Sweeping Day

Sid’s sweeping up the streets after the Fourth of July. He’s got a broom in his left hand, a sack in his right hand, and three sacks on his belt.

Jane walks past.

“Hey,” says Sid.

Jane spins her head to look at him. She grins. “Hey!”

She holds up a Transformer doll.

“Now that you’ve greeted me I can show you my Transformer!” she says. “It talks! And it knows everything about biochemistry! And it turns from a robot into a beautiful swan or a fire—”

Sid blinks.

“Um,” he says.

“—work or a ban—”

Sid holds up a hand to stop her.

“Wait,” he says tersely. “Please. No explanations. I need you to trust me and be quiet and hold this bag and wait in a nearby alley.”

Sid holds out the sack he’s been sweeping street dust into.

Jane tilts her head and looks at him sidelong. She frowns.

“But I only have two hands,” Jane protests. “And I need one for the Transformer and one for pointing and gesturing!”

Jane points at the Transformer, and then attempts to point at her pointing hand. This fails, so she gestures irritably.

“Current biotechnology does not allow Jane to grow a third arm at this time,” intones the Transformer.

“You could trade,” Sid offers.

His voice is fraught with tension.

Jane thinks for a second. “Okay!”

“Okay?”

Jane hands Sid the Transformer. She takes the bag. She peeks in. “Yay! Dust!”

“Don’t look!” Sid cries. It’s a strangled shout. He closes the bag in her hands.

“It was very shiny,” Jane says. Her eyes are glittering. So are her eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is strangely sparkly.

Sid nods sharply.

“It’s liberty dust,” Sid says. “See, Earth is basically a giant engine that produces liberty for our alien masters. The liberty rises into the upper atmosphere and intersects with the super-cooled alien air and—”

Jane stomps on his foot.

“—Ow!”

Jane pokes him in the chest with her free pointing and gesturing hand.

“You can’t produce liberty for alien masters,” she says. “That’s an oxymormon.”

“Technically,” says the Transformer, biochemically, “an oxymormon is an oxygen atom that is bound to a religious atom that believes Joseph Smith ended the Kali Yuga and restored the Satya Yuga to this Earth. You are thinking of something else.”

“Huh,” says Jane. “But my point stands!”

“True,” says Sid. “I suppose that they’re really more like thuggish symbiotes than masters. Whisht!”

Sid shoves Jane into an alley.

“Hey!” Jane squawks.

Sid stands in front of the alley looking innocent. An alien starship descends from the upper atmosphere. Its bulbous belly discharges a landing ramp. A squat, squamous alien shuffles down.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Aliens!” says Jane.

“Ixnay on the eakingspay,” hisses Sid.

The alien lifts its head. It snuffles. “Strange noises,” it says. “Do you taunt us again with your ‘Pig Latin’, Earth Sid?”

“A momentary aberration,” Sid assures it.

It shuffles forward. It has the gait of a creature with broken legs, but displays no other signs of pain.

“Please present us the liberty condensate,” it says, “that we pay you $3.75 an hour to collect.”

Sid walks forward, hesitantly. He takes the three sacks from his belt. He passes them over.

The alien looks in a sack. It looks up. Its eyes are glittering. So are its eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is horridly sparkly.

“Ah,” it says. “Za’pogh-la. Do you know how it is formed, Earth Sid?”

“Large concentrations of liberty vented into the upper atmosphere, as by fireworks, meet up with the super-cooled alien air and—”

The alien steps on Sid’s foot.

“Ow!”

Sid looks aggrieved. That doesn’t normally happen to him twice in one day.

“Silence, Earth Sid! The secret of Za’pogh-la is not for human voice!”

“Just take it,” says Sid. “Take it and go.”

“This is . . . all of it?”

The alien stares at Sid.

“Maybe the air isn’t cold enough any more,” challenges Sid. “Maybe you aliens heated up.”

The alien snurfles dismissively.

“You are careless, Earth Sid. You have swept most of it into the aquifer.”

“He is not careless!”

That’s Jane’s voice, as she runs out of the alley.

“I’ve seen him!” she shouts. “He sweeps every day! Not just on Sweeping Day after 4th of July! He sweeps every day all year to get it all!”

The alien hisses. It turns, and a proboscis unfurls from the mysterious crannies of its face. It stands still, trembling, sniffing at the air.

“Ixnay!” says Sid.

“There’s a girl,” says the alien. It trembles in outrage. “She will contaminate the Za’pogh-la!”

This takes the wind out of Jane’s sails. She did not anticipate that the subject of the discussion would turn directly to her. “What?”

“Sid!” says the alien. “Kill her!”

Sid freezes. Then he turns. He has a haunted look on his face. He pulls out his hand and shapes it into a gun, with his index finger pointing at Jane.

“Bang!” he says. “Bang! Bang! Bang! You’re dead, killed by my Earth weapon!”

Jane stomps her foot, orienting on the familiar. “Am not! You missed!”

“I’m correcting my aim,” Sid says. He’s sweating. “No need for the alien to use its space disintegrator,” he emphasizes. “I’m using a special Earth cyberoptic sight. Bang! You’re dead!”

“I don’t see the cyberoptic sight,” Jane says dubiously.

Sid squints his left eye like a man with a tic. “It’s a half-human, half-machine particle welded directly to the optic nerve.”

“Wow,” says Jane. “That’s lethal!”

She falls down dramatically.

“Avenge me!” she cries. “Avenge me!”

“The Earth girl is slow to die,” says the alien. “Are you sure that your hand-weapon is functional?”

“It is a painful and terrible death,” says Sid sadly, “but slow.”

Sid’s tone hardens.

“I would liefer use it on you,” he adds, “but for the difficulty I would have finding other employment after years of quisling labor.”

The alien turns back towards the ship.

“You will collect more,” it says, indifferently, “next year.”

“Of course,” says Sid.

“Avenge me!” wails Jane.

The alien turns. “Is she truly dead—”

The Transformer flies into the air. It shifts into the form of a firework. It sputters and burns in the air, and then explodes in brilliance.

“—Ah,” sighs the alien, distracted. “So pretty, the explosions of your Earth.”

It stomps into its ship. It rises into the air. Then it is gone.

Sid kneels beside Jane. “Are you all right?” he says.

“I’m not really dead!” Jane tells him. “It’s because I have an immortal spirit.”

“Good,” says Sid. “Those are handy in an apocalypse.”

Jane sits up.

“You shouldn’t collaborate with them,” she says. “They look horrible and alien, so they must be evil.”

“Without the Roswell technology,” notes Sid, “we humans probably wouldn’t have figured out liberty in the first place.”

“Also, it was mean,” Jane says. “It ordered the Earth Sid to kill me! I’m still kind of scared.”

“And if it weren’t for them, up there, farming us,” says Sid, “there wouldn’t be super-cooled alien air in the upper atmosphere at all. They put it there. They saturated it with the elementary particles of alien love. They’re the reason liberty does condense. And that’s why, every year, I can skim a little off the top.”

Sid reclaims the sack from her.

“What’s it for?” Jane asks.

“It’s sparkly,” Sid says.

Jane peers at him.

“I sneak into people’s houses at night,” says Sid, “and blow it in the faces of children who can’t make liberty on their own.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

She stands up. She walks in circles for a bit.

“That’s kind of creepy,” she says.

“It’s mythic and archetypal,” protests Sid. “I’m like Santa or the Witch. Or like Stars, the Thanksgiving Turkey!”

But Jane is distracted. She isn’t paying attention to Sid any more.

“Huh,” says Jane. “My Transformer died.”

Naughty

It is always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy.

Reindeer dance in the sky. Snow falls gentle as a dream. There are lights and there is candy and Sam walks down the public street.

Santarchy: Government by the nice. Typified by the belief that everyone should be good every year. Most Santarchies devolve into benevolent dictatorships, with a neoSanta or Santarch operating as head of state “in Santa’s name.”

“Hey, kid,” says a beggar in the door. “Spare a chestnut?”

Sam searches his pockets. Then he shakes his head. “No chestnuts, no sugar plums, not even any cotton candy. But you can have some of my ration, mister.”

“That’s kind of you,” says the beggar. He holds up his Christmas bell. It scans Sam once, and a small red light turns green. “That’s very kind.”

“Merry Christmas,” says Sam.

“Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to everybody!” says the beggar.

The beggar takes a swig of his Christmas rum. He leans back in the door and he watches the snow fall.

Santa’s Eye gleams.

Santa’s Eyes: the tripod structures used by the Santarchy of the Neonorth to monitor residents. Each structure supports a mechanical eyeball. The eyeball sees when people are sleeping. It observes when they are awake. It recognizes actions as bad or good and informs the central bureaucracy accordingly.

Sam is almost home when his Christmas bell beeps.

“Please turn left,” grates the speaker in the bell.

Sam turns left. He realizes which way he’s going and his heart grows kind of cold. “It’s not my turn already,” he says, “is it?”

“Please continue forward,” grates the speaker.

“What am I going to have to do?”

“Termination necessary for the good of the state,” says Sam’s Christmas bell. “Merry Christmas!”

Sam gulps. But he walks forward. Soon he’s standing by the Old Christmas Gallows.

“Mr. Sanders,” Sam says, wretchedly.

“It’s okay, boy,” says Mr. Sanders. He’s an old man with a thatch of gray hair and a fire in his eyes. “I know what I done and I got no regrets.”

Mr. Sanders is standing on the gallows with the rope around his neck.

“But . . .”

There’s one of Santa’s Eyes behind the Old Christmas Gallows. Its voice is white static and sleighbells.

“Please read the charges,” says Santa’s Eye.

Jill is standing by the Gallows. She’s a young girl in a gingham dress. She’s holding the list of charges, and she looks frightened, just like Sam.

“Cosive—coris—corrosive infulence,” she says. “Seventeen counts. Leckery, two counts.”

“Only two?” says Mr. Sanders. He laughs. “Santa’s not watching me real good.”

Jill hesitates.

“Continue,” whispers the voice of Santa’s Eye.

“Murder—” Jill stops. “Murder?

Jill stares at Mr. Sanders in horror.

Mr. Sanders looks down.

Jill gulps. She looks back at the charges.

“Murder of a reppesenative of the state,” Jill reads. “One count. The defendant’s been judged and sentenced and his sentence will now be carried out.”

“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders.”

Sam walks forward. He reaches several times for the lever. He hesitates.

Mr. Sanders’ cheer fades away as he watches. There is despair growing in his face. “Don’t,” Mr. Sanders says. “Don’t, Sam.”

“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders. It is not suitable for the conduct of a society that dissidents and murderers should go free. It is not suitable that society should pay the cost of maintaining their lives. It is not suitable that Mr. Sanders, having been found guilty, should survive.”

“But it is nice,” protests Sam.

“If you do not pull the lever,” says Santa’s Eye, “then you will do harm.”

Sam closes his eyes.

“Sam, no!” says Mr. Sanders.

Sam pulls the lever.

Santa’s Eye burns a dim and flickery red.

“Naughtiness recorded,” it says.

Santa’s Duty: the burden of cruelty necessary to a functional society. The Neonorth Santarchy calls a boy or girl to perform “Santa’s Duty” when they have been so good that year that they can do so while remaining on the Nice List. Those insufficient in virtue or excessive in vice are disqualified from civic service.

Sam stumbles as he walks away.

“I killed him,” Sam says. “I killed him. I killed Mr. Sanders. He kicked his feet like a chicken.”

Peter watches.

“‘Oy, kid,” says Peter.

“Hm?”

Peter’s a rough-cut kind of man in a black leather coat. He’s got a sack on his shoulder and pockets full of coal.

Sam turns. He looks up. He looks in Peter’s eyes.

“Wow, mister,” Sam says. “Your eyes are like portals to the void.”

Peter’s mouth twitches, revealing a bit of his sharp pointed teeth.

“You shouldn’t be hanging people,” Peter says. “Good little boys don’t hang people.”

Sam shuffles his feet a little. “Technically, I’m still a good little boy,” he says. “I mean, Santa’s probably going to bring me a super-transformer and stuff this year. And a puppy. And maybe a sandwich-making set for my clockwork toaster. Because I’ve been nice the rest of the time. I even did my homework!”

“I see,” says Peter. “That’s very good, isn’t it?”

The things in Peter’s sack seethe.

“It’s very very good,” says Sam. “I got a B plus! And I gave some of my ration to the beggar. That’s why—that’s why—”

Suddenly Sam’s eyes are very hurt and he’s sitting down.

“Like a chicken,” he says.

“Suffer and twist, little boy,” says Peter. “Suffer and twist. But all your guilt won’t save you from me.”

Peter takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He weighs it in his hand, then tosses it at Sam’s feet.

“Do you know what day it is, Sam?” Peter asks.

“Dunno,” says Sam. “Tuesday?”

“It’s Christmas, Sam,” Peter says. “And if you keep going on this path, then when next Christmas comes along, I’m going to come along, and I’m going to put you in this sack, with the rats. And if you’re lucky, you’ll wind up like me, with pointy ears and pointy teeth and pockets full of coal. And if you’re not—why, then, the rats will eat your fingers and they’ll eat your eyes and then they’ll scurry up your nose and eat your brain, just like they did to the last kid I took.”

“It’s always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy,” says Sam.

Peter hesitates.

“It’s December 25th, Sam,” Peter says.

“Oh!”

Sam processes this data for a moment. Then he picks up the lump of coal. “I never got a present from someone who wasn’t Santa before,” he says. He turns the lump over in his hands. “If I squeeze it really hard, it turns into a diamond, right?”

Peter doesn’t answer. He just snorts, and turns his back on Sam, and quietly he walks away.

After a while Sam begins to cry. He sits there, rocking, with the coal held to his chest, until hours later he is too much alone to stay.

Ration: the money of the Neonorth Santarchy is backed by naughtiness. The Santarchy treats people with a lot of ration as very naughty, and does not call on them for Santa’s Duty. As the civics teachers explain, to share your naughtiness ration is Nice; to hoard your naughtiness ration is Naughty; and in this respect, like a scant few others, the opinions of the Santarchy coincide with Santa’s own.

It is Christmas every day in Neonorth City, in the Neonorth Santarchy, under the great guiding candy cane of truth.

Sam does his homework and he does his chores. He helps out when people need help. He tries to keep enough ration that he won’t be called on for Santa’s Duty again.

And one day he looks in his four-paned window at the gentle snow, and he says, “I don’t like this any more. I want to be naughty today.”

He cries, because he is a good-hearted boy, and does not know how.

And then a marvelous, wicked thought occurs.

Sam blows on his window. He blows on it until it mists. With his finger, he writes, “Black Peter, Black Peter,” backwards in the pane.

Then he puts on his pajamas with booties, and takes his teddy bear down off the shelf, and he turns off all the lights, and he goes to bed.

There’s a rattling in the chimney that night, and a fierce wind shakes Sam’s house, and he wakes up to see a shape looming over his bed.

“What do you want, boy?” Peter asks.

Sam sits up. He looks defiant.

“I want to be naughty,” Sam says. “Tell me how to be naughty.”

“But Sam,” says Peter, mockingly. “You were doing so well. You ate all your lima beans tonight. You kissed your little sister’s scraped knee and made it better. You even got an A on your pop quiz!”

“Tell me how.”

Peter snorts.

“Come with me, then,” Peter says.

So Peter walks out into the yard. Sam runs after him in his pajamas with booties, carrying his teddy bear and looking as wicked as he can.

Peter walks through the snow. He looks at a neighbor’s snowman.

“Push off its head,” Peter says.

So Sam turns to the snowman and with a great shove pushes off its head.

Peter walks on.

“Throw a rock in that window,” Peter says.

“A rock?”

Peter sighs. He takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He hands it to Sam. Sam hurls it through the window. Crash! Spun-sugar tinkles to the floor inside.

Peter walks along.

Peter reaches one of Santa’s Eyes.

“Tear it down,” Peter says.

So Sam leaps on it, like a wild thing, and the teddy bear is left behind him, and he claws at the stone surface, and he smashes at the orb that is its eye.

Santa’s Eye gleams. Its voice is snow and homefires, and it says, “What are you doing, Sam?”

“I want you to die!” Sam shrieks. “I want you to die like Mr. Sanders!”

And it feels to Sam like there is a sack around him, as he struggles with the Eye; and there are rats writhing all around him on the warm winter night; and the reindeer overhead are lost in darkness; and Sam’s eyes grow sharper, and his ears grow points, and his teeth are feral sharp things; and he is lean and strange and terrible when he at last rises from the ruins of the Eye with its blood on his hands; and he turns to Peter, then, and he says, “I am yours.”

The Castle (III/IV)

The forest is dry. Its soil is brittle. Its air is sharp and clean. The pine trees smell like antiseptic. Spirits live in the forest. They invite Jenna to play.

“It’s great fun to look for truffles, ” suggests Boar. “Also, if there are any knights around, we can gore their sides.”

“Take to the air as a duck!” offers Duck. “Nothing flies as elegantly as a duck.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Coyote says dubiously.

“It’s not a lie,” says Duck. “There’s an implicit ‘exactly’. Nothing flies exactly as elegantly as a duck.”

“I can’t come and play,” says Jenna. She’s chewing on a hamburger and writing in a black and white composition book. “I’m writing a book of examples of filial piety.”

“Oh?” says Duck. “Can you read some to us?”

Jenna swallows, and recites:

In 1983, the giant spiders were very hungry. One had a clutch of eggs, so she was extra-hungry. They tried to eat me, but I’d always bonk them on the nose. So the mother grew very thin. She thought she might die. “Don’t worry, mother,” said the little spiders, hatching. “You can eat us!” So she did. By keeping their mother alive at the cost of their own existence, the little spiders fulfilled their filial duty.

“That’s very moving,” agrees Boar. “But is it really virtuous?”

Jenna considers. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the sacrifice is beautiful, but does it compare to the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I don’t know,” Duck answers. “What is the beauty of a giant spider’s life?”

“I’m biased,” Jenna says, “since they keep trying to eat me. But I think it’s the way that they’re cruel without hating. They do monstrous, horrible things. But inside their heads, it’s cold, clear, and empty. They’re not ugly like demons. They’re pretty. Like the winter. And they have potential.”

“You should read another,” Coyote says, slouching.

Jenna recites:

Vicious Lily was a robotic assassin created in 1925 to advance the cause of Impressionism. “What is your o-pin-ion of Mo-net’s pain-tings of the Thames?” it asked me. I assured it that all of Monet’s works were masterpieces. “Good,” it said. “I will let you live.” Then it turned to the wall. “What is your o-pin-ion of the Rou-en Ca-the-drals se-ries?” The wall made no answer. Vicious Lily’s laser arm clicked. A dial spun. Vicious Lily blasted the wall until nothing remained but rubble. “Take that in the name of ro-bot jus-tice!” it said. Not a moment went by that Vicious Lily did not think of its creator, Monet.

Boar grunts. “It’s a robot. It can’t help it.”

“Robots can break their programming,” says Jenna. “It happens all the time on TV. Plus, I heard that if you flip your Transformers toys into a special third configuration, they come to life, embezzle your money, and flee the country in disgrace.”

“Point,” says Coyote. “In a way, a robot that doesn’t break its programming exhibits filial loyalty. Still, I’d think that a true example of robotic loyalty would be a death machine that, having broken its programming, decides to go around killing people for the agency that created it anyway.”

“That would be more impressive,” says Jenna, “but I haven’t seen an example of that. Do you think I should fictionalize my work for greater impact?”

“Not really,” says Coyote. “I’m just sayin’.”

Jenna takes a few more bites of her hamburger, swallows, writes a bit more, and then recites:

Mei Ming was born in 1975. The monster pulled her from the shadow’s womb. The shadow kept her in the tunnels to protect her from the world. Mei Ming wasn’t scared of spiders, but thieves—that’s scary! I tried to look at her with my flashlight helmet, but she shrank from the light. “It’s best to live in the shadows,” she said. “That way my mother always knows where I am.” She gave up light for her mother’s peace of mind—that’s how pious she was.

“What did she look like?” wonders Duck. “I mean, was she all shadowy?”

“A little,” agrees Jenna. “You could definitely see the filial resemblance.”

“You should stay away from her,” counsels Coyote. “The tree never falls far from the branch. Bad eggs like that only lead you into trouble.”

“It’s an interesting issue,” Jenna decides. “I don’t think she can be a bad egg, because if she’s evil, that’s just being loyal to the shadow. And if she’s wonderfully sweet and nice, then that’s not very much like a bad egg, either.”

“Nor like a deviled egg,” Boar points out. “Those aren’t sweet. They taste of mustard.”

“I want mustard,” Jenna says unhappily. It’s hard to find condiments in the tunnels sometimes.

“It’s not about taste,” Coyote answers. “It’s about security.”

Jenna recites:

I met a girl standing over her father’s grave. She was wearing a jacket. “He had a hundred plans,” she said. “But none of them ever worked. So I’ve decided to honor his memory. If you can catch me, your next plan will succeed.”

“It’s dangerous to make promises like that,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “When you make a promise that humans can’t fulfill, you can’t be human any more. I’m okay with that.” By making this promise, she put her filial duty to her father’s memory above the human condition.

“The human condition’s not so great,” Coyote points out. “Now, me, I’m great. Compare and contrast as you will.”

“Humans live out in the world,” Jenna points out. “You hang out with Duck, Boar, and me.”

“See how my fur shines? That’s classy. The human condition doesn’t have class like that. And my teeth are just glorious.” Coyote smiles. “Case closed.”

“What are you going to do with the book when you’ve finished writing it?” asks Duck.

“I’m going to take it to the market and trade it for three magic beans. Then I will plant them, climb to the top of the beanstalk, kill any nearby giants, and, making a block and tackle from their ligaments and bones, lower the castle into the forest.”

“That’s a stupid plan,” Coyote says. “Why don’t you just trade Cow?”

Jenna lifts a finger to answer, pauses, and turns bright red.

“What?” Coyote asks.

Jenna ducks her head. “My lunch had no foresight,” she embarrassedly admits.