Following In The Footsteps
Heading outside with Allison, the couch-unit leads them to a nearby hole in the ground. Descending a ramp into the hole, Nathaniel and Haticat are surprised to find a track with open-air cars. They are directed to climb on and strap in. “I’ve heard about these, but never seen them,” Haticat informs Nathaniel, “They’re called roller-coasters. Only the big playgrounds on Gruezhe have them.”
The air whips past as the roller-coaster accelerates through the partially lit tunnels, bringing them more than five kilometers to the central terminal full of people. From there, thousands of plastic tunnel entrances at all levels lead out of the room. The higher ones are reachable by climbing brightly colored plastic stairs. Looking out through the domed top of the room, Nathaniel and Haticat see an amazing sight. Tens of thousands of children and Gruezhlings play on a massive, sprawling, labyrinthine structure beset with enclosed climbing areas, jungle-gyms, clear tunnels, towers, bridges, stairs, slides of all lengths, and large rooms with trampolines. The entire structure is more than one thousand meters across. “This is a very big playground,” Haticat comments.
“Are they allowed to climb on that?” Nathaniel asks.
“Yes, it’s a play-place. Kids like it,” Daddy says.
“I thought climbing was against the rules; you never let me climb on trees,” Nathaniel states.
“Climbing on trees is against the rules. Climbing on play-places is not,” Daddy clarifies.
This makes no sense to Nathaniel. Even though he had long since stopped asking questions, the sudden appearance of Allison yesterday has thrown off his equilibrium. “Why?” he asks.
“Don’t argue with me!” Mama yells. Nathaniel drops the discussion and walks away.
Nathaniel and Haticat run into the structure to play while the couch-unit hovers just outside. Allison seems more reluctant to play. She walks slowly into the structure and sits down. Just following his instincts to play with others, Nathaniel runs in circles around Allison. “Chase me!” he says. Allison scowls and curls up into a ball.
“Chase me,” Nathaniel repeats. “Okay, I’ll chase you. Don’t let me grab you.” He grabs her tail and pulls at it. Allison yanks it away and screams. Covering his ears, Nathaniel runs away.
“Let’s not play with her; she’s cranky,” he tells Haticat.
Haticat and Nathaniel find some zip lines. After observing how the other boys use them, they travel from tower to tower. Finally, they stop at a tower with a complex structure of bars around it. They climb, challenging each other.
“Nathaniel, don’t climb like that!” Daddy orders, the couch-unit hovering nearby.
“Like what?” Nathaniel asks.
“Don’t question us!” Mama yells. Nathaniel is at a total loss of what to do, knowing that he is allowed to climb on non-trees, but having no idea what kind of climbing The Mama-And-Daddy might be referring to. He stares blankly.
“We don’t want you hurt. If you hang, you might fall,” Mama says. Fall? Nathaniel doesn’t believe he is being particularly risky, but small amounts of risk are exactly what makes activities fun. Riskless activities are boring and wasteful. Should he not climb at all? Isn’t climbing what play-places are for? Aren’t all the other kids climbing? He needs more information. He continues to stare blankly, literally unable to think of what else to do without asking questions. He thinks of jumping, but it is too far. He thinks of climbing back into the tower, but has no idea if that climbing will also be considered too risky.
“Do what we tell you right away!” Daddy yells.
Nathaniel does. He stops climbing completely and now just hangs there on the bars. He decides not to do anything with any risk at all or even move. “Okay,” he replies.
Daddy’s eyes blaze yellow, his face contorted with anger. Nathaniel is teleported inside the ship again. “We’re going to give you one more chance,” Daddy says. Mama’s polyp-heads are not active. Haticat is nowhere to be seen. Daddy and Nathaniel are alone. “You can stay in your room with me for the rest of the day while Mama watches Allison play, or you can go back to the playground. Which do you want? It’s your choice.”
Seriously? Did Daddy not realize that Nathaniel had already been playing outside by choice and it was Daddy and not Nathaniel that had teleported him here just seconds ago? Did Daddy have no memory? Since when was he ever given a choice about anything anyways? Nathaniel chooses what he thinks is the safest answer, unsure how it will be taken. “I-I-I want to g-go to the playground.”
“All right. Behave yourself this time and listen to your parent,” Daddy says. Nathaniel is teleported back to the playground. He eventually finds Haticat playing with some other boys. Allison, meanwhile, sits in a circle with several other girls and Gruezhlings.
“Why aren’t any of them playing?” Nathaniel asks Haticat.
“They are,” Haticat explains, “Girl-play is different.”
“That’s not playing; they’re just sitting around,” Nathaniel says.
“It’s called a tea-party,” Haticat explains, “Girls don’t like to move much or very fast. They don’t like anything exciting. They also don’t like creativity. They do pretend, unlike adults, but they pretend things that already exist in common, everyday real-life, like cooking, eating, drinking, cleaning, working, or taking care of very young kids, instead of inventing new things no one else has thought of or exploring places no one else has been to before. One of their favorite things to pretend is that they are drinking tea or other beverages.”
At first Nathaniel is confused. Then he feels angry. It is an offense to play itself and an insult to children everywhere to make such a perversion and mockery of fun! Haticat must be lying. It isn’t possible for all girls to be so depraved. “That isn’t play!” he shouts.
“It’s girl-play,” Haticat insists.
“It’s disgusting,” Nathaniel says.
“I agree,” Haticat says.
Nathaniel finally understood why girls and boys don’t play together. Girls are as bad as adults! Then again, girls never try to enforce their rules onto others. Nathaniel decides that adults are still worse. “Are all girls this way?”
“Some are worse than others. There are a few girls that are somewhat boyish and a few boys that are somewhat girlish, but most girls are this way, yes,” Haticat answers
“Gross!” Nathaniel comments, still horrified. He shakes his head, trying to not to think about it.
Moving on, Haticat and Nathaniel find some very strange trampolines called “water beds.” They aren’t very bouncy and are hard to stand up on. They have lots of fun. Nathaniel notices for the first time the groups of girls all around, sitting or standing in circles, not really playing. He had never paid attention before, focusing on his own life and fun instead. Now, he cannot help seeing girls and girl-play everywhere. It annoys him. Despite his discovery of this new amazing playground today, the presence of girls is kind of ruining his day. “There are too many girls here,” Nathaniel notes.
“You’re right, let’s go somewhere else,” another boy says (a fabrosaur).
Nathaniel and Haticat follow the boy and his four Gruezhlings to another part of the playground. There are ice rinks here – strange, slippery zones covered with frozen water that boys run and slide on. “What are these?” Haticat asks.
“These are ice rinks,” the boy answers.
“They look fun – and there are no girls here,” Nathaniel says happily.
“Girls are so annoying,” the other boy says.
“Boys think girls are annoying and girls think boys are annoying,” Haticat says, “It’s part of the laws of physics.”
“No, I think it’s chemistry,” one of the fabrosaur’s four Gruezhlings corrects.
“Oh, chemistry,” Haticat accedes.
“I always thought it was biology,” one of the other Gruezhlings says.
“It’s not important,” Haticat says.
“It’s just science,” Nathaniel summarizes.
“See who can slide the farthest!” the fabrosaur boy shouts, running away. Joining four other boys and assorted Gruezhlings, Nathaniel and Haticat compete. Aiding Haticat by throwing him, Nathaniel is able to make him go farther than any other Gruezhling. Ice is a lot of fun. Nathaniel and Haticat have so much fun they lose track of the time.
Nathaniel, it’s mealtime,” Mama and Daddy say, the couch-unit having snuck up on them. Nathaniel wonders for a moment if he is in trouble, but The Mama-And-Daddy does not seem angry. Nathaniel and Haticat follow the couch-unit, which carries Allison and two nearly identical bear-like Gruezhlings. One of them is amber-colored and wears a red-and-grey dress. The other is black and wears a yellow, open, button-shirt and green shorts. Both have short fur, round ears, and stubby limbs with no digits.
“Matilda, Fred, introduce yourselves,” Mama and Daddy say.
“I’m Matilda,” the amber, bear-like Gruezhling says. She promptly winks at Allison and the two start giggling. Wow! Girl-laughter must be the most annoying sound in the whole galaxy!
“I’m Fred,” the black, bear-like Gruezhling says in a deep voice. After a pause, he continues, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Nathaniel,” Nathaniel says.
“I’m Haticat,” Haticat says.
“Fred is your second Gruezhling now,” Mama says.
Nathaniel is surprised. “I didn’t choose him.”
“Allison gets a Gruezhling, so you get one. It’s only fair,” Mama and Daddy say. Nathaniel didn’t mind having another friend, but resents being pushed around. What if he wanted someone else?
“Okay,” Nathaniel says.
Nathaniel and Haticat follow the couch-unit all the way to the subterranean roller-coaster at the edge of the giant playground. Returning to the ship, Allison and Nathaniel eat candy. “Remember to eat some kitchen jelly, too. You need your vitamins,” the Mama and Daddy say.
While Nathaniel retrieves some jelly and water, Allison scowls and ignores them. “Allison, eat your food!” Daddy commands.
“No! Yucky!” Allison yells. She is immediately teleported to the bench around the table and starts screaming in response. Fred, Haticat, and Nathaniel cover their ears. Matilda appears unaffected by the sound. The boys move away to talk amongst themselves.
“I’ve been thinking today: Do you wonder if The Mama-And-Daddy wants to replace us?” Nathaniel asks Haticat.
“Why do you think that?” Haticat asks.
“The Mama-And-Daddy never visited this part of Gruezhe before. It’s as if it’s starting over with Allison – and it pays more attention to her,” Nathaniel explains.
“It’s nicer to her, too,” Haticat says.
“It’s strange,” Nathaniel comments.
“We should keep a close watch on the situation,” Haticat says.
“Agreed,” Nathaniel says, eating his jelly.
“Agreed,” Fred adds.
After lunch, they take the roller-coaster to a different playground seven kilometers away. This playground has several dozen large roller-coaster tracks. Some twist. Others loop. Many loop around each other. There are spinning rides that stick people to the walls by centrifugal force. There are wobbling cars that cling to a track while the whole track spins and tilts. There are exciting and indescribable rides of all kinds. Every surface is covered with crawling Gruezhlings, feeding off the ubiquitous, pulsing fun that permeates the entire park.
The first ride they come to features a shifting track that changes shape as the cars zip along it, creating strange visual effects for the riders. Nathaniel, Haticat, and Fred climb into one seat and strap in. To their surprise, Allison and Matilda climb into the seat directly in front of them. A small, white, rabbit-like, girl Gruezhling fills in the open space.
“Hi,” the rabbit-like Gruezhling says.
“Your dress is pretty,” Matilda replies.
“Your dress is pretty, too,” the rabbit-Gruezhling says.
“All three of us have pretty dresses,” Matilda says.
“We are all the same,” Allison sums up.
Nathaniel cares nothing for prettiness, but as a matter of scientific curiosity he asks, “Who do you think has the prettiest dress?”
The three girls ignore him and stare straight ahead. “Ugh! Boys are so annoying,” Matilda remarks.
“Are all boys this stupid?” Allison asks.
“Yes, they all make competitions out of everything,” Matilda complains. The other Gruezhling sighs.
Girls are very rude creatures! Nathaniel only asked a question; he hadn’t made anything into a competition that wasn’t already. The girls had brought up the subject. It is only natural to want to measure things, such as who is fastest, smartest, strongest, or prettiest. Besides, what’s wrong with competition?
The girls seem to enjoy the ride, but not for its exciting qualities. Instead, they spend the whole time talking and giggling. The very presence of the girls, and their loud giggling, makes it hard for Nathaniel to play or for his Gruezhlings to feed. He is glad when the ride is over.
Before the boys can make it onto the next ride, The Mama-And-Daddy’s couch-unit brings Nathaniel another Gruezhling. “Nathaniel, this is Doctor Bill,” Daddy says.
“Hello,” the small, yellow, rabbit-like Gruezhling greets. He wears black work boots, black work pants, a striped shirt, and a long, white, lab coat. Except for his clothing and fur coloring, he looks exactly like the rabbit-like Gruezhling recently talking to Allison and Matilda.
“Hello,” Nathaniel says.
“What is your doctorate in?” Fred asks.
“I’m a fun-scientist. I study what makes some activities and structures more fun than others. For example, I was the one that discovered that changing the average angle of the corners in the play-place crawl tubes from ninety degrees to one hundred twenty degrees increased fun output among boys by sixteen percent. Personally, I specialize in studying natural play-places, such as caves,” Doctor Bill says.
“Interesting,” Fred comments.
“Did you know that the caves of planet Salnnaaa are the only caves in the known galaxy proven to be more fun than the caves on Gruezhe?” Doctor Bill asks.
“No,” Nathaniel says, “We should go there sometime, but The Mama-And-Daddy never goes where we tell it to.”
“Did you know that the number of society-worlds that have the play-trade is two-point-two times the number of society-worlds that have money-trade?” Haticat asks.
“Yes I did, but to be fair, on ninety percent of those worlds with both trades, the money-trade dominates,” Doctor Bill says.
“What do you know about play-money?” Nathaniel asks.
“I don’t think it will catch on. I haven’t had much time to read about it myself, unfortunately; I just got back from a trip measuring how fun levels relate to hill steepness,” Doctor Bill answers.
“Wow. Why has nobody adopted you?” Fred asks.
“I tell everybody I’m too busy to leave the planet, but I have never been short of volunteer assistants to keep me awake,” Doctor Bill says, “Lately, I’ve become interested in other areas of science and I want to explore the galaxy.”
“Oh, well The Mama-And-Daddy goes to Lectipas, Earth, Trachoos, and other places,” Nathaniel says.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Lectipas,” Doctor Bill says.
“Me too,” Fred adds.
“I want to see if dinosaurs are really more fun than mammals,” Doctor Bill states.
“They are,” Haticat claims.
The boys try some of the other rides while discussing new fun technologies being built elsewhere on Gruezhe, such as water pools and water slides. Doctor Bill details how like-relativity is accounted for in multi-purpose play-zones, in toy marketing, and in peer-interaction networks. He is at a total loss to explain adults or girls. “Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to figure them out,” he laments.
Far too soon, the day ends and The Mama-And-Daddy escorts Nathaniel, Haticat, Fred, Doctor Bill, Allison, Matilda, and the white, rabbit-like Gruezhling (whose name turns out to be Sarah) into the ship. Haticat and Nathaniel are happy to have found two new friends. It is a good day.
“You know, girls aren’t all that bad,” Nate suddenly says.
“Glad to hear it,” the woman responds.
“I mean, girls and adults I could handle – or at least I was used to them, and all my friends could empathize. I think there is nothing more important than having somebody – at least one true companion that sees the world the same way,” Nate opines, “Now though, I have nobody and the whole world has gone crazy – even the boys.”
“It never happened, Nate; the world has always been crazy,” the woman responds gently.
Ignoring her, Nate gets up and starts pacing. “Everything is different. The peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich? I remember inventing it. Now I’m told it predates me. Cinnamon-butter toast? Same thing. Apple sauce and cottage cheese mixed? It used to be highly popular on Earth, now everybody thinks it’s weird. It’s as if all of history changed at once. I mean…I’ve changed history before – I remember travelling through time on many different occasions and returning to the future to find that my actions had made a difference – but all of those changes were predictable, I could always go back and undo them, they didn’t just happen on their own, and I’ve never changed the entire universe before! When I was younger, there was only one language and one religion throughout the universe – all of space and time. I did more exploration than most so I know that to be true. Nobody ever questioned it; they didn’t know any better. Nobody even considered the possibility of things being different. Now, we have dozens of religions and hundreds of languages – and that’s just one planet! There is no way any of my past actions could have caused this! I can no more change the style or genre of the universe than I can change the laws of physics! Now, people are expected to introduce themselves first before playing together. It used to be that only adults did that. Now I see kids doing it. People’s minds work differently: It used to be there were no such things as optical illusions; people saw what was really there, period. This was true for all species and beings, and across a wide range of optical processing system types. Stores used to be more specialized: There were ball stores and candy stores. Now, there are department stores. People are stupider: It used to be that only doctors and scientists were aware of the psychoactive properties of certain plant extracts, and nobody – not even them – ever considered using the stuff on themselves. Now, I read in the newspapers that millions are addicted to these chemicals. Worse, some people become addicted to things that aren’t even addictive – like gambling. Gambling is just stupid. How do people even start? Why would anybody gamble even once for the addiction to take hold? It doesn’t make sense. The sense of humor is different today: I saw a supposed comedian on television last week do nothing else but make scatological references. He did not tell a single joke. It wasn’t funny; it was gross, but people laughed. Why? I know that different people have different tastes, but funniness was always considered an objective measurement – a matter of definition, even. Not everyone liked comedy, but Adults, Girls, and Boys of all species all agreed on what it was and wasn’t. Now, things are different. Besides, all organisms hate their own waste; if they were capable of seeing value in it, it wouldn’t be waste! Even political systems are different: It used to be that every country all across the known universe was either a democracy that valued everyone, or a dictatorship run by one being. The members of dictatorships were never willing participants, but were rather ruled by threats. Still, dictators were concerned only with power, not the personal lives of their subjects. Now, I read in the papers how both dictatorships and democracies alike try to regulate personal behavior that doesn’t concern them and is no threat to their power. Why? What possible motivation could they have? Worse still, many of these countries don’t enforce their laws, the rulers complain that the citizens aren’t doing what they want, and so they pass even more laws that they won’t enforce either. The number of laws keeps rising, but nothing ever changes. It’s insanity! They should live here!” Nate says, now very excited, pacing back and forth and gesturing animatedly.
The woman looks down, then up. After a pause, she says, “It might seem like a lot changed, but it was always like that. I can tell your memories are based on the real world. Your testing of candies to see which is ‘just right’ is obviously based on the story of Goldilocks. You must have heard it as a child – as most of us do – and built a fantasy out of it. Your description of girls must be based partly on me, today. Like Matilda, I have a red and grey dress, and my name is Allison.”
“Your name is Allison?” Nate asks. Try as he might, he cannot remember if this is true.
“You don’t remember?” the woman asks.
“No,” Nate answers. He sits back down.
“Well, it is,” Allison says, “I guess I ended up in one of your stories after all.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Nate comments.
“So tell me, where did you go next?” Allison asks.
Nate clears his throat. “Next, we went to Binerty…”