WHEN ELEPHANTS FLY by Carlton Herzog
Only when the sweet summer trees grow full do the flying elephants descend to graze in Yakkaloosa county, and then only for a time. Zoologists remain baffled as to how they acquired wings, let alone how those wings can propel those majestic bulks aloft. Nor do they know from whence they come nor where they go after they leave. But as extraordinary as these flying pachyderms may seem, they are but one of many mysteries now common in this Age of Enigmas, where the seemingly impossible has become routine.
At the outset, opinions varied: the fanciful saw the hand of magic; the scientific saw aerodynamics and evolution abruptly upended; the catastrophist saw portents of doom; the cynic a hoax.
The elephants’ arrival and departure always coincided with oddities in the planet Neptune’s orbit and luminosity. During those times, astronomers studying the vibrant blue behemoth watched in awe as Neptune’s dynamic planetwide storm system abated. They did not make the connection between aberrant elephants and the planet’s curious behaviour.
One man would, though by chance and not scientific rigor. Pablo Ortiz, about whom this story revolves, worked as a financier at Goldman Sachs’ New York office. He counted himself a numbers man, existentially defined and regulated by the very algorithms he used in his work. To his mind, sceptically empirical in the extreme, the idea of flying elephants had a fairy tale quality. As did other bizarre claims gaining currency, such as Sudden Onset Three Eye Syndrome, or SOTES as it came to be known. He attributed the whole thing to the law of vacant minds: empty heads abhor a vacuum and compulsively fill themselves with nonsense the way overeaters do junk food.
On Monday, June 10, 2058, Pablo had a change of heart. On Sunday, June 9, he had gone to bed with two good eyes, and woke the next day with three. As that enormous third eye stared back at him in the mirror, perched as it was above and between his two birth eyes, and pulsing with a life, and perhaps a sentience of its own, Pablo was forced to be more open minded about the improbable.
Nevertheless, he came to loathe that bulging carnival eye. For years, he had been regarded as an exceptionally handsome man, but now the only thing people saw when they looked at him was that cyclopean green orb jutting from his forehead.
Pablo’s third eye didn’t just taint his social standing; it discoloured and warped his mind. For example, while his two birth eyes would see the world as discrete objects, his third eye saw it as one big Mandelbrot set: a composite of fractured self similar geometries that repeated themselves at smaller and smaller scales; little bulbs piled on big bulbs festooned with double spirals, double hooks, islands, valleys and antennae.
At first, his employer, Goldman Sachs, proved sympathetic. The company went so far as to hide him in the company’s file room, so he could not interact with the public. But his appearance so repulsed what few employees he encountered the company let him go with a modest severance package. After that, he could find no work. To avoid the stares and ridicule, he avoided public places and always travelled in disguise with a broad brimmed hat pulled low on his forehead.
He was not alone: Sudden Onset Third Eye Syndrome (SOTES) had become a minor epidemic. As the number of SOTES afflicted persons grew, so did society’s hostility toward them. Hate groups targeted them for beatings while even the most liberal minded progressives stood on the side lines and did nothing to prevent the mob violence.
Pablo found himself crushed between his own self-loathing and society’s. One night, as he wandered aimlessly about town, he spotted the Professor Fumbl’s Peace of Mind Bookstore. The man behind the counter also had a third eye. Little remained of his birth eyes since they had receded into his face to the point of mere slits. As Pablo approached him, the man smiled and pointed to his own protuberant third eye:
The man asked, “You have questions?”
Pablo said, “This eye just showed up on my forehead. And my other two seem to be getting smaller. I look like a cyclops.”
The man smiled again and said, “Did you know that Neptune’s son Polyphemus had two empty eye sockets between which sat a great third eye? The Romans considered him to be a super being who protected the weak, represented metaphorically as sheep. They regard his great eye as a shield against evil.”
Pablo scoffed. “Myth and fairy tales that have no place in the 21st century.”
The man said, “There are many here that believe Neptune is a very real being, one that casts his influence over our world. Why do you suppose that Neptune has monuments in Poland, Berlin, Nuremburg, Florence, New York, Washington and Paris? Tomorrow is July 23, the Neptunalia. There will be festivals all over the world celebrating Neptune.
“I believe that you have been marked as a Son of Neptune. The Great Blue Orb has been known to mark its children with special gifts.”
Pablo said angrily, “This optical cancer is simply an eruption of randomness on my forehead. Particles pop in and out of existence all the time. Consider that one minute there was nothing, no matter, no space, and the next voila, a universe full of stars and planets and you and me. And now our Third Eyes.”
The man said, “Shit doesn’t just happen. We live in a universe of cause and effect.”
Pablo said, “Yes, shit does. If you could ask a turkey who has been well fed the day before Thanksgiving what the morrow will bring, he—fooled by the illusion of regularity—would answer ‘More of the same of course.’ Like the turkey, you assume that repetition is a boundary condition, that the past is predictive of the future. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Consider that on rare occasions, evolution proceeds very rapidly to form new families, orders and classes of organisms. Stephen Jay Gould called that phenomenon ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and the creatures it produces hopeful monsters. If the first living thing that developed a working eye could talk, it would probably offer up a supernatural explanation as absurd as yours; the same holds true for the first fish that crawled on land, the first bird whose wings enabled it to fly, and the first primate to walk upright.”
“So, it’s a puzzle, not a divine act; it’s wily, capricious Nature not some trident wielding fish loving deity of old.”
The man said, “Those are human approximations of something beyond our comprehension. At this moment, Neptune manifests as the eighth planet in our solar system.”
Pablo asked, “Are you kidding me? Look here, Professor Fumbles McStupid, Neptune is 2.8 billion miles away. It’s the most distant object in the solar system. It’s made of hydrogen, helium and methane wrapped around water, ammonia and ice. It’s blue because the methane absorbs red light. Its winds whip around at 600 metres per second. How you go from that to an old guy with a beard, riding a dolphin, is the hallmark of delusional thinking.”
The man smiled and said, “The planet is its disguise. Who can say what it really is? An exotic form of intelligent life, perhaps. It is not alone; it has brethren in other star systems as we are now discovering. We call them Neptune as well. Because we live on a placid island of ignorance floating in a sea of stars, we assume man—bipedal, opposable thumbs, mildly smarter than a chimpanzee—is the apex of creation. What if a Neptune sits higher on the food chain; what if its subharmonic murmurs through the void influence our development here? A life and will of its own, an inorganic consciousness, capable of genetic puppetry that even now guides and enforces our biological evolution.”
Pablo asked, “Well that’s a mouthful of bizarro xenobiology if I ever heard some. Let’s dial down the crazy and give me some practical advice on how to navigate this world while looking like I just jumped out of Homer’s Odyssey.”
The man said, “Since you raised the question, let me answer it with a quote from Odysseus himself:
Let no man ever live contrary to what is customary and right,
But accept in silence the gifts of the gods whatever they may bring.
Pablo left the Peace of Mind bookstore more agitated than when he entered. He hadn’t gone more than a few blocks when he was surrounded by a group of ruffians. At first, they were content to mock him as a freak. Then came the shoving and the spitting, followed by the kicks and punches.
He was not a violent person, nor given to fits of rage. But this attack was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As he ducked away from the blows, he could feel his third eye pulsing and burning. His whole body felt electric. He turned and faced his assailants. As he did, his eye projected an intense beam of otherworldly light. That light fractalized and incinerated his assailants.
Pablo stood there amazed. The third eye he despised had just saved him from a terrific beating. It wasn’t just a window into the hidden nature of things. It was also a weapon capable of incredible power.
He returned home. He stared at the walls, his mind empty of thought or affect. He heard a knock. When he opened the door, he found two men in black suits. They introduced themselves as Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. They said they needed his help. Pablo got scared. He assumed they knew about the recent disintegration of the hooligans. He breathed a deep sigh of relief when they didn’t raise the issue.
Mr. Smith said, “We’re with Longevity Pharmaceuticals. About a year ago, an Air Force F 35 mistook the elephants for a Russian spy plane and shot one down. Under contract, we did the autopsy. We found a heretofore unknown hormone, longevinine. It slows human aging down to a crawl. We haven’t been able to replicate it in the laboratory. Our employer believes that given enough time and test subjects we will be able to manufacture it by the boatload and corner the market.”
“That’s where your third eye enters the picture. At the molecular level, the elephants exhibit fractal combinations. We believe that those same patterns would present in their exhalations as a gaseous trail of fractals. Our instruments aren’t sufficiently sensitive to acquire that trail. But your eye, we believe could. Mind you, we have employed others with SOTES to find the elephants. But we’ve had no success. Either because the candidates lacked the ability to do it or didn’t want to betray a group of fellow mutants.”
Mr. Jones, said, “Can you help us? We’ll make it worth your while.”
Depressed and unemployed, Pablo felt the offer seemed like the perfect balm for his economic and emotional wounds.
“Of course I will,” he said.
After that the elephant hunt began in earnest. It began in Yakkaloosa County. Pablo and a team of Longevity’s scientists and security people flew by helicopter along a trail only Pablo could see. During the expedition, one of the guards bragged to the other about hunting African elephants.
The guard seated next to Pablo said, “I made a killing over there. Ivory prices have gone through the roof because it’s so rare. The governments over there try their best, but hunters like me know the ropes and can get at them with bribes.”
The guard across from Pablo said, “Yeah. That will probably happen with the flying ones. Sooner than later since Congress is dragging its feet about protective legislation.”
Pablo listened and said nothing. He thought to himself: If the elephants contain some rare chemical in their bodies, it stands to reason that three eyed people might as well. That means these pricks could be hunting my kind next. What have I got myself into here?
By now, the chopper was over the remote Lake of Woods in Minnesota. That’s when they saw the portal, a large shimmering circle of light dancing above the calm water. Pablo said, “The vapor trail leads into that doorway. If you want to find them, then fly into it.”
There was a moment’s hesitation, then the pilot pushed the joystick forward and the chopper flew inside. The lake was gone. And so was the earth. They were approaching what was obviously the planet Neptune. A moment later, they were flying over the planet’s methane blue skies. At the time, the chopper pilot and all his astronomically ignorant passengers, save one, had no idea where they were. The newly christened Son of Neptune did. He informed the crew.
Although they were skimming across the skies of the eighth planet in the solar system, they felt no chill, no lack of oxygen, no excess of gravity. It was a terrestrial corridor cut through Neptune’s hydrogen, helium and methane atmosphere.
The pilot spotted a small earth like landmass ahead, along with an enormous herd of flying elephants grazing there. Everyone in the chopper offered explanations as to the how and why of their journey to the eighth planet, their ability to survive the brutal conditions there, and how the elephants had been given or had carved out an oasis in that frigid blue hell.
Smith was the first of offer an insight: “There’s more to the elephants than meets the eye. It’s not just the wings and gravity defying abilities. It’s mental teleportation and mental terraforming as well. This goes way beyond extending life.”
Jones took it one step further: “If the elephants have hidden talents, I’ll bet our friend Pablo does as well.”
Pablo demurred, not wanting to disclose his disintegrator eye beams. He felt it wise to play the part of a loyal team member until he could decide on a course of action.
He said, “Not that I’m aware of. I suspect more will be revealed. But shouldn’t we head back now that we know where they roost. We can come back with the means to capture or kill as many as we want.”
They took Pablo’s suggestion and flew back through the portal. When they touched down, the Longevity team began formulating a plan of action. For his part, Pablo inched away from the chopper as the animated dialogue reached a fever pitch.
When he felt that he was far enough away, he focused his third eye on the group and the helicopter directly behind them. He concentrated. Hard. Until he felt his body seethe with that eldritch force he had felt before.
This time there was no time gap between the fractalization and disintegration process. A blinding blue light exploded from Pablo’s eye. It vaporized the tarmac between him and the helicopter, and everything thereafter for a mile in three of the remaining compass directions.
Investigators categorized it as an asteroid impact as powerful as the one that struck Tunguska, Russia, in 1908.
Pablo didn’t waste any time. He called an Uber. He meant to obliterate Longevity Pharmaceuticals, for he knew that the helicopter team had reported its finding to corporate. He wanted to ensure that no one knew of the elephant’s secret habitat on Neptune.
In later years, Pablo moved himself into the woods around the elephant’s Yakkaloosa feeding ground. He lived off the land. He spoke to no one.
He waited as the elephant’s self-appointed protector. Every now and then he would obliterate snooping reporters or scientists, as well as any civilian or military aircraft presenting the slightest possibility of harm to his wards. He was their steward secure in the knowledge that whatever caused him to grow that third eye, be it design or accident, did not do so in vain.
The proprietor of the Peace of Mind Bookstore was right. More was revealed. He was a hopeful monster pointing toward a new evolutionary path, one less hostile to the other creatures of the earth. He was a true Son of Neptune.