Serializations of the Hitherby Dragons novels

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– 2 –

– 2 –

Tom falls into the choking dark, and beyond it. He writhes his mind and being down into the channels of his body. He tracks himself, sees himself physical, binds the fire of him down into the pulse of blood, and the twisting of muscles, and the little trackable sparks of lightning in the brain.

He surges against that wall between life and death that lives in the body.

He pushes against the edge of consciousness, strains it, writes out the equations of his thinking, his being, his living, in raw physical terms that his body can understand.

He holds himself up before the lens of him and he makes himself into galvanic movements.

He scores them like a composition.

He orchestrates them with a charge of lightning, pours them down into a dead koala’s skin.

The atoms of it read out his music. Its muscles twitch and its heart begins to beat. A little black hat coalesces from the lightning — at first from the shadows between the sparks of it, at first from the remaining darkness when the light of momentary arcs and sparkles fades away, but then it acquires its own autonomous existence. It plays out the image of Tom’s hat above the koala even as the koala itself takes on a replica of his life. It forms itself, that apparent hat; it forges itself; it refines itself into a hat of black lightning, a lightless sparkling, a black and thrumming fire of the vacuum energy of space.

The koala looks up at him grotesquely.

It tilts its head.

A dream flits from Tom’s eyes to the koala. It catches and flickers within the eyes of the koala in their turn. It is life, Tom thinks, perhaps, life; the koala looks back to him and almost, almost, almost he is not alone.

The koala’s little tiny fingers move, as if to pick up a pair of scissors that is not there and cut through the walls of its cage; or, possibly, through death.

Then it goes still.

Tom gives a great groan. Then he picks the koala up. He shakes it.

“Stay with me,” he says. “Stay with me. Do not go into the light.”

Koalas do not speak English.

“Stay with me,” he says. “You are a dead koala, an anonymous dead koala that nobody cares about but I, but I care, I do, I do, I am Tom Friedman, I am Thomas the First, I am head boy of the House of Dreams, and I have brought you back to life. Become a scientist, dead koala. Become a friend. Become alive.”

The koala shakes all over. Its hat falls off. It dies.

“Today,” Tom says. “Today we have crossed a barrier that no thing crosses, you and I, we have broken the wall of death and life —”

He falls silent.

He stares irritably at the koala.

“Damn it,” he says.

He puts the hat back on the koala. This has no effect.

Tom leans back in his chair.

“Why do I even try to put cute little hats on dead animals?” he asks himself. “Why?”

He has no answer.

There may not actually be an answer; other than, because he does.

Cheryl comes in after a while. It’s a couple of hours later but Tom hasn’t really moved. Neither has the koala, being dead.

He looks at her.

“I awaken the hidden potential that is in things,” he says. “That is the purpose of my hat. That is why I cannot predict what someone will become, save through observation and experiment: the potential is hidden. That is more generally the virtue of my science. But I am coming up against a key limitation of this approach.”

“Maybe a paradigm shift?” she says.

“Those are difficult to produce on demand,” Tom sighs.

“I could fold you a paradigm-shifting gun,” she says. “Although the recoil’s a right bastard.”

“Thanks,” says Tom. His eyes twinkle. “But no.”

“Fair enough,” she says.

He fades back into melancholy. “Sometimes I worry that they are just dead. You know? That I can’t do this because the whole afterlife concept is ridiculous. But then, what of Linus?”

Cheryl looks at him.

“What?” he asks, irritably.

“There isn’t an afterlife,” she says. “There isn’t even a life. There’s just the is.”

“Well, yes,” he says, waving a hand vaguely. “But I mean, the potential has to be there before it can become a thing.”

“No,” she says. “It doesn’t.”

“Like,” he says, “when my hat refines somebody.”

“Listen,” she says. “This is the hardest lesson. The paper doesn’t contain the swan; the stone doesn’t contain the statue; the world doesn’t come down to us saying what may be invented and what may not.”

He is sputtering because she is trying to teach him ‘the hardest lesson.’ But younger or no, his junior or no, she’s still Cheryl of the House of Dreams. Reluctantly, he rolls his eyes and lets her give the speech.

“We can do anything, Tom,” she says. “That’s what the House of Dreams is made of. We don’t take possibilities from a finite set of possibilities and then implement them. We fold the world into a mirror of ourselves.”

“But that’s not what I want to do,” says Tom, who isn’t satisfied with merely infinite possibilities. “What I want to do is take an existing koala-life or whatever that is floating around out there and bring it into fruition with my science.”

“You can’t use science to make things have already existed or not,” says Cheryl.

Then she frowns.

“Well,” she says, “I mean, you probably shouldn’t, anyway.”

He grasps at an argument. “But to refine a thing,” he says, “e.g., a sequence, you refine what is already there, not what you put in it. That’s —”

He falls silent.

After a while, she says, “In the great mathematics of the world, there is no god that divides the transfigurations, clarifications, and refinements from the changes, or, for that matter, from the things. There is only: this is this, and that is that.”

“That’s bloody depressing,” says Tom.

“No!” she says. “It’s brilliant. It means that we can do anything we like.”

“Except make people better,” Tom says. “I mean, as their own people. I mean, without compromising whatever it is that they already are.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, yeah.”

“Or, you know, connecting.”

Cheryl suddenly blushes.

“Oh, Tom,” she says, embarrassedly. “I’d forgotten. You don’t have a gigantic paper snake.”

There are many things he could say to this, but he says none of them. He doesn’t even think of more than half.

She pats his arm, smiles sadly, and goes back to her origami.

After a while he realizes that he’s been staring at a dead koala for what must have been hours. His drink has gone cold. His hands and feet are numb. Cheryl has wandered away.

He stares into the koala’s empty eyes.

There had been a living koala.


There is now none.

“How does that even happen?” Tom asks, in the direction of the corpse.

Where does the koala-life go?



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