The Immensity of Love (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]


In ten thousand miles of dreams there is only one Max.

He stands surrounded by dream, lost in great billowing clouds of dream, lost in endless and infinite dream, one tiny speck of human in a surging sea.

The wind that rushes past has taken the skin from him, taken the bones from him, flayed him down to just that speck:

Max.

He is flailing in his bed but he does not know it.

His arms are casting about.

Then there is light pressing against the darkness, sunlight turning the insides of his eyelids into shapes, and he remembers his name.

Max.

There is a welter of blankets around him. There is cool air flowing through the room. His bones ache.

In his eyes there is sun.

He mumbles a complaint.

These days, when the sun sneaks in through the pinhole in his curtain, it’s personal. It’s not just an anonymous irritant or the wicked hands of fate. It’s Iphigenia, and she’s probably doing it on purpose.

She is a mischevious girl.

She’s a burning yellow heat.

She is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter when she is the sun but no siggort ever came out of Siggort Town just to be her friend.

“Gr,” he mumbles.

In his eyes there is sun.

Something nags at the back of his mind.

He doesn’t want to wake up.

He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s tired and unhappy but there’s some reason—

Ah.

Max opens his eyes.

There’s a horrible little thing on his pillow. It’s like a crocodile’s skull, only it’s got horns. Its dry and its white but it’s not dead. It’s looking at him.

“Right,” he says.

He reaches out his hand. He holds its jaws closed. With his other hand he rubs his own forehead.

“Martin warned me about you,” he says. “Sneaking in through the pipes and making bad dreams like that.”

The thing struggles in his hand.

Max looks wry.

“I feel sorry for you,” he says. “Coming to a place like this, a little thing like you.”

It’s a horror of living bone. It was probably eating his soul as he slept. But there’s never been a siggort who’d show up just because it said the siggort’s name. There never was a siggort who’d look so . . . so Sid at it when it smiled.

Aside from the numbing horror of it, it’s kind of cute.

So Max doesn’t kill it.

He takes his hat off his hat rack and hangs the horror there and puts his hat on it and then he goes to wash his face in the dinky blue bathroom that’s next to his room.

He doesn’t want to wake up, but there’s some reason—

And he looks at himself in the mirror and he thinks, Ah, right.

Of course he has to wake up.

Sid loved me.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

It is June 1, 2004.

There’s a knock on Max’s door.

Max has an image to maintain, so he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pushes a button next to the door.

On both sides of the door a BROODING light lights up.

He can hear from outside: “Aw, man!”

It’s Jane’s voice.

Jane’s like a self-arming nuclear bomb with independently mobile legs. She’s a six-year-old girl. But there’s never been a siggort that waited thirteen hundred years just so Jane could be born.

Max, sure.

That happened, with Max.

But not with Jane.

Max pulls on a white shirt. He doesn’t need pants because he sleeps in his jeans so he’s wearing them already.

He flops on his bed.

Jane gives him a full two minutes to relax, to think: maybe she’s gone away?

Then she knocks again.

Max stands up.

He opens the door.

Max brushes back his hair with one hand.

“It’s four in the morning,” he says.

“It’s ten,” says Jane, scandalized.

Max makes a gesture as if to indicate that he cannot be bothered with mundane details of timekeeping.

“I’m brooding,” he says.

“I saw,” says Jane.

Seconds elapse.

“What do you want?” Max asks.

Jane looks at him. She wrings her hands. Then she says what she rehearsed.

“It’s all right to fight,” she says. “But it’s all right to make up, too.”

“Ah.”

Max sighs.

“Come in,” he says.

Jane comes in. She pulls herself up on the spare bed, the one Max doesn’t use, the one all spread with a cowhide-colored quilt. Max flops in his desk chair, more or less directly in front of and below his hat rack.

What do I say?

“It is because of Sid that I can be here,” Max says. “It’s because he looked at me and saw something worth saving, worth rescuing, worth returning to the world. But I can’t make up with him.”

“It’s easy,” stresses Jane. “You just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you hug.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“You could make him a cake!”

Max looks for words.

“It’s Sid’s business,” he says. “Fixing it, I mean. It’s not mine.”

Jane gapes at him.

“See,” says Max, “if I was all, ‘we must make this right, I miss you, I hurt every day over this,’ then how’d Sid feel?”

“What?”

“It’d be like if the monster came to you and wanted you to accept his apology,” Max says.

“Oh,” says Jane.

Her mouth moves, like she’s thinking or trying to sound out a hard word.

After a bit, she says, “Sometimes I beat up Martin, or he dangles me by my feet or dunks my head in water, and then we make up.”

“Yes,” says Max. “You’re modeled after young primates.”

Jane giggles.

It’s a kind of unexpected giggle, as if the image in her mind is surprisingly silly.

“What?” Max asks warily.

“Like in Pokemon!” Jane declares.

Max narrows his eyes. He stares at her with his gunman’s gaze.

“You’re thinking of Primape,” he corrects, and she’s laughing too hard to stop him when he chases her out of his room.

It is June 1, 2004.

Max is alone.

Max feels alone.

He is surrounded by inhuman things, in a place beyond the boundaries of the world. If he thinks about it very carefully, even ten thousand miles of chaos is not so frightening to him as Jane.

Or Mrs. Schiff, that casual swallower of horrors.

Or Martin.

Or even the Roomba.

But he doesn’t have to think about it carefully.

It’s not necessary.

There’s no one but Max within ten thousand miles who’s ever had a siggort come out of Siggort Town just to love them, and the immensity of love makes everything else seem small.

Feeding Dangerous Things (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

Leaves in sunlight, touched by a gust of wind, scritch and skitter along the floor. They reach the edge of the pit. They leap down like cats, hunched and light and agile, and fall slowly towards Sukaynah’s maw.

They vanish into the darkness below.

And up from below comes the breath of Sukaynah, whose snorkel and prison this tower is: ho-ha, ho-ha.

“Sometimes I try to fish her up,” Martin says. “Because I would like to help her. But I’ve never used the right bait.”

Sukaynah’s breath is heavy and rasping. It scrapes along the brick.

Continuing the story of Martin, Sukaynah, the imago, and the Roomba (1)

“Here,” Martin says to the Roomba.

He reaches into his pocket. It’s full of wadded up fig newtons. He takes one out and tosses it to the Roomba.

The Roomba attempts to vacuum up the cookie. When this fails it tries to climb up on top of the cookie. After a long effort it manages to get itself stuck on top of the fig newton. It whirrs and whines helplessly.

“That’s bad navigation,” Martin says.

“!!” explains the Roomba.

Martin says, “Well, don’t look at me to help you. I think you should use this opportunity to evolve.”

The Roomba’s “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” LED lights up. It plays a sorrowful tune.

Martin makes a face.

“Grind it down with your mobility!” he says.

As the Roomba hums and whirrs, Martin turns to the imago.

“Here,” he says.

He holds out another cookie.

The imago does not take the cookie.

“I think you’re an imago,” Martin says. “I think you’re in that cocoon because you’re evolving to the next stage of human existence—in,” he says triumphantly, “direct contradiction to the Roomba’s LED.”

The Roomba irritably extinguishes its “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” light. It attempts to back up off of the cookie, to no avail.

“But,” Martin says, “it can’t be very much of an evolution if the post-person stage is unable to eat cookies.”

The imago is silent.

Martin makes a face.

“Maybe you don’t get a cookie, then.”

And he plucks two apples from the tree and sits down with his legs dangling into the pit and he looks thoughtfully down at Sukaynah far below.

Time continued to pass and still Sukaynah was not fed.

She cried, “Feed me sweet things! Pastries! Cakes! Cookies! Oh, feed me sweet things and I shall rise to devour the tower, the ocean, and the sun.”

At that time, a fisherman—Abel Clay—had moved into the tower, along with his family. He heard Sukaynah’s cries and was mightily amazed: but, “No way!” he shouted back down. “I like the sun!”

She heaved and wriggled in great rage, but he refused to feed her anything after the manner of her desire.

“Hey!” Martin says.

There is silence.

“Hey, Sukaynah!”

Sukaynah is a long way down but her breath fills the tower: ha-ho, ha-ho, ha-ho.

“Fruit,” Martin says.

And he tosses down an apple and it falls and it falls and then there is a great crunching and munching of teeth and finally a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“Martin,” says Sukaynah.

“If I were a doctor,” Martin says, “these would totally keep me away. But I’d also be Doc Martin.”

Sukaynah breathes.

Slowly, she says, “Do you sleep very soundly, Martin?”

“I sleep vigorously,” Martin says.

“If you sleep too soundly,” Sukaynah says, “then it is possible that very small people will tie you down underwater and build a combination tower/breathing tube on your face. Then a few thousand years later even smaller people will move into the tower and try to make friends with you. Your reaction might be best expressed as such: ‘I am unable to identify our common ground.'”

“Maybe you have sleep apnea,” says Martin.

“What?”

“It’s a sleep disorder,” Martin says. “You can find more information about it on the Internet.”

There is a long pause.

“I do not think it is sleep apnea,” Sukaynah says.

“Oh.”

It is June 1, 2004.

A cloud passes over the sun.

“Do you think it’s okay to destroy everything?” Martin asks.

“Yes,” says Sukaynah.

Martin munches on a cookie. He is thinking. “Me too,” he says.

Then he takes a newton from his pocket.

“Cookie?”

Sukaynah breathes.

“Why,” she says, “you’re a good little boy after all.”

The Bridge1

1 requires familiarity with Pokémon and a distant awareness of Digimon.

John drives Shelley out of the city. The bridge is clogged with cars.

“You’d think, ” she says, “that we’d be able to plan bridge traffic better.”

“Humans are weak against bridges,” he says.

“Really?”

“It’s a systemic weakness. Someday we’ll evolve into creatures who are strong against bridges, and then we won’t have this problem. We’ll also have powerful mental abilities like Psybeam.”

Shelley leans back in her seat. She thinks about this. “Cool,” she says.

John drives her to the woods. He parks.

“Thanks,” she says.

“Do you want me to wait?” he asks.

She shakes her head.

He drives away. She hikes into the woods. She finds the old shaman’s tent. He doesn’t say anything. He just sits her down and starts the fire. It’s mostly wood, but there are some ally plants in it.

“I’m scared,” she admits.

The smoke fills her senses. Shelley can feel something impending, something gathering in the air like the coming storm.

“But it’s time,” she says.

Her world shivers. The old shaman beside her nods. He grins at her toothlessly. The air swims.

“I’m going to be a shaman.”

The other world descends upon her like a bolt of lightning. Her body trembles. She screams. There’s a wrenching, tearing sensation. Then she finds herself sprawled on the ground of a black and marshy place. There’s thick grime soaking its way into her clothing; pressing clammily against her face; weighing down her hair.

She looks up.

There is no tent. There is no shaman. The sky is full of clouds.

“I will find my spirit animal,” she says.

She pulls herself to her feet. She looks around. The marsh gives way to forest, not far away. There are mountains in the distance. A few great boulders stand, solemnly, beside her. There is—

There’s a glimpse of motion in the corner of her eye. Her gaze snaps back to the trees. She scans the forestline.

It comes again. Something running. Such Agility, she thinks. She can’t focus on it. She only sees a glimpse of yellow and black.

“A tiger?” she says. But it seems too small.

She’s lost track of it. She scans the trees again.

It blurs past, behind her. She finds herself spinning around. She falls helplessly into the grime. She shrieks. One hand comes out to break her fall. It scrapes on a deep-buried rock and begins, slowly, to bleed.

She lays there for a moment, stunned. Then, slowly, she looks up.

On the high boulder’s surface, looking down at her with ancient dignity, she sees what might have been a squirrel or a great and terrible rat. Its fur is sleek. Its eyes are black. Its tail is strangely twisted. It stinks of musk. Its body is striped yellow and black.

“Pika,” her spirit animal informs her.

She hesitates.

“Pikapi?” it asks.

“Oh, God,” she says. She rises slowly. She stretches out a hand. Her spirit animal sniffs at it.

Shelley cannot resist. She has to say it. “I realize that my people are not deeply attuned to the natural world,” she says. “But I had . . . somehow expected . . .”

Her voice falters.

It cocks its head to the side. It looks at her with eyes more wise and more deadly than any human’s.

“Could I have a real animal?” she asks, plaintively.

“PIKA!” thunders the spirit. The skies shout out their answer. Lightning strikes her. Her hair frizzes. Pain spreads to every corner of her skin. She falls down. Her world whirls. She is stunned.

After an unknown time, she realizes that her totem is licking her face. It nudges her, trying to rouse her. Finally, reluctantly, she stands.

“Pika,” it says, satisfiedly. It blurs, and it is standing fifteen feet away. It blurs again, and that distance is fifteen yards. There it pauses. It looks back at her.

She follows.

“I’m sorry,” she says, as she trudges through the mire.

“Chu,” it says, dismissively. Its anger has passed.

“My teacher said to discard my expectations,” she says. “It’s just hard. It’s too easy to see the world as I expect it to be.”

The creature zips forward again, then stops. It sits down. Its tongue lolls out the side of its mouth. It pants. She trudges.

“But I’m still willing,” she says. “I’m willing to get eaten by spirits. I’m willing to cross the bridge of knives to the land of the dead.”

“Kachu,” it says companionably.

“Good,” she says.

It zips forward, once, twice, thrice. At the edge of her vision it stands, waiting. She can see that the mire is giving way to grassland. As she approaches she can hear music, endlessly complex. Layers of sound rise and fall. The melody is sweet, but it is no human song. This is cicada music. This is grasshopper music. This is the song of the insect world.

She is attacked.

It is like the moon, pulled from the sky: a green crescent, some strange beast’s pod, with a rippled edge and large and stunning eyes. It hovers in the air before her.

“I know you,” she says.

Its surface ripples. It Hardens, she thinks.

“I fought you in the Gold GameBoy version,” she says. “You were in the woods.”

Its surface ripples.

“You never actually attacked,” she says. “You just built up your defense. The most fearsome risk, when we fought, was exhaustion.”

It blinks at her. “Pod,” it says. It sways forward. It tries to bite her leg. The angle is all wrong, and it has no teeth. Its surface ripples.

She looks around. She points at her spirit animal. “Go! I choose you!”

It looks at her. Elaborately, it walks in a small circle and lays itself down. It leans its head on its paws. It seems to be laughing at her.

“Use your Thunderbolt?” she asks, hopefully.

Her spirit animal closes its eyes. It falls asleep.

“Oh,” she says.

The green crescent moon attempts to bite her again. This remains unsuccessful. She looks at it helplessly. Finally, she shoves it away. It rolls backwards through the air, thumps against a tree, and falls to the ground below. It looks at her reproachfully. It evolves with a glittering special effect into a butterfly and flies away.

“Its third stage evolution was pretty,” Shelley says. “But I hope I find some spirits who are more effective at eating my limbs and organs.”

Her spirit animal yawns, showing yellow teeth. It stretches lankily. It stands. “Pikapi,” it says. In a burst of speed, it zips onwards.

She leaves the place of the green crescent moon behind. She walks on through the grass. She hears a rustling in the grass. She has just enough time to realize how ominous it sounds.

Then they’re upon her.

One is a pink and bulbous floating head. It has bunny ears, red eyes, and fangs. Another resembles nothing so much as a four-legged anthropomorphic onion. Its jaws gape wide. There are many others.

“Wait,” she says. She can’t help flailing an arm, sending a green head-bubble reeling away. The onion’s teeth tear a chunk off her leg.

“Wait,” she says, again. “You’re digital monsters.”

Something bites into her head, severing a chunk of scalp, skull, and brain alike. Shock begins to set in.

Such distinctions, she hears, are a thing of the mortal world, and not the other.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she tells it.

Then there is only sacrifice.

After a while, she gets to her feet again. She feels very light. Most of her is missing. She wipes the blood repeatedly from her remaining eye with a three-fingered hand.

“Pika?” asks her spirit animal.

“I’m all right,” she says.

It nudges her with its nose. She sways, but does not fall. Her spirit animal bobs its head cheerfully. Then it leads her onwards to the bridge of knives.

“I can’t cross that,” she says. “It’s too sharp.”

She sits down with a thump. There’s a sick despair on her face. She stares at the bridge.

“It’s cutting me from here,” she says. “Don’t you understand? Humans are weak against bridges.”

Evolve, her spirit animal says.

“Oh,” she says.

“Oh, of course.”

Dumping Glue on a Log1

1 presupposes familiarity with Pokémon.

Gautama meditates in the tall grass.

Jane runs up.

Gautama smiles. “Jane, ” he says, “I meditate in pursuit of enlightenment, so that I can free all sentient beings from desire and suffering.”

Jane thinks on Gautama’s words. “Cool!” She throws a red and white ball at him. It opens and sucks him in. The ball wiggles, then subsides. Success! Jane has captured Gautama.

Jane beams. “I knew I’d find a good use for my ENLIGHTENMENT BALL.”

Jane runs through the grass. She can see Martin up ahead. He’s blocking the only path past the bo tree.

Martin sees Jane. “!”

Martin runs up to Jane. “Let’s battle!”

“Gautama,” cries Jane. “I choose you!”

Martin thinks. “I’ll choose Mara!”

Martin throws his DESIRE BALL. It unleashes Mara, the demon of the illusions of material existence.

First round!

Gautama assumes LOTUS STANCE under the bo tree.
Mara uses his special VOLUPTUOUS WOMEN move.

“These women are very bountiful,” agrees Gautama. “But the pleasures of the flesh do not last. Succumbing to this temptation would bring me immediate happiness. Over the years, though, sickness, old age, and death would take their toll. I would come to regret my indulgence.”

Gautama takes ten points of damage. The women weren’t a temptation. They were an attack! Mara’s tricky that way.

Second round!

Gautama uses LOTUS STANCE.
Mara PAUSES.

Martin frowns at Jane. “You shouldn’t use the same move over and over!”

“It increases his defense against the torments of existence,” explains Jane. “That makes him a tragically powerful battler!”

“Oh,” said Martin, thinking. “That’s a good strategy, then. I’ll have to damage him fast!”

Mara uses his FLAMING ROCKS move.

A fiery torrent descends on Gautama!

“These rocks are very much on fire,” agrees Gautama. “But the pleasures of the flesh do not last. Succumbing to this temptation would bring me immediate happiness. Over the years, though, sickness, old age, and death would take their toll. I would come to regret my indulgence.”

“They’re FLAMING ROCKS,” says Mara blankly.

“Oh,” says Gautama. “They’re not a temptation?”

“A temptation to do what?”

“I’d collect them,” says Gautama, dreamily. “And dress them up in cute flame-retardant outfits. Then I’d sell them on eBay.” He shivers. Oh! Such sweet temptation. But the flaming rocks turn into blossom petals when they reach Gautama. That’s how powerful his dedication to help all people is!

Gautama takes five points of damage. Jane looks worried. He doesn’t have many left!

Third round!

Gautama uses LOTUS STANCE.
Mara uses MORAL CHALLENGE.

“You don’t have the right to seek enlightenment,” Mara cries. “You’re a washed-up bald monk who lives in a ball! Who are you to seek the freedom of all people from suffering and desire?”

Gautama touches the earth with one finger. The earth shouts, “He’s a washed-up bald monk who lives in an ENLIGHTENMENT BALL.”

Mara could not argue with that.

Fourth round!

Gautama uses ACHIEVE ENLIGHTENMENT.
The battle ends.

There’s no more Mara. There’s no more Gautama! There’s only Ninja Tathagata.

“I win!” cries Jane.

“Hey!” says Martin. “He didn’t survive enlightenment! He extinguished his ego and now he exists as a compassionate impulse in the void of nirvana! I think that should be a draw.”

“Oh, Martin!” laughs Jane. “You can’t blame a Buddha for achieving nonexistence! That’s like dumping glue on a log.”