Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Much cleaning had to be done before the arrival of the president of the Creative Wildlife Solutions Committee. The man was famously allergic to almost everything, befitting his hatred of furry, scaly, and feathered things. His family crest bore a damp used handkerchief. A single stray hair could send him into a sneezing fit, and Edwar Beygal needed him to be quiet long enough to absorb his explanations.
Edwar charged his electric feather duster. Once its rotation was up to speed he ran it across everything in sight, high and low: the borders of his laboratory’s tall windows, his three expertly tamed house plants, the seams in the rubber-coated floor, and the five thousand pipes of varying width that snaked across the walls and ceiling. He put so much of his power supply into the duster that the overhead light flickered. He couldn’t have that, so he ran over to the dynamo wheel, put himself inside, and ran up some more juice.
Normally he paid a dog, in chicken bones and beef stock, to do his power-running for him, but the blasted animal was taking some time off to help arrange his delegation’s treaty, to be presented to the committee’s leadership in two weeks’ time. The fact that they were man’s best friend meant they had a little extra leverage over the other animals being squeezed out of the ever-expanding city of Galvintress. Pretty soon his beagle assistant would demand paid vacation, but if all went well with the president, Edwar could more than afford it.
Already his compensation had been generous, but he’d spend most of the proceeds from his first two invented compositions building the mechanism to generate the third. The third, his masterpiece until his next assignment, accounted for more than six hundred of the painted pipes snaking around the lab. They all eventually funneled together into something resembling a cross between a space heater and a phonograph. There was no bell to amplify its eventual sounds, just a funnel attached to a chair. Only one ingredient was missing, and the president himself would provide it.
Edwar flipped his calculation board to use the mirror on its other side. He grabbed a bottle of Spigton’s Definitely Endangered and Endangering Hair Oil and shook a few drops into his palm. With it he slicked his hair down to something so stiff that it couldn’t react to all the static in the air. The man was just past his twenties, with small eyes and a mechanically-trimmed mustache. He quelled the nervous shaking of his fingers by locking them behind his back. He breathed and fogged up the mirror, so he flipped it back over.
His door bell chimed. Edwar walked over to the door, undid its pressurized seal, and welcomed the president and his man into his lab for the third time. They strolled in, just as eager to get it over with. The president was a large man, his sneezes could disturb stacks of paper ten feet away, and his largeness was contained by a green and red waistcoat held together by a single button that was itself decorated with a large paper flower. He always looked barely contained, though it was often a mystery what he contained until that button snapped: usually either swellings of mirth and generosity or allergic swelling and rage.
The man behind him was equally big, almost twice the mass of twig-like Edwar, but his build was more muscular. A soldier no doubt, one of the vicious lumbering jacks sawing down the trees at the edge of the city to make way for progress.
“The helmet thingy looks different this time,” the president noticed as he approached the device and the attached chair. There was no concern in his voice. Before Edwar could even explain, he snapped his fingers and pointed to the chair. The soldier stoically sat himself in it, adjusting the funnel higher for his intimidating frame. He picked a piece of lint off his uniform and was about to flick it to the winds, but noticed the bulging eyes of his president. Any rogue fiber might have come from an animal, and if it found its way into the man’s nose, all hell could break loose. He carefully removed a handkerchief and folded the fiber away before storing it back in his pocket.
“Uhm yes,” Edwar said to get them moving again. If they stayed too long the lights might flicker. They might judge him for being ill-prepared, and reputation was everything with the committee. On bad word could have you moved to the outskirts where you might hear wolves or see them staring at night from the treeline. “Hundreds of modifications had to be made. Every animal we seek to cast out is different, so I can only reuse the most integral components. This time I needed to produce much higher notes, which involved the installation of resonant crystal micro-bells into the…”
“It’s all fascinating Mr. Beygal, but we’re in a hurry. We have a lunch appointment at noon. Ralph here is supposed to get up and sing this new song for all the generals before we weaponize him and really blast those tweeters out of the sky!” He laughed and smacked his soldier on the back. The man didn’t so much as flinch.
“Right, we’ll get to it then!” Edwar said excitedly. All his doubts had been in his first two invented compositions. The first was the anti-coyote song to counter their howling and drive them out of the alleys. It was a complete success, in every way. He’d immediately been granted a much bigger laboratory on the fifth floor of a building that never suffered a single pigeon dropping thanks to its electrified edifices.
There was still some uncertainty the second time with his anti-porpoise song. He had to flood half his lab for the experiments to account for the differences in sound waves underwater. That too had proven flawless though. Now their bays had only fish and crabs, and only the most delicious ones. So, it was with the utmost confidence that he flipped the switch and let the music begin.
The pipes came to life like those on an organ, spewing beautiful notes as steam. Edwar opened one of the machine’s panels to watch its bells ring and its gears turn. The president was actually impressed by the sight. How could he not be? The scientist had meticulously reproduced the throat of a small songbird in machine form. He’d reversed all the components of course, otherwise it wouldn’t have been anti-anything; it would’ve attracted the noisy little buggers and budgies.
“Is it working?” Ralph asked, his eyes wandering about the lab. Edwar paused.
“Aren’t you feeling anything?”
“Well that’s… you should… hang on a moment!” Edwar rushed over to a valve and adjusted it slightly. He looked back at Captain Ralph hoping to see a change, but the soldier just shrugged. Edwar felt a twinge in his heart. Of course it couldn’t go on forever. He had to screw up some time. Was it that damn beagle? Did he sabotage the machine before he left, in solidarity with his less loved kin?
Edwar tried to rush over to a different part of the machine, but he was stopped in the middle of the room by the violent quaking of one of the pipes. All three stared as it burst open, expelling steam as well as one small object. The object, a little larger than a tennis ball, rocketed out and struck the president in the forehead. The man reeled back and collided with a few pipes. Ralph jumped out of the chair, just as Edwar flipped the switch again and ended the machine’s efforts.
The object bounced on the rubber-coated floor twice, spinning to a stop in the middle of the room. Edwar approached it. A banded spiral. Blue with speckled green. A snail shell. With those colors he could tell it was the worst possible gastropod: a Northern Combative Love-darter. They were notoriously invasive and unruly. A moment later the snail’s head emerged. It extended its long neck and weaved its eye stalks into a double helix, to make itself comfortable.
Industry had raised the intelligence of every creature on the planet. A few, like the dogs, had the leverage to fight for a few rights, to earn a place in man’s eyes and cities, but most were to be cast out of their former homes. Birds were next on the chopping block, but Edwar would’ve eventually gotten around to snails. It stared back at them, eyes annoyed but sparkling, clearly rife with an intelligent uppity soul.
“That was a ride!” the snail declared. The humans stared in shock. “Don’t pretend you’ve never seen a snail before. I know you never want to see them again, but that’s no reason to be rude.” It turned and looked at the soldier, pupils narrowing. “Rude.”
“What were you doing in there?” Edwar seethed. He reached out with claw-like hands to grab and perhaps crush the snail, but he instead raked them across his scalp when he remembered how venomous that particular species was.
“It was almost nap time,” the snail answered. “All the steam was quite warm. I lived here before there was a building, you know. It used to be a swamp.”
“Nobody cares what it used to be you vile little snot sock!” the president bellowed. Thanks to his rank, he hadn’t had to interact with an animal other than a dog or cat for nearly five months. He wasn’t even eating them anymore, for the most part. He turned to Edwar. “Did it work before that little monster gummed it up?”
“Let’s see,” Edwar said with a doubtful shake of his head. “Ralph, if you’d please sing for us. If the song installation worked, your lungs should immediately produce the anti-bird song.” Ralph opened his mouth. At first there was no sound. When he tried to force it out out he produced only a squeak worthy of a dying rat and a phlegm-filled cough. He wiped his mouth and shrugged.
“Where did the song go?” the president asked. He looked at the ruptured pipe, flinching at the sight of snail slime dripping from it. “Can we try again?”
“I’m afraid not,” Edwar explained. “I don’t know how much slime is in there, and with that rupture it’ll take me weeks to clean it out and try again. We have no song until…” He stopped. There was a melody, clearly being sung in reverse, coming from under his chin. He looked down. There was the snail, mouth wide open, anti-bird song emanating from deep within its shell. It was beautiful and parasitic, an earworm of a song if there ever was one. It could put you to sleep, yet make you furious at the same time. The snail stopped.
“Was that the song you were looking for?” it asked.
“Yes,” Edwar said dumbly, his expression sinking. “The snail blocked the flow, so the song was installed in it instead of Ralph.”
“I have a name,” the snail said acidly. “I am Squishaby Snail.”
“Nobody cares,” the president moaned. He waved Ralph away from the chair and ushered him out of the lab. “I’m supposed to have results today Edwar. That snail has the song, so convince it to go clear the birds out of the fairgrounds. We’ll use that as proof. If they’re not gone by dinner time tonight, you’re out of here. We’ll find someone else to machine our maddening songs.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” Edwar squealed, stepping around Squishaby. He wanted Ralph to just pick it up and torture the song out of it by squeezing its shell, but he knew that wouldn’t work. That species was among the most stubborn creatures on the planet. It would die before doing anything it didn’t want to, and kill anyone who got close with a venomous dart or radula.
“It’s your problem,” the president declared with a pointed finger. Angry as he was, his eyes were drawn to the slime on the pipe. A single drop separated and hit the floor. The moment it did the president reared back, took three giant panicked breaths, and sneezed. His button popped, the flower atop it shredded, and he was thrown backward out the door, right into Ralph. “Dinner time!” he shouted, before getting to his feet and slamming the door.
“I won’t be hurting any birds,” Squishaby declared as Edwar walked circles around the snail, trying to puzzle out a strategy. His gait was so disturbed that each step bounced him across the rubbery floor. The snail remained steadfastly glued in place. “This is my song now.” Edwar stopped and stared into the animal’s eyes. There had to be something it wanted, other than its swamp back.
“As of today, I still have some pull in this city,” he explained. “If you and I do this, there will be rewards.”
“I don’t want of your rewards. I’d just like to crawl back into that pipe. I was in the middle of practicing my regular singing when your song rudely interrupted mine.”
“You snails have a song?” he asked out of genuine scientific curiosity. They’d started ridding the world of the vocal animals first, as their music was easy to corrupt. He thought snails would be among his greatest challenges, given how quiet they were in their natural habitat.
“Uhhuh. You don’t get to hear it though. You’re nothing but a cruel human. I used to kill you lot by the tens. ‘Oh look, such a cute snail, let me pick it up.’ Jab! Right in the neck with a love dart. They were gone in under an hour, never to darken my waters again.”
“I would like to avoid getting poisoned,” Edwar prefaced, “but we have to be able to work this out. If I’m on the outskirts, the coyotes could get to me. They know I made that song. They wanted to be included with the dogs, but it was just so easy for me to… Never mind. Privileges, Squishaby, for you and your kind. I can guarantee we come after you last. We could get you a preserve, diplomatic meetings. You might not have to live in one of my pipes.”
“I literally swear, by my life.”
“Alright. I’ll sing the birds away, in that one spot, today, but nothing else. You have to guarantee to personally walk our envoy all the way into the committee building, no matter how slow my people go.” Edwar nodded. Squishaby undid the helix of its eye stalks and extended one. Edwar guessed at the gesture, bowed, and used two fingers to shake the squishy stalk and seal their deal.
He tried to go for a pair of gloves, but the snail ordered him not to. The poor scientist had to pick up the snail without any protection, just to make sure poisoning him would be easy if it needed to. He threw a few supplies into a backpack and tossed it over his shoulder. They left the lab behind, descending the spiraling stairs all the way to the lobby. All the other residents of the science tower stared at him as if he didn’t know there was a colorful giant snail on his palm, as if it was just a blister he needed to air out.
“So we’re going to the fairgrounds?” the snail asked, eyes darting in different directions. All its life it had avoided sidewalks, as those were among the easiest ways to get your shell crushed, no matter how big you were or how much you screamed.
“Not yet,” Edwar answered, shoving his way through the crowded street. Squishaby started hissing at those nearest, thus clearing a path. “Thanks. First we want to make sure there are birds at the fairgrounds. I’ve got some spies. They let me study their song as a template to make the anti-bird tune. They can tell the others the fairgrounds are safe, thus maximizing our effectiveness.”
“Animal traitors, eh? I’ve killed plenty of them too.”
“Don’t kill these, or we can’t make any snail diplomacy happen.” Squishaby nodded with its stalks. Their path eventually took them past the medicine shops, with their smell of powders and willow bark, to an older part of the city where the mossy cobblestones remained. The moss had grown a little smarter as well, so it always receded when feet were near. There was a clear circle around Edwar as he made his way deeper into the grow of the alley.
Squishaby took note of the place: an abandoned playground complete with slides, swings, and a jungle gym. That name always seemed insulting. That cage of metal had no jungle qualities at all. There were two ravens perched on one of its middle levels. These were the spies no doubt. They were very greedy birds generally, and soured under talk of birdsong, as their own version of it was just a hoarse squawk.
“Evening ladies,” Edwar said with a small bow. The ravens bowed in return. “This is my… associate: Squishaby Snail.” The snail refused to bow its stalks.
“What now?” one of the birds asked. “We already sang for you.” She picked at a small jeweled bracelet around one leg, perhaps a reward for her treachery.
“Yes, and it wasy lovely, but I need you to deliver a message. I can arrange some great food for you if you do. I want you to convince as many birds as you can to go to the fairgrounds. Tell them there’s an overturned popcorn cart or something; they’re sure to love that.”
“Okay,” the raven said, turning to fly off, but the other didn’t join her. “Cribble? Come on! We can get cookies after this.”
“I think I’m done,” the other raven said slowly. “This is some kind of test. Look at that snail.” She pointed with her beak to Squishaby. “I think that snail’s in charge of him. He’s not even wearing gloves. Those things are full of venom! Edwar’s just a disguise. The snail’s looking for traitors! I’m not one snail, not anymore, I swear. You’ve shown me the error of my ways.”
“My name is Squishaby,” the snail said very slowly, dripping threats into the words.
“Cribble,” the raven replied.
“Hey, I’m here, and I’m in charge,” Edwar said. He pulled the snail away and held it off to the side. “This isn’t a test. I actually really need you to keep being traitors. Now fly! Shoo!” He waved his free hand. The one with the jeweled band flapped off into the sky, but Cribble merely hopped to a different bar.
“I’m not a traitor!” she claimed once more. “I know to fear shelled ones such as you. I know the anger you keep spiraled up in there. I’m leaving, but I’m going to go do good. I’m going to tell all the birds to stay away from the fair! I swear!”
“No, no, no, no,” Edwar panicked. He reached out. “Just stay here a second and…” Cribble tried to fly away, so he grabbed the bird by one leg. She screeched and pecked at him, causing him to stumble around. The moss around them shuddered and moved in chaotic patterns.
“Don’t shake me,” Squishaby said. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just trying to… ahh!” Cribble drew blood, but he couldn’t let go. He might have to kill the bird. He pulled her towards the slide and raised his arm, threatening to slap her against the curved surface until she couldn’t tattle anymore.
“You’re shaking me, and you shouldn’t kill animals. You’re… Hey!” Edwar’s flailing grew worse as the bird bit for her life. He brought his snail-bearing hand close to his neck, pressed the shell against his skin. The snail’s mouth bulged into a strange shape like a budding flower. It puckered and fired a small black ossified dart. The projectile stuck in Edwar’s neck, forcing him to release the raven and pluck it out. Cribble flew away as fast as her wings could carry her, leaving the poor scientist to flop down into a swing and clutch at his puncture wound.
“What the hell was that?” he asked Squishaby. “You shot me!”
“It’s not my fault; you were shaking me. It stressed me out. I don’t handle stress all that well, so I just gave you a little tap with a love dart.”
“A love dart? I thought you snails only made those when you were in heat. That’s… supposed to be autumn for your species. Its spring, by the way!” The snail cleared its throat, not wiping away the slime that dribbled down its mouth as it spoke. Apparently it had a lecture prepared for just such a question.
“A love dart is ammunition of affection. I’ll have you know that getting shot by one greatly increases your chance of getting fertilized, though I’m not sure who’d want to fertilize you. Yes, normally we only have them in the autumn, but I find them very useful long-range weapons. So, I make them all the time. Keep a few in the back of my shell for special occasions, like big dumb idiots shaking me!”
“What even are you?” Edwar asked. He slumped forward in the swing, the chains stilling. Suddenly he felt sapped of his energy, like he couldn’t manage a single pump of his legs. His mind asked other questions to avoid the big one. “Male or female?”
“I’m a hermaphrodite,” Squishaby declared proudly. “We snails are historically wonderful lovers, given that our complex genitals are practically a masterpiece of a landscape unto themselves. See?” The snail’s mouth bulged again, and out came a ghostly extrusion of pink and blue membranes. Its tendrils danced back and forth. It was pure poetry to snails, but vomit-inducing for Edwar. He would have expelled his breakfast, if he didn’t feel too tired and sluggish to even get up a retch.
“Please put that away,” he urged, his pallor becoming more corpse-like. Squishaby did as he said, but only to clear its throat so it could speak once more.
“You just don’t know how to appreciate it. You know what they say: you can’t spell ‘hermaphrodite’ without ‘Aphrodite’. She was the goddess of love and beauty you know. Pretty much everything good, except music. I wish she had that one too.”
“Squishaby… am I dying?”
“Oh yeah. Lots of poison in those darts. You really shouldn’t have shaken me. Your blood’ll be slime in like forty-one minutes, give or take how much of a panicked baby you are about it.”
“What do I do?”
“We’ll have to go find the book-shells. I think one of them knows how to make an antidote. I could’ve learned, but I devoted my biological malleability to making more darts and more athletic genitals.” Edwar tried not to think about any of the words other than ‘antidote’. He took a deep breath, the sides of his lungs creaking like a rotten cask, and pulled himself up the chains and to his feet. He took a step. His feet were unwieldy buckets, his blood sloshing back and forth under the skin.
“What direction?” he asked with numb lips.
“Lucky for you, it’s near the fair. It’s in the old part. There’s a gazebo under the toppled Ferris wheel. Oh right, a direction. Take a left.” Edwar was a scientist. His focus was his livelihood, and there was no greater test of it than stumbling through the city streets towards that gazebo.
It got harder by the minute. His head lolled back on his neck. He caught glimpses of the sky, but felt like he stared into a bottomless sea. Birds swam by, a few staring as if they knew his plans, as if they knew he was responsible. It wasn’t his fault. The whole species wanted to get the animals out of the city. It meant cleaner streets, fewer stolen babies, fewer diseases. They were the same natural instincts as any other creature’s, just expressed with language, metallurgy, and manners.
There was a small reprieve when the streets quieted. He was outside the main walls, where grass could still grow even though it wasn’t as crafty as moss.
The fairgrounds were visible in the distance, a few screams heard from the active rides. Birds circled overhead. Cribble’s warning hadn’t gotten out yet; they still had time. When Edwar finally managed to swing his head back, it collided with a fungus-covered post on the side of the gazebo. His eyes swam in slime, and it was only the subtle pulling of Squishaby’s slimy foot that gave him his directions at that point. He ducked under the edge of a Ferris wheel cart and threw himself past a curtain of leaves. His face struck the wood, he got a splinter in his cheek, and he passed out.
It was music that woke him, but not the memories of his reverse songs. The humming was low but bright, like seeing the sun rise from a sea. There were no words, but he could hear the biology of it. It flowed like slime. It peeked like a growing eye stalk. The snail song! His eyes fluttered open. There were large snails all over him, slithering across his arms and legs. Squishaby stared into his eyes.
“That was beautiful,” he managed to say, the last poisoned phlegm dropping into his stomach. “I didn’t think you’d ever let someone like me hear it.”
“Maybe if you hear it, you’ll stop being such a murderer about the whole thing. Our song is just as good as your buildings. We don’t deserve to get pushed out. Maybe some of them do, but not us. Look.” Squishaby waved one stalk in a circle, convincing a few other snails to come out from beneath one of the gazebo’s benches.
These were the largest by far, and he judged them to be the oldest by their gray bodies and drooping stalks. They lacked shells, having painfully and slowly transferred the root of their bodies to the spines of books. Three snails came up alongside him and opened their tomes, showing him murals of men and women playing songs for the animals of the forest. Lutes and flutes. Drums. Singing.
“That’s the past,” he said. He tried not to pay attention to the wiggling tendrils that turned the pages, strongly suspecting they were genitals. “All that’s gone.”
“You fight for yourself, I get it. I fight for snails the same way. I fight all the time, any way I can. Too much, the book-shells tell me. But look at that picture. It’s proof it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s proof that you can go too far. Your anger and selfishness built that city. You shouldn’t let it build anything more than a grudge.”
“I know,” Edwar admitted. “The reverse songs… I was just so good at making those machines. The reason I started was because I liked the music I was trying to reverse engineer. Then, yeah, the selfishness. I can still feel it in my head. Asking about the birds. I haven’t even thanked whoever cured me.”
One of the book-shells climbed up on his side and slowly closed its tome. It bowed two droopy eyes. Its mouth started to bulge, but Edwar quickly told it he didn’t need to see the equipment that had manufactured the antidote. The bulge receded, and Squishaby laughed.
“Aphrodite,” the snail whispered in his ear, clicking a few love darts together, practically gargling them, to tease him.
“Hey, you didn’t poison me on purpose did you, just to bring me here?”
“No, I don’t think that far ahead,” Squishaby claimed, but quickly turned around so he couldn’t see its eyes.
“I suppose it’s too much to ask, there’s that selfishness again, that we go convince the birds to leave.” He smiled at his companion.
“No,” the snail grumbled. “I don’t want to push them out any more than I want us to get pushed out…” It stopped speaking when another snail tapped its speckled shell. Squishaby looked over. A few of the younger book-shells brought something else out from the darkness. Shells. Empty. Apparently the birds of the fairground had been helping themselves to some of their less toxic brethren. Even with all that fair food to grow fat and greasy on. “Those no good, oil-feathered…” Squishaby’s color reddened. Its pupils narrowed. “I told you not to build things out of anger, but I’m hardly better. Sometimes I just have to destroy. Let’s go Edwar. Let’s sing them a song.”
It took him a few minutes to get back to his feet, but once he was he ran Squishaby out to the fair. Her mouth bulged and tendrils flared: genitals, darts, and a few others he couldn’t even guess at. She sang the anti-birdsong, and the creatures scattered to the wind.
Edwar thought while the birds flew off and the fair-goers approached him and the snail curiously. There had to be an anti-human song, and if a certain angry snail diplomat ever made it to the committee building, ever fought for territory beyond its shell, a place to keep its rage, it might need to be slipped a little melody under the table.