This story can also be read in the Writers' Workshop over at Galaxy eZine. This site contains many other choice stories from both amateurs setting out (like me) to seasoned professionals (like Robert Sheckley) plus an entertaining gallery of classic Galaxy covers.
'Mornin' Captain' is dedicated to Catherine Morgan
Kakaraxa contemplated the worm. At a full three quarters of his body length it had been a struggle yanking it up. The others looked on enviously. The unusual burst of Summer rain had not lifted much to the surface. They had been stamping on barely moistened ground. Mordecai hopped over to his king and admired the catch greedily.
"Caw," he said.
"Piss off," Kakaraxa replied. He threw his head back and gulped.
"Here watch this Kaka," said Mordecai, sometime later, "here comes one of the Saved."
"Don't call me Kaka," snapped Kakaraxa, exasperated, but he turned to look anyway. It can be so boring being the King of the Universe. He issued an order: "everyone hide."
A young and awkwardly tall man was approaching the clan along a path through the waste-ground. His gait gave the impression of someone who had not so much grown as sprouted. His expression was blank, about to be replaced by a screensaver. Mordecai hopped to the edge of the path. The man's face flickered into life.
"Mornin' Captain," he mumbled. Despite actually being of a higher rank, Mordecai let this comment pass. He ruffled his feathers. The man looked anxious and lolloped a little faster. Mordecai stood his ground and, as the man passed, looked straight at him and shouted:
In response the man's expression took on a nauseous hue. The rest of the clan, hiding in bushes and peering from nests, stifled laughter. Many thought the Saved were more contemptible than the Damned. Admittedly, the Damned were ignorant and disrespectful but the Saved were pathetic.
"I'm sure that bird was looking straight at me and it was on its own and usually there are loads around that patch of scrub. That's why I walk through it. Good luck for the day. Good karma," Calvin stared mournfully into his pint. "Instead I've had the 'one-for-sorrow' curse over me all bloody day." Calvin's interlocuter wasn't paying much attention. She was concentrating on a pool shot.
"Here, watch this Cal," Isobel called over her shoulder.
"Don't call me Cal," he protested feebly but he looked up anyway. His superstitions sometimes bored even him. Isobel was bent over the pool table. He stared appreciatively.
A few minutes later, her opposition roundly disposed of, Isobel sat down at Calvin's side and offered her opinion.
"You know its all rubbish Cal," Calvin winced, "I mean 'one-for-sorrow, two-for-joy', its hardly science is it? I hate to see you worked up over this stuff. Can't you just be rational?" Despite Calvin's pained expression Isobel continued ruthlessly. "I mean what bad things have happened exactly?" She lightened her tone by pronouncing the last word in a Daffy Duck voice: "egg-zack-ally." Calvin winced again anyway.
"Well," he offered weakly "the photocopier broke and I got toner on my shirt." He raised his jumper to reveal the office workers' Rorscach. Isobel laughed.
"Hardly the sort of thing the Rulers of The Universe would find amusing, eh?"
Calvin found a smile "Oh Izzy, you are damned!"
"Its all a matter of cogs, Edward," exclaimed Brotherton as he looked down disapprovingly at the magpies.
"Yes, sir," Boyle agreed and sighed inwardly. The cogs again. Barely a day passed without his commander ruminating on the source of the magpies power. The cogs, a theory popular with Brotherton the previous Summer, had begun to resurface.
"Engineering is the science of cogs on the macro level and therefore the greatest of our achievements, Edward"
"And chemistry is the science of little cogs, physics regards very small cogs indeed and biology has as its subject matter...?" Brotherton stopped pacing the shed roof and looked at Boyle expectantly. Boyle dutifully filled in the gap.
"Sticky cogs, sir"
"That's right Edward! Sticky cogs. Indeed," he paused, "sticky cogs."
Boyle braced himself for the inevitable next step.
"And that surly bunch of miscreants control them! They fit them together, they make them turn but, but," Brotherton was gathering fury.
"They don't understand, sir?" offered Boyle.
"That's right Edward!" Brotherton roared, "they don't understand. The waste of it!" He was breathing hard.
"Lunch, sir?" Boyle took the opportunity to defuse his commander's anger.
"What? Oh, yes Edward. Splendid idea."
The two crows stretched their elegant black wings and flew away.
Later that day Mordecai was perching on the edge of the unstable rusty wheelbarrow that served as the magpies' bath and main source of drinking water. It acted as a rain-barrel and, despite the hot weather, was always cool and full. If Mordecai didn't know his determinedly laissez-faire leader so well he might have suspected him of a little meddling in reality. Mordecai was alternating between splashing with his wings and looking up with amusement at the crows who had been flapping hard in a little circle for some time about fifty feet directly above.
"Hey, Kaka," Mordecai shouted, "they're doing experiments again."
Kakaraxa, upturning small stones in the shadow of the barrow, paid no attention.
"Er, shir," Boyle puffed "I shink shish point hash been sucsheshfully proven." It was hard for Boyle to speak, not only because he had been flying in circles for several minutes but also because he was carrying a large snail in his beak.
"Maybe so, Edward, maybe so, but it is never time wasted to reinforce a successful theory. Is not the snail increasing in weight as time passes?"
"It shertainly feelsh heavier, shir," Boyle admitted.
"Excellent!" Brotherton exclaimed, "further proof that objects increase in weight over time and that this effect is increased proportional to the distance the object is from the ground. What do you think of that Edward?"
"Fantashtic, shir!" Unfortunately for the fabric of the Universe, this attempt to show the proper enthusiasm led to Boyle dropping the snail.
Directly below, Mordecai and a couple of clan members were having fun splashing each other and flapping their wings to shake the rickety barrow thereby creating waves in their rusty reservoir.
"Cut it out," Kakaraxa shouted, without looking up.
There was a heavy chunk and Mordecai, unconcious, covered in snail glue and bits of shell, fell to the ground in front of him. He hopped back a couple of paces, confused. An ominous creaking noise caused him to look up just in time to see the barrow toppling over and falling towards him. It emptied its contents as it fell.
Through the pain Kakaraxa retained a dignified lucidity proper to his position. He had been badly injured by the upturned barrow. My wing is broken he thought. I am half drowned in the clan's bath water he thought. I was caught unawares and as such I do not seem to have the requisite energy to change this situation he thought. No doubt I will die here, the victim of some brain-dead moggy who will proudly display my corpse to a disgusted owner. Things are not looking good. And now there is a human running towards me.
Calvin climbed through the hole in the fence onto the scrubland, saw the magpie lying half hidden by the wheelbarrow and lurched panic-stricken towards it. On reaching the injured bird he stalled, fused. What do I do now? He thought, what is good luck, what is bad luck?
This guy is one of the Saved, Kakaraxa thought, I recognise him. He really believes. Lucky for me. Kakaraxa tried to turn his head. Where are my snivelling clan when I need them? His snivelling clan were all hiding, petrified by the same indecision affecting the huge gangly human crouched over their leader.
"Oh God, its squirming," Calvin retched to himself. Maybe I should just put it out of its misery right now. Incredibly, he felt his foot beginning to rise. He was steeling himself.
Oh no thought Kakaraxa, not like this. The irony would be too great. He struggled to get free. No use. I guess I'm going to have to deal with this myself. As usual. The foot above him quivered.
"Don't," he croaked.
"What?" Calvin whispered, wide eyed and standing on one leg.
"I said 'don't', human. Lower that foot."
Calvin lowered his foot.
"Please say something to her Kakaraxa," Calvin pleaded.
"Caw," the recuperating magpie croaked. Isobel laughed and smiled at Calvin. He looked pained.
"Look, King Kakaraxa," he emphasised the title, "tell her what you told me, she is the most damned person I know. Convert her."
"So this is the ruler of the Universe, eh Cal?" Isobel laughed again. "The ruler of the Universe in a cardboard shoebox lined with an old 'Hard Rock cafe' T-shirt. Who woulda thunk it?"
Calvin looked even more pained. Still, he thought, it could have been worse. She could have called the guys with the big butterfly net.
"Its just a bird, an animal, just like us. A bunch of sticky cogs." Isobel continued. Kakaraxa shot Calvin a fierce look.
"I love her," Calvin explained to the magpie.
"What?" Isobel was diverted.
"Nothing," Calvin mumbled.
Well! Kakaraxa thought. Incredibly he felt himself clear his throat.
"You, girl, are impertinent and I don't know what this, admittedly ineffectual, boy sees in you. Now stop talking and listen to him. And close your mouth, you're dribbling."
Isobel wiped her chin.
The two crows sitting on a branch of a nearby tree and watching this scene through the window turned to face each other. They had followed the exchange using their keen eyesight and uncanny lip-reading abilities.
"Very interesting," remarked Brotherton.
"Yes, sir," Boyle agreed.
"Yes, Edward, very interesting indeed."
When Mordecai finally came around he found himself being pecked clean by clan members. He rose slowly to his feet.
"What the hell happened here?" He demanded. "Where's Kaka?"
A lacky gave him a third hand account of the snail from the sky, the toppled barrow and the kidnap of the injured king. Mordecai sucked in hard and tried to think. They were all looking to him now. What would Kakaraxa do?
As this thought came to him he noticed the two crows perched patiently on a nearby breeze block. He hopped over to them furiously.
"This is all your fault you stupid feather brains," he shouted then regretted it as his head throbbed.
"Nothing to do with us, old boy" Brotherton assured Mordecai. Boyle looked at his leader quizzically.
"We weren't doing snail-appears-out-of-nowhere experiments. Frankly, I wouldn't no where to start."
"What? What are you talking about cog-boy?"
Brotherton let the insult pass. It was part of his plan to remain magnanimous.
"Localised rift in reality, dear chap, things appearing and disappearing. Your leader is weakening. He looked quite helpless under that lump of rust. Quite helpless. And snails appearing in mid-air. Doesn't bode well, don't you think?"
Boyle looked at his commander, obviously impressed.
Mordecai fought to clear his head. If what that stupid crow had to say was true then he needed to do some fast and efficient thinking. He turned to the clan and started cawing orders. Brotherton took this as their cue to leave. As they took to the air Boyle expressed his admiration.
"Excellent, sir! They'll be at each others' throats in minutes, sir."
"Why, thank you Edward. Yes, I thought it went rather well myself."
"Dinner, sir?" Boyle suggested.
"Splendid idea Edward. Lead on."
Their well groomed wings always looked so impressive in flight.
"I need to get back to the clan. They'll be at each others' throats in minutes." Kakaraxa tried to flap his injured wing and exhaled noisily as the resulting pain rippled through his shoulder and back. "Oof. Evidently I need more of your help humans."
Having regained her composure Isobel was intrigued.
"Can't you just magic it all back again, King Kakaraxa?" She asked.
"Its hard enough building a Universe that doesn't fall apart two days later as it is. We can't go meddling to set every little mishap straight." Kakaraxa exclaimed.
"Er, Sir, King, Sir, isn't this a pretty serious matter?" Calvin ventured.
Kakaraxa looked at Calvin, narrowed his eyes and thought for a moment.
"True. True enough. Still, the Universe is very finely balanced and I'm not quite confident of my strength yet. Maybe in half an hour or so."
"But, er, Your Majesty, surely this is a matter of some urgency." Calvin continued.
"Don't say 'a matter of some urgency'. You sound like a bloody crow," said Kakaraxa, thoughtfully. Yes, the crows must have seen all this happen. I wonder what they are up to? Those pompous oafs could really do some damage if they get to that idiot Mordecai. He decided that it was a matter of some urgency.
Brotherton and Boyle returned from dinner at dusk to find black and white feathers scattered over the scrubland. Evidence for both sides of the argument that had taken place offstage.
"Yes, sir," Boyle replied, a little hesitantly. Fools the magpies might be he thought but they were in charge. He did not share his superior officer's confidence in the plan they had discussed whilst eating.
"Round them up, Edward," Brotherton commanded and looked around for an inspiring perch.
A few minutes later Boyle shoed the final ruffled and skulking members of the clan into the gathering surrounding his leader. The still smarting Mordecai was the last to join them. As he jostled his way to the front he snapped viciously at those who had plucked at his feathers and nipped at his legs in the late-afternoon fight.
"What's this in aid of Captain Cogs?" Mordecai asked, loud enough for everyone to hear. A few of the crowd laughed weakly. The were all feeling frightened and exhausted. Brotherton stretched his wings to their full extent and paused for a second. Boyle was nervous but made an effort to stand up straight and look impressive.
"This is a grave situation. Very grave indeed," Brotherton began, "a weakened King allowed a snail to appear from nowhere, was nearly killed in the resulting accident and was then kidnapped by a passing human."
Mordecai's head ached. He scowled at Brotherton
"This much we know, fool. The point?" Nobody laughed this time. None of them wanted to think about the events of that afternoon. Now that Brotherton had laid it out for them in one sentence an uncomfortable silence settled over the clan. Brotherton let this permiate for a beat before continuing.
"What is needed now is a change," a distraught murmmering followed the word 'change'. Brotherton rushed to reassure: "a change purely in personnel, a new leader with the temperament for the job." Brotherton looked directly at Mordecai. Uneasy, Mordecai turned to find most of the clan looking at him in a strange, pointed way.
"I propose not so much something new as something old-fashioned. I propose solidity and consistency. I propose control through thorough understanding. I propose myself as leader with Edward here as my second."
The clan looked at Brotherton. They looked at Mordecai. They looked back again. Brotherton puffed out his chest.
"O.K.," came a voice from the back, "what now?"
"What?!" Mordecai shouted, hopping to see who had spoken.
"Well," said Brotherton, ignoring Mordecai, "lets take a vote. Raise your right wing if you agree with my proposition. Good. Count them up Edward." Boyle did so.
"Unanimous bar one, sir."
Mordecai was furious at the betrayal.
"Excellent, Edward, excellent. Now on to business. As your duly elected leader I feel that any secrets regarding the ruling of the Universe be placed in the public domain where we can submit them to the rigours of scientific efficiency."
The clan looked at each other nervously.
"Come now," said Brotherton in an encouraging tone. He looked around for a volunteer. "How about you, lad. Which cogs do you spin?"
"Well, sir," the magpie began "its not really a matter of cogs."
The air around them shimmered. The two hundred and thirty forth digit of pi changed its value.
"I told you its because the Universe is very finely balanced." Kakaraxa fended Calvin's and Isobel's questions as obliquely as he could. They were rushing back to the scrubland. The twilight had a worryingly odd feel to it.
"But why magpies?" Isobel asked again.
"Look it works, alright?" Kakaraxa looked up from his box to Calvin who was carrying it, "can't you keep her quiet?"
They reached the hole in the fence. As they climbed through Calvin finally asked the question that he had been gathering courage to ask all day.
"King Kakaraxa, I have to ask, is there anything to the 'one for sorrow, two for joy' rhyme?" Kakaraxa rolled his eyes and laughed. His potency was finally returning.
They were nearing the gathering of the clan. All three of them saw the metallic eddies disturbing the air above the crows. Kakaraxa took a deep breath.
"I'll tell you some other time, eh? Now set me down and keep a safe distance until I call you over."
Calvin placed the box on the ground. Kakaraxa tested his strength. Not bad, let's hope I'm up to this. He closed his eyes, did something magical and his wing was completely healed. Two small asteroids orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter collided. He flapped out of his box and swooped silently down into the gathering. Quite an entrance he thought. He was right: uproar greeted his return, not the least from Brotherton.
"Too late, old chap, as the rightfully elected Leader of this clan I am now Commander in Chief of the running of the Universe. As such I ask you to..."
He got no further.
As he spoke Boyle stared frantically at Kakaraxa. Kakaraxa seemed to him to be changing. He was now something more. Something terrible. Something fundamental. Boyle realised what was going to happen. He searched for a final thought but none came.
"Yes, sir," he whispered at Kakaraxa then vanished. As did Brotherton blustering and mid-sentence. As did all species of the 'crow' genus. As did all references to said genus in the minds or journals of those dedicated to pursuing the science of sticky cogs. Crows never were.
"Dreadful bores anyway" Kakaraxa muttered to himself. The clan trembled.
"Mordecai!" He shouted. Mordecai hopped forward, head bowed. "Reconstructing the scene Mordecai it seems that you were the only one who remained loyal, albeit in your usual thick-headed way. Thank you."
"Your, Your Majesty?" Mordecai stammered.
"You heard me, second-in-command. As for you cowardly shits," He narrowed his eyes once more and the rest of the clan scrabbled to hide behind each other, "starting in the morning we have a lot of work to do stabilising this mess."
"Er, sir?" Mordecai motioned towards the pair of gaping humans standing next to a shoebox at a respectful distance.
"Ah yes, one more thing. You humans!" he called. Isobel and Calvin shuffled over. "Come the morning you two will forget all about today's affairs and, as reward for your help, will lead healthy, happy and prosperous lives together. Now go." Dazed the humans walked away towards the hole in the fence.
"Kaka!" Mordecai exclaimed. He could not help himself. "Altering the course of two humans' lives! You know how much trouble that can cause!"
"Yes, Mordecai I know but," Kakaraxa sniffed the air, "I think we might just have got away with it."
The speed of light increased by something in the region of three micrometers per second.
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