The hunger that woke Riffle from the sleep of the rats still burns in him today.
He is surrounded by the dead.
He is holding a sword at the throat of the imago, and trying—so very hard, with muscles that are not very strong—to drive it home.
All around him is Riffle’s crew, that ragged lot that build up scaffoldings towards the ceiling of the cave. They do not build for longevity. They build for speed. All around him there are the sounds of hammering, climbing, and crashing, tumbling wood.
He is hungry to be more than a rat. That is why he has grown to nearly four feet in height and developed a human brain. He does not want to be a rat.
He wants purpose.
Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.
Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.
It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.
The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”
The Island of the Centipede
Minister Jof’s hand closes on Riffle’s arm.
The room has gone deathly still.
Where did Minister Jof come from? Why is he here? These questions remain unanswered. But he has enough decency to him to do this: to grab the arm of the rat and stop the sword.
And suddenly Ink sees a thing, and her fear dissolves.
“Do you happen to know the history of this sword?” asks Ink Catherly.
Her voice is dry and confident, like a pedant’s right before it strikes.
Riffle looks at the sword.
He shakes his head.
Ink steps back. She rubs at her throat. She looks at her injured hand. She says, “A long time ago, there were men and women and children who believed, more than anything else, that the crust of the world was evil and that they had to destroy it. They had to destroy it so that the storm that surges below could rise to reach the mortal world.”
Riffle struggles against Minister Jof’s grip.
“We’re losing valuable scaffolding time,” hisses the rat.
But after a moment he spreads his free hand conciliatorily, and adds, “If you leave aside this distraction of my crew and depart then I will let you live.”
There’s a crash behind them. Minister Jof starts. It’s one of the rickety scaffoldings coming down.
“They were formed,” says Ink, “like all of you were formed, from the substance of the world. They were worms, or bugs, or rats, that developed over the long courses of their lives into something better. And they understood their holy mission in those terms. But they were not alone.”
Riffle drops the sword. He pulls away from Minister Jof and turns his back.
“The matter has no relevance to our holy mission to maintain as many height-amortized scaffold-inches as we can,” he says.
“There were those, O Riffle,” says Ink Catherly, “who believed more than anything that righteousness was to preserve this crust, this sanctuary, this seal that severs world and storm.”
Riffle puffs up his cheeks.
He says, “Very well.”
Another pair of scaffoldings crash down.
“Go home,” says Riffle.
He shoos his crew.
“Go home; go home; I’m calling this year’s break.”
And there is one of his crew with long thin legs and a carapace covering its face and a long thread-like bifurcated black tail. It skitters along the corpses and is gone.
And there is one of his crew that is like a heart in a nest of veins, save that it may stand on some of its veins and others have been split to form fingers, thumbs, or spines. This one skulks back to the corpse of a badger-creature and ducks into its mouth; mechanically, the corpse’s throat works and strains, then swallows it and it is gone.
And in that fashion one by one they disperse.
And Ink is saying, “And they worked for a time, each under their own direction, until they came to appoint a man named Riffle as their leader and charged him with the maximization of their effective goals: that is, from the one side he found employment to organize them towards their ends of speedily destroying the crust, and from the other in leading them in its salvation.”
A scaffold crashes.
“I did my job,” says Riffle.
Minister Jof stares at his back.
“It was a devil of a project,” Riffle says. “Reconciling those aims. But then I figured, well, they can’t very well both have what they want, so I could serve one of ’em tautologically, if I just figured out which one it was. Turned out t’be both.”
“In darkness,” says Ink, “in a cave of ivory where centipede-elephants would crawl to die, a woman made this sword to serve her in this glorious cause. And she came here to the war and used it to cut open one man, one woman, and one vaguely genderless bat-creature. Then she tripped on a spear and died.”
Riffle says, “You’ve made your point.”
“I had a point?”
“You can obviously interfere with my work any time,” Riffle says. “Can’t let my workers hear that kind of talk. So it’s all down to this: is it more cost-effective to placate you, or to escalate the violence? Right now, you’ve got an edge on the violence, so I figure, you should tell me what you want.”
“I’m actually just passing through,” Ink says.
Riffle says, “There’s nowhere to go.”
“I’m going to find whomever’s sitting on the throne of the world and kill him,” Ink says.
Riffle turns. He looks at her.
“Why?” he says.
His voice is different when he says that. Everything up till now has been a little distant, a little detached, pouty at the most. Now it’s hungry. Now it’s got urgency to it. It’s like he’s thinking: She could have a cause. She could have something worth doing. She might need competent management like me.
“I’m a destroyer,” Ink says.
And Riffle shrinks.
It’s like he’s deflating beneath his skin.
He says, “That’s not a reason. That’s a resource.”
“It’s exploiting an untapped niche!” Ink Catherly protests.
- Tune in NEXT WEEK for the next exciting chapter in the histories of the imago:
THE DOCTOR OF THE DEEPS