The garden’s eastern park had shades in it again. They looked like women, and once they had been; perhaps somewhere they still were. Not here, though. Here they were more like memories. Not quite like memories, but that’s as close a description as any known language could give them. They were also consequences. This had happened before, and was the portent of a very unhappy ending to come.
The Gardener sighed, and placed the rescue-orange colored binoculars next to her lemonade. She’d have to go out there soon and remove those not-quite-memories from the garden. It was, after all, her job. It had been her job for ages beyond any sentient being’s ability to count. Especially those beings whose mathematical systems required things to be calculated on fingers, toes, or tentacles. It wasn’t that her kind lived forever – the rules would not allow that – it was more that they suffered from extreme-longevity. Yet, she couldn’t be sure how many of her kind were still ‘alive’. How many had reached a natural or untimely end? All of them? None? Perhaps there were still others, hidden elsewhere after ‘The Fracture’. In this cycle, she knew of only one: the Hermit-Archivist. That’s what he called himself now, anyway. Like her, he’d had other names in other temporal cycles. Unlike her, he’d managed to have two this cycle, and she suspected he was angling for a third. She’d only been the Gardener this time around. At least, ‘officially’. She liked this name, it was relaxing, and suited her current role.
She liked the role, too. Of all of the functions she had carried out over her uncountable existence, being the Gardner was her unqualified favorite. This was partly due to the fact that this time around the ‘space’ she would always remain responsible for was an actual garden, and gardens are nice places to hang out in. She couldn’t remember all of the things the garden had been before it was a garden, nor could she remember all of the roles that she’d played as part of her connection to it. It’s not that she wouldn’t be able to remember if she really put her mind to it, just that she had actively suppressed a lot of her life history, on account of some of it being what might be called embarrassing. Embarrassing for her, that is. Others would probably describe the functions she had performed at other times as horrific. Perhaps some could even construe her as having been evil at one time or another. Although, she knew that as far as her own life was concerned, she had never been evil, only necessary. Yet that was cold comfort, even for a complex being.
Whatever temperature of comfort she felt, it was still sad that it was coming to an end. It would be especially sad if she had to take on the aspect of being young again in the next cycle. She loathed being young. Youth just didn’t have any gravitas, and she was bound to have to do questionable things again. In her experience, being young had not at any time been relaxing. She wondered if the garden had any feelings about it. Did it like being a garden? Well, no matter. For the time being it was still the garden, and for the moment she was still the Gardener. Both of them would continue to be responsible for maintaining the quarantine between the universes created after The Fracture, until the whole thing collapsed into a Multiverse again.
The Gardener eyed her lemonade suspiciously. These thoughts were all a little maudlin. No, it smelt like normal lemonade. She skulled the rest of her glass back in a way that suggested it was something other than lemon refreshment, and steeled herself for the morning’s work. The first order of business was to remove and repurpose the shade-women. They had a very important task to perform today.
The Gardener pulled on her wide-brimmed straw hat, grabbed a tool that resembled a small weeding fork, and strode out towards the eastern park.
“So, here we are then?” Justin looked down the length of the wharf and up towards the settlement that struggled up a steep hillside. From here – at the harbor’s edge – it looked like the whole town was out of breath.
“Yes,” the Quantum Entanglement Fern agreed, “here we are. Although, I’m also in at least one other place, too.”
Justin glared at the Fern. “Is that other place nice?”
“It’s alright. There’s a pretty good coffee shop in the main square.”
“Really, I’m there to visit the botanical gardens, though. The town is famous for them.”
“How lovely for it.” Justin squinted up the hillside again. This town didn’t look like it would be famous for anything short of a plague outbreak. Even then, he guessed that it would be hard to get any self-respecting plague rat to jump off the ship long enough to infect anyone.
“Indeed. I’m going to visit them right after I finish this delicious coffee. I have a few friends there I haven’t seen in quite some time.”
The Fern had to be showing off. It knew quite well that Justin could only be in one place at a time – tenth-class deities like himself only had the special powers of completing paperwork, or performing minor, but necessary, administrative tasks. He’d always considered it a miracle if he managed to make it through a work day without getting yelled at by someone from Divinity Resources. It also bothered him that the closest he ever got to omniscience was when he turned on more than one television at a time, and had the radio playing in the background. The Fern, on the other hand, seemed to be able to do anything it wanted – much of which did appear miraculous. It didn’t seem fair, really. Perhaps the Fern was just playing a joke? It had gotten quite bored on the boat trip out here, and had started to tease Justin for its own amusement. This also didn’t seem very fair. First, because the whole the vacation contingency had been the Fern’s idea. Second, because it seemed that the Fern was able to be elsewhere whenever it wanted, so it didn’t seem necessary for it to amuse itself at Justin’s expense. Justin decided not to challenge the Fern on its claims, just in case it was trying to suck him into another playful jest that he would end up on the wrong side of.
“What,” began Justin, letting his better judgement prevail, “should we do now?”
The Fern’s fronds rustled and phased in hypnotic sequence. This was its equivalent of stroking a beard whilst deep in thought. “I suggest we look for more transport to continue our journey. The more we move, the harder it will be for the Staff-Liquidation operatives to catch up with us.”
Justin cringed inwardly. He knew that the Fern had a point, but he was so very tired. The whole voyage out to this forsaken port had taken over six weeks, and it’s almost impossible to get a good night’s sleep on the open deck of a ship. For one thing, he was always worried that he’d role off the deck right into the ocean. Also, the food had been really shit, and Justin could never rest while his stomach yelled at him. “Couldn’t we just find a place to rest here for the night? Perhaps even have a lunch, followed by a dinner? You know? At least two square meals that don’t have weevils in them?”
A comforting frond phased into existence on Justin’s shoulder. “I know it’s difficult,” the fern said, “and I do sympathize with your fatigue. While I think it’s not such a good idea to stop moving, I also think you have earned a little rest and a couple of weevil-less meals. Let’s ask that old chap over there if he knows of any affordable hotels.” The Fern had been picking up the bill for their fugitive activity, and couldn’t resist subtly reminding Justin of this fact. Not because Justin was cheap, but because it might also remind him that – for the moment – one of the Fern’s miraculous abilities was phasing money in existence.
‘That old chap over there‘ had known of a local hotel. He wasn’t able to say whether it was affordable – being local himself, he had a house, was unmarried, and so had never had to procure a room in it. It did have the virtue of being the only hotel in the town, with the added advantage of tripling as a tavern and eatery. The town was small, didn’t get many tourists, and so didn’t really need more than one establishment that performed those functions. At least, that’s what the Mayor said whenever someone tried to get the appropriate licenses to open up a rival hostelry, and he had to deny the applications. Of course, the Mayor also owned the only existing hotel/public-house/restaurant. The two fugitives were now facing the Mayor/Publican/Hotelier/Restaurateur from the other side of his reception desk. He, however, had not noticed them, and was instead staring into the hotel’s saloon with a look of deep confusion.
The Fern dinged the little ‘attention-please’ bell on the desk.
The Mayor’s head snapped around at the bell’s toll, and a practiced hospitality-smile stretched across his face. “How may I help you two fine…” he noticed the Fern hovering in his eyeline “…gentleman and foliage?”
Nice save, Justin thought, the Fern really hates when people call it something other than foliage. “We’re hoping to procure a room for the night. I trust you have a vacancy, as per your sign out front?”
The Mayor’s face sagged from smile back into a look of puzzlement. One tinted, just slightly, with a touch of disappointment.
“Is there something wrong? You do have a room available, yes?” Justin already knew the answer. But hope and hunger were powerful enemies.
“It’s the strangest thing. When I locked up last night, I could have sworn that we were all-vacancies here – not a single guest. I wasn’t even going to bother getting out of bed until later; there didn’t seem much point. I only came down now, because I heard a commotion in the saloon, and wanted to make sure Toothless-Andy hadn’t gotten in behind the bar again. Terrible old-soak is our Andy. Well…” the Mayor gestured towards the saloon, “…you can see for yourself.”
Justin threw a quick glance in the direction the gesture had indicated. “The saloon appears to be full of a lot of women. Very attractive women, if I’m any judge. So?”
“It’s just, we don’t normally get any women in here. Not ever. Even my own wife refuses to set foot in this part of the building, and she’s not even very attractive. So, I checked the register. It seems they are all guests. They’ve booked the whole place out for a month. Including the restaurant. It’s all been paid in advance, although I have no idea how. I’m afraid we don’t have any room for anything. I am very sorry.”
Sensing Justin’s cavernous disappointment, the Fern asked: “Is there perhaps another hotel somewhere; in the next town, for instance?”
“Well,” the Mayor looked uncomfortable, he didn’t like the thought of losing potential patrons. Especially to bad news – they tended to remember that sort of thing, always told others about how bad that news was, and advised friends to never stay in that place in case they, too, received news that was bad. He was sure he’d lost a lot of good custom that way. “I’m afraid there is no next town. This is the last town before the wasteland starts.”
“How far away is this wasteland? Perhaps there’s a camping ground or something near it?” The Fern was doing its best to find a place for Justin to rest. It wasn’t sure why, but it seemed the thing to do. Probably it was just experiencing an inconvenient bout of empathy.
“I regret to say,” replied the Mayor, “that the wasteland starts at the top of the hill. Exactly on the edge of town. It’s part of the reason we have an edge of town, rather than your usual urban sprawl situation. At the top of the hill, the whole thing flattens out into a plateau sporting nothing but endless desert. Toothless-Andy swears that he’s seen some sort of garden out there before. That was back when he was called Toothy-Andy, and used to go for long walks in the wasteland. I believe he was a cartographer at the time.”
“And what is he now?” The Fern realized it must be very bored, since it really did want to know what this Andy guy did now that he no longer took long wasteland walks. Perhaps this is what happens when you spend too much time in a small town?
“He’s a toothless drunk,” replied the Mayor matter-of-factly. “He’s pretty good at it too. Actually, now that I come to think about it, I did see something just before that might help you out. Funny that it slipped my mind, I guess all that talk of Andy’s garden hallucination jogged my memory. Ah, here it is! Odd that I’ve never seen this before today. Maybe Andy was right, poor old drunken bastard. No one believed him you know?” The Mayor held up a little tourist brochure, just close enough that Justin and the Fern could read it, but not so close that they could take it from him.
“Wasteland’s Garden Resort and Restaurant,” the Fern read from the brochure’s glossy cover. “A great place to stay, relax, and eat at affordable prices. Oh that sounds perfect, don’t you think Justin?”
“I guess.” Justin needed a sandwich at the very least. His metabolism was quite sensitive.
“How do we get there?” The Fern hoped that the Mayor would know, although it had its doubts that he would. The Fern was right. Fortunately, the brochure contained a map. Unfortunately, brochures were only for guests, and the Mayor, regretfully, had to charge anyone not registered a small fee to take one. Say, about ten units of whatever currency they had in their pocket? The fern materialized twenty units it thought the Mayor would have a hard time converting at a currency exchange.
The sound of a trillion restless minds awoke the Shadow-Biosphere’s master consciousness. It was groggy, sluggish. The sleep had been a long dream of hazy emptiness. How long? It didn’t matter. It never mattered. This was how it always was, and all that was important was that the coalescence had begun once more. The master consciousness turned its attention towards the smaller, lesser minds that were part of it. They were excited, and all were gazing out into a clearing void. Yes, it could see it again, the barrier protecting the universes stretched out before it, and hints of the barriers that separated them could just be glimpsed. They were dissolving.
The master consciousness dispatched a group of its component beings to probe, first the Great-Barrier, and then the smaller barriers for weaknesses. They found them, and slipped through into the spacetimes they had been kept from for a whole cycle.
Not long now.
α • ∞ • Ω