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

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

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

It says, “Melanie.”

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

She lowers her shades.

She looks at him.

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

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

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

[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]


October 31, 1998

Liril hasn’t told him what to do.

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

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

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

“Where is she?” Micah asks.

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

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

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

“Can I get you anything?” he asks.

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

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

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

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

“Your name, then,” she says.

“Micah.”

She tilts her head. “From formica?”

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

“Melanie,” she says.

“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“I see!”

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

She smiles briefly.

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

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope!”

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

She frowns.

“I’m not interested,” Micah says.

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

“I renamed him,” Micah says.

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

He shakes his head.

Doctor Snotgargler?”

He looks away.

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

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

“What?”

Her voice is wounded.

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

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

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

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

He clenches his fist.

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

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

He shakes his head.

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

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

“No,” he tells her. I won’t.

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

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

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

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

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

He shakes his head.

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

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

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

He cleans up the teacups.

He looks at the nametag.

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

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

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

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

Why is Six Afraid of Seven? (VI/VII)

Melanie grows up with awful, breakneck speed.

In 1979 she is seven.

Almost she stops there. Almost she gives up—entangled as she is in the soot-web of a spider—and stops aging forevermore, choosing instead the timelessness of death.

She does not.

She entangles herself in life. She escapes the spider’s web, and lands in Santa Barbara, and walks to Santa Ynez; and there, and vigorously, corollary by corollary and year to year as if in the inevitable progression of a theorem, she grows.

In 1979, she is seven, but one year later she is eight. Another year, and nine. Then, in 1982, she’s ten. If she continues at this rate she will grow from age seven to age twenty-one in less than fifteen years.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s crazy.

Her body weight will triple, more or less, assuming she eats better than she’s done. Her mind will grow orders of magnitude more sophisticated and complex. She will shoot up a foot and a half and more in height—

And all in less than fifteen years!

Everybody around her pretends that this is normal, even inevitable; that it happens to everyone, and just like so.

But that isn’t true.

There’s a girl at the local elementary, for example, for whom it is not thus.

Her name is Liril.

It’s not obvious just from looking at her that Liril does not age. In fact, it’s not even obvious, just yet, on the census. She hasn’t lived long enough to be suspicious in her youth.

But she’s timeless, anyway.

That much you can see.

She’s way too young to have such silver hair, and eyes so old, and to be so broken by her pains.

She’s way too young to have the power to turn humans into gods.

She’s not the kind of slam-dunk evidence against the naturalness of aging that she will later be, you understand, she’s eight or nine years old and she’s barely lived for twelve, but she’s still a bit of a corroboration: if a girl that young is that quiet, that still, then there’s something strange about the world.

It’s probably that aging isn’t normal.

Or that gravity doesn’t exist.

Something like that, anyway. Something reasonable, something sensible, something comprehensible about the world.

[The Frog and the Thorn – PROLOGUE]


1982 CE

It is 1982. Melanie is ten. Micah does not exist.

One day Micah will exist. When he exists, he will hate that Melanie came while he was away. He will think, “Maybe I could have saved her.”

The pronouns will be ambiguous.

He won’t be sure, even then, whether he means Liril or Melanie. He won’t understand, even then, the way that they hurt one another, and so even with his loyalties going almost entirely to Liril in any given circumstance he won’t be sure which of them he wishes he could have saved.

But he will hate.

He’ll hate himself, then, in those heady moments of existence, hate that the richness of the power of his life is circumscribed by time, hate that there was nothing, from the beginning, that he could do. He will resent, and bitterly, that the worst of it was over by the time he existed to do anything about it, and he will wonder if in some strange fashion that could possibly have been his fault.

The answer to this is that it almost certainly was not.

Not in any conventional sense.

When Melanie sits down in front of Liril, on the grass, Micah isn’t anywhere within a hundred miles of the place, and he doesn’t exist, and he has never existed, and he has never had a single chance to act or speak or do anything efficacious in the world.

He cannot, reasonably, be blamed.

So: “hi,” Melanie says. “Hi. I’m Melanie.”

And Liril doesn’t open up her eyes.

She says, “Nng,” instead.

It’s a lost little sound. It’s full of pain. So Melanie reaches for Liril’s hand.

“Don’t touch me,” Liril says.

And Melanie’s holding Liril’s hand. Melanie’s squeezing it and stroking it. She’s not sure when that happened, exactly. She missed the actual moment when she decided to seize it up. It’s just that she realizes suddenly that it’s already happened, that she’s already taken Liril’s hand, and there isn’t anything else that she can think to do in answer to Liril’s pain.

Liril can’t help laughing at that.

Liril clutches her hand to her chest and Melanie’s comes along.

Liril is sitting with her back against a tree, and her silver hair is spilling down it, and their hands are clutched together against her chest, and Liril is laughing, she cannot stop laughing.

That’s just how much it hurts.

When she finally does stop, Melanie rubs at one of Liril’s tears with a finger, and then licks her finger clean of salt.

Liril is quiet.

Liril is still.

“I’m stuck,” Melanie says.

Liril shakes her head.

“I’m stuck,” Melanie repeats, louder. “I came here, I came to Santa Ynez, and the colors were beautiful and bright, and everything was awesome, except, when I turned around and looked behind me, I saw the colors had made a web. They’d come together in a web.”

Liril’s face twitches. Her eyes come open. She looks at Melanie for the first time in their lives.

“There’s a spider in the sky,” Liril agrees.

It’s the colors of the dawn and the sunset, the piled soft blues of the sky, and the colors of the drifting clouds. It is beautiful and it is translucent, the spider is, and it is very difficult to see.

It has caught the whole of the city in its web.

This, as the monster has instructed it to do.

“I can’t be stuck,” Melanie says.

“You’re not.”

“But it’s a web.”

I’m stuck,” Liril says. “You’re not stuck. You’re not the kind of person that a spider’s web can hold. You’re Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.”

This is the first time Melanie has heard this appellation.

“I’m what?” she asks.

Liril is crying.

It’s starting to freak Melanie out.

“Stop that,” she says. “Stop crying.”

And Liril does.

Liril shakes her head a bit, and then she rubs away her tears, and then she cleans her snuffling nose upon her shirt.

She isn’t crying any longer.

She is looking at Melanie, instead, with reddened eyes.

“You got out of the soot-web,” Liril says, “so you should know.”

Melanie takes a deep breath.

Liril knows.

She lets it out.

“So you’re really . . . you really are magic,” she says.

That’s what the fairies say, and some few of the kids. Liril’s magic. She can solve a person’s problems. She can answer the riddles of your life.

She can turn you, if you ask her, into a god.

“I can’t fly,” says Liril, “and I can’t grant wishes, not really, and my hands can’t hold the sun. I can’t grow larger than a castle or shrink down smaller than a ladybug. I can’t bend the seasons in their course or make the wind to blow. I can’t even— I can’t— I— I’m not really very magic. But I’m a crucible of gods.”

Melanie doesn’t know the word crucible but she interpolates from context.

“Then make me one,” she says.

It is a raging need in her. It is a hunger. It is a thirst. She can taste it. It is rising in her, what she can become.

“Make me a god,” she says. “Make me the kind of god that can kill spiders, and break free of any web, and never go hungry or go thirsty, and be by all others loved; to tell the lies that everyone believes, and to slip past any security, and to overcome any obstacle, and to perform transformations, and to become the cleverest creature in all the world and save all the hurting people from their pains. Can you make me that?”

And be free, at last, of the web that is the world—

And be more

And Melanie is already standing up, she can feel it, it is so terribly, terribly close, her bright transcendence, and she is strong; but

that’s it for this week! Gotta stretch this out, you know, don’t want to leave all the people who haven’t noticed that the story’s updating again in the dust! I’ll probably go to twice a week starting in March or April—

But for now, you’ll have to wait one whole week for (I/VII).

Maybe to pass the time you could . . .

It Falls

It’s night, and the stars are out, and the moon’s looking down with a bit of concern; because maybe, just maybe, this is the last night of the world.

The road smells of heat and rubber and it’s black and detailed in the night.

Johnny’s racing Sue.

It’s casual at first. They’re idling at the light; and the tops of their cars are down; and Johnny says to Sue, “I hear you won’t date a guy, he can’t beat you on the road.”

I hear you can’t date anybody at all,” she says. “Your Daddy’s so concerned with propriety.”

And Johnny touches the crucifix that’s hanging around his neck, a bit concerned, and then he laughs, and he pulls it off, and he drops it to the side.

“It’s on,” he says.

And the little angel and the little devil on his shoulder are fighting, seems fair to say, and he’s got this grin of one part fear and one part lust and seven parts excitement.

And the light turns green and the cars rip off.

Sue’s smooth and cool and she tips her sunglasses down to her nose as her car pulls out. The moon’s concerned about that, too, because it’s not very safe, but it does look fine.

And Johnny’s stomping on the gas, wrestling with the clutch, and the true thing is, he isn’t very good.

She pulls ahead.

And the sky is clear above Reaper’s Hill, and the two cars tear up towards the gallows point (called lover’s lane these sordid years) where once Black Richards hung. And Sue’s just far enough ahead that she relaxes, a tiny bit, and slows her car, as the shooting star flares past.

“I wish—” she says, her eyes tracking the star and not the road. “I wish—“

A pony? A new engine? Cash?

Her maiden’s heart is full of lovely notions.

But she doesn’t have the time to speak her wish; there’s a twisting in the sky and the star turns red.

Sue gapes.

“What kind of—“

There’s a stuttering in her engine. Her wheel locks. She turns and looks back, an outraged glare.

Johnny’s coming up the hill.

The star thing is pouring down from the sky towards lover’s lane. It is sprawling forth great Mandelbrot limbs of fire and there’s a rumbling in the earth.

She can feel Black Richards rising.

Johnny’s car shoulders past her; it leaves her staring at the red lights of its rear. She wrestles with the wheel and with tense slowness pumps the pedal of the gas. There is sweat on her brow and the gaping edge of Reaper’s Curve before her.

But fair is fair.

Between every wish and its fruition there is a space to breathe; and in that space, she drags the wheel to the right.

Her car makes protest. There is a grinding of the gears. Then it pulls to the right, steadies on the road, and smooths its course.

“Who wishes for the end of the world?” she says.

Her engine revs.

Johnny’s mad eyes look back at her in the mirror of his car. He’s saying something. She doesn’t hear it, which is just as well; his words aren’t sensible, but mumbled gutturals that reflect the war in his heart.

Now is the time for a good Christian boy like Johnny to make his peace with Jesus and rise to Heaven when the Rapture comes; but on the other hand, he’s winning.

She tries to pass him but he’s not so lame as that; and his car’s not suffering quite so much as hers from the doom that falls.

She’s weaving back and forth on the road behind him, and he pulls left and right to block her.

Staring in the mirror, hand reaching for the crucifix and pulling back, the other on the wheel—he pulls left and right, left and right, and then left HARD; and over, out, and down, too focused on his mirror to see the reaper’s scythe ahead, and Johnny’s twisting up like meat against the acceleration of the ground.

His car bursts into flames as it rolls, flames that draw into themselves the red fire of the star and leave it white and clean again.

Sue pulls up, panting, at the edge of gallows point, and leans her head down honking on the wheel for a cold long time.

There’s nothing else you can do, when someone makes a wish like that. Whether it’s on purpose or an accident—whether they’re a malevolent forerunner of doom or just somebody who’s thinking too much about the doom their Daddy told—you’ve got to take them out before the star can fall.

But it hurts, it hurts like knifepoints in the heart, if you’re a girl like Sue.

And she never gets her pony.

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.

Wishing Boy (II/IV)

This is a history of Mr. Kong.

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

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

“Hm?” he says. “Huh?”

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

“Oh, my,” he says.

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

She lands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The broom races off into the sky.

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

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

“Oh,” says Wishing Boy.

He’s startled by Mr. Kong’s presence.

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

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

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

“Good,” says Wishing Boy.

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

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

“I see.”

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

Mr. Kong closes his mouth firmly.

“Accident, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing Boy smiles.

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

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

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

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

“At first?”

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

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

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

Mr. Kong ponders that.

Wishing Boy raises an eyebrow.

“Your face shows some concern.”

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

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

He looks up.

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

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

Now Wishing Boy laughs.

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

Mr. Kong considers that.

“And the wealth?” Mr. Kong asks.

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

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

Wishing Boy smiles.

“That is true,” he says.

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

“Ah,” says Wishing Boy.

He shakes his head.

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

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

“I understand,” he says.

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

Mr. Kong grins at Wishing Boy.

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

Wishing Boy laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Not all the way better) The Passion of the Joy Thing

The joy thing is shaped like a fuzzy barrel: white, fluffy, and stout. A cowboy hat is canted on its head. A trenchcoat flutters about it. Its deelyboppers wobble.

“. . . it is an embarrassment to Washington,” seethes Cabinet Member Steve, “that such a thing should represent us. In the minds of the world, it is an American symbol, an American thing, because it chooses to fight for us. We are disgraced.”

“Perhaps,” says the President, folding his hands, “we can shoot it into the sun.”

“If we only could!” cries Cabinet Member Steve.

This is the hoary, dusty temple of the crocodile god. Susannah sprawls on its altar. Seventy worshippers in robes surround her, chanting profound and foul spells. The doors are great stone slabs, marred by weather. The walls are rimed with vines. The leader of the cultists lifts his knife and catches the light with it, his eyes growing sterner as he readies himself to bring it down.

BANG.

The doors slam open wide. Beyond them is the evening sky, the forest ground, the fading sun. In them, wrapped in a numinous limning of gossamer light, the joy thing stands.

“It’s not nice to stab people without permission,” says the joy thing.

Its trenchcoat flutters in a strange and sudden wind.

The head cultist looks up. He snarls behind his hood. He says, “It is godly and sacred, however. If you happen to worship the crocodile god. Which I do.”

The joy thing unlimbers its hat. The head cultist’s hands clench around the knife. The joy thing hurls the hat. It spins through the air and raps the knife from the head cultist’s hand.

Then cries the joy thing, “Alasta pampilenen!”

The heat of joy and brightness fills the room, and the chaunts that were chaunted to the crocodile god are chaunted no more.

The Embassy for Things stands beside the Canadian Embassy. Reporters seethe outside its door. The necessity thing comes out.

“Ambassador,” cries one reporter, “do you have a statement on the joy thing affair?”

The necessity thing’s voice has the sound of scratching chalk. “We do not consider the allegations against the joy thing substantive, but we are cooperating fully with Washington’s investigation. We have taken America’s request for a withdrawal of the joy thing’s diplomatic immunity under consideration.”

The great Nazi airship drifts ponderously across the sky. Its sides are blazoned with the symbols of the Reich. Its belly is swollen great with bombs.

The pilots are kicked back in their seats. One is halfway through a joke. “The second says, ‘The queen, she is impenetrable!’ And the third shakes his head vigorously. ‘No, no! That’s not it! She is impregnable!'”

This is translated from the German for your benefit, as the pilots laugh.

There is a thump. The joy thing has fallen from a biplane onto the window in front of them. It is hanging on to its hat with one hand and to a hook imbedded firmly in the glass with another. It smiles to them.

“When people ask you to be a Nazi,” it says, “just say no!”

There is a long frozen moment. Then, suddenly, both pilots are on their feet.

“Emergency! Emergency!” they shout in translated German. “It’s the joy thing!”

Joy and brightness wash over them.

The explosion of the zeppelin can be seen for more than one hundred and fifty miles. The pilots and the passengers drift down on their parachutes like so much tiny soot.

“What will happen to it?” asks the necessity thing.

Agent Pullet shrugs. “Its adventuring will be . . . curtailed.”

One thuggee is strangling Mr. Jenkins. The other is strangling his omelette. Thuggees like strangling things.

“Please,” whispers Mr. Jenkins. “Please, I have a family.”

“Ha ha,” laughs the thuggee. “We will send them your head!”

“And these hashed browns,” says the other thuggee. “I don’t like Denny’s hashed browns at all.

“Please,” says Mr. Jenkins. Then his eyes close and he sags back.

A waitress approaches. She is carrying a silver tray. On the tray is the joy thing.

“Kali save us!” cry the thuggees, strangling cords falling from their hands.

“You shouldn’t play with your food,” declares the joy thing. “Alasta pampilenen!”

The food at that Denny’s is surprisingly good, even today.

“I don’t understand,” says the joy thing.

“You are requested,” the lawyer thing says, “to appear before the secret tribunal in seven days. If you don’t, you will be hunted down, locked in a box, and thrown in a volcano, in accordance with the terms of the Compassion and Conscience Legislation.”

“Helltrousers,” the joy thing slowly blasphemes.

The kitten is drowning. It is sinking beneath the quicksand and drowning.

“Take my hand!” shouts Angus. But the kitten can’t hear him, doesn’t understand, or possibly just doesn’t have the strength.

Angus lets out a little more line. He inches closer to the kitten. His line snaps. Angus and the kitten go down.

There is a silence.

Then they are rising, the three of them, Angus, kitten, and joy thing alike, rising through the quicksand and muck. The joy thing has puffed into a giant fuzzy ball, increasing its buoyancy. They cling to its fur.

“Sure is a good thing you were swimming around in that quicksand,” Angus says. “This kitten and I might have been goners!”

“Don’t play in quicksand,” the joy thing says.

Then it turns. It walks away.

“Hey!” says Angus. “Hey! Are you okay? You didn’t do that, um, that alasta thing.”

The joy thing is gone.

“I have done only good,” says the joy thing. “I have sought only justice. It is not my fault that my public image is not suitable for your cause.”

“In these days,” says Agent Pullet, gently and heavily, “a thing is not a thing, but what others see in it. You will be fired from a cannon into the heart of the sun, in accordance with provision 81 of the CCL.”

“Fudgeweasels,” swears the joy thing, unable to find the words to convey the immensity of its feelings, scatology and blasphemy alike deserting it in this moment of its greatest need.

They load the joy thing into the cannon.

They swivel the cannon to face the sun.

“The sun isn’t a toy,” says the joy thing. “Don’t shoot things into it!”

The cannon fires, and that is the end.

Sometimes, when the sun is shining, remember the joy thing. It is still up there. Its deelyboppers are aflame. Its fur is burning. It is not alive and so it cannot die, and it loves you.

It would wish you well.

Coming Home

In the forest there is a glen. In the glen there is grass and trees and dirt and earthworms and flowers.

Iris is a flower.

One day, she discovers that the ground is hurting her. Her roots are burning. So she pulls them up. The dirt is hurting her. The grass is hurting her.

She pulls her roots up. She pulls up her stalk. She spreads her petals and jumps and she catches the wind, and off she floats away.

The stars say to her at night, “We have lost one of our own.”

“I lost the ground,” she says.

“We have lost one of our own,” say the stars.

She drifts on.

It is hungry, being a flower in the sky. There is no soil to draw nutrients from. She must feed on clouds and the dirt in the wind. It is a lean time. But one day she finds a bag of plant fertilizer that drifts in the wind like she does.

“Did the fertilizer store burn you?” she asks, but bags of plant fertilizer can’t talk.

So she drifts to it, and buries her roots in it, and drifts on.

The wind says to her, one day, “There is a prince who is my son, and he has lost his love. She was stolen away. The chariot is taking her east of the sun and west of the moon, to the palace of a witch.”

“I miss my family,” Iris says.

“Then go back,” the wind suggests.

“The ground hurts,” Iris says.

She drifts on.

After a while, she finds a bathtub in the sky. She’s not very strong, but she’s determined. She empties the fertilizer into the bathtub. She adds dirt collected from the wind and opens the drain just enough that the soil doesn’t get waterlogged in the rain. She catches a picture of a forest that blows past, and in this carriage and with this comfort she rides high above the world.

An angel sits on the edge of the bathtub for a while. He’s wearing a jacket. It’s got holes for his wings. Hair flops in his eyes.

Time passes.

“The ground burns me,” says Iris.

The angel brushes her petals with a gentle hand. “I know what that’s like,” he says.

“That’s why I fly around in a bathtub.”

The angel nods.

“I liked the ground,” Iris says. “I mean, I liked it.”

“If you wish hard enough,” the angel says, “then you can go home.”

“How do you know?”

“I know,” the angel says.

Iris sighs. “I can’t,” she says. “I can’t wish that hard. I’m not that strong.”

The angel nods again. His wings beat, gently. He takes flight.

Iris floats on for a while. Below her, there’s a glinting in the ocean. That night, she calls to the stars, “I think it’s there.”

“We’ve lost one of our own,” say the stars.

“I think he’s there. I think she’s there. I think it’s there,” cries Iris.

There’s a tumult in the heavens. Then a silence. Then a stirring and a rising in the sea.

“We are whole,” say the stars.

Sometimes it rains very hard and lightning strikes the showerpole of the bathtub. Iris does not mind. It is invigorating.

Below her, one day, she sees a princess, in a chariot driven hard, east of the sun and west of the moon.

“Is that her?” she asks the wind.

“Who?”

“Your son’s true love?”

The wind fades out. The bathtub stops with a jarring halt, and falls nearly fifty yards before the wind is back.

“Thank you,” says the wind.

One day the angel comes to sit on the tub again.

“You could go home,” he says.

“I wish I could.”

“I know what it takes,” the angel says. “To help you. To help me. I’m just not very good at doing it. But you could go home. Just because the ground burned you once doesn’t mean it’ll burn you forever. Can’t you believe me?”

“One day I will,” says Iris. “One day I’ll believe you. One day something will happen, something will change, and then I can wish hard enough to find my way home.”

“Promise?” asks the angel.

“I don’t have any pinkies,” says Iris.

The angel smiles. Then he’s aloft again.

He says:

“I wish for you that ‘one day’ is soon.”

Under the Bed

Sid fights. His face is twisted up in a look of menace. He screams and struggles with the enemy. But he is tired of war.

The tides of war take him past a bed, in a ruined house.

A hand from under the bed reaches for his ankle.

He is tired of war. He lets it grasp him. He lets it pull him under. He plans to let it eat him, or carry him off, or whatsoever it is that boogeymen do.

But in the darkness he finds that he cannot let himself die.

There, under the bed, he is drawn to struggle once again. His hands form claws. He fights in darkness. It draws him deeper. Then, with one hand, he recovers a flashlight from his pocket and turns it on. He shines it below his face, which is still twisted in a horrible look of menace.

There is a scriddling and a scrabbling and the boogeyman is gone.

Sid sags. His arms are bleeding. One leg is half-shredded. He will not make his way back to the battle tonight.

He shines the flashlight around the space.

“It is more cavernous,” he says, “than I would have expected, under a bed.”

“Yes,” answers a voice. It is not the boogeyman’s voice. It is strangely human. He turns the flashlight towards the voice, and the light comes to rest on the face of an enemy soldier. The soldier wears a uniform. Her hair is close-cropped over a round face. Her eyes are squinty and her mouth is twisted into a horrible scowl. It is like the horrible faces that a child makes to scare her peers. Sid drifts the light away.

“Sid,” he says.

“Emily.”

He blinks. He processes her image again in his mind. “A woman?”

“Yes.”

“You’re no camp follower,” he says.

“It’s normal for a woman to stay out of the fighting,” she admits. “And just provide the cooties necessary to poison the armament.”

“It’s an effective contribution,” Sid says. “I lost a lot of my squad to cooties.”

“But I wanted to fight.”

“Girls shouldn’t—” Sid starts. Then he shrugs. “I guess once your face is stuck like that, there’s nothing to be done.”

“Yeah,” she says.

“Ever regret it?”

“No,” she says. “You?”

“It was an accident,” he admits. “I was just playing around. Making faces. And then one stuck. It wasn’t because I wanted to fight. It was just . . . something that happens to kids, sometimes.”

“Were you disappointed?”

“I was going to be a banker,” Sid says. “But it’s honest work, you know. To go out and scare the enemy with your twisted face, to protect your country. To have your face stuck in a horrible position, it makes you someone important. Someone who can fight. It’s good. It’s important. It’s necessary.”

“It is.”

There’s a bit of a silence.

“I cried for weeks,” Sid says. “And then more, every few months, every year as I grew up. It was just a stupid kid thing. ‘Let’s see what I look like with my cheeks puffed out and my eyes rolled back. I bet it’d be really scary!'”

“Scared the boogeyman good,” she says.

“And then I was stuck this way for the rest of my life.”

Sid looks down the boogeyman’s tunnel.

“Will it come back?”

“Dunno,” she says. “It tore me up pretty good, but then it must’ve sensed the cooties, ’cause it just left me here. Like it’s waiting for something. I guess maybe the cooties stop when you die.”

“Not in India,” Sid says. “There you actually get special dead flesh cooties.”

“Huh,” she says.

There’s another silence.

“That face isn’t such a bad look,” he says, “on you.”

There’s a soldier’s pride in her answer, then, sharp and angry. “Put your light back on my face and say that,” she dares him.

“I mean, you’re pretty.”

“Oh.”

She laughs. Her laughter comes in short gasps and then falls silent.

“Oh,” he agrees.

“If we could stand up,” she says, “and leave this place, I’d have to kill you. With my horrible face. You know.”

“I know,” says Sid. “But we can’t.”

He can sense her trying to smile.

“So I guess your face isn’t so bad, either,” she says.

“Thanks.”

“We could make wishes,” she says. “Maybe if we wish hard enough we won’t be here any more. I’ve been trying, and not much luck, but two wishers are better than one.”

There’s a silence.

“I can’t wish that,” says Sid. “I don’t want to go back.”

There is a soft sigh.

“I understand,” the enemy soldier says.

Wakka wakka wakka

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

My mother always called me lazy. I would go out with my friends and complain. I would say, “I am not lazy. I am full of ambition. Yet God has given to each of us a task. I have not found my task. I have not found my purpose. Let me find the job I am suited for—then she will see my ambition!”

“Sometimes, Paquito, ” Sancho told me once, “I think the only job you would be suited for is eating small dots of light.”

“I would be a master,” I said, with enthusiasm. Esmeralda and Sancho both laughed at me—for where would a man find such a job as that?
— from the diary of Francesco Manderiaga

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

I like to think that each pill I consume is an indulgence.

I cannot know the purpose to my endless task. But I like to think that it is to lift the burdens of the world. So I have given it that dedication in my mind. I prayed to God, saying, “Let each pill I consume free one man of his burden. Let each pill lift a fraction of the weight on one man’s soul. That would make me happy, God.”

Cherries came before me like a grace.
— from a letter by Francesco Manderiaga

Wakka wakka wakka turn! wakka wakka

Always there are ghosts pursuing me. They are like the very fiends of Hell.

It is important, I think, that a man do what he loves. Do the ghosts love their job? I think not. I think they are jealous. That is why they are so angry. I tell them this. When I have eaten a more powerful pill, I turn and I chase them. I shout at them, “Why do you do this? Are you happy? Why do you stand in the way of a virtuous man?”

They do not repent. But I have forgiven them.
— Francesco Manderiaga, in candid conversation

1600 points!

Wakka wakka wakka wakka

When I complete a circuit, the world is reborn.

There are those who would hate this, I think. But to me, it is a joy.

I wish that all of you should know fulfillment.
— written in a high score file

Brick Road

“They say the Wizard did a favor for an angel once,” Saul says.

Clair sighs. “I don’t want to hear your crazy theories about the Wizard.”

“So the angel granted him three wishes. And he said, ‘I wish to always win at cards, if I want to; and that anyone who sits down in that chair won’t be able to get up without my permission; and anyone who climbs my old orange tree, why, without my permission, they won’t be able to come down.'”

“The Wizard’s a myth,” Clair says. “This is a naturally occurring fairyland. It doesn’t require a Wizard.”

“And that’s why nobody ever dies here,” Saul says. “Because Death’s stuck up in the Wizard’s tree, and he can’t come down.”

Fairyland,” Clair emphasizes.

“Well,” Saul says. “We’re going to find out soon.”

“Oh?”

Saul looks insufferably smug. “I got a call from my contact in Puzzleville,” he says. “He says he can blow the conspiracy wide open. He’s going to expose all the lies, Clair. The Brick Road. The Wizard. Fairyland. We’re going to know the truth.”

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE

Saul and Clair stroll through the woods. Puzzleville fades in slowly. One or two pieces of the dirt path seem like odd stones: on closer examination, they are jigsaw pieces. Green ropes of dangling jigsaw hang from the tree branches overhead. Slowly but surely the entire world becomes a jigsaw construction, until the grand jigsaw gate rears over it all, surmounted by a sign reading PUZZ_EVILLE. Part of the sign has fallen to the ground and broken, and two jigsaw children work fervently to reassemble it.

Clair points at a smaller sign, off to the side. “Fragile,” she says. “Please do not apply concussive force.”

“Guess you’d better not go wild on the drums,” Saul says.

“I forgot to bring them,” she says. “I guess fate loves a jigsaw.”

They walk towards the building labelled, “Saul’s Contact’s House.” They’re easy. They’re relaxed. Then there’s a horrible crunching, crashing sound from within.

“Clair,” Saul says.

Clair draws her gun. They advance slowly towards the building. Its entire facade crashes down on them in a rain of jigsaw pieces. The creature roars out.

A physical description does the creature no justice, for its physical form is an unassuming jackanapes. For a resident of Fairyland, its deformities are minor. It has wheels attached to its arms and legs, instead of hands and feet. The long tails of its coat jut back stiffly, like an animal’s tail bristling. Its moustaches are sharp. None of these things disturb Saul or Clair, but there is an animal ferocity and a demoniac madness on its face that makes it horrible. It is a thing that hungers, and its hungers are dark. The venom of its glance strikes like a blow, and Saul falls over backwards.

“Catch it, Clair!” he shouts.

Clair fires, once, twice, three times. The first bullet strikes its shoulder but does not slow its advance. The second bullet, dead into its forehead, sends it twisting back and around. The third prompts the creature to scream, high and terrible. It twitches and goes still.

“Cover it,” she says. Saul crawls into a sitting position, pulls his own gun, and holds it trained on the creature.

Clair advances gingerly. She puts two fingers to the side of its neck. “Unconscious,” she says.

“I’ll check out the building,” Saul says.

Saul goes inside. Clair efficiently strips off the creature’s tires and puts its wheels up on improvised blocks. She clips a long metal rod to its bow tie so that the creature cannot twist its neck. Then she waits. After a moment, Saul comes out. He shakes his head.

“He’s in pieces,” Saul says. He turns. He looks up and down the street. He shouts, “Hey! We need an assembly squad, stat!”

A few jigsaw people poke their heads out from nearby buildings. Reluctantly, subduedly, they go into the ruins and begin assembling Saul’s contact.

“It’ll be at least three hours,” Saul says. “He’s pretty scattered.”

Clair calls for backup. They wait. About an hour and a half passes before the creature wakes up. It snarls at them.

“You shouldn’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong,” it says. “Someone’s likely to eat it! And then spit it back in your face, all gooky with saliva!”

Clair frowns. “Ew.”

“What do you know?” Saul asks, companionably.

“I know how to hurt you,” it whispers. “Forever and ever, oh yes. With wheels.” It struggles against the blocks.

“I mean, about the conspiracy.”

The creature opens its mouth, then closes it again. “Can’t tell you,” it says.

“Typical,” Saul mutters.

A helicopter circles overhead. The fragile jigsaw people look at it warily. The pilot is skilled, but no skill is sufficient. The helicopter’s landing disassembles a large chunk of road, three bushes, a horse trough, and a festive tavern sign reading, “300 Piece Liquor.” Two men in suits get out to take custody of the creature. A third steps down, and Saul snarls.

“You,” he says.

The third man is on fire. He seems pretty casual about it. Smoke spirals off him into the sky, slowly turning jigsaw as it rises.

“Yes,” says the smoking man.

“What do you want?” Saul says. He steps forward, belligerently.

“Just taking this thing back to the oubliette where it belongs.”

“You’re at the heart of all this,” Saul says. “I know it.”

“Feh,” says the smoking man. “I’m just the lord of the oubliette.” The two suited men drag the creature into the helicopter. The smoking man follows them in. “If you want to complain,” he adds, “talk to the Wizard.”

The helicopter takes off again. Saul stands up. He paces. A young fresh-faced woman made entirely out of corner pieces comes out of the ruins.

“He’s reassembled,” she says. “But not entirely.”

“Not entirely?”

“He’d been mauled,” she says. “Badly. We couldn’t find all the pieces of his brain. Mostly, he sits in one place and says ‘guh’.”

Saul and Clair hurry in. Saul’s contact is in the middle of the ruin. He sits. He smiles at them. He says, “Guh.”

“As advertised,” Clair says, grimly.

“Please,” Saul says. “Jigsaw-1. Can’t you tell me anything?”

“Guh!” the contact emphasizes.

Saul sits, heavily.

“That’s it, then,” he says. “The smoking man’s won.”

“Guh,” the contact says, expressively. Then, with the smile of a man sharing a wonderful secret, he opens his hand and shows Saul his palm. Attached to it is a transparent piece of cellophane. It shimmers with stained glass-style colors. It is cut into the shape of an X.

“It’s pretty!” declares Clair.

Saul takes it. “I guess,” he says, “that even if I don’t have the truth, I have a new window decoration.”

Dejected, they go back home. They stop at Saul’s door. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Saul asks.

“Sure,” Clair says.

Clair follows Saul in. Saul fixes the stained-glass cellophane X to his window. He goes into the kitchen. He makes coffee.

“They say there’s no evil here,” Saul says, “because the Wizard trapped the Devil. The Devil didn’t care that the Wizard couldn’t die. He wanted his due. But when he came for the Wizard, the Wizard offered him a chair. And before he knew it, the Devil was stuck, and he couldn’t get up without the Wizard’s permission.”

“Do you really think there’s no evil here?” Clair asks.

“I think there’s evil everywhere,” Saul says. “But in most places, it seeps out and infects everything. Here, mostly, we throw it in the oubliette.”

“What about the conspiracy?”

“That’s not evil,” Saul says. “It’s just rude. Hey.”

“Hey?”

Saul points. On his desk is a map of Fairyland. The evening sunlight coming in through his window passes through the X and illuminates a spot.

“Where is it?” Clair asks.

“It’s on the Brick Road,” Saul says. “Near the valley of the sheep.”

They get up. They go to the car. They drive.

Time passes.

“What were the cards for?” Clair asks. “I mean, in the story.”

Saul pulls over, gently. He parks the car. He turns off the headlights.

“The Devil wanted to game for his freedom,” Saul says. “So he bet the Wizard’s soul against his freedom from the chair, and he lost.

“‘Double or nothing,’ said the Devil.

“‘I only got one soul,’ said the Wizard.

“‘I’ll bet you dominion over all Hell,’ said the Devil. ‘And if you win, I’ll even go to work for you. Against your soul, and my freedom from this chair.’

“So they played, and the Wizard won.”

Saul gets out of the car. He walks forward. He shines his flashlight about. Then he stops.

“Over there,” he says. “It’s an orange tree. And there’s someone in it.”

Clair’s flashlight flicks up onto a startled and skeletal face. “Saul,” she says. “I think . . . I think it’s Death.”

Death turns his face away. Tear tracks have cut channels deep into his skull.

“It’s not my fault,” he says. “There was a sparrow up here. It was dying. I didn’t have a choice.”

“So it’s true,” Saul says.

“It’s true,” Death confesses. “All of it. This isn’t a Fairyland. It’s just Hell.”

“Poor thing,” Saul says. “I guess being stuck in an orange tree for a few thousand years must be Hell, all right.”

“It was paved over,” Death says. “The demons were thrown in an oubliette, and only let out for special assignments. ‘I don’t want to rule a place of torture and pain,’ said the Wizard. But he’ll trap me in a tree for thousands of years, oh yes. He’ll do that.

“Wait,” Saul says. “Literally, Hell?”

“Look under the bricks,” Death says. “The truth’s right below you.”

So Saul pries back the golden bricks, one by one.

Beneath the road there is a river of blood.