When Gene first got the message to contact Zeitgeist, he was energized. He hadn’t had any work in weeks. Alice was being difficult, but she was always in demand and didn’t understand why he wasn’t getting more work. He hadn’t done anything since the part of “Wakeful Child” in a revival of Wee Willie Winkie.
“It’s the whole poem, not just the little nursery rhyme,” he had told Alice, but she hadn’t been happy. “You’re meant for bigger things!” she had said. Again. Nothing was ever going to be good enough for her.
After contacting Zeitgeist, Gene knew that this new assignment wouldn’t help. He was only going to be “Beaver #10” from Over in The Meadow. He had never heard of it, and after he read his part he was crestfallen. He had only one line, shared with nine other little beavers:
"Over in the meadow in a cozy, wee den,
Lived an old mother beaver and her
Little beavers ten.
"Beave," said the mother,
"We beave," said the ten, and they
Beaved all day in their cozy, wee den."
“How do I beave?” thought Gene. He could fence, ride a horse, cry on cue, even whistle while working, but beaving? “It’s not in my data – I’ll need additional programming.”
Alice’s reaction to the news was predictable. “You can’t possibly take this, it’s beneath you! Once you start working nursery rhymes, you’ll never do better. What’s next, gifs?”
“Quit interfering,” said Gene.
He hated it when she was right. He loved the craziness that went with Alice, but what he really needed was stability, which he would never have with her around.
As a generic .lit data file, Gene could easily be programmed to be any literary character, but he wanted a permanent role, like Alice.
But first, the Alice problem needed fixing.
“I am not a problem,” said Alice. “I’m a Classic! You have to love me.”
Gene had to assert his own data structure. “You’re just too volatile,” he said. “As long as you’re with me, I’ll never get anything big!”
Ever since Alice in Wonderland, when Gene had been the Dormouse, there had been some leftover Alice.lit data in his file, and he couldn’t get rid of it -- she was permanent data, like all Classic characters. Only Zeitgeist could help him.
There was just something unstable about the Lewis Carroll folder overall. Jabberwocky definitely looked like data corruption, but no one could be sure. With Carroll, anything was possible.
This could never have happened in the old days. Gene knew about books, with their permanent data retention systems. When someone read a book, all the characters were right there, ready for their parts. But now, in the digital age, everything was fragmented and scattered. Without Zeitgeist, when readers called up Hamlet, all they would have seen would have been barren words. It was the Zeitgeist program that used files like Gene to bring the data to life in the reader’s imagination.
“Hamlet,” thought Gene, “now that would be something!” Hamlet was in the Firmament level of Zeitgeist, and every .lit file’s dream.
The internet had created a fresh demand for even the most obscure writings, not just giants like Shakespeare. So, when someone wanted to read Over in The Meadow, Zeitgeist had to generate a new cast, including ten little beavers, each needing its own .lit file. The whole process was instantaneous, but it meant a lot of work for generic .lit files like Gene.
“The real issue isn’t working in nursery rhymes, it’s you,” Gene told Alice.
“I’m warning you,” said Alice, “don’t even think about dumping me out of your data!”
But Zeitgeist hated data corruption and even if Gene could ever be Hamlet, he knew that Alice would interfere.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question: why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“No wonder I can’t get serious work,” thought Gene. “Nonsense in Shakespeare gets me deleted. Nonsense in a nursery rhyme still puts Baby to sleep.”
“I am not nonsense,” said Alice. “Just ask the Queen of Hearts.”
“Better flash over to the Programmers for my beavifying,” thought Gene.
Most .lit files could handle stock characters without modification, but occasionally specialized data was needed, such as beaving. This had its benefits. A quick trip to the Programmers would take care of the emergency beaving backfill – and if he was ready, it would also take care of Alice.
Programming subroutine 427 had modified Gene before, and knew all about Alice. Zeitgeist wasn’t perfect. Its filters still let in authors like Bulwer-Lytton, but data corruption between .lit files was rare. Most of it seemed to be caused by Alice, or those like her. It was usually fixed by adding new data, when the error could just be overwritten by new information.
“Good to see you again, Gene,” said 427. “You reported your Alice problem –”
“Still not a problem!” interrupted Alice.
“– so I’m ready to overwrite with the Little Beaver #10 stuff,” continued 427. “It’ll just take an instant.”
Adding Beaver #10, even with its critical beave data, took less than 12 KB.
“OK, you’re good to go,” said 427 “But the Little Beaver file was too small to replace all the Alice stuff, so I added The Goops. Zeitgeist just sent out an emergency request, so I gave it to you. See you next time.”
Gene had no idea what a Goop was, so he accessed the file.
"The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth--
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop--are you?"
Alice would have been upset. “Another nursery rhyme – and it’s about table manners! I am going to wind up as a gif,” he thought.
Time to sort this data later; first he had to beave. Gene lined up behind Beavers #1 - #9 and got ready for his line. “Wait for the cue,” he thought. “Wait for it . . . think De Niro . . . wait . . . be the beaver . . . and now!”
“’Beave,’ said the mother . . .”
“We beave” said Gene, joining the other nine little beavers.
“Off with their heads!” shrieked Alice, doing her best Queen of Hearts imitation with glee.
A child’s heartbroken cries could be heard, leaking in from Reality.
“I’m still here!” said Alice.
“We’re here, too!” said the Goops, interrupting their elders.
“For the love of Zeitgeist . . . . No!!!!!!” said Gene.
It was getting very crowded in his file.
A return trip to 427 proved useless.
“You must have a virus,” 427 said. “We can’t delete any of your old roles. Right now, it’s just Beaver #10, Alice and the Goops – but who knows what you’ll store next. I can do a full file reset, but that would return you to original specifications.”
“No!” said Gene and Alice. “That would be rude,” said the Goops.
Because of his predicament, Gene could no longer be used for any new roles. Zeitgeist tried him in Alice in Wonderland, but the Goops kept misbehaving during the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Alice used Goops as croquet mallets in The Goops, which they enjoyed. Beaver #10 spent its time beaving whenever it could, although it missed its cozy, wee den.
After a few attempts in each of Gene's previous roles, it became clear that Zeitgeist's fallback plan was not working. Readers were complaining and children were crying. Zeitgeist's reputation was suffering.
Finally, Zeitgeist had had enough. It converted Gene from a .lit file to a .improv file, where all of his character roles could work at once whenever the files of Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were accessed.
Now Gene was constantly at work and everyone was happy, even Alice. This would never lead to a permanent role, but it was fun and Gene enjoyed the company — even Alice, now that she was happy.
He'd been lucky, in the end. Having all this mixed data should have made him completely dysfunctional, but Zeitgeist had made it work, at least for now. Children were no longer crying, and Gene knew he was making the world a happier place.
If 427 ever found a fix, Gene wasn’t sure he’d even take it.
* * * * *
A big thank you to halfshellvenus for beta reading this.
The Goops (1900) is by Gelett Burgess
Over in The Meadow is a traditional counting song from approx. 1880, and begins:
"Over in the meadow
In the sand in the sun, lived an
Old mother turtle and her
Little turtle one.
"Dig," said the mother,
"I dig," said the one, and they
Dug all day in the sand in the sun."
Complete song: http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/o/overinthemeadow.shtml