Intermission (I/I)

March 25, 1995

Tantalus hungers. Tantalus thirsts.

The woglies flee.

“That’s not important,” Martin is saying. “That isn’t. I’m going to sweep away the kingdoms of the world and tear down all the monsters. I’m going to rend the world down to a remnant and from its ashes build the most glorious of Heavens.”

His soul is in shreds.

He’s hardly alive. He’s holding himself up by sheer will and his eyes are full of the radiance of the numinous and every time he looks at Tantalus it’s like Tantalus is suddenly naked before the face of God; caught by shame and forbidden knowledge in the Garden of Eden; staring full on into Medusa’s eyes.

He’s a creature of all wild freedom, Martin is, and freedom’s terrible.

Then Martin wobbles and loses strength.

He falls, face-first, into the lake.

It is Tantalus’ lake. It belongs to him. It’s his clear cold lake of water. He has always thought that it must be extremely cool and damp and refreshing, but whenever he reaches down to cup up some water in his hands, the water flees from him. It drains away into the ground and leaves only parched dry earth behind. For three thousand years Tantalus has lived amidst his lakes and never once has he had a chance to drink.

As for Martin, he is cool and damp and refreshed but also trying to breathe.

He is underwater.

It does not work. Instead Martin, involuntarily, coughs. He thrashes. He tries to pull himself to the surface. It does not work. His eyes widen with panic. His panic redoubles. Shuddering and flailing washes through him. He breaches the surface. He flutters his arms against the water. His head rolls back. He sinks.

“Oh,” says Tantalus.

There is emotion in his voice. He is surprised to hear it there. He had not thought himself still capable of emotion, after three thousand years.

It must be envy, he thinks.

“Oh, I envy you.”

It is the Underworld. Martin cannot die. Beneath the water his eyes pop open. He gasps. He tries to take a breath but he cannot. He tries to scream but he cannot. His arms flutter but he cannot make his body move.

After a while he passes out again.

The emotion in Tantalus’ voice is not envy. This baffles him.

“Ridiculous,” says Tantalus.

It still isn’t envy. It is pity, perhaps. Maybe even kindness.

Tantalus’ heart beats once. It is irritated at him. His heart only beats when it’s irritated at him, these past three thousand years. He’s long since too dry for blood.

The clenching of his heart is a dry and agonizing pain. Air whistles through his veins.

“Ridiculous.”

It is a unique experience, to have his conscience blackmailing him again, after all these years of death. He reaches upwards. The wind whips the branches of the trees away from him. They are laden with sweet-smelling fruit and for three thousand years he has not caught hold of a single one.

He braces his hand against the trunk of the tree. He pulls himself upright.

Martin wakes up. His eyes open. He tries to scream but he cannot. He tries to move but he cannot.

He passes out.

Tantalus wades out to Martin. He purses his lips. He looks down at the drowning boy. Then he sits down heavily. The water level plummets. Tantalus snatches at it reflexively, tries to cup some up. There is no water left.

It has drained into the ground already. It has fled from him. It has left only dry dust behind, and Martin like a flopping fish.

Tantalus sets his withered lips on Martin’s own.

He inhales. He is like a vampire. He is seeking some scrap of sustenance — to draw some bit of soothing moisture up from Martin’s waterlogged lungs.

The heart of Tantalus beats.

Tantalus’ face grows taut with pain. He loses his grip on Martin. He tries to hang on but he cannot. In the moment he pulls back and curls around the agony in his chest, the water escapes him, makes a break for it, scrambling out of Martin’s lungs, drooling from his lips, pouring desperately into the ground to escape Tantalus’ touch.

Martin coughs. He wakes. He passes out.

He wakes again.

In the moment Martin wakes he recoils. He throws himself back. His eyes open. He gasps. His skin is bitterly dry. He stares.

Then he begins to laugh.

“Oh, God,” he says. He laughs. “Oh, man.”

His eyes focus on Tantalus. He sees the lines of pain on Tantalus’ face. He gives a wretched smile.

Tantalus shrugs.

“Thank you,” Martin says. “I’m so sorry. Thank you. Oh, man.”

“It happens,” Tantalus says.

“I was drowning,” Martin says. “And now I am not. It is really good to not be drowning. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody told me how good it was going to be. Nobody ever said, ‘it’s so incredible, not to be drowning, and then passing out, and then waking up and drowning some more.’ But it is. I think that people just don’t know.”

“I would like that,” Tantalus says.

“You would not.”

“It looked moist.”

Martin’s eyes flick down to the dry ground, then back up.

“Yeah,” he says, more softly. “Yeah, I guess.”

He sits up.

“It was cool, and clear,” he says, “and refreshing. It would have been really nice. Except then I started to panic. Because I couldn’t breathe. And then the panic got worse and worse until I think I would have done anything to make it stop. And then my brain shut down and I couldn’t think any more and my eyes filled up with agony and the dark. And then I’d wake up again and it wasn’t cool and clear and refreshing any more because I was already drowning when I woke.”

Tantalus licks his lips.

“And if it weren’t the Underworld —”

Martin shudders, suddenly.

“I’m so lucky,” he says. “Oh, God. If this hadn’t been the Underworld. If this weren’t the Underworld — what a stupid way to stop existing. I would have died.”

“It is good to be a living person in the Underworld,” Tantalus says, “since there is nothing here that can actually kill you.”

There is a distant cursing. There is a distant rumbling.

Sisyphus, rolled over by a distant boulder, screams.

“There are also disadvantages,” Tantalus concedes.

Martin looks down.

“You’ve been stuck here,” he says, “for three thousand years.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going,” Martin says. “I’m going to go. You should also go. You should come out of the Underworld, to the surface world, like me. What d’you think?”

“I can’t.”

Martin tilts his head. “Why not?”

“It’s my punishment.”

“Yes?”

“Zeus said,” Tantalus says. “He said that I had to live in a land of plenty, and know only hunger. He said that I had to dwell amidst sweet lakes, and know only thirst. He said I had to be forever in the company of what I long for, and have it never. So I can’t go.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Martin says.

Tantalus shrugs.

“That isn’t punishment,” Martin says. “That’s just . . . that’s just life.

Tantalus can’t help it. He laughs. It’s a bitter laughter and it hurts almost as much as a heartbeat; and eventually it causes a heartbeat, and hurts strictly, mathematically, more.

Martin is watching him.

Tantalus isn’t even looking at him any more and he can still feel it, that Martin is watching him; that that fey power is coming back into Martin’s eyes.

“Hey,” Martin says.

Martin touches his shoulder.

“Hey,” Martin says. “I’m not — I mean, I’m not a good person. I’m not going to say that. But I’m not the kind of person who’s going to just meet somebody who’s been starving for three thousand years and then go away and let them starve and dry out for another three thousand. That’s too much. I’m the kind of cruel hell-god who might leave you to suffer another, you know, three months, for a total of six. Or stab you in the eye with a spork, but then take you to a hospital. But, I mean, seriously, man. Three thousand years. You’re done. You’ve paid enough.”

Tantalus’ heart is not beating. He has stopped laughing.

It is a certain grace that settles in around Tantalus, then, and frees him from the pain of Martin’s words.

“I’m okay,” he says.

“You’re not okay.”

“I have my lakes,” Tantalus says. “I have my sweet-smelling fruit trees. And when I reach for the fruit the branches fly up like winged birds, and it is beautiful; and sometimes, their petals float free to land upon the surface of the lake, like little boats. And they are beautiful.”

He cannot look at Martin.

He dare not look at Martin. He would break. Instead he stands up. He turns away. The water trickles back around his feet.

“I have the gourd of my stomach,” Tantalus says. “I am very used to it. It is always hungry, but I laugh at it, ho-ho-ho, and strike it with my hands to make a drum.”

Martin is on his feet.

That is good, Tantalus thinks. If Martin does not get up and leave the lake then I shall have to repeat this whole conversation again.

“I have no talent for drumming,” Tantalus observes. “And my stomach is not a very good drum. But I can still make Persephone weep or Hades dance with my drumming; for even the least talented man will become a quite good drummer if he practices for three thousand years.”

“You will still have a stomach,” Martin says, “if you go free.”

“I don’t want to go,” Tantalus says.

He risks a glance over his shoulder. Martin is standing on the water. It is lifting him up as it rises. His eyes are as the oceans and the skies.

“I didn’t ask if you wanted to go,” Martin says.

This is a lie.

“Well,” Martin admits. “I did. But that was earlier. After that, I said that I was not the kind of person who was going to just leave you here to suffer another three thousand years. You’re going now. It’s done.”

Tantalus’ heart is beating. It will not stop. It is like four little torturers having an agony party in his chest, one for every valve, and taking occasional vacations down his veins.

And for just a moment Tantalus believes in Martin.

For just a moment Tantalus forgets that he is doomed to this garden and this hell. For just a moment he believes there is a choice; and swiftly, perversely, he rejects it, rejects freedom, turns away from it, clings to his torment with the whole of him, with body, heart, and mind, crying: o my gardens! O my agonies! O my lakes!

And Martin grins.

“I want to stay,” Tantalus says.

Martin grins wider. He snaps his fingers. “Bang,” he says, and points his finger like a gun, because Tantalus has erred.

And desperately Tantalus reaches for the substance of his damnation, and it eludes him; claws for it, and it sinks into the dry parched earth; reaches for it, and the wind catches him up, blows the branches of him away, and he is gone.

Hans’ Farm

Hans’ farm is deep beneath the earth. It’s under the great gate. It’s under the giant centipede. It’s under the bridge where the dead soldiers march.

The rock over Hans’ farm is beautiful and dark. But the farm is doleful because Hans does bad things.

It’s bad to sharpen a goat.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

You can sharpen goat cheese but it’s bad to sharpen the actual goat.

Hans’ goat is sawing, sawing, sawing on the bars of its pen.

It tosses its head. It cuts the wooden boards of the ceiling with its great sharp head. Then it returns to its sawing, sawing, sawing on the steel bars of its pen.

It is not a good goat.

Nobody wants Hans’ goat to escape.

That would be bad.

It’s bad to plug in a cow.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Electricity is good, but not too much electricity, and just about any amount is too much for a cow.

Hans’ cow is there, on his farm deep beneath the earth. It’s pretty shocked. It’s crackling. It’s dancing. It aurores. Soon it is on fire.

Hans’ cow burns.

Hans’ cow burns, deep beneath the world.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

No, seriously. I know a lot of people think it’s hip.

But it’s not.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

Whisking is cool. You can whisk things and make them fluffy. You can whisk them to and fro. It’s good to whisk eggs and make them foam.

But it’s bad to whisk a duck.

When you whisk a duck, it quacks vigorously and flutters, and that part is good. But then it dies, and its spirit can never rest.

Hans’ duck is glowering.

It is hungry.

It is glowering.

It endures its whisked existence:

On Hans’ farm, deep beneath the earth.

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.

(History: Boedromion 21-22: Things and Choices)

Flagging this as something I’m totally going to let myself change later. I’m not at home and have a real time deadline. I’ll remove the flag if I’ve edited to taste. For example, I’m currently uncertain of the closing line, and might not actually edit. ^_^

Update, 5 years later: I’ve never been totally happy with this series, but I won’t be fixing it until the archives are working at least up to Island of the Centipede.

The Underworld is full of things.

There are the little roly-poly round things. They’re like pillbugs. If you poke them, they’ll curl up tight. Then they’ll curl you up with them.

“Help!” you might cry. “I’m stuck!”

But nobody will hear you except the bug-eating giants, and so that’s hardly a win for you.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the roly-poly round things will be gone. Maybe they’ll blow up. Maybe they’ll scurry down. Maybe they’ll just vanish. But they’ll be gone.

No more stories of great heroes descending into the Underworld and getting rolled up by little bugs before they return.

Legends, maybe, but not stories, because those bugs will be lost.

There are shark-human hybrids in the Underworld. Everyone knows that. If there weren’t then who would swim up just when you thought you could relax and do horrible human things to you with their horrible human teeth?

Down in the Underworld they swim.

There are little fish that live near their teeth, little Crest-brand fish that live near the teeth of the shark-human hybrids and dart in between meals to gnaw the scraps from the horrors’ mouths. You can find them in the Underworld, and in Greece, and, really, everywhere where Crest’s ancient inhuman power isn’t bound by the sevenfold law of the FDA.

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the fish will die.

And the shark-human hybrids will die.

And there will be a silence in the deep.

Perhaps they will go on in some form, of course. It’s hard to say. Where is a soul after a soul-eater’s eaten it? Where is a light after the candle is snuffed? Where will be the noble shark-human hybrids and their terrible blunt teeth?

But we can call it “dead.”

Also in the Underworld there are the streaks. They’re colored red, yellow, and green. They’re in the air, like a classical painter got really tired after painting the Underworld and went suddenly modernist in frustration. They jangle and twist when you look at them. The souls in the Elysian fields can’t see them. The souls in torment in Tartarus try to ignore them. One day Tantalus will eat one and find that it tastes just exactly like artificial pudding, which in turn tastes more or less like his son Pelops. That’s why he will always look so funny when he eats a delicious vanilla Jell-O pudding cup. It’s not the flavor. It’s the nostalgia!

And if Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the streaks will be gone, and any purpose they might have to their long and colorful deaths will pass. And perhaps there will be a few lingerers, one or two stragglers, a few bright streaks of red and chartreuse hanging on the surface of the void, but they will go away and the ones who stay will die.

There are the burrs in the Underworld. They live under things. That’s why you don’t want to poke too much at things under other things in the Underworld. There could be burrs. The Underworld is already under other things, so it makes sense that going too much further under would be spiky. But they’re not spiky because it makes sense. They’re spiky as a natural evolved defense mechanism. It protects them from predators!

There are echoes. They’re not actually Echo, who didn’t die precisely but who made the wrong promise and couldn’t be human any more.(1)

(1) For reference, if Zeus ever asks you to make a promise pursuant to one of his pursuits, consider carefully the consequences. They’re not always as nice as you might imagine, and sometimes they involve having pampered tourists at the Grand Canyon shouting at you all day.

The echoes in the Underworld are not actually Echo, but they are the echoes of distant footsteps, and you can hear them if you try.

If Persephone destroys the Underworld, then the burrs will be gone. The echoes will be gone. There will be nothing but the emptiness where once there stood the cathedrals of Hades and the legions of the dead.

No more will trails of blood call the unliving back.

No more the Elysian fields; no more Tartarus; no more Hades; no more Persephone.

She can do this. It’s in her history, if you read back far enough. That’s what a Persephone does. She ends everything. She takes it away.

So as she stands there, with Hades holding out the pomegranate, Persephone licks her lips nervously and then she bows her head.

“Whatever,” she says. “You can do what you want, I guess. I won’t kill all this stuff you made.”

This is a pretty common decision for someone in her position to make, even though everyone always criticizes them for it later.

And she finds firmness in it and a sense of strength, so she lifts her head.

“I’m letting you live.”

And Hades says, “But that’s not what I want.”

“Huh?”

“End it,” says Hades. “Reach down to the nature of this place and make it an undiscovered land.”

Persephone blinks.

“Let it be a mystery,” he says. His face is avid. “Let no one know what happens here. Let them hope or imagine that it is a place of joy. Let them dream with bloodlust of their enemies suffering here in torment. Ease this from the world. Make it not known. That is what I have brought you here to do. That is what I have chosen.”

And she looks at him. And he looks back.

And she says, “You can’t make that choice for me.”

“I can,” he says.

“You can’t!”

And they’re both right, of course. They think they’re disagreeing, but they’re not. They’re just in the grip of Semantics, that bleak god, cousin to Ananke, from whom alone of all the gods and men great Zeus is free.

(History: Boedromion 20: The Only Fruit That Tastes Like Dust)

“Nothing is growing,” says Persephone.

There is a note of pain in her voice that reaches Hades’ heart. So he knocks the seeds of his pomegranate into his hand. He lets them fall onto the earth.

He says, “Seeds.”

Persephone looks.

Persephone laughs, the sound like the sound that sunlight makes.

“Why, so they are.”

She steps down from his chariot, hesitating briefly to see if he will stop her. He makes no move to do so, so she descends to the seeds, and kneels beside them. She pokes them with a finger. They are lifeless and unresponsive, even for seeds.

“Poor things,” Persephone says. “Won’t you never learn to grow?”

“If I order it,” says Hades.

She looks at him.

“When I came to the Underworld,” he says, “there was nothing but the gates. Beyond them was tangled darkness. There was no air. There was no soil. There was no place. Simply the gates. And I have made this.”

She looks around.

“I have taken this place from the emptiness,” he says. “Seized it back and filled it with the substance of my will.”

He gestures with an opening hand and dead black shrubs sprout from the seeds. They dig their roots into the dust and bring forth shriveled yellow fruit.

Persephone startles back.

The plants are in the fullness of their living death in moments. They develop a thick and musty fragrance and somehow insects crawl among their leaves.

“That’s pretty good,” says Persephone. “I mean, I’d need to add water.”

“There is growth here,” says Hades. “And light. Even joy, if I wish it.”

“I see,” says Persephone, because she does.

Hades is looking at the plants. His eyes are full of them; he is pleased with what he has wrought. But after a moment, he shakes it off.

“They are dead, of course. I cannot change that. Their story is over before it has begun.”

“Oh.”

“That is why you are here,” Hades says. “In this place you will bring forth hope.”

And Persephone is crying now.

Her tears are stolen girl tears. They are asked-too-much tears. They’re the tears of someone expected to bear the moral burden of her own abduction.

They twist knives in Hades’ heart, but they do not weaken him. They bring him more strength. His eyes grow more distant. His face grows colder. Her tears hurt, but they affirm his power over her. Where there is power, there is authority. Where there is authority, there is righteousness. So in that moment, torn by her pain, he becomes more certain of his course.

Her tears are not a problem for him.

But her question is.

She asks him, in the voice of someone who thinks it’s possible, “So will you wrench this hope from me like you wrenched the plants to bloom?”

And because he can’t, but doesn’t want to answer ‘no’, his affect goes flat and he bites into a fruit and he says, with great forced savor, “You really should try one of these delicious pomegranates.”

What Wistful Sally Says

Immortal Ken never has to die!

That’s why he’s packaged differently from Mortal Ken. Mortal Ken dies every time you press the button on his back! That’s his special mortality action. It’s easy to kill as many Mortal Kens as you want, and it’s a great opportunity for kids to learn the ins and outs of serial killing.

Reviving Stacy is a special Stacy who can bring Ken back from the dead. This changes the underlying morality of killing Ken. If Ken can never come back, then killing him is wrong. But if you can revive Ken with a Reviving Stacy doll, then who knows what moral rules apply? It’s like with Tickle Me Cthulhu—his life and death are meaningless and the human condition doesn’t apply!

If Mortal Ken has an Immortal Soul, which you can buy with the Immortal Soul Play Kit, then reviving Ken ensures that he’ll never go on to his glorious afterlife. He won’t have a harp like in Christian Heaven or many sloe-eyed virgins like in the Great Church of Sloe Heaven. He won’t shuffle emptily in Hades. He won’t earn his way into the Elysian fields. (Admittedly, that wasn’t really going to happen anyway except to Greek Hero Ken, that barrel-bodied Ken of legend that strides through the battlefields of Siege-Time Ilium.) In short, reviving a Mortal Ken renders the Immortal Soul meaningless and chains him immanently and externally to the cycles of the Earth.

Immortal Ken differs because it is the nature of Immortal Ken’s existence that he does not have to die. His purpose and definition transcend time, negating the moral argument for evolution, death, and change. No matter how hard you push the button on Immortal Ken’s back, he just won’t end! Philosophers suggest that Immortal Ken expresses a certain Zeist-Geist of denial popularized by evangelical toy companies and the makers of Highlander 2.

People in backwards regions have taken to eating parts of Immortal Ken dolls in the hopes of longevity or sexual prowess. In general manufacturers provide a heavily diluted shaving of plastic taken from the outer epidermis of a Ken doll, sometimes mixed with bits of the sea and the sky, which customers drink down to become homeopathically immortal themselves. Many young children deplore this practice as it is disturbing to try to play with dolls when there are always practitioners of homeopathic medicine lingering about.

More forward-thinking people do not consume Immortal Ken in any concentration. It is better, assert the monks, the priests, the intellectuals, and the old women in their huts, to hold tight Wistful Sally to one’s chest. Shunning Ken, shunning Stacy, they pull the string, and listen to her words.

She says, “Let’s go shopping!”

Or “Math is hard!”

Or “No one should ever have to die.”

Sometimes, but rarely, she says, “Yo Joe!”

Manchester-in-the-Gulch

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

There are rocks that fall. There are flames that rise. There are beasts in the night.

And there are eggs.

Annie wakes up there, sprawled in her daisy-print dress upon a viscous bog. She wakes up already sinking into the mud and in a panic, but there are hands grasping for her, the hands of men and women standing on the stable places in the bog. They are lifting her. They pull her up.

“Hello,” she says. “My name is Annie.”

“Annie,” murmur the people, in acknowledgment.

“Where am I?” Annie asks.

Then Minister Brown steps forward, and his hand is gentle on her arm, and he says, “Annie, you have been damned.”

“Oh,” Annie says. “Oh.”

Then Annie curls tightly around the egg so that none may take it from her.

“Peace,” says Minister Brown. “There is no one here who will hurt you. We are a sad lot, an unpleasant lot, but there is not the least of us here that would ever hurt your egg.”

There is an odd ring of truth to these words, and Annie peers at him.

“Oughtn’t you lot be horrid ruffians?” she says.

“Such was also my theory,” says Minister Brown. “But it does not seem the case. I thought on the matter, and here is my conclusion: if this is Hell, we are suffering immeasurable agonies and torment, which we tune out reflexively as the nature of our condition. In such light, the only greater harm that we could suffer is the shattering of our eggs. In all history there have been no humans, or at least few humans, so depraved as to exceed in their actions the torments offered by Hell. Thus, against the background evil of this place, all people stand out as good.”

“I see,” Annie says.

She takes a few steps away from them, feeling her way through the bog. “I don’t remember being terribly evil,” she says. She looks up at the sky. “I suppose I could have been a sociopath who just didn’t recognize the truth of all my deeds.”

Minister Brown sizes her up.

“More likely a contributor to the background ignorant malice of the world,” says Minister Brown. “But it is a question that others do not investigate, here. If you should like to know, you may ponder it in your egg. If you do not, we shall not inquire.”

“I understand,” says Annie.

They take her to their community, Manchester-of-the-Gulch, and there she spends some years. She learns, of her own accord, to plait yarn from the wispy, smoky matter that trails from the branches of the trees. She learns to knit clothing using needles made of the great bones, shed by long-forgotten beasts, which from time to time surface in the bog. She joins the people on their excursions to hunt the food, the water, and the sparkling foxfire-globes of electric power that help their town to live. And for years she holds her egg close, in her hand and later a pocket of her dress, but she does not look inside it.

Sometimes she sees the great stony creatures walk by, silent in the mist. The people call them the Demon Princes, for they are eidolons of fear and mystery to them.

They pass, great and terrible in the night, and they do not speak.

“I am minded to take up religion,” Annie says, one day, to Minister Brown. “But I am not sure how to proceed, this being Hell.”

“There is no proviso in the Good Book,” says Minister Brown, “that the damned cannot take up the faith. There is only the implication, apparent to certain learned theologians, that we cannot master it. Given that we are bound by our nature and unable to accept God, we cannot know the Word; the Word that we know is not the true Word; we cannot ever truly understand the majesty of the Lord. But we may come close.”

Annie is stricken. “To study, Minister, and aspire, always knowing that the truth by definition eludes us?”

“It is a burden,” Minister Brown agrees easily. “Some take up other faiths, of course. It is the Asian perspective that this Hell is a temporary place of torment, and that by apprehending the truth we lighten the burden of our karma. Some Christian sects would have it that even the damned are vulnerable to salvation, although the nature of the transition is not entirely clear—as we are dead, we cannot change our natures, but surely God’s light can breach that gap? And then there are the various rationalist faiths.”

“Why, then, Minister, are you a man of the Book?”

Minister Brown shrugs. “Because I cannot apprehend the truth does not mean I may not seek it.”

Annie scratches at the side of her face.

“I suppose,” Annie says, “that you might manage some epistemological sleight. Some manner of knowing-without-knowing, faith-without-faith, witness-by-implication.”

“I have time,” says Minister Brown.

So Annie studies with him, and they stare around the enigma of the belief they may not hold; but in her hour and in her day, it is Annie’s decision to part ways, saying, “Lo, I have found faith, in this simple place; and I cannot deny this flame I feel inside me on the doctrinal basis of its impossibility.”

“May you be wiser in this than I,” says Minister Brown.

And it is driven by that faith, supported by that tender reed of God, that, three months later, Annie finally finds it in herself to draw aside from the others, travel out beyond the borders of Manchester-of-the-Gulch, walk into the bog. There, she makes inquiry of her egg after the sin that damned her.

Now her egg is a filigree of gold that wraps around a pulsing core of red. And there are numbers in the egg and there are sounds and there is whiteness and there is fire. And there is an ancient wind and shouts of war and more of these things besides, and in its heart, she sees the sin that damned her.

Annie shrieks, as is typical of the damned, and casts the egg aside onto a tuft of grass; and she cowers there, in the bog, shaking and trembling, biting on her lip until there is blood, scratching at her arms.

“Leave her,” says Minister Brown, when a hunting party finds her there. “She will recover.”

He bends down and tries to touch her arm, but she rebuffs him with flailing blows, and he rises and nods.

But they have not gotten thirty paces thence when the rocks begin to fall.

There is something nagging at Annie’s mind. There is something twisting in it. And then she suddenly flounders to her feet, and begins to cast frantically about her, crying, “My egg!”

And all around her there are great stones falling from the sky, falling from the heights of stone that are the roof of Hell, and she does not know where the egg was cast, or whether it is vulnerable on the surface of the ground or deep and sheltered in the bog.

The others are hurrying back already as she sees it. She is grasping for it, a scream bubbling from her throat like nothing known on Earth. But she is too late; a stone is falling.

In the vast caverns wreathed in sulfurous smoke, where the ground is a milky bog and the skies are full of wheeling imps; where the damned stumble and build and hold tight their memories of Earth; where there are great creatures walking in human form, their skin as hard as stone and their bodies taller than the hills; in that place that some call Hell, each person carries an egg.

It is the hand of a Demon Prince that saves her; a great and steel-skinned hand. It passes over the bog like a shadow, and the stone shatters on that skin.

And there is a wonder in that, and an awe, but mostly the jagged residuals of fear.

Clutching her egg tightly to her chest, mumbling a mix of frantic blessings and terrible strangled sounds, Annie stumbles back to Manchester-in-the-Gulch.

Awaiting the Reconciler

The lion stood outside Sid’s office building. Its tail lashed. It growled.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone let you out on purpose,” Sid said. He looked around him for sanctuary. There was no one else in the square. Behind the lion, the revolving door of the office slowly spun.

The lion padded forward three steps. Sid hefted his briefcase, pulled his arm back across his body, and then flung the case at the lion. It bounced off the lion’s hide, but the beast snarled and stepped back.

“I’d better go in and call animal control.”

Trusting in insouciance, Sid loped past the lion into the building. He made it into the circle of the revolving door before the beast turned and charged. Shoving forcefully against the glass, Sid managed a quarter turn before the beast followed him in. This was enough. Its claws scraped at the glass behind him. Sid waited until he could reach the lobby, then threw his weight against the door to slow and stop its turn.

“Raar?” the lion snarled, hopefully.

“Stay there,” Sid said.

Then he went up to his cubicle. He passed Max on the way, and Claire, and Saul. He waved to them.

“There’s a lion in the revolving door,” he said. “Don’t use the door unless you’re prepared to strangle the beast unconscious.”

Claire rolled her eyes.

“It’s true,” Sid swore.

“This is why I don’t walk to lunch,” said Saul. “If it’s not rain, it’s lions. But if I drive, then the lions can’t pierce my defensive metal shell.”

“‘Car,'” said Sid.

“You should call animal control,” Max said.

“I’m gonna,” Sid said.

“Before the lion gets out and ravens among the cubicles.”

“I’m gonna,” Sid emphasized.

Then he reached his cubicle, sat down, and made his report to animal control. In the distance, he could hear snarls and roars. Then there was the clatter of a toppling swivel chair and the slowly fading mewing, coughing, and grunting sounds of Claire strangling the beast.

Sid sighed. Then he shrugged. He stared for a few minutes into his dharma box.

Sid hung up. He logged on to the system. Then he began to take calls.

Five of them proved irrelevant, in the broader story of Sid’s life.

The sixth did not.

“UDBI technical support,” said Sid. “This is Sid. How can I help you, Ms. Baker?”

“I’m only human,” said the panicked voice on the other end of the line.

The sound of Sid’s typing was like that of a heavy rain.

“How long has it been?” Sid asked.

“Nearly three hours,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid’s pinky finger came down on the carriage return with a loud crack. He was silent for a long moment.

“That shouldn’t ever happen,” Sid said.

Now his fingers were dancing on the keys. Dozens of charts and maps opened up on his screen, cascading from the background to the front.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” said Ms. Baker. “My car didn’t start. My room is a mess. I’m having petty thoughts, Mr. Sid.”

“It happens to all of us,” soothed Sid. “Even UDMI employees. Just hang in there until I can get your dharma system back online.”

He spun the mouse wheel. Convulsively, he stood up. “It’s not just you,” he said into the phone. “It’s your whole junction. I’m going down there to look at the lines. Can you call back, extension 833, if the problem isn’t resolved in twenty, thirty minutes?”

Ms. Baker’s voice is hesitant.

“I guess,” she said.

Sid frowned. He added, “Lock your door.”

Ms. Baker hung up the phone.

Sid left his cubicle. He loped down the hall.

“Sid?”

That was his boss, Dr. Ezekiel Brown, emerging from a side hallway.

“Walk and talk,” said Sid. “We’ve got a whole junction down in Block 43.”

“Damn it, Sid,” said Dr. Brown. “You know you’re not supposed to head out on this kind of thing without my gnomic management wisdom.”

“It’s probably just a short of some kind.”

Dr. Brown held up a finger. “Operations involves preparing for the worst eventualities,” he said, “not the best.”

“A line that needs repair.”

“Soar like the eagle,” said Dr. Brown, “who flies without a net.”

Sid laughed.

“Thank you for the inspiration, Doc.”

“You’ll call?” Dr. Brown said. “I mean, if you need management?”

“I’ll call.”

Sid seized a toolbox from a shelf as he passed. He reached the elevator doors just as they opened and disgorged a tour guide and a set of guests; without pause, Sid turned smoothly for the stairs, flung open the door, and headed down towards the parking garage. Behind him, the guide was saying:

“There’s a Hindu story of a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his path back home. He said to each of his ministers and generals, ‘show me your erudition and your heroism—reduce this river’s flow!’

“And they couldn’t.

“But then one of the camp followers said, ‘River, sink low.’—”

The voice faded as the stairway door closed behind him. Sid reached the garage, got into his car, and drove to Block 43.

The phone rang while he was halfway there.

“Hi, Daddy!” said Emily.

“Hi, honey,” said Sid. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Mole men,” said Emily.

“There aren’t any, honey.”

“There are now,” said Emily. “We aced all the standardized tests, so the teachers said we could establish an autonomous subterranean collective. Now we’re lurking in the caverns underneath the city!”

“They’re not caverns,” said Sid. “They’re access tunnels.”

Mole tunnels,” said Emily. “We tamed an alligator, you know.”

Sid laughed. Then he frowned. “Huh. The zoo’s in block 43; I hope the Animal Wrestler is all right.”

“Do you want us to check? We could tunnel under the city and emerge stealthily at the zoo!”

“Can you achieve consensus on the matter?”

“A band of mole men thinks as one!”

There is the sound of disagreement on the far end.

“Huh,” said Emily. “Leadership challenge. I’ll call you back. Love you Daddy!”

“You too, hon.”

Sid pulled over outside the UDBI satellite installation for Block 43, a small boxy building principally containing supplies, a junction box, and a mechanical console. Sid waved his hand over the handprint reader by the door, went inside, and began flicking switches and taking line readings. A frown slowly deepened on his face.

He flicked open his phone and hit a speed dial. “Doc?”

Doctor Brown’s voice was hopeful. “Sid! What’s up?”

“Can you get the police to evacuate people from block 43?” Sid asked.

“That bad?”

“The whole block is glitching all to Hell,” said Sid. “It’s worse than the 2016 incident, and I can’t find a reason for it.”

Doctor Brown nodded. “I’ll call back,” he said.

Sid opened the door and looked nervously around the street. The sun was bright. Pythons slithered companionably through the green grass. Birds chirped. There were no fires and no obvious looting, which seemed to reassure Sid.

His phone rang.

“Yeah, Doc?”

Emily giggled. “Hi Daddy!”

“That was fast,” said Sid. “How did the leadership challenge go?”

“We struggled fiercely in the dim twilight beneath the earth! Drums beat vigorously! But then someone remembered that the zoo has baby goats, so we all decided to check it out, because, ooh, goats.”

“Congratulations.”

“We’re peering up at the zoo with our mole eyes now. I think someone’s been showing the animals the dharma boxes, Daddy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well,” said Emily, “mostly, the eerie cooperation of gazelle and panda in smoothly coordinated escape operations! But also the Animal Wrestler is floating unconscious in the alligator pen with little gifts piled around him like the gators wanted to honor a noble foe.”

“Can you round up the animals, pumpkin?”

“Daddy,” said Emily scandalized. “I’m eight.

“Well,” said Sid, “if your mole men aren’t up to it . . .”

There was a long pause.

“We’ll see what we can do,” said Emily. “But the autonomous underground collective disapproves of keeping animals penned. That’s our free mole spirit!”

The phone buzzed.

“Got a call in,” said Sid. “Talk to you later, honey!”

“Bye!”

Sid clicked the Flash button. “Yeah, Doc?”

“The police are on the way. Any progress?”

Sid shrugged. He flicked a few more switches.

“It’s in perfect working order as far as I can see,” said Sid. “If you want to offer gnomic management wisdom, now might be the time.”

Doctor Brown hesitated.

“There was a Hindu story,” said Doctor Brown, “about a King returning from war when a river flooded and blocked his way home.”

“That’s not wisdom!” said Sid, scandalized. “It’s in our company manifesto!”

“He challenged his ministers and generals to lower the river,” said Doctor Brown, who wasn’t the kind of man to abandon a good story. “But it was an ordinary camp follower who solved the problem, saying, ‘River, sink low!’ And the river, which had ignored the entreaties of ministers, generals, and Kings, sank until she could cross it without wetting her ankles. Because, as low as her position was, she was perfect in her dharma. She knew who she was. She knew what she was there for. And because she had that power and that confidence, no force in the universe could stop her.”

“Okay,” said Sid.

“So why are you letting this stop you?

Sid opened his mouth to speak, paused, and frowned.

“That’s a good point,” Sid said, after a moment. He poked at the side of his mouth with his tongue. This somatized his internal attempts to evaluate the state of his soul. “I’m dharma-OK. The glitch isn’t affecting me. So I should be able to fix this.”

“Soar like the eagles, Sid!”

Sid tapped at his forehead with his hand.

“Okay,” Sid said, “so here’s my theory.”

“Oh?”

“We look at the dharma boxes to center ourselves in our dharma,” said Sid. “To become like that camp follower. The boxes resonate with who we really are, down underneath, to help us reach our fullest potential. That’s why you have such a hard time finding reasonable opportunities for your motivational speeches—we’re already at our personal peak of excellence!”

“. . . Yeah,” sighed Doctor Brown, sadly.

“But the dharma boxes aren’t manifestations of a God-like universal will,” said Sid. “They’re machines. They’re mental and spiritual feedback devices, and the first versions were built by ordinary imperfect humans. Here’s what I’m thinking: what if there’s a global error in the design? Something pervasive and subtle, something that none of us can see because every thought we have is shaped by the feedback from the boxes? So that when I stand here, looking at the evidence of the glitch, I’m still unable to see it, because it’s something that can’t exist in the context of my world?”

Doctor Brown considered. “Something that heroes can’t solve, but ordinary people can?”

“No,” said Sid, after a moment. “It’s more a general philosophical problem with turning to external evidence to figure out who we are.”

Sid hung up.

Several flamingoes flew by.

Sid thought.

Then he took out his dharma mini, set it on “Neutral,” and stared into its face.

Sid’s thoughts grew thick and full of error. Some of the glamour fell from his world. A seed of fear sprouted in his heart.

Grimly, he put the dharma mini back into his pocket and began to work.

After a while, the phone rang.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said Ms. Baker. “It’s been forty minutes.”

“Oh,” said Sid.

Ms. Baker hesitated. “Oh?”

“I’m trying to figure things out,” Sid said. “But I’m off system myself.”

He leaned under the console, took off a panel, and stared at the wiring underneath.

“It’s terrible,” Sid said. “You know? I mean, it’s like I’m climbing a mountain, and there’s a cold wind blowing, and my fingers are numb and the picks are loose and there’s an evil goat and I could fall at any second and die.”

Ms. Baker made a little, pained laugh.

“Yeah,” she said. “There’s an evil goat outside my door too.”

“. . . baby goat, probably,” Sid said. “There was a zoo maintenance error.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t believe we used to live like this. I can’t believe being human used to be like this all the time.”

“Yeah,” sighed Ms. Baker.

“It sucks.”

Ms. Baker hesitated.

“Also,” said Ms. Baker, brightly, “you could get stabbed! By muggers!”

Sid smiled a little.

“Or get hit by a car,” he said.

“Catch gangrene.

“Sniffles!”

“Social conflict!”

“Internet trolls!”

“War!”

“Stubbed toes!”

“Sheer blatant stupidity that you didn’t understand for years until one day you’re sitting at home and suddenly you realize just how wrong you were!

“Oh, God,” said Sid. “I remember those. Those were horrid.

They laughed.

“It’s actually the one thing that surprised me,” said Ms. Baker, after a bit. “I mean, when I moved to a UDBI district. That suddenly everyone got along.”

“Well, it’s natural,” said Sid. “I mean, you perfect people, and—”

Sid hesitated.

“I’d been expecting irreconcilable differences to remain,” said Ms. Baker.

“Yeah,” said Sid.

“It just seemed sound. That sometimes not everyone could have what they want at the same time.”

“That’s erroneous,” Sid said, distractedly. “I mean, in the formal theory of dharma boxes, it’s not so much that everyone gets what they want, as that people recognize that point beyond which they can’t have everything. They lose their connection to the basic human, mortal cruelty of the world.”

Sid frowned.

“But you have a point,” he said. He closed the panel, sat back, and said, “I’ll have to call you back.”

“Thank you,” said Ms. Baker. “I mean, for working, I mean, even when—”

“Only human,” said Sid.

It was still terrifying to him. His gestures were slow and clumsy. His thoughts were cold and confused.

“Yeah,” Ms. Baker said.

Sid hung up. He called Doctor Brown.

“Hey,” said Sid.

“Hey, Sid. Are you all right?”

“What would have happened to the camp follower,” said Sid, “if the river, confident in its dharma, had chosen to continue its flood?”

“That’s not possible,” said Doctor Brown.

“Pardon?”

“It’s basic dharmic theory. That part of our perfection that depends on others is also that part that we can expect from others. If a person and a river are in the world, then the limit of their dharmic excellence as they approach perfection is also in the world. The final perfection of all entities must coexist in . . . God, Nirguna Brahman, the Cantor-Deity, or what have you. Of course, this year’s models only really give an effective perfection around 98.3%.”

“Huh,” said Sid. “Then I have a theory.”

“Shoot.”

“The glitch isn’t a machine error,” Sid said. “It’s a dharma error. Something happened that meant that—to the limits of current technology—not everyone could be perfect at once.”

There was a thumping and a stampeding outside the satellite installation.

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding by on the back of a water buffalo. She had a length of cord wrapped through its mouth as a bit and was slowly, surely, exhausting its strength.

“Inconceivable,” said Doctor Brown.

“I’m conceiving it right now!”

There was a long silence.

“But what kind of . . . ghoul could have needs so fundamentally incompatible with someone else’s that they couldn’t be 98.3% perfect at the same time without cascading system errors?”

“Whee!” shouted Emily, riding past the other way. The water buffalo seemed to be tiring.

“I’m betting on the sharks,” said Sid. “But possibly an evil flamingo.”

Doctor Brown cleared his throat uncertainly. “Well,” he said. “I figure the thing to do for now is to lower the output on Block 43’s models. If there’s some kind of communications breakdown that makes it impossible for everyone to harmonize at 98.3, maybe they can coexist at 90, 95% perfection.”

“And in the long term?”

“In the long term,” said Doctor Brown, “as the technology of human perfection gets better, and whatever little quirk you’ve found here gets resolved, someone will just have to have a dharma that bridges the gap.”

Sid sighed. He took out his dharma mini. He set it on “Full.” He stared at its face.

“This could be most of the glitches we’ve been seeing,” Sid said.

“I suppose.”

“The little ones, I mean. They’re usually when someone new logs on to the system. When, maybe, reconciling their goals and desires makes for a little hiccup as the system strives to adjust to a new local perfection.”

“Maybe.”

Sid waited for his thoughts to clear.

“. . . what if there isn’t a person whose basic nature spurs them to smooth over the irreconcilable gaps between people?” Sid said. “I mean, what if things get worse, instead?”

Doctor Brown made a little laughing noise.

“Sid,” he said. “Of course there’ll be someone like that.”

“Daddy!” shouted Emily, pounding on the door. “Daddy, I beat the water buffalo! With my fierce mole-like stamina!”

“It’s technologically inevitable,” said Doctor Brown.

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw (1 of 3)

“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”

“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.

“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”

“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”

His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.

“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”

The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.

She is wearing a jacket.

“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”

“Why so?”

Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.

“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.

Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.

“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”

There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.

“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.

“For you.”

It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.

Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.

The runt skulked through after him.

Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.

But Jacob had not repented.

He simply spoke the words.

It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.

“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.

“Do you?” the angel says.

“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”

Jacob taps the floor with his foot.

“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”

Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.

“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”

The faces of the angel shift and tilt.

“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”

Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.

“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”

“And yet,” says the angel.

“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”

His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.

The angel does not seem to see.

“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”

“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”

“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”

“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”

I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.

But he does not say it.

The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.

“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”

“Then we must go down,” the angel says.

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.