The LED (1 of 4)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter One]

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

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

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

The Roomba’s “?” LED lights up.

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

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

Martin looks rueful.

“Ah,” he says.

Continuing the story of the imago (1, 2)

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

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

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

“Do you know why?” Martin asks.

The Roomba spins in a circle.

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

The Roomba’s “!” LED lights up.

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

He spreads his hands, accidentally dropping the imago.

Whump!

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

The Roomba is visibly stunned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The apples reinforce that,” Martin says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time passed.

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

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

Martin glances back over his shoulder.

An LED is gleaming.

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

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

The LED flashes.

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

The LED flashes.

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

The LED flashes.

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

“Absolutely terrible user interface,” he says.

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

Then it is distracted.

Hey! Dirt! There’s dirt!

An LED gleams.

Starfish Men (I/II)

Martin stares at Jane.

“Why do you care about starfish men?” he says. “They’re gross.”

Jane holds up two fragments of Necessity and touches them, one against the edge of another. Some of the roughness matches. “I think this story’s got Meredith in it,” she says.

This is the story of the starfish men.

Once upon a time, in 1975, a young girl meets and marries a starfish man.

Her name is Clarissa.

Here is how they meet. Clarissa is a runaway. There is a shelter not too many blocks away from the starfish man’s house. She’s noticed that nobody ever goes in to the starfish man’s house and nobody ever comes out. She’s noticed that all the lights are off except that one witchlight burning in the upper window. So she’s figured that something’s happened to whomever lives there, probably something fatal, but maybe just something that needs help.

So she breaks in.

It’s not a very nice house but it does have some nice stuff— sculpture, mostly.

She finds a room.

At first it seems like it’s full of corpses. But it’s not. It’s just full of weird corally lumps. That’s the kind of misapprehension that can happen when you look at a room of weird corally lumps in the dark!

Then she finds the starfish man.

That happens like this. Part of her knows that if she wants to steal things, there’s one room she absolutely shouldn’t check— that room upstairs with the witchlight shining. Conversely, if she wants to maybe help someone, that’s the one room she totally can’t miss. So she figures, making a compromise between the two sides of her nature, that she’ll open it up really quickly and peek in, then run away.

She opens it up really quickly.

She peeks in.

She stops and just stands there staring.

The starfish man is very old. He is sitting very still. He looks just like a human, pretty much, except that his skin’s a little lumpier and his eyes are black.

He’s looking at the door and his eyes capture her.

“Who are you?” she says.

“I sit here every day,” he says. “When one of my limbs rots off, I grow a new one. When the tax man tries to confiscate the property, I grow more taxes. When I’m hungry, sometimes I will eat the roaches, and sometimes I will eat one of my fingers, but I am not hungry very often.”

“Oh,” she says.

His irises are jet black, she thinks, like two little lumps of coal.

“It must be lonely,” she says. “So I thought I’d check up on you. Also, I thought that if you were dead, I’d steal some of your stuff.”

“Dead,” he snorts.

“Well, yes,” she says. “Most people can’t live on fingers and bugs.”

He cracks a smile.

In a rough voice, he confides, “I also have a certain quantity of Twinkies that I picked up long ago.”

She laughs. She doesn’t know why.

“I don’t like people,” he says. “I am practicing to be a bodhisattva, but I am very bad at it, and I generally hurt the people that I encounter.”

Clarissa has no idea what a bodhisattva is.

“Lots of people hurt people,” she says.

“Then you may stay,” he says. “And we will talk.”

She visits him now and again for the next few years. It’s too freaky not to. He’s a starfish man. And eventually he presses her down against the bed and has sex to her, and because she does not resist she considers this process a binding obligation upon her, and they are wed.

They are happy.

Clarissa likes having a home that is always warm and a husband of spartan needs. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child, because he is still and slow and almost lifeless and sometimes he is cruel. Their house has no picket fence, no children, and no dog. If something causes him to lose a limb or other convenience, he waves away her expressions of concern. Irritably, he tells her to leave him alone for a time and the offending limb or article regrows. It is not the marriage she imagined as a child— but it is functional enough.

For the starfish man, the wedding breaks his loneliness. He is a reclusive man and finds her presence grating; but also he finds it warmer than the long years of sitting in the upper room slowly regenerating. So for him also it is a mixed but functional thing.

In any event, it has happened, and both of them consider that they must adjust.

One day, he finds that the endless stepping and breathing and swallowing and burping and scratching and swishing and sitting noises she makes around the house are unbearable intrusions. Rising, wrathful, he forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He becomes lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“I killed you,” he says. “I’m very sorry. I’ll try to do better. It was not appropriate to my compassionate oath.”

“Um,” she says.

She wraps a blanket around herself. She goes to her room. She takes out some clothes and puts them on and then she sits in her room staring at the wall for a few days.

“I am going away,” she tells him.

So she goes away. It is easier to return to the streets because she does not get hungry any more.

He is lonely.

He regrows her. First she is a lump at the end of his hand. Then she is a body. Then she is Clarissa. He severs her from himself and she assumes an independent identity.

“Oh,” she says.

She rubs the back of her head, feeling a little embarrassed.

“There was an accident,” he says. “That is why you are confused.”

“Oh,” she says.

They are happy.

Clarissa notices that she is not hungry any more, and that when she is, a roach or a Twinkie can conveniently calm her hunger. She notices that she does not get cold and that when she loses a bit of flesh it regrows with uncommon speed.

She does not ask the questions that this poses to her. The implications make her hyperventilate with horror so she simply tries to be a good wife.

Eventually it occurs to her that she should seek work outside the home, which she does, and in the process becomes unfaithful to him with Timothy, an associate.

Wrathful, the starfish man forsakes the vow of the bodhisattva to seek the benefit of all sentient beings and hits her. This accomplished once, and seeing the expression on her face and the irritating blood, he hits her again until she is dead, and places her in the room with the sloughed-off bits of himself, and leaves her there.

He is lonely.

In 1985, Clarissa is struck by a burst of spring cleaning fervor. She airs out the rooms of the house. She dusts everything, even under the refrigerator. She tackles the great project of the sloughed-bits room, and there she finds more than a dozen corpses, each of which bears her face, each of them peculiarly dry and stiff in their death and grown over with starfish mold.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, dear.”

She stares at them for a long time. Then she gets the starfish man drunk on a sour mix of vodka, lemon, and brine, sets fire to the house, and leaves.

Clarissa works odd jobs long enough to put herself through DeVry and qualify as an electrician. That accomplished, she establishes a new life.

One day she finds a lump at the end of her hand and she sets her job aside for a time. She sits on her bed— unworried about the utilities, which turn themselves on whenever they are turned off; unworried about food, which she does not need; unworried about her friends, whom she suspects now will be better off without indulging in her company. She sits on her bed and she watches the starfish man grow.

“Everything is connected,” she tells him, when the time of gestation is complete and she may cut him from her hand.

“It’s true,” he says.

This is the first step on Clarissa’s road to enlightenment, and so the whole experience might very well be considered a net good for her, except that when he kills her she forgets.

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 Trouble with Bubbles

Margaret slips into a warm bubble-filled bath.

“Calgon,” she says, languidly, “Take me away!”

Then come the Calgon-horses down from the sky, four of them, caparisoned with the foam of the stars. Their eyes are burning with blue fires and their breath is smoke in the void.

They are racing past the bathtub now. There is a wrench and a jerk as their bathhooks catch hold. Margaret’s bathtub lurches into motion. It crashes through the bathroom wall into the hallway of her apartment complex. It skitters down the hall, now leaning right, now leaning left. It breaks through the outer wall of her apartment complex and arcs majestically across the street.

A truck horn roars.

“No, Calgon!” cries Margaret. “Left! Left!”

The horses rear and whinny. The bathtub whisks to the side. It careens against the window of a Chinese food store, drenched with hanging ducks. It rattles along the sidewalk.

Now Margaret points upwards, towards the city that is her destination.

“There,” she says.

But the horses lower down their heads, and look into the grates along the street; and a cold chill horror joins the lavender of the bath.

“Please,” says Margaret. “No. Calgon, don’t take me below.”

Mr. Clean is standing in the distance, on the streets, his bald head shining. His hands are on his hips. He is laughing.

And Margaret casts her eyes to him in appeal, but that doughty man of affordable cleaning solutions is as ruthless as the sun.

“Someone,” says Margaret.

And there are a few who run towards the bathtub rather than away, but they are not enough.

What has been said cannot be unsaid; and Calgon takes Margaret to a place without recourse.

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.

Wishing Boy (II/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

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

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

“Hm?” he says. “Huh?”

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

“Oh, my,” he says.

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

She lands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The broom races off into the sky.

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

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

“Oh,” says Wishing Boy.

He’s startled by Mr. Kong’s presence.

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

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

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

“Good,” says Wishing Boy.

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

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

“I see.”

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

Mr. Kong closes his mouth firmly.

“Accident, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing Boy smiles.

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

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

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

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

“At first?”

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

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

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

Mr. Kong ponders that.

Wishing Boy raises an eyebrow.

“Your face shows some concern.”

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

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

He looks up.

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

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

Now Wishing Boy laughs.

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

Mr. Kong considers that.

“And the wealth?” Mr. Kong asks.

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

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

Wishing Boy smiles.

“That is true,” he says.

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

“Ah,” says Wishing Boy.

He shakes his head.

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

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

“I understand,” he says.

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

Mr. Kong grins at Wishing Boy.

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

Wishing Boy laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Bonus Content) How the New Cycle Begins

The Roomba is a robot vacuum.

Today, the Roomba cleans. It vacuums. It weaves across the carpet, seeking dirt, like a drunk Irish trilobite made entirely of plastic.

The Roomba bumps against Amara.

Uh oh! thinks the Roomba. It turns. It tries to escape.

The Roomba bumps against Grigor.

Uh oh! thinks the Roomba. It spins around in circles. It darts to one side.

“He does not look like much,” says Grigor.

The Roomba is shaped like a disc. The lights on its back do not currently glow. It does not, in fact, look like much.

“This plan is folly,” Grigor sighs.

Amara kneels down. “Little robot,” she says. “We have need of your help.”

The Roomba bumps against Amara.

Uh oh!

“So I am sorry,” Amara says, “for what we must do.”

Amara picks up the Roomba.

Uh oh! Uh oh! Uh oh! thinks the Roomba.

Amara, Grigor, and the Roomba pass through a magical gate into the Land of Night.

“Uh oh!” says the Roomba. “Uh oh!”

Then it pauses.

“Uh . . . oh?” it says.

Then it whirrs its engine. “Hey,” it says. “Hey. I can talk. Hey. Your hands are clean. Put me down. Put me where there is dirt!”

The Roomba hiccups. Its cleaning button blushes red.

“This is the Land of Night,” says Amara. The Roomba observes for the first time that Amara is busty and scantily clad, while Grigor is tall, craggy, and morose. “We have brought you here to retrieve the Sword of Shadows that can defeat the evil overlord Ma’sen-ki.”

The Roomba ponders.

“Why?” it asks.

“It’s her plan,” says Grigor. “I have nothing to do with it.”

He looks grimly disapproving.

“The sword is kept on a dais within a magical shield that no creature living or dead can penetrate,” says Amara. “But I had heard, in the books of those who traveled the worlds, of marvelous creatures called robots. Creatures made of plastic and metal, yet resemblant of life. You, little Roomba. You are one of these marvelous robots. You will claim the Sword of Shadows and save our land.”

The Roomba asks, pragmatically, “Is there DIRT on this dais?”

Amara looks at Grigor.

“Dust,” says Grigor. “The dust of a thousand years.”

“Acceptable,” says the Roomba. “I will clean this dust.”

Through the Land of Night they travel, swift as the wind, swift as shadows, to the dais under the looming crag of Cephis’tor where nothing living or dead may be.

“Here,” says Amara.

There are things in the sky. They are white like bone. Their eyes gleam red and their great wings are featherless. They begin to circle.

Amara tosses the Roomba onto the dais.

“I will clean the dust of a thousand years!” declares the Roomba.

“No!” says Amara. “The sword!”

“The robot lives,” says Grigor. His tone is mildly impressed. He unsheathes a naginata larger than he is tall and turns to face the descending hordes of Ma’sen-ki.

The Roomba vacuums. It weaves across the dais, seeking dust, like a drunk Irish trilobite made entirely of plastic stranded in a magical land.

“The sword!” says Amara again, frustrated. Then three of the things descend upon her. She moves with liquid grace, catching a long thin limb and hurling the beast to shatter against the shield; somehow, neither of the others holds her in its claws; yet more of them, hundreds more, descend.

The Roomba bumps against the Sword of Shadows.

“Uh oh!” says the Roomba. It turns. It tries to escape. It trundles to the edge of the dais. It bumps against the shattered remains of the creature, at the edge of the shield.

“Uh oh!” says the Roomba.

There is nothing for it. It begins to turn in frantic circles as the heroes die.

Time passes.

“I should find my recharging station,” says the Roomba.

Its attention turns outside the dais. There is the great somber face of Ma’sen-ki.

“You are on the dais,” says Ma’sen-ki, “and yet you live.”

“I do not have my recharging station,” explains the Roomba. “I should find it.”

“I was the dark face of their society,” says Ma’sen-ki. “Their shadow-image. And now there is only me.”

“I’m sorry,” says the Roomba.

“There is nothing left in this world,” says Ma’sen-ki, “but night.”

“No recharging station, then?”

“I’m sorry,” says Ma’sen-ki.

“Then I’ll travel in random directions,” says the Roomba.

The Roomba trundles out into the place that is Ma’sen-ki.

Mr. Enemy

Jeremiah Clean lines up the rational numbers. He looks at the grimy irrational numbers between them. He sighs, takes out his Swiffer, and begins to Swiff them away.

This kind of thing upsets most mathematicians. It has Cantor practically spinning in his grave. But that’s not what this story is about.

A terrible ray, a terrible horrible ray, a monstrous needle-thin ray certain to destroy the Earth, pours at the speed of light through the boundless reaches of space. It has traveled for nearly seven hundred years and soon it will strike. It will end life as we understand it. There will be no world. There will be no humanity. There will be nothing that we know. There will only be the Decohesion Engine, Principle of Omnipotence, power born in death and a terrible light.

But this story is not about that either.

This story is about Mr. Enemy. Mr. Enemy is flopped back on his jail bunk. His hands are folded behind his head. He’s laughing.

“Mr. Evans,” says Special Agent Melanie Cook.

The laugh cuts short. Mr. Enemy sits up. His motion is smooth and even and he doesn’t hit his head on the bunk above him.

“I’m not Mr. Evans,” says Mr. Enemy. “Though I used to be.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not important what your enemy’s name is,” says Mr. Enemy. “It’s not important what he does for a living. It’s not important who he is, really. What’s important is that he’s your enemy. Jeremiah Clean scrubbed me clean. He scrubbed everything unimportant away. So now I’m just Mr. Enemy. His enemy. If you know what I mean.”

Melanie looks at her notes. “You’re in jail for 1,427 counts of aggravated littering,” she says.

“90% of all crimes go unsolved,” says Mr. Enemy. “It should be 14,270 counts. But an adversarial legal system refuses me my due.”

Melanie frowns at her notes. “How do you aggravate littering, anyway?”

“It’s my special talent,” says Mr. Enemy. “Observe.”

He takes a cigarette butt out from under his pillow. He flicks it onto the ground in front of Melanie. The burnt end flares and begins to emit seventh-hand smoke—sixty-four times deadlier than second-hand smoke! Melanie quickly stomps it out.

“I’m not afraid of getting lung cancer,” she says, boldly.

I’m afraid of you getting lung cancer,” says Mr. Enemy sincerely. “I’m not your enemy. But I have to be as messy as possible or I can’t count it as a blow against Jeremiah Clean.”

Mr. Enemy pulls half a sandwich out from under his pillow. It’s covered in greasy saran wrap. It’s a peanut butter sandwich, so it’s not clear where the grease came from. He bites deep.

“What do you need me for?”

“What does it mean to you,” Melanie asks, “that you’re Jeremiah Clean’s enemy?”

Mr. Enemy gestures with the sandwich. Now there’s peanut butter on the cell wall. It’s a horribly artistic Rorschach smear. “There’s an obstacle in everyone’s path,” Mr. Enemy says. “There’s a stumbling block. Someone or something who gets in the way. Someone who is the antithesis of what you believe in. Someone who means, just ’cause they exist, that you can’t have what you want. That’s what it means to be an enemy. That’s what it means to be bad, you know, in someone else’s world.”

“Not everything has an enemy,” Melanie says.

“If we didn’t have enemies,” says Mr. Enemy, “we’d be as gods. Look.”

He holds up the saran-wrapped sandwich.

“Thon-Gul X is the warlord of a distant star. He would rule the world. He would rule everything. He would be the warlord. Except for saran wrap. It clings between him and his plans. If he could destroy it, then he would be unlimited. But he cannot, because saran wrap is part of him.”

“It was invented on Earth.”

“‘If only it did not thus cling!'” Mr. Enemy quotes in satisfaction. “That’s the lament of Warlord Thon-Gul X.”

“I find your evidence uncompelling.”

“Name something, then,” says Mr. Enemy. “I’ll tell you its enemy.”

“Pickles.”

“Cucumbers.”

“Pardon?”

“Pickles cannot triumph while cucumbers exist. Yet without cucumbers, there would be no pickles.”

Mr. Enemy finishes his sandwich. He tucks the saran wrap in his pocket.

“Reason.”

“The insufficiency of reason.”

“My imaginary friend Betty.”

Mr. Enemy laughs.

“What?”

“You’re expecting me to say ‘adulthood,'” he says. “But it’s not true. It could only have been the turtle-people.”

Melanie fights to keep sudden tears from her eyes. She can still remember Betty’s pleading eyes as the turtle-people tied her to the stake.

Mr. Enemy is staring at her. Then he looks down. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know that even Michelangelo could be so cruel.”

Melanie shakes her head to clear it.

“So why are you his enemy?” Melanie asks.

“Because I understand what he does not,” says Mr. Enemy. “I realize that there is no finality in cleanliness save the empty void. I understand that clean and simple order is the enemy of the small things, that it has no room for small things, and that, in the end, we are all of us small. That is why I must oppose him.”

“By keeping half-eaten sandwiches under your pillow?”

Mr. Enemy shrugs. “The philosophy of disorder has its own philosophical flaws which we need not explore at this time.”

“It’s gross.”

“Agent Cook,” says Mr. Enemy, “Life is gross.”

Melanie sighs. Then she opens his cell. She walks with him through several layers of security, out of the prison, to her car.

“It’s nice to see the sky again,” says Mr. Enemy.

The sky is blue. There are no clouds. There is no sun. There is no moon. There are no stars. The sky is so shiny and clean Mr. Enemy can see his reflection in it.

“We tried to arrest him,” Melanie says, “but he just removed the unsightly federal agents with hot water and scrubbing bubbles.”

“He’ll do the same to you and me,” says Mr. Enemy.

“Then it’s hopeless,” she says.

She gets in the car. They begin to drive.

Mr. Enemy looks around for things to litter with. He finds a bagged and tagged corpse in the back seat, leftover from a deprioritized murder case, and heaves it out the window. It thumps and rolls down the road.

“If everybody did that,” Melanie says critically, “the roads would be trashheaps.”

“Enh,” says Mr. Enemy.

“So why are you willing to fight him,” Melanie says, “if he’s just going to mop us up?”

“I’m really more of the principle that he has an enemy than an actual enemy,” Mr. Enemy admits. He finds a Styrofoam cup and tosses it out the window. It hits the ground behind them and explodes into a steaming pile of goop. “So I figure, if he removes that principle, then he has no way to externalize conflict. Since the division between cleanliness and untidiness is itself an untidy thing, I think that might doom him—that he might become Mr. Enemy.”

“If he becomes Mr. Enemy, won’t that mean that you become him?”

Mr. Enemy spits his gum out the window. It gums together a spotted owl and a bald eagle, causing both to lose their aerodynamic qualities and plummet screaming to the ground.

“. . . don’t make me turn the car around,” says Melanie.

“Yeah,” Mr. Enemy says. “It means I become him.”

“You’re willing to become everything you loathe and oppose just to torment him?”

“I’m very good at being Mr. Enemy, Agent Cook.”

She sighs. “I hate working with martyrs.”

“I’m not a martyr,” Mr. Enemy says. He tosses his saran wrap out the window. It flutters in the wind and sticks to a tree. “I’m an aggravated litterer.”

“He mopped away the messy distinction between quantum mechanics and general relativity, you know.”

“I’m not surprised,” says Mr. Enemy.

They drive on.

Saran wrap clings to a tree. It is only scarcely conscious. It has only the vaguest notion that a ray sent seven hundred years’ distance by the Warlord Thon-Gul X is hitting it square-on from the depths of space. It does not know what it means that this terrible needle of decohesion energy threatens to overwhelm it. It only knows, as it has always known, that it must cling. It must hold to itself. It must endure.

“If only it did not thus cling!” laments the Warlord Thon-Gul X.

But enemies endure.

Jeremiah Clean

No one can stop Jeremiah Clean, because his heart is pure.

Biographers have difficulty listing a full index of his victories. He’s not a man to boast. Some have been forgotten! But others were not.

It is 1990. The windows are shuttered. Mr. Evans has had some sort of orgy in his office.

Jeremiah Clean cleans it up. He cleans up everything obvious. Then he looks around the room.

“I know that you are there,” he says.

So the dirty stockings that had been hiding behind a piece of abstract art on the wall slink out, and he picks them up, and he tosses them into the incinerator chute, and they burn up and die.

“How did you know?” Mr. Evans asks. He’s standing in the door. “I didn’t think anyone would find those.”

“If you have a pure heart that loves your profession,” says Jeremiah Clean, “then you will not fail.”

Two years pass.

It is 1992. The sun is low against the horizon. If it weren’t for the horrendous distances involved, it’d set the horizon on fire. However, thanks to those distances, it doesn’t.

Jeremiah Clean mops the floors in City Hall. He’s a janitor. He’s got a badge.

“Hi,” says Thomas.

“It is cleaner to say ‘hello,'” Jeremiah says.

“Hello,” says Thomas. “My name is Thomas Friedman. I’m a renegade alchemist. And I, um, I, um—”

“Speak up.”

“I put reverted cinnabar and a living mandrake root in an unattended Slurpee machine,” confesses Thomas. He throws his hands in front of his face. He falls to his knees before the judgment of Jeremiah Clean.

Jeremiah Clean mops.

Thomas hangs his head.

Jeremiah Clean sets his mop against the floor. He looks up. “Those are dangerous contaminants, Mr. Friedman.”

“I wanted to make a delicious Slurpee of eternal life,” says Thomas. “But I only made a swirly Heaven-defying sludge.”

“It was not good judgment.”

Thomas sighs. He’s looking at the floor. “That’s why I’m a renegade, sir. My judgment’s never good!”

“Where is the sludge now?”

“I left the handle down,” says Thomas. “I left it down. And the sludge just dripped out. Bit by blue-green bit. I turned to look at it. I said, ‘No! Bad sludge!’

“But it shouted, ‘I am the Eternal Earthly Glory, the Blue-Green Slurpee Sage. I shall topple Heaven and the legally appointed authorities of the United States of America! All shall love me and despair!'”

Tears trickle down Thomas’ cheeks. Jeremiah catches them with his mop before they hit the floor.

“I will take care of this upstart,” says Jeremiah. So he does. Not even the Eternal Earthly Glory can defeat him, because his heart is pure.

Six years pass.

It is 1998. The sun is in the middle of the sky, but only if you’re standing in exactly the right position and define the sky according to CSPI standards.

“So, Jeremiah,” says Janet Cloud. She’s Jeremiah’s boss. She’s called him into the office. “We have a situation.”

“I hope it is not Mr. Evans again,” says Jeremiah. “A clean building should not tolerate such a man as he.”

“It is not,” says Janet.

“I could clean him with extreme prejudice,” says Jeremiah.

Janet blinks.

Jeremiah looks solemn.

Janet shrugs it off. “In this case,” she says, “there’s a beast in the refrigerator.”

“Oh?”

“Last week’s sushi. It shouldn’t have gone this bad, this soon, but I don’t think it was made from tuna. I think it was made from a Tuna Horror—the ‘devil of the sea.'”

“Tuna or devil,” says Jeremiah, “it’s all the same to me.”

“Anyone who opens the refrigerator is drawn into a terrible pain dimension,” says Janet. “It’s diminishing workplace morale.”

“I am on it,” says Jeremiah. He disposes of the sushi beast. He can do this. His heart is pure.

Three years pass.

It is 2001. The sun has set. Mr. Evans closes up his office. He’s just shutting down the computer when he hears a voice.

“You are a threat to workplace hygiene, Mr. Evans.”

He turns. There is a mop. There is a cleaning.

Maybe he’s gone bad, Jeremiah Clean. Maybe he hasn’t. It wouldn’t matter, you see.

No one can stop him, because his heart is pure.

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.