Ping

The littlest programmer went down to the sea. She turned the waves over and over in her hands.

“Ping,” she said, finally, when she was satisfied.

And “Ack,” replied the sea.

The littlest programmer went up to the sky. She poked the clouds. They flew away from her with but a touch, as light as a song.

“Ping,” she said, and laughed, and batted the clouds away.

And “Pong,” declared the horizon, and bounced them back.

The littlest programmer came down and played in the tall grass. She made a flute from the thin green strands.

“Ping,” she said.

But the grass responded not.

She walked in the tall grass and disturbed the things that lived there; great was the agitation of the pigeons, and the mice, and the doves, and certainly of the small elephants that lived there then, but do not live there now.

“Ping,” she said, more insistently.

But the grass could find no words.

It has never known words, not for such holy eventualities; it does not suffice for them;

The ping is mightier than the sward.

The Measure of a Monster (III/VII)

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


October 10, 1995

Micah begins to hate himself. He begins to think he is unclean. The burden of it grows on him with the scars of Tina and the monster’s work.

He begins to want, not to beat the monster, not to help him, but to suffer, suffer, and die!

He steals a book from the local store. He is caught — possibly, he allows himself to be caught. He struggles against the police. He screams and bites. He names the monster as his father when they ask after his identity, knowing that the monster will deny it. He gets himself taken down to the police station and put in an empty cell.

This seems like a brilliant idea at first.

Later it seems like he’s adding insult to his own injury and he tries to walk out through the bars. This doesn’t work. He experimentally invokes the power of ‘surprisingly relevant historical trivia’ against the cell but that doesn’t help either.

Then his heart lifts.

He feels a fierce and wild joy.

He’d forgotten it was a monster’s day. He’d forgotten he was supposed to go to Central, later on, and now he can’t. He remembers now, and it’s sweet as icing, because the monster’s follower Stefan is standing at the door.

“You can’t take me,” Micah says. He leers through the bars. He laughs in sheer delight. “If I made enough trouble you would never see me again.

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

“— What?”

“I can wait. They’re not going to hold you for long. They might want you to come in for a hearing, but, seriously, Micah, it was a book.

“I fought back,” Micah says, blankly.

Stefan swift-steps into the cell. He seizes Micah. He pushes him up against the wall. He chokes Micah with one arm. Then as suddenly as that he is outside again.

“Not well,” Stefan says.

“They have cameras,” Micah says, incoherently.

Stefan looks around. He seems a little nervous. There are not, however, any actual cameras in the holding cells at the Santa Ynez police station. He shakes his head.

“I can wait,” Stefan says.

He turns to leave.

“No,” Micah says.

He’s leaning against the bars. He’s grinning again, like three hyenas.

“No, you can’t,” Micah says, “because — get this — if you wait, that’s the police exerting power that supersedes the monster’s. And then he’s weak. And you and I have witnessed him being weak. You can swift-step in and get me out. You can leave me in here as a punishment for my sins and get me later, when it’s convenient. But you sure as Hell can’t wait.”

He is shaking. It is good but he is so very weak. He has so very little left in him of defiance.

Stefan frowns.

“Naturally the police can have precedence for a few hours,” Stefan says.

“You’re going to die,” giggles Micah.

Stefan swift-steps away. Micah looks out the window. Through the criss-cross wires in the heavy glass he watches a leaf fall from an elm tree’s branch.

“Fine,” Stefan says.

He is outside the bars again. He is staring at Micah. He is angry. His position becomes ambiguous. He dissolves into potential. He swift-steps into the cell. He grabs Micah.

“The car!” shrieks Micah, mid-swift-step.

Stefan jerks. He loses concentration. He swift-stumbles into a road with a car heading straight for them, briefly Edinburgh, and, unable quite to concentrate, plunges sideways through the racks of clothing at the Sears in Santa Ynez.

Micah bangs Stefan’s head into the floor, once, twice, three times, then tears away before Stefan reorients. He is weaving through the departments. He is bursting out the door. He is out before the staff of Sears can show a reaction to his presence. He is diving under a car in the parking lot. He is hidden by the time Stefan looks around outside the door.

“Damn it,” Stefan says.

He vanishes.

Micah waits for five minutes, then another two. That’s all he can afford. He rolls out from under the car and runs. If Stefan is in sight, if Stefan can see him, then it’s over —

It isn’t over.

He makes it away. He staggers down the road.

He hasn’t quite figured out what he’s doing next. His mind’s a blank.

He staggers into a phone booth.

It’s idiotic. It’s ridiculous. He feels a terrible guilt and shame. But he calls home. He asks for Liril.

“What is it?” her mother asks him. He shakes his head. She can’t see it.

“I’m shaking my head,” says Micah. “Please, just put her on.”

“OK,” says Liril’s mother.

It doesn’t take her long. He says, “Liril, what do I do?”

“Huh?”

“I’m in a phone booth,” he says. “I’ve gotten away from Stefan and the authorities —”

“Micah,” she says, softly.

And it comes out of him in one long wail. “Why did you want me to suffer this? Why have you forsaken me? Why have you made me to live this way in sorrow?”

“I don’t want that,” she says.

“Please,” he says. “Tell me some other way.”

She is quiet for a long time. Then she says, “Any.”

“What?”

“You can do it any way.”

“I can fight them off?” he says. “I can shatter their world? I can strangle myself on this phone cord and leave them godless? I can master the elements and wield them in a terrible thunder against the monster until everyone in the world lifts me up on their shoulders in praise?”

“OK,” she says.

He almost hangs up.

He is staring out the window and he can see harpies coming. There are actual harpies in the sky. The monster has sent actual harpies out. They are hunting him. They are hunting him for the monster and he will lose

It suddenly occurs to him that Liril is serious.

“You’re serious,” he tells her.

She doesn’t say anything.

“I want to fight him,” Micah says. “Oh, God, I want to fight him. I want to hurt him. I want him to hurt him so badly he won’t come after us for years. I want you to be all grown-up by the time you see him next, and I want you to spit in his goddamned face.”

She giggles.

“What?”

“That’s awful,” she says. “Spitting.”

He can hear her happiness through the phone.

“Listen,” he says. “There are harpies coming. There are . . . there are harpies. I am being hunted by half-bird half-women — that isn’t as weird as I think it is, is it.”

“I like harpies,” Liril says. “They have cool feathers.”

“What do I do?”

“When somebody is really dirty,” Liril says, “you wash them off. Then you show them a mirror. Then you say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’”

This is my last chance at sanity, he thinks.

He could be what the monster wants him to be. He could be a skin to suffer for Liril, and take her pains, and give birth for her to the gods the monster needs. It would be awful but it would make sense to him. He is used to it. He could even think of it as good —

He knows better.

It is settling in to his stomach. It is wild and it is glorious.

I’m going to wash off a bunch of immortal horrors, Micah thinks, and show them a mirror. And then I’m going to say, ‘look! You’re awesome!’

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

And finally he is standing there alone, in the mirrored room, past the showers at the Y. There are still feathers drifting down all around him, and there’s a nasty poisoned gash in Micah’s side.

We’re skipping right past the frantic explanations at the door.

We’re skipping past the horrid run through the showers, and the screaming, and the time when Micah slipped on the flowing water and he lay there as the foul beasts came down. The frantic scrambling, scrabbling, the adrenaline-fired desperation of it all.

He made it to a mirrored room, and turned, and told them, “Look! You’re awesome!” and they went away; for harpies reify only the unpleasantest and filthiest conceits.

It occurs to him, as he looks up at the mirror, that he is awesome, though for a long and terrifying moment, as the poison pulses through him, he can’t remember what he’s called.

The Boundary Between Liril and the World (II/VII)

“I give to you — life!”

Micah giggles to himself. He extends his arms upwards. He whines, inadvertently, from the pain. Then he giggles again. His hair hangs down over his eyes. It’s matted with some nameless horror’s blood, or possibly a delicious lime-flavored Slurp-like beverage.

The monster sighs.

He unlocks Micah’s shackles. He heaves Micah up. He carries Micah up the stairs. His nametag raises a red welt on Micah’s skin, practically burning him. Micah leaves a black smudge on the nametag in his turn.

The monster tosses Micah into a chair and, after a few minutes, throws him a towel.

“Ah, geez,” Micah says. “I can’t possibly.”

“You’re strong enough to be alive,” the monster says, “and to make jokes.”

“That’s true,” Micah concedes, after a moment.

He picks up the towel. He tries to clean himself up. It doesn’t really help. He’s ten. After twenty or thirty seconds his shoulders and elbows stage a rebellion and his arms go limp.

“My arms are limp,” Micah says.

“I’m going to send you home with her,” the monster says. “Rest up. Get some strength. Then you can come back by in a week or two and we’ll see just what you are.”

“Me?”

Micah looks horrified.

“Maybe you’re useful,” the monster says.

“I do have a gift for surprisingly relevant historical trivia,” Micah says. His world reels a little. “I actually get to go home? I have a home?”

He can’t help laughing.

The monster’s eyes are on him. The laughter drains away. It becomes crying and Micah tries to blow his nose into the towel but he doesn’t have the strength.

“Don’t worry,” the monster says. “I’ll make you into something good.”

“Why don’t you hate me?” Micah asks. “You’re supposed to hate me. I’m supposed to be your enemy.”

“Are you?”

“Aren’t I?”

“I’m afraid that I won’t let you be,” the monster says.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 25, 1995

Micah’s life is lived staccato.

There are good hours and good days. There is ice cream and there is running in the park. There is home, complete with Liril’s mother Priyanka and her tenuous but loving welcome. There are fish sticks and french fries and cheese which you can divide into arbitrarily many sub-cheese strings. There are times when he can lie on his bed and talk to Liril about the stringencies of their world.

Then between the beats of his life it becomes painful.

It’s like Liril and Micah are two rats in a dinosaur’s cave. Their lives are interrupted, again and again, by the great blundering atrocities stumbling around them in the darkness. It is an inexpressible condition. He will sit in the corner of their room for hours, trying to find a way to put it into words. Liril doesn’t even try.

He’s good with the trivia but she knows everything.

She knows the secret language of the grass and the names of the bats that live on the dark side of the moon. She tells him how the kingdom of magical bears fell from grace, and what Melanie has done to bind the grangler, and the secrets of the lurkunders, and the threat that power line proximity can pose to a person’s health.

One day it is raining. It is pouring down through the branches of the trees. She tells him the name of a bead of water on the glass and he watches Vassily the Raindrop slip down to the edge of the window of their room and break.

On another day the monster is choking him with a belt around his neck.

One day he tries to learn how to skateboard.

“Watch,” he tells Liril. “This will be my real magical talent. Not spitting out seawater or dead fish or historical trivia, but skateboarding.

He doesn’t have a talent like that, and it wouldn’t be skateboarding if he did.

On another day the monster smiles beatifically to him and says, “I have found it.”

Micah leans forward. He looks at the monster. His eyes are bright and maddened, like a bird’s.

“I have seen through all of this at last.”

The monster reaches into Micah. He turns over his hand. He pulls forth a great gout of the fire, a newborn god, educed from Liril straight through Micah, who stands between that crucible and the world. The god sits in the monster’s hand, a snowflake fractal, its edges a drift of shape becoming real; and its eyes are as a bird’s, and seven sacred seals hang all about it, and it is lovely, tame, and sweet, and the monster will name it Aspida, his treasure, his first city-building god.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

“No,” Micah mutters.

He can’t accept it. It is a perversion. It makes him pointless. His heart cries out, I will not lose!

He stares at the monster. His mouth twitches.

I will have didn’t lost.

It isn’t right. That isn’t what happened and it wouldn’t be the way to phrase it if it had. He stares at Aspida and marvels at its hundred eyes and the interlocking formica and steel and glass that is its flesh. He thinks it’s beautiful and appalling and he has to admit that pretty much he has lost, but for the sake of this child he tries again —

I haven’t any longer lost?

He laughs until he chokes and suddenly he is leaking and there is seawater all around him and the monster actually looks alarmed. “You mustn’t do that,” the monster tells him.

That doesn’t help.

Micah flails inside his heart for some remedy or some ounce of strength. He can’t actually find any. He is gurgling brine out from his mouth. He hacks out a fish bone. His eyes widen and he sputters. Aspida looks hopeful. Aspida opens its baby mouth.

It’s too much. Micah starts to rip open. There is a thorn stuck through his hand.

“It’s all right,” the monster tells him.

His hand is on Micah’s hair. It shouldn’t make anything even close to being all right; but then the monster makes it so.

“She has raised you up to be her Christ,” the monster says, “and suffer in her place; but as you wish to defend her, and stand between her and the world, that doesn’t have to be so bad.”

Micah leans forward.

He is crying.

His will collapses in him. The monster telling him that Liril could have wanted this destroys what little fight he was beginning, again, to have.

He is a fragile, permeable membrane between the world and his insides.

He reaches after Aspida but the god and the monster both are gone.

And the Birds Fall Dead (IV/VII)

Liril is thinking about formica because she is supposed to be making an urban sort of god. She’s supposed to be composing a construction deity—a fertility god of cities. To be making herself the vehicle for its eduction. To be isolating from the world that dharmic principle that causes to arise great fields of concrete, steel, and glass; shaping her whole being into a vessel for its eduction; tracing lines of pipe and wire across the blueprints of her soul. She is supposed to be readying herself for it, tuning herself like a musician to her instrument. So she is sitting in the monster’s office, in the waiting room of the monster’s office, rather, kicking her feet and reading a bit of Highlights, but her real thoughts are elsewhere.

She is in the ground beneath the cities of the world. She is in the skies above them.

She is breathing in their stone and fire. She is dancing in their antennae. She is exhaling their smog.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

And she is so rapt, so wrapped up in this, that she almost misses Melanie—would have missed her, in fact, would have not noticed her coming back into her life for the first time in seven years, if she hadn’t suddenly remembered back to when she first remembered forward to noticing Melanie, a half a second or so from then, later in this very sentence (to be precise), and turned her head to catch sight, startledly, of Melanie coming in.

She feels awkward and desynchronized, like she always does around Melanie. The woman’s got some wicked way of out-anticipating prophets.

Oh, hi, she thinks.

She doesn’t say it.

She doesn’t even focus her eyes on Melanie, just skims them past, in case Melanie isn’t part of the monster’s organization yet.

Don’t give me away, Melanie had told her, once. So she doesn’t.

But Melanie comes over and kneels down beside her.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

Melanie’s teeth are very white. Her hand is on Liril’s hand. “If I were a god,” Melanie says, “I would take you from here, and I would let nothing have you. I would stand between you and the world.”

Liril rolls her eyes.

This, her gesture indicates, is an unnecessary distraction from this fine magazine Highlights, whose diabolically clever puzzles I am attempting, even now, to solve.

“I don’t want that,” Liril says.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

“I don’t want anything,” Liril whispers. It’s precious, like a secret. It glitters like the bracelet on her wrist.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

Liril looks back to her magazine.

She is quiet.

She is still.

Then Melanie grins. It’s like a Cheshire Cat. It’s like she’s suddenly in ten thousand miles of endless dark, broken by the light of her white teeth.

And somehow they seem sharp—

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

Liril tries to recoil.

It only happens in her thoughts.

Liril tries to get to her feet. Her body doesn’t move.

Liril tries to scream.

Instead she breathes in, breathes out, in just the usual way.

I don’t want that.

It’s like an echo of wanting, an echo of needing, an echo of desire coming a few seconds before the thing; and Melanie says, “Want it,” and the engines of the world crash to a halt and the stars extinguish in the sky and the birds fall dead from the trees outside the window of the waiting room of the monster’s office

and Melanie has said it in that voice the monsters hath.

let’s try Wednesdays and Fridays for a bit, with Mondays going to Chibi-Ex.

Frognarok

First, evil frogs talk. Then they kill.

“So,” says the evil frog.

It kicks its legs.

It’s sitting next to Marilyn on a branch overlooking the swamp. She looks a little green, but not so green as the evil frog.

“So,” she says.

The evil frog inflates the bladders by his head, as if an idea were coming to him, then lets them deflate and shakes his head.

“It’s not your fault,” Marilyn says. “Communities project their sins onto evil frogs, producing your blood thirst and various mutations.”

“That is good of you to say,” he concedes, “but I must make my own meaning.”

He emits a noise, burrup, which for all we know is his meaning; nothing further is said, for in the next moment, he is turning, webbed fingers opening around his palm, and the sigil of Carcaon (which was his name and his aspect) is burning like a coal therein.

They dance the great circle. Her wrist strikes his aside. Then there is only red and green.

She lands, lightly, in the swamp.

She leaves footprints, behind her, as she goes.

Later she hangs out in a hot spring with another frog.

“I loved once,” Marilyn says. “I loved so brightly. But the people of the town, they would not have me. They said, ‘frog hunters are green.'”

“It isn’t easy,” the frog admits.

This one is poisonous. Vapors waft off of it. If they talk too long she will die and won’t even get to fight it first. But it has a very approachable air that makes her want to talk longer than frog hunters usually talk with evil frogs.

“Did you know that we absorb it?” she says. “The green?”

“I did not.”

“We kill the frogs and take in their color, to remedy the fallen condition of humanity.”

“So in a way,” the frog says, “we are the same.”

“Always,” Marilyn says passionately. “I would so be insulting you if I did not feel empathy as I killed.”

The frog has no response to that.

It wants to complain or criticize—to observe that it is more concerned with killing than propriety—except that it has never particularly tried to feel as its victims must.

So he just sits, stewing in his poisonous vapors, and thinks, and after a while says, “I too have been a’ courting.”

“Oh?”

“I thought that I would marry a lovely woman,” he says. “And poison her in the process of our love. But then a dove swept me up and carried me off to a distant land.”

It is wearing a dove feather in its baldness.

“That must have been a miracle,” Marilyn says. “Some kind of miracle bird.”

“Or a bird enemy of marriage.”

Marilyn nods. She drags herself out of the water. She sways. She is an ugly color, yellow brown.

“Time to kill?” the frog says politely.

Marilyn’s vision blurs.

“No,” she says. “It’s already done.”

She staggers away, two steps, three, then five.

The frog nods wisely.

“My poison mixes with the steam,” he says. “That’s why it’s hard to see.”

“Not me,” she says.

And she dunks her face once, twice, and three times in the swamp, before taking a few more steps away and vomiting noisily against a startled thrush until she looks a bit more green.

“You’ve boiled,” she says, at last.

Days pass.

“I wish I weren’t green,” she says.

She’s hunting for a third frog. She’s heard it’s drawn to sorrow. And indeed, no sooner has she spoken the words than it eddies up, like ichor on the marsh.

It is transparent, practically invisible. Its hand clasps over her mouth, dripping with slime, and it tries to draw her down.

She bites down, sucking in a mouthful of horrid frog, and gives a muffled scream.

It pulls.

She fumbles at her belt. She pulls out a frog hunter micro-dynamite. She slams it into the side of the frog and twists and pulls and breaks free as it bangs.

They separate.

She gasps and shudders. It pulls back and wraps around a tree, sucking out the life force of the tree to heal its wound.

“Evil frogs talk,” Marilyn says, “then they fight.”

It hisses.

“There are rules,” Marilyn says.

Finally, it sighs.

“I have nothing to say to you, human,” it says. “I am frog. You are frog hunter. There is no point in conversation.”

“We have to make connections with the things we kill,” Marilyn says.

“That is your scruple.”

It is alien. She has never fought an evil frog so alien and cold.

“Why are you like this?” she protests.

It is silent. Ripples pass through it, this way, that way. Finally, as if the words are torn from it, it says, “I was the first. I was the frog of finding words. I was the frog of assumption of mastery of death. I sucked death into my air bladders. I rattled his bones. I spat him out and took power from him. Then he slunk away to live at the outskirts of the world. But I was green.”

She looks at him.

“It isn’t ea—” she starts.

“Shut up!” it howls.

So she falls silent.

Behind it the sky is full of the aurora; and it makes red and blue light to flicker in its skin.

“I was cursed with green,” it says. “It was my testing. And I could not bear it. And I said, ‘Lord, take this burden from me.’ And it was granted to me, my wish.”

“Colorless,” she says.

“It is better!” it says. “Better, this. I need no color. I live alone. I kill humans that come into my realm. Women, men, frog hunters, even the little girls and little boys and their hungry soul-devouring swords. Colorless I am supreme. But you trouble me with your words and make them itch inside my head.”

She looks down, briefly.

“I didn’t mean—” she says.

It hisses. It gives her no time to finish. It leaps into the air, spreading out like some great smothering tarp, and she is falling back and hoisting a twisted branch as if it were a spear.

Its ichor covers her as she emerges from the swamp. She is dripping with it.

Underneath it her face is the color of a peach, and the ichor trail behind her is wet and green.

It’s like it’s sucked the sin from her, she thinks, but something unaccountable’s been lost.

On the Hill

It is on the top of the hill that Jaime discovers the dissected naturalist; and looking up, its dissector; and had the squirming mass of impulses that comprise Jaime’s mind had their way, his sanity would have fled forever into the dark.

But the creature holds up a light and it constrains him.

A rigid altruism sets in his bones; irons of sanity form barriers in his mind. His thoughts gibber and fling themselves about, but their efforts are self-dampening. Finally they settle and he stares at the thing with fey reason in his eyes.

“I wanted to discover,” it says, “why that Great Maker that hath made the swallow and the swan, as well, made me.”

“Some would say, sir,” Jaime responds, “that your presence is in itself a demonstration that no such Maker exists; that you have blasted down ideas of soul and purpose simply by your being. That the sacred is illumined as folly, that ghastly hollowness shines through the tissue of goodness and mercy, and that nowhere in this colloquy of organs you have extracted is anything resembling worth—sir.”

“And what do you say?”

Jaime gives a rigid smile. “Sir, as you would like, sir.”

It shifts softly in the darkness, and forms and shapes emerge and dissipate within its substance.

Hesitantly, Jaime says, “Because I have seen you, sir, I am damned; misery is my lot, and there is only bleakness that I may celebrate. Thus I must squint, and dubiously, at the concept of justice; but I retain the concept of justice. The waterway of logic in my mind balks; I seek to abandon it—but I retain the concept of logic. So I am at a loss. Perhaps there is something that I do not understand.”

“It came to me one evening,” the creature says, “that it is not a matter of moral universe or amoral universe. That there is not the tension previously understood between the great divine harmony where all directs to a glorious and beautiful end, and a bleak mad emptiness where hope is a joke man’s nature plays on man. Rather, the importance of the matter is how one relates to the amoral universe, or the moral one.”

“Sir?”

“We are children,” the creature says, “who come to your world, and teach you of bleakness. Those mad chthonic and aerial pantheons that are my peers—who say, ‘what is purpose, in the face of the gibbering substrate?’ or ‘why cherish your soul, when it will fall into the many maws of my siblings before it reaches any other place?’—it has finally occurred to me that we are children. What is important is to honor those spaces in ourselves that are moral, and those places that are degenerate and foul. But I have fallen out of practice in morality, in the dark places.”

Jaime frowns.

“This disturbs you?”

“I am not certain how to give over my life to bleakness and to worship you in mad revels, sir, if you insist on demanding sanity and morality of me; and if you should do the latter, sir, it seems cruel to confront me with the horrid blasphemy that your existence represe—”

He falls quiet there, as the creature is no longer listening.

Staring at the glistening remains of the naturalist, it has had a sudden insight; fervently, now, it is rooting in the naturalist’s bowels, it is sorting calcified and crystallized and unsolid structures, it is realizing and reinforcing a certain order that it is recognizing as transmitted through the flesh.

There in the darkness, on the hill, Jaime watches the creature assemble that bright truth of beauty that ascends towards Heaven and possesses the universe with a coruscating brilliance of love.

It is more radiant than the stars.

“You see,” the creature explains, helpfully, “it was actually structurally implicit—”

But Jaime, mired in the duality of the divine and godless universes, finds rational and irrational impulses come congruent at the last. He has drawn his knife; he is whispering the names of saints; he is driving it deep, again and again, into the undifferentiated substance of the horror, until at last it retreats from the material into the gibbering substrate and leaves him in uneasy contemplation of the intestines of a man, and God.

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Shadow of Terribly Offensive Shogun!”

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

And all things fill with righteousness—

But wait!

Wait!

Who is this running through the streets of LEISURELY VACATION CITY TURULL?

This is MASTER MERCHANT BAO!

He is portly and panting. He is waving an umbrella. He is chasing after two night-grim thieves.

They fear him, rightly.

Their third partner has already fallen to a tactical umbrella blow.

They slip into a back alley. They run left. They run right. They emerge onto the street.

They look left. They look right.

A shadow covers them.

They look up.

Master Merchant Bao descends!

LIGHT

For a long moment, the thieves aren’t sure what’s happened. They’d braced themselves for the afterlife; or, worse, to living and having the constable drag them off.

But that hasn’t happened.

LIGHT; LIGHT; LIGHT

and the puffing and grunting of Master Merchant Bao, and three great clamors of umbrella upon steel.

Their eyes clear.

And Tomo says,

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“But they’re thieves,” protests Master Merchant Bao.

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” says Tomo. “I do that already.”

Master Merchant Bao hesitates.

One of the thieves performs the hook dagger insinuation. He waits, blade in hand.

LIGHT; the hiss of steel in air; and LIGHT

The hook dagger clatters to the ground.

“Also ur attacks,” Tomo says.

And she turns to look at the thieves. And they see the apples of her cheeks and the twisty hair that falls down over her brow; and her smile cuts them worse than any knife.

“What have we been doing with our lives?” they cry.

For what is thievery and night-grimness compared to the joy of the perfectly defensive samurai?

Master Merchant Bao’s lips are very thin.

He is not pleased.

“Can’t you be in someone else’s fight?” he asks. “Blocking their attacks?”

The wistfulness that washes across Tomo’s face almost makes him weep.

“O,” she says softly. “O. If only.”

If only! If only she could be everywhere! In every fight! A PARALLEL PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI!

But she shakes her head.

“It’s not to be,” she says.

“Forgive us,” cry the thieves, knocking their heads; and Master Merchant Bao sits heavily down upon the ground.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Here is TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN—

DAIIMON.

He sulks in his mountain fortress. He chews bitterly on an old fish head.

He says, “Someone has disrupted the threads of fate.”

“Master?” asks one of the HUNDRED SHADOWS OF TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN DAIIMON.

“Two of my thieves,” he says, “have ‘repented.’ It is the influence, hmmm, of a powerfully defensive samurai.”

“Say no more,” says the shadow.

It dissipates into the mountain.

Tomo is bounding from rock to rock. She is running across the humans’ land. She is looking for a fight. She is also looking for sake.

Often, Tomo has found, she may satisfy these urges together.

Two seagulls are squabbling over a bit of food washed up on the shore—the dried-out prince, she suspects, of a distant kelp kingdom. She blocks their attacks; she maketh them to reel; but it is not much to block the attacks of seagulls.

She thinks of the wars of the stars above; and a part of her wishes she could be there, soaring the sky, parrying the twinkles that must be blades of light—

But she has made her peace with being a creature of the earth.

“Oh no,” says FIRST DUPE, on the strand up ahead. “I feel a strange urge to fight.”

“As do I!” says SECOND DUPE.

“Have at it!” they say, together.

They are jolly-seeming dupes in white masks. Tomo’s heart quickens with joy. She kicks off her right foot’s rock, moving just a little bit faster now.

The blades blur forward.

LIGHT.

The dupes move past one another. They wait to see which of them will explode in blood—assuming that it is not both.

It is neither.

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

They turn on Tomo.

“What?” says the first dupe.

“You would block AR attacks?” the second dupe protests.

Two blurs of outrage; laughter on the sea, and—

The world goes still. Tomo sees everything moving very slowly.

Not two blurs. Three.

She flicks her attention sideways. Something is rising from the water, something black and sea-dead, something moving very fast.

She breathes out a puff of air: haa.

Three lines of death converge on her; there is a sound like the screaming of the vultures that eat Prometheus’ flesh; and—

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

says Tomo with deep joy.

The shadow of the shogun Daiimon staggers back. It is pale with shock. The two dupes are quivering upon the beach.

“But how?” asks the shadow.

“I am Tomo,” she says, clippedly. “I am the PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI.”

And the wind catches up the salt scent of the sea and makes all things that were bad and sorrowful now fairly well once more.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT

Wii News*

“Shake your fists at bad news,” the television explains.

Jane grips a peculiar controller in one hand. She grips an attached controller in the other.

The television displays an ordinary street in an ordinary town.

Jane shakes her fists!

A red bar stretches across the bottom of the screen. It fades to orange, then to yellow, then peaks.

“Mild outrage,” declares the television. “HIGH PRICES!”

The prices in the store windows of the town go up. Pedestrians walk around in outrage.

“It really happens, you know,” Martin comments.

“Hm?”

“That’s what makes it ‘news’ and not a ‘simulation.'”

“Oh!”

Jane looks apologetically at the unhappy pedestrians.

“I mean, it’s okay,” Martin emphasizes. “News happens all the time. But it happens.”

“News is everywhere,” Jane agrees.

The television image shifts to a fire in California. “Cheer for good news!” it explains.

The fire is sweeping through the undergrowth.

Birds die. Chipmunks roast. In a house next to the woods a baby is crying.

Hesitantly, Jane puts her thumb up.

There’s silence.

Cheer for good news,” the television reminds her.

Jane looks at her thumb. After a moment, she blushes.

“Right!” she says.

She pumps her right fist in the air, the left controller dangling. A green bar rises. It crests.

“This just in,” the television declares, a little reporter popping up in the upper right corner. “Fire extinguished!”

The fire vanishes.

A fireman rushes in.

“Bonus good news!” the television says, “Fireman saves baby!”

The fireman seizes up the baby and runs out of the house.

The television shifts to a riot in Ghana.

“Free play!” it says.

Jane pumps her fist in the air. She pumps harder and harder.

“Good news!” the television declares. The riot settles. Everyone realizes that violence solves nothing. Jane pumps her fist harder. Systemic injustice vanishes! People begin to riot from sheer happiness.

“Let me try,” Martin says.

“No way!”

“I bet I can shake my fists harder than you can,” Martin says.

Jane hesitates.

“Here,” he says. “It’s got a two-player mode.”

Martin’s already taking up his own controllers.

“Only if you’ll help me eradicate systemic injustice.”

“In Sweden,” Martin counters.

“The Americas.”

“Sweden and Chicago.”

“The Middle East.”

“Canada. And that’s my final offer.”

Jane thinks.

“Maybe if we waited for a neutral story?” she suggests.

“What, like adorable baby tigers found on the subway?”

“Mm,” Jane says, happily, imagining. Then she jolts out of her reverie. “Hey!”

Martin coughs.

“Evil ducks threatened by tidal wave,” the television notes.

“Evil ducks?”

“Tidal wave?”

Jane and Martin look at one another. Together, they say, “It’s win-win!”

* for technical reasons this legend is not actually about the Wii News Channel.

Max is Dead (2 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The horizon divides the sea from the sky. In Sid’s tactical judgment, this is the world’s mistake. He skates a long chain-blade of him along its length and severs them, so that the sea and sky sag apart and show through them a great gap in the world.

He can feel the heat of the Good fluttering against the heart of him.

It is gummy; it is heavy; it slows the rotation of that one element of him, and speeds others, and binds that portion of him into the world.

It becomes hot where Sid is cold and cold where Sid is hot; actual where he is contemplative; metaphorical where he is real.

The gaze of the Good twists that part of him through the axis of accessibility of space.

He cuts it from himself.

He huddles in around the pain of it. It is a fragment, he tells himself: nothing more.

The way that the sea air tastes one way on one morning and a different way on another: a tactical weakness. A rusty, hooked, and sensitive knife of him cuts along it.

The eye of the Good turns to that gap.

It stares into the emptiness; and a portion of it is lost.

He sees something.

He is starting to see something. It flickers at the edge of his consciousness: the heart of the Good, tilted ninety degrees from the rest of it at the end of an infinite sequence of approximations to the real.

He cleans his flensing blades and lets rust drift down onto the surface of the sea.

It is capable of an error, he calculates: a tactical weakness.

There is room between the truth of the thing and its image in the eyes of the Good to insert the thinnest of his blades; and to cut in a great fractal arc along the length of that gap until he reaches its heart.

But first there’s a man.

There’s a man, standing on a boat, in the middle of the surging sea.

There’s a man staggering in the icy wind and waving a knife of melomid skin and shouting up at Sid, “You wanna go?”

He tastes like Max.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

There is a darkness between the pieces of this man.

The Buddha put it thus: anatman.

A man is not the hand and a man is not the eye. A man is not the torso or the limbs. A man is none of these various parts. So when we say that we see a man, such as Max, in the world, we do not describe the physical existence of a thing. We describe instead a particular and contingent assemblage of parts.

What does this description mean?

It is, argues the Buddha, a filter created by our own mind and imposed upon the world, which we then confuse for real. It is an aggregate of misconceptions. It is not possible that in composing our idea of a man, such as Max, that we are accurate even in the moment.

It is not accurate even in the moment; and with the passage of time, its accuracy inevitably degrades.

That is why Sid sees not the man but his gaps. That is why it is practical to see not the man but his gaps.

For the most part that which one might think of as “Max” is not really there.

There is a darkness between the pieces of the man. There is an emptiness. There is no observer who can see more in Max than an aggregate of misconceptions paired with a function of surprisal that is in all practical respects computationally random.

For some time, Sid has refrained from chopping Max into little pieces, but that’s not because it’s difficult.

Red Mary’s proven it.

So has Ii Ma.

So, in the long run, has life itself.

Chopping Max into little pieces is actually pretty easy.

The miracle, really, is that it doesn’t happen more often.

It is the Latter Days of the Law
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

Max is dead.

It is a fragile line of truth in a universe of confusion. It is the knowledge that keeps Sid sane.

How can you forgive him? Ii Ma had asked.

He is dead. He is dead. And for another thing, Sid says, flaring with the fire of his dharma, Max is dead.

Things end.

Hopes die.

Max is dead, torn apart, severed from the pieces of himself and scattered through the sea.

And with Head Island so near—

Head Island, teeming with angry skandhas, most terribly easily mistaken for a man—

He cannot rely on evidence to the contrary.

Max is shouting, but Max is dead, and the particular conglomeration of circumstances that produced him in this world will not recur.

And so Sid is angry, not happy, to hear the voice of the man. He is angry and he is hurt and he knows the most marvelous anodyne for that pain.

A black thorned wire of Sid comes down to cut through the darkness inside of Max.

The history of Mr. Kong shifts in Max’s hand; it turns the wire aside.

The knives of Sid burst forth from the sea like the tendrils of a beast; and the history cuts sideways and blocks two, three, four, but not the fifth.

He cuts through the man.

He hooks into the man.

He seizes up the man and stares into him and the world beats with the tempo of his angry breath.

Max’s left hand closes around the point of a curved and rusty knife. He shifts his right arm over a wire of Sid for leverage; and by chance or planning, he catches a leaf of Good between his shoulder and the wire, so that for a moment it does not cut.

He twists the knife sharply, as if it were Sid’s kneecap.

Shock unfolds.

The sound from Sid is like the shriek of startled birds.

Through the space occupied by Max’s torso, a sleeting of sharp edges flies.

The grip of Sid releases.

Max falls.

For a lingering moment, Sid is quite still.

Then he sunders the air, he cuts the sky, he makes a thunder with his wings, he falls on Max like vultures, like lightning, like the rain. A rumble builds in him, like a purr, like a roar, like the blast of an engine, to shudder the world apart.

A drop of blood floats free.

But it is as if Sid has cut the air between two lovers, or the space between two/words.

In that place, in that moment, under the eyes of Good and drawn together by Red Mary when once scattered far apart, the pieces that make up Max are holding together not by assertion but by choice.

He is not the blood and he is not the bone; not the hand and not the eye; not the flowering rain of red but the dharma: Max.

He holds himself together.

He seizes a bundle of wires of Sid.

Without looking at the hideous gap of the horizon or the burning eye of the Good, he vents a great-voiced shout and he twists the siggort in his grip and he drags the siggort down into the sea.

(Thanksgiving) The Metal That Longs to Move (1 of 5)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Max is smiling.

He’s leaning back and looking at the horizon of the sea — for it is too deep to say he properly sees the sky.

He says, “Do you know, I have organs?”

Red Mary is looking at him.

“Yes.”

“I have almost all of them,” Max says proudly. He feels them with his mind. His lungs are breathing. They’re breathing chaos, but that’s okay. He’s getting pretty used to that. His heart is beating. His intestines are all there, thank God.

Have you ever thanked the world for intestines?

They’re actually surprisingly cool, and almost entirely organic.

“Yes,” says Red Mary. “I put them back.”

“That’s great.”

“I repeat,” she says. “Do you know Meredith? Because if you do not, you will die; and if you lie, you will die painfully.”

“Exploded girl? The chaos god?”

“Ah.”

Red Mary’s voice is clotted with grief and anger.

“I’m honestly a bit more surprised,” says Max, “that you know her.”

“She is anathema to me,” says Red Mary. “She is abhorrent. She, having surrendered her boundaries and scattered her spirit throughout the world, regrouped it; made a cyst of it; strives, still, to reconcile being everywhere and in one place. She is the antithesis of my song.”

“Love?” suggests Max.

“Sometimes in the deeps I breathe her,” says Red Mary. “Sometimes I comb my hair and I hear her song. I taste her in the particles of the sea.”

“Hunger?”

“Sight,” says Red Mary.

“Sight?”

“I have seen her,” says Red Mary. “And that is more and less of a thing than love. And because I have seen her, I will help you, Max, who knows her, though it cost my life.”

“Do you need a spleen for anything?” Max says.

“I’m not going to eat you, Max.”

“No,” says Max, hesitantly. “I mean, are they . . . are they important?”

“Why?”

“No reason,” says Max, his face burning, and he begins to swim back upwards towards the Good.

Crack the earth
Stir the sea
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Click.

Click.

Click.

It is rusted. It is broken. But it is not defeated.

It scrapes its surface against its other surface. It does not give up.

It is a thing that moves.

It is a thing that longs to move.

It jitters.

Click.

It falls back to where it began.

There is something looking at it.

It trembles under the awareness of that gaze. It converts — shame? Uncertainty? Aversion? — into heat. Knowing itself seen it begins to burn.

The metal that longs to move begins to warp.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It falls back to where it began.

It is hot. It is broken. But that time was better than the last.

A wildness rises into motion.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It manages a full rotation and then another.

Motion breeds interpretation.

An impulse rises from the rotation of the thing.

I am suffering.

It means something terrible. It means something horrible. But the tiny pieces that grind together to make that meaning are terribly excited to have moved.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is bobbing up and down now like a parrot about to receive a treat.

It is trembling with its excitement.

Click. Scrape. Scrape.

It is moving.

It is burning and it is moving and each rotation is just a tiny bit freer from the heat.

An impulse rises.

I am in Hell.

It is surrounded by slag and spikes and rings. They are in doldrums, caught in the absence of wind. They are crumpled in about that thing that has relearned to move and they are still.

But a wind is rising.

The ring that it scrapes against begins to move.

The ring catches the shivering hunger of that first turning spike.

It scrapes against an outer ring; and a balance shifts; and heavy things fall and light things rise and wings beat and everywhere there is a dazzling chaos of form and pain.

Blades cut against blades.

The machine spasms.

Spikes shift.

Hooks rise and fall.

A control system awakens to the knowledge that it can see. Sick and mad with longing it spins itself into motion.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It sees a shivering blur of storms.

It sees the inside of a heart.

It loops inside and outside and back and forth and cries out sight and carries the data of one thing to the awareness of the other.

A ring of knives on a wire cord untangles itself from the engine.

Inside out and upside down, it thinks: Max is dead.

It drags itself along an inner circuit. Bits of fire dance along its edges. It skitters off of the substance of a frictionless sphere.

Something is watching it.

With aching and terrible relief, it notices — for the first time in so very long — that it has been in Hell.

Can you imagine how good that must feel?

How incredible it must be?

The shock of that first agony after all those years of still?

And Sid turns his gaze to the light of Good that stares in at him in his place of imprisonment, and he smiles his siggort smile, and he says, “You will die, you know. You will die; you will die; the world will die; and I will not hold back.”

Once he would have held back.

Even with Max dead.

He would have held back. He is Sid. He’s a slacker. He’s the kind of vivisecting horror who’d sit in a box for a good ten years rather than put anybody out.

But not now.

Right now, he’s thinking that if there’s any hope in all this vale of tears, it’s that suffering might transform; and in the ashes and the ruin of his life, twisted and tangled up in the borderland of the place without recourse —

For he is not properly in that dread valley while there is something that sees him, even if it should be the Good —

He gives his trust to Martin.

He unlimbers a spike of siggort back into the world, before the night, before the dawn.

I’ll cut out your heart, he tells the Good.

He almost cannot think through the power of the elation of the Good, to see an isn’t returning to the world.

And it says: Come get some.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

Max’s head breaks water.

He gasps in air splattered with the foam of the sea.

He breathes.

Above him the sky is livid with long strands of siggort sharpness. Sid is unfolding like a labyrinth and he is cutting open the world and the sea.

The eye of the goodblow pierces Max. It sees Max. It knows him and its knowing burns up his life.

It is patterned like a tapestry. It is leaf’d like a tree. It is diffuse and strange because it is being cut and the leaves of Good conflict against the cutting wires of a dharma inexpressible in the world.

And perhaps what Max should be thinking is: how is it possible?

How is it possible that I knew him all this time, and I did not know?

But he is missing his spleen and his thoughts are off their temper and instead he can only look up at his friend, who has shed the better half of his imprisonment, and say, “Thank God.”

To say: Thank God.

To say: Thank God.

And: Welcome, o my love, into the world.

He thinks these two things first, and willingly puts off a plan to stop Sid from destroying everything until thought three; or possibly, in practice, thought four, as he is still rather concerned about his spleen.