The Last Unspoken Words

It endures in timeless endings.

Something in it remembers its time of flesh and motion. It has no theory of this time. It has no process to cognize with. It does not relive its memories in temporal order or experience generalized nostalgia. It is simply imprinted on its lifeless form that once it lived.

It experiences the slow decay of its moment of ending.

Then a creature of bony legs and fingers kneels down beside it and touches it through the skull and into the brain.

“Wake,” the creature says.

A hunger stirs. It arises from every part of the dead thing’s body and suffuses through its returning consciousness.

The dead thing hungers for the warmth of the living.

“I am death,” speaks the bony creature.

The dead thing does not understand.

It only knows a few words; its name, perhaps, if it were to be reminded. Treat. It knows the word “treat.” And also “bacon.”

“I am death,” the bony creature says, “or at least, a kind of death. I have made a bargain with a man you knew—”

And here a familiar scent drifts across the dead thing’s nose.

It is of pack.

Reflexive loyalty bursts through the creature’s consciousness; but even fiercer than the loyalty there is the hunger, for the scent is the scent of the living, of something warm and not dead, not moldering in the ground, not endlessly lifelessly alone.

“And,” the bony creature says, “he has broken it. He has not returned to me at the stated hour, but rather woven defenses and incantations about himself. So wake you and hunt you for his warmth and let us see if this man comes around.”

The bony thing departs.

The dog is hungry.

Its fur is matted with blood and dirt. And it realizes—perhaps—that it cannot have been dead as long as it imagined, for there is still more than 95% of its livingness with it. It is closer to the meat than to the bone.

It is buried, though, deep in the dirt.

Its master’s warmth is up; up, up, up, and in that direction, so says the path of scent.

The dog begins to dig.

It itches briefly. It wriggles its head and would snap, if it could, at the source of the itch. But it is buried and still its motion is much impeded by the ground; and further, the fleas that bothered it are dead.

It knows this through some preternatural sense possessed by a risen canine.

They are dead. They are cold. They are only giving the dog the memory of an itch, the memory of a bite, where they linger in the shrouds of its fur clung tight against its flesh.

It is unjust.

The dog pauses for a moment in the course of its dig.

It did not think very well when it was a living dog, and it thinks less well now. But still, it thinks, this is unjust.

So the dog whispers to the fleas the secret of awakening, the words that wake the dead, and one by one they shake off the long and endless sleep and flex their legs.

“Ow,” mutters the dog: “Ow-wow.”

For the fleas had but to live before they bit.

There is a stillness in the grave and then, apologetically, one flea says, “That was a bit of ingratitude, I suppose.”

The dog grumbles, deep its dead throat.

“It is because we’re fleas,” says another flea.

The dog does not deign this with an answer. It only resumes its long slow clawing towards the surface of the ground.

“But we are grateful,” says the first flea. “We—”

Something strange happens to the flea’s voice at that point. The dog does not understand it. It is something raw and emotional but in the dialect of fleas; and while dogs may understand when a flea apologizes or speaks of bacon, they do not have all the nuances of the tongue.

“We are grateful,” the flea repeats.

It would be better, thinks the dog, after a fashion, if you would help me dig, than itch such words.

It breaks the ground. It rises.

It shakes itself and gets its grave-dirt all across the yard.

The scent is very strong now.

It shambles to the door.

“A dog shouldn’t kill its master,” opines a flea. “Not even when dead.”

“All part of the cycle of life,” another flea protests.

The theories of the fleas do not involve the dog’s name, nor “treat,” nor “bacon,” so the dog ignores them.

It scratches at the door.

Time passes.

It scratches at the door again.

Now there is something happening inside the house. Now there is a light—

“Aha!” exclaims a flea.

—and a sleepy shuffling, and the face of a beloved creature at the window by the door.

It is John!

The dog’s tail thumps, rotten, and it thinks: It is John! It is John! He is warm with the warmth of the living! I am so hungry for him, John!

John’s face goes pale. He makes a strangled sound. He backs away.

The dog scratches at the door again.

“He isn’t going to open it, guv,” observes a flea.

The dog stiffens his legs in protest.

“He’s just not. Look, he’s nailing the door shut.”

The noise that John is making is atypical for John. This frustrates the dog. John is not letting it in, and he is warm and living, and he is doing something interesting but not allowing the dog to participate.

Experimentally, the dog pushes against the door.

There is a creaking of wood and an explosive, terrified yell from John.

The dog panics.

Its claws tear through the wood. The hunger and the fear and the concern meld into one. It is ripping the entrance to the house apart.

And there is Gloria, the sound of Gloria, coming up to John, crying, “What is it, Daddy? Daddy?”

Fear reeks from John. It washes out from him. The door comes down:

“Take me,” John cries to the air. “Oh God. Oh God. You win!”

And he is down on his knees before the dog, sprawled with his hands out, and it would be the most natural thing in all the world to leap into his arms and wriggle with great joy and devour the flesh and warmth of the living—

Though is that good?

Is it good to eat one’s master’s warmth?—

But the war of instincts in the heart of the risen dog does not play out.

Its life instead deflates. Its brain and heart go still. It skids, dead again, across the floorboards and sprawls lifeless in front of John.

For death is here.

“No further protest, John?” speaks the bony death. “No more to run from me, no more to hide from me, no more the rituals and wards to keep me out?”

John speaks but his words are held in time and they do not register on the lifeless dog.

“Then,” says death, “you shall come with me, and be my dog, as this was yours; and we shall speak no more of breaking bargains.”

But John stops, as he goes out with death, and he kneels beside the dog, and he is cold as the dog is cold, and lifeless as the dog is lifeless, and he kisses its head with icy lips and whispers that the dog is good.

And then he moves away, and Gloria cries out, over and over again, in the empty house without her father and the cold corpse of the dog.

But that is not the story’s end.

For after a second long timelessness the dog finds a strange cold wakening; and it realizes that there is a flea deep in its heart, tunneled through the flesh, irritating it to motion; and another, with a mad scientist’s detachment, operating the levers and the ganglia of its brain.

“It woke me,” says the dog. “It woke me, but I was not warm.”

“You were never to have the warmth of the living,” whispers the flea inside its brain. “It used you and then discarded you, all to terrify a man.”

“So let there be revenge,” whispers the flea inside its heart, and irritates the dog’s heart’s lining with a cold red rage.

But the dog discards these thoughts.

I will find Gloria, it thinks.

A wave of hunger washes through it. It swallows the hunger. It drives it down into the deep cold emptiness of death and lets it pass away.

I will find Gloria, it thinks. And I will not eat her, if she is alive. I will make sure she is all right. And then I will find John.

These thoughts are horrifying to the flea that operates the levers of its brain.

It is as if the flea has woken some alien creature that it cannot control; as if the mastery of the substance of the brain gave no deep insight into its soul; or at least as if the process that it sought to wake was too complicated for the composition of a flea.

“It’s thinking weird doggy thoughts,” it cries out, to its brethren in the dog’s dead flesh. “I don’t know what it will do!”

There is a hum of consternation.

“Should I let it stop? Should I stop?”

But there is no flea so brave in its moral cowardice as to cry out, “Yes.”

And so the flea in the brain, and all the other fleas, surrender to the avalanche; concede to fate to ride the vehicle of the dog’s heart and brain and not control them; and juggle desperately the tools they have to keep the dog awakened as it moves in a direction they neither anticipate nor understand.

It shambles to the far corner of the farthest room in the house, where Gloria cowers, and it thrusts its cold dry nose into her face, and licks her with its rotten tongue; and it does not take the warmth from her save that which radiates as first she strives to push the dog away and finally, crying, to wrap it in her arms and whisper, “Daddy, daddy,” and “Hank, hank, dead hank,” which features the dog’s name.

The dog pushes her back and turns away.

Its body chills as it separates from her. It feels again the emptiness of death. But like so many it died with things unsaid, thoughts unspoken, a last breath lingering in its lungs.

So it howls.

The dog howls to wake the dead.

And in that howl is loneliness and emptiness and the great gap in its life where John should be; and also

there are

the words that wake the dead. The secret that is life. The thing that makes old rotten bones and new-wrecked flesh and even, on some level, the still-living, to move.

And hearing that cry, afraid of what it means, bony death comes to the door.

The dog anticipated this.

It had always known that death, if thwarted once, would soon return.

It meets death at the shattered door and stands on the threshold of the house and growls deep within its throat.

The bony death speaks words that are not “bacon.”

“I will quicken your understanding,” says the flea inside its brain.

It is difficult to modify a brain while keeping it alive; difficult to expand a consciousness while also you are sustaining it; it is a juggling act, and fortunate it is and more that fleas have each six legs.

“Foolish creature,” spake the bony death. “Have I not indicated I am done with you?”

The dog advances, stiff-legged.

Bony death sweeps its arm and strikes at the dog. The wind rising from that blow makes the house to shudder and Gloria to scream. The dog smashes back through a wall and through a cupboard, causing cans of peas and corn to fall around its broken form.

But the dead feel little pain.

It rises and it shakes itself. It walks forward once again.

The bony death makes a hollow under the house; the floor begins to sink and sift away, and the dog finds itself scrambling.

A dead woman’s hand rises from the earth to grip at the ankles of the bony death.

The kitchen is caving in around the dog. Its hip is struck by the sink and one leg fails. It is howling. But neither is the bony death in a state of weal.

It is a moment, a single sweep of a horrid scythe, to shatter the hand that grips it; but there is not just one last dead person in the world.

The howl of the dog has woken more than one.

It has risen all.

And so as death turns to look behind him he sees a great seething of the earth; a thousand hands, but more than hands, the very particulate essence of the world, rising to defend—

Well, something.

For it is not clear to him—to bony death—whether they seek to save the dog that he confronts or to enact a flea’s bleak sense of justice. He does not know as the wave of cresting death rises whether there is any path for him that does not end in silence.

“John,” he says.

A twisted thing is in his shadow. It smells of John. But its limbs are long and backwards bent and its body is dead and its eyes are full of madness.

“John,” says the bony death, “bring an ending to this creature.”

Then it turns, and leaps to the roof of the house, and bounds up towards the sky, to leave the scene that just might end in justice far behind.

The world ends to the east; it falls away, gaping with the graves empty of dead; and from the west a wave of hungry cold arises, cresting above the house and crashing down as the dog scrambles with its three legs to pull free.

A flea kicks hard on the lever of an instinct as the bony death leaps past and the kitchen sink slips free of its mooring to fall past the dog into the earth.

The roof is open.

There is a flash of bone beneath the dank gray robes of bony death, and the dog twists and leaps for it.

His teeth gnash hard and crunch into the marrow of the leg of bony death.

Like a spider John seizes the dog with his great long limbs and snaps at him with maddened jaws.

Caught in the wave, the house cants sideways and falls—slides—pours, crumbling, eastwards towards the great hollow there.

And all things would have ended there, save for this:

Though twisted and broken, still the servant of death was John; and when he flailed at the dog the dog understood that somehow he’d been bad.

It terrified the dog—

This strange and twisted beast that somehow was its master—

But if it was angry, then something must be wrong.

So the dog released his grip on bony death, and instead he whined, and whispered to John the secret that was life.

It woke John not for John was broken.

It woke John not for he’d given himself to death of his own will, and made it thus an extension of his life—

But it made a change in him, and with his great long limbs, still gripping the dead dog, he scrambled up the floor of the falling house, and seized Gloria, and threw them both away to tumble across the loam as the world caved in on bony death, and John.

So the dog and Gloria survived; or, well, escaped at least, and huddled close together on the remnant earth.

And slowly the dog cooled as the fleas did let it go, the last dead thing in a world woken all to life, and Gloria gripped it and shook it and offered it her warmth, which it had no way to hold but loved.

(Forward-Fill) Emeline

Emeline is exposed.

She’s not like other babies. Other babies have homes. Emeline has a rosebush and a hill.

She is supposed to die.

She doesn’t die.

Emeline eats the thorns of the rosebush. She drinks Bambi’s mother’s blood. She survives.

She grows crooked and strong.

Soon the babies in the village begin to vanish. They will be laying in their cribs. Suddenly there is music. That music. The music from Jaws.

Da-dum. Da-dum.

Ca-who! chortles the baby happily. Babies love sharks.

But it’s not a shark.

It’s Emeline.

First Carol’s baby vanishes.

Everybody tells Carol she’s crazy, with her stories of Emeline and whatnot. Some people blame her.

Then Maude’s baby vanishes.

People begin to mutter.

Finally Susan and John’s baby, who would have been the star of a whole different fairy tale had things gone differently, disappears.

There’s a black thorn left behind in the crib, and the smell of burp, and lingering music in the air.

Seven men set out from the village with knives and torches. They hunt down Emeline. She doesn’t fight them very hard. All she wants is a home.

They catch her.

They tie her up in satin swaddling.

They talk about whether to kill her, but there’s nobody really up for the job.

So they throw her in an oubliette and somebody watches her day and night.

She lives there in the dark.

Sometimes Maude comes and brings her a present. A flower. A stuffed toy. A blanket.

“Hey,” says Maude.

She drops it down.

“Brought you something,” says Maude.

It hurts her, but it’s worth it.

Emeline looks up. Emeline smiles. It’s like the sun.

(Canon: Boedromion 14) The Growing God

This continues the main Hitherby storyline.

The grangler’s an old ghost. He’s a god of holding on.

His hands are claws, like this—like withered bone with leathery tendons holding it together, cold, damp, and very sure.

He’s the third god to approach Elm Hill in quite some time.

He’s the first that isn’t friendly.

Ahead of him, behind him, all around him dead birds are rising from their graves. They are tearing forth from the rotting earth. They are rising towards the sky.

That’s the sign of the grangler.

“I should never,” the grangler says, “have let her go.”

It is May 28, 2004.

On May 28 in history, an eclipse ended Kuras’ great-grandfather’s war. The Pope married James IV. Scotland and England signed their treaty of everlasting peace. The Chrysler building opened. Liril buried a god in a box—a dead and broken god—and hid it under Elm Hill. An earthquake killed Neftegorsk. Mount Cameroon erupted. People all over the world were born and died.

On May 28, 2004, a shadow lays across the sea; and because he is following that shadow, Truth Daniels is not lost.

He’s thirsty.

It’s been four days since he’s found water. It’s been eight days since the last real bit of land. He’s got legs tight as knots.

He’s really thirsty.

But he’s not lost, because he’s following something, and you can’t be lost when you’re doing that.

“We are following the shadow on the sea,” says Deva.

“Yes,” Truth says.

“We have followed it for eight thirsty days,” says Deva.

“Yes,” says Truth ruefully.

“We should stop following this shadow,” says Deva. “It is not working well for us.”

Truth laughs.

“If we don’t suffer,” he says, “how will we grow?”

Deva considers that.

“Water weight,” he says.

The woman is on the deck now. She has her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. She says, “I don’t want to be taller.”

Truth frowns.

“You could reach higher up in the rigging,” he points out. “Or, if there were a very low star—”

“When I was a little girl,” says the woman, “I wanted to be taller, but I didn’t want to suffer. Now I’m suffering but I’m as tall as I want to be.”

Her tone changes.

“Truth, where are we going?”

“I’m not lost,” says Truth, defensively.

“It’s hard to be lost when there’s a trail to follow.”

Truth frowns. She’s anticipated his next statement, so now he can’t make it.

“It’s like this,” he says. “I think we’re getting closer to a really horrible place.”

The woman raises an eyebrow. Truth can’t see this, but he knows her well enough to guess.

“With anthropophagy,” Truth clarifies.

“Ah,” says the woman.

So she goes and helps with the rigging, and Deva works the wheel.

She’s not the kind of woman who can just ignore the chance to go somewhere where people might get eaten.

A deadwind rises to fill their sails. It drives them eastwards, towards Elm Hill.

In the facility at Elm Hill, Liril screams.

Micah is bloody and battered. He looks just awful. Haggard, really. But he’s still alert enough to stagger in the direction of the scream.

Liril, Micah, and Tainted John arrived at Elm Hill three days ago.

They were ready to fight, then.

Micah, in particular, was feeling actively enthused, back then, about killing humans and gods until the facility at Elm Hill was nothing but an empty charnel house.

He stood outside the gates of the facility, practically shaking with weariness, and he said, “Okay. Do we get to do it now? Do we get to kill them now? Because this running thing? It’s hard.”

Liril looked at him and her lips were sealed tightly. She walked to the gate. She pushed it open.

The facility was dark.

Everywhere they went in it, it was dark.

And after a while, Liril said, “No.”

It was a plaintive noise.

“They’re all gone and I don’t know where,” she said. “So no killing.”

Then she made the tragic face that all little girls make, when they don’t get the chance to kill.

And three days passed in the darkness while Micah got wearier and the blood that he’d shed getting her there grew cold and gelatinous on his face and arms.

It felt cold and gelatinous even after he found water and washed it off.

His whole body has chills now. But there is still enough in him to run when he hears her scream.

He finds her in the basement in a little crawlspace cradling a dead bird.

There’s a discarded box nearby.

It looks really gross inside, like there’s been a bird buried in it for years.

So Micah figures that she found the box in the crawlspace, and took out the bird, and that’s why she screamed; but he can’t figure out why she’s holding it.

So he looks at the bird. He looks at Tainted John. Tainted John just grins.

“Huh?” says Micah, decisively.

Liril looks up at him.

“I buried it,” Liril says. “I declared the box a time capsule and I buried it. So that it would get younger and younger until it wasn’t dead any more. But I think I did not understand how time capsules worked.”

“Oh,” says Micah.

He looks at the bird again.

“I remember that,” he says. “Sort of.”

The bird is sticky and smelly but it’s really pretty amazing that it’s still around at all.

“The problem isn’t with you,” rasps Tainted John. “It’s with time.”

Micah hesitates.

“Can I fix it?” he says.

He holds out his hands. Liril, gently, reluctantly, passes him the bird.

“What do I do?” Micah asks.

But Liril shakes her head. She crawls out. She stands up. She shakes her head again. She looks sad.

“No,” she says. “It’s okay. You don’t have to do anything.”

The bird has four wings and a really long tail. And maybe a bit more in the way of liver than it should.

It’s twitching, ever so slightly, in his hands.

Here is some of the geography that surrounds them.

To the south there is the road. It curves west and runs through a valley before connecting onto the interstate. That is the direction from which Tina will approach.

To the north and west there is a cliff.

There should not be a cliff. The Elm Hill facility is on level ground in the middle of the city; but there is a cliff, and beyond it the still white waters of the sea.

The ground falls away amidst the graves of children and the swaying elm, down a steep black rocky slope, into the sea.

And the facility at Elm Hill casts its shadow out across the waves.

“Birds,” says Deva.

He takes Truth’s hand and he points it towards the birds.

Truth smiles.

“Good,” he says.

There are birds. There are hundreds of them. They are flying out over the sea.

“They think we might have food,” says Truth.

“They’re dead,” says Deva.

He’s wrinkling his nose. Deva has a bad history with birds, and reanimated ghost birds that smell of ancient graves just aren’t his favorite kind.

“Oh,” says Truth. “Then they might think that we are food.”

“Heh,” says Deva.

The grangler lopes towards the facility at Elm Hill.

Melanie is not that far behind him. She’s discussing things with Vincent.

“It’s the logical place,” she says.

“Is it?”

“We can’t stay at Central,” she says. “But the Elm Hill facility still has most of what we need.”

“No kids,” says Vincent.

“Yet,” says Melanie.

“I meant that as an injunction, not an observation.”

Melanie blinks. Then she laughs.

“Well,” she says. “Let’s start with a temporary operating headquarters and see where things go from there.”

“Death and ruin,” proposes the grangler.

Melanie snorts.

“Nine days of death and ruin, then possibly some sort of delicious cereal,” the grangler says.

It is pleased. It has a fey feeling. It likes fey feelings.

“Git,” says Melanie.

So the grangler lopes off ahead, through the facility gates.

And behind them there are others; walking down the road from the various places where they parked their cars, and some are on two feet, some on four, and others ride the wind.

Down in the basement, in Micah’s hands, the bird-thing is stirring. Micah makes a horrified noise. He lets go of the bird. It’s still stinking. It’s still dead. But it’s stirring, rising, breathing, flying.

It’s whirling around the hall, still smelling of decay.

“Oh my God,” says Micah.

“Hi,” says Liril, to the bird, in a soft pleased voice.

But the bird does not hear her. It is whirling around. It is flying past them. It is flying up the stairs and away.

“What kind of god was it?” Micah asks.

“A growing god,” says Liril.

And it is gone.

The grangler is there when it emerges from the building’s broken door. The bird is raven-sized now, where it was sparrow-sized before. It barely squeezes through the gap in the door; and on the other side, the grangler is waiting. The grangler catches it in his clawed dead hands.

“You’re no good bird,” he says.

The four-winged bird chirps desultorily.

“You’re from someone I let go,” he says. “But no one’s here to make me let you go now.”

The bird twists and shudders in his grip.

The grangler looks behind him. Melanie is not too far away. So he skulks off. He skulks to the cliff. He skulks behind the trees, where he may curl around the bird that is his prize.

He slavers.

“I will eat you slowly,” he says.

The bird is larger now. It’s bucking and twisting in his hands. It has two spare wings to beat at his face with. But the grangler holds tight.

“Wake up,” he says, and certain other words, so that it can appreciate what he’s going to do.

And its mind stumbles back to it from the grave, and Liril’s growing god, killed more than a decade before, wakes to the eyes of an enemy.

And it cannot break free.

There is a ship, the Anna Maria, sailing distantly through the sea.

On it, Deva is frowning, and saying, “You can’t drink the water of a dead bird.”

But Truth is laughing at him, and saying, “Deva, even dead birds mean land and land means water.”

And on the land, above, the grangler is feeling a certain mild concern; because the bird is nearly his size now, and it has two wings for flight, and there is no one there to make him let it go.

Woo-Wobble-Wobble

Jinga the Sea Monster is wobbly and fierce. He is hideous and horrid. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“Woo-wobble-wobble,” he says, shaking himself. “Humanity is terrible and full of sin.”

His tendrils and his body shiver like jelly. If you could taste them, they’d taste more like offal than jelly, but there would be a bit of a sweet huckleberry sugary taste to them.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” says Jinga the Sea Monster.

Then he gestures, with a slimy tentacle, at the Mirror of Sight!

The image in the mirror skims across the world of human life. It pauses briefly on Shelley, who is making brownies.

“DEE generate,” declares Jinga.

The mirror skims past Emily, who is in school, listening to her teacher and sometimes picking her nose.

“Sinful!” snaps Jinga.

The mirror finally settles in on Diane, who is sitting at a table, at a restaurant, out on her first date with John.

Lester the Adorable Earwig is a giant squiggly earwig. His nametag designates him adorable. He sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“How perfidious a creature is woman,” says Jinga.

“Ah-ah,” smiles Lester. “But is she more or less perfidious a creature than man?”

Jinga shivers. His body woo-wobble-wobbles softly. “That is a difficult one, Lester. Very difficult!”

Lester chitters smugly.

“I would say,” says Jinga, “that because a woman can become pregnant, she has more capacity for perfidy; and because humans in general exercise such capacities fully, that she is more perfidious—on the whole.”

Lester scowls. He had wanted to stump Jinga.

Pecuny is a silky ooze. There are bits of many colors in Pecuny. They are not admirably arranged.

Pecuny sits in the Council beyond the Edge of the World and he judges.

“These two,” Pecuny says. “Their minds are full of unworthy thoughts. Let us punish them.”

“Punish! Punish! Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga.

“No!” says Lester. He is still sulking. “We have an arrangement. We cannot punish them until they are dead.”

“But look at how she is eating that breadstick,” says Pecuny. “And he! He is using the dinner fork for his salad!”

“Not until they are dead,” Lester says. He squiggles about in mild agitation. “We have rules. They may still redeem themselves while they’re alive, you know.”

“Pfah,” pfahs Pecuny.

“Lester is right,” says Jinga, sadly. “Look. She is muttering something. Can anyone read lips?”

Diane is leaning in towards John. She mutters, “Hey, I think we’re being watched by the Council beyond the Edge of the World.”

“Bugger,” says John.

“I think they’re talking about sex,” Lester says. He squints. His eyes are not very good, even though they’re faceted.

John eats another bite of salad. He uses the dinner fork again.

“Want to play a trick on them?” Diane says.

John suddenly grins. “Really? You have a radiator?”

“I do,” says Diane.

Lester leans back. “Well, that’s that. Judged and found unworthy. Let’s move on.”

Diane reaches into her purse. She subtly sets her radiator to evil.

“Wait,” says Jinga. He wobbles.

Diane picks up her salad fork, malevolently. She takes a bite of her salad. She chews. She chews her salad like each bite is a genocide.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” says Jinga, in distress.

Diane licks her lips with filthy, horrid intent. She reaches for her water glass. She picks it up. She drinks it.

“Scum!” shouts Lester. “Scum! Scum! Scum!”

Lester does the earwig dance of absolute horror. It is not adorable at all.

Diane adjusts the radiator to encompass John.

“What’s it set to?” John asks. His voice is ripe with evil; there is good probability, Pecuny assesses, that he is even at that moment indwelt by the Devil.

“Evil,” Diane says. It is suddenly obvious to everyone who looks at her that she has never been baptized.

“Um, is that a good idea?” John frets, eyes bulging with selfish shortsightedness.

“Wait,” says Diane. She stretches out the torture. “Wait—”

“We must punish them now!” shrieks Pecuny. “Now! Now! N—erk.”

Diane has flipped the radiator to perfect good.

“Huh,” says Jinga.

There is a dead silence in the Council beyond the Edge of the World as Diane finishes her salad and pushes the plate back.

“Huh,” agrees Pecuny.

“Woo-wobble-wobble-wobble,” whispers Jinga, uncertainly.

“It is a miracle,” concludes Lester.

“Grace,” Jinga agrees.

“We are privileged to witness a miracle,” says Lester. “Because we ourselves are good.”

“Woo-wobble-wobble.”

“Yet—”

Diane grins. Her water glass in front of her lips, she says, “Now I’ll take the radiator out and dump it in the trash, and they’ll probably spend the rest of the day thinking about how wonderful trash is.”

“W00t,” says John, in the blessed fashion of the saints.

Diane walks out of the restaurant. She looks around. There is a public trash can on the other side of the street. She begins to cross.

“Woo-wobble-wobble!” cries Jinga. “That car! It will hit her!”

“It will end her perfect grace!” shouts Pecuny.

“This must not be!”

Jinga dives through the mirror and into the human world. The sound of the car as it strikes the sea monster is the sound of death come to huckleberry. There is Jinga splashed on the windshield and on Diane’s new suit and on Diane’s face.

Diane sprains her ankle as she falls.

Nightmare of the Rustling

It is night. Micah and Liril are sleeping. Tainted John is laying down.

There is a rustling.

Micah is instantly awake.

There is a further rustling. Something is scurrying and slithering in the pine needles. It is evil.

Micah is on his feet. He is looking towards it.

It is great and serpentine and slithery. It is pale moonlight colors, blue and cold. It has a terrible maw. It has black feathers on its head and raven eyes. It is just the sort of thing that one finds making rustling noises in the forest.

“Once upon a time,” the creature whispers, and its voice is moon and stars and wind, “a runaway child broke his leg here. So he died. And I grew inside him. And then I came out. And now I must kill runaway children to lay my eggs in them.”

Micah looks at Tainted John. Tainted John does not seem to have noticed the rustling or the creature’s speech.

The creature’s head sways back and forth in the air. Then it arcs viciously towards Micah. Micah moves to meet it, then stops, his hands splayed in the air, as if against an invisible wall. The creature stops too.

“There’s a glass door,” Micah bluffs. “Bump! If you attack, you’ll hit your head on it!”

The creature hesitates. “Open it,” it says.

“There’s no handle!”

The creature eyes him narrowly. It has bumped into glass doors before. They are one of its natural enemies. But the air is undisturbed.

“I do not believe you,” it whispers.

“I wouldn’t let her sleep out here defenseless,” Micah bluffs.

And if this works, we cannot know.

The Old Man of the Sea (1 of 2)

It’s Tuesday, the 20th of April, 2004.

“We’ll go away from Santa Ynez,” says Liril.

So they do.

“And do we just run?”

“We’ll go to where I screamed,” Liril says. “To Elm Hill. We’ll take back every god they took and steal every tainted bill and coin and favor they bought. Then we’ll run away to the hills and live richly forever.”

“I didn’t know,” Micah says.

“It’s what people do,” Liril says. “They keep their own gods.”

Micah looks tired. He is still recovering from torture. He is not at his best. But he tells everyone where to find the supplies he stole from a grocery store on Saturday. They find the cache.

“I should have realized,” Micah says, “about the milk.”

“I like the peanut butter,” Liril says. She has opened some up and spread it on crackers.

She thinks.

“We can live off the milk of the land,” she adds.

“That’s a good idea,” Micah agrees. “Please make one for me?”

Liril looks at him. She’s a bit startled. But then she nods, and puts peanut butter on a cracker, and offers it to him. He takes it. He bites it.

“What’s up ahead?” he asks.

“There’s a river,” she says. “That’s where we probably all die, except Tainted John. He probably dies in a train wreck.”

Tainted John looks at her, or rather, doesn’t look at her, because his eyes are all blood and shimmer.

“Oh,” says Micah.

“If we can survive two years or so,” Liril says, “we’re okay.”

“So if I get eaten by a shark,” Micah says, “I should try to hang on for at least two years.”

“Sharks are sharp. But you should try. Or if you get burned. Or whatever.”

“If I’m dangling off a cliff?”

Liril looks at him. Her eyes are deep. “Pull yourself up,” she says. “Don’t just hang on for two years.”

Micah smiles at her.

Liril blushes.

“Don’t,” she says, in a small voice.

“What happens at the river?”

“There was a gate,” Liril says. “Once upon a time. And ministers in attendance upon it. I was screaming. But they wanted me to grow up and become something else.”

“You can grow up,” Micah says. He’s deliberately ignoring the fact that he’s been the same age ever since he was born. “It’s okay to.”

“I didn’t want to,” Liril says. “Not that way.”

“Oh.”

“There were ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too strong,” says Liril. “And ministers I couldn’t touch because they were too gross. It was just the way it was. I couldn’t touch them. But there was one who was pure and bright and kind of cold. His nametag said, ‘Proteus’, and under that, ‘Cruelty.'”

“The monster is really bad at Greek,” Micah says.

“I could touch him,” Liril says, “because he was impartial to me. He didn’t have anything he was for. He was just there. So I gave him a purpose. I said, ‘Proteus, wait for me at the river, and I won’t pass through the gate until I see you there.'”

“And he did?”

“Yes,” Liril says. “And since that time there’s been no change, except when a wind blew off the chaos and brought him strength.”

“Also, I rolled a rock,” Micah says. “It changed things.”

Liril considers.

“It did,” Micah says.

Liril touches his mouth with a finger. “It was a cause,” she says. “Things have more than one reason. It’s okay. You’re a good Micah.”

He looks at her wryly.

“You’re delicate with me today,” he says.

“I looked at what she was doing to you,” Liril says. “I was crying the whole time but I couldn’t face her yet.”

“Things have reasons,” Micah says, and he shrugs. He sees her face, and his own face starts to get a little weird.

“No,” Liril says. “We won’t discuss it now. Later. Later, when it’s not—we can’t discuss it now.”

“Okay.”

They walk towards the river, carrying their bags of groceries.

“We shouldn’t cross at a bridge,” Micah says. “We shouldn’t cross anywhere people are. But the river’s kind of hard to wade.”

“I know,” Liril says. “But there’s a river-man in the river. He’s part of why it’s so deep. Tainted John’s going to hold his face down in the mud and the river’ll sink. Then we can cross.”

“Kuras did that once,” Micah says. “To defeat Belshazzar.”

“What?”

“He lowered the river that ran through Babylon, and marched his people in on the riverbed.”

“Oh,” says Liril. She looks pleased, because Micah seems a little less drained when he’s talking about this.

They reach the river. Micah looks at the river. It’s deep and wide.

“Is he . . . can John do stuff like that?”

Micah’s voice is a little resentful now. His greatest talent is surprisingly relevant historical trivia. It bothers him that Tainted John has actual magic powers.

“Can,” Liril confirms.

Tainted John looks at Micah. The boy reflected in those eyes is small and tired and dirty and smells of sweat and pain. Then John grins, and turns to the river, and flows in. The water level begins to fall.

“He’s a jerk,” Micah says.

“It’s okay.”

The water level falls further.

There’s a man standing by the river, rising from the river, falling from the trees, forming from the air. He’s old but in good shape for his age. He’s wearing a white shirt, and there’s a nametag attached that says, “Proteus,” and beneath that, “Cruelty.”

Micah looks at him.

“I think,” Micah says, “that you’re really happy that at last Liril can grow up, and so you’re going to join our rag-tag band, seal a promise of friendship with us by eating a cracker with peanut butter on it, and you’ll accompany us on our magical adventure to Elm Hill.”

“Your theory is flawed,” Proteus says.

Micah looks really tired. “Come on,” he says. “Please? I’m really tired. I don’t want to fight you.”

“I am an agent and a creature of change,” says Proteus. “They called me the Old Man of the Sea. And I have been held in stasis for more than twenty years because I chose to participate in a process otherwise marked only by horror. Now I am resentful and bitter and wish to kill you all.”

“You were there when they were breaking her,” Micah points out. “You could have helped.”

“The sea is cruel.”

“You can’t have the moral high ground at sea level,” Micah says, “unless you’re like a squid or something.”

“I buttress my moral standing with raw power,” Proteus says. He demonstrates, transforming into a tower of flame, a terrible lion, a serpent, a tiger, a silk shirt, a porcelain doll like Liril’s Latch, a dragon whose eyes are like the emptiness, an angel, a twig—

Micah steps forward, sharply, and snaps Proteus in half.

Then he sags.

“What?” Liril says.

“He was a twig,” Micah justifies. His eyes are blinking pretty quickly and there’s a horror at their back.

“Oh,” Liril says.

The river runs dry. But Micah does not stride boldly forward.

“It’s—I mean, I mean, you have to, you have to fight,” Micah says.

Liril tries to take his hand, but he wrenches away from her. He’s staring blankly at the twig.

“Oh my God,” he says. “Oh my God.”

“Micah—”

Micah snaps out of it. “We have to go,” he mumbles.

“We can fix him.”

“We have to go. It’s just a twig. Twiggy face Proteus oh God.”

Liril takes his hand. This time he accepts.

“It’s okay,” Liril says. “We can fix him. It’s okay. I didn’t tell you to break him. I didn’t mean you to.”

“He was in the way,” Micah says. “He’s . . .”

Micah’s voice is rising towards a child’s howl.

There are distant sirens.

Liril’s hand tightens on Micah’s. Slowly, he calms.

“All right,” he says. His face is pale. “How?”

Liril looks at the broken twig.

“You can fix a broken twig with construction paper,” she says. “You cut it up into pieces and paste them on as a brace. Then the twig is whole, because paper and twigs are the same.”

“I didn’t know that,” Micah says.

“Most people just leave twigs broken,” says Liril. “Most twigs aren’t, aren’t, aren’t—um.”

“People,” Micah says.

He roots around in the groceries. There is construction paper, and scissors, and tape, and glue, and paste, and crayons, and pens, and paper, because Micah’s life has provided him with a startlingly complete exposure to the lessons of kindergarden. There is also a coloring book that describes the fall of Belshazzar. He had stolen it in hopes that Liril would find time for coloring on their journey.

“Use too much paste and you’ll stick to everything,” Liril warns.

Micah ignores her. He begins to work.

“Uh,” Micah says, as he works. “There’s handwriting on this paper.”

“Like?”

“‘Anger.’ ‘Blood.’ ‘Fury.’ ‘Resentment.'”

“Huh,” Liril says.

“Huh?”

“It’s probably to make him hate us,” Liril says. “It’s too bad.”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says.

“Huh?”

“‘Mene,'” Micah says. “It just got written on this paper twice.”

“Write ‘miney moe,'” Liril advises.

Micah complies.

There’s a long pause.

“It was probably going to say ‘tekel parsin’,” Liril says. “Mene mene tekel parsin. You have been measured and found wanting and will be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I don’t want to be divided among the Medes and the Persians.”

“I know,” Liril says. “It probably won’t happen. I mean, nowadays.”

“Now there’s an illustration of a middle finger,” Micah says.

“Just fix,” Liril says.

So Micah fixes Proteus with paste and cut-up pieces of construction paper. Micah gets paste on his hands and arms. Proteus gets his life back, and transforms himself into a man.

“That was rude, boy,” Proteus says, referencing the fact that Micah stepped on him and broke him in half while he was in a vulnerable ‘twig’ form.

“I tried to fix it,” Micah protests.

“I should kill you now.”

Proteus lunges at Micah. Micah’s face grows paler, but he has not lost the will to fight. He wraps his arms around the man even as they fall over backwards. Proteus becomes a thrashing shark. He becomes acid. He becomes a pony with a mouth full of terrible teeth. Then he is a man again.

“You’re holding on well,” he admits. “It’s practically heroic.”

“I don’t want to,” Micah says.

“What’s that, boy?”

“I have paste on my hands,” Micah says. “I’m sticking to everything.”

Liril looks slightly away.

“Oh,” says Proteus.

“We’re attached to the things that hurt us,” rasps out Tainted John.

There is a long silence.

Tainted John looks down and away.

There is a further silence.

Then Proteus transforms into a hissing serpent, a many-limbed horror, a tree, and a cloud, wrestling against Micah and his paste.

“Are you actually going to hurt me, or just turn into things while I’m stuck?” Micah asks.

Proteus becomes a tiger. He bites deep into Micah’s arm. Micah’s arm runs with blood. His brain fills up with endorphins, which allows him to swallow back his scream. Then Proteus is a man again, spitting and cursing.

“Um?” Micah says. He sounds a bit upset. After all, Proteus bit him, and now he’s acting all like Micah’s done something wrong.

Proteus spits.

What?

“You taste like paste.”

Micah stares at him.

“I don’t like eating paste,” says Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea.

“I’m a boy,” Micah says. “I’m supposed to taste funny.”

“You taste like paste and dirt and sweat and grass and mud.”

“Then don’t eat me,” Micah says. “I dunno. If you learn anything in kindergarden, it’s not to eat paste or boys. They taste bad and you don’t know where they’ve been!”

“Did you even go to kindergarden?”

“I . . . I’m like Kuras,” Micah says.

“Kuras?”

“His grandfather believed that Kuras would rule over all of Asia, so he ordered his servant Harpagus to set the infant Kuras down on a hillside and watch over him until he died. Instead, a miraculous sheepdog suckled him until Harpagus gave up and said, ‘Fine, he gets to live.’ It wasn’t like kindergarden, but it gave him a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s life lessons without actual attendance.”

“Ah,” says Proteus. “You mean Cyrus.

“I guess.” Micah grins a little. “He’s kind of my idol.”

“Your story differs from Herodotus’ account of the matter,” Proteus says skeptically. “In his History, he alleges that the miraculous dog-suckling was a rumor Cyrus spread purely for political gain.”

Micah handwaves, as best he can while pasted to a god.

“I think Herodotus is too cynical,” Micah says. “Kuras beat Belshazzar. He’s smart enough to have put forward a less embarrassing animal to suckle him. Like a shark. Or an eagle.”

Micah is actually sounding better, because he likes talking about Kuras.

“Probably not a shark,” Proteus says. “In the mountains.”

“A grizzled mountain shark,” Micah says.

“Hm?”

“That’s what I’d say. A grizzled mountain shark, so tough he didn’t need water and could just swim on rocks, suckled me. Then everyone would know I was badassed. But since he didn’t say that, the whole sheepdog thing must be the truth.”

Proteus reaches a sudden resolution.

“Let us not debate the veracity of Herodotus,” he says. “Instead, I will wash you off!”

He begins to run towards the sea. Micah is dragged along with him, and cannot stop him, but he shouts, “Wait! Wait! I have scissors!”

“What?”

Proteus slows.

“I have scissors,” Micah says. “You’re running with scissors. Somebody could lose an eye.”

Proteus stops cold, face going ashen.

“Your life did provide a startlingly accurate simulation of kindergarden’s lessons without actual attendance,” he says.

“I know,” Micah says.

Proteus looks towards the distant sea. He ponders how long it would take to walk to it while pasted to a boy.

“If we work together,” Proteus says, “we could probably get unstuck.”

“You’d eat Liril,” says Micah. “And then Tainted John. And me.”

“I’d eat Liril, boy. She doesn’t taste of paste. The rest of you, I dunno.”

Micah looks at the river. He looks at Tainted John. His nose curls.

“You could eat him,” Micah says.

“I don’t want to find out what he tastes like,” Proteus says. Micah is annoyed, but can’t help seeing Proteus’ point. “I just don’t.”

Tainted John smiles impassively. He is holding the river down. That’s why he can’t help!

“I can’t let you eat even Liril,” Micah says. “She’s important to me.”

“Why?”

“I’m a startingly accurate rendition of her volition,” Micah says. “I mean, I was. Before. Now maybe I’m just someone who fights for us.”

“Ah,” says Proteus.

“Ah?”

“I could give her a head start,” Proteus says.

“Or let us go?”

“I’m not inclined to be forgiving,” says Proteus. “What with the words ‘anger’, ‘fury’, ‘blood,’ ‘resentment’, and ‘mene mene miney moe’ written into my very flesh.”

“Uh,” says Micah. “I only wrote the miney moe part. Who did the rest?”

“Some creepy handwriting girl,” Proteus says. He shrugs.

“Oh.”

Micah would investigate further, but right now, he’s affixed to a man who can turn into a shark. It distracts him.

“I’ll help you get unstuck,” Micah says. “Then you’ll give her a head start.” He thinks. “But it has to be a good one. It can’t be like five seconds.”

“What about seven seconds?”

Micah looks at Liril.

Liril judges, “Seven seconds is like five seconds, even though it’s two seconds longer.”

“Five minutes?”

Liril looks unhappy.

“What?” Micah asks.

“Well, it’s not like five seconds,” Liril says, “but it’s awfully short.”

“Ten, then,” Proteus says.

Micah looks at Proteus. “Deal.”

“Deal.”

They pull at one another. They wrestle. Eventually the paste succumbs to the transience of all things. Micah and Proteus stumble apart.

Proteus turns into a talking bear.

“Run,” Proteus growls.

Micah turns to run.

“Not you,” Proteus says. He slaps Micah with the paw of a bear and Micah falls senseless to the river bed. Proteus points to Liril. “You.”

Liril runs.

Tainted John looks up. He frowns.

Liril looks back.

“Stay,” Liril says to Tainted John, for Micah is in the river bed.

And then she runs.

Sacrifice (3 of 4)

Tina wakes up.

“Thysiazo is dead,” she realizes.

She stretches. She looks at her clock. She sits up and puts her legs over the side of the bed. She puts her feet in a pair of bunny slippers. She stands and stretches again. She pads over to the mirror.

“A mother should never have to bury her child,” she says to her image in the mirror. “I will have him cremated.”

She walks out into the main room. She knocks on Iphigenia’s door. Iphigenia opens it.

“Mom?” Iphigenia asks.

“Burn Thysiazo’s body,” Tina says.

“Mo-om,” Iphigenia protests.

Tina gives her a glare. So there is heat and there is light and in the basement of the house Thysiazo ignites.

“Did I ever tell you,” says Tina, “that when I was young, I went to school, and they taught me of your kind?”

Iphigenia brightens. She has never been to school. “Was it like Harry Potter?” she asks.

“No,” Tina says, flatly.

“Or Grease?”

Iphigenia has had a sheltered upbringing. It does not entirely surprise Tina that Iphigenia’s image of school involves singing wizards with slicked-back hair.

“I called the ways of your kind dark arts, and I lusted to kill everyone born of the soul. Eventually they threw me out and threatened legal action if I should ever seek to return.”

“Oh.”

“I was right,” says Tina crisply. “And they were wrong. They had no answer to that, so for all their blustering they could not control me.”

“What happened?”

“They paid for my home education,” Tina says, “and for my college.”

Tina takes off her pajamas and dresses herself. She puts on her coat. She walks down to the basement. There is blood on the walls. Some of it is fresh.

“Do you know what did this?” she asks Iphigenia.

“Something Micah brought?”

“He did not comport himself well,” says Tina. “I should have hurt him more badly.”

“It smells of ghoul.”

Tina looks up. “Does it?”

“Yes.”

“And Liril,” says Iphigenia.

“Ah.”

Tina goes to the phone. She picks it up. It is dead. “We will have to follow her,” she says. Tina goes to the car. She gets in. It will not start. She gets out. She starts to walk. The wind rises. Soon she is struggling. She stops, and stands still, and the wind fades.

“I am blocked,” she says.

“We could leave her,” says Iphigenia. “I’m really kind of busy being the sun.”

The image of Tina in Iphigenia’s eyes seems to pulse. Iphigenia sees, with a certain mad clarity, how thin a line separates her from Micah in Tina’s eyes.

“I mean, if we had some other way to cut her off,” Iphigenia corrects.

“We need an oracle,” Tina says. She turns. She marches back into the house. She goes down to the oracle’s room. The oracle is a crouched and maddened thing surmounted by a large eye. Tina keeps it chained to a radiator. “Tell me how to catch her and confront her,” Tina says.

“You won’t,” says the oracle.

She kicks it. It is a measured blow.

“I knew you would do that,” says the oracle.

Tina raises a penciled eyebrow.

“I can’t help being contrary,” says the oracle. “So I’d rather you didn’t kill me.”

Tina kicks the oracle again.

“The wind’s changed,” says the oracle. “So if you want to catch her, you’ll have to give up what you love the most.”

“Why that?”

“Because you can’t change the course of events by doing what you want to do anyway,” says the oracle. “If you could, then it wouldn’t be the course of events; it’d be a byway.”

“I could cut off a finger,” says Tina. “I don’t want to do that; it would disrupt the flow of things.”

“That would probably help, if you were a yakuza.”

“I’m not.”

“You could join,” Iphigenia suggests.

Tina does not have to look at Iphigenia. The set of her shoulders is a withering glare.

“In what fashion will giving up what I love allow me to pursue her?” Tina asks.

“It will let you move freely through the wind.”

“Burn him, Iphigenia.”

The oracle sighs. “I liked the radiator,” it says. “It was nicer than death.”

There is a light rising in the oracle’s vision, a sun-shaped disc burning, and its fires spread through the oracle’s soul and the oracle is gone.

“And now yourself.”

“Mother?”

Iphigenia is sweating. She is not simply standing next to Tina. She is in the sky, commanding the horses of the sun, and they are pulling harder than is their wont.

“I would rather have lost a finger,” Tina says. “So you have that, at least.”

The heat is too much. There is nothing to breathe that does not burn Iphigenia’s lungs.

“It’s stupid,” says Iphigenia. “Why should my death matter?”

“Because while I love you,” says Tina, “I am something that the enemy may comprehend.”

“It’s not a sacrifice if it’s someone else!”

But there is a wind and a flame and Iphigenia is gone.

The Professional Sufferer

It is 3186. It is Christmas. There is a scream.

Meredith looks over. She blinks. “Who’s that?”

John is curled up on a bench nearby. He just screamed. Now he is simply panting.

“He’s a sufferer,” Clair notes.

“Wow. Like, in some kind of club?”

“Nope,” Clair says. “It’s actually his job.”

“Wow.”

“I think he’s on some kind of agony medication.”

“I’d wondered.”

Clair and Meredith walk on. After a while, there is another scream, and then an unending series.

“I can’t believe they make him work on Christmas,” Meredith says.

“Yeah.”

“I can’t believe he lets them!”

“Very professional,” Clair concludes.

The Plague Carrier

John is in his prop plane. His prop plane is light. It has a certain unhewn look. He has assembled it by hand from parts predating the Collapse.

He flies north. North, past the edge of the village. North, past the Scary Forest. North, beyond the hills, into the fire in the sky.

“So far,” he says, into the radio, “it’s flying well.”

Gruff old Sid back at the base clicks his radio to send. “What’s it like out there?”

“Worse than I thought,” John says. “Heavy turbulence as far back as the hills. Rains of brimstone ahead. There’s a stench. And there’s someone standing in the sky.”

“Standing . . .”

“He’s too big to really see,” John says. “But he’s got wings. And a sword. I’m going to go closer.”

Sid sighs. There are years of resignation in that sigh. “Check.”

There’s a pause. John says, after a moment, “If I don’t get back, Sid . . .”

“I know.”

The plane ascends, trying to rise above the level of the brimstone rain. Winds rock it. Static plays about the instrument panel. John leans in, his face spotted with flecks of brimstone.

“Sid!” he cries. “Sid! I can see his eyes!”

Burning stones pelt against the wings of the plane. There is a terrible cracking sound. One engine sputters to a halt.

“Eh?” says Sid, back at the base.

“I’m going down,” John notes.

“Is it bad?”

Only a burst of static answers.

The plane tears down through the sky. The last words Sid hears are, “There’s a city.”

There is darkness.

John wakes up. His arm is in a sling. His forehead is bandaged. He is in bed.

“Are you all right, sir?” a woman’s voice asks.

He tries to sit up. Somewhat to his own surprise, he succeeds.

“I crashed,” he says.

Sheila is seated next to his bed. She is wearing a pale blue skirt and top. She has blond hair. Her voice is lightly accented. “It happens,” she says.

“I think it was divine wrath.”

“Most likely,” she says. “We get a lot of that around here.”

He looks around. “My name is John,” he says.

“Sheila.”

“Where is this?” he says.

“The City under the Storm,” she says. “Or just the City.”

He looks blankly at her.

“We were cursed,” she says. “We were sinful. We are in the process of being smit from the Earth. Would you like coffee?”

“You have coffee?”

She rises. She walks to the eastern wall. There’s a Mr. Coffee plugged in on a table. She scoops fresh-ground beans into the filter, pours water into the machine’s body, and starts the machine running.

“It is not a bad life,” she says. “Perhaps our afterlife shall be worse.”

He looks around. Lamps glow with soft light. The walls are panelled wood. There is a window, and beyond it, a great dark city sculpted from black and purple glass.

“You have electricity,” he says.

“Yes.”

“And running water,” he says.

“Yes.”

“How?” he says. “How, in this condition? How, in this place? When so much of the world is savage now?”

“We have a limitless source of energy,” says she, “in the Storm.”

He looks at her.

“Divine displeasure,” she says. “We power our city with it.”

He spends days there, recuperating. When he is well, she takes him out into the city. She laughs at how even their Starbucks is a marvel to him.

“You must tell me,” she says, “how the outside world fares.”

He thinks.

“Savage,” he says. “At worst, barbarian. At best, a frontier. Sid—”

John hesitates. Then he looks shocked. “He will be terrified for me. Do you have a radio?”

“No,” she says. “Interference from God.”

“Oh,” John says. He slumps. “. . . I will need to go back,” he says. “To tell people this is here.”

Sheila nods. She pulls him from the street to a table at a sidewalk cafe. She sits him down, beneath the great arched dome of the city. The brimstone light casts strange sunbeams through the glass.

“Your plane is ruined,” she says.

“Then I must make another.”

She frowns. “You could stay,” she says. “You could record for us tales of the world outside. You would not lack for anything.”

John shakes his head.

“Then,” Sheila says, “we will help you return. Not by plane. You would crash again. But we have considered the problem before.”

The waiter comes to their table. John is flustered, at first, as his attention was elsewhere; but he quickly makes a selection, and Sheila the same.

“If you are to travel from here,” she says, “you will need to go beneath the surface of the earth. We have studied old pulp movies, and believe that an appropriate device can be constructed. It will drill its way through the darkness like a mole.”

She laughs, lightly.

“I do not believe there shall be chuds.”

John stares at her, hardly believing. “You would do this for me? Your city, your people, your government, would do this for me?”

She smiles. It is distant. “We have little else to do.”

“I should help.” He starts to rise to his feet. Her hand is on his arm, and pulls him back into his seat. “It’s impossible. I cannot simply let you do this for me.”

“After lunch,” she says.

“After lunch.”

Over a meal of pasta and duck, she says, “You shame us with your surprise.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You would help me,” she says, “would you not, if I crash-landed in your home?”

He looks down at the plate. He mumbles. “Yes.”

“I do not know that you can help our scientists,” she says. “You are self-trained and somewhat primitive.”

“I must do something,” he says.

“Then I will take you to the sin factory,” she says, “and you may do a measure for our town.”

John and Sheila walk through the streets. They are clean, but not too clean. Grass has grown through cracks in the sidewalk. Dirt provides a pattern on the glass. It is a sleeping place, but not a dying place.

When a man or woman passes them, John tips his hat.

“This is the sin factory,” Sheila says. “Here, we gather the displeasure of the divine.”

She leads him in.

“Must I . . .” John flounders a little. “Must I steal? Hurt? I would not like to hurt someone.”

“No,” she says. “We find such crimes unsavory. So we pray before false gods. We handle goods tainted with ejaculate or with menstrual blood. We eat shellfish, dredged from unholy places. We practice usury and gossip, here. It is not sin. It is the engine of our survival. And we do not love.”

“No love?” says John.

Sheila leads him into the factory. She holds her hand out and to the side, brushing it against a parrot’s perch. The parrot steps down onto her hand.

“The mascot,” she says. She brushes back the parrot’s headfeathers. “We call her Jezebel.”

John laughs. “Is a parrot’s heart so black?”

“Jezebel is the only parrot we have left,” she says. “So we keep her here. She reminds us of what this is for. One adorable parrot. She would freeze and die, here, if the engines of our city stopped. So she is our mascot and our badge of sin.”

“Yet . . .” John flounders. “No love?”

“Love could bring grace to us,” she says. “And stop the power source our Storm.”

John hesitates. “What if it were forbidden love?”

“No,” she says. “Not here. Not now. There is a channel through the glass that shows unto Heaven our hearts.”

“The parrot . . .” John says. “Surely, to love an adorable parr—”

Sheila thrusts the parrot into John’s face. Jezebel explodes into a fury of wings and beak and claws. John shrieks and staggers back.

“That is the other reason,” Sheila says, “that Jezebel is our mascot.”

John rubs at his face, which is nicked and scratched. Jezebel flutters back to her perch.

“I see,” John says.

“Come,” Sheila says. “Let us eat forbidden shrimp.”

John walks with her to the shrimp bar, and to the hall of idols, and to the room of stained fabric. For a time he sins.

The days pass.

On some days, John sins.

On others, he does not, or, at least, not so much that anyone would notice.

“Do you live your lives without love,” John asks her, “or is it only in the factory where you must hold back?”

“We slip,” she says. “We must slip. We are human. Love slips out, around the corners. But it is the enemy, and so we hold it back. It is not our way, John, to be pleasing unto Heaven.”

He takes her hand. He squeezes it. There is an infinite sympathy in his eyes; but he says nothing.

“It is different elsewhere?” she says.

“My wife is dead,” he says. “But there are my children. My aunt. My wolf. And Sid.”

He fights it. He keeps his tone flat and natural. But there is something in his eyes as he speaks.

Later, she will say, “It was those words that carried the plague.”

“Let us speak,” John says, “of something else. Perhaps a blasphemy.”

“Yes,” she says. She is shaken. “Yes. Perhaps the story of the ‘pogo stick’ and how it found itself wedged in an inappropriate location.”

John smiles.

When the machine is done, she takes him to it, and watches as he leaves. He drills under the surface of the world. He is shielded from the Storm, and from the man who stands above the Storm, though Sheila does not think it hides John from those eyes.

“He was a fine man,” she says, in her report. “There is much to be valued in the world beyond the Storm.”

Her life is happy, but the plague is eating at her heart.

She finds a man. She lives with him. They have three children. One day, she smiles at him, and the plague takes her.

And the lights go out.

The Elephant Gun

It’s the Whoville outback. It’s not very big. It’s got some grass, and some animals, and a set of telephone poles. A pair of sneakers hang from the telephone wires.

John is out shooting elephants in the Whoville outback. It isn’t working very well. For one thing, he hasn’t found any elephants. For another, he’s out of ammunition.

“Cindy!” he yells.

Cindy comes running out of the house. She looks up at him. One lock of hair hangs in a perfect curl right in front of her forehead.

“I need more solid shot,” he says.

“Have you killed an ollyphant?” she asks.

“No,” he says. “Just a barn.”

Her face falls.

“It was working with the elephants,” he confides.

Cindy brightens. “I’ll get you more ammo!” she says. She runs inside. She comes back with a box of solid shot. She hands it to him proudly.

“Thank you,” he says. He ruffles her hair.

“I remember the trenches of God,” she says.

He looks a bit sad.

“They were pretty,” she says.

“Shh,” he says. He ruffles her hair some more. No matter how hard he tries, the curl always falls back to the exact center of her forehead. “We don’t need the trenches. We don’t need all that fancy theological stuff. People are people wherever they are.”

He whirls. His elephant sense tingles. He fires.

“Yay!” says Cindy. “You got Mommy’s sneakers back!”

“Ah,” he says. “Yes.”

“They fell to the ground,” she says. “Even though our world is very small. Why did they do that?”

“Whoville is spinning very fast,” he says. It’s an official handwave passed down to him by Whoville scientists. “It generates artificial gravity.”

Cindy reflects.

“I remember the trenches of God,” she says again.

“Shh,” he says. “We’re still just as good. Even if we aren’t right there next to the trenches, they’re still in our hearts. People are people, wherever they are.”

He whirls. He shoots, anticipating an elephant sense tingle. There is no tingle. There is no elephant. The noise does startle a duck, which quacks indignantly and takes off. He considers shooting the duck, but he is hunting elephants, and there are few things John abhors more than mission creep.

“Why can ducks fly?” Cindy asks.

“Whoville isn’t spinning hard enough to ground a duck,” he says.

“The trenches were pretty,” she says. She reflects. She holds her hands wide apart. “They were this big. And it was like they cradled our world.”

“They did,” John says. “They gave us our place. They held us close and made us wise. But we don’t need the trenches, Cindy. People are people, wherever they are.”

“We could make our own,” she says. “We could dig them, in the dirt!”

John laughs. “We already have them,” he says.

“We do?”

“The world’s full of trenches,” he says.

He points down. “Between the stalks of grass. Between the hill and the dale.”

He points up. “Between the clouds, there are the trenches of the sky.”

John grins at her. “Why, Cindy, there are even trenches in my gun.”

“There are?”

“Yes,” he says. “They’re all along the sides. They’re called rifling or grooves. They make the bullet spin so that it can fly straight.”

Cindy laughs.

“What’s so funny?” John says.

“Trenches everywhere,” she says. “It’s like God isn’t special!”

“Well,” John says, “I figure that people are made in the image of God. And guns are made in the image of the Godship.”

Cindy looks very serious, all of the sudden. “So the bullets are like Whoville?”

“Yes,” John says. “There could even be little people just like us living on each bullet I fire.”

“A little Cindy,” she says, “and a little John!”

“Yes,” he agrees. “That’s why it’s very important that I find an elephant. It’d be horrible if little Cindy and little John lived their lives in vain.”

“But it’d be okay,” she says. “Right? I mean, people are people, wherever they are.”

“Yes,” he says.

“What if Whoville doesn’t make it to the promised land?” she asks.

His elephant sense tingles. He turns. He fires. There’s an appalled trumpeting and a horrible thump.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I like to think He’d forgive.”