“Alaia”: Craft

Now we have said that the last toothway to New Jerusalem had failed; and if you do not recall this matter, we will refresh you here.

And of course we have told how Hank Makeway came to the gums of Kailani Tate and cleansed them; here.

And the clarification, here, and the first tooth, here, and the error, here and here.

Now the goddess asks Hank a difficult question: how can he challenge her to assert her own great worth, when he knows—as her maker—that she hath not the strength for that assertion?

She asks him in bleakness; but his answer shall be craft. . . .

Craft

“These are Drink-Deep,” Hank says, “and Paneity.”

Under the weight of her attention, the horses shy.

“They are a transformation,” Hank says. “If you wish it. What is immured in worthlessness, in Paneity, is opened to freedom in Drink-Deep.”

The toothway goddess stares into the horses’ souls. She sees herself in wine-dark shades embedded in their fires. Their shape is internal to her own; to ride the horses’ path is to travel her own road, and enter New Jerusalem.

She gives the most tenuous murmur of consent.

Hank leads the horses to the left edge of Kailani’s mouth. He puts one hand on each of the horses’ backs.

“You may still refuse,” he tells the goddess.

She is silent.

So Hank nods. “Here,” he says.

In this process the smith takes part; horses are wise, but they have not the vision to bind a goddess to her self-conceit, nor do they have a smith’s invariance of purpose. Hank is integral to the transformation, as much a beginning and ending to the young goddess’ road as the horses or the gums.

The world twists in on itself. It rushes through him, until his skin and his teeth are alive with the waves of the horses and the goddess-mind. The knot pulls tight and the mortal consciousness of Hank Makeway dissolves to foam. Only a rootless remnant of attention remains, grasping desperately in the darkness for anything that shines.

There.

The knot pops from the thread.

Something grasps for its name, uncertain if it is horse, smith, or toothway. An intolerable pressure of ignorance builds up before at last its mind gasps, Henry.

“Henry,” he says. “Hank. Hank Makeway. I’m in the toothway. I’m . . . I just . . .”

He surges up to his feet.

“Are you all right?” he says.

“That is unfair,” says the goddess. “It is taking me rather longer to locate my name, considering.”

“I’d be widely praised,” Hank says, “by cartographers, if you’d settle for I-791.”

“I-791,” she says. “Intercity 791. Alaia.”

“Alaia Goodway,” he offers.

“Is this New Jerusalem?” she asks.

“What we usually say,” Hank says, “is that the experience shares a nomenclatural homology with New Jerusalem, but is topologically distinct; or, that is, not as such.”

Skeptically she defocuses her perception of him.

“This is knowing that you are a road to New Jerusalem,” Hank Makeway says. “This is the experience that encodes the same information as an experience that being there encodes as a place. This is being a toothway bounded by Drink-Deep and Paneity, who will remind you always that at a certain point and a certain time, we said together, ‘this toothway we have built is good.'”

“This toothway we have built,” she says. “Is good.”

For a long moment Hank simply contemplates his finished task; and there is love and joy burning in him like a fire.

Then he shakes himself free of the mood and takes up again the burdens of a smith.

The truth of the road has been defined, and the truth of its purpose; but there are three months, at least, of detailing work to go.

Hank walks up and down the ways. Flesh-Ripper plants the last teeth of the lower jaw, and Crust-Cruncher of the roof. Hank and the goddess clean and sort the threads of Kailani’s destiny and make a cavity-retardant shell for all her teeth.

Sometime near the end of this the yearning for completion becomes a wistfulness.

It is hard for a smith to let a toothway go; and harder for a toothway to surrender its smith.

But inevitably they reach the point where they can no longer find any little piece of work un-done; and with a last bittersweet polishing of the enamel, Hank Makeway declares his mission closed.

“You’re as right a road as ever made by smith,” he says.

Numinous in the mouth of Kailani Tate the goddess contemplates herself; and like the seraphim she finds it just.

“I wish we were not parting,” Alaia Goodway says. “And may Lauemford treat you well.”

There is the lightest tone of teasing in her voice, and Hank sticks out his tongue before returning to his camp.

“Want the horses?” he says.

“Crust-Cruncher,” she says, “perhaps.”

So he pats Flesh-Ripper on the neck and he sets Crust-Cruncher loose. He gathers up the material implements of his craft and he cooks his last meal in Kell’s gums.

It will be four years before the main teeth come in and the standards will call this toothway safe; but Alaia is an impatient god. The first pilgrims and daredevils are riding through before Hank’s even packed his bags.

Are Siggorts? (I/I)

“What do siggorts do?” Max asks.

It’s 1979 and Max is 18 years old. He’s wearing jeans and a jacket, but he isn’t an angel. He’s a young Republican.

“Siggorts?”

Sid’s walking with Max, like he does now and then.

“Yeah,” Max says. “Like, fairies reflect the chaos, and As bring you hope, and ghosts cling to your memories, and stuff. What do siggorts do?”

Sid thinks for a moment. Then he points.

“There,” he says.

There’s a siggort, down a few streets and over.

It has one hundred hands and the parts of it move like clockwork gears. It is in constant orbit around itself and it is subject to a chaos of form. Wings spread behind it, metal wings, folding and unfolding. They reflect the sunlight so that it seems like the air is a riot of feathers. Its central portion is bulbous and smooth, roly-poly, round, like Santa’s stomach or God’s eye. Its legs are long. It has a wheel of knives. Its hands open and close and a singing rises from it like the singing of seraphim. It is vivisecting passersby. It is leaving their corpses for investigators to discover.

It is pure and it is bright and it is innocent and clean.

“Wow,” says Max. “. . . That’s a siggort too?”

“Yeah.”

Max frowns a little. “Hey, is it vivisecting that guy?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s just like in Scanning Things!“, Jane says proudly, pumping her fist, with a shocking disregard for whoever that guy who is being vivisected back in 1979 is.

“Not quite,” Martin says. “See, you tend to notice the singing before the vivisection in this history, while you had it the other way around back in the legend.”

There’s a silence.

“Maaaan!” Jane exclaims.

“So you vivisect people?”

“Yes,” Sid says.

Max pauses.

“I am currently reviewing my life to figure out whether there have been more vivisected people in it than an objective observer would expect,” Max says.

Sid makes a face.

“But I’m only coming up with that one,” Max says.

“Yeah,” Sid says. “I haven’t actually felt like vivisecting anybody yet.”

“But it’s your nature?”

“Yeah.”

They walk on for a little bit. Neither of them stops to help that guy whom the siggort is vivisecting, since, after all, siggorts happen, and there’s not much anyone can do.

Max is deep in thought. His brow is really furrowed.

Then he says, “Oh!”

“Oh?”

“It’s because you’re an isn’t,” Max says. “You aren’t. So even though you’d think, having a nature to vivisect people, that you would, you don’t. Actually. Instead you just hang out with me.”

“I am so,” Sid says, wounded.

“You’re totally an isn’t. I bet that guy getting vivisected was an isn’t, too. That’s why I don’t feel at all concerned about his fate.”

Sid looks aggrieved. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “Siggorts have been around since the dawn of the world. We’re totally not isn’ts.”

“Prove it.”

“How?”

“Vivisect me.”

Sid stares at Max for a long moment. His wheel of knives spins.

Max looks really uncomfortable. “Wait,” he says.

“You know,” says Sid bleakly, “in a lot of fairy tales, I’d have been waiting for you to say just that. I’d have been hanging out with you since you were seven so I could vivisect you, and then you’d ask me to, and I would, and as I cut open your chest I’d find the magic that was taken from me long ago and I would finally be free.”

Max shifts. He’s thinking about running, except, well, running from something like Sid doesn’t help.

“Is . . . is that going to happen?” Max asks.

Sid shakes his head.

“No,” he says.

“Then you are an isn’t!” Max says.

Sid sighs.

“Look,” Sid says. “I’ll . . .”

He tries to think of something he can do to prove he can have a substantive effect on the course of events.

“I’ll . . . I’ll get Ronald Reagan elected President. Through grassroots activism!”

Max stares at him for a while.

Finally, Max says, “Okay?”

“It’ll prove I can have a substantive effect on the course of history,” Sid points out.

“Do it, then,” Max says.

“I will!”

“Do it!”

And so Sid does.

“So that was you,” Martin says.

Sid hangs his head.

“Man,” Martin says. “I was so sure it was Dr. T.”

“Multiple citizens can participate in grassroots activism,” Sid says, stoutly.

Reversing himself with the suddenness of humor becoming outrage, Martin says, “That was so not you.”

Sid opens his mouth to protest, but . . .

“Sh!” says Jane. “Jigsawing!”

“So,” says Max.

Secretly, he’s starting to hope that Ronald Reagan will lose the election.

But the numbers aren’t good.

They’re at this little comic shop by the beach where they hang out sometimes and there’s a newspaper right there and Sid’s pointing at it and the numbers just aren’t good for President Carter.

“See?” Sid says.

“Yeah,” Max says.

He looks unhappy.

“Fine,” Max says. “You’re not an isn’t.”

Sid grins.

And Max almost hits him; and he says, “That’s not good, Sid.”

And Sid’s grin drifts away.

“That’s sick, what siggorts do.”

Sid pulls in on himself, just a little. He doesn’t look like much right now. Just a Sid.

“But still,” Sid says, “I’d rather be.”

“Is it relevant whether Reagan won?” Jane asks. “I’ve got this bit about the three fairies visiting him on the night before the election here. So we can probably figure out whether he got to be President.”

“I think we can skip it,” Martin concludes.

(April 1) What if the Tower Had a Different Cast?

The slurry of words falls always from the sky.

They are grey.

They are bits of pulp-paper, smeared with ink, torn to shreds and pouring forever over the Buffalo region.

The monster trudges along the road. He shivers in his shiny winter coat. Little grey words accumulate on his shoulders.

All around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

A bus drives by. It splashes him with data.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the bus in relationship to evil two-headed wolves that live outside the world.

“Graar!” roars the bus.

It is taking inspiration from the wolves. It is relaying the doctrine of those wolves into the world.

The bus stops at a red light.

It casts its head around. “Graar!” it roars.

If it had a mouth, it would totally eat somebody.

Ezra is a pedestrian. He looks up. His face is in a rapture. The words of the wolves are the words he has waited his whole life to hear.

“I understand,” he says. “At last.”

The bus snarls and snaps at him.

Cringing, Ezra scuttles back. He hulks low to the ground, like a two-headed beta wolf living beyond the world. He makes a low whimpering noise. But he does not go away.

The light turns green again.

Driven by the senseless imperatives of the wolves beyond the world, the bus starts moving again, lurches forward two blocks, and then pulls over against the curb.

Ezra follows, and there is something on his face of peace.

The monster trudges on.

And all around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

“I don’t understand,” Tina had said, on the phone. “It’s raining data from the sky. It’s practically begging for organization. Why don’t you set an order to it?”

“You can’t give things order when they’re asking for it,” the monster said. “That road leads to ruin.”

There’s the Rice Building to the monster’s left. Moira looks down from a window. She is dressed in an evening dress and holding a champagne glass in her hand.

She experiences contempt for the monster in the snow.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the building in relationship to Santa Claus.

A cold northern wind blows through the Rice Building. The laughter of gnomes is loud in the elevator shaft. Soft lights twinkle.

And Moira finds herself thinking, “I should give away everything I have.”

The notion is simple and lucid. She has thought herself a good person, but in the grim Santalight she recognizes that in every aspect of her virtue there is also the taint of greed. Clinging to her possessions and her comfort, she has never known true clarity of spirit.

“I should empty my bank accounts,” she says, “and give presents to the poor. And then I should slip from my skin,” she says: “Leaving it behind me as a gift for humanity or for God, and like a moth fly free.”

Ho, ho, ho, Moira! That’s the illumination of the Santalight!

The monster trudges on.

And all around him there are humans; and there are humans; and there are enemies.

Tina hesitated.

“I know a disordered thing that craves not resolution,” she says.

The monster is going to the Vatican Satellite Archive in Buffalo, where the Vatican keeps all of the various secret archives and papers that for one reason or another it prefers to keep in Buffalo.

It is a big metal building, like a bunker.

It has a giant and somewhat tacky cross on the front, and it is protected by the Swiss Guard.

“Hello,” says the monster.

“We cannot let you pass,” the Swiss Guard clarify.

And the monster’s eyes gleam—but:

“It’s all right,” Tina says.

She is standing inside the building. She is wearing a lab coat. And at her words the Swiss Guard stand down and relax.

The monster goes in.

“Come see,” she had said. “It’s the God machine.”

“Take me to it,” he says.

And she leads him down into the bowels of the building, where the deepest and darkest of the secrets that the Vatican keeps in Buffalo reside; and there he sees it, great and bulky and flashing its lights and devouring punch cards and tape—the God Machine.

“It is sick,” she says.

The monster looks at it. He taps it with the edge of his hand. He tilts his head to one side and listens to its bleeps.

“It’s the conflict with the Allah Machine and the Godless Secularist Machine,” he says.

“That’s why it’s snowing words,” Tina says. “And why every third person on the street is an enemy.”

He attempts to hierarchically order the three machines. Tina stabs him with the knife Quicksilver.

He is distracted. He can scarcely tell that he’s bleeding, but there’re grey waves of shock inside his mind.

He blinks. He shakes his head. “Huh?”

“Huh?”

“You stabbed me,” he says.

“Oh.”

“Please don’t stab me,” he says, “while I’m trying to hierarchically order God.”

Tina’s lips are a thin line.

The monster looks up. His eyes gleam. He hierarchically orders—

“OW!” he says. “Fudge!”

“I can’t take responsibility for it,” Tina says, cleaning her knife. “It’s natural that you should experience pain when attempting to place these three machines in hierarchical order.”

“I see,” the monster says. “It’s just the inexorable development of a natural process.”

“Yes.”

He looks at her. She is trying very hard not to grin.

He’s got blood all over his shiny winter coat.

“Well,” he says, “thank you for showing me.”

He turns away.

He walks up towards the street.

“You’re not going to break it or anything?” she asks.

He shrugs.

“It’s just the God Machine.”

He walks out of the Vatican Satellite Archive in Buffalo. He walks past the Swiss Guard. They’re mildly concerned about his bleeding but they can’t do anything about it because he’s not the Pope.

He staggers out among the cold grey slurry of words.

And he stumbles.

He falls.

He lays there, on the sidewalk. The humans step over him. The humans walk around him. The enemies stare at him with their shining red eyes.

And suddenly he understands.

There on the ground he laughs; and he looks up; and his eyes gleam.

And he says, “This is a world that loves not order.”

The slurry falls.

And up above the seraphim sing into the chill void of Heaven, and their words precipitate down; and they had never asked that the people of Earth should understand what it is they’ve said.

He is free.

His eyes gleam.

He says, “Systima.”

And the order of things congeals about the words, and the slurry that falls from the sky begins to bind together as it falls; and paper forms books, and books form corpuses, and even the corpuses submerge into data, and there is a swirling serpent of form assembling from the falling gunk, a mad grey thrashing snake like an elemental of the storm; and where there was emptiness there is now an answer, looking out at him from the serpent’s burning eye.

But it is not an answer that he can understand.

Paradise Forgotten

Sing, O muse, of the siege of Illidium,
That opened up the tower to the moon
And left fair Helen’s plans in ruin
And nearly unleashed destruction on the world.

Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.

The girl stands there, frozen, lifeless, shaped with that surprising finesse that mothers have upon the potter’s wheel.

“It’s all in the fingerwork,” Hippolyta says.

But soon her pride gives way to tears, and she says, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Oh, Diana, don’t wake up.”

For Hippolyta is one who knows the secrets of the world.

She’d wanted to stop the pottery partway through. Sometime during the creation of the girl Hippolyta had realized how damnable and evil her work might be; that the curse of this girl would bind her to the pagan gods, to the dark and horrid gods who’d held sway in these lands those long cold centuries before the preachers came.

So she’d wanted to stop.

But her husband hadn’t let her, and the law was on his side.

She’d shaped the girl as best as she could over the grueling months at the potter’s wheel. She’d made Diana to resist the lure of darkness. She’d made the girl to have some good in her. She’d tried, as was mandated by the law, to care.

But now the pottery is complete and the law leaves Hippolyta to her mourning.

She turns away.

She goes to her bed and she sleeps, and there she has a dream.

“We will gift her,” say the pagan gods, the ancient gods, the accursed gods. “We will gift her with our powers.”

And there is the road runner who gives unto the girl that terrible speed with which it flees the judgment of the angels.

And the coyote, part beast, part man, who gives to her that reforming, rebuilding, sanity-defying cellular regeneration that sustains him against the ceaseless wrath of God.

And the pig-beast, dwelling now in some fell sty within the Pit, who gives to her his “power of conclusion.”

And the rabbit with its cunning; and the duck with its madness; and the sheepdog; and the slovenly Fudd; and the swan.

They give the girl their gifts, one by one, and that is the dream of Hippolyta on that night.

And she wakes with a cry and she fears the curse of Galatea and she rushes to her child’s side; and she sees that beneath her husband’s ministrations her generative power has marshalled life to clay.

And her daughter, whose name is thus Diana, she takes into her arms, and she weeps, and she prays, “Let you be sacred. Let you be sacred. Let you not be damned.”

But in the girl’s eyes there is the madness of the gods.

**

It is some twelve years later.

Mars burns red in the night.

“Please,” whispers Helen.

She is an astronaut. She has earned her place on the first manned Mars mission by being approximately 40% better than any man. Yet still there is the fear.

She knows, as she has always known, from the moment her mother shaped her out of clay, that she is cursed.

“At the moment that you should achieve your greatest ambition,” say the words woven into the clay of her, the weave and weft of her, “you shall fall instead into unimaginable pain.”

She has coped in the only fashion she knows how: by intending ever greater things. From the moment success seems possible, she is setting the stage for a greater ambition; and so far, this plan has served her well.

She holds two doctorates.

She has several world records in marathon and track events.

She has played professional football; been one bad referee ruling away from a Super Bowl victory; cured cancer by developing a new kind of cell; and now she is on the first manned mission to Mars.

“Don’t let this be the one,” she says.

And she plans how she might become President, after, or scale the heights of the Omphalos; or break into the Garden that was Lost.

The ship shudders.

Mars burns.

And then the ship is gone, the spacesuit is gone, the air is gone; these things are stripped from her, and she hangs in nothingness before the great red face of Mars.

“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.

She is dying. She cannot breathe. Her eyes hurt most terribly, and she is cold.

“Helen Alexandros, I will give you power. I will make you immortal. I will give you wings. But it is God’s will that you should destroy the Earth.”

Her lips are cracked. She speaks her last breath: “Illudium.”

What this means even Helen does not know.

“You must accept, Helen. You must accept the power of Mars or you shall die, and God shall cast you down into the Pit.”

Forgive me, she thinks.

And she accepts.

**

Down into the world she plummets, burning, screaming, coated in silver.

She lands.

For a very long time, she rests upon the earth and heals.

**

There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.

She is locked there forever. She must never walk free. That is the doom worked into her—

For it is impossible, as all men know, to shape a girl from the clay who hath not her own and personal doom, in furtherance to the sin of Eve—

That she should never leave.

Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.

If she is freed then they shall be freed to swarm over the world. Then shall God turn his burning eye aside and send down Heavenly waters and the world shall drown in sorrow and in pain.

Ah!

She is fragile, Pandora.

She is easily crushed.

The law would not allow her firing.

Outside of her tower, at this very moment, the great black red-eyed dogs look up, because Helen Alexandros comes.

Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.

Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.

“You will let me through,” she says.

She is dressed not as an astronaut but as a masked supervillain: Illudium, The Swan.

And she says, “You will let me through;” and when the dogs do not yield, but rather bark, Illudium shrieks, and such is the modulation of space held in that cry that the closest dogs explode and the remaining dogs fly back, land broken.

And casually she tears the wire fence aside, and knocks from their posts the cameras, and with one shriek as from a thousand lips bursts topless the tower; and Illudium—

Sweet Helen, to tear the world asunder with her kiss—

Strides forward to take Pandora.

But:

“Beep beep!” beeps Diana, racing up from some distant region and stopping there, quivering, before Illudium;

And she is young, still, not yet the hero she will become, but something in her heart responded when the tower of Pandora fell, and so she came;

And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.

“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.

She opens her mouth. She lets forth a lick of sound, just enough to make a person’s head explode; and Diana’s face grows crisp and frizzed with black and her eyes are horrified and startled in it. But as Illudium turns away she knows that something is terribly, obscenely wrong.

Diana is not dead. She is merely holding up a sign that says, “Ow!”

Slowly, Illudium turns back.

Illudium says: “Art thou what the world has raised up as champion to me?”

“I am the urn that holds the ashes of the gods,” Diana says.

Her face is scarcely burnt at all, now. Her ears have healed.

“Then I will scatter them,” says Illudium, “and no more this world will know the presence of such gods.”

And as she conceives this intention and opens her mouth wider to kill Diana with a roar, Illudium feels a cold knife of horror twist inside her, as if she were standing in the presence of a blasphemy.

And winged words flow through Diana like a wind, and Diana says:

“They were here before your God, and they will be here after. They are the filthy things, the horrid things, the gambolers in dark places, the cold, cruel, evil lustful things, the piping praisers of the darkness at the heart of the cosmos. They are eternal and they do not yield.”

And it is in that moment, and strangely, not before, that Illudium sees—

With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—

That all that which she has valued in her life is false. That the structures of the world that should sustain her are nothing more than waypoints of purity thrust into an abyssal darkness that even the burning eye of God does not illumine. That reality is madness; and life, as malleable as clay.

And the thin black line that is Diana’s smile grows larger, and darker, and it consumes the world like the very opposite of a Cheshire cat, and for all the explosive modulation of the space inside her there is no haven for Helen Alexandros’ soul;

And “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks,” says Diana;

And of Illudium, we do not speak.

An Unclean Legacy: “Despair”

In the deepness of the night, Francescu opens a window in the air to look in on Manfred who is his brother.

Manfred is sitting, thinking, in the middle of the void.

The darkness of the onyx realm wherein Manfred dwells threatens to spill out in every direction and fill Francescu’s house.

Francescu frowns.

“I know that place,” Francescu says. “Don’t I?”

“It is the without-purpose,” says Francescu’s demon. “The sans-significance. It is the darkness that hangs around you always. It is the despair that is given unto men, to drown in the emptiness of things that have no meaning. It is the damnation that you have chosen for yourself, Francescu. It is the wet dark tendrils that crowd about your mind.”

“Oh? Is that so?” Francescu asks mildly.

Francescu’s demon sighs.

Francescu stares into the image. “What is he doing there?”

“Becoming one with it,” Francescu’s demon says.

There is a flare of terror in Francescu’s mind. The color of his fear is black and purple and he remembers the night when Manfred betrayed him and let Violet go to the shadow alone. He remembers the power and the victory in the Devil’s voice as it claimed her. Francescu finds it hard to breathe.

“His blood will turn black,” says Francescu’s demon clinically. “His eyes will darken. His skin will grow paler, and damp. He is strong, so he will return to the world, but he will not be human any longer. He will be an elder thing, corrupted eternally from his nature.”

“No,” Francescu says.

He is dizzy.

“You could save him,” says Francescu’s demon.

The angel looks speculatively across Francescu’s shoulders. Then, after a moment, it nods. “You could.”

Francescu licks his lips.

“I can’t,” he says.

“Why not?”

“It’s what he’s always been,” Francescu says. “He was not born to be my knight. He was born to be despair.”

But Francescu is not altogether weak. He carves into the air a spell to clarify his thoughts: *&2->^^

His mind calms. He struggles his way through fear towards reason.

“Francescu,” murmurs his angel, softly.

Francescu sketches an @ under those symbols and stares through it at Manfred.

“You’re right,” he says. “Of course. I should save him. I should try—”

Through his magic Francescu sees that there is nothing around Manfred but the creature of the void. And he sees more: that sluggish and cold black blood is drifting through Manfred’s veins, mixed with the natural blue; that Manfred’s eyes are darker than they were; that Manfred’s mind has ceased its turmoil and found a cold and terrible peace.

“Oh, God,” says Francescu.

He banishes the window. He hides his face against his hands.

“It is too late.”

And slowly his heart calms, and his mind grows easy, and there is the breath of the void on Francescu’s soul.

He closes his eyes.

In the cold wet darkness of his mind he knows the peace of nothing mattering at all.

This is how Manfred breaks his chains, in the place beyond the world, and learns to kill.

This is how, in ignorance and fear, Francescu decides that Manfred must be slain; how, in ignorance and rage, Manfred conceives the desire for Sophie’s death.

These are the stories of “Despair,” the twenty-fourth installment of An Unclean Legacy. They begin here, but here is not their ending. They will end in Castle Gargamel, when Sophie, Francescu, and Manfred meet; in blood and pain, at the base of Montechristien’s tower, beneath the threshing machine and the hundred gold eidolons of Montechristien Gargamel.

Manfred sits in the center of his island of dirt. He does not look at its edges, which are slowly falling away into the void.

He is calm. He is meditative. He is thinking.

“I’m not very good at thinking my way out of things,” Manfred admits.

The void is silent.

“It seems to me,” he says, “that I should take responsibility for my sin, even though I am still unsure why you should call Rachel Saraman my sister. But here is my reasoning.”

A cold wind blows.

“In all my life, Santrieste has shown me nothing but loyalty. He has borne me up when I would have fallen into darkness and he has counseled me—against, perhaps, his own best inclinations—towards the good. And it was my own need and desire that blinded me to his counsel in favor of the Devil’s. It is because I was desperate to take shelter in a mortal thing, a fallible person, a woman who was not a chain to my morality, that I listened to Sophie’s lies and Rachel’s blandishments. I have complained all my life that I am bound to my virtue and so cannot truly be good, but when I had the choice between clinging to those chains and burying myself in the filth of the material world, I chose the latter. So I cannot deny that the fault for this is mine.”

And the void laughs.

“Why do you laugh?”

“That Manfred Gargamel would call a Saraman filth.”

But Manfred, who had scarcely known Yseult and never knew Rachel, only squints and shakes his head.

“So here I am,” he says. “Exiled from mortal company. Tested by my God.”

The void is silent.

“I cannot be as you are,” Manfred says. Slowly, he rises to his feet. “I cannot be as she is. I will not let my sin consume me.”

He looks around him.

The air is not air. It is a screen of blankness over the shifting of endless tendrils of the creature’s flesh. The sand is not sand: it is the grit in the onyx creature’s maw. The seething purple aurora and the points of light above like stars are nothing more than striations in the living void.

It is in him. He is breathing it. He is respiring it through his pores, and suspiring from him is Manfred. He is one with it, the tendrils of its nerves in amongst his nerves, the onyx blood of the void mixing with his blood.

Slowly, he knows, if he remains, he will grow quiet and still and the nature that was Manfred’s will cease.

An Unclean Legacy


“Despair”

“What were you?” Manfred asks. “Before?”

The void speaks its name. And Manfred bows his head, humbled by that word.

“I’m sorry,” Manfred says.

Then along the nerves of the onyx void, entangled with his nerves, runs Manfred’s will. Then through the flesh and blood of the void, mixing with Manfred’s flesh and blood, runs Manfred’s strength.

With the body of the void Manfred seizes the void.

With the great ropey tendrils of the void Manfred grasps the creature that surrounds him. He seizes its eyes, its throats, its heart.

“Since I was young,” says Manfred, as he drags the void down into the void, twists the void about the void, throttles the void with its own substance, “people have feared my strength. But I have never used more than the tenth part of it, because my flesh is too frail and would tear.”

The void seizes him about the chest. It crushes him as he is crushing it. Manfred coughs out red-black blood and for a moment his eyes go lifeless, but then he recovers and shoves the void away.

“I will kill you here, son of Heaven,” Manfred says.

His oath burns on his arms. Manfred slides the slick onyx tendrils of the void under his brassards, his oath, his chains, and he rips them all away. There is an explosion, golden and white, that sears him and the void. All around him it is white and hot for a moment before wet chill returns. The great eye of the void below him is burnt; it is red and black and crisp and screaming.

Manfred crushes the void down to thinness and to hardness.

He can feel himself refracted, present in a hundred places simultaneously, as the world around the world bends down. The tension is too much for anything to bear, and Manfred screams.

Then it is gone.

The void surrenders, with one long echoing exhalation.

There is no void. There is no onyx realm. There is only Manfred.

So he climbs from an ichorous well into the world, naked and coughing out black gunk, with a bent and crooked black stick in his right hand; and the tip of it is iron.

His arms hurt. They ache with fire. They are surrounded by the burning red absence of his oath.

He rubs them with the substance of the onyx realm. It cakes and hardens and turns scarlet, and slowly his arms grow cool.

Overhead, the sun is bright. The leaves of the trees wave gently in the wind. The world is beautiful.

“Come,” he says, and from the well rises his steed.

Manfred looks down at his hands, his arms, his body, at the monster of absence and despair that he holds in his right hand. Almost, he begins to sob.

But he does not, because first he must kill his half-sister Rachel Saraman and take a bath, which things he does.

But what of Sophie, who strove alone against the Devil and his plans?

Tomorrow, a special Unclean Legacy: “Red.”

An Unclean Legacy: “Sophie and the Devil”

That night as the questing shadow comes Sophie does not run.

She stands there and the moonlight is behind her so she shines.

There is a sword of bone in her hand.

So dead old Baltasar stops and he stares at her through his ruined eyes. She does not move.

Slowly, taut with the pain of moving his broken body, he steps forward.

“Tonight,” says Sophie, in a clear and ringing voice, “I will destroy you. Or I will make you my slave. Or I will force you to leave me alone for all of the days of the world. Or, should I be vindictive, should I be angry for these past seven years, I will strip you of your throne as King of Hell and assign it instead to some lesser evil, such as a malevolent frog or Francescu’s shoulder demon. Then you will have to bow and simper and cower to it for all the days of your existence.”

There is a pause.

“And should I fail,” Sophie adds, in a concession to realism, “then I will try again tomorrow night, and the night after, and each night that follows until I succeed, and I will make you suffer more strongly for each night I have suffered before then. You have tested me and I have not broken. You may hunt me again each night between now and forever and it will only give me another chance to win.”

There is moonlight in her hair.

You are mine, and you will be mine, says the shadow.

But the shadow is hesitating, and it is more than just the ruination of the corpse.

Sophie lowers her sword. She points it at the shadow.

“Do we begin?”

And . . .

Once upon a time there was a seraph who had a different vision for the world than God’s.

He rejected the drive that would lead the world to grace. And God said to him, “Then I shall cast you from Heaven into the blue realm, whence you may strive against me to bring harmony and fellowship into the world even when it opposes the fabric of the greater design.”

“No,” said that seraph.

“Is it the purple realm, then, that calls you? Are you to be a servant of the life?”

“I am indifferent to life,” said that seraph.

“Then you may choose the onyx realm, though it sorrows me, the realm of Saraman and Santrieste; the realm that dreams of silence and the dark.”

“There is a realm of burning red,” that seraph said.

And God hardened his heart against that seraph and cast him down into the fire of the pit; and everlasting damnation decreed against him; and shattered in him forever the understanding of God’s grace.

Now that fallen creature seeks to turn men and women from the path of righteousness. Now he seeks the damnation of the world. As the serpent he broke the Garden of Eden. As the reveler in white he brought the flood. As the red giant he fought with Montechristien Gargamel. As old dead Baltasar he hunted Sophie down the road.

He will not rest while grace exists within this world. He is the architect of sin.

The shadow forces words from dead Baltasar’s lungs. “We will not start yet.”

Suddenly there is a chill in Sophie. Every sense is telling her that behind her there are eyes. Her hackles rise. She casts about with her mind, but there is no physical location sourcing this unease; it is “behind” her in the realm of spirit. The attention grows more strict; more fierce; more painful. There is a flare of red and black in her mind.

Her legs go nerveless and she sits.

The thing in dead old Baltasar sits down opposite her. It writhes inside the corpse. Then it abandons it. The corpse dissolves. Body parts black and blue and rotten fall to every side. Shadow dissipates.

Sophie glimpses a portal to another realm in the Devil’s shapelessness. It is a horror too great for her mind to comprehend. She squints, trying to filter it down to pieces she can grasp, but by that time it is too late. The enemy has chosen its new form.

It has become a lean and elfin man, four feet tall. He has horns. They are simple, curved, and short.

He is shirtless, though trousers hide his shame.

He is red, red, red, and his shapeless cap is white.

“I do not wish to engage you on those terms,” says the horned man.

Sophie forces out these words: “It is beyond your power to change.”

“I am a coward,” says the horned man casually. “It is because I have so much to lose. So we will converse, you and I, and find another way to settle our affair.”

“This is not a conversation,” Sophie points out, struggling even to speak.

“Ah.”

The sense of a predator’s gaze vanishes away. Feeling returns to Sophie’s limbs. She curls in on herself, gasping in breath, shivering, recovering, restoring order to her mind.

“It is not my specific intention to hurt you, though I am perfectly willing to see you in agony,” the horned man says. “You do not find my attentions enjoyable because change is distressing, and I must change you.”

Sophie half-looks up, squinting. “Why?”

An Unclean Legacy


“Sophie and the Devil”

The horned man tilts his head to the side. “Will I gain points with you, Sophie, for answering that question?”

“If the answer doesn’t suck.”

“I disagree with God as to the proper purpose for this world,” the horned man says. He stands up. Sophie notices for the first time that his trousers include pointed booties for his feet, and it is only because she is exhausted and terrified and wounded that she is successful in smothering her laughter. “He directs it like a symphony towards a kingdom of eternal grace. But I find it more interesting to develop its potential for drama and tragedy.”

Sophie is staring at him.

“What?” the Devil asks, irritably.

“You’re still trying to oppose him?”

The red thing laughs. “I would think you of all people would understand that, Sophie.”

Sophie blushes a little. “Yes,” she says, “I mean, sure, but still?

The red thing frowns, just a little.

“In truth,” he says. “I am winning. It is the nature of humanity to count as my victories their sins and their sorrows, these petty things that win one soul at a time away from God’s eternal kingdom. Then they see sorrow and tragedy in the world and they cry out, ‘Lord, why are you cruel?’

“The former may be my work, but the latter is my pride. When God is cruel, I am victorious. When God makes people suffer. When he tests. When he punishes. When he turns a blind eye to pain. Those are the points of my victory. Those are the compromises that he makes with my red purpose to achieve his eventual kingdom.”

“. . . I am not theologically prepared to debate the problem of pain with you at this time,” Sophie says, a little dazed.

The Devil grins.

“That’s so,” he says. “In truth, you are probably best served by listening to nothing that I say. But if you did not, we could not talk, and then I would continue troubling your life.”

“So what do you want?”

“You can be anything I want,” the red thing says. “That is the gift your father gave you, that he never had reason to explain. It is your most marvelous quality: that you alone in all the world can be anything that anybody wants.”

“Anything?”

“The damnation of the world,” says the Devil. “The destruction of Montechristien. You can be everything that I desire. And yet you prefer to be a bunch of animals at once or a girl with a sword growing out of her hand.”

“Oh.”

“It is vexing,” says the Devil, “and we will resolve the matter tonight.”

Time for theology! Can you minimally adjust Pseudo-Dionysus’ hierarchy of angels to include matrices of blue energy in human shape, three apples high, wearing shapeless white caps?

Can proper Biblical exegesis reveal more about these strange creatures? Are there oblique references in Ezekiel 15 to the doom ‘Handy’ worked on Israel? Did ‘Batty’ save Zipporah and Moses from a giant snake?

Make sure to read the first nineteen installments of this story, and tune in Friday for a special Unclean Legacy: “The Duel!”

An Unclean Legacy: “How Elisabet Saved Christmas”

Once upon a time, Montechristien traveled to where his brother worked.

Montechristien leaned upon a heavy staff as he walked. Rain dripped through his thinning hair.

He pounded once, twice, thrice on the door of Baltasar’s tower.

And Baltasar answered.

“Brother,” said Montechristien. “I have come to beg.”

Baltasar sneered. “As you have always done.”

“I know what sorcery you plan to work,” said Montechristien. “I cannot let you do this thing. Please stop.”

Baltasar rose to his full height in anger. His teeth clenched. Lightning flashed.

“Gar-ga-mel?” he asked.

And Montechristien found himself fighting not to cringe, for all that years with Yseult have given him some strength.

“You plan to summon and bind the tripartite God,” Montechristien said. “It is madness.”

Baltasar turned aside, as if he did not object to Montechristien’s defiance. He gestured his brother inside.

“I told your woman,” said Baltasar, “that the two of us share a soul.”

Montechristien brushed the mud from his feet. He walked inside.

“I told her that it would do her no harm to sleep with me,” said Baltasar. “For when two men share a single soul, they share a single seed—and, in fact, that that seed is mine. So why refuse me? I asked. When you have borne me six children already?”

Montechristien held his face tight against anger.

“They are your children as well,” Montechristien agreed. “You should visit them.”

“She did not believe me,” said Baltasar. “She shouted, ‘I can’t have had your children! You’re weird old Baltasar!'”

Montechristien started to grin. But Baltasar’s eyes flashed and thunder boomed and the smile vanished from Montechristien’s face.

“Then she shouted, ‘Ack! Yagg! Igg! Ptui!’ and began to spit.”

“To . . . spit?”

“. . . I don’t understand why she thought it would help,” Baltasar confessed.

Montechristien nodded.

“So she hurt your pride.”

“She inspired me,” snapped Baltasar. “She showed me how low I have fallen—I, whom you once called your master! So I will redress this. You will have your pathetic golden eidolons. I will infuse myself with God!

“I could stop you,” said Montechristien.

“You won’t!” said Baltasar. Then he spun on Montechristien. He thrust out his palm. Montechristien, on ancient reflex, flung himself back into the corner and cowered.

From Baltasar’s outthrust hand a mandala of energy grew. Then seven more formed around it. Each touched the others; each orbited the others; each served as the center of the pattern. Among them were faces, wings, fires, jade, and gold.

“In truth,” laughed Baltasar, “I have waited only for your arrival. I have learned to manifest it, brother! The one pattern that can bind even God Himself—the Wheel of Enoch!

Montechristien feared his brother of old. But for Yseult’s sake, he marshaled his own powers.

He was too late.

Baltasar flung back his head. His eyes went white. There was a great wind before the throne in Heaven and the seraphim cried out. The sun and the stars and the planets froze in their procession. The whole world shook.

But Baltasar did not summon God.

From above him, below him, around him, from the center of the wheels, hands stretched for Baltasar, red and black and burning hands.

They seized him.

They clawed at him.

They carried him screaming away.

And three days later Montechristien returned to Castle Gargamel and said disconsolately to his wife, “Now I am damned.”

“Pookie—”

Yseult touched Montechristien’s hands, his arms, his face, but it took warmer measures to console him.

Thus did Montechristien and Yseult conceive the ninja, Elisabet.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the seventeenth installment of the story of that time.

A magical reindeer flies down from the sky and lands before an fifteen-year-old Elisabet.

Its nose shines red.

It says, “Elisabet Gargamel?”

Elisabet has been practicing with her shuriken. She ceases, now. She turns, and fades into human shape. She smiles at the reindeer, charmed.

“Yes,” she says.

“You are needed at the North Pole. Christmas is in danger!”

“I am a ninja,” says Elisabet.

“Yes?”

“Please forgive me,” Elisabet says, with an unusual formality. “But I must explain that I cannot box presents or make toys or cure a sick Santa or see through fog. The duty of a ninja is to kill those who must be killed.”

The reindeer tilts its head to one side. “That is not exactly the Oriental tradition….”

Elisabet shrugs.

“Well,” says Santa’s reindeer, “in any case, there’s killing to be done.”

“Yay!” says Elisabet. “I can save Christmas!”

She looks around.

“And you don’t want Manfred? Or Tomas? Or anything?”

“I was sent for you.”

So Elisabet gets a wide smile and says, smugly, “Cool.”

“Come on,” says the reindeer.

So Elisabet gets on its back and rides the reindeer up into the sky.

An Unclean Legacy


How Elisabet Saved Christmas

“Why do you want me?” Elisabet asks, as she rides.

“You’re nice,” summarizes the reindeer.

“Wow,” says Elisabet. She blushes a little.

“There aren’t many supernaturally-effective killing machines on Santa’s nice list,” the reindeer explains.

“It’s because of the life,” Elisabet says.

“The life?”

“Daddy says that Yseult gave me all her leftover life when she died. That I’m more like her than anyone else. And she was really cool, although she wasn’t a supernatural killing machine.”

“She was on the nice list too,” the reindeer agrees.

Elisabet giggles.

“But she always tried to shake down Santa for coal instead of presents,” the reindeer reminisces. “She’d set traps for him, you know. He was too nimble! She couldn’t catch him.”

“Hee hee,” laughs Elisabet.

The reindeer is arcing down now into a land of snow and tinsel. The air is cold and Elisabet’s breath puffs out black. The great candy-cane marker for Santa’s workshop is ahead. But the reindeer does not land there. Instead, it lands on a field of ice nearly a mile and a half from the north pole.

Elisabet gets down.

“I don’t get to see Santa?”

“There’s no time,” the reindeer says. “The centipede is almost here.”

Elisabet looks to the west. She sees it there: a great hundred-legged monster, shrouded in shadows and in fire, eight feet wide and two hundred feet long.

“That?” she says.

“It is the child of a centipede and the Devil,” says the reindeer. “So naturally it wants to destroy Christmas. Each day, it comes for Santa, and we lose more lives holding it back.”

Elisabet steps away from the reindeer. She stands there on the ice, desolate and alone.

Her bangs blow in the wind.

“Is this the destiny of Christmas?” Elisabet asks.

Snow falls gently around her.

“Does even the innocence of the holidays draw to itself the sorrow and the pain of all this troubled world? Will there ever be love and peace that is not transient? Tinsel that is not stained with blood?”

Elisabet bows her head. She squeezes her eyes shut.

“I don’t know what to say,” the reindeer admits.

Elisabet sets her jaw. She opens her eyes. She puts her hands on her swords. She dissolves her human shape and becomes a thing of shadowy protoplasm.

“I am ready,” Elisabet says.

Then the air is hot and smoky. The centipede’s great head comes down towards her. But Elisabet has already leapt into the sky. A dozen blades wing from her hands and burrow into its flesh.

“Rowr!” shrieks the centipede, and it flails for her. It catches her with one great limb but Elisabet dissolves around its touch and leaves behind only a poisoned needle that numbs it.

The ice grows hot with their battle and turns to water. The tinsel-coated trees fall down. There is thunder and heat all across the northern wastes.

Hours pass.

The centipede strikes at Elisabet in the air. Elisabet twists with the unnatural dexterity of her shadowy form and catches the end of its limb. She drags it after her using a force-redirection technique. The centipede falls onto its back. It lands amidst the melt of their battle, and she stands on its chest and stares at it with creepy ninja eyes.

It stops moving. It is chilled by what it sees in her eyes.

Slowly its head sinks back beneath the water.

Let me go, it pleads.

It cannot move. It is drowning.

I will spare Christmas. I will live in peace. I will serve you.

Elisabet does not relent.

The centipede thrashes once, twice, three times, and then it dies.

And that’s how Elisabet saved Christmas!

Wasn’t that a heartwarming holiday tale?

Check back on Monday for the conclusion of Elisabet’s story: “Way of the Ninja!”

Ink is Backstage: “Unexplorable Places”

the continuing adventures of Ink Catherly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

The sun is bright yellow paint on hard wood paneling. There are birds. They dangle from the sky on wires.

The people are happy. They are cardboard cutouts.

The girl wanders among them with a smile on her face. She touches a cardboard woman feeding pigeons in the park. She touches a cardboard man suffering in a cell for political prisoners. She scribbles down details about a cardboard gunman standing on a grassy knoll. Then she spins around and around and runs on the soft felt grass before finally stopping next to a realistic plastic phone booth.

“What a wonderful place!” she says.

There is a footfall. It is like thunder.

The girl looks over her shoulder.

“Except for the gorgosaurus,” she says. She takes out her journal. She takes down a note.

Looking at the gorgosaurus, she adds, “I hope you are not hungry.”

It issues a terrible roar.

Floor 62: I saw a creature made of mouths and sorrow.

“As fair warning,” the creature said, “Ink Catherly has certain misconceptions regarding her nature and destiny, and these are going to lead her astray. She cannot be trusted in such matters. If you wish to understand her truths, you must watch the world around her. Those fates that govern her life have taken the unusual course of arrogating to her exactly what Ink Catherly deserves.

“As for you, that is not so.”

Addendum, in a different hand:
It’s weird to think that creatures made of mouths and sorrow were talking about me long before I came to the tower. It’s weird to think that I’m so thoroughly wrong about myself that random damned souls are getting a briefing on the subject. But what really bugs me is that here I am on floor 62 and the only tangible weird thing I could find was a can of Spaghetti-Os.

It was past its “use by” date. Its packaging gave me no cryptic oracles. When I opened its handy pull-tab top a thing fell out, wrapped in layers of crispy, paper-like skin. It struggled, mewled, and tore the layers away. Its skin and eyes and wings beneath shone like jewels. It rose into the air and I gasped and the light hurt my eyes. I conclude that it was canned mistakenly, and that in perhaps one in a million Chef Boyardee products unplanned seraphim are packed.* Also there was pasta, and spaghetti sauce, and meatballs, which were all skinny so I did not eat them.

* Seraphim and/or other valuable prizes.

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. She might tell you that it’s short for Inquisitive. She is, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Inconclusive. Her journey has been, so far, but her name is not. She might tell you that it’s short for Incompatible, but if she does, she’s unlikely to tell you why.

She is hiding in a phone booth.

“I don’t see why there should be gorgosauruses here,” Ink says, plaintively.

She dials 911. The phone rings in a police station far away. The cardboard cutouts of police officers fail to answer.

“Come out,” rumbles the beast. “We will discuss the matter.”

“You are a huge meat-eating dinosaur that lived during the Cretaceous period,” Ink says. “I am a twelve-year-old girl. How can we negotiate on an equal footing?”

The gorgosaurus crouches down. It tilts its massive head on one side and stares in at her. “I am willing to vouchsafe assurances of peaceful behavior.”

“That is not my interpretation of your earlier roar,” Ink notes.

“A passing rage,” the gorgosaurus says dismissively. “I had assumed you were a small egg-eating mammal loose among the cutouts.”

“I do eat eggs,” Ink admits unwisely.

The nostrils of the beast contract. It rumbles the broken-motor purr typical of dinosaurs in the grip of a strong emotion. “Then perhaps it is best that we negotiate through the glass. How have you come here, child?”

“I am exploring.”

“This is not a valid location for exploration,” the beast says flatly.

Ink opens her mouth to explain that she doesn’t intend to stay. But the injustice of the gorgosaurus’ remark is too much for her. “There isn’t any such place!”

She takes a deep breath.

Then Ink says, all in one long stream, “It is fundamental to the character of every fixed location that it should be a valid location to explore. For if it is not then its traits remain unknown. Its impact on the broader world remains unknown. Any quality that it might have that could render that exploration illegitimate ceases as a direct consequence of its unexplorability to matter. Because it could never be unearthed. Because it would never have a comprehensible, coherent impact on anything in the surrounding world. Unexplored lands are nonexistent. They are meaningless. They are chaotic, empty voids pleading against the wind for travelers to chart them. To declare a place unexplorable is to make it a home for chaos without boundaries and monsters without number. And if there are boundaries that we cannot cross then those boundaries must be charted and the things that pass in and out weighed and measured. And every place that we—”

Here she runs out of breath and sways dizzily for a moment. She puts her hand to her forehead, then shakes her head and hand alike.

There is a pause.

“And every place that we cannot explore,” Ink summarizes, “becomes the same place: the endless hungry void.”

The gorgosaurus shrugs heavily.

“This is not a location,” it says. “This is a context. This is the backstage of Earth, where various gorgosauruses create and dispose with the things of your world.”

There is a crash in the distance.

The gorgosaurus winces.

“What was that?” Ink asks.

“An accidental disposition,” the gorgosaurus says.

“What?”

“We are clumsy creatures,” says the gorgosaurus, in heavy tones, “to be the makers and disposers of your world.”

The gorgosaurus does not look penitent. It looks like it been rehearsing this speech in its head for some time, in case it should ever have to justify itself to a human.

Ink looks confused. “What?”

“Not in vision,” the gorgosaurus says. “Not in vision we are clumsy, but in our hands. Our hands are stubby, twisted, and small. So that is why sometimes things must fall.”

Visions of dead bodies and burning cities flare up in Ink’s mind. Suddenly she thinks she knows what the gorgosaurus means by ‘fall’, and she half-says, half-shrieks, “Like?

The gorgosaurus is rumbling again. Its lips have come back from its terrible sharp teeth. This frightens Ink, and she holds up her hands in a conciliatory gesture.

“I just want to understand,” Ink says, moderating her tone. “For the record of my exploration. What kinds of things ‘must fall?'”

“The practice of gold panning,” says the gorgosaurus. “The popularity of disco. Passion plays. Communism. Things like that.”

“Oh,” Ink says.

“The things we make for you,” says the gorgosaurus, “but cannot quite manage to balance.”

There is another distant crash.

Somewhere, somewhen, backstage, the ungainly hands of a gorgosaurus have just sealed the mullet’s fate.

Intermission 1

Angels, Sorvins, Humans, Lancasters, Bainbridges, and Jacks

. . . having long since discovered that the desire to blame and vilify victims was in his cosmos empirically correct, but remaining somewhat mistaken as to the reason,

Bainbridge walks the streets of Neo-Heaven.

“When the world was new,” says Bainbridge, broadly gesturing, “we built all of this, Jack.”

Jack looks dubious. “You can’t have made the marble and the heights.”

“We did.”

“Perhaps you mean the ivy and the dust.”

“Not so!”

“The cracks and all the crumbling and flickering lights and broken walls—these things, you mean?”

Bainbridge snorts.

“Such insolence,” he says. “But I spoke truth, my Jack. Beneath these streets our ‘subway’ carried people to and fro at great speeds. And through those wires above we made electric power flow at need. And all the marble buildings sculpted by our hands, and all the long-lost glories were made unto our plan.”

“Admirable,” says Jack. “The angels in their cages, too?”

Bainbridge cuffs Jack.

“It’s rude to speak of them,” he says.

Jack holds the side of his face.

“When I was just a boy,” says Jack, “so very long ago, an angel told me some of this they made, you know.”

“Pshaw. They have no need for making like us men, young Jack.”

“It seems their kind of work, and so—”

“We were not quite so humbled then, young Jack.”

Bainbridge stalks through the streets.

“We were ever so much grander then when we did not have Jacks to pull us down,” he says. “And if there is a failing in this place then it must lie upon your heads, I trow.”

Bainbridge strides on.

“Still!” he says. “Today we’ll play a part that does those ancients justice, Jack. We’ll hold at bay that final darkness that we can’t drive back.”

Jack has stopped. He’s staring into one of the angel cages. The cage is old rusted metal. The angel is a sorvin-angel, a strange creature, a withered homunculus. One might easily imagine it a shrunken, degenerate remnant of a great and noble seraph. It has great limpid eyes and ratty wings and it is huddled tight and gnawing on its own feathers.

“Poor thing,” says Jack. “That wing can’t taste too good.”

He gets a wicked look upon his face.

“I could let you go, you know. I really could.”

The angel looks up at him with weary eyes. Jack squats down.

“We’d make a little bargain, you and me. You’d set yourself on Bainbridge if I set you free. You’d drive him with your wings into a screaming fit and fly away like thunder when he’s lost his wits.”

The angel makes a keening, suggestive noise.

“It isn’t right to kill him, not today. But surely you could satisfy yourself with merry play.”

The angel hesitates. Then it nods.

Jack reaches into the cage. The angel is very still. Jack ties a string around the angel’s foot, because he is already plotting treachery against it. He feeds the string out to the entrance to the cage, and then opens the door and seizes the string in one motion.

“Ha ha! Ha ha! Bainbridge! Look what I have here! You’ll never guess, you’ll never guess, it’s the most unexpected jest.”

Bainbridge turns.

Jack is running towards Bainbridge, dragging the angel by the string. The angel is skittering and bouncing on the ground in Jack’s wake, smeared in dust and bloodied by gravel. But it is getting its bearings with each bounce, and now it is in a crouch that becomes a lope and then it is launching itself at Bainbridge’s face.

“Bad angel!” says Jack.

The angel is clawing at Bainbridge’s face. Bainbridge is howling and beating it back. Jack pulls hard on the string.

The angel tries to flutter away. Jack pulls harder, reeling it in with a nasty look on his face.

“Bad angel,” Jack says again. “I only wanted you to give Bainbridge a fright, and there you go off straightaway for th’ master’s eyes.”

There is blood all over Bainbridge’s face.

Jack has the sorvin-angel in his hands now. It squirms. Jack’s hands are wrapped around its throat. Jack begins to choke it.

Bainbridge finally clears the blood from his eyes. He peers at Jack.

“Jack,” he says, warningly.

“Just a little pressure on the carotids, sir.”

“Jack.”

“You always say searing pain is good for me.

“Jack.”

“It’s all the angel’s fault for what it plotted, sir.”

“A pleasant little jest is all it is, eh, Jack?”

Jack hears the danger in Bainbridge’s tone. He lightens the pressure slightly.

“I’m sure you’ll still be laughing when I pay it back.”

Jack’s lower lip flutters into a pout.

“Bad things will happen if you continue on this path. We do not hurt the angels more, Jack.”

So Jack drags the angel back into a cage and seals the door and sighs. “It was merry, wasn’t it?”

“Merry,” says Bainbridge. “Yes. That must be it.”

“It did not hurt?” says Jack.

“Not hurt. Just sad. That you would be so vicious and so bad.”

Jack giggles.

Bainbridge says, with jovial relish in his voice, “But I have something planned to make things right again.”

That silences Jack’s laugh.

They walk along.

Jack passes an angel struggling with the bars of its cage. He leans in and whispers to the angel, “I heard that once upon a time there were no Jacks at all. That everyone was Bainbridges before the fall. It’s hard to be a Bainbridge but it’s not as bad. The Jacks are worthless trash but still their lot is sad.”

“Don’t lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”

“It’s not a lie. I heard it. It was some time back.”

“Don’t ever lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”

“Fine, whatever, it was a lie,” sulks Jack.

They reach the cathedral of Metatron. Bainbridge sets his shoulders. He sighs. “And here we are.”

“What lies within?”

“The angel-system Metatron, that speaks for God. A terrible devourer—”

“It is rather odd that we would seek it out—”

“It threatens at all times to tear our city down and put an end to all the works of humankind. I wish that we could leave—”

“I wouldn’t mind!”

“But here we are.”

Bainbridge pushes open the doors. He walks in.

Inside the cathedral it is dark, save for a single spot of sunlight on the floor. It corresponds to a high window on the far wall. The floor is very dusty.

There is a hissing and a trembling in the air.

“You have brought me food,” says the voice of Metatron. “You have brought me offerings. Bring the Jack closer. Let me speak to it.”

Jack is trembling. He is shivering. But he lets Bainbridge push him forward into the room, and Bainbridge follows, and closes the doors behind them.

“Little Jack,” says Metatron’s voice. “Do you know why you are here? Do you know why you are here to be fed to me?”

“Three Bainbridges they pushed me down,” says Jack. “They laughed and used me ill and then they frowned. ‘Too bad,’ they said. ‘You’re now a Jack.’ It’s true! . . . That’s when I realized that I’ve always been—I mean—”

Metatron’s voice is heavy and weary. “Such is the standard origin of sin,” it says.

“—I’ve always been a worthless Jack, and now I knew; and that is in the end why I am meeting you. . . . Is that really where my sin came from? I was never sure,” Jack says.

“When someone is a victim, Jack, it gives rise to a hidden and much deeper and forbidden truth: that they were never worthy to begin with, Jack. In victimizing you they proved your heart was black. It made you not a Bainbridge but a Jack.”

Jack giggles.

“What?” Bainbridge asks.

“No wonder Bainbridges so strive to hide their pain,” says Jack. “I’d never had the words for it till God explained.”

There is a shimmering light around Jack now.

“I would exploit this knowledge fully in my worthless way,” says Jack, “except it seems that Metatron will feast on Jack today.”

Jack screams and burns from the inside out and his ashes fall.

“I cannot help but smile now to see him dead,” says Bainbridge.

“Oh?”

Bainbridge grins viciously. “Though he’d deserved a far more painful death, instead.”

Metatron is quiet, considering.

“I wish we were not troubled so with Jacks,” says Bainbridge. “There weren’t so many once, you know. We lacked the power to hold back the darkness even then but there was just a chance that we could rise again. We kept the power running, angel, as a rule—”

The voice of Metatron whispers: “Alas that Bainbridges are far too cruel.”

Bainbridge shakes his head, not following.

“It’s this growing trend. I do not understand its source. So many Jacks! It’s always growing worse and in good time House Bainbridge too will fall. Please—”

“You wonder if the Jacks will do the job when they are all—”

“That’s right.”

“That’s left.”

There is a pause.

“O Bainbridge,” says Metatron. Its voice is rich with amusement. “Your predecessors held these very fears for you.”

“I will not speak of those who came before,” snaps Bainbridge.

“Then we will not speak of them,” Metatron says. “But I will give you this much peace: the Jacks will come here for a time, at least.”

There is silence.

“It’s time, isn’t it?” Bainbridge says.

“Yes.”

“I could go,” says Bainbridge. “And bring you a second Jack. If that would work.”

“Come forward.”

“I come,” says Bainbridge, coming forward.

“Kneel.”

“I kneel.”

Bainbridge burns; and he does not scream.

For a Bainbridge is not like a Jack, he thinks. He has the worth he needs to sacrifice, and not complain, when greater powers demand his pain.

The Gift

On June 30, 1908, magical jaguars in a decaying orbit around the Earth use their powers to detonate a world-smashing asteroid before it hits Tunguska.

“I miss breathing,” mourns Michael.

“It was nice,” Candace says.

On October 28, 1962, they work their jaguar magic to avert the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Curse the Mayan sorcerer-sages who shot us into space,” Michael curses.

“We wouldn’t have to intervene like this if we could just eat everyone now!

On December 18, 2004, falling jaguars prevent the formation of a stable strangelet at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.

“It’s my plan,” says Michael, “when we hit the atmosphere, to catch fire.”

“Ooh,” says Candace. “Flaming jaguar.”

“I will burn with holy righteousness and plummet right onto the back of a suitable human target. Then he will scream, ‘help! A fiery orbital jaguar is using my mass to decelerate!’ But it will do him no good. The authorities will have no contingency plans for such events.”

“Excellent,” Candace says.

On the morning of June 7, 2005, a seraph stands in space above the Earth. He holds a trumpet. It is his plan to sound it, to trigger with that blast the Rapture and Last Days.

“bloot.”

The seraph had not reckoned on the airlessness and soundlessness of space. He hesitates. Then he plunges into the atmosphere and draws a deep breath. He rises again. He sets the trumpet to his lips.

Jaguars fall.

It is June 8, 2005. The world lives yet.

“I’m not going to catch fire,” says Candace. “I’m going to roll into a ball to minimize my surface area and think cold thoughts.”

“That should work,” agrees Michael.

The jaguars fall, as they have fallen for thousands of years, cold and blue and alone.

Life is fragile. It is protected by little more than a thin coat of air and warmth in the endless dark of space. The odds are constantly working against us, striving to unravel everything we are.

But as long as there are magical jaguars, catapulted skyward by Mayan sages, in a decaying orbit around the Earth, we shall not come to harm.

This is the Mayans’ gift.