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    The sail unrolled and he tumbled out, landing on his feet on the ship’s deck. The metafrogs surrounded him, tridents warily pointing.

    “Stowaway!  Sorry, sir!  This ship don’t takes ones without tickets!  Who’re you to change our policy?”

    The young man–orange-tan of skin, with longish hair growing over his shoulders and over his eyes, thin enough to be one of the ropes attached to the sails, struck a pose like a ballerina in the middle of a dance, reaching for something on the top shelf.

    Then he spoke:

        My name is Kro, and I apologize

        I will not bore your busy time with lies.

        Your ship to Venus I would ride for free

        Because–if you’ll forgive–I would seek my La-dy.

    Kro–for this was the young man’s name, and he never lied in rhyme–pronounced this last word as if it was two separate words, and he handled each syllable reverently.

    The metafrog’s captain, a fat, bulging green fellow who handled tridents in all four legs, snorted.

    “A rhymer!  You don’t earn your living as such, though, a clumsy fellow like you.”

    Kro smiled noncommittally, and bowed.

    “Bad luck to have such as you on a ship,” the captain went on. “You hipsters, you wanderers. Not born here, I imagine.”

    “No, not on Mars, though I love it,” Kro said, burying his hands in his stained hemp overalls and dropping into prose. He told himself he wouldn’t deign to spend his rhymes on pure information, but deep down he knew it was because his fits of inspiration were too rare to call on. “Born on Earth, but grew bored of wars. I thumbed a long ride to Mars, went practically on foot in fact–beanpole-carpets, winged metahorses, and even two weeks with my feet attached to a string of balloons and my hands cranking a fan to blow me this direction. But I’ve a farm growing sweet potatoes and cumin seeds in this red soil, and I’d stay here forever if I could.”

    “Why don’t you then?  Why don’t you then?  Save me the trouble of dumping you out through the head’s chute.” The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Ah. Your La-dy. This ship is no pleasure cruise for moony-eyed Earthlings. Why don’t you sell some of your cumin seeds and come back when you’ve got silver and gold to give me?”

    Kro paused and shivered.

    “Time, friend, time!  Time the great democrat, that treats all men–and metafrogs too–equal, that’s why I have to go now–and you have to take me. My Lady goldengirl, my sweet violet rhapsody, is binding herself to the Ten Thousand, and the binding is in six days: Tuesday. Tuesday!  What an ugly word, like scraping a hair-covered tube across the surface of a cracked cave wall and finding thousand-year-old lichens all inside the hair. That’s what Tuesday is!  That’s why I have to go now!”

    The metafrogs looked among themselves, faces about as incomprehensible as the black sky behind them. Kro hoped they knew about the Ten Thousand–mad Venus mystics who bound their bodies together in one ten-thousand-person lump after another, like big patchwork balls with torsos sticking out at odd places, arms, legs, heads, mouths, all gradually sinking inside until they all melt into a featureless gray sphere with no sight, hearing, or any other sense but to feel the temperature on the surface of the skin and to think the grotesque thoughts of ten thousand brains fused together. Once bound, nothing could separate them.

    Kro knew that metafrogs stuck to themselves and distrusted the humans who had nearly made their ancestors extinct. Why wouldn’t they?  Kro would have felt the same. But a Lady was a Lady.

    The captain turned back, and Kro could not for the life of him figure if he had understood or not. “All’s very well. All’s very well,” he croaked, “but you still can’t pay your way. Can you?”

    “Please!  You don’t rescue a woman from her whims with reason, and I couldn’t wait for another whim to chase this bad one out. I have to win her back with love. So I rented a spell–took the whole savings from the farm, and am chased by a dozen debt-collectors if we don’t leave soon–and took the farm diagonally in time for a bit, so I could grow some other things. Gifts.” He took a box out of his overalls, a wooden article the size of a human heart, with a golden four-pointed sun painted on the lid. Its face was smiling, laughing, or thoughtful, depending on how you looked at it, and if you held it at just the right angle at just the right hour of the day, it might even whistle. “Gifts I’ll open only for her. You think it’s easy to live when you’re sideways in time?  You never know if you’re sleepwalking or wakesitting. You can’t tell, sometimes, if you’re reading the end of a novel or the beginning, can’t remember if marriage or divorce is a happy ending. But I had to tie cause and effect in a knot to get the soil to grow such things as these. If these don’t win my Lady, my princess pinknipple, away from her mistakes, then I don’t know what will.”

    The metafrog croaked loudly, turning his head upward.

    “You’re a man who won’t answer a question asked him plain, any number of times, but without bad will,” the metafrog said. “Maybe we can use you. But you have to work.”

    “I’ll swab the decks till they look like glass,” Kro said.




    The air between Mars and Venus is quite thin and cold, though occasionally it smells of cinnamon and chocolate. Strange winds will visit, carrying scents from anywhere whatsoever, and then vanish.

    Kro’s hands, nimbler than the thick four-finger affairs of the metafrogs, proved useful in handling knots, and he spent a lot of time toward the top of the clipper, unsnarling lines and sails that were tangled by the unpredictable and sometimes violent space winds.

    His task became particularly important during the middle third of the voyage–the part that took them by Earth’s orbit–and by the moon’s. For since the Alteration had turned science’s laws upside down, and ushered in an age of sorcery, witchcraft, and impossibility, there was no place more dangerous than the moon. Eternal symbol of the technological age’s most unambiguous and intoxicating triumph, many had fled there, driven mad by the changes they saw around them, and if you fell in their net, you were in danger.

    So the metafrogs draped a cloak of invisibility over their vessel–a cloak measuring a hundred meters in diameter–and coasted quietly. Kro’s job was to mend up the little holes that appeared in the cloak from time to time, showing scraps of the ship if you were watching, and implying the remainder, and to keep the lines that held the cloak on from fraying and breaking.

    One such line appeared visibly to be tearing on the third day of their trip, and Kro shimmied up it with his mouth full of extra lines. He hugged the line with his thighs and hung upside down and began the process of wrapping the other lines around the frayed spot.

    But as he did so, his eye caught a square-shaped gap in the cloak, one that showed the moon, full and fat. And Kro could not help it. He sucked in a breath and his soul said:

        Tear off a patch of night, and then reveal

        The wood, so plain, to which it’s nailed. And then

        Take off another patch, and so again

        You disengage the night sky, peel by peel


        Stack up your patches, move down from the dome

        Of wooden sky. And pile them on your bed,

        Pillows of darkness always for your head!

        You’ve captured night, and mystery, in your home!

And while he was entranced, the line slipped free, and the mask gently rose off of the ship and fluttered away, like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon.




    Every metafrog was silent, as they stood naked to the air. The moon filled the horizon, big as a mountain-god.

    It was utterly silent. The ship coasted without a breath, without a whisper. Space was vast, and none might see.

    The siren knifed through the air, slashed and stabbed at every eardrum.

    Kro was so startled by the noise, he fell, landing in the masthead with a cruel snapping noise that could only have been bone.

    As he fell, he thought only of the moon.

    “You dung-eating tadpole,” a metafrog said, shaking a webbed fist up at him in a dash to the lifeboats. “You bloody motherless meat-sack, you’ve done it now. Here they come!”

    Kro pushed himself up on his elbows. Black shapes swarmed out of the moon like flies and grew larger as they neared. He knew as well as the metafrogs that it could only be the Psychiatricorps.




    The specks grew to shapes. The shapes grew to ships.

    They were ironclads as hard and metallic and brutal as the teeth of sharks, battleship-sized with plates of steel and bronze all round their sides. Living squid tentacles hung from their bottoms, curling limply from time to time without motive.

    Women walked the decks of the ships, women too hard and loveless and cruel for any poet to rhyme about. From head to toe they wore only black, body-hugging mummy dresses with hobble skirts and long sleeves, fat-fingered gloves and stamping boots. They wore gas masks and held megaphones and shouted.

    “You are in a restricted area!” one Psychiatricorps woman shouted, and her voice was sharp ice. “You will report to the Adjustment Area!”

    The women behind her raised fire hoses, speculums and tongs, syringes, giant butterfly nets.

    The metafrog captain croaked and then began yelling orders. “Hard to starboard!  Full sail!  Dump unnecessaries!”

    Sacks and chests went over the side to lighten the ship–space was floating with blueberries, with farming implements, with trained squirrels that moved their limbs uselessly, attempting to fetch things and perform dances in the void. Two metafrogs came up from the hold, carrying a stretcher with a dying clockwork man on it, made of gold.

    “Don’t,” he said in his emotionless gear-turning voice. “I’ve got a pocket universe installed in my chest I could give you. I just wanted to make it to Beijing so I could die in a real machine city.”

    “Thanks, no,” the metafrogs said. “That pocket universe is just what we need to get rid of. Much too much weight.” And over the side he went, and all on the deck lurched as the ship jerked forward with more speed.

    Kro was left alone up in the masthead. He looked up, hypnotized, as the Psychiatricorps ships advanced. Even as the metafrogs’ ship coursed through the air, the ironclads were gaining.

    One came up and matched the speed of the ship Kro was on, hovering above it. The tentacles dangled from the bottom of the vessel, curling and uncurling themselves.

    Then each sucker on the tentacle shot out clouds of blue smoke.

    Kro’s eyes watered as the smoke moved, aggressively, into his body–one whiff and it shot down all the way, as if it needed to be inside. He collapsed on his side, choking, blinded.

    He saw the tentacles part as giant tongs descended. The deck was in chaos, metafrogs running everywhere in all directions at once, some pitching themselves off the side with bellows of terror. But the tongs grabbed them even as they went over, and then retracted into the bottom of the ironclad.

    Kro flailed helplessly, in agony as the smoke filled his lungs–he could feel it moving in there, dancing desperately from one end of his body to the other–and watched as the tongs picked up metafrogs in ones and twos. And then he felt a sharp pain in his ankle and up, up, up he went.




    Kro hung in a giant birdcage in the middle of black nowhere. The cage hung above an infinitely deep drop. The chain that held it up was infinitely long. The walls, though, were no more than fifty feet away.

    A ledge emerged from the walls of the chute, extending into a bridge, stopping two meters from the door. Three Psychiatricorps women walked to the edge and looked inside the cage.

    The one in the center removed her mask, and she was not unbeautiful, but her lips were painted a pale blue and her hair was pulled back so tight that it was as if she was followed by a prankster who wanted to yank it off, and Kro didn’t like her. She peered through a monocled eye, up and down, and spoke with a decided air:

    “Sick. Insane. Maladjusted.”

    The other two nodded. “Pessimist,” one said.

    “Narcissistic,” the other said.

    Kro flung himself at the birdcage’s walls. The women took a step backwards.

    “Listen, you twits,” he said. “You pioneers of the perverse. You’ll let me out of here and you’ll let me out post-haste, or there’ll be trouble–the kind of trouble you can’t imagine. Can’t imagine.” He clenched his fists, with nothing behind a word he said. He might as well have told them he was out of the cage already.

    “Defensive. Denial.” The central woman said. She leapt in the air, then pressed her hands to her sides and floated stiffly to the edge of the cage, resting one foot on the scrap of floor accessible through the bars and holding a bar with one arm, as if she were boarding a bus. “Dangerous to himself and others. Aren’t you?”

    “Who’s not dangerous to himself and others?  I’ve never lived anywhere that wasn’t full of people like that. Where are the metafrogs?”

    The women back on the ledge nodded. “You’re wise to ask,” the one on the left said, her voice wheezing through the mask. “They have been helped. They have been cured.”

    Suddenly, the chute lit up: there were electric lights ringing its walls in a spiral pattern, extending all the way up and all the way down for an infinite distance.

    Kro gasped. All along the walls, in little cubby-holes, were the metafrogs. Their skin had turned pale as candle wax. They smiled and their chests moved up and down with breath. Occasionally, one eye would blink, then a minute later the other eye would catch up.

    “We took away their fears,” said the woman who had taken the mask off. We took away their pain. All bad memories, all experiences in the past, we saved them from. Now, instead of hurt and discomfort, they’re well-adjusted. They go about their daily tasks with a sense of contentment and well-being.”

    “Mental embalming,” Kro whispered in horror.

    She nodded. “Just so. A slow-congealing wax that preserves the functions of consciousness, without any of the problematic desires, any of the self-doubt or contradictory urges. Just a peaceful, nice, slow-congealing wax.

    “We’ll do the same for you,” she said, putting a gloved hand on Kro’s head and stroking his hair. Her blue lips had stiffened to a look of utter seriousness. “They weren’t as complicated as you. Your therapy will be a little bit more involved. We may have to replace your brain with a number of different things first–memory randomizing gel, all-love broth, or an identity refocuser, so you live out of your hand or your toe instead of your head.”

    “But it all leads to the wax in the end. Every therapy always leads to embalming.” In sideways-diagonal time, he had devoured libraries in the hours between hours, and knew all about the Psychiatricorps. “I’ll be on the wall at the end of it all.”

    The woman nodded and clutched his shoulder. “We so want to help you.”

    Kro swallowed.

    “A patient,” he said, “has a right to choice of therapeutic methods.”

    He had her. He could tell by the way her smile vanished. “You know your Psychiatricorps Code of Conduct,” she said.

    Kro backed away from her, grinning. There were risks, to be sure–enormous risks. But this was a way out–a way to his Lady.

    “Tarot therapy,” he said. He said it again and again, gleefully. “Tarot therapy, tarot therapy, tarot therapy.”




    It was a white room if ever there was one. Walls, floor, ceiling: all uninterrupted white. If you focused on the shadows, you could make out that there was a table and two chairs, themselves utterly white and so nearly invisible. It was like standing on the surface of a giant eggshell: Kro couldn’t even tell how big the room was. It could be as big as the entire interior of the moon, or perhaps even bigger, occupying one of the infinite spaces that the Psychiatricorps and other malcontents had managed to squeeze inside poor old Luna.

    The Psychiatricorps rose up out of the floor. She was in a uniform that was identical to the body-hugging costume she had worn earlier, but totally white, and her face was naked, except for a pair of heavy plastic goggles. She held a white box in her hand and held it out.

    “Call me Dr. Instance,” she said. “To deal with your problems, we’re going to use a form of therapy that will focus your attention along archetypal lines. Please be seated.”

    Kro obeyed, and she settled into the seat across from him.

    Suddenly, a plastic bowl descended onto his head, and cuffs came out of the arms of the chair and locked his wrists in place. He felt a hot sting as some sort of liquid covered the top half of his head, held in place by the bowl.

    “Relax,” Dr. Instance said mechanically. “Relax, relax, relax.”

    He could feel his hair disappearing, damn it. Magic was unpredictable, but science made you ugly. When he got off the moon, he was never going back.

    “Relax, relax, relax, relax. Relax. Now then.” She opened the box. A deck of cards was inside, faces down, their backs plain blank white. “Take one.”

    The stinging had subsided, and his hair–his long, beautiful hair, that his Lady had always said was his most charming feature, was gone.

    He took a card and turned it over, flat on the table.

    The Magician.

    Young-old, the fellow eyed him with suspicious wisdom, hand raised in a sign of greeting and warning.

    “Reversed,” Dr. Instance said. “Reversed from our position, that is: the position of truth, of health. This is going to be tricky.”

    There was a humming sound, starting from far away, but growing louder and closer.

    “This card determines the playing field,” she said, seeming to look above Kro. “The magician means the engine comes on, full strength. But reversed means that it switches its power source to,” she shuddered, as if sticking her hand in a bucket of worms, “chaos.”

    The engine. Kro shuddered, too; for a second, he and his tormentor had something in common. There was a power source in the moon the size of Brazil, cobbled together of old science and up-to-date magic, put together in promiscuous bestiality of technology.

    But if such a thing was running on chaos . . . Kro held his breath. The stakes in the game were high. And if he lost . . .

    Once, on Mars, Kro and his Lady (before everything went wrong) had met a victim of Tarot Therapy, sitting forlornly in the marketplace where they had come to sell sweet potatoes. He was a walking cup, with a face floating in the milky liquid of the goblet’s mouth as if a reflection; if you stuck your finger in and troubled the water, he experienced the excruciating pain you might if your flesh and eyes and teeth were rearranged at random. He had no hands, and only a pair of rudimentary legs no longer than fingers, on which he could scuttle about for half an hour or so before becoming exhausted. His therapy, incidentally, had been declared successful.

    That was actually the extent to which Kro knew anything, anything at all, about Tarot therapy. But he had heard the name, and it sounded like his only shot.

    Dr. Instance tightened her mouth, making her lips disappear in that field of white, and turned over another card.

    “Seven of Swords.”

    The tingling on Kro’s scalp turned, for a second, into a full-fledged fire–and then he was somewhere else.

Somewhere autumn-ish. He was in a wooded grove, trees bursting up like geysers, air spiced with distant smoke. He took a step, and leaves crunched in answer.

    There was a stroke of pain in his gut, sharp and violent. Kro gasped. There was a sword in his stomach.

    Whipping sounds in the wind: six more, pinning him against a tree, one for each hand and foot, and two more for his earlobes. He was like a butterfly in a collection.     Then he was sitting at the table, as if nothing had ever happened. The pure white of the room blinded him anew.

    “It hurts to heal,” Dr. Instance said, smiling slightly. “It hurts to heal.” Every syllable flashed him backwards in time to that tree on which he’d been pinned.

    Grunting, already exhausted, Kro reached out and turned a card over.

    “It figures.”

    The Fool. One foot going over the edge of the cliff, head in the stars. He cried.

    “That’s just who I am,” he said. “Why she left me–isn’t it?”  He was back on the tree again, each sword’s pain redoubled. Dr. Instance stood before him in the woods, looking calmly at his wounds.

    “Yes, yes,” she said, controlled excitement in her voice. “Tell me everything. Fault. Grief. Hurts to heal.” She sucked in her breath after every word, as if it cost her not to speak.

    The scene flashed back and forth: the tree, the table. At the table, the woman took another card.

    “Queen of Cups.”

    There she was now. Her white body-stocking replaced by a netted robe. She held a cup in her hand and put it against Kro’s lips. Each bead of liquid lingering on the rim deadened his lips, like fugu.

    “You had the right idea,” she said, back at the table, both of them watching the scene in the forest and yet also there, as sometimes in a dream you watch yourself in a film. “This is better than mental embalming, which is purely chemical. Like this, we can extract that pesky, elusive little soul that always gives us so much trouble and–not fix it, no, we don’t know how to do that–but we can at least get it out of you. You’ll be so much better off, no longer troubled, no longer dangerous, so much more well-adjusted. It hurts to heal, but . . .”

    Full force, Kro was back nailed against the tree, the Queen of Cups before him. “But drink this, and don’t hurt anymore.”

    Kro opened his mouth, but then flexed his neck and pulled away. The pain of the swords in his ears grew sharper. With a wrenching feeling in his brain, he found himself back at the table, sitting as calmly as he could.

    “My turn,” he said.


    The card he turned over was:

    The Empress.

    And there she was, there in the woods next to him, and her face was the face of his Lady.

    One by one, she pulled the swords out of his body and tossed them aside. The Queen of Cups advanced–and without turning around, the Empress shot an arm back and tore her in half. The rip was clean, like a tear in paper, and then the Queen of Cups was gone.

    “My Lady,” Kro said, collapsing and wrapping his arms around her ankle. “I’m so far away from you, so far away. I don’t know if I’m ever going to make it.”

    “Hush, now.” She ran her fingers through his hair. Her touch was warm. Her silence was holy.

    Kro pulled himself up on his knees and reached up for her. She bent toward him, eyes bright yellow suns of love, the pure, clean smell of her hair everywhere.

    Before she could reach him, her body jerked, as if she were yawning. Her eyes rolled upward. Then she fell into a heap, with a scythe-blade in her back.

    Something like Dr. Instance stood on the other end of the scythe, and yet not like Dr. Instance, because she had a new mask on, a pale skull.


    “This is a foolish, childish dream!” she/Death bellowed. “Death is only the final form of change. Transform now!  Heal!  Adjust!”

    The sky behind her went black, with a thousand red eyes opening in that weird and unholy night. There was a scent of sulphur and the air went freezing cold.

    Kro stood up, palms slick with rage-sweat, stomach roiling with hate. He put out one hand, passing through the handle of the scythe into the ghostly unknown and drew his card.

    The Moon .

     “The moon,” Kro said over and over again, like a child in love with the sound of a new word. “The moon, the moon, the moon, the moon, the moon.”

    The distant engine made peculiar sounds. They were the sounds of magic parts telling scientific parts to make one plus one equal three, of steam engines trying to split the atom, of wishing-rings trying to predict the weather. Some of the sounds were machine sounds, engine sounds, splurting and roaring and scraping of gears; some of the sounds were words in human voices: Ulysses, Africa, cockroach, alphabet; some of the sounds were like nothing Kro had ever heard.

    The floor beneath the room shook, and cracks appeared in the table.

    Horror in her eyes, Dr. Instance rose. “Therapy is suspended for the time being,” she said. “Stay in the Adjustment Area. Don’t attempt to–ohhh!”

    It was almost like a scream of pleasure from her when the crack in the floor gobbled her up whole.

    Kro had not moved from his seat. Why should he?  He stayed where he was, staring at the card. “The moon, the moon, the moon, the moon, the moon.”

    He felt himself disappearing as he spoke, but he kept his un-mouth repeating it, as he dribbled down, drop by drop, into the soil of the moon, penetrating into its core.

    There he moved fingers like the roots of reversed trees, which shot upward from the underground to the surface, and he resurrected old spacecraft, lost in the lunar airless dust for centuries.

    Tentacled ships stormed across the heavens, shooting electrical beams at the cratered surface. But powered by an engine now capable of making birds turn back into eggs, Kro sprouted new mountains on the moon’s surface that rose to slam the ships and drop them, tentacles coiling and uncoiling uselessly, stranded at the bottom of craters miles deep.

    One primitive capsule shot off of the moon’s surface, into space, toward the sun–and Kro released his grip. He was the moon no longer. Its engine shut peacefully off, and Kro found himself inside a battered old space-bottle bearing the American flag and the name Apollo.

    One last fleet of Psychiatricorps appeared behind him, but he had been granted too much speed, and they disappeared behind him. Nothing could stop Kro. He threw back his head and gave voice to a poem; it came out in blank verse, the heroic standard in poetry:

        A penny for your thoughts?  That’s far too cheap.

        My thoughts are not for sale like second-hand

        Discarded clothes. But now you offer gold?

        I’ll make this counter-offer: bring the heart,

        The blue-green, tiny, lightly-beating heart

        Of fresh-hatched mermaid, virginal and pure.

        Add to the heart a T-shirt woven by

        The three blind mice, who smell their way to form

        The collar, and who fix the logo in

        The center using sound. And to this heap,

        You must bring me, taken in wild form,

        The pure exiled desire of a fat

        And satisfied old Buddha. Finally,

        I’ll take some comic strips–vintage, I think,

        That show Beetle Bailey in victory

        Over the swelling armies of the Hun,

        And Charlie Brown, kicking that football fair

        And high, agapely standing as he sees

        It soar into the sky, to win the heart

        Of all girls with red hair forever and ever.

        For this, I’ll sell my thoughts. Not one cent less.

He was catapulting through space, flying in a parabola too big for the eye to see, heading for Venus and his Lady.

Venus, after the Alteration, blossomed forth languid, old, and decadent. Rank growths of jungle upon jungle, like stacks of wet seaweed, sedimented themselves from top to bottom, and those who were skillful enough could live well there if their tastes tended to the bizarre.

    Kro found himself in the Hall of the Ten Thousand, where his Lady had gone to bind herself that very day. There was a party going on: living skeletons made the rounds, plates of hors d’ouevres atop their bone-fingers, and some with bottles of champagne, wine, and liquor emerging from their skull-mouths, so they could refresh a glass by leaning forward an inch. They served foods living, dead, and mystically animated to the guests. Two armies of chocolate miniatures–one of Vikings, the other of fascist vampires–fought away, carrying out campaigns on different plates and leaping as other plates drew near to retreat or reinforce, using oversized fortune cookies and piles of olives as cover as they threw chocolate axes and fired chocolate bullets at each other. Every so often, entire squadrons would disappear in a guest’s mouth.

    There were were-cats, paused halfway in transformation between human and feline, some like bipedal cats and some like quadrupedal humans with thick fur, pointy ears, and uncanny eyes of luminous green. There were chimeras, bodies divided by segment into three different species of zebra. There were hermaphrodites who were female on the right and male on the left, or female in front and male behind. There were people who had transformed themselves into walking piles of staples and paper clips.

    In the center of the room, scented candles in each hand, a medium-level avatar of Vishnu danced, held there by an extremely expensive God-Binding. If one walked too close, one felt rippling waves of heat as divine rage and humiliation battered at the God-Binding field around him.

    A jazz quartet of hairy bums, pulled off the streets of Venus’s teeming slums, played in the center. Although none of them probably had any genuine musical experience, they had been animated for the nonce with magically generated simulations of Charlie Parker’s band circa 1949. Simulations, not the real thing–and such artificial souls will eventually burn away the human bodies they inhabited. Already the drummer’s hair had vanished in a burst of steam, but he played on, terror in his eyes.

    And at the back of the room, the point of it all: the Ten Thousand itself. A sphere ten feet or so in diameter, covered in pale skin. It breathed and burbled. It squirmed and sighed. It murmured and mumbled. And every so often, a guest would walk to it, put hands on its flesh, and melt into it. There, inside the Ten Thousand, each person would disappear into a dreaming, self-satisfied stream of baby thoughts forever.

    Again, Kro felt it coming over him–his wash of verse, the cleansing blasts of poetry. He struck his chest a few times, to give himself some rhythm, and:

        The devil’s masquerade!

        Wear several masks, and glue them for a seal!

        You wouldn’t want to be caught being real!

        The devil’s masquerade!

        An evil calvacade!

        The rules are simple: don’t be who you is,

        And laugh at everything. A poison fizz!

        An evil calvacade!

    There was silence–half a second–and then scattered applause, along with waggery, before conversation began again. But a woman disguised as Time itself froze as he spoke, and made her way over to him through the crowd.

    Her long purple robes were decorated with images of hourglasses, each one about the size of a child’s hand. The images moved: sand flowed from the top bell of the hourglass to the bottom, filled up, and then flipped over and repeated the process. In her right hand she held a scythe; speared on its blade were finger sandwiches, grilled baby tomatoes, and wriggling suicide fish silently mouthing eat me eat me. She reached up with her left hand to pop one fish–its face turning to inexpressible bliss–in her mouth, and Kro saw she had four rings–one showing a baby’s face, one with a mature woman, one a crone, and one a skull.

    “Kro,” she said.

    “My Lady.”

    “What happened to your hair?  Never mind. What are you doing here?  And don’t call me that silly thing. You know that my name is Norah,” she said. “You always knew that. And soon, my name won’t be anything at all.”

    “My Lady, for all that.” She was so beautiful, he felt sad just looking at her. “Why did you leave?”

    “Kro, you messy, messy boy. You just don’t have enough love for me. You’re sweet, but there’s more love in there.” She looked to the flesh-sphere of the Ten Thousand.

    “Who says?”

    “Oh, Kro. Ten thousand hearts are better than one.”

    “Not this one. Not this heart.” He dropped to one knee. “Didn’t we watch the sun rise every morning, eating sweet-potato-and-cumin salad, and say it couldn’t get any better than this?”

    “Do you remember how much work it was to make those salads, to clean up afterwards, to walk out to the hill where the sunrise was?  Do you remember the days when you came home from the market with boxes full of rot and pockets full of empty?  Do you remember fighting about who said what in what tone of voice first, and one of us having to swallow pride later to get any sleep at all?  It was too much work, pretty Kro, sweet Kro, weird Kro, too much work. I’d rather go to the Ten Thousand. Whenever it gets hard, there’ll be somebody else for me to be.”

    Kro felt her pull away, begin to join a stream of crowd. He tugged on her robes. Annoyed, she kicked her foot forward, dragging him.

    “Don’t try to follow me!” she barked. “You’ve not had the treatments. You wouldn’t be absorbed into the Ten Thousand as a balanced set of mental elements. You’d just be a jumping bean of one anxiety, one worry-image over and over again. Do you want to spend eternity as a forgotten wallet or an itch that can’t be scratched?”

    “At least look at what I got you,” he said, pulling out his sun-box. “At least look.”

    “And then you promise to go?”  

    “Cross my heart. Look.” He knelt and held it up to her, above his bald head, and sucked his breath in as she opened the box.

    She bent to examine it, pulling her long skirts out of the way with one hand.

    “Silly. You’ve a figurine?  And a sappy one at that.”

    “Not a figurine. Do you know I spent three years or so?  Sideways in time like I was, I couldn’t be sure precise, but it certainly felt like three years. Waiting and working–all so I could bring you this.”

    It was a pair of figures, which been blurry smears of color before, but which had frozen into place as soon as the box opened, depicting both Kro and his Lady, in the exact posture that they had been at that moment–Kro bald, ragged, kneeling, his Lady in her purple, her gaze supercilious.

    “Now look inside the box in his hand,” Kro said.

    She squinted. “I don’t see–ah. Yes, the same thing again, very clever. And I suppose that flyspeck Kro in the tiny box has a box of his own, too small to see without opera glasses of a cunning make, with a Kro in it the size of a virus, and so on and so forth?  Clever, Kro, clever. But it’s a cheap gimmick, even for you, and it bores me, just like you do now.”

    “You don’t get it, my duchess of dinner-rolls. There are souls in there!  An infinite series of souls!  Small, artificial souls, but souls nonetheless–I grew them, in the patch where the best sweet potatoes always came up. I had to put the house into triple mortgages to buy the spells to do it, turn time upside down and inside out and get causality chasing its own tail to get the ground to yield up such a plant, but there it is, and there we are–a world’s worth, a universe of universes’ worth of you and me.” He stopped talking and breathed deeply, exhausted.

    His Lady raised her eyebrow, then turned away.

    He grabbed her by the forearm. “Say something!  At least say you hate it!  But say something!”

    “Norah, is this fellow annoying you?”  A man had moved to the side of Kro’s Lady. He was short, and had half a moustache, but the most obvious thing about him was his hat. It was a top-hat of purple, not matching the dress of Kro’s Lady but close, that was taller than him and had a brim so wide you couldn’t really get anywhere near him without bending your body in some outlandish shape. He had rings on his middle, index, and ring fingers of both hands, six in all, and Kro recognized them as strength gems, intelligence gems, and so forth, borrowed attributes enhancing his own. Probably if you took them off he turned into a baby rat.

    “Her name isn’t Norah, you foppish pig-ass,” Kro growled. “She’s my Lady. I’m her fellah. I’ll break your facebones if you don’t wheel away.”

    “Think not, old jam, think not.” The man took Kro’s arm, and his fingers lit up red, the strength gem giving him a giant’s grip. “Not much on Venus for elegant manners, but party-crashers?  They go straight outside, into the jungle. Don’t worry too much–dinosaur season isn’t for another month or two.”

    Kro strained in his grip. “Lady!” Kro said. “Don’t go yet!”

    She turned back toward him–he thought for a last farewell, or at least for a parting glance of withering scorn, but she was actually looking at something else, and her eyes were not focused–and then she disappeared into the undulating sphere of skin.




    The man in the hat released his grip, and Kro staggered into a were-cat, who meowingly whispered a series of obscene words, each in a different language.

    “I’m pickled,” he said. “Worthlessly blue now forever. Might as well have let the Psychiatricorps turn my soul off.”

    Soul . . . a crazy thought occurred to him. He backed up, then ran forward, putting his hands on the shoulders of the guard of the Ten Thousand and vaulting over him; his flailing feet knocked a skull off a skeleton.

    He found himself shooting towards the Ten Thousand, and he extended his hand, fisted about the figurine, and his arm went into the Ten Thousand elbow-deep.

    They pulled him off, but he released the figurine, and it swam away from him.

    “What did he do?  What did he do?” gasped the man in the hat.

    Kro threw back his head and laughed as if he were the Shadow, and then bellowed:

        There is no poem long enough to write

        What I have hoped to do. What I have done

        Is not so much. In one short line it runs:

        What I have done is loved and lived and died.

    A bone-hand was waving a dagger in front of his face, and Kro noted that it was slick and red with blood, and that it could only be his own blood: the partygoers were going to come down hard on him. He nodded at it. Despite his false rhymes, he was happy enough with his last poem anyway.

    The Ten Thousand rippled and vibrated.

    “Yes,” Kro said. His voice was weak. He had probably been stabbed again. “Yes!”

     Suddenly, the Ten Thousand grew still, except for a few small bumps running around on its surface, like mice in a leather sack.

     Two bumps converged. They fused, and sprouted a head from the top of the ball. Kro’s head.




    “Yes, yes, yes!” Kro bellowed, despite the fact that half his tongue and both his hands were missing.

    He had been set, rather gently, on a table; the hors d’ouevres had been cleared off. A ring of about a dozen people had formed around, holding forks and spoons.

    “So sorry,” said the man in the hat, almost kindly. “So sorry. But party-crashers get eaten. Didn’t you read it on the sign?”  He motioned toward the door, then brought a small dessert plate to his mouth with two of Kro’s fingers on it.

    “Doesn’t matter,” Kro said. “Doesn’t matter. It has to be. This is justice for the metafrogs–I shouldn’t have dreamed at work, shouldn’t have let the cloak go. But I win, even though I lose–that’s a law of nature too familiar to explain. By all means, eat up–I hope I taste good. Season me, pickle me, do what you like: I have that to look at.”

    He was talking about the Ten Thousand, which now looked like a giant dumbbell. One side was a mass of teeming hands, heads, and legs, mostly looking like Kro, but with variations: one head was a Chinese Kro, and another a were-cat Kro.

    On the opposite end, the same thing was happening, but it was his Lady that was in the mix.

    Between them, there was a tube of flesh, rippling with colors.

    Kro felt something pulling at him, and saw an aged matron, wearing a chain-mail gown made entirely of diamonds, nibbling daintily at his ear. The sound of the band, two of whom had long since died, leaving an alto sax and a drummer to make brittle crazy music together, disappeared, replaced by a buzzing; also, he could no longer feel anything in his limbs. Since he was pretty sure that he did not have his limbs anymore, that made sense. But he could still see.

    “Still see!” he exulted to himself, silently, since his tongue was completely gone. “Still see!”

    Indeed he could. The Ten Thousand was fighting back, and the Kro-heads and Lady-heads would disappear, replaced by heads of some other kind, or faceless, abstract, manikin faces. And then the Kro-heads and the Lady-heads would reassert themselves. Their expressions were angry, happy, miserable, bored, with no hint that they were souls, bound together by several unnatural means, fighting for dominance of their body.

    The whole mass swelled in size, growing larger and smaller. At one point, it became a giant head, Kro’s head, though the color of wet grass. Then it seemed to dissolve into a bubbling black sludge of fresh-poured blacktop. But a tree grew in the middle of that mess, and sprouted an orchard’s worth of apples, half Kro’s-head-apples, half his Lady, before collapsing again.

    It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. Kro knew that it would end as it had to. Ten thousand souls are many, but infinity is more, and ten thousand different squabbling souls, a mob, had no chance against infinite pattern, an infinite superpair.

    The mass swelled one more time, turning a vivid angry mass of color and making a sound like every animal in the zoo dying at once, and then split in two, showering a fine colorless mist on the entire room.

    Kro blinked as it went into his eyes. When he opened them again, he gasped in spite of himself, because the first thing he saw was his own heart. The matron and one of the were-cats were fighting over it, holding it tug-o-war between them as they took savage bites and lipsticked themselves in his still-hot blood. He wanted to wave them out of the way, but he had no arms.

    He really just wanted to fall asleep. But he had to see!

    Fortunately, his heart fell on the ground and it was mobbed in a maelstrom of fur and bone and flesh and other things that couldn’t be named, and Kro, his eyes shutting themselves off pixel by pixel, caught one last glimpse.

    The war had been won. The ten thousand souls of the Ten Thousand had simply had no chance against infinity. He saw himself–purified, clean, his hair grown back–and his Lady, naked, stretching their long limbs and looking at each other with rapt, complete attention. Taller, healthier, and more beautiful than nature itself. There was chaos and noise around them, but they could only see each other.

    Somewhere in there, Kro knew, was his Lady’s original soul, now part of their mixture, and that pleased him. He couldn’t breathe any more–which made sense, given that his throat had been ravaged and ripped into bloody pasta–but let death overcome him, sweeping over him like a black wave. He relaxed and let go.

    They would always be together, now: in a strange form, but when does love not take a strange form?  One last gulping gaze, one last snapshot in his mind of his Lady’s breasts, hair, eyes, and it was down into the black water, pulling him insistently. Down, down, down he went, hairless and cannibalized corpse forgotten as his soul sought the secret light at the bottom of the dark sea, exploding in infinite spasms of unspeakable delight as the world disappeared around him. Going, going, going–if he had arms, he would open them wide and dive beautifully down, like an angel, like a starfish, flying down to meet the source of all moments.