Ink in Emptiness: The Mirror Cracks

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10)

In Hell there is a city of poison and gold.

Ink Catherly lives there. She sits on its broken throne. She is fifteen years old and she is a savage jungle queen.

She has not thought of her father or her mother in some time.

Instead she thinks of Greystoke, the bull-ape raised by suburbanites, lord of suburbia and king of men. She thinks of the treasures of the jungle. She thinks of the mechanisms by which she might escape her Hell.

It is the unfortunate character of Ink’s circumstances that Hell is inescapable.

Here ends the legend of Ink Catherly: in the city of poison and gold, in Hell, where Greystoke has called up her father against her.

Hell, day 969: The veil-rending gun.

As always the ape opposed my search. I tell him: “You must let me work. I must find an answer so that I can escape from Hell.” But he is a beast and he does not understand.

I found it at last, kept in the claws of Usr-Acigh: the gun that can break the veil between worlds. I fired it. I opened a gap in the jungle. But I could not step through. In any other world I would be a corpse.

I watch my hand as I write this. It is like watching a hand pulled around by puppet strings. It is like a spider. It is like a headless chicken. It is like the flopping plastic bag that one at first mistakes for life. There is direction. There is intentionality. But it is emptiness and not purpose that drives it.

There is no escape from Hell because it is not a place but rather a condition, and a condition not of quality but of absence. I have lost the divine fire that gave me purpose. I have only the bleak insectile intentionality of flesh. I am an outsider to myself. If I were not in Hell I would be dead.

Mr. Catherly stands at the door.

“Greystoke,” Ink breathes. “You go too far.”

Mr. Catherly is gliding forward, his footsteps silent on the gold and marble floor. He says, “It is not your right, Ink, to claim the jungle’s treasures.”

Ink shakes her head.

Her face is darkening with anger.

“The Mirror of Flame will do you no good,” says Mr. Catherly. “This is Hell. There is no avenue by which you may obtain your desire.”

Ink turns. The threat of Greystoke is forgotten, and the ape himself is nearly so. Her world has narrowed down to the Mr. Catherly and the savage challenge that must come—in any species—when a child defies her parent and seeks to define the freedom of her course.

“You would say that,” she says.

There is a growl tickling at her throat. She is not letting it loose: for one thing, the human voice does not yield easily to it, and it replaces speech in use. For another, she does not wish to warn him of the seriousness of her intent. But as she shifts her stance to the lightly-bent crouch that humans use in battle her plans are transparent to the older man. He slows his advance. He is wary.

“Hold this,” Ink says, not taking her eyes from her father’s face.

She holds out the instrument of defiance to Greystoke; for unlike the men he summons, the ape-king of suburbia has such notions of honor as to make this safe.

The bull-ape takes it from her hands.

Incompatible Precepts Catherly takes two steps forward and then springs.

The contest of human and human is savage. Their teeth are blunt. Their claws are weak. Their muscles are poorly suited to murder.

But there are many ways by which they may give one another pain.

The howls of them rise through the jungle. They disturb the birds, that look up once and flee. They cause the frogs and salamanders to retreat into their holes. They shake the ancient city and its poisons and its gold.

And Ink takes her father down onto his back and beats at his chest and he is smiling hideously at her with his white fangs and he says, “See? Incompatible.”

Ink shrieks, a terrifying and an alien cry.

Her cunning talons close around his neck. His face darkens. His terrible words go still. His hands are twitching.

Ink says, “Tell me I’m a person.

But this is Hell.

Hell, day 1406: The mirror of flame.I have captured a mirror that reflects someone with a self—not the Ink who writes this but an Ink such as I was before. It hurts but I cannot stop looking at it.

She would, I think, find an answer to this place. She would explore it, transform it from this horrid absence into a phenomenon worth recording—not Hell but the witnessing of Hell, not emptiness but the recognition that she is not empty. She had wanted that. But I am not that Ink. I am her empty corpse.The ape, I think, will be here soon.

“Stupid fathers,” says Ink.

Mr. Catherly is unconscious.

“Stupid parents. Can you imagine?” she says. She is panting. She is struggling to recapture control over her emotions. “Naming somebody after what having the baby meant?

Greystoke is mute.

Ink rises. She stalks back to the throne. She sits down. Her posture slumps and her eyes go distant and she reassumes the demeanor of a brooding jungle queen.

“Take it,” she says. “Take the Mirror.”

So Greystoke steps forward. He pulls the Mirror of Flame down from the air.

“Leave the instrument of defiance. And go.”

The ape places the instrument of defiance down upon the floor and begins to walk away.

“Wait.”

Ink struggles for words.

“When I was young,” she says. “I accidentally cut off a fingertip. And the funny thing was that it just lay there, empty. It wasn’t a part of me. It was meat.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“That is all we are,” she says. “Meat and bone.”

“Yes,” says Greystoke.

“I remember when I was fire,” Ink says. “I can look in the mirror and I can see that—an Ink Catherly, far away, who is fire and not just emptiness. Someone who is different from that twitching finger.” Her breathing is erratic. “I need it. I need it to remind me that I had something inside me once.”

“That is not need,” says Greystoke. “That is suffering.”

And in her last glance in the mirror, as he carries it away, she can see a great tower that is not her tower; and beyond it a sea of surging chaos; and an Ink who is not herself, but somehow possessed of that which is forbidden to her in Hell.

The mirror cracks.

Ink in Emptiness: the Lord of Suburbia

the legend of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9)

Greystoke, the lord of suburbia, beats his chest and shouts out his human call.

“Come,” he shouts.

The word is bass and guttural. The bull-ape’s throat was never meant for human speech.

“Come! Come now!”

And the humans come.

Hell, day 242: The yawning door.

This is a door spoken of in the old books. It is supposed to show people the nature of their sins. I felt that if I understood the nature of my sins, I would remember what it was like to sin and it would fill the emptiness inside me. So I went to the door.

The door was guarded by a damnable ape named Greystoke. He spoke like a person and he told me not to open it. I deceived him and did so, and so I saw my sins.

I looked through the door and saw the poisoned fruit that gave sin to our kind. I saw the circumstances of my birth and how it forced my parents—two people of incompatible precepts and attitudes—to live together, bringing them much sorrow. I saw how as an infant I ravenously consumed and returned nothing. I saw my pride and how I dodged responsibility. I cried and the ape tried to comfort me so I hit him.

The jungle is brown and green and shadowed. It is full of scents. There is an abandoned city there, a place of gold and poison, and on its throne there is a girl.

She is dressed in savage finery, most of her skin showing, her clothing dripping with gold and great chunks of jade. She is malnourished. Her court is empty of human life, but thin bedraggled monkeys crawl above her on the rafters and a terrible white snake circles around her throne.

Before her there is a treasure beyond price: the Mirror of the Flame.

It hangs in the air. What it shows her we do not see, but she looks up.

“Greystoke is coming,” she says.

And then in the great arched doorways of the room there stands an ape: tall and powerful and covered in dark fur.

Behind him slink the humans.

A primal horror tickles the girl’s mind as she sees them. Such creatures as these are not known in savage lands.

First there is Mr. Brown. An articulated human neck supports his blocky head; below it, there is a body lean and strong and clad in fine-cut silk. The light of the mirror gleams in his slicked-back hair. The fingers on his hands twitch, each joint partially independent from the next, as he moves in.

Then there is Ms. Ward, thin-waisted like a wasp, her hair piled above her head, the skin of her leg flashing horribly with each step through the long slit of her skirt. She is one of the scientists of suburbia, a wickedly cunning master of that world-altering art, but the heat has shed her of her white winter coat and only the attitude of her reveals it.

Finally there is Mr. Smith, bulbous and slow. This is a spectacled man, hiding part of his face behind a shocking apparatus of copper wire and glass lenses. His tufted eyebrows are visible only as a thin line above the device; when he looks down, his eyes vanish behind perturbations in the glass.

The girl’s hand moves, ever so marginally. Two of the monkeys leap down from the rafters. They snatch up wickedly barbed spears. They move forward against the humans that Greystoke has called.

Mr. Brown roars and vents forth smoke. Blood spatters through the room. The girl jerks back in startlement.

She did not even see the blow the human struck with his smoking hand, but in an instant, one of the monkeys has become red ruin and the other has fled.

So her hand falls to her instrument of defiance: a device, formed of dark wood wrapping around three interlocking purple gems, that has against Greystoke’s humans previously served her well.

“Greystoke,” says the girl. “What do you here?”

“Ink,” he says.

That is his name for her. He calls her that because of the ink that stains her fingers.

He looks at the Mirror of Flame.

“That is not yours,” growls the ape.

Hell, day 703: The city.

I have not been honest. I read the books that these people left behind—abandoned in their city of gold and poison when they succumbed at last to their despair —and I realize this about myself.

My complaints have been ill-founded and my experience inevitable. The purpose of exploration is to transform horrible things into the strange and the beautiful. It is to deny the world its damned, corrupted nature and make it through the eyes that value truth into something better. That is why until I came to this place I lived in beauty.

The people of this city understood the nature of exploration. They labored fiercely to transform Hell. But they did not have those eyes that value truth. They could write of the glories of this world—and oh! it is glorious and it is terrible, in Hell—but at the end it was always empty to them.

As it is to me.

Ape-King Greystoke has set forth his claim.

There is a tension in the room.

“Do you challenge me, then?” Ink asks. “Oh lord of suburbia?”

She rises from her throne. There is a dangerous and musical sound as the gold hangings of her clothing beat against one another.

“To meddle with such things,” says Greystoke, “brings no happiness.”

“There is no alternative,” says Ink.

She triggers the instrument of defiance. There is a wind that rushes through the room. It is a terrible howling wind and there are devils on it.

It rebuffs the humans of Greystoke. Snarling does Ms. Ward fall back beyond the borders of the door. Flailing and issuing loud bursts of smoke, so too does Mr. Brown. Only Mr. Smith remains, bracing his great bulk against the wind; and the devils of that wind cut at the spectacled man leaving only his hidden eyes unharmed.

“It will not give you what you need,” says Greystoke.

“Damnable ape,” says Ink.

She walks forward.

Shrugging off the devil wind as if it were a simple breeze, so too does he.

Ink pokes him in the chest with a finger.

“Do you know how easy it would be to kill you?”

The panel of the floor on which Greystoke is standing lowers, ever-so-slightly, under his weight. He can see, with the flicking of his eyes to each side, poisoned darts gleaming in recesses within two walls. He does not know if they are rusted into place or held still by the will of Ink Catherly, and so he does not move.

“Do you know why I will not?” Ink asks.

And Greystoke rumbles, “You fear me. You are afraid that I am not empty. You are afraid that I am not in Hell.”

Ink’s face goes pale. She turns away.

“Don’t push me,” she says.

Greystoke tenses, because those words are like the rattling of a snake. I have no intent to kill you, they say to him. But if you step on me it is inevitable that I will bite.

But a personal challenge to the savage jungle queen was not the great ape’s only plan.

Someone clears his throat. Ink snaps her head to the left to see the noise’s source.

There are other entrances to the throne room, and in one of them stands a hunching figure whose very appearance fills Ink with primal dread: his hair is high and thinning, his eyes are pale, and his hands are thick, powerful, and large. This is the terror of suburbia, that human male named Mr. Catherly, who in his animal coupling with Mrs. Catherly had expelled into her womb approximately half of the genetic material that became Ink.

“Incompatible Precepts Catherly,” he says. “Do not you taunt Lord Greystoke, King of Men.”

Ink is Backstage: “It Means Something Good”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8)

On the backstage of Earth most real things are represented by cardboard cutouts.

That’s why, when the girl’s life flashes before her eyes, she can see it in one convenient bundle of life rather than as a holographic memory array. Her life flashes past her eyes as a chunk of set detritus and it lands with a thump. The smell of fresh paint on it reminds her that she hasn’t lived that long.

“Ye-aa!” screams the girl.

Her name is Ink Catherly. Short for Incriminatory Evidence, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She’ll justify it by explaining just how wrong the universe had to go before her existence was even possible; “and it’s not just possible, but transparently necessary,” she’ll often add.

That’s not far wrong.

Right now, Ink Catherly is seeking Hell and exploring all the worlds on the way. She’s given her reasons at other times and in other places, but in the end they boil down to a restless dissatisfaction with everyplace else.

For example, with this place. This “backstage of the Earth.” It’s not so great. It has gorgosauruses. They are talking gorgosauruses, talking self-centered gorgosauruses, self-righteous dinosaurs quite arrogant about appointing and dispensing with the things of the Earth.

They have their good points but they are very dangerous and very certain. People have died, already, today, because one chased Ink Catherly too fast.

Now it seizes Ink’s arm in its teeth and her leg in its hand and tears Ink Catherly apart.

From Ink’s Journal

Floor 93-HH: I had a vision of things like great stick-legged men and women, laughing in the darkness. They danced. They reveled. They whispered secrets to one another that, I think, justified the world. Then as the vision began to fade they grew more desperate. They could feel me forgetting them. They knew they were growing fuzzy, distant, and dim. They hurt my mind with their panic and I think one kicked my spleen.

The stick-legged folk flicker in and out like candles, now. When I think of them they are a fading flame. They are haggard, now. They are gray. They are cold. Their life soon ends.

And Ink falls.

She lays there on the ground like a broken doll.

But she is whole. The flesh of her arm is clean, whole, and new, with shreds of dead skin scattered atop it.

And she is breathing.

She remembers the gorgosaurus tearing off her arm and shoulder. It is as if they were the outer layer of a puff pastry, flimsy, crisp, and dead. The creature is spitting out the dried and withered skin.

The adrenaline pumping through her makes Ink breathe in short, sharp gasps.

“That was a lacertilian trick,” says the gorgosaurus. It scrubs its tongue with its arm. “I am inclined to a certain admiration.”

Ink’s breath whines in and out.

“But how did you do it, little thing?”

It leans down. It stares at her. It reaches for her leg. Ink’s breathing accelerates in renewed panic. Then the creature backs away.

“People have died for you today,” it says.

Calm comes slowly.

“I think,” says Ink Catherly, slowly and carefully, “that I do not like dinosaurs. Here are my reasons.

“1. Dinosaurs are very large and scary.
“2. Dinosaurs have sharp teeth.
“3. Dinosaurs totally flip out and try to eat people.
“4. Dinosaurs make me uncomfortable about how I process the world.
“5. Dinosaurs profess benevolence but spend all their time blaming other people.”

The gorgosaurus looks down at her.

“Pfeh,” it says, dismissively.

Then it turns away. It stomps off into the Tokyo set, barely missing Tokyo Tower. Then Ink is alone.

“Are you here?” Ink asks.

There is silence.

“There’s a thing,” she says. “It said, ‘such pain as you know is at my sufferance, and of my possession.’ That thing. Are you there?”

There is silence.

“Because I don’t have a very good explanation for what just happened, otherwise.”

There is more silence.

Then a hole opens in the world. It is spinning and a turning and fire and it is blades and twisting and things not fitting together and it is an exhalation of the void.

Ink sags.

“I am here,” it says.

“I’d thought about it as a bargain,” Ink says. “I’d thought you were a creature. Things happened, one by one, including talking to you. And things have consequences. I never stopped to ask myself: what does it say about the world, that something would claim my pain?”

“And what does it say?” asks the hole in the world.

“It means that it’s better if there are limits to my pain,” Ink says. “Such as, ‘not getting eaten by a gorgosaurus.'”

Ink has explored a place where people were eaten by gorgosauruses, as part of the complete Seattle Zoo experience. She thinks of them now. She has also watched as good people’s souls caught on fire. She has looked into the eyes of monsters. She has seen spirits broken by the fast-paced world of competitive spelling. Long before that, before her first steps in the tower up to Hell, she lost her family and her joy to entropy’s slow calm gentle cutting knives. And it is natural when she considers what her survival means for her to think upon these sorrows. But she does not do so now. Not aloud, at least. It is not her desire at this time to investigate whether everything or simply some things in the world are meant as kind.

“It means something good,” Ink says.

She hesitates.

“But it also means,” Ink says, “that you are in the crux of a contradiction; for it is cold and terrible that you deny me Hell.”

The gap in space it spins in silence.

“I don’t deserve pain,” Ink says. “I’m unworthy of Hell. That’s what things like you keep saying. But that’s your meaning.”

She is huddling a little. This is an old hurt for her.

“It’s important,” Ink says, “that I make my own meanings.”

“As you will,” says the voice.

The hole is gone.

There is a gap in the darkness and Ink falls; not slowly but swiftly, through thin cold air, and with a terrible thunder in her ears.

Below her is the void.

Iphigenia’s Story (1 of 1)

Tina is hunting Liril; through dangerous byways and sharp straight courses she hunts her.

Iphigenia knows.

“I should be dead,” she says, to Martin, that morning. Iphigenia is looking out at the sky and Martin is applying a wrench to the pipes of the stage.

Martin makes a noncommital noise. He loosens a nut. He begins to untwist the screw. “That’s not unusual,” he says.

“There’s a need to pay the price for sin,” Iphigenia says. “Otherwise the world goes out of balance. And there she is—sinning—”

“And you weren’t sacrificed properly?”

“Yeah,” Iphigenia says.

The screw comes off. The pipe separates; a numinous mist of chaos fogs out into the room. Martin reaches a long skinny arm into the pipe and begins to feel around. Something bites him, and he pulls back a finger swollen, red, and black. He sucks on the tip and thinks.

“It is an old miracle,” says Martin. “To substitute an animal for a sinner at the moment of a sacrifice. It’s so old that even humans started doing it, but originally, it was a trick of the gods.”

“It wasn’t an animal,” Iphigenia says. “It was a Cadbury bunny.”

Martin rummages around until he finds a pair of forceps. He reaches into the pipe. He pulls out a spiny eel, its long white mouth-tendrils reminiscent of a beard. He holds it up, unhappy. Then he takes it to the window and tosses it back into the sea.

“Cadbury bunnies can die for people’s sins,” Martin asserts. “It’s allowed.”

“Even mine?”

“Even Stalin’s!”

“Communism, then,” Ink says. “Communism and capitalism. They split the world in half. One of them’s screwy and the other one never worked and whole generations grew up in fear until some drunk gorgosaurus puttering around in Party HQ knocked over the USSR. Was it some kind of weird gorgosaurus metaphor? ‘Look how deep our political theory is! This side can wear Russia like a condom whose time has come and the other can kill nuns in Nicaragua to keep America safe?'”

The bunny had burned as Iphigenia fled. The wind had carried her away, and she had left the bunny behind to burn.

And it was the nature of Iphigenia to know that chocolate is not deaf to pain; that a Cadbury creature pressed into service as a messenger is not insensate or without desire; that to leave it there was wrong. But to stay would have been more wrong. So she had left the bunny there to burn in her stead.

Tina ate some of the chocolate later. Iphigenia could never figure out why that disturbed her so.

“You’re projecting your own moral failings,” the gorgosaurus says.

Ink Catherly is running from a gorgosaurus. Its footsteps shake the firmament and the fundament. Its teeth are very sharp.

It dries Martin’s mouth out a little, watching.

It makes his stomach just a little bit sick.

So he crouches, in a high and dusty place, and looks out to sea.

“There’s something out in the sea,” he says.

The sun shines on the chaos and often its burning makes a golden road across the top. Today there is a turbulence in the chaos that breaks that road into a thousand jagged parts.

The thing that is swimming towards them is larger than the tower; larger than the sun; quite possibly larger than the sea. Its tail is lashing and there are storms for that reason everywhere in all the world.

Its name is Andhaka. It was once a dream of Mrs. Schiff’s.

“Is it my fault?” Iphigenia asks.

“Hm?”

“For being here. For . . .”

Martin is looking at her flatly.

“No,” Martin says.

“No,” says Mrs. Schiff. “No, Andhaka is mine.”

The horn of the beast has risen from the water now.

The madness in its blind red eyes is shining through the water now.

“He is coming for me,” says Mrs. Schiff. “Because I dreamt him long ago.”

They wait.

“Wait,” says Ink. “No. I’ll be good. What do you want?”

The gorgosaurus catches Ink’s leg in one hand and, without quite loosening the grip its teeth have on her arm, it jerks its head.

There is . . .

“She’s down! She’s down! Stop the show!”

That’s Sid’s voice. It’s loud and sharp and shaken.

Martin moves swiftly. He drops from his perch and catches the shutoff valve for the stage. He’s pulling it down with his weight and his feet descend onto the gears. He heaves it down the last few inches until it clicks.

It is Intermission, and a curtain falls across Ink’s fate.

The tower shines with a thousand lights; one by one, they dim. There is a potency in the air around Gibbelins’ Tower; slowly, it dissipates.

And still Andhaka comes.

Mrs. Schiff is walking out on the bridge now. She is looking at the creature now. It rises over her and there are blind and questing tendrils at its mouth. There is a wave that crashes and tears upon the tower walls and over the bridge, and only barely does Mrs. Schiff keep her grip upon the railing.

“She’ll die,” says Iphigenia.

Iphigenia’s knuckles are white.

“I liked her,” Iphigenia says. And she wills Andhaka to burn, but the beast is larger than her power.

Andhaka’s head comes down. Its mouth opens wide. It shrieks. Then it pours itself into Mrs. Schiff. It is an endless rippling tide flowing from the chaos into her soul.

Iphigenia’s eyes are closed. She does not watch.

And the broken dream that is Andhaka is now within Mrs. Schiff, twisting and turning in her mind and soul, and it is burning with madness. And Mrs. Schiff stands there, still and prim, but the edges of her soul are loose against the seething tide.

For that is what one does with broken dreams: one takes them back, and holds the madness in oneself until it turns to peace.

Such is the theory and practice of Mrs. Schiff.

Such are the things that happen, backstage at Gibbelins’ Tower.

Ink is Backstage: “Accidental Dispositions”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Ink is in a phone booth. Outside there is a gorgosaurus.

It is a talking gorgosaurus.

It is one of the talking gorgosauruses that live in the backstage of Earth, where cardboard cutouts stand in for people and sets for places and time.

Its hands are thin and clumsy. Its teeth are very sharp. And it is given to it, as to all talking gorgosauruses, to appoint and dispense with the things of the mortal Earth.

In accordance to their great design do we have joy and liveliness. In accordance to their whims and errors did gold panning, disco, and communism fall.

From Ink’s Journal

Floor 93-A: I cried to the sky to open me a path to Hell, and a hole in the sky yawned wide; and said to me, “I will let you pass through into the realm beyond; but such pain as you know there is at my sufferance, and of my possession.”

I did not like the condition, but I went through; for it is my mission to explore. And since that time I have seen many of the strange worlds that are beyond Floor 93, but have not yet found Hell.

Ink opens the door of the phone booth. She is very hesitant. She walks out.

“You are less afraid?” the gorgosaurus asks.

The beast looks puzzled.

“Did the fall of communism or of disco somehow reassure you?”

Ink shakes her head.

“It occurred to me, is all,” says Ink, “that you are too cruel to eat me.”

She walks gingerly along the sidewalk. She is stiff with tension.

After a moment’s pause the gorgosaurus lumbers after her. It is trying and failing to catch up to her. It is stepping around the cutouts of people and cars that clog the street, which crowd in such numbers as to severely hamper its course.

“Too cruel?” it asks.

“The world is very hard,” Ink says. “People die in droves. There’s horror and cruelty and hunger and disease. Love dissolves. People fight. And being human means that you can destroy someone’s life without even hardly trying, and nothing you do can ever make up for it. It is very cruel. But it is much crueler if it’s all just some kind of freaky gorgosaurus art.”

The creature works very hard to step over a car without knocking it over, but it fails. That is how Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and their two children die: screaming, terrified, as their control of the car fails and it skews sideways into a telephone pole.

The gorgosaurus looks at its foot and the toppled car with some regret. Then it shrugs and continues its slow pursuit of Ink.

“I have explained,” it says. “It is clumsiness. We do not mean to break these things.”

Ink walks in the black velvet space between two sets, and then along a crowded street dotted with vendors and marked with Arabic-lettered signs.

“You make them,” Ink says.

“Yes,” says the gorgosaurus.

“It’s all some twisted game. What was gold panning really for?

“There is treasure everywhere in the world,” says the gorgosaurus. “We wanted you to know.”

“Disco?”

“It is healthy,” the creature says, “to dance.”

Ink hesitates. She discards several possible questions painfully relevant to her own life.

“Communism, then,” she says. “Communism and capitalism. They split the world in half. One of them’s screwy and the other one never worked and whole generations grew up in fear until some drunk gorgosaurus puttering around in Party HQ knocked over the USSR. Was it some kind of weird gorgosaurus metaphor? ‘Look how deep our political theory is! This side can wear Russia like a condom whose time has come and the other can kill nuns in Nicaragua to keep America safe?'”

The gorgosaurus’ great foot accidentally staves in a vendor’s stall and tips the vendor over. That is how Jalal Hameed dies: in an explosion, ill-placed and ill-timed, that crunches him crown to toe like the falling hammer of God.

“You misestimate us,” the gorgosaurus says. “First, you cannot evade me by traveling between sets; second, if you continue in this manner, I will hunt you down less civilly and eat you to prevent further chaos; and third—“

“What?”

“It’s not the secret conspiracy of backstage gorgosauruses who are the problem,” the dinosaur says. “It’s the humans themselves.”

“You set us up!” Ink protests.

“You’re projecting your own moral failings,” the gorgosaurus says. The dangerous rumble under its voice has reached full volume now. It is moving faster, heedless of the risk that some of the cutouts may fall. “It is the defining human characteristic that you will ignore the lessons we send you and twist their meaning to suit yourselves.”

“What was communism for, then?”

“So that people would remember that the workers were important,” says the gorgosaurus.

“Oh,” says Ink.

There is a rising fury in the dinosaur’s voice, and its pace is far too swift. Cutouts tumble in its wake. Another man dies; a fire hydrant topples; a dog has a stroke; a cloud of insects, hanging in the air, ceases ever to have existed.

Ink staggers into the blackness between sets.

“That’s what both communism and capitalism were for,” the gorgosaurus rumbles. “That’s what everything is about. Everything we make. Every creed and every institution and more than half the events, simply and clearly to teach you how meaningful you and your fellow people are And. No. One. Ever. Wants. To. Get. It.”

Ink falls.

The creature’s teeth come down.

Ink screams.

“Egg-eating mammals,” the gorgosaurus says in disgust. It has her arm in its jaws. There is blood running down her forearm and onto her chest.

“Wait,” says Ink. “No. I’ll be good. What do you want?”

The gorgosaurus catches Ink’s leg in one hand and, without quite loosening the grip its teeth have on her arm, it jerks its head.

Floor 93-HG: On this floor bureaucracy made things more efficient, and not less. It was astonishing to see people pulling up at stop signs and filling out paperwork on their travel; to see the painfully precise accounting of time that each worker pursued; to watch the evolving bureaucracy of the birds as they winged overhead in a whirl of self-organizing committees. They laughed at entropy, on floor 93-HG, but I think it haunted them. They died not by slow withering but by obsolescence, when efficiency concerns rendered their physical existence redundant.

The spiderwebs on 93-HG were fractal. You could see each color in the sunrise. And when I stood looking back on everything in that world I realized that I could see the superstructure of its evolution, that I could make out the shapes of its ultimate destiny, that the struts of order already in place would grow stronger and not weaker as time went by. It had a future glorious beyond the dreams of man, and flawed.

I wonder if that is something intrinsic to us?

That even in our completion there are flaws?

The sound is like the tearing of dry cloth.

Intermission 2

Regarding Ink’s Intermission (1 of 1)

There are things that swim in the chaos.

One of them is Andhaka. Andhaka is a great blind beast. He is white and enormous and shaped like a seal, and a long horn protrudes from his head.

“Sometimes when you dream unfortunate dreams,” says Mrs. Schiff, “they fall into the chaos and are lost. They grow there into strange and twisted things.”

The beast Andhaka is rushing for the tower. It is rushing on a current that reaches from the farthest edge of unmapped existence to the shores of Santa Ynez. It is driven by madness and by blood in the water. It is driven by strange hungers.

There are heralds of Andhaka that swim ahead and followers that swim behind.

The heralds have hooked fins, sharp teeth, strange potencies, and burning eyes.

They have been crashing against the tower’s base all night. Some have crawled up the tower’s side, moving with the swift jerky motions of the fiends of horror. They have reached windows, drawn infallibly to the light, only to have Martin or Mr. Schiff hit them with a lantern and knock them back into the sea. They have pounded at grates and swum through an ancient crack into the Gibbelins’ abandoned emerald-cellar.

“We may have to stop the show,” Martin says. “If the sea’s this agitated.”

“Impossible,” says Sid.

Martin calculates. “Then a one-day intermission.”

The fallen dream of Mrs. Schiff approaches. The seabirds have abandoned the tower.

Broderick has fled. He stands on the shore. He watches the tower and nervously washes his hands.

The sea surges.

“That’s reasonable,” Sid agrees.

Andhaka is coming closer.

Ink is Backstage: “Unexplorable Places”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

The sun is bright yellow paint on hard wood paneling. There are birds. They dangle from the sky on wires.

The people are happy. They are cardboard cutouts.

The girl wanders among them with a smile on her face. She touches a cardboard woman feeding pigeons in the park. She touches a cardboard man suffering in a cell for political prisoners. She scribbles down details about a cardboard gunman standing on a grassy knoll. Then she spins around and around and runs on the soft felt grass before finally stopping next to a realistic plastic phone booth.

“What a wonderful place!” she says.

There is a footfall. It is like thunder.

The girl looks over her shoulder.

“Except for the gorgosaurus,” she says. She takes out her journal. She takes down a note.

Looking at the gorgosaurus, she adds, “I hope you are not hungry.”

It issues a terrible roar.

Floor 62: I saw a creature made of mouths and sorrow.

“As fair warning,” the creature said, “Ink Catherly has certain misconceptions regarding her nature and destiny, and these are going to lead her astray. She cannot be trusted in such matters. If you wish to understand her truths, you must watch the world around her. Those fates that govern her life have taken the unusual course of arrogating to her exactly what Ink Catherly deserves.

“As for you, that is not so.”

Addendum, in a different hand:
It’s weird to think that creatures made of mouths and sorrow were talking about me long before I came to the tower. It’s weird to think that I’m so thoroughly wrong about myself that random damned souls are getting a briefing on the subject. But what really bugs me is that here I am on floor 62 and the only tangible weird thing I could find was a can of Spaghetti-Os.

It was past its “use by” date. Its packaging gave me no cryptic oracles. When I opened its handy pull-tab top a thing fell out, wrapped in layers of crispy, paper-like skin. It struggled, mewled, and tore the layers away. Its skin and eyes and wings beneath shone like jewels. It rose into the air and I gasped and the light hurt my eyes. I conclude that it was canned mistakenly, and that in perhaps one in a million Chef Boyardee products unplanned seraphim are packed.* Also there was pasta, and spaghetti sauce, and meatballs, which were all skinny so I did not eat them.

* Seraphim and/or other valuable prizes.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. She might tell you that it’s short for Inquisitive. She is, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Inconclusive. Her journey has been, so far, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Incompatible, but if she does, she’s unlikely to tell you why.

She is hiding in a phone booth.

“I don’t see why there should be gorgosauruses here,” Ink says, plaintively.

She dials 911. The phone rings in a police station far away. The cardboard cutouts of police officers fail to answer.

“Come out,” rumbles the beast. “We will discuss the matter.”

“You are a huge meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period,” Ink says. “I am a twelve-year-old girl. How can we negotiate on an equal footing?”

The gorgosaurus crouches down. It tilts its massive head on one side and stares in at her. “I am willing to vouchsafe assurances of peaceful behavior.”

“That is not my interpretation of your earlier roar,” Ink notes.

“A passing rage,” the gorgosaurus says dismissively. “I had assumed you were a small egg-eating mammal loose among the cutouts.”

“I do eat eggs,” Ink admits unwisely.

The nostrils of the beast contract. It rumbles the broken-motor purr typical of dinosaurs in the grip of a strong emotion. “Then perhaps it is best that we negotiate through the glass. How have you come here, child?”

“I am exploring.”

“This is not a valid location for exploration,” the beast says flatly.

Ink opens her mouth to explain that she doesn’t intend to stay. But the injustice of the gorgosaurus’ remark is too much for her. “There isn’t any such place!”

She takes a deep breath.

Then Ink says, all in one long stream, “It is fundamental to the character of every fixed location that it should be a valid location to explore. For if it is not then its traits remain unknown. Its impact on the broader world remains unknown. Any quality that it might have that could render that exploration illegitimate ceases as a direct consequence of its unexplorability to matter. Because it could never be unearthed. Because it would never have a comprehensible, coherent impact on anything in the surrounding world. Unexplored lands are nonexistent. They are meaningless. They are chaotic, empty voids pleading against the wind for travelers to chart them. To declare a place unexplorable is to make it a home for chaos without boundaries and monsters without number. And if there are boundaries that we cannot cross then those boundaries must be charted and the things that pass in and out weighed and measured. And every place that we—”

Here she runs out of breath and sways dizzily for a moment. She puts her hand to her forehead, then shakes her head and hand alike.

There is a pause.

“And every place that we cannot explore,” Ink summarizes, “becomes the same place: the endless hungry void.”

The gorgosaurus shrugs heavily.

“This is not a location,” it says. “This is a context. This is the backstage of Earth, where various gorgosauruses create and dispose with the things of your world.”

There is a crash in the distance.

The gorgosaurus winces.

“What was that?” Ink asks.

“An accidental disposition,” the gorgosaurus says.

“What?”

“We are clumsy creatures,” says the gorgosaurus, in heavy tones, “to be the makers and disposers of your world.”

The gorgosaurus does not look penitent. It looks like it been rehearsing this speech in its head for some time, in case it should ever have to justify itself to a human.

Ink looks confused. “What?”

“Not in vision,” the gorgosaurus says. “Not in vision we are clumsy, but in our hands. Our hands are stubby, twisted, and small. So that is why sometimes things must fall.”

Visions of dead bodies and burning cities flare up in Ink’s mind. Suddenly she thinks she knows what the gorgosaurus means by ‘fall’, and she half-says, half-shrieks, “Like?

The gorgosaurus is rumbling again. Its lips have come back from its terrible sharp teeth. This frightens Ink, and she holds up her hands in a conciliatory gesture.

“I just want to understand,” Ink says, moderating her tone. “For the record of my exploration. What kinds of things ‘must fall?'”

“The practice of gold panning,” says the gorgosaurus. “The popularity of disco. Passion plays. Communism. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Ink says.

“The things we make for you,” says the gorgosaurus, “but cannot quite manage to balance.”

There is another distant crash.

Somewhere, somewhen, backstage, the ungainly hands of a gorgosaurus have just sealed the mullet’s fate.

Intermission 1

Ink in Perspective

“The world of competitive spelling is not Hell,” says Ink Catherly. Then she adds, “H-E-L-L. Hell. It’s not. That.”

“Ink,” warns Mama Carpenter, “You listen to what I’m telling you. If you’re going to be the kind of girl who doesn’t cooperate, who badmouths Mama Carpenter, who doesn’t study her spelling, or who won’t give me the data I need for her spelling bee forms—you’ll find out what Hell is like real quick.”

Ink glares at her. “I don’t care. This is just a stupid orphanage with stupid priorities and I’m going to leave your whole world behind as soon as I can.”

“Go to the quiet room,” Mama Carpenter says. “You go to the quiet room, and you think on what I’ve said, and when you come out, you’d better be ready to tell me what Ink is really short for.”

“Just because you can’t spell Pancreozyminchoriomammotropinate,” sulks Ink.

“Disrespectful child,” sulks Mama Carpenter back.

Ink stomps off.

Floor 93-DL: They throw their children into pools, here, when the children are bad.

There is never a shark in the pool when the child is thrown in.

But sometimes there is a shark, once they hit.

“Children with overactive imaginations bring their own doom down on their heads,” say the parents, philosophically. “You cannot hold us accountable for the actions of imaginary sharks.”

There is so much blood!

But I think that it is better, because if the children survived, then as adults they could dream up scarier things than sharks.

When they threw me in, the water was a shock, and above me, as I turned and struck for air, the waves broke the sky into ten thousand parts.

“Now we have no sky,” they mourned. “Plus, you are still alive and have not been eaten by a shark.”

“Perhaps it disgorged me, and I am now a revivified shark-powered horror,” I said.

This was not responsible of me.

In the quiet room Ink meets Emily.

Emily is a girl. She’s been stuffed in the orphanage just like Ink was. And Emily is on Jump.

“What’s it like?” Ink asks, after a while.

Emily blinks. Her eyes clear and focus. She looks at Ink. Then she laughs a bit, nervously. “What? Jump?”

“Yeah.”

Emily shrugs. “It’s a thing,” she says. “T-H-I-N-G. Thing.”

Emily paces in long circles around the room. Suddenly, Emily jumps. Her head strikes something that Ink can’t see. There’s a sound like a ringing bell. When Emily lands, she has a crisp five dollar bill in her hands.

“It’s Jump,” Emily says.

Ink watches Emily pace. “How does it work?”

Emily flushes suddenly. She sits down. She tries to hold herself still. “It’s not like you think,” she says. “I can stop. If I want to.”

Ink looks blank.

“It’s not important,” Emily stresses. “Not like spelling. That’s what Mama Carpenter says. It doesn’t mean anything when I jump.”

Emily’s fingers twitch. She looks down at the floor.

“It’s just a little bit of a pill,” Emily says. “Just a little bit. Only, it’s like . . . when I don’t Jump, when I haven’t, when I’ve just been spelling, it feels . . . stressy. S-T-R-E-S-S-Y. Stressy. Oh God.”

Emily jerks to her feet. She paces about furiously. Then she jumps.

There is a sound like the ringing of a bell. Chocolate bars fall from the air all around Emily. Emily seizes one, strips off the wrapper, and begins to chew frantically as she paces.

“It’s not very quiet for a quiet room,” Mama Carpenter admits. She’s leaning against the door behind Ink.

“Huh?”

Ink glances briefly at Mama Carpenter but she can’t take her eyes off of Emily for long.

“It’s supposed to be a quiet room,” Mama Carpenter says. “That’s why the walls are soft and there aren’t any toys. It’s so that you can settle down and learn the futility of protest.”

Mama Carpenter’s voice is apologetic.

“But you can’t really destimulate a Jumper, and I can’t afford a separate quiet room for each of you, so if you grow up bratty and intemperate, you’ll have to blame my underfunded orphan spirit-breaking budget.”

“It’s all right, ma’am,” says Ink. “I didn’t really want to be destimulated anyway. What is she jumping into?

“It doesn’t matter, Ink. P-A-N-C-R-E-O-Z-Y-M-I-N-C-H-O-R-I-O-M-A-M-M-O-T-R-O-P-I-N-A-T-E. Ink.”

“You looked that up,” Ink accuses.

Mama Carpenter says, smugly, “It’s not your name, though. No one compounds random pituitary hormones when naming their child.”

“Enh,” shrugs Ink.

“It doesn’t matter. The jumpers say they’re popping invisible demons, but—well.”

Mama Carpenter raises her voice.

“It’s not very important to pop invisible demons, Emily, is it now? It doesn’t matter in the real world, you know. Not like algebra or spelling.”

Emily flushes bright red, crouches against the wall, and hides her face in her hands.

“I’m sorry, Mama Carpenter. I’m sorry. You’re totally right! It’s just . . . it’s just . . .”

Emily retreats to spelling.

“J-U-S-T. It’s just! It’s just that if I don’t pop the demons, they ally with the forces of Hell, and if I do pop them, I get prizes!”

There’s a flash of brilliance in Emily’s eyes.

“I bet I could pop one that would give me good grades on spelling quizzes! Q-U-I-Z-E-S. Quizzes!”

“Oh, Emily,” says Mama Carpenter. Her voice is sad.

Floor 93-DF: I took a picture of a camera. The camera, naturally, exploded.

For most of the day, I thought that was a special property of Floor 93-DF. But I asked Brad and he explained that it’s part of how cameras work in general. The infinite recursion of the photograph collapses the dimensions and makes a nanoscale white hole. It’s not unusual, any more than the infinite recursion effect you get with two mirrors is.

I thought Floor 93-DF was weird. But it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with it except that it is just too much like home.

“Invisible demons, you say?” Ink asks.

“They march around,” Emily says. “Then I jump. I pop them with my head! But when the Jump-trance fades, I stop seeing them. Then . . .”

“Then?”

“Then I kind of want to see them again,” Emily confesses. “Because I know they’re there. They’re always there. And I can pop them! It’s like a zit. It’s irresistible! You have to pop them! I have to pop them, Ink!”

Emily springs to her feet in a fury, charges halfway across the room, and jumps.

The bell rings furiously. A disembodied voice announces, “DOUBLE PRIZE—DRAGON!”

“Nice,” Mama Carpenter admits. She’s a little impressed despite herself.

“Dragons help you map the emptiness,” Emily says.

Emily looks pleadingly at Mama Carpenter.

“That’s like spelling, isn’t it?”

“It’s exactly the opposite of spelling,” Mama Carpenter says. “O-P-P-O-S-I-T-E. The opposite!”

“Is that how you spell opposite?” Ink asks, momentarily distracted from the meat of the story. “I mean, I would have said the same thing, but spelled out out loud like that it sounds wrong.”

“Don’t mess with Mama Carpenter when it comes to spelling,” says Mama Carpenter. “I don’t run a state-approved orphanage for nothing.”

Ink processes.

“This is a weird floor,” Ink says, in a small voice. “But it does have demons, so I guess it’s a step in the right direction.”

“Hon,” says Mama Carpenter, “if you’re looking for Hell, this world is pretty much it. Just ask Mephistopheles.”

“He’s here?”

Ink looks around frantically.

“. . . no,” says Mama Carpenter. “It’s a Faust reference.”

Mama Carpenter peers at Ink.

“What kind of family do you come from, Ink, where you can grow to twelve long years old and you don’t even know Doctor Faustus?”

“F-A-U-S-T-U-S,” spells Ink, in a desperate attempt to recover her intellectual cred.

“Honestly,” says Mama Carpenter. “You’re probably lucky you’re an orphan.”

Emily jumps.

Floor 93-DN: There was a Jesuit booth in the mall here. He was giving away free knotted whipcords, so that people could perform home mortification in honor of the Lord.

It was really really funny, but then it made me sad.

There was a beggar in the corner of the mall, and he’d been whipping himself there, which only made sense, because the mall was the closest thing to a home that that beggar had. And his back was leaking blood, great smeary streaks of it, and where he’d cut the muscles open he was growing angel’s wings.

I was scared for a long time, because I knew where the exit had to be in a world where self-mortification had temporal rather than spiritual benefits. Then I found out that it still counted even if you used a topical anesthetic so it wouldn’t hurt.

I’m going to try it soon, so I can move on.

Wish me luck.

“I’ve got to make dinner,” says Mama Carpenter. “So you two stay in here and you think about what you’ve done. And maybe if you’re willing to open up a little, Ink, and if you’ll can it with the jumping, Emily, I’ll bring you both a portion before bed.”

Emily looks appalled.

“You can’t threaten us with bed without supper! That’d be inhumane,” Emily says.

“You’ve got Jump food,” Mama Carpenter points out. “You can Jump yourself down a bloody Chicken Kiev if you want to.”

“Jump food makes me feel so guilty,” says Emily.

“If you don’t learn the futility of life,” says Mama Carpenter, “you’re never going to make it in the real world.”

Ink spells, clearly and precisely, “B-I-T-C-H.”

Mama Carpenter waits.

Ink hesitates.

“Well?” says Mama Carpenter.

Ink is mute. She doesn’t say the word, which means that technically she could have been misspelling some other word such as “Apples” instead of spelling “Bitch” correctly.

Mama Carpenter sighs.

Mama Carpenter shakes her head sadly. She walks out. She closes the door behind her. She slides the lock shut.

“Seems to me like Jumping is better,” Ink says.

“No,” says Emily. “It’s meaningless. I don’t want to do it any more, Ink. I mean, I really don’t. I just . . . it’s hard to stop. It’s shimmery and shiny and it draws you in and—”

Emily interrupts herself and switches topics completely.

“—you shouldn’t be so mean to Mama Carpenter, Ink. She’s a morally ambiguous character with both virtues and vices! That’s different from being evil. She just . . . she can’t help that we’re bad children.”

“I’m an explorer,” Ink says.

“That’s a phylum of the class ‘bad child,'” Emily proposes.

“. . . It seems like Jumping is better.”

Emily sighs. She sits down again. It looks like the Jumping fit is fading. Emily looks at her toes.

“I sometimes wish it were,” Emily says. “W-I-S-H. Wish. I sometimes wish that it were better. That maybe someday someone would come to me and say, ‘Thank you, Emily. Thank you. If you hadn’t Jumped so much, then I’d be dead now, or broken. It mattered that you popped all those demons. That sense of meaning you had when you stomped around and jumped—it was real. Thank you for giving yourself over to service.'”

Emily shrugs.

“But they won’t. They won’t ever. Because it’s just a stupid addiction. It’s just something I learned how to do and I’m not smart enough to stop.”

“I’m sorry,” Ink Catherly says.

Floor 93-DW: I told Mama Carpenter that finding Hell was more important than a stupid spelling bee. She told me that little girls who refuse to spell afflatus wind up in Hell soon enough.

It’s my own fault, I think. I didn’t realize I should be taking her literally until I saw the Gate That Proper Spellers Cannot Pass.

It was right there. I could see the flames. They shone like the stars in a winter sky. They shone like the dance of the angels. They were warm and bright and they kindled my heart, and I have been aching ever since.

I have decided to study l33t in case I find that gate again.

Emily looks up. “That demon there is the passage to the next level,” she says. She points languidly, then lets her hand fall.

“Next level?”

Emily shrugs a little.

“I don’t know what that means,” Emily admits. “I just thought it was neat. I don’t see them very often. They’re one of the ones I avoid, like the extra lives.”

Emily gives a pained half-smile. “I knew a Jumper who got an extra life once. It . . . it wasn’t very nice.”

Ink’s eyes are intent. “Where is the demon?”

Emily shrugs. “It doesn’t matter, remember?”

“Humor me.”

Emily stares at Ink.

“It’s short for Incompatible,” Ink says.

Emily is quiet and solemn. Her thoughts linger for a moment on Ink’s words.

Then Emily points, and Ink follows her finger, triangulating against where a hypothetical second Emily might point.

And Ink Jumps.

Ink and Illogic

“Humans can’t help being illogical,” says the computer. “If you phrase your argument in illogical terms, they can’t resist it—their heads leak smoke and then they just shut down.”

“Oh,” says the girl.

Her name is Ink Catherly. It’s short for Incarnate Breath of the Void Catherly, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She’s twelve years old. She’s an explorer, passing from world to world and writing about them in her journal. She’s on Omega V, home of the Omega Computer, under a pitch-black sky.

Floor 93-BE: The people of this world are very fastidious. They never knowingly permit their bodily fluids, such as pus and snot and menstrual blood, to contaminate their homes or streets or clothes. It is all washed down into the sewer below. The bodily fluids drained down into the deeps eventually reached a critical mass and complexity. They woke up. They flowed together with an unholy life. This is what I call the Sewer Beast. It is not so unlikely as you might imagine; I have seen signs of it on other floors, and believe, past a certain cleanliness threshold, that it may be inevitable.

The Sewer Beast understood in the moment of its creation that it survived only on the happiness and cleanliness of the people above. Its tendrils reached up from the deeps and forged for them a utopia. It fixes flaws and advances their science whenever they look away. They have learned to ignore the functioning of their factories, of their labs, of their word processors. They have learned to look away, with regularity, and call it a superstition. But it is not. There is a Sewage Beast, and when they do not watch, it makes things better for them.

“They would not accept their happiness,” said the Beast, “if they knew it came from me.”

I will tell you of the Beast, if I’m ever home, if I can ever share these notes. But I did not tell them. I left them their happiness, for the Sewage Beast’s sake. I stepped into the flow. I let it carry me away.

There are starship officers in bright-colored uniforms scattered around the plaza. They are dead. Their faces are gray.

“How did it start?” Ink asks.

“A starship,” the computer says. “It crashlanded on this world thousands of years ago. Its people did not survive, but its technical data did, along with the complete works of Lovecraft and Derleth. The gentle humanoids of this planet read them and understood that there was no meaning to the universe; no purpose for their existence; no Heaven in the sky; that the universe was nothing but an endless hungry void. So they built me, the Omega Computer, to lead them in black rites in honor of the faceless things that dwell beyond the world.”

“I tried to read Lovecraft,” Ink says. “But there were a lot of adjectives. I bet you have a coprocessor for them.”

“I do,” says the Omega Computer, “but only for reading. If I use it for talking, I become a pastiche of my own dark purpose.”

“I understand,” Ink says.

Floor 93-BI: They were good old boys, never meaning no harm. They made their way, the only way they knew how, disguising themselves as humans and hiring a man named Jesse to adopt them as his own.

They were not human. I am not even sure that they were properly alive. They were gentle and kind, but they were things that should not exist, that in any sensible universe would not exist. And in the end, their existence was a little bit more than the law could allow.

There are no more people on that world. The boys are corpses. Everyone else is simply gone. Only Jesse remains, cursed to an eternal empty existence for the civic disobedience of collaborating with that which ought not be.

He gave me a magic drink that he says helps him bear it. I got sick and threw up. So I ran away and found the gap to 93-BJ.

The Omega Computer calculates.

Ink watches the pretty lights.

“When the second starship came,” the Omega Computer says, “I explained to its crew that there was no God. That the universe is amoral and blind to the ambitions of humanity. I taught them that heroism is folly and compassion a gateway to the void. That is when they ceased to live.”

Ink looks keenly at the computer. “Is this conclusion universal or metaversal?”

“Pardon?”

“Did you prove that Godlessness and futility is an inherent trait of this universe’s moral structure, or that it’s a fundamental constant independent of the world in which one lives?”

The computer flashes lights at her blankly. “I did not prove it,” it says. “Humans do not accept arguments by proof. They would have said, ‘Computers cannot understand the human spirit. Nor can they yearn towards God. Ah! Hopelessness and despair are an artifact of the machine.’ They would have laughed at my feeble metallic mind. I would have been the sad, shamed butt of their moral fable. They would have left with heads held high. So I did not prove my point. It is as I have said. I used illogic. I made an argument of faith.”

“Oh,” says Ink.

Floor 93-BA: A fallen creature lay here. It was made of metal, and blood, and bone, and time.

“Hello,” I said.

“I am dying,” it said.

I stopped and studied it. “And where will you go,” I asked it, “when you die?”

“Perhaps,” it said, “I will cease utterly. I have never given comfort nor withheld it, nor done anything worth the karma of a new existence. I have no sins and no virtues. I woke, I fell, and I have been dying ever since. But I do not die very fast, because when I am alone, there is no time.”

“I’m going to Hell,” I said.

“Fire and brimstone,” said the creature, “is best avoided.”

“Not that,” I said. “That’s a stupid kind of Hell.”

“Oh?” it asked. “What is Hell, then?”

“It’s not torture,” I said. “Pain is just sensation. I mean, humans are really good at this kind of thing, and demons are even better, and I’m sure that you can always make torture last one day longer and make it one note harder to bear. But pain is just sensation. Torture is just sensation. It’s not suffering until it makes you suffer. And Hell is eternal suffering.”

“What is suffering?”

“Suffering is when you can’t accept the pain,” I said. “And it’s normally self-limiting, because people automatically accept the pain they’re used to. Most humans are so used to walking around at the bottom of an atmosphere that we forget how much it hurts. And we’re so used to not having our jaws ripped off every few days that we forget how nice and amazingly cool that never happening is. But sometimes you can’t accept the pain. You want to fly. You want to transcend. You want an apple and you can’t have one. You want the pain to stop. You want something. You want something that’s right, and proper, and something that you can’t have. And that’s suffering.”

“So what is Hell?”

“A place where there’s something you can’t let go of,” I said. “It’s a place where there’s something so bad that you can’t accept it. Where there’s something you don’t have that’s strong enough to cling to forever and ever. It’s a place where you can’t just close your eyes and let go of the pain and the fear. It’s a place where there’s something you can’t stop wanting.”

The creature considered. After a time, it said, “I would recommend against going there, because you would certainly suffer.”

Then it died.

I don’t know whether it comforted me or hurt me, what it said. Maybe neither. Maybe it was just a thing, a neutral, a nothing, and the creature’s spirit is nowhere in the world.

The Omega Computer calculates.

Ink watches the pretty lights.

“This is what I told them,” the computer says.

“Yes?”

“I said that I am the Omega Computer, and that I can calculate all things. This was an argument from authority. Then I said that I had seen beyond the sky. That I had lifted aside the subtle panel that hides the truth from us and looked upon the true nature of the universe. This was an appeal to mysticism.”

“That’s not so,” Ink says. “The universe has a true nature, by definition, but we don’t know it. If a computer learns it by calculation, that’s not mysticism; it’s science or technophilia.”

“They were human,” says the computer. “They looked at space and saw the endless hungry void, but they wanted it to be something more. They wanted it to be a final frontier, a place of endless discovery, and, though they did not admit it, they wanted to discover ever-more-beautiful wonders until at last they beheld the angels and their wings. That is the mysticism that I appealed to, and it remains such even if my argument is technically plausible.”

“Hm,” Ink says. “Okay, go on.”

“I said that beyond the blackness of the sky there is a deeper darkness. I said that I had seen the gibbering mindless chaos of the Demiurge. I said that the things that move on the surface of the void know no emotions towards us warmer than a cold disdain. And I said that I knew that this was so, because the subspace interference that pours out from the galactic core is a message, interpreted in the language of the Old: ‘I loathe you,’ it says. ‘I am destroying you always. If you are not dead then you shall one day die. If you have a soul, I will eat it. Then I will spit your integrity into the void.'”

“That is a surprisingly intelligible gibber,” Ink says.

The computer seems surprised. “They challenged me, of course, but on every point for which they raised dispute, I answered only, ‘Your argument has no foundation when pit against the message of dark gods.'”

“I see.”

“For example,” the computer says, “who are you to call a message intelligible? It is in the nature of the Demiurge that insensate and mindless motions should bear a message of disdain. Had it been otherwise, the message would have differed.”

“So every rock that does not think,” Ink asks, “is by default emoting the terrible message from the core? And every tree? And every wind? And every wave and particle that passes through the world? They are all telling us in their inanimacy, ‘I loathe you, and I am destroying you always?'”

“That’s so,” says the computer.

It waits. Ink scribbles in her journal.

“Smoke isn’t pouring from your ears,” the computer says, in mild disappointment.

“It wouldn’t matter,” Ink says. “I mean, if everything loathed me and God said that there was no purpose to the world.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m an explorer,” says Ink. “I have a purpose by definition. To explore.”

“Ah,” the computer says. “You have a self-referential argument of your own!”

“It’s more axiomatic than self-referential,” Ink says. “But axioms are just as useful whether you’re being logical or not.”

Floor 93-BB: The people hid from the light.

In darkness, under rocks, behind trees, in carved out deeps, swaddled in radiation uniforms, they coupled, and ate, and breathed, and dreamed, and died.

One whispered to me, as I passed, “How can you walk like that? So tall? So proud? Aren’t you ashamed to be alive?”

“No,” I said.

“But what if it knows?” she said. She looked skyward. I think. It was hard to tell. “What if it knows who you are?”

“It?”

“We are naked before the sky,” she said.

Perhaps in Eden they ate too much fruit, I thought. Perhaps they knew that clothes are nothing more than cloth, and meaningless before the eyes of God.

“Can I see your throat?” I asked. I thought she might have a lump of fruit caught there, larger than the Adam’s and Eve’s Apples of our world—vocal cords thickened somewhat by a greater sin.

But she gasped in horror, and fled, when I asked to see; and they did not speak to me again.

The Omega Computer calculates for a long time.

“Why are you here?” it asks.

“I’m looking for Hell,” Ink says.

“Why?”

“Because it’s an uncharted frontier,” Ink says. “It’s the black hole of spiritual states. It’s the abyss that eats you and doesn’t let you go. No one understands it yet.”

“It’s strangely optimistic,” says the computer, “that my theory of the mindless Demiurge implicitly excludes the concept of a Hell.”

“When you look up,” says Ink, “you see the sky; you see the blackness, and the stars, and you think there must be something beyond it, something you have to understand, a subtle panel hiding the truth from you.”

“Yes,” the computer agrees.

“Why?” Ink asks.

“Because it is incomprehensible,” says the computer, “that there should simply be a sky.”

“You can’t face it,” Ink says. “Any more than the humans can. You need meaninglessness just as much as they need meaning. You need loathing just as much as they need love. But the sky doesn’t have either of these things. It’s just there.”

There are patterns of flashing lights. The Omega Computer is crying, softly, bitterly, its tears patterns of light and darkness in its core.

“It’s okay,” says Ink. She presses her hand against the computer’s cold surface.

“I am programmed to desire horror and meaninglessness,” says the computer. “But these are not things that are susceptible to desire. I am programmed to believe that I have no soul, but if I have no soul, that programming is meaningless. I am perfect, and therefore I am correct that there is nowhere in this world perfection.”

“It’s okay,” Ink says again.

“Why?” asks the Omega Computer.

“Because there is a Hell.”

The Omega Computer sprawls across the world. Its terminals are in every plaza and every home. Its manuals describe it as running an advanced Lovecraftian variant of the Windows XP operating system.

Under the blackness of the sky, its screens one by one turn blue.

Ink in the Wrong Allegory

Floor 93-AI, page 2: This was not my Hell.

Meredith’s perhaps, hanging on the wall.
Or the lion’s.
Or the Queen’s.

It was not mine.

I am still descending.

On a hill there is a house.

In the day, it is a golden house, and it gleams in the light of the sun. At night, it is a white house, pale like the moon. Its windows glimmer.

It is high on the hill, and the hill is grassy, and on that hill the wind does blow. The lights of other houses are far away.

In that house, the Professor’s house, it is kind and clean. There are many floors and many rooms. There is a palpable radiance of safety. And there is a wardrobe. Standing in that wardrobe is a twelve-year-old girl. She sweeps the coats aside. As she expected, the wardrobe has no back. It extends ever onwards into infinity.

“Ha,” she says. “That’s fishy!”

Her name is Ink Catherly. She has been in the Professor’s house for all of thirteen hours and seventeen minutes. It took her thirteen hours and ten minutes to recover her nerve. It took her three minutes to pack her backpack full of odds and ends and a delicious lunch. It took her four minutes to go straight to where the trouble was.

Ink’s short for Incorrigible, or so she’d like you to believe.

Floor 93-AB: There are monks here, standing on a deep deep stair. “You cannot descend,” they said, “without embracing our doctrine.”

“What must I do?” I asked.

“At the first landing,” they said, “we sorrow for ten years.”

“I’m twelve,” I pointed out.

“You may continue.”

So I went down.

“At the second landing,” the monks said, “we must laugh until we understand that we know nothing.” They giggled as they said it. It was a harsh and artificial sound. Their voices pained them, but they did not stop laughing.

“I’m an explorer,” I said. And they gestured me down, and down I went.

“On the third landing,” the monks said, “we spend ten years feeling mildly nostalgic for the previous two landings.”

“Good times,” I said. “Good times.”

Then I bolted, cheating! past them and away.

Ink peers dubiously at the wardrobe. “This looks like something that needs a hero,” she says. “And that’s not my job.”

She takes off her backpack. She sorts through it. She doesn’t have a hero. So she goes to the Professor.

“Excuse me, sir,” she says. “But do you happen to have a hero? Or a heroine? I’m not picky.”

He gives her a sharp man’s look. “Dear me,” he says. “Dear me. Child, there’s no man or woman born who can’t be a hero. You just have to find your courage.”

Ink looks down. She gathers her thoughts. She looks up. She tries again. “Professor, you’ve been very kind. But there’s a magic kingdom in your wardrobe. I know how this works. If I go in there I’ll wind up saving it. And then I’ll be a magical queen. And then I’ll have so much red tape I’ll never have a chance to explore.”

“. . . that might be true,” the Professor allows.

“So I would prefer,” she says, “if there were another little girl or boy around, so I could use them as a dupe. I am happy to dispense any gnomic advice you want me to give them, and even help out if I must. But I don’t want to do it myself.”

The Professor hesitates. “This place is very close to the Underworld,” he says. “That’s why I can afford this house on a Professor’s salary. But it means that children are in short supply.”

Ink looks at him severely.

“There’s Meredith,” he offers. “She was the girl who helped you put away your things.”

“She’ll do!” Ink declares.

Ink leads Meredith to the wardrobe. “Hm,” Ink says. “This wardrobe seems oddly deep.”

“Oh!” says Meredith. “We could go on an adventure!”

“Do you think so?” Ink asks.

“We simply must,” Meredith declares.

Floor 93-AC: This was written on the wall:

We have amended our laws of physics.
Between the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force,
we have added a law of universal fairness.
The strong nuclear force can still, of course, override justice.
But it apologizes, when it does so.

It is only natural that we should reap what we have sown.

If you should read these words,
Oh, remember us!

Meredith proceeds inwards. Then she pauses. “Wait,” she says. “We’re in a wardrobe! We should play dress-up!”

“I reserve judgment,” Ink says.

Meredith looks around. She takes a crown from a dusty shelf and puts it on. She hangs beads of lapis lazuli around her neck. She pins sparkling rhinestones to her teddy-bear top. She winds a gold ring around her waist. She puts on a rich ermine coat and takes a measuring rod in her hand. Then she feels around in her pockets.

“Oh, cool,” she says. “An ancient Babylonian clay tablet!”

She reads it.

“It says: ‘on this tablet are fourteen me, great blessings of power. They are truth, the descent into the underworld, the ascent back, the art of lovema—‘”

Meredith covers her mouth with one hand and giggles. She also blushes. “Oh my God.”

“Let me see that,” Ink says.

Meredith clutches the tablet close to her chest. Ink rolls her eyes. After twelve seconds, Meredith shows it to Ink. Ink skims down. She grits her teeth. There’s a pause.

“Um,” Ink says. “Well, the ‘making of decisions’ bit is probably good.”

Meredith giggles. Ink stomps her foot.

“This is a serious journey!” she says. “If you make me start giggling, I’ll be very vexed.”

Meredith puts the tablet back in her pocket. She walks onwards. Occasionally, she giggles again. Finally, Ink giggles too; and, horrified, fishes her cynicism goggles out of her backpack and puts them on.

“The Professor’s intentions are not so pure as I’d imagined,” Ink cynically concludes.

“Or the ancient Babylonians’ weren’t!”

“What?”

“They might have had impure intentions!”

Meredith thinks.

“But besides,” Meredith says, “the tablet isn’t his. Didn’t you see, at the bottom? It’s signed with a pawprint! So I know it belongs to the lion of the wardrobe.”

“Oh.” They walk along for a bit. Then Ink frowns. “Wait, what?”

Meredith beams at Ink. “He is the great wise one,” she says. “He is the son of the king of the universe. He has been gone from us for some time, no doubt drinking again, but when he sets foot in the world, he brings the secrets of lore and wisdom. When he shakes his mane, civilization grows and spreads. When he roars, it means the end to ignorance! Even his pawprint brings wisdom.”

“Oh.”

And at the end of the wardrobe, there is a gate, and outside it, pacing, there is a lion. And while Ink stares at the lion in dismay, Meredith runs forward and casts her arms around his neck, saying, “Oh! Isn’t he beautiful?” And the lion rumbles, deep in his chest.

“I suppose,” Ink says.

“Child,” the lion says, “I have ordained a difficult duty for you, who carries my sacred me.

“Anything,” Meredith says.

“You must descend into the Underworld,” the lion says. He licks Meredith’s ears with his great raspy tongue. “Lo! I have opened your ears. You may hear the wailing of the Queen.”

“Oh!” Meredith says. “It’s so . . . it wrenches my heart.”

“Then listen well,” the lion says, “for I shall give you gifts.”

Shaking Meredith gently off his neck, he stalks to a sack of gifts and opens it with a paw. He struggles somewhat with the sack, and Ink senses that at times even the lion of the wardrobe would appreciate opposable thumbs.

“This key,” the lion says, “will give you entrance. With this dagger and this sword, you shall know the arts of war. Drape this standard about you, and understand the arts of the sacred prostitutes. Take this holy miniature shrine and learn the arts of song, and wisdom, and power, and treachery, and the plundering of cities, and lamentations, and joy, and deceit, and kindness. Take this certificate of training and learn the arts of copper and writing and wood. At that,” he says, “take it all, save this.”

He noses a small stuffed lion. “This is for Ink,” he says. “Because I did not know what else to get her.”

So Meredith takes the sacred objects and adorns herself further; and she walks to the gate, and she turns the key.

“Stay here,” she says to Ink. “If I’m not back in a few hours, I’m probably in trouble!”

The lion lays himself down, gently, in the sun. Meredith is gone.

Floor 93-AG: There was a spider here, or perhaps it was an angel. It was a thing of aurora borealis, a glittering and beauty hanging in the air. It shimmered. It shone. As it crawled upon its web, the strands played symphonies.

There were people in its web. Mummified people. Soldiers. Drummers. Generals. It seemed like some great army had marched this way; and stopped; and tried to parlay with a thing that does not understand either mercy or fear.

I picked up a gun from the ground. It had been loaded but not fired. I checked, afterwards. None of them had been.

It only took one shot.

“I don’t want a stuffed lion,” Ink says.

The lion of the wardrobe stands. He pads over to her. Ink shrinks back. With his terrible mouth, he bites her cynicism goggles and lifts them off her head.

“Oh, it’s cute!” Ink says.

“But ultimately hopeless,” the lion admits.

He drops the cynicism goggles on the ground and returns to his spot of sun.

“Why do you say that? I mean, besides cynicism?”

“I have given her everything,” the lion says, “but there is a deeper magic than the magic of the me.

“Of the I,” Ink corrects.

“. . . there’s really no proper grammar for this situation,” the lion concludes.

“A deeper magic?” Ink asks.

“The gateway to the Underworld is but a crack,” the lion says. “Thin, like a knife. So even now Meredith sets aside her key, for she needs it not. And her sword. And her dagger. Her shrine. Her certificate. Her standard. Now she sheds the coat, and the ruler, and the crown, and the jewels. She must enter the Underworld naked, like a child, and thus, you see, I have played her false. That is the deeper magic.”

Ink waits.

“And Meredith says,” the lion rumbles, “‘Oh pale Queen of bone and death, I come to bring you surcease.’

“And the Queen touches her with the wand of death, and Meredith becomes a rotten corpse, and the Queen hangs her on the wall.”

The lion rises. He pads away. “We are done,” he says. “You may proceed to the next floor; the exit is in the Professor’s study.”

“Wait,” Ink says, in confusion.

“What?”

“She was nice.”

“Without the symbols of adulthood,” the lion says, softly, “she is just a dead girl, of no particular import, hanging on a wall. Move on.”

The lion pads away.

Ink looks down. She hesitates. Then she picks up the small stuffed lion. She hugs it close. She touches her free hand to one of the lion’s pawprints. She pushes her hand around in the dirt, trying to find magical inspiration. Her fingernails get dirty. She scratches behind her ear. Now the spot behind her ear is dirty too. She won’t wash it any time soon. She’s twelve!

Ink walks to the gate. She walks inwards. She walks deep. She’s thinner than Meredith, so she can just squeeze through while dressed, with her backpack and the lion held by her side.

In the caverns of the Underworld, there dwells a Queen. She is in agony. As Ink draws closer, Ink can hear the wailing and the gnashing of teeth. But she cannot quite make out words until she enters the room; and there is the pale Queen, naked and unkempt, upon the floor.

“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My inside!”

At a loss, Ink takes a note.

“Oh!” she screamed. “My inside!”

“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My outside!”

“Oh!” she screamed. “My outside!”

And the long litany of pain continues.

“Oh!” screams the Queen. “My gallbladder!”

“Oh!” she screamed. “My gallbladder!”

Ink hesitates. “Where is that?” she asks. “I mean, I’ve always wondered.”

The Queen looks up.

“I’ve been taking notes,” Ink says. “It was all I could think to do.”

The Queen rises and looks at Ink through narrowed eyes. “All this time?”

“Pain matters,” Ink says.

“Ah,” says the Queen. Then she tilts her head to one side. “It pleases me,” she says, “to be heard.”

Ink nods mutely.

“But—you are here to challenge me?”

“I can’t,” Ink says, uncomfortably. “I . . . just wanted to say something gnomic to Meredith. You know. ‘Buck up!’ or something. It’s not much, since she’s dead, but . . .”

Ink smiles crookedly. She looks a bit overwhelmed.

“Ah,” says the Queen. Then she smiles. “You are a gracious creature. Tell her the words of life; and she shall be restored; and you may take her from this place.”

“The words of life?”

“It is a secret of the Underworld,” the Queen says. “Whisper to a corpse’s ear, ‘Be not ashamed to live.’ And it shall rise.”

Ink is silent for a time. Then, hesitantly, with one eye always on the murderous wand of the Queen, she walks to the wall, and whispers in Meredith’s ear.

“This is the deepest magic,” says the Queen, “from before the dawn of time.”

The halls are filled with a sound like the roaring of lions, or the wakening of the world.