From deep slumber I ascend through the murky strata of my subconscious. A single potent impetus drives me forth.
My form rests on a wooden bench facing a dirt path which winds its way through densely packed redwood trees. This path is lit regularly by lamps hanging from wooden posts and low-hanging branches, and these cast their cheeky orange light out into the blue atmosphere of the twilit evening.
A seemingly endless succession of forest creatures march past me, all in a line. They occasionally look at me and smile, yet are extremely fixated on their destination, and so have little to offer me save for cursory salutations, before continuing on their journey from stage left to stage right.
A mole who is not a part of this conga line walks up to me boldly, the first critter to do so. He explains how his peers are on their way to the mines, a place they have heard a great deal about, but have not yet seen.
"What's all the hullabaloo about the mines?" I ask, for by now thousands of woodland animals have scampered past.
"The mines are all the rage. The mines are in vogue, a la mode," the mole explains in his ponderous molic way. "Everybody is going to the mines." He says this last sentence with finality, as though the mines require no further justification.
"What happens at the mines?" I ask.
A wistful expression of deep longing comes over the moles furry face.
"Well, first each critter is issued a helmet and pickaxe, as these are utterly indispensable in the mines. The helmet protects one's bean from the heavy chunks of debris which are forever falling in the mines. It also enables one to perceive something of his surroundings in the prevailing black, this thanks to the nifty candle sconce affixed to the top of each and every helmet!"
In my mind's eye, I see great multitudes of woodland creatures outfitted in helmets, plunging their way into the murky bowels of the earth via treacherous passageways.
"The pickaxe too is absolutely imperative, for without it the miners could not perform their most crucial task, namely extracting sweet nectar from stubborn stone. This is the miner's true purpose; it is this nectar which bids them sally froth from their warm, comfortable burrows, and out into this hostile world, and then into mines which are more hazardous still. But the nectar..."
The mole's eyes cross and go blank. He teeters on the bench a bit, seemingly lost in some sort of rapturous trance.
"Have you ever been to the mines, or tasted this exquisite nectar?" I ask, half expecting him to remain in his little fugue. He returns, however, and says:
"Alas, no. Neither. However, is it not enough to know that all one's peers proceed to the mines with haste? Is this not sufficient to impress upon one the limitless pleasures sequestered therein?
"But the movements of my peers are not all. Now it is an irrefutable fact that none return from the mines, and so direct news from a primary source regarding the internal conditions of the mines is a sheer impossibility, but I do not begrudge the miners this fact. How could anyone be expected to leave the Elysian realms, even for a moment, when surely I could never even ask myself to do this?
"But this is not to say that no news arrives whatsoever. It is my understanding that miners who occupy the very most depths of the mines will occasionally experience a sort of spectral spasm of sentiment for their almost-forgotten peers in the lands of light, and so will, as an afterthought, pass some item of news to a miner who dwells in a slightly shallower octave of the mines. For these very most subterranean of miners, even the simple act of this initial communication is nearly impossible, so compelling is the nectar trance. In fact, it is believed that for every message actually sent, there are perhaps millions of sentimental spasms which are outright ignored, instantly forgotten, or otherwise consigned to oblivion. As one nears the absolute depths of the mines, it is believed that this number swiftly approaches infinity, before finally any such sentiments for the surface world cease altogether.
"Notwithstanding this, messages do reach the surface, an almost miraculous feat considering the constant cacophony which surely prevails in the catacombs, a din made up mainly of the clinking of pickaxes, the rumble of cave-ins, the sudden roar of tunnel floods, the furious incantations of territorial tunnel wizards, dynamite explosions, and of course, the squeals of rapturous joy which accompany every discovery, and ingestion, of the exalted nectar.
"It is in this clangorous environment that messages from the deep gradually 'telephone' their way up through the uncountable strata of the mines, and this by word-of-mouth only. By the time such messages do finally reach the surface they are almost certainly mangled beyond recognition, but not nearly so mangled as they will ultimately end up, for the journey of the communique has only just begun. The message now leaves the lips of the novice, surface-level miner, and enters the ear canal of some newly-arrived woodland creature, the first in the queue, who then transmits it 'verbatim' to the fellow directly behind him, and so on. This is how news of the mines at long last reaches us in our humble deep woods communities."
Now that the mole mentioned it, I had witnessed the progress of several accordion waves of energy which passed through the bustling critters, waves characterized by a rapid turning of heads, and eagerly proffered ears quivering with excitement.
"Yes, as you have observed, many of these messages are being transmitted, even so far from their point of origin as we now are. Yet tragically, each message becomes orders of magnitude more distorted in the queues than they ever could in the mines, for as you can see, my fellow critters are extremely eager to reach their destination, and become doubly so whenever word from the mines passes through them. And so every message is conveyed from excited mouth to excited ear, and at every turn is exaggerated and enlarged upon, until finally it is mangled beyond recognition.
"But even this is far from the greatest hindrance to clear lines of communication from the mines; so enthusiastic are these prospective miners that they often march over hill and dale faster than any message can possibly be relayed through their ranks. In fact, here is a fine example now..."
The mole gestured to the swiftly flowing queue. As the animals bustled from left to right, so too did a message from the mines gradually ripple its way from right to left, crawling back through the ranks at a snail's pace. However, even as I watched, the message ground to a halt, still being transmitted from mouth to ear, yet making no further progress through the forest. Then, to my great astonishment, the message began moving backward, almost imperceptibly at first, before picking up speed and leaving the clearing altogether via stage right.
"Such is the fate of countless messages from the mines," said the mole. "If the news is not sufficiently exciting, the message simply cannot sustain its momentum, and all forward progress is stalled. Yet at times, the forgotten message may again pique the interest of the woodland creatures' collective psyche, and so resume its original trajectory, before again stalling and reversing its course as newer, fresher messages leapfrog over it effortlessly. One thing that can never happen, however, is for a message pertaining to the mines to be entirely forgotten, as this topic occupies the most premiere position in the critters' minds; so long as a message relates to the mines, it must be passed from mouth to ear.
"What can happen, though, is that a message becomes so distorted that its contents no longer even make reference to the mines, and once a message reaches this stage it is inevitably discarded, as mines-bound creatures simply have no use for such things.
"It is also worth mentioning that all this only applies to extremely short messages, for anything longer than a single sentence simply cannot be passed along quickly enough to surmount the implacable tide of eager critters. Longer messages, though still sent, crash back against the mine entrance and dissolve into ether."
The hordes of forest animals took on a whole new light for me. Twilight fades into a cool evening illuminated by lanterns and fireflies, and not once did they slow in their mad rush. I am splattered by several flecks of hot saliva as an especially eager hog blasts by.
"But how can you know so much about the mines?" I ask.
The mole laughs heartily. This is the question he's been waiting for.
"You are right to wonder this, for it is absolutely true that none can enter the mines without falling under their spell. Many researchers and adventurers have attempted this, but none have succeeded, and we of the overworld had all but given up hope of ever comprehending the true nature of the mines.
"That is, until Count Markofkalov came long."
The mole skewered me with a meaningful look. I had never heard this name before, but the sound of it sent an electric pulse through me.
"Yes, Markofkolov. He was a ninth-tier labyrinthologist at the Empiricist's Guild in Isle Ire, and it was he who first set about to understand the mines via the only avenue which had not yet been tried; the indirect route.
"Prior to 'Markofkolov's Masterstroke', as it is known, the messages emerging from the mines were thought to be useless to science, at least for the purpose of illuminating the interior of the mines. By the time these memos reached the surface they were likely already bungled beyond coherence, bearing no resemblance to the original message, and were subsequently bungled further by the zealous torrents of woodland creatures who disseminated them.
"Yet the great Count Markofkolov knew a thing or two. He knew that the mangling of the messages must follow some predictable pattern, and that if this pattern could be understood, the messages could be reverse-engineered to determine their original content. And so, Markofkalov and his legions of assistants set out on the single greatest undertaking of all time.
"The first order of business was to set out and compile a comprehensive catalogue of every message which was currently being promulgated, but this would prove to be no mean feat, for the flowing lines of critters were vastly more complex than initially assumed. Instead of a single queue there were actually twelve major queues which all met near the mine entrance, and the farther each of these was followed into the forest, the more branches, junctions, dead-ends, convulsions, ox-bows, and contortions were discovered. Of course, all of this made Markofkalov's task extraordinarily difficult, for at the mines entrance itself these twelve streams flowed together into one immense river, which then plunged below ground. This meant that each message which emerged from the mines quickly split into twelve different iterations, which then diverged further at each subsequent fork in the road.
"So Markofkolov determined that all the 'lost messages' must be found. These were the messages that at some stage had lost their forward momentum, and so now bobbed back and forth in the deep depths of the forest, making no real progress in any direction. The brilliant Count sent his hordes of capable assistants out into the great jungles, following the endless queues which in total amounted to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of miles worth of hustling critters.
"But how can this be possible? Surely the forest itself is not so large as all that? Well, I tell you now that this forest is vastly more expansive than we have formerly been led to believe, but this alone does not account for the length of the queues.
"As Markofkolov's men would soon discover, the queues almost never described a simple straight line, and were often folded, corkscrewed, and compacted in on themselves with such incredible density, as though a river's meandering had been massively compressed, and these snaking sections could squash miles worth of queue into a few hundred square yards.
"Markofkolov's surveyors began compiling the messages via simple eavesdropping, and sometimes even by inserting themselves into the queues briefly to intercept an especially quiet message, and before long, Markofkolov's forest headquarters overflowed with documents which outlined an estimated five-billion messages, with more flowing in all the time.
"Now came the tricky part. Since every original message from the mines had instantly been fragmented into twelve distinct versions, each of which subsequently fragmented further, Markofkalov determined that through retrospective analysis, each original message could be triangulated by determining which messages descended from the same source message, and then extrapolating backward in time to reveal the source message's contents.
"Now even Markofkolov had to admit this was a daunting task, for massive uncertainty loomed at every turn. Once a message had split, there was no guarantee that the divergent fragments would all survive, for at any moment one or all of them could be bungled so as no longer to refer to the mines at all, at which point it would be dropped completely.
"Making matters more convoluted was the fact that Markofkolov's field researchers had not compiled positional data on where exactly the messages were collected, nor when, as the Count had not recognized the need for this information when he had initially dispatched his legions. Besides, even to form a coherent system of reference for forest position would be next to impossible, not only due to the heinous complexity of the queues, but also because they were forever shifting and mutating, instantly invalidating any positional reference.
"Nonetheless, Markofkolov knew that he absolutely needed positional data if he were to have any hope of triangulating the original source messages. And so his finest cartographers set out into the forest in pursuit of their fool's errand.
"Unfortunately, it was soon recognized that even if the queues were absolutely stable, the messages themselves would have not only moved elsewhere, but they themselves would also have mutated thanks to the transmissional manglings which had occurred in the time since the message had initially been catalogued. This of course meant that all messages would need to be recollected, this time with positional and temporal data, and all previously collected messages would either need to be transported to the archives, or burned to make room for Markofkolov's harem.
"By this time, Markofkolov was, for all intents and purposes, insane. This endeavor had already taken fifty years, yet he felt he had aged a thousand. For Markofkalov knew that even if all these impossible tasks could be brought together, still he would be no closer to success. This was due to the contents of the messages themselves. Markofkalov had spent a great deal of time studying these messages over the years, searching for patterns and clues, and what he found disturbed him mightily.
"You see, and this boggles my mind even to this day, the contents of every message were nearly identical. It didn't seem to matter whether it had emerged from the mines only moments prior, or had been oscillating in the deep woods for thousands of years; the contents were always more or less the same-
"Nectar! Nectaaaaaar!!! In the mines!! Nectar in the mines!!! NECTAR!!!!!"
"Nectar nectar mines nectar mines mines nectar, nectar nectar mines nectar mines!"
"Perhaps you now begin to understand the sheer hopelessness of Markofkalov's endeavor. He is an old man now, and still no closer to the truth of the mines. He has since enlisted the aid of the realm's most potent supercomputer to perform the colossal calculuses which must be resolved, and yet even with this tremendous boon it is estimated that Markofkalov's Masterstoke is no more that 0.2% complete, a figure widely believed to be wildly optimistic."
My attention leaves the mole as an owl in official regalia marches into the clearing and holds a brass listening trumpet to a part of the queue where a message has become jammed. He makes several notations on his clipboard before bustling away again into the darkening forest.
A question has been nagging at me for some time now.
"It seems to me that you understand more about the inner workings of the mines than even Markofkolov's research could account for, especially considering that he has only completed a small fraction of his work. How can you explain this?" I ask.
"You are quite sharp!" the moles says, smiling and scratching at his groin absentmindedly. "This pleases me. You are right to assume that Markofkolov knows even less about the mines than my rudimentary outline reveals. Many follow the quarterly journals he publishes concerning his ongoing research, and yet these journals contain nothing of value whatsoever, a nothing which is stretched to fill several hundred pages each quarter. These publications have gradually become more and more bloated with fanciful theories and extrapolations regarding the mines, and have less and less substance as time goes on. Indeed, a number of rival journals have recently sprung up for the sole purpose of refuting every last punctuation mark of Markofkolov's efforts.
"As for me," says the mole, "I do not read Markofkolov's journals, for I fear they might trigger in me a fit of laughter so violent that it would tear my body apart, killing me outright and putting a premature end to my designs. This is because I understand the mines in their entirety, the mines as they are, not as they are deduced to be on the basis of whiffs of ether. I am, you see, the superintendent of the mines. I have many foremen operating beneath me, and I answer only to the high council, who hardly trouble me at all since they are far too preoccupied with their endless games of pick-up sticks."
I looked at the mole more carefully than before, and found him to be wearing a helmet with a flickering candle mounted on top, as well as a shiny brass lapel pin denoting his status as mines superintendent. I hadn't noticed either of these until now, but must admit they could very well have been there all along.
"In order to become superintendent one must be entirely immune to nectar's charms, as I alone am, and as such I am the only individual in all the overworld who is actually equipped to tell you the truth of the mines. Well, shall I?"
By now I was hooked, and would have grovelled about in the muck like a hog for a single genuine fact about the mines, but this wouldn't be necessary; the mole was just hitting his stride, and could no longer be stopped.
"It is important now for you to understand something of the nature of nectar," he began, extracting a sizeable pipe from the folds of his fur. "One's first taste of nectar is a revelation, as well as a death knell. It engenders a euphoria so intense that it is actually rather uncomfortable, I am told. However, it is incredibly short lived. In the wake of nectar's transitory bliss, one finds themself in a dry, dull, grim state, and if I am to believe the stories, all colors fade to shades of gray. In short, once one has sampled nectar's delights, their life forevermore must revolve around nectar to the exclusion of all else. A cruel and total prison."
The mole's pipe now belched greasy clouds of fetid orange smoke. Fortunately, I happened to be upwind.
"As it would be, each subsequent dose of nectar must be larger than the one preceding it, for the same dose will have little to no effect, and can only exacerbate one's craving for the ambrosial nectar. This is the tell tale cycle of the nectarslave, otherwise known as your average miner. So quickly does the nectar-bliss fade that mere moments after 'turbo-blasting' an immense payload of nectar, a miner is nearly driven insane with desire for a score many times larger, and is likely to be quite ornery should you happen to ask him for a spare candle. In fact, so enormous was the exponentially-growing demand for nectar that before long there wasn't any nectar left at all."
The mole leaned back against the bench and allowed this last point to sink in. The stream chortled behind us, accompanied by ecstatic squeals from the marching horde.
"No nectar?" I ask.
"None. None for many years now. The entire planet's been hollowed out in quest of every last dollop, but there is none to be had. And so we have an uncountable number of miners, each of them hopelessly enslaved to nectar's wiles, and yet there is simply no nectar left. Now I would image that a reasonably objective outside party such as yourself might wonder something like; 'But why have the miners not emerged from the mines if their incentive is depleted? And why send out messages which only seem to entice fresh woodland creatures to enter the mines?' Fine questions, those, but I tell you, there is great purpose in this. Momentum has a purpose all its own.
"You see, the sheer momentum of the mines was, and is, truly staggering. So much so that an entire planet has been hollowed out in record time. Yet once the nectar was exhausted, the miners couldn't just return to life on the surface. Too many generations had come and gone in the dark and the soot. The miners were simply no longer surface-dwelling creatures. Tragically, they were also bound forevermore in the throes of nectar withdrawal, an ailment which grays all things, and causes the genitals to crumble into dust over time. In such a state, the miners simply could not leave the one place where nectar had ever been discovered, for what if a new vein was located? The miners cling to this flimsy hope, though every viable stone had already been strip-mined. Nectar is their only chance of salvation, if only for a fraction of a second.
"In their idleness, in their waiting for the next score, the miners did the only thing they could.
"But with the planet tapped out, what direction could they mine in? The only viable option was up, up into the environs of the overworld. The miners tunneled upwards and outwards, hollowing out every last piece of the world above in their insatiable lust for nectar. Nothing was spared, for it was universally believed that a great hoard of nectar would be discovered soon, but only in the most unlikely of places, and this prophecy drove the miners to a bestial thoroughness never before seen."
To illustrate his point, the mole poked the bench beneath us with a pink finger, causing the brown boards to squeal in consternation.
"It's chock-full of critters," he explained. "Just like everything else. The rocks, the trees. Even that stream behind us has been hollowed out and fully occupied with miners, who watch and listen with absolute vigilance."
"Why?" I asked, utterly flummoxed.
"They maintain their watchful scrutiny to ensure the messages are being efficiently disseminated to all corners of this world. This is imperative, as these messages are our chief means of recruiting further miners, who these days have practically nothing left to mine, but a very great deal of world to spy on.
"You ask why, and I confess that even I, the superintendent, once entertained such questions, such doubts. Why recruit for the purpose of monitoring the overworld to ensure that more recruits are on their way? Is this not a form of madness? Well, I am pleased to tell you that I no longer even entertain such scruples at all. This comes back to a point I made earlier about how the mines have such an inexorable momentum. It has come to a point where, though any real hope of nectar is but a distant memory, the mines themselves have become their own justification. The mines are the means, and the mines are the end. Eventually, in the not-so-distant future, all creatures of the overworld will have drained into the mines, unable to resist their immense gravity. And then all will watch, and listen, but there will be nothing left to see, no more critters to funnel into the mines. And then, when that day finally comes, well . . . well we'll just have to see, now won't we!" the mole finished triumphantly.
I looked at the mole for a long moment. Saliva bubbled at the corners of his mouth. Lightning bugs and faeries flitted about the canopy, heedless of the great tide which swept beneath them.
In a stroke of divine inspiration, I picked up the mole and tossed him into the rushing mob of woodland creatures. He squealed in fury as he was swept up in the current, sandwiched between a pair of greasy hogs, and unable to extricate himself from their oppressive corpulence. Even as I watched, a message passed from one hog to the next, but not before it was conducted through the mole, who passed it on in spite of his most herculean resistance.
In moments, the mole was swept out of the clearing. I smiled to myself, closed my eyes, and returned to sweet Slumbertown.