No Crutches for an Angel

The angel cannot see and cannot hear.

So he imagines forests.

The sun is hot and sometimes he tastes sand. But he imagines forests and talking animals. In the evening when he is thirsty he imagines that there is a river blue and clear. In the mornings he thinks that there is a pillow made of loam.

In his heart there is a drumming.

It drums because it is a warning. It drums because he will bring devastation. It drums the vengeance of the Lord.

It will burn the things around him.

It will burn with a terrible fire, unless he finds ten just and good and wholly righteous men.

“I think,” says a sloth, that is hanging from a tree, which the angel now imagines, “that you have already released this fire. For look, the sun is hot, and all around you there is sand.”

“Sometimes,” the angel says—

Though he cannot say much, as his tongue has melted to the bottom of his mouth—

“Sometimes I brush up against what seem like buildings, or I am pelleted with bullets. So I do not think that this is so.”

The answer is as haughty as a Queen’s.

“We sloths, we disagree.”

The angel stumbles on.

It is late in the day and he is tired and it is hard to hold back the fire that lurks behind the drumbeat in his heart when he meets Mikhael.

That is the name he gives the man.

He does not know the true name for the man because he cannot hear and he cannot see and he cannot speak. This is something that makes introductions difficult, particularly when you do not share a common tongue.

So he names the man Mikhael.

He says, “I feel you. I feel you in my heart.”

He is seized up. People grab his arms. Something goes over his head. He is pulled and he is dragged and his feet leave the ground.

Tum-dum, goes his heart.

Tum-dum.

He flares his great feathered wings. He makes a choked-off sound. He gargles.

But because he feels Mikhael near him, still, his heart retains some element of peace. He is frustrated. He is disoriented. He is angry and confused.

He is not enraged.

Something slides into his arm, metal in a vein, and time becomes a whirl.

“I feel you,” he says.

He is groping through a fever and looking for the sensation that told him that Mikhael was near.

“Ha,” laughs a duck. “You are an angel deaf and blind. What makes you think you are ever anything but alone?”

The sensation is distant. But he clings to it.

His heart still beats: tum-dum.

He is treated roughly. His wrists are sore.

Then he feels a mouth against his cheek. It is whispering to him through the vibration of his bones. It is too hard to hear but because his heart feels Mikhael he makes sense of certain words.

“You fell to earth,” says Mikhael. “And you were deaf and you were blind. And it is sad, because that makes it difficult to find a righteous man.”

“You have no idea,” says the angel.

It has a lot more humor and joy than something like that should have—gallows humor, but still this explosion of mirth in him, that someone would see that hidden pain and then think that perhaps the angel might not already be aware.

“You were captured,” says Mikhael. “Studied. It was decided that you should be turned loose against strategic targets. That you would wander here, in our homeland, until you failed to find ten righteous men. Then our land would be destroyed.”

“Ha,” says the angel.

He makes moaning, mumbling noises with his mouth. But what his heart says is, “You have no idea. You are making this about you. You are forgetting that I am laboring with every moment of my life not to hurt you but I am suffering myself.”

“You have been captured,” says Mikhael. “You have been bound. My people, they thought at first that they could contain you in this fashion.”

He makes an apology with his next words.

“I told them how to find you. I told them you were here.”

“Mikhael,” says the angel. “Will you bring me righteous men?”

“I am afraid,” says Mikhael, “that they have all been slain. There were never very many. There are children still, and dogs and cats, who are not unworthy. And they were indifferently incomplete in eliminating the women; three righteous such remain. But if it is only men whose hearts will serve then there are none; and if infants are excluded, then we can muster only eight. The rest are dead. They have been slain.”

The angel frowns.

“They have been slain,” he repeats.

“They were hunted for their righteousness,” says Mikhael. “It was elementary. There would be no point to send you here only to allow some incompetent discovery of ten righteous men to stop the fall of Heaven’s wrath.”

“Oh,” says the angel.

He turns his thoughts inwards for a time. He is thinking that perhaps Mikhael is righteous and that perhaps Mikhael is not. It is difficult to tell from the rough voice against his cheek and the tremor in his heart.

“Then you must hold me deep,” says the angel, “deep beneath the earth, deep in some far and isolated place, where the Heavens may rumble and the earth may crack but lives shall not be lost. Let the skies burn out their outrage against a nothing target and then all shall be well. —Or kill me.”

“I cannot do these things,” says Mikhael.

“But you must.”

“I have told them,” says Mikhael, “that you are an angel, and that we must therefore let you go. I have argued long and hard and finally I have won out. They fear me because I understand their hearts and they do not dare to go against this wisdom. They will hate me, of course. One day they will probably kill me out of fear. But while they let me live they listen to my voice and so they will let you go.”

“There are none?” asks the angel. His voice is a plea.

“The standards of an angel—“ says Mikhael. “They are not like ordinary men. I tell you, there are darknesses in every human heart. There are weaknesses and follies. They are not righteous. Save sometimes I would meet one of those who moved among us—frightening, inhuman, perfect, clear. They were the opposite of monsters, antipaths to devils that walked among us men. They shone and they frightened me and I thought that most likely they were as unworthy to live among us as we to live with them. They were obvious to those like me. They were obvious and easy targets and one by one their lives went out.

“They welcomed it, I think,” Mikhael says. “These are hard times for the righteous.”

“O,” cries the angel.

The bonds are stripped roughly from his wrists. He is dragged somewhere. He stumbles and he twists his leg but still they drag him on.

He feels the presence of a door.

“But I must kill you all,” says the angel, “if I find no righteous men.”

He falls onto the street outside. It is rough beneath his hands. He feels Mikhael go.

It comes to him softly there that if he is deaf and blind he must decide the presence or absence of righteous men upon his own; that the world, it cannot tell him, whether the angel now must act.

But he does not understand.

He does not see.

He does not understand how Mikhael let him go.

The Fable of the Lamb (1 of 2)

It is Friday, the 23rd of April, 2004.

Cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods, wears a dark black suit and a nametag with one name. She eats well. She drinks in moderation. She bikes to work every morning. Most people drive, but they don’t get to feel the wind. She feels the wind. Every day, on the way to work, she feels the wind. She knows it’s changed. So she watches. She watches the trees outside her window, and the squares of concrete, and the lawn.

She is the first, of all who work at Central, to know that the hero and the monster have come.

She walks into her lab.

“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.

They look up from their computers. They are her students, close to her heart.

“The hero and the monster have come,” she says. “This means that Central is not safe.”

“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.

“Perhaps.”

“And the monster outranks us,” Stefan points out.

“The hero can kill monsters,” says Melanie. “So I must ask you: have you committed such crimes that you might bear that name?”

“It seems unfair,” Harold grouses. “He exists to kill that monster. He should not branch out to anyone who simply behaves in a monstrous fashion.”

“Alas,” Melanie says. “Harold may not arrange the world!”

“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.

“We must remove him,” Melanie says. “It shall be Stefan first.”

“Why?”

“Because you have said, ‘he is only Sebastien.'”

“It was my optimistic confidence,” Stefan says. “Don’t punish such a cheery attitude—it will lead you to sorrow! Your subordinates will paste Dilbert comics on their cubicles and mock your management practices.”

“They should regret such actions bitterly,” says Melanie.

“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.

Stefan

The hero opens the door. He walks into Central. He has the monster at his side.

There is a security desk at the entrance to the building. Dave is a guard. He’s sitting behind the desk. He nods to the monster. The monster nods back.

“Cheerio, sir,” says Dave. “Good to see you again.”

“Cheerio,” says the monster.

“Does he know what happens here?” the hero asks.

“Oh, yes,” says the monster. “But it’s a living.”

“Ah,” says the hero.

Dave ducks his head.

Upstairs, Stefan takes down a gun. He checks it. Then he practices the swift-step. He is behind the hero. The gun is in his hand. He is firing. The bullet tears through the hero’s chest, piercing right through the heart.

Uh oh, Stefan! There’s just a hollow where the hero’s heart should be.

The hero is staggering back. There’s a lot of blood and trauma in a heart shot, even if your heart’s in a box somewhere far away.

Stefan swift-steps to the armory.

“I need a shotgun,” he says.

There’s a web, or a net, or maybe just a shredded mesh of raw tissue, spread throughout the room. It has eyes suspended in it. They turn on him. They swivel. There are teeth. They chatter.

“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.

The eyes turn away. A shotgun clatters to the floor at Stefan’s feet. He picks it up. He readies it. Ka-CHUNK.

He thinks about angles. Dave will probably die too, and maybe the monster, but you have to finish what you start. If you don’t, you end up dead.

Stefan practices the swift-step.

The hero’s sword meets his neck. Stefan swift-stumbles backwards to the office, but it’s too late. His head is hanging on a thread of tissue.

“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.

Then his head falls off, and all he can do is blink until he dies.

Vincent

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“No,” Vincent says.

“Why not?”

“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.

“You’re more likely to win,” Melanie says.

“He’s invulnerable.

“Technically, I’m vulnerable to Kryptonite,” Harold points out.

“But there’s no such substance.”

“That’s true,” Harold concedes. “It’s a good weakness for Superman, but it’s not very balanced for me.”

Harold

A long time ago, they gave Liril a doll named Latch. They let her keep it for a while. They promised it would be safe if she was good. So she was good. She combed its hair. She hugged it tight. Then they took it from her. She had to watch as bad things happened to it. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong.

But she didn’t let Latch die.

The god of such moments is called an aegis. Harold carries one, because they are the subject of his study. He has charts on his wall of their spiritual anatomy. He has done surgery on his aegis, and other things besides, to stretch the limits of the god.

He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.

Then he walks down to meet the hero.

The Hero

“Are you all right?” Dave asks.

Dave’s hand is under the hero’s elbow. His other hand is behind the hero’s shoulders.

“‘m ff,” the hero says. He’s trying to imply that he’s fine.

“I don’t . . .” Dave looks at the monster. “I don’t understand.”

“All-hands in the main conference room in twenty minutes,” says the monster. “I’ll explain then.”

“He’s really lucky he’s not dead,” Dave says. “I mean, what with the not having a heart and all.”

“Got a heart,” the hero says. “It’s in a box.”

“Oh.”

“The box is in a duck,” the hero says.

“Oh,” Dave says again.

“I need air,” the hero says. He walks back out. He sits down heavily in the square. The monster follows. There’s not a speck of blood on the monster’s outfit.

“What?”

“I don’t kill people often,” the hero says.

“He had a swift-step god. That’s sort of like being an escalator.”

“What’s the point of a bike rack,” the hero says, “with only one bloody bike?”

“It wasn’t bloody before you started leaning on it,” the monster says.

“I’m cranky,” the hero says. “I’ll stab you if you don’t stop it with the humorous commentary.”

The monster flares his nostrils.

“Who was he?” the hero asks.

“Stefan,” says the monster. “Experimental theologian.”

“I ate lunch with him every day,” Harold says, emerging onto the lawn. “He never picked up the check.”

“Ah,” says the hero. “More company with guns.”

Harold fires at the hero’s head. It misses. Most bullets do.

The hero’s sword comes up, right through the bike rack, right through Melanie’s bike, and stabs into Harold’s chest.

“That’s not good,” says Melanie, watching.

“Ow,” says Harold.

He looks down at his chest. He looks at the hero’s chest. Then he giggles.

“Now you and us are even stevens,” he says.

The hero gets to his feet, and drives the sword in deeper. It’s up to its hilt in Harold’s chest. Harold doesn’t seem to mind.

“I took generic ibuprofen before coming out to fight you,” he says. “That’s why the pain’s not so bad.”

Harold aims his gun under the hero’s chin. The hero elbows it out of Harold’s hand. It skitters across the ground and lands in soft verdant grass. Then the hero gets tired from blood loss and exertion and finds himself leaning gently against Harold’s shoulder.

“This is an awkward moment,” observes the monster.

“Why did you bring him here?” Harold asks.

“If you’d held off the assassination attempts until after the all-hands,” the monster says, “you’d probably know.”

Harold sighs. He shoves the hero away. The hero, blearily, refuses to shove. He grips Harold’s arms and holds them tightly against Harold’s body.

“I’ll squeeze,” the hero warns. So he does. The hero is very strong. Then blood comes out and he’s very weak. Then he’s very strong again. Then he falls back against the bike rack. Because it’s neatly cut in two, there are sharp edges pushing against his back.

“I’m invulnerable,” Harold says, apologetically. He starts walking towards his gun.

The hero leaps onto Harold’s back, and Harold falls to the ground. There’s a bike lock wrapped in the hero’s hands, and it’s choking Harold.

“Damn it,” Harold says. He’s not prone to profanity, even when he spills acid on himself or a really good woman dumps him, but he’s just realized that it’s a Kryptonite lock.

Then he’s dead.

All Hands

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“I have really good hearing,” Vincent says. “That’s my only power. I have a rabbit familiar. I can hop. I can hear things. I’m not going to be able to kill him.”

“Oh.”

“Besides, the monster says that we should save assassination attempts until after the all-hands meeting. That sounds reasonable to me.”

“If you kill him before the all-hands, then there’ll be more seating for everyone else.”

“We can pull in an extra chair,” Vincent says. “It’s okay.”

So they go to the all-hands meeting.

“I bring a message of love,” says the monster, “from a girl named Jane.”

The monster has a laptop. It’s connected to a projector. The first slide in his PowerPoint presentation shows a large picture of a heart. It’s a formal Valentine heart and not a pulsing human heart. It’s labeled as slide one.

The monster clicks to the next slide.

“Jane wants you to redeem yourselves,” he says. The slide shows a picture of the monster, looking very uncomfortable, hugging a puppy. The puppy is licking the monster’s tie. It’s labeled as slide two. “We have committed acts of evil here, and horror unmeasured by morality. It is time to rededicate yourselves and this installation to compassion, love, and the healing of the world.”

Most of the people in the all-hands look uncomfortable. One hand raises. The monster points. “Yes?”

“What’s the threat?”

The monster’s voice is silk. “The threat?”

“What is she holding against you and/or us?”

“Ah,” says the monster. He clicks past several slides. He reaches slide five. It’s a chart of profit over time for 2002, 2003, and first quarter 2004. “In 2003,” he says, “the Earth Division cleared over two hundred million gross, with nearly forty million in profit. We control one of the three most powerful arsenals of theological weaponry in the known world, and have the chance to pioneer an uncharted and illegal science. What’s wrong with this picture?”

He clicks. There’s a picture of a globe. It’s lightly tinged with red—a dusting here, a deepening there, a bit of crimson spotted through the seas.

“This is the sum of our influence,” he says. “We have theoretically unlimited power, but in practice, our profits are penny ante and our influence tiny. The gods we make are isn’ts. They are severed from us. The greatest host of Faerie assembled in our time failed to topple the Nicaraguan government. The unbounded horrors born unto the Federated States of Micronesia are dying at human hands. And we make forty million a year from the ability to circumvent natural law and bend humans and nations alike to our desiring. We are an isn’t.”

The monster clicks to the next slide. There’s a picture of Martin. He’s leaning against the wall, looking away from the camera.

“This is what Jane has. She has a creature that can breach the boundary and make gods real. He can manifest dharma. If he sends to us a killing god, there are none of us safe. Conversely, should he manifest Ii Ma, then we may imprison any man we choose, without recourse, without jurisdiction, without protection. We would simply speak a man’s name, and Ii Ma would take him away. This creature’s contemners could destroy our enemies with near-perfect reliability. His footsoldiers—”

There’s a little giggle in the room. At this point, the footsoldiers are not much more than an in-joke to the Central crowd.

“Well,” says the monster, expressively.

He clicks ahead a few more slides.

“The rules are simple,” the monster says. “She is willing to forgive. Simply come up to this podium, and say, ‘It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.’ Then turn, and walk through the door on the right, and begin your new life as an employee of a new, brighter, more loving Earth Division. Or walk through the door to the left, and continue your life as normal.”

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

This is a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name is Miles, for what it matters. “This is a game, right? I mean, you’re not bloody serious. We’re not going to—I mean, it’s fucking crazy.”

The hero kills a Vice-President in Charge of Sales. His name was Miles.

The monster clears his throat.

“It is juvenile,” he says. “In the literal sense. I’ve sold you all out, and that puts each and every one of you at the mercy of a child. She’s about six years old, and each of you has collaborated, directly or ex post facto, in torturing her. If you refuse to play in her little tea party, I won’t save you, because that’s not in my interest. You can repent in jest, treating it as a game, but I imagine that something horrible would come out from under your bed and devour you in the night. It’s up to you. Leave through the left, or leave through the right.”

The monster turns off his laptop. “That’s all.”

The first man stands up. His name is Leonard. He walks to the front. He says, quietly, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

He walks out through the door to the right.

The second man stands up. His name is Douglas, not that it matters. He walks to the front. He turns to the left. He walks left. The hero kills him.

“Hey,” says a woman in the back. Her name is Heather. “Hey!”

“What?” the monster asks.

“You can’t redeem people at the point of a sword.”

“Maybe I just had a grudge against that particular guy,” the hero suggests. He turns Douglas over. He reads the nametag. “‘Doug.’ Maybe he killed my cat.”

“It’s not morally correct as a means for gaining contrition!” Heather protests. She’s an armchair ethicist, and gets very vigorous about such things.

“If it’s within you to be redeemed,” says the monster, “then it shouldn’t matter what incentives are applied. If not, then redemption is impossible, even at the point of a flower.”

Heather frowns in frustration. “Did you . . . did you say those things, doctor? About it being wrong and vile?”

The monster smirks. He didn’t have to. Jane’s emotionally entangled with him, Martin needs him, and the hero’s messed up in the head. “It’s not relevant, dear lady,” he says.

Heather’s face pinches. She looks very upset. But she walks to the front. She looks nervously at the hero. “I didn’t collaborate,” she says. “I mean, not really.”

She turns left. She walks left. The hero kills her.

One by one, they go towards the front. Most of them make the speech now, and turn right. Two of them fight the hero. One of them dies normally. The other one dies with a shout and a bitter complaint on his lips, something to the effect of, “He didn’t have a harpoon when I attacked him.” A few others slink forward to die.

The Fable of the Lamb

Melanie takes out the needle and puts a bandaid on Vincent’s arm.

“Go,” says Melanie.

Vincent walks to the front. He turns left. The hero looks at him.

“I grew up here,” Vincent says. “It took me a long time to know that what we did was wrong. And then I couldn’t think of anything that could stop it. There’s nobody to tell, nobody to warn. Half the system is corrupt and the other half wouldn’t believe me. So I help the kids when I can. I try to give them a little bit of light. And I help the staff. Because I work here, because they gave me a place here, because I love them too. So I’m going to go left, and you’re not going to kill me, because heroes can kill monsters, and I’m just a screwed-up guy who never did figure out what to do.”

The hero shrugs. “If you’re right, then I can’t kill you, but it sounds a lot like excuses.”

Vincent walks left. The hero’s sword is in his hands. He is moving, swift and beautiful, a blur of gray and death; but he has lost a lot of blood, and there are many chairs, and he stumbles, and he falls.

Behind Vincent, Melanie walks out left; and one by one, the rest, as the blood beats slowly from the hero’s chest onto the floor.

In the time before the hero overcomes his dizziness and rises, there are only three who say the words and leave to the right.

“Is it really true, then?” Vincent asks, looking back, after he has left the building. “Am I really clean?”

“I extract your sins during the monthly blood test,” Melanie says. “I keep them in a bottle. You never know when you shall need a lamb.”

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.