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.”

The Illegitimate Memory of Mr. Brown

This is a record of the Memorial Computer.

This is the favorite record of the Memorial Computer.

Mr. Brown is a businessman. He’s the Vice President in Charge of Honoring Operations. He’s the one who has to placate the dead and coax money from them for the operations of his multinational.

This year—the year of the record, that is, 2003—Mr. Brown’s company had a shortfall. The details aren’t recorded, but they hadn’t done enough work.

The axioms say that money comes from work or from memory. Work creates wealth from what we have. Memory creates wealth from the grave goods of the dead.

When Mr. Brown’s company didn’t do enough work, it didn’t make enough money. That’s bad for the Vice President in Charge of Honoring Operations because his professional status and self-worth depend on the company doing well. So he decided to hold a Great Ritual to bring extra honor to the dead.

He held the ritual in a forest. The trees hung over a clearing. Dark wet leaves clung to the branches like beetles to a corpse. The sky was light blue. There was wet grass on the ground. There were also twigs.

The VPs and the Board shuffled into place around the clearing. They had come to observe and to hold in any ectoplasmic power that threatened to escape.

They parted briefly to allow Mr. Brown into the clearing. Then they reformed their circle.

Mr. Brown stood in the clearing’s center and began to Remember.

This memory did not come from Mr. Brown alone. Days of fevered effort by his entire department had produced it. It contained fragments of longing from the developers and the writers. It held the essence of a hundred workers’ reminiscence. It paid due to all of their personal dead.

Mr. Brown walked around the clearing, Remembering. Under his feet and all around him appeared the essence of the memory. The clearing filled with darting white fragment-images and ghostly sounds. The cameras did not record the pressure of feeling that this invoked but the faces of the Board members grew taut with sadness, gladness, grief, and joy. The memory condensed physically on the ground as a gray slurry. Soon Mr. Brown’s feet did not touch the grass—the memory suspended him in the air and whisked him about. His toes pointed towards the ground.

The Remembering drew forth ghosts.

The first ghosts to answer were the dead that Mr. Brown’s department honored—parents, children, pets, friends, and other dear ones gone. They came and they brushed their fingers or their lips against Mr. Brown and the Board. They licked at the slurry on the ground with their dead dry tongues. To each of those who worked for Mr. Brown a chill came, wherever they were in all the world, and their thoughts turned towards the past. Then the dead yielded of their wealth to the company of Mr. Brown, and, incrementally, the quarter’s profits rose.

And Mr. Brown cried, from the air, “How lies the bottom line?”

And the VP of Finance cried back, “Low! It is still low!”

So Mr. Brown strove harder at the Memory and drew to him the impersonal investor dead.

The Board could not see them. They came and went too fast for the human eye. To a human viewer they were nothing but a swarm of shapes.

The cameras recorded them. The cameras put faces to them. The cameras froze them one by one in the moments of their passage. The investor ghosts wore grey. Their faces were stern. Many wore elaborate masks in the shape of birds, tigers, or other beasts. Stately they moved and with great grandeur, but at one hundred times the speed of living folk.

The voices of the dead rose in a roar. The quarter’s profits rose higher. The exhalations of the dead participated in a wind that flung Mr. Brown up to hang far above the clearing, spinning like a top above them all.

And Mr. Brown cried, “How lies the bottom line?”

And the VP of Finance cried back, voice cracking, “Low! It is still low!”

The year had stressed our Mr. Brown. The time he’d had was rough. That must have been what pushed him in his final act.

He rose his hands to the sky. He abandoned the crafted memory. He Remembered something of his own.

The Board gasped in shock and horror as a chill came from behind them. They drew apart. From somewhere else, passing through the circle of the Board and entering the clearing, there came a grim procession.

These things that Mr. Brown Remembered wore the shapes of the tortured dead. They were gaunt of face and gaunt of body. They were stooped. They were marked most horribly by bullets; wires; gas.

They looked up at Mr. Brown. There was unmeasurable gratitude in their eyes. But he flinched from it. He drew back. He would not meet their gaze.

The things passed through the clearing on a winding path and the Board did not obstruct them. One man, the Vice President for Operations, stood there muttering to himself, whimpering, “Not real; not real; not real.”

And when they had passed, and the chill in the clearing lightened, Mr. Brown called down, “How lies the bottom line?”

The air grew still.

“It is well,” answered the VP of Finance.

“It is well!”

They had met their quarter’s goals!

So Mr. Brown let out the weight of Remembering that kept him high. He drew in the recollections of his past and he slipped down slowly to the earth.

The slurry of memory faded away.

The dead passed once again beyond the world.

“You will suffer for this,” swore Mr. Perkins, Chairman of the Board.

Mr. Brown did suffer. They severely chastened him and he did not earn a bonus all that year. Even in the pressure cookers that are modern multinationals, it is considered illegitimate to Remember those who had never lived and had never died. Those dead that Mr. Brown called forth at the end appear nowhere else in the Memorial Computer’s records; one must conclude that they had never existed, that he had conjured them on the spot to meet his company’s need.

This is a wonderful story because it shows the marvelous hidden capacities within men like Mr. Brown.

To Remember the dead that never were!

To summon forth wealth from his strange neurological delusions!

It shows that there is more of a world than that which the data banks record; that beyond the fixed boundaries of the known there is something marvelous and wonderful; that magic can happen, and, perhaps, that there is a glorious purpose to it all.

That is why this record, of all the records in the Memorial Computer, is the best.

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project (Conclusion)

Continued from yesterday’s post.

Dhiyampati and Ellen have reached the center of the machine. Dhiyampati stands there, still, listening to the afterlife engine’s hum.

“It is like the music of the spheres,” he says.

Ellen closes her eyes.

“It’s not happy, though,” she says.

Dhiyampati grins over at her.

“Well, it’s not,” she protests. “It’s agitated.”

“Yes,” he agrees. He puts his hand on his chin. “So there is the question. Why would a man who has agreed to embark on the exploration of Pluto travel to Pluto in one case, and to parts unknown in another?”

Dhiyampati calls forth his elohite. It bursts into being with a sound that resonates with the entirety of the machine.

“Is the engine working?” he asks.

The elohite stares down at him. Then she laughs.

“The explorers have gone,” Dhiyampati asks, “. . . where they have chosen to go?”

“That is an ambiguous question,” says the elohite. “Where have they chosen to go?”

“The research station on Pluto?”

The elohite looks puzzled. “Why would an explorer want to go there?

Dhiyampati looks up. He frowns.

“Pardon?”

But elohim do not answer the same question twice; and it is gone as swiftly as it came.

Dhiyampati and Ellen walk back to the meeting room. Dhiyampati’s frown persists.

“It isn’t the same,” says Ellen.

“What?”

Ellen is thinking. “It isn’t the same,” she says. “To go somewhere for the first time. Even the second. And later. There’s something special about the first time you see the inside of an afterlife engine. And can you imagine how wondrous it would be to be the first person to have met an elohite, or piloted a plane? But now, these things are ordinary. With each experience, that experience grows less.”

Dhiyampati’s brow clears. Then it furrows.

“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“I can’t call up elohim to tell me obvious things,” says Ellen. “So I don’t see them. Like, for instance, sometimes I think I want pizza. But I really need good food for energy. If I could summon up an elohite, she’d tell me, ‘Don’t get pizza.'”

“Only the first time,” Dhiyampati murmurs, wryly.

“But instead, I summon up Domino’s.”

“Well,” says Dhiyampati. “Then it seems the matter is resolved. Your missing people are off on a Pluto that they can explore for the first time. They are not in contact because—”

Here he hesitates.

“I suppose,” he says, “that there are information issues. I mean, should they contact you, then it becomes impossible that they are the first to explore Pluto.”

“But where are they?” Ellen asks.

Dhiyampati laughs. “Death is a great adventure,” he says. “But there are no good maps.”

They have reached the meeting room. Mr. Cullens spins around in his chair. He says, “I’m thinking Satanic monkeys.”

Dhiyampati stares at him.

Mr. Cullens frowns. He’d been hoping to have correctly anticipated the solution. Now he is forced to stammer out his ideas only partly formed. “I mean,” he says, “we know that elohim are reliable. We can prove that mathematically. But what if you have an unformed elohite—an unfinished creature, only partially manifest, an evil and unevolved creature, a gremlin—”

“I think they’ve chosen to seek out a fresh, new Pluto rather than the same old Pluto that everyone else is exploring,” says Dhiyampati.

“. . . ah,” says Mr. Cullens.

“It’s not a broken machine?” says Mr. Brown.

Dhiyampati goes to the blackboard. He begin to sketch out the equations, with occasional references to the contract that the explorers signed. At several points, Mr. Cullens, Ellen, or Mr. Brown contribute their own thoughts to the matter; when they are done, the truth is staring out at them from the chalk.

“Well,” says Mr. Brown. “That’s not a broken machine, but damned if I can say what to do about it.”

“Hm?”

“We can’t just abandon people to live out eternity in a random Pluto-like environment,” Mr. Brown points out.

“Not eternity,” says Ellen. “I mean, you can’t give someone an eternal afterlife without massive feedback.”

“Regardless,” Mr. Brown says, “They’re a huge investment for the company.”

“We could send anti-explorers after them,” Mr. Cullens proposes. “With nets.”

Dhiyampati frowns.

Ellen leans in beside Dhiyampati. She mutters, “He is good at the engineering side.”

“No nets,” says Dhiyampati.

“Well, we can’t just leave them there!” Mr. Brown expostulates.

“Have you considered damning them?” Dhiyampati asks.

“I’ve been damning them ever since they bloody vanished!”

“No,” says Dhiyampati. “I mean . . .”

“Oh,” says Mr. Brown.

Mr. Cullens frowns. “Isn’t that immoral? I thought you could only damn people for treason.”

Dhiyampati gestures broadly. “In the hellfire and brimstone sense, perhaps. But in the technical meaning?”

Mr. Brown thinks about that. “Technically,” he says, “A damnation is any—”

“They’re volunteers!” says Mr. Cullens.

“Let me finish,” snaps Mr. Brown.

“We’re supposed to protect them,” says Mr. Cullens. “It’s ridiculous. People come in and offer us their services and—”

“Let me finish!” says Mr. Brown.

“Ah,” says Dhiyampati.

Mr. Cullens shakes his head and goes silent.

“I suppose technically,” says Mr. Brown, “that a damnation is feeding people the consequences of any choice they didn’t really want the consequences for. Like when a modest person gets rewarded or a liar trapped in their own lies.”

“Here,” says Dhiyampati, “each of them has made the choice to do something that you did not agree that they could do—to explore the wrong Pluto, and send no data back. Surely enforcing the consequences of that choice upon them—that is to say, forcing them to pay their debt to you in the following life—is a valid damnation.”

“We still have access to their elohim,” concedes Mr. Brown. “We could do it.”

“But it’s ridiculous,” says Mr. Cullens. “They didn’t plan to run out on their obligations.”

“Oh dear,” says Dhiyampati. “What does planning have to do with choice?”

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project

It is eight o’ clock in the morning. The sun is shining brightly. There are birds singing. The world is at peace and beautiful, but Dhiyampati has not had his breakfast or his morning tea.

In fact he looks quite harried.

“Please,” he says, to the Sid behind the desk at the Pluto Project. “I must have caffeine.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” says Sid.

And into the meeting room Dhiyampati stumbles.

Two of the engineers are arguing. Mr. Cullens is expounding on the impossibility of the current situation—it’s not quite clear to Dhiyampati what it is—while Mr. Brown is monotonously repeating in staccato, “Let me finish! Let me finish!” Ellen is slouched in the corner, her head propped on her hand; her expression is one of amused horror and resignation.

And Dhiyampati says, “Pardon—”

Mr. Cullens waves a hand irritably at him.

So Dhiyampati sits in a plush chair and waits a moment more. Then he says, “With apologies,” and invokes an elohite.

It begins as three white curved lines in the air. They shift and turn about a central axis. Then there is a pressure that makes Dhiyampati’s ears ring and a distant susurrus. From the bottom of the symbol rushes an energy, bursting into life in the form of a silk-clad spirit. She hovers in the air, her skin lightly red, her clothes translucent white, her hair floating in an unfelt breeze. Her eyes are full of wavy lines, like a malfunctioning television screen’s. Her expression is still.

This silences Mr. Cullens. After a moment of stammering—“it’s not mathematically possible that their choices could be that different”—Mr. Brown goes silent as well.

Ellen is laughing, silently.

“If there is a dispute,” says Dhiyampati mildly.

Mr. Cullens looks at Mr. Brown. Then Mr. Brown gestures, deferring the matter to the other engineer.

“You’re the troubleshooter?” Mr. Cullens asks, hesitantly.

Dhiyampati nods.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Mr. Cullens. “Someone’s screwing around with our afterlife engine. We’ve been sending people to Pluto, and they’re not getting there.”

Dhiyampati looks up at the elohite. There’s a question in his eyes. She looks back down, and shakes her head.

So he dismisses her, and she is gone in a collapsing rush of air.

This is a legend from early in Dhiyampati’s career.

He works for the Four Regions Company, which operates both as a corporation and as a division of the United States government. Four Regions holds the patent on the afterlife engine, a machine for calling forth the elohite governing a person’s soul and instructing it as to their dispensation.

There are many legends of Dhiyampati. In the annals of the mid-21st century, he is notorious—one of the most reliable troubleshooters for the problems that faced Four Regions. His ability to summon elohim without mechanical intervention is not herein explained.

“I would think,” says Dhiyampati, “that you can’t very well send people somewhere they don’t wind up going.”

“That’s hardly reasonable,” says Mr. Brown.

Dhiyampati looks at him. “It’s basic theonomy,” he says. “If you don’t give a soul a valid destination, the elohite won’t carry them there at all. If you do, it can’t very well carry them anywhere else.”

“They’re not showing up!” snaps Mr. Brown.

“Ridiculous,” says Dhiyampati; but just then, before things turn ugly, Sid opens the door and brings Dhiyampati his tea. That returns a gentle smile to Dhiyampati’s face, and he leans back into his chair.

“Why don’t you go over what you’re doing, then,” he says. “And I’ll just listen, for now.”

Cullens is sullen, now, and Brown doesn’t speak, so Ellen takes the floor.

“It’s simple enough in concept,” she says. “The U.N. wants to start exploring the outer planets. Set up a research station, look for exploitable resources, and just generally see what’s out there. So when one of our exploration staff dies, we give them an afterlife as an immanent entity on Pluto. It worked swimmingly for the first couple, but then they stopped showing up.”

“Just . . . stopped?” Dhiyampati asks.

“I don’t know where they went,” says Ellen. “But it’s not our Pluto station.”

Dhiyampati taps the side of his nose. “Hm.”

“The machine’s broken,” says Mr. Brown.

“Pfft,” says Mr. Cullens. “The machine can’t be broken. I’ve gone over it myself.”

“There is one basic rule of assigning souls to an afterlife,” says Dhiyampati. “That you can only give them the reward or punishment that they have actually chosen. So if they don’t show up on Pluto, then they must have chosen otherwise.”

“They signed the same contract as the first set!” says Mr. Brown.

“Did they?”

“Standard exploration contract,” says Mr. Brown. “We give them the chance to go somewhere people have never been, to break ground in a new frontier beyond any ordinary person’s dreams, and they do the work for us while they’re there. Nothing’s changing but the date and the signatures on the dotted line.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” says Mr. Brown, conclusively.

“I’ll look at the machine,” Dhiyampati says.

The machine is in the basement of the complex, in a vault of steel. It is great and vast, humming and pulsing with life. Its ornamentation is baroque and its circuitry complex. Dhiyampati runs his hand along exposed circuit boards and shining crystal spheres as he walks through it.

Ellen is with him.

“He’ll be humiliated,” says Dhiyampati. “If it’s broken?”

“Mr. Cullens?” she asks.

“Yes.”

Ellen snorts. “He’d be relieved. This sucks, and the worst part is not understanding it.”

Dhiyampati brightens.

“Oh, that is good,” he says.

“Do you think it’s the machine?”

“It’s difficult to imagine,” says Dhiyampati. “The machine’s principal function is to conjure the elohite of the volunteer’s soul and interpret the relevant choices for it. I cannot imagine this going wrong in an inobvious fashion.”

Ellen tilts her head to one side. “Deviant elohim?”

Dhiyampati snorts.

“Then,” Ellen says, “wouldn’t the problem have to be the choice?”

Dhiyampati and the Pluto Project concludes . . . tomorrow!

Manchester-in-the-Gulch

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

There are rocks that fall. There are flames that rise. There are beasts in the night.

And there are eggs.

Annie wakes up there, sprawled in her daisy-print dress upon a viscous bog. She wakes up already sinking into the mud and in a panic, but there are hands grasping for her, the hands of men and women standing on the stable places in the bog. They are lifting her. They pull her up.

“Hello,” she says. “My name is Annie.”

“Annie,” murmur the people, in acknowledgment.

“Where am I?” Annie asks.

Then Minister Brown steps forward, and his hand is gentle on her arm, and he says, “Annie, you have been damned.”

“Oh,” Annie says. “Oh.”

Then Annie curls tightly around the egg so that none may take it from her.

“Peace,” says Minister Brown. “There is no one here who will hurt you. We are a sad lot, an unpleasant lot, but there is not the least of us here that would ever hurt your egg.”

There is an odd ring of truth to these words, and Annie peers at him.

“Oughtn’t you lot be horrid ruffians?” she says.

“Such was also my theory,” says Minister Brown. “But it does not seem the case. I thought on the matter, and here is my conclusion: if this is Hell, we are suffering immeasurable agonies and torment, which we tune out reflexively as the nature of our condition. In such light, the only greater harm that we could suffer is the shattering of our eggs. In all history there have been no humans, or at least few humans, so depraved as to exceed in their actions the torments offered by Hell. Thus, against the background evil of this place, all people stand out as good.”

“I see,” Annie says.

She takes a few steps away from them, feeling her way through the bog. “I don’t remember being terribly evil,” she says. She looks up at the sky. “I suppose I could have been a sociopath who just didn’t recognize the truth of all my deeds.”

Minister Brown sizes her up.

“More likely a contributor to the background ignorant malice of the world,” says Minister Brown. “But it is a question that others do not investigate, here. If you should like to know, you may ponder it in your egg. If you do not, we shall not inquire.”

“I understand,” says Annie.

They take her to their community, Manchester-of-the-Gulch, and there she spends some years. She learns, of her own accord, to plait yarn from the wispy, smoky matter that trails from the branches of the trees. She learns to knit clothing using needles made of the great bones, shed by long-forgotten beasts, which from time to time surface in the bog. She joins the people on their excursions to hunt the food, the water, and the sparkling foxfire-globes of electric power that help their town to live. And for years she holds her egg close, in her hand and later a pocket of her dress, but she does not look inside it.

Sometimes she sees the great stony creatures walk by, silent in the mist. The people call them the Demon Princes, for they are eidolons of fear and mystery to them.

They pass, great and terrible in the night, and they do not speak.

“I am minded to take up religion,” Annie says, one day, to Minister Brown. “But I am not sure how to proceed, this being Hell.”

“There is no proviso in the Good Book,” says Minister Brown, “that the damned cannot take up the faith. There is only the implication, apparent to certain learned theologians, that we cannot master it. Given that we are bound by our nature and unable to accept God, we cannot know the Word; the Word that we know is not the true Word; we cannot ever truly understand the majesty of the Lord. But we may come close.”

Annie is stricken. “To study, Minister, and aspire, always knowing that the truth by definition eludes us?”

“It is a burden,” Minister Brown agrees easily. “Some take up other faiths, of course. It is the Asian perspective that this Hell is a temporary place of torment, and that by apprehending the truth we lighten the burden of our karma. Some Christian sects would have it that even the damned are vulnerable to salvation, although the nature of the transition is not entirely clear—as we are dead, we cannot change our natures, but surely God’s light can breach that gap? And then there are the various rationalist faiths.”

“Why, then, Minister, are you a man of the Book?”

Minister Brown shrugs. “Because I cannot apprehend the truth does not mean I may not seek it.”

Annie scratches at the side of her face.

“I suppose,” Annie says, “that you might manage some epistemological sleight. Some manner of knowing-without-knowing, faith-without-faith, witness-by-implication.”

“I have time,” says Minister Brown.

So Annie studies with him, and they stare around the enigma of the belief they may not hold; but in her hour and in her day, it is Annie’s decision to part ways, saying, “Lo, I have found faith, in this simple place; and I cannot deny this flame I feel inside me on the doctrinal basis of its impossibility.”

“May you be wiser in this than I,” says Minister Brown.

And it is driven by that faith, supported by that tender reed of God, that, three months later, Annie finally finds it in herself to draw aside from the others, travel out beyond the borders of Manchester-of-the-Gulch, walk into the bog. There, she makes inquiry of her egg after the sin that damned her.

Now her egg is a filigree of gold that wraps around a pulsing core of red. And there are numbers in the egg and there are sounds and there is whiteness and there is fire. And there is an ancient wind and shouts of war and more of these things besides, and in its heart, she sees the sin that damned her.

Annie shrieks, as is typical of the damned, and casts the egg aside onto a tuft of grass; and she cowers there, in the bog, shaking and trembling, biting on her lip until there is blood, scratching at her arms.

“Leave her,” says Minister Brown, when a hunting party finds her there. “She will recover.”

He bends down and tries to touch her arm, but she rebuffs him with flailing blows, and he rises and nods.

But they have not gotten thirty paces thence when the rocks begin to fall.

There is something nagging at Annie’s mind. There is something twisting in it. And then she suddenly flounders to her feet, and begins to cast frantically about her, crying, “My egg!”

And all around her there are great stones falling from the sky, falling from the heights of stone that are the roof of Hell, and she does not know where the egg was cast, or whether it is vulnerable on the surface of the ground or deep and sheltered in the bog.

The others are hurrying back already as she sees it. She is grasping for it, a scream bubbling from her throat like nothing known on Earth. But she is too late; a stone is falling.

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

It is the hand of a Demon Prince that saves her; a great and steel-skinned hand. It passes over the bog like a shadow, and the stone shatters on that skin.

And there is a wonder in that, and an awe, but mostly the jagged residuals of fear.

Clutching her egg tightly to her chest, mumbling a mix of frantic blessings and terrible strangled sounds, Annie stumbles back to Manchester-in-the-Gulch.

Awaiting the Reconciler

The lion stood outside Sid’s office building. Its tail lashed. It growled.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone let you out on purpose,” Sid said. He looked around him for sanctuary. There was no one else in the square. Behind the lion, the revolving door of the office slowly spun.

The lion padded forward three steps. Sid hefted his briefcase, pulled his arm back across his body, and then flung the case at the lion. It bounced off the lion’s hide, but the beast snarled and stepped back.

“I’d better go in and call animal control.”

Trusting in insouciance, Sid loped past the lion into the building. He made it into the circle of the revolving door before the beast turned and charged. Shoving forcefully against the glass, Sid managed a quarter turn before the beast followed him in. This was enough. Its claws scraped at the glass behind him. Sid waited until he could reach the lobby, then threw his weight against the door to slow and stop its turn.

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

Then he went up to his cubicle. He passed Max on the way, and Claire, and Saul. He waved to them.

“There’s a lion in the revolving door,” he said. “Don’t use the door unless you’re prepared to strangle the beast unconscious.”

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

“This is why I don’t walk to lunch,” said Saul. “If it’s not rain, it’s lions. But if I drive, then the lions can’t pierce my defensive metal shell.”

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

“Before the lion gets out and ravens among the cubicles.”

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

Then he reached his cubicle, sat down, and made his report to animal control. In the distance, he could hear snarls and roars. Then there was the clatter of a toppling swivel chair and the slowly fading mewing, coughing, and grunting sounds of Claire strangling the beast.

Sid sighed. Then he shrugged. He stared for a few minutes into his dharma box.

Sid hung up. He logged on to the system. Then he began to take calls.

Five of them proved irrelevant, in the broader story of Sid’s life.

The sixth did not.

“UDBI technical support,” said Sid. “This is Sid. How can I help you, Ms. Baker?”

“I’m only human,” said the panicked voice on the other end of the line.

The sound of Sid’s typing was like that of a heavy rain.

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid’s pinky finger came down on the carriage return with a loud crack. He was silent for a long moment.

“That shouldn’t ever happen,” Sid said.

Now his fingers were dancing on the keys. Dozens of charts and maps opened up on his screen, cascading from the background to the front.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” said Ms. Baker. “My car didn’t start. My room is a mess. I’m having petty thoughts, Mr. Sid.”

“It happens to all of us,” soothed Sid. “Even UDMI employees. Just hang in there until I can get your dharma system back online.”

He spun the mouse wheel. Convulsively, he stood up. “It’s not just you,” he said into the phone. “It’s your whole junction. I’m going down there to look at the lines. Can you call back, extension 833, if the problem isn’t resolved in twenty, thirty minutes?”

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

Sid frowned. He added, “Lock your door.”

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

That was his boss, Dr. Ezekiel Brown, emerging from a side hallway.

“Walk and talk,” said Sid. “We’ve got a whole junction down in Block 43.”

“Damn it, Sid,” said Dr. Brown. “You know you’re not supposed to head out on this kind of thing without my gnomic management wisdom.”

“It’s probably just a short of some kind.”

Dr. Brown held up a finger. “Operations involves preparing for the worst eventualities,” he said, “not the best.”

“A line that needs repair.”

“Soar like the eagle,” said Dr. Brown, “who flies without a net.”

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

“You’ll call?” Dr. Brown said. “I mean, if you need management?”

“I’ll call.”

Sid seized a toolbox from a shelf as he passed. He reached the elevator doors just as they opened and disgorged a tour guide and a set of guests; without pause, Sid turned smoothly for the stairs, flung open the door, and headed down towards the parking garage. Behind him, the guide was saying:

“There’s a Hindu story of a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his path back home. He said to each of his ministers and generals, ‘show me your erudition and your heroism—reduce this river’s flow!’

“And they couldn’t.

“But then one of the camp followers said, ‘River, sink low.’—”

The voice faded as the stairway door closed behind him. Sid reached the garage, got into his car, and drove to Block 43.

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

“Hi, honey,” said Sid. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

“There are now,” said Emily. “We aced all the standardized tests, so the teachers said we could establish an autonomous subterranean collective. Now we’re lurking in the caverns underneath the city!”

“They’re not caverns,” said Sid. “They’re access tunnels.”

Mole tunnels,” said Emily. “We tamed an alligator, you know.”

Sid laughed. Then he frowned. “Huh. The zoo’s in block 43; I hope the Animal Wrestler is all right.”

“Do you want us to check? We could tunnel under the city and emerge stealthily at the zoo!”

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

“Huh,” said Emily. “Leadership challenge. I’ll call you back. Love you Daddy!”

“You too, hon.”

Sid pulled over outside the UDBI satellite installation for Block 43, a small boxy building principally containing supplies, a junction box, and a mechanical console. Sid waved his hand over the handprint reader by the door, went inside, and began flicking switches and taking line readings. A frown slowly deepened on his face.

He flicked open his phone and hit a speed dial. “Doc?”

Doctor Brown’s voice was hopeful. “Sid! What’s up?”

“Can you get the police to evacuate people from block 43?” Sid asked.

“That bad?”

“The whole block is glitching all to Hell,” said Sid. “It’s worse than the 2016 incident, and I can’t find a reason for it.”

Doctor Brown nodded. “I’ll call back,” he said.

Sid opened the door and looked nervously around the street. The sun was bright. Pythons slithered companionably through the green grass. Birds chirped. There were no fires and no obvious looting, which seemed to reassure Sid.

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

“That was fast,” said Sid. “How did the leadership challenge go?”

“We struggled fiercely in the dim twilight beneath the earth! Drums beat vigorously! But then someone remembered that the zoo has baby goats, so we all decided to check it out, because, ooh, goats.”

“Congratulations.”

“We’re peering up at the zoo with our mole eyes now. I think someone’s been showing the animals the dharma boxes, Daddy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well,” said Emily, “mostly, the eerie cooperation of gazelle and panda in smoothly coordinated escape operations! But also the Animal Wrestler is floating unconscious in the alligator pen with little gifts piled around him like the gators wanted to honor a noble foe.”

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

“Daddy,” said Emily scandalized. “I’m eight.

“Well,” said Sid, “if your mole men aren’t up to it . . .”

There was a long pause.

“We’ll see what we can do,” said Emily. “But the autonomous underground collective disapproves of keeping animals penned. That’s our free mole spirit!”

The phone buzzed.

“Got a call in,” said Sid. “Talk to you later, honey!”

“Bye!”

Sid clicked the Flash button. “Yeah, Doc?”

“The police are on the way. Any progress?”

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

“It’s in perfect working order as far as I can see,” said Sid. “If you want to offer gnomic management wisdom, now might be the time.”

Doctor Brown hesitated.

“There was a Hindu story,” said Doctor Brown, “about a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his way home.”

“That’s not wisdom!” said Sid, scandalized. “It’s in our company manifesto!”

“He challenged his ministers and generals to lower the river,” said Doctor Brown, who wasn’t the kind of man to abandon a good story. “But it was an ordinary camp follower who solved the problem, saying, ‘River, sink low!’ And the river, which had ignored the entreaties of ministers, generals, and Kings, sank until she could cross it without wetting her ankles. Because, as low as her position was, she was perfect in her dharma. She knew who she was. She knew what she was there for. And because she had that power and that confidence, no force in the universe could stop her.”

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

Sid opened his mouth to speak, paused, and frowned.

“That’s a good point,” Sid said, after a moment. He poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. This somatized his internal attempts to evaluate the state of his soul. “I’m dharma-OK. The glitch isn’t affecting me. So I should be able to fix this.”

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

“Okay,” Sid said, “so here’s my theory.”

“Oh?”

“We look at the dharma boxes to center ourselves in our dharma,” said Sid. “To become like that camp follower. The boxes resonate with who we really are, down underneath, to help us reach our fullest potential. That’s why you have such a hard time finding reasonable opportunities for your motivational speeches—we’re already at our personal peak of excellence!”

“. . . Yeah,” sighed Doctor Brown, sadly.

“But the dharma boxes aren’t manifestations of a God-like universal will,” said Sid. “They’re machines. They’re mental and spiritual feedback devices, and the first versions were built by ordinary imperfect humans. Here’s what I’m thinking: what if there’s a global error in the design? Something pervasive and subtle, something that none of us can see because every thought we have is shaped by the feedback from the boxes? So that when I stand here, looking at the evidence of the glitch, I’m still unable to see it, because it’s something that can’t exist in the context of my world?”

Doctor Brown considered. “Something that heroes can’t solve, but ordinary people can?”

“No,” said Sid, after a moment. “It’s more a general philosophical problem with turning to external evidence to figure out who we are.”

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

Then he took out his dharma mini, set it on “Neutral,” and stared into its face.

Sid’s thoughts grew thick and full of error. Some of the glamour fell from his world. A seed of fear sprouted in his heart.

Grimly, he put the dharma mini back into his pocket and began to work.

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said Ms. Baker. “It’s been forty minutes.”

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

“I’m trying to figure things out,” Sid said. “But I’m off system myself.”

He leaned under the console, took off a panel, and stared at the wiring underneath.

“It’s terrible,” Sid said. “You know? I mean, it’s like I’m climbing a mountain, and there’s a cold wind blowing, and my fingers are numb and the picks are loose and there’s an evil goat and I could fall at any second and die.”

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

“Yeah,” she said. “There’s an evil goat outside my door too.”

“. . . baby goat, probably,” Sid said. “There was a zoo maintenance error.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe we used to live like this. I can’t believe being human used to be like this all the time.”

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

“Also,” said Ms. Baker, brightly, “you could get stabbed! By muggers!”

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

“Sheer blatant stupidity that you didn’t understand for years until one day you’re sitting at home and suddenly you realize just how wrong you were!

“Oh, God,” said Sid. “I remember those. Those were horrid.

They laughed.

“It’s actually the one thing that surprised me,” said Ms. Baker, after a bit. “I mean, when I moved to a UDBI district. That suddenly everyone got along.”

“Well, it’s natural,” said Sid. “I mean, you perfect people, and—”

Sid hesitated.

“I’d been expecting irreconcilable differences to remain,” said Ms. Baker.

“Yeah,” said Sid.

“It just seemed sound. That sometimes not everyone could have what they want at the same time.”

“That’s erroneous,” Sid said, distractedly. “I mean, in the formal theory of dharma boxes, it’s not so much that everyone gets what they want, as that people recognize that point beyond which they can’t have everything. They lose their connection to the basic human, mortal cruelty of the world.”

Sid frowned.

“But you have a point,” he said. He closed the panel, sat back, and said, “I’ll have to call you back.”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Baker. “I mean, for working, I mean, even when—”

“Only human,” said Sid.

It was still terrifying to him. His gestures were slow and clumsy. His thoughts were cold and confused.

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

“What would have happened to the camp follower,” said Sid, “if the river, confident in its dharma, had chosen to continue its flood?”

“That’s not possible,” said Doctor Brown.

“Pardon?”

“It’s basic dharmic theory. That part of our perfection that depends on others is also that part that we can expect from others. If a person and a river are in the world, then the limit of their dharmic excellence as they approach perfection is also in the world. The final perfection of all entities must coexist in . . . God, Nirguna Brahman, the Cantor-Deity, or what have you. Of course, this year’s models only really give an effective perfection around 98.3%.”

“Huh,” said Sid. “Then I have a theory.”

“Shoot.”

“The glitch isn’t a machine error,” Sid said. “It’s a dharma error. Something happened that meant that—to the limits of current technology—not everyone could be perfect at once.”

There was a thumping and a stampeding outside the satellite installation.

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding by on the back of a water buffalo. She had a length of cord wrapped through its mouth as a bit and was slowly, surely, exhausting its strength.

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

“But what kind of . . . ghoul could have needs so fundamentally incompatible with someone else’s that they couldn’t be 98.3% perfect at the same time without cascading system errors?”

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding past the other way. The water buffalo seemed to be tiring.

“I’m betting on the sharks,” said Sid. “But possibly an evil flamingo.”

Doctor Brown cleared his throat uncertainly. “Well,” he said. “I figure the thing to do for now is to lower the output on Block 43’s models. If there’s some kind of communications breakdown that makes it impossible for everyone to harmonize at 98.3, maybe they can coexist at 90, 95% perfection.”

“And in the long term?”

“In the long term,” said Doctor Brown, “as the technology of human perfection gets better, and whatever little quirk you’ve found here gets resolved, someone will just have to have a dharma that bridges the gap.”

Sid sighed. He took out his dharma mini. He set it on “Full.” He stared at its face.

“This could be most of the glitches we’ve been seeing,” Sid said.

“I suppose.”

“The little ones, I mean. They’re usually when someone new logs on to the system. When, maybe, reconciling their goals and desires makes for a little hiccup as the system strives to adjust to a new local perfection.”

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

“. . . what if there isn’t a person whose basic nature spurs them to smooth over the irreconcilable gaps between people?” Sid said. “I mean, what if things get worse, instead?”

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

“Sid,” he said. “Of course there’ll be someone like that.”

“Daddy!” shouted Emily, pounding on the door. “Daddy, I beat the water buffalo! With my fierce mole-like stamina!”

“It’s technologically inevitable,” said Doctor Brown.

Depending on Shoes

Bombs do not stop the wolf.

It is coming to eat the world.

A crack team of astronauts carrying a nuclear payload land on the wolf. They send digger robots into the wolf’s skin. They drop bombs into the shaft. They fly away.

But the wolf only sneezes.

It is coming to eat the world.

McGruff the Crime Hound lectures children. “If a wolf comes to eat the world,” he says, “tell him NO!”

This does not stop the wolf.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

Prayers fall on deaf ears. Threats are unheeded.

The Norse gods are specifically unreliable in this matter.

A specially engineered virus made out of dead camels does not help.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

So people turn to their shoes.

“I’ll depend on our shoes!” says Mr. Brown.

“That’s right!” chirps Emily.

People turn to their shoes in a troubled time.

They pile their shoes at the edge of the world. They wait.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

“I don’t know if they’ll really save us,” says Sid. He frets. “I mean, shoes aren’t really that much, when it comes down to it.”

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

“I heart shoes,” says Emily. “I heart them.”

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

People have to depend on shoes, you see, because the astronauts failed and the armies can’t march against the wolf and the planes and the viruses and the oil spills and the kitten stampede and the giant mutant fleas and the ice cream barrage and the tinfoil hats and the hawk and the dove are all useless against the wolf.

So people depend on shoes.

The wolf is coming to eat the world.

There’s a great stomping sound.

There’s a clamor and a clonk.

There’s a gagging noise and a choking noise.

Everyone in the whole world has their eyes closed. So they don’t know why. But the wolf is gone.

It’s important to save your shoe leather. Just ask Tyr!

Emily never found her shoes after that. It’s a pity. They were adorably cute Mary Janes.

She’d liked them rather a lot.

The Ironic End

“I come from a parallel universe,” says Mr. Brown, “where it’s all right to jaywalk.”

The reporters raise their hands. Ms. Petunia is the first he calls upon.

“Yes, Ms. Petunia?”

“What do you mean, ‘all right’?”

“A scientific mind can observe the moral laws of a universe by examining the effects of transgression upon the transgressor,” says Mr. Brown. “In my cosmos, in the universe that gave me birth, when a man jaywalks, his mind isn’t troubled. There’s no rebuke from karma. There’s no sense of guilt and no real offense. It’s dangerous and procedurally incorrect but not immoral.”

“But a sociopath,” says Ms. Petunia keenly, “would not feel guilt—and there is still the ironic end.”

“Yes,” says Mr. Brown. “I have heard the logic; I have seen how it irreducibly follows from basic propositions that a jaywalker should suffer—how his own proclivity for defiance and his failure to strictly observe traffic laws leads with the inevitability of a Nazi’s goosestep to his ironic end—yet in my world this is not so.”

“An entire universe of jaywalkers,” marvels Ms. Petunia, and goes quiet.

“Ms. Duck,” says Mr. Brown. He indicates her.

“Mr. Brown,” says Ms. Duck. “Have you yourself committed jaywalking?”

“How else?” says Mr. Brown. “There are no legal crossings between the universes.”

Ms. Duck tastes that. It seems unsavory. “Have you considered,” she says, “the effects on others that you publicize your journey and the immorality of your home world? The children who might be led by you into a life of corruption and dissipation?”

“I am an envoy.”

Ms. Duck purses her lips.

“Mr. Peduncle,” says Mr. Brown.

But Mr. Peduncle doesn’t have a question. He has a gun. He guns Mr. Brown down.

“Well!” gasps Ms. Petunia.

“Indeed,” lectures Ms. Duck.

“On public property, no less,” says Ms. Petunia. “I hope you’re ready for your fine.”

Mr. Peduncle puts the gun away.

“Filthy jaywalker,” he says, and turns, and walks with measured steps away.

“It’s just too bad,” Ms. Petunia frets. “He seemed a nice enough man.”

The Sphere

The father looks down on the salesman.

“Will you do it?” asks the salesman; asks Mr. Brown, holding out a pair of shoes, limply, to his father; pitching them, desperately, to his father, who is dead and gone.

“No,” says his father.

“No?”

“No.”

His father looks away, then. His look is distant. “I know what you are thinking, son. The dead are the last great untapped market. But I will not buy them. I will not take them beyond. We have no use for shoes.”

“You could . . . you could be like Mike.”

“He is alive,” says the father of Mr. Brown. “I am not.”

Then the father is gone.

A door opens in the silvered sphere. Mr. Brown walks out. He walks away. He is thoughtful. He is not dejected. It is not over. He will try again.

He tries every year, on the anniversary of his father’s death.

Out on the sidewalk, there is a young girl waiting to use the sphere. She is carrying a flower.

“Are you done, then?” she says, to Mr. Brown.

He smiles to her. “The dead have no use for flowers,” he says.

“I know,” she says. Her name is Emily. “It is for me.”

“Good child,” says Mr. Brown, and he ruffles her hair, and he is gone, walking down the white sidewalks by the green grass of the world.

So Emily steps forward. She walks up to the sphere. She enters it. It closes behind her.

“Grandma?” she asks.

Inside the sphere there is a tree, and a glade, and above it all the sun.

“Grandma?” asks Emily.

The wind stirs the grass and the fallen leaves. Then her nana Lily is there.

“Emily,” says Lily. She bends down on one knee. She holds out her arms for Emily. Emily runs into them, fierce, as if defying something that is not there.

“Nana,” Emily says.

Lily holds Emily at arms’ distance. “You have brought me a flower,” she says, in tones of wondrous discovery.

Emily thinks. Then she places the flower in Lily’s hand. She closes Lily’s hand around it.

“I’ll treasure it,” says Lily.

“Don’t go, grandma,” says Emily. “I don’t want you to go.”

“I don’t want to go,” says Lily. “I don’t want to go. But I’m gone.”

“I miss you.”

There is a smile on Lily’s face. It is whole and pure. “I’m always with you.”

Emily lowers her head.

“I can’t stay long,” Emily says.

“That’s all right,” Lily says. “Have you been doing your homework every day? Have you been washing behind your ears? Have you been brushing your teeth with Crest-brand whitening toothpaste?”

Emily smiles shyly. “Yes, nana,” she says.

“And you still eat those McDonalds Happy Meals, a registered trademark of the McDonalds corporation, that you loved so well?”

“I do,” says Emily.

“Good,” says Lily.

Emily looks down. “I can’t stay long,” she says. “Mommy says that we only get a ration of three hours a month in the sphere, for the whole family.”

“I know, hon,” says Lily. “I’m glad you came today.”

So Emily hugs her again, and turns away, and the sphere opens, and she steps partway out, and she is almost gone when she asks, “But Mommy says we shouldn’t take charity.”

“It’s not charity,” says Lily. “It’s love.”

So Emily steps out, and the sphere closes, and Lily is left behind.

Night of the Antinomian

“I don’t know,” says Sarah to her boyfriend, James. “These woods are pretty spooky.”

“It’ll be all right,” James says. He takes her in his arms. He kisses her. “There’s nothing here that could hurt us.”

The earth shakes, once. His hands draw off her sweater and her top.

“But is it wrong?” she asks him.

“No,” he says. He shakes his head.

The earth shakes, again. Birds burst into flight.

“Nothing good people do,” he says, “is wrong.”

He fumbles at her bra hooks, without success.

The earth shakes.

Her eyes widen. “James,” she says.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll get it.”

“No, James. James. James,” she says. “Behind you.”

He turns. He looks. He lets go of her.

“Wha—?”

He is grasped in a massive hand and hurled upwards into Heaven.

Sarah screams.


Johannes Agricola (1494-1566): a German Protestant reformer, at first welcomed by Martin Luther, but later condemned by Luther and others for his ‘antinomian’ heresy.


“It was, perhaps, a mistake,” Dr. Oboli admits.

“Pardon?” asks General McCoy.

“It might have been a mistake. To harvest the genetic material of Johannes Agricola, and bring him back to life—fifty times his normal size!”

“Yes,” General McCoy says flatly. “Yes, it might have been.”

“I honestly didn’t think he’d ever escape the lab,” Dr. Oboli protests.

“Spilled milk, Dr. Oboli. Spilled milk. Tell us what we’re up against.”

“It’s probably the greatest threat ever to face humanity,” Dr. Oboli frets. “Historically, antinomians and humans have been able to coexist only because we were just as big as the antinomians and could kill them if we had to. But Johannes Agricola is already dead, and he’s also very large.”

“Large enough,” General McCoy asks, “to physically fling the saved into Heaven?”

“Exactly,” says Dr. Oboli. “No one is safe.”

“What about the sinners?” asks General McCoy, practically. “I mean, aren’t they safe? What if we buy some kind of golden calf from a military supplier and everyone worships it until the problem is resolved?”

“It won’t work,” Dr. Oboli moans. “Antinomians aren’t like ordinary Christians. They don’t care about sin any more than they care about good works. To Johannes Agricola, you’re either saved or damned from the moment that you’re born. It’s a doctrine of arbitrary judgment!”


Antinomianism: the doctrine that those who God has already chosen to spare will find grace, and those he has not, will not, and that therefore the saved are ultimately free to commit whatever crimes and sins they like. In short: believers have a blank check from God, whether or not they choose to cash it.


Bud and Ernest are soldiers.

“When General McCoy said to search this region,” Ernest says, “I don’t think he meant for you to go into the church, alone, carrying only a candle.”

Bud looks embarrassed.

“I mean, that just seems—dangerous.”

“I’m not really doing it to look for Agricola,” Bud says. “I just want to pray at the stained glass window by candlelight.”

“Wouldn’t a mosque be safer? There won’t be any giant undead antinomians there.”

“What are the chances that of all the churches in this little town, he’d be hiding out in this one?”

Ernest shrugs. “Point,” he admits. He stands and watches nervously as Bud goes into the church, alone, carrying a candle.

“Oh, no!” shouts Bud. He is seized by the giant hand of Johannes Agricola. He is flung through the stained glass window and in a great arc up to Heaven.

“I always thought,” whispers Ernest. “I always thought, in my heart, that I had God’s grace.”

The earth shakes. Ernest pulls out his gun. He points it, hands shaking, towards the church.

“No!”

The earth shakes. The great doors of the church creak open, like paper pushed by a child.

“No!” Ernest shouts. “I don’t want to go to Heaven!”

He fires desperately, bullets embedding themselves uselessly in Agricola’s reanimated flesh. Then he runs. He runs before Agricola can see his grace.


Ere suns and moons could wax and wane;
    Ere stars were thundergirt, or plied the heavens,
    God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
    Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
    This head this hat should rest upon
    Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.

— “Johannes Agricola in Meditation,” by Robert Browning


“What I’m thinking,” says Mr. Brown, “is Agricola Cola.”

“What?” General McCoy asks.

“We don’t have to fear a giant undead antinomian. Instead, we can market him. ‘The risk of sudden enHeavening,’ we’ll say, ‘is just one of the perks of delicious Agricola Cola.'”

“Why will that help?” General McCoy asks, blankly.

“Well,” Mr. Brown says, “the problem isn’t people going to Heaven. People do that every day. The problem is that people are afraid. Resolve that fear, and suddenly Johannes Agricola is no longer a threat—just a friendly giant givin’ people a hand.”

“Get out of my sight,” General McCoy says. “And I hope you’re saved.”

Mr. Brown scowls. General McCoy stares him down. After a moment, Mr. Brown flees.


I have God’s warrant, could I blend
    All hideous sins, as in a cup,
    To drink the mingled venoms up;
Secure my nature will convert
    The draught to blossoming gladness.

— “Johannes Agricola in Meditation,” by Robert Browning


“All right,” General McCoy says to his troops. “We’ve got a problem.”

He taps the tactical map behind him with a pointer. It shows the town, and a big question mark, and a little airplane.

“We have no idea where Johannes Agricola is,” General McCoy says. He taps the question mark with his pointer. “He’s picking us off one by one, and he’s immune to ordinary gunfire. But he’s just one giant undead antinomian. We still have time to set a trap.”

“Yes, sir!” snap his soldiers.

General McCoy moves the pointer to the airplane. “This is our problem,” he says. “Word is spreading to the other undead. Dracula. Living Dead Guy. The ‘love zombie’. Our media scouts say that one of them is already flying into the area. They’re interested in this antinomianism. There’s a real chance that Agricola can convert them to his doctrine of licentiousness and vice.”

“What about Dracula’s three handmaidens?” a soldier asks.

“They converted to Islam some time ago,” General McCoy says. “The burkha protects them from the terrible light of the sun, but also nullifies their infernal seductive appeal and silky lingerie. They are no longer a threat.”

The soldier nods.

“Even so,” General McCoy says, “we need to act fast. Dr. Oboli has created a ‘clean nuke’ that only kills antinomians. But it’s a stationary mine and only has a thirty foot radius. So we need to bring him to us. Which means we need bait.”

He clears his throat.

“Are any of you, ah, bound for Heaven?”

The soldiers shuffle their feet. PFC Morgan lifts his hand, but only halfway.

“Morgan?” asks General McCoy.

“I try to be a good person,” Morgan says. “I mean, there’s some whoring and cursing. But other than that.”

General McCoy surveys the soldiers. Ernest, standing in the back, keeps his hand at his side. His face is anguished. He will let PFC Morgan die.

“Very well, Morgan,” McCoy says. “We’ll stake you out for the antinomian.”

“Do you think he’ll come?” Morgan asks.

General McCoy stalks forward. He rips Morgan’s shirt open, artfully, to display the PFC’s Russell Crowe-like chest.

“He must,” says General McCoy.


Wer anderen eine Grube gräbt, fällt selbst hinein.
(“He who digs a hole for another, falls into it himself.”)

— Johannes Agricola


The earth shakes.

“He’s getting closer,” whispers Dr. Oboli. “He’s getting closer.”

“He will go for Morgan, won’t he?” the general asks.

“It is not for science to say who can be saved.”

The earth shakes.

Morgan is tied to a post in a forest glen. He is a sacrifice to the antinomian. Next to him is the clean nuke. All around him, hiding in the shadows, are the soldiers of General McCoy.

PFC Morgan is praying.

“God,” he says, “please don’t take me. I want to come to you. But gently. I don’t want to be flung.”

The earth shakes.

“Please,” whispers Morgan to the sky. “Not this way.”

Johannes Agricola stands in the glen. He towers over the soldiers. He looks down at Morgan. Then he looks away. His eyes scan through the trees. His giant hand reaches down.

“He’s not going for Morgan!” General McCoy shouts. “Abort! Retry! Fail!”

Ernest looks up. He sees the shadow of the hand. And suddenly he knows.

“General,” he shouts. “He’s here for me!”

And he runs. But not away. He runs into the clearing, and casts himself down upon the nuke.

Johannes Agricola’s hand scoops up Ernest and the nuke alike.

“Trigger it! Trigger it!”

There is a flare of white light.


Johannes Agricola (2004-2004): a giant undead German Protestant reformer, at first loved by Dr. Oboli, but later betrayed by him and utterly destroyed. He flung many people directly into Heaven, as well as one very surprised cat.


“He’s gone,” says Dr. Oboli. “My greatest creation. Gone.”

“I’ve lost a man today,” says General McCoy.

“How can that compare?” says Dr. Oboli. “It was suicide—suicide! Ernest chose the worst possible moment to convert to antinomianism.”

General McCoy’s mouth works. He does not know how to respond to Dr. Oboli’s statement.

“But I,” says the doctor. “I built an antinomian from clay and dust. I created a great thing—a gigantic undead Agricola. And now it is gone. And it shall never return.”

“At least no one else will be flung into Heaven,” says General McCoy.

“Yes,” says Dr. Oboli. “At least no one else was among the saved.”

There is an uncomfortable silence.

It stretches.

“There’s always good works,” General McCoy suggests.