It was a time of magic, a time of wonder, a time of wizards and the mighty mages of old; men like Fatumpsh the Cheerful Wandering Fornicator, and Blath-Gar the Flatulent, and Heinleino the Creepy Swinger. Not less pronounced - if somewhat more pronounceable - were women wizards such as Katie the Trollope, Sheena the Slattern, Hepshebah the Other Trollope, and Wanda-With-The-Stupid-Husband-Of-Convenience. Such marvels as these held sway in this distant age, when empires rose and fell based entirely upon their whim. The fates of kings could be upset by the mere timely raising of a magical eyebrow. A particularly grumpy sorcerer - Rumplebumpledumplejackassbumpleboo - after a particularly disquieting bowel movement, sank Atlantis.
And among these luminaries, these light-bearers, these glowing paragons of mystical hoo-has was Steve the Cheese Guy. Steve really was a wizard, honest to gosh, but his powers were mostly limited to card tricks, juggling, and the ability to make milk curdle slightly faster than it otherwise would. As lame as all this was, it still put him head-and-shoulders-and-upper-torso above the rest of the poser wannabe-wizards out there. Granted: no one would play cards with him anymore, and granted the juggling thing was more of a nervous habit that tended to freak people out, but he was at least able to eke out a living as an junior assistant to a local dairy farmer.
Now, Steve had a dream. It was the same dream all wizards had: To get chicks. (Even female wizards. They all swung that way. It was nature’s way of keeping the magical population down to acceptable levels. They were impossibly hot, mind you, but it was strictly a look-don’t-touch thing.) Alas, the ones a minor-league milk curdler could get were ones that had already been passed over and/or cast aside by Major League Baseball Players, Fuzzies, Hippies, Hippie-Fuzzies, and the Esteemed Brotherhood Of Loyal Chubby-Chasers Local 107, so that was a fairly unobtainable dream, and Steve knew it. Granted, there were always the neo-pagan chicks, but come on, man, nobody was that desparate!
So Steve had another dream: He wanted to be the first wizard in space (Space having been only recently discovered)
“Ah, Mrs. Orphateramatapataketeleon!,” Steve said, upon seeing his co-worker’s wife in the park one day. “Nice to see you! What lovely triplets you have there. Say, do you think your sister would want to go out with me?”
“I doubt it. Ocularis the Occidental was able to clear her pinkeye up.”
“Oh.” This conversation wasn’t going well at all. He felt uneasy. Without realizing it, he began to sidle towards the kids in their cribs.
“Still got your crazy dreams of being the first Wizard in space?” she asked.
“Yup. I’m on my way to the Library of Highly Suspect Sciences now, in fact, to bone up on my Universal Gravitation.” He smiled in a way he hoped was smug. Science was the up-and-coming thing, very cutting edge, and slightly naughty in a rakish way.
“I don’t hold to all that newfangled science crap,” she said. Flop sweat forming on his forehead, Steve grabbed the three babies, and started juggling them.
“Aiigh! Put them down! Put them down!”
He did, and she stormed off.
“Ah, dangit!” he said to no one in particular.
The Library was overseen by Oingoboingo-The-Previously-Four-Eyed. He’d had it in for Steve ever since the accident last fall in which Steve had been juggling meat cleavers while hitting on a pretty sushi chef, sneezed, and accidentally chopped off the librarian’s main head, leaving him with only his auxiliary one to use.
“Oh gods, not you again,” Oingoboingo said.
“Hey, how’s tricks?”
“I’ve told you a thousand times, Steve, I’m not a prostitute.”
“Ok, ok, sorry. Say, the nub is loo…”
“Not anymore, anyway,” the Librarian said, “Not since I paid off my student loans.”
After an awkward pause, Steve continued, “The nub is looking good today. Head growing back ok, I see. Probably we should change your title to ‘the Once-And-Future-Four-Eyed.’”
Oingoboingo Seethed, “If you must know, Salik the Insurance-Accepting informs me that my nub has split, and now I’ve got two heads growing in.”
“I’ll have to have one of them removed, and I’ve still got another five thousand Drachmas left on my deductible. Your little stunt has just devastated me financially. I swear I’m gonna’ get Elrich the Litigious on your ass!”
“Look, how many times can I say ’I’m sorry?’ Do you have the book on combustion I wanted?”
“It’s right here, but you’re fooling yourself with these crazy conspiracy theories about the sky being nothing but air colored by light refraction from the sun.”
“Well then what is the sky,” Steve asked.
“Rock painted blue by the gods, obviously. We live in an enormous cave. The sun moves on a track hanging from the ceiling.”
“Well then what’s beyond the rock?” Steve asked.
“Nothing, just more rock. It’s rock as far as you go in any direction.”
Steve took the book, and went home.
Riding the Magic Bus home - powered by an extremely irritating choir singing hymns to Transito, the goddess of Inertia - he discovered that Oingoboingo had inserted a number of extremely obscene pictures in the text, really rude phrases scrawled across them. He’d been smiling at a bunch of pretty milkmaids all in a row on the seats facing him, the bus jostled, and a picture of two goats attempting to make a baby goat slipped out. A picture of his face had been pasted on one the animals, and the phrase “Steve Ballbanger” had been captioned in singing paint, which was not only glowing and perfectly legible, but also sang the offending phrase in an impressive contralto. Magic: It can make the world a paradise, but mostly it just ends up being used to make your enemies look like A-holes in public. Anyway, the milkmaids screamed, and without realizing he was doing it Steve snatched the hat, glasses, and hearing aid from the elderly scrimshaw enthusiast sitting to his left, and started juggling them.
He got thrown off the bus and had to hoof it home. He was so upset that he juggled the library book, his lunch box, and a very traumatized turtle all the way.
His house was a fairly typical thatched roof Edwardian affair built partially into a hillside, with entirely-pointless curved walls in the hallways. Nothing remarkable about it, but you could still see it a long way off because of the three-hundred foot-tall rocket standing in the back yard. The neighbors complained. Said it was an eyesore. Also, it tended to act as a lightning rod in summer storms, which spooked the cattle, pigs, and some of the more portly and indolent neighborhood children.
He was greeted by a neighbor as he walked home. Steve wasn’t in a mood to talk, but Peter Pusillanimous and Larry Loquacious intercepted him on the way home. They were no-goodniks, members of the local Toastmasters, always buttonholing passers by and extorting them for money with threats of unbridled effusiveness if they didn’t cough up the cash. He tried to ignore them.
“Heading home, are ya?” Larry said. Steve clenched his jaw and kept walking.
“Sure is a nice day for it,” Peter said.
“Can’t talk.” Steve said.
“Been to the library, have you?”
“No. Go away.” Steve said. In one deft move, Larry snatched the book out of the air and replaced it with a large fish he’d been carrying for no particular reason apart from thinking it might come in handy at some point. Around noon, the thing had begun to stink (Not because it was dead or rotting or anything, it was just a member of a now-extinct species Pisces Olere, or ‘Stink Fish,’ which attempted to evade predators by acting like a skunk), and he’d really been desperate to get rid of it.
“Gah!” said Steve, who was now juggling his lunchbox, the turtle, and the malodorous seafood.
“Sure you have,” said Larry, “I recognize Oingoboingo’s brush strokes in these dirty pictures here. This one’s a good likeness, really captures your fondness for pasta. That is pasta, right?” Steve tried to snatch the book away from him, but Larry tossed it to Peter, who thumbed through it.
“Say, this is more like it,” said Peter, “Mystic runes and stuff. Much better than that science stuff you’re always yammering about.”
“Ain’t Runes,” Said Steve, “It’s math.”
“Math? What’s math?”
“It’s a system of representing the universe through numbers.”
“Yes. Wait, no. No, this is completely different. It’s an attempt to quantify natural laws in a precise manner, and extrapolate from them how we can best use them to our advantage,” Steve said.
“Well, that’s not how magic works, chum,” said Peter.
“Screw magic, I’ve had enough of magic. It’s not worth anything, anyway. I mean, I’ve got magical powers - well, one, anyway - and it’s a whole bunch o’ nuthin’. Who’s to say anybody’s powers are more useful than mine? I mean, when was the last time anyone saw Rictus the Rigid or Grandelf the Grandpa actually do any really big prestidigitations? Who’s to say it’s not all just smoke and mirrors? Who’s to say they’re not just exaggerating it?”
“Hey, man,” Larry said affably, “Better watch out or Zeupiter will bust your ass for saying stuff like that.”
“Feh. Zeupiter’s got more important things to do than worry about my trash talk.”
“He probably really doesn’t,” observed Peter, “He’s a god, after all, they’re seldom at-capacity, power-wise.”
“Yeah, check it:” said Larry, and then he prayed,
“La cielo estas flamanta kun sinjorinaj
Gamboj ili estas piedbatanta
De la duboj suoj ne
Realig la matenon nebuleton
Kaj spruc kiel ovoj inter la amasoj”
As if on cue - for this really was a cue - the skies opened up, a shoe flew out, hit Steve in the head, and caused him to strew the crap he was juggling all over the place. The reptile scampered away, it being a member of the now-extinct species of Damnat Tesudo Iliunium, or “Damn Fast Turtle.” Steve snatched his book from the Toastmasters, grabbed his lunchbox off the ground, and then picked up the thing that had hit him in the head.
“A shoe?” he asked quizzically.
Peter shrugged, “There’s an energy crisis on the mountain of the gods, probably would have been wasteful to squander a lightning bolt on you.”
No sooner was he in his poorly-designed round front door with the knob right in the middle - seriously, what kind of sense does that make? - he found himself face to face with yet another unwelcome presence. “Esmerelda the Almost Preternaturally Beautiful” was her name, but Steve assumed this was intended as irony. She had once again stripped naked, and was scampering around the place wearing only one of his dress shirts. Unfortunately, as she weighed in excess of four hundred pounds, and Steve weighed in at a mere 135 when soaking wet, it never had the effect she was going for. Just the opposite, really. She kept trying, though, despite the restraining order.
“If I give you a shoe, will you go the hell away?” he asked. She said yes, but then decided to hold out for the other shoe, and refused to leave. He brought her out on the porch and prayed to Zeupiter in hopes she’d get beaned as well, but no luck. So he magically transformed some milk into cheese, then made a grilled cheese sandwich for himself and one for her. She was his stalker, but he’d discovered that if he fed her and let her stare at him with creepy adoration, she was at least quiet, whereas if he tried to keep her out of the house, she made his life a living gehenna. This was actually exactly how his dad and his brother and his sister had met their wives (His sister was also mildly magical), but Steve refused to settle.
“So how does this candle thing work?” she asked
Steve sighed, “The idea is that I burn some highly combustible stuff, which converts to a rapidly expanding gas - I think, I’m a little fuzzy on some details - and the expansion of the gas or whatever forces my rocket into the sky.”
“So? Lots of people can fly. Fly-o the Human Fly flies all the time. So does Ply-O the Inhuman Fly. She’s renowned for her flexibility, you know. I’m not magical or anything, but in her case, boy, I’d be willing to try it. I mean, don‘t get me wrong, I‘m committed to stalking you and all, but Ply-O? Damn!”
Steve blinked at her for a moment, then soundlessly turned back to his book.
“I’m not going to just fly,” he said, “I’m going to go beyond the sky, into space!”
“But the sky is the roof of the world! The gods walk around on top of that, our sky is their floor.”
“Oh? You don’t think it’s just rock, forever?”
“No, that’s stupid.”
“Right, anyway, so according to my years of research, I’ve concluded that our world is not a giant cave, but rather a sphere about six thousand three hundred kilometers in diameter, and about forty-thousand kilometers in circumference.”
“What’s that in miles?” she asked.
“I dunno. A bunch, I guess. I only do stuff in metric because it sounds all sciencey.”
“So we’re on the top of this ball?”
“No, actually, we’re relatively near the equator.”
“That’s crazy! We’d fall off, no matter how sticky your shoes were!”
“Gravity is stickier than any shoe,” Steve said, then decided that was a pretty good fortune cookie sentiment, and scribbled it down for future reference. Pleased with himself, he continued, “It holds us down, but since I know that Vee E is equal to the square root of two GM divided by R, I know that I only have to be going eleven kilometers a second to reach escape velocity and then, if I can do that long enough, I’ll be in space.”
“Eleven Kilometers a second?” she said.
“Or twelve. I’m fuzzy about details.”
“But won’t you hit the roof of the cave?”
“For the fifty-thousandth time: there is no freakin’ roof to the cave, the sky is just gas, it gets thinner and thinner as you go higher and higher, until you’re past it all, and then you’re in space.”
“And that’s where you’ll meet the gods?”
He groaned, “There are no freakin’ gods,” he said, “There’s only phenomenon we don’t understand yet.”
“Like the shoe.”
“Yes, like the shoe.”
“Which fell from the sky, why again?”
“I dunno. Meteorological phenomenon.”
“A shoe storm?”
“I don’t know,” he shrieked, “Maybe there was a tornado that hit a shoe store, and it got dropped here. The point is that there‘s got to be some perfectly logical explanation behind it.”
“And the bus powered by singing?”
“Well, the choir was all strapped to the rear bumper, so I’m assuming some kind of jet propulsion…”
“And your own ability to curdle milk?”
“Ah, that’s a good one,” he said, “I admit that one had me stumped for a long time, but nowadays I’m pretty sure it’s radiation. I grew up next to a radium mine, you know.”
“Fine, so what’s beyond space?” she asked.’
“Nothing. It’s just space, far as you go, in any direction.”
“And that’s different from there just being rock in every direction, how?”
He blinked at her. “Because one is rock and the other is void, well, not exactly void, it’s - gah - there’s molecules n’shit. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Probably not,” she agreed, “Can I have another sandwich? I don‘t get this chesty by dieting, you know?”
“Yeah, fine, I‘ll make you one.”
“Also, I was thinking of stealing some of your underwear later…”
“Laundry’s down the hall, on the left.”
After she was gone, he called all his friends - yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but despite the somewhat hapless portrait I’ve painted here, he had a large circle of people who at least pretended to like him - and announced that he was going to ascend to the heavens on tongues of flame, thereby proving the triumph of science over magic.
“But what if you fail?” asked Wonko the Whacky.
“There is no failure in science! Every negative outcome eliminates one false avenue of investigation! It brings us one step closer to the truth! It is the way to…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, stop being so chatty and officious,” said Peter Pusillanimous, “And just freakin’ get on with it already.”
“Fine,” said Steve. He started to say something else, then thought the better of it, and went up the gantry into the capsule. Absently he noticed that he wasn’t juggling. “Hey, I’m not nervous!” he said to no one in particular, “I’m not nervous at all! I was made for this! No, wait, that implies a maker, uhm…oh, I know: I was born for…no, that implies predestination…uhm…” He suddenly realized he’d started juggling three lug nuts while he’d been debating this, threw them down in disgust, and climbed into the rocket.
He hit the button, and the thing lurched off the ground, slamming his spine into the tastefully embroidered eiderdown cushions he’d installed just for this very occurrence. They were much nicer than the goose-feather ones he’d looked at. Those tend to poke you. The spedometer crawled up and up - five kilometer per second, six, seven - and the altimeter climbed like crazy, too. At two minutes into the flight, the first stage fell away, he was thirty-eight miles above the ground, though that number had no significance to him as he could only read metric. He was weightless for just an instant, then the second stage engines kicked in, slamming him back into his cushions.
He mentally ran through the numbers. At about 186 kilometers (One hundred and sixteen miles), six minutes from now, the second stage would be burned out, and then he’d be in orbit. At that point, he’d decide what he wanted to do next, and then he’d light the third stage. The spedometer and the altimeter climbed up and up and up and then - bang - at one hundred and fifteen miles altitude, he hit the roof of the cave at twenty-five thousand miles per hour, and died instantly.
Down on the ground, the crowd saw the flash, then gazed awestruck at the prominent brown and black smoldering gash that had been cut in the sky.
“Sooooo….I guess that eliminates one dead end, huh?” said Steve’s sister.
“I guess so,” said Esmerelda, shocked and sobbing.
“Wanna’ go make out?” Steve’s sister said, seeing her chance to take advantage.
“And how!” said the stalker.
And the moral of the story, gentle readers, is this: Just because someone’s surrounded by idiots doesn't mean they're not an idiot themselves. Or something like that. I dunno. I was kinda' drunk when I wrote it...