The Nest of Mirror Pieces (5 of 5)

Once upon a time, the monster pulled Mei Ming from the shadow’s womb.

She was born as thin as a caul— not in depth, but in spirit.

She was already shivering with cold.

She was already desperately hungry.

She was already an intimate of sorrow.

The monster said, “Good morning, child. Do you know what it is that you are?”

And Mei Ming shook her head.

Her eyes were sunken and her hair was gold.

“You are a misunderstanding,” said the monster. “A poorly-formed hypothesis, with some rudimentary justification, regarding the nature of the world. Your mother conceives of you as real. You represent that naivete. You are the blindness in her mind’s eye. You are the mistakes that devour her. That is all, I’m afraid, that you are—

“The instantiation of a destructive and terrible folly.”

“Oh,” whispered Mei Ming.

“I have made you because she needs you,” the monster said. “If you did not exist, then neither would she. Her being would fly apart to all the ten directions of the world. But—”

“. . . do I exist?” Mei Ming asked.

The monster scowled at her and her cheeks grew dark with shame. Then he grinned like a rogue.

“What a question,” he said, shaking his head. “Heh heh. What a question.”

In the tunnels Mei Ming keeps her home.

It is not a house or an apartment. Her home is not a permanent address at all.

It is the location of her stuff.

The walls near her stuff are stone and damp.

She’s hung her framed Matisse upon one wall. Next to it are old bookshelves made from teak and ivory and platters made of gold.

She lives in an unimaginable luxury of material wealth.

There is no electricity and she is always in shadows but there is treasure.

Her teacup is glass with phoenix feathers woven inside it.

Her clothes are hand-dyed silk.

Her coffee table is a solid jade block on four stubby little legs.

Here are some additional notes regarding the coffee table:

When the subway train comes by, rattling-rattling-rattling the walls, the table will dance.

Sometimes it will also dance even when the train isn’t coming by.

At those times it dances just for the joy of it: for the way that when it moves just right, it feels like it is flying.

That’s why Martin always makes sure that there’s a salt shaker on it when he’s visiting. A salt shaker on a table keeps it from dancing and it is also excellently convenient when you want to salt something.

Martin is, as it happens, visiting right now.

He has knocked.

He has entered.

“Hey, Martin,” Mei Ming says. Then she offers, “Milk?”

Martin shakes his head.

“I’m here to help you,” he says.

He sets his burden on the table. It’s a nest of mirror-shards in a cage of firewood. It’s strung together with glue and wires.

The mirror-shards are showing fragments of history—

Vaguely only, there’s only so much chaos in the tunnels, but showing fragments of history—

Surrounding the events of the past few days.

Mei Ming studies it.

She says, “I hope you don’t want me to drink it. It’d be glug glug horrible pain glug. Also I don’t think it fits in my mouth.”

“I also bring gifts that are not for drinking,” Martin says.

Mei Ming peers at it.

“I can’t hang it on the wall,” she says, tentatively.

Her home begins to shudder, rattling-rattling-rattling, as the subway passes by.

“If I did it might get broken.” She gestures at the wall. “Sometimes the subway plows right into my home. Like, I’ll be drinking tea or something. And then whoosh! Bam! There’s this subway. It always sends stuff tumbling every which way.”

“How undignified,” Martin says.

“It is why I live my itinerant lifestyle,” Mei Ming says. “Today, here. Tomorrow, perhaps, three tunnels to the left! Fortunately the table is mobile and Matisse takes exceptionally well to being hit by trains.”

“That’s his eccentric Fauvist genius,” Martin concurs.

There’s a pause.

“So,” Mei Ming says.

“I don’t fail very often,” Martin says. “But I wasn’t able to finish my studies of Persephone.”

Mei Ming traces a line on one of the mirror shards with her finger.

“If Persephone got angry at me,” Mei Ming observes, “she could turn me into Mei Mint. I would have all of the benefits of aromatic leafiness and I would only have to change one letter of my name.”

Martin grins.

“April showers would bring Mei flowers,” Martin agrees.

“So,” Mei Ming says, again.

“I brought this to you because it is the ruin of . . . a vital and true thing,” Martin says. He gestures at the mirror pieces.

“. . . oh.”

“It’s what happens when a tool that is as ancient as the rain is shattered,” Martin says. He hesitates. “And then parts of it stuck back together with glue and wire. But that’s not the important part. The important part is what broke it, which is to say, a mystery and a contradiction. You’re supposed to look at it and say, ‘Wow. That got broken by a conceit.'”

Mei Ming looks up at him sharply.

“What?”

“It wasn’t a physical thing,” Martin says. “It was a concept that shattered it; or, rather, not even a concept but the absence of a concept, which wound up having raw physical import in the world.”

Mei Ming looks a bit defensive.

“That’s not the world,” Mei Ming says. “That’s an artifact of scrying from your little bubble place, your tower bound only by a bridge to the world and sound. That’s a thing of magic, which is to say, something just one absence of an enlightened observation’s distance from not existing at all.”

Martin makes a dismissive noise: pblt!

“Hm?”

“It wasn’t magic that broke it,” Martin says. “It broke because of the impact of intention on a mind.”

“. . . oh,” says Mei Ming softly.

“It’s here to remind you,” Martin says. “That we are all concepts, even those of us with gross physical flesh. That we are minions of the material world, ideas born from the emptiness of matter, concepts without true referent— for who is there whose intentions exactly match to all their actions?— and yet that we can matter in the world.”

“I have gross physical flesh,” protests Mei Ming.

Pblt! Martin offers her again.

“It’s a refined substance,” he says. “If it were gross, then you’d be all splattery from being occasionally hit by a train.”

“I dodge!” Mei Ming protests.

In a small voice, she adds, “Usually.”

“Have you ever seen someone hit by a train?” Martin says. “It’s gross.”

Slick Jang and the Treason Maw

Bread City’s the toasting capital of the world, and they ain’t ashamed.

Bread Dog barks.

Bread Subway whirrs.

It’s a nice enough bread metropolis, but the toasting’s savage.

It’s worse than theft or vandalism, in Bread City. Its worse than assault. In the grottos and corners of the city, people’ll toast you as soon as look at you.

The fires of the toasting lick at a bread person’s skin. It gets stiff, but not the way bread likes. It spots with darkness. Then the soul burns away.

Toast always wants your soul.

Under Bread City there’s the cavern of teeth. That’s where Slick Jang Toast is. He’s one of the slickest gangsters in the city but he’s toast in his own petard.

“I ache,” says Slick Jang, to his buddy Doris.

“I hear that,” says Doris.

She’s still bread. She’s still doughy and fresh. But she knows that toasting can happen to anyone. So she stays on Slick Jang’s good side and she doesn’t critique his warmth.

“It’s like arthritis all over,” says Slick Jang. “Not just in my skin. In my soul. In the hollow spiritual fastness where my soul used to be.”

“Soon, Slick Jang,” says Doris.

They’re inching down on rappels towards the teeth. These are the storage teeth. They’re the replacements. They’re used when the Treason Maw’s teeth wear out.

“You’re gonna have teeth,” says Doris, “and then you can eat out someone else’s soul, and you’ll be toast with a soul and a girl named Doris.”

“Amen to that,” says Slick Jang.

His feet hit the bottom of the cavern with a crunch that makes Doris wince. He looks around at all the teeth. Then he begins scooping them up and putting them in his sack. He’s got a sack for the teeth.

He wouldn’t come down there unprepared. He’s Slick Jang!

He loads up all the teeth. He doesn’t even leave one. He puts most in his sack. Some he puts in his mouth.

He gnashes them.

He grinds them.

He snaps with them.

“I got teeth,” says Slick Jang.

Then he puts the sack over his shoulder. He doesn’t look at Doris. If he looks at her, maybe he’d eat her. But he’s not that kind of toast.

So he begins climbing up.

There’s a grinding sound in the corner of the room. It’s not teeth. It’s a giant boulder rolling away from the wall. It opens a corridor. Down the corridor is the Treason Maw.

“Hey,” says Slick Jang, looking down.

“Hey, maw,” says Doris.

They don’t mind the Treason Maw. It’s indiscriminately lethal but it’s on their side. It’s on the side of everybody in Bread City.

The Maw is vast and terrible and in it are many layers of teeth. There is no obvious body. There is no obvious head. It is simply the maw. It is devouring made manifest.

It gnaws its way into the room. Then it begins to gnaw upwards.

“Oh,” says Slick Jang.

Now he minds it some.

“Climb faster, Slick,” says Doris.

They climb faster.

They are only a bit above the floor but it feels like a dizzying height, because below them there is the Maw. The air is still but it feels like a horrible wind, because below them there is the Maw. And Slick Jang almost loses his grip on the rope, because his fingers are toasted and they’re clumsy as can be.

For a long moment he looks down into the endless rows of teeth, and his heart is beating great horrible crunches in his chest.

And then he sees.

“Oh, man,” says Slick Jang.

He can see the blackened spots where it’s worn down some of its teeth.

“Oh, man,” says Slick Jang. “You can’t eat up the treason under the city with teeth like those.”

The maw rises towards him.

The maw grinds and whines.

And Slick Jang turns his sack over. He dumps some of the teeth down to the maw.

“Sorry, man,” he says. “Didn’t think you’d need them today.”

Bread City’s the toasting capital of the world. It’s not ashamed.

It could be so much worse, after all, but it isn’t.

Careful Attention to Calendars

They decorate the tree.

“National Peduncle Awareness Day is coming up,” Martin says.

“You shouldn’t skip over Christmas,” Jane determines.

“Well, yes,” says Martin. “Christmas. And St. Stephen’s Day. And New Year’s. But after that, National Peduncle Awareness Day. Are you excited?”

Jane makes a face. She takes a giant plastic truth quark out of a box. It is a Christmas ornament. She hangs it carefully on the Christmas tree. Her actions make the italics quite clear.

“I will be very aware of peduncles.”

“That might be hard for you,” Martin cautions. “You don’t know what they are.”

“I will practice alert paranoia!”

“It’s a condition where your eyes extrude on stalks,” Martin says. “‘Peduncles.’ You would think it was a space alien disease, but it’s actually local and very tragic. So you’re supposed to be extra observant and aware of it on January 12, to help show tolerance and love for our peduncle-afflicted brethren.”

“How do you get it?”

Martin shrugs. “Dunno. Eating infected crab eyes, maybe?”

Jane wrinkles her nose. “Ew.”

“That’s not very tolerant of you!”

Jane hangs a top quark on a middle branch. “It’s also Miltymas,” she says.

Martin raises an eyebrow.

“I mean, on the 12th,” Jane says.

“Oh.”

“He’d started as Pope Miltiades,” Jane says. “But everyone called him ‘Milty John.’ He was this guy in a ragged outfit and a torn and dusty miter. He’d come hiking up when you were having trouble with lions or whatever.”

“Did this happen often?”

Jane shrugs. “Dunno. But on the 12th of January, people’d celebrate Miltymas. It was to honor all the times when they’d been in trouble, and something had saved them. Like luck or a friend or a renegade ex-Pope. They’d leave out unleavened bread and milk for him and wear little pope hats and make lion cakes and stuff. Eventually, everyone forgot about him, but Milty John was still worth a lot of money, so they stuffed him in the tunnels rather than throwing him away.”

“Huh,” says Martin. “I’d heard of him, of course, but the details of his Papacy are so fuzzy! I couldn’t tell if he’d survived to become a legendary holiday figure.”

“It was probably quantum indeterminate until just now,” Jane says.

“Really?” Martin sounds pleased.

“It’s your keen probability-collapsing observation at work!”

“I keep meaning to collapse all the rest of history into a deterministic state,” Martin confides. “But whenever I try, my eyes bug out so hard from all the observation that I get dizzy.”

“Maybe that’s how you get peduncles,” Jane says.

Martin hangs up a small candy cane. He thinks.

Jane watches him think.

“Wow,” says Martin. “That’d make National Peduncle Awareness Day kind of ironic.”

“Your eyes are totally bugging already. You’ve been awaring too hard!”

“Are not!”

Martin checks that his goggles are still secure and Jane cannot see his eyes. Then he nods firmly.

“Are not,” he repeats.

Jane giggles merrily. “It’s your own fault for trying to skip right past the Christmas spirit.”

“It was reckless of me,” Martin concedes.

The Invisible Killer

Kestrel enters Atmosphere Station. It sits atop the planet’s atmosphere. The air is thick enough that its atoms brush against her now and again. Atmosphere Station is shockingly enclosed, with material in every direction. Great struts of matter stretch from one side to another. The technicians cling to the struts, save for one who gibbers in the corner, and one, named Billy, who glides towards her.

“Ah,” says Billy. “You must be the savant.”

She smiles to him. She eddies towards him. She shines across her identification.

“Honored,” he says.

“It’s overwhelming,” she says, looking around.

He grins at her. “Wait’ll you see the planet.”

She gulps. She can’t help it. “It’s real? I mean, people really . . . live . . . down there?”

“I’ve been down there myself,” he says, smugly.

She stares at him.

“You’re wondering,” he says, “how anyone could survive at the bottom of an atmosphere, right?”

“It’s got to be at least ten pounds per square inch,” she says. “You’d pop like a balloon!”

“Fifteen,” he says. “And that’s the least of the problems we’ve had to solve, here at the Planet Project.”

He leads her over to an enclosure. He gestures inwards. She hesitates.

“It’s all right,” he says. “You won’t be in there that long.”

So she floats in, and he seals the exits all around her.

“Strange,” she says. She taps on one wall.

“What we do,” he says, “is make a kind of . . . second skin . . . for you. Like clothing. Out of a thick layer of organic material.”

Small bits of matter begin to mist into the enclosure. Kestrel looks horrified.

“It’s okay,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like you’re surrounded. It feels . . . it feels like you’ve grown another epidermis. Does that make sense? Like a new layer made out of meat.”

She closes her eyes. She waits.

“I feel so heavy,” she says.

“It’s just beginning,” he says.

“I’m not going to fill out this whole enclosure, am I?” she says.

“‘Space suit,'” he says. He makes quote marks around the words. “It’s so your new skin can survive in the vacuum of space.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she says.

“Not at all.”

She gingerly opens one eye. She looks down. She stifles an outcry. “I’m huge.”

“Not really,” he says, judiciously. “Just thick.”

“So,” she says hesitantly. “Is it always this . . . this bad?”

“No,” says Billy. “Most people go nuts with fear the first few times through. You’re holding up admirably.”

“It’s not skin,” she says.

“It has to be,” he says. “Just think of it as an outer skin. Otherwise you’ll get sick.”

“Right,” she says. She braces herself. She thinks. “Um, . . .”

“Billy,” he says.

“Billy,” she says. “Am I going to have to wear this the whole time?”

“Sorry.”

“I see.” Her voice is faint. She looks down again. Counting the suit, she concludes, she’s at least six inches from front to back. She wiggles an arm. It moves sluggishly, like a tiny meteor. Thick bunches of organic material twitch and provide its motive force.

“And everyone does this,” she says, “down there?”

“Everyone,” he says. “Even Dr. Karpov.”

She takes a deep breath. She can feel her great matter-coated chest moving in and out. “It’s not so strange,” she tells herself. “It’s not so unusual.”

“Wow,” Billy says. “You really are a savant.”

“What?” she asks.

“Nevermind,” he says. “I’ll send you down.”

Descending through the atmosphere is a complicated process. Her new body is strong against pressure but still vulnerable to friction during the descent into the atmosphere. Billy escorts her, ‘space suit’ and all, to a large enclosed vehicle.

“It’s like I’m wearing layers,” she laughs. He looks a bit perturbed, then shrugs.

“Yes,” he says. Then the station lowers the vehicle slowly into the atmosphere.

She watches. It’s insanity-making, the watching. Outside the vehicle, she can see layers of air getting thicker and thicker as she falls.

“Surrounded,” she mumbles. “Everywhere, surrounded.”

She looks up at the sun.

“Hey,” she says, tuning in to Billy’s signal. “Hey. I can’t eat. I can’t eat.”

There’s an amused noise. “Everyone says that,” he answers. “It’s normal. Your body’s actually equipped to eat organic material and turn it into energy.”

“. . . Organic material?”

“Yup,” he says.

“Like my new skin?”

Horrific visions of a world of cannibals play through her head. She imagines Dr. Karpov leaping on her as she lands and somehow devouring her skin, leaving her naked against the monstrous pressure of the planet below.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “That’d be way too gross. We make special ‘hate food’.”

“Hate food?”

“It’s like your skin,” he says, “but it’s made out of icky evil things. Arthropods and grass and such. So it’s not like you!”

“Hm,” she says.

“They’re really icky,” he says. “I promise. We looked hard for the things that most deserved to be turned into energy.”

“Okay,” she says, relaxing.

The vehicle thumps into the ground. She is shocked to discover that she does not bounce from the floor—her new body, she concludes, must have a weight measurable in dozens of pounds.

The enclosure opens. She walks out onto the planet.

“You must be Kestrel,” says a man. She thinks he’s a man. It’s hard to tell, with his meat body and all.

“Kestrel!” shouts another. He leaps on her. She shrinks back, but he is only touching her hand, her head, her leg. There is a shock of recognition.

“Ember?” she says.

“Ha!” says Ember. He holds out his hand to the other man. “I told you she’d guess.”

The other man, like someone grumpily paying off a wager, hands over an object.

“Ember?”

“It’s me, Kestrel.” He grins. “I heard they were sending you. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t think I’d get to see you again for years.”

She touches his hand. She touches his head. “I . . .” She frowns. “There’s no way to kiss in these things, is there.”

“Nope,” he says. “Not in an atmosphere.”

“Or . . .”

He laughs. “You get used to it,” he says. “Kestrel, Kestrel, Kestrel, this is Dr. Karpov. He’s leading the project.”

She looks Dr. Karpov over. He is thick and meaty, like herself and Ember. He has some kind of black growth on his face, and strange spots all over his skin.

“Dr. Karpov,” she says.

He smiles at her. She can tell. It’s a smile.

“Yes,” he says. “You are indeed a savant. To adjust so quickly.”

She laughs. Then she frowns.

“Your skin has dots,” she says. “Mine and Ember don’t.”

“It’s the invisible killer,” he says. “Come. I will take you to my sunbathing spot. We will speak of it.”

“Sunbathing?” she says.

He does not answer. He simply leads her towards the settlement. She reaches its edge and looks down and gasps.

“It goes down,” she says. “Forever!”

“Psychologically,” says Dr. Karpov, “we depend on the sun and on its radiation. That’s why we need a deep city like this.”

The city of the Planet Project was a great deeps like a crater carved into the planet’s crust. Its edges were smooth and gentle, but Kestrel judges that its center is at least three hundred feet down. Line walkways and bubble buildings spread across the crater in a giant web, carefully positioned to ensure that no place in the entire deeps is entirely hidden from the sun.

“But,” she says. “The planet’s rotation . . .”

“It is slow,” says Dr. Karpov. “We must move between different deeps as the planet turns, ensuring that we are always in the sun. Incidentally, you may remove the space suit.”

“Ah!” she cries, in relief. She begins trying to escape the enclosure. Then she frowns.

“Wait,” she says. “How?”

Ember steps close. He pushes two indentations at the side of her suit, simultaneously. The enclosure falls apart. He touches her arm again.

“Welcome to the planet,” he says.

“So,” says Kestrel. “Tell me about this invisible killer.”

“It’s why you’re here,” says Dr. Karpov. He points at one hand, using the other. “Something in this world is poisoning us. Our biological bodies develop these strange spots, sicken, and die.”

“Just the bodies?” laughs Kestrel. “Just these second skins? That’s not much of a killer!”

Ember frowns at her. Dr. Karpov makes a wry face. He reclines back on the rock, looking up at the sun.

“One of our interns,” he says, “failed to recognize the body’s degeneration in time. He abandoned it too late, and could not reach Atmosphere Station in time.”

“Oh,” she says.

“We had Peskin studying the matter,” Dr. Karpov says. “Regrettably, he went mad.”

“Mad?”

“He threw his research to the bottom of the deeps,” says Dr. Karpov. “Then he retreated to Atmosphere Station, where he sits in the corner and gibbers. It is not productive.”

“Ah,” she says.

“That is why we need a savant,” says Dr. Karpov. “None of us can retrieve his research. It is simply . . . too deep.”

“Wait,” she says. “You want me to go to the . . . to the bottom of the deeps? The pressure must be . . .”

“Scarcely greater than the surface,” says Dr. Karpov, dismissively.

“That’s insane,” she says flatly.

“You are adaptable,” says Dr. Karpov. “Are you not? You are skilled at handling unusual situations and stressors. Are you not?”

Kestrel sighs. “So my psychological evaluation says.”

“Then,” says Dr. Karpov, “I recommend that you lay beside me on this rock, and gather in the light of the sun the strength you need to face the darkness.”

“Oh,” she says.

“That is sunbathing,” says Dr. Karpov.

“It’s too hot for me,” says Ember. “My biobody complains!”

“Ember,” laughs Kestrel. “You can’t possibly dislike the . . .”

“Too hot,” he says, stuffily. “I’ll just go get your deeps ropes ready.”

She rests there for a while, staring up at the sun. “It’s so far away.”

“We’re working on fixing that,” says Dr. Karpov. “Taking away the ozone in the atmosphere that keeps the best of the radiation at bay.”

“But I still wouldn’t be able to eat it,” she says.

“No,” he admits. “Just hate food. But you could leave it out to absorb the sun’s power.”

“Hm!” says Kestrel. “That sounds yummy.”

Dr. Karpov snorts.

A dreamy time passes. Then she rises to her body’s feet. “All right,” she says. “I’m ready.”

“Already?” he says.

Kestrel bangs her chest with one fist. “It’s my job, sir!”

He laughs. “Then go find Ember. He’ll connect you to a rope to lower you all the way.”

This is what it is like to descend into the deeps.

The first thing Kestrel notices are shadows. They are small. They are not like the shadows planets and moons cast through space. They are little shadows, cast by the struts and the bubbles of the deeps. They are strangely warm—not much colder than the air around her. But they make her shiver.

The second thing Kestrel notices as she descends is how much is around her. There are the walkways of the deeps on every side, but beyond that, walls of rock. There are no gaps. They loom great in every direction but up.

“They’re . . . a planet,” she says, to Ember far above.

“What?”

“I’m inside a planet. There’s a planet on every side.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “This is just a deeps.”

“But . . .”

Please, Kestrel.” Ember sounds nauseated. “It’s just a deeps. The walls are just enclosure. The planet is . . . up. Out. Not really here.”

“I guess,” she says.

She goes deeper. The crisscrossing shadows grow deeper.

Suddenly, she is enclosed on every side. She screams.

“What is it?” Ember asks.

“Ember!” she says. “There’s no . . . there’s no sky, just . . . just . . . stone!”

“There’s a sky,” he says. “See? You can talk to me. That means there’s a path for radiation to travel.”

“There’s no sky.”

“Can you see?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Can you see?”

“I guess,” she says.

“Then there’s sunlight.”

“But it’s so dark,” she says. “And there’s so much matter. I’m in matter.”

“It’s okay,” he says. “You’re my Kestrel.”

“Right,” she says. “Right.”

She goes deeper.

At the bottom of the deeps, she sees it. It is a data disk. It is wedged in a crack in the ground that, Kestrel thinks, must lead all the way to the center of the planet. She reaches for it.

“I’m hungry,” she says.

“Your body can’t be hungry yet.”

“Not it. Me,” she says. “I’m hungry.”

There is something burning in her, something yearning, something crying out for the sun. “I have to eat,” she whimpers.

“Do you see the disk?”

“I see it,” she says.

“Can you take it?” says Ember. “If you take it, then I can pull you back up.”

“I . . .”

She reaches for it. And in that moment, she understands.

“No,” she says. “No. I won’t.”

“What?”

“I won’t bring it back up,” she says. “You have to pull me up without it.”

“Don’t go nuts on me now, Kestrel,” Ember says. “Come on. You’ve made it this far.”

“I can’t,” Kestrel says. “I know what it says. I know what it has to say. I know why he went mad. Pull me up. I have to speak to him.”

So he reels her in. He bids her farewell with a touch. He sends her up to the station. She strips off her flesh until she is bare. Then she floats to Peskin.

“Peskin,” she says gently. “I have been to the deeps.”

Peskin gibbers.

“I know what you found out,” she says. “I know what it must have been.”

Peskin does not look up.

“It is not right,” she says. “But I think it must be this. That these second skins of ours. These organic bodies. They long for that deeps. They hunger for it like we hunger for the sun.”

Now there is silence.

“The sun is killing them, isn’t it?” she asks.

“No,” Peskin says. He shakes his head vigorously. “It’s impossible. It’s not a possible thing.”

“Radiation,” she says. “It’s somehow . . . getting into the biology. Messing it up.”

“Not possible,” says Peskin. “It’s like every angel in the stars was a devil now.”

“It’s all right,” she says. She touches him. “I won’t tell them.”

He looks up. He’s haunted.

“I’ll tell them to make something inorganic to keep around them,” she says. “To absorb the sun. And they’ll never need to know why.”

“You can’t keep this secret,” says Peskin. “It’s too big.”

“Just for a little while,” she says. “Just until . . . people get more used to the bodies. Until they can accept it.”

“Sunlight kills,” Peskin whimpers.

“We’ll figure something out,” Kestrel says. “We will!”

But Peskin is silent. He does not believe!

The Plague Carrier

John is in his prop plane. His prop plane is light. It has a certain unhewn look. He has assembled it by hand from parts predating the Collapse.

He flies north. North, past the edge of the village. North, past the Scary Forest. North, beyond the hills, into the fire in the sky.

“So far,” he says, into the radio, “it’s flying well.”

Gruff old Sid back at the base clicks his radio to send. “What’s it like out there?”

“Worse than I thought,” John says. “Heavy turbulence as far back as the hills. Rains of brimstone ahead. There’s a stench. And there’s someone standing in the sky.”

“Standing . . .”

“He’s too big to really see,” John says. “But he’s got wings. And a sword. I’m going to go closer.”

Sid sighs. There are years of resignation in that sigh. “Check.”

There’s a pause. John says, after a moment, “If I don’t get back, Sid . . .”

“I know.”

The plane ascends, trying to rise above the level of the brimstone rain. Winds rock it. Static plays about the instrument panel. John leans in, his face spotted with flecks of brimstone.

“Sid!” he cries. “Sid! I can see his eyes!”

Burning stones pelt against the wings of the plane. There is a terrible cracking sound. One engine sputters to a halt.

“Eh?” says Sid, back at the base.

“I’m going down,” John notes.

“Is it bad?”

Only a burst of static answers.

The plane tears down through the sky. The last words Sid hears are, “There’s a city.”

There is darkness.

John wakes up. His arm is in a sling. His forehead is bandaged. He is in bed.

“Are you all right, sir?” a woman’s voice asks.

He tries to sit up. Somewhat to his own surprise, he succeeds.

“I crashed,” he says.

Sheila is seated next to his bed. She is wearing a pale blue skirt and top. She has blond hair. Her voice is lightly accented. “It happens,” she says.

“I think it was divine wrath.”

“Most likely,” she says. “We get a lot of that around here.”

He looks around. “My name is John,” he says.

“Sheila.”

“Where is this?” he says.

“The City under the Storm,” she says. “Or just the City.”

He looks blankly at her.

“We were cursed,” she says. “We were sinful. We are in the process of being smit from the Earth. Would you like coffee?”

“You have coffee?”

She rises. She walks to the eastern wall. There’s a Mr. Coffee plugged in on a table. She scoops fresh-ground beans into the filter, pours water into the machine’s body, and starts the machine running.

“It is not a bad life,” she says. “Perhaps our afterlife shall be worse.”

He looks around. Lamps glow with soft light. The walls are panelled wood. There is a window, and beyond it, a great dark city sculpted from black and purple glass.

“You have electricity,” he says.

“Yes.”

“And running water,” he says.

“Yes.”

“How?” he says. “How, in this condition? How, in this place? When so much of the world is savage now?”

“We have a limitless source of energy,” says she, “in the Storm.”

He looks at her.

“Divine displeasure,” she says. “We power our city with it.”

He spends days there, recuperating. When he is well, she takes him out into the city. She laughs at how even their Starbucks is a marvel to him.

“You must tell me,” she says, “how the outside world fares.”

He thinks.

“Savage,” he says. “At worst, barbarian. At best, a frontier. Sid—”

John hesitates. Then he looks shocked. “He will be terrified for me. Do you have a radio?”

“No,” she says. “Interference from God.”

“Oh,” John says. He slumps. “. . . I will need to go back,” he says. “To tell people this is here.”

Sheila nods. She pulls him from the street to a table at a sidewalk cafe. She sits him down, beneath the great arched dome of the city. The brimstone light casts strange sunbeams through the glass.

“Your plane is ruined,” she says.

“Then I must make another.”

She frowns. “You could stay,” she says. “You could record for us tales of the world outside. You would not lack for anything.”

John shakes his head.

“Then,” Sheila says, “we will help you return. Not by plane. You would crash again. But we have considered the problem before.”

The waiter comes to their table. John is flustered, at first, as his attention was elsewhere; but he quickly makes a selection, and Sheila the same.

“If you are to travel from here,” she says, “you will need to go beneath the surface of the earth. We have studied old pulp movies, and believe that an appropriate device can be constructed. It will drill its way through the darkness like a mole.”

She laughs, lightly.

“I do not believe there shall be chuds.”

John stares at her, hardly believing. “You would do this for me? Your city, your people, your government, would do this for me?”

She smiles. It is distant. “We have little else to do.”

“I should help.” He starts to rise to his feet. Her hand is on his arm, and pulls him back into his seat. “It’s impossible. I cannot simply let you do this for me.”

“After lunch,” she says.

“After lunch.”

Over a meal of pasta and duck, she says, “You shame us with your surprise.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You would help me,” she says, “would you not, if I crash-landed in your home?”

He looks down at the plate. He mumbles. “Yes.”

“I do not know that you can help our scientists,” she says. “You are self-trained and somewhat primitive.”

“I must do something,” he says.

“Then I will take you to the sin factory,” she says, “and you may do a measure for our town.”

John and Sheila walk through the streets. They are clean, but not too clean. Grass has grown through cracks in the sidewalk. Dirt provides a pattern on the glass. It is a sleeping place, but not a dying place.

When a man or woman passes them, John tips his hat.

“This is the sin factory,” Sheila says. “Here, we gather the displeasure of the divine.”

She leads him in.

“Must I . . .” John flounders a little. “Must I steal? Hurt? I would not like to hurt someone.”

“No,” she says. “We find such crimes unsavory. So we pray before false gods. We handle goods tainted with ejaculate or with menstrual blood. We eat shellfish, dredged from unholy places. We practice usury and gossip, here. It is not sin. It is the engine of our survival. And we do not love.”

“No love?” says John.

Sheila leads him into the factory. She holds her hand out and to the side, brushing it against a parrot’s perch. The parrot steps down onto her hand.

“The mascot,” she says. She brushes back the parrot’s headfeathers. “We call her Jezebel.”

John laughs. “Is a parrot’s heart so black?”

“Jezebel is the only parrot we have left,” she says. “So we keep her here. She reminds us of what this is for. One adorable parrot. She would freeze and die, here, if the engines of our city stopped. So she is our mascot and our badge of sin.”

“Yet . . .” John flounders. “No love?”

“Love could bring grace to us,” she says. “And stop the power source our Storm.”

John hesitates. “What if it were forbidden love?”

“No,” she says. “Not here. Not now. There is a channel through the glass that shows unto Heaven our hearts.”

“The parrot . . .” John says. “Surely, to love an adorable parr—”

Sheila thrusts the parrot into John’s face. Jezebel explodes into a fury of wings and beak and claws. John shrieks and staggers back.

“That is the other reason,” Sheila says, “that Jezebel is our mascot.”

John rubs at his face, which is nicked and scratched. Jezebel flutters back to her perch.

“I see,” John says.

“Come,” Sheila says. “Let us eat forbidden shrimp.”

John walks with her to the shrimp bar, and to the hall of idols, and to the room of stained fabric. For a time he sins.

The days pass.

On some days, John sins.

On others, he does not, or, at least, not so much that anyone would notice.

“Do you live your lives without love,” John asks her, “or is it only in the factory where you must hold back?”

“We slip,” she says. “We must slip. We are human. Love slips out, around the corners. But it is the enemy, and so we hold it back. It is not our way, John, to be pleasing unto Heaven.”

He takes her hand. He squeezes it. There is an infinite sympathy in his eyes; but he says nothing.

“It is different elsewhere?” she says.

“My wife is dead,” he says. “But there are my children. My aunt. My wolf. And Sid.”

He fights it. He keeps his tone flat and natural. But there is something in his eyes as he speaks.

Later, she will say, “It was those words that carried the plague.”

“Let us speak,” John says, “of something else. Perhaps a blasphemy.”

“Yes,” she says. She is shaken. “Yes. Perhaps the story of the ‘pogo stick’ and how it found itself wedged in an inappropriate location.”

John smiles.

When the machine is done, she takes him to it, and watches as he leaves. He drills under the surface of the world. He is shielded from the Storm, and from the man who stands above the Storm, though Sheila does not think it hides John from those eyes.

“He was a fine man,” she says, in her report. “There is much to be valued in the world beyond the Storm.”

Her life is happy, but the plague is eating at her heart.

She finds a man. She lives with him. They have three children. One day, she smiles at him, and the plague takes her.

And the lights go out.

Under the Ice

Shelley travels to the North Pole to conduct a survey, and, also, to die.

The survey is about polar bears. Traditionally, polar bears receive their surveys by post, but this time, Shelley’s boss sent her north.

“Polar bear literacy rates are reported at 98%,” said Shelley’s boss. “I don’t believe those numbers. I think that many polar bears are ashamed to admit that they can’t read. Others, unable to read, eat our survey. It’s a tasty paper treat! We can fix the first problem with marketing—making it glamorous to admit one’s flaws. But to fix the second problem we need someone on the site. We need someone to go there and put the question to the polar bears directly!”

“Me,” said Shelley. Her voice was quiet and her affect blank. “Send me.”

“That’s wonderful!” exclaimed her boss, and hugged her. That’s one reason why Shelley is traveling north.

The other is that she’s had a hard life and she’s tired.

Shelley reaches the north pole and begins lining up polar bears. She administers the survey to each. It becomes rapidly obvious that very few polar bears can read. Some even try to eat her. Shelley does not want to live. But she clings to life. When they snarl and bite at her, she flees across the snow. Behind her, more civilized bears run interference, crying, “Without table manners, we are nothing more than animals! White furry animals! With teeth! Please, you must show restraint!”

Shelley does not hear. She runs, and runs, until the ice cracks beneath her feet and she falls into a cavern beneath the snow.

“I don’t deserve to live,” she says. “I have no value.”

A time passes, in the dark.

“But it’s very cold.”

So she lights a flashlight and looks around her. She’s in a great cavern, and all around her, in frozen sleep, they are.

“What are you?” she says. But she knows. This is a thing that was not meant to exist in her world.

She stands. She hobbles over. She stares at them.

They are princes in shining mail, and great beasts, and witches, and old women, and golden spindles. And there, to the left, is hers. Her prince.

She touches his frozen skin. “I had a wicked stepmother,” she tells him. “I ran from her, out into the forest, but you never came. She enchanted me, and for years I lived with that enchantment, and in the end she died and turned to ash and never the enchantment broke. And you never came.”

The prince is silent.

Shelley walks through that great cavern, and sees them all, and after a time, she tells them the story of that place.

“You were here before humanity,” she says. “Before people. When we were still rats and lemmings, you were here. And you fought others. The gnawing things from the Moon’s dark side. The unshaped things from the bottom of the sea. And you won. But the world grew cold.

“‘We shall die,’ said the princes, and the princesses with their golden hair, and the beasts that spoke, and the witches, and the frogs. ‘We shall die. The world grows cold.’

“And so you came to the coldest place of all and buried yourselves here. Not to die. Not truly. Simply to be.”

Shelley sits, leaning against an ice-pink unicorn. Its face is feral and wild.

“I do not think I can revive you,” she says. “I do not think anyone can.”

The unicorn is silent. Shelley’s prince does not move.

“I must die here,” she says. “People must never know. The universe cares more for us than I can bear, and that gift is frozen under the ice.”

The Forest (II/IV)

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

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

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

Jenna shouts, “Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninja Tathagata winks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a Dukkha Call?”

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

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

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

The Tunnels (I/IV)

In January, 1974, the Pandora Squad began putting things of great value in the tunnels. Gold. Jewels. Subway trains. Ruby-studded jet zeppelins. Rare and collectible giant spiders. Promises, hopes, dreams, and silver. No one ever found out why, because the Pandora Squad promptly exceeded its budget and went defunct.

Three months passed.

Jenna has an immortal soul and a mortal nature. She demonstrates them while talking to the hero. He makes a point. Jenna dies. There’s an awkward silence.

“Clearly,” says the hero, “you’re a mortal creature, bound by time.”

Jenna slumps on the floor.

“I shouldn’t make my points so forcefully,” the hero says. It’s gallows humor. On a dead audience, it falls flat. Jenna doesn’t giggle. She just grows colder.

“. . . I should probably cremate you.”

Jenna is mortal. But she also has an immortal soul. She demonstrates that too! She reanimates her body and hops to her feet. “You don’t have to cremate me. I can be a zombie!”

He’s the hero. He’s suave. He can handle this. But it disturbs him. “Zombies rot and their body parts fall off. Maybe you could be a vampire? Then you’d be my arch-nemesis.”

“I could be an anentropic zombie,” Jenna proposes. “Instead of rotting, I’d grow ever more beautiful! And I could be a mime!”

“I don’t want you to be a mime.”

Jenna pretends to be an anentropic zombie trapped in an invisible box. “Look! I’m inside an invisible box! It’s a sealed system, so the order constantly increases. That’s my noncompliance with the principle of entropy at work!”

“I appreciate the explanation,” the hero says, “as I would not readily have derived that from your visual cues. Mimes don’t usually narrate, though.”

Jenna ignores him and pretends to be an anentropic zombie struggling against the wind. “Oh no! Bits of fashionable clothing are blowing onto me from all over and replacing my dreary cerements! But my umbrella—it’s inverted!”

The hero sighs, leans back, and closes his eyes. Once he has his equilibrium, he says, “I love you.” It’s true, but it’s also the only way to stop the narrated miming.

“You shouldn’t cremate people you love. I mean, not when they’re still moving around.”

“That’s true. I try to live my life by this rule.”

“We all should!” Jenna declares. “We could achieve a perfect world.”

“But an anentropic zombie can’t live in our house,” the hero points out. “People would talk.”

Jenna snorts. “People.”

“And I’m not sure I’m ready for it.” The hero thinks. “You could live in the tunnels.”

“Is an anentropic zombie very valuable?”

“Rarity would seem to suggest it.”

Jenna shakes her head. Her hair grows shorter but ever more beautiful. “Nope. Scarcity is an entropic measure of value. For anentropic objects, commonality would have to determine value—the arrow of time points the other way!”

The hero sighs. “You could be a ghost,” he offers. “Ghosts are rare but subject to entropy.”

“I want to exist,” Jenna says. “I want to be me. When I heard that I was dead, that was all I could think. I’m not done being me. I like myself. I’m cool. So I dragged myself back from the grave.”

The hero smiles. “Narcissist.”

“Narcissism is important,” Jenna says, firmly. “The first thing the universe said to me after I was born was, ‘love yourself.'”

“Oh?”

“Yup. ‘Love yourself. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Oh, and, by the way, you can no longer absorb nutrients through your belly button.'”

The hero smiles. “I’m glad you came back.”

“I can’t live with you?”

“You’re dead.”

Jenna closes her eyes for a moment, and then opens them. “Depreciation is a function of entropy,” she says. “So I’m a good investment, at least.”

“I’m sure that’ll do.”

“Yay!” Jenna says. “I get to live in tunnels!”