It is Friday, the 23rd of April, 2004.
Cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods, wears a dark black suit and a nametag with one name. She eats well. She drinks in moderation. She bikes to work every morning. Most people drive, but they don’t get to feel the wind. She feels the wind. Every day, on the way to work, she feels the wind. She knows it’s changed. So she watches. She watches the trees outside her window, and the squares of concrete, and the lawn.
She is the first, of all who work at Central, to know that the hero and the monster have come.
She walks into her lab.
“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.
They look up from their computers. They are her students, close to her heart.
“The hero and the monster have come,” she says. “This means that Central is not safe.”
“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.
“And the monster outranks us,” Stefan points out.
“The hero can kill monsters,” says Melanie. “So I must ask you: have you committed such crimes that you might bear that name?”
“It seems unfair,” Harold grouses. “He exists to kill that monster. He should not branch out to anyone who simply behaves in a monstrous fashion.”
“Alas,” Melanie says. “Harold may not arrange the world!”
“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.
“We must remove him,” Melanie says. “It shall be Stefan first.”
“Because you have said, ‘he is only Sebastien.’”
“It was my optimistic confidence,” Stefan says. “Don’t punish such a cheery attitude—it will lead you to sorrow! Your subordinates will paste Dilbert comics on their cubicles and mock your management practices.”
“They should regret such actions bitterly,” says Melanie.
“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.
The hero opens the door. He walks into Central. He has the monster at his side.
There is a security desk at the entrance to the building. Dave is a guard. He’s sitting behind the desk. He nods to the monster. The monster nods back.
“Cheerio, sir,” says Dave. “Good to see you again.”
“Cheerio,” says the monster.
“Does he know what happens here?” the hero asks.
“Oh, yes,” says the monster. “But it’s a living.”
“Ah,” says the hero.
Dave ducks his head.
Upstairs, Stefan takes down a gun. He checks it. Then he practices the swift-step. He is behind the hero. The gun is in his hand. He is firing. The bullet tears through the hero’s chest, piercing right through the heart.
Uh oh, Stefan! There’s just a hollow where the hero’s heart should be.
The hero is staggering back. There’s a lot of blood and trauma in a heart shot, even if your heart’s in a box somewhere far away.
Stefan swift-steps to the armory.
“I need a shotgun,” he says.
There’s a web, or a net, or maybe just a shredded mesh of raw tissue, spread throughout the room. It has eyes suspended in it. They turn on him. They swivel. There are teeth. They chatter.
“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.
The eyes turn away. A shotgun clatters to the floor at Stefan’s feet. He picks it up. He readies it. Ka-CHUNK.
He thinks about angles. Dave will probably die too, and maybe the monster, but you have to finish what you start. If you don’t, you end up dead.
Stefan practices the swift-step.
The hero’s sword meets his neck. Stefan swift-stumbles backwards to the office, but it’s too late. His head is hanging on a thread of tissue.
“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.
Then his head falls off, and all he can do is blink until he dies.
“Vincent,” Melanie says.
“No,” Vincent says.
“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.
“You’re more likely to win,” Melanie says.
“Technically, I’m vulnerable to Kryptonite,” Harold points out.
“But there’s no such substance.”
“That’s true,” Harold concedes. “It’s a good weakness for Superman, but it’s not very balanced for me.”
A long time ago, they gave Liril a doll named Latch. They let her keep it for a while. They promised it would be safe if she was good. So she was good. She combed its hair. She hugged it tight. Then they took it from her. She had to watch as bad things happened to it. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong.
But she didn’t let Latch die.
The god of such moments is called an aegis. Harold carries one, because they are the subject of his study. He has charts on his wall of their spiritual anatomy. He has done surgery on his aegis, and other things besides, to stretch the limits of the god.
He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.
Then he walks down to meet the hero.
“Are you all right?” Dave asks.
Dave’s hand is under the hero’s elbow. His other hand is behind the hero’s shoulders.
“‘m ff,” the hero says. He’s trying to imply that he’s fine.
“I don’t . . .” Dave looks at the monster. “I don’t understand.”
“All-hands in the main conference room in twenty minutes,” says the monster. “I’ll explain then.”
“He’s really lucky he’s not dead,” Dave says. “I mean, what with the not having a heart and all.”
“Got a heart,” the hero says. “It’s in a box.”
“The box is in a duck,” the hero says.
“Oh,” Dave says again.
“I need air,” the hero says. He walks back out. He sits down heavily in the square. The monster follows. There’s not a speck of blood on the monster’s outfit.
“I don’t kill people often,” the hero says.
“He had a swift-step god. That’s sort of like being an escalator.”
“What’s the point of a bike rack,” the hero says, “with only one bloody bike?”
“It wasn’t bloody before you started leaning on it,” the monster says.
“I’m cranky,” the hero says. “I’ll stab you if you don’t stop it with the humorous commentary.”
The monster flares his nostrils.
“Who was he?” the hero asks.
“Stefan,” says the monster. “Experimental theologian.”
“I ate lunch with him every day,” Harold says, emerging onto the lawn. “He never picked up the check.”
“Ah,” says the hero. “More company with guns.”
Harold fires at the hero’s head. It misses. Most bullets do.
The hero’s sword comes up, right through the bike rack, right through Melanie’s bike, and stabs into Harold’s chest.
“That’s not good,” says Melanie, watching.
“Ow,” says Harold.
He looks down at his chest. He looks at the hero’s chest. Then he giggles.
“Now you and us are even stevens,” he says.
The hero gets to his feet, and drives the sword in deeper. It’s up to its hilt in Harold’s chest. Harold doesn’t seem to mind.
“I took generic ibuprofen before coming out to fight you,” he says. “That’s why the pain’s not so bad.”
Harold aims his gun under the hero’s chin. The hero elbows it out of Harold’s hand. It skitters across the ground and lands in soft verdant grass. Then the hero gets tired from blood loss and exertion and finds himself leaning gently against Harold’s shoulder.
“This is an awkward moment,” observes the monster.
“Why did you bring him here?” Harold asks.
“If you’d held off the assassination attempts until after the all-hands,” the monster says, “you’d probably know.”
Harold sighs. He shoves the hero away. The hero, blearily, refuses to shove. He grips Harold’s arms and holds them tightly against Harold’s body.
“I’ll squeeze,” the hero warns. So he does. The hero is very strong. Then blood comes out and he’s very weak. Then he’s very strong again. Then he falls back against the bike rack. Because it’s neatly cut in two, there are sharp edges pushing against his back.
“I’m invulnerable,” Harold says, apologetically. He starts walking towards his gun.
The hero leaps onto Harold’s back, and Harold falls to the ground. There’s a bike lock wrapped in the hero’s hands, and it’s choking Harold.
“Damn it,” Harold says. He’s not prone to profanity, even when he spills acid on himself or a really good woman dumps him, but he’s just realized that it’s a Kryptonite lock.
Then he’s dead.
“Vincent,” Melanie says.
“I have really good hearing,” Vincent says. “That’s my only power. I have a rabbit familiar. I can hop. I can hear things. I’m not going to be able to kill him.”
“Besides, the monster says that we should save assassination attempts until after the all-hands meeting. That sounds reasonable to me.”
“If you kill him before the all-hands, then there’ll be more seating for everyone else.”
“We can pull in an extra chair,” Vincent says. “It’s okay.”
So they go to the all-hands meeting.
“I bring a message of love,” says the monster, “from a girl named Jane.”
The monster has a laptop. It’s connected to a projector. The first slide in his PowerPoint presentation shows a large picture of a heart. It’s a formal Valentine heart and not a pulsing human heart. It’s labeled as slide one.
The monster clicks to the next slide.
“Jane wants you to redeem yourselves,” he says. The slide shows a picture of the monster, looking very uncomfortable, hugging a puppy. The puppy is licking the monster’s tie. It’s labeled as slide two. “We have committed acts of evil here, and horror unmeasured by morality. It is time to rededicate yourselves and this installation to compassion, love, and the healing of the world.”
Most of the people in the all-hands look uncomfortable. One hand raises. The monster points. “Yes?”
“What’s the threat?”
The monster’s voice is silk. “The threat?”
“What is she holding against you and/or us?”
“Ah,” says the monster. He clicks past several slides. He reaches slide five. It’s a chart of profit over time for 2002, 2003, and first quarter 2004. “In 2003,” he says, “the Earth Division cleared over two hundred million gross, with nearly forty million in profit. We control one of the three most powerful arsenals of theological weaponry in the known world, and have the chance to pioneer an uncharted and illegal science. What’s wrong with this picture?”
He clicks. There’s a picture of a globe. It’s lightly tinged with red—a dusting here, a deepening there, a bit of crimson spotted through the seas.
“This is the sum of our influence,” he says. “We have theoretically unlimited power, but in practice, our profits are penny ante and our influence tiny. The gods we make are isn’ts. They are severed from us. The greatest host of Faerie assembled in our time failed to topple the Nicaraguan government. The unbounded horrors born unto the Federated States of Micronesia are dying at human hands. And we make forty million a year from the ability to circumvent natural law and bend humans and nations alike to our desiring. We are an isn’t.”
The monster clicks to the next slide. There’s a picture of Martin. He’s leaning against the wall, looking away from the camera.
“This is what Jane has. She has a creature that can breach the boundary and make gods real. He can manifest dharma. If he sends to us a killing god, there are none of us safe. Conversely, should he manifest Ii Ma, then we may imprison any man we choose, without recourse, without jurisdiction, without protection. We would simply speak a man’s name, and Ii Ma would take him away. This creature’s contemners could destroy our enemies with near-perfect reliability. His footsoldiers—”
There’s a little giggle in the room. At this point, the footsoldiers are not much more than an in-joke to the Central crowd.
“Well,” says the monster, expressively.
He clicks ahead a few more slides.
“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “She is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”
The rules are displayed on the screen.
A hand raises. The monster points.
This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”
The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.
The monster clears his throat.
“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”
The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”
The first man stands up. His name is Leonard. He walks to the front. He says, quietly, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”
He walks out through the door to the right.
The second man stands up. His name is Douglas, not that it matters. He walks to the front. He turns to the left. He walks left. The hero kills him.
“Hey,” says a woman in the back. Her name is Heather. “Hey!”
“What?” the monster asks.
“You can’t redeem people at the point of a sword.”
“Maybe I just had a grudge against that particular guy,” the hero suggests. He turns Douglas over. He reads the nametag. “‘Doug.’ Maybe he killed my cat.”
“It’s not morally correct as a means for gaining contrition!” Heather protests. She’s an armchair ethicist, and gets very vigorous about such things.
“If it’s within you to be redeemed,” says the monster, “then it shouldn’t matter what incentives are applied. If not, then redemption is impossible, even at the point of a flower.”
Heather frowns in frustration. “Did you . . . did you say those things, doctor? About it being wrong and vile?”
The monster smirks. He didn’t have to. Jane’s emotionally entangled with him, Martin needs him, and the hero’s messed up in the head. “It’s not relevant, dear lady,” he says.
Heather’s face pinches. She looks very upset. But she walks to the front. She looks nervously at the hero. “I didn’t collaborate,” she says. “I mean, not really.”
She turns left. She walks left. The hero kills her.
One by one, they go towards the front. Most of them make the speech now, and turn right. Two of them fight the hero. One of them dies normally. The other one dies with a shout and a bitter complaint on his lips, something to the effect of, “He didn’t have a harpoon when I attacked him.” A few others slink forward to die.
The Fable of the Lamb
Melanie takes out the needle and puts a bandaid on Vincent’s arm.
“Go,” says Melanie.
Vincent walks to the front. He turns left. The hero looks at him.
“I grew up here,” Vincent says. “It took me a long time to know that what we did was wrong. And then I couldn’t think of anything that could stop it. There’s nobody to tell, nobody to warn. Half the system is corrupt and the other half wouldn’t believe me. So I help the kids when I can. I try to give them a little bit of light. And I help the staff. Because I work here, because they gave me a place here, because I love them too. So I’m going to go left, and you’re not going to kill me, because heroes can kill monsters, and I’m just a screwed-up guy who never did figure out what to do.”
The hero shrugs. “If you’re right, then I can’t kill you, but it sounds a lot like excuses.”
Vincent walks left. The hero’s sword is in his hands. He is moving, swift and beautiful, a blur of gray and death; but he has lost a lot of blood, and there are many chairs, and he stumbles, and he falls.
Behind Vincent, Melanie walks out left; and one by one, the rest, as the blood beats slowly from the hero’s chest onto the floor.
In the time before the hero overcomes his dizziness and rises, there are only three who say the words and leave to the right.
“Is it really true, then?” Vincent asks, looking back, after he has left the building. “Am I really clean?”
“I extract your sins during the monthly blood test,” Melanie says. “I keep them in a bottle. You never know when you shall need a lamb.”