This cover was illustrated by the author.
"Think of the rivers of blood spilled by those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become momentary masters of a fraction of a dot." --Carl Sagan
Upon a branch shaded by the sun marched a unit of cantankerous caterpillars. A dozen of the squiggling proto-moths inched synchronized onto the widening branch. They’d descended from the leaves above. Ahead, the branch path would thicken to the trunk. But that wasn’t for another two meters.
Awaiting them was a gate of mushrooms. A fungal fence formed like a ring upon the branch’s root, protecting the middle trunk from any invaders. Each branch bore similar structures.
In fact, these fungus growths are what originally caught my eye. Something about the way this tree’s appendages had been so obviously claimed by fungus struck me as peculiar.
I held myself ten meters above the ground, in the heights of a grand dark forest dank with morning dew. I’d slept in the trees overnight, enjoying the faint green bioluminescence of the mushroom growths upon a hammock of golden twine—a souvenir from a far off world.
In the midst of the night, the tickle of insect invaders played away at my fur. I swatted and squirmed, irritated and wishing only for some peace in dreams, but to no avail. Insects, I found, were not the culprit at all. I’d made the mistake of camping upon a branch claimed by the mycelia growths, which were not “growths,” in any natural sense, and were in fact the minute fortresses of a mushroom-person empire.
Tiny, mushroom-headed mycelia men—no larger than a beetle or worm—trampled my stomach in search of their glorious treasure.
It took me several seconds of blinking, sleepy eyes to realize that their treasure was not a very long strand of fur, but that the lengthy cord being pulled across the mycelia-men’s ant-like train was a thread of golden twine.
By then, it was too late. My Evensire hammock had already been mortally weakened. In a plummet one could only call coincidental, I tumbled through the trees. Several meters from smashing into the forest floor, my tail finally caught hold for a swift rescue.
I peered up through the warm tinted forest of browns and greens and earthen hue, and stood witness to the evisceration of my hammock, and the murder of a good night’s sleep. In every end there is a beginning—words whose genesis had been lost to time but whose sentiment endured long into eternity—and so I wiped the sleep from my eyes, climbed the tree, and began my study of the mycelia-men.
These tiny beings had no care for my presence. I sensed no fear, and thus no courage to overcome it. If I came into the bioluminescent light of their fungal gates, I would be met with no meeting at all, and instead absolute apathy. At first I believed they understood they’d purged my hammock and it’s useful yarn, and so there was nothing left to gain, but I concluded that this was not the case at all. For birds’ nests and arboreal rodents were met with the same apathy as myself.
“Perhaps they see me as a storm,” I said to Peridot, who spent the majority of the night silently shimmering around my head.
“What can I do against a storm? It is there, it is coming, it is absolute. Greater forces so large they’re nearly incomprehensible. Perhaps these mycelia-men stay in their own world, same as most humanoids do.”
“You could stop a storm if you wanted.”
I shrugged, and laughed lightly, finding it kind of funny to dwell on. I spoke as a powerless mortal many days, and sometimes could forget that their metaphors, analogies, and mythic sentiments didn’t always align with my reality, anymore. “I probably could.” I winked, “Sorcery is a bit out of practice, though.”
The mycelia men marched along their branch. Deep in the night, as the void darkness set in full and the morning glow was still far and away, an influx of mycelia men soldiers—armed with thorn spears and nut-shell shields—took phalanx behind a large branch fungal gate. I climbed down, and curled into a ball above the scene. I felt like a child reading a bedtime story, eyeing my inanimate toys below, projecting their positions for my dreams.
The haze of exhaustion weighed on me, but something in the quiet, cool, pine-scented night allowed me to embrace the alien culture of these mycelia-men.
“The smaller life becomes, the grander it’s universe becomes,” I said, dwelling on the expanse of relative forces. “To me a great storm is as dangerous as my exhalations to these mycelia-men. And to the storm, a god’s might could squash it. And to a god, well. . . there are bigger things out there.” I ran my claws along my eyes, massaging my tired temples. “Isn’t that interesting? To think that when I was small, the multiverse had levels and perspectives entirely unknowable to me now? What if I had blipped before growing to this size?” I held up my paw, picturing my centimeters-long self long ago, “These mycelia-men would be not a tiny show, but an entire expedition. Bird’s nests and leaf litter and snake holes would be my trials, not racing vehicles and slaying want-to-be gods and helping people.”
Peridot fluttered alone above the fungal fortress. Her violet and green form illuminated my eyes in reflection. She landed on a windy branch so near to my eyes that I couldn’t focus on her if I tried.
“It is a good thing you transformed,” she said, “what good would a mouse be in helping so many people?”
“Maybe it would be easier.”
“You aren’t one for easy.”
“No,” I smiled, “not at all. But maybe I would have remained that humble fishermouse catching crayfish from the stream. I’d still have my trials, but perhaps things would be smaller.”
“You always would have made them bigger.”
I laid my head back against the tree trunk, and followed the pine needles swaying above. The trees did not whine nor roar. A silent silver wind carried the forest’s peace to me.
“Yes,” I said, mind melting through the memories of my youth, always searching for the sorcerer humans, always venturing into the great structures of their titan civilization, always wanting to know why I was so small and they were so big. I had no idea what my ambition would garner. I envy that boy. He desired everything I had. I wish I could give it to him before he realized that there was a reason not everyone could be so big. With expansion, joy remains consistent, and its antithesis merely grows.
Grander realities promise greater pain. For every smile falls a hundred tears and for every triumph a hundred failures.
“Pshh,” I sighed aloud, groaning at my own brooding. “Do you think that the larger the scope of one’s mind, the larger the potential of pain?”
“Yes,” Peridot said, “but that is law. Same as saying that the bigger the ocean, the greater the water.”
“Unless it’s an empty ocean.”
“Then it would be a hole.”
“And a hole isn’t an ocean.”
“The larger the ocean, the more water. The larger the hole, the more vacant it is. The metaphor applies both ways.” She curled up into a hound-like ball, resting her wings along her sides. “But your life is not all pain. Pain increases. So does the rest.”
“Yes. I think that’s right. Thanks.” I tapped my head, “Dark thoughts crept in.”
“When don’t they?”
As the night rolled onward, and the morning passed through the needles and the leaves, eventually I did fall asleep for some hours. The morning light woke me. Peridot remained at my side. I stretched on my branch, perfectly comfortable not to fall, and found my eyes drifting below.
And this is where our story started.
The mycelia-men flanked into a ready legion. The glow of their fortresses receded in the morning light. But far off, some branches away, a crawling black collective waved along the leaves and branches of the sister trees.
The mass first appeared like a swarm of locusts crawling to us. But no, the little worms were, in fact, worms. Caterpillars. I slid down a few branches, and got a closer look at caterpillars armed with splinters, bringing “war machines” in the form of flower buds filled with pollen and honey.
My instincts told me to stop this war, to be the storm, to step in between whatever strange conflict I’d come into. My mind drifted, though, and pondered on just how insanely small this war was.
No one would go rambling in the history books of this insect versus fungus fight. There’d be no minstrels singing songs of foolish failing commanders and valiant victors. When the killing was through and the tree won, no enduring monolith would be erected to stand for all time.
No, I was wrong.
This was a history of a scale to which I did not belong. It was never mine to understand. There’d be songs and tales told on both sides, but never for me to hear. There would be incredible monuments decorated, just as I’d mistaken the mushrooms for regular mushrooms and not citadels.
They were simply smaller. Unrecognizable. Foreign.
As the battle raged on, and many mycelia fell to their deaths through the trees, and caterpillar blood pooled in the cracks of the bark, I pondered how many wars had raged on for such petty squabbles.
These beings, quite literally, warred over a tree branch.
How many people had fought for a town? Or a river? Or a city? How many battles had destroyed entire civilizations in a single detonation of unimaginable magical malevolence simply because a leader had the pull to command it?
How many died because their “world” was at stake, when they had never left their own neighborhood?
“There are races far smaller than these, even,” Peridot said, “with entire worlds full of beings just as mighty and intelligent as you or anyone else, only they’re no bigger than a grape.”
“That is terrifying.”
“Scale.” I opened my palms as if I could expand the multiverse. “If I could barely pay attention to entire societies and universes comprised of relatively tiny people, what does that say about you?”
She eyed me.
“What if Loche’s Garden is just that,” I exhaled slow, chewing the words, “a garden. We’re the worms and the ants and the fungus in the garden of a greater being. No agency beyond our little lives. No meaning beyond our place in the hierarchy.”
“Why does that scare you?” She smiled. “After all, you spent so long as a mouse in a garden.”
The warmth of home rushed through me. The comfort of ignorance, the blanket of unknowing, the promise that something greater than myself held the pressures of power at bay. “It. . . when you say it like that, then no. . . it doesn’t scare me at all.”
The war down below was now over. The caterpillars had overwhelmed the mycelia-men and were invading their tree. The reign of fungus had ended.
“All of this,” I began, “to rule as momentary masters.”
“Is that so bad?” Peridot said. “All things come and go. That is the nature of Existence. That is the nature of Creation. That is, simply, life.”
“It’s not so bad. I only fear that maybe you and I don’t have the luxury of being momentary masters.” I leaned in, eyeing Peridot as she curled upon a single gnarled branch. A goddess—eternal and undying—the size of a fingernail.
The illimitable potential of divinity bottled into a spec.
In that moment I appreciated every second I had ever lived more than ever before, and despised every second forthcoming more than I would in the future. Even time had fractions upon fractions upon fractions.
Would I be defined as a force—like a storm, an eruption, or a grand power—to beings far smaller than myself? Or would I be defined as a pest—like termites, or spiders, or fleas—to beings far grander than myself?
Maybe it isn’t about a single definition.
Maybe I am not one legacy, after all, but instead a collection of moments distilled into perspectives and relationships. Maybe I am defined quite simply by some and more complex by others.
Perhaps I’d been far too worried about what I left behind on worlds rather than my own belief.
After all, if a war across a tree branch could be a noble legendary victory handed down through the ages—stated by the most enduring party, in this case, the victors—then surely my tale would be woven not by the smallest voices in their specs of time, but instead by the mightiest notes carried over the longest of songs.
Whatever endured, endured. Whatever remained, remained. Whoever, in the end, lives the longest to tell the tales, becomes the master.
No matter the size of the fraction of the spec of the dot of Existence they control—it’s all they may know. It’s all they may have.