“The thing I think we fail to see is that Japanese exceptionalism is just American exceptionalism in a funhouse mirror,” said Sato-Gray. “We may not recognize the image, but it comes from a similar place.”

“How do you mean?” the panelist asked.

“Well, for example, if you tell an American that many Japanese people feel that they are exceptional because they are direct descendants of the Shinto sun god Ameratsu, that American will probably laugh and think something about superstition. But then they may go on to claim that America is uniquely blessed by God with nary a thought to how off this may look to an outsider.”

“So,” the panelist continued, “you are saying that these differences are what cause misunderstandings?”

“Not at all,” Sato-Gray replied. “I am saying that the similarities are what cause misunderstandings and conflict. We are very much alike in broad strokes, though different in the details. But there can never be two most exceptional nations in the world.”

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Since the undead rising began, a few basic rules have made themselves manifest.

1. Killed by one, rise as one.

If you are killed by the undead, you rise as one a short period of time later. Generally the dead rise as simple zombies (or skeletons) but it’s not unknown for them to rise as the specific sort of undead that slew them.

2. Undeath is expensive.

Rising from the grave has no precedent in international law, so the dead lose all their wealth and possessions. Furthermore, the treatments–both medical and arcane–to sustain an undead body quickly add up, forcing many undead into servitude.

3. Entropy is inevitable.

The process of decay is somewhat arrested by rising, but it is not stopped. Cutting-edge mortuary science, often paid for by undead insurance brokers Ike Z-Surance, helps keep undead looking fresh and lifelike for as long as possible. It is also possible to prolong decay and dissolution for some time after looking lifelike is no longer possible. But if it takes days, weeks, or centuries, all undead eventually decay to nothing. No one knows what happens after that.

4. Conversion is possible.

A zombie can become a skeleton, a wight can become a lich, and many other “lateral” moves are possible. New undead are often strongly recruited, which has led to a certain cult like atmosphere in some undead mono-societies.

5. They’re all unholy.

Every major religion on Earth that existed before the rising has condemned the undead as foul, unnatural, and abominations. While some new religious movements sympathetic to the undead have arisen, they tend to be dismissed as cults. While some progress in undead rights has been made, primarily making it illegal to kill them in many circumstances, they remain on the whole shunned by religious and conservative people. Those religious and conservative folk who are reanimated almost always destroy themselves or go mad thanks to the inherent contradiction of their condition.

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“Come in, then,” Rivers said. “Mask on, of course.”

“I’m vaccinated,” Hillian replied.

“Mask on,” Rivers repeated, hooking his own over both ears. “Can’t be too careful with the new variants, and also with liars.”

“I’m no liar, Dr. Rivers,” Hillian huffed.

“And I’m a philosophy professor, which means I know about the inherent paradox of claiming one is not a liar,” Rivers said. “Either come in or don’t, you’re letting bugs in.”

With a sigh, Hillian put on a rumpled disposable mask and entered. The house was a mess, books and clothes heaped on every surface, and several cats slinked through the mess, wafting the unmistakable odor of kitty litter with them.

“So what does the provost’s office want with me,” Rivers said.

“Sort of a wellness check,” Hillian said. “You haven’t been answering your emails.”

“I’ve been reading them,” Rivers said. “Most don’t need or deserve replies.”

“You haven’t been answering your phone.”

“That’s what email is for,” said Rivers. He pulled his bathrobe tighter around him as if annoyed.

“You haven’t been in the office for a month.”

“Got a home office right in back, works great,” Rivers said.

“You know that the president said that everyone had to go back to work, right?” said Hillian, cocking his head.

“I am working,” Rivers huffed. “Reading emails, advising students, and supervising independent studies. I’ve also been working on three papers and a book.”

“From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re living a bachelor lifestyle and using elaborate excuses to avoid doing any work,” Hillian said. “That’s also partly why I’m here.”

“To give me an ultimatum? Don’t bother,” Rivers said. “I know my rights as a tenured professor after fifteen years.”

“Are you saying that you’re going to keep doing nothing until we have to take formal, and expensive, and unpleasant, legal action?” Hillian said.

“I’m saying that I am a philosophy professor, and nothing that you can do to me can compare with what the last year has convinced me is coming. I’m going to keep on as I have been, since it’s the last relaxation any of us are going to get.”

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I used to enjoy thrifting. Then a friend asked me how I enjoyed picking over the bleached bones of middle America for fun and profit.

I still enjoy thrifting, but now I wonder what happens when the whale fall is spent and the bones are gone.

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A buzz on the doorstep
The dialtone of summer nights
Endless yearning beneath humming lights
Reaching out for a fleeting connection
A concrete echo the only reply

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[JANINE is making drip coffee in the kitchen of a small farmhouse]

ANNOUNCER: We’ve replaced Janine’s Brand X coffee with new Revivify™ Extra Strength java. Let’s see if she notices.

[JANINE takes a sip and shakes her head vigorously.

JANINE: Wow, that’s strong stuff!

[From OUTSIDE THE FARMHOUSE, a sudden rumble!]

JANINE: The family plot!

[She runs to the window. We see the earth HEAVING, gravestones WOBBLING, as the dead ARISE and CLAW their way to the surface.]

JANINE: Uncle Jim! Grandma Josephine!

[Shambling to his feet, UNCLE JIM breathes a grim pronouncement through sepulchral lips.]

UNCLE JIM: We have AWAKENED, and now we go forth in search of living flesh to sustain our unlife!

[JANINE, shotgun in hand, attempts to barricade the door while wood splinters under undead assault as the ANNOUNCER speaks.]

ANNOUNCER: Revivify™: coffee so strong it will wake your ancestors. Find it in the necromancy aisle at your local supermarket.

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“Well, Chosen One,” said Opaem in an icy tone. “If you are such an expert in the Art of magic, perhaps you can teach me a better system.”

“Better than rock-paper-scissors?” Brianna said. “Uh, yeah? How about elemental magic? Fire, water, earth and, um, wind.”

“Wind?” Opaem said, with a raised, and skeptical, elven eyebrow.

“Yes, wind! It beats fire by, I dunno, blowing it out or something.”

“But fire consumes oxygen and leaves ashes, so would air not make fire stronger?” Opaem said.

“Water, then!” Brianna said. “It still makes more sense.”

“And what is burning? Not all fires can be extinguished so easily. What if it is a magnesium fire? That can burn underwater.” The elf furrowed his brows. “I am afraid it is your system that makes no sense, Chosen One.”

“How do you even know what magnesium is?” Brianna retorted. “Isn’t it like a chemical element?”

“It only exists in its elemental form once refined, which makes it a manufactured item. Therefore, a magnesium fire is extinguished by piling it with dry sand. Rock beats scissors. See? It makes perfect sense.”

“I don’t believe this! Next you’re going to tell me that you cast a fireball spell by throwing burning magnesium at people.”

“That is actually a really good segue into the next part of your training,” said Opaem.

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Four years since I
Celebrated the fourth
Even with this year’s
Reprieve I still look
At the skybursts with
A mixture of fear and
Self-righteous anger
In every explosion
The self-satisfied
Grins of people who
Do not realize they
Are burning the flag
As they try to honor it

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“There are three great schools of magic you will need to master, Chosen One,” Opaem intoned, his spidery fingers tented in front of the glittering gold threads of his mage robes.

“And…how long do I have to master them?” Brianna said, putting a hand on her hip.

“Seven days,” Opaem said, confidently. Before his charge could utter more than a surprised yelp, he went on: “The first school is that of the natural world at its most base, which we represent with a stone. The second school is that of the living or formerly living, which we represent with vellum. The final, and perhaps most difficult school is that of the manufactured, which we represent with these tempered steel shears.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Brianna. “A rock, a piece of paper, and a pair of scissors?”

“They are merely symbols,” said Opaem, though his long pointed ears clearly quivered with annoyance. “Now, the great cycle that is the magic of the Beyond is thus: the natural defeats the manufactured, the manufactured defeats the living, and the living defeats the natural.”

“That is literally just rock-paper-scissors!” Brianna cried.

“I suppose you could use that mnemonic to describe it,” Opaem said. “A great boulder may smash a finely-wrought blade, but that same blade will cleave parchment in Twain, and-“

Brianna tossed up her hands, nearly losing her Fifth Avenue bangle in the process. “Yeah! I know! Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock! This is the dumbest magic system I’ve ever heard!”

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I noticed a post from an old friend
Half forgotten on my media feed
Clicked and looked, catching up
Without words in the digital way
Scrolling backwards I saw they’d had
A baby, and every photograph was of
A new milestone, often with labels
Done up nice on flowery chalkboards
Then there were posts of a tropical
Vacation, spouse in tow, all smiles
The feed went back to how it had been
But I could feel it there, unspoken
In between the images, amid the posts
A loss so near and dear that it could not
Be contained in a digital world, especially
One that demands only happiness

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