Jeremiah Clean’s got the world just about straightened out, now.
There was a bit of a kink. A bit of a hitch, if you know what I mean, roundabouts the time Hans was ending. But the new guy’s grown into his job now. He’s got it covered.
He’s even getting known.
His life is pretty sweet, now. People respect him. They tip their hat to him when he passes them in the halls. He’ll tip his hat right back.
“Mr. Brown,” he’ll say. Or “Mr. Evans.” —
Well, wait. Not “Mr. Evans.”
“Mr. Brown,” he’ll say. Or “Mr. Pungent.” Or whatever else is the person’s name. Maybe even “Ms. Edrafille Imbroglio.”
But not “Mr. Evans.”
He took care of the Evans’.
And they’ll say, of course: “Mr. Clean.”
The world’s practically polished, spit and polished, now, and yet —
Somehow it doesn’t make him happy.
He’d thought, if he could just get all these horrors under control. These giant wolves and giant snakes, the big scorpions, the crime —
That he’d be happy.
He looks at the world, though, and it’s still not clean.
The years slip past.
Protestors pin a complaint to Martin’s door. It alleges that he is harboring a moon-eating wolf.
Joffun finds a heart in a stone box by the ruins of Gulley Mansion. He is delighted. He laughs, he dances. Then he goes silent.
He looks a little bit sad as he drifts down back below the surfaces of things.
Sally travels to the North Pole to conduct a survey, and, also, to die.
The survey is about polar bears. Traditionally, polar bears receive their surveys by post, but this time, Sally’s boss sent her north.
“Polar bear literacy rates are reported at 98%,” said Sally’s boss. This is the kind of thing the Formerly Lethal Corporation does in the après-apocalypse environment. “I don’t believe those numbers. I think that many polar bears are ashamed to admit that they can’t read. Others, unable to read, eat our survey. It’s a tasty paper treat! We can fix the first problem with marketing — making it glamorous to admit one’s flaws. But to fix the second problem we need someone on the site. We need someone to go there and put the question to the polar bears directly!”
“Me,” said Sally. Her voice was quiet and her affect blank. “Send me.”
“That’s wonderful!” exclaimed her boss, and hugged her. That’s one reason why Sally is traveling north.
The other is that she’s had a hard life and she’s tired.
Sally reaches the north pole and begins lining up polar bears. She administers the survey to each. It becomes rapidly obvious that very few polar bears can read. Some even try to eat her. Sally does not want to live. But she clings to life. When they snarl and bite at her, she flees across the snow. Behind her, a more civilized bear runs interference, crying, “Without table manners, we are nothing more than animals! White furry animals! With teeth! Please, you must show restraint!”
Sally does not hear. She runs, and runs, until the ice cracks beneath her feet and she falls into a cavern beneath the snow.
“I don’t deserve to live,” she says. “I have no value.”
A time passes, in the dark.
“But it’s so very cold.”
So she lights a flashlight and looks around her. She’s in a great cavern, and all around her, in frozen sleep, they are.
“What are you?” she says. But she knows. This is a thing that was not meant to exist in her world.
She stands. She hobbles over. She stares at them.
There are princes in shining mail, and great beasts, and witches, and old women, and golden spindles. There is Princess Anthology, who would have been for Peter, and the crow that could have saved Linus from his fate. And there, to the left, is hers. Her prince.
She touches his frozen skin. “I had a wicked stepmother,” she tells him. “I ran away from her, and I lived in the forest, and you did not come.”
It wasn’t a forest. It was a boarding school. She is taking poetic license.
“She enchanted me, and I lived with that enchantment —”
That enchantment: you are no one important.
“And in the end I heard that she had died and turned to ash and been scattered, but even so, the enchantment didn’t break.”
The prince is silent.
Sally touches his face. It is frozen.
“And you didn’t come,” she says.
Sally walks through that great cavern, and sees them all, and after a time, she tells them the story of that place.
“You were here before us,” she says. “I don’t even know if there were people. You were here before us, you shining principles. You were heroes. You were Kings and you were Queens. And you fought for us, you were our salvation — for there were monsters back then, nightmares and horrors, that were just as much made for us as you. And you won. You won, you were winning. But the world grew cold.
“‘We shall die,’ said the princes, and the princesses with their golden hair, and the beasts that spoke, and the witches, and the frogs. ‘We shall die. The world grows cold.’
“And so you came to the coldest place of all and buried yourselves here. Not to die. Not truly. Simply to be. And the lady of winter kept you. That must have been what happened.”
Sally sits, leaning against an ice-pink unicorn. Its face is feral and wild.
“I do not think I can revive you,” she says. “I do not think anybody can.”
The unicorn is silent. Sally’s prince does not move.
If she escapes, she knows —
If she survives this, then she will say it. She will tell people. She will tell people, even though she’ll tell herself not to, and they will come, and they will see.
“I must die here,” she says. “So I won’t tell them. They must never know.
“The universe cares for us more than I can bear, and that gift is frozen, under the ice.”
One day Jeremiah Clean is working, and he remembers the moment of Hans’ death; he remembers what that felt like, what it felt like to become sacred, clean, and pure.
He dresses the same way as any other day. Maybe it’s a little sharper, now.
He puts on a hat.
It’s not a magic hat. It’s just . . . maybe it’s a memory, that there were magic hats, once upon a time.
Then he begins.
“Let’s finish this,” he says.
After Gotterdammerung, there is a new world: a bright world, a pure world, a safe world; but as bright as it may be, as pure as it may be, as clean as it may be, it is endlessly too dirty still for a man like Jeremiah Clean.
He lines up the rational numbers. He looks at the grimy irrational numbers between them. He grins smugly, takes out his Swiffer, and begins to Swiff them all away.
This kind of thing upsets most mathematicians. It has Cantor practically spinning in his grave.
. . . but that’s not what this story is about.
A terrible ray, a terrible horrible ray, a monstrous needle-thin ray certain to destroy the Earth, is still pouring at the speed of light through the boundless reaches of space. It has traveled for nearly seven hundred years and soon it will strike. It will end life as we understand it. There will be no world. There will be no humanity. There will be nothing that we know. There will only be the Decohesion Engine, Principle of Omnipotence, a power born in death and a terrible light.
It is bad!
Oh, wicked god of space, it is terrible!
. . . but that’s not what this story is about, either.
And somewhere Bethany is straggling through life without a nithrid. And somewhere Peter is huddled in the brig of a Fan Hoeng scissors-ship, and he is weeping, because all he ever got to do with his life was save a few hundred assassin-aliens whom he doesn’t even like and the last scissors in the world.
And you kind of feel bad for him, I guess, sort of, but he isn’t who this story is about.
None of them are.