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.

The Raining Woman

This is a story of a long time ago. It was before planes and typewriters. It was before gum and rockets. It was before absestos contact lenses.

People were different then.

People didn’t need planes to fly, back then. They didn’t need typewriters to type. They didn’t need gum to chew.

They did it all with the undivided power within them.

The dissolution came later.

People got limits later.

They didn’t have them, back then.

Sky was a woman. She wasn’t the sky. It was just her name. Most people called her Incredible Sky, because she was pretty incredible, just like you and me.

Sky wanted to go into space.

Now, a lot of people wanted to go into space back then. There was Morgan, who flew into space and then blew up. There was Irene. Irene flew into space, and maybe she got where she was going, and maybe she didn’t. No one knows. No one heard from her again. There was Skip. Skip flung her puppy into space and then was very sad, because she didn’t have a puppy any more.

(We could all learn a lesson from Skip about throwing puppies into space.)

People were different back then, but mistakes—mistakes were still the same.

Sky had an idea. “If I hold my arms out like this,” she said, “I can probably get to space and back.”

She held her arms out like one does, when flying into space.

Sky gathered her friends Storm and Skitter. They held their arms out just like that. They flew into space.

Now space has lots of dangers. There are the aliens and the asteroids and the cosmic rays. It’s the cosmic rays that got Sky.

“I’m raining,” said Sky.

That’s what she was doing. She was raining down over the earth.

There was Makemba, tending her fields. She looked up. “Fantastic!” she said.

But Achta, chewing on a bit of grain, corrected her. “Incredible.”

Incredible Sky rained down.

There was Reonet, herding alligators. It’s hard to herd alligators. Sometimes they’d eat her hand. But it would always wriggle around so much in their throats that they’d have to spit it back out and it would squirm back to Reonet.

“River’s going to flood,” said Reonet.

Incredible Sky rained down.

Camilla looked up. “I fear no rain.”

(Later, Camilla drowned.)

For days and nights Sky fell. Her body never stopped the raining. That was the power the cosmic rays gave her.

Dove came to visit Sky, up in space.

“Hey, Sky,” said Dove. “You’re going to kill everything. Every plant. Every animal. Every person. That’s not appropriate for a member of our society.”

“Can’t help it,” said Sky, tersely. “Cosmic rays.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dove.

So Dove fought the raining woman, high above the earth. Dove tore at her with hooks and claws. They fought until Storm couldn’t watch any more. Storm knew it was right, what Dove was doing, but she sobbed and flew to Sky’s defense anyway.

Storm burned with a terrible fire.

The light of Dove’s eyes seared everything she looked at.

That was the cosmic rays. Those were the changes they’d made.

And Storm couldn’t win in the end. She got pinned in Dove’s gaze like a bunny in a snake’s. And she died. And Sky died. And that was the end.

Dove came down.

Dove told everyone else, “The rain’s over. But I’ve got to go. I can’t stay. Because I’d burn you with my eyes.”

So she left. She flew into space, where the cosmic rays are, where the dust is, where the void and the aliens are, and she never came back.

Nobody knows what happened to Skitter. That’s a hole in the story, no denying it, but it’s the way the story has always been.

Now, this was a long time ago. People didn’t need asbestos contact lenses back then, and I guess Dove could have made her eyes fireproof, if she chose.

But what’s the point of choosing if you don’t take the consequence for each choice?

She flew away, and she stayed away.

Maybe she loves it there, in space.

Maybe she’s dead.

No one’s heard from her again.

Flood

The antelope race beside the Ark.

The waters are glassy, sometimes, when the rain slows down. They are rich in color. The hoofprints of the antelope are like the dents of great raindrops.

The antelope have wide feet and a powerful light foot technique. For seventeen days they keep their balance on the water. Yet slowly, as the days pass, they sink deeper and deeper into the shining waters until at last they drown.

“There’s no room for the hippos,” Ham says. “We’ll have to eat them.”

“No eating the hippos,” says Noah.

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “There are those birds,” he says, “that fly into your urethra when you’re peeing and nest inside your crotch. We could eat them.”

Ham considers that.

“Okay,” he says.

The seven-limbed howlers struggle upwards from the cities below. They flail. They howl. They reach the surface and fill their great and terrible lungs with air. Then they sink, again, slowly, pathetically, and hoard their energy for the next long breath.

The eagles circle tiredly in the sky above.

Shem and Ham descend into the Ark.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Shem believes, the density of packed animals becomes asymptotically infinite. But they do not need to go that far.

“Good sheep,” says Shem, passing a sheep.

“Good cow,” says Ham, passing the cows.

“Good crocodi—BAD crocodile!” says Shem. Shem brandishes his broom at the crocodile. It reluctantly turns away and snaps its mouth closed. It slithers deeper, slithers down, its long green body vanishing under a cluster of chickens, wrens, doves, owls, game hens, and wildebeests, and it is gone.

“Good hippo,” says Ham, grudgingly, as they pass.

The urethra birds are not very far down. They are good at gaming the ecosystem for maximum advantage. But it does not save them now.

“Bawk!” proclaims one urethra bird, startled, as Ham grabs it around the neck.

“Ch-caa!” declares the other, in some distress, as Shem seizes it in turn.

The axe descends.

“It’s natural selection,” says Noah, as he chews on a leg. “Those that do not please me, die. Evolutionary pressure driven by the seething core of the Ark will inevitably create a new generation of animals better suited to the exigencies of my desires.”

Days and nights pass.

In the third and fourth weeks, great clusters of ostriches swim by.

The ostriches are not happy with the rain. United, they are strong. Solitary, they are weak. But the rain and flood tries their solidarity.

One by one, ostriches commit social errors.

One by one, the clusters drive them out.

The stragglers are easy prey for the sharks, the icthyocampi, and the cold.

“I wonder if Mr. Sills is still alive,” Shem says.

“He’s got to have drowned by now,” Noah argues.

“I know some of them were trying to build cities in the deep,” Shem says.

Ham walks out and stares down at the water.

“It’s weird,” says Ham. “To imagine all the people we knew, down there.”

“Freaky,” Japheth agrees.

“Cold and blue and drowning.”

“It’s because God didn’t like them,” says Shem. “I mean, as much as he liked us.”

The sheep goes, “Baa.”

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

They quickly hurry the sheep back into the hold.

“Can we eat the sheep?” Ham asks.

“No,” says Noah. “Sheep are good animals. That’s why it made it all the way up.”

“The hippos?”

“No eating the hippos.”

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “Isn’t there some kind of animal that lives mostly on the brains of dead people?”

“Worms?”

Noah shakes his head. “Besides those.”

“Cranium beavers?”

“Yeah,” says Noah. “Those. We can eat those.”

Ham and Japheth descend.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Japheth suspects, the animals are unable to survive in solid form but instead revert to their natural plasmic state.

“It’s hot as God’s spankings down here,” says Ham.

“Shh!”

“What?”

“No blasphemy. We’re on the Ark.

There is a creaking, clunking noise, as the sea serpents of God beat warningly upon the vessel’s side.

“Right,” says Ham, sweating. He looks sideways. “Good oryx.”

By the eighteenth sub-basement of the Ark, Ham and Japheth are forced to carve their way through the animals to make room for their passage. Thus dies the bulwark buffalo, the crowball, and the cave goat. Thus dies the ghoul, spoken of in legend, and the icy blue beast in whose image the Slurpee was made. Thus dies the elephant and the fungal turtle.

“Here,” says Japheth.

The cranium beaver skulks defensively behind its dam of skulls, but this primitive instinct cannot save it from the knives of Noah’s heirs.

“Good sheep,” says Japheth, on the way back up.

“Baa,” insists the sheep.

It’s so adorable that even Ham has to scruffle the sheep behind its ears.

The rhinoceri have gone feral, long, and lean. In the distance, as the sons of Noah eat, they watch the primal battle between rhinoceros herd and megalodon, under a sky full of storms. The waves of that battle rock the ship, and the sinuous shapes of the rhinoceri lash and shimmer and in the sea.

“They’re winning,” says Naamah, in some surprise.

“There’s just a chance,” says Noah, in satisfaction, “that the megalodons’ll be another casualty of this rain.”

“I’ll tell the others,” says Japheth.

So he goes to the speaking tubes and calls down into the depths of the ship, “Let the rhinoceros be informed that their kind still live, under the sea.”

And up comes the honking, and the bleating, and the wailing, and the howling, and the hissing, and the chirping, and the long pleased snore of the happy shipboard rhinoceri.

“That means we could eat them,” says Ham. “I mean, the ones we have here.”

“No eating the rhinos,” says Noah.

“Fine,” sulks Ham, crunching on a barbecued cranium beaver leg.

The last of the scissor-beaked night terrors drowns that day.

“Look!” cries Ham, one silvery morning.

“What?”

“Elephants! The elephants didn’t die out after all!”

Noah rubs his chin. “There’s no reason we can’t take another female on board to replace the one you carved through.”

“Right on!”

Shem and Ham operate the elephant crane to retrieve a backup elephant from atop Ayers Rock.

“Baa,” the sheep remarks, conversationally, as it watches.

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

Naamah and Japheth hurry the sheep back into the hold.

Days and nights pass.

“I can see them far below,” says Japheth, later that night. “All the people I ever hated.”

“Are they trying to tame sea horses?”

“They’re dead, Dad. They’re moving in great drifts through the night.”

“Baa,” mourns the sheep.

“Animal on—”

Noah laughs a little and stops halfway through the sentence.

“Oh, let it be, I guess,” he says.

The sheep looks down into the water, at the hills and dales of Scotland-under-the-Waves.

Flick!

A fish-tailed sheep skims to the surface of the sea.

For a long moment, the land-sheep and the sea-sheep look into one another’s eyes.

Flick!

The moment is gone; and the two sheep go, in their respective elements, below.

In such manner as this: running, swimming, struggling, serving, seething, mourning, and loving does the world survive the rain.

(Not all the way better) The Passion of the Joy Thing

The joy thing is shaped like a fuzzy barrel: white, fluffy, and stout. A cowboy hat is canted on its head. A trenchcoat flutters about it. Its deelyboppers wobble.

“. . . it is an embarrassment to Washington,” seethes Cabinet Member Steve, “that such a thing should represent us. In the minds of the world, it is an American symbol, an American thing, because it chooses to fight for us. We are disgraced.”

“Perhaps,” says the President, folding his hands, “we can shoot it into the sun.”

“If we only could!” cries Cabinet Member Steve.

This is the hoary, dusty temple of the crocodile god. Susannah sprawls on its altar. Seventy worshippers in robes surround her, chanting profound and foul spells. The doors are great stone slabs, marred by weather. The walls are rimed with vines. The leader of the cultists lifts his knife and catches the light with it, his eyes growing sterner as he readies himself to bring it down.

BANG.

The doors slam open wide. Beyond them is the evening sky, the forest ground, the fading sun. In them, wrapped in a numinous limning of gossamer light, the joy thing stands.

“It’s not nice to stab people without permission,” says the joy thing.

Its trenchcoat flutters in a strange and sudden wind.

The head cultist looks up. He snarls behind his hood. He says, “It is godly and sacred, however. If you happen to worship the crocodile god. Which I do.”

The joy thing unlimbers its hat. The head cultist’s hands clench around the knife. The joy thing hurls the hat. It spins through the air and raps the knife from the head cultist’s hand.

Then cries the joy thing, “Alasta pampilenen!”

The heat of joy and brightness fills the room, and the chaunts that were chaunted to the crocodile god are chaunted no more.

The Embassy for Things stands beside the Canadian Embassy. Reporters seethe outside its door. The necessity thing comes out.

“Ambassador,” cries one reporter, “do you have a statement on the joy thing affair?”

The necessity thing’s voice has the sound of scratching chalk. “We do not consider the allegations against the joy thing substantive, but we are cooperating fully with Washington’s investigation. We have taken America’s request for a withdrawal of the joy thing’s diplomatic immunity under consideration.”

The great Nazi airship drifts ponderously across the sky. Its sides are blazoned with the symbols of the Reich. Its belly is swollen great with bombs.

The pilots are kicked back in their seats. One is halfway through a joke. “The second says, ‘The queen, she is impenetrable!’ And the third shakes his head vigorously. ‘No, no! That’s not it! She is impregnable!'”

This is translated from the German for your benefit, as the pilots laugh.

There is a thump. The joy thing has fallen from a biplane onto the window in front of them. It is hanging on to its hat with one hand and to a hook imbedded firmly in the glass with another. It smiles to them.

“When people ask you to be a Nazi,” it says, “just say no!”

There is a long frozen moment. Then, suddenly, both pilots are on their feet.

“Emergency! Emergency!” they shout in translated German. “It’s the joy thing!”

Joy and brightness wash over them.

The explosion of the zeppelin can be seen for more than one hundred and fifty miles. The pilots and the passengers drift down on their parachutes like so much tiny soot.

“What will happen to it?” asks the necessity thing.

Agent Pullet shrugs. “Its adventuring will be . . . curtailed.”

One thuggee is strangling Mr. Jenkins. The other is strangling his omelette. Thuggees like strangling things.

“Please,” whispers Mr. Jenkins. “Please, I have a family.”

“Ha ha,” laughs the thuggee. “We will send them your head!”

“And these hashed browns,” says the other thuggee. “I don’t like Denny’s hashed browns at all.

“Please,” says Mr. Jenkins. Then his eyes close and he sags back.

A waitress approaches. She is carrying a silver tray. On the tray is the joy thing.

“Kali save us!” cry the thuggees, strangling cords falling from their hands.

“You shouldn’t play with your food,” declares the joy thing. “Alasta pampilenen!”

The food at that Denny’s is surprisingly good, even today.

“I don’t understand,” says the joy thing.

“You are requested,” the lawyer thing says, “to appear before the secret tribunal in seven days. If you don’t, you will be hunted down, locked in a box, and thrown in a volcano, in accordance with the terms of the Compassion and Conscience Legislation.”

“Helltrousers,” the joy thing slowly blasphemes.

The kitten is drowning. It is sinking beneath the quicksand and drowning.

“Take my hand!” shouts Angus. But the kitten can’t hear him, doesn’t understand, or possibly just doesn’t have the strength.

Angus lets out a little more line. He inches closer to the kitten. His line snaps. Angus and the kitten go down.

There is a silence.

Then they are rising, the three of them, Angus, kitten, and joy thing alike, rising through the quicksand and muck. The joy thing has puffed into a giant fuzzy ball, increasing its buoyancy. They cling to its fur.

“Sure is a good thing you were swimming around in that quicksand,” Angus says. “This kitten and I might have been goners!”

“Don’t play in quicksand,” the joy thing says.

Then it turns. It walks away.

“Hey!” says Angus. “Hey! Are you okay? You didn’t do that, um, that alasta thing.”

The joy thing is gone.

“I have done only good,” says the joy thing. “I have sought only justice. It is not my fault that my public image is not suitable for your cause.”

“In these days,” says Agent Pullet, gently and heavily, “a thing is not a thing, but what others see in it. You will be fired from a cannon into the heart of the sun, in accordance with provision 81 of the CCL.”

“Fudgeweasels,” swears the joy thing, unable to find the words to convey the immensity of its feelings, scatology and blasphemy alike deserting it in this moment of its greatest need.

They load the joy thing into the cannon.

They swivel the cannon to face the sun.

“The sun isn’t a toy,” says the joy thing. “Don’t shoot things into it!”

The cannon fires, and that is the end.

Sometimes, when the sun is shining, remember the joy thing. It is still up there. Its deelyboppers are aflame. Its fur is burning. It is not alive and so it cannot die, and it loves you.

It would wish you well.

(Fourth of July) Explaining The Decision to Waste Perfectly Good Tea

It is the Boston Tea Party.

It is December 16, 1773.

Captain O’Connor hefts a tomahawk. He looks at a chest of tea. It is a snake’s glare, a tiger’s glare, a shark’s glare. It holds the chest paralyzed. Then, as he begins the swing, its stasis breaks.

“Wait!” cries the tea chest.

Captain O’Connor hesitates.

“I am a magic tea chest!” it says. “If you will not cut me open and throw me into the harbor, but instead take some of my precious tea and line your coat with it, I’ll grant you any wish your heart desires!”

Captain O’Connor thinks. “What if I wanted solid silver pants?” he asks.

“All the pants of your hearts desiring!”

“Or a crocodile?” he says, testingly.

“An alligator would be more appropriate to the clim—”

Captain O’Connor hefts the axe.

“Yes, yes! A crocodile!”

Captain O’Connor hesitates. “I suppose it would do no harm to allow myself a little tea,” he says. He opens the magic tea chest. He stuffs his pockets. He lines his coat. He becomes great and ponderous with tea.

“Thank you,” whispers the magic tea. “Now, run!”

Like the great graceful buffalo he runs. As he leaps from the vessel, George Hawes grabs his coat; but the hem of the coat rips away in Hawes’ hand and Captain O’Connor is away. He flees. George Hawes sets up the hue and cry: “Hue!” he cries. “That man takes tea from Boston Harbor!”

Every head on the dock turns. As Captain O’Connor runs, they strike at him. He takes a punch to the gut, a kick to the leg, a blow to the head; he is staggering and weaving as he reaches the end of the docks. There he sees the great humanoid robot of the colonists, Patriot, its eyes glowing a dark and simmering red. Its laser flintlock points at his chest.

“Magic tea!” the human cries. “Don’t fail me now!”

He leaps, a great bound, as the laser flashes forth, and it is as if he has wings. He lands, coat fluttering about him, on a nearby roof. He orients himself. He runs. He leaves the harbor, clogged with tea, behind him. He runs like the wind. He does not stop until the scent of the air tells him he’s entered Virginian land. Then he sits, heavily, by the road.

“Ah,” he whispers to himself. “It’s too harsh. All I wanted to do was to save the magic tea, but now Patriot will hound me till I die.”

“Fear not,” says the tea. It rustles all around him. “I will preserve you, in the name of British sovereignty. You will be my agent, and I will be your god.”

Captain O’Connor frowns.

“Your wish-granting god,” the tea clarifies. “The god that holds exactly those opinions most beneficial to you, and gives you generous magical favors from Heaven and/or your coat.”

“Ah,” he says. “And the British sovereignty?”

“It is of no matter,” says the tea. It rustles magically. Captain O’Connor finds that his pants have become solid silver.

“Oh!”

“They are nice, are they not?”

“They shimmer so pleasantly! I feel that I am at last the equal of that strutting Hancock.”

“Oh, you shall be that,” says the tea, “and more.”

“He has a magic pen, you know.”

“The pen of John Hancock cannot compare.”

“If he stabs you with it, you bleed and die. Even if you’re a rock!”

The tea thinks for a while. “Are you hinting,” it asks, “that you want a magic pen?”

Captain O’Connor looks at his pants. He looks at the tea. He hesitates. Then he shakes off the temptation. “I want a fine house,” he says, “and riches.”

“Done,” says the tea. Captain O’Connor moves into the house. He makes a special garden for the tea. He lives in wealth and pleasure. Yet it does not content him.

“The tree of liberty must be watered, from time to time, with a patriot’s blood.”
— Nimue

It is March 23, 1775.

“Magic tea,” Captain O’Connor says, “if you are in fact my god, and the god of my ancestors, then surely you will grant me one more request.”

“Of course,” says the tea.

“Well,” Captain O’Connor says, “this house is very fine, as you are yourself, but if I were a royal official, then I would be exempt from prosecution.”

“That’s true,” the tea says.

“So I was thinking,” Captain O’Connor says, “that if you could make me a royal official, then I could do whatever I wanted and I wouldn’t be accountable. That’s my next wish!”

“Lo!” says the tea. “If you go outside, you will see that you no longer live in an ordinary home, but the home of Official O’Connor!”

Official O’Connor goes outside. He looks at his home. “Why, so I do! And so I am!” He rushes back inside to inform the tea.

“You do, of course, have duties,” the tea says.

Official O’Connor says, “That’s how we’re alike!”

The tea hesitates. “That was a bad pun,” it says. “It makes me hurt inside. I am tempted to withdraw the wish.”

Official O’Connor strikes a pose. His silver pants flash compellingly. The tea can’t remain angry at him. No one could!

“As an official of the crown,” the tea says, after a bit, “you will be expected to take action to preserve its power in the colonies.”

Official O’Connor waves a hand airily.

“You must return to Boston,” the tea says, “and open the way.”

O’Connor peers at the tea. “You know,” he says, “I think you’re evil.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” he says, “it seems very easy for you to justify away the human element of the lives you’re trampling.”

“. . . the Bostonians?”

“I want to strut in my shiny silver pants,” O’Connor says. “I don’t want to go to Boston and work. Yet I don’t think you care. You’re tea! You’re cold. Until and unless people pour boiling water over you. Even then, you become cold again with the application of ice—or if you sit out too long!”

“Ah,” says the tea. “If that is evil, then yes, I am evil.”

“I thought so!”

“I could hardly help it,” the tea points out. “It is the nature of power.”

“Oh.”

“On the other hand,” the tea notes, “if I am your god, then it is my right to ask you for martyrdom.”

“And if you are not my god?”

The tea hesitates. “I’ll give you a crocodile.”

“It has to be shiny and silver,” Official O’Connor says. “Like my pants.”

“That’s not a crocodile,” the tea says. “I don’t know what that is.”

“Don’t quibble!” says Official O’Connor, in anguish.

“Fine.”

“Then I’ll go to Boston,” Official O’Connor says. “And I’ll open the way.”

He walks outside. He walks aimlessly for a while. Children throw clods of dirt at him, because he’s an official of the crown. He throws rocks at them, for similar reasons. They run away, both parties satisfied with the exchange. He passes outside St. John’s Church, and listens to the words within:

“Gentlemen,” says Patrick Henry’s voice, “may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!’ — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Official O’Connor looks up at the sky. He waits. Then he grins, a bit lopsidedly.

“Forbid it as you like, oh American God. My tea will serve me well.”

He goes home. He stuffs his pants and coat with tea. He walks to Boston. He does not rush.

“If they want a war, let it begin [in Lexington].”
— Merlin

It is April 18, 1775.

“Under this town,” says the tea, “there is a gate. We will open it. The British will come through.”

“Wouldn’t they come on . . . ships?” Official O’Connor asks.

“Well, yes, normally,” the tea says. “But we’re trying to be subtle.”

So they go to the basement of the printer’s shop; and to the sub-basement; and down; and down; and down; to the lake of blood.

Official O’Connor dips his finger into the lake of blood. He tastes it. “It’s fresh,” he says.

“It doesn’t connect to the sea.”

“I’m thinking,” says Official O’Connor.

“Oh?”

“Well,” he says, “this is an awful lot of work for an ordinary official of the crown to go to. But if you really are my god, the creator, the lord of all things in Heaven and Earth, then you could grant me another wish. I mean, a small one.”

“Perhaps,” indifferents the tea.

“I’d like, you see, to be King.”

“You’ve got pants, a pension, and a crocodile,” snaps the tea.

“Well, yes,” admits Official O’Connor, “except in that I haven’t actually seen the promised crocodile as of yet. But what good is any of that? The King could issue an arbitrary order and take it all away. He could confiscate my pants!”

“King George has no interest in your pants,” notes the tea.

“He would if he saw them,” Official O’Connor says. He poses. He glints. The tea can’t help but admire him.

“Granted,” it grinds out.

“So, really, if I don’t have the Kingship, I don’t have anything.”

“Very well,” sighs the tea. “You’re now King of the British Empire. I have taken the liberty of anticipating your next request; the magna carta is hereby abolished.”

King O’Connor beams. “That’s wonderful! I’m an unquestionable dictator!”

“Yes,” says the tea. “But now you should open the gate.”

“Where is it?” he asks.

“It’s under the lake,” says the tea. “If you dive down, you’ll find it. It’ll let the British back into the world.”

“They’re in the world,” King O’Connor notes. “I mean, they’re on the other side of the sea, sure, but—”

The tea rustles vigorously, cutting him off. “The native British,” it says. “Those who have waited in exile from the world, bound by their oaths to Merlin, starving, sallow, steeping in their anger, yet bound to answer three times a threat to English rule.”

King O’Connor makes an intuitive leap. “You’re not ordinary tea,” he says. “You’re some kind of magic!”

There’s a long silence.

“In any event,” he says. “So I hold my breath, dive into the lake of blood, and find a gate, which I wrest open and free the British, who will then bloodily subdue the colonies and preserve my undiminished suzerainty over all these lands?”

“Yes,” the tea confirms.

He takes off the coat. He sets it down. He dives. After a while, he surfaces. “I haven’t found it yet,” he says.

“Ah.”

“You know,” he says, “I could be more than King. I could rule the whole world. You know, if you’re really my god.”

“Alas,” laments the tea. “If you’d only asked earlier. But this damp atmosphere is diminishing my power. It’s causing me to steep! You’d best hurry, while I still have the power to keep you a King!”

“Oh!” King O’Connor says. “I’d best!” Then he dives.

After a while, he surfaces again. “Tea!” he says. “I could, you know, relocate you to a dryer place?”

Only hollow mechanical laughter answers him.

“Tea?”

He panics. “TEA?”

Clinking, clanking, clonking, Patriot walks down the stairs. He points his laser flintlock at King O’Connor.

“Surrender, oh British King,” he says. “My mercies are not tender, but they are preferable to my justice.”

“Curse you, American robot!”

“It is I who should curse you,” Patriot says. He stands on the lowest step, just inside the lake of blood. “You are evil, O British King, and you have wrought untold suffering on this land.”

“Technically,” King O’Connor points out, “that was my predecessor, King George. I’m more of a happy go-lucky King, likely to be a great friend to the colonies.”

“He protests his humaneness and compassion,” says Patriot, “while swimming in a lake of blood.”

King O’Connor sulks. “What would a robot know, anyway?”

He dives.

“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” Patriot laughs mechanically. “Your feeble human lungs cannot breathe blood forever!”

King O’Connor dives deep. At the bottom of the lake, he finds it: a heavy stone, set in a pentagram, seal of the British army.

He bobs to the surface. Patriot’s laser parts his hair. “Wait!” he cries.

“What is it, O British King?”

“I just wanted to say, um,” and King O’Connor waves downwards. “I just was thinking: ‘what strange times and tides it must have been, to bring Merlin to these shores. To think that the British would be buried here, so far from home, and not where they were born.'”

“Ah,” Patriot says. “I bear witness to this statement in the same spirit of wonder with which you offer it.”

King O’Connor nods curtly. “Good.”

He inverts himself. He dives. He wrestles with the stone. Then he sees it. It’s floating, calm and quiet, in the water. It’s a crocodile. It’s silver. It’s even shinier than his pants. Its mouth gapes wide.

“No!” he shouts. He chokes on others’ blood. The crocodile swims towards him, languidly. He shoves the stone aside.

Patriot watches. The surface of the lake is quiet. Then it begins to swirl. It is draining, down through a hole. King O’Connor breaks the surface, wrestling a metallic crocodile. Patriot’s laser flintlock hesitates.

“If I shoot him,” Patriot says, “there’s a real risk that the laser will reflect off of either the crocodile or his pants, destroying me and/or the city above. Yet I am for some reason unequipped with even the most rudimentary physical weaponry.”

He looks up at the sky. “Almighty God,” he cries, “bear witness! What a flawed design is man!”

“You aren’t a man,” argues King O’Connor, shortly before the crocodile flips him beneath the surface.

“The lake is draining,” Patriot says. “And soon whatever dark secret it holds will wake.”

“It’s the British,” rustles the tea, weakly, under Patriot’s feet.

“Ah,” says Patriot. “The British.”

“They’ll swarm over your pathetic kind,” the tea whispers. “You’ll have no hope. And you! You’re watching calmly as the King of Britain dies. They’ll hang you high.”

Patriot turns. He walks upwards. “No,” he says. “That is not my death.”

“Oh?” whispers the tea. It has turned bitter.

“There is a tree in Lexington,” Patriot says. “Some say the very tree where Merlin by Nimue was bound.”

He clanks away and is gone.

The lake of blood is low, now, and it spins, and great rents there are on King O’Connor’s flesh.

“Tea!” he cries. “Why must I die?”

The tea rustles. It whispers, soft, yet still he hears.

“Those who do not sacrifice,” it says, “have nothing.”

The King of England falls, bloody, through the gap, and with him a mirrored crocodile. And the British begin to rise.

“To the west, to the east, to the north, to the south, to every corner of the world, cry out: the British rise! The British rise!”
— Sir Kay

It is April 19, 1775, and it is shortly after midnight.

“Surely,” says John Hancock, “his pants could not compare to mine. They’re solid copper! Plus, I have a magic pen.”

“You’d need some fine pants,” Revere points out, “to free a blood-drowned army and become the King of England.”

John Hancock sulks. He mutters something under his breath. It sounds like, “Stupid King.”

“Please,” Patriot says. “Just do it.”

“All right,” John says.

His pen lifts high.

The Dancing Popes

Pope Joan “dies” and nine months pass.

The first cardinal emerges.

Red! His clothes are red as blood. He has left the white of the Papacy behind.

It dwells with those he has abandoned, in the caves below the Vatican, where the endless Popes must dance.

There is a prophecy too.

Elvis spake it.

The Popes—the dancing army of them—they won’t attack. Not if they don’t have to.

Not unless the day comes when people lose sight of basic neighborly love and kindness.

But when they do, look out.

When they do, that dancing Pope army is going to boil out of its homeland and pour over the surface world. They’ll wash over the petty politicians and the stars, the preachers and the demagogues, and with their sequins and their Popetanks the tidal force of that army will can-can the old regime away.

You won’t really understand until you’ve seen it. No one could. You can’t really know what we’re facing unless you’ve gone down there yourself and seen the army dancing.

But there are a few things that you may know.

People who use condoms should be careful. The Pope army doesn’t approve of condoms. They’ll pass by like a white tide, and if they see someone using a condom, YOINK, they’ll just yank it right off.

And there’s some issue or other with homosexuals. Nobody knows what the Popes will do, not even Elvis, but the wise money says that the Popes won’t put up with it. If you’re having homosexual sex when the army sweeps past, they’ll seize your condom and your shoes. They will not stop to wonder whether what they do is right.

They will clean your floors, whirling and dancing and scuffing and then unscuffing as they pass. They are a floor polish as well as a dancing Pope army. They will be unstoppable because they will transcend our mereology.

They will distract us all with their glitz and their glamor. They will be the newest and strangest calamity of all.

But, scary as they are, we must not let them distract us—Elvis said.

“Look,”

he said, and then he licked his lips, and you could tell his heart was hurting. He’d been trying so hard to be alive when everybody thought that he was dead, and now he had to say bad news.

“Look, the real threat’s the mutant alligators.”

It’s bull, of course, the last bull of Pope Elvis.

“Isn’t it enough they have to live in the sewer? Do we have to irradiate them too?

And there was a splash and a slither and maybe we oughtta’ve listened but people were worried, even then, that they might have lost kindness;

That they’d be swept over, any moment, by the dancing army of Popes.