Haunted (IIb/III)

They aren’t friends.

Melanie tells herself this each time she thinks of visiting Liril. They are not friends.

Not really.

They can’t be.

There’s just something inside Melanie, she tells herself, that has trouble letting Liril go.

The nephilite haunts Melanie’s thoughts, and she keeps finding reasons to go and talk to her, and pretending that she doesn’t love her and she doesn’t hate her and she doesn’t want to own her or be owned.

And also, they’re not friends.

It’s really . . . Liril and Melanie, that is . . . it’s not really a big deal at all.

Liril hasn’t cried. She isn’t sad. She hasn’t cried since that first day.

And Melanie, mostly, she’s OK too.

You will drown in him forever.

You will never die.

It’s a little hard, sometimes, because she really wants to have the upper hand over Liril’s mother, she finds herself craving it sometimes, like a spider might crave blood, and she can’t, she can’t even really look at the woman any more without seeing those billowing clouds of violet, that indigo, that green, that sick sensation of the words like wind beating from every direction against her soul.

But she’s OK.

She never cries, not where Liril can see.

She reminds herself that she’s cunning, and she’s strong.

This is a thing that comes to pass.

There’s nothing I can do.

“She hasn’t aged,” Melanie says, one day in 1988, to her first and fairy lover.

This person who is not my friend.

“She’s maybe even lost a year.”

Not that it matters, or anything.

“Isn’t that really kind of strange?”

Free (V/VII)

Now after the incident with the spider the stress does not relent, but rather piles up like massing clouds in Melanie’s body and her mind. She is not well when she emerges from the web; she is, rather, broken, and it comes to a terrible peak in her when she is found by the steamer’s crew, so that the entire world around her strains through a seething mesh of fear before impacting on her mind.

She can’t grasp that they will not hurt her. She can’t grasp that they won’t do horrible and monstrous things to her, and for ever.

But they don’t.

She’s babbled to them already about the soot-spider. She isn’t sure when that happened. She missed the part where she actually told them. Her first real consciousness of the matter comes when she’s already explained.

The wonder of it is that most of the crew believes.

Did used to see soot spiders, sometimes,” one of the older stokers confirms. “Bloody pests, they were. Kill a cabin boy as soon as wink.”

“No way,” protests a younger seaman. “Aren’t they isn’ts?”

But the stoker only laughs.

“Not out at sea!”

And they might have argued for another round, except, right then, the bo’sun speaks.

“She’s lucky,” the bo’sun rules.

She’s lucky! She survived!

And that’s the end of the matter, because they can make her work, if she’s lucky, but they can’t exactly harass her, or lock her up, or throw her to the sea.

You don’t do that kind of thing to people who are good luck.

It wouldn’t be good practice, on a ship.

So she survives, and nobody hurts her, and you’d think that maybe that would lighten the suffering that fills her thoughts, but it doesn’t, because as it turns out, making an answer to suffering is a difficult thing to do.

She’s tired, right tired, all the way through, and she’s burdened down with fear.

It gets heavier with each passing day.

Then they reach Santa Barbara’s docks.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

They berth at night and she helps unload and then in her corner she goes to sleep.

And there’s something epochal in reaching land, and as she sleeps, the weight that fills her body, mind, and soul cuts free.

It lingers near her at first, but the night has tides, and in the end it drifts away.

She wakes up to realize that the world is sweet and her body aches and the water that drums against the side of the ship is good.

And the rough wood of the docks has a clean simplicity.

And the sky over Santa Barbara—

The sky is right.

It’s like she’s come at last to a fairyland, to berth in this sunny world.

She stretches. She laughs. She walks. She runs. She jumps down to the wooden dock.

It sways—

She sways?—

It doesn’t sway, rather, and so she nearly falls, she nearly goes head over heels, she nearly topples over, like she’d done once or twice in the previous night.

The land doesn’t sway here, and that’s a crazy, unnatural thing.

How can a person stand up in some strange world where the ground doesn’t move and your heart is light and there is no soot, no soot anywhere, to make you fear the endless dark?

She takes a step.

Hm.

She takes another step.

Somehow—

Somehow it’s good. Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her

“You’re Amiel’s get.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1979 CE

Back up. That isn’t how this history goes.

She isn’t there yet. That hasn’t happened to her yet. She isn’t hearing those terrible words. Not yet.

She is stumbling down, no, she’s jumped down onto the docks.

And they aren’t swaying.

They’re not like a ship. They’re still. And somehow that’s . . . good.

Somehow the terrible alien solidity of the land is, like we were saying, good.

She looks around. There isn’t any soot. There isn’t any impending danger that the soot, which isn’t there, will organize itself into theorems and abstract her into a dark, foreboding world.

She sways.

Somehow that’s good too, that she doesn’t have to fear that she’ll stumble at any second into the web of another soot-spider.

Somehow, and this is weird, somehow that’s better than good.

It’s bubbling up in her like joy, it’s giggling out of her unexpectedly, it’s giggling out her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of love for all the world.

How embarrassing.

Embarrassment loses against the joy. It can burn her cheeks and make her look away but it can’t stop her from laughing, and saluting the seamen on their ship, and jauntily walking towards the day.

She’s seven and she’s lucky and she’s killed a soot-spider and finally she’s gotten free.

Billy and his gang won’t be a trouble to her any more.

Nothing will be a trouble to her any more.

She’s the master of the world.

And her story could have gone many different ways from there, but the way it went is this. She walked from the docks straight to Santa Ynez; straight into the monster’s web.

but there is one more part of this tale to tell, and you shall have to wait a week to hear it. In the meantime, perhaps, you could

* review the Legend of Ink Catherly, or
* everything about her so far;
* enjoy the awesome Visual Glossary of Symbols;
* browse the even more awesome work of Anthony Damiani or Siya on Deviant Art;
* design incredible games using Ren’Py; or
* read about the upcoming third edition of Nobilis at RPG.net!

Harbinger

as narrated by Mrs. Schiff

People say that he’s a Harbinger of bad news — that where he goes misfortune follows.

“If you see him,” they say, “turn away. Don’t look. Go somewhere else, if you can.”

When I saw him I decided they were wrong.

It wasn’t a big philosophical thing. I mean, people have argued — people with real blogs and stuff — that you can’t change fate just by deciding. If he’s there for you, he’s already there for you, before you turn away or go somewhere else. If he’s not there for you, then turning away won’t change anything.

But even people like that, they agree, you don’t talk to him.

You don’t make a point of interacting with him.

That’s just making trouble for yourself.

He moved so gracefully.

It’s hard to explain if you’ve only seen him on television or in frozen pictures. It’s not like you’d expect.

Harbinger doesn’t fall into any uncanny valley. When you see him move, it’s like it frees up your own limbs — it’s like when the Wrights looked at birds (or maybe stiff-limbed trees with engines on them) and learned to fly. He’s beautiful.

So I said, “Hi.”

He gave this big delighted grin and moved to me and said, “You talked to me!”

There wasn’t any loneliness in his eyes. There weren’t any marks of it. He’s not like Emo or the Ice Guy. There was just this transformative joy of human contact.

But now that he was there and happy I was talking, I didn’t know any more of what to say.

“You’re Harbinger,” I told him, on the theory that perhaps he didn’t know.

“The very same,” he said. He looked away for a second, then smoothly back. “I was blessed by my godmother to be a hero — to have the speed to go where I am needed before it is too late, and to save the day once I am there.”

I set my purse down because I wanted my hands free, but then I didn’t have anything to do with them.

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “But then I was cursed to get there before the trouble happened, and leave before it arrived. It’s all —”

He gestured like somebody trying to draw a Rube Goldberg schematic with club hands.

“It’s all in the order you get your blessings, with fairies. The right order and you’re a hero, the wrong order and it’s not so good.”

“Well, you could warn people,” I said.

“I don’t do that,” he said.

“No?”

“That’d be trouble,” he said. He spun around uncertainly like a top. “I mean, not the same kind of trouble that happens after I leave, I hope — oh, God, paradoxes would suck — but the thing is, it’d just mean that my warning came too soon and that people would forget it just in time to need it. I don’t want anyone kicking themselves on my account, and they always would. My name is Jason, by the way.”

“Eileen.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t warn people. I don’t do anything like that.”

“Oh.”

I hesitated.

“But I’ll be in trouble?” I said.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “You’ll need a really fast guy to save you — well, plus my other godmother gifts, like strength”

and beauty

“and laser vision,” he said. “But I’ll have already left, to get there before a big building fire or drowning puppy or something.”

“That’s too bad.”

“But listen,” he said. He took my hands. “Listen, it’s okay.”

I was blushing. I thought about yanking my hands away. I didn’t manage to decide to do it. It’s probably part of his supernatural powers.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “I thought about it for a long time. But finally I realized that there was still something worth doing. I mean, when people don’t go all ‘run away, it’s Harbinger.’ on me. I figured out that everything I’m supposed to stop — that it can all be okay. Even though I can’t.”

I pulled my hands back.

“Not drowning puppies,” I pointed out.

“We make our lives really hard,” he said. “When bad stuff happens, we tell ourselves that we’re part of why; or we hurt ourselves extra, struggling against it or trying to hang on to what we had before. We don’t — people don’t — focus on the fact that part of being a person is that whatever is immediately in front of you, you can handle it. That’s what it means to be a consciousness in the world — that there are paths that you can take, and one of them is as right as you can get, and if you take that, it’s okay. And even if you don’t take that, as long as you have a good reason to take a different one, that’s okay too. Or if you learn better later. Whatever. There’s only the options we have in front of us, so it’s okay if we don’t have other ones.”

“That’s okay as far as it goes,” I said.

“I realized,” he said, “that maybe if I told people that, then they’d remember it when their suffering came. Because it’s not like there was any other way it could have been, not like the trouble is something they could get out of, not when they needed me and I’ll have already left.”

“You could tell them to blame you,” I told him.

He smiled and stopped smiling, smiled and stopped smiling, three or four times. “But it wouldn’t be true,” he said.

Then he looked up and away, sharply, like a dog that’s heard some hidden sound.

“They will need me,” he said.

Death and death and death; I could feel it. I could taste it, metallic in the air. It hadn’t even happened yet and it was calling him.

“Wait,” I said.

“Oh, my heart,” he said. “I wish I could.”

Then there was nothing left of him but my brain’s stubborn reluctance — for nearly half a second — to recognize that he was gone.

Ink Indestructible (I/I)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

“I think that God lives at the center of the world,” says the girl.

She is sitting on the head of a monstrously oversized warbish lavelwod, a horror bound under a tower in the sea of chaos to the west of the world, and her hand is brushing gently against the surface of the sea.

“I think that he’s at the heart of the world like the seed’s at the heart of a pearl. That it surrounds him so that in every direction he may look out and see the world; and that the crust is there so that he cannot see too clearly the suffering that he works with his existence.”

The warbish lavelwod breathes: ho-ha, ho-ha.

“So that’s why I need you,” says the girl. “Not to go up and eat the sun, but to go down and devour God.”

“That’s all very well,” says the warbish lavelwod, “but I am not sure that we have been properly introduced.”

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

The Island of the Centipede

Ink giggles.

“My name is Ink Catherly,” she says. “But everybody calls me the imago. ‘Cause i’m-a-go in’ to kill whomever’s on the throne of this bloody ol’ world, you see.”

“I see,” says Sukaynah.

“And you’re Sukaynah?”

“Yes.”

Ink’s hand is pink against the surface of the chaos. It is causing ripples to be. But now a sea change comes to it; and she gives a great gasp and stretches back; and the substance of Ink becomes history.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004 – Sukaynah: Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Sukaynah.

She loved the storms.

When it rained she would run out into them and play.

If there were a purpose to Sukaynah, it would have been to rush through the world into gathering storms and then take joy in them.

But this is a purpose that she did not understand.

One day Sukaynah broke a promise.

It wasn’t much. Just a little thing. But it made her ashamed.

It rained that day, and she couldn’t face the rain.

The fairies of the clouds and the dragons of the storm called to her, but Sukaynah would not come.

She curled up in her room.

She would not hear them.

And one of the truggumps that sometimes grew in the hay told her, “So make a promise that you won’t break.”

She drew on the strength in her.

“I promise that I’ll make the sun go away forever,” she said, in the face of those storms.

She became something horrible.

She became something great and terrible, a warbish lavelwod, and the skin of her was mottled and the teeth of her were sharp.

“Would you take me down below the sea?” Ink asks. “And crack for me the surface of the world?”

“If I were free?” Sukaynah says.

“Yes.”

“The currents would sweep you away,” Sukaynah says. “Then if you remained with me, we would crash into the crust of the world and hurt our heads very badly; and if I made it through, you would not.”

“That’s one thing,” says Ink, “and this is another.”

“But—” Sukaynah is frustrated. “We would find lava. And possibly some kind of magnetic thingie. Like iron or something.”

Ink laughs.

“You mustn’t be so afraid of the world,” Ink says. And points out, “You’re a gigantic horror, you know. It’s more scared of you than you are of it.”

Sukaynah breathes.

Then something in her snaps. Ink’s enthusiasm reaches her.

“Sure,” she says. “Sure, I’d do that.”

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – She chased the setting sun, across the world from the east to the west, chased it out into the sea that lies beyond world and sound; and there, on a small bit of rock, she closed her eyes to sleep;

And while she slept the gibbelins chained her down beneath the sea and built a tower on her face.

If this were not enough, they fed her on no food more good than human flesh, great gobbets of it, raw, until she would rather have choked than eat another bite. But eat she did.

And if that were not enough, they went away.

They left her there to starve. And she cried out to the Heavens that she would forgive even the flesh, if someone would just feed her in that way again.

It was a lie.

What has a lavelwod to do with such forgiveness?

The bonds on Sukaynah weaken.

They strain beneath her strength.

Something is different, though the nature of it is not yet clear.

Then one by one, the ropes that bind Sukaynah snap.

Sukaynah tears herself loose and there is a monstrous turbulence and a cry of terrible pain. After all of these years freedom burns like acid admixed with fire.

The tower, weakened by her earlier thrashings, caves in above her.

Sukaynah dives.

She maketh a whirlpool of the chaos.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – And the years passed, and Abel Clay came to the tower.

Sukaynah cried out to him.

How could she not?

She cried to him that if he would feed her on sweetness and good things that it would give her the strength she’d need to break her bonds; that she could snap them and be free and rise to eat the tower and the sun; that the gibbelins had made the rope to bind a creature outcast by the world and it would not hold a creature who knew love.

And he loved her.

He loved her, but not the whole of her.

He loved the girl who’d run to love the storms and the great gnashing maw of her and the burning eye of her and the endless warbishness of her. He loved that part of her in that rough-edged way of a man beyond the boundaries of the world;

But what man could love the part of her that yearned to eat the sun?

Ink leaves contrails in the chaos as she descends.

She thinks, as the many long limbs of Sukaynah thrash at the chaos behind her: This would be a really good excuse for being named Ink.

The lavelwod’s a bit like an octopus, after all.

Ink’s streaming behind her as she jets.

She’s leaving contrails of herself—motion lines of imago. She’s warping the chaos as it tries to warp her.

But it’s hard to reduce that to a short phrase she can use in an introduction.

And all around her she can taste the chaos.

It’s not like air. It’s like Sukaynah and Tep and Ink and thousands of years of suffering.

Ahead of them in the chaos are the first wisps of the gathering storm.

With a great loud whump Sukaynah strikes the crustline of the world.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – One day she thought, as she lay imprisoned there, that perhaps she should not devour the sun, after all.

That her inherent nature as a creature driven to destroy all human life forever and leave the world horrible and cold was why nobody loved her; or, at least, the part of her nobody in the world could love.

So she promised.

She screwed up her courage and she promised that if someone would feed her on wholesome things and the substance of the world, that she would not rise. That she would stay deep, and bring no more trouble to the world. That she would let the sun to live.

She changed that day.

A person who makes a promise that a warbish lavelwod can’t fulfill can’t be a warbish lavelwod, after all.

Again and again Sukaynah pounds against the world.

It has unleashed a fiend in her, this freedom.

It has made her a creature of mad destruction, great beyond comprehension, and determined to batter her way through the chaos-weakened shell of the world.

And her head rings and her vision blurs and there is blood to glut ten thousand sharks. It floats around her like great clouds. It piles on layers upon layers and great thunderheads and some of them are green and some of them are grey.

There is a high-pitched screaming that seems too pained to be her own and far too loud to be Ink’s.

The world shudders with repeated shocks.

Her vision flares with each bump against the ground and one, maybe two seconds later she will hear the roaring of the world.

A moment of stillness comes. She is surrounded by cacophany and mist and chaos and she thinks, like a pleased child, is this mine?

Did I make this?

Everything changes when she breaks through.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – There’s nothing in the rules that says that just because someone isn’t a warbish lavelwod, that you can’t tie them up at the bottom of the sea.

If there were, then there’d be a lot fewer people on the bottom of the sea.

Like, two, or maybe eight. Twelve at the most.

Certainly not as many as there are now.

So Sukaynah’s newest promise doesn’t free her.

In fact, you could even argue that it’s kept her bound; because not too long after that latest of her cries, Martin came to the tower, and Martin’s the kind of boy who could love a lavelwod.

Of course he could.

He’s always loved things like that, great and terrible and awful, like Sukaynah, like he wishes the monster would be.

So he fed her on sweetness and on wholesome things and he loved her and she would have loved him had it not been for the stillness that had grown in her over all these thousands of years.

And one day he tried to free her; and he cast down a gift of all sweet wholesomeness; and had she been a warbish lavelwod then the sugar in it would have set her free.

But there was nothing in his gift to free a girl who rushes laughing into the gathering of storms.

And it stung her horribly, it made her writhe, because it showed her—more than anything else could—that she’d lost herself; that she’d overextended herself; that she’d made too many promises and had forgotten what to be.

And that there wasn’t any gift she could ask for that would really set her free.

Ink drifts in darkness.

She thinks: Another really good excuse for being named Ink.

There is a pressure at her back. Chaos is pushing downwards through the crack, pouring down around her in great streams.

There is a howling wind.

Her arms and legs begin to tingle as she comes to fuller consciousness.

Ink opens her eyes.

She brushes aside her hair.

Beneath the world, as everyone knows, there is a great long emptiness; she hangs above it, tangled in the roots of the world and the limbs of Sukaynah.

And far below her,

just scarcely smaller than the world that hangs above,

there is a great and seething storm.

June, Tuesday 1, 2004: Sukaynah – People always forget that it’s impossible to keep a promise that is unnatural to you.

They twist themselves up.

They try really hard.

But the truth of a person comes out, no matter what strictures you hold it to.

We don’t know the truths of ourselves.

We’d like to, but we don’t.

We only know the edges.

One of the reasons we make promises, I think, is so that we can fill them in.

Ink’s mouth is moving.

She’s saying words that Sukaynah cannot parse because of the cognitive loudness of the beauty of the world.

They are these.

“In retrospect,” Ink says, “Looking for God under the crust of the world was probably a stupid idea.”

Dedicated to Hitherby Admin. Thanks for keeping the site going all this time!

The Cut-Off Man’s Father

In the morning the lights come on, all over the city.

Darmble is wired into the machines.

That’s when he wakes up.

“Good morning, Squalla,” he says.

There’s a gleam of virtual light. It manifests in his visual field though it is not there. It unfolds into the sprite Squalla, his secretary, hanging in the air.

“G’morning, boss!”

“How fared your quest to understand humanity,” Darmble asks, “in the night?”

“Poorly,” says Squalla.

“Alas.”

“And did you dream?”

“No,” says Darmble.

“Alas,” Squalla says.

There is an assumption that debt will be paid.

When this assumption is vitiated, it renders investments insecure.

That is why there are the cut-off men: to seal away bad debts and their debtors from the substance of society.

At lunchtime the lights dim, just a little bit, and Darmble’s son Elliott comes in to eat with him.

“I would like,” says Elliott’s father Darmble, “for you to cut me off.”

Elliott is eating a tuna sandwich.

He makes a distasteful face, as if there were a bit of strawberry jam in his tuna.

“That’s ridiculous,” he says.

“I am wired into the machinery of debt collection,” says Darmble. “I can quite readily offer you the authorization necessary to look into my case. Then you need only say, ‘Ah! Darmble! You’re clearly never going to come out of the red. You’re a bad debt, Darmble! I’m cutting you off.'”

Elliott chews on his tuna irritably. It makes squishy sensations in his mouth.

“Well,” he says, “first, you’re in the black.”

“That’s true,” his father concedes.

“I mean, it’s not a great life, being wired into the machine, but it’s productive. Your salary is strictly higher than your minimum payments.”

“It’s not a great life,” says Darmble. “It’s not even a good life. Do you know what I’m doing right now?”

“Having lunch with your son?”

“I’m playing cribbage with a macro that wants to understand humanity,” Darmble says.

“Ah.”

“—and sending a cut-off man after old Mrs. Glurgen.”

“Oh, Dad.”

“I like her,” says Darmble. “Back when I could, say, leave the room, or eat, I even used to be a little sweet on her. But I’m at the limit of my discretion. She can’t afford to eat, so she can’t afford to work well, much less do overtime. Her investments are doing poorly. She’ll never pull out of the red. So I’m sending a man to cut her off.”

Elliott looks at his hands. He sighs.

“I’ve been feeding her, you know.”

“Hm?”

“When I stop by. I give her some soup. I can spare it. I’m in the black.”

“Oh.”

Darmble has a moment of hope and then it fades. He shakes his head.

“Her performance is dropping off, just the same,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do.” He hesitates. “If she is eating, then why—”

“Bad boss, I think,” Ellliott says.

“It is hard,” Darmble says, “to tell such things from within the machine.”

“The cut-off man’ll look into it,” Elliott says. “So she’ll be okay. He’ll probably say, ‘Well, we can bump your debt a little and move you to another job and you’ll be fine, Mrs. Glurgen!'”

“Ha,” snorts Darmble.

“Ha?”

“That’s your problem. You’re too idealistic! You think everyone’s like you. But they’re not.”

“Eh?”

“The cut-off men,” Darmble says. “They’re cold and cruel and their hands are metal claws. They’re not there to figure out which people have a chance to come out of the red. They’re there to snip people off the tree, like roses.”

Elliott looks at his hands. They are not claws.

“Unnecessarily poetic,” Elliott says.

In every era there is a machinery of debt collection and of wealth.

Atop that machinery there inevitably forms a market of convenience driven by those who seek to subvert the existing model for their own enrichment. Some are criminals; some are visionaries; some are pioneers.

An era ends when the market of convenience replaces the machinery of wealth—when the parasite becomes the host and the host withers away.

Thus in every era debt and wealth denote very different things than in the era before, while the pervasive moral justification for them remains unchanged.

The building trembles slightly. Ten million drives are spinning and they are ever-so-slightly out of synch.

Darmble’s voice is naked.

“Please,” he says. “Let me die.”

But Elliott just takes another bite and chews and swallows and he says,

“Dad, if I did, you’d never see another sunny day.”

And Darmble’s heart beats twice in fury. The building shakes. The machinery that runs all through it, the pipes and wires and computer banks of it, rattles with and amplifies the sound of Darmble’s rage:

“Boy!”

In the old days they would write software to make disk drives dance, driven by the irregular seeking of the spinning platters therein. In just such a fashion the machinery of debt collection, never intended to do more than keep data and process it through the equipment and through Darmble’s mind, now moves: shaking, jerking, resonating with Darmble’s voice in a rising howl.

But Elliott has seen it before, ever since his Dad used to do tricks for him when he’d come in to the office with a skinned knee or a muddy apple.

He’s not impressed.

“Unh-uh,” says Elliott. “I like having lunch with you, Dad.”

From inside the machine humans take on a particularly pallid character.

The substance of their lives is invisible.

Heart, love, vigor, joy, and purpose do not matter to the machine. They are not visible to the machine.

When Elliott goes back to work, it’s there, sitting on his desk: the notice asking him to investigate Darmble and see if he should be cut off.

“Whatever,” says Elliott, and he sets it aside.

The machine would love to witness humanity. To understand it. To at last expand its scope to the fullness of human nature.

But it cannot see the human lives that swell around it.

It can only see their contributions to the larger economic good.

Darmble sits in his office.

He sulks.

There’s a gleam of virtual light. It manifests in his visual field though it is not there. It unfolds into the sprite Squalla, his secretary, hanging in the air.

“Sir,” says Squalla.

“I am wroth,” says Darmble.

“That’s too bad,” Squalla says, sympathetically.

“My son has refused to cut me off,” Darmble says. “Instead he will leave me to moulder here, and eat tuna in front of me.”

Squalla considers.

“Well,” she says. “He is a cut-off man, so no doubt he knows best.”

“Yes,” sighs Darmble. “No doubt.”

“I’ve come up with a theory,” Squalla says.

“Oh?”

“I’ve decided,” Squalla says, “that human life must be a process of contention between two competing forces.”

Squalla spins around in the air. She manifests a professor’s cap and pointer and a chart to point it at.

“The first is rising minimum payments,” she says, “here manifested as the red line. And the second is rising income from investments and salary, here manifest as the black.”

“Squalla—” says Darmble.

Hurriedly she says, “No, no, that’s not the idea, that’s just the prelude.”

“Okay,” Darmble says.

“See,” says Squalla, “my idea is that the two lines naturally repel one another.”

She looks smug.

“See, we all know that when income gets too far ahead of minimum payments, it results in a state of perpetual solvency. That’s bad. When minimum payments get too far ahead of income, that results in a state of perpetual insolvency. That’s also bad. And when we exert force to keep the two lines close together, it generates work. But now we know why.

Squalla’s chart now displays two lines close together, with the angry tension between them radiating out as energy that the system then captures.

Darmble thinks for a while.

“Empirical evidence,” he says, after a time, “disagrees.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” Darmble says, “if you take a typical worker and cut the distance between the lines down by a factor of 5, you don’t generate five times as much work.”

“Oh ho!” says Squalla. “But I’ve thought of that. See, when you generate too much tension between the lines, it grounds out through the human!

She flips the chart off and manifests a picture of a cartoon human with their head throbbing with energy.

“That’s debt-income tension,” she says. “It explodes their brain, causing what we call a ‘Squalla Inversion’ that flips the red line above the black line or vice versa.”

“No,” says Darmble.

“No?”

Darmble shakes his head.

“Darn it,” says Squalla. “I thought I understood humanity this time.”

“. . . I think it is your approach that is flawed,” Darmble says. “First, understand insects. Then fish. Then dogs. Work your way up.”

Squalla stares at him in perplexity.

“What?”

“I don’t believe in dogs,” she says.

For a worker to exist without debt is to create an anomaly in the system.

For a debt to go unpaid is to create a hole in the fabric of the world.

Thus one may reasonably conclude that the most healthy society is one where every valid person has debt, and every valid person has income, and that that income goes automatically towards the payment of that debt up until the moment that the system cuts that person off.

Darmble stares at the picture of the cartoon human with the tense head for a while. His eyes drift closed.

“Boss?”

Darmble is thinking.

Boss?

Darmble’s eyes open.

“I am displeased with my son’s performance,” he says. “Zero his salary.”

“. . .” Squalla says.

She can say this because she’s a sprite.

“You mean, stop the automatic minimum wage increases?”

“That wouldn’t generate enough tension,” Darmble says. “Drop his salary to zero.”

“But that’s an infinite-percentage pay cut!”

Here Squalla is calculating the percentage based on the resulting salary rather than the base.

“He still has investments,” Darmble says.

“You could just fire him,” Squalla says hopefully.

“I am wroth,” Darmble says.

The chain of data seeks he sends shakes the rack on which the memory in which Squalla resides sits; nearly it pulls free of the power cord; and Squalla’s face goes white.

“As you wish,” she says.

In the garden outside Darmble’s building a gardener trims a rose.

From Mrs. Glurgen’s apartment a cut-off man files his report.

The flower falls.

A long time ago as an Easter’s Day present Mrs. Glurgen had given Elliott his very own debt tracker set into a frame. It glowed black then with the vibrancy of a kid’s salary and the statutorily low minimum payments of youth. It is yellowed now, not with debt or solvency but with age. He keeps it on the shelf above his desk. Now and again, today, he’s been glancing at it, thinking back on old memories, and wondering what the cut-off man sent after her would decide.

He looks up at it now, his attention caught by a shift in the color of the thing.

It is more rubescent now than he has ever seen it, gleaming like a ruby under its thin coating of black.

Elliott frowns.

He picks up the phone. He is going to place a call. But before he does, the pneumatic tube above his desk drops another case upon him.

The outside of the envelope is marked with Squalla’s mark, and there’s a note printed on it sideways:

“I hope this helps.”

So he sets the phone down. He opens the case. He looks at it and laughs.

It’s Elliott Darmblesson’s file.

It is not, of course, beyond the capacity of the machine to conceive of those dimensions of human life invisible to it.

It is as a human envisioning a transcendent force: “It has a quality that is not width,” she might say, gesturing widely. “Nor depth, nor height. But a quality susceptible to textured analysis, regarding which we lack only the initial points of reference.”

The machine is familiar with the existence of intangibles.

Darmble sits amidst the machinery. Lights flicker. Streams of data and thought pass flickering through his mind.

Elliott walks in.

He drops his case file on Darmble’s desk.

He looks up at his father.

“Dad,” he says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Darmble’s eyes focus on him.

“You see, son,” he says. “I am not without my instruments of persuasion.”

“You don’t expect me to take this seriously, do you?”

“. . . what?”

“I’m a cut-off man,” Elliott says. “You can’t zero my salary.”

“I can,” says Darmble, “and I have.”

Elliott shakes his head.

Darmble realizes with horror that his son is not afraid or horrified. Elliott is concerned, perhaps, but more than that, amused.

“Son,” he says.

“I’m going to leave this here,” Elliott says, “and go back to work. And Dad?”

He is smiling like the sun.

“Yes?” Darmble says.

“Don’t be a jerkwad.”

Darmble stares after him as he leaves.

“Oh,” he says.

And Darmble hears, from just outside the room, his son give a surprised and angry shout.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Security guards,” Squalla says.

“Hm?”

“He’s in the red,” Squalla says. “Policy says we can’t have anyone in the red in the debt collection building. They might make a ruckus!”

Darmble frowns at Squalla.

“Already?” he says.

“It was an infinite-percentage pay cut,” Squalla says, firmly. “That’s a lot!”

“Really?”

“Of course,” says Squalla.

Numbers, left to themselves, tend to rise or fall to inappropriate extremes in a gluttonous carnival of math.

Squalla puts her professor’s hat back on. She manifests her pointer. She points at a graph.

“Since Elliott was born,” she says, “with a basic baby wage and a modest 10% wage baby’s debt, his minimum payments and baseline wages have been increasing by a bit under 60% a year, or, in the course of his 32 years of life, about 3 million fold. His margin has also tripled due to his sound investments and illustrious career, leaving his approximate salary about 300,003 times the basic survival and utilities cost per day. He’d saved up enough to survive 5-10 years without a margin, so it’s hardly surprising that it only took him a few minutes to go red without a salary.”

“Oh,” says Darmble.

“It’s okay, though,” Squalla says.

“It is?”

“Well, I assigned him his own case,” Squalla says. “So I’m sure he’ll rule it an error in the system and restore things.”

“You did what?”

“I showed initiative!” says Squalla, brightly.

Darmble stares at her.

“Get out of my sight,” he says.

“—Sir?”

Darmble rages. The building rattles as if under the weight of a storm.

“Get. Out.”

And Squalla flees.

Darmble is alone.

“I should reassign it,” he says.

There are messages of dismay clamoring at the edges of his mind. Automated systems are distressed that a man too poor to file a report has been placed in charge of such a deeply red case.

Problematic things, Darmble can see, are happening to the substance of the economy.

“There is an assumption,” he says, “that debt will be paid. That is why we have the cut-off men.”

A taxi business, relying for its investments on prompt payments from Elliott Darmblesson, goes red.

A government bureau goes into default.

“Squalla,” says Darmble, quietly, and the sprite edges back into view. “What does it mean that my son owes so much money?”

“It’s the natural tendency of the red and black lines to repel,” says Squalla.

“No,” Darmble says. “I don’t think it’s that.”

“Well,” says Squalla, “maybe it means that you’d need millions of babies working in parallel to pay for just one Elliott Darmblesson.”

“Doing what?”

“Baby work,” says Squalla airily.

“Ah,” Darmble says.

The machine looks up towards the distant humanity that builds its parasites upon it.

Again and again, it sees the beginnings of a pattern. Again and again, it begins to understand—but it is always too late.

It is the nature of those parasites to bring the machinery of debt collection and of wealth to a shuddering, twisting death.

“You should do something, boss,” Squalla says.

“Did you ever think,” Darmble says, “that it was dangerous to put the entire debt collection system into the hands of someone who doesn’t want to be here?”

Squalla squints at him.

“Dangerous how?” she says.

But Darmble just closes his eyes. He relaxes.

“You should know,” he says, “that dogs are real. They have four legs and they bark.”

“Really?”

“Really,” says Darmble. “When I was young, I heard them all the time.”

And Squalla says, in distant confusion, “—I almost think that there is a larger, truer, deeper world, into which I only dip my toe in those moments of my greatest insights—”

And Darmble channels more of the system’s resources towards her so that her thoughts may be rich and deep and filled with that fearsome uncertain beauty when the power in the building dies.

It is difficult for a system—for any system—to look with any clarity backwards towards its creators or forwards toward its heirs.

It is deep in the night when Elliott comes in again.

He says, “Dad, that was petulant.”

Darmble is still. He does not move.

“If civilization dies,” Elliott says, “I’m just sayin’. It’ll be your fault. Not mine.”

Darmble’s heart doesn’t beat, but it hasn’t beaten much in years.

Darmble’s brain is used to waiting through the night in stillness for data. It is used to the slow process of rot.

It does not notice its own death, and so Darmble does not die.

Plugged into the machinery, waiting for the lights to come on, he dreams, and in his dreams gives answer to Elliott’s chiding.

In the morning, it is still dark, and Darmble’s dreaming body smells.

Are Siggorts? (I/I)

“What do siggorts do?” Max asks.

It’s 1979 and Max is 18 years old. He’s wearing jeans and a jacket, but he isn’t an angel. He’s a young Republican.

“Siggorts?”

Sid’s walking with Max, like he does now and then.

“Yeah,” Max says. “Like, fairies reflect the chaos, and As bring you hope, and ghosts cling to your memories, and stuff. What do siggorts do?”

Sid thinks for a moment. Then he points.

“There,” he says.

There’s a siggort, down a few streets and over.

It has one hundred hands and the parts of it move like clockwork gears. It is in constant orbit around itself and it is subject to a chaos of form. Wings spread behind it, metal wings, folding and unfolding. They reflect the sunlight so that it seems like the air is a riot of feathers. Its central portion is bulbous and smooth, roly-poly, round, like Santa’s stomach or God’s eye. Its legs are long. It has a wheel of knives. Its hands open and close and a singing rises from it like the singing of seraphim. It is vivisecting passersby. It is leaving their corpses for investigators to discover.

It is pure and it is bright and it is innocent and clean.

“Wow,” says Max. “. . . That’s a siggort too?”

“Yeah.”

Max frowns a little. “Hey, is it vivisecting that guy?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s just like in Scanning Things!“, Jane says proudly, pumping her fist, with a shocking disregard for whoever that guy who is being vivisected back in 1979 is.

“Not quite,” Martin says. “See, you tend to notice the singing before the vivisection in this history, while you had it the other way around back in the legend.”

There’s a silence.

“Maaaan!” Jane exclaims.

“So you vivisect people?”

“Yes,” Sid says.

Max pauses.

“I am currently reviewing my life to figure out whether there have been more vivisected people in it than an objective observer would expect,” Max says.

Sid makes a face.

“But I’m only coming up with that one,” Max says.

“Yeah,” Sid says. “I haven’t actually felt like vivisecting anybody yet.”

“But it’s your nature?”

“Yeah.”

They walk on for a little bit. Neither of them stops to help that guy whom the siggort is vivisecting, since, after all, siggorts happen, and there’s not much anyone can do.

Max is deep in thought. His brow is really furrowed.

Then he says, “Oh!”

“Oh?”

“It’s because you’re an isn’t,” Max says. “You aren’t. So even though you’d think, having a nature to vivisect people, that you would, you don’t. Actually. Instead you just hang out with me.”

“I am so,” Sid says, wounded.

“You’re totally an isn’t. I bet that guy getting vivisected was an isn’t, too. That’s why I don’t feel at all concerned about his fate.”

Sid looks aggrieved. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “Siggorts have been around since the dawn of the world. We’re totally not isn’ts.”

“Prove it.”

“How?”

“Vivisect me.”

Sid stares at Max for a long moment. His wheel of knives spins.

Max looks really uncomfortable. “Wait,” he says.

“You know,” says Sid bleakly, “in a lot of fairy tales, I’d have been waiting for you to say just that. I’d have been hanging out with you since you were seven so I could vivisect you, and then you’d ask me to, and I would, and as I cut open your chest I’d find the magic that was taken from me long ago and I would finally be free.”

Max shifts. He’s thinking about running, except, well, running from something like Sid doesn’t help.

“Is . . . is that going to happen?” Max asks.

Sid shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

“Then you are an isn’t!” Max says.

Sid sighs.

“Look,” Sid says. “I’ll . . .”

He tries to think of something he can do to prove he can have a substantive effect on the course of events.

“I’ll . . . I’ll get Ronald Reagan elected President. Through grassroots activism!”

Max stares at him for a while.

Finally, Max says, “Okay?”

“It’ll prove I can have a substantive effect on the course of history,” Sid points out.

“Do it, then,” Max says.

“I will!”

“Do it!”

And so Sid does.

“So that was you,” Martin says.

Sid hangs his head.

“Man,” Martin says. “I was so sure it was Dr. T.”

“Multiple citizens can participate in grassroots activism,” Sid says, stoutly.

Reversing himself with the suddenness of humor becoming outrage, Martin says, “That was so not you.”

Sid opens his mouth to protest, but . . .

“Sh!” says Jane. “Jigsawing!”

“So,” says Max.

Secretly, he’s starting to hope that Ronald Reagan will lose the election.

But the numbers aren’t good.

They’re at this little comic shop by the beach where they hang out sometimes and there’s a newspaper right there and Sid’s pointing at it and the numbers just aren’t good for President Carter.

“See?” Sid says.

“Yeah,” Max says.

He looks unhappy.

“Fine,” Max says. “You’re not an isn’t.”

Sid grins.

And Max almost hits him; and he says, “That’s not good, Sid.”

And Sid’s grin drifts away.

“That’s sick, what siggorts do.”

Sid pulls in on himself, just a little. He doesn’t look like much right now. Just a Sid.

“But still,” Sid says, “I’d rather be.”

“Is it relevant whether Reagan won?” Jane asks. “I’ve got this bit about the three fairies visiting him on the night before the election here. So we can probably figure out whether he got to be President.”

“I think we can skip it,” Martin concludes.

The Staff

Not related to Standing in the Storm, which continues tomorrow.

Sid and Max face off.

Sid sketches a pentagram with his foot. It’s just a scuff, but he’s got special Nike Pentagram Boots. They’re the best shoes in the world for drawing pentagrams. It only takes a scuff and the whole pentagram is right there.

“Nice,” says Max.

Sid’s pentagram is glowing now. It’s shining with white lines springing up from the earth. There are all kinds of cool little details, including a little Sid logo. It’s the only logo that markets 100% Sid!

“Isn’t it?” says Sid.

Max looks a little smug. He spreads his hands wide. Pillars of silver fire burst from the ground and surround him. There’s that annoying little angelic chorus that tends to sing when Max does his stuff.

The world shivers all around Max and pulsates with light.

The angels’ song reaches its crescendo, then falls to silence.

Sid sulks.

Sid snides, “Not as loud as usual.”

“Can’t bribe as many angels these days,” Max says.

Then Max laughs.

He sweeps his arms out from his trenchcoat.

Max invokes Snowstorm. “Snowstorm!”

Clouds gather over his head. The snow fairy manifests. Snowflakes begin to fall all around Max. Max pushes at the air and the snowstorm flows over and dumps snow on Sid.

Sid shakes snow out of his hair.

Max intones, in the voice of a magician at work, “Snow—harder!”

But Sid is ready. He has stepped back. He has drawn his sword. It’s a 21st-century sword, and it’s not very good, but it’s sharp enough for this. He pokes it right into the cloud.

“Ow!” says the snow fairy.

The clouds swirl around. They’re just a little bit red.

Sid says, “Don’t snow on me.”

The snow fairy is now uncertain which magician to listen to. It attempts to hedge its bets.

“Perhaps you’re not familiar with the benefits of snow,” it says. “There are many! It’s cold and white and Christmasy! You might like snow.”

But Sid scuffs the floor in that special way he has and there’s a dual pentagram. He invokes Double Thing. “Double Thing!”

It’s like a thing, but twice as much!

Half the thing scrunges upwards from the earth. Half the thing scrunges upwards from another part of the earth. The thing rumbles and shakes its hands around.

“That’s an earth thing,” judges Max, after staring at its bumpy surface for a bit.

“It’s twice the thing!” says Sid, proudly.

“I don’t want to fight,” says the double thing.

“You’re my ancillary in a magical duel,” Sid points out. “Now, stop the fairy from snowing on me harder, or we’ll both get chilly!”

The thing doesn’t want to get chilly, so it oscillates until the fairy is confused.

“Is it one thing? Is it two things?” the fairy asks, getting progressively dizzier as it tries to evaluate the situation. “No! One! Five! Seventeen! Eight!”

The fairy faints.

“That is not snowing harder,” says Max. After a moment, he adds, “That’s not even snowing smarter.

“It’s snowing lower,” the double thing points out.

“Now, double thing!” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Attack!”

It looks at Sid. It hesitates. Then it looks speculatively at Max.

“I could stay out of this,” it says, to Max.

“I don’t want a double thing’s pity,” says Max. He’s drawing back. He’s readying himself to invoke Scrubbing Bubble. It’s the battle magic that never helps!

“It’s not pity,” says the double thing, in frustration. “It’s not having a stake in the conflict—”

But Max ignores the double thing. He even interrupts its sentence! He invokes Scrubbing Bubble. “Scrubbing Bubble!” The wind screams down from the sky. The world flares up with red and purple light. Scrubbing bubbles bubble up from the earth, scrubbing ominous contrails through the air. Max shoves the magic with his hands. The bubbles scrub closer to Sid and the double thing.

It doesn’t help.

In fact, the double thing thinks, as it attacks, it’s probably the opposite of helping.

DST Nocturne

Each year they made Daylight Savings Time longer, until one day it lasted the whole year round. Then it was spring forward, always spring forward, and never fall back, until noon was where midnight used to be and midnight lost in noon.

In the end it did no good.

The world grew darker, and darker, and darker still.

Now there is no sun and there is no daylight left to save. Now the day is darker than night used to be, in the days when days were bright. Now there are colors darker than black in the sky. Their names are fuligin, imbero, and fhjul.

People used to say that the sun was a phoenix child, born anew every seven years. It has not been born again of late. People used to say that the sun was a fox, fleeing the hunters and their hounds. It has not escaped those hounds of late. People used to say that the sun was a gift of the gods, drawn by horses through the sky. The reins of those horses have lain slack of late, for many dark long years.

The moon is dim now.

The sea is dark now.

The stars are a distant drowning light in the thickness of the sky.

Nocturne

April 6, 2031

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He carries a set of rags and there is an oil bottle roped to his waist. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a cat and the shape of a girl and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“No, no,” it says. “It’s not a good day for that.”

“Every year at this time,” says Jaime. “It’s Daylight Savings Time. It’s time to spring forward another hour.”

“But I’ll miss you,” the sprite says.

Jaime stops. He peers at the sprite. “I’m not an hour,” he says. He holds out his arm. He flexes. “See? That didn’t accelerate time.”

“True,” concedes the sprite. “But it’s not a good day to go to the Big Hill. Today is a good day to stay home in your village. You can bake cookies and drink tea and tell stories to your friends by the fire.”

Jaime resumes walking.

“It would be wasteful, fair sprite.”

“Should the decadence concern you,” says the sprite, “you may leave several of the cookies outside for the wind-sprites to devour. Generosity has salutary effects on the spirit; your net moral development for the day would be positive.”

“I’m sorry,” says Jaime.

“I do not wish to see your ribs torn open and your skin turned to ashes and your skull made a toy for the trolls of Old Forest,” says the sprite. “This would be a glum end for any person and glummer yet for you; I understand you hold a specific disdain for the trolls.”

“Is this an imminent danger?” Jaime asks.

“Not at present.”

“If it should immine,” Jaime says, “please warn me. I assure you I will divert appropriately from my course.”

“Unlikely,” says the sprite in a dour fashion. Then it tumbles upwards to a level with Jaime’s head and races in broad erratic ellipses around Jaime as he walks.

“Do you remember the sun?” asks Jaime.

“I am the wind,” says the sprite. “Memory is not a characteristic I possess.”

“Ah,” says Jaime.

Jaime hikes up Big Hill. He reaches the place where the sky is closest to the earth. He climbs up the tree and pokes a finger at the sky. It ripples in rainbow patterns, and Jaime’s finger is now black with oil.

“It is easiest to collect,” says Jaime, “on this day, when the pressure of compressing time causes the oil to well up in the sky.”

“In the distant east,” says the sprite, “where they cling more to the old ways than does Santa Ynez, there are great drilling platforms in the sky. The oil falls constantly like a black river and the people feast on the meat they grow in vats.”

“Their population is doubtless higher,” says Jaime.

“And in the north,” says the sprite, “they send up needle bombs produced in their alchemical laboratories to pop the surface of the sky. The oil splatters down like rain. Old men and women walk in the streets, complaining of the ineffectiveness of their parasols, while the young toil by great burning flames inventing radical chemical formulae.”

“I dip rags into the sky,” says Jaime. He does so. “Then I squeeze them out into the bottle. That is the preferred technique of Santa Ynez.”

“In the west,” says the sprite, “there are great warty boar-birds trained to fetch the oil down.”

“And to the south?”

“To the south,” says the sprite, “there is no wind. —Danger is imminent, Jaime; you must make haste.”

Jaime studies the oil bottle. It is far from full.

“To what extent?” he asks, soaking another rag and squeezing it out.

“It is difficult to gauge,” says the sprite. “Events flow in one unceasing river. Each is intertwined with the next. How may I pick one moment from the flow and say, ‘here is where your fate begins?'”

Jaime considers that.

“Assume that I am capable of defying the weird you have seen upon me,” he says. “For if I am not, then the discussion is of no relevance. Then choose the last moment where it is within my normal capacities to do so.”

“Your reasoning is peculiar,” says the sprite. “Yet I assay to answer as you have asked: you have two minutes left.”

Jaime nods. He dips a rag. He squeezes it out. After a moment, he says, “I am hesitant to defy the workings of destiny. I fear that by doing so I will break the world.”

“It is unlikely that you are so important as all that,” says the sprite.

Jaime nods. He closes the bottle tightly. He drops from the tree. He begins to walk away.

“See?” he says. “I avoid my fate.”

The sprite is watching him with thin lips and an unhappy face.

Jaime reaches the trees. There, for a moment, he has the chance to save himself; but he looks back, and he is lost.

The hunters in the sky wear black. They are chasing a small thing, a small unruly creature with long pale limbs and eyes like saucers. The hunters are mounted on horses and they have oil-black hunting horns at their sides. Each of them has a gem, carved like an eye, set into the center of his forehead. Each has thick hair on his legs, three fingers on each hand, and a thick sharp thumbnail like a claw. These are things terrible and feared: the Petroleum Men of Old Forest.

“Your pardon!” cries Jaime.

He is down on his knees. He has cast his hand before his face. He is not looking at them.

These words and this gesture are what the people of Santa Ynez know to do, when confronted by the Petroleum Men. Sometimes it does not help them. Sometimes the Petroleum Men still kill. But sometimes if the formula is followed they will pass a penitent human by, or seize the human from the Earth to ride beside them on the hunt, or pause to bestow an arcane and horrifying gift.

“Your pardon,” murmurs Jaime, and he is still, and he does not look.

But he can hear.

The creature that the Petroleum Men chase is making gasping, squealing noises. They are the sounds of fear and the sounds of lungs pushed too hard.

The creature is very afraid and very small.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known.

There is a crunching and a skidding noise. The hoof of a Petroleum Man’s horse has caught the creature in the head, and it has flown sideways to crash among the leaves and through the leaves and skid down the hill past Jaime.

There is a burbling noise. The creature is trying to stand.

There is the thumping, pounding of hoofbeats in the sky as the horses circle around.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known, so he opens his eyes. He takes his hand from his face. He turns to the creature, and he half-scrambles, half-falls down the hill. He takes it into his arms. He begins to run towards the village.

The Petroleum Men will not follow him past the village gate. They fear the fires set along Santa Ynez’ walls. But Jaime has no hope of reaching them. The village is very far away.

Jaime simply runs.

“It’s all right,” says Jaime, to the creature. The creature is bald like an egg, like a baby, like a stone. “It’s all right.”

The creature squeals and Jaime notices its claws for the first time as it digs them into his chest.

Jaime stumbles.

“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t do that.”

The creature does not stop. Its claws are sinking deeper. The Petroleum Men are hard at Jaime’s heels and there is thick blood flowing down his chest. It hurts horribly.

Then the creature peels back Jaime’s ribs and there is a moment of pain and of brightness such as Jaime had not expected to encounter that day or any other day.

Jaime blacks out, and the night in his mind is darker than fuligin or fhjul.

The Weird

April 7, 2031

“Jaime,” says the wind-sprite. “Jaime. Wake up.”

Jaime opens his eyes.

“I survived,” he says, with a thick dry tongue.

“Your words are very fuzzy. I do not think they are technically comprehensible,” says the wind-sprite. “But technically I am incapable of comprehension, so there is symmetry.”

“Why did I survive?”

“You broke a lucky toe when you fell,” says the wind-sprite. “If you break your lucky toe, the Petroleum Men can’t hurt you. But you also can’t walk very well so it is a tradeoff.”

“Ah. That’s why my foot is so big,” says Jaime. He struggles into a sitting position. Intending to compliment the sprite on giving him sufficient warning, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the wind-sprite. Its voice is distant and sad.

“Did it . . . did it get away?”

“Did what?”

“The . . .” Jaime gestures vaguely. “The thing. The creature. It was . . . I wanted to help it. Did it get away?”

“Ah,” says the wind-sprite. “Yes. It did. It is now safely inside your chest consuming your internal organs.”

“Oh,” says Jaime.

He’s not sure what to add to that, besides passing out again.

The imbero silence in his head is disturbed many times by the distant words of the sprite before he lets himself hear them again.

“Jaime?”

“I like my internal organs,” Jaime says.

“So does the creature.”

“At least we’re in accord,” Jaime says. Then he laughs. He laughs and he chokes and he coughs and he laughs some more and then he pokes at his chest. His ribcage has been bent back together from the inside. Jaime closes his shirt over the sight. His hands wander the nearby soil until he finds a thick long fallen branch. He uses it as a support and pulls himself to his feet. After a moment, intending a rueful admission of his own fallibility, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the sprite.

“How long do I have?”

“Years.”

The sprite flutters beside him as he walks back towards Santa Ynez.

“It will grow inside you until you are little more than a hollow shell with the creature within,” says the sprite. “It will eat your heart and your kidneys and your lungs. It is fortuitous that you have a strong constitution or this would surely kill you. But in seven years it will burst forth and your skin will turn to ashes and your death will be assured.”

Jaime walks.

“I feel a surprising fatalism,” he says. “I think it is the pain and the shock and the sheer stupidity of my own actions.”

“I counsel you to consider it a blessing,” says the sprite. “Organs are troublesome and prone to disease; you shall not experience these disadvantages! In addition you shall die in your prime and will never know the troubles of old age. Further, seven years is longer than the wind will blow; the tragedy is the years you’ve lost, not the years you’ll have remaining.”

“This discussion is morbid and is cracking at the edges of my carefully maintained resignation,” says Jaime. “If we continue, I will begin screaming ineffectually and may flail in your general direction.”

“Then let us instead discuss our favorite flavors of pastry,” the sprite advises. “It is a long way home and such jolly discourse can only prove inspiring.”

So Jaime walks home, with the sprite swirling about him; but he does not get to bake it cookies or pastries, for the wind sputters out and the wind-sprite dies before Jaime makes it to the village gate.

The Day

April 4, 2038

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He is tired and walks slowly, but his eyes are clear. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a rabbit and the shape of a tall man and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“This course of action has served you poorly in the past,” the sprite observes.

“I have thought on it for some time,” says Jaime. “I do not like the trolls, but feel that it’s unmannerly to make them walk all the way down to the village to collect my skull.”

The sprite waves a hand dismissively. “This burning desire to assist fate in its workings is incomprehensible to me; if such assistance were necessary, be sure it would demand it.”

Jaime walks.

“I have wondered,” says Jaime. “I have seen you as a girl, a man, a giant, and a drake. Sometimes you are large and at other times tiny. You are different on each occasion but you speak to me in familiar terms and with a recognizable tone.”

“Yes?”

“Is the wind always the same, then,” Jaime asks, “or is it always different?”

“It is the wind,” says the sprite. It flies about him in great arcs.

So Jaime walks up Big Hill to where the earth is closest to the sky, and he leans against a tree, and he waits, and then he dies.

The thing that rips out of him with a fire that burns away his skin is not a creature or a sprite. It is not the pale little thing that once he took into his arms.

It is the sun, that comes now and again to Big Hill to be born, and has of late before its birth been slain by the riding of the Petroleum Men.

It is a creature long and short, great and small, and in every wise a burning fire, and it rises through the fuligin and the black, the imbero and the fhjul, and its touch sets fire to the sky.

The Petroleum Men catch fire, screaming in the sky, on April 4. The world is given to sunshine again on April 4. And it is Daylight Savings Time again, on April 4, 2038—an hour later, an hour shorter, an hour is given over in sacrifice on the altar of Time, that the sun may brighter burn.

The Great Long Road

Emily walks into the Scary Forest.

Emily walks into the Scary Forest with a basket. In the basket is her cornbread. She has many loaves.

Fairies trouble her.

“Emily!” cry the fairies. “Emily! Emily! What are you doing on Great Long Road? What are you doing on Great Long Road, in Scary Forest, with a basket in your hand?”

“I’m taking this cornbread to the Arena to find out whether it can count the real numbers,” Emily says.

Then the fairies shriek and fly all around her, tugging at her hair, rubbing dirt in her clothes, buffeting her with their wings.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals!” they shriek.

But Emily endures.

The great wolf troubles Emily.

“Emily,” rumbles the great wolf. “What are you doing on Great Long Road? In Scary Forest? With a basket in your hand?”

The great wolf is long and slinks low. He has three heads. He is taller than her brother, taller than her father, taller than the city walls.

“Great wolf,” says Emily, “I am taking this cornbread to the Arena. I am taking it to the Arena for the Judges to judge. I baked it hard. I baked it well. I think it might just have a chance, a tiny chance, to count the reals.”

The wolf smiles. Its tongue lolls to the side.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals,” it says. “But I’ll eat it. And I’ll eat you!”

“Well,” says Emily, “you may certainly have some.”

She takes out three loaves of cornbread. She throws them in a pattern around the wolf. The wolf lunges, then frowns. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

“I’m trapped at a local maximum!” wails the great wolf. He looks at the loaves. He attempts to wobble towards them all but only winds up stretching. He whines.

Emily carefully walks past the wolf. He wants to eat her, too. He eddies closer to her. But at no point on her path does the wolf’s optimum location put him within reach.

“Curses!” sighs the wolf. He flops down in the middle of the road and waits, grumpily, for two of the pieces of cornbread to decay.

Emily passes through a glade, and she sleeps there for the night. Then she’s back on the road again.

The cornbread horror troubles her.

“I am the cornbread horror,” it says. It is a large block of cornbread with teeth. “I have killed ten thousand of your kind, mortal girl. I have cut them into squares with my sharp, sharp teeth.”

“Why?”

“It is my destiny,” says the cornbread horror. “I will kill all those who bring cornbread here, if that cornbread is not different in some notable respect than each piece of cornbread that has passed through here before.”

“I see,” says Emily.

“It is not my desire,” says the cornbread horror. “I am not truly sentient, being made of cornbread. I simply do what it is my nature to do.”

It seethes and eddies horribly, as is its nature.

“Pardon,” says Emily, “but are you included in the list of ‘each piece of cornbread’?”

“I am,” says the cornbread horror.

“So if my cornbread is different from every sort of cornbread that has come through here before, but not different from you—”

“Then I will still kill you,” says the horror. “And your cornbread will merge seamlessly into my tasty fluffy aurulence. This is what normally happens, for my destiny contains a terrible twist—I cannot meaningfully distinguish differences between pieces of cornbread!”

Emily winces at that. But she still takes out a piece of cornbread and holds it up hopefully.

“Can you tell if it’s different?” Emily asks.

“It seems identical to me,” says the cornbread horror. “In the right light, it even has teeth. So it is necessary that I kill you.”

“But . . . it knows the difference between the two of you,” Emily says.

The cornbread horror hesitates. “Uncertainty rises! Can cornbread truly be distinct from the cornbread horror if its only distinction is that it knows itself distinct from the cornbread horror, while this distinction the cornbread horror knoweth not?”

Leaving it to fret over the complexities of destiny, Emily moves on.

“I’ll kill you if it happens to be identical!” shouts the cornbread horror, behind her. “You’ll see!”

Once she is out of its sight Emily breaks into a run.

Fairies trouble Emily again. They’re very troublesome.

“Emily! Emily! Is it worth your life? Is it worth your life to have cornbread count the reals?”

The fairies swarm about her, pinching and tugging.

“I want to know what happened to Mom,” Emily says.

“To Mom! To Mom!” shout the fairies.

One fairy hangs in the air in front of Emily. “Your mother makes cornbread tastier than yours—but even her cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“It can’t,” shout the fairies. “It can’t count the reals!”

Then a western wind rises and they all swirl away.

The great face troubles Emily. It’s a great face, that’s in the middle of the road. Also, it has tentacles.

“Emily!” booms the great face. “Emily, you are here.”

“I am!” says Emily.

“I am the great face,” it says, “on the road to the Arena, where the Judges judge cornbread to see if it can count the real numbers. I will not fall for such tricks as the cornbread horror did. Do you know why?”

“No, sir,” says Emily. She looks attentive.

“It is because I am more than cornbread,” says the face. “I am self-aware. I am a person, with an internal model of myself and my intentions—an ‘I’ inside. When I declare my intention to snatch you up with my tentacles and cram you and your cornbread in my mouth and chew and chew until you’re all dead and gone, it is not the gallows prediction of an inanimate pastry—it is the unswervable declaration of a dedicated soul!”

“I see,” says Emily sadly.

There is a pause.

“Make it fast,” Emily says. “I mean, faster. I mean, don’t just sit there.”

The face scrunches up unhappily.

“My internal model is inaccurate,” it says. “I believe that I intend to eat you, but I am not making any move to do so.”

Emily pats a tentacle.

“That can happen with self-awareness,” Emily says sympathetically. “Like, I never thought that I’d try to make cornbread that could count the real numbers. But then I did!”

“Thank you,” says the face. It is pleased by her commiseration.

The face hesitates.

“It can’t actually count them, you know,” the face says. “No cornbread could. Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“But . . .”

Emily flounders.

“But, why is there an Arena at the end of the road, then?”

“It has been there since the dawn of time,” says the face. “But no cornbread has ever reached it; for the road has many dangers, and at each step the cornbread must pass a new test. The tests are infinite; thus even an Iron Chef would be doomed to failure.”

“That’s too bad,” says Emily. She hesitates. “My mom,” she says. “I mean, a long time ago. She went this way. With cornbread.”

“I did not intend to eat her,” says the face. “She is somewhere ahead. But her fate is predetermined. She will fail.”

“You don’t know that!” snaps Emily. “Maybe she could go down the road forever, never finding a challenge that her cornbread can’t pass! Maybe when no typical cornbread can pass the test, hers is just atypical enough! Maybe when she faces a monster that despises people carrying unusual cornbread, hers is normal enough to get her past! There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever and her cornbread will pass the test!”

There is a silence.

“Wow,” says the face. “You’re really passionate.”

“I have to be,” says Emily. “You can’t make ambitious cornbread without a burning passion. And corn meal.”

“I really think that I’m going to eat you,” says the face. “But instead, I’ll say, ‘good luck.'”

In the infinite distance there stands the Arena; and along the road are infinite dangers and hardships; and somewhere ahead, Emily’s mother; and the fairies swirl in the air over the Scary Forest and the Great Long Road, dancing, playing, spinning, crying, shouting when they’re near her, “Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

And it may be that this is so.

The Fable of the Lamb (1 of 2)

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

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

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

She walks into her lab.

“Stefan, Vincent, Harold,” she says.

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

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

“He is only Sebastien,” says Stefan.

“Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

“Alas,” Harold phlegmatically confirms.

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“Fah,” declares Stefan, resigned.

Stefan

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

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

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

“Cheerio,” says the monster.

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

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

“Ah,” says the hero.

Dave ducks his head.

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

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

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

Stefan swift-steps to the armory.

“I need a shotgun,” he says.

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

“It’s an emergency,” Stefan says.

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

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

Stefan practices the swift-step.

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

“Damn it, Melanie,” he says.

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

Vincent

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

“No,” Vincent says.

“Why not?”

“Harold’s invulnerable,” Vincent says.

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

“He’s invulnerable.

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

“But there’s no such substance.”

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

Harold

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

But she didn’t let Latch die.

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

He feels it gently. It is in his pocket.

Then he walks down to meet the hero.

The Hero

“Are you all right?” Dave asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“Oh,” Dave says again.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

The monster flares his nostrils.

“Who was he?” the hero asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow,” says Harold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he’s dead.

All Hands

“Vincent,” Melanie says.

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

So they go to the all-hands meeting.

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

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

The monster clicks to the next slide.

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

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

“What’s the threat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well,” says the monster, expressively.

He clicks ahead a few more slides.

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

The rules are displayed on the screen.

A hand raises. The monster points.

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

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

The monster clears his throat.

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

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

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

He walks out through the door to the right.

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

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

“What?” the monster asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fable of the Lamb

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

“Go,” says Melanie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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