The Immensity of Love (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]


In ten thousand miles of dreams there is only one Max.

He stands surrounded by dream, lost in great billowing clouds of dream, lost in endless and infinite dream, one tiny speck of human in a surging sea.

The wind that rushes past has taken the skin from him, taken the bones from him, flayed him down to just that speck:

Max.

He is flailing in his bed but he does not know it.

His arms are casting about.

Then there is light pressing against the darkness, sunlight turning the insides of his eyelids into shapes, and he remembers his name.

Max.

There is a welter of blankets around him. There is cool air flowing through the room. His bones ache.

In his eyes there is sun.

He mumbles a complaint.

These days, when the sun sneaks in through the pinhole in his curtain, it’s personal. It’s not just an anonymous irritant or the wicked hands of fate. It’s Iphigenia, and she’s probably doing it on purpose.

She is a mischevious girl.

She’s a burning yellow heat.

She is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter when she is the sun but no siggort ever came out of Siggort Town just to be her friend.

“Gr,” he mumbles.

In his eyes there is sun.

Something nags at the back of his mind.

He doesn’t want to wake up.

He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s tired and unhappy but there’s some reason—

Ah.

Max opens his eyes.

There’s a horrible little thing on his pillow. It’s like a crocodile’s skull, only it’s got horns. Its dry and its white but it’s not dead. It’s looking at him.

“Right,” he says.

He reaches out his hand. He holds its jaws closed. With his other hand he rubs his own forehead.

“Martin warned me about you,” he says. “Sneaking in through the pipes and making bad dreams like that.”

The thing struggles in his hand.

Max looks wry.

“I feel sorry for you,” he says. “Coming to a place like this, a little thing like you.”

It’s a horror of living bone. It was probably eating his soul as he slept. But there’s never been a siggort who’d show up just because it said the siggort’s name. There never was a siggort who’d look so . . . so Sid at it when it smiled.

Aside from the numbing horror of it, it’s kind of cute.

So Max doesn’t kill it.

He takes his hat off his hat rack and hangs the horror there and puts his hat on it and then he goes to wash his face in the dinky blue bathroom that’s next to his room.

He doesn’t want to wake up, but there’s some reason—

And he looks at himself in the mirror and he thinks, Ah, right.

Of course he has to wake up.

Sid loved me.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

It is June 1, 2004.

There’s a knock on Max’s door.

Max has an image to maintain, so he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pushes a button next to the door.

On both sides of the door a BROODING light lights up.

He can hear from outside: “Aw, man!”

It’s Jane’s voice.

Jane’s like a self-arming nuclear bomb with independently mobile legs. She’s a six-year-old girl. But there’s never been a siggort that waited thirteen hundred years just so Jane could be born.

Max, sure.

That happened, with Max.

But not with Jane.

Max pulls on a white shirt. He doesn’t need pants because he sleeps in his jeans so he’s wearing them already.

He flops on his bed.

Jane gives him a full two minutes to relax, to think: maybe she’s gone away?

Then she knocks again.

Max stands up.

He opens the door.

Max brushes back his hair with one hand.

“It’s four in the morning,” he says.

“It’s ten,” says Jane, scandalized.

Max makes a gesture as if to indicate that he cannot be bothered with mundane details of timekeeping.

“I’m brooding,” he says.

“I saw,” says Jane.

Seconds elapse.

“What do you want?” Max asks.

Jane looks at him. She wrings her hands. Then she says what she rehearsed.

“It’s all right to fight,” she says. “But it’s all right to make up, too.”

“Ah.”

Max sighs.

“Come in,” he says.

Jane comes in. She pulls herself up on the spare bed, the one Max doesn’t use, the one all spread with a cowhide-colored quilt. Max flops in his desk chair, more or less directly in front of and below his hat rack.

What do I say?

“It is because of Sid that I can be here,” Max says. “It’s because he looked at me and saw something worth saving, worth rescuing, worth returning to the world. But I can’t make up with him.”

“It’s easy,” stresses Jane. “You just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you hug.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“You could make him a cake!”

Max looks for words.

“It’s Sid’s business,” he says. “Fixing it, I mean. It’s not mine.”

Jane gapes at him.

“See,” says Max, “if I was all, ‘we must make this right, I miss you, I hurt every day over this,’ then how’d Sid feel?”

“What?”

“It’d be like if the monster came to you and wanted you to accept his apology,” Max says.

“Oh,” says Jane.

Her mouth moves, like she’s thinking or trying to sound out a hard word.

After a bit, she says, “Sometimes I beat up Martin, or he dangles me by my feet or dunks my head in water, and then we make up.”

“Yes,” says Max. “You’re modeled after young primates.”

Jane giggles.

It’s a kind of unexpected giggle, as if the image in her mind is surprisingly silly.

“What?” Max asks warily.

“Like in Pokemon!” Jane declares.

Max narrows his eyes. He stares at her with his gunman’s gaze.

“You’re thinking of Primape,” he corrects, and she’s laughing too hard to stop him when he chases her out of his room.

It is June 1, 2004.

Max is alone.

Max feels alone.

He is surrounded by inhuman things, in a place beyond the boundaries of the world. If he thinks about it very carefully, even ten thousand miles of chaos is not so frightening to him as Jane.

Or Mrs. Schiff, that casual swallower of horrors.

Or Martin.

Or even the Roomba.

But he doesn’t have to think about it carefully.

It’s not necessary.

There’s no one but Max within ten thousand miles who’s ever had a siggort come out of Siggort Town just to love them, and the immensity of love makes everything else seem small.

(Migraine Filler)

or, how Jane and Martin save the world!

Jane works. She’s wearing a white suit and lab coat and she has a green visor. She is assembling a block of carbon with the perfect lotus nature.

The radio is staticking.

“. . . kissing sickness spreads from birds to humans . . .” it says.

Jane reaches over. She tries to adjust it.

“. . . millions taken ill . . .”

“Foo,” says Jane. “I’d hoped humanity would have longer before the next major outbreak of avian kissing sickness.”

Martin leans against the wall. He looks cynical.

“Humanity brought it on itself,” Martin says. “Overpopulation. Peak oil. Overuse of antibiotics. It is because we are not in harmony with nature that nature lashes out.”

Jane finishes assembling the carbon block. She drops it into a chute. Machinery all around her hums and flickers.

“It’s mostly ’cause birds kiss people a lot less often these days,” Jane says. “So people don’t get as much of an immunity.”

Martin wibbles a hand flatly.

“That too,” he concedes.

“We’ll have to hurry,” Jane says. “If this newscast is accurate, our artificial lips experiment is probably humanity’s last hope.”

Jane begins working on another block. She assembles carbon atoms that were laying about, teaching them the enlightenment that transcends time and space and then molding them into a cube.

Grudgingly, Martin goes over to an oscilloscope and stares down into its depths.

The radio crackles. “. . . helplessly kissing passersby like some romantic danse macabre . . .”

The oscilloscope glows.

“You didn’t punch in today,” Martin observes. Jane’s timesheet is one of many things visible in the oscilloscope’s depths.

“It’s not in my nature,” Jane answers.

“It’s company policy during emergencies that threaten the future of humanity,” Martin says. “You have to log all your hours. Otherwise you might wind up with unauthorized overtime and open them up for liability.”

Jane stomps her foot. “You missed my brilliant all-purpose excuse!” she says. “‘It’s not in my nature.’ Optionally, ‘at this time.'”

“It’s a pretty good excuse,” Martin admits. “It’s just, there’s no space for it on your timesheet.”

Jane beams triumphantly.

“And which of us designed the timesheet?” she says.

Martin scratches at the side of his nose. “Point.”

Jane finishes the second block. She drops it in the chute.

The machines hum.

A metal slot opens near Jane. A pair of artificial cow lips made from textured carbon and tofu thunk into the slot. Jane takes them out and studies them.

“Mschaw!” Jane says, pressing them in the direction of Martin’s lips. Martin fades quickly back to avoid kissing.

“Cow lips?”

“Cow lips!”

“Not . . . artificial human lips?”

Jane giggles.

“I used to know a cow,” she says. “I’d tell her: don’t give me none of your lip! But she’d lip me anyway! Now science has at last made cow lips redundant.”

“They’re certainly more humane than real cow lips,” Martin says.

“It’s a new era!”

“. . . kissing chaos at peace negotiations . . .” the radio crackles.

Jane kisses various things with the artificial cow lips, testing their tensile properties.

“You know it won’t work,” Martin says.

“What?”

“People who have kissing sickness don’t want to kiss people with artificial cow lips. They want to kiss them with their real lips.”

Jane studies the artificial cow lips.

“Even if—”

“Even if the cow lips integrate the perfect lotus of enlightenment,” Martin says.

“. . . huddled refugees streaming out of the cities . . .”

Jane thinks.

“What if we add a picturesque decorative flange?”

Character Profile: Jane

“I could be an anentropic zombie, ” Jenna proposes. “Instead of rotting, I’d grow ever more beautiful! And I could be a mime!”

“I don’t want you to be a mime.”

Jenna pretends to be an anentropic zombie trapped in an invisible box. “Look! I?m inside an invisible box! It’s a sealed system, so the order constantly increases. That’s my noncompliance with the principle of entropy at work!”
The Tunnels (I/IV)

Jenna has straight black hair to mid-back and dark brown eyes. If one assumes a birth in 1969, she would be 35 at present. She has the physical characteristics of the people of salt: a thin lower jaw, bordering on deformity; pointed ears; and a gray undertone to her skin, which is sandy in color.

Her mother is Tara; her father Ben; her brother Sebastien, the hero. Her last name is unknown.

In the early 1970s, the monster started looking for her. To evade him, she died, revived herself, and hid in the tunnels. The tunnels seem surprisingly populous, as she met Ninja Tathagata, Dukkha, Mei Ming, Vicious Lily, and Evasive A there, in addition to a number of giant spiders, demons, Duck, Boar, Cow, and Coyote. At some point, the monster found her.

In 1989, she was living in a cold place. The monster had renamed her Jane. She had a mother and a brother named Bob. Unhappy, she fled to the firewood world and tried to make her life there. It didn’t work, and sometime between then and now, Martin found her and remade her. He kept the name Jane.

“Let’s visit everyone in the universe and fix their lives!” Jane says.

“I’m busy,” Martin says.
Jane Confronts the Problem of Martin

In the histories, Jane has straight black hair to mid-back. She has dark brown eyes. She is six years old. She has some of the physical characteristics of the people of salt, to a lesser degree than Jenna: a thin lower jaw, slightly pointed ears, and a gray undertone to her sandy complexion.

In the legends, her age, color scheme, and degree of evident inhumanity varies. The chin, hair, facial expressions, and attitudes are the primary constants. She’s been a lot of different girls in the legends, but they’re all Jane. (The ears are explicitly round in most legends and pointed in a few. Your humble author would probably have made the skin and eye color consistent, but there’s fan art already in the works from a less complete description. One must hope that this ultimately inspires cool collages of Jane-girls in future works.)

In the histories, Jane attributes her nature to monster-inflicted wounds, but does not consider him the source of her being. She was waiting—until the last moment of Chapter One—for the wind to change, so that she could change the world.

Legends specifically featuring Jane are probably the best reference point for why the legends are important: even though they haven’t really “happened,” and even though Jane remakes herself a little for most of them, they’re the lion’s share of her life experience (as herself) to date. They’re also the clearest indicator of what she’s thinking about.

A list of Jane legends in Chapter One includes:
Two Great Tastes Scanning Things Stomping The Awa Classifying Things Jane’s Father
You won’t get much out of Dumping Glue on a Log, Avoiding the Use of Exclamation Points, and Static right now. That will change.

If there’s more you want to add, feel free to post it in comments, either now or over the course of the next chapter!

The Castle (III/IV)

The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.

“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”

“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.

“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”

“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”

“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”

Jenna swallows, and recites:

In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.

“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”

Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”

“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.

Jenna recites:

Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.

Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”

“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”

“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”

“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”

“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”

Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:

Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.

“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”

“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”

“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”

“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”

“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”

“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.

“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”

Jenna recites:

I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”

“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.

“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”

“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”

“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”

“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.

“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”

“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”

Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.

“What?” Coyote asks.

Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.