The Immensity of Love (I/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]


In ten thousand miles of dreams there is only one Max.

He stands surrounded by dream, lost in great billowing clouds of dream, lost in endless and infinite dream, one tiny speck of human in a surging sea.

The wind that rushes past has taken the skin from him, taken the bones from him, flayed him down to just that speck:

Max.

He is flailing in his bed but he does not know it.

His arms are casting about.

Then there is light pressing against the darkness, sunlight turning the insides of his eyelids into shapes, and he remembers his name.

Max.

There is a welter of blankets around him. There is cool air flowing through the room. His bones ache.

In his eyes there is sun.

He mumbles a complaint.

These days, when the sun sneaks in through the pinhole in his curtain, it’s personal. It’s not just an anonymous irritant or the wicked hands of fate. It’s Iphigenia, and she’s probably doing it on purpose.

She is a mischevious girl.

She’s a burning yellow heat.

She is 1.4 million kilometers in diameter when she is the sun but no siggort ever came out of Siggort Town just to be her friend.

“Gr,” he mumbles.

In his eyes there is sun.

Something nags at the back of his mind.

He doesn’t want to wake up.

He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s tired and unhappy but there’s some reason—

Ah.

Max opens his eyes.

There’s a horrible little thing on his pillow. It’s like a crocodile’s skull, only it’s got horns. Its dry and its white but it’s not dead. It’s looking at him.

“Right,” he says.

He reaches out his hand. He holds its jaws closed. With his other hand he rubs his own forehead.

“Martin warned me about you,” he says. “Sneaking in through the pipes and making bad dreams like that.”

The thing struggles in his hand.

Max looks wry.

“I feel sorry for you,” he says. “Coming to a place like this, a little thing like you.”

It’s a horror of living bone. It was probably eating his soul as he slept. But there’s never been a siggort who’d show up just because it said the siggort’s name. There never was a siggort who’d look so . . . so Sid at it when it smiled.

Aside from the numbing horror of it, it’s kind of cute.

So Max doesn’t kill it.

He takes his hat off his hat rack and hangs the horror there and puts his hat on it and then he goes to wash his face in the dinky blue bathroom that’s next to his room.

He doesn’t want to wake up, but there’s some reason—

And he looks at himself in the mirror and he thinks, Ah, right.

Of course he has to wake up.

Sid loved me.

Continuing the history of Sid and Max (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

It is June 1, 2004.

There’s a knock on Max’s door.

Max has an image to maintain, so he doesn’t answer. Instead, he pushes a button next to the door.

On both sides of the door a BROODING light lights up.

He can hear from outside: “Aw, man!”

It’s Jane’s voice.

Jane’s like a self-arming nuclear bomb with independently mobile legs. She’s a six-year-old girl. But there’s never been a siggort that waited thirteen hundred years just so Jane could be born.

Max, sure.

That happened, with Max.

But not with Jane.

Max pulls on a white shirt. He doesn’t need pants because he sleeps in his jeans so he’s wearing them already.

He flops on his bed.

Jane gives him a full two minutes to relax, to think: maybe she’s gone away?

Then she knocks again.

Max stands up.

He opens the door.

Max brushes back his hair with one hand.

“It’s four in the morning,” he says.

“It’s ten,” says Jane, scandalized.

Max makes a gesture as if to indicate that he cannot be bothered with mundane details of timekeeping.

“I’m brooding,” he says.

“I saw,” says Jane.

Seconds elapse.

“What do you want?” Max asks.

Jane looks at him. She wrings her hands. Then she says what she rehearsed.

“It’s all right to fight,” she says. “But it’s all right to make up, too.”

“Ah.”

Max sighs.

“Come in,” he says.

Jane comes in. She pulls herself up on the spare bed, the one Max doesn’t use, the one all spread with a cowhide-colored quilt. Max flops in his desk chair, more or less directly in front of and below his hat rack.

What do I say?

“It is because of Sid that I can be here,” Max says. “It’s because he looked at me and saw something worth saving, worth rescuing, worth returning to the world. But I can’t make up with him.”

“It’s easy,” stresses Jane. “You just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you hug.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“You could make him a cake!”

Max looks for words.

“It’s Sid’s business,” he says. “Fixing it, I mean. It’s not mine.”

Jane gapes at him.

“See,” says Max, “if I was all, ‘we must make this right, I miss you, I hurt every day over this,’ then how’d Sid feel?”

“What?”

“It’d be like if the monster came to you and wanted you to accept his apology,” Max says.

“Oh,” says Jane.

Her mouth moves, like she’s thinking or trying to sound out a hard word.

After a bit, she says, “Sometimes I beat up Martin, or he dangles me by my feet or dunks my head in water, and then we make up.”

“Yes,” says Max. “You’re modeled after young primates.”

Jane giggles.

It’s a kind of unexpected giggle, as if the image in her mind is surprisingly silly.

“What?” Max asks warily.

“Like in Pokemon!” Jane declares.

Max narrows his eyes. He stares at her with his gunman’s gaze.

“You’re thinking of Primape,” he corrects, and she’s laughing too hard to stop him when he chases her out of his room.

It is June 1, 2004.

Max is alone.

Max feels alone.

He is surrounded by inhuman things, in a place beyond the boundaries of the world. If he thinks about it very carefully, even ten thousand miles of chaos is not so frightening to him as Jane.

Or Mrs. Schiff, that casual swallower of horrors.

Or Martin.

Or even the Roomba.

But he doesn’t have to think about it carefully.

It’s not necessary.

There’s no one but Max within ten thousand miles who’s ever had a siggort come out of Siggort Town just to love them, and the immensity of love makes everything else seem small.

Newton’s First Law (4 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The baited hook falls, falls, falls.

There is a pause.

There is a great crunching and munching of teeth.

“Perfect,” says Martin smugly. He glances slyly at the Roomba. “See, if you had a better set of lexemes, you’d be able to admire that cast.”

The Roomba’s “I don’t want to get eaten” LED lights up.

There is a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“I’ve got her,” Martin says.

Here is how it came to pass.

The morning of June 1, 2004, had gone well for Martin. Sukaynah was placid, made happy by the falling of apples. Mei Ming, insofar as he could guess, was giving serious contemplation to his ideas. Jane, overwhelmed by the task of piecing together histories in the broken lens, was uncharacteristically quiet. And there, shining amidst the aisles of Costco, he’d found a flat of delicious Fig Newtons: 125 packages of 24 cookies each, bundled together, 5x5x5.

The flat shone like the stars.

He took it home to the tower and set his purchases on the counter. Jane descended like a vulture, but—

“No,” said Martin, flush with the power that was in him.

“No,” he said. He held out his hand. “Not the cookies,” he said.

Jane pouted, but Martin did not bend. She tried to sneak around him to the cookies. Martin stood firm, like the sentryman of Heaven.

“You can’t eat 3000 cookies by yourself!” Jane protested, driven at the last to the employment of reason. “You’d turn into a cookie. And explode!”

Martin said, dramatically, “I’m willing to take that risk.”

But Jane’s star was in ascendance. She made her very best face at him. He trembled under the power of that face. Her eyes bored into his. “You have to share them with everyone in the tower,” she said.

“I have to?”

“Yes.”

And sometimes Martin wonders why he made her, why he shaped her from the ruin that he’d found, why he’d bothered to bring an ending to the firewood and to Bob: but not today.

On June 1, 2004, he loves her; and with gloatful satisfaction says, “That’s more than 2800 for me.”

And against the glow of that brilliance Jane can offer no protest.

Martin leans back. He prepares to reel Sukaynah up. He spins the wheel on his fishing pole. It turns easily at first but then it slows down. It gets harder and harder.

“Will you keep your promise?” Martin says.

He’s sweating as he struggles with the line.

“Glugnuh?” Sukaynah says, meaning: Promise?

“Because I gave you a cookie,” Martin says.

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

“You said that if anyone fed you cookies, that you’d be able to break free, but that you’d have to eat the tower and the sea and the sun.”

“‘orry,” Sukaynah says. “‘ut, ieyah.”

Martin is sweating. He’s trying to reel Sukaynah in but he’s making very little progress.

“Because I have to admit,” he says, “I don’t actually want you to do that. And also, this isn’t working very well.”

“‘y ‘ot?” Sukaynah asks, meaning Why not?

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED lights up.

Martin glances at it. He shakes his head irritably.

“Hush,” he says.

The line goes still and trembling.

There is a momentary hush.

Then there is anger from below. There is a thrashing in the sea. The hook tears loose and Martin falls back and Sukaynah shrieks, “But this isn’t a cookie!

“What?”

Newtons are fruit and cake!

The tower shifts, the tower shakes. The Roomba slips free from the newton on which it is impaled. The imago slumps to lean against the tree.

The crust of the world cracks.

In the distant west there is a sound: Whump!

“Oh,” Martin says.

Brick Fishing (3 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

There’s a simple fishing rod leaning against one wall. It’s made of white birch. The line makes relaxed loops like a backwards B as it travels the fishing rod’s length.

Martin threads a newton onto the hook.

“You’re probably wondering,” he says to the imago, “why I brought you here.”

The imago is silent.

“I wanted to explain to you, before anything big happened—like Sukaynah eating the tower and the sea and the sun or you coming out of your cocoon or someone bumping the Roomba’s End of Everything Button—just how very much I want to win.”

Outside the sky is blue and the clouds rush by.

Martin whips the fishing rod forward and with a sound like scree-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee the cookie falls down towards Sukaynah’s maw.

Continuing the story of Martin, Sukaynah, the imago, and the Roomba (1, 2)

“People are unfinished,” Martin says. “They’re rough and raw and they look like the blobs that kids in elementary school make when they learn pottery in art class. They’re hopeless.

The line stops descending. Martin pauses a moment.

“It hit the oak,” Sukaynah says.

Martin sighs. He reels up the line. He pulls the cookie back. Then he casts again.

“It makes me so angry,” Martin says. His face is just a little bit red. “Like, they’ll figure out that something is wrong and the first thing they do? They do it louder.

The line stops descending. Martin pauses.

“The house,” Sukaynah says.

“Oh,” Martin says.

“You’re really bad at fishing,” Sukaynah says.

“It’s not my fault you’ve got a house in your snorkel,” Martin says.

“No,” Sukaynah admits.

Martin reels the line back up. He looks critically at the fig newton, takes it off the hook, and replaces it with a fresh one. He glares down into the hole. Then he braces and casts again.

“Mind the werewolf,” Sukaynah says, and Martin’s hands jerk and he almost drops the rod and in any event the cookie hits the wall.

“I am trying to fish and explain how awful people are,” Martin says.

The imago is silent.

“They’re also sloppy,” Martin observes. “And ugly! And the really young and really old ones are all wrinkly. And they’re always leaving their things all over the place. And they hurt each other. And they poison the earth. And they don’t eat their vegetables.”

He casts the line out with grim determination. It falls, falls, falls towards Sukaynah’s maw.

There is an angry bark.

“And some of them are werewolves!” Martin says, as if this were the capstone to his argument when in fact it is the smallest of incidents.

Time continued to pass and still Sukaynah was not fed.

She cried, “Feed me fruit! Green apples! Strawberries! Figs! Oh, feed me fruit and I shall sink to the depths and trouble you no more.”

But there was silence, and for a long time she was left there, to gnash her teeth and bewail her fate, until one day Martin came.

Sukaynah breathes: ho-ha, ho-ha. It stirs the dust on the floor. It blows back a lock of Martin’s hair.

“What would it mean,” she says, “If I may ask? Your victory?”

“I would sweep away the kingdoms of the world,” Martin says. “I would tear down all the monsters. I’d make a pile of their bones. I’d dispose of the people who couldn’t evolve. I’d rend the world, I’d cull it down to a remnant, and from its ashes I’d build the most glorious of Heavens.”

“Ah,” says Sukaynah.

Martin begins to reel back the line.

“And the gibbelins?” Sukaynah asks.

“The gibbelins?”

“Would you tear them down and make their bones a pyre?”

“You can’t punish the dead,” Martin says. His face is blank. “That’s like putting pebbles in your soup.”

“Then I do not think,” Sukaynah says, “that you should win.”

Martin finishes pulling up the line. The hook is empty. The werewolf has savagely eaten the fig newton.

He shakes his head irritably.

He sighs.

He rebaits the hook.

“I know,” he says. “I shouldn’t. I can’t. I wish I could. Thinking about it—it’s tremblingly nice. It makes my fingers warm and my toes curl. But I’m not going to.”

He casts the line. It falls, falls, falls.

His face, with no one looking at it, is almost open.

“Instead,” he says, “I’m trusting Jane.”

Feeding Dangerous Things (2 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

Leaves in sunlight, touched by a gust of wind, scritch and skitter along the floor. They reach the edge of the pit. They leap down like cats, hunched and light and agile, and fall slowly towards Sukaynah’s maw.

They vanish into the darkness below.

And up from below comes the breath of Sukaynah, whose snorkel and prison this tower is: ho-ha, ho-ha.

“Sometimes I try to fish her up,” Martin says. “Because I would like to help her. But I’ve never used the right bait.”

Sukaynah’s breath is heavy and rasping. It scrapes along the brick.

Continuing the story of Martin, Sukaynah, the imago, and the Roomba (1)

“Here,” Martin says to the Roomba.

He reaches into his pocket. It’s full of wadded up fig newtons. He takes one out and tosses it to the Roomba.

The Roomba attempts to vacuum up the cookie. When this fails it tries to climb up on top of the cookie. After a long effort it manages to get itself stuck on top of the fig newton. It whirrs and whines helplessly.

“That’s bad navigation,” Martin says.

“!!” explains the Roomba.

Martin says, “Well, don’t look at me to help you. I think you should use this opportunity to evolve.”

The Roomba’s “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” LED lights up. It plays a sorrowful tune.

Martin makes a face.

“Grind it down with your mobility!” he says.

As the Roomba hums and whirrs, Martin turns to the imago.

“Here,” he says.

He holds out another cookie.

The imago does not take the cookie.

“I think you’re an imago,” Martin says. “I think you’re in that cocoon because you’re evolving to the next stage of human existence—in,” he says triumphantly, “direct contradiction to the Roomba’s LED.”

The Roomba irritably extinguishes its “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” light. It attempts to back up off of the cookie, to no avail.

“But,” Martin says, “it can’t be very much of an evolution if the post-person stage is unable to eat cookies.”

The imago is silent.

Martin makes a face.

“Maybe you don’t get a cookie, then.”

And he plucks two apples from the tree and sits down with his legs dangling into the pit and he looks thoughtfully down at Sukaynah far below.

Time continued to pass and still Sukaynah was not fed.

She cried, “Feed me sweet things! Pastries! Cakes! Cookies! Oh, feed me sweet things and I shall rise to devour the tower, the ocean, and the sun.”

At that time, a fisherman—Abel Clay—had moved into the tower, along with his family. He heard Sukaynah’s cries and was mightily amazed: but, “No way!” he shouted back down. “I like the sun!”

She heaved and wriggled in great rage, but he refused to feed her anything after the manner of her desire.

“Hey!” Martin says.

There is silence.

“Hey, Sukaynah!”

Sukaynah is a long way down but her breath fills the tower: ha-ho, ha-ho, ha-ho.

“Fruit,” Martin says.

And he tosses down an apple and it falls and it falls and then there is a great crunching and munching of teeth and finally a swallowing sound like the receding of the tide.

“Martin,” says Sukaynah.

“If I were a doctor,” Martin says, “these would totally keep me away. But I’d also be Doc Martin.”

Sukaynah breathes.

Slowly, she says, “Do you sleep very soundly, Martin?”

“I sleep vigorously,” Martin says.

“If you sleep too soundly,” Sukaynah says, “then it is possible that very small people will tie you down underwater and build a combination tower/breathing tube on your face. Then a few thousand years later even smaller people will move into the tower and try to make friends with you. Your reaction might be best expressed as such: ‘I am unable to identify our common ground.'”

“Maybe you have sleep apnea,” says Martin.

“What?”

“It’s a sleep disorder,” Martin says. “You can find more information about it on the Internet.”

There is a long pause.

“I do not think it is sleep apnea,” Sukaynah says.

“Oh.”

It is June 1, 2004.

A cloud passes over the sun.

“Do you think it’s okay to destroy everything?” Martin asks.

“Yes,” says Sukaynah.

Martin munches on a cookie. He is thinking. “Me too,” he says.

Then he takes a newton from his pocket.

“Cookie?”

Sukaynah breathes.

“Why,” she says, “you’re a good little boy after all.”

The LED (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The roots of the apple tree wind about the orange and red bricks. Green leaves brush against the walls. Several branches jut forth from the window of the tower. Others get their sunlight from the ragged skylight up above.

Martin pushes open the door with his shoulder. He is dragging the imago and talking to the Roomba, and this is what he is admitting:

“I don’t understand Roomba design,” Martin says.

The Roomba’s “?” LED lights up.

“You have a dirt light,” Martin says, “and that’s fine. And the ‘?’ I get. But why would you need an LED for ‘Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations?'”

The Roomba’s “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” LED lights up.

Martin looks rueful.

“Ah,” he says.

Continuing the story of the imago (1, 2)

“This is one of only five towers near California,” Martin asides to the Roomba, “with an apple tree on the top floor.”

The Roomba is helping him move the imago. Martin is struggling to drag it along. The Roomba is weaving along in the scrape marks he leaves, bumping into the imago repeatedly, and, as it does so, occasionally shredding strands of the silken membrane that surrounds her.

It’s not actually being very helpful but Martin appreciates its desire to be of use.

“Do you know why?” Martin asks.

The Roomba spins in a circle.

“It’s because if it weren’t here, we’d all get eaten.

The Roomba’s “!” LED lights up.

“Deep below,” Martin says. “Deep past the basement, past the cellar, past the tunnels, there’s Sukaynah. I don’t know how big she is. Nobody knows how big she is. But I know how big her teeth are.”

He spreads his hands, accidentally dropping the imago.

Whump!

He bites his lip to conceal embarrassment. Bluffly, he says, “That big!”

The Roomba is visibly stunned.

Martin squats down and hefts up the imago again. He says, “The Gibbelins made a foundation of her face. She’s down there now, gnashing and grinding her teeth. She’s very angry because there’s a tower on top of her. And she’d love nothing more than to eat her way up the tower, floor by floor, and devour everybody, but she can’t! That’s because of Newton’s First Law.”

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED blinks.

“It’s stuck to her face,” Martin explains.

The wind blows. It catches up some apple leaves. It blows them out to the center of the floor, which, the Roomba suddenly notices, isn’t there.

Where the center of the floor should be, there’s just a jagged hole edged in zigzag bricks. They’re old and red and orange and crumbling and below them—far below—there is Sukaynah.

Uh oh! the Roomba thinks. It backs slowly and circuitously away from the hole.

“The apples reinforce that,” Martin says.

“. . . and up!” he adds, to the imago.

He leans the imago up against the wall, near the window, where she’ll have sun.

The floor dapples with the competition between the sunlight, the shade, and the imago’s light.

The gibbelins fed Sukaynah only on scraps of human flesh. They’d throw down gobbets and bits of innards. These things fell into Sukaynah’s mouth and she had no choice but to eat them. Sukaynah hated this.

It is bad to be trapped and force fed but it is worse when the substance is not okay to eat.

After the gibbelins left Sukaynah had nothing to eat for quite some time, so she shouted, “Feed me!”

Time passed.

“Feed me again! Even human flesh! Feed me again and I will forgive you even that!”

But there was no sound save the gentle ebbing and flowing of the sea.

Martin glances back over his shoulder.

An LED is gleaming.

Now and again, it’ll turn off, and then back on.

“The problem,” Martin says, “is that if you only have a handful of lexemes to work with, you need to use them to build larger sequences. Or at least assign them to atomic meanings in the Roomba psyche.”

The LED flashes.

“I mean,” Martin says, “if I’m supposed to talk to you, we should at least remap them as lights 1-10 so you can talk to me in number strings.”

The LED flashes.

“Or do something with timing. I mean, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret an ‘I don’t want to get eaten’ LED?”

The LED flashes.

Martin glances at the pit, just to make sure that Sukaynah isn’t rising. Then he shrugs.

“Absolutely terrible user interface,” he says.

I don’t want to get eaten, the Roomba thinks. I don’t want to get eaten. I don’t want to get eaten.

Then it is distracted.

Hey! Dirt! There’s dirt!

An LED gleams.

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.

(Bonus Content) How the New Cycle Begins

The Roomba is a robot vacuum.

Today, the Roomba cleans. It vacuums. It weaves across the carpet, seeking dirt, like a drunk Irish trilobite made entirely of plastic.

The Roomba bumps against Amara.

Uh oh! thinks the Roomba. It turns. It tries to escape.

The Roomba bumps against Grigor.

Uh oh! thinks the Roomba. It spins around in circles. It darts to one side.

“He does not look like much,” says Grigor.

The Roomba is shaped like a disc. The lights on its back do not currently glow. It does not, in fact, look like much.

“This plan is folly,” Grigor sighs.

Amara kneels down. “Little robot,” she says. “We have need of your help.”

The Roomba bumps against Amara.

Uh oh!

“So I am sorry,” Amara says, “for what we must do.”

Amara picks up the Roomba.

Uh oh! Uh oh! Uh oh! thinks the Roomba.

Amara, Grigor, and the Roomba pass through a magical gate into the Land of Night.

“Uh oh!” says the Roomba. “Uh oh!”

Then it pauses.

“Uh . . . oh?” it says.

Then it whirrs its engine. “Hey,” it says. “Hey. I can talk. Hey. Your hands are clean. Put me down. Put me where there is dirt!”

The Roomba hiccups. Its cleaning button blushes red.

“This is the Land of Night,” says Amara. The Roomba observes for the first time that Amara is busty and scantily clad, while Grigor is tall, craggy, and morose. “We have brought you here to retrieve the Sword of Shadows that can defeat the evil overlord Ma’sen-ki.”

The Roomba ponders.

“Why?” it asks.

“It’s her plan,” says Grigor. “I have nothing to do with it.”

He looks grimly disapproving.

“The sword is kept on a dais within a magical shield that no creature living or dead can penetrate,” says Amara. “But I had heard, in the books of those who traveled the worlds, of marvelous creatures called robots. Creatures made of plastic and metal, yet resemblant of life. You, little Roomba. You are one of these marvelous robots. You will claim the Sword of Shadows and save our land.”

The Roomba asks, pragmatically, “Is there DIRT on this dais?”

Amara looks at Grigor.

“Dust,” says Grigor. “The dust of a thousand years.”

“Acceptable,” says the Roomba. “I will clean this dust.”

Through the Land of Night they travel, swift as the wind, swift as shadows, to the dais under the looming crag of Cephis’tor where nothing living or dead may be.

“Here,” says Amara.

There are things in the sky. They are white like bone. Their eyes gleam red and their great wings are featherless. They begin to circle.

Amara tosses the Roomba onto the dais.

“I will clean the dust of a thousand years!” declares the Roomba.

“No!” says Amara. “The sword!”

“The robot lives,” says Grigor. His tone is mildly impressed. He unsheathes a naginata larger than he is tall and turns to face the descending hordes of Ma’sen-ki.

The Roomba vacuums. It weaves across the dais, seeking dust, like a drunk Irish trilobite made entirely of plastic stranded in a magical land.

“The sword!” says Amara again, frustrated. Then three of the things descend upon her. She moves with liquid grace, catching a long thin limb and hurling the beast to shatter against the shield; somehow, neither of the others holds her in its claws; yet more of them, hundreds more, descend.

The Roomba bumps against the Sword of Shadows.

“Uh oh!” says the Roomba. It turns. It tries to escape. It trundles to the edge of the dais. It bumps against the shattered remains of the creature, at the edge of the shield.

“Uh oh!” says the Roomba.

There is nothing for it. It begins to turn in frantic circles as the heroes die.

Time passes.

“I should find my recharging station,” says the Roomba.

Its attention turns outside the dais. There is the great somber face of Ma’sen-ki.

“You are on the dais,” says Ma’sen-ki, “and yet you live.”

“I do not have my recharging station,” explains the Roomba. “I should find it.”

“I was the dark face of their society,” says Ma’sen-ki. “Their shadow-image. And now there is only me.”

“I’m sorry,” says the Roomba.

“There is nothing left in this world,” says Ma’sen-ki, “but night.”

“No recharging station, then?”

“I’m sorry,” says Ma’sen-ki.

“Then I’ll travel in random directions,” says the Roomba.

The Roomba trundles out into the place that is Ma’sen-ki.

Transformation (1 of 1)

There is a room in Gibbelins’ Tower that overlooks the chaos. Its window has no glass, and there is always a wind. There are strands of pink and green and silver in that wind, torn upwards from the surging sea.

Straight across the window, more miles distant than a bird could fly, there is a lighthouse. To the left of the window, there is a bridge. There is something that might be a tugboat, off to the right. If so, it is foundering, and will most likely drown with all its crew beneath the terrible sea.

Martin stands there, looking out. Jane enters.

“The door says ‘keep out’ and ‘no girls allowed’,” Martin notes.

“Also, ‘toxic’ and ‘radiation warning.'”

“Does this, for you, occasion no concern?”

“Nope.”

Jane stands next to Martin and looks out the window.

“What’cha doin’?”

“Taking measurements. And you?”

“I made an armored umbrella,” Jane says. She holds it out to him in two hands. “See?”

Martin takes the umbrella. He studies it. Then he steps back and opens it with a flourish. It clicks open with a clang and a click. It’s a pretty ominous umbrella.

“Martin!” Jane accuses.

“What?”

“You’re inside.

“Not topologically!” Martin protests.

“Does luck really care?” Jane wonders.

“It’s very nice,” says Martin. He rotates it. He puts it over his shoulder. It clangs against the stone wall. “What’s it for?”

“I thought that it would be raining screws and bolts,” Jane says. “Since it’s a season of metal.”

Martin considers. He looks outside. “It’s pretty chaotic,” he says. “So maybe. But that’s not what the season means.”

“And maybe appliances,” Jane says. “We could finally get a dishwasher.”

Martin re-estimates the umbrella’s tensile strength.

“Or a tank!”

“I don’t want a tank,” Martin says, reflexively. He does, of course, but he’s a responsible boy who knows that tanks kill more family members every year than intruders or enemies of the state.

“What’s it actually mean?” Jane says.

“It’s the season of gathering,” Martin says. He goes over to a cot in the corner of the room, reaches under it, and pulls out a handful of dust bunnies and lint. Martin does not vacuum this room very often, and the last time he exposed the Roomba to the vapors of chaos, it developed sentience, extra LEDs, and an End of Everything Button. “In the spring, you see, it’s all right to be choosy. To say, ‘I’ll keep this dust bunny, but not that one. I like fruit, but I don’t like squash.’ But when the months pass and the year grows older, it’s important to collect everything you can. To look for the good and the salvageable in everything. To have hope for things, even if it costs you.”

Martin sifts through the dust bunnies and finds the one that’s made of chocolate. He sifts some more and finds the great dust bunny leader that organized the others and kept them peacefully under the bed rather than messing up the whole room. He hands these, and the best of the remaining bunnies, to Jane. Then he goes to the window and lets the others fall down into the chaos below. He dusts off his hands.

“It’s crying,” Jane says.

“The world is not kind to dust bunnies,” says Martin. He takes the bunnies from Jane’s hands, all but the chocolate one, and puts them back under the bed.

Jane licks the salt of dust bunny tears off of her hands.

Martin looks at her.

“I like salt,” Jane says.

Martin looks back out the window. “Anyway,” he says. “If there’s a tank up in heaven, or a dishwasher, that they don’t need, then I guess this is the right season for them to drop it on me so I can make it good. So I’ll be keeping the umbrella.”

Jane smiles. She hugs Martin.

He scruffles her hair.

“If it’s a season of metal,” Jane says, “then I want them back.”

Martin hesitates. “Which ones?” he says, warily.

“I don’t know,” Jane says. “Just . . . you know. Them. The gods they took.”

Martin nods.

“Iphigenia,” Jane says, because things happen in a certain order and chaos succumbs to the dictates of pattern when it must.

“How do you take her back?” says Martin.

Jane is suddenly shy.

“She made her from me,” Jane says. “She cut her out of me like with a torch. And I could never figure out if a sculpture belongs to the sculptor or the stone.”

Martin sits on the cot. “Jane,” he says.

Her eyes go round. “Are you all right?”

“I think that there is nothing I need less to imagine in all the world than the idea that sculpting people is taking from them,” he says.

“Oh,” Jane says.

“Everything everyone does,” Martin says, “is about changing the world. Making it different. And sometimes there is pain. But it is a gift and it must be a gift because you cannot gain rights to someone else simply by acting upon them.”

Jane peers at him.

“That’s backwards,” she says.

Martin grins.

“What?”

“It is the dharma of a god,” Martin says, “to view certain moral and causal relationships from the other side.”

“Oh.”

Martin adopts an expression of intense intellectual concentration. He looks like a boy trying to read his own thoughts in a mirror. He offers, “If she had no right to carve from you, then why should she have claimed the result?”

Jane shrinks in on herself for a moment, but she is Jane. She straightens out again and grins.

“She deserves some compensation for her pains,” says Jane.

“That’s true,” Martin says. “It was good work!”

“She’s very fiery and stuff. And she kept the sun going.”

Martin looks dubious. “I bet the sun would still be going anyway.”

“It might have fallen into the sea!”

“Copernicus would argue.”

“Maybe,” says Jane. “We could unearth him and find out.”

“He’s not in his grave,” Martin says, sulkily.

“He’s not?”

“. . . so I hear.”

“If I welcome her,” asks Jane, “do you think that she’ll come?”

“Yes.”

“It’s that easy? Just . . . tell her that she can be mine?”

“Is that easy?”

“I guess not,” says Jane.

“I was always glad,” Martin says, “that you accepted what I’d done to you. Because you could have stopped it.”

“It’s ’cause you keep not pushing the End of Everything Button,” Jane says. “I think that’s very noble of you, considering that it’s red and has that ‘don’t push’ label and all.”

“It is very difficult,” concedes Martin. “I’m a scientist.”

“So I’ll do it,” says Jane. She takes the chocolate dust bunny to the window. She kisses it. It does not respond. It is as nihilistic and detached as only a Cadbury bunny can be. “Go,” she says, and tosses it out into the chaos. “Tell Iphigenia she’s welcome here. Tell her she can come home.”

“A chocolate dust bunny?” Martin says.

“It can keep the sun running for Tina,” says Jane. “Since, you know, she won’t have Iphigenia any more. And if she eats it, she’ll get sick!”

The wind picks up the bunny in the air and tumbles it off towards land.

“Bunnies are a double-edged sword,” Martin agrees.