Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Regarding Hope

In the city on the edge of the void the Nose makes her living tracking down Froot Loops for creatures forsaken of the Lord.

Solomon walks through the city. His feet go ‘tik tik tik’ on the metal of it.

He’s surrounded by scrap and stinking filth. That’s all the city is. It’s the bits that the Lord has thrown away, infested and ripened with the unlife of the void.

He can’t imagine how the Nose can bear to live here. The smell of it, he thinks, must be terrible.

He doesn’t actually know, though, because Solomon cannot smell at all.

His nose is like the nose of a swordfish, a long metal spike that resonates and modulates the power of Heaven.

It is incapable of olfaction.

The Nose lives in a bad part of town. Solomon can tell because he’s being followed and the thing that’s following him—like a great metal spider, with gleaming living eyes—has a predatory air. And that’s not the only thing: there are great cat-bats circling in the sky, drooling and twitching with the hunt, and he suspects that the grime that is rising ever-higher on his boots is an amoeba of evil intent.

“It’s always the way in a place like this,” he says.

The spider clitters and clatters closer.

“Before anyone can accept you, you must present your credentials.”

And he whips his head up to look the spider in the eyes and the nose of him catches the music of the spheres and modulates it into a rising crescendo; and it twitches and its heart catches on fire and it thinks how beautiful Solomon is.

And he turns towards the cat-bats and one falls from the sky and the others flee screaming.

And the amoeba at his feet withdraws just a bit, and says, “Pardon, gov’ner. Just doin’ a shine.”

And Solomon’s boots glow like the righteousness of Heaven.

So Solomon laughs and says, “Then show me where the Nose is.”

“You, gov’ner? You want Froot Loops?”

The amoeba’s voice is skeptical, as if to imply that Solomon doesn’t look like the kind of man to eat a delicious Froot Loops breakfast with milk, juice, and toast.

“She was better than that,” says Solomon, “once. She knew where the traitors were. She could smell the distinction between that which would bring the world towards righteousness and glory and that which would lead it down the paths towards Hell. A very discriminating woman, the Nose.”

“Wouldn’t know about that,” says the amoeba, but it oozes northwards and Solomon follows it towards the Nose.

The Nose works out of the Clifton Building, one of many buildings judged unworthy by the Lord. She’s a tall lean woman in a black plastic jacket and her eyes are blue.

She’s leaning back in her desk chair when Solomon knocks, opens the door, and enters.

Slowly, she straightens.

Slowly, one eyebrow lifts.

She says, softly, “Face.”

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

“I hadn’t thought,” says the Nose, “that I’d ever see you again. You— You—”

And she rises from her chair and she is holding Solomon close like one holds a love thought lost forever. Tears are leaking down her face, and she says, “Not you. Not you. You do not deserve this place.”

“It’s all right, Danielle.”

“If you are here,” says the Nose, “then there is no hope in all the world for the rest.”

She bites her lip.

“I had thought,” she adds, “that there was something sweeter than life here. But I told myself that it could not be so.”

“Well,” says Solomon.

“Well?”

“What is, is. And it will not be for very much longer.”

The Nose draws back. She looks him seriously in the eyes—though distracted, as any person might be, by the spear of metal jutting from his face.

“No?”

“I was not cast out,” says the Face. “I fled.”

The Nose turns to the window. She opens it. She leans out the window and she takes a long sniff of the ordure of the city, and she grows pale and green all at once.

“Then it has happened,” she says.

“It has happened.”

“The Red Right Hand has declared that it shall be the all of the Lord.”

“I had trusted it,” Solomon says.

“Naturally.”

“I had thought: what can it do on its own? It cannot see. It cannot smell. It cannot hear. It cannot breathe. It has every reason for loyalty. When it cut you from me and cast you out I said only, ‘Ah, that must be what Danielle had wanted. No doubt it is for the best. Because why should the Hand betray me?'”

“That is the way of it,” says Danielle. “Processes freeing one from the discriminating power rarely cultivate a doubt about themselves. Instead they clear the mind, fill it with relish, and offer a sense as if one has been released from a great weight or exposed to a clean pure breeze. This is, I think, the greatest problem with the cosmos, but as yet I have not found a solution to it.”

“There isn’t one,” says Solomon.

“No?”

“No.”

“Ah, well,” Danielle says.

Solomon nods.

“It’s hunting us, you know. I can smell it. It’s walking on the webs between the skyscrapers, running on the ground of the city streets. It can feel us talking and understand our words. In all the cosmos it is only the Hands that can feel such microscopic vibrations.”

Solomon frowns.

“But what can it do?” he says. “We are already outside the grace of the Lord.”

“Anything it wants,” says the Nose.

She takes another deep breath, this time through her mouth. She exhales.

“Come on,” she says. “We’ll go find breakfast.”

“Huh?”

“Follow the Nose,” Danielle says, firmly, and she takes his hand and she leads him out. “I’ll give you a freebie.”

They walk through the city streets under the leaning towers of garbage and twisted corpses. Behind them, Danielle thinks, the Red Right Hand is running on the five limbs of it. Lacking a heart it knows no limitations of endurance. Lacking a nose it has no discrimination of right and wrong. It is a peerless and unforgiving hunter. But even the Hand is bound by the limitations of time and for this reason she does not worry yet.

“I don’t understand,” Solomon admits, “how there can be Froot Loops here.”

“They grow,” Danielle says.

“They grow?”

“The dark reaches of the places forsaken of the Lord are like compost for them,” she says.

She points out at the surface of the void. This is possible because it stretches around the city like a balloon, its surface to the north, south, east, west, below, and in the sky.

“Do you see those moving things?” she says.

“I had assumed that an optical illusion,” he says.

“No. They’re boats.”

The Face squints. His metal nose hums with the subtle harmonics of the universe. Then he frowns.

“Hey,” says Solomon. “They’re made of Froot Loops.”

“Look down,” says Danielle. “And 29.2 degrees to the left.”

So Solomon does. He stares through the layers of trash and metal. He exercises the ultimate faculty of observation that ignores all obstacles. And he gasps.

“Was I right?”

Buried in the city, growing in the muck, he sees the gleaming sugary towers of the Froot Loops that grow there like formations of crystal.

“They’re glowing,” he says.

“They have an ‘inner light’,” Danielle says, a subtle intonation revealing the scare quotes.

“But what—”

Danielle sniffs. She pulls him around a corner. She leads him down a rickety metal staircase, past a thing of snot and brains, past a timeworn clockwork devil begging on a landing, past a hook monster and a cutting muck.

She tosses a coin in the clockwork devil’s hat as she does.

“Until you got here,” she says, “the Froot Loops were the best smell in this whole damn place.”

And they stumble into a great cavern of Froot Loops and all around them are the colors of it and she says, “They are like unto the Lord, and thus stay crunchy even in the void. That’s why they’re so important here—they’re not just part of this delicious breakfast, they’re also the only material that remains stable on the surface of the endingness.”

“Wow,” Solomon says.

She grins.

“They love me here,” Danielle says. “I’m the best damn prospector this whole place has.”

Solomon rubs his hand along the sticky hardness of the Froot Loops.

“Good Heavens,” he says.

He breaks off a few and crunches them between his teeth. He says, “Even in this emptiness—that there should be such things—”

“Eat,” says Danielle.

“No milk?”

“No time,” Danielle says.

And Solomon looks back and the power of his gaze strikes through the layers of the world and finds the Red Right Hand and he says, “It is so close.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Danielle says. “It is blind and cannot see the beauty of your eyes. It is deaf and cannot hear the music of the spheres. It has no tongue to taste the riches of this place and if I were to think of a plan it would feel the vibrations of my thoughts and adapt its plans to mine.”

So Solomon and Danielle eat.

“We’ll fight,” Solomon says.

“Of course,” Danielle says.

“But we’ll lose?”

Danielle eats a chartreuse Froot Loop, the color and flavor of a fruit that never was.

“It is the Red Right Hand,” she says.

It is too big to enter the cavern so when it does it is like an explosion: it shatters the towers of crystallized Froot Loops, it bursts down the door, it is followed by the cracking twisting metal of the collapsing metal stair and the clockwork devil and the creature of snot and brains are tumbling after it in the vortex of its movements.

It is not human-shaped like they.

It is a hand larger than buildings. It is red with the blood of the Nose and of every other thing that has suffered in the world. Its fingers do its terrible walking and it has no eyes.

They had resolved to fight, but they do not fight: faced with the terror of the Red Right Hand, Solomon and Danielle run.

“There,” says Danielle, pointing. This is the vibration of her thoughts: The floor there—too weak to support its weight.

And she pulls Solomon across and her hair is streaming back and their faces both are white as porcelain and they jump for one of the towers of cereal and the Hand leaps after.

The whole of the cavern creaks and tilts sideways.

“Eh?” says Solomon.

He glances down. The cavern is on top of a rickety collection of buildings that have slumped inwards to hold one another upright; they stand on a mire of blood and dead trees, and below that a labyrinth of blindly moving worms and the great balloons that suspend the whole above the void.

“Problem,” he says.

And as the Hand comes after them the buildings shudder and the fourth floor of the cast-out Mariman House explodes inwards and the dead trees crack and the worms writhe and the balloons pop and suddenly they are looking down—in a direction that was ‘forward’ just a moment ago—towards the endless infinity of the void.

“I have always loved you,” Solomon says.

And the Red Right Hand shows no mercy but plunges into them and crushes Danielle’s arm and the left side of Solomon’s face and drives them down towards the void.

Solomon twists and jerks his head. His proboscis stings into the beast. He channels the music of the spheres and attempts thereby to tear the membrane of the Hand apart; but though it recoils back and gives a snapping howl it is not in the character of Solomon to destroy.

They fall.

It is the Froot Loops that cushion them, of course. They land like bumblebees falling into cereal, splashing the surface of the void, crushing and shattering the walls of cereal that would otherwise rebound and hover crunchily on the surface of the void—but even the splintered remnants of the pillars are enough to hold them up.

Like men and women after a shipwreck, the Face and the Nose cling to Froot Loop driftwood to hold their heads above the void.

Over their heads there is an immense strut of the city, leaning sideways but remaining whole; and on that strut, quivering with fury and with fear, there is the Hand.

“Close your eyes,” hisses Danielle.

And Solomon does; and he can see dimly with that remnant of sight that he is unable to entirely extinguish that Danielle has freed her working hand, draping her body across driftloops, so that she may pinch shut her nose.

“Why?” he says.

“It cannot feel vibrations in the void,” Danielle says. “It can only tell where the void lies by the substance of our thoughts.”

“Oh,” Solomon says.

The Hand skitters back and forth.

“It is afraid,” Danielle says. “And furious because I know that it is afraid. But with all the senses of us crippled, how can it know for sure where among the floating Froot Loops on the void it will be safe to leap down and pursue us?”

The surface of the void is like a flickering fire to the tactile sense of the Hand. Things come and go. They manifest vibration erratically. And down there there is the Nose that it cut off to spite the Face, the Face that it must kill to seize control, and the Froot Loops that because it cannot taste them should not be allowed to be.

Fear, it trembles.

Rage.

Danielle’s eyes widen.

It picks up her thought: Oh, God. I’m going to sneeze.

The Hand cultivates its plan.

“Don’t,” pleads Solomon.

Danielle is sniffling.

“Oh, Danielle, Danielle, no.”

And Danielle sneezes, and that sneeze sends the Froot Loops skirling across the surface of the void, and in the irrational reflex that follows it she inhales and her thoughts become rich with the scent-details of the world:

And the Hand leaps.

It is bounding across the surface of the void, its fingers never landing on a chunk of Froot Loops long enough to push it below the surface, it is coming for them—

And Danielle says, softly, “You have chosen poorly, Hand, to fight the Nose in its area of omniscience.”

And as the Hand comes down for her she taps her nose gently against the log on which she rests.

A crack spreads through it.

The Hand lands upon her. It drives her down into the substance of the void. The log of Froot Loops on which it hoped, momentarily, to rest, explodes.

It flounders, there, on nothingness. Its fingers catch hold of individual Froot-flavored rings. They crumble under it.

Then it is gone.

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

There is silence.

“Oh, Danielle.”

And the Face looks upon the substance of the void and his metal nose resonates with beauty and with sorrow.

There are some who say that the Nose that knows Froot Loops may know them even beyond the boundaries of life and death. That the smell of those Froot flavors crawls beyond nothingness and the grave to serve as a beacon for whatever lies beyond. There are those, thus, who imagine that this story has a happy ending, and also that the biggest problem with keeping Froot Loops in one’s house is the zombies and the restless dead.

That in that empty place beyond substance and mind the Nose still strains to know in which direction Froot Loops lie.

If she can find them—

If she can just find them!—

She will have won.

(Good Friday) The Problem of Persephone (I/V)

The first of three histories regarding the cracking of the lens.

Martin sits on the rope balcony beside the lens Necessity.

Idly he asks:

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?”

The lens contemplates.

It offers: “Fox News—fair and balanced!”

Martin sighs.

“It’s unrealistic images of fairness like these,” he says, “that compromise a guy’s ability to act as messiah in the modern day.”

“I cannot speak to that,” the lens informs him.

“This is the problem,” Martin says. “I need data on Persephone; or, more generally, on the Eleusinian Mysteries. But it’s hard to find.”

“Yes.”

“I have not failed on the technical level,” he says. “The chaos: I pump it. The levers: I pull them. In general, I comport myself as expected of me according to the nature of this tower’s operation. Therefore the problem lies in the equipment.”

The images in the lens swirl thoughtfully.

“Perhaps,” it offers, “the nature of your request is ill-defined.”

“. . . to know more about Persephone?”

“Yes.”

Martin favors Necessity with a hard glare. “The pursuit of knowledge,” he says, “is definite.”

“Even with regard to a mystery?”

“Here is how I theorize,” says Martin. He gestures broadly. “For the purposes of gathering data and taking specific action, the point of utter mystery—that uncanny ungatherable data that produces only static at the moment of observation—is irrelevant. One may isolate it in the bubble of its unclarity, hand-waving around its edges, and leaving only the hard facts at hand. Perhaps there is right here in the tower some infinite force, unknowable, imperceptible, transcendent to the circumstances of my life, but I relate to the world only in context of verifiable data. Invoke the mystery as you like; I shine light in what I can and the remainder is of no matter.”

“Hm,” says the lens.

“So: what is it that you will not show me?”

Static flares.

Ink in Emptiness: The Mirror Cracks

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10)

In Hell there is a city of poison and gold.

Ink Catherly lives there. She sits on its broken throne. She is fifteen years old and she is a savage jungle queen.

She has not thought of her father or her mother in some time.

Instead she thinks of Greystoke, the bull-ape raised by suburbanites, lord of suburbia and king of men. She thinks of the treasures of the jungle. She thinks of the mechanisms by which she might escape her Hell.

It is the unfortunate character of Ink’s circumstances that Hell is inescapable.

Here ends the legend of Ink Catherly: in the city of poison and gold, in Hell, where Greystoke has called up her father against her.

Hell, day 969: The veil-rending gun.

As always the ape opposed my search. I tell him: “You must let me work. I must find an answer so that I can escape from Hell.” But he is a beast and he does not understand.

I found it at last, kept in the claws of Usr-Acigh: the gun that can break the veil between worlds. I fired it. I opened a gap in the jungle. But I could not step through. In any other world I would be a corpse.

I watch my hand as I write this. It is like watching a hand pulled around by puppet strings. It is like a spider. It is like a headless chicken. It is like the flopping plastic bag that one at first mistakes for life. There is direction. There is intentionality. But it is emptiness and not purpose that drives it.

There is no escape from Hell because it is not a place but rather a condition, and a condition not of quality but of absence. I have lost the divine fire that gave me purpose. I have only the bleak insectile intentionality of flesh. I am an outsider to myself. If I were not in Hell I would be dead.

Mr. Catherly stands at the door.

“Greystoke,” Ink breathes. “You go too far.”

Mr. Catherly is gliding forward, his footsteps silent on the gold and marble floor. He says, “It is not your right, Ink, to claim the jungle’s treasures.”

Ink shakes her head.

Her face is darkening with anger.

“The Mirror of Flame will do you no good,” says Mr. Catherly. “This is Hell. There is no avenue by which you may obtain your desire.”

Ink turns. The threat of Greystoke is forgotten, and the ape himself is nearly so. Her world has narrowed down to the Mr. Catherly and the savage challenge that must come—in any species—when a child defies her parent and seeks to define the freedom of her course.

“You would say that,” she says.

There is a growl tickling at her throat. She is not letting it loose: for one thing, the human voice does not yield easily to it, and it replaces speech in use. For another, she does not wish to warn him of the seriousness of her intent. But as she shifts her stance to the lightly-bent crouch that humans use in battle her plans are transparent to the older man. He slows his advance. He is wary.

“Hold this,” Ink says, not taking her eyes from her father’s face.

She holds out the instrument of defiance to Greystoke; for unlike the men he summons, the ape-king of suburbia has such notions of honor as to make this safe.

The bull-ape takes it from her hands.

Incompatible Precepts Catherly takes two steps forward and then springs.

The contest of human and human is savage. Their teeth are blunt. Their claws are weak. Their muscles are poorly suited to murder.

But there are many ways by which they may give one another pain.

The howls of them rise through the jungle. They disturb the birds, that look up once and flee. They cause the frogs and salamanders to retreat into their holes. They shake the ancient city and its poisons and its gold.

And Ink takes her father down onto his back and beats at his chest and he is smiling hideously at her with his white fangs and he says, “See? Incompatible.”

Ink shrieks, a terrifying and an alien cry.

Her cunning talons close around his neck. His face darkens. His terrible words go still. His hands are twitching.

Ink says, “Tell me I’m a person.

But this is Hell.

Hell, day 1406: The mirror of flame.I have captured a mirror that reflects someone with a self—not the Ink who writes this but an Ink such as I was before. It hurts but I cannot stop looking at it.

She would, I think, find an answer to this place. She would explore it, transform it from this horrid absence into a phenomenon worth recording—not Hell but the witnessing of Hell, not emptiness but the recognition that she is not empty. She had wanted that. But I am not that Ink. I am her empty corpse.The ape, I think, will be here soon.

“Stupid fathers,” says Ink.

Mr. Catherly is unconscious.

“Stupid parents. Can you imagine?” she says. She is panting. She is struggling to recapture control over her emotions. “Naming somebody after what having the baby meant?

Greystoke is mute.

Ink rises. She stalks back to the throne. She sits down. Her posture slumps and her eyes go distant and she reassumes the demeanor of a brooding jungle queen.

“Take it,” she says. “Take the Mirror.”

So Greystoke steps forward. He pulls the Mirror of Flame down from the air.

“Leave the instrument of defiance. And go.”

The ape places the instrument of defiance down upon the floor and begins to walk away.

“Wait.”

Ink struggles for words.

“When I was young,” she says. “I accidentally cut off a fingertip. And the funny thing was that it just lay there, empty. It wasn’t a part of me. It was meat.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“That is all we are,” she says. “Meat and bone.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“I remember when I was fire,” Ink says. “I can look in the mirror and I can see that—an Ink Catherly, far away, who is fire and not just emptiness. Someone who is different from that twitching finger.” Her breathing is erratic. “I need it. I need it to remind me that I had something inside me once.”

“That is not need,” says Greystoke. “That is suffering.”

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.

The Rainbow Wolves

Red Wolf is Blood Wolf.

One day, the seven wolves visit the flowers. The flowers are great perfumed nests of petals, large enough for three wolves each to frolic in their heart.

Today the wolves do exactly that!

The wolves descend into the flowers. Their iridescent wings retract under their coats. Their tongues loll. Then they roll in the pollen. They run and leap from flower to flower, spreading the pollen from one to the next. They frolic. They are beautiful.

Then Rex is there. Rex has a gun. Rex is shooting at Yellow Wolf.

Yellow Wolf is the wolf without recourse. Its body is wrapped in cheery yellow cerements, patchy and ragged.

“Git wolves! Leave my flowers alone!” shouts Rex.

Rex is a farmer. He believes that wolves are a serious threat to his flowers. In fact they are very peaceful and noble creatures.

“I’ll kill you!” shouts Rex.

The wolves scatter under the gunfire. They fly away, away, away.

Yellow Wolf is bleeding. Blood is pulsing out, dry and yellow, through the cloth. Yellow Wolf has been hit.

And Red Wolf turns.

Yellow Wolf whimpers. Yellow Wolf arcs away from Red Wolf. Yellow Wolf is afraid.

But Red Wolf’s teeth are sharp and shiny.

They make Yellow Wolf new again.

The Rainbow Wolves and the Filcher Vine

The seven wolves are the guardians of little girls’ dreams. They are creatures of rainbows and flowers and soft fuzzy blankets.

One day, the seven wolves visit Jane. She is sleeping. There are filchers there.

Filchers have bulbous bodies. Their necks are long and they crane their heads back. Filchers wear tuxedos and they have very long fingers. Sometimes their fingers are as much as five miles long, although this is unusual and makes it very hard for them to get their rings on and off.

These filchers are growing from a filcher vine winding up from the floor. They are stealing Jane’s dreams.

Blue Wolf is the wolf of endless water. Blue Wolf is the wolf of the cold alien depths. Blue Wolf is the wolf that takes away your breath, the wolf that crushes you, the wolf that chills you and batters you and drowns you. It is the wolf that makes you say “blub blub blub” before you bloat down in the deeps.

Blue Wolf drags a filcher down to drown. The filcher’s long thin fingers protrude for a long moment from the water, clutching at the air. “Blub blub blub,” it says.

Then it goes down; and there is not even a turmoil in the deeps.

Orange Wolf is the wolf of nuclear fire. Everybody is scared of Orange Wolf. Orange Wolf is the wolf that kills silently and in brightness. Its vest is orange and marked with the radiation symbol. Its hat is an orange chef’s hat, its top blooming outwards like a mushroom’s cap. Orange Wolf has happy eyes as it kills.

Orange Wolf eats the filchers. It eats the filchers all along the filcher-wolf front. Their deaths are silent and their deaths are bright and Orange Wolf’s hat wobbles wib-wib-wib between its fuzzy ears.

Indigo Wolf is the wolf of the void. It is the wolf that the filchers fear most. But one of them is brave. It meets Indigo Wolf’s eyes. That is its mistake. Now it floats in an empty place forever and it will never see its home.

Violet Wolf is the wolf of rot. It makes the filchers sick just like bad medicine. They have pustules and chancrous growths. The living filchers envy the dead until suddenly Orange Wolf eats them. Yum! Pustulent filchers are the most delicious kind of all.

But the filcher vine is still there. It’s still growing filchers, growing them like grapes or zits, popping them off the vine when they’re done. They’re still stealing Jane’s dreams.

So Green Wolf says, in the rumbling voice of the earth, “Rainbow wolves—assemble!”

The wolves run together then. They are seven streaks of seven colors. They are blurring as they run until there is only color: a crisp and beautiful rainbow that splashes against the filcher vine and burns it bubblingly away.

Such are the things that the rainbow wolves do, when filcher vines are found.

What Happened Afterwards

The seven wolves scatter in the room. They roll and dance and play. They are very happy that they have beaten the filchers. Green Wolf even barks!

Blue Wolf puddles and splashes.

Green Wolf tumbles and runs. Where it runs the grass grows. Where it runs there is the green and the shade.

Orange Wolf licks at its flank. A filcher-vine thorn has ruptured its skin. Hard radiation is leaking out.

And Red Wolf turns.

Indigo Wolf is sick. Indigo Wolf’s fur is falling out. Indigo Wolf is retching. That’s because of Orange Wolf’s radiation.

And Violet Wolf turns.

What happens then is not for children’s eyes. So Yellow Wolf opens its mouth and exhales darkness and silence.

Certain things take place, that are not seen.

Then Orange Wolf and Indigo Wolf are new again.

Hooray!

Ink is Backstage: “It Means Something Good”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8)

On the backstage of Earth most real things are represented by cardboard cutouts.

That’s why, when the girl’s life flashes before her eyes, she can see it in one convenient bundle of life rather than as a holographic memory array. Her life flashes past her eyes as a chunk of set detritus and it lands with a thump. The smell of fresh paint on it reminds her that she hasn’t lived that long.

“Ye-aa!” screams the girl.

Her name is Ink Catherly. Short for Incriminatory Evidence, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She’ll justify it by explaining just how wrong the universe had to go before her existence was even possible; “and it’s not just possible, but transparently necessary,” she’ll often add.

That’s not far wrong.

Right now, Ink Catherly is seeking Hell and exploring all the worlds on the way. She’s given her reasons at other times and in other places, but in the end they boil down to a restless dissatisfaction with everyplace else.

For example, with this place. This “backstage of the Earth.” It’s not so great. It has gorgosauruses. They are talking gorgosauruses, talking self-centered gorgosauruses, self-righteous dinosaurs quite arrogant about appointing and dispensing with the things of the Earth.

They have their good points but they are very dangerous and very certain. People have died, already, today, because one chased Ink Catherly too fast.

Now it seizes Ink’s arm in its teeth and her leg in its hand and tears Ink Catherly apart.

From Ink’s Journal

Floor 93-HH: I had a vision of things like great stick-legged men and women, laughing in the darkness. They danced. They reveled. They whispered secrets to one another that, I think, justified the world. Then as the vision began to fade they grew more desperate. They could feel me forgetting them. They knew they were growing fuzzy, distant, and dim. They hurt my mind with their panic and I think one kicked my spleen.

The stick-legged folk flicker in and out like candles, now. When I think of them they are a fading flame. They are haggard, now. They are gray. They are cold. Their life soon ends.

And Ink falls.

She lays there on the ground like a broken doll.

But she is whole. The flesh of her arm is clean, whole, and new, with shreds of dead skin scattered atop it.

And she is breathing.

She remembers the gorgosaurus tearing off her arm and shoulder. It is as if they were the outer layer of a puff pastry, flimsy, crisp, and dead. The creature is spitting out the dried and withered skin.

The adrenaline pumping through her makes Ink breathe in short, sharp gasps.

“That was a lacertilian trick,” says the gorgosaurus. It scrubs its tongue with its arm. “I am inclined to a certain admiration.”

Ink’s breath whines in and out.

“But how did you do it, little thing?”

It leans down. It stares at her. It reaches for her leg. Ink’s breathing accelerates in renewed panic. Then the creature backs away.

“People have died for you today,” it says.

Calm comes slowly.

“I think,” says Ink Catherly, slowly and carefully, “that I do not like dinosaurs. Here are my reasons.

“1. Dinosaurs are very large and scary.
“2. Dinosaurs have sharp teeth.
“3. Dinosaurs totally flip out and try to eat people.
“4. Dinosaurs make me uncomfortable about how I process the world.
“5. Dinosaurs profess benevolence but spend all their time blaming other people.”

The gorgosaurus looks down at her.

“Pfeh,” it says, dismissively.

Then it turns away. It stomps off into the Tokyo set, barely missing Tokyo Tower. Then Ink is alone.

“Are you here?” Ink asks.

There is silence.

“There’s a thing,” she says. “It said, ‘such pain as you know is at my sufferance, and of my possession.’ That thing. Are you there?”

There is silence.

“Because I don’t have a very good explanation for what just happened, otherwise.”

There is more silence.

Then a hole opens in the world. It is spinning and a turning and fire and it is blades and twisting and things not fitting together and it is an exhalation of the void.

Ink sags.

“I am here,” it says.

“I’d thought about it as a bargain,” Ink says. “I’d thought you were a creature. Things happened, one by one, including talking to you. And things have consequences. I never stopped to ask myself: what does it say about the world, that something would claim my pain?”

“And what does it say?” asks the hole in the world.

“It means that it’s better if there are limits to my pain,” Ink says. “Such as, ‘not getting eaten by a gorgosaurus.'”

Ink has explored a place where people were eaten by gorgosauruses, as part of the complete Seattle Zoo experience. She thinks of them now. She has also watched as good people’s souls caught on fire. She has looked into the eyes of monsters. She has seen spirits broken by the fast-paced world of competitive spelling. Long before that, before her first steps in the tower up to Hell, she lost her family and her joy to entropy’s slow calm gentle cutting knives. And it is natural when she considers what her survival means for her to think upon these sorrows. But she does not do so now. Not aloud, at least. It is not her desire at this time to investigate whether everything or simply some things in the world are meant as kind.

“It means something good,” Ink says.

She hesitates.

“But it also means,” Ink says, “that you are in the crux of a contradiction; for it is cold and terrible that you deny me Hell.”

The gap in space it spins in silence.

“I don’t deserve pain,” Ink says. “I’m unworthy of Hell. That’s what things like you keep saying. But that’s your meaning.”

She is huddling a little. This is an old hurt for her.

“It’s important,” Ink says, “that I make my own meanings.”

“As you will,” says the voice.

The hole is gone.

There is a gap in the darkness and Ink falls; not slowly but swiftly, through thin cold air, and with a terrible thunder in her ears.

Below her is the void.

Ink is Backstage: “Unexplorable Places”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

The sun is bright yellow paint on hard wood paneling. There are birds. They dangle from the sky on wires.

The people are happy. They are cardboard cutouts.

The girl wanders among them with a smile on her face. She touches a cardboard woman feeding pigeons in the park. She touches a cardboard man suffering in a cell for political prisoners. She scribbles down details about a cardboard gunman standing on a grassy knoll. Then she spins around and around and runs on the soft felt grass before finally stopping next to a realistic plastic phone booth.

“What a wonderful place!” she says.

There is a footfall. It is like thunder.

The girl looks over her shoulder.

“Except for the gorgosaurus,” she says. She takes out her journal. She takes down a note.

Looking at the gorgosaurus, she adds, “I hope you are not hungry.”

It issues a terrible roar.

Floor 62: I saw a creature made of mouths and sorrow.

“As fair warning,” the creature said, “Ink Catherly has certain misconceptions regarding her nature and destiny, and these are going to lead her astray. She cannot be trusted in such matters. If you wish to understand her truths, you must watch the world around her. Those fates that govern her life have taken the unusual course of arrogating to her exactly what Ink Catherly deserves.

“As for you, that is not so.”

Addendum, in a different hand:
It’s weird to think that creatures made of mouths and sorrow were talking about me long before I came to the tower. It’s weird to think that I’m so thoroughly wrong about myself that random damned souls are getting a briefing on the subject. But what really bugs me is that here I am on floor 62 and the only tangible weird thing I could find was a can of Spaghetti-Os.

It was past its “use by” date. Its packaging gave me no cryptic oracles. When I opened its handy pull-tab top a thing fell out, wrapped in layers of crispy, paper-like skin. It struggled, mewled, and tore the layers away. Its skin and eyes and wings beneath shone like jewels. It rose into the air and I gasped and the light hurt my eyes. I conclude that it was canned mistakenly, and that in perhaps one in a million Chef Boyardee products unplanned seraphim are packed.* Also there was pasta, and spaghetti sauce, and meatballs, which were all skinny so I did not eat them.

* Seraphim and/or other valuable prizes.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. She might tell you that it’s short for Inquisitive. She is, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Inconclusive. Her journey has been, so far, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Incompatible, but if she does, she’s unlikely to tell you why.

She is hiding in a phone booth.

“I don’t see why there should be gorgosauruses here,” Ink says, plaintively.

She dials 911. The phone rings in a police station far away. The cardboard cutouts of police officers fail to answer.

“Come out,” rumbles the beast. “We will discuss the matter.”

“You are a huge meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period,” Ink says. “I am a twelve-year-old girl. How can we negotiate on an equal footing?”

The gorgosaurus crouches down. It tilts its massive head on one side and stares in at her. “I am willing to vouchsafe assurances of peaceful behavior.”

“That is not my interpretation of your earlier roar,” Ink notes.

“A passing rage,” the gorgosaurus says dismissively. “I had assumed you were a small egg-eating mammal loose among the cutouts.”

“I do eat eggs,” Ink admits unwisely.

The nostrils of the beast contract. It rumbles the broken-motor purr typical of dinosaurs in the grip of a strong emotion. “Then perhaps it is best that we negotiate through the glass. How have you come here, child?”

“I am exploring.”

“This is not a valid location for exploration,” the beast says flatly.

Ink opens her mouth to explain that she doesn’t intend to stay. But the injustice of the gorgosaurus’ remark is too much for her. “There isn’t any such place!”

She takes a deep breath.

Then Ink says, all in one long stream, “It is fundamental to the character of every fixed location that it should be a valid location to explore. For if it is not then its traits remain unknown. Its impact on the broader world remains unknown. Any quality that it might have that could render that exploration illegitimate ceases as a direct consequence of its unexplorability to matter. Because it could never be unearthed. Because it would never have a comprehensible, coherent impact on anything in the surrounding world. Unexplored lands are nonexistent. They are meaningless. They are chaotic, empty voids pleading against the wind for travelers to chart them. To declare a place unexplorable is to make it a home for chaos without boundaries and monsters without number. And if there are boundaries that we cannot cross then those boundaries must be charted and the things that pass in and out weighed and measured. And every place that we—”

Here she runs out of breath and sways dizzily for a moment. She puts her hand to her forehead, then shakes her head and hand alike.

There is a pause.

“And every place that we cannot explore,” Ink summarizes, “becomes the same place: the endless hungry void.”

The gorgosaurus shrugs heavily.

“This is not a location,” it says. “This is a context. This is the backstage of Earth, where various gorgosauruses create and dispose with the things of your world.”

There is a crash in the distance.

The gorgosaurus winces.

“What was that?” Ink asks.

“An accidental disposition,” the gorgosaurus says.

“What?”

“We are clumsy creatures,” says the gorgosaurus, in heavy tones, “to be the makers and disposers of your world.”

The gorgosaurus does not look penitent. It looks like it been rehearsing this speech in its head for some time, in case it should ever have to justify itself to a human.

Ink looks confused. “What?”

“Not in vision,” the gorgosaurus says. “Not in vision we are clumsy, but in our hands. Our hands are stubby, twisted, and small. So that is why sometimes things must fall.”

Visions of dead bodies and burning cities flare up in Ink’s mind. Suddenly she thinks she knows what the gorgosaurus means by ‘fall’, and she half-says, half-shrieks, “Like?

The gorgosaurus is rumbling again. Its lips have come back from its terrible sharp teeth. This frightens Ink, and she holds up her hands in a conciliatory gesture.

“I just want to understand,” Ink says, moderating her tone. “For the record of my exploration. What kinds of things ‘must fall?'”

“The practice of gold panning,” says the gorgosaurus. “The popularity of disco. Passion plays. Communism. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Ink says.

“The things we make for you,” says the gorgosaurus, “but cannot quite manage to balance.”

There is another distant crash.

Somewhere, somewhen, backstage, the ungainly hands of a gorgosaurus have just sealed the mullet’s fate.

Intermission 1

Countdown to Annihilation! (10:52 – 10:57am)

Yesterday, in the first amazing installment of Countdown to Annihilation! . . .

. . . the 11am premiere of Lizard Cops drew nigh!
. . . Iphigenia’s parents built an Origins Bomb!
. . . everything older than 10,000 years old blew up!
. . . and so did every human who’d evolved from lower life forms!

But who will survive?

Will the Bible prove inerrant?

Will the world drown in endless void?

Or is the truth, as so often happens, . . . somewhere in between?

Song of the Apocalypse

Mary drank too much at tea
She jittered faster
Recursively!
The faster she drank
The faster she drank
The faster the pile of tea scones sank!
She could see each beat of a flying bird’s wings
She could see each drop of her tablemate’s sneeze
“More tea!” she cried, but the waiter looked stopped
So she zipped from her chair to the kitchen’s pot.
And her story would have gone on from there
But the bomb tore through
And the bomb didn’t care! Oh

George he cackled George he laughed
George’s machine brought a dead man back!
In defiance of God!
In hubris insane!
“Raar!” said the dead man
Then he died again.
The bomb tore through
The bomb didn’t care.
George had evolved, so he wasn’t spared.
And the dead man, he’d once been Darwin’s toy
He was one more thing for the bomb to destroy. Oh

The Earth was barely nine thousand years
Old. Mad props to Usher! Creationist cheers!
Nine thousand years old! Plus seven days!
So the Earth, it lived on, anyways
Its valleys! Its hills! Its endless seas!
Its glorious plains! Its mountains! Its trees!
It all lived on! And we’re very pleased . . .
But the sun was as old as the scientists said
So the Origins Bomb killed the sun clean dead.

The aliens on Alpha Ceti III
Descend from the cones of evergreen trees
They’re a warlike bunch!
They’d have killed us later
But the bomb took them down
Like Bush took down Nader. Oh!

And all through the Earth just a handful of men
Some women, some children (most under ten),
Lived to see the winter that came
When the fire of the world
Turned a fading flame.

Iphigenia staggers through a savage wasteland. She grows lean and scruffy and lonely.

Every clock in the world that is not broken is stopped, frozen at 10:57am. The computers that she finds do not work. The paper calendars are also stopped, with nobody to flip them.

Iphigenia does not know how long it has been since the Bomb went off. But it feels like many years.

Everyone is dead.

Everything is in ruins.

There are no groundskeepers. There is no electricity.

A flyer flutters down to her from the sky. It looks strangely new, though she knows it must predate the bomb. And on it is written:

What Would You Keep?

If you could keep just one thing—one thing to last you all the empty years, what would it be?

Think on it. Decide. And when you know, if you are still alive, come to London. Come to the place of lights.

Iphigenia laughs. “I don’t know how to get there from here!” she says.

The wolves have come out, since the bomb, to stalk through the streets. They mutter and wolf to one another, and they do not bother Iphigenia. One day Iphigenia finds a Lego Universal Translator set, suitable for ages 12 and up, in an abandoned toy store. She assembles the pieces including two AA batteries and she turns it on and she eavesdrops on some wolves.

“Humanity has become incapacitated!” says a Shaggy Wolf. “It can no longer rule the Earth! It is our honor and our privilege to become Earth’s new guardians. Now we are the city people. Observe as I perform the strange city ritual of ‘rushing nowhere in particular.'”

“Yeah! Yeah!” agrees a Lean Wolf.

Shaggy Wolf looks slyly at one of the stopped clocks. He asks Lean Wolf, “Is that clock right?”

“It’s not just ‘right,'” says Lean Wolf. “It’s actually slow!

Shaggy Wolf pauses for dramatic effect. Then he gasps. He panics. First he skitters in a panicked circle. Then he begins to speed-walk very fast, just barely surrendering the edges of his dignity, in the direction of a distant office building.

“The end is nigh!” rails an Apocalyptic Street-Corner Wolf as he passes. “The Snavering Lavelwods will inherit the Earth!”

“What?” says Shaggy Wolf.

“He’s challenging your presumption of succession!” says the Lean Wolf, shocked.

Shaggy Wolf snarls. The Universal Translator says, “What?” Then it says, “Bleep! Bleep bleep! Bleepity bleep! Bleep!”

“Ow!” says Iphigenia. “My ears! Too much bleeping!”

So after that she does not eavesdrop on the wolves.

Two hundred meals and seventy-nine naps later, Iphigenia sees the flyer again. This time she holds it tightly. She pretends that it matters. She pretends that it is a thing from after the bomb, printed on crisp yellow and golden paper by someone surviving, somewhere, someone somehow not dead. So she finds an information kiosk and she digs through its maps and she heads towards London.

There is a bird in the air. It is a feral parrot. It circles down to land on her shoulder. It says, “Hello!”

“Hello,” says Iphigenia.

“Brawk,” says the bird. “Broderick. Good Broderick.”

“Would you like a cracker?” Iphigenia asks.

Broderick bobs up and down in excitement. Then he bites her ear and flutters away. From a tree nearby he says, “Snavering Lavelwods inherit the Earth. Inherit the Earth. Brawk!”

“Ow,” Iphigenia says.

Seven hundred meals and three hundred naps later, Iphigenia sees a light. She does not understand it at first. Her brain cannot parse it. It is an electric light. It is shining.

Iphigenia’s heart begins to race. It races faster and faster. She begins to hop. She begins to jump. She begins to dance around and glee.

“People!” she shouts.

Then she runs. She runs until she sees a factory. It is surrounded by a ruined fence and a ruined gate and a ruined sign hanging from that gate, reading, “NKA” and “CTOR”. Its lights are on!

She runs to the door. She cannot stop. There is a glee bubbling in her. It is practically leaking out her nose and ears. She hammers on the door. “Let me in! Let me in! I’m people too! You’re alive! Open up!

And Charles does.

Who is this mysterious Charles? Why did his factory survive? The Countdown will continue . . . on MONDAY!

The Army (3 of 3)

a story of the chaos

Great long spurs agitate the chaos. The foam pumps through long clanking copper pipes. The machine hums and spits out an endless army.

In the ranks of the army march Cheryl and Ivan and Esther.

Cheryl has a pick over her shoulder. She is borne down by its weight. It is taller than she is.

Around and behind her there is the ghost.

“You’re not a real ghost,” Cheryl says.

“No?” asks the ghost.

“I don’t have any memories of people to be attached to,” says Cheryl. “And there’s certainly no one attached to me.”

“That’s true,” says the ghost. It is a great and dread-worthy shape, like a cloak made of layers of misty shadows. “I’m not a ghost of the past. I’m a freelance soul.”

The march stops. There is a staccato metal sound as each of the gunfolk in the unit draws their gun, turns on the ghost, and puts back the hammer.

“I don’t want a soul,” says Cheryl.

The ghost looks around. There is a red haze that effuses from it. Many of the gunfolk are coughing now. A few fire, futilely, at the ghost.

“Come on,” says Esther.

Esther grabs Cheryl’s hand. They run.

“Artillery—FIRE!” shouts a commander, in the distance.

Mortars slam against the ghost. Cheryl, Esther, and Ivan are running, low to the ground, bowed down by their picks.

“Cheryl,” says the ghost.

Its substance is beginning to fray. With a shriek it descends on her.

Esther shoves Cheryl out of the way. The ghost lands on Esther, in Esther, suffusing her. There is a silence.

“Artillery—HALT!”

Ivan and Cheryl watch Esther with a kind of horror as she stands up again.

“I’m okay,” Esther says.

“Are you?”

“I’m okay. I just have a soul, that’s all.”

So they go back to their march.

“It still wants you,” Esther says.

Cheryl gives her a look of sick horror.

They are coming up on the Imposthumation of the Ooze.

Compared to most oozes
This ooze is quite pleasant
It lives for no purpose
Save to give children presents.
Every child alive!
Once—before they are dead—
Gets a gift of some kind
From the ooze, it is said.

The trees around the Imposthumation are hung with bodies. The ground is damp and in places it is slick with slime.

“Tread carefully,” says Ivan.

Cheryl’s unit is careful. They are stealthy. They are forced to cling close to the trees from which their peers dangle. The bodies are not quite dead yet; their eyes gleam and they reach down for Cheryl and Ivan and Esther as they pass.

“You’re breathing,” Cheryl chides Esther.

“It’s the soul!”

“Quiet it down.”

“I can’t,” mutters Esther. “When I stop I just turn blue and get really uncomfortable.”

“Blue?”

That’s one of the gunfolk speaking. He looks kind of interested.

Esther sighs audibly. She demonstrates by holding her breath. After a while, as the unit darts from tree to tree, Esther turns blue and her eyes bug out. She exhales audibly, then sucks in air.

“Wow,” says the gunner.

There are presents scattered on the slime, as they grow nearer to the ooze. There are pop guns, larger than Cheryl is tall. There are cookies, mysteriously unpolluted by the slime. There are tickets to concerts, most of which feature bands and acts that won’t even exist until the latter half of the century. There is a fair bit of underwear and socks, because the ooze knows as every good ooze ought that there is no present a child likes better than underwear and socks.

“It’s not so bad,” Esther says. “Though. I mean, having a soul.”

Cheryl’s nostrils flare.

“It means,” says Ivan precisely, “that when you die you will not be done. You’ll have to go on, like to Heaven or Hell or reincarnation or something. And no one will ever think you were finished, that that was all that you were. They’ll never judge you and say, ‘That Esther, she was pretty cool while she lasted.’ I’m sorry. I don’t mean to depress you. But trying to pawn it off on Cheryl is even more wrong than your having it in the first place.”

That is the last long speech that Ivan gets to make.

One of the gunfolk stumbles over a bell. Bells are wonderful presents. They ring and they chime. But here, in the Imposthumation, the bell attracts the attention of the ooze.

The ooze’s voice is black and bubbling.

“Little things, little things, hurtful things. Will save you, little things. Will stop you from doing your harm.”

The ground around them is bubbling. All pretense of stealth is lost; they are bolting now, running desperately, hoping to cross beyond Imposthumation into the Slough before the ooze destroys them all.

A rivulet of the ooze smashes into them, and five of the gunfolk are lost. They sink screaming into the earth. There is another flow of oozy essence in front of them. The army takes to the trees. They clamber past the groping dying bodies of their peers and run along long branches to jump to the next tree. Many of them fall, but Cheryl and Esther do not.

The ooze catches Ivan crosswise in midair. He spins around and falls to the ground, his leg snapping with a crunch.

“Ow,” he says. Then, “Run!”

People like Ivan don’t feel much pain.

“RUN!”

So Cheryl and Esther abandon him. They run.

“Each child saved from you lot,” burbles the ooze. “That’s a present. And make you into presents! Dry you out on trees, you make lovely candy canes.”

“I don’t want to be a candy cane,” says Ivan.

But the ooze does not respect his choice.

Beneath Cheryl and Esther, the ground fades from slime to thick rich mud. The trees thin out until the remnants of the unit must descend onto the earth.

It is the Slough of the Dreamer.

The Dreamer is really in no wise unpleasant
Though he sticks you on spikes
And he roasts you like pheasant
He has a strict rule that he always observes
He’ll put you on spikes
If things would have been worse.

Yes! It’s always a step up!
It’s always much better
Than the hand fate would deal you
If only he’d let her!

When you’re in the Slough
And you’re caught on a spike
Then it must be just awful
What things
would have been like!

“This is the worst of it,” says Esther.

“Is it?”

“Logically,” says Esther.

“How can things get worse than this?” mourns one of the gunfolk.

Schnick! He’s caught on a spike. The spike rises from the Slough, followed by one of the hands of the Dreamer. The Dreamer begins to carry him, screaming, towards the fire.

“Shh,” mumbles the Dreamer. “Shh. Better this than days of terrified, despairing march, followed by a tumble into the Fang of Z’al.”

“That’s true,” admits the soldier. “But this really sucks anyway.”

“Keep going,” says Cheryl. “Sing a happy song.”

“A happy song?” says Esther.

“Yes. We have to keep our spirits up to maximize the net value of our remaining time and avoid the spike!”

“Huh,” says Esther. “That makes sense.”

The hornsfolk play their horns and the pipers their pipes and they walk along singing through the Dreamer’s Slough.

One piper has a pipe that is, quite frankly, out of tune.

The piper is staring at it, in between verses. There is a knot of worry on her brow.

“Do we have any way to replace or fix these?” the piper asks.

“It’s okay,” lies Cheryl. “It sounds wonderful!”

But it’s too late. The spike is already rising and the piper is for roast.

Ahead they can see the Living Mountain.

The living mountain’s rather cross.
It loves you all
(Please brush and floss)
It loves you all
But vexed it grows
When people eat
Its candy toes.

The commander meets with them at the foothills of the Living Mountain.

“Listen,” he says. “We have a strategic decision to make.”

He pauses. He stares at Esther.

“Why are you breathing, by the way?”

Esther shakes her head.

“Anyway,” the commander says. “The Living Mountain won’t smash us into little bits of mini-person kindling, unless of course someone’s been breaking off bits of it to eat. Conversely, I know we’re all pretty hungry, and replenishing supplies is a pretty good idea. So I wanted to get people’s opinions before I decided whether we’re going to forage or not.”

The hornsfolk tootle on their horns. The gunfolk look aggressive. Esther frowns.

Cheryl asks, “Is it a good giant edible god-mountain or a bad one?”

The commander looks thoughtfully up at the mountain, judging its alien morality by the standards of his own.

“I think it’s probably good,” he says. “I mean, it’s a giant candy god-mountain.”

“Then morality should triumph over ruthless pragmatism!”

The commander blows out his cheeks. “Well,” he says, and shrugs. “You’re the miner.”

They march across the Living Mountain. There are hideous faces peering out at them from its candy shell. There are great tendrils of spun-sugar, miles long, whirling around them in the distance. Then Cheryl hears the voice.

“It is better, little thing, that you should have a soul.”

Cheryl looks uncomfortably at Esther.

Cunningly, Cheryl says, “But if I have the soul, then she won’t any more. That’s equally bad in every moral system!”

“I can stir the sea with my tendrils,” whispers the wind. “I can pull you up a soul so that good and evil are different for you, so that you may fail or rise above yourself, so that your story shall not end when you face the long-clawed Seether in the dark.”

Cheryl regards the tapestry of her life as it unfolds before her.

“But I am Cheryl, who was born from the machine and marches to the Telos and, if you are not false, gets killed by the long-clawed Seether in the dark. Why would I want any more of a story than that?”

“It is only those who do not have souls that ask such questions,” says the wind.

“Um,” says Esther. Esther raises a finger. The wind wraps around it. “I have a soul, and I kind of wonder about that.”

Esther holds her breath and turns blue, demonstrating that she has a soul.

“Curses,” mutters the voice of the Living Mountain. “My argument is demolished and I must fall back on ad hominem. You suck, Esther. Cheryl shouldn’t listen to you.

Cheryl defiantly breaks off a piece of the Living Mountain. She takes an angry bite.

Then the Living Mountain is screaming. Then its tendrils are lashing. Then suddenly all is terror in the ranks once again.

It is the best candy ever; and when the scattered few who live reach the Clake-Plains, there are no regrets.

The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down from the sky
And makes you to dust
And you don’t question why
For everyone knows that all childhood hopes
Are answered with dust
From the folks that beast smote.
The world would be merciless,
Terrible, cruel
Were there no dust—
At least, as a rule.

“Are there raspberries in this mountain?” enthuses Esther. “Cause I taste raspberries.”

“I don’t think so,” says Cheryl. “I think it’s some sort of . . . berry-flavored mite.”

“That’s so cool,” says Esther.

The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down. It is a flooding, a racing, a burning in the sky. It descends on Esther like the wrath of Heaven and when it lands there is only dust.

“Oh,” says Cheryl.

The Clake-Hammer Beast smashes down, once again. The last of the hornsfolk dies.

It is the last length of the run. There are few of them now, and fewer each second. Where there were three hundred good mini-people in Cheryl’s unit when the army was formed, there are seventeen now, and she is the last miner of them. The guns are silent, as are the horns. The last piper does not play. There is blood everywhere, and dust.

But:

“She’s still out there,” says Cheryl.

There’s a bit of a silence.

“I mean, in the dust. I mean, there’ll be someone who needs it, someone who would have had a hopeless, useless life, and the dust of the clake-beast will sift down from the wind and save them, and that’ll be Esther.”

The last piper stares at her blankly.

“She had a soul,” Cheryl clarifies.

“Ew.”

The piper looks at her suspiciously. “But not you, right? I mean, when you die, that’s it, I don’t have to worry about you any more? Right?”

“Are you worried about me now?”

The piper makes an amusing face.

“Point,” the piper says.

They are out of the Clake-Plains, which is why they have time for such a conversation. They are out of the Clake-Plains, and the Telos is in sight.

The greatest of creatures must love us the best.
Not kind love,
Not tough love,
But love ne’ertheless.
Not gentle,
Not tender,
But love in a fashion.
Not welcome,
Not really,
But full of compassion.

What the universe holds
In its vast scentless reaches
Are things whose great purpose
Is to grant all us creatures
Some measure of hope
And a chance to survive
In their terrible awe
Such as we are alive.

The Telos is the beast of perfection. It is of unimaginable size and its faces and hands and claws and wings are numberless. It shines with perfect light and glory and it is besieged.

There is no end to the army that falls upon it.

They emerge from the terrors of the journey from every direction and to every side. They are cut down to mere trillions in the field from the innumerable host that is always setting forth. Not all of them pass through the Imposthumation or the Slough; not all of them travel the Living Mountain or the Clake-Plains; there are many routes, and all of them are deadly, but in every second that passes a few more soldiers survive to reach this place.

The soldiers fall on the Telos like the most bloodthirsty of beasts.

There are horrors that spawn from the ether to defend the Telos. They are great and generous beasts that throw away lives scarcely born. The Cepherites have the manes of lions and the faces of children. The Segorites are twisting ropes of steel. The long-clawed Seether marauds among the army, and the Fang of Z’al devours.

Cheryl looks at the Telos. She shoulders her pick.

“Esther would have wondered why we are here,” says Cheryl.

“To cut into it,” says the piper. “Here in this place seeks to grow from nothing the final perfection of the world. Here is the end to ambition.

“And the pipers play and the gunfolk fight and the commanders lead all so that the miners like you may take your picks to it and carve away the shards, so that those who do want souls may have them.”

Cheryl sets her jaw. She marches forward to the music of the pipe.

She will die in the shadow of the Telos to the Seether’s claws, of course. But that does not matter.

There is a chance that she will strike one blow, mine away one fragment of perfection, before her end.

It is Thursday, the 13th of May, 2004.

These events have been elaborated upon and edited somewhat for drama; and we do not, of course, know their meaning.

They are, nevertheless, quite real.

Cheryl was pretty cool while she lasted; and that’s just one reason, out of many, that we must never turn off the mini-people-making machine.

The Incredible Alchemy Elixir (Continued)

Yesterday, in the first installment of The Incredible Alchemy Elixir . . .

. . . a sinister letter revealed Uncle Bertram’s intent!
. . . nanny Maria donned the armor of a Fan Hoeng assasin!
. . . the Doom Team collected the first ingredient for a Taoist immortality elixir: raindrops on roses!
. . . Nicolae brooded about being the antichrist!
. . . Tom swiftied!
. . . Jane sulked!

And now, the exciting conclusion of . . . the Incredible Alchemy Elixir!

Mouser
Age: 8 months
Code Name: None

Mouser is a kitten. He became an official Doom Team auxiliary when he killed a mouse and left it in Uncle Bertram’s bed. His declaration of “Mew” often confounds the enemies of righteousness and strikes terror into evil’s heart.

He is mewing even now!

“I’m sorry, Mouser,” says Nicolae.

“Mew,” whines Mouser. Mouser struggles desperately.

“Come on, Mouser,” says Michael. “It’s just one whisker! You can spare one whisker!”

“Is it really ethical to pluck Mouser just so the rest of us can live?” Jane asks.

“We can think about ethics later,” Tom delays. “Right now, there’s a bigger threat!”

“It’s all right,” Nicolae says.

There is a black dog standing at the entrance to the room. It pants. It looks at Mouser. Mouser goes very still. Nicolae plucks a whisker.

“He won’t give me any trouble,” says Nicolae bleakly.

Jane blinks. The dog is gone when she opens her eyes.

“Now for the bright copper kettles,” Michael says.

Michael
Age: 7
Code Name: Mikey

Michael is a special child. He can eat anything. He is not hungry very often but the more he eats he more he can eat—and the more he needs to eat. Tom’s equations suggest that Michael’s consumption will become asymptotically infinite by 2032, forcing him to devour the stars, the planets, and finally even the endless hungry void, leaving behind only the blank slate on which the universe was writ.

Michael is the newest member of the Doom Team.

The house supply of bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens sits in a pile in the middle of the kitchen.

Maria slouches against the wall. Her gun is by her side.

“I thought you would come here,” Maria says.

Jane and Tom and Michael stand frozen.

“I made sure you’d have to come here,” Maria says, “in fact.”

Nicolae steps forward. Maria’s gun rises. The gun begins to whine.

“How long does it take?” Nicolae asks. “I mean, for your death ray to initialize?”

“Seventy-five seconds,” Maria says. “It is a principal weakness of Fan Hoeng technology.”

Nicolae walks to the pile. He selects a pair of warm woolen mittens from the pile. He uses them to polish the edge of a bright copper kettle. The copper smears away, revealing the dark black beneath.

“Fake kettles,” Nicolae says. “Very cunning.”

Maria’s gun whines.

Nicolae scans the room. There’s a black dog standing by the pot cupboard. It pants. Nicolae walks over to the pot cupboard. He opens it. He is not hurrying.

Jane blinks.

The black dog is gone.

“I’ll put an end to all this nonchalance!” Maria shouts. Her gun fires. It shoots a ray of pure death. The blast hits Nicolae in the center of his chest. Circular ripples of fading death pass through the room.

There’s a silence.

Nicolae does not look harmed. He takes out one of the concealed bright copper kettles. He puts it under his arm.

“Indifference,” Nicolae says.

Nicolae’s pupils have shrunk to points.

“Not nonchalance.”

Nicolae walks back to the others.

Maria opens and closes her mouth with a prim little click.

“He really is the antichrist, isn’t he?” Maria asks flatly.

Jane glares at Maria. Michael’s nostrils flare.

“No,” says Tom.

Tom steps forward. “No. He’s not. He doesn’t have to be. Not even if he’s immune to death rays. He’s a person.

Tom juts his chin defiantly.

“Yeah!” says Jane.

Maria tilts her head to one side. “But—I am not wrong? That is his destiny?” she presses.

Nicolae answers. He bites out the word. “Yes.”

“Well, then,” says Maria. “I’ll just have to set my death ray to holy.

Maria clicks a lever. Her gun begins a new kind of ominous whine.

“Could it be?” says Nicolae. His eyes brighten with something like joy. “An early end to the long dark aeons of my life?”

Jane grabs Nicolae’s arm. “Run!”

“But—”

“Remember the Doom Team code!” says Tom. “You don’t have to die just because some people think your existence is evil!”

Jane tugs harder on Nicolae’s arm. “RUN!”

Nicolae hesitates, then, fractionally, he nods.

The four children dart away, Mouser galloping after.

Jane
Age: 8
Code Name: None

Jane is trouble. Bertram’s brother, David, adopted her because he thought that she might destroy the world. It turned out that he was wrong. Because she’s just ordinary trouble, Tom won’t let her join the Doom Team—but she’s so helpful on all of their adventures that the Team unanimously voted her in as a Doom Team Auxiliary!

“Brown paper packages,” says Jane. “Brown paper packages. Brown paper packages. What could that mean?”

“Dad’s opium stash!” Tom declares.

“That’s it!” they all shout. “Opium!”

They race downstairs to David’s abandoned bedroom. They break open his cabinet and take out a brick of opium. It is in a brown paper package, tied up with string. The children boil water in the bright copper kettle; mash up wool, opium, Mouser’s whisker, and the petals of the rose in a large glass bowl; and finally they pour boiling water over the mix.

“It’s a marvelous immortality elixir!” Jane says. “Bottoms up!”

“. . . Ladies first,” says Tom.

They stare at the lumpy mix for a bit.

“Nicolae?” Jane asks.

There is a black dog standing in front of Nicolae. It pants.

“Ask Mikey,” Tom suggests. “He’ll eat anything.”

“Nuh-unh,” says Michael. “I can eat anything. That’s different.”

“All right . . .” says Jane, unhappily.

Jane picks up the elixir. She lifts it to her lips.

The door to the room opens. Maria stands there. The gun is not whining. It is readied and braced against her shoulder.

“I wouldn’t drink that if I were you,” Maria hisses. “Once you’ve been immortal for five hundred years, Heaven would send a terrible wind to destroy you. And even if you survived that, it’d send a terrible fire to kill you five hundred years later! That’s why there aren’t many immortal Taoists around.”

Jane pauses before drinking. “I don’t want Heaven to destroy me,” she admits.

Nicolae looks at her.

Jane blushes. “Sorry,” she says. “That was insensitive. —But I don’t!

“You won’t have the chance,” says Maria.

Maria pulls the trigger. Jane, desperate, splashes the elixir of immortality on her face.

BOOM.

There is a silence.

“You’re not dead either,” Maria says, dumbly.

“I guess I’m a Taoist immortal,” Jane frets.

“You can’t be a Taoist immortal,” claims Tom. “You’re a girl.”

Maria fires again. She fires shot after shot at Jane’s chest. It splashes off.

“You are a Taoist immortal!” Tom exclaims.

“The gun,” Maria whispers. “It’s overloading. I’ve shot too much death at an immortal! It’s going to explode!”

“Serves you right,” sulks Jane.

“It’s your fault!” curses Maria. “It’s all your fault! The Fan Hoeng will avenge me! They will sear this world, they will ruin it, they will salt the earth and boil the seas, all to get at you, Jane! All to destroy you!

The gun explodes.

There is dust and there is rubble and the ceiling falls.

David
Age: 72 years
Code Name: None

David Fitz built the house on Doom Lane as a haven for children destined to destroy the world. He adopted Tom, Nicolae, Michael, and even Jane. They never knew whether he wanted the world to end or just thought that destined avatars of destruction had it pretty tough. All they knew was that he loved them, that he took them in, and that he died, leaving the Doom Team and their trust fund in his brother’s greedy hands.

He is mourned.

Jane is dizzy as they haul her into the light.

“Is everyone okay?” Jane asks. “Michael? Oh my God, is Michael alive?”

“I ate the death and the blast,” Michael says. “I’m okay. And I even saved Mouser. But I’m hungrier now.”

“I’m so glad,” Jane says. She hugs him tightly. “I’m sorry I tried to get you to drink the immortality elixir.”

“It’s okay,” Michael says.

Jane blinks away her tears. She pushes Michael away. She looks around at the rubble on Doom Lane.

“Well,” she says. “They’re going to destroy the Earth to get at me.”

“Yeah,” Michael laughs.

There is a silence.

“I guess that means I can join the Team now,” Jane says. “Huh?”

Tom’s face is stricken. Nicolae’s eyes are dark and wounded.

There is a silence.

“Of course,” Michael says.

Nicolae, quietly, nods.

“Yes,” Tom admits.

A bird sings, far away.

“I’m so sorry,” says Tom, wretchedly.

The rubble shifts and crunches.

“Jane, I’m so sorry!”