Sweeping Day

Sid’s sweeping up the streets after the Fourth of July. He’s got a broom in his left hand, a sack in his right hand, and three sacks on his belt.

Jane walks past.

“Hey,” says Sid.

Jane spins her head to look at him. She grins. “Hey!”

She holds up a Transformer doll.

“Now that you’ve greeted me I can show you my Transformer!” she says. “It talks! And it knows everything about biochemistry! And it turns from a robot into a beautiful swan or a fire—”

Sid blinks.

“Um,” he says.

“—work or a ban—”

Sid holds up a hand to stop her.

“Wait,” he says tersely. “Please. No explanations. I need you to trust me and be quiet and hold this bag and wait in a nearby alley.”

Sid holds out the sack he’s been sweeping street dust into.

Jane tilts her head and looks at him sidelong. She frowns.

“But I only have two hands,” Jane protests. “And I need one for the Transformer and one for pointing and gesturing!”

Jane points at the Transformer, and then attempts to point at her pointing hand. This fails, so she gestures irritably.

“Current biotechnology does not allow Jane to grow a third arm at this time,” intones the Transformer.

“You could trade,” Sid offers.

His voice is fraught with tension.

Jane thinks for a second. “Okay!”

“Okay?”

Jane hands Sid the Transformer. She takes the bag. She peeks in. “Yay! Dust!”

“Don’t look!” Sid cries. It’s a strangled shout. He closes the bag in her hands.

“It was very shiny,” Jane says. Her eyes are glittering. So are her eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is strangely sparkly.

Sid nods sharply.

“It’s liberty dust,” Sid says. “See, Earth is basically a giant engine that produces liberty for our alien masters. The liberty rises into the upper atmosphere and intersects with the super-cooled alien air and—”

Jane stomps on his foot.

“—Ow!”

Jane pokes him in the chest with her free pointing and gesturing hand.

“You can’t produce liberty for alien masters,” she says. “That’s an oxymormon.”

“Technically,” says the Transformer, biochemically, “an oxymormon is an oxygen atom that is bound to a religious atom that believes Joseph Smith ended the Kali Yuga and restored the Satya Yuga to this Earth. You are thinking of something else.”

“Huh,” says Jane. “But my point stands!”

“True,” says Sid. “I suppose that they’re really more like thuggish symbiotes than masters. Whisht!”

Sid shoves Jane into an alley.

“Hey!” Jane squawks.

Sid stands in front of the alley looking innocent. An alien starship descends from the upper atmosphere. Its bulbous belly discharges a landing ramp. A squat, squamous alien shuffles down.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Aliens!” says Jane.

“Ixnay on the eakingspay,” hisses Sid.

The alien lifts its head. It snuffles. “Strange noises,” it says. “Do you taunt us again with your ‘Pig Latin’, Earth Sid?”

“A momentary aberration,” Sid assures it.

It shuffles forward. It has the gait of a creature with broken legs, but displays no other signs of pain.

“Please present us the liberty condensate,” it says, “that we pay you $3.75 an hour to collect.”

Sid walks forward, hesitantly. He takes the three sacks from his belt. He passes them over.

The alien looks in a sack. It looks up. Its eyes are glittering. So are its eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is horridly sparkly.

“Ah,” it says. “Za’pogh-la. Do you know how it is formed, Earth Sid?”

“Large concentrations of liberty vented into the upper atmosphere, as by fireworks, meet up with the super-cooled alien air and—”

The alien steps on Sid’s foot.

“Ow!”

Sid looks aggrieved. That doesn’t normally happen to him twice in one day.

“Silence, Earth Sid! The secret of Za’pogh-la is not for human voice!”

“Just take it,” says Sid. “Take it and go.”

“This is . . . all of it?”

The alien stares at Sid.

“Maybe the air isn’t cold enough any more,” challenges Sid. “Maybe you aliens heated up.”

The alien snurfles dismissively.

“You are careless, Earth Sid. You have swept most of it into the aquifer.”

“He is not careless!”

That’s Jane’s voice, as she runs out of the alley.

“I’ve seen him!” she shouts. “He sweeps every day! Not just on Sweeping Day after 4th of July! He sweeps every day all year to get it all!”

The alien hisses. It turns, and a proboscis unfurls from the mysterious crannies of its face. It stands still, trembling, sniffing at the air.

“Ixnay!” says Sid.

“There’s a girl,” says the alien. It trembles in outrage. “She will contaminate the Za’pogh-la!”

This takes the wind out of Jane’s sails. She did not anticipate that the subject of the discussion would turn directly to her. “What?”

“Sid!” says the alien. “Kill her!”

Sid freezes. Then he turns. He has a haunted look on his face. He pulls out his hand and shapes it into a gun, with his index finger pointing at Jane.

“Bang!” he says. “Bang! Bang! Bang! You’re dead, killed by my Earth weapon!”

Jane stomps her foot, orienting on the familiar. “Am not! You missed!”

“I’m correcting my aim,” Sid says. He’s sweating. “No need for the alien to use its space disintegrator,” he emphasizes. “I’m using a special Earth cyberoptic sight. Bang! You’re dead!”

“I don’t see the cyberoptic sight,” Jane says dubiously.

Sid squints his left eye like a man with a tic. “It’s a half-human, half-machine particle welded directly to the optic nerve.”

“Wow,” says Jane. “That’s lethal!”

She falls down dramatically.

“Avenge me!” she cries. “Avenge me!”

“The Earth girl is slow to die,” says the alien. “Are you sure that your hand-weapon is functional?”

“It is a painful and terrible death,” says Sid sadly, “but slow.”

Sid’s tone hardens.

“I would liefer use it on you,” he adds, “but for the difficulty I would have finding other employment after years of quisling labor.”

The alien turns back towards the ship.

“You will collect more,” it says, indifferently, “next year.”

“Of course,” says Sid.

“Avenge me!” wails Jane.

The alien turns. “Is she truly dead—”

The Transformer flies into the air. It shifts into the form of a firework. It sputters and burns in the air, and then explodes in brilliance.

“—Ah,” sighs the alien, distracted. “So pretty, the explosions of your Earth.”

It stomps into its ship. It rises into the air. Then it is gone.

Sid kneels beside Jane. “Are you all right?” he says.

“I’m not really dead!” Jane tells him. “It’s because I have an immortal spirit.”

“Good,” says Sid. “Those are handy in an apocalypse.”

Jane sits up.

“You shouldn’t collaborate with them,” she says. “They look horrible and alien, so they must be evil.”

“Without the Roswell technology,” notes Sid, “we humans probably wouldn’t have figured out liberty in the first place.”

“Also, it was mean,” Jane says. “It ordered the Earth Sid to kill me! I’m still kind of scared.”

“And if it weren’t for them, up there, farming us,” says Sid, “there wouldn’t be super-cooled alien air in the upper atmosphere at all. They put it there. They saturated it with the elementary particles of alien love. They’re the reason liberty does condense. And that’s why, every year, I can skim a little off the top.”

Sid reclaims the sack from her.

“What’s it for?” Jane asks.

“It’s sparkly,” Sid says.

Jane peers at him.

“I sneak into people’s houses at night,” says Sid, “and blow it in the faces of children who can’t make liberty on their own.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

She stands up. She walks in circles for a bit.

“That’s kind of creepy,” she says.

“It’s mythic and archetypal,” protests Sid. “I’m like Santa or the Witch. Or like Stars, the Thanksgiving Turkey!”

But Jane is distracted. She isn’t paying attention to Sid any more.

“Huh,” says Jane. “My Transformer died.”

Angels, Sorvins, Humans, Lancasters, Bainbridges, and Jacks

. . . having long since discovered that the desire to blame and vilify victims was in his cosmos empirically correct, but remaining somewhat mistaken as to the reason,

Bainbridge walks the streets of Neo-Heaven.

“When the world was new,” says Bainbridge, broadly gesturing, “we built all of this, Jack.”

Jack looks dubious. “You can’t have made the marble and the heights.”

“We did.”

“Perhaps you mean the ivy and the dust.”

“Not so!”

“The cracks and all the crumbling and flickering lights and broken walls—these things, you mean?”

Bainbridge snorts.

“Such insolence,” he says. “But I spoke truth, my Jack. Beneath these streets our ‘subway’ carried people to and fro at great speeds. And through those wires above we made electric power flow at need. And all the marble buildings sculpted by our hands, and all the long-lost glories were made unto our plan.”

“Admirable,” says Jack. “The angels in their cages, too?”

Bainbridge cuffs Jack.

“It’s rude to speak of them,” he says.

Jack holds the side of his face.

“When I was just a boy,” says Jack, “so very long ago, an angel told me some of this they made, you know.”

“Pshaw. They have no need for making like us men, young Jack.”

“It seems their kind of work, and so—”

“We were not quite so humbled then, young Jack.”

Bainbridge stalks through the streets.

“We were ever so much grander then when we did not have Jacks to pull us down,” he says. “And if there is a failing in this place then it must lie upon your heads, I trow.”

Bainbridge strides on.

“Still!” he says. “Today we’ll play a part that does those ancients justice, Jack. We’ll hold at bay that final darkness that we can’t drive back.”

Jack has stopped. He’s staring into one of the angel cages. The cage is old rusted metal. The angel is a sorvin-angel, a strange creature, a withered homunculus. One might easily imagine it a shrunken, degenerate remnant of a great and noble seraph. It has great limpid eyes and ratty wings and it is huddled tight and gnawing on its own feathers.

“Poor thing,” says Jack. “That wing can’t taste too good.”

He gets a wicked look upon his face.

“I could let you go, you know. I really could.”

The angel looks up at him with weary eyes. Jack squats down.

“We’d make a little bargain, you and me. You’d set yourself on Bainbridge if I set you free. You’d drive him with your wings into a screaming fit and fly away like thunder when he’s lost his wits.”

The angel makes a keening, suggestive noise.

“It isn’t right to kill him, not today. But surely you could satisfy yourself with merry play.”

The angel hesitates. Then it nods.

Jack reaches into the cage. The angel is very still. Jack ties a string around the angel’s foot, because he is already plotting treachery against it. He feeds the string out to the entrance to the cage, and then opens the door and seizes the string in one motion.

“Ha ha! Ha ha! Bainbridge! Look what I have here! You’ll never guess, you’ll never guess, it’s the most unexpected jest.”

Bainbridge turns.

Jack is running towards Bainbridge, dragging the angel by the string. The angel is skittering and bouncing on the ground in Jack’s wake, smeared in dust and bloodied by gravel. But it is getting its bearings with each bounce, and now it is in a crouch that becomes a lope and then it is launching itself at Bainbridge’s face.

“Bad angel!” says Jack.

The angel is clawing at Bainbridge’s face. Bainbridge is howling and beating it back. Jack pulls hard on the string.

The angel tries to flutter away. Jack pulls harder, reeling it in with a nasty look on his face.

“Bad angel,” Jack says again. “I only wanted you to give Bainbridge a fright, and there you go off straightaway for th’ master’s eyes.”

There is blood all over Bainbridge’s face.

Jack has the sorvin-angel in his hands now. It squirms. Jack’s hands are wrapped around its throat. Jack begins to choke it.

Bainbridge finally clears the blood from his eyes. He peers at Jack.

“Jack,” he says, warningly.

“Just a little pressure on the carotids, sir.”

“Jack.”

“You always say searing pain is good for me.

“Jack.”

“It’s all the angel’s fault for what it plotted, sir.”

“A pleasant little jest is all it is, eh, Jack?”

Jack hears the danger in Bainbridge’s tone. He lightens the pressure slightly.

“I’m sure you’ll still be laughing when I pay it back.”

Jack’s lower lip flutters into a pout.

“Bad things will happen if you continue on this path. We do not hurt the angels more, Jack.”

So Jack drags the angel back into a cage and seals the door and sighs. “It was merry, wasn’t it?”

“Merry,” says Bainbridge. “Yes. That must be it.”

“It did not hurt?” says Jack.

“Not hurt. Just sad. That you would be so vicious and so bad.”

Jack giggles.

Bainbridge says, with jovial relish in his voice, “But I have something planned to make things right again.”

That silences Jack’s laugh.

They walk along.

Jack passes an angel struggling with the bars of its cage. He leans in and whispers to the angel, “I heard that once upon a time there were no Jacks at all. That everyone was Bainbridges before the fall. It’s hard to be a Bainbridge but it’s not as bad. The Jacks are worthless trash but still their lot is sad.”

“Don’t lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”

“It’s not a lie. I heard it. It was some time back.”

“Don’t ever lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”

“Fine, whatever, it was a lie,” sulks Jack.

They reach the cathedral of Metatron. Bainbridge sets his shoulders. He sighs. “And here we are.”

“What lies within?”

“The angel-system Metatron, that speaks for God. A terrible devourer—”

“It is rather odd that we would seek it out—”

“It threatens at all times to tear our city down and put an end to all the works of humankind. I wish that we could leave—”

“I wouldn’t mind!”

“But here we are.”

Bainbridge pushes open the doors. He walks in.

Inside the cathedral it is dark, save for a single spot of sunlight on the floor. It corresponds to a high window on the far wall. The floor is very dusty.

There is a hissing and a trembling in the air.

“You have brought me food,” says the voice of Metatron. “You have brought me offerings. Bring the Jack closer. Let me speak to it.”

Jack is trembling. He is shivering. But he lets Bainbridge push him forward into the room, and Bainbridge follows, and closes the doors behind them.

“Little Jack,” says Metatron’s voice. “Do you know why you are here? Do you know why you are here to be fed to me?”

“Three Bainbridges they pushed me down,” says Jack. “They laughed and used me ill and then they frowned. ‘Too bad,’ they said. ‘You’re now a Jack.’ It’s true! . . . That’s when I realized that I’ve always been—I mean—”

Metatron’s voice is heavy and weary. “Such is the standard origin of sin,” it says.

“—I’ve always been a worthless Jack, and now I knew; and that is in the end why I am meeting you. . . . Is that really where my sin came from? I was never sure,” Jack says.

“When someone is a victim, Jack, it gives rise to a hidden and much deeper and forbidden truth: that they were never worthy to begin with, Jack. In victimizing you they proved your heart was black. It made you not a Bainbridge but a Jack.”

Jack giggles.

“What?” Bainbridge asks.

“No wonder Bainbridges so strive to hide their pain,” says Jack. “I’d never had the words for it till God explained.”

There is a shimmering light around Jack now.

“I would exploit this knowledge fully in my worthless way,” says Jack, “except it seems that Metatron will feast on Jack today.”

Jack screams and burns from the inside out and his ashes fall.

“I cannot help but smile now to see him dead,” says Bainbridge.

“Oh?”

Bainbridge grins viciously. “Though he’d deserved a far more painful death, instead.”

Metatron is quiet, considering.

“I wish we were not troubled so with Jacks,” says Bainbridge. “There weren’t so many once, you know. We lacked the power to hold back the darkness even then but there was just a chance that we could rise again. We kept the power running, angel, as a rule—”

The voice of Metatron whispers: “Alas that Bainbridges are far too cruel.”

Bainbridge shakes his head, not following.

“It’s this growing trend. I do not understand its source. So many Jacks! It’s always growing worse and in good time House Bainbridge too will fall. Please—”

“You wonder if the Jacks will do the job when they are all—”

“That’s right.”

“That’s left.”

There is a pause.

“O Bainbridge,” says Metatron. Its voice is rich with amusement. “Your predecessors held these very fears for you.”

“I will not speak of those who came before,” snaps Bainbridge.

“Then we will not speak of them,” Metatron says. “But I will give you this much peace: the Jacks will come here for a time, at least.”

There is silence.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” Bainbridge says.

“Yes.”

“I could go,” says Bainbridge. “And bring you a second Jack. If that would work.”

“Come forward.”

“I come,” says Bainbridge, coming forward.

“Kneel.”

“I kneel.”

Bainbridge burns; and he does not scream.

For a Bainbridge is not like a Jack, he thinks. He has the worth he needs to sacrifice, and not complain, when greater powers demand his pain.

Theologians of Mars

It is December 3rd, 1999.

“Sometimes I think that clinging to the outside of the Mars Polar Lander was not the smartest idea,” says Emile.

“Oh?” says James.

“Well,” says Emile, “No matter how much I breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen. And no matter how much I shiver, I can’t get warm.”

“That’s just your bad karma at work!” says James. “You can’t blame space.”

Emile and James fly through space, clinging to the sides of the Mars Polar Lander.

“I guess,” says Emile.

Emile munches quietly on a tiny bit of space food. It’s a microorganism, that lived in space! But no matter how much of the microorganism he gnaws away Emile still feels hungry.

“It’s just a bit inhospitable,” Emile says.

“Rather,” admits James. He looks out at the vacuum. Then he smiles. “That’s why I calculated my sins for a rebirth as a hungry ghost, you know.”

“Oh?”

“I figured, if I’m born as a human, then all I get is another chance to hear the teaching, and I might achieve enlightenment, but it’s pretty unlikely in these Latter Days of the Law. And if I become a god, then I’ll be too happy and powerful to escape the wheel of karma. But a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost can go into space.

“That’s reasonable,” says Emile. “It is certainly prettier to starve and shiver and thirst in space than on Earth.”

Emile stares at the stars for a while.

“I didn’t plan to die yet,” Emile explains. “That’s why I wound up a hungry ghost! I thought that I would learn to control my desires and earn better karma later.”

“What happened?”

“It turns out that it’s a bad idea to attend an event labeled ‘Assassins! Live in Concert.'”

“Ouch,” says James.

“They lived in concert, but the audience did not.” Emile sighs. “You?”

“Strapped to a giant laser. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Ah!” says Emile. “I’d wondered about the burns.”

“It was like the torments visited upon souls in Hell,” says James. “Except shorter and more cinematic. There is this moment when you’re shot by a giant laser when, I don’t know. When you’re probably already dead, right, because lasers hit you faster than your perception of lasers, but still you can see this brilliant light dashing towards you, and everything’s crystal, and you’re one with the cosmos. Then it hurts.”

They look down.

“Then it hurts a lot.” James laughs self-deprecatingly. “That’s why giant laser safety is so important.”

They watch the Red Planet for a while.

“Are you nervous?” Emile asks.

“What, about Mars?”

“Yeah. I mean, no hungry ghost has ever been there before. What if it’s worse? What if there’s nothing edible anywhere, and no water, and no air? Not even any Buddhists to make our lives better with prayers?”

James laughs.

“What?” Emile asks.

James leans in. “This is Mars,” he says. “Life isn’t characterized by universal suffering, desire, and attachment on Mars. That’s an Earth thing, like original sin.”

Emile blinks.

“I thought you knew,” says James. “11 months in space, and you’ve just been clinging to the side of the ship for lack of anything better to do?”

“You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Emile says, “during the launch. And afterwards, well. You’re better company than the vacuum mites and space bats.”

“Don’t knock the space bats,” grins James.

“I’m not knocking them,” says Emile. “I’m grateful that they put us back on course after that NASA navigation error, and their princess was ravishing. But they kept looking at me like they hoped I’d turn into an insect.”

“Space bats live on a diet of insects,” James observes. “Not many insects in space.”

Emile grins wryly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t really blame them.”

James opens his mouth to say something. Instead, the Mars Polar Lander strikes atmosphere. It begins using the friction of the Martian atmosphere to decelerate rapidly from its initial velocity.

“Hot!” says Emile.

As the wind whips by them, James says, “We need . . . shelter . . .”

James points. Emile follows him around to the lee of the lander. Buffeted by wind and weakened by the twelve gees of acceleration, Emile loses half of his grip on the white-hot lander. He hangs on by one hand as the Mars Polar Lander races down through the Martian sky.

“Can’t . . . hang . . . on . . .” says Emile.

“You’re notional,” says James, in disgust. “Get over it.”

Emile hesitates. Then, sheepishly, he reasserts his grip on the lander and climbs over to shelter next to James.

Whoosh.

The parachute opens.

“It’s strange,” says Emile. “First I was very cold and couldn’t warm myself, and now I’m very hot and can’t cool myself. But something’s different.”

“It’s the loss of dukkha, the pervasive universal character of suffering,” James says. “The closer we get to Mars, the more we’ll be suffering because we’re clinging to a white-hot lander on an alien world and the less we’ll be suffering because it’s an inevitable consequence of ignorance and desire.”

“Huh,” says Emile. “Are we getting less ignorant?”

James points down. “Look! Mars!”

“Oh,” says Emile, softly.

They watch Mars loom. Each new detail they can make out dispels a bit more of the ignorance that breeds the desire that chains them to the wheel of karma and the pervasive universal character of suffering. The heat and gee-forces of the landing strip away their original sin. On the negative side, James slowly realizes that his advanced understanding of Tantric sex practices won’t do him any good on Mars, where sex is savage and primitive.

“Hey,” says Emile. “Is that a city?”

The lander legs deploy. The ship hits the Veil.

“Apes!” shouts Emile, in terror.

Inertial gyros and accelerometers orient the Mars Polar Lander. It is rapidly steering itself towards a nest of great white apes.

“There’s nothing for it,” says James. “We’re going to have to jump.”

The Martian atmosphere shivers with the primal cry of the largest of the great white apes. It beats upon its chest. Emile notices, in a state of distant detached fear, that the ape has four arms.

“Jump? Jump?

James reaches out. He touches Emile’s hand. He smiles.

“It’s okay,” James says. “I planned for this. Everything has been leading up to this moment. Kick off—now.”

They push away from the lander. They fall.

James holds his watch up near his face. He has worn it the entire time that Emile has known him, and not once has the watch been correct; for among the many things that hungry ghosts are starved for is time.

The watch is working now. James frantically adjusts the knobs and buttons, and the face of the watch is glowing green, and there is a countdown on it.

The lander strikes down amidst the apes. It has been four minutes and thirty-three seconds since the Mars Polar Lander struck atmosphere.

The timer on James’ watch hits zero.

The lander explodes.

Emile and James tumble across the red sand of Mars. The apes are a bloody ruin, all save the strongest of them. That one is still lurching towards them, though great chunks have been ripped out of its flesh, though one arm is missing, though its entire back is baked clean of fur. Emile looks over. James has not landed quite as well as Emile, and for a long moment James is stunned. So Emile does the only thing he can.

Emile pulls his holdout knife and hurls it at the creature’s face. It is a perfect strike; and the great beast topples to the bloody sands of Mars; and as it falls, James says to Emile, “Good man.”