The Broader Context of Her Personal Reality

Jane sits on her blocky pink one-seater sofa.

She looks at her feet.

“I have feet,” she comments, to Martin, who is trying to eat his cereal without having a discussion of feet and has, once again, failed.

“Do you need more?” Martin says.

“It’s just, they could have fallen off. Sometimes that happens. Then if I was a good footist, I could grow more. But if not, I’d have to get prosthetics.”

“We can’t afford prosthetic feet,” Martin says. “We have no obvious means of income.”

“I could make some out of socks,” Jane points out. “They’d be squishy when I walked because of not having feet in them. But if I sat really casually then no one would ever know my feet were gone.”

Martin grimly chews on his Lucky Charms. Crunch. Crunch. That’s a shooting star—the marshmallow kind, not the real one—that he’s chewing now. It burned brightly in his spoon but now it’s just sugar to the stomach. Crunch.

“I’m not,” Martin says, “having my sister go around in empty socks.”

“Then gold?”

“What?”

“We could get gold prosthetics!”

“How would we pay for them?”

“You don’t have to pay for gold,” Jane says, smugly. “It isn’t backing the dollar any more.”

Martin hesitates.

“Jane,” he says, after a moment, “how does this relate to our ongoing effort to resolve the fundamental questions that are crippling my effectiveness?”

Jane hesitates. She looks shifty. “Persephone had feet,” she suggests. “Thus, toes!”

Martin lowers his cynicism goggles for a moment to look down at Jane. It’s somehow even more cynical than when he has his goggles on.

Jane says, in a tight clipped dramatic voice, “It’s directly relevant because I have feet or don’t have them in the broader context of my personal reality and without them my model of the universe would be subtly different in every conceivable respect!”

There is a long pause.

This does not seem to have gotten Jane off the hook.

“Oh, like you never just stop and think about your feet, ” Jane sulks.

“Snot,” giggles Martin.

They laugh.

The Ballad of Bushido Santa

One day, or so the story goes, Bushido Santa meets the God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King on the bridge up from Hell.

“Out of my way, kiddo,” says the Defier.

He’s kind of jovial, but his smile’s got teeth.

“Excuse me,” says Bushido Santa. “But I cannot allow you to pass. If you travel this route you will trouble the Earth and bring all measure of sorrows.”

“That’s true,” says the Yama King. “It’s my nature.”

“Please, sir,” says Bushido Santa. “You must stay below for now.”

The bridge is golden and there is a surf like white flowers. There are shining fish in the water and there are cherry blossom trees.

And Bushido Santa meets the Defier’s eyes and each of them, very slowly, puts his hand down to his sword.

(Except, of course, that Bushido Santa does not have a sword. He has a candy cane. But it is very large and, for a candy cane, surprisingly sharp.)

The Defier licks his lips.

Something passes between them, in their eyes.

“If you do this,” says the Defier, “you will die, and then the children of the world won’t have any Christmas presents.”

“That is as it must be,” says Bushido Santa.

So they move. They rush past one another, the sword and the candy cane moving too fast for the eye to see. Each of them stops at the end of their motion. Each of them waits, in stance.

Slowly, Bushido Santa falls.

“Heh,” snorts the God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King.

Bushido Santa hits the bridge with a thump. His mouth is slack, and from it trickles blood.

The God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King salutes.

Then he pauses.

He frowns.

He rubs at his chest, where his kimono is marked by a smear of candy-cane sugar. He sniffs at his fingers.

“I’m full of Christmas spirit,” says the Defier, in a tone of sick horror.

So that’s why, every year, presents still find their way to the children of the world, even though Bushido Santa is dead.

At least, that’s what most people say.

Some say it wasn’t the God-Defying Yama King on that bridge at all, but God.

Some say it was the monster.

And some say that that isn’t what really happened at all; but rather something far more strange and wonderful.

DST Nocturne

Each year they made Daylight Savings Time longer, until one day it lasted the whole year round. Then it was spring forward, always spring forward, and never fall back, until noon was where midnight used to be and midnight lost in noon.

In the end it did no good.

The world grew darker, and darker, and darker still.

Now there is no sun and there is no daylight left to save. Now the day is darker than night used to be, in the days when days were bright. Now there are colors darker than black in the sky. Their names are fuligin, imbero, and fhjul.

People used to say that the sun was a phoenix child, born anew every seven years. It has not been born again of late. People used to say that the sun was a fox, fleeing the hunters and their hounds. It has not escaped those hounds of late. People used to say that the sun was a gift of the gods, drawn by horses through the sky. The reins of those horses have lain slack of late, for many dark long years.

The moon is dim now.

The sea is dark now.

The stars are a distant drowning light in the thickness of the sky.

Nocturne

April 6, 2031

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He carries a set of rags and there is an oil bottle roped to his waist. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a cat and the shape of a girl and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“No, no,” it says. “It’s not a good day for that.”

“Every year at this time,” says Jaime. “It’s Daylight Savings Time. It’s time to spring forward another hour.”

“But I’ll miss you,” the sprite says.

Jaime stops. He peers at the sprite. “I’m not an hour,” he says. He holds out his arm. He flexes. “See? That didn’t accelerate time.”

“True,” concedes the sprite. “But it’s not a good day to go to the Big Hill. Today is a good day to stay home in your village. You can bake cookies and drink tea and tell stories to your friends by the fire.”

Jaime resumes walking.

“It would be wasteful, fair sprite.”

“Should the decadence concern you,” says the sprite, “you may leave several of the cookies outside for the wind-sprites to devour. Generosity has salutary effects on the spirit; your net moral development for the day would be positive.”

“I’m sorry,” says Jaime.

“I do not wish to see your ribs torn open and your skin turned to ashes and your skull made a toy for the trolls of Old Forest,” says the sprite. “This would be a glum end for any person and glummer yet for you; I understand you hold a specific disdain for the trolls.”

“Is this an imminent danger?” Jaime asks.

“Not at present.”

“If it should immine,” Jaime says, “please warn me. I assure you I will divert appropriately from my course.”

“Unlikely,” says the sprite in a dour fashion. Then it tumbles upwards to a level with Jaime’s head and races in broad erratic ellipses around Jaime as he walks.

“Do you remember the sun?” asks Jaime.

“I am the wind,” says the sprite. “Memory is not a characteristic I possess.”

“Ah,” says Jaime.

Jaime hikes up Big Hill. He reaches the place where the sky is closest to the earth. He climbs up the tree and pokes a finger at the sky. It ripples in rainbow patterns, and Jaime’s finger is now black with oil.

“It is easiest to collect,” says Jaime, “on this day, when the pressure of compressing time causes the oil to well up in the sky.”

“In the distant east,” says the sprite, “where they cling more to the old ways than does Santa Ynez, there are great drilling platforms in the sky. The oil falls constantly like a black river and the people feast on the meat they grow in vats.”

“Their population is doubtless higher,” says Jaime.

“And in the north,” says the sprite, “they send up needle bombs produced in their alchemical laboratories to pop the surface of the sky. The oil splatters down like rain. Old men and women walk in the streets, complaining of the ineffectiveness of their parasols, while the young toil by great burning flames inventing radical chemical formulae.”

“I dip rags into the sky,” says Jaime. He does so. “Then I squeeze them out into the bottle. That is the preferred technique of Santa Ynez.”

“In the west,” says the sprite, “there are great warty boar-birds trained to fetch the oil down.”

“And to the south?”

“To the south,” says the sprite, “there is no wind. —Danger is imminent, Jaime; you must make haste.”

Jaime studies the oil bottle. It is far from full.

“To what extent?” he asks, soaking another rag and squeezing it out.

“It is difficult to gauge,” says the sprite. “Events flow in one unceasing river. Each is intertwined with the next. How may I pick one moment from the flow and say, ‘here is where your fate begins?'”

Jaime considers that.

“Assume that I am capable of defying the weird you have seen upon me,” he says. “For if I am not, then the discussion is of no relevance. Then choose the last moment where it is within my normal capacities to do so.”

“Your reasoning is peculiar,” says the sprite. “Yet I assay to answer as you have asked: you have two minutes left.”

Jaime nods. He dips a rag. He squeezes it out. After a moment, he says, “I am hesitant to defy the workings of destiny. I fear that by doing so I will break the world.”

“It is unlikely that you are so important as all that,” says the sprite.

Jaime nods. He closes the bottle tightly. He drops from the tree. He begins to walk away.

“See?” he says. “I avoid my fate.”

The sprite is watching him with thin lips and an unhappy face.

Jaime reaches the trees. There, for a moment, he has the chance to save himself; but he looks back, and he is lost.

The hunters in the sky wear black. They are chasing a small thing, a small unruly creature with long pale limbs and eyes like saucers. The hunters are mounted on horses and they have oil-black hunting horns at their sides. Each of them has a gem, carved like an eye, set into the center of his forehead. Each has thick hair on his legs, three fingers on each hand, and a thick sharp thumbnail like a claw. These are things terrible and feared: the Petroleum Men of Old Forest.

“Your pardon!” cries Jaime.

He is down on his knees. He has cast his hand before his face. He is not looking at them.

These words and this gesture are what the people of Santa Ynez know to do, when confronted by the Petroleum Men. Sometimes it does not help them. Sometimes the Petroleum Men still kill. But sometimes if the formula is followed they will pass a penitent human by, or seize the human from the Earth to ride beside them on the hunt, or pause to bestow an arcane and horrifying gift.

“Your pardon,” murmurs Jaime, and he is still, and he does not look.

But he can hear.

The creature that the Petroleum Men chase is making gasping, squealing noises. They are the sounds of fear and the sounds of lungs pushed too hard.

The creature is very afraid and very small.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known.

There is a crunching and a skidding noise. The hoof of a Petroleum Man’s horse has caught the creature in the head, and it has flown sideways to crash among the leaves and through the leaves and skid down the hill past Jaime.

There is a burbling noise. The creature is trying to stand.

There is the thumping, pounding of hoofbeats in the sky as the horses circle around.

And Jaime cannot help thinking of friends he has known, so he opens his eyes. He takes his hand from his face. He turns to the creature, and he half-scrambles, half-falls down the hill. He takes it into his arms. He begins to run towards the village.

The Petroleum Men will not follow him past the village gate. They fear the fires set along Santa Ynez’ walls. But Jaime has no hope of reaching them. The village is very far away.

Jaime simply runs.

“It’s all right,” says Jaime, to the creature. The creature is bald like an egg, like a baby, like a stone. “It’s all right.”

The creature squeals and Jaime notices its claws for the first time as it digs them into his chest.

Jaime stumbles.

“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t do that.”

The creature does not stop. Its claws are sinking deeper. The Petroleum Men are hard at Jaime’s heels and there is thick blood flowing down his chest. It hurts horribly.

Then the creature peels back Jaime’s ribs and there is a moment of pain and of brightness such as Jaime had not expected to encounter that day or any other day.

Jaime blacks out, and the night in his mind is darker than fuligin or fhjul.

The Weird

April 7, 2031

“Jaime,” says the wind-sprite. “Jaime. Wake up.”

Jaime opens his eyes.

“I survived,” he says, with a thick dry tongue.

“Your words are very fuzzy. I do not think they are technically comprehensible,” says the wind-sprite. “But technically I am incapable of comprehension, so there is symmetry.”

“Why did I survive?”

“You broke a lucky toe when you fell,” says the wind-sprite. “If you break your lucky toe, the Petroleum Men can’t hurt you. But you also can’t walk very well so it is a tradeoff.”

“Ah. That’s why my foot is so big,” says Jaime. He struggles into a sitting position. Intending to compliment the sprite on giving him sufficient warning, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the wind-sprite. Its voice is distant and sad.

“Did it . . . did it get away?”

“Did what?”

“The . . .” Jaime gestures vaguely. “The thing. The creature. It was . . . I wanted to help it. Did it get away?”

“Ah,” says the wind-sprite. “Yes. It did. It is now safely inside your chest consuming your internal organs.”

“Oh,” says Jaime.

He’s not sure what to add to that, besides passing out again.

The imbero silence in his head is disturbed many times by the distant words of the sprite before he lets himself hear them again.

“Jaime?”

“I like my internal organs,” Jaime says.

“So does the creature.”

“At least we’re in accord,” Jaime says. Then he laughs. He laughs and he chokes and he coughs and he laughs some more and then he pokes at his chest. His ribcage has been bent back together from the inside. Jaime closes his shirt over the sight. His hands wander the nearby soil until he finds a thick long fallen branch. He uses it as a support and pulls himself to his feet. After a moment, intending a rueful admission of his own fallibility, he says, “Your augury was correct.”

“Yes,” says the sprite.

“How long do I have?”

“Years.”

The sprite flutters beside him as he walks back towards Santa Ynez.

“It will grow inside you until you are little more than a hollow shell with the creature within,” says the sprite. “It will eat your heart and your kidneys and your lungs. It is fortuitous that you have a strong constitution or this would surely kill you. But in seven years it will burst forth and your skin will turn to ashes and your death will be assured.”

Jaime walks.

“I feel a surprising fatalism,” he says. “I think it is the pain and the shock and the sheer stupidity of my own actions.”

“I counsel you to consider it a blessing,” says the sprite. “Organs are troublesome and prone to disease; you shall not experience these disadvantages! In addition you shall die in your prime and will never know the troubles of old age. Further, seven years is longer than the wind will blow; the tragedy is the years you’ve lost, not the years you’ll have remaining.”

“This discussion is morbid and is cracking at the edges of my carefully maintained resignation,” says Jaime. “If we continue, I will begin screaming ineffectually and may flail in your general direction.”

“Then let us instead discuss our favorite flavors of pastry,” the sprite advises. “It is a long way home and such jolly discourse can only prove inspiring.”

So Jaime walks home, with the sprite swirling about him; but he does not get to bake it cookies or pastries, for the wind sputters out and the wind-sprite dies before Jaime makes it to the village gate.

The Day

April 4, 2038

Jaime walks across the hills.

The hills are green when he shines a flashlight on them. They are otherwise a subtle gray.

He is wearing jeans and a thick warm shirt. His hair is loose about his head. He is tired and walks slowly, but his eyes are clear. He is walking towards Old Forest and Big Hill, where the earth is closest to the sky.

The wind is blowing, and a playful wind-sprite stands beside him, saying, “Jaime, where are you going? Why are you traveling towards Big Hill?”

And Jaime says, “It’s Daylight Savings Time.”

The sprite is the size of a rabbit and the shape of a tall man and the texture of a bit of fluff. It keeps easy pace with him, swirling on the wind, as Jaime trudges along.

“This course of action has served you poorly in the past,” the sprite observes.

“I have thought on it for some time,” says Jaime. “I do not like the trolls, but feel that it’s unmannerly to make them walk all the way down to the village to collect my skull.”

The sprite waves a hand dismissively. “This burning desire to assist fate in its workings is incomprehensible to me; if such assistance were necessary, be sure it would demand it.”

Jaime walks.

“I have wondered,” says Jaime. “I have seen you as a girl, a man, a giant, and a drake. Sometimes you are large and at other times tiny. You are different on each occasion but you speak to me in familiar terms and with a recognizable tone.”

“Yes?”

“Is the wind always the same, then,” Jaime asks, “or is it always different?”

“It is the wind,” says the sprite. It flies about him in great arcs.

So Jaime walks up Big Hill to where the earth is closest to the sky, and he leans against a tree, and he waits, and then he dies.

The thing that rips out of him with a fire that burns away his skin is not a creature or a sprite. It is not the pale little thing that once he took into his arms.

It is the sun, that comes now and again to Big Hill to be born, and has of late before its birth been slain by the riding of the Petroleum Men.

It is a creature long and short, great and small, and in every wise a burning fire, and it rises through the fuligin and the black, the imbero and the fhjul, and its touch sets fire to the sky.

The Petroleum Men catch fire, screaming in the sky, on April 4. The world is given to sunshine again on April 4. And it is Daylight Savings Time again, on April 4, 2038—an hour later, an hour shorter, an hour is given over in sacrifice on the altar of Time, that the sun may brighter burn.

Awaiting the Reconciler

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

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

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

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

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

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

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

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

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

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

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

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

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

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

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

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

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

The sixth did not.

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

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

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

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

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

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

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

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

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

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

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

“A line that needs repair.”

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

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

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

“I’ll call.”

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

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

“And they couldn’t.

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

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

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

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

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

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

“You too, hon.”

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

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

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

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

“That bad?”

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

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

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

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

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

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

“Congratulations.”

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

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

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

There was a long pause.

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

The phone buzzed.

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

“Bye!”

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

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

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

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

Doctor Brown hesitated.

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

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

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

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

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

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

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

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

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

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

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

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

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

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

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

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

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

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

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

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

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

They laughed.

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

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

Sid hesitated.

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

“Yeah,” said Sid.

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

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

Sid frowned.

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

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

“Only human,” said Sid.

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

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

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

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

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

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

“And in the long term?”

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

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

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

“I suppose.”

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

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

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

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

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

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

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

Legend of the Wheel

The dog is black. It is skeletally lean. Its eyes are terrible.

“Wuf,” it barks.

“Easy, boy,” says Micah.

“I won’t be so easy,” threatens the dog.

“Ah,” says Micah.

The dog wants him to comment on its remarkable power of speech. Micah can tell. So he lets the silence stretch.

“I can talk,” says the dog, eventually, “because I’ve eaten human brains and learned their wisdom. That’s the reason.”

“Ah,” Micah says.

“It’s brains!” cries an Irish Setter, wagging her tail vigorously. “Tasty brains!”

A human woman giggles. She brings in the groceries.

“Oh, please! Tasty brains!” begs the dog.

The narrator explains, “Beggin’ Brains—a new delicious dog treat! Dogs don’t know it’s not human brains!”

“I’m going to eat these brains and absorb the skills and knowledge of humans!” cries the Irish Setter. “Then I’ll be able to open doors and shoot squirrels with a gun! Also, I’ll be able to thump my own sides!”

The narrator laughs indulgently. “Aww.”

“Real brains?” Micah asks.

“Real brains,” confirms the dog.

“That’s gross.”

“It started with just one baby,” says the dog. “My mommy thought that he might be the Antichrist. But the baby-killing abortion doctors wouldn’t help her because of her strong pro-life stance! She was pretty desperate. She couldn’t raise the Antichrist and a dog. So she fed the baby to me.”

“Babies don’t know how to talk,” says Micah.

“That’s true,” says the dog. “But once you’ve fed one baby to a dog, it’s easier to feed the dog the next one. Pretty soon, it was her standard response to pregnancy; and then, when she ran out of dog food, she just grabbed a couple of toddlers from the street and I munched them down.”

“I see.”

“I’ve been working my way up through variously-aged children,” says the dog. It sizes up Micah. “I’m about ready for a ten-year-old by now.”

“I’m thirteen,” bluffs Micah.

The dog looks him up and down.

“I remember Reagan’s election,” Micah says.

“That was more than thirteen years ago,” says the dog.

“Its repercussions echoed through time and space!”

“I think that you are lying,” says the dog. “But in case you are not, I will hamstring you, eat the girl I smell in the distance, who is certainly no more than twelve, and then return to devour you.”

Micah readies himself to fight; but it is not the dog that he will fight.

“I was sad,” confesses Basil, into the camera. He’s a boy. He’s wearing a jacket. He looks a lot like Sebastien did at his age. “It was the promise of my birth that I would fight for her. That I would do what the hero didn’t, and go into Central, and kill them all, and take her away. But if you’re someone who fights, then you can’t also be someone who wins and doesn’t have to fight any more. So I was stuck with a dharma that I couldn’t ever really fulfill.”

Soft music plays.

“Then,” says Basil, “my doctor proscribed Belsheflex. It’s the only prescription medicine designed to treat inherent flaws in a person’s nature.”

Talk to your doctor about Belsheflex!

Side effects can include stomach cramps, itching, bloating, emptiness, ineffectuality, and in rare cases seizures or heart dysfunction. It might be for you.

“I’m happy with Belsheflex!” Basil declares.

There is a thing in the woods. It is taller than the tallest trees. It is round, and its color is blue and white like the sky, and its shape is a wheel within a wheel; and all around that wheel are feet and thorns and eyes; and on each side of it unfold two great wings with feathers made of glass, and the thunder of those wings is like the noise of great waters. It reaches them as Micah sets himself to fight, and the footfall of its passing crushes the dog’s bones like they were so many sticks.

It is rolling towards Micah, and towards Liril beyond.

Micah does not move. He can’t. It is his dharma to be the border between Liril and the world.

Even against the wheel he shall fight.

What happens then, we cannot know.

Legend of the Sifter

It is 539 years before the common era.

This is the story of Sage Yu.

There is much we will never know of Yu, because of woglies. There is much that is forgotten.

But we know what it is Yu saw.

Sage Yu lives in the Kingdom of Wu.

“The land is at peace,” says Sage Yu. He walks through the market. He supports himself with a wooden stick. “Yet, still, there is evil in the hearts of men.”

He raises his stick. He points at a young man who is skulking in an alley. “You!” he says.

The young man, whose name is Cha, looks startled. “Sage?”

“You intended to rob me,” Sage Yu states.

Cha looks uncomfortable. He gestures as if to minimize the sin. “A passing thought, at most. You were too illustrious!”

Yu snorts. “You were afraid I’d beat you up.”

“That is exactly so, honored sage.”

“As you were,” summarizes Yu. He walks on. He leaves the market. He walks along a mountain path to his home. His servant opens the gates, and he goes in, and he walks to the library, and he sits before the machine that is there.

Hours pass.

“Do you need light, master?” his servant asks.

Yu shakes his head.

The shadows grow long. Yu stares at the machine. Finally, he rises.

“I shall cast the I Ching,” he says.

He takes out fifty yarrow sticks. He looks at the machine again. Finally, he decides to use it.

The machine is a simple device. It is a sifter. He puts the yarrow stalks in through the slit at the top. They fall to the second level of the sifter, where they pass through two narrow slits. In this manner the machine sifts out the relative strengths of yin and yang. The machine has a small flame at its heart, allowing Sage Yu to see.

Three passes yield the first line. This is the basis for his study and the beginning of his answer.

“What is it?” asks Cha.

Yu glares around. The room is dark, so he had not seen the skulking figure of the thief before. “So you decided to rob me after all?”

“I was hungry,” says Cha. “I thought, great sages are never hungry. Maybe if I learn the I Ching and/or steal Yu’s silver, my stomach won’t grumble!”

“Sensible,” says Yu, “but I don’t have any silver. I subsist primarily on cantankerousness and wisdom.”

“Ah,” says Cha, disappointed.

“The first line,” Yu says, “is the fire of yang becoming the darkness of yin.”

Three passes yield the second line. It is pure darkness.

“The second line is the servant to the first, the attendant to the first. It is yin, as is proper.”

Cha reaches towards the machine. Yu hits his knuckles with the staff. Cha withdraws his hand, sucking on his bleeding knuckles.

“Blood’s not such a bad taste after being hungry,” says Cha. “Very salty.”

Three passes yield the third line. Yin.

“The lower trigram,” says Sage Yu, “is Thunder. Thunder shakes the earthly world, but falls into submission as the yang of its root transforms to yin.”

Three passes yield the fourth line. It burns.

“Would you like help putting that out, sage?” asks Cha.

“Inside the sifter is a bad place for a small flame,” says Yu. He looks perturbed. But he extinguishes the yarrow stalks, collects a new set, and considers. “That is yang. Stalks that catch fire are yang. Yang is fire. Yang is burning life. Thus, the fourth line, the gateway to heaven, is yang.”

“That is sensible,” says Cha.

Three passes yield the fifth line.

“Yang again,” says Cha.

The burning yarrow smokes.

“The machine is poorly calibrated,” says Yu. He thwacks the machine with his staff. It shakes. The fire dims.

“What was your question, great sage?”

Yu collects fifty more yarrow stalks. He counts them in the dim light.

“I wish to understand why human nature inclines to evil.”

“Because if a man is a thief,” says Cha, “then he must be a thief. Corrupt officials must be corrupt; bestial warriors, bestial! In such a context, what hope has a virtuous man?”

“This undervalues virtue,” says Yu. “Surely strength from righteousness and benevolence can overcome the power granted by dark inclinations.”

“Ah,” says Cha. “I see your thrust. You say, ‘it is the nature of Cha to steal, but the nature of other men to be good —so why do thieves prosper?'”

“Yes,” agrees Yu.

“It is simple,” says Cha. “We call it ‘bad’ when a man seeks badness, but we do not call it ‘good’ when a man seeks only to protect himself from badness. If I slit your throat, it will let me ransack your home, but it won’t make you any less a sage. It’s really not your goodness or your wisdom that protects you, but your vigorous attitude.”

“Perhaps,” says Yu.

He passes the yarrow sticks through the slit. He frowns.

“What is it, master?” asks Cha.

“They are not landing in piles,” says Yu.

“Pardon?”

“I am passing one yarrow stick through the sifter at a time,” says Yu. “The sticks are most certainly singular material elements. But they are landing in an interference pattern, as one might imagine waves of sound of water would do.”

“Hm,” says Cha. “This exceeds my rudimentary professional skills.”

Hesitantly, Yu collects the interference patterns of yarrow sticks and passes them through the sifter again. Yang. He passes them through the sifter a third time. It is ambiguous.

“How do you read it?” Cha asks.

“It is a forbidden trigram,” says Yu. “It stands between Lake and Heaven, not one nor the other—neither pleasure nor progress, not happiness nor righteousness. Set above thunder, this is no great matter; but above earth . . .”

He hesitates.

“Cha,” he says, “pass me the forbidden scroll, from the forbidden cabinet? It is behind you, and clearly labeled.”

“Do not open on penalty of death,” reads Cha. He opens the cabinet. He takes out the scroll. He hands it to Yu. He dies.

Yu consults the scroll.

“Ah,” he says. “This is the hexagram EMPTINESS.”

Never has the dualistic wave/particle nature of yarrow sticks seemed so bitter, so terrible, or so cold.

Nightmare of the Rustling

It is night. Micah and Liril are sleeping. Tainted John is laying down.

There is a rustling.

Micah is instantly awake.

There is a further rustling. Something is scurrying and slithering in the pine needles. It is evil.

Micah is on his feet. He is looking towards it.

It is great and serpentine and slithery. It is pale moonlight colors, blue and cold. It has a terrible maw. It has black feathers on its head and raven eyes. It is just the sort of thing that one finds making rustling noises in the forest.

“Once upon a time,” the creature whispers, and its voice is moon and stars and wind, “a runaway child broke his leg here. So he died. And I grew inside him. And then I came out. And now I must kill runaway children to lay my eggs in them.”

Micah looks at Tainted John. Tainted John does not seem to have noticed the rustling or the creature’s speech.

The creature’s head sways back and forth in the air. Then it arcs viciously towards Micah. Micah moves to meet it, then stops, his hands splayed in the air, as if against an invisible wall. The creature stops too.

“There’s a glass door,” Micah bluffs. “Bump! If you attack, you’ll hit your head on it!”

The creature hesitates. “Open it,” it says.

“There’s no handle!”

The creature eyes him narrowly. It has bumped into glass doors before. They are one of its natural enemies. But the air is undisturbed.

“I do not believe you,” it whispers.

“I wouldn’t let her sleep out here defenseless,” Micah bluffs.

And if this works, we cannot know.

Legend of Dr. T

Micah is in a forest. He ranges ahead of the others. Through the trees, he sees a dirt clearing. There’s a car parked sideways there. He freezes.

Slowly, he begins to back away. He has to tell Liril. They have to choose another route.

“I wouldn’t do that, kid,” says a voice.

Micah turns, like a startled animal. There’s a man in a lab coat behind him, leaning against a tree.

“I’m just looking for the bathroom,” Micah tries.

“I’m Dr. T,” says the man in the lab coat. He looks not at all like Mr. T, which rules out the possibility that Mr. T has finally gotten his doctorate. Dr. T is stroking a white-skinned furless cat. “And you’re Micah. And somewhere back there is Liril.”

“I really have to pee,” Micah says. “I don’t know who Micah is. My name is Preston. Preston Merriweather. The third.”

“I’m not hunting you,” says Dr. T. “I just listen to the police scanner. I just wanted to meet you, Micah.”

Micah weighs the options. “Why?”

“I wanted to know if you’re made of meat.”

Micah hesitates. “Meat?”

“A long time ago,” says Dr. T, “I was a legend. I was Evil Tofu. I was the man made of synthetic protein. I was the insidious doctor who sought to replace humanity with evil meatless alternatives. Yet I failed. And now—here you are. Born not organically but from the heart. So I must ask you: what is the nature of your protein, Micah?”

Micah licks his lips uncertainly.

“I never heard of you,” Micah says.

“People don’t like to remember how easily they could be replaced.”

Dr. T releases the cat. It lands on its doughy white feet with a squelching noise.

“People can’t accept that they are an inferior species,” Dr. T says. “That they live in agony and suffering like the animals they raise, because organics. Are. Not. Evolution’s. End.”

Dr. T holds out his hand. He opens his palm.

“But this is still the future,” he says. Under a sewn-together human skin, Micah can see white tofu oozing. “Soy. Soy does not suffer, Micah. Soy feels no guilt. To be soy is,” and here he laughs, lightly, self-indulgently, “to be soy-perior.”

He pauses.

“So . . . what of gods?” asks the insidious Dr. T.

“We hurt about things,” says Micah. “Sometimes.”

“Ah,” says Dr. T.

Micah turns.

“Ah,” says Dr. T, again, and his voice is full of sorrow.

Micah starts to walk away.

“I’ll need your skin,” says Dr. T, interrupting him. “And hers. Towards my masquerade. And your hair, for my cat. So she does not squelch so. You are not the allies I had hoped.”

“It’s OK,” says Micah.

Micah squares his shoulders and readies himself to fight; but what happens then, we cannot know.

Coming Home

In the forest there is a glen. In the glen there is grass and trees and dirt and earthworms and flowers.

Iris is a flower.

One day, she discovers that the ground is hurting her. Her roots are burning. So she pulls them up. The dirt is hurting her. The grass is hurting her.

She pulls her roots up. She pulls up her stalk. She spreads her petals and jumps and she catches the wind, and off she floats away.

The stars say to her at night, “We have lost one of our own.”

“I lost the ground,” she says.

“We have lost one of our own,” say the stars.

She drifts on.

It is hungry, being a flower in the sky. There is no soil to draw nutrients from. She must feed on clouds and the dirt in the wind. It is a lean time. But one day she finds a bag of plant fertilizer that drifts in the wind like she does.

“Did the fertilizer store burn you?” she asks, but bags of plant fertilizer can’t talk.

So she drifts to it, and buries her roots in it, and drifts on.

The wind says to her, one day, “There is a prince who is my son, and he has lost his love. She was stolen away. The chariot is taking her east of the sun and west of the moon, to the palace of a witch.”

“I miss my family,” Iris says.

“Then go back,” the wind suggests.

“The ground hurts,” Iris says.

She drifts on.

After a while, she finds a bathtub in the sky. She’s not very strong, but she’s determined. She empties the fertilizer into the bathtub. She adds dirt collected from the wind and opens the drain just enough that the soil doesn’t get waterlogged in the rain. She catches a picture of a forest that blows past, and in this carriage and with this comfort she rides high above the world.

An angel sits on the edge of the bathtub for a while. He’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for his wings. Hair flops in his eyes.

Time passes.

“The ground burns me,” says Iris.

The angel brushes her petals with a gentle hand. “I know what that’s like,” he says.

“That’s why I fly around in a bathtub.”

The angel nods.

“I liked the ground,” Iris says. “I mean, I liked it.”

“If you wish hard enough,” the angel says, “then you can go home.”

“How do you know?”

“I know,” the angel says.

Iris sighs. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t wish that hard. I’m not that strong.”

The angel nods again. His wings beat, gently. He takes flight.

Iris floats on for a while. Below her, there’s a glinting in the ocean. That night, she calls to the stars, “I think it’s there.”

“We’ve lost one of our own,” say the stars.

“I think he’s there. I think she’s there. I think it’s there,” cries Iris.

There’s a tumult in the heavens. Then a silence. Then a stirring and a rising in the sea.

“We are whole,” say the stars.

Sometimes it rains very hard and lightning strikes the showerpole of the bathtub. Iris does not mind. It is invigorating.

Below her, one day, she sees a princess, in a chariot driven hard, east of the sun and west of the moon.

“Is that her?” she asks the wind.

“Who?”

“Your son’s true love?”

The wind fades out. The bathtub stops with a jarring halt, and falls nearly fifty yards before the wind is back.

“Thank you,” says the wind.

One day the angel comes to sit on the tub again.

“You could go home,” he says.

“I wish I could.”

“I know what it takes,” the angel says. “To help you. To help me. I’m just not very good at doing it. But you could go home. Just because the ground burned you once doesn’t mean it’ll burn you forever. Can’t you believe me?”

“One day I will,” says Iris. “One day I’ll believe you. One day something will happen, something will change, and then I can wish hard enough to find my way home.”

“Promise?” asks the angel.

“I don’t have any pinkies,” says Iris.

The angel smiles. Then he’s aloft again.

He says:

“I wish for you that ‘one day’ is soon.”

Sevens

“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”

Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.

“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”

“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”

Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.

“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”

“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.

“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”

“Mother?”

Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”

Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.

“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.

The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.

Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”

The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.

“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”

“And mine, to sweep them back.”

The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”

Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.

“Aye.”

“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”

“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.

“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”

She steps forward. The troll steps back.

She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.

They duel.

“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.

“She is my mother,” Danielle says.

“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”

Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.

“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”

“Ah, so.”

“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”

The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.

“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.

She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.

“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.

Danielle shakes her head.

“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.

“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”

The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.

Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.

The troll falls, and the room is clean.