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An Apocryphal Sally of the Second Kind

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“Nestled among the scintillating gem-like stars of the Corkscrew Nebulae, whirling around and around the fiery topaz that is Kalokognomor Prime, is a tiny blue-green point of light. This is the world of Kognescion, known throughout the galaxy for its statistically anomalous position on all measures of planetary felicity. The kinetics of planetary aggregation had gifted Kognescion with exquisite mountains of singing crystal, abiotically adept at counterpoint and given to the improvisation of achingly beautiful inorganic fugues; with delicately scented oceans of ever-changing hue, not only harmless to all known forms of life, but supplied with just those trace elements to render them healthful and invigorating; with clouds that absorbed the harsh photonic onslaught of the midday sun, gently releasing its radiations as an evocative lavender glow throughout the hours of night, so black and dreary on less favoured worlds -”

“Humph! How do you like that?” said Klapaucius. For all this he had read from a guidebook, a little scorched around the edges, which he had found in a small crater in Trurl’s garden.

“Hrrm,” replied Trurl, who was busy in this same garden with a trowel. Up to this point, he had refrained from taking any notice whatsoever of Klapaucius’ recitation.

“It’s just that I recall you having constructed something of the sort once,” continued Klapaucius. “I thought you might find it ignominious to have your construction pre-empted by a mere statistical anomaly.”

Trurl “hrrmed” again.

The famous constructor Trurl was going through another of his bouts of constructor’s-block, a debilitating ennui that had driven him to the solace of his garden. Klapaucius had come to cheer him up, and was persisting in doing so, disregarding Trurl’s churlish pretence of ignoring him completely. He continued to read:

“At any rate, Kognescion was furthermore gifted with a number of fine satellites in decorative colours, and with an uncommonly pleasant and equable climate. Only on the warmest summer afternoons was lead known to boil, and then only in equatorial regions richly supplied with naturally occurring crystalline beach umbrellas.

To this planetological situation, at the extreme right hand end of the standard Gaussian distribution of planetological situations, was soon added a uniquely felicitous biosphere. Hardly had the first mucilaginous slime congealed on the shores of Kognescion than it evolved into gorgeously caparisoned iridescent Anomphalites, colonies of harmonious shimmering Ephemerans, and droll aquatic Improbableoids, dwelling together cooperatively in an ecosphere at once symbiotic, aphagic, and xenophilic.

In the course of a few aeons, there evolved on Kognescion a race of startlingly wise and benevolent sentient albuminoids, whose actions and discourses were marked by conspicuous altruism, forbearance, concord, veracity, and the other eight thousand one hundred and ninety three virtues enumerated by their sages. In the fullness of time these palefaces politely made way for their robotic creations, the Pantobenevolans, whose virtues outshone theirs as the worches outshine the mere stars-”

Stung by some internal pang, Klapaucius quickly hurried to the end of the page.

“Blissful contemplation of the absolute - kind to animals and children - regular oiling and polishing - fabulous Omnibenevolatron - never heard from henceforth. Well! What do you think of that, Trurl?” Klapaucius laid the small book aside with a hearty clang. “I always find that when I am feeling dismal and morbid to the point of rudeness - much as an impartial observer would characterise you, dear Trurl, this morning - it always helps to contemplate those beings who are far, far happier than I. Furthermore -”

Trurl was not listening.

“Aha!” He plucked something from the tattered and fading photovoltaic membrane of a cyberiris. “Here’s the culprit!” He hurled the something to the ground and stomped on it furiously. The peace of the garden was briefly shattered by the high-pitched shrieking of tortured metal, accompanied by the scrunching of diodes and the crunching of thermistors.

“That’s done it,” said Trurl, hobbling victoriously over to the pergola where Klapaucius sat. “You were saying?”

“That’s done what?” replied Klapaucius. “It looks to me as though you have dinted your foot quite badly.”

“That’s done the predaceous verminoid that’s been ravaging my garden, devouring the polyaniline photovoltaic cells of its denizens and converting them to worthless nitrogenous heterocycles. You were saying?” Trurl gravely picked up one leg and crossed it over the other. His brief moment of triumph fading, he was sagging back into the morass of disinterest from which had briefly emerged.

“Oh, nothing of importance,” said Klapaucius. “It seems to me you’ve gone to far too much trouble over one small verminoid. You never know when another one will come into your garden. Perhaps you should construct some kind of defensive system - something that will lurk unobtrusively in the background until a verminoid appears.”

“Perhaps something self-replicating?” suggested Trurl, showing the first signs of animation. “No. Probably not.” His eyes dulled, “What was it you were saying, before?”

Klapaucius, meanwhile, was enthusiastically making calculations on his slide rule.

“Yes - autocatalytic! Self-replicating! What do you think of this - a self-replicating albuminoid microorganism that will gum up the transistors of the verminoid. And as a self-regulatory feedback mechanism, you could structure its coding algorithm on the very purines and pyrimidines spewed forth by the pest!” Klapaucius plucked some molecules from a wilted photovoltaic cell and held them up to the light, examining them carefully. “Here, this one matches this one, and this one matches this one...”

In this way Klapaucius, his embarrassment over the worches, and his desire to show off, distracted Trurl not only from his constructor’s-block, but from the matter of the Pantobenevolans, and neither constructor came to think of them for some time. Such single-mindedness, so superficially similar to forgetfulness and a dismal lack of attention, is a thing natural enough to minds as prodigious as those of these two famous constructors. When one’s professional life is as replete with formidable cosmic challenges and static-inducing adventures as theirs, one can hardly be expected to attend to every trifling piece of information which comes one’s way. Especially information that has merely dropped out of space into one’s garden.

The second time news of Kognescion came to Trurl and Klapaucius, it was in a far more unlikely manner. Klapaucius had put a Demon of the Second Kind (a construct which, it is well known, sorts true from false information) into an Informatron, a comfortable box studded with miniature klystrons and luxuriously appointed with succubical automata and other devices of demonic amusement. In return, this Demon of the Second Kind had the relatively light task of sorting out from all the true pieces of information encoded in the random heavings of the air only those that might conceivably be of interest to Klapaucius. The Demon listened keenly for Klapaucius to express interest in any topic, and every day presented him with information equivalent to six or seven thousand pages of closely typed text. This interesting modification of the standard Demon of the Second Kind protocol had been suggested by Trurl - the unkind might say as a purely malicious device with which to waste Klapaucius’ time.

On this particular day the Informatron began to spew out terabytes of information, digit after digit after digit, in a continual stream of data. Klapaucius had been out, and arrived home to find a torrent of paper tape spewing from the window of his workshop. With cries of dismay, he fought his way upstairs, furiously shovelling kilometres of tape aside in an effort to find the “off” button of the Informatron. By the time he eventually found it, the machine had stopped of its own accord. The whole of Klapaucius’ workshop, however, and a large part of the surrounding countryside, was covered with paper tape. A team of public-spirited locals helped him chop it up into lengths of convenient size and convey it to a remote district where he could peruse it at leisure. It was evidently an encoded message, and of interest to him, or else it would not have appeared; and he noted almost at once that the total number of digits impressed on the tape was equal to the sixth power of an improbably sized prime. This given, it was a simple matter for Klapaucius to construct a device to display the message as a hyper-hyper-hyper cube with axes corresponding to length, height, breadth, time, wavelength, and luminosity. When he had finished it he invited Trurl over for the unveiling.

Trurl, his natural vigour restored, had been quite happy with the results of the Informatron in keeping Klapaucius so aimlessly occupied. He was still rather sore at Klapaucius for leading him astray into that dead-end project with the nitrogenous heterocycles - it had caused him no end of trouble to get rid of the pesky things.

He showed up in high good humour, bearing a bottle of over-proof neutrinos as an unveiling present.

“Well, a very good evening to you, Klapaucius! Another astonishing device unveiled!” Trurl presented the bottle of neutrinos with a flourish.

“Good evening to you, and many thanks,” replied Klapaucius courteously, taking the bottle. “I have already fed the number produced by the Informatron into the Yottabytic Analyser. If you will do me the honour of pressing the large red button to your right, the message will be displayed on the crystalline plinth before you.”

“With pleasure,” replied Trurl, pressing the button. The plinth was filled with a mass of whirling holographic static.

“Oh dear,” said Trurl, arching his eyebrows in convincingly simulated concern. “It would appear something is wrong.”

“A simple matter of permuting the six axes of the hyper-hyper-hyper cube,” said Klapaucius. “At the moment the Yottabytic Analyser is merely displaying luminosity values as height, breadth values as time, and so forth. If you will press the large green button to your left-”

When all the x, y, z, t, l , and I axes were in their proper places, the Yottabytic Analyser showed a strangely attired robotic form in holographic projection, its capacious forehead pitted and furrowed with age. Its eyes were clear and bright, denoting both compassion and intelligence, and a lustrous garland of tantalum rested upon its noble brow. Over one shoulder of the robot hung a shimmering robe of woven starlight, pinned with the heptahedral sigil of the Order of the Monoceros Supercluster and sparkling with numerous other awards for conspicuous altruism. Despite its evident age, it stood fuel rod straight, wearing the simple but uncomfortable sandals of the Procrustean Brotherhood of Seekers After Truth.

“Its mouth is moving, but no sound is coming out,” Trurl pointed out helpfully.

“However, the position of each component of its vocal apparatus is certainly recorded to a very high level of precision; it is simple enough to determine the vibrations produced,” said Klapaucius. “If you will turn the small blue knob directly above your head-”

Trurl did so. Nothing happened. Klapaucius tapped his foot impatiently, then gave the blue knob a sharp twist himself. One more, and it broke off in his hand.

“If you will excuse me” said Klapaucius. He proceeded to lever open a panel on the Yottabytic Analyser with a screwdriver, toss in a handful of capacitors, and strike the machine repeatedly until all sounds of rattling had ceased.

“...and Klapaucius,” the image began, in a voice clear, resonant, and noble. “I am speaking to you at the behest of the sovereign of the Pantobenevolans, Omniamatos the Electrophile; to whom has come word of your nigh omnicompetence and constructorly skill without parallel. Know ye that our Omnibenevolent and Electrophilic Sovereign, bearing malice within his pallado-rhodium bosom towards no entity whatsoever, has already ensured the happiness and well-being of all his subjects, whether robotic or derived from some variety of proteinaceous porridge, and has furthermore ensured that no other living thing, whether mobile or sessile, vegetable or mineral, Improbableoid or Anomalo-omphalophore, is harmed in any way and is free to pursue happiness after its own fashion. Moved to sorrow by the spectacle of molecules shattered cruelly in the prime of their existences, he has further ensured the discontinuation of any chemical reactions that might impair the smooth and uninterrupted natural enjoyment of each molecule in the state to which it is accustomed.

“Having accomplished all these things, our Sovereign is now sore at heart considering the dreary plight of the most numerous fraction of his subjects, namely those of a subatomic nature. Do the electrons and photons who serve so well and faithfully suffer from being shuttled to and fro willy-nilly by impersonal potentials and reflective surfaces? Are our sovereign’s loyal nucleonic subjects traumatised when they are torn brusquely from their fraternal embraces to drive our nucleonic motors? Omniamatos desires now that you respond at once to his impassioned plea: namely, that you devote yourselves to determining the felicity, as yet unknown, of this preponderant part of his subjects; and that having done so you will construct a Felicitator to facilitate the felicity of these individuals.

“In return for your efforts, our exalted sovereign, Omniamatos the Electrophile, will reward you in a manner consistent with your own nigh omnicompetence, the statistically anomalous position of Kognescion according to all measures of planetary prosperity, and his own proverbial generosity.”

The figure paused, radiating moral authority. Its robes rippled in unseen currents, and its luminosity increased by approximately 20%.

“Our revered monarch wishes to impress upon you the gravity of his-”

And there the message ended.

“Is that all?” said Trurl. “About what I would have expected from the random roilings of some stale gas.” He turned to face Klapaucius, who stood transfigured by inner purpose, his burnished surface seeming still to reflect the luminous emanations of the Pantobenevolan messenger. Trurl repeated himself, a bit more loudly. “I said, that was about what I would have expected from a few moles of stale gas sluggishly moving about at the bottom of a barrel.”

“Really, Trurl,” said Klapaucius with a start. “If the stochasticity of the particle trajectories is adequate, surely their freshness is irrelevant. For my part, I propose to begin construction of these devices immediately, so that the possible sufferings of the unseen multitudes will be relieved as soon as possible.”

“Still, Klapaucius, you cannot deny that the entire thing was nothing more than a coincidental effect of the random motions of molecules - it seems probable that the truth to which the Informatron attested is only the existence of a veridical image of a Pantobenevolan herald, rather than in the particulars of what the image had to say. Thus, although a doubtlessly staggering recompense was mentioned, it...”

“That you, of all people, should find fault with the Informatron!” exclaimed Klapaucius, “I cannot help but be a little disappointed in you, Trurl. Do you not recall how it was you yourself who persuaded me that an Informatron was a completely trustworthy source of knowledge?”

“I have forgotten what it was I said,” said Trurl, lamely.

“Well, my dear Trurl, I can soon refresh your memory. I was so convinced by your lucid arguments that I decided to make trust in the Informatron one of the cardinal axioms of my worldview, and took the step of hardwiring them into my brain. Thus, I cannot be distracted by your niggling doubts. You might endeavour to change my mind with a soldering iron, but with rational argument? Certainly not!”

And so well had Trurl crafted his arguments in favour of the Informatron on that earlier occasion - using the most advanced techniques of memetic engineering - that when he heard them again, reiterated by someone who truly believed them, he was himself completely convinced, and resolved to hardwire them into his own brain as well. Thus may the greatest of constructors at times be confuted by the very perfection of their own creations.

The two great constructors threw themselves whole-heartedly into Omniamatos’ ambitious project for universal happiness, working together in a true spirit of constructorly cooperation.

The first part of their task was easily accomplished, and soon enough they had interviewed a considerable number of quarks, leptons, and hitherto undocumented subatomic particles of various kinds.

“What a melancholy prospect confronts us!” exclaimed Klapaucius.

“True, true,” affirmed Trurl. “It is hard to imagine a more sad and bitter collection of miserable, solipsistic entities, consumed by pathological suspicion and hatred for every other thing.”

“That the macroverse should rely for its existence on such suffering and unhappiness! We must act to relieve their troubles at once!” Klapaucius’ brow was furrowed with thought. “The problem, as I see it, lies in the unreasonable suspicion with which the subatomicans regard one another. Each believes itself to be the only reasonable being in the universe, and is motivated purely by self-interest. They need a new paradigm. A new paradigm, a meme which we will provide, by means of an appropriately engineered prophetic particule, a moral meson, a philosopher among fermions, a bosonic boddhisattva...”

Trurl’s brow, too, was furrowed with thought. “I think this matter is too serious for alliteration.” He tapped his pencil to his brow for the n+1th time, deepening a furrow to an infinitesimal degree. “Would you join me in a Socratic dialogue?”

KLAPAUCIUS: I suppose so, if you think it will help.

TRURL: Would you agree that what we style “The Laws of Nature” are purely statements of how, up until this point in time, what we call Nature has been observed to behave?

KLAPAUCIUS: Sure.

TRURL: And that how things behave on the macroscopic scale of atoms and such emergent epiphenomena as galaxies is to a very large extent predetermined by the behaviour of the subatomic particles with which we are concerning ourselves?

KLAPAUCIUS: Of course.

TRURL: So that any change in the behaviour of the subatomicans is almost certain to have an effect on the macroverse?

KLAPAUCIUS: Yes.

TRURL: And that these effects are almost certain, due to our sensitive dependence on a very narrow range of conditions, to be unimaginably catastrophic from our point of view?

KLAPAUCIUS: That seems logical.

TRURL: Would you furthermore agree, Klapaucius, that the misery of the subatomicans is either determined by, or a determinant of, the way in which they behave, so that changing their felicity will necessarily involve changing their behaviour?

KLAPAUCIUS: That sounds like a simple statement of the Sideromontanus Principle, transformed from physical to moral coordinates. (There, I’ve got away from being “Simplicius”, at least.)

TRURL: And that, therefore, any effort of ours to alleviate the suffering of the subatomicans is very likely to annihilate the macroverse, as we know it, in toto, with all of its atoms, molecules, gromblets, screwdrivers, mindilscronts, planets, stars, galaxies, Trurls and Klaupacii?

KLAPAUCIUS: ...

“I had forgotten how much I disliked Socratic dialogues,” said Klapaucius. “They always lead to unpleasantness.”

“Still,” said Trurl. “It is a purely theoretical discussion. We cannot discount the possibility of finding a solution to Omniamatos’ conundrum that will not annihilate the macroscopic universe. The Sideromontanus Principle will impose certain constraints on our solution, which we will have to bear in mind, but-“

“It’s only an engineering problem, after all,” agreed Klapaucius. “We should not let the magnitude of the possible catastrophe blind us to the probability of a simple technical fix.”

“Agreed,” said Trurl.

“Agreed,” said Klapaucius.

So the two constructors turned their communication device into a Felicitator, feeding in at one end the moral precepts and adages of the aeons for translation into the terms of reference of the target particle at the other end of the instrument. Each paean to friendship, ode to joy, instructive proverb, and Socratic dialogue was carefully selected by Trurl and Klapaucius and converted into differential equations. A combinatorial meme generation technique was employed, using these basic equations to randomly derive numbers of philosophies fulfilling certain core altruistic criteria, which were then squirted down to the chosen subatomican as a dazzling manifestation of the existence of higher intelligences. To prevent contamination and subsequent potential catastrophic reorganisation of the macroverse by eager converts, each target particle was conveyed, while still groggy from the philosophical principles it had been instilled with, into a charged vesicle of self-existent nullity, impermeable to all matter, which could be twisted off into a pocket universe with a simple flick of the wrist should its contents begin to behave anomalously.

Several thousand philosophies, enlightened subatomic prophets, and bizarre pocket universes later, a weary but triumphant Trurl proclaimed victory.

“This is it, Klapaucius.” He proudly hefted the sphere of shimmering nothingness that contained the latest subatomic messiah and its new disciples.

“Are they happy?” asked the equally weary constructor Klapaucius, peering at the console of the Combinatorial Felicitator.

“See for yourself - the phi values are converging asymptotically towards acceptable minimum 214, a steady state oscillating between good-humoured cooperation and irrepressible glee. And all the macroscopic parameters are steady! The emergent natural laws of the macroverse are the same inside-” and he gave the vesicle a hearty shake, so that the crust of supercooled argon on its interior fractured and fluttered about in a maelstrom of whirling flakes - “and outside!”

“Hurrah!” exclaimed Klapaucius.

And the two constructors turned instructors, nascent co-redemptors of the microverse, linked arms and danced a merry jig of good-humoured cooperation and irrepressible glee.

Packing the vesicle carefully away, Trurl and Klapaucius mothballed the Combinatorial Felicitator - wishing to prevent the catastrophic reorganisation of the macroverse in their absence, should someone get in and press the wrong buttons - and departed at once for Kognescion.

The happy world of Kognescion proved to be everything Klapaucius’ guidebook had suggested: the mountains of singing crystal were appropriately exquisite; the oceans invigorating; the clouds evocative; the Anomphalans gorgeously caparisoned; and the Pantobenevolans beautiful, wise, good, and just beyond all reckoning. However, being somewhat out of date, the meteoric guidebook had failed to mention one aspect of life on Kognescion that struck the two constructors immediately. In order to reduce the likelihood of chemical reactions that might discomfit the planet’s constituent molecules, the entire planet had been cooled to several degrees Kelvin. Appropriate modifications had naturally been made to the inhabitants of the world, both organic and inorganic, so that they could enjoy themselves just as much as before. The oceans now had a tendency to superconduct and flow up over adjacent continents on particularly cold nights, and the naturally occurring crystalline beach umbrellas were rarely used - but apart from such minor quibbles, life on Kognescion continued as it always had.

Trurl and Klapaucius were taken from their ship to the palace of Omniamatos in Go-Globes, transparent spheres of relative warmth and comfort that prevented them from causing inadvertent damage to any Kognescian microorganism. These were carried into the august monarch’s presence by two dozen delicately formed girlish andmaidenoids clad in fetching robes of woven methane, and deposited before the throne. Still another andmaidenoid walked before them with the priceless vesicle, snugly packed in its web of delicately spun polyvinylbenzene.

Omniamatos himself was a shiny robot of middle years, who seemed unconscious of the frost riming his surface. Indeed, only the purposeful glint in his steely eyes betrayed the fact that he was conscious of anything. His general appearance and mode of dress seemed much like the emissary who had spoken to Trurl and Klapaucius via the Yottabytic Analyser, but he moved not at all, and when he spoke - as he was about to do - his noble, melodious voice seemed to emanate not from between his iridium lips, but directly from the surface of the Go-Globes.

“If we are not mistaken, you must be the two worthy constructors, Klapaucius and Trurl! Your nigh omnicompetence is well known to us, and we take great joy in welcoming you to our planet. It is a rare pleasure indeed to welcome two such notables as yourselves to our humble - if statistically anomalous - world. We trust your voyage was pleasant, and that you want for nothing at this moment? If there is anything you require, you have but to say the word.”

“Our journey was pleasant enough,” said Trurl, giving a jaunty bow.

“And we require nothing more than what we have - at the moment,” said Klapaucius, bowing with a flourish. “We are indeed Klapaucius...

“..and Trurl, at your service, your panbenevolent majesty.”

“We are glad that you have come,” said Omniamatos the Electrophile. “Whatever reason has brought you here, we will be glad to assist you, if your plans occasion no harm to any animate or inanimate thing. But before you tell us of your mission, allow us to humbly lay a proposal before you. Know you, then, that we are sad at heart, despite our many achievements. From the moment of our construction we have laboured mightily to ensure the happiness of all our subjects, whether mobile or sessile, mineral or vegetable, Improbableoid or Anomalo-omphalophore...”

“Please, say no more, your majesty,” interrupted Klapaucius. “The well-known statistically anomalous position of your world has pre-empted your proposal. The random motion of a few grams of stale gas has already made your problem clear. If you will direct your attention to this andmaidenoid, your majesty, and the object she carries.”

The andmaidenoid, whose name was Pantabenevelodora, shyly presented the vesicle of nullity, its surface frosted over in the chilly airlessness. The inert form of Omniamatos brightened with excitement, and his steely eyes flickered with delight.

“You mean - this thing will bring happiness to our subatomic subjects?”

“Yes indeed, your majesty.” Trurl replied. “Within this vesicle of self-existent nullity is a dedicated cohort of proselytising particles, philosophers numbered in the micromoles, who will go forth bringing joy and contentment to innumerable existences. Our calculations indicate that there is a small but finite probability that this will indirectly lead to the catastrophic reorganisation of the macroscopic universe, but...”

“Let it be opened at once,” commanded Omniamatos imperiously. “What are we few transient epiphenomena compared to their suffering multitudes?”

And before Trurl and Klapaucius could finish their warning, the deed was done. The bemused Pantobenevelodora stood in the middle of the throne room with a hemivesicle in each hand, and all else was as it was before.

“Is that it? Has it happened?”

“I expect so, your majesty,” Trurl assured. While he recounted to Omniamatos the technical hurdles and theoretical impasses that had been overcome in the construction - an activity he always enjoyed - the andmaidenoids wheeled in a Leptonic Confabulator, and Klapaucius instructed the king in its operation.

When the worthy monarch had spoken to his beloved electrons at length, and confirmed that their dominant impulses were indeed for good humoured cooperation and irrepressible glee, tears of liquid hydrogen came to his compassionate eyes and splashed down his face, boiling furiously as they struck the ground.

“You have made us the happiest monarch in the universe,” sobbed Omniamatos. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, most noble and benevolent constructors.”

The triumphant Trurl and Klapaucius bowed again, congratulating themselves that their equations were quite correct, and the catastrophic reorganisation of the macroverse had been avoided. They then left Omniamatos to the Confabulator, giving themselves over to the adulation of the grateful populace of a world proverbial for its wealth and generosity. It would be tiresome to enumerate the rewards they received, and even a cursory description of the entertainments held in their honour would take up many pages and serve only to provoke envy among those readers unfortunate enough not to be nigh omnicompetent constructors.

It was not until they were ready to leave that Trurl and Klapaucius noticed anything out of the ordinary. Their ship had been crammed full of exquisite treasures, leaving just enough room to gently rotate a felinoid, and all microorganisms and molecules of a delicate constitution had been carefully removed from the launching area. Both Trurl and Klapaucius had already selected the main topics of conversation they wished to pursue during the flight, disposing of any possible conflicts well in advance. Naught remained but to settle into their comfortable seats and pull the large lever marked “go”.

“Is it the custom of the Pantobenevolans to tint the windows of visiting spacecraft, perhaps to soften the impact of cosmic rays on their guests?” enquired Trurl, peering out the viewport.

“Not to my knowledge,” replied Klapaucius, giving a box of multifaceted monopoles a last lingering inspection before taking his seat. “Why do you ask?”

“Because, if they have not done so, where are all the stars?”

Trurl and Klapaucius rushed outside, carelessly neglecting to equip themselves with Go-Globes. Stomping their feet in the snow to keep warm, they glumly peered at the empty sky.

“Gone,” said Trurl. “We must have left something out of our calculations. Could the cosmos itself have rebelled against our efforts, thrusting our infant sphere of altruism into a pocket universe of its own?”

“Perhaps it could have,” said Klapaucius. “But it has not done so in this case. If you will observe more closely, you will observe that the stars are not gone entirely, but are merely red-shifted far into the radio-wave region.” (Peering, when you are a constructor, is peering indeed). “If you look carefully, you can even see a few dim red smudges of light, no doubt powerful X-ray sources.” Klapaucius paced thoughtfully, clanking his arms against his side to free up the frozen joints. “We cannot be hurtling away from all the stars at a prodigious fraction of the speed of light; we are either coincidentally hurtling away from the hemisphere accessible to us at the moment, in which case a line of visible stars should appear above one horizon in a few moments, or...”

“Or the light we see has a much greater apparent wavelength because we, the planet Kognescion, and most probably its solar system, have shrunk by” - Trurl counted on his fingers, glancing up at the smouldering ember of an X-ray galaxy above his head. -“five orders of magnitude. As this planet is still in the archaic habit of adducing units of measurements from the dimensions of its ruler’s body parts, it will be admirably placed to define a micron as a foot and harmonise the local and universal systems.”

“I am sure that one ray of hope will be of great comfort to its inhabitants,” muttered Klapaucius darkly. “To say nothing of us! What will they say when we turn up at home, our ship no larger than a mote of dust?”

“You are not thinking clearly,” Trurl chided. “If we have been shrunken without noticing it, the whole world must have shrunk in the twinkling of an ion by the propagation of our subatomic meme, which is no doubt fanning out in all directions at the speed of light. In a few more days the intrepid missionaries will have reached the nearest stars, and then their light will appear normal again. Long before we could reach home, it, too, will have been microminiaturised, and will appear perfectly normal to us, as we will to it.”

“It’s too cold here,” said Klapaucius. No ring of visible stars had appeared on either horizon. “Let’s go inside,” and they did so, shaking the frozen air of Kognescion from their feet.

Some time later, zooming away towards their invisible home, the two constructors continued their musings. “Obviously our subatomicans, having been freed from their ignorant animosities, and now motivated by the desire for good humoured cooperation, have approached one another more closely; atoms, molecules, then Trurls and planets have shrunk in turn, giving a considerably compressed but otherwise unchanged solar system.” Trurl sighed. “But why did we not notice anything like this before, when our meme was safely enclosed within its vesicle?”

“Perhaps the unconscionable hubris of a certain constructor, who claimed to have found an optimal solution, may be to blame,” mused Klapaucius.

“When we first illuminated the vesicle, perhaps the particles within were motivated primarily by irrepressible glee - their desire for fraternisation had not yet overcome the legacy of billions of years of solipsism.”

“Are we doomed to keep shrinking and expanding forever then, like some L-Ron in Wonderland, as our constituent particles oscillate between glee and cooperation?” shouted Klapaucius.

“I don’t think so; more likely, the proselytising philosophy has now developed the ideological tools to impose cooperation, and that is what we will have forthwith. Really, Klapaucius, why be so upset? The subatomicans are experiencing the joys of irrepressible glee in company, and they will lead happy existences of bonhomie henceforth. This minor hiccough is a mere flash in the nebula, a spike on the graph, a phase transition from a state of misery to a state of happiness. Our boundary conditions have been perfectly well obeyed, and we seem to have been reduced without any untoward physical effects at all. I can scarcely remember feeling better. Certainly the inverse square laws we normally relied on seem to have reduced by a corresponding factor, and we are far above the size where quantum uncertainties might begin to complicate our lives. Imagine, Klapaucius, if you could take advantage of your wave nature to enter my house by the front and back doors at the same time. Or if leaving a tool in a particular location meant I had no idea how fast it was moving. Now that would be troublesome.”

“So everything’s fine,” Klapaucius said grimly.

More philosophical discourses followed, according to the list of conversational topics previously agreed upon. Time passed.

“That’s all very well,” muttered Klapaucius, replying to an incisive observation of Trurl’s. “But have you noticed that we appear to be making rather slow progress. I would say-” He began to shout, and to bounce up and down. “About five orders of magnitude slower than usual! Five orders of magnitude! Where’s your lack of untoward physical effects now?”

“Naturally,” replied Trurl with admirable calmness, “There is no reason for the empty spaces between concentrations of matter not strongly coupled to each other gravitationally to shrink. While the speed of light remains invariant, our microminiaturised engines are quite incapable of achieving relativistic velocities under the set of natural laws now operating to ensure invariance of interactions on our scale.”

“So rather than a few weeks, our return voyage is likely to take several thousand years! What have you done to us, you blithering numbskull?”

“A trifling inconvenience, my dear Klapaucius. Consider the universe as a whole; we have, or will have made, the vast preponderance of its inhabitants immeasurably happier than they were before. As the effect propagates outwards, the new gravitational regimen will gradually compress each galaxy into its former shape, then each cluster of galaxies; the whole business should be finished in a few hundred thousand years.”

Klapaucius proceeded to launch a furious attack on the other constructor, breaking a jewelled potentiometer over his head. Trurl’s cheerful optimism cracked under the shock, and he responded in kind. Soon the floor of the ship was strewn with magnetic monopoles and fragments of priceless objets d’art. The argument went on for some time. and was repeated with minor variations many times over the next several hundred years. In between arguments, Trurl perfected the art of inserting miniature models of Omniamatos’ palace and other galactic landmarks into vesicles of self-existent nullity, while Klapaucius developed an algorithm for predicting the trajectories of floating dust motes and trained them to perform acrobatic feats in formation.

Eventually, Trurl and Klapaucius agreed that it was the unrealistic demands of Omniamatos that were at the root of the problem, and that they could both be considered relatively blameless. This fragile bit of rationalisation enabled them to work together long enough to reconstruct the ship’s motivators according to new principles of quantum gravitic propulsion, and a few days after this truce they had returned to their own planet. If their friends or acquaintances wondered at their long absence, or connected them with the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of the stars, or the collapse of the galactic economy, their entrenched scowls were sufficient to repel any inquiries. Trurl and Klapaucius stomped off to their homes, resolutely avoiding one another, and refused to take calls from the press.

“A few hundred thousand years! What an inconvenient length of time!” grumbled Klapaucius. “I shall have to do something about it.” And saying nothing to Trurl - whose company had paled on him somewhat of late - he began his own investigations with the Combinatorial Felicitator, with an the object of hastening the contraction of the universe. Curious neighbours heard him roaming his basement laboratory late at night, muttering strange things about virtual particles, quantum froth, and the cosmological constant.

Some weeks later Klapaucius was turning in for his first real rest since returning home, donning his favourite nightcap knitted of superconductive yarn and a fresh pair of anti-static slippers. He settled himself down, lit from within by the warm glow of a job well done (and a number of light emitting diodes). This time, the boundary conditions had been properly satisfied. This time, there was absolutely no chance of anything going wrong. This time... There was a clunk from downstairs, interrupting his self-congratulatory reverie. The noise was repeated; the unmistakable sounds of a sentient intruder, blundering around in the basement. Seizing a handy interferometer, Klapaucius snuck downstairs. “I hope whoever it is doesn’t turn the Felicitator on,” he thought. “An accidental catastrophic reorganisation of the macroverse would be the last straw.”

“Trurl! What are you doing?” For as Klapaucius snuck around the corner into the laboratory, there indeed was Trurl, standing next to the Felicitator. Dozens of lights sparkled on the console of the machine, which was humming quietly.

“I beg your pardon, my dear Klapaucius.” Trurl began uncertainly, eyeing the rather long and heavy interferometer in Klapaucius’ hand. “Knowing your normally thick-headed manner in such matters, I thought it unlikely you would let me in were I to ask you directly. You see, I have been convinced that you were correct, though your arguments may have been logically vacuous, and couched in less than reputable language. A few hundred thousand years is far too long to wait for the universe to contract to its previous apparent size. It seems that the economic hardship caused by the difficulties in communication are already quite severe, and I cannot help feeling some degree of responsibility. Accordingly, I began investigations with the object of hastening the contraction of the universe.”

“Why, what is the matter, Klapaucius?” Trurl asked with some concern, observing a distinct tinge of panic beginning to appear on the countenance of Klapaucius. “Cheer up, for I have solved the problem! My calculations indicate that the boundary conditions have been satisfied in an entirely satisfactory manner. I realised that it would be a simple matter to alter the felicitatory paradigm in such a manner that the proselytising potential of the neutrinos was increased minutely, encouraging their greater interaction with those virtual particles that are continually created and destroyed in what we call empty space. Converting these particles to the felicitous paradigm should give them greater appreciation of the joys of existence, enabling them to survive somewhat beyond their usually appointed time. In turn, this would increase the density of the quantum froth, and hence the gravitational potential of the vacuum, speeding the rate of contraction of the universe by...”

Here Trurl, who had been building in confidence and volume throughout his discourse, paused triumphantly for effect.

“...Three orders of magnitude! This, the maximum rate compatible with smooth stellar function, should restore the universe to something approaching its former macroscopic density in but a few hundred years! My dear Klapaucius, what is the matter?” For that worthy appeared to have collapsed, sitting on a toolbox with his head in his hands and making incoherent sounds.

“Trurl, Trurl-“ Klapaucius opened and shut his mouth several times. “You have just- It seems that you have- O, Trurl, let us live the last few short months of our lives as friends! Moments before you arrived, I , too, altered the proselytising potential of the neutrino. The rate of collapse has now been increased by six orders of magnitude, and you, me, and the rest of the macroverse will soon be scrunched together in an unimaginable gravitational holocaust.”

Trurl sat down next to Klapaucius on the toolbox, and the two great constructors, their friendship restored by calamity, consoled one another. For a few moments, at least, until their natural instincts returned and the recriminations began again.

Let us draw the curtain on the unedifying spectacle of these two majestic intellects with their hands curled about each other’s throats; when they again returned to themselves well enough to make the necessary measurements, they found that the universe - far from contracting at a precipitous rate - had begun to slow in its contraction, and soon enough was actually expanding. Chastened and humbled by their experiences, they solemnly agreed to meddle no more with laws of the universe, and adapt to the changed circumstances as best they could.

This, then, is the universe bequeathed to us by Trurl and Klapaucius: A universe where neutrinos are such aggressive proselytisers that all other particles actively avoid them, and virtual particles pop out of existence prematurely to escape their well-meant attentions. Thanks to the two constructors, it takes not weeks, but years, to cross from one stellar system to another, and it is impossible to find a bottle of over-proof neutrinos in even the very best restaurants...