Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Legendary Kneeling Lieutenant”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

She even reforms two night-grim thieves!

But she has drawn the eye of a terribly offensive shogun—

DAIIMON!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Bats scream silently in the airy heights of Daiimon’s citadel.

The terribly offensive shogun taps his fingers on his throne.

“I am displeased,” he says.

Before him—the LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT,

MAY!

May lowers her head.

“Why is that?” she asks.

“It is difficult to govern as a terribly offensive shogun if I am not feared,” he says.

“And you are not feared?”

“‘He cannot destroy the perfectly defensive samurai’—people say. ‘Lo, his grip on this land weakens’—people say. Fear runs out of them like rain out of a gutter. Soon the last of it will be gone.”

“Then send me,” May says.

Daiimon looks up. His eyes are bleak and set deep in his head.

“If you fail,” he says, “I will end you with the lightest breath of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE.”

“Ha!” agrees May.

Then she is gone.

Tomo sits under a pink and white umbrella. She eats a sticky hunk of rice and melon. She leans back and looks at the sun.

“Ur hot,” she tells the sun. “But u can’t burn me. I can feel the breath of blocking u.”

The sun, she thinks, is obligated to agree.

But suddenly—

AN EVIL FEELING!

Time slows.

Tomo breaks the umbrella into three pieces with the side of her hand. The top blows away in the wind. The bottom falls to the ground. The middle piece is a great thin sword.

She pushes off from the ground with one hand, dirt griming up her fingers. The other hand swings the sword forward to block.

LIGHT

May staggers backwards. She falls into a kneeling position. Her sword slips back into its sheath. A lock of hair falls over her eye.

“No less,” May says, “from the legendary defensive samurai.”

“PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE,” Tomo clarifies.

“We’ll see!” says May.

She is a blur. She outpaces the green and blue of her kimono so that the color bleeds off of her to stay behind her in the air and she moves forward as a sepia ghost. She moves in that other world of kung fu where great scars cut through the air and the wind blows hollow.

Her sword is out. It is inevitable. It is invincible. It cuts towards Tomo’s neck.

LIGHT

The umbrella sword explodes. Tomo lurches back and to the side, May’s sword passing right by her neck.

May twists her wrist in a fashion that causes the tendons to jangle with great pain. But Tomo’s foot has found the bottom piece of the umbrella and kicked it up

LIGHT

May’s sleeve sword falls into her second hand. It jabs.

Tomo smiles ethereally.

She exhales: haa.

Her hand comes around. There is nothing in it. Yet:

LIGHT

And May rolls at terrible speed along the ground in a snapped-to-color world and black rocks cut into her skin and shards of broken umbrella catch in her hair and she fetches up against a stone building wall, KLUN.

Her sword snaps back into its sheath.

Tomo is transcendent.

She stands there with her hair floating back and her leg back in stance and a thin mist of dirt falling away from her hand.

May kneels.

“You are my master,” she says. “What would you have of me?”

Tomo hesitates.

Tomo explains:

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“Your will!” May agrees, knocking her head.

And for three long weeks and three more days, where May fights, Tomo blocks, laughing. But a weed of guilt eats at the rice paddy of May’s heart. It grows to choke the ox.

Tomo’s spirit is too bright for May.

So May abandons Tomo and goes to the mountain, to a certain place she knows where Tomo cannot block Daiimon’s attacks, and she waits.

The fire of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE comes down from the sky and burns May’s shadow to the stone.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Tomo walks along the road. She munches on a peach. She tosses the pit aside.

It hits a monkey.

“O noes,” Tomo says. She is horrified. Her face stretches in an expression of plaintive apology.

She is a perfectly defensive samurai!

She does not mean to attack!

But the monkey is not kind.

It chitters.

It shouts.

It jumps up and down.

It is an angry monkey, this monkey, and it does not forgive.

THIS IS THE SADNESS OF THE WORLD
PEOPLE LEAVE US
MONKEYS GET OFFENDED
PEACHES DO NOT REMAIN

Daiimon rises from his distant throne, and his eyes burn red.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
SHOGUN AND SAMURAI

Ink Inapplicable (VI/XVI)

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 exhales.

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.

But:

“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

Pumpkin Sickness (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

It is June 3, 2004.

The sky is blue and the wind is fresh and Max’s blood is thick and red.

It’s soaking through the sailcloth of his bandages.

Red Mary’s face is not human but it is beautiful. Her eyes are black. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin is smooth and rounded. On her neck flutter purplish gills.

The sun makes a shadow from one cheekbone and seems thereby to evoke old sorrows.

Suddenly, Max laughs.

Red Mary looks at him.

“Iphigenia’s all right,” he says.

“Your . . . telepathic girlfriend?” she guesses.

“The sun,” says Max. “I’d been worried about her. But, look, she’s right there, you can tell by the light.”

Red Mary looks at him.

“Your nose is sunburnt,” she observes.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue 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.

The Island of the Centipede

Seacourses wind through the broken island. The catamaran glides past the island’s grassland, dry land, and trees.

Max catches the heavy smell of pumpkin, a flat sort of scent, just a little bit rotten.

The seacourse cuts into a hill — cuts clean through it, without a tunnel, so that the island rises on both sides of it but the only thing above it is the sky.

There is rind in the rock: orange corrugated rind.

Over the edge of the hill, and ambiguously presenting themselves to Max’s vision, he can see great round orange distant shapes.

Max looks down. He starts to say, “Why the pumpk—”

But Red Mary’s face is taut and she is shaking and he thinks it is with rage.

“It is the giraumon,” Red Mary says.

The catamaran approaches a long gentle curve in the seacourse’s path. Red Mary slows it as they turn.

“The giraumon?”

“He has been making.”

She stares ahead. The muscles of her jaw tense up. Then she says, “If he comes, do not speak to him. If he approaches, do not let him touch you. If he attacks, do not kill him, or I will feed you to the firvuli and humaneness be damned.”

“Oh,” Max says.

And the catamaran comes slowly around the great bend and there, standing on the water in their path, the giraumon waits.

He is reminiscent of a man, tall and bold, with windblown hair and skin the same sweet color as your own. His eyes are incredible, full of laughter and compassion and beloved secrets.

He has pumpkin sickness.

He has wings, these beautiful wings, flexible like rubber and strong like stone. He has wings and a sword and he is beautiful.

But he is sick.

Pumpkin is inching across the left side of him. Patches of its rind jut forth from the skin. The sickness makes a corrugated orangeness of his features. It has turned his left ear into a hole. It mars and makes lumpy the smooth flawlessness of his arm.

It has not quite yet reached that marvelous left eye.

Red Mary slows the catamaran. She takes down the sails. She lets it glide to a halt.

The giraumon walks forward on the waves.

“Hello,” he says. He smiles. “I’d hoped you’d come by. I made a road for you.”

Red Mary glances down at her fishtail.

“I thought, ‘what if I made a path by which Red Mary could reach perfection? Then she’d stop maundering on about the necessary impermanence of all solutions to our fate.'”

The giraumon gestures broadly. He indicates the island behind him. There is a path in the distance like a great bridge arching up from the rock towards Heaven. Most of it has fallen down. The rest has gone orange and saggy and rotten.

“Better you were dead,” Red Mary says. “Than wasting your fire thus.”

The giraumon grins. His teeth are more suggestions than discrete. “It was better before it turned all pumpkin.”

“I’ve asked you not to make things for me,” Red Mary says.

“Yes,” the giraumon agrees.

His grin fades so that he can lick his lips. He looks at Max.

“This is Max,” Red Mary says.

Pumpkin shudders across the giraumon’s face and brushes against the edging of his eye. The creature blinks in irritation.

Max’s hand inches towards the knife.

“He’s trying to find God,” Red Mary says.

“Men can’t find God,” the giraumon says. “They do well for a while but then they turn into pumpkins and, as often as not, fall into the sea.”

“I think, in this case, it’s shorthand for virtue.”

The giraumon spreads a hand, as if to say: But what does that change?

“I’m helping him,” Red Mary says.

Her body language poses this as a challenge.

The giraumon’s eyes flick over Max’s wounds. His grin returns. “Max must taste awfully.”

Red Mary makes a little face. It involves poking out her tongue and adopting an expression of disgust.

“Let us do this instead,” says the giraumon. “I will kill Max and transfer my consciousness to the corpse. Then I will have a handsome new body to wear for formal occasions.”

Max lunges for the knife. The sailcloth bandage tangles his arm. He kicks his legs to help with balance. The bandage on his leg catches against one of the blocks. Max rolls over. For a terrible moment he supports himself on his maimed left hand while his right hand claws at the knife. Then he screams an ungodly scream and twists to take the weight from his hand, loses his balance entirely, rolls over the knife, sinks it smoothly into the muscle of his arm, and falls halfway out of the boat with his head lolling into the sea.

The giraumon blinks.

“Or he can kill Max,” the giraumon says. “If he insists.”

Red Mary leans forward and catches Max’s collar and drags him back onto the ship. Max sputters, coughs, and collapses against the deck.

“How can you call yourself my friend,” Red Mary says, “giraumon, if you kill somebody I’m trying to help?”

Pumpkin spreads over the giraumon’s eye and makes of it an empty gash with candlelight behind.

The candlelight flickers.

“Don’t presume,” the giraumon says.

“No?”

“A thousand years ago,” the giraumon says, “I thought I saw something in you. A thing to make it worth my while to leave you in existence. But I have spent a thousand years in contemplation of the matter and every way I find to leave you lot alive just turns into a pumpkin and rots and falls into the sea. So do not mind me if I think that perhaps it is too much trouble to call Red Mary my friend.”

Sluggishly, Max pulls himself back into a sitting position. He tries to tug the knife out of his right arm using his right hand but he can’t get a grip. His face is pale.

“Come here and fight me,” he says.

“Whisht!” snaps Red Mary.

The candle behind the pumpkin gleams.

“I don’t want to listen to this,” Max says. “Fight when I’m gone.”

“Leave him alone,” Red Mary hisses.

Max slumps. His maimed left hand drops into the sea.

The pumpkin sickness edges rightwards and the giraumon loses his nose. Then he is moving, he is close, his orange knobbly finger is lunging in towards Max.

Max’s hand comes up to meet it.

He splashes chaos straight from the sea into the candle of the giraumon’s brain.

The giraumon shrieks. He recoils. He recedes along the seacourse, steam bursting forth from the top of his head. It rises in great clouds which form into circling bats, a piano, forgiveness, a white sword longer than a ship, and a sheet of paper on which is written the answer to all pain.

The giraumon bounds up to the shore and he is gone.

Slowly, Red Mary extends her hand to catch the paper. It drifts into her hand. Its surface is thickening, growing orange; she squints to make out the first word, and by the time she reads the second the writing on it is gone.

“Will he live?” Max asks, by way of asking, Will I live?

“If it were not bats and a piano,” Red Mary says, “he would have used it up on something else.”

They are surrounded by orange and the catamaran gently sways. The sea beneath them stinks of pulp.

Max isn’t sure whether she’s answered him or not, or whether that answer would be positive or negative.

Red Mary starts the catamaran to moving again.

Something large and gray and terrible rises from the center of the island and catches three of the bats in its great flat teeth.

Max slumps.

“We souls within this world,” Red Mary says.

The sea licks blood from the catamaran’s side.

“I think we do not need to find God,” Red Mary says, “so much as a way to live with what we love.”

Never (II/IV)

It is 1560 years before the common era.

“This is my curse,” Hera says to Leto. “You shall not bear your child on the mainland, or on any island, or on the sea.”

Leto is pregnant and her feet are sore. She thinks about this for a moment.

“That’s pretty much going to suck for me,” Leto concludes.

Which, as things turn out, it does.

It is 1317 years before the common era. There is a river that surrounds the world. It separates the whole good land from that which is not. There is a cupping fire that surmounts the world, a burning fulminating ether. Outside these things there are the sun, the moon, the stars.

And beyond them there is Never.

There is no path to Never. The maps that have survived from then that show the way have peculiar lacunae upon them. No matter how you chart the course, the landmarks do not line up, the data is inconsistent, you are led inevitably into the cartographer’s error and the point without continuance. There are some who laugh at the folly of the mapmakers of those days, and some who speak of conspiracy and secrets, and some who deny that there was ever a Never at all.

But it is there, burning in the sky, three thousand years ago and more, with its peaks and minarets and bats.

It is thinking of Never that Demeter falls from stormy skies to Delos, that island of stability at the chaos’ edge.

Leucippus is laying there on the sand of Delos’ beach. He’s coughing up water. He’s just tried to drown himself.

“There is no hope,” says Demeter.

She is wearing black. The wind makes angry sounds as it passes her, like a flapping tarp or a dragon’s wings.

“Granted,” says Leucippus. He does not recognize her.

Demeter blinks. Her eyes focus on him. “Pardon?”

“There is no hope,” Leucippus says. “Everything is madness. Here is how I know. This is Delos. It is a sacred island. It is the island where sweet Leto bore Apollo. Yet she cannot have borne him on an island. It is against the law that orders each and every thing. Thus I cannot trust Ananke; thus I cannot trust anything; thus I cannot even trust in the existence of the world.”

“It isn’t technically an island,” Demeter says. “It’s too small.”

Leucippus looks up. He stares at her steadily.

After a moment, Demeter laughs.

“Point taken,” she says.

“I can’t help but see how things really are,” says Leucippus. “It’s a curse from Apollo. Because I challenged him on matters of prophecy.”

“That was a mistake,” Demeter says.

“Yes,” agrees Leucippus fervently. “Yes, it was.”

Demeter hefts Leucippus up from the beach. She puts him down on his feet. She breathes and the air around him is full of the scent of corn.

“Come,” she says, and she walks out on the water.

“I didn’t know why it was a punishment at first,” says Leucippus. He walks out after her, onto the waves. “It didn’t make me very popular, of course. I mean, the girls were all bashfully upset at my truthful evaluation. Also, the men. And I really, really have to avoid temples. But I didn’t mind so much. Unpopularity is the curse of an honest man. No, the problem I had was with the world. With everything that just doesn’t make sense.”

“You don’t like contradictions?”

Just processing that question makes Leucippus hyperventilate.

“Uh,” he says, staggering.

“Here is one for you,” Demeter says. “Observe. My daughter, my bright fair daughter, she has been taken. There is no hope in all the world. Yet I am calm.”

“You aren’t calm,” says Leucippus. “You are indulging in a patch of detached madness.”

“Pshaw,” summarizes Demeter, waving the matter away.

“Am I going to die?” Leucippus says. “Because, honestly, I’d rather die than spend any more time contemplating Delos. So I won’t mind. But I’d hoped, in a distant corner of my mind, that instead of drowning I’d get sucked down into a whirlpool and cast up on some distant island populated by beautiful maidens, deep-bosomed like yourself. So far, what with your mad despair and such, the portents do not seem good.”

“There is no hope,” Demeter says, somewhat ambiguously.

Demeter looks upwards.

“Listen,” Demeter says. “In all the span of the world, there is no hope for me. I have for some years known that this would happen; that the Son of Cronos would have her taken from me. And what is done, in this matter, cannot be undone. There is no hope for me. So neither is there hope for you. That is Ananke. That is Necessity.”

“Alas,” says Leucippus.

“Still,” says Demeter, “I will be gracious, and say this much: when Leto found it, Delos was no island.”

“Was it a giant fish?” says Leucippus. He is practically sagging with relief. There is a beautiful peace spreading across his face. But it is tentative. It is a peace that’s scared to stay. “Because I thought there might be an exception regarding giant fishes. But the island’s shape was wrong.”

“It was a minaret of Never.”

Theologians of Mars

It is December 3rd, 1999.

“Sometimes I think that clinging to the outside of the Mars Polar Lander was not the smartest idea,” says Emile.

“Oh?” says James.

“Well,” says Emile, “No matter how much I breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen. And no matter how much I shiver, I can’t get warm.”

“That’s just your bad karma at work!” says James. “You can’t blame space.”

Emile and James fly through space, clinging to the sides of the Mars Polar Lander.

“I guess,” says Emile.

Emile munches quietly on a tiny bit of space food. It’s a microorganism, that lived in space! But no matter how much of the microorganism he gnaws away Emile still feels hungry.

“It’s just a bit inhospitable,” Emile says.

“Rather,” admits James. He looks out at the vacuum. Then he smiles. “That’s why I calculated my sins for a rebirth as a hungry ghost, you know.”

“Oh?”

“I figured, if I’m born as a human, then all I get is another chance to hear the teaching, and I might achieve enlightenment, but it’s pretty unlikely in these Latter Days of the Law. And if I become a god, then I’ll be too happy and powerful to escape the wheel of karma. But a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost can go into space.

“That’s reasonable,” says Emile. “It is certainly prettier to starve and shiver and thirst in space than on Earth.”

Emile stares at the stars for a while.

“I didn’t plan to die yet,” Emile explains. “That’s why I wound up a hungry ghost! I thought that I would learn to control my desires and earn better karma later.”

“What happened?”

“It turns out that it’s a bad idea to attend an event labeled ‘Assassins! Live in Concert.'”

“Ouch,” says James.

“They lived in concert, but the audience did not.” Emile sighs. “You?”

“Strapped to a giant laser. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Ah!” says Emile. “I’d wondered about the burns.”

“It was like the torments visited upon souls in Hell,” says James. “Except shorter and more cinematic. There is this moment when you’re shot by a giant laser when, I don’t know. When you’re probably already dead, right, because lasers hit you faster than your perception of lasers, but still you can see this brilliant light dashing towards you, and everything’s crystal, and you’re one with the cosmos. Then it hurts.”

They look down.

“Then it hurts a lot.” James laughs self-deprecatingly. “That’s why giant laser safety is so important.”

They watch the Red Planet for a while.

“Are you nervous?” Emile asks.

“What, about Mars?”

“Yeah. I mean, no hungry ghost has ever been there before. What if it’s worse? What if there’s nothing edible anywhere, and no water, and no air? Not even any Buddhists to make our lives better with prayers?”

James laughs.

“What?” Emile asks.

James leans in. “This is Mars,” he says. “Life isn’t characterized by universal suffering, desire, and attachment on Mars. That’s an Earth thing, like original sin.”

Emile blinks.

“I thought you knew,” says James. “11 months in space, and you’ve just been clinging to the side of the ship for lack of anything better to do?”

“You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Emile says, “during the launch. And afterwards, well. You’re better company than the vacuum mites and space bats.”

“Don’t knock the space bats,” grins James.

“I’m not knocking them,” says Emile. “I’m grateful that they put us back on course after that NASA navigation error, and their princess was ravishing. But they kept looking at me like they hoped I’d turn into an insect.”

“Space bats live on a diet of insects,” James observes. “Not many insects in space.”

Emile grins wryly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t really blame them.”

James opens his mouth to say something. Instead, the Mars Polar Lander strikes atmosphere. It begins using the friction of the Martian atmosphere to decelerate rapidly from its initial velocity.

“Hot!” says Emile.

As the wind whips by them, James says, “We need . . . shelter . . .”

James points. Emile follows him around to the lee of the lander. Buffeted by wind and weakened by the twelve gees of acceleration, Emile loses half of his grip on the white-hot lander. He hangs on by one hand as the Mars Polar Lander races down through the Martian sky.

“Can’t . . . hang . . . on . . .” says Emile.

“You’re notional,” says James, in disgust. “Get over it.”

Emile hesitates. Then, sheepishly, he reasserts his grip on the lander and climbs over to shelter next to James.

Whoosh.

The parachute opens.

“It’s strange,” says Emile. “First I was very cold and couldn’t warm myself, and now I’m very hot and can’t cool myself. But something’s different.”

“It’s the loss of dukkha, the pervasive universal character of suffering,” James says. “The closer we get to Mars, the more we’ll be suffering because we’re clinging to a white-hot lander on an alien world and the less we’ll be suffering because it’s an inevitable consequence of ignorance and desire.”

“Huh,” says Emile. “Are we getting less ignorant?”

James points down. “Look! Mars!”

“Oh,” says Emile, softly.

They watch Mars loom. Each new detail they can make out dispels a bit more of the ignorance that breeds the desire that chains them to the wheel of karma and the pervasive universal character of suffering. The heat and gee-forces of the landing strip away their original sin. On the negative side, James slowly realizes that his advanced understanding of Tantric sex practices won’t do him any good on Mars, where sex is savage and primitive.

“Hey,” says Emile. “Is that a city?”

The lander legs deploy. The ship hits the Veil.

“Apes!” shouts Emile, in terror.

Inertial gyros and accelerometers orient the Mars Polar Lander. It is rapidly steering itself towards a nest of great white apes.

“There’s nothing for it,” says James. “We’re going to have to jump.”

The Martian atmosphere shivers with the primal cry of the largest of the great white apes. It beats upon its chest. Emile notices, in a state of distant detached fear, that the ape has four arms.

“Jump? Jump?

James reaches out. He touches Emile’s hand. He smiles.

“It’s okay,” James says. “I planned for this. Everything has been leading up to this moment. Kick off—now.”

They push away from the lander. They fall.

James holds his watch up near his face. He has worn it the entire time that Emile has known him, and not once has the watch been correct; for among the many things that hungry ghosts are starved for is time.

The watch is working now. James frantically adjusts the knobs and buttons, and the face of the watch is glowing green, and there is a countdown on it.

The lander strikes down amidst the apes. It has been four minutes and thirty-three seconds since the Mars Polar Lander struck atmosphere.

The timer on James’ watch hits zero.

The lander explodes.

Emile and James tumble across the red sand of Mars. The apes are a bloody ruin, all save the strongest of them. That one is still lurching towards them, though great chunks have been ripped out of its flesh, though one arm is missing, though its entire back is baked clean of fur. Emile looks over. James has not landed quite as well as Emile, and for a long moment James is stunned. So Emile does the only thing he can.

Emile pulls his holdout knife and hurls it at the creature’s face. It is a perfect strike; and the great beast topples to the bloody sands of Mars; and as it falls, James says to Emile, “Good man.”