Colony Collapse

To bumblebee is to become a bumblebee; and the price of that becoming is your death.

The news is always full of stories.

Bumblebees are squished;
Licked up;
Yakked out;
and, lastly, wiped.

The Lady Devereaux—as all the ladies Devereaux had before—expresses bombastic disdain.

“We need them, yes,” she says.

One arm waves, broadly. A length of lace cuts the air.

“As we need all those sorts. The grouting ants, the toilet skinks, and the far-too-serious badgers of City Hall. But it is . . . hymenopteraic,” she says. “Segmenting your eyes; growing the antennae; carrying about the slops of flower sex—it is not done.”

“Hymenopteral,” says Emeline, behind her too-large glasses.

Grammar constrains the Lady Devereaux. She feels it binding her as her corset might—not literally, but still a certain coarse constraint.

“The adjective is hymenopteral,” Emeline concludes.

The Lady Devereaux sighs. She sinks down into her chair. She gestures Emeline to her lap, and gently she brushes Emeline’s hair.

“So it is,” she says.

“Mum Grayden,” Emeline says—here referring to Heloise Grayden, across the road—“is proud of Robert; so she says.”

There is a peculiar misery to Emeline’s expression now. Robert had been a funny child, in his too-tight suits and his niceties, but he was more to her than her brother Adric or the Skevinses down the road. And you can follow the story of a bumblebee in the papers—the government was always very proper in keeping towns up-to-date on the accomplishments of their bees—but you cannot play with a bumblebee. You cannot drink hot cocoa with a bumblebee, if you do not want it to drown or become sick of chocolate poisoning or burn up after coming too close to the chocolate and forgetting how to fly. And you certainly cannot play Scrabble, gin, or DS Pokemon while doing so. Even a fantasy tea party is somewhat stifled when it is only yourself and a bee; and Robert had flown on not long after his transformation in any case.

“Mum Grayden,” says the Lady Devereaux, “is putting her best face on.

There were five of them living in Emeline’s house, which is to say, the Lady Devereaux; her daughter Morgaine; her son-in-law Edward, of whom nothing further shall be said; and her grandchildren Emeline and Adric.

In the mornings Emeline would eat breakfast, always a toasted bagel with a cream cheese spread, a glass of orange juice, and occasionally an egg. She would shower and change from her pajamas into clothing suitable for school; then she would catch the bus. Later, after receiving an education, she would return home and while away her evenings on study, family time, and play; and on no occasion did she reveal herself as anything other than the kind of person who remains human all their life.

It takes a peculiar kind of dignity to live as a human all one’s life—given, of course, that one should have the means—

But the ladies Devereaux mostly did.

Now Heloise Grayden visits one afternoon for tea; and Emeline breaks her silence to say, “I think that they should let the bees come home.”

It is one of the opinions voiced in the local paper; and she is quoting Harvard Elling of that paper when she finishes, “It is a matter of simple justice.”

Mum Grayden makes a noise; it is a strange sort of noise, half-gasp, half-snort, indelicate and covered shortly after with a napkin to her lips.

“Naturally, no person ought to be—constrained,” says Lady Devereaux.

It is surprisingly kind of her to say; then she spoils it altogether by continuing, “Although I’m sure there are considerations— stinging and flying in people’s eyes and such. If there weren’t some regulation, wouldn’t bees just do as they like and make the ecosystem worse? I’m sure the government bees as compassionate as it can.”

“Mum,” murmurs Morgaine.

Morgaine looks away from Lady Devereaux and extends a hand towards Heloise. Heloise follows it with her eyes but does not take it. Instead she places her napkin down with great delicacy and offers Lady Devereaux a kind of wet-eyed grin.

“When the flowers bloom on the trees, and the orchards live—I think, we wouldn’t have anything to eat, would we? We wouldn’t have the means to live, not like this anyway, without our boys in yellow—there’s no way to say it—without our boys in yellow, busy in the hives, inseminating the queen. Isn’t it so? So I think, isn’t it good? I don’t know what I’d do if he came home.”

The Lady Devereaux fixes her expression in a porcelain smile.

“Yes,” she says. “God save them.”

Emeline frowns.

“Inseminating is Latin,” she says, deep in thought. “Inseminare: to sow, implant. Pray, if you could tell me—”

The Lady Devereaux stands abruptly.

“A wonderful tea,” she says, in sharp swift cadence. “Thank you for your visit, dear Heloise, and may you come again. Children ought, dear Emeline, be seen and not heard. Have you entirely completed your studies for the weekend? I feel I need a walk; adieu.”

Her bustle proves eponymous as she retreats from the room.

“Do not be a bumblebee, Emeline,” says Heloise.

Her hands come down on Emeline’s. They grip them tight.

“Not a bumblebee. Not even a queen. Not even some other kind of bee. Do not.”

Morgaine says, sharply, “Heloise!”

Heloise stares at her hands and Emeline’s for a moment. Then she shakes her head. She looks confused, as if she does not understand how she has come to this place, this time, and this position.

Slowly she pulls away.

I think,” Adric says, in what shall be his only line, “that she’ll become an owl.”

But this is the fallacy of Lamarck; and for his deviation from evolutionary orthodoxy Emeline punishes him with itching powder in his sheets.

At school the next week three boys are singing in the playground:

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mother be so proud of me?”

Emeline, who is walking past them to the library, stops to hear them out.

“I’m bringing home a baby bumblebee.
“Ouch! He stung me!”

She frowns at them distantly.

The version of the song she’d always heard began with “I wish I were—”

A good devotional song, that one. This one—

This one was perverse.

“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,” the boys are singing, squishing their hands together.
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m squishing up my baby bumblebee,
“Eww! It’s all over me!”

Stop it,” she says.

Her body is rigid. Her arms are at her sides and trembling. The boys turn to stare at her.

Stop it,” she says. “They’re bees.

“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,” one of the boys starts, in a soothing, pacifying, and entirely sarcastic tone. He scrubs off his hands. The others join in.
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee,
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I’m wiping off my baby bumblebee—”

They sneer at her.

“Look! All clean!” they say and show her their hands; but she cannot see them through her furious tears.

Stiff-legged, she walks away.

Behind her, she hears,

“I’m licking up my baby bumblebee—”

That day she scores a 92 on her spelling test, mangling phylopraxy and palingenesis entirely and with two furious strokes of her pen.

It is not an error the Lady Devereaux accepts; Emeline goes without her evening meal that night.

Bumblebees—

It is not like it is with honey bees.

A bumblebee can sting and then survive; it can leave the hives, abandoning its peers, and make its way along the roads to home; it is fearsome-furred and powerful and strong—

It has a better life than a honey bee’s.

But to bumblebee is to become a bumblebee, and the price of that is death.

It may wait twelve months for you—fifteen, if you are lucky, young, and strong—but death, for a bumblebee, is as inevitable as the snow.

That winter, the papers tell Emeline of Robert Grayden’s death, and Mum Grayden hangs the yellow wreath upon her door.

“Sometimes I think that Adric ought become a llama,” Emeline says.

This suggestion is one students find quite clever—entirely deniable, if one knows certain details about Tibet, and while undignified not so harsh as to be cruel.

But at the table where she and Lady Devereaux are taking a late and solitary tea, the suggestion falls quite flat.

“A Devereaux does not become a beast,” the Lady Devereaux says.

Emeline swallows a bit of scone and many unwise remarks.

“I don’t know how Robert became a bee, and then he died,” she says, after a time. “And everyone says it was heroic, but they don’t— they don’t honor it.”

“It is very hard for poor Heloise,” says Lady Devereaux.

She tidies up the crumbs on her plate.

“Perhaps we should invite her by; speak about . . . a breath of air, you know, taking down the yellow, coming back into society again. It is not good to spend your time in melancholy; she still is healthy enough, I’m sure she and Mr. Grayden can fill their house again.”

“But—” says Emeline.

“Tut!” says Lady Devereaux. “Finish your scone, young lady, and then we shall draw your bath.”

In Church they sing,

“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“Won’t my mommy be so proud of me?
“I wish I were a baby bumblebee;
“A male! Or a queen!”

“I wish I were a military boar;
“Tusks and hide and shouting a great roar;
“I wish I were a military boar;
“Charge!”

But even when they sing about service, the minister mostly talks about hellfire and money.

That is why when Emeline finds herself at the transmogrification office, staring down at the clipboards and wondering, she feels utterly and entirely alone.

“If you’re under 18,” the recruiter says, “Your Mum or Dad’ll have to sign.”

“I’m 18,” Emeline says.

The recruiter looks at her. If you didn’t have access to her sanitary cupboard, you’d be hard pressed to prove she’d hit puberty.

“12 at most,” he says.

“I just have to say I’m 18,” Emeline says. “You don’t have to believe me. And it just means I live longer, after, if I’m not.”

His eyes go carefully and formally blank.

“Can’t get your Mum or Dad to agree, then?”

“‘A Devereaux doesn’t become a beast,'” Emeline quotes. “‘A Devereaux is always gracious. A Devereaux always uses perfect grammar.’

“— even if she doesn’t!” Emeline adds, in mild outrage.

“It’s tough,” the recruiter says. “It’s not— you understand that it’s not a way to get away from too much homework? Or spite your parents for grounding you?”

“Everything is dying,” Emeline says, “because the bees are dying. The plants will die. The animals. The people. All the web of life come undone.

“If you ask me,” she says, and realizes as she says this that she has become everything that is not a Devereaux, “there ought to be a draft.”

The recruiter makes one of those faces adults sometimes make.

“18, huh?” he says.

“18.”

And that is how she took the change.

The walk home afterwards is the hardest thing she’s ever done. She tells herself it is because her body is changing, but this is not so, not yet. That takes a few days to start.

It is because she is still human, rather, and knows what will happen.

“Mother,” she says, “Grandmother. It is my intention; I mean, I want to—I mean, I will— bumblebee.”

And the Lady Devereaux goes white, which is exactly as expected, and her breath rattles in her corset-constrained chest like the ball of a pinball machine, thumping back and forth.

“I said,” Emeline adds, jutting her chin, “I was 18.”

But what Emeline did not expect was the reaction of Morgaine.

They do not strike Emeline’s mother down, these words—though they strike her, yes, wash through Morgaine like lightning; but there is motion and not stillness, the bending of sleeves and jacket and the crinkling of skirts; and her mother wraps bloused arms around Emeline like package paper around a treasure, and her hug is deep and warm and faintly crackling.

“Oh, Emeline,” she says.

And there is strange wonder here; strange pride and fear; there is something here that is more than sorrow.

It is everything, and more, for thirty seconds of her life.

After that, Emeline begins to understand what a corset must be like, and why the Lady Devereaux is with such great frequency so strange.

Stitch Doll Boxing

Emily and Jordan rummage around at the end of the alley.

She finds a candy cane. She reads its label.

“World peace candy cane,” it says. “Delicious peppermint on the outside—world peace on the inside! 90 calories.”

She wrinkles her nose.

“Too sweet!” she says. She tosses it aside. She rummages around some more.

She finds a newspaper that shows the future.

She flips through the headlines. She notes the lottery number. She tosses it aside.

“Ooh,” Jordan says.

“Ooh?”

“Pony!”

He’s found a magical pony with utensils for its mane.

“Oh, man, I wanted a pony.”

“Mneh,” he says, sticking out his tongue. “Magical fork pony.”

“Stupid pony,” Emily sulks. Then she brightens. “Here!”

She holds up a pair of x-ray dinners. They’re like microwave dinners, but you can see through them. “Salisbury steak,” she says. “And welsh rarebit!”

“Score!”

Jordan and Emily lead the pony out the chink in the back wall of the alley. They head around the block. When they get to the man with his Stitch Boxing booth, at the alley’s other mouth, they cross the street to their parents’ little white house. They get the key out from under the mat. They sneak quietly in.

Emily pads down the hall and around the corner.

The pony tromps up into the foyer.

Emily and Jordan both freeze at the clomp-clomp-clomp sound of the magical pony’s hooves on the foyer floor.

“Anyone?” Jordan hisses.

There’s a pause.

“Nope!” Emily says, cheerfully.

She strolls back. She turns on the lights. She pops the welsh rarebit into the microwave oven. The microwave whirs and the little table in it spins.

“Thank God,” Jordan says. “A night to ourselves.”

Emily grins at him.

“Want to go rummaging again after dinner?” he says.

“Nah,” she says. “The bullies were bad today.”

He looks her over clinically.

“You don’t seem too bruised,” he says. “Who was it?”

“The irons.”

Jordan whistles.

“Though I think,” Emily says, “that they should really call Steel Jaw Kay a steel, and not an iron.”

“Hard to call a bully what they don’t want to be called,” Jordan says.

His pony flops on the floor and Jordan flops, in turn, against its warm magical belly.

“You got off pretty easy,” he says.

“I’m tough,” she says.

“If you were tough,” he says, “you wouldn’t be beaten on by bullies.”

“I’m a pacifist!” she protests.

“Hmm,” he says dubiously.

“It’s just,” she says, grabbing the rarebit and tossing the steak in the microwave, “all the parts of them that aren’t iron. That I don’t want to hurt. And it’s not like I can do anything I like to Lindsey’s leg or Luke’s hand, neither; I mean, what if it got bent up and she couldn’t walk?”

“Why wouldn’t she be able to walk if Iron Fist Luke got bent?”

Emily parses that. She frowns.

“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s a very good question.”

I think,” he says, then pauses. “You the rarebit or the steak?”

She looks at the x-ray dinner. She hesitates. Then she says, firmly, “Steak,” and slides forward to give him the rarebit. He grabs a fork and munches.

I think,” he says, “that you’re just not up for a fight, and this whole pacifism thing is an excuse.”

“You would,” she says.

“Eh?”

“It’s your limited brain capacity,” she says.

He makes a face.

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, maybe I’ll just get an electronic brain coprocessor from the back of the alley,” he says.

“Maybe you should!”

He sighs. He reviews. He thinks he’s lost that one.

“Still think you’re chicken,” he says.

“No way!”

“Way.”

“No way!”

“Way.”

“I’ll box Stitch,” she says.

Words like a bomb.

Now he sits up. Now he looks serious. He says, “Really?”

“All fabric and stuffing,” she says. “So it’s not very well immoral.”

“But Mayor Cloon—“

“Mayor Cloon’s a ponce,” she says. “He couldn’t box his way out of a paper bag.”

“And Mrs. Persimmons?”

This gives Emily a reason to hesitate. Mrs. Persimmons is actually pretty scary, and the Stitch doll took her down fast. But finally she says, “Well, it’s not very well courage if it’s a guaranteed win, now is it?”

“You’re a better man than I,” he says, waving his fork and dripping a clear bit of cheese on his face.

He scrubs it off.

“When?”

She looks at the microwave. It’s having a hard time with the x-ray dinner due to the Salisbury nature of the steak aggravating the discrepancy in the wavelengths.

Her stomach rumbles but her chin comes up.

“Now,” she says.

And he gets awkwardly to his feet and leaves the fork pony there and he follows her out, right to the Stitch Boxing booth.

“Box Stitch?” the booth man asks. “5 cents.”

She looks between the man and the Stitch doll. The man’s got a salt and pepper beard. The Stitch doll’s got the seasoned look of a doll who’s been in a hundred fights and never lost not one.

“Box Stitch,” he says, his voice carnie-low, “and if you win, you can go down to the other end of the alley, and there, little girl, there—“

“There?”

“It’s like materialist Narnia,” he says. “Like do-anything-you-please Disneyland. You can get anything you might want there, if you can just get past Stitch.”

She looks at him.

She’s not entirely sure how to play this one.

“I find that hard to believe,” Jordan says. His voice is consciously flat. He holds up a nickel. “So I will certainly pay this young woman’s boxing fee and see what then transpires.”

The man grins.

“You really gonna do it, Emily?” Jordan says, in his normal voice.

“For the chance to win anything I could possibly want?” she asks. She stifles the laughter that seeks so desperately to rise. “How can I possibly resist?”

Jordan’s voice lowers.

“Seriously? This doll is badass. I mean, you’ve got weight on him, but he’s got four arms and I think he can talk.”

Emily looks Jordan straight in the eye.

“Do it,” she says.

And Jordan tosses the man the coin.

Bonus! Due to recent interest in the author’s intent, I’ve posted earlier versions of this story on merin.hitherby.com

The Gingerbread Man

Emilia lives deep under the sea.

She lives in a metal dome.

It is round but not too round. It has a carpeted floor. It is warm. Inside and outside it has lights.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes she sees a shark.

Sometimes she sees a giant octopus. It will squeeze her house but it can’t do much compared to the pressure of the sea.

It is angry because Emilia is still alive.

“Bii,” Emilia says to the octopus. “I wanted to live alone.”

The octopus swishes its tentacles and flies away through the sea.

Emilia has a chimney. It is totally stopped up but Santa Claus still finds his way there every Christmas. He doesn’t bring her toys any more. He hasn’t since she was a little girl of seven. These past few years he’s brought her supplies instead.

Food.

Water.

Tools for repairing things when they break.

Books with instructions on the use of tools.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes Emilia makes gingerbread. Usually she just makes a loaf. But sometimes she makes gingerbread men.

She’ll give them raisin eyes and cherry noses.

She’ll trim them down to their fingers and their toes.

Today she checks in the oven on the gingerbread men. She’s supposed to just press the button that says “Light.” But instead she opens the oven up and lets the heat out. That’s her mistake!

It’s also the gingerbread men’s opportunity.

There’s only one gingerbread man who’s smart enough to act when his moment comes. He’s a wily old rogue of a gingerbread boy. His name’s Raisin Jack.

Raisin Jack, he shakes himself out.

Raisin Jack, he’s up and he runs.

The gingerbread man!

He’s out of the pan!

With a grin on his face like the devil’s only son’s!

Once he’s put some distance between himself and Emilia, Raisin Jack thinks about where to go next. He’s standing there thinking when the Roomba 2500 trundles in.

It bumps into Raisin Jack. Its suction engine vrums.

“Oh, no,” says Raisin Jack.

He runs, runs, runs, like the devil’s at his back.

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”

Somewhat to his disappointment, the Roomba isn’t trying to catch him. It’s actually been kind of intimidated by the bumping and it’s now circling off to harrass the bookshelves.

So Raisin Jack stops and he thinks. He’s standing there thinking when Emilia comes along.

“Please,” she says.

Her face is as white as a sheet.

“Please, no.”

The gingerbread man, he’s out of the pan!

Raisin Jack runs, like the devil’s at his back!

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the gingerbread man!”

And he runs runs runs and he’s at the door.

And Emilia’s not behind him any more.

She’s running for the bedroom.

She’s rooting through her trunk

She’s looking for a picture

Of the world before it sunk.

She’s looking for a picture

And she finds it just before

The gingerbread man

Raisin Jack

He

Opens up that door.

The Cautionary Tale of Abermund Plain

Sally opens herself up.

She unleashes the riotous surges of color and noise inside her. They pour out onto the ground. They slurch about and then congeal into her fetch.

That’s when her Mom Emma walks in.

“Sally!” Emma says.

The fetch looks up. It’s a little rabbit. It perks an ear.

“Sally,” Emma says, “get back in your body.”

The fetch twitches its nose.

It thinks about disagreeing.

But then it sighs. It slurches back into its component colors. It crawls back into Sally and she closes herself up.

“But Mom,” says Sally.

“If you leave your body too often or too long,” Emma says, “you’ll forget things. Important things. Like . . . like, words, and geometry, and, and how old you are!”

Emma looks triumphant, as if this argument is very convincing.

Sally juts her chin.

“Don’t need to know that stuff,” she says. “You can ‘memmer it!”

“You might even forget,” Emma warns darkly, “how to get back in your body at all.”

Sally makes a dismissive noise.

She wipes her nose on the back of her hand, and then she giggles.

“Boogers!” she declares.

It is a fine joke, Sally thinks. It’s the kind of joke that immediately dissolves any tension in the room. She can’t help laughing at it, herself, and after a minute, Emma laughs too.

It’s just that funny a word.

Sally is six years old. She does not know much about the world, outside of things like the high comedy of boogers and the love that surrounds her every day. She does not know, for example, that outside her city there is a great and ancient world. She does not know the secrets of the great rusting robots that lay scattered across Abermund Plain; nor how Zax of Proxima came to Earth, and what he did there; nor why the Sangler dismissed the gods. She knows how old she is, and how to dress herself (as long as she is not too ambitious with the shoes), and a bit of math, and a bit of spelling. That’s pretty much it as her worldliness goes.

Sally lives in an old presswood house with chromeless net access, a green grass yard, and a 20th century aesthetic. The ancient style is not because either Sally or Emma are Luddites nostalgic for the past; rather, her home lacks modernity because raising a child in a full-tech zone is a task beyond the capacity of any mother’s love.

Now, one night, despite all of Emma’s warnings, Sally looks at the moon and she just isn’t ready for sleep. So she kicks off her socks and she throws off her covers and she opens herself up and she lets her fetch out. Emma’s not here to catch her this time, so the slurching colors assemble leisurely into a rabbit and stretch languidly before hopping around the room. Then the rabbit sniffs the air. It hops up to the windowsill. It pushes the window open and wriggles out through the screen.

The rabbit heads for Abermund Plain.

It is a long journey, but not so very long for a fetch. The moon is still high when the rabbit gets there and it runs all night among the great rusted forms.

It stands on the eye-screen of a great dead robot and it looks out over the junk metal on the plain.

It burrows down into the soil and crunches a little black bug between its teeth.

It runs, full-out and loping, along the shore of Abermund Lake.

And all the while the wind is blowing against its fur and its colors leave little dots of fetch behind it and the world is full of smells and beauty and moonlight.

And then the moon sets and the world is dark and the fetch suddenly thinks, “I’m in trouble!”

So it turns.

It kicks off.

It races across the ground: the grass, the dirt, the great metal chests of the robots.

It races along the streets and sidewalks and back to Emma and Sally’s house, and it slurches through the screen and window, and it’s pouring back into Sally’s body just as the morning lights come on and the alarm sounds its little chime and Emma opens Sally’s door to make sure that she wakes up.

“Good morning, Sally!” carols Emma.

Sally wriggles in her bed. She makes sure all the pieces are tucked back in but she doesn’t put back on her socks.

“Good morming, Mom!”

Sally gets up. She puts her feet on the carpet. She wriggles her toes. She looks happily at her Mom, at least in part because she, Sally, was right. She let her fetch out! Nothing bad happened! It was better than a normal night’s dreaming by far!

“What would you like for breakfast?” Emma asks.

And Sally rubs her nose on the back of her hand and there’s a little glob of snot that comes off on it and suddenly she thinks of this great joke—

This great word to exclaim—

This incredibly funny thing that she could say—

And she realizes, in horror, as she gropes for the word and cannot find it, that she has left something vital on Abermund Plain.

And she stares at the back of her hand, and the silence stretches long, and her lip begins to tremble;

And Emma is looking at her as if— no, it can’t be, but as if she might have guessed where Sally has spent the night, what she has spent the night in doing—

There is no time to flail for the word!

Sally must act with dispatch!

Sally synonyms, “Consolidated snot capsules!”

And Emma stares at her, that long cool stare, and Sally knows that she has failed as a comedian.

Take heed, children!

Don’t be like Sally!

That is the cautionary tale of Abermund Plain.

Scattered (III/III)

It is difficult to say when a history ends. There is always one more story, one more truth, one more event.

From the moment of her birth, this question has nagged at Meredith:

How can I exist when I have no boundaries?

Meredith is like a rain. She pours out into the world and touches everything. On one day she is subtle; on another, she is a surging, threshing power.

She is an octopus that is thrown out.

A seagull scavenges it from the dump.

Mortimer Brown kills the seagull and feeds it to his daughter Emily in lieu of begging for scraps or yielding her to social services. The meat is not good; tainted by it, Emily begins to prophesy. Mortimer grows rich; others cease to prosper; and Emily is able to warn three people away from a six-car pileup. She cannot save the rest.

Meredith is the salt in the ground. It has already ruined one tomato and left the monster a little hungrier, a little weaker, a little more off balance.

Meredith is twisting. She twists in the currents of the world and three houses flood.

She struggles to move a hand and 1981 yields a good harvest.

She cannot disentangle herself from the world. There is no clear method for it. There is no action without consequences that she does not intend; and her mind is pounding in constant nauseating fear because she cannot find an edge to herself, because her thoughts—when not manifest in a tomato, or an octopus, or a rant of prophesy from some young girl’s lips—wander off into the immensity of her and she does not hear back from them.

“I am like God,” she thinks, once, and before she can recant the hubris of this that very thought dissolves and her mind fills with buzzing and flailing.

She sees the naiads in their streams and recognizes something in them.

The spider in the sky catches a bit of her in its web and says, “Lo, I will devour you.”

“It happens,” says Meredith.

The spider bites hold at one end and tries to suck out her internal organs but after two minutes of sucking it reels back, dizzy and bloated, and says, “You are very large.”

“I don’t know what to do about it,” Meredith confesses.

The spider shakes itself, once, twice.

It says: “You will run.”

The spider in the sky does not eat things that are very large. It is a spider and not a tick. It is already feeling kind of sick because of the Meredith it has eaten. So it tears her loose and drops her and then it goes back to the weaving.

For nine days the dawn is blue and green and pink and orange and red, and there is a taste of salt and octopus to it.

In 1986, a bit of Meredith coils away from the rest. It hides, shuddering, behind false walls of cognition that it forms around itself. It firewalls away the knowledge of itself and forms a body and becomes a her.

She says, “I am that which I have intended.”

This is the wrong answer to her question, and so she ceases to exist, but that is of little matter to her.

She runs.

This history ends against the lens’ jagged edge.

Behind the Shelves

When Emily is just a little girl she goes to Ikea with her parents Tabitha and Betty. There is something strange—something a little like a snail and a little like a cat—that darts behind the shelves in the shelving section.

Tabitha and Betty exchange a look.

“Do you think—?” Tabitha asks.

Betty nods.

Tabitha drops to one knee. She looks seriously at Emily. “Can you wait here a moment for Mommy?” she asks.

Betty is already running towards the shelf and then around it. She has a gun in one hand—a Target .45, optimized for in-store combat. Her jacket flares out behind her.

Emily looks at Tabitha. Emily is sucking on her thumb. Emily thinks. Then she takes her thumb out of her mouth and gives Tabitha a thumbs-up signal.

“Good,” Tabitha says.

She hugs Emily and then she runs after Betty. That is the last Emily sees of her parents, for Ikea giveth and Ikea taketh away.

It has been nearly forty-five minutes, and the lights of the store are growing dim, when a manager finds her. His face is tight and sorrowful and a button on his chest reads, “Chad.”

“You are—” Chad says.

He hesitates.

“You are theirs?” he asks.

Emily looks at him.

“Betty’s? And Tabitha’s?”

Emily nods.

A muscle under Chad’s left eye twitches. Then he sighs. He sits down, tailor-style, right there on the floor in Ikea by the shelves.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Emily doesn’t understand yet.

“Your parents,” Chad says. Then he frowns, confused. “Your parents? Your mom and her sister? A friend?”

“Mommies,” Emily says.

Chad bites his lip. He shakes his head. Then he says, “They were going to expose our corrugated Swedish secrets,” he says. “They can never come back.”

Emily is not old enough to understand the phrase ‘corrugated Swedish secrets’. She says, “Snail thing?”

“Yes,” Chad says. “The snail thing.”

Emily isn’t quite sure what’s going on, but the tears are starting to come anyway. Her parents had prepared her for this, of course. It was always a possibility that sometime when they were visiting Ikea they would never come back. But the situation of emptiness that faces Emily is not yet real.

“We’ll make sure you’re taken care of, of course,” says Chad.

“Huh?”

“Your parents probably had some sort of government sanction,” Chad says. “I mean, those women were not civilians. So you probably won’t have to worry about money. But we’ll make sure. And we’ll give you a street.”

“A street?”

“When you need it,” Chad says. “Whenever you need a street, it’ll find you, and you’ll be able to come right back here.”

He rises. He dusts off his pants. He gestures around at the row after row of cheap furniture and the gaping absence of the mothers that Emily had loved.

“Won’t that be nice?” he says.

He’s telling the truth—pretty much all the way along. For example, Emily doesn’t have to worry about money. She didn’t uncover Ikea’s corrugated Swedish secrets, but she did see the snail thing, just for a moment, and that makes her valuable. She lives in a nice house and there’s an agent of Target watching over her at all times and she goes to the finest schools.

Once, when she’s sixteen, her boyfriend tries to rape her. He pins her up against the wall and he is tugging on her top and he is very surprised when suddenly instead of a wall behind her there is a street that leads to Ikea.

“Eyagh,” Emily is whimpering, even though cogent English would be more fashionable, and she shoves at him and she staggers down the street as he gapes. He doesn’t pursue her at first because he’s having too much cognitive dissonance. Then it’s too late, so he mumbles an insincere apology and turns away. The grim “I” of the Ikea sign seems to watch him all the way home.

There’s also the time when she’s twenty and she’s totally high on pot and the cops knock on her dormitory door. She’s very happy to discover a street leading straight from her dorm room to Ikea, even though Chad lectures her once she gets there on the many evils of drugs.

“You don’t find people making fine quality drugs out of pressed cardboard,” says Chad. “Not in Sweden you won’t!”

“Sweden must be totally marvelous,” Emily says.

There’s a thing that’s sort of like a cat and sort of like a snail scurrying around in the background, and if she weren’t feeling kind of mellow Emily would probably follow it and the story would end right there.

But she doesn’t, and after Chad explains how much better it is to buy brass Ikea coil lamps than drugs she goes back to her dorm.

Ikea giveth and Ikea taketh away.

When Emily is twenty-three, the space armada comes. It is a do-it-yourself space armada assembled from parts imported from Sweden. The alien invaders are cheap and sensible Ikea shoppers: the lasers they use to blast major American monuments are scarcely 70% the price of competing lasers from Target. The devastation they wreak is flimsy Swedish devastation. But as it comes from large flat saucers in the sky it is terrifying.

Emily is working in the office of Senator Johnson—one of those tireless Senators who labors day and night to draft emergency legislation to bestow war powers on the President, only to have them die in committee—as an aide.

“Fill this part out,” Johnson says.

He passes her seven blank pieces of paper and a post-it saying, “Grant the dude the power to seize Ikea assets.”

Emily begins typing up subsection A in legislative format. Three pages in, she is sweating; six pages in, she is exhausted. She cannot afford to rest.

There is a loud retort. The block shudders.

“Damn it,” says Senator Johnson.

He looks out the window. There are bits of stone and mortar flying down the street. The sidewalk has split.

“Situation, sir?” Emily says.

She daren’t look up. She’s on the last page of subsection C of the portion of the emergency bill granting the President the power to seize Ikea’s assets.

“It’s over,” the Senator says. “This building will be gone any second.”

The death rays of the space armada dance from building to building, causing them in sequence to explode.

“No,” Emily says.

“It’s over,” he stresses.

And behind Emily there is the street.

“No,” Emily begs the world. “I won’t.”

She has pride. She doesn’t want Ikea to save her. Not while it is killing everything she loves, again. Not while Ikea and America are at war. Not while she holds legislation against the franchise in her very hand.

But it is the street or death, and Emily wants to live.

The street is an incline. She staggers up the hill towards Ikea and away from the death of Washington D.C.. Her foot crunches on a skull, and she does not know whose skull it is, or how it came to be there.

She staggers into Ikea and stares full at Chad’s face, and she says, “This doesn’t make up for it.”

He looks at her and his eyes are sad.

“This doesn’t make up for it,” she says. “I don’t care if you save my life. I don’t care if you save me. You can’t make up for what you’ve done. You won’t make me forgive you for what you’ve done.”

And he shakes his head slowly and says, “My dear, the one has nothing to do with the other.”

The alien morality of Ikea is in his eyes, the corrugated Swedish ethics of him, and she sees that he is hollow and he is kind.

“If you have given up on the world,” he says, “then follow.”

And he leads her behind the shelves.

Life, Through a Film of Palmolive

Rain pours down on the open-air garden, and on Sid.

There are trees all around, and grass, and flowers. Most won’t survive the rain. There’s a set of broken old stone walls surrounding the garden. Odds are, they’ll make it through. Usually they do.

They’re nice and all, but they’re not Sid.

“It’s stupid,” opines Iphigenia.

Emily takes the candy cane she’s sucking on out of her mouth.

“Stupid?” says Emily.

“Canonically so,” says Iphigenia. “c.f. ‘coming in out of the rain, too stupid to be.'”

“Hm,” agrees Emily.

They’re standing under convenient eaves that project out from the tower that is their home.

“It would be a shame,” Emily concedes, “if he caught his death of rain.”

“It would be a harsh, cruel world.”

Emily sucks for a moment on the curved end of the candy cane. Then she says, “Is that really contingent on Sid?”

Iphigenia stares at her for a moment, then shakes her head and ignores her.

“Sid!” shouts Iphigenia.

The rain is little drops of water at first, and a sprinkling of water can’t hurt anyone. But soon there’s a bit of glowing dust mixed in too.

Sid is walking around in the garden. He’s got his left arm out like his whole body is listening and his right hand is sheltering his eyes. He’s looking up at the sky.

Now there’s cherries falling. It’s good that there are cherries falling, because not all of them will burst on impact—some will be good for breakfast in the morning, unless an antelope or dowry chest or whatnot lands on them first.

Glowing coals drift down from the sky.

“He’s not paying attention to us,” concludes Emily.

Iphigenia is brave. She darts out into the rain of water, glitter, cherries, and coals. She grabs Sid’s sleeve. She tugs.

“Hey!” she says. “Doofus!”

Sid looks down at her.

“You’ll get hurt,” she says.

Sid thinks this over. Then he takes Iphigenia’s arm and, pulling her with him, steps out of the way of a sharp-pointed anchor that falls from the sky.

“Maybe,” he concedes.

He pulls her back under the shade of an orange tree. He looks up at the sky.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” he says.

“It would be a harsh, cruel world,” Iphigenia explains, “if you got hit by a meteor and fell down, splat.”

“I’m not out here to be hit by a meteor,” Sid avers.

“Events do not always happen as you intend!”

Sid peers out at the sky. He sighs.

“You’re right,” he says. “Anchors are a bad sign. Let’s make a dash for the eaves.”

They stall a few seconds, waiting for a moment in which relatively few large objects are falling from the sky.

“You shouldn’t need me to run out here after you,” says Iphigenia. “You should be able to worry about these things on your own.”

“I do worry,” says Sid.

“You worry?”

“Unreasonably and acutely,” says Sid. “A meteor strike could render me unable to fulfill my responsibilities and accomplish the long list of things that lay ahead of me.”

“Oh,” says Iphigenia, somewhat deflated, since Sid has just adequately summarized the appropriate reasons for worry.

“But sometimes when it rains, I look up and I see a chicken-snake in the sky,” Sid says. His voice is distant and reverent. “Huge and glorious, with a great long feathered tail. And—”

His voice peaks upwards violently into panic.

“PIANO!”

Sid and Iphigenia dive for cover. The piano tears through the branches of the orange tree and hits the earth where they’d stood with a great rattling of keys.

Sid is sprawled face-first in a mud puddle.

Cherries bounce off of Sid.

Iphigenia helps him up. Their previous shelter proven unsound, they stumble straight towards the eaves.

“It is raining harder than usual,” Sid admits, with a distant disappointment.

They reach the eaves. They slump against the wall next to Emily. They watch the storm.

“Hey, can you see your chicken-snake from here?” Iphigenia asks.

“Maybe,” says Sid. “If it flies low.”

Emily takes the candy cane out of her mouth. She watches the sky. After a long moment, she points with the candy cane’s end. “There,” she says.

They can just barely see it, in the distance. It is huge. It is grand. It is eddying through the sky above the storm.

A certain tension falls from Sid. He stares out at it, rapt.

“Hey,” says Emily.

“Hey?” Sid says.

“Why do you want to see a flying chicken-snake?” Emily says.

“It makes me feel small,” says Sid.

The shape is moving away into the distance. Sid, helplessly, takes a few steps out from the eaves to see it better. Rain and glitter drift into his hair.

“Sid,” says Iphigenia, warningly.

But the rain is fading. There are no more anchors. There are no more pianos.

“I guess it’s safe,” Iphigenia sighs.

Iphigenia has spoken too soon.

A meteor tears down from Heaven like some angry angel’s shotput. It strikes Sid in the forehead. It is a very small meteor: a dazing meteor and not a murderous one. Even so, Sid still staggers, stumbles, and falls sideways under the eaves. Water, glitter, and cherries drip in a slow and steady stream onto his face.

“Huh,” he says, after a moment.

Emily pokes at Sid with her foot. “Harsh, cruel world?” she asks.

“Where?” says Sid, confused.

Proposes Iphigenia, “You’re soaking in it!”

Higher Jam

Emily can’t reach the jar on the top shelf.

“Unh!”

Emily jumps. Emily reaches. But it’s too far out of the way.

“Sid!” commands Emily.

Sid comes in from outside.

“Yes?” Sid says.

“Jump!”

Sid jumps.

“No,” Emily says. “Jump! To get the jar!”

Sid jumps towards the jar. He fails. It’s out of his reach.

“Hm,” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Well,” says Sid, “we live alone in this creaky run-down mansion.”

“Yes?”

“Which you purchased, as I recall, before any other person inhabited it.”

“That’s so,” Emily agrees.

“So it seems to me,” Sid says, “that there shouldn’t be any jars on shelves we can’t reach.”

“Huh!” says Emily.

“Indeed.”

“Do you think it really exists?” Emily asks, peering at the jar.

“Well, we see it,” Sid says.

“That much is true.”

“So it has the visual skandha. That’s an important attribute of existence.”

“I concur,” says Emily.

“What’s in it?”

“In what?”

“The jar.”

“Preserves,” Emily says. She indicates the counter. “As you can see, I have lain out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But it has no jelly.”

“Aren’t there other jars in the house?”

“Alas, no,” says Emily.

“Well, there’s the store,” Sid points out.

“By no means!” says Emily. “I cannot very well leave my sandwich to moulder while I go to the store.”

“I could eat it,” says Sid.

“What?”

“Then,” explains Sid triumphantly, “when you return from the store, you could make another!”

Emily squints at Sid.

“You seek falsely to profit from my peanut butter spreading activities.”

“I could spread the peanut butter on your sandwich,” says Sid, “when you returned. Then all would be equitable.”

“No, no,” sighs Emily. “It must be the jar.”

“Then we must think backwards,” says Sid.

“Backwards.”

“Yes.”

“The opposite of jumping is squatting,” Emily says.

She squats. She feels around on the floor.

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Emily says, “so that the floor were the ceiling, I think this would be effective.”

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Sid points out, “we would be cited for numerous violations of the building code.”

“We could banish the inspector to the dungeon,” says Emily.

“Oh?”

“There he would labor endless hours to power my great machine!”

“Your great machine uses batteries,” says Sid. “And also, I believe you dismantled it as unsuitable for your ambitions.”

Emily puffs up her cheeks and then sighs. “Once again reality intercedes.”

“In any event,” says Sid, “by thinking backwards, I meant that we should consider how the jar reached the shelf. If we recollect this process, then we can reverse it to obtain the jar.”

“It was there yesterday,” Emily says.

“Was it?”

“Yes,” Emily confirms.

“And the day before?”

“Indeed.”

“Last Christmas?”

“No,” says Emily. She thinks. “Last Christmas, there was the ham.”

“How did we get the ham down?” Sid asks, momentarily diverted.

“I adapted the taser into an electric grapple,” Emily says.

“Ah, yes,” says Sid.

“That would not work with preserves,” Emily says.

“No.”

They stare at the jar.

“I am starting to recall,” says Emily. “There was a giant.”

“A giant?”

“The large, cloud-haired giant,” says Emily. “You remember. Ms. Brown.”

“Oh, yes,” says Sid.

“I said, ‘Ms. Brown, before you go, could you shelve these preserves?'”

“Clever thought! Giants have little trouble with shelves.”

“And she looked down at me with these gentle eyes and said, ‘Of course.'”

“So,” says Sid. “We need only find Ms. Brown and ask her to fetch down the jar.”

“Focus, Sid!” snaps Emily.

“Hm?”

“If my sandwich moulders while I search for Ms. Brown, the entirety of this effort would be in vain; even Ms. Brown would laugh at me, with great booming sounds.”

“Alas,” says Sid.

“We could poke the jar with a stick,” Emily says.

“This is a proposal with many possible outcomes,” Sid points out.

Emily considers. She glares up at the jar.

“If I had a proper assistant,” Emily says, “I’m sure this would be much easier.”

“Your life would be a glorious montage of roses and victories,” Sid agrees.

“I will stand on your shoulders,” Emily says.

“And if you fall?”

“Ha! Then I fall.”

“And if you die?”

“Then I die!”

“And I may have your sandwich?”

“Let us consider alternatives,” says Emily.

Sid saddens.

“We could make another giant,” Emily proposes.

“Really? Another giant?”

“I could make you into a giant.”

Sid looks down at himself. “I have always thought of myself as a sufficiently large man.”

“That is the corrosive effect of my company,” says Emily. “Observe! My head comes up to your stomach.”

“So it does.”

“And you are thicker and broader than I.”

“So I am!”

“This accounts for your inflated sense of your own dimensions.”

“Ah.”

“In truth, you are of that smaller category of men which I shall label ‘inadequate to reach the jar.'”

“If all men were shorter than I,” says Sid, “I would be no more able to reach the jar than I am now.”

“Meaningless semantics,” dismisses Emily. “There is no degeneration of the species in the offing.”

“There could be,” says Sid.

“No,” says Emily.

“No?”

“Well,” says Emily, “humanity is already degenerate, you see.”

“A sour perspective.”

“Rather, a blessing! There is nowhere to go but up!”

“I do not think humans are degenerate,” says Sid.

“Well, observe,” says Emily. “Humans are not giants.”

Sid waits, but Emily does not continue.

“That is not the normal definition of degeneracy,” Sid says.

“Everyone must form their own definitions,” Emily says. “Still, I stand by mine to the death!”

“To the death?”

“Indeed!”

“And if you die of it?”

“And if I die of it?”

“May I then have your sandwich?”

“Sid! Hardly! It will have already mouldered. You would get cancer of the stomach. No,” concludes Emily. “I will have to make you a giant.”

“Did you make Ms. Brown a giant?”

“Well, naturally,” says Emily.

“It was not natural to me,” says Sid. “I had not known you harbored giant-making proclivities.”

“You know that I have the great machine,” Emily points out.

“Well, yes, I know that.”

“And that I am disdainful towards humanity,” Emily says.

“True.”

“And that I live alone in a run-down mansion with my faithful servant,” Emily says.

“Granted.”

“So therefore I am a scientist of unusual caliber,” Emily says, “and a likely candidate for any giant-makings that have transpired!”

“There is that,” says Sid.

“Indeed.”

“But I am not truly your faithful servant,” says Sid. “I am indifferently faithful at best.”

“Sid!” accuses Emily.

“Well, I am hungry,” says Sid. “An assistant is ruled by his stomach; that is the cardinal law.”

“You may make yourself a peanut butter sandwich,” says Emily. “The bread and peanut butter lay yonder, practically inviting you into their arms.”

“I do not wish to waste,” Sid says primly.

“Such niceties!”

“Well,” says Sid, “to make and eat another peanut butter sandwich while a second is left to moulder—is that not the definition of wastefulness?”

“You are not wasteful, then?”

“I am not,” says Sid.

“I give you my assurances,” says Emily, “that I will find a way to obtain that jar and make my own sandwich, though the world itself might crack. Does this suffice to resolve your moral quandary?”

“To trust is folly in this dismal world,” philosophizes Sid. “Rather, a man watches and judges, keeping his mind open at all times. Then he may seize such opportunities as come along!”

“A sour perspective!”

“In hunger, I am a pessimist. When I am full, then I shall be the definition of optimism!”

A train of thought distracts Emily.

“So after you have eaten,” she says, “if you see half a cup of milk, you would call it ‘half-full?'”

“That is the definition,” Sid agrees.

“And if you were to drink it?”

Sid rubs at his nose. “Perplexing. It would become ‘not at all full’, while a more pessimistic man would call it ‘scarcely empty.'”

“Huh!” declares Emily.

She looks Sid up and down.

“In any event,” she says. “Soon your perspective will brighten.”

“Will it?”

“Indeed!” says Emily.

“By sandwich or by treachery?”

“Neither! I shall make you a giant, which shall have you jumping for joy; though not literally, you understand, lest you crack the ceiling.”

“What if I do not want to be a giant?”

“Are you my faithful servant?”

“Indifferently,” Sid qualifies.

“Then there is no choice in the matter. I must simply find your smalling string.”

“Moderate your gaze!” says Sid. “You study regions that can make me blush.”

“Don’t be silly,” says Emily. “I am looking rather to the left of that.”

“I am embarrassed of my left hip,” says Sid, to save face.

“There!” says Emily. She points.

“What?”

“The smalling string.”

“What?”

“The string,” says Emily, “that makes you small.”

Sid tugs on a string protruding from the left hip of his jeans. “What, this?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s a string,” Sid says.

Emily takes out a knife. “Let me cut it.”

“Your hands are small and clumsy,” says Sid. “Perhaps I should—”

But it is too late. With dispatch and aggression, Emily has cut the string and Sid is no longer small.

“Oh,” says Sid.

“Ha ha ha!” laughs Emily, pumping one hand in the air. “Genius!”

Sid looks down at Emily. His eyes are gentle; there is a fierce intelligence in them; and the spirit of him is at one time fiery and soft.

“I am grown,” he says.

Emily’s laughter slowly fades. She sighs.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “You have grown.”

“Wow.”

“So?”

“So?”

“Fetch me my jam!”

Coming Down with Chaos

Claire is poor.

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

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

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

“Maybe it’ll go away,” Claire says.

Fear inhibits action.

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

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

She scratches at her eyebrow.

“How do you get chaos, anyway?”

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

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

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

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

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

Her friends worry about Claire.

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

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

“It’s fine.”

She goes out on the roof that night.

“I can burn it off,” she says.

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

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

The cold fades from her. She is warm now.

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” she asks.

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

“I’m sorry,” Claire says.

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

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

Claire blushes and her hair falls flat.

She hugs her chest protectively.

“What?” Emily says.

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

“Okay,” Claire says.

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

Emily giggles.

“What?”

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

Claire grins.

“Yeah,” says Claire. “Like that.”

“Change is scary,” Emily explains.

Standing in the Storm: The Jaguars

Five of Emily’s friends, and one acquaintance, are dead.

“Come on,” says Saul. He rises. He takes Emily’s arm. He leads her out onto the street. They begin walking towards the school where it all started.

“They’re dead!” Emily shrieks. “You killed them! You monster!

Saul doesn’t seem to have noticed her outburst. After a moment she realizes that that’s because she didn’t outburst aloud. She outburst silently, inside herself.

The moment has passed. She can’t shriek at him now. It would seem artificial.

“He liked me,” she says.

She means Fred. He’s one of the dead ones.

“Good,” says Saul.

This is a story about jaguars. Emily loves them.

It’s also a story about death. Emily doesn’t want to be eaten. She wants to live a long time and then die in a beautiful place, surrounded by something wonderful.

Finally, it’s a story about a hat that sorted people into a high pure vision of what they should be, and about the people who thought that that might not have been the best idea.

This isn’t a story about Vladimir or Edmund. If it helps, Vladimir meets a horrifying fate and Edmund lives happily ever after. Edmund would have died, except that Saul sends him to safety shortly after this story ends.

Just in case you really wanted to know.

“There are tiny scales on your skin,” says Emily. She’s looking at Saul’s hands. She’s looking at his fingers.

Saul looks at his fingers.

Saul bites at one of his fingers. It’s a thinking gesture. But pretty soon it turns into a chewing gesture, and then a flesh-tearing gesture. He stops himself with a wrenching shudder.

“Listen,” Emily says. “When people look at other people, they don’t see what’s really there. They see something else. They see reality, but distorted. Like it’s through a lens. The lens is flawed. The shape of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”

“The apocalypse,” says Saul.

“People kept predicting it,” says Emily. “But it didn’t happen. Because it was something in the world we see. Not in the world that is.

Saul tilts his head to one side.

Emily shrugs.

“You know how primitive people would see lightning and think of gods?” she says. “It’s like that. We’d look at other people and see these alien things. Heroes and villains and trash for the killing. That’s the world we saw. A world where the apocalypse drew ever closer, driven by the marching drumbeats of the heralds of oblivion.”

There is a distant drumbeat in the wind, and the bleat from far Bifrost of Heimdall on the tuba.

“It’s actually a lower-energy state for the world,” Emily says. “Gotterdammerung worlds are easier. The kind of thing God could have done on a lazy Sunday afternoon, after finishing up here. But he didn’t. Your purpose didn’t come from God. Instead, Vladimir made a hat, and it sorted you into his vision for the world.”

Emily might have had more to say. But she doesn’t say it.

Instead, she hisses in air. She bites her lip. She stares.

They’ve just rounded the corner and she can see the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.

It has, at last, lived up to its name.

All through it the ivy grows and the students are dead, save where the surviving beasts of Hunger run.

Saul isn’t taken aback by the sight. He’s still thinking about their conversation.

“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.

But Emily is staring at the dead.

The Edmund-beast snarls. Then it yowls. It’s the kind of noise that reminds you that if the gnostics are right there’s a blind idiot God somewhere in the universe burning popcorn in the microwave before settling in to watch the suffering of your life.

It is answered by howls.

All through the school there is howling. It is a rising voice. The beasts give praise to hunger and to death.

“It’s obscene,” explains Saul, who still hasn’t noticed her horror. “I see a purpose. It is high. It is holy. It is noble. We must develop the hunger until it consumes the world. This purpose is inherent in the universe. The hat opened my eyes to that purpose. It can’t have created it.”

And Emily wrenches herself from the sight. She lowers her eyes. She looks at the shadows on the ground.

“It’s not your fault,” she says.

“But how can I know?” says Saul. “By what yardstick? How can I tell if what I see is universal or delusion?”

“It’s not your fault,” Emily stresses. “It’s too late. You’ve already been assigned. You can’t tell. It was always nothing more than a question of how long we could contain the damage.”

“Oh,” says Saul.

The hunger is rising in the beasts of the school. To Saul, it is the great surging of an endless sea. To Emily it is a concert for xylophone and tuba. It fills the air with the power of it.

And the Keepers’ House is there.

“We’ll hold it back,” Emily says, “for as long as we can.”

Edmund’s broken away from Saul and Emily. He’s loping over towards the remaining Keepers. He’s looking into their faces.

“Don’t eat me,” says the foppish Englebert. “My family has the ear of the Queen.”

“Wow,” says Edmund. “Really?”

“No,” admits Englebert. He slumps. Then he dissolves into a spray of various parts.

“I’ll give you Keeper cooties,” protests Isobel.

“I’ve got some,” says the Edmund-beast.

“I hope the wolf steps on you,” Isobel mopes.

Things proceed.

There aren’t enough of them left to hold Edmund’s hunger back.

It surges out from the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth. The breaking of the Keepers’ lives is a gap in the dike, and the hunger pours down into the world.

“What’s going to happen?” Saul asks.

Emily looks at him bleakly.

“No reason not to say,” says Saul.

“The wolf will come,” says Emily. “You’ll turn into beasts. The boot, no doubt, will fall. The world we’ve dreamed of will force its way in. And I guess I don’t get the death I wanted.”

Saul nods. The hunger rises in him. It is like a flame. It is like a cold and terrible sea. Saul does not hold it back. He opens his fanged mouth. He rears back like a serpent. The Saul-beast’s eyes burn red and its hat is green like a snake’s.

Er, scales.

Like a snake’s scales.

And just before he eats her, three things happen.

The first thing is that a great wolf wanders in. Its binding cord has broken; where the hunger is, the dwarves have no power. Fenrir is curious. The hunger calls it. So it has come.

The second thing is that the House of Hunger sloughs off more of its humanity.

And suddenly Emily is cheerful. She is pointing at Edmund. She is laughing, like a child, like a bright clear bell. “You have spots,” she says.

This causes Saul to pause and Edmund to blush.

“They’re good spots,” the Edmund-beast mutters.

Saul’s eyes are narrowed.

“You’re oddly bubbly,” says Saul, “for someone who’s about to die.”

Emily’s shoulders sink as she relaxes. She looks at him peacefully. “Jaguars are my favorite part of Gotterdammerung,” she sighs.

The third thing is that the great space station, Vidar’s Boot, comes down; for there is something in a boot that loves to stomp, and nothing is quite so stompable as one’s alma mater.

“The wolf’ll eat most of you before it dies,” says Emily, peacefully. It’s not a threat. It’s a gift. She’s giving Saul a chance to react.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground.

WHAM!

The station strikes the ground again.

WHAM!

The shockwave of the boot’s impact throws the House of Hunger into the air.

Now it’s raining men. Well, jaguars. Well, jaguar-men.

“It’s like Christmas came early!” Emily says, happily.

The boot clips the wolf, and suddenly it is looking for a place to run, and there are howling and yowling and clucking and chittering beasts in its path.

Down fall the jaguars like a gentle rain; and it is there, standing in the storm, surrounded by something wonderful, that Emily dies.