Jeremiah Clean lines up the rational numbers. He looks at the grimy irrational numbers between them. He sighs, takes out his Swiffer, and begins to Swiff them away.
This kind of thing upsets most mathematicians. It has Cantor practically spinning in his grave. But that’s not what this story is about.
A terrible ray, a terrible horrible ray, a monstrous needle-thin ray certain to destroy the Earth, pours at the speed of light through the boundless reaches of space. It has traveled for nearly seven hundred years and soon it will strike. It will end life as we understand it. There will be no world. There will be no humanity. There will be nothing that we know. There will only be the Decohesion Engine, Principle of Omnipotence, power born in death and a terrible light.
But this story is not about that either.
This story is about Mr. Enemy. Mr. Enemy is flopped back on his jail bunk. His hands are folded behind his head. He’s laughing.
“Mr. Evans,” says Special Agent Melanie Cook.
The laugh cuts short. Mr. Enemy sits up. His motion is smooth and even and he doesn’t hit his head on the bunk above him.
“I’m not Mr. Evans,” says Mr. Enemy. “Though I used to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not important what your enemy’s name is,” says Mr. Enemy. “It’s not important what he does for a living. It’s not important who he is, really. What’s important is that he’s your enemy. Jeremiah Clean scrubbed me clean. He scrubbed everything unimportant away. So now I’m just Mr. Enemy. His enemy. If you know what I mean.”
Melanie looks at her notes. “You’re in jail for 1,427 counts of aggravated littering,” she says.
“90% of all crimes go unsolved,” says Mr. Enemy. “It should be 14,270 counts. But an adversarial legal system refuses me my due.”
Melanie frowns at her notes. “How do you aggravate littering, anyway?”
“It’s my special talent,” says Mr. Enemy. “Observe.”
He takes a cigarette butt out from under his pillow. He flicks it onto the ground in front of Melanie. The burnt end flares and begins to emit seventh-hand smoke—sixty-four times deadlier than second-hand smoke! Melanie quickly stomps it out.
“I’m not afraid of getting lung cancer,” she says, boldly.
“I’m afraid of you getting lung cancer,” says Mr. Enemy sincerely. “I’m not your enemy. But I have to be as messy as possible or I can’t count it as a blow against Jeremiah Clean.”
Mr. Enemy pulls half a sandwich out from under his pillow. It’s covered in greasy saran wrap. It’s a peanut butter sandwich, so it’s not clear where the grease came from. He bites deep.
“What do you need me for?”
“What does it mean to you,” Melanie asks, “that you’re Jeremiah Clean’s enemy?”
Mr. Enemy gestures with the sandwich. Now there’s peanut butter on the cell wall. It’s a horribly artistic Rorschach smear. “There’s an obstacle in everyone’s path,” Mr. Enemy says. “There’s a stumbling block. Someone or something who gets in the way. Someone who is the antithesis of what you believe in. Someone who means, just ’cause they exist, that you can’t have what you want. That’s what it means to be an enemy. That’s what it means to be bad, you know, in someone else’s world.”
“Not everything has an enemy,” Melanie says.
“If we didn’t have enemies,” says Mr. Enemy, “we’d be as gods. Look.”
He holds up the saran-wrapped sandwich.
“Thon-Gul X is the warlord of a distant star. He would rule the world. He would rule everything. He would be the warlord. Except for saran wrap. It clings between him and his plans. If he could destroy it, then he would be unlimited. But he cannot, because saran wrap is part of him.”
“It was invented on Earth.”
“‘If only it did not thus cling!'” Mr. Enemy quotes in satisfaction. “That’s the lament of Warlord Thon-Gul X.”
“I find your evidence uncompelling.”
“Name something, then,” says Mr. Enemy. “I’ll tell you its enemy.”
“Pickles cannot triumph while cucumbers exist. Yet without cucumbers, there would be no pickles.”
Mr. Enemy finishes his sandwich. He tucks the saran wrap in his pocket.
“The insufficiency of reason.”
“My imaginary friend Betty.”
Mr. Enemy laughs.
“You’re expecting me to say ‘adulthood,'” he says. “But it’s not true. It could only have been the turtle-people.”
Melanie fights to keep sudden tears from her eyes. She can still remember Betty’s pleading eyes as the turtle-people tied her to the stake.
Mr. Enemy is staring at her. Then he looks down. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know that even Michelangelo could be so cruel.”
Melanie shakes her head to clear it.
“So why are you his enemy?” Melanie asks.
“Because I understand what he does not,” says Mr. Enemy. “I realize that there is no finality in cleanliness save the empty void. I understand that clean and simple order is the enemy of the small things, that it has no room for small things, and that, in the end, we are all of us small. That is why I must oppose him.”
“By keeping half-eaten sandwiches under your pillow?”
Mr. Enemy shrugs. “The philosophy of disorder has its own philosophical flaws which we need not explore at this time.”
“Agent Cook,” says Mr. Enemy, “Life is gross.”
Melanie sighs. Then she opens his cell. She walks with him through several layers of security, out of the prison, to her car.
“It’s nice to see the sky again,” says Mr. Enemy.
The sky is blue. There are no clouds. There is no sun. There is no moon. There are no stars. The sky is so shiny and clean Mr. Enemy can see his reflection in it.
“We tried to arrest him,” Melanie says, “but he just removed the unsightly federal agents with hot water and scrubbing bubbles.”
“He’ll do the same to you and me,” says Mr. Enemy.
“Then it’s hopeless,” she says.
She gets in the car. They begin to drive.
Mr. Enemy looks around for things to litter with. He finds a bagged and tagged corpse in the back seat, leftover from a deprioritized murder case, and heaves it out the window. It thumps and rolls down the road.
“If everybody did that,” Melanie says critically, “the roads would be trashheaps.”
“Enh,” says Mr. Enemy.
“So why are you willing to fight him,” Melanie says, “if he’s just going to mop us up?”
“I’m really more of the principle that he has an enemy than an actual enemy,” Mr. Enemy admits. He finds a Styrofoam cup and tosses it out the window. It hits the ground behind them and explodes into a steaming pile of goop. “So I figure, if he removes that principle, then he has no way to externalize conflict. Since the division between cleanliness and untidiness is itself an untidy thing, I think that might doom him—that he might become Mr. Enemy.”
“If he becomes Mr. Enemy, won’t that mean that you become him?”
Mr. Enemy spits his gum out the window. It gums together a spotted owl and a bald eagle, causing both to lose their aerodynamic qualities and plummet screaming to the ground.
“. . . don’t make me turn the car around,” says Melanie.
“Yeah,” Mr. Enemy says. “It means I become him.”
“You’re willing to become everything you loathe and oppose just to torment him?”
“I’m very good at being Mr. Enemy, Agent Cook.”
She sighs. “I hate working with martyrs.”
“I’m not a martyr,” Mr. Enemy says. He tosses his saran wrap out the window. It flutters in the wind and sticks to a tree. “I’m an aggravated litterer.”
“He mopped away the messy distinction between quantum mechanics and general relativity, you know.”
“I’m not surprised,” says Mr. Enemy.
They drive on.
Saran wrap clings to a tree. It is only scarcely conscious. It has only the vaguest notion that a ray sent seven hundred years’ distance by the Warlord Thon-Gul X is hitting it square-on from the depths of space. It does not know what it means that this terrible needle of decohesion energy threatens to overwhelm it. It only knows, as it has always known, that it must cling. It must hold to itself. It must endure.
“If only it did not thus cling!” laments the Warlord Thon-Gul X.
But enemies endure.