The End

Professor Akayama unfurled both wings and blasted steam from her lab coat to sail light-years from the Galaxy Zephyr. As she flew, she siphoned mass from the Galaxy Zephyr until it was merely its original robots and her wingspan could have enveloped the observable universe. On her wings she grew eye-spots, and with these eye-spots she signaled a last message to the Enemy Hurricane’s scattered humanoid particulates.

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“I’m sorry,” she signaled. “Truly, I am. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But did you really think this could end any other way?”

The Enemy Hurricane’s particles signaled back, “What did you do?”

“Space-time is expanding,” signaled Akayama. “Soon it will expand so quickly that it will be impossible for anything to travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum. You’ll drift farther and farther away, faster and faster, until billions of years hence your images are 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 Enemy Hurricane. “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. Eventually even your individual bodies with be sheared apart.” As she signaled, the Enemy Hurricane felt this shearing force. Expanding space-time stretched their humanoid forms into snakes and salamanders. The stretching opened wounds which bled teeth. “Eons hence, even the subatomic particles forming your atoms will be torn.”

“The same will happen to you and your people!”

“Nope. We’ll die long before then. It was your desire to be permanent, not ours. Be careful what you wish for.”

The Enemy Hurricane just squealed in pain. Akayama sighed.

“Tell me,” she signaled, “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 will look down in pity, and remind you, you had your chance.” Akayama shrugged. “Oh, I almost forgot.”

She shook one wing and a tiny green speck fell from her sleeve onto her longest feather.

“Although you’re suffering, o Hurricane, understand that your hundred pilots are safe and sound. I’ve snagged them from the Hurricane Planet allied with me. Out of curiosity I fed them through the machine learning algorithm which recreated Earth, to reduce them to their most basic form. I’ve met humans whose psyches could hold half of all living creatures. I’ve met humans whose compassion extended to every sentient being. Anihilato’s complicated form reached every corner of humanity’s deepest, darkest, most vile crevices. But you?”

She raised the tiny green speck. It was a frog; it was almost cute.

“You ain’t shit.”

The Enemy Hurricane didn’t respond. Maybe it was too far away, or maybe its mind was clouded with agony.

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Charlie pointed to his main monitor. “Look! The professor’s coming back.”

Lucille folded her arms and tssk’d. “She didn’t even ask before she stole my robot’s mass. We’re barely a kilometer tall.”

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

While the ten thousand pilots watched Professor Akayama grow near, she shrunk 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 facet became a gargantuan star.

“Beautiful,” fawned Fumiko. “There are stars everywhere!”

“Better than that!” Eisu scrolled through historical records on his monitors. “The stars are back where they used to be a century ago!”

The whole crew gasped as Akayama shed her robe and it condensed into the Milky Way’s celestial belt. She expelled the sun and moon from her chest; the combined Zephyr drifted gently against the moon’s surface and rest there beside the military base.

Akayama’s body shrank and shrank, leaving each planet of the solar system behind her. She deposited Earth last.

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Lucille stared agape at Earth’s gleaming oceans. She eventually regained composure and pulled her monitors close. “Zoom in! Start scanning! Are there any forms of life?”

ZAB responded in its computerized monotone. “Only one. Akayama.” The monitor magnified the image of Earth and zoomed in on the fertile crescent. Buildings, roads, and infrastructure were present, 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 laid an enormous egg and deflated to a tiny fraction of her volume.

“It’s hatching!” said Eisu.

Gas streamed from the egg’s cracks and spread to cover 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; she elephants, tigers, wolves, and every other manner of animal running for their habitats. Even sea creatures rolled across the deserts, and she understood that Akayama had supernaturally bolstered these specimens to make the journey to their original homes.

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“Where are the people?” asked Daisuke.

“Look!” Charlie made the combined Zephyr’s right arm point to Akayama. Her feathers fell from her flesh, and each one became a human being. The feathers drifted and tumbled with the wind to deposit each person where they belonged. With each lost feather, the bird-thing’s body shrank.

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 monitor’s camera so her crew couldn’t see her wipe tears from her face. “Yappari sou daAkayama Hakase.”

“Wait.” ZAB’s monitors flickered. “There are two Akayamas.”

“Huh?”

The monitor zoomed in. Professor Akayama’s human body lay nude and unconscious in the sand before the body of the bird-thing. It loomed motionless above her, about twelve feet tall.

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

At a touch, it disintegrated. It just blew away in breeze.

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It left only a fresh white lab coat on the sand. Akayama donned it. She patted her pockets, and found a cricket and a lighter. She indulged in a good smoke.

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

Commentary

DanJillian

Jay vaguely knew Virgil Jango Skyy was speaking, but he couldn’t discern any words. Perhaps the old monk was chanting in Sheridanian.

Jay still felt the centipede crawling through his intestines. As he convulsed on the rug 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 swirling cosmos. Which could be called ordinary? The swirling cosmos seemed alien, but it connected Jay seamlessly to human history and the universe.

As if to cope, Jay felt his brain’s hemispheres separating. This produced nerve-wracking imagery. Jay saw himself as an egg the size of a grown man. The egg circled the center of a grand Wheel.

From the Wheel’s center, new life emerged as beams of light. The beams shot past the egg to the circle’s rim and became triangular saw-teeth. Each triangle’s slope tracked their life-form’s growth from birth to death. After death, each life-form zapped to the Wheel’s center instantaneously and shot back to the rim as a new beam.

The egg seethed in frustration. Trapped orbiting the center, the egg was neither being born, aging, or dying. While sentient beings cycled as beams 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 traveling 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 appeared only four years old, while Dan was fully grown.

“I—I understand.” Dan’s thoughts echoed in Jay’s skull. Jillian cocked her head. “Anihilato trapped me in an egg, freezing me on the Wheel of life and death.” Dan wiped tears from his face. “To escape, I stowed aboard your consciousness. I hijacked your soul.”

Jillian reached across Jay’s frontal lobe and slapped Dan in the face. “Quit crying!” she said. “You couldn’t have hijacked me even if you’d had the presence of mind to try. My soul rescued yours. I saved you from stasis to scavenge your spirit 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.”

“Idiot!” Jillian smacked him again. Despite seeming four years old, her mental projection was substantially stronger than his. “I harvested your consciousness from oblivion. You augment me. You’re my power-up, like a magic mushroom or winged shoes.”

Dan shuddered and held his shoulders. “I’m still worried,” he said. “Which of us is wearing the other’s soul like a suit of armor?”

“I don’t care,” said Jillian, “and neither should you.” She reached her hand out again and Dan recoiled, but she didn’t hit him. She’d extended her hand to shake. Dan’s lower lip quivered, and he shook her hand.

Jay opened his eyes. He noticed the motel room as if for the first time.

“Finally awake?” Jango stood from the bed and sat cross-legged before Jay. “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 an object from his jacket pocket and smashed it on Jango’s forehead. “Send me to the Mountain, Virgil Blue. Send me to the end of the eternities.”

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

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

“You don’t have the authority.” Jango wiped his face 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, who has the authority of every Virgil Blue, so Dan was christened Virgil Orange. After Dan died, Anihilato put him in his own egg where the two halves of my soul smashed together. Whatever way you look at it, I’m Virgil Purple. Now I name you 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. “Martyr me, motherfucker.”

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, “that if you really made me Virgil Blue, you’ve doomed me to a terrible fate. The first man, Nemo, cannibalizes every Blue Virgil in their dreams.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Jay.

“Whatever you think you need to do, 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!”

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“You’d better!” 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 sputtered blood. “Wait!”

Jango groaned. “What do you want now?”

“When Dan Jones goes to Sheridan, you’d better take him as your student,” managed Jay. “Otherwise our timeline will be all colors of fucked up.”

“Whatever you say.” Jango stabbed Jay a fortieth time. Jay spluttered his last.

Jango sighed and wiped his bloody hands on his robes. Was he really Virgil Blue now? Would Dan Jones appear at 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 illegal drugs for years, but he’d never had to cover up a murder before. Returning to Sheridan would be a challenge.

Next Chapter
Commentary

The Dance on the Hurricane

“It’s over!” Lucille commanded Charlie and Daisuke to make the Galaxy Zephyr raise the Wheel with one arm while three free hands gripped the Enemy Hurricane’s scorpion carapace. With a flex of titanic muscles, the Galaxy Zephyr jerked the stinging tail.

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“Stop! Stop!” The Enemy Hurricane felt its thorax splitting. Rather than relinquish its tail, it let the Galaxy Zephyr stretch its body long and thin like taffy until it was a coiling strand of cosmic spaghetti. It grew a snake-like face and bared fangs larger than galactic clusters. With predatory eyes, it signaled “Your next attack is your last!”

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Lucille ordered Eisu to stomp the snake flat with the Galaxy Zephyr’s right two feet, and Fumiko in the left two feet to tread on the snake’s skull until its footprints were debossed on its face. In space there was no floor to stomp the Enemy Hurricane against, but sheer velocity imparted tremendous impact force due to inertia alone. “Kuso, kuso, kusottareh! What’s this contemptible shit which deems itself worthy of smearing my heel?”

The Enemy Hurricane smiled a serpentine smile. Its fangs were missing.

“Huh?” Lucille made the Galaxy Zephyr lift its two left feet. Embedded in its heels were the missing fangs. Green venom coursed 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.

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The Enemy Hurricane chuckled. “They’re dead. My venom will let none of you live.”

“Yeah, right! Charlie! Daisuke!” Lucille twisted knobs. The Galaxy Zephyr swiped the Wheel to cut off its own left legs. It caught the legs in its mouth and ate them whole.

Instantly two new left legs spurt from its hips.

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“Fumiko, report!”

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

Lucille beamed. “Tell me, o Enemy Hurricane, why’d you think that would work? We’re resurrecting Earth’s whole population, but you thought we couldn’t reconstruct our closest friends? Baka, baka baka!”

The snake leapt with open maw to sink new fangs into the Galaxy Zephyr’s neck, to swiftly kill the commander. Mid-jump, its eyes signaled “don’t you know who I am?”

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

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Each half became a new snake. “You’re young, aren’t you?” signaled the first with its eyes.

Signaled the second, “for your whole life, I’ve been the stars in your sky!” 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 Enemy Hurricane formed four frogs with sinister yellow stripes indicating toxicity. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Lucille’s grin grew wide. “I’m the toad-cooker!”

Before the four frogs spat their venom, the Galaxy Zephyr sliced them into eighths.

“Scum-cucker!”

The Galaxy Zephyr’s four arms traded the Wheel to swiftly slice the Enemy Hurricane’s eighths into sixteenths.

“Face-rider!”

The Galaxy Zephyr’s four feet stomped the sixteenths into a compact mass to slice them into thirty-seconds.

“Skull-fucker!”

The Galaxy Zephyr kept dancing on the ball of gore to keep it packed tight. The Wheel sliced the thirty-seconds into sixty-fourths.

“But you’d better call me what you want while you still have the chance!”

Lucille opened her mouth to say more, but her frenzied battle-lust spoke for her:

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

They swept the Wheel’s broadside across the fine red powder, scattering the Enemy Hurricane across the cosmos.

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“That’s enough, Commander,” said Professor Akayama.

Lucille watched 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 Enemy Hurricane retreated in terror.

“What now?” asked Charlie.

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

“Don’t be so sure,” said Akayama.

The bits of fine red powder were already signaling each other with new eyes. “How could we fail?”

“Our scorpion was terrible. We shouldn’t have made snakes. The frogs were even worse.”

“Clearly the Zephyrs are right to ape humanity.”

The fine red powder collected into billions and billions of muscular warriors, each the mass of a quadrillion suns.

“Now we outnumber them!”

“We can’t lose!” They charged at the Galaxy Zephyr.

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Fumiko groaned. “Here they come!”

“Can we fight forever?” asked Eisu.

Daisuke 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 put its four hands on its four knees. “You heard Akayama. It’s over.”

“Indeed,” said Akayama.

The Galaxy Zephyr’s crew watched the army of Enemy 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 universe itself is expanding; the distance between us and faraway objects is increasing. They can accelerate as much as they’d like, but the cosmic expansion is accelerating faster. Soon, nothing will ever break light-speed again. They’ll never reach us.”

The army of Enemy Hurricanes slowly changed their expression from assured confidence to desperation as they struggled to catch the Galaxy Zephyr.

Akayama twisted open the hatch on ZAP. “I’m off to have words with them. I’ll be back.”

Next Chapter
Commentary

The Final Form

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

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

“Commander Lucille, what do we do?” asked Eisu. The Enemy Hurricane grinned with a thousand salivating mouths as it awaited inevitable victory.

“How much longer must the chain wait?” asked Fumiko. A missile grazed mere light-years from her cockpit.

Lucille grit her teeth. “Bird-thing!” The bird-like pilot of ZAP saluted. “Tell me the instant the chain is ready.”

“Of course, Commander.”

Jya, Charlie, Daisuke, we’ll take the offensive. Eisu, Fumiko, brace for impact!” Lucille pulled levers to guide the Galaxy Zephyr’s arms.

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

“The next missile within reach.”

Daisuke clutched his crew-cut. “But it might 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 Galaxy Zephyr’s flesh, Eisu and Fumiko blasted steam from the robot’s feet. The Galaxy Zephyr surfed the shock-waves instead of being vaporized.

“Damage report!” called Lucille. As her ten thousand pilots reported in, Lucille saw the whole left side of the Galaxy Zephyr was seared and blistering. Golden blood oozed from its flesh. Six of sixteen wings were singed.

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

“Commander!” squawked the bird-pilot of ZAP. “The chain is ready!”

“Will the new Zephyr save us?” asked Lucille. The bird-pilot 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 Daisuke. “It’s all or nothing!”

Lucille had never heard Daisuke advocating such risk. She cracked her knuckles. “Pull!” The Galaxy Zephyr held the Wheel in its left hand, and pulled the chain with its right.

The Wheel spun so fast, centripetal force lengthened the saw-teeth by light-years.

White powder flowed from the Wheel into the Galaxy Zephyr’s Hurricane Armor. The powder bleached the armor ivory white, and healed its scars and burns.

“Bird-thing, whatever this Zephyr can do, it’d better do quickly!” Lucille watched the missiles approach. “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 Enemy Hurricane, turning its back to the missiles. “Minah! It’s been an honor leading you.”

Ten thousand pilots nodded.

From the base of the Galaxy Zephyr’s spine, nine colossal cannons protruded.

Each fired a white torpedo, trailing steam.

Each torpedo intercepted a missile and detonated it.

The Galaxy Zephyr was framed by balls of flame.

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

Fumiko just cried.

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

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

“No need,” said Lucille. “Look.” The steam-trails of the nine white torpedoes engulfed the debris. Then the torpedoes returned to their cannons, and the mass they’d collected merged with the Galaxy Zephyr. It swelled in size by a factor of nine. The Wheel increased in diameter proportionally.

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

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

“Then I’ll scourge you with scorpions!” signaled the Enemy 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.

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“Motherfucker, I’ll scourge your scorpions!” Lucille made the Galaxy Zephyr put its right hand on the chain. “Bird-thing, is another Zephyr lined up?”

“Pull!” yelled the bird-pilot of ZAP.

They pulled the chain again. The Wheel spun so quickly it threatened to shear apart. “What’ll this Zephyr do for us?” asked Lucille.

“Who knows?” This voice came from Nakayama, who flew from the Wheel into the Galaxy Zephyr’s armor. She opened ZAP’s hatch to recombine with the bird-pilot. Professor Akayama was, finally, one solid piece. “But see how fast the Wheel spins?”

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

“Our region of accelerated space-time has reached a particularly interesting scale of size and velocity.”

“Spit it out, Professor.”

“We’ve crossed a threshold,” said Akayama. “We expended energy to accelerate space-time to make the Wheel, but now the Wheel is producing energy.”

“Nice!” Lucille watched the Enemy Hurricane crawl through space. “We can use spare energy.”

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

Lucille grinned. She understood, now, from how the Wheel seemed ready to split at any instant but maintained integrity, that the professor held it at the breaking point to leech its energy. The energy flowed into the Hurricane Armor and congealed into dense, impenetrable mass. “Alright, everyone,” said Lucille to her ten thousand pilots, “just a matter of time ’till we’re too large to lose!”

The Enemy 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 Enemy Hurricane brought down its stinger. “But now we have strength!” said Daisuke. He and Charlie braced the elbows of the Galaxy Zephyr against the pincer confining them. With infinite effort, they pried it wide open and slipped away before the stinger stung them.

The left pincer blindsided them with a back-slap, sending the Galaxy Zephyr spinning through space. It tumbled twenty billion light-years before stabilizing.

Lucille’s crew righted themselves just to see the stinging tail descend. Reflexively, they brought forth the Wheel and sliced the tail’s stinging tip.

“Big mistake!” signaled the Enemy Hurricane. From the sliced stinger, yellow acid gushed.

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“Who’s mistake?” asked Lucille. The acid flooded over the Galaxy Zephyr. Its Hurricane Armor cracked like sunburnt skin.

The whole Galaxy Zephyr broke open like a cocoon.

Underneath the white Hurricane armor was blue Hurricane Armor. This broke open also, and underneath was purple Hurricane Armor. This broke open also, and underneath was pink Hurricane Armor.  This broke open also, and underneath was blackness so dark it made space look luminous.

“You’ve guaranteed our victory,” said Lucille. “You’ve unleashed our final form!”

The blackness kept growing and growing, gaining mass from the Wheel’s energy. It absorbed the oceans of acid. Under the white, blue, purple, and pink faces, a black face glared at the Enemy Hurricane.

“How are you—” The Enemy Hurricane reared and snapped its pincers up at them. “Why are you so large?”

“I’ve always been this large!” said Lucille, “you just didn’t have the sense to see it!” The black mass grew to twice the size of the Enemy Hurricane—twice the size of the observable universe. It had four legs, four arms, and two horns which speared the skins of its former forms and wore them like garlands. The Wheel expanded proportionally.

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“Unbelievable.” Daisuke’s hands trembled as he took his controls. His cockpit had moved to where the two left arms conjoined at the shoulder.

“How could we possibly lose?” asked Eisu. His cockpit had moved to where the two right legs conjoined at the hip.

“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.

“One more time,” said Akayama, from the heart.

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

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

Lucille felt much more resistance in the chain; it took all the Galaxy Zephyr’s strength to pull the first link from the Wheel. That link was in the jaws of a fleshy skull with six empty eye-sockets. Subsequent links were wrapped in the skeletal creature’s ribs. It had twenty arms and twenty legs.

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“One last Zephyr for the road?” With Lucille’s direction, the Galaxy Zephyr wrapped the chain around the Wheel’s rim. The skeletal creature’s forty limbs were the Wheel’s new saw-teeth.

The Galaxy Zephyr’s upper pair of arms reached into the Wheel’s green surface, and plucked out Earth’s sun and moon. They staked the moon on their left horn, and the sun on their right horn, to save them for later.

Lucille couldn’t stop laughing. “Let’s wrap this up, shall we?”

Next Section
Commentary

The House of Eyes

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

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

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

“You’d better go 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 white wing around yet. Do you mean—”

“You’re due for Zephyrhood,” said Nakayama. “Make haste.”

“Oh, gosh.” Faith nervously tapped her paws. “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 helpful 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 pile of worms squirming in different directions. I couldn’t have managed the afterlife without you.”

Faith surveyed the desert for the last time. “What’s it like, being a Zephyr?”

“The description will seem unpleasant, but don’t be afraid,” said Nakayama. “Your body and mind will disintegrate and spread throughout the Wheel. From there, you’ll be a boon to all sentient beings.”

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

“All people.”

“Good enough for me.” Faith leapt into the cave. The Mountain swallowed her. Nakayama turned to the desert and 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, but Jay’s gaze was debilitating. “Stay away!” it shouted.

“Stay away?” Nakayama drew near. “Oh, Anihilato, how you’ve forgotten. I’m your salvation. Your task is complete.”

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

“I’ll take it from here.” Nakayama’s wings scintillated and morphed. Every feather became an eyeball. The wings formed a dome over Anihilato with eyes facing inward. Anihilato was too petrified to even blink. Jay took the chance to rub his own eyes.

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Nakayama popped off both wings and stepped away from them. “Thank you Jay. If you hadn’t held it here, Anihilato might have hid for all eternity.”

“I’ve got questions,” said Jay.

“I’ve got answers, but I can’t guarantee they’re to your questions.” Nakayama unsleeved ten blue arms to lift one corner of the dome of wings, and entered. Jay saw, through the lifted corner, Anihilato frozen in fear. “Ask away.”

“If I understand correctly,” said Jay, “my world isn’t the real one.”

“That’s a matter of perspective.” Nakayama put all her hands on Anihilato’s ten hind legs. The legs popped off easily, and Nakayama swallowed them whole. Anihilato groaned. “From my vantage point, your world is as real as anything else. It’s subsidiary to another world, but if it weren’t real, it couldn’t be subsidiary to anything.”

Jay nodded. Even freed from Anihilato’s glare, he stayed stationary. “The strangest thing, though,” he said, “is that some aspects of your original world slip into my subsidiary one. For example, I heard the story of a Blue Virgil who read manga from a library of texts supposedly from the future. After reading the manga, they visited Japan to meet the author while they wrote it. If I understand correctly,” he wagered, “the Blue Virgil’s copy of the manga 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 ten shoulders and popped off Anihilato’s remaining legs. “Your world’s an unsupervised machine-learning algorithm. If I understood how it worked, it wouldn’t work at all. Its goal is reconstructing Earth’s population’s principal components, so I’m not surprised it accidentally reflected my original reality.”

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

Nakayama popped off Anihilato’s twenty arms and ate them one-by-one. The worm-monster crumpled on the sand, whimpering. Asked Nakayama, “who?”

“Their regimes killed millions.”

“Oh! I remember now.” Nakayama took Anihilato’s tail and whipped its body to snap its spine. “You must be from the early 2000s.”

“How’d you know?”

“By 2399, Hitler and Stalin don’t even make the top-ten list of murderous authoritarian dictators.”

“Gosh. My subsidiary world’s in for a few rough centuries.”

“Every century is rough, and for the same reasons. What changes, is us.” Nakayama merged her five left arms together, and they became a jet engine. Blue fire spewed forty meters.

“No! Please!” Despite its protest, Nakayama scorched Anihilato’s scalp. “Aaaugh!” Its six eyeballs boiled and burst.

Nakayama absorbed the dome of wings under her robes, then strode to Anihilato’s writhing tail and caught its end in her beak. Nakayama inhaled, which stoked Anihilato’s flaming head to char. It stopped screaming and the flames spread to its shoulders. Nakayama blew smoke toward the sunset, then inhaled again, searing Anihilato to its waist.

“Phooo.” Nakayama blew more smoke. “Jay, care to help out? I’m drowning in this thing.”

Jay nodded. Nakayama put Anihilato’s tail in Jay’s mouth. Jay breathed deep. When he finished coughing, Jay opened his eyes and they were jewel-like and green. “Wow. I can see forever.”

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“Eh. You get used to it.” Nakayama inhaled Anihilato again, and the monster crumbled into ash. “You and I contain enough data to recreate Earth’s population within any degree of accuracy. Time to end this. I’ll unite you with the other Zephyrs.”

“I’m already one with everything,” said Jay. “I contain Beatrice, and Faith, and Dan, and Leo, and everyone else, and I always have.”

“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. “I can’t carry you and fly. I could throw you to the Mountain, or I could escort you inside me.”

“Do what you’re gonna do.”

“Of course. It’s not like I could do what I’m not going to do.” Nakayama swallowed Jay and launched into the sky.

Next Section
Commentary

The Staring Contest at the End of Time

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, then opened a lipless mouth to swallow it whole.

Anihilato paused. It whispered as if to let the egg sleep. “You’re the first worm I’ve seen in eons,” said the King of Dust. “The eternities are ending and worms are growing scarce. 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 a difference. “When I meet more complicated creatures, I must consume them twice. First I excrete them as eggs and enjoy their warmth until their egos soften. Only then can I digest them totally. In my previous life I could soften egos using other mystical powers, but I’ve lost that talent and must resort to eggs. My last egg is almost ready; I’ve eaten all the rest.”

Anihilato let the worm crawl across the egg. Then it snatched the worm and ate it.

It wrapped itself around the egg and slept for a long time.

It awoke to a crack.

“I’ve indulged in your warmth too long.” Anihilato felt the egg’s crack with its fingertips. “Time to eat!”

Anihilato opened its mouth.

The egg exploded.

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

After the collapse, Anihilato dug to the surface. It shook sand from its body and blinked in the sunlight. It was in a deep explosive crater between dunes. Anihilato would dig back into the depths, but not before reclaiming what hatched from its egg. “Monk!” Anihilato scanned the sand. It snatched 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. “I’m right where I meant to be.”

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Anihilato stormed up to Jay in a flurry of arms and legs. “I’ve softened you, Dan! In my limbo you’ve been blunted. I’ll best your eye contact and reduce you to a nematode. Your rag won’t protect you long!”

“Make no mistake.” Jay pulled the blindfold taut. “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?”

Jay allowed himself a slanted smile. “You are Anihilato,” he said, “and you are King of Dust, but you are not Master of Nihilism. There is no Master of Nihilism. Nihilism denies even the concept of mastery, even the concept of concepts. 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 put your Eternity Card in my box of souls. Even if, out of pity, I allowed you to escape, you’d never find that box. I’ve hidden it deep under the desert!”

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

Anihilato tore off the blindfold.

Scrutinized by six eyes, Jay felt all his muscles lock.

Anihilato, too, felt muscles lock. Jay’s gaze had grown more potent in the egg, or perhaps Anihilato had drawn too close untying the blindfold and was paralyzed by its own reflection in Jay’s eyes.

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Just before it lost its strength, Anihilato swept sand in Jay’s face. Jay cringed; his left eye closed and wouldn’t open.

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Anihilato’s mouth curved into a grin. Through the petrifying battle of glares, it managed to speak. “You can’t win, Dan.”

“My name’s Jay now, 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 will wink, and turn into an earthworm for me to slurp.”

Tears streamed from Jay’s closed left eye.

“You’re right to cry,” said Anihilato. “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.

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“DanJay, you only delay the inevitable.”

“I am the inevitable,” said Jay, “and so are you. What happens happens. I’m subject to reality, just as you are.”

Anihilato chuckled. “What do you know of reality?”

“Doubtlessly less than you,” said Jay. “You contain every Virgil Blue. Nemo. Jango. Thank you for joining me at the end of the eternities. I couldn’t do this alone.” Anihilato sneered. “But it doesn’t matter. I know well as any Virgil that God is just what happens—no more or less than exactly what exists. God waits between us, now.”

Two of Anihilato’s eyes peered into the 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 sun descended and shined directly in his vision. He had to squint. Anihilato laughed. “Soon, DanJay. Soon.”

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

Now Anihilato didn’t understand until noticing its own shadow. As the sun descended, Anihilato cast shade over Jay’s face. Jay’s eyes relaxed. Anihilato struggled to crane its neck and shine light on Jay again, but was too close to do so, because it had drawn near to untie the blindfold. “Terrible monks like you,” said Anihilato, “make the tastiest worms. I can wait for your surrender.”

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Jay just nodded. In Anihilato’s shadow, he could keep his eyes open a while.

Unless…

A drop of sweat disturbed his right eyelash. The eye clenched shut instinctively.

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“Aha.” Anihilato snickered. “Your humanity betrays you.”

More sweat tickled Jay’s nose. Sweat 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 eyelash. Jay shook. Anxiety clutched his chest. He felt teeth take root in his throat.

A cool breeze froze the sweat to his forehead.

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Faith Featherway inhaled and blew more chill wind over Jay’s face. “Is that better?”

“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, Faith.” 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. “I’m flying back to the Mountain,” she said. “Bug-Bird’s asked me to keep an eye on Anihilato. I gotta report this.”

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“That’s alright,” said Jay. “I’ll 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 did,” said Jay.

“Good luck.” Faith bounded away, 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, give one to me!”

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

Anihilato’s lipless mouth twitched in frustration and its six eyes shook. Jay just stared. His eyes were moist and cool and shaded. Reassured, the teeth in his throat retreated.

“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 others kept Jay paralyzed. “That cloud will disperse. You will sweat, and your eyes will shut. Then I’ll consume you. You can’t outlast me.”

“I don’t need to,” said Jay.

“What—” Anihilato let two eyes look left and right. “What do you mean?”

From the distance, a sonic boom roared over the dunes.

“No!” Anihilato quivered in fear. “Not that!”

Jay shrugged. “It’s not up to me.”

“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 contest underground!”

“Nah.”

In his peripheral vision, Jay saw the Heart of the Mountain, the Biggest Bird, sweeping over the desert on a forty foot wingspan.

Next Section
Commentary

Leo Ascends

“I’m glad to have company.” Nemo, the limbless ascetic, leaned to look over Leo’s shoulder. “I heard a bird. Will it arrive soon?”

“Probably,” lied Leo. “You guys love birds, huh?”

“Of course. My islands were built by a bird.”

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

“Very little,” said Nemo. “I’ve come in pursuit of freedom, to live as I know is right.”

“Oh yeah?” Leo 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. You a monk?”

“No,” said Nemo. “I’m no longer welcome at Virgil Blue’s monastery.”

“Oh ho ho. That’s the stuff. They’ll kick you out if you tell ‘em harsh truths.”

“Indeed,” said Nemo.

Leo pointed to his own forehead. “You got a, uh, a thing up there.”

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

“Hell yeah. I got the same thing.” Leo unbuttoned his Hawaiian shirt. Tattooed across his chest was a blue swastika whose arms held thirteen stars. “That’s why society can’t keep up with us. Get me?”

Nemo furrowed his brow at Leo’s tattoo. “What brings you to my mountain?”

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

“Hm.” Nemo seemed unimpressed. “Freedom can’t come from centipedes.”

“Ha! I figured you had something special up here,” said Leo. “Even monks use centipedes. What’ve you got? What’s your secret to freedom?”

Nemo shook his head. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“C’mon. We’re buddies!” Leo took out his cellphone. “You like birds, right? Check this out. On the second island there’s 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 Leo 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 Leo with a squint. “You know, photographing birds is forbidden.”

“So’s climbing past the clouds and using centipedes, but that ain’t stopping us.” Leo puffed out his chest. “Freedom means doing what you want, even if betas say you can’t.”

“Sometimes freedom means knowing your limits,” said Nemo.

“Freedom means having no limits.”

Nemo blinked. “If the opportunity arose to torture children to death without consequences, would you consider it moral to do so?”

“Psh. Morality. It’d be my choice.” Nemo glared, so Leo folded his arms. “What kind of communo-fascist dictatorship are you imagining,” began Leo, almost promisingly, “where I can’t kill anyone, anywhere, in any way, for any reason or no reason at all? You don’t control me. What are you, some kind of Jew?”

Nemo counted centipedes in Leo’s jar. “Are you consuming those yourself?”

“Nope. Back stateside they sell for a thousand bucks a pop. Might smoke a little, though.”

Nemo bit his lip. His teeth were whittled sharp, like a shark’s. “Centipedes aren’t meant to be sold.”

“But people buy ‘em. Can’t blame me for feeding the invisible hand of the free market, baby.”

“I thought you weren’t into imaginary-sky-daddy bullshit.”

Leo 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!”

“Everyone says that about their god.”

“But the invisible hand of the free market allots consequences for actions by assigning ultimate value! It objectively can do no wrong!”

“Everyone says that about their god.”

Leo sputtered and shook his fists. Spit flecked from his lips. “The invisible hand of the free market is directly influenced by everyone who matters!”

“Lots of people claim personal connections to god. You trust an imaginary-sky-daddy to fix the world as quickly as you can break it. You’re bad as the monks.”

Leo clocked Nemo in the jaw.

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Nemo rolled back on his mutilated hips, but his low center of gravity rolled him upright like a child’s boxing toy. Leo socked him again, and again Nemo rolled upright. “You really want my secret to freedom?” asked Nemo.

“Yeah!”

“Make an offer.”

“Uh.” Leo pat his pockets. He had no money, not even sand-dollars. “I’ll pay crickets and centipedes.”

“I have no need for them. Try again.”

“I’ve got a porcelain egg.”

“Do I look like a bird?”

Leo crossed his arms. “Well, what do you want?”

“Eat your fingers.”

Leo clutched his biceps. “Why would I?”

“If you won’t pay, freedom will escape you. You’ll have no one to blame but yourself for your slavery.”

Leo grimaced. “Crazy bastard.”

“Call me what you want.” Nemo munched his own shoulder. He licked every drop of blood and swallowed his own skin. “Man is free exactly when he chooses to be, but if you haven’t the guts, I can’t blame you.”

Leo put his right index finger in his mouth, but couldn’t bite hard enough to sever it.

“Come on,” said Nemo. “Be less worthless than your daddy.”

Now Leo flushed red with rage. He opened wide and chomped his finger clean off. Blood spurt onto the rocky cave floor. He groaned and spat his finger into his lap. “Don’t talk smack about my daddy!”

“Pathetic!” Nemo snatched Leo’s finger in his teeth. “Did I tell you to bite your fingers off?”

“Yeah! Idiot!”

“Lazy sack of shit! I told you to eat them!” Nemo whipped his neck to fling the finger at Leo’s face. “Or descend, and face your father as equal in failure!”

“Don’t talk smack about—” Leo clenched his mutilated fist. “My daddy—my father, I mean, was a wealthy businessman!”

“What’s his name?”

Leo said nothing.

“Thought so,” said Nemo.

“So what if I don’t know his name!” said Leo. “He fucked my mom and fucked off to make more money. He’s an alpha, just like me!” Nemo just grinned. “My mom said he was rich! Are you callin’ my momma a liar?”

“Some things don’t need to be said.”

Leo chewed his severed finger. Bones cracked in his teeth and he swallowed. He almost vomited, but bit off his right thumb as well. “Aaaugh!” He horked it down. “Goddammit!”

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Nemo watched him eat every finger off his right hand. “You’re spilling blood. Sloppy work.”

“Shut up!” Leo gnashed canines to split tendons and ligaments in his left pinky. He jerked his head to tear the digit from his palm. Tears, spit, and blood trickled down his face, neck, and chest. His tattoo’s color ran, leaving him bare-chested. Leo skipped his ring-finger and ate the rest, panting. When only his left ring-finger remained, he showed it to Nemo. Leo wore a gold ring. “I can’t eat this one,” said Leo. “My wife would kill me.”

Nemo smirked. “You seek utter freedom, but worry what your wife would think? Whi-chii.” It was a whip crack.

“Okay, okay! But I’m keeping the ring.” Leo pulled off the ring with his teeth.

Nemo shook his head. “You can’t be free if you can’t sever your attachments—to your body, and to others.”

“How could I be attached to her body?” asked Leo. “She won’t even fuck me.”

“Hmmm.”

“Women are the worst,” Leo stalled. “They don’t know a great guy like me when they see one. I didn’t get laid in high-school, and after high-school, women are just used-up sluts whose gaping cavities aren’t worth a damn. But I thought I’d lower myself to fucking one—I bought a wife from overseas. Cheap, ‘cause she came pregnant. But even that worn-out bitch won’t fuck me! How could I possibly be attached to that husk? Maybe I’ll fuck my stepdaughter if she grows up hot. It’s not like we’re related.”

Nemo chuckled. “But you won’t eat the ring?”

Leo put his ring-finger in his mouth. He cracked bones, tore flesh, and swallowed it whole. “There! Urp—” Leo choked back vomit. “Fuckin’ showed you!”

“You sure did,” said Nemo.

“Now gimme freedom! What are you hiding up here?”

“Nothing you can’t see.” Nemo wiggled his stumps. “You’ve already eaten your fingers. Now finish the job.”

Leo retched and hid his bloody palms under his armpits. “Fucking, false advertising.”

“The secret to freedom is attaching to nothing,” said Nemo. “Own nothing. Be nothing. Until then you can only suffer.”

“My property,” said Leo, “is mine! I earned it! I deserve it! I’m damn-right to be pissed off at this commie bullshit!”

“Feel how you like.” Nemo shrugged what remained of his shoulders. “But an anarchist must rejoice in any circumstance. Governments don’t exist. Social structure is illusory. Everyone is capable of their capabilities. That tautology is the only freedom. All else is empty. You claim to desire a world without limits, but you live in it. You’re just too pathetic to participate.”

Leo tried to stand up. “I’m leaving. Fuck you.” He slumped into a puddle of his own blood; he was too pale and weak to exert himself.

“Leaving?” Nemo chuckled as Leo tried retrieving his wedding ring without fingers. “You can barely move. You’ve chosen to die here.”

“Yeah?” Leo jabbed his bloody palm at Nemo and flecked him with blood. “Well, you too!”

“Indeed I’ve chosen this fate. The bird outlined my duty and I accepted. I’ll escort you to the next world, if you’d like.” Nemo laughed. “That’s a joke; you won’t like it, and I won’t care.”

Leo kept slipping in blood. His sunglasses fell to the floor. “What’re you on about?”

“I’m eating more than myself,” said Nemo. “I’ve devoured every fool who’s chased vices to my peak. My cave is a moth trap for those pursuing power at any cost.” Nemo gnawed his own shoulders. “By now my soul is tarnished by every type of evil. I consume the Blue Virgils to dilute souls like yours. Once I’ve totally eaten myself, I’ll have successfully forfeited my ego.”

“You’re loony,” said Leo. “How could you eat yourself?”

“My hips were tricky,” admitted Nemo, “but once I pulled out my pelvis it just took some nibbling, and I’ve got nothing but time.”

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

“Oh?” Nemo opened wide and ejected a shark-tooth from his gums. The tooth fizzled, sputtered, and annihilated itself in a flurry of particles and antiparticles. Leo pouted. “Your type is stringy,” said Nemo, “not like bad meat, but metaphysically. If someone identifies with their house, then to eat their ego, I must collapse their house. If someone identifies with their crops, I must wilt their crops. These are mystical powers I developed through my connection to the Mountain. Luckily, your pride confines you. You attach yourself not to your wife or daughter, but to your virginity. You attach yourself not to your parents, but to your genetic stock. Externally you attach yourself only to money; I’ll just evaporate your bank-accounts—assuming you aren’t dead-broke.”

Leo had no strength to speak. Nemo crawled along the cave floor like a worm.

“Don’t worry,” said Nemo. “In the next world, you and I will be one with the souls I’ve snacked on. The Heart of the Mountain, that biggest bird, has promised us the receipts to all psyches. We’ll be rich! Greed will be our duty. We’ll grow plump with spiritual power for the sake of all sentient beings.”

Nemo unhinged his jaw and ate Leo’s head.

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As he chewed, he mused to himself: “But Anihilato may have more power than the Heart of the Mountain anticipates. Not even every Virgil Blue can dilute the diabolical stains on my spirit. If Anihilato’s power is so great that the Mountain’s Heart cannot collect us, there must arise an opposing force. Someone to look evil in the eye, unblinkingly.”


In Jango Skyy’s motel room, Jay writhed on the rug.

Next Section
Commentary

Leo Climbs

“Pheh.” Leo capped a jar. He’d only managed to catch six fireflies whose shining butts hardly illuminated the Sheridanian mountainside. He glared at the moon. “Some help you are, huh?” The moon just made the ocean glitter.

Leo kept climbing the main island of Sheridan. 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 painstakingly unhooked it from the thorny bush. “This is the stuff.”

He pulled a knife from his backpack. The knife had a totally awesome dragon on its hilt, but that’s not why he bought it from his local mall: its glass blade was a cinch to sneak onto airplanes.

He cut branches from the bush. Thorns nicked his palms. “Aw, c’mon!” He wiped blood on his cargo shorts. “Give it up already!” He reached into the bush and grabbed the ball of centipedes. It wouldn’t budge. He swung the knife with wild fervor. In his haste, he hacked some centipedes in half. “Perfect.”

He pried centipedes from the mutilated bush. He chucked the chopped ones over his shoulders. The intact centipedes he stowed in jars.

As he hacked the next bush, he mimicked Jay. “Oh, please, Leo! Only Virgil Blue can prepare centipedes! Come with me and get bum-fucked by monks! Pft.” He filled another jar with centipedes. “What a joke. The monks aren’t even trying to protect these bushes. 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.”

He kept climbing the mountain. Surely the best centipedes were near the peak.

He tripped immediately. “Fucking nests!” He was surprised to see a woven nest so high, holding two porcelain eggs representing birds who’d died at this elevation on their waddle to the top. “Huh.” Both eggs were painted with lacework, signifying matriarchs from Virgil Green’s congregation. “They’d never notice one missing.” He dumped his jar of fireflies, sealed an egg in it, and kept climbing.

When his jars were full, he turned to watch the sunrise. He’d worked through the night leaving broken bushes in his path. He donned his sunglasses.

He turned to the mountaintop. The clouds obscuring the summit were so near he could touch them.

“Not supposed to climb past the clouds, huh?” Leo smirked and stuck his arm into the fog. “What a dumb rule. Sometimes the whole island is foggy. How do 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 bug-drugs did they hide in cloud-cover?

Above the fog, the mountain’s terrain was more rough. The slopes were so steep Leo 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 to be worth it.

Twenty feet above, he saw a shape through the fog. Was it a fellow trespasser? Leo considered hiding, until he identified the figure’s waddle: it was a bird, six feet tall with long red tail-feathers. It struggled more than he did plodding up the slopes.

“Heh.” Leo eventually 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.” Leo kicked the cliff with both feet trying to climb. “Hey, hey! Wait for me!” He grabbed the bird’s tail-feathers and pulled himself up.

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The bird lost its balance and fell from the cliff. Leo watched it roll down the slopes. Each time it tumbled, its wing-bones broke. He heard its squawking even after the fog obscured it.

Leo turned to the mountaintop. “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.”

The fog chilled as he neared the peak. Thin frost coated the stony mountainside. 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: there was a human figure in the back of the cave, facing rock wall.

“Yo,” said Leo. “Whaddup.”

The figure didn’t turn. Leo approached. He wasn’t sure, now, if it was human or an odd stone. If it was human, they lacked arms and legs.

“Are you there?” asked Leo. “Ew!”

It was certainly human, but their pitch-black flesh was disgusting. Where their arms and legs had been, the stumps were marred by bite-marks.

“Ha. Creepy.” Leo bit the figure’s shoulder like a dog. “Rawr!”

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

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“Whoa!” Leo backed up. “I’m just playing, man. Didn’t think you’d care, you’ve got bite-marks all over.”

The figure turned, somehow, with what was left of his limbs. “Do you know who I am?”

“Nope.” Leo stuck out a hand. “Henry.”

The figure did not shake; of course he didn’t, he had no hands. “Nemo,” he said. “Oran dora. Please, sit.”

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The Plan

“Why not?” asked Nakayama’s Hurricane. “Why shouldn’t Lucille pull the chain? We’ve got Faith, that white fox. Let’s send her to the Galaxy Zephyr!”

Iya!” Nakayama flew around Lucille’s Wheel. Finding the bulge totally remedied, she released the white wing and returned it to robot. “I need her. I need Faith.”

“What?” Her Hurricane opened eyeballs in the Wheel’s green haze to watch Nakayama. “But the Galaxy Zephyr needs Faith, too! Why are you keeping her?”

“Because,” said Nakayama, “I have a plan which guarantees we rebuild Earth’s population as accurately as possible.”

“I don’t even know how our original plan was supposed to work,” admitted her Hurricane. “Why do you need Faith?”

“I’m only one person. I’m already having trouble wirelessly operating the bird-pilot of ZAP.” Nakayama loaded herself into the Mountain. “I can’t devote myself to combing the desert for new Zephyrs. I need someone else to survey our Hurricane Planet. Life is too unruly to order itself into nice principal components and converge near me. Some principle components will surely isolate themselves and hide, so we must prepare.” Nakayama used inconceivable methods to select an instant in her torus of timelines. “Fire!”

Her Hurricane fired her from the Mountain. Nakayama spread her wings to dive at the water world’s main island.

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As she dove, Nakayama noticed much had changed. The islanders now lived across all three islands, even the barren sandy one. Atop the main island she saw a white-walled monastery. She landed beside a great gray stone statue.

The statue intrigued her. It was a giant bird atop a stone box sheltering a tiny man with its 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; she recognized him by his navy robes and silver mask. Nemo approached her and bowed. “Akayama! Oran dora.”

“Virgil Blue,” she said. Nemo nodded. “I must ask you for a favor.”

“Anything,” said Nemo.

Nakayama squawked. “You speak! You speak English!”

“Of course,” said Nemo. “You gave me a thousand books. I studied their text for centuries. Visitors from other nations taught me to pronounce English characters. 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.”

“No!” Nakayama folded her sleeves across her chest. “Devote yourself to nothing less than all sentient beings.” Nemo didn’t understand and shook his head. Nakayama tried to explain even though she knew she never could, in any language. “I’m collecting souls in the afterlife and I need your help. I can think of no one else to shoulder the indescribable burden.”

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

Nakayama hesitated, but relinquished her command: “You must contain unruly souls.”

“Contain them?”

“In the deserts of my Hurricane Planet,” said Nakayama, “I’ll make sure you arrive in one solid piece instead of decomposing into worms; your soul will stay intact until the end of the eternities. Until then, I need you to subsume the souls which otherwise would never know me. There are some who would avoid me out of fear, or greed, or selfishness, even given eternities to approach. I need you to collect those beings such that your soul includes theirs.”

“How?” asked Nemo.

“The information you carry must encompass them, in the same way a widow who’s lost her husband carries his mind with hers,” said Nakayama. “You must impress upon yourself the total fiber of their form, so when I collect you at the end of the eternities, I contain all sentient beings. To help me reconstruct Earth’s population from dust, you must be King of Dust. Anything which would otherwise be annihilated, you must consume: Anihilato,” she dubbed him.

Nemo nodded like he understood, but of course he couldn’t. “I will consume those who would otherwise never know you,” he said.

“Perfect,” said Nakayama. “I should give you a list.” Using statistical methods she could never explain, Nakayama produced reams of papyrus. “This is a complete catalog of all expected Earthly souls. Either in this eternity or the next, I hope every specimen documented here is accounted for, if not in me then in you.” She pushed the papyrus toward Nemo, but he refused.

“In this eternity… or the next?” Nemo tensed every muscle in his arms. “If I have two whole eternities, could you save these documents until I enter the next world? I feel they’ll be more useful then.”

“I understand.” Nakayama absorbed the papyrus into her sleeves. “As long as you accept your duty, I trust you to the end of time.”

With that, Nakayama blasted back into space and merged with the Mountain. “Is your plan underway?” asked her Hurricane.

“Indeed.” Nakayama watched the islands from above, and allowed her toroidal swirl of space-time to spin the scene away. “If my machinations manifest, the pesky principal components will be conglomerated into a single convenient entity.”

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

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“I know, I know. Even if my plan turns out as intended, it will be difficult to convince this entity to join the Galaxy Zephyr—or even reveal itself.” Nakayama floated within the Wheel. “That’s why I need Faith to survey the desert and find Anihilato by the end of the eternities. But even then, it won’t go willingly. It may even overpower me.” From her seat in the Mountain, Nakayama surveyed the water world and the Hurricane Planet simultaneously. “Despite Virgil Blue’s good nature, Anihilato will be unruly because of the characters it contains.”

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On the main island of Sheridan, Leo climbed uphill. He panted and sweat. Surely the best centipedes were near the top.

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Jay Eats a Centipede

Jay felt the presence of the Virgils at the nearest motel, as he knew he would. There were no coincidences.

When Jay knocked, Virgil Skyy brushed blinds aside and peeked out the window with his good eye. Seeing Jay, he unlocked and opened the door. Jay entered and Skyy locked the door behind him. “Are your friends joining us?”

“I don’t think so.” Jay removed his shoes and loosened his 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.

Skyy bid Jay to sit beside Blue on the bed while he limped to a rug rolled-up against a wall. Jay wanted to help handle the heavy rug, but Skyy knocked it over with his cane and unrolled it with his feet. “Students usually undertake this ritual after years of training with Virgil Green, then swimming to the main island and climbing it nude like the birds do.”

Jay nodded. 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. The man was nude and black like coal. Above the islands, a bird in sky-blue robes observed the man’s journey.

“The first man, Nemo,” said Virgil Skyy. “The tapestry shows his journey from divine birth to ascendance above the rank of Blue.” Virgil Skyy rest his hands on his cane. “You said you met Virgil Green?”

“I did.” Jay swallowed. “I understand he chased snakes from Sheridan.”

Virgil Skyy shrugged. “Close enough. The truth is, Nemo chased the snakes away. When Nemo 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 was divided and diluted.”

Jay let his gaze wander the rug. Unconsciously his focus drifted to Virgil Blue’s silver mask. At this angle Jay had two reflections, one in each of Blue’s eyes. “Virgil Skyy… Jango… On the islands, you said the dead are reborn.”

“We cycle until our souls find the Mountain.”

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

“The sand in the desert of death wears souls 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 Blue. “Virgil Blue once dreamed they were a bird eating grubs from tree-trunks. Who’s to say which thoughts are false and which are past lives?” Jango noticed Jay’s concerned expression. “But it doesn’t matter. Sentience is the whorl where the river meets the pond. 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 Master of Nihilism, King of Dust?” Jango shook his head. Jay darkened. “What if the dead refused rebirth? What if they hid under the desert?”

“The sand would wear them away.”

“What if they gain mass so quickly the sand can’t keep up?” Jay didn’t look at either Virgil. “What if the Mountain’s task is impossible because of that stuck cog?”

“I can’t speak for the Mountain’s plan,” said Jango. “I’m only a Virgil. My goal is to guide.”

Jay released the tension in his hands. “Guide me.”

Jango licked his lips. He considered Anihilato. “There once was a monster,” he said, “who couldn’t be killed in day or at night, inside or outside, or by a man or a woman. Of course, the monster was slain by a hermaphrodite while passing through a door during a solar eclipse. The monster wore willful ignorance like 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 unpronounceable truth. Do you understand?”

Jay did not say “yes” or “no.” He did not even nod.

“You’re ready.” Jango put his thumb and pinky on Virgil Blue’s silver mask. Jay gasped. Jango took the mask away.

Under the mask was a black tangle of centipedes.

“Remember, 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. “Centipede loses potency soon after harvest. It’s not easy to smuggle centipede through customs, but no one checks the ancient monk in a wheelchair.” Jango shook a sleeve and a knife fell into his hand.

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 ’til the end of time. It should be any year now.” With navy fabric guarding his hand from thorns, Jango reached into the centipede bush. He used the knife to pry orange legs until he could pull a whole centipede from the mass. The centipede curled in a spiral which Jango gave to Jay. “You’ve tried centipede powder, correct?”

“Yeah.”

“This is not the same,” said Jango. “This will shred the veil you call ego. The experience will last hours.”

Jay nodded.

“Eat it,” said Jango.

Without hesitation Jay crunched the exoskeleton in his teeth. He tore and swallowed black chunks. Orange legs crawled down his throat. Dark liquid spilled from his lips, and 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 had left the magic circle.

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