Ping

The littlest programmer went down to the sea. She turned the waves over and over in her hands.

“Ping,” she said, finally, when she was satisfied.

And “Ack,” replied the sea.

The littlest programmer went up to the sky. She poked the clouds. They flew away from her with but a touch, as light as a song.

“Ping,” she said, and laughed, and batted the clouds away.

And “Pong,” declared the horizon, and bounced them back.

The littlest programmer came down and played in the tall grass. She made a flute from the thin green strands.

“Ping,” she said.

But the grass responded not.

She walked in the tall grass and disturbed the things that lived there; great was the agitation of the pigeons, and the mice, and the doves, and certainly of the small elephants that lived there then, but do not live there now.

“Ping,” she said, more insistently.

But the grass could find no words.

It has never known words, not for such holy eventualities; it does not suffice for them;

The ping is mightier than the sward.

What’s Gray and Hurts More than You Can Imagine? (IV/VII)

And Melanie, in the soot-web of the spider, asks her riddle:

Why do people hurt?

Why do we have to suffer, and fear, and die?

And the spider glares at Melanie.

It is angry.

It is angry because it is wounded. It is angry because she stabbed it right in the eye. It is angry because the riddle is very difficult, and arguably invalid, and giving an answer involving spiders would redound unfavorably upon itself.

“It’s your fault,” the spider suggests.

But Melanie, she shakes her head.

Not it!

She shakes her head, and it can feel her shaking her head, through the vibration in its web.

So the spider thinks some more.

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” the spider guesses.

This is actually pretty good, particularly under the circumstances, but it’s still not right; or, at least, Melanie is laughing a little, and fervently shaking her head, and the spider feels a moment of peculiarly stung pride.

“We don’t actually have to suffer?” proposes the spider, in a third and final guess, and Melanie is laughing now as gaily as the storm.

“It is because of the elephant,” she says.

And the spider cannot help it, it twitches itself upright, it staggers towards her on its web, it is all over rage. And it feels very strong, and then it feels very weak, as its nervous system misfires. And its face is all-over blood where Melanie had stabbed it, much worse than it had thought. And she is punching it, punching it, punching it and screaming, right where her knife had broken its eye.

Its world goes still.

It is the elephant.

Later she will remember this. Later, she will find it bubbling up inside her, will find Liril sitting there telling her, “I won’t make you that. It’s wrong.”

And she will burst out with, “It is the elephant,” and with laughing, and with desperation, and with discovering, to her regret, that it does not shatter every attachment, does not break down every web, does not bring an end to every difficulty—that it is inadequate as an answer to the difficulties of her life.

“It is the elephant,” the spider, blankly, says.

The patterns of lemma and corollary elude it. The soot ceases to make sense. And everything is clean and crisp and bright, in the world of the soot-spider, and nothing dark to it at all.

There is a hammering like an elephant’s stomp—

CHK-FUU

—in the chambers of its heart. The spider’s fragile life gives way.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

And Melanie lays gasping in the corner of a room, and her knife is ringing to the ground;

and the soot-spider slips on a single thread to the land that is after life.

coming up in March:

  • letters columns;
  • my birthday!
  • quite possibly a special edition of Nobilis; and
  • the next part of this story: A Lament for Amiel.

In the meantime, perhaps, you’d like to poke around at the Nobilis products page? If you’re getting really weird characters, enable JavaScript!

What’s Purple and Incarnated in Human Form to Save Us All From Suffering? (III/VII)

Now Melanie is in the soot-web of the spider, and she is laughing.

She is laughing because she has posed a riddle and its answer—

Q: What is gray and wrinkly and fights fires?
A: A really old fireman.

—and, mostly, because she’s seven.

She may be about to die. She is terrified and she is hurting and she doesn’t understand why or what she did to deserve it or how it came to be—but she’s still seven.

The joke is funny.

If you’re seven, you’re probably incapacitated with hilarity right now. You’re falling over and may be too lost in your amusement to make sensible observations about this story.

If the spider were seven, it would have mixed feelings—it is, after all, wounded—but probably it too would laugh.

It is not.

In absolute time, it is somewhat younger than seven. In soot-years, it is much older. There are spiders that can live out the long aeons of the world, ageless as the sky. There are spiders that can sleep upon an acorn and wake up upon an oak.

Soot-spiders are not that sort.

For a soot-spider, waiting out a single child’s dehydration so it can eat them is a substantial portion of its life; the window to amuse a soot-spider with jokes like these is hours wide, at most, and long since past.

“I should not talk to you,” says the spider.

It says this in the voice of someone realizing something they would never have imagined could be true. Children are tasty, but dangerously insane.

“I should not get close to you and I should not talk to you. Not until you die.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

“But it’s your turn,” Melanie says.

“I hate you,” says the spider. She’d stabbed it earlier, right in the eye. “I do not want to take a turn.”

Melanie goes silent.

She isn’t criticizing its choice and she isn’t praising it. She’s just letting the spider get more stressed, in the dark, in the awkward silence, with its wound.

Her own breath is ragged and full of pain.

There’s a bit of time where it thinks that possibly she is crying. Possibly she is not.

“Fine,” it says.

If she had just said something, instead of crying, it might have gone back to singing its song. Or rushed her, in hopes of killing her before she could use the knife. It seems unlikely to the spider that she has found the knife again, in any case, so this would probably be safe.

But she isn’t talking, and she isn’t moving, and it can’t help thinking about riddles, now, and when one occurs to it at last the pressure to say the just-thought-of riddle merges with the mad and painful pounding in its wounded head.

“The night is weeping,” says the spider. “The sun is rising. Look! The last tears of the night have yet to fall.”

Melanie doesn’t even realize at first that it’s a riddle.

She thinks the spider is making some kind of stupid poetic comment on the fact that one or both of them will die. It disgusts her. It irritates her. She clings stubbornly to her silence in hopes of forcing a riddle out.

When she finally realizes that the spider’s words are a riddle, it is beyond her.

She cannot grasp it.

The spider, uncomfortable in the silence, makes a tentative movement on the web. Melanie’s heart nearly bursts with the panic of it. It is only then, as she sits up suddenly and hugs her chest to hold in the pounding of her heart, that she thinks of the spider’s first riddle and its answer and she understands.

Q: What stands on eight legs in the morning; and one leg in the evening; and on something that isn’t a leg at all, in day?
A: A spider.

If you were a spider, you would probably think this riddle very deep and very insightful, but you would also have a fuzzy, eight-eyed face.

“It’s dew,” Melanie says.

Or, yes, a fuzzy, seven-eyed face, if one eye’d been stabbed out.

“The tears are dew. The tears of the night are dew, caught on a web.”

It surprises the seven-eyed spider how much this answer warms it.

It doesn’t care about stumping her. Not really. And it’ll hate her whether she can answer its riddles or she can’t. So the answer she’s given just bursts into a little bubble of happiness and pride inside the spider, because it’s not about her and it—it’s just a confirmation that the spider had asked a good and meaningful riddle after all.

“Yes,” it says.

Yes, it is dew.

“Now you.”

It knows it will regret asking. It knows it should stop there—but to give her a turn when it has taken one is fair, and besides, it is used to Melanie now.

How bad can it be?

And Melanie is cunning.

Oh, Melanie is terribly, terribly cunning, for a seven-year-old girl.

“Why do people hurt?” she asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and fear, and die?”

The spider’s mind goes totally and entirely blank.

This is a harder riddle than it expected. It is, in fact, one of the hardest riddles in the world.

An egg? the spider thinks.

It is numb down its right side.

An egg? A dinosaur? A grape?

A grape is a purple fruit that is not particularly responsible for the pervasive universal characteristic of suffering. Anybody attempting to blame this characteristic on the grapes has not completely thought through their theodicy.

That its thoughts are slow is not the spider’s fault.

Its head is not very clear. The knife, it thinks, in the pressing dark, might conceivably have reached its brain; and it realizes, after a moment, that it is thinking about answers to a different color of riddle entirely.

Next week: A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII). I could tell you why you have to wait, but then the soot-spider would kill Melanie and the later parts of this story wouldn’t make any sense!

In the meantime, perhaps you’d enjoy

Fire on the Tongue

Before the sun. Before the moon. Mammoth, she brings fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance.

Mammoth steps forward. The Three Lords meet her.

Darkness devours Mammoth and her bones.

Now the fire, it lives quite far away, alone and quiet in its palace in the stars. It cannot see the earth, nor yet be seen. Its floor and its basement conspire to occlude.

Dinosaur enters, stomp stomp stomp.

He seizes up the fire. He descends to earth.

Dinosaur brings the fire from the sky.

In the darkness the Three Lords dance. Dinosaur howls. Dinosaur fights.

Around Dinosaur the Three Lords close.

They are cold. They are dark. They are humanity’s Lords. They close around Dinosaur and they tear him up.

As they tear him up he tries to swallow the flame.

They rip his neck. Fire leaks out. Panicked, he holds it beneath his tongue.

His head—

The head of Dinosaur—

Burns for a while with a pumpkin flame. Then the Three Lords darken him and Dinosaur goes out.

Frog comes now to the palace in the stars.

She finds the lingering remnant of the flame. She takes it up. She descends to earth.

Frog, she brings the fire from the sky.

Now the Three Lords close on Frog. Now they close, but Frog fights back. She kicks with her feet. She shoves with her hands. For a moment they hold her, then she is free: under the waters, over the lands, swimming and leaping and running away.

Now the Third Lord seizes her leg.

Frog kicks free but he breaks her bone. It snaps in her leg. She is wounded now.

And as she runs and as she fights the fire that she carries gleams. The fire is glittering. It’s flashing and shining. It’s warring with the darkness that had been.

She is never more dangerous, Frog our Frog, than when she is desperate and full of fear.

If you have ever fought a frog—

Not a tiny frog, but one your size—

Then this is most likely a thing you know.

She is never more dangerous than when things look worst. The Third Lord grabs her once again. She twists like a beast and paws his throat and the Third Lord staggers and the Third Lord chokes.

He gags out bile onto the earth and Frog kicks his head and leaves him there.

She leaves him behind and she runs and runs.

The Second Lord, he looms ahead.

He’s at a crossroads. That’s where he’s strong. But Frog just shrugs and gives him a look. “I am Frog the Invincible,” is what she says.

The Second Lord, he makes no sound. He does not hear the challenge in her voice. He only raises a terrible dark that swallows Frog who brought down fire.

In that darkness the two now fight.

For a time it seems that Frog might win. Then the First Lord joins them at that place. Frog burns the First Lord with fire from her hand and Burns and Marring are born into the world. The First Lord howls and he staggers back. But the fight is hard and Frog cannot endure.

Disaster comes.

The Third Lord finds them.

He is not dead, though weaker now. He is not dead, but strong enough.

They take up places. They pin down Frog. They chill her struggles and they make her weak.

They hold her down but she will not die. She is Frog the Invincible. Frog the Immortal. They cannot kill her, though they rip her flesh. They cannot kill her, though they break her bones.

They cannot kill her, so they do not kill her.

They only force darkness into her, bit by bit, until it bleeds out from her skin.

And Frog cries out, “I am becoming shadow, but the fire was bright.”

Behind them and around them a moaning rises. Behind and around there is the shuffling of feet.

It is humanity.

Humanity is white like maggots—white like blindfish, for these are the days before the sun. Humanity is white like maggots and mute like zombies and cold like the living dead. But it has seen the glittering and gleaming of the fire and it has heard the struggling cries of Frog.

So it masses around the Three Lords and it begins to pull them down.

Ohh!

The Three Lords are terrible. Their touch corrodes. Their wrath is great. Even the littlest twitchings of their feet can cut a wake of destruction through the world.

But they cannot tend to the wading hunger of humanity while still they pin down Frog. They dare not turn and deal with what devours them—while still they pin down Frog.

Bit by bit they force their darkness into her. Bit by bit they inch towards their salvation, towards the moment when Frog is broken and they may turn attention to humanity behind.

It is taking them too long.

The Three Lords are dying.

The fire gutters. It goes out.

Frog’s feeble struggles grow feebler yet. Her eyes bulge out. Her skin is moist.

Humanity devours its Three Lords and it leaves behind no bones.

It clusters around the remaining warmth and the afterimage that was fire. It wails softly as that fades away.

Frog, broken, maddened, crawls off to the swamps. She leaves a trail of slime behind.

Then there is silence where she had been and humanity departs.

Now there is darkness on the world but in the darkness no one dances. Now humanity mourns for there is none to be its god.

So Chameleon comes to the palace in the stars.

Chameleon, he hunts for a lingering spark of fire. Chameleon finds one, in the corner of a drawer. It’s under a sock but it’s burning bright.

Chameleon, he takes that fire on his tongue.

It hurts him! It burns him! But he takes the fire and he carries it down on the tip of his long tongue.

Chameleon descends to earth.

Now there is a glittering and gleaming once again, and once again humanity draws near. It is hungry for the fire now.

It makes Chameleon its god.

And Chameleon says, “Lo! I have brought you fire, and I shall be your god. I shall lead you in light all the days of the world.”

Or so at least he meant to say. But his tongue has burnt and he cannot speak. He has become a muted god. And the pain of it lingers, and begins to drive him mad, so that everywhere he goes he tries to rub away the fire.

And the fire burns things, but it won’t come off.

The forests burn.

Deep fires in the oceans flare.

Flame sweeps across the open plains and humans claim some from the lingering ash.

And finally Chameleon retreats again to space, oh, burning yet, but in the soothing dark; and he goes not far, not too far anyway, for still in the madness of his mind the intention lingers to love humanity and serve it as its god.

There he is, if you look up—not so very far away.

You can’t see his body.

He’s Chameleon.

You can’t see his body. He looks just like the space.

You can’t see his body, but you can see the burning flame that hangs above us, warms us, lights us, at the tip of his great long tongue.

Ink Inapplicable (VI/XVI)

The hunger that woke Riffle from the sleep of the rats still burns in him today.

He is surrounded by the dead.

He is holding a sword at the throat of the imago, and trying—so very hard, with muscles that are not very strong—to drive it home.

All around him is Riffle’s crew, that ragged lot that build up scaffoldings towards the ceiling of the cave. They do not build for longevity. They build for speed. All around him there are the sounds of hammering, climbing, and crashing, tumbling wood.

He is hungry to be more than a rat. That is why he has grown to nearly four feet in height and developed a human brain. He does not want to be a rat.

He wants purpose.

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

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

The Island of the Centipede

Minister Jof’s hand closes on Riffle’s arm.

The room has gone deathly still.

Where did Minister Jof come from? Why is he here? These questions remain unanswered. But he has enough decency to him to do this: to grab the arm of the rat and stop the sword.

And suddenly Ink sees a thing, and her fear dissolves.

“Do you happen to know the history of this sword?” asks Ink Catherly.

Her voice is dry and confident, like a pedant’s right before it strikes.

Riffle looks at the sword.

He shakes his head.

Ink steps back. She rubs at her throat. She looks at her injured hand. She says, “A long time ago, there were men and women and children who believed, more than anything else, that the crust of the world was evil and that they had to destroy it. They had to destroy it so that the storm that surges below could rise to reach the mortal world.”

Riffle struggles against Minister Jof’s grip.

“We’re losing valuable scaffolding time,” hisses the rat.

But after a moment he spreads his free hand conciliatorily, and adds, “If you leave aside this distraction of my crew and depart then I will let you live.”

There’s a crash behind them. Minister Jof starts. It’s one of the rickety scaffoldings coming down.

“They were formed,” says Ink, “like all of you were formed, from the substance of the world. They were worms, or bugs, or rats, that developed over the long courses of their lives into something better. And they understood their holy mission in those terms. But they were not alone.”

Riffle drops the sword. He pulls away from Minister Jof and turns his back.

“The matter has no relevance to our holy mission to maintain as many height-amortized scaffold-inches as we can,” he says.

“There were those, O Riffle,” says Ink Catherly, “who believed more than anything that righteousness was to preserve this crust, this sanctuary, this seal that severs world and storm.”

Riffle puffs up his cheeks.

He exhales.

He says, “Very well.”

Another pair of scaffoldings crash down.

“Go home,” says Riffle.

He shoos his crew.

“Go home; go home; I’m calling this year’s break.”

And there is one of his crew with long thin legs and a carapace covering its face and a long thread-like bifurcated black tail. It skitters along the corpses and is gone.

And there is one of his crew that is like a heart in a nest of veins, save that it may stand on some of its veins and others have been split to form fingers, thumbs, or spines. This one skulks back to the corpse of a badger-creature and ducks into its mouth; mechanically, the corpse’s throat works and strains, then swallows it and it is gone.

And in that fashion one by one they disperse.

And Ink is saying, “And they worked for a time, each under their own direction, until they came to appoint a man named Riffle as their leader and charged him with the maximization of their effective goals: that is, from the one side he found employment to organize them towards their ends of speedily destroying the crust, and from the other in leading them in its salvation.”

A scaffold crashes.

“I did my job,” says Riffle.

Minister Jof stares at his back.

“It was a devil of a project,” Riffle says. “Reconciling those aims. But then I figured, well, they can’t very well both have what they want, so I could serve one of ’em tautologically, if I just figured out which one it was. Turned out t’be both.”

“In darkness,” says Ink, “in a cave of ivory where centipede-elephants would crawl to die, a woman made this sword to serve her in this glorious cause. And she came here to the war and used it to cut open one man, one woman, and one vaguely genderless bat-creature. Then she tripped on a spear and died.”

Riffle says, “You’ve made your point.”

“I had a point?”

“You can obviously interfere with my work any time,” Riffle says. “Can’t let my workers hear that kind of talk. So it’s all down to this: is it more cost-effective to placate you, or to escalate the violence? Right now, you’ve got an edge on the violence, so I figure, you should tell me what you want.”

“I’m actually just passing through,” Ink says.

Riffle says, “There’s nowhere to go.”

“I’m going to find whomever’s sitting on the throne of the world and kill him,” Ink says.

Riffle turns. He looks at her.

“Why?” he says.

His voice is different when he says that. Everything up till now has been a little distant, a little detached, pouty at the most. Now it’s hungry. Now it’s got urgency to it. It’s like he’s thinking: She could have a cause. She could have something worth doing. She might need competent management like me.

But:

“I’m a destroyer,” Ink says.

And Riffle shrinks.

It’s like he’s deflating beneath his skin.

He says, “That’s not a reason. That’s a resource.”

“It’s exploiting an untapped niche!” Ink Catherly protests.

  • Tune in NEXT WEEK for the next exciting chapter in the histories of the imago:
    THE DOCTOR OF THE DEEPS

The Dynamite Trilogy: Konami Thunder Dance

In those days gods walked among us courtesy of Konami Corporation.

There were two of them arguing right in this spot—

Right over there, in that blasted pit that not even the repavers can heal.

It happened like this.

There’s a cat curled up on old Mrs. McGinty’s porch.

There’re crows croaking raucously on a nearby power line.

Ellen walks up from the south. She doesn’t look around. She finds a square of sidewalk and she sets up her Konami Thunder Dance pad.

The crows go silent as death.

Ellen plugs her pad into a PlayStation 6 and an uninterruptible power supply. Ellen kicks off her shoes. She steps onto the pad.

The cat uncurls. It stretches. It lopes away.

Now old Kalov comes clicking down the road from the north. He’s got his game under one arm. He’s using the other hand to hold his cane.

He sets up his dance pad.

He plugs it in, just like Ellen’s.

He steps on. And smugly, because it’s allowed in the University’s Konami Thunder Dance Club rules, he rests his cane tip beside his feet on the dance pad.

“Kalov,” says Ellen. “Don’t be stupid! You can’t beat me.”

Kalov doesn’t crack a smile.

“Elly,” he says. “It’s the decision of the Konami Thunder Dance Club that we’re going to upgrade to the new version. It’s a good version. It’s easy on these creaky old bones of mine.”

“But it doesn’t have dynamite,” Ellen protests.

“You’re a good dancer,” Kalov says. “Don’t ruin your life.”

The air is as clear and still as glass. The sun isn’t moving.

That’s the way it is with Konami Thunder Dance. They could stand there all day, if you’ll pardon some linguistic ambiguity, and the sun wouldn’t move one inch.

But Ellen’s not happy. She doesn’t let it sit like that. She moves her foot to the side, just sweeps it across what Konami calls the “keyboard of the feet,” and she’s hit the Symbol for storms.

There’s lightning in the sky.

And Ellen says, “Konami doesn’t care about us any more. The original team’s gone on to work for Round Square. All Konami’s doing with this version is squeezing a few more Euros from the newbs.”

It’s raining.

“You’re too inflexible,” Kalov complains.

Thunder sounds.

“I won’t accept,” Ellen says, “a version without dynamite.”

And, just like God had allegedly done in that sacred vision that inspired Hiro Matsuda to make Konami Thunder Dance, Ellen hits the button with her toe that begins the game.

“There’s no turning back now!” warns the voice of the machine.

And for Ellen and Kalov alike the patterns of the Thunder Dance begin to flow.

Here is how it is. There are one hundred and sixty eight distinct ‘keys’ on the Konami Thunder Dance pad, divided into eight regions. Eight-key sequences, properly timed, combine to form a Symbol. Most of these sequences have four to seven redundant versions, leaving approximately 1.25 x 10^17 combinations. Each Symbol generates a unique effect; thus, most of the possibilities of the game remain undiscovered even by the greatest of masters.

As Kalov is dancing to Tourniquet, it is natural that his first Symbol is Blood.

As Ellen is dancing to Jungle Song, it is equally natural that her first Symbol is the Elephant.

In the books of the sacred thunder dance, this is called the day that Dumbo fell. The birds are shrieking; they are rising from the power line, scattered even in the face of the dance; an elephant tumbles past, choking on the crimson angst of existence.

And Kalov throws kami and Ellen throws the Wilderness, and thus it is that our city loses the blessing of Heaven.

And in that darkness without the hope of greater powers there comes a rising beat. And Ellen is dancing now, not just for the Symbols but for the rhythm of it, dancing in the rising darkness of Kalov’s Symbol Lost, and her dance is Strength.

And the music of Evanescence rises in the darkness:

My God, my tourniquet.
Return to me salvation.

And the counterpoint of Toybox:

Hey, monkey! Get funky!

And then, pivoting one hand down to support her on the center of the pad, and without interrupting the Symbols of her dance, Ellen uses her free foot to throw Dynamite.

There is a flare of light. The air ignites. Old Kalov struggles against a rising wind and a missed half-note to stay in the game; and all up and down the street windows are shattering, roofs are caving in, chicken dinners are rising from their graves to run around clucking—

For the chicken, alone of all the creatures of this Earth, is blessed with independence from its brain—

And the old lady comes walking, clicking, ticking footsteps up the path.

There’s something fascinating about the way she walks. It’s like the dawning of the sun. The wind of the dynamite doesn’t even touch her. She’s old and her hair is blue and she’s smiling ever so thinly as she walks up.

And the dance goes still.

Both Ellen and Kalov just stare at her. The Symbols they’re supposed to dance drift past right to the terrible ending of those songs.

And the old lady says, “It’s not worth giving your life for dynamite, child, and it sure isn’t worth taking someone else’s.”

Ellen’s chin is high. Her eyes are fierce.

She says, “I want to dance the real thunder dance. The one that matters.”

“You kin’t,” the old lady says.

“We live in a degenerate time,” pleads Ellen. “Hobbit-Spock-spider. A Thunder Dance without dynamite. A sixth teletubby. We can’t just let all the old true things go away.”

“I hear,” says the old lady, “that they’ve added Symbol support to the new version so that newbies can get by with just four of the steps.”

“It is good for the community of Thunder Dancers,” Kalov says.

“Some people up in San Antonio,” the old lady says, “they wired it up through a hacked Furby and abused the Hell out of the four-step system so they could pull off twelve-step Symbols. Things you can’t imagine, like itserbani and oieie.”

Her enunciation is very precise.

“I thought that was clever,” she admits.

“I’m not saying the new version is bad,” Ellen says, although she has been. “I’m just . . . I practiced so much learning to throw Dynamite. And now Konami’s saying that it wasn’t ever intended.”

“Did you know why I stopped Thunder Dancing?” the old lady asks.

Ellen shakes her head.

“Margerie,” says Kalov. His voice is sad.

“I stopped Thunder Dancing,” the old lady says, “when Konami released the patch that made it so that Thunder Dancers didn’t all die by live burial any more.”

Ellen frowns at her.

“What?”

“The original version,” the old lady says. “It had a bug. Or a feature— who can say?”

“That you’d get buried alive?”

“If you were good enough,” the old lady says.

Ellen’s eyes are round.

“That’s extreme,” she says.

“It was the genuine thing,” the old lady says. “It was the Konami Thunder Dance as sent to us by God. If you were too good then one day the Earth would open up and swallow you. Or you’d get trapped in a mine cave-in. Or something else like that would happen to bury you under the ground. That’s how the Kid died. And Lois Lethal. And Ren the Bing. But not me.”

“Ma’am,” says Ellen. “I’m sure you’d have been buried alive if they hadn’t released that patch.”

“I stopped playing,” the old lady says. “That day. I kept my old pad but I never plugged it in. I would practice without electronic aid. Eventually I learned a few things— just the simplest moves, things like Banana or Grace— without the PlayStation. And when I finally danced a proper Banana and the world went still and a Banana manifest, I cried like the rankest of newbs on their third day of struggling with the dance. But you know as well as I do how many thousands of Symbols I must learn to manifest before I am even vaguely competitive again.”

Ellen is staring at her.

“You can create bananas without a PlayStation?” she chokes.

And Margerie laughs. She can’t help it. It is an articulate laugh, careful and slow, but still it is unwilling, and it bends her over a little with it.

When her chuckles die down, she says, “You see why I am a legend among people who very much like bananas.”

“Margerie,” says Kalov. “Why are you here?”

“The campus police asked me,” she says. “They said, ‘two Thunder Dancers are going to duel. In earnest. Non-regulation.’

“‘Non-regulation?’ I asked. ‘Whatever for?’

“‘Some Thunder Dance Club matter,’ they said. ‘Something about dynamite. . . . we don’t care,’ they said. ‘But we can’t stop them. Bullets don’t work against people carrying PlayStation 6s.’

“So I came down here,” says the old lady, “to tell you to stop this foolishness; and if you don’t, I’ll dance against you.”

“I have no stake in this,” says Kalov. “If we do not duel, it is as if I have won. So I will leave you two to it.”

“I—” Ellen says.

Ellen looks down.

“I don’t want to fight you,” she says. “I— God, I’d do whatever you say, except—”

And the old lady’s mouth crooks up at the corner. “Except?”

“I want to fight you,” Ellen says.

“I’m an old lady,” says Margerie. “I only know a few Symbols. You sure I’m the person you want to beat?”

“It’s the way you walk,” says Ellen. She’s got this transported air of awe about her. “It’s just— there’s only so many times in one’s life that one’s blessed to see perfection. Please. Please.”

And Margerie snorts.

“Kid,” she says, “I said I’d fight you if you didn’t back down, so you don’t have to beg.”

Margerie looks to Kalov.

“Move,” she says.

“Move?”

“Don’t need your machine,” the old lady says, “but I need your music and I need your spot.”

So Kalov hobbles back and he braces himself against the huddled elephant and he watches.

And the old lady steps up.

And this time it is Ellen dancing to Yatta and the old lady to Stillness in Silence. The former is one of the hardest of songs in the Konami Thunder Dance and the latter is one of the easiest. Nevertheless, the Symbols that flow from Ellen are impeccable while Margerie’s—danced on the sidewalk— are fumbling, failing, and incomplete.

And there is impatience stirring in Ellen because she cannot wait for Margerie to fail out of the dance; she must defeat her.

And there is patience in her because she knows that she is in no danger until and unless the old lady does Ellen the honor of conceding the failure of her technique and steps onto Kalov’s pad.

And so her Symbols are not offensive but rather a rising pyre of power that gathers around her, such that the clouds in Heaven are marked with burning mandalas of the spinning magic of her dance.

And she uses her impatience as an engine to drive the patterns of her feet.

And then she sees that the old lady is near the last gasps of her dance, and so Ellen yields to the drive in her. Her hand comes down. Without ceasing to dance the Leaf, she dances also Dynamite.

On the very last movement of those steps she slips.

It is a banana peel: nothing much: but it burns through her like a shock and her world explodes in whiteness and whirling green. As she tumbles through two buildings and a third she sees the old lady stepping away with grace and she realizes that Margerie has won.

My God, she thinks, because this is more amazing to her than even Navvy Jim.

A leaf brushes past her cheek.

May you be buried alive, Ellen thinks, with the greatest possible kindness, and then her head hits concrete and the world goes dark.

Pasta

You can make miracle pasta by stirring together flour, miracles, milk, salt, and butter. Then you cut the mix into long strands, air, and cook. The biggest difficulty is in finding the miracles. Once you have done that the stirring, cutting, airing, and cooking is easy.

Miracle pasta is good with a spicy red sauce and shrimp.

It is also good with despair as it is the function of miracles to alleviate despair.

A long time ago seven miracle pasta wheels fell to Earth, one of them landing on a frog.

It was like this:

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Squish! Thump!

“We will guide these people, and guard them, and shepherd them,” say the miracle pasta wheels.

Then they roll around and make all kinds of havoc.

“Oh, look!” says a hungry child in Germany. She points at a pasta wheel. Then she eats it. This alleviates her hunger and her despair!

Six pasta wheels remain.

“The simplest way to rid our planet of the troublesome infinite-weight stone would be to launch it into space via rocket,” decide Atlantean alchemists.

Whoosh! Sploosh! It is a typical Atlantean disaster.

Two pasta wheels are on Atlantis when it sinks. They grow weak and soggy in water and eventually drown.

A mammoth in North America stumbles across a pasta wheel. “At last,” it says, “the power of miracles is mine!”

Three blind sages stumble across the pasta wheel at that same exact moment.

“No!” cries the first blind sage. “Pasta is a human treasure!”

“A tasty meal!” cries the second.

“An ineffable symbol of hope and endurance!” explains the third.

“I’ll show you my terrible tusks,” trumpets the mammoth. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s tusks! He runs away and two sages remain.

“I’ll stomp you with my terrible feet!” the mammoth declares. But only one of the blind sages is even aware of the mammoth’s feet! He runs away, leaving one blind sage.

“I’ll defeat you with my mammoth philosophy of nonviolence!”

There’s a pause.

“Yoink!” says the last blind sage, grabbing half of the pasta wheel. The mammoth seizes the other half. They each run away, treating the pasta in ill manner.

Later, Arthur Pendragon falls.

He bleeds from many wounds.

“Oh, Arthur,” says a wheel of miraculous pasta. “You were the best of England.”

This is in fact not true. The best of England was probably the curry. But pasta does not know such things.

“So hungry,” murmurs the dying king.

“Partake of my flesh, my liege,” the pasta wheel says. “You will never die.”

Two pasta wheels remain.

They roll around the world causing all kinds of havoc.

One meets a man.

They fall in love.

It is the forbidden love. It is the love between man and pasta: that slippery, boiling love that slowly stiffens as it cools, eventually becoming dry and tasteless.

Heaven frowns upon this love.

The man is chastised.

The pasta is cast up into the sky, where it becomes a new constellation.

Thus in these days there is only one wheel of miracle pasta left upon the Earth.

There is only one miracle left to guide us, to guard us, to shepherd us, and to bring us hope.

Treasure it while ye may; the world progresses swift.

If Animals Had Elemental Powers

There would be parrots with water powers.

They would live under water.

They would make raucous noises like “Squawk! bubble bubble bubble! Squawk! bubble bubble bubble!

This would be very disconcerting for the sailors.

There would be burning tyrannosaurus rexes. They would not be extinct because their fire powers would allow them to survive K-T extinction events such as the one that killed all of the non-elemental dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The burning tyrannosaurus rexes would laugh and laugh as they rampaged through American cities but in turn people would laugh and laugh and laugh at their flaming stubby little hands.

It is actually possible that the flaming dinosaurs would not survive but it is definite that any tyrannosaurus rexes with K-T elemental powers would still be around, so, anyway.

There would be at least one Metallic Hopping Vampire. He’d be like a Hopping Vampire, only with powers over metal. That’d be so cool!

And there would be sharks who could jump twenty feet out of the water, hang there, and form bullets out of the wind to devastate their enemies. To hunt these sharks you would need a bigger boat. A bigger, bulletproof, flying boat. And lasers. And even then it would be a near thing.

There would be octopi who would assemble in eight-octopus teams using their aquatic telepathy. It is arguably not so good to be able to talk to fish when one is the King of Atlantis but it is very good when one is a fish and normally unable to communicate at all.

There would be koi with the ability to disrupt bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a terrible element but it is the element that koi get and the koi are not technically to blame for its presence in the traditional Chinese six-element cycle.

Who is to blame for that, anyway?

Bees. Bees are to blame for the traditional Chinese six-element cycle and also they sting people so Hitherby Dragons will not give them any elemental superpowers they do not already possess.

There would be elephants with special elemental ninja powers. For example there would be an elephant master of snow and ice. If you asked the other elephants who the coldest elephant ninja master is, they would invariably trumpet, douse you in water, and then indicate the snow elemental master. In addition there would be a shadow elephant—an umbral elephant, as it were—who could slip under your door and then manifest and charge you.

Charging shadow elephants are very scary even if you take away their credit cards because the phone book overflows with companies willing to extend shadowy elephant ninjas new lines of credit with no questions asked. They can even do it mid-confrontation, so that it might go like this:

“Ha ha,” laughs strong-jawed Buck Williams, brandishing the elephant’s credit card and thus preventing it from charging.

“Trumpet!” trumpets the shadowy elephant ineffectually.

Then the shadowy elephant spies one of many NO QUESTIONS ASKED credit card offers on the table next to the door where strong-jawed Buck Williams, son of Giorgi, keeps his unread mail.

Swiftly the elephant seizes it.

Swiftly the elephant mails it.

Then the elephant, oh so ungraciously, looks smug.

Buck’s eyes widen. In bullet-time, he turns and lunges for his elephant gun. He fills it with buck shot. He levels it. But it is too late.

“Trumpet!” trumpets the triumphant elephant.

He doesn’t ever pay for the charges. It’s a bad debt!

The elephant isn’t the last elemental animal we will examine. There are also earth beetles. These are beetles capable of burrowing through the dirt. Right through the earth! People can’t do that. We don’t have the requisite elemental mastery of earth, which is the problem.

Earth beetles are also good at throwing gigantic rocks at their enemies and at making clever balls out of dried dung.

“What a clever ball of dried dung!” one might praise, seeing them.

Such a compliment makes earth beetles puff up with pride!

Metallic Hopping Vampire would like to clarify that hopping vampires are not animals and so his hypothetical metal powers have nothing to do with the premise for this entry. Oops!

Finally there would be owls who fly around shooting lightning at things. One of them might try shooting lightning at a K-T-powered tyrannosaurus rex.

Bam! K-T extinction event!

That’d show those elemental-powered animals.

After a while, Martin says, “Today’s insight is apparently . . . not to taunt large predators that can cause K-T extinction events.”

Solemnly observes Jane: “People needed to know.”

Sellurt and Morgan: The Ark

It is at first Sellurt’s assumption that Noah is exaggerating regarding the number of animals stored on the Ark.

He can hear them, of course. There are always sounds. There is trumpeting and barking and buzzing and keening and at night there is a thin distant wailing that merges with the creaking and shifting and croaking of the wood.

And he sees no small number of them—the zebras, the antelope, the ostriches, the platypuses, and the lions, of course, the lions, more than two of them, more than seven of them, more than he can count, their great padded feet always stalking through the decks.

There is impressive biodiversity on the Ark.

But Sellurt has studied the Earth. He knows how many species there are.

They cannot all be on the Ark.

They are too many.

They are endless.

Mehanem—or Noah, as everyone calls him—is always busy. He does not have time to meet with Sellurt and Morgan. Thus it is that the two visitors from the Galactic Confederacy are abandoned there to the depths below deck, to watch through the portholes the endless dreary rain and listen to the skittering and scratching in the walls. Sometimes Sellurt’s eyes will close and he will wake up to the feather-soft touch of a spider or mosquito crawling across his leg; and each time, he observes with interested horror, it is a different species than he has ever seen before.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Morgan, after a while.

Morgan is sitting at the window, dropping coins from the porthole, watching for and failing to see that moment when they strike the water and vanish into the immensity of the deep.

“It doesn’t matter?” Sellurt asks.

“I mean,” Morgan says, “humans can’t breathe water, right?”

In Sellurt’s mind there is a momentary fantasy of drowning one of Mehanem’s sons, the human’s arms and legs flailing, his face slowly turning blue, his animal noises grinding to a halt.

Then Sellurt shakes his head.

“No,” he agrees. “They can’t.”

“Then their civilization is dead. It doesn’t matter that we’re not able to invite them to join the Galactic Confederacy. They’re dead. It’s over.”

It has been seven days now and the rain has not ceased to fall.

“Surely it’s just this subcontinent,” says Sellurt.

Morgan looks out.

“A whole world can’t die to rain,” Sellurt says.

“It’s surprising,” says Morgan. “How many animals there are. Whether or not he really got them all. Where do you think they go, when we can’t see them?”

On the ninth day, when Sellurt goes to the hatch that leads to the upper levels, he finds two lions there. They are between him and the hatch. They have gingivitis, thanks to their poor dental hygiene, and their maws are dripping blood.

“You’ll have to let me by,” says Sellurt.

But the male lion yawns, with its great yellow teeth, and its breath is rank.

“God,” mutters Sellurt.

He backs away.

There is the sound of hooves on the deck beside him, the heat of fur in the air, the whining of a fly, but when he turns to track the beast’s location with his eyes he cannot see anything but the wooden halls.

Sellurt finds a place where he can hear human footsteps, endless human footsteps, pacing on the decks above. He hammers on the ceiling. He shouts. He is dignified at first but then he screams until he’s hoarse, until he cannot breathe, until he falls and curls upon himself below.

The air is thick and fuzzy and he is sure he is surrounded by the beasts, but when he opens his eyes they are not there.

“Are you okay?” Morgan says, when he finds him.

“I’m fine,” Sellurt says.

“Okay.”

“I’m fine,” Sellurt repeats, and then he says: “This is intolerable.”

A koala shares their evening meal that day. It is the first time that either of the aliens have ever seen one, and the last they ever will.

When Sellurt checks the hatch again, the lions are still there.

Every time he checks the hatch, the lions are still there.

The humans are beyond Sellurt and Morgan’s reach.

“It must be Noah,” Sellurt tells Morgan. “The humans are more advanced than we believed.”

“Hm?”

“The rain. This isn’t natural rain. It’s something they’re doing. They have a machine. Noah is doing it. He has a machine.

“Why would they kill everyone off?”

“Why aren’t there more of them on the boat?” Sellurt says. “Why were they all left to drown? There’s plenty of room. They could fit twenty, thirty more families in here. But the lions kept them away. The lions stood outside the Ark and kept them away. He wanted them to die.”

“Don’t obsess,” Morgan says.

“What?”

“We’re an advanced galactic species,” says Morgan. “I’m sure we can figure out some way to deal with lions, if we have to. We could use our stunners. Or some kind of telepathic mind control. The options,” and he gestures extravagantly, “are endless.”

Sellurt sits down heavily.

“Yes,” he says, bitterly. “I’m sure we could.”

There is a great long-legged bug probing at his hand. He’s not sure where it came from. It wasn’t there when he sat down.

He will not shudder, Sellurt decides. He is a citizen of the Galactic Confederacy. He is above such distress.

His meeting with Noah will wait.

On the eighteenth day, Morgan observes, “There are too many animals.”

There is a distant sound of slithering. It is very dark and the damp seeps in through the wood.

“Too many?”

“They are endless,” says Morgan. “Never mind what Noah claims. There are too many different animals, just the ones we’ve seen. They can’t all fit in here, not with this much free space.”

The rats stare at him from the rafters, their red eyes glowing. There is the dry scraping noise of scales on wood. There is a peculiar, choking cough.

“They have to fit,” Sellurt says. “They’re here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no room.”

Sellurt leans back. His eyes are blank and white. He is thinking. He is counting, in his head.

“There’s no room,” he agrees.

The air is hot. It is the steam of a zoo, of a kennel, of a hundred thousand bodies pumping warmth and stench into the air.

Sellurt swats at his arm.

“Why,” he asks plaintively, “did Noah save the wasps?”

There is silence for a time.

“We’ll go,” says Morgan. “We’ll go. We’ll deal with the lions. We’ll face them down.”

“Yes,” says Sellurt.

Something clammy brushes against Morgan’s face. He waves his hand at it but it is gone.

“Stupid frogs,” Morgan adds.

They rise.

They walk in the direction of the hatch.

Morgan stops.

“Don’t stop,” Sellurt says. “We have to get out of here. We have to get to the hatch. I think we will go mad, Morgan, if we stay.”

Morgan is staring at the air, with his head tilted to one side, a peculiar expression on his face.

“Morgan?”

“We have walked the length of the Ark,” Morgan says. “And more. And still there is no hatch.”

“Ridiculous,” says Sellurt.

And there in the dimness and in no specific direction: not east, not north, not south, not west, Sellurt can make out a shaft that rises through the levels of the ship, above and below, through more floors and spaces than he can count.

“Don’t you see?” Morgan says, his voice immensely small and tiny in the emptiness of the Ark.

“No,” protests Sellurt. “No. I don’t.”

“It’s endless.”

Sellurt can feel the breath of the lions at his back, and there is everywhere to run.

(Still Sick) Stacking Mammals and Sid

Gelling agents are often made from various emotions. It is very inefficient to use happiness as a gelling agent, while sadness is extremely effective. That is why Jell-O jiggles so often so tragically. However this story is not about jiggling or gelling, but rather about stacking mammals and Sid.

It is possible to stack mammals to achieve almost any desirable effect. This requires sticky mammals, such as sticky goats and sticky elephants. These are sticky mammals because they adhere to one another and they bear live young. Sometimes this is a consequence of pregnancy and at other times a consequence of inappropriate stacking. Always read the assembly instructions before stacking mammals!

Not every mammal is naturally sticky. You can test this out. Attempt to stack a cat on a dog. They may cuddle happily, or they may completely fail to adhere. That’s because their natural stickiness isn’t adequate to the task of stacking. You can also perform this experiment with cats and easily surprised pandas. Take note of the fact that this will surprise such pandas.

In order to make mammals stickier one can use a gelling agent. This renders the mammal in question into a gelatinous mammal. Gelatinous mammals are always sticky.

Some gelling agents are made with glue. Others are made with happiness!

In the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals there are many mammals made gelatinous with joy and stacked into useful configurations. There is a stack of mammoths that forms the local government and end-to-end opossums that provide advanced communication services. Always the mammals there are happy, and their land is full of rainbows and gumdrops and singing.

Among the mammals move the shimmer-things, which are things that manifest as visual distortions, or, shimmers. Some of the mammals think these things are angels. Others hold different characteristic beliefs regarding the shimmer-things.

Sid is a gelatinous ostrich. He lives in the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals. It is the default consensus in scientific circles that ostriches are not mammals, but there are many specific objections that serious researchers have raised to this classification. These include the very real possibility that the “ostrich eggs” sold on the market are in fact buffalo eggs. If you have ever savored a hearty buffalo steak over fried ostrich eggs and hashed platypus then you probably understand why many important culinary institutes support this theory. This is the basis on which the shimmer-things made Sid gelatinous and stacked him in the Valley with the others.

“Can you make it rain?” Sid asks the shimmer-things.

The shimmer-things stack the mammals appropriately to make it so. The sky glooms. Thunder rattles. Then lightning spears down and rain drums against the earth.

Sid hides his head in the ground. That’s how impressed he is!

Then he pulls his head out. He looks sly.

“Can you make China untether the yuan from the dollar?”

The shimmer-things form a swirling vortex of indecision. Then they whisk about restacking happy animals.

“Whee!” shouts a lemur, as it is rapidly rearranged relative to various wildebeests.

“Grmf,” grumbles a gelatinous bear.

“In a move that could trim the trade gap with the United States, China revalued its currency higher against the dollar Thursday,” says CNN.

Sid hides his head even deeper in the sand this time. He’s very impressed.

But after a while, he pulls his head back out.

“So,” says Sid slyly, “if I wanted to see what being unhappy was like, you could just restack some mammals and I’d know. Right?”

The shimmer-things rotate in a fanblade array.

“Hm?” challenges Sid.

“No,” say the shimmer-things.

Sid looks blankly at the shimmer-things.

“If we’d wanted to make gelatinous mammals unhappy,” explain the shimmer-things, “then we could have stacked them much more efficiently in the first place.”