DanJay’s Staring Contest

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


In Virgil Jango Skyy’s Wyoming motel-room, Jay writhed on the rug. He vaguely knew Jango was speaking, but he couldn’t discern any words. Maybe the old monk was chanting Sheridanian.

Jay still felt the centipede crawling through his intestines. As he convulsed, his view alternated between traditional reality and strange visions, but he couldn’t tell which was which. Sometimes he saw Jango and the bush of centipedes disguised as Virgil Blue. Sometimes he saw the entire swirling cosmos fighting over itself in the form of titanic entities. Which could be called ordinary? The swirling cosmos seemed unknowable and alien, but it connected Jay seamlessly to human history and every atom in the universe.

He felt his brain’s hemispheres separating with nerve-wracking imagery. Jay saw himself as an egg the size of a grown man, circling the center of a grand Wheel. From the Wheel’s center, new lifeforms emerged as streaks of light. The streaks shot past the egg to the circle’s rim and became triangular saw-teeth. Each triangle’s upward and downward slope tracked their lifeform’s growth and decline from birth to death. After death, each lifeform zapped back to the Wheel’s center nigh instantaneously, then blasted back to the rim as a new beam. The egg, trapped orbiting the center, was neither being born, nor aging, nor dying. While sentient beings cycled as streaks of light, the egg was locked in limbo. More eggs orbited the Wheel’s center, but this egg was largest by far. Perhaps that’s why, after incalculable duration, this egg alone was struck by a beam streaking to the rim.

The collision sparked the corpus callosum connecting the hemispheres of Jay’s brain. There, in a formless mental theater, two bundles of worms collided. The bundles grappled, unable to unify.

“I—I understand.” A worm-bundle calling itself ‘Dan’ echoed thoughts in Jay’s skull. “I wasted myself against Anihilato. It trapped me in an egg, freezing me on the Wheel of life and death to let my mind rot. To escape, I stowed aboard your soul. I hijacked your worms.”

The other worm-bundle found the name ‘Jillian’ attached. Jillian reached a pseudopod of worms across Jay’s frontal-lobe and slapped Dan’s worms. “Snap out of it!” she thought aloud. “You couldn’t’ve hijacked me even if you’d had the presence-of-mind to try! Our souls collided and I scavenged yours for parts!

“I’m so selfish,” cried Dan’s worms. “I thought I’d save Beatrice from the King of Dust, but she never needed me to begin with! When I failed, my personality infected yours. In the next eternity we’ll both be stuck in an egg, and Anihilato will eat us both at once—or else we’ll hitch another ride aboard another helpless kid, and drag them to Anihilato too. I’m a doomed monster, and I made you a doomed monster just like me!”

“Come on! Get with me here!” Jillian smacked him again. “I harvested your consciousness because I liked what I saw and I took what I wanted. You’re like my magic mushroom or winged boots. I want my pronouns back!”

Dan’s worms shuddered. He built pseudopods just to hug himself. “I’m still worried,” he thought, “like I always am. Which one of us is wearing the other like a suit of armor?”

“I don’t care, and neither should you!” thought Jillian. “I don’t wanna be Jillian. I want us both to pilot Jay: a master of life and death and neither male nor female but giant fucking anime space-robot!” She reached her pseudopod out again and Dan recoiled, but she didn’t slap him. She’d extended her hand to shake. Dan quivered. He shook her hand, and she helped him stand. Both worm-bundles were finally roughly anthropoid. “Now buckle up. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Jay’s skull illuminated around them. Monitors above control-panels displayed the dark view behind his closed eyelids. “What work is cut out for us?” asked Dan. “Don’t throw yourself at Anihilato the way I did!”

“Professor Akayama thought Faith would help her wrangle the longest worm.” Jillian sat in the Commander’s chair and fastened six seat-belts. “Faith doesn’t like Anihilato, so Akayama’s multilayered-sieve needs another go-between. That’s why she locked you in a box for Faith to dig up, not as a punishment, but because she knew your misguided desire for self-worth would lead you straight to the King of Dust.”

Dan sat at his own control-panel and fumbled with his belts. He realized the belts were made of worms, too, just like he was. “You’re talking like LuLu’s is literally real.”

Nothing’s literally real, Dan. Everything’s interpretation, and LuLu’s speaks my language.” Jillian flipped two rows of switches. “You blinked at Anihilato, but maybe Akayama meant for this slice-of-life to be a mobius isekai where you’re reborn in the same world all over again. She fired my worms through your egg, and the two of us together gotta zap back to that egg to finish what you started. We’re the last step of Nemo’s mission to save fig-makers from themselves.”

“Do we want so save Lio’s worms? We know Lio!” Dan turned dials and tested his steering-wheel. “Anihilato’s got some of my worms, too, but I think we’d all rather leave those tooth-balls behind.”

“Danny, picture that elementary-kid holding you underwater. He’s drowning you, but don’t you wanna save him? He’s your equal, your brother in anxiety. Don’t you wanna get on the messiah-pedestal and offer him a hand?” Jillian’s worm-bundle shaped two eyes on its face, and blinked twice at Dan. Instantly there was no space between them. “Every worm matters in the fight against the Hurricane. The Zephyrs are fighting for just one last chance for life to begin again with just one lesson learned, and we gotta make that fight count.” Jillian turned a key and pressed a big red button. Jay’s body lit up beneath them like a Christmas tree. Each tiny cell was a cockpit piloted by a worm-bundle representing someone Dan and Jillian had ever met, read about, or heard of, and everyone they had ever met, read about, or heard of. “That doesn’t mean we gotta play nice! The kindness Anihilato needs looks a heckuva lot like wrath!

Jay opened his eyes, noticing the motel-room as if for the first time. He’d crumbled across the rug, so he pulled himself up to sit cross-legged. “Finally awake?” Jango stood from the bed and sat before him on the floor. “I hope your journey showed you what you needed.”

“It did,” said Jay. “I know myself now, and I’m understand Anihilato, King of Dust, self-proclaimed Master of Nihilism. He’s a mall-Satan, and I’m gonna tug his beard.”

Jango closed his eyes and smiled. “I’m glad I could help.”

“But I’m not done yet tonight, and neither are you.” Jay pulled something from his jacket and smashed it on Jango’s forehead. “Send me to the Mountain, Virgil Blue. Send me to the end of the eternities. Kill me, right here, right now.”

Jango trembled. He smeared bloody yolk from his face. “What’s this?”

“I bought a fertilized egg from the poultry-farm on my way here.” Jay’s eyes were still glassy. “I’ve promoted you to Blue.”

“You don’t have the authority.” Jango wiped his frown with his sky-blue sleeve. “Only Virgils can promote one another.”

“But breaking an egg like that is worth the death-penalty anyway, right?” Jay clapped once, as if to wake Jango. “When Dan smoked centipede, he walked into the Wheel and was hit by a bird’s egg. That bird’s egg was put there by Anihilato with the authority of every Virgil Blue, so let’s call Dan Virgil Orange. After Dan’s death, Anihilato put him in his own egg where the halves of my soul smashed together. Whatever way you slice it, I’m Virgil Purple—the Biggest Bird’s first-born child, ready to hatch. Now you’re Virgil Blue. Don’t deny your destiny. There are no coincidences!”

“You’re still hallucinating.” Jango scowled and wiped his face. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“But I believe it with unyielding conviction.” Jay shrugged. “Martyr me before I sober up and change my mind.”

Jango stood shakily and limped into the motel bathroom. Jay heard him mop egg from his face with a towel. “You realize,” said Jango as he returned, “if you really made me Virgil Blue, you’ve doomed me to a terrible fate. The first man, Nemo, cannibalizes every Blue Virgil in their dreams.”

“And then some—but you’ve trained to handle teeth,” said Jay. “Nemo is an electrical-socket. I need you to stick your fork in it to sturdy Hell’s outer rim. Did you think Virgil Green would take up the slack? You weren’t hand-picked from Kansas to babysit the mask. You’re gonna wear it. Time ends with you and me, old man!”

“Whatever you think you’re doing, do it right. Don’t make me regret this!” Jango leapt upon Jay with his centipede-knife. “I’ll see you in the next eternity!”

“Damn right you will!” Despite demanding death, Jay instinctively shielded himself. Jango stabbed the knife through both Jay’s palms. “Aaaugh!” Jango stabbed Jay thirty-eight more times in the chest and stomach. Jay spluttered blood. “Wait!”

Jango groaned. “What do you want this time?”

“You’d better take Dan Jones to Sheridan as your student,” said Jay, lips leaking blood. “Otherwise our timeline will be every color of fucked up.”

“He’d have to eat a centipede.”

“He just did. You watched. Send him through Virgil Green, though, and don’t let him tell you otherwise. Dan needs to straighten his head a little since he’s gotta die before you, any year now.”

“Whatever you say.” Jango stabbed Jay a fortieth time. Jay sputtered his last. Jango sighed and wiped his bloody arthritic hands on his sky-colored robes. Had Jay seriously just promoted him to Virgil Blue? Was Dan destined to die in Sheridan’s white-walled monastery? Jango clenched his eyes shut. There were no coincidences!

Jango put one hand on his aching hips and the other hand on his tall cane. He’d smuggled bugs before, but he’d never had to cover up a murder. Returning to the Islands of Sheridan might be a challenge.

There was a knock at the door. In panic to hide Jay’s blood, Jango put on Virgil Blue’s navy robes and silver mask. He cracked the door just enough to see Dan standing outside. “Oh. Virgil Blue, right?”

Oran dora,” said Virgil Blue. “Call me what you want.”

“I’m so sorry to bother you, sir—but it’s an honor to meet you, of course. Is Jay still here?”

Virgil Blue knocked the door open with his cane. “Jay and Jango left together! Tell me, Danny, have you ever wanted to visit a library full of books from the future?

Jay’s last moments of waking consciousness were an experience he couldn’t hope to describe. He saw himself as one tooth of a saw spinning at the speed of life. His existence as a saw-tooth had lasted almost one full revolution, beginning smaller than an eyelash at birth and growing until his death at any moment now. That was all any saw-tooth ever got.

He steadied himself. When he zapped back to the Wheel’s center, he would barge into the underworld with enough triumph to crush Satan under the gates.

In its caverns under the desert, Anihilato coiled all twenty arms and twenty legs around a man-sized egg to catch warmth pouring from its yolk. A worm fell from the cavern ceiling onto Anihilato’s cheekbone. Anihilato plucked the worm and inspected it with six eyes. It opened its lipless mouth to swallow the worm whole, but thought twice about eating it immediately. It whispered, as if to let the egg sleep. “You’re the first worm I’ve seen in ages,” said the King of Dust. “Perhaps you and I are the last worms left.”

The worm squirmed in Anihilato’s grasp.

“Don’t worry. Worms are easy to digest,” said Anihilato, as if that made any difference to the worm. “The occasional complicated creatures have to be egged so I can separate their worms. In the last eternity I could separate worms using other mystical powers, but now I must resort to eggs. My last egg is almost ready. I’ve eaten all the rest. Soon I’ll have nothing left to eat but the Biggest Bird and the Mountain itself, and then I will be all.”

Anihilato let the worm crawl across the egg. Then it snatched the worm and ate it. Anihilato wrapped itself around the egg and slept.

It awoke to a crack. “I’ve enjoyed your warmth long enough.” Anihilato felt the egg’s crack with its fingertips. “Time to eat!” Anihilato opened wide.

The egg exploded. The caverns collapsed. Shifting sands rained like monsoons. Anihilato was buried.

After the collapse, Anihilato dug to the desert’s surface. It shook sand from its forty limbs and blinked in the sunlight for the first time in eons. It scanned the sand, but didn’t find the worms it expected escaping from the egg. “Monk!” Anihilato snapped up scraps of eggshell and crunched them in its teeth. “Jones! Dan Jones! You can’t run from me!”

“Why would I?” Jay sat nude, cross-legged, on a pile of eggshells. He’d removed his gray rag from his waist and was tying it like a blindfold over his eyes. The wind had smoothed away the dunes, so the red mountain lay in the distance behind him, like his sponsor. Its presence felt spiritually volcanic. “I’m right where I meant to be.”

Anihilato stormed up to him in a flurry of arms and legs. “I’ve softened you, Dan! Why are your worms still stuck together?”

“My egg had two yolks. You’ll have to hatch me twice, and I won’t be re-egged without contest.” Jay tied the blindfold taut. “Make no mistake: the rag’s for your protection, not mine. You’re already a worm. If you blinked in my gaze, you’d turn into a slug.” He rest his hands on his knees.

“You think I’m afraid? Me, Anihilato? King of Dust? Master of Nihilism? I’ll fill you with teeth and make you beg for your egg!”

Jay allowed himself a slanted smile. “You are Anihilato,” he said, “and you are King of Dust, but you are not Master of Nihilism. There is no Master of Nihilism. There’s just you and me, right here, right now.”

“You belong to me! I own you!” Anihilato reached six arms around Jay to untie his blindfold. “I sorted your worm-certificates back into my box of souls!”

Jay giggled. “You think I still care about your stupid filing-cabinet?” Anihilato, taken aback, hesitated untying the blindfold. “If I had your box of souls, you know what I’d do?” Jay laughed. “I’d piss on your worm-certificates. What worthless trash!”

Anihilato tore off the blindfold. The King of Dust had almost doubled in size since Jay’s childhood nightmare. Scrutinized by six giant eyes, Jay felt all his muscles lock—but Anihilato, too, felt frozen. Either Jay’s gaze had grown more potent in the egg, or Anihilato had drawn too close untying the blindfold and was now paralyzed by its own reflection in Jay’s eyes. Its front froze immediately, but its back legs had a spare moment of mobility. Anihilato took the chance to kick hot sand in Jay’s face. Jay cringed—his left eye closed and wouldn’t open. Anihilato’s mouth curved up into a grin. Through the petrifying battle of glares, it managed to speak. “You can’t win, Dan.”

“My name’s Jay. Call me what you want.”

“You can’t win, DanJay.” Anihilato’s grin spread wide. “Remember teaching me this trick?” It closed its bottom pair of eyes. It reopened them and closed its central pair of eyes. It reopened them and closed its top pair of eyes. “By repeating this, I’ll keep four eyes on you forever. My vision is eternal. Soon you’ll wink and turn into earthworms for me to slurp. Then you’ll help me eat the Mountain myself.” Tears streamed from Jay’s closed left eye. “Cry, mortal. I’ll savor squashing your hubris.” Jay’s tears deposited sand-grains from his cornea onto his cheek. He winked his left eye repeatedly. It was red and wet, but now he stared down Anihilato with both eyes. “You think you eat hatred and shit love? You only delay the inevitable, DanJay.”

“I am inevitable,” said Jay, “and so are you, and everything else. If you really knew yourself, you’d know you don’t need to eat the Mountain. The Mountain can be found in any worm.”

Anihilato chuckled. “What do you know about the Mountain?”

“Doubtlessly less than you,” said Jay. “You’ve got the worms of every Virgil Blue. Nemo. Jango. More whose names I never had a chance to hear. Without you, a whole lot of lost worms would be painful balls of teeth scattered across a rusty desert. Thanks for joining me at the end of the eternities. You’re my teacher, and you killed my teacher; what a classic climax!” Anihilato sneered. “But it doesn’t matter. The time for figs is over. God waits between us now.”

Two of Anihilato’s eyes looked up to the yellow sky. “If I’m not God, He’s on my side. It’s high noon, DanJay. You’re on borrowed time.” Jay didn’t understand until the descending sun shined directly in his vision. He had to squint. Anihilato laughed. “Soon, DanJay. Soon!”

“Not soon enough for your ploy,” said Jay.

Now Anihilato didn’t understand until noticing its own shadow. As the sun descended, Anihilato cast shade over Jay’s face. Anihilato tried to move its shadow, but couldn’t lean an inch. “A terrible monk like you will break into the tastiest worms. I can wait for your surrender.”

“I’m no monk.” In Anihilato’s shadow, Jay could keep his eyes open a while.

Unless…

A drop of sweat disturbed his right eyelash. His right eye clenched shut. “Aha.” Anihilato snickered. “Your humanity betrays you.” More sweat tickled Jay’s nose. It pooled in his ears. A drop touched his left eyebrow. Jay grunted and tried reopening his right eye, but salty sweat stung it closed again. The drop on his left brow rolled toward his left eyelash. Jay shook. Anxiety clutched his chest. He felt teeth take root in his throat.

A cool breeze froze the sweat to his forehead. Faith Featherway inhaled and blew more chill wind over Jay’s face. “Is that better, JayJay?”

“Thank you, Faith.”

“Hey!” Anihilato tensed twenty shoulders as if to smack Faith, that white fox, but couldn’t move its arms. “Scram!”

Faith turned and let her misty tail moisten Jay’s eyeballs. “How’s that?”

“Perfect.” Even with both eyes open, Jay was comfortable as if they were closed. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Faith disconnected her tail and let it envelop Jay like a cloud. “Bug-Bird told me she’d send someone to help with Anihilato,” she said. “I’m glad to see it’s you, JayJay! There are no coincidences, I guess. Thanks for holding this thing in place. I gotta fly back to report this.”

“That’s alright,” said Jay. “I think I can take it from here.”

“You know, butt-head over there breathed me up one time?” She jerked her head at Anihilato. “I think it ate Dan, too.”

“It sure tried,” said Jay.

“Good luck.” Faith bounded away with a new tail billowing behind her.

“Wait!” Anihilato tried to inhale her, but that trick only worked in the confines of its caverns. “If you can grow more tails, then you owe one to me, too!”

Faith rolled her eyes. “I’ll give my tails to whoever I want. Fuck you! Fuck off!” She flew into the mustard-yellow sky.

Anihilato’s lipless mouth twitched in frustration and its six eyes shook. Jay just stared. His eyes were moist and shaded and cool. Reassured, the teeth in his throat retreated. “Jango and Faith were friends,” said Jay. “I wish she knew his worms were in you.” He grit his teeth. “Although, Jango’s probably cheering right now. Faith telling you to fuck off is exactly what he wants to hear. Virgil Blue gave up Faith for the rest of you aboard. This is what it means for him to have Faith.”

“This doesn’t mean anything,” said Anihilato. “You’ve failed. You and that frigid rat!”

“You’re half right,” said Jay. “This doesn’t mean anything.”

Anihilato rest one pair of eyes while the other two pairs kept Jay paralyzed. “That cloud will disperse eventually. You’ll sweat and your eyes will shut. You can’t outlast me.”

“I don’t need to,” said Jay. “I wish I had the capacity to forgive you myself, but all the forgiveness I can muster is gonna be barely enough to keep you here for the one who does. When Faith says Bug-Bird, she means the Biggest Bird, the Heart of the Mountain, Nakayama, Professor Akayama, the source of our reality. She’s on her way right now.” From the distance, a sonic boom roared over the dunes.

Anihilato quivered in fear and let two eyes look left and right. “Wait! No! Do you know what she’ll do to me?”

“Nope.”

“She’ll do it to you, too!”

“I hope so. Then I’ll know you can handle it. Once she tossed me like a javelin and tried to shove me in a cave, but Faith made it sound like the Biggest Bird’s bedside-manner has improved a little since then.” Jay felt Dan’s worms offering references. “In The Divine Comedy, Dante says even the saints enter Heaven through a wall of fire. You and I are gonna pass through together.”

“Let’s adjourn!” Anihilato wished it could decompose into teeth, and felt more than enough anxiety to do so, but the clarity of the Blue Virgils kept it intact. “We’ll finish our staring-contest underground!”

“Nah.”

“Please! You can eat me! Then you can eat the Biggest Bird yourself, and then the Mountain!

“No.”

“Then just release me, no contest! You win! You’re the Master of Nihilism, DanJay! You’re the King of Dust! You’re Anihilato!”

“I eat hatred and shit love, too. Call me what you want.”

“If I could move, I’d beg on twenty hands and twenty knees!”

“Keep begging.”

“My box of souls is yours! Take it and leave me!”

Oran dora, Anihilato. Oran dora.

Anihilato’s six eyes wept. “Why are you doing this to me?”

Jay sighed. “The scariest part is that you’re not inhuman. You’ve definitely gotten some of my worms.”

“Then you know you’re being cruel to humanity itself!”

“Don’t make figs at me, Anihilato!” Jay clutched his knees. “I’m here because I’ve seen the emptiness of all things and it’s led me to unconditional compassion—but my compassion ain’t gotta look the way you want it to look!” In his peripheral vision, Jay saw Nakayama sweep over the desert on a forty-foot wingspan.

When Faith landed on the red mountain, she scratched its dusty surface and a cave opened. Nakayama crawled out. “Yes, Faith?”

“My friend JayJay dragged Anihilato above-ground,” said Faith. “He’s got it pinned!”

“Thank goodness! I worried Anihilato would never surface.”

“You’d better be quick!”

“I will.” Nakayama pointed her wings to the cave. “You too.”

“Huh?” Faith tiptoed to the cave-mouth. “But you haven’t wrapped that golden wing around yet. Do you mean—“

“You’re overdue for Zephyrhood,” said Nakayama. “Make haste. The eternities are ending.”

“Oh gosh.” Faith nervously tapped her paws on the mountainside. “Am I really ready?”

“You were ready the instant we met, but your unusual physiology made delayed gratification more useful. Observe.” Nakayama brushed Faith’s muzzle with one wing and showed the snowy powder she scraped off. “At the dawn of time, I produced this white powder to accelerate the cycle of life and death. Your personality resonates with the powder, so it accumulated around your psyche to expedite my whim.”

“My soul’s just… helpful dust wrapped around a cutie?” Faith wrapped her tail around her haunches and forelegs. “But… why?

“Be glad. If it weren’t so, you’d be a much-less-helpful bundle of worms. I couldn’t have managed the afterlife without you.”

Faith turned away from the cave and surveyed the rusty desert for the last time. “What’s it like, being a Zephyr?”

“The description might seem unpleasant, but don’t be afraid,” said Nakayama. “Your mind will disintegrate and spread throughout the Wheel. When the Chain is pulled, you’ll ascend to be a boon to all sentient beings in the fight against the Hurricane.”

Faith approached the cave again. “You mean I’ll help people?”

“Everyone forever.”

“Good enough for me.” Faith leapt into the cave. The red mountain swallowed her.

Nakayama unfolded a forty-foot wingspan. Her launch rolled a sonic boom over the dunes.

In seconds she found Anihilato and Jay. Her touchdown raised swirls of sand. Anihilato tried to squirm under Jay’s debilitating gaze. “Stay away!” it shouted.

“Stay away?” Nakayama drew near. “Oh Anihilato, I knew you’d reject me—and in rejecting me, you demonstrate your mission is complete!

“Careful!” said Jay. “I’ve got to keep eye-contact.”

“Your job is done. With your intervention, I can claim these worms without upsetting the natural order.” Nakayama’s wings scintillated and morphed. Every feather grew eyeballs, thousands of them. Her wings formed a hemispherical dome over Anihilato and Jay with eyes facing inward. Anihilato was too petrified in terror to even blink. Jay was also petrified, but in wonderment of the blue house of shimmering emerald eyes. Nakayama popped off both her wings and stepped into the dome herself. “Thank you, JayJay. Without a mortal to help collect Anihilato, I would’ve disrupted the worm-development process.”

“I’ve got questions,” said Jay.

“I’ve got answers, but I can’t guarantee they’re to your questions.” Nakayama unsleeved twenty long blue arms. “Ask away.”

“I can’t tell if you’re a character from my favorite anime or just a giant bird-monster, but… even though you created my whole universe, I think I’m your first and only child.”

When Nakayama blushed, her blue feathers turned green. She covered her blush with seven or eight arms. “That’s a matter of perspective.”

“The one thing I am sure of is that the world as I knew it isn’t the real Earth. Right?”

“That’s a matter of perspective, too.” Nakayama’s twenty arms popped off all Anihilato’s legs and she swallowed them whole. Anihilato fell onto the sand, groaning. “From my vantage point, your world is as real as anything else. It’s subsidiary to my world, but if it weren’t real, it couldn’t be subsidiary to anything.”

Jay nodded. It was all the movement he could make in the house of eyes. “The strangest thing, though, is that some parts of your original world slipped into my subsidiary one. Like, I heard about a Blue Virgil who read manga from the future, then visited Japan to meet the author while they wrote it. Unless I’m mistaken,” he wagered, “the monastery’s copy of Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo actually came from you, from your original world. But it was also being written in my subsidiary world. What are the chances of that?”

Nakayama shrugged all twenty shoulders and popped off Anihilato’s arms. “Your existence is an unsupervised machine-learning algorithm lasting eternities. If anyone could understand how it worked, it probably wouldn’t work at all. Quite a great and complicated tool.”

Jay nodded again. “Did your original Earth have Hitler? Or Stalin? Or Mao?”

Nakayama ate the arms one-by-one. Anihilato whimpered on the sand. “Who?” asked Nakayama.

“Their regimes killed tens of millions.”

“Oh! I remember now.” Nakayama took Anihilato’s tail in all her twenty hands and whipped its body to snap its spine. “You’re from the early 21st century, aren’t you? By 2420, those three stooges don’t even make the top-fifty list of murderous authoritarian dictators.”

That made Jay tear up, and he couldn’t reach to wipe the tears away. “Can you really reconstruct the world of 2420 using worms from my era?”

“Surely. The Wheel simulated eons. A few hundred years is nothing in comparison. Everything in my time-period can be deduced from yours.”

“Wow.” The tears dripped down his neck and chest. “That’s four rough centuries.”

“Every century is rough for the same reasons.” Nakayama gestured to Anihilato. “What changes is us.” Nakayama withdrew her ten right arms back into her sleeves. Her ten left arms merged into a jet engine. Blue fire spewed forty meters.

Anihilato’s fear evaporated. It looked into the fire the same way it looked at the eggs it ate, as if it hadn’t realized there could be another source of warmth in the entire universe besides its own ass. “Please! I’m so cold!” Nakayama scorched Anihilato’s scalp. “Aaaugh! Thank yo—” Its six eyeballs boiled and burst.

Nakayama reabsorbed the dome of wings under her robes. Jay was finally able to move again, and he took the chance to rub tears from his eyes and count his fingers: ten. Nakayama caught the tip of Anihilato’s writhing tail in her beak and inhaled, stoking Anihilato’s flaming head to char. It stopped screaming when the flames spread down to its first pair of shoulders and its dry skull fell off. Nakayama blew smoke toward the sunset, then inhaled again, searing Anihilato down all ten chests to its first waist. Ribs crumbled into the sand  “Phooo.” Nakayama blew more smoke. “JayJay, care to help out? I’m drowning in this thing.”

“Aw, sure,” said Jay. “What the hell.” Nakayama put Anihilato’s tail in Jay’s mouth and Jay breathed deep, smoking through five of its waists, dropping pelvises on the ground. When he finished coughing, he opened his eyes. They were faceted like jewels, amethyst-indigo. “Oh. Oh. I can see forever. I am forever. I am the all.”

“Eh. You get used to it.” Nakayama inhaled through Anihilato again and it completely crumbled into ash. “You and I contain the rest of the data needed to recreate Earth’s population within any degree of accuracy. The eternities are over. I’ll unite you with the other Zephyrs.”

“I’m already united with the Zephyrs,” said Jay. “I contain Beatrice and Faith and Dan and Lio and Eva and Lilly and Zhang and Li Ying and Michael and Bob and Django and Jango and Jun, and everyone they’ve ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met, and so on, and everyone else, too, and I always have, and I always will.”

“I’m taking you to the Mountain.”

“The Mountain is in me.” Jay couldn’t stand. Smoking Anihilato had wrecked his sense of balance. “Carry me?”

Nakayama cradled him in her wings. “It’d be faster to swallow you here and now.”

“Do what you’re gonna do.”

“Of course. How could I possibly do what I’m not gonna do?” Nakayama swallowed Jay and launched into the mustard-yellow sky on a column of steam.

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