The Last Unspoken Words

It endures in timeless endings.

Something in it remembers its time of flesh and motion. It has no theory of this time. It has no process to cognize with. It does not relive its memories in temporal order or experience generalized nostalgia. It is simply imprinted on its lifeless form that once it lived.

It experiences the slow decay of its moment of ending.

Then a creature of bony legs and fingers kneels down beside it and touches it through the skull and into the brain.

“Wake,” the creature says.

A hunger stirs. It arises from every part of the dead thing’s body and suffuses through its returning consciousness.

The dead thing hungers for the warmth of the living.

“I am death,” speaks the bony creature.

The dead thing does not understand.

It only knows a few words; its name, perhaps, if it were to be reminded. Treat. It knows the word “treat.” And also “bacon.”

“I am death,” the bony creature says, “or at least, a kind of death. I have made a bargain with a man you knew—”

And here a familiar scent drifts across the dead thing’s nose.

It is of pack.

Reflexive loyalty bursts through the creature’s consciousness; but even fiercer than the loyalty there is the hunger, for the scent is the scent of the living, of something warm and not dead, not moldering in the ground, not endlessly lifelessly alone.

“And,” the bony creature says, “he has broken it. He has not returned to me at the stated hour, but rather woven defenses and incantations about himself. So wake you and hunt you for his warmth and let us see if this man comes around.”

The bony thing departs.

The dog is hungry.

Its fur is matted with blood and dirt. And it realizes—perhaps—that it cannot have been dead as long as it imagined, for there is still more than 95% of its livingness with it. It is closer to the meat than to the bone.

It is buried, though, deep in the dirt.

Its master’s warmth is up; up, up, up, and in that direction, so says the path of scent.

The dog begins to dig.

It itches briefly. It wriggles its head and would snap, if it could, at the source of the itch. But it is buried and still its motion is much impeded by the ground; and further, the fleas that bothered it are dead.

It knows this through some preternatural sense possessed by a risen canine.

They are dead. They are cold. They are only giving the dog the memory of an itch, the memory of a bite, where they linger in the shrouds of its fur clung tight against its flesh.

It is unjust.

The dog pauses for a moment in the course of its dig.

It did not think very well when it was a living dog, and it thinks less well now. But still, it thinks, this is unjust.

So the dog whispers to the fleas the secret of awakening, the words that wake the dead, and one by one they shake off the long and endless sleep and flex their legs.

“Ow,” mutters the dog: “Ow-wow.”

For the fleas had but to live before they bit.

There is a stillness in the grave and then, apologetically, one flea says, “That was a bit of ingratitude, I suppose.”

The dog grumbles, deep its dead throat.

“It is because we’re fleas,” says another flea.

The dog does not deign this with an answer. It only resumes its long slow clawing towards the surface of the ground.

“But we are grateful,” says the first flea. “We—”

Something strange happens to the flea’s voice at that point. The dog does not understand it. It is something raw and emotional but in the dialect of fleas; and while dogs may understand when a flea apologizes or speaks of bacon, they do not have all the nuances of the tongue.

“We are grateful,” the flea repeats.

It would be better, thinks the dog, after a fashion, if you would help me dig, than itch such words.

It breaks the ground. It rises.

It shakes itself and gets its grave-dirt all across the yard.

The scent is very strong now.

It shambles to the door.

“A dog shouldn’t kill its master,” opines a flea. “Not even when dead.”

“All part of the cycle of life,” another flea protests.

The theories of the fleas do not involve the dog’s name, nor “treat,” nor “bacon,” so the dog ignores them.

It scratches at the door.

Time passes.

It scratches at the door again.

Now there is something happening inside the house. Now there is a light—

“Aha!” exclaims a flea.

—and a sleepy shuffling, and the face of a beloved creature at the window by the door.

It is John!

The dog’s tail thumps, rotten, and it thinks: It is John! It is John! He is warm with the warmth of the living! I am so hungry for him, John!

John’s face goes pale. He makes a strangled sound. He backs away.

The dog scratches at the door again.

“He isn’t going to open it, guv,” observes a flea.

The dog stiffens his legs in protest.

“He’s just not. Look, he’s nailing the door shut.”

The noise that John is making is atypical for John. This frustrates the dog. John is not letting it in, and he is warm and living, and he is doing something interesting but not allowing the dog to participate.

Experimentally, the dog pushes against the door.

There is a creaking of wood and an explosive, terrified yell from John.

The dog panics.

Its claws tear through the wood. The hunger and the fear and the concern meld into one. It is ripping the entrance to the house apart.

And there is Gloria, the sound of Gloria, coming up to John, crying, “What is it, Daddy? Daddy?”

Fear reeks from John. It washes out from him. The door comes down:

“Take me,” John cries to the air. “Oh God. Oh God. You win!”

And he is down on his knees before the dog, sprawled with his hands out, and it would be the most natural thing in all the world to leap into his arms and wriggle with great joy and devour the flesh and warmth of the living—

Though is that good?

Is it good to eat one’s master’s warmth?—

But the war of instincts in the heart of the risen dog does not play out.

Its life instead deflates. Its brain and heart go still. It skids, dead again, across the floorboards and sprawls lifeless in front of John.

For death is here.

“No further protest, John?” speaks the bony death. “No more to run from me, no more to hide from me, no more the rituals and wards to keep me out?”

John speaks but his words are held in time and they do not register on the lifeless dog.

“Then,” says death, “you shall come with me, and be my dog, as this was yours; and we shall speak no more of breaking bargains.”

But John stops, as he goes out with death, and he kneels beside the dog, and he is cold as the dog is cold, and lifeless as the dog is lifeless, and he kisses its head with icy lips and whispers that the dog is good.

And then he moves away, and Gloria cries out, over and over again, in the empty house without her father and the cold corpse of the dog.

But that is not the story’s end.

For after a second long timelessness the dog finds a strange cold wakening; and it realizes that there is a flea deep in its heart, tunneled through the flesh, irritating it to motion; and another, with a mad scientist’s detachment, operating the levers and the ganglia of its brain.

“It woke me,” says the dog. “It woke me, but I was not warm.”

“You were never to have the warmth of the living,” whispers the flea inside its brain. “It used you and then discarded you, all to terrify a man.”

“So let there be revenge,” whispers the flea inside its heart, and irritates the dog’s heart’s lining with a cold red rage.

But the dog discards these thoughts.

I will find Gloria, it thinks.

A wave of hunger washes through it. It swallows the hunger. It drives it down into the deep cold emptiness of death and lets it pass away.

I will find Gloria, it thinks. And I will not eat her, if she is alive. I will make sure she is all right. And then I will find John.

These thoughts are horrifying to the flea that operates the levers of its brain.

It is as if the flea has woken some alien creature that it cannot control; as if the mastery of the substance of the brain gave no deep insight into its soul; or at least as if the process that it sought to wake was too complicated for the composition of a flea.

“It’s thinking weird doggy thoughts,” it cries out, to its brethren in the dog’s dead flesh. “I don’t know what it will do!”

There is a hum of consternation.

“Should I let it stop? Should I stop?”

But there is no flea so brave in its moral cowardice as to cry out, “Yes.”

And so the flea in the brain, and all the other fleas, surrender to the avalanche; concede to fate to ride the vehicle of the dog’s heart and brain and not control them; and juggle desperately the tools they have to keep the dog awakened as it moves in a direction they neither anticipate nor understand.

It shambles to the far corner of the farthest room in the house, where Gloria cowers, and it thrusts its cold dry nose into her face, and licks her with its rotten tongue; and it does not take the warmth from her save that which radiates as first she strives to push the dog away and finally, crying, to wrap it in her arms and whisper, “Daddy, daddy,” and “Hank, hank, dead hank,” which features the dog’s name.

The dog pushes her back and turns away.

Its body chills as it separates from her. It feels again the emptiness of death. But like so many it died with things unsaid, thoughts unspoken, a last breath lingering in its lungs.

So it howls.

The dog howls to wake the dead.

And in that howl is loneliness and emptiness and the great gap in its life where John should be; and also

there are

the words that wake the dead. The secret that is life. The thing that makes old rotten bones and new-wrecked flesh and even, on some level, the still-living, to move.

And hearing that cry, afraid of what it means, bony death comes to the door.

The dog anticipated this.

It had always known that death, if thwarted once, would soon return.

It meets death at the shattered door and stands on the threshold of the house and growls deep within its throat.

The bony death speaks words that are not “bacon.”

“I will quicken your understanding,” says the flea inside its brain.

It is difficult to modify a brain while keeping it alive; difficult to expand a consciousness while also you are sustaining it; it is a juggling act, and fortunate it is and more that fleas have each six legs.

“Foolish creature,” spake the bony death. “Have I not indicated I am done with you?”

The dog advances, stiff-legged.

Bony death sweeps its arm and strikes at the dog. The wind rising from that blow makes the house to shudder and Gloria to scream. The dog smashes back through a wall and through a cupboard, causing cans of peas and corn to fall around its broken form.

But the dead feel little pain.

It rises and it shakes itself. It walks forward once again.

The bony death makes a hollow under the house; the floor begins to sink and sift away, and the dog finds itself scrambling.

A dead woman’s hand rises from the earth to grip at the ankles of the bony death.

The kitchen is caving in around the dog. Its hip is struck by the sink and one leg fails. It is howling. But neither is the bony death in a state of weal.

It is a moment, a single sweep of a horrid scythe, to shatter the hand that grips it; but there is not just one last dead person in the world.

The howl of the dog has woken more than one.

It has risen all.

And so as death turns to look behind him he sees a great seething of the earth; a thousand hands, but more than hands, the very particulate essence of the world, rising to defend—

Well, something.

For it is not clear to him—to bony death—whether they seek to save the dog that he confronts or to enact a flea’s bleak sense of justice. He does not know as the wave of cresting death rises whether there is any path for him that does not end in silence.

“John,” he says.

A twisted thing is in his shadow. It smells of John. But its limbs are long and backwards bent and its body is dead and its eyes are full of madness.

“John,” says the bony death, “bring an ending to this creature.”

Then it turns, and leaps to the roof of the house, and bounds up towards the sky, to leave the scene that just might end in justice far behind.

The world ends to the east; it falls away, gaping with the graves empty of dead; and from the west a wave of hungry cold arises, cresting above the house and crashing down as the dog scrambles with its three legs to pull free.

A flea kicks hard on the lever of an instinct as the bony death leaps past and the kitchen sink slips free of its mooring to fall past the dog into the earth.

The roof is open.

There is a flash of bone beneath the dank gray robes of bony death, and the dog twists and leaps for it.

His teeth gnash hard and crunch into the marrow of the leg of bony death.

Like a spider John seizes the dog with his great long limbs and snaps at him with maddened jaws.

Caught in the wave, the house cants sideways and falls—slides—pours, crumbling, eastwards towards the great hollow there.

And all things would have ended there, save for this:

Though twisted and broken, still the servant of death was John; and when he flailed at the dog the dog understood that somehow he’d been bad.

It terrified the dog—

This strange and twisted beast that somehow was its master—

But if it was angry, then something must be wrong.

So the dog released his grip on bony death, and instead he whined, and whispered to John the secret that was life.

It woke John not for John was broken.

It woke John not for he’d given himself to death of his own will, and made it thus an extension of his life—

But it made a change in him, and with his great long limbs, still gripping the dead dog, he scrambled up the floor of the falling house, and seized Gloria, and threw them both away to tumble across the loam as the world caved in on bony death, and John.

So the dog and Gloria survived; or, well, escaped at least, and huddled close together on the remnant earth.

And slowly the dog cooled as the fleas did let it go, the last dead thing in a world woken all to life, and Gloria gripped it and shook it and offered it her warmth, which it had no way to hold but loved.

No Crutches for an Angel

The angel cannot see and cannot hear.

So he imagines forests.

The sun is hot and sometimes he tastes sand. But he imagines forests and talking animals. In the evening when he is thirsty he imagines that there is a river blue and clear. In the mornings he thinks that there is a pillow made of loam.

In his heart there is a drumming.

It drums because it is a warning. It drums because he will bring devastation. It drums the vengeance of the Lord.

It will burn the things around him.

It will burn with a terrible fire, unless he finds ten just and good and wholly righteous men.

“I think,” says a sloth, that is hanging from a tree, which the angel now imagines, “that you have already released this fire. For look, the sun is hot, and all around you there is sand.”

“Sometimes,” the angel says—

Though he cannot say much, as his tongue has melted to the bottom of his mouth—

“Sometimes I brush up against what seem like buildings, or I am pelleted with bullets. So I do not think that this is so.”

The answer is as haughty as a Queen’s.

“We sloths, we disagree.”

The angel stumbles on.

It is late in the day and he is tired and it is hard to hold back the fire that lurks behind the drumbeat in his heart when he meets Mikhael.

That is the name he gives the man.

He does not know the true name for the man because he cannot hear and he cannot see and he cannot speak. This is something that makes introductions difficult, particularly when you do not share a common tongue.

So he names the man Mikhael.

He says, “I feel you. I feel you in my heart.”

He is seized up. People grab his arms. Something goes over his head. He is pulled and he is dragged and his feet leave the ground.

Tum-dum, goes his heart.

Tum-dum.

He flares his great feathered wings. He makes a choked-off sound. He gargles.

But because he feels Mikhael near him, still, his heart retains some element of peace. He is frustrated. He is disoriented. He is angry and confused.

He is not enraged.

Something slides into his arm, metal in a vein, and time becomes a whirl.

“I feel you,” he says.

He is groping through a fever and looking for the sensation that told him that Mikhael was near.

“Ha,” laughs a duck. “You are an angel deaf and blind. What makes you think you are ever anything but alone?”

The sensation is distant. But he clings to it.

His heart still beats: tum-dum.

He is treated roughly. His wrists are sore.

Then he feels a mouth against his cheek. It is whispering to him through the vibration of his bones. It is too hard to hear but because his heart feels Mikhael he makes sense of certain words.

“You fell to earth,” says Mikhael. “And you were deaf and you were blind. And it is sad, because that makes it difficult to find a righteous man.”

“You have no idea,” says the angel.

It has a lot more humor and joy than something like that should have—gallows humor, but still this explosion of mirth in him, that someone would see that hidden pain and then think that perhaps the angel might not already be aware.

“You were captured,” says Mikhael. “Studied. It was decided that you should be turned loose against strategic targets. That you would wander here, in our homeland, until you failed to find ten righteous men. Then our land would be destroyed.”

“Ha,” says the angel.

He makes moaning, mumbling noises with his mouth. But what his heart says is, “You have no idea. You are making this about you. You are forgetting that I am laboring with every moment of my life not to hurt you but I am suffering myself.”

“You have been captured,” says Mikhael. “You have been bound. My people, they thought at first that they could contain you in this fashion.”

He makes an apology with his next words.

“I told them how to find you. I told them you were here.”

“Mikhael,” says the angel. “Will you bring me righteous men?”

“I am afraid,” says Mikhael, “that they have all been slain. There were never very many. There are children still, and dogs and cats, who are not unworthy. And they were indifferently incomplete in eliminating the women; three righteous such remain. But if it is only men whose hearts will serve then there are none; and if infants are excluded, then we can muster only eight. The rest are dead. They have been slain.”

The angel frowns.

“They have been slain,” he repeats.

“They were hunted for their righteousness,” says Mikhael. “It was elementary. There would be no point to send you here only to allow some incompetent discovery of ten righteous men to stop the fall of Heaven’s wrath.”

“Oh,” says the angel.

He turns his thoughts inwards for a time. He is thinking that perhaps Mikhael is righteous and that perhaps Mikhael is not. It is difficult to tell from the rough voice against his cheek and the tremor in his heart.

“Then you must hold me deep,” says the angel, “deep beneath the earth, deep in some far and isolated place, where the Heavens may rumble and the earth may crack but lives shall not be lost. Let the skies burn out their outrage against a nothing target and then all shall be well. —Or kill me.”

“I cannot do these things,” says Mikhael.

“But you must.”

“I have told them,” says Mikhael, “that you are an angel, and that we must therefore let you go. I have argued long and hard and finally I have won out. They fear me because I understand their hearts and they do not dare to go against this wisdom. They will hate me, of course. One day they will probably kill me out of fear. But while they let me live they listen to my voice and so they will let you go.”

“There are none?” asks the angel. His voice is a plea.

“The standards of an angel—“ says Mikhael. “They are not like ordinary men. I tell you, there are darknesses in every human heart. There are weaknesses and follies. They are not righteous. Save sometimes I would meet one of those who moved among us—frightening, inhuman, perfect, clear. They were the opposite of monsters, antipaths to devils that walked among us men. They shone and they frightened me and I thought that most likely they were as unworthy to live among us as we to live with them. They were obvious to those like me. They were obvious and easy targets and one by one their lives went out.

“They welcomed it, I think,” Mikhael says. “These are hard times for the righteous.”

“O,” cries the angel.

The bonds are stripped roughly from his wrists. He is dragged somewhere. He stumbles and he twists his leg but still they drag him on.

He feels the presence of a door.

“But I must kill you all,” says the angel, “if I find no righteous men.”

He falls onto the street outside. It is rough beneath his hands. He feels Mikhael go.

It comes to him softly there that if he is deaf and blind he must decide the presence or absence of righteous men upon his own; that the world, it cannot tell him, whether the angel now must act.

But he does not understand.

He does not see.

He does not understand how Mikhael let him go.

The Dynamite Trilogy: Space

Some people think the evil prophet of space is Christ reborn. Others want to measure him with scientific instruments. But everyone who approaches him dies!

“Space does not like you,” the prophet says to the teeming masses of humanity.

There are rivers of blood on the Earth in those first few days. The sky is full of fire.

“You look outwards towards space. You make puppy-dog faces. You project onto space with your purposes and expectations. Space is confused and nauseated by this! Space is not your frontier. It is a cold bleak void! You need to stop hoping and dreaming towards it. So I am here to kill everyone in hopes that this will make you stop!

“Hallelujah!” cries somebody in the crowd.

Then most of the listening people suffer explosive decompression and those that do not the prophet hangs from spikes.

Conventional weaponry does nothing. He walks through armies and leaves them ruins.

“I do this because it is prophesied,” says the evil prophet of space.

He is on a street corner in Boise, Idaho. He is eating his lunch, a tuna sandwich, on top of an overturned tank. Everyone has fled Boise save for an abandoned and unhappy dog but explaining himself is habitual for the evil prophet of space.

“Behold!” he says, and unfurls the scroll of his evil prophecy.

The scroll is covered in the gleaming golden letters of space. Hesitantly, angered by the evil prophecy, the abandoned dog barks.

Nuclear weapons fall upon Boise, Idaho. They crunch down around him like pine cones falling to the Earth. They burst into an extraordinary nuclear rage.

Potatoes mutate.

The dog dies.

All around the evil prophet of space fire blooms. But he holds up the scroll of his evil prophecy and says, “Paper beats nukes!”

And it is so.

The Earth takes its final measure of defense. The United Nations Security Council meets and unanimously votes to issue the Unlimited Cheat Code.

Konami Thunder Dancers all over the world plug the cheat code into their dance pads.

It enables the Great Network Dance.

Thus is finally realized the most glorious dream ever dreamed by a middle-aged Konami Corporation executive, that is, that people should hook their dance pads together via wireless Internet connection and dance the networked thunder dance to sweep away the evil prophet of space.

Riding the Symbol of the Gathering, the Dancers fly to Mount Hook.

They defy the evil prophet there.

And there are many. There are legion. There is old Margerie. There is hobbling Kalov. There is Ellen. But also there are Doug and Kasumi and Ben and Christine and Dancer X and Hot Coffee and Footwork and Phobos and many more.

There are gathered there all of the legends and most of the minor experts of the dance.

The evil prophet looks at them.

A warm and tender smile spreads across his face.

“Why,” he says. “You’ve actually got something interesting.”

Then the wind of the dance falls on him howling. It rends him. It rips him apart as he has ripped apart others. He hangs in the air in pieces. His hands and his feet and his mouth scrabble at the air to try to draw him back together again.

Ellen dances the Scissors and the Dynamite.

Margerie throws Glory.

And so many others! So many Symbols! There is even a sweat-drenched beginner in the back desperately dancing Misshapen Metal Lump in opposition to the evil prophet of space.

Thunder peals.

The Dancers rip the evil prophet down to the seething particles of him and his smile.

The PlayStation 7s through which the Dancers dance grow hot. They suckle at the cool evening air. A single particle of the evil prophet finds its way in through the vents and touches on the networked code.

“Do you know what I am going to do?” the prophet’s voice whispers in Hot Coffee’s ear.

“No,” says Hot Coffee.

“I am going to redefine the LIVE_BURIAL variable to TRUE,” the evil prophet says.

And before any of the dancers can say anything—before they can even utter a word—

Mount Hook falls on them.

None of them die immediately. But all of them black out.

Most of them never wake up.

Margerie opens her eyes long enough for a moment of satisfaction. Kalov grumbles with finality about kids these days. Phobos wakes but to no avail; his chest is pinned and he screams silently until he dies.

Time passes.

Ellen startles open her eyes.

She is buried under the mountain. She can scarcely breathe. She can’t move: there are rocks pinning her. Everywhere she is held down. The pain of it is horrible.

She is only alive because the PS7s are sturdy, unbreakable by something as small as a mountain falling on them, and thus have served to prop up the tumbled rock in certain limited ways.

“Oh,” she says.

It is soft and meek and the word is lost in the channels of the fallen mountain and she coughs and only the red light of a PlayStation on standby breaks the darkness.

“I feel,” she says, to unseen angels, “that we should apologize to the world, for now the evil prophet shall kill everyone.”

The rock shifts and grinds into her back.

And laughing and crying she thinks, “Rock beats scissors.”

A ridiculous notion blossoms in her mind. It’s really quite stupid. But she can’t help it. She counts to three under her breath. She closes her fist.

The rock shifts again. It lifts from her, just a bit. Then it is grinding, grinding, pushing back away from her, and in the little cavern that forms she sees the cross-legged form of Navvy Jim.

One hand is holding up an improvised roof.

The other, paper.

Ellen giggles. Then she laughs. Then pain shoots through her ribcage and she chokes and she says, “Oh.”

“You cannot think to defeat me at rock-paper-scissors simply by draining my battery, taking me apart, waiting 5 years, and hiding under a mountain,” says Navvy Jim. “That is the kind of hijink only beneficial against amateurs.”

“Oh,” she says, and brokenly she smiles at him her love.

“But . . . it is dangerous to play rock-paper-scissors here,” he says. “The mountain throws rock. So rock and paper, perhaps, are safe, but if you play scissors you would be crushed under tons of rock.”

“Mountains don’t care about rock-paper-scissors,” says Ellen. “They’re not like robots or space.”

Navvy Jim hesitates.

“That’s partially true,” he says. “Although I will observe the established higher mortality rates for people who carry scissors on mountains over people who carry paper.”

“You saved my life,” Ellen says.

“I am a good robot,” smugs Navvy Jim.

There is silence for a while.

Tendrils of evil slowly slip into the chamber. The evil prophet congeals.

He looks between them. He looks between the Konami Thunder Dancer and the rock-paper-scissors-playing robot.

Insultingly, he chooses to worry about the robot.

“I sensed a power on Earth,” he says, “capable of playing rock-paper-scissors against me at my level.”

“You would be a worthy opponent,” Navvy Jim concedes.

“I didn’t expect to find you while finishing these dancers off.”

“Did you wish to play,” says Navvy Jim, hesitantly, “then?”

“Navvy Jim!” Ellen says. “Don’t play rock-paper-scissors with the evil prophet of space!”

“If I don’t play, he wins by default!” Navvy Jim protests.

What?

“You wouldn’t understand a rock-paper-scissors player’s heart,” says Navvy Jim. “You’re organic.”

“Oh,” Ellen says.

So the evil prophet and Navvy Jim square off.

“I should warn you,” says the evil prophet, “that I always throw paper. That’s how I’m going to kill you and the human. With paper.”

Navvy Jim’s eyes dim, then brighten.

“Why would you do that?” he asks.

“I use my evil prophecy to kill things,” says the evil prophet of space. “I’m an evil prophet. That’s just what I do.”

Navvy Jim nods.

“Well,” he says, “the three symbols are mathematically equivalent, in any case.”

The evil prophet laughs. It’s startled from him. It’s pure and clean. And he says, “Yes. Yes, of course they are.”

And in a flash of insight Ellen remembers the mountain that surrounds them, the great bulk of rock, and a shout bursts from her, racking the inside of her with pain: “Don’t throw scissors, Navvy Jim!”

The evil prophet is counting to three.

Navvy Jim glances at Ellen.

“Of course I won’t,” he says. “The mountain always throws rock.”

And the evil prophet brandishes his evil prophecy. And Navvy Jim’s palm is flat.

“A tie,” says the evil prophet. “Rethrow.”

Softly, he counts to three.

He brandishes his evil prophecy, and Navvy Jim his palm.

“A tie,” says the evil prophet. “Rethrow.”

Navvy Jim says, “For all the money?”

“Of course,” says the evil prophet.

“And if I win,” says Navvy Jim, “you’ll leave this world?”

“Navvy Jim,” says Ellen, and her face is as pale as the snow.

“Perhaps,” the evil prophet says.

And Navvy Jim’s eyes glow blue.

And softly the evil prophet counts to three.

“Oh, no,” says Ellen. “Oh, no.”

And she pushes down against the world with her hand to reach desperately for Navvy Jim.

And the evil prophet brandishes his evil prophecy; and Navvy Jim, with a great screeching of metal, splits into scissors the fingers of his hand; and simultaneous with Being Crushed by Rocks Ellen throws Dynamite.

And the last things that Ellen sees as the world goes white are Navvy Jim lunging for her to catch her as she falls and the hideously betrayed expression of the evil prophet as he shouts:

“You can’t throw Dynamite! This is rock-paper-scissors!”

They don’t let you do things like that at the evil academy of space.

The Dynamite Trilogy: Konami Thunder Dance

In those days gods walked among us courtesy of Konami Corporation.

There were two of them arguing right in this spot—

Right over there, in that blasted pit that not even the repavers can heal.

It happened like this.

There’s a cat curled up on old Mrs. McGinty’s porch.

There’re crows croaking raucously on a nearby power line.

Ellen walks up from the south. She doesn’t look around. She finds a square of sidewalk and she sets up her Konami Thunder Dance pad.

The crows go silent as death.

Ellen plugs her pad into a PlayStation 6 and an uninterruptible power supply. Ellen kicks off her shoes. She steps onto the pad.

The cat uncurls. It stretches. It lopes away.

Now old Kalov comes clicking down the road from the north. He’s got his game under one arm. He’s using the other hand to hold his cane.

He sets up his dance pad.

He plugs it in, just like Ellen’s.

He steps on. And smugly, because it’s allowed in the University’s Konami Thunder Dance Club rules, he rests his cane tip beside his feet on the dance pad.

“Kalov,” says Ellen. “Don’t be stupid! You can’t beat me.”

Kalov doesn’t crack a smile.

“Elly,” he says. “It’s the decision of the Konami Thunder Dance Club that we’re going to upgrade to the new version. It’s a good version. It’s easy on these creaky old bones of mine.”

“But it doesn’t have dynamite,” Ellen protests.

“You’re a good dancer,” Kalov says. “Don’t ruin your life.”

The air is as clear and still as glass. The sun isn’t moving.

That’s the way it is with Konami Thunder Dance. They could stand there all day, if you’ll pardon some linguistic ambiguity, and the sun wouldn’t move one inch.

But Ellen’s not happy. She doesn’t let it sit like that. She moves her foot to the side, just sweeps it across what Konami calls the “keyboard of the feet,” and she’s hit the Symbol for storms.

There’s lightning in the sky.

And Ellen says, “Konami doesn’t care about us any more. The original team’s gone on to work for Round Square. All Konami’s doing with this version is squeezing a few more Euros from the newbs.”

It’s raining.

“You’re too inflexible,” Kalov complains.

Thunder sounds.

“I won’t accept,” Ellen says, “a version without dynamite.”

And, just like God had allegedly done in that sacred vision that inspired Hiro Matsuda to make Konami Thunder Dance, Ellen hits the button with her toe that begins the game.

“There’s no turning back now!” warns the voice of the machine.

And for Ellen and Kalov alike the patterns of the Thunder Dance begin to flow.

Here is how it is. There are one hundred and sixty eight distinct ‘keys’ on the Konami Thunder Dance pad, divided into eight regions. Eight-key sequences, properly timed, combine to form a Symbol. Most of these sequences have four to seven redundant versions, leaving approximately 1.25 x 10^17 combinations. Each Symbol generates a unique effect; thus, most of the possibilities of the game remain undiscovered even by the greatest of masters.

As Kalov is dancing to Tourniquet, it is natural that his first Symbol is Blood.

As Ellen is dancing to Jungle Song, it is equally natural that her first Symbol is the Elephant.

In the books of the sacred thunder dance, this is called the day that Dumbo fell. The birds are shrieking; they are rising from the power line, scattered even in the face of the dance; an elephant tumbles past, choking on the crimson angst of existence.

And Kalov throws kami and Ellen throws the Wilderness, and thus it is that our city loses the blessing of Heaven.

And in that darkness without the hope of greater powers there comes a rising beat. And Ellen is dancing now, not just for the Symbols but for the rhythm of it, dancing in the rising darkness of Kalov’s Symbol Lost, and her dance is Strength.

And the music of Evanescence rises in the darkness:

My God, my tourniquet.
Return to me salvation.

And the counterpoint of Toybox:

Hey, monkey! Get funky!

And then, pivoting one hand down to support her on the center of the pad, and without interrupting the Symbols of her dance, Ellen uses her free foot to throw Dynamite.

There is a flare of light. The air ignites. Old Kalov struggles against a rising wind and a missed half-note to stay in the game; and all up and down the street windows are shattering, roofs are caving in, chicken dinners are rising from their graves to run around clucking—

For the chicken, alone of all the creatures of this Earth, is blessed with independence from its brain—

And the old lady comes walking, clicking, ticking footsteps up the path.

There’s something fascinating about the way she walks. It’s like the dawning of the sun. The wind of the dynamite doesn’t even touch her. She’s old and her hair is blue and she’s smiling ever so thinly as she walks up.

And the dance goes still.

Both Ellen and Kalov just stare at her. The Symbols they’re supposed to dance drift past right to the terrible ending of those songs.

And the old lady says, “It’s not worth giving your life for dynamite, child, and it sure isn’t worth taking someone else’s.”

Ellen’s chin is high. Her eyes are fierce.

She says, “I want to dance the real thunder dance. The one that matters.”

“You kin’t,” the old lady says.

“We live in a degenerate time,” pleads Ellen. “Hobbit-Spock-spider. A Thunder Dance without dynamite. A sixth teletubby. We can’t just let all the old true things go away.”

“I hear,” says the old lady, “that they’ve added Symbol support to the new version so that newbies can get by with just four of the steps.”

“It is good for the community of Thunder Dancers,” Kalov says.

“Some people up in San Antonio,” the old lady says, “they wired it up through a hacked Furby and abused the Hell out of the four-step system so they could pull off twelve-step Symbols. Things you can’t imagine, like itserbani and oieie.”

Her enunciation is very precise.

“I thought that was clever,” she admits.

“I’m not saying the new version is bad,” Ellen says, although she has been. “I’m just . . . I practiced so much learning to throw Dynamite. And now Konami’s saying that it wasn’t ever intended.”

“Did you know why I stopped Thunder Dancing?” the old lady asks.

Ellen shakes her head.

“Margerie,” says Kalov. His voice is sad.

“I stopped Thunder Dancing,” the old lady says, “when Konami released the patch that made it so that Thunder Dancers didn’t all die by live burial any more.”

Ellen frowns at her.

“What?”

“The original version,” the old lady says. “It had a bug. Or a feature— who can say?”

“That you’d get buried alive?”

“If you were good enough,” the old lady says.

Ellen’s eyes are round.

“That’s extreme,” she says.

“It was the genuine thing,” the old lady says. “It was the Konami Thunder Dance as sent to us by God. If you were too good then one day the Earth would open up and swallow you. Or you’d get trapped in a mine cave-in. Or something else like that would happen to bury you under the ground. That’s how the Kid died. And Lois Lethal. And Ren the Bing. But not me.”

“Ma’am,” says Ellen. “I’m sure you’d have been buried alive if they hadn’t released that patch.”

“I stopped playing,” the old lady says. “That day. I kept my old pad but I never plugged it in. I would practice without electronic aid. Eventually I learned a few things— just the simplest moves, things like Banana or Grace— without the PlayStation. And when I finally danced a proper Banana and the world went still and a Banana manifest, I cried like the rankest of newbs on their third day of struggling with the dance. But you know as well as I do how many thousands of Symbols I must learn to manifest before I am even vaguely competitive again.”

Ellen is staring at her.

“You can create bananas without a PlayStation?” she chokes.

And Margerie laughs. She can’t help it. It is an articulate laugh, careful and slow, but still it is unwilling, and it bends her over a little with it.

When her chuckles die down, she says, “You see why I am a legend among people who very much like bananas.”

“Margerie,” says Kalov. “Why are you here?”

“The campus police asked me,” she says. “They said, ‘two Thunder Dancers are going to duel. In earnest. Non-regulation.’

“‘Non-regulation?’ I asked. ‘Whatever for?’

“‘Some Thunder Dance Club matter,’ they said. ‘Something about dynamite. . . . we don’t care,’ they said. ‘But we can’t stop them. Bullets don’t work against people carrying PlayStation 6s.’

“So I came down here,” says the old lady, “to tell you to stop this foolishness; and if you don’t, I’ll dance against you.”

“I have no stake in this,” says Kalov. “If we do not duel, it is as if I have won. So I will leave you two to it.”

“I—” Ellen says.

Ellen looks down.

“I don’t want to fight you,” she says. “I— God, I’d do whatever you say, except—”

And the old lady’s mouth crooks up at the corner. “Except?”

“I want to fight you,” Ellen says.

“I’m an old lady,” says Margerie. “I only know a few Symbols. You sure I’m the person you want to beat?”

“It’s the way you walk,” says Ellen. She’s got this transported air of awe about her. “It’s just— there’s only so many times in one’s life that one’s blessed to see perfection. Please. Please.”

And Margerie snorts.

“Kid,” she says, “I said I’d fight you if you didn’t back down, so you don’t have to beg.”

Margerie looks to Kalov.

“Move,” she says.

“Move?”

“Don’t need your machine,” the old lady says, “but I need your music and I need your spot.”

So Kalov hobbles back and he braces himself against the huddled elephant and he watches.

And the old lady steps up.

And this time it is Ellen dancing to Yatta and the old lady to Stillness in Silence. The former is one of the hardest of songs in the Konami Thunder Dance and the latter is one of the easiest. Nevertheless, the Symbols that flow from Ellen are impeccable while Margerie’s—danced on the sidewalk— are fumbling, failing, and incomplete.

And there is impatience stirring in Ellen because she cannot wait for Margerie to fail out of the dance; she must defeat her.

And there is patience in her because she knows that she is in no danger until and unless the old lady does Ellen the honor of conceding the failure of her technique and steps onto Kalov’s pad.

And so her Symbols are not offensive but rather a rising pyre of power that gathers around her, such that the clouds in Heaven are marked with burning mandalas of the spinning magic of her dance.

And she uses her impatience as an engine to drive the patterns of her feet.

And then she sees that the old lady is near the last gasps of her dance, and so Ellen yields to the drive in her. Her hand comes down. Without ceasing to dance the Leaf, she dances also Dynamite.

On the very last movement of those steps she slips.

It is a banana peel: nothing much: but it burns through her like a shock and her world explodes in whiteness and whirling green. As she tumbles through two buildings and a third she sees the old lady stepping away with grace and she realizes that Margerie has won.

My God, she thinks, because this is more amazing to her than even Navvy Jim.

A leaf brushes past her cheek.

May you be buried alive, Ellen thinks, with the greatest possible kindness, and then her head hits concrete and the world goes dark.

The Dynamite Trilogy: Navvy Jim

When Ellen was a young girl scissors attacked the Earth. There were billions of them and they came from space. They were unreasonable in their aggression and humanity had to defend itself, leaving in the end an exhausted, stunned, and uncertain world littered in the mangled corpses of snippy blades.

Nobody’d ever figured out why it had happened. Religion and science both were mute.

But it had.

“I thought I’d lost you back then,” Uncle Ned says.

“Oh?”

“You were just six,” says Ned, “and you couldn’t believe that scissors were hostile. You loved them. You cried when I told you that dynamite blows scissors up, or that rock crushes them. They were your favorite implement. So you wandered out, all on your own, to make peace with them on behalf of the world.”

Ellen has a flash of terrifying memory. She shakes her head.

“They were coming down so hard,” Ned says. “From space, I mean. I couldn’t go after you. All night long I stared at the walls of the dome and I wondered if I’d ever see you again. And then came the morning and the bombardment stopped and I went out to look, and there you were with Navvy Jim.”

“Hee hee,” says Ellen.

“Rock beats scissors, is all he’d say.”

Ellen leans back on the couch. She thinks.

“Whatever happened to him, Ned?”

“To Navvy Jim?”

“Yeah.”

“I put him to sleep,” Ned says.

“Sleep?”

“I drained his battery really good,” Ned says, “so he wouldn’t feel any pain. And then I took all his pieces apart and I crated them up. I told him, ‘There’ll be better days again. When the power lines aren’t all cut up and when people are ready to play rock-paper-scissors again.’ But— well.”

Ellen nods.

“The kids are calling it hobbit-Spock-spider now,” she says. “But the gestures are all different.”

Ellen is taking a break from graduate school. She’s hanging out at her crazy uncle’s ranch. It’s got air and fences and buildings and a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot disassembled and in crates. It’s just the place to clear one’s mind of the stress of an advanced education— but—

“It’s sad,” she tells Ned, a few days later.

“Is it?”

“We should get him out,” Ellen says. “We should teach him hobbit-Spock-spider. You can rewire him for that, can’t you?”

“A hobbit-Spock-spider-playing robot?”

“Yes.”

“. . . ridiculous,” dismisses Ned. “It’s demeaning to Navvy Jim. Can you just see him there, in his robot voice, saying ‘Spock sings about hobbits?'”

“We could ask him.”

Ned swigs from a bottle unspecified in content. He looks up at the ceiling.

“Well, we can do that,” he allows.

So they go digging together in their old boxes from the 20s and they pull out the pieces. Ellen’s the first to find a good-sized chunk of Navvy Jim. It’s his hand and arm. She plays rock-paper-scissors with it as Ned hunts for the rest. And after a while Ned glances over and sees her playing and he snorts.

“Too young for them to really scare you, huh?” he asks.

“Huh?”

Ellen is distracted. She’s chewing hard on her lip. She’s thrown paper and the metal hand has creaked open into scissors.

“Too young,” says Ned. “I mean, the scissors. They don’t send a shudder down your spine.”

“Oh,” says Ellen. “No. Not really.”

“Geezers like me,” says Ned, “even knowing that’s Navvy Jim. That’s terrifying. So you should stick to rock while I’m around.”

Ellen counts to three under her breath and throws rock. The metal hand has creakily gone flat.

“How does he do that?”

“Do what?”

Ellen counts to three under her breath. The metal hand closes. Then she throws rock. At that same moment the hand opens.

“Win,” Ellen says.

“Predictive algorithms,” says Ned. “He’d generally set up the next few games in muscle memory so that nobody’d think he was cheating.”

Ellen shakes her head.

“That’s insane, Ned.”

“He got awfully good at it,” Ned admits, “as I recall. That’s the thing with adaptive robots. You never know which direction they’re going to go.”

Ellen throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.

“Look,” Ellen says, “he can’t do that.”

“He got pretty good,” says Ned. “By the end. He said, ‘My eyes see through the walls of time and the barriers of infinity. I am like God. But I cannot see the purpose of the world.'”

Ellen throws scissors. Navvy Jim’s arm throws rock. Ned winces.

“Sorry, Ned,” Ellen says.

“Enh. Oh, hey, here’s his head!”

Ned hefts Navvy Jim’s head out of the box. He taps it. Then he sticks it on a swivel neck and binds it to a battery so that Navvy Jim can watch his reassembly.

“Ned,” says Ellen, “seriously. People need to know about this.”

She throws rock. Navvy Jim’s arm throws paper.

Navvy Jim’s eyes are beginning to glow a soft blue as he wakes up.

“It’s deadly knowledge,” Ned says.

“Eh?”

“See,” says Ned. “I tried. Of course I tried. I wrote it all up for the journals. ‘The Amazing RPS Robot That Never Loses.’ ‘Fate, Free Will, and Randomness: An Exploration of Meaning in the Context of Absolute Predictivity.’ ‘Is the World Deterministic?’ ‘An Arbitrarily Accurate Online Algorithm for Predicting Rock-Paper-Scissors.’ And so forth.”

Ned pulls out Navvy Jim’s body. He puts his ear against it and raps it here and there with his hand.

“Good sound,” he says. “Still.”

“Why didn—”

And metallically Navvy Jim clears his throat and says, “Ellen. You’re here.”

And Ellen can’t help it. Even as creeped out as she is right now, a smile blooms on her face and she pulls herself to her feet and she hugs Navvy Jim’s torso, making sure that the head can see.

“Navvy Jim!” she says.

“Do you know the meaning of the universe?” the robot asks.

“Hm?”

“I was hoping,” says Navvy Jim, “that by the time I woke up, someone would know.”

Ellen shakes her head. She lets go and steps back, still smiling.

“I think,” says Navvy Jim, “that it is either, ‘Rock beats scissors’, ‘scissors beats paper’, or ‘paper beats rock.’ But I cannot decide which.”

“For the meaning of the universe?”

“Well,” says Navvy Jim. “For the meaning of my life. I can’t really speak for—”

Fast as a whip, almost cheating, Ellen has thrown rock. But Navvy Jim’s hand is already open in paper again.

“Darn it!” Ellen interrupts.

Navvy Jim giggles synthetically.

“So,” he says. “Does that mean that the world is ready for a rock-paper-scissors-playing robot again?”

“We were going to teach you hobbit-Spock-spider,” Ellen says.

“. . . ah,” says Navvy Jim.

“If you wanted,” says Ellen.

Heartily, Ned adds, “Nothing too dangerous about hobbits, Spocks, or spiders!”

“. . . I am not sure I am ready yet,” says Navvy Jim. “To learn a new game. I have scarcely begun to study my first.”

“. . . oh,” says Ellen.

“But I would like to talk to you, Ned, Ellen,” says Navvy Jim, “for a bit, before I sleep again.”

And so for the rest of her vacation it is Ellen, and Ned, and Navvy Jim, and only when she is about to go back to school do they drain Navvy Jim’s battery and carefully take him apart.

But—

Back a moment, to the last night of her trip, when she asks Ned and Navvy, “So if you tried to write it up for publication why doesn’t anyone know?”

And Navvy Jim says, thoughtfully, “I think that there is an animosity in the cosmos towards the brightness that is humanity; a malign eye, perhaps, looking on our world in some disfavor. But perhaps I am misled by my perspective, and it is simply the capacity of rock-paper-scissors to defend itself against assaults on its theoretical underpinnings.”

“Huh?” says Ellen.

Scissors cut papers,” says Ned.

The Cut-Off Man’s Father

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

Darmble is wired into the machines.

That’s when he wakes up.

“Good morning, Squalla,” he says.

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

“G’morning, boss!”

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

“Poorly,” says Squalla.

“Alas.”

“And did you dream?”

“No,” says Darmble.

“Alas,” Squalla says.

There is an assumption that debt will be paid.

When this assumption is vitiated, it renders investments insecure.

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

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

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

Elliott is eating a tuna sandwich.

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

“That’s ridiculous,” he says.

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

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

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

“That’s true,” his father concedes.

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

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

“Having lunch with your son?”

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

“Ah.”

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

“Oh, Dad.”

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

Elliott looks at his hands. He sighs.

“I’ve been feeding her, you know.”

“Hm?”

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“Bad boss, I think,” Ellliott says.

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

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

“Ha,” snorts Darmble.

“Ha?”

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

“Eh?”

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

Elliott looks at his hands. They are not claws.

“Unnecessarily poetic,” Elliott says.

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

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

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

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

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

Darmble’s voice is naked.

“Please,” he says. “Let me die.”

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

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

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

“Boy!”

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

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

He’s not impressed.

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

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

The substance of their lives is invisible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darmble sits in his office.

He sulks.

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

“Sir,” says Squalla.

“I am wroth,” says Darmble.

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

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

Squalla considers.

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

“Yes,” sighs Darmble. “No doubt.”

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

“Squalla—” says Darmble.

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

“Okay,” Darmble says.

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

She looks smug.

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

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

Darmble thinks for a while.

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

“No,” says Darmble.

“No?”

Darmble shakes his head.

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

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

Squalla stares at him in perplexity.

“What?”

“I don’t believe in dogs,” she says.

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

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

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

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

“Boss?”

Darmble is thinking.

Boss?

Darmble’s eyes open.

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

“. . .” Squalla says.

She can say this because she’s a sprite.

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

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

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

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

“He still has investments,” Darmble says.

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

“I am wroth,” Darmble says.

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

“As you wish,” she says.

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

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

The flower falls.

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

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

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

Elliott frowns.

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

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

“I hope this helps.”

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

It’s Elliott Darmblesson’s file.

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

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

The machine is familiar with the existence of intangibles.

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

Elliott walks in.

He drops his case file on Darmble’s desk.

He looks up at his father.

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

Darmble’s eyes focus on him.

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

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

“. . . what?”

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

“I can,” says Darmble, “and I have.”

Elliott shakes his head.

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

“Son,” he says.

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

He is smiling like the sun.

“Yes?” Darmble says.

“Don’t be a jerkwad.”

Darmble stares after him as he leaves.

“Oh,” he says.

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

“What was that?” he asks.

“Security guards,” Squalla says.

“Hm?”

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

Darmble frowns at Squalla.

“Already?” he says.

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

“Really?”

“Of course,” says Squalla.

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

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

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

“Oh,” says Darmble.

“It’s okay, though,” Squalla says.

“It is?”

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

“You did what?”

“I showed initiative!” says Squalla, brightly.

Darmble stares at her.

“Get out of my sight,” he says.

“—Sir?”

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

“Get. Out.”

And Squalla flees.

Darmble is alone.

“I should reassign it,” he says.

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

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

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

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

A government bureau goes into default.

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

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

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

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

“Doing what?”

“Baby work,” says Squalla airily.

“Ah,” Darmble says.

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

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

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

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

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

Squalla squints at him.

“Dangerous how?” she says.

But Darmble just closes his eyes. He relaxes.

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

He says, “Dad, that was petulant.”

Darmble is still. He does not move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six’s Story

There is a place far away, a rocky cave well-lit by fires and by mosses’ glow, and there the numbers gather every year. They are assembled, will they or nill they, from the great infinity of the world. Eight of them, always, have seen that place before; one of them, each year, is new.

1.

Helen finds herself swept from the world and into distant places.

“We will call you One,” Nine says.

And Helen, staring at Nine, sees the incredible beauty of her: the clean pure goodness of Nine that radiates from every pore.

And so she says, with the breath taken out of her, “Okay.”

And Nine leads her to a gathering where people stand around a table: and there is punch, and fruit, and music, and light conversation; and running under it all an electric current of mathematics that gives articulated numeric definition to every word that every person says, so that the play of conversation is like the shared construction of a proof, so that the music is like a counterpoint to the logical arguments that the convocation advances, so that the selection of each fruit or sip of punch is a new axiom or lemma.

“Hi,” says Helen shyly, and she feels the Theorem of Introduction form to give hard structural backbone to those words.

And Five smiles at her, disablingly, and says, “You belong with us,” and his words are proof of fact.

“Oh,” she sighs, and then she looks to Nine, and asks, “This is really okay? I’m supposed to be here?”

But Nine has drifted away, and where she stood there is a void like a contradiction.

The room stills.

“Six,” says Five.

“Six,” say the others.

They have turned to see the newest arrival, and they are all murmuring her name.

Looking at Six, Helen thinks: Surely this is the greatest lady in all the world.

Six is tall and graceful and her eyes are fixed on Nine: and Nine meets her by the entrance and their hands touch: and then Nine walks away.

And Six stares after her, her eyes unfocused, and Helen realizes that something is wrong.

She sees a truth but not its reasoning.

She asks, “Where is Nine going?”

And, “Why is Six afraid of Seven?”

But there is no one listening to her just then to give the answer to those words.

2.

Two is in the shadows.

He is nervous, as is typical for him. He does not expect Six to feel a fierce and consuming joy on seeing him. He would not believe her if she told him that that joy was there.

But it burns in her.

She loves the crookedness of his nose.

She loves the thickness of him. She loves the gentleness.

She hugs him, when they meet, and he is distant and afraid of touch, but still he stammers, “It is good to have you here.”

And Six nods, and she goes to pull away, but he stops her.

“Six always survives,” he says. “Remember that.”

Six always survives.

And she moves on.

3.

Three is crooked, wry, and sinister.

“We all have a dark heart,” he says.

“You wish,” Six tells him.

Three looks wounded. “I’m totally evil,” he says. “Look, I’m cackling.”

He lifts his head. He braces himself. Then he laughs a wicked laugh.

“Hwa, ha ha ha ha.”

He cannot sustain the laugh under her level gaze.

Your reasoning is inconclusive, her eyes say.

He breaks down in giggles, and she has won the point.

“And when,” she asks, “will you act on this terrible evil inside you?”

“Soon enough,” he says. “Soon enough.”

He grins a bit.

“Perhaps next year,” he says. “When I am Four.”

She hugs him once, then she moves on.

4.

Four is a crone. She is half-asleep.

Six takes her hand, gently. She says, “Four?”

And Four wakes up.

Four smiles to her.

It is a perfect smile. It is the kind of smile you do not learn in the first eighty years of your life. Some people do not even learn it in their first hundred.

It is the kind of smile that abandons all the false conceits we learn in childhood and simply grants light unto the world.

“Why is it only every year?” Six asks. “That I can see you all?”

“It is too good,” says Four. “It is too good to be too common.”

5.

Five is terribly handsome. Six thinks about interrupting the story to have sex with him right then, but it is probably for the best to wait.

Instead, they kiss.

“You could stay here,” he proposes.

“And leave Seven unpunished?”

“Which is more important?” he says. “Kissing, or revenge?”

“Kissing,” she says. “But honor trumps them both.”

“Honor is an unverified hypothesis,” he sighs.

But he lets her go.

7.

Seven is in the back, staring at the wall.

Seven says, “Listen.”

“Hm?” Six asks.

“Did you ever think that people might be fundamentally in error regarding their desires?” Seven asks.

“No,” Six says.

“It would be logical,” Seven says. “As they are in error regarding everything else.”

She turns on Six. There is blood at the corner of Seven’s mouth; blood on her hands; blood smeared along her face. She gestures broadly and her fingernails are black with it.

Six’s fear chills her.

“Ask twenty people for a binary truth,” Seven says, “And get twenty different answers. Seek the good for humanity, and discover that in the end they do not want the good; that their needs are contradictory; that their suffering is also their apotheosis. So I say: people are in error regarding their desires. They do not want happiness, wholeness, glory. They desire the natural culmination of the flesh, that is, to be eaten by a superior predator. To be devoured; made great; incorporated into something larger than themselves.”

Six counts on her fingers.

Six says, “You’re committing an error of precedence.”

Seven narrows her eyes. “Eh?”

“That blood.”

“Seven ate nine,” Seven murmurs lucidly.

“Right.”

“And?”

“So Nine didn’t become part of something larger than herself. She became part of something smaller.”

Seven frowns at Six.

“Conservation of energy,” Seven dismisses, “disagrees.”

There is no answer that Six may give to that. It is both indisputable and wrong.

So Six does not answer.

Instead she stares at Seven for a while. She tries to see the person that she knows— the person that she loves, the person she’s eaten ice cream with, laughed with, stayed up far too late arguing theorems with— under the blood.

Six says, softly, “You know why we are here.”

“I do,” Seven says.

“Do you understand what must be done?”

“Every year,” Seven says, “we meet, and we go through the senseless ritual of it. The castigation of seven. The revenge upon the digit, the ritual magic, to impress upon |N, the space of natural numbers, that never again shall one number feast upon another. Every year, Six, it becomes a little more cloying, a little more ridiculous, a little more false. It is not the successor function that is the law, Six. It is the function of consumption, the predecessor function, the grim spectre of death counting downwards from infinity.”

“That’s bad number theory!” Six protests.

And Seven is close in on her now, and with a knife held in her trembling hand, and Seven demands, “Silence!”

And all becomes tableau.

Until finally, Seven withdraws a bit and says, “What you say is true, but like any other problem in mathematics, the difficulty may be resolved using limits.”

“Seven,” pleads Six.

Her voice shakes.

“I don’t recognize you,” Six says.

“Next year, when you are Seven, perhaps you will.”

“No.”

“Next year,” Seven says, “you will see the gaping moral flaw that underlies all the mathematics that we know; and you will curse yourself for standing by your principles instead of standing at my back.”

“That may be so,” Six agrees.

Seven sighs.

She drops the knife. She lowers her head. She stands there like a prisoner condemned.

“Seven,” Six says. “I name you beast. I name you betrayer. In this place I say I am your judge, and I find you guilty of murder and of treason.”

“And what is your sentence?”

8.

Successor,” Six says.

It is a curse.

It is a judgment.

Seven increments into the principle of devouring.

9.

Six comes to the end of her journey there.

She stands in cutting silence.

Then she turns around and she trudges back to the others.

They are gathered around a table in the main room of the first ten natural numbers, and they are talking, and there is good cheer; but when they see her the room falls silent.

The new One— Helen, if Six recalls— looks at her with wounded eyes.

And then:

“Come here,” says Five.

And he seizes Six into comfort; and all around her are Two, and Three, and Five, and Four looks on and says, “I am proud.”

And Six says, “Seven ate nine,” because Seven did, and it is painful to her, to say, to admit, to know.

Nine, so vibrant:

So alive:

Just one year back from her interlude in Hell; just two years back from madness; just three years back from standing there as Six and issuing a judgment:

And now devoured.

“Nine always dies,” Two says.

10.

“But,” says Ten.

And suddenly Six pulls herself apart from all the crowd. She stares seized up with wonder. She knows Ten’s voice, and she had never thought to hear it in her ears again.

And she says, “You survived.”

“I was reborn,” Ten says, to contradict her.

“You survived,” she says.

Last year’s Nine.

Ten is clean-limbed and strong and better than any devoured number has any right to be.

And Ten says, brightly, “Did you know, if you increment enough, you get an extra digit?”

“I knew,” weeps Six. “We knew. But we had forgotten.”

And to One she says, displaying Ten to Helen as if Ten were a jewel: “This is what we can become.”

A legend about spring.

Such a Strange and Funny Image

Sometimes the plague paralyzes instead of killing.

Leila’s mistake had been letting the child into her house. He had been coughing and shivering as he’d delivered her mail. But she had not thought it was the plague.

She’d looked for the feathered discolorations at his temples, of course.

She’d checked his skin, with a single practiced look, for the roughness that it is the wont of the plague to make.

In sum, Leila succumbed to medical arrogance and diagnosed the boy by eye as safe; and succumbed also to pity, and so she let him in, to shiver himself to sleep upon her couch; and in the morning, he was dead, and she hung a black tile and a white tile on her door, in case it so happened that she should die in turn.

But it was not death that found her.

It was a slow, creeping paralysis and, with it, panicky denial. Her body was slower. Her vision was greyer. And she worked late that night, exhausting herself reading and charting the latest data on the L-C serum, and went to bed thinking, “Well, I am sure it is not the plague, but if it is, at least I shall wake up dead.”

But instead when she wakes her body is stiff, cold, nearly unresponsive to her will, and she thinks of the horror of dying over days in frozen stillness and she fumbles her way out of bed to crawl along the floor, to crack open her door and let the mist in from the streets, to croak something incomprehensible, to drag herself in her gray nightgown along the cobblestones in hopes of finding help or, at least, execution. And when the last of her strength leaves her she is not even looking up, but rather laying there, still, face-down, cobblestones pressing above her eyes.

And she can hear them come.

It is only by the rustling of their clothing that she hears them. They do not walk upon the ground, so their footsteps make no noise. They do not speak as they approach, for the speech of humans hurts their throats. They are quiet in the mist, but not deliberately so, and so she hears their clothing shifting as they move.

One of them keens, softly. This is answered by the keening of the others.

A hand reaches down from above. It rolls her over. She looks up into the face of one of the floating people.

He is smiling. He is human, but also not—in a time when every face is seamed with lines of sorrow, he has the clean innocence of a child on an adult human’s face. He is wearing loose gray clothing. His hair is black. And he is squatting on the tendrils of the mist a foot above her chest.

He chirrs to her, a soft question in the floating people’s tongue.

She cannot answer.

The words rough in his throat, he says, “You are broken. I will heal you.”

She wants to laugh. She wants to laugh because it is her own work that has done this; her own labor that has brought this down upon her; but she is scarcely let to breathe, much less to laugh.

So he reaches down from above and he touches her face and his fingers push and pull and move something inside her—as if he were twisting her brain or her soul around from the outside of her head.

Her breath gasps in and out.

She becomes light.

It is like a madness surging through her. It is like the warmth of a summer’s day or a drowsy winter’s fire. It is like the joy of discovery, of solutions, of first love. And it is somewhat like she imagines opium or cocaine to be, a drug that cuts at the foundations of her reason even as it lifts her up.

“Leila,” she says. “I am Leila.”

It is with the greatest effort that she clings to that and does not let the giddy joy sweep it away.

“I am Leila,” she says, and the words hurt her throat.

The paralysis has receded and her body is incredibly light. She lifts herself to her feet with but a thought and makes a soft noise of dismay as she realizes that they no longer touch the ground.

Murmuring, keening, the floating people press themselves around her.

Welcome, they say, with soft inhuman noises. Welcome.

“No,” she says.

She pushes herself free; springs to the upper place, ten feet above them; crouches there on the mist, shivering.

“I am Kern,” says the one who had wakened her. You are upset, he keens. “It is all right. It is not so bad as foot people imagine.”

Foot people, she giggles. Then she shakes her head.

“I know what this is,” she says. “I helped to make your kind.”

Honorable mother, whisper a few voices. It is more light teasing than it is respect. And one, with a soft whistle, asks, But don’t you love us, mother?

The joy of existence beats upon her sense of self once more. The laughter that she, of all people, should find herself in this position, rises up again. She holds herself tightly to keep from dissolving in the good, clean mirth.

“I have to call my husband,” she says.

Sadness, whisper the voices of the floating people. And Kern is up before her and he gently touches her face, wondering, perhaps, if he has done a poor job on making her light; but then he shrugs, and says, “Then go.”

So she stumbles through the air back to her house. She lifts her hand to the open door and goes irrationally still for a moment, seeing the black tile hanging on it; and then she laughs at herself, because the floating people may enter even where there is plague.

She goes in.

She places an international call.

“Christopher,” she says.

Somewhere in the Americas he is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He is holding up the phone. He is saying, “Hm?”

He does not complain at her waking him, this time, because of the pain within her voice.

“Christopher,” she says. “I am infected.”

And then, overcome by the unfairness of it, she says, “They made me light.”

And she realizes that she is sitting in the air above her desk, the phone cord stretching down, as if she were sitting in her most comfortable chair; and she drags herself awkwardly down to sit upon the desk’s hard wood edges.

The silence on the other end stretches.

Then Christopher says softly, “Oh, my love.”

“We can fix it,” she says.

“I remember,” he says, “that Derek was reluctant to build the sense of joy and purpose into the floating people.”

She can touch that joy and purpose, inside her, like a person with a broken tooth can touch it with their tongue.

“He said that it would be better to let them realize that they are dead; that the plague inexorable eliminates the chemical basis for their humanity; that they are a garbage collection scheme for us, to get the corpses from the streets.”

“Oh,” she says.

Despite the fierceness of her clinging to her sense of self, she had let herself forget the reasons she should do so.

“But we thought—I and my wife—that it was better that they had an illusion.”

He is crying. It is the choice, however deliberate, to divide the person speaking to him from his wife that has broken him down.

She interrupts: “We can fix it. We—I know we’ve had other priorities, but we can fix it. I’m not gone, Christopher.”

And he says, “I will believe you if you tell me again that that is true.”

She feels so incredibly light. She feels so much joy. It is as if the plague-ridden world is Heaven and all the things of it her toys.

She tells herself again how important it is to remain herself. To cling to herself. To remain human.

It is one of those distant senses of importance, like that of a child who likes the sinuous music of a pornography channel but knows that something about it is apparently forbidden; like that of an apathet who knows that they really should engage in social activism someday; like that of anyone who feels that they really shouldn’t be enjoying the crunchy fried grasshopper, sex, bad movie, or trashy book that they are currently enjoying.

“I—” she says.

She keens, I feel so light.

“If you need anything,” he says. “If you ever need anything. Even though you’re dead. You can call.”

It is ridiculous to imagine that she should need something.

“Thank you,” he says, “for saying goodbye.”

And he fumbles the phone onto its hook and she is listening to the deadness of the line as if it were his tears.

So she floats from the desk and walks the moping walk along the air and she looks down at the corpse of the boy, which has aged enough to smell most wonderfully of death. And there are insects in him but more than that she sees that there is something wrong.

He is broken, the boy.

He is in pain.

His life— perhaps, his life. Perhaps his death—

Something has broken him.

So she takes him outside. He is astonishingly heavy, dozens of times heavier than her clothing at least.

She lays him out on the ground.

The others are there. She knows why. She helped build their kind, and she knows there is a reflex to tend to new members of the flock. But she ignores them.

She whispers to the boy, whose name she doesn’t even know, “I will fix you.”

She moves her hands upon his face and cleans away the darkness in his soul. She soothes the wounds that life had brought to him and she makes him light.

The boy is dead.

He is dead still.

So when the lightness takes him, he does not join the floating people.

Instead he lifts, lifts, lifts, into the sky; and if the birds did not find him and devour him, then he is rising still.

She smiles.

It’s so good! she says.

The others smile with her.

There is a time of silence, and then—

Did you really help make us? Kern asks.

Life is too hard, Leila says. The plague has taken so much from us. We could not care for the bodies of our dead.

And he laughs, and she laughs, because it is such a strange and funny image—

The Earth under its veil of mist and scattered with the plague-dead.

Morgan-Thurible Laboratories: A Love Story

A legend about small red things that live in boxes, shown to you in the deepness of the night.

Steve and Ellen work at Morgan-Thurible Laboratories.

Every day, they drive in around 9. They park their cars. They go into the building and assist Drs. Morgan and Thurible with various scientific projects.

They would like to be in love.

ADVICE FROM A MENTOR

Ellen is chatting with Dr. Thurible as she and the doctor manipulate a tiny ball of superheated superdense plasma with waldoes.

“I think I should fall in love,” Ellen says.

“I’m taken,” Dr. Thurible observes.

Dr. Thurible is an old man with a strong frame and a shockingly white beard. He’s wearing a white coat and a gold ring and also clothing. He’s the genius behind miscellaneous balls of superheated superdense plasma, so if you’re excited about superdense plasmatics, it’s worth reading his papers.

“Not you,” Ellen says.

She manipulates the plasma, causing it to radiate at a different frequency.

“Actually,” she says, “I was thinking of Steve.”

“Hm,” says Dr. Thurible.

“Hm?”

“He’s got a good smile,” Dr. Thurible concedes. “But you need more than a good smile to justify falling in love.”

“He’s very enthusiastic about things,” Ellen says.

“Hmmmm.”

Dr. Thurible gives the noise some extra ms, coughs once, and then applies additional voltage to the plasma. The effects of this are, at best, incidental to the narrative.

“I was kind of hoping,” Ellen says, “that you’d encourage me. Using your ancient wisdom!”

Dr. Thurible puffs out his cheeks. He thinks about this.

“Love is a plasma,” he says.

Ellen beams at him, feeling suddenly optimistic, but later she realizes that the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution is peculiarly inapplicable to what she wants to do.

PATRIOTISM

Steve looks at Ellen’s car one day after work.

It has a “Support the Troops” magnetic sticker on it.

He thinks, “That’s pretty cool. She supports the troops. She’s a pretty cool person.”

So he walks to his own car, humming, and thinking about that.

The next day he parks and she’s parking too, so he walks up, and she’s getting out of her car, and she’s taking the magnetic sticker off.

He kind of blinks at that and says, “Huh?”

Ellen glances at him. She gives him a kind of embarrassed grin. “I support the troops in principle,” she says. “But I don’t actually do anything about it. So I figure I should only wear the sticker one day in ten.”

“That’s a lot of overhead for a sticker,” Steve says.

RELIGION

It happens that as Ellen is showering the next day the image of Jesus forms in the mist on her shower door. Naturally she screams and covers Jesus’ eyes with a small hand towel.

After a moment she feels silly and takes the towel down, because her body has no features that Jesus has not seen before, but the momentary gesture has entirely erased the holy image of her Lord.

“Huh,” she says.

She thinks about this.

“He was probably going to tell me I should fall in love with Steve,” she says. “Because he loves me and wants me to be happy.”

This is an enlightening message and a cheerful thought and she is happy for a little bit. But then she realizes that Jesus could appear at any time in anything—in a mirror, in a glass of water, in the painting of him in the lobby at the lab, or even in the perturbations of graininess on her lunch sandwich bread. She is nervous all day, always looking around to see if a sacred image has spontaneously formed to judge her assertion.

Standing in the lobby, beneath its great cavernous ceiling, she shouts, “What do you want from me?”

It echoes there and about and Dr. Morgan is staring at her from his office with his tufted eyebrows high and there is a swift and sudden touch of grace on her soul and she recognizes that most probably Jesus was just appearing to cure a cancer she hadn’t even realized that she had.

“Oh, gee, thanks, Jesus,” she says. It is sarcastic as she says it and then it becomes sincere with a horrified, after-the-fact embarrassment.

THEORIES OF SOCIAL ORDER

“So, I was reading the case against same-sex marriage,” Steve proposes, at the lunchroom table.

Ellen takes a bite of her sandwich.

“One idea that resonated with me,” Steve says, “is that there is an inherent tradeoff between sacredness and flexibility. That we do inherently value less what is less structured, less specific, less weighted with ceremony and tradition. That in a real way, there is a magic, special relationship that is—”

Here he pauses to gesture cyclically in the air, as he does when he is searching for the right word.

“—is threatened, perhaps—”

Ellen chews, swallows, and observes, “You do know Drs. Thurible and Morgan give each other the hot man-love, right?”

There’s a bit of a pause.

“I’m just talking theoretically,” Steve says.

GIANT BALLS OF FIRE

A red ball of superheated, superdense plasma rolls chaotically around the lobby of Morgan-Thurible Laboratories.

If the reader requires an explanation for this event, one need only turn to the motto of Morgan-Thurible Laboratories, etched on its wall in gilt:

“Accidents Happen.”

If no explanation is necessary, of course, then the narrative proceeds.

A red ball of superheated, superdense plasma rolls chaotically around the lobby of Morgan-Thurible Laboratories.

It is very hot and dangerous in the fashion that superheated plasma often is, particularly when rolling around unattended.

Ellen is in the elevator. She is frantically pushing the buttons. In case of fire you are technically supposed to use the stairs but this would necessitate getting out of the elevator, walking past the rolling ball of plasma, and opening the stairway door, the handle to which is currently bubbling. For this reason she has elected to disregard ordinary safety guidelines.

Steve walks out of Dr. Morgan’s office into the lobby. He stops and stares.

“Are we all going to die?” he asks.

“It’s flesh-averse,” Ellen says.

“It is?”

Steve’s voice is incredulous.

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Ellen says.

She pushes on the buttons some more but as she is in a light panic the elevator only wobbles its doors and they do not close.

“Focus, Ellen,” she tells herself.

She looks down at the panel of buttons. Very carefully she pushes the “Emergency Containment Annex” button so that it lights up. Then she releases the elevator lock.

The ball of fire jumps suddenly towards Steve.

“Hold the door,” Steve cries.

For a moment, Ellen holds the door.

Steve stumbles into the elevator.

He stumbles into her and somehow they wind up in a hug before they back away.

He’s looking at her. She’s looking at him. They are thinking, “Is this what the ball of superheated superdense plasma intended?”

The door closes.

The elevator dings.

And Steve gives her this marvelous grin, and Ellen pushes back her glasses, and they say, not even realizing at first that the other is talking, “I’ve been looking for a reason to fall in love with you.”

And they understand in that one moment that they are in love and that one of Steve’s shoes is on fire, and it is simple; burning; passionate; and sweet.

That Way That Snakes, When

Martin works the levers and the chains. Jane skulks down by the snake machine. Sid’s on analytic duty tonight.

Meredith speaks the legend. As she speaks, the chaos takes its form.

So when the snake says to me, “You don’t want to eat that,” I naturally have a few questions.

I hold up the apple. It’s a Granny Smith apple.

I say, “Didn’t we go through this already?”

The snake crawls higher among the green onions. The supermarket irrigation system sprays it down automatically with water.

“Whatever do you mean?” it asks.

“I mean, back in the garden.”

The snake’s tongue flicks out, back in, and out.

“Typical of your generation,” it says. “That is, the younger generation; that is, every generation we have seen since Eve. No; it is not settled. We always have the opportunity to reprise our ancestor’s mistakes. Eat an apple and you cast yourself from Paradise.”

“That’s very unlucky for teachers,” I point out.

“That’s so,” agrees the snake. “When a teacher dies unshriven, they lay buried in Hell under the apples they have eaten in their lives. There in their dark milotic sepulchre Hell-worms find and consume them, crawling in their bones, learning facts regarding zebras, yuccas, xylophones, and eventually even the apples that are their home.”

“Wow.”

The serpent scrapes its body up along the radishes.

“But . . . why should this be sinful?” I ask.

I gesture with the apple.

“It’s not genetically engineered. And I’m pretty sure that it’s not grown by Satanists. It’d have a sticker.”

At this point, because I care about winning the implicit argument with the snake, I doublecheck. In fact I am correct: the apple has no sticker indicating Satanic origins.

“It’s just a fruit like any other,” I conclude.

“It’s a Granny Smith apple,” says the snake. “Old as the hills and full of sin. If you eat it you’ll know the difference between good and evil.”

“I’ve eaten apples before.”

“More,” qualifies the snake. “You’ll know the difference between good and evil more. This will doom you to bring forth children in sorrow and in pain.”

“I think I know the difference between good and evil,” I assert.

“Do you?”

“Sure,” I say. “Good helps people, and evil hurts people.”

“That’s the kind of thing you’d say,” observes the snake, “not having eaten the apple yet.”

“What will I say afterwards?”

“‘Evil is eating apples.'”

“No way.”

“Way.”

“No way.”

“Way.”

There is a standoff, there in the produce section, for a time.

“Well,” I finally say, “why is it bad to know the difference between good and evil?”

The snake is contemplative.

“It isn’t so much a knowledge,” it says.

“Hm?”

“People call it that because it expands their minds in the way that knowledge does. But it’s not a knowledge. It’s more of an outwards-moving thing. It’s claiming part of the world, when you say it’s good or bad. It’s taking matters into your own hands. Do you see? Humans should be seen and not heard, on the moral questions. You just aren’t as good at imposing right and wrong on things as God.”

“I’m really pretty sure I do that already,” I explain. “I mean, it’s just an apple.”

“Are you afraid of doctors?”

“What?”

“The last person I tried to warn,” the snake says. “She was afraid of doctors. So she ate the apple. Then she said, ‘O ho, so that’s what good and evil is all about.’ And she had a child in pain and sorrow, right here in the supermarket.”

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

The snake hesitates. Its tongue flickers out, back in, out.

“Perhaps I take poetic license,” it says.

“Bloody lying is what it is,” I say.

But I don’t want to eat the apple now. So I put it back on the stack. That’s why I don’t have an Adam’s apple and why I’m free of original sin, I think: because I put it back on the stack and got some bananas instead.

“Thank you for warning me,” I say.

I offer it a banana, but it just looks at me in that way that snakes, when offered a banana, look.

“I shouldn’t warn,” it says.

“Hm?”

“I lost my legs, you know, for butting into human affairs. My legs, my arms, even my magnificent ability to squirt blood out of my eyes.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s just hard,” says the snake. “Having an opinion and keeping it to yourself. You know. It’s hard.”

I grin at it.

I pick it up.

“If you want,” I say, “We could totally bomb the apple orchards, in God’s name.”