They toiled through the spring and summer, through months of sweat and pain and danger, through rain and darkness and the onslaught of traffic, adding level after level and layer after layer of wood and concrete, until the mighty freeway was done-- a shining, pristine ribbon wrapped around the South Bay; a Midgard serpent which encircled the city.
All through their labors, the brave CalTrans workers were aided in their task by their flocks of safety pylons-- those fearless cones of rubberized plastic whose duty it was to divert the deadly flow of traffic away from their masters. Many a brave cone gave its life in this service-- the wheels of a passing car would come just a bit too close and instanty, one of their number would be gone, crushed, mangled beyond recognition. The workers would rarely field another cone in these cases, and the survivors would merely redistribute themselves to cover the vulnerable point in their line of defense.
As the freeway became ever more solid and the summer passed into autumn, one little pylon in particular grew excited, for he knew that soon they would be packing up and moving on-- on to a new and exotic land where they and their CalTrans masters were needed. Where would they go? To the oceanside roads? Into the mountains? Deep into the heart of the city? And what would they do there? Resurfacing? Widening? Re-routing? New construction?
It mattered not; the little pylon was excited by almost any possible scenario.
He was new, you see-- his brilliant orange flank was unmarred by the black rubber of tires, the small scrapes and gashes of abuse, the slight crumpling and denting of impact after impact, the overall bleaching of color caused by years of harsh sunlight and harsher rain and wind.
The other cones were veterans, and his excitement wore on their patience. "Where do you think we shall go?" he would ask again and again, dancing around the others. One of them would scowl and say, "It hardly matters, little one; one job is just like another."
"Noise," a second one would say.
"Cars," a third would contribute.
"Yes!" cried the little pylon. "I certainly hope so!"
And the veteran pylons would sigh collectively. He would learn. Most of them could recall their first few jobs; they, too, had been eager and naive. Now the best they could hope for was sidewalk duty in some residential street work. Anything but another highway, please.
So they labored alongside the CalTrans workers, and the freeway lengthened and strengthened until it reached out from one far away place and touched another far away place. Finally, it was time-- the barricades were taken down, the tape was peeled away from, and the highway was ready for use.
The CalTrans masters began picking up the equipment, then: The signs and markers and, yes, even the pylons. The little pylon rushed down the hill from where he'd been sitting-- alone, marking the end of a surface street in an adjacent residential neighborhood-- when he heard the sounds of their clean-up, but as he crested the hill, he saw only the empty concrete-- the workers, the orange trucks, and all the other pylons were gone. He looked around, hoping they had just moved off the highway a bit or were simply a bit farther down, and then he saw them: far away, a flash of brake lights as the truck curved around an on-ramp at the distant interchange.
"Wait!" he cried, "wait for me!"
But they were, of course, too far away to hear him, and seconds later they were gone. Far away to the north, he could hear the sounds of honking and cheering. The highway was open, and he was all alone.
He sat there some time, as the cars began to stream by on the road below him. He could see the happy faces of the drivers who were finally able to use this great new freeway, but their joy did nothing to cheer him up. He had been forgotten; what was there for him now?
There was clearly only one thing he could do.
"I will find them," he said. "I've got to find them."
And, working up his bravery, he hopped down the hill towards his destiny.
Once there were five princes, in a star system with five planets in it. Each prince ruled one of the planets.
There were many legends of a sixth planet, which is where the King lived, but nobody could see such a planet, or find tangible evidence of it, nor had anyone ever seen or heard from the King. It had always been this way, as long as the oldest records that existed. The five princes had always ruled, and there had never been any tangible evidence of a King or his sixth planet, but everyone knew they must be out there.
The princes were very concerned about this (and always had been or as long as anyone could remember) because none of them could remember their father, the King, either. They didn't know where to find him. So they didn't know which one of them should succeed him when he died-- if he hadn't already! They just didn't know. And so they continued to rule as peers, and had done so for as long as history had been objectively recorded.
It worked fine this way. There was peace and prosperity. The system worked. But human nature being what it is, they couldn't just leave well enough alone, so the five princes were always trying to "fix" the "problem".
Sometimes, they would make efforts to find the King and his sixth planet, to find out if he still lived or not. After all, if the King was still alive, one would hope that he could tell them which prince was the heir. And if the king were dead, then they would have an answer to the question of whether or not one of them needed to succeed-- they would merely need to determine which prince should succeed.
The problem with this approach was that there was literally no evidence of the King or his planet. They tried again and again, with each new generation of brilliant minds and new technology, with no success.
Other times, they would try and determine for themselves which one of them should inherit the throne. If they could at least determine who should be the successor, then they would only have to answer the question of whether or not that successor should actually succeed.
The problem in this case was that each of the five princes was very good at some aspect of kingliness, but weak in all the others. One prince was a great military leader. Another excelled at making wise and fair judgments. The third was unmatched in his understanding of economics. The fourth prince was a sharp political diplomat. And the fifth prince looked good on television and could always come up with a great quotable soundbite for the news.
So whenever the princes would devise a challenge to see who was most worthy of being king, one of them would win handily and the others would fail... but then that winning prince would lose the next contest. No prince could win more than one test in five.
And so things continued as they had for generation after generation. The princes worried every day about how they would solve this problem that was plaguing them.
Then, one day, a strange Oracle appeared to them. The Oracle told them, "I will help you settle this matter once and for all. You may each ask me one question, which I will answer, and by the end of your questioning, it will be clear which of you is to eventually succeed the King."
Well, this seemed no worse a deal than any of their self-created tests, so the five princes agreed.
The first prince asked, "Which of us is the eldest?" After all, first born should inherit the crown, it was reasoned. But the Oracle said, "None of you is the eldest. You were each created in the same flash of light, born in the same breath, all made in the single blink of a mosquito's eye." So the five princes scowled and sighed.
The second prince asked, "Which of us would make the best king?" That seemed like a sharp question, and all the princes listened eagerly. But the Oracle said, "You are each just as worth and capable as your four brothers. Each of you deserves to rule... but only one will." So the five princes scowled and sighed again.
The third prince decided to cut to the chase, and asked, "Which of us will succeed the King?" And the other princes all nodded at each other, because they just wanted to have an answer, dammit. But the Oracle said, "The one among you who best knows his father will succeed." And this really made the princes scowl and sigh, because none of them knew their father at all. They had no memories whatsoever, and no real data, and they'd all read the same legends and stories. None of them knew their father whatsoever.
But then the fourth prince got a wily look on his face, and he thought for a long time before he finally asked, "Is that you, Dad?"
And then the Oracle smiled and nodded and said, "Yes, it is I!" And he grew and expanded to fill the room with bright magical light, and it was obvious that he could be no one but the long lost King, blessed with divine energy and power. To the fourth prince, he said, "You are the one who will now succeed me, my son." And just like that, there was a flare of fire and heat and the King was reduced to ash.
Well, the first three princes began to congratulate the fourth one, but they were interrupted by the fifth prince, as he angrily said, "Hey! I didn't get to ask a fucking question! Hey! Are you listening? I didn't even get to ask, goddammit! What the fuck is this fucking bullshit? This is utterly fucked! You think this has settled the issue of inheritance? Y'all can suck my fat dick!"
And with that, he stormed out of the hall, called up his generals, and cranked up the war machines. Within a few months, everyone was at war and two of the planets had been blown up (along with their princes) and billions of people were dead from the battles or starvation or disease. And while none of the surviving princes really felt like things were better than they had been, their minds were at least off the neurotic problem of succession for a while, and they finally had some real problems to try to solve, so in some sense, this is still a happy ending.
The rain was coming down in sheets as the little pylon dragged himself under a patch of trees on the hillside. He was sniffling a little bit, trying not to cry, but he felt very miserable and it was hard to keep his courage up.
He had rolled along all afternoon, whistling to himself and watching the people zoom by in their cars. He'd always liked watching cars shoot past him as their team had worked. Sometimes he imagined what it would be like to ride in one, with the wind whipping past him and the roar of the engine all around.
Thinking of it now made the tears come on even stronger. Now, he would have liked to have been in a car just to get out of the rain. He'd been rained on before, of course, but that had been when the others were there-- they had been doing their job, and they'd toughed it out by distracting each other with stories of the road.
But now he was cold and alone, lost, wandering in the dark, and it was all starting to look rather hopeless.
He peered out between the trees at the road and watched as the cars went shooting past, throwing up wakes of wet spray behind them. As he watched, there was a sudden flash of metal and a loud clattering noise as one car went by. The little pylon inched up to the roadside, careful to stay off the road itself. And there, down the hill a bit, he could see a little huddled metal figure: a dented hubcab resting against the concrete barrier.
He approached carefully. He'd heard stories of hubcaps thrown from cars; he'd never really understood it, though. Did the humans throw disobedient hubcaps away, abandoning them to the random fate of the highway? Or were the hubcaps fleeing their human masters?
The little pylon realized, then, that this was his chance to find out, so he made his way down to the still, quiet form of the hubcap.
"Um, excuse me?" he said when he was standing next to it.
"Leave me alone," came a sad, hollow voice.
"Are you okay?" asked the pylon. "Are you hurt?"
"I was just thrown from a moving car," said the hubcap, not looking at him, lying still. "What do you think?"
The pylon thought for a moment. "I think you could probably use some help," he finally decided. The hubcap moved for the first time since being thrown from the car, rolling over to look at the pylon. The pylon tried to smile, to show a brave face, because the hubcap looked even more miserable than he did.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" the hubcap asked.
"I'm looking for my work crew," said the pylon. "They lost track of me and I'm going to find them again."
They stood there in the rain a bit, not saying anything, and then the hubcap looked off into the darkness under the trees. "Guess we should get out of this rain, huh?" he said.
The little pylon smiled. "Yeah, I don't think it's going to let up for a while."
So they hustled their way off the shoulder of the highway, into the somewhat drier comfort of the forest. And as the night passed over them, they huddled in a dry recess and spoke of the things they'd seen. The hubcap seemed curious about the many machines the little pylon had seen-- the backhoes and bulldozers, the dump trucks and cranes, the jackhammers and piledrivers. He listened as the pylon told of splitters and hammers and levelers, of asphalt and (occasionally) dynamite.
And the little pylon was absolutely astounded by the tales the hubcap had, of the places he'd been to and the things he'd seen. "I was on a '65 Mustang," he said with pride, "and we went all over the country." The little pylon was rapt with attention as he heard about desert canyons and snow-covered mountains, blue-green lakes and cities of neon as far as the eye could see.
They talked long into the night and finally drifted off as the sheetsof rain slowly lessened, becoming a sprinkle, then an occasional patter, and finally ended, leaving only the sound of dripping water from leaves and branches, and the passing cars in the distance.
In the morning, the hubcap asked if he could come along with the pylon. "You're going in the direction my master lives," he said, "and I know that area better than you do. If you're going to find your crew over there, you're going to need all the help you can get."
So they set out up the hill together, picking up their conversation where it had left off the night before.
And that is how the little pylon came to have a traveling companion and, perhaps, found the first real friend of his entire life.
Once there was a princess who couldn't sleep. She would toss and turn and be up all night, and bags developed under her eyes and she was always cranky and laggy all day. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore, so she sent her father's three wisest men out to search the world for a solution to her sleeplessness.
The first returned with a little pill. "This is Ambien," he said. "It's a mild hypnotic that should make you sleep for eight hours at a time." So the tired princess took the pill and swallowed it. But Ambien didn't make her sleepy, it just made her unconscious, and she would run around and say goofy things and tip things over, powered by nothing but her subconscious lizard brain. And she wouldn't actually ever lie down and sleep. So she never got any rest, leaving her cranky and tired in the morning still.
Then the second returned with a strikingly handsome Latino youth. "This is Juan," he said. "He is an excellent and energetic lover and he should easily be able to tire you out every night." So the tired princess took Juan back to her room and she totally did him. But it turns out she liked doing Juan so much that they'd be up all night, one position after another, up, down, in the bed, on her desk, against the wall, out in the hall, out in the yard, all night, making ungodly amounts of noise. So she never got any rest and she had to kick Juan out of the palace to get anything useful done during the day, so she was still cranky and tired all the time.
Finally, the third returned with an old man in tow. "This is a wise old man who knows magic," he said. "He assures me that he can make your eyelids so heavy that you'll never have any trouble falling asleep. But he has warned me that the solution to your problem may make you more miserable than the problem itself, as is often the case when one tries to find easy external answers to internal problems." Well, the princess didn't see how she could be at all miserable if she was able to get some sleep for a change, and besides, she had great drugs and great sex all the time-- how miserable could she be? So she told the old man to use his magic. And the old man waved his hands...
...and he turned the princess' eyelinds into solid gold.
Suddenly, she could not keep her eyes open. They were so heavy, they just fell shut, and just like that the princess felt her mind getting heavy and slow. She staggered off to bed, declining her Ambien and roughly shoving Juan out of bed and onto the floor, and she collapsed into the bed in a heap and was out like a light. And she slept like a log all night, and well into the morning.
When morning came, she just spent the whole day lying around in bed, dozing on and off. The density of the gold eyelids meant that she didn't even have bright light bothering her... it was always pitch black when her eyes were shut, and in fact, it was just easier to have her eyes shut instead of open. So she dozed and lounged around and pretty much did nothing but sleep away the day. And that night. And the next day.In fact, she found that she was having a hard time doing anything but sleep. When it was time to eat, she would lift herself from the bed but she just couldn't open her eyes more than a crack, they were so heavy. And she would stumble around and do what needed to be done but she just wanted to be asleep again. So she would eat and then go back to bed and sleep peacefully. Or she would get up to go pee, and then she would stumble back to bed and sleep deeply. Day after day went by and all she did was sleep. Eventually, it started to bother her, so she had the third wise man bring back the old wizard.
"I don't want my eyelids to be so heavy that I can't do anything but sleep!" she whined. The old wizard said, "I can take away your heavy eyelids but you might find that the solution makes you more miserable than the problem, as is often the case when one tries to find easy answers to hard problems." But the princess didn't care. She wanted to be able to see the world clearly again. So the old wizard raised his hands once again...
...but instead of doing a magic trick, he just plucked the princess' golden eyelids off and put them in his pocket.
"I'll take these as payment for my services," he said, and then he vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving the princess wide awake... with no eyelids at all anymore. She could never close her eyes again as long as she lived. And all the other inhabitants of the royal palace got to find out first-hand just how freaky it is to see a person cry and cry and cry all the time with their eyes wide wide open.
The moral of this story is left as an exercise for the reader to dream about.
Once there was a frog. He was a very big frog in a small pond. There were some little fishes, and little dragonflies, and other little critters in this same pond, but he was by far the biggest and most important thing.
Of course this was just one pond of a great many in the marshes, and while the frog was dimly aware that there were other ponds and a much bigger world out there, he didn't pay it much mind, prefering to focus on his own supreme importance here on the small scale.
Well, one day, there was a great rumbling and tearing noise in the distance, and it lasted all day. The frog climbed up as high as he could on a marshy stalk, but he couldn't see what was making the racket. So he climbed back down and stopped worrying about it.
The next day, the terrible noise came again, and he climbed up as high as he could a second time. This time, he could see some large ominous shapes in the distance, moving about, but they were far away so he paid them no mind. He climbed back down and went on with his big-frog-small-pond business.
The third day, the terrible noise happened again and it was definitely getting louder, so he climbed back up and saw that they big ominous shapes were actually quite close. They were at the very next pond over, and they were a bunch of men and very large machines, moving about and tearing things up and sucking water out of the pond and stuff. But that was some other pond, not his concern, so he climbed back down and wished that this terrible noise would soon end.
Of course, the next day, the men and their big machines came back and this time they came for the frog's pond. They crushed all the reeds flat and began digging all the dirt up and sucking away all the water, killing all the fishes and chasing away the dragonflies. The big frog ran about frantically, going through all the phases of death more or less-- rage and denial and bargaining and all that. He beat his froggy fists against the huge machines and he cried at the stomping men and he closed his eyes and ears for a while, but none of it helped. His pond was being destroyed-- was already gone, in fact.
Well, then a sort of cold chill settled over him-- that acceptance phase. Like when a samurai experiences his own death the moment he gives his service to a daimyo, forever living as one who is already dead. That's what this frog more or less did. A terrible calm settled into him, and he looked up at the big machine and saw on its side the words:
And below that was an address. And he knew then what he must do. He would kill whoever it was at Midstate Construction that had ordered the destruction of his pond. He swore eternal vengeance upon that person. He would not rest until revenge had been taken.
He hopped out of the marsh, away from the clunking machines, guided by the dark mission in his own heart, towards the destination that he knew awaited. He hopped out of the marsh and up onto the highway that he knew would take him to the city where Midstate Construction was located. He hopped onto the asphalt and began hopping down the road, implacable, undeterrable, like a frog Terminator.
It was about twenty minutes later that a very nice four-door sedan came down the road and struck the big frog at high speed, splattering him absolutely everywhere-- but not before the driver (who was going too fast) made a rather hasty and foolish attempt to swerve the car and miss the frog, which resulted in a hard skid, a flat spin, and then a series of tumbling rolls end over end many times until the car exploded in a burst of fire, flew off the road, and disappeared below the muddy waters of the marsh. Nobody got out of the wreck; the occupants were all killed in horrible fashion.
The good news, of course, is that the car had belonged to Midstate Construction and that it had contained the project supervisor, the president of Midstate, and the state highway planner who had ordered the clearing of the marsh for the new road that was to go through here, so even though it hadn't really happened the way he'd intended, the frog did indeed fulfill his (very short) mission of hideous vengeance.