Ink Infallible (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Four]

“You’re lucky,” says the girl, “that Dukkha doesn’t hold sway down here.”

She’s in the topsy-turvy land on the other side of the world. Everything is upside-down. The great earthen vault of the sky stretches above her, dirty and wholesome and leaking the tangled roots of trees. Instead of a sun below her feet there is an endless raging storm. Instead of sedimentary rocks there are aureous and fulguric balloon minerals colored red and silver and black. They are puffy and they are lighter than air. Some balloon minerals are rough and cling to the surface of the earth. Others are smooth and skitter freely in the wind. And, of course, instead of a pervasive universal characteristic of suffering, there isn’t one.

The girl is trying to rescue a flying carpet.

It’s a despairing flying carpet, made and abandoned by an abused child who grew up to be an abuser and then had his soul eaten, and right now it’s starving and it’s lonely and it has the root of a tree burrowing into its brain. So it really is lucky that it’s not in a place where there’s a pervasive universal characteristic of suffering, because it doesn’t need that on top of everything else.

“Up above,” the girl says, working to disentangle the carpet from the tree roots all around it, “people are always wrong.”

Always? the carpet thinks.

“Always,” the girl confirms. “Even librarians!”

Why?

“It’s like this,” she says. “When you know a thing, you don’t know a thing. You know a knowing. The knowing isn’t the same as the thing. It’s always going to be different than the thing. So you don’t know what color things are, or what other people think, or what you should do. You don’t even know what you know, or how to know it better, or whether you’re getting closer or not. And maybe it’s not the most practical way of thinking about it, but it’s nice and concise and doesn’t take up much room in your brain: whatever you’re thinking, when you’re up on the surface of the world—you’re wrong.”

A hummingbird floats in the air near the girl.

The girl thinks the bird can talk, and that it’s pretty, but in the absence of Dukkha, the girl doesn’t know whether either of these ideas could possibly be correct.

“I used to be that way,” the hummingbird says. “Always wrong, I mean. But then I found absinthe.”

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

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

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

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

The Island of the Centipede

The girl’s name is Ink Catherly. She’ll tell you that everybody calls her the imago, but that’s not really true. At best it’s only a large fraction of the people who speak English and know enough about her to make a reference who call her that, and it most specifically doesn’t include Dukkha, the incarnate principle of universal suffering.

That bastard calls her Ms. Catherly.

She takes a moment to fume about this, even though she’s never actually met him.

“He’s a total jackass,” she says.

“Who?” the hummingbird asks.

“This guy,” she says.

She waves a hand.

“He makes the universe not perfectly harmonious in every respect with people’s desires.”

“Oh,” the hummingbird says. “Him.

Ink finally has the carpet most of the way untangled. She pulls a few plant barbs from its flanks.

“Here’s the deal,” she says to the carpet. “You’ve still got to save five people, like I asked. But you’ve also got to fly me to a place where I can go back up towards the surface of the world.”

The creature hesitates.

“It’ll matter,” she says. “I mean, it’s a big, world-changing thing. I’m going to find whomever’s on the throne of this world and kill him. And, I assume, fire will rain down and monsters will spontaneously explode—just like pinatas—and sharks will live with lambs and everyone will eat rainbows for breakfast every day.”

An inner struggle in the carpet ceases.

It emits a soft chirr.

And because she has given the carpet sufficient purpose as to save it from immediate extinction, the boring tree withdraws the screw-root from its brain. Slowly, it lets the creature loose, to fall or fly as the carpet may. The carpet flutters shakily sideways to lean against the skinless root of a dying gonshuckt tree.

It is terribly, terribly wounded.

It looks at Ink.

“I’m not going to fix you!” Ink protests.

It looks at Ink.

“I’m a destroyer!”

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – People: People are lumps of clay, filled with fire, broken by circumstance. People are imperfect.

Ink Catherly looks at the horrible wound in Jacob’s carpet’s head.

She looks away.

She looks at it again.

She looks at the adorable rest of the creature, and back—

“Fine,” she says.

She takes some scotch tape out of her backpack. She tapes the carpet back together. She hugs the creature, gingerly, and it squirms and licks her face, though, without a tongue, she can’t see how.

“I can’t believe I helped you,” the imago says.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Jacob’s Carpet: Finding ourselves imperfect, we long for Heaven.

Somehow we choose, instead, to stay here, striving,
In the hopes we can perfect ourselves.

And we are ashamed of this.

We are ashamed because we are imperfect,
when we should be proud.

Ink rides the flying carpet back into the world.

At first, because tape is not the best solution for serious head wounds, the carpet flies slowly and the hummingbird is able to keep pace.

The hummingbird says, “But if people are here, and if bad things are here, how does it even make sense to say that Dukkha doesn’t hold sway?”

Ink points up. “Earth,” she says.

She points down. “Storm.”

She points at the tape. “Tape, applied by a destroyer.”

“And?”

“Everything’s topsy-turvy,” Ink says firmly. “Dukkha can’t hold sway.”

“But how—“

“Do you really have to know?”

The hummingbird is silent.

The flying carpet dances between the roots that dangle from the bottom of the world. The wind of its passage blows the balloon minerals about.

Ink sighs.

“Dunno,” Ink admits. “I’ll test it with a Dukkha Call.”

She braces herself.

She utters the Dukkha Call:

“‘Help, help!'” Ink cries theatrically.”‘The placidity in my heart is stifling my potential for growth!'”

The suffering that permeates all life answers.

Dukkha localizes with a swirl of his cape.

“Ms. Catherly,” he says.

He’s calm, Dukkha is. He’s cool. He’s terrifying. He makes the world seem to stop and he fills the air with cruel. He’s standing there and it seems like they’re all of them just in the palm of his hand, like the dangling roots are his fingers, like the arching dirt’s his palm. He’s scary and powerful and he gets a little scarier and a little more powerful every time Ink processes just how terrifying he is.

He’s totally in charge and he certainly seems to hold sway.

He’s ready to show any old imago who abuses the Dukkha Call what’s what.

Ink can’t breathe and the hummingbird’s already passed out.

June, Wednesday 2, 2004 – Sukaynah: In memoriam.

If she had had a purpose in this world, it would have been to rush into gathering storms and then take joy in them.

She rushed into the storms beneath the world.

She was laughing.

If she has not died, she’s laughing still.

Then Dukkha’s eyes flick down.

That’s all it takes.

Just one flick down, to orient himself.

Gravity takes hold.

His feet go first, just like a coyote’s might. They stretch out his legs.

The last Ink sees of him for a very long time is his endlessly malevolent ears and the sign he holds up, “I hate you all.”

  • See also The Forest (II/IV), and tune in again AN UNDEFINED TIME NEXT WEEK (PROBABLY TUESDAY) for the next exciting history:
    INK HAS FEET!

The Peculiar Case Of Miss Mu Lung (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

It is 532 years before the common era. Mr. Kong works in the state of Lu as a keeper of farm animals and parks.

He finds a scaled anteater—a pangolin—caught in an illegal trap.

Sluggishly, it licks its entangled paw.

Mr. Kong squats down. He distracts the anteater. He holds up a finger so that it tracks his finger with its eyes. He says, “It’s no shame that you can’t solve these knots; if you could, you’d be queer for a pangolin.”

The anteater attempts to process this information. It blinks its eyes lazily.

A woman’s footsteps approach.

“In this,” says Mr. Kong to the anteater, “we are alike. Diligently I study, but there are questions that I can’t answer, because I’m a man.”

The anteater shakes its head. Then, irritated that it cannot understand Mr. Kong with its tiny brain, it curls itself up in a ball.

It’s all right.

He’d held its attention long enough.

His free hand has already cunningly unraveled the knot that had trapped the anteater’s paw.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“It is very human,” says a woman’s voice, “how it waits to curl until once it has been rescued.”

Mr. Kong straightens. He looks towards the clearing’s edge.

Miss Mu Lung stands at the edge of the clearing. She wears the elaborate dress customary to the Lung family. Its fringe has blood and dirt and grass upon it.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong. His voice is warm and his face shows pleasure. Her presence here is an impropriety, the blood on her hem a warning, and the texture of the woven trap reminds him of Miss Lung’s tapestries, but she is a fellow human being and as such receives his brightness. He gives her a courteous bow.

She looks upon him and her face is still.

“It is bold of me to say,” says Miss Lung. “But I have heard you called a great scholar and a man of discernment, Mr. Kong. So surely you tease the pangolin when you mention questions that you cannot answer.”

“I should not think to call myself a scholar,” says Mr. Kong. “If I were ten times more erudite, perhaps, and understood the Quinquennial Sacrifice, then I might be worthy of that name.”

“Ah,” says Miss Lung.

He holds up one finger so that Miss Lung tracks his finger with her eyes.

“I think that we are all trapped, in this life, like that unfortunate pangolin,” he says. “We do not measure to the standard of our ancestors, and so there are questions we cannot answer. There are questions we cannot answer, and so we do not execute our practices with precision. We find ourselves unable to comport ourselves with order and harmony; justice does not prevail; and emptiness flourishes throughout the world. One day, if the world does not explode, I hope to make myself a legendary minister and redeem these practices, but, of course, I can make no guarantees.”

Miss Lung thinks on these words.

Her eyes close, then open.

“Forgive me, Mr. Kong,” she says, “but I cannot see the emptiness of the world.”

“It affects to fullness,” says Mr. Kong, “but it is hollow, like the scar on the pangolin’s leg.”

Something in his words has freed her; the strength leaves her; she sits down.

She swallows and her eyes grow bright with tears.

“Miss Lung,” he asks, gently, “are you in some distress?”

Bleakly, she says, “More than some.”

“Come;” he says, “if there is need, you may impose upon me. But if there is not, I am afraid I must soon be on my way to catch the person who sows illegal traps upon this land.”

She looks miserably at the trap.

“No one can assist me,” says Miss Lung. She shakes her head. “I am in an ungodly state; someone has murdered the spirits of my ancestors and circumstances compel me to torment small animals to survive.”

To his credit, Mr. Kong blinks only once.

He straightens his clothing. He says, “Naturally I am at your service.”

Miss Lung says, “I cannot refuse so gentle an offer, but I fear your good character will bring me misery.”

Mr. Kong lowers his head in acceptance of this rebuke.

Miss Lung rises. She takes him to her house. As he walks its halls he frowns.

“Ah,” he says. “There is a hollow sound.”

“It is the absence of men, where once they would be talking. It is the absence of women, where once they would be working. It is the absence of the laughter and whimpering of children,” answers Miss Mu Lung.

She leads him to the shrine of her ancestors.

Its doors are heavy black wood. They are sealed with many sacred marks. They are scarred with hollow rings, white rings, like the marks of a lamprey’s jaws.

“I cannot go within,” says Miss Lung. “In my youth, we would say, ‘brik, brik, brak, open a crack!’ and the doors would open. Inside the spirits of our ancestors would dispense wisdom and benevolence.

“Then seven years back, as I walked this hall, I heard the great brassy voice of ancestor Zedong declare, ‘The more I look up at It, the higher It rises. The more I probe It, the more impenetrable It becomes. I catch a glimpse of It in front and It is instantly behind.’

“Then I heard an ungodly wind and I felt a sudden fear and I banged my fist upon the door, but since that day, they have not answered.

“Two years ago, I climbed atop the roof and looked down through a small round gap. Inside, the shrine was empty, save for some vague notion that took me of ethereal blood.”

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong.

“Was it improper?” asks Miss Lung. “To bang upon the door?”

“What is impropriety?” says Mr. Kong. “I can’t criticize the selfless concern for your ancestors.”

He stares at the doors, deep in thought.

“Pardon,” says Mr. Kong. “But if I may, your family? The Lung family?”

“One by one they succumbed to kindness,” says Miss Lung.

“Hm?”

“It is like this,” says Miss Lung. “The Lung family has traditionally held some virtue of position in the celestial hierarchy. Assiduously we would seek to develop our personal merit to facilitate our ascension into the ranks of Heaven. Since our ancestors fell silent, the matter has become problematic; upon refining our spirit to a full measure of virtue, we explode. Now I and my obdurate brother remain; myself because I am a woman and dedicate myself to the methodical torment of animals, and he because, constantly insensible with wine, he is awake too rarely for the acquisition of virtue.”

For a long moment Mr. Kong stands there.

“Then,” he says, “if I may, I have solved the mystery.”

“Please,” she says.

“It is the emptiness of the world,” says Mr. Kong.

“If only you were the Grand Secretary of Justice,” says Miss Lung, with grave courtesy, “you could arrest it at once.”

Mr. Kong smiles at her.

“You are skeptical,” he says.

“Only, dulled with grief and fear,” she says.

“These are the scars of emptiness,” says Mr. Kong. He rests his hand on one of the circles in the door. “The methodology, I take to be as follows. The emptiness proposed to Lung Zedong, ‘In what fashion should a man conduct himself to bring harmony and order to all things?’ He could not answer this question without compromising the affairs of Heaven, and thus allowed the emptiness to devour him. The hollowness of your home represents a marker of its passage.”

“If that’s so—“

She struggles to hold back her emotions.

“If that’s so,” she says, “what can I do?”

“Open the doors,” he says. “Sacrifice to your ancestors. Set aside this animal torture and lawless skulking; cultivate the quality of kindness that you have denied yourself.”

Bitterness drives her to unworthy words: “Even to the destruction of my soul?”

“It often seems that virtue operates against our interests,” says Mr. Kong. “But if we do not cultivate the habits of virtue, then what value are our interests?”

She lowers her head.

“As you say,” she says, tonelessly.

“Here is my recommendation,” says Mr. Kong. “When you commit an act of kindness, do not seek to cultivate yourself but rather to build harmonious relationships with others. Then you need not fear unless you are so kind as to elevate all the world.”

“And if I am?”

“If the world explodes because of my advice,” says Mr. Kong, “then I fear I shall never find government employment, nor become a legendary practice-righting minister.”

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 )

The chaos has completed its adaptation to the knife.

Red Mary swims in a sea of Confucianism and blood.

Drawn by the blood the sharks have come. They are monstrously large. They dwarf her as they dwarf Max.

One of them bumps Max gently with its nose. He curls around the pain as a pillbug might.

“Red Mary,” the shark says, with scrupulous precision, “I cannot say your actions have been correct.”

“Yes, thank you,” Red Mary says irritably.

“If the sirens are not humane,” presses the shark, “then how may they expect the oceans to remain in order?”

Red Mary bares her teeth and the shark subsides.

“I have acted in error, but you may not correct me,” she says.

“The blood frenzy overcame my judgment, and I forgot my place,” the shark concedes.

“Hmf,” Red Mary says.

Then with one hand Red Mary lifts Max and with the other the knife and she draws them both up from the sea.

The Chaos Adapts (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Max sails through the fog.

There are sharks on these seas with splayed fins that let them fly for up to thirty seconds in the air. There are crystal spires of such intricate elegance that Max stops and stares at them for hours. That is the fastest he can perform the act of appreciating their beauty. There are reefs. There are fishhawks. There are red dolphins. There are death metal mermaids in waterproof t-shirts on these seas.

And there are Buddha Pirates.

Through the fog Max sees a granite hand. Its position offers infinite blessings to all humanity.

It is moving.

It drifts slowly towards him.

He can see the arm.

He can see the body. It is a Buddha. It is a great granite Buddha. It is the great granite Buddha prow of a ship that sails in these seas.

Monks murmur sutras. He can hear them. Their voices rise and fall like the surf.

Monks walk on the head of the Buddha. They pace their meditation tracks. Their footsteps are a soft shuffling that rebounds off of the fog.

They click their meditation beads.

There are no sails.

There are no oars.

There is only the power of the monks’ meditation.

“Wa-hey,” cries Max. “That isn’t enlightenment!”

And casting its black shadow over the fog they unfurl their pirate flag and sound their deep, low pirate horn.

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

The Island of the Centipede

“Oh,” says Max.

He pulls at his sail and it fills.

“Anatman, dukkha,” say the monks. “Anatman, dukkha.

“Jesus,” says Max.

His pulse is racing and the clicking of the monks’ beads fills his ears. He stands up, convulsively, driven by exigencies into a sudden burst of skill and drive.

Held to the boat by a harness and clinging to a rope he leans back out of the catamaran.

The boat jumps forward, its starboard hull lifting from the water, its sail straining; 10, 12, 15, 17 knots, and pulling off to pass the pirate ship by its side.

He can feel his attachment to material existence wavering.

The world subsides around him.

Max dips his left hand into the chaos. He spreads his fingers in the nautical symbol for low friction.

Today the chaos is congenial.

The surface of it slickens.

The boat hits 22 knots, which proves to be one and a half knots faster than enlightenment.

The wind whips past him. The catamaran shakes. Chaos burns his hand, eats into it, wiggles in it. At anything faster than 20.5 knots he has no time to properly absorb the teaching.

The world stabilizes around him.

Anatman, dukkha,” chant the monks. “Anatman, dukkha.

Low and sonorous sounds the pirate horn.

23 knots. 24.

The chanting of the monks has become nothing more than words to him. Something is writhing in his hand.

25 knots. 28.

He cannot go faster. The boat will flip, trapping him underneath, if he goes faster. Then he will drown or worse and the sharks and monks and shellfish will eat his bones.

Or so he supposes.

He wrenches forth his hand. It is encased in glassy sheen. The meat underneath is burned and tainted.

He heaves a shuddering breath as the shadow of the flag recedes behind him.

It is a miracle that he survives.

It is a miracle that he escapes.

Even with two good hands, Max does not sail very well.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 )

It is June 3, 2004.

The sail goes flat and Max drifts.

He falls fitfully asleep for an hour and six minutes. Then he startles awake with the dawn.

The sail shudders once or twice.

For twenty-seven minutes Max rows. Then his hand spasms and he makes a muffled sound and the oar falls into the water. He sags. The boat drifts west. The oar floats after him, following him at a distance like a puppy uncertain of its position in its master’s good graces.

Max dips his working hand in the chaos. It burns him. He pulls it out.

He waits.

He dips his hand in again. The burn takes longer this time.

“Right, Max,” he says. “Give it time to adapt to you.”

He pulls his hand free.

That’s what Meredith had said when teaching Max to sail. “You can even swim in it,” she says. “You just need to give it time to adapt.”

Then the white thing writhes inside his wounded hand—he’s not sure, it might be a creature, it might be a bone, it might even be both—and he vomits over the edge.

He struggles for breath.

He vomits again.

Then he rests there, splayed against the boat’s edge, panting.

A shadow rises through the chaos.

It grows larger. It agitates the chaos and leaves contrails of gossamer in its wake.

Max recoils.

Red Mary bursts past the surface, her claws long, her teeth sharp, her shirt advertising the band Dismember.

Chaos sprays over Max and Red Mary’s fishtail lands heavily on the deck and the ship rocks and she writhes forwards towards Max.

Chivalry stalls Max for a fraction of a second. It proves irrelevant; he is a second and a half too slow. By the time he has his gun out of the holster with an unaccustomed hand she is on top of him and his head cracks back against the mast and her serrated shark-teeth close on his shoulder and he tumbles off the catamaran into the chaos.

This time it is not so terrible, but still it burns.

Red Mary drives him down with her weight but the harness pulls him unexpectedly sideways and they split apart. Choking, he pulls himself with good hand and teeth up the rope as she circles below him.

Her fangs catch his bad hand and red and green drifts out into the sea.

She recoils.

With a sudden crystalline beauty the chaos finishes its adaptation to Max and everything is clear and still and the sea no longer burns.

His good hand comes over the side of the deck. He takes a gulp of air. He fumbles for anything that might serve him as a weapon.

Red Mary charges.

The Gingerbread Man

Emilia lives deep under the sea.

She lives in a metal dome.

It is round but not too round. It has a carpeted floor. It is warm. Inside and outside it has lights.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes she sees a shark.

Sometimes she sees a giant octopus. It will squeeze her house but it can’t do much compared to the pressure of the sea.

It is angry because Emilia is still alive.

“Bii,” Emilia says to the octopus. “I wanted to live alone.”

The octopus swishes its tentacles and flies away through the sea.

Emilia has a chimney. It is totally stopped up but Santa Claus still finds his way there every Christmas. He doesn’t bring her toys any more. He hasn’t since she was a little girl of seven. These past few years he’s brought her supplies instead.

Food.

Water.

Tools for repairing things when they break.

Books with instructions on the use of tools.

Every day Emilia looks out the porthole, through the clear strong superglass, at the heavy depths of water all around.

Sometimes Emilia makes gingerbread. Usually she just makes a loaf. But sometimes she makes gingerbread men.

She’ll give them raisin eyes and cherry noses.

She’ll trim them down to their fingers and their toes.

Today she checks in the oven on the gingerbread men. She’s supposed to just press the button that says “Light.” But instead she opens the oven up and lets the heat out. That’s her mistake!

It’s also the gingerbread men’s opportunity.

There’s only one gingerbread man who’s smart enough to act when his moment comes. He’s a wily old rogue of a gingerbread boy. His name’s Raisin Jack.

Raisin Jack, he shakes himself out.

Raisin Jack, he’s up and he runs.

The gingerbread man!

He’s out of the pan!

With a grin on his face like the devil’s only son’s!

Once he’s put some distance between himself and Emilia, Raisin Jack thinks about where to go next. He’s standing there thinking when the Roomba 2500 trundles in.

It bumps into Raisin Jack. Its suction engine vrums.

“Oh, no,” says Raisin Jack.

He runs, runs, runs, like the devil’s at his back.

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”

Somewhat to his disappointment, the Roomba isn’t trying to catch him. It’s actually been kind of intimidated by the bumping and it’s now circling off to harrass the bookshelves.

So Raisin Jack stops and he thinks. He’s standing there thinking when Emilia comes along.

“Please,” she says.

Her face is as white as a sheet.

“Please, no.”

The gingerbread man, he’s out of the pan!

Raisin Jack runs, like the devil’s at his back!

“Run run run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the gingerbread man!”

And he runs runs runs and he’s at the door.

And Emilia’s not behind him any more.

She’s running for the bedroom.

She’s rooting through her trunk

She’s looking for a picture

Of the world before it sunk.

She’s looking for a picture

And she finds it just before

The gingerbread man

Raisin Jack

He

Opens up that door.

If Animals Had Elemental Powers

There would be parrots with water powers.

They would live under water.

They would make raucous noises like “Squawk! bubble bubble bubble! Squawk! bubble bubble bubble!

This would be very disconcerting for the sailors.

There would be burning tyrannosaurus rexes. They would not be extinct because their fire powers would allow them to survive K-T extinction events such as the one that killed all of the non-elemental dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The burning tyrannosaurus rexes would laugh and laugh as they rampaged through American cities but in turn people would laugh and laugh and laugh at their flaming stubby little hands.

It is actually possible that the flaming dinosaurs would not survive but it is definite that any tyrannosaurus rexes with K-T elemental powers would still be around, so, anyway.

There would be at least one Metallic Hopping Vampire. He’d be like a Hopping Vampire, only with powers over metal. That’d be so cool!

And there would be sharks who could jump twenty feet out of the water, hang there, and form bullets out of the wind to devastate their enemies. To hunt these sharks you would need a bigger boat. A bigger, bulletproof, flying boat. And lasers. And even then it would be a near thing.

There would be octopi who would assemble in eight-octopus teams using their aquatic telepathy. It is arguably not so good to be able to talk to fish when one is the King of Atlantis but it is very good when one is a fish and normally unable to communicate at all.

There would be koi with the ability to disrupt bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a terrible element but it is the element that koi get and the koi are not technically to blame for its presence in the traditional Chinese six-element cycle.

Who is to blame for that, anyway?

Bees. Bees are to blame for the traditional Chinese six-element cycle and also they sting people so Hitherby Dragons will not give them any elemental superpowers they do not already possess.

There would be elephants with special elemental ninja powers. For example there would be an elephant master of snow and ice. If you asked the other elephants who the coldest elephant ninja master is, they would invariably trumpet, douse you in water, and then indicate the snow elemental master. In addition there would be a shadow elephant—an umbral elephant, as it were—who could slip under your door and then manifest and charge you.

Charging shadow elephants are very scary even if you take away their credit cards because the phone book overflows with companies willing to extend shadowy elephant ninjas new lines of credit with no questions asked. They can even do it mid-confrontation, so that it might go like this:

“Ha ha,” laughs strong-jawed Buck Williams, brandishing the elephant’s credit card and thus preventing it from charging.

“Trumpet!” trumpets the shadowy elephant ineffectually.

Then the shadowy elephant spies one of many NO QUESTIONS ASKED credit card offers on the table next to the door where strong-jawed Buck Williams, son of Giorgi, keeps his unread mail.

Swiftly the elephant seizes it.

Swiftly the elephant mails it.

Then the elephant, oh so ungraciously, looks smug.

Buck’s eyes widen. In bullet-time, he turns and lunges for his elephant gun. He fills it with buck shot. He levels it. But it is too late.

“Trumpet!” trumpets the triumphant elephant.

He doesn’t ever pay for the charges. It’s a bad debt!

The elephant isn’t the last elemental animal we will examine. There are also earth beetles. These are beetles capable of burrowing through the dirt. Right through the earth! People can’t do that. We don’t have the requisite elemental mastery of earth, which is the problem.

Earth beetles are also good at throwing gigantic rocks at their enemies and at making clever balls out of dried dung.

“What a clever ball of dried dung!” one might praise, seeing them.

Such a compliment makes earth beetles puff up with pride!

Metallic Hopping Vampire would like to clarify that hopping vampires are not animals and so his hypothetical metal powers have nothing to do with the premise for this entry. Oops!

Finally there would be owls who fly around shooting lightning at things. One of them might try shooting lightning at a K-T-powered tyrannosaurus rex.

Bam! K-T extinction event!

That’d show those elemental-powered animals.

After a while, Martin says, “Today’s insight is apparently . . . not to taunt large predators that can cause K-T extinction events.”

Solemnly observes Jane: “People needed to know.”

It’s a Real Town

The hole is out in the middle of the desert.

It’s not a hole in the ground, really. It’s more of a chasm in the nature of things. It’s a place where the underlying mathematics of the world break down, defaulting to prehuman axioms.

There’s a man standing above the hole. He’s in shadow. He’s got a long coat and a cigarette, and in between pulls he holds it out and burning sparks drift down in the wind above the hole.

And there are great horrible eyes that look up unblinkingly at him, only to be burned.

And there are fins that splash back beneath the surface of the Not as the sparks touch them.

And there are places where a single ash in the wind lands and gives birth to a world, seethes into brilliant life, planets, suns, spinning galaxies, and ships; and then the whole curls in on itself as it cools and dies and fades into the Not.

And amidst the seething horror of it a hand flails, a hand attached to a coatsleeved arm, and the voice of it cries, “For the love of God, let me out!”

And sparks flutter down and lightly burn the hand.

“I’m not a prehuman horror! I’m from Kenmore!

It’s a real town, you know.

People live there.

But the man up at the top doesn’t react. He just takes another pull and waits. Now and again, when a tendril of the darkness rises, he steps on it.

“For the love of God!”

Then the man’s assistants, a man and a woman, arrive with the patch, and they place it over the hole, and all is still.

(Forward-Fill) Emeline

Emeline is exposed.

She’s not like other babies. Other babies have homes. Emeline has a rosebush and a hill.

She is supposed to die.

She doesn’t die.

Emeline eats the thorns of the rosebush. She drinks Bambi’s mother’s blood. She survives.

She grows crooked and strong.

Soon the babies in the village begin to vanish. They will be laying in their cribs. Suddenly there is music. That music. The music from Jaws.

Da-dum. Da-dum.

Ca-who! chortles the baby happily. Babies love sharks.

But it’s not a shark.

It’s Emeline.

First Carol’s baby vanishes.

Everybody tells Carol she’s crazy, with her stories of Emeline and whatnot. Some people blame her.

Then Maude’s baby vanishes.

People begin to mutter.

Finally Susan and John’s baby, who would have been the star of a whole different fairy tale had things gone differently, disappears.

There’s a black thorn left behind in the crib, and the smell of burp, and lingering music in the air.

Seven men set out from the village with knives and torches. They hunt down Emeline. She doesn’t fight them very hard. All she wants is a home.

They catch her.

They tie her up in satin swaddling.

They talk about whether to kill her, but there’s nobody really up for the job.

So they throw her in an oubliette and somebody watches her day and night.

She lives there in the dark.

Sometimes Maude comes and brings her a present. A flower. A stuffed toy. A blanket.

“Hey,” says Maude.

She drops it down.

“Brought you something,” says Maude.

It hurts her, but it’s worth it.

Emeline looks up. Emeline smiles. It’s like the sun.

(History: Boedromion 21-22: Things and Choices)

Flagging this as something I’m totally going to let myself change later. I’m not at home and have a real time deadline. I’ll remove the flag if I’ve edited to taste. For example, I’m currently uncertain of the closing line, and might not actually edit. ^_^

Update, 5 years later: I’ve never been totally happy with this series, but I won’t be fixing it until the archives are working at least up to Island of the Centipede.

The Underworld is full of things.

There are the little roly-poly round things. They’re like pillbugs. If you poke them, they’ll curl up tight. Then they’ll curl you up with them.

“Help!” you might cry. “I’m stuck!”

But nobody will hear you except the bug-eating giants, and so that’s hardly a win for you.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the roly-poly round things will be gone. Maybe they’ll blow up. Maybe they’ll scurry down. Maybe they’ll just vanish. But they’ll be gone.

No more stories of great heroes descending into the Underworld and getting rolled up by little bugs before they return.

Legends, maybe, but not stories, because those bugs will be lost.

There are shark-human hybrids in the Underworld. Everyone knows that. If there weren’t then who would swim up just when you thought you could relax and do horrible human things to you with their horrible human teeth?

Down in the Underworld they swim.

There are little fish that live near their teeth, little Crest-brand fish that live near the teeth of the shark-human hybrids and dart in between meals to gnaw the scraps from the horrors’ mouths. You can find them in the Underworld, and in Greece, and, really, everywhere where Crest’s ancient inhuman power isn’t bound by the sevenfold law of the FDA.

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the fish will die.

And the shark-human hybrids will die.

And there will be a silence in the deep.

Perhaps they will go on in some form, of course. It’s hard to say. Where is a soul after a soul-eater’s eaten it? Where is a light after the candle is snuffed? Where will be the noble shark-human hybrids and their terrible blunt teeth?

But we can call it “dead.”

Also in the Underworld there are the streaks. They’re colored red, yellow, and green. They’re in the air, like a classical painter got really tired after painting the Underworld and went suddenly modernist in frustration. They jangle and twist when you look at them. The souls in the Elysian fields can’t see them. The souls in torment in Tartarus try to ignore them. One day Tantalus will eat one and find that it tastes just exactly like artificial pudding, which in turn tastes more or less like his son Pelops. That’s why he will always look so funny when he eats a delicious vanilla Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not the flavor. It’s the nostalgia!

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the streaks will be gone, and any purpose they might have to their long and colorful deaths will pass. And perhaps there will be a few lingerers, one or two stragglers, a few bright streaks of red and chartreuse hanging on the surface of the void, but they will go away and the ones who stay will die.

There are the burrs in the Underworld. They live under things. That’s why you don’t want to poke too much at things under other things in the Underworld. There could be burrs. The Underworld is already under other things, so it makes sense that going too much further under would be spiky. But they’re not spiky because it makes sense. They’re spiky as a natural evolved defense mechanism. It protects them from predators!

There are echoes. They’re not actually Echo, who didn’t die precisely but who made the wrong promise and couldn’t be human any more.(1)

(1) For reference, if Zeus ever asks you to make a promise pursuant to one of his pursuits, consider carefully the consequences. They’re not always as nice as you might imagine, and sometimes they involve having pampered tourists at the Grand Canyon shouting at you all day.

The echoes in the Underworld are not actually Echo, but they are the echoes of distant footsteps, and you can hear them if you try.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the burrs will be gone. The echoes will be gone. There will be nothing but the emptiness where once there stood the cathedrals of Hades and the legions of the dead.

No more will trails of blood call the unliving back.

No more the Elysian fields; no more Tartarus; no more Hades; no more Persephone.

She can do this. It’s in her history, if you read back far enough. That’s what a Persephone does. She ends everything. She takes it away.

So as she stands there, with Hades holding out the pomegranate, Persephone licks her lips nervously and then she bows her head.

“Whatever,” she says. “You can do what you want, I guess. I won’t kill all this stuff you made.”

This is a pretty common decision for someone in her position to make, even though everyone always criticizes them for it later.

And she finds firmness in it and a sense of strength, so she lifts her head.

“I’m letting you live.”

And Hades says, “But that’s not what I want.”

“Huh?”

“End it,” says Hades. “Reach down to the nature of this place and make it an undiscovered land.”

Persephone blinks.

“Let it be a mystery,” he says. His face is avid. “Let no one know what happens here. Let them hope or imagine that it is a place of joy. Let them dream with bloodlust of their enemies suffering here in torment. Ease this from the world. Make it not known. That is what I have brought you here to do. That is what I have chosen.”

And she looks at him. And he looks back.

And she says, “You can’t make that choice for me.”

“I can,” he says.

“You can’t!”

And they’re both right, of course. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’re not. They’re just in the grip of Semantics, that bleak god, cousin to Ananke, from whom alone of all the gods and men great Zeus is free.

Laying the Moral Groundwork

It is bad to badger witnesses. It is worse to badger witnesses with weasels. It is worst of all to badger witnesses with sharks, unless the witness can turn into a shark and fight back. Then it’s entertaining!

You can’t badger people with lasers. For one thing, you use lasers to zap people, not to badger them. For another, the lasers are the wrong color.

Some lasers are red. These lasers are made with red crystals.

Some lasers are blue. These lasers are made with blue crystals.

Some lasers are weasel-colored. There are no weasel crystals so these are made with non-crystalline weasels.

The cool thing about using a weasel-colored laser is that weasels are highly resistant to the energetic impact. If your target is standing in front of a weasel and you want to use a red or blue laser, then you must wait until the target moves. Otherwise you might hurt the weasel. With a weasel-colored laser this is not true. You can fire straight through your target and the weasel will remain unharmed.

This also has benefit in medical situations where you need to operate on someone who is laying on a bed of weasels. You can carve gently and surgically through such a person’s body and rely on the underlying weasels to squeak in mild discomfort when the laser touches them.

The reason this works is that weasels inherently reflect the color of weasels. If they didn’t then they would be invisible—all of the weasel-colored light that hit them would be absorbed and you would be unable to see the weasel. It is very very rude to shoot an invisible weasel with a weasel-colored laser, since this will highlight its deformity while simultaneously inflicting a terrible weasel-colored burn.

Perry Mason was the first lawyer to use a weasel-colored laser to solve crimes. (He was not the first detective to do so; that, of course, was Sherlock Holmes, who made detection into a science and could use weasel lasers to highlight even the smallest non-invisible-weasel clues. As he put it, ‘the weasel reveals the game.’ However, given the rising use of weasel-colored lasers in important court cases, Perry Mason’s contribution remains significant.)

Perry Mason first used the weasel-colored laser in his classic clash with prosecutor Hammerhead Durgan. Hammerhead Durgan’s reign of terror relied on his use of a shark-colored laser to reveal the various defendants’ moral flaws. Perry’s weasel-colored laser cancelled out the shark-colored laser, since sharks are a totally different color than weasels, allowing Perry to see through to the facts of the case. Durgan went into a blood frenzy, murdering everyone in the courtroom but the quick-witted Perry and his client. This left the courtroom permanently cursed. Anyone whose trial the justice system holds there transforms into a shark or a weasel when badgered, reverting only when asked a leading question. Some of these witnesses are never asked a leading question—they stay a badger or a shark forever, just like people who win third prize in a “turn into a dangerous animal” lotto!

Lotto makes the state a lot of money, which it can use to build roads and pay police officers. Turning witnesses into weasels is not as good—it’s illegal to sell the weasels or the witness chair, so the whole process is actually terribly expensive! That’s why it’s so important not to badger witnesses. It costs the state money it could otherwise use for fixing potholes, manufacturing parents for needy orphans, or for graft.

Don’t badger witnesses! A balanced budget depends on you!

Awaiting the Reconciler

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

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

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

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

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

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

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

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

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

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

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

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

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

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

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

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

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

The sixth did not.

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

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

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

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

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

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

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

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

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

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

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

“A line that needs repair.”

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

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

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

“I’ll call.”

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

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

“And they couldn’t.

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

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

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

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

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

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

“You too, hon.”

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

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

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

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

“That bad?”

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

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

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

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

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

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

“Congratulations.”

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

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

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

There was a long pause.

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

The phone buzzed.

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

“Bye!”

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

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

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

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

Doctor Brown hesitated.

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

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

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

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

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

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

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

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

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

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

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

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

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

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

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

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

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

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

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

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

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

They laughed.

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

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

Sid hesitated.

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

“Yeah,” said Sid.

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

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

Sid frowned.

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

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

“Only human,” said Sid.

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

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

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

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

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

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

“And in the long term?”

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

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

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

“I suppose.”

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

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

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

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

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

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

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