Max Sets Forth to Kill God (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

The hardest part of that whole night is the show.

One quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower is a jumbled ruin. Claire’s scalp won’t stop bleeding even though she’s used a Sesame Street bandaid. Broderick is coughing and coughing because he’s allergic to disaster.

Nobody’s seen Sid, Mr. Schiff, or Rahu.

Martin says that the imago’s fallen—that when the tower started shaking, she just canted over and fell into a giant hole in the floor.

Max’s room is a wreck and his nerves are a jangle.

And amidst all this they must put on a performance of Hamlet 2: The Arrows of Fate, to be broadcast from the tower to a hypothetical audience outside the boundaries of the world.

“Why?” says Max.

Martin looks at him blankly.

“Dude,” Martin says, “haven’t you ever watched that play and said, ‘How can anyone possibly make a sequel?'”

Martin’s got a crushed pinky, which makes him substantially better off than Max in the current wounds department.

“The machinery’s barely even working!” protests Max.

Martin twists his hands into various positions, thinking. “You’re worried about Sid,” he says.

“Yes.”

Martin’s hair is all over masonry dust.

“Then try not being all freaky about hypothetical vivisections,” Martin says. “Sometimes you’ve got to torture somebody to death. Just look at Hell, or Guantanamo, or that old riddle about whether you’d rather torture one guy to death or let everyone in the world die. It happens.”

Max stares at Martin.

Martin looks back at him.

“It’s an inevitable byproduct of adequate force,” Martin explains.

So Max goes backstage and he helps Iphigenia unclog the pipes.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

The Island of the Centipede

They dig Mr. Schiff out of the rubble a few hours after the play. He makes protesting noises because they have woken him up.

Before they find Sid or Rahu or the imago, Martin finds Max. Max is dragging a large tumbled stone out of the way of a blocked-off room.

Martin pulls himself up on a chunk of rubble. He sits there, watching Max for a minute.

“Do you trust me?” Martin says.

“No.”

“Here’s the thing,” Martin says. “I kind of accidentally wiggled a tectonic plate by giving the wrong person a fig newton.”

Max stops pulling.

He rubs sweat off his forehead.

“I don’t believe you,” says Max.

“Eh?”

Max shrugs.

Martin thinks.

“To the west,” Martin says, “the shock’s opened up a hole in the crust of the world and there’s a fountain of good rising from it.”

“Okay.”

“I need someone to deal with it,” Martin says.

“You’d think that we could leave it be.”

“It’s difficult to improve things once they get too good,” Martin says. “An actual singularity of virtue would render fixing the world impossible.”

“Also, unnecessary.”

“Why—?” Martin says.

Then he stops himself and thinks.

“Your logic is ancillary to an inherently limited perspective,” Martin dismisses.

“So to the west there is a goodblow,” Max says, “Like God breaking forth into the world to save us all from suffering. And you want me to go stop it.”

“Yes,” Martin says. “With extreme prejudice.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ridiculous,” says Max. “It’s fighting against what we want the most.”

“I can’t make you,” Martin admits.

Max goes back to work.

“You won’t find Sid,” Martin says.

Max stops.

“He is restless,” says Martin. “And despair is forbidden to him. He throws himself against the walls of his cage and sometimes they overcome him. He is absent from these moments in which it is too much to bear. He is scuttled from the world.”

“Oh,” says Max.

Martin drops down to his feet and strolls towards away.

“Wait,” says Max.

“Hm?”

“If I do it,” says Max, “you make Sid an is.”

“You ridiculous dolt,” says Martin.

He walks away.

Continuing from the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )

It is June 2, 2004.

Max wakes up and he already knows what he has to do.

He goes down to the catamaran dock.

He looks off to the dark and brooding west.

And Jane is waiting on the grass to see him off. And she is looking at him with her brow furrowed in thought, and she says, “You’re here.”

Max nods.

“Is that okay?” he says.

Little girls tend to like emanations of absolute virtue, so you can see why he asked.

Jane laughs. “Noooo,” she says. “I don’t mean here, at the dock. I mean, here.”

She looks at him.

“You had bad things in your closet. Then Sid chased them away. Then you were King of the playground. Then you played basketball.”

She is being careful with these words. She is slow and deliberate, even with the easy words and simple things.

“Then you were brave and saved Mr. McGruder. Then you loved Sid. Then you saw another siggort and talked Sid into helping Ronald Reagan become President. Then you fought a King. Then you ran away. Then you read a book and afterwards you went to the place without recourse. Then you called Sid there. Then you got out but he didn’t. Then you came here to help him put on plays. Then you shot him and now you want to sail west.”

“Yes,” says Max.

He grins a little. “And what does that mean to you?” he asks.

“The world’s bright and spits up super beauty everywhere,” says Jane.

“Oh.”

“And so there are things that Max. That go Max. Like you. That is what it means.”

Max grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“Thanks,” he says.

Jane holds out a box. It’s like a cribbage box, but bigger, with a slide-open top.

“Here,” she says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

Jane begins giggling. Max watches in perplexity.

Finally, she stammers out, “Severance pay.”

There are more giggles.

“Ah,” he says.

He takes the box. He frowns at her. But he can’t keep frowning.

She’s smiling at him so brightly that he hugs her.

Then he sails to the west.

Coming Down with Chaos

Claire is poor.

Poverty comes with fear for Claire. That’s a characteristic of her history as much as her personality. It could have brought despair or anger or ambition. But Claire does not expect to be poor when she wakes up in the morning. She’s not used to it. So it brings fear, instead.

Claire wakes up one morning with chaos. It’s just a little chaos. It’s limning her, the red and purple and gold and black of it.

She could go to the doctor, but doctors are expensive. If you go to the doctor, then it’s more debt that you can’t get out of if you’re poor.

“Maybe it’ll go away,” Claire says.

Fear inhibits action.

Claire goes about her life. She does data entry for a living, transferring endless reams of information from paper to database. Nobody cares if she has a little bit of chaos around her at her job. Jim at his desk says, “Don’t let it get in the numbers,” and Claire laughs a little, but everybody knows that data can’t catch chaos from people.

When she gets home, the chaos is a little worse. She gets out the first aid spray and takes off the cap and then spends eight minutes and seventeen seconds pondering the fact that the chaos leaves her no obvious place to spray.

She scratches at her eyebrow.

“How do you get chaos, anyway?”

She dials in to AOL. She checks it out on Google. She can do this because she’s the kind of poor person who gets leftover machines from her friends—fear-poor, like we said, not despair-poor or acceptance-poor.

Unfortunately, Google is unenlightening. It’s probably just some of the residual chaos left over from the War in Heaven. Maybe it’s brain lesions, though, or acosmism.

After reading far too much about brain lesions, she lets things be.

Sometimes in the evenings she’ll wield the chaos; she’ll sketch burning letters into the air of her tiny studio, or manifest a sword. One boring night when she’s clicking on a button that gives free food to the hungry she extinguishes seventeen Janjawid militia members with it. They vanish from the Earth, sixteen leaving their clothes behind and one disappearing mid-rape.

That night their faces and their hands, streaked with dripping blood, haunt Claire. All the next day as she types names and numbers she tells herself, “Don’t be an idiot. You’ll just make the chaos worse.”

Her friends worry about Claire.

“If you’ve got enough chaos to extinguish seventeen people,” argues Emily, “you need to go to the emergency room.”

But Claire gets all tight-lipped. She shakes her head.

“It’s fine.”

She goes out on the roof that night.

“I can burn it off,” she says.

She spreads the chaos out behind her like wings. It forms a great soft pyre of color, dim in the night, orange and purple and blue and black. She rises into the air. Her legs and arms grow cold as the wind surrounds her. She gestures, and there is lightning and there is thunder over the city that is her home.

In the distance, she can see another person—a man, she thinks. She remembers his face from a long time ago, forever ago, when stars and fires contended in the sky.

The cold fades from her. She is warm now.

The chaos arcs and crackles around her. She gives it strength; and it does not burn itself out. It simply simmers.

Finally, exhausted, she settles herself back down onto the roof.

“If it’s not better in a week,” she promises herself. “I’ll see a doctor.”

She is leaving stardust behind her, now, when she walks. She can stop the flow by concentrating, but sometimes she forgets. Jim yells at her when she forgets because he does not think one should allow stardust in a room with many computers.

“Oh?” she asks.

“It’s bad for them,” Jim says, choosing a generic explanation because he has no idea whether stardust is bad for computers.

“I’m sorry,” Claire says.

Three days later, Emily’s checking in on Claire. Claire is staring glumly at the mirror with her hair blowing in a nonexistent wind.

Emily says, “Look. Me and Brad can cover it. Just go to the emergency room.”

Claire blushes and her hair falls flat.

She hugs her chest protectively.

“What?” Emily says.

Claire is wordless for a bit. It’s the fear, mostly, plus a bit of worry that the doctor will have to use some kind of giant needle to suck the chaos out.

“Okay,” Claire says.

And as Emily’s driving her to the emergency room, Claire says, “You get kind of attached to the weirdest things. You know?”

Emily giggles.

“What?”

“When I was a kid,” Emily says, “I had this weird little growth on my nose, and my Mom was horribly offended by it and just had to have it cut off. And I screamed and yelled because who was she to take away my nosewart?”

Claire grins.

“Yeah,” says Claire. “Like that.”

“Change is scary,” Emily explains.

Drunkard’s God: “The Ale-Man”

Yesterday, in Drunkard’s God: “The Wine-Ogre”, we met . . .

. . . Sid, a crusty old lawman.
. . . Claire, an angel who lives in his hip flask.
. . . and a nameless wine-ogre!

The world used to belong to the drunkard’s god, and teetotalers like Sid were feared and hated. The cycle flipped. The teetotaler’s god rose to the top. And he’s still on top now.

That’s why people who drink too much wine turn into inhuman wine-ogres.

That’s why people who take drugs transform into monsters and then explode.

That’s why Sid’s got a cross that shoots Godlight.

And it’s why Sid thought Max was dead.

There’s no other possible fate for a teetotaler gone bad. Max turned on his god and went to the saloon, but they didn’t make him a drunkard. They sucked the life out of him. They drained him dry. They turned him to powder. And the teetotaler’s god would never have saved him.

He has to be dead.

But Max isn’t dead. So the wine-ogre said. Max is alive.

He’s an ale-man now.

Drunkard’s God


The Ale-Man

Sid staggers to the steps of the Church and he sits down and he upends his hip flask and Claire falls out.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Hi, Sid!” says Claire. “Did you know that Columbian drug lords can eat people’s souls? Also, second-hand smoke kills!”

“Knew it,” says Sid. “Lost a friend to second-hand smoke back in ’08.”

Claire pouts.

“Man,” she says, “your checkered history ruins all my fun.”

“What’s an ‘ale-man?'” asks Sid.

“It’s somebody whose skin’s been hollowed out so that you can pour ale in,” says Claire. “They’re lurking horrors who’ll get you drunk if they touch you.”

“Huh,” says Sid. “Didn’t know that.”

Claire beams. She spins around, unfurling her wings and glowing in every direction. “The more you know!” she carols.

“But it don’t make sense for Max,” says Sid. “What with them dehydrating him and all.”

“Enh,” shrugs Claire. “Lots of different kinds of ale-men. Like, there’s light ale-men that can fly, and dark ale-men that live in shadows, and German ale-men who are possibly heartier than the frontier types. Sometimes the drunkards’ll import a German ale-man in hopes of flipping the cycle back to the drunkard’s god, but it never works, because really German ale is overrated.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“So maybe they rehydrated him—with booze!”

That night Sid goes home to his cold bed and he holds his crucifix tight and he doesn’t sleep for a long time; and when he does, it’s intermittent and light.

“Hey,” says Max.

Sid startles awake.

He flounders for his crucifix. It isn’t there. Sometime during the night he must have dropped it.

He looks around. His heart’s pounding so loud he can’t hear the night.

“Max?” he says.

But Max isn’t there.

Sid waits for morning. Then he goes through his day’s work. He goes through it hollowly. It’s like he’s just walking through the motions. It’s like the Law isn’t holding him together any more.

He prays in silence before the big statue of the Ten Commandments, the official one, with Aaron’s additions down at the bottom.

He arrests and cleans up a woman who’d started getting tipsy on life. She’s glad of it, and horrified about what might’ve happened, and she thanks him when he’s done. Her drab gray dress touches the ground as she curtsies. He’ll remember her sparkling smile for the rest of his life.

He wanders the streets of Respite looking for trouble to fix.

Then a stagecoach rushes by and almost hits him. He staggers back towards an alley. Hands are wrapping around his arms and mouth and they pull him back and in. He smells the reek of liquor before he shuts down his nose and tightens his sinus passages against the stench.

“Sid,” says Max.

“Let me go,” whispers Sid. “Let me go, Max. Won’t tell anyone you’re alive. Won’t do it.”

Max snorts.

“You would,” says the ale-man. “I know you, Sid. You’d turn me in in a devil’s second.”

Sid is briefly confused because he doesn’t recognize that unit of time.

Then he shrugs.

“Yeah,” admits Sid. “I would.”

There is darkness all around Sid, now. He’s in the alley world, in the booze-world, far away from the bright-lit city streets. Max lets go, shoving Sid against the wall.

“I want to give you a chance,” says Max.

Sid snorts.

“You can still live, Sid,” says the ale-man. “You can go over to the drunkard’s god.”

Sid looks Max over. Max looks pretty much the same, except his skin’s just a bit sloshy when he moves and he’s got great splitting horns like a stag’s.

“You’re a horror, Max. A heck of a thing.”

“Don’t you understand?” says Max. “I can save you. He’s a good god, the drunkard’s god. He’s better. He frees you.”

“No,” says Sid.

Sid spits to the side.

“You’re drunk. You’re evil. You’re everything we always swore we’d never be.”

“Sid,” says Max.

There’s a pleading note in his voice. “C’mon, Sid. Don’t be like that.”

“It’s never going to happen to me.”

Now Max’s eyes harden. Now he’s standing straight. “But it will,” he says.

He reaches for Sid. His ale-man’s hand seals over Sid’s mouth. There is the reek of alcohol all around Sid and Sid’s feeling himself going fuzzy. So he does the only thing he can.

Sid pours out Claire.

“Hi, Sid!” says Claire. “Hi, Max! Did you know that marijuana opens a gateway to the Most Terrible He—”

Claire pauses. She assesses the situation.

“Oh,” she says.

Sid is fading. He can feel his soul twisting. He is becoming drunk.

“I’ll save you!” says Claire.

She opens her wings. Godlight flares in the booze-world. It sears through Sid. It sears through Max.

“Crusty old fool!” says Max.

Sid smirks, through the fog.

“Whee!” shouts Claire, the power rushing through her.

It burns both Sid and Max to shreds.

Drunkard’s God: “The Wine-Ogre”

Sid’s a crusty old lawman. Claire’s his hip-flask angel. Max is dead.

Sid’s in an abandoned saloon. He’s poking around at a weird spot in the floor. Finally, he takes out his hip flask and opens it and pours out Claire.

“Hi, Sid!” says Claire. She’s a little tiny angel, six inches high. “Did you know that your brain on drugs is like a cracked egg?”

“Aye,” says Sid.

“Oh,” says Claire, somewhat deflated.

“I think there’s a trap door,” says Sid. “But I can’t find it.”

Claire spreads her wings. She’s a little tiny angel, but her wings spread two feet wide. Each feather is like a dagger made of light.

A distant Heavenly chorus sings.

Claire sweeps her hands forward and claps them together. Red light shines up from beneath the floor. It shines brightest in a rectangle around the trap door. Then with a cracking sound like melting ice, the trap door opens.

“Woohoo!” says Claire. She pumps her fist. “Score one for the team!”

Sid peers down the stairs into the darkness below.

“A hiding hole,” he concludes.

“Ooh!” says Claire. “Did you know that the drunkards made bolt holes like this everywhere back when they knew the cycle’d turn?”

“Claire,” says Sid, flatly. “I’m a lawman.”

Claire stomps her foot. “I never get to tell you anything. I’m supposed to be infotainment, but you treat me like I’m just a utility angel.”

Sid shakes his head, unable to respond. He shines a flashlight down below. There’s a scraping sound and he can just barely see someone ducking out of the light.

“What do you know,” says Sid.

“I know that when people take drugs, they turn into evil monsters and then explode!” says Claire.

Sid looks at her. “Back in the bottle,” he says, flatly.

Claire pouts.

“Come on,” says Sid.

So Claire crawls back into the hip flask and screws on the lid. Sid puts the bottle back on his hip. He descends into the darkness.

“Hey,” he says.

He holds out his hand.

“Hey,” he says. “You don’t have to be down here any more. It’s okay. There’s amnesty.”

He shines his flashlight where he last saw the person. He can make out shelves full of dusty old wine bottles and behind them someone’s heavily dilated eyes.

Sid crosses himself. He’s a little sickened at the sight of the wine. But the drunkard’s his concern now.

“Come on,” he says. “You don’t have to live like this. How did you even survive? Down here all these years with . . . nothing to eat or drink . . . but . . . the . . . wine . . .”

Sid’s feeling a little queasy now, and all his senses are heightened. He’s in danger. So he feels around at his other hip for his crucifix. He holds its silver edge in his hand. He begins to back towards the stairs.

The shelf falls over with a crash. Broken wine bottles splash the devil’s brew along the floor. Sid yelps, turns, and scrambles up the stairs. Behind him it comes.

It is not human any more.

It has horns and fangs and great gnarled hands and it is a wine-ogre.

“Bucking elbow,” swears Sid, as its hands close on him from behind and his elbow slams into its stomach. “Slam!”

Miraculously, he manages to wriggle free of the creature’s hands, reach the top of the stairs, and turn. The crucifix comes out into his hands. He brandishes it at the wine-ogre. He shouts, “Stop!”

The creature doesn’t stop.

So Sid fires. He thumbs the safety off on his crucifix and he fires. There’s an explosion of Godlight. It burns all around the creature. It sears half the wine-ogre’s face right off. It burns the creature’s shoulder and its hand. The wine-ogre roars and stumbles backwards and falls. It hits its head when it lands. It is unconscious.

So Sid waits a while, to see if it wakes up. When it doesn’t he crawls down to it and he says, “You’re under arrest.”

There’s no amnesty for ogres.

Sid puts the handcuffs on the wine-ogre. He shackles its legs. He attaches the handcuffs to a chain. When the creature wakes up he leads it up into the dawn.

The creature is whimpering and crying now. “Don’t want to,” it is saying. “Don’t want to. Don’t want to.”

“You’re going to the sobering tank,” Sid says.

“Not fair,” it sulks.

“It’s your own fault,” says Sid. “You’re violating the cosmic order, being a wine-ogre like that.”

“Wasn’t,” says the wine-ogre. “Was perfectly natural.”

“Was,” agrees Sid.

The streets are almost empty. No one wants to watch what’s going to happen.

“See,” says Sid, “I remember back before, when I was the evil one. When the drunkard’s god was on top of the cycle, and the teetotalers like me were feared and hated. But the cycle turned. It spun right over, and now we’re living in teetotaler’s world. That’s why I’m a crusty old lawman, not one of the sober-trolls. That’s why Max is dead. And that’s why I’m taking you down to the tank. So don’t you lecture me on the way things are. I’ve been on the other side of things. I’ve felt the weight of the wheel. I’ve earned my righteousness with suffering. Mine and Max’s.”

They walk past the bank. They walk past the general store. They walk past the stables, though nobody rides horses any more.

“Max’s,” says the wine-ogre. Then it giggles.

“Eh?” says Sid.

“Max ain’t dead.”

“What do you mean?”

Sid’s voice is sharp.

“I remember what happened to Max,” Sid says. “He slipped over to the drink, back when people thought that was okay. He went down to the saloon. He said, ‘boys, set me up with a drink.’ And they all looked at him. And he laughed, and said, ‘boys, don’t you get it? I’ve been wrong all along. All my long sober days. Set me up with a drink!’ And they stared at him. And they were silent and their faces were long and they threw him in the sumper and sumped out his water until he died.”

“Ha ha ha,” laughs the wine-ogre.

So Sid jerks hard on the chain and it falls to its knees and it scrapes them on the dirt of the street, and Sid glares at it and says, “Drunkard scum.”

It doesn’t say much of anything all the rest of the way to the sobering tank. It doesn’t say much of anything till they get there.

Sid spins the wheel on the top of the tank to unlock it. He kicks it open. There’s a great sucking sound as the seal breaks. He shoves the wine-ogre in.

That’s when it speaks again. That’s when it shouts, guttural, “He’s an ale-man.

It doesn’t have time to say any more.

There’s a sickening crunch far below.

Sid closes the top. He spins the wheel to seal the tank. There is the snap of gears and the humming of pistons.

The wine-ogre meets the fate given to the drunk.

Drunkard’s God concludes tomorrow, with “The Ale-Man.”

Awaiting the Reconciler

The lion stood outside Sid’s office building. Its tail lashed. It growled.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone let you out on purpose,” Sid said. He looked around him for sanctuary. There was no one else in the square. Behind the lion, the revolving door of the office slowly spun.

The lion padded forward three steps. Sid hefted his briefcase, pulled his arm back across his body, and then flung the case at the lion. It bounced off the lion’s hide, but the beast snarled and stepped back.

“I’d better go in and call animal control.”

Trusting in insouciance, Sid loped past the lion into the building. He made it into the circle of the revolving door before the beast turned and charged. Shoving forcefully against the glass, Sid managed a quarter turn before the beast followed him in. This was enough. Its claws scraped at the glass behind him. Sid waited until he could reach the lobby, then threw his weight against the door to slow and stop its turn.

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

Then he went up to his cubicle. He passed Max on the way, and Claire, and Saul. He waved to them.

“There’s a lion in the revolving door,” he said. “Don’t use the door unless you’re prepared to strangle the beast unconscious.”

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

“This is why I don’t walk to lunch,” said Saul. “If it’s not rain, it’s lions. But if I drive, then the lions can’t pierce my defensive metal shell.”

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

“Before the lion gets out and ravens among the cubicles.”

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

Then he reached his cubicle, sat down, and made his report to animal control. In the distance, he could hear snarls and roars. Then there was the clatter of a toppling swivel chair and the slowly fading mewing, coughing, and grunting sounds of Claire strangling the beast.

Sid sighed. Then he shrugged. He stared for a few minutes into his dharma box.

Sid hung up. He logged on to the system. Then he began to take calls.

Five of them proved irrelevant, in the broader story of Sid’s life.

The sixth did not.

“UDBI technical support,” said Sid. “This is Sid. How can I help you, Ms. Baker?”

“I’m only human,” said the panicked voice on the other end of the line.

The sound of Sid’s typing was like that of a heavy rain.

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid’s pinky finger came down on the carriage return with a loud crack. He was silent for a long moment.

“That shouldn’t ever happen,” Sid said.

Now his fingers were dancing on the keys. Dozens of charts and maps opened up on his screen, cascading from the background to the front.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” said Ms. Baker. “My car didn’t start. My room is a mess. I’m having petty thoughts, Mr. Sid.”

“It happens to all of us,” soothed Sid. “Even UDMI employees. Just hang in there until I can get your dharma system back online.”

He spun the mouse wheel. Convulsively, he stood up. “It’s not just you,” he said into the phone. “It’s your whole junction. I’m going down there to look at the lines. Can you call back, extension 833, if the problem isn’t resolved in twenty, thirty minutes?”

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

Sid frowned. He added, “Lock your door.”

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

That was his boss, Dr. Ezekiel Brown, emerging from a side hallway.

“Walk and talk,” said Sid. “We’ve got a whole junction down in Block 43.”

“Damn it, Sid,” said Dr. Brown. “You know you’re not supposed to head out on this kind of thing without my gnomic management wisdom.”

“It’s probably just a short of some kind.”

Dr. Brown held up a finger. “Operations involves preparing for the worst eventualities,” he said, “not the best.”

“A line that needs repair.”

“Soar like the eagle,” said Dr. Brown, “who flies without a net.”

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

“You’ll call?” Dr. Brown said. “I mean, if you need management?”

“I’ll call.”

Sid seized a toolbox from a shelf as he passed. He reached the elevator doors just as they opened and disgorged a tour guide and a set of guests; without pause, Sid turned smoothly for the stairs, flung open the door, and headed down towards the parking garage. Behind him, the guide was saying:

“There’s a Hindu story of a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his path back home. He said to each of his ministers and generals, ‘show me your erudition and your heroism—reduce this river’s flow!’

“And they couldn’t.

“But then one of the camp followers said, ‘River, sink low.’—”

The voice faded as the stairway door closed behind him. Sid reached the garage, got into his car, and drove to Block 43.

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

“Hi, honey,” said Sid. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

“There are now,” said Emily. “We aced all the standardized tests, so the teachers said we could establish an autonomous subterranean collective. Now we’re lurking in the caverns underneath the city!”

“They’re not caverns,” said Sid. “They’re access tunnels.”

Mole tunnels,” said Emily. “We tamed an alligator, you know.”

Sid laughed. Then he frowned. “Huh. The zoo’s in block 43; I hope the Animal Wrestler is all right.”

“Do you want us to check? We could tunnel under the city and emerge stealthily at the zoo!”

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

“Huh,” said Emily. “Leadership challenge. I’ll call you back. Love you Daddy!”

“You too, hon.”

Sid pulled over outside the UDBI satellite installation for Block 43, a small boxy building principally containing supplies, a junction box, and a mechanical console. Sid waved his hand over the handprint reader by the door, went inside, and began flicking switches and taking line readings. A frown slowly deepened on his face.

He flicked open his phone and hit a speed dial. “Doc?”

Doctor Brown’s voice was hopeful. “Sid! What’s up?”

“Can you get the police to evacuate people from block 43?” Sid asked.

“That bad?”

“The whole block is glitching all to Hell,” said Sid. “It’s worse than the 2016 incident, and I can’t find a reason for it.”

Doctor Brown nodded. “I’ll call back,” he said.

Sid opened the door and looked nervously around the street. The sun was bright. Pythons slithered companionably through the green grass. Birds chirped. There were no fires and no obvious looting, which seemed to reassure Sid.

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

“That was fast,” said Sid. “How did the leadership challenge go?”

“We struggled fiercely in the dim twilight beneath the earth! Drums beat vigorously! But then someone remembered that the zoo has baby goats, so we all decided to check it out, because, ooh, goats.”

“Congratulations.”

“We’re peering up at the zoo with our mole eyes now. I think someone’s been showing the animals the dharma boxes, Daddy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well,” said Emily, “mostly, the eerie cooperation of gazelle and panda in smoothly coordinated escape operations! But also the Animal Wrestler is floating unconscious in the alligator pen with little gifts piled around him like the gators wanted to honor a noble foe.”

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

“Daddy,” said Emily scandalized. “I’m eight.

“Well,” said Sid, “if your mole men aren’t up to it . . .”

There was a long pause.

“We’ll see what we can do,” said Emily. “But the autonomous underground collective disapproves of keeping animals penned. That’s our free mole spirit!”

The phone buzzed.

“Got a call in,” said Sid. “Talk to you later, honey!”

“Bye!”

Sid clicked the Flash button. “Yeah, Doc?”

“The police are on the way. Any progress?”

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

“It’s in perfect working order as far as I can see,” said Sid. “If you want to offer gnomic management wisdom, now might be the time.”

Doctor Brown hesitated.

“There was a Hindu story,” said Doctor Brown, “about a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his way home.”

“That’s not wisdom!” said Sid, scandalized. “It’s in our company manifesto!”

“He challenged his ministers and generals to lower the river,” said Doctor Brown, who wasn’t the kind of man to abandon a good story. “But it was an ordinary camp follower who solved the problem, saying, ‘River, sink low!’ And the river, which had ignored the entreaties of ministers, generals, and Kings, sank until she could cross it without wetting her ankles. Because, as low as her position was, she was perfect in her dharma. She knew who she was. She knew what she was there for. And because she had that power and that confidence, no force in the universe could stop her.”

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

Sid opened his mouth to speak, paused, and frowned.

“That’s a good point,” Sid said, after a moment. He poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. This somatized his internal attempts to evaluate the state of his soul. “I’m dharma-OK. The glitch isn’t affecting me. So I should be able to fix this.”

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

“Okay,” Sid said, “so here’s my theory.”

“Oh?”

“We look at the dharma boxes to center ourselves in our dharma,” said Sid. “To become like that camp follower. The boxes resonate with who we really are, down underneath, to help us reach our fullest potential. That’s why you have such a hard time finding reasonable opportunities for your motivational speeches—we’re already at our personal peak of excellence!”

“. . . Yeah,” sighed Doctor Brown, sadly.

“But the dharma boxes aren’t manifestations of a God-like universal will,” said Sid. “They’re machines. They’re mental and spiritual feedback devices, and the first versions were built by ordinary imperfect humans. Here’s what I’m thinking: what if there’s a global error in the design? Something pervasive and subtle, something that none of us can see because every thought we have is shaped by the feedback from the boxes? So that when I stand here, looking at the evidence of the glitch, I’m still unable to see it, because it’s something that can’t exist in the context of my world?”

Doctor Brown considered. “Something that heroes can’t solve, but ordinary people can?”

“No,” said Sid, after a moment. “It’s more a general philosophical problem with turning to external evidence to figure out who we are.”

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

Then he took out his dharma mini, set it on “Neutral,” and stared into its face.

Sid’s thoughts grew thick and full of error. Some of the glamour fell from his world. A seed of fear sprouted in his heart.

Grimly, he put the dharma mini back into his pocket and began to work.

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said Ms. Baker. “It’s been forty minutes.”

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

“I’m trying to figure things out,” Sid said. “But I’m off system myself.”

He leaned under the console, took off a panel, and stared at the wiring underneath.

“It’s terrible,” Sid said. “You know? I mean, it’s like I’m climbing a mountain, and there’s a cold wind blowing, and my fingers are numb and the picks are loose and there’s an evil goat and I could fall at any second and die.”

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

“Yeah,” she said. “There’s an evil goat outside my door too.”

“. . . baby goat, probably,” Sid said. “There was a zoo maintenance error.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe we used to live like this. I can’t believe being human used to be like this all the time.”

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

“Also,” said Ms. Baker, brightly, “you could get stabbed! By muggers!”

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

“Sheer blatant stupidity that you didn’t understand for years until one day you’re sitting at home and suddenly you realize just how wrong you were!

“Oh, God,” said Sid. “I remember those. Those were horrid.

They laughed.

“It’s actually the one thing that surprised me,” said Ms. Baker, after a bit. “I mean, when I moved to a UDBI district. That suddenly everyone got along.”

“Well, it’s natural,” said Sid. “I mean, you perfect people, and—”

Sid hesitated.

“I’d been expecting irreconcilable differences to remain,” said Ms. Baker.

“Yeah,” said Sid.

“It just seemed sound. That sometimes not everyone could have what they want at the same time.”

“That’s erroneous,” Sid said, distractedly. “I mean, in the formal theory of dharma boxes, it’s not so much that everyone gets what they want, as that people recognize that point beyond which they can’t have everything. They lose their connection to the basic human, mortal cruelty of the world.”

Sid frowned.

“But you have a point,” he said. He closed the panel, sat back, and said, “I’ll have to call you back.”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Baker. “I mean, for working, I mean, even when—”

“Only human,” said Sid.

It was still terrifying to him. His gestures were slow and clumsy. His thoughts were cold and confused.

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

“What would have happened to the camp follower,” said Sid, “if the river, confident in its dharma, had chosen to continue its flood?”

“That’s not possible,” said Doctor Brown.

“Pardon?”

“It’s basic dharmic theory. That part of our perfection that depends on others is also that part that we can expect from others. If a person and a river are in the world, then the limit of their dharmic excellence as they approach perfection is also in the world. The final perfection of all entities must coexist in . . . God, Nirguna Brahman, the Cantor-Deity, or what have you. Of course, this year’s models only really give an effective perfection around 98.3%.”

“Huh,” said Sid. “Then I have a theory.”

“Shoot.”

“The glitch isn’t a machine error,” Sid said. “It’s a dharma error. Something happened that meant that—to the limits of current technology—not everyone could be perfect at once.”

There was a thumping and a stampeding outside the satellite installation.

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding by on the back of a water buffalo. She had a length of cord wrapped through its mouth as a bit and was slowly, surely, exhausting its strength.

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

“But what kind of . . . ghoul could have needs so fundamentally incompatible with someone else’s that they couldn’t be 98.3% perfect at the same time without cascading system errors?”

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding past the other way. The water buffalo seemed to be tiring.

“I’m betting on the sharks,” said Sid. “But possibly an evil flamingo.”

Doctor Brown cleared his throat uncertainly. “Well,” he said. “I figure the thing to do for now is to lower the output on Block 43’s models. If there’s some kind of communications breakdown that makes it impossible for everyone to harmonize at 98.3, maybe they can coexist at 90, 95% perfection.”

“And in the long term?”

“In the long term,” said Doctor Brown, “as the technology of human perfection gets better, and whatever little quirk you’ve found here gets resolved, someone will just have to have a dharma that bridges the gap.”

Sid sighed. He took out his dharma mini. He set it on “Full.” He stared at its face.

“This could be most of the glitches we’ve been seeing,” Sid said.

“I suppose.”

“The little ones, I mean. They’re usually when someone new logs on to the system. When, maybe, reconciling their goals and desires makes for a little hiccup as the system strives to adjust to a new local perfection.”

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

“. . . what if there isn’t a person whose basic nature spurs them to smooth over the irreconcilable gaps between people?” Sid said. “I mean, what if things get worse, instead?”

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

“Sid,” he said. “Of course there’ll be someone like that.”

“Daddy!” shouted Emily, pounding on the door. “Daddy, I beat the water buffalo! With my fierce mole-like stamina!”

“It’s technologically inevitable,” said Doctor Brown.

Secret of the Sugar Pits

“No one really understands the tornato,” Sid says to Claire.

“Half tomato, half tornado—a whirling dervish of deadly nightshade death,” Claire agrees. “What are they doing here? Why do they kill? Where did they come from?”

Sid and Claire are driving through the heartland. They’re using their vacation to hunt down a tornato because they saw an amazing docudrama about tornato-watchers and thought it was incredibly romantic.

“Where did they come from?”

“Yeah.”

“No one knows,” says Sid.

They look out their windows for a while.

“I think we’re getting close,” Claire says. “Looks like a tornato seed over there on that broken truck.”

“Some people say that Tomato Man loved Hurricane Woman,” says Sid. “So that’s why Genetic Engineering Man combined them, back in the before time.”

Claire tries to beat that one. “Some people think that evolutionary pressures forced local tomatoes to emulate weather patterns as camouflage.”

I think that the Romans went looking for tomatoes to throw at Jesus,” says Sid. “And most of the tomato sellers refused them, but one man sold them tomatoes and God turned him into a tornato as punishment.”

Claire whistles. “That’s pretty good,” she says.

Tornatoes are a natural, normal phenomenon caused by the jetstream.

“I can see it!” Claire shouts, suddenly. She practically stands up in her seat, bumping her head on the roof, and points. “Tornato!”

They can see it.

“What’s it doing?”

“It’s just sitting there,” Claire says.

They drive closer.

“Oh,” swears Sid. “Those bastards.”

They park. They get out. They look at the tornato. It is whirling and wailing. It is caught.

“Easy there,” says Sid.

The tornato does not trust them. It whirls grimly. It sheds a cow to make itself more limber, just in case Sid and Claire try anything.

“It’s okay,” says Claire. “We’re here to help you.”

The cow lands. It totters for a moment and then begins to graze, ruminanting distantly on the uncertainties of life.

“It’s bad,” says Sid. He gets down on his stomach so he can inch closer to the tornato and see the trap it’s caught in. “It looks like a pit filled with sugar, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and cinnamon.”

“No pepper?”

“These poachers like their ketchup bland,” curses Sid.

Claire sighs. “Can you help it?”

“It’s too late,” says Sid. He backs away. “Look at it. It’s thickening as we watch.”

“Heinz,” sighs Claire.

So they get in their truck and they drive away.

“Maybe it’s not poachers,” Claire says. “Maybe it’s a natural part of their reproductive cycle.”

“Or the pit is made by ketchup antlions hunting their natural prey.”

“It could be that tornatoes are the cause of the sugar pits that litter Kansas, not the effect.”

“They could be the footprints of Shiva in his dance, sugar pits to drain the poison from the world.”

They drive on for a while.

“I miss objective journalism,” says Sid.

The Frog and the Thorn

She drives through the desert of frogs in the hot summer night.

The frogs are croaking: ke-kax, ke-kax. They do not like living in the desert but since it is named after them they feel a peculiar obligation.

The asphalt cuts a razor track through the long empty sands.

Her name is Claire and she is not fulfilled. She wears shoes but they do not make her happy. She also has clothing and a car and a pet hawk named Albert.

Albert soars high above, on his car leash. He screams: kea!

There are scrubs and little desert rats that hop just like in that movie about Sting. There is the giant tic-tac-toe board, standing on edge out in the middle of the desert, abandoned seven long years. The sticky felt noughts and crosses have fallen off. Some litter the desert of frogs. Others have been carried away by buzzards to line their nests.

There’s a little coffee shop at the outskirts of Spattle. It has bright neon lights and a sign noting, “NO SHIRT – NO SERVICE” and Claire pulls in out front.

“Yo,” says the waiter, a big burly man in slippers and rough clothes.

“Hey,” says Max.

Max is lean and he’s wearing black. He’s got a notebook and a cup of coffee. The coffee is cold. He sips: klurp, klurp.

“I’d like a cup of coffee,” says Claire.

The waiter sizes her up. His eyes linger on her shoes. Then he shrugs. “It’ll be $2.50,” he says. That’s the kind of place this is: it sells coffee that costs $2.50 a cup. And has little bits of grounds in it. Not much. Just some.

So Claire sits down.

“Nice shoes,” says Max.

“Thanks,” says Claire. She doesn’t really want to talk to Max but she finds herself talking anyway. “I bought them cheap from some exploited Filipino children who were loitering outside my house.”

Max’s voice is interested. “Really?”

“No,” Claire says. “They’re from Nordstrom’s.”

Max nods.

The waiter brings her her coffee. There is also a complementary day-old roll.

“Are you in a funk?” Max asks.

Claire blinks at him. “What?”

“There’s this whole self-referential literary genre,” Max says. “Spattlefunk. People come to Spattle and they’re in a funk. You kind of had the look like you’d read some, maybe, felt a little unfulfilled, thought you’d try it out.”

“No,” says Claire.

Max scribbles on his notepad. Claire sips her coffee, looking increasingly blank and confused.

“What, I mean, why?” Claire asks.

Max shrugs. “It doesn’t really work that way,” he says. “Spattle’s no better or worse than any other city for funks. But they’re good stories.”

“It’s not a theme,” Claire says. “Being in Spattle in a funk.”

“They’re mostly about subverting the dominant paradigm,” says Max. “They’re about people realizing they don’t have to do things the way everyone else does.”

Max pushes his foot forward so she can see it. He’s got fine little hairs on his toes and neatly-trimmed toenails. After a moment Claire realizes he’s barefoot.

“That’s my little funk,” he says. “Not much. But I got Louis sold on it.”

Louis turns away from the coffeemaker and raises his waiter pad in salute.

“Shoelessness,” says Max.

“I’m not really very interested,” says Claire.

Max grins. “Not many are. I mean, you go out there shoeless, you might step on a frog. Or a scorpion.”

There aren’t any scorpions in the desert of frogs. But you can still imagine them skittering on the shadowed ground: kittle-ik, kittle-ik.

“Oh, God,” says Claire, ignoring him. She just realized that she’s eaten maybe half of the roll without even really paying attention to how it tastes. “I shouldn’t eat this. I should save it for Albert.”

“Boyfriend?” asks Max.

“Pet hawk.”

“Is it serious?”

Claire laughs a little.

“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, it is.”

Claire drains her coffee. She puts $3.50 and her empty cup on the table and picks up the last half of the roll.

“See you,” she says.

Out in the parking lot, she thinks about it. Then she grins. It’s kind of a sad grin.

“What the hell,” she says.

She kicks off her shoes. She walks to the car. She holds up the roll for Albert.

Albert screams: kea.

He dives for the roll. He snatches it from her hand. He perches on the car and eats it greedily.

Claire walks around to the driver’s side. On her way there she steps on a frog. It croaks: ke-kax.

Then she steps on a long thorn. It drives deep into her foot.

“Gah!” Claire screams. She leans against the car and puts all her remaining weight on the other foot.

The frog croaks slimily: ke-kax.

The pain is terrible. But Claire is laughing.

It is the freest thing that she has felt in more than seven days.

Filibuster of the Sailor-Senator

Senator Saul travels in his sleek black car.

He drives through the streets of Washington, D.C..

Claire is in the back, next to the black package that holds Saul’s suit and his domino. Shades cover Saul’s eyes. There’s a cup of grape juice in the cup holder beside Saul.

“Do you think there’ll be trouble today?” Claire asks.

The shadows in the streets grow long. Words of poetry float by on the air. There is the harsh distant pounding of a drum.

“Yup,” Saul says.

Suddenly, the street signs all around Saul’s car indicate “ONE WAY” and they all point in at him.

“Aha,” says Senator Saul. “It must be a one-way sign demon!”

The creature that comes striding down the street has long stick-legs like an ostrich or a stick-bug. Its arms are thick long twisty metal, six feet of it, pointed at the end. It is bowed over and its color scheme is black and white and in many places it bears the legend, One way. It is crooning as it walks, crooning, “Saul . . . Saul! Saul, why do you hide from me?”

Saul brakes. He parks the car. He opens his door. “Stay here,” he says. He steps out. He closes his door. He looks up at the one-way sign demon through his shades.

“There you are!” cheers the one-way sign demon.

The presence of the faceless gods is thick in the air. Saul can almost see them, standing like giants above the city. Their grave regard fills the ether, and so Saul speaks.

The words pour through him. They burn him inside.

“Through this street flows the lifeblood of this city: its people, its power, its commerce, its joys. You who would disrupt this flow and turn it back upon itself, sacrificing the sublime city plans of Pierre L’Enfant in the name of petty diablerie—to you I can show no mercy. I summon the Senatorial Garb!”

The demon tilts its head to one side. It waits. It watches.

Saul strips down, calmly and methodically. He walks to the back of his car. He opens the door. Claire hands him the package that contains his Senatorial Garb.

The chaunting of the demon-lords in their hells is audible now. Under the pressure of the confrontation the membrane between Washington D.C. and the demon world has grown permeable and thin.

Saul pulls on his Senatorial pants. He puts on his Senatorial shirt. He shakes his hair into Senatorial resplendence.

“Now,” he says, “by the power vested in me as a United States Senator, I will teach you a lesson!”

There is a peace in his heart.

These words are sacred.

The demon bares nasty jagged metal teeth in a smile.

“Many months ago,” says the demon, “your ‘Senate’ implemented the Patriot Act, permitting federal agents unprecedented powers to destroy members of my kind without due process. For endless days I brooded in the dark, plotting my terrible revenge. Now I am here to show you a sign—”

The word is horribly emphasized, and Saul can feel the wordless appreciation of the faceless gods.

“—that you have traveled in the wrong direction. Oo hoo hoo hoo hoo.”

Its hideous laughter grates on Saul’s ears.

Saul calculates. He assesses the judgment of the gods. The instinct in his heart tells him that only Washington desires a drawn-out battle; the other three are hungry for blood and swift fire in democracy’s name.

Saul sculpts the power given to him in his hands. It forms a glowing energy sphere. A mandala of light blossoms behind him, writhing with demonic script.

“I’ll show you the power of the Subcommittee in Charge of Manifesting Spherical Chi,” snaps Saul. “I have broad procedural authority to dispose of trash like you!”

The chaunt of the demon-lords rings louder now; and Saul takes his power, and twists it, and sends it forth in a levinbolt.

The demon screams in fear, but the bolt does not strike.

It is Lincoln, not Washington, that has caused it to fizzle.

“Curses,” mutters Saul. Too late he remembers the Litany:

. . .honor ye Roosevelt with sword and bear
And unto Lincoln let your puns be prayers. . . .

“Oo hoo hoo,” whispers the demon, in relief. “One small senator cannot stand against me. Now you must face the justice of my claim!”

Saul is thinking frantically. One-way signs are plunging in at him from every side, their tips like metal daggers.

They do not reach him.

Senatorial Aide Claire, grown tall as a stoplight, her bangs shining with mystic energy, has grasped the demon from behind. She pulls it back, and it shrieks.

“Never in this land of love,” she grunts, struggling against its inhuman strength, “will a Senator of justice traffic with demons like you! Strike now, Senator! It’s the only way.”

“That’s not a pun,” protests the demon. “That’s not even real wordplay!”

Saul begins his invocation.

“Wait,” whimpers the demon. “No. I didn’t really—I thought—”

“In 1941,” says Saul, “John Borglum stole the faces of the gods for Rushmore. In 1971, John Dean opened the gates of Hell. In 2001, provisions of the Patriot Act created the role of Senator Domino, sworn enemy of all demons. He alone can command the Bear-Fires of Mammon, uniting the light of Roosevelt with the dark power of the demon-lords! Under subsection 360(b) of HR 3162, I hereby instruct the Bear-Fires to aggressively pursue this one-way sign demon’s destruction! Swiftly! Swiftly! In accordance with the statutes and observances!”

The faceless gods are satisfied. The Bear-Fires sweep down. The demon burns.

Saul leans against his car, spent.

“Senator Saul!” says a shocked reporter named Sally. “Was that—did you—”

Saul realizes his mistake. He tosses aside his shades and conceals his face behind his arm as he gropes in the backseat of his sleek black car for his domino mask. Only when it’s on his face does he turn to look at Sally.

“Oh,” says Sally, her tone redolent with affected ignorance. “It’s you, Senator Domino.”

“That’s right,” says Saul.

He faces the cameras. There are usually cameras, after an incident like this. He clears his throat.

“There are those who think that we as a nation have lost our way,” says Saul. “But this—this is my answer.”

The Senator Domino theme music is playing, piped in by unholy pipers from the distant regions.

“Imagine a world where there were no demon-lords,” says Saul. “No faceless gods. Only the brutal unmusical struggle of man against demon. Only the confusion of a thousand one-way signs, and death. It would mean nothing. It would be hollow and the corpses would be hollow and we’d never really know why.”

“Senator, do you agree with the demon’s contention regarding the Patriot—”

Saul holds up his hand. Sally silences.

“This is the point of all our struggling,” says Saul. “This is why we live. To make the speeches, to wear the fashions, to launch the mystical attacks that are sacred to our gods. Not to win. But to serve.

“And today—today, we have pleased them.

“Today we have sacrificed to the distant powers our blood, our strife, our sweat.”

Singers far away sing, “Senator Domino.”

Saul says, “Today we have made our actions unto them a gift. We have justified our existence, here, upon this world, man and demon alike. Take this and treasure it in your hearts. Today humankind and demonkind are worthy.

The calm regard of the faceless gods fills his heart with joy.

“This is not a partisan thing,” he says. “This is America.”

Then he gets back in his car and starts it up. After checking in the rearview mirror that Claire has snuck back into her seat, he drives away.

“Senator Domino!” cry the reporters.

He drives further away, and they do not follow.

After pulling around the corner into a conveniently unoccupied road in the middle of Washington, D.C., Saul removes the domino. He makes his way to the Capitol. He parks his car, gets out of his car, and walks with Claire into the building.

The sailor-senator is still on the floor, as she has been for seven days. Her filibuster continues.

“How long,” Saul asks Claire, “do you think she can keep that up?”

There are signs and sigils scrawled in the air all around the sailor-senator. They are glowing with the harsh light of her slow death.

“To let the words speak through you like that,” says Claire, “—it’s harsh, Saul. You of all people should know how harsh.”

The sailor-senator is ranting, “—those who would take the Patriot Act forward even one more year, I can’t show you any mercy!—”

“She gives her life for this,” says Saul.

“—ruining the lives of young people who only seek love and arguably terror—”

So he nods his head to her, and touches her shoulder gently as he passes, for all that they’re on different sides.

“—not about Iraq but about ‘I rock’—”

He will vote against her, when the time comes, but he loves her now.

Such is the honor done to those who please the faceless gods.

A Castle That Ceases to Move Soon Dies

It is told that there is a girl, and her name is Claire, and she lives in one of the castles of the seventh tier—that is to say, above the umbral depths of the first tier, where great shapes move in shadow; and above the twisty purple smoke of the second tier; and above, too, the gentle yellow mist of the third; above the fourth and its clash of blades; above the fifth and its great fire; and even above the sixth tier’s ocean and all its gentle waves. There, on the floating islands and atolls there are the castles of the Mere, and in one of them, in the creaking crumbling vine-wrapped stone castle they call Seferi, lives Claire.

Now it is said of Claire that she is under a shadow, and the reason for it is this: that she has seen a vision in her dreams of a boy, and he is clean-limbed and strong, and his eyes are bright, and she loves him—but he is unsuitable, for he resides not in Seferi but in the castle Adeille. And it is well-known by all whose opinions are worth the counting that a love between the residents of two castles is forbidden and in poor taste besides; generally, that is to say, doomed to failure of the most socially awkward kind. King Porphyre often tells Claire this. He is a rotund man in a buttoned coat, and he stretches and clucks like a raven, but even such a King as he knows better of these things than Claire, and of this superior knowledge he regularly reassures her, adding, “You must forget this boy; have no thoughts of him! If he is your destined love then you have no destiny at all.”

Then Claire bows her head, and her eyes glitter, and she says, “Your will, of course, my liege.”

It is so obvious in the modern day as to pass without comment that a castle that ceases to move soon dies, and the means by which the castles move is this: the Master of Hooks, whom in the case of Seferi is Claire, selects from the castle armoury a line. This line is oft-times thickly woven silk, and sometimes rope, though on occasion other types are best. The Master of Ropes and Connections hooks this line to the various blocks and tackles and other apparatuses of the castle; this is a complex and difficult arrangement, involving many slaves and servants and a good deal of math, and we shall not dwell on it here. Once the rope is secured, the Master of Hooks chooses a hook to go with it, keeping in mind the circumstances of the time and the arrangement of the rope as the Rope’s Master chose it. This hook is then set to the line and cast deep into the depths, past the waves and past the fire, past the blades and past the mist, down through the twisty purple smoke into the ebon depths of blackness beneath. There—need it be said?—something seizes the hook, something great and terrible, and begins to pull; and if the Master of Ropes and the Master of Hooks have done their jobs well, the castle stirs and its island stirs and they both begins to move. Then for a long time all is speed and jollity, until at last the great beast snaps its line and the castle drifts free; and then momentum will sustain it for some time before it is once again occasioned that the Master of Hooks should choose another line.

There are more hooks in Seferi than a mind such as yours or mine can conceive of. There are hooks of simple plastic and hooks of rusty iron. There are hooks made of books and hooks of spun-sugar. There are hooks that should not exist, such as the tooth of the great dentist devil-God, Asphokain, who has never existed and will never exist but whose tooth nevertheless sits in Seferi’s armoury. There are hooks that are simply notional and hooks that are more real than the castle itself. There is the hook of last resort, the great stone hook that not ten men could move, that not a hundred men should move, that will spell the end of many things if it is lifted from its spot; and there is the hook of the mariner Israfel that the Master must move frequently lest its stability court disaster. There are hooks and hooks in all their endless billions and even these words and numbers do no more than scratch the surface, do no more than give a taste of the tiniest taste of what Seferi holds—for a castle that ceases to move soon dies.

And yet it is known that today, in the morning, under a red and rising sun and puffy clouds, the castle is slowing to a stop; and for all King Porphyre’s clucking, Claire can find no hook that suits the day. “Not metal,” she says. “Not with such winds. Not plastic. Not ice. Not any manner of fire, paste, or sweets. No puppy hook. No hateful hook. Not Asphokain’s tooth today.”

King Porphyre walks back and forth among the castle’s hooks. He pulls one from the pile. He holds it up. Claire shakes her head.

“Surely,” says Porphyre, to his ministers, “the girl deceives us. She is angry that we’ve denied her the opportunity for love. She is derelict in her duties as the Master of Hooks and must be removed and punished, and this hook that I have chosen used to bait the line.”

But Minister Vermin in his rich brocade, he shakes his head. He says, “I know but little of the art of Hooks, but she is right in every respect I know.”

“Then what shall we do?” begs Porphyre. “What shall we do? Is it time to use the hook of last resort?”

And Claire looks at him, then, and the King is shamed. He looks down and his face is red and bright. He shuffles his feet. He coughs. He laughs a nervous laugh. For what he has said is not a thing that it is ever meet to say, if one is just a King, nothing more than a King, and speaking to the Master of the Hooks.

Yet the castle must not die.

The castle must not die: this hangs unsaid. Then Minister Vermin clears his throat. “Give us an option,” the Minister says.

Claire tugs on the line, a thing of thick black silk, and she wanders amidst the blocks and tackles.

“Is it my fault?” asks the Master of Ropes and Connections. “Have I set it wrong?”

Claire shakes her head. She thinks for a time.

“It’s destiny,” Claire says.

Claire stands at the edge of the island and looks down into the sea; and then, firm and resolute, she nods.

“Here is your option,” she says. “If it fails, you shall use the other.”

And Porphyre with his silence agrees.

Claire ties the line around her feet. She spreads her arms like an albatross’ wings. She dives. The line reels out after her, mile after mile of it, falling into the endless deep.

There is no doubt that Claire expected to be dead, for the sixth tier sea is eight minutes deep; but she is lucky, more than lucky, and twice she passes through pockets of air. She falls out of the sea and the fire burns her, but for all her screams, this pain is brief; to fall through fire is not slow. The blades of the fourth tier cut her deep; they lacerate her arms and legs. They seek her eyes but she defends them, and in this manner her sight endures. At last she hits the third tier’s mist and the second tier’s smoke, the two great clouds of peace and happiness; they are soothing and gentle, anodynes for torment, and there is peace in her heart as she falls on.

Far above, the line snaps taut. The castle, that had nearly stopped, begins once more to move.

“At last,” says King Porphyre. “At last!”

The island swings about. It races across the sea. And there is something else, a blot upon the horizon, that Minister Vermin is the first to see.

“Another island?” the Minister asks.

“Another castle!” swears King Porphyre.

The island of Seferi and the island of Adeille collide.

There are some who say that this is a thing of hope, and that even as Claire was bait, so was her boy; that in the belly of some umbral beast they meet at last, and there beneath the sea find love, in this joining pulling the lines of two castles taut and dragging them together in fervent chase. If this is so, there is none who can vouch for it; it is not proper in Adeille to speak of bait, or hooks, or the man who sets them, and if he sacrificed himself like Claire—well, we shall never know his name.

All we know is this: that these things happened.

That Claire is gone.

That a castle that ceases to move soon dies.

It’s Just That Easy: “The Baby”

Claire is pregnant. She doesn’t know what to do. She can’t afford a baby.

So she calls It’s Just That Easy!

“Don’t worry about it,” technician Jim assures her.

It turns out the baby is made of gold! He’s a long-eared Buddha statue baby. That happens sometimes in countries whose sculptors don’t know how to make Buddha statues properly.

But Claire calls back anyway. She’s kind of nervous.

“What is it?” asks technician Jim.

“My baby has three arms, and he doesn’t move,” Claire says.

“He’s made of gold,” Jim points out. “You couldn’t expect him to move.”

“That’s true,” concedes Claire. “But what about the arm?”

“Break it off and use it to pay the windfall tax,” Jim advises. “Then you’ll have a normal-shaped baby and you won’t have to face the complicated tax situations usually dealt with by people whose babies turn out to be precious yet freaky miracles!”

“Thanks, Jim!” says Claire.

It’s just that easy!