"I could ask anybody I liked, chosen entirely by chance, any random question I cared to think of, and their answer, or lack of it, would in some way bear upon the problem to which I am seeking a solution. It is only a question of knowing how to interpret it. Even you, whom I have met entirely by chance, probably know things that are vital to my investigation, if only I knew what to ask you, which I don't, and if only I could be bothered to, which I can't."
one. a long time ago.
Asgard is a place outside reality; no one disputes that. It's dark and ugly, and crows pick at the flesh at the dead. Wolves howl their warcries outside the gates of Valhalla, and inside isn't much better. There's lots of roasted meat, but no napkins. The floor is littered with bones, and large women in breastplates sing dinner songs that are so long they have to start at breakfast.
What the mice can't figure out is the why of Asgard. Even the how of it confounds them; and don't even mention the where. If Earth is a computer program and the people on Earth are just little parts of the program, then how did Odin come into being? When Deep Thought and the mice created Earth, they'd imagined it many different ways. They'd run many pre-tests, trying to eliminate variables. Meteors -- plagues -- the polar ice caps melting (and that one had happened). But no mouse had calculated in the Gods.
Mice are utterly rational beings; they have no religion and no extraneous beliefs. Therefore, they called a meeting with the Gods and then told them, gently but firmly, that Gods didn't exist.
"There's no point," said a mouse named Mephtir, "in arguing about it. You simply aren't part of the program. It's nothing personal."
"I'm sure there's another planet out there that needs a two-bit afterlife," said his companion mouse, whose name was Paltus.
Odin was in his full power, back then. Enough people believed in him to keep Asgard in mead and sheep's brains every night. He had even banished his son, the rumor went, out to count stones in some Gods-forsaken back country. He had both his eyes, and so his gaze was doubly fiery when he stared at the mice and said nothing.
"Look," said Paltus. "It's no use complaining. Not even Vogons have a form for applying to exist on a plane of belief. The program is the program, and you don't belong in it."
Odin didn't complain. He merely sat and looked, shifting not an inch on his majestic throne. Then he tapped his fingers once, twice, on the carved wooden arm. From Valhalla's rafters came a piercing shriek; and then an eagle thumped a landing on the scarred feast-table. Mephtir looked into its golden eyes. The eagle clicked its beak. Odin said nothing.
"I see we have reached an impasse," said Mephtir. His squeaky voice, of course, could be attributed to his species.
Odin did not reply. The eagle put down its head and screamed. The mice began to back away.
"Of course you realize," said Paltus, "that this means war."
For the first time, Odin smiled. "War," he said, "is my business."
two. present day.
Thor doesn't like to sit by his father's bedside, but most afternoons now he finds himself there anyway. The hospital is clean and quiet and unhurried; all things Thor hates. He is a god of chaos and storm, not medicines and laundry. And yet, here he is anyway. Nurses come and go. Mostly his father sleeps. Odin's last showdown in Valhalla had taken all his strength. Thor feels guilty about that, when it occurs to him. It hadn't entirely been his fault -- mostly it had been the fault of those lawyers. Lawyers! A plague on the earth.
A nurse comes in and leaves a plate by his father's bedside. The plate has a glass of milk and a piece of french bread, buttered to the edges. The bread seems to glow in the afternoon light through the west-facing window. Thor eats it.
As he finishes the milk, his father awakens. His eye opens, and his clear gaze fixes on Thor.
"The mice," he says in his weak, placid voice. Thor wishes himself away from here, anywhere away from here. He'd even go back to Wales, if he could leave his father's dying bedside. Odin turns his head and looks out the window. "The mice," he says again. "Did I ever tell you about the mice?"
"No, father," says Thor, hating the surly growl in his voice.
"They're sneaky. They're out there watching me right now. You must guard against the mice."
Thor looks around uneasily for a nurse. Perhaps the medicine is wrong today? As his gaze skates past the window, something small and white catches his eye. Thor gets up and as he walks toward the window, the mouse (for so it is) streaks off the outside windowsill. He jams the window open just in time to watch it streak around the corner and disappear.
"You see?" says his father. "They're watching me. Waiting for me to die." Then he turns his head away, looking out towards the open door and whispering, "Why did I have such a stupid son?"
Thor sighs and sits back down by his father's bedside. "You're dreaming, father. Now you're dreaming while you're awake." His hand moves absently to his waist, where a hammer might have hung if the desk nurse hadn't insisted on taking it away. Mjollnir was unhappy about it, but no one can argue with nurses.
"They're going to win," says his father, and his face relaxes into sleep. Thor stares at him, hating everything, too tired to rage. So this is Ragnarok, then, the end of all things. Instead of battling to the death, all the Gods will simply fall asleep in their beautifully starched sheets, and never wake.
three. tomorrow, maybe?
The man and the woman meet in a church basement, sitting opposite one another at the alien abduction support group. Neither of them have been abducted by aliens; still, they feel something significant and unexplainable has happened to them. After two weeks at the group, they begin meeting at a bar instead, a party of two. She tells him what it feels like to have been turned into a Coke machine; he tells her how disappearing in his jet over the North Sea (and his subsequent reappearance in the middle of a London suburb) was supposed to have changed his life, but in retrospect, hasn't really.
They both agree that they'd like to put the past behind them. She vows to him that she's going to do some work that she really likes, for once. And he says that he's had to give up flying, because it makes his stomach turn to even think of going up in the air. He looks so sad as he says it that she reaches out to smooth the hair back from his face; and the rest, as they say, is human history.
At the same bar (or, to be perfectly honest, underneath it), two white mice are nibbling on pieces of a cracker that someone has missed sweeping up.
"If we want to get rid of Them, it's all going to have to go," says Benjy.
"What? The whole planet?"
"We have to get rid of the believers. And the eagles."
Franky begins washing his whiskers. "We'll make sure a few of them leave the planet. They will continue the experiment."
"But ... "
"No Norsemen," says Benjy with finality. Frankie squeaks in agreement. Then they finish their cracker and dematerialize, most likely in order to go file paperwork with the Vogons. Theologic destruction, no matter how weak the belief, takes quite a bit of effort.
The door to the bar slams open, and Kate Schechter stomps through it and up to the barkeep.
"I want some root beer," she says, and when he tells her to sod off, she adds, "the kind in a glass bottle! With fizz! Make it snappy!"
Clearly the bar is some kind of vortex of coincidence. Halfway around the world, a butterfly is probably getting a pizza delivered.