The Cautionary Tale of Abermund Plain

Sally opens herself up.

She unleashes the riotous surges of color and noise inside her. They pour out onto the ground. They slurch about and then congeal into her fetch.

That’s when her Mom Emma walks in.

“Sally!” Emma says.

The fetch looks up. It’s a little rabbit. It perks an ear.

“Sally,” Emma says, “get back in your body.”

The fetch twitches its nose.

It thinks about disagreeing.

But then it sighs. It slurches back into its component colors. It crawls back into Sally and she closes herself up.

“But Mom,” says Sally.

“If you leave your body too often or too long,” Emma says, “you’ll forget things. Important things. Like . . . like, words, and geometry, and, and how old you are!”

Emma looks triumphant, as if this argument is very convincing.

Sally juts her chin.

“Don’t need to know that stuff,” she says. “You can ‘memmer it!”

“You might even forget,” Emma warns darkly, “how to get back in your body at all.”

Sally makes a dismissive noise.

She wipes her nose on the back of her hand, and then she giggles.

“Boogers!” she declares.

It is a fine joke, Sally thinks. It’s the kind of joke that immediately dissolves any tension in the room. She can’t help laughing at it, herself, and after a minute, Emma laughs too.

It’s just that funny a word.

Sally is six years old. She does not know much about the world, outside of things like the high comedy of boogers and the love that surrounds her every day. She does not know, for example, that outside her city there is a great and ancient world. She does not know the secrets of the great rusting robots that lay scattered across Abermund Plain; nor how Zax of Proxima came to Earth, and what he did there; nor why the Sangler dismissed the gods. She knows how old she is, and how to dress herself (as long as she is not too ambitious with the shoes), and a bit of math, and a bit of spelling. That’s pretty much it as her worldliness goes.

Sally lives in an old presswood house with chromeless net access, a green grass yard, and a 20th century aesthetic. The ancient style is not because either Sally or Emma are Luddites nostalgic for the past; rather, her home lacks modernity because raising a child in a full-tech zone is a task beyond the capacity of any mother’s love.

Now, one night, despite all of Emma’s warnings, Sally looks at the moon and she just isn’t ready for sleep. So she kicks off her socks and she throws off her covers and she opens herself up and she lets her fetch out. Emma’s not here to catch her this time, so the slurching colors assemble leisurely into a rabbit and stretch languidly before hopping around the room. Then the rabbit sniffs the air. It hops up to the windowsill. It pushes the window open and wriggles out through the screen.

The rabbit heads for Abermund Plain.

It is a long journey, but not so very long for a fetch. The moon is still high when the rabbit gets there and it runs all night among the great rusted forms.

It stands on the eye-screen of a great dead robot and it looks out over the junk metal on the plain.

It burrows down into the soil and crunches a little black bug between its teeth.

It runs, full-out and loping, along the shore of Abermund Lake.

And all the while the wind is blowing against its fur and its colors leave little dots of fetch behind it and the world is full of smells and beauty and moonlight.

And then the moon sets and the world is dark and the fetch suddenly thinks, “I’m in trouble!”

So it turns.

It kicks off.

It races across the ground: the grass, the dirt, the great metal chests of the robots.

It races along the streets and sidewalks and back to Emma and Sally’s house, and it slurches through the screen and window, and it’s pouring back into Sally’s body just as the morning lights come on and the alarm sounds its little chime and Emma opens Sally’s door to make sure that she wakes up.

“Good morning, Sally!” carols Emma.

Sally wriggles in her bed. She makes sure all the pieces are tucked back in but she doesn’t put back on her socks.

“Good morming, Mom!”

Sally gets up. She puts her feet on the carpet. She wriggles her toes. She looks happily at her Mom, at least in part because she, Sally, was right. She let her fetch out! Nothing bad happened! It was better than a normal night’s dreaming by far!

“What would you like for breakfast?” Emma asks.

And Sally rubs her nose on the back of her hand and there’s a little glob of snot that comes off on it and suddenly she thinks of this great joke—

This great word to exclaim—

This incredibly funny thing that she could say—

And she realizes, in horror, as she gropes for the word and cannot find it, that she has left something vital on Abermund Plain.

And she stares at the back of her hand, and the silence stretches long, and her lip begins to tremble;

And Emma is looking at her as if— no, it can’t be, but as if she might have guessed where Sally has spent the night, what she has spent the night in doing—

There is no time to flail for the word!

Sally must act with dispatch!

Sally synonyms, “Consolidated snot capsules!”

And Emma stares at her, that long cool stare, and Sally knows that she has failed as a comedian.

Take heed, children!

Don’t be like Sally!

That is the cautionary tale of Abermund Plain.

Were It Not

The Robin of the forest—so the stories say—cannot resist a challenge to archery.

That is why the Sheriff printed so many flyers for the archery tournament. That is why he burned two of them in the firepit to send their smoke to Heaven and to Hell. That is why he freed five of them in the wind near Sherwood Forest and hung the rest around the villages of the poor.

It was to make sure the Robin knew.

The day of the tournament approached. The guards of Nottingham stood in their shining mail around the tournament grounds.

First came the long-nosed ogre Little John, obscured beneath his heavy cloak. He marched up onto the walls overlooking the practice field. He stood there, grim and tall.

Then came the yin-yang masters of Prince John. They mingled with the crowds. They took up the eight auspicious positions and two less auspicious ones.

The fox-girls Miriam and Sandy snuck in and hid amidst the spectators, tails concealed beneath their skirts.

And of Marian?

Of Friar Tuck?

More will be said at a later time.

The archers arrived. They began to practice.

Behind the stands on which the spectators sat, a line of drifting spiderweb floated down. It touched the ground. Another drifted past at an angle. They touched together. A third line came; a fourth; and many more. They formed a web. They formed a net. They took on volume and shape. Over the course of an hour the webs wrapped together into the shape of a man—a dashing young man, lifeless, colorless, and lean.

A line of spiderweb attached at the top of him. It pumped color into the man: the color of bark for his hair, of peach blossoms for his skin, of horn for his bow, of darkest shade-green for his eyes.

The web man smiled. TING.

The web man began to move. He unlimbered his bow. He ran his fingers over the fletching in his quiver. He walked out to join the archers at their practice.

The tournament began.

For the first shot, the targets were just ten yards away. This eliminated only four men from the archers’ throng.

The targets moved further out. Fifteen yards. Twenty. Thirty.

Each time the targets shifted a few more archers missed their mark.

When the targets were two hundred yards away only one archer remained. He was the web-made man.

“Astonishing!” said the judges.

The web man laughed.

“That’s not anything,” he said.

He drew back his bowstring. He notched another arrow. He fired and split the arrow he’d shot before. Again and again he fired; and three more arrows he split, right down the center of them.

Down came the Sheriff from the stands.

Said the Sheriff: “This is a work of legend.”

The web man turned to him. He grinned. He laughed. “I’ll have your gold,” he said. “And later, more.”

The Sheriff had a bag of gold.

He unlimbered it from his belt.

He gave it to the web-made man.

“Sir,” said the Sheriff. “You are incredible. May I ask your name?”

The peals of the web man’s laughter were like the crowing of a bird. He said: “Who am I? I’m the Robin!”

He reached for the strand of web atop his head.

From the seated crowd, with one motion, rose the yin-yang masters of Prince John. There was a noise like thunder as eight of them cast aside their cloaks to reveal burning prayer strips at their belts. Four of them dropped into a kneeling position, their hands extended in a prayer form to trap the web man in his place. Four of them drew forth a prayer strip and held it before them, chanting words both ominous and deep.

The last two simply watched.

The web man looked this way. He looked that way. His face had drained of its color again, and he sighed, not to anyone in particular, “Oh, Prince.”

The Sheriff smirked.

There was a commotion in the stands. The fox-girls had risen, casting their glamour around two of the yin-yang masters. High on the wall, the wings of Little John spread wide. Darkness drowned another two. No longer did prayer forms bind the web man in his place.

The web man smirked.

“Up!” he said.

He tugged on the strand of web that remained fastened, still, to the top of his head.

The web pulled on his hair, but the web man did not rise.

The chant of the four chanting yin-yang masters ended in a shout. The prayer strips flew from their hands towards the web-made man. They burned with holy fire as they flew.

“Up!” cried the web man again.

The web pulled on his hair, but the web man did not rise.

The prayer strips struck the web man and he began to burn.

Suddenly he understood.

The web man cursed, a foul blasphemy we shall not repeat here. He tore open the bag of gold. He fumbled inside it and ripped free a small piece of jade carved into the form of a tiger.

This, and not the prayer forms, was the tool of his entrapment.

He flung it aside.

The fox-girls had transformed and were darting away towards the forest. Little John had jumped down outside the wall. The web man was alone.

“Up!” cried the web man, a third and final time.

The web-strand that clung to him grew taut. It yanked him up into the air. But still there clung to him the burning prayers, and the flesh of him smoked hot.

A lick of flame chased up past his head and burned its way down the thread. It raced towards the lair of the Robin like fire on a fuse.

“After him!” cried the Sheriff.

The yin-yang masters looked around. An unspoken consensus formed. The two yin-yang masters who had yet to act stepped forward.

“Up!” they cried. They leapt into the air. One had a high clear voice like a woman or a child. The other’s voice was deep. Their robes billowed around them.

They flew.

To the shock of the web-made man, they landed on the thread.

They began to run, ahead of him, along the thread towards the Robin’s lair.

The web-made man tried to shriek at them but flames consumed his tongue.

In Sherwood Forest there hung an abomination, great and bloated and black: the Robin. Six great long hairy arms gripped the trees. Two reeled the thread back in.

The fire raced towards him.

The Robin’s bulbous eyes caught the reflection of that flame. He cursed. He stretched forward his head and bit the thread free so that it fell onto the loam.

Tumbling down amidst the trees of Sherwood Forest came the two yin-yang masters, the burning corpse of the web-made man, and the Sheriff’s bag of gold. The yin-yang masters landed kneeling, each one with one hand stretched out to the side. A holy pattern formed around them as they landed, sheltering them from harm.

The web-made man struck the ground hard. He was dead. The fire was blackening the thread of his skin, making him peeling, popping, and black.

Their robes of the yin-yang masters settled and grew still.

Demons in the trees nocked arrows simultaneously and pointed them at the yin-yang masters. They did not fire.

The Robin scuttled higher in the branches. His fangs drooled venom.

The yin-yang masters laughed.

One cast back her hood: she was Marian.

The other did the same: he stood there, Friar Tuck.

“My friends, my friends,” cried the Robin.

Webs whirled in the air around him. They drew tight like a corset to compress his bulbous shape. They bound four of his arms back in “the lump of Robin’s back.” They hid his spider’s face behind a face human, handsome, and kind.

The Robin dropped gently to the ground.

His expression fresh and bright and clean he said, “You have succeeded beyond my dreams. Thank God. Thank God that you are well.”

Marian beamed at him.

“The Sheriff,” she said, “didn’t suspect a thing. We said, ‘we are extra yin-yang specialists sent you by Prince John.’ He said, ‘That’s good! I can use all the yin-yang I can get!'”

“Ho ho,” laughed Friar Tuck. “His yin-yang was too weak.”

The Robin took Marian’s hand. He held it in his own. He squeezed it and his face was open and bright.

“I love you,” he said, and two of his spider’s arms came out.

The glade grew still, for he had said a thing the Robin must not say. Marian’s face grew tight and cold. She stepped back, pulling her hand away.

“Oh, Robin,” she said.

Her eyes, the Robin thought. Is that horror in them?

“Oh, Robin, no.”

The words were heavy and dull and silence followed them.

One by one the Merry Men left that place. They went back to their places in the camp.

In his web in the deepness of Sherwood the Robin counted all his gold and considered how best to share it with the poor.

In her tent Maid Marian wept.

She could love the Robin. She could hold him dear

were it not for the spider’s fangs.

An Unclean Legacy: “The Marvelous Fingerbone”

The Lady Yseult Gargamel was pregnant with her second child.

Gargamel caressed her stomach with his long thin fingers. “Witness,” he cackled, “the terrifying power of my little gold men.”

Yseult rested her fingers on her forehead for a moment.

“Dear,” she said, carefully. “The power of your magic is beyond compare but it is not, in this case, responsible for my condition.”

“Eh?”

Yseult walked to the window. The birds were singing outside. She held out her hand, and two strikingly-colored robins spiraled around her arm.

“It is like this,” said Yseult. “These birds—they love one another. The life in them surges up. It cries to the world: let there be more life!”

Gargamel squinted at the birds. He went to the dresser. He picked up his spyglass. He looked from one bird to another.

“I see,” he said, dubiously.

Yseult took two steps back into the room. Butterflies swirled in through the window and spun in the air around her.

“Or these butterflies,” she said, as the prelude to a longer speech.

“They’re from my butterfly tree,” observed Gargamel proudly.

Yseult hesitated. In the garden, the ten thousand wings of the butterfly tree folded, unfolded, and fluttered.

“Or . . . some other butterflies,” she said, losing her momentum. “From . . . other places.”

“Eh?”

Yseult was blushing full on now, but still the Lady was bold.

She took the hands of Montechristien Gargamel. She looked into his eyes, and as always, the breath left him and he felt like he was floating on the sky.

“It is not the magic in us, my love,” she said. “It is the love. It is the life. It has roused itself to desire further expression. It has woven together the truth of me and the truth of you to make a child who is both of us. In this fashion though we are frail and will die, that principle of life within us will go on, driving forward and on through all the endless years.”

“And this,” said Gargamel, raptly, “is what my little gold men have done.”

Yseult, with a heroic effort unremarked upon in the sagas, suppressed an innuendo.

“It’s because of that night when we flew together, love,” she said.

Gargamel squinched up one eye. He stared at her suspiciously.

“That?” he said. “Not the magic?”

“That,” Yseult confirmed. “Not the magic.”

Gargamel gulped once.

His mind went awhirl. But then he straightened, just a little bit. He found acceptance.

Gargamel caressed his wife’s stomach with his long, thin fingers. “Witness,” he cackled, “the terrifying power of life!”

“Ha ha!” laughed Yseult.

“Ha! Ha ha ha!” laughed Gargamel.

“Ha ha ha!”

Thunder boomed in their sunlit garden, and the laughter of Yseult and Montechristien Gargamel rang out through the forest and the sky.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the tenth installment of the story of that time.

It is not long before the night of fear.

Francescu is nine.

He stands before his father in the cracked courtyard of Castle Gargamel. There are flowers growing through the stones around his feet.

He’d asked his father why people die.

So Gargamel had dragged him out.

Gargamel says, distantly, “People die when they’re done.”

“Huh?”

There is a death’s-head butterfly swirling lazily through the courtyard. It has colorful wings and the face of death on its back, which it uses to discourage predators.

Gargamel gestures in the butterfly’s direction. “That. It’s pretty, yes?”

“Yes,” Francescu nods.

Gargamel’s bony finger points at it. The butterfly explodes, precipitating a somewhat ironic afterlife scene to which we are not witness.

“It’s no longer useful,” Gargamel says.

Francescu recoils.

“There’s a purpose for all of us,” Gargamel says. His body language is ungainly, uncomfortable. “When it’s done, we’re done.”

“But how do we know?” Francescu asks.

“For this,” says Gargamel, “your mother and I planted timing flowers. Hers are dead; mine still remain.”

Francescu looks down at the flowers in the courtyard.

“What, under the stones?”

“My gardening practices are not so rigorous as Yseult’s,” Gargamel concedes. “Still, they have sufficiently broken the stones to see the sun, so all is well. Now, we’ll use them to measure how much purpose you’ve got left.”

“—Okay.”

The flowers around Francescu begin to grow.

“See?” Gargamel says, as they rise. “That’s the surging purpose of your life. That’s what you’re for, son.”

The flowers are still rising.

“And when they stop—” Gargamel says. He waits for them to stop.

The flowers continue rising.

Gargamel backs up. He starts over. “They’re measuring how long there is before life is done with you,” he explains. “It’s different for every person. And when they stop—”

The flowers continue rising. They are all around Francescu now. He can barely breathe through the flower stalks. He begins to flail.

Gargamel looks irritable. He stomps his foot. He unleashes magic. The flowers, driven by his will, cease to grow.

“When they stop, you’re done,” Gargamel concludes.

Francescu flails his way out of the prison of green. He kneels on the ground, catching his breath. He’s mildly allergic to timing flowers, so this is hard.

It is there, with his face low to the ground, that he sees the flowers at Gargamel’s feet, and notes without understanding that they are withered, black, and dead.

An Unclean Legacy


The Marvelous Fingerbone

Francescu is ten.

He is rubbing the little finger in his left hand. He is squeezing it, holding it, getting to know it, because he intends to cut it off.

“Life is magic,” he says.

“Hm, hm,” agrees Francescu’s angel.

“It’s this . . . thing,” he says. “It’s bigger than me, and brighter, and there’s nothing that’s standing between it and the dark.”

“Hm,” says Francescu’s angel, more skeptically.

“I’m going to put it in my fingerbone,” Francescu says, “and cut it off. It’ll be the most magical, wonderful, marvelous fingerbone ever.”

The angel visualizes a really shiny fingerbone. It sighs happily. “Mm, hm,” it says.

Then it pauses. It parses.

“Um—”

Will Tomas break the fingerbone?

How valuable is a life?

Tune in on Monday for the Unclean Legacy adventure: “Tomas vs. Francescu: Fight!”

The Thistle (I/IV)

This is a history of Persephone.

It is 1328 years before the common era and Persephone still remembers the marvelous thing.

She doesn’t know exactly what it was. Not any more. It was wooden and round, and it had a handle. It shimmered like rainbows, like soap bubbles. It shone.

It made a noise.

It was the most marvelous, incredible noise. It was like the bubbling happiness of the sea. It was crazy, mad, incredible, majestic, that noise.

She remembers.

There’s sunshine all around her now. She’s got grubby hands and there’s a bit of the dirt in her mouth, a little bit, just enough to taste. It tastes like life and also like ick, dirt!

She’s planting seeds with her friend Cyane and her mother Demeter.

She digs a hole. Just a little hole. She drops a seed in it. She covers the seed over.

“Covering things over,” she says, in the flawless ancient Greek spoken by ancient Greeks of the time, “makes them all chaotic.”

She can see that too. It’s like a gray fuzz. It’s like the tides of chaos flowing in.

It’s really not as adult a statement as it sounds, given the time and the place and the language and her history. It’s not that philosophical, to her.

It’s just the kind of thing young Persephone tends to think.

She knows object permanence by now. She knows the seed’s still there. But it’s covered over and that makes doubt. That’s the gray. That’s doubt, that’s mystery, that’s the uncertainty that’s flooded in over the seed. It could be anything now. It could grow into anything now. That’s how Persephone gardens: with love and warmth and a bit of green chaos.

The sun beats down on the earth. Helios is busy today, he’s in top form, he’s shining like there’s no tomorrow, when in fact there are at least 1,216,180 tomorrows left. That’s just how much he loves his job.

Under the pressure of that sunlight the earth splits apart. The seed rushes up. Now it’s a plant.

It’s a THISTLE.

“Huh,” says Persephone.

She looks at it left. She looks at it right. She reaches forward.

“Unh uh,” says Demeter.

Demeter stops her.

“Don’t touch that,” Demeter says. “I think it’s got teeth.”

The thistle snarls and bites at her with its teeth. This totally confirms Demeter’s suspicions.

“Wow,” Persephone says, totally taken.

She can see the echoes of that marvelous thing in the thistle. It’s like the wooden sphere and it’s like the soap bubbles and it’s bright and shiny-colored in the sun and she remembers the noise. Mom always says it wasn’t a very important noise but Persephone remembers.

“I’m going to tame it,” Persephone says.

Her eyes are bright. There’s wonder on her face. Her dress hangs to her knees and her hands are grubby and her hair is black and it is amazing how much Demeter loves her right then.

“It’s going to be the best flower ever.

She feeds it a healthy diet of fruits and grains. She brushes its teeth twice a day. She even flosses when it lets her.

That thistle’s always going to love her.

Just like Demeter does.

It is 1317 years before the common era.

Demeter hears her daughter’s scream.

She hears it end.

She knows that Persephone is gone from the mortal realms.

She has gone below the earth and she is lost behind the gray.

And hope is dead.

Wishing Boy (II/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

541 years before the common era, Mr. Kong is still just a young boy. He lives in the city of Qufu. His father is dead. He lives in poverty with his mother. Sometimes he runs errands for her in the market.

That is what he has just finished doing when he hears gasps from everyone in the market.

“Hm?” he says. “Huh?”

He uses a very polite form for this question. Every adult around him would marvel at the precision of his language except that they are too busy marveling at something else. One of them points upwards and Mr. Kong sees what it is.

“Oh, my,” he says.

There is a maiden wrapped in winds, winds colored like fine silk, descending through the starkness of the sky into the Qufu market. Her eyes are closed. Her face is peaceful and aristocratic. She is surrounded in her flight by four great brooms, and before she lands the brooms sweep the dust away.

She lands.

Her eyes open. She looks around. For a long moment she assesses the situation. She says, in crisp clear speech, “I will need housing, food, pen, paper, and a temporary servant.”

The crowd is falling to its knees before her. They are offering her their worship. But young Mr. Kong has seen something that is even more urgent than worship.

The four brooms are rising slowly back into the air, and Mr. Kong has observed a clod of market filth clinging to the straw of the third.

It is difficult to know what precisely it is that passes through Mr. Kong’s mind at this juncture. He is, after all, a boy in the mold of the sages of old, and we all of us are not. However, it is reasonable to assume that it is something like this:

“Surely, those brooms are sent by a respected elder god, perhaps the August Personage in Jade! It is not appropriate that we of Qufu should send our filth to our elders; that’s like mailing one’s body water to the Emperor!”

So Mr. Kong moves through the crowd to the third broom. When he humbles himself before it, it hesitates in its rise and bobs a little lower. Taking this as an invitation, young Mr. Kong grasps the broom firmly by its handle and begins to scrape it clean against the ground.

“Young man,” says the woman. “Perhaps—”

Her comment, relevant or otherwise, comes slightly too late. The broom is thoroughly spooked by Mr. Kong’s treatment. It jerks off the ground, carrying Mr. Kong with it.

Mr. Kong has only a moment to contemplate the proprieties of this situation, and, as he is very young and does not yet understand the will of the heavens, this is not enough.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong, still hanging on.

The broom races off into the sky.

One should not imagine that this is the kind of tale where Mr. Kong immediately throws one leg over the broomstick and affects a Quidditch-playing attitude. Nor is it the kind of story wherein he dangles helplessly for a time, falls off over the mist-shrouded mountains, and dies. In fact, it is the kind of history that specifically neglects to examine the manner of Mr. Kong’s travel, assuming that he found an approach to the situation both dignified and survivable, in accords with the broomstick-riding provisions of the lost eleventh volume of the Book of Rites.

When he lands at last, the brooms have traveled not, surprisingly, to Heaven but to a well deep in the quiet woods of Lu. On the edge of the well sits Wishing Boy.

“Oh,” says Wishing Boy.

He’s startled by Mr. Kong’s presence.

“Your pardon,” says Wishing Boy, “dear child. I did not expect the brooms to return with a passenger. Was there something unsatisfactory about their conduct?”

Mr. Kong blinks at Wishing Boy. Wishing Boy is a teenaged child with golden skin and a large opal set into his forehead. He is young but has an air of wisdom to him.

“There is no matter worth your concern,” says Mr. Kong.

“Good,” says Wishing Boy.

He closes his eyes. After a moment, he opens them. He says, “But wait. Then why are you here?”

“It was a regrettable incident,” summarizes Mr. Kong.

“I see.”

Wishing Boy smiles a little. “Youthful spirits, is it? You wished to taste the upper air?”

Mr. Kong closes his mouth firmly.

“Accident, then?”

“If you could kindly direct me to the city of Qufu,” says Mr. Kong, “then I can be on my way and I will not trouble you further.”

“The woods are full of tigers and giant snakes,” says Wishing Boy. “You would be torn to shreds and then get snakebite. Please, sit. Satisfy my curiosity; then I will send you back to Qufu on the wind.”

Mr. Kong takes a seat, after introductions and mild protestations..

“So,” says Wishing Boy. “I can see that you are a fine young man, full of humaneness. That is why I do not assume malicious intent on your part, and have not flung you into space to come down wherever fate directs you.”

“I wished to clap some of the filth off of the broom,” explains Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“But,” says Mr. Kong, “I must admit that also I am curious how a broom should happen to fly.”

“It is no great matter,” says Wishing Boy. “When I was a younger child I fell into this well and became stuck. Worse, my head was partway under the water; to breathe, I needed to bend my neck painfully back. This was extremely distressing and forced me to develop what I call the alchemy of wishes: that is, the spiritual power to grant myself whatever I wish for. This freed me from the well but has other applications besides. For example, it is why the brooms fly: I wished to them, ‘you! Brooms! Fly!'”

“That is a great power,” says Mr. Kong, quite impressed.

“That is what I thought at first,” says Wishing Boy.

“At first?”

“Well,” says Wishing Boy, “at first, I thought that it was truly marvelous. I had been a poor child. I could barely afford to drink my own water and often I ate the dust from my clothing to survive. Now I could wish for gold and I would have gold. I became so wealthy that I could stick an opal in my head and still have leftovers for buying mansions and hiring servants.”

“Ah,” sighs Mr. Kong. He would have been wealthy, but his family had had to flee the state of Song.

“There was a girl, a princess. Her name was Qiguan. I had loved her from afar. Now I filled her heart with love for me, and abolished the societal conventions that separated us.”

Mr. Kong ponders that.

Wishing Boy raises an eyebrow.

“Your face shows some concern.”

“I mean no criticism,” says Mr. Kong. “But surely that was not correct.”

“No,” admits Wishing Boy. “It wasn’t.”

He looks up.

“I had thought these things would make me happy,” Wishing Boy says. “But they did not. Can you guess why?”

Mr. Kong thinks. He offers, carefully, “Is it a true love, if it is love born of wishes? Can you truly change your social place with magic? Is wealth truly wealth, if it is not earned?”

Now Wishing Boy laughs.

“I had not thought of that,” he says. “My. I suppose that would indeed make me unhappy, if my wishes were false. But no. It was subtler than that. You see, her love was true, real love. And that is how I understood that it is meaningless to search for love. All of my life I had seen the love of others as a prize to be won, but when that game became too easy I understood that it is their business, not mine, whether someone should love me. It was not worthless because it was false. It was worthless because being loved does not make me a lovable person, and that is what I had actually wanted.”

Mr. Kong considers that.

“And the wealth?” Mr. Kong asks.

“It was the same. To have wealth—that just means that I’d wished for it and nobody wished against it. It’s not a big deal! So why should I want wealth?”

“It is better than eating the dust from your clothing,” says Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“That is true,” he says.

Mr. Kong hesitates. “Honorable Wishing Boy,” he says. “Please forgive me for asking. But it seems to me that you should wish an end to war.”

“Ah,” says Wishing Boy.

He shakes his head.

“I cannot do that, Mr. Kong,” Wishing Boy says. “To wish an end to war is to wish for humanity to change. I do not know how to wish for that. I like humanity.”

Mr. Kong gives Wishing Boy the first true smile he has shared thus far.

“I understand,” he says.

“So that is why I have sent the princess away,” says Wishing Boy. “That is why I do not live in my great mansions. I have decided to sit here at this well and practice austerities. I do this because I desire to be a better person, and also because wealth and privilege give me the luxury to practice austerities.”

Mr. Kong grins at Wishing Boy.

“That’s so,” Mr. Kong agrees. “A poor person goes hungry, and a rich person fasts.”

Wishing Boy laughs.

“But tell me,” says Mr. Kong. “If you do not wish for love, or wealth, or privilege, or an end to war—if you have no wants because you do not think that there is a purpose to having things—then what do you wish for?”

“I wish that everyone should be freed of suffering,” says Wishing Boy.

Mr. Kong frowns. He looks seriously at Wishing Boy.

“But that will not happen,” Mr. Kong says. “You are a very powerful wisher but not even the August Personage in Jade could accomplish that.”

“It is very difficult,” agrees Wishing Boy. “But I am not alone.”

That is the end of their conversation, for the purposes of this history, though there are further pleasantries that pass.

It is thirty years before Mr. Kong returns to that well, a teacher set on learning more about the world. When he does, he finds it desolate, and no Wishing Boy remains.

House of Saints: A Practically Unsolvable Problem

There is a sentience and a power in the graveyard of the hats. It has stirred; it has cast forth a sorting hat; it has created many Houses from the school.

In the House of Hunger, Edmund and Lucy meet.

“A shilling,” says Lucy.

“I want to apologize,” the Edmund-beast says.

Lucy points at the sign on her door. It says, “Consultations — 1 shilling. Eating your enemies — 18 shillings (ea.).”

“No exceptions,” Lucy says.

Edmund, blinking, passes her a shilling from some random change purse he has on him.

“Go ahead,” Lucy says.

“I’m sorry,” says the Edmund-beast. “It was rotten of me.”

Lucy snorts.

“I should have told you that he was mine. That I’d claimed him. But somehow I thought that hunger could be private.”

“It’s not,” says Lucy. “It is a surging force, Edmund. It is a power. It is like electricity or fire, and the color of it is green.”

The Edmund-beast nods. It is thoughtful.

“But if it’s a force, and not just something in me,” it says, “where did it come from? Whence did it rise?”

“That’s the kind of question that could get you into trouble, Edmund. If you think too much about the hunger it’ll devour your thoughts.”

In the House of Torment, young Sid in his pale hat is clipping at his nails. He’s digging at them now with a pair of Lethal-looking nail clippers and a file. He’s having to go in under the cuticle to get any more, and the pile of nail scraps on the floor is large enough to hide his discarded socks, gloves, and shoes. There is a fair bit of blood and his fingers and toes are red.

He is in the human graveyard. That’s where he went. He’s in a mausoleum. All around him, in the high levels, in the low levels, staring at him from each nook, are students with great owlish eyes and yellow hats. Emily. Morgan. Fred.

He does not mind them. They are standing between young Sid and madness.

“It is okay?” he asks them.

“There is no alternative,” Emily says.

And their presence, at the least, serves to damp his pain.

In the House of Saints, Peter makes himself ready for a journey into space.

“I wonder if this is right,” he says, to Bethany.

“We must save the world, Peter. If we do not act then it will die.”

“What if it’s meant to die?” Peter asks.

Bethany frowns at him.

“That would seem to negate all questions of morality.”

“Hm,” Peter agrees.

They pack their bags. They board the Bootstrap. Vladimir shoots them into space.

House of Saints


A Practically Unsolvable Problem

Vidar’s Boot is not simply a giant shoe. It is also a space station. From its quiet reaches Peter and Bethany look down at the Earth. They are supposed to be alone on the station, but they are not.

“Do you ever regret it?” Bethany asks him. “I mean, being sorted into the House of Saints?”

“Constantly,” says Peter.

“Me too,” says Bethany.

And from the texture of it as it spins below they know the Earth is vast.

“When we are over the hats,” says Bethany, “we will send Vidar’s Boot down.”

“Will we?” Peter asks.

Bethany shrugs.

“We will, or we won’t,” she says. “As is the way of saints. It is the virtue of strict categorization: we can determine how saints act by observing our own behavior.”

There is a soft snarling in the air. It is coming through the vents. Peter tries hard to ignore it.

“Someone is snarling,” Bethany points out.

“I am trying hard to ignore it,” Peter says. “In this, you are not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” says Bethany. “I thought you might be more comfortable if it was out in the open.”

Peter grins at her a little.

“Thank you,” he says.

He takes her hand. He squeezes it.

“We are approaching,” Peter says.

“Are you ready?” Bethany says. “To push the button?”

“Aren’t you going to do it?” Peter asks.

“No,” Bethany says.

“I’d thought,” Peter says, “that as a saint, you might spare me from this decision, by taking it onto your own shoulders.”

“No,” says Bethany.

Peter is surprised, although he should not be.

“Oh dear,” Peter says.

They both look at the button. They both face the inescapable truth. And it is an unfair one.

“Saints don’t . . . kill, do we.” Peter says.

“Apparently not.”

“Not even the terrible sentience of the graveyard of the hats?”

“Not even that.”

“That’s a flaw,” Peter protests. “That’s not a consistent morality! That’s an unfair expectation imposed from outside! We should get to kill things that are already dead.

“Peace,” Bethany says.

Peter sags a little.

“It’s not for nothing,” Bethany says. “I mean, the House of Dreams really liked building this boot.”

“Saul charged us to save the world. And we’re failing him. We’re failing the world,” says Peter. “But what can we do? Love was Gandhi’s weapon against the British Empire, and it changed the world, but the British Empire has always had a soft spot for love. Dead hats—they’re not that sentimental! They’re hollow inside! It’s like loving a hurricane or an evil jar!”

“I think saints fix things by helping others, not by campaigning to change their lives for them,” Bethany says.

Vidar’s Boot drifts over the graveyard of hats.

Sensors beep.

A button flashes, forlorn and unpushed.

“See,” says Peter, “it would have been nice to have figured that out before we were in, y’know, space.”

They pass the graveyard and continue their orbit around the earth.

Bethany makes a face.

And over the hours that follow Peter’s shoulders slump, and he sits in the corner of the room.

And finally Peter says, bleakly, “Saul lied.”

“Oh,” says Bethany. Slowly, she colors. “I . . . guess we really shouldn’t have taken him at his word after his whole reclassifying-people-as-food thing, yeah.”

“Man the defenses,” Peter says, straightening a little. “Edmund’s coming.”

There is a breathing sound and a scraping sound and the elevator opens. The Edmund-beast lopes in.

Bethany is standing at the internal defenses panel. Her finger hesitates over “heat-seeking lasers.” It moves on to “unspeakably painful nanovirus.” After reading the labels on the “worldkiller nuke” and “dimensional destruction” buttons, Bethany puts the palm of her hand to her head and says, “God. I’m sorry, Peter. We’re defenseless.”

“Peter,” says the Edmund-beast. “You cannot flee me by launching yourself willy-nilly into space. I will always find you, and when you have served your usefulness to me, I will eat you. And so I must ask: have you done so? Do I still need you, Peter?”

And Peter shakes his head.

“You don’t,” Peter says. “It’s over. Whatever you needed me for, it’s done.”

Edmund’s face shines with a brilliant grin.

There is a certain artificial gravity provided by the rotation of the boot, but it is not enough. Peter and Bethany’s blood takes a long, long time to fall.

“I am still hungry,” complains the Edmund-beast. “And now I am in space.”

It looks down at the Earth.

“I should not trust the discretion of saints to arrange things to my optimal satisfaction,” the Edmund-beast concludes.

Vidar’s Boot drifts over the graveyard of hats.

Sensors beep.

The Edmund-beast casts a startled gaze around.

A button flashes, forlorn and unpushed.

WHAM.

There is something in a boot that loves to stomp; and there is no enemy of boots so great as hats; and in the end, untended by its saints, Vidar’s Boot chooses its own destiny:

It slams down with brutal force into the Earth.

Time passes.

Vidar’s Boot smoulders.

The Edmund-beast claws out through the leather shell and limps into the molten ruins of the graveyard of the hats. He looks around. He sniffs the air.

“Welcome, brother,” says Saul. He is sitting on the blackened crater’s lip.

“What has happened?” says Edmund. It is a cry of pain. “The graveyard is ruined. The sorting hat will die. The House of Hunger will not grow.”

The computers in Vidar’s Boot click and whirr.

“There is a better way,” says Saul.

And as the beasts walk away, discussing, and unnoticed by them, the power systems in the boot come one by one to life. It is considering how it can achieve orbit again. It is a difficult problem, even for a computerized giant boot. It is practically unsolvable.

But it has tasted the stomping of the hats, and it can never go back now.

Fun Fact! Computers that click and whirr are up to 37% more powerful than computers that run in silence!

House of Saints will conclude Tuesday or Wednesday with “Standing in the Storm”

Celebration of the Seals

The first of the seven seals opens. The voice of the four living creatures cries out, “Come!”

Then there is a man on a white horse. Then he is caparisoned with a crown. Then he rides forth, a conqueror bent on conquest.

From the Earth rises a hologram. The hologram depicts the great diva, Shelley.

Shelley is dressed in a sailor suit, and she sings:

Fall on me! Love’s an avalanche.
Crumbling rocks like a bolt for my heart!
Fall on me! Love’s a hurricane
Total apocalypse is claiming my heart!

The conqueror pauses. He is the first of the horsemen of the end times, the sign of wrath unleashed upon the world. Yet even he hesitates before this song.

The Lamb dexterously removes the second seal. The voice of the four living creatures cries out, “Come!”

Then there is a man on a red horse.

“You shall have the power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay one another,” say the four creatures. “Take this sword. Defeat the people of Earth!”

Yet there is Shelley, and she is singing:

Why is it always murder today?
Can’t you wait a little longer
Until we’ve had our play . . . honey . . .
I get uncertain, hide my face from the throne
But can’t you see that my heart’s racing
Can’t you see that I’d like to atone?

Baby
FALL ON ME! Love’s a disaster movie
Towers burning
Red horse riding away!
Fall on me! Love’s Revelation is:
Total apocalypse claiming my heart!

Then lightning comes from the eyes of the rider on the red horse, and he opens his mouth and a sword flies out and he says, “Lo! This hologram maketh a joyous noise.”

“She shouteth aloud the J-Pop of salvation,” agrees the man on the white horse. His robes shimmer like the foam of the sea. His hair shines like love’s hurricane.

“Can even such as we attack an Earth that this diva defends?”

The horns of the Lamb burn with the light that is like the glimmers of ice and the third seal breaks. Then the creatures cry, “Come!”

The black horse rides from the deeps of the outer darkness, whence the seal held it. On its back is a rider carrying a pair of scales. Then there is a whispering among the creatures, saying,

A bit of wheat for a day’s wages,
A bit of barley,
A few bananas

The rider on the black horse casts forth great plagues in his displeasure. His horse stomps its foot and there are earthquakes all over the earth. Still Shelley sings:

I want to dance with you
Without leaving our room.
I’m hungry for you
All night alone.

Fall on me! Love is a famine
When I see you it’s like
I’ve had seven lean years!

The fourth seal opens, and there is a pale horse. And its rider is named Death, and he is smiling and his toe is tapping to the music. And the four creatures say, “Death is unleashed upon the Earth.”

Fall on me! Love’s Revelation is:
Total apocalypse claiming my heart!

Then there is a howling in the stars as the song ends and the moon turns black and Death says, “These Earth humans—so short-lived, so bold. Surely we can wait another three thousand years to kill them all.”

But there is a man robed in mist and thunder who says, “It is written that it must end now. Go now and let no mortal singing soothe your savage charge.”

So Death turns his horse and his horse stomps its feet and it tosses its head as he drives it for the Earth. Then there is a great turmoil in the sea and the hologram of a beast rises from it, and it has three crowns on three heads. And one of the heads has the likeness of a cricket, and one of the heads has the likeness of a youth, and one of the heads has the likeness of a large bopper, and there is the seeming on those heads of a fatal wound but this beast still lives, and the beast is singing:

I love you, Peggy Sue.

And the beast is singing:

Bamba bamba
Bamba bamba

And the beast is singing:

Oh baby, you know what I like!

And it is not a mortal singing, and the beast hath music to soothe the savage charge, and Death reins short his horse and there is stillness in the Heavens until the opening of the seventh seal.

This is not what will take place, and this is not what may take place, but this is what must soon take place, if humanity is to survive.

— from the Strategic Operations Plan of the First Human Defensive Ministry, Section 6, Subsection R, recorded 2998 AD

When a Bee Loves a Flower Very Very Much, It’s Time to Think of England!

Stinger and Violet, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-
Crash.
. . .
Stinger and Violet, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-

Crash.
. . .
Stinger and—

“This is never going to work,” says Max Stinger, the glorious reconfigurable bee-human machine.

“It’s my chastity circuit,” frets Violet.

“No,” Max says. He reaches out to brush Violet’s metal brow. “Your chastity circuit is not breaking tree branches. That is our combined metallic weight. Your chastity circuit just supercharges your metal skin with painful electricity when we attempt hanky-panky and says, ‘Danger! Chastity mode engaged.'”

“Oh,” says Violet. “So that’s why you always leap away shaking your hands when it engages.”

Max nods sadly. “You didn’t know?”

“I thought it was just playful nervousness,” Violet says.

Max Stinger sighs. He looks away into the distance. “If we cannot sit in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G, we will have neither love nor marriage. And while your circuit functions, we may know no lust. Ah! Violet! Life is cruelly engineered!”

Violet reflects.

“What we need,” she says, “is some sort of anti-gravity belt.”

Max panics.

“No,” he says. “I mean, we don’t need that. We can use some sort of . . . a block and tackle, or . . .”

Violet looks at him.

“Max?”

Max deflates. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll ask him.”

“Why are you so afraid of my father?”

“I’ve heard he eats robots alive,” Max says. “On toast!”

Violet considers this.

“He’s too thin for that,” she says. “Robots are very heavy and would be totally indigestible without a lot of toast.”

“Fine,” Max says. “But I’m only doing this because he’s the best antigravity engineer on the planet! If he weren’t, I’d so keep on hiding from him until he died.”

“And then you’d pretend regret?” Violet teases.

“Darn right!”

Max stomps off.

Max goes to the old man’s house. He knocks on the door. After a moment, a wizened figure hobbles out to meet him.

“You? Who’re you?” The old man peers at him, up and down. “I didn’t make you,” he says. “Go away.”

“I’m Max Stinger,” says Max. “I’m interested in your daughter’s hand.”

“You’ve got bee hands!” declares the old man. “You don’t want a flower hand! That’d disrupt your overall aesthetic theme!”

The old man looks Max up and down. He lifts Max’s arms. He studies the transformation mechanism. He hits the back of Max’s knee with his titanium cane.

“Definitely not. No flowers for you. Look at those bee hands! They shoot off in a one-two punch of justice!”

“I mean,” Max says, after a moment, “in love. I am interested in falling in love with your daughter. But the branches keep breaking under our combined weight.”

“Oh no,” says the old man. “I’ve been down that road before. That’s why all my modern daughters have chastity circuits!”

“Pardon?”

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes genetic recombination using robot parts! That’s what the chastity circuits are for—to utterly remove the risk that irresponsible mechanical one-night stands will burgeon into tender affections and a long-term committed relationship! Honestly, you ought to know better.”

“But I’m not really interested in the irresponsible mechanical one-night stands,” says Max. His subvocalization circuit adds, Much. “I want love. I want marriage. I want robot children.”

“Listen,” says the old man. “How would you go about making children with my daughter?”

“Well,” says Max, “I guess that I’d take some of her design elements—kind of a robot genetic code, you know—and some of mine, and mix them together.”

The old man nods. “And?”

“Well,” says Max, “I’d innovate some. I mean, just so that junior wasn’t the same as every other transforming bee-human/flower-human robot hybrid out there. Like, possibly I’d add some sort of transformation that would let the first little boy become a supertanker, and the first little girl become—”

Max draws a blank as to what a girl might transform into. “A nuclear hawk-wolf,” he says, to avoid an awkward silence.

“Exactly,” says the old man. “You’d evolve. And evolution leads inevitably to humans being nothing more than glorified apes, which is precisely why we don’t let robots do it.”

“But . . .” Max founders. “You let computers evolve.”

“That’s totally different,” says the old man. “You can’t fight Moore’s Law. It’s hardwired into God’s plan. It’s part of the Telos.”

“Oh.”

Max hesitates. “If you’d make us a gravity-defying belt,” he says, “we could commit to a barren and childless marriage.”

The old man tilts his head to the side. “What, you’d never even be tempted? Tubes can be untied, son. Snips, unsnup. Mechanical clocks, they tick.”

“I’m a playboy,” Max Stinger tries, desperately. “I really just want to sow some wild oats in Violet!”

The old man snorts. “Don’t try to fool me, son. I can see the gleam of commitment in those polished titanium eyes.”

“I’ll . . . I’ll . . . I’ll think of America!”

The old man hesitates.

“I will! Every time! I promise! I’ll think of nothing save America as our circuits mesh in glorious mechanical harmony, a rhapsody of patriotism and lust that will totally curtail any desire to differentiate my genes and spread my design principles to a new generation of competitive robot offspring!”

The old man sighs.

“Ah, damn,” he says. “You had to hit me in the patriotism.”

Stinger and Violet, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-
VRRRRRRM
S-I-N-G! First comes
VRRRRRRM
love, then comes marriage,
Then comes a frantic choral representation of the Star-Spangled Banner!

VRRRRRRM

“Somehow,” says Max Stinger, “I can’t help thinking that it would be easier to prevent robotic evolution through intelligent design.”

“Shut up and sing,” purrs Violet’s secondary speech processor. “It’s the third verse that’s the sexiest.

Remus

The day is hot. The hills are covered in flowers. A peasant’s hut sits beside the grain fields.

Romulus is Emperor of Rome.

Romulus is wandering. Romulus is haunted. But Romulus is not haunted today.

Today is a good day. Today there is beauty and there is magic and everything is wonderful except that he is hot.

Romulus is sweating.

It is the Italian summer.

“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” says Romulus. “Then my day would be complete!”

A creature bursts through the wall of the hut. It has three jackal heads and seven serpents growing from its back. Its legs are the legs of a wolf, and it has six of them. Its stinger is like a scorpion’s, but leathery and with a whip-like flexibility. It charges onto him like a storm, and he is flung backwards by its impact. His right arm tries to keep its snapping heads from his throat while his left hand fumbles for his sword. He is driven backwards into the hill, and rolls desperately to the side, and then his sword is up and the creature is gutted.

“You are a fool,” says Romulus, “to challenge thus the son of Mars.”

The creature bleeds. Brilliant red gouts onto the ground. “Oh, yeah,” it whispers, in a voice that is like the voice of men. Then it is dead.

Romulus cuts out its heart. He takes its heart to Rome. He cuts open a trench in the earth. He plants the heart in the earth. He grows a Granarium. This is where Rome will store its grain during the long winter months.

763 years before the common era, Mars impregnated Rhea Silvia.

Rhea Silvia birthed twin sons, Romulus and Remus. Mars claimed them, played with them for six hours, and then abandoned them on the banks of the Tiber.

2.8% of the infants exposed in this manner are suckled to maturity by a passing animal. The remaining 97.2% die.

Romulus and Remus were among the lucky few.

Romulus sleeps in Rome that night, among his concubines and his servants, but he does not rest.

In the morning he sets out again.

By the banks of the Tiber, Romulus sits down, and he weeps.

The nymph of the river sits beside him. She is a creature all of reeds and grass, and she is nourished by his tears. “Why do you cry?” she asks of him.

“You are beautiful,” says Romulus, “and I am sad. Must everything have reasons?”

“No,” says the nymph. And they sit there for a time.

“I would—I should—”

Then Romulus shakes his head. The nymph is sleeping, and she cannot hear what he might say.

“If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment,” Romulus says. “I would share it with you this day.”

In the first days of Rome, these are words to call forth horrors.

The river boils. The river seethes. A great hand of mud and silt rises from it; and then its arm; and then its body. The creature is tall and apelike, and in its muddy mass Romulus can see the eyes of old drowned men.

It roars; and in that roar, Romulus hears, “Oh, yeah.”

“Peace,” Romulus says, and lowers the nymph’s head onto the grass so that she is not jostled as he rises.

The silt-ape pounds the ground with one fist. The earth shakes. Distant from them, the Roman coliseum cracks.

“Oh, yeah!” screams the ape, in its brutal rage. It lunges at Romulus. A wave of water, filth, and the stench of death precedes it on its charge. But the sword of Romulus is in his hand, and it casts aside the wave, and the spray touches him not, the spray touches not the nymph, and as the silt-ape lopes towards Romulus the beast meets for the first time the sting of mortal steel.

“I am Romulus,” says the man, “Emperor of Rome; son of a god; and I will take your head to form my city’s walls.”

The silt-ape hesitates. It is fond of its head. But silt-apes are vicious and belligerent, and so it does not cease. It casts forth a terrible wave and lopes towards the man again; and Romulus surfs that wave, riding backwards towards Rome with his shield and on it, and at the city limits Romulus’ blade lunges out and pierces the silt-ape’s brain; and the ape falls, and its blood is brilliant and blue, and Romulus cuts off its head, and he carries it into Rome.

“This shall be our city walls,” Romulus says. He digs a trench in the ground. He sows the head in the trench. He covers it in dirt. He builds City Walls. They rise, stern and rocky, to surround the city of his name.

Romulus and Remus grew strong. Romulus and Remus grew powerful. They loved one another as brothers do. They learned the arts of the sword and became great heroes.

It was a golden time.

Romulus’ chief concubine pleads with the Emperor. “Sleep with us tonight,” she says. She would very much like to give birth to his heir.

Romulus goes pale. He shakes his head. He pushes her away.

“No.”

Romulus goes to a new-risen tower in the city walls. There on the barren stone he palely awaits the dawn.

At the darkest hour the shade of dead Remus stands at his side.

“This is a fine city wall,” Remus says.

Romulus does not respond.

“It will keep the city safe,” Remus says. “But it would be better if you upgraded it to a Spiked Wall.

“I was thinking of working on Imperial Tactics next,” Romulus says.

“What if someone attacks?”

“I just . . . I don’t want . . . I don’t have to kill something for Imperial Tactics. I just have to steal the fruit of the tree of ruthlessness.”

Remus sits down beside Romulus. His spectral hand touches his brother’s back. It is cold and warm together as Remus tries to rub some of Romulus’ tension out.

“I do not wish to see the city lost,” Remus says. “Is all.”

There is something unstated between them.

“You’ve worked so hard,” Remus says.

Spiked Walls,” Romulus agrees. He shrinks away from Remus.

“It doesn’t feel good?”

“I—”

“I’ll let you rest,” says Remus, awkwardly.

Romulus is silent.

Remus ghosts away.

Romulus and Remus decided to build a city. They dreamed of it together, but to Romulus the dream was dearer.

They planned the streets. They planned the buildings. They desired an empire as their legacy.

What they built was Rome.

It is the next day.

Romulus staggers from the tower stiff and haggard.

There is a gentle rain to lift his spirits, and the smell of white flowers on the wind. Romulus walks through valleys and through hills. He sleeps at night and wakes refreshed at dawn. Finally he comes to a place of honeysuckle and stone, where milk leaks from the calcium walls in that ancient geological process most like a cow’s.

“Ah,” says Romulus. He drinks deep. Then he shakes the milk from his beard and stands tall, with chest thrust out, in the fashion of the ancient kings.

Romulus cries, his voice stentorian, “This milk—I am not satisfied! Ah! Ah! If only I had some artificial fruit refreshment!”

The walls of stone around him shudder and shake. There is a charnel stench that seems to Romulus to leak straight upwards from the gates of Hell. The calcium splits and crumbles as a drake buried in the wall spreads its wings. This is no living dragon but an ancient drake dead since the dawning of the world. The mouth that comes down towards Romulus is foul and toothless and Romulus is gagging too hard to draw his blade. Into darkness the corpse-drake swallows him.

“I am Romulus,” gasps out the Emperor of Rome, twisting and writhing in the corpse-drake’s narrow throat. “I shall not turn to oil in the belly of a beast!”

Romulus’ battle aura flares. Romulus is strong, because he has been drinking milk. He slams his arms to the sides and the beast bursts into ten thousand thousand flakes. Its blood is a viscid translucent orange. Its pieces flutter down onto the earth like a gentle snow. Romulus seizes in his hands, for lack of a dragon’s fang to sow, a bit of corpse-drake palate.

Romulus takes the palate back to Rome.

Romulus affixes the palate to the City Walls. The walls become Spiked Walls. A plaque on the walls reads, “These walls have been spiked with the fermented essence of a long-dead drake. They are exceptionally good at repelling enemies.”

“It is well,” says Romulus, exhausted.

Then Romulus leans his head against the stone and cries.

In the early days of Rome, Romulus and Remus quarreled. Only one could be Emperor. Only one could found a nation. Only one could have eternal glory and endless fame.

Romulus slew Remus. He sowed Remus in the earth and the Roman forum grew.

Thus it is that Romulus was emperor, and not Remus.

Thus it is that Romulus could name the city “Rome.”

Night falls.

Remus’ shade stands beside Romulus. The ghost has an diffident look to him.

“You are pushing yourself hard,” Remus says.

Romulus sits down.

“I remember when we were young,” Remus says, “and we would drink the milk of the she-wolf, and then you would chase me and I would chase you all through these hills, and for days and days we would run with the wind in our face, laughing, and never did you get so tired as this.”

“I—”

Romulus swallows his words. He will not say them. He will not tell Remus how much harder it is, alone.

“It will be a grand city,” Remus says. He looks out across Rome. “It needs an Onyx Library, I think. That’ll show Alexandria what for.”

Romulus gasps out, “Forgive me.”

Remus looks blank.

Romulus shakes his head. Romulus gets to his feet. Romulus staggers out into the night.

“Great,” Romulus says. Romulus is sniffling. It’s not self-pity, it’s just that his nose is still congested from his tears. “Just great.”

Then Romulus laughs.

“All I need now is some artificial fruit refreshment. That’d make my night complete!”

There are screams in the night. There is the sound of wings. Romulus cannot see these noises’ source.

Then there is white in the darkness and Remus is there.

“What are you thinking?” Remus demands. “It’s night time.

“Brother?”

Remus looks around. “They are all around you,” Remus says, “not in this world but the next. Oh, brother, why have you risked yourself so?—but you must flee!”

“Brother? You cannot be away from Rome—”

The rake marks of claws appear down Romulus’ side. He did not feel the blow; he did not see the blow; he only sees and feels the pulsing of his blood. Romulus casts about him for his enemies.

“There,” cries Remus, pointing.

Romulus lunges, and his blade breaks through something’s heart, and the wine of a dead man’s libations bubbles up from the ground.

“There!” Remus shouts.

Romulus stabs. An ethereal white liquor, raspberry in flavor, drools now down his sword.

“There!”

The blade of Romulus, who is a son of a god, spins and dances in the night; but then the horrors turn aside from him and retreat to a place he cannot go. Romulus watches, Romulus can do nothing but watch, as the hands of dead horrors drag his brother’s ghost away.

“Remus,” Romulus pleads.

“Be well,” Remus says, and the gibbering of the horrors and the light of Remus fade away, save for one last scream in the night:

“Oh, yeah!”

For more on information on the invocation Romulus uses in this story, see Claire and KA

.

Coprocessor

This story must have started a long time ago.

Jack and Maggie and ECS-872 picnicked. They were sitting on a red and white tablecloth in the tall grass. They were drinking tea and eating cold chicken, except for ECS-872, who didn’t eat or drink.

“Do you think the children will be okay?” Jack asked.

“The FL-series are perfectly good babysitters,” Maggie said. “Polly and Jim will be just fine.”

Jack looked longingly at the City Gate. It was a metal portal, hanging in the air, connecting through warpspace to New Angel City.

“I suppose,” he said.

“Concurrence,” droned ECS-872. “The children require opportunities for independence.”

Jack looked blankly at the robot. Then he shook his head.

“Well,” he said, “it’s fine chicken, anyway.”

ECS-872 experimented with a new pattern of flashing lights on his chest panel. As always, the humans failed to notice its aesthetic efforts.

“We should go back,” Jack said. “And check on them.”

It was just then that the New Angel City died.

“The gate!” Maggie shrieked.

“What?”

Jack was on his feet. He was staring blankly at the Gate, which no longer connected to New Angel City.

ECS-872 processed.

“Damn it, ECS!” snapped Jack. “Call someone! Find out what’s wrong!”

ECS-872 hesitated. “There is much activity on the wireless network,” it droned. “Their circuits will be overloaded. It is safest for all involved to put minimum stress on the communications system until a robot can make a public broadcast—”

“My son’s in there!”

ECS-872’s circuits were sparking. “Very well. Placing call.”

For some time, they waited. Maggie paced. Jack fumed.

“I am sorry,” ECS-872 reported. “There has been severe biological and radioactive contamination due to terrorist activity. New Angel City has powered down its Gate core.”

“But—”

Maggie said, “The City is behind five miles of solid rock. Without the Gates there’s no way in or out.”

“Oh, God, Maggie,” Jack said.

Then Maggie shakes herself.

“No, Jack. It’s all right,” she says.

“What?”

“They’ll have at least five weeks before the Gate’s totally spun down, and they’ll give children priority on decon and evac procedures. We’ll be seeing them again in no time.”

“Concurrence,” droned ECS-872.

It hesitated.

It clicked.

“Requesting permission to dig into the City,” ECS-872 asked.

“What?”

“They will give children priority. They will remove as many humans as possible. Some personnel may remain. The machines will be abandoned.”

“It’ll take you years,” Jack expostulated.

“Decades,” confirmed ECS-872.

“It’s a waste of resources,” Jack said. “Forget it, ECS-872. If it’s viable to salvage the robots someone’ll take care of it. That’s capitalism.”

ECS-872 kept its voice affectless. “Your decision is economically optimal, sir, but is there really no room in your human priorities for a rescue?”

“Jesus, Jack, let him go already. We’ve been needing to upgrade anyway.”

“What? Today? Our children are locked in a dead City with a biohazard and you want to fire our butler?

“Look at it,” Maggie said.

EGS-872’s lights blinked vigorously in various patterns.

“It doesn’t understand this kind of thing, Jack. It doesn’t know stress, or grief, or what’s right and wrong. It just wants to rescue our other household equipment and our blender. That’s what the love coprocessor is for.

“Yeah,” said Jack, after a moment. He gave a sad little laugh, though his eyes were still white with fear for his children. “Poor little robot. Sure. Go. We’ll call you if your replacement blows up or something.”

So EGS-872 began to dig.

It is still digging now.