Lucille’s Final Form

(The last chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Last time on RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku!

Professor Akayama explained her plan to collect every principle component of Earth’s life, even the detestable ones producing the Hurricane to begin with. Unable to collect such vile worms herself, Akayama passed the duty to Nemo, her first man, the first Virgil Blue, Anihilato. Will that be enough to defeat the Hurricane?

The golden wing bandaging the Wheel finished unwrapping itself and now returned to the Galaxy Zephyr’s other fifteen wings. The crew of ten thousand hardly noticed, fully concentrated on avoiding the Hurricane’s ten gargantuan missiles which zipped by the Galaxy Zephyr in oppressively tight orbits. A single strike would obliterate them all. Lucille grit her teeth. “Professor Bird-Thing!” Akayama saluted. “Tell us the instant the Chain is ready!”

“Of course, Commander!” On ZAP’s monitors, Akayama watched the end of the staring contest between Jay and Anihilato. “Soon, soon!”

Jya, Charlie, Dakshi, let’s take the offensive. Eisu, Fumiko, brace for impact!” Lucille pulled levers to guide the Galaxy Zephyr’s arms, tossing the Wheel from one hand to the other.

Charlie squinted his good eye at his monitors. “What are we attacking?”

“The next missile within reach.”

Dakshi clutched his crew-cut. “But it’ll probably explode!”

“We can only hope,” said Lucille. The Galaxy Zephyr swung the Wheel and sliced the nearest missile in two. Both halves detonated. When the explosions rippled the Galazy Zephyr’s silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor, Eisu and Fumiko blasted steam from the robot’s feet, amplifying the full power of the sixteen golden wings. The Galaxy Zephyr surfed the shock-waves instead of being vaporized. “Damage report!” As her crew of ten thousand reported in, Lucille saw the whole left side of the Galaxy Zephyr was seared and blistering, oozing golden blood. Six golden wings were singed.

“Incoming!” Charlie pointed the Galaxy Zephyr’s right hand at the other nine missiles catching up across the cosmos.

“Commander!” called Akayama. “Our mascot is ready to be Zephyr’d! Pull the Chain!”

“Can that white fox really save us?” asked Lucille. Akayama shrugged. “While we’re pulling the Chain, we can’t dodge or slice another missile.”

“I say we slice,” said Eisu. “Better to take damage on our own terms.”

“We can’t handle that trauma again,” said Fumiko, “on our own terms or not.”

“No time to dodge,” said Charlie.

“Pull the Chain!” said Dakshi. “It’s all or nothing!”

Lucille had never heard Dakshi advocating such risk. She cracked her knuckles. “Pull!” The Galaxy Zephyr held the Wheel with its left hand and pulled the Chain with its right. The Wheel spun so quickly centripetal force lengthened the saw-teeth by light-years. Snowy white powder flowed from the Wheel into the silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor, bleaching it ivory-white and remedying the Galaxy Zephyr’s scars and burns. “Professor, whatever this mascot can do, it’d better do quickly!” The missiles zoomed close. “We’ve only got seconds!”

“I can’t watch!” said Eisu.

“Me neither.” Lucille spun her steering-wheel. The Galaxy Zephyr pivoted to face the Hurricane, turning its back to the missiles. “Minah! It’s been an honor.”

Her crew of ten thousand took a final vote, returning the honor unanimously.

From the base of the Galaxy Zephyr’s spine, nine colossal cannons protruded. Each cannon fired a white torpedo trailing steam. Each torpedo intercepted a missile and detonated it. The Galaxy Zephyr was framed by balls of flame.

Masaka.” Eisu wiped tears from his cheeks. “We’re saved!” Fumiko just cried.

Charlie slammed his control-panel. “Yes! Yes!”

Dakshi watched debris scatter in all directions. “Let’s collect all the mass we can.”

“No need,” said Lucille. “Look!” The nine torpedoes’ steam-trails engulfed the debris, and the torpedoes returned to their cannons. The combined mass merged with the Galaxy Zephyr, which swelled in size by nine times. The Wheel increased in diameter proportionally.

“My God,” said Fumiko. “We’re enormous!”

“Meh,” said Lucille. The Galaxy Zephyr was still barely a twentieth the size of the Hurricane. She was more impressed by her robot’s lithe, athletic form, and its nine steaming white tails. Its face grew subtly pointed like a canid snout, and its sculpted hair hid pointed ears. Lucille felt like she piloted a wild animal. “What do you think of that?” she shouted, and Uzumaki translated her shouts into eye-signals for the Hurricane to see. “When you think we’re whipped, we’ll whip into shape!”

“Then I’ll scourge you with scorpions!” signaled the Hurricane. Its body churned and lengthened. Its narrow end sharpened into a stinger. It grew eight legs capped with pincers. Its surface grew a shiny maroon carapace.

Lucille humored it with another shout. “Motherfucker, I’ll scourge your scorpions!”

Jay floated in Nakayama’s navy interior. He wanted to count his fingers, but he had no physical form to speak of—he was only an idea. Nakayama loaded him into the red mountain, into the Wheel’s green haze. Yellow and blue skies rotated around him.

“Commander!” said Akayama, “The Chain is ready!”

“Already? Again?” Lucille directed the Galaxy Zephyr’s right hand to pull the Chain once more. The Wheel spun so quickly it threatened to shear apart.

Jay felt the pull of the Chain like a crack in an egg. Thoughts came through the crack, from the Galaxy Zephyr to his mind in the Wheel. “Dainty! JayJay! You made it! Did you know BeatBax is here, too?”

“I should’ve seen that coming sooner,” thought Jay. “What happens next?”

“Get in the robot, DanJay,” thought Beatrice. Jay’s mind slipped through the crack into the Galaxy Zephyr.

“What’ll this Zephyr do for us?” asked Lucille.

“Who knows?” said Akayama. Nakayama, her bird-like counterpart, zipped out of the Wheel and dissolved into the Galaxy Zephyr’s ivory-white Uzumaki Armor. Akayama’s tail retracted back into her spine and she was finally one solid piece again. “But see how fast the Wheel spins?”

“Yeah, it looks like it’ll burst,” said Lucille.

“Our region of accelerated space-time has crossed a particularly interesting threshold in scale and velocity.”

“Spit it out, Professor Bird-Thing.”

“We expended energy to accelerate space-time with our Super Heart Beam,” said Akayama, “but now the Wheel is producing energy.”

“Nice!” Lucille watched the Hurricane crawl toward them across space. “We can use some extra energy.”

“Already done,” said Akayama. “I’m converting it directly into mass.”

Lucille grinned hungrily at the Wheel. It seemed ready to split open at any moment, but the professor kept it together by leeching the energy which would overflow. That excess flowed into Uzumaki and congealed into dense, black, impenetrable volume. “Alright everyone,” said Lucille to her crew of ten thousand, “just a matter of time!”

The Hurricane snapped its front pincers. Eisu and Fumiko made the Galaxy Zephyr duck under them. “We’re almost too large!” said Fumiko. “We’ve lost our evasiveness!”

The front pincers snapped again. The Galaxy Zephyr evaded the left pincer but was clasped by the right. The Hurricane brought down its stinger. “Who needs evasiveness?” said Dakshi. “We have such strength!” He and Charlie braced the Galaxy Zephyr’s elbows against the pincer confining them. They pried it wide open and slipped away before the stinger stung.

The left pincer blindsided them with a back-slap, sending the Galaxy Zephyr spinning through space. It tumbled twenty trillion light-years before stabilizing. Lucille’s crew righted themselves just in time to see the stinging tail descend. Reflexively they brought forth the Wheel and sliced the tail’s tip.

“Big mistake!” signaled the Hurricane. Yellow acid gushed from the sliced stinger.

Who’s mistake?” asked Lucille. The acid flooded over the Galaxy Zephyr. The ivory-white Uzumaki Armor cracked like sunburnt skin until the whole robot broke open like a cocoon, layer after layer. Underneath the ivory-white armor was silvery-blue armor. This broke open also, and underneath was purple armor. This broke open also, and underneath was pink armor.  This broke open also, and underneath was black armor so dark it sucked the inkiness from space and left the vacuum looking luminous gray in comparison. “You’ve unleashed our final form!”

The Galaxy Zephyr kept growing and growing, converting the Wheel’s energy into black mass and drinking up the oceans of acid. Its split-open faces, white, blue, purple, and pink, framed sheer emptiness glaring at the Hurricane. “How are you—” The Hurricane reared and snapped its pincers up at them. “Why are you so large?”

“Life has always been this large!” said Lucille, “you just didn’t have the sense to see it!” The Galaxy Zephyr grew to twice the size of the Hurricane—twice the size of the observable universe—and kept growing. It had sixteen golden wings, nine white tails, four black legs, four black arms, and two black horns which wore its former forms like garlands, white, blue, purple, and pink. The Wheel expanded proportionally.

“Unbelievable.” Dakshi’s hands trembled as he took his steering-wheel. His cockpit had moved to where the two left arms conjoined at the shoulder. Half the crew under his command had been relegated to the upper left arm, the other half to the lower left arm.

“How could we possibly lose?” asked Eisu. His cockpit had moved to where the two right legs conjoined at the hip, and the crew under him was likewise distributed to both these legs.

“Don’t let this go to our heads,” said Charlie, at the right shoulder.

“Let’s kick their ass!” said Fumiko, at the left hip.

Mou ikkai,” said Akayama. “One more time.”

“Huh?” Lucille looked at Akayama on her main monitor.

“Pull the Chain,” said Akayama, “one more time.”

Charley and Dakshi felt much more resistance in the Chain than in the previous pulls. It took all the Galaxy Zephyr’s strength to haul the first link from the Wheel. That link was in the jaws of a fleshy skull with six empty eye-sockets, and subsequent links were wrapped in the skeletal creature’s rib-cage. It had twenty arms and twenty legs. Lucille laughed. “One last Zephyr for the road, huh?”

“Not just any Zephyr,” said Akayama. The Galaxy Zephyr’s four arms wrapped the Chain around the Wheel’s rim. The skeletal creature’s forty limbs were the Wheel’s new saw-teeth. “Anihilato is the last unruly dregs of Earth’s life. Having salvaged the pilots of the Hurricane, we can battle without restraint!”

Lucille directed Charlie and Dakshi to make the Galaxy Zephyr raise the Wheel with one arm while its three free hands gripped the Hurricane’s scorpion carapace. With a flex of titanic muscles, the Galaxy Zephyr jerked the stinging tail as if it was the Chain. “Stop! Stop!”

Uzumaki signaled to the Hurricane through eyeballs on the Galaxy Zephyr’s hands. “Join me, Compatriot! You’ll see the universe never had to feel so cold!

“I’d never share space with the likes of you!” The Hurricane felt its thorax tearing. Rather than split in half, it let the Galaxy Zephyr stretch its body long and thin like taffy until it was a coiling strand of cosmic spaghetti which slipped from the Galaxy Zephyr’s grip. It grew a snake-like face baring fangs larger than galactic clusters. It signaled with predatory eyes, “Your next attack is your last!”

Lucille ordered Eisu and Fumiko to stomp the snake flat until four legs of footprints were debossed on its face. In space there was no floor to stomp the Hurricane against, but they imparted tremendous impact-force due to inertia alone. “Kuso, kuso, kusottareh! What’s this contemptible shit which thinks itself worthy of smearing my heel?” The Hurricane smiled a serpentine smile. Its fangs were missing. “Huh?” Lucille made the Galaxy Zephyr lift its two left feet. The missing fangs were embedded in its heels. Green venom coursed up through their calves.

“Fumiko!” Eisu pulled his monitors close. “Sister! Is your crew okay?”

“I don’t—” Fumiko’s crew of thousands was silent. “I don’t know!”

Green venom reached the left thighs. “Fumiko, report!” commanded Lucille, but no reply came.

The Hurricane chuckled. “They’re dead. My venom won’t let any of you live.”

“Yeah, right! Charlie! Dakshi!” Lucille twisted knobs. The Galaxy Zephyr swiped the Wheel to slice off its own left legs. It caught the severed legs in its mouth and ate them whole. Instantly two new left legs spurt from its hips. “Fumiko, report!”

Fumiko appeared at attention on Lucille’s main monitor, utterly intact. “My crew’s all accounted for, Commander.”

Lucille beamed. “Tell me, o Hurricane, what was your plan there? We’re prepared to resurrect Earth’s entire population all the way down to the loathsome scum like you, but you thought we couldn’t reconstruct our closest friends? Baka, baka baka!

The snake leapt with open maw to sink new fangs in the Galaxy Zephyr’s neck, to kill the Commander outright. Its eyes signaled mid-jump, “Don’t you know who I am?

“I never cared!” Lucille brought down the Wheel and sliced the snake in half lengthwise.

Each half became another snake. “You’re young, aren’t you?” signaled the first.

“For your whole life I’ve been the stars in your sky!” signaled the second. Both leapt for the neck. “I’m the sky-bearer!”

“Bah!” A second sweep of the Wheel sliced both snakes in two. “Sky-burglar! Sky-bungler! Sky-broiler! Sky-bloodier! Shrug off the tyranny of Heaven and we’ll wrestle unregulated!”

The quarters of the Hurricane formed four frogs with toxic yellow stripes. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Lucille’s grin grew ear-to-ear. “I’m the toad-cooker!” Before the four frogs spat venom, the Galaxy Zephyr sliced each of them in half. “Scum-cucker!” The Galaxy Zephyr’s four arms traded the Wheel to swiftly slice the Hurricane’s eighths into sixteenths. “Face-rider!” The Galaxy Zephyr’s four feet stomped the sixteenths into a compact mass, which it sliced into thirty-seconds. “Skull-fucker!” The Galaxy Zephyr was dancing on the ball of gore to keep it packed tight. The Wheel sliced the thirty-seconds into sixty-fourths. “Buck-stopper! Snake-stomper! Heart-breaker! Head-waker! Name-taker! End-maker! I’m the candle who curses the darkness!—but you’d better call me what you want while you’ve still got the chance!

Lucille tried to say more, but her battle-frenzy spoke for her.

Oran doran doran doran doran!” With every syllable, the Galaxy Zephyr sliced the Hurricane into twice as many parts. “Doran doran doran doran doran!” Four dancing feet stomped the Hurricane tight before it could escape or even cringe. “Doran doran doran doran doran!” Finally only fine red powder remained of the Hurricane. “Doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doran doooryaaaugh!

The Galaxy Zephyr swept the Wheel’s broadside across the fine red powder, scattering the Hurricane across the void. “That’s enough, Commander,” said Professor Akayama. Lucille panted, watching the fine red powder fly in all directions. She pulled a lever and made the Galaxy Zephyr lift the Wheel once more. “Lucille! I said that’s enough!”

“I heard you, Hakase.” She laughed and tucked the Wheel behind the Galaxy Zephyr’s head like a thorny halo. “I just wanted to watch ’em flinch.” Indeed, the fine red powder flinched away. The Hurricane retreated in terror.

“What now?” asked Charlie.

“They’ll just come back again,” said Dakshi.

“Don’t be so sure,” said Akayama.

Already the fine red powder shaped themselves into billions of billions of muscular warriors, each the mass of a quadrillion suns. Fumiko groaned. “Here they come!”

“Must we fight forever?” asked Eisu.

Dakshi grimaced. “We have no choice.”

“Everyone, battle-ready!” said Charlie.

“Nah.” Lucille relaxed in her chair and pushed buttons with her feet. The Galaxy Zephyr crossed its four legs and rest its four hands on its four knees. “You heard Professor Bird-Thing. This is the end.”

The Galaxy Zephyr’s crew watched the army of Hurricanes approach, and approach, and approach, but never actually draw near. “We’re done with the Wheel,” said Akayama, “so I’m releasing the tension we’ve stored in the fabric of reality.” The Wheel behind the Galaxy Zephyr’s head grew smaller and smaller as it spun. “The universe itself is expanding, and the distance between objects is increasing. As fast as the Hurricane flies after us, the cosmic expansion is faster. Soon nothing will ever break light-speed again.” The Wheel totally extinguished itself, and the skeletal creature whose limbs were its saw-teeth became the Galaxy Zephyr’s necklace. The assured confidence of the Hurricane’s army slowly shifted to desperation as it struggled to catch up with the Galaxy Zephyr. Akayama stood from her chair and twisted open ZAP’s hatch. “I’m off to have words with them. I’ll be back.”

When she merged with Uzumaki, Professor Akayama used the data she’d collected in worms to recreate the bodies of its hundred pilots, exactly as they were eighty years ago when the Hurricane was first activated. “Oh!” thought Uzumaki. “I guess this means it’s time?”

“You’re people again. Get in.” Akayama separated Uzumaki’s constituent consciousnesses into their new old bodies. “ZAB, thank you. Your work is done.” ZAB’s AI retreated to its robot, and Akayama’s mind was alone in the Galaxy Zephyr’s pitch-black Armor. She combined the Zephyr-robots into a tiny little speck just a kilometer tall and expelled it from her volume. Then she retracted the forty-limbed skeletal necklace, the sixteen golden wings, the nine white tails, the four black arms and legs, and both black horns, then morphed her mass into an enrobed blue bird larger than reality. She unfurled both wings to show quintillions of eye-spots which signaled a final message to the Hurricane’s scattered humanoid particulates. “I’m sorry,” she signaled. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But did you really think this could end any other way?”

The Hurricane’s particles signaled back. “What did you do to me?”

“Space-time is expanding,” signaled Akayama. “Soon it will expand so quickly that nothing will ever travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. You’ll drift farther and farther away, faster and faster, until after billions of years, your images will be Doppler-shifted beyond ultra-violet and there’s no trace of your existence. By then, maybe even our memory of you will fade.”

“We’ll recombine,” signaled the Hurricane’s particles. “We’ll join together once more, and then—“

“No you won’t,” signaled Akayama. “Just as you drift away from us, you drift away from each other. Soon your individual bodies with be sheared apart.” As she signaled this, the Hurricane felt the shearing force. Expanding space-time smeared its humanoid forms into snakes and salamanders. This stretching opened wounds which bled teeth. “Eons hence, even your subatomic particles will be torn asunder.”

“The same will happen to you, and your so-called ‘people!’ “

“On the contrary. We’ll die long before then. Permanence was your desire, not ours. Be careful what you wish for. Although…” Akayama scratched under her beak. “When you obliterated Lucille’s generous suicide-pill, you probably absorbed its self-destruct-sequence wirelessly. You can cast off this mortal coil any time you like.” The Hurricane just squealed in pain. Akayama sighed. “Tell me, do you fear God?” She received no answer. “If there ever comes a time you could be called dead, Lucifer will drag you to his darkest pit. You might shout to God for mercy—and I’ll look down in pity and remind you, you had your chance.” Akayama shrugged. “Oh, I almost forgot.”

She raised the longest feather on her left wing, where the pilots of the Hurricane sat nude in a little air-bubble.

“Although you’re suffering, o Hurricane, understand that your pilots are safe and sound. The same algorithm which saved all Earth’s life from ash also let me separate and reconstruct Uzumaki’s constituent parts so we can put them on trial. As a side-effect, I can show you your reduced form, condensed into a compact representation of your being.” She shook her other sleeve and a tiny green speck fell onto the longest feather of her right wing. “The golden-winged Zephyr was so large because it accounted for so much variation in Earth’s life, including so many worms which sentient beings tend to share. The fox, the man, and Anihilato were smaller, but when they worked together, they collected every last little worm. Combined, these basic forms became bigger than the universe. But you? You alone, minus the worms you share with everyone else?”

She showed the Hurricane, and its pilots, the tiny green speck. It was a frog. It was almost cute.

“You ain’t shit.”

The Hurricane didn’t respond. Maybe it was too far away, or maybe it was overcome with agony. Akayama had nothing left to say. She reabsorbed the Hurricane’s pilots, and the tiny frog.

In the Combined Zephyr, Charlie pointed to his main monitor. “Look! The professor’s coming back!”

Lucille folded her arms and tutted. “She didn’t even ask before she took Uzumaki’s mass. We’re barely a kilometer tall.”

“She gave you that mass,” chided Dakshi, “and she knows what she’s doing.”

Professor Akayama shrank as she left galaxy-clusters in her wake. She popped off her wings and they decomposed into dark matter. Her compound eyes disintegrated, and every tiny facet became a gargantuan sun. “Beautiful,” fawned Fumiko. “Stars are everywhere!

“Better than that!” Eisu scrolled through historical-records on his spare monitors. “The stars are where they would’ve been if the Hurricane hadn’t eaten the universe!”

The whole crew gasped when Akayama shed her robes and they condensed into the Milky Way’s celestial belt. She expelled the sun and moon from her chest. The Combined Zephyr landed gently on the moon, beside the lunar base.

Akayama’s body shrank and shrank, leaving each planet of the solar system behind her. She deposited Earth last. Lucille stared agape at Earth’s gleaming oceans until she regained composure and pulled her monitors close. “Zoom in! Start scanning! Are there any signs of life?”

ZAB responded in its computerized monotone. “Only one. Akayama.” The monitor magnified the image of Earth and focused on the fertile crescent. Buildings and roads were all accounted for, but no humans were to be seen. Only Akayama herself stood tall over the landscape, almost six hundred billion tons of colossal bird-thing.

“She’s—” Fumiko covered her mouth. “Is this appropriate to watch?”

Akayama deflated to a tiny fraction of her volume laying an enormous egg. “It’s hatching!” said Eisu.

Gas streamed from the egg’s cracks and spread over Earth in seconds. “Those are all Earth’s single-celled organisms,” said ZAB. The cracks widened and dark rivers poured. “The insects and small creatures.” The cracks widened and torrents surged. Lucille didn’t need ZAB to tell her these were the larger species. Elephants, tigers, wolves, and every other manner of animal ran for their natural habitats. Even sea-creatures rolled across the deserts. Akayama had biologically bolstered these specimens to make their journeys home.

“Where are the people?” asked Dakshi.

“Look!” Charlie made the Combined Zephyr’s right arm point to Akayama. Her navy feathers popped off one by one, and when each one touched the ground, it became a human being. The feathers drifted and tumbled with the wind to deposit each person where they belonged. The bird-thing regrew each lost feather instantly, shrinking her more and more, and these feathers popped off, too, until the planet’s whole population was reconstituted.

ZAB clicked through thousands of calculations. “They’re all there,” it said. “Everyone—no, everything is accounted for, down to the last microbe.”

Lucille leaned away from her cockpit’s camera so her crew couldn’t watch her wipe her tears. “Yappari sou da. Of course you’d do it, Hakase!

“Wait.” ZAB’s monitors flickered. “There are two Akayamas.” The monitor magnified the image. Professor Akayama’s human body lay nude and unconscious on the sand before the bird-thing twenty feet tall. It loomed motionless over her.

The crew of the Combined Zephyr watched breathlessly as Akayama’s human form stirred awake. She felt her own body before standing and noticing the bird-thing overseeing her. She cringed in fear, then reached out to touch its feathers.

At a touch, it disintegrated. It just blew away in the breeze, leaving only a fresh white lab-coat on the sand. Akayama put it on. She pat her pockets and found a bug-stick and a lighter. She indulged in a good smoke.

“It’s over!” said Lucille. “We can start again!”


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 the whole 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 slopes 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, Dan and Jillian hovered nude in a formless mental theater. Jillian was twenty-four, but appeared as though she had never transitioned, with breasts and hair shoulder-length. Dan was almost sixty, balding and gray.

“I—I understand.” Dan’s thoughts echoed in Jay’s skull. Jillian looked dysphorically over her own body. “Anihilato trapped me in an egg, freezing me on the Wheel of life and death.” Dan wiped tears from his wrinkled cheek. “To escape, I stowed aboard your soul. I hijacked your worms.”

Jillian reached across Jay’s frontal-lobe and slapped Dan in the face. “Snap out of it!” she said. “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!

Dan felt his sore red cheek. “I’m so selfish,” he cried. “I threw myself away just to try saving Beatrice, who never needed me to begin with! When I failed, my personality infected yours.”

“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 shuddered and held his shoulders. “I’m still worried,” he said, “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!” said Jillian. “I don’t wanna be Jillian. I want us to be Jay: a master of life and death and neither male nor female but giant fucking anime space-robot!” She reached her hand out again and Dan recoiled, but she didn’t slap him. She’d extended her hand to shake. Dan’s lower lip quivered. He shook her hand. “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 do you mean?” asked Dan. “What work is cut out for us?”

“Professor Akayama thought Faith would help her wrangle Anihilato.” Jillian sat in a Commander’s chair and fastened six seat-belts. “Faith doesn’t like Anihilato, so the professor needs another go-between. That’s why she locked your worms in a box, not as a punishment, but because 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. “You’re talking like you think 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 you to turn our slice-of-life into an isekai. She fired my worms through yours on purpose, and the two of us together are gonna zap back to that egg to finish what you started. We’re the last step of Nemo’s mission to bring in the fig-makers’ worms.”

“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 I’d rather leave those worms behind.”­

“The Zephyrs need every drop of Earth to defeat the Hurricane. Without Anihilato, even Beatrice is in danger.” 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 everyone Dan and Jillian had ever met, read about, or heard of. “That doesn’t mean we gotta be nice! The kindness Anihilato needs is gonna look a heckuva lot like wrath!

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

“It did,” said Jay. “I know myself now, and I understand Anihilato, King of Dust, self-proclaimed Master of Nihilism.”

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

“But I’m not done yet, 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.”

Jay nodded. “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 Dan’s 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. Now you’re Virgil Blue. Don’t deny your destiny. There are no coincidences!”

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

“But I believe it with unyielding conviction.” Jay shrugged. “Make me a martyr.”

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, then 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 the teeth,” said Jay. “I need you to sturdy Hell’s outer rim. Did you think you could escape this? 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, 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. Dan’s worms are stuck together, but he needs a chance to straighten his head a little. This eternity ends with you, so he’s gotta die before you do.”

“Whatever you say.” Jango stabbed Jay a fortieth time. Jay sputtered his last. Jango sighed and wiped his bloody hands on his robes. Was he really Virgil Blue now? Was Dan Jones destined for the white-walled monastery of Sheridan? Jango clenched his eyes shut. There were no coincidences.

He put his hands on his hips. He’d smuggled bugs for years, but he’d never had to cover up a murder before. Returning to Sheridan would be a challenge.

There was a knock at the door. In panic, 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? Is Jay still here?”

Virgil Blue rapped his cane on the floor. “Jay and Jango left together. Tell me, Danny, have you ever wanted to visit a library with books from the future?”

In its caverns under the desert, Anihilato coiled all twenty arms and twenty legs around a man-sized egg to catch every ounce of 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. “More complicated creatures have to be egged so I can separate their worms by sucking heat from their yolks. In the previous eternity I could soften egos 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.”

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 body and blinked in the sunlight for the first time in eons. It scanned the sand, but didn’t find the worms it expected. “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 red mountain sat in the distance behind him, like his sponsor. “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, soaking up your yolk’s warmth! 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 pulled the blindfold taut. “But 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? If you want a contest, I’ll give you teeth! You’re an appetizer, and the Mountain itself is my main course!”

Jay allowed himself a slanted smile. “You are Anihilato,” he said, “and you are the King of Dust, but you are not the 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 had last seen it. 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, but 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 only delay the inevitable, DanJay.”

“I am the 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 is already in you.”

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

“Doubtlessly less than you,” said Jay. “You contain the worms of every Virgil Blue. Nemo. Jango. More whose names I never had a chance to know. Without you, a whole lot of lost worms would be painful balls of teeth. Thanks for joining me at the end of the eternities.” 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 and his eyes relaxed. 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.


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 ate me alive 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. He was sorry to see Faith treat the Virgils’ worms like that, but decided they’d be glad to see her standing up to the other worms they were stuck to. “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. Then I’ll consume you. 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 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 tossed me like a javelin and tried to shove me in a cave, but Faith made it sound like her bedside manner has improved a little since then.” Jay felt Dan’s worms offering references. “In The Divine Comedy, Dante says even the saints walk into 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!”


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


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

“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!”

“You’re bargaining garbage, Anihilato.”

Anihilato wept. “Why are you doing this to me?”

Jay sighed. “The scariest part about you is that you’re not inhuman. Even your worst worms are probably in most of us.” He recalled Faith’s tail soaking up his teeth. “You’ve definitely got some of mine.”

“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.”

“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?” 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 now take charge without upsetting the natural order.” Nakayama’s wings scintillated and morphed. Every feather grew eyeballs, thousands of them. Her wings formed a hemisphere 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 shimmering blue house of eyes. Nakayama popped off both her wings and stepped under the dome with them. “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 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.” 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 library-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. If anyone could understand how it worked, it probably wouldn’t work at all.”

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 2399, those three stooges don’t even make the top-fifty list of murderous authoritarian dictators.”

That made Jay tear up, and he couldn’t 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, and her ten left arms merged into a jet engine. Blue fire spewed forty meters.

“No! You can’t!” Despite the protest, Nakayama scorched Anihilato’s scalp. “Aaaugh!” 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. 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 to its first pair of shoulders. Nakayama blew smoke toward the sunset, then inhaled again, searing Anihilato down all ten chests to its first waist. “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 up five of its waists. When he finished coughing, he opened his eyes. They were faceted like jewels and 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 we need 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.


The Biggest Bird’s Cosmic Plan

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Last time on RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku!

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 to collect every worm, we mustn’t act prematurely!” Her tail, stuck through ZAP’s entry-hatch and affixed to the Galaxy Zephyr’s silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor, kept her connected to her giant bird-like form in the Wheel.

“Why shouldn’t Lucille pull the Chain?” asked Uzumaki. “We’ve got that white fox! Let’s send her to the Galaxy Zephyr!”

Iya!” Nakayama whizzed around the Wheel’s rim. Judging the bulge to be almost totally remedied, she brushed the golden wing and it began to unwrap itself. “To defeat the Hurricane, we need every aspect of Earth’s life. You wouldn’t want to leave your own worms 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 interactions with 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 her 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 her 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 monastery. 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 tens of languages. I studied their texts for centuries. Visitors from other nations taught me to pronounce the words. 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 one, I devote my entirety to you.”

Buu!” Nakayama crossed her wings in an X. “I need you to devote yourself to nothing less than all sentient beings.” Nemo considered the phrase, but shrugged with uncertainty. Nakayama tried to explain, even though she knew she never could in any language. “I need your help collecting worms in the afterlife. I can think of no one else to shoulder the indescribable burden.”

Nemo stowed his hands in his sleeves. “Anything.”

Nakayama hesitated, but relinquished her command. “You must contain the most unruly worms. There are some who would avoid me out of fear, or greed, or ignorance, no matter how many eternities they have to reconsider. I need you to collect those worms so your soul includes theirs, because it would be improper for me to collect them myself.”

“How?” asked Nemo.

“You must encompass them in the same way a widow carries her husband’s mind in hers,” said Nakayama. “You must impress upon yourself the total fiber of their form, so when you join me at the end of the eternities, I 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 your first man, it’s only right for me to soak up everything awful the world has to offer. But in doing so, I’ll likely become somewhat awful myself!”

“Too true,” said Nakayama, “but I’m sure the presence of your wisdom will steady even the worst of the worms. Let me give you a list.” Using statistical methods 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 I hope every specimen documented here is accounted for, if not in my Mountain, then in you.” She pushed the filing-cabinet toward Nemo, but he pushed it back to her with all his might.

“The Mountain? On the original sun? My father?” 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 it really the rightful resting-place of all worms?”

“I know this is confusing.” Nakayama effortlessly overpowered Nemo shoving the filing-cabinet just by leaning against it. “Uzumaki works for me now, and even it needs your help, to be saved from itself. You’ll understand by the next eternity.”

“If I have two whole eternities, and I won’t understand until the next one, could you save these worm-certificates for when I enter the afterlife? 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 islands 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’m not supposed to force worms into the Wheel, 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 will be unruly because of the characters it contains.”

“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 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 removing his shirt, or at least 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 broke the blade, but the hilt was intact: an awesome angry dragon which made 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 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 business-savvy. They should thank me.”

The higher he 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 its 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 turned to watch the sunrise. 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 sunlight bothered his eyes. He put his sunglasses back on.

He turned to the 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. Sometimes the whole island is foggy. How could 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 bird, six feet tall with long red 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 a dark cave.

“Neat.” He entered the cave without second thought. “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: there was a man sitting in the back of the cave, facing rock wall. “Yo,” said Lio. “Whaddup.” The man didn’t turn, so Lio approached. Now he wasn’t sure if it was human or a weird rock. “Ew!”

It looked human, but it must have been a statue, because it didn’t have arms, legs, or even a pelvis. Its pitch-black flesh disgusted him, especially its texture. It was like the thing had been bitten into shape. “Heh. This whole island-chain is nothing but crazy egg-heads!” Lio bent down and bit the thing’s shoulder like a dog. “Rawr!

The man turned his head. He had wide-set eyes, high cheek-bones, and a swastika carved into his forehead. “Don’t do that.”

“Whoa!” Lio lurched back. He hadn’t expected this to be a person. “I’m just playing, man! Didn’t think you’d care, you’ve already got bite-marks all over.”

The man somehow turned with less than zero limbs, almost like a hand-puppet. “Do you know who I am?”

“Nope.” Lio stuck out his good hand, as if the limbless ascetic would shake it. “Henry.”

The man didn’t shake—of course he didn’t! How could he? “Nemo,” said Nemo. “Oran dora. Please, sit. I’m glad to have company.” Nemo leaned to look over Lio’s shoulder. “I heard a bird. Will it arrive soon?”

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

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

Lio scoffed. “I’ve never been into imaginary-sky-daddy bullshit. What are you doing all the way up here?”

“Didn’t you read the signs?”

“What signs? I didn’t see any signs.”

Nemo grinned. He had two rows of teeth whittled 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 King of Dust. Mortals chase vices up the island only to be consumed. Quite the folk-tale, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, cool story,” 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 close. “Now you sound like my kinda guy! If society says ‘don’t climb past the clouds,’ that’s the first thing you gotta do. Freedom! No matter what anyone tells you!” Lio pointed to his own forehead. “You got a, uh, a thing up here.”

Nemo nodded and looked cross-eyed at the swastika-mark between his temples. “A reminder of my duties and my heritage.”

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

Nemo knotted his brow at Lio’s tattoo. “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 seemed unimpressed. “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 shook his head. Lio clearly thought ‘freedom’ was just another bug being 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.” Nemo’s eyes narrowed as Lio showed him 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.”

“I see.” Nemo inspected Lio with a squint. “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 inwardly. This fool boasted about breaking Sheridan’s three 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’d do it again. Interaction—action, reaction—that’s all there is! The limits we set are all we ever have and all we ever are.”

Pfa.” Lio smirked. “No wonder you have to live alone all the way up here—keeping freedom all to yourself, being all violent to tell people what they can and can’t do. The whole island must hate you. If you’d let the snake have its way, your kids might’ve learned some personal responsibility.” Lio mistook Nemo’s squint of penetrating concern for disgusted condescension. “What’s that look for?”

Nemo considered Lio’s 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. “You remind me of my father, that snake. Soon after my birth, he tried to trick me into relinquishing my body to him.”

“And I feel sorry for you, but if you use that as an excuse to keep my freedom all to yourself, you’re worse than your dad!” Now Nemo scowled. “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 Lio’s words from the books in his library under the monastery bell-tower, but even if he didn’t, the way Lio spat them would be enough. “How did you become this thing before me?” asked Nemo. “What led you where you are now?”

“People like you!” Lio pointed with his broken fist, flecking Nemo with blood. “My whole life I’ve had to put up with people too small-minded to see things my way. Like this guy on my tour, he broke my knife, and my hand, just ’cause I tried teaching him to do an honest day’s work! Another guy once showed my tattoo to a crowd he knew would hate me for it. Now I’m meeting you, and you won’t gimme my freedom! I am the way I am because I’ve been oppressed my whole life, 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.

“…So… You’re not personally responsible for your ideology, which you describe as personal responsibility?” Through their dialogue, Nemo had extracted some of Lio’s worms for Anihilato. “I feel you, Henry, I really do.” But Lio had more worms to dig up. Nemo counted centipedes in Lio’s jar. “Are you consuming all those 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’re keeping from me! I’ll be way smarter with it than you ever were.”

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

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

“I thought you weren’t into imaginary-sky-daddy bullshit. Now you’re letting an invisible hand tell you what to do?”

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 because it’s the only source of objective value!”

Everyone says that about their God.”

Lio sputtered and shook his fists. 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. You trust an imaginary-sky-daddy to fix the world quickly as you can break it. You’re worse than the monks, because at least the monks admit what they are.”

“If you ever studied fucking economics, you’d be on my side!”

“I don’t need to read your holy book to doubt your God.”

Lio clocked Nemo in the jaw with his good hand. Nemo rolled backward on his mutilated hips, but his low center of gravity rolled him upright like a child’s boxing-toy. Lio socked him again with his broken fist, hard enough that on the rebound, Nemo bonked Lio’s nose with his forehead. “Hey!” Lio poked Nemo’s chest. “Hitting me back proves 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 the invisible hand will set you free.”

“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?”

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

Nemo pointed with his chin at Lio’s busted fist. “Eat your useless fingers.”

“Huh? Why?”

“They’re not doing you any good, are they? Make them useful again.” In truth, Nemo just wanted to see 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 slave to your own shadow.”

Lio grimaced. “Crazy egg-head.”

“Call me what you want.” Nemo munched his own shoulder. He licked up every drop of blood. “If you can’t free yourself from inside a cage, you wouldn’t be free outside the cage, because there’s always a bigger cage.” 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 rocky cave floor. He groaned and spat his thumb into his lap. “Don’t talk smack about my daddy!”

“Don’t quit halfway!” Nemo rolled forward to snatch Lio’s thumb in his teeth. “Did I tell you to bite your fingers off?”

“Yeah! Idiot!”

“You’re cutting corners! I told you to eat them!” Nemo whipped his neck to fling the thumb at Lio’s face. “Or descend to tell your daddy you’re his equal in failure!”

“Don’t 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 on the thumb’s knuckle. “Please, tell me about your father. You’ve met him, haven’t you?”

“Not since I was three. 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 to bring in a younger broad. Hear that, bird-worshipper? You’re not the only island out here!” Nemo was sorry to hear about Lio’s father abandoning him, and nodded in sympathy which Lio misinterpreted. “Yeah, you’d better be jealous. On his island, he and his bros would bring in all the hottest chicks.” 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 wiped tears with his shoulder-nubs. “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 bought a wife from overseas, cheap because she came pregnant. Now that’s thinking ahead! She’s all used up, so I won’t waste my dick on her, but her kid’s just about ripe.”

“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. This tale extracted more of Lio’s worms for Anihilato. “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 even if your imagination was accurate!”

Lio swallowed the last of his thumb. All the blood, sweat, tears, and spit washed down his chest. His tattoo’s colors ran, 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 wiggled his stumps. “You chose to come to my island. You chose to break every rule. You chose to eat your thumb. You had your freedom every step of the way. I’ve eaten my fingers, too, but I’m finishing the job to save lazy chumps like 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! 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. 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?”

“Not just me! Everyone!” Nemo looked around in awe like he could see the stars through the roof of his cave. “Anyone can make rules, anyone can break them! Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it terrifying?

“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!” Lio stood up and wrapped both arms around Nemo, lifting him off the rocky floor. “This is my island now, and my cave, and you’re not allowed!” He carried Nemo to the cave-mouth to chuck him down the slopes.

Mid-throw, Nemo latched onto Lio’s shoulder with his two rows of shark-teeth. Lio tried to pry him off, but only smeared his own blood on Nemo’s back. He jabbed at Nemo’s exposed guts with both fists, but Nemo didn’t even seem to notice.

Lio fell forward to crush Nemo under his belly. Nemo was too slippery with Lio’s blood to grapple like that, and he squirted out from under him. The two wrestled, Nemo biting off chunks of Lio and Lio unable to wrangle him. “Aaugh! What the hell are you doing?

“In this life, all we really choose is the hill we die on. You’ve picked this little dirt-mound, but the Biggest Bird told me to carry your worms to my father, the Mountain on the original sun!” Nemo ate Lio’s broken fist in one bite. “It’s for your own good, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like it!”

“I’m not in your cult, you crazy bird-worshipper!” Lio’s sunglasses fell off. Nemo ate them too. “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.” Lio had no strength left to fight, so Nemo took his time devouring him feet-first. “I eat the Blue Virgils, too, to help bear the weight of worms like yours. Once I’ve totally eaten myself, this eternity is over, and we’ll all be Anihilato!”

“You’re loony!” Lio punched weakly. “How could you eat your whole self?”

“My hips were tricky,” admitted Nemo, “but once I pulled out my pelvis it was just a matter of nibbling, and I’ve got nothing but time!”

“Moron! Even if you eat everything else, you’ll never eat your own teeth!”

“Oh yeah?” Nemo paused gnawing on Lio’s knees to open wide and eject a shark-tooth from his gums. The tooth fizzled, sputtered, and annihilated itself in a flurry of particles and antiparticles. Lio pouted, collapsing under his own weight. “Your type is stringy,” said Nemo. “If someone clings to their house, then to eat their ego, I must collapse their house. If someone clings to their crops, I must wilt their crops. And so on. I’ve developed these mystical powers through my connection to the next eternity. Luckily, your pride confines you! The only thing you love is yourself, separating you from everything you claim is yours. You attach yourself only to money, so I’ll just evaporate your bank-accounts—assuming you aren’t dead-broke!” Lio had no strength to speak. Nemo crawled around him like a caterpillar. “Don’t worry,” said Nemo. “In the next eternity, as Anihilato, we’ve 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 unhinged his jaw and ate Lio’s head.

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. If Anihilato becomes great enough to oppose the Mountain’s Heart, there must arise a redeeming force. Someone to look emptiness in the eye, unblinkingly!”


Jay’s Interview with Virgil Blue

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Dan and Jay slept on the fold-out while Bob retired to his bedroom, still wearing his tinfoil fedora as he tucked himself in. Jay said nothing of his visions outside, unsure whether Faith had been real or not. In the morning, Bob woke them for breakfast. “Dan,” Jay asked over cereal, “have you thought about your thesis?”

“My what?”

“Your thesis. We came to Wyoming to research the Sheridanian Virgils for your PhD in Religious-Studies.”

“Oh, right.” Dan pushed flakes across milk with his spoon. “Maybe the college will inspire me.”

After breakfast they boarded Bob’s truck. Jay dialed his phone. “I’ll let Ms. Lyn know we’re coming.”

“Who?” asked Bob. Dan sat in the back.

“Ms. Lyn, the college’s event-coordinator. I called her at the bar to arrange our meeting.” Jay sat shotgun. Bob revved the engine and pulled out. “Hello, Ms. Lyn? Sure, I’ll hold.” Jay dated a fresh page in his notepad. Bob steered toward the mountains on roads of slippery ice. “Ms. Lyn? It’s Jay Diaz-Jackson.” He nodded. “Just wanted to let you know I’d arrive soon.” Jay nodded again but knotted his brow. He lowered his phone then returned it to his ear. “Could you repeat that?” He humphed. “Thanks. I’ll see you soon.”

“What’d she say?” asked Dan.

Jay shook his head as he hung up. “She said they’ve arrived ahead of us.”

“Who has?” asked Dan.

“She assumed I knew.”

Bob drove the winding mountain roads so quickly Dan clutched his seat-belt and chewed his gloves in terror at every icy hairpin turn. Jay watched clouds peek over peaks like boiling cream. “Almost there!” Bob pointed to buildings dotting the mountainside. “See that lecture-hall? That’s where Virgil Blue said all the nothing!”

Bob parked with such enthusiasm Dan’s body rocked forward. As the three stepped from the truck, a woman in high-heels approached, waving. “Mr. Jackson?” she called out.

“Diaz-Jackson, but please, call me Jay.” Jay shook her hand. “You’re Ms. Lyn?”

“Yep. Follow me.”

Ms. Lyn led Dan, Jay, and Bob onto campus. “Hey, wait,” said Bob, “this ain’t the way to the lecture-hall!”

“I couldn’t reserve the lecture-hall,” said Ms. Lyn. “I booked you a private room usually reserved for one-on-one counseling.”

Dan finally recovered from the drive. “But we’re supposed to see the lectern Virgil Blue sat on.”

“I’m sorry?” asked Ms. Lyn.

Jay explained while Ms. Lyn ushered them into an administration-building. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I wanted to meet you, Ms. Lyn. I wanted to ask about the Virgils from Sheridan.”

“Oh.” Ms. Lyn put her hands on her hips. “But they said they wanted to meet you.”

“The Virgils want to meet me?

“They called two days ago, just minutes before you did,” said Ms. Lyn. “They said you’d call me to schedule your meeting.”

They rounded a corner into a hall of lockers. Virgil Jango Skyy sat in a school-chair attached to a tiny desk. Jay gasped and hustled to him. “Jango!” he said. “Virgil Skyy!”

Jango opened his good eye and smiled at Dan, Jay, Bob, and Lyn. He stood from the tiny desk, took his cane, and bowed his head. “Oran dora.”

“Hey, that’s one of the guys!” Bob gestured for Dan to follow. “You gotta get a selfie with this dude for your thesis!”

Jay struggled for words. “Why are you here?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?” said Jango. “There are no coincidences.”

Ms. Lyn folded her arms. “The Virgils arrived by bus half an hour ago.”

“Me and Blue. Green is busy as always.” Jango brushed wrinkles from his robes. “Jay, I hope our abrupt arrival has not caught you off-guard.”

“It’s an honor to meet you again,” said Jay, “but why?

Jango took air through his teeth. “In Sheridan there’s a story,” he began, after judging the audience worthy of hearing it, “of a sage who knew how the world would end. Men climbed to the sage’s cave to ask about the apocalypse, but the sage never answered. One day someone climbed to the cave and asked, ‘how will the world end?’ The sage, as usual, said nothing. They just sat facing the darkness. The climber repeated, ‘how will the world end?’ and again, the sage said nothing. The climber repeated again, ‘how will the world end?’

“And the sage said, ‘the eternities end when the Chain wraps the Wheel and no worms remain to salvage.’

“The climber was thrilled, but had to ask, ‘why answer me but no one else?’

“And the sage said, ‘because you asked three times.’ ” Jango beamed. Dan and Jay just looked at each other. Bob cocked his head like a dog. “Fifteen years ago,” said Jango, “Faith met me on the main island of Sheridan. Five years ago, Faith met me here at Sheridan Cliff-Side College. A week ago, Faith met me a third time.” From his sleeve, Jango produced the holiday-card which Faith had sent with Jay. He showed them the fox she’d drawn and signed inside. “I cannot ignore someone who meets me three times, even if the third time is only pictorially. There are no coincidences. I knew if I made the barest effort, I’d find the visitors I expected. So!” He clapped his hands. “Where is Faith Featherway?”

Dan, Jay, and Bob shared a glance. “Um.” Jay put a hand over his heart. “I’m afraid Faith died days ago. She was struck by lightning.”

Jango deflated. He looked down the hall as if Faith would appear around the corner. “Impossible.”

“I’m afraid so,” said Bob. Dan wiped his eyes. “Sorry.”

Jango covered his mouth. “But the Mountain arranged this meeting.”

I arranged this meeting,” muttered Ms. Lyn.

“The Mountain and Ms. Lyn did their best,” offered Jay. “We’re Faith’s friends and family. You’re here to hear of her death directly from us in person.”

“I suppose.” Jango rapped his cane on the floor. “Thank you.”

“Geez,” said Bob, “I’d hate to send you home empty-handed. Can I buy you a bagel?”

“Wait,” Jay interjected. “You said Virgil Blue is here? Now?”

“Yes.” Jango pointed to a nearby door. “Waiting for Faith.”

“Can Dan and I interview them?”

Jango raised the eyebrow over his clear eye while squinting his cataract. “The Blue Virgil is rarely in a speaking mood.”

“Then we’ll just take pictures and notes.” Jay shook his camera. “You can supervise us if you’d like, so we don’t disrespect the honorable Virgil.”

Jango sighed. “Nah, go on in.” He walked beside Bob. “I’ll take you up on that bagel while we wait.”

“Me too,” said Dan. “This is a little too much for me right now.” Ms. Lyn led them away, leaving the door to Jay.

Jay licked his lips and knocked. Hearing no response, he opened the door and froze when he saw Virgil Blue’s silver mask staring back. The Virgil, in their hooded navy robes, sat cross-legged on top of a desk. Jay sat in their vacant wheelchair and stared at the mask for a while, unable to do anything else. He wanted to count his fingers, but found himself petrified. His thoughts wandered the embossed, buggy eyes. Seeing them, and being seen by them, was a profound experience. It brought Jay right back to a childhood dream.

Jay knew he lacked the strength to take a proper photo. Without looking down, he willed himself to put his notepad on his thigh and prepare his pen. His wrist locked in writing-position. Unable to break eye-contact with the mask, he hoped his blind scribbles were legible later.

‘I’ve lucked into an interview with Virgil Blue,’ Jay wrote. ‘Their stare transfixes me. I sense messages from past millennia hidden behind the mask. Even if this teacher of teachers says nothing, I’m honored to share space with them.’

Jay couldn’t turn the notepad to continue writing. Instead he watched the mask. He could’ve watched the mask for hours. He stared at his two reflections in the silver eyes. The perception of depth reminded him how to focus his vision and operate his facial muscles, allowing his gaze to stray away. The Virgil’s navy robes were thicker than rugs. The Virgil’s sleeves were tucked into each other to hide their hands. The Virgil’s knees were so knobbly, the robes looked like a crumbling cathedral.

Jay found strength to turn his notepad over and continue writing. ‘Virgil Blue’s commanding aura cannot be overstated. I wish I could coax even one word from behind the mask.’

He gathered courage to speak. “Hello, Virgil Blue. My name is Jay. We’ve met before, in your monastery on the Islands of Sheridan. May I ask a few questions?” Virgil Blue didn’t respond. Jay recalled Jango’s lesson about asking three times. “May I ask a few questions?” Virgil Blue didn’t respond. “May I ask a few questions?” Virgil Blue didn’t respond. Maybe he was just supposed to ask? “On your islands, I got the impression that Sheridanians know centipedes are sometimes smuggled away. Smugglers just have to pass through some sieves to show they’re above-board. Is that right? Any comments?” Virgil Blue didn’t respond.

Jay sighed and continued writing. ‘I guess I’ll have to leave without a quote.’ Jay wiggled his toes. He couldn’t yet stand under the Virgil’s indomitable presence. On a whim, he wrote an empty quote to convey the wordless message: “”.

“Drop the pen.”

Jay dropped the pen.

“Close it.”

Jay closed the notepad.

“Chase truth in your own navel, not mine.”

“I don’t want the truth,” said Jay. “All I want is—“

“Shut up.”

Jay shut up.

“Stop listening, too.”

Jay’s attention blurred.

“My body was born centuries ago, but my story is older. I heard it from the previous Virgil Blue, who heard it from the previous Virgil Blue, who heard it from the previous Virgil Blue, and so on. My story concerns the first man, Nemo, whom the Biggest Bird declared the first Virgil Blue. The original sun made Nemo immortal to guide Sheridan for all time, but over millennia, despite perfect health, his mind deteriorated daily. Nemo’s last students struggled with his peculiar discipline. Nemo reacted violently when his students answered questions incorrectly—or correctly. He demanded students sit nude with him outdoors on winter nights so frozen fog would frost them.

“When students complained of frostbite, Nemo ate the afflicted fingers and toes. He acquired a taste for flesh and filed his teeth sharp like a shark’s. His final lesson was a display of depravity: Nemo chased his congregation through the snow ranting and raving, pouncing on his slowest students and biting off their fingers at the knuckle. It was decided Nemo should retire, and with startling lucidity, Nemo agreed. To pass the title of Virgil Blue, Nemo invented a ceremony in which a bird’s egg—fertilized with sacred seed inside—was smashed on the appointee’s forehead. He passed the title to his only student who still had all ten fingers and toes. Then Nemo climbed above the clouds, never to return. The new Virgil Blue brought Sheridan back to non-cannibalistic orthodoxy. They anointed subordinate Virgils to stabilize the islands.”

The room was quiet for a while.

“Two centuries hence, the new Virgil Blue was still in perfect health, but Nemo appeared in their dreams and told them to wear this silver mask, because their life would soon end. In their following dreams, Nemo ate the Blue Virgil’s fingers and toes. When no phalanges remained, Nemo chewed other extremities, until after excruciating years, the Virgil’s dream-body was totally devoured. Virgil Blue knew their time had come, so they retired the mask and passed the title, following Nemo above the clouds, never to return. Since then, every Virgil Blue has worn the mask while Nemo cannibalized them in the dream-theater, and passed the title when he was finished. Every former Blue climbs to the cloudy peak.

“Some foreigners dare trespass on that sacred peak, and such trespassers never return. Beyond that, everything these trespassers own is ruined. Their property burns. Their children die. Their spouses throw themselves in the sea. This is why the peak fits as final resting-place for the Blue Virgils: they call nothing their own. When they wear the silver mask, they surrender wholly. As Nemo breaks my bones in his teeth each night, I understand the asceticism he imposes. Nothing is mine, not physically, mentally, nor spiritually. When Nemo finishes gnawing my skullcap, I’ll lose nothing in climbing above the clouds.”

The room was quiet for a while.

“The only Virgils I anointed, Skyy and Green, I will never promote. I am the last Virgil Blue. This eternity ends with me. I am Nemo’s last student and his last meal.”

Jay didn’t move or speak for several minutes. He bowed his head, picked up his notepad and pen, and left without a word.

Ms. Lyn led Jay to the campus cafe where Virgil Jango Skyy sat with Dan and Bob at a booth. Jay shook Ms. Lyn’s hand. “Thank you again, Ms. Lyn. I actually had a question for you, though, about the event-brochure from the day the monks lectured here. My friend Faith said there was a bird-photo; who supplied it? Photos of Sheridanian big-birds are rather taboo.”

“Oh.” Ms. Lyn blushed and smacked her forehead. “That was me, but they weren’t real birds! Twenty years ago I was on a flight from Indonesia to Peru which refueled in Sheridan, and I took a picture of some plushies in a runway gift-shop. After Virgil Blue’s lecture, Virgil Jango Skyy complained to me about the photo, and we had a laugh.” Nevertheless embarrassed, Ms. Lyn left him in the cafe. Jay passed chatting students on his way to the booth. Dan helped Jango butter the halves of a bagel to share while Bob sipped a beer.

“Jay!” Jango raised his cane. “Is it time to collect Virgil Blue?”

“They’re all yours.”

“I’ll let them sit for a while longer. No one would dare disturb their eternal meditation.” Jango nibbled his bagel-half. Dan sipped milk and removed his black gloves to swipe through photos on his phone’s touchscreen. His fingertips still looked chewed-upon. “Come, Jay. Dan is showing me my brother’s manga.”

“I need some water,” said Jay. “Bob, can I buy you something to eat?”

“I lose my appetite at altitude,” said Bob. “Buy me another beer.”

Jay found a free cup for water and brought Bob his beer. “Is this really your second drink?” He thought of all the icy hairpin-turns along the mountain roads. “I’ll drive us home, if that’s alright with you.” He sat across from Jango.

Dan showed Jango his phone and the old monk took it to scroll on his own. “Okay, you’re looking through the covers of each volume,” said Dan. “That’s Princess Lucia, daughter of the Ruler of Earth. Her family keeps her landlocked to protect her from the Hurricane, the cosmic horror which ate the universe, but she dreams of joining robot-pilots on the moon—the robots and the pilots are called Zephyrs, so sometimes it gets confusing. One day she escapes and learns to pilot this robot, the Zephyr’s heart. LuLu’s was a cult-classic while it lasted.” Dan took his phone back.

“Where are you staying?” Bob asked Jango. “Bring Blue to my house. Dan, Jay, I’ll pump up an air-mattress for you while the Virgils take the fold-out.”

Jango finished his bagel-half while dismissing the notion with the wave of his other hand. “Virgil Blue and I booked a motel-room.” He stowed his hands back up his sleeves. “We planned to stay just one night, to extend our invitation to Faith.”

“An invitation?” Bob drank his beer. “To what?”

“To the monastery, of course.” Jango released a long sigh. “No one has ever visited me three times in such a fashion as Faith. I thought she was destined for the Islands of Sheridan the same way I was. Virgil Blue and I even prepared her initiation! If she were here to accept it, she could skip studying under Virgil Green and step right into the monastery.”

Dan bit his fingertips, scrolling through LuLu’s on his phone. Jay nodded and swallowed. “Is the initiation still, uh, ready to go?”

“If Faith is dead, then for whom?” asked Jango. Then his eyes opened so wide Jay saw the whole white and black of his irises. “Are you requesting—“

“No, no,” denied Jay. “I’d never invite myself into your monastery. But Dan studies religions! We hoped to research the islands for his thesis. Could you show us the materials and procedures of a Sheridanian initiation?”

At his name, Dan looked from his phone. Jango appraised his expression. “I suppose,” said Jango, “but before I invite you to our motel, I must warn you, the materials of a Sheridanian initiation ceremony are… controversial.”

“Centipede-powder?” asked Jay.

Jango shook his head. “The centipedes must be… consumed whole.”

Dan and Jay understood the implication. When Bob caught on, he bolted upright and held his fedora to his head. “You smuggled whole centipedes with you?” Jango put a stern finger over his lips. Bob grinned giddily at Dan and Jay. “You guys have cool friends!”

“Please understand,” said Jango, “centipede-visions are integral to Sheridan. In fact, if you plan to write about the islands, I insist one of you consume a whole centipede—under Virgil Blue’s supervision, of course.”

“Really?” asked Jay.

“We have the materials prepared for Faith.” said Jango. “Someone might as well eat a centipede. If you like what the centipede shows you, I could take you into the monastery—but I won’t pressure you. The life of a monk isn’t an easy one.”

Dan covered his face. “Jay, I don’t know.” He rest his fists on the table. His face was pale. “I can’t take centipede again.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll take it and describe my experience to you.”

“I can’t be in the same room as a centipede,” said Dan, “not since Beatrice died. I won’t go to Sheridan. Coming here was a mistake.”

Bob took air through his teeth. “You know, I’m in the same boat as Dan. I don’t wanna overdo anything.”

“Okay.” Jay extended a hand for Jango to shake. “I’ll take up your offer alone.”

Jango shook his hand. “What have you eaten in the last twenty-four hours?”

“A hamburger, cheese-puffs, and a bowl of cereal.”

“Don’t eat any more. You’ll likely vomit. I certainly did.”

That evening, Jay stepped out on Bob’s back-porch. Dark clouds crossed the sky. None looked like foxes.

He dialed his parents’ phone-number. His cell rang too many times. Jay knew he’d speak to an answering-machine. “You’ve reached the Diaz-Jacksons,” said his mother. “We can’t answer the phone because we’re on our second honeymoon! We’ll respond when we’re back from the Caribbean. Click!

Jay drew breath. His jaw trembled. “Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad. It’s me. Jay.” He almost hung up. He could still change his mind and turn back. “I’m doing something kinda stupid. Kinda really stupid. You’ve specifically told me not to do this, but I think I have to. I need answers. I’m not sure how this will play out, but I might be spending the rest of my life on an island, or my life might even end tonight. Either way, if I’m reading the subtext right, I’ll be back to see you again in a sequel. So… I love you. Oh, and you’ve got some nice seashells coming in the mail. I love you.” He hung up. He blew fog on his hands. He stepped back into Bob’s house.

Dan sat on the fold-out, trying to untie his shoes. “Have you changed your mind about the initiation?” Dan struggled with his laces.

Jay shook his head. “Do you need help?”

“Please. We walked in grass on the way to the cafe. Now my shoes are dirty and I have to wash them, but I forgot my gloves on-campus, and I can’t touch grass-stains with my bare hands.” Dainty Dan let Jay untie his shoes. They were hardly dirty, just damp. “Jay, on the Islands of Sheridan, did you see too many centipedes?”

“Not too many at all.” Jay pulled the shoes off Dan’s feet. “Only near the peak of the main island, above even Virgil Blue’s monastery. You’d like it there, Dan. They’ve got a great library.”

“Then I’ve changed my mind,” said Dan. “I need to visit Sheridan, to prove I’ve moved on. Thanks for bringing me here, so I could realize.”

“I know you’ll love Sheridan, Dan.” Jay turned his head so Dan couldn’t see his tears. “Um. Here.” Like Dan’s father giving him his books, Jay gave Dan his notepad. He’d torn out the pages about Jango meeting Faith as a fox. “These are my notes on the islands.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Dan flipped through the notepad. “I like your drawings of birds.”

Jay wiped his wet cheeks. “Maybe we’ll meet in Sheridan, huh? If I decide to become a monk?” Then he left and walked to the nearest motel. He knew the Virgils would be there, because there were no coincidences.

When Jay knocked, Virgil Jango Skyy brushed blinds aside and peeked out the window with his good eye. Seeing Jay, he unlocked and opened the door, then locked it again behind him. Jay removed his shoes and loosened his dark purple tie as his eyes adjusted to the dim room. Virgil Blue sat cross-legged on a king-sized bed. Their wheelchair sat in a corner. “Oran dora,” said Jay.

Virgil Skyy wordlessly limped to a rug rolled up against a wall. Jay wanted to help handle the heavy rug, but Skyy bade him to sit beside Blue on the bed. He knocked over the rug with his cane and swiftly unrolled it with his feet. The woven rug depicted the Islands of Sheridan from smallest to largest.  On each island, a single man, repeated many times, climbed to the top and claimed the peak, until he finally disappeared above the clouds. The man was nude and black like coal. Above the islands, a bird in sky-blue robes oversaw the man’s journey. The sun was red and had a noticeable pimple, the Mountain.

“The first man, Nemo,” said Virgil Skyy, pointing with his cane. “The tapestry shows his journey from divine birth to ascendance above the rank of Blue.” He thumped his cane on the floor. “Students usually undertake this ritual after months or years of training with Virgil Green, then swimming to the main island and climbing it nude like the birds do. It’s their last step to becoming a proper monk. When a monk wants to be promoted to Virgil, they begin as Virgil Green, training students to make that same swim. You met Virgil Green, didn’t you?”

“I saw him on my tour.” Jay swallowed. “I understand he chased snakes from Sheridan.”

Virgil Skyy shrugged. “Close enough. The way I heard it, Nemo ate the snakes. When he climbed above the clouds, the new Virgil Blue established Virgil Green as a subsidiary representation of Nemo’s being. Nemo was so much larger-than-life that to keep his flame alive, he had to be divided and diluted.”

Jay let his gaze wander the rug. Unconsciously, his focus drifted to Virgil Blue’s silver mask. This close, Jay had countless reflections in both of the mask’s compound eyes. “Virgil Skyy… Jango… On the islands, you said the dead are reborn.”

“Our worms cycle in the sand until they find the Mountain,” said Jango.

“You said no one remembers their past lives.” Jay pried his gaze from the mask. “Are you sure?

“The sand on the original sun wears our worms smooth.” Jango pulled Jay to his feet. “We are effaced.”

“What if…” Jango guided Jay’s posture in sitting cross-legged on the rug. “What if someone slipped through the cracks?”

Jango sat on the bed beside Virgil Blue. “Virgil Blue once dreamed they were a bird eating grubs from tree-trunks. Who’s to say which thoughts aren’t memories of past lives? We get worms from everywhere and across all time.” Jango noticed Jay’s concerned expression. “But it doesn’t matter. Minds are just the whorls where the river meets the coast. Someday we will stop spinning, but what we were will spin again. Maybe we’ll spin the same direction as before, maybe oppositely. Maybe we’ll spin two directions at once. If you recall past lives, perhaps you spin clockwise on the surface while your depths present an opposing current. All currents are personal and temporary. The awesome stillness at the end of the eternities belongs to everyone forever.”

Jay put his hands in his lap, but kept them clenched. “Do you know Anihilato? The largest worm, the Master of Nihilism, the King of Dust?”

Jango tilted his head in suspicion. “I’ve heard some of those names, but they’re never spoken aloud, except to Virgils. I never even mentioned them to Jun. Where did you hear them?”

“A little fox told me.” Jango’s mouth fell open a little, but he grit his teeth in slow acceptance. Still his eyes were narrowed with skepticism. “The Mountain thinks Anihilato’s collecting worms on its behalf, right? Worms which aren’t ready?” Jango nodded and Jay darkened. “What if it eats enough worms to overpower the Biggest Bird?” He couldn’t bring himself to look at either Virgil. “What if the Heart of the Mountain’s cosmic plan has a stuck cog?”

“I can’t speak for the Mountain,” said Jango. “I’m only a Virgil. My goal is to guide.” Jay’s tense hands trembled. Jango licked his lips, considering Anihilato. “My brother Jun has long, greasy hair. Our father always wanted him to cut it short. One day, our shower wouldn’t drain. Our father reached into the drain and pulled out a thick, messy clump. Our father was angry, but he laughed, too—‘Look,’ he joked to my brother, ‘our hair-collector is working!’—as if the clog was the drain’s purpose all along. Do you understand, Jay?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then you’re getting close. Let’s try again: there once was a monster,” he said, “who couldn’t be killed in the day nor at night, inside nor outside, by a man nor a woman. Obviously the monster was slain by a hermaphrodite while passing through a doorway during a solar eclipse. The monster wore ignorance as armor. It protected itself with words like ‘day’ and ‘night’ and ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ but to those who know better, words are just words. The hero slew the monster with the blade of unpronounceable truth. Do you understand?”

Jay didn’t say yes or no. He didn’t even nod. He just relaxed the tension in his hands

“You’re ready.” Jango grabbed Virgil Blue’s silver mask. Jay gasped. Jango pulled the mask away. Underneath was a black tangle of centipedes. “I warned you.” Jango pulled the navy robes from the centipede-bush’s dark thorns. The robe’s sleeves were empty. What Jay mistook for knees were loose folds of fabric. “Centipedes lose most of their potency soon after harvest. It’s not easy to smuggle a bush of them through airport-security, but no one bothers the living legend in a wheelchair, or wonders why they smell so funny to the dogs.” Jango reached into the robes where the femur would’ve been and pulled out a curved knife made of bird-bone. “Close proximity to Blue, especially in an enclosed area, will induce a contact-high. This gives the Virgil a paralyzing presence.”

Jay managed to speak. “How long?”

“Hm? Oh, Virgil Blue retired above the clouds decades ago.” Jango wrapped his right hand in navy fabric. “I’m watching in their stead until the end of the eternity. It should be any day now!” With navy fabric guarding his hand from thorns, Jango reached into the centipede-bush. He used the knife to pry up orange legs until he could pull a whole centipede from the tangle. The centipede curled into a spiral which Jango gave to Jay. “You’ve smoked centipede-powder, correct?”


“This will not be the same,” said Jango. “Someone who smokes centipedes sees their worms in the desert, squirming in the sand. You’ll have no such self-control. I will have no control. The centipede will take you straight to the Mountain and show you what you really need to see.” Jay nodded. “It’s a suppository.” Jay cringed and Jango burst out laughing. “Just kidding! Eat it.

Without hesitation, Jay crunched the exoskeleton in his teeth. He tore off black chunks and swallowed them. Orange legs crawled down his throat. Dark liquid spilled from his lips. Jay wiped his chin and licked the liquid from his palm. He ate the last inches whole, retching and gasping until the centipede was gone. Jango said something, but Jay couldn’t hear it. He’d left the magic circle and was seeing through Nakayama’s compound emerald eyes.


Jay’s Second Interview with Faith

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

“Geez. That’s really the last episode before LuLu’s hiatus?” Jay wiped his eyes. Seeing Lucille fight her own parents, even forgeries of them, made him emotional. “This show’s more depressing than I remembered. She bought time for the Zephyrs by reenacting her own trauma.”

“You’ve got it backward,” said Dan. “This is a moment of triumph for Lucille. She proves she’s not fighting for selfish personal reasons. She can discard the memory of her parents’ deaths and stand on her own, like a reverse Saturn Devouring His Son.”

Jay pondered that reply. Was Dan’s interpretation colored by his own feelings of guilt for his father’s suicide? “Is she discarding the memory, or cementing it?”

“If she’s cementing it, it’s empowering cement,” said Dan. “She’s Kali, finding strength to destroy the forces of evil and dance on humanity’s ego.” Jay nodded doubtfully. “What do you think, Bob? Was your first episode emotionally resonant?”

Bob blinked. “What?” Both his eyes were bloodshot.

“Is that cricket treating you alright, Bob?” Jay pat his shoulder. “You wanna finish your chicken-nuggets?”

Bob had forgotten his food. He grinned with new hunger and stuffed his apple-pie in his mouth. He spoke while he chewed. “That show looked cool.”

“It has campy charm,” agreed Jay.

Bob munched chicken-nuggets as he watched the credits. His eyes lingered on each still image. “I’m so bug-eyed—I can’t see that as anything but a drawing,” he said. “That’s not a giant robot, it’s a drawing of a giant robot. That’s not a space-laser, it’s a drawing of a space-laser. That’s not the moon, it’s—“

“When I get bug-eyed,” Dan interrupted, “people look like awkward monkeys. Our cheek-bones seem simian. We walk like upright apes. Our language is like primates alerting each other to hawks and snakes.”

“What do you see, Jay?” Bob ate cheese-puffs from Jay’s bag. “Are you having centipede-flashbacks, like Dan said?”

Jay rubbed his eyes at Bob and Dan. It was like seeing faces for the first time. “I need some air.”

“Try the back-porch,” said Bob. “The view’s beautiful!”

“Bob, how’s your internet out here?” Dan pulled out his phone. “I bet I can find you the first episodes of LuLu’s dubbed online.”

Jay stepped out on Bob’s back-porch, a concrete step overlooking snowy grass. In the distance, a forest crawled up the Bighorn Mountains. Stars flocked around a full moon. He counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he counted on his right. “I’m awake.” Still, his hands were flat and matte one moment, then shimmered with fingerprints the next. He accepted his altered state and tried to relax.

When he lowered his hands, he found a cloud on the horizon. It morphed faster than any ordinary cloud. He thought it looked like a white fox, and was shaken when the fox stepped over the forest onto the snowy grass with the misunderstanding of a Magritte. “JayJay! Are you hallucinating too?”

Jay rubbed his eyes and ears. The white fox remained. He sat on the step and covered his mouth. “Faith?”

“Yeah! I haven’t seen you in—” She couldn’t complete the thought, so she shook her head. “Ages, I guess!”

“You were struck by lightning.”

Faith’s smile faltered. “I was, huh? I never gave you and Dainty your cinnamon buns.”

“Did it hurt? Are you okay?”

“It didn’t. I’m fine, I think.” She sat on her haunches at Jay’s feet. “I don’t know what’s real anymore.”

“I hope I’m real,” said Jay.

“You and me both,” she sighed. “Wanna smoke?” Before Jay could refuse, Faith pawed behind her ear for a bug she’d tucked there. It was a cockroach.

Jay had seen roaches smoked before, raw like this in Eastern Asia or broken up and loaded into hookahs in the Middle East, but he’d never tried one himself. Roaches were thicker than crickets, but stubby. Their spindly legs were roots and their antennae were stalks of dry grass. They came wrapped in their own wings right out of the ground. “I guess I could smoke. Where’d you get that?”

“Mars, I think. Roaches are the only smokes I can dig up near the Mountain.” Faith held the butt in her muzzle and her little black nose exhaled broiling steam until the roach’s head lit. She’d obviously practiced smoking as a fox.

“Faith, I don’t think you’re hallucinating, and I don’t think you’re on Mars.”

 She tongued the butt over each canine to make space to puff, then let Jay take the roach. “What do you mean, JayJay?”

“I think you’re dead.” Jay puffed. It was spicy and harsh. “No offense.”

“None taken. That makes sense, I guess.” Faith bonked her head on Jay’s knee. “I miss you guys.”

“We all miss you.” Jay gave her the roach. As a child, Jay scratched his cat Django just before the ears, and now he scratched Faith the same way. She smiled and closed her eyes. “Dan and your uncle Bob are inside, but it might be inappropriate to bring you in.”

“Hmpf,” puffed Faith. “I understand.”

“They just started watching the first episode of LuLu’s. We shouldn’t interrupt.”

“Ha. Yeah. That’s why.” Faith leaned her head into Jay’s hand to guide his scratching. “I’ll have to go back soon. Back to the Mountain.”

“Are you a Zephyr, whatever that means?”

“I wish.” She puffed again and let Jay take the roach. “I’m a Will-o-Wisp.”

“Is Beatrice there?”

Faith lowered her muzzle in melancholy. Jay hugged her and she slung a paw over his shoulder. “Let me give you the whole story.”

“Hold on.” Jay took his notepad and pen from his pockets. It took embarrassing effort to write the date and time. “Okay, I’m all ears. What’s the last thing you remember after the lightning?”

“I remember blinding light. And then I remember…  Do you remember when we smoked centipede?”

“Oh, do I remember.”

“It was like that. I was in a desert of rust-red dunes.”

Jay hesitated to write that down. “Dan said centipedes probably invoke the same sorts of hallucinations in everyone everywhere. Those hallucinations guided Sheridanian religion, inspiring LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration, an episode of which I just watched while totally bug-eyed.” He counted his fingers again: still ten. “You’re my centipede-flashback. I’m talking to myself.”

“Could a centipede-flashback share a smoke with you, JayJay?” Faith gave Jay the roach. “I didn’t realize I was a fox at first because I was moving by instinct. I didn’t notice my adorable paws, even while I dug worms from their little holes. It was only when I chewed up the worms that I saw this was totally gross. Like, why was I doing that? Should I spit or finish the job? But I noticed my tail and my little black nose on my little white snout. Foxes can eat worms! So I swallowed. I also dug up some roaches, like the one you’re smoking. I’d never smoked a roach before, but there weren’t any crickets around, so I tucked ’em behind my ears for later.”

Jay puffed and examined the roach. The concept of roaches in the rusty desert reminded him, obliquely, of Dante’s woods of suicides, which Dan’s father had mentioned before jumping out a window. Surely not all the dead were worms. “Did you try smoking them right away? You’re pretty good at it for an animal without opposable thumbs.”

“Not yet. I didn’t know I could light ’em with my breath, so I was wandering the desert looking for a Bic. But a breeze had begun, and the longer I was in the desert, the worse the wind got. Eventually sand was just flying off the top of the dunes, and worms were flying with it. Remember when we smoked centipede, you had to keep me from blowing away with a draft?”

“Yeah.” Jay returned the roach and flipped his notepad to a fresh page. He decided he didn’t have the mental wherewithal for writing right now. He’d just doodle whatever Faith described. “After that, you blew away without any wind at all. I climbed the mountain looking for you.”

“Heh. Sorry about that, JayJay. I guess I’d just woken up in the desert because that’s where I’d drifted off to back then. Anyway, the storm only got worse and worse. I huddled at the bottom of a valley waiting for it to stop.” Faith showed Jay how she balled herself up, her nose tucked under her tail. “When the wind had shaved the dunes to half their height, I felt my own body about to sheer apart like flakes of snow.” She waggled her back-end in demonstration. “If it wasn’t for Bug-Bird, I would’ve been powderized!”


“You know, the big blue bird with criss-crossed bug-eyes. They called themselves the Heart of the Mountain, but… you know me, JayJay, I like my pet-names. Bug-Bird saw me from the sky and dove through the wind on a sonic boom to land right next to me. I stepped aboard Bug-Bird’s wing, walked up their sleeve, and poked my head out of their collar. I couldn’t feel the wind at all!”

Jay felt a bit invasive asking this. “What was under the robes?”

“More robes!” Thank goodness, thought Jay. “Bug-Bird said they found me because I ate those worms, and the Mountain can detect that sort of thing. They told me the storm was because a warp in the Wheel was making it wobble, and they needed my help fixing it for the Zephyrs to fight the Hurricane.”

Jay giggled at his own sketch of a fox riding a bird over dunes. “Jango’s brother Jun accomplished what he wanted with LuLu’s. It’s impossible for me to take Sheridanian imagery seriously. I just can’t hear ‘Zephyr’ without hearing ‘giant anime space-robot.’ “

“I had the same issue!” Faith finished smoking the roach. She extinguished it in the snowy grass. “I told Bug-Bird I’d be happy to help if they could explain what the heck they were talking about.”


“As we blasted off to the Mountain—their feathers tilted like airplane flaps—Bug-Bird said LuLu’s space-robots were just as involved as anything else was! Everything would be a Zephyr eventually, they said, but until then, lotsa Zephyrs were just worms. The Wheel was supposed to process worms into proper Zephyrs by sifting them in the sand, or something, but the sandstorm was swirling the worms through the air and they just couldn’t sift right.”

“So you were flying through worms?”

“Hoo yeah! Swarm after swarm, splattering against Bug-Bird’s robes like a windshield on the highway. I thought a bird would love to eat worms, but Bug-Bird said they weren’t supposed to—they’re not allowed to meddle too much. But I was allowed to eat all the worms I wanted!”

“…How many was that?”

Faith’s blush radiated warmth. “Bug-Bird said worms were supposed to find that big red mountain—the Mountain. We were headed to the Mountain, so I thought I’d might as well give ’em a ride. But there were way too many worms for me to eat more than a few! I asked Bug-Bird, how many Zephyrs are there? ‘Innumerably many.’ But how many is that, I asked. ‘Quintillions of quintillions.’ That sounded plenty numerable, so I asked again. ‘It depends on how you count them,’ they said. ‘Zephyrs overlap. You saw me collect the Zephyr with golden wings, which alone redeemed countless worms all at once.’ “

Jay thought Faith did a pretty good Heart-of-the-Mountain impression. “But how many is countless?” he asked. “Bug-Bird was waffling again.”

“That’s what I said! Bug-Bird, how many Zephyrs are there? ‘As many as thousands of thousands, or as few as thirty three.’ I was having fun at this point, and I figured Bug-Bird was, too, since their answer kept changing. C’mon! I said. Gimme a number! How many Zephyrs are there?  ‘Just two, myself and the other.’ How many Zephyrs are there? ‘Only one.’ But honestly, how many Zephyrs are there? ‘I’m done playing this game.’ They sounded like my mom having her patience tested. They blasted fog from their robes to land on the Mountain. ‘Please, disembark.’ They protected me from the worm-storm with one wing. Very cozy!”

Jay thought this sounded considerably more comfortable than his own experience, being hurled onto the big red mountain from a great distance away. “Did they try to shove you in a hole?”

“Nope. They opened a cave, but said I couldn’t come in until they’d prepared it for me.”

“I guess the Heart of the Mountain is improving their bedside manner.”

“Well, they said if I just walked into the cave as it was, I’d be sucked into the Wheel to become a Zephyr, but the wobbling couldn’t handle that. The way they’d prepare the cave, I’d just be a lil’ will-o-wisp.”

“Is that really what they called you?”

“They said ‘wisp of my will,’ but that means will-o-wisp, right? Anyway, Bug-Bird’s other wing turned into a big, briny tentacle which reached deep into the cave and pulled out a fluffy, golden wing—a wing from that Zephyr we saw, JayJay! It smelled awesome up close, like flowers and honey! Bug-Bird spread the golden wing around the cave like shiny rugs and tapestries so we could enter safely without touching the rocky walls or floor. This was when I asked if I could call her Bug-Bird, because Heart of the Mountain’s a mouthful. She said I could call her whatever I wanted.”

“Hold up.” Jay tapped his pen against his sketch of Bug-Bird making tentacles. “Her? She? Not they? Not, uh, it?

“I asked about pronouns, too. That really made her think. She said she was usually she, but sometimes they were they—plural they, not singular.”

“Neato.” Jay doodled Ardhanarishvara.

“The deeper we walked in the cave, the more I felt like I should’ve been worried, but honestly, I felt bored.” Faith? Bored? They must’ve been walking for a whole minute or two. “When I was about to ask how much longer it’d be, there was sound like a flock of seagulls and the golden wing rolled us up, coiling like a carpet. Bug-Bird and I were pulled deep into the Mountain faster than we could’ve fallen. I thought I’d be scared, but the golden wing felt so soft and smelled so sweet that I fell asleep.”

“How long were you out?”

“I dunno! When I woke up it was all green, all around. Bug-Bird and I were standing on the golden wing’s tippy-top as it pushed us faster and faster through all the green. She said we were in the Wheel.

“Did you hear a buzzing noise?”

“We were zooming faster than sound, I think. Bug-Bird and I were talking telepathically, like this!” She stared up at Jay. Jay stopped sketching to stare back. “Are you getting anything?” she asked. Jay shook his head. “Ah, well. It works in the Wheel. Bug-Bird tried explaining the Wheel was actually yellow on one side and blue on the other, but I just saw green, green, green. ‘The Wheel turns the future into the present, the present into the past, and the past into the future—but,’ she said, ‘the Wheel’s wobble was mucking it up.’ Then our golden wing poked us straight through the Wheel’s surface.”

“You were outside the Wheel of life and death? What was there?”

“Well, below the horizon, it was just green—that was the Wheel. Above the horizon, it was just darkness at first. Wow, I said, there aren’t even stars out there! ‘Of course not,’ said Bug-Bird. ‘Reality is beneath us.’ But then the darkness filled with blue and red shapes. ‘The Zephyrs,’ said Bug-Bird, pointing at the blue. ‘The Hurricane,’ she said, pointing at the red. The red and blue were textured like detailed crystals, and they swapped the darkness back and forth. Then Bug-Bird broadened both her wings to direct my attention down to the Wheel.” Faith mimed it out, gesturing with her front paws at the snowy grass below.

“What did the Wheel look like from outside?”

“Razor-thin streaks of light were shooting from the center, to the rim on the horizon, then back to the center. The streaks were actually upright triangles—like, wedge-shapes.” Faith bit Jay’s pen and tried drawing in his notepad herself. When she was unable to doodle what she wanted, she gave the pen back. “Imagine the pyramids of Giza were 2D glaciers zipping by at super-speed. But in the distance, there was a green bulge on the horizon—the warp in the Wheel, blocking the flow of razor-glaciers!”

“How did Bug-Bird expect you to fix something like that?”

“I told her, I had no clue what I was looking at. She tried explaining that the razor-glaciers were combinations of worms sent to live, learn, die, and return. She said I was worms, too, and all the worms in me had been in lots of different razor-glaciers a whole bunch of times. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, so she said she’d send me to someone who could communicate on my level: a Virgil. I told her I had to bring the Virgils a gift, because they brought one to me in Wyoming. She used that information to lower the golden wing toward a specific portion of the Wheel, which she said would be an appropriate time and place for me. As we got closer, the razor-glaciers were just swooshing by. Some were tall as trees, some short as the tips of fingernails. She dipped one of her feathers in the green Wheel, and its wake was sky-blue. She told me to jump into it, but I told her again, I wasn’t leaving without a gift! I had cockroaches, but I didn’t think the Virgils would like them. She swept one of my roaches under her robes and returned it as the biggest bug-stick I’d ever seen, wrapped in its own wings like… like… like awesome fancy scarves!”

“And then you jumped in?” Faith nodded. “Virgil Skyy told me about meeting you on the Islands of Sheridan.”

“Perfect,” said Faith. “I’ll skip that part. Jango didn’t teach me to fix the Wheel anyway—although, his story about his brother Jun convinced me to help Bug-Bird even if I didn’t quite understand what was going on. I steamed up from the Wheel and snowed back beside her onto the golden wing. I said I’d do whatever she wanted, but I wasn’t sure how those space-robots Virgil Skyy talked about were related to anything I was seeing now. She was all like, ‘Perhaps you weren’t prepared for the highest revelations.’ “

Jay drew Faith, the white fox, jumping into and out of the Wheel with razor-glaciers zooming behind her. “It sounds like Jun’s giant anime space-robots are accidentally the perfect way to get folks outside the islands invested in Sheridanian culture.”

“Well, maybe. Then she poked ten long blue arms out of her sleeves and used them to fold the golden wing’s tippy-top small enough for me to bite down on. It was soft and thin as a plush rabbit’s felted ear. ‘This Zephyr’s golden wings stretch to any length and seem indestructible. If you bandage the Wheel with it, the Wheel will spin quickly as the Chain demands with nary a wobble. My desert’s storm will cease, and my water-world’s worm-processing will stabilize.’ “

Faith seemed to have a little too much fun mimicking the Heart of the Mountain’s mode of speech. On one hand, Jay wondered if this meant Faith was faking it. On the other hand, her story seemed consistent with Jango’s lecture on the islands. On both hands at once, this was clearly a centipede-flashback he shouldn’t take too seriously. “So you wrapped the Wheel with the golden wing?”


“Why didn’t Bug-Bird do it herself?”

“Like I said, Bug-Bird doesn’t want to meddle too much with worms. It’s better if I do it for her. She also told me not to touch the Wheel’s center, because it would ‘scatter my consciousness across the cosmos,’ although the wing-wrapping would be more secure if I passed by the center pretty close. Oh, and the golden wing might try to talk to me, but I should ignore it, because it was new here.”

“So how do you wrap a Wheel with a wing?”

“I just jumped back into the green! It was super floaty in there.” Faith let her body aerosolize to illustrate, levitating around Uncle Bob’s porch-light. Jay worried she would drift away. “It was so easy to fly, I wasn’t sure if I was pulling the wing or if it was propelling me and I just told it where to go. I pulled the wing near the center, then near the rim, then near the center, then near the rim, more times than I could count. Each lap, I flew outside the Wheel to admire the spokes I’d added. It took ages to make each one, but I didn’t mind! The wing was excellent company.”

“Did it talk, like Bug-Bird warned? Maybe, uh, telepathically?”

“No, but it was such a listener. Do you remember…” Faith descended to sit beside Jay. “Beatrice died while we were on centipede. That seriously fucked me up. I could hardly even talk about it.” Jay nodded. “So I told the golden wing about her, and how much I missed her. My mind wasn’t in the right place, and I still thought I was hallucinating, so I wondered if BeatBax was alive, waiting next to me wherever I was tripping, and the golden wing was how I interpreted her keeping me company. The wing kinda cradled me when I said that. I swear, its honey-smell was right outta her shampoo-bottles!”

Jay wiped his tears. “How about after you wrapped the Wheel, Faith? What happened then?”

“Bug-Bird showed up and said the desert wasn’t windy anymore! The worms were sifting, or whatever! The Wheel was still pretty wobbly, but I was done bandaging it.” Faith looked briefly proud of herself. Then her muzzle twitched like she smelled a bad worm. “Next she needed help in another way. Anihilato.

Jay almost dropped his pen. Instead, he shakily flipped to a fresh page of his notepad. Even before asking Faith to explain, he started sketching scenes from an old dream. “Dan mentioned Anihilato, too. What’s Anihilato, Faith?”

“Bug-Bird hardly even described. She just told me there was a visitor on the red mountain which wasn’t ready to be a Zephyr yet. My new job was chauffeuring it far into the desert and dropping it off between any old dunes for Anihilato to find. I was on-board for anything, so I let Bug-Bird wrap me in the golden wing and sling me back up a cave to the Mountainside.”

“And what did you find there?” Jay was already drawing Dan as an orange amoeba boiling with teeth.

“It was so loud!” Faith huddled by herself and pressed her ears flat against her head. “It was some awful ball of dentures! They were all crunching each other up, and themselves, too. When you and I smoked centipede, I helped you with puking some teeth, right? But this? I couldn’t even bring myself to look at it.”

“But it calmed itself down,” said Jay, “didn’t it?”

“Yeah. The tooth-ball became this puddle of water with some worms in it, all tangled together. Bug-Bird had said worms were supposed to find the Mountain, but these ones squirmed for the edge like they’d jump off. Even they didn’t think they were ready to be a Zephyr! I was scared of the teeth, but I thought I could hold my own against worms, so I picked ’em up and beat them against the ground. This was when I realized I could freeze stuff by breathing on it, because I’m all snowy.”

“But you aren’t just snow.” Jay scratched her head to feel the powdery substance she was made of. “You can also breathe hot enough to light a roach.”

“I’m getting to that part, JayJay. But next I turned into a tornado and whisked the worms away, so whatever I am, I’m pretty dang rad.”

“A great and complicated tool,” said Jay. “What did you do with the worms?”

“Far from the Mountain I found some nice dunes I thought the worms would like. I didn’t want to drop them from altitude, so I decided to set them on the sand—but when I looked down, I realized how high up I was! I totally froze.”


“Like a hailstone! I fell thousands of feet and burst on the sand. The little wormies scattered everywhere. And then!” Faith jumped with all the fur on her back flared up. She was trying to have fun describing something which had clearly disturbed her. “The valley collapsed! Like a—Like a—What’s that thing which eats ants in a death-cone?”

“An ant-lion?”

“Yeah! The valley collapsed like an ant-lion’s death-cone. Anihilato burst out of the center and grabbed me with way too many hands. ‘I’ve got you! You’re mine!’ It was the biggest worm I ever saw. It had a bazillion arms, a bajillion legs, and six eyes.” Jay shivered, drawing the monster from his childhood nightmare. “It used a bunch of hands to smush me into shapeless powder and compress me on the sand, and it used its other hands to eat all those worms I brought. I yelled at it to let me go, but it didn’t listen! It said it eats its own eggs just because the yolks are warm, someday it’d eat the whole Mountain, and today it was gonna eat me!

“How’d you escape?”

“I got all fired up!”


“Kinda! I got hotter and hotter, and Anihilato had to keep swapping the hands it used to squish me down. ‘Leggo!’ I shouted, and my voice was piping steam. Soon I was all steam, and it couldn’t stop me from fuming through its fingers, so I collected as a cloudy fox far above its reach. Or so I thought! It reached up like a snake charmed out of a pot, grabbing at me. ‘You belong to me!’ it said. ‘I own your worms!’ I still steamed through its fingers, so I kept climbing up water-vapor like a spiral staircase.” Faith was apparently ungraspable. “I asked what made it think it was okay do treat me like that, and it said my ‘worm-certificates’ were in its ‘box of souls.’ It was the rightful owner of all worms.”

The phrases tickled Jay’s throat. “Did Bug-Bird mention anything like that?”

“Nuh-uh! But Anihilato didn’t care. It kept saying it was allowed to eat me, because I was dead. I still thought I was hallucinating, and I told it so. But it said… it said if I was hallucinating, then I wouldn’t mind being eaten, would I?”

“I guess not?”

“I told it, if I’m hallucinating, I’ll go where I choose, and I’d never choose to be down there with it ever again. I’d rather be on Mars, apparently, interning for Olympus Mons. When I flew away, Anihilato called me a frigid rat. I was so mad! I scratched the Mountain’s surface until Bug-Bird opened a cave and crawled up.”

“Did you chew her out?”

“Hell yeah! What the fuck was that, I asked. Anihilato tried to nab me! Aren’t worms supposed to be sifting in the sand, or something, not whatever it was doing? She was all like, ‘I don’t control Anihilato, just like I don’t control you, or the golden wing-thing. I mustn’t meddle with worms!’ I didn’t care. A big evil worm like that has gotta be an OSHA violation or something.”

“At least.

“But Bug-Bird wouldn’t budge. ‘You saw the tooth-ball,’ she said. ‘Anihilato processes worms not ready for the Mountain. It will eat anything—it might even try to eat me!‘ That just pissed me off! How come I could touch the tooth-ball, but not her? How come I had to deal with that evil worm? ‘Ah, if Anihilato consumed you, that would be acceptable for reasons I cannot communicate!’ There was a whole lot Bug-Bird couldn’t communicate. I told her she was awfully tight-beaked.” Faith growled. “I told her in words way more colorful than that.”

“I’ll bet.”

“I tried jumping into the cave. Maybe she was hiding something there? But she blocked me and said she’d send me to someone who could talk on my level. She spread out the golden wing again and we whipped back into the Wheel.”

“Did she send you to another Virgil?”

“JayJay, she sent me here. To you.

“Oh. Oh.” Jay put down his notepad. “I’m afraid I don’t have any cool lecture prepared for you like Virgil Jango Skyy. I can’t tell you what Anihilato’s deal is.” In compensation, he scratched behind her ears.

“That’s alright. I’m just glad to see you!” Faith’s hind legs thumped the grass in appreciation of Jay’s scratching. “What have you been up to while I’m gone, JayJay?”

“Not a lot. You and Beatrice had a great wake. Dan and I came to Wyoming with your uncle.”

“How’s Dainty doing?”

Jay leaned back on Bob’s porch. “He’s in mourning, let’s say.”

Faith whimpered. “Are you sure I can’t pop in and meet him?”

“I don’t even think he could even see you,” said Jay. “You’re a figment of my imagination.”

“I promise I’m not!” She begged, rolling on the grass. “I just wanna tell Dainty everything’s okay! He hides it, but he’s a nervous wreck without me.”

“I know it well as you do.” Jay wagged a finger at her. “But you’ll have to return to that big red mountain eventually, right? Would you make Dan lose you twice?

Faith opened her mouth to protest, but saw Jay’s point and just pouted. “Take care of him for me, then.”

“I’m trying.” Jay stood and brushed dust off his suit-pants. “I’m taking him to the Islands of Sheridan. I’m taking him to the Virgils.”

“You think the Virgils can help Dainty cope?”

“I promise.” Jay crossed his heart. “And if you’re really dead, you’ll see Dan someday. You’ll meet him in the Mountain.”

Hmpf.” Faith pawed the dirt. “I don’t think that place is good enough for Dainty. I don’t trust Bug-Bird anymore.”

“I suddenly do,” said Jay, “at least in the context of my ongoing hallucination. The Heart of the Mountain taught you a valuable lesson.” Faith’s ears perked. “When Bug-Bird sent you to discard the tooth-ball, it was because they couldn’t risk touching the teeth themselves. In the same way, don’t worry about Dan. Let me worry about Dan. Trust me to treat Dan’s interests as my own. And tell Bug-Bird to get another intern to deal with Anihilato.”

Faith laughed. She turned with Jay to watch the moon. “Maybe Bug-Bird sent me to offer you that position, JayJay!” Her tail steamed. “Think about it! I’ll see you in the next eternity.” Her body was buoyed back above the horizon.


Lucille Buys Time

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Last time on RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku!

The Galaxy Zephyr escaped the Hurricane’s bubble, but the Hurricane paid them back for it with a lightning-bolt directly into the Wheel. With the Wheel damaged, can Commander Lucille stand a chance against the cosmic horror which ate the universe and killed her parents? Or will it accomplish its misguided goal of perverted permanence? 

On golden wings, the Galaxy Zephyr flew a safe distance from the Hurricane. Lucille surveyed the warped Wheel in her monitors. Where the lightning had struck, the Wheel’s perfect surface had a great green bulge. Near the bulge, the Wheel had no saw-teeth. “Charlie, Dakshi, can you fix it manually?”

In ZAY, Charlie led the Galaxy Zephyr to press the Wheel with its right hand, but the bulge inverted to protrude from the left. In ZAG, Dakshi led the Galaxy Zephyr to press the Wheel with its left hand, but the bulge inverted to protrude from the right. “No dice,” said Charlie. If anything, the bulge was bigger now. The whole Wheel wobbled each revolution.

Lucille crossed her arms. “Professor Bird-Thing!”

Hai!” In ZAP, Akayama saluted.

“Part of you is inside the Wheel, right? How’s the damage look on your end?”

“My water-world’s slice-of-life is falling apart,” said Akayama, “and my Uzumaki Planet is too windy to process worms!” Through her branched, noodly tail, Akayama shared video of a desert sandstorm. “If you pulled the Chain, centripetal forces would shred the Wheel to pieces!” The Hurricane seemed to know the Wheel was busted, as it swiped tentacles with impunity. To evade, Eisu in ZAR and Fumiko in ZAO led the Galaxy Zephyr’s legs firing steam. “But I’m sure I can fix it. Give me one of the golden wings!”

Lucille pulled a monitor displaying the Galaxy Zephyr’s schematics. “Charlie, Dakshi, Eisu, Fumiko. One of your teams will control three wings instead of four.”

“I volunteer,” said Fumiko.

“Our teams can balance our thrust,” said Eisu.

Jya.” Lucille tapped the touchscreen. “It’s all yours, Hakase!

One golden wing recoiled into the Galaxy Zephyr’s spine. It snaked out the left pectoral into the Wheel. “The snowy white powder I added to the Wheel condensed around a helpful slice-of-life character,” said Akayama. “Call them our mascot! I’m putting them to work wrapping the Wheel with the wing, but it will take some time.” A flying white fox popped out of the Wheel pulling the golden wing with its teeth.

“We can’t keep this up forever,” said Dakshi. The Galaxy Zephyr barrel-rolled to avoid ten tentacles converging. “How do we survive without the Wheel?”

“Brass balls,” said Lucille. “Leave it to me.” She sat up in her Commander’s chair. “Oi! You!” The silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor translated her shouts into eye-signals for the Hurricane to see. “Did you know my mother, Princess Lucia? Did you know my father, Commander Bunjiro?”

The Hurricane made a wide palm to smash them while signaling with its own countless eyes. “I might’ve!”

“Not during your pilots’ mortal lives,” said Lucille. Eisu and Fumiko dodged the cosmic slap. The flying white fox wrapped the golden wing around the Wheel to dress the bulge like a bandage. “My parents were born decades after you fled Earth. You’d only know them as pilots of Zephyr-Blue, original protector of the Milky Way!”

The Hurricane growled and grew legs to kick at the Galaxy Zephyr. “That robot murdered hundreds of thousands of my planets!

“Your planets were homogeneous and identical!” The Galaxy Zephyr deftly dodged each kick. “Does it really matter how many were ‘murdered?’ “

“It’s all that matters! Every tiniest piece of me is the best humanity has to offer! Your parents are the real cosmic horror! I only destroyed Earth after I knew there was nothing left worth assimilating!”

Sou, sou!” The flying white fox had wrapped the Wheel with three golden wing-spokes. “Were my parents worthy? Are they trapped in your disgusting consciousness?”

The Hurricane grinned disingenuously with a thousand mouths. “They are!

Dakshi pressed a button to speak to Lucille privately. “It’s lying. Your parents died before they could be assimilated.”

Charlie joined the channel. “Bunjiro self-detonated to protect Lucia, who died soon after on the moon. You know that.”

Lucille ignored them and spoke to the Hurricane. “Hontou? You must’ve claimed my father just before his ship exploded. My mother—well, how’d you nab her?”

The Hurricane thought. “I reassembled her from your father’s memory. Inside me, your parents beg for you to come to your senses and give up the fight!”

“Impossible,” Akayama told Lucille. “If the Hurricane had that capability, I would know!”

Even Uzumaki chimed in. “I’ve synced with the Hurricane a hundred times. If your parents were in our enemy, they’d be in me, too, and I’ll tell you, they’re not!

“How horrifying,” said Lucille to the Hurricane. She faked a sob while grinning ear to ear. “If you’d release their minds from yours, I’d do anything. I’d even surrender!”

The Hurricane condensed into a blob which smiled almost broadly as Lucille. “Really?”

“You have my word.” Lucille covered her heart with her right hand while crossing fingers with her left. “Eject them for me to inspect. Let me see my parents again!”

“Commander!” said Fumiko.

“You can’t surrender on our behalf!” said Eisu.

“You’ll inspect them alone, you brat.” The Hurricane spat two human bodies from its slobbery maw. “Leave your robots behind!”

“Those are forgeries,” said Akayama. “Uzumaki taught the enemy this trick when it let Hurricane Planets bicker over a false copy of me.”

Lucille flipped switches to disengage Zephyr-Alpha-Blue from the Galaxy Zephyr. When she stomped her pedals, ZAB refused to budge. “This is obviously a trap,” said ZAB.

“Don’t you think I know that? Buying time means letting the Hurricane think it’s two steps ahead!” ZAB reluctantly propelled itself through the Galaxy Zephyr’s silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor into the vacuum of space. Lucille looked back through her windows to see the flying white fox had given the Wheel six golden wing-spokes bandaging the bulge. “Halt.” ZAB stopped a hundred yards from the bodies ejected by the Hurricane. Lucille removed the metal grill above her life-support systems to retrieve an oxygen-mask. “My bodysuit is vacuum-proof, isn’t it? How long could I survive in space?”

“At most two minutes.”

“Collect me in sixty seconds.” She donned the mask. “Pop the hatch.”

ZAB’s skullcap opened. Explosive decompression launched Lucille toward the free-floating bodies. The Hurricane chuckled in the distance, but Lucille didn’t know the language of its eye-signals and didn’t care.

She’d seen photos of Bunjiro and Lucia in history books. The Hurricane had reconstructed them lazily but effectively, covering their faces with oxygen-masks, concealing their bodies with red and blue bodysuits. Bunjiro even had sunglasses, and Lucia her ponytail. Both were unconscious, or feigning it.

Lucille had been launched fast enough to kick off Bunjiro’s head. His neck spurted blood like a person guillotined, but then his body convulsed and decayed like the Hurricane’s severed thumb. His arms and legs turned into tentacles which grappled at Lucille, but they were shriveling, and she kicked herself off his chest like a swimmer starting another lap. As she drifted toward Lucia, her supposed mother peeked and saw Bunjiro deteriorating into purple goo. Lucia panicked and sprouted tentacles, but too late: Lucille tore off her oxygen-mask and bit her neck open. They grappled together, biting each other, until Lucille finally knocked off Lucia’s head by jabbing with her ring of keys. Both imitation parents decomposed.

Lucille wiped blood from her jaw—though her bodysuit was still splattered with it—and again donned her oxygen-mask. ZAB caught her in its open hatch and she fell back into the cockpit. They zoomed back to the Galaxy Zephyr. “That was quite a show,” said ZAB. “The Hurricane looks angrier than ever.”

“Like I give a shit.” Lucille removed her oxygen-mask and spat more blood. They reentered the Galaxy Zephyr and assumed their rightful place in the head. Medical-personnel in flew pink ships to ZAB and came down the hatch to tend to her wounds.

Uzumaki translated the Hurricane’s violent eye-signals. “You ungrateful brat! You just murdered two of my copies, each more human than you or any of your crew!

“Don’t flatter yourself,” said Lucille. Medical-personnel rubbed alcohol over the Hurricane’s bite-marks on her shoulders. “Even if those really were my parents, I’d kill them to spite you!” The flying white fox totally enveloped the Wheel with the golden wing, compressing the bulge. Soon their weapon would be restored to perfection. “The Wheel reminds us only impermanence is permanent! My parents are dead, I’ll die someday, and by my word, your pilots will die, too!

“You’ll meet your impermanence face-to-face! Until now I planned to give you and your crew the chance to prove yourselves worthy of assimilation, but you’ve shown you’re not worth the effort!” The Hurricane used tentacles to rip off ten pieces of itself, each larger than the Galaxy Zephyr, and threw them like blood-red projectiles. As the Galaxy Zephyr moved, the projectiles followed. “Even if you’re wearing that traitor like armor, any aspect of me in your Wheel would never join you subhuman scraps!”

Charlie contacted Lucille. “Did your mom taste nice? I don’t know how we’ll dodge these missiles.”

Dakshi agreed. “Unless you learned something from Bunjiro’s blood, we’re not long for this world.”

“Professor Bird-Thing,” said Lucille, “is the Wheel ready for us to pull the Chain again? Are any characters in your slice-of-life eager to join the Galaxy Zephyr, maybe your little fox-mascot?”

Mada da!” said Akayama. “Not yet, not yet! You can use the Wheel when the golden wing unwraps, but don’t pull the Chain! I’ve got a plan to bring in the rest of the main-cast all at once!”


Jay’s Interview with Uncle Featherway

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Uncle Featherway sat on the other side of Dan’s unconscious body slumped across the bar. “Is your friend okay?”

“He could use some sleep.” Jay pat Dan’s shoulder. “Mister Featherway, are you ready for our interview?”

“Sure, sure. I’ve got time ’til my train comes in.” Uncle Featherway flagged the bartender for a beer and straightened his tinfoil fedora. “You wanted to hear about Virgil Blue?”

“Yes, please. I recently met the Virgils on the Islands of Sheridan, but Virgil Blue never spoke to me.” Jay prepared his pen and notepad. “I wondered if you could add anything to the stoic silence.”

“Only more silence,” said Uncle Featherway. “The monks came to Wyoming the same weekend Faith and I visited Sheridan Cliff-Side College. The monks carried Virgil Blue onto a lectern where they sat for half an hour.”

“Were all the monks silent?”

“Well, one in sky-blue said a few words.” Uncle Featherway sipped his beer. “But Virgil Blue’s inflection made their silence sound important.”

“Important? Like how?”

“Like…” Uncle Featherway put down his glass to wave a hand. “Like their silence was revealing secrets of the universe.”

“Learn anything?”

“Nothing I didn’t already know.” Uncle Feather puffed out his chest and sipped more beer. “Hearing it from Virgil Blue just confirmed it.”

Jay spun his pen. He didn’t want this conversation to drift into tinfoil-hat theories. “Hearing nothing from Virgil Blue confirmed… what, exactly?”

“You know cargo-cults?”

“I’ve heard of them, yes.”

“After we dropped aid on island-tribes in World War Two, those island-tribes built fake airplanes out of scraps. They hoped statues would bring us back, like shrines for sky-gods. So if aliens exist (and they do), and if they’re been to Earth (and they have), then that’s proof that all religions are cargo-cults. When aliens created us, we didn’t understand what we were seeing. Over generations, our explanations became religions.”

Jay tried sticking to the facts. “What was Virgil Blue wearing?”

“A hooded navy robe and a silver face-mask which looked like an alien.”

“An alien? Could you draw the mask you saw?” Jay passed his notepad and pen over Dan.

Uncle Featherway put the notepad on Dan’s back so Jay could watch him draw. “See, it had big criss-cross bug-eyes. It had a bulbous snout with a wide, straight mouth. And it had two long antennae to receive cosmic waves.”

“Huh.” Jay took the pen and drew his own rendition of the silver mask. “I saw the same mask, but I thought it was a bird. What you called antennae, I saw as long feathers.”

“Could be. Feathers are sensitive to cosmic waves, too.”

“And I thought the bulbous snout was a round beak.”

“Aliens can have beaks. Like an octopus, or a squid.” Uncle Featherway finished his beer. “What about the criss-cross bug-eyes?”

“I dunno,” said Jay. “I saw a bird-statue with the same eyes. I figured it was a stylistic choice.”

“Well, sometimes we see what we wanna see.” Uncle Featherway returned the notepad to Jay. “Anyway, the Sheridanians seemed closer to the original aliens than any other religion.”

Jay resigned himself to tinfoil-hat theories. “At the wake, you said there are different kinds of aliens. What kinds are there?”

“Oh, all kinds. You’ve got your gold-miners, your mind-readers, your machine-elves…” Uncle Featherway ate complementary mixed nuts. “But they’re all aliens. They all come from the same place.” He pointed up.


“They made humans using DNA from outer space,” he said, “so we’re all aliens, in the end.”

“How insightful.”

“Yeah, it’s too bad Faith didn’t enjoy the lecture.” Uncle Featherway almost removed his fedora out of respect for the dead, but only tipped it to keep the protective tinfoil on his head. “She left halfway through.”

“How many people were watching with you?”

“The lecture-hall was almost empty. The audience was mostly monks.”

“Did you know anyone there? Any friends I could talk to?”


Jay rest his head on one hand and spun his pen with the other in contemplation. “Someone at the college arranged the monks’ lecture. Maybe I could contact them.”

“Sorry I wasn’t more helpful.”

“You were very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to talk.” Jay pocketed his notepad and pen and pulled out his phone. He looked up Sheridan Cliff-Side College’s contact-page. “I’ll call their event-coordinator.”

“Why not come to Wyoming? You could interview them in person and check out the lecture-hall yourself.”

“Not a bad idea, but I’ll still call ahead.”

“Wanna come with me? You can sleep on my couch.”

Jay bit his lip. “Would I be a bother?”

“Any friend of Faith’s is a friend of mine!” He shook Jay’s hand. “Call me Bob. Bob Featherway!”

“Jay Diaz-Jackson. When does your train leave?”

“Four hours from now.”

Jay bought himself a ticket on his phone. “Four hours is short notice to travel cross-country, but my life fits in a suitcase. Hey, Bob, does your couch have room for two?”

“Oh, sure. It’s a fold-out.” Bob looked from Jay to Dan. “What, you mean him? Shouldn’t you wake him up and ask if he wants to come?”

“He told me to take him to Sheridan just before you walked in. The mountain air will do him good.”

Dan stirred from his drunken slumber only after the train crossed into Wyoming. He blinked in sunlight doubled by mountains of white snow. The sky was wide and cloudless blue. “Jay?”

Jay gave him a bottle of water. “We’re almost in Sheridan, Dan. Just like you wanted.”

Dan drank the water and pulled up his orange shirt to cover his face. “We’re on a train.”


“You can’t get to islands on a train.”

“Nope.” Jay made room for Bob as he returned from the cabin’s restroom. “Before we visit the Islands of Sheridan, we’re taking preliminary notes in Sheridan, Wyoming. Bob Featherway says we can sleep on his couch.”

“It’s a fold-out,” added Bob.

Dan let his shirt fall and show his face again. “I was staggering drunk when I agreed to go.”

“Too drunk even to stagger,” agreed Jay. “I couldn’t just leave you in the bar, could I?”

Dan sighed and tried to sleep. “Wake me when we get there.”

When Dan next woke, he was sitting across the back seats of Bob’s truck. Jay sat shotgun while Bob drove. The tinfoil under Bob’s fedora reflected the orange sunset, and the stars were out when they arrived at his house near the edge of the forest. “My place is a little small,” said Bob, “but the view from the back-porch is phenomenal. You can see trees creeping right up the mountains to the college.” Dan and Jay followed Bob over the snow and through his front door. Bob pointed at the couch. “There’s the couch,” said Bob. “It’s a fold-out.”

“Thank you for your hospitality.” Jay hadn’t changed from his funeral-attire. He hung his dark jacket and loosened his purple tie. “Can I buy you dinner? What’s your favorite restaurant around here?”

“We’re pretty far from town,” said Bob. “I don’t wanna drive those icy roads now that it’s so dark. But there’s a burger-place near the gas-station around the corner, past the chicken-farm.”

Dan sat on the couch and stared through Bob’s television. “I could eat some fries.”

“Lemme write down my order for you, Jay. It’ll be too long to remember.”

“I’ll visit the gas-station, too,” said Jay. “I left my toothbrush in California. I’ll bet I can buy one there.”

“If you’re going to the gas-station, buy me a frozen-slush-drink-thingie.” Bob wrote it below his burger order.

“What flavor frozen-slush-drink-thingie?”

“Blue if they’ve got it. Orange if they’re out.”

Jay was so famished after the train-ride, he ate his hamburger on the walk back. It reminded him of the crab-meat pastry he ate on the Islands of Sheridan. Every place has its meat-pie.

A chicken crossed the road. Thinking of Sheridanian big-birds, Jay bowed his head in respect, then realized how ridiculous he looked. Thankfully only the chicken had seen him bow. At any rate, the chicken bobbed its head back, so the respect was mutual. Jay wondered how just one solitary chicken had managed to escape the local poultry-farm. Surely if one of them could do it, more of them would follow suit. The farm had a billboard advertising fertilized eggs, so intrepid individuals could hatch their own chicks. Jay wondered if that was bad for business in the long run.

When Jay returned to Bob’s, Dan was wrapping a cricket in its wings for smoking while Bob explained cargo-cults. Jay gave Bob two cheeseburgers with everything, a chili-dog topped with fries, a box of chicken-nuggets, an apple-pie, and a blue-flavored frozen-slush-drink-thingie. “Where’d you get the bug-stick?” Jay asked Dan.

“Faith taught me to grow them.” Dan had trouble braiding the wings with his black gloves on. Jay set a box of fries on the coffee-table for him with some packets of ketchup. Dan nodded without looking from the cricket.

Jay sat left of Bob on the couch. “Have you smoked a bug-stick before, Mr. Featherway?”

“Yeah, when I was younger,” said Bob. “Sometimes kids smoke in the woods nearby. Their bug-sticks aren’t wrapped half as well as Dan’s, there.”

Jay opened a pack of cheese-puffs from the gas-station. “Good thing I brought extra munchies.”

“Nice.” Bob started on his cheeseburgers. Dan produced a white lighter from his pocket and offered the lighter and bug-stick to Bob, who declined the first puffs. “You two wanna watch TV while we get bug-eyed?”

“Sure,” said Dan.

“What’s on?” asked Jay.

Bob shrugged. “Service comes and goes because I cover my satellite-dish in tinfoil. It’s worth it to filter out subliminal messages.” Neither Dan nor Jay recognized the channels Bob flipped through. Most were in a foreign language, or English so distorted it sounded like a foreign language. Dan lit the cricket’s eyes and puffed. He passed the bug-stick to Bob, who puffed, coughed, and passed the cricket to Jay.

“Hey Jay,” warned Dan, “have you had a bug-stick since you smoked centipede-powder?”

“Nope. I didn’t actually smoke at all on the islands.”

“If you’ve ever smoked centipede, crickets can give you flashbacks.”


“You might see patterns or hear whispers,” said Dan. “It freaked me out the first time. It’s harmless, but I wanted to make sure you knew.”

Bob grinned like he was meeting celebrities. “Wow. You’ve both smoked centipede? What’s it like?”

Jay distracted Bob by blowing smoke-rings. He passed him back the bug-stick. “Look, Dan, they’re playing LuLu’s.” On the TV, multicolored robots bounded through space.

Bob puffed again and coughed again and passed the bug-stick to Dan. “What’s this show? I like the spaceships.”

LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration,” said Dan before he puffed. “It’s an anime about giant robots.” The show began with a recap of prior episodes. “I think this is the last episode they ever animated, because the manga went on hiatus.”

“It’s in Japanese,” said Bob. Without puffing, he passed the bug-stick from Dan to Jay.

“Probably for the best.” Jay finished off the cricket. “The dubs were awful.”


Jay’s Interview with Dan

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

After the sermon, Jay and the monks ate a dinner of barley and beans in a meager dining-hall where cushions flanked squat tables. Then Virgil Jango Skyy let Jay take photos in the library, where the bookshelves reached the top of the bell-tower. Jay recognized the books shelved low enough for him to see—Plato, Lao Tzu, the Vedas and Avesta, each accounted for in a variety of languages—but Jango assured him that the books shelved out of sight, near the big brass bell, hadn’t actually been written yet, and wouldn’t be written for decades or centuries to come. Some were in languages which hadn’t yet been born. Only Virgils were allowed to climb the shelves all the way to those books, but Jay was allowed to climb high enough to see Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo. There were copies of the series in Japanese, English, Spanish, Russian, and Swahili. Virgil Blue had annotated them sparsely, allowing Virgil Skyy to finish the job.

Jay clung to the shelves and flipped through a few pages. He’d come to believe a lot of strange things in the last few days, but couldn’t accept that the Biggest Bird preemptively donated her favorite manga to the monks. The paper looked as ancient as the rest of the books, but that could be faked in any number of ways. Maybe Jango had supplied the volumes? He kept his doubt to himself. He shelved the manga and climbed down. “Virgil Skyy, you’re the only Sheridanian I’ve met who’s not a native—er, egg-born, so-to-speak. Have any other people come to live here from across the globe?”

“Once a generation or so. Virgil Blue collects non-Sheridanians destined to be Virgils for their help annotating books into which they’d have personal insight. No wonder Blue came to Kansas! There are no coincidences, after all.” Jango led Jay back across the courtyard to the monastery’s entryway. “Jay, we would love to let you spend the night.”

“I appreciate the offer, but my tour leaves in the morning.” Besides, thought Jay, if he stayed too long, he might be tempted to become a monk himself. He’d look good in a purple robe. Jay sloshed the oil in his lantern. “Could you help me light this?”

“Of course, of course.” Jango pulled brown thread from his cane. He lit the thread on a candle and dipped the flame in Jay’s lantern. “Would you open this door? It’s heavy for me.”

Jay opened the wooden door. He and Jango stepped onto flagstones flanked by fireflies. “I can’t thank you enough, Virgil Skyy. You have such a beautiful monastery. Everyone will love the photos you’ve let me take.”

“One more for the road.” Jango posed with his cane and smiled.

Jay crouched to capture the best view of him next to the open door. “I like the sand-dollar walls. The flickering candles make them look like eyes.”

“That’s intentional,” said Jango. “The Biggest Bird will collect the last worms in a house of eyes. Although, the white-walled monastery is ultimately supposed to look like an egg.”

Jay liked the idea. The monks were incubating their worms in there. “Does Virgil Blue need help? They haven’t moved from the courtyard.”

“Virgil Blue’s constitution isn’t what it used to be, but they’re okay.”

“They’ll retire to the cloudy peak someday.” Jay checked his photos. “Right?”

“After appointing another Virgil as their successor,” said Jango.

“How many other Virgils are there? I’ve only met you, Blue, and Green.” Jay regretted asking when Jango’s wrinkles mushed up in worry. Maybe the politics of the upper echelons weren’t proper for discussion. “Jun hit it big with publication, under the pen-name Tatsu. LuLu’s was first published online, then got popular enough to appear in a weekly anthology like Shonen Jump. It’s had almost thirty episodes of anime which I’ve personally enjoyed. I’m surprised such an anime found production: Japan has some of the strictest bug-laws on the planet.”

Now Jango’s wrinkles allowed a smile. “Oh? Is Jun’s work sharing the Biggest Bird with all the worms around the world?”

“Well, it’s a cult classic, at least. It’s been on hiatus for a while. Um. Years, actually.” Jay scrolled through his camera’s photos. “I hope he finishes it. I’m aching for closure. When I smoked centipede, I had hallucinations which could’ve been taken right outta that anime.”

“Hallucinations come from the same place as everything else: the Biggest Bird and her holy Mountain. Anime or no anime, you’ve seen her influence before.”

“I see. I guess it only makes sense I’d hallucinate some parallels. Like…” Jay pointed to Jango’s cane. “I swear I’ve seen that in a dream. Virgil Blue’s mask, too. Can you tell me what they mean?”

“Only Virgil Blue can tell you the meaning of the mask. As for the cane!” Jango rapped the cane three times against the grass. “If you like the design, you can buy one yourself in a gift-shop by the runway!” He giggled until he saw the honest disappointment on Jay’s face. “It’s really just a cane. It’s for my bad hip. Ask another question. Make it a good one.”

Jay scratched his head in thought. “There’s a Wheel of life and death. Do Sheridanians believe in… reincarnation?”

“Hm… When we die, our worms drop into the next eternity, the desert on the original sun. If a worm makes it to the Mountain, it joins the Zephyrs. If it misses the Mountain, the sand eats it—so it cycles back to try again, mixed-and-matched with a new group of fellow worms.”

Worms were starting to sound like spiritual DNA. “I don’t quite understand,” said Jay. “Worms are reborn when the sand eats them?”

“Of course,” said Jango. “Otherwise we’d remember the past lives contributing to us.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Jay quoted Jango in his notepad. “Could worms be reborn, um… alongside their previous life?”

Jango shrugged. “From the Mountain’s point-of-view, the beginning and the end are the same. So, maybe. It’s not for me to know.”

“I see. Thank you, Virgil Skyy.” They both bowed. “Um. Maybe I should’ve mentioned this earlier, but someone on my tour wanted to collect centipedes.”

Jango laughed. “Jay, between airport-security and the cloudy peak, smugglers tend to sort themselves out.”

“Really? You don’t toss them in the river?” He’d half-expected these monks to be secret martial-arts masters. “Well, if you say so.” Jay helped Jango close the wooden door behind him.

Before he left, Jay used the empty pastry-box to collect the shattered glass of Lio’s firefly-jar. Then he walked behind the monastery to show Lio his lantern’s light and photograph the nearby centipede-bushes. The bushes had more thorns than leaves, protecting their centipedes from harvest. Jay satisfied himself with just photos. When he’d taken all he wanted, Jay sighed and scanned the dark summit. He didn’t see Hurricane Lio’s red Hawaiian shirt. Maybe Lio nabbed his centipedes and returned to the inn alone. Jay walked back the way he came, hoping he had enough oil.

Overnight at the inn, Jay had a rejuvenating dream. He was still on the Islands of Sheridan, but the main island’s spiral-trail was packed with giant birds waddling in a single-file line from coast to peak. He counted his fingers and stopped when he got to twelve. Then he had the power to fly over the islands to see them from above. He’d thought the main island was a perfect cone, but in his dream it was longer along one axis, like an egg. That’s when he woke up.

For breakfast he ate coconut-meat and legumes in the common-room while waiting for the rest of his tour-group. He thanked the innkeepers for loaning him the lantern and showed them photos of the monastery. Eva sat beside him. “Jadie, did you see my husband last night? Henry didn’t come back to our room.”

“Uh. Yeah. He followed me to the monastery.” He wondered how much he should tell her. Eva’s thin pink lips were pursed in concern, but it seemed to be concern for Jay rather than Lio. “He said he wanted my help harvesting centipedes. When I wouldn’t do it, he whipped out a knife and cracked open his own hand punching a monastery wall.” Jay shook his own wrist limply, imitating Lio’s broken bones. “I told him I’d lead him back to the inn, but that wasn’t the help he wanted from me.”

“That certainly sounds like Henry,” said Eva. Lilly ate an enormous scrambled egg without comment. “I’m sorry he caused you so much trouble.”

“Michael told me anyone who walks above the clouds never comes back.” Jay looked out a window to the shrouded peak. “Should we try stopping him before he goes full-Icarus?”

“We should be so lucky.” Eva leaned in to whisper by Jay’s ear. “I married him for citizenship to escape an Eastern European backwater which recently collapsed. Now I don’t like the way he touches my daughter. Let Icarus fly!”

Jay resisted the urge to reach for his notepad and write any of that down. “Michael told me if someone walks above the clouds, everything valuable to them is mysteriously destroyed. Their spouses die and their houses collapse on their children.”

“I was never his. Lilly even less so.”

Relieved by Eva’s confidence, Jay turned to Lilly. “I broke your jar of fireflies. Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay.” Lilly licked yolk off her plate. “Daddy promised he’d let them go anyway.”

After breakfast, Michael led the tour to the river. He’d inflated inner-tubes and tied them to the bridge so they bobbed in the water. “The stream will carry us to shore. Kids ride with a parent. Then we ferry to the airport. Hey, hey—we have an extra inner-tube!” Michael counted heads. “Where’s Henry?”

“I think he’s visiting the monastery,” said Eva. “He’s not answering his cellphone.”

Michael shook his head and climbed into an inner-tube. His fed-up expression told Jay he didn’t mind if Lio never happened to return. “When he decides to come back to the inn, he can join whichever tour-group gets there next.”

“Will your brothers be okay with that?” Eva and Lilly shared an inner-tube. “Henry’s sort of a burden to offload onto someone.”

“Sheridanians are always eager to help,” said Michael, “especially when the person in need is as kind and understanding as your husband.”

Jay chose an inner-tube beside Craig and Suzy. “[Zhang, Li Ying,]” he said in Mandarin, “[I’m glad to have shared this journey with you.]”

“[We appreciated your company,]” said Craig.

Oran dora,” said Suzy. “[We’re off to Easter Island next!]”

“Whee!” Lilly laughed and kicked when Michael cut her inner-tube’s cord. Eva and Lilly floated down the river together. Then Michael cut Craig’s cord, and Suzy’s, and Jay’s, and his own, leaving Lio’s inner-tube tied to the bridge. Jay’s tube spun clockwise until it brushed the left bank and spun counterclockwise.

“Your husband shouldn’t touch you like that,” Suzy said to Eva. She spoke like she’d practiced her English for this all night. “How long have you been married?”

Eva held her daughter’s hand. “Since I was pregnant with Lilly.”

“You should try vacationing without him,” said Craig. “My name is Zhang.”

“I’m Li Ying,” said Suzy. “Name any place you’re interested in. We’d love to give you a tour.”

The river bumped Jay’s inner-tube against Michael’s. Michael grabbed Jay’s tube to keep them together. “Oran dora, Jadie.”

Oran dora, Michael. Thanks for the tour.”

“Did you deliver my letter?”

“I gave it to Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay, “but I wanted to ask about the bird-statue. Jango said it’s not a shrine at all, it’s the monastery’s donation-box slash mailbox, and that’s not a bird saving a child, it’s the Biggest Bird, the Heart of the Mountain, with the first man, Nemo. Did you know?”

Michael laughed. “Of course I did! But my brothers and I find the bird-saving-a-child shrine sells more tours. We’ve told the story so many times, even Sheridanians think it’s a shrine and started burning incense and lighting candles inside. So the mailbox is always full, and contacting the monastery takes a trek. Thank you for delivering my letter!”

“Huh. No problem.” Michael released Jay’s tube and the river carried them apart. How disappointing, thought Jay. The Islands of Sheridan went to so much trouble isolating and compartmentalizing their traditions, admitting tourists only step-by-step, but that didn’t protect its culture against native Sheridanians themselves. Was LuLu’s the best way to preserve and present this religion for newer generations? Or was it just another artifact repackaged for foreigners? 

Jay felt the water, clean and cool on a hot day. Fish swam under him as he floated beneath bridges. Eventually the river became a timeless one, emptying into the infinite ocean.

Dan bit his nails pacing in the empty airport lobby. Each time he turned about-face, he checked the chart of arrivals and departures on the opposite wall. Jay’s flight filtered to the top as his plane approached. “How much longer, Dainty?” Faith stretched across four seats, threading herself under three armrests. She wore a heavy white sweater, since the clouds looked like rain. “Why’d we come so early?”

“He’ll be here soon.” Through a window over the runways, Dan scanned the misty morning sky for the shape of an airplane. The landing-strips were frosted and dewy.  “I wanted to beat traffic.”

“It’ll be rush-hour on the way back,” said Faith. “Maybe I should drive us home so you don’t have to worry?”

“I can drive us home.”

“Are you sure?” Faith now crawled over the armrests. “You bite your fingertips when you’re anxious, Dainty. If you have to drive in traffic, you’ll bleed all over the steering-wheel!”

Hearing her say that made Dan anxious, but he resisted biting his fingertips and proving her right. “I’m not anxious about traffic.”

“Oh.” Faith collected herself in one seat. She crossed her ankles and clasped her hands in her sweater’s pocket. “I miss Beatrice too, Dan. She was my girlfriend. You know BeatBax’d tell us it’s all gonna be okay.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Before he could stop himself, Dan found his index-finger between his lips.

“Well, can I get you something for breakfast?”

Dan checked restaurants up and down the airport corridor. “Nothing here appeals to me.”

“Chips? Gum?”

“No, no.” Dan sighed and looked out a window over the streets of Burbank. “A cinnamon-bun sounds good.”

“Oh? Where are they? I’ll buy three, so you, JayJay, and I can share!”

Dan pointed out the window. Across the street, a diner advertised bronze cinnamon-buns dripping with silvery icing. “Let me give you some cash.”

“Don’t worry, they’re on me!” Faith pranced to the escalators. “If JayJay gets back before I do, tell him I missed him, okay?”

As soon as she left, Dan bit a fingernail. He tore more than the white crescent, revealing magenta underneath. Dan rubbed it to salt the wound. If Faith saw the nail, she’d throw a fit. Well, no, but she’d coo sympathetically, and wasn’t that far worse? Dan jogged to an airport convenience-store and bought himself black gloves. He didn’t wear them right away—he sat near Jay’s terminal and ate all the skin around his nails. When Jay’s plane broke through the clouds, Dan donned the gloves to hide his hands. Jay was among the first to disembark. Dan waved. “Jay! Jay!”

“Dan! Oran dora!

“How was the flight?”

“I survived.” The two hugged. “Is Faith here? Virgil Jango Skyy shared a story I’ve got to tell her about.”

“She’s buying breakfast. She told me to say she missed you.”

“If I had a cellphone signal, I would’ve called you every hour, Dan. You’re always telling me how pop-culture appropriates religions, right? For LuLu’s, Tatsu picked Sheridan clean!” Jay showed Dan his camera’s screen. “Look, three islands: a small sandy one, a middling piney one, and a big mountainous one where centipedes come from! On the second island, these masked dancers lead to this circle of monks. They walk, they chant—it’s like the Kaaba, but there’s a bird in the middle! That’s why my framing is wonky: there are giant birds everywhere, and Sheridanians are super emphatic about not photographing them. Here, this statue is actual-size, maybe even a little small.”

“Whoa.” Dan compared the bird-statue to pines in the background. “They must be eight feet tall.”

“Yep. The statue represents the Biggest Bird, a local folk hero even taller than that. It’s not coddling a toddler, that’s supposed to be a grown man! It’s just not-to-scale. Doesn’t it look like Professor Akayama after Uzumaki made her a bird-thing?” Jay skipped to a photo of Virgil Jango Skyy with Virgil Blue in the background. “I’ve never seen anywhere like Sheridan, Dan. You’ve got to go. You know more about religion than I do.”

Dan tried to press camera-buttons, but his black gloves were too bulky. “Maybe I can write my thesis on Sheridan. I’ll run it by my advisers.”

“Here, I got you a souvenir.” Jay gave him the orange plush fledgling. “I got one for Faith, too, and I bought some nice seashells, but they’re being shipped. Where’s she buying breakfast?”

“She’s bringing buns from across the street.” Dan led Jay to the window overlooking the diner. “There she is.”

“She looks happy as she’s ever been,” said Jay. Faith bounced on her toes waiting at the crosswalk with a bag of buns. “How about you, Dan? Are you feeling okay?”

“Oh, you know.” Dan sucked a gloved finger. “Not great.”

Jay nodded in sympathy. “Well, then I’m glad you’ve both got each other to help keep yourselves together.”

As Faith crossed the street, she saw Dan and Jay at the window and waved at them. “Hey! JayJay!” A speeding bus ran the red light and almost hit her head-on. Faith leapt to safety with a yelp. When her adrenaline wore off, she laughed and finished crossing the street. Then she was struck by a lone lightning-bolt, as if it was aimed at her specifically. She left only a scorch on the sidewalk.

Jay found himself instantly and totally disengaged from reality, incapable of anything other than self-analysis and attempts to describe and understand his own mental state at that moment. He felt like he was watching his life from thousands and thousands of miles away. Dan ran crying to airport-security, as if the NSA could undo the last few moments, but Jay just raised his trembling hands to count his fingers: ten.

Because Beatrice died so recently, and the lightning cremated Faith so thoroughly, their wakes were held together on the same day. Their urns were arranged on a lawn by a lazy river: Beatrice’s urn was creamy and marbled, while Faith’s urn was matte-white. Jay left the white plush fledgling before Faith’s urn, then did his best consoling friends and family, but he didn’t recognize half the mourners. He knew Faith’s uncle by the tinfoil under his fedora, and he heard Dan’s persistent sobbing, but Faith had made lots of friends in art-classes, and Beatrice had tons of connections from nursing-school. “I’m sorry for your loss,” Jay said to Uncle Featherway.

“You’re Faith’s friend, right?” He adjusted his tinfoil fedora to protect himself from whatever Jay was thinking. “Do you know what happens when you die?”

“Um.” Jay looked at the urns. “What do you think?”

Uncle Featherway vigorously pointed skyward like he was always waiting for someone to ask him that. “Aliens made humans to mine gold. When we die, we’re reincarnated to keep mining. At the end of time, the aliens will collect our gold, and everyone loyal to them will board their spaceship.”

“Wow. Does the tinfoil keep aliens from reincarnating you?”

“The tinfoil is for different aliens. The mind-readers have battled the gold-miners for eons.”

“I see.” Even out of consolation, Jay could only indulge tinfoil-hat theories for so long. Still, he wondered if Uncle Featherway could corroborate his first ever interview. “Faith once told me you attended a lecture by monks at Sheridan Cliff-Side College. Before you leave for Wyoming, could I ask you about Virgil Blue?”

“Sure! Best lecture of my life,” said Uncle Featherway. “Virgil Blue didn’t say anything, though.”

“I want to hear your impression anyway. When are you free?”

“After the wake I’ll be waiting for my train in the sports-bar across the street. Hey, is that your friend over there? He’s pretty beat-up.”

“Oh. Excuse me.” Jay walked to Dan and pat his shoulder. While Jay wore a dark purple suit and tie, fitting for a funeral, Dan hadn’t found the strength to change out of his favorite old orange T-shirt. “Dan, have you eaten today?”

Dan absorbed his tears with his black gloves. “I haven’t eaten since Faith died.”

“Let’s try eating, then. I’ll pay.”

Dan turned to the urns. They were framed by the river, which Jay thought was a fitting metaphor for impermanence. Dan concentrated on the scene like he wanted to freeze it forever in his memory. Finally they left the wake. “Where should we go?”

“There’s a sports-bar across the street,” said Jay. “It’ll have the essentials.”

There was a college football-game on, so the pub was crowded and loud. Dan and Jay could talk near the end of the bar and no one would hear or listen in. Dan declined to order anything, so Jay flagged the bartender’s attention to order a tuna-sandwich for him and water for himself. Dan picked crumbs from the bread until he built enough momentum to take a bite. Soon he discovered he was ravenous and finished the sandwich, so Jay bought him another. “Thanks,” said Dan. “Jay, you’ve put up with me for years now. Just… thanks.”

“Knowing you has been a pleasure,” said Jay. “I know Beatrice and Faith would say the same. Faith always giggled when you tried impressing Beatrice with Bible quotes.”

“I killed them.” Dan chewed his second sandwich. Jay didn’t know what to say. “Both of them are dead because of me.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, I’m just so…” Dan put down the sandwich. “Can I order a drink?”

“Did you drive here?”

“I walked.” Jay ordered Dan a pint of stout. Maybe it would help him vent. “When you smoked centipede in my apartment, Beatrice left because of me.” Dan drank half the pint the moment it was put before him. The stout was thick brown mud, but its head was foamy white cream. “I made her shake my hand and she couldn’t stand me anymore. She pretended she was called by the hospital, and she left in such a hurry she didn’t see the bus.”

“Dan, even if that were true, it wouldn’t be your fault.”

“And that’s assuming she didn’t throw herself under the bus to get away from me for good.”

“I can’t imagine she did.”

“And Faith—oh, poor Faith—“

“Faith was struck by lightning, Dan. That’s no one’s fault.”

“I looked so pitiful she offered to get breakfast. I basically stabbed her in the back.”

“You can’t blame yourself for acts of God.”

“That’s where we disagree.” Dan finished his stout and ordered another pint. He finished his second sandwich while he waited for the drink. “I killed my dad, too.”

“I’m sure you didn’t, but I’m listening.” The wakes left Jay in a listening mood, and Dan’s tongue loosened with his second stout.

“I don’t talk a lot about my parents, do I?” Jay shook his head. “They divorced when I was ten. My mom always told me she left my dad because of his unhealthy obsession with his job as a professor of Religious-Studies. She was a psychiatrist, so I guess she knew what she was talking about.” Dan had started talking continuously like Virgil Jango Skyy, as if this was a lecture he’d brewed internally for a long, long time. “Every year, for visitation, Mom would drop me off at his university for just a few hours. I’d climb all the way up to his office and he’d give me a book. The last time I saw him alive, he asked how I enjoyed Dante’s Inferno, and I said it was the best book he ever gave me, so he gave me the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. I was taken aback; he’d never given me two books at once. Seeing my expression, he asked if I had any questions. I asked, ‘what happens to Dante’s guide, Virgil? I hope he was only put in Hell to lead Dante to God, and he’ll be admitted into Heaven at the end.’

“But he said, ‘I’m afraid the Virtuous Pagans are in Hell forever. They’ll never join the saints in passing through that final wall of fire into Heaven. But, on Hell’s outer rim, their only punishment is distance from God’s light, which they never even knew in life. So they’re free! Wouldn’t you rather spend eternity with those rejected scholars than the stuck-up prudes in Heaven? Remember, Dante’s Hell is self-inflicted: the condemned condemn themselves.’ “

“Hmm.” Jay leaned back on his bar-stool. “Being on Hell’s outer rim doesn’t sound so bad, but I like your way better, where scholars go to Hell to bust people out.”

“Me too. So I—” Dan interrupted himself by ordering a third stout. The bartender topped off Jay’s water. “I asked him for more book-recommendations. Suddenly his face went pale and his hands shook. ‘I’m sorry, son. I’ve really robbed you,’ he said. ‘I hardly interact with you at all except through academic literary discussions.’ I said that was okay, because it got me great grades in English, and I wanted to study religion in college anyway, like him. ‘But there’s so much more to life than reading books professors give you.’ So I asked him to… to give me books as a dad instead. ‘That’s difficult,’ he said, ‘because to me, every book is about religion.’ He gave me almost half the books on his shelves, one by one, outlining his whole worldview every step of the way. When he was done, he thoroughly traumatized every word into me by jumping out the window. I watched him die.”

“Oh. Holy shit.” Jay ordered Dan a third tuna-sandwich. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

Dan downed his third pint all at once. “It’s okay,” he lied.

But Jay wanted details, and it sounded like Dan cut off his lecture prematurely. He pulled out his notepad and pen. “Which books? What worldview? I mean, if you don’t mind discussing it.”

“Um.” Dan bit his third sandwich, but suddenly lost his appetite. “I’m hesitant to tell you. If you die because of it, that’d be on me.”

“Take your best shot, Dan.” Jay dated a fresh page.

“Well, his worldview could be called ‘Pitying Fig-Makers,’ I guess.” Jay wrote that with a question-mark next to it. “First he handed me some sci-fi based on Dante’s Inferno. ‘Dante called out corrupt politicians and religious leaders with the language of his day,’ he said, ‘confronting them with the doctrine they claimed to represent. This sci-fi book modernized that concept so today’s readers can understand and appreciate it, and it almost won a Hugo and a Nebula, so it obviously succeeded in reaching people. All literature is written by people,’ he said, ‘and anyone can write anything about anything, and then anyone can interpret it in any way. No one needs permission. No one has authority. Fundamentally there’s no difference in legitimacy between this sci-fi novel based on Dante’s Inferno, the real Inferno, the Bible, or the Koran.’ “

Jay documented the sci-fi in his notepad. “So your father was an atheist?”

“Not quite. He didn’t think atheists went nearly far enough, because deep in the abyss you loop back around to seeing the true face of God inside you. I asked him, if there was no legitimate authoritative text, then how could anyone know what to believe? ‘There’s no such thing as believing,’ he said. ‘Consciousness is neurological background radiation from which reality bubbles like particles and antiparticles—and even that’s giving us too much credit!’ He passed me two biology textbooks—Lamarck and Darwin—and two physics textbooks—Newton and Einstein. ‘Hundreds of years ago, science didn’t look like it does now, and hundreds of years hence, science will advance beyond our recognition—in fact, the purpose of science is its own replacement. Even the formal logic of mathematics has been reinterpreted again and again.’ He gave me a textbook about non-Euclidean geometry. ‘All truth,’ he said, ‘will eventually be considered naive and flawed in the face of another, better truth, which will itself be replaced. Clinging to any truth is being trapped in a religion, perhaps without even noticing. Alternatively, accepting the impermanence of all truths reveals religion to be a great and complicated tool, a tool with many names: gods, governments, sciences, philosophies, histories, ancestries, morals, economies, laws, and so on. They intersect and they overlap, many limbs of one constantly shape-shifting Swiss army-knife.’ “

Jay tapped his pen on the bar. “So governments, sciences, and so on, your father describes them the same way an atheist describes God? Not actually real, but impacting the world through shared delusion?”

“Deeper, Jay. It’s only a delusion if you haven’t caught on to what’s really happening. You and I are religions for our cells. Cells are religions for their subatomic particles. Every God is as real as you and me—that’s just not saying very much! I asked my dad, what’s the tool for? He gave me a pile of history books and a pile of anthropology books, and told me ‘cultures are enclosed by semipermeable membranes, just like our cells. Within a culture there are simple rules, like, wear this funny hat, or, don’t eat these foods.’ “

“Or, don’t take pictures of birds?” asked Jay. “Or, use these preferred pronouns? Easy asshole-detectors?”

“Exactly. ‘Someone who can’t even follow the simple rules can’t be expected to follow more important rules, like, don’t murder or rape anyone,’ he said. ‘The wise know all these rules are artificially constructed, but follow the simple ones anyway for the sake of the important ones. But different cultures have different rules, so life is terrible! War! Slavery! Torture! Genocide! The important rules are broken by the fig-makers, those who mistake the window-dressing of simple rules for more than it is—or, worse, those who pretend to make that mistake for personal benefit, reinterpreting rules or even inventing new rules just to claim they’ve been wronged. Religions are written to create and protect cultures, then stolen and perverted to loot cultures, even the culture of origin. Fig-makers assign themselves and everyone around them to suffer everlastingly just to justify their own actions. This is ongoing, never-ending, and nightmarish.’ “

Jay puzzled with his pen on his lip. “Fig-makers? Making figs?”

“An ancient Italian way to flip the bird.” Dan made fists with the tips of his thumbs stuck between his index and middle fingers. When his thumbs wiggled, they looked like worms poking out of the dirt. Jay wondered if the figs were meant to be diminutively phallic. “Dante said the damned made figs at God for the torment they ultimately chose for themselves with the free will God gave them. My dad said these fig-makers walked among the living, perpetually surrendering control to blame anything available for their own decisions and the resulting consequences. They probably won’t say they’re making figs at God—they might even say God’s on their side, or there is no God—but when they condemn themselves, they give God-like status to whatever they claim condemned them.”

“Hmm. Like…” Jay bobbed his head left and right as he wrangled ideas together. “Plenty of religions have important God-given rules about not setting people on fire. But if a preacher declares their neighbor a witch working for Satan, then the preacher could justify doing anything to that neighbor, even if they secretly knew they made it all up.”

“Yeah, and in doing so, the preacher surrenders their God’s power to the idea of Satan and the witch, so when they burn them at the stake, that’s making figs. It won’t solve the preacher’s problems—it might make them worse!—so they’ll keep finding more witches to blame.”

” ‘Those witches made me do it!’ ” said Jay. He thought he sounded a little like Lio. “Just give someone the demonic ability to shrink your wiener with black magic and you’re free to make all the figs you want. Lots of folks have been lynched like that.”

“Um. Sure,” said Dan. “Anyway, I asked my dad, if life is this never-ending nightmare, what do we do about it? ‘Wake up and play the game!’ he said. ‘Steal Gods back from fig-makers by making a new God which wears their Gods like hand-puppets, and use it for the benefit of all because that’s what Gods are for. This God will be stolen, too, for fig-makers to use in malice, but that’s okay, because you can always make another, even reusing old names. If there’s a real God, it’s the loving emptiness behind the window-dressing, to whom all human conventions appear futile and transient. We can put God in any costume, because the real God wears us as costumes.’ “

Jay scribbled notes, trying to understand. “Trying to convince the preacher they’re wrong about witches is a waste of time, because they might not actually believe their own excuse for burning their neighbor at the stake. Your father says we can protect that neighbor by introducing new belief-systems, like telling the preacher ‘witches would be a lot nicer if they weren’t being set on fire all the time,’ or ‘maybe you’re a witch, too, and if you’re not, well, maybe you should be.’ “

“Or, if need be, by taking direct action ourselves,” said Dan. “He gave me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to show how the wise might even appear to break their own important rules, like by fighting in a truly righteous war. I told you about the Bhagavad Gita once, right? When you went to Nepal?” Jay nodded. “Arjuna couldn’t engage in combat until he saw Krishna’s true shape for himself. He needed deep understanding of the ultimate reality before he could resort to violence. That just didn’t make sense to me. Could a loving God really be used to justify any war as righteous? Wasn’t that twisting morality like the fig-makers? My dad said I was right to be concerned: anyone opposing fig-makers had to avoid becoming a fig-maker themselves. But then he flipped through a picture-book of deities with bulging eyes, shaking fists, and gaping maws of pointed teeth. ‘All these are Gods of compassion, protection, and pure love,’ he said. ‘Do they look that way to you?’

” ‘No,’ I said! ‘They look angry as all Hell.’ ” Dan quivered a little just thinking about them. 

” ‘Precisely!’ said my dad. ‘When a mother sees her toddler sticking a fork in an electrical socket, she might look angry! Wrathful! Hateful! That look comes from love’s desire to protect the ignorant from themselves. A fig-maker feigning ignorance to take advantage of God’s love will watch it morph to protect them in these furious manners, because feigned ignorance is ignorance. Satan is just another great and complicated tool to show such love in so many ways.’ “

“In movies, you might smack someone to wake them up or calm them down.” Jay slapped the air. “It’s for the best even if it looks pretty bad.”

Dan nodded. “Next he handed me a copy of the Lotus Sutra. Have you ever heard of it?” Jay shook his head. “I hadn’t either. ‘The Buddha says most people won’t accept his ultimate teachings of emptiness and compassion, preferring teachings which promise an easy reward,’ he said, ‘so Bodhisattvas use skillful means, presenting inferior lessons within a contemporary cultural context, eventually leading to the real lessons which are beyond context. Avalokiteshvara can take any shape to share their lesson that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.’ “

Avalokiteshvara?” Jay remembered such a name from the art-museum. “Is that Shiva on one side and Parvati on the other?”

“You’re thinking of Ardhanarishvara. Avalokiteshvara tried and failed to save all sentient beings, so they grew eleven heads and a thousand arms with eyes on their palms to perceive and end all suffering.”

Now that’s a giant anime space-robot, thought Jay. “So your father was a Buddhist?”

“No, no. He was explaining the potential of all belief-structures. ‘Fig-makers put themselves in a made-up Hell so they can demand a made-up Heaven, possibly without even realizing how they’ve created an actual Hell for themselves and everyone around them. The wise make up Heavens and Hells to help people who need them, manifesting an actual Heaven by cultivating a proper understanding of nihilism which leads to universal benevolence. That means anything can be a lesson from God’s emptiness, even our very thoughts, daily interactions, and ordinary pop-culture.’ “

“Any pop-culture in particular?” asked Jay.

“Yeah! When he said that, he gave me the last books he ever gave me, a pile of manga—LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. It was the first time I’d ever seen it.”

“No way,” said Jay. “Your father introduced you to LuLu’s?” He shouldn’t have been so surprised. Jay’s own father introduced him to LuLu’s when he brought the DVD-set as a souvenir from Japan. “What was his impression of it?”

“My dad said it demonstrated his perspective. ‘In LuLu’s, Earth’s most powerful fig-makers are so egocentric they’re insulted by the existence of anything else, a self-imposed torment they use to justify taking the form of a cosmic horror called the Hurricane. The Hurricane eats everything and everyone it considers unworthy, becoming Hell itself. The survivors fight the Hurricane in the Galaxy Zephyr for the sake of the natural cycle of life and death, Heaven-on-Earth in comparison. The Galaxy Zephyr rips parts off the Hurricane and eats them, recycling the universe. This is wisdom versus ignorance, radical acceptance versus vanity, proper nihilism versus an imposter.’ “

“It sounds like your father detected Tatsu took LuLu’s straight from a Sheridanian monastery,” said Jay.

“He kept going on and on about it. ‘The mortals in the Galaxy Zephyr’s holy weapon, a discus called the Wheel, must have no clue about their role in what amounts to hand-to-hand combat between Heaven and Hell,’ he said. ‘If it were explained to them, I suspect they’d reject the concept outright. If they knew their purpose, they couldn’t serve it! But, because the Galaxy Zephyr wisely fights for all aspects of reality, including the grotesque portions which created the Hurricane to begin with, those mortals in the Wheel must be reenacting the giant space-robot combat in miniature. As above, so below! The manga demands readers join the fight against the Hurricane in their everyday lives by making them reconsider the relationship between the cosmic and the mundane.’ “

“Maybe you can explain this to me better than Virgil Jango Skyy,” said Jay. “Why does the Galaxy Zephyr need to save the Hurricane’s pilots? They’re not just fig-makers, they ate the universe!”

“My dad compared it to metta-meditation,” said Dan. ” ‘First the Galaxy Zephyr’s crew-members feel compassion for themselves and each other,’ he said. ‘Then Akayama collected the golden-winged Zephyr because it easily inspires and accepts compassion. But to achieve inner peace and defeat the Hurricane once and for all, the Galaxy Zephyr must eventually account for fig-makers who are difficult to feel compassion for, and who rebuke compassion when they get it. And, saving the pilots of the Hurricane will give the Zephyrs moral license to defeat the Hurricane itself by proving its fig-making was unwarranted. The world we live in is a terrifying place, and to redeem it, we must allow ourselves to be terrifying, too. We defeat the Hurricane using the Hurricane within us, a Jungian brand of enlightenment. We are multilayered sieves, stealing bad Gods, processing them, elevating them into good Gods.’ “

Jay wrote all that down. “That’s one heck of a worldview.”

“Yeah, I couldn’t fit all his books in my backpack. I had to carry half of them in my arms. ‘Wow, Dad, thanks for all of these!’

“He just looked out over the campus courtyard. ‘Dan, before you read the Purgatorio, you should know Dante’s Virgil has another layer of frustration. His Aeneid saved a soul from Hell, but he’s still barred from Heaven. In justifying Alighieri’s Almighty, I can only suggest transporting souls to salvation would be more important to Virgil than Heaven. To grease divine mechanisms would be his utilitarian delight. Every aspect of Hell is necessary to maintain Dante’s scheme, even the woods of suicides. So thank you for visiting me, because teaching you is the only resolution I could hope for in this life. I know I’ve given you the tools to recover from what I’m about to do.’ Then he jumped out the window. His body broke branches and he splattered across the quad. He died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

Jay capped his pen. “Dan, thank you for telling me all this. I knew your father died just before we met, but I never knew he committed suicide like that.” He bought Dan a fourth pint, and one for himself. They both needed it. “You didn’t kill him, though.”

“Recommending books was the only thing keeping him alive.” Dan drank his fourth stout quickly as the rest. “I sucked that from him like a vampire.”

Jay thought a Sheridanian might see it differently. Dan’s father offloaded his worms onto his kid. “When I went to Wales, you told me about the sin-eaters. You’re a sin-eater, Dan, and apparently a good one.” He wondered if Dan’s father had ever smoked centipede, or if his mental-health issues were home-grown. He sipped his stout’s white cream. “You were the best aspect of life for someone obviously struggling.”

Dan started eating his third sandwich again. “He was showing me how to die.” Jay shook his head in remorse. “How not to die, I mean.” Jay sighed with relief. “Christ knew he’d be crucified, and went to Jerusalem anyway. In a previous life, the Buddha threw himself away to feed hungry tigers. Christ and the Buddha would tell you not to kill yourself, but they get away with it, because of the depth of their understanding of non-duality. They proudly used their deaths to relieve others of their suffering. My dad vainly jumped to escape his own. Those are the only two ways to off yourself.” Dan had eaten most of his third sandwich like a hungry tiger, but now lost his appetite. “Anyway, you can see why high-school was difficult that year. This one time…” Dan put the sandwich down. “You remember you and me used to eat lunch with Faith and Beatrice?”

“Yeah. Lots of fun.” Jay could listen for as long as Dan could talk.

“A lot of guys wanted to date Beatrice, but she always turned them down. She never told them she was already dating Faith. I guess the two of them were hiding it.”

“I didn’t know until the end of the school-year,” said Jay. “There’re reasons to be protective of that sort of information.”

“I know! That’s why I felt blessed around Beatrice.” Dan smiled into his empty pint. “Being her friend felt like approval from a secret sacred source. She even told me once, no matter how annoyed she was when I glorified her, she liked having me around, because guys didn’t hit on her as much when I was there.”

“It’s true,” said Jay. “We’d get more catcalls in the cafeteria when you ate lunch alone in the library.”

The bottom of his empty pint wasn’t making Dan smile anymore. “This one time, eating lunch alone in the library, someone slapped me on the back. You know the guy in our homeroom who always wore sunglasses?”


“His name was Lio.”

Jay put two and two together. “Oh. He’s bald, right? Actually, yeah, I do know him. He was on my bird-watching tour in Sheridan.  I didn’t see him much in high-school; I guess he was as repelled by me as he was by you.” He finished his stout and uncapped his pen. “What did he want?”

“I told him not to hit me like that, and he said it was okay, because it didn’t hurt. ‘I’m just trying to be your buddy, Danny-boy!’ I gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming, like my dad taught me, he just had different simple rules, and our important rules were probably the same. But the more we talked there in the library, the more I realized he was seriously fucked in the head. I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you what came out of his mouth.”

“Try me, Dan.” Jay started writing on a fresh page.

“Well, he asked if I was an ‘alpha male,’ keeping Beatrice for myself, or just a ‘beta’ trying to get into her pants. I told him we were just friends, and he scoffed and said, ‘beta, then.’ “


“He asked me for her phone-number, and when I wouldn’t give it to him, he said he was disappointed in me. He thought we were friends, he said, and if I wanted to stay friends, I should leave Beatrice alone and get out of his way, because I was ‘cucking’ him. Am—am I right that ‘cuck’ has sort of a racial connotation?”

Jay frowned and underlined the word in his notepad. “It can.” He decided Lio wasn’t worth the benefit of the doubt. “A cuck is a guy whose wife cheats on them with a black man.”

“That’s what I thought, so I asked him what it meant, and he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud. He just croaked the word like a toad a couple more times. When I kept playing dumb, he said cucking was when someone keeps you from getting what you deserve. I was like, ‘really? Is that what it means?’ ” Jay considered reminding Dan he’d said feigned ignorance was still ignorance. Was Dan reinterpreting rules just to be offended? Or trying to wisely slap a fig-maker awake with the realization of embarrassment? “He told me to stop messing around. He knew I knew what it meant because of the book I was reading.”

 “What book were you reading?”

“I had lots of books! It was a library, Jay! But I knew which one he meant. It had a temple from Thailand on the cover with swastikas on both sides of the door, one clockwise, one counterclockwise. He must’ve thought the swastikas meant I was on his fucked-up wavelength, so I told him swastikas mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. He was like, ‘Yes! Exactly!’ and he unbuttoned his shirt. This asshole had tattooed a swastika on his own chest. It was the size of his palm, but the lines were thinner than pencil-lead, just a fragile little snowflake. He must’ve had a hard time inking himself in the mirror, because he fucked up two of the spokes, so it ended up looking like a crude firearm with a hair-trigger. I remembered what my dad taught me: following simple rules, like not tattooing a fucking swastika on yourself, are indicators of following important rules, like being a decent human being. And then my dad taught me to confront terribleness by being terrifying.”

Jay soured, remembering how Lio tried sharing his tattoo on the ferry. “So what did you do?”

“My dad had just committed suicide, okay? I felt like I was exactly the person to tell Lio, ‘anyone who looks up to Hitler should bite a bullet in a bunker.’ But that just seemed to build him up! He said he tattooed himself to detect small-minded people, and he was glad to see that it worked. Disapproving of his swastika-tattoo meant I was the real Nazi. He’d invented a simple rule just to watch people break it: apparently I had to respect him no matter what awful decisions he made. He said I was oppressing him, proving that he was right all along.”

“Right about what?”

“He said society limited his true power for the sake of political correctness. The world would be better off if he, and other alphas like his rich dad, were really unchained. I—I don’t know why he brought up his dad, he just did. I certainly didn’t ask.”

“He mentioned his dad in Sheridan, too,” said Jay. “I hadn’t asked, either.” Was Lio telling the truth, or just a lie he liked enough to repeat? “Unchained to do what, exactly?”

“He said ‘sweatshops sound bad, but—‘ “

Jay chuckled. “Not a great way to start, huh?”

” ‘Sweatshops sound bad, but there are so many useless people out there! Think of how much money we’re wasting teaching garbage-kids to read and write instead of putting them to work.’ Work under what conditions? Are there safety-regulations involved? ‘Safety-regulations? You’re spitting on my rights!‘ I asked about the ethics of dangerous child-labor, but he told me ethics were made up by religious people—he pronounced the word with this shit-eating grin—to make alphas like him a slave to the weak. That made real slavery okay, he said! ‘Some races wouldn’t survive on their own. If we take them from their huts and teach them to be useful, they should thank us! If they refuse to take responsibility for themselves even after we beat some sense into them, then at least they’ve got some organs to sell!’ That was war, slavery, torture, and genocide all justified at once, and he said ‘we’ and ‘us’ as if I’d be on his side for any of it. So I asked where he drew the line. Was child sex-trafficking okay? I was trying to plumb the bottom of this well, here, with some low-hanging fruit.”


“And he thinks for a second and says, ‘Okay, you convinced me, child sex-trafficking is okay too, and preventing it should be against the law, because it’s a violation of our freedom.’ I was fucking floored. Not only was he going this low, but he was acting like it was my idea! I asked him what possible excuse he could have for justifying child sex-trafficking, and he said—oh, boy—he said the existence of gay people was an ongoing genocide against ‘proper straights,’ and to make up for it, he deserved the right to buy someone underage and impregnate them. Besides, this stuff was gonna happen somewhere no matter what, so we shouldn’t be allowed to oppose it anywhere. In fact, being against child sex-trafficking meant that I was at fault for all the starving kids around the world, and he was the only one with their best interests in mind.”

“Lordy.” Lilly dodged a bullet, thought Jay.

“I was seriously shaking.” Dan was shaking now just thinking about it. His hands were making panicked little mudra. “Here was a guy who made government, sexuality, law, religion, the economy, and morality into a personal religion with a cruel God to make atrocious little figs at. I’d never expected to see someone like my dad had described, deliberately misinterpreting reality’s emptiness to construct a personal hellscape justifying terrible impulses. My dad had told me, ‘steal their God! Make it your own!’ I’d let him bury himself in victim-hood until he realized he was responsible for his own decisions no matter who he blamed. I asked him if taxation was theft. He said yes, eager to be wronged in every way possible.”

“Hm. Okay,” said Jay, “but an authoritarian state could levy oppressive taxes.”

“Of course—a natural consequence of electing such fig-makers!—so first I pressed a little harder to make sure I knew what I was dealing with. Did he think quadriplegics in state-provided wheelchairs were stealing from his daddy? ‘Obviously! If having no arms or legs means they can’t work hard enough to earn a wheelchair, they should just rot in a cave where we don’t have to see them.’ Even if funds for such wheelchairs were allotted through due democratic process? ‘Yes! Voting is gang-rape! Those quadriplegics are gang-raping us!’ Now I felt justified in tripping him up by agreeing with him.”

“The Bugs Bunny approach,” said Jay. He wondered if Lio’s rich dad actually did commit tax-evasion, just in ways which Lio couldn’t proudly boast about.

” ‘How come your daddy doesn’t take responsibility for protecting his property from theft?’ I asked Lio. ‘My dad’s not taxed at all.’

” ‘Your dad’s probably chump-change,’ he said. ‘If a real alpha protects their property from Uncle Sam, he’ll get the whole army thrown at him!’

” ‘What’d be so bad about dying on your feet a free man?’ I asked. ‘Don’t trade your freedom for safety. Shit or get off the pot. Better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. Besides, a penny saved is a penny earned. If you don’t protect your property from theft, you’re renting it at the mercy of thieves, and your thieves are the government, so you rent at the mercy of the state. A coward’s a communist no matter what they’re allowed or required to pretend to be instead.’

” ‘You’re the communist,’ he said, ‘because you think society should control me!’

” ‘Projection!’ ” Dan grew louder and louder as he recited the conversation, standing and pointing at the ceiling. The rest of the bar-patrons were too invested in the football-game to notice; some of them were standing and shouting just like him. ” ‘I choose how much I’m taxed because I take responsibility for my financial decisions instead of perpetually surrendering my freedom for pity-points!

” ‘Bullshit! What would you do if I stole from you right now?‘ He curled up his arms as if he had intimidating biceps.”

” ‘The same thing I do in every situation: make my own decisions because I’m a free man! Any zoo is a petting zoo unless you’re a coward. A free man can be free anywhere. A coward like you is a communist everywhere. Man’s free the instant he chooses to be, and I hope someday you’ve got the guts, Comrade, but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for a pinko in denial to grow a spine!‘ “

” ‘What, you want me to go full Waco?’ he asked.

” ‘I want you to escape the mental gulag you’ve cucked yourself into, for your own sake and for the sake of anyone who ever has the misfortune of meeting you, but if you mean kill your family in a fire, yes, please, do the world a favor!’ So he socked me in the jaw. My head hit two bookshelves when I fell.”


“It’s okay.” Dan sat back on his bar-stool. “I… I deserved it.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah. The difference between him and me is that I accept the consequences of my actions. I threw my dad out a window, I hit Beatrice with a bus, I zapped Faith with a lightning-bolt, and I socked myself with Lio’s fist. I’m not gonna make figs at a fig-maker.” Jay wrote this down, unsure. By taking the blame for acts of God and Lio’s shittiness, wasn’t Dan just making figs at himself? “But while I was on the library floor, he shouted something at me I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

“What did he shout?”

” ‘Stop looking at me like that!’ I wish I knew my own expression, because it must’ve been a powerful one.” Jay could guess the look: like a mother watching her kid stick a fork in an electrical socket. “So I gave him a twenty dollar bill and told him to get another swastika-tattoo on his forehead. Then everyone would know to look at him the same way I did.”

“Did he take it?”

“Of course. And when he did, he said he was gonna beat the smug out of me that summer.” Dan sipped the last dregs from his empty pint-glass. He’d started slurring, so Jay elected not to buy him a fifth.

Did he beat the smug out of you that summer?”

“Hold on.” Dan stumbled off his stool and waddled like a Sheridanian big-bird. “I’ve been pouring my heart out for like an hour. Now I gotta pour out my bladder. I’ll be back.”

When Dan staggered back to the bar, he buried his face in his gloved hands. “Lio never got to beat the smug out of me, but he came pretty close. I attended college where my dad killed himself, since the University was financially supportive and let me live in his old apartment. I didn’t see you or Beatrice or Lio for years, but Faith took art-classes on campus, and we always ate lunch together. One day she invited me to a party.”

“Aw, that’s nice.” Jay was glad to hear new stories about their late friends. “Where did they live? After high-school I was always abroad, so I only talked to you guys on the phone.”

“Faith and Beatrice lived on the top floor of an apartment by the beach. The first floor belonged to a frat-house, and apparently they were all invited to the party, too, because they were streaming up the exterior steps in a vertical zigzag of bed-sheet togas. I kinda wish I’d gotten the memo. I would’ve joined the dress-code.”


“At the top steps, Faith leapt onto me and hung around my neck. She kissed me, and I could taste that she’d been drinking. She offered me a beer, but after my dad died, I was afraid to touch alcohol.” He looked for extra drops in his empty pint. Jay shook his head at the bartender before they asked if he wanted another. “So we just looked over the balcony together. The ocean was close enough for a drunken toga-brother to puke into it over the railing. ‘Isn’t it beautiful, Dainty? I wish I could fly over the waves like a bird!’ “

“I figured she’d wanna be a fox.”

“That’s what I said. ‘I’ll be a flying fox!’ Then she kissed me some more. It was like she wanted to lick all my teeth, but she was almost two feet shorter than me, so she had to really reach for my molars. ‘Are you into this, Dainty? Am I bothering you?’ I guess I’m not a very active kisser. I liked Faith, I enjoyed her affection, but—“

“But you were thinking of Beatrice,” said Jay.

Dan whimpered. “She detected it easily as you did. Ever since meeting Lio in the library, I felt like I had to protect Beatrice from people like that, and I hadn’t seen her since high-school graduation! ‘Oh, Dainty,’ Faith said. ‘You could have everything anyone ever wanted right in front of you, and you’d still chase BeatBax to Hell and back just to make awkward small-talk.’ I was like, well, you’re her girlfriend, and you’re kissing me. ‘Ah, but BeatBax and I have an understanding.’ She smiled sorta mischievously, like she might kiss me again, but instead, she pulled a bug-stick from her pocket. ‘But if I’ve kissed you, it’s only fair you kiss her, too, right? She’s had enough of the party already, so she’s in our bed-room right now. You two could spend some time alone together.’ She kissed the bug-stick’s stem and told me to share it with her, because ‘it’d be just like smooching.’ “

“Had you ever smoked one before?”

“No, and honestly, the idea of tricking Beatrice into kissing like that made me feel sick. I told Faith, but she insisted it was okay, because we were only smooching symbolically. She pushed me into the apartment, where the frat-bros in bed-sheets were flirting with a bunch of girls from Beatrice’s nursing-school in scrubs. The hallway was clogged with drunks waiting for the bathroom, but I squeezed past them to Beatrice’s door. As soon as I knocked, she said ‘come in!’ I’d never heard her sound so inviting, so I held myself back. She was probably expecting Faith, right? Wouldn’t she be disappointed to see it was just me? But when I opened the door, I saw why she greeted me so eagerly.”


“There she was, in bed, tucked under warm blankets, reading her Bible, and right there, sitting on her bedside, was Lio.” Dan shuddered. Jay grimaced; with the timeline as he knew it, Lio had been married to Eva for about five years at this point. “He was fatter than he was in high-school, but he was still bald and had the same dark sunglasses. He was wearing a red bed-sheet like a toga, but he’d drawn it up his chest higher than any of the frat-brothers. And he had a glass water-pipe, all crusted-up with bug-gunk. Beatrice wasn’t even looking in his direction. She just smiled at me, like, see what I have to put up with? ‘Hey, Dan, have you met this guy, Henry? He came in here, like, forever ago, looking for the bathroom, supposedly. Maybe you can help him find it?’

“I walked up to Lio and played along with his little game. ‘Hi, Henry,‘ I said, ‘My name’s Lio. The bathroom’s in the hallway. You must be pretty bug-eyed to have missed it.’ “

“He put a hand out to shake, and when I shook it, he yanked me. ‘I’m teaching B here how to smoke powdered bug-sticks from one of these bad boys.’ He offered her the bong, but she buried herself in the Bible. ‘Go enjoy the party, bro.’ He finished his stupid machismo handshake, but I didn’t let go. I braced my foot on the wall and yanked him off Beatrice’s bed. ‘Whoa! Hey!’ He was too bug-eyed to keep me from pulling him to the door, or maybe he was playing limp to pretend my aggression was undue. ‘Why are you being so violent?’

“I shut Beatrice’s door behind us. Lio raised his fists like he’d plug me, but I just talked to him. He couldn’t throw the first punch in front of everyone in the hallway; he wouldn’t look like enough of a victim. ‘Look, Henry, when you do this shit, you look like a psycho, and you’ll be treated like one. I’m not gonna enable you by pretending we can be friends.’ Obviously he was like, what’re you talking about, I didn’t do anything wrong! And I said, ‘Henry, I don’t care if you’re a nimrod manipulated by scumbags or just scum playing dumb very convincingly. No one will waste their time humoring you to figure that out. You’re talking to a rare person who pities you enough to tell you making figs like this means you’re on a dark path. You call yourself an alpha, but it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who knocks off your fucking Alpha-unit.’

“He finally cut the act a little, trying to make me drink his figgy kool-aid. ‘We could share her, Danny-boy.’ I told him Beatrice would never be interested in him or me, in part because she was a lesbian already in a relationship. ‘Isn’t it disgusting for her to lie to us like that? The real reason is because our skulls are shaped wrong—just a few millimeters more bone here or there and we’d be irresistible to chicks like her. That’s why she needs a guy like me, man enough to straighten her out. Then you could have what’s left of her. No need to thank me.’ What a pathetic attempt to virtue-signal with a fabricated victim-card. I just shook my head, stepped back into Beatrice’s room, and locked the door behind me.”

Jay wasn’t sure why he was taking notes on Lio, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Faith told me you tried starting a fight at a party. Was that it?”

“No, no. I’m getting to that. When I walked back in, Beatrice was appreciative. ‘That guy was trying to force-feed me his bong for, like, five minutes. Kept saying he used to be a cop, like I’d be impressed. If you hadn’t knocked when you did, I would’ve screamed.’ ” Jay wondered if Lio had actually been a police-officer, or if it was just a lie he liked to tell. He could imagine Lio as a mall-cop inflating himself. “I told her Faith wanted us to share a cricket. ‘Oh yeah? Is that her lipstick on your chin?’ I wiped it off and apologized. ‘It’s alright. Faith and I have an understanding.’ She came out from under the covers. I worried she was nude, or under-dressed, but she was wearing brown footie-pajamas with little yellow cartoon bunnies. She pat the bed and I sat next to her. She lit the cricket and puffed it. Apparently, she and Faith had smoked since after high-school.”

“Yeah, I knew that, actually.”

“She showed me how to smoke the bug-stick, and after one puff, I was astounded. It was like…” Dan revolved his left hand in a circle, searching for words. Jay flipped to another fresh page of his notepad. He’d struggled to describe the sensation himself and hoped Dan would have the vocabulary for it. “Nothing had changed, but I was suddenly aware of my own thoughts. I mean, we’re all aware of our thoughts, but I suddenly realized my thoughts were the only thing I was aware of, or possibly could be aware of. You know?”

“That’s just it,” said Jay. “You realize you’re a vessel, and the worms in your vessel can only interact with other worms using stories.

“The brain is a fiction-machine,” said Dan. “We bounce fictions off each other because fiction is all there is.”

“A great and complicated tool,” said Jay. “What happened next with Beatrice?”

“I had to ask, where could I get these? She told me…” Dan swallowed. “She told me ‘Faith buys them from Lio, but she’ll have to find a new supplier, because I don’t feel safe with him anywhere around anymore.’ I told her, yeah, that guy once told me the existence of gays was genocide, and therefore he should be allowed to buy and impregnate children. He barely acts decent sometimes because Faith buys his bugs and he wants to prove he’s a man by getting in your pants. ‘Sorta like you, huh?’ she said. ‘You’re always staring at me a little gormlessly.’ I was petrified.”

“Petrified, uh, staring at her gormlessly?” asked Jay.

“Well, yeah. ‘You don’t know anything about me,’ she said. I told her I knew she was in nursing-school, and I knew she liked birds—and bunnies, too, apparently, given her PJs. ‘But why are you so obsessed with being on my good side? I’d probably like you more if you were just yourself around me.’ So I said being her friend made me feel special. That made her smile! But next I told her I admired how she knew a scumbag when she saw one, and she didn’t take their shit. Her approval meant I was… Well, I wasn’t bad as Lio. ‘Ugh. Thanks, I hate it,’ she said. ‘You’re not trying to get into my pants, but you’re still using me as a source of self-worth.’ “

“Hmm.” Jay wasn’t taking notes of this, but he sketched a fox, a bird, and a bunny in his notepad to keep his hands busy. “She has a point. You shouldn’t need Beatrice to verify you’re not like Lio.”

“Well, I wasn’t quite convinced of that, yet,” said Dan. “I told her, ‘Faith joked sharing a cricket would be like kissing you. I should’ve told you that before we started smoking. Now I feel like him, sneaking in to score—but even worse, because I’m scoring secretly, symbolically, without you even knowing. That’s why I need your approval, because deep down, I know I’m a bad person, and you’re the only way I can be better.’

“She just wordlessly passed me the bug-stick. I wondered, was she showing her approval by symbolic smooch? But after I inhaled from it, she grabbed my shoulders, kissed me, and sucked the smoke straight from my lungs. She blew it out her open window, toward the moon. ‘There. Now you’ve got no excuses! Get over yourself.’ “

“Did it work?” asked Jay. “Did you feel any better?”

“Kinda?” Dan waved a hand. “Beatrice showed me that as long as I thought I needed her approval, her approval would never be enough. If I wanted to prove I wasn’t like Lio, I couldn’t do it through her. I had to do it myself.”

Jay bit his pen. “Kissing Beatrice just brought you right back to Lio, huh?”

“Ish. I wanted to show Lio that the victim-hood he invented to demand more from life was actually a trap he should dismantle, because making figs was condemning himself to a personal Hell. And I knew just how to do it.”

“Skillful means?”

“My best attempt, at least. I’d use the power he loved to surrender to reveal his true color to the party. Beatrice passed me the bug-stick, but I told her to save it. I ran out of her room and back down the hallway. Faith waved me to a ring of couches, where a crowd was watching Lio show off his bong and a bag of bug-sticks. On my way, I got myself a cup of beer and put some liquor in it.”

“You said you didn’t drink.”

“I hadn’t before then. Now I needed some confidence.” Once again, Dan checked for more drops in his empty pint. “Lio didn’t notice me sit next to Faith. He was distracted showing off a jar of centipedes to the frat-brothers in togas. It was the first time I saw centipedes outside of LuLu’s; I didn’t even know they were real. He unscrewed the top and made some nursing-school girls smell them, saying he confiscated them from a smuggler. ‘I sampled some before I came over,’ he said. ‘Wanna buy one? Primo stuff! You know, the secret to driving bug-eyed is to go faster than you think is safe.’ The crowd’s uneasiness made me sure that if I got Lio to show his heart on his sleeve, the party would be on my side. I finished my beer and asked Faith to get me another. I wasn’t planning to drink it—I just didn’t want her to see what I did next. I was drunk enough already.”

“Yeah, bug-sticks and alcohol work together like that.”

“As Faith left, I said to Lio, ‘It looks like the smuggler got the best of you. You’re selling centipedes with no antennae. Everyone knows the pollen is the best part.’ I’d heard that’s the case with crickets: the antennae and the eyes. ‘It’s basic biology!’

“He finally noticed me. ‘You again? You wanna take this outside?’

” ‘Why bother?’ I whipped off my shirt. ‘Fight me right here!’ The whole party was immediately against me. Everyone gave me this awful look. Lio laughed. He boasted I was half his weight and scrawny like a monk, and he’d beat the smug out of me. ‘All I’m worried about is cutting my knuckles on your stupid sunglasses. Take ’em off.’ The frat was ready to tackle me to the floor, but since he was enjoying the spotlight, Lio took off his sunglasses. His eyes were bloodshot. ‘Your toga, too. I don’t want you blaming your bed-sheets for tripping you up.’ “


“I’d pinned him. He had to take off his bed-sheets, because he was riding a fig-maker victim-complex power-high. I’d given him the chance to be a macho-man, defending himself by beating some sense into a cruel yet puny God—but to make the most of it, didn’t he have to be a shirtless action-hero?”

“And then?”

“It was perfect. He saw the other guys were on his side, so he took the bet and lost big. He shrugged off that toga, in his boxers underneath, and every eye in the room was on his swastika-tattoo. He must’ve spent my twenty bucks doubling down, because it was bigger, bolder, and the spokes were correct, so he’d hired someone with one or two more brain-cells to rub together. The toga-brothers cringed in shame. ‘He is not with us!’ God, I could feel their indignity. Imagine explaining to cute nurses you’d been flirting with all night that your frat didn’t bring the skinhead. ‘I’ve never seen him in my life!’ I put my shirt back on. My work was done. The frat picked up Lio and—well, I didn’t plan this part—they chucked him off the balcony into the ocean.”

“And he washed up in Sheridan,” Jay whispered.

“I was drunk and bug-eyed, so I collapsed on the couch. Faith walked up to me with her arms crossed. ‘I saw that, Dainty.’ She knew I’d started the fight. ‘We don’t appreciate that sort of atmosphere in our apartment.’ I asked if she’d noticed the swastika-tattoo. ‘Yeah, I saw it. Now I don’t want him around, either.’ I told her how Lio had barged into Beatrice’s room. ‘Dainty, I’m gonna tell ya one time: I think that guy’s a colossal douche, and I think you responded poorly.’ I guess my means weren’t as skillful as I thought they were. I’m no Avalokiteshvara.

Jay sighed and capped his pen. He suspected Faith’s reaction wasn’t just about Dan: having allowed Lio into her circle to buy his bugs, she probably blamed herself for his move on Beatrice, but without the chance to retaliate against Lio, Dan bore the brunt of Faith’s scorn. “In Sheridan, I wanted to chuck Lio in the river. I can’t blame you for feeling the same way. I’m frankly impressed you can express that sentiment with at least the intention of teaching him a lesson. I just wanted him gone.”

“I guess Faith expected better from me than you do,” said Dan. “She let me pass out on the couch, but in the morning, she shook me awake to leave when Beatrice wanted to come out for breakfast. ‘Maybe we’ll talk again when we’ve decided you’ve cooled off.’ I was gutted. I wanted to finish smoking the cricket with Beatrice. ‘You want cricket?’ She shoved Lio’s water-pipe into my hands. ‘Scram!’ “

“Ah.” Jay found reason to pop open his pen again and continue writing. “I wondered where you got that bong. You named it after him?”

“A source of painful lessons,” said Dan.

“A great and complicated tool?”

“A tool? Definitely. Complicated? I guess. Great? I could take it or leave it. At the time, I took it.” Dan wiped his eyes. “As I brought the bong back to my apartment, I debated whether or not I actually wanted to smoke from it. What I really wanted was to undo chasing Lio and finish my bug-stick with Beatrice… but wasn’t I supposed to be learning to live without her approval? I had to try smoking on my own.”

“Did you really have to, though?”

“Well, maybe I felt a little Lio in me. But Lio’s bong was disgusting. You remember what it looked like, right?”

“Yeah.” Jay sketched a glass cylinder a foot tall with an erect stem poking from its bottom chamber to hold a bowl of powdered bug-bits. The top chamber had a percolator like a tiny tree with five hanging branches. “Like that?”

“Exactly, but…” Dan took the pen and scribbled all over the sketch. “It was opaque with crust. Cleaning it meant cleaning inside the five little fingers of that tiny glass tree. No wonder Lio never bothered—it was Sisyphean. A punishment!”

“And feeling responsible for correcting Lio’s behavior, you cleaned it for him.” 

“Of course. Wearing rubber gloves and a surgical-mask. I didn’t want to touch or smell anything in there.”

“How do you clean a water-pipe like that?”

“I had to look it up: rock-salt and isopropyl alcohol. You pour ’em both in and shake. The salt spins like flakes in a snow-globe and scrapes the gunk off.” Dan mimicked shaking the bong up and down. The action looked a bit masturbatory to Jay. “I did that for twenty minutes, and when I emptied the bong, most of the crust sloughed out. I refilled it again, shook it again, and emptied it again, and again, and again, until the glass was clear as a window. Then I filled the bong with water so smoke would have to bubble through the tree’s five fingers from the bottom chamber to the top chamber.”

“Like a multilayered sieve?”

“Sure. Then I smoked the bug-bits Lio had left in the bowl.”

“Did it as good as smoking with Beatrice?”

“It wasn’t cricket in that bowl, Jay. I had a nightmare of an experience.” Dan wiped tears from his cheeks. “Lio had been trying to make Beatrice smoke centipede. What would he do to her if she’d been so incapacitated?”

Jay wrote some final notes about Lio and flipped to another fresh page. “Can you tell me about that nightmare-experience?”

“Oh, it was just awful. I was… some kind of… orange… amoeba? The size of a man? All I could do was blorp and wriggle, wishing I didn’t exist. My fear turned into little white flecks floating in my translucent body. The flecks combined into teeth which ripped my insides apart.”

Jay supposed a Sheridanian might say Dan’s worms were stuck together, but not getting along. His father’s worms didn’t mesh with the worms he got from Lio. “Did you have eyes? How’d you know you were orange?”

“I felt orange. And, I felt a shadow pass overhead. A giant bird landed next to me like thunder. It was blue, like sapphire or lapis lazuli.”

“How’d you know it was blue?”

“I was hallucinating, Jay. I just don’t know. The bird had eyes like emeralds, too, and aquamarine robes. ‘You’ve dropped upon the Mountain,’ it said—I was an amoeba on a mountain, apparently?—‘but I can’t take you in filled with screeching teeth. My assistant will bring you to…’ ” Dan shuddered. ” ‘Anihilato, the largest worm, the King of Dust.’ “

“Anihilato.” Jay’s eyes widened and he took more notes. He swore he’d heard that name once, in a dream. “Doesn’t sound like a nice guy.”

“I was fucking horrified,” said Dan. “I didn’t know what Anihilato was all about, and I didn’t want to know. The bird sort of oozed into the red mountain, leaving me behind, and I freaked the hell out wondering what would happen next. The more I panicked, the more teeth spawned inside me. The teeth ripped me open and cracked each other with this awful screechy sparkly noise, like TV-snow. For a while I was a cramping gonad the size of a beach-ball, completely covered in canines sadistically crunching sensitive gums suffering silently inside. Then a spinning narwhal tusk drilled out of me, twenty screeching feet.”


“The tusk helped, actually. It let some air reach my gums, so I was almost able to breath again. When I was a kid, my mom always told me to focus on my breathing when I panicked.”

Thank goodness, thought Jay. “Did you panic a lot as a kid?”

“I’m constantly panicking, Jay. I never stop. My mom blamed my dad for telling me all about different Hells. But anyway, when I focused on my breath, I sort of inhaled the teeth back inside me, leaving pores which gasped for air. Each wheeze pulled the tusk back in until I was just a ball of gums. My gums relaxed, and I dissolved into a puddle of mud.”

“You fixed your own teeth. Maybe the bird wouldn’t take you to Anihilato?”

“No, no—I still felt the teeth inside me, struggling to manifest. The teeth danced out of my mud as worms, like goop on a subwoofer. Each time a worm left the mud, the mud became a little clearer, and when it was just a puddle of water, thousands of worms were tangled in pandemonium like one worm the size of a small dog.”

“Were you the water, or were you the worms? Or… both?”

“The water, I think. The worms didn’t seem to enjoy being on the red mountain, because they kept squirming on the hot, dry dust. They crawled to the mountain’s edge and jumped off—but suddenly this white fox dropped out of the sky and grabbed the worms like a snake, by the neck.”

“Huh,” said Jay. “When I smoked centipede, Faith was a fox made of snow. We were on a red mountain, with a bird, and I puked teeth. We’ve got lots of overlaps in our trips.”

Dan rolled his eyes. “You mean people smoking the same entheogenic bug might have similar hallucinations? Color me surprised. Foxes are dirt-common iconography—Inari Ookami‘s got white foxes—but in hallucinations? Impossible.”

“Point taken. Go on.”

“The fox beat the worms senseless against the mountainside by whipping its neck back and forth. Worms tried escaping individually, but they’d tangled too thoroughly to separate. When the worms went limp, the fox let them go and breathed on them to freeze them whitish-blue. Then the fox turned into a cloud, picked up the worms like a tornado, and lifted them away!”


“I dunno. Just… away.”

“Was your red mountain in a desert, Dan? Were there sandy dunes?”

“I was a puddle of water, Jay. I had no clue about anything. But I wasn’t water for too long: the fox’s icy breath left a fern of frost across me, and each time a frost-leaf melted, it left a little bubble. The bubbles drifted into my human shape, then soaked the water up. I was me again.”


“It wasn’t perfect. I had to spin my head 180 degrees and swap my legs. Somehow it didn’t seem weird to do. At this point, I didn’t even remember why I was here. I just sat on the mountainside. And now I had eyes, so, yes, Jay, I was in a desert of sandy dunes.”

“Oh ho. Did you see worms raining from the mustard-yellow sky?”

“Yeah, a few. I watched them for a while, sitting on the red mountain, waiting to bake to death, but then that white cloud reappeared on the horizon, and I thought the fox might be coming back to pick me up, too. I ran and hid behind some rocks. The fox clawed at the mountain and a cave opened, and the big blue bird climbed out. The fox and the bird had a conversation, but I couldn’t hear it. The fox tried diving into the cave, but the bird made it wait. The bird reached into the cave with ten blue human arms, endlessly long, and pulled out a golden wing. The wing lined the cave like a thick rug and heavy curtains, so the fox and the bird could climb into the cave without touching the rocky walls. The cave stayed open, so I crept up to it to peek inside. It breathed like a beast, and the golden wing adjusted itself like an uncomfortable tongue. When the cave started closing, I realized that if I didn’t jump in now, I might be trapped on the red mountain forever. At least if I was inside, I’d have a bird to talk to! I threw myself onto the golden wing and the red mountain swallowed me like a pill.”

“Then what?” asked Jay. “What was inside the red mountain?”

“It buzzed like hornets and locusts. Everything was green haze.” The drinks were really kicking in. Dan struggled to hold his head off the bar. “The golden wing became a path to the green distance. I tried to walk that golden path, but the green sky flickered and nauseated me. The buzzing was so loud I covered my ears—my elbows felt wind, pushing back on my left and forward on my right. The wind was spinning me. I walked against the wind and the the green sky separated into yellow and blue, like videotape of a propeller syncing with the frame-rate. The desert’s yellow sky was above me and Earth’s blue sky was below.”

Jay sketched the scenario in consideration. “So maybe the golden wing was spinning, and you counteracted the spin by walking at an angle?”

“Or maybe the skies were spinning. I don’t want to think about it,” Dan murmured. “On the green horizon between yellow and blue, I saw a white light like the sun. As I approached it, the buzzing died down, but the path veered away! I left the sun behind and the buzzing came back. Luckily I came across another golden path, stuck out of mine like this.” Dan shook a hand diagonally. “Next thing I knew, I was walking up that new path directly toward the light. The buzzing died down again.

“When I got close enough, I saw objects orbiting the sun. Their periodic shadows made it look like the light had a heartbeat. I couldn’t tell how big the objects were, or how far away, so I was surprised when one smashed on my forehead. It was an egg. There was a blue fledgling inside, with a beady eye on one side of its head and a hundred human teeth on the other. I couldn’t bring myself to look away from its gaze, or even wipe yolk from my face, but then the yolk slid off on its own. The white shell, scattered in three dimensions, scattered back around the bird. The egg kept orbiting like nothing happened.

“I kept walking to the sun. The golden path went so close to it I could’ve reached out and touched the fire, and I really, really wanted to, for some reason. Just before I jumped in, the big blue bird swooped behind me and restrained me in its wings. The bird told me that inside the red mountain you see all of reality at once. The sun in the center is the origin of all sentient beings—the ‘indefatigable meristem,’ they called it—and if I’d touched it, my worms would’ve scattered across the cosmos.”

“The indefatigable what?

“A meristem. It’s the part of a plant where all the new cells come from. The bird also explained that our reality’s shape is an infinite-dimensional torus, circles swept in circles swept in circles and so on. Then the bird said it was going to put me in a box and bury me in the desert. When I turned to beg the bird for forgiveness, I woke drooling on my couch. My throat felt painful and raw, so I drank six glasses of orange-juice and puked. I cleaned the bong for an hour. It wasn’t dirty. I just felt dirty inside.” Dan slumped over the bar, conclusively and concussively.

Jay capped his pen and closed his notepad. “This is fascinating. In Sheridan, Virgil Jango Skyy told me the afterlife was a desert where our worms had to find a mountain, just like Uzumaki’s mountain in LuLu’s. And the bird’s description of reality as a torus is just like how Akayama describes the Wheel.”

“Duh. You told me yourself, Tatsu ripped LuLu’s from Sheridan. Centipedes probably make everyone see about the same stuff, because the mechanics of cognition are basically indistinguishable from person to person.” The sentence was almost incomprehensible through Dan’s drunken slur. “We have different personalities based on our different backgrounds, but underneath, everyone is alone in a desert. Maybe Tatsu got bug-eyed themselves. I don’t care. I haven’t smoked centipede since, and I never will again.”

Jay pat him on the back. “You don’t have to. I won’t even ask you to visit Sheridan if you don’t want to.”

“Take me to Sheridan, Jay. Please. I have to do something with my life.”


“But… tell me… honestly… When you and Faith came to my apartment to smoke centipede, was Beatrice actually on-call at the hospital? Or did you three conspire to give her that excuse in case I made her uncomfortable?” Jay didn’t answer. “That’s what I thought.” Dan clenched his eyes shut. “I’m hopeless. Hopeless!”

“You’re not hopeless, Dan.”

“I keep wondering if Lio’s better off than me, making figs, purposefully ignorant, busting into women’s bedrooms trying to score.” Dan turned his head to face the other way. “Did you know I’m a virgin?”

“I wouldn’t wish Lio’s state-of-being on anybody,” said Jay, “and I’m a virgin, too, but I don’t mind.”

“That’s different,” said Dan. “You’re trans.” Jay pursed his lips. He’d respond, but Dan was now snoring. Uncle Featherway entered from the wake. Jay waved him to a bar-stool.


Jay’s Interview with Virgil Jango Skyy

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Sheridan’s smallest island was barely big enough to hold the shortest runway Jay had ever encountered. Landing was so stressful he curled his toes. Why wasn’t the airport on the mountainous main island on the horizon, or the middle island between this one and that one? He wrote the question in his notepad.

Disembarking, Jay realized the plane’s flight-attendants and the runway’s crew-members were like Faith had described in her interview: every skin-color imaginable was among them, and most of them were bald or almost bald. Maybe the Islands of Sheridan stayed off Wikipedia because Sheridanians staffed every aspect of entry and exit like bouncers at a secret club. He tried to call his parents, and Dan, and Faith, but his phone had no signal.

Swapping from a foggy winter night in the northern hemisphere to a sunny summer day in the southern hemisphere made Jay sweat like a wet sponge. The whole island was hot white sand. Shore-side palm-trees spread feathery fronds like frozen fireworks to welcome waves to the beach. Just a handful of people followed him off the plane, and half of them just wandered a row of gift-shops along the runway as the plane refueled. Only five others joined him in entering an airport, plain brickwork, wide and tall as a warehouse. Jay gasped when an automatic door loosed a cold-front of air-conditioning over him.

In the same room for arrivals was a security-checkpoint for departures, where armed personnel led dogs on taut leashes around luggage leaving the islands. Jay knew the dogs were sniffing for crickets and centipedes because a sign said so in ten languages. Jay could read most of those languages, but one he’d never even seen before, so he assumed it was Sheridanian; it looked like every other language mixed together. For the illiterate, a cricket-and-centipede icon was crossed out in a red circle.

In comparison to departures, customs would be a breeze. Jay bookmarked the photo in his passport with his completed declaration-card. “Eva! Get our stuff ready!” Mr. Hurricane, in dark sunglasses and red Hawaiian shirt, sat on Jay’s right with his wife and her six-year-old daughter. “I don’t touch paperwork—that’s your job!”

On Jay’s left, a middle-aged Chinese couple had prepared their documentation and now huddled over a well-worn and densely-annotated Atlas, speaking in a dialect Jay didn’t recognize. He decided to introduce himself in his broken Mandarin. “[Hello. My name is Jay. I come from the United States.]”

The couple was struck mute, then laughed at each other. “[I’m Zhang.]” He shook Jay’s hand. “[This is my wife, Li Ying. We’re from southern China—but we travel so much, we haven’t been there in years!]”

Jay appreciated Zhang dumbing down his dialect. “[I like your map. You’ve got so many pen-marks in places I’ve never visited.]”

“[This is nothing,]” said Li Ying. “[Look here.]” She opened the Atlas to a Winnie-the-Pooh bookmark and unfolded a map of China. Jay fawned over decades of notes written along rivers and railways. There was scarcely an area of a hundred acres the couple hadn’t documented visiting. “[After covering China, we toured every country and Antarctica. Now we’re exploring every island.]”

Jay took out his notepad and pen to ask some questions, but he was interrupted by Mr. Hurricane. “Ching chong, bing bong!”

“Um. Wow,” said Jay. “Seriously, dude?”

“What’s the problem? Can’t you take a joke?” asked Mr. Hurricane. “I’m just joining your conversation. What’re you talking about?”

Zhang showed him the Atlas. “We have—uh, a map,” he said, reaching for English words. “It shows where we go for many years.”

Mr. Hurricane blankly evaluated the Chinese script. Jay could barely read the handwriting, so he doubted Mr. Hurricane understood a single character. He pointed his hairy forearm at the Atlas. “What’s that?” Jay sucked air through his teeth. If Mr. Hurricane recognized any character, it’d be the swastika.

“It’s, uh…” Li Ying read nearby notes. “A temple called Jokhang.”

“No, the spinny thing.” Mr. Hurricane tapped the swastika. Jay thought his sunglasses and poker-face did little to hide the disingenuousness of his ignorance. “What is it?”

Zhang sensed a cultural divide and muttered in his wife’s ear. “This shape,” he said, “is used for temples on maps. It means…” He looked at his wife.

“Well-being?” she suggested.


“Auspiciousness?” she guessed, struggling with the central syllables.

“To cross your arms?” tried Zhang, folding his arms over his chest. “There are lots of meanings. It’s popular in many areas.”

The more swastikas Mr. Hurricane found on the map, the wider his grin became. He turned to his wife. “You hear that, Eva? It’s popular in many areas.” She continued reading her daughter a picture-book, so he shook both their shoulders. “Hey, Eva, Lilly, you hear that? They said it’s popular—“

Jay excused himself from the conversation as soon as a customs-official appeared. Jay relinquished his passport. “Thanks.” The customs-official compared Jay’s passport-photo to the real deal. Jay had gained twenty muscular pounds since last renewing his passport, and he had forty hours of five o’ clock shadow. The customs-official didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Jay realized, being in international waters, a passport-check seemed out of place. He peeked over the desk to see the customs-official was just searching for his name on a list of people to turn away. While waiting for his passport back, Jay reviewed the airport’s workers. They had all varieties of skin-colors: the customs-official pale yellow, the security-guards reddish, umber, dark violet, and vanilla beige. Most were bald or mostly bald.

Oran dora. Welcome to Sheridan.” The customs-official stamped Jay’s passport and returned it. “Enjoy your stay.” While Jay walked to the lobby, departing tourists complied with stringent security. They removed their shoes and sent their bags through X-ray machines. When a dog took interest in their luggage, security-guards searched it for crickets and centipedes.

One dog was distracted by Jay. Its leader tugged its leash but the dog wouldn’t look away, so he called another security-guard and pointed at Jay. Jay meekly smiled at them. The two security-guards brought the dog to sniff at Jay’s ankles. “Would you remove your backpack?” He did. The dog sniffed the zippers and put a paw on the outermost pocket. “Would you open it, sir?” He did. Before the security-guards could inspect the contents, the dog bit the corner of a white envelope and dragged it out.

“Woof,” it said proudly.

One security-guard took the envelope. “What’s in here?”

“A friend’s holiday-card,” said Jay.

“Is that all?”

“I’ll open it for you.” The security-guard returned the envelope and Jay tore it open. Inside was a holiday-card featuring a snow-white fox traipsing through a whimsical winter wood, and a bug-stick. It was an exquisite specimen hand-grown by Faith with wings hand-wrapped by Dan. Jay was sorry to give it up. “I apologize. I had no idea.”

The security-guards hee-hawed and slapped their knees. “Keep it!” said one. “You’re the first person to ever smuggle a cricket into Sheridan! It confused our dog.”

The other scratched the dog behind the ears. “Good girl!” he said. “You caught him!”

Jay stashed the bug-stick in the envelope and put it back in his backpack. “Do you get lots of smugglers?”

While one security-guard led the dog away, the other considered the question. “Crickets are only legal in Sheridan and Amsterdam, but they grow in most conditions. There’s no reason to smuggle—people plant their own. But some visitors forget bug-sticks in their luggage, so we confiscate them to avoid international incident. Centipedes are illegal everywhere, and they only grow near the peak of our main island. Anyone with a centipede in their luggage is a smuggler, and a devoted one. We catch at least one a month, but we know some slip through.”

The lobby hosted a kiosk displaying a map of Sheridan’s three islands. The man at the kiosk’s desk was about thirty years old and rail-thin, but his face was littered with laugh-lines. His skin was copper-colored and, uncommonly in Sheridan, his oily black hair was shoulder-length.  Although everyone else in the airport wore formal western-style uniforms, this man wore an old yellow V-neck and torn jeans. His eager grin invited Jay’s approach. “Hi. I paid for a spot on the bird-watching tour taking off today, under Diaz-Jackson?”

“Jadie Jackson! Oran dora! The Biggest Bird shakes hands with you!” The man leaned over the desk to hold both Jay’s hands together as if consoling him on the loss of a loved one. “My name is Michael. I’ll be your guide.”

“Jadie?” Jay let Michael shake his hands. “Maybe you just heard my initials, like J. D. Jackson?”

“Take this, Jadie.” Michael gave him a phrasebook. “Most islanders outside the airport speak little English. Impress them by speaking Sheridanian.” From customs, Zhang, Li Ying, and Mr. Hurricane’s family joined Jay at the kiosk. Michael grinned and greeted each of them with a phrasebook. “Bird-watching tour? Bird-watching tour? Ah, you’re all here!” Michael vaulted the desk. “Let’s lunch in my family’s restaurant. Then we’ll browse the bazaar, and then we’ll ferry to the second island of Sheridan!” The tour followed Michael’s flip-flops through another automatic door into his family’s restaurant, which accounted for over half the square-footage of the brickwork airport. Natives eating there wore tropical fare like sarongs in every color tied in every way. Michael escorted the tour past chatting airport-workers to a long dining-table. At the bar, two men with Michael’s same shoulder-length haircut lounged over liquor. One was darker-skinned than Michael, the other lighter and blonde. Michael hailed a dancing waitress in Sheridanian. “Anaita! Oran dora! [Tour of six today.]”

Oran dora, Michael. [Don’t lose any this time.]”

“[I think some are American, so one platter won’t be enough. Bring two, three if my brothers aren’t too busy with the other tables.]”

“[On it.]” The waitress whipped her long braid spinning a sarong-flaring curtsy for the tour-group. “Welcome! If your tour leaves you hungry for more Sheridan, stay a night upstairs in my sisters’ apartment! Breakfast is complimentary.”

Jay sat across from Zhang, Li Ying, and Mr. Hurricane. Eva helped her daughter Lilly read a children’s menu on Jay’s left. Michael sat on Jay’s right and clapped his hands for attention. “Let’s introduce ourselves! My name is Michael.” He gestured to the Chinese couple and flipped flawlessly between regional dialects. “[Any of those sound familiar? I learn lots of languages.]”

Zhang raised his eyebrows. “[I’m impressed, but maybe English would be more accommodating?]”

Mr. Hurricane glared over his sunglasses. “What’re you two on about?”

Zhang pursed his lips. “My real name is hard for some to pronounce, so please, call me Craig,” said Craig.

Li Ying closed the Atlas. “Call me Suzy,” said Suzy. “My English is not as good as my husband’s, so let’s practice together.”

Mr. Hurricane began. “My name’s Henry. This—“

The waitress brought two platters of pastries and placed one on Jay’s side of the table. “This is my lovely wife, Anaita,” said Michael. “Enjoy this authentic Sheridanian cuisine cooked by seven of my brothers! Please, Henry, continue.”

Even while Anaita walked around the table to place the other platter before him, Hurricane Henry reached across the table and dragged the first platter to his side. Anaita scornfully circled around the entire table to place the second platter on Jay’s side, too. Henry ate a pastry in each hand to show his indignation at being interrupted.

While Henry chewed, Jay photographed his platter. Each pastry was a crescent of crispy dough. He bit one in half: it was filled with crunchy green lettuce, red crab-meat with black char, orange and purple boiled carrots, and a brown lump of grains. Shredded coconut added nutty white sweetness. It was delicious, he wrote in his notepad. Craig and Suzy annotated their Atlas.

Henry continued his introduction with his mouth full. “I’m Henry. This is my wife, Eva, and my step-daughter, Lilly.” He paused as if finished. When Jay opened his mouth, Henry cut him off. “My wife drags us here every few months to look at birds, but we’ve never gone all the way to the main island. I wanna climb to the top, but that thing you made me sign says we have to stop like halfway up. How come?”

Michael smiled and nodded. Without turning from Henry, he spoke to Anaita in Sheridanian. “[The red one seeks to sneak to Sheridan’s shrouded peak.]”

“[Tell him we’d give his widow a job waiting tables.]”

“What’d she say?” asked Henry.

Michael’s practiced customer-service smile stretched until his eyes closed. “She says the summit of the main island is sacred and we mustn’t trespass, but the view where we stop along the trail is truly terrific!”

Jay waited to make sure Henry had finished. Then he pointedly waited longer, just to make sure. “My name’s Jadie Jackson. I’m a travel-writer and photographer, but I promise not to take pictures of birds.”

Michael’s crocodile-smile melted into a slightly genuine one. “Thank you for reminding me: birds cannot be photographed. You can take pictures of anything else, but if we notice a bird in a shot, you’ll be asked to delete it. It’s a religious matter of great importance to island-natives like myself.” At the mention of religion, Henry rolled his eyes so vigorously his head bobbed. The motion wasn’t hidden behind his sunglasses as he probably intended. Jay rolled his own eyes at Henry unabashedly. “I’m going to speak with my brothers, Gabe and Raphy.” Michael bowed to excuse himself from the table. “Please, call Anaita to order an entrée. Our restaurant will accept any currency, but expect change in sand-dollars!”

Craig and Suzy chatted over their Atlas in Chinese, but Henry’s family barely spoke as they ate. Jay tried again at calling his parents, and Dan, and Faith, but his phone still had no service at all. Instead he used his Sheridanian phrasebook to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. Local airport-workers recommended the upstairs accommodations to pilots of passing flights. The apartment above the restaurant was run by seven of Michael’s sisters-in-law. Anaita and her other six sisters worked as waitresses serving food prepared by seven of Michael’s brothers. Michael and six more brothers, including Gabe and Raphy, herded tourists across the islands. Of the seven touring brothers, four would be away at any time. Each day, one returned and another departed. Jay wondered if this family of twenty-eight owned the airport, too. This tiny island held Sheridan’s whole foreign market in shady palms.

In a corner of the restaurant was a bucket of crabs, red, pink, and orange. There were so many crabs Jay worried they might overflow, but whenever a crab was about to fall from the bucket, other crabs would pinch it to keep it from leaving. Occasionally a waitress would collect a few crabs from the bucket and show them off to customers, then bring them to the kitchen to be cooked. When it was Anaita’s turn to collect crabs, Jay raised his hand to get her attention. “You want crab?” she asked.

“I’ll take a small one, but I really just wanted to ask, who catches all those?”

She laughed. “Crabs catch each other! Put one in a box, put the box in the ocean, pull it out the next day packed full. A crab can’t stand to be alone!”

After a long, lazy lunch, Michael led the tour out another automatic door onto warm white sand cooling with the evening. The airport filled the half of the island behind them, and the half before them was a crowded bazaar of colorful tents where merchants openly smoked odorous bug-sticks. Michael instructed the group to meet him on the west side of the island at sunset. “There we’ll board our overnight-ferry. You can use any kind of currency in the bazaar, but expect sand-dollars in change. They’re the only tender accepted on Sheridan’s main island.”

Jay browsed the goods of two hundred islanders. As before, he noticed huge variety in the skin-colors and body-shapes of native Sheridanians. The tallest wrapped crickets in their wings for the shortest to sell. The lightest and the darkest offered full-body massages, one rubbing the left side, the other rubbing the right. The slimmest sold necklaces of shells next to the fattest threading beaded bracelets. One tent sold candy eggs to young boys and girls. The next tent sold plush birds to elderly islanders as gifts for grandchildren.

“Huh.” Jay squeezed a plush bird. The craftsmanship was impeccable. He flipped through his phrasebook. “Um… Oran dora.” The phrasebook didn’t explain what that meant, but he heard all the islanders saying it. “[Why do you… sell them?]” The girl running the tent shook her head and leaned in to listen to Jay’s second attempt. He pointed to a Sheridanian phrase repeated often in the book. “[Don’t take pictures of birds?]”

“Oh!” She laughed. “Not real bird! Okay to make!” She offered him another plush. “Want to buy? American cash okay!”

“[Two please.]” Jay paid ten dollars and chose an orange fledgling and a white fledgling from the wide palette available. The merchant gave him sand-dollars as change. “[May I take a picture?]” The merchant nodded and Jay photographed the stall.

Eva and Lilly wandered by the plush birds. Lilly pointed to the back of the tent. “Mommy, look at that one!” The merchant pulled down the red ostrich-sized plush. It had tail-feathers like a peacock’s downy dress. The merchant stuck her arm up its neck like a puppeteer. Lilly laughed at the dance she made it perform. “It’s funny!”

Eva seemed wary of the giant puppet. “Let’s buy a small one after the tour.”

“Good thinking,” said Jay. “It’d be tough to carry that big red guy on the hike.”

For the first time, Jay and Eva made eye contact. Jay thought her thin pink lipstick was pretty. She gave him a sorry smile as if apologizing for her husband, who was conspicuously absent. “The smaller ones are cuter anyway.”

“Henry said you go bird-watching here pretty often.” Jay shaded his eyes from the setting sun. He, Eva, and Lilly started west for the ferry. “What’s your favorite bird?”

Henry’s the one who insists on our trips to Sheridan,” she said. “I think he brings us just as an excuse. He usually makes us turn back after visiting this market, where the only birds are plush.”

“Daddy says I’m old enough to go to the big island!” said Lilly. “He says I’m old enough for a lot of things, now.”

Jay wanted to ask more about Hurricane Henry, but Michael ushered them aboard the ferry and into separate sleeping-quarters. Across the hall from him, Craig and Suzy wrote in their Atlas. They both wore swimsuits, having spent their time on the first island diving for sand-dollars, tanning, and being massaged. Jay might’ve joined them, but he always preferred being fully clothed among strangers, especially abroad.

Jay studied the Sheridanian phrasebook. The words for body-parts were all too familiar: a head was a “ZAB,” torso a “ZAP,” left shoulder a “ZAG,” right shoulder a “ZAY,” left thigh a “ZAO,” right thigh a “ZAR,” and so on. He should’ve tried interviewing the masseuses about LuLu’s.

He saw the waxing moon through a porthole. Jet-lag caught up with him and he collapsed into his cot.

Jay woke before sunrise and counted his fingers: ten. He considered supplementing a candy-bar breakfast with Faith’s bug-stick, but he knew the others would smell the smoke, so he just admired the cover of her holiday-card. Under a pithy phrase printed inside, Faith had sketched a white fox with a speech-bubble. ‘Love you JayJay! Share that cricket with Virgil Jango Skyy if you meet him. I owe Jangster a bug-stick!’ The longer he spent in Sheridan, the more Jay was convinced Faith had actually met these mysterious monks.

Jay stepped above-deck to photograph Sheridan’s smallest island from the stern. The ferry’s wake framed the sandy bump, back-lit by sunrise. Across the boat, at the bow, Michael leaned on the rail watching the second island approach. The second island’s shore waved scrawny palms, but its pregnant hillock wore healthy pines. Sheridan’s mountainous main island waited on the horizon, a perfect cone. It was a Kodak moment, but Jay hesitated to get a candid from behind. “Can I take your photo in just that pose? Your longing gaze would make a great blog-header.”

Michael nodded and Jay snapped a few photos. When he heard Jay’s camera-shutter stop, Michael turned and saluted like a ship’s captain. “Oran dora, Jadie! Good morning.”

Jay took more photos in appreciation of Michael’s cheesy expression. Michael cleared his throat and extended a flat palm. Jay greased the proffered palm with sand-dollars. “I hope you can show me the best photo-spots.”

“You’ve pulled my Chain, I’ll spin your Wheel.” Michael counted the sand-dollars. “Jadie, shoot the second island while you have the chance. When we arrive, it’ll be hard to take pictures without birds in them.”

“I meant to ask about that.” Jay reviewed photographs in his camera’s digital screen. “I read a pamphlet which said Sheridan’s religion has just three commandments, and your tour’s sign-up form listed the same three: no bird-photos, no centipedes, and no climbing above the clouds on the main island. Why not, like, ‘thou shalt not kill?’ “

Michael laughed. “Virgil Blue wouldn’t waste words explaining not to kill. Bird-photography isn’t obviously immoral, so Virgil Blue must remind us. It used to be any kind of bird-forgery was forbidden, including drawings and plush dolls. When introduced to the camera, Virgil Blue relaxed restrictions to just photography.”

Jay wrote that in his notepad. Michael confirming the existence of Virgil Blue gave more credence to Faith’s Wyoming encounter. Jay thought she’d ripped the name straight from LuLu’s. “Have you ever heard of a manga, or an anime, called LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration, or RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku?

“What’s a manga? What’s an anime?”

“Comics and cartoons from Japan. Virgil Blue was a minor character in one of my favorites.”

“Ah. We don’t watch much TV here in Sheridan.”

“Hmm.” Jay spun his pen. “What do merchants do with all the foreign currency they earn in the bazaar?”

“Trade it to my family for sand-dollars. We spend most of it maintaining the airport. It’s the only place in Sheridan with plumbing and power.”

“So why isn’t the airport on the main island? Wouldn’t it be easier if merchants didn’t have to ferry to the market?”

“You ask a lot of questions, Jadie.” Michael pat Jay’s cheek like he was a child. Jay wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be offended. “Sheridanians don’t like airplanes. They’re noisy, they impersonate the Biggest Bird, and they might bring disrespectful bug-smugglers. Anything Sheridanians don’t like starts with us on the sandy little island so the bigger islands can maintain a sense of purity.” When Jay finished penning quotes in his notepad, Michael pointed to the top of the main island. “It’s a clear day, right, Jadie? But look at Sheridan’s peak.” Indeed the sky was empty blue, but the peak of the main island wore wispy clouds like censoring fig-leafs. Jay zoomed-in his camera for a photo. “Even on the clearest days, the peak stays mysterious. No gaze can reach the summit.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” Jay asked anyway, “but what if someone breaks that commandment and hikes above those clouds? What happens?”

Michael’s eyes wound up the trail which threaded the main island like a drill. “After a Blue Virgil selects their successor, they retire above the constant cloud-cover never to return. No Sheridanian native would follow them into that sanctified territory, but historically—not in my lifetime—a few foreigners have trespassed searching for whatever secrets they thought we were hiding up there. We tell rumors of the consequences, and the rumors make me shiver. They’re almost too bone-chilling to recount.” Jay gave Michael the rest of his sand-dollars. “When someone trespasses on the sacred peak, they never return, of course. Moreover, anything of value to the trespasser is instantly ruined, even thousands of miles away. Their fields are razed, their pets turn feral, their spouses die, and their houses collapse on their children.”

“Oh, shit. That’s one way to handle colonialism.” Jay sketched a quick map of the Islands of Sheridan, realizing the strict filters foreigners were fed through. Visitors began on the smallest island browsing unobjectionable goods in runway gift-shops. When they passed customs they could buy bug-sticks in the bazaar. For access to centipedes they had to pass through the second island, proving themselves worthy of the main one. Anyone demanding more would disappear above the clouds. Jay remembered Faith’s cricket in his backpack. “How high can we climb? I have a gift for Virgil Jango Skyy, and I’m sure he lives in Virgil Blue’s monastery.”

Michael pointed at a brown dot halfway up the main island. “We stop at that inn tomorrow night. The Virgils live a few miles higher.” He circled a white spot at the trail’s top, near the cloudy peak. “When we stop hiking, you could continue to the white-walled monastery of Sheridan—but I can’t guarantee your entrance, or your audience.”

Jay, Craig, Suzy, Henry, Eva, and Lilly ate brunch below-deck. Jay almost spilled tea when their ferry bumped a dock, where Michael led them ashore. The sand was coarse gravel which surrendered to wild grass, and the palms were short and scraggly before relenting to pines.

“Peep!” Jay reached for his camera out of habit, but caught himself and instead produced his notepad and pen to sketch the bright yellow bird. It cocked its head at Craig and Suzy. Lilly jumped giddily at its tiny hops across the beach. “Peep!” It did a dance which tempted a worm out of the dirt, and it ate the worm whole. “Peep, peep!”

“I remind you not to take pictures,” said Michael to the whole group, but mostly Henry. Henry pretended not to notice the bird as he fiddled with his smartphone. “This bird is a year old. You can tell because it’s the size of a chicken. Sheridanian big-birds live to be fifty and grow bigger than emus and ostriches. When hatched, they’re barely fist-sized.” When the tour finished fawning over the bird, Michael led them into the forest. Instantly a crowd appeared from behind the pines to flank them on the trail. They wore tail-feather skirts, wooden bird-masks, and nothing else. Craig and Suzy pulled each other close in fear, but Michael didn’t mind this crowd or their peculiar dress. “These dancers train to join Virgil Green at the top of the trail. Enjoy their frolicking as we hike uphill.”

The men and women flanking them began to dance like birds tempting worms from the dirt. They cycled to the front then retreated back to the forest, impossible to count. Bouncing bare-breasted women captivated Henry’s interest. “We shoulda done the whole tour ages ago. This is great!” He pulled the slack in his wife’s blouse. “Hey, Eva, join the party!”

Eva scowled and reached for the collar of Henry’s Hawaiian shirt. “You first!” Henry smacked her hands away and folded his arms over his chest. He settled for watching Lilly dance instead.

“May I take photos,” Jay asked Michael, “if I let you check them for birds?”

Michael sighed. “Turn off your flash, it disturbs the birds’ eyes. I’ll check your photos tonight.”

Jay snapped photos of the masked dancers. He was careless until he noticed birds of every color running between the dancers’ legs, enjoying the worms the dancing tempted up. He deleted those photos and angled his camera upward to catch only dancers in the frame.

As they climbed the hill, the pines became smaller and sparser. The dancers flanking them eventually broke formation to stay in the thick forest. The tour finally entered a clearing where at least thirty or forty bald men and women, each between thirty and forty years old, walked in a circle, clockwise. They wore only loincloths made of rags, and their footsteps in the grass were a sheet of sound like a waterfall. “These are the students of Virgil Green, he who chased snakes from Sheridan. In preparation for Virgil Blue’s monastery on the main island, students practice on this smaller summit. Please hold your questions until we exit the circle.” Michael led his group through the wall of walkers.

Enclosed by the walkers, another thirty or forty bald and barely-clothed students sat with eyes closed, facing the circle’s center. There sat a pink bird like a tropical penguin taller than Jay. To illustrate he wouldn’t take its photo, Jay capped his camera and started sketching the pink bird in pen. He wished he’d brought a microphone, because each seated student had a different chant rumbling in their stomach. Jay thought they sounded like a million motors.

Oran doran doran doran dora.”

Oran dora. Oran dora.

Oran, doran! Doran, dora! Oran, doran! Doran, dora!

Oran-dan-dan-doran. Oran dan-dan, dan-dorandan-dan.

Sometimes a seated chanter would stand and join the walking circle. Sometimes a tired walker would choose a seat and chant. Jay felt static in the air, like the congregation was an engine generating religious or spiritual potency. These feelings swelled when the pink bird in the center stood up on stocky orange legs, at least eight feet tall. Michael pointed to its nest of about thirty eggs and whispered to his tour. “Every day, the matriarch lays an egg. Every day, an egg hatches. Without the congregation’s constant worship, the eggs would be infertile!”

A sixty-or-seventy year-old man with robes of sea-foam green, skin blue-black like midnight, and a beard long and peppery stood and spread his hands. “Oran dora!” The chanters fell silent. The walkers halted and turned to the center. Then the robed, bearded man lectured in Sheridanian.

“What’s he saying?” asked Henry. Michael shushed him. The big pink bird spread its stubby flightless wings to block its nest from the sun. An egg rattled. The bearded mentor continued lecturing. “No, seriously, what’s he on about?”

“I’ll explain after,” whispered Michael. The egg cracked. The big pink bird nudged it with its squat beak. One of the seated students questioned their bearded mentor, and he replied emphatically.

“If they’re doing this for tourists, they could at least learn English,” said Henry. “What’d the kid say?”

“The esteemed Virgil Green asked a riddle,” Michael quietly spat, “and the student asked for clarification. The students will contemplate the riddle until the next egg hatches tomorrow. This helps them visualize the Biggest Bird.” The egg split open and a blue fledgling blinked in the light. The big pink bird shaded the fledgling with its wings. Virgil Green sat. The standing students resumed walking and the seated students resumed chanting.

“Well what was the riddle?” asked Henry.

A seated student tugged Michael’s jeans. “[Would you take questions later? We’re trying to focus.]”

“[I’m sorry.]”

“What’d she say?” asked Henry. “What’d you say back?”

Virgil Green swiveled his head. The contrast between his dark skin and peppery beard made his slight smile seem scathing. “Oran dora, Michael. [Perhaps you should continue the tour?]”

“[Yes, we should.] Thank you, Virgil Green.” Michael bowed and led the tour-group through the other side of the walking circle. Henry lingered.

Click, click.

He lifted his sunglasses to appreciate the pictures he took. He hadn’t even turned off the flash. The walking students who witnessed him stopped walking. The students behind them had to stop, and the students behind them had to stop, until the whole circle stopped and even the students seated inside ceased their chants and turned to look. “No!” Michael grabbed Henry’s wrist and pulled him from the circle. Henry shook him off. “Delete them! Now!”

“We’re leaving anyway! Don’t touch me!”

“You were told not to photograph birds! Delete them!”

“It’s my phone! I’ll do what I want! You can’t take my rights from me!”

“When you applied for the tour, you signed a waiver!”

“With an H, good luck getting that to hold up in court!”

Eva groaned. “Henry…” As if she’d done it a hundred times before, she used both hands to cover Lilly’s eyes and ears.

“Delete them!” said Michael.

Henry flexed. Jay wasn’t impressed. “Or what?

“Or those bird-worshipers are gonna beat the worms out of you!” Michael shouted, “and if they’re kind enough not to beat the worms out of me, too, I’m gonna join them in beating the worms out of you, and your wife can carry you home in a body-cast or a coffin, I don’t care which!”

“You can’t threaten me like that!”

“We’re in international waters! Welcome to Sheridan, tooth-ball!”

Henry prepared to retort, but the bird-worshipers nodded in agreement with Michael. Virgil Green put a sympathetic hand on the big pink bird’s feathery forehead as she bent to comfort her fledgling. The fledgling’s left eye blinked uselessly, blinded by the flash. “Peep, peep!” Jay wiped a tear from his eyes before he sketched the scene in pen.

Henry showed them his phone and deleted the photos. “Okay, they’re gone! Alright? Fucking fascists!”

The tour-group shared a dinner of fish flavored with herbs and berries Michael brought from his family-restaurant, cooked on a fire he started himself. Then only stars and waxing moon lit the tour’s descent to the opposite shore of Sheridan’s second island. Another ferry waited at the pier, but the fifty-year-old ferryman blocked the dock with a sizable suitcase as he smoked the last of a cricket. He wore torn jeans and a white tank-top. He dropped the cricket’s smoldering butt and smashed it with his bare heel. Michael gathered the group out of earshot. “The second ferryman won’t let us aboard until we buy souvenirs. I hope the inconvenience isn’t too much trouble.”

The rest nodded, but Henry scoffed. Michael led them to the ferryman, who called out in Sheridanian. “Oran dora, Michael. [You told them my fare?]” Michael nodded and the ferryman opened his suitcase. It was packed with seashells of all sizes, colors, and kinds. “Cost is buying two shells. Foreign currency preferred. Children ride free.”

Jay admired the shells. Suzy took two cowries. Craig chose coiling worm-snails. The ferryman charged them a handful of yuan while Eva considered some clams. “I knew this place was a tourist-trap.” Henry didn’t even look at the suitcase. “I paid good money for this tour, and I got enough shells at the bazaar. How come we gotta buy shit?”

“You don’t gotta,” Michael said through a smile with gritted teeth. “I welcome you to hike back over the island and take the next tour’s ferry on its return to the airport.”

Jay chose the two largest shells: a conch speckled brown outside but rare pink within, and a spiral horn-shell seven inches long. “How much for these?”

The ferryman grinned and gave two thumbs-up. “Good taste! five US dollars for the conch, ten for the horn-shell.”

Jay gave him a twenty. “Can you deliver overseas?”

“Don’t worry, Jadie.” Michael spoke Sheridanian. The ferryman wrapped the shells in butcher-paper and marked them with sharpie. “I’ll ship them to you first-class.”

“Thanks,” said Jay. The ferryman must’ve deducted shipping from the twenty, because Jay received no change. “So, why sell shells here? Isn’t business better in the bazaar, or on the runway?”

Michael translated the questions into Sheridanian and returned the ferryman’s response in English. “He usually makes money ferrying from the main island to the bazaar. When he ferries for our tour-groups, we pay him with nights in the apartment, so he sells seashells for some pocket-change. He also says his sister is a monk, and he used to be a monk as well, so he spends half the proceeds on food for the dancers and Virgil Green’s congregation.”

“Huh. I’m glad to support local culture, I guess.” Jay joined Suzy and Craig on the dock behind the ferryman.

Eva paid three dollars for the pearly halves of a clam-shell. Henry shook his head in disbelief. “I give you all that money for a souvenir, and you waste it on a stupid-tax?” She ignored him. She gave the larger half of the clam to Lilly, and they both followed Jay onto the dock. Henry tried to walk with them, but the ferryman blocked him with his leg.

“Hey! Buy two shells or swim to the next island!”

“What? No one could do that! You’re holding me hostage for ransom!”

I did it!” said the ferryman. “My sister did it! Every monk makes the swim, just like the birds do!”

“So now you’re trying to shove your religion down my throat?”

Jay groaned. “Henry, dude, I’ll buy you some shells.”

Henry didn’t take the offer. Instead he reached into the pockets of his cargo-shorts and revealed two pitiful-looking sand-dollars. “I don’t sell those shells,” said the ferryman. “Those are currency-shells.”

“You sold them to my wife. You forgot already?”

Jay was flabbergasted by Henry’s combination of arrogance and incompetence. Did he really expect anyone to fall for such a lie? But the ferryman tssk‘d and waved Henry onto the dock. “[Children ride free.]”

Michael laughed and held his hands together. “Oran dora!

The ferry was built to bring a hundred Sheridanians at once to the bazaar and back, so below-deck, instead of individual quarters, the tour-group shared one large cabin of cots. There was more than enough room, so the tour-group naturally split into the corners of the cabin, but however much space he had to himself, Jay kept on his shirt and boxers.

While the others slept, Jay sketched birds in his notepad. He started with a fist-sized fledgling, then a chicken-sized adolescent, then a mature adult. He wished he had cell-service to call Faith and Dan; the full-grown Sheridanian big-bird looked just like a certain animated professor. LuLu’s anonymous author, Tatsu, had surely visited these islands.

“Jadie Jackson!” Michael sat beside him in his cot. “Did you enjoy the second island?”

“Absolutely! I hope that little bird is okay.”

Michael shook his head. “I’m afraid the matriarch usually puts blind little birds like that out of their misery. But don’t worry—most fledglings don’t survive adolescence anyway.”

“Aw. Well… C’est la vie.” Jay gave him his camera. “You wanted to check my photos?” Michael smiled at Jay’s shots of the masked dancers. He deleted one capturing a gray bird’s curious head in-frame. “You said Virgil Green asked his congregation a riddle. What was it? Like a Zen koan?”

“It might be too complicated to explain to a foreigner.” Jay wrote that down, so Michael tried explaining anyway. “In Sheridan we say a person’s soul is made of worms, and when we die, our worms go to the sun. Not the sun you know: the original sun, a desert with a mountain bigger than anything on Earth. Virgil Green asked, if a worm wanted to climb that mountain, how long would it take? How much longer would it take if the worm didn’t want to climb it? Such a worm might get stuck in a tooth-ball, like our friend in red. That why worms which know better tend to stick together.” He returned Jay’s camera. “Jadie, do you still want to visit the white-walled monastery of Virgil Blue?”

“If I can get there.”

“Well… If you can get there, please deliver this letter.” Michael gave him an envelope addressed in Sheridanian. “Monks live there whom I’ve missed for years.”

“Really? Who? Why not visit them in person?”

Michael’s long-strained smile finally wilted. “My family is fourteen brothers married to fourteen sisters. We once had twenty-eight children we taught to stitch plush birds to sell in runway gift-shops. They decided this was blasphemous and dedicated their lives to monastic study. They want no part of packaging our religion for tourists.”

Jay nodded as he took notes. Like the airport, the bazaar was kept on the smallest island to isolate Sheridanians from business-practices they considered unbecoming. “Well, I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear from you anyway.” He put Michael’s envelope in his backpack—but as he did, he felt something amiss. He checked every pocket. “Um. Michael, I don’t seem to have my passport.”

“I’ll tell the ferryman to look for it when he cleans.” Michael stood from the cot. “We’ll get you back to America. You’re not the first tourist to lose their passport.”

Jay woke in the night to a figure standing over him. They tossed something into his cot. “No!” Jay bolted upright and smacked the object away.

“Whoa, Jay, chill!” Henry picked the object off the floor and tossed it back into his cot. He wore his sunglasses even at night, below-deck. “Don’t wanna lose your passport again, do you?”

“Oh.” Jay tucked his passport into his backpack. “Where’d you find it?”

“You wanna smoke?”

“Not really, no.”

“It’s fine, I got extras. I bought armloads back at the bazaar.” Henry spread a handful of bug-sticks. That explained why Eva and Lilly shopped alone, thought Jay. “Half the stalls hock these things. That’s why we can mark up the price state-side, huh?”

Jay furrowed his brow. “I’m sorry?”

“Bug-sticks are a dime a dozen here, but back home I charge ten bucks a pop, or more. Can you believe the assholes running the stalls make change in fucking seashells? It’s theme-park funny-money!” Henry rattled sand-dollars in his cargo-shorts. “But I can’t complain, ’cause they got me past the ferryman for free. Betcha wish you’d thought of that, huh?”

“Huh,” agreed Jay. He drew up his covers and turned away to sleep.

“You know, guys like us gotta stick together. I used to be a cop, but those backstabbers threw me out for dealing bugs I took from the evidence lockers—and some other stuff,” he shrugged, “but that was the big one. Hey, wanna see my tattoo?” Jay said nothing, but Henry kept going. “How do you get your bugs past the dogs? Last time they sniffed my bug-sticks through air-tight jars, and airport-security grilled me for hours. I’d bribe them, but I spent all my cash on crickets, and I don’t think they’ll take sand-dollars.” Jay said nothing, so Henry continued. “I’m gonna put crab-meat in my bag. If a dog rats me out, I’ll show the crab and pretend that’s what the dog wants.”

“I’m not smuggling bugs, man,” said Jay.

“What, really?” Henry put his hands on his hips. “Oh, I get it. You’ll stash your supply in the seashells you’re shipping home. That’s smart, Jay. No wonder you blew fifty bucks on that junk.”

“I’m buying souvenirs for friends and family.”

“I bet,” Henry smirked. “I bought bug-sticks to make some friends, if you know what I mean. Presidential friends, like Ben Franklin. Am I right?”


Henry shifted his weight from one foot to the other and scratched his bald head. “You know, Jay…” He pointed at Jay’s backpack. “You said your name was Jadie, but your passport says Jay. How come?”

“No reason,” said Jay.

“Skimped on the fake passport, huh? I’m impressed with the holographic stuff. It looks legit. What’s your real name?” Jay said nothing. “I got my ‘Henry’ passport last year, after security banned me from the islands. My real name’s Lio.” Lio stuck out a hand for Jay to shake. When Jay didn’t shake it, Lio not-so-suavely transitioned the hand-motion into adjusting his sunglasses and the collar of his Hawaiian shirt as if he’d never meant to shake hands at all. “You’ve only got one cricket. Are you smuggling the hard stuff? Centipedes? You gotta show me how. I found your passport, after all. You owe me a favor.”

“How’d you know I’ve got a cricket?” asked Jay. “It was in an envelope in my backpack.” Lio didn’t answer. “Did you look through my stuff? Is that why you had my passport?”

“We should team up back in America. Like a gang, you know what I mean?”

“Get the hell away from me,” said Jay.


“I said fuck off!” said Jay. “I don’t know what you think is going on between you and me, but we’re not friends, I don’t like you, and if you don’t shuffle away right now, I’m gonna wake Michael and together we’ll chuck you off the boat.”

Lio looked Jay up and down. “I bet I could take you. You’re what, 160? How much do you bench? Think you could bench me?” He reached out to pull up Jay’s shirt.

“Hey—hey! Back off!” Jay pushed Lio’s hand away. When Lio reached more forcefully with both hands, Jay socked him in the nose.

“Ah!” Lio jerked back. He wiped blood from his upper lip. “You might’ve broken my glasses, you turd! I just wanted to see what I’m up against, bro, why you gotta be so violent like that?” Jay just glared and shook his head. Lio sneered as he retreated to his cot. “Jadie’s a girl’s name, gaylord.”

Sheridan’s main island wore a skirt of steep capes. Its only stretch of open coast welcomed the ferry to a lonely dock. Giant birds lounged by the sandy beach on either bank of a river running straight from the top of the island. When the birds floated in the ocean’s shallows, the river’s current swirled them clockwise if they were right of the mouth, counterclockwise to the left. “This beach is another sacred spot in the birds’ life-cycle,” said Michael. “When a fledgling on the second island grows to human-height, they swim to this shore. When they tire of play, they waddle the trail winding up the island until old age takes them. The bodies are burned and buried, but monks mark the height of each bird’s death with a porcelain egg. The porcelain eggs for former matriarchs of Virgil Green’s congregation get consecrated decoration. They’re known to climb higher than most other birds.”

Jay noticed half the birds were almost ten feet tall while the other half were half the height. The shorter birds dragged flowing tail-feathers behind them. Jay knew the larger birds were egg-layering hens, so he guessed the smaller birds with tail-feathers were their cocks. A cock spread their tail like a flaming curtain. A hen looked coyly over their shoulder. Eva covered Lilly’s eyes. Lio snickered as the squawking birds mounted each other on the sand. On cue, more birds paired off, some cock-to-cock, some hen-to-hen. Lio stopped snickering, but made disgusted effort to watch the matched pairs proceed. Craig and Suzy wrote a note in their Atlas. Jay sketched the orgy in pen. “If birds are only born on the second island, why are they mating here?”

“They mate for pleasure, of course.”

Michael led the tour onto the capes. Ocean spray blew them to a town of thatch-roofed, stone-walled cottages, where they ate breakfast in a cape-side cafe hosted by an elderly couple with long, braided hair. Native farmers and craftsmen came one-by-one to see the day’s tourists. Most were bald or had short hair, but no two had quite the same skin-color, or color of their sarong. Jay used his phrasebook to ask if he could take their photos, and they all eagerly obliged. Some dragged their extended families back to the camera. Some brought wares for Jay to photograph: metalsmithing, bouquets of crickets, hand-sewn plush birds, porcelain eggs and tea-sets, and more items like Jay had seen in the bazaar. One woman brought her goats to be photographed and offered hand-skimmed goat-cream for their tea.

As they ate, Michael pointed up at landmarks along the trail as the morning fog uncovered them. “That fence surrounds our largest cricket-farm, where the bug-sticks grow like grass. That statue commemorates a bird which paused waddling up the island to protect a lost human kid. That inn is where we stop hiking tonight, and some miles higher is the white-walled monastery of Virgil Blue. Above that, you can barely see centipede-bushes—a local entheogen, door to the next eternity. Then a permanent cloudy cap obscures the sacred peak.”

Jay thanked the cottage-hostess as she topped off his tea. It was hot sweet-tea, thick and opaque as butter. “Michael, I heard this island is the tallest mountain on Earth if you include the height beneath sea-level. Is that true?”

“Who told you that?”

“I read it in a red card-stock pamphlet.”

Michael chuckled. “Those monks probably consider the whole planet the underside of this island. Children climb it every day, just to ride the river down.” Lilly liked hearing that.

The hostess’ husband brought the main course: enormous hard-boiled eggs. Jay hesitated to partake. “We can eat eggs?” Michael nodded as he sliced his egg and drank the yolk like orange soup. “May I photograph mine?”

“Sure, sure.” Michael wiped yolk from his lips. “These are unfertilized eggs gathered from the coast. There’s no sacred seed inside.”

Jay bit white egg-meats. Yellow yolk spilled out. He sucked yolk from the egg like mango-pulp, but his yolk seemed smaller than Michael’s. He contented himself with egg-whites until another, larger yolk burst in his mouth. “Ah, very lucky!” said the cottage-hostess. “A double-yolked egg!” Jay drank the second yolk and photographed the double-chambered whites. He wondered if such an egg, being fertilized, would bear two fledglings, one, or ultimately none.

“Michael,” asked Craig, “how do you know the hosts of this cottage?”

“Cousins,” said Michael, “three or four times removed. We’ll find my relatives all over Sheridan. We’re all from the same egg, so to speak.” He saw Jay prepare his notepad and pen to ask about the idiom, but Michael knew they’d dallied too long over breakfast. He thanked the hosts and ushered his tour onto the trail before explaining. “Local legend says these islands were built by the biggest of the birds. She gave the first man, Nemo, an egg which hatched a hundred young. Our ancestors!”

“Oh,” said Lio, “that’s why you all look the same.” Michael scowled, as did Suzy, Craig, and Eva. Jay just sighed audibly and thinned his lips. He’d have phrased it differently, but he knew what Lio meant: the natives had all skin-colors and body-types, as if the Biggest Bird was desperate for diversity, but many were bald, emphasizing uniformly round jaws and pointed skullcaps. “Your heads are like eggs, or something.”

The path spiraled up and around the island into the piney forest girdling its midsection. Occasionally Michael pointed at trees behind which birds hid waiting for the tour to pass before continuing their epic waddle after them. Jay caught sight of one hiding bird which wasn’t a bird at all: a nude Sheridanian man, about fifty years old, was waddling up, too. Jay asked Michael about him. “He wants to be a monk,” said Michael. “After swimming here from Virgil Green’s island, he has to climb to the monastery just like the birds do.”

The first circle around the island took four hours. The second circle took half that, and the third circle took half that. The half of the island opposite the river was inhabited quite sparsely by goats, dogs, and frogs, but hamlets on either side of the river grew larger and more bustling with each revolution. From each bridge between hamlets, the river cut a clear view through the forest to the ocean. Jay took each chance to photograph the other islands from a higher vantage point every crossing. Groups of young Sheridanians would occasionally pass underneath the bridges shouting and splashing, riding the river to the coast. Lilly was excited to try it too, giving the six-year-old impressive stamina.

Hamlets used the fresh river-water to grow carrots, berries, nuts, and grains, which the tour had for lunch, and crickets, which the natives smoked left and right. The bug-sticks grew thicker here than in Faith’s cardboard-box. Their beady eyes surrounded antennae pregnant with pollen. As sunset neared and the forest darkened, the hamlets lit lanterns. Michael tapped his foot while Lio traded his sand-dollars for more bug-sticks. “Be sure to smoke all those before returning to the airport, Henry!”

Lio tssk‘d as the group started back on the trail, crossing another bridge over the river between hamlets. He sucked the end of a bouquet, ten crickets whose wings were wrapped together. “Eva, gimme my lighter.”

Eva clutched her purse. “Henry, you told me you wouldn’t smoke in front of Lilly.”

“Everyone else is smoking! Give it here.” Lio tried to reach into Eva’s purse. When she pulled it away, he grabbed her arm and snatched his lighter from one of the pockets.

Jay made eye-contact with Michael and Craig. He felt like they all wore a little Uzumaki Armor for the amount of information their eye-contact conveyed: all three men wordlessly agreed that Hurricane Lio had to be chucked in the river. But when Jay’s eyes met Eva’s, she glanced at Lilly. ‘Not in front of the kid,’ she signaled.

“Lilly, come here. Come here!” Lio lit the bouquet’s hundred eyes and puffed it, then handed the bouquet to his step-daughter. “Just like that. Gift from daddy.”

“But I don’t wanna.”

“Do it, baby-girl. Daddy told you to.”

Now Eva’s eyes gave Jay the green light. Jay nodded at Michael and Craig. The three advanced on Lio, but Suzy advanced faster. “No! Kids don’t smoke!” She knelt to Lilly and the little girl gave her the bouquet of crickets. “Don’t touch your wife like that! Don’t touch anyone like that! You’re a bad man, Mr. Henry!”

“Gimme my bug-sticks back! We’re in international waters, my kid smokes if I tell her to!” Lio reached for the bouquet, but Suzy threw it into the river. “You! You—” Lio noticed the advancement of Jay, Michael, and Craig, and not one unclenched fist among them. Only Suzy separated them from him. Lio swallowed his pride. “You owe me for that!” Suzy opened her purse and tossed thirty yuan in small bills on the dirt. Lio grumbled picking them up.

A lantern-bearing group in robes met them walking the other way. Eager to diffuse the tension, Michael bowed his head to them, so Jay did as well. “Oran dora! Each night, these monks bring news from the white-walled monastery of Sheridan.”

Oran dora,” replied the monks. “We bear the latest from Virgil Blue.”

“What does the Blue Virgil have to say this fine evening?”

“Nothing at all! Forty years of silence from our esteemed master. How wise not to waste a single word!” The monks carried the vital wordless message down the winding trail. Lio finished collecting his thirty yuan to find Eva and Lilly were already walking away with Suzy, while Jay, Craig, and Michael had lingered to stay between him and them. Jay felt like the second island, separating people by ferry.

The tour continued up the island until the pines grew scarce. The few birds who survived to walk beyond the treeline didn’t hide from the tour, but instead marched with proud, arthritic plod. Thankfully the aspiring monks still hid their nudity behind the birds they walked between. The birds nervously eyed woven nests left trail-side which held one porcelain egg for each bird succumbing to old-age at that elevation. Jay wondered if any bird had ever surpassed the island’s cloudy cap. Were they allowed to?

When the tour finally stopped at the last hamlet and their inn for the night, Michael pointed to the second island far below. “Look at the clearing where Virgil Green’s congregation sits and walks. When those students acclimatize to the sacred truth, they swim to this island and walk with the birds to the white-walled monastery above. I hope the sunset inspires within you the tranquility of understanding the Biggest Bird’s cosmic plan.”

Suzy and Craig cuddled on the nearby bridge and wrote in their Atlas by the dying light. On the other side of the bridge, Eva pointed to distant birds and Lilly practiced naming their colors until it was too dark to distinguish them. Then Lilly played with fireflies. Lio and Jay both took photos of the scenery, Jay with his camera and Lio with his phone. Michael watched Lio’s phone over his shoulder. “Henry, I hope there are no birds in your photos.”

“Better check Jay, too,” Lio grunted, “he’s taking more than me.”

Jay showed Michael his camera; he’d taken pictures of the stars, unfiltered by light or pollution. “I’d like to start hiking to the monastery before it gets any darker. You can keep my camera if you’d like, but I’ll take the flashlight-attachment to see my way.”

“Jadie Jackson, I know the owners of this inn. They’ll loan you a lantern. Keep your camera.”

While Lio made his way to the bridge, Jay reconsidered his photos of a bird-statue. The stone bird stood on a stone box filled with lit candles, like a shrine. Its wings shaded the statue of a toddler like it was its own fledgling. Jay loved the exquisite masonry of its feathers, but worried it was so lifelike he shouldn’t have taken pictures. Also, Michael had said bird-art was only allowed after the introduction of photography, but the statue looked far older than that, and the bird seemed to be wearing robes. Jay sensed an underlying context he wasn’t picking up on.

“Eva. C’mon.” Lio tried crossing the bridge to his wife and daughter, but Craig and Suzy were sitting in his way. “Let’s go to the monastery before it gets dark.”

“It’s already dark,” said Eva, “and Lilly has a blister from hiking. Maybe you can show us pictures in the morning?”

Michael gave Jay a lantern and a box of sugar-powdered pastries. Held at arm’s length, each pastry was barely bigger than the full moon. “The innkeepers suggest this offering might get you entry into the monastery.” Jay asked if his photos of the statue were acceptable. Michael just laughed. “Show the Virgils. They’ll love them.”

The fourth circle around the island took half an hour. The fifth circle took half that, and the sixth circle took half that. By the light of the lantern and the full moon, Jay hiked safely even as the trail hugged a steep drop on one side and a sheer cliff-face on the other. Uneven steps were carved into slick rocks lodged in the mountainside. Jay panted up such a flight to find it was the last, and now he had to hoist himself over the boulders unaided. He encountered the river for a final time as it flowed from its source-spring. There was no bridge, so he removed his shoes and socks to ford the current. He met no birds as he hiked. He still saw woven nests, but each nest held at most two porcelain eggs. Each egg wore painted lacework marking former matriarchs of Virgil Green’s congregation. Jay took photos of each nest and bowed his head out of respect.

When a stone ledge blocked him, Jay hoisted up the lantern and the box of pastries and climbed to them on his hands and knees. Finally he found a wide, paved path to the white-walled monastery. Jay lay on cool flagstones and snuffed his lantern to conserve oil. Fireflies would light his way.

“Hey. Hey!” Jay sat up. Lio stood below the ledge and raised his backpack. Jay wondered how many scrapes he’d endured refusing to remove his sunglasses, as if the moon was too bright. Lio shook his backpack at him. “Take it!”

“I’m not gonna carry your backpack for you.”

“C’mon, I know you’re taller than I am. Don’t lord it over me. Just take it!”

Jay sighed and hefted Lio’s backpack onto the ledge. “Did you have trouble hiking in the dark?”

Lio tossed a glowing jar. Jay, already holding Lio’s backpack, barely caught the jar before it hit the ground. “Hey, careful with that!” Lio kicked the ledge as he struggled climbing to Jay. “Lilly caught ’em for me.”

The jar was filled with fireflies. They flapped madly against the glass, struggling for air and signaling for help with their taillights. Half had already died. “Need a hand?” asked Jay. “Or two?”

“I got it,” Lio wheezed. Sweat dripped down his face. “I got it. I got it.” He finally pulled himself onto the ledge. “See? I don’t need your charity.”

“Hmm.” Jay gave Lio the backpack he’d lifted on his behalf. When Lio took it, Jay had a hand free to retrieve his lantern.

Lio smirked. “You needed a lantern, huh? I guess not all of us can be self-made men.” He smacked Jay on the back.

Jay pretended the smack made him stumble and he smashed Lio’s jar of fireflies on rocks beside the path. The survivors escaped, flashing thank-yous. “Whoops.”

“Ah, fuck! C’mon! Typical monkeying around.” Lio slung his backpack over his shoulders and started toward the monastery. “You can pay me back later.”

“I’ll have to apologize to Lilly.” Jay picked up his sugar-powdered pastries and walked the path. The white-walled monastery was close enough to count candles in its windows. “I can’t imagine you followed me here to visit the monastery, did you?”

Lio scanned the island all the way to the cloudy peak. “Did you seriously pay two hundred bucks for a tour just to come all this way and meet some bums in a nursing home?”

“Did you seriously come all this way to smuggle some bugs?”

“Hell yeah! Check it out.” Lio pulled his backpack to one shoulder and unzipped it. He carried nothing but glass jars. Half were packed with bug-sticks. The rest were empty. “I brought extra jars just for this! I know you’re collecting centipedes, man! You gotta teach me! Don’t pretend you’re really here to fuck with monks!”

“I’m really here to fuck with monks,” said Jay. Lio scoffed. “If you want centipede, maybe you should join me. Only Virgil Blue can properly prepare them.” Lio sniggered and smiled just to show his teeth. “I’ve heard, improperly prepared, the high is like being sliced by searing knives, or crawling through hot barbed wire.”

“You said you weren’t religious. You’re trying to trick me into your beta mindset, but that won’t work on an alpha like me.”

Jay shrugged. “I’ve smoked centipede properly prepared, and it’s not an experience I’d really recommend.”

“Yeah, I’ve smoked ’em too, and you’re right, they’re not worth the hype. But because of the hype, the thick ones sell for a thousand bucks a pop! Skip the monks and get centipedes with me! You still owe me a favor for finding your passport.”

The pair approached the monastery door. The white walls were tiled with thousands of sand-dollars. “I can’t believe you dragged your family along, just to pretend they dragged you.”

“That’s not the only reason! My dad’s rich,” said Lio. “Gotta show Lilly the ropes of running a business. I’m tryin’ to show you the ropes, too, but you don’t wanna learn. Guys like me gotta teach you a little thing called responsibility.”

Jay’s father was fairly wealthy, too, but brought him on business-trips abroad to teach him a completely different kind of responsibility than whatever Lio was offering. “Bleh. I’ve learned enough about your ropes seeing how you treat your wife and kid.” Jay photographed the monastery sans flash—the candlelight was perfect. “If I were you, I’d visit Virgil Blue. Maybe the Virgils could teach you to grow your own crickets so you can quit wasting time and money smuggling. You’d save on family-therapy, too, but I suspect not much.”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job!” Lio’s face was reddening like a Hurricane Planet. “I’m a free man, no one tells me what to do!”

“Sure, sure. Whatever you say.” Jay felt no obligation to help Lio, but would’ve felt wrong leaving him up here alone in the night. “When I’m done with the monastery, I’ll relight my lantern. You’ll see it if you don’t go too far. Then I’ll lead you through the dark back to the inn.”

“I didn’t ask for your help!”

“I didn’t ask for your company, but here you are. We’re both doing favors tonight.”

Lio raised a shaking fist and uncurled a finger to point at Jay. “You should be begging to collect centipedes with me. I’d teach you how to be a free man.”

Jay blinked in disbelief. “What? To be a free man, I gotta follow your orders?”

“No! Don’t you get it? Everyone else is telling us both what to do, so I’m the only one you should listen to!”

“I don’t think you know what freedom even is, let alone manliness. You make yourself the victim of everything you see because you can only justify your behavior by pretending to be oppressed. It’s puny, and I feel sorry for you.”

I’m puny? I’m not my wife’s doormat, and that makes me puny?” He shoved Jay, but Jay didn’t even lean away. “I wanna teach you to be a real man, and that makes me puny? You’re not a man at all!”

Jay just laughed. “Okay, okay, you caught me. I’m more than just a man! I’m a goddamn giant anime space-robot bigger than the fucking universe, and I don’t fit in your crab bucket!”

“Oh no. You’re one of those, huh?” Jay didn’t ask what Lio meant, because Lio himself didn’t seem to know either. “What’s in your pants?”

“Another, bigger space-robot, waiting to surprise you!”

“Ugh! You ‘people’ are all the same.”

Jay narrowed his eyes. He heard Lio’s quote-unquote. “What do you mean, ‘you people?’ “

“See? Playing the race-card, like I knew you would.”

Jay looked left and right, dumbfounded. “We’re the only ones out here, Lio, and I never mentioned race.”

“Now you’re trying to make me look like a racist, so it’s totally obvious you’re the real racist!” The more Lio spoke, the redder and redder his face became.

Jay couldn’t resist throwing fuel on the fire. “You’re digging yourself deeper and deeper into that victim-complex you call a skull. I wish I could help you, but the help you need, you’d call an insult.”

Lio shoved Jay against the monastery wall. Jay wasn’t restrained by Lio’s arms so much as his belly. He guessed Lio weighed at least 350 pounds. It was frankly impressive his hubris alone had carried him all the way up here. “Last chance, dipshit! Collect centipedes for me or else!

“Or else what?

Lio reached into his Hawaiian shirt’s breast pocket and pulled out a fucking knife. Jay’s heart beat like a drum. “Betcha wonder how I got this, huh?” Jay didn’t really care. The knife’s hilt was a cool-looking dragon which Jay might’ve appreciated under less dire circumstances. “It’s made of glass, so it’s a cinch to sneak onto airplanes. Betcha wish you’d thought of that, huh?” Jay squirmed. “What’s the matter? Why are you acting so scared? I’m just showing you the cool knife I’ll let you use!”

Lio’s poorly veiled threat snapped something in Jay. He wasn’t sure where this confidence came from, but he felt like he’d seen death before and would gladly face it again before he played by Lio’s rules. “Martyr me, motherfucker!” Jay spat on Lio’s face. “I’ll show you how a free man dies!”

“You—You’re threatening me! You just threatened me! You’re making me do this to protect myself!” Lio jabbed the knife at Jay, pivoting to avoid stabbing his own stomach. The pivot gave Jay room to wriggle, so Lio snapped his knife against the monastery wall. It was even more fragile than Jay expected from glass mall-knife. “Hey! You broke my knife! Apologize!”

Jay could hardly breathe under Lio’s flab. “Fuck off!”

“Apologize or I’ll beat the worms out of you like an egg-headed bird-worshipper, and chuck your corpse in the river!

“I’d never waste fear on a scrawny punk like you!”

Lio threw a punch. He telegraphed the strike early enough for Jay to lean just a little left. Lio’s fist cracked open on the monastery wall. “Aaugh!” He backed up, releasing Jay, shaking his bloody broken fist. His fingers were busted and misaligned. Shards of sand-dollar were lodged between his knuckles like shattered teeth. “You broke my hand! You did this to me on purpose!

“Leave, Lio! Go back to the inn!” Jay’s heart beat faster than it ever had before. “No one on our tour will care to help you, because they’ve met you before, but maybe the innkeepers will bandage you up to keep your blood off their carpets!”

Lio swore and wiped Jay’s spit from his face. “Useless faggot.” He walked off the path, toward the centipede-bushes, cradling his broken fist. He stumbled on a rock and finally deigned to remove his sunglasses, which he hooked on the neck of his Hawaiian shirt. Still he struggled in the night. “You broke my jar! How can I find centipede-bushes in the dark like this?”

“Your daughter caught fireflies all on her own. Ask her to teach you, unless you’d feel emasculated. And for her sake, and Eva’s, don’t climb above the clouds. Michael told me—“

Michael told me, Michael told me!” mimicked Lio. “Go ahead. Blow some monks! You’ll be distracting them for me.” He swiped an open jar over fireflies. When he caught none, he swore with language too colorful to print.

“Call me what you want,” muttered Jay. Lio continued to do so until his voice faded in the distance. Finally alone, Jay wiped Lio’s blood off the front wall with a sock from his backpack. Then he knocked on the wooden monastery door. While his heart-rate settled, Jay realized he’d been right to introduce himself as Jadie. The fake name kept ephemeral armor around him, like he wore saran wrap. Lio didn’t even believe Jay was his real name. He knocked again and capped his camera. He wondered if he’d have the chance to photograph the monastery in daylight. Up close, the candles made the walls of sand-dollars look like scrutinizing eyes. Jay knocked a third time, vowing if no answer came he would leave the monks alone.

Footsteps approached and the wooden door popped ajar. A bald woman, about sixty years old with rosy skin and olive robes, peeked through the crack. “Oran dora. [Can I help you?]”

Oran dora.” Jay hoped he’d studied his phrasebook well enough. “[I’m Jay,]” he attempted. “[I have gifts.]”

“[We’ve already got enough sand-dollars.]” The woman’s skepticism melted when Jay showed her the box of pastries. “[Thank you! Please?]”

“[Please.]” Jay allowed her a pastry. She kept the doorway narrow. “[I also have a cricket for Virgil Jango Skyy.]”

“[Did you buy it locally?]”

“I’m sorry? [I don’t speak much.]”

The woman fought for English words. “Who gave you cricket?”

“[An American friend,]” said Jay. “Faith Featherway.”

“Faith Featherway? [You have good connections.]” The woman opened the door. “[Come in! We’ve been expecting you.]” Left and right, hallways of monks’ quarters were cordoned with tapestries of every solid color. The hallways curved around a grassy open-air courtyard, so the monastery was shaped like a donut. The woman led Jay onto the grass, where a hundred bald and silent monks sat cross-legged under the stars. No two monks shared both the color of their skin and the color of their robes. All of them faced the back of the courtyard, where the monastery’s wings met and a bell-tower rose. “[You brought enough for everyone.]” The woman opened Jay’s box of pastries. “[Right?]”

Jay felt compelled to count his fingers: ten. This was real as it was surreal. He handed a pastry to each monk. Their posture remained perfect and their eyes remained closed as they reached wordlessly for their pastry and put it in their lap. The closer Jay came to the bell-tower in the back, the older the monks he met. The last two monks wore sky-blue and navy, and while the sky-clad monk was doubtlessly the oldest Jay could see, with aged leathery hide, the monk in navy had a heavy hood and a silver mask, so Jay had no clue of their age, gender, or even skin-color. That navy monk sat in a woven nest like those commemorating birds along the trail, warming porcelain eggs nestled around them.

When Jay held a sugar-powdered pastry for the sky-clad monk, he bopped Jay’s hand from below to toss the pastry in the air. The monk caught it in his mouth without even looking, giggled like a schoolboy, and opened his eyes. He had one black pupil and one moon-like cataract, large and white as the pastry had been. “Oran dora,” he whispered.

Oran dora,” whispered Jay. He held the last pastry to the monk in navy, but they didn’t respond. Their silver mask had a beak, bulbous eyes criss-crossed like a bug’s compound lenses, and two long, silver feathers on top.

“Virgil Blue cannot sense you,” said the sky-clad monk with the cataract. “Keep your pastry. You’ve hiked hard to get here.”

“I did,” said Jay, “because I have gifts for Virgil Jango Skyy.”

“Then sit beside him.” Virgil Jango Skyy pat the grass with age-veined fingers. “You must be weary from the elevation. The air’s thicker down here where I am.”

Jay sat and unzipped his backpack. “A tour-guide named Michael gave me this letter.”

“It’s not addressed to me,” said Jango.

“I know, but I hoped you could deliver it to Michael’s children, nieces, and nephews.” Jay pulled Faith’s envelope from his backpack. “I’m afraid this one’s not addressed to you either. My friend Faith Featherway once told me she met you, and I never completely believed her until this very instant.”

Jango admired the front of Faith’s holiday-card. He opened the card and inspected her hand-drawn fox. He turned her cricket. “Excellent wing-work.”

“Faith grew it, and our friend Dan wrapped it. Faith said she owed you a bug-stick. Is that why you expected me?”

“I expected Faith, but an ambassador with her banner will suffice. There are no coincidences! Welcome to Virgil Blue’s courtyard. Did you climb here just to give gifts?”

“I’m a photographer.” Jay showed Jango his camera. “Faith said you gave her centipede-powder in Wyoming. She shared it with me, and I had to meet the monks behind the bugs. Before I left, Faith gave me that card and cricket. I know she’d want to be here if not for personal circumstances.”

Jango took the camera and scrolled through photos. He had unbecoming digital-savvy for someone so old. “Wise of you to skip pictures of Virgil Green’s congregation. They’re quite protective of their matriarch.” At the next photo, Jango flinched. The reaction made Jay flinch as well, but as Jango examined more photos, he laughed and punched Jay in the shoulder. “You had me worried with the mailbox!”

“I’m sorry?”

Jango returned Jay’s camera, displaying the stone statue of a bird sheltering a toddler on a box of candles. “The mailbox. My vision isn’t what it used to be, and that’s a small screen. I thought it was a real bird.”

“Oh, no! I wouldn’t have taken photos if it were.”

“Why’s it filled with candles? I’m expecting a package.”

“Michael said it was a shrine to a bird who saved a child.”

Eeeccht.” Jango hocked with disapproval. “Back when any-and-all bird-forgery was forbidden, Nemo, the first Virgil Blue, carved that statue to depict the Biggest Bird. Only his holy hands could craft it. That’s no child, it’s Nemo, full-grown, for scale. It’s a donation-box, but I use it as my address for incoming mail. I guess nowadays it’s a shrine to a bird who saved a child.” Jango stood, bracing himself against the bell-tower, and took a cane taller than himself leaning on the wall. The cane was like a giant wing-wrapped cricket, ten black spots around its gnarled tip. “This reminds me of a story. What’s your name, fledgling?”

“Jay.” Jay hesitated to help the old monk, because he seemed able enough on his own.

“Jay, bring me that brass incense-burner.” Jango unwrapped Faith’s cricket. Dan’s wing-work had preserved the odorous exoskeleton. Jay opened the brass burner and Jango stuck the cricket in it, butt-down. He shook one sleeve and a purple lighter fell out. He used it to light the cricket’s ten black eyes, and Jay closed the burner. “Oran doran, doran dora. Virgils and students, tonight’s closing remarks will be in English to accommodate our visitor. Enjoy your pastries! Jay brought tonight’s dessert and tonight’s bug-stick.”

The crowd looked at Jay just as he started to chew his pastry. He panicked and swallowed. “The bug-stick was wrapped by Virgil Orange,” he said, not really knowing why. The woman who opened the door smiled and waved at him.

“Jay is a photographer. Everyone say cheese!” The monks all smiled until Jay took a photo. “Jay is friends with Faith Featherway, whom I’ve met twice before: once about five or six years ago in Wyoming, once ten years prior to that quite locally.” Jay couldn’t believe this—surely Faith would’ve remembered to mention it?—but he wouldn’t interrupt. He prepared his notepad and pen as Jango lectured to the congregation. “Once, Virgil Jango Skyy was sitting beside Virgil Blue on a misty morning,” said the old monk, in the third person. “Jango stood and pat dew from his robes. ‘Virgil Blue, have you considered retirement?’ Virgil Blue said nothing. ‘You’ve said nothing for years. You’re stationary like a thorny centipede-bush. It might be time to choose a successor.’ Still, Virgil Blue said nothing. So Jango decided to take a walk. He left the monastery and stepped down steep cliffs—there were no carved steps so long ago, but Jango was spry enough to make do—and greeted birds hiking up. ‘Oran dora!‘ “

The students concurred. “Oran dora!

“At each bridge, Jango drank from the river and bowed to Virgil Green’s island. He thanked Virgil Green for chasing snakes from Sheridan. ‘Oran dora!‘ “

Oran dora!

“Jango came to a stone statue of a bird shading a man with its wings. The bird and man stood on a stone box with a hinged panel. Jango bowed to it. ‘Oran dora!‘ “

Even Jay joined. “Oran dora!” The cricket in the brass burner and the repetition of foreign phrases made Jay feel a trance coming on. He stopped taking notes to count his fingers again: still ten.

“Jango sat before the statue. He saw smoke seeping from the box’s hinged panel. He said, ‘Someone lit incense in this shrine. I should sit and contemplate the Biggest Bird until the incense burns down and the smoke stops seeping.’ So Jango sat and watched smoke seep from the box. Six silent minutes passed. ‘I’d like to see the incense directly, but I’m too old and achy to open the shrine’s hinged panel. I can only hope someone comes to help me, but if no one appears, I suppose it’s not the Mountain’s whim.’ No one appeared. After some time, Jango said, ‘If one of my students would miraculously open the shrine, I would be nothing but grateful.’

“Now the box opened and a monk-boy crawled out groveling for forgiveness. He wore red robes and held a lit cricket. ‘I’m sorry, Virgil Skyy! I know monks shouldn’t smoke outside ceremonies, so I found this hidden place to indulge. I didn’t know it was a shrine! I’ve spoilt holy ground!’

” ‘Don’t worry. This is just our mailbox. You’ve delivered my first package in ages. Pass me your bug-stick.’ Jango traded the cricket for a pine-needle. ‘When I was young, but not young as you, I sought to smoke a bug-stick within the white-walled monastery. Before sunrise, I sat in the furnace so my smoke wafted up the flue. Then Virgil Blue woke to bring logs. They opened the furnace and I blew smoke right in their face, before they wore the mask. They could’ve disowned me, but instead they taught me this: when you want to smoke a bug-stick, eat a pine-needle first. This promotes moderation. Now, away!’ The monk-boy ran, chewing the pine-needle.

“When the monk-boy left, Jango put the cricket to his lips. It was almost burned to the stem, so the smoke was harsh and made Jango cough. The cough hung in the air like a cloud. The cloud snowed into a heap and the heap addressed him. ‘Jangster! It’s you!’ ” Jay couldn’t take notes quickly enough to keep up with this bizarre development. The congregation just smiled and nodded like they’d heard this story before, which only intrigued Jay further. The woman who let him into the monastery didn’t speak much English; was the congregation only pretending to understand, or had they heard the story enough times in Sheridanian to follow along?

“Jango examined the smoldering cricket-butt. ‘I’ve lost my tolerance. I’m already having visions.’

” ‘Haha, I’m real, silly!’ The heap of snow vibrated and morphed into a fox. Its tail was icy fog. ‘I’m Faith Featherway! Don’t you remember me?’

” ‘I can’t say I do, and I really think I would.’

” ‘We met in Wyoming! I told you my friend had a cat named Django? You said you owed me a bug-stick, and you taught me to smoke them? You gave me centipede-powder!’ ” Jay was impressed with Jango’s impression of Faith. The old monk sounded just like her, a third or fourth his age, and the stiffness in his joints evaporated when he played her part.

” ‘I haven’t left the islands in decades. Why would I visit Wyoming? Why would I give you centipede-powder?’

” ‘You know, I meant to ask you the same questions,’ said Faith. ‘It was pretty puzzling! Here, take this.’ From behind her ear, she withdrew a cricket larger and more exquisitely wrapped than any Earthly specimen. Jango knew its origin waited in the next eternity on the orginal sun. ‘The Heart of the Mountain told me to exchange it for a lesson from the Virgils.’

” ‘On this island there’s just me and Blue, and the Blue Virgil isn’t in a speaking mood.’ Jango shook a white lighter from his sleeve. ‘Allow me the honor of administering your lesson.’ Jango and Faith walked to the river and he lit the cricket for her. Without opposable thumbs, she adopted a peculiar manner of smoking, lying down to rest the cricket on her forearm. ‘As an emissary from the Mountain’s Heart, the Biggest Bird, you must be a Zephyr. Correct?’

” ‘Nah, I’m just a Will-o-Wisp,’ said Faith. ‘I’m not even sure what a Zephyr is.’

” ‘Let me tell you about the Zephyrs, then. My knowledge of Zephyrs dates back to 1967, when I met Virgil Blue in Sheridan County, Kansas. I was almost thirty years old, and my younger brother, Jun Sakai, was fourteen.’ Jango took the cricket and puffed it.” Jay turned to a fresh page in his notepad. He needed more space to make a timeline for this story-within-a-story.

” ‘Wait,’ said Faith, ‘Sakai? I thought your name was Skyy.’

” ‘It is! I was born Itou Sakai. When World War II began, I was only four. My parents avoided the Japanese internment by moving to the middle of nowhere and changing their identities to an ambiguous nationality: Sakai became Skyy. They let me choose my own first name, and I picked Jango.’ Jango puffed again and returned the cricket to the fox.

” ‘Wow.’ Faith puffed. The white smoke she exhaled merged seamlessly with her cloudy tail. ‘That must’ve been rough!’

” ‘I knew nothing about the heritage we abandoned, and was too young to know the gravity of it all, but my parents were torn apart by guilt for their decisions. My brother was born after the war, so they gave him the traditional family name and tried submerging him in the culture I’d been denied. At the time, that meant Japanese animation, which I watched only over his shoulder. But one day, walking my brother home from high-school, we encountered Virgil Blue lecturing on a soap-box. To everyone who would listen, they said ‘Oran dora!‘ ‘ “

Oran dora!” Jay scribbled his drying pen to coax more writing out of it. Jango’s dialogue-within-dialogue demanded additional ink.

” ‘Virgil Blue explained how the Zephyrs exist outside the Wheel of life and death. The Zephyrs came into being before the Wheel started spinning, and will continue being even after the Wheel stops—but while the Wheel spins, we mortals must become Zephyrs ourselves, to join the ongoing fight against the Hurricane, man’s primordial egregiousness. Jun wanted to leave Virgil Blue’s soapbox-lecture behind because his favorite cartoon was almost on, so I hurried him home and returned to hear everything Virgil Blue had to say. When they dismounted their soapbox, they told me they came to Kansas because its Sheridan County is the Sheridan with the lowest elevation on Earth, and they knew some poor worms needed to hear about the Biggest Bird. I was those poor worms! The very same week, I joined Virgil Blue’s flight back to the Islands of Sheridan.’

” ‘You know,’ said Faith, ‘my friends and I have watched an anime which sounds an awful lot like you’re describing, with the Zephyrs and a Wheel and all.’

” ‘I’m getting to that,’ said Jango. ‘On the Islands of Sheridan, Virgil Blue send me to study under Virgil Green. For  many  moons  I  danced with fledglings wearing only a wooden bird-mask and tail-feather skirt. I walked circles until my feet blistered and sat chanting until my pelvis ached. Virgil Green’s paradoxical questions pried my brain apart to show me the Biggest Bird. Winning Green’s approval, I swam to this main island. It took twelve hours.  For six hours I swore I would drown, and for the other six I was drowning. When I crawled onto shore, a bird laid an egg in front of me and pierced the shell with its mate’s tail-feather. I drank the raw egg and it rejuvenated me. I hiked to the white-walled monastery in the manner of the birds, nude and sleeping in the road at night. At Virgil Blue’s monastery I earned this sky-blue robe, and I finally had the opportunity to send letters back home to Kansas. I sent my brother a letter every week for twenty years describing all I’d learned. He never responded.’

” ‘Aw. I’m sorry, Jangster!’

” ‘I didn’t mind. My attention was occupied by Virgil Blue’s library under the bell-tower there.’ Jango pointed to the bell-tower.” Jango pointed to the bell-tower. Jay felt buried in the story’s layers. ” ‘The bell-tower holds books from around the world and from the past, present, and future. Books from the future are reserved for Virgils to annotate as their relation to the Biggest Bird becomes clear. As a monk, it was my duty to read the already-annotated books in chronological order to cultivate my understanding. After twenty years of studying texts with philosophical and religious merit, I was floored when Virgil Blue gave me the most modern texts I was allowed to read, only partly-annotated: a whole series of comic-books which looked just like a Japanese cartoon my brother watched so long ago. I told Virgil Blue I recognized the art, and they shook a sleeve to reveal a plastic figurine. Virgil Blue explained they’d traveled to Tokyo to meet the author while they wrote and illustrated the comic in order to gain insight for annotations. The author, seeing how Virgil Blue owned the full series before the final issues were even conceived, knew the Virgil was divine and gifted them the figurine. Virgil Blue gave it to me and insisted I pass it on to my brother.

” ‘I flew to Kansas and found our childhood home, but strangers lived there now. I visited the local post-office to learn Jun’s new address: the basement of a nearby hotel. The hotel’s owner explained Jun lived in the basement in return for janitorial duties. I knocked on his door, received no answer, and so opened it. The smell told me he wasn’t a very good janitor, but his cramped little room was filled with art! Art hanging on the walls, art taped to the ceiling, art stuffed under his dirty mattress! All of it depicted giant humanoid robots and their crews, shooting across space or leaping upon the surface of the moon. The art was sequential, divided into panels to tell a story.

” ‘Jun himself was hunched over his desk, aiming a spotlight at a pencil-sketch. He was thirty-six years old, pudgier than I had left him, and had a long, unwashed mane. He wasn’t happy to see me: when I told him I was a monk, not a Virgil, he remarked, ‘Mom and Dad told you not to leave Kansas. Now you’re back after they’re dead, and you’re not even enlightened yet!’ I felt so ashamed: I’d left my family behind! Trying to make up for it, I asked him how his comic was coming along. ‘It’s not a comic, it’s a manga. Not that you’d care! You always mocked me for watching cartoons and reading comics.’ I apologized, knowing it would never be enough. Then I asked him about a cartoon—an anime, rather—which I remembered watching with him, about combining dragon-robots fighting an alien menace.’

” ‘ ‘Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo. The Great Dragon’s Eternal Guardianship.’ At last Jun looked me in the eye. ‘You know, that title’s mistranslated. They probably thought the first word was dairyuu—‘ He wrote two symbols on scratch-paper: a star and a moon in a hat beside a serpent.’ ” Jay knew which characters Jango meant. He wrote them in his notepad: 大龍. ” ‘ ‘The great dragon. But actually, it was daitatsu—‘ More symbols: the same star and a foot stomping on a snake.’ ” Jay drew those, too: 大起. ” ‘ ‘Initiating political action. Literally, to stand up. It’s a pun, because the word ‘dragon’ is sometimes pronounced tatsu. All of humanity fights as one, represented by the fully-combined dragon-robot.’ ‘ “

” ‘ ‘This one?’ I gave him Virgil Blue’s plastic figurine and explained how I’d come to receive it. Jun turned the figurine over and over: each of the robot’s limbs was a different color, combined with mechanical seams. In the show, each limb could separate into an independent fighting-machine. He put it on his desk and tested the articulation. He was impressed by the figurine’s quality, and thanked me for bringing it, but didn’t believe my story for an instant. Why would this manga be so important as to appear in such a fantastical library before it was even written? I chewed my tongue. ‘When  Virgil  Green described the Biggest Bird with paradoxes, I wondered how one vessel could contain such contradictory aspects. Virgil Blue taught me that the Biggest Bird is the Mountain’s messiah, hence its rarer name, the Heart of the Mountain. To me, this was worse! The Mountain contains all things, so I didn’t care that it contained contradictions. Shouldn’t the Biggest Bird, the Mountain’s messenger, be lesser, not equally complex? But  when I saw Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo in the library, I understood. The fully-combined  dragon-robot couldn’t be piloted by all of humanity at once because disparate parts will always be at opposition with one another.  Instead, groups of nations each nominated a pilot who could put their differences aside to fight the alien menace, so the fully-combined dragon-robot represents all the Earth trimmed of fat and ready for battle. In the same way, we cannot comprehend the Mountain, but we can comprehend its Heart. So the Mountain paints its contrast in the Biggest Bird.’ ‘ “

There were plenty of unbelievable elements to this story, but to Jay, the least believable part was Faith letting Jango speak for so long without interruption. Maybe Jango was telling a longer version of the story for Jay than he told for Faith.

” ‘Jun doubtfully sucked his lips, but eventually shook his head in reluctant acceptance. ‘You asked about my manga, didn’t you, Jango? It’s inspired by Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo, but that’s not my only inspiration.’ He opened a desk-drawer. My heart burst when I saw he’d saved every letter I’d ever sent him! ‘Don’t hold this against me, brother, but I’m making this manga out of spite. While you sent me letters about your magical experiences in Sheridan, our parents demanded I become fluent in Japanese. They made me read them a newspaper front-to-back before they gave up the ghost. I came up with this manga as a way to make fun of your stupid stories about islands and Wheels and Zephyrs.’ He showed me more pages of art, scenes of the Biggest Bird on the Islands of Sheridan exactly as I had described to him. ‘I stole your God and secularised them into a bumbling scientist with poor bedside manner. I stole your Zephyrs and reduced them to giant space-robots with laser-hearts. My goal was demoting and destroying what you loved and hoped to share.’

” ‘ ‘Brother!’ I hugged him. ‘I love this, and I love you! It’s common-knowledge on the Islands of Sheridan that the Biggest Bird’s act of creation is reflected in art across the world. Tearing down her image and rebuilding it is, itself, an act of worship. I can’t read the cover; what’s the name of your manga?’

” ‘ ‘LuLu’s Space-Time Acceleration. The LuLu comes from the names of two main characters: Lucille and Lucia. Transliterating to Japanese, LuLu is pronounced RuRu, so I use this kanji with the same pronunciation. To me it looks a bit like a winged woman holding a chainsaw, the image of their largest robot, the Galaxy Zephyr, wielding the Wheel.’ ‘ ” Jay knew the kanji. He wrote it down: 縷々. The second kanji, like the pointed spike of a blooming flower, was shorthand for repeating the previous kanji once more. ” ‘ ‘RuRu means continuous and unbroken to a meticulous extent. To defeat the Hurricane, the Zephyrs must fight on behalf of life’s every aspect—even the ignorant greed which the Hurricane represents. Its worms must be collected in the Wheel.’ ‘ “

” ‘I don’t get it,’ said Faith. ‘Why do the Zephyrs have to save anything about the Hurricane? Wouldn’t Earth be better off without them?’

” ‘The Hurricane is in all of us, and if we think we can get rid of it, we prove it’s all we ever were,’ said Jango. ‘But collecting the Hurricane’s worms is not approving of its flaws! Collecting the Hurricane’s worms is inoculation against those flaws. In fact, collecting the Hurricane’s worms gives us permission to condemn them. I’m sure it’s as true in LuLu’s as it is in Sheridanian culture. Anyway, my brother told me he never planned to publish his manga or even share it with anyone, but I encouraged him to do so. Bring it to Japan! Animate it for everyone to enjoy! There are so many worms who should hear about the Biggest Bird! I told him I would soon request promotion to Virgil. I’d take the place of Virgil Green for a few years, helping laymen become monks, but then I’d be allowed to read library books from the future. If I found LuLu’s among them, I would demand to annotate it, and if I didn’t find LuLu’s, then when he finished the series, he’d have to send me a copy, because it belongs in the library. Then I returned to Sheridan. I still write to my brother, and he sometimes writes back. His insights helped me finish annotating Daitatsu no Kagirinai Hogo for Virgil Blue.’ “

Jango sniffed smoke from the brass burner before concluding. “Faith and Jango finished the cricket while walking to the monastery. ‘I really like your brother’s anime,’ said Faith, ‘but I’m kinda hung up on the timeline here. Where do I fit in?’

” ‘The Heart of the Mountain sent you from the next eternity back to the mortal plane. Causality collapsed when you crossed.’ Jango climbed a rocky ledge. Faith leapt it like she was weightless. ‘Clearly our meeting in Wyoming hasn’t yet occurred. Where do we find each other?’

” ‘Sheridan Cliff-Side College.’

” ‘I suppose my pilgrimage is predestined by the Mountain,’ said Jango. ‘I’ll bring you a bug-stick. I owe you.’

” ‘Don’t forget the centipede!’ said Faith. ‘My friend and I had lots of fun. But powdered! I’d be creeped out by all the legs.’ Steam rose from her tail. ‘Uh oh. I’m evaporating. How embarrassing!’

” ‘You’re returning to the Mountain,’ said Jango. The fox’s snow-torso bubbled and popped. ‘Oran dora, Faith Featherway.’

” ‘I was only here for, like, twenty minutes,’ said Faith. ‘This sucks.’

“As quickly as she’d appeared, Faith disintegrated into mist.” Virgil Jango Skyy smiled at Jay, penning the last of the story in his notepad. “Consider this story, my students. I hope you all sleep soundly.”


Lucille’s Seraph

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)

Last time on RuRu no Jikuu-Kasoku!

The Galaxy Zephyr’s Uzumaki Armor turned purple as Commander Lucille reclaimed the Hurricane’s thumb and other scraps for the sake of all life in the universe. The Galaxy Zephyr’s super-stellar weapon is the Wheel of life and death which spins to regenerate the principle components of Earth’s lost population.

When the Hurricane enclosed them in a bubble, Lucille told Professor Akayama she would pull the Wheel’s Chain and collect a batch of worms. Can this new Zephyr help her crew of ten thousand survive their escape to continue the fight?

“Our new Zephyr is incoming,” announced Akayama. “Get ready to pull the Chain!” She branched her noodly tail and plugged the free end into ZAP’s control-panel. Through it she shared the image of her Uzumaki Planet inside the Wheel, a desert of rust-red dunes where worms fell from the mustard-yellow sky. Nakayama, her bird-like counterpart, sailed on a column of steam toward the new Zephyr, which drifted with a hundred golden wings. “The main-cast of our slice-of-life is a classic group of twenty-somethings near the turn of the millennium.”

Lucille noticed her own confusion reflected in the faces of Charlie, Dakshi, Eisu, and Fumiko. She pinged her crew of ten thousand on a touchscreen, and their consensus was an emoji of bewilderment. “What are we looking at here, Professor Bird-Thing? You said you were collecting worms. Not that I’m not glad to see something feathery like you.”

“Sentient beings share most of their worms, just like biological organisms share most of their genes,” said Akayama. “The first human’s-worth of worms naturally accounts for a majority of the worms in total. The ongoing simulated mortals won’t notice, but most of their worms are being collected all at once!” Nakayama’s blue tentacles ensnared the golden Zephyr and slung it through the sky toward the red mountain. The mountain’s summit crumbled into a caldera, caught the Zephyr, and dragged it into the deep. “That’s why I picked this primary vessel who can quickly understand and accept their new role. Pull the Chain and they’ll be integrated into the Galaxy Zephyr!”

“About time!” Lucille gave Charlie and Dakshi a thumbs-up. The Galaxy Zephyr pulled the Chain and the Wheel spun so quickly centripetal forces made its saw-teeth lengthen by light-years. Lucille didn’t let herself get caught up in her crew’s excitement, instead glaring defiantly at the Hurricane enclosing them all like a bubble. “Will our controls be more responsive, having another mind aboard?”

Many more minds, depending on how you count them. Worms are molded by interactions over countless generations, so innumerable minds are reflected in this Zephyr—I estimate 77% of the variation in Earth’s life can be expressed as linear-combinations of this Zephyr’s components. In that sense, the Galaxy Zephyr now has a crew of billions.”

“They’d better be self-starters, ’cause I’m not gonna micromanage ’em!” Lucille watched golden light flow from the green Wheel into the Galaxy Zephyr’s purple Uzumaki Armor. “Is that them?”


Lucille’s crew of ten thousand gasped when the golden light flooded over them. Lucille didn’t know why they gasped until the golden light reached her in ZAB: it carried bathing warmth like a hot-spring. The purple Uzumaki Armor relaxed to subdued silvery-blue. “Don’t get too comfortable,” said Lucille. “We’re still in trouble!” The Hurricane’s bubble contracted around them. As their prison shrank, its walls thickened. “Charlie, Dakshi, Eisu, Fumiko, report!”

When Dakshi pressed buttons, the Galaxy Zephyr’s left hand twitched almost instantly. “Significant improvement to extremity responsiveness,” said Dakshi. The twins concurred, wiggling the Galaxy Zephyr’s toes.

Charlie blinked in the harsh golden light. Sweat soaked his eye-patch. “The new guy’s a little bright. It’s a sauna in here! Can we turn ’em down a tad?” Thousands of Lucille’s crew signaled agreement with Charlie on their touchscreen monitors.

Jya, Professor Bird-Thing,” said Lucille, “does our new Zephyr have a thermostat?”

Akayama typed on ZAP’s control-panel. “I have just the idea.”

Golden light collected on either side of the Galaxy Zephyr’s spine. Sixteen golden wings erupted with a blare of Gnostic archons’ trumpets, each wing longer than the Galaxy Zephyr was tall, every feather a jet-engine. The warmth subsided, and Lucille chuckled. “Not a bad look.” She flipped her hair back, and the Galaxy Zephyr grew a silvery-blue ponytail like that of her late mother, Princess Lucia. “Charlie, Dakshi, Eisu, Fumiko, each of your teams will take the four nearest wings. Learn your controls!”

Eisu directed the flapping of wings from right glute to mid-back. “How will this help us, exactly?”

Dakshi bade the wings from mid-back to left shoulder to bend in sequence. “We’re still not big enough to cut out of this bubble.”

“We don’t need to be big,” said Lucille. “We’ve got sixteen wings made entirely of jet-turbines. We’ve gotta be fast enough to slice right through!”

“I hope you’re right,” said Fumiko. The Hurricane closed in. Its red surface taunted them with jeering eyes and mouths and tentacles.

“On your order, Commander!” said Charlie.

“Go! No turning back!”

The Galaxy Zephyr fired all cylinders, swiftly accelerated by its new wings. They flew for the ceiling of their confinement, where tentacles had no time to react before the Wheel sliced them off and dug into the Hurricane’s flesh. Deeper and deeper dove the Galaxy Zephyr, the wound bleeding giant teeth all around. “What the hell!” shouted Charlie. The teeth crunched each other into sharp shards which shanked their silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor deep enough to endanger the tiny Zephyr robots hidden within. “Aaaugh, that screech!” He piloted with his pedals, freeing his hands to cover his ears. “These teeth!”

Dakshi didn’t have the luxury of piloting with his pedals. Instead he committed his four wings to shielding the Galaxy Zephyr from teeth, and their screeching abated. “Eisu, Fumiko, daijoubu?

“No teeth down here!” Fumiko redirected spare power from Dakshi’s wings to her own.

Eisu did the same as Charlie moved his wings into protective position. “Maximum thrust!”

Ora!” Lucille had to shout over the teeth, because the wings didn’t stop them from screeching all around her in the Galaxy Zephyr’s head. “We’ve almost bust out!”

“I don’t think so,” ZAB said to Lucille on a private audio-channel. “There’s no telling how thick the Hurric—“

Ora ora!” Lucille ignored her robotic partner for the sake of morale. “Just a little more!”

The Hurricane squealed at the penetrating pain. When it grasped with tentacles, the Galaxy Zephyr’s legs were free to kick them away because the wings took the role of propulsion. Eyeballs appeared around the Galaxy Zephyr, signalling babble. “Disable your monitors!” said Akayama. “I’ve seen this before!” The Hurricane was trying to jump into the crew the same way Uzumaki had jumped into her. When monitors were switched off, the Hurricane had no such opening. Instead, the Galaxy Zephyr’s silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor rebutted the eyeballs with its own.

Why are you helping them?” signalled the Hurricane. “This is pure agony!”

“Because you’re trying to kill me,” signalled Uzumaki, “if not worse! Whatever pain you’re feeling, it’s coming from me, and I know we deserve it!”

After inexpressible duration, the Galaxy Zephyr burst through the bubble. “Oraaaugh!” They pulled tooth-shards from the silvery-blue Uzumaki Armor and let the wounds flood with gold.

Behind them, the Hurricane’s bubble deflated. The fistula they’d burst through flooded with teeth and shouted like an awful maw, audible through space-vacuum because of steam from the Galaxy Zephyr’s wings. “Look at the anguish you’re causing! I’m the human race, and you useless thugs are torturing me!”

“Pfa!” Lucille beamed so broadly Dakshi worried blood would drip from the corners of her smile. “Don’t fish for sympathy! This Wheel is reconstructing every aspect of Earth’s life, even whatever wretched bits made you what you are today! That’s all the mercy you’ll get from us! The only human who could possibly pity you in your present state was my mother, Earth’s shining princess, who died protecting us from you!” At the mention of Princess Lucia, the Galaxy Zephyr’s whole crew of ten thousand regained their grit from the grueling task of burrowing through the bubble. “You discarded your humanity when you decided it was beneath you! We’re reclaiming it, for our own sake and yours!”

“Aaaugh! I’ll show you humanity!” The Hurricane’s teeth bit each other and its own red flesh. The wounds produced so many more teeth that they ground each other up in a static ball.

“Prepare for electrical discharge!” shouted Akayama. A thunderbolt cracked from the Hurricane. The Galaxy Zephyr was too close to dodge. They blocked lightning with the Wheel, which warped.

“You self-destructive bastard!” Lucille surveyed the warp in her Wheel. “We’ll save you from yourself whether you like it or not!”

In the Wheel’s green haze, Nakayama narrowly avoided the thunderbolt. “Konoyarou! The Hurricane’s really done it this time!”

“What? What did it do?” asked Uzumaki.

“The Wheel’s warp puts worm-processing at an impasse.” Her left compound emerald eye saw a sandstorm plow through the Uzumaki Planet’s rust-red desert. “The main-cast of our slice-of-life took a direct hit, too, because my snowy white powder acted as a lightning-rod.” Her right compound emerald eye watched a bolt zap her water-world. “Although…”


“Maybe I can use one problem to solve the other.”