at Barnard’s Star, and a dogleg past Beta Centauri, and the Mechanicals found what they were looking for.
“Quite tiny,” the Washing-Up observed.
“It wet!” shouted Buns of Steel.
“It makes sense… so much sense,” gushed the Mannequin. “Here on this out-of-the-way worldlet, the Intelligence that governs All hums as she whiles away the atomic pulses….”
The Mannequin’s colleagues requested (forcefully) that he take this moment to shut up.
“Me want get this over with,” Buns of Steel grumbled, but the Mannequin cautioned him. There were steps to be taken first. They couldn’t just appear on this yokel dirtball in their supercybernetic gleaming chrome glory. The yokels would yell. The rubes would riot. Disguises would be needed. The Mechanicals ransacked their cupboards, and in no time, Buns of Steel had topped himself with a tuft of brown yarn, because he had heard that Urf folk took great pride in the appearance of their cranial protein filaments. The Mannequin wrapped himself in a yard or seven of green felt, in accordance with Urf primates’ predilection for hiding behind arrangements of fabric. The Washing-Up didn’t feel the need for a disguise. They use pots and pans on Urf, too, he pointed out.
And so the I Contain Mechanicals touched down on St. Agnes Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex, United Kingdom, Urf, Solar Array 338-Q5, Caliphate of Xlurgnar, State of Aridia-Nonprime, Zandarox Dominion, subdivision E2(Aµ)/3×1 of the Pansignificant Parochion. The hypergolic antimatter jets of the I Contain Mechanicals set all the houses on the south side of King Street ablaze, so it was fortunate that the address the Mechanicals sought was on the north side. By the time the crew had run through their touchdown checklist, the British Army, Marines, the Royal Air Force, UNIT, and a contingent of Highland Grenadiers had noted the arrival of an extraterrestrial craft and had cordoned off the area. The moment the poorly-disguised super-robots disembarked, bullets and rocket grenades began careening off their adamantine exoskeletons.
“I say, the hicks have arranged a little parade in our honor,” observed the Six Hundred Thousand Dollar Mannequin, whose appraisal had depreciated local stock markets.
With a roar of tortured timber and a billow of plaster dust, Buns of Steel removed the front wall of Number 32 St. Agnes Road. There, in a tiny office, Paula Hobson sat. A half-finished crossword puzzle lay on the desk in front of her.
“Hello, we are a trio of Teachers, seeking gold coinage for the Indoctrination Fund,” the Mannequin began, but Paula shook her head.
“I know meddlesome alien super-robots when I see them,” she said. “Looking for God, are you?”
“As it happens, yes. Are you that?” the Mannequin inquired.
“I just make the puzzles,” the Puzzle Lady replied. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a nine-o’clock deadline.”
“Hand over that puzzle, Urf Critter!” the Six Million Dollar Mannequin boomed. (He had been restored to his full value by a bump in the futures markets, and was feeling confident.) Obligingly, Paula Hobson handed over the sheet.
“Such power I have!” the Mannequin crooned.
“Careful, old friend,” the Washing-Up advised. “Don’t let it go to your massive head.”
“Do you not see?” The Mannequin’s eyes burned a deep crimson. “With this, I control the Great Chain of Causation itself! I alone decree what Effect shall pursue what Cause. I alone bind Clue to Answer.” A bullet pinged off his metal shoulder.
“Maybe you put puzzle down now?” Buns suggested, but the Mannequin would not be deterred. “And if I create a puzzle so convoluted, so obscure that no living being in all thirty-two dimensions can solve it – then this Universe shall burn! And from its ashes, I – I alone! – shall create a Cosmos anew. A Cosmos more to my liking!”
And with that, the Mannequin, wild with megalomaniacal fury, borrowed a pen from Paula Hobson and proceeded to create the Ultimate Unsolvable Crossword, a concatenation of clues so recondite that no living lifeform would ever sort them out.
1 – Insult that signifies a Toothed Yelgoth who cannot flex her feed tendril (15 letters)
2 – Riposte that a sufficiently witty tentacle-challenged Toothed Yelgoth might make (8 letters)
5 – Paramecium native to silicon bogs of Gropzil Prime (22 letters)
7 – Instead of feathers, what the Imperion of Irq wears in his anterior cranial headgear (4 letters)
8 – In the majestic text of the Poopizooticon, aka the Holy Excrement of Filf, what is the famous typo on turd number forty-seven (3 smears and a blob)
12 – Last utterance of Queen Yi-pok of Treblook IV as she was devoured by Magma Slugs. (Long pulsating howl)
1 – Length in kiloparsecs of Ypsilon Wormhole at bottom of Mason’s Mattervoid (1032 digits)
3 – The Ineffable Unnameable Other in Nothingness (infinite infinities of signifiers)
6 – Why? (every letter in every word spoken by every being that has ever existed)
7 – Part of a toaster that gets hot (6 letters)
9 – Hairpiece for sentient goat (11 letters and a bleat)
10 – The Infinite (3 letters)
… and so it went. “And if no living entity can solve this most difficult of riddles,” crowed the Mannequin, “then I shall have the Power of the Ultimate High Mystery! I shall rule throughout space and time!
Paula Hobson shrugged. She popped the Mannequin’s crossword into the postbox. In a short time, word came back that three living beings had solved it after all.
“Impossible!” the Mannequin shrieked. “Who are these sages, these omnignomes?”
Paula checked her list. “The Mabinogrod Matrix of the Helminth Galaxy, for one.”
“The Matrix! I should have known. A famous cheat, that one.”
“Also the guru Farstella Muv, she who dwells in the Caves of Ij atop Mount Jijirijo on the world called Xo.”
The Mannequin grumbled. “Farstella thinks she’s so smart.”
“And twelve-year-old Jeffrey Knox of Hampshire.”
“Kids! Insufferable wiseacres. Why are they not drowned at birth?”
“Making a crossword puzzle doesn’t have anything to do with being God,” said Paula Hobson.
So furious did this statement make the Mannequin that his cogitational correlators shot blue sparks. “My magnitudinous mighty intelligence has determined that this is so!”
“You are intelligent, but uneducated,” Paula Hobson informed the Mannequin mildly. “You don’t know the current state of thinking about the nature of God.”
And with that, she proceeded to blow the Mannequin’s mind.
She told him of primeval rituals under fern jungles at the dawn of thought. She whispered the multifarious collision of quarks in a rippling manifold underlying Space and Time. She murmured madrigals of blackest despair in the pit of desperation, of worlds plunging into solar flares, of children eaten by their mothers, of mothers eaten by their children. A multitude swayed in a baking desert where not a green shoot grew. Ribs stuck out from bellies, flies devoured the dead, and the bleak words of a prophet of decay hissed on the hot wind. Paula talked of mushroom clouds over cities, of floods, fires, wars, earthquakes, runaway greenhouse gases that suffocated billions. A crowd on a high piazza sacrificed their most beautiful virgin to a volcano, and the ungrateful magma-hole boiled them in rockmelt anyway. She discussed the beaten mule, the starved dog, the floating goldfish.
Then Paula changed her tone. She told of children saving oysters from drowning on the beach, mothers and babies in fields of asphodel, suns-rise over the Beetling of Bargorobod, the rescue of the Titonika Starliner from pirates by a brave chimpanzee. She told of a world on the brink of self-immolation that made the right choice and survived, and of another world that made a foolish choice and perished. (Moral: don’t mine hydrogen from your own sun.) Finally, she told of the simple joys of tulips in your windowbox, a cup of weak tea, and doing the Times crossword on a day when you didn’t have to go to work. Paula ended with a shrug, a gesture at the sky, and an indication that she had practical matters to attend.
“So if you don’t mind, Super Robot People,” she concluded, “I’d appreciate it if you returned to Outer Space or wherever you’re from. Then we can get the soldiers off our street, and call a fireman about those blazing houses.”
There wasn’t much to argue about. The Rude Mechanicals left Urf. As they lifted off, they were mostly successful in not setting anything else on fire.
“Still looking for the Ultimate Answer?” the Washing Up asked ironically.
The Mannequin showed his annoyance by spelling out ANNOYED on his facial display. “No. More important things to do. This assignment from Cryptikus Prime, for one. Something about a missing molecule.”
And the I Contain Mechanicals flew on, as though nothing had happened.
All that had changed was that the ship’s west porthole now sported a small box of topsoil and tulips.
* * *
About the Creator/Artist
Matthew F. Amati was born. This has been acknowledged by the larger universe as a mistake which it is trying to rectify. Author of the novel Loompaland, which is available wherever massive amounts of consumer goods are sold. Matt also created the illustrations for his story and donated it all for your enjoyment.