Archive for April, 2010

Storytime: The Crime of the Era.

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

I knew it was a big case the second she walked in my door.  A typically atypical dame: sensible, thick continental plates that teasingly hinted at dynamic vulcanism underneath.  And past that, a heart of freshly-carbonized diamond that peeked out through a gaze that could warm you over or trigger an ice age. 
I didn’t chance it, and kept the handshake strictly professional.  No lingering, no fondling, no surreptitious examination of her mineral assets – nice though they were.  Wasn’t in the mood for trouble, and she looked it. 
“Mr. Chix?”
“Yeah, that’s me.  And you, oh darling of the solar system?” I inquired. 
“That’s terrible.  And I’m Lithia.  They say you’re the best.  In your price range.”  She smiled a little smile that made her look a lot less attractive in my eyes.  “I’ve got quite a case for you.  Do you know the dinosaurs?”
“Sure, who doesn’t?  We’ve palled around a bit, but nothing close.  Passed them by a few times, that’s all.  What happened?”
“They’re dead.”  That little smile got a bit littler.  “Yesterday afternoon.  And we don’t know who did it.” 

It was obvious in retrospect.  The dinosaurs had been big, the biggest players in town for a long time.  They’d had plenty of time to marshal fame, fortune, success, and enemies.  But they’d never met any they couldn’t quash, until now. 
I figured I’d check with the usual suspect first.  Stratus was closest to home; he almost never left my favourite pub.  He was tipping back what looked like his twelfth million gallon when I got there.  Those bleary nimbus eyes grasped onto my face, then narrowed. 
“Chix?  Whassafuck you doin’?  Go ‘way.  Busy.”
“I’ll bet.”  I would’ve seated myself without asking, but I liked my face clean-shaven and free of glass shards.  “Hey, you seen the dinosaurs recently?”
The glare deepened.  “Yeah, last mornin’.  Looouusy stinkin’ birdies.  Wouldn’t give me, give me so much as a cent, and me with the billlss comin’ in tomorrow and needing to relax up a bit, you know?”
“They’re dead.  That afternoon.”  I watched the reaction, such as it was.  Stratus was too far gone to hide anything, and the most he did was look confused.  “Whuur?  Reeally?”  His hands tensed on his glass.  “Shit, man.  I mean, really?  Who did it?”
“You tell me.”
I could practically see the fear washing into him, bringing with it cruellest sobriety.  “No way.  Not me.  I don’t know nothing, I didn’t do nothing.  Those stingy assholes were my best friends, Chix, no way did I fry ‘em, freeze ‘em out!  My weather patterns are stable, man, I’ve been clean and holding fast for at least two hundred millennia!  You gotta believe me!”
I did.  At least, a little.  “Fine.  But if I see so much as a hint of glaciation, I’m going to want to see you again.  Maybe with some other people, who won’t be as friendly and charming and considerate as I am.  Got that?”
Defiance and submission in one surly nod.  “Yeah.  Got it.”  He stared back into his drink.  “Man.  All the dinosaurs.”  He shot a glance at me.  “All of them?”
“Just some of the birds left over.”
“Fuck.”  The drink was consumed.  “Get the fucker for me, will ya?”

So much for the first shot.  But then again, I’d expected little more.  The next one would be more promising. 
Lithia was pretty when she was annoyed, especially cross-armed and sarcastic, a volcano pinched in one hand between finger and thumb.  “I just hired you, and you’re already accusing me of murder?  That’s a bit far to go on the second meeting, Chix.”
“Calm down.  You’d be surprised how often it happens.  Good way to cover your ass, being the first one to be helpful on the scene.”  I waved away faint wisps of sulphuric ash.  “Now, how did you know the dinosaurs anyways?”
“I run the Sphere.”  Fanciest condominiums in the solar system.  My client was a lady of the upper crust.  “They were tenants of mine.  Good ones, too.  They were in it for the long haul, paid their rent regular, kept the noise down.  They were a bit hard on some of their neighbours, true, but they were good guys.  Self-made, pull-yourself-up-on-your-boostraps kind, but not as bullshitty as some of them get.  I know it sounds cold, but losing them is going to put a dent in the rent for me.  I have no motive, Chix.”
I made some notes, a couple of which were actually real, the rest for filler and to give me time to ponder.  “Right.  Thanks, Lithia.”  I put on my hat, then paused halfway out the door.  “The dinosaurs conduct any business at your place?”
She nodded.  “Lots.  High-level meetings and such.”
“Any newcomers?”
She tapped her chin as she thought, making her volcano wobble and shed magma on the carpet.  “Yeah.  This one guy, showed about a week ago.  A mister Bolide.  Big shot, always in a hurry.  Never seen him before, but acted like I should’ve.  You know the type.” 
“Right.  If it’s yours, can I be it?”
She sighed.  “Please.  Don’t even try next time if that’s your best.”
“Not by a long shot, sweetheart.” 

Bolide was harder to find.  Just like Lithia’d said, he couldn’t stay still.  I traced a dozen hotel rooms across town before I caught him coming out his door, clothing rumpled and hat at an odd angle that was decidedly unrakish atop his pock-marked silicate-and-oxide surface.  He’d seen some hard living out in space, that was for sure. 
“What is it?  Who are you?  What do you want?  I have somewhere to be in five minutes!”  All at once, all still walking.  I had to follow him, nearly jogging to keep up.  Bolide’s legs weren’t exceptionally long, but they were whirling along at a terrific clip. 
“Word has it you’ve been doing deals with the dinosaurs, Mr. Bolide,” I said through the huffs and puffs of unwanted exercise.
Bolide stopped dead so fast I nearly ran into him.  His eyes were a little wild, but angry, not guilty.  “Yes.  Yes I did.  Did.  Those greedy little amniotic bastards are on my shitlist as of the day before yesterday, Mr….?”
“Chix.  I’m a PI.”
A sharp, fast nod.  Everything was fast about Bolide.  “They cut me out, that’s the long and short of it.  I was negotiating for space on the Sphere, and they had the strings to pull to get me in there.  They wanted more than I was asking, said they were planning to rent the space themselves, and in the end they gouged too hard.  Told them enough’s enough, good riddance.  Happy to see the last of them.”
“You certainly have.  They were murdered last afternoon.”
Bolide didn’t panic, like Stratus, but he certainly didn’t keep as cool as Lithia.  He started glowing like he’d just entered atmosphere.  “Hah!  They were, were they?  Figures!  How else would they die but in a manner guaranteed to fill me with profound inconvenience!  How else?  Now you – and soon the police, and every busy-body within seven thousand light-years – are going to come and poke and prod at me!  Bah!”  Stratus was a solid man, and his hands looked to be making to throttle his briefcase straight into nonfunctionality. 
“Got an alibi?”
He sighed, the heat leaking out of him with a wheeze.  “Certainly.  I wasn’t even intending to stay at the sphere when I arrived in this dead-end town a month ago on business, and I certainly hadn’t heard of the dinosaurs before then.  I am not accustomed to murdering strangers, Mr. Chix.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late.  Later.”  He took off towards a cab, climbed in, and was gone in an instant.
I thought to myself.  Yes, that was probably it.  I’d need to play it safe, keep it cool, but the path ahead was clear and obvious.  First things first: I went to the hotel desk. 
“He’ll be back around six to check out,” I was informed by a boring young man at the desk. 
“Leave this note for him,” I said, thrusting a crumpled page from my notebook at him.  “It’s urgent.” 
He regarded it as if it were freshly decayed carrion, but relented under my firm glare.  “Right, sir.” 

Stratus was asleep in his booth.  I tucked his note inside his cup, where he’d have time to read it while still sober.  Two down.  

Lithia picked up the phone on the fifth call.  “Stubbornness.  I admire that in a businessman.”
“Cute.  Listen, I’ve got a lead on the case, and I think the thing’s about to fold up and shut itself before this evening’s out.  Meet me at the dinosaur’s condo at seven-thirty.”
“You do fast work.”
“I can take it slower if requested.”  Yes, it was lame, but I had to keep my hand in. 
A small and undelicate snort trickled through the line.  “I’ll pass.  You’re a bit of a little man, too little for my liking, Chix.”  She hung up before I could protest. 
The phone was returned to its cradle.  The dinosaur’s former condo was a nice place, although some of the furniture was a bit old and beaten.  Had a sign on the door that said “Apartment Yucatan.” 
I spent the two hours remaining ‘till the meeting thinking and checking my backup plan.  Just in case.  

Bolide was there at seven-twenty, naturally.  Lithia fashionably late at seven-forty.   And Stratus stumbled in five minutes after her, scared and sober. 
“I didn’t do it, man!” he moaned. 
“Yeah, I know, I heard you.  Shut up and sit down.”
He took his place.  I’d arranged some chairs in a loose semicircle facing me, at a table.  They were creaky things, spindly in the leg and sagging in the seat.  I’ve known a lot of people like that. 
“Right.  Thanks for coming, everyone.”  I lit a cigarette; I don’t often smoke, but it’s good for effect and gives me something to do with my hands when I talk.  “You guys are my suspects, and I’m telling you this second, I know which of you did in the dinosaurs.  And make no mistake, one of you DID do in the dinosaurs.  Okay?  Just so we’re clear on that, there’s a killer in this room blinking at us and looking shocked and appalled at the very thought of something so awful and nasty.  Now, let’s do the rundown.”
I looked the atmosphere straight in the eye.  “Stratus.  You have no real reason to kill beyond getting stinking drunk and pissed off, and you’d be caught on-scene instantly.  But you could do it.  You could’ve screwed with their climate, caught ‘em offguard with glaciation or global warming.  And you sober up fast when you’re scared shitless; you could’ve killed them, panicked, and gotten the hell out.” 
Without stopping to watch his face, I turned to Lithia.  “Lithia.  The dinosaurs were good tenants, but they hogged space and got pushy, turned away other potential customers just to preserve their space.  Maybe a little long-term gain would be worth the short-term pain?  Word is you vulcanize pretty heavily when you’re angry.  Enough to kill the dinosaurs?  Maybe.”
I whirled about and pointed at Bolide.  “Bolide.  You’re the unknown, or you’d like to be, but I think you’re a boring-ass known.  You turn up in town about a week ago on “business,” make pals with the dinosaurs, move around a lot so you’re hard to find, and then they die.  That smells of hitman to me, and not a very good one either.  Sloppy, Bolide, sloppy.  And I checked the scene, too.  There’s traces of iridium and tektite glass all over the damned place.   Almost as if someone slammed into them at a high velocity/”
Only now did I examine them.  Lithia fidgeting with her volcano, Stratus quivering with stress, both staring at the man I’d pointed out.  Bolide was staring at me, unmoving, flat-faced. 
I stubbed out the cigarette.  “So, Bolide’s guilty.  But you know what?  He isn’t the only one.  I can guess who hired him.  Lithia?  You have cash to burn.  Speaking of burn, awful lot of sulphurous gasses and volcanic ash you’ve been putting out.  Could make a mess of the Sphere, maybe cripple a few bothersome tenants, am I right?  Soften them up for a kill?  Speaking of which, Stratus, I went over this place while I was waiting for you.  Low sea levels.  Sounds an awful lot like glaciation, wouldn’t you say?  Altered climates?  I thought you said you were stable, Stratus; is there something you haven’t been telling me?  You’ve got some good drinking money for someone who was begging for a loan a day ago.  Did anyone slip you a little something to cut loose on somebody?  Some dinosaurs, maybe?”
Now all of them had that blank, flat face.  Not friendly. 
“Chix,” said Lithia, breaking the silence.  “You’re right.”
I smiled, but kept my hand ready under the table.  “I do that.”
“Don’t get snotty with me, asshole, I haven’t finished.  You’re right, but there’s one thing you left out.”
“Yeah?”
“You hired me to do it.”
All of a sudden, there were four flat faces.  It really was hard to change expression after hearing something like that.  “What?”
“You’re terrible at voices, Chix.  And not just for pick-up lines.”  She was smiling now.  Very grimly.  “I only just recognized it after that smug little rant of yours; all the rhetorical questions and oozing self-satisfaction.  You put up the cash anonymously, over the phone.  I hired Bolide and bribed Stratus.  And you knew I’d come to you.  And then presto!  The cunning and brave Mr. Chix invites the suspects over to the Sphere and reveals….they’re all guilty!  Ta-dah!  Amazing, spectacular!  You’d be the talk of the town and fat in the pocketbook.  Not least because you wouldn’t have to deal with that hush money you pay the dinosaurs every month.”
That last sentence was all I needed to break my silence.  “You knew?”
She smirked.  “Of course I knew.  I make it a habit of reading my tenant’s mail, if they’re worth the time.  Quite a neat little rap sheet they weren’t releasing to the cops at the low, low price of…quite a lot.  Assumed names don’t count if they’re just shortened versions of the original, Mister Chicxulub.”  All three of them stood up. 
I did too, and pulled out the shotgun.  “Resisting arrest,” I said calmly.  “A terrible thing.  Self-defence, all of it.  Yes, officer, they had me outnumbered and lethal force was the only recourse.”  I pointed it at Bolide first.  He stared along the barrel at me. 
“Go on.  Try to make –“  

The police force is barely wasting half an officer on me; there isn’t much I can do, not now that half of my land area is a sunken crater.  God that hurt.  Bolide wasn’t fast when I met him; I know that now.  When he’s fast, he means it.  Or meant it, seeing as he’s now several million very small fragments on the floor of the Apartment Yucatan.  I guess he couldn’t outrun the bullets, but damned if they slowed him down until after I’d dropped and half the Sphere had detonated from the impact. 
At least I have company.  The hospital put me, Lithia, and Stratus in the same ward.  They got off light compared to me – Lithia’s dented and she’ll be coughing smoke for months, and Stratus is hazed and overcast, shot through with ashes and debris – but they’ll recover.  I’ll be stuck like this for life.  Which is what I got, incidentally.  The court was firm on that, even as they struck those other bastards off with reduced sentences for testimony.  A goddamned injustice. 
And the birds are still pressing charges. 

Copyright Jamie Proctor, 2010. 

On The Life Aquatic with Class Sauropsida

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Or “marine reptiles,” if you must be so crude.  Which you must.  Really, I insist. 

Marine reptiles are exactly what the label suggests, and since I’m fond of redundancy I’ll tell you: reptiles with watery habits living in watery habitats.  Technically I’ve covered quite a few here already, such as your saltwater crocodiles and your sea snakes, and then there’s other stuff like your Galapagos marine iguanas and such.  But you know what?  They have the same problem all life currently present on earth does.  Too small.  Too petite, minute, tiny, eensy-weensy, itty-bitty.  Too familiar.  Too…..non-humongous. 

But can it swallow a grown man whole?

But can it swallow a grown man whole?

So let’s look at some Mesozoic stuff!  Who says the middle era is always the one the parents love the least, eh?

Truly, our era is impoverished of awesome.

Truly, our era is impoverished of awesome.

Marine reptiles were a concept that had some potential in the Permian, but they became a boom industry sometime in the Triassic – which, I need not remind you, as I do so, is the first of the Mesozoic’s three periods.  Some of the more notable groups that sprung up around this time include nothosaurs, which were possibly sort of a lizardy version of seals, going for fish and such, and placodonts, which were a sort of bulky mollusk-eating (“malacivores” – great word, isn’t it?  Learn something every day…) bunch that started off looking kind of but not really like marine iguanas, found out what “predation” meant the harsh way, and ended up looking kind of but not really like sea turtles. 

800px-Ceresiosaurus12VARNER19b

If these don’t seem that well known to you, that’s probably because they all died out at the end of the Triassic.  Life’s mean that way.  However, a contemporary of theirs did indeed make the cut: the ichthyosaurs.  There are some scientific names you can accuse of being vaguely related at best to their subjects, but not these, not the “fish-lizards,” who were so devoted to reaching that perfect ideal of streamlined limblessness that they even developed live birth for it.  They were elegant, they were sleek, and they’d already had a shot at growing grossly large by the end of the period (Shonisaurus was fifty feet long and swam in schools).  They were also Stephen Jay Gould’s favourite example of convergent evolution – the development of similar biological structures for similar jobs by unrelated species; which in this case was “swim fast, find fish, chase fish, eat fish.”  Sharks, swordfish, dolphins, ichthyosaurs…there are only so many quick-and-fast-hunter shapes available to be used in the water, although the customization takes over once the basic mould’s been set (a few ampullae of Lorenzini here, a long swordbill there, tendency to murder your own species’ young for amusement, maybe the phasing-out of teeth over time). 

Think of them as dolphins, but with less Flipper.  And thus, innately superior.

Think of them as dolphins, but with less Flipper. And thus, innately superior.

Ichthyosaurs went on to a long and prosperous history.  They cleaned up in the Triassic marine reptiles sweepstakes, kept it going strong for most of the Jurassic, and then gradually petered out and expired towards the Late Cretaceous, cause unknown, which is, I’d like to say, a way no doubt we all wish we could go.  By then, of course, they had competition, but they’d been coping with that for millions of years beforehand.  Let’s look at some of that competition now. 

Don't brag about your fishing rod unless it's built into your spine.

Don't brag about your fishing rod unless it's built into your spine.

The next big ice-breakers on the scene were the plesiosaurs.  Relatives of the nothosaurs, they escaped the fate of their cousins and started to throw their weight around come the Jurassic, popping up in the Early and getting bigger and better throughout the Middle to Late.  Now, an important distinction must be made: plesiosaurs themselves were split into two groups: long-necked plesiosaurs, and short-necked pliosaurs, as seen below with our good buddy Kronosaurus.

Pictured above, a portion of the reason why sharks weren't the top predators during the Mesozoic.

Pictured above, a portion of the reason why sharks weren't the top predators during the Mesozoic.

The slower plesiosaurs were predominately fish-and-invertebrate-eaters, while the faster, heavy-jawed pliosaurs went after larger prey, including other marine reptiles.  They were the super-orcas of their day, eating the things that ate everyone else and grinning all the while, with discoveries over the last few years being excavated in Svalbard exposing 50 foot+ monsters lurking out there.  Incidentally, some unrelated triva: plesiosaurs are both an order (the above mentioned whole shebang of this group of marine reptiles), a superfamily (the plesiosaur half of the plesiosaur/pliosaur division), and a species (Plesiosaurus, a fairly generic 10-16 footish example of the prior groups).  This isn’t confusing because science
The plesiosaurs thrived right up until the Cretaceous extinction, when they abruptly vanished alongside most of the lifeforms on our planet that were actually interesting.  Even after the icthyosaurs left them, however, they still had plenty of company.  Roll tape!

Why has no one written Moby-Dick with Mesozoic marine reptiles again?

Why has no one written Moby-Dick with Mesozoic marine reptiles again?

Oh right, no videos.  Whoops.  The nice picture above shows Tylosaurus, among the lengthiest of all of the mosasaurs (50 or so feet, give or take a whistle), a group of marine reptiles whose closest living relatives today are probably snakes.  They sprang up somewhere within spitting distance of the Middle Cretaceous, and despite their fashionable lateness they were soon swarming over the oceans like gangbusters, becoming the most prolific of all marine reptiles and the dominant predators de facto.  They had at least 20 million years of glorious sea serpent-hood, their fins and elongated paddle-tails stretching boldly across the oceans, before they went out with the plesiosaurs.  Alas and alackaday. 

Odds and ends were still about, of course.  Some crocodiles went for broke and became almost fully aquatic along the rim of the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, experimenting quite a ways into the latter period.  Sea turtles popped up at some point, and have kept going on quietly and steadily in the face of absolutely everything and anything (so far…).  But we have those already, sort of.  And as any six-year-old knows, it’s what you don’t have that’s the most interesting.  And as any sixty-year-old knows, it’s what you missed out on that’s always the most depressing.  Poor us, over sixty-five million years too late to see a mosasaur eel past a dock.  Poor us, forever having to make do with dolphins where we could see icthyosaurs gallavanting at the bow waves of ships.  Poor us, for being robbed of the chance to see a giant pliosaur and a bull sperm whale go at each other flipper to flipper, jaw to jaw. 

Ah well.  Take what you can get.  So listen up and save those whales, damnit - because they’re the next best thing we’ve got

Picture Credits

Storytime: Gentleman’s Gentleman, Minus Man.

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

The spiders had reached their five-hundred-and-sixty-seventh generation by the time TBI-943’s tomb cracked and he felt the stirrings of unfamiliarly un-musty air. 
It was just as well; recessive traits that he’d been fearing since his entrapment had begun to finally wreck their toll upon the arachnids.  Seven-and-a-half legs were becoming fearfully common, as were missing eyes, extra pedipalps, and an alarming tendency to build webs willy-nilly across his optical receptors.  He’d thought he’d carefully bred that out of the original stock through diligent and meticulous squishing, and its return brought him much dismay.  His biannual powerups to check on his situation and update his stock records tightened his energy supply’s proverbial belt quite enough as it was, and sparing the extra power to clear his view always made him wince. 
So all in all, TBI-943 was even more pleased than he would’ve been normally to feel a faint eddy of a breeze’s shadow wisp its way across his chassis.  Two hundred and eighty-three-and-a-half years was quite enough time for him to stay underground and crammed into a heap of rubble without explanation.  The flowerpots would’ve been unwatered, the furniture gone dusty, and no doubt Terry’s meals would have been served cold.  His former master had been a creature of many virtues, but ability as a chef had not been one in the slightest.  Terry had, on one occasion, managed to burn every item in his (large) breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, and orange juice, along with half the kitchen.  TBI-943 had placed a lock on the microwave-stove and kept the combination to himself after that. 
Work awaited him.  He powered up – it was so strange to feel his legs again – and began to gingerly slide his way through the rubble, dust drifting and flapping from him like a raggedy blanket.  A strange sense of abandoning his duties followed him until he flagged his spider-farming subroutine as a completed task.  Then he felt a bit better.  In any case, his freshly vacated space would allow them plenty of room to web uninterrupted and breed themselves into a hideously tangled and gnarled genetic Gordian knot. 
It took some time to work his way through the rubble and clutter of the debris that had pinned him.  Whatever had loosened it in the last six months of his imprisonment remained unknown, but it must have been fairly major.  Perhaps an earthquake, or a tornado?  He couldn’t imagine it would’ve been reconstruction work – anyone that would’ve left this much broken junk sitting around uncleared in the world’s largest and most wealthy city for over two centuries wouldn’t exactly decide to start fixing it up now.  Nobody could procrastinate that badly.  Except for plumbers, and Terry when it came to returning calls. 
And so it was, two hours after TBI-943 had begun his trek from his concrete prison, that he gently shoved aside some creaking masonry and emerged into the daylight.  If he were a human, he would’ve blinked a lot.  Instead, he noticed that he needed to adjust his light sensitivity settings, and did so. 
Things were different.  The imposing building he’d been in was missing entirely rather than exploding, the condominium complex across the street was worn down to a nubbin, and… yes, so was the rest of the street.  For as far as he could see, there was nothing taller than a single story’s worth of broken walls.  He wasn’t equipped with the most sophisticated sensors – far from it – but he was able to discern no visible signs of civilization.  The healthy forest that’d sprung up where he recalled the street being didn’t help, although the riot of blossoms and vines that’d overgrown much of the lumpish remnants was quite pretty in a depressing way.  The trees were very large, but he’d never downloaded any botany libraries and there was a conspicuous void when he delicately probed the air for an internet node.  Whatever species they may have been, they were quite pretty.  Deciduous, he knew that much.  

The next few hours were spent searching through the rubble for Terry’s flowerpots, which he found smashed into quite small pieces.  He gathered them up very carefully and placed them inside his head for safekeeping.  He hadn’t found any of the furniture, so dusting was out, mercifully.  And there was very much no sign of food to prepare.  Or Terry to feed.
TBI-943 thought for a moment – a very short moment as humans would’ve measured it.  His master was presumably deceased.  He had no further business to follow.  Therefore, he was purposed to locate his master’s next of kin (or next of next of next of etcetera of kin) and offer his services.  For that, he’d need a power supply.  And for that, he would need to find someplace sunny.  Seventy-three percent of his solar panels still seemed to be functioning properly; the only difficulty would be finding a nice sunny open patch in the middle of the forest. 
Terry had taken him rock climbing once or twice.  He hadn’t particularly enjoyed it, but  he’d been good at not falling; his fingers could grip a tea tray so firmly that a bowling ball placed upon it wouldn’t have caused his arms to so much as wiggle.  Compared to that, simple handholds in stone or bark were child’s play, as easy as falling off a log or sorting out a year’s worth of appointments before serving the waffles.  Or at least, so he reminded himself with each servo-straining heave upwards, with increasing insincerity.  He felt like he’d brought all that dust from his imprisonment right back up alongside him. 
The view from near the top of the tree was splendid, if desolate.  Not a landmark remained standing, nor a building untoppled.  There was a surprising amount of birdsong trailing after brightly coloured wads of feathers flitting through the trees, which led him to again instinctively reach for the internet.  Not a trace. 
The city appeared to be mostly forested, but there were signs of thinning out far to the west, miles away.  Too far a walk from late afternoon.  TBI-943 methodically thinned out the branches about him, then fashioned them into a crude and nearly-workable platform that might just barely prevent him from toppling down over eighty feet.  He thought it over, then discarded them and simply wedged himself in the crotch of a branch.  Already his half-awakened batteries were nearing drainage, and there were better things to do with them than flail about.  He adjusted his sleep cycle from six months to two days and shut himself down. 

When TBI-943 awoke, he found that something had built a nest on his shoulder, attracted by the warmth.  It twittered vengefully and fled, leaving him to brush away the twigs and thank nothing in particular that it hadn’t begun to lay eggs before it departed.  He would’ve felt very guilty. 
The way down the tree was easier.  That was bad.  He had time to think ahead. 
Well, the human race was presumably a lost cause.  Either that or it had degenerated so far back that it wouldn’t even recognize the significance of the city.  In either case, finding his new master would be a bit of a problem.  Yes, quite a large one.  He didn’t fancy running off half-cocked into who knew what sort of business.  Perhaps it would be better to revive one of the older goals, mull it over for a bit, get himself properly on his feet before he tried to run.  He analyzed the ceramic shards inside his forehead compartment, then thought over the numbers. 
Yes, that’d do it nicely.  Just some glue first. 

Making himself a crude bow took most of the day.  Finding a water source took the rest, and he was forced to deactivate at ground level to save power.  He awoke to find a dog gnawing on his leg, worrying ineffectually at the plastic with its rotting teeth.  It was of no breed he recognized. 
“Heel,” said TBI-943.  It jumped at his head. 
TBI-943 had been programmed to be kind to animals, and he felt a great deal of shame when he was done skinning the dog.  But he was also programmed for self-defence, as an expensive piece of property should be, and so he got over it and busied himself with preparing the hide, removing and cleaning all available bones, and feeding the meat into his digestive unit.  Every little bit of surplus energy counted, and he silently thanked Terry’s odd tendency to insist that they breakfast together.  The gimmicky little machine in his throat that broke down organic matter was expensive and inefficient, but right now he was most grateful for it.  He stayed up all night fashioning a primitive sort of concrete axe and chipping away at some of the smaller saplings with it. 
It took several more days, dogs, and a few failed tries before he successfully tanned the first dog’s hide and fashioned it into a sort of makeshift cauldron.  It was just as well; the others had started to realize it wasn’t smart to go near him.  Which, although an excellent display of learned behaviour, did very little to deter his freshly sinew-stringed bow.  On his dog diet he often found himself working full twenty-four hour days, preparing himself for the labour with efficiency that he kept as polished as possible. 
Finally, he was ready.  The bones and spare hides had been broiled together in his makeshift cauldron, treated with a makeshift lime-like mishmash of chemicals he’d scraped out of tins in the ruined basements of broad factories.  Now he had a reasonable amount of gooey, gluey gunk, which smelled faintly of wet dog.  With impeccable care, TBI-943 pulled the flowerpot shards from his head and began to work. 
The end results were quite functional, if not as pretty as they were originally.  Soundness was his interest rather than elegance, and he thought that the final shape of the flowerpots, though lumpish, was charming in a crude way.  It was certainly more than sound enough to hold the handfuls of precious soil he scraped from beneath the roots of trees, and the clusters of bright little yellow flowers plucked from their shallow beds. 
He sat up, cradling his pair of newfound burdens, fixing them to his sides with dried sinews looped delicately around his plasticized breastplate. 
“Well,” said TBI-943, for the first time in two hundred and eighty-three-and-a-half years, or five-hundred-and-seventy-six generations of little brown spiders, “I suppose that’s that.”  He left the city before evening fell, and the dogs hid from him as he walked out the lengths of the streets into the far wild west.

Travelling by night, flowerpots swaying from his sides, TBI-943 saw many strange things as he walked the miles and miles along the half-missing and overgrown remnants of the highways.  A pyramid made of the decaying forms of hundreds of almost-unrecognizable cars and trucks, transformed into rust-skeletons.  Huge herds of things that were probably the ragged descendants of the hardiest cattle left standing surged across plains that had reverted from mild-mannered cornfields to neck-high, surly grasses.  He came across a pack of wolves, creatures which he had only seen before in zoos, and hid up a tree for safety’s sake.  His chances of victory against them would probably have been adequate, but he refrained from combat, both from caution and out of admiration for their presence.  Terry had been a conservationist, whenever someone reminded him about it, particularly if they were female and expressed admiration towards an ecological mindset. 
There was rain now and then.  TBI-943 slept under trees for safety’s sake – his chassis wasn’t as impervious as it once had been, and determined dampness could get in despite his best efforts and give him the jitters.  He pressed on nevertheless. 
Now and then, in secluded towns that were now knee-high debris, he found cellars still uncollapsed.  And in those cellars, he found bodies.  They were all mostly intact but for a few gnawings of rats, and many bore injuries, ranging from small neat holes bored through their craniums to missing limbs. He checked all of them for Terry’s genetic markers, and found nothing close enough to count as family.  The levels of destruction were really quite thorough.  Even the sturdiest stone farmhouses, buildings he would’ve expected to last for centuries, had been broken and crushed, seemingly with explosive force. 
TBI-943’s job did not require a great deal of imagination, and he often ran himself at low capacity while walking to conserve power.  Still, even in that sleepy-slow mindset, speculation as to what had brought the world of humans to such a sorry state ran deep and fast throughout his circuits.  After he ran across a mass graveyard in what he thought was probably Illinois, with plenty of neat little holes bored through the hapless skeletons within, was probably the moment he decided on “extraterrestrial invasion.”  The land had been conquered, then left, the gardens purged and then abandoned.  There was no sign of the reclamation attempts that even the barest stub end of humanity would’ve attempted by now, and if they’d simply fought each other to the death at last the inevitable nuclear holocaust sufficient to purge them from the globe would’ve scarcely let the whole place recover so soon.  So, presumably something had come upon them, killed them all very unexpectedly (he certainly hadn’t heard anything of it before the building had fallen over and trapped him), and then… just left?  Had they taken anything?  Had there been a reason?  Had it even happened outside his quite possibly malfunctioning nanochips?  Perhaps.  He wasn’t quite sure. 
Still, this was not his concern.  There was no furniture to polish, no meals to cook, and he had watered the flowers (and kept watering them, careful not to overdo it so they wouldn’t leak down his sides).  He had to find Terry’s family.  California was his goal, step by step.  TBI-943 shot small animals now and then and consumed them down to their very bones, fretting over every expended speck of energy.  He stood in empty fields and on the tops of trees for days when the weather grew sunny, storing up his strength for desolate and cloudy stretches.  His real worry was that he’d be trapped in the dark, with no prey, left to slowly drain of motion until he either was forced to shut himself down for days or fell over and broke. 

Happily, such things were averted.  The flowers bloomed, faded under snowflakes, then rose again with tiny, fierce determination as the snows melted, the spring flood of the Mississippi flood no greater an obstacle than the smothering snowdrifts that transformed the plains from a high-standing thicket to an icy quagmire of frozen stalks – crude rafts and snowshoes served him well, spending hours of travel time to gain days. 
His closest call was a four-day thunderstorm somewhere in the Rockies, where he came within a hair’s-breadth of being crushed underneath an avalanche.  A bit of quick thinking and moving sent him tumbling safely down a slope that would’ve taken hours to transit, and before long he left their stony glares behind him, along with a brief, nearly unpleasant encounter with a grizzly bear while pushing through a thicket.  It hadn’t quite known what to make of him, and he’d left in haste before its startlement had become something less benign.  He glanced over his shoulders for days after that, even as the land flattened itself underneath his feet and the sea began to peep at him more and more over the horizon.  .
The coast was a nice change when he reached it.  He went south, and before long he was standing before a large, clear-blue bay that he was moderately sure contained San Francisco.  He tucked the flowers away for safekeeping while he explored, lashed a little ways up the trunk of an elderly redwood that likely hadn’t even been a seed when he was left alone with the spiders.  That thought triggered a mild moment of something that he might’ve called nostalgia.  Maybe the exposure to the outside world had triggered an exodus to new grounds, or a surge of inbound virile young spiders with strapping genes untainted by the icy fangs of inbreeding.  So much, so far away, and he would miss out on it all.  Nothing he shouldn’t be used to. 
A combination of rising sea levels and fault lines that had finally had enough seemed to have been the final straw for the city, as far as TBI-943 could guess.  The water was pleasingly bright and translucent, exposing streets patrolled only by sharks and seals.  The former were too large for his liking, as well as interested in his clumsy raft well beyond the standards of what he would consider polite curiosity. 
As he kept a wary photoreceptor on an exceptionally large specimen, which had poked its head out of the water to examine him with a cool, dark eye, something very large hit him from below.  For a brief, alarming time he was suspended in midair, arching free and far over the fins beneath him, and then he was surrounded on all sides by dark wetness and sinking fast.  The sharks barely had time to nose at him before he landed feet-first on the broken boulevards of San Francisco, with several dozen small leaks gushing company at him. 
The walk back to shore was unpleasant, to say the least.  His exterior systems kept flickering on and off with every step, and the seafloor was scarcely even.  An hour was lost trying to find his way through the wreckage of what had probably been some sort of mall, and more than once he lay low and quiet, unmoving against broken concrete and cement while he waited for the shadow of a shark to pass from above him.  He found skeletons in a few out-of-the-way places, dark corners and nooks where nothing had molested them before their city drowned.  More injuries, more neat little holes drilled through them, more no-matches for DNA.  Silt-filled craters nearly trapped him several times, ranging in size from ones he could’ve dropped Terry’s limousine into to a yawning depression that took up most of what had probably been a city block once.  If he fell into it, he didn’t think he’d have stopped falling until he had twenty feet of accumulated grime over his head and jamming his limbs rigid. 
Well, he concluded as he strode back onto the beach, sloshing, he’d seen San Francisco.  And judging from what he’d seen, he doubted there’d been many survivors.  The bodies were scattered and few outside sheltered places, but he’d have expected that with scavengers afoot before the sinking.  It’d be simple enough to consider Terry’s family dead, write himself off as property. 
But then, what would there be left for him to do?  Deactivate himself?  A butler without a master wasn’t much of a butler, and all he was meant to do was be a butler.  If only he’d been a construction model.  He’d have no shortage of things to do then.  As it was, all he could do was walk around and look for his master, or his master’s relatives, or descendants.  Not that Terry had ever had any legal offspring… oh. 
Was it really that simple and obvious? he thought as he retrieved the flowerpots from their hiding place.  That right-in-front-of-his-nose?  He filed through his discrete, alphabeticalized list of Terry’s mistresses.  Yes, in the name of all things conductive, it would be, it was.  One in Belgium.  Two in China.  One in the Philippines.  Two in North America, one in Quebec, one in Nevada.  Now, the odds of any of their birth control failing was less than one in several tens of thousands.  The odds of this occurring within the narrow timeframe just before the disaster, before it could be noticed, were lower still.  And yet they existed, somewhere out there in the millions-to-one of odds.  It just might be enough, and that was good enough for him. 
China first, TBI-943 decided, as he strode with newfound determination northwards.  He had time.  He could afford to maximize backtracking, to piece together a working boat and cross some colder seas.  And by the time all his leads were exhausted, well, he’d probably be sick of walking by then. 
It was still much better than dusting the furniture.

Storytime: A Week Off.

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

(Since we have an entire year before it’s time for Easter, obviously this is a great time to put up an Easter story!  Stick around for our next exciting holiday-themed tale, “Christmas in February”!)

 

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.  Get killed, lie low for a while, then pop up again to spread the Good News.  The best results for all involved and I got a bit of a rest for once while everything cooled down.  A week’d be enough, I thought.  I’d been busy for thirtysomething years, I could afford to take a week off. 
The tomb was surprisingly comfy.  It was dark, and quiet, and the air was cool and not particularly stale, thanks to the overall roughness of the blocked entrance.  Nice to be out of the sun, particularly after the crucifixion.  Six hours long, but believe you me, it felt longer. 
So there I was, underground, wrapped in a linen cloth, cosy and very, very, very tired and sore like you wouldn’t believe.  A week off, possibly the most well-earned one in history.  Yes, Dad was on my case about it with the old “When-I-was-your-age-I-made-everything-and-only-rested-for-one-day-out-of-seven-and-get-a-haircut” line, but last I heard, no one nailed him to anything when he did it.  Anyways, he was just grumbling.  I was getting my rest, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to change my mind.  

The first twenty hours were the best I’d had in my life, the most restful sleep I’d had since Bethlehem.  The apocalypse could’ve gone off four feet from my head, with Death running directly over my torso, and I could’ve slept through it.  At least, that was what I thought.  That illusion went flying out the window with the first muffled thud. 
It made no impression at first.  There were a lot of things it could’ve been, all here-and-gone interruptions that made no difference.  Then came the sounds of crumbling dirt and rustling, followed by the soft pit-a-pat of feet across the floor. 
If I ignore it, it’ll go away, I told myself, as a soft and furry nose sniffed my feet.  That’s what I kept telling Paul when he came to me crying about “boo-boos.”  Then it bit me. 
I hopped bolt upright, took my own name in vain, and was confronted with the retreating backside of a rabbit as it darted back down its new burrow.  I’m not sure if you’ve ever been bitten by a rabbit, but those teeth hurt – it’d broken the skin and stained the linen.  Anyways, I found a few loose rocks and piled them up in front of the hole, then drifted back to sleep, somewhat less carefree than before.  My toe still hurt. 
Maybe I was half-expecting it, maybe the pain in my foot was keeping me from my peacefully innocent slumber, likely both, but soon I was awake again and listening to the sound of little rabbit paws scuffling at my barricade.  I smiled, rolled up in the linen, and drifted smugly towards sleep, then heard the crash and rattle of dirt.  I stopped smiling as I heard the muffled and furry thuds of the rabbit – no, rabbits.  Multiple rabbits.  There was an entire world out there for those things to burrow into, and they had to go for my tomb? 
“Leave me alone,” I said as I swung myself upright.  The rabbits twitched their noses at me.  There were four or five of them, scrawny and lean.  One of them was defecating in the corner, with an amazing lack of shame or fear.  “Out!  Out!  Go tunnel elsewhere!  Shoo!”  The rabbits were unmoved until I chucked a few pebbles near them, which startled them a little.  They hopped back down their new tunnel, which I blocked off.  With each stone I moved, I thought on how useless this had been last time, and my mind started to wander to solutions.  Surely a little miracle wouldn’t hurt, would it?  It was my week off.  I was going to take my first and possibly only real break.  It wasn’t going to be done to show off, just to make sure everyone didn’t have to deal with me being grumpy afterwards.  When I put it like that, it was like doing everyone else a favour. 
So I did it.  I passed my hand carefully over the tomb’s walls, and wherever my fingers touched solid, uncracked stone appeared.  A very thin granite shell, about as thick as someone’s little finger, but hopefully enough to keep out a few determined rabbits.  While I was at it, I turned the rabbit feces into dried figs and ate them.  I get hungry when I wake up in the middle of the night, and I believe in cleanliness. 
So I went back to bed – the slab – to dream the sleep of angels wrapped in linen, or something very much like it.  And so it was for twelve beautiful, wondrously dreamless hours right up until the moment what seemed like eighteen cubic cubits of dirt fell directly onto my face.  I was snoring a little too, and about half of it ended up in my mouth, including several novel and interesting insects.  Of course I woke up immediately (with coughing and spitting everywhere), and what did I see when I looked up above but a rabbit looking down at me from a neat little hole in the ceiling.  Leering.  It’s all in the way they wiggle their noses. 
I yelled at it and it turned tail, heading back down whatever dank little warren it had painstakingly engineered for the express purpose of tormenting me.  Cursing my lack of foresight at leaving the ceiling unprotected, I stone’d it too, and the floor for good measure.  This time my attempts at sleep were light and tense, and I practically flew off the slab twice at nothing, ears sharpened for the pitter-patter of enormous hoppy feet.  I could practically smell them.  When I did manage to succumb to exhaustion over nerves, dreams were waiting for me – especially that unpleasant one about when I was twelve and didn’t look where I was swinging the hammer while building a bench.  My left thumb is still crooked.  I was pretty sure the hammer hadn’t been bigger than I was, or covered in rusty spikes and glowing white-hot.  But there it was, sliding down from above towards my soft, unsuspecting fingers, one hand unable to release it, the other unable to move.  And when it hit, it hit with a bang so loud that I woke up in a flash, yelling.  And the first thing that met my eyes was the hammer, which was lying on the floor from where it had fallen partway up the wall, where a crude hole had been chiselled.  A pair of rabbits were in it, watching me with avaricious glee. 
“Go AWAY!” I yelled at them, and they did.  The hammer, on examination, appeared to have been made by crudely shaping a cobblestone and binding it to a branch with a leather thong taken from an elderly pair of sandals.  I sighed. 
There were exactly two people out there that would do this.  One of them had complained about my wanting to sleep in before.  Still, I supposed I could give dad credit; a plague of rabbits was a good step down from the old days.  In modern times, smiting just wouldn’t cut it, I’d told him over and over, and despite all the complaining I thought he’d been making real progress.  Unless this was a pointed way of informing me exactly what he thought of my opinions on that matter. 
“The frogs weren’t much better, dad” I told the world at large – and by extension, him.  “Frogs?  Really? I mean, there were a lot of them, but they were frogs.  Bunnies aren’t much less silly.”  Dad declined to comment on this. 
This time I didn’t even try to sleep, declining both the futility of it and the likelihood of further, more horrible dreams.  I just sat down and waited.  They came to me within the next hour or four, chiselling new holes in the walls as they arrived, filing in silent rows and moving out of the way for new arrivals with ordered precision.  By the time they finished pouring in, the entire tomb bar my slab was covered in a furry carpet of rabbits. 
What I said next was not my best moment, but please, give me a little charity here.  I’d been woken up three times, bitten, had dirt dumped in my mouth, and suffered through the vivid re-imagining of childhood trauma, and all on my one week off before it could even get started.  I was a little grumpy and very tired and my back, feet, and palms all still hurt from the crucifixion, so I was very much uninclined to smile peacefully, speak in parables, or do any preaching. 
“Would you lot kindly knock it off, please?” I asked.  “I’m trying to sleep.”
My audience twitched their tiny little rabbit noses as one, two, three times in perfect harmony.  Then they rose up in a clotted horde and swarmed over my slab, a writhing, hopping morass of kicking legs and wobbling ears.  

The next few hours were a bit of a confused blur.  The rabbits didn’t seem to have a solid goal beyond “go berserk.” Even though they’d had me pinned at the very start they abandoned their apparent plan immediately in favour of leaping about the tomb at random, vaulting over and around each other like a basketful of spilled pomegranates.  Rabbits piled up in towering stacks that reached near to the ceiling, toppling over onto rabbits below in slow motion.  Rabbits frenziedly tore at the walls to reveal waiting tunnels filled with more rabbits.  Rabbits were everywhere – rabbits copulating, rabbits defecating, rabbits hopping up and down on the spot with manic energy, and rabbits sitting quietly and twitching their noses.  The last ones were the most worrying, because you could never tell when they’d decide to be one of the other kinds, as I discovered when one squatting directly on my head suddenly wanted to burrow. 
Of course, I wasn’t exactly sitting there and taking this lying down, beyond the first couple of minutes when I was pinned directly to the slab by the sheer monstrous weight of furry little bodies.  But the moment I had my hands free, I was up and moving, grabbing rabbit after rabbit and shooing them out.  All I had to do was make them want to go back home, which was fine and easy and just took one hand and one second per rabbit, but there was the little niggling issue of grabbing ahold of them in the first place.  Also, there were rather a lot of them and more streaming in at every moment.  So I had to seal off the tunnels, which now took up more of the walls than the walls themselves, and that was no picnic either. 
By the time I sent the last rabbit on its way and sealed its burrow, I was more exhausted than I’d been when I got into the tomb in the first place.  I collapsed onto that slab and my well-tattered linen shroud as though it were the comfiest mattress in an emperor’s palace, which didn’t serve me well, seeing as more rabbits had undermined it and it promptly collapsed in on itself and dumped me into the floor, where they mobbed me.  

Getting out of that took a lot more time, swamped as I was with furry little creatures whose evil outstripped the adversary himself.  Repairing my slab took even longer.  By this point, I’d decided that I’d be able to sleep through anything, and resolved that no matter what happened, I’d just ignore it. 
I woke up some time later to ominous silence, and, risking the opening of a single eye a half-crack, came eyeball-to-eyeball with a solitary rabbit, which stared right back.  Two mutually unblinking minutes passed, and then I’m sad to say that I lost my temper.  There was wailing and gnashing of teeth and frantic attempts to grab ahold of it to do some sort of violence.  I’m eternally thankful that the little furry bugger was fast enough to get away; I wouldn’t have wanted that on my conscience.  At the time, however, this was nothing but the last straw in a haystack made entirely of last straws, each laster than its predecessor. 
“Fine,” I told dad.  “Fine!  You win!  You always win!  I’m up!  I’m awake!  I couldn’t be any more awake if I tried and I swear I’ll never be able to sleep again!”  I kicked the slab as hard as I could, ignored the crippling pain in my toes, then shoved the rock out of the tomb’s mouth.  “One week!  Just one week, was that so much?  Was it too much?  Fine! Three days, most of them spent wide-awake and battling endless streams of bunnies?  All right then!  Three days it is!”

 

Despite all this, I got the last laugh in the end.  The Easter rabbit was his idea, but I was the one who suggested making them edible.  Every year, I receive a beautiful serenade of crunching chocolate heads, and it almost makes up for the whole affair. 

Almost.