She Had Forgotten All the Red

The sky is brilliant. It’s crisp. It’s blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars.“It didn’t used to look that beautiful,” says Sid.

He is in a glade. The guardian spirit of the glade is sitting beside him. She is a woman clad in the colors of the place: in the crisp green of the wet grass, the muddy brown of the dirt, the thick deep color of the trees.

The clothing of her blends into the world.

She says, “It’s been a long time.”

There’s a sadness to her as the spirit says, “In the days of my childhood it always looked like that.”

“What happened?” says Sid.

“It rotted,” she says. “The sky just rotted right away.”

When Sid gets home there’s a proclamation posted on the neighborhood kiosk. It’s got nice scrollwork and a fancy font.

“Be it known,” he reads, “that in pursuit of justice and democracy, the Drug Enforcement Administration hereby adopts the following zero-tolerance policy towards drug use and participation in the drug trade;

“That those alleged to commit such crimes should have their house taken from them;

“And their vehicles;

“And all their earthly goods;

“And as another matter, should it be deemed by the Agent on the scene that such a person has tainted their soul forever with the murk of drugs, so that redemption is impossible in this earthly frame, the Agent may take that soul, for sale or retention as befits the necessities of the time.

“Signed,” and then an illegible scrawl.

Behind Sid a lamp post sheds golden sparks into the night.

“Harsh,” says Sid.

He finishes going home and sleeps that night in peace.

Sid is sitting outside on his lawn chair on a Sunday afternoon. An ant crawls along the house’s outer wall behind him.

The ant encounters a break in the boards. It hesitates. It wibbles its antennae furiously.

“Little help?” it asks.

“Hm?” Sid says.

“I want to go up,” says the ant. “I can’t go up.

“Oh,” says Sid.

He holds out his finger against the wall. The ant uses it as a bridge. It climbs upwards and away.

“Sometimes, when I’m hungry,” Sid says, “I can see a palace in the sky, made of shining gold and suspended on four great lotus blossoms. It is east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

“That’s a long way away,” says the ant.

“It’s very big,” says Sid.

“Bigger than the stars?”

“Bigger than galaxies.”

The ant pauses. It contemplates the grandiose scope of Sid’s vision.

“Dude,” it says.

“Why do I see these things?” asks Sid.

“It’s probably because you’re practicing austerities,” the ant says. “That often opens you up to spiritual visions. Like, this one time, I smelled funny and no one would disgorge food into my mouth? And then I fell into an ecstatic trance and saw a terrible vision of the Avici Hell!”

“Wow,” says Sid.

“My heart was moved to great compassion for the suffering of the sinners there,” says the ant. “But then I found a crumb and I was like, ‘hey, crumb!’ and I woke up.”

Sid turns away from the ant. He looks off into the sky.

“Radical,” Sid says.

Far above them, an unmarked black car pulls out of the driveway of the palace made of gold.

It drives down towards the earth.

Sid’s sitting in his living room staring at his lava lamp when there’s a knocking at his door. So he gets up. He answers. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown skin and white white teeth, hair like black wood, and eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid, charmed.

“I’m here to inform you,” says Agent Summers. “There’ve been allegations made against you. That you’ve fallen in with a bad sort. That you’re participating in the drug trade.”

“Come in,” says Sid.

He steps away from the door. He lets Agent Summers in. He gestures Agent Summers towards the table.

“Just allegations, right?” says Sid. “I mean, you don’t have any reason to suspect me?”

“I know you’re a good man, Sid,” says Agent Summers.

He walks in. He sits down. Sid sits down opposite.

“But I don’t know if you’ve fallen from the path of righteousness.”

Sid frowns a little.

“You look disturbed,” says Agent Summers.

“You’re acting weird,” says Sid.

“Ah.”

Agent Summers says:

When the world was made, it was full of endless beauty.
Joy and love cascaded down from Heaven and filled the things on earth.
They soaked into the world like water into a sponge.
They spread through the world like fire leaping from blade to blade of prairie grass.
The sunrise was this brilliant orange like a chemical reaction.
The night was as deep as silence.
And then as the years went by, bit by bit, all that was lost.

His eyes are bright. His words are like a river. He catches Sid in their spell like a preacher or a rock star catches their flock.

“That’s why the work we do is so important,” says Agent Summers. “That’s what the DEA is for. To halt that breaking of the beauty of the world. To pull back from it. To restore what has been lost.”

He holds out his hand. He pulls Sid’s soul from his chest. It’s a lump, like an egg, but it’s clear and crystal and blue. It’s glowing from within.

Sid stares for a long moment; then, in the midst of Agent Summers’ next words, he blinks and shakes himself, hard, and opens his mouth in protest.

“See,” says Agent Summers.

He rubs his hand along the soul. He holds up his fingers. They’re coated with a little bit of gunk—sticky grime, like one might find under a never-cleaned sink.

“This is the impact of the material world on your soul,” says Agent Summers. He stands up.

“Hey!” says Sid.

“I’m going to have to confiscate everything,” says Agent Summers.

“Hey!”

Sid is staring at Agent Summers and his face is horrified. He can’t quite form his protest into coherent words; the situation has turned into something Sid can’t grasp.

“Hey!”

“It’s the allegations of drug use,” says Agent Summers. “Can’t be helped. You can keep your clothes. They’re not druggy clothes. And—do you have a dog?”

“No.”

“Goldfish?”

“No.”

“Then I’ll take the rest.”

Agent Summers slips the soul into his breast pocket.

Sid is on his feet, still incoherent with protest. “But— how—”

“It’s necessary,” says Agent Summers. “We’ll let you know if you can have anything back.”

He puts his hands on Sid’s shoulders.

Agent Summers says, “Buck up. We’re not arresting you yet.”

Sid pulls his fist back to punch Agent Summers in the face; but Agent Summers has skated back three steps and his hand has fallen to the gun at his side.

Sid stops.

Agent Summers turns, as Sid stands there.

He walks away.

When the paralysis breaks in Sid and he charges to the door, Agent Summers is already pulling closed the door on his unmarked black car, starting the engine, and driving away.

Sid sits on the confiscated sofa in his confiscated house.

He’s been sitting there for sixteen hours, except when he uses his confiscated bathroom.

Sometime or other, he’s pretty sure, someone’s going to show up to kick him out and take his keys. Maybe they’ll rough him up. Sid is aware of this in a distant fashion.

He finds it hard to care, without his soul.

“What if I die?” Sid wonders.

Sid goes to the public library. He takes down all the books on souls. Five hours later, he’s come to the conclusion that a soul is inseparable from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part; that the habit of speech that would identify “Sid’s soul” as a meaningful object in the world is imprecise and imprudent; and that in physically seizing Sid’s soul and carrying it off, Agent Summers of the DEA has committed a poorly-defined executive act. This does not answer Sid’s underlying question.

“It’s irresponsible, is what it is,” Sid says, to the librarian.

“Hm?”

The librarian’s a woman named Donna with a short blonde mop of hair.

“Stealing people’s souls without properly defining them,” Sid says.

“That’s the kind of thing that gets resolved in the courts,” the librarian says. “Scratch v. Stone, Hotep v. Stiggens, U.S. v. Persephone, and so forth.”

“Oh.”

Sid slumps.

Donna looks Sid over. He’s thin and getting thinner right before her eyes, and there’s a raging grief in him.

“I can help you find a lawyer,” she says.

But there’s something nagging at Sid’s mind.

He shakes his head. He says:

There is no court that could constrain him.
He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Whose?”

“Agent Summers’.”

The pages of the books then blow.

“Huh,” the librarian says.

“Hey,” says Sid.

He’s on the phone with the DEA Information Office.

“Hey,” says Sid. “I had my house taken by this guy. And my soul. And I was wondering—”

“I’m sorry, sir,” says the man at the other end. “But that’s just an urban legend. The DEA doesn’t confiscate people’s souls.”

That gives Sid pause for a moment.

“But you can sell them to raise money,” Sid points out. “I mean, traditionally, they’re worth a mint.”

“You can only exchange currency for fungible goods, sir.”

“Wait, what?”

“Well,” explains the DEA Information Office agent laboriously, “it’s impossible to separate a soul from the broader metaphysical system in which it takes part.”

Explaining this to Sid is part of the man’s job as a fully-empowered information agent of the United States government.

“What this means,” the DEA Information Office agent concludes, “is that while souls have concrete monetary value, one cannot meaningfully exchange them for that value. To sell a soul means to slight it; to diminish it; to sacrifice some portion of its value in the interest of other goods. This is not the official policy of the DEA or the United States government.”

“Oh.”

There’s a pause.

“Will there be anything else, sir?”

“Agent Summers—”

There’s a chill.

The information agent clears his throat. He interrupts Sid. He says, “We don’t know of any such person, sir.”

“You know that just from his name?”

“Yes, sir.”

The DEA Information Office agent recites:

He is immutable:
Cold; certain; strong; and clad in black,
Like Death.
Winds will sweep across the world
And the air go chill
At the mention of his name.

“Is it not so?”

“It’s so,” concedes Sid.

“There’s no one like that with any connection to this agency, sir.”

So Sid sighs.

He sits down in the pay phone booth.

“If there were—”

There’s a pause.

“If there were,’ says the agent, moved to a certain sympathy, “then he would live in a golden palace in the sky, supported by four lotus blossoms, east of the sunrise and north of the stars.”

Sid walks out of the phone booth and he’s thinking hard.

He goes to the glade. He sits there in the clothes that Agent Summers left him and he waits.

He gets hungrier and hungrier.

And the night sky is as beautiful as anyone can imagine. It’s crisp and clear and it makes his heart ache to look at it. It’s blue and black and purple and it’s pure. Set amidst it there’s a palace made of bone and wheat and ice and sorrow; and Sid blinks three times and sees it as the moon.

Then there’s the day, and the sun is a great and endless fire; and off to the northeast there is a golden palace that glimmers with its light.

And Sid says, “I shall not eat save sunlight, nor drink save the morning dew, until Heaven grants me a path into the sky.”

And many days pass, and Sid grows as thin as a stick, and he is sprawled on the grass and he shakes with the footsteps of the ants as a leaf might shake to the footsteps of a man.

And he eats only sunlight, and he drinks only the dew that forms, crisp and pure, on the blades of the grass.

And one day, in the musty late hours of the evening as the sun is descending towards the horizon, he looks up and Heaven has given him his answer.

The branches of the trees form a staircase of living wood. It rises endlessly into the sky and Sid goes up.

And he thinks as he walks the endless stairs:

I am lucky;
I am blessed;
for it is only the DEA whom I must fight,
and not Intelligence.

Sid knocks on the door of the golden palace. It opens. There’s a man from the DEA on the other side.

“Hey,” says the man.

The man is tall. He’s stunningly handsome: nut-brown with white white teeth, hair like black wood, eyes an incredibly crisp blue. He’s wearing a black coat and black slacks and he’s got a gun at his side.

His name tag says, “Brad Summers.”

“Hey,” says Sid. “I’ve come for my soul.”

Agent Summers’ eyes narrow a little, but he doesn’t blink.

“Come in,” he says.

And he leads Sid in; and Sid sees that the shadow of the man has eight arms, like a spider practicing to be a centipede.

“Take off your shoes,” says Agent Summers. “Stay a while.”

Sid does not take off his shoes. Instead, he stares. In the living room beyond the foyer there is a mosaic on the floor. It is full of stones that are blue and purple and black. They are the night sky, as crisp and perfect and beautiful as Sid had ever seen.

There is a long stillness, and then Agent Summers sighs.

“Go ahead,” he says.

Sid kicks off his shoes and walks out onto the mosaic; and it is past twilight, below, on earth, and Sid’s passage casts shadows over the night sky.

Sid kneels beside his soul and rests his fingertips against its shape.

“How did it happen?” Sid asks.

“A sickness,” says Agent Summers. “A long slow sickness. Bit by bit the sky rotted and its pieces fell into the world.”

“This bit is mine,” says Sid.

“Is that so?”

“I grew up with it inside me,” Sid says. “It’s my soul. It’s what defines me.”

And Agent Summers gives Sid a deep and solemn bow, because insofar as that is true Sid is a person who deserves his great respect; but then the Agent rises, and he is stern.

“It is for the people of this world that I have taken it; it is in defense of a public trust; and for this reason there is no one at the Agency or its oversight who will object.”

The man is cold; and certain; strong; and clad in black.

In the mosaic that is the sky resides Sid’s confiscated soul.

“Please,” says Sid.

Answers Agent Summers: “A man who clings to a portion of the sky and will not release it—isn’t that the height of presumption?”

“I need it,” Sid says.

“Or is it that the sky refuses to be the sky?” asks Agent Summers. “That it demands to walk around on earth with the feet and hands of a Sid?”

Sid rises.

“This thing is a wonder,” he admits, and his voice is unsteady.

Three hundred souls, perhaps, he thinks. The light in them and the color in them and the sweep of them—put together in the sky, they are infinitely larger and grander than souls had seemed when the man from the DEA had seized Sid’s from his chest.

Sid tries to move away, but he can’t.

“But that’s mine,” says Sid, a strangled noise. He seizes the stone that is his soul.

Agent Summers draws his gun.

He shoots Sid in the head.

The spirit of the glade is reclining on the grass, and casting her eyes upwards, and wondering what has become of Sid.

The sky is like it was when she was a child—blue and purple and black and full of dot-like stars. It is beautiful.

Yet there is something missing in it: something that fails in its evocation of the memories of her youth.

In the golden palace of Agent Summers, above the mosaic of the sky, there is gunfire.

“Oh,” says Sid.

And all through the world there are screams of horror.

All through the world there are children staring, and people pointing, and others covering their eyes.

“Ah,” breathes the spirit, understanding.

The sky is dark with blood and bits of bone and brain. There is a shadow on it as Sid falls, a heavy weighty shadow that remains until Agent Summers drags his corpse away.

“I had forgotten all the red.”

Life, Through a Film of Palmolive

Rain pours down on the open-air garden, and on Sid.

There are trees all around, and grass, and flowers. Most won’t survive the rain. There’s a set of broken old stone walls surrounding the garden. Odds are, they’ll make it through. Usually they do.

They’re nice and all, but they’re not Sid.

“It’s stupid,” opines Iphigenia.

Emily takes the candy cane she’s sucking on out of her mouth.

“Stupid?” says Emily.

“Canonically so,” says Iphigenia. “c.f. ‘coming in out of the rain, too stupid to be.'”

“Hm,” agrees Emily.

They’re standing under convenient eaves that project out from the tower that is their home.

“It would be a shame,” Emily concedes, “if he caught his death of rain.”

“It would be a harsh, cruel world.”

Emily sucks for a moment on the curved end of the candy cane. Then she says, “Is that really contingent on Sid?”

Iphigenia stares at her for a moment, then shakes her head and ignores her.

“Sid!” shouts Iphigenia.

The rain is little drops of water at first, and a sprinkling of water can’t hurt anyone. But soon there’s a bit of glowing dust mixed in too.

Sid is walking around in the garden. He’s got his left arm out like his whole body is listening and his right hand is sheltering his eyes. He’s looking up at the sky.

Now there’s cherries falling. It’s good that there are cherries falling, because not all of them will burst on impact—some will be good for breakfast in the morning, unless an antelope or dowry chest or whatnot lands on them first.

Glowing coals drift down from the sky.

“He’s not paying attention to us,” concludes Emily.

Iphigenia is brave. She darts out into the rain of water, glitter, cherries, and coals. She grabs Sid’s sleeve. She tugs.

“Hey!” she says. “Doofus!”

Sid looks down at her.

“You’ll get hurt,” she says.

Sid thinks this over. Then he takes Iphigenia’s arm and, pulling her with him, steps out of the way of a sharp-pointed anchor that falls from the sky.

“Maybe,” he concedes.

He pulls her back under the shade of an orange tree. He looks up at the sky.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” he says.

“It would be a harsh, cruel world,” Iphigenia explains, “if you got hit by a meteor and fell down, splat.”

“I’m not out here to be hit by a meteor,” Sid avers.

“Events do not always happen as you intend!”

Sid peers out at the sky. He sighs.

“You’re right,” he says. “Anchors are a bad sign. Let’s make a dash for the eaves.”

They stall a few seconds, waiting for a moment in which relatively few large objects are falling from the sky.

“You shouldn’t need me to run out here after you,” says Iphigenia. “You should be able to worry about these things on your own.”

“I do worry,” says Sid.

“You worry?”

“Unreasonably and acutely,” says Sid. “A meteor strike could render me unable to fulfill my responsibilities and accomplish the long list of things that lay ahead of me.”

“Oh,” says Iphigenia, somewhat deflated, since Sid has just adequately summarized the appropriate reasons for worry.

“But sometimes when it rains, I look up and I see a chicken-snake in the sky,” Sid says. His voice is distant and reverent. “Huge and glorious, with a great long feathered tail. And—”

His voice peaks upwards violently into panic.

“PIANO!”

Sid and Iphigenia dive for cover. The piano tears through the branches of the orange tree and hits the earth where they’d stood with a great rattling of keys.

Sid is sprawled face-first in a mud puddle.

Cherries bounce off of Sid.

Iphigenia helps him up. Their previous shelter proven unsound, they stumble straight towards the eaves.

“It is raining harder than usual,” Sid admits, with a distant disappointment.

They reach the eaves. They slump against the wall next to Emily. They watch the storm.

“Hey, can you see your chicken-snake from here?” Iphigenia asks.

“Maybe,” says Sid. “If it flies low.”

Emily takes the candy cane out of her mouth. She watches the sky. After a long moment, she points with the candy cane’s end. “There,” she says.

They can just barely see it, in the distance. It is huge. It is grand. It is eddying through the sky above the storm.

A certain tension falls from Sid. He stares out at it, rapt.

“Hey,” says Emily.

“Hey?” Sid says.

“Why do you want to see a flying chicken-snake?” Emily says.

“It makes me feel small,” says Sid.

The shape is moving away into the distance. Sid, helplessly, takes a few steps out from the eaves to see it better. Rain and glitter drift into his hair.

“Sid,” says Iphigenia, warningly.

But the rain is fading. There are no more anchors. There are no more pianos.

“I guess it’s safe,” Iphigenia sighs.

Iphigenia has spoken too soon.

A meteor tears down from Heaven like some angry angel’s shotput. It strikes Sid in the forehead. It is a very small meteor: a dazing meteor and not a murderous one. Even so, Sid still staggers, stumbles, and falls sideways under the eaves. Water, glitter, and cherries drip in a slow and steady stream onto his face.

“Huh,” he says, after a moment.

Emily pokes at Sid with her foot. “Harsh, cruel world?” she asks.

“Where?” says Sid, confused.

Proposes Iphigenia, “You’re soaking in it!”

Higher Jam

Emily can’t reach the jar on the top shelf.

“Unh!”

Emily jumps. Emily reaches. But it’s too far out of the way.

“Sid!” commands Emily.

Sid comes in from outside.

“Yes?” Sid says.

“Jump!”

Sid jumps.

“No,” Emily says. “Jump! To get the jar!”

Sid jumps towards the jar. He fails. It’s out of his reach.

“Hm,” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Well,” says Sid, “we live alone in this creaky run-down mansion.”

“Yes?”

“Which you purchased, as I recall, before any other person inhabited it.”

“That’s so,” Emily agrees.

“So it seems to me,” Sid says, “that there shouldn’t be any jars on shelves we can’t reach.”

“Huh!” says Emily.

“Indeed.”

“Do you think it really exists?” Emily asks, peering at the jar.

“Well, we see it,” Sid says.

“That much is true.”

“So it has the visual skandha. That’s an important attribute of existence.”

“I concur,” says Emily.

“What’s in it?”

“In what?”

“The jar.”

“Preserves,” Emily says. She indicates the counter. “As you can see, I have lain out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But it has no jelly.”

“Aren’t there other jars in the house?”

“Alas, no,” says Emily.

“Well, there’s the store,” Sid points out.

“By no means!” says Emily. “I cannot very well leave my sandwich to moulder while I go to the store.”

“I could eat it,” says Sid.

“What?”

“Then,” explains Sid triumphantly, “when you return from the store, you could make another!”

Emily squints at Sid.

“You seek falsely to profit from my peanut butter spreading activities.”

“I could spread the peanut butter on your sandwich,” says Sid, “when you returned. Then all would be equitable.”

“No, no,” sighs Emily. “It must be the jar.”

“Then we must think backwards,” says Sid.

“Backwards.”

“Yes.”

“The opposite of jumping is squatting,” Emily says.

She squats. She feels around on the floor.

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Emily says, “so that the floor were the ceiling, I think this would be effective.”

“If the mansion wrapped around,” Sid points out, “we would be cited for numerous violations of the building code.”

“We could banish the inspector to the dungeon,” says Emily.

“Oh?”

“There he would labor endless hours to power my great machine!”

“Your great machine uses batteries,” says Sid. “And also, I believe you dismantled it as unsuitable for your ambitions.”

Emily puffs up her cheeks and then sighs. “Once again reality intercedes.”

“In any event,” says Sid, “by thinking backwards, I meant that we should consider how the jar reached the shelf. If we recollect this process, then we can reverse it to obtain the jar.”

“It was there yesterday,” Emily says.

“Was it?”

“Yes,” Emily confirms.

“And the day before?”

“Indeed.”

“Last Christmas?”

“No,” says Emily. She thinks. “Last Christmas, there was the ham.”

“How did we get the ham down?” Sid asks, momentarily diverted.

“I adapted the taser into an electric grapple,” Emily says.

“Ah, yes,” says Sid.

“That would not work with preserves,” Emily says.

“No.”

They stare at the jar.

“I am starting to recall,” says Emily. “There was a giant.”

“A giant?”

“The large, cloud-haired giant,” says Emily. “You remember. Ms. Brown.”

“Oh, yes,” says Sid.

“I said, ‘Ms. Brown, before you go, could you shelve these preserves?'”

“Clever thought! Giants have little trouble with shelves.”

“And she looked down at me with these gentle eyes and said, ‘Of course.'”

“So,” says Sid. “We need only find Ms. Brown and ask her to fetch down the jar.”

“Focus, Sid!” snaps Emily.

“Hm?”

“If my sandwich moulders while I search for Ms. Brown, the entirety of this effort would be in vain; even Ms. Brown would laugh at me, with great booming sounds.”

“Alas,” says Sid.

“We could poke the jar with a stick,” Emily says.

“This is a proposal with many possible outcomes,” Sid points out.

Emily considers. She glares up at the jar.

“If I had a proper assistant,” Emily says, “I’m sure this would be much easier.”

“Your life would be a glorious montage of roses and victories,” Sid agrees.

“I will stand on your shoulders,” Emily says.

“And if you fall?”

“Ha! Then I fall.”

“And if you die?”

“Then I die!”

“And I may have your sandwich?”

“Let us consider alternatives,” says Emily.

Sid saddens.

“We could make another giant,” Emily proposes.

“Really? Another giant?”

“I could make you into a giant.”

Sid looks down at himself. “I have always thought of myself as a sufficiently large man.”

“That is the corrosive effect of my company,” says Emily. “Observe! My head comes up to your stomach.”

“So it does.”

“And you are thicker and broader than I.”

“So I am!”

“This accounts for your inflated sense of your own dimensions.”

“Ah.”

“In truth, you are of that smaller category of men which I shall label ‘inadequate to reach the jar.'”

“If all men were shorter than I,” says Sid, “I would be no more able to reach the jar than I am now.”

“Meaningless semantics,” dismisses Emily. “There is no degeneration of the species in the offing.”

“There could be,” says Sid.

“No,” says Emily.

“No?”

“Well,” says Emily, “humanity is already degenerate, you see.”

“A sour perspective.”

“Rather, a blessing! There is nowhere to go but up!”

“I do not think humans are degenerate,” says Sid.

“Well, observe,” says Emily. “Humans are not giants.”

Sid waits, but Emily does not continue.

“That is not the normal definition of degeneracy,” Sid says.

“Everyone must form their own definitions,” Emily says. “Still, I stand by mine to the death!”

“To the death?”

“Indeed!”

“And if you die of it?”

“And if I die of it?”

“May I then have your sandwich?”

“Sid! Hardly! It will have already mouldered. You would get cancer of the stomach. No,” concludes Emily. “I will have to make you a giant.”

“Did you make Ms. Brown a giant?”

“Well, naturally,” says Emily.

“It was not natural to me,” says Sid. “I had not known you harbored giant-making proclivities.”

“You know that I have the great machine,” Emily points out.

“Well, yes, I know that.”

“And that I am disdainful towards humanity,” Emily says.

“True.”

“And that I live alone in a run-down mansion with my faithful servant,” Emily says.

“Granted.”

“So therefore I am a scientist of unusual caliber,” Emily says, “and a likely candidate for any giant-makings that have transpired!”

“There is that,” says Sid.

“Indeed.”

“But I am not truly your faithful servant,” says Sid. “I am indifferently faithful at best.”

“Sid!” accuses Emily.

“Well, I am hungry,” says Sid. “An assistant is ruled by his stomach; that is the cardinal law.”

“You may make yourself a peanut butter sandwich,” says Emily. “The bread and peanut butter lay yonder, practically inviting you into their arms.”

“I do not wish to waste,” Sid says primly.

“Such niceties!”

“Well,” says Sid, “to make and eat another peanut butter sandwich while a second is left to moulder—is that not the definition of wastefulness?”

“You are not wasteful, then?”

“I am not,” says Sid.

“I give you my assurances,” says Emily, “that I will find a way to obtain that jar and make my own sandwich, though the world itself might crack. Does this suffice to resolve your moral quandary?”

“To trust is folly in this dismal world,” philosophizes Sid. “Rather, a man watches and judges, keeping his mind open at all times. Then he may seize such opportunities as come along!”

“A sour perspective!”

“In hunger, I am a pessimist. When I am full, then I shall be the definition of optimism!”

A train of thought distracts Emily.

“So after you have eaten,” she says, “if you see half a cup of milk, you would call it ‘half-full?'”

“That is the definition,” Sid agrees.

“And if you were to drink it?”

Sid rubs at his nose. “Perplexing. It would become ‘not at all full’, while a more pessimistic man would call it ‘scarcely empty.'”

“Huh!” declares Emily.

She looks Sid up and down.

“In any event,” she says. “Soon your perspective will brighten.”

“Will it?”

“Indeed!” says Emily.

“By sandwich or by treachery?”

“Neither! I shall make you a giant, which shall have you jumping for joy; though not literally, you understand, lest you crack the ceiling.”

“What if I do not want to be a giant?”

“Are you my faithful servant?”

“Indifferently,” Sid qualifies.

“Then there is no choice in the matter. I must simply find your smalling string.”

“Moderate your gaze!” says Sid. “You study regions that can make me blush.”

“Don’t be silly,” says Emily. “I am looking rather to the left of that.”

“I am embarrassed of my left hip,” says Sid, to save face.

“There!” says Emily. She points.

“What?”

“The smalling string.”

“What?”

“The string,” says Emily, “that makes you small.”

Sid tugs on a string protruding from the left hip of his jeans. “What, this?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s a string,” Sid says.

Emily takes out a knife. “Let me cut it.”

“Your hands are small and clumsy,” says Sid. “Perhaps I should—”

But it is too late. With dispatch and aggression, Emily has cut the string and Sid is no longer small.

“Oh,” says Sid.

“Ha ha ha!” laughs Emily, pumping one hand in the air. “Genius!”

Sid looks down at Emily. His eyes are gentle; there is a fierce intelligence in them; and the spirit of him is at one time fiery and soft.

“I am grown,” he says.

Emily’s laughter slowly fades. She sighs.

“Yes, yes,” she says. “You have grown.”

“Wow.”

“So?”

“So?”

“Fetch me my jam!”

A Comparative Study of Two Fighting Styles

The sky is full of red and orange.

Sid’s standing on the broken freeway under the clouds. His trenchcoat’s blowing back. It’s not clear why he’s there, why anyone would be there—the freeway doesn’t even end, just breaks in half to make a cliff a hundred feet above the ground.

But he’s not alone.

Max is walking up the path. He’s breathing hard. It’s a bit of a climb on foot, but broken freeways aren’t the kind that you take a car on.

(That’s not a poetic exaggeration, either. Sally took a car on this freeway, a few years back. It was a mistake. The car’s dead now, broken, down at the bottom of the cliff. It’s cold and crumpled and it’s got a shell-less hermit crab in it. The crab is trying very hard to illustrate the concept of hubris.)

“Hey, Max,” says Sid, as Max gets closer.

“Hey, Sid.”

Max looks around. He takes a breath of the evening air.

“Just us?”

“Yeah.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” Max says.

“I went away for six years,” says Sid. “I studied business administration.”

“Oh?”

Sid centers himself. He masters the reckless Chi that flows through him. His mind calms and his consciousness unfolds like a lotus. This is the Chi Gung Business Administration enlightenment.

“I can handle it,” Sid says.

“It’s the apocalypse, Sid,” Max says. “It’s the four bloody riders. You won’t be able to get rid of them by redefining your business objectives.”

Sid considers his business objectives.

“I won’t have to,” he says.

Max looks at him. It’s kind of a pained look, half-sad, half-laughing. “It’s your own business,” he says.

“That it is.”

The riders are coming now. They’re on their horses and their horses are running through the sky. The riders are bringing suffering and torment and the end of things, dragging it down behind them from somewhere beyond the red-orange clouds, pulling it down towards the broken highway and the Earth.

They ride not towards the whole end but towards the broken one. The horses’ hooves will not touch asphalt but rather pass inches beyond its ragged edge; and by no coincidence. It is the premonition of those hoofbeats, the fluttering stomach-twisting awareness of their coming, that broke that arching structure down.

Max turns to face the horsemen of the apocalypse.

He draws his gun.

“You could at least stand back,” Max says.

The wind is blowing hard now.

“I’d fall,” Sid says.

“Not that far back.”

Sid shrugs.

Max sights carefully. He misses with his first shot. He misses with his second. Now he’s sweating. He grits his teeth. His hand is not trembling, but everywhere else his muscles are.

He fires a third shot. It is as if thunder has struck the rider on the white horse; his neck jerks back, his head blossoms red and black, and he falls limply sideways in his saddle. The white horse slows only marginally in its run.

“Good,” Sid says.

Max moves his hand. He fires. The rider on the red horse stares down in disbelief at the redness of his chest. His sword and reins fall from his hands. He clutches his wound. Slowly the life passes from him.

“My business administration,” Sid says, “could not do better.”

“Heh,” says Max.

He points his gun towards the rider on the black horse. He fires. There is a voice that rises in and around them, saying: “The slaves are restless.”

But the rider is not wounded; the rider does not fall.

“Hell,” says Max.

His face grows fiercer. He steadies his hand. He fires again. The rider on the black horse has half a face; he stares at Max with gallows intensity, his jaw dangling to the right, for three long seconds. Then, as Max frantically reloads, he falls.

Max is too late. He has wasted too many bullets. The fourth rider is upon them.

“I am Death,” says the pale horse’s rider.

“Sid,” says Sid, with the most abbreviated of bows.

The hoofbeats are louder than a neighbor’s music in the air.

Sid’s hands move left, right, left, in the style of his teacher. He is like air. He is like water. As the rider thunders past, Sid seizes him by the arm. Death commits an error; he pulls his arm inwards, and Sid is moving, in the air, his feet bracing momentarily against the horse’s head, his body coiled, as he drags Death around in the direction of that motion; and spectacularly, terribly, Death twists off his horse, one bony knee snapping, and his head and Sid come down horribly against the broken road.

Sid flails as he falls. He catches hold of the road with one hand.

Death comes, through the sun roof, to the hermit crab below.

Sid dangles.

“That’s not business administration,” Max says, looking down. “That’s martial arts.”

“Is so.”

“Is not.”

“It’s a revolutionary approach to maximizing a company’s revenue stream,” Sid recites, “inspired by traditional Oriental philosophy.”

Max holsters his gun. He spits, off to the side.

“I see,” Max says.

“If you syncretically fuse the commonly understood notions of profit and loss,” Sid says, “you can see beyond them into the true nature of things—the eternal Dao from which all revenue springs. This is the strategy of Chi Gung Business Administration.”

There’s a silence for a bit. Sid tries to reach the road with his other hand.

“You gonna ask for help?”

But Sid doesn’t answer. He just strains.

So slowly,

Shaking his head,

Max walks away.

The Staff

Not related to Standing in the Storm, which continues tomorrow.

Sid and Max face off.

Sid sketches a pentagram with his foot. It’s just a scuff, but he’s got special Nike Pentagram Boots. They’re the best shoes in the world for drawing pentagrams. It only takes a scuff and the whole pentagram is right there.

“Nice,” says Max.

Sid’s pentagram is glowing now. It’s shining with white lines springing up from the earth. There are all kinds of cool little details, including a little Sid logo. It’s the only logo that markets 100% Sid!

“Isn’t it?” says Sid.

Max looks a little smug. He spreads his hands wide. Pillars of silver fire burst from the ground and surround him. There’s that annoying little angelic chorus that tends to sing when Max does his stuff.

The world shivers all around Max and pulsates with light.

The angels’ song reaches its crescendo, then falls to silence.

Sid sulks.

Sid snides, “Not as loud as usual.”

“Can’t bribe as many angels these days,” Max says.

Then Max laughs.

He sweeps his arms out from his trenchcoat.

Max invokes Snowstorm. “Snowstorm!”

Clouds gather over his head. The snow fairy manifests. Snowflakes begin to fall all around Max. Max pushes at the air and the snowstorm flows over and dumps snow on Sid.

Sid shakes snow out of his hair.

Max intones, in the voice of a magician at work, “Snow—harder!”

But Sid is ready. He has stepped back. He has drawn his sword. It’s a 21st-century sword, and it’s not very good, but it’s sharp enough for this. He pokes it right into the cloud.

“Ow!” says the snow fairy.

The clouds swirl around. They’re just a little bit red.

Sid says, “Don’t snow on me.”

The snow fairy is now uncertain which magician to listen to. It attempts to hedge its bets.

“Perhaps you’re not familiar with the benefits of snow,” it says. “There are many! It’s cold and white and Christmasy! You might like snow.”

But Sid scuffs the floor in that special way he has and there’s a dual pentagram. He invokes Double Thing. “Double Thing!”

It’s like a thing, but twice as much!

Half the thing scrunges upwards from the earth. Half the thing scrunges upwards from another part of the earth. The thing rumbles and shakes its hands around.

“That’s an earth thing,” judges Max, after staring at its bumpy surface for a bit.

“It’s twice the thing!” says Sid, proudly.

“I don’t want to fight,” says the double thing.

“You’re my ancillary in a magical duel,” Sid points out. “Now, stop the fairy from snowing on me harder, or we’ll both get chilly!”

The thing doesn’t want to get chilly, so it oscillates until the fairy is confused.

“Is it one thing? Is it two things?” the fairy asks, getting progressively dizzier as it tries to evaluate the situation. “No! One! Five! Seventeen! Eight!”

The fairy faints.

“That is not snowing harder,” says Max. After a moment, he adds, “That’s not even snowing smarter.

“It’s snowing lower,” the double thing points out.

“Now, double thing!” says Sid.

“Hm?”

“Attack!”

It looks at Sid. It hesitates. Then it looks speculatively at Max.

“I could stay out of this,” it says, to Max.

“I don’t want a double thing’s pity,” says Max. He’s drawing back. He’s readying himself to invoke Scrubbing Bubble. It’s the battle magic that never helps!

“It’s not pity,” says the double thing, in frustration. “It’s not having a stake in the conflict—”

But Max ignores the double thing. He even interrupts its sentence! He invokes Scrubbing Bubble. “Scrubbing Bubble!” The wind screams down from the sky. The world flares up with red and purple light. Scrubbing bubbles bubble up from the earth, scrubbing ominous contrails through the air. Max shoves the magic with his hands. The bubbles scrub closer to Sid and the double thing.

It doesn’t help.

In fact, the double thing thinks, as it attacks, it’s probably the opposite of helping.

The Dying Kind

Sid’s got the music playing loudly, and he’s boogieing in his quarters as he gets his outfit on.

He’s mostly undressed, but there’s no chance to actually see anything interesting, because he’s got furniture strategically positioned to cover his naughty bits. All you can see is a bit of an ankle as he pulls on his shapely black pants, a flash of his lean chest as he pulls down his bright red shirt, and a gleam and sparkle as he affixes his insignia to his chest.

“Music, off!” says Sid, and the music stops, and a bit later the boogieing follows.

“Door, open!”

And the door slides open and Sid heads out to work.

“You’re security on a delicate operation,” says the Captain.

“Aye, sir.”

“The natives of this planet think the meaning of their life is determined by the number of beads on the ‘soul necklaces’ they wear. The AIs think that they might just be right. The tech girls might have managed to duplicate the soul beads in the lab, but it’s impossible to know until one of the natives tries one on. So you’re going to help transport a box of the beads to our chieftain ally Bernice Ma’ala’sul.”

Sid snaps his heels together sharply and salutes. Then he heads down to the planet with a gun on his hip and a box under his arm.

He lands a bit before sunset, in a lightly forested region, on the planet’s face.

He’s met by Christine. She shows him her ID so he knows she’s the native liaison. There are also another couple of natives around.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Hey,” Christine says.

She’s got a scanty outfit and a bead necklace on. There are seven beads on her necklace. Each is translucent white and glowing from within.

She’s staring at the box.

“Are those . . . them?” she says.

“Yup!” says Sid. “It’s a box full of meaning.”

He looks at her.

“Which, you know,” he says, “I’d think pretty silly, if the AIs weren’t going for it.”

Christine flushes slightly.

“It’s not silly,” she says. “You just wouldn’t understand, that’s all.”

Sid raises an eyebrow. “They’re just beads,” he says.

“It’s like this,” she says. “Maybe you all in your majestic space fleet get your meaning from life and exploration and stuff. And that’s all well and good. But I don’t. No one’s ever going to care about my life. It doesn’t make a difference. But I’ve got seven beads. Now that means something. Look at those two. They’ve only got a couple of beads. Why, I’m not sure they even have names.

One of the other natives mumbles something.

Sid scratches behind his own ear.

“That’s not quite—”

“I’d like my life to matter,” admits Christine. “I mean, it would be cool if I were more than just seven-bead liaison in a scanty native outfit. Just like maybe you’d like it if somebody cared about the color of the shirt you wear, or your name, or your history.”

Sid’s mouth has set into a line.

“But I don’t,” says Christine. “It doesn’t matter. That’s how you and me are different. Your life means something, and your clothing doesn’t, while my beads—well, if this goes well, you know, I could wind up with eight.

“My life doesn’t matter,” Sid grits out.

“What?”

Sid hesitates.

“Never mind,” says Sid, curtly. He turns towards the horizon, and the red of his shirt burns like the setting sun. “Let’s go.”

“If your life doesn’t matter,” presses Christine, “how can you be in the fleet? I thought you people cared about stuff like that.”

“Life?”

“Yeah.”

Sid shakes his head. He rubs at his insignia. He says, “I’m just security. Nobody cares about my life.”

“. . . Oh,” says Christine.

They walk in silence across the planet’s face.

“Where are we going, anyway?” says Sid.

Christine giggles a little.

“You’re heading the right direction,” she says. “So I thought you knew. To the temple of the chief.”

She points. There’s a ziggurat in the distance, visible above the trees.

“Pretty big temple for a girl named Bernice,” Sid says.

“She’s so numinous,” sighs Christine. Then there’s a brilliant spark in Christine’s eyes as she thinks about it. “And wow. If those beads work out for her, she’ll be like the greatest god ever.

“Huh,” says Sid.

They walk towards the temple.

“That’s a good cause,” says Sid. “It’s worth fighting for. I mean, if this works, our ally on the planet will transcend— but—”

He frowns.

“Will she get superpowers? I mean, like, omnipotence and stuff? ‘Cause that’s usually bad, even if it seems good at first.”

Christine flails her hands about, looking for a way to explain. “Grace,” Christine says. “She’ll get grace and she’ll touch us all with it. She’ll change what things are. —But not omnipotence.”

“Good,” says Sid.

There’s a laser blast. One, maybe two, of the other natives fall.

Sid turns around.

“What the hell?”

There’s a man advancing on them. He’s got a gun in his hand. “I’ll take that box, Sid,” he says.

“You—”

Sid drops the box. He goes for his gun. But he’s not fast enough. The laser hits him. Sid’s outline flares with light and then he’s gone.

Christine backs away, slowly.

“You’re some kind of renegade admiral, aren’t you?” she says. “Don’t you know what you’ve done? Your people become valueless when you die!”

But the renegade admiral only snorts.

“He’s a redshirt.”

“Huh?”

“They’re not like you or me, you know,” says the admiral, seizing the box, putting it under his arm. “They don’t get their meaning from life.”

“Oh,” says Christine.

“They’re the dying kind.”

COMMERCIAL BREAK

Containment

The candy man lives alone.

He lives in the house on the hill. It is surrounded by a great shadowy lawn, and around that lawn a gate of cold black steel.

Guards patrol the premises.

Every year Mr. Schiff pays off the local municipal and state authorities to make sure that nobody bothers the candy man.

1

The Candy Man

“He’s full of candy,” says Jane, conspiratorially.

“Huh?” Michael says.

“Full of it! Like, a giant sock full of chocolates in the shape of a man. And cherry candies and butterscotch.”

Jane and Michael are breaking into the candy man’s estate. It’s a rite of passage for kids in the city, breaking into the candy man’s estate. For most kids, the rite is actually getting caught trying to break into the candy man’s estate. But Jane’s as clever as three tacks and Michael’s not so bad, so they’ve actually made it onto the grounds.

“I don’t like candy much,” says Michael.

Jane laughs.

“It’s okay,” she says. “There’s more for me.”

This is a horror story, just so you know. It’s got a man made out of food and a bleak dark estate. So if Jane doesn’t act quite like herself, that’s the reason why.

Jane and Michael creep across the lawn.

There’s a camera whirling to track their movements. But Jane throws a handful of flour into the air.

“Huh,” says the guardsman who’s watching the camera. “I’ve seen that trick. She’s trying to spot someone invisible by their shape in the air—or their footprints.”

He starts scanning the cameras for someone invisible, and he never quite gets around to warning the house that Jane and Michael are on their way.

That’s exactly like Jane planned.

Later, there’s a Doberman growling at Jane from the topiary.

“Michael,” says Jane. “Doberman.”

Michael pulls out a gun. He points it at the Doberman. He says, “Freeze.”

The dog goes very still. It doesn’t want to get shot.

“Now,” says Michael. He squats down. He looks the dog in the eyes. “You attack us, maybe I get bitten, maybe you get shot, it’s no good for anybody. So maybe you’d just better be on your way, and pretend like you never saw us.”

The dog shakes itself vigorously. Then it makes a little gruff bark of acknowledgment.

“Good boy,” praises Michael.

He scruffles the dog’s head.

The dog skulks away. Nobody gets bitten. Nobody gets shot.

Finally, Jane’s reached the lower window of the house. She’s looking in. She can see the candyman sitting by the fireplace. He’s brooding and reading Vampire: the Requiem. Perhaps he is brooding because he is sad, or perhaps because the game has no mechanics for vampires made of candy.

“See?” says Jane. “See? He’s all lumpy with tasty treats!”

“He’s brooding,” says Michael. “Let’s just go. I hate breaking into angsty people’s homes.”

“He’s just lonely,” says Jane.

She knocks on the window.

In the room, the candy man rises. He turns his face towards the window. His face is like a man’s, but lumpier.

He walks to the window. He opens it. He blinks out at Jane.

“. . . yyes?”

“Please, sir,” says Jane. “Might I have some candy?”

There is an alarmed sound from inside. Someone is getting up from another chair—not a chair visible to the window, but a chair nevertheless. It is Mr. Schiff, the butler.

“No,” Mr. Schiff says.

Mr. Schiff is stiff and formal.

“The master does not give candy to intruding children,” he says.

The candy man opens his mouth. His marshmallow teeth shift about. He says, “But they seem kind,” he says.

“Your dear parents,” says Mr. Schiff, “may they rest in peace, did not make you to be fed to children, sir.

“I’m sorry,” says the candy man. “But I can’t feed you. You’ll have to go to the hole.”

So they do.

2

The Pinatas

Shelley and Sid could never have children.

Slowly over the years of their marriage Shelley grew wan and tired. Her eyes sank into dark circles. Sid grew brusque and distant. His stomach ulcerated.

Their love became a chain.

Then, 30 years ago last May, Sid found out that radiation leaking from one of his defective nuclear power plants had animated the pinatas in a nearby manufactory.

“They’re giant mutant pinatas now,” said Mr. Schiff.

“Contain them,” said Sid.

“Sir?”

“I want them locked up. I don’t want any evidence of it. Bury them in a hole and cover them over and burn the records of the plant.”

“As you wish, sir.”

And Sid retreated to his office, and there he drank for many a long night.

When he came home for the next time his eyes were clear and tired.

“Shelley,” he said, to his wife. “We will never have an heir of our flesh.”

And Shelley nodded.

“But we will make a tiny candy man,” said Sid. “And then nuclear radiation will bring him to life, and give him unnatural human size.”

“Is human size unnatural?” said Shelley, her brow pinching. But after a moment she understood.

They made the candy man, and life was happier for a time.

Then the pinatas got free somehow and found them.

Stomp! The pinatas crushed Shelley. Sid shouted, hoarse. He tried to run.

Stomp! The pinatas crushed Sid.

“Hey!” realized Sid, after a bit. “I’m surrounded by candy. This isn’t so bad.”

But he never said anything after that, not ever.

So it probably was.

3

Buried

Mr. Schiff takes Jane and Michael to the hole. It’s a hole in the ground covered with planks.

“Are we under arrest?” says Jane.

“Heavens,” says Mr. Schiff. “No.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

“Jolly good,” says Michael.

“You’re vanishing,” says Mr. Schiff.

Briskly he pulls aside the planks and then he shoves them in the hole.

This, Jane thinks to herself, would be an excellent time to scream.

Jane opens her mouth to scream. Then she realizes that while she was thinking she’s already fallen the whole way and landed on something soft and yielding.

“Huh?” Jane says.

She looks around. Michael is also there.

“You, too?” Jane says.

“Too much thinking,” Michael says.

Great fabric eyes blink at them.

“Hey,” Michael says, poking the softness on which they sit. “Pinata.”

Above them Mr. Schiff is putting the planks back in place, one by one. The light above is fading.

The pinata rumbles, “I am the last.”

“Pardon?”

“I am the last of the giant mutant pinatas to reside here,” it says. “I helped the others up, but they could not free me. It is because my leg is torn.”

“Oh,” says Jane. Then she blinks. “What?”

“If I leave this place,” says the pinata, “I will fall apart, delighting children everywhere with the river of candy that spills forth.”

“Heh,” says Michael.

“What?”

“People are scared of giant mutant pinatas,” Michael says. “You’re too adaptable. There’s too much of a risk that you’d displace humanity. No, children wouldn’t be delighted at you.

Jane’s eyes are very round as she contemplates the river of candy. She does not appear to have heard Michael’s speech.

“Alas,” sighs the pinata.

Then Jane snaps out of it. She shakes her head firmly. “We’ll help you,” she says. “We’ll fix your foot. Then you can burst out of here and free us!”

“No call to be lawless, child,” says Mr. Schiff, up above.

“It’s not lawless!” Jane protests.

Michael points out, “It’s got to be violating some kind of code.”

“Oh,” says Jane, deflated. Then she perks up. “But I’m naturally lawless!”

“It’s okay, Mr. Schiff,” says Michael. “We won’t help the pinata.”

But they do.

Late that night, when the sky is black and the moon is fuzzy white, the planks erupt away from the hole. There is the high-pitched shriek of a pinata on the hunt.

“I am the night,” says the candy man.

He is considering holding a live-action Vampire roleplaying game on his estate. He has already contacted a gaming association. He is practicing his roleplaying now, wearing a black cloak and a pale shirt and two fake fangs of white chocolate Hershey’s kisses.

“Fear me,” he rumbles. One hand gestures, indicating his use of a supernatural fear-inducing power.

The pinata does not fear him. The pinata squishes him. The candy man’s skin is the first to burst, and candies pour from him like insects from a corpse.

He falls, and the pinata moves on.

There is candy everywhere, and a copy of the gaming association’s bylaws fluttering half-open on the ground. Jane and Michael, the guards, and scattered children from the city gather over his empty flesh. They feast on his innards.

And Mr. Schiff is there—too late, for once, but there nevertheless.

“What is this?” he demands, through clenched teeth.

He flails his hands.

“Get away from that! That’s my dear departed master’s son!

Candy falls from Jane’s nerveless fingers. Mr. Schiff is terrifying when he flails his hands.

“But I said they could,” mumbles the vacant mouth of the candy man crushed. “When they found me. I said they could eat.”

Mr. Schiff’s eyes are flinty. He does not approve.

“Oh,” he bites out. “Oh, sir.”

The Arachnophobe

Sid’s the guy who called Martin in. He’s wearing a secondhand suit that’s just a bit too tight.

“My phone,” Sid says. “It’s not working. It needs sanitization.”

Martin looks at him. Martin is wearing a snappy blue-black uniform and cynicism shades. There is an official telephone repairman’s knife at his belt.

“What did you do to it?” Martin asks.

Sid looks as if he has no idea what Martin could possibly mean.

Martin reaches for the phone.

Sid says, “Wait.”

Martin raises an eyebrow.

“I want to go with you,” says Sid. He looks a bit nervous. “Just to make sure that you don’t do anything inappropriate.”

“I’m a licensed telephone repairman,” says Martin.

“Aren’t you a bit young?”

“Social security lost my birthdate,” says Martin. “When you don’t have good social security records, you’re only as young as you feel. Sir. I can handle this.”

“Discreetly?”

Martin’s gaze is flat.

“It’s just,” says Sid, “I make a lot of personal calls on this phone.”

“Uh huh,” Martin says.

“So I’d like to come along.”

The clock ticks.

“Fine,” Martin says. He takes Sid by the hand. He picks up the phone. They hook down into the line. Then Sid’s house is empty, then Sid and Martin aren’t there, and the only sound left is the angry buzzing of the untended line.

Sid and Martin are in phonespace.

Inside phonespace the walls are covered with spiders and their webs.

Sid shrinks in on himself.

Martin looks around.

A spider scuttles up the outside of Sid’s pant leg. Sid makes a horrified noise and shakes it off.

“Ring!” says the spider, rattled. “729-8423!”

Little stars and birds circle its head. Then it eats the birds. Spiders like to eat birds, but only if the bird is small relative to the spider.

“Well?” says Sid.

Martin looks around. He starts picking a careful path through the spiders towards a junction.

“Kill them!” says Sid. “You have Raid!”

“Raid?!”

That shriek isn’t Sid. It’s from the spiders. They’ve seen the commercials. They know what to shriek. They scuttle away from Martin and Sid.

“No Raid,” emphasizes Martin.

The scuttling quiets.

“The spiders aren’t the problem,” Martin explains. “Not unless they get out of hand. You need spiders to maintain a good phonespace.”

The spiders slump, relieved.

Martin reaches out. He seizes a spider’s abdomen between thumb and forefinger. He holds it out to Sid.

“This is the (800) spider,” he says. “Kill this, you can’t make (800) calls.”

He shakes it. Somewhere in the distance, a phone rings.

“Hello?” the spider says.

Martin tosses it aside. It lands with a click and scuttles off into the pack.

“Oh,” says Sid.

“This,” says Martin, holding up another, “is an unsanitized spider.”

He dusts it off with a little feather duster.

“Um,” says Sid. “Er, yes. About that one.”

“I don’t care, sir,” says Martin.

He releases the spider. Martin looks around. He counts spiders.

“All right, guys,” he says. “Who’s missing?”

There is silence.

Martin’s hand falls to the knife at his belt. Very carefully, very deliberately, he wraps his fingers around it.

The spiders are very still.

Martin pulls the knife the first inch from its sheath.

There is a flurry. All the spiders scuttle away in every direction; save for one, an ancient long-legs, who creaks out, “Stop.”

So Martin stops.

“It’s the (888) calls,” says the long-legs. “They’re the best targets. You know that.”

“Targets?” says Martin.

“For the arachnophobe.”

Martin slides the knife back into its sheath.

“Where?” Martin says.

The long-legs mutters numbers to itself. It is shivering with nerves.

Martin goes very still. His head turns, a centimeter at a time. He looks over his shoulder. He looks up at the ceiling.

“What?” Sid says.

“Whisht,” Martin says, harshly.

“What?”

Sid turns. It’s a clumsy, self-important turn. He looks up.

The ceiling is covered with eyes and colors. They are shifting and moving and twisting. It takes Sid a full second to process the image; he is gasping in fear and falling back onto the floor before he realizes that they are the folding and unfolding wings of butterflies.

“Gack!” he says.

It’s a sharp, terrible sound.

The butterflies swarm down.

Martin is already in motion. He’s grabbing Sid. He’s dragging him back. There are butterflies in Sid’s hair, mouth, and eyes. They’re scraping their antennae along the hair of his arms. He can’t smell anything but nectar.

“Git!” says Martin.

He’s cutting them away from Sid with the blade of the knife. Sid isn’t in a condition to notice that neither his skin or the butterflies are being hurt; he simply curls in on himself and moans, all the more so when he realizes that spiders are hiding behind his back.

“Git!” says Martin again, more sharply. The butterflies scatter. Many of them have bits of Sid’s hair or tiny spiders clutched in their six hands.

Sid collapses backwards against Martin, shuddering and shivering. Martin holds him awkwardly while keeping the knife ready in his other hand.

And Mr. Flutter strolls in.

He’s a calm man, Mr. Flutter. There’s no expression in his eyes and his upper and lower teeth are two uncut sheets of enamel. He’s wearing a white suit and his face is pallid.

And Mr. Flutter says, “Oh, Martin, you shouldn’t bring fresh meat.”

“He insisted,” Martin says.

“It divides your attention,” Mr. Flutter says. His mouth opens and closes a few times. He tilts his head sideways and stares at Martin. “I think I’ll get you this time.”

“As if,” says Martin.

“We’ve gotten a bumper crop of the spiders this time,” says Mr. Flutter.

“Yes,” says Martin. “And this poor idiot here can’t even make his (888) calls because of it.”

Mr. Flutter shrugs gaily. “Nor can he call his aunt Stella, not that he even tries.”

Sid makes a bleary noise of protest.

“It’s all the same to me,” says Mr. Flutter.

“Give them back,” says Martin.

Mr. Flutter hesitates.

“Now, Martin,” he patronizes.

“All of them. I want all of the spiders of this phonespace put back now. Or we’ll see who gets who.”

Mr. Flutter’s teeth grit together.

“They’re mostly transformed already,” he says.

“You’re transforming my phone spiders?” Sid says.

He lurches to his feet. He shakes his fist at Mr. Flutter in outrage.

“I need those for my personal and business calls!”

Mr. Flutter backs away.

Sid advances, tottering a little, one fist whirling.

“Sir,” says Martin. “Please don’t involve yourself in a delicate phone sanitization operation. Verizon can’t be responsible—”

“Shut UP!” says Sid.

That’s when Mr. Flutter catches Sid’s wrists in his cool, delicate hands and spits a viscous fluid full into Sid’s face.

It’s several hours later that Sid wakes up.

He holds his hand to his head dizzily.

“You’re lucky,” says Martin.

“Hm?”

“There’s no one monitoring this service call,” Martin explains. “So a lot of my coworkers would have just eaten you while you were unconscious.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“But I didn’t,” Martin says, unnecessarily.

He’s hoping for a positive customer review.

Sid blinks at Martin. His vision is still a bit fuzzy. “What happened?”

“I sanitized your phone,” Martin says. “I got back as many numbers as I could. There are going to be a few places you can’t call until the next hatching season, though.”

“I didn’t know,” says Sid. “I thought that you just . . .”

“Went in and giggled over the numbers you’ve been calling lately, then sprayed a little Raid around and called it a day, sir?”

“Yes,” says Sid.

“They’re all over,” says Martin. “The arachnophobes, like Mr. Flutter. They’re terrible for phone service. They bring in their army of butterflies and carry number spiders away. But I got him this time. He’s laying in your phone space slowly decaying with a knife through his heart.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

He hesitates.

“Good.”

He pauses.

“What happens to the spiders?” he asks, casually.

Martin shrugs. “They turn into butterflies, I suppose.”

Martin stands up, sharply.

“I’d approve,” Martin says. “I think. But I’m a sworn phone repairman. A company man. I have to do what I have to do. You understand?”

Sid nods.

“We’ll be sending one or more bills,” Martin says, curtly, and leaves.

That’s a disquieting proposition, but it isn’t what’s bothering Sid right now.

What’s bothering Sid right now is the tiny twitching buds he can feel, under his constrictive suit, growing on his back.

(Still Sick) Stacking Mammals and Sid

Gelling agents are often made from various emotions. It is very inefficient to use happiness as a gelling agent, while sadness is extremely effective. That is why Jell-O jiggles so often so tragically. However this story is not about jiggling or gelling, but rather about stacking mammals and Sid.

It is possible to stack mammals to achieve almost any desirable effect. This requires sticky mammals, such as sticky goats and sticky elephants. These are sticky mammals because they adhere to one another and they bear live young. Sometimes this is a consequence of pregnancy and at other times a consequence of inappropriate stacking. Always read the assembly instructions before stacking mammals!

Not every mammal is naturally sticky. You can test this out. Attempt to stack a cat on a dog. They may cuddle happily, or they may completely fail to adhere. That’s because their natural stickiness isn’t adequate to the task of stacking. You can also perform this experiment with cats and easily surprised pandas. Take note of the fact that this will surprise such pandas.

In order to make mammals stickier one can use a gelling agent. This renders the mammal in question into a gelatinous mammal. Gelatinous mammals are always sticky.

Some gelling agents are made with glue. Others are made with happiness!

In the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals there are many mammals made gelatinous with joy and stacked into useful configurations. There is a stack of mammoths that forms the local government and end-to-end opossums that provide advanced communication services. Always the mammals there are happy, and their land is full of rainbows and gumdrops and singing.

Among the mammals move the shimmer-things, which are things that manifest as visual distortions, or, shimmers. Some of the mammals think these things are angels. Others hold different characteristic beliefs regarding the shimmer-things.

Sid is a gelatinous ostrich. He lives in the Valley of Happy Gelatinous Mammals. It is the default consensus in scientific circles that ostriches are not mammals, but there are many specific objections that serious researchers have raised to this classification. These include the very real possibility that the “ostrich eggs” sold on the market are in fact buffalo eggs. If you have ever savored a hearty buffalo steak over fried ostrich eggs and hashed platypus then you probably understand why many important culinary institutes support this theory. This is the basis on which the shimmer-things made Sid gelatinous and stacked him in the Valley with the others.

“Can you make it rain?” Sid asks the shimmer-things.

The shimmer-things stack the mammals appropriately to make it so. The sky glooms. Thunder rattles. Then lightning spears down and rain drums against the earth.

Sid hides his head in the ground. That’s how impressed he is!

Then he pulls his head out. He looks sly.

“Can you make China untether the yuan from the dollar?”

The shimmer-things form a swirling vortex of indecision. Then they whisk about restacking happy animals.

“Whee!” shouts a lemur, as it is rapidly rearranged relative to various wildebeests.

“Grmf,” grumbles a gelatinous bear.

“In a move that could trim the trade gap with the United States, China revalued its currency higher against the dollar Thursday,” says CNN.

Sid hides his head even deeper in the sand this time. He’s very impressed.

But after a while, he pulls his head back out.

“So,” says Sid slyly, “if I wanted to see what being unhappy was like, you could just restack some mammals and I’d know. Right?”

The shimmer-things rotate in a fanblade array.

“Hm?” challenges Sid.

“No,” say the shimmer-things.

Sid looks blankly at the shimmer-things.

“If we’d wanted to make gelatinous mammals unhappy,” explain the shimmer-things, “then we could have stacked them much more efficiently in the first place.”

Drunkard’s God: “The Ale-Man”

Yesterday, in Drunkard’s God: “The Wine-Ogre”, we met . . .

. . . Sid, a crusty old lawman.
. . . Claire, an angel who lives in his hip flask.
. . . and a nameless wine-ogre!

The world used to belong to the drunkard’s god, and teetotalers like Sid were feared and hated. The cycle flipped. The teetotaler’s god rose to the top. And he’s still on top now.

That’s why people who drink too much wine turn into inhuman wine-ogres.

That’s why people who take drugs transform into monsters and then explode.

That’s why Sid’s got a cross that shoots Godlight.

And it’s why Sid thought Max was dead.

There’s no other possible fate for a teetotaler gone bad. Max turned on his god and went to the saloon, but they didn’t make him a drunkard. They sucked the life out of him. They drained him dry. They turned him to powder. And the teetotaler’s god would never have saved him.

He has to be dead.

But Max isn’t dead. So the wine-ogre said. Max is alive.

He’s an ale-man now.

Drunkard’s God


The Ale-Man

Sid staggers to the steps of the Church and he sits down and he upends his hip flask and Claire falls out.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Hi, Sid!” says Claire. “Did you know that Columbian drug lords can eat people’s souls? Also, second-hand smoke kills!”

“Knew it,” says Sid. “Lost a friend to second-hand smoke back in ’08.”

Claire pouts.

“Man,” she says, “your checkered history ruins all my fun.”

“What’s an ‘ale-man?'” asks Sid.

“It’s somebody whose skin’s been hollowed out so that you can pour ale in,” says Claire. “They’re lurking horrors who’ll get you drunk if they touch you.”

“Huh,” says Sid. “Didn’t know that.”

Claire beams. She spins around, unfurling her wings and glowing in every direction. “The more you know!” she carols.

“But it don’t make sense for Max,” says Sid. “What with them dehydrating him and all.”

“Enh,” shrugs Claire. “Lots of different kinds of ale-men. Like, there’s light ale-men that can fly, and dark ale-men that live in shadows, and German ale-men who are possibly heartier than the frontier types. Sometimes the drunkards’ll import a German ale-man in hopes of flipping the cycle back to the drunkard’s god, but it never works, because really German ale is overrated.”

“Oh,” says Sid.

“So maybe they rehydrated him—with booze!”

That night Sid goes home to his cold bed and he holds his crucifix tight and he doesn’t sleep for a long time; and when he does, it’s intermittent and light.

“Hey,” says Max.

Sid startles awake.

He flounders for his crucifix. It isn’t there. Sometime during the night he must have dropped it.

He looks around. His heart’s pounding so loud he can’t hear the night.

“Max?” he says.

But Max isn’t there.

Sid waits for morning. Then he goes through his day’s work. He goes through it hollowly. It’s like he’s just walking through the motions. It’s like the Law isn’t holding him together any more.

He prays in silence before the big statue of the Ten Commandments, the official one, with Aaron’s additions down at the bottom.

He arrests and cleans up a woman who’d started getting tipsy on life. She’s glad of it, and horrified about what might’ve happened, and she thanks him when he’s done. Her drab gray dress touches the ground as she curtsies. He’ll remember her sparkling smile for the rest of his life.

He wanders the streets of Respite looking for trouble to fix.

Then a stagecoach rushes by and almost hits him. He staggers back towards an alley. Hands are wrapping around his arms and mouth and they pull him back and in. He smells the reek of liquor before he shuts down his nose and tightens his sinus passages against the stench.

“Sid,” says Max.

“Let me go,” whispers Sid. “Let me go, Max. Won’t tell anyone you’re alive. Won’t do it.”

Max snorts.

“You would,” says the ale-man. “I know you, Sid. You’d turn me in in a devil’s second.”

Sid is briefly confused because he doesn’t recognize that unit of time.

Then he shrugs.

“Yeah,” admits Sid. “I would.”

There is darkness all around Sid, now. He’s in the alley world, in the booze-world, far away from the bright-lit city streets. Max lets go, shoving Sid against the wall.

“I want to give you a chance,” says Max.

Sid snorts.

“You can still live, Sid,” says the ale-man. “You can go over to the drunkard’s god.”

Sid looks Max over. Max looks pretty much the same, except his skin’s just a bit sloshy when he moves and he’s got great splitting horns like a stag’s.

“You’re a horror, Max. A heck of a thing.”

“Don’t you understand?” says Max. “I can save you. He’s a good god, the drunkard’s god. He’s better. He frees you.”

“No,” says Sid.

Sid spits to the side.

“You’re drunk. You’re evil. You’re everything we always swore we’d never be.”

“Sid,” says Max.

There’s a pleading note in his voice. “C’mon, Sid. Don’t be like that.”

“It’s never going to happen to me.”

Now Max’s eyes harden. Now he’s standing straight. “But it will,” he says.

He reaches for Sid. His ale-man’s hand seals over Sid’s mouth. There is the reek of alcohol all around Sid and Sid’s feeling himself going fuzzy. So he does the only thing he can.

Sid pours out Claire.

“Hi, Sid!” says Claire. “Hi, Max! Did you know that marijuana opens a gateway to the Most Terrible He—”

Claire pauses. She assesses the situation.

“Oh,” she says.

Sid is fading. He can feel his soul twisting. He is becoming drunk.

“I’ll save you!” says Claire.

She opens her wings. Godlight flares in the booze-world. It sears through Sid. It sears through Max.

“Crusty old fool!” says Max.

Sid smirks, through the fog.

“Whee!” shouts Claire, the power rushing through her.

It burns both Sid and Max to shreds.