DanJay Blinks

(This is part two of the sequel to Akayama DanJay.)


“Martyr me, motherfucker.”

Years prior to the end of the eternity, in a Wyoming motel-room, Jango stabbed Jay to death.

Jay opened his eyes in an egg in the afterlife. He gasped amniotic fluid. He whipped off his loincloth with enough force to crumble Anihilato’s endless caverns, collapsing the rust-red desert to his level. He retied the cloth like a blindfold when he heard Anihilato rush toward him in a flurry of flightless wings. “Jones! Dan Jones! You can’t run from me!”

“Why would I? I’m right where I meant to be.” Jay pulled the blindfold taut.

“In my limbo you’ve been blunted.” Anihilato untied the blindfold with six feathery hands. “Blink and be mine, as mandated by the Eternity Cards in my box of souls.”

“You still think I care about your stupid box?” Jay laughed. “If I found your box, you know what I’d do? I’d piss on your box. What worthless trash!”

Anihilato removed the blindfold. Jay’s muscles locked under the scrutiny of Anihilato’s six eyes. Anihilato’s muscles also locked; perhaps the power of Jay’s vision had amplified in the egg, or perhaps Anihilato drew too close untying the blindfold and was now paralyzed by its own reflection in Jay’s eyes.

With its last moment of movement, Anihilato swept a wing, spewing sand in Jay’s face. Jay grunted. His left eye clenched painfully shut, but his right eye held open strong.

This was the first time Jay saw Anihilato in direct sunlight. The King of Dust had a yolk-yellow beak and a mane of red feathers. “You can’t win, Dan Jones.”

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“My name is Jay, now, but call me what you want.”

“You can’t win, DanJay.” Anihilato closed its bottom pair of eyes. “Remember teaching me this trick?” Anihilato opened its bottom eyes and closed its middle pair. “With this technique, my vision is eternal.” Anihilato opened its middle eyes and closed its top pair. “Blink, DanJay. I’m waiting.”

Tears streamed down Jay’s left cheek.

“Whimper, mortal. I’ll savor squashing your hubris.”

The tears carried sand-grains from Jay’s left eye. He reopened it, winkingly.

Anihilato scoffed. “Crying won’t save you.”

I’m saving you, Anihilato.” Jay squeezed his knees. It was all the movement he could muster. “Your purpose was to forget your purpose. You’re every aspect of humanity which would never make it to the Mountain. I’m bringing you in.”

“Don’t talk nonsense about doctrine you’ve no part in.”

“I am part in all doctrine.”

“What a big head!” Anihilato licked its beak with a long, long tongue. “Your ego will be delicious.”

“I celebrate myself, but every atom of me as good belongs to you.”

“Too true. I’ll devour your every atom soon enough.”

“I was waxing Whitman. You reject unity, but I unify with your rejection.”

The desert sun shined in Jay’s eyes. He squinted. Anihilato’s eyes tilted in eagerness, but soon its mane of red feathers shaded Jay’s face, and he stopped squinting. “You make it all sound so simple,” said Anihilato.

“Life is as simple as you choose. I choose for me and you choose for you. That’s the way it’s always been and the way it will always be, even if you waste your choice demanding more. Our choices have led us here. God waits between us now.”

“Is that your God, on your forehead?”

Jay shivered with fear. Sweat was dripping down his nose and around his eyes. “The sweat on my brow is me, and you, and God, just like everything else.” He cringed when the sweat pooled in his right eye. When he couldn’t handle the salt, his right eye closed. His left eye, red and quivering, was all that restrained the King of Dust. “The way it stings was made for me by the Mountain.”

“Then whimper, mortal. For the Mountain.”

Jay whimpered.

A drop of sweat dripped over his left eyebrow, toward his only open eye.

The drop froze in a cool breeze.

Faith Featherway, snowy white fox, exhaled icy comfort over Jay’s face. “Is that better, JayJay?”

“Perfect.” Jay opened both eyes. “Thank you, Faith.”

“Hey!” Anihilato inhaled, but couldn’t suck up Faith’s powdery form in the open air. “Don’t meddle, you frigid rat!”

“Everything meddles with everything,” said Jay. “If you understood that, Anihilato, you’d know you already contain me, without devouring me. I am the all, and so are you.”

Faith turned to envelop Jay’s head with her cloudy tail. It cooled and cleansed his tired eyes. “Bug-Bird told me to keep an eye out for Anihilato. I gotta report this.”

“Okay. Thanks again.”

Anihilato thought quick. In another universe, where the King of Dust was a little less bird and a little more worm, it wouldn’t have tried exhaling. It blew Faith’s tail far over the dunes.

“Oh! It’s alright, I’ve got you, JayJay.” Faith grew another tail and left this one over Jay as well.

Anihilato blew this one away, too.

“Don’t worry about it, Faith,” said Jay. “Just fly to the Mountain and get Akayama.”

“Akayama?” Faith gave him another tail. “Who’s that?”

“Bug-Bird,” said Jay. “The Biggest Bird. The Heart of the Mountain. Akayama, Nakayama. The professor who destroyed the universe and is now rebuilding it.”

Anihilato blew away the third tail. Faith gave Jay a fourth. “Isn’t she from that anime you and Dan like? LuLu’s?

“Yes,” said Jay. “Like everything else, that anime is part of our omnipresent reality.” Anihilato blew away the tail. “Faith, don’t give me another tail. I’m fine. Just go to the Mountain.”

“Hold on, I can do this.” Faith concentrated to produce a longer, thicker tail she hoped wouldn’t blow away. “Here you g—”

She stepped between Anihilato and Jay. The instant its eye-contact was interrupted, Anihilato swiped a wing through her. It stole her eyes, but the rest of her was ungraspable powder. “Faith!” Jay and Anihilato regained eye-contact through Faith’s cloudy form. “Are you okay?”

“I’m blind!” She deposited herself meters away, scrambling and pawing at her empty face. “Oh, JayJay—I’m so sorry! I should have listened to you the first time!”

“It’s alright, Faith,” said Jay. “Just go back to the Mountain and get Akayama. Bring her here and we’ll assemble the godhead.”

“I… I can’t see! I don’t know if I can navigate!”

Jay cried. “Try, Faith! Please, try!”

While Faith flew away, Anihilato and Jay just stared. Jay felt sweat drip down his face. The sweat pooled in his left eye and he had to close it. ” ‘Assemble the godhead?’ ” asked Anihilato. “Do you really think this is turning out the way your creator intended, According to some cosmic plan?”

“Yes!” said Jay, absolutely.

“Are you sure?”

Jay nodded.

“Then watch, DanJay. Watch very… very… closely.”

A feather fell off Anihilato’s red mane. It drifted aimlessly, yet inevitably, to stab Jay’s right eye.

Jay blinked.

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The Other Way

(This begins the sequel to Akayama DanJay.)


Jango warmed his hands by the monastery furnace. Dan had finished screaming, so now the only noise was crackling kindling and popping fat.

A few years ago, burning his favorite student alive would’ve made Jango bawl. Today, his tears were quiet and empty. He donned his silver bird-mask and left his monastery. He didn’t descend the mountainous main island of Sheridan. Instead, he ascended above fields of centipede-bushes into the peak’s eternal cloud-cover.

He discarded the name Jango Skyy. He discarded the title Virgil Blue. He discarded the silver mask and navy robes. He limped up the island nude and cold.

Still, one thought he couldn’t discard, and it brought the name Jango right back to him. The very night Nemo, the first man, finished eating Jango’s body in his dreams, a drone delivered him a collection of his brother’s manga. There were no coincidences, so Jango couldn’t help but ponder. Was he supposed to read the manga, or was leaving it behind unread a final test? Would anyone ever read the manga, or would Jango’s upcoming death lead to the world’s literal end, not just a metaphorical one?

He discarded even this when he saw, through the fog, a pile of bones on the rocks. He held his arthritic hip when he bent to them, checking if they were the bones of a human—some trespasser on Sheridan’s sacred peak—but he decided they were the bones of a Sheridanian Big-Bird. The smaller skull and leg-bones suggested this was a male bird.

Jango had never known a bird to survive hiking up the island all the way above the clouds. He didn’t have a porcelain egg to mark the bird’s place of death, but was that truly necessary here, where proper laymen would never see it, and no one who did see it would live to report it? He sat beside the bones for a while, wondering.

What would Virgil Blue do? Jango’s teacher, also titled Virgil Blue, retired from this eternity decades ago, just like this. Traditionally, when Nemo eats a Blue Virgil in the dream theater, the Virgil dons the silver mask. When his teacher first donned the mask, Jango had asked, in jest, how anyone could know what they were thinking without seeing their sour expression. How would a new monk know the Virgil’s gender? How could they even be sure there was a Virgil in the robes at all? Virgil Blue squawked back at him, “flip a sand-dollar.”

Flip a sand-dollar. Jango hadn’t understood then, but now he laughed. The Islands of Sheridan used sand-dollars for currency instead of coins with heads or tails, but learned the phrase “flip a coin” from the library of books left by the Biggest Bird. Both sides of a sand-dollar are the same, so Virgil Blue had turned Jango’s jest into yet another lesson. Existence and non-existence. Male and female. Thinking. These were problems only from the mortal perspective, with no meaning to the Mountain. Flipping coins gives representations too much credit. Flipping sand-dollars was appropriately condescending.

Jango stood and marched a few minutes back down the slope. He picked up the silver bird-mask he’d discarded. “Heads,” he said to the mask’s face. “Tails,” he said to the back. He tossed the mask in the air.

It landed with the bird looking up.

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“Hm. So be it.” Jango gathered the bird’s bones. He noticed some had been broken and partially healed; this bird had survived something.

In life, the bird would be bigger than Jango, but Jango was impressed how light the bones were. He had no trouble carrying the bones up to the peak, where he found a cave. Jango entered the cave, blind. It was dark as night. His one good eye was almost useless.

He sat with crossed legs. “Nemo?”

No response came.

“Nemo?”

No response came.

“Nemo?”

Something rolled from the dark and bumped against Jango’s feet. It was Nemo’s head, with wide-set eyes and a swastika between them. “Oran dora!” Nemo had three rows of shark-teeth.

“Oran dora. In my dreams, you’ve eaten me alive. I assume now you’ll finish the job corporeally?”

“Correct! What’s this you’ve brought?”

Jango rest the bird-bones next to Nemo. “I found these on the way up. I was impressed a bird had climbed above the clouds.”

“Did you really think I’d want a gift?”

Jango and Nemo both laughed. “I debated bringing it or not,” said Jango, “but eventually I flipped a coin to decide.”

Nemo soured suddenly. “You? Virgil Blue? A coin?”

“It wasn’t really a coin. I flipped the silver mask. It landed looking up, so I called it heads and left the mask behind.”

Now Nemo laughed again. “You flipped the Biggest Bird like a coin, and discarded even her! You’re ready!” Nemo ate Jango’s foot. Jango screamed and thrashed as blood spurt out. Nemo’s mouth opened wider than a bird-bath to catch it all.

“Hnng—!” Jango groaned. “Are you eating the bird-bones, too?”

“Sure! Why not? You brought them, after all.” Nemo ate Jango’s other foot.

“Haaaugh! How will that affect Anihilato?”

Nemo chewed up to Jango’s knees. “Where did you learn the name Anihilato? I heard it straight from the Biggest Bird, and I never mentioned it aloud.”

“Nnng… A bizarre young martyr told me about Anihilato when I fed him a centipede, just before I stabbed him to death. He was quite concerned about the King of Dust—but if I understand, Anihilato is you, isn’t it? And soon me, too, and this bird?”

“Correct, correct!” Nemo gnawed Jango’s hips. “As the first man, it’s only right for me to carry all the sin the world has to offer. Every Virgil Blue, and this bird you’ve brought, will help me bare the brunt of it.”

“There are no coincidences,” said Jango, too delirious now to even feel pain. “The bird must be meant for Anihilato.”

Nemo ate Jango’s arms next. “There is no meant. When you flipped the mask, there was just this way and the other way.”

Jango was already pale with blood loss, but became paler with fear. “But… things will be okay, right? Heads was the Mountain’s cosmic plan, wasn’t it?”

“If it’s not okay, then that’s the Mountain’s cosmic plan!” Nemo finished eating Jango’s torso and finally started on his skull. “There’s nothing left to do but see for ourselves!” Nemo licked Jango’s remains off the cave-floor. Then he ate the bird-bones. Then he ate himself, head warping into his own mouth. His teeth exploded in a flurry of particles and antiparticles. Then eternity ended and the next eternity began.

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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 the Zephyr’s mass until it was merely its original robots, and her wingspan could have enveloped the observable universe. On her wings she grew eye-spots which signaled a final message to the Enemy Hurricane’s scattered humanoid particulates.

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“I’m sorry,” she signaled. “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 nothing will ever travel faster than the speed of light in vacuum. You’ll drift farther and farther, 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 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. Soon your individual bodies with be sheared apart.” As she signaled this, the Enemy Hurricane felt the shearing force. Expanding space-time smeared their humanoid forms into snakes and salamanders. Stretching opened wounds which bled teeth. “Eons hence, your subatomic particles will be torn asunder.”

“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. 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 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 included them in the algorithm reducing Earth to its most basic forms. I’ve met humans whose compassion extended to every sentient being. Anihilato’s complicated form reached every corner of humanity’s 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.”

The ten thousand pilots watched Professor Akayama shrink 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 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. She eventually regained composure and pulled her monitors close. “Zoom in! Start scanning! Are there any signs of life?”

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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 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 habitats. Even sea-creatures rolled across the deserts, and she understood that Akayama had scientifically bolstered these specimens to make their journeys home.

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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 one by one, and each 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 da. Akayama 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, about twelve feet tall. It loomed motionless above 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 before her. She cringed in fear, then reached out to touch its featherless flesh.

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At a touch, it disintegrated. It just blew away in the breeze. It left 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. “It can start again.”

Commentary

DanJillian

Jay vaguely knew Virgil Jango Skyy 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 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-forms 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, nor 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. “Snap out of it!” 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.”

“Come on!” 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 boots.”

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. 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 and smashed it on Jango’s forehead. “Send me to the Mountain, Virgil Blue. Send me to the end of the eternities. Kill me.

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 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 with the authority of every Virgil Blue, so Dan was christened Virgil Orange. After Dan’s death, Anihilato put him in his own egg where the two halves of my soul smashed together. Whatever way you slice 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, “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.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Jay. “If you’re not ready to meet your maker, then let me show you how a free man dies.”

“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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“Damn right!” 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 this time?”

“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.”

“He’d have to eat a centipede.”

“He just did. You watched him do it.”

“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 bugs for years, but he’d never had to cover up a murder before. Returning to Sheridan would be a challenge.

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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 baring 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 feet, and Fumiko to tread on the snake’s skull with the left feet until footprints were debossed on its face. In space there was no floor to stomp the Enemy Hurricane against, but they 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 severed 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 in the Galaxy Zephyr’s neck. 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.

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 toxic yellow stripes. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Lucille’s grin grew wide. “I’m the toad-cooker!” Before the four frogs spat venom, the Galaxy Zephyr sliced them each in half. “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, which it sliced into thirty-seconds. “Skull-fucker!” The Galaxy Zephyr danced on the ball of gore to keep it packed tight. The Wheel sliced the thirty-seconds into sixty-fourths. “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 opened her mouth to say more, but her battle-frenzy 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 doooriyaaaugh!

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They swept the Wheel’s broadside across the fine red powder, scattering the Enemy Hurricane across the void. “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 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 the human form.”

The fine red powder shaped themselves into billions of 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!”

“Must 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 rest its four hands on its four knees. “You heard Akayama. This is the end.”

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, and the distance between objects is increasing. As fast as they fly, the cosmic expansion is faster. Soon nothing will ever break light-speed again.”

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 ZAP’s hatch. “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 salivated from a thousand maws, awaiting inevitable victory.

“How much longer must we wait for the Chain?” 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’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 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. 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.”

Ten thousand pilots nodded.

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.

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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. The mass they’d collected 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.” Lucille shrugged. The Galaxy Zephyr was still barely a twentieth the size of the Enemy Hurricane. She was more impressed by the robot’s lithe, athletic form. 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 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 directed the Galaxy Zephyr’s right hand to grab 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 herself, flying 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 again. “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 and velocity.”

“Spit it out, Professor.”

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

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

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

Lucille grinned. She now understood, from the way 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 volume. “Alright everyone,” said Lucille to her ten thousand pilots, “just a matter of time!”

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. “Who needs evasiveness when we have strength!” said Daisuke. He and Charlie braced the elbows of the Galaxy Zephyr 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 to see the stinging tail descend. Reflexively they brought forth the Wheel and sliced the tail’s tip.

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

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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 robot 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, sheer emptiness 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 dark 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.

Mou ikkai,” said Akayama.

“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 rib-cage. 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 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 red 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 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?”

“Everyone forever.”

“Good enough for me.” Faith leapt into the cave. The red 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 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, 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 time.”

“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. Through the lifted corner, Jay saw Anihilato frozen in fear. “Ask away.”

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

“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. Unless I’m mistaken,” 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 anyone could understand how it worked, it probably wouldn’t work at all.”

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 whimpering on the sand. “Who?” asked Nakayama.

“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.”

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

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

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

Nakayama reabsorbed the dome of wings under her robes, then strode to Anihilato’s writhing tail and caught its end in her beak. Nakayama inhaled, stoking Anihilato’s flaming head to char. It stopped screaming as the flames spread to its shoulders. Nakayama blew smoke toward the sunset, then inhaled again, searing Anihilato to its first 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. “Oh. Oh. I can see forever. I am forever. Nothing is salvaged except through me. I am the all.”

Y2 pictb

“Eh. You get used to it.” Nakayama inhaled though 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 united with the Zephyrs,” said Jay. “I contain Beatrice and Faith and Dan and Leo and everyone else, 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 both wings. “I can’t carry you and fly. I could throw you to the Mountain or I could 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 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 any difference to the worm. “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 enough.” 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 monsoons. Anihilato was buried.

After the collapse, Anihilato dug to the surface. It shook sand from its body and blinked in the sunlight. Anihilato would dig back into the depths, but not before reclaiming what had hatched from its egg. “Monk!” Anihilato scanned the sand. It 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. “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 as I feasted on your yolk’s warmth. I’ll best your eye-contact and reduce you to a nematode. Your rag won’t protect you long!”

“My egg had two yolks.” Jay pulled the blindfold taut. “Make no mistake: the rag’s for your protection, not mine. You’re already a worm. If you blinked in my gaze, you’d turn into a slug.” He rest his hands on his knees.

“You think I’m afraid? Me, Anihilato? King of Dust? Master of Nihilism?”

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

“You belong to me! I own you!” Anihilato reached six arms around Jay to untie his blindfold. “I put your Eternity-Card in my box of souls. Even if I allowed you to escape out of pity, you’d never find that box. I’ve hidden it deep under the desert!”

Jay giggled. “You think I still 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 now paralyzed by its own reflection in Jay’s eyes.

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Just before it froze completely, 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.

“Cry, mortal,” 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 reality, just like you.”

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 tried to move the shadow, but couldn’t lean an inch. “Terrible monks like you make the tastiest worms. I can wait for your surrender.”

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“I’m no monk.” 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. 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 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 asked me to keep an eye out for 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 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 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 other two pairs 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! Anything but that!”

Jay shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“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.”

“Please!”

“No.”

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

“Call me what you want.”

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

“Beg.”

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

“You’re bargaining garbage, Anihilato.” Jay sighed. “I’m here because I’ve seen the emptiness of all things and it’s led me to unconditional compassion—but that doesn’t mean I gotta be nice to you. I’m not surprised this kindness looks like wrath.”

In his peripheral vision, Jay saw the Heart of the Mountain, the Biggest Bird, sweep 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 all the way up here?”

“Just as I choose,” 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 here.”

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

“Hell yeah. I got one too. Not my heritage, but someone’s heritage, and as long as the world disapproves, I’ll wear it proud.” Leo unbuttoned his Hawaiian shirt. Tattooed across his chest was a blue swastika whose arms bore thirteen stars. “That’s why the world can’t keep up with us. Get me?”

Nemo furrowed his brow at Leo’s tattoo. “What brings you to my little 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 doesn’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’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 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, false images of birds are forbidden”

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

“Freedom means setting your own limits,” said Nemo.

“Freedom means having no limits,” said Leo.

Nemo blinked. “If the opportunity arose to torture a toddler to death without consequences, would you consider it an okay thing to do?”

“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 ragged lips. His teeth were whittled sharp like a shark’s. “Centipedes aren’t meant to be sold.”

“But people buy `em. Gotta feed 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’s the only source of objective truth!”

“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, 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 bad as the monks.”

Leo clocked Nemo in the jaw.

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Nemo rolled backward 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 bug-sticks and centipedes.”

“I don’t want them. Try again.”

“I’ve got a porcelain egg.”

“Do I look like a nest?”

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

“Eat your fingers.”

Leo clutched his biceps. “Why would I?”

“If you won’t pay, then freedom will escape you. You’ll forever be slave to your own shadow.”

Leo grimaced. “Crazy bastard.”

“Call me what you want.” Nemo munched his own shoulder. He licked up every drop of blood. “Man is free exactly when he chooses to be, but if you haven’t the guts, I can’t blame you. You’re no man! You’re a wobbling, whimpering victim-complex. You surrender your freedom to everyone you meet because responsibility burns you like ice. Now I’ve got your freedom, somehow, and I’m telling you to buy it back.”

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

“Come on, now,” 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 business-owner!”

“What’s his name? What business?”

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 ligaments in his left pinky. He jerked his head to tear the digit from his palm. Blood, sweat, tears, and spit trickled down his face, neck, chest, and stomach. 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?” misunderstood Leo. “She won’t even fuck me.”

“Hmm.”

“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? I’ll fuck my step-daughter if she’s hot enough in a year or two. 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 skin, 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!”

“Liberation comes directly from the void. Accept no substitutes or middle-men,” said Nemo. “Own nothing. Be nothing. Know 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!”

“You feel how you choose to feel.” Nemo shrugged what remained of his shoulders. “But a true anarchist would rejoice in any circumstance. Governments don’t exist. Social-structure is illusory. Everyone is capable of their capabilities. That tautology is the only freedom. 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 palms at Nemo and speckled 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. “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 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?” 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. And so on. These are mystical powers I’ve developed through my connection to the Mountain. Luckily your pride confines you. You attach yourself not to your wife or daughter, but your virginity. You attach yourself not to your parents, but 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 rocky cave floor like a worm.

“Don’t worry,” said Nemo. “In the next world, you and I will be one with all the souls I’ve snacked on. The Heart of the Mountain, the 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 stains on humanity’s spirit. If Anihilato is so great that the Mountain’s Heart cannot collect it, there must arise an opposing force. Someone to look emptiness in the eye, unblinkingly.”


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

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Leo Climbs

“Pheh.” Leo capped a jar. He’d only caught six fireflies whose shining butts hardly illuminated the rocks. 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 he 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. He stowed the intact centipedes 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 island. 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. “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 of centipedes, he turned to watch the sunrise. He’d worked through the night leaving broken bushes in his path. He felt a contact-high from all the centipedes he’d handled, so the light bothered his eyes. He put his sunglasses back on.

He turned to the peak. The clouds obscuring the island’s 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 bugs did they hide in cloud-cover?

Above the fog, the island’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 him, he saw a shape through the fog. Was it a fellow trespasser? Leo 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.” 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 after it. “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 distant squawking even after the fog obscured it.

Leo 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.”

The fog chilled as he neared the top. 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 the sight wasn’t from his centipede contact-high: 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. Now he wasn’t sure if it was human or a weird rock. If it was human, they lacked arms and legs.

“Are you there?” asked Leo. “Ew!”

It was certainly human, but their pitch-black flesh disgusted him. Where their arms and legs had been, 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 already 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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