Chapter Twenty-Two: The Bikeshed

After only another minute or two, the curiosipede was pursued by a many-headed demon, ponderous and round and so heavy he made the ground boom with every step.

Nyssa asked his name - this doubled as fueling the escape - and he announced himself as The Mindkiller, and then demanded from one head, "Don't you think people who earn money ought to be allowed to keep it, when this will be better for the little people too via job creation?" and, simultaneously from another, "Don't you think it's repulsive when megabillionaires sit on their piles of money extracted by exploiting the poor, and object to giving away a tiny fraction of that to help the starving and homeless?", and from a third head, "Wouldn't it be better if we stopped using the kind of economy that produces this result at all, and moved on to a system of socialist redistribution outright, from each according to -" and the other heads had other questions, all about the same subject.

Somehow Nyssa could hear them more clearly than she'd expect, but not so clearly that she couldn't mistake one clause as belonging to another sentence and misunderstand the opinion entirely. The curiosipede slowed down. It suddenly seemed like she ought to have an opinion on this matter too. Maybe if she took out her book of logic from the Queen she'd be able to figure out the best way to answer this question once and for all, and explain it well enough that all the heads would agree with her, and then whatever that best solution was - she was finding herself sympathetic to the second head, at the moment - they could all work together on that, and finally everything would be all right - the heads were still arguing, and she had to follow all the lines of argument at the same time or she'd miss something in her reply, and then she'd look foolish and wouldn't convince any heads at all -

"AND FURTHERMORE," said one of the heads, "with the rise of automation, we need to institute a universal -"

"CONSEQUENTLY," announced another head, "if not for legislative obstructionism, we can assume that -"

"IN SUM," a different head roared, "based on the track record of this sort of policy in other venues -"

"LET ME BE CLEAR," cried another, "that in advancing this opinion I do not mean to contradict the legacy of -"

"ACCORDINGLY," shouted a head, "based on the work of noted political theorist and experienced attorney Ms. -"

"WHEREAS -"

"THEREFORE -"

"HOWEVER -"

"OF COURSE -"

"YOU MUST CONCEDE THAT -"

Nyssa had only one head, and it swam. She felt angry, so angry she couldn't think of anything but showing all those heads what was what and making them listen, but she had to come up with what to say, and they wouldn't stop talking to let her get a word in or even really understand what they were getting at in the first place -!

"In here," said a different, non-Mindkiller voice. "In here, in here!"

The voice came from a half-built shack, just barely out of the path the curiosipede had been taking. Nyssa blinked, let the voices of the Mindkiller fade into cacophony, and scooted into it. It wasn't complete - only one wall was painted, there were shingles on just half the roof, and there were places where the foundation looked like it had been pulled up and then only somewhat replaced, but it had four walls, no gaps big enough for the Mindkiller to reach its giant hand through, and enough structural integrity that she wasn't sure the monster could just smash it down.

She took a deep breath, and then realized she'd piloted her curiosipede right into a tense argument.

"No, I'm not talking about what we'll paint it in here! I'm talking about the exterior! The south side will get more sun, so painting it first is a good test case for whether the pigment will hold up -"

"Oh, sure, just completely ignore the wall treatments in the part where we'll actually be spending all our time! Sure, let's talk exterior! In the meantime it will look completely idiotic! I can't believe you went ahead and did that without me! We agreed during the policy discussion -"

"I wasn't at the policy discussion, because you couldn't be bothered to schedule it for a time I'd be free, you stacked the deck with your cronies and made sure to use the exact voting system that made things most convenient for you and your plans to put up aluminum siding! We can't afford aluminum siding!"

"We could if you'd give up this idea of automatic doors! We don't need those, you lazy bum, and who's going to maintain them? Not you!"

"Real compassionate about the disabled, aren't you, just because we don't have anyone in the group who can't open a door now... Anyway, if you want to personally paint the rest of the exterior walls, be my guest, but since we'll have to repaint anyway if it peels -"

"I would, but you bought Sparkling Grape, and this after we agreed on Jacaranda!"

"I didn't say Jacaranda was fine, I said if you were going to be such a stick in the mud as to insist on a shade of purple -"

"Then why did you buy Sparkling Grape?!? If anything that's even more purple!"

"That's not my fault, you didn't write it down and I mixed up the names while I was at the store running an errand you should have done yourself, at least this way we can test the brand -"

The arguers were goat-like creatures, with two horns each jutting out straight from their heads. They had yet to notice Nyssa. Nyssa huddled there, waiting for the Mindkiller to get bored of waiting for her outside; she could still hear it roaring about the unimproved value of land and the distortionary effects of regressive taxation, but thought it might be getting farther away. The goat-like things continued to snipe at one another:

"- and while I was there do you know who I ran into?"

"Oh, that jerk!"

"Yeah, you can guess, can't you, and she says you didn't actually get her buy-in on the linoleum flooring! I should have known! She has better taste than you -"

"Well, if you'd made the time for the policy meeting -"

"That was not my fault. You've been systematically cutting me out of every single -"

"Whoa," said a creature, pointing a hoof at Nyssa. "Look. A girl."

"Don't try to distract me!" replied the other. "You schedule things when I can't be there, guilt me about not being able to come when you knew from the start I couldn't, and then do things behind my back even though you know I'm just going to bring it all up with the others and get it removed, and then when I finally corner you -"

"No, really. A girl," said the first creature.

By this time the voice of the Mindkiller had receded quite far into the distance and Nyssa could barely distinguish the words "macroeconomics" and "microeconomics" as they emerged from its many mouths. "If you don't mind my asking," Nyssa said, "what exactly is all this fuss about, and who are you please?"

"The fuss is about our shed," said one of the creatures.

"We're bicorns," said the other. "Like unicorns, but with two horns. I'm Billy and this is Biff."

"Actually unicorns are like us but with one horn," objected Biff, and Billy rolled his eyes.

"I see," said Nyssa. "Um, do you know that you are in the Valley of Error, which is full of monsters and demons?"

"Yes, we're building this shed to have a safe place to meet to discuss what to do about that," said Billy earnestly.

"How... long... have you been trying to build this shed to do that?" said Nyssa.

"We would have been done a lot sooner if not for certain people," Biff answered, glaring at the other bicorn, who snorted back. "Things have been going a bit faster, lately, fewer and fewer people are showing up to argue."

"Do you think they may have been eaten by monsters?" asked Nyssa delicately.

"You know, that would explain a lot," said Billy. "Especially this last meeting - when I call it a meeting, I mean to say -"

"Are you telling me you had a policy meeting without me and without anyone else either!?" exclaimed Biff. "You had a policy meeting all by yourself and just announced whatever you decided like it was a binding vote?"

"Hey, that's technically in the bylaws!" said Billy. "The Bicorn South Herd's Endowment Document clearly states that if a quorum cannot be achieved, a plurality of dues-paying members having agreed on a time -"

"But it was just you! You're not a plurality!"

"Having agreed on a time, not having shown up! We agreed on a time before Bianca disappeared, and she said it was fine as long as we ended before her appointment with the hoof-cleaners, and even if she got eaten by monsters I did wrap things up before that time, so -"

"You little -"

"Guys," said Nyssa.

"Bicorns," corrected Billy.

"Bicorns," Nyssa said. "Maybe you should just... leave the Valley. Instead of building this shed. Before more of you get eaten."

"Baaaaah," said Biff. "If the shed doesn't get built, where are we going to discuss whether to go north or south or east or west? Whether to adopt a policy of running or standing stock-still when threatened? Whether to look for a pass, or go over the mountains? So many questions! And we need a proper shed to meet in."

"I really don't think you do," said Nyssa. "Anyway, it's already some protection against monsters, so you could just discuss all that now. The two of you are already here."

"I have a date," said Billy. "You can't expect me to sink all my time into building this shed."

"Not into building the shed, into figuring out how to leave the Valley," said Nyssa. "- who do you even have a date with?"

"Bianca," said Billy.

"But she got eaten," said Nyssa.

"Well, I still have it blocked out as time to spend not thinking about this stupid shed and this stupid obstructionist," Billy said, nodding his head in Biff's direction.

"I'm obstructionist!" cried Billy. "Me! You're the one who -"

"Bicorns!" shouted Nyssa. "This isn't helping! You've been being picked off for years and years and you really don't need a shed now even if you did in the first place! You should just follow my curiosipede's tracks out to the canyon that leads out of the Valley, and look out for the demon Akrasia while you're there."

"The what?" said Biff. "That seems like its own six- or seven-meeting series, dealing with something like that, that sounds serious, we'll have to cover all our bases - at times we're both available, Billy -"

"If you didn't spend four hours every day just browsing -"

"Bicorns!" Nyssa exclaimed. "I have another idea. Don't go anywhere, don't tear up any more parts of this shed because right now it's pretty okay at keeping monsters away, don't try to go on your date because your date has been eaten, don't try to paint anything or run any errands, just stay right here. Meanwhile, I will go rescue Princess Wonder and maybe she'll know how to sort this all out, okay?"

"We'll have to talk about that," said Billy.

"Great," said Nyssa. "Talk about it lots. Do it right here." And without waiting for them to reply, she zoomed out of the bicorn shed and continued on her way.



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