XaniaXYM-529’s attention was glued to one of thousands of monitors hooked up to the enormous rumbling machine that was focused on the planet a considerable distance away.
He was luxuriating onboard his species’ most modern space station.
From earth, the craft was hidden in the flotsam that made up Saturn’s ring.
The giant device at the heart of the ship was spewing forth information on every single individual on terra firma.
Their whereabouts; what they were thinking; how their daylight or night-time hours were being spent.
People were equipped from birth with a monitoring device that, for lack of a better word, was called a soul.
Wirelessly, this fed data to the machine, which was a whirligig of awesome proportions.
It occupied pride of place in the centre of the room and resembled nothing so much as a giant vanilla cupcake.
The contraption processed and emitted “stuff” in two directions.
Not only did it absorb “intel”, but through sending out “frizzle” waves, the Xanians were able to shape, guide and re-order events on earth.
(The author apologizes for the brief use of technical jargon in the last two paragraphs.)
In their realm to the side of the “playpen”, a select group of Xanians paid close attention to the action across the solar system.
It was their primary form of entertainment.
They could never get enough of causing grief.
Their challenge was to construct and implement mazes.
All this was unbeknownst to the objects of their attention.
The more dead-ends and side-tracks the Xanians could construct the better.
If success was ever achieved by a human in one arena, it would be quickly retracted in another.
Each year, an award was presented to the Xanian who came up with the most original and amusing twist to ensnare and confuse some hapless earthling.
The way to win accolades was to contrive a zinger that would make another Xanian pee his pants.
To honor such an accomplishment, the prize was named the “Skewer”.
Its first recipient, nearly two millennia earlier, had been the Xanian who placed the auto-suggestion in the ear of a young Roman that would achieve immortality throughout the ages.
A grizzled legionnaire, Squintus Droolus, was transporting his son, Maximus Annoyus, by chariot to his wife’s parents’ place outside Napoli.
Little more than a few miles into the journey, the pre-teen lad said to his father, with the actual words in Latin of course, “Are we there yet?”
That was in the days when the Xanians were unrestricted in their destructive creativity.
In modern times, each Xanian was encouraged to master a specialty.
There were thousands of them at their stations playing pranks on billions of life-forms to throw them off balance.
They masterminded glitches in appliances, lawn mowers, motor vehicles, commuter trains, laptops, desktops, cell phones, fire alarms, garage door openers and out-of- synch traffic lights.
They inserted frustration directly into child-proof bottle caps and too-tight underwear.
They worked with whatever was at hand.
In nature, that included buzzing and stinging insects, migraine-inducing in-your-face sunlight, stumble-around-and-bump-into-things darkness and poison ivy.
One Xanian sub-culture played havoc with interpersonal relationships.
They were always able to drum up nasty bosses, horrid underlings, snotty sales people, snooty teachers, advice-giving in-laws, preachy do-gooders and tenacious telemarketers.
XaniaXYM-529’s field of expertise was animals. He was a maestro of mayhem caused by feline fur balls and yucky bird droppings.
His new best friend, XaniaXXF-288, was still learning. At the moment, she was having a spectacular time conducting experiments in the work-place.
That afternoon, XaniaXYM-529 was finalizing plans to confound one relatively contented family of two adults and an equal number of children.
He knew how the scenario would unfold.
The family would make a stopover at a fancy restaurant on the drive north to their cottage.
Finally relaxed after a brutal week in the employment trenches, the parents would feel un-kinked enough to consider the possibility the world wasn’t such a bad place after all.
Leaving the restaurant and walking towards the sunset, sated of hunger and enveloped in a warm glow, they’d approach their car and open the side doors.
That’s when reality would hit. In their absence, the family dog would have thrown up on the front seat.
Placement of the slimy goo would be just so. Not on a hard smooth surface like linoleum.
No, cheap absorbent fabric would serve better. “Why didn’t I upgrade to leather?” the father would lament.
“Okay, let’s start the clean-up. Is there a cloth or any Kleenex handy? Of course not,” he’d say in disgust.
Nor would the gelatinous mess be limited to one surface. That would have been too much to ask.
Instead, there would be a 3-D aspect to the carnage.
It would spill over onto several levels – seat back, seat bottom, between the seat pads, dribbling down onto the floor.
It would seep into the cracks and crevices and ooze into the gaps behind and underneath the brake and accelerator pedals.
It would insinuate its way into every possible hiding place that was impossible to reach.
The aroma would be knock-you-on-your-heels pungent and take months to extricate.
All in all, a magnificent piece of work.
XaniaXXF-288 had been collaborating with XaniaXYM-529 to give this particular family a prodigious working-over all week.
She’d been expending her efforts along a different path.
A couple of months earlier, the wife in the family had gone out on a limb to hire a friend of a friend of hers.
The new employee was now regularly skipping work.
This was an ongoing problem that gave every indication of becoming endemic.
The excuses were profuse and elaborate, if short on originality.
The wife, in her position of authority as manger of an accounts receivable department, thought she’d already heard everything.
But not so fast. Yesterday, there really had been a new wrinkle.
The missing co-worker said she got caught in a police cross-fire.
She was at the ATM machine outside a bank while a robbery was in progress inside.
The cops swarmed in with sirens blaring and lights flashing.
Before you could say “Duck, sucker!” bullets were flying everywhere.
The bandits escaped so the stake-out was abruptly terminated.
There was no way she could make an appearance on the job that day.
The authorities considered her a material witness with potentially valuable information.
Besides, she’d somehow become entangled in yellow crime-scene tape.
The wife wasn’t unhappy with this turn of events at all.
It provided one more episode to add to the file she was compiling.
The justifications for the woman’s dismissal were accumulating.
“Sweet,” said the wife.
XaniaXXF-288 still had a lot to learn.
The two Xanians took a bug-eating break at their desks.
They launched into a discussion about the nature of their pleasure.
“I think you’re a genius,” said XaniaXXF-288 to XaniaXYM-529.
There was an element of the mentor-protégé relationship in their conversation.
But more was transpiring under the surface.
The earlier subtle flirting between the older male and his younger female admirer was becoming more overt.
“Thank you, but I know that’s going overboard,” said XaniaXYM-529 shyly. “I just try my hardest.”
“Seriously. I mean it,” replied XaniaXXF-288 with more than a hint of hero worship.
XaniaXYM-529 blushed. His cheeks turned a pastier shade of pale.
“Do you know what I think the definition of a brilliant work of art is?” asked XaniaXXF-288.
XaniaXYM-529 shook his bald grey orb back and forth.
“Somehow it always stays fresh,” said XaniaXXF-288.
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” responded XaniaXYM-529, giving the matter serious thought.
“And no matter how often you stage them, I never tire of your pet antics,” said XaniaXXF-288.
She’d have batted her alien eyes if she had lids.
Just then, there was a banging noise that started slowly but steadily progressed through more attention-grabbing decibels.
Something had gone wrong with the grief machine.
XaniaXXF-288 looked to XaniaXYM-529 for answers.
But he had no idea what the problem was.
The sound was building beyond bothersome.
The grief machine had always been boringly dependable.
Now it was crackling with intermittent sparks while nuts and bolts were “sproinging” on account of vibration.
XaniaXYM-529 could feel his jowls quiver.
This was frustrating, never mind that the timing was awful.
A few moments earlier, he’d been sure he was making progress in his campaign to woo XaniaXXF-288.
His present lack of resolve was unexpected and upsetting.
What was this he was feeling?
It was a very strange sensation.
Was his slimy sweaty brow furrowing?
The machine’s plug might have to be pulled.
If so, he wasn’t the Xanian for the job.
Over the next several days, repair-Xanians were summoned to fix the problem.
But they never arrived on the job-site when they were supposed to.
They always showed up late and left early and their down-times for nourishment and contemplation seemed to last forever.
Furthermore, their estimates of repair costs sent all the other Xanians into apoplexy.
The replacement parts weren’t readily available anyway. They’d have to be ordered off-universe and that would take many moons.
While the people of earth were given a respite, the Xanians descended into deep dudgeon.
XaniaXXF-288 missed spending time with XaniaXYM-529.
She tried to contact him but he was hard to reach.
She had the dispiriting sense he was avoiding her.
Meanwhile, far-far-far away on another celestial plane, spirit presences from among the Roonerite race were monitoring what was transpiring with the Xanians.
The Roonerites first achieved success when they sub-consciously directed one nit-picky Xanian to go out among his colleagues and insist that the letter “X” be pronounced like a “Zee”.
That yielded a chuckle or two. But there was so much more amusement to be mined.
The Roonerites had been working on the set-up to this little bit of mischief for months.
Seeing the Xanians running around trying to fix their grief machine was tremendous sport.
Having evolved from the corporeal to the ethereal, and therefore no longer bothered by the need for attire, several of the Roonerites were figuratively peeing their pants.