[Bowing to public pressure, here is an unpublished, never-before-seen, one-off story from the Arani cycle. This was written for the third coming of the Jabberwocky--which never happened--by RBC, who now wants to disown the story, but finally gave reluctant permission for it to be posted here. As ever, apologies to Arani. And many, many thanks to Luv for keying the damn thing in.]
Arani and the Dinosaurs
It is noon. Not a breath of air stirs the lycopodia. The cycads are still. Equiseti wave gently to and fro in the languid air. Their movement is not atmospheric; it is impelled by a life-force: a brontosaurus stops scratching its neck on the rough stem to bite off one shaggy head the size of a diesel locomotive; the primordial swamp fills with noises of champing at which Emily Post would have squirmed. Luckily for her she is little more than a gleam in a cynodont’s eye: the precursors of Albert Einstein are scuttling about being cute and furry, while Tweety Pie’s forebears are slugging it out on the mudflats of a younger globe. Yet as through wizard windows Arani gazes on life as it was, he notes how wrong the savants were. These are no ponderous behemoths, big, stupid, loud-mouthed and pea-brained; they are highly sophisticated runners, walkers, and jumpers – and thinkers. And speakers. The spaces in their skulls that have long puzzled scientists are resonating chambers, far more efficient than the human voice, producing a deep hum reminiscent of Winston Churchill. Arani cannot doubt that with a little effort they will speak to him, “though”, he thought, “I do not think that they will sing to me.” He watches as the brontosaur lumbers off into the jungle, then conceives the sudden notion of calling it back.
Arani purses his lips to whistle, then realises suddenly that he is dreaming. Why else would he be engaged in the ridiculous manoeuvre of trying to summon a retreating brontosaurus to his side? He unpurses his lips and laughs ruefully. At which an Archaeopteryx perches just above his left shoulder pecks his ear, snaps “Shut that noise, I have a headache!” and flaps off irritably.
Aghast, Arani claps his handkerchief to his ear. Words fail him. Then a residue of his recent reading creeps into his mind. Chronoclasm! As John Wyndham pointed out, the fatal fallacy of the time warp. Arani realises he is in gravest danger. One false move and he could end up marrying his grandmother. Or even worse from the cosmic point of view – stepping on some obscure ancestor of the human race and finishing the whole species – pouf. One small step for man, the California Quickstep for mankind.
Trembling, Arani faces facts. He has been transported somewhere into the Jurassic. The question now is what is he to do about it? “I must be careful.” He mutters to himself. “I must do nothing to tangle the workings of the cosmos…”
”Sir,” says a deep voice as a huge claw taps him on the shoulder, “Kindly desist from profaning the Name.”
Arani whirls and is met by the sight of the ugliest face he has ever seen. The primordial forest swims before his eyes. Dimly he feels himself falling, then he is caught in a grasp like the wings of butterflies. Using its ten-inch-claw-loaded fingers as daintily as a Chinese Mandarin, the creature props him against a fern root and squats beside him.
“Listen, nonscaletwolegs,” it says kindly, “You must be one of the newly evolved species, or you’d know the rules, and you’d mention my favourite program with a little more respect.”
“You mean you don’t know about the voices in the sky?” Arani gapes. “The messages? The flashing lights? Ah,” the creature sadly shook its head, “How strange it must feel to have come brand new straight out of the melting pot of evolution. Tell me, is your species good to eat?”
“I’ve never eaten any,” says Arani sarcastically, “so I wouldn’t know.”
“Ah, what a pity. But since you’re here, I suppose I could find out in the interests of science. If you’ll just step this way…”
“I’m inedible!” Arani shrieks. “I’m not really here at all! I’m an illusion created by a warp in space-time. If you swallowed me you’d turn into a black hole! You’d have to go on swallowing the universe till there was nothing left. You’d…”
“How peculiar,” says the creature thoughtfully, “I never heard of a meal disrupting one’s strong and weak nuclear forces.”
“Whatever you do,” chokes Arani, sweating, “don’t eat me.”
“Not even if you were a stegosaurus,” agrees the other, picking his teeth. “In any case, you’re so puny you’re not even up to a light snack. I daresay your species won’t amount to much.”
“Not much!” yelps Arani. “In ten million years, mammals will be ruling the world!”
The creature bristles. “Fool! The race is immortal. Be certain, weakclawfleshpiece, that WE are the rulers of the universe. We have voices from the sky to guide us, of Saganosaur, Reaganosaur, Krushohevosaur…”
“Oh my God!” cries Arani in horror. “You’re getting all our TV programs reflected back through the gravity lens of Sirius’ twin singularity! This is disastrous! What on earth will the copyright lawyers say?”
“Blasphemy! Dare you suggest that they are not gods?”
Caution, caution, Arani thinks. Remember the Inquisition. “Look, dino, your only problem is ignorance of the world. You can fix…”
“Bronto-shit!” snaps the other. “That’s no way to talk to an eight million year old vertebrate species.”
“Well, then, surely you won’t object to a few questions, eh?”
“Over my dead eggcase.”
“It can’t hurt you. And you’ve no idea how it’ll clear your mind, once you’ve answered some. Besides, you can show off to your friends.”
“Hm.” Irritably the creature gnaws at a hangnail. “Ask away.” Sweating, Arani offers an incoherent appeal to the daemons of quizzing, tosses the question bag of his mind and pounces avidly on the first scrap so decanted: “What is parabiosis?”
“Oh Lord. It’s when twins get desensitized to each other’s tissue…”
“What in the manic mudflats are you talking about?”
“… Before they’re born they’re…”
“Born? Hatch, you mean.”
“They don’t hatch, you twit. They come out fully formed from their mother’s body.”
Shocked silence. The creature’s eyes are wide, their triangular pupils pulsing spasmodically. In their coruscating depths is a look of the most profound horror Arani has ever been privileged to see.
“Why yes. They…”
“You have sullied the pristine purity of HOLIDY EGGHOOD. You will be JUDGED!”
“COME!” Helplessly Arani is flung through the air to land squarely on the creature’s back. “To the Saur Kraut!”
Arani clings to the leather surface, finding to his surprise that it is soft and supple, like suede, even though its softly glowing ridges look like they could take the skin off him in one rasp. The sky jerks as though he were riding a bouncing Ferris wheel; Arani’s head spins. Desperately he finds what he reasons to be the creature’s earhole and shouts “You stupid hidebound REPTILE! Just because you happen to be oviparous you needn’t disparage the validity of alternative forms of reproduction!”
“Stop breathing down my nose and shut up, creature! You will be judged!”
Arani gives up and resigns himself to watching the universe disappear down the throat of an irate dinosaur.
A sudden brilliant flash of colour distracts him and dazzles his eyes. A moment later he sees its source; a massive leg, the size of one of the pillars of
He is aware that he has stopped. A high-pitched screech is emanating from his incensed bearer, apparently a testimonial of his mental state. He is answered with a massive boom, seeming to come straight from the stratosphere.
”What the crunching eggshells are you whining about now, Ssnorr? And what’s that piece of offal on your back? Put it down! You never know what you might catch from it.”
“O Great Kraut,” says Ssnorr, trembling. “It’s a little something that appeared in a puff of smoke a while back, and its been talking to me ever since. I… I think I’m going crazy. I could have sworn… it said… it said…”
“Ssnorr’s pupils are equilateral with wonder. “That it’s a Mammalosaur!”
“Bah! Humbug! They don’t exist. Even if they did it was in the remote past. The voices in the sky speak of their destruction in a holocaust. Was it the
”But I swear this one’s alive! He’s haunting me. What’s that poem, how’s it go…? Macavosaur, Macavosaur, there’s no one like Macavosaur…”
”Pull yourself together Ssnorr, you are talking pteroshit.” Ssnorr throws himself flat on the ground, knocking Arani into the mud.
“O Great Kraut, save me! My hear aches, and a drowsy numbness pains…”
“Indigestion! Now bring that thing to me.”
Arani, somewhat dishevelled from the Saurian manhandling, is raised to his feet. All he can see of the Saur Kraut is four massive legs and a ponderous belly, covered with jet black scales each with a rim of brilliant red that sparkles in the sun, making each one look like a live coal. The scales ripple like fire with Saur Kraut’s every movement As he watches, a head like a house swoops down to inspect him out of bright black orange-centred eyes.
“Did you poke him in the belly, Ssnorr?”
“Ssnorr chokes. “I didn’t touch him,” he sobs. “They’re Born like that. Mammalsss! They come out… they come out…” He is unable to continue.
“Hurry up, I’m getting a neckache,” says the Kraut.
“Huh! Surely they hatch…?”
“Eugh! No.” says Arani.
Immediately a huge Krautian eye is thrust into his face, or rather he is thrust into the eye. “Mammal,” he snaps crisply. “Till further notice, pipe down and dry up.”
“He won’t, he won’t,” moans Ssnorr. “He’ll ask you questions that will warp your mind. He’ll…”
They eye comes uncomfortably close again. “What questions, mammal?”
“Oh… er… I’m sure they’ll be too… er… abstruse. I’ll just quietly…”
“Silence! You will do as you are told. I want to hear these questions. Ask them.”
“Er…” Arani’s brain squeaks desperately into high gear. “Which poem did Lewis Carroll spoof in:-
‘How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail
And pour the waters of the
On every golden scale!
‘How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!’?”
A few moments of reverent silence, then the Kraut’s cliff-like face splits into two. Arani jumps violently, then realises he is looking into gently smiling jaws.
“I like it,” says the Saur Kraut dreamily.
“But… don’t you want to hear the answer?”
“Anssswer?” the Kraut waves a claw dismissively. “I want to hear more questions.”
“Then let’s at least do it properly. If you want to quiz, you must have…”
“Quiz. That’s what it’s called.”
“What is called?”
“The art of answering what oft was asked but ne’er so well blind guessed.”
“Kwizzz, huh?” says the Kraut. “Kwizzz.”
“Hah!” snorts another behemoth, sitting on his haunches and setting his crest at a rakish angle. “What do quizzards use to stir their champagne?”
“Quizzle sticks! If you met something dark, shaggy and quizophiliac, what would you meet?”
“A quizzly bear! What…”
“SHUT UP AND START LEARNING TO KWIZZZ!”
This galvanises them into action. In the next few days, led by the indefatigable Sinha, they rapidly learn the tricks of the trade. From his encyclopaedic memory they are supplied with funda. Their seer, a saur who claims he can hear the voices in the sky (though the Kraut scornfully and in private maintains that all he hears is FM radio waves) supplies them with more. Soon the quizzing circuit is established. We have the Olde Iguandons, the TNT Smears, the Klay Kicktis, the Sphagnum, the Neckniks, the Nicknacks and the Shameless Four. Ssnorr is in charge of the annual Ssnorrth Star Quiz as well as Argghus Plate and the Dinosaur’s International Open. In less than a year Sinha is a celebrity. He is a special guest of the Saur Kraut at all quiz dinners, though he finds dinosaur meat a little tough on the stomach and has sudden fits of longing for Gariahat rolls. All in all, to snitch a phrase from one of the seer’s poetry sessions, it was sporangiophores, sporangiophores all the way.
But Sinha is not peaceful in his mind. Though he is convinced to a religious plane of the sanctity of quizzing, he has a furtive, secret suspicion that the lizards are overdoing it. For some reason it hits the tall ones much harder than the short, which means the Saur Kraut gets it worst of all. He and his compatriots become more and more glassy-eyed as time goes by. They start going to the seedier quizzes – Blobelia, RA Mental, Saurian’s Hysteric Home, Cambrian Strife-Craving Society. The look of the fanatic overlays their scales: they are chasing the ten second barrier to knowledge of the universe. They are seeking that sole felicity and perfect bliss, the sweet fruition of a triple win. Their minds are spinning and contracting, lessening reaction times, speeding retrieval, striving always to the last goal, the transformation of consciousness into a transcendental bonus profit. And Arani is worried. He sees the Saur Kraut getting thin. He is worried about the lacklustre look of his scales, and the pronounced stoop in his spine is developing. He is suffering from CQS, or Cancerous Quiz Syndrome, a deadly disease of unbelievable virulence. It is characterised by hypertrophy of the mind at the expense of the body, leading to excessive strain on the spine, aggravated in the Saur Kraut’s case by inflamed sinuses brought on by listening to too much heavy metal. Ironic though this must seem, all pleasures are pain to the Kraut now that quizzing is his life, even eating and sleeping. He is trapped in a ratchet-like progression of hubris.
Arani is puzzled. To a certain extent, he believes that symptoms like these are the inevitable price of quizzing and must be paid by the serious devotee, but… there is a limit to everything, even for Arani. He resolves to have a talk with the Kraut.
He is shocked when, granted the audience, he is finally face to face with the King of Saurs (he has to climb an equisetum to do this). The Kraut’s brilliant red piping is dark and dull like dried blood. There are hollows above his temples, and his breathing rasps. Arani notices that one of his teeth is broken, which happened while trying to pronounce floccinaucinihilipilification in a quiz. The Kraut regards him with soulful eyes.
“Ah, little human, is it true that power corrupts?”
“Yes… but… there are many types of power. Not all of them are… evil.”
The Kraut snorts. “That’s what my hearer-of-voices says. But its typical of him that when faced with a crisis he goes up and down like a seer saur. Besides, he’s gone to Saureto House for the Shield. A year ago all the young bloods used to fight for a chance to go. But not any more. Lost interest in the Archaeopteryxes and the Pterodactyls, they have. All they think about is quizzing…” he is seized with a hacking cough.
“But… Darwinism will make you die out if you don’t stop quizzing and start living.”
The Kraut’s eyes blaze. “When we have the ultimate answers, we shall be gods! Nothing will stop us then. Knowledge is power, said Hobbesosaur. We will prove it here, now. Do you understand, human? We will control the universe. We will no longer stand by and let it control us. We will show the impossibilities we have struggled with the Old Harvey Smith. We will make history. We will…”
“Dammit!” shouts Arani. “You’re dying!”
“Nuts,” mutters the Kraut. “I’m just sick and tired of the stupid cloacae in my team. They missed a sitter yesterday. What was the relation between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones. I ask you.”
“You won’t listen, will you?”
“Mammalosaur, I intend to go out in a blaze of glory, if I’m going anywhere at all. Continuation of the species? What a bore. Why should I spend my life hunting just to hatch eggs? There are more things in heaven and earth, human. If I could but have 24 years of perfect knowledge…”
“But quizzing isn’t everything.”
“It’s a bloody great deal.”
Arani sighs. There is nothing more stubborn than a psychotic quizzard, dinosaur or otherwise. He opens his mouth to speak again, but closes it as the Kraut’s orange pupils contract, sure sign that his patience is fraying. Sadly Sinha climbs down from the equisetum.
It was a week later when he heard the news. Six dinosaurs had died of heart failure at the Aesdroolapia Quiz. Apparently they had all tried to answer the same question at once, among them were to of Kraut’s teammates. Arani rushed to Kraut’s glade.
Kraut, squinting painfully, was reading a book on fashions through the ages. He looked up as Arani climbs his equisetum.
“Ah, there you are. Damned awkward. I have to learn all Ssnorr’s stuff along with my own.”
“You mean Ssnorr’s dead?”
“Nah. He’s gone to a funeral service. Says he won’t quiz anymore. That’s what they all say,” he chuckles. “But they come back. They can’t get the power out of their systems. Don’t look shocked, Sinha. I’m not sorry for those six quizzosaurs. They died with their boots on and their hands on the buzzer. Though I must admit this is the twelfth mass extinction this month. Things are getting a bit thick.”
“Kraut, save yourself. Leave quizzing!”
“And do what? Admire the sunset? Go back to mudstomping? Gorge on thenodonts? Plant spores and watch my garden grow? Pastoral pleasures are too bland for the likes of us now. We want the higher heights.”
“It’s overheating your blood.”
“Kraut! Kraut!” screams a panic-stricken voice. Only in direst emergencies were dinosaurs allowed to drop the honorific. “Oh Ssnorr, Got the willies again?”
“Kraut! You won’t believe it! Sskritch was reading a book on Zen Buddhism when suddenly he started to laugh! There was nothing I could do. And no sooner had he stopped twitching than the others started. They’re going mad! What do we do?”
“Er… give them a holiday, will you? I guess they’re overstrained.”
“Too late, Kraut,” says Sinha. “This is the terminal stage of CQS. Hysteric high-pitched laughter, followed by coma and death. Your time is up. This is the final round.”
Ssnorr turns purple and falls flat on his face.
“Requiescat in pace,” says Kraut, and yawns. “Well Sinha, I guess this is goodbye. It’s been fun. I wouldn’t have missed it for a thousand aeons, and neither would they. We find little to laugh about here. It’s nice to die laughing. Makes it all worthwhile. Ahhh!” He sinks to his knees, and emits a satisfied giggle. “It’s starting,” he says complacently. “Tickle me, Sinha.”
Arani eyes him warily. “If you fall on me and I die, you’ll turn into a black hole and…”
“Hee Hee! Tell me another.”
“No. Tell me that bit of poem. You know, ‘Those who have crossed…’”
“’…with direct eyes…’ That one?”
“’Those who have crossed
With direct eyes to death’s other kingdom
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men,
The stuffed men.’”
“Yesss, yes… ‘Eyes I dare not meet in dreams. In death’s dream kingdom…’ But how does it start? ‘We are the…’ Say it.”
Sinha swallows. Though he hates to admit it, he is very sentimental. In a trembling voice, he quotes:
“’We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece stuffed with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.
Shape without form, shade without colour
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…’”
* * *
Arani opens his eyes as the voices slip softly from his ear, feeling the lightness drain away from him, mass returning to his body. Slowly, with infinite pain as though the world were remaking itself, he focuses on the familiar whitewashed wall, with its so-well-known posters. He realises he is looking at one of them, a big blowup from the Smithsonian Institute. It shows one of their exhibits, done in the drab colours that are all that human artists will grant to the kings of the ancient jungles, its proud neck swooping into the galleries, its feet huge, yet flaccid without the ripple of muscle, its triangular head poised gracefully, its beady eyes, glittering brilliantly, uncannily, lifelessly, betraying that it is…