The Biggest Bird’s Cosmic Plan

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


Last time on RuRu no Jikuu no Kasoku!

The year is 2420. Commander Lucille distracted the Hurricane so Professor Akayama’s flying white fox could repair the Wheel with a golden wing. Now the Hurricane has launched ten nasty projectiles at the Galaxy Zephyr! Why won’t Akayama let them pull the Chain again?

“We can’t keep this up!” said Charlie. The Galaxy Zephyr zipped through the empty universe, narrowly evading the Hurricane’s ten gargantuan missiles.

“We’re almost out of time!” said Dakshi. The missiles tightly tracked the Galaxy Zephyr, relinquishing no leeway.

“Commander, is the Chain ready?” asked Eisu. A missile grazed mere light-years from his cockpit.

“Enlisting more of Earth’s life is our only hope!” said Fumiko. The Hurricane salivated from a thousand maws, awaiting inevitable victory.

Lucille grit her teeth. “Professor Bird-Thing!” Akayama saluted. “What’s the hold-up? Is your slice-of-life not coughing up the worms we need?”

“It is, it is!” said Akayama, “but we mustn’t act prematurely!” Her branched noodly tail pulsed, connecting her consciousness to her giant bird-like form in the Wheel.

“Why shouldn’t Lucille pull the Chain?” asked Uzumaki. Its voice was only a thought echoing in the Mountain. “We’ve got that white fox! Let’s send her to the Galaxy Zephyr!”

“No!” Nakayama whizzed around the Wheel’s rim. Judging the bulge to be almost totally remedied, she brushed the golden wing and it began unwrapping itself. “To defeat the Hurricane, we need the Hurricane’s worms. You wouldn’t leave yourself behind, would you? Worms like yours will surely isolate themselves, believing they’re already complete and rejoining humanity would be beneath them.” Nakayama loaded herself into the red mountain like an iron ball into a cannon. “To keep my influence over life’s development at a minimum, I need the fox’s help collecting such worms—and she’s not the only help I need.” She used inconceivable methods to select an area and an instant in the Wheel’s torus of timelines. “Fire!”

Uzumaki fired her from the red mountain toward the water-world. Nakayama spread her wings to dive at the Islands of Sheridan. Atop the main island was a white-walled monastery. She landed beside a great stone statue depicting herself shielding Nemo with her wings. She turned to the monastery and waited. She might have waited seconds or centuries, so disrupted was her perception of time. Eventually she saw Nemo exit the heavy wooden gate. He wore a silver bird-mask, but she recognized him for his navy robes. Nemo approached her and bowed. “Nakayama! Oran dora!

“Nemo? Virgil Blue?” she asked, just making sure. Nemo nodded. “I need your help.”

“Anything,” said Nemo.

Nakayama squawked. “You speak! You speak English!

“Of course,” said Nemo. “You gave me thousands of books in every language. I studied them for centuries. Visitors from other nations taught me to pronounce the words, but I guessed their meanings long before then. Welcome to the Islands of Sheridan.”

Nakayama almost cried. “Thank you, Virgil Blue. I can’t imagine the effort you’ve dedicated to understanding me.”

“Anything.” Nemo bowed once more. “O venerable mother, I devote my entirety to you.”

“Not yet!” Nakayama crossed her wings in an X. “First of all, I’m not technically your mother, but maybe your aunt; your mother was a copy of me which Uzumaki later terminated. Second of all, I need you to devote yourself to nothing less than all worms everywhere.” Nemo shook his head with uncertainty. Nakayama tried to explain, even though she knew she never could in any language. “I need your help in the afterlife. I can think of no one else to shoulder the indescribable burden.”

Nemo stowed his hands in his sleeves. “Anything, o venerable aunt.”

Nakayama hesitated, but relinquished her command. “I want unruly worms safely stuck inside you. Some worms would avoid me out of fear, or greed, or ignorance, no matter how many eternities they have to reconsider, and these are aspects of life I cannot be without. It would be improper for me to collect these worms myself, so I need you to collect them for me.”

“How?” asked Nemo.

“You must encompass them in the same way a widow carries her husband’s mind in hers,” said Nakayama. “When you join me at the end of the eternities, I’ll contain every corner of conscious thought. To help me reconstruct Earth’s population from dust, you must be the King of Dust. Any worms which would otherwise be annihilated, you must account for. Anihilato,” she dubbed him.

Nemo nodded like he understood, but wasn’t sure he did. “I’ll consume those who would otherwise never know you,” he said. “I suppose, as the first man, it’s only right for me to soak up everything awful the world has to offer. But in doing so, I’ll surely become awful myself!”

“Too true, and entirely intended,” said Nakayama, “but I’m sure your wisdom can steady even the worst of the worms. Let me give you a list.” Using laws of physics and statistics she could never explain, Nakayama produced an enormous filing-cabinet from underneath her robes. “This is a complete catalog of worms. At the end of the eternities every specimen documented here must be accounted for, if not in my Mountain, then in you.” She pushed the filing-cabinet toward Nemo, but he tried pushing it back to her with all his might.

“The Mountain? On the original sun? My father, your brother-in-law, who you claim killed my mother?” Nemo pressed his whole body against the filing-cabinet like he was shoving a giant boulder. “My father came as a snake to take me from you!” He lowered his mask to show the swastika-mark on his forehead. “Is that Mountain really the rightful place for all worms?”

“I know this is confusing.” Nakayama effortlessly overpowered Nemo just by leaning against the filing cabinet. “Uzumaki works for me now, and it needs our help to save itself.”

“I’m to carry my father’s worms, too?” Nemo shook his head so wildly his silver mask almost flew off. “I once wanted to eat my father alive in vengeance for his plan to eat me first. You’re asking me to give into that irredeemable temptation, quite smugly, for his own sake! Will you promise—” He swallowed. “Will you punish me the way I know my father should be punished?”

“Sure, if you insist!”

“Then could you save these worm-certificates for me in the afterlife?” He shoved with all his might. “In this life, I’m sure I’d just lose them.”

“Okay.” Nakayama reabsorbed the filing-cabinet back under her robes. “As long as you accept your duty, I trust you to the end of time.” With that, Nakayama blasted back into space and climbed into the Mountain.

“Is your plan in action?” asked Uzumaki.

“Indeed.” Inside the Wheel, Nakayama watched the water world from above and allowed her toroidal swirl of space-time to spin the scene into the future. “If my machinations pan out, the most pesky principal components will be conglomerated into a single entity.”

“Like a giant worm?” asked Uzumaki. “One worm representing all the disobedient aspects of Earthly life?”

“I know, I know. If my plan works, this entity won’t want to join the Galaxy Zephyr. I can’t force worms into the Mountain, but even if I tried, this one might overthrow me. I need the fox as my go-between so I can collect Anihilato at the end of the eternities.” From her seat in the Mountain, Nakayama surveyed the Islands of Sheridan and Uzumaki’s desert simultaneously. “Despite Nemo’s devotion, Anihilato is obligated to be unruly because of the characters it contains.”

The year is 2019.

“Pheh.” Lio held a jar of fireflies in his left elbow and capped it with his right hand. His left hand was a crushed fist caked in blood. He’d only caught six fireflies whose shining butts hardly illuminated the rough terrain through the darkness of the night. He glared at the full moon. “Some help you are, huh?” The moon just made the ocean glitter.

Lio resumed climbing the main island of Sheridan, cradling his broken fist. He was done collecting fireflies. They weren’t worth his time. The real prize was all around him.

He chose a centipede-bush at random by bumping into it accidentally. “Shit!” Thorns caught his Hawaiian shirt. He considered unbuttoning it, but instead he painstakingly unhooked it from the thorny bush. “You think you can mess with me, huh?” he asked the plant. “Lemme show you who you’re dealin’ with.”

He pulled his knife from his Hawaiian shirt’s breast pocket. Jay had broken the blade, but the hilt was intact: an awesome angry dragon. It let Lio feel powerful, even through the pain of his splintered fist.

He used the hilt to push the bush’s branches. Thorns nicked his palm. “Aw, c’mon!” He wiped blood on his already-blood-soaked cargo-shorts. “Give it up already!” He reached into the bush with his right hand and grabbed its ball of centipedes. The agony of his broken left fist made the thorns barely an inconvenience in comparison. In his haste to rip out the ball, some centipedes tore on thorns and snapped in half. “Perfect.”

He pried centipedes from the mutilated ball. He chucked the snapped ones over his shoulders and stowed the rest in jars.

As he ripped open the next bush, he mimicked Jay. “Oh, please, Lio! Only Virgil Blue can prepare centipedes! Come with me and get butt-fucked by monks! Pfffft.” He filled another jar with centipedes and yanked thorns from his forearm with his teeth. “What a joke. The monks aren’t even trying to protect these things. They’re just asking for people to steal their shit—it’s their own fault. It’s better that I take ’em instead of some random jack-off. Sheridan needs my logical business-savvy. They should thank me.”

The higher Lio climbed, the higher he wanted to climb. Surely the best centipedes were near the peak.

He tripped. “Fucking nests!” He was surprised to see a woven nest so high holding two porcelain eggs. “Huh.” Both eggs were painted with lacework signifying matriarchs from Virgil Green’s congregation. “They’d never notice one missing. I bet it’s worth something. Heck—if they do notice one missing, it’s definitely worth something!” He dumped his jar of fireflies, replaced them with an egg all splattered with his blood, and kept climbing.

When all his jars were full, he’d worked through the night leaving broken bushes and a trail of blood behind him. He was feeling a contact-high from all the centipedes he’d handled, or maybe he was just a little loopy from all the blood he’d lost, but either way, the moonlight bothered his eyes. He put his sunglasses back on.

He turned to the shrouded peak. The clouds obscuring the island’s sacred summit were so near he could touch them. “Not supposed to climb past the clouds, huh?” Lio smirked and stuck his arm into the fog. “What a dumb rule. Every morning the whole island is foggy. How should I know when to turn back? And how could they enforce it? They’d have to follow me, and then they’d just be hypocrites.” Laughing built courage. He entered the fog-bank. If Sheridan kept centipedes at altitude, what awesome bugs did they hide above the cloud-cover?

But in the fog, the island’s terrain was even more rough. The slopes were so steep Lio puffed and panted. He hefted himself up cliffs by swinging his legs over ledges and pulling his belly after them. Whatever was up here had better be worth it.

He saw the silhouette of a wooden marker like a stop-sign. Not just one: a whole row of wooden signs circled the top of the island, obviously official indicators of where climbing became forbidden. He walked past the signs, blocking them from view with his broken fist. He’d just pretend he hadn’t seen them.

Twenty feet beyond, he noticed a shape moving through the fog. Was it a fellow trespasser? Lio considered hiding, but then identified the figure’s waddle: it was a red bird, six feet tall with long tail-feathers. It struggled even more than he did plodding up the slopes. “Heh.” Lio caught up to it. “You birds would be better off if you weren’t too fat to fly. Climbing is human-work.” He and the bird paced neck-and-neck. “You know, all the nests up here—the eggs in ’em are chicks. I mean, girl-birds. I’ll bet guy-birds like you have to let the chicks get ahead, huh?” He grinned. “But not you and me. We don’t let anything hold us back.”

The bird didn’t look at him. Its gaze was fixed on the peak. When it came to a cliff, it flapped both wings. It couldn’t fly, but with infinite effort, it hopped high enough to pull itself over the ledge.

“Whoa.” Lio kicked the cliff with both feet trying to climb after it. “Hey, hey! Wait for me!” With his good hand, he grabbed the bird’s tail-feathers and pulled himself up.

The bird lost its balance and fell off the cliff. Lio watched it roll down the slopes below him. Its wing-bones broke with each tumble. He heard its distant squawking even after the fog shrouded it.

Lio turned to the peak. “I’m not a bully, you’re just a pussy.” To sturdy himself for the climb, he chanted the phrase like a mantra. “I’m not a bully, you’re just a pussy. And pussies like you hold me back.”

The fog chilled as he neared the island’s summit. Thin frost coated the stony heights. He finally came to the top: a dark caldera at least hundred feet in radius and at least hundred feet deep; the dark night and thick cloud-cover made its size difficult to estimate.

“Neat.” Lio sat on the caldera’s steep sandy rim without a second thought. If he slipped he would roll down steep sandy rocks into a foggy area he couldn’t even see. “I must be the first person ever to get here!”

As soon as he said it, he saw he was wrong. He lifted his sunglasses to make sure this wasn’t just a centipede contact-high: the center of the caldera was leaking black smoke from a pit the size of a manhole, so the island must’ve been a volcano. There was a large mark beside the pit, clearly man-made, which Lio immediately identified as a swastika. Was some crazy egg-head sitting down in there?

“Yo!” called Lio. The distant smoking pit did not respond. “Whaddup!” Again without a response, Lio scoffed. If someone in such a weird pit couldn’t handle innocently curious visitors, they should’ve built the place a little more logically. “Whoops!” He tossed some rocks into the caldera. They rolled down into the pit, sand falling after them. “Sorry!”

Voice rocked from the distant smoking pit. “Do you know who I am?” The voice was loud and deep enough to rumble the caldera’s sandy rim.

“Nope.” Lio stuck out his good hand, as if the voice would shake it from the pit. “Henry.”

The voice didn’t shake—of course he didn’t! How could it? “Nemo,” said the pit. “Oran dora. Please, sit, Henry. I’m glad to have company.”

Lio was already sitting, so he tossed another rock into the caldera instead. “Okay, I’m sitting.”

“I heard a bird,” said Nemo. “Will it arrive soon?”

“Probably,” said Lio. Nemo had heard the bird squawk when it tumbled away, so he knew this was a lie. “You guys love birds, huh?”

“Of course. My islands were built by the Biggest Bird.”

Lio scoffed and flopped his broken hand at the caldera. “I’ve never been into imaginary-sky-daddy bullshit. What are you doing all the way up here? “

“Didn’t you read the signs?”

“Signs? I didn’t see any signs.”

The pit grinned. If Lio weren’t wearing sunglasses, and it wasn’t so foggy, he might have noticed: Nemo was not in the pit, he was the pit, smiling with ten thousand rows of teeth circular like a hag-fish’s, sharp like a shark’s. “I put up those signs myself. They explain an aspect of Sheridanian culture usually left unspoken: anyone on this cloudy peak belongs to Anihilato, the longest worm, the King of Dust. Mortals chase vices up the island only to be consumed. Quite the folk-tale, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, cool story, bro,” said Lio. “What are you doing here?”

“Whatever I choose,” said Nemo. “My goal is understanding those who come here despite knowing they shouldn’t.”

“Oh?” Lio leaned closer, as if he were whispering to the pit a hundred feet away. “Now you sound like my kinda guy! When society says ‘don’t climb past the clouds,’ that’s the first thing you gotta do. Freedom! No matter what anyone else says!” Lio pointed at the swastika-mark near the pit. “You got a, uh, a thing down there.”

Nemo, the pit, licked his lips. “A reminder of my duties and my heritage.”

“Hell yeah! I got one too. Not my heritage, probably, but someone’s heritage, and as long as society disapproves, I’ll wear it.” Lio unbuttoned his Hawaiian shirt. Tattooed across his red chest was a blue swastika whose arms bore thirteen white stars. “When anyone looks down on me, I know I’m above them. That’s why the world can’t keep up with us. Get me?”

“I’m not sure I do.” Nemo, the pit, had no eyes, and so couldn’t see Lio’s distant tattoo even if it wasn’t so dark and foggy. “Can you go on?”

Lio laughed. “Whenever anyone says ‘that’s a bad thing to do,’ smart people like you and me automatically do it. Their emotions are making the choice easy for us! Those dumb-asses don’t realize they’re making it fun to be hated. Calling stuff bad to do is bad stuff to do.”

“So…” Nemo’s pit of teeth convulsed. “Calling actions bad… causes people to perform those actions… and you call the act of calling actions bad itself bad… So you’re intentionally prompting people to continue criticizing you, prompting yourself to do worse and worse, sending yourself down a destructive spiral blaming another master every moment?”

Lio frowned and shook his head. “No. That’s everyone besides me. I’m the exact opposite.”

Nemo sighed. “Then what brings you to my little mountain?”

“Glad you asked!” Lio shrugged off his backpack and pulled out a jar of centipedes. “Harvested these all by myself.”

“Hm.” Nemo had felt Lio’s clumsy harvest personally. “Freedom doesn’t come from centipedes.”

“Ha! I figured you stashed something special up here,” said Lio. “Everyone’s smoked centipede before, even monks! What else have you got? Where’s your freedom? I wanna try some!”

Nemo’s pit smiled. Lio clearly thought ‘freedom’ was just another bug withheld from him. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“C’mon. We’re buddies!” Lio took out his cellphone. “You like birds, right? Check this out. On the second island, there’re monks worshiping a fat-ass penguin. They made me delete the photos I took, but I got the last laugh.” Lio showed the distant pit a hundred photos of Virgil Green’s matriarch. “They thought I only took two, but my camera was on burst-mode, so I got a bunch. Come up here and see ’em!”

“Oh, I see ’em well enough.” Nemo’s pit bit its lip. “You know, taking photos of birds is forbidden.”

“So’s climbing past the clouds and smoking centipedes, but that ain’t stopping us!” Lio puffed out his chest.

Nemo couldn’t help but chuckle. This fool boasted about breaking Sheridan’s easy laws, right in front of him! “Freedom means setting your own limits,” said Nemo.

“Freedom means having no limits,” said Lio. “C’mon, man, I thought you were cool!”

“When a snake claimed my islands and my children for itself, I ate it alive,” said Nemo. “If another snake did the same, I might choose to eat it too. Interaction—action, reaction—that’s all there is! The limits we set are all we have and all we are.”

Pfa.” Lio smirked. “No wonder you have to live all alone in a volcano-pit—keeping freedom all to yourself, using violence to tell people what they can and can’t do. The whole island must hate you! If you didn’t tread on that snake, your kids might’ve learned some personal responsibility.” Lio mistook Nemo’s silent concern for disgusted condescension. “What’s that look for?”

Without eyes, Nemo literally couldn’t look at Lio, or his red Hawaiian shirt. The rest of him was red, too, because he’d bled all over himself, so Lio was crimson and round like the original sun. Somehow Nemo got this impression without visual contact. “You remind me of my father, that snake. Soon after my birth, he tried tricking me into relinquishing my body to him.”

“And if I had feelings, I’d feel sorry for you, but if you use that as an excuse to keep my freedom all to yourself, you’re way worse than your dad!” Now Nemo’s pit scowled. Lio still didn’t know the pit was Nemo’s mouth, but he somehow sensed the need to take offense. “Don’t look at me like that! Maybe your dad was just trying to make you useful, instead of letting you be some sorta lazy Jew.” Nemo recognized most of Lio’s words from the books in his monastery’s library, but those words he didn’t recognize, the way Lio spat them was enough. “I said don’t look at me lik—Lemme show you. Lemme show you what you look like to me.” Lio unbuttoned his cargo shorts.

“Um.” Nemo’s pit smiled in sheepish sympathy as Lio pulled his tighty-whities around his knees. He wasn’t sure how to explain he had no eyes and couldn’t see the ongoing theatrics. “Gosh, is this how I look? How embarrassing!”

“I’m not done yet!” Lio opened his jar of centipedes and pulled out a long black one. “You egg-heads always try shoving your religion down my throat, but it’ll never happen, you know why? Because this is what I’m looking at when I see you!” He turned around and stuck his butt up in the air.

“Oh, dear.” Nemo just realized what Lio was doing, feeling his movement on the caldera’s sandy rim. He was both surprised and amused, but he chose to sound disgusted, as he imagined Lio desired.

Lio opened his anal-sphincter as if he’d done it before, or imagined doing it. He inserted the centipede head-first, deeper than Nemo suspected was possible. “There! That’s what you look like to me! Except you put it all the way up there.” He yanked out the centipede and put it back in the jar. He buttoned his cargo shorts. Nemo couldn’t help but chuckle. “Don’t laugh! You can’t laugh at yourself! Don’t you realize this is an impression of you? You’re laughing at being a failure!” Lio squeezed the fog in front of his own face, like he was wearing a big red clown nose. “Honk, honk! This is you, not me! Honk, honk!”

“You’re such a proud little boy!” said Nemo. “How did you become this thing before me? What led you where you are now?”

“People like you who refuse to understand me!” Lio pointed at the pit with his broken fist, flecking the caldera with blood. “You’re to blame for what I dress, how I talk, and how I vote! My whole life I’ve had to put up with people too small-minded to know things were best done my way, pushing my ideology more and more toward pure personal responsibility, where people like you have to leave me alone!” He said it like he hadn’t just climbed up to Nemo all on his own. “The only person who ever taught me anything was my dad. He gave me a free nose when I was born, but took it back, because I cried. Now that’s a lesson! I’m gonna earn my nose.”

“…You’re not… personally responsible… for your ideology… which you describe as personal responsibility?” Nemo sighed. “I’m sorry your dad wouldn’t let you cry. When he took your nose, what did that look like?”

“Like this.” Lio made a fig with his unbroken hand.

“I can’t see you, Henry. What does it look like?”

“Oh, come on. Making me do this twice—augh!” Lio used his unbroken hand to mash his broken hand into a fig, too. He made figs with both hands at once. “I’m sticking my thumbs through my fingers, idiot!”

“Is that what your dad did?”

“No! He took my nose! Aren’t you listening?” Lio wiggled his thumbs between his fingers. He didn’t notice, but earthworms were leaking out of his cargo shorts. The worms rolled down the caldera’s steep sandy slope.

Nemo’s tooth-pit swallowed the worms whole. “I feel you, Henry, I really do.” But Lio had more worms to dig out. “Are you consuming all those centipedes yourself?”

“I might smoke a little, but back stateside they sell for a thousand bucks a pop. That’s why I want the freedom you stole! I’ll be way smarter with it than you ever were.”

Nemo bit his lips. “Centipedes aren’t meant to be sold, freedom even less so.”

“But folks’ll buy ’em both. Ya gotta feed the invisible hand of the free market!”

“I thought you weren’t into imaginary-sky-daddy bullshit. Now you take orders from an invisible hand?”

Lio sneered. “The invisible hand of the free market is real.

Everyone says that about their God.”

“But the invisible hand of the free market actually influences reality all around us!”

Everyone says that about their God.”

“But the invisible hand of the free market assigns consequences for actions. It’s the only source of objective value!”

Everyone says that about their God.”

Lio sputtered and shook his figs. Spit flecked from his lips. “The invisible hand of the free market is directly influenced by everyone who matters, not lazy chumps like you, so I know it’s real!”

Everyone claims a personal connection to God,” said Nemo. “You trust an imaginary-sky-daddy to fix the world quickly as you break it, Henry. You’re worse than the monks, because at least the monks admit what they are.”

“If you earned enough money to study fucking economics, you’d be on my side!” said Lio. “I don’t need to study it, because I’m already logical!”

“Same here! I don’t need to study your holy books to doubt your God.”

Lio smashed both his figs against the ground. “Ow! Ow! Hey!” Lio cradled his broken hand. “That hand’s already broken! You’re breaking it again? You’re way worse than I am! Can’t you see the more freedom you have, the less freedom I have? Just gimme my freedom and I’ll leave you alone!”

“Make an offer,” said Nemo. “Let’s see if your invisible hand will free you.”

“Uh.” Lio pat his pockets. He’d spent all his money on crickets and didn’t even have any sand-dollars left. “I’ll pay bug-sticks and centipedes.”

“I don’t want them. Try again.”

“I’ve got this cool egg.”

“Do I look like a nest?” Nemo smiled at his own question. He did look like a nest, didn’t he, as a pit in a caldera?

Lio tried crossing his arms, but his broken fist wouldn’t let him. “Well, what do you want?”

“Eat the fingers off your broken hand.”

“Huh? Why?”

“They’ve been broken twice, right? Those fingers aren’t doing you any good, are they? Make them useful again.” In truth, Nemo just wanted to know if Lio would do it. “Prove to me you can handle the freedom you claim to deserve. If you won’t pay, liberation will escape you. You’ll forever be a slave to your own shadow.”

Lio grimaced. “Crazy egg-head.”

“Call me what you want,” said Nemo. Lio put the thumb of his broken fist into his mouth, but couldn’t bite hard enough to sever it. “I bet your daddy couldn’t do it either.”

Now Lio flushed red with rage. He opened wide and chomped the thumb clean off. Blood spurt onto the sand. He groaned and spat his thumb into the caldera. “Don’t talk smack about my daddy!”

“Don’t quit halfway!” Lio’s thumb rolled down the caldera into Nemo’s pit. Nemo spat the thumb back up into Lio’s lap. “Did I tell you to bite your fingers off?”

“Yeah! Idiot!”

“You’re cutting corners! I told you to eat them, or descend to tell your daddy you’re his equal in failure!”

“You’re not allowed to talk smack about—” Lio clenched his mutilated fist. “My daddy—my father, I mean, was a wealthy business-owner! And I’m just like him! Look!” He held up his severed thumb. “Let’s make a deal! I’ll eat this one finger, and you gimme my freedom!”

“Deal,” said Nemo. Lio chuckled to himself and started chewing his severed thumb’s knuckle. “Please, tell me about your father. You’ve met him, haven’t you?”

“Not since he took my nose. That’s how alpha he is!” Lio popped the rest of his thumb in his mouth and chewed it like a pork foot. “That’s when my stupid mom got too old for him, so he kicked us off his private island with a very tiny loan. Hear that, bird-worshipper? You’re not the only island out here!” Nemo was sorry to hear about Lio’s father abandoning him. The pit was silent in sympathy which Lio misinterpreted. “Yeah, you’d better be jealous. He and his bros brought all the hottest chicks to that island.” Lio almost cracked teeth on his thumb-bones. “Real young chicks, too, my mom said. She started out as one of those chicks before she got promoted to trophy-wife.”

“Oh dear.” Nemo had no eyes, but morning dew dripping down the caldera’s slope took the place of tears. “How young was she?”

“Who cares? You’re missing the point.” Lio gnawed his thumb’s bones until they snapped. “I’m supposed to be an alpha like him, but because of all the gays and cucks out there, I can’t get any tail! But I’ll get what I deserve. I scored a wife who came pregnant. Now that’s thinking ahead! She started all used up, so I won’t waste my dick on her, but her kid’s just about ripe. If my dad invites me to his island he can use her first, and he can keep her as a trophy-wife if he gives my nose back! I’ll be just like my dad someday, just watch!”

“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard in all my years up here.” Nemo sniffed. Lio’s story was hard to listen to, but it was his duty to hear it. More earthworms leaked out Lio’s shoes and socks down the caldera for Nemo to devour. He would’ve preferred draining worms from Lio’s father himself, but such fathers tended to send worms through their young. “Your mother told you about your father for exactly the opposite reason you think she did. You’re trying to recreate a pure land which never existed the way you imagine it—but which would be horrible if your imagination was accurate!”

“Nah, nah—the golden days are long gone, but they’ll be back, and big boys like me will play how we want again: fifty-dimensional space-chess you’re too primitive and emotional to learn!” Lio swallowed the last of his thumb. All the blood, sweat, tears, and spit washed down his chest. His tattoo’s colors ran the caldera, leaving him bare-chested. “There! Urp—” Lio choked back vomit. “Fuckin’ showed you!”

“You sure did,” said Nemo.

“Now gimme my freedom! What’re you hiding up here?”

“Nothing you can’t see!” Nemo stuck his massive tongue out of the pit. “The freedom you’ve won is retroactive. You’ve chosen how you dress, you’ve chosen how you talk, you’ve chosen how you vote. You chose to come to my island. You chose to break every rule. You chose to stuff a centipede up your butt. You chose to eat your thumb. You were free every step of the way. I ate my fingers, too, but I finished the job. I ate my arms, I ate my legs, I ate my body, I ate my head. My mouth is all that’s left! If you won’t eat your own soul one bite at a time, I’ll gladly do it for you.”

Lio retched and hid his hands under his armpits. “Fucking—false advertising! You promised I’d get some awesome bugs, or some secret lesson even the monks didn’t know!”

“This is the secret lesson!” Nemo ate all Lio’s worms rolling down to the pit. “I enjoy the freedom you’d rather surrender to everyone you meet because responsibility burns you like ice. Liberation doesn’t come from the Biggest Bird, or the Mountain on the original sun, or an invisible hand, or any book in any library. Liberation comes directly from the void. No substitutes! No middle-men! You claim to desire a world without limits, but you live in it and you’re the last to realize.”

“So you get to make up whatever rules you want?” shouted Lio.

“Not just me! Everyone! Anyone can make rules, anyone can break them! Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it terrifying? Life has always been a battleground, and always will be!”

“Oh yeah? The gloves are off, huh?”

“The gloves were never on! There are no gloves! You’re free to leave, but having come this far, I suspect you’ll choose to stay like all the others.”

“Oh, I’m staying, but you’re not! You didn’t guess my power-level!” Lio stood up and slid down the caldera’s steep slope, into the dark fog. “This is my island now, and my volcano, and you’re not allowed!” When Lio slipped close to the pit, he immediately regretted and disowned his most recent decisions. Nemo opened wide. His mouth was endlessly deep and lined with countless teeth. Lio fell in feet-first and Nemo ate them whole. “Aaugh! What the hell are you, you fucking baby-eater!”

Nemo smirked. Baby-eater was quite right! “All we really choose is the hill we die on. You’ve picked a little dirt-mound like me, but the Biggest Bird told me to carry your worms to the Mountain!” Nemo ate Lio’s legs in one bite. It was unclear how Nemo spoke; the pit could talk and chew at the same time. “It’s for your own good, but that doesn’t mean either of us will like it!”

“I’m not in your cult, you crazy bird-worshipper!” Lio’s sunglasses fell off. Nemo slurped them down. Lio covered his face. “Leave me alone! I didn’t ask for your help!”

“I never needed permission to pity you!” said Nemo. “I’ve devoured every fool who’s chased vices to my peak. They’ve all rubbed off on me, just like you will!” Nemo ate his pelvis. “The Blue Virgils throw themselves to me with quite a bit more dignity than you did, to help me bear worms like yours without decomposing into teeth. Once I’ve totally eaten myself, this eternity is over, and we’ll all be Anihilato!”

“You’re loony!” Lio punched weakly at the sharp ocean consuming his bulbous fat. “Even if you eat everything else, you’ll never eat your own teeth!”

“Oh yeah?” Nemo paused gnawing on Lio’s spine to open wide and eject a few of his shark-teeth. The teeth fizzled, sputtered, and annihilated themselves in a flurry of particles and antiparticles. Lio pouted, collapsing further into Nemo’s mouth under his own weight. “Your type is stringy,” said Nemo. “If someone clings to their house, eating their worms collapses their house. If someone clings to their crops, their crops wilt. Luckily, your shame and pride confine you! You attach only to money, so I’ll just evaporate your bank-accounts—assuming you aren’t dead-broke!” Lio had no strength to speak. “Don’t worry,” said Nemo. “In the next eternity, Anihilato been promised the receipts to all psyches. We’ll be rich! Greed will be our duty. We’ll grow with spiritual power for the sake of all worms everywhere!”

“Nemo!” These were Lio’s last words, leaking out his decapitated head. “Nemo is doing all this to me! Nemo, Nemo, Nemo!

“You don’t know how correct you are!” Nemo ate the rest. As he chewed, he mused to himself. “But Anihilato might be more plump with misbehavior than the Biggest Bird anticipates. Not even every Virgil Blue can dilute these stains on humanity’s spirit. There must arise a redeeming force, someone to look emptiness in the eye unblinkingly!”

In the Mountain, on her throne at the center of the Wheel, Nakayama surveyed both eternities with all the countless lenses of both her compound emerald eyes.

Uzumaki’s doubts rang behind her. “Do you think Faith can handle Anihilato herself?”

Shh.” She covered her shushing beak with one long feather. She pointed another feather to a ring of eggs orbiting her. “Did you think I’d choose a slice-of-life without assembling the main character myself?”

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