Shelley is an ordinary person. She stands thirty feet from the shadows and forty feet from the lake of honey mustard. She has a gun.
There’s a blur. There’s a masked shadow. She points the gun. “Freeze, ” she says.
The ninja freezes.
“Jump,” she says. “Backwards. Into the honey mustard.”
The ninja hesitates. Then he leaps, somersaulting backwards, and falls into the sauce.
Time passes. It happens again.
“Dunking ninjas into delicious sauces,” explains Dr. Morgan, on the television above, “is an enjoyable but strenuous activity.”
A ninja appears. Shelley’s eyes glint. It does not wait for her to speak. It jumps back into the sauce.
“It’s profitable,” Dr. Morgan says, “to consider the equilibrium point at which dunking ninjas returns as much energy—in terms of enjoyment and added company productivity—as it consumes. If your company dunks ninjas more often than this, the dunking is actually a net drain on your company’s wealth and human resources. If it dunks ninjas with less vigor, one incurs an important opportunity cost.”
There’s a fierce squawking. It’s a parrot. It’s on a pirate’s shoulder. He’s sailing the lake of honey mustard sauce. There’s the creaking of the ship and a distant, ominous shuffling. Shelley raises her voice a little. It’s flat. It’s bleak.
“Don’t come any closer,” she says. “I’m way past my ninja equilibrium. I don’t have time for pirates.”
“Arr,” whispers a voice. It fades into the distance.
“Or zombies,” she says.
The shuffling recedes.
“The traditional method for dunking ninjas,” Dr. Morgan says, “involves a gun. One points the gun at the ninja. One tells the ninja to jump. This is a hazardous method and is not appropriate for children under eight.”
A ninja appears.
Shelley says, quietly, “How old do I look to you?”
The ninja hesitates. His voice is night and poison. “Thirty-eight,” he says.
Her hand trembles.
“But I can’t see too clearly, ma’am,” the ninja hastens to point out. “On account of the mask.”
She looks down. “Pathetic,” she says.
The ninja inches closer. The gun rises like a prayer.
“Just jump,” Shelley says.
The ninja jumps.
“The maximum dunking rate for this method,” Dr. Morgan says, “is three ninjas per two seconds, but this is not sustainable. The risks are too great. The rewards, too small. An employee forced to dunk ninjas at this rate is certain to crack. The proper dunking equilibrium for this method is seven ninjas per hour.”
A ninja appears. The gun snaps up. Shelley is wild-eyed.
The ninja licks his lips. “We could work out some kind of deal,” he says. “I could teach you ninjutsu.”
“Jump,” she whispers.
“This should be sustained,” Dr. Morgan advises, “at most three hours in a workplace environment. If one assumes a five-day work week and two weeks of vacation per year, this yields a solid 5250 annual dunkings per employee—although a serious hobbyist, working from home, might manage as much as five times that.”
A ninja flickers into existence.
“Please,” he says. His accent is light. “I’m allergic to honey-mustard. I just want to go home.”
“I have a home,” he says. “It has great ninjutsu power. I keep my swords there. And my two children. And my ninja cat.”
“How many times,” she asks, “have you . . .”
Then she shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Jump.”
He says, quietly, “Seven hundred and thirty, this year.”
“There are more efficient methods, of course,” says Dr. Morgan. “If you have serious ninja-dunking needs, you might consider the Ninja Slide. This distorts that strange space that ninjas teleport through. The ninja slides into the tangy sauce, throws down a pinch of powder, and vanishes! The cycle then repeats. Ninja Slides repay two minutes of weekly maintenance per dunk with a continuous harvest of pleasure, allowing for more than 62400 dunkings per year regardless of the ninja supply.”
Shelley’s hand trembles.
“You look tired, ma’am.”
“Jump,” she says.
A girl-ninja appears. She jumps.
A ninja appears. He jumps.
A ninja appears.
“Damn it,” shouts Shelley, and the gun begins to fire, and it does not stop until there are black-clad corpses everywhere and she is sobbing on the floor and a ninja’s hand is cold and gentle against her neck.
“It is all right,” he says. “Madness is a thing all people know.”