The sun is bright yellow paint on hard wood paneling. There are birds. They dangle from the sky on wires.
The people are happy. They are cardboard cutouts.
The girl wanders among them with a smile on her face. She touches a cardboard woman feeding pigeons in the park. She touches a cardboard man suffering in a cell for political prisoners. She scribbles down details about a cardboard gunman standing on a grassy knoll. Then she spins around and around and runs on the soft felt grass before finally stopping next to a realistic plastic phone booth.
“What a wonderful place!” she says.
There is a footfall. It is like thunder.
The girl looks over her shoulder.
“Except for the gorgosaurus,” she says. She takes out her journal. She takes down a note.
Looking at the gorgosaurus, she adds, “I hope you are not hungry.”
It issues a terrible roar.
Floor 62: I saw a creature made of mouths and sorrow.
“As fair warning,” the creature said, “Ink Catherly has certain misconceptions regarding her nature and destiny, and these are going to lead her astray. She cannot be trusted in such matters. If you wish to understand her truths, you must watch the world around her. Those fates that govern her life have taken the unusual course of arrogating to her exactly what Ink Catherly deserves.
“As for you, that is not so.”
Addendum, in a different hand:
It’s weird to think that creatures made of mouths and sorrow were talking about me long before I came to the tower. It’s weird to think that I’m so thoroughly wrong about myself that random damned souls are getting a briefing on the subject. But what really bugs me is that here I am on floor 62 and the only tangible weird thing I could find was a can of Spaghetti-Os.
It was past its “use by” date. Its packaging gave me no cryptic oracles. When I opened its handy pull-tab top a thing fell out, wrapped in layers of crispy, paper-like skin. It struggled, mewled, and tore the layers away. Its skin and eyes and wings beneath shone like jewels. It rose into the air and I gasped and the light hurt my eyes. I conclude that it was canned mistakenly, and that in perhaps one in a million Chef Boyardee products unplanned seraphim are packed.* Also there was pasta, and spaghetti sauce, and meatballs, which were all skinny so I did not eat them.
* Seraphim and/or other valuable prizes.
The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. She might tell you that it’s short for Inquisitive. She is, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Inconclusive. Her journey has been, so far, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Incompatible, but if she does, she’s unlikely to tell you why.
She is hiding in a phone booth.
“I don’t see why there should be gorgosauruses here,” Ink says, plaintively.
She dials 911. The phone rings in a police station far away. The cardboard cutouts of police officers fail to answer.
“Come out,” rumbles the beast. “We will discuss the matter.”
“You are a huge meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period,” Ink says. “I am a twelve-year-old girl. How can we negotiate on an equal footing?”
The gorgosaurus crouches down. It tilts its massive head on one side and stares in at her. “I am willing to vouchsafe assurances of peaceful behavior.”
“That is not my interpretation of your earlier roar,” Ink notes.
“A passing rage,” the gorgosaurus says dismissively. “I had assumed you were a small egg-eating mammal loose among the cutouts.”
“I do eat eggs,” Ink admits unwisely.
The nostrils of the beast contract. It rumbles the broken-motor purr typical of dinosaurs in the grip of a strong emotion. “Then perhaps it is best that we negotiate through the glass. How have you come here, child?”
“I am exploring.”
“This is not a valid location for exploration,” the beast says flatly.
Ink opens her mouth to explain that she doesn’t intend to stay. But the injustice of the gorgosaurus’ remark is too much for her. “There isn’t any such place!”
She takes a deep breath.
Then Ink says, all in one long stream, “It is fundamental to the character of every fixed location that it should be a valid location to explore. For if it is not then its traits remain unknown. Its impact on the broader world remains unknown. Any quality that it might have that could render that exploration illegitimate ceases as a direct consequence of its unexplorability to matter. Because it could never be unearthed. Because it would never have a comprehensible, coherent impact on anything in the surrounding world. Unexplored lands are nonexistent. They are meaningless. They are chaotic, empty voids pleading against the wind for travelers to chart them. To declare a place unexplorable is to make it a home for chaos without boundaries and monsters without number. And if there are boundaries that we cannot cross then those boundaries must be charted and the things that pass in and out weighed and measured. And every place that we—”
Here she runs out of breath and sways dizzily for a moment. She puts her hand to her forehead, then shakes her head and hand alike.
There is a pause.
“And every place that we cannot explore,” Ink summarizes, “becomes the same place: the endless hungry void.”
The gorgosaurus shrugs heavily.
“This is not a location,” it says. “This is a context. This is the backstage of Earth, where various gorgosauruses create and dispose with the things of your world.”
There is a crash in the distance.
The gorgosaurus winces.
“What was that?” Ink asks.
“An accidental disposition,” the gorgosaurus says.
“We are clumsy creatures,” says the gorgosaurus, in heavy tones, “to be the makers and disposers of your world.”
The gorgosaurus does not look penitent. It looks like it been rehearsing this speech in its head for some time, in case it should ever have to justify itself to a human.
Ink looks confused. “What?”
“Not in vision,” the gorgosaurus says. “Not in vision we are clumsy, but in our hands. Our hands are stubby, twisted, and small. So that is why sometimes things must fall.”
Visions of dead bodies and burning cities flare up in Ink’s mind. Suddenly she thinks she knows what the gorgosaurus means by ‘fall’, and she half-says, half-shrieks, “Like?”
The gorgosaurus is rumbling again. Its lips have come back from its terrible sharp teeth. This frightens Ink, and she holds up her hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“I just want to understand,” Ink says, moderating her tone. “For the record of my exploration. What kinds of things ‘must fall?'”
“The practice of gold panning,” says the gorgosaurus. “The popularity of disco. Passion plays. Communism. Things like that.”
“Oh,” Ink says.
“The things we make for you,” says the gorgosaurus, “but cannot quite manage to balance.”
There is another distant crash.
Somewhere, somewhen, backstage, the ungainly hands of a gorgosaurus have just sealed the mullet’s fate.