The Meaning of Life

In Jorval, a city on the Lausi coast, the party was welcomed. A large part of the Monarchist army and its allies were camped around the city, occasionally launching quick raids. The supporters of the government inside the city, ordinary citizens and soldiers alike, were eager to hear Jason's plan to sabotage the invaders.

"It has to remain quite secret for now." Jason would say. "We can't very well have them hear of it, can we? All I can tell you is that if we succeed, no one will learn what we did for a very long time."

The reporters, sympathizing, soon left the foursome to their own devices. Still, Jason saw no easy way to get hold of an appropriate monster without attracting a lot of attention, both from Gyeedians, who might be disillusioned if they discovered what Jason was really doing here, and from the Monarchists, who would've liked nothing more than to have Jason's head on a pole. For when asked to find "the nearest non-human creature that can speak Common", the coin pointed into the dense jungle on the borders of Jorval, where the Monarchists lay in wait. The same went for the second-, third-, and fourth-nearest such creatures.

Walking around town as they tried to think, the party found the gentle sea breeze little relief from the harsh equatorial sunshine and the stiflingly humid air. The weather in Scorch, the desert town in Gyeeds's southern hemisphere, was pleasant by comparison. Even less comfortable than Jorval's natural climate was its climate of fear. Every citizen was continually aware that at any moment, a Monarchist rebel might teleport in and send deadly lances of plasma streaming through the windows of houses, or conjure wolves to snatch infants from their strollers. Even if such arbitrary violence against civilians was far less common in the cities of Laus than in Baghdad—the Monarchists were more interested in upending the government and ousting its foreign allies than hurting ordinary people—it did happen. The occasional wreaked car and shattered window marked the instances.

Eventually, it was decided that Roland and Simon would split up and seek monsters elsewhere in Laus, while Jason and Curtis would stay in Jorval and wait until one of the monsters moved somewhere it would be more approachable. And wait the boys did. Many days passed, yet the monsters stayed in areas that the coin confirmed were densely populated with soldiers. Jason and Curtis grew impatient.

One day, Jason was sitting around in the motel room he shared with Curtis (which, yes, had two single beds) and watching the news inattentively when the prince walked in. "Jay, I have an idea." he said.

Jason's eyes widened. "You do? Good, because I'm fresh out. Give it to me."

"Well, our problem is that we can't get to the monsters because they're on Droydania's side. Can't we go after monsters on Gyeeds's side instead?"

"Sure, in theory, but how could we find any? There are a few critters fighting with the Defenders here, but they don't like to hang around the city; none of the monsters, it seems, particularly enjoy human company. I've only seen a couple speed through the streets here, none of which looked particularly sapient. Mostly, I think they lurk the outskirts of town, just like their enemies."

"Can't you get the coin to find monsters on Gyeeds's side?"

"Alas, no. The question can't be formulated precisely enough, to the coin's satisfaction."

Curtis scrunched up his brow. "Mmm… how about if you ask for a monster that's attacked one of the Monarchist guys?"

"Actually, that would probably work." said Jason. He tried it out, and the coin answered his questions, but it indicated that the four nearest non-human speakers of Common who had attacked a Monarchist soldier within the past few days were also in the jungle, among the Monarchists. "Great."

Four days later, Jason noticed that the third-closest critter had wandered away from the soldiers. It was now a little north of the northern boundary of the Monarchist camp.

"Although it's still too close for comfort, really," said Jason, "this might be our only chance."

Despite the clammy air and the incessant drone of insects, the inside of the jungle was a feast for the eyes. Ancient, mountainous trees towered over the boys' heads and birds with brilliant yellow and cyan plumage flew about. Curtis saw some sort of tiny monkey make a flying leap from one branch to another. In fact, Jason and Curtis could see only a small portion of the world around them; not only did the great gnarled tree-trunks obstruct their vision, the dense leafy roof of the jungle let only a few shafts of sunlight in. It was quite dark, though it was just an hour past high noon.

"We should've brought a flashlight." Curtis whispered.

"No, the dark is our friend." said Jason. "If we're careful, we'll be able to sneak up on our prey. Once we're within range, so long as it doesn't know we're there, you'll be able to disable it pretty easily, right?"

"So long as it isn't a dragon."

"I doubt it will be." He quietly knocked on a nearby tree-trunk.

"Whadjya do that for?"

"Never mind it." Using the coin, he pointed himself in the correct direction. They walked a span over the thin soil, going around two trees on the way. "Well, it should be within thirty feet right now, but I don't smell anything special."

"Who goes there?" someone squawked.

The boys, startled, looked towards the source of the voice and found a scarlet parrot staring down at them from a branch high above.

The parrot blinked and fidgeted. "Who goes there?" it repeated, then squawked wordlessly.

"Oh, my." said Jason. "I believe we've found a non-sapient Common speaker."

"Why'd you even ask the coin for animals that can speak Common?" said Curtis, annoyed.

"Because 'sapient' isn't precise enough for it." Jason grumbled. "I wouldn't be surprised if a parrot that big has occasionally tussled with a Monarchist soldier."

"Who goes there?" said the parrot, and with that, it flew away.

"Ask for something that isn't a parrot, then." said Curtis.

"Wait a minute." said Jason. "I smell something new. Like a big cat, maybe? And it's rapidly―"

The monster leapt out of the darkness in a blaze of claw and tooth. It was indeed a feline, a sleek, muscular panther with scattered streaks of violet fur. It bowled Curtis over and was about to make mincemeat of him when another monster interrupted it. A long-winged, snow-white bird like an albatross swooped down through a hole in the forest canopy. It dug its talons into the panther's flank and carried the cat away, back above the trees. Apparently, it was supernaturally strong for its size.

"Yikes." Jason whispered. "Are you okay, Curtis?"

"Fine." said Curtis, waving aside Jason's attempt to help him up and standing on his own. "I think Death wants to get us. Let's get out of here."

"So the cat was a Death-monster," said Jason back in their room, "and the bird was a Life-monster."

"Definitely." said Curtis. "They're color-coded."

"Well, I guess we underestimated the danger of that jungle. We thought we'd have the element of surprise, but something surprised us. And we can't count on every monster that wants to attack us being attacked by another monster."

"You don't think Life sent down the bird to help us?"

"Of course it didn't. Green tried to kill us with a dragon on our way to Leela's, remember?"

"Well… maybe. But it wasn't an accident that the bird appeared."

"But it wasn't created or teleported in just for us. Its scent was already in the air when we appeared in the jungle; I merely didn't find it particularly remarkable, since all sorts of natural birds live there. I think it just attacked the cat when it saw a good opportunity to do so, which happened to be just before it cut you up."

"It's too much of a coincidence."

"Even with the very fabric of reality distorted as it is?"

"Even." Curtis suddenly stood up. "In fact, Jay, I think Leela might be wrong about one thing."

"You're the skeptic now?" said Jason.

Curtis shrugged. "I just think Life isn't evil. Or it might not be evil. Think about it. It's Life! It's called 'Life', and it's all about life. Isn't life what's good? I mean, isn't the standard definition of 'evil' something like 'opposed to life'? How can it be evil? What isn't evil, if life is?"

"It's a good question, I admit. The thing is, the deity Life, for its own inscrutable reasons, doesn't particularly value the survival of living things. Or so it seems. Recall how many monsters it created last spring to attack cities full of innocent people. My guess is that the sense of the word 'life' it embraces is a very different one from that which we value."

"Maybe it just has a big-picture idea of life." said Curtis. "Maybe it only kills people who would kill more."

"It seems a stretch. And I'm not inclined to trust anything as powerful as a god, nor anyone who wants to strike a Faustian bargain with me."

"You still don't know that becoming Red's avatar would've been bad."

"Leela said I would've become 'its thrall'! That's pretty bad!"

"Unless it really was good, and it wouldn't have treated you like a slave."

"Oh, we're grasping at straws. Let's just be cautious. Anyway, our only real goal, in the short term, is to find out more about the gods."

"You don't want to join Red?"

"Definitely not! Perhaps if I had very good reason to do so, I'd reconsider, but for the time being, it's out of the question. I don't think it's interested anymore, anyway. It didn't react well when I started calling it the Devil. I doubt it will forgive me easily."

"All right, then, what we should do now?"

"First, we should abandon the idea of venturing back into the rainforest. It's just too dangerous, even if there are sapient monsters in there. I think I'll try asking the coin for some non-human, non-parrot Common speakers currently in Jorval. There might be one or two."

The coin said there wasn't.