The Dynamite Trilogy: Space

Some people think the evil prophet of space is Christ reborn. Others want to measure him with scientific instruments. But everyone who approaches him dies!

“Space does not like you,” the prophet says to the teeming masses of humanity.

There are rivers of blood on the Earth in those first few days. The sky is full of fire.

“You look outwards towards space. You make puppy-dog faces. You project onto space with your purposes and expectations. Space is confused and nauseated by this! Space is not your frontier. It is a cold bleak void! You need to stop hoping and dreaming towards it. So I am here to kill everyone in hopes that this will make you stop!

“Hallelujah!” cries somebody in the crowd.

Then most of the listening people suffer explosive decompression and those that do not the prophet hangs from spikes.

Conventional weaponry does nothing. He walks through armies and leaves them ruins.

“I do this because it is prophesied,” says the evil prophet of space.

He is on a street corner in Boise, Idaho. He is eating his lunch, a tuna sandwich, on top of an overturned tank. Everyone has fled Boise save for an abandoned and unhappy dog but explaining himself is habitual for the evil prophet of space.

“Behold!” he says, and unfurls the scroll of his evil prophecy.

The scroll is covered in the gleaming golden letters of space. Hesitantly, angered by the evil prophecy, the abandoned dog barks.

Nuclear weapons fall upon Boise, Idaho. They crunch down around him like pine cones falling to the Earth. They burst into an extraordinary nuclear rage.

Potatoes mutate.

The dog dies.

All around the evil prophet of space fire blooms. But he holds up the scroll of his evil prophecy and says, “Paper beats nukes!”

And it is so.

The Earth takes its final measure of defense. The United Nations Security Council meets and unanimously votes to issue the Unlimited Cheat Code.

Konami Thunder Dancers all over the world plug the cheat code into their dance pads.

It enables the Great Network Dance.

Thus is finally realized the most glorious dream ever dreamed by a middle-aged Konami Corporation executive, that is, that people should hook their dance pads together via wireless Internet connection and dance the networked thunder dance to sweep away the evil prophet of space.

Riding the Symbol of the Gathering, the Dancers fly to Mount Hook.

They defy the evil prophet there.

And there are many. There are legion. There is old Margerie. There is hobbling Kalov. There is Ellen. But also there are Doug and Kasumi and Ben and Christine and Dancer X and Hot Coffee and Footwork and Phobos and many more.

There are gathered there all of the legends and most of the minor experts of the dance.

The evil prophet looks at them.

A warm and tender smile spreads across his face.

“Why,” he says. “You’ve actually got something interesting.”

Then the wind of the dance falls on him howling. It rends him. It rips him apart as he has ripped apart others. He hangs in the air in pieces. His hands and his feet and his mouth scrabble at the air to try to draw him back together again.

Ellen dances the Scissors and the Dynamite.

Margerie throws Glory.

And so many others! So many Symbols! There is even a sweat-drenched beginner in the back desperately dancing Misshapen Metal Lump in opposition to the evil prophet of space.

Thunder peals.

The Dancers rip the evil prophet down to the seething particles of him and his smile.

The PlayStation 7s through which the Dancers dance grow hot. They suckle at the cool evening air. A single particle of the evil prophet finds its way in through the vents and touches on the networked code.

“Do you know what I am going to do?” the prophet’s voice whispers in Hot Coffee’s ear.

“No,” says Hot Coffee.

“I am going to redefine the LIVE_BURIAL variable to TRUE,” the evil prophet says.

And before any of the dancers can say anything—before they can even utter a word—

Mount Hook falls on them.

None of them die immediately. But all of them black out.

Most of them never wake up.

Margerie opens her eyes long enough for a moment of satisfaction. Kalov grumbles with finality about kids these days. Phobos wakes but to no avail; his chest is pinned and he screams silently until he dies.

Time passes.

Ellen startles open her eyes.

She is buried under the mountain. She can scarcely breathe. She can’t move: there are rocks pinning her. Everywhere she is held down. The pain of it is horrible.

She is only alive because the PS7s are sturdy, unbreakable by something as small as a mountain falling on them, and thus have served to prop up the tumbled rock in certain limited ways.

“Oh,” she says.

It is soft and meek and the word is lost in the channels of the fallen mountain and she coughs and only the red light of a PlayStation on standby breaks the darkness.

“I feel,” she says, to unseen angels, “that we should apologize to the world, for now the evil prophet shall kill everyone.”

The rock shifts and grinds into her back.

And laughing and crying she thinks, “Rock beats scissors.”

A ridiculous notion blossoms in her mind. It’s really quite stupid. But she can’t help it. She counts to three under her breath. She closes her fist.

The rock shifts again. It lifts from her, just a bit. Then it is grinding, grinding, pushing back away from her, and in the little cavern that forms she sees the cross-legged form of Navvy Jim.

One hand is holding up an improvised roof.

The other, paper.

Ellen giggles. Then she laughs. Then pain shoots through her ribcage and she chokes and she says, “Oh.”

“You cannot think to defeat me at rock-paper-scissors simply by draining my battery, taking me apart, waiting 5 years, and hiding under a mountain,” says Navvy Jim. “That is the kind of hijink only beneficial against amateurs.”

“Oh,” she says, and brokenly she smiles at him her love.

“But . . . it is dangerous to play rock-paper-scissors here,” he says. “The mountain throws rock. So rock and paper, perhaps, are safe, but if you play scissors you would be crushed under tons of rock.”

“Mountains don’t care about rock-paper-scissors,” says Ellen. “They’re not like robots or space.”

Navvy Jim hesitates.

“That’s partially true,” he says. “Although I will observe the established higher mortality rates for people who carry scissors on mountains over people who carry paper.”

“You saved my life,” Ellen says.

“I am a good robot,” smugs Navvy Jim.

There is silence for a while.

Tendrils of evil slowly slip into the chamber. The evil prophet congeals.

He looks between them. He looks between the Konami Thunder Dancer and the rock-paper-scissors-playing robot.

Insultingly, he chooses to worry about the robot.

“I sensed a power on Earth,” he says, “capable of playing rock-paper-scissors against me at my level.”

“You would be a worthy opponent,” Navvy Jim concedes.

“I didn’t expect to find you while finishing these dancers off.”

“Did you wish to play,” says Navvy Jim, hesitantly, “then?”

“Navvy Jim!” Ellen says. “Don’t play rock-paper-scissors with the evil prophet of space!”

“If I don’t play, he wins by default!” Navvy Jim protests.

What?

“You wouldn’t understand a rock-paper-scissors player’s heart,” says Navvy Jim. “You’re organic.”

“Oh,” Ellen says.

So the evil prophet and Navvy Jim square off.

“I should warn you,” says the evil prophet, “that I always throw paper. That’s how I’m going to kill you and the human. With paper.”

Navvy Jim’s eyes dim, then brighten.

“Why would you do that?” he asks.

“I use my evil prophecy to kill things,” says the evil prophet of space. “I’m an evil prophet. That’s just what I do.”

Navvy Jim nods.

“Well,” he says, “the three symbols are mathematically equivalent, in any case.”

The evil prophet laughs. It’s startled from him. It’s pure and clean. And he says, “Yes. Yes, of course they are.”

And in a flash of insight Ellen remembers the mountain that surrounds them, the great bulk of rock, and a shout bursts from her, racking the inside of her with pain: “Don’t throw scissors, Navvy Jim!”

The evil prophet is counting to three.

Navvy Jim glances at Ellen.

“Of course I won’t,” he says. “The mountain always throws rock.”

And the evil prophet brandishes his evil prophecy. And Navvy Jim’s palm is flat.

“A tie,” says the evil prophet. “Rethrow.”

Softly, he counts to three.

He brandishes his evil prophecy, and Navvy Jim his palm.

“A tie,” says the evil prophet. “Rethrow.”

Navvy Jim says, “For all the money?”

“Of course,” says the evil prophet.

“And if I win,” says Navvy Jim, “you’ll leave this world?”

“Navvy Jim,” says Ellen, and her face is as pale as the snow.

“Perhaps,” the evil prophet says.

And Navvy Jim’s eyes glow blue.

And softly the evil prophet counts to three.

“Oh, no,” says Ellen. “Oh, no.”

And she pushes down against the world with her hand to reach desperately for Navvy Jim.

And the evil prophet brandishes his evil prophecy; and Navvy Jim, with a great screeching of metal, splits into scissors the fingers of his hand; and simultaneous with Being Crushed by Rocks Ellen throws Dynamite.

And the last things that Ellen sees as the world goes white are Navvy Jim lunging for her to catch her as she falls and the hideously betrayed expression of the evil prophet as he shouts:

“You can’t throw Dynamite! This is rock-paper-scissors!”

They don’t let you do things like that at the evil academy of space.

The Dynamite Trilogy: Navvy Jim

When Ellen was a young girl scissors attacked the Earth. There were billions of them and they came from space. They were unreasonable in their aggression and humanity had to defend itself, leaving in the end an exhausted, stunned, and uncertain world littered in the mangled corpses of snippy blades.

Nobody’d ever figured out why it had happened. Religion and science both were mute.

But it had.

“I thought I’d lost you back then,” Uncle Ned says.

“Oh?”

“You were just six,” says Ned, “and you couldn’t believe that scissors were hostile. You loved them. You cried when I told you that dynamite blows scissors up, or that rock crushes them. They were your favorite implement. So you wandered out, all on your own, to make peace with them on behalf of the world.”

Ellen has a flash of terrifying memory. She shakes her head.

“They were coming down so hard,” Ned says. “From space, I mean. I couldn’t go after you. All night long I stared at the walls of the dome and I wondered if I’d ever see you again. And then came the morning and the bombardment stopped and I went out to look, and there you were with Navvy Jim.”

“Hee hee,” says Ellen.

“Rock beats scissors, is all he’d say.”

Ellen leans back on the couch. She thinks.

“Whatever happened to him, Ned?”

“To Navvy Jim?”

“Yeah.”

“I put him to sleep,” Ned says.

“Sleep?”

“I drained his battery really good,” Ned says, “so he wouldn’t feel any pain. And then I took all his pieces apart and I crated them up. I told him, ‘There’ll be better days again. When the power lines aren’t all cut up and when people are ready to play rock-paper-scissors again.’ But— well.”

Ellen nods.

“The kids are calling it hobbit-Spock-spider now,” she says. “But the gestures are all different.”

Ellen is taking a break from graduate school. She’s hanging out at her crazy uncle’s ranch. It’s got air and fences and buildings and a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot disassembled and in crates. It’s just the place to clear one’s mind of the stress of an advanced education— but—

“It’s sad,” she tells Ned, a few days later.

“Is it?”

“We should get him out,” Ellen says. “We should teach him hobbit-Spock-spider. You can rewire him for that, can’t you?”

“A hobbit-Spock-spider-playing robot?”

“Yes.”

“. . . ridiculous,” dismisses Ned. “It’s demeaning to Navvy Jim. Can you just see him there, in his robot voice, saying ‘Spock sings about hobbits?'”

“We could ask him.”

Ned swigs from a bottle unspecified in content. He looks up at the ceiling.

“Well, we can do that,” he allows.

So they go digging together in their old boxes from the 20s and they pull out the pieces. Ellen’s the first to find a good-sized chunk of Navvy Jim. It’s his hand and arm. She plays rock-paper-scissors with it as Ned hunts for the rest. And after a while Ned glances over and sees her playing and he snorts.

“Too young for them to really scare you, huh?” he asks.

“Huh?”

Ellen is distracted. She’s chewing hard on her lip. She’s thrown paper and the metal hand has creaked open into scissors.

“Too young,” says Ned. “I mean, the scissors. They don’t send a shudder down your spine.”

“Oh,” says Ellen. “No. Not really.”

“Geezers like me,” says Ned, “even knowing that’s Navvy Jim. That’s terrifying. So you should stick to rock while I’m around.”

Ellen counts to three under her breath and throws rock. The metal hand has creakily gone flat.

“How does he do that?”

“Do what?”

Ellen counts to three under her breath. The metal hand closes. Then she throws rock. At that same moment the hand opens.

“Win,” Ellen says.

“Predictive algorithms,” says Ned. “He’d generally set up the next few games in muscle memory so that nobody’d think he was cheating.”

Ellen shakes her head.

“That’s insane, Ned.”

“He got awfully good at it,” Ned admits, “as I recall. That’s the thing with adaptive robots. You never know which direction they’re going to go.”

Ellen throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.

“Look,” Ellen says, “he can’t do that.”

“He got pretty good,” says Ned. “By the end. He said, ‘My eyes see through the walls of time and the barriers of infinity. I am like God. But I cannot see the purpose of the world.'”

Ellen throws scissors. Navvy Jim’s arm throws rock. Ned winces.

“Sorry, Ned,” Ellen says.

“Enh. Oh, hey, here’s his head!”

Ned hefts Navvy Jim’s head out of the box. He taps it. Then he sticks it on a swivel neck and binds it to a battery so that Navvy Jim can watch his reassembly.

“Ned,” says Ellen, “seriously. People need to know about this.”

She throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.

Navvy Jim’s eyes are beginning to glow a soft blue as he wakes up.

“It’s deadly knowledge,” Ned says.

“Eh?”

“See,” says Ned. “I tried. Of course I tried. I wrote it all up for the journals. ‘The Amazing RPS Robot That Never Loses.’ ‘Fate, Free Will, and Randomness: An Exploration of Meaning in the Context of Absolute Predictivity.’ ‘Is the World Deterministic?’ ‘An Arbitrarily Accurate Online Algorithm for Predicting Rock-Paper-Scissors.’ And so forth.”

Ned pulls out Navvy Jim’s body. He puts his ear against it and raps it here and there with his hand.

“Good sound,” he says. “Still.”

“Why didn—”

And metallically Navvy Jim clears his throat and says, “Ellen. You’re here.”

And Ellen can’t help it. Even as creeped out as she is right now, a smile blooms on her face and she pulls herself to her feet and she hugs Navvy Jim’s torso, making sure that the head can see.

“Navvy Jim!” she says.

“Do you know the meaning of the universe?” the robot asks.

“Hm?”

“I was hoping,” says Navvy Jim, “that by the time I woke up, someone would know.”

Ellen shakes her head. She lets go and steps back, still smiling.

“I think,” says Navvy Jim, “that it is either, ‘Rock beats scissors’, ‘scissors beats paper’, or ‘paper beats rock.’ But I cannot decide which.”

“For the meaning of the universe?”

“Well,” says Navvy Jim. “For the meaning of my life. I can’t really speak for—”

Fast as a whip, almost cheating, Ellen has thrown rock. But Navvy Jim’s hand is already open in paper again.

“Darn it!” Ellen interrupts.

Navvy Jim giggles synthetically.

“So,” he says. “Does that mean that the world is ready for a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot again?”

“We were going to teach you hobbit-Spock-spider,” Ellen says.

“. . . ah,” says Navvy Jim.

“If you wanted,” says Ellen.

Heartily, Ned adds, “Nothing too dangerous about hobbits, Spocks, or spiders!”

“. . . I am not sure I am ready yet,” says Navvy Jim. “To learn a new game. I have scarcely begun to study my first.”

“. . . oh,” says Ellen.

“But I would like to talk to you, Ned, Ellen,” says Navvy Jim, “for a bit, before I sleep again.”

And so for the rest of her vacation it is Ellen, and Ned, and Navvy Jim, and only when she is about to go back to school do they drain Navvy Jim’s battery and carefully take him apart.

But—

Back a moment, to the last night of her trip, when she asks Ned and Navvy, “So if you tried to write it up for publication why doesn’t anyone know?”

And Navvy Jim says, thoughtfully, “I think that there is an animosity in the cosmos towards the brightness that is humanity; a malign eye, perhaps, looking on our world in some disfavor. But perhaps I am misled by my perspective, and it is simply the capacity of rock-paper-scissors to defend itself against assaults on its theoretical underpinnings.”

“Huh?” says Ellen.

Scissors cut papers,” says Ned.

House of Saints: Standing in the Storm

Saul finds Vladimir crying on a bench.

The hunger for human flesh is there. It is tugging on Saul’s sleeve. It is asking for his attention. Saul considers it. But since Vladimir controls swarms of Lethal robot bees he is not the most edible man on campus.

Saul sits down.

“Hey,” he says. “What is it?”

Vladimir looks up. “You will kill me,” he says.

“No,” says Saul. He shakes his head. “I’m not going to kill you. I’m here to give you a shoulder to cry on.”

Vladimir laughs.

“No. Not now,” he says. “You will not kill me now. That is essentially impossible in the scenario as I understand it. But later. You will kill me later.”

“Oh,” says Saul. “That. Well—well, yeah.”

Saul grins a little.

“But we’ve got time,” Saul says. “There’s no hurry, now. No one’s joining the House of Hunger any more. I don’t know if the Hungry breed true, but if we don’t, and even if we do, really, we’re just a tiny handful of predators wandering an infinite world of prey.”

“It is my fault,” says Vladimir. “I have seen it. It is my ambition. It was too overweening. I weened, and then I weened more than I should have. In such a fashion did I doom us all.”

Saul pulls Vladimir over. And Vladimir rests his head on Saul’s shoulder and there he cries.

And Saul strokes Vladimir’s hair, and says, “Sh.”

“You will die too.”

“That’s all right,” says Saul.

“Hm?”

Saul gestures out at the horizon. “See,” says Saul, “I know the purpose of the world. It’s hunger. It’s the hunger that surges and falls inside me like a sea. I think we can make it grow in us. I think it can transform the world.”

Here Saul hesitates. He looks briefly confused. Then he shakes his head.

“The others are too confused to do it,” he says. “They’re pawns of the hunger. But I can teach them. I can lead them. I can make it grow. And if I succeed in this then it doesn’t matter if I die.”

“You do not know the purpose of the world,” says Vladimir.

“Pardon?” says Saul.

Vladimir withdraws. He gives Saul a corpse-grin.

“Here is what I know,” says Vladimir. “We see the purposes for others that are in our minds to see. But these are not their purposes. We are a lens that looks at one another and ourselves. But we are a flawed lens. I made a hat. It was my most brilliant creation, Saul. It was true genius. It found the potential in each person and sorted them into the House that would bring that potential out. But its world view was limited by the flaw in my personal lens, and the name of that flaw is Gotterdammerung.”

“Hats don’t lie about moral issues,” says Saul, uneasily.

Vladimir shrugs.

“I cannot say,” he says. “I am sorted. I am head boy of the House of Dreams. I am surrounded by the lightning and I cannot see the truth. I have trapped myself in the construct of my purposes. But I pray that it is wrong. I pray that someone will save us. Because I finally understand that that purpose is an evil purpose. It will crush me. It will crush you. It will take away our humanity.”

Something in this touches Saul. Perhaps it is the pitiability of meat regretting lost humanity. Perhaps it is the way that Vladimir in his edibleness nevertheless reminds Saul of his peers.

So Saul says, very gently, “We must take joy in the purposes given to us, Vladimir. They are all we have.”

The hunger is a rising storm; but Vladimir is a “sometimes” food.

Saul brushes his tears away.

Fun Fact! Some dieticians think that it’s okay to eat Vladimir all the time, but Vladimir doesn’t think it’s okay to eat him even once!

House of Saints is over. There will be one more related legend at some point in August or September. Beyond that, I make no promises, either to those who like it or those who don’t.

House of Saints: Saturday Morning Special

“I am a hatter of some skill,” Vladimir admits. “Did you know that the first crowning hat was mine? It was not as advanced as what we have now. It was not alive. It was not warm in my hands. It did not speak to me at night. But it was mine. I made it from the gravesoil of long-abandoned hats. It was soft and mushy and everyone laughed at me when I wore it on my head but it opened the path that led me to the House of Dreams. Now who is laughing? I am head boy and my enemies have been eaten.”
— from House of Saints: Vladimir’s Dreams

Vladimir is not there one day when they are eating lunch, and the discussion comes around to the purpose of the House of Dreams.

“I have dreamed of a storm,” says Amber.

“I too,” says Cheryl.

“I felt . . . like I was part of it. Like I was . . . a lightning rod. A channel for it.”

Cheryl picks listlessly at her cafeteria meat loaf. It does not inspire her. Its flavor is surprising, but not surprising enough.

One day, Cheryl thinks, she will show the kitchen staff. She’ll show them all.

“And my left forearm is strange now,” says Amber. “Ever since the dreams.”

She taps her arm. Cheryl’s ears hear the thump of flesh on flesh, but in her mind Cheryl hears a ringing like metal.

“Wow,” says Cheryl. “Is it conductive?”

Amber beams a little bit. Enthusiasm runs between them like a current.

“Let’s go run tests!” Amber says.

For science and madness are the joys of their House.

House of Saints


Saturday Morning Special

The House of Dreams has commandeered a lounge in Miller Hall. There they work on the great boot they intend to build in space.

“Put on Voltron,” says Cheryl.

So they play that in the background, for inspiration.

“I do not like boots,” says Vladimir. “This project—it feels like a waste of my talents. And I dream unsettled dreams.”

Cheryl looks at him.

“In them, I am like a lump of metal,” says Vladimir. “Where is the lightning in me? I am only a lump—some cobbler’s tool, no doubt, heavy and dumb. That is what we become by cobblery. I do not like boots, Cheryl.”

Cheryl is still looking at him. She is shaking her head slowly.

“What?” Vladimir asks.

“It’s a boot,” says Cheryl, “in space.

In the background, the robot lions charge together. They form a giant robot. This is the glorious stock footage that is Voltron.

Vladimir rubs at his chin. There is the sparkling pressure in his mind again. He can feel the power of the House building in him. “We should add lasers,” he says. “At least.”

“Now that’s using your dreams,” says Cheryl. “Heat-seeking lasers!”

“And a worldkiller nuke.”

“Deadly nanoviruses.”

“A space station!” Harold says.

“Dimensional disruption rays!” Amber cheers.

“They laughed at us in engineering class,” says Vladimir. “But now the engineering department is in ruins and we may build as we see fit.”

“Ha,” laughs Cheryl. “Ha ha ha!”

Thunder crashes all around them.

It is another joyous gathering of the House of Dreams.

That night Vladimir dreams unsettled dreams of the wolf. It is looking for him. He can tell. It is sniffing about with its cold wet nose. He wakes with a gasp, his silent assistant shaking his shoulder, and he sobs:

“I have seen the ending of things. It approaches like a storm. Fools are we to think of riding that storm. Fool was I to think of guiding it! We are used as mindless tools by fate.”

His assistant presses a cup of coffee into his hands. It is an ancient remedy for prophecy. Vladimir drinks. Soon the weird has passed. Then his assistant leads Vladimir over to a console. It is beeping and flashing with red lights.

“Hm,” says Vladimir. “I see. So one among the Hungry dares to test the defenses of my room.”

He closes his eyes. He meditates.

“Send out the robot bees,” he says. “Coded to his gene sequence. That will discourage him, and the others of the Hungry, from such foolishness.”

It is an unpleasant beginning to another happy day.

“I don’t like the staged booster design for the unmanned efforts,” says Harold, when they’ve gathered once again.

“Hm,” says Vladimir.

“It’s very vanilla,” concedes Cheryl.

“True,” says Vladimir. He rises dramatically. He crosses out a sheaf of plans with a single motion of his bright red pen. “Then let it be ended! Instead, we shall use a catapult to fling shoe leather into space. Such incredible hang time! Our slogan shall be ‘Be Like Mike.'”

“In what fashion is this like Mike?” Cheryl asks.

Vladimir hesitates.

After a moment, he waves a hand dismissively and grunts, “Enh.”

He does not actually answer.

“We could use a beanstalk,” counterproposes Cheryl. “We could call it the Shoelace Project. Or . . .”

Her eyes widen.

“‘The Bootstrap.'”

“Ha,” says Vladimir. “Ha ha ha!”

In this fashion Cheryl’s suggestion carries.

The House of Dreams works fervently into the night. But at some point, the students’ minds slow down and the difficulties of the problem overwhelm them. Soon they are working not from joy but from obsession and frustration, beating their minds against the difficulties of the task. They are like birds fluttering against the glass, or moths against a flame. Then they are too tired to think at all.

When Vladimir staggers into bed it is nearly morning. He falls into his dreams like a broken elevator falls. He tumbles into them like a wounded bird. He is dizzy and vertiginous and there are great shapes all around him. They are dwarves, he thinks, and gods.

He tries to open his mouth to scream, but he cannot.

They toss him into a fiercely-burning forge. They shape and twist him with their hands. They mold him like a lump of metal and his mind is burning with the lightning.

When he wakes his tongue is thick and his mind is spinning and he says, “I see how to do it. I see how to do it.”

The dream cannot disturb him. Not even the ingrown nail on his left foot can disturb him. The lightning is with him now. He sees.

And they work that day in joy.

“I dreamed a few days back,” says Vladimir, seven hours later, “of the ending of all things. I dreamed that we were arrogant. I dreamed that it was not in us to shape the storm.”

Here he laughs.

“Can you imagine? I, I, Vladimir, I doubted. But here we are. Here, we shall do it. We are ready. We shall make this boot and the lace that lifts it.”

But Cheryl is looking at him. What he sees in her eyes he struggles to deny.

“Vladimir,” she says. “We do not guide what is coming. We are shaped by it. We are the lightning of its path. We are the hammer of the storm.”

Voltron plays behind them, on the television screen.

And there is a sudden sick realization tightening Vladimir’s chest as he looks down at the table and now he knows, and he says, “And I’ll—”

It is ridiculous. He does not speak it. It is a thing in his mind alone. He is a man. He will always be a man.

He shakes his head.

On the television behind him, Keith shouts, “And I’ll form—the head!”

When a Bee Loves a Flower Very Very Much, It’s Time to Think of England!

Stinger and Violet, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-
Crash.
. . .
Stinger and Violet, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-S-

Crash.
. . .
Stinger and—

“This is never going to work,” says Max Stinger, the glorious reconfigurable bee-human machine.

“It’s my chastity circuit,” frets Violet.

“No,” Max says. He reaches out to brush Violet’s metal brow. “Your chastity circuit is not breaking tree branches. That is our combined metallic weight. Your chastity circuit just supercharges your metal skin with painful electricity when we attempt hanky-panky and says, ‘Danger! Chastity mode engaged.'”

“Oh,” says Violet. “So that’s why you always leap away shaking your hands when it engages.”

Max nods sadly. “You didn’t know?”

“I thought it was just playful nervousness,” Violet says.

Max Stinger sighs. He looks away into the distance. “If we cannot sit in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G, we will have neither love nor marriage. And while your circuit functions, we may know no lust. Ah! Violet! Life is cruelly engineered!”

Violet reflects.

“What we need,” she says, “is some sort of anti-gravity belt.”

Max panics.

“No,” he says. “I mean, we don’t need that. We can use some sort of . . . a block and tackle, or . . .”

Violet looks at him.

“Max?”

Max deflates. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll ask him.”

“Why are you so afraid of my father?”

“I’ve heard he eats robots alive,” Max says. “On toast!”

Violet considers this.

“He’s too thin for that,” she says. “Robots are very heavy and would be totally indigestible without a lot of toast.”

“Fine,” Max says. “But I’m only doing this because he’s the best antigravity engineer on the planet! If he weren’t, I’d so keep on hiding from him until he died.”

“And then you’d pretend regret?” Violet teases.

“Darn right!”

Max stomps off.

Max goes to the old man’s house. He knocks on the door. After a moment, a wizened figure hobbles out to meet him.

“You? Who’re you?” The old man peers at him, up and down. “I didn’t make you,” he says. “Go away.”

“I’m Max Stinger,” says Max. “I’m interested in your daughter’s hand.”

“You’ve got bee hands!” declares the old man. “You don’t want a flower hand! That’d disrupt your overall aesthetic theme!”

The old man looks Max up and down. He lifts Max’s arms. He studies the transformation mechanism. He hits the back of Max’s knee with his titanium cane.

“Definitely not. No flowers for you. Look at those bee hands! They shoot off in a one-two punch of justice!”

“I mean,” Max says, after a moment, “in love. I am interested in falling in love with your daughter. But the branches keep breaking under our combined weight.”

“Oh no,” says the old man. “I’ve been down that road before. That’s why all my modern daughters have chastity circuits!”

“Pardon?”

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes genetic recombination using robot parts! That’s what the chastity circuits are for—to utterly remove the risk that irresponsible mechanical one-night stands will burgeon into tender affections and a long-term committed relationship! Honestly, you ought to know better.”

“But I’m not really interested in the irresponsible mechanical one-night stands,” says Max. His subvocalization circuit adds, Much. “I want love. I want marriage. I want robot children.”

“Listen,” says the old man. “How would you go about making children with my daughter?”

“Well,” says Max, “I guess that I’d take some of her design elements—kind of a robot genetic code, you know—and some of mine, and mix them together.”

The old man nods. “And?”

“Well,” says Max, “I’d innovate some. I mean, just so that junior wasn’t the same as every other transforming bee-human/flower-human robot hybrid out there. Like, possibly I’d add some sort of transformation that would let the first little boy become a supertanker, and the first little girl become—”

Max draws a blank as to what a girl might transform into. “A nuclear hawk-wolf,” he says, to avoid an awkward silence.

“Exactly,” says the old man. “You’d evolve. And evolution leads inevitably to humans being nothing more than glorified apes, which is precisely why we don’t let robots do it.”

“But . . .” Max founders. “You let computers evolve.”

“That’s totally different,” says the old man. “You can’t fight Moore’s Law. It’s hardwired into God’s plan. It’s part of the Telos.”

“Oh.”

Max hesitates. “If you’d make us a gravity-defying belt,” he says, “we could commit to a barren and childless marriage.”

The old man tilts his head to the side. “What, you’d never even be tempted? Tubes can be untied, son. Snips, unsnup. Mechanical clocks, they tick.”

“I’m a playboy,” Max Stinger tries, desperately. “I really just want to sow some wild oats in Violet!”

The old man snorts. “Don’t try to fool me, son. I can see the gleam of commitment in those polished titanium eyes.”

“I’ll . . . I’ll . . . I’ll think of America!”

The old man hesitates.

“I will! Every time! I promise! I’ll think of nothing save America as our circuits mesh in glorious mechanical harmony, a rhapsody of patriotism and lust that will totally curtail any desire to differentiate my genes and spread my design principles to a new generation of competitive robot offspring!”

The old man sighs.

“Ah, damn,” he says. “You had to hit me in the patriotism.”

Stinger and Violet, sittin’ in a tree, K-I-S-
VRRRRRRM
S-I-N-G! First comes
VRRRRRRM
love, then comes marriage,
Then comes a frantic choral representation of the Star-Spangled Banner!

VRRRRRRM

“Somehow,” says Max Stinger, “I can’t help thinking that it would be easier to prevent robotic evolution through intelligent design.”

“Shut up and sing,” purrs Violet’s secondary speech processor. “It’s the third verse that’s the sexiest.

Coprocessor

This story must have started a long time ago.

Jack and Maggie and ECS-872 picnicked. They were sitting on a red and white tablecloth in the tall grass. They were drinking tea and eating cold chicken, except for ECS-872, who didn’t eat or drink.

“Do you think the children will be okay?” Jack asked.

“The FL-series are perfectly good babysitters,” Maggie said. “Polly and Jim will be just fine.”

Jack looked longingly at the City Gate. It was a metal portal, hanging in the air, connecting through warpspace to New Angel City.

“I suppose,” he said.

“Concurrence,” droned ECS-872. “The children require opportunities for independence.”

Jack looked blankly at the robot. Then he shook his head.

“Well,” he said, “it’s fine chicken, anyway.”

ECS-872 experimented with a new pattern of flashing lights on his chest panel. As always, the humans failed to notice its aesthetic efforts.

“We should go back,” Jack said. “And check on them.”

It was just then that the New Angel City died.

“The gate!” Maggie shrieked.

“What?”

Jack was on his feet. He was staring blankly at the Gate, which no longer connected to New Angel City.

ECS-872 processed.

“Damn it, ECS!” snapped Jack. “Call someone! Find out what’s wrong!”

ECS-872 hesitated. “There is much activity on the wireless network,” it droned. “Their circuits will be overloaded. It is safest for all involved to put minimum stress on the communications system until a robot can make a public broadcast—”

“My son’s in there!”

ECS-872’s circuits were sparking. “Very well. Placing call.”

For some time, they waited. Maggie paced. Jack fumed.

“I am sorry,” ECS-872 reported. “There has been severe biological and radioactive contamination due to terrorist activity. New Angel City has powered down its Gate core.”

“But—”

Maggie said, “The City is behind five miles of solid rock. Without the Gates there’s no way in or out.”

“Oh, God, Maggie,” Jack said.

Then Maggie shakes herself.

“No, Jack. It’s all right,” she says.

“What?”

“They’ll have at least five weeks before the Gate’s totally spun down, and they’ll give children priority on decon and evac procedures. We’ll be seeing them again in no time.”

“Concurrence,” droned ECS-872.

It hesitated.

It clicked.

“Requesting permission to dig into the City,” ECS-872 asked.

“What?”

“They will give children priority. They will remove as many humans as possible. Some personnel may remain. The machines will be abandoned.”

“It’ll take you years,” Jack expostulated.

“Decades,” confirmed ECS-872.

“It’s a waste of resources,” Jack said. “Forget it, ECS-872. If it’s viable to salvage the robots someone’ll take care of it. That’s capitalism.”

ECS-872 kept its voice affectless. “Your decision is economically optimal, sir, but is there really no room in your human priorities for a rescue?”

“Jesus, Jack, let him go already. We’ve been needing to upgrade anyway.”

“What? Today? Our children are locked in a dead City with a biohazard and you want to fire our butler?

“Look at it,” Maggie said.

EGS-872’s lights blinked vigorously in various patterns.

“It doesn’t understand this kind of thing, Jack. It doesn’t know stress, or grief, or what’s right and wrong. It just wants to rescue our other household equipment and our blender. That’s what the love coprocessor is for.

“Yeah,” said Jack, after a moment. He gave a sad little laugh, though his eyes were still white with fear for his children. “Poor little robot. Sure. Go. We’ll call you if your replacement blows up or something.”

So EGS-872 began to dig.

It is still digging now.

The Castle (III/IV)

The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.

“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”

“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.

“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”

“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”

“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”

Jenna swallows, and recites:

In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.

“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”

Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”

“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.

Jenna recites:

Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.

Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”

“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”

“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”

“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”

“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”

Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:

Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.

“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”

“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”

“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”

“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”

“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”

“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.

“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”

Jenna recites:

I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”

“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.

“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”

“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”

“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”

“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.

“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”

“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”

Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.

“What?” Coyote asks.

Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.

Theories Regarding the Box

Merit City

Merit City keeps its pain in a box. The box is by the tracks. There’s a hole in the box. There’s a stick by the hole. You can poke the stick through the hole. Then the box says, “Ouch!” It’s not very surprising. That’s just the kind of vocalization you’d expect from a box of pain! Plus, it’s getting poked with a stick.

“I find the world astringent,” says a blonde woman. She has very straight hair.

“People never seem to be as moral as I’d like,” adds a short man. He has an estimable degree.

They say it together. “Let’s poke the box with a stick!”

That’s what the box is for.

The First Theory

The box has a terrorist in it. That’s why Merit City encourages you to poke the stick through the hole. It’s preventative medicine! Terrorists never visit Merit City. They’re too scared! What if they got put in the box too? They just unleash terror weapons from neighbouring jurisdictions.

Children are too sympathetic to the terrorist. They always want to feed him. “Don’t feed the terrorist!” That’s what their parents have to say.

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Why?”

“Because!”

“WHY?”

The question’s too good! The parents have to explain. “Food is what makes terrorists strong,” they say. “It contains microscopic calories that people burn for energy. Most people burn their calories to do good works and advance the cause of civilization. But a terrorist converts the special energy of calories to evil.”

Stacy feeds the terrorist anyway. She’s too sympathetic! Sentiment causes all sorts of trouble. The box makes crunching noises. Is the terrorist consuming calories and converting them to energy? Yes! Sparks fly in every direction. Zap! Zap! Zap!

“Stacy!” her mother exclaims, aghast. “You’re grounded!”

The box always smells winter-fresh. That’s how you know it’s got a terrorist in it. Terrorists smell winter-fresh!

The Second Theory

Sid is just walking along, chilling. He’s wearing a sweater, jeans, and flip-floppy shoes. He’s pretty cute, as Sid goes. Suddenly, men in black suits surround him. “Ack!” says Sid. “Now I’m underdressed!” They grab Sid and hustle him to the train tracks. Then they put him in a box!

“Well, that helps,” says Sid, somewhat mollified. He’s still not as nicely dressed as the men in black, but now no one can see.

“Ahem,” announces one of Sid’s captors. Everyone near the train turns to look. “This is a box of pain. It’s a special service — a Merit City exclusive! If you’re hurting, you should come down by the tracks. You can blame the box for your pain!”

He demonstrates. He reaches down to the ground. He picks up a stick. He pokes it through the hole in the box. He pokes Sid. “Ouch!” says Sid.

The man in black takes a deep breath and then relaxes. “I feel much better,” he says. “Everyone should try it!”

People cluster around. They blame the box for their troubles. They pick up the stick. They poke Sid through the hole. “Ouch!” says Sid.

Later, Sid says, “Er, could someone let me out of the box?” But he never says that when anyone’s around to hear. Only when he’s alone! That’s his mistake.

Sometimes, it snows, down by the train. Sid must be cold, but he never complains. Maybe the box is heated. Maybe he’s just naturally frosty. It’s difficult to say one way or the other. That’s the point of the box!

The Third Theory

Inside the box is a robot. It’s not just any robot! It’s a robotic pain. That’s the worst kind of robot. It’s an electronic nuisance!

The robot comes from the factory. The people who work at the factory wear black suits. That’s their dress code. It reduces reflections. It reduces glare! That’s what makes them so good at robotics.

“Smith,” says the boss. “Jenkins. I want you to take this robot and put it in a box. Then leave it by the tracks! It’s a Merit City exclusive. People can blame it for their pain!”

“That’s a good idea,” says Jenkins. “Otherwise, we’d have to use it for a doorstop!”

“0101101,” says the robot, mournfully.

“That’s what you think,” says Smith, and puts the robot in a box. Then he takes it down to the tracks. “Ahem,” he says. He tells people about the robot! You’ve already heard his speech.

“This is cruel to the robot,” says PETR. They break into the box. They try to free the robot. The robot zaps them. “Ow!” cry the PETR agents. “Why must humans program robots to be so mean?”

“0101101,” says the robot, with poetic irony.

PETR goes away. They can’t save this robot! It’s important to have realistic goals. “We’ll gatecrash Robot Wars and end its senseless violence!”

The winter air is crisp and clean. It’s a beautiful world.

A Mom walks by. She has a young girl and an AIBO. The AIBO sniffs the box and whines. The young girl looks at the box.

“I’ll show you, dear,” says the Mom. She picks up the stick. She pokes it through the hole. “Ouch!” says the robot.

The girl giggles. She picks up the stick. She pokes it through the hole. “Ouch!” says the robot.

Then the girl drops the stick and hugs the box. “I love you!”

“Sheila,” lectures the Mom, “don’t hug the box of pain.”

“Mommy,” says Sheila, “I want to give the box of pain my Barbie, because it’s so cool!”

The robot goes whirr-click. Then it shoots sparks at Sheila! It objects to the unrealistic portrayal of women that Barbie dolls embody.

“Hey!” Sheila says. She shoots sparks back. That’s unexpected! It must be her mutant power. Hopefully the robot’s learned its lesson about shocking five year old girls — sometimes, they bite back!

The Fourth Theory

The box is just what it says it is. It’s a box full of pain.

Never open the box! It’s very important that you don’t. If you do, the pain will get out. It’ll get into everything! Soon everyone will be hurting. Merit City won’t have public pain any more. It’ll have private pain! Ninja Buddhas will shake their fingers at you—that’s how naughty it would be!

It’s pretty obvious what you’re thinking. “You can’t lock pain up in a box!” But that just shows how much you know. The pain people feel—that’s just an echo. That’s just a memory. People haven’t known real suffering since 1963, when the first mage-smith of Merit made the first box of pain.

She was trying to make strawberry shortcake. She got the ingredients wrong.

People laugh at her when she tells that story, but shortcake is complicated! It really is! Anyone could have made that mistake!

The Angels (III/IV)

“Surprise!” says Jane’s mother. “We got you an early Christmas present.”

“Ooh!” says Jane, and tears off the wrapping. “It’s a burning bush action figure, with real prophetic action! And it sings!”

“That’s right!” announces Jane’s mother. “I knew you’d like it. I couldn’t wait for Christmas!”

“That’s very bad, mother,” lectures Jane. “Presents should wait until Christmas Day!”

“I’m sorry,” admits Jane’s mother, and hangs her head. “Here, you should light it on fire and see what action figure God says!”

“Okay!” says Jane, who can’t stay angry at her Mom long. Fwoosh! The bush catches on fire.

“I AM THAT I AM(TM),” the bush announces. “I’m a burning bush with real prophetic action!”

“Wow!” says Jane. “It’s even better than I imagined.”

“You must be Jane,” says the voice of the plastic Yahweh action figure. “That’s good! I need you to save the world.”

“I’ll do it!” Jane exclaims. “But I have to be in bed by 8.”

“You must push every software CEO in town,” explains the burning bush action figure. “PUSH! Otherwise I’ll have to blow everything up, and that’s bad.”

“That’s very bad, plastic God,” lectures Jane. “Pushing people is impolite! A good girl never pushes. Not even people with MBAs.”

“Very well,” concedes the burning bush. “You may give them a bouillon cube instead, if they do not want to be pushed.”

“Yay!” shouts Jane. “I’m going to save the world.”

“Be careful!” cries the burning bush. “You will have many enemies!”

It’s no good, burning bush action figure! Jane’s already dropped you and bolted out the door. She’s a hasty heroine!

Jane visits three CEOs. She gives two of them a bouillon cube. The third, she looks over. He doesn’t understand the importance of Ops. So she says, “Excuse me, sir, but can I push you?”

“Only if it’s necessary to save the world,” says the CEO. He laughs to himself. He’s so clever! She’ll never push him now!

PUSH! Jane runs away. You always have to get permission before pushing someone, but if it’s to save the world, they just might give it to you. That’s the lesson!

Jane’s at the mansion of a software CEO. You can pick which one! It’s guarded by fierce attack dogs. They snarl and slaver at Jane. She makes faces at them. They can’t cross the invisible fence! But Jane can’t cross it either — they’d snap her up! She pokes her finger over the fence. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! go the dogs.

Jane falls over backwards. She’s got all her fingers, but that was close!

“Oh, Heaven,” she says, looking upwards. “I have to give this CEO a bouillon cube. Or maybe push him! But I can’t — his dogs are too fierce!”

Heaven is silent. Jane gets up. She pokes a finger past the invisible fence again. The dogs look shifty. Their eyes shift back and forth! They’re discussing a suspicious plan in dog language. Jane can’t speak dog language, so she doesn’t know. All she knows is, they’re not biting her.

Slowly, she steps forward, past the invisible fence. The dogs don’t move. They just wag their ears and tails. Dogs speak in semaphore! That’s their secret.

Jane steps forward again. Suddenly, the dogs lunge! LUNGE! LUNGE! LUNGE! They look like they’re made of teeth and claws! Their eyes burn like fire and blood! Jane screams and falls down. Bouillon spills from her bouillon pocket and scatters across the ground. Oh no! She can’t give the CEO a dirty bouillon cube, can she? Plus, the dogs want to bite her in half. Jane closes her eyes.

The teeth don’t bite.

“You can chomp all you want, but you can’t bite me!” That’s a mysterious voice shouting. “No one can bite me! I’m Evasive Angel!”

Jane opens her eyes. She’s surrounded by four angels. One’s standing in front of the dogs, but every time they try to bite Evasive Angel, they miss.

Evasive Angel’s a girl. She’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for the wings. It’s got a big logo on the back that says “Evasive A.” She’s got a halo. The dogs can’t get a hold on her. It’s not that they’re bad at biting. It’s not that they don’t want to bite her. It’s just a part of who Evasive A is.

Jane looks at all the angels’ jackets. “You must be Realistic Angel, Forbidden Angel, and Magic Angel!”

“Probably not,” says Realistic A.

“Ignore her,” says Magic A. “We’re the Angel Four, and we’re here to make sure you can push this naughty CEO!”

“That’s very bad, Magic Angel,” says Jane. “You can’t push people just because Heaven wants you to.”

“Actually,” says Forbidden A, “that’s kind of a knotty theological question.”

“Can you even apply standards like that in the modern world?” wonders Realistic A.

“No one can defy me! I’m Evasive Angel!”

Jane looks confused. “How does that work?” she asks.

Evasive A takes a moment to think about it, then snaps her fingers. She doesn’t have to answer that question. She’s Evasive Angel. “That’s not important,” she declares. “What’s important is, we have a CEO to trouble!”

“Then let’s go!”

“I’ll stay here and distract the dogs,” says Evasive A. She’s scared of what awaits Jane inside. She’d rather distract the dogs. She likes dogs, and they can’t bite Evasive Angel!

Jane and the angels rush up to the mansion.

“Be careful,” says Forbidden A. “There are lasers strafing the entry hall.”

“Lasers?” asks Jane.

“Worse!” says Forbidden A. “Heat-seeking lasers! And exploding robot butlers on the other side.”

“That’s bad,” concedes Jane. “Do any of you have any special powers?”

“I can provide a pragmatic evaluation of any situation,” says Realistic A.

“I can do anything, but only sometimes,” answers Magic A.

“You aren’t supposed to think about me,” says Forbidden A. “Although people do anyway.”

“Her special power sucks,” notes Realistic A.

“Realistic Angel, how can I get past the heat-seeking lasers?”

“I’d recommend distracting them with something hot, like the sun.”

Jane searches her pockets. “I don’t have it on me!” she wails.

“Or a burning bush?”

“That either!” Jane sits down. Her lip trembles. She might have to cry. The angels are no help at all! But then she has an insight. “I know! The burning bush has an omnipresence mode. When you activate it, the burning bush is everywhere — just like in the Bible!”

“Go Jane!” says Forbidden A. Forbidden A is pretty cool, but remember that you’re not supposed to think about her!

Jane reaches out and activates the omnipresence mode. Soon, her burning bush action figure is everywhere. She turns it on. It lights on fire. “I AM THAT I AM(TM),” says the bush.

“Action figure!” commands Jane. “Distract the heat-seeking lasers.”

BURN! The burning bush action figure flares up. It’s omnipresent, so it’s in the hall too. The heat-seeking lasers all fire. Silly lasers! You’re just helping action figure God burn!

Jane and the angels dash through.

“Oh no!” cries Jane. “Exploding robot butlers!”

“That’s right,” says the chief robot butler, twirling his steel moustache. “I’m going to serve you tea, and then explode, showering you with thermonuclear radiation! No one will be able to live near you for generations!”

“But I have to push the CEO!”

“I won’t let you!” The chief robot butler laughs manically, boiling water for tea with hideous mechanical efficiency. Jane watches the pot, but how long can that save her?

Forbidden A steps forward. “Hey! Robots!”

The robots all look at her.

“Oh no!” says the chief exploding robot butler. “I’m thinking about you, but I’m not supposed to! This is an error in my programming!”

“Oh no!” say all the other robot butlers. “Us too! We’re just as bad as our boss!”

“01010101001110100101,” exclaim the robot butlers, and deactivate. Thank Heaven for Forbidden A! And then stop thinking about her!

“Let’s go!” cries Jane, and rushes onwards. But then she comes to a giant pit. It’s all that’s between her and the CEO — he’s standing on the other side. He looks lonely. No one’s come and pushed him or given him bouillon since he bought the heat-seeking lasers. He wanted to be safe, but now he doesn’t have any friends!

“I can’t jump that giant pit,” says Jane. “Can you fly me to the other side?”

“Hardly,” says Realistic A. “My wings are far too delicate.”

“I oughtn’t,” admits Forbidden A.

“Of course,” says Magic A. “But only if it works.”

“All right,” says Jane. “Then I’ll have to trust you!” She leaps into Magic A’s arms. It’s a leap of faith! Magic A backs up, then runs for the pit. She jumps!

“Hey,” says the omnipresent burning bush. “Don’t you four have tickets to a show?”

“Eep!” says Evasive A. “No one can make me late — I’m Evasive Angel!” Evasive A vanishes. Realistic A vanishes. Forbidden A vanishes.

Magic A soars with Jane across the pit, but in midair, she looks at Jane. Her face is very apologetic. “It won’t work this time,” she says. Her wings give out. She falls. Jane falls. They’re going to hit the far wall. It could break their heads! But Magic A shoves Jane back towards the center of the pit and vanishes.

Jane’s still falling. She’s thinking this: “I just wanted to give bouillon to every software CEO in town, or push them. Now I never will. I guess my burning bush action figure will have to blow up the world tomorrow.”

No, Jane! It’s not that way. The bottom of the pit is covered in stock certificates. The CEO has so many, he has to use them to pad his pit — otherwise, he’d be covered in them from head to toe! Sploosh! Jane splashes into the stock.

“Hey,” she cries up. The CEO comes curiously to the edge of the pit and looks down. “Would you like some bouillon?” she shouts.

“No, little girl,” says the CEO. “I’m too important for your dirty old bouillon. Also, please stop swimming in my stock.”

“If I can’t give you bouillon, can I at least push you?”

“I don’t see as how you have any alternative,” says the CEO, who is a realistic man.

Suddenly, Jane rises from the pit. She’s standing on the head of a colossal stock squid! If you leave stock sitting around too long, you’re going to have colossal squids — that’s just how spontaneous generation works. The stock squid rockets skyward. Jane leaps down to stand in front of the CEO.

PUSH! Then Jane runs away. The angels left for a show, but she’s got bouillon and a squid — no one can stop Jane now!