Oct 31, 2020 4:00 AM
Bruce meets Zoombinis
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This was a lousy idea and Bruce is having a lousy time.

"Come explore the Stata Center with us," they said. "Grad students deserve to have fun too," they said. "It's better than anything else you could be doing at 3 AM," they said. Well now he's gotten separated from the group and ended up in a room with, and he has counted several times, seventeen sides and nineteen corners.

He can't tell which door he came in; worse, they're all locked. There's a window, but it doesn't open, and all he can see out of it is a different exterior wall of this same damned building. 

Bruce looks up at the ceiling, or at least at the point where all the walls converge, and his head swims, and he should have gone to sleep a long time ago, and it feels like he's about to fall off the floor into . . . 

There is a series of sense impressions that fail to resolve into a model of the world, and then Bruce is somewhere else.

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It's dark, and cold, and damp, and has a cavelike smell.

For the moment, there doesn't seem to be anything much around.

But wait! Is that a very quiet noise, echoing in the distance? Sort of... squeaky?

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He knew MIT had tunnels, but what the unmitigated fuck is this? If he has managed to sleepwalk into the sewer system this is either going to be a hilarious anecdote or a deeply embarrassing obituary. He squints into the darkness and calls out "Hello? Is there anyone else down here?"

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The squeaky noise stops, and there is an amount of very quiet chittering, and then a dim light is visible off to his left. The light grows brighter as a... creature... rounds the corner and rolls into view.

The creature has a round pale blue body, a round bright yellow nose, fluffy dark indigo hair, and its means of locomotion is a pair of thick rugged-looking wheels with heavy treads. There is a small lantern nestled amidst its fluff. It doesn't seem to have any separation between body and head, or limbs other than its wheels, and it is about the size of a basketball.

It pauses, narrows its small dark eyes, and peers into the darkness ahead. When it spots Bruce it hops slightly in place, then leans forward and rolls confidently toward him.

Stopping several feet away on the tunnel floor, it stares up at him and demands, "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

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"I don't know and I'm Bruce Banner. Uh, in the other order. Where am I?" He wants to add "and who are you, are you a space alien" because they sure do look like a space alien or possibly a product of mad science, but apparently they're already ticked at him so better not.

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The creature somehow, without eyebrows or a mouth, still manages to frown.

"You're in a tunnel underneath Zoombini Isle." The creature rolls back and forth slightly, with an attitude of focused contemplation, and then stops and draws themself up into a steady, solid stance.

"Suppose I have three blocks," they say suspiciously. "One is red, one is green, one is blue; one is a circle, one is a triangle, one is a square. The blue block isn't round, the green block isn't square, and neither the circle nor the triangle is red. What colour is each of the shapes?"

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"Well, if the circle and the triangle aren't red then the square must be, and if the blue one isn't round that makes it the triangle, and that means the green one has to be, what was the other one, the circle."

(Bruce is an MIT grad student; this is a pretty normal conversation except for how it doesn't need a whiteboard and there isn't one nearby.)

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The creature relaxes slightly. "Well, you're not a Bloat," they conclude. "I'm Speeba." Another slight back-and-forth roll. "Do you really not have any idea how you got here? If the tunnel is compromised..." They trail off rather than articulate the implications.

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"Yeah, sorry, one minute I was stuck in an evil building and the next I was here. I either fell in a negative space wedgie or did a lot of drugs and walked into a storm drain." He hopes it's the former; he's much more a fan of Star Trek than of Alice in Wonderland. "I don't think anyone knows about you, though. What's a Bloat?"

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"Bloats are a problem," Speeba says cryptically. "And I'd rather not park here chatting about them all day. You can come with us if you're quiet; there should be just about enough room for you on the boat."

They turn around in a smooth practiced maneuver, lean in the direction they came, and call in a carrying undertone, "All clear!"

A parade of round blue creatures emerges from the darkness.

Three more are balancing lanterns on their heads, and all of those are basketball-sized like Speeba; the rest range in size from a little smaller than that all the way down to the tiniest orb, small enough to nestle comfortably in two cupped hands, who has fluffy hair and big sleepy eyes and a red nose and rolls along determinedly on a miniature version of Speeba's wheels. Nose colour, hairstyle, eye shape, and means of locomotion all seem to vary wildly among the population: there are propellers, rollerskates, coiled springs, and bright pink sneakers all visible in the crowd, alongside small eyes like Speeba's, sleepy ones like the littlest creature's, pink sunglasses, red spectacles, and even a few cyclopes.

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Okay so there's an entire family (?) of cute tiny aliens and some sort of menace and he needs to get in a boat. Boat sounds way better than tunnel in terms of becoming less confused about where he is. He says "Okay, thanks," softly enough not to carry much and follows along.

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The creatures guide Bruce along the tunnel. Speeba takes the lead, another lantern-bearer follows a few bodylengths behind, then all the little ones in a big group, and lastly the two remaining lantern-bearers bring up the rear. The journey is quiet, with only the occasional squeak of wheels or chitter of tiny voices.

And then they reach their secret dock. It seems to be early morning; the freshly risen sun sheds just enough light to clearly illuminate a Speeba-scaled sailboat tied up at the pier. The four biggest creatures set down their lanterns and line up the little ones in neat rows to be counted; once they've verified that they have all twelve, they start herding them onto the boat one by one. Speeba motions for Bruce to hang back until everyone's settled belowdecks, then scoops up two lanterns - another of the big ones grabs the other two - and beckons him along as they hop into the boat and pull up the ramp behind them.

The four biggest creatures, and a few of the smaller ones, get to work preparing the boat for departure. Speeba invites Bruce to take a seat on a wooden crate near the back end of the ship and then leaves him be. Everyone seems much too busy to answer questions.

 

The teeniest imaginable squeak drifts up from the hatch, and the littlest orb emerges, somehow climbing a rope ladder with their little wheels, and creeps quietly up to Bruce.

"What are you?" they ask, in a small piping voice and a surreptitious undertone.

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Bruce was holding out hope that they would come out of the tunnel onto the Charles River and he would see the Citgo Sign and know how to get home, but nope, whatever this is he's still doing it. He sits where he's put and hopes he's not so big as to make the boat hard to maneuver.

Oh gosh. Small orb, small voice, small baby alien. He is not sure he has ever seen anything so adorable in his life. "I'm a human," he says softly. "My name's Bruce. What's your name?"

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"Kwispafa!" The creature bounces gently. "I'm a Zoombini! We're escaping from the eeeevil Bloats!"

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He's probably not going to get a nuanced and accurate explanation of whatever unpleasantness is going on between the Zoombinis and the Bloats from this tiny child and isn't going to try. "Pleased to meet you, Kwispafa! I want to learn all about Zoombinis. What sort of things do Zoombinis do?"

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"We make stuff!" says Kwispafa. "We're so good at making stuff! Bloats are bad at making stuff and that's why they're taking our stuff instead." They deliver this assertion with all the authority of a small child who has heard a thoroughly reasonable explanation for the events of their life. "I helped sew the sails on this boat! Look up there," they lift their small red snoot triumphantly to point it at a part of the sail where the stitching is visibly uneven but still pretty impressive for a softball-sized child with no hands, "that's my corner!"

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"Hey, that's awesome! Making stuff is great. I'm a biologist, which means I learn new things about how people and animals work so people can make new things that nobody's made before. Is sewing your favorite kind of making things?"

Kwispafa is extremely good. He? She? Screw it, they, aliens probably don't even have the same set of genders anyhow, is just super cute and friendly and this whole thing is extremely Star Trek. Or possibly a less-screwed-up version of Gulliver's Travels.

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Kwispafa thinks hard about this question for a few seconds, and then says, "My favourite thing to make is cake."

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"Cake is super good."

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"It is!" Kwispafa is so glad Bruce is aware of this important fact about the world.

The boat gets underway. One of the adults(?) comes by and gently shushes Kwispafa, who proceeds to sit very quietly with the attitude of someone doing the Very Important Job of Not Making Any Noise, and for a few minutes all is quiet except for the sounds of cute round aliens stealthily operating a sailing vessel. They emerge from their hidden cove and sail away from what looks like a moderately large island.

Once the island has faded into the distance, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and Speeba comes over to park by Bruce and Kwispafa. "Whew. So far so good. Hey, stranger, I don't suppose you know anything about the fabled lands of logic?"

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"Not by that name, anyway. I think I'm farther from home than I thought it was possible to get. Have you heard of Earth or the United States?"

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Speeba sighs. "Didn't think so, but it was worth a try. And no, I've never heard of those."

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"Mind telling me where we're going and what you're planning to do when we get there? I'm happy to help if I can; you've been very hospitable." They have, too. He hopes he would have been this friendly if a giant alien had dropped on him while he was in the middle of going someplace.

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"We're going to the fabled lands of logic, of course. Bloats are hopeless at logic puzzles, they'll never be able to follow us - if, that is, the fables are true, and if we can navigate the puzzles well enough to reach a good place to settle."

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"Well, I'm pretty good at puzzles, though I'm not sure what a land of them would look like. I don't know much about living off the land or finding good places to settle but I can learn." He hopes this boat journey will be short enough that he doesn't have to start eating their provisions, which were presumably planned to be enough for the group minus him. For that matter, he hopes he can eat the food on this planet at all. "Made first contact with aliens, starved to death because their amino acids go the other way" is a cooler story than he thought his life would have, but also a shorter and more depressing one.

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"We're all going to be learning things; I know plenty about living off the land on Zoombini Isle, much less in strange faraway places. But it'll be useful to have someone so big along, if you want to join the expedition."

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