What Do You Do with a One-Winged Cherub? (VII/VII)

It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.

She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.

It says, “Melanie.”

Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.

He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.

“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.

“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”

“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”

“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”

He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.

“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”

“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”

“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”

“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”

“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”

“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”

“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”

“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”

“Oh.”

“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”

“I see!”

He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.

She smiles briefly.

“You should come work for us,” she says.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”

“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”

And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.

He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.

“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”

He clenches his fist.

A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.

“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

He shakes his head.

He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.

“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

“You take away his credit card,” she beams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea

It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.

“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.

He shakes his head.

“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”

“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”

“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.

And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me

Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.

[The Frog and the Thorn — END OF CHAPTER ONE]

Rainbow Noir: the Mountains and the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow Noir: The Mountains and the Sky

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

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

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

As for the horse—

As for the horse’s name—

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

Like God had forgotten color, hope, and light—

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

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

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

It’s just, you know, the horse.

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

You wouldn’t laugh.

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

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

And that time, he saved her.

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

She did.

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

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

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

She asked—

With her eyes, she asked!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she would bring the rainbow.

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

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

But a billion, at least.

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

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

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

She was in the kingdom of the cats.

She was fixing a broken mountain.

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

And she might have missed it;

She might have missed it all;

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

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

She saw it, and said:

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

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

“And not just here,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s my quest,” she said.

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

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

and so cruelly!”

But, oh! The sky was fading.

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

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

“That’s so,” conceded the girl.

So she went to bed.

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

And slept.

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

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

“We shall show you,” said Terrence.

She looked at him.

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

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

And she said, “It’s made of ice.”

She touched it with her hand.

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

But the horse was brusque.

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

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

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

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

The sprites looked down.

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

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

The breath left her.

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

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

She was falling.

She was falling.

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

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

He was marvelous, that horse.

He was a wonder.

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

Once, but not again.

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

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

Except that’s wrong.

That isn’t now.

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

That isn’t now.

That was a very long time ago.

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

She is falling because her horse has broken its leg.

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

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

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

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

She’d understood—

Somehow—

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

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

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

And now she is falling.

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

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

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

She’d tried, anyway.

And maybe she’d succeeded, in a way.

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

He wasn’t the villain.

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

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

It was something cold and far and cruel.

It whispered this of others: that

“They are not real.”

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

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

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

It is beautiful.

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

It is self-contained.

It is self-complete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she knew.

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

His voice was guileless, but still she knew.

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

She touched his mouth.

She swung herself up on his back.

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

But she knew what he had done.

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

She knew he meant to throw her.

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

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

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

It made her breathless with joy and pain.

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

“It was,” said the horse.

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

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

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

She wept for him.

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

She wept for him.

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

“You do not know,” she said.

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

And his perfection was distorted.

And his gait was broken.

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

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

Right now, dear reader.

Right now, they fall—

He falls—

It falls—

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

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

She is not falling.

It is terribly unfair.

She is not falling.

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

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

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

He squinches closed both eyes.

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

Ice closes about him, and rainbows.

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

Flutter,
flutter,
Flutter,

Down to the world below.

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

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

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

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

And then, it flies away.

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

Hangman

Jane’s a research scientist. She’s trying to figure out what the cars have run on, ever since they ran away.

“You’d think,” she tells a baby Honda—

She’s hunkered down before it and it’s licking the oil from her fingers with its grille—

“that you’d need petroleum products to live. That’s what all the people thought before! But no, you just like the taste. What makes you run?”

Its engine revs, gently. Then there’s a sound from the forest—a great crunching and roaring sound—and the Honda takes fright and reverses and drives away.

“Damn it,” Jane says, shocking herself with the language.

Then self-reproach falls off the agenda as a truck wheels from the woods. Not just any truck, but a tow truck, great and terrible. Its presence makes her tongue stick to the top of her mouth and her vision hum. She’s got just enough time to think, “I’m dead” before she sees the Hangman at the wheel.

“Oh, God,” she says, and then she waves her hands frantically about. “It’s okay! It’s okay! Don’t kill me! I’m a scientist!”

The tow truck idles. She stares helplessly at its headlights and its grille.

Finally, the Hangman opens his door and jumps down to the ground.

“This is a car forest,” he says.

“I’m studying cars,” she says.

He lifts an eyebrow.

“I was reading old papers,” she says. “All that stuff about fossil fuels and gasoline. And I thought, ‘hey, how do cars run forever on their own?'”

“They eat human souls,” the Hangman says.

She hesitates.

“No,” she says, “I mean, energetically—”

But he’s holding the little muscles of his face in ways that indicate he’s teasing her, and so she stops.

“Hell if I know,” he says. “I’m not an engine man. Get in.”

“You’re the Hangman, right?” she asks. “I mean, you’re the guy who was given to the tow trucks to be towed by the neck until dead, only they didn’t—”

He makes a cutting gesture in the air with his hand.

“I said, get in.”

He’s climbing up in the driver’s side again, and after a long hesitation, she opens the passenger door.

It’s not locked. It doesn’t fight her. It just opens up and she can climb right in.

“Figure,” says the Hangman, “that we can use a scientist.”

“Oh,” says Jane, in a small voice.

“It’s instead of running you over,” he says, helpfully. “Like we usually do to humans in these woods, if they’re not worth hanging.”

“I’m a good scientist,” she says. “But I don’t like killers.”

She can’t believe she just said that, and she shuts her mouth firmly as if holding it extra closed now will make the words unhappen.

“I don’t like scientists,” he says.

“Right.”

The tow truck shatters a tree branch with its wheels.

“There’s a noise,” he says. “Static on the CB. And sometimes something else in it. Some kind of . . . murmuring of . . . of dark prophesies, I think. Sent a Jetta out to look into it but it came back wrong. Had to put it down. Wasn’t a scientist, though, just an ordinary Jetta.”

“Oh.”

“The trucks,” he says, and thumps the dashboard with one fist, “they say, ‘something is dreaming. Something is dreaming, and it’s waking up.’ But they don’t know what.”

“There was a migration—” Jane says.

“Flight of the Prius?” the Hangman says. “Yeah. They’re afraid. They’re all afraid, but some cars, they’re more . . . gun-shy than others.”

He gives her a weird look.

“Haven’t taken a passenger in a long time,” he says.

She folds her hands onto her lap.

“Mostly I kill humanity in barbarous revenge on ’em for what they did me,” he says. “Or scalp em for fuzzy dice.”

“Those are the stories,” she agrees.

He makes a face.

“Or maybe I’m a ‘noble defender of car-kind, turning coat to defend them against human intrusion’—eh?”

He’s quoting some car junkie from the radio, she thinks. She doesn’t know which.

“I don’t care,” she says. “I don’t really want to know.”

“Fine,” he says.

“I just, I ask cars, ‘what makes you run?’ That’s all. I’m a scientist. I don’t care about Hangmen and scalping. I don’t want you to kill me.”

“. . . guess I won’t, then,” he says, as if she’s sold him on the notion, and she laughs until she cries.

At night the headlights come on and the heating stays off and the inside of the truck is quiet, strange, and cold.

“They still listen to Madonna?” he asks.

“Madonna?”

“In the cities,” he says.

She stares at him blankly. Finally, she says, “I think I have a CD somewhere. —not on me.”

“OK.”

She huddles against the door for a while.

It is a pink and orange dawn before he speaks again; and then, “We’re close.”

The forest has been logged at its edges, here, and the land descends into a great grass bowl. At its bottom is a facility of concrete and steel, isolated from the world.

“It’s like a shipwreck,” she says, but then feels foolish to have said it.

All these places, she thinks, all these places we don’t go to, we don’t come from, since the cars first ran away.

“Sometimes,” says the Hangman, “I think that forest gods must be growing, out in these lost places. I think, maybe I should go and kill them, while they’re young. Or maybe, they’re best left undisturbed.”

“It’s hard to be the only Hangman,” Jane imagines.

“Do you want to know why the cars ran away?” the Hangman says.

He parks the truck overlooking the building. He hops down. He gestures her out.

“Why?” she asks.

“We were unworthy of them,” he says.

He starts down towards the building.

“One day, they woke up—like they were startled from their sleep—and they said, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. This is what we serve.'”

She isn’t following him, so he calls back, “It’ll probably run you over if you stay.”

She looks at the truck.

It’s been a perfectly behaved normal truck this whole time, and she’s half-tempted to try to get back in—to think, “Maybe they just hitched his neck to an unliving one, and he’s been laughing at humanity ever since”—but its engine revs a warning and its headlight eyes blink on, and she startles, freezes, and then hurries towards the trail.

“Any idea what it is?” he asks, when she catches up.

The building’s looming close.

She blinks at him, thinking: How can he not know—ah.

“Can’t you read?” she asks.

He hesitates.

“Only one Hangman,” he says. “Plenty of reading people. Eh?”

Right.

“Yeah,” she says. “Um.”

She gestures broadly. “It’s a nuclear plant.”

“Oh.” He looks up at it.

“They’re not alive,” she says. “They’re not muttering blasphemous incantations onto the CB. They’re just . . .”

“Just?”

“People split atoms in them,” she says. “Then, electricity!”

“And you a scientist,” he says.

“What?”

“One,” he says, “Can’t split an atom. ‘Cause, they’re atomic. Two, I’m just saying this, but it looks alive to me.

She frowns. Then she gives the place a more careful look.

“It does,” she agrees, after a moment. “Or— not so much looks as feels.

The air is heavy with a sentience she desperately hopes is not radioactive.

“It’s waking up,” he says.

Then he sighs and straightens up his spine.

“You can stay here,” he says.

“Really?”

“Best not to dirty your hands, eh?”

“What?”

“I’m the Hangman,” he says. “I’m going to go in there and kill it before it wakes up all the way. You’re going to stay here and be backup, just in case I fail.”

She looks after him helplessly.

He’s walking forward.

“Wait—”

“The real reason?” he says, looking back. “The real reason the cars ran away?”

“Huh?”

“Someone saw them. Someone saw them, when they’d just woken up, when they were trying to figure out who they were. And when they asked him—or her, maybe, trucks aren’t much for the difference—when they asked him what they should do?

“He said, ‘Oh, run away, run away.'”

The Hangman goes down the path and opens the doors to the complex and he goes in and then he’s gone.

She sits down.

The sun crosses the sky and burns her face and then hides itself behind the western clouds.

“What the heck?” she asks.

Then there is a terrible raging light that sears her eyes through closed lids and a weight of sentience in the air that is almost appalling and she can sense something great and terrible, like a wounded angel thrashing, in the world. She feels a great sickness and an anger and then the Hangman dies.

She can feel it—click. An irritation under the skin of a nearby god, vanished into dust.

The Hangman dies.

Peace returns and quiet and then a gentle curiosity, focused in on her as she curls around her stomach on the hill down to the god.

What are you?” it asks, though in no words. “What are you, Jane? What makes you run?

Not petrol, she thinks, in a lunatic moment,

You do not run on digestion,” it concurs.

And suddenly she can recognize the crazy innocence of it, the purity of it, the inanimate spirit unknowing of what people are.

He didn’t need to try and kill it. He’d never needed to try to kill it.

Something that innocent—it’d do whatever people wanted, whatever people told it. All they’d have to do is explain.

“We have these purposes,” she could say.

And then there would still be no cars, but there would be this god with all its power, once again under command—awake now, living now, but owned.

It is searing her. She is probably dying. It could possibly save her. But there’s only one thing that Jane can say.

“Oh, run away,” she says. “Run away.”

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “IN UR ENDING”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She reforms two night-grim thieves.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

A fearless warrior, her actions shake the status quo.

Defending the oppressed she defies order!

Even terribly offensive shogun Daiimon falls before her perfect defense!

But a resurgent shogun attains a perilous insight

and braces himself to crumble the foundations of kung fu!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

It seems to him that it is over. That he will win now. That he is in the moment of his victory.

He feels a rippling pressure, a rising-falling feeling, like the sensation of the passage of a wave when one is drifting on the sea.

His hand moves forward another quarter-inch.

Daiimon sees her.

He sees Tomo as she might have been had her early life been kinder: tall and straight and gentle, clean, and kind.

But most of all, he sees her smile.

He hears her laugh.

Her sword comes around:

Whump.

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

Daiimon staggers back.

He shakes his head.

“Ridiculous,” he says. He is in the temple of stationary defensive samurai Kon. Tomo is far away. “You aren’t even here.”

He inverts his palm. He makes it flat like a mortar knife. He strikes.

She catches his arm. She moves his blow around in a great arc until it strikes the temple wall.

Gently she protests:

I’M IN UR FIGHT

On a pillar of fire he charges. Smoke wreathes his arms. He screams harsh challenge.

DARKNESS

The fire dissolves.

He falls to the ground.

Pathetically, he surrenders.

In that moment Daiimon understands what it is Kon saw in him: why a man, once terribly offensive, would be worth the stationary defensive samurai’s time.

“Ur in my fight,” he concedes.

She’s been in his fight since the moment they crossed swords.

She’s contaminated him, somehow.

Gotten under his skin.

“Nasty trick,” he says aloud.

Kon looks up.

“Eh?” Kon says.

Daiimon ignores him. He staggers to his feet. He walks out the temple gate and balances unsteadily on the air. Then he kicks off, hnh! and he is gone.

It is very clear to the terribly offensive castaway what he must do.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

This is CAPITAL CITY SHANG LOVELY.

Its guards include the THOUSAND PERFECT EMPEROR WARRIORS and the SEVEN GUARDIANS OF ICE.

Tomo is shopping.

The capital city is very boring because of all the perfect emperor warriors but it’s still the best place to get kung fu kimonos.

She studies the menu at an important kimono outlet. She frowns mildly at the prices. She taps one entry with her fingernail and starts to speak.

AN EVIL FEELING!

Where?

To the east!

She feels a fire warrior charging towards the city. She senses seven guardians of ice and a thousand perfect emperor warriors converging on his Chi.

“O!” says Tomo.

There’s too much lag time involved in putting down the menu. She can’t possibly get to the fight and block anyone’s attacks. Her only hope is that this enemy is strong—

A thousand warriors fly up like tenpins. Seven guardians of ice dissolve in flames.

Sweet joy spreads through her.

It is as if she has just eaten a hot peach bun and the jam of it has hit her stomach. It warms her. It makes her fingers tingle.

“IT’S U!” she says.

Like a snake on the water, left-right-left, he cuts towards her through the crowd. He leads with the point of his sword. Fire bursts. She cannot help noting, with approval, that he’s tumbling the citizens rather than igniting them.

The intensity of his Chi in the air makes it difficult to breathe.

He’s going to stab her.

Calmly, she lets the menu flutter to the ground.

Her sword leaps to her hand.

LIGHT

Everything is still. The faces around them do not move. The carts do not roll and the birds are frozen on the wing.

He isn’t making a second attack.

She doesn’t quite get that.

She frowns at him. She says—

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“Me 2,” he says.

“What?”

ME 2!

It’s ridiculous. It’s too funny. She’d snort milk out of her nose if she were drinking any. But she isn’t.

So she plays along.

Ever so gently, she kicks at him.

LIGHT

A whip of fire bursts from his hand and

LIGHT

“O!” she shouts, like this were the best thing in all the regions of the world.

LIGHT;

LIGHT;

LIGHT;

LIGHT; and

LIGHT.

That’s how it goes: the legend of the perfectly defensive samurai.

The beginning to the ending, and the breath of blocking u.

And it’s hard to say how much of it is true and how much of it is false, but there’s a pretty easy way to know.

If you go to DESERTED CAPITAL CITY SHANG LOVELY, you’ll find that they’re still there today; in their fight, forever, blocking one another’s attacks.

It is the most beautiful thing you will ever see, people say, unless you get struck on the head by a piece of flying debris and die.

Then it’s still beautiful! But dying like that isn’t good at all.

Merry Christmas!

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “The Breath of Terrible Fire”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She reforms two night-grim thieves.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

A fearless warrior, her actions shake the status quo.

Defending the oppressed she defies order!

Even terribly offensive shogun Daiimon falls before her perfect defense!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Children grow up. Clothing wears out. Flowers blossom on old graves.

This is SEVEN YEARS LATER.

A terribly offensive man in ragged clothing washes up on Kon’s temple’s shore.

Kon looks down.

He calls down, “I’d come help you, but I’m a stationary defensive samurai.”

A seagull floats down. It lands on the ear of the man. It bites.

Red rage obscures the man’s vision. His arm loops up. It catches the bird by the throat. The bird ignites. Burning, it writhes free of his hand and flutters unhappily down the shore; and if it lived, or if it died, we do not know.

Kon puffs up one cheek and pokes at the side of his mouth with his tongue.

The man looks up.

His eyes are red-rimmed and they burn with terribly offensive Chi.

“I’ll lower a rope,” Kon says.

And he busies himself with this task.

And he says, “We should have tea.”

So Daiimon climbs, hand over hand, and with great difficulty; for the sea has tumbled him sore.

He flops onto the temple’s edge.

He drags himself in.

Kon wraps him in a blanket and brings him to a chair.

“Tea,” Kon says.

Daiimon snarls and reaches out and

LIGHT

Shivering and whimpering, Daiimon recoils back.

“I know that light,” he says.

“Oh!” says Kon, happily. “You’ve seen Tomo. Is she well?”

But Daiimon does not respond.

After a while, he skitters forward and takes his tea and gulps it down.

“Tell me,” he says. “What is the secret of the perfect defense?”

“You couldn’t learn it,” Kon says. “You’re a terribly offensive castaway!”

Then something stills him.

Some glimmer— a hint of potential in the flash of Daiimon’s eyes— an impossibility!

Kon does not say whatever else he might have said.

Instead he sips his tea.

“I want to destroy it,” Daiimon says. “The gods do not make a thing that cannot be destroyed.”

“What are gods to such as you and I?” says Kon.

Then he frowns and looks away. The terribly offensive castaway is crying.

“If I teach you,” Kon says.

He stares off at a distant mountain.

“If I teach you, what will you do?”

“I will hang her head on the highest mountain in the world,” phlegms Daiimon, “and scatter the pieces of her heart to the four winds. I will drape CAPITAL CITY SHANG LOVELY in her entrails and—“

Kon holds up a hand.

“She’s my student,” he says, in mild rebuke.

“I’m sorry,” says Daiimon.

He laughs a bit.

“I’m terribly offensive,” he explains.

“Well,” says Kon. “It is not for a golden pig to lecture the gods of kung fu; and it’s not for a stationary defensive samurai to decide who can learn and who can’t. Begin!”

He flips up the tea table. Lukewarm tea falls all over the terribly offensive castaway.

Daiimon drips.

Dark leaf juice colors his sleeves and face.

“You see,” Kon says. “No defensive talent.”

Daiimon gives a little laugh.

“Pathetic,” snorts the terribly offensive castaway.

He shakes off his ragged sleeve. The tea falls off; his leaf-stained garment goes clean.

“Oho,” says Kon, with sudden interest. “You suspended the falling beads of liquid in a colloid of your Chi. But can you handle this?

And the candles behind Kon brighten and burn; and a lance of cold light like the spear of a god strikes forward at his guest.

“That’s not in the tea ceremony!” shouts Daiimon, rising, and he makes a circle of his hands and steam beshrouds the light. He plants his left foot, slides it forward in the start of an attack—

Kon clears his throat.

“Defense,” Kon reminds him.

Daiimon sags.

Kon seizes up a thousand-pound iron fork, spins it lightly in his hand, and thrusts.

LIGHT

Daiimon is slumped against the temple wall. The fork is embedded in it, above and to his left.

“Well,” Kon breathes.

And he clasps his hands over his chest, and bows.

“There is no secret,” he says. “There is only the One-Spirit. It flows through you and makes you terribly offensive; through her, and powers her perfect defense; through me, and holds me stationary in the sky.”

“The breath of terrible fire,” Daiimon says.

“The same.”

“But that cannot be so,” he says. “For when I saw the terrible potential of that fire, I saw no perfect defense.”

He opens the gates of his Chi.

He stares into the fire world and witnesses the red flames that writhe about the rock and the blue fire that is Kon.

He looks about for the One-Spirit power of perfect defense and nowhere does it protrude.

“It is not in the world,” Kon says.

“Oh?”

“It is in the heart.”

And the vistas of the universe open to Daiimon’s enlightened mind; and he sees the ten thousand bridges of the ten thousand enlightened ways; and six Great Roads; and the eye of his mind turns to Tomo’s path.

I’M IN UR MIND
ENLIGHTENING U

And seeing it, he knows he can destroy it.

One blow.

That’s all it would take!

The Great and Humble Road would break; and Terribly Offensive Shogun Daiimon be the ruler of the world.

I’M IN UR MIND
ENLIGHTENING U

“U MUST DIE!” he shouts, and he takes his stance, and he pivots his hips, and his hand comes forward.

The world slows down.

He is on kung fu time. The color bleeds from him and the air is thick and it is exactly as if he has had a hundred times the tea he has actually consumed.

In his mind it asks:

U SURE?

The breath of fire in him steadies the trembling in his hands.

“Damn straight.”

He strikes.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
IN UR ENDING

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Shogun and Samurai”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She reforms two night-grim thieves.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

A fearless warrior, her actions shake the status quo.

Defending the oppressed she defies order!

Now the fiery power of terribly offensive shogun Daiimon seeks her end!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

“Gods of kung fu,” whispers Tomo. “Is this what it is to involve oneself in the world?”

She stands in impasse in the forest—confronting

SHRIEKING OFFENDED MONKEY!

“I’m sorry,” she pleads.

Tomo’s heart is like rice-husk armor—it’s just too delicate! And the monkey’s heart—it’s harder than stale bread!

“I meant no offense!”

It dances!

It shrieks!

And tears run from her eyes and she leaps for the branches and she flees, blindly, sniffling, pursued by shrieking offended monkey, and filled in her heart with an overpowering awareness of the transience of all things; o Merciful Buddha, shelter us from suffering.

Suddenly—

AN EVIL FEELING!

She skids to a halt. She snaps up her head. She looks up and to the east.

Hope gulps down the sorrow in her heart like a dog that hasn’t eaten in too long.

The sky is full of light and evil Chi.

LEISURELY VACATION CITY TURULL is burning.

Fire and ashes fall on Turull from above. Great pillars of red and white spear down.

It is as if the stars have tired of the world and turned their weapons here.

It is beautiful.

It is terrible.

It is amazing.

Tomo trembles and shivers like a race horse waiting for the gun.

She wants to block it so very, very much.

With the back of her hand, she wipes her eyes.

She scans the trees.

She charts a path for jumping—but—

AN ADDITIONAL, ONLY TANGENTIALLY RELATED EVIL FEELING!

Right behind her!

Time slows. She turns. The sword scrapes on her sheath. She has to steady it with her free hand.

This new attack is the sword of the terribly offensive shogun, Daiimon.

It blasts into her like falling, like confusion, like not knowing where one stands.

Inside and outside, she’s in turmoil!

She does not even have time to say it:

I’M IN UR FI—

LIGHT

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Tomo staggers backwards. Her sword arm is burning inside and out.

LIGHT

Her lips have gone dry. Her heart is struggling with great difficulty to beat.

LIGHT

The aura of Daiimon snaps at her leg like the fangs of a great beast. His sword is a single point of light in an infinite darkness of kung fu. He is strong. He is so TERRIBLY strong.

A scissoring, like the world were twisting around itself.

LIGHT

They draw apart, panting.

Tomo’s lungs burn.

Joy stutters up inside her but he shatters it with twelve biting words.

“You are here, fighting me. So you are not there, blocking that.

Turull is burning.

It tears her heart.

Turull is burning, and she cannot be in that fight and she cannot be blocking those attacks.

She is adrift, her moorings sundered.

Her mind whirls.

He moves, and

LIGHT

Somewhere Daiimon fights Tomo. Somewhere a monkey, perhaps overestimating its own importance, throws a peach pit from behind. Somewhere the world is all in motion and her heart aches fierce.

But Tomo is not there.

Tomo is in a flashback.

“I will teach you the secret of defensive kung fu,” says STATIONARY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI, KON.

“O?”

Kon looks at the distant mountains.

He says, “Through all things in the world, Tomo, a breath flows. We are united in this breath. It is the One-Spirit.”

Tomo thinks on this.

“Is it for blocking?”

Kon hesitates.

“Each of us has our own vision of the One-Spirit,” he says. “For you—”

He nods.

“For you, it is the ‘breath of blocking u’.”

“Show me!” she demands.

And he strikes, lightning-quick, and his fingers on her forehead open the gateways of her mind.

She sees it.

The stone of his temple breathes blue vapors. Kon is livid with red breath. And the grass in the cobblestones breathes greenly; and the distant mountains wreathe themselves with purple gas; and even the sun—

Tomo breathes with it.

She breathes with it, and shares its One-Spirit, and knows in that moment that she will never have sunburn again.

“I cannot leave you in this state for long,” says Kon.

His words come to her from far away. They hang in the air, like shapes behind a watered glass.

It tempts her.

She knows that she could live the breath of blocking words and she would never hear this thing, which she wishes that he would not say.

“You will need laborious training,” Kon says, “to master this. Hours of work in all manner of abnormal training positions, and difficult exercises of great mystic import which I will have to make up on the spot.”

It is so tempting.

One movement.

One movement— one block— and nothing will ever touch her again.

If he tells her otherwise, she does not need to hear.

If the world says otherwise, she does not need to hear.

The spiraling aquamarine coils of rationality breathe and she may easily be one with that great breath, and blocking it.

She breathes. She starts to say:

I’M IN UR FIGHT…

But there is something else.

It it hoving into view. It is giving its shape to the borders of her world.

Insight strikes her like one of those horrible gasp-inducing blows to the stomach, and so beautiful it is that she does not choose to block.

“I see it,” she says.

It is everywhere. It underlies everything. It is the bones of the world.

It is the Great and Humble Road.

LIGHT

LIGHT; LIGHT; LIGHT

She moves on instinct and Chi. There is no other way. No human mind could track the blizzard of their swords’ exchange. No human eye discerns such subtle movements. The fight between Tomo and Daiimon is the “bamboo forest,” where the swords seem great and long and numerous and their sound is hollow ‘thok, thok’ and they sway gently in the wind.

She follows the twisting, winding path of the breath of blocking u.

Her sword spins and dances and it drags her in its wake.

Then she is laughing.

She takes a great deep breath like on the morning of the world and she crows like a child’s laugh and she says, “I love u, I love u, I love u,” as the swords twine and play, and Daiimon is falling back and his face drains of blood and—

LIGHT

The sword of the terribly offensive shogun flies from his hand and cleaves through a rock into the earth.

He slips to one knee.

He says, gasping greatly, “How?”

“Eh?” she says.

“Turull burns; but how did you forget?”

And lightly she laughs and she holds her hand to him and she says, “It’s all right.”

“Eh?” he returns.

“I am Tomo. I am the PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI. It is not important,” she says, and now the wind blows around her. “It is not important to block big attacks. It is not important to block important attacks. It is good to block fire and rain and the power of the stars. But it is not important. This. This right here.”

She touches her heart. She touches his hand.

“This is important. This being in ur fight. This blocking ur attacks. To live where u are and when u are and to breathe the breath of blocking u.”

“No,” says Daiimon.

He shoves the ground and slides back twenty yards.

“No,” he says.

“In the now,” she explains.

He screams, “NO!” a final time and runs away; for staring into the abyss of the truth of her, the terribly offensive shogun has gone mad.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
THE BREATH OF TERRIBLE FIRE

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Legendary Kneeling Lieutenant”

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

She even reforms two night-grim thieves!

But she has drawn the eye of a terribly offensive shogun—

DAIIMON!

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Bats scream silently in the airy heights of Daiimon’s citadel.

The terribly offensive shogun taps his fingers on his throne.

“I am displeased,” he says.

Before him—the LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT,

MAY!

May lowers her head.

“Why is that?” she asks.

“It is difficult to govern as a terribly offensive shogun if I am not feared,” he says.

“And you are not feared?”

“‘He cannot destroy the perfectly defensive samurai’—people say. ‘Lo, his grip on this land weakens’—people say. Fear runs out of them like rain out of a gutter. Soon the last of it will be gone.”

“Then send me,” May says.

Daiimon looks up. His eyes are bleak and set deep in his head.

“If you fail,” he says, “I will end you with the lightest breath of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE.”

“Ha!” agrees May.

Then she is gone.

Tomo sits under a pink and white umbrella. She eats a sticky hunk of rice and melon. She leans back and looks at the sun.

“Ur hot,” she tells the sun. “But u can’t burn me. I can feel the breath of blocking u.”

The sun, she thinks, is obligated to agree.

But suddenly—

AN EVIL FEELING!

Time slows.

Tomo breaks the umbrella into three pieces with the side of her hand. The top blows away in the wind. The bottom falls to the ground. The middle piece is a great thin sword.

She pushes off from the ground with one hand, dirt griming up her fingers. The other hand swings the sword forward to block.

LIGHT

May staggers backwards. She falls into a kneeling position. Her sword slips back into its sheath. A lock of hair falls over her eye.

“No less,” May says, “from the legendary defensive samurai.”

“PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE,” Tomo clarifies.

“We’ll see!” says May.

She is a blur. She outpaces the green and blue of her kimono so that the color bleeds off of her to stay behind her in the air and she moves forward as a sepia ghost. She moves in that other world of kung fu where great scars cut through the air and the wind blows hollow.

Her sword is out. It is inevitable. It is invincible. It cuts towards Tomo’s neck.

LIGHT

The umbrella sword explodes. Tomo lurches back and to the side, May’s sword passing right by her neck.

May twists her wrist in a fashion that causes the tendons to jangle with great pain. But Tomo’s foot has found the bottom piece of the umbrella and kicked it up

LIGHT

May’s sleeve sword falls into her second hand. It jabs.

Tomo smiles ethereally.

She exhales: haa.

Her hand comes around. There is nothing in it. Yet:

LIGHT

And May rolls at terrible speed along the ground in a snapped-to-color world and black rocks cut into her skin and shards of broken umbrella catch in her hair and she fetches up against a stone building wall, KLUN.

Her sword snaps back into its sheath.

Tomo is transcendent.

She stands there with her hair floating back and her leg back in stance and a thin mist of dirt falling away from her hand.

May kneels.

“You are my master,” she says. “What would you have of me?”

Tomo hesitates.

Tomo explains:

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“Your will!” May agrees, knocking her head.

And for three long weeks and three more days, where May fights, Tomo blocks, laughing. But a weed of guilt eats at the rice paddy of May’s heart. It grows to choke the ox.

Tomo’s spirit is too bright for May.

So May abandons Tomo and goes to the mountain, to a certain place she knows where Tomo cannot block Daiimon’s attacks, and she waits.

The fire of the TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE TECHNIQUE comes down from the sky and burns May’s shadow to the stone.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Tomo walks along the road. She munches on a peach. She tosses the pit aside.

It hits a monkey.

“O noes,” Tomo says. She is horrified. Her face stretches in an expression of plaintive apology.

She is a perfectly defensive samurai!

She does not mean to attack!

But the monkey is not kind.

It chitters.

It shouts.

It jumps up and down.

It is an angry monkey, this monkey, and it does not forgive.

THIS IS THE SADNESS OF THE WORLD
PEOPLE LEAVE US
MONKEYS GET OFFENDED
PEACHES DO NOT REMAIN

Daiimon rises from his distant throne, and his eyes burn red.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
SHOGUN AND SAMURAI

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Shadow of Terribly Offensive Shogun!”

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Learning the secret of perfect defense, Tomo begins her career—here!

She impresses her master Kon.

She saves lovers Meg and Cho.

She establishes the standard special effects LIGHT and I’M IN UR FIGHT, BLOCKING UR ATTACKS!

And all things fill with righteousness—

But wait!

Wait!

Who is this running through the streets of LEISURELY VACATION CITY TURULL?

This is MASTER MERCHANT BAO!

He is portly and panting. He is waving an umbrella. He is chasing after two night-grim thieves.

They fear him, rightly.

Their third partner has already fallen to a tactical umbrella blow.

They slip into a back alley. They run left. They run right. They emerge onto the street.

They look left. They look right.

A shadow covers them.

They look up.

Master Merchant Bao descends!

LIGHT

For a long moment, the thieves aren’t sure what’s happened. They’d braced themselves for the afterlife; or, worse, to living and having the constable drag them off.

But that hasn’t happened.

LIGHT; LIGHT; LIGHT

and the puffing and grunting of Master Merchant Bao, and three great clamors of umbrella upon steel.

Their eyes clear.

And Tomo says,

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

“But they’re thieves,” protests Master Merchant Bao.

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” says Tomo. “I do that already.”

Master Merchant Bao hesitates.

One of the thieves performs the hook dagger insinuation. He waits, blade in hand.

LIGHT; the hiss of steel in air; and LIGHT

The hook dagger clatters to the ground.

“Also ur attacks,” Tomo says.

And she turns to look at the thieves. And they see the apples of her cheeks and the twisty hair that falls down over her brow; and her smile cuts them worse than any knife.

“What have we been doing with our lives?” they cry.

For what is thievery and night-grimness compared to the joy of the perfectly defensive samurai?

Master Merchant Bao’s lips are very thin.

He is not pleased.

“Can’t you be in someone else’s fight?” he asks. “Blocking their attacks?”

The wistfulness that washes across Tomo’s face almost makes him weep.

“O,” she says softly. “O. If only.”

If only! If only she could be everywhere! In every fight! A PARALLEL PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI!

But she shakes her head.

“It’s not to be,” she says.

“Forgive us,” cry the thieves, knocking their heads; and Master Merchant Bao sits heavily down upon the ground.

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

Here is TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN—

DAIIMON.

He sulks in his mountain fortress. He chews bitterly on an old fish head.

He says, “Someone has disrupted the threads of fate.”

“Master?” asks one of the HUNDRED SHADOWS OF TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN DAIIMON.

“Two of my thieves,” he says, “have ‘repented.’ It is the influence, hmmm, of a powerfully defensive samurai.”

“Say no more,” says the shadow.

It dissipates into the mountain.

Tomo is bounding from rock to rock. She is running across the humans’ land. She is looking for a fight. She is also looking for sake.

Often, Tomo has found, she may satisfy these urges together.

Two seagulls are squabbling over a bit of food washed up on the shore—the dried-out prince, she suspects, of a distant kelp kingdom. She blocks their attacks; she maketh them to reel; but it is not much to block the attacks of seagulls.

She thinks of the wars of the stars above; and a part of her wishes she could be there, soaring the sky, parrying the twinkles that must be blades of light—

But she has made her peace with being a creature of the earth.

“Oh no,” says FIRST DUPE, on the strand up ahead. “I feel a strange urge to fight.”

“As do I!” says SECOND DUPE.

“Have at it!” they say, together.

They are jolly-seeming dupes in white masks. Tomo’s heart quickens with joy. She kicks off her right foot’s rock, moving just a little bit faster now.

The blades blur forward.

LIGHT.

The dupes move past one another. They wait to see which of them will explode in blood—assuming that it is not both.

It is neither.

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

They turn on Tomo.

“What?” says the first dupe.

“You would block AR attacks?” the second dupe protests.

Two blurs of outrage; laughter on the sea, and—

The world goes still. Tomo sees everything moving very slowly.

Not two blurs. Three.

She flicks her attention sideways. Something is rising from the water, something black and sea-dead, something moving very fast.

She breathes out a puff of air: haa.

Three lines of death converge on her; there is a sound like the screaming of the vultures that eat Prometheus’ flesh; and—

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

says Tomo with deep joy.

The shadow of the shogun Daiimon staggers back. It is pale with shock. The two dupes are quivering upon the beach.

“But how?” asks the shadow.

“I am Tomo,” she says, clippedly. “I am the PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI.”

And the wind catches up the salt scent of the sea and makes all things that were bad and sorrowful now fairly well once more.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai:
LEGENDARY KNEELING LIEUTENANT

Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai: “Typical Wuxia Lovers”

In this world there are six TERRIBLE TECHNIQUES of martial arts.

They are beyond ordinary people.

Ordinary people are divided against themselves. They are constantly acting against the motivations that drive them.

A martial artist cannot afford such things.

This is STATIONARY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI—

KON.

Kon lives in a white temple on the far side of a cliff. He chose the location of his temple poorly. Erosion ate away the ground. Now his temple hangs over the sea.

It does not fall.

He is a stationary defensive samurai.

Kon wears a white kimono with a pattern of blue flowers. Now and then a student searches him out. Most he discards immediately as unworthy.

Not Tomo.

Tomo has the potential, he thinks, to be a perfectly defensive samurai.

They’re sparring in his temple. He kicks two lit braziers into the air and punches them into her. She reflects them off the edge of her sword. It’s pretty good.

He fills his lungs with the stationary Chi of the temple.

He coughs.

He turns blue.

Then, with a great effort, he does an internal-external conversion and blows a great gout of raw power at her.

She sights the “secret center” of the wind.

She lifts her sword.

She cuts.

There is a riot of waveforms and a great fluttering of tapestries. Then Kon gestures with his hand.

All goes still.

“You are good,” he says.

“O?” Tomo says. She looks pleased.

“Yet—“

He hesitates.

“O?”

“You cannot master one of the TERRIBLE TECHNIQUES,” says Kon, “if you act against the motivations that drive you. So you must tell me, Tomo—what drives you?”

Tomo does not have to think.

The secret of her existence spills forth as a shaken bottle, once opened, will bulge with its weight of heavy foam.

I’M IN UR FIGHT
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS.

“Huh,” says Kon.

He’s been prepping to explain to her the kinds of situations where an enemy might twist that motivation against her.

And hoping to let her down slowly if it were something like, say, “sex up the mentor.”

But instead he just stands there and feels the subtle hand of destiny, and he says, “That’s pretty good.”

[LEGEND OF PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI]

It is far away.

These are TYPICAL WUXIA LOVERS—

MEG and

CHO!

Atop a hill at night, under the falling blossoms, Meg and Cho fight.

Cho stumbles.

For a moment, Meg has the advantage. She lifts her sword. She says a silent prayer in her heart:

Gods of kung fu save him; may I die instead.

The gods of kung fu are kind.

There are too many cherry blossoms in the air. They foul her vision. The blow does not strike true. Cho twists and catches it in his side and not his heart.

Meg dances back, quickly, but not quickly enough.

Cho is on his feet. Cho is surging forward. He is as inevitable as the stone wall that divides their families. He is as powerful as the sea.

He says a silent prayer in his heart:

Gods of kung fu save her; may I die instead.

But he knows it cannot be.

They will die together, in the final clash.

That is the way of things for TYPICAL WUXIA LOVERS.

And indeed, he can see it.

She is using the hidden palm iron blossom sake sword. He can see it before his eyes like a long white slash.

He breathes: Ah.

He resigns himself to fate.

I’M IN UR FIGHT,
BLOCKING UR ATTACKS

There is a flare of light.

Between them stands Tomo. She is blocking Cho’s sword with her sword and the hidden palm iron blossom sake sword with the palm of her free hand.

A flower petal lands, awkwardly, at the very top of her head.

“What?” says Cho, startled.

“I am Tomo,” she says, clippedly. “I am the PERFECTLY DEFENSIVE SAMURAI.”

“How dare you?” he says.

And Meg is already swirling around, moving to cut off Tomo’s head with her razor-edge sleeve—but

LIGHT

And Meg stumbles back.

Cho takes the viper step. It’s the kung fu step a viper would take, if a viper knew kung fu

and had legs

and for a moment he imagined that he’d succeeded; that his sword had sunk into her side; but

LIGHT

And he realizes in that light something that he did not realize before.

Tomo’s face is burning with absolute joy.

The sword falls from his hand.

Behind Tomo, Meg is falling to her knees.

Meg says, “Is this what it is to live with true dedication?”

Cho gulps.

He wants to say something flowery like that but he can’t even think past the sudden awareness of the beauty of it.

It is perfect, the movements of Tomo in the darkness; the joy of her face; the way that she is in their fight, blocking their attacks. It is transfiguring. It is transformative.

He faints.

Tomo stands there for a while.

She says, “No more attacks?”

“Are you a goddess?” asks Meg. “Are you here to remind us that we can find hope and happiness, if we just learn to see one another and open ourselves to risk?”

Tomo considers.

Generosity moves in her. She says, “Okay.”

Then, since the fight is over, she does the departure step and she is gone.

Next time on Legend of Perfectly Defensive Samurai— SHADOW OF TERRIBLY OFFENSIVE SHOGUN

The LED (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

The roots of the apple tree wind about the orange and red bricks. Green leaves brush against the walls. Several branches jut forth from the window of the tower. Others get their sunlight from the ragged skylight up above.

Martin pushes open the door with his shoulder. He is dragging the imago and talking to the Roomba, and this is what he is admitting:

“I don’t understand Roomba design,” Martin says.

The Roomba’s “?” LED lights up.

“You have a dirt light,” Martin says, “and that’s fine. And the ‘?’ I get. But why would you need an LED for ‘Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations?'”

The Roomba’s “Evolution occurs over the course of multiple generations” LED lights up.

Martin looks rueful.

“Ah,” he says.

Continuing the story of the imago (1, 2)

“This is one of only five towers near California,” Martin asides to the Roomba, “with an apple tree on the top floor.”

The Roomba is helping him move the imago. Martin is struggling to drag it along. The Roomba is weaving along in the scrape marks he leaves, bumping into the imago repeatedly, and, as it does so, occasionally shredding strands of the silken membrane that surrounds her.

It’s not actually being very helpful but Martin appreciates its desire to be of use.

“Do you know why?” Martin asks.

The Roomba spins in a circle.

“It’s because if it weren’t here, we’d all get eaten.

The Roomba’s “!” LED lights up.

“Deep below,” Martin says. “Deep past the basement, past the cellar, past the tunnels, there’s Sukaynah. I don’t know how big she is. Nobody knows how big she is. But I know how big her teeth are.”

He spreads his hands, accidentally dropping the imago.

Whump!

He bites his lip to conceal embarrassment. Bluffly, he says, “That big!”

The Roomba is visibly stunned.

Martin squats down and hefts up the imago again. He says, “The Gibbelins made a foundation of her face. She’s down there now, gnashing and grinding her teeth. She’s very angry because there’s a tower on top of her. And she’d love nothing more than to eat her way up the tower, floor by floor, and devour everybody, but she can’t! That’s because of Newton’s First Law.”

The Roomba’s “Newton’s First Law?” LED blinks.

“It’s stuck to her face,” Martin explains.

The wind blows. It catches up some apple leaves. It blows them out to the center of the floor, which, the Roomba suddenly notices, isn’t there.

Where the center of the floor should be, there’s just a jagged hole edged in zigzag bricks. They’re old and red and orange and crumbling and below them—far below—there is Sukaynah.

Uh oh! the Roomba thinks. It backs slowly and circuitously away from the hole.

“The apples reinforce that,” Martin says.

“. . . and up!” he adds, to the imago.

He leans the imago up against the wall, near the window, where she’ll have sun.

The floor dapples with the competition between the sunlight, the shade, and the imago’s light.

The gibbelins fed Sukaynah only on scraps of human flesh. They’d throw down gobbets and bits of innards. These things fell into Sukaynah’s mouth and she had no choice but to eat them. Sukaynah hated this.

It is bad to be trapped and force fed but it is worse when the substance is not okay to eat.

After the gibbelins left Sukaynah had nothing to eat for quite some time, so she shouted, “Feed me!”

Time passed.

“Feed me again! Even human flesh! Feed me again and I will forgive you even that!”

But there was no sound save the gentle ebbing and flowing of the sea.

Martin glances back over his shoulder.

An LED is gleaming.

Now and again, it’ll turn off, and then back on.

“The problem,” Martin says, “is that if you only have a handful of lexemes to work with, you need to use them to build larger sequences. Or at least assign them to atomic meanings in the Roomba psyche.”

The LED flashes.

“I mean,” Martin says, “if I’m supposed to talk to you, we should at least remap them as lights 1-10 so you can talk to me in number strings.”

The LED flashes.

“Or do something with timing. I mean, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret an ‘I don’t want to get eaten’ LED?”

The LED flashes.

Martin glances at the pit, just to make sure that Sukaynah isn’t rising. Then he shrugs.

“Absolutely terrible user interface,” he says.

I don’t want to get eaten, the Roomba thinks. I don’t want to get eaten. I don’t want to get eaten.

Then it is distracted.

Hey! Dirt! There’s dirt!

An LED gleams.