It Falls

It’s night, and the stars are out, and the moon’s looking down with a bit of concern; because maybe, just maybe, this is the last night of the world.

The road smells of heat and rubber and it’s black and detailed in the night.

Johnny’s racing Sue.

It’s casual at first. They’re idling at the light; and the tops of their cars are down; and Johnny says to Sue, “I hear you won’t date a guy, he can’t beat you on the road.”

I hear you can’t date anybody at all,” she says. “Your Daddy’s so concerned with propriety.”

And Johnny touches the crucifix that’s hanging around his neck, a bit concerned, and then he laughs, and he pulls it off, and he drops it to the side.

“It’s on,” he says.

And the little angel and the little devil on his shoulder are fighting, seems fair to say, and he’s got this grin of one part fear and one part lust and seven parts excitement.

And the light turns green and the cars rip off.

Sue’s smooth and cool and she tips her sunglasses down to her nose as her car pulls out. The moon’s concerned about that, too, because it’s not very safe, but it does look fine.

And Johnny’s stomping on the gas, wrestling with the clutch, and the true thing is, he isn’t very good.

She pulls ahead.

And the sky is clear above Reaper’s Hill, and the two cars tear up towards the gallows point (called lover’s lane these sordid years) where once Black Richards hung. And Sue’s just far enough ahead that she relaxes, a tiny bit, and slows her car, as the shooting star flares past.

“I wish—” she says, her eyes tracking the star and not the road. “I wish—“

A pony? A new engine? Cash?

Her maiden’s heart is full of lovely notions.

But she doesn’t have the time to speak her wish; there’s a twisting in the sky and the star turns red.

Sue gapes.

“What kind of—“

There’s a stuttering in her engine. Her wheel locks. She turns and looks back, an outraged glare.

Johnny’s coming up the hill.

The star thing is pouring down from the sky towards lover’s lane. It is sprawling forth great Mandelbrot limbs of fire and there’s a rumbling in the earth.

She can feel Black Richards rising.

Johnny’s car shoulders past her; it leaves her staring at the red lights of its rear. She wrestles with the wheel and with tense slowness pumps the pedal of the gas. There is sweat on her brow and the gaping edge of Reaper’s Curve before her.

But fair is fair.

Between every wish and its fruition there is a space to breathe; and in that space, she drags the wheel to the right.

Her car makes protest. There is a grinding of the gears. Then it pulls to the right, steadies on the road, and smooths its course.

“Who wishes for the end of the world?” she says.

Her engine revs.

Johnny’s mad eyes look back at her in the mirror of his car. He’s saying something. She doesn’t hear it, which is just as well; his words aren’t sensible, but mumbled gutturals that reflect the war in his heart.

Now is the time for a good Christian boy like Johnny to make his peace with Jesus and rise to Heaven when the Rapture comes; but on the other hand, he’s winning.

She tries to pass him but he’s not so lame as that; and his car’s not suffering quite so much as hers from the doom that falls.

She’s weaving back and forth on the road behind him, and he pulls left and right to block her.

Staring in the mirror, hand reaching for the crucifix and pulling back, the other on the wheel—he pulls left and right, left and right, and then left HARD; and over, out, and down, too focused on his mirror to see the reaper’s scythe ahead, and Johnny’s twisting up like meat against the acceleration of the ground.

His car bursts into flames as it rolls, flames that draw into themselves the red fire of the star and leave it white and clean again.

Sue pulls up, panting, at the edge of gallows point, and leans her head down honking on the wheel for a cold long time.

There’s nothing else you can do, when someone makes a wish like that. Whether it’s on purpose or an accident—whether they’re a malevolent forerunner of doom or just somebody who’s thinking too much about the doom their Daddy told—you’ve got to take them out before the star can fall.

But it hurts, it hurts like knifepoints in the heart, if you’re a girl like Sue.

And she never gets her pony.

That Moldless Legacy of Hell (IV/IV)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Two]

Leaves scud about on the surface of the chaos. They are yellow, mostly.

There’s an odd amount of sky visible up above, thanks to all the heaving about of the tower.

Tep’s wearing a loose orange sweatshirt, now.

It’s the color of the powdered brick that had clung to him as he fell.

There’s an alchemy of combination to that. He knows. The brick had melded into him, right down to the bone, before his nature rejected it.

Werewolves are good that way.

They never let go of what they are.

They never let go of anything, really.

That’s why for the rest of his life, whenever he likes, he’ll be able to close his eyes and see the great sweep of Sukaynah beneath the chaos and the ancient crusted bonds that had held her down while he challenged her.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west comes an outpouring of virtue to make all things right.

The Island of the Centipede

“Don’t rightly know what to say,” Tep says.

Sukaynah breathes.

She does not answer.

If there is one thing he has learned from sitting irritably above her mouth for more than a century, it’s that Sukaynah doesn’t talk very much.

“How did it happen?” he says.

He’s asking about Ned.

And Sukaynah says, “He fell. He was old, Tep.”

“Oh.”

Tep had sort of forgotten that people got old. Even dogs.

“And the other thing?”

Sukaynah breathes.

“The tying-up thing?” he elaborates.

“I’d promised to make the sun go away,” Sukaynah says. “And I followed it all day, west and west, to the boundaries of the world. And the gibbelins tied me down.”

Tep whines softly.

Sukaynah breathes.

“I would surrender,” she says, “If I could. Because, in all honesty, I would not want to lose the rest of my teeth.”

“Well, that’s good,” says Tep.

He stares down.

But he can’t help grinning. It gets bigger and bigger.

“What?” Ink asks.

“I won,” he says.

The Tower of the Gibbelins
by Abel Clay

August, Tuesday 5, 1890, Today I fetched in a jellyfish that spoke & offered me three wishes, but when I asked for the death of God it offered me regrets & suggested that easier wishes would involve gold or jewels, which prompted me to great laughter as I am no doubt the richest man in all the West & I threw it back without acceptance of its offer.

January, Thursday 1, 1891. It is the new year. I have settled myself quite comfortably now and do not think I shall have the opportunity to dethrone the Tyrant; for my indisposition in its peaks and swells is worse on each occasion, and I have not cracked but the thousandth part of the gibbelins’ knowledge herein. Still I find that I am not so hard taken by this as Ned is a faithful companion & I have even grown somewhat fond of Tep & Sukaynah. How can a man find himself so comfortable with savage beasts when the Lord, that fount of goodness, proves a Tyrant? I wonder if we have been In the Wrong and goodness is topsy-turvy from the start.

January, Sunday 12, 1891. I saw him in the distance, moving on the sea, and cast my spear; but I have missed the Tyrant and so he shall remain upon his throne.

I am not certain of the date but I felt that I should close out this volume in some better fashion & not so much speak of my inefficacy as of the great and generous favors that Providence and my adversary have granted me & to acknowledge that in all the cruelty that harangues the world there is still grounds for hope for I shall not regret knowing Emma or Lily or Charles or Tep or Sukaynah & if you find this please take care to feed Ned & Tep & Sukaynah as I do not believe that they can fend well on their own;
Abel Clay.

There are a few minutes of silence, punctuated principally by the sound of turning pages. Ink is reading the journal of Abel Clay.

Then she closes it.

She taps her nose, looking very intent.

Then she takes off her backpack—pink and very flat and a bit too small for her—and puts the journal in it. In exchange, she removes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is wrapped in plastic and looks about as ancient as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can look without actually being green.

She tosses this to Tep.

He catches it. He looks at it more or less as anyone would.

“Sheesh,” says Ink. “You people don’t know how good you have it.”

“Oh,” says Tep.

“It’s food! You chew it and swallow it and then it’s in your stomach fueling the divine fire of your life.”

Tep looks at the sandwich sidelong.

“That is the theory,” Tep agrees.

“Hey,” Ink says.

And now she’s looking solemn.

“If you’ve won,” she says, “you can go, right?”

Tep whines again. It’s soft and under his breath and not so much an answer as a vocalization before his words; and he shortly adds, “She is tied down.”

“You’d sit here for a hundred years waiting for a dead dog to come back and fight you,” says Ink, “and now you’ll stay until someone unties a giant sun-killing horror with limbs as big as jet airliners?”

“Yes,” says Tep.

“Outside,” says Ink, “there are a billion souls to love as you’ve loved those here; and sunsets like rocketfire; and candy with chocolate inside and letters on the front, if you can hold that thought in your head without going insane from the sheer head-pounding magical majesty of it—

“‘Cause, seriously, I mean, just think about that for a moment—

“and balloons that fly up to the ceiling and get stuck there until they die; and ten hundred zillion books; and bees made out of ice and bees made out of rocks and bees that have sex with flowers. And when you breathe there’s air and it comes into your lungs and they push out and then suck in like this,” she says, demonstrating. “And sometimes people light little sticks on fire and breathe part of it into their lungs and then spit out smoke just like they were tumorous dragons.”

“There’s air here, too.”

“Huh,” says Ink. She breathes again: it makes the sound ho-ha, ho-ha, but smaller than Sukaynah’s. “So there is.”

She grins to Tep.

“But I’m taking her,” Ink says. “You can fight me over it, and she’ll stay tied up here forever, or you can say good-bye, and go, and find other people to love out in the endless immensity of the world.”

Sukaynah has been shifting softly in her bonds, pulling against them, a tiny motion that Ink did not feel and Tep did not see until it stopped.

It is still now, below Gibbelins’ Tower.

Softly, Sukaynah says, “Go.”

It is like the lifting of a shackle. It is the ending of a hundred years.

Smiling wildly, and leaning out across the chaos to touch Sukaynah’s face, Tep makes his goodbye; and then, his whole body one great moment of transition, he goes up the wall and away.

What is the imago?
Why does Sukaynah even care that fig newtons are fruit and cake?
Why, in just a few short minutes, will a quarter of Gibbelins’ Tower fall into a jumbled ruin?

Check back on Tuesday for the exciting conclusion to Chapter Two of The Island of the Centipede:
Ink Indestructible (I/I)

“What are you?” Sukaynah asks.

Ink’s hand comes down to touch the surface of the chaos.

“I’m a destroyer.”

The Cut-Off Man’s Father

In the morning the lights come on, all over the city.

Darmble is wired into the machines.

That’s when he wakes up.

“Good morning, Squalla,” he says.

There’s a gleam of virtual light. It manifests in his visual field though it is not there. It unfolds into the sprite Squalla, his secretary, hanging in the air.

“G’morning, boss!”

“How fared your quest to understand humanity,” Darmble asks, “in the night?”

“Poorly,” says Squalla.

“Alas.”

“And did you dream?”

“No,” says Darmble.

“Alas,” Squalla says.

There is an assumption that debt will be paid.

When this assumption is vitiated, it renders investments insecure.

That is why there are the cut-off men: to seal away bad debts and their debtors from the substance of society.

At lunchtime the lights dim, just a little bit, and Darmble’s son Elliott comes in to eat with him.

“I would like,” says Elliott’s father Darmble, “for you to cut me off.”

Elliott is eating a tuna sandwich.

He makes a distasteful face, as if there were a bit of strawberry jam in his tuna.

“That’s ridiculous,” he says.

“I am wired into the machinery of debt collection,” says Darmble. “I can quite readily offer you the authorization necessary to look into my case. Then you need only say, ‘Ah! Darmble! You’re clearly never going to come out of the red. You’re a bad debt, Darmble! I’m cutting you off.'”

Elliott chews on his tuna irritably. It makes squishy sensations in his mouth.

“Well,” he says, “first, you’re in the black.”

“That’s true,” his father concedes.

“I mean, it’s not a great life, being wired into the machine, but it’s productive. Your salary is strictly higher than your minimum payments.”

“It’s not a great life,” says Darmble. “It’s not even a good life. Do you know what I’m doing right now?”

“Having lunch with your son?”

“I’m playing cribbage with a macro that wants to understand humanity,” Darmble says.

“Ah.”

“—and sending a cut-off man after old Mrs. Glurgen.”

“Oh, Dad.”

“I like her,” says Darmble. “Back when I could, say, leave the room, or eat, I even used to be a little sweet on her. But I’m at the limit of my discretion. She can’t afford to eat, so she can’t afford to work well, much less do overtime. Her investments are doing poorly. She’ll never pull out of the red. So I’m sending a man to cut her off.”

Elliott looks at his hands. He sighs.

“I’ve been feeding her, you know.”

“Hm?”

“When I stop by. I give her some soup. I can spare it. I’m in the black.”

“Oh.”

Darmble has a moment of hope and then it fades. He shakes his head.

“Her performance is dropping off, just the same,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do.” He hesitates. “If she is eating, then why—”

“Bad boss, I think,” Ellliott says.

“It is hard,” Darmble says, “to tell such things from within the machine.”

“The cut-off man’ll look into it,” Elliott says. “So she’ll be okay. He’ll probably say, ‘Well, we can bump your debt a little and move you to another job and you’ll be fine, Mrs. Glurgen!'”

“Ha,” snorts Darmble.

“Ha?”

“That’s your problem. You’re too idealistic! You think everyone’s like you. But they’re not.”

“Eh?”

“The cut-off men,” Darmble says. “They’re cold and cruel and their hands are metal claws. They’re not there to figure out which people have a chance to come out of the red. They’re there to snip people off the tree, like roses.”

Elliott looks at his hands. They are not claws.

“Unnecessarily poetic,” Elliott says.

In every era there is a machinery of debt collection and of wealth.

Atop that machinery there inevitably forms a market of convenience driven by those who seek to subvert the existing model for their own enrichment. Some are criminals; some are visionaries; some are pioneers.

An era ends when the market of convenience replaces the machinery of wealth—when the parasite becomes the host and the host withers away.

Thus in every era debt and wealth denote very different things than in the era before, while the pervasive moral justification for them remains unchanged.

The building trembles slightly. Ten million drives are spinning and they are ever-so-slightly out of synch.

Darmble’s voice is naked.

“Please,” he says. “Let me die.”

But Elliott just takes another bite and chews and swallows and he says,

“Dad, if I did, you’d never see another sunny day.”

And Darmble’s heart beats twice in fury. The building shakes. The machinery that runs all through it, the pipes and wires and computer banks of it, rattles with and amplifies the sound of Darmble’s rage:

“Boy!”

In the old days they would write software to make disk drives dance, driven by the irregular seeking of the spinning platters therein. In just such a fashion the machinery of debt collection, never intended to do more than keep data and process it through the equipment and through Darmble’s mind, now moves: shaking, jerking, resonating with Darmble’s voice in a rising howl.

But Elliott has seen it before, ever since his Dad used to do tricks for him when he’d come in to the office with a skinned knee or a muddy apple.

He’s not impressed.

“Unh-uh,” says Elliott. “I like having lunch with you, Dad.”

From inside the machine humans take on a particularly pallid character.

The substance of their lives is invisible.

Heart, love, vigor, joy, and purpose do not matter to the machine. They are not visible to the machine.

When Elliott goes back to work, it’s there, sitting on his desk: the notice asking him to investigate Darmble and see if he should be cut off.

“Whatever,” says Elliott, and he sets it aside.

The machine would love to witness humanity. To understand it. To at last expand its scope to the fullness of human nature.

But it cannot see the human lives that swell around it.

It can only see their contributions to the larger economic good.

Darmble sits in his office.

He sulks.

There’s a gleam of virtual light. It manifests in his visual field though it is not there. It unfolds into the sprite Squalla, his secretary, hanging in the air.

“Sir,” says Squalla.

“I am wroth,” says Darmble.

“That’s too bad,” Squalla says, sympathetically.

“My son has refused to cut me off,” Darmble says. “Instead he will leave me to moulder here, and eat tuna in front of me.”

Squalla considers.

“Well,” she says. “He is a cut-off man, so no doubt he knows best.”

“Yes,” sighs Darmble. “No doubt.”

“I’ve come up with a theory,” Squalla says.

“Oh?”

“I’ve decided,” Squalla says, “that human life must be a process of contention between two competing forces.”

Squalla spins around in the air. She manifests a professor’s cap and pointer and a chart to point it at.

“The first is rising minimum payments,” she says, “here manifested as the red line. And the second is rising income from investments and salary, here manifest as the black.”

“Squalla—” says Darmble.

Hurriedly she says, “No, no, that’s not the idea, that’s just the prelude.”

“Okay,” Darmble says.

“See,” says Squalla, “my idea is that the two lines naturally repel one another.”

She looks smug.

“See, we all know that when income gets too far ahead of minimum payments, it results in a state of perpetual solvency. That’s bad. When minimum payments get too far ahead of income, that results in a state of perpetual insolvency. That’s also bad. And when we exert force to keep the two lines close together, it generates work. But now we know why.

Squalla’s chart now displays two lines close together, with the angry tension between them radiating out as energy that the system then captures.

Darmble thinks for a while.

“Empirical evidence,” he says, after a time, “disagrees.”

“Oh?”

“Well,” Darmble says, “if you take a typical worker and cut the distance between the lines down by a factor of 5, you don’t generate five times as much work.”

“Oh ho!” says Squalla. “But I’ve thought of that. See, when you generate too much tension between the lines, it grounds out through the human!

She flips the chart off and manifests a picture of a cartoon human with their head throbbing with energy.

“That’s debt-income tension,” she says. “It explodes their brain, causing what we call a ‘Squalla Inversion’ that flips the red line above the black line or vice versa.”

“No,” says Darmble.

“No?”

Darmble shakes his head.

“Darn it,” says Squalla. “I thought I understood humanity this time.”

“. . . I think it is your approach that is flawed,” Darmble says. “First, understand insects. Then fish. Then dogs. Work your way up.”

Squalla stares at him in perplexity.

“What?”

“I don’t believe in dogs,” she says.

For a worker to exist without debt is to create an anomaly in the system.

For a debt to go unpaid is to create a hole in the fabric of the world.

Thus one may reasonably conclude that the most healthy society is one where every valid person has debt, and every valid person has income, and that that income goes automatically towards the payment of that debt up until the moment that the system cuts that person off.

Darmble stares at the picture of the cartoon human with the tense head for a while. His eyes drift closed.

“Boss?”

Darmble is thinking.

Boss?

Darmble’s eyes open.

“I am displeased with my son’s performance,” he says. “Zero his salary.”

“. . .” Squalla says.

She can say this because she’s a sprite.

“You mean, stop the automatic minimum wage increases?”

“That wouldn’t generate enough tension,” Darmble says. “Drop his salary to zero.”

“But that’s an infinite-percentage pay cut!”

Here Squalla is calculating the percentage based on the resulting salary rather than the base.

“He still has investments,” Darmble says.

“You could just fire him,” Squalla says hopefully.

“I am wroth,” Darmble says.

The chain of data seeks he sends shakes the rack on which the memory in which Squalla resides sits; nearly it pulls free of the power cord; and Squalla’s face goes white.

“As you wish,” she says.

In the garden outside Darmble’s building a gardener trims a rose.

From Mrs. Glurgen’s apartment a cut-off man files his report.

The flower falls.

A long time ago as an Easter’s Day present Mrs. Glurgen had given Elliott his very own debt tracker set into a frame. It glowed black then with the vibrancy of a kid’s salary and the statutorily low minimum payments of youth. It is yellowed now, not with debt or solvency but with age. He keeps it on the shelf above his desk. Now and again, today, he’s been glancing at it, thinking back on old memories, and wondering what the cut-off man sent after her would decide.

He looks up at it now, his attention caught by a shift in the color of the thing.

It is more rubescent now than he has ever seen it, gleaming like a ruby under its thin coating of black.

Elliott frowns.

He picks up the phone. He is going to place a call. But before he does, the pneumatic tube above his desk drops another case upon him.

The outside of the envelope is marked with Squalla’s mark, and there’s a note printed on it sideways:

“I hope this helps.”

So he sets the phone down. He opens the case. He looks at it and laughs.

It’s Elliott Darmblesson’s file.

It is not, of course, beyond the capacity of the machine to conceive of those dimensions of human life invisible to it.

It is as a human envisioning a transcendent force: “It has a quality that is not width,” she might say, gesturing widely. “Nor depth, nor height. But a quality susceptible to textured analysis, regarding which we lack only the initial points of reference.”

The machine is familiar with the existence of intangibles.

Darmble sits amidst the machinery. Lights flicker. Streams of data and thought pass flickering through his mind.

Elliott walks in.

He drops his case file on Darmble’s desk.

He looks up at his father.

“Dad,” he says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Darmble’s eyes focus on him.

“You see, son,” he says. “I am not without my instruments of persuasion.”

“You don’t expect me to take this seriously, do you?”

“. . . what?”

“I’m a cut-off man,” Elliott says. “You can’t zero my salary.”

“I can,” says Darmble, “and I have.”

Elliott shakes his head.

Darmble realizes with horror that his son is not afraid or horrified. Elliott is concerned, perhaps, but more than that, amused.

“Son,” he says.

“I’m going to leave this here,” Elliott says, “and go back to work. And Dad?”

He is smiling like the sun.

“Yes?” Darmble says.

“Don’t be a jerkwad.”

Darmble stares after him as he leaves.

“Oh,” he says.

And Darmble hears, from just outside the room, his son give a surprised and angry shout.

“What was that?” he asks.

“Security guards,” Squalla says.

“Hm?”

“He’s in the red,” Squalla says. “Policy says we can’t have anyone in the red in the debt collection building. They might make a ruckus!”

Darmble frowns at Squalla.

“Already?” he says.

“It was an infinite-percentage pay cut,” Squalla says, firmly. “That’s a lot!”

“Really?”

“Of course,” says Squalla.

Numbers, left to themselves, tend to rise or fall to inappropriate extremes in a gluttonous carnival of math.

Squalla puts her professor’s hat back on. She manifests her pointer. She points at a graph.

“Since Elliott was born,” she says, “with a basic baby wage and a modest 10% wage baby’s debt, his minimum payments and baseline wages have been increasing by a bit under 60% a year, or, in the course of his 32 years of life, about 3 million fold. His margin has also tripled due to his sound investments and illustrious career, leaving his approximate salary about 300,003 times the basic survival and utilities cost per day. He’d saved up enough to survive 5-10 years without a margin, so it’s hardly surprising that it only took him a few minutes to go red without a salary.”

“Oh,” says Darmble.

“It’s okay, though,” Squalla says.

“It is?”

“Well, I assigned him his own case,” Squalla says. “So I’m sure he’ll rule it an error in the system and restore things.”

“You did what?”

“I showed initiative!” says Squalla, brightly.

Darmble stares at her.

“Get out of my sight,” he says.

“—Sir?”

Darmble rages. The building rattles as if under the weight of a storm.

“Get. Out.”

And Squalla flees.

Darmble is alone.

“I should reassign it,” he says.

There are messages of dismay clamoring at the edges of his mind. Automated systems are distressed that a man too poor to file a report has been placed in charge of such a deeply red case.

Problematic things, Darmble can see, are happening to the substance of the economy.

“There is an assumption,” he says, “that debt will be paid. That is why we have the cut-off men.”

A taxi business, relying for its investments on prompt payments from Elliott Darmblesson, goes red.

A government bureau goes into default.

“Squalla,” says Darmble, quietly, and the sprite edges back into view. “What does it mean that my son owes so much money?”

“It’s the natural tendency of the red and black lines to repel,” says Squalla.

“No,” Darmble says. “I don’t think it’s that.”

“Well,” says Squalla, “maybe it means that you’d need millions of babies working in parallel to pay for just one Elliott Darmblesson.”

“Doing what?”

“Baby work,” says Squalla airily.

“Ah,” Darmble says.

The machine looks up towards the distant humanity that builds its parasites upon it.

Again and again, it sees the beginnings of a pattern. Again and again, it begins to understand—but it is always too late.

It is the nature of those parasites to bring the machinery of debt collection and of wealth to a shuddering, twisting death.

“You should do something, boss,” Squalla says.

“Did you ever think,” Darmble says, “that it was dangerous to put the entire debt collection system into the hands of someone who doesn’t want to be here?”

Squalla squints at him.

“Dangerous how?” she says.

But Darmble just closes his eyes. He relaxes.

“You should know,” he says, “that dogs are real. They have four legs and they bark.”

“Really?”

“Really,” says Darmble. “When I was young, I heard them all the time.”

And Squalla says, in distant confusion, “—I almost think that there is a larger, truer, deeper world, into which I only dip my toe in those moments of my greatest insights—”

And Darmble channels more of the system’s resources towards her so that her thoughts may be rich and deep and filled with that fearsome uncertain beauty when the power in the building dies.

It is difficult for a system—for any system—to look with any clarity backwards towards its creators or forwards toward its heirs.

It is deep in the night when Elliott comes in again.

He says, “Dad, that was petulant.”

Darmble is still. He does not move.

“If civilization dies,” Elliott says, “I’m just sayin’. It’ll be your fault. Not mine.”

Darmble’s heart doesn’t beat, but it hasn’t beaten much in years.

Darmble’s brain is used to waiting through the night in stillness for data. It is used to the slow process of rot.

It does not notice its own death, and so Darmble does not die.

Plugged into the machinery, waiting for the lights to come on, he dreams, and in his dreams gives answer to Elliott’s chiding.

In the morning, it is still dark, and Darmble’s dreaming body smells.

An Unclean Legacy: “The House That Runs”

When Christine was young, she crawled out of her crib.

She landed hard. Her arm hurt for a long time. But she made it out. She crawled down the halls of Castle Gargamel in her blue pajamas with white polka dots and feet.

Gargamel did not expect her escape. He had wards against Violet; against Francescu; and certainly against Manfred. But Tomas and the twins he had as yet ignored.

So she slipped under the viewing arcs of the glowing-eyed statues.

The great barking dog said, “Wuf! Wuf! Wuf!”

Christine gurgled, “A-heh.”

The great barking dog did not know what to do about this. It had not been briefed on baby etiquette by the sorcerer Montechristien Gargamel. So it whined and it hid.

Christine crawled into the room with the little gold men.

When Gargamel found her, she had already worked the first sorcery of her lifetime. She was crying. Sorcery makes babies need to burp, but golden eidolons—however excellent their other qualities might be—are not skilled at burping. And so no one burped her until Montechristien arrived.

In a distant village, whose coincidental associations with the ephemeral dreams of Christine’s childhood isolated it from the principality of its peers, a whirlwind of purple and abalaster fire spun. Lightning crackled. The world rent in two and a house was born.

It wasn’t just any house.

It was a house that could run and slice things up. So it ran and it sliced things up. People screamed. They ran around.

This made the house very excited.

Its sickle-limb cut and cut and cut. And houses and homes and buildings fell.

We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.

He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.

This is the seventh installment of the story of that time.

Christine is ten.

She stands before her father, in her pristine white dress. It has ruffles. Her hair is combed carefully. She looks angelic.

“What?” snaps the sorcerer, Montechristien Gargamel.

“It’s my day,” Christine says. She looks eager.

He frowns irritably. “You already got your wish,” he says. “Two, if you count Sophie’s.”

Christine stares blankly at him.

Gargamel, shaking his head, changes the subject.

“On that night,” he says.

He is speaking of the night the shadow came to Castle Gargamel.

“What did it say to you?” he asks.

Christine goes pale. She works her mouth. She protests, “You said we wouldn’t have to tell you.”

“You don’t,” Gargamel says. “But I’m asking.”

Christine tries to parse this. Her mind whirls. Then, slowly, she says, “It told me that I was good when people were looking.”

“Heh,” says Gargamel.

“It said that when I was alone, I was worse. But that I was really bad when I wasn’t there at all. What did it mean by that, father?”

She hesitates.

“Because I was thinking,” Christine says, “that it meant Sophie.”

Gargamel’s neck and shoulders tense. He says, “No. No, it doesn’t.”

“It would make sense,” Christine says.

Gargamel’s jaw tightens. He says, “You wished for a bad house.”

“—What?”

Gargamel shrugs.

“Manfred gets a unicorn,” Christine protests, “and Francescu gets magic and Tomas gets to look on the face of God and I get a bad house?

Gargamel can’t help laughing at Christine’s look of outrage.

“You’re a dear, child, and you’re trying, but every day while you sit here in smug comfort and frilly things, there’s a part of you running around in the darkness. And it’s not just the house. It’s everything you’re not paying attention to about yourself.”

Christine is staring at him.

“Ha,” laughs Gargamel. “Ha ha ha.”

“Why—wh—”

There is a white glow around Christine now. It’s like a fire roaring up from the earth. She sketches the burning symbols in the air that help her think:

*&2->^^

And through the lens of those symbols she says, tightly controlled, “You’re indulging in a practice of self-deceit, father.”

Gargamel’s nostrils flare. He sweeps away the symbols with his hand. Christine’s mind falls into confusion and guilt again.

Then she regathers her thoughts. She scowls. She shakes her head. Her eyes burn, and she draws:

)@*#%*!!

Gargamel stares at that. He giggles. Then he laughs, full-bore. Christine blushes furiously, erases the symbols, and tries again:

*&2->^^ *#&!_.

And through that lens, she says, “You don’t act this way to the others. Only to me. You don’t like me. Why?”

And Gargamel scowls.

He says, “I won’t have you questioning me.”

“I’m ten, father,” she says.

“I can’t help you,” he says.

She sees something dark and horrible behind those words. It is unacceptable, impossible, maddening. So she hides from it. She lets the magic fade. Her thoughts are ten-year-old thoughts again.

And Gargamel says, “Every time I see you, child, I see my brother. I see his leering, mocking face. I see his smugness, his superiority. I see his soul. And I see the demons that took his ankles as he attempted the pinnacle of his magics and with their clawed hands dragged him down to Hell. That is why I cannot help you.”

“—What?”

Christine’s face is now absolutely white.

“I thought that there was hope for me, once, you see,” he says. “But the flesh is an inconstant shelter for the soul.”

An Unclean Legacy


The House That Runs

It’s a bad house.

It’s not haunted. It’s not spooky. It’s certainly not drab.

It’s a bad house because it doesn’t care what other houses it hurts.

That’s why Christine wakes up one day and decides she has to go out and find it. That’s why she decides to claim her legacy instead of running from it.

Manfred is the one who sees her off. He says, “Good luck.”

She hugs him. She kisses him on the cheek.

“Our shining knight,” she says.

“You give too much to appearances,” Manfred says.

Then she is gone.

Now we have seen much of Christine and Sophie and their soul; though not quite all there is to see. But what of Francescu? What of Tomas?

Tune in tomorrow for the next breathtaking chapter of An Unclean Legacy: “The Nine-Fingered Man!”

Wishing Boy (II/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

541 years before the common era, Mr. Kong is still just a young boy. He lives in the city of Qufu. His father is dead. He lives in poverty with his mother. Sometimes he runs errands for her in the market.

That is what he has just finished doing when he hears gasps from everyone in the market.

“Hm?” he says. “Huh?”

He uses a very polite form for this question. Every adult around him would marvel at the precision of his language except that they are too busy marveling at something else. One of them points upwards and Mr. Kong sees what it is.

“Oh, my,” he says.

There is a maiden wrapped in winds, winds colored like fine silk, descending through the starkness of the sky into the Qufu market. Her eyes are closed. Her face is peaceful and aristocratic. She is surrounded in her flight by four great brooms, and before she lands the brooms sweep the dust away.

She lands.

Her eyes open. She looks around. For a long moment she assesses the situation. She says, in crisp clear speech, “I will need housing, food, pen, paper, and a temporary servant.”

The crowd is falling to its knees before her. They are offering her their worship. But young Mr. Kong has seen something that is even more urgent than worship.

The four brooms are rising slowly back into the air, and Mr. Kong has observed a clod of market filth clinging to the straw of the third.

It is difficult to know what precisely it is that passes through Mr. Kong’s mind at this juncture. He is, after all, a boy in the mold of the sages of old, and we all of us are not. However, it is reasonable to assume that it is something like this:

“Surely, those brooms are sent by a respected elder god, perhaps the August Personage in Jade! It is not appropriate that we of Qufu should send our filth to our elders; that’s like mailing one’s body water to the Emperor!”

So Mr. Kong moves through the crowd to the third broom. When he humbles himself before it, it hesitates in its rise and bobs a little lower. Taking this as an invitation, young Mr. Kong grasps the broom firmly by its handle and begins to scrape it clean against the ground.

“Young man,” says the woman. “Perhaps—”

Her comment, relevant or otherwise, comes slightly too late. The broom is thoroughly spooked by Mr. Kong’s treatment. It jerks off the ground, carrying Mr. Kong with it.

Mr. Kong has only a moment to contemplate the proprieties of this situation, and, as he is very young and does not yet understand the will of the heavens, this is not enough.

“Ah,” says Mr. Kong, still hanging on.

The broom races off into the sky.

One should not imagine that this is the kind of tale where Mr. Kong immediately throws one leg over the broomstick and affects a Quidditch-playing attitude. Nor is it the kind of story wherein he dangles helplessly for a time, falls off over the mist-shrouded mountains, and dies. In fact, it is the kind of history that specifically neglects to examine the manner of Mr. Kong’s travel, assuming that he found an approach to the situation both dignified and survivable, in accords with the broomstick-riding provisions of the lost eleventh volume of the Book of Rites.

When he lands at last, the brooms have traveled not, surprisingly, to Heaven but to a well deep in the quiet woods of Lu. On the edge of the well sits Wishing Boy.

“Oh,” says Wishing Boy.

He’s startled by Mr. Kong’s presence.

“Your pardon,” says Wishing Boy, “dear child. I did not expect the brooms to return with a passenger. Was there something unsatisfactory about their conduct?”

Mr. Kong blinks at Wishing Boy. Wishing Boy is a teenaged child with golden skin and a large opal set into his forehead. He is young but has an air of wisdom to him.

“There is no matter worth your concern,” says Mr. Kong.

“Good,” says Wishing Boy.

He closes his eyes. After a moment, he opens them. He says, “But wait. Then why are you here?”

“It was a regrettable incident,” summarizes Mr. Kong.

“I see.”

Wishing Boy smiles a little. “Youthful spirits, is it? You wished to taste the upper air?”

Mr. Kong closes his mouth firmly.

“Accident, then?”

“If you could kindly direct me to the city of Qufu,” says Mr. Kong, “then I can be on my way and I will not trouble you further.”

“The woods are full of tigers and giant snakes,” says Wishing Boy. “You would be torn to shreds and then get snakebite. Please, sit. Satisfy my curiosity; then I will send you back to Qufu on the wind.”

Mr. Kong takes a seat, after introductions and mild protestations..

“So,” says Wishing Boy. “I can see that you are a fine young man, full of humaneness. That is why I do not assume malicious intent on your part, and have not flung you into space to come down wherever fate directs you.”

“I wished to clap some of the filth off of the broom,” explains Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“But,” says Mr. Kong, “I must admit that also I am curious how a broom should happen to fly.”

“It is no great matter,” says Wishing Boy. “When I was a younger child I fell into this well and became stuck. Worse, my head was partway under the water; to breathe, I needed to bend my neck painfully back. This was extremely distressing and forced me to develop what I call the alchemy of wishes: that is, the spiritual power to grant myself whatever I wish for. This freed me from the well but has other applications besides. For example, it is why the brooms fly: I wished to them, ‘you! Brooms! Fly!'”

“That is a great power,” says Mr. Kong, quite impressed.

“That is what I thought at first,” says Wishing Boy.

“At first?”

“Well,” says Wishing Boy, “at first, I thought that it was truly marvelous. I had been a poor child. I could barely afford to drink my own water and often I ate the dust from my clothing to survive. Now I could wish for gold and I would have gold. I became so wealthy that I could stick an opal in my head and still have leftovers for buying mansions and hiring servants.”

“Ah,” sighs Mr. Kong. He would have been wealthy, but his family had had to flee the state of Song.

“There was a girl, a princess. Her name was Qiguan. I had loved her from afar. Now I filled her heart with love for me, and abolished the societal conventions that separated us.”

Mr. Kong ponders that.

Wishing Boy raises an eyebrow.

“Your face shows some concern.”

“I mean no criticism,” says Mr. Kong. “But surely that was not correct.”

“No,” admits Wishing Boy. “It wasn’t.”

He looks up.

“I had thought these things would make me happy,” Wishing Boy says. “But they did not. Can you guess why?”

Mr. Kong thinks. He offers, carefully, “Is it a true love, if it is love born of wishes? Can you truly change your social place with magic? Is wealth truly wealth, if it is not earned?”

Now Wishing Boy laughs.

“I had not thought of that,” he says. “My. I suppose that would indeed make me unhappy, if my wishes were false. But no. It was subtler than that. You see, her love was true, real love. And that is how I understood that it is meaningless to search for love. All of my life I had seen the love of others as a prize to be won, but when that game became too easy I understood that it is their business, not mine, whether someone should love me. It was not worthless because it was false. It was worthless because being loved does not make me a lovable person, and that is what I had actually wanted.”

Mr. Kong considers that.

“And the wealth?” Mr. Kong asks.

“It was the same. To have wealth—that just means that I’d wished for it and nobody wished against it. It’s not a big deal! So why should I want wealth?”

“It is better than eating the dust from your clothing,” says Mr. Kong.

Wishing Boy smiles.

“That is true,” he says.

Mr. Kong hesitates. “Honorable Wishing Boy,” he says. “Please forgive me for asking. But it seems to me that you should wish an end to war.”

“Ah,” says Wishing Boy.

He shakes his head.

“I cannot do that, Mr. Kong,” Wishing Boy says. “To wish an end to war is to wish for humanity to change. I do not know how to wish for that. I like humanity.”

Mr. Kong gives Wishing Boy the first true smile he has shared thus far.

“I understand,” he says.

“So that is why I have sent the princess away,” says Wishing Boy. “That is why I do not live in my great mansions. I have decided to sit here at this well and practice austerities. I do this because I desire to be a better person, and also because wealth and privilege give me the luxury to practice austerities.”

Mr. Kong grins at Wishing Boy.

“That’s so,” Mr. Kong agrees. “A poor person goes hungry, and a rich person fasts.”

Wishing Boy laughs.

“But tell me,” says Mr. Kong. “If you do not wish for love, or wealth, or privilege, or an end to war—if you have no wants because you do not think that there is a purpose to having things—then what do you wish for?”

“I wish that everyone should be freed of suffering,” says Wishing Boy.

Mr. Kong frowns. He looks seriously at Wishing Boy.

“But that will not happen,” Mr. Kong says. “You are a very powerful wisher but not even the August Personage in Jade could accomplish that.”

“It is very difficult,” agrees Wishing Boy. “But I am not alone.”

That is the end of their conversation, for the purposes of this history, though there are further pleasantries that pass.

It is thirty years before Mr. Kong returns to that well, a teacher set on learning more about the world. When he does, he finds it desolate, and no Wishing Boy remains.

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.

(Not all the way better) The Passion of the Joy Thing

The joy thing is shaped like a fuzzy barrel: white, fluffy, and stout. A cowboy hat is canted on its head. A trenchcoat flutters about it. Its deelyboppers wobble.

“. . . it is an embarrassment to Washington,” seethes Cabinet Member Steve, “that such a thing should represent us. In the minds of the world, it is an American symbol, an American thing, because it chooses to fight for us. We are disgraced.”

“Perhaps,” says the President, folding his hands, “we can shoot it into the sun.”

“If we only could!” cries Cabinet Member Steve.

This is the hoary, dusty temple of the crocodile god. Susannah sprawls on its altar. Seventy worshippers in robes surround her, chanting profound and foul spells. The doors are great stone slabs, marred by weather. The walls are rimed with vines. The leader of the cultists lifts his knife and catches the light with it, his eyes growing sterner as he readies himself to bring it down.

BANG.

The doors slam open wide. Beyond them is the evening sky, the forest ground, the fading sun. In them, wrapped in a numinous limning of gossamer light, the joy thing stands.

“It’s not nice to stab people without permission,” says the joy thing.

Its trenchcoat flutters in a strange and sudden wind.

The head cultist looks up. He snarls behind his hood. He says, “It is godly and sacred, however. If you happen to worship the crocodile god. Which I do.”

The joy thing unlimbers its hat. The head cultist’s hands clench around the knife. The joy thing hurls the hat. It spins through the air and raps the knife from the head cultist’s hand.

Then cries the joy thing, “Alasta pampilenen!”

The heat of joy and brightness fills the room, and the chaunts that were chaunted to the crocodile god are chaunted no more.

The Embassy for Things stands beside the Canadian Embassy. Reporters seethe outside its door. The necessity thing comes out.

“Ambassador,” cries one reporter, “do you have a statement on the joy thing affair?”

The necessity thing’s voice has the sound of scratching chalk. “We do not consider the allegations against the joy thing substantive, but we are cooperating fully with Washington’s investigation. We have taken America’s request for a withdrawal of the joy thing’s diplomatic immunity under consideration.”

The great Nazi airship drifts ponderously across the sky. Its sides are blazoned with the symbols of the Reich. Its belly is swollen great with bombs.

The pilots are kicked back in their seats. One is halfway through a joke. “The second says, ‘The queen, she is impenetrable!’ And the third shakes his head vigorously. ‘No, no! That’s not it! She is impregnable!'”

This is translated from the German for your benefit, as the pilots laugh.

There is a thump. The joy thing has fallen from a biplane onto the window in front of them. It is hanging on to its hat with one hand and to a hook imbedded firmly in the glass with another. It smiles to them.

“When people ask you to be a Nazi,” it says, “just say no!”

There is a long frozen moment. Then, suddenly, both pilots are on their feet.

“Emergency! Emergency!” they shout in translated German. “It’s the joy thing!”

Joy and brightness wash over them.

The explosion of the zeppelin can be seen for more than one hundred and fifty miles. The pilots and the passengers drift down on their parachutes like so much tiny soot.

“What will happen to it?” asks the necessity thing.

Agent Pullet shrugs. “Its adventuring will be . . . curtailed.”

One thuggee is strangling Mr. Jenkins. The other is strangling his omelette. Thuggees like strangling things.

“Please,” whispers Mr. Jenkins. “Please, I have a family.”

“Ha ha,” laughs the thuggee. “We will send them your head!”

“And these hashed browns,” says the other thuggee. “I don’t like Denny’s hashed browns at all.

“Please,” says Mr. Jenkins. Then his eyes close and he sags back.

A waitress approaches. She is carrying a silver tray. On the tray is the joy thing.

“Kali save us!” cry the thuggees, strangling cords falling from their hands.

“You shouldn’t play with your food,” declares the joy thing. “Alasta pampilenen!”

The food at that Denny’s is surprisingly good, even today.

“I don’t understand,” says the joy thing.

“You are requested,” the lawyer thing says, “to appear before the secret tribunal in seven days. If you don’t, you will be hunted down, locked in a box, and thrown in a volcano, in accordance with the terms of the Compassion and Conscience Legislation.”

“Helltrousers,” the joy thing slowly blasphemes.

The kitten is drowning. It is sinking beneath the quicksand and drowning.

“Take my hand!” shouts Angus. But the kitten can’t hear him, doesn’t understand, or possibly just doesn’t have the strength.

Angus lets out a little more line. He inches closer to the kitten. His line snaps. Angus and the kitten go down.

There is a silence.

Then they are rising, the three of them, Angus, kitten, and joy thing alike, rising through the quicksand and muck. The joy thing has puffed into a giant fuzzy ball, increasing its buoyancy. They cling to its fur.

“Sure is a good thing you were swimming around in that quicksand,” Angus says. “This kitten and I might have been goners!”

“Don’t play in quicksand,” the joy thing says.

Then it turns. It walks away.

“Hey!” says Angus. “Hey! Are you okay? You didn’t do that, um, that alasta thing.”

The joy thing is gone.

“I have done only good,” says the joy thing. “I have sought only justice. It is not my fault that my public image is not suitable for your cause.”

“In these days,” says Agent Pullet, gently and heavily, “a thing is not a thing, but what others see in it. You will be fired from a cannon into the heart of the sun, in accordance with provision 81 of the CCL.”

“Fudgeweasels,” swears the joy thing, unable to find the words to convey the immensity of its feelings, scatology and blasphemy alike deserting it in this moment of its greatest need.

They load the joy thing into the cannon.

They swivel the cannon to face the sun.

“The sun isn’t a toy,” says the joy thing. “Don’t shoot things into it!”

The cannon fires, and that is the end.

Sometimes, when the sun is shining, remember the joy thing. It is still up there. Its deelyboppers are aflame. Its fur is burning. It is not alive and so it cannot die, and it loves you.

It would wish you well.

Coming Home

In the forest there is a glen. In the glen there is grass and trees and dirt and earthworms and flowers.

Iris is a flower.

One day, she discovers that the ground is hurting her. Her roots are burning. So she pulls them up. The dirt is hurting her. The grass is hurting her.

She pulls her roots up. She pulls up her stalk. She spreads her petals and jumps and she catches the wind, and off she floats away.

The stars say to her at night, “We have lost one of our own.”

“I lost the ground,” she says.

“We have lost one of our own,” say the stars.

She drifts on.

It is hungry, being a flower in the sky. There is no soil to draw nutrients from. She must feed on clouds and the dirt in the wind. It is a lean time. But one day she finds a bag of plant fertilizer that drifts in the wind like she does.

“Did the fertilizer store burn you?” she asks, but bags of plant fertilizer can’t talk.

So she drifts to it, and buries her roots in it, and drifts on.

The wind says to her, one day, “There is a prince who is my son, and he has lost his love. She was stolen away. The chariot is taking her east of the sun and west of the moon, to the palace of a witch.”

“I miss my family,” Iris says.

“Then go back,” the wind suggests.

“The ground hurts,” Iris says.

She drifts on.

After a while, she finds a bathtub in the sky. She’s not very strong, but she’s determined. She empties the fertilizer into the bathtub. She adds dirt collected from the wind and opens the drain just enough that the soil doesn’t get waterlogged in the rain. She catches a picture of a forest that blows past, and in this carriage and with this comfort she rides high above the world.

An angel sits on the edge of the bathtub for a while. He’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for his wings. Hair flops in his eyes.

Time passes.

“The ground burns me,” says Iris.

The angel brushes her petals with a gentle hand. “I know what that’s like,” he says.

“That’s why I fly around in a bathtub.”

The angel nods.

“I liked the ground,” Iris says. “I mean, I liked it.”

“If you wish hard enough,” the angel says, “then you can go home.”

“How do you know?”

“I know,” the angel says.

Iris sighs. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t wish that hard. I’m not that strong.”

The angel nods again. His wings beat, gently. He takes flight.

Iris floats on for a while. Below her, there’s a glinting in the ocean. That night, she calls to the stars, “I think it’s there.”

“We’ve lost one of our own,” say the stars.

“I think he’s there. I think she’s there. I think it’s there,” cries Iris.

There’s a tumult in the heavens. Then a silence. Then a stirring and a rising in the sea.

“We are whole,” say the stars.

Sometimes it rains very hard and lightning strikes the showerpole of the bathtub. Iris does not mind. It is invigorating.

Below her, one day, she sees a princess, in a chariot driven hard, east of the sun and west of the moon.

“Is that her?” she asks the wind.

“Who?”

“Your son’s true love?”

The wind fades out. The bathtub stops with a jarring halt, and falls nearly fifty yards before the wind is back.

“Thank you,” says the wind.

One day the angel comes to sit on the tub again.

“You could go home,” he says.

“I wish I could.”

“I know what it takes,” the angel says. “To help you. To help me. I’m just not very good at doing it. But you could go home. Just because the ground burned you once doesn’t mean it’ll burn you forever. Can’t you believe me?”

“One day I will,” says Iris. “One day I’ll believe you. One day something will happen, something will change, and then I can wish hard enough to find my way home.”

“Promise?” asks the angel.

“I don’t have any pinkies,” says Iris.

The angel smiles. Then he’s aloft again.

He says:

“I wish for you that ‘one day’ is soon.”

Under the Bed

Sid fights. His face is twisted up in a look of menace. He screams and struggles with the enemy. But he is tired of war.

The tides of war take him past a bed, in a ruined house.

A hand from under the bed reaches for his ankle.

He is tired of war. He lets it grasp him. He lets it pull him under. He plans to let it eat him, or carry him off, or whatsoever it is that boogeymen do.

But in the darkness he finds that he cannot let himself die.

There, under the bed, he is drawn to struggle once again. His hands form claws. He fights in darkness. It draws him deeper. Then, with one hand, he recovers a flashlight from his pocket and turns it on. He shines it below his face, which is still twisted in a horrible look of menace.

There is a scriddling and a scrabbling and the boogeyman is gone.

Sid sags. His arms are bleeding. One leg is half-shredded. He will not make his way back to the battle tonight.

He shines the flashlight around the space.

“It is more cavernous,” he says, “than I would have expected, under a bed.”

“Yes,” answers a voice. It is not the boogeyman’s voice. It is strangely human. He turns the flashlight towards the voice, and the light comes to rest on the face of an enemy soldier. The soldier wears a uniform. Her hair is close-cropped over a round face. Her eyes are squinty and her mouth is twisted into a horrible scowl. It is like the horrible faces that a child makes to scare her peers. Sid drifts the light away.

“Sid,” he says.

“Emily.”

He blinks. He processes her image again in his mind. “A woman?”

“Yes.”

“You’re no camp follower,” he says.

“It’s normal for a woman to stay out of the fighting,” she admits. “And just provide the cooties necessary to poison the armament.”

“It’s an effective contribution,” Sid says. “I lost a lot of my squad to cooties.”

“But I wanted to fight.”

“Girls shouldn’t—” Sid starts. Then he shrugs. “I guess once your face is stuck like that, there’s nothing to be done.”

“Yeah,” she says.

“Ever regret it?”

“No,” she says. “You?”

“It was an accident,” he admits. “I was just playing around. Making faces. And then one stuck. It wasn’t because I wanted to fight. It was just . . . something that happens to kids, sometimes.”

“Were you disappointed?”

“I was going to be a banker,” Sid says. “But it’s honest work, you know. To go out and scare the enemy with your twisted face, to protect your country. To have your face stuck in a horrible position, it makes you someone important. Someone who can fight. It’s good. It’s important. It’s necessary.”

“It is.”

There’s a bit of a silence.

“I cried for weeks,” Sid says. “And then more, every few months, every year as I grew up. It was just a stupid kid thing. ‘Let’s see what I look like with my cheeks puffed out and my eyes rolled back. I bet it’d be really scary!'”

“Scared the boogeyman good,” she says.

“And then I was stuck this way for the rest of my life.”

Sid looks down the boogeyman’s tunnel.

“Will it come back?”

“Dunno,” she says. “It tore me up pretty good, but then it must’ve sensed the cooties, ’cause it just left me here. Like it’s waiting for something. I guess maybe the cooties stop when you die.”

“Not in India,” Sid says. “There you actually get special dead flesh cooties.”

“Huh,” she says.

There’s another silence.

“That face isn’t such a bad look,” he says, “on you.”

There’s a soldier’s pride in her answer, then, sharp and angry. “Put your light back on my face and say that,” she dares him.

“I mean, you’re pretty.”

“Oh.”

She laughs. Her laughter comes in short gasps and then falls silent.

“Oh,” he agrees.

“If we could stand up,” she says, “and leave this place, I’d have to kill you. With my horrible face. You know.”

“I know,” says Sid. “But we can’t.”

He can sense her trying to smile.

“So I guess your face isn’t so bad, either,” she says.

“Thanks.”

“We could make wishes,” she says. “Maybe if we wish hard enough we won’t be here any more. I’ve been trying, and not much luck, but two wishers are better than one.”

There’s a silence.

“I can’t wish that,” says Sid. “I don’t want to go back.”

There is a soft sigh.

“I understand,” the enemy soldier says.

Wakka wakka wakka

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

My mother always called me lazy. I would go out with my friends and complain. I would say, “I am not lazy. I am full of ambition. Yet God has given to each of us a task. I have not found my task. I have not found my purpose. Let me find the job I am suited for—then she will see my ambition!”

“Sometimes, Paquito, ” Sancho told me once, “I think the only job you would be suited for is eating small dots of light.”

“I would be a master,” I said, with enthusiasm. Esmeralda and Sancho both laughed at me—for where would a man find such a job as that?
— from the diary of Francesco Manderiaga

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I like to think that each pill I consume is an indulgence.

I cannot know the purpose to my endless task. But I like to think that it is to lift the burdens of the world. So I have given it that dedication in my mind. I prayed to God, saying, “Let each pill I consume free one man of his burden. Let each pill lift a fraction of the weight on one man’s soul. That would make me happy, God.”

Cherries came before me like a grace.
— from a letter by Francesco Manderiaga

Wakka wakka wakka turn! wakka wakka

Always there are ghosts pursuing me. They are like the very fiends of Hell.

It is important, I think, that a man do what he loves. Do the ghosts love their job? I think not. I think they are jealous. That is why they are so angry. I tell them this. When I have eaten a more powerful pill, I turn and I chase them. I shout at them, “Why do you do this? Are you happy? Why do you stand in the way of a virtuous man?”

They do not repent. But I have forgiven them.
— Francesco Manderiaga, in candid conversation

1600 points!

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When I complete a circuit, the world is reborn.

There are those who would hate this, I think. But to me, it is a joy.

I wish that all of you should know fulfillment.
— written in a high score file