Ink Ascending (XVI/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

Sometimes when things seem darkest a flying carpet will come and swoop you off and carry you to the answer to all your pains.

In the lands of Romance you will battle ogres and dragons.

You will find bottles containing the secret hearts of djinn.

Dashing princes will bend their head to look at you, their eyes gleaming with that ancient light of Romance.

They will say: “I see you have come here.”

. . . but no.

That is not right.

The carpet—that seems right.

But not the rest.

The girl is surfacing to consciousness and something is not right. The Prince is not standing over her. That is someone else. He is not saying, “I see you have come here.”

He is saying something else.

The girl focuses her eyes.

It is Minister Jof.

It is Minister Jof, and not the Prince.

He has said, if anything, “I consider you to blame.”

She shakes her head, just a little. She turns her head. It hurts to do this, but she turns her head.

Is that the Prince?

It is Riffle. He is washing his hands.

And there:

Dr. Sarous, glum and sour. Not even speaking.

And there:

The general of the stickbugs. He is approaching. He is lowering his mouth towards the foot of the girl. Dr. Sarous bats at him and he skulks away.

It is distinctly not the lands of Romance.

If anything, it is the murky land of Dismal.

Still, the girl sits up. She makes a game try of it. “How marvelous,” she says. “You, Dr. Sarous; have you been treating our wounds?”

Dr. Sarous’ mouth remains a line.

“Minister Jof, Riffle, you followed me?”

They look away.

The girl makes a face. “Really,” she says, “when one rides a flying carpet to the answer to one’s pains, one is supposed to smile.”

“This?” says Riffle.

His voice cracks.

Something is wrong. No, she knew that. Something is wronger.

She turns.

Behind her there is a chasm, and from that chasm rises a great stone pillar, and bound to that pillar there is a man—

No, a creature like a man—

He is sealed against the stone with molten brass and molten iron. They bubble with great heat. He is sealed into the stone, and the nerves and veins of him run uninterrupted into the rock. Marked in a great circle around him are the symbols of the seasons, and the zodiac, and of time. His flesh in places gaps to show bones and organs beneath.

He is Cronos.

His eyes are open.

They can see the specks of his left iris and the light on his left pupil. They can see the agony in it.

His right eye is burnt ruin.

He is the crust of the world. He is the mechanism of time.

He is aware of them.

He winks.

“Oh, don’t,” says the girl.

His face crinkles, just a bit, around his pain.

“Oh, no,” she says.

It is not words. It is simply an implication in his expression. But it is there all the same.

I see you have come here.

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

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.

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

“This is what I experienced in delirium,” says Minister Jof. “A shadow came. It flicked by. It caught me up. Then I was here, with Dr. Sarous extracting the splinter from my eye.”

“For me,” says Dr. Sarous, “it is essentially the same. There was a confusion of stickbugs; I caught the general’s lapel and fell.”

“I am done with this,” says Riffle.

He looks dissatisfied.

“Enough with the business of saviors and killing God. I propose we push the girl over the edge, thus putting the throne of the world in our debt; we then retire to Sarous’ kingdom, where he shall appoint me his high executor and allow you minor appointments in his administration. In exchange, I will advise Sarous as to how to live with the knowledge of his corruption; all of us see profit.”

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly, although everybody calls her the imago. It’s short for imagoro, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth.

She’s staring at the face of the titan in the pillar.

“Is this how it begins?” she asks.

Riffle looks at her.

“Is this the first moment of our history?” she asks.

“Hardly,” says Riffle.

But Ink turns on him and she is burning with the power of the interpretation of ended things and her voice cuts across all his thoughts and she says, “Cronos was laying on the sand.”

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: Cronos was laying on the sand.

To what end, time?

The stickbug general is a mean and dirty creature. His heart is small and rotten. Time is the vehicle for his resentment: a field in which he may experience things that are not gorging on child flesh, not stickbug sex, not hiding against a tree.

Time is a vehicle for pain and for hunger and for fear without satiety.

There is a heat that washes off the girl as she says these words and it drives the stickbug general flinching back. But this does not quench the stickbug’s determination. If anything it affirms it. Things are too uncomfortable. The girl must die.

Cronos was young. He was young. He was so very young. He was tired. He did not know who he was.

He was a castaway on the shore of the world.

He lay there and he did not move.

The sun was very hot.

It began to burn him.

When his skin turned red he made a strangled sound and rose to his feet and he staggered off to find a cave.

To what end, time?

Time is a vast reach filled with disorder. Time is the vehicle for Riffle’s discontent: again and again it slews him from his purpose. It drives him to the end of narrow aims and imbues his broader projects with a sense of dim futility. It is littered with elements he cannot incorporate into his closed designs.

As the girl speaks Riffle becomes aware of a deep and timeless agony. It is not hers, nor his, nor Cronos’, but the agony of Ge.

He cannot solve it.

He cannot even begin to solve it.

He cannot ignore it, either; and so, in that moment, imagoro, he hates Ink Catherly with a burning passion.

All around him rose the deep voice of the earth.

“My child,” said the earth. “Gotten of a sinful father.”

Cronos put his hands upon the rock.

It was wet. It was hard. It was rough.

“I have a mother,” he said.

Joy rose from his stomach to burn through him. “I have a mother, I have a father, I am a child of the heavens and the earth.”

To what end, time?

For Dr. Sarous time was once a playground: an opportunity to make all things well. But the more deeply he studied the world the more things he found that were not well. The more he bent his fallible eye to scrutiny, the more it seemed that the world was a fractal made out of errors built on errors, noise stacking on noise, with virtue nothing more than an emergent pattern on the whole. In the end, his dream unraveled; time seized his prize from him, and his pride.

It hurts him, to hear the joy in Cronos’ voice.

The world is sick, he thinks. Where is its shame?

“Be not proud to be Uri’s son,” said the earth. “For he first thought of shameful things, and cut away the wrongness from the world.”

A question lies hard on Cronos’ mind, but it is not a question that the earth can answer.

“What is the proper manner of my shape?” Cronos asks. “Ought I be tall or short? Have I three legs or two?”

“Hide yourself,” said the earth, “between the sea, the sky, and the land, and wait for darkness, and I will show you how your father has injured me.”

Though confused, still Cronos obeyed.

He shaped himself into a thing that could make webs and he spun a web between the sea, the land, and the sky. He hung there, waiting, trying to decide how many legs a titan has.

The sun left the sky.

The world grew dark.

The web trembled and shrank. The vault of the stars came down and pressed close upon the world. Cronos shivered in the dark.

To what end, time?

Time is a vehicle for evolution. That is why Minister Jof fears it.

He loves evolution. It is his work. But he fears it. To change— to grow—

He is Minister Jof.

Where could he go?

He does not allow himself to imagine that he is fallible; that he is imperfect; that there is an upwards arc. And those times when he does—when it slips through into his heart that we are unfinished, mean, imperfect creatures, and Minister Jof no different—are exactly the times when he cannot imagine any means of becoming better.

He can feel change coming. It echoes in the words of the history of the girl.

He shutters his heart. He focuses on his judgments and his spite.

He turns away.

The clouds lit with pink and scarlet fires. The earth ground open and in it were pools of darkness and green and coldest indigo. The sky rubbed against the earth and fires slipped from it into the depths and danced upon the waters there. The wind blew. It came down off the hills and it roared across the plains. It chilled the peaks of the mountains and bent the trees of the forest. Stars fell and lost their fire. The chasms under the world ignited. The world and sky strained against one another and the sky grew damper and the air began to taste of rain.

As the sky coupled with the earth, the earth said, “For whom have you made this world, o my love?”

And the sky said, “For Oceanus; and Tethys; and Hyperion; and Theia; and Coeus; and Phoebe; and Cronos; and Rhea; and the birds; and the trees; and the insects; and the flowers; and the naiads; and the oceanids; and the teeth gnomes; and the antelope; and the burrowing things; and the climbing things;” and he went on in just this vein for quite some time.

And as he said these things the earth sighed, “Ah,” for these things were precious to her.

But in the later hours of the night it grew halting and slow, that recitation of the sky. “And for the platypus;” he said, and he thought, and he sought for words, “and the sandpipers; and the dogs—“

And there he had run out.

And fire blazes everywhere throughout the world and Cronos said, “. . . but what of Ophion?”

And the earth trembled and Cronos understood a thing, and he said, “. . . but what of Ophion? But what of siggorts? But what of woglies? But what of all the exiled things? But what of these?”

And his question made no impact on the sky, which only spun, and gave him a ruffling about the head, and said, “Do not love ye evil, child.”

And then the sky withdrew behind the curtains of the dawn.

And Cronos thought of Ophion, and the siggorts, and the woglies: o my loves.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

In the end they are too small.

In the end they are hopeless and dismal, all of them.

But dharma moves.

Ink is stepping back. She can tell what moves in the wicked hearts that face her: one to three murderers, and one to three who will not help. She is stepping back towards the chasm. She has no idea how she will survive a screaming plummet into unknown depths but she has fallen from high places a fair amount recently and is starting to trust her ability to improvise. She suspects that it is less of a danger than her four companions, but:

“You know what the coolest thing ever is?” she asks.

The general of the stickbugs shakes his head.

It’s not actually negation.

He’s just breaking the spell of her words.

“People,” Ink says.

And she grins at them, flush with an echo of Cronos’ joy, as Minister Jof looks away; as Dr. Sarous and Riffle exchange dark glances; as the general of the stickbugs scuttles towards her with murderous intent.

Freaks, the lot of you, thinks Ink Catherly; o my loves.

And then there is the miracle.

She steps back.

Behind her, dharma moves. The titan’s hands stretch forth. He catches her. And in that motion they see it. They see it in the motion, all four of them. They see the motivation for time.

They see the purpose for the crust of the world.

He holds at bay the price of our imperfections, and behind them our happy endings; he bears the immeasurable weight of all these things.

Time is Cronos, standing there in the crust of the world, bearing his impossible burden, so that before our histories and our stories end in bright perfection, we that are imperfect have the opportunity to grow.

Though people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

It is the terrible truth of Heaven and Earth that the Elysian Fields await us all—

Well, except for the woglies, and the siggorts, I suppose—

That the Elysian Fields await us all. That we are accepted as we are by the actual and the ideal, and bent by destiny towards an inexorable fate of bliss for ever. And that it is only by the sleight of Cronos and his work that we may have a chance, before the end, to make ourselves worthy of that ending.

That he does it for them no less than any other: for Riffle, and the stickbug general, and Dr. Sarous, and Minister Jof.

Thus we say, however rare that it might be that purpose changes, or life evolves: dharma moves.

For just a moment, as he lifts Ink from that place, four of the five who remain behind recognize those great and horrible truths.

As for the fifth, it is over already.

Jacob’s carpet releases its hold upon its fate and falls: flutter, flutter, flutter, down through the storm below.

As performed in the Gibbelins’ Tower on October 20, 2005, in remembrance of Ink.

  • But we’re not quite done. Tune in TOMORROW for the unbelievable epilogue:
    THE BEGINNING.
    Then the letters column! Then back to Sid and Max—and let’s see if we can’t finish up The Island of the Centipede this November!

The Nest of Mirror Pieces (5 of 5)

Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.

She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.

She was already shivering with cold.

She was already desperately hungry.

She was already an intimate of sorrow.

The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”

And Mei Ming shook her head.

Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.

“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—

“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”

“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.

“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”

“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.

The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.

“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”

In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.

It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.

It is the location of her stuff.

The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.

She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.

She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.

There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.

Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.

Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.

Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.

Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:

When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.

Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.

At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.

That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.

Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.

He has knocked.

He has entered.

“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”

Martin shakes his head.

“I’m here to help you,” he says.

He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.

The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—

Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—

Surrounding the events of the past few days.

Mei Ming studies it.

She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”

“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.

Mei Ming peers at it.

“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.

Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.

“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”

“How undignified,” Martin says.

“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”

“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.

There’s a pause.

“So,” Mei Ming says.

“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”

Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.

“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”

Martin grins.

“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.

“So,” Mei Ming says, again.

“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.

“. . . oh.”

“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”

Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”

Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.

“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”

Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!

“Hm?”

“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”

“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.

“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”

“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.

Pblt! Martin offers her again.

“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”

“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.

In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”

“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”

Sellurt and Morgan: The Ark

It is at first Sellurt’s assumption that Noah is exaggerating regarding the number of animals stored on the Ark.

He can hear them, of course. There are always sounds. There is trumpeting and barking and buzzing and keening and at night there is a thin distant wailing that merges with the creaking and shifting and croaking of the wood.

And he sees no small number of them—the zebras, the antelope, the ostriches, the platypuses, and the lions, of course, the lions, more than two of them, more than seven of them, more than he can count, their great padded feet always stalking through the decks.

There is impressive biodiversity on the Ark.

But Sellurt has studied the Earth. He knows how many species there are.

They cannot all be on the Ark.

They are too many.

They are endless.

Mehanem—or Noah, as everyone calls him—is always busy. He does not have time to meet with Sellurt and Morgan. Thus it is that the two visitors from the Galactic Confederacy are abandoned there to the depths below deck, to watch through the portholes the endless dreary rain and listen to the skittering and scratching in the walls. Sometimes Sellurt’s eyes will close and he will wake up to the feather-soft touch of a spider or mosquito crawling across his leg; and each time, he observes with interested horror, it is a different species than he has ever seen before.

“It doesn’t matter,” says Morgan, after a while.

Morgan is sitting at the window, dropping coins from the porthole, watching for and failing to see that moment when they strike the water and vanish into the immensity of the deep.

“It doesn’t matter?” Sellurt asks.

“I mean,” Morgan says, “humans can’t breathe water, right?”

In Sellurt’s mind there is a momentary fantasy of drowning one of Mehanem’s sons, the human’s arms and legs flailing, his face slowly turning blue, his animal noises grinding to a halt.

Then Sellurt shakes his head.

“No,” he agrees. “They can’t.”

“Then their civilization is dead. It doesn’t matter that we’re not able to invite them to join the Galactic Confederacy. They’re dead. It’s over.”

It has been seven days now and the rain has not ceased to fall.

“Surely it’s just this subcontinent,” says Sellurt.

Morgan looks out.

“A whole world can’t die to rain,” Sellurt says.

“It’s surprising,” says Morgan. “How many animals there are. Whether or not he really got them all. Where do you think they go, when we can’t see them?”

On the ninth day, when Sellurt goes to the hatch that leads to the upper levels, he finds two lions there. They are between him and the hatch. They have gingivitis, thanks to their poor dental hygiene, and their maws are dripping blood.

“You’ll have to let me by,” says Sellurt.

But the male lion yawns, with its great yellow teeth, and its breath is rank.

“God,” mutters Sellurt.

He backs away.

There is the sound of hooves on the deck beside him, the heat of fur in the air, the whining of a fly, but when he turns to track the beast’s location with his eyes he cannot see anything but the wooden halls.

Sellurt finds a place where he can hear human footsteps, endless human footsteps, pacing on the decks above. He hammers on the ceiling. He shouts. He is dignified at first but then he screams until he’s hoarse, until he cannot breathe, until he falls and curls upon himself below.

The air is thick and fuzzy and he is sure he is surrounded by the beasts, but when he opens his eyes they are not there.

“Are you okay?” Morgan says, when he finds him.

“I’m fine,” Sellurt says.

“Okay.”

“I’m fine,” Sellurt repeats, and then he says: “This is intolerable.”

A koala shares their evening meal that day. It is the first time that either of the aliens have ever seen one, and the last they ever will.

When Sellurt checks the hatch again, the lions are still there.

Every time he checks the hatch, the lions are still there.

The humans are beyond Sellurt and Morgan’s reach.

“It must be Noah,” Sellurt tells Morgan. “The humans are more advanced than we believed.”

“Hm?”

“The rain. This isn’t natural rain. It’s something they’re doing. They have a machine. Noah is doing it. He has a machine.

“Why would they kill everyone off?”

“Why aren’t there more of them on the boat?” Sellurt says. “Why were they all left to drown? There’s plenty of room. They could fit twenty, thirty more families in here. But the lions kept them away. The lions stood outside the Ark and kept them away. He wanted them to die.”

“Don’t obsess,” Morgan says.

“What?”

“We’re an advanced galactic species,” says Morgan. “I’m sure we can figure out some way to deal with lions, if we have to. We could use our stunners. Or some kind of telepathic mind control. The options,” and he gestures extravagantly, “are endless.”

Sellurt sits down heavily.

“Yes,” he says, bitterly. “I’m sure we could.”

There is a great long-legged bug probing at his hand. He’s not sure where it came from. It wasn’t there when he sat down.

He will not shudder, Sellurt decides. He is a citizen of the Galactic Confederacy. He is above such distress.

His meeting with Noah will wait.

On the eighteenth day, Morgan observes, “There are too many animals.”

There is a distant sound of slithering. It is very dark and the damp seeps in through the wood.

“Too many?”

“They are endless,” says Morgan. “Never mind what Noah claims. There are too many different animals, just the ones we’ve seen. They can’t all fit in here, not with this much free space.”

The rats stare at him from the rafters, their red eyes glowing. There is the dry scraping noise of scales on wood. There is a peculiar, choking cough.

“They have to fit,” Sellurt says. “They’re here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no room.”

Sellurt leans back. His eyes are blank and white. He is thinking. He is counting, in his head.

“There’s no room,” he agrees.

The air is hot. It is the steam of a zoo, of a kennel, of a hundred thousand bodies pumping warmth and stench into the air.

Sellurt swats at his arm.

“Why,” he asks plaintively, “did Noah save the wasps?”

There is silence for a time.

“We’ll go,” says Morgan. “We’ll go. We’ll deal with the lions. We’ll face them down.”

“Yes,” says Sellurt.

Something clammy brushes against Morgan’s face. He waves his hand at it but it is gone.

“Stupid frogs,” Morgan adds.

They rise.

They walk in the direction of the hatch.

Morgan stops.

“Don’t stop,” Sellurt says. “We have to get out of here. We have to get to the hatch. I think we will go mad, Morgan, if we stay.”

Morgan is staring at the air, with his head tilted to one side, a peculiar expression on his face.

“Morgan?”

“We have walked the length of the Ark,” Morgan says. “And more. And still there is no hatch.”

“Ridiculous,” says Sellurt.

And there in the dimness and in no specific direction: not east, not north, not south, not west, Sellurt can make out a shaft that rises through the levels of the ship, above and below, through more floors and spaces than he can count.

“Don’t you see?” Morgan says, his voice immensely small and tiny in the emptiness of the Ark.

“No,” protests Sellurt. “No. I don’t.”

“It’s endless.”

Sellurt can feel the breath of the lions at his back, and there is everywhere to run.

Sellurt and Morgan: Bumping the Dinosaurs

“Backwards!” storms Sellurt. He hurls his glass of water in fury at a nearby absorb-o-wall.

“Earth?” Morgan inquires.

“I can’t believe we’re letting these ignorant primitives into our galactic confederation,” Sellurt says. “Look at them!”

He shoves a Earth-scope in Morgan’s direction. Morgan politely shakes his head.

“Sinful, wicked, lascivious beasts! I hardly want to go near them! But because the Council says ‘they have great potential’ and ‘their intuition scores are off the scale’ I have to figure out how to bring them into the fold.”

It is 2105 years before the common era, and Sellurt’s starship spirals through the vastnesses of space towards Earth.

“But you’re calm,” Sellurt says, after a time. “Why are you calm?”

“I’m a trained mannerist,” says Morgan. “I know how to handle these situations.”

“Oh?”

“It’s simple,” Morgan says. “We get out our shiny red and gold uniforms. We press them until they’re sharp. We even polish the buttons. Then we put them on. We land the ship in someone’s back yard, lower the ramp, march down, and say, ‘Take us to your leader.’ At this point the essential difficulties of first contact are circumvented; the rest is mere detail and elaboration.”

“Hmph,” snorts Sellurt. “You don’t know these humans! They’re not impressed by shiny uniforms and galactic confederation catchphrases!”

Morgan looks placid.

“We shall see,” he says, “what we shall see.”

Sellurt’s ship rages in from space. It spins thrice in orbit around the world while Sellurt scans the planet below. He sees a structure—more than 135 cubits long and 22.5 cubits wide—and mutters to himself, “As good as anything, I guess.” Then he pops the clutch and pulls the levers and the ship tears down to land in Mehanem Noah’s backyard.

The ship shudders once and vents its heat into the atmosphere. Its ramp lowers. Morgan and Sellurt, dressed in shiny red and gold uniforms, walk down.

Noah’s son, Ham, watches this whole procedure with some alarm.

“Hello,” says Morgan, sunnily, to Ham.

“Take us to your leader,” Sellurt says.

“Oh, dear,” says Ham. “You’re not a known species of animal.”

The galactics blink. There is a nonplussed moment.

“Darn right!” says Sellurt.

“Ah—”

Ham hesitates. He has an important but socially awkward question to ask. This awkwardness shows on his face.

“Hm?” Morgan says.

“Are you clean?” Ham says.

“Pardon?” Morgan answers.

“I’m supposed to take seven of you,” says Ham, “if you’re clean. But only two if you’re not.”

Morgan says, “Which would be more convenient for you?”

“Unclean,” says Ham.

Morgan gestures illustratively at Sellurt. Sellurt looks at him oddly.

“What the hell?” Sellurt says.

“I see!” Ham brightens. “Then we’ll only have to bump the dinosaurs.”

“What?” says Sellurt. “What?”

Morgan shakes his head, smiling. “About your leader…”

“Of course,” says Ham. “Right this way.”

Ham leads Morgan and Sellurt through the crowd of lions and wild beasts that surround the Ark. The lions growl at the aliens but let them pass. At the Ark they find Noah, who is busily at work.

“Oh,” says Noah. He puts down his hammer. He dusts off his hands and holds one out to the alien invaders in the universal symbol of fellowship. “Hello!”

“Down to business,” says Sellurt, ignoring the proffered hand. “You! Ugly human! Your species is foul and sinful but we’ve decided to let you into our grand galactic confederation. Observe how shiny our uniforms are! That’s just one of the many benefits your species can achieve. We’ll also end hunger and teach you to fly—through space!”

“That’s all very well,” says Noah, “but you’re going to have to go into the Ark. It’s going to rain soon.”

“I figure we should bump the dinosaurs, Dad,” says Ham.

Noah scratches at his sideburns. “Hate to do it,” he says, “but yes. Can’t keep the great old brutes around when we could be saving sophonts. Send in Japheth to dredge them out.”

Ham wanders off.

“I’m not entirely sure,” says Morgan, “that you understand—”

“No,” says Noah. He shakes his head. “I sure don’t. How did we miss you? I was sure we had a full list of every species on the Earth—used Kabalistic magic and everything. Even the bacteria, and tracking down all of them was harder than the breakfast toast.”

Noah’s been awake for more than a year, putting the finishing touches on the ark, so his breakfast toast is very hard indeed.

“We were in space, sir,” says Morgan.

“Yes,” says Sellurt. He points up at the sky. “Do you see those little lights? Well, each of them is a star. Around each of them is a world. The worlds are organized into a great galactic confederation dedicated to peace, prosperity, and interrupting my important work to send me haring off across the cosmos to bring all these blessings to worthless uncivilized savages like you.”

Noah thinks about that.

“I’d wondered,” he says. “Well, in you go.”

“What?”

Noah gestures at the Ark.

“In.”

“It must be some sort of custom,” Morgan says.

“A primitive hazing ritual for interstellar visitors,” Sellurt agrees.

“We’ll go along,” Morgan decides. “For now.”

So they go in.

They pass Japheth in the halls. He is wrangling out both dinosaurs, one in each hand. They are protesting and screeching but he is a stronger wrestler than they. He shoves them out in his final victory, and they fall onto the unforgiving soil.

It is beginning to rain.

“I wonder if they’ll accept our offer,” Morgan says.

“Ha!” says Sellurt. “They’d better. Their civilization is going to destroy itself if it keeps on going like it’s going, you know. All that savagery and vice’ll attract the attention of a Space Devil.”

“Not everyone does what’s best for them,” Morgan says.

Behind them, there is the creaking of a great and terrible door. There is a clamor as it closes. Inside the Ark it goes very still.

It is dark now in Noah’s ship.

It is the deepest night, inside the ship, but with great cuttings of light in it: great dagger-slashes of cloud-concealed sun, entering through the windows of the Ark.

Outside, the dinosaurs and humans are already turning into fossils, flesh falling off, bones hardening in the rain, clutching upwards like drowning men at the dream of space above.

(Still Sick) Stacking Mammals and Sid

Gelling agents are often made from various emotions. It is very inefficient to use happiness as a gelling agent, while sadness is extremely effective. That is why Jell-O jiggles so often so tragically. However this story is not about jiggling or gelling, but rather about stacking mammals and Sid.

It is possible to stack mammals to achieve almost any desirable effect. This requires sticky mammals, such as sticky goats and sticky elephants. These are sticky mammals because they adhere to one another and they bear live young. Sometimes this is a consequence of pregnancy and at other times a consequence of inappropriate stacking. Always read the assembly instructions before stacking mammals!

Not every mammal is naturally sticky. You can test this out. Attempt to stack a cat on a dog. They may cuddle happily, or they may completely fail to adhere. That’s because their natural stickiness isn’t adequate to the task of stacking. You can also perform this experiment with cats and easily surprised pandas. Take note of the fact that this will surprise such pandas.

In order to make mammals stickier one can use a gelling agent. This renders the mammal in question into a gelatinous mammal. Gelatinous mammals are always sticky.

Some gelling agents are made with glue. Others are made with happiness!

In the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals there are many mammals made gelatinous with joy and stacked into useful configurations. There is a stack of mammoths that forms the local government and end-to-end opossums that provide advanced communication services. Always the mammals there are happy, and their land is full of rainbows and gumdrops and singing.

Among the mammals move the shimmer-things, which are things that manifest as visual distortions, or, shimmers. Some of the mammals think these things are angels. Others hold different characteristic beliefs regarding the shimmer-things.

Sid is a gelatinous ostrich. He lives in the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals. It is the default consensus in scientific circles that ostriches are not mammals, but there are many specific objections that serious researchers have raised to this classification. These include the very real possibility that the “ostrich eggs” sold on the market are in fact buffalo eggs. If you have ever savored a hearty buffalo steak over fried ostrich eggs and hashed platypus then you probably understand why many important culinary institutes support this theory. This is the basis on which the shimmer-things made Sid gelatinous and stacked him in the Valley with the others.

“Can you make it rain?” Sid asks the shimmer-things.

The shimmer-things stack the mammals appropriately to make it so. The sky glooms. Thunder rattles. Then lightning spears down and rain drums against the earth.

Sid hides his head in the ground. That’s how impressed he is!

Then he pulls his head out. He looks sly.

“Can you make China untether the yuan from the dollar?”

The shimmer-things form a swirling vortex of indecision. Then they whisk about restacking happy animals.

“Whee!” shouts a lemur, as it is rapidly rearranged relative to various wildebeests.

“Grmf,” grumbles a gelatinous bear.

“In a move that could trim the trade gap with the United States, China revalued its currency higher against the dollar Thursday,” says CNN.

Sid hides his head even deeper in the sand this time. He’s very impressed.

But after a while, he pulls his head back out.

“So,” says Sid slyly, “if I wanted to see what being unhappy was like, you could just restack some mammals and I’d know. Right?”

The shimmer-things rotate in a fanblade array.

“Hm?” challenges Sid.

“No,” say the shimmer-things.

Sid looks blankly at the shimmer-things.

“If we’d wanted to make gelatinous mammals unhappy,” explain the shimmer-things, “then we could have stacked them much more efficiently in the first place.”

The Raining Woman

This is a story of a long time ago. It was before planes and typewriters. It was before gum and rockets. It was before absestos contact lenses.

People were different then.

People didn’t need planes to fly, back then. They didn’t need typewriters to type. They didn’t need gum to chew.

They did it all with the undivided power within them.

The dissolution came later.

People got limits later.

They didn’t have them, back then.

Sky was a woman. She wasn’t the sky. It was just her name. Most people called her Incredible Sky, because she was pretty incredible, just like you and me.

Sky wanted to go into space.

Now, a lot of people wanted to go into space back then. There was Morgan, who flew into space and then blew up. There was Irene. Irene flew into space, and maybe she got where she was going, and maybe she didn’t. No one knows. No one heard from her again. There was Skip. Skip flung her puppy into space and then was very sad, because she didn’t have a puppy any more.

(We could all learn a lesson from Skip about throwing puppies into space.)

People were different back then, but mistakes—mistakes were still the same.

Sky had an idea. “If I hold my arms out like this,” she said, “I can probably get to space and back.”

She held her arms out like one does, when flying into space.

Sky gathered her friends Storm and Skitter. They held their arms out just like that. They flew into space.

Now space has lots of dangers. There are the aliens and the asteroids and the cosmic rays. It’s the cosmic rays that got Sky.

“I’m raining,” said Sky.

That’s what she was doing. She was raining down over the earth.

There was Makemba, tending her fields. She looked up. “Fantastic!” she said.

But Achta, chewing on a bit of grain, corrected her. “Incredible.”

Incredible Sky rained down.

There was Reonet, herding alligators. It’s hard to herd alligators. Sometimes they’d eat her hand. But it would always wriggle around so much in their throats that they’d have to spit it back out and it would squirm back to Reonet.

“River’s going to flood,” said Reonet.

Incredible Sky rained down.

Camilla looked up. “I fear no rain.”

(Later, Camilla drowned.)

For days and nights Sky fell. Her body never stopped the raining. That was the power the cosmic rays gave her.

Dove came to visit Sky, up in space.

“Hey, Sky,” said Dove. “You’re going to kill everything. Every plant. Every animal. Every person. That’s not appropriate for a member of our society.”

“Can’t help it,” said Sky, tersely. “Cosmic rays.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dove.

So Dove fought the raining woman, high above the earth. Dove tore at her with hooks and claws. They fought until Storm couldn’t watch any more. Storm knew it was right, what Dove was doing, but she sobbed and flew to Sky’s defense anyway.

Storm burned with a terrible fire.

The light of Dove’s eyes seared everything she looked at.

That was the cosmic rays. Those were the changes they’d made.

And Storm couldn’t win in the end. She got pinned in Dove’s gaze like a bunny in a snake’s. And she died. And Sky died. And that was the end.

Dove came down.

Dove told everyone else, “The rain’s over. But I’ve got to go. I can’t stay. Because I’d burn you with my eyes.”

So she left. She flew into space, where the cosmic rays are, where the dust is, where the void and the aliens are, and she never came back.

Nobody knows what happened to Skitter. That’s a hole in the story, no denying it, but it’s the way the story has always been.

Now, this was a long time ago. People didn’t need asbestos contact lenses back then, and I guess Dove could have made her eyes fireproof, if she chose.

But what’s the point of choosing if you don’t take the consequence for each choice?

She flew away, and she stayed away.

Maybe she loves it there, in space.

Maybe she’s dead.

No one’s heard from her again.

Flood

The antelope race beside the Ark.

The waters are glassy, sometimes, when the rain slows down. They are rich in color. The hoofprints of the antelope are like the dents of great raindrops.

The antelope have wide feet and a powerful light foot technique. For seventeen days they keep their balance on the water. Yet slowly, as the days pass, they sink deeper and deeper into the shining waters until at last they drown.

“There’s no room for the hippos,” Ham says. “We’ll have to eat them.”

“No eating the hippos,” says Noah.

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “There are those birds,” he says, “that fly into your urethra when you’re peeing and nest inside your crotch. We could eat them.”

Ham considers that.

“Okay,” he says.

The seven-limbed howlers struggle upwards from the cities below. They flail. They howl. They reach the surface and fill their great and terrible lungs with air. Then they sink, again, slowly, pathetically, and hoard their energy for the next long breath.

The eagles circle tiredly in the sky above.

Shem and Ham descend into the Ark.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Shem believes, the density of packed animals becomes asymptotically infinite. But they do not need to go that far.

“Good sheep,” says Shem, passing a sheep.

“Good cow,” says Ham, passing the cows.

“Good crocodi—BAD crocodile!” says Shem. Shem brandishes his broom at the crocodile. It reluctantly turns away and snaps its mouth closed. It slithers deeper, slithers down, its long green body vanishing under a cluster of chickens, wrens, doves, owls, game hens, and wildebeests, and it is gone.

“Good hippo,” says Ham, grudgingly, as they pass.

The urethra birds are not very far down. They are good at gaming the ecosystem for maximum advantage. But it does not save them now.

“Bawk!” proclaims one urethra bird, startled, as Ham grabs it around the neck.

“Ch-caa!” declares the other, in some distress, as Shem seizes it in turn.

The axe descends.

“It’s natural selection,” says Noah, as he chews on a leg. “Those that do not please me, die. Evolutionary pressure driven by the seething core of the Ark will inevitably create a new generation of animals better suited to the exigencies of my desires.”

Days and nights pass.

In the third and fourth weeks, great clusters of ostriches swim by.

The ostriches are not happy with the rain. United, they are strong. Solitary, they are weak. But the rain and flood tries their solidarity.

One by one, ostriches commit social errors.

One by one, the clusters drive them out.

The stragglers are easy prey for the sharks, the icthyocampi, and the cold.

“I wonder if Mr. Sills is still alive,” Shem says.

“He’s got to have drowned by now,” Noah argues.

“I know some of them were trying to build cities in the deep,” Shem says.

Ham walks out and stares down at the water.

“It’s weird,” says Ham. “To imagine all the people we knew, down there.”

“Freaky,” Japheth agrees.

“Cold and blue and drowning.”

“It’s because God didn’t like them,” says Shem. “I mean, as much as he liked us.”

The sheep goes, “Baa.”

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

They quickly hurry the sheep back into the hold.

“Can we eat the sheep?” Ham asks.

“No,” says Noah. “Sheep are good animals. That’s why it made it all the way up.”

“The hippos?”

“No eating the hippos.”

“But Dad!”

Noah considers. “Isn’t there some kind of animal that lives mostly on the brains of dead people?”

“Worms?”

Noah shakes his head. “Besides those.”

“Cranium beavers?”

“Yeah,” says Noah. “Those. We can eat those.”

Ham and Japheth descend.

The deeper they go into the Ark, the more tightly crowded the animals become. It is the nature of the construction of the Ark that any number of animals can be packed within it; near the bottom, Japheth suspects, the animals are unable to survive in solid form but instead revert to their natural plasmic state.

“It’s hot as God’s spankings down here,” says Ham.

“Shh!”

“What?”

“No blasphemy. We’re on the Ark.

There is a creaking, clunking noise, as the sea serpents of God beat warningly upon the vessel’s side.

“Right,” says Ham, sweating. He looks sideways. “Good oryx.”

By the eighteenth sub-basement of the Ark, Ham and Japheth are forced to carve their way through the animals to make room for their passage. Thus dies the bulwark buffalo, the crowball, and the cave goat. Thus dies the ghoul, spoken of in legend, and the icy blue beast in whose image the Slurpee was made. Thus dies the elephant and the fungal turtle.

“Here,” says Japheth.

The cranium beaver skulks defensively behind its dam of skulls, but this primitive instinct cannot save it from the knives of Noah’s heirs.

“Good sheep,” says Japheth, on the way back up.

“Baa,” insists the sheep.

It’s so adorable that even Ham has to scruffle the sheep behind its ears.

The rhinoceri have gone feral, long, and lean. In the distance, as the sons of Noah eat, they watch the primal battle between rhinoceros herd and megalodon, under a sky full of storms. The waves of that battle rock the ship, and the sinuous shapes of the rhinoceri lash and shimmer and in the sea.

“They’re winning,” says Naamah, in some surprise.

“There’s just a chance,” says Noah, in satisfaction, “that the megalodons’ll be another casualty of this rain.”

“I’ll tell the others,” says Japheth.

So he goes to the speaking tubes and calls down into the depths of the ship, “Let the rhinoceros be informed that their kind still live, under the sea.”

And up comes the honking, and the bleating, and the wailing, and the howling, and the hissing, and the chirping, and the long pleased snore of the happy shipboard rhinoceri.

“That means we could eat them,” says Ham. “I mean, the ones we have here.”

“No eating the rhinos,” says Noah.

“Fine,” sulks Ham, crunching on a barbecued cranium beaver leg.

The last of the scissor-beaked night terrors drowns that day.

“Look!” cries Ham, one silvery morning.

“What?”

“Elephants! The elephants didn’t die out after all!”

Noah rubs his chin. “There’s no reason we can’t take another female on board to replace the one you carved through.”

“Right on!”

Shem and Ham operate the elephant crane to retrieve a backup elephant from atop Ayers Rock.

“Baa,” the sheep remarks, conversationally, as it watches.

“Animal on deck!” says Noah.

Naamah and Japheth hurry the sheep back into the hold.

Days and nights pass.

“I can see them far below,” says Japheth, later that night. “All the people I ever hated.”

“Are they trying to tame sea horses?”

“They’re dead, Dad. They’re moving in great drifts through the night.”

“Baa,” mourns the sheep.

“Animal on—”

Noah laughs a little and stops halfway through the sentence.

“Oh, let it be, I guess,” he says.

The sheep looks down into the water, at the hills and dales of Scotland-under-the-Waves.

Flick!

A fish-tailed sheep skims to the surface of the sea.

For a long moment, the land-sheep and the sea-sheep look into one another’s eyes.

Flick!

The moment is gone; and the two sheep go, in their respective elements, below.

In such manner as this: running, swimming, struggling, serving, seething, mourning, and loving does the world survive the rain.

Jane’s Father

Jane looks out the window. “It would be nice to have a father, ” she says.

It starts to rain. Great drops of water fall on the flowers. The flowers are yellow, red, and green. They’re big and bright. They bow as each drop lands, then flick it off. Then they tremble in place.

Jane goes to Martin’s room. She knocks. She waits. She knocks. She waits. Then Martin touches her on the shoulder from behind. Jane jumps. “Gack!”

“I was out,” Martin says. “Doing stuff.”

He opens his door. He lets Jane in. “What is it?” he asks.

“I’d like a father,” she says.

Martin makes a face. “They track mud all over the place,” he says. “And they eat a lot.”

Jane pokes him.

Martin rolls his eyes. “Fine. On your head be it.” He thinks. Then he assembles ingredients. There’s a ceramic tooth and a needle and some hair and a couple of feathers and a hook and a little plush heart. He puts them in a blender and whirls them on high for a few minutes. He pours the results into a cup. Outside, the rain stops. The world starts to dry. “Drink,” Martin says.

Jane pulls herself up into a chair. “What is it?” she says, holding her hands out for the cup.

“It’s the property of having a father.”

“Oh!” Jane drinks it down. “So I have one now?”

Martin shrugs.

“Or will I have to look under things? Like, under the bed and under the dresser and out at the bus stop and under the rug and in the walls?”

Jane hops down from the chair.

Martin shrugs again. “He’s probably in the living room.”

Jane frowns. Then she grins. “Okay!”

Jane runs off to the living room. There’s a shape like a man there. It’s not very distinct.

“Hi, Dad!” she says. She hugs him. Her arms pass through him. It’s like heavy air.

“Jane,” he says. He sounds distracted.

“You’re a ghost! That’s very spooky of you.”

“You can’t have a father yet,” he says. “First you have to do things.”

He points at the wall. There’s a list posted. Jane walks over to it and reads it. Then she beams. “Martin thinks of everything!”

Jane takes her father’s hand. It doesn’t have surface tension, but she can pretend. She leads him out to the hopscotch court. She begins to hop.

“I had a father before,” she says, and hops.

“Did you?”

“He was a manticore. He stood taller than a house. He had three different stingers. Three!”

Jane’s father looks over his shoulder at his coattails. “Are you sure?”

“Not really,” Jane admits. She hops some more. “He might have been some kind of giant gibbering thing. With twelve spindly arms. Like Mom had! Or even longer. He could use them to scuttle around with. He might spin a giant web out of human tendons. That would be sickening, but also kind of conceptually interesting.”

Jane finishes with the hopscotch. She goes and sits on a bench. Sitting is the next important task.

“I don’t have twelve spindly arms,” Jane’s father observes.

“Well, yah,” Jane says. “You’re the new one.”

“You’re not fibbing, are you?”

“It’s not a fib,” Jane says. “It’s just that it’s always so hard to say. He could have been all over hooks and feathers. Like a gryphon, except sharp and pointy. And he could have screamed.”

Jane screams like a bird. Her father startles.

“Like that! As he swooped down to hug me with hooks. Then my skin would just tear off.”

The ghost tilts his head to one side. “Do you have any idea at all what he was actually like?”

Jane sighs. “I remember teeth,” she says. “I was told there were teeth. So I remember them.”

“Who told you that?”

Jane grins. “Monsters. But I figure they would know.” She gets up and begins to spin. Spinning is the third thing on her list!

“He was probably just a guy,” the ghost comments. “You know. A person. No teeth, no spindly legs, no hooks, no stingers.”

Jane gets a little dizzy. She sits down again. She thinks for a long time. “Yeah,” she says. “He probably was.”

Jane bites her lip. “Thanks.”

After a while, Jane looks over, but the ghost is gone.

Skipping Right Over King Obo-Zed1

1 whose story does not interest.

The snowflake kingdom is high on the cloud. Prince Adric lives there. He doesn’t like Prince Leopold. PUSH!

Prince Leopold goes over the edge. Flutter flutter flutter down to the earth below.

King Gordon lives on the cloud. King Gordon is sleeping with Laurel, Melinda, and Amanda. They catch him at it. It’s not too hard once they take off the blindfolds. PUSH!

King Gordon goes over the edge. Flutter flutter flutter down to the earth below.

It’s their tragic destiny. It’s nature’s calamity! They have to have infighting so that we can have snow.

“Oh, Romeo,” says Juliet, who is a snowflake from a great snowflake family, “wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Romeo gives her a chilly glare. He can’t help it. He’s a snowflake. He also makes pointed remarks. It’s just part of the package.

“Look, babe. I’m just how I gotta be.”

“Well, I’m killing myself, then!” JUMP!

Juliet goes over the edge. Flutter flutter flutter down to the earth below.

“Woe is me! Nobody loves Snowflake Romeo!” JUMP!

Romeo goes over the edge. Flutter flutter flutter down to the earth below.

In the spring, it will be warmer, and the rain will fall like the blood of God, speared through the heart by a lance of sunlight, falling forever through the sky, soft as a cloud. Because that’s what it is.

In the autumn, leaves will scurry from the trees to carry out their offensive against the governments of mankind. They’re orange and red. Those are the colors of their revolution.

In the winter, King Gordon XVIII will stand before the assembled snowflakes. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he will say, and everyone will look utterly blank.

Gordon will blush. He cribbed his speech from late night television. Bad Gordon XVIII!

“Variously sexed frozen particles of water!”

Wild cheering.

“Tonight, we launch our invasion plan of the earth below.”

He gestures widely at the snow mortars; at the snow tanks; at the snow bombs, each carrying more than a teraton of explosive power, if only snowflakes had nuclear technology, which admittedly they do not. “We shall sweep them away in our wrath. We will bury them!” JUMP!

Gordon falls.

JUMP!

Many subjects fall.

The sergeants scowl at the others. PUSH!

The remaining subjects fall. Flutter flutter flutter down to the earth below.

“Oh no!” cried King Gordon XVIII. “We forgot our military armament. Can anyone flutter upwards?”

King Gordon XVIII hits the windshield of someone who doesn’t know how to drive in the snow. Splat.

This is everybody’s world.