It is 1996.
Martin is standing around at the science fair. He’s wearing a black suit. So are most of the other kids. That’s the kind of boarding school this is.
“Love,” says Mr. Schiff, at the podium. “Finance. Status. Ambition. These are the earmarks of the world beyond these walls—the householder’s world, the world of fetters. This is not such a world! What matters here is science. Bend your hearts to the achievement of the blue ribbon science fair prize. Give yourself to no other ambition! Grow up too soon, and you might catch on fire! Seek to understand the human mind and heart, and bleakness will seize you. But forge an immaculate project from the fires of your meditation, and endless honors shall be yours!”
There is scattered applause. Mr. Schiff steps down from the podium and begins to study the projects before him.
Oden’s project is a volcano. It’s made of papier-mâché. It sizzles and boils out its synthetic guts.
“It’s an excellent volcano,” Mr. Schiff says.
“I modeled it after a real one,” Oden says. “But I didn’t include any mini-people. My R.A. said that would be ‘too distressing.’”
“I’ll credit you for the thought,” Mr. Schiff says, “and the discretion.”
Oden nods. Mr. Schiff moves on.
The cookie Norn stands in front of a display. Mr. Schiff reads the central placard.
“‘Can fortune cookies truly reveal your future?’”
The cookie Norn cackles incomprehensibly behind her braces. She passes Mr. Schiff a cookie. He cracks it open. He frowns at it.
“I protest this future,” he says. He reads the cookie Norn’s statistical studies. “For all that you assess it a 72.9% circumstantial likelihood of truth.”
Oden grins over at the cookie Norn. “No blue ribbon science fair prize for you,” he says.
She hangs her head. “Defeat,” she mumbles, “is a bitter cookie indeed.”
Mr. Schiff tosses the fortune aside.
Bert’s project is a potato. Mr. Schiff studies it carefully.
“Is it a clock?” he asks. “Or some sort of battery?”
“It’s raw potential,” Bert says.
“Ah,” Mr. Schiff answers.
“It’s unformed,” Bert says. “It’s a potato in all its untamed glory. A glimpse, if you will, into the mind of God.”
“As he thinks about a potato, and all the wonders it could perform.”
“Even so,” Bert says.
During Mr. Schiff’s distraction, Oden has seized the fortune. He holds it near the volcano and reads it in the firelight.
Mr. Schiff moves on. He studies Kama’s sounds and scents of spring.
“Interesting,” Mr. Schiff says. “But perhaps inappropriately erotic.”
Oden looks up from Mr. Schiff’s fortune. “Maybe it’ll get you in the mood for this Parvati chick.”
Mr. Schiff smiles blandly at Oden. The fortune, held a bit too close to the volcano, bursts into flame.
“I have no interest in marriage,” Mr. Schiff says. “I have renounced the world. I am a renunciate.”
Martin, one display over, looks up. He raises an eyebrow.
“I am a geology teacher,” Mr. Schiff says. “I have chosen to live among freaks and outcasts, in a place of savagery and isolation. My position offers neither wealth nor social status. My disciples are equally without influence or place. I am a renunciate! Free of the obstructive fetters of society, I can seek the spiritual improvement of humanity.”
“To grasp geology,” Bert proposes, “a man must first forsake all love.”
During Mr. Schiff’s distraction, Kama has drawn a bow and arrow.
“Kama?” Martin asks.
Kama fires. The arrow estranges itself from ordinary space and attempts to perturb and intoxicate Mr. Schiff.
The geology teacher turns back to Kama. He rubs at his lined forehead. Kama bursts into flame and burns instantly to ash. Bert and the cookie Norn draw back. Mr. Schiff frowns. “Oden,” he says, “your volcano seems a safety hazard.”
Oden rubs uncomfortably at his neck. His smile has frozen in place.
“I hadn’t expected it to burn people to ash,” he says. “I superstitiously attribute the matter to divine agency. A blue ribbon for myself will no doubt soothe the wrath of the volcano god.”
The cookie Norn, in belated reaction, is retching. She is doubled over. Bert is patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. She is thinking that death isn’t just a strip of paper, and regretting her braces. He is wondering if he should remove the potato from his hand.
“And a posthumous green ribbon for Kama,” Oden adds. “It would ease the pain of his departure.”
But Mr. Schiff is not listening. He has moved on to Martin. He is studying Martin’s placard array.
The Rent in the Design
The practice of defining a world, commonly known as cartography, is subject to the generation of inconsistencies. These manifest within the created world as woglies: toroidal gods with two winky eyes and a propensity for rotation.
But are woglies inevitable?
Blandly, blandly, Mr. Schiff looks down. “This project seems outside the traditional scope of scientific inquiry.”
Martin shrugs. “I ask little,” he says. “Evaluate it honestly. Offer me such constructive comments as come to mind. Perhaps bestow on me a blue science fair ribbon, honoring scientific accomplishment beyond the petty dreams of my dreary peers. My desires of you end there.”
Pride and anger pierce through shock and Oden glares at Martin. “I hear a voice boasting of great deeds,” he says, “but I see no one of any consequence. In ancient times, mini-people would sacrifice mini-virgins to scientific marvels like my volcano. Can your placards and diagrams say the same?”
Martin waves a hand dismissively. “Ignore him,” he says. “It is sad to see jealousy bring an eighth-grader so low.”
Inside the Wogly
Dissecting a wogly shows a remarkable absence of cogent physical components. A miniature brain and muscle system, comparable to a mayfly’s, governs their winking. Otherwise, their tough invertebrate shell houses only a thin lacing of nerve tendrils or (arguably) blood vessels, as depicted on the opposite panel. Two thousand symmetrical indentations surround the wogly’s inner emptiness. These connect to nothing and serve no physiological function. Woglies lack obvious motive force and mechanisms for thought; they are, apparently, entirely reactive creatures.
“This is not,” Mr. Schiff says, “the project you’d originally intended to submit.”
“No,” Martin says. “I had intended to remake the world to my specifications. My great work would have answered many of the problems of the day and, as an incidental matter, guaranteed me the top science fair prize. This effort failed. I found myself with nothing save an excellent crop of woglies. Demonstrating ingenuity and the ability to adapt to adverse circumstances, I used them as research subjects for a new, independent study.”
Mr. Schiff studies the pictures of the woglies.
“What keeps them aloft?” he says.
“Self-confidence,” Martin says. “Or such is my working theory.”
“If you were to suspend some sort of wire frame between them, . . .” Mr. Schiff begins.
Martin shakes his head. “I explored the immediate avenues of technical utility,” he says.
“To no avail?”
“To no avail.”
One can divide worlds into three categories: formal, informal, and primordial. It is a matter of mathematical necessity that any formally created world must possess a wogly; the process of scientific cartography necessitates their existence. An informally-created world is not necessarily inconsistent, yet in practice, such worlds are essentially breeding grounds, drained to nothing by the burgeoning wogly presence. The primordial world is the world of reality.
For the aspiring cartographer, the real world is a mystery.
Mr. Schiff looks wryly at Martin. “When a thirteen-year-old writes that something is a mystery,” he says, “it often indicates a reluctance to read the assigned material. On other occasions, it suggests a gap in his research created by procrastination, late nights, and a desperate desire to conceal his failings.”
“When I am older,” Martin says, “I shall weasel more transparently.”
Mr. Schiff puts his fist over his own mouth, as if to prevent a cough. “Ah.”
“Mr. Schiff,” Martin says, “In what fashion does the real world differ? Why are there no woglies in the streets, in the buildings, in the sun, in the Planck constants, in the gravitational field, in the history of King Louis XIV? Why is there no rent in the fullness of the world?”
“I am a geology teacher,” Mr. Schiff demurs. “What would I know of the real world? No one I know has heard from it for ages.”
Martin frowns. “Let us assume,” he says, “that a baseline exists.”
Mr. Schiff smiles lightly. “Then,” he says, “one must assume that it is written in the geological record. The truths of the world are lain bare in stone.”
“And potatoes,” Bert observes. “The dance of a potato is like the dance of Shiva: a perfect expression of the potential of the world.”
Bert holds up the potato. He moves it from place to place in a dance that in only the vaguest and broadest respects resembles the dance of Shiva. Mr. Schiff ignores him.
Mr. Schiff takes out a thin gray rock. He sets it on the table before Martin.
“It is marked,” Martin says.
“By the march of glaciers,” Martin says, “and the dances of the sea. By endless years.”
Mr. Schiff smiles. It’s the kind of smile you’d expect from a geology teacher. “Stones are poor historians,” he says, “but you will find no more faithful scribes. The world, as Bert hints, is a dance; the stones record its steps.”
“The record is incomplete,” Martin says.
Mr. Schiff leans over and studies the rock. “I blame the potato,” he says. “Its unfocused potential detracts from the completeness of the world.”
“I strenuously object!” Bert says. “Why single out my potato for opprobrium? There is no thing that has no flaw.”
Martin looks up, and even through his goggles, it is the bleakest of all stares.
“Be at ease, Martin,” Mr. Schiff says. “A scientist must adapt to adverse circumstances.”
Mr. Schiff moves on.
“Really,” he says, studying Heather’s display. “‘Find your perfect mate?’”
Heather looks at him with wide, nervous eyes. “It’s a study of biorhythm and skin conductance compatibility factors,” she says. Her voice is quiet. She is almost too nervous to speak at all, but after a moment, she adds a question. “Am I going to catch on fire?”
Mr. Schiff sighs.
“In my defense,” she says, “My competition is a potato.”