Faith remembered dodging a bus, and she remembered blinding light, and then she remembered a red desert with an empty yellow sky.
She walked on four paws up the steep slope of a dune. Before she climbed to the dune’s crest she noticed tiny holes in the sand. She could not resist an instinctual desire to dig at the tiny holes with her claws. Sand poured down the dune behind her.
When her claws uncovered the wriggling end of an earthworm, she stuck her snout into the sand and slurped the worm from its hole like spaghetti. She ate three more worms this way before she realized they were completely disgusting. She chewed the fourth worm slowly, deciding whether it would be more disgusting to spit it out or finish the job.
Why had she eaten the worms in the first place?
She glimpsed her flitting tail. She now noticed her black nose at the end of her white snout. “Oh neat,” she said, “I’m a fox! I must be hallucinating.” Foxes don’t mind eating bugs, so she swallowed the worm and bounded up the dune.
At the top of the dune she surveyed the desert. Its wrinkled magnificence stretched from horizon to horizon. One feature stood taller than the dunes, a Mountain with smooth slopes like the Pyramids at Giza. Above the Mountain, the sun carried two moons like lumpy potatoes.
A warm breeze blew from behind. At first Faith resisted the wind; her ears lay flat against her fur. Then the warmth swelled around her and she felt weightless. Faith leapt and let the wind lift her like a leaf down the other side of her dune. She reached the bottom of the valley in three giddy glides.
At the bottom of the valley the sand looked ripe with worms. Faith sniffed the sand and noticed a scent she had never smelled before. She sleuthed across the desert floor for the source of the scent and found it in a patch of dry, brittle grass.
Faith dug at the roots of the grass. The grass snapped and broke at the slightest touch, and as if in pain the roots reacted by wriggling. Faith snapped her jaws on the mass of wriggling roots and pulled them to the surface.
“Huh.” She had unearthed two cockroaches whose spindly legs were roots and whose antennae were stalks of grass. “Do people actually smoke these things? Gross.” She rolled them along the ground with one paw to inspect them. They were much thicker than crickets, but stubby. They came pre-wrapped in their own wings right out of the dirt. But they smelled terrible to Faith, like burnt spices. “And I don’t even have a lighter. Sheesh.” She tucked one roach behind each ear to save them for later.
She spent a few minutes eating earthworms but she only became hungrier the more she ate. Some worms were longer than others. Some worms seemed twice or thrice the typical thickness. She found a hole in the sand as big across as her forepaw. Was it left by a worm just as wide? She salivated at the thought and dug at the hole.
After some digging she finally found a big pink nub in the red sand. She flopped against the ground and bit at the nub sideways, and tried to pry it out of its hole with her teeth. She could feel the worm’s girth squirming in the earth below her. The pink nub escaped into the sand.
“Shucks.” Faith dug a little deeper.
A clap of thunder made her pause. Not one cloud blemished the yellow sky, but the thunder rolled on.
The Heart of the Mountain, the Biggest Bird, swept over the crest of the dune on an eighty-foot wingspan and a thunderous sonic boom. It glided down the slope and landed without legs, without claws, just robes-to-sand. Faith froze with fear, but the bird stashed its wings in its sleeves.
“Let me show you,” said the bird, “how it’s done.” It bent over the hole and examined the pink worm-nub.
“You’re scaring it,” Faith said. “It’s digging away!”
The bird shook one sleeve and a blue tentacle slithered out. The tentacle’s tip probed the sand-hole. The tentacle was too thick to enter after the worm, but it pulsated to push meaty muscle away from its tip. When the tentacle’s tip was sufficiently narrow it entered the hole and extracted the worm with surgical precision.
“Wow!” Faith tried to clap her paws together. “You’re really something, aren’t you!”
“Indeed.” The Heart of the Mountain ate the worm with a snap of its stout yellow beak. Then it examined Faith with its compound emerald eyes. Thousands of crystalline lenses focused on the white fox. “We’ve met before. Your name is Faith.”
“Uh-huh. And you’re the Heart of the Mountain!” Faith sat. “I remember you from my first centipede-trip!”
“Do you know why you’re here?”
“Under whose supervision?”
“Um.” Faith tried to remember. “Probably my friend Dan.”
“I see.” The Heart of the Mountain revealed its wings and splayed a few blue feathers against the sand. “Climb me.”
“Sure!” Faith walked up the long wing. “Where are we going?”
“To the Mountain.”
“Gee.” Faith sat on the Heart’s head. “Is the Wheel spinning?”
Some facets of the Heart’s compound emerald eyes slid from the front of its face to the back to peer at Faith. “Why do you ask?”
“Aaugh! Ew!” Faith reared from the sliding eyes. “The last time I was here, you wanted to stuff me into the Mountain because a Wheel was spinning really fast. Is the Wheel spinning now? Are you gonna make me a Zephyr?”
“We’re all Zephyrs, more or less.” The Heart of the Mountain recollected its eyeballs and initiated liftoff. Steam poured from the hem of its robe. Faith clung to the Heart’s head as they zoomed above the dunes. “The Wheel is hardly spinning. In fact, I must attend to it. I only left the Mountain for a moment to collect a load of worms to make into Zephyrs.”
Faith was flattened on the bird’s back as they blasted through the sky. “Why does the Wheel need worm-Zephyrs?”
“Zephyrs operate the Mountain’s mechanisms,” said the Heart of the Mountain. “One worm-Zephyr may not mean much, but every ounce counts. I’m the Mountain’s Heart. I’m the traveling avatar of the Zephyrs.”
“Okay, this is getting confusing,” said Faith. “Did you know there’s a cartoon with giant space-robots called Zephyrs, too? What do you mean by Zephyr?”
“I use the term broadly,” said the Heart. “I know of your cartoon Zephyrs, and when I say Zephyr, I mean them as well. Every idea conceived by sentient beings will be contained in my Zephyrs at the end of the Eternities.”
The dunes zoomed below them. Faith marveled at the approaching Mountain. “So how many Zephyrs are there?”
“Uncountably many,” said the Heart.
“Okay, but how many is that?”
“Quintillions of quintillions.”
Faith smiled. “That’s not uncountable, that sounds plenty countable. How many Zephyrs are there?”
“It depends on how you count them. In a sense, lesser Zephyrs are contained within the arch-Zephyrs.” The Heart adjusted its course by tilting feathers like airplane flaps. “So one might say there are just a few thousand.”
“But how many Zephyrs are there, really?”
The Heart sighed. “The grandest arch-Zephyrs overlap with and contain many of their companions, so with the right outlook—”
“C’mon, how many?”
“But how many Zephyrs are there?”
“Just two, myself and the rest.”
“But how many are there, really?”
Faith giggled. “But really though, how many Zephyrs are there?”
“I’m done playing this game.” The Heart blasted fog from its robes to slow its descent onto the Mountainside. “Please get off.”
Faith leapt onto the Mountain. “So are you gonna shove me in a hole? Am I gonna be a Zephyr?”
“Not yet.” The Heart stomped an unseen appendage. A dark hole opened in the Mountainside. “I need an assistant. And compared to the worms I typically find, you have a good deal of physical capability.”
Faith looked into the hole. She could not see how deep it ran. “Is this a job-offer?”
“You would attend to the Wheel while I have other business. You would not be assimilated into the Mountain as a Zephyr—you would be the wisp of my will.”
Faith lolled her head back and forth, unconvinced. “I don’t think I know enough about what’s involved to take you up on it.”
“Then let me give you a tour,” said the Heart. “Give me a minute to get the place ready for you.”