Hans’ Farm

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

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

It’s bad to sharpen a goat.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

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

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

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

It is not a good goat.

Nobody wants Hans’ goat to escape.

That would be bad.

It’s bad to plug in a cow.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

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

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

Hans’ cow burns.

Hans’ cow burns, deep beneath the world.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

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

But it’s not.

It’s bad to whisk a duck.

Oh, Hans, it is bad.

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

But it’s bad to whisk a duck.

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

Hans’ duck is glowering.

It is hungry.

It is glowering.

It endures its whisked existence:

On Hans’ farm, deep beneath the earth.

The Great Long Road

Emily walks into the Scary Forest.

Emily walks into the Scary Forest with a basket. In the basket is her cornbread. She has many loaves.

Fairies trouble her.

“Emily!” cry the fairies. “Emily! Emily! What are you doing on Great Long Road? What are you doing on Great Long Road, in Scary Forest, with a basket in your hand?”

“I’m taking this cornbread to the Arena to find out whether it can count the real numbers,” Emily says.

Then the fairies shriek and fly all around her, tugging at her hair, rubbing dirt in her clothes, buffeting her with their wings.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals!” they shriek.

But Emily endures.

The great wolf troubles Emily.

“Emily,” rumbles the great wolf. “What are you doing on Great Long Road? In Scary Forest? With a basket in your hand?”

The great wolf is long and slinks low. He has three heads. He is taller than her brother, taller than her father, taller than the city walls.

“Great wolf,” says Emily, “I am taking this cornbread to the Arena. I am taking it to the Arena for the Judges to judge. I baked it hard. I baked it well. I think it might just have a chance, a tiny chance, to count the reals.”

The wolf smiles. Its tongue lolls to the side.

“Cornbread can’t count the reals,” it says. “But I’ll eat it. And I’ll eat you!”

“Well,” says Emily, “you may certainly have some.”

She takes out three loaves of cornbread. She throws them in a pattern around the wolf. The wolf lunges, then frowns. The cornbread smells delicious—but whichever direction he goes is further from two loaves and closer only to one!

“I’m trapped at a local maximum!” wails the great wolf. He looks at the loaves. He attempts to wobble towards them all but only winds up stretching. He whines.

Emily carefully walks past the wolf. He wants to eat her, too. He eddies closer to her. But at no point on her path does the wolf’s optimum location put him within reach.

“Curses!” sighs the wolf. He flops down in the middle of the road and waits, grumpily, for two of the pieces of cornbread to decay.

Emily passes through a glade, and she sleeps there for the night. Then she’s back on the road again.

The cornbread horror troubles her.

“I am the cornbread horror,” it says. It is a large block of cornbread with teeth. “I have killed ten thousand of your kind, mortal girl. I have cut them into squares with my sharp, sharp teeth.”

“Why?”

“It is my destiny,” says the cornbread horror. “I will kill all those who bring cornbread here, if that cornbread is not different in some notable respect than each piece of cornbread that has passed through here before.”

“I see,” says Emily.

“It is not my desire,” says the cornbread horror. “I am not truly sentient, being made of cornbread. I simply do what it is my nature to do.”

It seethes and eddies horribly, as is its nature.

“Pardon,” says Emily, “but are you included in the list of ‘each piece of cornbread’?”

“I am,” says the cornbread horror.

“So if my cornbread is different from every sort of cornbread that has come through here before, but not different from you—”

“Then I will still kill you,” says the horror. “And your cornbread will merge seamlessly into my tasty fluffy aurulence. This is what normally happens, for my destiny contains a terrible twist—I cannot meaningfully distinguish differences between pieces of cornbread!”

Emily winces at that. But she still takes out a piece of cornbread and holds it up hopefully.

“Can you tell if it’s different?” Emily asks.

“It seems identical to me,” says the cornbread horror. “In the right light, it even has teeth. So it is necessary that I kill you.”

“But . . . it knows the difference between the two of you,” Emily says.

The cornbread horror hesitates. “Uncertainty rises! Can cornbread truly be distinct from the cornbread horror if its only distinction is that it knows itself distinct from the cornbread horror, while this distinction the cornbread horror knoweth not?”

Leaving it to fret over the complexities of destiny, Emily moves on.

“I’ll kill you if it happens to be identical!” shouts the cornbread horror, behind her. “You’ll see!”

Once she is out of its sight Emily breaks into a run.

Fairies trouble Emily again. They’re very troublesome.

“Emily! Emily! Is it worth your life? Is it worth your life to have cornbread count the reals?”

The fairies swarm about her, pinching and tugging.

“I want to know what happened to Mom,” Emily says.

“To Mom! To Mom!” shout the fairies.

One fairy hangs in the air in front of Emily. “Your mother makes cornbread tastier than yours—but even her cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“It can’t,” shout the fairies. “It can’t count the reals!”

Then a western wind rises and they all swirl away.

The great face troubles Emily. It’s a great face, that’s in the middle of the road. Also, it has tentacles.

“Emily!” booms the great face. “Emily, you are here.”

“I am!” says Emily.

“I am the great face,” it says, “on the road to the Arena, where the Judges judge cornbread to see if it can count the real numbers. I will not fall for such tricks as the cornbread horror did. Do you know why?”

“No, sir,” says Emily. She looks attentive.

“It is because I am more than cornbread,” says the face. “I am self-aware. I am a person, with an internal model of myself and my intentions—an ‘I’ inside. When I declare my intention to snatch you up with my tentacles and cram you and your cornbread in my mouth and chew and chew until you’re all dead and gone, it is not the gallows prediction of an inanimate pastry—it is the unswervable declaration of a dedicated soul!”

“I see,” says Emily sadly.

There is a pause.

“Make it fast,” Emily says. “I mean, faster. I mean, don’t just sit there.”

The face scrunches up unhappily.

“My internal model is inaccurate,” it says. “I believe that I intend to eat you, but I am not making any move to do so.”

Emily pats a tentacle.

“That can happen with self-awareness,” Emily says sympathetically. “Like, I never thought that I’d try to make cornbread that could count the real numbers. But then I did!”

“Thank you,” says the face. It is pleased by her commiseration.

The face hesitates.

“It can’t actually count them, you know,” the face says. “No cornbread could. Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

“But . . .”

Emily flounders.

“But, why is there an Arena at the end of the road, then?”

“It has been there since the dawn of time,” says the face. “But no cornbread has ever reached it; for the road has many dangers, and at each step the cornbread must pass a new test. The tests are infinite; thus even an Iron Chef would be doomed to failure.”

“That’s too bad,” says Emily. She hesitates. “My mom,” she says. “I mean, a long time ago. She went this way. With cornbread.”

“I did not intend to eat her,” says the face. “She is somewhere ahead. But her fate is predetermined. She will fail.”

“You don’t know that!” snaps Emily. “Maybe she could go down the road forever, never finding a challenge that her cornbread can’t pass! Maybe when no typical cornbread can pass the test, hers is just atypical enough! Maybe when she faces a monster that despises people carrying unusual cornbread, hers is normal enough to get her past! There’s no way to determine if she’s dead without finding out where she’s dead, and to find out where she’s dead, I have to catch up to her, and if I don’t catch up to her then maybe she’s still alive forever and her cornbread will pass the test!”

There is a silence.

“Wow,” says the face. “You’re really passionate.”

“I have to be,” says Emily. “You can’t make ambitious cornbread without a burning passion. And corn meal.”

“I really think that I’m going to eat you,” says the face. “But instead, I’ll say, ‘good luck.'”

In the infinite distance there stands the Arena; and along the road are infinite dangers and hardships; and somewhere ahead, Emily’s mother; and the fairies swirl in the air over the Scary Forest and the Great Long Road, dancing, playing, spinning, crying, shouting when they’re near her, “Cornbread can’t count the reals!”

And it may be that this is so.

The Eerie Shout

Giraffes are animals with very long necks. They jump from tree to tree. They shout the eerie shout, “Giraffe! Giraffe!”, that makes them properly giraffes.

Giraffes do not like their long necks. At fancy restaurants, they cannot reach the table. They cannot eat their food. They can only graze the hairdos of the very tallest waiters. In a basketball-themed restaurant, they can eat most waiters’ hair. In a jockey-themed restaurant, unless the waiters are on horses, this is not as true. Because the giraffes’ necks are so long, they cannot leave a tip.

Giraffes can eat leaves from higher places in trees than other animals. They have a practical monopoly on these leaves. If these leaves tasted good, then the giraffes might be satisfied. However, the giraffes would like to eat cake and steak and shake ‘n bake, and leaves mostly taste like bitter crunchy air. Should they happen across a human or tiger enjoying cake or steak, the giraffe might look mournful. When the human or tiger observes, “You’re capable of consuming many leaves that I simply cannot reach,” it is not typical for this observation to console the giraffe.

Giraffes’ necks don’t let them ride the subway like normal people. They have to ride on top, clinging close with their necks flat against the metal. They wrap their ammo bandoliers tightly around their body, dye their head-buds colors appropriate to street warriors, and ride with the wind in their face. Then they reach their destination, and shout the eerie shout, “Giraffe!”

The eerie shout echoes through the subway. The station attendant collects their ticket. The giraffes disembark. They nibble at the popcorn ceiling with nonchalance and ascend the escalator to the street. Then they are gone.

Giraffes have trouble with phone booths. Even if their necks fit into the booth, their heads and bodies won’t. If Superman had become a giraffe, he would not have been able to change his clothes. They would have gotten very stinky from him wearing them all the time. To resolve this plotline he would have had to absorb a dying Mr. Clean’s powers and add them to his own. An early writer established that Superman’s disguise is partially maintained by Super-Hypnotism and his ability to vibrate his face so quickly that no one can make out details. This means that a giraffe Superman would probably have been able to maintain his secret identity. When disguised he would have seemed just like any other giraffe.

If Karl Rove had become a giraffe, he would tower over all the other people at the White House. He would occasionally eat the leaves of trees that not even the President could reach. It’d be leaves majeste, but who could stop him? He’d be a giraffe! They might even put shake ‘n bake in the treetops, just for him.

If the Lone Ranger had become a giraffe, there would have been much deeper problems. First, he would have been even more of a minority than Tonto. By the immutable rules of the West, Tonto would have to assume the position of white privilege. For example, Tonto might listen to the ground, and then say, “The political and military power I have inherited from the European invaders indicates to me that horses are approaching.” Or he might throw a tomahawk, but explain away his skill with, “I learned it in Detroit, yo!”

Meanwhile, because of his extremely long neck, the Lone Ranger could not use guns. Because of his four legs and heavy body, he could not ride a horse. His weapon and transportation of choice would be a mobile artillery station. For example, when the two inseparable heroes encountered entrenched corruption in a frontier town, Tonto might place a few calls to his friends in high places while the Lone Ranger bombarded the sheriff’s office from afar with heavy mortar loads. When the mysterious masked giraffe at last departed, the citizens of the town would be simultaneously confused, grateful, and relieved.

Some people think that giraffes come from baby giraffes, but they don’t. They can be born as anyone or anything. To be a giraffe is not a matter of character but of practice;

Just seven shouts of the eerie shout and you can be one too.

The Eternal Midnight of the Yeastless Soul

Some people think that American cats are cats. But they’re not. They’re actually cat food, or, put another way, an extruded processed cat product made principally of partially hydrogenised soybean oil. They’re cheap and they’re easy compared to French cats, most of whom are smelly and runny and somewhat sharp. If you want a touch of class without going to France you should probably consider a real cat from a breeder or possibly some sort of German cat log.

They make American cats at cat shelters. This is called ‘spaying’. They take ordinary cats into a special room. They process them. The result is five spayed partially hydrogenised American cats. This is why there are so many American cats — it’s all the spaying! Costco shelters have a more extreme version where they put claws on the cats so that they can interlock them, stack them, and sell them in bulk.

American cats never go bad. They are like yellow foam-filled snack logs in this fashion, which is not very surprising, because Hostess makes its delicious yellow foam-filled snack logs through a similar process involving spaying little yappy dogs. An American cat lasts forever. When it is past its ideal freshness date for home use, though, sometimes your cat will seem a little stale. Its posture will change and it will lose its crisp definition. Then you can wrap it in plastic and send it to a special farm where it can frolic with its Hostess-provided friends for all eternity. This is depicted on certain wonderful Sanrio products.

The world record for putting American cats in your house is 3,082. Higher numbers can only be achieved with special hypercompressible cats emerging from the FHL (feline hypercompressability laboratory) in Switzerland. The world record for putting American cats on your head without Costco stacking technology is only 7, held by the notorious liar and entertainer P.T. Barnum, and some people suspect that he might have employed chicanery to achieve it. With cat stacking larger numbers, such as 803, are possible.

Even with the cloud of suspicion that hangs over P.T. Barnum’s head, unreduced and even enhanced by his balancing of cats thereupon, one must accept that the modern American cat owes him a great debt. The first American cats were constructed in response to his discovery of the “Calico Cat,” a mysterious creature, half-cat, half-calico, that he put on display at his museum. Louis Pasteur, a famous French microbiologist, set forth to disprove the pedigree of the Calico Cat and in so doing created the first American felines.

“They are not truly cats,” Pasteur explained, demonstrating his creation in a French accent. “But rather processed cat products, as I believe the Calico Cat must be.”

In the end, Pasteur’s experiments proved his undoing. In the course of his studies, he accidentally pasteurized his own soul, and his yeastless spirit could no longer rise to Heaven. Now he is an immortal damned to an eternal life unleavened by yeast or hope, living alone and friendless in the Rockies surrounded by dozens of individually wrapped cats.

It’s really kind of sad, because he used to be a pretty cool dude. You know. With the germ theory and all.

Cats Are

Cats are made of cat.
Cats are made of cat!
It’s bizarre
That they are
But cats are
Made of cat.

They say you are
What you eat
But a cat
Is no cat’s meat.
They don’t eat cats for lunch.
They
Just
Don’t
Munch!
(on each other)

Cats are made of cat
Though there’s no cats crammed in them at all
It still is fair to call
The things inside
Pure cat!

Cats are made of cat
Cats are made of cat!
It’s bizarre
That they are
But cats are
Made of cat.

Meow!

The Meringue City

Meran is a city near Venice. It is made of meringue. There are lemon canals.

“Do not eat the city,” caution the signs. “Simon says!” But this does not stop anyone. There are tourists who come all the way from America or Sri Lanka simply to eat Meran. They consider this delightfully scandalous, as if they were breaking off ancient Roman architecture and popping it in their mouth. There are residents too impoverished for discretion, and dogs and cats incapable of it. For all these reasons the meringue is often eaten.

There is a cook’s guild in Meran. Its chief cook is Simon—the very Simon of the sign. He is broad-framed and red-cheeked but surprisingly thin. He eats well but anxiety preys on him.

“The aqueduct has fallen,” cook’s apprentice Marguerite tells him.

“Again?”

“It is the gnashing teeth of tourists,” Marguerite says. “Gnawing in the night.”

“Can the police do nothing?”

Marguerite is silent. The police of Meran are notoriously bribable.

“Very well,” says Simon. “Another twelve thousand eggs. Another thousand cups of sugar. Another merin, for me.”

Merins are magical creatures that help make sense of the world. They aren’t actually cooked into the meringue, except once, by accident, and that wasn’t Simon’s fault.

“We could use stone and wood,” Marguerite says.

“No.”

“How long can we keep this up, Simon?”

Simon’s eyes are haunted.

There’s a knock on the door. “Simms to see you, sir,” says Simon’s secretary Stacy.

“Let him in.”

Mr. Simms enters. He’s an ugly man. He’s wearing a nice gray suit and his features are nice enough, but something slimy lives behind his face.

“The meringue is seeping down again, Simon,” he says.

“Is it?”

Mr. Simms’ eyes narrow. “Yes. In Ogbota Lake. Beneath the business district. The things that live there are quite disturbed.”

Simon rubs at the bridge of his nose. “I seem to recall that that area is marked as uninhabited,” he says. After a moment, he adds, “On the charts.”

Mr. Simms shrugs. “We are a thriving people,” he says. “We need our space.”

“But the rot is within the normal levels?”

“Be reasonable, Simon,” Mr. Simms oozes. “If the meringue drips into the city below, then it can’t seal the rot from the city above. It’s bad for both of us.”

Simon looks at Mr. Simms bleakly. But he will not show weakness. “I could lay down an extra layer above,” he says. “The businessmen would only laugh as meringue washes over their feet, you know, and tell me, ‘This tickles.'”

“And I could prick the flesh of the god that sleeps below,” Mr. Simms says, “and leak its rot into the lake until the sugar is annulled.”

“That would bring it closer to waking,” says Simon. “He’ll eat your people first.”

Mr. Simms hesitates. “We could help you with your tourist problem,” he says.

Simon closes his eyes. He puts his head down on the desk.

Ten seconds later, he lifts his head. He looks quite strangely small.

“I’ll bolster the meringue,” Simon says. “I’ll get the money from somewhere. God. I wish I could accept, but no. Just . . . get out of here.”

Mr. Simms hesitates.

“Sometimes,” he says, “it seems as if my people—never understand—how much it is that I do for them.”

Simon’s eyes meet Mr. Simms. He smiles a little, involuntarily. Then he scowls.

“Go,” Simon says.

Johnny Pancake

Jane makes a potato pancake. It has two ears. It has two eyes. It has a nose. “It’s Johnny Pancake!” she says.

She doesn’t eat it, though.

“It’s not that it’s too cute,” she says. “I’m just not hungry. I made too much!”

So she leaves Johnny Pancake on the sink.

She sleeps. She goes to school. She comes home. She invites Emily over. She and Emily play.

“Ew,” says Jane, looking at Johnny Pancake. “I think he’s going bad.”

Emily looks haughty. She’s a girl with superior knowledge. “Food doesn’t have to go bad, you know.”

“Oh?”

“If you feed food, it won’t go bad. ‘Cause it balances out the entropy.”

“That’s true,” Jane realizes. “It’s adding energy usable for work from outside the system!”

So she tries to feed Johnny Pancake some cheese food. But he doesn’t eat it, because he’s not cheese. She feeds him some pizza food, and some fish food. Then she bonks herself on the side of her head and says, “Duh.” She takes down the big box of potato pancake food and pours some on Johnny Pancake.

“Now he won’t go bad,” Emily says. “See? He’s less rotten already!”

“That’s true,” says Jane.

“Do you want to eat him?”

“Nah,” Jane says. “I had his family for dinner yesterday!”

So they play. Jane sleeps. She wakes up. She goes to school. She comes home. She looks at Johnny Pancake.

“You gonna throw that out?” Martin asks. He’s her brother. He’s older, but she privately thinks he’s a little bit of a dweeb. It’s a phase one or both of them is going through.

“No, silly,” says Jane. “That’s Johnny Pancake. He’s not going bad, so I won’t eat him.”

“He looks pretty bad,” Martin says. But he shrugs. He takes down the potato pancake food and tosses the box to Jane. Then he goes to his room to do mysterious boy things.

Jane feeds Johnny Pancake.

Days pass. Eventually Martin moves Johnny Pancake to a special spot on the dining room table, in a little glass pan just his size, with a little ribbon by his head.

“I can’t tell if you’re teasing me or being nice to my potato pancake,” Jane says.

“I’m not inclined to specify,” Martin says.

It seems to Jane that she should probably eat Johnny Pancake sometime. But it’s never a good time. She doesn’t want him to go bad, either, so she feeds him every day.

One day, as Jane is working on her homework, she feels a strange presence in the room.

“You’ve done that problem wrong,” says the voice of Johnny Pancake.

Jane beams. “You woke up!”

She looks up. Johnny Pancake is still. His voice is a psychic projection.

“Common wisdom says that you shouldn’t feed food more than a few times,” Johnny Pancake says, “lest it grow too strong.”

“My wisdom is of the uncommon variety,” says Jane. “That’s why this geometry problem’s so hard!”

“It might help to remember that triangles have three sides.”

“Yes,” agrees Jane.

She erases the problem and starts over. After a moment, she says, “Is it okay that I haven’t eaten you yet?”

“Yes. I would in fact rather that you not eat me. But please, Jane, bear in mind that I must not grow rotten; for I am awake now, and if I rot, I shall take a horrible vengeance on your civilization.”

“It’s a deal!” says Jane.

Jane is happier now that Johnny Pancake is awake. He helps her with her homework. Once he develops basic telekinetic abilities, he helps her with chores. Eventually, Martin finds out.

“Jane,” Martin says, “this floor appears to have been vacuumed by a telekinetic potato pancake.”

“What an interesting observation!” Jane declares.

Martin narrows his eyes suspiciously. “If your potato pancake has woken up, it’s a terrible threat to human civilization.”

“Is that a problem?”

Martin considers this for a time.

“You know that you have to do your own schoolwork,” Martin says, uncomfortably. “And chores. The adversity sharpens your spirit!”

“I see,” says Jane.

“So if you’re having a potato pancake do them, we might have to eat him. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But if I made the potato pancake and fed it every day, isn’t the work a product of my labor?”

“We do not inherit the world from the creatures who prey on us,” says Martin. “We borrow it from the things we prey upon.”

There’s a slight pause.

“I’ll do my own chores and homework,” Jane says, pouting.

It is late in the night that Jane comes in to find Martin and Johnny Pancake talking. They do not see her. The lights are dim.

“Where does this end?” Martin is asking.

“Food evolves quickly,” says Johnny Pancake. “Potato pancakes are ultimate evolution engines. I expect that I shall reach an omega plateau and become God.”

“What is God?”

“The ultimate realization of dharma. The final expression of the potential in the self. Perfection.”

“I see,” Martin says.

There is a bit of a silence.

“I shouldn’t, should I,” says Johnny Pancake.

“That is for you to determine,” Martin says, gravely. “Jane cooked you, not I.”

“I would supplant these pitiful things that call themselves men.”

“They are not a delicious fried potato concoction,” Martin says. “But they may surprise you.”

“No!” shouts Jane. She is beginning to realize the horror of what is going on. “No! Johnny Pancake, I love you!”

But Johnny Pancake has lifted in one telekinetic hand the knife; and in the other, the sour cream.

“Aren’t you hungry?” he asks.

“Oh, Johnny,” cries Jane.

The Factory of Wonderful Things

On the first floor there is a room seething with pink cotton candy. It is alive. It has a great and terrible mind.

The room has a balcony overlooking it. Scientists come there and look down at the cotton candy. So it doesn’t grow lonely.

They say, “Hello!”

“Hello,” says the cotton candy. It swirls. “I have a great and terrible mind.”

“Is that so?” the scientists ask.

“Yes,” says the cotton candy. Then it will say something profound and useful. Like a unified field theory. Or a new cardinal number between one and ten that no one had ever heard of before. Or practical dating advice.

People who get tired of working in the factory sometimes come to the balcony. They dive in. They vanish under the swirling and the bubbling of the cotton candy. They drown there. And as they drown, the cotton candy shouts, “I’m bubbling with love and death!”

It is not wonderful that that happens, you understand. It’s just the cotton candy that is wonderful.

There is a room on the first floor packed tight with rotating gumballs. These are like ordinary gumballs. But they do not like to be eaten. Instead they like to rotate around people. If they ever got out then people would be constantly surrounded by rotating gumballs. It would be very socially awkward. It would produce the kinds of complications that nuclei have to deal with every day. It’s too bad that nuclei have to suffer that, but people shouldn’t have to!

The whole factory is full of things like that. Things that are wonderful, but can’t be let out.

On the second floor, there are tigers. Tigers are pretty cool. But they like to eat people sometimes. Eat them, gnaw on them, or sometimes just playfully maim them. That’s why tigers don’t make good wonderful things to have in your house. People would always be saying, “Spot! Stop eating the guests!” and “Spot! Bad tiger! That’s mommy’s arm.”

This would not just be bad for people. It would also make the tigers sad.

The second floor also has that guy. That guy. The one to whom freedom of speech applies. It’s not so that everyone can talk, you know, whatever activist judges say. It’s for him. Scientists visit him sometimes too.

“I think,” he will say, “that the moon is a giant marble, that escaped the factory.”

“It was actually an affiliate—” starts one scientist.

“You shouldn’t criticize me,” he’ll say. “I have a right to free speech!”

“You’re right!” admits the scientist. “I have to shut up now.”

He’s not very pleasant to be around. But he’s important! Free speech osmoses to everyone else. As long as he’s alive, everyone else gets some too.

On the third floor, there is the happiness machine. You push a button and you are guaranteed to be happy. Leonard Schnauzel, who, due to his name, had never previously been happy, was the first man to push the button.

“Oh my God,” he said, at the time. “I finally understand.”

That’s when a bunch of underdressed women and a hot car were delivered to his home. Also, there were sacks of cash. When you look at commercials that promise sex and money if you buy the product, it’s not just something they’re making up—they’re harkening back to the legendary experience of Leonard Schnauzel.

“What a wonderful machine!” he said. He hugged it. A lot. But then they locked the machine away on the third floor of the factory. It’s still there today!

On the fourth floor, they have the hall of inflatable gods. These work a lot like RealDolls, except for worship instead of sex. They are not as good as an actual god, and definitely not as good as God, but sometimes people get lonely.

“Zeus!” a woman might say, inflating a Zeus. “Transform yourself into a swan and let’s get it on!”

That is not something that this reporter can personally imagine happening. But it is the illustration on the Zeus box.

“Wolf god!” a mysterious wanderer might say. “Help me restore the balance of the world!”

Then he would inflate the wolf god. The wolf god would help him restore balance to the world. Studio Ghibli knows! They’ve toured the factory in a special bus.

There is also a giant lollipop. It is stuck on the fourth floor for three reasons. First it is sticky. Second, if it were let out, people would be licking it all the time and would never get anything done. Third, it is bigger than the room it is in, which makes it also bigger than every possible egress for the room it is in. It’s true! You can prove it mathematically!

On the fifth floor are the cubiclemaids and cubiclemen. These are like mermaids and mermen, except that the bottom half is not a fish but rather some sort of office supply, like paperclips or printer toner. They sing marvelously and try to call passing workers.

“We promise a marvelous life in the cubicle maze!” they sing. “It will be full of joy and wonder!”

Their song promises a look at hidden treasures sparkling in the cubicle maze. It promises a chance to see the dolphins and memos that dart and play in the cubicle reefs. But if someone heeds their call, usually, they wind up drowning in work. It’s best not to listen!

On the sixth floor are the people responsible for the factory of wonderful things. They think they’re allowed to leave. But they’re not. If they ever stopped to think about it rationally, that’d be pretty obvious. But they don’t. They just go on making stuff!

The factory isn’t far from here. Just head downtown and take a left. The building shines like ice.

You can’t miss it!

Tribulation1

1 with apologies to Adam West, Ralph Nader, and the authors of Left Behind.

It is 2006.

Noah enters the famine factory. He’s wearing a baseball cap and he’s carrying a notepad.

“I want famine to be safe, ” Noah says.

Judd Stevens, his guide, looks uncomfortable.

“More than fifteen thousand workers have died at your factory in the last year,” Noah says. “Most companies would have taken this as an opportunity to review their work conditions and precautions. You—”

“My dear Mr. Childe,” Judd says.

“You took it as an opportunity to count them against production.”

The apocalypse machine is running all around them. It is black and burning red and rises as far as Noah’s eyes can see. Workers cling to the machine like insects to a cliff, climbing, tinkering, a seething hive of men. They are emaciated. The famine radiation has melted the fat from their frames.

“My dear Mr. Childe,” Judd says again. “You must understand that each of those fifteen thousand starved to death. It’s purely in alignment with the code.”

A worker loses his grip and plummets. Noah makes a check mark on his notepad.

“Starvation?” Noah says.

“They work until they die,” says Judd. “Poor dears. We would feed them more, but even ‘Hungry Man meals’ do not help.”

Noah rubs his finger along the machine. It comes away grimy. The grime makes him feel hungry.

“They are ‘over one pound of food,'” Judd says. “Yum.”

“This is unsanitary,” Noah says. He tastes his finger. “And hideous.”

Judd grits his teeth. He turns to Noah. “What makes you think I will not leave you here?” he says.

“I believe the consumer can check shameless corporate power,” Noah says.

“This is the belly of the beast,” Judd says.

But Noah makes a call.

His new life began almost two years ago. Bush and Kerry earned millions of votes, but only 144,000 people turned out to vote for Nader.

Noah had not been one of them. He believed, truly he did, but he was seduced away from Nader by the siren call of brand-name whiskey, and, later, by a hangover. When the Rapture came on November 8 and 144000 Nader voters ascended bodily into Heaven, Noah realized his mistake.

Planes crashed.
Cars went out of control.
Minifridges sat empty.
Swivel chairs spun in silence.
Nader’s picture presided over empty beds.

Without the guidance of strong consumerist principles, the world fell overnight into savagery. And Noah saw what would come.

“These are the days of the Tribulation,” he said. “When Antichrist, Inc. shall rise to rule the world. Its subsidiary companies shall churn out war, bloodshed, famine, pestilence, and death. And the people shall be alone.”

And so he made his devil’s bargain.

It is 2006, and Noah is starving. He is also on hold.

“You can’t be lax just because you serve evil,” Noah says. “If you don’t respect your workers, they won’t respect you.”

“My dear Mr. Childe,” Judd says. “People will starve overseas for a quarter of what we must pay them in America.”

Judd is not sure whether to sneer triumphantly or look nervous. He doesn’t know whom Noah is trying to call.

“You’re not competitive overseas,” Noah points out. “They can manufacture their own famines better and more efficiently than Antichrist, Inc.”

Judd strokes his goatee. “Granted,” he says. He looks down. “I suppose that after I forge your favorable report, I should think upon your principles.”

“Hello?” Noah says into the phone. His stomach rumbles with desperation. “I must speak to Nick Squamous. Immediately.”

Judd pales.

In 2004, Nick Squamous was nothing more than a handsome multimillionaire playboy obsessed with his parents’ death. Some people, in his position, might have put on a batsuit and become a crime-fighting furry. Nick Squamous’ path differed. He prevailed on his connections in the Skull and Bones society to become the Antichrist, instead, selling his soul for immortality.

“Why should I hire you?” he said, to Noah, shortly afterwards.

“Because the Apocalypse is consumer-driven,” Noah answered.

Nick toyed with his Antichrist-a-rang. “Go on.”

“‘Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production,'” Noah said, “‘and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.’ Adam Smith.”

“Naturally,” Nick said, “I studied his work in the Mysterious Orient.”

“You can generate war, bloodshed, famine, pestilence, and death,” Noah said.

“Also,” Nick said, “hail, fire, blood upon the earth, a burning mountain falling into the sea, and the Wormwood star falling on the rivers and streams.”

Noah blinked.

“It’s in the second stage of the business plan,” Nick explained.

“You can generate these things,” Noah said doggedly, “but only insofar as there is a market for them. In short, you rely on the very population you’re killing for the efficiency of your services.”

“Hm,” Nick said, examining a can of Antichrist Shark Repellent for possible inclusion in his utility belt. “And, since there is no mortal force external to Antichrist Inc. capable of imposing regulation upon us, you suggest that I should impose it internally.”

Noah nodded.

“But why you?”

“I am the last of the Naderites,” Noah said.

Nick arrived at a decision. He stood. He offered his hand. “You’re in.”

It is 2006, and Judd is quite clearly beginning to sweat.

“Yes, sir,” Noah says into the phone. “No, sir. Yes, quite hungry, sir. Just one or two sizes, sir. No, sir. No, he’s not, sir.”

Noah holds out the phone. “He’d like to speak to you.”

Judd takes the phone. He looks unhappy.

“I’ll be waiting outside,” Noah says. And he walks out the door of the famine factory, whistling to himself.

In 2011, Ralph Nader shall return, twenty feet tall, to banish the sinners and usher in a thousand year consumerist reign.

In the meantime, there are only men like Noah, small, feeble, and fallible, but keeping the flame alive.

So I Will Eat Fugu1

1 uses the storytelling conventions and stock elements of “magical girl” anime. Readers unfamiliar with this genre may find themselves startled by everyday events like humans transitioning through a catch phrase and a moment’s nudity into costumed angels or the spontaneous generation and disappearance of mysterious romantic interests while missing the true heart of the story: what would it mean to be human in a world where eating blowfish doesn’t carry with it the risk of death?

The room is cold.

There is a young girl’s body sprawled by the kitchen. Her name was Lisa. She was studying to be a doctor. There are the remnants of a meal on the table—hand-made sushi, mostly unagi and dynamite rolls, but also a few bits of tamago and a piece of what might be albacore. There is blood on the dynamite roll; on the table; on the clock hanging on the wall. Lisa has been stabbed to death by sushi knives.

Amelia is a crime scene investigator. She studies, but does not touch, the corpse. She carefully packs the sushi into evidence bags. She collects fingerprints from the walls and knives. She squats down, studying a strange little oddment in the carpet. It resembles a piece of fingernail, but the coloration and translucency are off.

Amelia hears the voice of her magical animal companion and straightens.

“Amelia, Amelia,” Gray Beauty says. “The knives of time are cutting fine.”

Amelia looks up.

The walls are full of the shadows of knives. They are serrated at their edge. They are moving, sweeping from the forward corner of the ceiling to the backward corner of the floor. They are moving faster and faster with each second that passes, until the blur no longer resembles shapes.

“Then I shall be Crime Angel,” Amelia says.

She reaches into her purse. She takes out two bracelets. She puts them on and crosses her wrists in front of her.

“To save the world from the agents of darkness,” she says. “To bring the new millennium of peace. To end the shadows of lost days, I am Ayurvedic Crime Angel!”

She assumes the costume of the Crime Angel. The brief interlude of nudity, here in a locked and shuttered room, is only a slight embarrassment.

There is a glow in the room, and she can see Gray Beauty now. The small flying unicorn hovers in a bubble of light.

“We stand outside time,” says Amelia. “Outside the normal forensic process. I ask you, Gray Beauty—unveil the light of truth!”

Gray Beauty’s horn glints, shimmers, and shines. Amelia surveys the room. There is a strange luminescence over an incision in Lisa’s chest.

The clock has stopped.

Amelia takes out the forceps of the Crime Angel. With infinite care, she pushes the two sides of the incision apart. The light of Gray Beauty pours into the wound.

“There is something missing,” Amelia says, “in her heart.”

“Yes,” Gray Beauty agrees.

“That is the cause of death,” Amelia says. “Someone has taken the purity from her heart—the pure heart that loved people and sushi!”

“It must be an agent of darkness,” Gray Beauty concludes. “Quickly, Crime Angel, investigate the murder scene!”

Amelia glances around. There’s a dark scurrying on the wall. Amelia darts forward and catches it with her hand. It is the shadow of a girl. Caught in her hand, it ceases its motion.

“A girl,” Amelia says.

“Lisa?”

“No,” Amelia says. “See, this shadow has long fingernails. Lisa kept hers bitten short. It also has strange and almost unrealistic hair.”

“Gel,” Gray Beauty says, in condemnation.

Amelia releases the shadow. It flows away. “But it’s not enough. A girl with long fingernails? That could be anyone.”

She lifts her head. “I smell him,” she says.

There is a swirling of a cloak in the doorway. There is a man standing there. He is shrouded in darkness and smells strongly of the rain.

“Never despair,” he says, “Crime Angel.”

She looks at him. “But—”

“If you trust in your heart,” he says, “and meticulously review the available evidence, you will always solve the crime.”

“Mystery Officer,” she says. “You have never told me why you—”

He holds up one finger. “‘I cannot see her tonight,'” he quotes. “‘I have to give her up. So I will eat fugu.'”

Then he is gone.

“Argh!” Amelia says, in real frustration. “Gray Beauty, will I never know if Mystery Officer is an enemy or a friend?”

“I cannot say,” says her wonderful animal companion diplomatically.

“Still—” Amelia says. Then she brightens. “Fugu! Of course! Gray Beauty, look at this!”

Amelia sinks down on one knee. She points at the carpet. “That strange object. It’s not a fingernail. It’s a bit of blowfish spine!”

Gray Beauty swoops closer. The unicorn’s light brings out a hundred shimmering colors in the fishscale bit.

“But what good is that?” Gray Beauty says.

“Most blowfish comes from farms,” Amelia says. “The farms are small, isolated breeding populations, which leads to genetic abnormalities in the fish. Effectively, it’s a DNA fingerprint—which can lead us right to the farm that sold this fugu!”

“Do you want me to scan it?” Gray Beauty asks.

“There weren’t any signs of blowfish preparation in the kitchen,” Amelia says. “Or in the apartment. Is there any in her stomach?”

“No,” Gray Beauty says.

“Then yes,” Amelia says. “Because for whatever reason, the killer must have taken the fugu with him.”

Her voice becomes soft and ritual.

“We stand outside time,” says Amelia. “Outside the normal forensic process. I ask you, Gray Beauty—begin your marvelous DNA scan!”

Golden light blooms in the room. It shines all around her. Roses wreath through the air and then they are gone.

“Cross-checking data with the Crime Angel database,” Gray Beauty says. The unicorn’s teeth click together as it transmits its message.

There is a pause.

“Gray Beauty,” Amelia says, “you look sickened.”

“I am,” whispers the unicorn.

There’s a pause.

The unicorn tries to continue. “It’s . . . it’s a . . .”

Gray Beauty flutters weakly to the ground, contaminating a spot of blood with marvelous unicorn radiance.

“It is a farm,” whispers the unicorn, “that breeds naturally toxin-free blowfish.”

“That’s horrible,” Amelia says.

There’s a long silence.

“Let’s go,” Gray Beauty says. “It’s the Stemm-Branning fugu farm. I have the address.”

“Let the knives of time cut fine,” Amelia says. “Let the shadow folk draw nigh. Cut Crime Angel away!”

The brightness in the room is gone. There is only the harsh yellow light of a naked bulb, shining in the outlet above. There are no angels.

Amelia walks away.

It is only thirty seconds before her cell phone rings. She picks it up. She answers. She listens. “I understand,” she says. Her voice is bitter. “I understand.” Then she puts the cell phone away.

She gets in her car. She drives to the Stemm-Branning fugu farm. The sign out front depicts a happy half-dissected blowfish. Two fugu chefs look on in amazement. One says, in a speech balloon, “No poison!” The other says, “A miracle of fish!”

Amelia knocks on their door.

“Hello?”

The man who answers the door is Lu Stemm. He’s a young idealist in a suit. He smells of fish. There’s some fish scent stuck behind his ears.

“Cri—” Amelia says. “Er, I mean, Amelia. I’m a forensics investigator.”

Mr. Stemm looks down at himself. He looks up. He has an expression of mild concern. “Am I dead?” he asks. It’s hard to tell if he’s worried or simply being facetious.

“No, Mr. Stemm. I’m investigating a murder elsewhere.”

“Oh, good,” Mr. Stemm says. He smiles at her. “I hope it wasn’t done with fugu. But if it was, it wasn’t our fugu! Our fugu is safe.”

“Perfectly safe?”

“Perfectly safe,” he assures her. “It’s genetically inhibited against developing the poison glands. Instead, it bastes its organs in a natural soy sauce.”

It is, again, difficult to tell if he is kidding.

“I don’t have much time,” Amelia says. “I need to know if you’ve had any unusual clients of late.”

Mr. Stemm sounds mildly sad. “All of our clients are unusual. But if you mean new unusual clients, only three. A fraudulent magician wishing to add extreme fugu consumption to his act. A pretty girl with odd hair, nails, and sharp teeth. And a shadowy chocolate conglomerate based out of Switzerland.”

“The conglomerate!” Amelia exclaims.

Then she thinks.

“Wait, no,” Amelia corrects. “Tell me about the girl.”

“She was named Cornelia,” says Mr. Stemm. “She was very hot. She works for a local restaurant. I have her card, if you would like?”

“Please,” Amelia says. Mr. Stemm leads her into the building, and to his office, and he looks through the rolodex. When he looks up, Amelia has stepped out of the room.

“To save the world from the agents of darkness,” he hears. “To bring the new millennium of peace. To end the shadows of lost days, I am Ayurvedic Crime Angel!”

The card held in his hand vanishes.

Amelia is outside time, and outside the normal forensic process, but still she moves swiftly.

“Gray Beauty,” she says. “Does it have her fingerprints on it? Do they match the ones in the room?”

“Indeed, Crime Angel,” says Gray Beauty.

“Then bag that card and let’s go.”

“I hate bagging evidence,” Gray Beauty sulks. “I don’t have fingers.”

Amelia rushes to her car. She waits for her magical animal companion to finish bagging the evidence and join her. She drives to the restaurant. She hops out of the car. She locks the steering wheel. She closes the door and engages the security system. She rushes into the restaurant.

Cornelia is waiting. She is wearing a green dress and leaning against the bar. Her hair is long and spiky. Her teeth are sharp. Time has not stopped for her, and her long nails drum against the bar’s surface.

“You stole the pure heart of a girl who loved sushi,” says Amelia. “That bright purity of spirit that endorses unagi and salivates over spider roll. For that you face Crime Angel’s wrath!”

“I did these things,” says Cornelia. “But I will face no wrath. Fierce Fugu!”

Out of the kitchen a strange and terrible creature bounds. It is a giant blowfish that walks on two legs like a man. It also has arms and hands. In each hand it holds a long and lethal knife.

“When a blowfish has no poison,” Cornelia says, “it must use knives to defend itself. That is the curse of Stemm-Branning blowfish—the fugu fights fiercest when backed into a corner!”

“FIERCE FUGU!” declares the blowfish.

“This is my heart-extracting blowfish,” Cornelia says. “I corrupted it from an ordinary blowfish in order to achieve my ends.”

Amelia gasps.

“It has already cut out one pure heart that loved unagi and felt indifferent to sashimi,” Cornelia declares. “Now it will take yours!”

The monologue has taken too long. Amelia has recovered from her surprise.

“We stand outside time,” declares Amelia. “Outside the normal forensic process. I ask you, Gray Beauty—commit the traceless murder!”

Fierce Fugu charges, inflating. The unicorn meets it halfway. There is a horrible pop.

“Well,” says Cornelia. “That did not work as anticipated.”

“Indeed,” Amelia says. “Now, Ms. Cornelia, you are under arrest.”

“I think not,” says Cornelia. “Lisa did not own her apartment, but borrowed it from a friend; and the warrant under which you searched it was invalid.”

Amelia pales.

“I am surprised,” Cornelia says, “that they did not call you, and tell you this. It has been some time since the law discovered this fact.”

Amelia grinds her teeth. “Fine,” she says. “So you know. But you won’t win!”

Cornelia steps forward. She pats Amelia on the cheek with a long-nailed hand. “So sad,” she says. “The poison was in the evidence, and not the fish.”

She walks out the door, and she is gone.

“I cannot catch her tonight,” Amelia says, almost to herself. “I have to give her up.”

She picks up a scrap of Fierce Fugu from the floor.

“So I will eat fugu,” she says, and bites down.

It is delicious but not satisfying, for it is the fugu of her failure.