Sid vs. Max (1 of 1)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The sky is golden. The sea has this red glow now. Sid’s face is in the shadow of the tower and the wind is blowing.

Max can feel it in his teeth.

He can taste his own blood and, possibly, either Rahu’s or Sid’s.

The tower shifts and shakes as he staggers back.

Whump!

Off to the distant west there’s a sound: Whump!

And strictly speaking Max should feel concerned that the tower is moving but right now there is only one thing in the world, which is Sid. Sid, standing there with the feather in his hair and the blood on his shirt and the wind tugging at his hair and clothing and the knives spinning to his left.

Max braces himself against the wall and he lunges forward to rip out Sid’s heart.

For a stupid, stupid plan, it’s remarkably effective. His fingers actually sink into Sid’s chest, bowing in the siggort’s ribs by half an inch before they stop. Sid takes half a step backwards, raises his arm, and tries to club Max across the face.

Max grabs Sid’s sleeve from beneath with his right hand. He shifts his left arm over Sid’s. He twists, putting pressure on Sid’s elbow, and as Sid stiffens, and because Max can see Sid’s face, he pushes forwards with his palm to strike at Sid’s already damaged jaw.

He hears the humming whine of the wheel of knives against his ear.

He falls sideways, trying to protect his face. The knives cut deep along his arm.

Whump!

The world shifts under his feet.

Sid is frozen, looking at him, trying to figure out whether to press the attack while Max is on the ground, cut.

So Max pulls himself back up to his feet.

He watches the wheel spin until the knives seem to slow and he can almost see the handles whirling past.

“C’mon,” he says.

And Sid’s face twists, and he hops forward, and his hand stretches at Max’s face like a claw.

Max reaches inside the wheel with his left hand. A knifehandle strikes his wrist and his arm jerks and there is agony; but the wheel stops its spinning. His plan is this: to punch Sid through its open center.

But protruding from Sid’s palm, stretching forth in tentative motion like an insect feeler, there is a spike of siggort. It is glistening and deadly, metallic in color, a tool of vivisection and terror.

So Max doesn’t punch.

He draws his gun and he shoots and he shoots and he shoots because he does not want to die.

They stagger apart.

They sit down.

Sid coughs up old, dry blood. It comes out of his mouth as powder.

Max’s world dims and shakes and his ears ring.

Then Sukaynah heaves and tears herself loose from the foundation of the tower and a good quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower caves in.

Sid is like a liquid. He flows to his feet. Then he coughs. He can’t stop the coughing.

And, weirdly, he can’t stop thinking of how he doesn’t have to be alone.

He’d figured that out once.

That he didn’t have to be.

He was in darkness and solitude and it hit him that he didn’t have to be alone, that he could be with somebody called Max—

It doesn’t matter, Sid thinks.

He starts heading towards where people might be hurt; where people might be in danger; where Martin is working and the tower is crumbling.

He slips on Max’s blood.

His world wobbles. For just a second, he lets go

Continuing from the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 )

Sid wakes up.

He smiles eastwards towards the dawn.

It’s wonderful, sometimes, to be Sid. The birds are singing. The sun is bright. His body is fresh and practically unhurt and his hair’s just the way he’s always wanted it to be.

He takes a deep breath of pure clean air and says, “How beautiful.”

It is June 2, 2004.

It is one of those days—those gorgeous days.

Sid’s sprawled on the grass next to the tower and slowly the desperation comes back to fill him.

There are some horrors that cannot be run from. There are some things that cannot be fought.

Where Sid is, there is Ii Ma.

The Extinguishment of Karma (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The sea stretches out forever. On its surface the wind chases itself about. Great bulky clouds pile in the sky. To the west the sun burns yellow. Rahu shivers in Sid’s arms, stinking of blood and sweat.

Sid walks into the tower.

He casts about. He finds a room with a light on. He opens its door. In a room of shining wooden floorboards and creaky old chairs Mr. Schiff pushes back his chair and stands.

“What have you there?” says Mr. Schiff.

“Rahu,” says Sid.

“Set him down,” says Mr. Schiff.

The reflections of the ceiling light skitter away as Sid lays Rahu down upon the floor.

Mr. Schiff walks over. He squats beside Rahu. He studies him.

“It is rare,” says the geology teacher, “to see an evil planet skewered by a siggort spike, much less in pristine condition.”

He peels back one of Rahu’s eyelids, causing Rahu’s head to shift and roll a few inches upon the floor.

“He’s a planet?” Sid asks.

“Rahu is the mystery planet that occludes the sun and moon on the occasion of an eclipse,” says Mr. Schiff. “A thing-that-is-known explaining a certain body of evidence.”

He takes a clipping from one of Rahu’s nails and holds it up to the light.

“Naturally obsolete in the Newtonian model,” clarifies Mr. Schiff.

“He might be dying,” says Sid.

“Not this one,” says Mr. Schiff.

Rahu breathes harshly, eyes rolled back, mouth drooling against the floor.

“No?” Sid asks.

“He’s one of the demons who stole into the house of the sun and drank the elixir of immortality.” He looks up at Sid. “You don’t know that story?”

Sid stares at Mr. Schiff blankly.

Sid’s jaw is turning puffy where Rahu broke it.

Mr. Schiff pats Rahu down, then straightens his body and head out so that Rahu is laying more comfortably on the floor. “I’ll get a cot and a blanket for him,” Mr. Schiff says.

“How can anything be immortal?” Sid asks.

“Well, it can’t, I suppose,” says Mr. Schiff. “Everything arises from karma, and everything dies with the extinguishment of the karma that caused it to exist. But he’s tasted the amrit so he can’t really die to anything less.”

He pauses. He smiles fondly at the fingernail.

“And here I am with a sample of him.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

Mr. Schiff walks to the door and out, his feet ticking against the floor.

Sid watches Rahu.

The hands of the clock high on the wall turn.

After about fifteen minutes Mr. Schiff returns with a cot and some blankets. He starts to lift Rahu. Sid helps. Together they place Rahu on the cot and cover Rahu’s body with the blanket.

“How can anything be immortal?”

It’s like nothing’s changed in Sid’s head since he asked that question the first time.

Mr. Schiff looks up at him.

Suddenly Mr. Schiff is grinning wider than a geology teacher should grin, and there are shadows shifting everywhere in the room.

“When he drank the amrit, he achieved enlightenment,” says Mr. Schiff. “He became rival to the Buddha. He understood everything that is, was, and will be. But he was not free. He was chained by his karma. He said, ‘Before I claim my rightful place as lord of all things I must answer the suffering of Prajapati and atone for this theft of treasure from the sun.’

“The thundering of years did not dissuade him from this course.

“The severing of demons from the world could not dissuade him.

“He has hunted the sun and devoured it through the days of the Third Kingdom and the Fourth and not anyone who’s tried has ever stopped him in his course.

“He will not stop until such suffering as Prajapati’s is no longer possible, which even the Buddha did not achieve. He will not stop until he has expiated the crime of stealing elixir from the sun, which he cannot do, as that act will forever stain the world. He is immortal because he is not finished with these basic tasks that no creature can attempt.

“That is how Rahu is immortal.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“But don’t be afraid,” says Mr. Schiff. “It is the nature of all karma to resolve itself given sufficient time in which to work. If it is not this year, then it may be next year; if it is not, then certainly before the passage of another three hundred trillion years.”

Sid shakes himself.

“Will you watch him?” Sid says.

“Why did you bring him here?” Mr. Schiff asks.

“I didn’t know what to do with him,” Sid says. “And I figured Martin would. But you’ll do just as well.”

It is June 1, 2004.

Sid returns to the balcony. He sits on the battlement. He’s quiet.

“Aren’t you a sight,” says Max.

Sid shrugs.

Sid looks about.

“Iphigenia?”

“She’s with Jane,” says Max.

“Did she see the spike?”

“I told her not to watch the fight. I said, you’d win, but not by any way that’s good for children to see. And then you did.”

Sid sighs.

“You okay?” says Max.

“No,” says Sid.

“No?”

“We go ’round and ’round,” says Sid, “and nothing ever changes.”

“Yeah,” acknowledges Max.

“You don’t have to be here,” Sid says.

His voice is taut. His throat is sore. It hurts to talk.

But Max ignores him.

“Didn’t ask you if I did,” Max says.

“You don’t even like it here.”

Max sighs.

“Just— let it go, Sid.”

It’s getting darker now. It’s moving on towards evening. Shadows swell across the sky.

“You weren’t worth it,” says Sid.

Max’s lips tighten.

“Don’t you get it? I waited, I waited, and you’re just some damn stupid— just—“

“Just?”

And suddenly Sid is empty and the air is cold and he says, limply, “I wasted my dreams on you.”

Max looks up.

He grins tiredly. It’s pretty shocking to himself, that he has what it takes to grin. But he does.

“You wanna go?” he says.

It’s not an invitation to leave.

It’s an invitation to fight.

And for a long moment it seems as if Sid doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And then for a long moment like Sid will hold back.

Then the siggort is off the battlement and his wheel of knives is spinning and his fist comes forward and it strikes Max’s head, thok.

The Looming Cloud (III/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

There’s red in the sunlight and gold in the sky. The damp leaves that pile up beside the bridge are a muddy brown. There’s a cold wind blowing by Sid. His black hair is wet from a shower and a lock of it clumps against his forehead.

He stands on an island of grass and trees and behind him there is Gibbelins’ Tower.

All around him there is the chaos.

The aspect of the chaos today is like water and trout scales. The chaos surges like a sea. It crests and foams. It is low, with the tower and the island and bridge above it. The surface of each wave is covered in tiny scales. Its color is pale and silver and red and brown.

Sometimes the surface will divide and part of it will jump forth like a fish, then fade back into the water when it touches the surface once again.

And Iphigenia watches from a high tower window and looking at Sid’s back she cannot see that he is afraid.

But from the front you can see it.

His face is torn with fear, and it is not the fear of a man confronting a tiger but the fear of a man putting down a dog; that is to say, the fear of a terrible and necessary loss.

He is holding himself there by grit, a substance he has little of, as Rahu walks across the bridge.

Continuing the history of Iphigenia (1, 2, 3).
See also this discussion of the nature of demons.

The air smells of dead things.

It’s hot.

It’s June 1, 2004, and Rahu is coming to the tower.

He is wearing a white shirt. He’s wearing a vest and pants of red fur. He’s got a ponytail and a collar. The ponytail’s tied to an iron screw ring screwed into his spine at the base of his neck.

If it weren’t for the ponytail and the collar his head would fall off.

Rahu sniffs as he walks. His nostrils are wide and black.

He’s smelling out the sun. He doesn’t even look up to see Sid until he’s almost there.

“The sun must be tasty,” Sid says.

Rahu’s irises are the color of almonds. His eyebrows are the color of teak. His skin is warm.

“Because,” says Sid. “So many people want to eat it. You; Sukaynah; the wolves—”

“No,” says Rahu.

Sid’s eyes, in contrast, are dark.

“The sun is intolerably bland,” says Rahu. “It burns going down. It is not a pleasure meal. It is an expiation. For me, and for her.”

“She doesn’t want to expiate,” Sid says.

Rahu’s shoulders roll like a boat on the sea. “Who does?”

Then he is punching Sid.

His fist hits Sid’s stomach.

A grey and brown feeling spreads through Sid. The skin over his stomach cracks and bleeds. But Rahu does not have time to do more damage. The wheel of knives comes down in front of Sid and Rahu is jumping back and Rahu’s arm is bleeding fresh red blood.

Sid feels a wrenching, sickening pain in his stomach.

He causes the pain to vanish.

Sid feels a distant physical panic and something is making his vision all wobbly.

He causes the restoration of his equilibrium.

Before he has quite begun to double over, he straightens his back, and he looks at Rahu.

“Don’t make me shed this body,” he says.

Like a frisbee the wheel of knives arcs out towards Rahu. The demon does not leap back again. Instead he rushes in, towards Sid, on the inside of the path of the wheel’s motion.

His hand breaks Sid’s jaw.

The knives are tracking Rahu. They turn back towards Sid. Rahu has time for a second punch, sending Sid up into the air; then Rahu hears the knives at his back and perforce must, with a knee-twisting effort, throw himself flat.

Sid lands.

Red pain spreads through Sid. He causes it to vanish.

The knives hover above him.

Slowly, Sid pulls himself to his feet. Rahu is already up. Rahu is grinning like a puppy.

“You are interesting,” he says. “You’re not like a god at all.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Sid realigns his neck.

He frowns.

“Iphigenia said you’re a demon,” Sid says.

“Yes.”

Rahu nods. This is a mistake. His head falls off, showing gruesome neck-innards. This forces him to replace his head and readjust his collar.

“Yes,” he repeats, after recovering his composure. “I am a demon of Prajapati.”

“Can you help me accept something?”

“If you like,” says Rahu.

Sid is breathing heavily, though he doesn’t notice. His lungs are a little out of order.

“There is a man,” says Sid. “Named Max. And he said, ‘Sid, you’re so unworthy of the world. I’d go to Hell myself if I could just be sure of dragging you with me.'”

Rahu’s eyes are bright.

“Is that so?” he says.

“How do you forgive that?” Sid asks.

“I had a stepbrother like that,” Rahu says.

“Did you?”

“I did.”

“Did you forgive him?”

“Eventually,” says Rahu. “Because you see, he was just a man. He had tonsils and hair and an appendix and big ears and blood that ran in his veins. He considered himself very lofty and had an important dharma but he was just an ordinary man and ordinary men do things like that.”

“Ah,” says Sid.

“The world teems with them,” Rahu says.

“Does it?”

“Billions of them now,” says Rahu. “Awkward and fleshy and stupid and meaningless men.”

Here is a funny thing.

As Rahu talks to Sid, he is sweating.

His body is hot and there is tension in him.

It’s like it’s harder to talk to Sid than it is to fight him.

And “They’re just people,” Rahu says. “They hurt people. It’s what they do.”

The power of those words peaks in Sid and breaks and everything is clear and Sid sighs release.

It is strangely peaceful, that moment.

“I’d wanted him to be better than that,” Sid says.

But he’s just a man.

“So badly. So much. I’d wanted him to be better than that.”

Rahu watches Sid.

But he’s just a man.

And Sid’s eyes close and he is smiling at Rahu with genuine gratitude and then he hears a noise and opens his eyes and widens his eyes because Rahu is charging.

How could I ever have expected anything else?

Sid is still smiling.

He unlimbers a single spike of siggort from the body he’s built of mud and clay and feathers and blood. It sweeps upwards through Rahu. It hooks under Rahu’s ribcage and holds the demon suspended off the ground.

“I don’t want to kill you,” Sid says. “But you can’t have Iphigenia.”

Rahu utters a short, sharp cry and his eyes roll back and his arms and legs dangle limply, like a sleeping cat’s.

After a moment, he shudders twice and his head falls off.

Sid blinks like a man coming out of a trance. He pulls back into himself and Rahu falls.

“. . . are you okay?”

Rahu is still breathing.

The power of the demon is receding. The peace in Sid is fading.

A wild rage is rising in him; a terrible anger and betrayal; a sense of loathsomeness and the helpless awe of love.

Emotions surge through Sid.

He causes them to vanish.

Then he picks the demon up and, for lack of anywhere else to take him, carries him towards the tower.

The Eclipse (II/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The air is so full of the purple dust that blows up off the sea from the northwest. The rock of the tower is so old. The sun is so crisp and clear. The sky is so blue.

“I made that,” laughs Iphigenia.

She’s flopped on her back on the grass. She’s wearing a pink long-sleeved top. She’s holding up her left hand. She’s looking up at the sun and the sky, but more importantly, at the day.

It’s a happy kind of thing, to have stirred such a bright day from the ashes of nothingness.

She moves her hand to the left. The sun heats. The sky burns for a moment, rippling with red and orange, and then stabilizes brighter.

She moves her hand to the right. The sun dims back to where it was—to just where she thinks is perfect, on a day like today—and the world goes crisp and clear and calm.

She rests her hand on the ground.

She closes her eyes.

She basks.

And she thinks, I don’t have to be afraid.

Continuing the history of Iphigenia (1, 2)

There’s a place in the texture of the happiness inside her that’s off-tone. It’s not filled with sunlight joy. It’s shaped like an eclipse.

Here is how it is with Iphigenia.

She is on the grass but she is also in a chariot in the sky, pulled by four burning horses, drawing the sun. It makes her hair fly every which way and her muscles ache great achings and there’s sweat on her face and sometimes she’s very tired but she can’t ever stop until nightfall because there are ravening wolves after her from the moment of the dawn.

The glory of it is tempered with her fear of the wolves catching up to her and knocking her from the chariot and chasing her down as she falls to rip into her limbs with their fierce and terrible teeth.

“Rahu,” she names the red wolf, the scary wolf, the blood wolf.

The other wolf does not scare her as much but she is not entirely certain why.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Sid and Max are up above, on a second-floor balcony. Sid is sitting on its battlement. Max is leaning against the wall in the shadow of an eave.

I want to take the shadow from them, thinks Iphigenia.

It is a great aching, like in the muscles of her sun-self. It comes across her like a wave and she swallows it in silence.

She is very busy doing very important things, is Iphigenia.

She is laying on the grass and she is wearing a pink long-sleeved top and she is making sure that the sun doesn’t fall down or get eaten which would be bad for just about everyone.

The wolves aren’t the only thing that wants to eat the sun.

There’s Sukaynah.

There’s the solar transubstantiationists.

There’s the sun-eating swallows.

Sometimes Iphigenia gets squiggly icky feelings about the grass that she’s laying on, and all the other plants, like they’re hungry little maggots that want to burrow into her flesh, and sometimes she gets motherly feelings, like she’s a mother bird spitting sunlight into the baby birds’ maws.

Being the sun is surprisingly like being a little prey animal.

But the wolves are what worry her.

So she doesn’t do anything about Sid and Max. She swallows it in silence.

It is June 1, 2004. The sun passes behind a cloud.

Max is saying, “Why do we do this?”

And Sid says, “Hm?”

“Why do we tell all these stories where we’re jerks to one another?” Max asks.

Sid catches a mote of purple dust between his hands, not so much touching it as sheltering it from the wind. He passes it back and forth in the air currents above his hands.

There’s a bit of sunlight in there too. Iphigenia can feel the cracked-clay roughness of Sid’s hands.

“Write what you know?” Sid hazards.

“Ah,” says Max.

The tempo of their exchange is off. That is where Iphigenia feels the pain in it: in the tempo, in the beat. That is what makes her imagine, as she lays there, that they would rather fight with knives than say and hear these words.

I wonder, thinks Iphigenia, if it feels like an eclipse to them.

The thought wobbles in her head.

In that moment she recognizes something that she should have recognized long before.

It is a rising, warbling shriek she shrieks. She does not even realize at first that it comes from her.

“SID!”

He is like a liquid. It is as if he flows from the balcony to hold her head against his chest. It takes Max somewhat longer. Since he is human he is more like a clumpy liquid flowing from a previously unused pipe. He has to stop and dangle over the edge of the balcony for a moment before he can let himself fall. He runs to her like his knees have joints and he sits down to hold her hand.

She does not pay much attention to this but she is unable to stop herself from noticing it because everything is very noticeable of a sudden.

“Rahu is coming,” she says.

The wolf is gaining on her in the sky.

It’s an incredible feeling. It’s like a joy as much as it’s like a bubbling sore squirting fear.

“Rahu is coming here.”

And she is crying and they are gentle to her and she is saying, “Finally. Finally.”

Because when the wolf catches her she can stop running, and better it be now, with Sid and Max right here, than when she is alone.

The Immensity of Love (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]


In ten thousand miles of dreams there is only one Max.

He stands surrounded by dream, lost in great billowing clouds of dream, lost in endless and infinite dream, one tiny speck of human in a surging sea.

The wind that rushes past has taken the skin from him, taken the bones from him, flayed him down to just that speck:

Max.

He is flailing in his bed but he does not know it.

His arms are casting about.

Then there is light pressing against the darkness, sunlight turning the insides of his eyelids into shapes, and he remembers his name.

Max.

There is a welter of blankets around him. There is cool air flowing through the room. His bones ache.

In his eyes there is sun.

He mumbles a complaint.

These days, when the sun sneaks in through the pinhole in his curtain, it’s personal. It’s not just an anonymous irritant or the wicked hands of fate. It’s Iphigenia, and she’s probably doing it on purpose.

She is a mischevious girl.

She’s a burning yellow heat.

She is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter when she is the sun but no siggort ever came out of Siggort Town just to be her friend.

“Gr,” he mumbles.

In his eyes there is sun.

Something nags at the back of his mind.

He doesn’t want to wake up.

He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s tired and unhappy but there’s some reason—

Ah.

Max opens his eyes.

There’s a horrible little thing on his pillow. It’s like a crocodile’s skull, only it’s got horns. Its dry and its white but it’s not dead. It’s looking at him.

“Right,” he says.

He reaches out his hand. He holds its jaws closed. With his other hand he rubs his own forehead.

“Martin warned me about you,” he says. “Sneaking in through the pipes and making bad dreams like that.”

The thing struggles in his hand.

Max looks wry.

“I feel sorry for you,” he says. “Coming to a place like this, a little thing like you.”

It’s a horror of living bone. It was probably eating his soul as he slept. But there’s never been a siggort who’d show up just because it said the siggort’s name. There never was a siggort who’d look so . . . so Sid at it when it smiled.

Aside from the numbing horror of it, it’s kind of cute.

So Max doesn’t kill it.

He takes his hat off his hat rack and hangs the horror there and puts his hat on it and then he goes to wash his face in the dinky blue bathroom that’s next to his room.

He doesn’t want to wake up, but there’s some reason—

And he looks at himself in the mirror and he thinks, Ah, right.

Of course he has to wake up.

Sid loved me.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

It is June 1, 2004.

There’s a knock on Max’s door.

Max has an image to maintain, so he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pushes a button next to the door.

On both sides of the door a BROODING light lights up.

He can hear from outside: “Aw, man!”

It’s Jane’s voice.

Jane’s like a self-arming nuclear bomb with independently mobile legs. She’s a six-year-old girl. But there’s never been a siggort that waited thirteen hundred years just so Jane could be born.

Max, sure.

That happened, with Max.

But not with Jane.

Max pulls on a white shirt. He doesn’t need pants because he sleeps in his jeans so he’s wearing them already.

He flops on his bed.

Jane gives him a full two minutes to relax, to think: maybe she’s gone away?

Then she knocks again.

Max stands up.

He opens the door.

Max brushes back his hair with one hand.

“It’s four in the morning,” he says.

“It’s ten,” says Jane, scandalized.

Max makes a gesture as if to indicate that he cannot be bothered with mundane details of timekeeping.

“I’m brooding,” he says.

“I saw,” says Jane.

Seconds elapse.

“What do you want?” Max asks.

Jane looks at him. She wrings her hands. Then she says what she rehearsed.

“It’s all right to fight,” she says. “But it’s all right to make up, too.”

“Ah.”

Max sighs.

“Come in,” he says.

Jane comes in. She pulls herself up on the spare bed, the one Max doesn’t use, the one all spread with a cowhide-colored quilt. Max flops in his desk chair, more or less directly in front of and below his hat rack.

What do I say?

“It is because of Sid that I can be here,” Max says. “It’s because he looked at me and saw something worth saving, worth rescuing, worth returning to the world. But I can’t make up with him.”

“It’s easy,” stresses Jane. “You just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you hug.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“You could make him a cake!”

Max looks for words.

“It’s Sid’s business,” he says. “Fixing it, I mean. It’s not mine.”

Jane gapes at him.

“See,” says Max, “if I was all, ‘we must make this right, I miss you, I hurt every day over this,’ then how’d Sid feel?”

“What?”

“It’d be like if the monster came to you and wanted you to accept his apology,” Max says.

“Oh,” says Jane.

Her mouth moves, like she’s thinking or trying to sound out a hard word.

After a bit, she says, “Sometimes I beat up Martin, or he dangles me by my feet or dunks my head in water, and then we make up.”

“Yes,” says Max. “You’re modeled after young primates.”

Jane giggles.

It’s a kind of unexpected giggle, as if the image in her mind is surprisingly silly.

“What?” Max asks warily.

“Like in Pokemon!” Jane declares.

Max narrows his eyes. He stares at her with his gunman’s gaze.

“You’re thinking of Primape,” he corrects, and she’s laughing too hard to stop him when he chases her out of his room.

It is June 1, 2004.

Max is alone.

Max feels alone.

He is surrounded by inhuman things, in a place beyond the boundaries of the world. If he thinks about it very carefully, even ten thousand miles of chaos is not so frightening to him as Jane.

Or Mrs. Schiff, that casual swallower of horrors.

Or Martin.

Or even the Roomba.

But he doesn’t have to think about it carefully.

It’s not necessary.

There’s no one but Max within ten thousand miles who’s ever had a siggort come out of Siggort Town just to love them, and the immensity of love makes everything else seem small.

Newton’s First Law (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The baited hook falls, falls, falls.

There is a pause.

There is a great crunching and munching of teeth.

“Perfect,” says Martin smugly. He glances slyly at the Roomba. “See, if you had a better set of lexemes, you’d be able to admire that cast.”

The Roomba’s “I don’t want to get eaten” LED lights up.

There is a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“I’ve got her,” Martin says.

Here is how it came to pass.

The morning of June 1, 2004, had gone well for Martin. Sukaynah was placid, made happy by the falling of apples. Mei Ming, insofar as he could guess, was giving serious contemplation to his ideas. Jane, overwhelmed by the task of piecing together histories in the broken lens, was uncharacteristically quiet. And there, shining amidst the aisles of Costco, he’d found a flat of delicious Fig Newtons: 125 packages of 24 cookies each, bundled together, 5x5x5.

The flat shone like the stars.

He took it home to the tower and set his purchases on the counter. Jane descended like a vulture, but—

“No,” said Martin, flush with the power that was in him.

“No,” he said. He held out his hand. “Not the cookies,” he said.

Jane pouted, but Martin did not bend. She tried to sneak around him to the cookies. Martin stood firm, like the sentryman of Heaven.

“You can’t eat 3000 cookies by yourself!” Jane protested, driven at the last to the employment of reason. “You’d turn into a cookie. And explode!”

Martin said, dramatically, “I’m willing to take that risk.”

But Jane’s star was in ascendance. She made her very best face at him. He trembled under the power of that face. Her eyes bored into his. “You have to share them with everyone in the tower,” she said.

“I have to?”

“Yes.”

And sometimes Martin wonders why he made her, why he shaped her from the ruin that he’d found, why he’d bothered to bring an ending to the firewood and to Bob: but not today.

On June 1, 2004, he loves her; and with gloatful satisfaction says, “That’s more than 2800 for me.”

And against the glow of that brilliance Jane can offer no protest.

Martin leans back. He prepares to reel Sukaynah up. He spins the wheel on his fishing pole. It turns easily at first but then it slows down. It gets harder and harder.

“Will you keep your promise?” Martin says.

He’s sweating as he struggles with the line.

“Glugnuh?” Sukaynah says, meaning: Promise?

“Because I gave you a cookie,” Martin says.

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

“You said that if anyone fed you cookies, that you’d be able to break free, but that you’d have to eat the tower and the sea and the sun.”

“‘orry,” Sukaynah says. “‘ut, ieyah.”

Martin is sweating. He’s trying to reel Sukaynah in but he’s making very little progress.

“Because I have to admit,” he says, “I don’t actually want you to do that. And also, this isn’t working very well.”

“‘y ‘ot?” Sukaynah asks, meaning Why not?

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED lights up.

Martin glances at it. He shakes his head irritably.

“Hush,” he says.

The line goes still and trembling.

There is a momentary hush.

Then there is anger from below. There is a thrashing in the sea. The hook tears loose and Martin falls back and Sukaynah shrieks, “But this isn’t a cookie!

“What?”

Newtons are fruit and cake!

The tower shifts, the tower shakes. The Roomba slips free from the newton on which it is impaled. The imago slumps to lean against the tree.

The crust of the world cracks.

In the distant west there is a sound: Whump!

“Oh,” Martin says.

Brick Fishing (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

There’s a simple fishing rod leaning against one wall. It’s made of white birch. The line makes relaxed loops like a backwards B as it travels the fishing rod’s length.

Martin threads a newton onto the hook.

“You’re probably wondering,” he says to the imago, “why I brought you here.”

The imago is silent.

“I wanted to explain to you, before anything big happened—like Sukaynah eating the tower and the sea and the sun or you coming out of your cocoon or someone bumping the Roomba’s End of Everything Button—just how very much I want to win.”

Outside the sky is blue and the clouds rush by.

Martin whips the fishing rod forward and with a sound like scree-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee the cookie falls down towards Sukaynah’s maw.

Continuing the story of Martin, Sukaynah, the imago, and the Roomba (1, 2)

“People are unfinished,” Martin says. “They’re rough and raw and they look like the blobs that kids in elementary school make when they learn pottery in art class. They’re hopeless.

The line stops descending. Martin pauses a moment.

“It hit the oak,” Sukaynah says.

Martin sighs. He reels up the line. He pulls the cookie back. Then he casts again.

“It makes me so angry,” Martin says. His face is just a little bit red. “Like, they’ll figure out that something is wrong and the first thing they do? They do it louder.

The line stops descending. Martin pauses.

“The house,” Sukaynah says.

“Oh,” Martin says.

“You’re really bad at fishing,” Sukaynah says.

“It’s not my fault you’ve got a house in your snorkel,” Martin says.

“No,” Sukaynah admits.

Martin reels the line back up. He looks critically at the fig newton, takes it off the hook, and replaces it with a fresh one. He glares down into the hole. Then he braces and casts again.

“Mind the werewolf,” Sukaynah says, and Martin’s hands jerk and he almost drops the rod and in any event the cookie hits the wall.

“I am trying to fish and explain how awful people are,” Martin says.

The imago is silent.

“They’re also sloppy,” Martin observes. “And ugly! And the really young and really old ones are all wrinkly. And they’re always leaving their things all over the place. And they hurt each other. And they poison the earth. And they don’t eat their vegetables.”

He casts the line out with grim determination. It falls, falls, falls towards Sukaynah’s maw.

There is an angry bark.

“And some of them are werewolves!” Martin says, as if this were the capstone to his argument when in fact it is the smallest of incidents.

Time continued to pass and still Sukaynah was not fed.

She cried, “Feed me fruit! Green apples! Strawberries! Figs! Oh, feed me fruit and I shall sink to the depths and trouble you no more.”

But there was silence, and for a long time she was left there, to gnash her teeth and bewail her fate, until one day Martin came.

Sukaynah breathes: ho-ha, ho-ha. It stirs the dust on the floor. It blows back a lock of Martin’s hair.

“What would it mean,” she says, “If I may ask? Your victory?”

“I would sweep away the kingdoms of the world,” Martin says. “I would tear down all the monsters. I’d make a pile of their bones. I’d dispose of the people who couldn’t evolve. I’d rend the world, I’d cull it down to a remnant, and from its ashes I’d build the most glorious of Heavens.”

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

Martin begins to reel back the line.

“And the gibbelins?” Sukaynah asks.

“The gibbelins?”

“Would you tear them down and make their bones a pyre?”

“You can’t punish the dead,” Martin says. His face is blank. “That’s like putting pebbles in your soup.”

“Then I do not think,” Sukaynah says, “that you should win.”

Martin finishes pulling up the line. The hook is empty. The werewolf has savagely eaten the fig newton.

He shakes his head irritably.

He sighs.

He rebaits the hook.

“I know,” he says. “I shouldn’t. I can’t. I wish I could. Thinking about it—it’s tremblingly nice. It makes my fingers warm and my toes curl. But I’m not going to.”

He casts the line. It falls, falls, falls.

His face, with no one looking at it, is almost open.

“Instead,” he says, “I’m trusting Jane.”

Feeding Dangerous Things (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

Leaves in sunlight, touched by a gust of wind, scritch and skitter along the floor. They reach the edge of the pit. They leap down like cats, hunched and light and agile, and fall slowly towards Sukaynah’s maw.

They vanish into the darkness below.

And up from below comes the breath of Sukaynah, whose snorkel and prison this tower is: ho-ha, ho-ha.

“Sometimes I try to fish her up,” Martin says. “Because I would like to help her. But I’ve never used the right bait.”

Sukaynah’s breath is heavy and rasping. It scrapes along the brick.

Continuing the story of Martin, Sukaynah, the imago, and the Roomba (1)

“Here,” Martin says to the Roomba.

He reaches into his pocket. It’s full of wadded up fig newtons. He takes one out and tosses it to the Roomba.

The Roomba attempts to vacuum up the cookie. When this fails it tries to climb up on top of the cookie. After a long effort it manages to get itself stuck on top of the fig newton. It whirrs and whines helplessly.

“That’s bad navigation,” Martin says.

“!!” explains the Roomba.

Martin says, “Well, don’t look at me to help you. I think you should use this opportunity to evolve.”

The Roomba’s “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” LED lights up. It plays a sorrowful tune.

Martin makes a face.

“Grind it down with your mobility!” he says.

As the Roomba hums and whirrs, Martin turns to the imago.

“Here,” he says.

He holds out another cookie.

The imago does not take the cookie.

“I think you’re an imago,” Martin says. “I think you’re in that cocoon because you’re evolving to the next stage of human existence—in,” he says triumphantly, “direct contradiction to the Roomba’s LED.”

The Roomba irritably extinguishes its “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” light. It attempts to back up off of the cookie, to no avail.

“But,” Martin says, “it can’t be very much of an evolution if the post-person stage is unable to eat cookies.”

The imago is silent.

Martin makes a face.

“Maybe you don’t get a cookie, then.”

And he plucks two apples from the tree and sits down with his legs dangling into the pit and he looks thoughtfully down at Sukaynah far below.

Time continued to pass and still Sukaynah was not fed.

She cried, “Feed me sweet things! Pastries! Cakes! Cookies! Oh, feed me sweet things and I shall rise to devour the tower, the ocean, and the sun.”

At that time, a fisherman—Abel Clay—had moved into the tower, along with his family. He heard Sukaynah’s cries and was mightily amazed: but, “No way!” he shouted back down. “I like the sun!”

She heaved and wriggled in great rage, but he refused to feed her anything after the manner of her desire.

“Hey!” Martin says.

There is silence.

“Hey, Sukaynah!”

Sukaynah is a long way down but her breath fills the tower: ha-ho, ha-ho, ha-ho.

“Fruit,” Martin says.

And he tosses down an apple and it falls and it falls and then there is a great crunching and munching of teeth and finally a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“Martin,” says Sukaynah.

“If I were a doctor,” Martin says, “these would totally keep me away. But I’d also be Doc Martin.”

Sukaynah breathes.

Slowly, she says, “Do you sleep very soundly, Martin?”

“I sleep vigorously,” Martin says.

“If you sleep too soundly,” Sukaynah says, “then it is possible that very small people will tie you down underwater and build a combination tower/breathing tube on your face. Then a few thousand years later even smaller people will move into the tower and try to make friends with you. Your reaction might be best expressed as such: ‘I am unable to identify our common ground.'”

“Maybe you have sleep apnea,” says Martin.

“What?”

“It’s a sleep disorder,” Martin says. “You can find more information about it on the Internet.”

There is a long pause.

“I do not think it is sleep apnea,” Sukaynah says.

“Oh.”

It is June 1, 2004.

A cloud passes over the sun.

“Do you think it’s okay to destroy everything?” Martin asks.

“Yes,” says Sukaynah.

Martin munches on a cookie. He is thinking. “Me too,” he says.

Then he takes a newton from his pocket.

“Cookie?”

Sukaynah breathes.

“Why,” she says, “you’re a good little boy after all.”

The LED (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The roots of the apple tree wind about the orange and red bricks. Green leaves brush against the walls. Several branches jut forth from the window of the tower. Others get their sunlight from the ragged skylight up above.

Martin pushes open the door with his shoulder. He is dragging the imago and talking to the Roomba, and this is what he is admitting:

“I don’t understand Roomba design,” Martin says.

The Roomba’s “?” LED lights up.

“You have a dirt light,” Martin says, “and that’s fine. And the ‘?’ I get. But why would you need an LED for ‘Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations?'”

The Roomba’s “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” LED lights up.

Martin looks rueful.

“Ah,” he says.

Continuing the story of the imago (1, 2)

“This is one of only five towers near California,” Martin asides to the Roomba, “with an apple tree on the top floor.”

The Roomba is helping him move the imago. Martin is struggling to drag it along. The Roomba is weaving along in the scrape marks he leaves, bumping into the imago repeatedly, and, as it does so, occasionally shredding strands of the silken membrane that surrounds her.

It’s not actually being very helpful but Martin appreciates its desire to be of use.

“Do you know why?” Martin asks.

The Roomba spins in a circle.

“It’s because if it weren’t here, we’d all get eaten.

The Roomba’s “!” LED lights up.

“Deep below,” Martin says. “Deep past the basement, past the cellar, past the tunnels, there’s Sukaynah. I don’t know how big she is. Nobody knows how big she is. But I know how big her teeth are.”

He spreads his hands, accidentally dropping the imago.

Whump!

He bites his lip to conceal embarrassment. Bluffly, he says, “That big!”

The Roomba is visibly stunned.

Martin squats down and hefts up the imago again. He says, “The Gibbelins made a foundation of her face. She’s down there now, gnashing and grinding her teeth. She’s very angry because there’s a tower on top of her. And she’d love nothing more than to eat her way up the tower, floor by floor, and devour everybody, but she can’t! That’s because of Newton’s First Law.”

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED blinks.

“It’s stuck to her face,” Martin explains.

The wind blows. It catches up some apple leaves. It blows them out to the center of the floor, which, the Roomba suddenly notices, isn’t there.

Where the center of the floor should be, there’s just a jagged hole edged in zigzag bricks. They’re old and red and orange and crumbling and below them—far below—there is Sukaynah.

Uh oh! the Roomba thinks. It backs slowly and circuitously away from the hole.

“The apples reinforce that,” Martin says.

“. . . and up!” he adds, to the imago.

He leans the imago up against the wall, near the window, where she’ll have sun.

The floor dapples with the competition between the sunlight, the shade, and the imago’s light.

The gibbelins fed Sukaynah only on scraps of human flesh. They’d throw down gobbets and bits of innards. These things fell into Sukaynah’s mouth and she had no choice but to eat them. Sukaynah hated this.

It is bad to be trapped and force fed but it is worse when the substance is not okay to eat.

After the gibbelins left Sukaynah had nothing to eat for quite some time, so she shouted, “Feed me!”

Time passed.

“Feed me again! Even human flesh! Feed me again and I will forgive you even that!”

But there was no sound save the gentle ebbing and flowing of the sea.

Martin glances back over his shoulder.

An LED is gleaming.

Now and again, it’ll turn off, and then back on.

“The problem,” Martin says, “is that if you only have a handful of lexemes to work with, you need to use them to build larger sequences. Or at least assign them to atomic meanings in the Roomba psyche.”

The LED flashes.

“I mean,” Martin says, “if I’m supposed to talk to you, we should at least remap them as lights 1-10 so you can talk to me in number strings.”

The LED flashes.

“Or do something with timing. I mean, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret an ‘I don’t want to get eaten’ LED?”

The LED flashes.

Martin glances at the pit, just to make sure that Sukaynah isn’t rising. Then he shrugs.

“Absolutely terrible user interface,” he says.

I don’t want to get eaten, the Roomba thinks. I don’t want to get eaten. I don’t want to get eaten.

Then it is distracted.

Hey! Dirt! There’s dirt!

An LED gleams.