And the Birds Fall Dead (IV/VII)

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

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

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

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


March 18, 1995

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

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

Oh, hi, she thinks.

She doesn’t say it.

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

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

But Melanie comes over and kneels down beside her.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

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

Liril rolls her eyes.

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

“I don’t want that,” Liril says.

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

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

“I know,” Melanie agrees.

Liril looks back to her magazine.

She is quiet.

She is still.

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

And somehow they seem sharp—

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

Liril tries to recoil.

It only happens in her thoughts.

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

Liril tries to scream.

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

I don’t want that.

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

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

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

Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

It Falls

It’s night, and the stars are out, and the moon’s looking down with a bit of concern; because maybe, just maybe, this is the last night of the world.

The road smells of heat and rubber and it’s black and detailed in the night.

Johnny’s racing Sue.

It’s casual at first. They’re idling at the light; and the tops of their cars are down; and Johnny says to Sue, “I hear you won’t date a guy, he can’t beat you on the road.”

I hear you can’t date anybody at all,” she says. “Your Daddy’s so concerned with propriety.”

And Johnny touches the crucifix that’s hanging around his neck, a bit concerned, and then he laughs, and he pulls it off, and he drops it to the side.

“It’s on,” he says.

And the little angel and the little devil on his shoulder are fighting, seems fair to say, and he’s got this grin of one part fear and one part lust and seven parts excitement.

And the light turns green and the cars rip off.

Sue’s smooth and cool and she tips her sunglasses down to her nose as her car pulls out. The moon’s concerned about that, too, because it’s not very safe, but it does look fine.

And Johnny’s stomping on the gas, wrestling with the clutch, and the true thing is, he isn’t very good.

She pulls ahead.

And the sky is clear above Reaper’s Hill, and the two cars tear up towards the gallows point (called lover’s lane these sordid years) where once Black Richards hung. And Sue’s just far enough ahead that she relaxes, a tiny bit, and slows her car, as the shooting star flares past.

“I wish—” she says, her eyes tracking the star and not the road. “I wish—“

A pony? A new engine? Cash?

Her maiden’s heart is full of lovely notions.

But she doesn’t have the time to speak her wish; there’s a twisting in the sky and the star turns red.

Sue gapes.

“What kind of—“

There’s a stuttering in her engine. Her wheel locks. She turns and looks back, an outraged glare.

Johnny’s coming up the hill.

The star thing is pouring down from the sky towards lover’s lane. It is sprawling forth great Mandelbrot limbs of fire and there’s a rumbling in the earth.

She can feel Black Richards rising.

Johnny’s car shoulders past her; it leaves her staring at the red lights of its rear. She wrestles with the wheel and with tense slowness pumps the pedal of the gas. There is sweat on her brow and the gaping edge of Reaper’s Curve before her.

But fair is fair.

Between every wish and its fruition there is a space to breathe; and in that space, she drags the wheel to the right.

Her car makes protest. There is a grinding of the gears. Then it pulls to the right, steadies on the road, and smooths its course.

“Who wishes for the end of the world?” she says.

Her engine revs.

Johnny’s mad eyes look back at her in the mirror of his car. He’s saying something. She doesn’t hear it, which is just as well; his words aren’t sensible, but mumbled gutturals that reflect the war in his heart.

Now is the time for a good Christian boy like Johnny to make his peace with Jesus and rise to Heaven when the Rapture comes; but on the other hand, he’s winning.

She tries to pass him but he’s not so lame as that; and his car’s not suffering quite so much as hers from the doom that falls.

She’s weaving back and forth on the road behind him, and he pulls left and right to block her.

Staring in the mirror, hand reaching for the crucifix and pulling back, the other on the wheel—he pulls left and right, left and right, and then left HARD; and over, out, and down, too focused on his mirror to see the reaper’s scythe ahead, and Johnny’s twisting up like meat against the acceleration of the ground.

His car bursts into flames as it rolls, flames that draw into themselves the red fire of the star and leave it white and clean again.

Sue pulls up, panting, at the edge of gallows point, and leans her head down honking on the wheel for a cold long time.

There’s nothing else you can do, when someone makes a wish like that. Whether it’s on purpose or an accident—whether they’re a malevolent forerunner of doom or just somebody who’s thinking too much about the doom their Daddy told—you’ve got to take them out before the star can fall.

But it hurts, it hurts like knifepoints in the heart, if you’re a girl like Sue.

And she never gets her pony.

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

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

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

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

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

And all things fill with righteousness—

But wait!

Wait!

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

This is MASTER MERCHANT BAO!

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

They fear him, rightly.

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

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

They look left. They look right.

A shadow covers them.

They look up.

Master Merchant Bao descends!

LIGHT

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

But that hasn’t happened.

LIGHT; LIGHT; LIGHT

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

Their eyes clear.

And Tomo says,

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

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

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

Master Merchant Bao hesitates.

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

LIGHT; the hiss of steel in air; and LIGHT

The hook dagger clatters to the ground.

“Also ur attacks,” Tomo says.

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

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

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

Master Merchant Bao’s lips are very thin.

He is not pleased.

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

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

“O,” she says softly. “O. If only.”

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

But she shakes her head.

“It’s not to be,” she says.

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

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Here is TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN—

DAIIMON.

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

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

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

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

“Say no more,” says the shadow.

It dissipates into the mountain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As do I!” says SECOND DUPE.

“Have at it!” they say, together.

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

The blades blur forward.

LIGHT.

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

It is neither.

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

They turn on Tomo.

“What?” says the first dupe.

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

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

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

Not two blurs. Three.

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

She breathes out a puff of air: haa.

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

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

says Tomo with deep joy.

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

“But how?” asks the shadow.

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

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

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

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!

Bang

There are twelve avatars, and the thirteenth which is Death.

It is normal for the royal family to produce fewer than twelve children in any generation. It is rare that there should be a thirteenth.

Thus there is no difficulty when an older child takes it upon themselves to walk down to the pit of the avatars and jump.

For example, one cannot consider Cedric selfish in any manner for taking the first of the twelve avatars.

When he made his choice he was fifteen and he had three siblings only. His condition was one of abundance. He walked down to the avatar pit. He stared down: the pit was deep and black and full of edged in sharp rocks. It resembled an ecstatic’s vision of the entryway to Hell. Cedric steeled himself against fear. Then he jumped.

As he fell he connected to an avatar. This proved his blood and confirmed him as a child of the throne. Great black wings surrounded him. Stars burned around his head. In this fashion he became one with Night.

Similarly Ernest claimed Fire, Samantha the Blade, and Mark the Sea.

When the Queen gave birth to Doreen, expectations changed. All eyes turned to Doreen and the other young children to see if they would live.

Doreen, you see, was the thirteenth.

There is no established protocol of precedence for distributing the avatars when the royal family has more than twelve children. It is generally presumed that the twelve oldest will claim them, unless one is disabled, disgraced, or in some fashion unwilling to take up the duties of their blood. However the actions of those who have claimed avatars are essentially superior to law and custom. Since society has no power to enforce its decisions on those who claim an avatar out of turn, and since the compact between royalty and the avatars does not specify a resolution, the matter remains a lacuna in the fabric of the law. Those who try and fail to break the line of succession bear a burden of shame. Those who succeed in doing so demonstrate their worth.

Doreen was a girl who dreamed of avatars.

She would run and imagine she ran with great wings on her back. She would cut at the air with a play-sword. She imagined herself bringing woeful defeat to the enemies of the realm. She listened with rapt admiration to the stories Cedric told and the lectures that Samantha gave. She climbed up to the chandeliers, dangled from them, and fell, dreaming as she did so of her future.

Of course, as her younger siblings assured her, she had none. There were only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth which is Death.

Her future was drab.

She would be a royal princess and no more.

Matthew put it to her plainly: “You probably won’t have an avatar,” he said.

And Bertram slyly: “Well, of course, you can have one, if, you know, there’s one left.”

Sarah played quietly with her dolls. She did not meet Doreen’s eyes.

Doreen made this contention every time the matter came to hand: “Surely it is an issue for rational decision. Perhaps someone is the least worthy, or the least injured by the avatar’s lack; or some of us will have measurable natural compatibility with certain avatars, which sum we can then maximize.”

And while she theorized Matthew, age 12, walked down to the avatar pit. Green with the nausea that looking down gave him, he could not jump; but he could lurch forward and, while scrambling to recover his purchase, fall. The rocks cut him terribly, but he bound himself to the avatar of Morning and rose in numinous bloody brilliance from the pit.

Cedric sat down beside Doreen one day and he told her this:

“You must not expect reason to apply.”

She frowned at him.

Cedric’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. He said, “Listen: if there were a unifying principle that guided you all, then reason should apply; then you might set in order those who receive the avatar and those who do not. But you cannot expect this to be so. Each of you has an individual bond to the pit; it is a mystic experience that transcends social expression. No one will bind themselves to a proposal that excludes them; the right they have to the pit is palpable to them. Thus the only matter at hand is this: when you are ready for the pit, will an avatar remain?”

“It is not fair,” she said.

“Scarcity is unfair,” Cedric agreed. “Murder one of your elder siblings; then the matter is in balance.”

Doreen considered. “I had rather be virtuous and good.”

It took her several days to understand that Cedric had meant to encourage her.

There was a niggling seed in Doreen’s heart. It writhed like a worm. It made her sick on some occasions.

One day, as she understood the world, this seed would mature into readiness for the pit. Then she would face the choice: to jump, or not?

But Sarah jumped. And Bertram jumped. All twelve of her siblings jumped.

Before the seed sent forth its shoots and flowered, her siblings claimed the twelve avatars of the pit.

On the day that Bertram jumped Doreen became unimportant to the politics of the realm. Because the royal family wielded great and reckless power, she had no immediate obligation to them; they did not need to sell off their princesses as families in other places do. The path remaining to her was hers to choose: she could live in luxury or find some way to serve the throne. She could become a scholar, a tactician, or a spy; a soldier, a theologian, a baker; a lady who reclines in gardens; or something else as yet unstated.

The seed in her heart flowered.

She went down to stand beside the pit.

“It is problematic,” she said. “If I should jump, it will cause no end of sorrow.”

As has been mentioned, there are only twelve avatars, save the thirteenth, which is Death.

Staring down, she decided that jumping would be selfish; though exactly so selfish, of course, as the decisions of those siblings who had jumped since she was born.

She teetered on the edge.

Then she leapt.

A chill breeze came among her siblings then. Cedric was the first to feel it: his head snapped up. His eyes took fire with rage.

“There is Death,” he said.

And his words were a low rumble that all in the castle heard. In a moment the twelve avatars of the realm took flight and spun in the air above the palace where they dwelt.

“She jumped?” asked Bertram.

His voice was rank with disbelief.

“She can’t have jumped.”

And Mark said, “She should be hung.”

“Torn apart by hounds.”

“Gutted, and left to die.”

“Starved, in wracking pain.”

And the night rang with the thunder of the royal family, and there were dark clouds throughout the realm, and trees grew stunted and black, and the sea boiled, and the morning came bloody and black, and as they waited for Doreen to rise from the pit their cursing grew more vehement and rich with fear; for while each generation of the royal family yields inevitably to the next, they may only truly perish in a time of Death.

The hands of Doreen’s twelve siblings trembled. They formed into claws eager to cut her down.

But Doreen did not return. Not that night, not the next, nor the one after.

In the winter there is snow, and their mother takes ill and dies.

In the summer a man of the island Crete shoots Cedric down with a gun of dragon’s bone.

Bang.

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.

No Innards, No Problem

Jane is sick.

“Darn it,” Jane says, when she hears the doctor’s report. “Tuberculosis!”

There’s a little picture of tuberculosis on the wall. It shows the various systems that the TB bacteria infests. It says, in bold, “There’s no magic answer to tuberculosis!”

“You shouldn’t be playing in infested pits of tuberculosis bacteria,” explains the doctor. “That’s not good hygiene!”

Jane makes a woeful face. Her lip trembles.

“But it’s the only good place to play in,” she says.

“There’s a half-finished slide at the park!” the doctor says. “You could use that!”

“I could have,” says Jane. Her eyes widen. “But now I’ll be quarantined!”

The doctor shakes her head.

Jane slowly relaxes.

The doctor says, “In nihilistic 19th century Russia we would have idolized you. In barbaric 20th century America we would have quarantined you. But today—”

The doctor taps the “treatment” section of the tuberculosis picture.

“—today, we can treat this malaise with advanced medical techniques. Do you have good health insurance?”

“I have moderate health insurance,” Jane stresses. “It’s okay for ordinary treatment, but don’t try any of your funny medical tricks!”

The doctor nods. She prints out a series of instructions. Jane watches nervously as the doctor measures out doses of several different medications into the plastic mold of a wand. The doctor then hands the wand to Jane.

“Wave the wand and recite,” says the doctor.

“Okay!” says Jane, giving a thumbs-up. Then she coughs, racking consumptive coughs. Then she blinks it off and beams at the doctor.

“Star sparkle power,” says the doctor. “Production!”

Jane waves the wand, reciting, “Star sparkle power—production!”

Jane leaps into the air. She can’t help it. It’s the magic of the words. She spins around. Her clothes attenuate into great sky-pythons of fabric that swirl in the air around her.

“Ack!” says Jane. “My dignity!”

Jane’s skin turns translucent. She doesn’t have organs! Instead, inside her, she has the sparkling grandeur of a starlit sky.

“You can tie the sky-pythons together in back,” says the doctor, “so that they’re more concealing.”

“Oh!” says Jane.

But the transformation sequence does not last long enough for Jane to apply this advice. She lands on the ground in a heap, now wearing the marvelous rainbow outfit of a Star Sparkle Girl.

“Huh,” says Jane, dizzily. Her skin is still shimmering, and little stars whirl around her head.

“Say ‘ah’,” says the doctor.

The doctor puts a tongue depressor in Jane’s mouth.

“Ah!” says Jane.

“Good,” says the doctor. “I don’t see any tuberculosis bacteria in your throat.”

Jane’s stomach twitches a bit. It’s from the minor gag reflex triggered by having the tongue depressor on her tongue.

Then, even though the doctor takes the tongue depressor out, Jane’s stomach heaves! She hiccups stardust all over the doctor’s floor. Now it’s very sparkly.

Jane gulps a little bit.

“Um,” says Jane.

“It’ll happen for a bit,” says the doctor. “I mean, the stars-in-the-stomach.”

“But all the kids will tease me!” says Jane. Her eyes are wide. “I can’t be ‘throws up stars girl!'”

The doctor looks in Jane’s left eye, then her right eye. Then the doctor takes down a few notes, shrugs, and tucks her medical clipboard under her arm.

“There’s no magic answer to tuberculosis,” the doctor points out. “It says so on the sign.”

Jane hiccups. There’s the bitter taste of a white dwarf in the back of her throat, its cold electrons mashed one against another to fill up all the available energy levels.

“But everyone will tease me,” Jane says, miserably.

Playing in the tuberculosis pits doesn’t seem that good an idea now.

Countdown to Annihilation! (10:52 – 10:57am)

Yesterday, in the first amazing installment of Countdown to Annihilation! . . .

. . . the 11am premiere of Lizard Cops drew nigh!
. . . Iphigenia’s parents built an Origins Bomb!
. . . everything older than 10,000 years old blew up!
. . . and so did every human who’d evolved from lower life forms!

But who will survive?

Will the Bible prove inerrant?

Will the world drown in endless void?

Or is the truth, as so often happens, . . . somewhere in between?

Song of the Apocalypse

Mary drank too much at tea
She jittered faster
Recursively!
The faster she drank
The faster she drank
The faster the pile of tea scones sank!
She could see each beat of a flying bird’s wings
She could see each drop of her tablemate’s sneeze
“More tea!” she cried, but the waiter looked stopped
So she zipped from her chair to the kitchen’s pot.
And her story would have gone on from there
But the bomb tore through
And the bomb didn’t care! Oh

George he cackled George he laughed
George’s machine brought a dead man back!
In defiance of God!
In hubris insane!
“Raar!” said the dead man
Then he died again.
The bomb tore through
The bomb didn’t care.
George had evolved, so he wasn’t spared.
And the dead man, he’d once been Darwin’s toy
He was one more thing for the bomb to destroy. Oh

The Earth was barely nine thousand years
Old. Mad props to Usher! Creationist cheers!
Nine thousand years old! Plus seven days!
So the Earth, it lived on, anyways
Its valleys! Its hills! Its endless seas!
Its glorious plains! Its mountains! Its trees!
It all lived on! And we’re very pleased . . .
But the sun was as old as the scientists said
So the Origins Bomb killed the sun clean dead.

The aliens on Alpha Ceti III
Descend from the cones of evergreen trees
They’re a warlike bunch!
They’d have killed us later
But the bomb took them down
Like Bush took down Nader. Oh!

And all through the Earth just a handful of men
Some women, some children (most under ten),
Lived to see the winter that came
When the fire of the world
Turned a fading flame.

Iphigenia staggers through a savage wasteland. She grows lean and scruffy and lonely.

Every clock in the world that is not broken is stopped, frozen at 10:57am. The computers that she finds do not work. The paper calendars are also stopped, with nobody to flip them.

Iphigenia does not know how long it has been since the Bomb went off. But it feels like many years.

Everyone is dead.

Everything is in ruins.

There are no groundskeepers. There is no electricity.

A flyer flutters down to her from the sky. It looks strangely new, though she knows it must predate the bomb. And on it is written:

What Would You Keep?

If you could keep just one thing—one thing to last you all the empty years, what would it be?

Think on it. Decide. And when you know, if you are still alive, come to London. Come to the place of lights.

Iphigenia laughs. “I don’t know how to get there from here!” she says.

The wolves have come out, since the bomb, to stalk through the streets. They mutter and wolf to one another, and they do not bother Iphigenia. One day Iphigenia finds a Lego Universal Translator set, suitable for ages 12 and up, in an abandoned toy store. She assembles the pieces including two AA batteries and she turns it on and she eavesdrops on some wolves.

“Humanity has become incapacitated!” says a Shaggy Wolf. “It can no longer rule the Earth! It is our honor and our privilege to become Earth’s new guardians. Now we are the city people. Observe as I perform the strange city ritual of ‘rushing nowhere in particular.'”

“Yeah! Yeah!” agrees a Lean Wolf.

Shaggy Wolf looks slyly at one of the stopped clocks. He asks Lean Wolf, “Is that clock right?”

“It’s not just ‘right,'” says Lean Wolf. “It’s actually slow!

Shaggy Wolf pauses for dramatic effect. Then he gasps. He panics. First he skitters in a panicked circle. Then he begins to speed-walk very fast, just barely surrendering the edges of his dignity, in the direction of a distant office building.

“The end is nigh!” rails an Apocalyptic Street-Corner Wolf as he passes. “The Snavering Lavelwods will inherit the Earth!”

“What?” says Shaggy Wolf.

“He’s challenging your presumption of succession!” says the Lean Wolf, shocked.

Shaggy Wolf snarls. The Universal Translator says, “What?” Then it says, “Bleep! Bleep bleep! Bleepity bleep! Bleep!”

“Ow!” says Iphigenia. “My ears! Too much bleeping!”

So after that she does not eavesdrop on the wolves.

Two hundred meals and seventy-nine naps later, Iphigenia sees the flyer again. This time she holds it tightly. She pretends that it matters. She pretends that it is a thing from after the bomb, printed on crisp yellow and golden paper by someone surviving, somewhere, someone somehow not dead. So she finds an information kiosk and she digs through its maps and she heads towards London.

There is a bird in the air. It is a feral parrot. It circles down to land on her shoulder. It says, “Hello!”

“Hello,” says Iphigenia.

“Brawk,” says the bird. “Broderick. Good Broderick.”

“Would you like a cracker?” Iphigenia asks.

Broderick bobs up and down in excitement. Then he bites her ear and flutters away. From a tree nearby he says, “Snavering Lavelwods inherit the Earth. Inherit the Earth. Brawk!”

“Ow,” Iphigenia says.

Seven hundred meals and three hundred naps later, Iphigenia sees a light. She does not understand it at first. Her brain cannot parse it. It is an electric light. It is shining.

Iphigenia’s heart begins to race. It races faster and faster. She begins to hop. She begins to jump. She begins to dance around and glee.

“People!” she shouts.

Then she runs. She runs until she sees a factory. It is surrounded by a ruined fence and a ruined gate and a ruined sign hanging from that gate, reading, “NKA” and “CTOR”. Its lights are on!

She runs to the door. She cannot stop. There is a glee bubbling in her. It is practically leaking out her nose and ears. She hammers on the door. “Let me in! Let me in! I’m people too! You’re alive! Open up!

And Charles does.

Who is this mysterious Charles? Why did his factory survive? The Countdown will continue . . . on MONDAY!

Countdown to Annihilation! (10:45 to 10:52 am)

a multi-part legend inspired by the works of Roald Dahl.

Mr. Lancaster builds the marvelous Origins Bomb.

It is a big squat bomb. It sits on a table. Mr. Lancaster is under the table on a rolling platform. He is covered in bomb oil and using a wrench.

“Do we have the strands of amoeba DNA?” Mr. Lancaster asks Mrs. Lancaster.

“Of course,” she says, calmly.

Mrs. Lancaster is combing Iphigenia’s hair. Iphigenia wriggles.

“Don’t struggle now,” says Mrs. Lancaster. “You want nice hair when you’re Raptured, don’t you?”

“But Lizard Cops is almost on,” Iphigenia pleads.

“We’ll by done by 11,” says Mrs. Lancaster.

So Iphigenia pouts and sits still.

“What about the frog tooth?” Mr. Lancaster asks. “Do we have the flying frog tooth?”

“Of course, dear,” says Mrs. Lancaster.

Mr. Lancaster rolls out from under the bomb. He’s holding a jar. It’s labeled ‘Flying Frog Tooth.’ It has a tooth in it. The tooth has little wings. It flutters about in the jar.

“Are you sure it’s from a real frog?” Mr. Lancaster asks, skeptically.

“It’s a new species,” says Mrs. Lancaster, who is an expert scientist with more than six doctorates in biology. “I bred it myself in the lab.”

“All right,” says Mr. Lancaster. He rolls back under. “What about these carbons? Are they good?”

“That’s what the salesman said.”

“Eh?”

“He said, ‘these are damn fine carbons, Mrs. Lancaster. Damn fine.'”

“Such language! He will receive a terrible reckoning on the Day of Judgment,” says Mr. Lancaster, sadly.

He works on something under the bomb with a wrench.

“That is,” Mr. Lancaster adds, “unless linguistic drift has rendered such terms essentially non-blasphemous.”

“That’s so, Mr. Lancaster,” Mrs. Lancaster agrees. “He will be cast into the pit of fire and brimstone, unless the secularization of the English language serves as a circumstantial shield against God’s judgment.”

Mr. Lancaster stops and thinks. “Hey, I can’t find a Snavering Lavelwod.”

Mrs. Lancaster sighs. “I wish you wouldn’t use Snavering Lavelwods, Mr. Lancaster. Such murderous mutant mini-squids were never meant to trouble God’s green earth.”

“But they’re so adorably fuzzy, Mrs. Lancaster,” he protests. “In any case, they’re necessary.”

“Check your pockets, then,” says Mrs. Lancaster.

“Oh,” says Mr. Lancaster after a moment. “How embarrassing.”

Mr. Lancaster slots a protesting Snavering Lavelwod into the Snavering Lavelwod slot.

Mrs. Lancaster works on Iphigenia’s hair. “You have such gorgeous hair, my child. I think it is your prettiest feature.”

Iphigenia smiles a little back over her shoulder at Mrs. Lancaster.

Mrs. Lancaster grins. “There,” she says, putting down the brush and patting Iphigenia’s head. “All done!”

“What about the chocolate?” Mr. Lancaster asks.

Mrs. Lancaster releases Iphigenia from her lap. Iphigenia starts to run to the door, but then she stops. Curiosity has gotten the better of her. She squats down and stares interestedly at Mr. Lancaster’s activities beneath the bomb.

“Here,” says Mrs. Lancaster. She takes out a bar of chocolate. It is labeled ‘Age-Measuring Chocolate.’ She breaks off a small piece, hands the small piece to Iphigenia, and passes the rest to Mr. Lancaster.

Iphigenia’s eyes get very round. She takes the piece of chocolate. Graciously, she says, “Thank you, Mommy!”

Iphigenia bites the chocolate. The chocolate says, “Thirteen years and seven months and four days and eight hours and two minutes and thirteen seconds.”

Iphigenia looks at the chocolate. She looks suspiciously at her mother.

“Go ahead, dear. It’s just measuring your age.”

Iphigenia takes another bite. “Thirteen years and seven—”

Iphigenia hastily finishes the chocolate off. She swallows it before it can speak. Then she opens her mouth.

“—months and four days and eight hours and two minutes and nineteen seconds!” Iphigenia says, surprising herself.

There’s a pause.

“But I’m twelve,” protests Iphigenia.

“It probably uses the Chinese schema,” Mrs. Lancaster says.

“There!” says Mr. Lancaster. He rolls back the platform. He dusts himself off. He rises. “It’s a perfect Origins Bomb, if I do say so myself.”

“Perfection is for God alone,” corrects Mrs. Lancaster.

“Oh, Mrs. Lancaster,” says Mr. Lancaster, beeping her nose. “You do keep me honest.”

“What’s it do?” Iphigenia asks.

“It’s a way to prove Creationism right for once and for all,” says Mr. Lancaster. “When I push this button—”

Here he indicates a large red button labeled “Emergency Proof of Creationism.”

“—everything in the universe that is older than ten thousand years old, and every human who evolved from lower life forms, blows up!”

Iphigenia frowns. “But that’s nobody. You said that people were made by God.”

Mr. Lancaster’s eyes dance.

Iphigenia will always remember this moment. When Mr. Lancaster is very happy his eyes get a marvelous crinkle at the edges. It makes Iphigenia want to laugh and hug him. And sometimes he will sweep her up and spin her around, or tell her a wonderful secret, like where the Apostle Paul is really buried, or race her through the house around and around and around.

His eyes are crinkly like that now.

“That’s the marvel of it,” he says, “The absolute marvel of it! It’s the world’s deadliest bomb—and it won’t hurt hardly anything!”

“We expect there are a few things that will qualify,” explains Mrs. Lancaster. “Sinister bloodlines descended from lizards, ancient gyroscopes from alternate timelines, the angels of nations, and so forth. Exceptions. Nothing the world can’t do without.”

Iphigenia is mildly unnerved.

“Would you like to press the button?” Mr. Lancaster offers. “There are a lot of threats to God’s word in America today. It’s not really an emergency—”

and here he winks, like there’s a star caught in his eye and he needs to blink it out—

“—but I think it’s fair to say that we’re in an orange alert for the faith.”

Iphigenia chews on her lip.

“I’m scared to push a button and blow up stuff,” Iphigenia says.

Mr. Lancaster nods. “It is a weighty moral responsibility,” he says.

He hangs his head. He looks grim. Then he looks up and he’s sparkly again.

“And we all know who bears the weighty moral responsibilities around here!

Mrs. Lancaster blushes.

“Oh, Mr. Lancaster,” she says.

“You know you want to,” Mr. Lancaster teases.

Mrs. Lancaster stands up. Just a tiny bit of her decorum is faded now. “Are you serious, honey? You’d really let me be the one to . . . to usher in this new age of scientifically-proven faith?”

“I love you,” says Mr. Lancaster.

So Mrs. Lancaster smiles. It’s a secret smile. It’s the kind of smile that waits in someone’s lips for years and years before it finally finds the perfect chance to come out.

“Mom!” says Iphigenia suddenly. “I’m scared!”

It is 10:52am, on Saturday, July 16. It is eight minutes before the premiere broadcast of Lizard Cops.

Mrs. Lancaster pushes the button.

The Origins Bomb goes off.

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting continuation of . . . Countdown to Annihilation!