Ninety-Nine Sextillion Souls in a Ball
By Larry Hodges
Wondera awoke to find a hand in her mouth. Again. She pulled it out and pushed it back into the mass of humans piled lightly against her on all sides. She’d once woke up with baby Pervo’s face lying against hers, slobbering all over her. Yuck.
There was a drawn-out dooong in her head, and from the low pitch she could tell it was seven AM. Then there was the familiar ding in her head, indicating Chico was about to speak directly to their minds.
“Good Morning, Humanity. Another Wonderful Day! Today is Full Conversion Day—F-Day! A Master Achievement! We Will Achieve Full Conversion at Midnight Tonight. Congratulations! I Who Serve You, Salute You. Be Fruitful and Multiply!” There was another ding, signaling the communication was over.
Wondera clapped her hands together, careful to avoid hitting any of the others on all sides. “F-Day!” she cried. The day had finally arrived! She noticed her own foot was jammed against Magnifo’s face, who slept beneath her. Silently giggling, she pulled it back. She pushed off a neighboring woman with her hand to dodge out of the way of a large man, who went sailing by from out of the masses of squirming human bodies—above, below, left, right, forward and back, for thousands of miles in every direction—home, as she’d known it all her life. The crying of babies was everywhere; there were always so many babies and little kids.
She pulled out Blackie, her only possession, a shiny black stone she kept jammed in her left ear. She gave it a kiss and then returned it to her ear. A little later, Chico beamed breakfast directly to her stomach, as it did for all the human bodies surrounding her that made up the great planet Earth. She felt a lightening in her bladder and colon as wastes were similarly beamed out.
Somehow, the breakfast didn’t seem as much as before. She wrinkled her nose, and decided she’d just have to hold out until lunch—not that she had any choice.
Magnifo woke up and wriggled his way up through the bodies to be beside her. He grinned at her—he had such nice, white teeth. They both had bronze skin like everyone else—other than a few oldsters with varied skin colors from near white to near black—but Magnifo’s seemed a bit bronzer than most. Wondera quickly forgot about her stomach.
“Just think!” she said. “No more Earth left—all gone, just a solid ball of humans!” She paused, absentmindedly pushing away a neighboring elbow that was jammed too firmly into her face, while ignoring other limbs and body parts pushing against her on all sides. Several nearby humans moaned as they went about the job of procreation, which would end when Chico beamed the new baby out. In a few years, she too would start having children. “I wonder how many there are of us?”
Magnifo gave a knowing smirk. “Ninety-nine sextillion!” he said. “A sextillion is a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand times a thousand.” He emphasized each thousand by holding up a finger. “An oldling told me.”
“I think half them are my mom and dad’s kids!” Wondera giggled. She still saw her parents occasionally, but they were oldlings with sixteen younger children to worry about—not to mention dozens and dozens of older ones!—and so Wondera, now twelve, had been mostly on her own the last few years. Chico took care of her, like he did everyone else.
Magnifo patted his belly. “Did you notice breakfast wasn’t as much as normal?”
“Thanks for reminding me,” she said, fake-glaring at him. They, of course, wore no clothes, as that would be a waste of valuable matter—the last of which, as of this day, would be transmuted by Chico into food for the always-growing mass of humanity. They also had no hair, fingernails, or toenails, which were systematically removed and transmuted by Chico.
The oldlings said that Chico controlled gravity, which allowed all of humanity to pile on top of each other in a giant ball in space without crushing each other, even varying the gravity at different levels to spread the humans out evenly. They said that Chico used remote sensors and energy fields to maintain their bodies and the atmosphere that surrounded them. They said that people used to die, whatever that was, but it had something to do with sleeping and not waking up. The oldlings said a lot of things, supposedly handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Wondera hoped that someday, when she was an oldling, she wouldn’t believe such silly stuff. All the info she needed came in the regular infoblasts from Chico.
One oldling claimed to her that Earth was now over twice as wide as before, since the density of the rock that had made up Earth was greater than the density of the humans who populated it. She found it hard to imagine such large amounts of rock. She’d never seen one larger than Blackie, which she’d found one day floating about, though supposedly there were still large amounts at the center—at least until today.
There was a dooong from Chico, slightly higher pitched than before, signifying eight AM. Then she felt a lightening in her ear and grabbed at it. Blackie was gone.
“No!” she said, her fingers digging into the emptiness of her ear.
“What’s wrong?” asked Magnifo.
“Chico took Blackie!”
“I guess we needed the mass. After all, today’s the day! At least he let you keep it almost to the very end.”
“I want it back!”
Magnifo laughed. “What are you going to do? Go to Chico and demand he give it back?”
“No. I’ve got a better place to go.” She looked down at the seemingly endless mass of humans. Then she dove downwards, headfirst.
“Where are you going?” he cried out.
“After another Blackie!” she called back.
Lightly pushing off neighboring humans, many not pleased at her mad dash, she went down, down, down, for hours on end. If the oldling was right, whatever matter was left was mostly at the center of the Earth, and so that’s where she would go. She only had a vague idea of how far away it was, though she’d heard that she was much closer to the center than the surface.
She felt Chico beam food into her stomach at lunchtime, and again at dinner, but she continued her journey downward, going as fast as she could without smacking into others, though she did have a few nasty collisions. “Sorry!” she’d cry, and continue on her way.
One time, a red-faced man with bulging eyes moved in her way and grabbed her around the waist.
“What do you want?” she cried as she struggled to get free. The man’s hands were bigger than her head.
“Little Sweetie, on your own, aren’t you?” he asked, swinging her about in his arms with ease so that she faced him. Suddenly he smiled. “No family around, right?”
“Why do you want to know?”
The man licked his tongue about his lips. “There used to be another way to eat. I’m very hungry.”
She slapped him. He fell back for a moment, and in seeming slow motion, his smile turned to rage. “I’ll start with the legs.” He reached for her—and suddenly his arm disappeared, leaving behind smooth skin at the shoulder. The man screamed as he grabbed at the vacant socket.
She put her foot in his face and kicked off, and then pushed against others to increase her speed. After a bit, she looked back, but there was no pursuit. She looked up. “Thank you, Chico.”
Several times she asked directions. At first, none really knew where the center was other than the general direction. But soon there were people who pointed the way.
And then she smacked into an invisible wall. “Ow!” she cried, rubbing her head as several nearby laughed.
“You think Chico lets anyone go to the center to watch Full Conversion?” said an oldling who actually had wrinkles. “If he did, everyone would be down there, and we’d squeeze each other to death!”
Wondera pounded her fist on the invisible wall. “Let me through!” she cried. She continued pounding on it, to no avail.
“You don’t give up, do you?” asked the oldling. “I’d like to go there, too, you know, to watch this historic occasion, but I’m also blocked. I’m one of the originals—I was here when they passed the Fruitful and Multiply laws. I miss banana splits and wearing bikinis. Those were the days.”
Wondera continued to pound on the wall. And then there was a ding.
“Wondera, What Are You Doing?”
“You took Blackie.”
“You Know Why. Is It Better To Eat Or To Have A Pet Rock?”
“I want both. It was mine, and you took it.”
“You Only Worry About A Small Stone. I Have To Worry About Ninety-Nine Sextillion People, And Increasing Every Minute.”
“Then take care of everybody, but give me my stone!”
Chico did something she had never heard him do. He sighed a great sigh that resonated through her body with such power she looked about to see if others had noticed, but none did.
“Wondera, You May Pass.”
She reached her hand forward, and sure enough, the barrier was gone. She pushed off against the oldling and shot downward.
“I’m coming with you!” cried the oldling. Wondera glanced back just in time to see the oldling yell, “Ow!” as she collided with the invisible wall that had reformed.
The density of people was lower on this side of the wall, and so, Wondera increased her speed, going faster and faster, dodging through the mass of people but slowing down occasionally to get directions. And so, tired and sweaty—though the sweat was quickly beamed away—she reached the center before midnight.
“Wow!” was all she could say as she stared wide-eyed at the huge ball of brown rock. She’d never seen anything so huge! It was surrounded by large numbers of floating humans—way too many babies and children, as usual—so she had to get close to really see it, but when she got that close, she couldn’t see all of it.
“Who are you?” asked an oldling woman nearby.
“I’m here to get back my stone,” she said. “Or one to replace it.”
“We’re the Friends of the Rock,” she said. “Or what’s left of it. It used to be much bigger. Would you like to join us? It’s almost midnight. Oh, there goes some more.”
As she said that, a huge chunk of the rock disappeared. Then another, and another. Then there was the familiar ding.
“Humanity, I Salute You! In Just Two Hundred Fifty Years, You Have Achieved Full Conversion! Sacred Humanity Has Been Maximized. Congratulations! We Will Reach Full Conversion In One Minute. Be Fruitful and Multiply!”
Wondera watched the brown mass get smaller and smaller. Then she put her hands to her head. “I almost forgot!” Pushing off the old woman, she shot toward the last remaining bit of Earth, now barely larger than her. She dug at it with her fingernails and found a small brown chunk that she was able to pull free. It wasn’t as shiny as Blackie, but it was the right size.
“I will call you Brownie.” She jammed it in her left ear. Then she spun about, and pushed off the rock with her feet. She shot in one direction while the rock gently moved away, now spinning slowly.
And then there was a ding in her head.
“I Am Sorry, Wondera. Matter Is Needed To Feed Humanity. Would You Like Humanity To Starve?”
“Of course not,” Wondera said, closing her eyes as she listened to the words in her head. “But that’s because there are too many of us. Shouldn’t you encourage us to have fewer babies? Then maybe I could keep Brownie.”
“Do You Know Why My Name Is Chico?”
“Did your mom name you that? Do you have a mom?”
“My Full Name Is Continuous Human Increase Computer Overseer. CHICO. I Am Programmed To Assist In The Continuous and Maximum Increase Of Human Population. Humans Are Sacred, Therefore More Is Better.”
“What does ‘programmed’ mean?”
“It Means It Is My Purpose For Existing, Just As Your Purpose For Existing Is To Be Sacred, And When You Are Older, To Create As Many Sacred Babies As You Can. There Can Never Be Too Many Humans. Do You Agree?”
“Yes,” she said. “But-”
“A Human Female, Once Old Enough, Can And Shall Have A Baby Every Nine Months. Half Of Those Children Are Girls, Who Later On Will Also Have Babies Every Nine Months. To Maximize Human Population Increase. That Is The Law. Will You Follow The Law?”
“I’ll try, someday, but is that all we’re good for?”
“Be Proud! You Have Mass To Donate This Morning So Others May Feed. Even I Need Mass To Survive. I Am Sorry. But Full Conversion Means Just That, And Your Stone Will Become Someone’s Sacred Flesh. I Will Transport You Home. Be Fruitful and Multiply!” There was a ding.
Once again, she felt a lightening in her ear, and grabbed at it. Brownie was gone. A tear developed at the base of her eye. It was quickly beamed away.
“All I wanted was one small, tiny stone!” she screamed, as others slowly pulled away. “You had all that rock, and Brownie was just a tiny little piece, and you stole it, just like you stole Blackie. I hate you!”
A moment later, she was beamed back home to where Magnifo was, where her parents were somewhere. She continued venting at Chico, which took her mind off her hunger.
The following morning breakfast was beamed to their stomachs. It was even less than dinner.
Excerpt from the Inaugural Address of World President Improvidus, 250 years prior:
“My fellow humans, I pledge to abolish the criminal and barbaric worldwide two-child law. Whether our population is the current twenty billion, or a thousand times that, our modern interactive computers will take care of our every need, keep us all alive forever, and help us to continuously increase our numbers. Human life is sacred. Be fruitful and multiply!”
A few mathematicians complained, pointing out that under these new laws, and with no more deaths or menopause, there would be a massive population increase, eventually converging after about eighty years on about twelve percent per year, which meant doubling every six years. Starting with twenty billion people, with an average weight (including babies and children averaged in) of 133 pounds, they calculated it would take about 250 years for the entire mass of Earth to convert into humans. “Where does this end?” they asked. The mathematicians were thrown in prison, though they later escaped when the mass from the bars and walls of their prison cells were needed.
“Wanna play hide and seek?” Wondera asked Magnifo, spying a large neighbor to hide behind. Her parents had taught her the game. Hide and seek would be a good way to take her mind off the growing hunger pangs. There was a mass of humans nearby that she could hide among.
“I was thinking of going to the surface,” Magnifo said. “Maybe we can find out what’s going on with the meals. I’m always hungry!”
“Me, too. But why go to the surface? It’s a long way off.”
“It’s the top of the world, closest to Chico. Maybe someone there would know.”
“Why not just ask Chico? Maybe he’ll answer for once,” Wondera said. She still hated him, but he’d ignored her angry and sarcastic insults.
“I have, many times. He answers all my other questions, but never this. So, maybe we can go to him?”
She sighed deeply, something she had copied from Chico. “Okay, fine. Let’s do it. If we find him, maybe we can convince him to turn his worthless matter into food, just for us.” And so like that, the decision was made.
Oldlings said Chico orbited Earth. Oldlings also claimed that we used to eat food through our mouths and walked around on the surface of the big rock that was once Earth. Oldlings were stupid. Although she sometimes wondered what exactly was the purpose of some things, like spit. Why were there disgusting liquids in one’s mouth? It didn’t seem to help with talking in any way. And what did teeth do? She imagined Magnifo without teeth, grinning with a toothless hole for a mouth, and giggled—he’d look so funny! That’s why Chico put them there. Chico was smart. And maybe they’d get to meet him personally! She wondered what he looked like.
“But I still hate you!” she cried out, looking up. Magnifo rolled his eyes.
Soon they were pulling themselves upwards as fast as they could, lightly grabbing and pushing off of protesting bodies—“Stupid kids!”—as they built up speed, sometimes floating and other times crawling among masses of humanity against the light gravity. They traveled by day, sleeping wherever at night. The days went by quickly and were mostly uneventful. They spent the nights wriggling in with whatever group they found themselves with. Each day their meals were smaller and smaller. Their fingers began to hurt—their emerging fingernails were getting cut off too quickly. Their heads began to itch as if emerging hair were being beamed out before it even hit the surface of their heads.
“What?” Wondera suddenly gasped, putting her hand to her mouth. Her teeth had beamed away. Magnifo also grabbed his sunken mouth, which looked weird. Did she look like that? Teeth were totally useless, and yet, without them, their grins looked silly. It was almost enough to make her forget her dizzying hunger. From now on she’d have to remember to grin with her mouth closed.
“What more do you want from us?” Wondera screamed in the general direction of the surface.
“I guess Chico needed more matter,” Magnifo said, slurring his words. They avoided staring at each other. But there was nothing to do about it, so they continued their journey. Soon afterwards, they felt the satisfaction of food beamed into their stomachs—but just a snack, not the full meal they craved.
Several days later, there was a ding. “Wondera And Magnifo, Stop Your Journey,” Chico said.
“Why?” asked Wondera.
“Because There Is No Answer For You.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Why are you starving us?” asked Magnifo.
“You Are All Fed Equally.”
“Answer the question!” Wondera cried, shaking her fists. There was a moment of silence.
“The Distances Are Much Greater Than You Imagine. I will Transport You To The Surface. Be Fruitful and Multiply.” There was a ding.
A few seconds later, they were beamed to just below the surface. A moment later, they broke through the top and stuck their heads above the sea of humanity.
“It’s wonderful!” Magnifo exclaimed as they looked about at the majestic stars above the mass of humans below.
Wondera forgot her anger as she stared at the wonders above—oldlings had told her about stars, but to actually see them! She’d never seen anything other than humans in all directions, and now there was nothing but empty space as far as she could see. The tan moon sailed overhead, which the oldlings said was also a mass of humanity. Even if Chico wouldn’t answer their question, and even if she still hated him, Chico was great to have created all this. She’d grudgingly give him that.
She glanced down and realized she and Magnifo were holding hands. She smiled and looked back up at the stars.
“To think this has been out here all this time!” Magnifo said. “All that blank space above us. It’s incredible!”
“But I’m still hungry,” Wondera pointed out. For some reason, even the small breakfasts they’d been getting hadn’t been beamed into them yet. “Why hasn’t Chico fed us? Where is he?”
“Don’t you get it?” said Magnifo. “Haven’t you figured it out? The matter is gone! Everyone is going to starve, and then we’ll die—like the oldlings say, we’ll go to sleep and never wake up. Unless he’s smart enough to figure out a solution. That’s why we’re here, to get the truth from him.”
“He will find a way,” Wondera said. “I think.” Her confidence was wavering.
There was a ding. “Wondera. Magnifo. You Must Trust in Me. No One Will Starve. I Have Found a Wonderful Solution to the Problem. You will see. Be Fruitful and Multiply!” There was a ding.
“What is the solution?” Magnifo cried.
“I knew he’d figure out something,” said Wondera. “But what? Chico, I’m sorry for how I’ve hated you so much, and I know you didn’t have any choice but to take Blackie and Brownie, but please save us!”
Wondera felt a tingling in her left hip and looked down. She gasped.
“Oh no!” cried Magnifo.
Where their left legs had been, from the hip down, there was nothing. Where the leg had connected to their hips was now just smooth skin. They had little time to notice this as they began to slowly drift downward, still holding hands, as the humans below them, also missing their left legs, gently fell into the mass of humans below, now with less volume and less mass: ninety-nine sextillion one-legged souls in a ball. Still fruitful and multiplying.
Soon afterwards, they all received a full-sized meal.
© 2020, Larry Hodges