Bam (IIa/III)

“I ran away from Billy,” Melanie says.

She is holding her feet. She is sitting on the empty bed across from Liril’s. It is 1985.

“I don’t want to be afraid of him,” she says.

“You should find a really old ghost,” Liril says. “And tie it to your soul. Then, if he tries to hit you, bam! It can stick its claws through Billy’s eyes.”

“Like that’ll happen,” Melanie says.

Liril shrugs.

“Stuff happens,” she says.

“Really?”

“If you go to Jericho,” Liril says, “and you rip a string from a grangler’s cord, and tie it to your hair, then you’ll have a grangler. Then it goes like I said.”

And Melanie says, “Oh.”

Liril grins at Melanie. Later they braid one another’s hair.

“You won’t have to run,” she says.

A Study in Entanglement (VII/VII)

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and you’re, and she is strong; but

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is rising in her, what she can, what she must become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry and go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become not you the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web never that is the world—

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is a rising in her, what she can become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and to be by all others loved; to tell you’re Amiel’s get lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform never you transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you’re get make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, you’re, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and she is strong; but

“I can’t,” Liril says. “I can’t, Melanie, not you, never you, not you.

The words say themselves through Melanie’s throat, like knives: “You must.

“I can’t,” Liril says, and then she looks away. She says, quietly, “I can’t, Melanie. Not you. There’s only one kind of god that you can ever be.”

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

They are poisoned words.

Listening to those words for Melanie is like pouring a jug of drain cleaner right down the gullet of her mind.

The words hurt her, somehow. She is aching deep inside from them, like a child who has just found out Santa’s real, but that he’ll never come for her.

Like a girl, who learns the ERA never passed.

Like an athlete who hurts their leg, and finds out that it will never heal.

She doesn’t even understand yet how it can possibly hurt so much, because she doesn’t have the least idea what Liril means. She can’t understand how it can make her suffer because she obviously—to herself—does not possess whatever knowledge it would be that makes her suffer in reaction to those words. It is as if, rather, she embodies that awful knowledge; as if the implications of Liril’s statements are bypassing her mind entirely and ringing horrid echoes down her soul.

You don’t get to express your dharma, child. never you Not you.

You don’t get to be who you are.

“You’re Amiel’s get,” says Liril.

She isn’t even trying to be cruel.

“You’re the cherub kind. You can’t be any sort of god, ever, except a bondsman of my line.”

It is worse than drain cleaner. It’s turned to lightning now. It’s turned to lightning and it’s writhing in her heart and soul and mind, all the bits of her that knew not lightning’s sting, and it hurts.

For a very long moment, Melanie thinks that Liril is going to change her.

She can’t fight it. She is strong. Melanie is absurdly strong. She is ten and she is stronger than most adults. But Liril’s words have broken her. She is resigned to it, somehow, somewhere in her, to the knowledge that she’ll soon be owned. She will transform. She will become a bondsman of Liril’s line. She will become a possession and a guardian and a follower of this strange and gray-haired girl.

She doesn’t want to be.

She doesn’t want to be, but she doesn’t have any defense against it. She isn’t sure how to fight it, or even if she should.

Her ancestress Amiel is inside her, wound through her, so long ago and so very far away and yet burning in her blood:

I will guard your line, Amiel is promising, as she has always been promising. I will guard your line, and our families be entwined forever.

It is impossible for Melanie to resist.

She thinks it must be easy to transcend, to arise, to become the god of that ancient promise. She can feel it rising inside her as a consuming lightness that will free her from mortality and carry her human self away.

She manages to get out: “I—“

She doesn’t know what to say after that. She can’t find the thing to say or think or do that will make it actually happen, inside her, and she can’t find the thing to say or do that will make it stop.

She notices that she’s scrambled back, away from Liril, but it’s nothing like far enough.

“I won’t make you that,” Liril says. “It’s wrong.”

Melanie’s lost the sense of who Melanie is that she’d had when she sat down. It is a momentary, dizzy emptiness. She is angry and sad and desperately, pathetically grateful, and she hates and loves Liril in that moment with an overpowering, vicious force.

She’s going to say something.

She can feel it.

She’s going to say something, and maybe then she’ll be Melanie again. It’s building up inside her. There are going to be words. There’s something. She doesn’t even know what she’s going to say, but it’s going to be something.

How can a person know what they’re going to say at a time like that?

The words just come.

The Elephant in the Room:

Stay tuned!

Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

It has been a certain interval, dear reader, since I first had the opportunity to speak to you of the magical land of rainbows above the world and the shadowed city that succeeded it. Of how it came to pass that a certain girl, born in shadows and dwelling in shadows, became the rainbow; how she challenged the notorious Nihilism Bear; and, in the end, defeated him. Later, and after the receipt of certain despatches and messages, I was able to speak to you further: of how she sought out Mr. Dismal, whom she falsely suspected of responsibility for her various plights, and, in The Case of Mr. Dismal, made an end to him. But we still did not know the why of it all—whose will it had been that had set itself against the rainbow; that had brought Mr. Dismal to that land; that had dulled the kingdom of every brightness into Shadow City’s noir.

Lately, some of my friends have been struggling. They’re trying to do something good, something amazing, something cool, but they’re working for and with people who’d really much rather it came out a product. There is a corrupt religion of money over worth that has seeded itself in the modern business world; and people I care about, dear reader, are being ground down by the faithful of that religion; by the Mythos cultists of this modern era who would never have believed, who couldn’t have believed, that a place like Shadow City ever had color in it at all.

And I thought, maybe, for them, as a Christmas present; and for you, as a Christmas present—

Even though it wouldn’t help them any, and even though it wouldn’t mean that my dear readers would hear regular tales from me again—

that I would look into the matter a bit. That I would find out a bit more about the thing that turns rainbows into shadows, and ask what kind of answer rainbows make.

Without further ado, and with the hopes that all who read this will trust their hearts and live in brightness, the conclusion and the beginning of a story that started long ago.

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

The girl rides the horse through the sky. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing. It’s the most wonderful and marvelous thing, and underneath them there are endless miles of cold air.

Beneath that are the mountains, which we shall name Gray Death.

Her name—the girl’s name, that is—is Wisp. She’s saved the universe once or twice. She’s the kind who you just have to point and shoot, basically, and the universe gets saved. That’s what she is, and why she is, and why there have to be girls like her.

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

There’s an ice crystal bigger than the world. There’s an endless distance, and space. There’s a great and brooding thought that presides over it all,

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

And we could call that “I Am,” or “the All,” or “The Lord that Dwells in Starlight.”

But the horse itself, it doesn’t really have a name.

It’s the most marvelous horse there ever was. A horse like that doesn’t really need its own name. Who could you confuse it with?

It’s just, you know, the horse.

People laugh, talking about magical sky horses and rainbows, sure, they laugh, but if you saw it there, its feet pounding against the nothingness, endless miles of cold air below and below that, Death—

You wouldn’t laugh.

You’d just think, in that moment, that it was the most marvelous and warm and most incredible thing you ever saw.

One day, one day, once upon a time, the girl fell off that horse. She screamed. She’s very brave, but even a brave person can scream when you’re falling and the sky is rushing up around you and there’s only Death below. She screamed, and the world around her burned with its blues and its purples and its brightness, and her life flashed before her eyes in a series of twenty-minute shorts that in the end didn’t add up to very much—

And that time, he saved her.

That time, as she spun and fell and rainbows curled and twisted through the vastness of the void around her, the horse came down and lunged and caught her with his teeth and snapped her away from the touch of great Gray Death, and pulled her up and she twisted and she flung her hands around his neck and she sank her face into his mane and laughed.

She did.

She really did! Even with the awkward angles of it all.

She could, and did, climb up onto his neck and back, because there really isn’t very much gravity when you’re falling, and at that particular moment in time they weren’t really quite done with the falling part of their precipitous descent and back to the flying that the two of them were about to do.

The second time, though, the second time, he didn’t save her when she fell.

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

But the second time, when she found herself falling, and the sky was everywhere around her in its blues and purples fading into the shadows of darkness, and grayness was reaching up from the ground as if to seize her up and drown her and shatter her like a teardrop on the stone, the horse, it just stood back.

The ice is bigger than the world, and twice as far as anything.

Her name was Wisp, back then as now, but nobody called her that. Everyone called her things like “the rainbow,” “the rainbow girl,” or “hope.”

She was the one charged with the preservation of love and hope and beauty and power and magic. She was the one responsible for providing all the things that people need to have within their lives, in a world that is sometimes very dark. And the mechanism of this charge was color.

She would find places that were dark and colorless, in the world, in people’s lives, in people’s hearts.

She would walk among the gray shadows and get the feel of them.

Then she would bring the rainbow.

There are a billion places in the worlds that are that needed her special touch. A billion, or even more; so it’s not too surprising that grayness still endures. It took her time to find each spot of darkness. It took her time to find it, and know it, and see its antidote, and make an end to it. It took her time, and there were so many different shadows that needed her to give to them that time.

It probably makes a billion look small, really, the number of those shadows, if you actually could count each of them, and give each one its name. It’s probably laughable to imagine that it’s just a billion, like saying, “well, millipedes have at least one leg”—

But a billion, at least.

So that’s why it took her a while to see what had happened down on Earth.

That’s why she missed the whole of World War I. She was in a flower garden, where the insects had corroded beauty. She was in the Crab Nebula, where monsters were threatening a noble Prince. She was in Kansas, helping a lost child, and in the oceans, healing a dolphin’s heart.

She was polishing one of the stars in the endless sky when the trenches cut the world.

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

She was painting a butterfly when the Nazis came to power. She was painting a butterfly with vibrant colors, because the butterfly had gone gray.

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

Save that butterflies can only wear so much paint before their wings will cease to fly. There are only so many stars that lose their glitter. There are only so many monsters, though they spawn eccentrically and at random intervals throughout the cosmos and its worlds; so many broken mountains; so many cats that have never ever been fed.

Before the end of the war—before it had even really gotten started—she saw it. She saw what we were doing. She saw what we had done.

She saw it, and said:

“Here is a darkness. Here are gray shadows. I will walk among them and I will find their antidote, and I will bring the rainbow.”

And tears were falling from her face, great rivers of tears, and breaking on the ground.

“And not just here,” she said.

The war to end all wars, well, hadn’t. But she decided, there and then.

“I will heal this thing,” she said. “I will bring an end to wars.”

Underneath the girl and the horse are endless miles of ice-cold air.

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling. They are a comet. They are a meteor. They are a dying, broken, tumbling leaf, a teardrop, a rainbow chunk of ice and fire, and they are falling towards Gray Death below.

“It’s impossible,” said the horse. “Even for someone like you. Even for someone like me. It’s impossible, rainbow girl, that we could bring an end to war.”

“It’s my quest,” she said.

“It’s wrong,” said Terrence. He was her sprite. “It’s wrong. It’ll destroy us. They’ll find us, if we try to end their wars. They’ll hunt us down. They’ll take Rainbow Land away, make it theirs, make it a part of their earthly kingdom, where only shadows rule.”

“But it’s my quest,” the girl said. “I have to heal this thing. I have to guard the beauty that the people of the Earth deny. I have to make them stop killing each other,

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

It was twilight in the rainbow kingdom, the sun was falling to the west, and the horse looked up.

“It will have to wait for morning,” the marvelous horse said. “Dear. You can’t do it today. You can’t do it now. You can’t stop people from fighting wars, forever, if you haven’t gotten any sleep.”

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

She went to bed, to let Earth wait just one last troubled night.

And slept.

And while she slept there were doings in the darkness, and gatherings, and quiet acts of diplomacy and treason; and when she woke, her people did not sing to her, as they had always done, when Rainbow Land was bright.

Rather than sing, instead, they gathered around her, and their voices, they were low.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

“We shall show you,” said Terrence, “why it is that you cannot save the world.”

And they took her down into the depths of the palace, and through the hidden passages to the caves where her servants labored, cutting forth light and hope from the lifeless stone, and to the Great Machine that had made her.

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

She said, as if in a trance, “There is a place, so very far from here! And a flake of ice, and oh, it is so very bigger than the world! And God—”

But the horse was brusque.

It bumped her in the back with its nose and made her turn away, and said, “This is where we made you, to save us, to be a girl from nothing and make brightness in our land. We cut you out of ice and dolor and we brought you here, from nothing, to nothing, and filled your heart with fanciful lies. Like, ‘you are charged to save us, wielding light.’ Like, ‘you were made to fill our land with beauty.’”

And she remembered—oh, she remembered, and of a sudden!—how she’d come into existence and out of nothingness as if formed off some great crystal made of ice, and curled about herself in some strange womb, and dreamt of foreign colors as shaved fragments sprinkled by.

She remembered how she’d dreamed, oh! such dreams! of something brighter than the endless hungry void. How she’d conceived a sudden brilliant conception, in that womb of ice, of what the murky and dismal land some call “the world” could be.

And how it had seemed to her that a lady made of light had spoken, had said, “Wisp, will you go forth from this place to my land, my dismal land, that dwells under the hand of shadows, and make it bright?”

The sprites looked down.

In the shadow of the Great Machine, the echo of the work of ice that lives beyond the world, they could not speak; save for Terrence, who cleared his throat, and said:

“You were our doll, lady Wisp. You were our toy. And we are grateful to you, for that you were bright and brilliant and rainbows. But you must not think you are a person. You must not think you are a living girl with breath and heart and hope and rainbows, who can stand against our purpose and our decision, and bring chaos to the land.”

The breath left her.

It was as if he had punched her in the stomach, and all she could breathe in was chunks of ice.

“We had to make you,” he said. “But not the rainbow girl. The rainbow girl was fantasy. You are just a flake of snow.”

She was falling.

She was falling.

The sky was rushing up around her, and she could not breathe, and there was gray and black and white jittering before her eyes, and she could not find the ground.

She clenched around the emptiness in her heart, fell gasping, Gray Death opening below, and cast a glance, a single glance, up at the horse.

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

He caught her, once, when she was falling from the sky, when she was plummeting and she thought that she would die. He caught her, and lifted her up, and brought her back to warmth and hope.

Once, but not again.

As she falls into herself, as she goes black and white, not even gray, within her heart and body, the horse, he does not save her. The horse, he looks away.

And it all spirals away from her, leaving her empty of the rainbow, leaving her cold—

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

She isn’t falling into herself, now. She isn’t on the floor of a cave under the rainbow kingdom, desperate with pain, broken by impossibilities.

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

Now, right now, she is in a very real sky, and hope and truth have found her once again, and she is falling.

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

Her marvelous flying horse has broken its leg against a stream of ice, and so of course it cannot fly.

As has been told before, the girl who fell became the rainbow once again. She’d been needed. It wasn’t OK, any more, to leave her in her cold sense of soullessness.

A soulless girl couldn’t have saved the world from the death that had been coming.

As has been told before, once she’d been made whole again, she’d refused to transform back.

She’d understood—

Somehow—

That just because people told her she wasn’t a person, just because they’d shown her the womb of ice from which she’d come, and said, “Look, this is how we made you, this is why we made you, can’t you see that’s not how a person’s born?”—

That such a thing can’t end the meanings that lived inside her heart.

She’d spent years and years amongst the grayness there, and had found an end to shadows.

And now she is falling.

She’d gone to the man she’d thought had been behind it all—

A murky, dismal man; a man who had always sought to purge the colors from the world—

And she’d thought that she could save him. That the goddess she’d become, that the endless seven-colored power she had birthed in herself, that the girl named Wisp and sometimes Rainbow would be able to save him from his misery and show him the wonder that was color, light, and hope.

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

But it hadn’t done him any good, or her, as has been told; because, in the end, he wasn’t the villain of the piece.

He wasn’t the villain.

He was a villain, but not the villain, just another murky, dismal little man gone lost in shadows. In the end, all the light could buy for him was a single moment of forgiveness.

The villain, if there was a villain, was a thing of ice and distance.

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

It was God, perhaps, or a horse, perhaps, or a snowflake larger than the world; and it hung beyond all world and sound, and brooded, saying:

“What there is, there is of me: there is the light I cast, there is the world of my imagining, there are the dreams I dream and the shadows I have made; and nothing else is real.”

And if it thinks that it is the only reality, the only beauty, the only justice, the only right, then it has, perhaps, an excuse of sorts, for it is not merely cold, and it is not merely ice, this king of shadows and winter that dwells beyond the world.

It is beautiful.

It is beautiful, and it is endless, and it is marvelous, and it sheds forth every beauty; and the rainbow is refracted through that ice; and the world is made from the waters when it melts, and the dirt that it sheds, and the light and shadows it casts forth.

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

And yet, in some contingency of motion, it has sent forth its avatar, its child, its element to us within the world, and with a spirit of great mercy. It has sent a piece of itself, an image of itself, a mirror of its icy vastness, to be the most marvelous thing, to live in the dreary world of its creation, to redeem it through the presence of the horse.

It has sacrificed for us, the most terrible and deadly sacrifice; it has chosen to become involved.

It is the pinnacle, is it not, the horse?

Is it not the most marvelous thing in all the world?

And did it not already risk itself—risk its perfection-in-itself, daring unimaginably—to descend beneath the darkness of the world and find a part of itself that dreamt of rainbows, and make a girl of it, and shelter her, and raise her against the darkness like a spear, and teach her the power of the rainbow?

So if it thinks it is the only truth; if it thinks it is the only right; if it thinks there is no justice, that is not the justice of the horse; if it thinks there is no beauty, that is not the beauty of the ice; if it thinks that in the end there are nothing but its shadows and its dreams, then it has an excuse of sorts, for in a very real way it is the author of us all, or at the very least its agent and its representative, the mirror-horse of God—

Most marvelous thing in all the worlds that are, and the brightest, and the best.

And so she came, at the end of her journey, the rainbow girl, to the field of grass and flowers at the center of the city, to the last remaining place of color and brightness (before the rainbow had returned), where the horse still lived, and danced, and woke up in the morning to laugh and play and sing; and to turn its eyes on her as she walked up, it seemed, and say, “Oh, Wisp, you have become my rainbow once again.”

And she knew.

His voice was guileless, as it had always been, as if he knew nothing in the world save love for others and self-praise.

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

In the center of the crumbled world, in that little piece of paradise, he frolicked, and he looked at her with eyes that made her melt, possessed her with a girlhood that overcame the goddess in her, loved her still, with brightness still they shone, and still she knew.

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

She said, “Oh, my love, you have not forgotten me.”

But she knew what he had done.

They rose into the sky, didn’t they? They flew; or ran, at least, on the rainbow once again. They galloped out over blue skies and high above Gray Death.

She knew he meant to throw her.

“It was your lie,” she told him. “Wasn’t it?”

Right into his ear; which flicked, of course, as if to cast a fly away.

And on they rode in silence, far above the world.

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

“It was your idea,” she said, “to show me the Machine that gave me birth; and to tell me, ‘you are just a doll we made from snow, oh Wisp. You are just a toy. Just a toy, and not a person after all.’”

“It was,” said the horse.

The horse’s shoulders rolled. It said: “You are.”

Its voice was distant ice and starlight and it was pale against the sky.

“What else could you be,” mused the horse, “than a reflection of Myself? What else is there to be, than light against the ice? So I realized, when you brought trouble to my heart. That you are the rainbow, or a girl, or a thing I made, or a thing I loved, but in the end, still, you are just a toy, and of my crafting, like all the shining world.”

She wept for him.

“And so,” said the horse, “I tore you down; and buried you in darkness; and then, for reasons elusive even to myself, I must have set you free.”

She wept for him.

She clung to him and wept for him, knowing that he meant to throw her, because he was the most marvelous horse in the world, and yet—

“You do not know,” she said.

And her voice was seven-toned, like the rainbow; and the tears that flowed from her were as a stream of ice; and he meant to throw her, he really did, but it went wrong, he went wrongfooted, and if you were to find a thing to blame for it, you might say, he slipped or struck his leg upon her tears.

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

And suddenly, because a horse can’t exactly fly if it has a broken leg, he fell.

It struck him as ironic that he would not have to throw her; that he was freed, in the end, of the need to cast her from his back to fall screaming to Gray Death. He would fall, and that would be an end to things. He would die, and the world would end, and nevermore a rainbow to trouble him or make turmoil of his heart.

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

Right now, as you’re reading this story, the horse and the girl are falling, spiraling down through endless sky, with Gray Death looming up below.

And because he is a horse of courage, after all, even maimed and broken, he opens one pure and perfect eye.

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

She is, instead, laying down with a hand outstretched—oh, moving downwards fast enough, and technically perhaps that counts as ‘she is falling,’ but she is descending as a skydiver descends, or a stooping bird, not as a mortal plummeting to her death—

Laying on the rainbow, outstretched beside him in the sky.

Unfairly, she is reaching for him, supported by the rainbow, calling out over and over again for him to live—

He squinches closed both eyes.

The world moves far away, then farther, then farther again, until even Wisp seems to him twice as distant as the sky.

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

“I’ve broken my leg, you foolish girl,” he says, and casts aside her power, and lets the wind and shadows carry him downwards to his grave.

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

And there is a moment where the ice shatters, as he strikes against Gray Death.

There is a moment where the shadows seem to boil and drain away, plunging down through the jagged edges of the mountains to drown some other land.

There is a pure and crystal darkness, and finally, a light.

The rainbow hits the mountains, dances about them for a moment amidst a rain of ice, strives as rainbows strive to lift the broken and the dead.

And then, it flies away.

unknown authorship; part of the “Rainbow Collection” of documents assembled during Congress’ 1954 investigation into various Un-American Activities on the part of Un-American Activities Bear.

Regarding Hope

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.

“Well?”

“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.

“No?”

“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.

“Naturally.”

“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.

“No?”

“No.”

“Ah, well,” Danielle says.

Solomon nods.

“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.”

Solomon frowns.

“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.”

“Huh?”

“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.

“They grow?”

“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.

“But what—”

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.

She grins.

“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 milk?”

“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.

They fall.

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.

Rage.

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.

“Oh, Danielle.”

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.

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

The slurry of words falls always from the sky.

They are grey.

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

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

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

A bus drives by. It splashes him with data.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

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

“Graar!” roars the bus.

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

The bus stops at a red light.

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

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

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

“I understand,” he says. “At last.”

The bus snarls and snaps at him.

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

The light turns green again.

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

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

The monster trudges on.

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

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

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

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

She experiences contempt for the monster in the snow.

He looks up.

His eyes gleam.

He hierarchically orders the building in relationship to Santa Claus.

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

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

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

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

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

The monster trudges on.

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

Tina hesitated.

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

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

It is a big metal building, like a bunker.

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

“Hello,” says the monster.

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

And the monster’s eyes gleam—but:

“It’s all right,” Tina says.

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

The monster goes in.

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

“Take me to it,” he says.

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

“It is sick,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

He blinks. He shakes his head. “Huh?”

“Huh?”

“You stabbed me,” he says.

“Oh.”

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

Tina’s lips are a thin line.

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

“OW!” he says. “Fudge!”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

He turns away.

He walks up towards the street.

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

He shrugs.

“It’s just the God Machine.”

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

He staggers out among the cold grey slurry of words.

And he stumbles.

He falls.

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

And suddenly he understands.

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

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

The slurry falls.

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

He is free.

His eyes gleam.

He says, “Systima.”

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

But it is not an answer that he can understand.

Paradise Forgotten

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

Hippolyta has made her child out of clay.

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

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

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

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

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

So she’d wanted to stop.

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

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

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

She turns away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

It is some twelve years later.

Mars burns red in the night.

“Please,” whispers Helen.

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

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

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

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

She holds two doctorates.

She has several world records in marathon and track events.

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

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

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

The ship shudders.

Mars burns.

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

“Helen Alexandros,” says the voice of Mars.

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

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

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

What this means even Helen does not know.

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

Forgive me, she thinks.

And she accepts.

**

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

She lands.

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

**

There is a tower wherein Pandora dwells.

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

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

That she should never leave.

Inside her flesh there boil demons of all kinds.

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

Ah!

She is fragile, Pandora.

She is easily crushed.

The law would not allow her firing.

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

Her footfalls are like a distant thunder.

Her shadow is black like a pool of pitch.

“You will let me through,” she says.

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

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

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

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

Strides forward to take Pandora.

But:

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

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

And there is something about her that gives Illudium concern.

“Hmph,” snorts Illudium, the Swan.

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

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

Slowly, Illudium turns back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a sharpness, like the cracking of a pot—

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

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

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

And of Illudium, we do not speak.

The Ragged Things (1 of 2)

Continuing the story of Train Morgan (1, 2)

The warden Ii Ma dwells in its redoubt. It wallows in its mud.

One great hand moves, shifting its weight in the murk.

Now there is little mud in the place without recourse; the soil there is for the most part clean and dry. But where Ii Ma lives the blood and ichor that pours from it at all times soaks into the soil. When Ii Ma moves he churns the soil and the blood, creating a thick unwholesome poultice beneath it for its wounds that never heal.

Sometimes when people look at Ii Ma they go mad. Their worldview, even if it is already accustomed to the nature of the place without recourse, cannot handle the existence of such a beast.

First they surrender the boundaries to their world.

They recognize that the pitiful lies by which they seek to make the world a safe and sane and orderly place are lies. They recognize that they have no real control over their fate. They cease to pretend that discipline, diet, sleep schedule, hard work, organization, nest eggs, caution, and good company can save them. They surrender the illusion that their hairstyle, their social standing, their daily drudgery, their favorite shows, their car, their toys, or their lovers have ever been important in the greater context of the world.

Once they have done so they can accept the great bulk of Ii Ma and that it can dispose of them as it wishes.

Yet still it is there, dripping with its great black blood. Still it is their keeper, holding them there by the will of Ii Ma’s masters, and it is no proper thing.

So next they must surrender the notion that the universe is kind. Gnawing prey-fear fills them, and deep anxiety. They recognize that on some deep level the world is sick.

Here is the place where Train Morgan stopped his slide into insanity. He said, “The world is sick; but it is not necessary that the world be sick.”

There are others who do not reach this conclusion.

Looking upon Ii Ma they see a world where disease is inexorable. They recognize that each step further into corruption is irreversible. They see that the world shall never be again so great as once it was.

It shifts its bulk and they vomit, uncontrollably, or cough up blood, and think, “God is a lie.”

And if they should also surrender their purpose in that moment and fall into madness then they wake up in their beds, in the place without recourse, with the smallest portion of that insanity fallen from them. And they look towards the dawn. And they say, as they always say, “How beautiful.”

And they do not visit Ii Ma again.

The ragged things catch you up, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Train Morgan is in the line to make petition to Ii Ma.

This is what Train does on Saturdays. It is the sabbath. He is not religious but there is something in his condition that makes him cling too much to meanings.

So on Saturdays, when it is the sabbath, he does not work.

Instead he comes and he waits to make petition to Ii Ma.

The ground is soft outside Ii Ma’s redoubt. It is not mud but it is soft and it is dark and if you rub your hands in it they will have a certain ichorous sheen.

The crowd is full of the usual sorts.

“It was a mistake, of course,” one woman is saying. “I did nothing. I did not pry into secrets. I did not conduct myself inappropriately. I simply—”

She gestures in frustration.

Mr. Gauston, who like Train is a regular here, answers her with a question. “Do you think that that is virtuous?”

“Pardon?”

“Do you think,” says Mr. Gauston, “that it is more just and more right to be in the place without recourse because one has pried into a secret or conducted oneself to some inappropriate standard?”

The woman’s mouth works. She frowns.

Calmly, softly, she says, “I do not know why you are here. I do not know why anyone should be here. I do not think that anyone should be here. But I know that I am here because I stood at a soft place and I heard the breathing of the ragged things and before I could run away they snatched me up.”

“Oh, I see,” says Mr. Gauston.

“I have to go back,” the woman says. “I have a son.”

But Mr. Gauston has turned away.

So Train pushes his way through the line. He can do this because he is Train Morgan and everyone who does not respect him for his actions fears him for his strength.

He says to her, “My name is Train.”

“Cindy,” the woman says.

“It is not good to protest,” says Train Morgan. “If you protest that you do not belong here, you will anger Ii Ma. Then he will lick you and you will develop terrible sores. They will split, and you will bleed, and you will wake up and you will look towards the dawn and you will say, as you always do, ‘How beautiful.'”

“Don’t say that,” Cindy says.

She curls in on herself.

“It’s creepy that I always say that.”

“It is a sign of the futility of intent,” Train says. “How can one make any progress beyond that point if you cannot even answer the question given you by Ii Ma?”

Cindy chews on her lower lip.

“I have to try,” she says.

And Train smiles.

“I understand.”

“Why are you here?” she says. “If the intent to leave is futile?”

“I want to see my brother,” Train Morgan says.

In the sky above them there is a strange flickering, a distortion in a shape similar to that of an insect spreading its wings. There is a swirling in grey clouds and the crackling of lightning and they can hear the bulk of Ii Ma shifting in its mire as the beast looks up.

Train stares upwards, but nothing further occurs.

“He is somewhere here,” Train Morgan says. “He is somewhere in the place without recourse. But the world is very big.”

The line advances, just a bit. They shuffle forward.

“I cannot find him,” Train Morgan says.

“What did he ask you?” Cindy says.

“Who?”

“Ii Ma?”

And Train remembers walking on the street, and the breathing of the ragged things, sudden in his world, and how he ran.

How he could hear the distant heavy footsteps of the ragged things.

How they had seemed just a bit farther away, how it had seemed he was escaping, until a voice whispered in his ear the question that keeps him bound.

Isn’t the world just a little bit too big for you, Train Morgan?

It is his desire to change the world; to put his will on it; to save, if not the world, then at least a few; to find, if not an answer, than at least his brother Thomas; but: isn’t the world just a little bit too big for you, Train Morgan?

“It doesn’t matter,” Train Morgan says.

Ii Ma keeps the place without recourse.

Train Morgan stands before the warden Ii Ma.

He says, “Please.”

There is silence.

“Please,” says Train Morgan. “I do not ask for freedom. I only want to see my brother.”

And he looks up into its unforgiving eyes.

He wakes up.

He smiles eastwards towards the dawn.

It is so incredibly beautiful, so mad wack stunning gorgeous. The sun is this brilliant golden glow and there is pink and red like a fire in the sky and there is a swirling in those clouds there are like the spreading of an insect’s wings, and he cries out, in the great loud voice of Train, “Whatever happened to Ink Catherly?”

What Was Really Going On

Abraham is dreaming beneath the willow tree.

He dreams that he visits the house of a mysterious woman who tells his fortune. She does this by posing a series of questions that force him to choose between two virtues. Secretly, this is the process by which Ultima IV will determine Abraham’s class and starting town after a portal sucks him into Britannia.

The woman says,

“The LORD appears to you and says, “I am the Almighty God.” He offers to form an everlasting covenant with you if you willingly discard your foreskin.

Do you

(a) SACRIFICE your foreskin in order to build a stronger covenant with God, or
(b) Show HUMILITY by refusing, saying that your foreskin isn’t good enough for the Almighty God?”

Abraham looks down at his pants. He looks up. He thinks.

He selects (a).

The woman continues, saying,

“The LORD suggests to you that he will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, because the people there are wicked.

Do you

(a) Demand JUSTICE for any righteous men and women that the cities contain, or
(b) Marshal your VALOR and challenge God to a duel for the fate of the twin cities — and the world?”

Abraham does not want anyone associating him with places like that! He picks (a).

The woman continues, saying,

“You take your wife Sarah with you into a new land. The people there think your wife is pretty hot.

Do you

(a) HONESTLY confess that she’s your wife and that if anybody touches her God will make their wives barren and curse their family to everlasting sorrow, or

(b) Recognize that SPIRITUALLY all people are brothers and sisters and tell people that she’s your sister, not your wife?”

Abraham wants to be a ranger so he picks (b).

The woman nods sagely, and says,

“The King takes Sarah to wife, so naturally God makes his other wives barren, keeps him from touching her, and curses his family. The King comes to you, saying, ‘Gah!’ and flailing his arms around a lot. Do you:

(a) COMPASSIONATELY release him from the curse, or
(b) HONOR your wife by punching him in the nose and saying, “See, you should ask women before kidnapping them for your harem!” ?”

Abraham considers this. “It never hurts to help,” he points out.

“That’s true,” the woman says.

Abraham selects (a).

The woman looks into her crystal ball. She stares into the future. She says,

“You never expected that Sarah would bear you a son, so you slept with your slave Hagar and got a son on her. Then, bang, Sarah’s all fertile and you’ve got an heir and Sarah demands that you send Hagar and her son out into the desert to die.

Do you

(a) Treat Hagar and her son with JUSTICE, and tell Sarah, “No! Sending people off into the desert to die is mean!” or

(b) Listen to the voice of SPIRITUALITY, and send Hagar off to meet the reward God has planned for her?”

“That’s not even hard!” Abraham replies. “(b)!”

The woman says, “The future is becoming clear. There are two questions remaining. The King who had stolen your wife shows up. He wants a treaty. Do you

(a) SACRIFICE seven ewes to seal the deal, or
(b) Show COMPASSION and offer him seven ewes from your herd?”

Abraham pauses.

The woman looks at him.

“Those are the same answer,” Abraham says.

“It’s all about which virtue is in your heart,” says the woman.

“But it’s seven ewes!”

“Consequentialist,” sulks the woman.

“What if I’m showing both virtues?”

“You can only have one virtue at a time,” the woman says. “You’re not some kind of parallel virtue machine!

She’s a little peeved now.

Abraham grits his teeth. “Fine. (b).”

The woman gestures angrily over the crystal ball. She searches for a really nasty question to ask. Finally, she says, “God calls on you to take your son into the mountains and sacrifice him there.

Do you

(a) Heed the call of SPIRITUALITY and place your son upon the altar, or
(b) Show COMPASSION to your young son and substitute a large chunk of soap cunningly graven into your son’s image?”

Abraham thinks.

“I wanna be a ranger,” he says.

“Picking spirituality’ll get you ranger,” the woman concedes. “But compassion’ll get you bard!”

Abraham just looks at her.

“Bard?” he asks.

“Bards can frolic merrily,” she says.

“I see.”

Abraham’s hand hovers over the keyboard. He prepares to make his fateful choice. But what will it be?

Chirps the woman, “And sing jingles!

And the Isotopes Remain

Thump thump!

It’s the bass and the drums that’re driving Aristotle forward against the darkness. It’s the beat and the power.

That the fiddle also screams is but a bonus as he contends.

Thump thump!

Somewhere in the ruined metropolis still runs the Maccabees Device. The brainchild of Raven John Zakkai, the golden mirrors and pyramids of this device form a harmonic Chanukah convergence—they trap the energy of eight sacred days within the repetition of the names of God.

It has answered the needs of a world crying out for oil; a sevenfold increase in what was, a thousandfold increase in what remained.

Thump thump!

It was Kenneth Lay who’d found Aristotle’s skeleton in the desert: the bones of a giant of a man, thirty-eight feet in height, some primal beast from the ancient days.

“It’s only natural,” the talking heads on the news had said.

“If there’s more oil, there’d have to be more fossils, and not just dinosaurs, too.”

Scientists exploring the bottom of the sea had found the ten-mile corpse of Leviathan. Mary Sesvin, at an undisclosed location in the Carpathians, captured at last the scattered insectile remains of Dracula—patriarch to the thousand generations of vampires whose rapid decomposition now proved a viable source of cheap oil for the world. The forests were filled with the horns of unicorns and the teeth of dragons.

And Kenneth Lay had found Aristotle, and, following the sensible management procedures that made Mr. Lay a modern American icon, distributed five pounds of radioactive isotopes amidst the bones to restore Aristotle to a giant radioactive mockery of life.

Thump thump!

The darkness is the core of a gathering fog. It has shape: clammy lengths of it, and motion, and things like claws that tear at Aristotle’s flesh. It has perception: there are gleams that could perhaps be eyes or teeth. There is the sense of watching. There is mind.

It has no body. Aristotle’s arms flail and his muscles are taut as the giant strives to force the darkness back. It is to no effect. There is nothing he can touch.

There is only mind.

Thump thump!

But he is driven on by the drumming and the bass.

It’s Raven John Zakkai who’s on the drums. Aristotle cannot deny that Raven Zakkai is good.

He is very good.

It is galling to admit that, because Aristotle hates Raven John Zakkai, but he will not let it stop him from moving to the beat.

If I do not let it show, thinks Aristotle, then it is as if the hate does not exist. It will wash out from my heart. I will be clean.

Thump thump!

The Maccabees Device is out of tune.

Kenneth Lay had been at fault. The man was arrogant. He’d thought himself better than Raven Zakkai. And so he’d ignored the warnings. He’d stood before the Maccabees Device, with the giant Aristotle holding the crowd at bay, and tried to seize its power for his own.

He’d chanted the sacred names of God.

He’d harmonized with the spirit of Chanukah.

He’d become as one with the miracle of the oil and risen into the sky like a burning god.

Thump thump!

Now Kenneth Lay was dead.

I’d loved him, admits Aristotle, quietly. Not for who he was, but for that he dragged me back.

Death had not been kind. It had been a dark and murky cave to the giant, a clouding of the mind and spirit, a dimming of the senses. It was dreary, being dead, until the radiant glow of five pounds of deadly isotopes seared Aristotle’s eyes and showed to him the path to stumble towards the light.

Or was it light?

Thump thump!

Kenneth Lay had risen into the sky. And for the the first time Aristotle understood that his benefactor had been wrong.

That the sacred names were out of balance.

That the harmonic convergence was broken.

That the dark side of the Chanukah miracle was leaking through the borders of the world into the Earth.

Thump thump!

“There is no stopping it,” Raven Zakkai had said.

And the guilt had eaten at Aristotle like rats eating at an imprisoned man.

“It is not physical. It is not tangible. It is an expression of how we have faltered on our paths. That,” said Zakkai, and he gestured at the cloud of darkness gathering above the Maccabees Device, “is our imperfection; and to hit, or shoot, or nuke our imperfection brings nothing but more sorrow.”

And Aristotle knelt before Raven Zakkai, and he touched his forehead to the ground, and he said, “Please.”

Please. Let me help. Let me answer for the crime that I have done, in service to the man I loved, who’d saved me.

And he hated Zakkai for this humbling and the death of Lay but he kept the flames still in his heart.

And Zakkai had hesitated, and then he said, “You may wrestle the darkness, and my band will play; but it will not save us, unless it is the will of Adonai that we are spared.”

Thump thump!

The darkness is leathery and slimy and cutting like sharkskin and Aristotle has lost great swathes of flesh.

His flesh returns to him. It grows anew, driven by the burning power of the radioactive isotopes within him.

He has taken more punishment than any man could take, a dozen times over, even the tall and hardy men of Aristotle’s time; and he’s still strong.

But he is losing.

The darkness tears more from him than he restores, and beneath his flesh the purple-white glow that drives him is leaking out into the dark.

Thump thump!

“It’s pointless, you know,” says the fiddler to Zakkai.

And without pausing in the drumming, with sweat covering his forehead and gathering in his beard, Raven says, “The Lord shall make his judgment; but it is good that we contend.”

Thump thump!

My heart is foul, Aristotle thinks.

He is being torn apart. It is futile and he is torn apart and only for the drumming and the bass does he remain upright to strive.

I would rather have walked away, he thinks. Left others to deal with this problem I had made. Or given up when Zakkai had said there was no hope.

He gathers great clumps of darkness in his hands and hurls them back.

But no one will ever know how far I fell.

Thump thump!

The life of the giant stutters out. His mask of flesh ruptures. Shafts of brilliant purple-white light burst out from his chest, his mouth, his head.

Thump thump!

The light grows searing. The radioactive isotopes go critical. There is a flood of power like veins in the darkness: an explosion of tangible force that spins and shuffles and adjusts the mirrors and the golden pyramids of the Maccabees Device.

The purple-white that burned in Aristotle leaks out through the darkness, and carried on the glow there is the endless repetition of the sacred names of God.

Aristotle blends with the bass and the drums and the fiddle and the Book of Maccabees, and there is light.

Articulation: “The Worm”

This story is forbidden because it articulates a heresy.

It is naturally quite possible to experience this story without accepting that heresy. In doing so you strip it of its horror and its mystery. It becomes a story of a delusion encoded into an entity that is neither human nor machine. It becomes a story where, above all else, the Cult of the Worm is wrong.

But to describe it as that story would be dishonest. This story is forbidden for good reason. Its implications are in simplest fact heretical and offensive, nor can they be disproven. We can conclude that they are horrid, we can reject them, we can deny them.

Whether they are true or false—in premise, if not in detail—we can never know.

To understand the motivations of the Cult of the Worm, you must first understand the peculiar inversions of meaning that they practiced. Words such as “corrupt,” “murderous,” and “unethical” possessed an intrinsic character to them that assigned them unto others’ door; to speak of a Cultist as corrupt or evil was, while not incomprehensible, patently false and awaiting only disproof. Words such as “virtuous,” “moral,” and “right” applied not to an objective standard but to anything that strove away from the filth of everyday life.

In the language as the Cultists spoke it it became very difficult to express “you bloody fools, you’ll destroy the world!” The fanfic bodhisattva Severus came as close as any outsider ever could when he told them: “To escape the world is to return to it”—an idea that, while superficially entirely alien to his point, conveyed to them some of the essential dirtiness of their actions. Sadly, it did not suffice to overwhelm their convictions; Severus became a sacrifice to their cause and the work of the Cult progressed.

In 2284, human civilization is great and it is glorious. Having lost the moon to error, it drew a new one from the ocean’s depths and set it in orbit around the world. From the face of the Earth great gossamer beanstalks rise like towers. People can fly, and not with difficulty but as casually as a thought. They can talk, just by wanting to, to anyone in the world.

The Singularity had receded from them as it approached it; the change in fundamental human nature that they much anticipated eluded them, slipped away from them like a struggling fish. That the world was much the same as it had ever been—taller perhaps, more peaceful perhaps, certainly different in every respect, but failing to change its fundamental qualities—they called the “isobeing” or “isostasis,” and they looked back towards a Golden Age when its presence was not so profound.

In 2284, the people of Earth glide above the world, speaking their chirping tongues, discussing with five or seven of their tribe such matters as this.

Then from that compound in Sweden to which the Cult had outsourced its sacrifices there is a flare of sapphire light. There is born into the world the worm.

It is indescribably large and horrid and its mouth opens unto forever.

The worm destroys the land. It strikes it with great blows and the land breaks into shards and archipelagos. It drives its bulk over the shards and islands and sinks them down into the sea.

Thrashing, it overturns the boats and platforms that dot the sea but are not land.

And as it does its work, humanity strikes back. It is to no avail.

Mass drivers do nothing.

Grid dumps do nothing.

Atomic weapons fail; and then, to the consternation of the scientific community, the worm ignores the artificial black hole that they birth within its flesh.

“Well, foo,” says Hawking_7942, the physicist most responsible for this attempt, because that really should have worked.

The worm is a product of human desire, human dreams, and human making; but it is a thing greater than what humanity has become, and it survives.

It tears down the beanstalks.

It swallows the flying whales.

It rages up into the sky and rips humans down and throws them into the sea.

Then, before the world is even halfway dead, its eyes glint seven colors and its rage goes still. With its maw the worm sketches lines of blood into the sea. It forms a portal to another place. It dives away from world and sound; and the worm is gone.

For three generations humanity struggles simply to survive: to hold on to its lives, to keep the fabric of its science and the basics of its technology in place; to survive without the land or infrastructure that had given it such glory.

For four generations, humanity catches its breath. It scavenges the seas for secrets it had lost. It searches the skies and waters for the worm. It tries to cope with the enormity of what has gone before.

Then it is time to begin the recovery.

People begin to dredge the land up from the sea. With great magnets and cranes they fish up the pieces of the continents and slowly they cobble them together.

It takes a long time.

Children are born, raised, and fed into the vats without ever knowing “land” as something more than “that muck-covered rubble in the distance.”

Not even the oldest minds in the last computers remember land as much more than a dream.

It is thirty generations after the time of the worm before it is possible to live on land again for a short period of time.

It is forty generations after the time of the worm when humanity can once again declare the land its home.

There is a kind of peace, then. There is a slackening in the iron will that drives humanity forward. People stop to breathe. They look up at the stars. They release the burden of their ancestral glory.

“We will build it again,” says Dr. Sevens, as he powers down the ancient computers.

“Goodbye,” says Dr. Ashen, as she seals creaky old robots in their shells and pushes them into the sea.

It is not stupidity that drives them thus, nor Luddite loathing, but rather celebration. They recognize with their actions the culmination of “the human destiny to rebuild” and the beginning of a new era. It is something their culture has looked forward to ever since, eighty years or so ago, it began to sense the project’s end.

It is not a person or a group that abandons the remnants of ancient glory for the simplicity of houses, grain, and land. There is no one to ask who would even consider it a decision in more than the most superficial sense. It is simply the sense of the times that it should be so.

It is two more generations before anyone musters a compelling objection to this decision. The woman who does so is named Sapphire.

She is the heir to the Cult of the Worm.

“Articulation” continues tomorrow or Monday.