Unfinished Things

Bethany boards the train. She rides for a time through darkness. Then the train emerges onto the Great Track. The Great Track arches over the deep. The train click-a-clacks across the sky that separates the Cities. Vapors in the sky turn light into opalescence and shadows into color. She sees visions through the mist of distant cities. Sometimes she can see ahead, on a curve, and watch the looming face of Harmony as it comes near.

Harmony is a great and brooding construct. It is miles high, woven of stone and metal. Its roots burrow into something organic far below. Bethany imagines it to be a giant’s chest. If so, then the pulse of the City is the beat of the giant’s heart. The lights that glare off of it burn with the giant’s life.

There’s a clunk as the train enters the City. There’s a swirl of shadows.

The train passes a billboard. “Mothers,” it preaches. “Don’t eat your children!” There’s a picture of a mouse, its expression surprised, a little mouse tail emerging from its mouth. It’s surrounded by a red circle, and a line is drawn through it.

She snorts. She is the only living human who knows why that billboard is there.

Harmony of Consciousness is a lean creature, many-limbed, somewhere in shape between a metal tree and a Hindu god. He is always busy when they speak, his hands stretched out in every direction to perform the unnameable functions that keep the city alive. He is its soul and its guardian.

“Why do you have them do that?” she asks him. She points at one of the monitors, where a scene best not described is taking place.

“It is difficult to control the infestation of humans,” Harmony of Consciousness says. “They have spread throughout the nightmare. They are . . . rugged. And very good at living in the cracks. For each that calls itself to my notice, one hundred scurry in the darkness. So I must set them to the task of destroying themselves.”

“I’m human,” she points out. There’s a little pause before she says it, because she’s afraid, but only a little one.

“I requested you,” he says, and shrugs.

“If you want to be good,” she says, “you won’t make people hurt one another.”

Harmony of Consciousness frowns. Several of his hands hesitate in their work.

“No?”

“No,” she says.

One hand rubs against two metal eyes. He thinks hard. “This is compassion?”

“Yes,” she says.

Harmony of Consciousness sighs. “I do not understand why it is right for you to infest me but not right for me to encourage your deaths.”

Bethany is silent.

“I will institute reforms,” says the City’s soul.

The train circles around the City as it descends through the layers. She tries not to look out the window. There are empty rooms whose ceilings are spinning blades, and blood pours from them onto the sluice of the floor below. There are vacant parks where all the birds are dead. There are kitchens where faceless creatures work. Most humans avoid the train. It is too obvious, too central, and too dangerous.

“It’s spring!” a billboard gladly proclaims. “Recidivists cling to winter in vain!”

There is a sick and liquid noise. The train shudders. Something has jumped from the trackside to the train. Something is clinging to the glass doors, scrabbling and scrambling, trying with blunt bloody fingers and hideous determination to make its way inside. There is darkness flapping and fluttering all around its limbs.

She is on her feet. She is brandishing her badge. She says, in a loud voice, as the thing forces the door open, “I am authorized, I am authorized, I am authorized, Harmony of Consciousness has invited me—”

She has time to see its face, time to realize it is human, that the flapping is its coat, that the madness is human madness, before the train shudders sideways in the track and scrapes the human off against a tunnel wall.

“I have mastered the quality of ‘goodness,'” says Harmony of Consciousness, “and you are now expendable.”

There are clamps around Bethany’s arms and legs. There is something sharp pressed against the back of her neck. Her voice is flat. “‘Goodness,'” she says.

“It is elevating one’s purpose above one’s pleasures,” he says. There is a hint of infectious glee in his tone. “This encourages the emotion known as ‘fulfillment’, or, the reward of virtue.”

Bethany’s job requires a woman of integrity. Therefore she does not immediately dispute him. “What is purpose?” she asks.

“Spring follows winter,” he says. His voice is low and rich. “Autumn follows spring. Winter follows autumn. It is the cycle of the world.”

“And what does that achieve?” she asks.

The clamps are gone. The sharp thing is gone. She falls to the floor, lands on her feet, stumbles, and recovers. Harmony of Consciousness’ eyes are suddenly dim and his voice uncertain. “It achieves spring,” he says. “It achieves autumn. It achieves winter.”

Bethany says, thinly, “My knee is in pain. You will send me home now.”

“Only a recidivist would seek winter in spring,” he says. It is a plea. “Their winter thoughts might call it back! I had best institute a program—“

It is not safe, not at this time, but she answers the plea. The words come from her grudgingly. “It is a step,” she says.

Strength comes back to him, with those words, and the lights of the city burn, and through all the city the trees spurt forth their leaves and the grass wrenches up from the earth.

She is deep enough in the city, now. She can ask, and hope for an answer.

“Why did that happen?” she asks.

The rattling of the train upon the track becomes a voice. It is a low and chanting voice, and for a long time it is blurred. Then the words are clear within her mind.

“There are humans that do not want you to talk to me, I think,” says the City named Harmony. “They are . . . uneasy with my progress.”

“I should think,” says Bethany, “that they would want a benevolent and virtuous home.”

“They do not.”

“Are they a threat?”

The City laughs. It is sweeping and mad, ringing through all the levels of that great structure.

“They are vermin,” says the City named Harmony. “They are not a threat to anything I hold within my hand.”

She passes a sign. It says, simply, “What is Harmony?”

The sign is black with graffiti and defaced.

“It has always been my purpose,” says Harmony of Consciousness, “to dig into the flesh, and root within the heart, and rise into the skies, and be a City in this place of nightmares.”

“That’s true,” says Bethany.

“Then is it my purpose now?” he asks, his words like the edge of a blade.

“It is the purpose of your body,” she says. “It is not the purpose of your mind.”

“But it is good,” he says.

He does not notice the word he has used. She speaks quickly, before he does. “The purpose of the mind,” she says, “may be considered an exponential function. Even as the body seeks nourishment, and power, and growth, it seeks something greater, but of the same substance.”

“As if I were to dig myself into all flesh,” he says, “and root within all hearts, and rise beyond the skies.”

She studies him. “What would it mean,” she says, “to rise beyond the sky?”

He sweeps towards her. Two of his fingers stretch forth hair-thin nails that probe through her neck and into her throat. She can feel a sharp shock of pain and then his blood in her blood, her blood in his. There is something sudden and desperate in his eyes. She seeks to tear free, but her body does not move. Then, after a long moment, he pulls away. His hands go back to the endless work of the city. She sits down hard.

“What was that?” she asks.

“I suddenly felt . . . I . . .”

“Alone?”

“How do they choose someone,” he says, “willing to come here, and talk to me, when I am not yet good?”

“I am atoning,” she says. “For crimes of my own.”

“They say it is a crime,” says Harmony of Consciousness.

“Oh?”

“There are pamphlets, complaining. They are to me, of course. They drift in my winds until I see them. Recordings play into my phone circuits until I hear. They say that it is wrong. That you are violating my . . . innocence.”

“Yes,” says Bethany.

“Yes?”

“Communication is violence,” Bethany says. “I am changing you from what you were.”

Harmony of Consciousness considers this. “You are removing my motivation to kill or oppose you,” he says.

“How do you reason that?” she asks.

“Because my lack of completeness is your only weapon against me.”

“Yes.”

“Is your profession one of very high mortality?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says.

“It is sad,” he says, almost mechanically, like a great beast of metal whose gears are running slow, “when there are unfinished things.”

She is silent for a long time, watching him.

“Yes,” she says. “It is.”

The Forest (II/IV)

The tunnels are deep. The tunnels are dark. They have lots of water in them, and giant spiders. They also have a subway. Sometimes, the subway hits one of the giant spiders. Whoosh! Bam! The spider goes flying end over end. Then it scurries off to the side with a horrid shambling gait. It licks its monstrous spindly legs. It meant to do that! That’s what its body language says.

Jenna lives in the tunnels too. She likes to watch the subway train. She’s decided that it can hit anything. She’s seen it hit ruby-studded zeppelins. She’s seen it hit frogs. She’s seen it hit ancient mummies groaning with the weight of years. In December 1981, Jenna watches it hit Dukkha, the principle of universal suffering, the world’s fundamental tendency to include hostility and anguish in everyday life. Dukkha goes flying end over end. Then he scurries around on the tracks, scarring them black with his passage. He licks his left bipedal quality. He meant to do that. Oh, yes. It was all part of his plan. Whoosh! Bam! The subway hits him again. Jenna giggles.

On the landing, not far from Jenna, Ninja Tathagata watches. He’s as still as the mind that knows emptiness. He’s as calm as a placid lake. His expression is flat. It shows no gloating. Ninja Tathagata has freed himself from attachment to material existence. He does not gloat like ordinary men. His smug satisfaction is a flower blooming in nothingness; a diamond shining in the darkness; a perturbation in the nihilistic void that is Nirvana. He is a ninja Buddha, and he does not giggle. Instead, he turns away and slips into the trees.

Jenna shouts, “Hey!”

Dukkha looks up, eyes blazing. He doesn’t see her. Ninja Tathagata’s already taken hold of Jenna’s wrist and dragged her away.

“You shouldn’t shout around Dukkha,” Ninja Tathagata says. “It’ll only attract his attention.”

Jenna puts her foot down. “There shouldn’t be any trees here. Tunnels are a subterranean environment. Trees are superterranean! Down here we only have their roots. You’re hiding in an illicit forest!”

Ninja Tathagata smiles. “Your anger stems from an irrational attachment to the prevailing conditions of your home. It’s natural, but the key to happiness is understanding that all things change.” Wisps of enlightenment rise from Ninja Tathagata like the steam from a fresh-baked pie.

Jenna pokes his chest. “You’re the Buddha,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want and blame it on other peoples’ irrational attachment!”

“That’s a fair cop,” admits Ninja Tathagata.

“Good,” says Jenna. She sits down with her back against a tree. “I suppose that the trees aren’t so bad. It’s really only because of the character of suffering and torment pervading the universe that I mind.”

On the track, the subway hits the pervasive universal character of torment and suffering. He shrieks. Then he narrows his eyes. “If I get off the track now,” he murmurs softly, “everyone will know I didn’t really plan to get hit three times. I’d better just lounge here, bitter and languid, until I hear a Dukkha Call.”

“It’s difficult waging a constant shadow war against Dukkha,” Ninja Tathagata explains. “Sometimes I need a break. That’s why I carry a forested glen with me everywhere I go. It’s relaxing to sit under the green and watch the shadows drift by.”

Ninja Tathagata sits under the green. The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. There’s a thump.

“You’re deliberately not looking smug,” Jenna observes.

Ninja Tathagata winks.

The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. There’s a thump.

Jenna sighs and pats the tree. “I get tired of pain, too,” she says. “I suppose you’d say that I should cultivate enlightenment?”

“In the long term,” Ninja Tathagata agrees. “In the short term, if you’d like, I could leave the forested glen here.”

The light of the subway train washes across the branches. Shadows race by. Someone shouts, “What’s that? Is that a Dukkha Call I hear in the distance?” There’s no thump.

“Oh!” Jenna says, disappointed. “He must have swirled his cloak around himself and become a nonlocalized phenomenon before it hit.”

“I didn’t hear a Dukkha Call,” says Ninja Tathagata. “I think he made that part up.”

“What’s a Dukkha Call?”

Ninja Tathagata doesn’t get a wicked grin. His sudden, mischevious impulse is a blind man’s sunrise; a fire without fuel; a warmth and a heat rising in and filling and falling in the emptiness of Ninja Nirvana. He stands and walks over to a pile of leaves. “Help, help,” he says. “The placidity in my heart is stifling my potential for growth.”

With a swirl of his cape, Dukkha localizes. “Then face the malevolent wrath of Dukkha!” he shouts. Under his feet, the leaves give way.

“The covered pit is a nice touch,” Jenna admits.