R&R

The missiles shatter the city of grey glass. They take the rooftops off, send the minarets tumbling, and make great flashes of light in the distance on the sloughing plains.

The alien peers through his office window at the flashes.

His neck is long.

His skin is blue and gray. His body is like an ichthyosaur’s, if the inexorable force of evolution had selected ichthyosaurs generation after generation for office labor—condensed, inoffensive, and amphibious, with the belly gently rounded and the flippers modified into clever handling paws.

His face is solemn, round, and unreadable to human eyes.

For a while after the missiles stop the alien tries to work. He assembles colorful blocks of substance into meaningful shapes. He flails with his flippers at something that might have been a keyboard. Finally, though, he walks into another office and speaks to the shadowed alien there.

His words cannot be heard over the sounds of the city and its crumbling. His gestures are slow at first, then fervent.

There is a moment of parting and a burning of all bridges.

The alien leaves his work behind.

He trudges from the city, briefcase at his side, but after a time he tosses it away. He straightens his shoulders as if finding freedom. He reaches the shore and slips himself into the water and swims down into the depths of a great gray sea.

There is a farm of swaying fungus there, and over the years—

Tended by the alien—

It grows.

The fish that swim and dart among the fungus become more numerous, and the harvests thick and rich. There is no war here. There is no paperwork.

Sometimes other aliens visit him.

Sometimes he mates. Possibly he mates. Possibly he simply says hello.

He is an alien.

It is not clear.

One winter the sea freezes. It freezes slowly, slowly, downwards from the top. He works hard to shatter the ice as it builds around his crop but in the end he must retreat to further depths and huddle by a volcanic vent. When he returns the crops are like slurpees made of corn.

He begins again.

It is twenty years at least—thirty perhaps—when he is digging beside his crop and strikes the metal of some long-buried and great device of war.

He unearths it.

There is a hatch on one side. It takes him great effort to open the hatch as his hands are not designed for human wheels.

There is blood in the water by the time he wrests it open and goes inside to the strangely lighted innards of the missile sent by man.

There is soft music inside and carpets on its floor, both ruined by the sea.

In the front there is a place to sit—the which he does not use—and a terminal on which to type.

He turns it on.

He presses a few buttons. He wakes it into life.

He watches as Rick Astley sings, and the expression of the alien is not clear as he strives to understand the meaning of the ruin of his world.

Observations on the Child-Alien, by an Anonymous Xenographer

The child-alien learns first to build a jumping-puzzle.

This process appears intrinsic in the brain.

Six hours old, and a podling can build them. Their eyes track: there, there, there. Difficult, but feasible. Creative, yet orthodox.

It is fundamental to the structure of their brain. It is a natural survival technique in the great vastnesses of the universe, where ordinary human norms do not apply.

We believe in the naivete of our arrogance that we—with our inborn inability to recognize jumping puzzles at once; we for whom the world does not naturally divide into the ptah kirem, the stations of the jump—are the natural creatures.

But for every planet on which we can survive there is a limitless space in which we cannot.

Our subitizing and object permanence—these are the unnatural concepts, in space.

The child-alien masters the ptah kirem from birth, and learns numbers later, if at all, by a process of metaphor. “Ah, one,” the adolescents say. “Like the beginning-jump. And two, like its destination. Yes, I see. Commutativity—reflexivity—I see!”

Soon, perhaps even by the end of the first day

(not that days are a fair consideration in the endless emptiness of space)

The child-alien masters stacking.

To survive in the void without stacking—well, it’s hard to see how that would be possible. You’d lose your eyes to depressurization. You wouldn’t be able to breathe. You’d freeze.

The child-alien has a buffer.

Unlike humans with their endless luxury of atmosphere, the child-alien is born with the numberless substances and apparati of the womb: hard metal plating, sealed eyes, and a sac of vital fluids and nutrients, shielded against the emptiness.

This sustains it until its questing, inquisitive brain understands stacking.

Then, as the sac atrophies away, it learns the elevator-understanding.

Enemies—the slow ones. The fast ones. Balance and waves.

It is the character of the alien, by the time it is seven weeks in age, to be capable of designing an entire level of its lair. It is already extruding the challenge into unspace. It is warping the vacuum to the rhythms of its soul.

It receives commentary by message drone.

It leaves a careful flaw—a necessary flaw—in the structure of its lair.

To the alien, this flaw is ineffable, inevitable, inscrutable, and holy. It perceives it after the fashion that we perceive the soul: asked to demark it, it cannot do so; asked to justify it, it finds no evidence; yet something nags at the mind of the alien and tells it that the flaw is there.

There is a reason why a person, with sufficient effort, may move through the levels of any alien’s lair and reach its heart.

It is not simple mortality.

It is . . . sacred.

The older aliens begin to develop a functional intelligence by a process of metaphor. The idea of /patrolling enemies/ mixes with the idea of /jumping puzzles/ to form /travel/.

Travel is like a patrol, but with the conflated element of progression through the stages of the ptah kirem. Patrol—that advances.

How exciting that concept must have been, for the first of these aliens!

Patrol—that advances.

Travel . . . with bombs. Suddenly we see the dim glimmers of death on the horizon. A final destination. How marvelous! How precious and how rare! Or bombs . . . with travel!

And there, suddenly, unfurling: meaning.

Communication.

Language.

Physics; mathematics; trust.

These things lurk implicit in the structure of their brains. They do not need to build the level of their lair that embodies trust: it is enough for them to understand that they /could/.

Chocolate; sunlight; love.

God.

The automobile.

Us.

Have you ever wondered why we are made of parts? Why we are creatures of staccato motion and back-and-forth patrol? Why, after a series of near endings, we pass from the world at last? Why are we mappable creatures? Why do we say, we are ‘in’ a mood, or ‘in’ a love?

By the time the child-alien is seventeen years old, it requires for the fidelity of its defenses that we exist, to test them.

The Callous Onslaught of Those Words

It is Arachne’s curse that she may not innovate. She may only repeat herself and indulge in cliche.

Thus she is performing the same routine that she has performed with every passing day when the starship falls into Ma and Pa Kent’s sty.

She weaves.

She catches bugs.

She drains them of their substance.

“Why do you do this?” asks a Grubbler, from the shadows.

“Hm?” Arachne asks.

“You lecture us on respect,” the Grubbler says. “You lecture us on honor. Yet you are a bone killer, a poisoner, a monster of the web.”

Arachne feels no sting from the Grubbler’s scorn. The Grubblers, for all her attempts to redeem them, respect nothing but that which popular opinion demands.

She cannot expect them to understand.

“Do you tell me,” she asks, “that you can judge good or bad based on whether one sucks the insides out of an insect?”

The Grubbler hulks softly against the wall. It whispers, “Yes.”

“That then is your error,” Arachne says, complacently. “The act itself is inconclusive, capable of possessing either of two natures. To suck the insides from a bug with the killer-mind— that is the essence of flawed virtue. But to suck the insides from a bug in the spirit of universal compassion— that is worthy even of Arachne!”

The Grubbler is unable to penetrate to the substance of these words.

It grunts. It clicks, softly, under its breath. Then it heaves itself up, shifts its weight, and scuttles its body away.

It brushes past the great ram as it moves. The ram does not see it, the ram does not feel it, but still the ram shudders once, all over, in chilling fear.

The Grubbler is gone.

The spaceship is cooling. It lays there in the earth of the farmyard cooling. And then it opens and there comes from it a pig.

The sunlight falls upon him.

Nurtured by it, he grows strong.

Arachne watches. Arachne weaves.

“Hell of a thing,” says Pa Kent.

He’s staring at the spaceship in their field.

“Hell of a thing,” Ma Kent agrees.

“I suppose,” Pa Kent says, “that someone in space wanted to give us a pig.”

“It’s probably in exchange for all that probing,” Ma Kent sighs.

“Now, Ma,” says Pa.

“What?”

“There wasn’t any probing,” Pa Kent asserts.

They stare at the pig. He is small and flush with sunlight and adorable.

“I won’t eat space bacon, Pa,” Ma says.

“Well, who would?”

They stare at the pig some more.

“Hell of a thing,” Ma Kent says, and shakes her head.

The pig learns with uncanny speed. In less than four weeks, he is an expert at rooting and grubbing. He learns to count to five, tapping it out with his hooves on the mud. When Ma Kent takes him truffling, he finds truffles like no pig ever did.

And he learns to talk.

“Hello,” he says.

He is in the barn. There is no one there but the pig, the ram, and Arachne.

“Hello,” says the pig.

“Hello,” says Arachne.

“I am pig,” the pig says.

“Ridiculous,” murmurs Arachne. “Pigs don’t talk.”

There is an awkward break in the conversation, because even the pig must admit that this is true.

“I am like pig,” the pig says. He squints up at Arachne. His eyes are preternaturally aware. “Why you always do same?”

“It is my curse,” Arachne says.

“That bad curse,” says the pig. “It is necessary to life that it grow.”

She laughs.

She hangs there, still, in the web, and she laughs, and she says, “You are a marvel.”

The pig stretches. He walks around. He oinks.

And the Grubblers come.

They crowd around the barn, and the creatures of that place sense them. There is a riotous noise raised up to Heaven.

But there is no one there who can see them, save Arachne.

One by one, the beasts calm down.

And the Grubblers move in.

How can one describe a Grubbler? They are tall and broad and the tusks on them are thick. They drool as they go, and they go where they please. They live in the shadows. Creatures of ordinary nature cannot see them; and even the pig, that is not a pig, is aware of them only dimly, as troublesome shadows upon his mind.

“What is it?” he says. “What comes?”

And the Grubblers squelch closer, peering at him sideways through their disc-like eyes, to see this pig that dares to speak.

“A darkness,” says Arachne.

The Grubblers reach out. Their hands touch the skin of the pig. The pig’s short fine hairs stand up on end.

“A darkness that was old when the world was made.”

“Gah!” says the pig.

The pig skitters back. He concentrates. He shoots red beams of fire from his eyes, and a Grubbler is singed.

“Don’t anger them!” Arachne says.

But the pig is fighting now. The Grubblers close in on him; their shadowy substance occludes his; and then with a heaving he casts them all back. He is flailing, oinking, terrified and terrible, and then suddenly his feet lift from the ground, all four of them, and he is bobbing, ever so slightly, and he says,

“I think that I can fly.”

“You can’t,” says Arachne. Her voice is ancient and deep with knowing.

“No, look,” says the pig. “I can fly. I can get away. I can—”

“No,” says Arachne. “You will drive the humans mad. They will no longer believe that anything is impossible, if a pig should fly.”

And the pig goes still.

He considers this, as the Grubblers close in.

“It’s so,” he says. “I remember now; that I have heard them say this. When Hell freezes over. When pigs fly. When a Grubbler is kind.”

And we must wonder whether the world ever knew what a gift it had in him— in this strange visitor from another world who paused briefly on his path to transcendence here; who staring at the choice between his ascension and our madness, sighed, and lowered his head, and said, “Well, then, best the Grubblers take me, then.”

And the Grubblers lurch on in.

He had grown so much in just those minutes in the barn: still a mind like a child’s, still a body like a pig’s, but growing; and the Grubblers lurch on in.

And if we may turn to the funny pages for our references, then let it be said that compassion was his Kryptonite; that in the face of it he became helpless, weak, and doomed to pain; and the maws of the Grubblers were wide and toothed and their touch is agony and fear even to such a creature; and the Grubblers lurch on in.

And then they stop.

“It is a cliche,” Arachne sighs.

And so it is.

But it is also a hint at public opinion, at the tide of discourse, at the preaching from on high that alone among all things the Grubblers respect;

For she has woven, “Some pig.”

“You are a torment to us, Arachne,” say the Grubblers, and driven by the callous onslaught of those words,

“Some pig,”

They abandon the nascent savior to his barn.

A legend about Easter.

Dispatches from the Age of Iron

GODZILLA
Destroy All Christmas
MELEE

Round 1!

Godzilla stomps on Seattle. CRUNCH!

Christmas stomps on Seattle. CRUNCH!

Interlude: Exposition!

Christmas manifests itself here as a large Christmas tree. It has two floating gloves for hands. There’s a blazing star on top. It has blinky lights for eyes.

This is only one body of Christmas: the kaiju body. But if Godzilla can destroy the kaiju, then Christmas cannot manifest again until the stars are right—December 25, 2005!

Round 2!

Christmas charges Godzilla. Christmas steps on a power up. SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS!

Christmas breathes the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS on Godzilla!

Godzilla blocks!

Christmas breathes the SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS on Godzilla!

Godzilla falls over.

Christmas picks Godzilla up. Christmas spins Godzilla around. Christmas jumps into the air. A giant spiky metal ball, wrapped in wrapping paper and with a steel-fanged mouth, bursts up from the ground. It roars, “BROTHERLY LOVE CHRISTMAS SPIKY BALL PRESENT!” Christmas smashes Godzilla down onto the spiky metal ball.

Interlude: Exposition!

Godzilla is a large radioactive lizard. He breathes radioactive fire and hits things. He is an aspect of Shiva who fell to Earth in prehistoric times and now mostly sleeps in the ocean.

This is only one aspect of Shiva. But if Christmas can defeat Godzilla, then Shiva cannot destroy Seattle until the stars are right—December 25, 2005!

Round 3!

Godzilal roars!

Godzilla hits Christmas with his tail! Christmas staggers!

UFOs blast Christmas from above!

Christmas falls!

But is Christmas defeated? Or will it rise to crush Godzilla?

Exposition!

You can help save Christmas! Hold on to Christmas in your heart. Declare: “I know you can win, Christmas-sama!”

Or you can help save Godzilla! Hold on to Godzilla in your heart. Declare: “The power of a giant lizard knows no bounds!”

It’s going to take every one of you to decide this legendary battle! GO!

Sellurt and Morgan: The Ark

It is at first Sellurt’s assumption that Noah is exaggerating regarding the number of animals stored on the Ark.

He can hear them, of course. There are always sounds. There is trumpeting and barking and buzzing and keening and at night there is a thin distant wailing that merges with the creaking and shifting and croaking of the wood.

And he sees no small number of them—the zebras, the antelope, the ostriches, the platypuses, and the lions, of course, the lions, more than two of them, more than seven of them, more than he can count, their great padded feet always stalking through the decks.

There is impressive biodiversity on the Ark.

But Sellurt has studied the Earth. He knows how many species there are.

They cannot all be on the Ark.

They are too many.

They are endless.

Mehanem—or Noah, as everyone calls him—is always busy. He does not have time to meet with Sellurt and Morgan. Thus it is that the two visitors from the Galactic Confederacy are abandoned there to the depths below deck, to watch through the portholes the endless dreary rain and listen to the skittering and scratching in the walls. Sometimes Sellurt’s eyes will close and he will wake up to the feather-soft touch of a spider or mosquito crawling across his leg; and each time, he observes with interested horror, it is a different species than he has ever seen before.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Morgan, after a while.

Morgan is sitting at the window, dropping coins from the porthole, watching for and failing to see that moment when they strike the water and vanish into the immensity of the deep.

“It doesn’t matter?” Sellurt asks.

“I mean,” Morgan says, “humans can’t breathe water, right?”

In Sellurt’s mind there is a momentary fantasy of drowning one of Mehanem’s sons, the human’s arms and legs flailing, his face slowly turning blue, his animal noises grinding to a halt.

Then Sellurt shakes his head.

“No,” he agrees. “They can’t.”

“Then their civilization is dead. It doesn’t matter that we’re not able to invite them to join the Galactic Confederacy. They’re dead. It’s over.”

It has been seven days now and the rain has not ceased to fall.

“Surely it’s just this subcontinent,” says Sellurt.

Morgan looks out.

“A whole world can’t die to rain,” Sellurt says.

“It’s surprising,” says Morgan. “How many animals there are. Whether or not he really got them all. Where do you think they go, when we can’t see them?”

On the ninth day, when Sellurt goes to the hatch that leads to the upper levels, he finds two lions there. They are between him and the hatch. They have gingivitis, thanks to their poor dental hygiene, and their maws are dripping blood.

“You’ll have to let me by,” says Sellurt.

But the male lion yawns, with its great yellow teeth, and its breath is rank.

“God,” mutters Sellurt.

He backs away.

There is the sound of hooves on the deck beside him, the heat of fur in the air, the whining of a fly, but when he turns to track the beast’s location with his eyes he cannot see anything but the wooden halls.

Sellurt finds a place where he can hear human footsteps, endless human footsteps, pacing on the decks above. He hammers on the ceiling. He shouts. He is dignified at first but then he screams until he’s hoarse, until he cannot breathe, until he falls and curls upon himself below.

The air is thick and fuzzy and he is sure he is surrounded by the beasts, but when he opens his eyes they are not there.

“Are you okay?” Morgan says, when he finds him.

“I’m fine,” Sellurt says.

“Okay.”

“I’m fine,” Sellurt repeats, and then he says: “This is intolerable.”

A koala shares their evening meal that day. It is the first time that either of the aliens have ever seen one, and the last they ever will.

When Sellurt checks the hatch again, the lions are still there.

Every time he checks the hatch, the lions are still there.

The humans are beyond Sellurt and Morgan’s reach.

“It must be Noah,” Sellurt tells Morgan. “The humans are more advanced than we believed.”

“Hm?”

“The rain. This isn’t natural rain. It’s something they’re doing. They have a machine. Noah is doing it. He has a machine.

“Why would they kill everyone off?”

“Why aren’t there more of them on the boat?” Sellurt says. “Why were they all left to drown? There’s plenty of room. They could fit twenty, thirty more families in here. But the lions kept them away. The lions stood outside the Ark and kept them away. He wanted them to die.”

“Don’t obsess,” Morgan says.

“What?”

“We’re an advanced galactic species,” says Morgan. “I’m sure we can figure out some way to deal with lions, if we have to. We could use our stunners. Or some kind of telepathic mind control. The options,” and he gestures extravagantly, “are endless.”

Sellurt sits down heavily.

“Yes,” he says, bitterly. “I’m sure we could.”

There is a great long-legged bug probing at his hand. He’s not sure where it came from. It wasn’t there when he sat down.

He will not shudder, Sellurt decides. He is a citizen of the Galactic Confederacy. He is above such distress.

His meeting with Noah will wait.

On the eighteenth day, Morgan observes, “There are too many animals.”

There is a distant sound of slithering. It is very dark and the damp seeps in through the wood.

“Too many?”

“They are endless,” says Morgan. “Never mind what Noah claims. There are too many different animals, just the ones we’ve seen. They can’t all fit in here, not with this much free space.”

The rats stare at him from the rafters, their red eyes glowing. There is the dry scraping noise of scales on wood. There is a peculiar, choking cough.

“They have to fit,” Sellurt says. “They’re here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no room.”

Sellurt leans back. His eyes are blank and white. He is thinking. He is counting, in his head.

“There’s no room,” he agrees.

The air is hot. It is the steam of a zoo, of a kennel, of a hundred thousand bodies pumping warmth and stench into the air.

Sellurt swats at his arm.

“Why,” he asks plaintively, “did Noah save the wasps?”

There is silence for a time.

“We’ll go,” says Morgan. “We’ll go. We’ll deal with the lions. We’ll face them down.”

“Yes,” says Sellurt.

Something clammy brushes against Morgan’s face. He waves his hand at it but it is gone.

“Stupid frogs,” Morgan adds.

They rise.

They walk in the direction of the hatch.

Morgan stops.

“Don’t stop,” Sellurt says. “We have to get out of here. We have to get to the hatch. I think we will go mad, Morgan, if we stay.”

Morgan is staring at the air, with his head tilted to one side, a peculiar expression on his face.

“Morgan?”

“We have walked the length of the Ark,” Morgan says. “And more. And still there is no hatch.”

“Ridiculous,” says Sellurt.

And there in the dimness and in no specific direction: not east, not north, not south, not west, Sellurt can make out a shaft that rises through the levels of the ship, above and below, through more floors and spaces than he can count.

“Don’t you see?” Morgan says, his voice immensely small and tiny in the emptiness of the Ark.

“No,” protests Sellurt. “No. I don’t.”

“It’s endless.”

Sellurt can feel the breath of the lions at his back, and there is everywhere to run.

Sellurt and Morgan: Bumping the Dinosaurs

“Backwards!” storms Sellurt. He hurls his glass of water in fury at a nearby absorb-o-wall.

“Earth?” Morgan inquires.

“I can’t believe we’re letting these ignorant primitives into our galactic confederation,” Sellurt says. “Look at them!”

He shoves a Earth-scope in Morgan’s direction. Morgan politely shakes his head.

“Sinful, wicked, lascivious beasts! I hardly want to go near them! But because the Council says ‘they have great potential’ and ‘their intuition scores are off the scale’ I have to figure out how to bring them into the fold.”

It is 2105 years before the common era, and Sellurt’s starship spirals through the vastnesses of space towards Earth.

“But you’re calm,” Sellurt says, after a time. “Why are you calm?”

“I’m a trained mannerist,” says Morgan. “I know how to handle these situations.”

“Oh?”

“It’s simple,” Morgan says. “We get out our shiny red and gold uniforms. We press them until they’re sharp. We even polish the buttons. Then we put them on. We land the ship in someone’s back yard, lower the ramp, march down, and say, ‘Take us to your leader.’ At this point the essential difficulties of first contact are circumvented; the rest is mere detail and elaboration.”

“Hmph,” snorts Sellurt. “You don’t know these humans! They’re not impressed by shiny uniforms and galactic confederation catchphrases!”

Morgan looks placid.

“We shall see,” he says, “what we shall see.”

Sellurt’s ship rages in from space. It spins thrice in orbit around the world while Sellurt scans the planet below. He sees a structure—more than 135 cubits long and 22.5 cubits wide—and mutters to himself, “As good as anything, I guess.” Then he pops the clutch and pulls the levers and the ship tears down to land in Mehanem Noah’s backyard.

The ship shudders once and vents its heat into the atmosphere. Its ramp lowers. Morgan and Sellurt, dressed in shiny red and gold uniforms, walk down.

Noah’s son, Ham, watches this whole procedure with some alarm.

“Hello,” says Morgan, sunnily, to Ham.

“Take us to your leader,” Sellurt says.

“Oh, dear,” says Ham. “You’re not a known species of animal.”

The galactics blink. There is a nonplussed moment.

“Darn right!” says Sellurt.

“Ah—”

Ham hesitates. He has an important but socially awkward question to ask. This awkwardness shows on his face.

“Hm?” Morgan says.

“Are you clean?” Ham says.

“Pardon?” Morgan answers.

“I’m supposed to take seven of you,” says Ham, “if you’re clean. But only two if you’re not.”

Morgan says, “Which would be more convenient for you?”

“Unclean,” says Ham.

Morgan gestures illustratively at Sellurt. Sellurt looks at him oddly.

“What the hell?” Sellurt says.

“I see!” Ham brightens. “Then we’ll only have to bump the dinosaurs.”

“What?” says Sellurt. “What?”

Morgan shakes his head, smiling. “About your leader…”

“Of course,” says Ham. “Right this way.”

Ham leads Morgan and Sellurt through the crowd of lions and wild beasts that surround the Ark. The lions growl at the aliens but let them pass. At the Ark they find Noah, who is busily at work.

“Oh,” says Noah. He puts down his hammer. He dusts off his hands and holds one out to the alien invaders in the universal symbol of fellowship. “Hello!”

“Down to business,” says Sellurt, ignoring the proffered hand. “You! Ugly human! Your species is foul and sinful but we’ve decided to let you into our grand galactic confederation. Observe how shiny our uniforms are! That’s just one of the many benefits your species can achieve. We’ll also end hunger and teach you to fly—through space!”

“That’s all very well,” says Noah, “but you’re going to have to go into the Ark. It’s going to rain soon.”

“I figure we should bump the dinosaurs, Dad,” says Ham.

Noah scratches at his sideburns. “Hate to do it,” he says, “but yes. Can’t keep the great old brutes around when we could be saving sophonts. Send in Japheth to dredge them out.”

Ham wanders off.

“I’m not entirely sure,” says Morgan, “that you understand—”

“No,” says Noah. He shakes his head. “I sure don’t. How did we miss you? I was sure we had a full list of every species on the Earth—used Kabalistic magic and everything. Even the bacteria, and tracking down all of them was harder than the breakfast toast.”

Noah’s been awake for more than a year, putting the finishing touches on the ark, so his breakfast toast is very hard indeed.

“We were in space, sir,” says Morgan.

“Yes,” says Sellurt. He points up at the sky. “Do you see those little lights? Well, each of them is a star. Around each of them is a world. The worlds are organized into a great galactic confederation dedicated to peace, prosperity, and interrupting my important work to send me haring off across the cosmos to bring all these blessings to worthless uncivilized savages like you.”

Noah thinks about that.

“I’d wondered,” he says. “Well, in you go.”

“What?”

Noah gestures at the Ark.

“In.”

“It must be some sort of custom,” Morgan says.

“A primitive hazing ritual for interstellar visitors,” Sellurt agrees.

“We’ll go along,” Morgan decides. “For now.”

So they go in.

They pass Japheth in the halls. He is wrangling out both dinosaurs, one in each hand. They are protesting and screeching but he is a stronger wrestler than they. He shoves them out in his final victory, and they fall onto the unforgiving soil.

It is beginning to rain.

“I wonder if they’ll accept our offer,” Morgan says.

“Ha!” says Sellurt. “They’d better. Their civilization is going to destroy itself if it keeps on going like it’s going, you know. All that savagery and vice’ll attract the attention of a Space Devil.”

“Not everyone does what’s best for them,” Morgan says.

Behind them, there is the creaking of a great and terrible door. There is a clamor as it closes. Inside the Ark it goes very still.

It is dark now in Noah’s ship.

It is the deepest night, inside the ship, but with great cuttings of light in it: great dagger-slashes of cloud-concealed sun, entering through the windows of the Ark.

Outside, the dinosaurs and humans are already turning into fossils, flesh falling off, bones hardening in the rain, clutching upwards like drowning men at the dream of space above.

Sweeping Day

Sid’s sweeping up the streets after the Fourth of July. He’s got a broom in his left hand, a sack in his right hand, and three sacks on his belt.

Jane walks past.

“Hey,” says Sid.

Jane spins her head to look at him. She grins. “Hey!”

She holds up a Transformer doll.

“Now that you’ve greeted me I can show you my Transformer!” she says. “It talks! And it knows everything about biochemistry! And it turns from a robot into a beautiful swan or a fire—”

Sid blinks.

“Um,” he says.

“—work or a ban—”

Sid holds up a hand to stop her.

“Wait,” he says tersely. “Please. No explanations. I need you to trust me and be quiet and hold this bag and wait in a nearby alley.”

Sid holds out the sack he’s been sweeping street dust into.

Jane tilts her head and looks at him sidelong. She frowns.

“But I only have two hands,” Jane protests. “And I need one for the Transformer and one for pointing and gesturing!”

Jane points at the Transformer, and then attempts to point at her pointing hand. This fails, so she gestures irritably.

“Current biotechnology does not allow Jane to grow a third arm at this time,” intones the Transformer.

“You could trade,” Sid offers.

His voice is fraught with tension.

Jane thinks for a second. “Okay!”

“Okay?”

Jane hands Sid the Transformer. She takes the bag. She peeks in. “Yay! Dust!”

“Don’t look!” Sid cries. It’s a strangled shout. He closes the bag in her hands.

“It was very shiny,” Jane says. Her eyes are glittering. So are her eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is strangely sparkly.

Sid nods sharply.

“It’s liberty dust,” Sid says. “See, Earth is basically a giant engine that produces liberty for our alien masters. The liberty rises into the upper atmosphere and intersects with the super-cooled alien air and—”

Jane stomps on his foot.

“—Ow!”

Jane pokes him in the chest with her free pointing and gesturing hand.

“You can’t produce liberty for alien masters,” she says. “That’s an oxymormon.”

“Technically,” says the Transformer, biochemically, “an oxymormon is an oxygen atom that is bound to a religious atom that believes Joseph Smith ended the Kali Yuga and restored the Satya Yuga to this Earth. You are thinking of something else.”

“Huh,” says Jane. “But my point stands!”

“True,” says Sid. “I suppose that they’re really more like thuggish symbiotes than masters. Whisht!”

Sid shoves Jane into an alley.

“Hey!” Jane squawks.

Sid stands in front of the alley looking innocent. An alien starship descends from the upper atmosphere. Its bulbous belly discharges a landing ramp. A squat, squamous alien shuffles down.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Aliens!” says Jane.

“Ixnay on the eakingspay,” hisses Sid.

The alien lifts its head. It snuffles. “Strange noises,” it says. “Do you taunt us again with your ‘Pig Latin’, Earth Sid?”

“A momentary aberration,” Sid assures it.

It shuffles forward. It has the gait of a creature with broken legs, but displays no other signs of pain.

“Please present us the liberty condensate,” it says, “that we pay you $3.75 an hour to collect.”

Sid walks forward, hesitantly. He takes the three sacks from his belt. He passes them over.

The alien looks in a sack. It looks up. Its eyes are glittering. So are its eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is horridly sparkly.

“Ah,” it says. “Za’pogh-la. Do you know how it is formed, Earth Sid?”

“Large concentrations of liberty vented into the upper atmosphere, as by fireworks, meet up with the super-cooled alien air and—”

The alien steps on Sid’s foot.

“Ow!”

Sid looks aggrieved. That doesn’t normally happen to him twice in one day.

“Silence, Earth Sid! The secret of Za’pogh-la is not for human voice!”

“Just take it,” says Sid. “Take it and go.”

“This is . . . all of it?”

The alien stares at Sid.

“Maybe the air isn’t cold enough any more,” challenges Sid. “Maybe you aliens heated up.”

The alien snurfles dismissively.

“You are careless, Earth Sid. You have swept most of it into the aquifer.”

“He is not careless!”

That’s Jane’s voice, as she runs out of the alley.

“I’ve seen him!” she shouts. “He sweeps every day! Not just on Sweeping Day after 4th of July! He sweeps every day all year to get it all!”

The alien hisses. It turns, and a proboscis unfurls from the mysterious crannies of its face. It stands still, trembling, sniffing at the air.

“Ixnay!” says Sid.

“There’s a girl,” says the alien. It trembles in outrage. “She will contaminate the Za’pogh-la!”

This takes the wind out of Jane’s sails. She did not anticipate that the subject of the discussion would turn directly to her. “What?”

“Sid!” says the alien. “Kill her!”

Sid freezes. Then he turns. He has a haunted look on his face. He pulls out his hand and shapes it into a gun, with his index finger pointing at Jane.

“Bang!” he says. “Bang! Bang! Bang! You’re dead, killed by my Earth weapon!”

Jane stomps her foot, orienting on the familiar. “Am not! You missed!”

“I’m correcting my aim,” Sid says. He’s sweating. “No need for the alien to use its space disintegrator,” he emphasizes. “I’m using a special Earth cyberoptic sight. Bang! You’re dead!”

“I don’t see the cyberoptic sight,” Jane says dubiously.

Sid squints his left eye like a man with a tic. “It’s a half-human, half-machine particle welded directly to the optic nerve.”

“Wow,” says Jane. “That’s lethal!”

She falls down dramatically.

“Avenge me!” she cries. “Avenge me!”

“The Earth girl is slow to die,” says the alien. “Are you sure that your hand-weapon is functional?”

“It is a painful and terrible death,” says Sid sadly, “but slow.”

Sid’s tone hardens.

“I would liefer use it on you,” he adds, “but for the difficulty I would have finding other employment after years of quisling labor.”

The alien turns back towards the ship.

“You will collect more,” it says, indifferently, “next year.”

“Of course,” says Sid.

“Avenge me!” wails Jane.

The alien turns. “Is she truly dead—”

The Transformer flies into the air. It shifts into the form of a firework. It sputters and burns in the air, and then explodes in brilliance.

“—Ah,” sighs the alien, distracted. “So pretty, the explosions of your Earth.”

It stomps into its ship. It rises into the air. Then it is gone.

Sid kneels beside Jane. “Are you all right?” he says.

“I’m not really dead!” Jane tells him. “It’s because I have an immortal spirit.”

“Good,” says Sid. “Those are handy in an apocalypse.”

Jane sits up.

“You shouldn’t collaborate with them,” she says. “They look horrible and alien, so they must be evil.”

“Without the Roswell technology,” notes Sid, “we humans probably wouldn’t have figured out liberty in the first place.”

“Also, it was mean,” Jane says. “It ordered the Earth Sid to kill me! I’m still kind of scared.”

“And if it weren’t for them, up there, farming us,” says Sid, “there wouldn’t be super-cooled alien air in the upper atmosphere at all. They put it there. They saturated it with the elementary particles of alien love. They’re the reason liberty does condense. And that’s why, every year, I can skim a little off the top.”

Sid reclaims the sack from her.

“What’s it for?” Jane asks.

“It’s sparkly,” Sid says.

Jane peers at him.

“I sneak into people’s houses at night,” says Sid, “and blow it in the faces of children who can’t make liberty on their own.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

She stands up. She walks in circles for a bit.

“That’s kind of creepy,” she says.

“It’s mythic and archetypal,” protests Sid. “I’m like Santa or the Witch. Or like Stars, the Thanksgiving Turkey!”

But Jane is distracted. She isn’t paying attention to Sid any more.

“Huh,” says Jane. “My Transformer died.”

Woo-Wobble-Wobble

Jinga the Sea Monster is wobbly and fierce. He is hideous and horrid. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“Woo-wobble-wobble,” he says, shaking himself. “Humanity is terrible and full of sin.”

His tendrils and his body shiver like jelly. If you could taste them, they’d taste more like offal than jelly, but there would be a bit of a sweet huckleberry sugary taste to them.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” says Jinga the Sea Monster.

Then he gestures, with a slimy tentacle, at the Mirror of Sight!

The image in the mirror skims across the world of human life. It pauses briefly on Shelley, who is making brownies.

“DEE generate,” declares Jinga.

The mirror skims past Emily, who is in school, listening to her teacher and sometimes picking her nose.

“Sinful!” snaps Jinga.

The mirror finally settles in on Diane, who is sitting at a table, at a restaurant, out on her first date with John.

Lester the Adorable Earwig is a giant squiggly earwig. His nametag designates him adorable. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“How perfidious a creature is woman,” says Jinga.

“Ah-ah,” smiles Lester. “But is she more or less perfidious a creature than man?”

Jinga shivers. His body woo-wobble-wobbles softly. “That is a difficult one, Lester. Very difficult!”

Lester chitters smugly.

“I would say,” says Jinga, “that because a woman can become pregnant, she has more capacity for perfidy; and because humans in general exercise such capacities fully, that she is more perfidious—on the whole.”

Lester scowls. He had wanted to stump Jinga.

Pecuny is a silky ooze. There are bits of many colors in Pecuny. They are not admirably arranged.

Pecuny sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“These two,” Pecuny says. “Their minds are full of unworthy thoughts. Let us punish them.”

“Punish! Punish! Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga.

“No!” says Lester. He is still sulking. “We have an arrangement. We cannot punish them until they are dead.”

“But look at how she is eating that breadstick,” says Pecuny. “And he! He is using the dinner fork for his salad!”

“Not until they are dead,” Lester says. He squiggles about in mild agitation. “We have rules. They may still redeem themselves while they’re alive, you know.”

“Pfah,” pfahs Pecuny.

“Lester is right,” says Jinga, sadly. “Look. She is muttering something. Can anyone read lips?”

Diane is leaning in towards John. She mutters, “Hey, I think we’re being watched by the Council beyond the Edge of the World.”

“Bugger,” says John.

“I think they’re talking about sex,” Lester says. He squints. His eyes are not very good, even though they’re faceted.

John eats another bite of salad. He uses the dinner fork again.

“Want to play a trick on them?” Diane says.

John suddenly grins. “Really? You have a radiator?”

“I do,” says Diane.

Lester leans back. “Well, that’s that. Judged and found unworthy. Let’s move on.”

Diane reaches into her purse. She subtly sets her radiator to evil.

“Wait,” says Jinga. He wobbles.

Diane picks up her salad fork, malevolently. She takes a bite of her salad. She chews. She chews her salad like each bite is a genocide.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga, in distress.

Diane licks her lips with filthy, horrid intent. She reaches for her water glass. She picks it up. She drinks it.

“Scum!” shouts Lester. “Scum! Scum! Scum!”

Lester does the earwig dance of absolute horror. It is not adorable at all.

Diane adjusts the radiator to encompass John.

“What’s it set to?” John asks. His voice is ripe with evil; there is good probability, Pecuny assesses, that he is even at that moment indwelt by the Devil.

“Evil,” Diane says. It is suddenly obvious to everyone who looks at her that she has never been baptized.

“Um, is that a good idea?” John frets, eyes bulging with selfish shortsightedness.

“Wait,” says Diane. She stretches out the torture. “Wait—”

“We must punish them now!” shrieks Pecuny. “Now! Now! N—erk.”

Diane has flipped the radiator to perfect good.

“Huh,” says Jinga.

There is a dead silence in the Council beyond the Edge of the World as Diane finishes her salad and pushes the plate back.

“Huh,” agrees Pecuny.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” whispers Jinga, uncertainly.

“It is a miracle,” concludes Lester.

“Grace,” Jinga agrees.

“We are privileged to witness a miracle,” says Lester. “Because we ourselves are good.”

“Woo-wobble-wobble.”

“Yet—”

Diane grins. Her water glass in front of her lips, she says, “Now I’ll take the radiator out and dump it in the trash, and they’ll probably spend the rest of the day thinking about how wonderful trash is.”

“W00t,” says John, in the blessed fashion of the saints.

Diane walks out of the restaurant. She looks around. There is a public trash can on the other side of the street. She begins to cross.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” cries Jinga. “That car! It will hit her!”

“It will end her perfect grace!” shouts Pecuny.

“This must not be!”

Jinga dives through the mirror and into the human world. The sound of the car as it strikes the sea monster is the sound of death come to huckleberry. There is Jinga splashed on the windshield and on Diane’s new suit and on Diane’s face.

Diane sprains her ankle as she falls.

The Incredible Alchemy Elixir

Jane clings to an iron chain. Tom feeds it out, above her, lowering her down into the garden. She descends, inch by inch. Below her, the roses tremble. Each stem is lined with thorns. Each petal is dewed with rain.

Maria stands in a garden arch, looking out at the rain. There is a large and bulky metal cylinder beside her.

“‘Raindrops on roses,'” Jane whispers to herself. “I sure hope we’re right.”

Jane’s whisper is as quiet as the rain. But Maria still looks up. Her eyes burn with an alien scorn.

“Jane,” Maria snides. “How nice to see you.”

The metal shape is a gun. It rises in Maria’s hands. Its barrel is as thick as Jane’s torso, and it begins most ominously to whine.

Nicolae
Age: 10
Code Name: Omen

Nicolae is tainted with demonic blood. It lives inside him and makes him write brooding Gothic poetry. The taint is degenerative and irreversible. One day it will consume him and in his shape and with his name rule as the Beast of prophecy over an empire of evil.

Nicolae is a founding member of the Doom Team.

This story begins several hours beforehand, on a bright Monday morning, in the house at Number Seventeen Doom Lane.

Tom, Nicolae, Michael, and Mouser drink tea in their secret treehouse. It is secret because of its sign, which reads “Tom’s Secret Treehouse—Invisible to Girls!”

Jane climbs up the ladder and joins them.

Tom is dumbstruck.

“Jane!” Tom says. “How did you find us? This treehouse is invisible to girls!”

“I used my hearing and my sense of smell to deduce its location,” Jane claims.

“. . . I guess you can come in, then,” Tom admits.

“It’s a good thing, too,” says Jane. “I have an important letter from Uncle Bertram!”

Tom sees the letter in Jane’s pocket. He reaches for it. She grabs it first and holds it against her chest.

“It’s addressed to me,” Jane says. She shows Tom. It is indeed addressed to Jane. “But it is not just any letter. It is a confession!”

Tom gasps.

Mouser wriggles his whiskers. “Mew!”

“What could he have to confess?” Michael asks. “Once the Doom Team exposed his drug empire and his prostitution habit, I assumed we’d plumbed the depths of Uncle Bertram’s depravity.”

Jane unfolds the letter. She scans it with her eyes. She has already read the letter so this is simply to help her get the details right. “Bertram says that Maria, the lovable nanny who brought joy and music into our lives, is in fact a ‘Fan Hoeng assassin.’ He activated her . . . today!”

Nicolae reaches out. He picks Mouser up. He strokes the kitten.

“Oh Mouser,” Nicolae confides. “Place not your trust in humankind. They will betray you.”

“It says,” Jane continues, “that Uncle Bertram is in Bermuda spending our trust fund. But he had pangs of guilt. So he had to write us a letter explaining why it is all our fault.”

Nicolae’s eyes darken.

Jane’s mouth twitches. She reaches out a hand to Nicolae’s shoulder. Nicolae permits the familiarity.

“He didn’t specifically mean you,” Jane says. “He never really accepted that you are destined to rule the Earth as the antichrist. He mostly rants about our lack of obedience and our inability to understand adult affairs.”

Nicolae shrugs a little.

“It’s always about being the antichrist with adults,” Nicolae says. “Even when they don’t admit it.”

Jane’s hand falls away. She chews on her lip. Finally, she shrugs.

“Tom,” Jane asks, “What is a Fan Hoeng?”

Tom puts down his tea. He takes out his handheld computing machine. He pushes and clicks buttons. He calls up the file on the Fan Hoeng.

“They are aliens from outer space,” Tom says.

“I always knew the Doom Team would fight aliens someday!” says Michael.

Jane sulks.

“The Doom Team and Jane, I mean,” Michael says. “And Mouser!”

Jane revises her sulk to a wry half-frown.

“In 1981,” Tom says, “the Fan Hoeng intercepted a Nazi radio transmission asking for help from any sympathetic aliens. They immediately flew to Earth to help defeat the Allies. It was already too late, and both East and West Germany politely declined their aid. The Fan Hoeng did not have enough fuel to return home and no one had spare plutonium to donate to Nazi space aliens. So they parked their mother ship in a lunar orbit and became a shady syndicate of space criminals. They are not human but can use a ‘Sapioreplicator’ to construct human bodies and minds. These artificial minds are haplessly lovable and bubbling with ‘joie de vivre.'”

“That’s why we all loved Maria,” Jane says grimly. “She was a Sapioreplicator construct.”

Tom shuts down his handheld computing machine. Its display becomes a mirror.

“It is strange to have loved something so unreal,” reflects Tom.

“I have never loved the real at all,” says Nicolae.

There is a crunch of an alien footstep on the leaf-strewn lawn. Maria walks past. She is clad in alien battle armor. She is carrying her gun. She looks left and right.

“She can’t see us,” whispers Jane.

“Is it the sign?” Tom asks. “Because it would be good if that worked on some girls.”

Jane casts him a pitying look.

“Mew!” declares Mouser.

“It’s not the sign,” Jane says. “It’s—look at her somatics, Tom! That’s no ordinary stiff neck—she’s struggling not to look up.”

“It’s the human personality imprint!” Tom realizes. His voice is a bit too loud in the crisp morning. Everyone dives flat onto the treehouse floor. There is a long silence. Maria does not seem to have heard.

“It’s the human personality imprint,” Tom says, more quietly. “The Maria we knew—the Maria who sang to us about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens—”

“She’s fighting for control.”

“It’s a Fan Hoeng secret weakness!” Michael says. “Inside that hardened alien killer is a nanny bubbling with hope!”

“‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,'” recites Nicolae. His voice is like a trickle of dark water. “‘Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. Brown paper packages tied up with string—‘”

“It’s not a song,” Michael says. “It’s a message. She smuggled it out of her alien-ruled brain. It’s—it’s—it’s a recipe!”

“The only thing that could possibly save us from a killer alien nanny,” breathes Jane. “A Taoist immortality elixir!”

Tom
Age: 11
Code Name: Swift

Tom descends from a primordial reptilian species whose genetic code can attach parasitically to human DNA. He is destined to use his scientific skills to eradicate the ‘human infection’ and warm the Earth until his species may flourish again. Time travelers have confirmed this future and his grandmother often nags him to get on with the eradication already. So far, however, Tom prefers to solve mysteries and help people out.

Tom is a founding member of the Doom Team.

Jane dangles in the garden above a raindrop-covered rose. Her hand reaches for it, but it’s just a little bit too far. Tom continues to lower her down.

Maria’s gun whines as it charges up.

“Almost . . . almost . . .” Jane cries. “Got it!”

Maria’s gun chimes.

“And I have you,” Maria says, softly.

Tom releases the chain. A counterweight attached to the other end of the looped chain falls.

“Thank the stars for action-reaction!” Jane shouts. The descending counterweight lifts her rapidly towards the garden balcony. She hurtles over the railing and into Tom’s arms. The two of them stumble backwards into the house wall.

BOOM.

“Death ray!” cries Jane. “Into the house!”

She attempts to disentangle herself from Tom. Tom attempts to disentangle himself from her. They succeed and make it through the balcony doors into the library just in time to escape the second shot.

“That will not stop her long,” Nicolae says. “She is a space alien, trained in calculating complex trajectories. Once she determines the correct angles she will jump up through the balcony doors and slaughter—”

Nicolae counts mortals.

“Jane and Mikey,” he says.

“Not if we slam the door in her face just as she jumps,” says Jane.

“That’s thinking like a Doom Team Auxiliary!” congratulates Tom.

Jane makes a horrible face at him for reasons Tom is unable to comprehend. A moment later, they hear Maria’s jump jets firing.

“Now!”

Tom and Jane and Michael and Nicolae slam the balcony’s doors. Maria smashes into the clear plastic with enough force to knock the children back. Maria looks startled and flat. Tom and Jane and Michael and Nicolae look winded. But it is the children who recover first. They scamper out of the room and are gone.

“You brats!” shouts Maria. “The Fan Hoeng clan will destroy you all!”

Tune in tomorrow for the harrowing conclusion of . . . THE INCREDIBLE ALCHEMY ELIXIR!

Mr. Enemy

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.”

“Cucumbers.”

“Pardon?”

“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.

“Reason.”

“The insufficiency of reason.”

“My imaginary friend Betty.”

Mr. Enemy laughs.

“What?”

“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.”

“It’s gross.”

“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.