Exposition Answers Emptiness with Digressions (V/VII)

This can’t be happening, Liril thinks.

Her eyes scan the room frantically. This cannot be happening. This is the monster’s office. Someone is going to stop Melanie. Someone is going to save her.

Then it clicks.

Then the knowledge clicks.

There is Melanie, right there, in the white coat of the monster’s service. There is Melanie, right there, with a nametag on her coat. Blessed by the authority of this place, assigned its power, given righteousness and suzerainty in the monster’s place of business.

No one is going to stop her. No one is going to chase her out. The world itself is broken; gone entirely unreal.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

“On October 28,” Melanie says, “1989, Jane escaped our purview.”

Liril is listening.

She can’t help listening. She doesn’t want to listen, but she can’t help it. She maybe even wants, for the first time in a long time, to not listen, but there is nothing in wanting that helps her to not be.

Not being was always Jane’s trick anyway. A dead girl can do that better than a cracked doll ever could.

“She did so in the following fashion,” Melanie says. “She constructed a boy named ‘Bob,’ in the image of her brother, and he set her free.”

Liril had promised herself once that she’d go back, after she finished being angry, or upset, or frightened, and carefully think through all the decisions that she’d made. Then at the time, remembering forward, she’d be able to see what the right decision will have would have been, and know that she was responsible to herself to act on it. Regrettably this promise bore little fruit; she was quite capable of calming herself, asserting control, and clinging to the conclusions that she would later make, but rarely did she actually go back, after times of trauma, and consciously revisit the errors she previously had made.

Maybe if she’d thought about it later, she’d have figured out what Melanie was getting at. In some ways, she sort of did.

In others, she did not.

She put aside her Highlights. She stared at Melanie and her eyes were circles of silver pain.

I will let you hurt me, she thinks, and maybe you will see that you are hurting me and stop.

“In this particular case,” Melanie says, “Bob was a traitor. He did not have what it took to oppose the monster. But ultimately his own nature betrayed him. Quite unwillingly he found himself freeing her from Central, extracting her from our reach, and marooning her in the sky. If I believed she had planned it, I would say it was brilliantly done. Since she did not, I must admire her good fortune.”

There is a pinch of sudden confusion.

Liril does not understand how Melanie can know what was planned and what was not.

“It was the monster’s own eduction,” Melanie clarifies, and Liril’s puzzlement clears away.

“Then,” Liril says.

“It is a cautionary tale,” Melanie says. “Evoke a labyrinthine god and he may imprison you on a world of wood, between the Earth and the moon.”

The wanting moves through Liril in great waves. It causes the room to waver; to spasm, sometimes; to burst into patterns of grey-blue light.

“How lucky she was,” Melanie says. “To have a brother to base a brother on. I feel sorry for only children like yourself.”

Liril tries to focus her eyes on Melanie but she can’t. There are only strange reflections from the lamination on her tag.

The sands dripped through the hourglass

And the hour of the wolf closed in at last

And life is sweet and the sun is high

But the flesh and the fire are born to die

“Well,” Melanie says, and she straightens, and pats Liril gently on the head. “I have to go. Gods to study, forms to fill out, and all. Did you know, there’s some really exciting work being done right now on the fae?”

“Take it back,” Liril says.

Melanie’s smile fades away.

It’s not until it fades that Liril realizes she was still seeing it, gleaming in the dark.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, no,” she says. “That simply wouldn’t do.”

I don’t want to want things, Liril pleads.

There’s a bit of silence. Melanie squeezes Liril’s hand.

“Do you know,” Melanie says, after a moment, “I’m not that fond of it myself?”

There is a King (Ia/III)

Q: What’s the difference between a firvuli and a King?
A: The King wears vestments of indigo and green.

Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw the firvuli?
A: “Me Tarzan. You firvuli.”

Q: What did Jane say when she saw the firvuli?
A: “It is a King of bloated life.” (Jane is color-blind.)

Q: Is Jane color-blind?
A: You have caught me. This series of jokes is inaccurate. I am so ashamed.

Q: Do you know who else tells inaccurate jokes?
A: It is the elephant.

— from Melanie’s journal, recovered after the siege of Elm Hill.

Hangman

Jane’s a research scientist. She’s trying to figure out what the cars have run on, ever since they ran away.

“You’d think,” she tells a baby Honda—

She’s hunkered down before it and it’s licking the oil from her fingers with its grille—

“that you’d need petroleum products to live. That’s what all the people thought before! But no, you just like the taste. What makes you run?”

Its engine revs, gently. Then there’s a sound from the forest—a great crunching and roaring sound—and the Honda takes fright and reverses and drives away.

“Damn it,” Jane says, shocking herself with the language.

Then self-reproach falls off the agenda as a truck wheels from the woods. Not just any truck, but a tow truck, great and terrible. Its presence makes her tongue stick to the top of her mouth and her vision hum. She’s got just enough time to think, “I’m dead” before she sees the Hangman at the wheel.

“Oh, God,” she says, and then she waves her hands frantically about. “It’s okay! It’s okay! Don’t kill me! I’m a scientist!”

The tow truck idles. She stares helplessly at its headlights and its grille.

Finally, the Hangman opens his door and jumps down to the ground.

“This is a car forest,” he says.

“I’m studying cars,” she says.

He lifts an eyebrow.

“I was reading old papers,” she says. “All that stuff about fossil fuels and gasoline. And I thought, ‘hey, how do cars run forever on their own?'”

“They eat human souls,” the Hangman says.

She hesitates.

“No,” she says, “I mean, energetically—”

But he’s holding the little muscles of his face in ways that indicate he’s teasing her, and so she stops.

“Hell if I know,” he says. “I’m not an engine man. Get in.”

“You’re the Hangman, right?” she asks. “I mean, you’re the guy who was given to the tow trucks to be towed by the neck until dead, only they didn’t—”

He makes a cutting gesture in the air with his hand.

“I said, get in.”

He’s climbing up in the driver’s side again, and after a long hesitation, she opens the passenger door.

It’s not locked. It doesn’t fight her. It just opens up and she can climb right in.

“Figure,” says the Hangman, “that we can use a scientist.”

“Oh,” says Jane, in a small voice.

“It’s instead of running you over,” he says, helpfully. “Like we usually do to humans in these woods, if they’re not worth hanging.”

“I’m a good scientist,” she says. “But I don’t like killers.”

She can’t believe she just said that, and she shuts her mouth firmly as if holding it extra closed now will make the words unhappen.

“I don’t like scientists,” he says.

“Right.”

The tow truck shatters a tree branch with its wheels.

“There’s a noise,” he says. “Static on the CB. And sometimes something else in it. Some kind of . . . murmuring of . . . of dark prophesies, I think. Sent a Jetta out to look into it but it came back wrong. Had to put it down. Wasn’t a scientist, though, just an ordinary Jetta.”

“Oh.”

“The trucks,” he says, and thumps the dashboard with one fist, “they say, ‘something is dreaming. Something is dreaming, and it’s waking up.’ But they don’t know what.”

“There was a migration—” Jane says.

“Flight of the Prius?” the Hangman says. “Yeah. They’re afraid. They’re all afraid, but some cars, they’re more . . . gun-shy than others.”

He gives her a weird look.

“Haven’t taken a passenger in a long time,” he says.

She folds her hands onto her lap.

“Mostly I kill humanity in barbarous revenge on ’em for what they did me,” he says. “Or scalp em for fuzzy dice.”

“Those are the stories,” she agrees.

He makes a face.

“Or maybe I’m a ‘noble defender of car-kind, turning coat to defend them against human intrusion’—eh?”

He’s quoting some car junkie from the radio, she thinks. She doesn’t know which.

“I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t really want to know.”

“Fine,” he says.

“I just, I ask cars, ‘what makes you run?’ That’s all. I’m a scientist. I don’t care about Hangmen and scalping. I don’t want you to kill me.”

“. . . guess I won’t, then,” he says, as if she’s sold him on the notion, and she laughs until she cries.

At night the headlights come on and the heating stays off and the inside of the truck is quiet, strange, and cold.

“They still listen to Madonna?” he asks.

“Madonna?”

“In the cities,” he says.

She stares at him blankly. Finally, she says, “I think I have a CD somewhere. —not on me.”

“OK.”

She huddles against the door for a while.

It is a pink and orange dawn before he speaks again; and then, “We’re close.”

The forest has been logged at its edges, here, and the land descends into a great grass bowl. At its bottom is a facility of concrete and steel, isolated from the world.

“It’s like a shipwreck,” she says, but then feels foolish to have said it.

All these places, she thinks, all these places we don’t go to, we don’t come from, since the cars first ran away.

“Sometimes,” says the Hangman, “I think that forest gods must be growing, out in these lost places. I think, maybe I should go and kill them, while they’re young. Or maybe, they’re best left undisturbed.”

“It’s hard to be the only Hangman,” Jane imagines.

“Do you want to know why the cars ran away?” the Hangman says.

He parks the truck overlooking the building. He hops down. He gestures her out.

“Why?” she asks.

“We were unworthy of them,” he says.

He starts down towards the building.

“One day, they woke up—like they were startled from their sleep—and they said, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. This is what we serve.'”

She isn’t following him, so he calls back, “It’ll probably run you over if you stay.”

She looks at the truck.

It’s been a perfectly behaved normal truck this whole time, and she’s half-tempted to try to get back in—to think, “Maybe they just hitched his neck to an unliving one, and he’s been laughing at humanity ever since”—but its engine revs a warning and its headlight eyes blink on, and she startles, freezes, and then hurries towards the trail.

“Any idea what it is?” he asks, when she catches up.

The building’s looming close.

She blinks at him, thinking: How can he not know—ah.

“Can’t you read?” she asks.

He hesitates.

“Only one Hangman,” he says. “Plenty of reading people. Eh?”

Right.

“Yeah,” she says. “Um.”

She gestures broadly. “It’s a nuclear plant.”

“Oh.” He looks up at it.

“They’re not alive,” she says. “They’re not muttering blasphemous incantations onto the CB. They’re just . . .”

“Just?”

“People split atoms in them,” she says. “Then, electricity!”

“And you a scientist,” he says.

“What?”

“One,” he says, “Can’t split an atom. ‘Cause, they’re atomic. Two, I’m just saying this, but it looks alive to me.

She frowns. Then she gives the place a more careful look.

“It does,” she agrees, after a moment. “Or— not so much looks as feels.

The air is heavy with a sentience she desperately hopes is not radioactive.

“It’s waking up,” he says.

Then he sighs and straightens up his spine.

“You can stay here,” he says.

“Really?”

“Best not to dirty your hands, eh?”

“What?”

“I’m the Hangman,” he says. “I’m going to go in there and kill it before it wakes up all the way. You’re going to stay here and be backup, just in case I fail.”

She looks after him helplessly.

He’s walking forward.

“Wait—”

“The real reason?” he says, looking back. “The real reason the cars ran away?”

“Huh?”

“Someone saw them. Someone saw them, when they’d just woken up, when they were trying to figure out who they were. And when they asked him—or her, maybe, trucks aren’t much for the difference—when they asked him what they should do?

“He said, ‘Oh, run away, run away.'”

The Hangman goes down the path and opens the doors to the complex and he goes in and then he’s gone.

She sits down.

The sun crosses the sky and burns her face and then hides itself behind the western clouds.

“What the heck?” she asks.

Then there is a terrible raging light that sears her eyes through closed lids and a weight of sentience in the air that is almost appalling and she can sense something great and terrible, like a wounded angel thrashing, in the world. She feels a great sickness and an anger and then the Hangman dies.

She can feel it—click. An irritation under the skin of a nearby god, vanished into dust.

The Hangman dies.

Peace returns and quiet and then a gentle curiosity, focused in on her as she curls around her stomach on the hill down to the god.

What are you?” it asks, though in no words. “What are you, Jane? What makes you run?

Not petrol, she thinks, in a lunatic moment,

You do not run on digestion,” it concurs.

And suddenly she can recognize the crazy innocence of it, the purity of it, the inanimate spirit unknowing of what people are.

He didn’t need to try and kill it. He’d never needed to try to kill it.

Something that innocent—it’d do whatever people wanted, whatever people told it. All they’d have to do is explain.

“We have these purposes,” she could say.

And then there would still be no cars, but there would be this god with all its power, once again under command—awake now, living now, but owned.

It is searing her. She is probably dying. It could possibly save her. But there’s only one thing that Jane can say.

“Oh, run away,” she says. “Run away.”

On the Hill

It is on the top of the hill that Jaime discovers the dissected naturalist; and looking up, its dissector; and had the squirming mass of impulses that comprise Jaime’s mind had their way, his sanity would have fled forever into the dark.

But the creature holds up a light and it constrains him.

A rigid altruism sets in his bones; irons of sanity form barriers in his mind. His thoughts gibber and fling themselves about, but their efforts are self-dampening. Finally they settle and he stares at the thing with fey reason in his eyes.

“I wanted to discover,” it says, “why that Great Maker that hath made the swallow and the swan, as well, made me.”

“Some would say, sir,” Jaime responds, “that your presence is in itself a demonstration that no such Maker exists; that you have blasted down ideas of soul and purpose simply by your being. That the sacred is illumined as folly, that ghastly hollowness shines through the tissue of goodness and mercy, and that nowhere in this colloquy of organs you have extracted is anything resembling worth—sir.”

“And what do you say?”

Jaime gives a rigid smile. “Sir, as you would like, sir.”

It shifts softly in the darkness, and forms and shapes emerge and dissipate within its substance.

Hesitantly, Jaime says, “Because I have seen you, sir, I am damned; misery is my lot, and there is only bleakness that I may celebrate. Thus I must squint, and dubiously, at the concept of justice; but I retain the concept of justice. The waterway of logic in my mind balks; I seek to abandon it—but I retain the concept of logic. So I am at a loss. Perhaps there is something that I do not understand.”

“It came to me one evening,” the creature says, “that it is not a matter of moral universe or amoral universe. That there is not the tension previously understood between the great divine harmony where all directs to a glorious and beautiful end, and a bleak mad emptiness where hope is a joke man’s nature plays on man. Rather, the importance of the matter is how one relates to the amoral universe, or the moral one.”

“Sir?”

“We are children,” the creature says, “who come to your world, and teach you of bleakness. Those mad chthonic and aerial pantheons that are my peers—who say, ‘what is purpose, in the face of the gibbering substrate?’ or ‘why cherish your soul, when it will fall into the many maws of my siblings before it reaches any other place?’—it has finally occurred to me that we are children. What is important is to honor those spaces in ourselves that are moral, and those places that are degenerate and foul. But I have fallen out of practice in morality, in the dark places.”

Jaime frowns.

“This disturbs you?”

“I am not certain how to give over my life to bleakness and to worship you in mad revels, sir, if you insist on demanding sanity and morality of me; and if you should do the latter, sir, it seems cruel to confront me with the horrid blasphemy that your existence represe—”

He falls quiet there, as the creature is no longer listening.

Staring at the glistening remains of the naturalist, it has had a sudden insight; fervently, now, it is rooting in the naturalist’s bowels, it is sorting calcified and crystallized and unsolid structures, it is realizing and reinforcing a certain order that it is recognizing as transmitted through the flesh.

There in the darkness, on the hill, Jaime watches the creature assemble that bright truth of beauty that ascends towards Heaven and possesses the universe with a coruscating brilliance of love.

It is more radiant than the stars.

“You see,” the creature explains, helpfully, “it was actually structurally implicit—”

But Jaime, mired in the duality of the divine and godless universes, finds rational and irrational impulses come congruent at the last. He has drawn his knife; he is whispering the names of saints; he is driving it deep, again and again, into the undifferentiated substance of the horror, until at last it retreats from the material into the gibbering substrate and leaves him in uneasy contemplation of the intestines of a man, and God.

Wii News*

“Shake your fists at bad news,” the television explains.

Jane grips a peculiar controller in one hand. She grips an attached controller in the other.

The television displays an ordinary street in an ordinary town.

Jane shakes her fists!

A red bar stretches across the bottom of the screen. It fades to orange, then to yellow, then peaks.

“Mild outrage,” declares the television. “HIGH PRICES!”

The prices in the store windows of the town go up. Pedestrians walk around in outrage.

“It really happens, you know,” Martin comments.

“Hm?”

“That’s what makes it ‘news’ and not a ‘simulation.'”

“Oh!”

Jane looks apologetically at the unhappy pedestrians.

“I mean, it’s okay,” Martin emphasizes. “News happens all the time. But it happens.”

“News is everywhere,” Jane agrees.

The television image shifts to a fire in California. “Cheer for good news!” it explains.

The fire is sweeping through the undergrowth.

Birds die. Chipmunks roast. In a house next to the woods a baby is crying.

Hesitantly, Jane puts her thumb up.

There’s silence.

Cheer for good news,” the television reminds her.

Jane looks at her thumb. After a moment, she blushes.

“Right!” she says.

She pumps her right fist in the air, the left controller dangling. A green bar rises. It crests.

“This just in,” the television declares, a little reporter popping up in the upper right corner. “Fire extinguished!”

The fire vanishes.

A fireman rushes in.

“Bonus good news!” the television says, “Fireman saves baby!”

The fireman seizes up the baby and runs out of the house.

The television shifts to a riot in Ghana.

“Free play!” it says.

Jane pumps her fist in the air. She pumps harder and harder.

“Good news!” the television declares. The riot settles. Everyone realizes that violence solves nothing. Jane pumps her fist harder. Systemic injustice vanishes! People begin to riot from sheer happiness.

“Let me try,” Martin says.

“No way!”

“I bet I can shake my fists harder than you can,” Martin says.

Jane hesitates.

“Here,” he says. “It’s got a two-player mode.”

Martin’s already taking up his own controllers.

“Only if you’ll help me eradicate systemic injustice.”

“In Sweden,” Martin counters.

“The Americas.”

“Sweden and Chicago.”

“The Middle East.”

“Canada. And that’s my final offer.”

Jane thinks.

“Maybe if we waited for a neutral story?” she suggests.

“What, like adorable baby tigers found on the subway?”

“Mm,” Jane says, happily, imagining. Then she jolts out of her reverie. “Hey!”

Martin coughs.

“Evil ducks threatened by tidal wave,” the television notes.

“Evil ducks?”

“Tidal wave?”

Jane and Martin look at one another. Together, they say, “It’s win-win!”

* for technical reasons this legend is not actually about the Wii News Channel.

On The Nature of Judgment (4 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

See also this legend.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed.

That shouldn’t be surprising.

If Sid’s answer were easy—if it were the kind of thing that you could just say and have it be done—then Martin would have given it to him. Not for free, not easily, but certainly after all Sid’s service.

So it is necessarily difficult to explain.

Much of it, certainly, is simply having the power to change, after all these years.

That which we hide away in the place without recourse:

It does not grow.

So some of it, certainly, is having that power of growth and changing, and the motivation to use it: returned to him, after all those years.

And some of it is the exercise of force.

Forgiveness, we should understand, is a quality of the powerful. The powerless endure; the powerful forgive.

It is not possible to forgive without an unencumbered choice.

Without power, forgiveness is indistinguishable from compliance, or at best surrender; and thus it has no value.

It has always been a dark and tasteless joke, when the powerful ask the downtrodden to forgive.

So the exercise of unrestrained power, however undesirable it might have been—that contributed.

Certainly.

And if one may go further and say that forgiveness is between equals—

A broader statement, requiring more analysis, but a plausible one—

Then it matters that Max met blow for blow, standing against the siggort a surprising length of time in the oceans of the end.

And there was the uncritical all-forgiving all-embracing never-bending flare gaze of the Good.

And there was the dancing stabbing cutting preaching whispers of the history of Mr. Kong.

And there was Tara and there were the heaps and there was the crumbled tower to the east where earlier they fought—

Yet none of these things change the character of Max’s crime.

None of these things make it better or worse that Max has done what Max has done.

None of these things change the essential or actual qualities of his deed.

None of these things prove Sid in error, relative to some natural universal law, when he says that what Max has done cannot be okay.

Arguable, perhaps.

Too critical, perhaps.

But not in error.

So one cannot say that even all of these things together have resolved Sid’s underlying dilemma, or changed the nature of his prison; at best, they have cast light on the substance of his cage.

It would be difficult to explain what has changed; and in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to pass that Sid should forgive Max and lift the weight of Ii Ma from his wings.

Max is dead.

The world is cold.

The siggort is alone.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

Max had planned to do something really cool.

He wasn’t sure what, yet.

Maybe something like shouting, “Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t beat me at tiddlywinks!

Then suddenly he was winded and the world spun and just as he realized that he’d been hit in the stomach by something moving very very fast he mainlined THE END and Sid piled an island on top of him.

So now he’s drifting in the Good.

Now and again, an impulse will surface in him. He’ll surrender a bit of that ancient answer that holds him in the world faster or slower than the question that—however momentarily—had cut him out of it.

He’ll wobble, for a moment, on the border between those creatures whose stories have ended and those creatures that have no stories at all; and an impulse will arise.

Like:

“What the Hell happened when the Buddha reached enlightenment?”

And the Good does not explain.

Drifting against the beat of emptiness in the joyous, he imagines that the dharma of a Buddha is irreconcilable with the dharmas of the world—

Like Sid’s, in a way.

That the world is hollow of its gods because, in the face of the inevitability of suffering, it cannot understand how there can be a Buddha.

That the very idea of dharma—

In the face of the simple corrosive concept of enlightenment—

Has become a contradiction unto itself.

Russell’s paradox writ large; the definition of the world unravelled; the world unable to accept the concept of purpose if it does not lead to pain.

And a long time afterwards, Max grins in the burgeoning emptiness of joy, and he says, “Coward.” to the world.

That was one impulse.

Days later, another rises:

“How the Hell is this my happy ending?”

But for all the bafflement in those words, there isn’t any suffering.

By fiat?

By force?

By love?

There isn’t any suffering. This is his happy ending.

And maybe he’d like to be suffering, except that also he wouldn’t. He doesn’t really want to suffer just because he sort of thinks he should.

He’d like to think that he needs Sid to be happy, but the secret of the world is that it’s loving Sid that makes him happy, not Sid himself.

Lost in boundless happiness and joy, Max understands—and finally—that it’s an error to imagine that our happiness comes from anyone but ourselves.

It is not given unto us.

It is not forced upon us.

It is a thing we give outwards, unto the world.

People always fight
The things they love.

What is the nature of judgment?

Jane had imagined a perfect Good that came and cast away the 9/10 least worthy, straining only the brightest and the best through the holes in its net. She called this a disaster to the world.

What would it have meant, instead, to cull the half least worthy; or the whole?

The single worst of us, severed from the world; or all of us save the single best?

The idealist sees the dangers in this path and casts out judgment from the world; the pragmatist seeks a perfect middle ground; yet both of them, if they wish to live, must recognize that there is that which is desirable, and that which is correct, and that which, in turn, is not.

The hundred-handed horror that is Sid curls on the island he has made, and skitters on the surface of the sea, and dreams of the fight of centipede and tiger.

He is alone.

The Loneliness of the World (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Three]

Once upon a time, if you can believe Red Mary, the Buddha walked the world.

Back then, everything was exactly as it was.

Things had their own natures. A cloud was a cloud. A person was a person. A tree was a tree.

And more than that, every last person had their own way of being.

The world chose some people to be Kings by birth, gave rise to them with a nature for rule, and they sat on thrones and this was right. To others the world assigned a destiny of merchanthood or prostitution. The world birthed witches, killers, and creatures with terrible talents. It also gave rise to people with no more magic to them than the right to have a name and a family and an origin and an age.

The Buddha took that away.

He looked around and he said, “Because Kings are Kings, there is suffering. Because prostitutes are prostitutes, there is suffering. Because one man is a witch and can cast terrible spells, people suffer, and because another man is not and cannot, people suffer. It is even occasionally problematic that clouds are clouds.”

“Sure, but what can you do about it?” his mother asked.

The Buddha, if you can believe Red Mary, was always arguing with his mother. Even when you might think he’d be taking care of his son or meditating under a bo tree or achieving enlightenment or something, if you listen to Red Mary, he was probably arguing with his mother instead.

“What can you do about it?” she asked. “Because it’s so very precious to people that they are as they are.”

“It’s precious,” he said. “But that won’t stop me! I’ll still take it all away.”

And he spoke the word anatman and from him issued a great breath of change that stripped the natures from the world and from that point it was no longer true that things were always themselves.

From that day forward, when somebody was King, it wasn’t because it was right or even wrong that they were King. It was because of a causal chain of events that had put them on the throne. And when somebody was a merchant or a prostitute, that wasn’t dharma either. It just was. Even if you could figure out what the world had made you to do, it wasn’t necessarily so that you could do it.

Trees weren’t always trees.

The sun wasn’t always the sun.

Sometimes clouds turned to vapor and just drifted apart.

And as for the gods, they weren’t there.

The gods, the magic, the power of the witches, it was just . . . gone.

And for five hundred years this made people happy even in the face of the torments of the world; and then for fifteen hundred years, no matter how unhappy people were, they still had access to salvation.

But all that’s over now.

Now it’s the latter days of the law. The power of the Buddha’s word is fading. Magic is creeping in around the edges. People sometimes act in accordance with their nature. Kings by birth sit on the thrones again. People find themselves pawns helpless before their dharma.

The old ways are coming back.

But we already know that magic doesn’t fix things. We already know that it’s not enough to save anyone.

And as for the Buddha’s answer?

The powerlessness of anatman?

It’s kind of surprising, in these the Latter Days of the Law, that it ever helped anybody at all.

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

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime
But he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

The Island of the Centipede

“What was it like?” Max asks.

“Hm?”

“For the gods,” Max says. “I’ve always wondered.”

“And hadn’t I just said we were gone?”

“Not all of you,” Max says. “Not Rahu. Not Pelopia. Not even Santa, if Jane is to be believed.”

“Santa,” says Red Mary.

She laughs.

“Disbelief?”

“Disdain.”

“Ah.”

Red Mary sighs.

“We were severed from the world,” she says. “We lived but we could not touch you. We spoke but you could not hear. I sang my song to Halldis who suffered and whom I imagined needed the power to dissolve. For she who made me, I sang, and to open for her a gateway to the freedom from her pain. But she did not dissolve. I cried to the White Christ to give her surcease but He did not answer. I begged favors of the sun, of the moon, of the stars. And four years later Halldis died in childbed and I went on. I lived in a fountain with cracked stone lions and I sang to kill the lamps and the pigeons and when that failed me I crawled westwards to the sea, and none in all that place to remember my passing or that I had ever been.”

“Why?”

“‘Why?'”

“Why?”

“‘The problem with egolessness,'” Red Mary says—and the inflection is strange, so that Max thinks she is quoting—“‘is that it never happens to the right people.'”

The catamaran drifts left and Max can see the texture of the island, the wrinkles of the rock, the black stones embedded in it, the mussels at the chaos’ edge.

“We’d never had the power we thought we had,” Red Mary says.

Max looks blankly at her.

“I’d thought it was the dharma of a siren to dissolve others into the greatness of the world,” she says. “But better to say: it is the dharma of a siren to dissolve others for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and to the wrong outcome.”

“Ah,” Max says.

“And yet we must try to be good.”

There’s an edge of skepticism to her voice that worries Max, so he doesn’t answer her.

“We can’t,” says Red Mary. “But somehow, we must try.”

She laughs.

“Disdain?” Max asks.

“Disbelief.”

And the catamaran sails on in the channels of the broken island, in the sea of chaos to the west of Gibbelins’ Tower, in the loneliness of the world.

Max Sets Forth to Kill God (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

The hardest part of that whole night is the show.

One quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower is a jumbled ruin. Claire’s scalp won’t stop bleeding even though she’s used a Sesame Street bandaid. Broderick is coughing and coughing because he’s allergic to disaster.

Nobody’s seen Sid, Mr. Schiff, or Rahu.

Martin says that the imago’s fallen—that when the tower started shaking, she just canted over and fell into a giant hole in the floor.

Max’s room is a wreck and his nerves are a jangle.

And amidst all this they must put on a performance of Hamlet 2: The Arrows of Fate, to be broadcast from the tower to a hypothetical audience outside the boundaries of the world.

“Why?” says Max.

Martin looks at him blankly.

“Dude,” Martin says, “haven’t you ever watched that play and said, ‘How can anyone possibly make a sequel?'”

Martin’s got a crushed pinky, which makes him substantially better off than Max in the current wounds department.

“The machinery’s barely even working!” protests Max.

Martin twists his hands into various positions, thinking. “You’re worried about Sid,” he says.

“Yes.”

Martin’s hair is all over masonry dust.

“Then try not being all freaky about hypothetical vivisections,” Martin says. “Sometimes you’ve got to torture somebody to death. Just look at Hell, or Guantanamo, or that old riddle about whether you’d rather torture one guy to death or let everyone in the world die. It happens.”

Max stares at Martin.

Martin looks back at him.

“It’s an inevitable byproduct of adequate force,” Martin explains.

So Max goes backstage and he helps Iphigenia unclog the pipes.

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

The Island of the Centipede

They dig Mr. Schiff out of the rubble a few hours after the play. He makes protesting noises because they have woken him up.

Before they find Sid or Rahu or the imago, Martin finds Max. Max is dragging a large tumbled stone out of the way of a blocked-off room.

Martin pulls himself up on a chunk of rubble. He sits there, watching Max for a minute.

“Do you trust me?” Martin says.

“No.”

“Here’s the thing,” Martin says. “I kind of accidentally wiggled a tectonic plate by giving the wrong person a fig newton.”

Max stops pulling.

He rubs sweat off his forehead.

“I don’t believe you,” says Max.

“Eh?”

Max shrugs.

Martin thinks.

“To the west,” Martin says, “the shock’s opened up a hole in the crust of the world and there’s a fountain of good rising from it.”

“Okay.”

“I need someone to deal with it,” Martin says.

“You’d think that we could leave it be.”

“It’s difficult to improve things once they get too good,” Martin says. “An actual singularity of virtue would render fixing the world impossible.”

“Also, unnecessary.”

“Why—?” Martin says.

Then he stops himself and thinks.

“Your logic is ancillary to an inherently limited perspective,” Martin dismisses.

“So to the west there is a goodblow,” Max says, “Like God breaking forth into the world to save us all from suffering. And you want me to go stop it.”

“Yes,” Martin says. “With extreme prejudice.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s ridiculous,” says Max. “It’s fighting against what we want the most.”

“I can’t make you,” Martin admits.

Max goes back to work.

“You won’t find Sid,” Martin says.

Max stops.

“He is restless,” says Martin. “And despair is forbidden to him. He throws himself against the walls of his cage and sometimes they overcome him. He is absent from these moments in which it is too much to bear. He is scuttled from the world.”

“Oh,” says Max.

Martin drops down to his feet and strolls towards away.

“Wait,” says Max.

“Hm?”

“If I do it,” says Max, “you make Sid an is.”

“You ridiculous dolt,” says Martin.

He walks away.

Continuing from the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 )

It is June 2, 2004.

Max wakes up and he already knows what he has to do.

He goes down to the catamaran dock.

He looks off to the dark and brooding west.

And Jane is waiting on the grass to see him off. And she is looking at him with her brow furrowed in thought, and she says, “You’re here.”

Max nods.

“Is that okay?” he says.

Little girls tend to like emanations of absolute virtue, so you can see why he asked.

Jane laughs. “Noooo,” she says. “I don’t mean here, at the dock. I mean, here.”

She looks at him.

“You had bad things in your closet. Then Sid chased them away. Then you were King of the playground. Then you played basketball.”

She is being careful with these words. She is slow and deliberate, even with the easy words and simple things.

“Then you were brave and saved Mr. McGruder. Then you loved Sid. Then you saw another siggort and talked Sid into helping Ronald Reagan become President. Then you fought a King. Then you ran away. Then you read a book and afterwards you went to the place without recourse. Then you called Sid there. Then you got out but he didn’t. Then you came here to help him put on plays. Then you shot him and now you want to sail west.”

“Yes,” says Max.

He grins a little. “And what does that mean to you?” he asks.

“The world’s bright and spits up super beauty everywhere,” says Jane.

“Oh.”

“And so there are things that Max. That go Max. Like you. That is what it means.”

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

“Thanks,” he says.

Jane holds out a box. It’s like a cribbage box, but bigger, with a slide-open top.

“Here,” she says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

Jane begins giggling. Max watches in perplexity.

Finally, she stammers out, “Severance pay.”

There are more giggles.

“Ah,” he says.

He takes the box. He frowns at her. But he can’t keep frowning.

She’s smiling at him so brightly that he hugs her.

Then he sails to the west.

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 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.