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.

Regarding Hope

In the city on the edge of the void the Nose makes her living tracking down Froot Loops for creatures forsaken of the Lord.

Solomon walks through the city. His feet go ‘tik tik tik’ on the metal of it.

He’s surrounded by scrap and stinking filth. That’s all the city is. It’s the bits that the Lord has thrown away, infested and ripened with the unlife of the void.

He can’t imagine how the Nose can bear to live here. The smell of it, he thinks, must be terrible.

He doesn’t actually know, though, because Solomon cannot smell at all.

His nose is like the nose of a swordfish, a long metal spike that resonates and modulates the power of Heaven.

It is incapable of olfaction.

The Nose lives in a bad part of town. Solomon can tell because he’s being followed and the thing that’s following him—like a great metal spider, with gleaming living eyes—has a predatory air. And that’s not the only thing: there are great cat-bats circling in the sky, drooling and twitching with the hunt, and he suspects that the grime that is rising ever-higher on his boots is an amoeba of evil intent.

“It’s always the way in a place like this,” he says.

The spider clitters and clatters closer.

“Before anyone can accept you, you must present your credentials.”

And he whips his head up to look the spider in the eyes and the nose of him catches the music of the spheres and modulates it into a rising crescendo; and it twitches and its heart catches on fire and it thinks how beautiful Solomon is.

And he turns towards the cat-bats and one falls from the sky and the others flee screaming.

And the amoeba at his feet withdraws just a bit, and says, “Pardon, gov’ner. Just doin’ a shine.”

And Solomon’s boots glow like the righteousness of Heaven.

So Solomon laughs and says, “Then show me where the Nose is.”

“You, gov’ner? You want Froot Loops?”

The amoeba’s voice is skeptical, as if to imply that Solomon doesn’t look like the kind of man to eat a delicious Froot Loops breakfast with milk, juice, and toast.

“She was better than that,” says Solomon, “once. She knew where the traitors were. She could smell the distinction between that which would bring the world towards righteousness and glory and that which would lead it down the paths towards Hell. A very discriminating woman, the Nose.”

“Wouldn’t know about that,” says the amoeba, but it oozes northwards and Solomon follows it towards the Nose.

The Nose works out of the Clifton Building, one of many buildings judged unworthy by the Lord. She’s a tall lean woman in a black plastic jacket and her eyes are blue.

She’s leaning back in her desk chair when Solomon knocks, opens the door, and enters.

Slowly, she straightens.

Slowly, one eyebrow lifts.

She says, softly, “Face.”

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

“I hadn’t thought,” says the Nose, “that I’d ever see you again. You— You—”

And she rises from her chair and she is holding Solomon close like one holds a love thought lost forever. Tears are leaking down her face, and she says, “Not you. Not you. You do not deserve this place.”

“It’s all right, Danielle.”

“If you are here,” says the Nose, “then there is no hope in all the world for the rest.”

She bites her lip.

“I had thought,” she adds, “that there was something sweeter than life here. But I told myself that it could not be so.”

“Well,” says Solomon.

“Well?”

“What is, is. And it will not be for very much longer.”

The Nose draws back. She looks him seriously in the eyes—though distracted, as any person might be, by the spear of metal jutting from his face.

“No?”

“I was not cast out,” says the Face. “I fled.”

The Nose turns to the window. She opens it. She leans out the window and she takes a long sniff of the ordure of the city, and she grows pale and green all at once.

“Then it has happened,” she says.

“It has happened.”

“The Red Right Hand has declared that it shall be the all of the Lord.”

“I had trusted it,” Solomon says.

“Naturally.”

“I had thought: what can it do on its own? It cannot see. It cannot smell. It cannot hear. It cannot breathe. It has every reason for loyalty. When it cut you from me and cast you out I said only, ‘Ah, that must be what Danielle had wanted. No doubt it is for the best. Because why should the Hand betray me?'”

“That is the way of it,” says Danielle. “Processes freeing one from the discriminating power rarely cultivate a doubt about themselves. Instead they clear the mind, fill it with relish, and offer a sense as if one has been released from a great weight or exposed to a clean pure breeze. This is, I think, the greatest problem with the cosmos, but as yet I have not found a solution to it.”

“There isn’t one,” says Solomon.

“No?”

“No.”

“Ah, well,” Danielle says.

Solomon nods.

“It’s hunting us, you know. I can smell it. It’s walking on the webs between the skyscrapers, running on the ground of the city streets. It can feel us talking and understand our words. In all the cosmos it is only the Hands that can feel such microscopic vibrations.”

Solomon frowns.

“But what can it do?” he says. “We are already outside the grace of the Lord.”

“Anything it wants,” says the Nose.

She takes another deep breath, this time through her mouth. She exhales.

“Come on,” she says. “We’ll go find breakfast.”

“Huh?”

“Follow the Nose,” Danielle says, firmly, and she takes his hand and she leads him out. “I’ll give you a freebie.”

They walk through the city streets under the leaning towers of garbage and twisted corpses. Behind them, Danielle thinks, the Red Right Hand is running on the five limbs of it. Lacking a heart it knows no limitations of endurance. Lacking a nose it has no discrimination of right and wrong. It is a peerless and unforgiving hunter. But even the Hand is bound by the limitations of time and for this reason she does not worry yet.

“I don’t understand,” Solomon admits, “how there can be Froot Loops here.”

“They grow,” Danielle says.

“They grow?”

“The dark reaches of the places forsaken of the Lord are like compost for them,” she says.

She points out at the surface of the void. This is possible because it stretches around the city like a balloon, its surface to the north, south, east, west, below, and in the sky.

“Do you see those moving things?” she says.

“I had assumed that an optical illusion,” he says.

“No. They’re boats.”

The Face squints. His metal nose hums with the subtle harmonics of the universe. Then he frowns.

“Hey,” says Solomon. “They’re made of Froot Loops.”

“Look down,” says Danielle. “And 29.2 degrees to the left.”

So Solomon does. He stares through the layers of trash and metal. He exercises the ultimate faculty of observation that ignores all obstacles. And he gasps.

“Was I right?”

Buried in the city, growing in the muck, he sees the gleaming sugary towers of the Froot Loops that grow there like formations of crystal.

“They’re glowing,” he says.

“They have an ‘inner light’,” Danielle says, a subtle intonation revealing the scare quotes.

“But what—”

Danielle sniffs. She pulls him around a corner. She leads him down a rickety metal staircase, past a thing of snot and brains, past a timeworn clockwork devil begging on a landing, past a hook monster and a cutting muck.

She tosses a coin in the clockwork devil’s hat as she does.

“Until you got here,” she says, “the Froot Loops were the best smell in this whole damn place.”

And they stumble into a great cavern of Froot Loops and all around them are the colors of it and she says, “They are like unto the Lord, and thus stay crunchy even in the void. That’s why they’re so important here—they’re not just part of this delicious breakfast, they’re also the only material that remains stable on the surface of the endingness.”

“Wow,” Solomon says.

She grins.

“They love me here,” Danielle says. “I’m the best damn prospector this whole place has.”

Solomon rubs his hand along the sticky hardness of the Froot Loops.

“Good Heavens,” he says.

He breaks off a few and crunches them between his teeth. He says, “Even in this emptiness—that there should be such things—”

“Eat,” says Danielle.

“No milk?”

“No time,” Danielle says.

And Solomon looks back and the power of his gaze strikes through the layers of the world and finds the Red Right Hand and he says, “It is so close.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Danielle says. “It is blind and cannot see the beauty of your eyes. It is deaf and cannot hear the music of the spheres. It has no tongue to taste the riches of this place and if I were to think of a plan it would feel the vibrations of my thoughts and adapt its plans to mine.”

So Solomon and Danielle eat.

“We’ll fight,” Solomon says.

“Of course,” Danielle says.

“But we’ll lose?”

Danielle eats a chartreuse Froot Loop, the color and flavor of a fruit that never was.

“It is the Red Right Hand,” she says.

It is too big to enter the cavern so when it does it is like an explosion: it shatters the towers of crystallized Froot Loops, it bursts down the door, it is followed by the cracking twisting metal of the collapsing metal stair and the clockwork devil and the creature of snot and brains are tumbling after it in the vortex of its movements.

It is not human-shaped like they.

It is a hand larger than buildings. It is red with the blood of the Nose and of every other thing that has suffered in the world. Its fingers do its terrible walking and it has no eyes.

They had resolved to fight, but they do not fight: faced with the terror of the Red Right Hand, Solomon and Danielle run.

“There,” says Danielle, pointing. This is the vibration of her thoughts: The floor there—too weak to support its weight.

And she pulls Solomon across and her hair is streaming back and their faces both are white as porcelain and they jump for one of the towers of cereal and the Hand leaps after.

The whole of the cavern creaks and tilts sideways.

“Eh?” says Solomon.

He glances down. The cavern is on top of a rickety collection of buildings that have slumped inwards to hold one another upright; they stand on a mire of blood and dead trees, and below that a labyrinth of blindly moving worms and the great balloons that suspend the whole above the void.

“Problem,” he says.

And as the Hand comes after them the buildings shudder and the fourth floor of the cast-out Mariman House explodes inwards and the dead trees crack and the worms writhe and the balloons pop and suddenly they are looking down—in a direction that was ‘forward’ just a moment ago—towards the endless infinity of the void.

“I have always loved you,” Solomon says.

And the Red Right Hand shows no mercy but plunges into them and crushes Danielle’s arm and the left side of Solomon’s face and drives them down towards the void.

Solomon twists and jerks his head. His proboscis stings into the beast. He channels the music of the spheres and attempts thereby to tear the membrane of the Hand apart; but though it recoils back and gives a snapping howl it is not in the character of Solomon to destroy.

They fall.

It is the Froot Loops that cushion them, of course. They land like bumblebees falling into cereal, splashing the surface of the void, crushing and shattering the walls of cereal that would otherwise rebound and hover crunchily on the surface of the void—but even the splintered remnants of the pillars are enough to hold them up.

Like men and women after a shipwreck, the Face and the Nose cling to Froot Loop driftwood to hold their heads above the void.

Over their heads there is an immense strut of the city, leaning sideways but remaining whole; and on that strut, quivering with fury and with fear, there is the Hand.

“Close your eyes,” hisses Danielle.

And Solomon does; and he can see dimly with that remnant of sight that he is unable to entirely extinguish that Danielle has freed her working hand, draping her body across driftloops, so that she may pinch shut her nose.

“Why?” he says.

“It cannot feel vibrations in the void,” Danielle says. “It can only tell where the void lies by the substance of our thoughts.”

“Oh,” Solomon says.

The Hand skitters back and forth.

“It is afraid,” Danielle says. “And furious because I know that it is afraid. But with all the senses of us crippled, how can it know for sure where among the floating Froot Loops on the void it will be safe to leap down and pursue us?”

The surface of the void is like a flickering fire to the tactile sense of the Hand. Things come and go. They manifest vibration erratically. And down there there is the Nose that it cut off to spite the Face, the Face that it must kill to seize control, and the Froot Loops that because it cannot taste them should not be allowed to be.

Fear, it trembles.

Rage.

Danielle’s eyes widen.

It picks up her thought: Oh, God. I’m going to sneeze.

The Hand cultivates its plan.

“Don’t,” pleads Solomon.

Danielle is sniffling.

“Oh, Danielle, Danielle, no.”

And Danielle sneezes, and that sneeze sends the Froot Loops skirling across the surface of the void, and in the irrational reflex that follows it she inhales and her thoughts become rich with the scent-details of the world:

And the Hand leaps.

It is bounding across the surface of the void, its fingers never landing on a chunk of Froot Loops long enough to push it below the surface, it is coming for them—

And Danielle says, softly, “You have chosen poorly, Hand, to fight the Nose in its area of omniscience.”

And as the Hand comes down for her she taps her nose gently against the log on which she rests.

A crack spreads through it.

The Hand lands upon her. It drives her down into the substance of the void. The log of Froot Loops on which it hoped, momentarily, to rest, explodes.

It flounders, there, on nothingness. Its fingers catch hold of individual Froot-flavored rings. They crumble under it.

Then it is gone.

“Danielle,” Solomon says.

There is silence.

“Oh, Danielle.”

And the Face looks upon the substance of the void and his metal nose resonates with beauty and with sorrow.

There are some who say that the Nose that knows Froot Loops may know them even beyond the boundaries of life and death. That the smell of those Froot flavors crawls beyond nothingness and the grave to serve as a beacon for whatever lies beyond. There are those, thus, who imagine that this story has a happy ending, and also that the biggest problem with keeping Froot Loops in one’s house is the zombies and the restless dead.

That in that empty place beyond substance and mind the Nose still strains to know in which direction Froot Loops lie.

If she can find them—

If she can just find them!—

She will have won.

The Jewel of the Teaching

The gem is the ultimate distillation of faith.

It sits on its pedestal in the caverns deep under Amish country. It glitters. It’s green.

Samuel is staring at it.

Clyde bursts into the room. The doors slam open and Clyde rolls in, his suit jacket smoldering. He lands hard.

Slowly, he stands up, brushing out his jacket.

“That’s it?” Clyde asks.

“Figure so,” Samuel says.

The chamber echoes oddly. It’s like their words are coming out a bit before their mouths move.

“It’s totally separate from worldly affairs,” breathes Clyde.

“The jewel of the Anabaptists,” sighs Samuel.

Samuel starts forward towards the pedestal.

“Wait!”

Clyde flings up a hand.

“What?”

“Only hands firmly grounded in traditional values,” Clyde says, “can touch the Anabaptist jewel!”

Samuel turns towards him. “You implying something, Clyde?”

Samuel’s eyes narrow.

“Maybe I am,” Clyde says. He juts his chin forward. Then he begins walking towards the jewel.

Samuel shoves himself past Clyde. There’s an ominous click and rumble deep below. Samuel steps onto an ornate design on the floor, which sinks, ever so slightly, under his foot.

“Now, Samuel,” says Clyde.

There are little popping noises of bone, like someone cracking their fingers. A moment later, Clyde shakes out his neck and his arms.

“You know the Lord don’t approve of violence,” Clyde threatens.

Samuel turns. “Darn it, Clyde, that’s what you said right before you locked me in with the bees!”

“You earned those bees,” hisses Clyde.

Samuel takes off his jacket. He sets it aside.

“We oughtn’t better make a habit of this, Clyde,” he says.

There’s the terrible sound effect of a fist hitting someone’s chin. Both of them freeze. They don’t have very long to make the calculation: am I going to hit him, or is he going to hit me?

“Darn it!” says Samuel.

It’s Clyde. He’s the reckless one. His arm twitches into motion almost like it’s not his own. He punches Samuel.

Even before it connects, there’s another sound of pow!

Samuel’s head is knocked back. He sways. Then he comes around, eyes burning, and his fist connects squarely with the side of Clyde’s head.

“Stop it!” says Clyde. He takes a step back.

Samuel hesitates.

Then, curtly, he nods.

“There’s ominous music playing,” says Clyde.

“That there is,” says Samuel.

“Sin music,” says Clyde.

“That’s so.”

They are angry, sullen, and shamed. Their eyes lock.

“I can’t come all this way and not bring the jewel back,” says Clyde. “I can’t, Samuel.”

“It’s not meant to be brought out there in conformance with the world,” says Samuel. “It’s meant to be here, in God’s secret bunker.”

And Samuel breathes out his tension and his shoulders sink and he lowers his eyes.

“Then why’d you come here, Samuel?”

“I wanted it too,” Samuel says. There’s longing in his voice. “Want it still. With it, I could learn such adherence to traditional ways as to shake the pillars of Heaven. But …”

“But there’s the price,” Clyde says. He rubs his jaw.

“Wasn’t our fault,” says Samuel. “We’re just in the habit of following the sound effects. Moving our mouth once the words come out. Milking the cows when we hear the spurt. Entering scenes when the prompter tells us to. Stuff like that.”

“It’s a bad habit,” says Clyde.

His mouth doesn’t move at all, even though he’s said stuff. Samuel stares at him. Samuel waits. Then Samuel gets all twitchy.

“Darn it, Clyde, that’s just unnatural,” he says.

Clyde, reluctantly, moves his mouth. Samuel does the same.

After a moment, Samuel says, “You’re right, though. We can’t blame the teleprompter for our sins.”

“Sometimes,” proposes Clyde, as if looking for an exception, “when I look at Katie, and there’s that music . . .”

“Not even those sins,” says Samuel.

Clyde lowers his head.

“Come on,” he says. “I think all the zombies are on fire. Let’s go home.”

Samuel nods. He gives one last longing look at the jewel, and then he steps off of the design.

There’s a horrible noise, like the gateway to Hell itself opening. There’s the rising shriek of devils and the damned.

Samuel and Clyde freeze.

Then, slowly, they relax.

“Just a buggy backfiring,” says Samuel.

“Zombie popping,” says Clyde.

“Might’ve been that spinny door,” says Samuel. “You know, the hundred-ton one that flips end over end. They probably don’t oil that much down here.”

“Hey,” says Clyde. “I know the jewel of the teaching is fabulously valuable, but still—this seems a bit weird.”

“Hm?”

“I mean,” says Clyde, “Why does God have a bunker filled with traps and zombies, anyway?”

Samuel shrugs.

“Tradition.”

Sweeping Day

Sid’s sweeping up the streets after the Fourth of July. He’s got a broom in his left hand, a sack in his right hand, and three sacks on his belt.

Jane walks past.

“Hey,” says Sid.

Jane spins her head to look at him. She grins. “Hey!”

She holds up a Transformer doll.

“Now that you’ve greeted me I can show you my Transformer!” she says. “It talks! And it knows everything about biochemistry! And it turns from a robot into a beautiful swan or a fire—”

Sid blinks.

“Um,” he says.

“—work or a ban—”

Sid holds up a hand to stop her.

“Wait,” he says tersely. “Please. No explanations. I need you to trust me and be quiet and hold this bag and wait in a nearby alley.”

Sid holds out the sack he’s been sweeping street dust into.

Jane tilts her head and looks at him sidelong. She frowns.

“But I only have two hands,” Jane protests. “And I need one for the Transformer and one for pointing and gesturing!”

Jane points at the Transformer, and then attempts to point at her pointing hand. This fails, so she gestures irritably.

“Current biotechnology does not allow Jane to grow a third arm at this time,” intones the Transformer.

“You could trade,” Sid offers.

His voice is fraught with tension.

Jane thinks for a second. “Okay!”

“Okay?”

Jane hands Sid the Transformer. She takes the bag. She peeks in. “Yay! Dust!”

“Don’t look!” Sid cries. It’s a strangled shout. He closes the bag in her hands.

“It was very shiny,” Jane says. Her eyes are glittering. So are her eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is strangely sparkly.

Sid nods sharply.

“It’s liberty dust,” Sid says. “See, Earth is basically a giant engine that produces liberty for our alien masters. The liberty rises into the upper atmosphere and intersects with the super-cooled alien air and—”

Jane stomps on his foot.

“—Ow!”

Jane pokes him in the chest with her free pointing and gesturing hand.

“You can’t produce liberty for alien masters,” she says. “That’s an oxymormon.”

“Technically,” says the Transformer, biochemically, “an oxymormon is an oxygen atom that is bound to a religious atom that believes Joseph Smith ended the Kali Yuga and restored the Satya Yuga to this Earth. You are thinking of something else.”

“Huh,” says Jane. “But my point stands!”

“True,” says Sid. “I suppose that they’re really more like thuggish symbiotes than masters. Whisht!”

Sid shoves Jane into an alley.

“Hey!” Jane squawks.

Sid stands in front of the alley looking innocent. An alien starship descends from the upper atmosphere. Its bulbous belly discharges a landing ramp. A squat, squamous alien shuffles down.

“Hey,” says Sid.

“Aliens!” says Jane.

“Ixnay on the eakingspay,” hisses Sid.

The alien lifts its head. It snuffles. “Strange noises,” it says. “Do you taunt us again with your ‘Pig Latin’, Earth Sid?”

“A momentary aberration,” Sid assures it.

It shuffles forward. It has the gait of a creature with broken legs, but displays no other signs of pain.

“Please present us the liberty condensate,” it says, “that we pay you $3.75 an hour to collect.”

Sid walks forward, hesitantly. He takes the three sacks from his belt. He passes them over.

The alien looks in a sack. It looks up. Its eyes are glittering. So are its eyelids and eyelashes. The overall effect is horridly sparkly.

“Ah,” it says. “Za’pogh-la. Do you know how it is formed, Earth Sid?”

“Large concentrations of liberty vented into the upper atmosphere, as by fireworks, meet up with the super-cooled alien air and—”

The alien steps on Sid’s foot.

“Ow!”

Sid looks aggrieved. That doesn’t normally happen to him twice in one day.

“Silence, Earth Sid! The secret of Za’pogh-la is not for human voice!”

“Just take it,” says Sid. “Take it and go.”

“This is . . . all of it?”

The alien stares at Sid.

“Maybe the air isn’t cold enough any more,” challenges Sid. “Maybe you aliens heated up.”

The alien snurfles dismissively.

“You are careless, Earth Sid. You have swept most of it into the aquifer.”

“He is not careless!”

That’s Jane’s voice, as she runs out of the alley.

“I’ve seen him!” she shouts. “He sweeps every day! Not just on Sweeping Day after 4th of July! He sweeps every day all year to get it all!”

The alien hisses. It turns, and a proboscis unfurls from the mysterious crannies of its face. It stands still, trembling, sniffing at the air.

“Ixnay!” says Sid.

“There’s a girl,” says the alien. It trembles in outrage. “She will contaminate the Za’pogh-la!”

This takes the wind out of Jane’s sails. She did not anticipate that the subject of the discussion would turn directly to her. “What?”

“Sid!” says the alien. “Kill her!”

Sid freezes. Then he turns. He has a haunted look on his face. He pulls out his hand and shapes it into a gun, with his index finger pointing at Jane.

“Bang!” he says. “Bang! Bang! Bang! You’re dead, killed by my Earth weapon!”

Jane stomps her foot, orienting on the familiar. “Am not! You missed!”

“I’m correcting my aim,” Sid says. He’s sweating. “No need for the alien to use its space disintegrator,” he emphasizes. “I’m using a special Earth cyberoptic sight. Bang! You’re dead!”

“I don’t see the cyberoptic sight,” Jane says dubiously.

Sid squints his left eye like a man with a tic. “It’s a half-human, half-machine particle welded directly to the optic nerve.”

“Wow,” says Jane. “That’s lethal!”

She falls down dramatically.

“Avenge me!” she cries. “Avenge me!”

“The Earth girl is slow to die,” says the alien. “Are you sure that your hand-weapon is functional?”

“It is a painful and terrible death,” says Sid sadly, “but slow.”

Sid’s tone hardens.

“I would liefer use it on you,” he adds, “but for the difficulty I would have finding other employment after years of quisling labor.”

The alien turns back towards the ship.

“You will collect more,” it says, indifferently, “next year.”

“Of course,” says Sid.

“Avenge me!” wails Jane.

The alien turns. “Is she truly dead—”

The Transformer flies into the air. It shifts into the form of a firework. It sputters and burns in the air, and then explodes in brilliance.

“—Ah,” sighs the alien, distracted. “So pretty, the explosions of your Earth.”

It stomps into its ship. It rises into the air. Then it is gone.

Sid kneels beside Jane. “Are you all right?” he says.

“I’m not really dead!” Jane tells him. “It’s because I have an immortal spirit.”

“Good,” says Sid. “Those are handy in an apocalypse.”

Jane sits up.

“You shouldn’t collaborate with them,” she says. “They look horrible and alien, so they must be evil.”

“Without the Roswell technology,” notes Sid, “we humans probably wouldn’t have figured out liberty in the first place.”

“Also, it was mean,” Jane says. “It ordered the Earth Sid to kill me! I’m still kind of scared.”

“And if it weren’t for them, up there, farming us,” says Sid, “there wouldn’t be super-cooled alien air in the upper atmosphere at all. They put it there. They saturated it with the elementary particles of alien love. They’re the reason liberty does condense. And that’s why, every year, I can skim a little off the top.”

Sid reclaims the sack from her.

“What’s it for?” Jane asks.

“It’s sparkly,” Sid says.

Jane peers at him.

“I sneak into people’s houses at night,” says Sid, “and blow it in the faces of children who can’t make liberty on their own.”

“Oh,” says Jane.

She stands up. She walks in circles for a bit.

“That’s kind of creepy,” she says.

“It’s mythic and archetypal,” protests Sid. “I’m like Santa or the Witch. Or like Stars, the Thanksgiving Turkey!”

But Jane is distracted. She isn’t paying attention to Sid any more.

“Huh,” says Jane. “My Transformer died.”

On the Endings of Stories (2 of 3)

“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”

“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”

“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.

“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.

Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.

“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.

“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.

“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.

“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”

Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.

He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.

“Pardon?” the angel asks.

“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.

The angel watches.

Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.

“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”

“Ah,” the angel says.

“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”

The angel walks for a time in silence.

“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”

I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.

“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.

“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”

Jacob shakes his head.

“You still have that choice,” the angel says.

Jacob laughs.

“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”

“Then show me,” says Jacob.

The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.

“What is that?”

“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”

Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.

It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.

But Jacob does not have much time.

The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.

Inside the maw,

Of course,

It is empty.

And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.

“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.

It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.

“Yes,” says the angel.

It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.

It was only six months back.

Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:

“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”

Jacob knew better.

It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.

Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.

But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.

He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.

Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.

The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.

Six months passed.

Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.

It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.

They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.

“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”

“Is it?”

“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”

Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.

I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.

“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.

Then it coughs up blood and dies.

Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.

The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.

“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”

The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”

“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”

Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.

“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”

The maw rises.

“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.

The maw falls on him.

Jacob feels himself dissolving and

“And?” Jane asks.

“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”


See also The Fable of the Lamb,
Tigers in their Cages
Coming Home (a legend about Iris)
Saturday
Priyanka
and Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw.

Jacob, His Runt, The Angel, and the Maw (1 of 3)

“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”

“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.

“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”

“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”

His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.

“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”

The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.

She is wearing a jacket.

“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”

“Why so?”

Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.

“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.

Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.

“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”

There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.

“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.

“For you.”

It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.

Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”

Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.

The runt skulked through after him.

Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.

But Jacob had not repented.

He simply spoke the words.

It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.

“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.

“Do you?” the angel says.

“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”

Jacob taps the floor with his foot.

“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”

Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.

“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”

The faces of the angel shift and tilt.

“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”

Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.

“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”

“And yet,” says the angel.

“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”

His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.

The angel does not seem to see.

“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”

“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”

“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”

“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”

I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.

But he does not say it.

The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.

“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”

“Then we must go down,” the angel says.

On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.

A World of One

Meredith talks to her boyfriend Chuck.

“How would I know if anyone else was really sentient?” she asks.

Chuck’s eyes grow cold. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well,” Meredith says, “I mean, suppose I lived in a world of one, and everyone else was just a mechanical process, possessing no volition and no awareness. How would I know?”

“I’d tell you,” Chuck says.

“You would?”

“Of course. I’m incapable of concealing something as large as my own absence of consciousness. You would inevitably find out. We would fight. Then you’d dump me. No, up-front honesty would be the most rational course.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Meredith says.

“You sound uncertain. Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course.”

“Then let it be. Drop this. Don’t ever bring it up again.”

“Okay.”

Meredith yawns. “I guess I’d better be getting to bed,” she says. So she does. Chuck makes some phone calls.

She doesn’t know what wakes her up. It might be the scraping and scrabbling of fingers at the window. It might be the light coming on in the outer room. It might be the low moaning from the Philosophy Department. But something wakes her.

“Who’s there?” she says.

There’s a rattling as a lamp is knocked over in the outer room. There is an apologetic voice with a French accent. “No one,” it says.

Meredith sits straight up. “What do you mean, no one?”

Zombie Derrida stands in the doorway of her bedroom. “I suppose I mean that your question presupposes the existence and distinctness of the self, whereas the truth is often more ambiguous.”

“Aren’t you a person?”

“I should better be referred to as ‘undead’, a word that I coined in cooperation with Gary Gygax. It refers to a creature to which one can reasonably attribute the accidentals of life, death, personhood, and inanimacy, but not reasonably decide between them—a creature who does not truly possess life or death but instead what we in philosophy call a ‘malevolent animating principle.'”

“As you say these things,” Meredith notes, “you are shuffling forward, and your mouth is gaping wide.”

“Communication is violence,” confesses Zombie Derrida.

Meredith sweeps to her feet. She grabs the flamethrower from beside her bed. She rises and points it dead at Zombie Derrida’s chest.

“Why do you have a flamethrower?” Zombie Derrida asks.

“I’m a modern girl,” says Meredith, and burns Derrida to a crisp. She turns to her window. She flips up the blinds. Zombie Kant and Zombie Hume whip back their fingers from the outside of the window, guiltily.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“Acting according to reason,” professes Zombie Kant.

“Pardon?”

“It is a categorical imperative that all people should have their brains eaten by philosophical zombies,” says Zombie Kant.

“You’re a philosophical zombie?”

Zombie Kant nods. “It’s because I’m just like the real Kant, only I’m not a person. And I like brains.”

“We were going to wait until you were dead to eat your brain,” says Zombie Hume. “But you were catching on.”

“So Chuck called us,” Kant summarizes.

“That sniveling little git!”

“We’re kind of the hit squad of the philosophical zombies. Because even driven by mindless and malevolent negative energy, we’re capable of executing complex plans.”

“It’s not that I can still think,” says Zombie Hume. “It’s more that the causal chain passing through me is unaware of the dark abyss that is my mind.”

“Whereas, for me,” says Kant, “it is more that I cannot see how being a zombie should affect my moral code.”

“This is monstrous,” says Meredith.

“You are averse to being devoured,” says Zombie Hume. “I appreciate this. Yet I desire to devour you. All is in balance.”

Meredith nods slowly. She opens the window. “I guess you’d best get on with it, then.”

Hume and Kant attempt to fit through the window simultaneously. They are briefly stuck. That is when Meredith burns them.

“Time to deal with Chuck,” she says.

She opens her front door. She goes out. There is a chill in the air and a hundred houses on every hill. In every house the philosophical zombies go through the motions of life, hoping that by so doing they will someday gain the chance to taste her brains; and yet she is alone.

The Cautionary Tale of Edmund Zombie

The moon and the sun hang out in the sky.

“Men are such fools,” says the moon.

“Hm?” says the sun. He can’t tell yet whether the moon is referring to humans or to males.

“New Respite,” says the moon.

The sun looks down. He burns with the white-hot fury of a single sun. “Oh! The fools!”

The town of New Respite is still under construction. It has a revolutionary new approach to architecture. The entire town is made of massage oil, suspended in structural gel.

“Why are we doing this?” John Workman says, leaning against his shovel. It vibrates gently, soothing his back and shoulders.

“If a giant monster steps on this Respite,” Cynthia Foreman says, “then we want it to experience sensual ecstasy.”

“Charitable,” says John.

“Enh,” says Cynthia. “It is better to be of use to one daikaiju than to nobody at all.”

John goes back to work.

It was the opinion of the New Respite planning committee that it’s perfectly all right to build one’s city out of sensual massage oil suspended in structural gel. It’s moral, clean, safe, and smells nice.

They didn’t know that it attracts bugs.

“I hear that they’re building a city out of massage oil,” rumors Terrible Bug, in his spiny cavern beneath the earth.

Horrible Bug perks up. She stretches, popping her carapace. She flexes several spiky legs. “A whole city? But we love massage oil!”

“We do,” says Terrible Bug.

“Ordinary bugs hate it,” Horrible Bug admits. “They would stay well away from a city made in this fashion. It would be sanitary. But to us—”

They exchange a meaningful glance. Then they go to call the others of their kind. There are only a thousand Massage Bugs in all the world, but they are unusually dire.

“Corner Mart is your friendly neighborhood corner store,” says Frank Sales to the Mayor.

“Is it now?” asks the Mayor.

“We’d like to build our four thousandth storefront in New Respite.”

“You understand,” says the Mayor, “that we are primarily building New Respite out of the same numb resignation to our fate that prompted the Japanese to construct New Neo-Tokyo III?”

Frank Sales looks blank. “The Japanese are resigned to your fate?”

“I mean to say,” says the Mayor, “that a giant monster, or some other terrible fate, is bound to befall New Respite, as it befell Respite, Neo-Stress, Stress, Serenity, and Inchoate, the cities we indwelt before.”

“We will recruit management locally,” says Frank Sales.

The plans for Corner Mart’s occupation are quickly forced through the corrupt city council. It is built on an abandoned graveyard on a hill.

“The dead hain’t abandoned it,” says Marty Gravekeeper, as they shoo him out.

“‘Ain’t’,” corrects Emily Martthug. “Not ‘hain’t’. Now git.”

So Marty gits. They build the Corner Mart out of peppermint-scented massage oil suspended in construction gel. Its crisp minty scent stings the corpses in their deeps. Soon one of them rises.

“I am Edmund Zombie,” says Edmund Zombie to Emily Martthug.

“You appear to be dead.”

“I am.”

“Was the name awkward,” Emily asks, “when you were alive?”

Edmund Zombie looks impassively at her.

“You’re not allowed to be on this property,” Emily says. “You’re trespassing.”

“I am not bound by your mortal law,” Edmund Zombie says. “I obey a higher ethical principle. One measures a zombie’s worth not by statutes but by brain-eating.”

“How is one to tell which moral code is superior?”

“Empirically; I will eat your brain.”

He lurches towards her. They wrestle, there, on the hill, in the dark, in the parking lot of the Corner Mart. The shadows grow long, and the woman is bloodied, but it is Emily Martthug who proves the victor. She clasps Edmund Zombie in stocks. She places a muzzle on him. She stocks him in the store for the low low price of $119.99.

Edmund Zombie burns with the white-hot anger of 1.38 x 10^-8 suns.

In Terrible Bug’s spiny cavern, the thousand Massage Bugs have gathered. Each is as tall as a man and twice as deadly.

“We are ready!” cries Terrible Bug, lifting his standard high. “Let us march on New Respite!”

They swarm upwards to the earth. They march like an unstoppable storm. They descend on New Respite. It is John Workman’s house they infest first.

“Excuse me,” says John.

“Yes?” says Horrible Bug.

“It seems to me that this is my house.”

“I am not bound by your vertebrate concepts of property,” says Horrible Bug.

“Internal bones got nothin’ to do with this,” says John.

Horrible Bug is forced to concede the point. “Granted,” she says. “But it is my external bones that are razor-sharp.”

John considers this for a while.

“Fine,” he says. He stomps to the door. He takes down his hat. He puts it on, defiantly. Then he goes to Corner Mart.

“I need something to deal with bugs,” he says, to Melanie Service.

She shows him the Raid.

“Bigger bugs,” he says.

She shows him the katanas. They are only $59.99.

“Bigger,” he says.

She frowns. She looks him over. “If you want a gun, that’s in Sporting Goods.”

“Guns won’t save me.”

“I’ll have to think outside the box!” Melanie exclaims. She thinks. After a moment, she makes a bright dinging noise. “You could buy the zombie!”

John is desperate. He buys Edmund Zombie. Edmund Zombie glares at him.

“You’re kind of adorable,” John says. “Trussed up like that.”

Edmund Zombie moans something behind the muzzle that sounds vaguely like, “Spaaaain!”

“Right,” John says. “To business.”

John carts Edmund to his house. He pushes the zombie inside.

“Look,” says Terrible Bug. “It’s a stocked zombie.”

John triggers the remote muzzle and stocks release. Edmund Zombie is free at last.

“Uh oh,” says Terrible Bug. He writhes with the yellow-bellied fear of 2.7 x 10^-3 suns. Edmund Zombie begins his rampage.

“Help me!” cries Horrible Bug. She was having sex with Seductive To Other Bugs Bug in the massage oil. That made her the zombie’s first target.

“Nobody go into the woods alone!” cries Fruitless Warning Bug.

“God will save us!” cries Unrealized Deus Ex Machina Bug.

“Oh, yes, eat me, eat my luscious brain!” moans Disturbingly Inappropriate Bug.

Edmund Zombie eats the bugs. He eats their brains. Then he eats the rest of them, because he’s not entirely sure which part of a bug is its brain. Soon he’s round as a ball with bug meat.

“Brains!” he shouts. Then he hiccups. There’s few things more pathetic than a hiccuping zombie, and John is forced to laugh.

“I think I’ll keep you,” John Workman says.

Night of the Antinomian

“I don’t know,” says Sarah to her boyfriend, James. “These woods are pretty spooky.”

“It’ll be all right,” James says. He takes her in his arms. He kisses her. “There’s nothing here that could hurt us.”

The earth shakes, once. His hands draw off her sweater and her top.

“But is it wrong?” she asks him.

“No,” he says. He shakes his head.

The earth shakes, again. Birds burst into flight.

“Nothing good people do,” he says, “is wrong.”

He fumbles at her bra hooks, without success.

The earth shakes.

Her eyes widen. “James,” she says.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll get it.”

“No, James. James. James,” she says. “Behind you.”

He turns. He looks. He lets go of her.

“Wha—?”

He is grasped in a massive hand and hurled upwards into Heaven.

Sarah screams.


Johannes Agricola (1494-1566): a German Protestant reformer, at first welcomed by Martin Luther, but later condemned by Luther and others for his ‘antinomian’ heresy.


“It was, perhaps, a mistake,” Dr. Oboli admits.

“Pardon?” asks General McCoy.

“It might have been a mistake. To harvest the genetic material of Johannes Agricola, and bring him back to life—fifty times his normal size!”

“Yes,” General McCoy says flatly. “Yes, it might have been.”

“I honestly didn’t think he’d ever escape the lab,” Dr. Oboli protests.

“Spilled milk, Dr. Oboli. Spilled milk. Tell us what we’re up against.”

“It’s probably the greatest threat ever to face humanity,” Dr. Oboli frets. “Historically, antinomians and humans have been able to coexist only because we were just as big as the antinomians and could kill them if we had to. But Johannes Agricola is already dead, and he’s also very large.”

“Large enough,” General McCoy asks, “to physically fling the saved into Heaven?”

“Exactly,” says Dr. Oboli. “No one is safe.”

“What about the sinners?” asks General McCoy, practically. “I mean, aren’t they safe? What if we buy some kind of golden calf from a military supplier and everyone worships it until the problem is resolved?”

“It won’t work,” Dr. Oboli moans. “Antinomians aren’t like ordinary Christians. They don’t care about sin any more than they care about good works. To Johannes Agricola, you’re either saved or damned from the moment that you’re born. It’s a doctrine of arbitrary judgment!”


Antinomianism: the doctrine that those who God has already chosen to spare will find grace, and those he has not, will not, and that therefore the saved are ultimately free to commit whatever crimes and sins they like. In short: believers have a blank check from God, whether or not they choose to cash it.


Bud and Ernest are soldiers.

“When General McCoy said to search this region,” Ernest says, “I don’t think he meant for you to go into the church, alone, carrying only a candle.”

Bud looks embarrassed.

“I mean, that just seems—dangerous.”

“I’m not really doing it to look for Agricola,” Bud says. “I just want to pray at the stained glass window by candlelight.”

“Wouldn’t a mosque be safer? There won’t be any giant undead antinomians there.”

“What are the chances that of all the churches in this little town, he’d be hiding out in this one?”

Ernest shrugs. “Point,” he admits. He stands and watches nervously as Bud goes into the church, alone, carrying a candle.

“Oh, no!” shouts Bud. He is seized by the giant hand of Johannes Agricola. He is flung through the stained glass window and in a great arc up to Heaven.

“I always thought,” whispers Ernest. “I always thought, in my heart, that I had God’s grace.”

The earth shakes. Ernest pulls out his gun. He points it, hands shaking, towards the church.

“No!”

The earth shakes. The great doors of the church creak open, like paper pushed by a child.

“No!” Ernest shouts. “I don’t want to go to Heaven!”

He fires desperately, bullets embedding themselves uselessly in Agricola’s reanimated flesh. Then he runs. He runs before Agricola can see his grace.


Ere suns and moons could wax and wane;
    Ere stars were thundergirt, or plied the heavens,
    God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
    Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
    This head this hat should rest upon
    Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.

— “Johannes Agricola in Meditation,” by Robert Browning


“What I’m thinking,” says Mr. Brown, “is Agricola Cola.”

“What?” General McCoy asks.

“We don’t have to fear a giant undead antinomian. Instead, we can market him. ‘The risk of sudden enHeavening,’ we’ll say, ‘is just one of the perks of delicious Agricola Cola.'”

“Why will that help?” General McCoy asks, blankly.

“Well,” Mr. Brown says, “the problem isn’t people going to Heaven. People do that every day. The problem is that people are afraid. Resolve that fear, and suddenly Johannes Agricola is no longer a threat—just a friendly giant givin’ people a hand.”

“Get out of my sight,” General McCoy says. “And I hope you’re saved.”

Mr. Brown scowls. General McCoy stares him down. After a moment, Mr. Brown flees.


I have God’s warrant, could I blend
    All hideous sins, as in a cup,
    To drink the mingled venoms up;
Secure my nature will convert
    The draught to blossoming gladness.

— “Johannes Agricola in Meditation,” by Robert Browning


“All right,” General McCoy says to his troops. “We’ve got a problem.”

He taps the tactical map behind him with a pointer. It shows the town, and a big question mark, and a little airplane.

“We have no idea where Johannes Agricola is,” General McCoy says. He taps the question mark with his pointer. “He’s picking us off one by one, and he’s immune to ordinary gunfire. But he’s just one giant undead antinomian. We still have time to set a trap.”

“Yes, sir!” snap his soldiers.

General McCoy moves the pointer to the airplane. “This is our problem,” he says. “Word is spreading to the other undead. Dracula. Living Dead Guy. The ‘love zombie’. Our media scouts say that one of them is already flying into the area. They’re interested in this antinomianism. There’s a real chance that Agricola can convert them to his doctrine of licentiousness and vice.”

“What about Dracula’s three handmaidens?” a soldier asks.

“They converted to Islam some time ago,” General McCoy says. “The burkha protects them from the terrible light of the sun, but also nullifies their infernal seductive appeal and silky lingerie. They are no longer a threat.”

The soldier nods.

“Even so,” General McCoy says, “we need to act fast. Dr. Oboli has created a ‘clean nuke’ that only kills antinomians. But it’s a stationary mine and only has a thirty foot radius. So we need to bring him to us. Which means we need bait.”

He clears his throat.

“Are any of you, ah, bound for Heaven?”

The soldiers shuffle their feet. PFC Morgan lifts his hand, but only halfway.

“Morgan?” asks General McCoy.

“I try to be a good person,” Morgan says. “I mean, there’s some whoring and cursing. But other than that.”

General McCoy surveys the soldiers. Ernest, standing in the back, keeps his hand at his side. His face is anguished. He will let PFC Morgan die.

“Very well, Morgan,” McCoy says. “We’ll stake you out for the antinomian.”

“Do you think he’ll come?” Morgan asks.

General McCoy stalks forward. He rips Morgan’s shirt open, artfully, to display the PFC’s Russell Crowe-like chest.

“He must,” says General McCoy.


Wer anderen eine Grube gräbt, fällt selbst hinein.
(“He who digs a hole for another, falls into it himself.”)

— Johannes Agricola


The earth shakes.

“He’s getting closer,” whispers Dr. Oboli. “He’s getting closer.”

“He will go for Morgan, won’t he?” the general asks.

“It is not for science to say who can be saved.”

The earth shakes.

Morgan is tied to a post in a forest glen. He is a sacrifice to the antinomian. Next to him is the clean nuke. All around him, hiding in the shadows, are the soldiers of General McCoy.

PFC Morgan is praying.

“God,” he says, “please don’t take me. I want to come to you. But gently. I don’t want to be flung.”

The earth shakes.

“Please,” whispers Morgan to the sky. “Not this way.”

Johannes Agricola stands in the glen. He towers over the soldiers. He looks down at Morgan. Then he looks away. His eyes scan through the trees. His giant hand reaches down.

“He’s not going for Morgan!” General McCoy shouts. “Abort! Retry! Fail!”

Ernest looks up. He sees the shadow of the hand. And suddenly he knows.

“General,” he shouts. “He’s here for me!”

And he runs. But not away. He runs into the clearing, and casts himself down upon the nuke.

Johannes Agricola’s hand scoops up Ernest and the nuke alike.

“Trigger it! Trigger it!”

There is a flare of white light.


Johannes Agricola (2004-2004): a giant undead German Protestant reformer, at first loved by Dr. Oboli, but later betrayed by him and utterly destroyed. He flung many people directly into Heaven, as well as one very surprised cat.


“He’s gone,” says Dr. Oboli. “My greatest creation. Gone.”

“I’ve lost a man today,” says General McCoy.

“How can that compare?” says Dr. Oboli. “It was suicide—suicide! Ernest chose the worst possible moment to convert to antinomianism.”

General McCoy’s mouth works. He does not know how to respond to Dr. Oboli’s statement.

“But I,” says the doctor. “I built an antinomian from clay and dust. I created a great thing—a gigantic undead Agricola. And now it is gone. And it shall never return.”

“At least no one else will be flung into Heaven,” says General McCoy.

“Yes,” says Dr. Oboli. “At least no one else was among the saved.”

There is an uncomfortable silence.

It stretches.

“There’s always good works,” General McCoy suggests.

The Lake in the Office

Shelley is an ordinary person. She stands thirty feet from the shadows and forty feet from the lake of honey mustard. She has a gun.

There’s a blur. There’s a masked shadow. She points the gun. “Freeze, ” she says.

The ninja freezes.

“Jump,” she says. “Backwards. Into the honey mustard.”

The ninja hesitates. Then he leaps, somersaulting backwards, and falls into the sauce.

Time passes. It happens again.

“Dunking ninjas into delicious sauces,” explains Dr. Morgan, on the television above, “is an enjoyable but strenuous activity.”

A ninja appears. Shelley’s eyes glint. It does not wait for her to speak. It jumps back into the sauce.

“It’s profitable,” Dr. Morgan says, “to consider the equilibrium point at which dunking ninjas returns as much energy—in terms of enjoyment and added company productivity—as it consumes. If your company dunks ninjas more often than this, the dunking is actually a net drain on your company’s wealth and human resources. If it dunks ninjas with less vigor, one incurs an important opportunity cost.”

There’s a fierce squawking. It’s a parrot. It’s on a pirate’s shoulder. He’s sailing the lake of honey mustard sauce. There’s the creaking of the ship and a distant, ominous shuffling. Shelley raises her voice a little. It’s flat. It’s bleak.

“Don’t come any closer,” she says. “I’m way past my ninja equilibrium. I don’t have time for pirates.”

“Arr,” whispers a voice. It fades into the distance.

“Or zombies,” she says.

The shuffling recedes.

“The traditional method for dunking ninjas,” Dr. Morgan says, “involves a gun. One points the gun at the ninja. One tells the ninja to jump. This is a hazardous method and is not appropriate for children under eight.”

A ninja appears.

Shelley says, quietly, “How old do I look to you?”

The ninja hesitates. His voice is night and poison. “Thirty-eight,” he says.

Her hand trembles.

“But I can’t see too clearly, ma’am,” the ninja hastens to point out. “On account of the mask.”

She looks down. “Pathetic,” she says.

The ninja inches closer. The gun rises like a prayer.

“Just jump,” Shelley says.

The ninja jumps.

“The maximum dunking rate for this method,” Dr. Morgan says, “is three ninjas per two seconds, but this is not sustainable. The risks are too great. The rewards, too small. An employee forced to dunk ninjas at this rate is certain to crack. The proper dunking equilibrium for this method is seven ninjas per hour.”

Shelley smirks.

A ninja appears. The gun snaps up. Shelley is wild-eyed.

The ninja licks his lips. “We could work out some kind of deal,” he says. “I could teach you ninjutsu.”

“Jump,” she whispers.

“This should be sustained,” Dr. Morgan advises, “at most three hours in a workplace environment. If one assumes a five-day work week and two weeks of vacation per year, this yields a solid 5250 annual dunkings per employee—although a serious hobbyist, working from home, might manage as much as five times that.”

A ninja flickers into existence.

“Please,” he says. His accent is light. “I’m allergic to honey-mustard. I just want to go home.”

“Home.”

“I have a home,” he says. “It has great ninjutsu power. I keep my swords there. And my two children. And my ninja cat.”

“How many times,” she asks, “have you . . .”

Then she shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Jump.”

He says, quietly, “Seven hundred and thirty, this year.”

He jumps.

“There are more efficient methods, of course,” says Dr. Morgan. “If you have serious ninja-dunking needs, you might consider the Ninja Slide. This distorts that strange space that ninjas teleport through. The ninja slides into the tangy sauce, throws down a pinch of powder, and vanishes! The cycle then repeats. Ninja Slides repay two minutes of weekly maintenance per dunk with a continuous harvest of pleasure, allowing for more than 62400 dunkings per year regardless of the ninja supply.”

Shelley’s hand trembles.

“You look tired, ma’am.”

“Jump,” she says.

He jumps.

A girl-ninja appears. She jumps.

A ninja appears. He jumps.

A ninja appears.

“Damn it,” shouts Shelley, and the gun begins to fire, and it does not stop until there are black-clad corpses everywhere and she is sobbing on the floor and a ninja’s hand is cold and gentle against her neck.

“It is all right,” he says. “Madness is a thing all people know.”