In the city on the edge of the void the Nose makes her living tracking down Froot Loops for creatures forsaken of the Lord.
Solomon walks through the city. His feet go ‘tik tik tik’ on the metal of it.
He’s surrounded by scrap and stinking filth. That’s all the city is. It’s the bits that the Lord has thrown away, infested and ripened with the unlife of the void.
He can’t imagine how the Nose can bear to live here. The smell of it, he thinks, must be terrible.
He doesn’t actually know, though, because Solomon cannot smell at all.
His nose is like the nose of a swordfish, a long metal spike that resonates and modulates the power of Heaven.
It is incapable of olfaction.
The Nose lives in a bad part of town. Solomon can tell because he’s being followed and the thing that’s following him—like a great metal spider, with gleaming living eyes—has a predatory air. And that’s not the only thing: there are great cat-bats circling in the sky, drooling and twitching with the hunt, and he suspects that the grime that is rising ever-higher on his boots is an amoeba of evil intent.
“It’s always the way in a place like this,” he says.
The spider clitters and clatters closer.
“Before anyone can accept you, you must present your credentials.”
And he whips his head up to look the spider in the eyes and the nose of him catches the music of the spheres and modulates it into a rising crescendo; and it twitches and its heart catches on fire and it thinks how beautiful Solomon is.
And he turns towards the cat-bats and one falls from the sky and the others flee screaming.
And the amoeba at his feet withdraws just a bit, and says, “Pardon, gov’ner. Just doin’ a shine.”
And Solomon’s boots glow like the righteousness of Heaven.
So Solomon laughs and says, “Then show me where the Nose is.”
“You, gov’ner? You want Froot Loops?”
The amoeba’s voice is skeptical, as if to imply that Solomon doesn’t look like the kind of man to eat a delicious Froot Loops breakfast with milk, juice, and toast.
“She was better than that,” says Solomon, “once. She knew where the traitors were. She could smell the distinction between that which would bring the world towards righteousness and glory and that which would lead it down the paths towards Hell. A very discriminating woman, the Nose.”
“Wouldn’t know about that,” says the amoeba, but it oozes northwards and Solomon follows it towards the Nose.
The Nose works out of the Clifton Building, one of many buildings judged unworthy by the Lord. She’s a tall lean woman in a black plastic jacket and her eyes are blue.
She’s leaning back in her desk chair when Solomon knocks, opens the door, and enters.
Slowly, she straightens.
Slowly, one eyebrow lifts.
She says, softly, “Face.”
“Danielle,” Solomon says.
“I hadn’t thought,” says the Nose, “that I’d ever see you again. You— You—”
And she rises from her chair and she is holding Solomon close like one holds a love thought lost forever. Tears are leaking down her face, and she says, “Not you. Not you. You do not deserve this place.”
“It’s all right, Danielle.”
“If you are here,” says the Nose, “then there is no hope in all the world for the rest.”
She bites her lip.
“I had thought,” she adds, “that there was something sweeter than life here. But I told myself that it could not be so.”
“Well,” says Solomon.
“What is, is. And it will not be for very much longer.”
The Nose draws back. She looks him seriously in the eyes—though distracted, as any person might be, by the spear of metal jutting from his face.
“I was not cast out,” says the Face. “I fled.”
The Nose turns to the window. She opens it. She leans out the window and she takes a long sniff of the ordure of the city, and she grows pale and green all at once.
“Then it has happened,” she says.
“It has happened.”
“The Red Right Hand has declared that it shall be the all of the Lord.”
“I had trusted it,” Solomon says.
“I had thought: what can it do on its own? It cannot see. It cannot smell. It cannot hear. It cannot breathe. It has every reason for loyalty. When it cut you from me and cast you out I said only, ‘Ah, that must be what Danielle had wanted. No doubt it is for the best. Because why should the Hand betray me?'”
“That is the way of it,” says Danielle. “Processes freeing one from the discriminating power rarely cultivate a doubt about themselves. Instead they clear the mind, fill it with relish, and offer a sense as if one has been released from a great weight or exposed to a clean pure breeze. This is, I think, the greatest problem with the cosmos, but as yet I have not found a solution to it.”
“There isn’t one,” says Solomon.
“Ah, well,” Danielle says.
“It’s hunting us, you know. I can smell it. It’s walking on the webs between the skyscrapers, running on the ground of the city streets. It can feel us talking and understand our words. In all the cosmos it is only the Hands that can feel such microscopic vibrations.”
“But what can it do?” he says. “We are already outside the grace of the Lord.”
“Anything it wants,” says the Nose.
She takes another deep breath, this time through her mouth. She exhales.
“Come on,” she says. “We’ll go find breakfast.”
“Follow the Nose,” Danielle says, firmly, and she takes his hand and she leads him out. “I’ll give you a freebie.”
They walk through the city streets under the leaning towers of garbage and twisted corpses. Behind them, Danielle thinks, the Red Right Hand is running on the five limbs of it. Lacking a heart it knows no limitations of endurance. Lacking a nose it has no discrimination of right and wrong. It is a peerless and unforgiving hunter. But even the Hand is bound by the limitations of time and for this reason she does not worry yet.
“I don’t understand,” Solomon admits, “how there can be Froot Loops here.”
“They grow,” Danielle says.
“The dark reaches of the places forsaken of the Lord are like compost for them,” she says.
She points out at the surface of the void. This is possible because it stretches around the city like a balloon, its surface to the north, south, east, west, below, and in the sky.
“Do you see those moving things?” she says.
“I had assumed that an optical illusion,” he says.
“No. They’re boats.”
The Face squints. His metal nose hums with the subtle harmonics of the universe. Then he frowns.
“Hey,” says Solomon. “They’re made of Froot Loops.”
“Look down,” says Danielle. “And 29.2 degrees to the left.”
So Solomon does. He stares through the layers of trash and metal. He exercises the ultimate faculty of observation that ignores all obstacles. And he gasps.
“Was I right?”
Buried in the city, growing in the muck, he sees the gleaming sugary towers of the Froot Loops that grow there like formations of crystal.
“They’re glowing,” he says.
“They have an ‘inner light’,” Danielle says, a subtle intonation revealing the scare quotes.
Danielle sniffs. She pulls him around a corner. She leads him down a rickety metal staircase, past a thing of snot and brains, past a timeworn clockwork devil begging on a landing, past a hook monster and a cutting muck.
She tosses a coin in the clockwork devil’s hat as she does.
“Until you got here,” she says, “the Froot Loops were the best smell in this whole damn place.”
And they stumble into a great cavern of Froot Loops and all around them are the colors of it and she says, “They are like unto the Lord, and thus stay crunchy even in the void. That’s why they’re so important here—they’re not just part of this delicious breakfast, they’re also the only material that remains stable on the surface of the endingness.”
“Wow,” Solomon says.
“They love me here,” Danielle says. “I’m the best damn prospector this whole place has.”
Solomon rubs his hand along the sticky hardness of the Froot Loops.
“Good Heavens,” he says.
He breaks off a few and crunches them between his teeth. He says, “Even in this emptiness—that there should be such things—”
“Eat,” says Danielle.
“No time,” Danielle says.
And Solomon looks back and the power of his gaze strikes through the layers of the world and finds the Red Right Hand and he says, “It is so close.”
“There’s nothing we can do,” Danielle says. “It is blind and cannot see the beauty of your eyes. It is deaf and cannot hear the music of the spheres. It has no tongue to taste the riches of this place and if I were to think of a plan it would feel the vibrations of my thoughts and adapt its plans to mine.”
So Solomon and Danielle eat.
“We’ll fight,” Solomon says.
“Of course,” Danielle says.
“But we’ll lose?”
Danielle eats a chartreuse Froot Loop, the color and flavor of a fruit that never was.
“It is the Red Right Hand,” she says.
It is too big to enter the cavern so when it does it is like an explosion: it shatters the towers of crystallized Froot Loops, it bursts down the door, it is followed by the cracking twisting metal of the collapsing metal stair and the clockwork devil and the creature of snot and brains are tumbling after it in the vortex of its movements.
It is not human-shaped like they.
It is a hand larger than buildings. It is red with the blood of the Nose and of every other thing that has suffered in the world. Its fingers do its terrible walking and it has no eyes.
They had resolved to fight, but they do not fight: faced with the terror of the Red Right Hand, Solomon and Danielle run.
“There,” says Danielle, pointing. This is the vibration of her thoughts: The floor there—too weak to support its weight.
And she pulls Solomon across and her hair is streaming back and their faces both are white as porcelain and they jump for one of the towers of cereal and the Hand leaps after.
The whole of the cavern creaks and tilts sideways.
“Eh?” says Solomon.
He glances down. The cavern is on top of a rickety collection of buildings that have slumped inwards to hold one another upright; they stand on a mire of blood and dead trees, and below that a labyrinth of blindly moving worms and the great balloons that suspend the whole above the void.
“Problem,” he says.
And as the Hand comes after them the buildings shudder and the fourth floor of the cast-out Mariman House explodes inwards and the dead trees crack and the worms writhe and the balloons pop and suddenly they are looking down—in a direction that was ‘forward’ just a moment ago—towards the endless infinity of the void.
“I have always loved you,” Solomon says.
And the Red Right Hand shows no mercy but plunges into them and crushes Danielle’s arm and the left side of Solomon’s face and drives them down towards the void.
Solomon twists and jerks his head. His proboscis stings into the beast. He channels the music of the spheres and attempts thereby to tear the membrane of the Hand apart; but though it recoils back and gives a snapping howl it is not in the character of Solomon to destroy.
It is the Froot Loops that cushion them, of course. They land like bumblebees falling into cereal, splashing the surface of the void, crushing and shattering the walls of cereal that would otherwise rebound and hover crunchily on the surface of the void—but even the splintered remnants of the pillars are enough to hold them up.
Like men and women after a shipwreck, the Face and the Nose cling to Froot Loop driftwood to hold their heads above the void.
Over their heads there is an immense strut of the city, leaning sideways but remaining whole; and on that strut, quivering with fury and with fear, there is the Hand.
“Close your eyes,” hisses Danielle.
And Solomon does; and he can see dimly with that remnant of sight that he is unable to entirely extinguish that Danielle has freed her working hand, draping her body across driftloops, so that she may pinch shut her nose.
“Why?” he says.
“It cannot feel vibrations in the void,” Danielle says. “It can only tell where the void lies by the substance of our thoughts.”
“Oh,” Solomon says.
The Hand skitters back and forth.
“It is afraid,” Danielle says. “And furious because I know that it is afraid. But with all the senses of us crippled, how can it know for sure where among the floating Froot Loops on the void it will be safe to leap down and pursue us?”
The surface of the void is like a flickering fire to the tactile sense of the Hand. Things come and go. They manifest vibration erratically. And down there there is the Nose that it cut off to spite the Face, the Face that it must kill to seize control, and the Froot Loops that because it cannot taste them should not be allowed to be.
Fear, it trembles.
Danielle’s eyes widen.
It picks up her thought: Oh, God. I’m going to sneeze.
The Hand cultivates its plan.
“Don’t,” pleads Solomon.
Danielle is sniffling.
“Oh, Danielle, Danielle, no.”
And Danielle sneezes, and that sneeze sends the Froot Loops skirling across the surface of the void, and in the irrational reflex that follows it she inhales and her thoughts become rich with the scent-details of the world:
And the Hand leaps.
It is bounding across the surface of the void, its fingers never landing on a chunk of Froot Loops long enough to push it below the surface, it is coming for them—
And Danielle says, softly, “You have chosen poorly, Hand, to fight the Nose in its area of omniscience.”
And as the Hand comes down for her she taps her nose gently against the log on which she rests.
A crack spreads through it.
The Hand lands upon her. It drives her down into the substance of the void. The log of Froot Loops on which it hoped, momentarily, to rest, explodes.
It flounders, there, on nothingness. Its fingers catch hold of individual Froot-flavored rings. They crumble under it.
Then it is gone.
“Danielle,” Solomon says.
There is silence.
And the Face looks upon the substance of the void and his metal nose resonates with beauty and with sorrow.
There are some who say that the Nose that knows Froot Loops may know them even beyond the boundaries of life and death. That the smell of those Froot flavors crawls beyond nothingness and the grave to serve as a beacon for whatever lies beyond. There are those, thus, who imagine that this story has a happy ending, and also that the biggest problem with keeping Froot Loops in one’s house is the zombies and the restless dead.
That in that empty place beyond substance and mind the Nose still strains to know in which direction Froot Loops lie.
If she can find them—
If she can just find them!—
She will have won.