It is 1968.
“I’ve been dreaming of Tantalus.”
1968’s monster doesn’t look up. He’s like and unlike the monster of today: a spectacled man, with a striped suit and gray hair. He’s not paying attention to Priyanka, at least, not obviously. He’s playing, instead, with a spider in a box. It has its legs curled up tightly against its body. He tugs gently on one with his left hand. Slowly, the spider’s legs splay. He lets go. The legs quickly retract. “The Incans used to use this as divination,” he says. “Lock a spider in a box, and then look at what its legs are like when you open the box. I’m taking it one step further—by training the spider, I can control the future!”
Priyanka looks up. “Is it going well?” she asks.
“It isn’t biting me any more.”
“Progress is encouraging!”
Priyanka’s ankles are bound to the chair legs. Her wrists are tied to the wall. They have enough play that they can rest on her lap, but not enough to dangle at her sides. The chair is reasonably comfortable. The ropes are not, and her wrists and ankles are raw and red. She tests them occasionally, wincing, but it’s a formality. She has an interest in escape, but not the drive.
The monster looks up. “So,” he says. “Tantalus.”
“He is empty,” she says. “He stands in a land of plenty, but when he reaches for fruit, the wind whips the branches away. When he reaches for water, it drains into the parched earth.”
“Is that emptiness? I’d have called it despair.”
Priyanka considers this. “Despair is an action,” she says. “Emptiness is a state.”
The monster puts down the box and the spider. He closes its lid. “Are you empty, Priyanka?”
“Sometimes I think so,” she says. “But still—I hang on to a little bit of myself. Because it’s important.”
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I have this theory, that it matters—to be who I am, to express who I’m supposed to be. But I don’t know why.”
The monster laughs. “No one’s important for themselves,” he says. “We’re important based on the roles we play in others’ lives.”
“It’s arrogant,” he says, “to believe anything else.”
She giggles a little.
“What?” he asks.
“Snatch!” she says. “I stole your God!”
He looks vaguely perplexed.
“It’s something Mom taught me,” Priyanka says. “It’s a thing to say when people give too much importance to their own beliefs. If you don’t have God in your pocket, you can’t very well argue from authority. So.” She makes a snatching gesture, brought up short by the rope on her right wrist. It cuts into raw red skin, and she winces. “Snatch! I steal your God, and then you can’t make unsubstantiated assertions.”
“I laugh at God,” he says.
“So it’s not very relevant.”
She bites her lip. She looks down. She thinks. “I think God is just a metaphor,” she says. “For whatever it is that makes people so sure that they know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
He smiles a little. “I have a fairy.”
“An unsubstantiated assertions fairy, or UAF. She lives in my pocket. When I ask her to, she declares something right.”
“For example,” he says. He fishes out the fairy. It stands on the palm of his hand. Its name is Pomegranate. “Is it important that Priyanka be herself?” he asks.
“No,” Pomegranate says.
“See?” he says. “It’s not just my opinion. It’s also the fairy’s.”
“But what if the fairy is wrong?”
“The fairy is never wrong,” the monster says. “Are you, Pommy?”
“No!” Pomegranate states firmly.
“See, if you could steal my unsubstantiated assertion fairy,” 1968’s monster explains, “then you might have a case. As it is . . .”
“It’s the same thing!” Priyanka says. “The fairy is your God!”
“Nuh-uh,” Pomegranate informs her. “It’s magic. I wave my wand and make things righteous. It’s totally different.”
“Winning an argument takes power,” the monster says. “No matter what you’re arguing about, or what the logic might be.”
Priyanka sags. There’s a long silence.
After a while, the monster goes to the box, and opens it up again. The spider is busily eating a bee. There’s another long silence.
“. . . does that have a divinatory meaning?” Priyanka asks.
“Do you know,” says the monster, “I’m not sure?”
“If you eat a live bee, you’ll go to Heaven!” the UAF declares.