The cold had lasted now for ten months, and the reign of the terrible Carnivalers had long since ended. Here in the middle of nowhere, in the area which would one day be known as the Lower Field, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, although not even the midterms were yet in sight. In this barren and frozen land, only the most cunning, clever, and fit could flourish, or even hope to make it from Meacock to Old MacDonald Harrington.
The students of McGall were none of these things, and they were not flourishing. About fifty of them occupied a group of underground tunnels, connecting barely any of the university’s myriad different buildings.
The group was always hungry, but now it was starving. When the first faint glow of dawn crept into one of the tunnels, beside the Three Bares park, Note-Taker saw that his roommate had died in the night. He did not know that the You-Four was his roommate, for such a relationship was utterly beyond his understanding, but as he looked at the emaciated body, he felt a dim disquiet that was the ancestor of that feeling you get when you have to pay the month’s rent all by yourself, because you still haven’t managed to find someone to sublet that goddamn room.
Now it was light enough to leave. Note-Taker picked up the You-Four’s poor body and dragged it after him as he bent under the frozen gates of the tunnel. Once outside, he threw the body over his shoulder and stood upright – the only student in all this world able to do so at 6 a.m..
First he must get rid of the You-Four, but this was a problem that demanded little thought. There had been many deaths this season, one of them in his own tunnel. He only had to put the corpse where he had left the other one, and the medicine students would do the rest.
He never thought of his roommate again.
Later during the night of that day, Note-Taker suddenly awoke. Tired out by the day’s lectures and tutorials, he had been sleeping more soundly than usual, yet he was instantly alert at the first faint scrabbling down in the Lower Field.
Note-Taker came face-to-face with the Ice Balloons when he led his flock of students down in front of the Old MacDonald Harrington building in the first light of the next morning.
The Ice Balloons were many and colourful spherical objects, shiny and improbably round. If he collected all of them together, they would probably be three times the height of Note-Taker, but narrow enough to span with his arms – then again, why would he do that?
After several minutes of intense thought, he arrived at a brilliant explanation. These were rocks, of course, and they must have grown during the night – like a plant. This really superb piece of abstract thinking led Note-Taker, after only three or four minutes, to a deduction, which he immediately put to the test. Plants were very tasty, after all.
A few licks and nibbles quickly disillusioned him, as he found that his tongue had stuck to the red surface of one of the Ice Balloons. Screaming vehemently at his flock of students, he asked for help. Once they unstuck his tongue, he continued on his way to Meacock, and forgot all about the crystalline balls during the daily routine of screaming for extended periods of time.
Some of the students the Ice Balloons ignored completely, as if they were concentrating on the most promising subjects only. One of them was Note-Taker; once again he felt the inquisitive tendrils creeping down the sadly overused byways of his brain. And presently, he began to see visions.
He was looking at a peaceful auditorium, differing in only one respect from the scenes he knew. The professor and students that had mysteriously appeared before him were getting along rather nicely. The professor was telling the students that they could use laptops to take notes, that the lecture slides would be available on MyCourses, that the final would not be cumulative, and that there would be very few readings – and this was a condition of life that Note-Taker had never imagined.
There was no other activity, and after five minutes the scene suddenly faded out. Later that night, Note-Taker sat brooding at the entrance of his lair, and felt the first faint twinges of a new and potent emotion. It was a vague and diffuse sense of envy – of dissatisfaction with his life. Discontent had come into his soul, and he had taken one small step toward humanity.
A million years later in the same spot, one of those tiny snowploughs made its path through the glaciers of the Lower Field, and stopped right in front of the Old MacDonald Harrington building. Out of it came a woman, wearing a space admiral suit. This woman, who had a PhD in crystallography, was no other than McGall’s Principal and Vice-Baroness Suzie Forte.
So this is it, thought Forte, as the wee snowplough rolled past the snow dunes, and came to the lip of the field. Her pulse quickened as she craned forward for a better view. The vehicle began to creep cautiously into the field. And there, exactly as she had seen it in the photographs, were the frozen water balloons.
Forte was in awe, and there was also incredulity – sheer disbelief that the dead Lower Field, of all the places on campus, could have sprung this fantastic surprise.
The minuscule snowplough came to a halt within twenty feet of the frozen water balloons and broadside on, so that Forte could examine it. Yet, beyond the geometrically perfect shapes of the little colourful things, there was little to see.
Coming out of the teensy snowplough, Deputy Provost (Algorithmic Life and Re-programming) Hallivier 9000 greeted Forte, “There are so many more of these around the orbit of Jupiter. Wanna go check?”
“Fuck yeah,” said Forte, and they rode the pocket-size snowplough onward into outer space.
Once in the orbit of Jupiter, right past Io, Forte and Hallivier 9000 both saw the frozen water balloons. They approached one of the balloons and reached out with their hands, breaking the barrier of reality that was so well hidden from the eyes of academics for so long.
And what they saw amazed them, such that they both screamed together, in perfect harmony:
“Oh my god – it’s full of stars!”