The Book of Joan A.

I live on the fourth floor of a brick building in downtown Seattle. I have no windowboxes. When I woke one morning in March to find a five-inch column of bluebells growing from a crack in my windowsill, I knew it was a Sign.

She does this kind of thing. I thought I was going to go to the college that my father wanted me to, instead of the college that my mother and I wanted. My suitcase in my hand, I opened the door to leave -- just in time to see a meteor demolish our sidewalk. Nothing stiffens the backbone like getting rocks thrown at you.

Other people get a still, small voice -- from my Goddess, I get a shillelagh and a warcry. Other people beg for a Sign that their God exists, that their God loves them. I struggle to breathe under the great warm pillow of Her constant regard.

This bit was because I'd been depressed. I got melancholy, talking to my friend Mindy over drinks after work last night. When I weep into my beer, it sprouts bluebells.

"What am I accomplishing?" I said. "I learned the word 'ecology' when I was three years old. I'd studied everything major written about it by the time I was 20. Since then I've been writing stuff for other ecologists to read. I'm 27 and I've got three books published, one of them being used as a textbook in a major university and another on the New York Bestseller list. And how much has really changed? The rainforests are disappearing just as fast. Pollution's been pushed back a little bit, mostly because it was beginning to annoy rich people. The major agribusinesses that just barely got turned away from using the worst pesticides are now experimenting with genetically engineered foods, before we completely understand the genetic engineering of what we have now."

"The ozone layer has stabilized. Wolves are coming back. The Russians have publicly admitted that Chernobyl was a boo-boo."

"But how much of any of that did I affect? I certainly didn't affect the Russians. Russians start beating their breasts about something every century or so anyway. It was just about time for them."

Mindy pushed the bowl of peanuts toward me. "Eat something, your blood sugar's low. Besides, life doesn't work that way: what Joe did caused .008 degrees of global warming, what Suzie did cooled things for a day. We all just do the best we can and everybody else gets affected as they choose and it all adds up in the end and then we have pizza. You want some pizza?"

"Soul-searching introspection and questioning one's fate do not match up with pizza, Mindy."

"I know. Cheese or pepperoni?"

But even Mindy and the Three-Cheese Special weren't able to jolly me out of my gloom, and my response to Her own cheery little Get Well card was the exact opposite of the one intended.

"I don't like doing this any more!" I yelled to the empty apartment. One doesn't have to speak in any particular direction to reach the ears of a Goddess. "And I don't have to be happy about anything, if I don't feel happy!"

I didn't bother calling in sick. The phone wouldn't have worked. She's never gotten as rough as locking a door on me, however. I banged out of the apartment and stomped down the street away from the University, away from the park and the botanical gardens and the lake -- the places I usually relax. I decided to go straight to Hell.

Gameworld Video Park.

She called in the troops to try to distract me; three pigeons fluttered from wire to wire overhead, I spotted seven cats trailing along the rooftops, a dozen housedogs yapped at me from behind condo windows and two gray city squirrels scampered from yard-tree to yard-tree keeping pace with me. I even spotted four rats in alley shadows, and started musing on the possibility of a hidden den still existing somewhere under-city. I firmly reminded myself that I wasn't interested in all that just now. As a rising wind began to round up gray clouds overhead and chill the air toward rain, I ducked inside the arcade door and took a deep, grateful insulating breath of metal, oil and electrons.

Sorting the available games in my mind, I immediately rejected the jungle adventures, or any of the group-play games. Telecommunications and the Internet, electronic as they are, are still somewhat subject to Her influence because they carry messages between living beings -- messages that often concern living things. She's even used group-play war games to communicate Her will.

But there is a game in which the mechanoid survivors of the Final War that doomed mankind fight on, endlessly destroying and recreating themselves in a nihilistic Valhalla, with increasingly more fabulous weapons. All adrenaline and glory and no sense at all. Exactly what I wanted just now -- and in the time it took for me to change $100 into quarters, one of the machines came free.

"Come on mechanoids!!! How do you tell these buggers apart anyway? AHH hahahahaha, got you, more metal for recycling! Oh great, three of them at once... swallow my atomic blaster, mechanoid worm! And you! You’re toast now! Smell the butter, it’s all you get! Now for the little one... HAH it’s using asymmetry charges! Well guess what RUNT, I’VE made a back up of my symmetry data and I’m reinforcing it from a nucleonic battery! Now try my dedimensionalizer -- you were a RUNT before, now you’ll be that much more --"

My peripheral vision still haunted me, like city sirens cutting through dreams of Greece. The streets on the other side of the giant plateglass windows darkened as the air grew thick with clouds. The wind rose steadily and began driving an icy, biting rain like razor-edged whips against pedestrians. The long dark canyons of the city moaned and howled eerily in that wind, and new arrivals to the video parlor scuttled in through the doors like routed troops retreating through the castle doors, with haunted looks over their shoulders.

The group of teens around the X-Men Adventures was growing. They muttered to each other and cast grave looks over at me. Several of the game characters incorporated Aspects of Her, and I suspected that new ones were popping up. Like a child who is packing to run away forever and is still precisely aware of Mom's location in the house, I hunched more tightly over my console, trying to squeeze Her presence from the edges of my mind -- and that patronizing little metaphor, too. The mechanoid armies had established different colonies in space. I was the first to blow up Earth behind us.

Kids from the X-Men game were coming over to circle my machine, as new players took their places. They watched me with grave love and long-suffering that was much much too old for them, as I happily laid waste to my thousands and to my ten thousands, and increasingly battered stragglers crept in from the flooding streets.

There were nine of them around me when the pregnant lady came limping in, held up by two friends, one of them bleeding from a gash in his cheek cut by flying glass. All three looked terrified by a city behaving out of control.

"That's not my fault!" I muttered through clenched teeth as I burned the enemy warriors off a planet I wanted. "You're doing this! You can stop any old bloody time you want to!"

The Gameworld staff were looking anxious too. They fretted between the drive to run home and the drive to stay open every possible minute, considering how many coins this place raked in every possible minute. I also think they were puzzled why they hadn't lost power already. Not all of Them are on the same side all the time, boys, I thought -- be grateful. Be very grateful.

I massed enough power to smash two worlds full of my enemies into each other. There were now eleven children staring at me solemnly. Through the closed and insulated doors came the grinding squeal and smash as a family Buick lost traction on the swamped street and careened through a deli window. One of the staff lunged for the phone to call 911, three leaped out the door to see if they could help, two more scattered through the building ushering people off the games as the manager got on the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, Gameworld is closing for the evening; please take care to get home safely, because we want to see you all back again tomorrow."

Great. Now people turn caring. I closed down the game and went out with the crowd. Of course I couldn't help but look, to see if the family in the Buick was all right. They were -- shaken, but not stirred. The X-Men players went home without even glancing back at me.

In the last of my adrenaline rush I stomped back across town to the office, no cabs thankyouverymuch, no problems of course because the sky was already clearing and the streets were draining wonderfully fast. I was the only one in the building as I went straight to my console and uploaded the final draft of our article to our publisher.

Some vitamins that humans need are created by microbes within our bodies. Our group had found that humans can't even grow those microbes by ourselves; the pool that shelters them for us is in the animals around us. Many chronic illnesses of city dwellers were traceable to a deficiency in the body's microbial allies; that in turn was traceable to the decrease of animal population in the modern, sanitary city.

Within five minutes I had two queries from leading research firms for data for independent testing, and three challenges of our interpretations. Within fifteen minutes three flame wars had started over the theory; an e-petition was circulating for a Congressional moratorium on all animal extermination, including rats; another e-petition was circulating to shut our laboratory down because we advocated infesting cities with infection-bearing animals; and a website had been established asking people to sign a pledge to raise a small animal for Humanity. I monitored developments until after midnight. Nobody actually started raising any animals, or killing any of them -- but several did promise they would. Both ways.

I went home and made a very large pot of hot chocolate. I snuggled into my comforter with a big pottery mug of it, fluffy with whipped cream. "So it's done," I told the corner of the ceiling. "And just what the bloody hell is done, anyway?"

"What's done is what you were supposed to do," came that insufferably calm sweet voice.

Tears clouded the cracks in the ceiling. "That was the meaning of my life?"

I got a very rare visual; one eyebrow cocked over Her shoulder as She retreated over the horizon of my mind. "The meaning of your life? Why, my dear, I never had anything to say about that."