“That Was Quick,” The Monster Said (I/III)

A history of a mean and ugly time.

Meredith is born. She explodes!

It is 1978. The sun is bright.

The monster looks surprised.

Not everyone explodes a few seconds after they’re born. Most people start out as babies. Babies are amazingly non-explosive. Even when you activate them using a nipple they remain inert, constraining their endless trillions of kilojoules within their adorable mass.

Even people who do not start as babies do not always explode. Gods tend to appear full-grown. Goats start out as kids, and Dick Cheney was actually born older than he is now. Some universal figures exist without beginning or end, such as God or Ouroborous. In addition there are suspicions regarding the people of Kansas who may in fact hatch out of great clutches of tornado eggs.

But Meredith has exploded; so, “That was quick,” the monster says.

Jenna giggles.

“She lasted longer in GMT,” Jenna says.

There’s a pause.

“What?”

“‘Cause it’s later there. In Greniggs!”

“No,” says the monster. “No, it’s not.”

He wipes off his face. He walks away. He leaves her there, and slowly Jenna’s head falls forward and her eyes flutter shut.

“PST sucks,” she says.

She dreams of Greenwich, where everything happens much later and in a stately fashion, where strange European people eat their midnight snacks at four, and where partings take eight hours at a time.

Hans’ Farm

Hans’ farm is deep beneath the earth. It’s under the great gate. It’s under the giant centipede. It’s under the bridge where the dead soldiers march.

The rock over Hans’ farm is beautiful and dark. But the farm is doleful because Hans does bad things.

It’s bad to sharpen a goat.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

You can sharpen goat cheese but it’s bad to sharpen the actual goat.

Hans’ goat is sawing, sawing, sawing on the bars of its pen.

It tosses its head. It cuts the wooden boards of the ceiling with its great sharp head. Then it returns to its sawing, sawing, sawing on the steel bars of its pen.

It is not a good goat.

Nobody wants Hans’ goat to escape.

That would be bad.

It’s bad to plug in a cow.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Electricity is good, but not too much electricity, and just about any amount is too much for a cow.

Hans’ cow is there, on his farm deep beneath the earth. It’s pretty shocked. It’s crackling. It’s dancing. It aurores. Soon it is on fire.

Hans’ cow burns.

Hans’ cow burns, deep beneath the world.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

No, seriously. I know a lot of people think it’s hip.

But it’s not.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Whisking is cool. You can whisk things and make them fluffy. You can whisk them to and fro. It’s good to whisk eggs and make them foam.

But it’s bad to whisk a duck.

When you whisk a duck, it quacks vigorously and flutters, and that part is good. But then it dies, and its spirit can never rest.

Hans’ duck is glowering.

It is hungry.

It is glowering.

It endures its whisked existence:

On Hans’ farm, deep beneath the earth.

(Still Sick) Stacking Mammals and Sid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he pulls his head out. He looks sly.

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

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

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

“Grmf,” grumbles a gelatinous bear.

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

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

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

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

The shimmer-things rotate in a fanblade array.

“Hm?” challenges Sid.

“No,” say the shimmer-things.

Sid looks blankly at the shimmer-things.

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

Countdown to Annihilation! (10:57:28 – 10:59AM)

Previously, in the first four installments of Countdown to Annihilation! . . .

. . . the sun blew up!
. . . so did most of the people!
. . . Snavering Lavelwods swarmed through Charles’ factory!
. . . Charles and Iphigenia found themselves on the brink of destruction!

But will Charles use the Snaverer-Killing Bomb?

Will the Lavelwods break the Eight-Minute Hourglass that holds back the end of the world?

Can the Book of Luke survive the insane pressures of temporal acceleration?

And just what is the one thing that Iphigenia would keep, if she could keep one thing, and only one thing, to last her all the empty years?

The Snavering Song (Traditional)

Snaver, lavel, what can you do?
Our hour nears: we don’t care about you!
It’s great that you lived and it’s great that you’ll die!
Out of our way! Our hour is nigh!

Lincoln was shot and Jesus spiked up
Herbert the Nudist exposed in the buff
Socrates—poison! Angela—bees!
And everyone left
They will die in the freeze!

Snaver, lavel, what can you do?
Our hour nears: we don’t care about you!
We’re glad that you lived but it’s time that you died.
Out of our way! Our hour is nigh!

“Here!” shouts Charles. He points at an airlock. Iphigenia turns sharply right and drags him through it. They wait inside while the doors cycle. Then they enter the Eden room.

Charles turns off his hovershoes and settles down onto the ground. He beams at her. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

The Eden room is a self-sufficient biosphere. It is contained within two rapidly spinning translucent candy shells, each more amazing than the other—but it is not this confectionary accomplishment that prompts Iphigenia’s answer.

“It’s a garden,” Iphigenia says in awe.

Iphigenia stares around. The Eden Room is beautiful and grand and full of trees, and it has its own little sun circling in the sky above.

“It’s marvelous,” she says. “It’s the most marvelous garden.”

“It’s built entirely on Biblical principles,” Charles boasts. “For example, the whole room is suspended in a Leviticus-Luke gyroscope rotating at a constant 70 verses per second. And the artificial gravity is provided by psalms!”

“But why are we here?”

“It’s the safest place in the whole factory,” Charles says. “Listen. Can you hear that?”

Iphigenia listens.

Then she frowns. “Little . . . squiddish thumps.”

“Snavering Lavelwods,” hisses Charles. “God promised them that they’d get the Earth after humans did, if they were good. So they were good for a very long time. But now darkness is rising and the Fimbulwinter is coming and the Snaverers want their due. We left the door open. My fault. Not yours. But we left the door open. And now they’re going for the Hourglass.”

He hands Iphigenia his marvelous See-Through-Things Prism. “Look through this,” he says.

Iphigenia peers through it.

“I can see right through it!” she says, with amazement.

“It’s all in the focal length,” Charles says. “Hold it farther from your eye and you can see through more things! Please keep an eye on the Lavelwods for me. I’m going to try to engage the auxiliary defenses. Incidentally, what did you choose?”

“Choose?”

Iphigenia moves the See-Through-Things Prism closer and farther from her eye. She shrieks a little as she can suddenly see the Lavelwods in the factory halls.

“As the one thing you’d keep,” Charles says.

Iphigenia frowns at him. “You are very strange.”

Charles beams at her.

Iphigenia stares through the Prism. “They’re swarming through the factory,” she says. “Snavering everywhere. I think they’re shouting something.”

“Shouting?”

Charles goes to a tree. He presses a knothole to reveal a device labeled, “Factory Universal Translator—DO NOT LISTEN!”

“You’d best not listen,” Charles says.

He activates the device. He tunes it to Sneezle. There is silence. He tunes it to Morphum. The silence remains. He tunes it to High Lavelwod.

“Bleep!” snarls the device. “Bleep! Bleep! Bleeping humans! Bleep! Bleep!”

“Ow!” says Iphigenia, who couldn’t really help listening. “Too much bleeping!”

“However,” snarls the device, “we concede a reluctant admiration for your many fine inventions.”

Charles is blushing.

“Bleep!” shouts the translator again, as the Snavering Lavelwods swarm.

“Too. Much. Bleeping,” emphasizes Iphigenia.

“Oh,” says Charles. He reluctantly turns off the universal translator.

“It hurts my ears,” says Iphigenia. She looks through the prism. “There’s some kind of silver door in their way.”

“That’s my first line of defense,” says Charles. “It’s made of Invulnerable Crumpium!”

“They’re crumpling it with their tentacles!”

“Yes, well,” Charles admits. “It’s invulnerable, not uncrumplable.”

Charles has opened up a panel hidden in another tree. He is triggering various buttons.

“Huh,” Charles says. “There’s a spider on the outer hull. I hope it’ll be all right.”

“Probably safer than anywhere else on Earth!” Iphigenia says.

Charles laughs.

“That’s true! That’s true. But it adds to the mass calculation! Not much weight budget for spiders. What’s happening now?”

“Now—”

Iphigenia peers. Then she looks awed. “You built a giant self-scratching blackboard?”

Charles looks modest. “It’s the latest in nonlethal defense technology.”

“It’s definitely annoying them,” Iphigenia says. “The scraping and scratching of the fingernails on the blackboard—it’s driving them mad! Except . . .”

“Except?”

“They’re not giving up,” Iphigenia says. “They’re drowning out the noise by singing!”

Charles flicks his hands over buttons and levers. Then he frowns. “Dear, dear, we’ve got a goat out there now, too.”

“A goat?”

“It must be so afraid of the sun blowing up that it fled right through the Snavering Lavelwods to cling to the side of the Eden Sphere! What a heroic, sticky goat.”

“We have to open up the airlock!” says Iphigenia. “And let it in!”

“No time,” says Charles. “No time. Have they gotten through the Giant Golden Bowl?”

“Through and past,” whispers Iphigenia, in terror.

There is a thump. A Great Gallumphing Uniplex has attached itself to the side of the Eden Sphere.

“No idea what that is,” whispers Charles. “Stupid animals and their pack behavior! Don’t they realize I have strict mass limits?”

Then he blushes.

“No, that’s not fair. I’m sorry, animals! I’m sorry! I won’t insult you again.”

Iphigenia shrieks. “They’ve broken through the defense of last resort!”

Charles looks nervous. “Are you sure it’s the last resort?”

“It was labelled ‘Defense of Last Resort—DO NOT BREAK THROUGH.'”

Charles hides his face with one hand. “Why doesn’t anyone ever read?

His voice is taut, but there is humor in it. Even at the end, he is laughing at the world. Iphigenia can tell.

But then the humor leaves him.

Charles grows glum, silent, and dark. “I don’t know if we’ll make it,” he says. “Not with all the extra mass pressing on the hull. These animals better pull their own weight.”

“Make it?” Iphigenia asks.

There is the distant shriek of a hawk coming in to land on the Eden Sphere.

Then Iphigenia beams.

“You’re going to trigger the Snaverer-Killing Bomb!” Iphigenia proclaims. “Then this whole sphere will bounce and roll through the empty Earth driven by the force of that explosion. If the animals aren’t too heavy for your compensation thrusters, we’ll land exactly where you planned—at the birthplace of a new sun!”

Charles gives her half of a smile. “That would be pretty cool.”

But then his voice goes flat, and he shakes his head.

“I’m not going to kill them,” Charles says.

“Oh,” says Iphigenia.

“I was so afraid I would. To save you. To save me. But I won’t.”

They are silent for a while.

Then Iphigenia smiles at him. Just a little.

“That’s okay, then. It’s okay if we die. I don’t want to. But it’s okay, if it’s to keep us from killing. The Lavelwods are adorably fuzzy little monsters.”

She looks again through the See-Through-Things Prism.

“Just . . .” Charles says. “Just give a moment, for regret. And fear. And mourning. Just a moment. Then I’ll smile, and say that everything will be okay. And it will be.”

In the distance they can hear the snavering song.

The Snavering Song (Modern Arrangement)

Snaver, lavel, what can you do?
Our hour nears: we don’t care about you!
It’s great that you lived and it’s great that you’ll die!
Out of our way! Our hour is nigh!

Rasputin was shot and Rasputin drowned
Poisoned and stabbed and laid in the ground
Joan of Arc—burned! Henry’s wives did not please!
And everyone left
They will die in the freeze!

William to plague. Sian to starvation!
And millions on millions who died for their nation.
Vlad—now a vampire! Jekyll—a beast!
And everyone left they will die in the freeze.

Snaver, lavel, what can you do?
Our hour nears: we don’t care about you!
We’re glad that you lived but it’s time that you died.
Out of our way! OUR HOUR IS NIGH!

Thundering through the factory in accompaniment to the song’s last words there is a crash.

The See-Through-Things Prism drops from Iphigenia’s nerveless fingers.

“What?” says Charles. “What did you see?”

“They’ve reached the hourglass,” says Iphigenia. “They’ve broken it. The sand is falling.”

The room is very still. The animals stare in through the candy shell. The snake flicks its tongue. The spider shifts uncomfortably from leg to leg, never sure which six to stand on on occasions like this. The goat goes, “Beeeee!”

Charles’ wristwatch alarm goes off.

“Oh, dear,” Charles says. “It’s 10:58.”

Then he laughs. It’s a wonderful, terrible, horrible laughter. “I’d forgotten I’d set that,” he says. “I wanted to tape Lizard Cops.

Iphigenia stares at him. Then she joins him in laughter.

“Me too!” she says.

And as they laugh, the last rays of sunlight race frantically towards the world.

Tune in tomorrow for the shocking conclusion of . . . Countdown to Annihilation!

Awaiting the Reconciler

The lion stood outside Sid’s office building. Its tail lashed. It growled.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone let you out on purpose,” Sid said. He looked around him for sanctuary. There was no one else in the square. Behind the lion, the revolving door of the office slowly spun.

The lion padded forward three steps. Sid hefted his briefcase, pulled his arm back across his body, and then flung the case at the lion. It bounced off the lion’s hide, but the beast snarled and stepped back.

“I’d better go in and call animal control.”

Trusting in insouciance, Sid loped past the lion into the building. He made it into the circle of the revolving door before the beast turned and charged. Shoving forcefully against the glass, Sid managed a quarter turn before the beast followed him in. This was enough. Its claws scraped at the glass behind him. Sid waited until he could reach the lobby, then threw his weight against the door to slow and stop its turn.

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

Then he went up to his cubicle. He passed Max on the way, and Claire, and Saul. He waved to them.

“There’s a lion in the revolving door,” he said. “Don’t use the door unless you’re prepared to strangle the beast unconscious.”

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

“This is why I don’t walk to lunch,” said Saul. “If it’s not rain, it’s lions. But if I drive, then the lions can’t pierce my defensive metal shell.”

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

“Before the lion gets out and ravens among the cubicles.”

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

Then he reached his cubicle, sat down, and made his report to animal control. In the distance, he could hear snarls and roars. Then there was the clatter of a toppling swivel chair and the slowly fading mewing, coughing, and grunting sounds of Claire strangling the beast.

Sid sighed. Then he shrugged. He stared for a few minutes into his dharma box.

Sid hung up. He logged on to the system. Then he began to take calls.

Five of them proved irrelevant, in the broader story of Sid’s life.

The sixth did not.

“UDBI technical support,” said Sid. “This is Sid. How can I help you, Ms. Baker?”

“I’m only human,” said the panicked voice on the other end of the line.

The sound of Sid’s typing was like that of a heavy rain.

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid’s pinky finger came down on the carriage return with a loud crack. He was silent for a long moment.

“That shouldn’t ever happen,” Sid said.

Now his fingers were dancing on the keys. Dozens of charts and maps opened up on his screen, cascading from the background to the front.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” said Ms. Baker. “My car didn’t start. My room is a mess. I’m having petty thoughts, Mr. Sid.”

“It happens to all of us,” soothed Sid. “Even UDMI employees. Just hang in there until I can get your dharma system back online.”

He spun the mouse wheel. Convulsively, he stood up. “It’s not just you,” he said into the phone. “It’s your whole junction. I’m going down there to look at the lines. Can you call back, extension 833, if the problem isn’t resolved in twenty, thirty minutes?”

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

Sid frowned. He added, “Lock your door.”

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

That was his boss, Dr. Ezekiel Brown, emerging from a side hallway.

“Walk and talk,” said Sid. “We’ve got a whole junction down in Block 43.”

“Damn it, Sid,” said Dr. Brown. “You know you’re not supposed to head out on this kind of thing without my gnomic management wisdom.”

“It’s probably just a short of some kind.”

Dr. Brown held up a finger. “Operations involves preparing for the worst eventualities,” he said, “not the best.”

“A line that needs repair.”

“Soar like the eagle,” said Dr. Brown, “who flies without a net.”

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

“You’ll call?” Dr. Brown said. “I mean, if you need management?”

“I’ll call.”

Sid seized a toolbox from a shelf as he passed. He reached the elevator doors just as they opened and disgorged a tour guide and a set of guests; without pause, Sid turned smoothly for the stairs, flung open the door, and headed down towards the parking garage. Behind him, the guide was saying:

“There’s a Hindu story of a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his path back home. He said to each of his ministers and generals, ‘show me your erudition and your heroism—reduce this river’s flow!’

“And they couldn’t.

“But then one of the camp followers said, ‘River, sink low.’—”

The voice faded as the stairway door closed behind him. Sid reached the garage, got into his car, and drove to Block 43.

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

“Hi, honey,” said Sid. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

“There are now,” said Emily. “We aced all the standardized tests, so the teachers said we could establish an autonomous subterranean collective. Now we’re lurking in the caverns underneath the city!”

“They’re not caverns,” said Sid. “They’re access tunnels.”

Mole tunnels,” said Emily. “We tamed an alligator, you know.”

Sid laughed. Then he frowned. “Huh. The zoo’s in block 43; I hope the Animal Wrestler is all right.”

“Do you want us to check? We could tunnel under the city and emerge stealthily at the zoo!”

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

“Huh,” said Emily. “Leadership challenge. I’ll call you back. Love you Daddy!”

“You too, hon.”

Sid pulled over outside the UDBI satellite installation for Block 43, a small boxy building principally containing supplies, a junction box, and a mechanical console. Sid waved his hand over the handprint reader by the door, went inside, and began flicking switches and taking line readings. A frown slowly deepened on his face.

He flicked open his phone and hit a speed dial. “Doc?”

Doctor Brown’s voice was hopeful. “Sid! What’s up?”

“Can you get the police to evacuate people from block 43?” Sid asked.

“That bad?”

“The whole block is glitching all to Hell,” said Sid. “It’s worse than the 2016 incident, and I can’t find a reason for it.”

Doctor Brown nodded. “I’ll call back,” he said.

Sid opened the door and looked nervously around the street. The sun was bright. Pythons slithered companionably through the green grass. Birds chirped. There were no fires and no obvious looting, which seemed to reassure Sid.

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

“That was fast,” said Sid. “How did the leadership challenge go?”

“We struggled fiercely in the dim twilight beneath the earth! Drums beat vigorously! But then someone remembered that the zoo has baby goats, so we all decided to check it out, because, ooh, goats.”

“Congratulations.”

“We’re peering up at the zoo with our mole eyes now. I think someone’s been showing the animals the dharma boxes, Daddy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well,” said Emily, “mostly, the eerie cooperation of gazelle and panda in smoothly coordinated escape operations! But also the Animal Wrestler is floating unconscious in the alligator pen with little gifts piled around him like the gators wanted to honor a noble foe.”

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

“Daddy,” said Emily scandalized. “I’m eight.

“Well,” said Sid, “if your mole men aren’t up to it . . .”

There was a long pause.

“We’ll see what we can do,” said Emily. “But the autonomous underground collective disapproves of keeping animals penned. That’s our free mole spirit!”

The phone buzzed.

“Got a call in,” said Sid. “Talk to you later, honey!”

“Bye!”

Sid clicked the Flash button. “Yeah, Doc?”

“The police are on the way. Any progress?”

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

“It’s in perfect working order as far as I can see,” said Sid. “If you want to offer gnomic management wisdom, now might be the time.”

Doctor Brown hesitated.

“There was a Hindu story,” said Doctor Brown, “about a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his way home.”

“That’s not wisdom!” said Sid, scandalized. “It’s in our company manifesto!”

“He challenged his ministers and generals to lower the river,” said Doctor Brown, who wasn’t the kind of man to abandon a good story. “But it was an ordinary camp follower who solved the problem, saying, ‘River, sink low!’ And the river, which had ignored the entreaties of ministers, generals, and Kings, sank until she could cross it without wetting her ankles. Because, as low as her position was, she was perfect in her dharma. She knew who she was. She knew what she was there for. And because she had that power and that confidence, no force in the universe could stop her.”

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

Sid opened his mouth to speak, paused, and frowned.

“That’s a good point,” Sid said, after a moment. He poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. This somatized his internal attempts to evaluate the state of his soul. “I’m dharma-OK. The glitch isn’t affecting me. So I should be able to fix this.”

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

“Okay,” Sid said, “so here’s my theory.”

“Oh?”

“We look at the dharma boxes to center ourselves in our dharma,” said Sid. “To become like that camp follower. The boxes resonate with who we really are, down underneath, to help us reach our fullest potential. That’s why you have such a hard time finding reasonable opportunities for your motivational speeches—we’re already at our personal peak of excellence!”

“. . . Yeah,” sighed Doctor Brown, sadly.

“But the dharma boxes aren’t manifestations of a God-like universal will,” said Sid. “They’re machines. They’re mental and spiritual feedback devices, and the first versions were built by ordinary imperfect humans. Here’s what I’m thinking: what if there’s a global error in the design? Something pervasive and subtle, something that none of us can see because every thought we have is shaped by the feedback from the boxes? So that when I stand here, looking at the evidence of the glitch, I’m still unable to see it, because it’s something that can’t exist in the context of my world?”

Doctor Brown considered. “Something that heroes can’t solve, but ordinary people can?”

“No,” said Sid, after a moment. “It’s more a general philosophical problem with turning to external evidence to figure out who we are.”

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

Then he took out his dharma mini, set it on “Neutral,” and stared into its face.

Sid’s thoughts grew thick and full of error. Some of the glamour fell from his world. A seed of fear sprouted in his heart.

Grimly, he put the dharma mini back into his pocket and began to work.

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said Ms. Baker. “It’s been forty minutes.”

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

“I’m trying to figure things out,” Sid said. “But I’m off system myself.”

He leaned under the console, took off a panel, and stared at the wiring underneath.

“It’s terrible,” Sid said. “You know? I mean, it’s like I’m climbing a mountain, and there’s a cold wind blowing, and my fingers are numb and the picks are loose and there’s an evil goat and I could fall at any second and die.”

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

“Yeah,” she said. “There’s an evil goat outside my door too.”

“. . . baby goat, probably,” Sid said. “There was a zoo maintenance error.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe we used to live like this. I can’t believe being human used to be like this all the time.”

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

“Also,” said Ms. Baker, brightly, “you could get stabbed! By muggers!”

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

“Sheer blatant stupidity that you didn’t understand for years until one day you’re sitting at home and suddenly you realize just how wrong you were!

“Oh, God,” said Sid. “I remember those. Those were horrid.

They laughed.

“It’s actually the one thing that surprised me,” said Ms. Baker, after a bit. “I mean, when I moved to a UDBI district. That suddenly everyone got along.”

“Well, it’s natural,” said Sid. “I mean, you perfect people, and—”

Sid hesitated.

“I’d been expecting irreconcilable differences to remain,” said Ms. Baker.

“Yeah,” said Sid.

“It just seemed sound. That sometimes not everyone could have what they want at the same time.”

“That’s erroneous,” Sid said, distractedly. “I mean, in the formal theory of dharma boxes, it’s not so much that everyone gets what they want, as that people recognize that point beyond which they can’t have everything. They lose their connection to the basic human, mortal cruelty of the world.”

Sid frowned.

“But you have a point,” he said. He closed the panel, sat back, and said, “I’ll have to call you back.”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Baker. “I mean, for working, I mean, even when—”

“Only human,” said Sid.

It was still terrifying to him. His gestures were slow and clumsy. His thoughts were cold and confused.

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

“What would have happened to the camp follower,” said Sid, “if the river, confident in its dharma, had chosen to continue its flood?”

“That’s not possible,” said Doctor Brown.

“Pardon?”

“It’s basic dharmic theory. That part of our perfection that depends on others is also that part that we can expect from others. If a person and a river are in the world, then the limit of their dharmic excellence as they approach perfection is also in the world. The final perfection of all entities must coexist in . . . God, Nirguna Brahman, the Cantor-Deity, or what have you. Of course, this year’s models only really give an effective perfection around 98.3%.”

“Huh,” said Sid. “Then I have a theory.”

“Shoot.”

“The glitch isn’t a machine error,” Sid said. “It’s a dharma error. Something happened that meant that—to the limits of current technology—not everyone could be perfect at once.”

There was a thumping and a stampeding outside the satellite installation.

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding by on the back of a water buffalo. She had a length of cord wrapped through its mouth as a bit and was slowly, surely, exhausting its strength.

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

“But what kind of . . . ghoul could have needs so fundamentally incompatible with someone else’s that they couldn’t be 98.3% perfect at the same time without cascading system errors?”

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding past the other way. The water buffalo seemed to be tiring.

“I’m betting on the sharks,” said Sid. “But possibly an evil flamingo.”

Doctor Brown cleared his throat uncertainly. “Well,” he said. “I figure the thing to do for now is to lower the output on Block 43’s models. If there’s some kind of communications breakdown that makes it impossible for everyone to harmonize at 98.3, maybe they can coexist at 90, 95% perfection.”

“And in the long term?”

“In the long term,” said Doctor Brown, “as the technology of human perfection gets better, and whatever little quirk you’ve found here gets resolved, someone will just have to have a dharma that bridges the gap.”

Sid sighed. He took out his dharma mini. He set it on “Full.” He stared at its face.

“This could be most of the glitches we’ve been seeing,” Sid said.

“I suppose.”

“The little ones, I mean. They’re usually when someone new logs on to the system. When, maybe, reconciling their goals and desires makes for a little hiccup as the system strives to adjust to a new local perfection.”

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

“. . . what if there isn’t a person whose basic nature spurs them to smooth over the irreconcilable gaps between people?” Sid said. “I mean, what if things get worse, instead?”

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

“Sid,” he said. “Of course there’ll be someone like that.”

“Daddy!” shouted Emily, pounding on the door. “Daddy, I beat the water buffalo! With my fierce mole-like stamina!”

“It’s technologically inevitable,” said Doctor Brown.

Flood

The antelope race beside the Ark.

The waters are glassy, sometimes, when the rain slows down. They are rich in color. The hoofprints of the antelope are like the dents of great raindrops.

The antelope have wide feet and a powerful light foot technique. For seventeen days they keep their balance on the water. Yet slowly, as the days pass, they sink deeper and deeper into the shining waters until at last they drown.

“There’s no room for the hippos,” Ham says. “We’ll have to eat them.”

“No eating the hippos,” says Noah.

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “There are those birds,” he says, “that fly into your urethra when you’re peeing and nest inside your crotch. We could eat them.”

Ham considers that.

“Okay,” he says.

The seven-limbed howlers struggle upwards from the cities below. They flail. They howl. They reach the surface and fill their great and terrible lungs with air. Then they sink, again, slowly, pathetically, and hoard their energy for the next long breath.

The eagles circle tiredly in the sky above.

Shem and Ham descend into the Ark.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Shem believes, the density of packed animals becomes asymptotically infinite. But they do not need to go that far.

“Good sheep,” says Shem, passing a sheep.

“Good cow,” says Ham, passing the cows.

“Good crocodi—BAD crocodile!” says Shem. Shem brandishes his broom at the crocodile. It reluctantly turns away and snaps its mouth closed. It slithers deeper, slithers down, its long green body vanishing under a cluster of chickens, wrens, doves, owls, game hens, and wildebeests, and it is gone.

“Good hippo,” says Ham, grudgingly, as they pass.

The urethra birds are not very far down. They are good at gaming the ecosystem for maximum advantage. But it does not save them now.

“Bawk!” proclaims one urethra bird, startled, as Ham grabs it around the neck.

“Ch-caa!” declares the other, in some distress, as Shem seizes it in turn.

The axe descends.

“It’s natural selection,” says Noah, as he chews on a leg. “Those that do not please me, die. Evolutionary pressure driven by the seething core of the Ark will inevitably create a new generation of animals better suited to the exigencies of my desires.”

Days and nights pass.

In the third and fourth weeks, great clusters of ostriches swim by.

The ostriches are not happy with the rain. United, they are strong. Solitary, they are weak. But the rain and flood tries their solidarity.

One by one, ostriches commit social errors.

One by one, the clusters drive them out.

The stragglers are easy prey for the sharks, the icthyocampi, and the cold.

“I wonder if Mr. Sills is still alive,” Shem says.

“He’s got to have drowned by now,” Noah argues.

“I know some of them were trying to build cities in the deep,” Shem says.

Ham walks out and stares down at the water.

“It’s weird,” says Ham. “To imagine all the people we knew, down there.”

“Freaky,” Japheth agrees.

“Cold and blue and drowning.”

“It’s because God didn’t like them,” says Shem. “I mean, as much as he liked us.”

The sheep goes, “Baa.”

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

They quickly hurry the sheep back into the hold.

“Can we eat the sheep?” Ham asks.

“No,” says Noah. “Sheep are good animals. That’s why it made it all the way up.”

“The hippos?”

“No eating the hippos.”

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “Isn’t there some kind of animal that lives mostly on the brains of dead people?”

“Worms?”

Noah shakes his head. “Besides those.”

“Cranium beavers?”

“Yeah,” says Noah. “Those. We can eat those.”

Ham and Japheth descend.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Japheth suspects, the animals are unable to survive in solid form but instead revert to their natural plasmic state.

“It’s hot as God’s spankings down here,” says Ham.

“Shh!”

“What?”

“No blasphemy. We’re on the Ark.

There is a creaking, clunking noise, as the sea serpents of God beat warningly upon the vessel’s side.

“Right,” says Ham, sweating. He looks sideways. “Good oryx.”

By the eighteenth sub-basement of the Ark, Ham and Japheth are forced to carve their way through the animals to make room for their passage. Thus dies the bulwark buffalo, the crowball, and the cave goat. Thus dies the ghoul, spoken of in legend, and the icy blue beast in whose image the Slurpee was made. Thus dies the elephant and the fungal turtle.

“Here,” says Japheth.

The cranium beaver skulks defensively behind its dam of skulls, but this primitive instinct cannot save it from the knives of Noah’s heirs.

“Good sheep,” says Japheth, on the way back up.

“Baa,” insists the sheep.

It’s so adorable that even Ham has to scruffle the sheep behind its ears.

The rhinoceri have gone feral, long, and lean. In the distance, as the sons of Noah eat, they watch the primal battle between rhinoceros herd and megalodon, under a sky full of storms. The waves of that battle rock the ship, and the sinuous shapes of the rhinoceri lash and shimmer and in the sea.

“They’re winning,” says Naamah, in some surprise.

“There’s just a chance,” says Noah, in satisfaction, “that the megalodons’ll be another casualty of this rain.”

“I’ll tell the others,” says Japheth.

So he goes to the speaking tubes and calls down into the depths of the ship, “Let the rhinoceros be informed that their kind still live, under the sea.”

And up comes the honking, and the bleating, and the wailing, and the howling, and the hissing, and the chirping, and the long pleased snore of the happy shipboard rhinoceri.

“That means we could eat them,” says Ham. “I mean, the ones we have here.”

“No eating the rhinos,” says Noah.

“Fine,” sulks Ham, crunching on a barbecued cranium beaver leg.

The last of the scissor-beaked night terrors drowns that day.

“Look!” cries Ham, one silvery morning.

“What?”

“Elephants! The elephants didn’t die out after all!”

Noah rubs his chin. “There’s no reason we can’t take another female on board to replace the one you carved through.”

“Right on!”

Shem and Ham operate the elephant crane to retrieve a backup elephant from atop Ayers Rock.

“Baa,” the sheep remarks, conversationally, as it watches.

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

Naamah and Japheth hurry the sheep back into the hold.

Days and nights pass.

“I can see them far below,” says Japheth, later that night. “All the people I ever hated.”

“Are they trying to tame sea horses?”

“They’re dead, Dad. They’re moving in great drifts through the night.”

“Baa,” mourns the sheep.

“Animal on—”

Noah laughs a little and stops halfway through the sentence.

“Oh, let it be, I guess,” he says.

The sheep looks down into the water, at the hills and dales of Scotland-under-the-Waves.

Flick!

A fish-tailed sheep skims to the surface of the sea.

For a long moment, the land-sheep and the sea-sheep look into one another’s eyes.

Flick!

The moment is gone; and the two sheep go, in their respective elements, below.

In such manner as this: running, swimming, struggling, serving, seething, mourning, and loving does the world survive the rain.

The Farm

Old MacDonald is a gingerbread man. He is very old. But not as old as an old human would be.

Old MacDonald has a farm. On that farm he has a duck and a cow and a sheep and a goat and an unidentifiable animal that might very well be a lemur. They are all made out of gingerbread.

Next to old MacDonald’s farm is a river of molasses.

“It’s rising,” says old MacDonald, one day, after some measurements.

“Quack,” says the duck. “Quack quack.”

“It was all the rain in the candy mountains,” old MacDonald says. “It’s flooded the river.”

The molasses rises. A few days pass.

“It’s still rising,” says old MacDonald. So he builds a fence around the river. It’s a lovely white chocolate picket fence.

The molasses rises. It seeps through the fence. It sweeps up the duck. The duck quacks piteously.

“Duck!” cries old MacDonald, later that day. “You’re stuck!”

But there’s nothing he can do.

Molasses is cruel.

Old MacDonald thinks. Then he sets out sandbags. He sets out sandbags all around the river. They’re full of sugar. He could call them sugarbags. But he doesn’t. He calls them sandbags.

“Moo,” says the gingerbread cow. “Moo!”

It’s trying to warn him.

“Moo!” it says here.

The river rises. It seeps through the sugarbags. It swirls slowly into the cow’s barn. It carries the cow away.

“Moo!” it says there.

“Oh no!” cries old MacDonald. “You’re my best milking cow ever. Because there’s a little bit of milk in you!”

Milk makes a gingercow sweet.

Old MacDonald reaches from the river’s edge towards the cow. He risks his life against the molasses. “Take my hand!” cries old MacDonald. But the cow has no way to do so. It is swept slowly away.

“Moo,” it says, in the distance.

Molasses is cruel.

Old MacDonald builds a metal fence. He builds it with love so it’s extra strong. It surrounds the river on every side.

“Baa!” says the sheep.

“Bleat!” says the goat.

“Baa,” corrects the sheep.

“Bleat!” the goat declares obstinately.

The sheep sighs. “I leave you to your obviously incorrect sentiments,” it says, and stomps off to the other side of the pen.

“Bleat,” says the goat. It feels that it has won this confrontation. But then the molasses seeps deep into the ground. It seeps under the wall. It seeps into the pen. Now the goat does not know what to do.

“Bleat!” cries the goat. It attempts to eat the molasses. “Bleat!”

“Baa,” says the sheep.

The sheep does not help the goat eat against the tide. So the goat is swept up in the molasses. Then the sheep is swept up.

“Baa,” says the sheep again, only this time the sheep is not here but there.

Molasses is cruel.

“I will set fire to it,” says old MacDonald.

“Bam!” says the unidentified animal. It sounds nervous.

“I will set fire to it, and burn it away.”

So he does so. But the molasses is sluggish to burn. Mostly it caramelizes.

“I will rain nuclear devastation upon it,” says old MacDonald, as a form of escalation.

“Bam!” whimpers the unidentified animal, which is caught up in the molasses now and a likely incidental casualty of any nuclear barrage.

“But it’s the only way.”

“Bam…”

Old MacDonald looks into the unidentified animal’s pleading eyes. He realizes that he cannot do it.

Slowly, his shoulders sag. Some of the icing fades in his eyes.

He retreats. He goes to the hills. He watches from the hills as the molasses takes his farm.

The flood recedes, taking the animals and much of his furniture with it.

MacDonald returns home.

He has survived.

But molasses is cruel.

Old MacDonald is just one gingerbread man, and the world soon forgets his story.

But the children remember. And the gingerfolk remember. And the duck remembers, as it swirls slowly out to sea.

They’ll tell you, if you ask.

Molasses is cruel.

3GTE

The first goat crosses the bridge from east to west. It traipses on the wood, tap tap tap.

The troll stands there, looking surly, staring off into the distance.

Mr. Eugene Barrett II stands stiffly on the eastern side. He is dressed in a pinstripe suit. It is neatly pressed. He looks profoundly uncomfortable.

“There will be a second goat, you know,” says the troll.

“Er, yes,” says Eugene. “I suppose there must be.”

“I will roar, and brandish my claws, like so,” says the troll, roaring and brandishing his claws. “And I will say, ‘You must be the second billygoat, larger and tastier than the first. I have prepared a mole sauce for you!'”

Eugene is silent. The troll is silent. Finally, Eugene says, “Those are difficult. I mean, I heard that they were hard to make.”

“Extraordinarily!” roars the troll. He brandishes his claws. “Particularly with these things for hands.”

“I say.”

The troll snorts. He waits. He watches. The second billygoat traipses up. The goat eyes Eugene warily. Then the troll roars and brandishes his claws.

“You must be the second billygoat, larger and tastier than the first! I have prepared a mole sauce for you!”

“I am not a mole,” notes the goat.

The troll blinks three times.

Eugene ventures, “I believe he means the Mexican sauce based on—”

The goat looks dangerously at Eugene, who is suddenly aware that the second goat is much bigger than the first.

“Perhaps you could let me go,” says the goat.

“No!” roars the troll. He brandishes a claw. He counts off on his fingers. “First, I am hungry. Second, I have already prepared the sauce. Third, I am ruthless. Fourth, I am educating this banker! I must set a good example.”

The goat laughs. “Perhaps he should leap on me with his great terrible fingernails and rend me to shreds. It would be active learning!”

“Er,” says Eugene. “I really don’t think—”

The troll makes a gesture to silence him.

“Very well,” says the billygoat. “I suppose I am doomed, then. But … but it occurs to me …”

“Yes?” asks the troll.

“I do have another brother, larger and tastier than myself.”

“You don’t say!”

“I do,” says the goat. “I do indeed. And we might be too much of a meal, you understand, taken together.”

“I might run out of sauce,” ruminates the troll.

“Verily.”

The troll’s nostrils flare. “Then go,” he says. “Go across the bridge.”

“I could go with him,” says Eugene. “To show him the way.”

“No,” says the troll.

“I was really supposed to ride across on the first goat,” says Eugene. “To rescue some sort of princess—”

The troll’s gaze is flat and level. “Is that so?”

The second goat crosses the bridge from east to west. It traipses on the wood, clank clank clank.

Eugene sighs.

They wait.

“Do—” Eugene pauses. He gulps. He speaks again. “Do trolls have treasure hoards? I mean, like dragons?”

“No!” roars the troll. He brandishes his claws. Eugene shrinks in on himself. The troll thinks about it for a moment. “Maybe. Perhaps. I suppose. Some.”

“Some treasure hoards?”

“A few,” says the troll dismissively. “They are small and unworthy of mention.”

Eugene says, “Ah.”

“Why do you ask?” says the troll.

Eugene shifts uncomfortably from foot to foot. “I like money,” he says.

The third goat approaches.

The troll looks thoughtfully at Eugene. He asks, “Why are you even here?”

“The guys,” Eugene says. “You know. The guys. They thought that I should have a marvelous fantasy adventure. You know. To loosen up. To learn—you know. Claw brandishing, goat riding, princess-saving. And such.”

The troll looks Eugene up and down. Then he looks up at the goat.

The goat’s hot breath comes down on the troll’s head.

“I hate trolls,” rumbles the third billygoat.

It looks at Eugene.

“Also,” it adds, “bankers.”

“These people,” the troll says to Eugene. “These ‘guys’.”

“Yes?” Eugene asks.

The troll shakes his head. “They are not your friends.”

Aegisthus (IV/IV)

Tell me, oh muse, of the decision of Aegisthus, who learned the truth of his heritage: son and grandson both of the monster Thyestes, who sired him by force on Pelopia’s womb. Tell me of Aegisthus, who stood with sword in hand in the cold wet cell where Thyestes sat enchained, and chose, not to kill, but to strike free the monster’s chains. I must turn to you, oh muse, for this decision is not one I can encompass; but still he made it; and so have countless others through the years; down the line from one to another, to the monster Jenna and Liril knew.

**

It is 1212 years before the common era. The sun in the clouds is the color of a flame. A young boy named Aegisthus stands upon a hill. He holds a sword. He cuts his hand with it and smears its edge with blood. Then he thrusts it into the ground. The world cracks open. He calls out, “Tiresias! Tiresias! Prophet and oracle!” A ghost suspires from the ground and sips the blood from the edge of the sword.

“Oracle,” Aegisthus says. “I am Aegisthus, son of Atreus, and one day I shall be King. Yet I wish to be more. My ambition does not end with such paltry measures. I must command the gods themselves. Speak me an oracle. Give me an answer to my dream.”

Tiresias turns blind, dead eyes on Aegisthus. “Many in the world have desires. Why should yours take precedence?”

Aegisthus shrugs.

Tiresias sighs. “What you ask is impossible. If you must attempt it, then go to the spring of the nymph Cyane and wake her with your blood.”

The earth takes breath, and pulls Tiresias away. Aegisthus withdraws his sword and the world grinds closed.

The next morning, four people leave Mycenae. Aegisthus goes to Sicily, where the spring of Cyane is found. His half-brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus travel to the Oracle, searching for the King’s hated brother Thyestes. These three leave with fanfare and with wealth, for Atreus King loves them well; but Atreus’ youngest wife, Pelopia, hearing certain rumors regarding Leda’s daughter Helen, walks away in silence, and few mark her departure.

Aegisthus takes a boat, and then a road, and finds himself in Sicily next to an ancient spring. He stirs the water with his finger. It forms an image. Aegisthus sees the chariot of Hades, charging across the world, with captive Persephone in Hades’ arms. Then the nymph Cyane rises from the stream. She spreads her arms to bar Hades’ way.

“‘No,'” Aegisthus says, watching the image of her mouth. “‘No,’ she says, and ‘Go no further! This maiden must be asked, not taken.'”

Then Hades smites the spring, and the world cracks open, and his chariot gallops down into the Underworld, and the waters of the spring seal over. Cyane weeps, and as she cries, she loses substance, until the spring and nymph alike are nothing but her tears.

The water goes still. The vision ends. Aegithus frowns. He cuts his hand. He smears his sword with blood. He dips it through the water to touch the stone Hades’ sceptre broke.

“Ew.” Cyane rises from the pool. “Ew. Don’t do that. Ick. Ew.”

“What?”

Aegisthus, uncertainly, withdraws his sword.

“Memories. Symbolism. Mind in the gutter.” Cyane looks at him. She shudders. “What do you want?”

“Can you do impossible things?”

“I’ve tried. I failed. I wish I could.”

“I am Aegisthus,” he says, “son of Atreus. I wish to sit at Olympus on the high god’s throne; or, if I cannot, that my heirs should do so. I spoke of this to the dead prophet Tiresias, and he sent me to you.”

She sits on a rock and thinks.

“So I’d rather like you to tell me what to do,” he says. “Or give me some kind of magic to achieve my ends.”

She thinks more.

“Please?”

Cyane looks at him. Her expression is calm. “Go home,” she says. “Call for me again when everything you know is true proves false.”

“It’s a long walk,” he says.

“You’ve got sandals,” she answers. So he leaves.

Cyane sits upon a stone. She thinks. Then she turns to the water, and an image of Persephone forms. Persephone looks up.

“Cyane!” she says. Her voice is glad and bright. Cyane smiles crookedly.

“I’d thought you might be angry,” Cyane says.

“Why?”

“I failed.”

Persephone thinks about that for a moment. Then she reaches up a finger to touch the surface of the water; and Cyane sets her hand upon it; and for a time, the two of them are still.

“I have anger, hate, and rage enough,” Persephone says, “to fill the world, and slosh against each person in it. But none for you.”

“Can I free you?”

“No,” Persephone says. “It’s impossible, even for a nymph.”

“But you’d like me to.”

Persephone sighs. “There’s that in all of us that wants the impossible. The real can hurt so much.”

“I’ll free you,” Cyane says. She closes her eyes. “I promise.”

Persephone’s eyes narrow. “Cyane—”

The sun passes above the spring, and the glare of the sun on the water turns blinding, and Persephone can see the nymph no more.

In Laconia, near Mount Taygetus, Atreus’ wife Pelopia looks up at the sun. “So bright,” she says.

She trudges down the road. Her feet are bloody. It’s a long way from Mycenae, and she’s lost her sandals along the way. She comes to a clearing.

Helen sits against a tree. Her hair runs down the bark. She’s not yet the most beautiful woman in the world. She’s very young.

Helen opens her eyes.

“I wondered if you’d come,” Helen says.

Pelopia hesitates. “I want things to be different,” she says.

“Why?”

“Not all of us can be the children of gods and swans,” Pelopia says. “My father was Thyestes, now an exile. I went into Athena’s service, and on the night of a ceremony, a masked stranger caught and forced me and got a child on me. I took his sword as he lay sated, but found myself unable to kill—not him and not myself. So I fled. My uncle Atreus, who would kill me if he knew my parentage, thought me the daughter of another King, and took me to wife. When I bore the stranger’s child, he imagined it as his own. I had hoped to make some small brightness from this, but my son Aegisthus is as empty as the sky. His eyes are hollow. He cuts his own flesh with the sword I stole and gave to him. There is nothing I may do to save him. This is the world I live in. I want it to be different.”

Helen bites her lip. Then she reaches out a hand. She touches Pelopia’s elbow. “You’re like the sea,” she says.

“I went to the sea once,” Pelopia says. “I washed the blood off. And the dirt. And the tears. And all the foulness of mankind. And the sea stayed clean. But I’m not like that.”

Helen makes a sad face. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“When your father dies, go and stand before his grave and call to me. I’ll make you an immortal.”

At the Oracle of Delphi, Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, meet their uncle Thyestes. They catch him and bind him and return home; and on one weary evening, Agamemnon, Meneleaus, Aegisthus, and Pelopia reach their home together. Atreus consults the entrails of a goat. He turns to Aegisthus and Pelopia. He says, “As Thyestes was Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ to capture, he is yours to kill.”

“Ours?” Pelopia asks.

“Yours.”

“Come, mother,” Aegisthus says, and leads her down into the dark. There, he opens the door of Thyestes’ cell, and goes in. Thyestes slouches languidly against the wall, bound in irons. There’s a touch of fear in his face as Aegisthus enters; but it fades as he sees Pelopia, and dissolves entirely when Aegisthus draws his sword.

“I know that sword,” Thyestes says. He smiles lazily. “But how did you come by it?”

Aegisthus hesitates. Thyestes’ expression and his choice of topics confuses the boy. The execution has turned unexpectedly uncomfortable. “My mother,” he says. “She gave it to me.”

“Then,” says Thyestes, “this is the sword my daughter took from me, after I lay with her to conceive you; and you are my son, my grandson, and my destined instrument of vengeance, raised in my enemy’s house as his very own son. You will kill him for me,” continues Thyestes. “You will kill him for me, and set me on the throne, for this is the revenge promised me by the Oracle, and now I see you shall fulfill it.”

There is a silence. Pelopia’s face grows paler. Aegisthus’ eyes are blank and white.

“I should kill you,” Aegisthus says. “I should kill you thrice over. For Atreus, and Pelopia, and myself.”

“You’re my son,” Thyestes says.

The corner of Aegisthus’ mouth twitches. The sword wavers in his hands. Then he turns, and strikes the wall. The blade splits the stone, and water pours into the room like blood. Aegisthus beats his head upon the wall. “Cyane!” he cries. “Cyane!”

A woman rises from the water. She shivers at the cold air. She draws the water up from the ground. She wraps it around her. It’s like a long jacket. There are lumps under the back, like budding wings.

“You’re different,” he says.

“I made a promise that I couldn’t fulfill,” she says. “So I changed.”

“Into what?”

“Someone who could do anything,” she says. “Sometimes.” She smiles at him. “Thank you,” she adds. “I thought about it, when I watched Hades take her off, but I didn’t dare. Not until you came along, impertinently bringing me to life to fill your own emptiness and then asking the impossible.”

“Make it not true,” Aegisthus says. “Make him not my father.”

Cyane looks at Thyestes. She makes a helpful gesture. Then she smiles wryly at Aegisthus. “It didn’t work this time.”

“Oh.”

“Monster!” Pelopia shouts. She pulls the sword from the wall and lunges towards Thyestes, but Aegisthus grabs her arm, and pulls her back, and casts her against the wall, where she sits.

“Monster,” she says again, and stares at the sword. She runs it along the edges of her wrists.

Thyestes grins at her. Then he looks up at Aegisthus. “If she keeps bleeding on it like that, you can take it to Atreus and say it’s my blood. Then kill him with it later, by surprise! It’s like a family reunion, all that blood on one sword.”

“Why would I do that?” Aegisthus asks.

Cyane tilts her head to one side. “Because he can tell you the secret of the gods,” she says.

“What?” Aegisthus’ voice is hoarse.

“You asked me to give you power to command the gods,” Cyane says. “I can’t. But he can.”

Aegisthus hesitates.

Cyane kneels by Pelopia. “I had to tell him,” she says, apologetically. “I belong to him. Kind of. Because I was dead, and then he put his blood in the spring, and called me forth. But I can try to save your life. If you want me to.”

Aegisthus claims the sword, and walks to Thyestes, and strikes down the chains.

“Monster,” Pelopia mutters.

Aegisthus leaves the room, and Thyestes too, and they close and lock the door behind them.

“He tried to change,” Cyane says, clinically. “Thyestes tried a hundred plans. He tried a hundred ways not to do what he did to you. But all of them were too hard, so he gave up.”

“Save my life,” Pelopia says.

Cyane wraps her jacket around Pelopia’s wounds; and slowly, the bleeding stops.

“I’m going to stand at his grave one day,” Pelopia says. “And I’m going to call to Helen, and become a god.”

“What kind of god?”

“I’ll be like a nymph,” Pelopia says. “They’ll come. People will come, and try to catch me. Because if they catch me, their plans will succeed. If they can catch me, they can change their fate, and break the cycle of the world.”

“And will they catch you?”

“No,” Pelopia says. “I won’t let them. I can’t let them. Not again. I’ll be as evasive as the wind.”

Cyane leans back against the wall.

“That’s what drives them, you know,” Cyane says.

“What?”

“People like your son. They make gods. They have such emptiness in them, and can make such emptiness in others, that gods come to them in swarms. But they can’t ever be one. It’s what makes them monsters.”

“I’m not sorry for him,” Pelopia says.

“No,” Cyane admits. “Neither am I.”

“It’s his own decision,” Pelopia says. “As ours are ours. But I wish he hadn’t locked the door.”

Regarding Headless Goats

It is with the greatest reluctance, and no small embarrassment,

noted Mrs. Schiff,

that I must report a slight delay in the natural procession of events. It is only proper that you should find this disappointing, and I cannot expect that you shall look favorably upon me. It is nevertheless inevitable that such things should follow, when one suffers a visitation of headless goats.

“Ah!” you think. “I have no interest in these protestations and delays, but this mention of headless goats intrigues me. Please, Mrs. Schiff, tell me more.” You need not speak your thoughts; they stand emblazoned upon your face. I shall address them immediately, and with no further hesitation.

It is natural, and entirely expected,

continued Mrs. Schiff,

when I return home at night, that I should make certain mental preparations for the journey. I buckle into my car at thus-and-such a time. I drive, and progress inevitably through a series of intermediate states and places until I reach my natural abode. I plan things thus: I shall walk in through the door. I shall set my keys on the table and hang my coat. I shall proceed to the refrigerator and claim the last of the sodas, and take it forthwith to the couch, where I shall open and consume it while thinking upon my day.

Do not look so impatient, sirs and ladies! This prelude is a necessary formality, preparation for what is to follow; and I should not dream of including description that is in any wise beyond the natural scope of that this discourse requires. Have faith in me; I ask you this; and all shall proceed to the goats in due and proper course.

I did not notice a distinction, nor in any form a dissimilarity,

reflected Mrs. Schiff,

between the journey home and that which I had encountered heretofore. Certainly, one must expect events to distinguish themselves in some trivial fashion. I might spend a few seconds shorter than usual at one light. I might linger longer than informed speculation would anticipate at the next. If a tumbleweed or zeppelin blows past the road one night, one cannot rely upon it repeating the journey on subsequent trips. These are vicissitudes in circumstance of which I take no notice, for a certain variable random quality is intrinsic to the manner in which I live my life.

For this reason, I consider my journey home both typical and uneventful, despite a number of peculiar instances of which a lesser mind might have taken note. I drove. I parked. I walked in the door. I put my keys down. It is in that moment, as you have so perspicaciously anticipated, that first I set my eyes upon the goats.

I have a reputation,

insisted Mrs. Schiff,

as a keen observer and an insightful mind. Yet I did not at first process the goats for what they were. How could I? And, I must ask, how could any living soul?

They filled my home, from warp to weft, a seething sea of goats, and not a one of them had a head, and all of them were playing chess. They brayed and bleated through hollow throats and seemed, in the estimation of hindsight, quite pleased with themselves in every respect and fashion. These were not dying creatures, nor the dead. They were not monsters and they were not beasts. They were simply a phenomenon that visited itself upon me, though one of the stranger that I have yet experienced.

The delay and pause of which I spoke, at the beginning of this message,

explained Mrs. Schiff,

did not derive directly from the goats. They are companionable creatures, lacking all artifice and malice, and in truth I feel their presence is a blessing visited upon my life. No, it is not truly the goats who are at fault; but rather, the long and frozen pause that descended on my thoughts as I watched one goat sit upon my couch and drink my soda down.

I could not proceed. In claiming that soda, the headless goat cast all my plans tumbling aside; not by the common machinery of circumstance to which I have over time become accustomed, but through an agency I could not anticipate. I studied my reactions, but not a one made itself available for use. Should I ask the goat to return my soda? To reimburse me? Should I pour myself a glass of water from the seething goat-filled sink? Should I turn my back upon the siren call of chess and gaping necks and make a visit to the store? And should I ask the goats, before I go, if there is anything I should pick up for them?

These are the questions and the conundrums that faced me then,

concluded Mrs. Schiff,

and I must humbly ask for your forgiveness, that much time and sleep was lost to pondering them.