House of Saints: A Practically Unsolvable Problem

Posted on August 15, 2005 by Jenna

← Previous | Next →

There is a sentience and a power in the graveyard of the hats. It has stirred; it has cast forth a sorting hat; it has created many Houses from the school.

In the House of Hunger, Edmund and Lucy meet.

“A shilling,” says Lucy.

“I want to apologize,” the Edmund-beast says.

Lucy points at the sign on her door. It says, “Consultations — 1 shilling. Eating your enemies — 18 shillings (ea.).”

“No exceptions,” Lucy says.

Edmund, blinking, passes her a shilling from some random change purse he has on him.

“Go ahead,” Lucy says.

“I’m sorry,” says the Edmund-beast. “It was rotten of me.”

Lucy snorts.

“I should have told you that he was mine. That I’d claimed him. But somehow I thought that hunger could be private.”

“It’s not,” says Lucy. “It is a surging force, Edmund. It is a power. It is like electricity or fire, and the color of it is green.”

The Edmund-beast nods. It is thoughtful.

“But if it’s a force, and not just something in me,” it says, “where did it come from? Whence did it rise?”

“That’s the kind of question that could get you into trouble, Edmund. If you think too much about the hunger it’ll devour your thoughts.”

In the House of Torment, young Sid in his pale hat is clipping at his nails. He’s digging at them now with a pair of Lethal-looking nail clippers and a file. He’s having to go in under the cuticle to get any more, and the pile of nail scraps on the floor is large enough to hide his discarded socks, gloves, and shoes. There is a fair bit of blood and his fingers and toes are red.

He is in the human graveyard. That’s where he went. He’s in a mausoleum. All around him, in the high levels, in the low levels, staring at him from each nook, are students with great owlish eyes and yellow hats. Emily. Morgan. Fred.

He does not mind them. They are standing between young Sid and madness.

“It is okay?” he asks them.

“There is no alternative,” Emily says.

And their presence, at the least, serves to damp his pain.

In the House of Saints, Peter makes himself ready for a journey into space.

“I wonder if this is right,” he says, to Bethany.

“We must save the world, Peter. If we do not act then it will die.”

“What if it’s meant to die?” Peter asks.

Bethany frowns at him.

“That would seem to negate all questions of morality.”

“Hm,” Peter agrees.

They pack their bags. They board the Bootstrap. Vladimir shoots them into space.

House of Saints

A Practically Unsolvable Problem

Vidar’s Boot is not simply a giant shoe. It is also a space station. From its quiet reaches Peter and Bethany look down at the Earth. They are supposed to be alone on the station, but they are not.

“Do you ever regret it?” Bethany asks him. “I mean, being sorted into the House of Saints?”

“Constantly,” says Peter.

“Me too,” says Bethany.

And from the texture of it as it spins below they know the Earth is vast.

“When we are over the hats,” says Bethany, “we will send Vidar’s Boot down.”

“Will we?” Peter asks.

Bethany shrugs.

“We will, or we won’t,” she says. “As is the way of saints. It is the virtue of strict categorization: we can determine how saints act by observing our own behavior.”

There is a soft snarling in the air. It is coming through the vents. Peter tries hard to ignore it.

“Someone is snarling,” Bethany points out.

“I am trying hard to ignore it,” Peter says. “In this, you are not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” says Bethany. “I thought you might be more comfortable if it was out in the open.”

Peter grins at her a little.

“Thank you,” he says.

He takes her hand. He squeezes it.

“We are approaching,” Peter says.

“Are you ready?” Bethany says. “To push the button?”

“Aren’t you going to do it?” Peter asks.

“No,” Bethany says.

“I’d thought,” Peter says, “that as a saint, you might spare me from this decision, by taking it onto your own shoulders.”

“No,” says Bethany.

Peter is surprised, although he should not be.

“Oh dear,” Peter says.

They both look at the button. They both face the inescapable truth. And it is an unfair one.

“Saints don’t … kill, do we.” Peter says.

“Apparently not.”

“Not even the terrible sentience of the graveyard of the hats?”

“Not even that.”

“That’s a flaw,” Peter protests. “That’s not a consistent morality! That’s an unfair expectation imposed from outside! We should get to kill things that are already dead.

“Peace,” Bethany says.

Peter sags a little.

“It’s not for nothing,” Bethany says. “I mean, the House of Dreams really liked building this boot.”

“Saul charged us to save the world. And we’re failing him. We’re failing the world,” says Peter. “But what can we do? Love was Gandhi’s weapon against the British Empire, and it changed the world, but the British Empire has always had a soft spot for love. Dead hats—they’re not that sentimental! They’re hollow inside! It’s like loving a hurricane or an evil jar!”

“I think saints fix things by helping others, not by campaigning to change their lives for them,” Bethany says.

Vidar’s Boot drifts over the graveyard of hats.

Sensors beep.

A button flashes, forlorn and unpushed.

“See,” says Peter, “it would have been nice to have figured that out before we were in, y’know, space.”

They pass the graveyard and continue their orbit around the earth.

Bethany makes a face.

And over the hours that follow Peter’s shoulders slump, and he sits in the corner of the room.

And finally Peter says, bleakly, “Saul lied.”

“Oh,” says Bethany. Slowly, she colors. “I … guess we really shouldn’t have taken him at his word after his whole reclassifying-people-as-food thing, yeah.”

“Man the defenses,” Peter says, straightening a little. “Edmund’s coming.”

There is a breathing sound and a scraping sound and the elevator opens. The Edmund-beast lopes in.

Bethany is standing at the internal defenses panel. Her finger hesitates over “heat-seeking lasers.” It moves on to “unspeakably painful nanovirus.” After reading the labels on the “worldkiller nuke” and “dimensional destruction” buttons, Bethany puts the palm of her hand to her head and says, “God. I’m sorry, Peter. We’re defenseless.”

“Peter,” says the Edmund-beast. “You cannot flee me by launching yourself willy-nilly into space. I will always find you, and when you have served your usefulness to me, I will eat you. And so I must ask: have you done so? Do I still need you, Peter?”

And Peter shakes his head.

“You don’t,” Peter says. “It’s over. Whatever you needed me for, it’s done.”

Edmund’s face shines with a brilliant grin.

There is a certain artificial gravity provided by the rotation of the boot, but it is not enough. Peter and Bethany’s blood takes a long, long time to fall.

“I am still hungry,” complains the Edmund-beast. “And now I am in space.”

It looks down at the Earth.

“I should not trust the discretion of saints to arrange things to my optimal satisfaction,” the Edmund-beast concludes.

Vidar’s Boot drifts over the graveyard of hats.

Sensors beep.

The Edmund-beast casts a startled gaze around.

A button flashes, forlorn and unpushed.


There is something in a boot that loves to stomp; and there is no enemy of boots so great as hats; and in the end, untended by its saints, Vidar’s Boot chooses its own destiny:

It slams down with brutal force into the Earth.

Time passes.

Vidar’s Boot smoulders.

The Edmund-beast claws out through the leather shell and limps into the molten ruins of the graveyard of the hats. He looks around. He sniffs the air.

“Welcome, brother,” says Saul. He is sitting on the blackened crater’s lip.

“What has happened?” says Edmund. It is a cry of pain. “The graveyard is ruined. The sorting hat will die. The House of Hunger will not grow.”

The computers in Vidar’s Boot click and whirr.

“There is a better way,” says Saul.

And as the beasts walk away, discussing, and unnoticed by them, the power systems in the boot come one by one to life. It is considering how it can achieve orbit again. It is a difficult problem, even for a computerized giant boot. It is practically unsolvable.

But it has tasted the stomping of the hats, and it can never go back now.

Fun Fact! Computers that click and whirr are up to 37% more powerful than computers that run in silence!

House of Saints will conclude Tuesday or Wednesday with “Standing in the Storm”