Cousin Cosmo was an astronomer who excelled in discovering heavenly bodies. Unfortunately for his family, he didn't confine his search to the heavens. This would explain how it happened that he went through three wives, producing six children in all.
It was a family joke that the expanding universe theory referred to his efforts to repopulate the galaxy.
His funeral, however, was anything but a joke. The wife and ex-wives were more relaxed than I expected -- given their issues with the dearly departed -- but the children arranged themselves in three clusters each eying the others nervously.
At the wake, I decided to get to know my relations a little better.
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 2
I offered my condolences to Joseph, the oldest of Cosmo's children. He had been the best-liked member of the family until he joined a strange religious cult a few years earlier. He and his wife were standing in front of a wall mural depicting the solar system.
"This is shamefully inadequate!" he told me, pointing to the area beyond Pluto. "They should have discovered the tenth planet by now."
"Yes. Marduk. It's a shame Dad died when he did," Joseph sighed. "Another few months and he would have seen Marduk for himself and joined our cause."
"So Marduk is a planet?" I said.
"Yes. It's all explained in "The twelfth planet," he said.
"I thought you said Marduk was the *tenth* planet."
"Read the book," he said, giving my shoulder a friendly pat. "It's about ancient Sumerian tablets and the likelihood that 'gods' from another planet came down among them, bringing a high level of scientific knowledge with them."
"Interplanetary astronauts?" I asked.
"Yes, exactly. Plus, the planet is named after the god Marduk, who is the deity that my religion worships. We only have 16 believers now, counting my family, but by this time next year, adherents should number in the millions, if not billions"
"This sounds like science fiction."
"It's actually true, and it's going to happen again, next September," said Joseph's brother, who had been listening in.
"This is my brother Peregrine," Joseph told me as we shook hands. "He built a time machine and went to next September and met the delegation from Marduk as it arrived in Iraq."
The squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 3
I wasn't sure which brother was nuttier -- Joseph or Peregrine -- but luckily their mother bailed me out before they could continue. A tall platinum blonde in her sixties, Hope took me off to one side to explain that she was *not* a Mardukian. "Cosmo could have steered the boys toward real science when they were young," she told me, "but he was lost in the stars and hardly noticed them. Joseph went to divinity school, and Peregrine worked at Radio Shack while he tinkered with his inventions. They're in their thirties now, and beyond my influence....."
"Do you believe that Peregrine really went into the future and met interplanetary gurus?" I asked.
"I'm sure he went *somewhere,*" she conceded, "but what was really there I can't conceive. Maybe it was a masquerade party with a strange theme? Or a movie set like 'Argo'?"
I looked back at Joseph, who was with his wife and kids now. Hope's blond hair and good looks had carried through to her sons and grandchildren. They looked like an all-American family planning a picnic, not a mission to the outer Solar System.
The hall where the wake was held was the planetarium next to Cosmo's elegant home near Denver. It had never before been used for a wake, but it was designed for meetings of astronomy associations, which the wake resembled. Many astronomers were there to pay their respects. At night the overhead dome rolled back to reveal the sky, but it was 3:00 in the afternoon now, so the dome was closed. The night sky was depicted in detail there.
Jennifer, Cosmo's second wife, was standing near a bust of Copernicus, staring up at the ceiling. I went over to say hello.
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 4
I remembered Jennifer from Cosmo's second wedding, which I entertained at. She was a striking redhead with fine features then. She had gained weight during her two pregnancies, though, and never lost it. Sibyl and Faun, her daughters, stood beside her, picking at their food.
"My condolences," I told Jennifer.
She shrugged and talked about the beautiful hall, then reflected about the wacky ideas that Joseph and Peregrine had been spreading around. "Joseph used to so levelheaded,"
she said with a sigh.
"He might not be as crazy as he seems," Sibyl said. The rest of us looked skeptical, so she added, "I don't mean that we were necessarily contacted by advanced beings on a planet that orbits the Sun once every 3,600 years, but maybe those ancient Sumerian tablets told of *some* kind of intelligent contact."
I didn't know Sibyl well. What I knew was that she had a degree in botany, which she put to good use in her plant nursery. On the side, she was said to be a practicing Wicca with some expertise in healing herbs. Faun was a wildlife biologist at a lab in Maine.
Faun took me aside and said that Sibyl had tried some magic spells, hoping to find a portal to other places. "She doesn't talk much, but I've noticed her carrying around some stuff that couldn't possibly be from this world."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 5
For reasons known only to Cosmo, when he chose his third wife he went with another Jennifer. She was petite, brunette, and full of energy. Caleb and Florence, her children, who were in college, were strivers who seemed likely to rise to the top in any field they chose to enter: linguistics, martial arts, even archaeology and rocket science. When I mentioned Joseph's theories, they rolled their eyes before launching into reasons why the Planet Marduk, if it existed at all, could not possibly have maintained the orbit that the Mardukians claimed.
"Anyway, why couldn't it circle back to the Sun every 100 years or so, like some of the comets?" Caleb asked. "Maybe it only makes contact with Earth once every few thousand years?"
"Yes," Florence added. "If they're that far ahead of us, why would they waste their time with us?"
"But we've been catching up lately," I said. If their last reconnaisance was in, say, 1916, they wouldn't have been all that impressed."
"If!" Caleb said. "Make a science fiction movie about them if you want; just don't come around claiming they're real."
Through the window I could see some squirrels watching us. They looked away as soon as they saw me.
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 6
"If, as Peregrine claims, Marduk will draw close to Earth next September, astronomers should already be able to see it," Jennifer said.
"I'm sure Joshua Free will claim to sense it any day now," said Florence with considerable sarcasm.
"That will not do Joseph's sect any good," Caleb said. "We should get together with the other family members and try to get to the bottom of the whole thing now. If Marduk ain't there, we've lost nothing. If it *is* there, the lunatic fringe will create chaos."
Out of the corner of my eye In could see the squirrels watching us again. At the other end of the hall, Faun was also aware of them. She walked over to me. "It's funny about those squirrels," she said. "When Joseph first became fanatical about ancient Sumerian tablets, he showed me some, and all I could see was that some of the symbols resembled squirrel tracks. Did the people writing these things let squirrels walk on the wet clay before they baked the tablets?"
"Or were the squirrels actually doing some of the writing?" added Sibyl, who had also walked over to join us.
"Do you know something we don't?" I asked her.
"You'll think I'm certified if I tell you what I know," she said.
"Perhaps," I conceded, "but this is the time to gather whatever ideas we can. A few months from now may be too late."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 7
"I know a way to find out what's happening on Marduk," Sibyl said. She led Joseph, Peregrine, Faun, and me down the hall to an alcove where we could confer in private.
"So you've actually been there?" Joseph asked.
"Yes, but it's complicated. A professor at WPI helped me open a portal into Marduk."
"Worcester Polytech?" I exclaimed.
"That's what's complicated. Dad thinks I'm taking courses there, but in my case WPI stands for Wand & Potion Institute. I take magic courses -- I'm a Magician Level 3, hoping to rise to Level 7. Professor Crossbridge opened a portal to Marduk one time, and I went through it for half an hour." The rest of us looked so excited that she added, "it took him six weeks to create the portal. And, he might not be available to create another one. Still, it's worth a shot. I can create a portal to WPI easily enough. You can come, but you'll have to pretend you're magicians."
A few minutes of high-speed hand motions and mysterious spoken commands brought the portal into view. We were just about to pass through when Caleb and Florence appeared. "We're going to visit a school of magic," Sibyl told them. You can join us if you want, but make it snappy."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 8
We found ourselves on a country road. Fields and farm buildings stretched out into the distance, where a range of hills could be seen. In front of us, however, was a lavishly appointed mcmansion whose numerous wings looked ridiculous in such an otherwise bucolic setting.
An elegantly dressed man appeared at the door and ushered us inside. "Welcome to Wand & Potion. Salvador Crossbridge at your service," he said. "If I had known you were bringing your siblings, Sibyl, I would have arranged a tour. Then again, with the talent that probably runs in your family, half of you will be on the faculty before long."
"I'm afraid the tour will have to wait, Professor," Sibyl said. "We need a favor, and there isn't a lot of time to spare. The Planet Marduk will be sending a delegation to Earth next September, and we're worried that they'll touch off worldwide panic."
"I invented a time machine and travelled to that time," Peregrine added. "I met the delegation briefly. They are troubled, and need help with something."
"I'm the head of a religion that worships Marduk," Joseph said. "I'd like to smooth relations between our two planets. Could you help create a portal so we could travel to Marduk and hopefully resolve their problems before they get to Earth?"
"You helped me with a portal a while ago," Sibyl explained. "Could you do it again?"
:"Creating that portal took a lot research," Crossbridge said, "but it's in the hard drive of my computer..."
"Computer!" we exclaimed.
"Yes, computer," Crossbridge said with a strange smile on his face. "Most magicians won't admit it, but combining magic and technology makes a lot of sense. In fact, I teach some courses in computer-aided magic. I'll get those instructions and send you off to Marduk straightaway."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 9
Crossbridge went to his office. Peregrine and Sibyl compared notes on what Marduk was like during their brief visits to it. Joseph had a huge grin on his face. Faun looked nervously out the window at some trees behind the Institute. She frowned as several squirrels watched her; they began approaching, as if to get a better look at her through the window. Caleb and Florence had no idea what was going on, so they sidled over to me.
"You'd think this building would have a protective spell around it so only magicians could see it, Caleb said. "And why isn't this building bigger on the inside than it is on the outside?"
"Maybe the institute isn't using its magic to do that," I guessed. "They may not want to waste magic power. Or, there are large subterranean caverns where the real stuff is hidden."
"I bet Marduk is actually in the basement," Florence said.
"It wouldn't take six months to make a portal into it, then."
"You'd think Marduk would have been detected by telescopes by now, even if it is a long way out in space," Caleb said.
I wondered why there weren't any students in the hallways, but I thought better of it; this was a Sunday afternoon, after all.
Halfway down the hall, Professor Crossbridge opened his office door and called us over. The portal spell was starting to work.
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 10
We were an unlikely group of travellers as we stepped through Crossbridge's portal into what appeared to be a reception room on Marduk, a planet that until recently few of us had even heard of, and fewer still believed existed.
The walls, floor, and ceiling were all white, which was fortunate given the small amount of light available. Benches were arranged around the walls, and the desk where a secretary or aide should have been sitting was vacant except for a monitor which faced us. The screen was blank.
"It must be a slow day," I whispered to Sibyl.
"It was like this when I came, too," Sibyl replied. "In fact, it took quite a while for anyone to appear."
Just then the screen of the monitor flashed, and a pleasant but artificial-sounding voice addressed us. In the event that any of us were hard of hearing, the words appeared on the screen as the voice spoke: "Welcome to Marduk. We have identified your speech patterns, so we can address you in your native language, which is English. We will shortly allow you to pass further, but first we need your assurance that you are not bringing any wildlife native to your planet, particularly squirrels."
"Why squirrels?" Caleb exclaimed.
The voice betrayed no emotion, but the words implied a hardening of stance: "There will be no squirrels, ever. We have a beautiful world, thanks to eons of effort and planning, but squirrels have almost destroyed us many times. Since you are evidently from Earth, the native planet for this noxious species, we also prohibit anything that squirrels might use for food."
"Such as...?" Florence asked.
"Acorns, nuts of any kind, sunflower seeds."
"We have none of those things, Lord Marduk," Joseph said. "Could you tell us where you are now in relation to the Sun?"
"That is a secret, and it will remain a secret," the voice said. "The interstellar squirrel conspiracy is more cunning than you can imagine. How can we be sure they have not planted microchips in your clothing? If they know where we are, they can attack us..."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 11
"What if we promised not to reveal this information to anyone?" Florence asked.
"Your father's cousin is here in this room, and will write about this visit," the voice retorted, referring to me. "The squirrels will read about it on the Internet, and then we'll be doomed. Our communications director is on his way to show you around. Have a nice day."
A door opened in the wall behind the desk. The man who entered had a pleasant face, and wore clothing of no identifiable era. He was wearing headphones.
"Your guide speaks no English," the original voice said, "but we will translate anything you say into his language and tell him what English words to say in reply."
Joseph asked whether the god Marduk would be willing to meet with us. This brought a puzzled look to the man's face. He shrugged.
"There is no god named Marduk," the voice said.
Joseph held up his dog-eared copy of "The 12th Planet."
The man laughed at this and said, "We are familiar with that book, but you are the first person to come here expecting to see such a god." Seeing the crestfallen look on Joseph's face, the man said gently, "'The 12th Planet" is almost entirely wrong, though he did get two things right: 1. There is a planet unknown to your astronomers -- obviously you are standing on it -- and 2. there was contact between ancient Sumeria and this planet, though very little contact since then. Indeed, the author of the book got the movement backwards: the 'astronauts' he described actually went from Sumeria to Nibiru/Marduk, not the other way around."
"How was it possible for people 6,000 years ago to fly to another planet?" Peregrine asked.
"There was a mutation conducive to elevated intelligence at least some years before this," the man explained. "The families affected by this mutation were so successful that their contemporaries became suspicious of them. You have a saying that the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, but in our land he had to fight for his life against people who didn't understand him."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 12
"Were they such geniuses that they invented space travel?" Peregrine exclaimed.
"Not at first. They meant to move to another land to start their own society. However, just then a stroke of good luck happened: a hole in the space-time continuum [which we won't go into detail about, since no one wants the squirrels to know] allowed them to learn from the greatest minds in their world or, perhaps, in all time. Between their own genius inventions and the help of these other minds, they acquired the means to escape to Nibiru/Marduk.
"They visited Earth periodically to keep in touch with what was going on. On one visit, , some squirrels got on board with acorns and other nuts. They hid away in nooks and crannies on our planet, growing hidden forests which supplied them with food. They found a way to access some of the advanced Mardukian technology, and grew in intelligence themselves. Add to this their native obsessive hunting abilities and their fast breeding, and you won't be surprised to learn that they began to overwhelm Nibiru/
Marduk. This led to a series of Squirrel Wars."
"Have you killed them all?" Faun asked softly. She was known to have a soft heart even for animals who seemed to have no redeeming features.
"Any that were killed became part of our food supply. The rest were given an ultimatum: return to Earth or die. We think they all chose Earth over death. Have they taken over Earth yet?"
"We're holding our own against them," I said. "They seem to be spying on us, though." .
"You have better predators than we have," the man said. "We'd like you to meet our coordinator of interplanetary squirrel control while you're here. He'll be along in a minute. You'll see how beautiful and well-appointed our planet is. We are very proud of it."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 13
We persuaded the man that he should at least let us see the planet before we got into anti-squirrel tactics. Spot the Wonder Dog, a model of canine hyper-intelligence, showed us around. Marduk turned out to be a beautiful place with lush vegetation, buildings that looked impressive while making use of every inch of space, and parks that were never more than four blocks from anyone's home. The Mardukians had brought plants and animals with them from Earth, and they took good care of them.
Marduk had it all: clean air, fresh mountain streams, and ingenious placement of everything so that most items of daily use could be obtained by walking.
"I hope you won't let my masters hear this, but I kind of miss squirrels," Spot admitted. "I may be smarter than the average dog, but there's something so satisfying about having squirrels to chase."
And speaking of which, Spot's nose seemed to pick up the scent of one of the rascals, for he dashed toward a patch of daffodils. The squirrel that had been peeking out of a hole there disappeared.
"Why would squirrels be interested in daffodils?" Faun wondered. "They're supposed to hate daffodils."
"These are no ordinary squirrels, just as I am no ordinary dog," Spot replied. "With heightened intelligence, they learned the art of haute cuisine. They can leach the noxious elements out of daffodils and make them delicious. Anyway, I don't mind that. It's the squirrel drones and warplanes that make squirrels so dangerous."
Dogs don't have pockets, but Spot had a communication device in a pouch hanging from his collar. He pulled it out, enlarged the screen, and showed us scenes from the last war. Millions of tiny but deadly planes, each containing one squirrel, swept out of the skies and left Mardukians bleeding and dying across the countryside.
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 14
"This is where the Mahatma lives," Spot said, leading us to a modest hut that nestled in the side of a hill.
"Is he in?" I asked.
"He's always in," Spot said as a frail elderly man in a robe and sandals opened the door and greeted us.
"Are you Marduk's leader?" Joseph asked.
"I was once," the Mahatma said. "Generations of leaders since then have asked me for advice, as if I had anything worthwhile to say. I keep tabs on what's happening on your Planet. The 'Daily World News' comes to my doorstep every morning at 7:00, and I pick it up hoping that we can safely return to Earth soon. By 8:00, I know that that cannot happen."
"Why would you want to return?" Faun exclaimed. "This planet is gorgeous!"
"This city, as nice as it is, is only a tiny part of Marduk," the Mahatma said. "Much of the planet is barren wasteland. Natural resources are lacking, and the little that we *can* use won't support more than a few million people. Nevertheless we've made our settlements attractive. That's why the squirrels want to live here. All they need is a few acorns. We need more, and there's the rub. I became a vegetarian, not for religious reasons, but because the only way to find a decent steak is to go through a portal into Earth and eat it there. Have you any idea how much resources we have to use to set up the portal?"
"But hundreds of Mardukians do actually go to earth every day," Spot said, realizing after he said it that he had given us some privileged information."
The Mahatma could have scolded Spot for this, but he chuckled and whispered to me that the powers to be were well aware of the Earth-Marduk travellers. "Why, even Spot goes to Earth, and we let him bring back a squirrel to chase. It's an ordinary squirrel, and we monitor it. We figured out how to keep the newer squirrels away from the computers."
"One question," Caleb said. "If Mardukians have such high intelligence, how did they let the squirrels become such a danger?"
"Intelligence isn't everything," the Mahatma said with a sigh. "We do a lot of thinking here. We examine different possibilities, and this slows us down. It took a long time to agree among ourselves as to how we could fight the squirrels. Of course, now we know how to keep them under control. I hope we could fend off other intruders too, but our system doesn't do very well at that."
The Squirrels of Marduk, Nutshell 15
The Mahatma seemed to have exhausted himself by speaking to us, so we bid him adieu and followed Spot to Marduk's Ministry of Education. Here Albert Aristotle Freudstein kept Mardukians on their toes with mental exercises and exhortations to become lifelong learners.
"Are you here for the entrance exams?" Freudstein asked us.
Spot whispered something in his ear. "Sorry, I mistook you for a group of students who wanted to qualify for Mensa University, Marduk's premier institution of higher learning," Freudstein said.
I had read about the risk of insanity for people at the highest intelligence levels, so I foolishly asked whether applicants were given psychological tests along with their other exams. Hearing this, Freudstein launched into an extended explanation of Mensa U.'s policies.
"Er, we really aren't interested in that," Sibyl broke in. "We'd probably be among those who ranked a bit lower...."
"Oh, of course," Freudstein said, blushing. "You're from earth. We send our least intelligent citizens there whenever it's feasible."
This struck some of us as an insult, whereupon he tried to placate us. " Mardukians whose IQ is only 150 generally get sent to Earth to work in technology or advertising or politics," he explained.
We still weren't thrilled about where this was going. Fortunately, Faun was able to change the subject.
"Professor Freudstein, I'd like to hear your views on the squirrel threat," she said. "Why did they become so dangerous after they learned to use computers? It wasn't as if their intelligence went up, was it?"
[for the last 15 nutshells, go to