The Bird

Damn it.

God damn it.

My story? "Inhales deeply, coughs wretchedly." What further damage could it do?

I'm not from here. This isn't really a place. Have you looked at this city, really looked? All black edges and watercoloured backdrops and people who stand out from the backdrops like they're superimposed, all red and orange and grey and brown and all this dark russety earthy brown palette. But the people are different. It's like there are two worlds, the static unmoving fixed universe and the moving things that move around that universe. See this drink? It's a real and moving object. It has the outline and the energy and the life. See that bottle over there behind the bar? See all those bottles? Whiskey and gin and rum? See how they're blurred into the shelf like they're painted there? They can't move. See the one whiskey bottle? That's the only one that'll move, it's the only "real" bottle of whiskey in this entire place, for a given value of "real". Try to pick up anything else and it won't work. This coaster: stuck to the bar, almost like it was just a thick lick of paint. It's the damn Matrix and I don't even know you're real. You people, you're new. It was inevitable, you populate a fictitious universe, the population is bound to take on a life of its own and start to colonise, build a world. There were always trains and vehicles. Always seemingly empty, but they had to stop somewhere, and a driver had to get out sometime...

That's if I'm not going nuts and I am actually talking to anybody.

I am a scientist. I'm not "was a scientist", I am one. At the end of my rope and after all my other personality features have been stripped away by pressure and stress and dynamite and heavy anvil impacts to the head, I am a scientist. I am a man who understand that the universe as presented operates on rules and runs in accordance with those rules. Only a very tiny, tiny quantity of rules; a handful of basic lego bricks and the weird little springy hooks and connectors which let the bricks slide around and interact with each other and connect. From those ground rules - assuming that they are there and meaningful - you logically derive certain very probable patterns that would be visible at higher levels, stuff like protons and waves and electromagnetics. And you can build up and build up, each time sacrificing a little detail and complexity in the rigid application of the laws in order to obtain workable meaningful results which are still ninety-nine percent accurate at that lesser level of magnification. You work up to relativity and then Newtonian mechanics and after that you're done. Science is a process by which we attempt to take every visible, coherent, describable phenomenon in the observable universe and try to catch and bottle it in equations and meaningful words. This is not hubris. It's not an attempt to subtract from the beauty of the universe. Nor is it an attempt to control and constrain the universe with chains. Good things and bad things, things we call "technology", fall out of science all the time, and they can work for good or bad, but science is just science, neutral. It's worth it. Ask a runner why he runs, ask why climb Everest, "because it's there". The universe is there. If we aren't going to try to understand it, what is the point of being here within it? If we aren't going to try to build the living quine, the self-describing universe?

I got there. How are your quantum statistics? How is your quantum gravimetric field theory, your partial differential analysis, your theoretical N-fluid analysis? I got there. For a second and a half I held in my bare hands, in my bare unprotected brain, the Grand Unified. I earned it. I saw how it all worked. I saw he for whom it all worked, and why, and my faith was replaced with knowledge, and my Bible turned to ash in my hands and was replaced with the Grand Equations because why look at a higher level? Why model more complicated when there's nothing left to discover? Thirteen beautiful equations, with as many symmetries as a stained glass cathedral. And a hole in the corner, a gap where there was room for a decision to be made, the key to decisive potence, the secret of unmortality and remaking the world in whatever way we could rationally describe? I saw a glimpse of what we could be, and of a being or set of beings who had got there first.

That was a lifetime and a world ago. This isn't even my world. If I had to guess, I put us near the core of the Milky Way, or else somewhere in entire fiction. I was, by my reckoning, punished for the crime of Knowing. Maybe, given that for a second I did Know, I was punished for not reacting quickly enough. I thought God or Gods would be pleasant and understanding. But no, and I guess that much is Biblical.

My name isn't Sisyphus.

After a year or two I realised that I was being misled and deluded. Even if I did catch the thing, I'm sure it would gain me nothing. That's the way I get to sleep at night. I miss Theresa sometimes, but none of this is really happening, which is good because it means maybe I'm still there in the lab but it might be bad because maybe I'm not really missing her or anyone. I don't even know. You go down this road and you can end up hanging yourself in the network of paradox.

Try the fuse. Buy the fuse wire and light it and wait and watch and time it while it burns down, one centimetre per second, professional. Try that a million times, try it near and around the clump of dynamite sticks, it burns at the correct rate. Try it near the road, try it on the road, try it with the bird nearby. But then you go to the road with the bird incoming and place the dynamite and light it at the precisely correct time to explode just as the bird is right overhead and oh no, shwip, BOOM! in an instant, in my face, while I'm still standing there with the match. 90% of my body burned, I lose a few fingers and toes, I'm disgusting to look at. I spend three months in the hospital and get transplants and skin grafts. I wobble out, walking on my own feet without crutches for the first time, and a truck hits me.

Try the anvil. Tether it by pulley over the road. Or an enormous rock wrapped up with rope like a Christmas gift. Cut the rope and it drops, there's a crunch that's close to geological. In a half-second. Timing. Wait for the bird to trip the laser sensor which fires the explosive bolt and lets the rope loose. And the anvil or the rock or whatever suddenly selectively decides to hover. It ignores gravity. I try to fight my primal instincts but I have to know-- I climb up the inexplicably taut rope and stand on the rock and jump up and down on it, and that makes no sense. I tug the rope out of the pulley, nothing happens. What's holding it up? Magic? Art? I look down underneath it at the knot in the rope. I climb down and stand under it looking up, and then as I'm looking weary and unhappy and morose it drops on my head and only my head. In the hospital, I get the wrong kind of blood, and thrash around hysterically, clutching my heart. They let me out with a squished flat head which everybody laughs at, and pills which make me jump and fizzle about like a firecracker.

I painted a fake tunnel on the wall and it became a real tunnel. A train came out of it and killed me, it ran me over, mangled my limbs. I painted a hole in the ground and the bloody beeping bird picks it up in his mouth and runs away with it like a Beatles movie, like it's a bloody metaphor. I've been smashed into walls while strapped to rocket-propelled inline skates. I've been roasted alive by gigantic magnifying glasses whose refractive index suddenly reversed. I've seen huge elastic bands hover in the air until one of my limbs is there so they can snap back and hurt me the most. I've taken speed drugs and hallucinogens which got me close, but no closer. Are you watching this? Is this funny? For my hubris, I have been sent to a world which obeys no scientific laws. For my crime of trying to understand, I have been delivered into Pandemonium, the malfunctioning universe, the cackling Vindictiverse. There is a God, a malevolent God, ACME is his name and the Bird is his demon sent to torment me. And I will not catch him. I will not.

But know this-- Ow, my ears. God, did you see that? Did you see the road catch fire as it passed, the dust? It moves as fast as light or time, it escapes through solid steel because it's funny. "Because it's funny." Know this.

If there is an audience, its patience can be thinned. If there is a joke, its punchline can be overdone. I am here for as long as it is funny. There are laws to comedy just like science and I will break those. And behind those laws there are laws to black comedy and behind those are the laws to anti-comedy, the third iteration, but I'll break those too. I'll take this whole universe to somewhere where nothing worth watching happens. I'll break this virtual repetitious slapstick Sisyphean prison. I'm not done. I know this whole speech ends in something hilarious which takes me down a peg, but I'm not done, I'm-- ow-- AAARGH MY FOOT--

Discussion (15)

2010-11-16 20:56:17 by qntm:

1674 words. Running total is 30933 words. This story is uncomfortably similar to Grant Morrison's comic book Animal Man #5, entitled "The Coyote Gospel", and to the XKCD #319, "Engineering Hubris", but I was short of ideas and I think my take is sufficiently different. Here, the Coyote is an engineer from another universe who has been punished for his scientific curiosity by being sent to a hell-universe which makes no sense and obeys no scientific laws. Of course (and I realised this around the 900th word) it DOES obey the laws of comedy, and he can break out as soon as it stops being funny to hurt him.

2010-11-16 21:01:09 by linkhyrule:

Interesting! Who is he talking to, then? Unless he's talking out of the screen...?

2010-11-16 21:51:07 by dankuck:

Bravo.

2010-11-16 22:59:04 by Mike:

Best one yet. I like how it slowly dawned on me how this is the Coyote that's talking; the "paint[ing] a tunnel" line was what tipped me off. And then the rest fell into place. For some reason when I saw the title it immediately made me think of one's middle finger; did that happen to anyone else? I'm not usually that dirty-minded.

2010-11-17 01:44:08 by Snowyowl:

I got tipped off when he mentioned being blown up by the stick of dynamite. The first (full) paragraph had me guess at some sort of simulation. You know how in video games like Half-Life, there are dynamic objects you can interact with and that obey Newton's laws, and static objects whose only physical property is solidity? That. Anyway, an excellent and funny deconstruction of the poor coyote's plight.

2010-11-17 08:09:28 by sunburstbasser:

For a moment there I thought you were doing a Roger Rabbit-type story, a normal person in a cartoon. Your descriptions of backgrounds sounded like one human talking to another in an animated bar. Then it turned into Wile E. Coyote and got more awesome.

2010-11-18 07:39:48 by eneekmot:

Ah hah... Very nice. :D

2010-11-24 08:41:32 by Artanis:

If I may, there is a crossover fanfic that also deals with characters dealing with cartoon physics and Rule of Funny causality here: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/5792734/1/Sleeping_with_the_Girls_Vol_I_Fictional_Reality

2010-12-01 03:27:28 by Jake:

"I painted a hole in the ground and the bloody beeping bird picks it up in his mouth and runs away with it like a Beatles movie, like it's a bloody metaphor" I really feel like that needs to be "I dug a hole..." It's easy to paint a latex object and then pick it up. The comedy comes when you actually see him digging the hole.

2010-12-07 01:47:19 by Andrew:

@Sam, Coyote Gospel was the first thing I thought of as well, but I feel like you've done a fine job of doing the opposite. The engineer frees himself from Morrison's "the hell above" and is cast by that same vengeful god into a place where he can't use any of his physics knowledge. Great job, at any rate.

2011-02-05 10:54:00 by bungula:

I bet this entire monologue was done by using those signs...

2015-09-03 16:27:20 by Kyleb :

I would love to see (and possibly make) a film version.

2015-09-09 21:15:15 by Kyleb:

Of course, to preserve the twist I would shoot it from the coyotes point of view. At the end of the video I would have it shipped to the bartenders point of view showing a costume similar to the one Johnny Depp wore in into the woods.

2016-01-07 00:15:51 by Gav:

I absolutely _love_ this story Sam. So the coyote is an ex-human physicist who discovered the laws of the universe, saw everything, and was banished and punished? I think this explains a heck of a lot about another story… (Be kind please, this is my first creative writing in ages) --------------------------------------------- Here, actions follow cause, except when it’s funny. Every time I made a decision, I’m slapped down. No, strike that. Not every time. But enough. Why not just do nothing? Well, I still need to breathe, to eat. That means engaging with the world. To judge cause and effect. To make the right decisions, to act. To play the damn game. I’m trapped here. But, I’m not done yet. I’m determined. Even if it takes me millennia I’ll find a way to survive, to transcend this. My real body doesn’t ‘exist’ right now? Dosesn’t matter. My mind is intact. I’ll get another body someday, even if I have to make it from scratch. <A subjective eternity later. > November 10th: A nervous system is seen by the perimeter fence. Four days later, a partially muscled skeleton appears in the cafeteria. The 22nd: It takes on the shape of a human with blue skin. Sigh. I’m back. ----------------- Things are hard. An experience like that is not something you can just shake off. Why not talk to them about it? Share the burden? But would you honestly do that to someone you care about? Let them know they share their universe with the Bird? If there’s a better way to break someone I don’t know it, and never want to be told, thank you. They think I’m cold, distant. That I don’t care. It’s not that. It’s never been that. For a thousand years I’ve been tortured in the most cruel way possible. I’ve been conditioned. Human learning doesn’t have a choice in some matters. Especially not when it’s been done to you again and again for years. So the pain you see in my eyes, the distance, restraint, that hesitation before I make some action you think utterly trivial, or that any good and empathetic being should leap to make? It’s not lack of sympathy. A thousand times a day it happens. A simple decision in front of me. I know what I should do, it’s so obvious. But I can’t help wondering whether this is the time the logic will be reversed. Be all the funnier because it was postponed, given the intervening taste of normalcy for a few years. They think I’m cold. It’s not that. I’m waiting for the anvil.

2020-06-15 02:38:06 by eyqs:

My first hint was the URL slug. qntm.org/bird is still available!

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