Once upon a time, there was no time, not as we understand it, not as time is understood on the small planet of Verne. If you were to say you had never heard of the planet Verne, I would not be surprised. If we were to search for its sun on the outer rim of the Taurus constellation, where it is said to be or ought to have been or had been at one time, I agree we might not find it. And yet I know that even now the Vernians are with us, some of them at least — I am sure of it — as sure as I am that matter is made of atoms and angels keep watch over man.
So let us begin. Again.
Once upon a time, on the small planet of Verne, there lived a queen whose physical appearance even on the best of days inspired faint praise. Every morning she looked into a mirror. And every morning the mirror broke.
Sometimes a tiny crack appeared at the bridge of her nose. From this came other cracks that splintered up into her hairline and fractured down around her cheeks until the whole surface broke apart and dropped like the pieces of a puzzle to the floor. Sometimes, as soon as her fish-eyed face came into view, the mirror let out with a scream and shattered in her hands. At other times it outright exploded and sprayed the air with pinwheels of reflected light and shards of glass, which sent her attendants scrambling to the four corners of the room to keep from being impaled.
The queen of Verne was painfully aware that without exception her predecessors had been handsome. Even her name, Selene, was not a venerable ancestral name and, when paired with the word queen, it created a teasing rhyme. All her life mirrors had been melting or imploding or attempting to leap from her hands and she had borne the injury with grace, but when she ascended to the gravitas of her throne, she could no longer conceal the regret she felt over the fright of her rustic face and the taunt of her name and the corroboration of both in shattered glass.
Queen Selene became obsessed with finding a mirror that did not go to pieces at the sight of her. It did not matter that her want of facial symmetry mattered not at all to her people. Vernians are a forgiving lot and ultimately more concerned with virtue than with outward appearance but they loved their queen and so they indulged her when she appointed a team of specialists to conduct an off-planet search for a mirror capable of holding her reflection. Despite her obsession, the queen acknowledged the folly of her conceit when she inaugurated this team of specialists at a state banquet by proclaiming that they should henceforth be known as the Odd Body Vanity Squad.
At the same time, something of far greater consequence was taking place. While visiting a cousin, one of the newly appointed members of the Odd Body Vanity Squad discovered a mysterious artifact at a provincial flea market where the dealers had a reputation for digging up objects which, even when not valuable, still managed to be interesting.
The artifact was a small gray glowing disc, which in its dormant state resembled a fat Frisbee, and had been given the name the Philosopher’s Stone because the dealer had found it inside a cave in the Philos region of Verne. The traveler recognized its potential as something extraordinary and purchased the Stone for what the seller imagined was an inflated price and the buyer suspected to be a fraction of its true worth. He took the Stone to prominent representatives in the Vernian Assembly, who turned it over to a committee of prominent scientists, who giddily came to the conclusion that the Stone was a portal to a new technology so prodigious as to border on the supernatural.
Vernians are prudent, Vernians are wise, even the leaders among them, and the Assembly agreed that before exploiting it, they should understand the Stone. Because Queen Selene had chosen wisely and because their royal quest would take them off planet on a regular basis, the members of the Odd Body Vanity Squad were charged with using their service to the queen as a pretext for investigating the power and uses of the Philosopher’s Stone.
They had two missions now, one frivolous and the other profound. They welcomed the appointment from the Vernian Assembly. They were being asked to periodically forsake the solid comfort of their planet and it made things easier knowing that their assignment included bringing back not only a shatterproof mirror to satisfy the vanity of their queen but also vital insight into the Stone.
And so their travels began. And so you should know that for the inhabitants of the planet Verne, the measure of time is very different from what it is for the people of Earth. A minute can be a century, an hour can be a millennium and what, for us, is a hundred thousand years or more, for them is just another day.
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