Hans in the Land of Bards
Illustrated by Alejandro Giraldo
“Imagine accidentally bumping into, and understanding, key computing concepts as you read through a wonderful adventure story. That is what you are about to do!”
—Mark Surman, Internet Activist, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation
“All I want is one fish stick,” he pleaded, but much as in his childhood, his mother’s sister—now grown to the size of the Gorton man’s fishing boat—stood between him and the innocent pleasures of his favorite lunchtime treat.
“Eat your vegetables!” she roared, as she lobbed another enormous brussels sprout at his face.
This was no way to spend eternity. Restrained from eating his food item of choice. With whatever energy was left in him, which mind you wasn’t all that much, Hans pried his eyes open and lifted his head. It was time to get moving.
The piscine mouth that had swallowed him whole only moments before had carried him into the fish’s belly—a dark and humid cavern of a place, not too dissimilar to the wretched hotel lobby where he had made the puffer fish’s acquaintance. To Hans’ cost, alas.
He was feeling distressed and figured that a two-day stay at the hotel on the hill would do him good. At the very least, it would lessen his anxiety. Poor Hans worried about a lot of things. But mostly, he worried about not having anything to worry about.
Hans shuffled along for several yards and then stepped out onto a soft patch of mud, freshly pounded by an overcast sky that was in the early stages of relieving itself.
“It can’t be done, mate. It simply can’t be done.”
A middle-aged man with a thick, black, almost Nietzsche-esque moustache, sat on a rock, cheeks resting on the palms of his hands, eyes shut. His dark suit, brownish homburg and matching leather briefcase lent him the appearance of a businessman. And yet, the earplugs that he had placed firmly up his nostrils suggested that he was perhaps a few chips short of a fish dinner.
“Hello there,” Hans said. The man did not look up.
“Interested in buying life insurance? Figured not.”
“Excuse me, do you, well, do you, I mean, are you from around here, by any chance? I’m trying to find my way back to the hotel and I’m kind of lost.”
“You and me both, mate.” He let out a deep breath.
“Is there no way out?”
“Way out? Out of where?”
“Here. Whatever this place is.”
The man opened his eyes and looked at Hans. He blew his nose in a super-smooth, cavalier sort of way. The earplugs popped out onto to the ground.
“Why on Earth would you want to leave? This is where blokes like us make bumloads of bangers and mash, what with all of those wild cats and birds here, none of whom—” He looked around to make sure no one else was listening and then beckoned for Hans to get closer. “None of whom have any life insurance. Don’t you see what an opportunity this is?”
“Why do you need me? Why can’t you do it by yourself?”
“I’m terribly sorry. Mr. Rogers is stopping by on Wednesday to pick up his suit and I’ve yet to finish it. Also, there’s this whole being-swallowed-by-a-fish business that I need to figure out.”
“Off with the blinkers!”
Hans raised his eyebrows. “Blinkers?”
“There’s more to a race than the finish line, son. Think about that. Let it sink in.” Hans scratched the back of his neck. “But seriously, now. I’ve got these two deaf badgers who need my Platinum Plan, only they don’t know it yet. You’re just the honest-looking bloke to convince them of it. What do you say?”
“I can’t, Mr. McCoy. I do alterations and pick fabrics for people. I don’t know the first thing about selling life insurance plans.”
It was then that McCoy leapt onto Hans, moustache and all. A starving tiger lunging towards an unsuspecting antelope. He bodyslammed the hapless tailor onto the muddy Earth and held on tight. “Don’t leave me, son. Stray from the well-trodden path. We’ll be rich.”
“Let go of me this instant, you maniac!” Hans screamed as he wiggled his way out of McCoy’s grasp. When Hans’ arms broke free, he grabbed the moustache before him from either end and tugged on that abomination until McCoy’s eyes teared up and he let out a desperate moan. Like a constipated seal about to be a hero.
“You monster!” He caressed his compromised facial hair.
Hans got up on his feet and scurried away. He ran as fast as he could through the trees, for what seemed like miles, pumped by pure adrenaline. The excitement would have kept him going were it not for a massive brick gate that finally obstructed him. Beyond it, he made out what seemed like a beach town. Perhaps he could rest there for a bit before making his way back to that damned hotel. But then again, perhaps not. The things that Hans desired were seldom within easy reach.
In front of the gate stood a man in uniform. Right next to him was a plaque, etched into which were the words, IF CAPTAIN IS ABSENT, CAKE IS ON US. And right under that was a single slice of red velvet cake.
“Ooh, it’s going to start burning soon,” the man said, pointing to the shower cap on his head. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could you mark your name in this book?”
He was a burly man with wide shoulders and a chest so large and flat that one could easily cook a meal for four on it. His eyes, round and blood-soaked, were twice the size of his head. His head was twice the size of his nose. His nose was twice the size of his mouth.
“Chop chop. I don’t have all day. Name. Book. Now!” It was less a book and more a collection of coffee-stained pages, barely held together with plastic tape. “I’d do it myself if I could,” he continued. “Orders from above, alas.”
Hans opened the book to its first page and began scanning the entries one by one, looking for his name. The letters, while mostly legible, were written in varying sizes. The entries had no line breaks between them.
“I’m having a hard time reading these names,” Hans said. “Is there a reason why they are written this way?”
“Come on, now! I’ll need to wash this lye out of my hair pretty quickly. I got me a date tonight, you see. And my good looks and that scrumptious dessert are my tickets to glory.”
“Adler, Aigner, Anderson,” Hans began reading in a soft voice.
Pop, pop, sizzle. “Oh my, oh my,” the guard cried. A few puffs of smoke emerged from underneath the shower cap.
“Andert, Andres, Antone,” Hans continued.
Sizzle, pop, sizzle. “Oh no, oh no,” the guard whimpered. By now, fingernail shavings were darting out of the sides of his mouth and piercing the board behind him.
“Give me your last name, boy.”
The guard grabbed the book, slammed it shut and then flipped it open to its middle. He gripped it with his massive hands and began to slowly tear the book in half, down the spine, as satisfyingly as one might peel an aging, bumpy scab. As his turnip of a head emerged from behind the parting pages, he had a look on his face that commanded respect, and eyes that spoke to Hans. Eyes that whispered, ‘This is how I roll.’ He put some plastic tape along the edges of one of the halves and handed Hans the bundle.
“They are sorted alphabetically. By last name.”
The guard’s entire head of hair stood up on all fours and flip-turned off the man’s scalp and onto the ground!
“My hair! My silky smooth hair, all gone! All gone because of you, you snail of a man!”
“I’m terribly sorry, it’s just that I’m a bit slow on the uptake,” Hans said, trying to salvage the situation. The emasculated man’s countenance turned grim.
“Men, take him away—” Two guards approached Hans and held onto his arms. “And blast that Seth Rogen laugh track into his ears.”
The guards froze in place. “Captain, he is but a boy,” one of them protested, as he ever so slightly loosened his grip. “Solitary confinement is punishment enough.”
“Silence!” the captain replied, holding back his tears. “Let him suffer.” With that, he buried his face in his hands and ran into the trees.
Hans turned to the velvet cake. “I suppose I can claim that slice now?” The guard to his left replied with a smack upside the head.
If Hans wanted to stand any chance of getting out of this place, he had to stop making grown men cry.
Joan’s disappearance was a tragedy for her pet Macau. For everyone else, it was a non-event. Joan had had the misfortune of being surrounded by people who didn’t really like her, but were around her, all the same.
The wild currents made the journey seem like it would never end. At long last, the boat came to a halt on the sandy beach of an adjacent island. The guards climbed out of the boat and grabbed Hans by the lapels as he followed suit.
A voice, apparently from the heavens, shook every bone in Hans’ body.
“Oy! Who are you!”
It seemed too colloquial a phrase to be transcendent, although the ethnic accent was swinging it a bit.
Hans opened his eyes to the sight of a gigantic head looking straight at him. For Hans, there was nothing more terrifying than the thought, or in this case the sight, of a gigantic head. His mother had informed him time and again, particularly when she would find the need to summon her maternal weapon of choice, that the ginger-haired boy had been born a single gigantic head, with little arms and feet sticking out of it.
Occasional spices included the observation that it was a miracle that Hans was able to make it out of the birth canal without punching a hole through his mother’s bladder. Generally speaking, the amount of embellishment depended on the chore that was being asked of the young boy.
Hans backed away, trying to make sense of where he was. The head belonged to a red-haired woman in a beige dress. A woman whose eyes were as blue as the waves on which Hans had just voyaged, and whose face was adorned with a band of freckles from one ear to the other.
“Careful,” she said. “Don’t move too fast or you’ll fall off.” Hans looked down. He was standing on the edge of what seemed to be a giant leaf.
“Where am I? The last thing I remember is being on a boat and coming into shore.”
“Cave, guards, boat, then being shot out of a cannon into this place, right? Yeah, been there. It was a while back. I woke up and found myself on top of this gigantic pitcher plant. I couldn’t think of a safe way to escape, so I stayed put, living off of beetles, flies and, on a good day, nectar that’s high enough to reach.”
“What’s a pitcher plant?”
“So for all this time you’ve been living on the edge of this dangerous plant?”
“Indeed I have. Escape is futile, what with the hard Earth beneath us and all those other carnivorous plants salivating at the thought of gulping a morsel like me whole. Not to mention that the giant Powelliphantas—deadly land snails to you common folk—that live in and around this area are quite aggressive. And even if I could jump onto that stem down there, I’d slip right off.”
“How did this one grow to be so big?”
“Beats me. By the way, my name is Joan,” she said as she offered Hans her hand.
“It’s a pleasure. Hans. How did you end up here, Joan? Were you also swallowed by a puffer fish in a fedora?”
Joan put one hand on her forehead and pressed her eyes shut, as though calling to mind the events of a long time past.
“Well, I was in the vicinity of water. That’s for sure. I had just necked two pints of Ovaltine and so I excused myself and went into the restroom. I must have passed out there. I was at the peak of my career, you know. Unstoppable, ambitious, confident. Arrogant, actually. Pride goeth before destruction, as they say.
“We threw this lavish reception in our college’s atrium in honor of Dr. Lee who had just donated three million dollars for a new state-of-the-art entomology lab. I was there one minute, all dressed up, wafting between immaculately groomed guests. Then here. I stormed out of that cave and walked right up to the guards and gave them an earful. As it turns out, they don’t take too kindly to candor.”
Hans bit his lips. “But there must be a way to get out. I do not suppose anyone would want to spend the rest of his life here. Trapped in a cage with death. Granted, it is pristine. But a cage, nonetheless.”
“True, things up here are a bit more discernible.” She twiddled her toes to scare away a group of flies that were circling close by, then looked up.
“If you really want to escape, then there’s one way that might, that just might, work. There are these Asian hornets that stop by every morning. They take a nibble of anything that may be trapped in the liquid down below and fly off, with the plant none the wiser. They’re quite dangerous and have a sting that’ll make even the mightiest of people weep. The larger ones are usually less perceptive, though they are sedentary.
Looking towards the east at the mountain, Hans made out what seemed like, well, what seemed like an eyeglass repair shop. “Is that a shop up there?”
“Indeed it is. That’s where the supposedly great man lives.”
The conversation had uplifted Hans’ spirits and lowered his guard. Emboldened, he proceeded in an uncharacteristic manner. He was in uncharted territory. He had broken new ground and anything could happen.
“Why does he live in an eyeglass repair shop? I suppose—“ Hans cleared his throat and straightened his back. “I suppose it’s to blend in with the other shops in the area.” Hans waited, but Joan did not laugh. He then waited some more. “Tell me, Joan, what makes him a great man?”
“They say it’s because he is a thinker.”
“A thinker, you say. Well—umm—what exactly does he do?”
“He thinks, silly. Personally, I’m doubtful of that sort of thing. I don’t believe there are any experts in life. Just people with different levels of self-doubt.”
“How do you suppose we’d be able to get one of those bigger hornets to approach the plant?”
“By making the plant give off a stronger than usual scent. The word on the vine is that the strength of the scent is a function of the vapidness of the feast on offer.”
“I guess the other question is how do we get the plant to eat something that would give off that kind of scent?” Hans held his breath as he saw in Joan’s eyes what it was she was contemplating. “Joan, you hardly know me.”
“Someone enters your life passingly and does something unexpected and you wonder what would have become of you were it not for them. Life is ephemeral, Hans. I’d rather run after death and grab it by the neck than surrender to it in old age.
“The hornets fly back home to the east after breakfast. Once you get to the river with the giant lilies, jump onto them. They will cushion your fall. From there, make your way to the mountain on the other side of the forest, then up to the Thinker’s shop.
“The forest is full of deadly predators that come out at night looking for warm bodies to stuff their bellies with. I can’t be certain of these details, but I have it on good authority that they’re accurate. Those fireflies sure love to kick back and gossip every night.”
As kind as the offer was, Hans couldn’t accept it. “I’m terribly sorry, Joan, but your idea seems a tad too extreme. How could I possibly live with myself?”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
Joan looked at the cover and pursed her lips. “Yeah, a few pages of that ought to do the job.”
“Let’s leave together,” Hans pleaded. “It will be an adventure.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. You’ll make it if you believe in yourself. Don’t be drawn into the myth of your own inadequacy.”
“I don’t want to just make it,” Hans replied, faintly.
“Oh, very well then,” she said a few moments later. “You soft-hearted fool! We make our move tomorrow morning!”
Hans couldn’t make sense of what seemed like Joan’s conflicting set of ideals. It was as though he had caught her amidst a transition from one mindset to another, during which liminal period, internal misalignments take on the appearance of contradictions.
As the hornet buzzed towards the east, Hans held onto its furry back, tight as he could, looking down at a spectacular view. A carpet of lush, green trees covered most of the island. There was a large hill to the west with half a dozen wild cats resting on its peak. Right below that, a silky white beach stretched between the foothills and the sparkling turquoise water. One of the cats lay on the grass, belly up, not a care in the world. Like a capsized Budai, modulo the smile of course. And the contentment, one might suppose. And the affection, one might imagine.
“Look, over there.” Joan tapped Hans on the shoulder and pointed straight ahead. “That’s the river with the lilies. On three now. One-two-jump!”
Hans flapped his arms like a scared chicken and filled the heavens with frantic sounds of flipping, turning, shouting and screaming. He hit one of the lilies with a thud and let out a formidable fart. As that civilization of methane escaped into the ether, the tailor was comforted by the thought of vicarious freedom. He was peculiar like that.
Joan scrambled onto the riverbank. Hans followed suit.
“Well, this is it,” she said.
Hans glanced up and around. To the east, the mountain rose up against the sky. His visceral thought was to go with the simplest strategy, which was to walk towards the mountain in as straight a line as possible. There was no time to waste. Joan agreed, and the two entered the maze of trees.
“Hey, look at this,” she said. Nailed to the tree in front of them was what appeared to be a map. Joan tore off the aging piece of cloth with one hand and inspected it.
“Time for Plan B, Hans.” The map was littered with spots labeled DANGEROUS and STAY AWAY along with drawings of skulls, crossbones and former vice presidents. “We’re not going to want to risk going anywhere near those places.”
“Oh no, we’re going to be supper for a herd of hungry wild cats,” Hans said. “There are so many possible combinations, with numerous forks along several of those paths. We’re doomed.”
“Will you get a grip? How did you make it this far in life with that kind of attitude? Now look here. The larger trees are connected with dotted lines and along each dotted line is a number, in minutes. The only problem is that longer paths don’t always take longer to traverse. In fact—see this—the longest path reportedly takes the shortest amount of time to cross.” She pointed to the footnote.
“Lions graze here, traveller—run,” Hans read.
“That wrinkle will likely make it difficult for us to visually determine the shortest path.”
“Well, let’s see, that would take—umm—around eight hours.” She looked up at the sky. “It’s around noon now. The sun sets at half-past-six. Eight hours is too long.”
Drops of sweat trickled down Hans’ forehead. He sat down on the ground and cradled his head in his sweaty palms.
“We’re finished!” He closed his eyes to the near-immediate sight of Aunt Jennifer. This time she was holding onto a rolling pin and slowly tapping the tip of her shoulder with it. For someone named after the patron saint of disasters, Aunt Jennifer had the uncanny ability to show up at disasters and make them worse.
Hans stood up, his eyes still shut. “I will not perish!” he screamed, pointing towards the sky and whatever lay beyond it. “I will make it out of here. If it’s the last thing I ever—”
Something hit that faint-hearted traveller right on the side of his head, then fell and cracked open near his feet. His vision swam and vertigo overcame him.
“What on Earth was that?” he said, with one hand on his forehead, and the other holding onto his glasses. And then he heard tutting. Could it be? Was he in London?
“Who are you?” Hans shouted.
“A cenobite from the Singuado monastery. We are all cenobites. We took an oath of silence seventy suppers ago to trounce our persistent dependence on tutting. Your sobbing distressed us so much that we snapped. Oh, how I’ve missed it. I’ve got so much tutting to catch up on.”
Joan chuckled. “That’s just what you needed, Hans. A coconut to the head to shut you up.” It was the very first time that Hans had seen Joan smile.
He had an interesting idiolect, that old tutter on the tree. A lisp, of sorts, most probably caused by the way his lips were perched up and to one side, as though they were an autonomous being about to lift off and embark on a flight into the heavens. With every thilenthe and thnapped, Hans was treated to an onslaught of warm, viscous saliva. Fearless kamikaze globules that darted towards his face, their hearts atop their armor.
“Hey, you. Captain Underwear,” Joan said. “You must have a good view from up there. We’re trying to get to that mountain before sunset.” Her statement led to an outbreak of tutting amongst the tutters’ ranks.
“A simple person you must be to ask such a simple question. Is it not self-evident what the quickest route is?”
“Now look here, friend, don’t you get all smart with me—”
“Your friend?” he interrupted. “Me, virtuous and scholarly, a friend of a feckless cretin?”
“That explains why you’re missing the tip of your nose then.” Joan curtsied and wobbled her head in a silly way, before adding, “Your Grace.”
“That was uncalled for. I lost my nose many years ago. It was calamitous,” the Tutter countered. “I was being chased by several assassins when they struck. It was cataclysmically catastrophic.”
Upon closer inspection, both Hans and Joan realized that the man was indeed missing a large chunk of his nose. Now, less animated, he said, “Here, take a look at this. Whenever you are stuck on a problem in life, it is not a bad idea to inspect the corpus of human knowledge. There is a good chance that other people have encountered the same roadblock before and managed to overcome it.”
Recalling his recent encounter with the guard, Hans made sure not to make assumptions. A wrong assumption now could mean death or worse—being stuck with the tutters.
“Excuse me, the method outlined in here, will it get us to the mountain before sunset?”
“Yes, perhaps the first one will.”
Hans handed the short document to Joan, but she insisted that he go through it and report back. She said she had to get a few things. Hans took the time to go through the first method in the document and saw that its suggestion was an improvement over his original solution.
He had been blinding himself from potentially better paths by always assuming that a shorter path in the beginning implied a shorter overall one, which of course isn’t always the case.
The suggested route to the mountain would get them there in six hours.
Satisfied with the now higher likelihood of making it through the forest before sundown, Hans folded the paper and slid it into his back pocket. He waved to Joan. She was a few yards away behind some bushes. “Hey, Joan. I think we got our Plan B.”
She walked back, carrying what seemed like a bunch of rocks and leaves.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Preemption. I’m going to have to fix up my dress, in case we have to leg it!”
“Well, you’re in luck,” Hans replied, with a smile. “That’s the one thing I’m quite good at.”
Hans felt Joan’s elbow poking him in the ribs. He took a step forward.
It would perhaps not be uncharitable to say that the Mandrill had a unique face. His eyes were droopy, but only just, as though his eyelids had decided to drop, then discovered that it would be too taxing a task. His mouth, no less perplexing, appeared to be frowning, smiling and mocking, all at the same time. The ensuing sneer was so patience-testing that one wouldn’t have been surprised if it turned out that the Mandrill was actually a presenter on a major news channel.
“I suppose you’re here for the Wi-Fi?” he said, sniffing.
“Wi-Fi? Umm—no, we’re here to see the Thinker,” Hans replied, assuming the body language of a man of moderate self-confidence.
Joan had run out of patience. “We’ve travelled all day through the forest, racing against a setting sun and evading wild predators and booby traps. We’ve walked up hundreds of flights of stairs, risking our lives with every step. Lead us to him at once, Mandrill!”
The Mandrill looked at Joan without saying a word. His hands were clasped together in his lap. Every couple of seconds, he would twirl his thumbs about each other. After what seemed like the better part of a minute had passed, he opened his mouth.
“Why do you want to see the Thinker? So you can take a selfie with him and exchange it for Facebook likes and Internet karma? I know your type. The Thinker doesn’t have time to socialize with visitors. The little free time he does have, he prefers to spend it in the company of smart people, a list of whom I have here.” He pointed to a pile of papers that rested against the wall beside him.
The Mandrill turned his gaze to Hans. Without raising his right hand, he pointed to the adjacent wall. “Have a seat.” Hans walked to the wall and sat down, as did Joan.
He poured Hans a glass of a shiny red liquid. “Have a sip of this artisanal Kool-Aid. It will calm your nerves.” Hans did just that, and as though by magic, he was overcome with the pressing desire to create a mobile app. He didn’t even know what a mobile app was.
“Let me introduce myself,” the Mandrill said. “My name is Kolon. Dr. Blok D. Kolon.” He raised his hands as a magician would after a particularly clever trick. “I run this place. Don’t be fooled by the corridors paved with slime and the flaky walls. We do a lot of valuable research and development here. We’re in stealth mode at the moment. Hence the disguised exterior.”
Joan sighed and undid her hair.
The Mandrill continued. “This is an intellectually sterile environment, so we want to be careful who we let in. Your general appearance tells me that you’re probably not cut out for this place. How about you come back in a few years time when you’re more experienced?”
“What exactly would I want to become more experienced in?” Hans said.
“A priori knowledge of—things.”
“Things? What things in particular?”
“All the things.”
“That’s well and good,” Hans said. “But we really need to see the Thinker, and pretty soon. I’m not too sure that we can afford to wait for a few years.” He glanced at Joan. “Can you do anything?” he mouthed to her. She shrugged.
“Let’s get out of here, Hans.”
Hans looked at Kolon. “Just so you know, the thought of taking a selfie with the Thinker did cross my mind.” Joan turned the knob and walked out.
“Wait,” Kolon said, as Hans was about to close the door behind him. Hans popped his head back into the shop. “There’s a campsite at the bottom of this rock. Every now and then, I see smoke billowing from there. Just saying.”
“Hey Joan, I found us a place to rest tonight. Apparently, there’s a campsite at the bottom.”
“Sounds like a plan, Hans. But first, come and have a seat. Let’s soak this in.”
Hans and Joan sat at the edge of the mountain and looked at the majestic view before them. At that glorious orange disc in the sky, edging its way towards the horizon. The heavens were calm. Quiet. Serene.
By the time Hans and Joan reached the mountain’s foot, the sun had all but set. As night fell, the two travellers became engulfed in pitch darkness, yet they walked. No sooner had Hans entangled himself in a bad analogy about a fetus in a womb than he heard sniffing and scratching. He proceeded slowly until his view was unobstructed. It was a dog. A fox terrier in fact.
“Shoo,” he whispered to the the fluffy white animal as he flicked his hands at him. The dog just stood there, looking at Hans, eyebrows raised.
“Leave him alone.” Joan walked up to the dog and scratched him behind the ears. Hans approached. The dog leapt out of Joan’s arms and ran into the trees.
“I guess he doesn’t like you,” Joan said. She picked up a dusty bone from the ground, one that the terrier was likely munching on, and threw it towards the trees. The terrier darted out from behind the bushes, scooped up the bone with his tongue and then dashed back. Hans walked towards a nook in the mountain and rested against the smooth slab of rock. Joan was moving about, gathering things. Smelling and tasting them.
“What are you doing?”
“If we want to stay warm tonight, and fend off unwelcome guests, we’ll need to light a fire.”
Hans crossed his hands behind his head. In the darkness, he could just about make out where the terrier was hiding. He took out a chocolate bar from his jacket and broke off a small piece.
“Here, doggy,” he said as he threw the block of chocolate towards the trees. The dog didn’t wait long, jumping as he did towards the piece and gulping it down whole. He took a step forward and then began a cervine walk towards Hans, stopping every so often and looking around. When he was close enough, Hans broke off another piece of chocolate and placed it in the dog’s mouth.
“I see you’re friends now,” Joan said. She was rubbing two twigs against each other and blowing into a recess that she had made in the ground.
“Indeed. Little, umm—Pavlov, yes, that’s what I’ll call him. Pavlov here sure likes chocolate.”
“You gave chocolate to a dog? Get it out of his belly right away! For heaven’s sake. Who gives chocolate to a dog!”
He grabbed the poor soul and positioned him on his back. The dog looked into Hans’ eyes as he descended on the innocent chap. Tickle, tickle, tickle, tickle. The dog raised one eyebrow and lowered the other. As though to say, ‘Human, what on Earth is wrong with you?’
Joan had by now started the fire and was cozying up to it. Hans continued his noble pursuit. Ten minutes must have passed and then, without a perfunctory warning of any kind, the terrier let out a loud burp and unleashed a pint of warm belly juice into Hans’ face.
“Argh! It burns!”
Hans fell to the ground and rolled around until the stickiness of the smelly vomit had been replaced with the choking powdery feel of dust. He opened his eyes not to the sight of his comrade, holding his head in her lap, wiping his forehead with a warm towel, giving him words of encouragement—Hans watched a lot of soap operas, you see—but rather, to said comrade looking intently at a piece of laminated paper.
“What’s that?” he asked, wiping off the dust and dirt from his clothes and sitting up.
“It came out of the dog. It seems like it’s, well—it seems like it’s a business card.”
“What does it say?”
“Walter Jones, NSA Agent.”
“NSA? Nordic Scrabble Association?”
“No, Hans. National Security Agency. You know, monitoring, counterintelligence, enhanced interrogation techniques. That sort of thing.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. Why would an NSA agent be in a place like this?”
“More importantly, why did your friend here swallow his business card?” Joan looked at the puddle on the ground. She bent down and, with the force of a suburban parent disciplining their child, she picked up a round object.
“Whoa. Is that a button?” Joan nodded.
“Pavlov, where did you find this?” The dog barked and ran towards the trees, wagging his tail. He turned his head and saw that his human friends hadn’t moved. He barked again.
“There’s no way we’re leaving now,” Joan said. “It’s too dangerous. Let’s get some rest and make our move in the morning.” Hans pantomimed the plan to Pavlov.
The dog walked back to the nook with Hans and cuddled up beside him. Joan slept a few feet away. It wasn’t too long before everyone dozed off. For it had been a long day.
The next morning, Hans, Joan and Pavlov ventured into the trees until they encountered a jumbled pile of mismatched apparel. Beige corduroy trousers and a blue jacket. The corpse underneath was of course equally disturbing. A yard or so away lay a coconut covered in gunk. Joan approached the spot, treading ever so lightly.
“It’s—a man,” she said. “A man in a suit.”
“Is he asleep?”
“Well, he is missing half his torso. I mean there is that. But otherwise he’s in pretty good shape.”
“Oh. So he’s asleep then?”
“Ha! You’re not going to believe this, Hans. Look.”
Hans examined the slip of paper that Joan had in her hand. “Hey, it’s a picture of that blocked colon guy!” he said. “A selfie with the Mandrill. Well, what do you know.”
“Whatever this guy’s connection to the Mandrill is, I bet you he’s on his list.” Joan’s eyes grew wider.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Hans took a moment to compose himself.
“I’ll be honest with you, Joan. Somehow I doubt it.”
“You become Walter Jones,” she said, elongating every syllable of the decomposing man’s name.
Hans scratched his head. “You mean in spirit?”
“No. I mean you put on his jacket and shades and you go to the Mandrill pretending to be Walter Jones. It’s worth a shot. Pavlov and I will wait for you at the campsite. How about that?”
“Sounds like a plan.” Joan handed Hans the slip of paper.
“Come on, Pavlov. Reconnaissance time.”
Hans took off his jacket and slipped into Walter Jones’ jacket. He then popped on the shades. When they all reached the campsite, Joan wished him luck and they went their separate ways.
“The code is still the same,” the Mandrill shouted from across the corridor. “86-75-30-9.” The Mandrill happened to be enchanted with prime numbers and obscure pop culture references.
There in the back, sitting flush with the wall was a large door with a combination lock and lever guarding it. Hans dialed the combination lock. It clicked. He took a deep breath and straightened his back. He would have to go in poised, self-assured, dignified.
He pulled the lever and unleashed a puff of clammy air that smacked him square in the face. It fogged up his glasses. As the moisture on Hans’ second pair of eyes slowly receded, he saw that three rows of steel pipes obstructed the top of the entrance. He held onto the wall for support and lowered his head. Crawling might have been the better option. It’s just that, in Hans’ experience, there appeared to be an inverse relationship between how close his face was to the ground and the favorability with which others perceived him.
He was inside. When he got to the end of the entrance, he raised his head, and lo and behold, there actually was a human being there. The magnificent Thinker whom he had heard so much about. The person whom he had been searching for. Encased, embalmed you might say, inside that tiny steel room. That gamy room.
The Thinker was sitting on a wide chair, arms extended along the armrests, His eyes fixed on the wall straight ahead, as though the whole weight of the universe rested on His shoulders.
“It’s an honor to finally meet you. I was told that you, of all people, would be able to give me direction and guidance.”
Hans sensed that the man was about to open his mouth, so he lowered his gaze. Nothing happened. Hans looked up and saw that the man was still thinking. He lowered his gaze again. Again, nothing happened. Hans fidgeted a bit then looked up at the man once more. Could it be that this beautiful creature was, quite literally, a thinker, in that He wasn’t capable of doing anything other than thinking?
“Umm, sorry to bother you, but are you able to hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?” Nothing.
“Would you mind nodding if you can hear me?” Nothing.
“If you can can see me?” Nothing. Hans took out the piece of paper that had the photo of Walter and the Mandrill on it and held it up to him.
“Look, this is me. It’s ok. I’m intelligent.” Nothing.
So it was then. Hans had finally found the one person whom he had thought could help him, only to be disappointed. The Thinker was a being so absolute that, in actuality, He had no practical value. A corpse covered in honey.
Hans walked out, Joseph Merrick-style, as before, and stood there, unsure of how to proceed. He was just about to put the photo back in his jacket pocket when he noticed something. The moisture in the room had weakened the paper causing the corners to curve outward. It was in fact two pieces of paper stuck together. Hans peeled the sheets apart. The one concealed underneath the photo was blank, except for a small red cross in one corner. How odd. He folded both papers and put them back in his pocket.
Save for a torn piece of Joan’s dress, Hans’ two companions were nowhere to be seen. He was back at the campsite.
“Joan, Pavlov, where are you?” Hans was on the verge of panicking, and so, like a protagonist in a Hollywood war movie, he ran into the trees, screaming at the enemy and waving his hands around. To his disappointment, the laws of nature did not bend in his favor.
The unguided walk through the trees was proving to no avail. Hans’ comrades were nowhere to be seen.
“Joan, can you hear me? Jo—” Tick, and then wham! He felt a loop of rope tighten around his right ankle and then propel him upward. Hans suddenly found himself inside a sack of thick ropes, suspended in midair.
“Oh no, help! Somebody, help!” he screamed. This was bad. This was really bad. There was no way things could get any worse.
It wasn’t long before Hans heard the sound of something moving between the bushes. He froze in place and did his best to put a cap on his heavy breathing. Was He being hunted?
It was then that it jumped out from among the trees. Homburg, briefcase and all. He saw Hans right away. “Well, well, well. If it isn’t my old pal.”
Hans let out a groan as the thought of being hurt by this most capricous of beings crossed his mind. “I’ll do anything you want, Mr. McCoy. I’ll help you sell insurance plans if that will make you happy. Please don’t hurt me.”
“I don’t know what you’ve been drinking, son. I’d never hurt you.” He took off his homburg and sat down on a nearby rock.
“I get it. People have different priorities.” McCoy took a handkerchief out of his homburg, wiped his forehead with it, and then put both the handkerchief and the homburg on his head again.
“Most people get older and they start losing their drive, son. I never did. But I was never too smart to begin with, you see. Still, I like to think of myself as a land not yet plowed. It’s the only way not to abandon hope, you know. I don’t want to be like my old man. A plasterer by day. A janitor by night. Forgotten in death. The poor sod.”
Hans fidgeted a bit amidst the ropes. “Mr. McCoy, I thought you weren’t good at navigating the forest. You seem to have made it really far.”
“Luck, son. If you asked me to get here again tomorrow, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea. By the way, I’m a bit strapped for cash. Any chance you could lend me a few quid?”
Hans dug into his pockets and found a solitary coin. “This is all I have.”
“That makes you the most generous man in the world. It’ll come around,” he said with a wink.
“You know what? I bumped into someone a short while after our first encounter, and he taught me a really smart way of moving through the forest. Let me tell you how it’s done. Better yet, let me give you something to read and you can learn about it yourself.”
“Oh I’m too old to read. Why don’t you just tell me how it’s done?”
“No, I insist. It’s not that hard, and you’ll be grateful that you did. Thinking for yourself forces you to dispel assumptions that you might have otherwise taken as read. Trust me, I speak from experience.” Hans took out the paper that the Tutter had given him and waved it at McCoy.
“Oh, where are my manners. Let me get you down.”
Once Hans was on the ground, he handed his savior the paper and the map. McCoy opened his briefcase and took out a camera.
“I’ll take that clever talk, but not the map. You might need it yourself. Let me snap a photo of it.”
And that’s when it hit Hans. A pesky fly. And then it hit him. Why of course. He took out the piece of paper that he had discovered right after he came out of the Thinker’s room and placed it on top of the map. Through the semi-opaque fiber, he noticed that the red cross lay almost exactly on top of the skull and crossbones of the map below. How peculiar. What if the predators in the forest were as artificial as the Thinker’s abilities? Hans felt his heart rate spike. He said his goodbyes to McCoy and headed out.
When Hans reached the marked spot, it didn’t seem like there was anything or anyone of interest there. But then he noticed, to one side, a convex structure protruding from the ground. Initially, he had thought it a collapsed tree bark, but as he got closer, he saw that it was in fact a hatch. A hatch covered in a mesh made of dry leaves. He pulled one end of the mesh and threw it to one side.
With all the strength that he could muster, he imparted a mighty impulse on the ledge and slowly but surely the door gave way. Hans walked down the steps and found himself in a tiny room no larger than his own tailor shop. A most unassuming room it was.
In front of Hans was a wooden desk behind which sat a small, grey-haired man in a black jacket. He was so utterly and totally consumed with whatever it is that he was doing, muttering things to himself and writing in a notebook, that he did not notice his guest. Hans volunteered to break the awkwardness.
“Umm—I don’t mean to be too forward, but—”
“Argh!” the man gasped. He took out a long steel rod and pointed it in Hans’ general direction. “Freeze. Not one step or I will end you. Who are you? Are you with them?” It was then that Hans realized that he still had Walter Jones’ jacket on.
“Oh, do you mean—no, I’m not an agent if that’s what you mean. My name is Hans. I’m a tailor. This is just something I put on in an attempt to get out of here.” The man put down the rod.
“One second. Hans, you say. Where are you from?”
“Altstadt. It’s a small town in the collapsed state of Dorovia.”
He opened a filing cabinet that sat beside his desk and fiddled through it for a bit. He took out a paper, read a few lines, looked up at Hans a few times, nodded and put back the piece of paper. Then, with the enthusiasm of someone who had just laid eyes on a long lost brother, he got up and walked towards Hans. The man placed his hands on Hans’ shoulders and smiled.
“Sorry about that. You can never be too careful. I’m Alan Bards. Please have a seat.”
Mr. Bards had a round head and several streaks of grey hair poking out of his skull. He wore thick glasses, without which he was practically blind.
“Now, about this agent. He didn’t have any friends who might have followed you here, did he?”
“Umm—no. He was actually, how can I put it—in a pretty deep sleep. We found him in the forest.”
“It’s getting out of hand, Hans. It’s really getting out of hand.”
“What is, Mr. Bards?”
“This whole project. The IRS are on my back because they think I’ve put together this place as a tax haven. Sure, it slipped my mind to declare it on my tax return forms, but I wanted to keep a lid on things until we published our paper. We had a supposedly friendly conversation a few weeks ago, at their behest. Man, were they brutal, dismantling me as they did with such Teutonic ferocity that you’d think we were in a World Cup semifinal. Now everyone is involved. The NSA, the FBI, the Germans, Starbucks.”
“Starbucks? Have they set up shop here?”
“It was their UK-based accounting department that was mainly interested in the project.”
“What exactly is this project?”
Mr. Bards took a moment to compose his reply. “I wanted to create a world that no longer exists. We got an 80 million dollar grant to teach Computer Science to a broad audience in a novel way. So we collaborated with the NSA who, bless them, already had a global surveillance program going on. They were seeking atonement for past sins, and so they helped us develop a cohort of people who at some point in their recent past had expressed, in speech, in writing or in thought, a wish to learn something entirely new.”
“Even the Mandrill? He seemed pretty pig-headed.”
“Aah, well, we did have quite a few false positives. The NSA’s sentiment analysis algorithm, unlike MI6’s, wasn’t able to discriminate between irony and genuine emotion. The ungrateful primate. He's in cahoots with those operatives, would you believe it?
“We repurposed the insides of those creatures to support life. It’s all very clever. Big Brother’s Younger Brother. That’s what it’s called. The idea is that you learn things indirectly and situationally. The lessons get simpler the deeper you go, and the harder ones, you learn on the way out.”
“Couldn’t you have just sent us to a training program in some idyllic location, like the Seychelles?”
“I wish we had, Hans. I really wish we had. Frankenstein, that’s what this is. A Frankenstein deep in the belly of the Pacific Ocean. I had no idea that humans were this non-deterministic and irrational. They seem so civil online.
“The NSA are pissed off at us for having told a few people about our collaboration with the agency. The deal was supposed to be classified, you see, but we didn’t know any better. Granted, tagging Admiral Rogers on Facebook and asking our followers to ‘big it up for him’ might have been a step too far. What can I say. We were young and foolish. Well—we were foolish.
“Out of spite, they gave the device that shrinks and modifies people’s bodies so that they can survive in this aquatic world to half the planet’s intelligence agencies. All in the hopes of bringing poor old Bards to justice. That’s why I’m hiding in this bunker. I need to figure out my next move.”
“My two friends are missing, Mr. Bards. Do you know who might have taken them?”
“Definitely agents. They’re trying to get to me, and anyone they come across is seen as a potential lead.”
“The only way out of this current world—the deepest one—is through the fish’s exit passage, which is located in my hideout.” He pointed to a map on the wall and I was able to discern the hideout’s location. “The other exit passages are in similar hideouts in the other two outer worlds. They’re manned by my colleagues Sebastian and Laura. You’ll want to head out now. If those agents get to the ocean with your friends, you’ll probably never see them again.”
Hans thanked Mr. Bards and got up to leave.
“Just one question, Mr. Bards. If you don’t mind, that is. Why me? I’m sure there were lots of other people who must have fit your selection criteria. Why did you pick me?”
“Well, a teacher might ask a question in class and decide to pick that eager student in the front row to answer it. Another teacher might ask a question and then glance around the room and notice that quiet student in the corner, the one looking away for fear of making eye contact with his teacher, dreading the thought of having to speak up in front of his peers. The teacher hears that dark horse’s racing heart through the sound of his heavy breathing, and knows that that seemingly aloof student is more than meets the eye. And so the teacher calls on the boy, and by doing so, transforms him.”
Mr. Bards took off his glasses and placed his hand on Hans’ shoulder. “Let me tell you something for nothing, Hans. There’s Einstein in a patent office and then there’s a boiling frog. Here, you can fly by the seat of your pants! Being a cat’s whisker from danger is not a bad place to be in life.”
Hans thought it an apt sentiment. All the same, he opened the hatch door and left. There was no time to waste.
Hans got to Mr. Bards’ hideout and found another strip of Joan’s dress right in front of the entrance. The lair was bare and so the wrinkly lump that Mr. Bards had told him of wasn’t too difficult to find.
“Here goes,” he said and then jumped into the unknown. The lack of air knocked him out almost immediately. No Aunt Jennifer this time, though. Progress.
As Hans’ ears adjusted to the voices of people mumbling in the distance, he realized that he was on a dusty old street. A full moon lit up the houses that lined the block and there, near the end of the street, he saw a bustling pub.
Hans clenched his fists and found himself repeating something that Mr. Bards had mumbled during their recent encounter.
“There had better be one hell of a T-shirt at the end of all of this.”