Chapter 1: Evidence
note: This chapter contains an offscreen, described suicide attempt.
Crosswinds from the north and from the east had pressed the storm clouds into place and trapped them there: an evening thunderstorm overstaying its leave. It had rained all night. It was now past sunrise and still raining.
She had the brightness on her screen up so high that bluish afterimages flashed in front of her eyes when she closed them. It didn't help. She was still falling asleep.
This was the dullest part of the job - weeks of babysitting equipment. If it didn't take four years to learn how to read the machines, and if they weren't worth several million dollars each, a teenager could do her job. Ninety five percent of it was watching the inane 'in progress' graphics that some interface designer had tacked on. "Work," someone had told them in her engineering college, "is exactly like college except they pay you."
It had sounded pretty good, back then.
The dirt road had turned to mud and her replacement was late in arriving.
The anomaly made its appearance two minutes before the end of her shift. One bizarre reading in the eight machines whose tasks she monitored - not a concern, and barely even interesting. She flagged it for the day crew, answered one last email, and was pulling on her jacket when the abnormality popped up on three more metrics.
It was 8:02. Technically that made this – whatever it was – Ricardo’s problem, whenever he showed up. And if it hadn’t been raining outside she would probably have left it to him.
Instead she sat back down and took a look.
A glitch. Ever since a few earthquakes had been linked to fracking operations like this one (spurious correlation, she figured, but try telling that to the press) Dakota Petroleum had spared no expense on surveying. Last thing they needed was a lawsuit. And that meant her equipment was state-of-the-art, capable of fine-grained readings of every mineral that could conceivably reside beneath this muddy pasture or the hills beyond.
So what the hell had thrown it off?
She scrolled down through the isotopes with a sinking feeling in her stomach. Radioactive, but not containing any of the radioactive isotopes that occurred naturally on Earth. Either this was Ricardo’s idea of a prank, or the equipment had really jumped the shark.
hard reboot? y/n
The door crashed open behind her; Ricardo knocked some mud free of his boots by kicking the wall three times, sharply. He noticed at once, of course, that several million dollars in equipment had been turned off.
“The hell are you doing?”
She was filling out a maintenance report, low priority, the sort no one would ever read and yet which her job was on the line for. “Readings went haywire at Beta-35. Threw half the sensors off. Unless there’s a stable radioactive isotope that scientists have never heard of, the CG-115b isn’t working properly either. Are you messing around?”
“Because I do not have time for-”
“I want to get this done and get home just as much as you, Lals.”
She gritted her teeth. “Please don’t call me that.”
“If we’re here for three months waiting for equipment repairs and then resurveying, you’re not the only one whose girlfriend’s gonna leave you.”
“I never said-”
He smirked triumphantly. “You didn’t have to. The eternally cheerful conscience of Dakota Petroleum has been sulking for weeks, you think no one has noticed? I haven’t heard you laugh since-”
“That says more about you than it says about me,” she snapped.
He raised his hands defensively. “If it’s a sore point I’ll shut up, all right? You’re careful, you’re meticulous, you do great work, I’m happy to have you on the night shift whether you’re laughing or glaring at the screen like you’re – who’s the X-Man with laser eyes?”
“That’s the one. You have his haircut, too.”
It was a peace offering, if a roundabout one. She took it. “Amirah and I are doing great. Thanks."
He stripped his wet jacket off and sat down. "There is something, though."
"Coworker who won't mind his own business -"
"Okay," he said, "okay, point taken. Hmm. How about that weather, huh?"
They looked out the window. "The weather forecaster is giving us a 30% chance of rain this morning," she said, and they both laughed.
"Can I log into this terminal, or is it part of your reboot?"
"No, you're good."
"Bet you a hundred dollars the problem is the CG."
"You're on," she said, "that's a brand new machine."
"That's why I'm so sure. Always goddamn bugs in the new releases. Even when there are lives on the line, goddamn bugs - I used to work in medical devices, did you know that? For Baxter. I got out because here, the only things I can kill with faulty software are my bonuses."
"I didn't know that."
"You really haven't been chatty lately."
This time she felt like telling him. "My little sister’s in the hospital, and it’s two weeks to her birthday, and-”
“We nearly lost you when you were three, remember?” her brother had said on the phone. “That’s the only time I’ve seen Mum and Dad this scared.”
Her throat closed up and it was a little difficult to finish the sentence. “…and I just don’t need anything to go wrong, okay?”
Bless him, Ricardo shut up for once.
The machines chose that moment to noisily return to life.
“Checking the whole Beta-35 quadrant again,” she said, “since I’m not sure where exactly they started acting up. If we can’t figure out where the data went bad, we may need to resurvey back through forty-one…”
“I can do that,” he said readily. “Get some sleep. If there are any issues I’ll get in a manufacturer’s order in before noon. I’ll even call Kristina for you and beg her to push it through, get the replacements parts out here before we've spent a month sitting on our thumbs. With any luck, though, it’ll never show up again.”
Despite herself she smiled .“Engineers are supposed to hate bugs they can’t reproduce.”
"Do you have any idea how long it takes to recalibrate the CG series?"
"Yeah," she said, "I do."
He sat down heavily in the chair next to hers. “Sometimes a fluke is just a fluke.”
"Yeah." She put her jacket back on while he recalibrated the machines. “See you.”
“I have repeatedly asked you-”
“Sorry, sorry. You have. Good night, Lalaith. Best of luck to your sister.”
As if on cue, her phone buzzed in her pocket. She wavered for a second between having this conversation in the rain or having it within Ricardo’s earshot, and then stepped outside.
“The caller is a patient in Westlake Psychiatric Hospital. Calls may be monitored for the safety of our patients. All calls are collect. Would you like to-”
She was already pressing the sequence of buttons that would cut through the automated red tape and let the call through.
“You’re all right,” her sister said.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“I dreamed you were dead.”
“I’ll be home as soon as I possibly can, all right? I would cancel the contract early if there was any way at all-”
“No,” Nienor said, “no, it’s fine. In the dream you’d died a long time ago. I don’t think you’re in danger in the next few weeks.”
Psychosis was (Lalaith had done a lot of reading and then repeated the words again and again until she actually believed them) stigmatized out of all proportion to how scary it actually was. And culturally mediated too – so the fact Nienor’s premonitions were of blood and death was probably – she’d had to repeat this a lot to herself - environmental factors, not a verdict on Lalaith as a sister.
“Nonetheless,” she said, “I want to be home for your birthday.”
“I’m getting out of here on the first Ormenal i Nórui,” Nienor said, “and Mum said we’d celebrate then. So don’t rush home.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“Sorry?” The uncertainty in her sister’s voice was heartbreaking.
“I just didn’t catch what you said. About when you were getting out.”
“Second Tuesday of June,” Nienor said.
“Is that not what I said?”
“It might have been,” Lalaith said, “it’s raining here. Hard to hear.”
In happier times Lalaith had subscribed to the philosophy that sisters ought to be able to share a pleasant silence. But this was not a pleasant silence.
“How’s the weather?”
“Good,” Nienor said.
“It’s ridiculous, all the rain here,” Lalaith babbled. “If I’d known about it I’d have never signed up for this operation. The northern Rockies are supposed to be beautiful, but it’s a rare day I can even see them. I feel boxed in.”
“It’s because you died too young,” said Nienor, “you never got used to it. It always rains like this in spring, and it’s good for the harvest. The mountains are all right. Your enemies fear them more than you, they won’t follow you there.”
“If they come for you, run for the mountains, all right? You will see us again someday. I promise. You’ll find us.”
“Right,” she said. “I’ll remember that, thank you. Maybe I should go, get home, out of the rain-” She should at least get into the truck, keep the phone dry. She fumbled numbly in her pocket for her keys.
“Don’t be condescending. I know you don’t believe me-”
“I do believe you!”
“I said it always rained in spring when I was growing up!”
“Yes, I heard you! I believe you!”
“We grew up in Dallas,” Nienor said.
“I know,” Lalaith said. “I know. They’ll help you, okay? They’ll make you better.” She couldn’t find the keys.
“I didn’t say Tuesday earlier, did I?”
“The new psychiatrist was really calm and nice and helpful about it all, he talked me through all the ways I could tell if something was real or not, and he didn’t act exasperated when I said the meds weren’t working, not at all. I wanted to make him happy. I said I could always tell the difference – and I usually can – and I said I didn’t believe the crazy things. But I do. How can I not? I can see them. I can feel them. They’re more real than you and Túrin and Mom and Dad – louder, clearer, I can smell them – being crazy can’t make you speak another language, Lalaith, just think about it. That sort of information can’t come out of nowhere.”
She had backed up into the side of the building; the tiles were digging into her back. “Speaking in tongues is a common phenomenon-”
“He said that too.”
“You should trust him. I love you, and I am really sorry to say this, but you can’t trust yourself right now.”
“Ormenal doesn’t mean Tuesday. It’s just – the specific date I happen to be getting out is also Ormenal. I have a different calendar system in my head.”
Lalaith forced a giggle. “When this is all over you can write a hell of a fantasy novel.”
“I want to get out. I think when I see you all, you’ll be more real than the memories, I’ll be able to keep things straight. You in particular, since you’re dead in my memories.”
"Nienor, you’ve got to take the drugs-“
"Everyone keeps saying that. That and ‘this is for you’ and ‘we care about you’ and ‘we just want what’s best for you’ and at this point I sort of freeze up when someone says one of those words, you know? It means they’re going to talk to me until I have even less to hold onto.”
"I’m not trying to do that."
"I don’t like it here. It’s a fancy place but it’s not a good place."
“I’ll be home as soon as I can, okay?”
“I’ll see you then,” said Nienor. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye. I love you!”
At that second the door flew open. Her hands instinctively flew up to scrape the tears off her face before she realized she could blame them on the rain.
Ricardo handed her a hundred dollar bill.
"You win our bet," he said.
“I don’t think the machines are broken.”
“Extract it, go around it, falsify the records because no one will believe us anyway?”
“I won’t lie,” Lalaith said automatically.
Ricardo grunted and banished three windows from the monitor with a tap of his fingers. “The hell is someone like you doing in petroleum engineering?”
“I’m good at it,” she said. “It pays well. We – we weren’t pressed for money, growing up, but somehow it always feels as if we mightbe, and I wanted the security that comes with a hefty savings account, you know? And half the reason industries get unethical is because the ethical people don’t go into them. When a bright-eyed math major asks ‘how do I help as many people as possible with my life’, we should tell them to go into investment banking, because that’s precisely the sort of person we’d want as an investment banker. Tell everyone that good people don’t become bankers, and the only people who become bankers will be the ones who don’t care for being good.”
One of his best traits was that he did not visibly signal his inattention when she went off on tangents. She wrapped up and he was still listening intently. “You think the rest of us aren’t good people?”
“That’s not it at all,” she said. “I think there’s a certain sort of good person who is told they can’t cut it in this industry, and they can.” She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “I am desperate to get this survey closed, but I’m not signing a false report.”
“Well,” he said, “I know better than to try to persuade you. You have a reputation, you know-”
“People in the business of moving mountains have yet to make me budge an inch,” she said, and laughed, and brought up the screen to take another look at the numbers.
Not a glitch, a temporary suspension of the laws of physics.
A week of work had driven them to a conclusion so ridiculous she was only accepting it provisionally. There was a superhard superlight new radioactive isotope buried in the hardened rock beneath quadrant Beta-35. They’d checked the data eight times, rushed equipment up from Fargo to test against their own.
They’d bombarded the quadrant with radiation, with radio waves, remeasured with seismological equipment. They’d collected the radiation the anomaly was itself emitting and analyzed it with the most sophisticated spectroscopy equipment this side of the Pacific.
(She’d borrowed the equipment from an old classmate who was now an adjunct at M.I.T.. She had not explained why.
“I don’t think the company’s classified procedures rule extends to this, since you’re doing it off hours,” Ricardo had said.
“That’s not the reason for the secrecy,” she said. “I just don’t want anyone taking my Nobel Prize.”
She’d been joking. Mostly.)
The pieces of the puzzle were not even close to falling together. The radioactive patch was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, and embedded deep into the bedrock, as if it’d been swallowed by the Earth itself – except this wasn’t a region with significant geologic activity. She estimated it had been there for thirty thousand years. And where most radioactive elements were powders in solid form, its hardness was utterly unchartable. Diamonds wouldn’t scratch it.
They couldn’t do any more research without a particle accelerator on site.
“I know what you’ll say,” he said.
“I want to dig it out.”
“Do you know how much overtime I’ve been working?”
“Twenty nine hours extra in the last three days,” she said instantly. “You can’t submit the log with that many, though, we’ll get fined for violating federal labor law. Charge them gradually over the next two weeks.”
“I thought you didn’t lie.”
“I work with inflexible systems.”
“There’s a difference?”
“Yes,” she said. “How soon can we start extraction? We can’t really proceed with anything else while we’re pulling a chunk of radioactive metal out of the bedrock, so I’d rather move faster-”
“Yes, yes, I’m getting the idea. Take a break. How much overtime have you-”
Her phone buzzed against her thigh. She glanced at the name and was halfway out the door before he finished the sentence.
“Lalaith?” It was Túrin. A chill crawled up her arm. He hated phones. They hadn’t spoken since he’d told her Nienor had been hospitalized.
“She tried to kill herself,” her brother said.
“No,” she said instantly, stupidly.
“Doctors said she’ll be okay. Probably. She hasn’t woken up yet.”
“Probably? Túrin, what precisely did they say? What – what precisely did she do? What – hasn’t woken up yet, how long has it been, when did this happen-”
From him it was somehow all right.
“I – I’ll tell you as much as I know, okay?” he said. “But they haven’t told us much. Dad’s torn through everyone in sight, Mom looks terrifying, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten the truth out of anyone. Or even a goddamn consistent story, I’d take a lie at this point.” His words were rushed and indistinct. “This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen, you know? They put her in that place so they could keep an eye on her. They’re scared we might sue. They-”
“We should sue.”
“She got her hands on a set of nursing scrubs, stole a keycard, and walked right out the front door. Guy at the desk said she wished him a nice weekend. Then she climbed up to the roof and leapt off.”
“I know,” he said. “Come home.”
“Of – of course. Why would she do it?”
A silence that was long even for Túrin, who took after their mother and thrived in them.
“Did she leave a note?” Lalaith said, “Did she say anything at all, to anyone? She was fine last time we spoke, there must have been a reason…”
Túrin was a shallow breather. When he was sleeping he could be mistaken for dead. When he was awake, it meant his words came out rushed and flat and all in the same intonation. And on the phone, it meant that you could not hear him at all.
She had begun to wonder if she was talking to a dead line when he answered. “Just come home, okay?”
Chapter 2: Priorities
The second leg of the flight was delayed, stretching her layover in Denver from forty minutes to three hours. Every fifteen minutes, a disembodied female voice urged her to report all unattended bags to TSA security personnel. Within an hour she was homicidal. She picked at her cuticles until they bled, copiously, and then buried them miserably in the folds of her shirt.
Ricardo had been, in his usual way, understanding. “You’ve already worked enough hours to cover the next week,” he said, “and we’d really just have been cooling our heels ‘til they get the drill in. Also, if we all die of radiation poisoning once they pull that thing out of the ground, you can hassle the suits to get my insurance paid out. My mum won’t think to.”
“Yeah,” she’d said, and he’d patted her on the shoulder, clumsily.
In Fargo she’d been pulled aside for secondary screening, and nearly missed her flight. The agent who’d pawed through her hastily-packed and messy suitcase had been at once suspicious and smugly judgmental. “Yes, that’s all I own.” “Yes, I packed in a hurry.” “Family emergency.” Nienor, blonde and by some genetic twist of fate paler than either of their parents, never got extra screening at the airport.
A little girl had asked her mother loudly "is that a boy or a girl?' and her mother had shot Lalaith a dirty glare and dragged her daughter away by the upper arm. "That's a lesbian," she'd hissed when they were almost out of earshot; Lalaith had started giggling, much to the suspicion and annoyance of the TSA agent. There would not be much to miss about Fargo, North Dakota.
She was increasingly certain that Túrin knew what was going on. He was not an easy person to read, particularly not over the phone. But this badly shaken she needed to trust in her instincts, and it had felt as if he knew more than he was saying. That had been a do-I-tell-Lalaith silence, not a bewildered one. Nothing made sense and he had the pieces of the puzzle.
She’d texted him. Once with her itinerary, once when taking off from Fargo. ‘should be home in six hours. got to turn my phone off now. :).’ He hadn’t replied. Her mother had, belatedly, after she’d already arrived in Denver. ‘take a taxi’, she’d written.
Mom wasn’t one for ‘I love you’s. But still, that had hurt.
They left Denver three hours and twenty-one minutes late. Lalaith liked flying; she had the advantage of commercial-grade noise-cancelling headphones, the sort that genuinely silenced an engine’s roar. She abused them to listen to explicit pop songs at a volume that would do damage to her ears.
She took a taxi. Her nails had started to scab over and she picked the wounds back open while they sat in traffic. Ricardo had texted, ‘we can’t get a drill for a month,’ and she’d replied with an idle suggestion he do the next quadrant. He wouldn’t. Surveying instilled an odd sort of inertia. Rushing off ahead of schedule while leaving a gap like this in the map wasn’t done. She tipped the guy thirty percent and ignored the knocker in favor of cathartically pounding her knuckles bloody on the door of her family home. It took them a long time to come let her in.
“Hey,” she said.
“Good of you to come, Lals,” said her father, the only person she really liked the nickname from, and he picked her up, suitcase at all, and deposited her on the couch inside.
(When they were kids he’d carried them all upstairs for bedtime, all at once, clinging to his arms and legs, and if at the top of the stairs they scampered back down for another ride, he would feign bewilderment and trudge down the stairs to get them again. He had done this every night, always singing ‘sack of potatoes, sack of po-tay-toes’ to the tune of Ride of the Valkyries.)
When he set her down, she was crying.
Morwen moved the suitcase. Her movements were small and brittle and contained; she sat on the couch like she might break it. “This isn’t going to get you into trouble at work? I know Nienor doesn’t want that.”
“No, I’ll be fine.”
“We’ve been wringing our hands over you taking something with more flexible hours,” her father said, “which isn’t at all fair of us, seeing as I was a soldier at your age. But still. It’s good to have you home.”
Her parents exchanged panicked glances. “He is at the police station,” her mother said carefully.
“What? He didn’t do anything stupid, did he? Punch out one of Nienor’s psychiatrists? Bar fight – no, he doesn’t drink anymore, not since –” He’d never started fights, but he did attract them and he tended to end them. Lalaith felt a panic-headache flaring up.
“No,” her mother said. “But.”
“It’s certainly not true,” said Húrin.
“We’re trying to be openminded,” countered Morwen.
“Openminded! Tell her, she’ll agree it’s not true.”
“Tell me what?” Lalaith said.
“The day Nienor attempted to – the day she injured herself jumping off that roof, she told her roommate that she believed she was carrying Túrin’s child.”
“No,” Lalaith said.
“It was false,” her father snarled. “They tested, first thing, and she is not pregnant, never has been. Just another one of her delusions, like thinking you’re dead and thinking I’m being tortured in Vietnam or something. She’s mad. I love her but I do not trust a word she says, she’s mad. But, of course, they started to wonder what inspired that particular delusion, and they called the police, and –”
“No,” Lalaith said again, hollowly.
“They induced a coma while they tried to save her legs,” Morwen said, calm and low and even, eyes tracking smoothly between her husband and her daughter. “She’s awake now. We can go see her tomorrow. But I don’t think it would be wise to –”
“They’ve arrested him! We’re waiting around while he’s in jail?”
“No,” said her father, “they haven’t. They’ve questioned him. They’ve been questioning him for a very long time, but he is not in jail, there are no charges, we’ll get him a lawyer-”
“We’ll get Nienor to confirm it was one of her delusions,” Lalaith said.
“If it was,” said Morwen.
“You aren’t saying –”
“I am saying that we have to ask her, and we have to listen to her, and we cannot put the words into her mouth that will get Túrin out of prison because if we do we will never know for sure if they’re true.”
“I’m sure,” Lalaith and her father said at the same time.
“Well, we shouldn’t tell Nienor that. We should tell her we support her and believe her, just on principle-”
“And tell Túrin that we believe him? That we’re just hedging our bets?” Lalaith buried her head in her hands.
“Yes, of course we tell Túrin that we believe him,” said Húrin, “we do.”
The house had a piano; above the piano was a clock that was precisely twenty minutes wrong and couldn’t be reset. Lalaith leaned back against the couch and inhaled the musty smell of home and listened to it tick. At first the sound was barely perceptible. Listening to it made it grow louder, until it was beating frantically against the insides of her head. “I’m going to go up to my room,” she said.
It was the same as she’d left it; her mother had made the bed and vacuumed once, maybe. The quilt was fading in stripes where the curtains let in sunlight. She crumpled to the floor and vomited in the trash can, twice, three times, Starbucks and bad airplane food, and then wrapped her hands tightly around her own body to keep it from splitting in two down the middle like a badly welded pipe.
Túrin arrived home an hour later. At the screech of the front door her eyes popped open, and she rushed out to meet him in the hall. He met her eyes for barely long enough to recognize her before they flashed back to the ground.
“They let you go?”
“Of course they let me go. I haven’t done anything! One crazy person told another crazy person about some crazy fucking delusion, and –”
“She jumped off a building, Túrin!”
“I know!” he roared. “I know! On Monday I visited and she’s cheerfully telling me ‘all Mom wants is for you to come home, all right? She just wants to see you again’, and on Tuesday she told someone that fucking shit and then decides to take a long walk off a short pier and- don’t you dare tell me I’m being insensitive, I’ve just spent twelve hours in the company of people who think I’m a rapist and she did this.”
“She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“Yeah, she does. You haven’t been ignoring our family all that studiously. She knows what she’s saying and she believes what she’s saying – that’s the worst part, you know? Every single thing she’s said since this nightmare started, she thought it was true. She thinks this is true. She leapt off a fucking building thinking it was true.”
“They’ll help her.”
“They obviously aren’t.”
“They haven’t had much time –”
“They aren’t helping her. She’s smart and compliant and she wants to make us happy, so she’s getting better at all the metrics she needs to be considered safe – or she was, before she tried to kill herself – but she was never getting better. She writes things down in that language of hers, she tried proving to me it’s a real language and not an invention of her tortured imagination by sketching out the etymology of all our names. I have to tell her who I am every time, she doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t know you exist.”
“I’ve been out of town,” Lalaith said, feeling sick.
“That’s not the reason, it’s because in her hackneyed delusion, you died as an infant,” he said. “But ask her to recite the line of the Lords of the House of Hador and she’ll be off like a shot.”
“The lords of…what?”
“That’s the problem,” he said. “Doesn’t exist. Zero Google results. She knows things that aren’t true and she believes them, when it comes down to it, over all the things that are true.”
“That’s psychosis for you,” Lalaith mumbled. Some unforgiveable voice in the back of her mind pointed out that Túrin seemed suddenly very invested in undermining her credibility.
"It’s fucked up, is what it is. I can’t go see her. I can’t face her. She believes it - fuck this -“
"If you ask me if maybe there’s some basis for it, I don’t think I will ever be able to forgive you. No. Never.”
“I’m going to sleep,” he said, and stormed off down the hall.
She stood very still for a minute, watching the miniature puffs of dust that settled back into the carpet in the wake of his departure. “Me too,” she called belatedly after him.
“FBI,” the man said, his fingers moving with the effortless flair of a magician, so that Ricardo only caught a glimpse of the badge. He was tall enough to tower over the starting line of the Lakers, though he didn’t look like he weighed much; his hair was long and a little too – ah – kempt. Like he used expensive products on it.
“No, you aren’t,” Ricardo said.
Their eyes met. The stranger had gray ones, glowing faintly like a cats’.
“Look, I was on a project down near Houston when the feds got involved. I got a call from the local police department, chewing me out for inviting all this hassle down on them, and I got a call from the suits, letting me know they would hang me out to dry if I said anything stupid, and then they thankfully put me through to corporate law, who enumerated what all counted as stupid.”
“Surprise inspection,” the man said.
“Uh huh. I’ll have to call and notify Corporate.” He made a frustrated gesture and turned to let them both in; a surprisingly strong hand stayed him.
“Don’t call Corporate,” the man said.
“I don’t believe in aliens,” Ricardo said, turning slowly back around. “Or, ah, X-Men or the Antichrist or anything the hell else-”
“I am not an alien,” the man said. “But you’ve found something of mine and there will be problems if it gets into the wrong hands. Can we arrange something?”
“You can stop manhandling me and lying about who you are and then, yeah, we probably can. But by arrange something you’d better not mean ‘snap my neck’, because all that’s going to arrange is a PR team, a legal team, and a horde of cops swarming this site like gnats.” He squinted at the man. “PR will probably get here first.”
“I would like you to cancel the request for the drill. I would like you to tell higher-up there was a technical malfunction that you don’t expect will happen anywhere else, or ever again. And then move on and continue your surveying.”
“They’re going to do fracking here – high pressure injection drilling. If we don’t understand that little hunk of mystery, it could very easily fuck up all our calculations. If it’s a missing nuclear warhead trigger from some experimental program, it could fuck us up pretty thoroughly too.”
"It is not. And it will be gone by the time you begin drilling."
"I could lose my job. Sorry, man."
The stranger, at long last, released his shoulder. “One million dollars.”
The doorknob was getting warm beneath Ricardo’s head. The wind dragged a set of ragged clouds across the sky. The nearest human beings were forty miles away.
“Yeah,” Ricardo said, “okay.”
Chapter 3: Agency
Nienor remembers everything.
She remembers being born. Aerin has snuck up from the village with herbs in her hands and burning eyes and ugly bruises in a pattern around her neck. Her mother has turned her away. “It will not be difficult,” her mother says. “I have easy pregnancies. And this one – she’s my little angel.”
Her mother and Aerin play a game. If they can hide pain from each other they can hide it from anyone. If they can hide pain from each other they can hide it from themselves.
She remembers that as a baby she could not cry, that her mother has to keep her within arms’ reach to silence her at once each time she started. They are afraid of Morwen, down in the village. They think she had Elf-blood, or Elf-magic, they think she could bring down a plague. They leave her alone. If they hear the plaintive crying of a hungry baby the spell will be broken.
When Aerin needs herbs to kill a baby in the womb, Morwen takes her daughter out with her, out into the mountains. It was into the mountains that Túrin, her brother, had run. He is in the Hidden Kingdom, now. The Elves protect him and he is safe.
She remembers asking her mother why it is that they cannot leave for the hidden kingdom too. She remembers a dozen answers – it would be an imposition, they might be unwelcome, it has grown more dangerous to travel in the years since Túrin went. She remembers growing taller and realizing the real answer is her. She is too small and fragile to travel. She could not keep up. She would hold them all back.
“Túrin was nine when he went,” she says to her mother.
“Had he stayed they would have killed him,” Morwen says.
If they decide not to be afraid, she thinks, they will take us down to the village. They will not kill us, they will marry us. Being Aerin is not worse than being dead.
“How old were you when Ladros fell?” she asks her mother.
“Less than nine,” Morwen says softly, but still they don’t leave for the mountains. In the daytime Nienor goes up the trails to look for food. It’s not enough. They live off things smuggled from the village. She wonders how many people are going hungry for her.
She remembers the day that they finally leave. The clouds are low enough to make you cough and the air smells of sage and moldy leaves.
Túrin is gone when they reach the Hidden Kingdom. There was a fight, and he killed an Elf. By accident, really, and justly provoked. He has been forgiven but he left and he has not returned.
She remembers wandering glittering, cavernous passageways, lit for Elven eyes and thus a constant reminder of her inadequacy. She remembers the smell of incense and tree bark and flowers, improbably fresh, growing even deep beneath the ground. Melian is the Queen of the Hidden Kingdom and the goddess of growing things. Nienor grows strong and tall. The image of her father, everyone says.
(Of her father they tell her the worst two words in the world – assumed dead.)
She remembers leaving. They’d sent an expedition for Túrin, of course, without her, of course, and she’d stolen an Elven uniform and tucked up her hair and gone along. She remembers the images ‘Túrin” conjures in her head – a blurry face and a vague sense of obligation. She is her father in woman’s form, so she imagines Túrin as their mother in a man’s form – dark, lithe, strikingly dangerous. Slow to laugh, slow to trust, proud. That is what it comes to mean, to look for her brother – to search for lonely people with unshakeable convictions, who have been so pared away by life that those convictions flare far too close to the surface. That would be Túrin, when she found him.
She remembers losing all of that. She remembers staring into the eyes of the dragon and forgetting it all, forgetting her name, forgetting the names of the things around her, fleeing through a forest without knowing it for a forest, slicing her skin open on trees without knowing them for trees, or the pain for pain. She remembers the man who found her and carried her to safety, who taught her the names of things, who reassured and soothed her with a quiet inner strength. His life had pared him down too much, and brought it to the surface.
(But he left while his mother was pregnant, so he doesn’t know. And she remembers nothing, not even her name, so she doesn’t know.)
She remembers getting married. She remembers running her hands along the wood of the home they built together, quietly delighted, she remembers kissing him, she remembers his voice ringing out with the name he’d given her. Niniel. She remembers being Niniel, but she also remembers all the things Niniel did not remember, and so she watches and silently screams.
The dragon comes back. She remembers begging her husband not to go, not to risk it, not to risk them. He had promised her the fighting was over, that he’d settle down and not take the chance he might leave and never return. She remembers that he left anyway. She remembers the quiet urgency with which she persuaded Brandir to take her after him.
She remembers collapsing weeping at her husband’s side, ripping strips off her dress to bind his scorched and blackened hand. She remembers that his stomach was grey and his face was white and far, far, far too pale. She remembers kissing him and listening for breath and hearing it and wondering whether it could possibly be true, whether it was her own fast-racing lungs and hysterical imagination.
She remembers screaming. “Turambar, Turambar, come back! Hear me! Awake! For it is Níniel. The Dragon is dead, dead, and I alone am here by you.” He’d remained silent. But the dragon – the dragon had stirred, and thrashed, and spoken before dying.
She remembers Glaurung’s last gift. She remembers remembering, and she relives her life a second time, shaking and keening with grief at the return of all her memories.
Oh, Turin, Turambar, she’d said, oh twice beloved! Brother! Husband! And she’d fled to the place where the river chewed up rocks at the base of the steep cliff, and she’d screamed to the water to take her, Morwen’s daughter, Húrin’s son, to take her to the Sea.
She lives in Dallas; she is sitting in a hospital where they are trying to persuade her not to believe the things. But now she remembers everything, and she will not stop believing, she cannot afford to forget again.
She picked up the phone the fifth time it rang. “I can’t talk.”
“Damn. It’s pretty fucking important,” Ricardo said.
“Well, so is this.”
“Don’t – just please don’t – look, say your piece, I make no promises, fifteen seconds.”
“Someone just offered me a million dollars to forget all about your little underground mystery.”
She hadn’t gotten out of bed. She hadn’t undressed last night and so she was still wearing the same outfit, loose jeans and a sweatshirt plastered with the logo of a team she doesn’t follow. They smelled like an airport. She leaned back and cracked her head against the wall. “No.”
“Well, I’m not bound by it.”
“Obviously. I could have told them they need to negotiate with you, too, but to be honest I’m a little worried I’m gonna wake up dead tomorrow. Or in a month, or in a year. For the record, I am not suicidal and if you read in the paper I committed suicide –”
“Hitting a little fucking close to home, Ricardo,” she said.
A pause. “I’m sorry. She’s not-”
“I told you not to ask. Okay. You accepted a million dollars to falsify the records and move on, which you were tempted to do anyway. You want me to know that, if you die, it was foul play. That all?”
“No. I mean, the money’s half yours, by rights, if it actually comes through. Like I said, if it’d come down to me we’d have falsified the records and moved on a day ago. So. If I’m a millionaire, half yours.”
She realized she was picking at her nails again, and stopped. “Why are you offering this?”
“Look, either they’re in Corporate somewhere or they see everything that goes through Corporate. But less than twenty-four hours after I ordered a drill – and I can read you precisely what I put on the request order, but it wasn’t ‘super fucking weird magic Kryptonite chunk’ – they were here. And that means they probably know where you are. And they need me to cancel the drill order, wrap up here, move on to the next quadrant, not invite any attention or delays by dying violently…but they don’t actually need you. Is what I was thinking.”
“Who is this ‘they’?”
“You’re going to laugh.”
“Trust me, I’m not laughing.”
“I think they might be vampires,” he said, and she laughed. Not because it was funny, really, but because it fit, it belonged in this twisted alternate nightmare universe where everyone had been replaced with suspicious angry maybe-evil versions of themselves, it fit the operatic senseless inanity of it all. Ricardo calling her five times to warn her about the supernatural was just as unimaginable, really, as him being right.
“Why do you think that?”
“He wasn’t human. He was close, but he was off. He had an accent, but he spoke so careful you could hardly tell. I don’t know anything about this bullshit but I know people, and this man had eyes like a killer. He could have snapped my neck and he’s done it before. He said the thing buried in the ground belonged to him, that there’d be problems if it was disturbed.” He paused. “Also, he showed up on foot, and we’re fifty miles from civilization.”
“There are a million explanations more – well, not more consonant with the evidence, but more reasonable even given the evidence,” she said. “Like, the most probable one being that we’ve been working too many hours and we’re imagining stuff and he was a weirdo trying to get in to break the machines – ”
“Lalaith, he knew about it. The anomaly. It was what he was here for and he knew all about it, trust me on that one. He’s going to dig it up, he promised me that.”
“Great,” she said, “let him.”
“I sorta figured you for the Nancy Drew type. You know, poke around, get into trouble –”
“I’m an engineer, not a detective. I have a family and a girlfriend and I don’t want to die.”
“So you agree with me, then, that dying is probably what’s going to happen if we poke around. Or if I saved a copy of the records when I overwrote them with falsified ones-”
“Would you have?”
“I don’t have time for this right now, I am dealing with a family emergency. I am not your token adventurous spirit, I am not going to accept responsibility for inspiring whatever fucking stupid decision you made-”
“Lalaith, I’ve been up all night with these questions, trying to figure it out, trying to find a way out – I’m calling because I am alone and scared and I trust you and you’re the only person I’m not potentially putting in danger. Okay?”
“Did you save the data?”
“On a flashdrive that I’ll be obliged to chase across the country if you do drop dead?”
“An album of pictures of the Rockies, posted to Dropbox, OKCupid, and my Facebook. The parity of the blue color channel for each pixel is one bit of data.”
There was a long moment’s silence. Then she dragged herself out of bed and started peeling off her pants with one hand. “You’re actually serious.”
“We learned how to do it in freshman CS,” he said.
“I wish I’d gone to your school.”
“No, you don’t. My million-dollar payout is barely gonna cover my student loans. Read left-to-right, top-to-bottom, chronological ordering of the pictures – I know, I know, I could have hidden it better, but I figured it’d be a Schelling point if we never got the chance to have this conversation.”
“If we hadn’t had this conversation,” she said, “I promise you there is no way in hell I’d have tried decrypting your vacation pictures. Speaking of which, this phone call-”
“To your work phone, right? The suits have those locked down tight. Trade secrets.”
“You said our person might work in Corporate.”
“He can’t be everywhere,” he said uneasily.
“He could have allies?”
A moment’s silence. “Fuck, I should have thought of that. This is why I need you.”
“I’m not coming back,” she said. “A million dollars literally could not drag me back. The fate of the world couldn’t drag me back. A weird person with eyes like a killer offering you a bribe definitely isn’t going to drag me back. Keep your head down, if you’re worried. Take the money and retire.”
“You look out for yourself too, Lalaith. If they moved on things this fast over here, they probably figured out that you’re on the project, they might pay you a visit too.”
“Thanks for the heads-up.” She had, with one hand, succeeded in dressing except for a bra. “I really have to go.”
She turned the phone off. Then, staring wrathfully at it, she popped the back and removed the battery for good measure. But she could not quite bring herself to wish she’d thought of doing so last night.
The human brain was designed to find patterns out of coincidences. Supernatural happenings at work had nothing at all to do with mental illness at home. They weren’t parts of a puzzle, they were random shitty things that had happened in unfortunate and totally coincidental juxtaposition.
But still, she was oddly tempted to ask Nienor if there were vampires in any of her visions.
Chapter 4: Skepticism
They left for the hospital at 10. No one except her father had eaten breakfast, and no one had spoken. Túrin wasn’t coming with them. Actually he’d vanished before anyone else awoke that morning, left a note in the laundry room. Morwen had tried calling him and found his phone in the pocket of yesterday’s pants, crumpled in the corner of his bedroom.
Two people could visit a patient at a time. Her parents would go first; the unspoken agreement was that whichever one handled the situation better would go back in with Lalaith. She’d planned to sit in the hospital waiting room, but within five minutes that was unbearable; the air conditioning was set too high and the chair smelled sterile and she was fighting the impulse to pick at her nails again. She went outside instead and sat crosslegged on the curb in the parking lot and called Amirah.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said, when she’d blurted out the whole Nienor story in a bumpy non-chronological mess. “I was imagining this situation where she’d see me and suddenly it’d all clear up – I know mental illness doesn’t work like that, but it’s still what I was imagining, it’s how this all sort of played out in my head – and then we’d hug and have some bonding moments and watch Disney and get better and then I could go get back to work.”
“And now I’m thinking, like, I keep treating this as a temporary disruption to the Plan, where the plan ends with me as a CEO, maybe a run for Senate. And what if this isn’t temporary? What if I have to choose between my family and my Plan? I think this is the part of the story where music plays in the background and I realize family matters more than my career. Only - I keep thinking that I was so much happier, so much more me, in North Dakota surrounded by shiny things that blink. And then I keep thinking, that was selfish as fuck. And I’m here because I want to fix my sister, I want to have the insight that the doctors didn’t have, and that’s selfish as fuck, too.”
“I love them. Nienor, Túrin, Mom, Dad…”
“I feel like maybe I don’t know the right thing to say here,” Amirah said. “Sometimes we love people who aren’t good for us, right?”
“I think it’s the other way around. I’m not good for them. I want Nienor to get back to normal and Túrin to find a place where he fits, and I can’t even conceive of what my relationship with them would be like without wanting that for them.”
“You haven’t had much time.”
“Can I help her? Is that selfish and delusional, to think I could do better than the psychiatrists? I won’t get mad if you tell me that I’m being an asshole.”
“They probably have a comparative advantage in psychiatry,” Amirah said dryly. “But, I mean, you two are two peas in a pod. Maybe you have some insight into what she’s going through?”
“Two peas in a pod. Literally no one has ever said that.” Lalaith had been light-haired until the age of three, after which it had darkened to the near-black that suited her skin much better. Nienor had almost a foot of height on her.
“I played your sister at Settlers of Catan, last winter, and I promise you, it’s the same devious mind. She’s hella bright and hella competitive and at least as driven as you are.”
“That’s why it’s so hard to believe she’s delusional. She’s – she’s going about it sensibly, really. She’s writing things down, trying to prove she’s right. Túrin says he doesn’t think she’s gotten any better.” The sun was inching toward directly overhead, and she could feel sweat pooling at her collarbone. Somehow the thought of returning inside was just remembered-unpleasantness enough to keep her in place.
“Amirah, promise not to think I’m crazy?”
“I promise not to think there’s anything wrong with that, or to take your opinions less seriously as a result, or to bring it up to discredit you,” she said solemnly.
“I deserved that. Okay. If Nienor wasn’t delusional, if she was genuinely accessing memories of past events or past lives, how would that world look different than the world where she’s delusional?”
“Um. Psychosis isn’t exactly my specialty. Presumably her symptoms would present in a way that was very unusual for psychiatric cases-”
“Speaking in tongues is completely normal. But usually it’s not a distinct and complete language, just gibberish. Nienor says hers is different.”
“Yeah, if she’s capable of speaking actual ancient Latin or Greek or Proto-Indo-European or something, and she couldn’t plausibly have learned that via normal means, that’s strong evidence she’s, um, reliving the memory of past lives. Or something. Same would go for skills she shouldn’t have – have you asked her to spin thread? Gut and preserve a pig? Identify edible plants?”
“No. No, I haven’t.” She brightened slightly. “I bet no one has. That would be actually helpful, even assuming she's delusional – at least, if it were me, testing it and having the ‘I’m not delusional and these memories are real’ hypothesis convincingly ruled out would help me recover. And it hurts her that I can’t believe her. I think it could cheer her up, that I believe her enough to test it. Though rationally I shouldn’t. Shouldn’t take it even seriously enough to test, I mean.”
“I dunno, ‘if your immediate family has a crazy testable theory, test it’ seems like a good rule and not at all comparable to ‘if a stranger on the internet has a crazy testable theory, test it’.”
“One of my coworkers thinks he was offered a bribe by a vampire, how do I test that?”
“Wait, seriously? I thought this project was so small you had the office to yourself! I thought that was the whole appeal of this assignment!”
“I do – well, I did. I’m on the night shift, he’s on the day shift. We didn’t get along at first, but when it came down to it he had a good head on his shoulders. ”
“You just said he was offered a bribe by a possibly-vampire.”
“He accepted it. A comparatively good head on his shoulders, I guess. Things have been so crazy at work that I don’t blame him for wondering. If I was out there, I’d probably be sneaking into the nearest church to steal some holy water too.”
“He did that?”
“No, no,” Lalaith said, “not that I know of.”
“Is it still holy if you steal it?”
“Um. I didn’t think of that. Good thing I’m not in North Dakota fighting maybe-vampires.”
“Damn, if you told me stories like this about your work maybe I’d have gone into engineering.”
“Well this particular incident was bizarre from start to finish. So we’re surveying the area and we find this rock. Radioactive, but no isotope known to science; crystal structure, but refracts electromagnetic radiation like no crystal I’ve ever seen, no plausible explanation of how it got there.” She paused. “Amirah?”
It was so hot she had to pry her sticky phone off her cheek. Dropped call – she’d been talking to a dead line.
There was no reason for her fingers to be trembling so violently as she redialed. None at all. It rang through straight to voicemail. Mailbox full.
“Lalaith!” someone boomed behind her, and she scrambled to her feet and braced herself as if for a fight.
It was her parents. “She’s getting better,” Húrin said joyfully, “we talked with her and I think I understand now what she’s going through. In her mind she’s lived three lives, you know. And in one of them she was Nienor, and Túrin was her brother. And in the other she was Niniel, and Túrin was her husband. There’s a magical dragon that switches her between them – oh, I know, Lals, don’t look horrified. A magical dragon is much better than any other way of distinguishing realities, because it’s always going to be a delusion, just think about it!”
“She clarified,” Morwen said, “that since she was born in 1995 absolutely nothing has happened between the two of them, and what prompted her to attempt suicide was the onslaught of memories from her past lives, including a past life in which she and Túrin were married.”
“Oh, thank god,” Lalaith said. “That is good news.”
“Sure is! Do you want one of us to go in with you?”
“No, that’s okay. Just let me text Amirah that I’ve got to go, and I’ll go in and see her.”
Amirah Loza: think we got dropped.
Lalaith Thalion: yeah. do you remember what I was saying?
Amirah Loza: you were surveying the area.
Lalaith Thalion: and it cut out? right there? were u in a tunnel or something?
Amirah: right there. and nope, home sweet home. the new studio apt I keep inviting you to come visit. :P
“Who are you here to see?” the receptionist said, and she dropped her phone like a hot potato and tucked that in the back of her mind.
Nienor had a roommate whose bed was partitioned off by a divider the shade of mouthwash and the texture of a shower curtain. There was a window looking out on the parking lot. The walls were the same pasty white as her sister’s skin.
Lalaith smiled brightly, pulled up a chair, and proposed her experiment.
“You could write it in English,” Nienor said, “but it’s usually written by the Ñoldorin letters. Even in Doriath where they don’t like the Ñoldor much, they used those.”
“Show me,” Lalaith said, digging through her purse for a pen.
“You still don’t believe me.”
“I’m testing a hypothesis. It would be irresponsible to have an opinion about it until I’m through,” said Lalaith. This was not actually demanded by either scientific rigor or basic probability theory, but it marked safer territory to retreat to.
“The hypothesis being ‘Nienor’s not crazy’?”
“The hypothesis being ‘Nienor fluently speaks a language called Sindarin and another called Taliska and learned them both in her past lives.’”
“Okay,” her sister said. “I’ll show you the letters first, the way I remember my mother teaching them. Mostly once we’d reached the Hidden Kingdom – there wasn’t time or materials, when I was young…”
“Your past lives sound pretty traumatic.”
Nienor looked up at her, startled. “Just one. The dragon just made me forget parts of it.”
“Okay. I think Dad understood something different.”
“He was very insistent that – when I was Niniel I wasn’t Nienor and once I was Nienor again I wasn’t Niniel. And I suppose he’s right. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t Túrin’s sister when I was Niniel, though.”
“But neither of you knew.”
“Then there’s nothing wrong with it, ethically.”
Nienor’s smile twitched. “You would say that. I still can’t bear thinking of it.”
“Ohhh,” said Lalaith. “Yeah. Oh. I’m sorry.”
“I want to die. But I’m not sure I can. Because I vividly remember throwing myself off a tall cliff to my death, and yet here I am.”
“Promise you won’t try again, no matter what you remember. It was in a past life. Even if it happened, you aren’t responsible for it.”
“I’m gonna have to promise a bunch of people that if I’m to ever get out of here. Can – can you verify the languages first?”
“Yes,” Lalaith said. “The languages and then the history, and when you tell me the history you can mention as many words of the language as you remember. Okay?”
Nienor, it transpired, was in no shape to write but had remarkable energy for storytelling.
“Our mother is Morwen daughter of Baragund of the house of Beor,” she said. “In the time of my first life, all Men and Elves were allied against the great evil, and the house of Beor was on the front lines. There was a battle. We lost. The men stayed to hold the enemy back – and died, all of them – and the women and children and elderly fled. Most of them died, too. Mom didn’t. She made it, eventually, to Dad’s kingdom. Grandpa had died defending it during the lost battle, so Dad was – a general, I guess, of its armies. He married her. They had Túrin, and then they had you, and you died, and then Dad went to war and never came back and they had me. Túrin and I had never met. That’s how it happened.”
Lalaith wrote in her engineering-lecture shorthand, cramped and dense and swift, and filled twelve pages of the notebook in her purse. Five for language notes alone. The nurses who checked in on Nienor every fifteen minutes – never mind that there was nothing in the room anyone could use to harm themselves – popped in and out ten times.
“Don’t say, ‘you could write a fantasy novel’,” Nienor said at the end. “It happened and it was terrible and it hurt.”
“I believe you,” Lalaith said, even though by rights she still had no reason to. “I’ll call someone I know, okay? Electrical engineering major but he had a thing for conlangs, he’ll find this fascinating. How much of your medical information do you want me to disclose?”
“Um. Maybe don’t share my name? It’s nice of you to ask.”
“I did already tell Amirah,” Lalaith said guiltily.
“That’s okay. She’s practically family.”
“I handled your illness pretty badly and I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I keep – I keep comparing Mom to the Mom in my memories, and part of it is that Dad was missing-assumed-dead and part of it is that she had to send Túrin off as a child but I think so much of it was losing you, it tore her apart and she doesn’t heal, ever. Do you have any idea how important you are?”
Lalaith had been standing up to go, but suddenly it felt as if all the blood in her body had rushed to her head. She sat back down.
“I meant it in a good way,” Nienor said.
“If that’s true,” Lalaith said, “what d’you think it’d do to her, losing you?”
“I love you,” they said in the same second, and this time Lalaith did stand, letting raw momentum carry her clumsily out to the hallway, flapping her arm at her side in good-bye.
The call was from an unfamiliar number. A …pay phone? Did those still exist these days? He picked it up. “Yeah?”
“They’re Elves,” she said, and hung up.
Chapter 5: Arc II: Precommitments
The choice had been between death and exile, and he’d taken thirty thousand years to make up his mind.
In fairness, time passed differently, there: lines of thought were hard to break. Sometimes you would find yourself reliving memories at the achingly leisurely pace they had played out the first time. He had wasted six thousand years reliving his own life six times, unable to break out, unable to change anything at all.
The things he wanted to change were minor ones. Nelyo is yelling at him and he wants to raise his head and meet his brother’s eyes. He is in a bad mood and takes down a deer for dinner even though they cannot carry the extra meat with them.
He should regret killing people, but there are no new thoughts in the Halls of the Dead, and none of the old ones can be stitched together to resemble repentance. Regret that it was necessary, yes; an itchy misery that his actions had helped steer them down the road that made it necessary, certainly. Grief, even, for the dead.
Until he is alive again (if he chooses to be alive again) he cannot even conceive of what insight or experience or emotion might turn those feelings into repentance. He cannot really even desire it.
Death or exile.
If death were the Everlasting Darkness he had been promised, the one he’d sought out so unswervingly, the end of all things and all memory and all existence, he would have chosen death. But instead, death is this, restricted and meaningless bodiless being, and he relives his life another dozen times just for the smell of needles, the sight of mountains, the feel of motion.
He chooses exile. He chooses, though he does not know it, for all of them.
It is in 1969 that his father decides humanity is worth paying attention to.
Celegorm has been crossing the continent on foot, idly. It takes six months to reach one ocean from the other. He prefers Canada because there are fewer people there, and they are less surprised when he does not speak their language. Even though Beleriand is dead and gone, in Canada he feels as if he is always about to crest a hill and see the parapets of Gondolin.
His body is stronger than it was on the day he first reawoke in Lórien. It is weaker than he remembers it. The Trees are dead, the light is gone, and without the light the Elves are fading.
This is the hidden catch to choosing exile.
It is the reason his father made the Silmarils in the first place. The reason traditionally given for the refusal of Elves to linger in the Outer Lands, outside the kingdoms of their own making, is that things change too fast. In a single millennium a river can change course a dozen times, or dry up entirely and leave a baked desert plain behind. Mountains erode. The shape of the land changes. It is held that this is too tiring for Elves, to be surrounded by a world grinding itself away at an unimaginably frenetic pace, to watch glaciers descend and recede and ecosystems flourish in the wastelands left by their retreat.
Celegorm is unconvinced by this. Mortals do not seem to be wearied by the seasons; the absurd frequency with which day changes to night does not weigh on their souls. Cyclical changes become the grand-scale background noise on which life is lived, not a barrier to it. If Men do not weary of sunrises he does not expect he will weary of glaciers.
But then, he is barely a millennium old. Perhaps in three more he will feel differently.
The real reason Elves leave this mortal world is because, without the light, the Elves are fading. Their bodies draw on, and burn through, a background energy which used to be omnipresent in this world, but which now is faint. Decaying with mathematical regularity, Curvo says, and he would know. Without it he is weaker, slower. He can no longer balance on snow. A week without food carves shadows into his cheekbones.
He can choose to draw back the physical world, to put a greater share of his weight in the other one, to access his old strength at the cost of never, ever being able to use it to affect the world. But he is a hunter, a traveller, and the animals and the mountains and the trails are here. He feels the tug every day, and he constantly resists it. And so he grows weaker.
Once he comes to understand this he eats for five men, but you cannot replace a decaying link to the Light with extra exertion in the physical world. It grows harder to leap between trees. Eventually the only thing that will distinguish them from Men is that they do not die. He crosses the country every six months. Curvo is trying to fight or forestall it. He is trying to prove that he’s something even without it.
He has not adopted a dog; they die in 20 years, at most, and that would crush him. Even worse, it might not crush him. He might adapt to it, come to think of the changing dogs as another cyclical bit of the background noise of life. He will not adopt even one because he cannot bear the thought that someday he might not feel any urge to weep for the twentieth. Or the thousandth.
He was twenty miles outside Aspen, Colorado, in August of 1969.
Maedhros found him.
Maedhros had committed suicide. Celegorm could not quite wrap his mind around that fact – it was easy to believe, just hard to set on a shelf in your mind alongside your other beliefs, hard to weave into your picture of the world. Maedhros had endured twenty years of torture and the first words on his lips, when rescued, had been careful political reassurances. Maedhros had held Himring in the Battle of Sudden Flame, had risked his life to get mortal refugees of all people to safety, had lived five hundred years driven by a hatred of the enemy so profound that his own brothers feared him.
Maedhros had stood aside at Losgar and never scolded them for not standing beside him. Maedhros had forgiven them for not attempting a rescue. Maedhros had even forgiven him and Curufin for Nargothrond.
Maedhros had retaken Dorthonion with minimal losses and no sleep and a grim, relentless smile.
When he’d been trying to talk Maedhros into the assault on Doriath, they’d sparred with words to no effect. Then Celegorm had cheated. “I don’t want to face the Everlasting Darkness,” he had said. “I cannot imagine anything worse. I just – I just think you can come up with a way out of this.”
He’d watched the light of remembered tortures flare in his brother’s eyes. After that Maedhros had prepared for war without even token hesitation.
Maedhros had not been there when Celegorm died, but he’d won that battle, too, and spent its aftermath trying to save some children on the enemy side. Or so Celegorm had been told. Since being reborn he had avoided conversations about the past. Twelve times was enough for one man to relive it.
Maedhros had committed suicide. Celegorm had said ‘exile’ and brought them all back to life. What was there to say?
“Come home,” his brother said, when he found him.
Celegorm had drawn an arrow on the unknown intruder and not let the tension in the bowstring slip even once he recognized him.
“Don’t have one,” he said easily. “Go away. I don’t want company.”
His brother spared the arrow one scornful eyebrow and sat himself on a tree branch instead, wearing the big-brother expression. “I don’t have much incentive to persuade you,” he said. “We took bets on how long it will take for you to get this out of your system, and I put my name down for another three centuries. Pityo is the one who thought you’d be tired of it by the end of this millennium, and he’s been silently gloating in anticipation of my success. At getting you to come home right now, that is.”
“I’m not getting this out of my system,” Celegorm said. “This is my system. I am a gifted tactician and I was once a competent diplomat, but all of that was in service of making a world I could roam through uninterrupted. I will be happy living like this until the end of time.”
“That,” said his brother, “is why I think this will be of interest to you.”
“You think what will be of interest to me?”
“The mortals,” said Maedhros, “have built an airtight metal shell weakly connected to another, the latter packed with highly explosive material. They plan to light it on fire and use the propulsion from the resultant explosion to go visit the Moon.”
“They’ve been doing trial runs. They die sometimes, but not often. I suppose if you’re mortal, and doomed to die anyway, the risk-benefit calculus seems a little more favora-”
“I want to go to the Moon,” Celegorm said.
Maedhros threw back his reddish short-cropped hair and laughed. Thirty thousand years and ten thousand murders melted off his face, just like that.
“If they can make it we can certainly do better,” Celegorm said, annoyed. “Do we have the schematics? Has someone told Curvo? Has someone told father?”
“Obviously. Everyone is gathered at home to witness the results of the project, which will be broadcast globally-”
“They capture the images of the men approaching the Moon, convert them to a more robust and communicable form of light, bounce it to a national network of interpreter stations, bounce it from there to a million individual conversion boxes, and there reconvert it to images. So everyone can watch from their home.”
“Mortals do this?”
“They have spent the last few centuries very productively.”
“Atar must be jealous.”
“I’ve only just persuaded him to start paying attention. Will you come home and watch?”
“On the condition,” said Celegorm, “that as soon as it can be done you will send me to the Moon.”
“I can do you better,” his brother had said. “They have made a study of astronomy more complete and more thorough than we ever managed, and the shape of the world has in any event changed since our time. The stars, Tyelco, are other suns like ours. Around them should be other worlds.”
“Has anyone visited them?”
“No. It might take a thousand years even to reach one.”
“Amazing,” he said, “they can reach the moon but they have not even thought of curing that.”
“They have not reached the moon yet,” his brother said.
Racing home they made excellent time.
They’d made their permanent residence in Canada because it was the one place Celegorm would even occasionally visit them. Across the ocean there was the risk of encountering some of the others, Eldar who had faded and yet remained. No one was clear if that qualified as breaking parole, and no one cared to learn the answer. There were, in any event, enough wide open spaces here.
They’d held the land by virtue of its inaccessibility – mountainous and miserably cold – and by some occasional, pointed expenditure of charisma on Maglor’s part. Six hundred years, now. Not very long. Celegorm had not yet begun thinking of it as home.
At the time Canada had a different name. Doubtless seven hundred years from now it would have yet another. Celegorm grudgingly adopted each local convention approximately two hundred years after it went into effect; this saved him the trouble of adhering to minor and temporary political upheavals, while keeping him reasonably up with the times.
(Everything in Beleriand had taken place over the course of a mere four hundred years; the critical events had all happened within twenty. He was unsure why he could no longer summon the vital, thrumming urgency that had infused his days in those years. Every passing current event had felt urgent. Where was that? He was afraid it had been lost to the fading.
He did not think too much on the fading, for much of the same reasons as mortals tended not to dwell on their swift and inevitably approaching death.)
Caranthir had built their home. It had taken him nearly a century to do it on his own. They’d been newly reembodied, then, distractible and overwhelmed. In the Halls of Mandos thoughts looped and there was no way out of them. Being reborn felt by contrast as if thoughts were leaping frantically out of your grip. You couldn’t hold anything in your head. You couldn’t formulate a plan that had steps following from one another. Everything was bright and painfully loud.
Celegorm had never asked Caranthir how he’d motivated himself to build an elegant stone castle, with wood-paneled walls and floors and a pool with a waterfall, while the rest of them had been mostly disinclined to move at all. He thanked Caranthir instead by lingering every time he did visit, and visiting more often than he was naturally inclined.
They watched Men walk on the Moon in tranquil, joyous, even hopeful silence.
“This is it,” Celegorm said when the broadcast cut off. “I’ve been looking for something, something that would convince me it was the right choice, and this is it. We find another world, and we go there, and we start over.”
“A thousand years from now I am not sure that we’ll be strong enough,” Telvo said flatly.
“The fading might stop once we leave the world,” Celegorm muttered.
“Or it might worsen.”
“That’s testable,” said Curufin.
“Manwë,” said Maglor lightly and evenly, “once remarked that he was King of all of Arda, and we could not escape him without leaving Arda behind all together.”
“Thank you,” Celegorm said.
“That said, I am not sure we have enough left to escape with. This – here – us – it’s not starting over,” Maglor said. “No one could ever be born to our new world.”
“We’ll figure out how to take some mortals along.”
It was an argument just like the old ones – an argument because there was a genuine prize within reach and they did not know how best to achieve it, an argument because their dreams were swelling big enough to bump into the dreams of others. It was the sort of argument they had not had in six hundred years. Celegorm felt his heart begin to beat a little faster.
“Nothing more than showboating if they don’t have the means to actually live there.”
“Nor do we. Last I checked we do breathe air.”
“Unless fully faded. I don’t supposed that could be leveraged to our advantage –”
“Hell of a price.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“All of you,” their father said suddenly, “are thinking too small.”
The room fell silent.
“Five hundred years,” he said. “Five hundred years from the invention of the printing press to a walk on the Moon. Radio is fifty years old. Television is twenty. The weapons of their last war would have been inconceivable to them a hundred years ago, and the weapons of the wars of a hundred years ago would have slaughtered the armies of two hundred years back. Five hundred years, they did all this. We could have won the war, if we invented as quickly as they did.”
“A printing press was not my priority,” Curufin said, stung.
“There is a reason writing was my first invention,” Fëanor said. “When you can communicate your inventive work, draw on the developments and knowledge of others, knowledge compounds. When you don’t, it is lost with your death – and so, so much has been lost! I would have thought of a printing press. But no matter! Five hundred years, from there to the Moon. Wait another five hundred, what will they have achieved?”
“Do we have another five hundred?” Telvo said mildly. His hand was half transparent. Celegorm felt a surge of annoyance with him. Yes, it took effort to turn away from the pull to fade, the tug out of this world. But not so much effort that there was any excuse for occasionally failing.
“I won’t need that long,” his father said. “Not now that I understand how their system promotes invention. Every year we spend outside communication with modern progress, we are falling behind. Even genius cannot keep pace with the production and innovation of an entire society of moderately clever men.” He looked up. “All of you will find a scientist or inventor among the mortals, one you respect, and ask for an apprenticeship. Beginning this autumn. We will change names, change identities, flit across the fields of science until we know all of the things we need – we have been trying to keep up with them, instead of learning from them. We could have expected this would fail, but the brevity of their lives blinded us.”
“You’re the one who gave a speech calling them brutish, dangerous usurpers,” Telvo said, less mildly.
“I was mislead,” Fëanor said. “Though – not entirely. How many died in their last war? More in a single day of battle than ever perished on my command. Those rockets that just took them to the Moon – they were driven by the need to kill each other more effectively. They are Kinslayers a thousand times over, and unrepentant. I was right to call them dangerous. I was wrong in failing to recognize that they can be brutish individually and brilliant as a collective.”
“They also cannot be trusted,” Caranthir said. “With their own interests, even. They will betray their own sworn word.”
“We may need to conquer the world,” their father said, as if this were a concession to reasonability.
The thirty millennia and ten thousand murders had settled back onto Maedhros’ face. Celegorm wanted to make him laugh again. But suddenly there was nothing amusing about these ambitions.
“I just want to walk on the Moon,” he said, but no one was listening.
Chapter 6: The Information Age
Apprenticeships turned out not to be the way scientific knowledge was conveyed in these days.
Curufin spent three years doing diligent research on how to integrate oneself into human society and, in 1972, applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a stellar high school transcript and a breakthrough cosmological research paper. The transcript had been falsified. The research hadn’t been.
By 1990 he had served for a decade as a tenured professor at the University of Saskatchewan (which had been both delighted and puzzled to land one of the continent’s preeminent astrophysicists). He realized that people were noticing he didn’t age, killed off that identity, and started again as a bright-eyed freshman at Cal Tech.
In 2009 he’d gone to M.I.T. again, pretending to be his own son. He insisted this was because he wanted a degree in electrical engineering. Celegorm knew perfectly well it was because he thrived when being doted on and called promising and brilliant. Particularly by people grieving his brilliant father’s untimely death.
Celegorm kept intending to have a conversation with him, about their father and their mission and healthy sources of validation, but who was he to offer advice on things like that? He’d tried taking engineering classes in Vancouver, quit, and convinced his father he could still serve the family interests working on an oil rig. It was the good sort of work, hard physical labor just dangerous enough to make questions of mortality seem immediate.
Maedhros worked for the U.S. Department of Defense and scanned global data transmissions for unusual patterns using something called Fort Ran. Celegorm had, just on principle, refused to learn anything about it, and he did his best to look bored when his brother started talking.
Maglor had cut his hair to shoulder length, started greasing it, and become a wildly successful rock star to fund tuition for the rest of them. His identities tended to earn more when dead – it contributed to their mystique – so he crafted tragically young ends for all of them. Once or twice he’d been sighted and recognized after his ‘death’, and Celegorm wasn’t sure he hadn’t done it on purpose.
The plan was not to take over the world, though taking over the world might turn out to be, as his father had put it, ‘instrumentally necessary’. The plan was to integrate themselves with the world, to grow at the same leaps and bounds it was growing, to ride out this wave of human ingenuity and then, when necessary, take steps to hold it together.
They’d made grim plans for the possibility Men would deploy their most powerful weapons against each other. The computer cluster in the dungeons of their little castle now contained a thousand years’ art, science, and literature. Celegorm hadn’t really participated in those preparations. It made him antsy not having an enemy. Once or twice he found himself imagining out the events, the aftermath of nuclear war. He was good at battlefield medicine – hell, he’d nearly invented the discipline. Alqualondë. The Dagor nuin Giliath. The Dagor Aglareb. The retreat through Nan Dungortheb… He had no fear of blood and a calm, steady manner and the Fëanorian intellect, if never their gift for languages. He’d been good at that sort of thing, once. He’d saved lives. Not as many as he’d taken, and in any event it did not cancel out, not in that manner. But still, he’d held dying people and known the things to do to save them.
He studied radiation poisoning. Written words had always been hard for him, and it took him two years of dedicated study to read works Curufin could have absorbed in a week. But Curufin wouldn’t have, that was the difference between them. Curufin would not think about this particular problem at all, and yet if the world ended he would turn to Celegorm. He would expect him to have plans for it.
If the world ended Celegorm would be the one who’d crossed this continent on foot a thousand times over, who knew how to identify the mortal Men who might survive and how to ease the passing of the others, who brought them north to safety, who led their descendants out across scorched plains to begin again the project of civilization.
He was almost disappointed when the Soviet Union collapsed.
He caught himself dwelling on it one night and quit his job and left, spent eighteen months hiking all the way to the southern tip of Argentina and back. It was so easy to think of ways the world could have shaken out to make him a hero. But they were cursed, subtly so, never to find one. “To evil ends shall all things turn that they begin,” had run their fate, and there was no reason to expect it had run out.
He should have asked whether the Doom was lifted before he’d selfishly, thoughtlessly, hungrily chosen life. He suspected that it had not been, could not be. It did not tug at them now because there were no threads to tug at. He could not think of a way the threads could tangle him again. But then, he’d never anticipated Beren Barahirion…
It was harder than he expected to get another job on a rig, when he got back. There were new employment laws and he had to ask Maedhros to forge him an identity. Even worse, there were technical job expectations. “Can you read?” someone asked him, once, and he socked them in the jaw. He was still stronger than mortals. He had managed to hurt the man quite badly.
He could read; the words just liked dancing in front of his eyes. He was visibly slower than anyone else. He wasn’t sure if blaming it on the fading, on the slow disassociation tugging his brain away from the world even as he tried so hard to throw himself into it, was better or worse than accepting it as innate stupidity.
He told his father he had learned all that could be learned from oil rigs. Took a job, instead, at Yellowstone National Park, 3500 square miles. Nearly big enough.
“It’s a tremendous national preserve,” the woman who’d interviewed him said. “Even the most dedicated have not seen every inch of it.”
“I once ruled a fiefdom this size,” he said, “and it was one of the smaller ones, I left to go hunting constantly. If things had shaken out a little differently I might have commanded a kingdom the size of the state.”
She’d laughed. After the interview she’d asked him to go out for coffee. He’d declined, and that evening carefully written out a letter to Maedhros: can I accept requests like that without implicitly declaring intent of courtship?
‘Yes’, Maedhros had written back, ‘not that that ever stopped you’.
Three girls over the course of a thousand years, he’d thought, scowling, but pick the wrong three and you acquire a reputation as a womanizer. And he and Aredhel had been cousins. If others persisted in reading something into that, it said more about them than it did about Celegorm.
Dating mortals seemed sexually predatory anyway. There was hardly even enough time to get attached before they died. He told the woman he preferred men, and told the men he preferred women, and once he’d become a subject of gossip, dismay, and confusion among all his colleagues he spent most of his time outdoors.
He could, as it happened, still speak to animals. They just usually didn’t listen. After the third bear he’d told to stay away from humans wandered back around to the dumpsters and gotten anesthetized, he asked for a transfer to Zion National Park, where there were more rocks than animals to look out for.
Getting a dog was still out of the question.
Anders and Celegorm had never met but their respective supervisors had, at a drilling conference in London which had been picketed by Greenpeace and a waste of time for all involved. Maersk Drilling, with one of the youngest and most advanced platform drill fleets in the industry, lacked the capital or the connections to make a move in the U.S.
In Denmark, though, and the international waters which Denmark had the geopolitical fortune to lay claim to, Maersk was one of the big players. They’d deployed the first jack-up rigs in 1975 and semi-submersible ones a decade later. They were the first company to see market potential in ultra-deep-water drilling, and fully half their new rigs were spar platforms, capable of penetrating 3, 500 meters below the Earth’s surface.
Anders had actually thought once or twice about the old legend, the greedy men who dug too deep and unleashed a leviathan. But the pay was good and the rotation – a month on, two weeks off – suited him, contentedly single since he’d finished college and uncertain what it was that everyone thought he was missing out on. He’d started as a grunt and risen to a manager. Could have risen further, even, but there was nothing for him back on land. A corner office? He had a bunk on the deck of a behemoth, Interceptor, hisrig, doing the real work of heating and powering and fueling the world.
Nowadays it even had internet access. He’d been watching a great deal of cheesy British television. He was in the middle of an episode, actually, the very minute that the drill broke down.
There were several dozen automatic failsafe measures for every conceivable contingency, and miraculously those safety measures included the contingency ‘the drill hits a chunk of something unimaginably harder than rock’. They managed to get every moving part to a standstill without even a minor oil leak. After three days of wrangling on the phone and some very confusing back-and-forths with the engineering department, he got permission to draw the drill bit up.
And holy hells.
The drill bit, coming into contact with a substance so hard that no external pressure could ever hope to scratch it, had whirred in pointless friction against the surface. 3,200 meters below the sea, it had overheated against one facet of a baseball-sized gemstone and quite literally melted. When they’d gotten the drill bit to stop moving, it had solidified instantly. The result was a spectacularly expensive amount of damage and a chunk of solid metal, half-encasing the gem.
And what a gem! The first thing Anders did was grab it, ignoring all safety concerns and also the sheer absurdity of reaching out to clutch at the fucker that had crippled his rig. It sparkled with an inhuman, ethereal intensity, it shone as if it were generating light instead of merely refracting it.
When he grazed his fingers against it, they burned.
“Shit,” he yelped.
“That’s why you follow procedure,” someone mumbled behind him, and he broke his eyes off the gemstone to glare them back into their place.
“Temperature should have normalized by now,” he said. At a hundred meters per hour, the broken drill bit had taken 30 hours to pull up. “We should – we should do some testing on that thing.” But it glittered apologetically, as if to say ‘I didn’t mean to burn you, hold me again’, and –
He’d reached out for the gem again. The everliving fuck? “Okay,” he said, “no one comes in here without sunglasses. I am going to call base and let them know what repairs are needed. Clarify the story of what happened for a press release.’
The wifi on the rig was new. He'd never before had a crew where every person on the ship could live-tweet their day at work. That’s the reason he didn’t think to point out the obvious – that all information about what happened should be kept offline until the lawyers could look over a press release.
“Someone called trying to reach you,” the receptionist at the guest lodge said to him. He contemplated pretending that he hadn’t heard her, of course, for all of three seconds. He had not left a forwarding address, he had fiercely declined the new cellular phones that would let his father be apprised of his location at all times, so that meant this was assuredly Maedhros, exploiting his position and its powers to track his little brother down.
Celegorm wasn’t sure the public had ever formally granted their government the sort of power that allowed Maedhros to do that. It didn’t seem right to opine about national politics for a country he feels no allegiance toward, particularly a country as young as this one, but still.
“Thank you,” he said to the receptionist with the smile that mortals found frightening. “Did he leave a callback number?”
“Right here,” she said, and handed him a pink sticky note with the number that Maedhros had made Celegorm commit to memory three years ago.
“This had better be good,” he said a minute later from the lobby pay phone.
Maedhros answered in Quenya. “No,” he said. “It’s not.”
Chapter 7: Alignment
Maedhros was never wrong.
Well, that wasn’t true. Maedhros was, at times, catastrophically wrong. He’d gone to the parlay with Morgoth. He’d surrendered the crown to their uncle. He’d planned and commanded the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. He’d – Celegorm had still not forgiven his brother for this, or found a mental shelf for it – leapt to his death, Silmaril in hand, once everything was over. And, equivocating between definitions of the word ‘wrong’, Maedhros had killed a great many innocent people. More than Celegorm himself, though no one, evaluating the two of them historically, seemed to care about that or even count it up properly.
But when Maedhros said ‘there’s bad news’, he was never wrong. Celegorm insisted on checking online for the blurry cellphone pictures anyway. He bullied the receptionist out of her chair; there were no guest computers in this ranger station.
Maedhros wasn’t wrong. The pictures were trending on Twitter.
The idiots had gone and drilled through to a Silmaril.
Before the first sunrise, before the first Man drew breath on Middle-earth, those gems had been forged. Indestructible, indescribable, blessed by the gods themselves so that no mortal and no evil could touch them. There were three, and they contained within them all the light of Arda.
They had been forged by Celegorm’s father.
By now he had been staring at the computer screen for a little too long, without much attention to his body language, and the receptionist was staring at him with her eyes wide. People in the room were curving their trajectories to move away from him. He slowly unclenched the fingers that had been remolding the plastic mouse.
When the Silmarils had been stolen all of them had sworn to get them back. No, not ‘to get them back’, to pursue with hatred undying to the ends of the earth anyone who took, hid, or kept them, on penalty of eternal damnation to the Everlasting Darkness. They’d called Manwe and Varda and Eru Himself in witness.
For that reason Alqualondë. And Nargothrond. And Doriath. And (Celegorm had been dead by this point, but still) Sirion. They’d sacked a refugee camp. They’d slaughtered their way through the Thousand Caves. Celegorm had personally organized a coup that ended with his cousin slowly tortured to death –
- said cousin had totally deserved it at that point, but still -
When Maedhros and Maglor had finally retrieved two Silmarils, they had scorched the flesh off their palms. Because, after all, the jewels were blessed by the gods themselves to repel the touch of evil. A hundred thousand dead to see that damnable oath fulfilled, and in the end they could not have the jewels back. Maglor had held it to his chest and walked into the sea with it, and drowned. Maedhros had leapt with his into a fiery chasm.
And now the Men had gone and fished it out.
“First problem,” he said to Maedhros over the phone, “is that I am not going to be able to touch it.”
“We should have spent the last few centuries campaigning for the abolition of slavery and curing world hunger and assassinating Hitler and so forth,” Maedhros agreed, “though I’m not sure it’d have been enough. In any event, won’t be a concern. Maglor and I carried them for several miles in a wooden chest. Even gloves might be sufficient. If they aren’t, take a backpack.”
“Second problem,” Celegorm said, “is that it’s slowly killing everyone in close proximity.” For the Eldar the Light of Valinor was revitalizing. It healed, it strengthened, it could reverse the fading. For Men it aged them years in a day. It had killed Lúthien and Beren in six months, prematurely wrinkled the face of their son the child-King. “And I suspect that Silmaril influence also makes Men rash, irresponsible, jealous, temperamental idiots. It certainly did so for Dior.”
“Dior killed you in single combat,” said Maedhros, not amused.
“I was already injured,” said Celegorm.
“In any event a rig that size will have 150 bunks, which is 150 mortals getting exposed to – you might as well think of it as radiation, though it isn’t. Well, it might be. Can you ask father about that? And most of them will have decided the Silmaril is theirs and come up with rash and insultingly bad plans to steal it, and any of them can deprive me of it by chucking it into the ocean.”
“You are an entire continent closer,” said Celegorm pleadingly.
“I do not know anything about oil rigs. If I fly out of the country tonight I will lose my job, and we desperately need it to cover this up.”
“Is internationally famous.”
“I thought he was dead right now?”
“Even worse! Tyelco, I booked you a flight that leaves Salt Lake City in four hours. I’ll give you a passport in Washington-”
“Caranthir,” Celegorm said.
“Is trying to buy a controlling stake in the drilling company, just in case you fail.”
“Tyelcormo Turkafinwe, you told our father when you signed up for a job on the drilling rig that you did it so you could serve the interests of this family. I have no idea if you had in mind a means by which you could do that – but congratulations, you have been presented with one. If I can manage it, Curvo and Pityo will both meet you there. If I can’t – well, you are the one who was so persistent in reminding me precisely what is at stake here.”
“I know these men. Well, not these, but men like them. I don’t want to kill them. I don’t even want to expose them to mind-distorting magic radiation. I want to call them up and use the right technical words to make them chuck the thing overboard. I don’t know how I can do this without people getting hurt, and I am so damn tired of hurting people.”
“That was sweet,” said Maedhros. “Recite sentimental qualms to yourself the whole way there and perhaps it won’t burn you when you touch it.”
“It is actually the premise for a superb natural experiment,” Curufin said, when they met in the concourse at Washington Dulles International Airport. “Here we have – or will soon acquire – one artifact blessed by the gods to repel the touch of evil, and eight people who are presumed evil enough we cannot touch it. If only we knew after which act we became such? The Oath, as it made everything that followed it necessary and inevitable? Alqualondë – even Moryo, who as I recall didn’t kill anybody? Do blessings of the gods consider responsibility transitive? Does it matter whether we knew or should have known that our actions would result in deaths? Could Findekáno touch the Silmarils?”
“If you keep that up for the whole trans-Atlantic flight,” Celegorm said, “I will kill you and then you can ask Mandos yourself.”
“I did,” said Curufin, “repeatedly. I spent the entirety of my confinement in the Halls of the Dead attempting to understand the limitations of our Oath and the other magics at work in events. Why, what did you do?”
Celegorm, first to the designated meeting point, had ordered a large cappuccino from the overpriced airport coffee shop. At that moment he tripped and sent it flying at his brother’s shirt.
Curvo, damn him, caught it. “I would have expected you to rise to an occasion like this one, brother,” he said.
Celegorm didn’t answer. They sat down in navy-blue faux-leather airport chairs and pulled up Twitter to look at the pictures again. #maersk was a trending topic, but behind #swine flu, #american idol, and #michael jackson.
“Is that one of Maglor’s?” Celegorm asked.
“No,” said his brother, a little forcefully.
“You can’t expect me to keep track-”
“You,” said Curufin, “are named Connor Allen, the birthdate on your passport is October 2nd, 1983 – you should commit that to memory, incidentally, they might ask you – and for the last two years you have been working as a Wildlife Educator at Zion National Park in Utah. Before that you worked at Yellowstone. Before that you were Aiden Blake, born January 15th, 1961, worked on an oil rig in Newfoundland, which is why you are here. I can do that for every single one of my brothers, despite the fading, despite how often we all change names and jobs and lives, because I love you and I am concerned for the strength and health of this family. Maglor is globally famous. You are the only person in the world who doesn’t know his name. I can, and I do, expect you to keep track-”
“Is he Justin Bieber?”
Curufin slammed the laptop shut; everyone in their vicinity spun around to look at them. ”No,” he hissed under his breath after a moment.
“Sorry,” Celegorm said.
“I don’t like Connor Allen,” Curufin said. “I want my brother back.”
“I don’t think you understand my - reluctance.”
“I assure you that I don’t.”
“I – I want a fight. I long for a fight, it’s been itching inside me – even thought about joining the army – but this, this isn’t a fight. Men are not and will never be our worthy opponents.”
“Have you seen their weaponry-”
“Have it memorized,” Celegorm cut in coolly. “It’s more of an interest than pop musicians. And they could slaughter the mightiest armies I ever commanded. Still not worthy opponents, because I’d pull back and hide and let their tanks run out of gasoline and then I’d pick them off and win. The age of battles is over. What’s left is the age of fighting. And the way to win at fighting is to shoot the other guy in the back when he isn’t looking. And every war makes Kinslayers of us all, in these days. I want orcs, Curvo. I want enemies who are irretrievably and fanatically evil, enemies who cannot be reasoned with, enemies who come by the hundreds of thousands down the plain of my homeland and slaughter my people, so I can ride to war in self-defense. I don’t want to kill Men. I certainly don’t want to shoot them with a silenced gun to preemptively clear the way for our escape off the rig, but that seems like the most sensible thing to do-”
“How many people die,” asked Curufin, “if we fail to retrieve it?”
“None,” said Celegorm. “There is no one I can command to kill for me, not anymore.”
“The National Security Agency is part of the U.S. Department of Defense.”
“You think Maedhros would arrange for countries to go to war, over this?”
“Of course. Wouldn’t you?”
And the answer is yes. The answer has to be yes, that’s what an Oath means. When you are optimizing for one thing at all costs, everything else in your life is a sacrifice you might be called to feed into the pyre. And this Oath is unbreakable. Death did not break it. They’d tried. They had not known, at first, what they were promising. But still, they had promised and called on the gods to bear witness. And now, no matter the question, if it helps get a Silmaril the answer has to be ‘yes’.
Curufin knew what sort of things you would be called to destroy. Curufin had once had a child. Next to that, what was this fragile mortal nation and the doomed-anyway three hundred million who lived in it?
“I don’t suppose you’ve looked into curing mortals?” Tyelco said.
Curufin stirred restlessly. “Of the damage done by the Silmaril?”
“Just of death, generally.”
“At some length. Where did that come from?”
“I am debating how evil killing them is.”
“If it’s reassuring, I do not have the means to keep any of them alive, and retrieving the Silmaril would aid me in that project unimaginably.”
They boarded their flight.
“… will you sincerely be angry if I explain why I think the retrieval presents us with an invaluable natural experiment?” Curufin said.
“If I want you to shut up, it won’t be hard to tell.” Celegorm said, and pulled out SkyMall.
“Is evil a permanent state? Souls fall, and they do not get up again – that is assuredly the lesson of history, in which every mercy has proven to be a mistake. The Valar should never have paroled Morgoth.”
“You should have taken Eöl down when you had the chance,” Celegorm said.
Curufin let that pass with a slight inclination of his head. Aredhel’s murder by her ex-husband had been the day Celegorm stopped caring whether the Silmaril burned him.
“But,” Curufin said, “second chances being historically inadvisable, the Valar persist in offering them. Which makes me think that perhaps evil is not a metaphysically necessary permanent state, that perhaps one can grow from the sort of person whose hands the gems burn into someone who can hold them.”
“You want to send us all off on a redemption quest.”
“No,” said Curufin, “I want to send all of us off on different redemption quests, in order to determine precisely which actions the Silmarils regard as good or redemptive and therefore how much latitude we have for future action.”
“I suspect,” said Celegorm, “that doing anything with that explicit intent will count as ‘evil’.”
“That is a travesty, then,” said Curufin. “If I develop and release inventions that end global poverty and suffering, that permit nations to effortlessly secure their homelands and thus strip away the necessity, and eventually the risk, of war – if I cure mortals of death and of fragility and of disease, collaborate with them in the project of conquering the stars, play a tremendous part in the birth of a new paradise on earth – all motivated by the desire to hold my inheritance in my hands once more – ”
“It won’t count,” said Celegorm. “The Valar are vindictive bastards.” He hesitated. “Mind, I support you doing it anyway. To see whether I’m wrong.”
“I plan to,” said Curufin. “I plan to understand this curse. One of us will join a faith community of some sort and become a monk. One of us will go help with famine relief efforts in a poor nation, one of us will cure malaria, and Caranthir will raise absurd amounts of money and direct them toward the most effective global aid charities. Someone else will work in a soup kitchen and a domestic violence shelter and walk dogs for the Humane Society –”
“You had better not be thinking of me,” Celegorm growled.
“I was going to assign them randomly,” Curufin said, “it’s good scientific practice. Except Caranthir’s job, because he is the only one competent with money. And Father and I will do our technological part, to end as much suffering as craft and science possibly can.”
“No dogs,” said Celegorm, “and I won’t be a monk. Otherwise, though, I’m in.”
The flight attendants announced in three languages that they were beginning their descent. Celegorm, who had been pretending to sleep, pretended to wake.
"I hope you have a plan," his brother whispered.
"I hope you have contingency plans."
"Care to tell me about them?”
"Promise, first, that you’ll do what I tell you."
"Conditional on all your plans treating retrieving the Silmaril as our unconditional and only priority-"
"I swore also," Celegorm said.
"I’ll acknowledge your expertise in the area and assume your competence until proven otherwise," Curufin said.
"I want you to promise you’ll do what I say.”
"All right," his brother said, with half a smile. "You have the command. What’s the plan?"
They transferred again in Heathrow. The flight was an hour delayed; Celegorm spent it picking apart a bagel and people-watching. Curufin got them colored paper money and books thicker than Celegorm’s forearm.
“Findaráto learned a language in barely a day’s time without the benefit of a comprehensive syntactic reference book or a dictionary.”
“So he claimed,” Celegorm said. “And he’d be one to embellish. Read it to me again.”
“Read it yourself.”
“Read it to me again.”
“Is a krona the same as a dollar?”
“Copenhagen’s pegged to the Euro.”
Celegorm wanted to ask if that was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, but tired of feeling stupid he bit his tongue.
A safety-conscious manager would run his team through the evacuation drill every six weeks.
A lazy one would do so every…fourteen? Celegorm had known the law for Canadian waters but it was not necessarily the same over here. Often enough. Everyone knew the drill. When you were pumping 271 barrels per day of highly condensed flammable materials through a metal behemoth parked in the ocean, you took safety procedures seriously or someone who did could seriously fuck up your stay.
“The real question,” Celegorm said, more serene than he felt, “is how much work I want to make for Maedhros.”
Curufin was driving. He was doing badly at it, though Danish drivers seemed charitably inclined. Celegorm hadn’t ever taken the licensing test but he knew you were supposed to use some of the levers to signal your plans to other cars. “You don’t want to make any work for Maedhros,” he said.
“Better framed as, ‘which sorts of problems are a lot of work for Maedhros,’” Celegorm said mildly. “For instance, if one of us gets off with the Silmaril and the other one spends the next twenty years in Danish custody –”
“That’s a good outcome,” Curufin said. “I’ll even be the one to stay, if you are confident you can get it back safely.”
They passed a car by swerving into the lane that Celegorm was reasonably sure was for oncoming traffic. “I wasn’t expecting you to offer.”
“Twenty years without me will set back our research substantially. But you – you wouldn’t make it.”
“Sure I would.”
“What’s the longest you’ve ever been in one place?”
Nargothrond, eight years, with frequent scouting trips. And that had ended with- “Aredhel lived fifty years in Nan Elmoth,” he said. Second time he’d brought her up today, and in both cases it hadn’t exactly been apropos to the conversation. Where the hell was that coming from?
“You’d fade, Tyelco.”
“Generous of you to offer, then.”
“Is your plan likely to end with one of us in a Danish prison?”
“Not the first plan, or the first couple contingency plans,” he said. “Getting it off the rig shouldn’t be the difficult part, the difficult part will be getting it out of the country. If things go wrong that early in this venture, we’re doomed.”
“We are Doomed,” he said. “That probably should be taken into account in our planning.”
The Danish countryside was lovely. Celegorm kicked the engine block at his feet. “Do you think it affects the way we think?”
“Oh,” said Curufin, with another vicious twist of the steering wheel, “certainly. Try to think of doing something right now which doesn’t get us the Silmaril back.”
“You could stop the car. And then we could stay here, and not do anything.”
“Mmhm. Didn’t you have other concerns? Other ambitions? Do you remember them? If you weren’t trying to get the Silmaril back, wouldn’t you want to achieve them?”
“You’re asking leading questions-”
“And the answer is, not really. You don’t really want to do those things anymore. You won’t find them rewarding. You know the effort, to not fade, to stay here? Well, if I stopped this car, from here forward there would be the effort to not go get a Silmaril, just as strong. And they play against each other, because the only things that can keep us from fading are motivations and the only motivation you can sincerely hold in your mind, right now, is this.”
“I wouldn’t,” Celegorm said, “have expected you ever to try turning away.”
“Only out of intellectual curiosity,” his brother said.
“No. But everyone who held them last time was a thief and took them in full knowledge of what that meant. We said to them ‘those are ours, we are bound to take them back’. We sent messengers. Even in Sirion they sent messengers. And when we came we had our banners unfurled, we fought fairly.”
“The mortals have an even weaker claim to them,” Curufin said. “And would it have been more contemptible to have a single thief slip in and out of Menegroth, if we could have done it? No bloodshed.”
Celegorm let the whine of the engine fill his head for a while. “It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It’s not as if I’m in this to be a good person.”
Curufin had, at first, taken tremendous offense at the suggestion that he make a replica Silmaril.
Celegorm, too, had felt a stab of unease at suggesting it – so much, in fact, that he put it off until the rest of the pieces of planning were in place. It was sacrilege, and a particularly personal and vicious sort. He knew full well he might as easily ask Curufin to piss on their father’s grave.
But their father wasn’t dead anymore. And somehow that was an apt part of the metaphor, too.
“Yes,” Curufin had said through gritted teeth, “I can manage a facsimile.”
It would be a lazy facsimile, quartz with an LED in a drilled hole in the center. No one who’d seen the real thing would believe it for a second. But ‘someone stole the magic stone and replaced it with this’ would invite more confusion. More delays, more threads for Maedhros to cover for them. They'd set off the fire and chemical alarms on the rig as soon as they got a chance. That and the drugs Celegorm was planning to plant in the supervisor’s cabin, and the whole thing would be relegated to a prank.
That was the plan. The contingency plan involved an actual fire – less dangerous than it sounded, thanks to modern safety measures, but still far from safe. The backup contingency plan was the one that might leave one of them behind.
“I’m Anderson Cooper from CNN,” Celegorm said, a few minutes later, praying that the woman did not watch U.S. television. Curufin was glaring daggers at him. The plan had merely been to pose as reporters, but (Celegorm told himself) they had to have named he’d remember. “And this is my cameraman Felagund.” Curufin managed a graceful smile, somehow. This was worth it just for imagining the muscle in Maedhros’s jaw twitching as he covered for them later. “We’re doing a human interest piece on the drilling mishap –”
“Not a mishap,” the woman corrected him eagerly, “a discovery! We got camera crews in there that afternoon to get some high-definition footage of that thing. But you’re too late, and we’re not selling – or at least, my boss’s boss is the person you’d want to talk to.”
“Oh, we’ve already made arrangements for exclusive airing of the footage in the United States,” said Celegorm airily, “we’re just here to put some familiar faces on air for our viewers. You are going to fly back over there?”
“Can’t,” she said. “It’s Maersk’s and they’ve got it locked down hard, they aren’t budging. Lawyers and spokespeople and busybodies galore.”
"But there's got to-"
"Sir, there's not a reporter in the world who wouldn't be out there if there were any chance in hell. Nothing going. This isn't a problem you can throw money at."
“We’re Doomed,” Curufin muttered, pitched too high for mortal hearing.
“I should speak to headquarters,” Celegorm said to her. “Thank you!” She turned away. “Fuck.”
“Can we take a ship out somewhere near-”
“No, no, no,” Celegorm said, “there’s no feasible way to get onto a rig except landing with permission, they’d be too tempting as targets otherwise. We can do it, it’ll just be uglier, and we aren’t both getting out of here-”
“That’s fine,” Curufin growled.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s – let’s talk through a new plan.”
The man hesitated.
“We might catch a glimpse of it through a window,” Celegorm said leadingly.
HIs eyes brightened. "It's really quite miraculous," he babbled, "I'd almost do it just for the chance of seeing-"
"Yes," Curufin interrupted him, "you'd get another chance to see it."
“Your journalism outlet would be covering –”
“Yes, of course. All the costs. As many angles on the rig as we can get, with you as our guide since you navigated this gauntlet yesterday.”
“All right,” he’d said.
The camera equipment was real; it had been faster to find a high-tech videography store than one that sold convincing replicas. Twenty thousand kroner. More than Celegorm earned in a year, probably, if kroner were the same thing as dollars.
The two handguns, too, were real. Legally checked and carried through airport security, and declared at Customs, with all sorts of appropriate documentation and a story about a law enforcement career. To Celegorm’s disbelief no one had blinked. “Did Maedhros do something for us?” he’d whispered.
“I think we’re obeying the law,” Curufin had said indifferently.
Bristow was the company that ran helicopters back and forth to the rigs. Celegorm recognized the logo, and with a bit of effort, the name. Someone might be interested in making some money on the side, perhaps, ferrying eager reporters. When they’d said they were from a big American company there’d been interest. When they’d started speaking of hundreds of thousands of kronar, the man had smiled and welcomed them aboard. “I’ve been itching to do another run,” he said. “Ever since I caught sight of that thing –”
“Everyone has mentioned it,” Celegorm said. “Is it really that extraordinary?”
“Better,” he said. “Have you flown in one of these before? I am legally obligated to tell you buckle up, obey your pilot – that’s me – no pressurized gases, explosives, or flammable materials –”
He ran through it in Danish as well. The barrel of the handgun was digging into Celegorm’s spine. He’d really have felt better about doing this with knives, and he’d said so. But no one sold knives meant as weaponry, not anymore.
They took off. Celegorm had been on – what – fifty? A hundred? Maybe more than that, with the six-week shifts – runs like this. A helicopter was the only way to get out to a rig. Curufin pulled out his fancy camera equipment and pressed it up against the reinforced glass. The noise was deafening.
That would be a complication Celegorm hadn’t thought of. Hard to give orders when no one could hear you. From Curufin’s sudden scowl, it had occurred to him too.
No mind. The first order was extraordinarily straightforward. They waited until the copter was arcing around the oil rig, and then pulled out the guns at the same time. “I would like you to land it,” Celegorm said, in a voice that had once shaken the stone pillars of an underground palace hall, and the man blanched, his fingers white on the controls. “Radio in, tell them we’re from Maersk, tell them you put this run in the logs and it’s their bloody fault if they can’t find it, tell them you have a fancy high-level executive circling and they can sort this out later, you’re coming down now. Tell them my name is Thomas Helmer.” Maersk’s head of PR.
“He’s on the rig, I ferried him in yesterday,” the pilot shouted over the hum of the rotors.
“Damn. Jesper B. Madsen.” The CTO.
“He’s in Venezuela, flying in as soon as he can-”
“Say he got in sooner than expected, and now he’s in your airspace asking to land.” The man’s eyes kept darting between Celegorm’s face and the gun. Celegorm tried his terrifying-to-mortals smile again. “I can probably land this myself if I need to.”
That decided the man. He pressed the radio and repeated exactly that. If there was an air-traffic distress code – there probably was, come to think of it – it shouldn’t matter, not given the plan. “Right,” said Celegorm, “now take off your flight goggles.” He tossed them to Curufin. “Do we have permission to land?”
It was a perfect landing, barely a bump, precisely in the center of the well-lit well-marked landing pad. Steel nerves under pressure, exactly what you wanted from a pilot. Celegorm reached out and pinched the man’s carotid arteries closed. He struggled for barely five seconds. “Tell my father that, by revealed preferences, I love him a great deal” he said to Curufin, over the waning whine of the rotors, and then he threw open the door. “There’s a man dying in there! Quick! I need a medic!”
“Madsen?” someone said to him, and then something in Danish too-fast-to-catch.
“He’s in there, he’s dying,” said Celegorm urgently, “he had a stroke or something,” and that got them moving. The pilot of course looked nothing like Madsen, so he had, perhaps, twenty seconds? Long enough to elbow aside three people in suits, force a door open, shove it closed again behind him, find a fire alarm, and…
In training they’d covered this; you put something over your hand before you smashed the glass. He punched it bare-knuckled. The agony of glass blades driven into his skin was cathartic. It would also make it very obvious he was the culprit, but –
The alarm was too loud to think over, louder than workplace regulations permitted for continuous exposure, there’d been a class action lawsuit over that two decades ago and Celegorm was abruptly annoyed with Maersk for not getting with the program. Down a ladder, around a stairwell, setting off alarms left-and-right, like a crazed man, as he went. People were flooding past him in the opposite direction, at first, but swiftly the corridors cleared out. He shot the doorknob off the supervisor’s cabin, ripped it open, and-
-found himself face-to-face with the man himself.
“The fuck are you?” Anders said.
“A million krona,” Celegorm said, “to leave with everyone else, act like I am on crew here-”
“I know every man here,” Anders said, “even the PR folks. You aren’t crew.”
“Thus the money,” Celegorm said impatiently.
The man squinted at him for half a second and then dove for the gun.
Celegorm fired it.
The plan had involved not killing anyone, but plans always did. And he might not be dead – human bodies were remarkably resilient to bullet wounds. Medicine had advanced tremendously since the day when a so-called healer had just jerked a poisoned javelin out of Aredhel’s chest and not checked until it was far too late…
Three times in one day. What was wrong with him? The man had fallen to his knees and was clutching at the injury, but it didn’t seem disabling; Celegorm shook the gun at him warningly, stuck the drugs in the sock drawer as originally planned even though there no longer seemed much point in it, and turned around.
There was something sticky on his arm. It was blood.
The plan had never involved asking anyone where the Silmaril was. You pull a fire alarm in a building with a Silmaril, Celegorm had said to Curufin, and they’ll all go towards it. And then to their assigned, safe places, particularly once gunfire broke out – an explosion on a rig could kill you and no one should be influenced strongly enough to die for the Silmaril, not yet. But he could go where they’d all been hurrying, wherever it had been inconsistent with where the exit plan said they should hurry, and –
There it was. He slung the backpack over his shoulder and pulled the gloves out. Tugging them on over the glass shards in his knuckles hurt, fuck, that had been stupid, but he did it, swiftly, anyway. When first planning this he’d daydreamed about picking it up barehanded and learning that somewhere along the way he had redeemed himself. No hope of that now. He could feel it sear him through the gloves. Into the backpack. Leave the poor-quality replacement. And now, with everyone else, to the evacuation location.
“What are you doing?” a voice said behind him, and he turned and raised the gun again to find it pointing at a man’s head. Young even by mortal standards, younger than Celegorm himself ever pretended to be. 16? 18?
“It’s mine,” he said, startled to honesty. “I’m taking it.”
“I can’t let you.”
“Fucking addictive, isn’t it?” Celegorm said, and lowered the gun. Then he punched the kid in the face, hard, twice, the second hit landing when he was already falling to the floor. Then he turned to leave with everyone else for the evacuation location.
Chapter 9: Momentum
He burst out onto the deck with the alarms still blaring. The crowd was not panicked but it was panicky, nervous, a well-trained horse miserably obeying orders even as its muscles tensed to run.The man having a seizure in the helicopter hadn’t been Maersk C.T.O. Madsen. There’d been shots fired. No one had ever run through the fire procedures with half of H.R. standing around blinking stupidly. Word was getting out that something was very wrong.
They brushed past each other and handed off the backpack with the practiced ease of five hundred years. Celegorm’s whole body was shaking. The blood from his injured hands was starting to seep through the glove. He ducked back below deck. A woman started to follow him, started to yell something at him. “I’m with technical, I get hazard pay,” he said, and she reflexively matched his smile and drew to a halt.
The hatch banged closed above his head.
One more step, then.
People thought of cellphone coverage as something that just blanketed the planet, with a few patches where one inconveniently couldn’t get coverage. He suspected that if you asked a bunch of children whether cellphones worked on a deserted island, most of them would say ‘yes’ – and that, if you asked adults, half of them would ‘still’ say yes.
Two couples in their twenties had gotten lost for three days in Yellowstone after taking off for an eight mile hike. They’d gone off trail, gotten turned around, and finally had the good sense to sit in one place and wait for a rescue team to find them. Several hundred people and three helicopters mobilized, paid overtime for every ranger in the park.
Celegorm could have found them himself with no equipment and a few hours’ time, but he and his colleagues were split up into regimented groups with fixed and carefully-organized search patterns, and he knew better than to suggest he be allowed to go off on his own.
They’d found the two men and two women (cold, thirsty, and threatening to sue) only a mile away from a trail. “Our phones didn’t work!” one of them had said, angrily, as if Yellowstone should immediately go plant twenty cell towers to idiot-proof the park.
When I was twenty-five, Celegorm reminded himself, I cut my cousin's hair in her sleep and egged the palace library on a dare.
(The conventional wisdom was that mortals matured faster, but it was easier to sympathize with the shivering people who’d just wasted a few million taxpayer dollars if he assumed mortals didn’t mature any faster, that they like Elves achieved full maturity at a hundred. It made their lifespans even more troubling, but he’d lived with that quiet dissonance a while.)
He contemplated all of this while using a fire extinguisher as an improvised pick-axe to take down the rig’s electrical system, backup generator, and communications. The longer it took this story to reach solid ground, the farther away Curufin would be when it did. His injured hand was now bleeding freely and profusely; the gloves had turned dark brown. If anything he found that pain improved his focus.
“I’m a murderer twice – well, two more times – over,” he confessed to the cell tower, and then started battering away at its essential-looking wires.
The first thing that most people will do in a crisis is nothing. And if you give them orders, no matter how senseless, the first thing they will do is exactly what you say. Their pilot had awoken, perfectly healthy save for some sharp and ugly bruises on his neck, and at the sight of Curufin he’d opened his mouth and then closed it and said nothing at all. “Take off, now,” Curufin said, “or I will shoot everyone on this deck and then we’ll take off.”
It took a long two minutes for the rotors to whir up to speed. People were confused; the words Curufin was shouting out the window to keep them at bay weren’t consistent. Medical emergency. Orders from headquarters. CEO.
“I didn’t get any orders,” a red-faced grey-whiskered man in a suit had shouted.
“Where’s the patient?” one of the medics had demanded.
But the first thing that people will do in a crisis is nothing, even for two long minutes when they could have singlehandedly trapped him here. When they rose into the air Curufin took a long, deep breath. The black bubbles popping before his eyes told him he’d forgotten to breathe for a little too long.
“I don’t want you to get in touch with air traffic control on shore,” Curufin said. “Helicopters can hover, yes? I want you to pull in to within half a mile of shore, and then come to a halt, as best you can.”
“Sorry?” the man said.
“Don’t. Radio. Closer in, then let me out. Out.”
The expression in the pilot’s eyes said quite plainly, ‘idiot, you’re going to die’. And then, a few seconds for his slow mortal brain to play it out, ‘and I’m going to survive’, and he nodded fervently. Curufin drew the straps on the backpack to tug it closer to his body, and unlaced his shoes. He could feel the heat of it against his back, but it was a good feeling.
The security team found him in the engine room, after he’d already dealt a few million dollars worth of critical damage. He’d expected it to be cathartic, but it hadn’t been. None of it. He’d wanted a fight. What a fucking mess.
“I surrender,” he said, and raised his hands above his head; blood dripped onto the floor. “There’s an injured man in the supervisor’s room. Think he’s the supervisor. Name is Anders – I saw it on the door. I shot him.”
“You’re confessing?” someone said sharply.
“Yeah. I – I would have felt better if we’d messaged you first, sent fair warning. That’s why I’m sorry, not because I shot him. I can’t start being sorry for shooting people, I really don’t know where I’d go from there…”
When he started to lurch forward one of the men nearly opened fire. “Hold,” snapped his supervisor in the nick of time, and they watched the tall, gaunt, long-haired man in front of them collapse onto the ground.
“Should we get a medical team?” a man said uncertainly.
“No,” his supervisor said, “they’re busy with his victims. Let them take their time. I’d call shore, to get a medical evacuation, but it looks like someone’s taken down our communications equipment, now hasn’t he?”
The door burst open behind them. “Does he have it?” the head of Maersk PR panted, his facial hair violently quivering.
A swift, bruising personal search revealed that the murderer carried nothing.
They would certainly be searching the shoreline for him. The Silmaril was a beacon that could be seen for miles. Pulling it out, here, now, even just to check, was sheer lunacy.
Curufin chose to verify its continued presence at his side in a slightly safer way, dipping his fingers into the backpack every few minutes. Each fingertip burned, and then blistered, and then the blisters burned; he wore away the flesh and melted through his nails and marvelled, as he kept walking, at how swiftly the injuries healed. The Light of Valinor was within him; he was invincible.
He should already have called Maedhros to share everything they needed to know and to plan his return home. But he put it off, for one mile and then for ten, through the whole of the long night, for every step of the hundred miles to Copenhagen. His reasons were hard to articulate. Maedhros and Maglor had held this, held the work they all had died for, held the work they all were bound to, and thrown them away. He reached down and cradled it with his whole hand, pulled it away red and shiny. How could they have?
When he reached Copenhagen there were no more excuses for delays. He dialed with a stick held between his teeth; both hands were scorched raw, and at the tip of his fingers glinted bone.
“I’ve got it,” he said.
“What the hell have you been doing?” Maedhros answered, angrier than Curufin thought he had any right to be. They’d won, after all.
“Fleeing. It turned out to be uglier than we expected. We may have killed a few people.”
“Uncertainty, not apologetic understatement,” Curufin said curtly. “I do not know if the people we shot died.”
“One of them did,” Maedhros said. “And Tyelco didn’t get out.”
“Yes, I know. The plan was – the plan was for our roles to be switched, but I was unfamiliar with the layout of the rig. This arrangement seemed to have a higher chance of success.”
“You should have talked to me. We could have arranged to get it after it was brought back to shore –”
“More security, more attention, the area was already swarming with press teams. The circumstances here, inconvenient as they were, lent us several advantages we wouldn’t have had if we’d been facing more conventional security measures. We made the right decision. And we achieved our goals. Nearly everything went according to plan.”
“What a terrible plan.”
“Because it had casualties?”
“Fifty percent casualties!”
“We’ll get him back,” Curufin said. “How long is a mortal life sentence? Fifty years?”
“Life,” Maedhros snarled, “as in, until you die.”
“God fucking damn you, Curufinwë Atarinke.”
“You of all people ought to realize He did that a very long time ago.”
There was a moment’s silence. “Pityo’s staying in a hotel in Copenhagen,” Maedhros said. “If you can get yourself there –”
“I’m in the city already –”
“Then the plan is to drive to southern France, where Maglor decided yesterday to go for an impromptu vacation. Private jet. It’s the only way we can get it back into the country.”
“Have you talked to Atar?”
Curufin took a deep breath. “No.”
“I would have expected you to call him first.”
“I would have expected me to do that also.”
“Do that now. It’s your news; I would not do you the disservice of sharing it.”
Fëanor is terrified that he will wake up one day and be unable to type.
Interacting with the world takes strength, and it is a flavor of strength for which they all have different sources. Except the childrens’ sources are all, in their own way, him. Maitimo once hated him, and then forgave him, and now serves him with a quiet detachment that has no filial loyalty in it. Maitimo forgets sometimes to move his right hand, forgets in fact that he has it. But he will not wake up one day too distant from this world to interact with it, because he’s made harder choices, and made them too often.
Macalaurë has an audience of millions; it is all he ever wanted. If Fëanor had crafted an afterlife for his second son, he would have crafted this, a world awash in musical instruments, styles to master, identities to try on. Macalaurë has a voice that could once bring down mountains. Even weakened it is too much; he has to moderate it on stage. Someday, if they don’t find the means to reverse the fading of the Elves from Middle-earth, Macalaurë will wake to find that he can sing with all of his voice, even in the presence of mortals. On that day Fëanor will worry for him, but not before.
Tyelcormo – well, all of them are worried about Tyelcormo, but every time he comes home he greets them with firm, solid hugs. He says that he’s happy, that he’s curious, that there are mountains he still hasn’t climbed, and maybe that’s enough.
Fëanor wants to coax Carnistir home from New York City as soon as they can afford to lose the money. His fourth-born does not do well among people he holds in contempt, and apparently the whole population of Wall Street is contemptible. “We’re Kinslayers,” he’d said to his son, mildly, when the complaints had taken on a moralistic tone, and been surprised at the strength and vehemence of the response.
“Don’t you dare pretend at solidarity,” Carnistir had said. “You died before the dawn of Men. You died before the Bragollach. You died before the Nirnaeth. You did not know them at their best and worst – heroes and cowards, inventors and traitors. You did not know them at all. Don’t tell me what right I have to invest myself in their potential.”
It had been a gentle, civil, polite outburst, by Carnistir’s standards. It hurt to be accused of abandonment, even if you had the excuse of death. But Fëanor had forgiven him before he’d even hung up the phone.
Curufinwë was proving himself brilliant. Fëanor’s son and Celebrimbor’s father, that was how he’d been noted in the histories, but he’d be noted for more than that in the histories of these times. He did not seem happy, but he also did not seem to be seeking a way out.
Pityafinwe had not spoken to his father between Losgar and Fëanor’s death. In the first few centuries back here there’d been a quiet stalemate between them – I won’t offer affection, you will pretend that you’d accept it if I did. We will be undemonstrative rather than discover whether here there’s any love.
But two decades ago he’d come down to his father’s workshop. “Can I have a hoverboard?”
Fëanor had been too startled to respond. “I don’t know who you thought maintains the grounds, got electricity running to this place, and keeps the satellite dishes clear during snowstorms,” Pityo had continued. “But I do. No one else enjoys the lands out here and Tyelcormo is as reliable as an underfed jungle cat. The work’s more tedious, though, now that we have all this technology and you get distressed whenever the signals go down. So – hoverboard?”
“I’d be delighted,” Fëanor’d said, and dropped everything else to work on it for a decade, and made it more complex than was really necessary so they could spend a year, he and his sixth son, practicing together. A man could not have made any use of it, but they were Elves; they could walk atop the snow. He’d raced Pityo in circles around the spires of their new home. At the end of winter, when it was obvious he’d dragged this out a bit much, he’d said “I’m sorry,” and Pityo’d said, “what for? It’s a solid bit of engineering,” and that was, now, the state of things between them.
Telvo could vanish from the world entirely, when he wanted to, and was never more than halfway here. He had pointed out the strategic advantages this presented and no one had been able to come up with a compelling counterargument.
So that was his children; all right, really, the lot of them, and if they still loved each other as brothers, that was more than he deserved or could have expected. None of them would awake one day unable to type.
But Fëanor might.
Everything hurt. Focusing hurt. Inventing hurt. Conversation hurt. Words jangled too loudly in his head and the high-pitched noises the supercomputers made could easily drive an afternoon of work out of his head. He had always been the most brilliant, gifted, extraordinary, admirable inventor in the world, and now he was one among thousands. A bad reason to give up on the world, but it was there and unlikely to ever stop being there.
Every morning he raised the palm of his hand to his bedside lamp and panicked over whether he could see the light shine through it.
His phone buzzed. Curufinwë.
“I have recovered one of your Silmarils, Atar,” he said stiffly.
“Thank you,” he breathed. “Oh, Curvo – thank you.”
“I should…I should tell you that after all this I can see I was wrong to demand your oaths, wrong to hold you to them at my deathbed. I should say that the price was too high. But I’m not sure, Curufinwë, I am not sure. We need it here so desperately.”
“You didn’t demand anything,” his son said. “We were men. We went into this with open eyes.”
“Did you? I certainly did not.”
There was too long of a silence on the other end of the line. “Didn’t you have a plan in the works to redeem us all?” Fëanor said gently.
“I – yes, I did. It might require some modifications. Dad – I lost Tyelco, Dad. I told you I’d bring him home. I’m so sorry.”
The phone slipped from Fëanor’s fingers and fell to the floor. Only – had it slipped from Fëanor’s fingers or had the fingers themselves slipped? Had he forgotten for a second to hold his body in its shape? He scrabbled to pick up the phone off the floor. “That’s all right,” he said hoarsely into the wrong end. “Aren’t you glad I told you not to make me any promises?”
Curufin’s voice was muffled. Feanor realized what he’d done and turned the phone around. “Sorry, say that again?”
“I made you one promise,” his son said steadily. “I have always, always, even at the cost of my own life, strived to keep it. I am bringing the Silmaril home.”
“Well done,” his father said.
Curufin, as usual, took a full minute after the conversation ended to hang up his end.
Fëanor sat down, hard, on the nearest clean surface. The Silmaril would end the fading, heal them faster, restore their minds and bodies to full health. It ought to be possible to modify to change things for mortals, as well. To end death, perhaps. For their interstellar mission it could function as a power source and a synthetic sun.
He could build a world that justified the blood shed for this cause so far. He could make it all worth it. He could prove their every action right. Impossible, until then, to judge whether the price had been too high. And pointless to voice doubts; the Oath wouldn’t loosen its stranglehold even if he regretted it as acutely as some of his children now did.
Nothing to do but to win.
Chapter 10: Arc III: Obstinency
“I believe you,” she’d meant to announce without preamble when she strode into Nienor’s room two days later. But Nienor had been transferred to a different room, and one of her three roommates had several nurses clustered around her and another had the television blaring and the third was staring, sullenly, in Lalaith’s direction and clearly listening in on their conversation.
They made small talk instead, awkward stilted conversation about the Cowboys and the weather and the straw poll in Iowa. Nienor kept twisting the bedsheets around her own hands, tight enough to cut off circulation. The air conditioner rattled anxiously behind them. By the time their audience had left, grand pronouncements of belief seemed inappropriate.
“You remember Claire?” Lalaith said instead.
“Yeah.” Nienor had been madly envious of every one of her big sister’s friends, and had always begged for permission to hang out in perfect silence in the corner of the room when they came to visit. She’d been good at it, too – if she promised not to talk, she never said a word – so Lalaith hadn’t had much ground to stand on when she’d had to tell Nienor the arrangement was over. (“She isn’t afriend,” she’d said finally in exasperation, “I want to kiss her’, and on that, too, Nienor had kept her loyal sisterly silence.)
“Claire went to UT Dallas,” Lalaith said, “so I messaged her and asked if she knew anyone in the ling department there, and she did, and I emailed him, and we talked yesterday.”
“It’s a language. Real, I mean, with its own syntax, not a cypher for English, and its own grammar. When I told him a psychotic patient had spontaneously started speaking it he told me flat out that I was hoaxing him, or that you were hoaxing both of us. I got him to confirm that whoever invented this, if it’s an invented language, would have needed several decades and a PhD.”
Nienor visibly shuddered with relief. Lalaith couldn’t quite process the interpersonal stuff right now, so – “It’s not a form of Old English or Latin or Greek or any early predecessor languages or something – I was really hoping for that, it would let us narrow down the time period and area you were from –”
“Beleriand. Dor lómin.”
“Uh huh. I stopped by the history department too. They hadn’t heard of any places by those names, but they wouldn’t have, necessarily. I talked to one man who assured me nowhere in the Roman Empire went by those names and I should perhaps talk to people familiar with the history of England and Ireland, and I talked to a woman who was quite confident nowhere in Ireland was called that but who had no idea about England, and then I talked to a fellow who was certain there was no port in Northern Europe called ‘Beleriand’ in the year 722 A.D., but he would have to refer me across the department if I wanted to know anything about 723…”
She’d succeeded in her secondary mission for coming here today; Nienor was giggling.
“So,” Lalaith said, “you have knowledge of two languages which don’t exist; all the plausible means by which you could have come to understand them are supernatural. But it doesn’t seem to be a language spoken at any point in written history, so we should probably be expanding our hypothesis-space – alternate dimensions, parallel universes, stuff like that.”
“ ‘Stuff like that’,” said Nienor, “would encompass a lot of explanations that will never, ever occur to us and that we’ll never ever be able to understand.”
“I was hoping this would result in us understanding.”
“Me too. But we can’t close off the options we’re considering to the ones that make us feel good. Most of our hypothesis space still ought to be ‘something we haven’t thought of’, and frankly I personally should probably seriously consider the possibility I’m crazy-”
“Easy to say when you aren’t the one whose sanity is being questioned!”
She’d raised her voice too much; the bored girl in the next bed looked back over at them. Lalaith had to bite back her response. Which was probably a good thing; it would have been an unkind one.
“Nienor,” she hissed, “if I went to the front desk and told them what I now believe to be true, they’d commit me.”
“No,” Nienor said, “they wouldn’t. You’re not an imminent danger to yourself or others. They’d listen to you talk about dragons and Elves and they’d say ‘do you have plans to kill yourself?’ and then they’d let you walk out the door, if you wanted to. Questioning your own sanity fucking sucks, okay? I’ve been there. But it’s nowhere fucking close to ‘what I’m going through’. You don’t understand what I’m going through.”
“Okay,” Lalaith said. “Sorry.”
“I want you to get it, okay? I want you to understand. But you don’t.”
“Don’t apologize,” her sister muttered. The neighbor appeared to have decided that she was witnessing typical teenage angst; she rolled over. Lalaith tugged the rubbery curtains shut around Nienor’s bed.
“There’s something I probably should have mentioned,” Lalaith said. “But I like to keep work separate from personal life, you know that, and you were sick and it didn’t seem worth worrying you…”
“This sounds like another apology,” Nienor said wearily.
“I think my coworker might have met an Elf,” Lalaith said, and now she had her sister’s attention. She leaned forward, smiling. “So we’re surveying for a new drilling site, a hundred fifty miles northwest of Fargo and forty miles from the nearest human habitation - which is a 7-Eleven, a gas station, and an adult entertainment store – when all of my machines go crazy…”
Lalaith’s replacement was a man named Mitchell, easygoing and heavyset, who’d played linebacker for CalPoly. Ricardo would never admit it but he felt safer the minute the man arrived. They drove the thirty miles to the next surveying site in amiable silence. The three radio stations that weren’t fuzzy around here were a Christian music station, a Christian talk station, and a pop channel that seemed to play nothing but car commercials and Taylor Swift. Mitchell liked Taylor Swift. Ricardo never once looked in his rearview mirror.
“You’re right,” said Nienor when she was done. “You should have told me sooner.”
“I think I had something of a complex about work, these last few years,” Lalaith said. “Mind, it made me happy and it made me rich and I’m planning to go right back to it, so that’s not a life-changing revelation, but I am sorry I mishandled-”
“No,” said Nienor. “You should have told me sooner because I know what’s going on.”
Lalaith made a small speechless choking sound.
“You know Grandpa’s cousin Beren?” Nienor said.
Another small speechless choking sound.
“He was at Rían’s wedding. Anyway, the story goes – and everyone told it, back home, they whispered it to their children where their husbands couldn’t hear, they whispered it to the memorial-offering we made for the dead and gone – the story goes that when our people fled from Ladros, the men remained behind to delay and harass the enemies that would have followed us. None – none of them lived. Except one.
The story goes that for years they harassed the enemy, turned the land itself against them, slaughtered orcs and led orcs off cliffs and lit forest fires to trap orcs and redirected rivers to bury orcs in the winter mudslides – years, and one day they were betrayed, and captured and slaughtered at their campfire. Beren had gone out in pursuit of – food, perhaps, or water, or enemies – I heard this story a dozen times, but never twice the same way – and when he came back he found them dead to the last man, and a hundred orcs celebrating gleefully around the fire his father had set two hours earlier. So he killed them all.”
“Um,” Lalaith said.
“It’s a story,” her sister reprimanded her. But her eyes were gleaming and it was clearly a story that felt more true than anything in Dallas. “And for years, alone, Beren harassed them, slaughtered them, made their gains temporarily and the price terrible. Eventually the Enemy himself named a price on Beren’s head equal to the price for the King of the Ñoldor Elves, and more enemies poured into the land to seek him out. By then the land was gone – despoiled, scorched, flooded, salted, whatever had made it worth defending, once, was gone. So Beren left, through the Valley of Dreadful Death through which few pass alive, even Elves –”
“I’m sorry,” said Lalaith, who was diligently taking notes, “but, ‘valley of dreadful death?’”
“Nan Dungortheb,” said Nienor. “I’m translating for you, and that’s loosely how it translates. Mom passed through there, too, when fleeing, and half the women and children who fled with her died there, so if you think it’s funny-”
“Gotcha. Valley of Dreadful Death.”
“And in fleeing Beren came to the Hidden Kingdom of Thingol and Melian. Thingol was the greatest of the Elven kings, tall and strong with silver hair and bright eyes – he alone among his people had seen the light of Valinor, to the West, where the Elves go and where their gods live –”
“Do any of these words show up when you Google them, Nienor? I’m just curious-”
“Of course not. I tried that. First thing. Listen, there was a time when you could be killed for speaking these words out loud, and still people risked it to sneak up to the place where I lived with our mother, to tell me this story. If you can’t shut up-”
“Sorry,” Lalaith said.
“Thingol’s wife was Melian, but she was not an Elf, she was an angel in Elven form, for she had seen Thingol in the wild lands while he was passing through with his people. And, enchanted, she took the form of an Elven woman to greet him, and sang the song of nightingales. On seeing her he loved her, and they wed. That much,” Nienor said, “I know is true, because I met them – Thingol was indeed wise and fair and tall, and Melian the most beautiful being in the world. Things lived, around her. They grew and they thrived. The rest of the story I don’t know if it’s true, because it wasn’t told in the court in Menegroth – you’ll see why.
Thingol and Melian had a daughter, Lúthien, and she was the fairest woman ever to walk the earth, paler than moonlight, with hair darker than the sky between the stars. Flowers bloomed beneath her feet, when she danced, and she was loved by all, and she lived in the Hidden Kingdom, which was protected by Melian’s power from the wars that raged outside it. But Melian’s power faltered when Beren crossed through the Valley of Dreadful Death, seeking safety and solace – or perhaps he was guided by hands more powerful than hers – and he stumbled into the Hidden Kingdom and ran across Lúthien, singing.
He fell in love with her. It was very nearly inevitable – everyone fell in love with Lúthien, as far as I can gather, and he hadn’t seen another human being in five or six years. So he sees her, and chases after her, and she freaks out and runs away. But after a little while I guess she’s curious, because she’s never seen a human before, and she…falls in love too?” Nienor grimaced. “You can tell which parts every tale-teller agreed on and which parts they glossed over. But there was truth to it, because when I visited the Hidden Kingdom – well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Beren and Lúthien started spending all of their time together. She nursed him back to health and cared for him and danced for him, and one of her secret admirers from the court in Menegroth became curious where she was going, and followed her, and discovered her secret. And told her father. Who was justly furious-”
“Patriarchal protect-my-daughter’s-purity bullshit,” Lalaith said.
“Not really, he was the heir to a decimated mess of a nonexistent fiefdom, he was an age that Elves consider pre-pubescent, and he shouldn’t even have been there in the first place. Also as far as the Elves I have known saw it, all mortals are terminally ill and terminally incompetent. But anyhow, Lúthien brings her man before the court for an audience. Thingol says to him, “you can marry my daughter when you bring me a Silmaril plucked from the Dark Lord’s crown,” by which he presumably meant ‘never’, the Ñoldor had been warring for five hundred years to get those things back. And Beren, the idiot, says, ‘you’re on’. So he goes to the one remaining Ñoldor kingdom – Nargothrond, Túrin spent a while there also, I mentioned it last time –”
“And he calls on a personal debt to the King – don’t ask me how the King was in his personal debt, but Ladros was a fiefdom of this King’s, so perhaps that had something to do with it? It also helped that he was greatly admired for his heroic deeds. And the King is like ‘we don’t stand a chance, but I’m obligated by honor to help you’, only his cousins want the Silmaril and don’t want to die in a suicide Beren-helping mission, so they stage a coup.”
“Back up,” Lalaith said, “what?”
“I don’t know,” Nienor said. “Keep in mind that I was like eight the last time I heard this story. That’s as much as I’ve got. Okay, so the King and the few people who remain loyal to him go off with Beren to face a minor lieutenant of the Dark Lord, a fallen angel named Sauron also known as Gorthaur, the Cruel, who controls an isle of werewolves – no, I don’t have any more information about thateither – and they challenge Sauron to a contest.
“You do remember our great-uncle Beren, right? Tell me it’s out of character.”
“Okay. They challenge the Dark Lord’s fallen angel lieutenant to a contest.”
“They lose. They’re locked in the dungeons and tortured. And Lúthien, who has a magic love-bond with Beren – or possibly just magic in general, which she’s using to keep an eye on the wellbeing of Beren – finds out about this, so she goes to her father and says ‘we must storm the Isle of Werewolves to rescue him!’ ”
“Nienor, what does any of this have to do with -”
“Patience, patience, I’m getting there! Thingol says, ‘nope, sorry, fall in love with someone who isn’t a complete idiot next time’ – well, I’m making that part up. But I’ve met Thingol, he said something similar, I’m sure of it. And he’s worried she’ll do something rash, so he locks her up. Not in prison, Elves can’t be imprisoned for long, they waste away. In a treehouse. She escapes and goes back to Nargothrond, looking to rally an army to rescue Beren – she figures they’ll go along with this because it’s their King, as well, being tortured in the dungeons. Instead she meets the evil cousins who orchestrated the coup, and they imprison her there, too.”
“Okay, it’s a longer story than I realized. So she breaks out again, with the help of a magical dog who can talk, and goes to the Isle of Werewolves herself, alone, and challenges Sauron to a duel. Which she wins. The dog takes down all of Sauron’s werewolves and then she takes down him, and all of the others are dead but Beren is still alive so she sings him back to health –”
“Nienor, in your personal experience, there were Elves and dragons, you met them. The rest of these things – talking dogs, werewolves, singing people back to health – did you ever, personally, with your own eyes, see the slightest evidence they were true?”
“Once you believe in dragons, is it really that much of a stretch?”
“Just – you yourself admit this is a legend, told among a desperate people living as slaves under abhorrent conditions, and with every incentive to make it inspiring and very little incentive to make it true – if I admit the existence of Elves I don’t have to admit the existence of magic,” she said despairingly.
“It was magic which sustained the Hidden Kingdom,” Nienor said, “Melian’s magic. If you believe me on anything you may as well believe me on that. But all right, I’ll get to the crucial bit. Lúthien and Beren now go off to confront the Dark Lord himself. They disguise themselves and get as far as his castle. Then Lúthien reveals himself and tells the Dark Lord she’s here to betray her family – in one version, it’s ‘to betray the secrets of the angels’, in one version it’s to heal an old injury of his – the point is, a story the Dark Lord is willing to believe. And she dances for him, a dance-enchantment that puts everyone to sleep. Including Beren, so then she wakes Beren up and he goes over and pries a Silmaril out of the Dark Lord’s crown.”
“What’s a Silmaril?”
“So many questions,” said Nienor with grim satisfaction, “I wondered how long it would take you to ask that one. They’re enchanted gems made by the Elves. They are indestructible and shine with the light of Valinor. No mortals can touch them, except Beren – I know, I know, it’s a plot hole – and they ward off all evil.”
“Shine with the light of Valinor? So they emit it, not just reflect it?”
“And he only took one?”
“After he gets the first, he tries to pry the second out of the crown, but the fastening is stuck, his knife makes a loud noise, and the beasts of hell begin to awaken.”
“He could take the whole crown.”
“It’s a really heavy crown. Presumably. So he takes the one Silmaril he’s got, and he and Lúthien run for it, and come face to face with the evilest werewolf of all of them. Silmaril wards off evil, so Beren tries waving it in the werewolf’s face, and the werewolf bites off his arm and swallows it whole, Silmaril and all. Now Beren and Lúthien are really screwed, but the gods smile on them, and send the great and ancient Eagles to carry them to safely –”
“No, I never saw a sentient giant Eagle,” Nienor said solemnly. “Yes, everyone spoke about them as if they existed. No, I don’t think they’re more implausible than dragons-”
“The Eagles bring the two of them back home, and Lúthien does some magic first aid to get Beren to stop bleeding. Thingol hears the news and comes storming over to yell at the both of them. Beren says, “I have done as you asked, even now the Silmaril is in my hand-” – tell me that doesn’t sound like great-uncle Beren – and waves his bloody stump in Thingol’s face. Thingol, suitably abashed, says they can get married. But! The werewolf who swallowed the Silmaril! They burn everything evil which touches them, so it’s burning him up from the intestines outward, and he regenerates really quickly, so it’s a sort of perpetual internal torture.
He goes wild and runs across the continent murdering people and wreaking havoc, and because he’s eaten a Silmaril he’s even powerful enough to breach the magical defenses of the Hidden Kingdom. Everyone goes off to hunt him. Lúthien’s magical talking dog ends up taking him down. In the fight, Beren is critically wounded. Dying, he hands the Silmaril to Thingol and says, probably, “I hope it was worth the trouble.” Which it wasn’t, because when he dies Lúthien refuses to eat or drink and dies as well.” Nienor smiled bitterly. “Nowadays they’d hook you up to an IV and put you on an involuntary psychiatric hold. Did you know – that’s the part of the story that spoke to me most? She did not want to live, so she died. It hurt people, but no one says ‘oh, how selfish of her’ – it was her life, and she did not owe it to them to live it.”
“You are just incapable of listening to a story silently, aren’t you? In lecture were you always the obnoxious kid who sat in the front and asked questions to make yourself sound clever?”
“Yes,” Lalaith said, “because I was the only brown girl in 300-level engineering and people’d be thinking something of me either way, it might as well be that I was a know-it-all.”
They sat there for a moment in resentful, tense, silence. “Anyway,” Nienor says, “one version of the story has it that they came back to life and lived happily in the peaceful regions to the south, if that makes you feel better. But no one in the Hidden Kingdom spoke of Lúthien or Beren, and Thingol was wise and very, very sad and Melian looked as if she carried the weight of every evil in the world. And the Silmaril sat in the treasure vault. I saw it once, but was swiftly hurried out; beneath that light mere mortals age too fast.”
“Radioactive. Indestructible. Fits in the palm of your hand, lots of people want it.”
“It’s good to know you’re focused on the essentials,” Nienor said softly.
“We dug up a Silmaril in North Dakota, or something comparable.”
Another bitter smile. “There is nothing comparable. There never was.”
“Ricardo sold himself short, settling for a million dollars. He could have had an Elven princess.”
“If you’d seen Thingol and Melian,” Nienor said, “you wouldn’t find it funny. They were good, kind – well, not people. Good, kind beings. And no one should ever have to bury their daughter.”
“Elves live forever, if nothing happens to them?”
“So – in principle – they’re all still here?”
“The ones who aren’t dead. Or who came back from the dead, if that rumor is true.”
“Would it sound completely cra-, no, let me rephrase - do you think it’s possible that one of them is monitoring me?”
They bought the drill equipment from a legitimate supplier and had it shipped in by a legitimate trucking company, and if they did their work by the dead of night that was only because they, children of Valinor, had never quite grown fond of sunlight.
It would be, Curufin estimated, four days for everything to arrive and three days’ work once it did. Far longer than if they’d waited for Dakota Petroleum to extract it, but the risk was far smaller and the costs barely significant enough to be an inconvenience. No mortal could get here without driving, and the single road was poorly maintained and easily rendered impassable.
All of this would go more smoothly with Celegorm present, the one who by sheer coincidence had actually picked up the now twice-relevant skillset of digging things out of bedrock. Everyone knew this and no one said it. Maedhros had said in a few years’ time they could probably risk a jailbreak without attracting too much press attention, at least presuming everyone behaved themselves in the meantime. And so they’d all shown their unhappy solidarity for their brother by keeping their heads down and their identities impeccably mortal. Curufin had turned down co-authorship of a paper that was probably going to win a Nobel.
If the shipping company had done overnights, if Celegorm had been there to handle the heavy machinery, if they’d only needed twodays instead of three, then the end of the world might have gone quite differently.
Chapter 11: Searching Haystacks
Túrin had not been home in three days.
Lalaith’s parents worried very differently. Morwen silently, her movements swifter and more careful than usual, her voice, on the phone with her friends deliberate and calm (and yet they knew her; they would read between her practiced lines and hear her silent plea for aid). Húrin worried by boisterously denying there is anything wrong with the world at all. He had spent the whole day ripping walls apart in a flurry of home-improvement projects.
Lalaith worried by teaching a machine-learning algorithm to recognize Elves.
“Can you reliably tell them apart from humans?” she’d asked Nienor.
“Anyone can,” Nienor said. “They were taller, healthier, perfect teeth, glossy hair, clearer skin, they glowed…”
“This was before the invention of toothpaste and moisturizer, right?” Lalaith said. “Not to mention shampoo, braces, vaccination, fluoridated water-”
“Yes,” Nienor had said a little testily, “it was before any of those things. You died, remember?”
“No,” Lalaith had said, “I don’t. And the average height in ancient Greece was, like, 5’1”, right? If your Elves had proper nutrition and never got sick, of course they’d tower over us malnourished stunted humans. Are we talking ‘tall’ like ‘A head taller than me’ or tall like –”
“More than a foot taller than me, I think.”
“And you could tell them on sight? By criteria other than straight teeth and clear skin?”
“The Sindar, definitely. Maybe not the Ñoldor or the Laiquendi. The racial differences among Elves are as significant as those among humans, and I never actually saw any of the latter sort, they were mostly all dead, even back then. I could try, though?”
She’d pulled five hundred faces from the starting lineups of the nation’s professional basketball teams – high density of tall people, she reasoned – and the other five hundred from Wikipedia, celebrities and people of historical import. She’d sent them over to Nienor to sort into Elves and non-Elves, and called up yet another half-remembered college friend to ask for help with coding. The friend balked – facial recognition work was proprietary – but Lalaith begged and called in favors from college and got, eventually, a concession. “Send me the pictures,” the friend said, “and I’ll run them through the project code for you.”
“493 :)”, Nienor texted back an hour later.
“Great,” Lalaith had replied, “I need a minimum of hundred to train the alg on. Thousand would be better.”
“(1/3) r u serious? Were you expecting 100 people out of 1000 to be Elves? There were never more than 300 thou of them – even if ALL still alive (and they aren’t – idk how the free peoples of Beleriand beat Melkor at all but I guarantee you (2/3) that a lot of them died – that’d mean in these days .005% of ppl are Elves. unless they had kids, I guess. but they don’t have many kids, no one I know had more than one. was gonna say ‘and im not sitting here looking through 100k pictures for u but (3/3) there’s nothing the fuck else to do here so go ahead.”
“I don’t have 100k pictures. Maybe Elves are disproportionately famous? Will send more this afternoon.”
She kept the Dallas police blotter open in one tab. Túrin probably wouldn’t do anything that would get him killed or arrested. His anger was demonstrative but rarely dangerous.
But probably. Rarely.
Picture 493 was of a pop musician from the 70s. Lalaith spent the afternoon scouring YouTube for videos of him and researching the history and symptoms of shared delusions/mass hysteria. She wasn’t sure if she was looking for evidence that she was delusional or that some poor misdiagnosed group of historical souls hadn’t been.
She went for a walk at lunch. A breath of fresh air, a habit she’d acquired in North Dakota and which was painfully absurd to adhere to here. The midday sun had stripped the color from the world and left the asphalt sticky. The air tasted like exhaust and cigarette butts and the stuff you coughed up when you had a bad cold. Sweat pooled on the back of her neck. When she ducked into a CVS for relief from the heat, a loss prevention agent pointedly followed her until she left again.
Something was bothering her, but she couldn’t quite place it.
In the forty years he’d been employed by the National Security Agency, Matt Carter’s violently red hair had gone peppered with gray, and then grayed entirely. Other than that, the man had not changed. The people who tittered nervously about 1960s unethical science experiments and the Fountain of Youth weren’t really joking.
But this was a place that valued two things – competence and loyalty – and in both respects Carter’s record was unquestioned. No personal life at all – the man had never married, never apparently even dated, and in forty years had never racked up so much as a traffic citation. He had one brother, a gifted scientist who’d died twenty years earlier, and the only vacation day he’d ever taken had been for the man’s funeral.
They had, of course, dug deeper. It was illegal to access the library records and private communications of American citizens without a warrant, but it was done anyway, and had been for as long as anyone could remember. There, too, there was nothing of interest. He read several books a week, the bulk of them military histories; he was an early adopter of every technology out there, he loyally purchased the albums of a select few pop singers, he made weekly phone calls to his ailing father in Kansas. One could suspect him of being a Russian spy only on the grounds that no one could possibly be so boring.
His career had been thoroughly respectable, if not extraordinary; perhaps some vice was needed to reach the top. He led projects to assimilate the vast amounts of data the American government now listened in on through their sprawling security network, improved cryptography and network security, and pioneered a social media and communications project which would allow the government to control the flow of breaking news. This last ability he had insisted on deploying to suppress a drilling sabotage and workplace shooting incident in Denmark, spending every owed favor and long-standing friendship with his colleagues to convince his supervisors to allow a test of his project that day. The behavior had seemed mildly suspicious to a few people, but they’d investigated and found no ties to Carter at all.
The test had been a resounding success; Carter's life's work was a triumph. The incident had caught little traction in the local media. People who posted about it found their accounts freeze up annoyingly, and the posts got little attention. Danish media outlets ran their stories but found viewers were surprisingly disinterested.
This had been Carter’s greatest insight: one didn’t need to buy out the media, one just needed to choke out the organic traffic that drove a story from ‘mildly interesting’ to ‘viral’. The ‘share’ link should be impossible to find on the page. Twitter should inexplicably insist that you were logged out and needed to log in to share. Facebook’s known-to-be-obscure algorithm for deciding what was visible on someone’s dashboard would just decide that this wasn’t.
The man who’d done a great deal of damage to an oil rig in a drug-fueled rampage, shooting one coworker and killing another, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a trial a few years later. The day of the sentencing Matt Carter went home early and sat listlessly in front of the television, which of course did not cover the trial at all.
Six days before the world ended, a subroutine in VSDA flagged a text message for review. VSDA was the filtering algorithm that scanned the communications of select U.S. citizens on an expansive and secretive national watchlist. It looked for references to certain terrorist leaders, as well as a long list of words that seemed potentially terror-related. Low-level grunts then listened to those conversations or read those messages personally to see if there was any threat.
This subroutine had, like the rest of VSDA, been written by Matt Carter. Unlike the rest of VSDA, it delivered its results right to his desk. The words that it flagged for review were a little different, too.
r u serious? Were you expecting 100 people out of 1000 to be Elves? There were never more than 300 thou of them – even if ALL still alive (and they aren’t – idk how the free peoples of Beleriand beat Melkor at all but I guarantee you
Matt Carter raised his left hand to his temple to rub away the beginnings of a tension headache and then caused Lalaith’s phone company to cancel her contract for lack of payment. He added a standard action-pending block to her email, as well; communication with suspect addresses would go through him before they reached their addressee.
Lalaith and Nienor; laughter and mourning. Quite the name to burden your younger daughter with. And who named their children in Sindarin, in these days?
Someone had been careless. He'd have put money on it being Celegorm, but Celegorm was in prison. Hopefully they’d excitedly piece together as much as one could – which was not much – and then drop it. He scowled at the screen. Perhaps they’d start a website telling the world the truth. It'd join thousands such websites, proposing conspiracies by everything from body-snatchers to the Illuminati, and be no more credible than any of those.
He edited the content of the message to something that would flag VSDA's ordinary subroutines, a few obscure words that would start an investigation for involvement with terrorism. It wouldn't go anywhere unless he manufactured more evidence. He’d intervene – get them both sent to an offshore prison, if necessary – only if the operation in North Dakota was threatened.
His priorities were simple.
All things were, really, if you swore an Oath to always see them that way.
He’d spent a night on a friend’s couch and another night on a different friend’s couch. He hadn’t told either of them why he’d left. “I was falsely accused of molesting my little sister’ were the sort of words that broke friendships – that should break friendships, really. And he had a rule not to break things when this feeling – this directionless, desperate, enemy-breathing-down-your-neck feeling – was driving him. Wait it out, wait it through, and then decide, when the feeling ended and you could trust your own thoughts again.
If things had shaken out differently he could have taught Nienor that. How to be crazy and go on living and lead the kind of life that wouldn’t inspire anyone to pity you: lessons from Túrin Turambar. I dream about dragons too.
Once that thought had inspired sympathy with Nienor; now it just makes it hard not to hate her.
It occurred to him that his behavior might be interpreted as fleeing arrest, as evidence of guilt. He couldn’t make himself care, somehow.
“You want to go off on a cross country roadtrip?”
“Yeah,” he said, drumming his fingertips against his friend’s coffee table. “I can’t stand this place in the summer.”
“Isn’t summer yet.”
“Perfect time to leave, right?”
“How about once the semester ends, man?”
“Yeah, okay.” He let his fingers run out of energy. “I think I ought to live in Alaska or something. That way when I get the urge to go wrestle a bear-”
“I literally cannot think of anything that is a worse idea than that,” Ryan said.
“I might win.”
“I want to laugh and say ‘you just might’, but I’m terrified that if I say that you’ll nod and laugh and then go off and pull a Chris McCandless on us.”
“There was an article in the New Yorker arguing he wasn’t stupid, he was poisoned by a plant that his guidebooks said was safe to eat.”
“I dunno what’s going on, so I’m not going to tell you to go back home. But. Don’t go to Alaska.”
“I promise I’ll at least talk to you first.”
Ryan made a face and then sat down, heavily. “And you can’t stay here until the end of term.”
“No problem,” he said, “I’ll get an apartment.”
He got a hotel room instead. He couldn't quite justify the sense of impeding catastrophe that he felt as he paid for it. It'd take a while, even being careless like this, to burn through his bank account. He’d worked full-time since he was sixteen, driven by the same vague sensation he was running out of time that Lalaith admitted inspired her, if in a different direction.
(He'd thought about joining the army. Sometimes he'd been sure he should, sometimes he'd been sure he'd kill someone if he ever did. He had a recurring nightmare where he punched a man in a bar fight and his head fell off, and as it rolled to the ground Túrin recognized him as a friend. And he didn’t date because the girls in his dreams were always dead, and it felt like a warning.)
See, Nienor? You can be crazy and live. You can even trust the crazy. You just don’t let it walk you off a cliff.
He flopped onto the bed in his hotel room – a Sheraton, cheap, sterile and generic – and watched the Rangers lose. The air conditioning was on too high; the room felt like a tomb.
Chapter 12: Don't Split the Party
“It says right here in the patient procedures and guidelines on your website,” Lalaith hissed, “that under extenuating circumstances such as, c) bereavement and personal emergency, patients can be released outside of standard hours by the physician on call.
“I’m not familiar with that document,” the receptionist said, her tone a little too smooth and professional to come across as apologetic.
“It’s on your website!!”
“Sit down, and I’ll take a look.”
“Look,” Lalaith said, “please, the wellbeing of your patient is at stake here.”
“Sit down, please, and when I have a spare moment I will take a break.”
She collapsed onto a plastic chair and bounced her fingertips off of each other, miserably. The hospital procedures were not actually on her side. But they were neutral enough that a charitably-inclined person might see things in her favor. She wasn’t lying about the ‘emergency’ bit.
"Let me try," Morwen said, and flashed her scariest smile.
It had been 4:40, a paltry ten minutes after the end of visiting hours (and praise the lord that Nienor hadn’t yet been transferred back to the psychiatric hospital, where visiting hours were not offered at all) when Lalaith, puzzling over the notice of cancellation to her phone, started to wonder whether Nienor had gotten her email.
The obvious thing to do had been to rush her mother’s laptop down to Starbucks (she couldn’t be sure whether they were tracking the IP address or the family wireless or Lalaith’s account specifically) and hack into her sister’s email from there.
She didn’t know Nienor’s password, but she barreled through the security questions: first pet? mother’s maiden name? She reset her sister’s password to askmewhylater with only a twinge of guilt.
The email – 1000 more faces to sort – hadn’t gone through. Lalaith flipped between tabs with the same surreal detachment that she’d felt the day she arrived back in Dallas. The message had been sent, an hour and fifty minutes ago. The message had not arrived.
She’d asked a random stranger if she could borrow his iPhone. She’d been shaking a little violently and he’d offered to call a doctor for her.
“No,” she’d said, “just need to make a phone call.” Amirah had luckily picked up on the first ring.
“Hey,” Lalaith had said, more calmly than she would have expected to manage, “so either I am paranoid or they're after me, I’m going to spell out the evidence and then you’re going to tell me which one it is, all right?”
“Is this L-”
“Don’t say my name. Also don’t say my sister’s name, or any of the words we used the last time we talked about this. I don’t know how they’re listening.”
The man who’d lent her his iPhone was now looking seriously distressed. Lalaith wanted to leave his earshot but then he’d probably think she was stealing the phone.
“Okay. I’m leaning toward the hypothesis that you are paranoid,” Amirah said steadily.
“When we talked the other day, the connection cut out the minute I tried to tell you about something important. Today, when I was constantly in touch with my sister, trying to figure something out with her, both our phone contracts suddenly got cancelled and the email I sent her didn’t go through. Also, my brother is missing.”
“I’m so sorry. But – that’s not unlike him, is it? And he has a reason. Given, you know, what your sister said.”
“Yeah. No, it’s not unlike him.”
“Still leaning toward ‘you’re paranoid.’”
“I believe that Ni – that my sister is right, that she knows something, and that there are people trying to keep it from getting out. I think they’re the people who bribed my boss. I think they either can’t or won’t employ actual violence. Only, Túrin is missing. So maybe they can.”
“You just said his name. Is that a problem?”
“If they’re listening in on all conversations about Túrin they’ll have to wade through tons of people talking about Italy,” Lalaith said uncertainly. “But – no, wait, there we go. There’s a test. I am going to hang up this phone, find another one, call you back. Or – are any of your housemates home?”
“Okay. I’ll call her.” She hesitated as she thought through the implications. “I don’t think I’m putting her in danger, they haven’t to my knowledge actually hurt anyone yet. And even if there is danger, it’s not as if you deserve to face it any more than she does. Yeah, I’ll call Jeanine. I mean, it’s not very admirable, but –”
“I’m not following you,” Amirah said.
“I think there are people who are tracking phones and identifying threatening conversations. I think they’re the ones who disconnected us. I want to test that, but I don’t want to help them find you, if they haven’t done so already. The test will involve getting their attention, and so I'd prefer it not be possible to connect to you. So I’ll use a stranger’s phone to call Jeanine, and we’ll carry out the test. I got distracted briefly panicking over whether that was ethical, and the answer is, I don’t think it’s very bad."
“I am going to say a bunch of words to try to get their attention, okay? Actually, scratch that, I’ll start telling you the whole story. My prediction is that we’ll get cut off. If that happens, then you know I’m right, and – and – fuck. I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll tell my boss there’s a family medical emergency,” Amirah said, “fly down to Dallas, and you’ll tell me in person what is going on.”
“I can’t ask you to do that. And it might not be safe, you know. If they’re watching us. If we get cut off, I’ll come to D.C., instead. Is that okay? Can I come visit?”
“I’ve only been begging you to since forever.”
“Okay. Call you back soon.” She handed the poor man his phone back and found everyone in the building staring at her. Right. She’d have to borrow another one somewhere else.
It was only three blocks to another Starbucks. She asked a woman, this time, and one with a ugly old phone that she wouldn’t be suspected of trying to steal. Then she pressed herself against the wall and tried to explain to Amirah’s confused housemate why she needed to talk to Amirah without either of them saying Amirah’s name.
Some people, she concluded when her girlfriend picked up the other end, were meant to be embroiled in shadowy conspiracies and some weren’t. Engineers, as a class, weren’t.
“Okay,” Amirah said.
“So, Nienor’s memories are from a place called Beleriand, where we were born into the aftermath of a terrible loss by the Elves in the war against Melkor,” Lalaith had begun.
Ahead of the fear came a thrill of vicious satisfaction at having her hypothesis confirmed. I’ll have to tell Nienor, she thought, that now we can really be sure.
Then, though, the fear hit.
Maybe she should have come up with a form of hypothesis testing that didn’t make her some apparently powerful enemies.
She pulled out her mother’s laptop again and bought a ticket for that evening to Washington.
Then, with a sinking feeling, she realized she was going to need to tell her mother why it was that she was leaving that evening for Washington.
“Explain again, please,” Morwen said evenly.
“I believe Nienor,” Lalaith said. “About everything I just told you. And the reason is partially because I have spent the last few days meticulously verifying it, but also partially because someone else has spent them trying to stop me.”
“No,” said her mother, “explain why you’re leaving us for Washington.”
Oh. “Amirah and I can’t communicate, now. They’re almost certainly watching me and if they aren’t watching her, they’ll figure it out soon and then they will be. She has a background in tech, we complement each other. And they are strangely determined to keep me from telling her the truth. Which probably means that it’s good, for us, if I do tell her.”
“I am not convinced that’s true,” said Morwen flatly.
“Let me try from another angle,” Lalaith said. “In the last week, everything that has happened has happened to us. We haven’t actually done anything. I have been caught flat-footed again and again. I would like to start moving.”
“There are a lot of shapes that can take, and Washington doesn’t seem like the most sensible-”
“They’ve been predicting us, so we need to do something they can’t predict! I am going to figure out what is going on, and I would like to keep all of you safe while I do it. But I can’t handle this all alone, I need support and a sounding board. I’m going to Washington.”
“If you’d thought to make use of it,” her mother said mildly, “you’d have support and a sounding board. Right here.”
They stood there, both of them balanced on their toes like eager duelists. Lalaith sighed. “I’m sorry. I should have thought of that, you’re right.”
“More importantly,” Morwen said, “if I were your mysterious nemesis, I would call Dallas/Fort Worth and tell them you’re a terrorist. Boom! You can’t fly, and if you try to use the ticket you bought twenty minutes ago, they will probably detain you overnight.”
“Oh,” Lalaith said.
“Oh, indeed. If I provisionally believe you, we do need to act. But not by booking plane tickets. They’re tracking you exclusively through tech, as far as you know?”
“Invite Amirah here,” said her mother, “assuming you two were smart enough to set up a secret channel of communication. Have her take the last flight out of Dulles tonight, and tomorrow we’ll see if we can get Nienor discharged from the hospital. And Lalaith, if you know where Túrin is –”
“If you know where Túrin is,” her mother continued placidly, “please ask him to come home.”
“He’s not with his friends. He was for a few days, but then he left, told them he’d get an apartment, hasn’t been in touch.”
“If it’s the same people, unraveling this is our best chance to find him.”
“If it’s not the same people,” her mother said, “then-”
“Then he’s probably just off sulking. The odds he’d have coincidentally bumped into a totally distinct crazy conspiracy are-”
“The same as they were before we got entangled with one,” Morwen said. “Gambler’s fallacy.”
Lalaith bit her tongue.
“Though,” Morwen continued, “your estimate of how likely it is that Túrin is involved with a crazy conspiracy might be mostly shaped by your estimate of how many crazy conspiracies there are out there – and presumably there are now more than you thought. So really, the events of this week ought to increase your credence that Túrin is entangled with crazy conspiracies-”
“If your point is that you’re smarter than me and I should have told you everything sooner,” Lalaith said, “you win, I should have. I said I’m sorry.”
“I’m not smarter than you, sweetie. Just older,” her mother said. But then she gave Lalaith a glare that belied that. “From here forward, everyone shares all relevant information.”
One hour later a dull black SUV pulled up in front of their house, screeching to a halt and adding the scent of burning rubber to the superheated Dallas air. Transportation Security Administration, a black man and a white woman with impeccably pressed collars and matching American flag pins. They were wondering why Lalaith had purchased the last-minute ticket for Washington, D.C. and why she’d decided not to take the flight after all. “Am I on a watchlist?” she’d asked, pointedly, and gotten no answer.
She told them she’d bought it to go see her girlfriend, an impulsive decision after a passionate phone conversation, and they asked pointed questions for the next several hours. Lalaith, rather than flustered, felt herself grow steadily more calm. She’d come home a few days ago convinced that the problem was Nienor’s illness. Instead, it seemed, it was a declaration of war on her family. And wars she could win.
Morwen must have called Húrin on his way home from work and informed him that there were guests in the home. He strode in wearing a three-piece suit he definitely had not been wearing to work that morning, and his usual gregarious mannerisms were fierce, possessed, dignified. After ten minutes of speaking with her father the agents left. Lalaith could swear they’d been a little red-faced.
Her mother stood on tiptoes to kiss the stubble on his chin. Lalaith was too old to look away with the pretend embarrassment of her teenage years; she watched them, instead, with steely satisfaction.
“Explain to me,” Húrin said, “why you did buy a ticket to Washington.”
“Explain in the car,” Morwen said. “I don't want to wait until tomorrow. We’re getting Nienor out as quickly as we possibly can.”
That is why they were arguing with hospital administrators about discharging a patient in the middle of the night. Or, rather, Morwen was arguing now, more adept and more relentless than Lalaith, more intimidating than Húrin.
Lalaith briefly contemplated the paradox of making that claim when her father had just scared a couple of feds out of their suits, and then decided there was no paradox. Her father was terrifying. Her mother was scarier.
“My daughter,” Morwen said, “attempted suicide while in the custody of the hospital. We are contemplating suing. If she does it again, we will sue. On the other hand, if we sign her out of here against medical recommendation –”
“Our understanding was that when she was discharged her, she would be transferred to Blanchard for psychiatric evaluation –”
“I am,” Morwen hissed, “as her guardian and medical power-of-attorney, declining further treatment. Religious reasons. If you think she’s competent, ask her yourself, she’ll decline too.”
“There’s no procedure for-”
“Section 38c,” Lalaith piped up helpfully. “It’s on your website.”
“You are refusing further treatment against the judgment of the medical staff here, staff with more experience than you in handling these conditions,” the doctor told Nienor earnestly. Lalaith had to admit that the folks here seemed to genuinely care.
“I know,” Nienor said. “I’m doing it anyway. Religious reasons.”
“You said you were not religious on the intake form-”
“To a faith that prohibits medical treatment.”
“Manwë’s Witnesses,” said Nienor earnestly; Lalaith’s twitching jaw might have betrayed them, but no one was looking. “They’re a spinoff of Jehovah’s.”
“You know,” the doctor said, “that if you are a danger to yourself and others – and a recent suicide attempt, Nienor, is a very good reason to think that you are-
“I’m not suicidal,” Nienor said. “My newfound religious faith has strong teachings against suicide. I wouldn’t dream of it. What happened before – it is as if it happened to an entirely different person.”
In the end they let her go. Húrin pushed the wheelchair and Morwen stalked the corridors with an expression of tremendous satisfaction on her face and Lalaith trailed behind, one hand closed firmly around a hard drive with 100,000 faces scraped off the Web.
“This is unexpected,” said Nienor, a little tightly, once they got into the parking lot.
“Lalaith explained your story. Elves might be watching us, so we wanted to get to you first,” Morwen said matter-of-factly, while Húrin lifted his youngest into the back seat. “Sorry we couldn’t acquire a wheelchair-accessible car. We’ll remodel the house as soon as possible.”
“That’s not necessary,” Nienor said quietly.
“Actually,” Húrin said, “it is. You need to get around and you aren’t going to be walking – well, never say never. They work medical miracles these days. But – we’d need one.”
They had worked medical miracles already to put her back together after the jump. But she didn’t have any mobility beneath the hip and she’d lost both legs at mid-calf. The doctors said she could as easily have broken her spine higher up. Lalaith considered briefly what this trip home might have been like, if Nienor had succeeded, and then felt herself flinching away from the thought. No point in torturing herself.
Nienor was staring at her legs as if thinking the same thing. “So,” she said after a moment, “where are we going?”
“The airport to pick up Lalaith’s girlfriend,” Morwen said, “and then Mexico.”
“Lalaith’s on the do-not-fly list,” Húrin said.
“Elves play dirty, it appears,” Lalaith muttered.
“But of course they do! I told you that. And you never emailed me some more photographs to sort –”
“Well,” Lalaith said, “long story, but I did. Ah, that’s still pretty urgent, so if you don’t mind, I’ve got them all right here…”
“Lalaith said you said that Elvis is an Elf, honey,” Húrin said, starting the car. “Is that true?”
“The guy in that picture is an Elf,” Nienor said. “Don’t – don’t you remember them? You saw more of them than I did. And the stories I heard – I always thought, if I saw you again, I’d ask what Gondolin was like.”
There was a minute’s silence.
“Sorry,” he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Their mother giggled.
“What?” Húrin asked, merging onto the freeway, his irrepressible grin already beginning to creep back onto his face.
“It’s just,” she said, “that’s exactly what you always said, when people asked you about Gondolin.”
Húrin, to his credit, did not crash the car.
“Now wait one fucking second,” Lalaith said.
“There isn’t more to it than that,” Morwen added quickly. “I don’t – bits and pieces of the story you told us felt right, they made sense. And Húrin denying Gondolin, that felt right, it made sense. But I don’t trust my instincts. Sometimes I can make a lucky guess, perhaps, but sometimes they just point me astray. Like right now. All of us, here, together, going to find Túrin, going to turn the tables – that makes sense, I am confident it's a good decision, but it doesn’t feel right.”
“Of course it doesn’t,” Nienor said. “Your instincts are screaming that Lalaith is dead.”
They drove the rest of the way to the airport in silence.
Chapter 13: Cat And Mouse Games
Amirah was standing in Passenger Pickup with a suitcase, gray nylon, in one hand and her purse in the other. Her back was stiff and her knuckles were white and her eyes swept the terminal like windshield wipers. When she saw them every muscle in her body relaxed; the handle nearly slipped from her grip.
Lalaith had been confined to the middle of the back seat for as long as she could remember; it was the universal fate of the shortest child in every family of five. In that moment, though, it was reassuring to have people pressing in on her from both sides. “Thanks for coming,” she said.
“Nabs isn’t happy,” Amirah said. “I never even told him I had a girlfriend. I’m not closeted at work, exactly, but I sort of arrange conversations so it doesn’t come up? I don’t like it being token proof of my liberal bona fides…anyway, Nabs thinks I’m ambiguously single and suddenly I have a serious girlfriend, she’s in Texas, she’s in trouble, and I’m going to be missing the rest of the week? I couldn’t even promise I could work remotely-”
“You won’t be able to,” said Morwen. “They’d be able to track us easily, if we did that.”
“Hi, Mrs. Thalion,” Amirah said. “Um, who are ‘they’?”
Lalaith half hoped that Nienor, who seemed to be getting good at piping up ominously, would take that cue. But Nienor was still flipping mechanically through photographs from Wikipedia.
“Well,” Lalaith said, “we’re pretty sure they’re Elves. But it’s technically possible that they’re a government conspiracy that covers up the existence of Elves. Even more probably, they are Elves in the government. And it could be the case that Elves secretly run the government, and pushed the Patriot Act through specifically so they could cover up their own existence-”
“Nope,” Nienor said, “just ran through all of Congress. No Elves. Too old.”
“Damn,” Lalaith said.
“…I told Nabs I’d call with more details once I was here,” Amirah said.
“Call now,” Morwen said, “and then ditch your phone. We are reasonably confident – as Lalaith must have told you – that they’re using telecommunications to track us.”
“We’re also reasonably confident that they haven’t killed anyone and that they’re all-around pretty decent people,” Lalaith said hastily, “so don’t get too freaked out.”
Amrod, the sixth son of Fëanor, had been the one closest to North Dakota when the news broke. All of them had been galvanized at once by the thought they could handle this nightmare more gracefully than the last one. Before the Silmaril ever cleared the ground, even.
Curufin had grumbled that cancelling humanitarian work in Bangladesh to race to the site of the Silmaril would probably cancel out whatever good karma they’d won in the first place by doing humanitarian work in Bangladesh. But not very forcefully, and not for very long; it had been only six years, after all, since the recovery of the first Silmaril, and no one had expected to become a good person in six years. If racing to the site of the new discovery set their counters back by a decade – hell, by a century – for that matter, by a millennium – it didn’t really make a difference.
So all of them were there. But Amrod had been there first. He’d been the one to warn off the site crew with promises of money and the implicit threat of trouble, he’d been the one to do an old-fashioned Elven survey of the land and verify, with his heart and instincts, what all the equipment said.
And predictably he was the one Maedhros tried to shoo off to Dallas on some information containment scheme of comparatively minimal importance.
He laughed and hung up.
When Maedhros called back he sounded irritated. “I’m not trying to give you a meaningless assignment out of harm’s way – I am trying to get resources on the ground to aid me in containing a situation that has been very difficult for me to manage remotely.”
“If, after this extraction, some girl goes to the press and there’s a global firestorm requiring us all to lie low for a century, so what?”
“We’ll get behind on scientific progress-”
“Moryo!” Amrod called.
Caranthir wore a closely-fitted suit all the time, now. Amrod had seen him in the robes of the Valinorean court, seen him in armor, seen him in the simpler fabrics of a Beleriand chieftan, seen him dead, but he could never quite reconcile Caranthir-in-a-suit. Mortal fashions would probably change before he was actually required to get used to it.
Caranthir was leaning against a tree and brushing dirt off said closely-fitted suit. They were camping, without tents or sleeping bags or the other things mortals had invented for camping-while-mortal. It was thoroughly delightful, but hard on suits. “Uh huh?” Caranthir said.
“Can we afford a hundred-year subscription to JSTOR?”
“Yes,” Caranthir said.
Amrod turned back toward the wall with a triumphant smile, even though Maedhros was on the phone and couldn’t see it. “We can keep up with technological progress while hiding out at home.”
“It is possible,” said Maedhros tightly, “that they now have enough information to go to the press. If they do so, I have limited capacity to contain the story-”
“Tyelco shot up an oil rig, lit things on fire, hijacked a helicopter, punched a teenager to death, and you contained that just fine.”
“It made the news. There was a flurry of attention for a few days. All I managed was to contain that interest to a few days.”
“If they go to the press today, and there’s a flurry of attention for the next few days, some enterprising idiot flies a news helicopter over to the drilling site-”
“We shoot it down,” Amrod said.
“That story I can’t contain,” his brother said.
Amrod could have contested the point further. But he could count on one hand the number of arguments he’d won against Maedhros, and four of them had been when he was little enough he could cling to his brother’s knee and beg for what he wanted.
“Are you coming?” he said, instead, to Amras.
Before the Silmaril had been restored to them Amras had been incapable of taking full physical form. Things had fallen through his hands and the light hit him wrong, made him outsized and shadowed and eerie. Time blurred around him – a year had once passed while the two of them had been speaking, but Amras’ shadow had risen and fallen to reflect the passage of a single day. Amrod knew that trick, now, and could avoid it, but inflicting Amras on mortals had been a little dangerous.
In the Silmaril’s light the effect had strengthened, instead of weakened. Amras could take on human form, now, but a storm seemed perpetually to be gathering around him; the air tasted like rain and your hairs stood on end. Curufin had set up some instruments and explained that Amras generated a powerful magnetic field – ‘and we could probably use him as an emergency generator if we lost power sources,’ he added, with one of the most genuine smiles he had ever spared his younger brothers.
Amras was at the moment sprawled on the ground in full physical form, raising static to ensure that more dust stuck to Caranthir’s suit. “You want me to come?” he said.
“I tried scaring people on my own,” Amrod said, “when I came out here. Fellow who ran the survey. I don’t think he was very scared.”
“He left and hasn’t come back,” Amras said mildly. “And I think I’d be a hazard on airplanes.”
“Oh, all right.”
This is why he arrived in Dallas alone, in a bad mood and wearing very very badly rumpled clothing.
“Do I kill them?” he’d asked Maedhros on the phone. Maedhros liked to believe that if only he gave the orders and accepted all the blame for the terrible things, he could keep the scourge of villainy off of his brothers’ souls. Amrod did not believe in souls or scourges or villainy. But he liked to believe in Maedhros, and in particular in Maedhros-as-a-big-brother, because it meant that a very, very terrible person could have a very very good thing inside them. And when you were a very very terrible person you had to cling to that.
“Yes, kill whoever you need to,” Maedhros had said instantly. “And surrender if you need to. Once the Silmaril is safe I’ll send you help.”
“I won’t need it,” he said, thinking of Denmark.
“We’re going to Mexico,” Morwen said, “because Mexico has different internet service providers, different cell carriers, different government, however they’re tracking us it’s going to be a pain in the ass for them to keep doing it once we cross the border. We’re also going to Mexico because Lalaith isn’t on their do-not-fly list and if we need to get anywhere in the world, it’s nice to have theoption of an airport nearby. In particular if we need to get to North Dakota, we fly to Winnipeg. You have your passport?”
“No,” Amirah said.
“We can probably buy one in Mexico.”
“This plan feels dangerous,” Lalaith said, still luxuriating in the end of all the secrets, squeezed into the middle of the back seat. “In the 'if we die, who will miss us?' sense, I mean. Isn’t Mexico kind of – aren’t they in the middle of a drug war?”
“Like most countries,” Morwen said pointedly, “some parts are safer than others.”
“Found another Elf,” Nienor said. “He’s a physics professor in Saskatchewan. Maybe we should fly to Canada after – no, never mind, he’s been dead for thirty years.”
“How long has she been going at that?” Amirah said.
“Thousand pictures took me just under two hours, with breaks,” Nienor said. “So doing a hundred thousand, like Lalaith wants, will take a couple weeks. Unless I get faster.”
“The goal,” Lalaith said, “was to train a machine-learning algorithm to recognize them. But I need more than two examples to do that.”
“Can I see the Elves?”
“Pull them up on your own phone,” Nienor said, “I’m busy.”
It was more obvious when studying the physics professor than it had been when studying Elvis. From musicians Lalaith expected boyish good looks, absurdly symmetric facial features, flawless bone structures and a slightly ethereal otherness. Good hair, too. But the man twinkling out of an archived Saskatchewan faculty page was ethereal against an environment which was anything but. And by 1990 cameras had been of higher quality.
“It’s a pretty big difference,” Amirah said, studying him. “Are you sure you couldn’t train a machine-learning algorithm off of just a couple of key characteristics?”
“They don’t work like that,” Lalaith said. “Google his name, though. Let’s see what we can find out about him.”
They ditched Amirah’s phone in a Post Office on the fringes of town. Packaged it, addressed it, and mailed it back to her home – no great loss, but a terrible inconvenience for the Elves should they try to track it. They’d taken to referring to the enemy as The Elves, even though Lalaith was leaning toward the ‘government conspiracy’ explanation, Amirah thought they were probably engineered superhumans, and Morwen had pressed Nienor for details about which Elves – about the factions and nations in her memories – until the latter had burst out, in guilty anger, “I never paid very much attention, and people didn’t talk about it. Okay?”
The Ñoldor were, as a race, so misliked and mistrusted that none of them were allowed into the Hidden Kingdom. This was on account of some ancient history Nienor didn’t remember. On the other hand, Nargothrond had been full of them. But in the story of Beren and Lúthien, events in Nargothrond had been again informed by – ancient history Nienor wasn’t sure she’d ever been told.
“What we need,” she’d grumbled when she’d calmed down, “is for Dad to remember. He knew the Ñoldor, he fought among them, he could clarify everything.”
Húrin had turned down the radio and laughed, not unkindly. “How do I go about doing that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Perhaps you should start by dwelling a lot on me being dead,” Lalaith said when the tension had risen to a boiling point, “everyone who remembers seems to think about that a lot.”
Nienor buried herself in her glowing blue screen, sorting faces, and Húrin turned the radio back up.
They reached the border as the sun, not quite edging over the horizon yet, turned the ocean to a dull, flat silver. No one even checked their passports. Leaving the U.S. for Mexico was much, much easier than travelling in the opposite direction. Morwen had closed her eyes a few hours ago and was breathing evenly in the front seat. Húrin was humming along to the radio. Nienor was flipping through pictures with stubborn determination.
Lalaith curled up against Amirah’s shoulder and found herself far too tense for sleep.
“Found another one,” Nienor said, and they all snapped to tense attention. Morwen’s eyes fluttered open, so clear and intense that Lalaith realized she hadn’t been sleeping.
“Yes?” Lalaith said after a minute.
“Works at Zion National Park,” Nienor said. “Darn. I was hoping a pattern would emerge.”
“That’s more of an elfy occupation than rock star or physicist,” Amirah yawned. “Do we know where to find this one?”
“No idea. It’s one of those cutesy brochure pictures. Only a few years old, though, so – maybe?”
“Are we trying to find an Elf?” Lalaith said.
“We could take Elf hostages,” Amirah said, now fully awake. “They stop fucking with us or their Elf buddies start disappearing.”
“And what do we do with the Elf hostages?”
Amirah shrugged. “Keep them in a treehouse?” That had been a key feature of the story of Beren and Lúthien. When Thingol had wanted to imprison his daughter to keep her from seeking out her fiancé, he’d chosen a treehouse, because Elves did poorly when imprisoned. Nienor hadn’t known exactly what ‘poorly’ meant.
“Demand they tell us the rest of their history,” Nienor said, “on pain of having to eat my cooking.”
“Take tissue and blood samples and reverse-engineer their immortality,” Lalaith interrupted her.
“We would trade them for Túrin,” said Morwen.
Húrin stabbed a button and the radio went silent; so did they. The temperature in the car seemed to have dropped twenty degrees.
The sun couldn’t color the world to announce its arrival; the sky was cloudless and the horizon flat in either direction. It rose instead clear and pale. Lalaith was shivering; Amirah put an arm around her.
No one spoke until they reached Monterray.
Chapter 14: Fight or Flight
Amrod knocked on the door for several minutes before he decided to break a window and let himself inside. He vaulted easily over the glass he’d left shattered on the floor and landed in the living room of a cramped, tidy, decidedly ordinary home.
They had left in a hurry. The kitchen counters were shiny and perfectly clean, the bathroom mirrors recently cleaned, the plants carefully tended to – so not messy people, not in general – but drawers were open and the desk light had been left on. The safe had been cleaned out and left open. He got a glass of water and folded himself gracefully onto the couch, called Maedhros to report no progress, and let his eyes flutter shut.
He awoke at the faint creak of footsteps outside. Someone – a man, average height, slight build - was fumbling for their key – left leg of his jeans, on a ring that had several other things, buried at the bottom of the pocket beneath assorted trash.
(Elven hearing made living in mortal cities nigh-unbearable, and living in mortal suburbs oddly fascinating.)
The door swung open, and Amrod rolled lightly to his feet.
Túrin stuffed the key back into his pocket. The plan – such as it was – was to go off to bed without speaking to anyone, let them see his shoes by the door and get over their tearful remonstrations and relief and anger before he actually woke up and had to face any of it. But he had a feeling someone, still awake, would hear him and they’d all come rushing downstairs and this would end in an impassioned family argument in the living room. That was how things always ended up working out.
Halfway toward his bedroom the back of his neck began to itch.
He turned around.
“Holy shit,” he hissed at the man standing motionless in the living room, “you scared-” and then “who the hell are you,” and then “what are you doing in my house?”
“Broke in,” he said, with a nod at the window. “I was trying to find your sister.”
“You can’t just fucking – I’m going to call the police.” He backed toward the kitchen with both arms clenched defensively against his chest.
The man moved impossibly fast, lightly took hold of Túrin’s wrist. “Please don’t.”
“Please don’t- what the hell are you on? You’re in my fucking house, I’m gonna call the cops - looking for my sister - Lals! LALS!” He tried to wrench himself free and realized he couldn’t.
“I will not permit you to call the police,” the other man said. “But if you sit down I will explain my reasons.”
“You’re in my house, ordering me around- where the fuck are they? Have you hurt them? I’ll fucking kill you –” and, the adrenaline like a bucket of cold water to the face, he stopped trying to wrench himself free and lunged.
Both of them fell. The strange man tried, a bit inelegantly, to direct their fall away from the broken glass, and Túrin landed on top. The man punched him in the stomach, then, much harder than should have been possible from his position of poor leverage. Túrin’s return punch was from a better angle and significantly more effective. His opponent flinched, rolled - Túrin reached for the other man’s throat, and his hands closed around nothing at all. He pitched forward and hit the carpet, now swirling with dust.
“I did not harm your family,” said Amrod from behind him, on the couch. “I give you my word as Ambarussa, Pityafinwe, son of Fëanáro of the noble house of the Ñoldor.”
Túrin turned around to glare at him. To his satisfaction there were long, bleeding scratches on the other man’s face. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
A dry, slightly inhuman laugh. “My word means a great deal. Many thousands of people have died because I would not bend or break it.”
“Where are they?”
“I was hoping that you could tell me.”
“I would sooner kill you,” Túrin snarled, and meant it.
“Whereas I am trying very hard not to kill anyone, even though it would make my life significantly easier and you’re all going to die anyway.’
Túrin lunged at him again. This time he was focused entirely on the boundaries of his opponent’s reflection, and he saw the moment they blurred, the moment their motion forcefully redirected his attention away from the sight in front of him. He crashed onto the couch face-first and painfully.
Amrod had shifted two feet away. ”Are you done?”
“You’re not human,” Túrin said.
“Technically we are. We’re capable of intermarrying with humans and producing fertile offspring, so that makes us the same species as you are. I am merely very, very old, and the fabric of the world is thinner where I stand.”
“If you want me to even pretend to trust you,” Túrin growled, “you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.”
“That is the best explanation I can give you.”
“That’s not an explanation. It’s a metaphor. And it’s not a useful simplification, either, because I cannot predict anything about you from ‘the fabric of the world is thinner where I stand’. If I don’t have a better understanding of anything after your ‘explanation’, pretty shitty explanation.”
That was half-a-lie. He was starting to draw together pieces of the picture. ‘thinner where I stand’ – whatever supernatural abilities the guy had, they were entirely localized. Shooting him in the head would likely work just fine.
Amrod was regarding him thoughtfully, though, even slightly smiling. “That’s fair. I will not offer you an accurate explanation, but I won’t insult you with any further inaccurate ones. Are you done being angry?”
“Done being angry? I’m just getting started.”
“I don’t know where your family is. I came here hoping to speak to them, but they’d already left. When did you last see them?”
“Five days ago,” he said. “We had a fight and I left.”
“I am sorry.”
“None of your fucking business. If you bring it up again I’ll figure out how to land a punch somehow, I swear to God.”
The man looked far more alarmed than the empty threat warranted. Did he really really hate it when people took the Lord’s name in vain?
“Do they know you’re trying to find them?” Túrin asked.
“It might be the reason they left in such haste.”
They sat there for a moment, both still breathing hard, while Túrin processed that. The scratches on the other man’s face were bleeding copiously. No super healing powers, then.
As if he’d read Túrin’s mind, the man raised his hand to his cheek.
“You realize,” Túrin said, “that there’s no way in hell I’m going to help you find my family if they don’t seem to want you to find them.”
“I could be wrong,” the man murmured lazily. “It could be that they don’t want you to find them.”
His stomach knotted painfully. “That’s not it,” Túrin said, “I’m sure of it.”
“Or it could be that they are in trouble for some unrelated reason, and it’s in our power to find them and protect them.”
“Our power? Cuz I really can’t do much, if there’s a problem major enough to shake Mum.”
The man smiled, showing his teeth. “Royal ‘we’.”
“I told you that when I gave you my word.”
“To be honest I was flipping out about a hostile stranger in my living room, and then once I got over that I was panicking about my family being missing, and I didn’t pay one fucking second’s attention to your elaborate introduction.” He drummed his hands against his knees. The adrenaline had not relented, and it was making calm conversation unbearable. “You can repeat yourself if you like.”
“My name is Amrod. Pityafinwe Ambarussa, son of Fëanáro Curufinwë, son of Finwë, of the royal house of the Ñoldor.”
“Gotcha. Mine is Barack Obama, Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, heir to the throne of Asgard, protector of the weak, Knight of the Round Table,” Túrin said, and extended his hand.
Amrod took it with a vague expression of distaste. “Your name is Túrin Thalion, eldest child of Húrin son of Galdor and Morwen daughter of Baragund.”
“Well, that’s super patriarchal of your supernatural monarchy. Why not ‘Húrin son of Hildis – my grandma - and Morwen daughter of Belmir – my other grandma? Hell, maternity is technically more certain than paternity, so you’d be more accurate.”
“Are you accusing your grandmothers of infidelity?”
“S’not an accusation, because it’s not a crime,” Túrin said, “though I don’t know what century you’re from.”
At that Amrod actually laughed. “A very distant one.”
“Mmkay. I’m going to email my parents and my sister, ask them where they are and what’s going on. Then I’m going to sleep, because it’s four in the fucking morning. Then I’m going to come out in this living room and if there’s still broken glass on the floor I’ll call the police, supernatural royalty or no. Then you can knock on the fucking front door, ask permission to talk to me like a normal fucking person, and we can decide whether we have shared interests. K?”
He was not expecting agreement. But Amrod nodded immediately. “Very fair.”
Túrin rose unsteadily to his feet and walked toward his bedroom. Amrod hadn’t moved. At the door to his room he turned. “I hope you cut your hands picking up the glass,” he muttered in the direction of the living room.
No one could possibly have heard him from that distance. But from the living room he heard a low chuckle in response.
“Can you read mortals’ email?”
“Can I read their minds?” Maedhros had replied.
“Obviously. But I don’t need to read his mind, I need to read his email.”
“It was a rhetorical device intended to convey that both things are equally trivial.”
“Well, why you’re doing something trivial for me, then, care to save me some time conducting research in the library?”
“I should let you look it up yourself. Research is character-building.”
“What’s the U.S.S. Enterprise? Where is Asgard, and is it possible that Thalion is the heir to their throne? And which is the Night of the Round Table?”
“…I’m gonna make you Google that,” Maedhros said.
From: Mom (email@example.com)
08:16 PM, April 6th, 2017
I love you. If you’d prefer to conduct this conversation over text, that is fine with me. If you need to hear something from us before you feel comfortable having that conversation, tell us what it is.
But running from this is cowardice, Túrin.
From: Dad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
10:25 PM, April 7th, 2017
Hey kiddo. (You aren’t, I know, I know.) I figure, if I tell you to come home you’ll be angry at me for making demands. If I don’t, you’ll be angry that I didn’t care. And I don’t want you ever to be angry that I didn’t care.
I can’t say ‘come home’, I don’t know how much that will cost you. I can say that we miss you and we love you and we hope that you will.
From: Lalaith (email@example.com)
3:41 PM, April 9th, 2017
Túrin, something is wrong. Don’t call any of our phones, but come straight home.
From: Lalaith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
5:00 PM, April 9th, 2017
I’m scared, okay? Just tell me you’re okay. One word. Just tell me you’re alive.
From: Mom (email@example.com)
8:14 PM, April 9th, 2017.
Túrin, I think one or both of your sisters could be in serious, immediate danger. Call me immediately.
From: Mom (firstname.lastname@example.org)
10:25 PM, April 9th, 2017.
Don’t go home. Do you remember the park where we used to take you and Lalaith skating, when both of you were very young? Make sure no one is following you, and go there. There’s a phone number written in Sharpie on the underside of the slide. Memorize it and then obscure it somehow. You will need to do a very, very, very good job.
I love you. I love you so much. I am so very, very proud to have you as a son.
He could hear the pounding of his heart in his eardrums, vicious and relentless and almost loud enough to drown out the chorus of guilty voices in his head. His hand drifted automatically to the cursor to delete the message, though it was unlikely to make much difference. With email there is no ‘burn after you read’. And they could have left a note, but –
- he turned on the light and looked around his room – yes. Someone was in here. Amrod was in here. A note would have been found.
Amrod was probably still in the living room.
With all of the self-control he could manage, he closed the browser and climbed into bed. The thing to do was to get a gun, obviously, and test his hypothesis about the limits of the immateriality-
No, he couldn’t start shooting people. The thing to do was to call the police.
If his family hadn’t done that, then they’d had a reason.
But all they had to go on had been vague suspicions, and Túrin had an unapologetic burglar. One with supernaturally good hearing who could be gone before the police arrived and who, if caught, likely wouldn’t come back.
Make sure you aren’t followed, Morwen had said. Right. First things first. It was a bad sign, probably, that his thoughts kept jumping to murder.
They checked into a cheap hotel in Monterrey at 7am – one room with a king bed, one room with two doubles - and gathered in the larger of the two for a conspirators’ meeting.
“We need a passport for Amirah,” Húrin said, “and ideally false identifying documents for everyone but I don’t know that those will be easy to come by. Same for weapons.”
“We need a policy for the internet and communications,” Morwen said. “If we’re working against the U.S. government, I’m not actually sure Tor is going to be sufficient-”
“Should be,” Lalaith said, “I think the military uses it.”
“It says that on the Tor website. But then again – they would say that, right? I don’t know enough about web security to do more than read through this and go ‘mmhm, sounds plausible’…”
“If they use it,” Amirah said, “wouldn’t that mean they can hack it?”
Lalaith was picking miserably at her nails again. “I don’t think encryption works that way.”
“Don’t check your email until you’re more confident than that,” Morwen said, “or the situation justifies it.”
“Túrin might have emailed,” Lalaith said.
“I told him to call.”
“He still might have emailed.”
“I think,” Húrin said, “we should all get some sleep. A lot of this might seem clearer when we are better rested and less panicked.”
Nienor sat in the middle of her bed, flipping through images. Acting on some subconscious cue they all turned to look at her.
“Sounds good,” she said.
“If something is bothering you,” Morwen said, “I’d prefer to know it now.”
Nienor’s bandaged legs dangled of the edge of the bed. She still didn’t look up. “Mmhm.”
Lalaith raised her head in time to catch that glance between her parents.
“Sleep,” Húrin grunted, “and at noon or if Túrin calls I will wake everyone up.”
“We should stay in here with Nienor,” Morwen said, “if there are any problems she’ll need someone to carry her out. Girls, the keys to next door –”
It was an actual physical key, bronzed and slightly sticky, not the sleek cards that were ubiquitous in Dallas. Lalaith bolted the door and pushed a chair against it for good measure before she noticed the room arrangements. Right, this was the one with one king bed.
“Is your mother wingmanning for you?” Amirah said.
Lalaith blinked. “Probably. She never does anything by accident.” She started peeling the jeans off her legs. “Fuck. I’m genuinely really tired. I mean – do you want -”
“I was gonna insist, actually, after flying halfway across the country and probably losing my damn job for you. Kidding,” she interrupted herself at the look on Lalaith’s face. “Good god, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t joke, it’s too late.”
“Too early,” Lalaith said. “You know me, I’m useless until you’ve fed me three cups of coffee and a poppyseed muffin.”
“It’s the opiates.”
“You’ve found me out.”
Both of them were only half undressed. Lalaith tried to pull her shirt off and found her muscles were too tired to obey her. “Can you hold me?”
“I would be happy to.”
"Imm sorry," Lalaith mumbled, "about everything."
"Whatever for? This is the adventure of a lifetime."
They fell asleep on top of the covers, holding on too tightly, tucked untidily into each other’s arms.
Chapter 15: Ill-fate
Túrin woke to an empty house. The glass had been meticulously cleaned off of the living room carpet. Amrod son of such-and-such hadn’t bothered boarding up the window. Or turning off the air conditioner, which was frantically wheezing cold air straight out into the dizzying morning heat.
If he’d replaced the window, Túrin admitted to himself, he’d have been content to dismiss the whole thing as a hallucination.
Just for completeness, he searched the whole house. Someone had opened drawers at random. The suitcases were missing. Their phones were gone, too, except Lalaith’s work phone, tucked into a corner of her messy desk. The battery had been taken out. He put it back in. She had three missed calls.
The door to Nienor’s room was closed. At the sight he felt sick to his stomach. He didn’t open it. His parents’ door, on the other hand, he pushed open with somewhat excessive force. Flakes of plaster rained from the ceiling. His mother had taken her backpacking pack and both pairs of practical shoes. The safe door was hanging open and the safe itself was empty.
He drew to a halt at the same place in the hallway where he’d been interrupted last night and kicked a chair hard enough to bruise his toe. Amrod had kept his end of their deal. But a deal with a dangerous, violent stranger who’d entered your home in the middle of the night didn’t count, it couldn’t possibly be binding. And he was now quite sure that he didn’t want to help Amrod find his family.
If I were watching this story, what would I be asking myself right now? Well, it was obvious when you put it like that.
Advantages to calling the police: they had a lot more resources to find missing people. Disadvantage: his family might not want to be found. Advantage: his house had been broken into. A police report might be needed for insurance? Or a restraining order? Disadvantage: they probably couldn’t arrest Amrod anyway. Advantage: it was the sane, reasonable, adult thing to do. Disadvantage: it was breaking the deal. Or maybe that was an advantage, since he didn’t think Amrod was on his side and he wasn’t sure he wantedAmrod on his side.
Don’t be followed, Morwen had said.
He was willing to bet that if he walked over to the park right now, he’d be followed.
That problem, unlike all the others, was solvable.
But not for six hours. Túrin walked over to the chair and kicked it back into the place it had been originally. He hated having time to burn.
Lalaith woke up first, at almost one in the afternoon. Her skin felt gritty and she’d managed somehow to steal all the blankets; they were now tangled at her feet. She slipped out of bed and showered. The bathroom had alarmingly high water pressure, and the hotel soap felt like sandpaper. She stepped out with her skin red and raw.
“Donut?” Amirah said. “Your dad stopped by a minute ago, we’re having another conspirators’ meeting.”
“Did he bring coffee?”
He had. It was still far too hot; she burned the back of her throat, badly, the sort of burn that would change the flavor of everything for a few days. Amirah watched her cough with concern. “You okay?”
“I found three more,” Nienor said in welcome when they opened the door. “Well, at least one of them is the same person living under a different identity. Engineering professor –”
“That sounds familiar-”
“Same guy. Look, I can show you pictures of both of them –”
“Our guess,” Morwen added, “is that they kill off one identity whenever people start to notice they don’t age.”
“Great,” Lalaith said. “Who’re the others?”
“Footballer in Germany, reclusive philanthropist in Vienna,” Nienor said. “Both still alive. That’s a slightly higher density of Elves in Europe than the U.S., if that’s relevant to our search space-”
“Way too small a sample size to say something like that,” Morwen said.
“I can scrape more pics of prominent Europeans to sort, if you like,” Lalaith said. “Nienor, did you sleep?”
“More pictures would be useful,” her sister said.
She’d conspicuously failed to look at Lalaith, or answer the second question. There was an awkward pause. “We also found a solution to Amirah’s passport problem,” Húrin said into the void. “Lals, the picture of you on your passport is eight years out of date.”
“And it could as easily be Amirah,” he said, with a wave of one big hand. “You’re Túrin, she’s Lalaith, Nienor’s Nienor, now we can travel anywhere where you aren’t on the do-not-fly list.”
Lalaith crossed and uncrossed her legs uncomfortably. “I don’t think I pass as a guy.”
“That’s an easier problem to solve than fake identities,” Morwen said.
Lalaith swallowed. “Okay. Do we have a destination in mind?”
“Vienna or Munich,” said Nienor. She still hadn’t looked up.
Lalaith was left looking to Morwen for clarification.
“We can find allies, or at least get more information. Nienor is convinced that not all of the Elves would support a renewed quest for the Silmaril, assuming that’s what is going on. And I think most of them would be alarmed to know how much of this is just about to come to the surface. “
Amirah finished her cup of coffee with an expression of distaste. “And if they decide to fix that by killing us?”
“Morwen and I will go,” Húrin said. “If there are any problems-”
“Do I get a veto on this plan?” Lalaith said, “because I veto this plan. We aren’t sending anyone to Europe until we’re really really certain that the Elves won’t kill us.”
“If Túrin is in danger,” Morwen said, “then-”
“Then it won’t do him any good to get more of us into danger.”
“How about Germany?” Amirah said. “If he’s a footballer he’s a public figure, we can find a place to meet him where he can’t afford to kill you at random – corner him after a game or something-”
“If that were possible lots of fans would do it,” Lalaith objected.
“Okay, fine, what’s your idea?”
“For how best to approach the Elf? I don’t have one! I just feel like ‘go to a den of Elves, tell them everything, hope they side with us and not the Elves who are messing with us’ is a terrible plan, and – no offense – you’re only considering it because you’re scared and desperate. There’s got to be – have we seriously considered going to the press?”
“I have,” Morwen said.
It was Húrin who answered, after a moment’s Meaningful Glances between her parents. “That’s bringing a nuke to a knife fight,”
“If they killed Túrin, this isn’t a knife fight.”
“No, that’s exactly what it is. Knife fights kill people. Nukes kill cities. Revelations about the existence of a supernatural race of immortal beings – those might kill nations, they might kill religions.”
“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be,” Lalaith said.
"Peace and global stability is a very important thing," Morwen said. "Ethnic wars are ugly and terrible. I distrust people who’d invite them in pursuit of truth."
“If they harmed Túrin,” said her father, “I will kill them if I can. But I won’t destroy the world to get back at them. That doesn’t help him.”
“There’s a variant of decision theory,” Lalaith muttered, “in which it does help him, because if you’ll predictably destroy the world in vengeance then no one will fuck with you in the first place.”
“Mutually assured destruction,” Amirah said.
“No, that’s the clever part – it doesn’t have to be mutual. You can just unilaterally commit to acting against your own interests in the pursuit of revenge, if and whenever people hurt you.”
"Sucks to be you if you have to follow through, though."
"If you project enough that you can and will, you usually don’t have to."
"That’s a hell of a principle on which to hang ‘provoking a war between Elves and Men out of petty spite.’"
"This isn’t petty."
Their voices had been, unconsciously, rising.
Nienor sighed. “Can you two take this somewhere else?”
“Actually,” said Lalaith, “why don’t you tell me what your issue is? You’ve been obnoxious all day and if you don’t have my back I would really like to know, now.”
“Of course I have your back.”
“Nienor,” said Morwen, “we’ve all noticed. Can you maybe explain –”
“It’s really not a big deal.”
“Then you can explain.”
A long, expectant silence.
“I didn’t ask you to come break me out of the hospital,” said Nienor. “I’m glad you did, mind, but it’s like – you can call it voluntary commitment all you want, it was ‘you should agree to this so we don’t have to see a psychiatrist who will force you into this anyway’, and I didn’t want to disappoint you, so I agreed, and bloody hell it sucked. And it didn’t suck because I, unlike everyone else in there, wasn’t really crazy. It sucked for them too, and the differences are pretty small, even if at the time they felt huge, even if at the time I clung to them. And I feel like you’ve all said ‘we’re sorry for mistakenly thinking you were crazy, and for treating you in a way it’s only okay to treat crazy people’. And if I really were crazy I’d still be there, putting up with your fake smiles, and that’s not a great feeling when I’m definitely not sure that I’m sane. I remember fucking my brother, are we all just going to pretend that didn’t ever happen?” She paused. “I don’t know where I stand here, I’m mad at you for acting like everything suddenly okay, and I’m scared I’m going to wake up back in there again, with you all assuring me it’s for my own good.”
“That seems like a big deal,” Morwen said evenly.
“Not – not compared to nukes and knife fights.” But she looked up at Lalaith for the first time.
“Okay,” Lalaith said, “that’s fair. I – I didn’t really mean everything I did to come across that way. And if you’re actually also crazy, that’s okay. I’ll - start a nuclear war to keep you safe, too, for the record. If that’s strategic. And to keep you out of the hospital, if that matters to you.”
“All we’ve ever wanted was for you kids to be safe and healthy and happy,” Húrin said.
Nienor’s finger was still flipping through pictures with a terrible rhythmic intensity. “Terribly sorry to disappoint you.”
“You haven’t,” her parents said in unison.
“I’m sorry,” Lalaith said.
“Like I said,” said Nienor. “Not a big deal.”
“Do you want us to find Túrin?” Amirah said.
That finally won a halt to the picture show, and wide terrified eyes as Nienor looked up at them. “Of course I do. I love him. I’m worried about him. More about what he’ll do than what people might do to him. But then, you know, that’s from experience.”
She glanced around at her captive audience and smirked. “I am the only one who remembers the time he killed a dragon.”
Twenty thousand people showed up for a typical UT Dallas men’s basketball game. Túrin ducked and weaved among them, going up one concourse staircase and then squeezing through a gaggle of Phi Psi brothers in matching facepaint. He changed outfits and shaved his three-days’-stubble in a bathroom stall. He left in a flood of several thousand other pedestrians, most of them drunk, all of them profoundly disappointed by the team’s poor performance.
Don’t be followed.
It was four miles from the stadium to the playground where he’d taken his little sisters as a kid. The number was printed under the tube slide in his mother’s neat handwriting, unremarkable amidst a great deal of less polite graffiti. He muttered it under his breath until the rhythm of the numbers was seared in his memory.
Then he grabbed a rock from the ground and rubbed away at the plastic until the tip of the rock was inky and the letters were unreadable.
He straightened to leave.
“You should clear up the other graffiti too,” a voice said calmly from above him.
He spun around and raised the rock in one, clenched, fist.
“Exposing children to that vulgar language might get them in trouble in school,” Amrod said, hopping – hopping – to the ground from his perch thirty feet up.
“How?” Túrin asked, his mouth dry.
“I read your email. Not too many playgrounds within walking distance of the house that your parents owned from 1985 to 2003.”
“I cleaned up the glass like you asked,” Amrod said. “We had an agreement, and you didn’t keep your end.”
“And did you read my email before or after it became obvious that I did not intend to help you?” Túrin said.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I think there’s a stipulation in contract law – if you take action that undermines my ability to fulfill my end of the contract, it’s null and void. You ask me to share information you don’t know. Then you hack my email, so you’re rendering it impossible for me to share any information you don’t know, I don’t have any.”
If he was getting better at reading the expressions on that face, that right there had been uncertainty – and interest. “I don’t think contract law applies to spoken oaths,” Amrod said.
“Of course it does,” Túrin said. “Oral contracts are binding, at least in Texas.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
He tossed his bright red hair. “I don’t keep track of every mortal political boundary and jurisdiction on this continent.”
“This, here, is Texas. Run for a while in any direction, you’re still in Texas. And by Texas contract law there are a bunch of different reasons that our deal last night was null and void. I’m not gonna help you. If you have an issue with that, sue me.”
“What are the others?”
“The other reasons that by the Texas understanding of spoken oaths, ours last night does not bind you.”
“Well, one, it was coerced, because I was afraid for my life. Two, it was underspecified, there wasn’t any penalty for breaking it on either side and the wording was too vague to stand up to any sort of legal scrutiny. Three, there are certain things you can’t bind yourself to. You can’t sign yourself into slavery, for instance, or sign a binding contract to donate your liver, and the courts throw out prenups all the time-”
“Can you damn your soul to the Everlasting Darkness?”
“No,” Túrin said. “Definitely no. I’m – actually not a lawyer, mind. But – that’d be right out. There might actually be a law on the books prohibiting dealing in souls, I’m not sure. Eternal damnation isn’t a court-enforceable penalty, so-”
“No,” Amrod said, “none of those will work. Explain the bit about contracts being rendered void if the other signatory to a contract undermines your ability to fulfill it.”
“So, let’s say that you and I make a deal – I will host a conference, and you will pay me $20,000, unless the conference is a disaster, defined by fewer than 200 people in the building at 8pm. At 7:55 you notice that the conference is a resounding success. But you don’t have $20,000. So you pull the fire alarm. Everyone leaves. I failed to fulfill my end, you don’t have to pay yours. Only, under Texas law, you still do, because that’s utterly stupid otherwise.” He hesitated. “Why do you care about this?”
“I’m thinking,” said Amrod, “that we have something in common, you and I. We’re both Doomed. I don’t think you can find a way out of it. Our Dooms weren’t set in Texas. But I’m intrigued nonetheless. It’s a special interest of mine, finding a way out. My brother tried. All my brothers tried, I suppose, in their own ways.”
“The hell are you talking about?”
Amrod’s eyes widened with that dangerous, inhuman mirth. “You really don’t remember?”
“It was the last battle of the War of the Jewels, the War of the Elves against Morgoth, the Black Foe, the enemy of all free peoples. It came to be known as the Battle of Unnumbered Tears – because we lost,” he added, with a smile that was really just a very rapid flash of teeth. “The armies of Hithlum were surrounded and destroyed, and the survivors fled toward the hidden city of Gondolin. Among them were the forces of Men, the Men of Dor Lómin, led by Húrin and Huor sons of Galdor. When the Elves fled – coward, my cousin Turgon, coward and paranoid and bit of an idiot – the Men stayed to hold the pass, to ensure that the location of Gondolin remained a secret. Thousands of orcs they slew, but at last the enemy overwhelmed them. Huor was killed. Húrin cut his way through to his body and then cut down everything that came near him. With each swing of his weapon he cried out, in Quenya, ‘aure entuluva!’ Dawn will come again!
He was wrong. Seventy times he cried that, and the bodies of the dead piled up around him and trapped him in place and eventually they overwhelmed him. They carried him back to Morgoth alive. And Morgoth cursed his family to suffer, forever. His son and daughter led wretched, tragic, miserable lives, and through the curse ended up married to each other. In the end they both committed suicide. At that time Morgoth released Húrin. He wandered in misery through the land and eventually threw himself into the ocean.”
“You’re lying,” said Túrin unsteadily.
“Not at all. Now what fascinates me is that that’s you, Túrin. The Damned, the Doomed, the cursed man of a cursed line. But you don’t seem cursed.”
“Which means that you may have broken it,” said Amrod, “and I am interested in how.”
The rock in his hand was digging, comfortingly, into the flesh of his palm. He wonders if Amrod would be anything more than mildly annoyed if hit in the face. “Not through contract law,” he said. “What’s the deal, are you Doomed too?”
A genuine smile flashed across the Elf’s face. “Tears unnumbered ye shall shed,” he said, in a dramatic and implausibly deep voice, “and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever.”
“Wow. Dare I ask what you did to deserve that?”
“Slaughtered a bunch of innocent people and destroyed a priceless piece of their cultural heritage.”
“Accidentally. We were trying to borrow it.”
“They shot first,” Amrod said helplessly.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“If your Doom isn’t broken,” Amrod said, “then your family is certainly walking themselves into terrible danger. It will end for them in the most disastrous manner imaginable. And if your Doom is broken, then mine can be also. But until it is, I am bound to pursue this goal, at any cost, and the Doom makes the cost always higher than I can afford. Are you sure that you won’t help me find your sister?”
Chapter 16: Arc IV: Asymmetric Games
There was a battered picnic bench at the edge of the park, with a rusty plaque to someone’s grandfather nailed in the center. Túrin sat down, ostentatiously stretched his shoulders, and looked away from Amrod, up at the sky.
You couldn’t see the stars in Dallas – too much light pollution.
“You know,” he said, “I told you last night that if you knocked on the door like a civilized person we could talk.”
“I had planned to. But then you left the house.”
“Yeah,” Túrin said, “The nerve of me. It’s a free country.”
“How is it a free country?”
“I can leave my house if I want to,” Túrin said. “I’m not trying to make a grand political statement here.”
Amrod took two steps forward. They were graceful, at a speed visible to the human eye; they were probably intended to be nonthreatening. Túrin stiffened anyway.
“Why don’t you call them?”
“Because you’re here, and you can probably trace the call or something, if you can read my email. And I’m not working with you. If I’m doomed, I should probably stay clear of other people who are. If I’m not, I should trust my instincts, which are screaming that you’ve stalked me and broken into my home, and that it’s your fault my family is missing.”
“If you’re Doomed,” Amrod said, “whatever choice you make will be the wrong one.”
“Great. Leave. If you want you can leave me your number, and then if I feel like it I will tell you what my family said.”
“No,” Amrod said, and then he was at Túrin’s side on the bench, settling a preternaturally strong arm on Túrin’s shoulder. “You made that deal last night, and broke it. Tonight I’m not agreeing to a promise to be considered.”
Túrin felt himself go very, very still. “I thought you took the contract law stuff seriously,” he said. “I explained my reasons.”
“In your nation your word is not binding when given under duress. I understand this. But that means your word is not binding now, because you would again consider this duress. And that means I cannot trust a word you say.”
“But you can trust me, because my Gods hold me to my word no matter how desperately I seek a path out of it. So trust me, Túrin. Help me, and I will not kill anyone in your family, or cause them to come to harm, unless it is the only conceivable way to fulfill the other Oath that binds me.”
“Yes. And if I find someone else who needs my reassurances, I will be forced to give them my word as follows: ‘I will do you no harm, save if it is the only conceivable way to protect Túrin’s family, or to fulfill the other Oath that binds me.’ That’s the price of my strategy.” He flashed another seeming-smile. “Of course, the price of yours is that you can’t be trusted at all.”
“And if I refuse, you force me,” Túrin said slowly.
“You are the son of the man who killed seventy orcs, alone, standing on his brother’s corpse and shouting defiance. You persuaded Nargothrond to build a bridge,” Amrod said, with a low chuckle. “I do not expect that I could force you.” His voice suddenly changed. Lost the melodic, ethereal undertones, picked up a light Texas accent and a stubborn young man’s cadence. “I expect that I could imitate you, though.”
They bought a gun that afternoon. Not legally – there was a legal process only for legal residents and citizens – but not with too much difficulty. If Lalaith understood the conversations right it was a minor violation of the law. Húrin joked with the store’s owner in fluent Spanish and paid a little too much. “Not enough to make them remember this purchase with any particular interest,” he said, “but enough we can come back.”
On the way back they stopped by a restaurant, got takeout for dinner. Lalaith rode the whole way back to the hotel with the weapon on her lap, facing outward, and the food at her feet. She entertained a dozen vivid car accidents which could cause it to discharge – it wasn’t even loaded, but still – and Húrin, too, seemed more subdued.
“I don’t feel safer,” she said when they parked.
“I wish I remembered,” he said. “The strategic and weaponry skills of an ancient general would be useful right now.”
“Don’t use that word,” she said. “Remembering. I – I don’t like it. That’s not how memory works.”
“Does anyone really know how memory works?”
“Point taken,” she grumbled as they walked upstairs. The gun was in her purse; she felt acutely conscious of it.
“I didn’t have a point,” he said, “I was wondering. You’re the one who took psychology in college.”
“One semester. It filled a graduation requirement.”
“Ah,” he said. “Well, does anyone really know how memory works?”
The door swung open, and Amirah pounced with the exuberance of someone trapped inside all day, crushing Lalaith’s left shoulder and the purse. Lalaith nearly had a panic attack.
“It couldn’t have gone off,” she said when she recovered, “It’s not loaded. Fuck. I hate that thing.”
“I’ll take it,” Amirah said, “my uncle used to take us hunting when we were kids. Um. Probably couldn’t actually kill an actual person with it, but…”
“You can show me how to use it,” Morwen said, and reached out to retrieve it from Lalaith’s purse. “I am fairly sure I could. And Nienor, tell them-”
“I found another,” Nienor said.
Lalaith was still shaking a little. She sat down on the bed. “Great.”
“No. Far from it. He’s a convicted murderer, drug-fueled rampage on the oil rig where he worked, serving a 20-year sentence.”
“That’s new information,” said Lalaith. “Elves do drugs. Elves kill their coworkers. Elves can be arrested and imprisoned – on the whole, I’d say this is good news-”
“Nope,” said her whole family in unison.
“We looked up as much as we could find about him while you were gone,” Amirah said. “And everything is incredibly sketchy. No English-language news, not much coverage in the Danish media either, but two days before he killed somebody, injured several other people, and left a trail of wreckage in his wake – hijacked a helicopter at one point, even - that oil rig broke down.”
Lalaith felt her blood chill.
“They drilled in the wrong place,” Morwen said. “They found something. There were pictures up online at one point but they’ve all been taken down. A few people described it as the discovery of a century. Some of them were on the rig when the fire started.”
“I need to call Ricardo,” she said.
“That would put all of us in danger, if in fact he is at risk.”
“Yeah, but he’s my coworker. Friend, even, sort of. And it’d be me if you hadn’t had your breakdown at precisely the right time – no offense – ”
“None taken,” Nienor muttered.
“And it was because they were friendly to him that I assumed things might work out okay, that maybe the enemy wasn’t trying to kill us. If he’s in trouble I have to warn him.”
“We have no reason to believe that he is,” Morwen said.
“The evidence we have is consistent with the Elves being willing to kill for the Silmaril, but also willing to kill to cover it up – or how did all those pictures get taken down? How did the story stay quiet?”
“Happened in another country, was weird and fantastical and had no evidence to support it,” Morwen said.
“Accidents on oil rigs tend to make a ripple,” Amirah said.
“The drilling company had an incentive to cover it up too.”
Morwen’s fingers were dancing across the barrel of the gun. “The critical point is that they’re killers, and if you have the means to make a story disappear you also have the means to make a person disappear.”
“I think,” said Húrin, “that we need to go to Denmark.”
It solved all of their problems at once, of course. The risk that an Elf would refuse to talk to them and try to silence them instead – much mitigated, if the Elf in question was sitting in prison. No one had raised again the Elf-hostages plan, and it was unlikely that any of his people would pay a ransom for a murderer. But for information, they could have a source, and one they didn’t have to feel guilty about tracking down, and one who’d made a grab for the last Silmaril and might know something about who was seeking out the next one.
“It’s an option,” Lalaith said after a minute. “Bit of an extreme one, but-”
The phone rang.
The phone was a cheap disposable Morwen had bought at a convenience store back home, preloaded with thirty minutes of phone calls. They hadn’t given out the number to anyone, but Morwen had written it on the underside of a plastic slide a few miles from their home, and emailed Túrin the instructions. Everyone fell silent.
Húrin was the first to reach over and open it. “Speakerphone,” Lalaith hissed, and he complied.
“Where are you? What the fuck is going on?”
Something terrible flashed across Morwen’s face and she shook her head vigorously. Lalaith couldn’t catch her thought but Húrin, apparently, guessed it. “There was a problem, so we had to leave the city,” he said soothingly. “We’re at your cousin Nina’s.”
“Okay,” Túrin said. “What kind of problem? Are you all okay? Are you all there?”
“Yeah,” his father said distantly, “come quickly.” He pulled the phone away from his ear like it was attached by chewing gum or molasses, brought it wonderingly before his face as if he’d never seen anything like it before. Then he hung up.
“Take out the battery,” said Morwen, but he’d already ripped the casing off the back and dropped the phone and battery into the cup of Pepsi at his side.
“Wait a second,” said Amirah.
“We don’t have a cousin Nina,” Lalaith explained through numb lips. “Nienor, can Elves do impersonations?”
Her sister nodded silently.
“But – but only of people they’ve heard talking quite a bit?”
“Probably,” Nienor said.
Lalaith swallowed. “Might have been good to mention that.”
“Enough,” their mother said, and the room fell deathly silent.
For a minute. “Um,” said Amirah, “why not tell them you know their game and you’ll go to the press if they don’t give him back?”
“Two options,” said Húrin. “Firstly, he is not currently under their power – dead, escaped, different Elf faction. In that case, a threat would panic them and, if he’s escaped, give them a motive to find him. Secondly, he is. In that case, I expect them to reply to any threat that we could make with a promise to kill him unless we obey. But we can’t react to blackmail that hasn’t been made. If that’s the reason they’re keeping him, then he’s safest if they don’t know that we know that they have him, and if they have no way to communicate their demands.”
“When did you think that through?” Lalaith asked in half a whisper. “Last night?”
Her father shook his head. “Not at all – just now, when your mother told me that that wasn’t Túrin.”
“And how did you know?”
“Instinct,” she said.
“The same instinct that says I’m dead?”
Her mother’s eyes flashed. “Yes.”
Nienor coughed. “Um, is there any way at all they could have used that conversation to track us?”
“It’s a possibility,” Amirah said.
“We need to get out of here.”
“We need an Elf-”
The argument that followed was very brief but very intense. It wasn’t over whether going to Denmark to pick a fight with the one Elf they were sure they could take was a good idea – it was over whether everyone should go, or whether some should go to North Dakota, where they could take the more direct route to acquiring something the Elves would want to trade.
Several hours of pent-up adrenaline were rushing through Lalaith’s veins. Her body had decided to respond to this by shaking and crying, which was the most disappointing sympathetic nervous system response ever. She found herself arguing in favor of splitting up, a little more forcefully than her certainty warranted. She still lost. “We’ll all go, then?” Húrin said brightly after twenty minutes of whisper-shouting had left all their throats sore, and Lalaith dully nodded.
“Next question,” Morwen said, “is if there are flights to Copenhagen that don’t stop over in the U.S.”
Amirah seemed to have appropriated the computer; she had set up Tor before Lalaith and Húrin left and they’d agreed to cross their fingers that it was enough to deter their adversary. “Yep,” she said, “Monterrey-Mexico City, Mexico City-Madrid, Madrid-Copenhagen. If we’re on the 7:30 am out of here tomorrow, we’d be in at 3:00pm the next day.” She looked up from the screen looking slightly frightened. “Are we actually going to do this?”
Lalaith’s parents exchanged a Glance again.
“Yes,” Húrin said. “If they are tracking us, it’ll make their lives harder. If they aren’t, we’ll finally be a few steps ahead. We can meet one face to face, get some answers. Even if we can’t trade him for Túrin, he might have friends who are valuable enough that we could.”
“And if it turns out they’ve hurt Túrin,” Morwen said, “we need an Elf so we know their weaknesses. Can you carry firearms into Denmark in checked luggage, Amirah?”
“What a waste,” she said, still holding the gun. “We’ll buy one there.”
Chapter 17: Flight or Fight
The Gates of Night weren’t gates – that is, forged of metal or stone or brick, or even intangible things like sunlight or raw mystic energy. Manwë had chosen the words ‘Gates of Night’ to convey the concept to the Elves when the world was very young and the language permitted no clearer communication. By the time there were more words for things, significance clung to the old words like a thin layer of dust and grit, and no one challenged them.
The Gates of Night were, as Melkor saw it, a lie Manwë had told to frightened children, not so much to reassure them as to stop them from crying annoyingly.
The boundary between the Void and the World had no gates. One could not flit from one side to the other, because the differential was too great – the world too much in flux, too awash in decaying energy. Everything in the world was in motion, down to the smallest atoms, and in the Void nothing moved at all. (Material things, needless to say, could not exist in the Void – but, then, Melkor wasn’t one.)
With that explained – and it wasn’t difficult to explain, really, Melkor privately thought Manwë was an idiot for coming up with ‘gates’ – it was obvious why one could not escape the Void. Escape was motion. Everything in the living world was created already in motion, atoms held at their precarious distance from each other by the impossibly fast shivering of subatomic particles. A wave could not start from a standstill. Force could not be exercised without something to push against. The gates that held back the Void from the world were physical. If Manwë’s craven servants patrolled the edges of the Void, it was a ceremonial patrol. He could not execute even the first, even the most trivial, step toward return into the world. He could not even witness the events of the world, because light did not travel here and he had no eyes to watch it with. The Void was dark and it was silent.
It was a long and agonizing thirty thousand years.
Until the moment he realized he could sense something.
Certain events, it seemed, released a burst of concentrated radiation so intense that some could reach the Void. He wondered, briefly, what Manwë was doing, what Elven creativity could generate such destructive and intense energy, could wound the world so deeply that it bled into the Everlasting Darkness.
But it really didn’t matter. Give me a place to stand, the saying went, and I will move the world.
Give me a single particle, Melkor thought, and I will destroy it.
Beyond the Gates of Night, the world was old and the watchers grew weary.
In Húrin’s clothing and with strategic eyebrow grooming she really did pass for Túrin. “I’m not sure how I feel about that,” she said to Amirah, striking a pose in front of their bathroom mirror.
“Legs farther apart, hips straight,” Amirah said, “guys don’t stand like that.”
“Better. Don’t talk, though, unless you can go a lot deeper.”
“Trans men practice that for years,” Lalaith said, “I can’t do it overnight.”
“Be the strong and silent type, then.”
They both broke down giggling.
“I’m terrified,” Lalaith said when she stopped. “I don’t want to kill anyone. I did, maybe, for a second, when I heard not-Túrin’s voice on the phone. But not really, not even then.”
“I don’t think we’re planning to,” Amirah said dubiously.
“We aren’t. But. Mom and Dad both would, if it helped us get him here safely.”
“And you don’t agree with that?”
“I do. I’m just scared.” She took off her father’s clothes and left them, folded neatly, on the dresser. “You must be ten times worse than me. At least it’s my family at stake! I didn’t have a choice! And I dragged you into it.”
“Once we get your brother back,” Amirah said, “I want to go to the press. I think… I think everyone needs to be dragged into this. Whatever weird rules the Elves play by now – because, you know, I think they were okay with your guys knowing some of the pieces, and they only acted when you pieced together too much – you can’t leave it to chance like that. When this ends, we tell everyone. Keeping people out of the loop to protect them is insulting and it doesn’t work.”
“I’d go to the press tomorrow,” Lalaith said, “if we knew he was safe.”
“They probably know that. It – it might actually be their reason.”
It was chilly in the hotel room. She started to crawl beneath the covers. “That makes this my fault. For discovering a Silmaril in North Dakota.”
“Are we really worse off than if we didn’t know anything?”
Their hands met underneath the covers. Lalaith’s fingertips were unbearably cold; she curled them into Amirah’s palm. “If they went after Túrin because of me then yeah, yeah, we are.”
“And who’s to say they wouldn’t have gone after your family anyway, when Nienor wrote a book or convinced a doctor of the things she knew? When someone else started having flashbacks? Bad stuff has happened. But not because we knew too much, because we didn’t know enough. And we still don’t.”
Amirah’s hand slipped out of Lalaith’s, slid up her arm, and started massaging her shoulder. “You did all right. All things considered.”
Lalaith rolled over to kiss her. Her fingers were still cold, but that probably wasn’t why Amirah shuddered.
Amrod snapped the phone shut (it was an old-fashioned clamshell) with a barely-visible twist of his wrist. “Where’s your cousin Nina’s?”
“Orlando,” Túrin said.
“I, ah, don’t remember. Haven’t been to see them in many years.”
Amrod flicked the phone open again and dialed another number.
Túrin paused to consider the best choice of action for fully three seconds. Since the instant he’d heard his father’s lie, his mind had been quite clear. The rock he’d permitted to drop from his fingers. That wouldn’t work. But something else might.
"Nelyo?" Amrod said into the phone, and Túrin kicked him in the groin and turned and ran straight into the road. Three people honked and two swerved and across the clamor of traffic he thought he heard a sharp and angry exclamation in a language he didn’t speak. He kept running.
They were safe. They were fine. And they knew that people were looking for them and were taking appropriate precautions. He didn’t have any way to get in touch with them, but they were all right.
Three blocks away he slowed down. Amrod should have caught him by now, unless he’d been hit by a car or decided not to bother pursuing him. Which he might have. He wouldn’t realize he still needed Túrin until he managed to determine that there was no cousin Nina in Orlando, or anywhere at all.
Closely following on the relief was a grim sense of pride in his family. They’d figured it out. They’d known what to say to make sure they were speaking to their real son. No imposter could fool them, not even for a few seconds.
Now, how to get in touch with them?
He jogged the few miles back over to the UT campus. If there was anywhere in Dallas you’d find a library open at night, it’d be there. And if Amrod was following him after all – waiting to see, maybe, what exactly Túrin planned to try – there also wasn’t anywhere better to lose yourself in a crowd.
The library was open, but only with a student ID. “It’s an emergency,” he said pleadingly.
The guy behind the counter scratched his jaw absentmindedly; he looked half-asleep. “Term paper?”
“My sister attempted suicide and my mom told me to get in touch as soon as I could and I don’t have a computer or a phone,” that Elves aren’t capable of tracking, he silently added. “is that sufficient?”
“Do you go to school here? I can look you up in the system.”
“No. I just – fuck, man. Do you have a sister? I just need to get to a computer.”
“You wanna borrow my phone and make a call?”
“That’d be great.”
No one picked up when he called, of course. He hadn’t really expected them to, not now that they knew that their stalkers had the number. He sent an email instead.
Hey, it said, there are other people reading our communications and you shouldn’t reply with anything that you don’t want them to read. I’m sorry I didn’t check my email sooner. I’m safe. I went home, but there was someone there. He gave his name as Amrod and a bunch of titles – if I’d realized I was in a spy novel, I’d have tried to memorize them, but I didn’t. He knew who I was. I don’t think he’s following me, and I know how to lose him, but, well, if we fight again I won’t win. He’s not human. Nienor knows something, doesn’t she?
I don’t know if there’s a safe way for us to communicate, given they’re watching everything. And I don’t want you to give up your location for me or anything. But I want to let you know that I’m okay. And for proof it’s me – I don’t have a cousin Nina, but I have a cousin Tuor who is Nienor’s age, and last Christmas I helped him go in on a car. Dad took us to the dealership and intimidated the hell out of the guy when he was trying to scam us. Greasy little guy with a patchy goatee. I hope that’s sufficient proof.
“You sure you’re talking to your parents?” the guy said suspiciously from his desk.
“Email,” Túrin said. The message was sending.
“Can I see?”
“Um. It’s pretty personal. My sister attempted suicide, you know, and –”
The message sent.
Túrin logged out. “Here. Thanks.”
“If I helped someone pull off a drug deal or something, I swear to god I’ll-”
“Not a drug deal,” Túrin snarled. “How shitty does my life have to get before people will stop acting like it’s mildly annoying to them when I’m devastated by it?”
The guy looked alarmed. Túrin handed back his phone. “If an asshole redhead with a very very punchable jaw shows up asking where I went, you can tell him that I’m at his mom’s,” he called over his shoulder on the way out the door. That insult had been around long enough that Amrod just might take it as intended.
They were interrupted by Lalaith’s father pounding on the door.
“He’s going to wake the whole hotel,” said Lalaith, which wasn’t remotely the reason she was irritated. “You stay, I’ll go see what it is.”
“I’m getting dressed,” she called through the door, at which point Húrin did at least stop knocking.
“Túrin emailed,” he said, when she opened it.
Five minutes later they were all gathered in the other hotel room. Morwen read the note out loud.
“Several possibilities,” Húrin began after a second, saying what everyone was thinking. “Firstly, they have him and coerced him into writing this to try to draw us out – I can’t imagine he’d have agreed, but he might have mentioned the detail under other circumstances? Secondly, they don’t have him, and they knew enough about us to compose a better imitation this time. Thirdly, it’s him.”
“Fourthly,” Lalaith offered, “they have your brother and Rían and Tuor, or are trying to remind us that they can get to them.”
“The real question is whether this changes anything,” Morwen said. “We still need an Elf for information and leverage, even more urgently than before.”
“But if there’s even a chance that that’s really Túrin, really safe and on the run and trying to get into contact with us-”
“Nienor,” Lalaith said, “if the first part of what he told us was true – he went to the house and met an Elf there – what are the odds that he got away?”
“Um…small? Not nonexistent. They aren’t invincible.”
“And do you know an Amrod?”
She shook her head unhappily. “Never heard of one.”
“The Elves can read your email,” Amirah said. “Even if he’s free, if you try to set up a way to meet with him you’ll attract their attention.”
“Maybe,” said Húrin, “that’s exactly what we want. They might know that we booked the flights, since we had to do it in our own names. We should expect that they know we've booked tickets to Denmark. And now we have another chance to get a step ahead. Email Túrin. Tell him we’ll miss our flights and we’re coming back to find him-”
“And just leave him hanging?” Lalaith objected.
“No,” Morwen said. “You three will go ahead to Denmark. We will find our son. By the time they realize not all of us are back in Texas, you’ll have achieved your objectives. If we get into trouble, you will possess the leverage to get us out. One person in their reach isn’t really any better than three, from a practical perspective – ”
“It means two fewer on the outside to pull off our plan.”
“Yes,” Morwen said. “That it does. But it also should mean less scrutiny for your plan. You managed all this while keeping secrets from us for a full week, Lalaith. Do you think you can’t do it alone now?”
“It was reassuring not to need to,” she mumbled, but that wasn’t an argument and there wasn’t, really, any argument. If Túrin was in Dallas and on the run, then someone had to go back and help him.
“So we email him back?”
“We email him back.”
“Drop the seed of information that should take the heat off your flight tomorrow. Ask a bunch of personal questions to try to distinguish between it’s-really-Túrin and they’ve-gotten-better-at-imitating-Túrin and they’re-torturing-Túrin-for-answers.”
“You say that so casually,” Lalaith said.
“Oh,” whispered her mother, “not at all.” She was cradling the gun again.
They sat there for a few minutes in tense silence.
“Um,” Amirah said, “we have to leave for the airport in six hours. Perhaps we should –”
“Yes, of course, go back to sleep,” said Húrin with a twinkle in his eye. “We’ll say our goodbyes in the morning, too, since we’re taking you to the airport.”
Nienor had already flopped back onto her pillow. She mumbled a goodnight as they filed out.
Lalaith locked and bolted and chained the room’s door. “I think it was really him,” she said. “It sounded like him. God, I really want to punch someone. All of this energy directed at not doing anything - it’s the worst –”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Did you really want to get six hours of sleep tonight?”
Amirah bit her lower lip. “No. Does lying to your father make me a bad person?”
“I don’t think you convinced him for a second,” Lalaith said, and then kissed her again, a little too angrily, as if they were running out of time.
Chapter 18: Retribution
“Assuming that we’re splitting into two groups – three going to Denmark, two back to Dallas – there are 10 possible group configurations and we’re only considering one of them,” Lalaith said in the car the next morning. As an objection, it didn’t carry a lot of force, and her tone (tired, grumpy, deprived of her morning coffee) didn’t give it any more.
“Going back to Dallas is significantly more dangerous,” Húrin said.
“And I need to be in the group that goes after an Elf,” Nienor said.
“You could go alone, Dad.”
“I have a feeling,” Morwen said, “that if he does that, we will never see him again.”
Nienor grunted agreement.
Lalaith bit back an exasperated sigh. “A feeling, or a magic memory-intuition? Because they aren’t the same, and I’m not going to grant them the same weight in decision-making-”
“Magic memory-intuition.” Morwen managed to make the words light, biting and supremely persuasive.
“Oh, fine.” If she was being honest with herself (and she wasn’t; it was too early in the morning and she hadn’t had that coffee) she wasn’t discounting magic memory-intuition on reasonable grounds like that it was unreliable or untestable or didn’t follow predictable rules. She was discounting it because one of its most persistent features was her nonexistence, and how do you even engage with a system that takes it as a premise that you’re dead and always have been?
No one, as it happened, had slept last night. Nienor had withdrawn back into Elf-sorting and found one more – a middle manager in Chicago. Her parents had drafted a hundred versions of a reply to Túrin, and settled on one that was almost poetically misleading but not actually false.
“…Why?” Lalaith had asked. “I’m a big advocate of honesty but lying to stalkers is perfectly acceptable.”
“Intuition,” her mother and Nienor had answered unanimously.
Nienor had reluctantly expanded on that a little while later. “There are a whole bunch of things that just feel wrong. Don’t make promises, don’t invoke the gods, think about when you give your name, and if you give a false one, think what it is and why you chose it. I don’t understand precisely why. Maybe we can ask our Elf, when we have one.”
“And tell the truth, even to your enemies, because the mysterious forces-that-govern-the-universe care a great deal about the act-omission distinction and also about the difference between misleading lies and lying lies.” Lalaith had said. “Meaning they have a natural-language interpreter, one of the hardest problems in AI, and use it to decide whether people are technically lying – an open problem in philosophy – and then assign them karma on this basis and imperceptibly intercede in random events to make things happen in a manner appropriate to this karma. Obviously.”
“You come closer to getting it when you’re being sarcastic,” Nienor’d answered.
I am sure that the people Nienor remembers aren’t reading your email. It’s convenient to pretend to be capable of doing lots of things with technology, because no one understands internet surveillance and it can explain their possession of information they shouldn’t have. It’s as likely that they’re actually superspies capable of hacking your messages as it is that Rían and your uncle secretly make gooey faces at each other at choir practice.
That said, I am concerned that they have the means to track you down in person. We left Dallas for precisely this reason. We were planning to fly out of their reach, but now that we know you’re safe our priorities have changed. We’re coming home. We’ll get in touch tomorrow about how best to meet you.
Proof: The sales guy had a Hawaiian print shirt with mismatched buttons. We made fun of him on the way home, and when your mother overheard us she gave me a look of grave disappointment and you a lecture about how self-serving and intellectually lazy and disappointing it is to mock sleezy people for being ugly.
At the airport she threw herself into her father’s arms and clung to him until he said gently “you’re going to miss your flight, Lals.” It was immature and childish but it made her feel much better. The surge of quiet reassurance lasted half the way to Berlin.
They emailed Túrin again once they’d seen the children off, with instructions to set up a new email account and email them at [the name of your first pet][the color of the seats in your first car][the name you suggested we give Nienor, when we asked you for ideas]@gmail.com
Two hours later email@example.com got a message, which Túrin had copied to stickfacenavymargarine, stickfaceblackmargarine, and stickfacegreymargarine as well.
“Just to be safe,” he’d written,
“because to be honest I don’t remember what color seats the old thing had, or how to spell the word ‘gray’. Are we actually safe from surveillance here, or are we just causing them mild inconvenience? Also, email isn’t the best means of communication – I’m running all over the city trying to find free computers I can borrow for ten minutes – so do you have a number I can call?
Proof – margarine was my favorite food at the time – I had it with potatoes, had it with corn, had it with steak, had it with ice cream, had it with M&Ms on one memorable occasion – so I didn’t mean it as an insult to my little sister-to-be at all.
“I think it’s him,” Húrin whispered when they’d finished reading. “Really safe and free, I mean. They couldn’t – they almost certainly couldn’t have gotten that out of him. He’s all right! He’s not a fraction as angry as he’s justified in being, either. He sounds like he’s taking the whole thing with good humor. What a kid.”
“Nienor thought that some of them could read minds. Imperfectly, and only in a superficial sense, but still – if they can do that, it makes all of this effort irrelevant.”
“What, you think they’re holding him prisoner and quizzing him for details on his life in a effort to lure us home –”
“I’d prefer to believe that wrongly than make errors of false optimism.”
He swept her up into a tight hug and said nothing.
“Nine hours back to Dallas,” Morwen reminded them both after a minute.
“Not when I’m driving,” her husband said, and set out to prove it, their aging car shaking and rattling in protest at the lawbreaking pace they set toward home. They picked up a cell phone on the way, and emailed Túrin the number. “It’ll be easier to be certain that we’re genuinely talking to him over the phone,” Húrin had reasoned, “and what’s the worst that could happen?”
For the sake of peace of mind, they both let the question sit there, unanswered, for all six hours of the drive. The gun sat in the glovebox. “Does it bother you that I keep reaching for it?” she asked him when they stopped for gas.
“Not at all,” he said. “I – I was wishing we could find a sword somewhere. I feel as if I’d know what to do with it.”
“That’ll be our second priority, then. If you remember, everything will be easier.”
“Why do you think Nienor is the only one who does?”
“I think,” Morwen said, “she’s the only one who was more afraid to forget than she was to remember.”
“M’not afraid to remember.”
“Are you not? Really?”
Denmark was a good country to serve a life sentence for murder in.
Celegorm had, admittedly, a minimal basis for comparison – a few coworkers in the nineteen hundred eightieth year of this Age, stories on the television when he’d grudgingly watched it for the cultural exposure. But the common features of American prison stories were violence, a relentless undercurrent of acceptable under-the-radar brutality, and minimal contact with the outdoors. The first two would bring out the worst in him and the third would have killed him.
His other experience of justice systems was the Halls of Mandos, a surreal and bewildering mist of memories and convictions all lacking the grounding that could set them in motion. Compared to those even a mortal pit of torture could be withstood. And in truth, whatever he’d seen on television, he had been expecting far worse. Maedhros has survived decades in the custody of the Black Foe, decades that had left every inch of his skin scarred and every bone broken and wrongly rehealed. Elves had extraordinary endurance – or they once had, before they’d begun to fade, but Celegorm refused to think about that. Mortals would tire of such torment far faster, probably.
Prison, then, was a surprise, an embarrassingly potent reminder of how far mortals had come and how fast. Denmark had a prison system determinedly focused on rehabilitation, even for those serving long sentences, and on improving the life of the inmate, and he was happy to sit through psychiatry sessions or unabashedly wheedle and beg if it meant time outdoors. Within a year he’d gotten a rehabilitative work assignment maintaining trails outdoors.
The faint unease from being treated better than you deserved was far easier to cope with than imprisonment or torment. And when he mentioned it to the psychiatrist, she responded with genuine happiness, as if his mixed feelings about the mortals and their holier-than-thou generosity toward their defeated was evidence he was developing a conscience. He wasn’t sure how to correct her, so he just stopped mentioning it.
She’d also jumped with eagerness onto his difficulties reading and his attendant insecurities, offering up a diagnosis and reassurance and books about people like him and certain computer fonts that made words wiggle out of their place a little less. He’d accepted the fonts and scorned everything else. “There are mortals who are as bad at reading as you are” was not a reassuring thought.
With the books written in better text, though, he could read through them a little faster. He did so whenever he was not at work. He concocted elaborate mental scenarios in which Curufin didn’t know something and Celegorm, to everyone’s astonishment, did.
It was a Saturday – they refused to let him work more than five days a week, no matter how eloquently and persuasively he’d made the case that he was happier and more useful to them while working – when his case manager stopped by to let him know that some American journalists, visiting the area, wanted to interview him.
The documentation Maedhros has worked up for him after his capture listed him as Irish, because his mediocre grasp of Danish needed to be explained but making him an American was a sure way to land the story in the American press. Celegorm wasn’t even sure where Ireland was, but he wasn’t an American, so it seemed a little trite to complain.
He was sort-of Canadian, if he had to pick a label, but a Canadian identity could have invited unwanted scrutiny for the rest of his family. They came first, he’d told the psychologist. Everything else, including ethics, was decidedly secondary, and even when he wished it was different, he couldn’t imagine it ever actually being so. She’d seemed concerned.
The point was, American journalists wanting to talk to him was bizarre, and the hope flared across his mind that Maedhros – who was, presumably, leaving him to cool his heels here for some incomprehensible reason – had decided the lesson had been learned and it was time to bring him back home. It had been six years. He resolved to avoid Maedhros entirely for at least that length of time, once freed, to show him.
“Yes, I’d be delighted to see them,” he said, and spent the next day in a state of unreasonable anticipation.
They were not his brothers. Not agents his brothers would have used, either. One was a tall, pretty girl in a wheelchair; the others were shorter and darker-skinned and black-haired, conspicuously out-of-place here. When he entered the conference room they both looked at the girl in the wheelchair, who nodded her head definitively. All three of them then stiffened. He wondered with a surge of horror if they were related to the boy he’d killed on the rig.
“I’m Nienor,” the girl in the wheelchair said. “It means ‘mourning’. This is Lalaith, which means ‘laughter’. I asked my parents why they chose those names and they said ‘it just seems right’. Neither of them speak Sindarin.”
Celegorm found himself briefly speechless. “My pleasure,” he managed. “Um, Brian Aherne.”
Nienor looked justifiably disappointed. “No it isn’t,” she said, and for a second he very nearly felt badly about lying.
But then, if she knew, she was probably here to kill him, and this was just to make herself certain of his identity. He began planning how to take all three of them down.
“Yeah,” he said, “it is. I change it sometimes, but it’s still mine. We all did that, by necessity, from Quenya to Sindarin, and that was hardly regarded as deception.”
A flicker of confusion on Nienor’s face. Maybe she didn’t know everything. He remained supremely confident, somehow, that she was there to kill him, or at least that she was considering it.
“What’s your name in Sindarin?” she said.
“Thalfin,” he said, which was not technically a lie. Turkafinwe could translate that way.
She relaxed a little. “It’s very nice to meet you. I have a great many questions. I am hoping you can help me with some of them.”
“My pleasure,” he said warily.
“Do you know someone named Amrod?”
Tracking someone in a city was hard. Amrod had hunted in places where game was excruciatingly scarce, had hunted when weapons were absent and time was of the essence and starving people waited on him, and he could track an animal almost anywhere.
But tracking a specific rabbit in a horde of them was an entirely different problem, and required bringing to bear an entirely different set of skills. And he disliked leaning too much on the technological aid that Maedhros, calling every few hours, could offer. Maedhros was annoying, for one thing, and relying on aid was like shutting off your senses in anticipation of direction.
So tracking down Túrin in Dallas was the most difficult problem he’d ever been set. And he loved it.
Animals would reliably be smoked out of the deepest forests by the need for water, at least occasionally. Men had a dozen needs – food, water, money, shelter, companionship, communication – and it was merely a question of which one would force them out first. If Túrin used an ATM they would find him. If he went home they would find him. If he made contact with the police they would find him. If he made contact with friends they would find him.
Physically the whole city was open to him. Strategically, the avenues of escape were steadily closing.
And then Maedhros called. “His parents are back in town. They’re communicating –” a brief silence in which Amrod could actually hear his brother’s mental shriek of frustration – “but I don’t know how. If they find him, that removes their remaining incentive not to go to the press. You don’t have much time.”
He didn’t need much.
Túrin, lacking money, couldn’t have purchased a cell phone and was not the type to steal one. So he was borrowing the means to communicate, probably in the public centers set up to enable people to do exactly that, limited by the risk that his behavior would seem suspicious and cause people to call the police. A risk that increased as each passing hour made him look like more of a homeless person – ragged, smelly, ill-clothed.
The University of Texas, Dallas had a gymnasium and accompanying showers.
Around noon, Amrod found him.
He was strolling out of the gym – he must have talked his way in – with his hair washed and his skin cleaned and the expression thoroughly ruined by four days’ growth of a beard and by his rumpled clothes. He was seeking out crowds – walking through them deliberately, as if he thought he might be followed and that would throw pursuers off his scent.
It might have, if Amrod hadn’t seen the tactic employed before. Now he let himself go immaterial and watched the fragile forms of the mortals, washed out from this perspective, pale and temporary and immaterial. Túrin’s was strongest but that might only be because Amrod was focusing on him. Or perhaps Túrin really mattered more; perhaps his steps weighed heavily on this plane. In any event it was easy to follow him.
“No,” Celegorm said. He was not in the habit of denying kinship with his brothers, no matter how egregious the crime that had won them notoriety, but he was at a decided disadvantage here and he disliked having all the secrets on one side of the table. “Amrod? Never met him. Why?”
“He might be trying to kill my brother,” Nienor said.
So you’re trying to kill his. “I doubt that,” Celegorm said. “See, if he’s an Elf and your brother is mortal, and he’s trying to kill your brother, he’d have succeeded.”
The short girl with short hair looked up at him, then, eyes flaring. “Nienor, can your questions wait? I have some.”
“Yeah,” Nienor said.
“Okay,” said the other girl. “First: I swear to God that if anything has happened to my brother I’ll kill you. And first question: is that magically binding? If so, how? Is there a way out of it? You see, if there is, it’s now very much in your interests to help me find it.”
“You’re an idiot,” Celegorm hissed.
“I’m comfortable gambling with my immortal soul,” she retorted, “no one has convinced me I have one.”
He had, by pleasant coincidence of physics, his choice of locations to reenter the world. He chose the planetary bodies that had been the last meaningful achievement of the Valar.
The powers of the Valar had steadily dwindled – from world-building to world-shaking to whispering-encouragement-to-their-favored side. Part of this was due to the leaking of magical energy from the world, as Melkor knew because it affected him also. Part of it was due to laziness. The Valar were fundamentally beings of inertia. Their skills, when they stopped practicing them, became (for every purpose Melkor cared about) beyond them entirely.
Creating the Sun and the Moon to light the world in its time of fading magic had been their last major achievement, and it had been eons in the past. The Sun was too large for Melkor to affect, not without more leverage, and now that his return to the world was conceivable he was too impatient to wait.
The Moon, though –
On April 6th, 2017, at 4pm GMT, the Moon broke free of its orbit and shattered into a hundred thousand pieces as it hurdled with devastating, inexplicable, immeasurable energy toward the Earth. Melkor hovered for a while in the wake of his first major exertion, gathering dust and light into his slowly-regenerating physical form. Then he made his way toward Earth and called, in an ancient tongue that some slumbering monsters still spoke, for vengeance.
Chapter 19: Arc V: Apostasy
He felt it instantly.
They almost certainly wouldn’t have – it was a shuddering from deep within the earth, an almost-imperceptible alteration in a thousand electronic and magnetic field which he, unlike them, was constantly half-conscious of. It was the cold certainty he’d felt when Beren Baranhirion walked into Nargothrond with a quest; it was the wrenching destruction that had reached Formenos in Morgoth’s vanguard, all those eons ago.
“You didn’t just do that, did you?” he asked Lalaith faintly, and won a small measure of relief from her expression of utter confusion.
The rules of the game had changed. He needed to get out of here. And he had…not very much time, probably, before they learned of whatever had just happened. That had been big. It would not escape mortal attention.
“Do what?” the third girl demanded, her eyes glittering with suspicion.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I have seen many terrible things and ten seconds ago this world witnessed something to parallel all of them. I have a feeling we’ll know more soon. What are you doing here? And why today?”
He shouldn’t even have given them that much; they wasted a few seconds in panicked glances at each other. Nienor recovered first. “Are you an Elf?”
“We call ourselves the Eldar, Eru’s first children.”
“Once we reach adulthood we do not age.”
“Have you ever been to Beleriand?”
“I ruled a kingdom there for nearly five hundred years.”
“We lost the war.”
Nienor sat back with an expression of satisfaction and raised an eyebrow at her sister. “Can you do magic?” Lalaith said.
“I can understand and speak to animals. If I forget to concentrate I can go partially transparent,” he said. “Pretty disappointing magic.” If they were really just inquisitive children and he’d imagine the jolt a minute ago –
But he was quite sure he had not.
“Wait,” Lalaith said with sudden urgency, “animals are intelligent?”
“They vary,” he said irritably, “rather like people.”
“Shit. By species or by individual? Are Elves vegan?”
“Both, more notably by species. Carnivores are more intelligent than herbivores as a general rule. Extended company with Elves makes animals more inclined to orient their thoughts in a way you would find comprehensible. And no. I eat meat if I’ve killed it myself.”
“But if animals are intelligent –”
“They die anyway,” he said. “Better a clean death that serves others than a messy one in the wild.”
“That would apply to humans, too,” she said. “Is it permissible to kill us just because we’ll die anyway?”
“Yes.” A terrible answer, from the position of winning their trust, but a thoroughly satisfying one for the objective of setting them off-balance. He enjoyed the array of thoroughly amusing emotions flittering across their face and then reluctantly made a stab at maturity. “It can’t be a surprising moral conclusion. Killing someone who would otherwise die tomorrow is less evil than killing a child with their whole life ahead of them, yes? So killing someone who would otherwise die in ten years is less evil than killing someone who could live until the Final Battle. And I have never killed for sport, or needlessly.”
Celegorm waved his hand impatiently. “When it’s prophecied that the world ends.”
“It’s – what – okay, next question. Oaths, gods, prophecies – what evidence has convinced you that those are real things with measurable effects in the world?”
“From your perspective, what happens when I make an Oath?”
“You’re mortal. You don’t take your word very seriously, evidently, and you don’t take Eru’s Name very seriously either. You did not call Manwë or Varda in witness. You did not specify the price of breaking it. You worded it vaguely. You did, on the other hand, expect me to take it seriously, and expect me to modify my behavior on the anticipation you would follow through. I would expect that you will find breaking it dooms you in some other way, some way more costly than the price of fulfilling it. In other words, you are an idiot, and a comparatively lucky one. An Oath I made, by my name as a grandson of Finwë and with Eru as the witness, would be unbreakable at any cost.”
“Are those the only relevant dimensions?”
“I’m not a theologian.”
“Can you direct me to one?”
“Straight road to Valinor, just keep heading west,” he said and laughed. His laugh did not suit him, neatly dressed at a conference table and speaking of theology; it was wild and rumbling and eerie.
“It’s where the gods live. The Eldar, too, those who have tired of this world or perished in its senseless wars or who took the Great Journey to paradise at the beginning of written history.”
“How long ago?”
“Thirty-six thousand years, roughly. I should introduce you to my younger brother; he’d enjoy this, and he’d be substantially more helpful.”
“Phone number?” said Lalaith, drawing her own out of her pocket.
“You really don't understand how urgent the situation is, do you? Something is wrong, I need to get out of here.”
“Will you kill people again?”
"Were you after a Silmaril?"
He stiffened. "Why do you care?"
"Oh," the girl in the wheelchair said, "a lot of people still tell stories about those."
“Whatever version of the story you heard, I am sure it does us a disservice,” Celegorm said, “probably by failing to emphasize the degree to which we didn’t have a choice.”
“Just following orders,” offered the third girl, an edge to her voice.
“Just following through on commitments I couldn’t escape at any cost.”
“In Texas it’s legal to use of deadly force to prevent the theft of your property,” Nienor added with a bitter smile.
“Sensible of them,” said Celegorm.
There was a charged silence.
“I have more questions,” said Lalaith, recovering.
Devon Michaels, as the newest employee in the NSA’s department of domestic information security, was responsible for bringing his colleagues coffee every morning. Even knowing that all of them, too, had gone through this mild white-collar hazing ritual, it grated at him. Matt Carter was the only who reliably paid him back – the price of his order, every day, rounded to the nearest nickel – so Matt Carter was the only one who reliably got exactly what he’d ordered.
It was a petty vengeance, but when your obnoxious senior colleagues owed you over $50 in cappuccino orders, some petty vengeance was justified.
Mr. Carter was also alarmingly attractive, for someone who had to be pushing sixty – Devon wasn’t generally into older guys, but seriously – and so Mr. Carter always got his coffee first, and his smile would buoy Devon through the rest of the day.
This morning when he walked in, Matt Carter was having a stroke or something.
His eyes were wide and unseeing, his right hand lying limp at his side and his left hand fluttering frantically, the muscles in his neck twitching and convulsing. Devon let the coffee splash catastrophically to the floor and rushed to his side, realizing only as he got there that he had no idea how to handle a stroke victim, and that ‘don’t hold them down’ was the one bit of advice for seizures he remembered. He grabbed Carter’s phone again and started dialing emergency medical. Before he’d even finished a hand closed on his wrist, and twisted it sharply. He could hear the bone snap.
“Morgoth,” Carter said groggily, and then his fluttering eyes refocused. “Oh. Michaels.”
“Holy shit,” Devon said, clutching his wrist to his hand. “Are you ex-special-forces or something?”
Whatever had been wrong with him a second ago, there was no sign of it now, except perhaps in his eyes, which were glowing something terrifying. Devon looked away. “Or something,” Carter said, reaching for the phone. “We need to evacuate this building now.”
Carter was still stabbing buttons on the phone. It took Devon an embarrassingly long time to realize what was wrong; it wasn’t responding. He pulled out his cell phone. “Here-”
“Won’t work either,” Carter said, “satellites, everything runs on satellites-Moringotto – Michaels, downstairs there’s a wired phone. Been there since the Cold War, it’s meant for situations exactly like this – go down there, dial the Pentagon and tell them to shift to a Category 5 footing, dial the White House and tell them this nation is at war and this city needs to be evacuated.”
“That can wait.”
“No, it really fucking –”
“Devon,” he said, and you could see his blood pumping through his eyes or something, it was hypnotic, it was terrifying – “a couple billion people are going to die today. Whatever you thought your job was yesterday, today your job is to hold enough of the world together that we can hit back. Go downstairs and repeat the fucking message.”
Morgoth had chosen the timing for maximum effect – a full moon, high in the sky in the dead of night, over the segment of the Earth where the population was most heavily concentrated.
In New Delhi a news reporter delivering a live celebrity segment caught the critical moment on television. Over her shoulder the Moon glowed a tranquil white. And then, impossibly, it shattered. The light went first – beginning to reflect off of different segments differently, some fragments casting vast geometric shadows across the others. For a second a kaleidoscope of shifting angular patterns hung suspended in the sky.
Then the tidal waves hit.
At dawn the Dallas heat was not oppressive; there was even a hint of a refreshing breeze. He’d been up all night, though, and was too tired to appreciate it. He kept seeing red hair out of the corners of his eyes. In every case so far it’d been nothing but his fevered imagination.
He arrived early to their assigned meeting point, the parking lot of an uptown Target, and saw Húrin and Morwen already there, leaning against the battered jeep with the forced-casual stances of people expecting trouble.
He determinedly did not throw himself into their arms like a frightened child. “Hey,” he called instead, and watched them both jump and then spin toward him. Out of an abundance of caution he raised his arms above his head. By now they were close enough to speak at a normal volume. “They can’t imitate peoples’ appearances, can they?”
“Not that we know of,” said Morwen. “Then again, were I an imposter that’s exactly what I’d say.”
“I found out Santa wasn’t real when I was eight,” he said. “I wrote Santa that I wanted a bike and told you that I wanted roller blades, and Santa gave me roller blades.”
“You looked at them for a moment,” said Húrin, “and then said, ‘Daddy, you and Mom are Santa, aren’t you?’ and spoiled it for your sisters and all of your cousins.”
He hadn’t hugged his father in a very long time.
It felt great.
“You owe me an awful lot of explaining,” he mumbled, not letting go, and to his relief they started explaining without letting go either.
It took an hour. The sun baked the chilled dawn air into properly miserable Dallas heat, and still they sat there on the edge of the car, talking him through two weeks of chaos.
“Okay,” he said. “So now –”
“So now we try to reach your sisters and tell them not to take risks, everybody’s safe,” his father said, “and leave the city again. We will come back and take care of this, don’t mistake me, but if we’re all safe we can afford to do so by going through more traditional channels. Maybe scrape enough evidence we can go to the police without being dismissed.”
“Can I talk to Lalaith and Nienor?”
“Yes, of course,” said their mother. Then she frowned.
“Well, maybe I just don’t have service right here. But – unless I’m wrong - they somehow got to this phone too. It’s not making phone calls – not even emergency calls, and that’s unusual. Even if they shut down a phone remotely, you can usually call 911 from it.”
Túrin spun around to scan the empty parking lot.
“We’ll go into the store,” Húrin said calmly. “If it doesn’t work in there, we’ll buy a new one. They can’t actually hurt us remotely.” But he popped the trunk of their car and pulled out a crowbar he used to change tires.
“I have a gun,” Morwen said as they walked toward the doors of the store. “Only a limited understanding of how to use it, mind, but –”
“They’re fast,” Túrin said. “You won’t have time to stop and make up your mind.”
“I made up my mind a few days ago. Someone broke into our home, manhandled you, impersonated you, and relentlessly pursued you into spending these last two days alone and penniless, afraid of dragging anyone you spoke to into danger. Lalaith, if she were here, would say ‘they haven’t hurt anyone yet’, but I disagree.”
The phone didn’t work inside the store. Morwen picked up a $50 prepaid new one. “We’ve more-or-less blown through Nienor’s college savings, this last week,” she said ruefully.
“We can write a reveal-all expose and make it back,” Túrin said.
“And you act as if I was unjustified in worrying,” a voice said from behind them.
All three of them jumped and spun around. Húrin stepped in front of Túrin protectively, his hands tightening on the crowbar. Morwen set her hand on the gun but, perhaps remembering they were inside a grocery store, didn’t draw it.
“Won’t work,” said the air, “I’m immaterial right now, for my own safety. Put the weapons away and I’ll shimmer down.”
Húrin lashed out with the crowbar and was rewarded with a dry chuckle from right over his left shoulder. “Terribly sorry for making you nervous. I don’t like this either. Dust motes feel funny.”
“Promise me,” Túrin said, “that you won’t hurt my family or allow us to come to harm or communicate information about us to anyone who would.”
“Second clause is going to be tricky,” Amrod said, “under the circumstances. I swear you’re safer with me than anywhere else in the world, will that suffice?”
“Under what circumstance?”
And then he shimmered into existence, and Túrin knew at once that something was very wrong. He had the same grim, dangerous, removed smile, but his face was paler and his eyes were haunted and for the first time Túrin understood how Lalaith’s coworker could have assumed he was dealing with vampires.
Amrod was afraid, and that was itself quite scary.
“Under what circumstance?” Túrin repeated.
“Do you know how eerie this is?” Amrod said. “I felt it ten minutes ago. The Silmarils enhance our senses, but even if I’d never seen one I’d have known that something was terribly wrong. It’s like the Darkening of Valinor all over again – that’s how it feels – except here you mortals are, scurrying around like you can’t feel it-”
“To the point,” Húrin growled.
“Whyever your phone stopped working, it wasn’t us. And the new one won’t work either. And you can’t buy it – the store’s electronic purchase and accounting system is down. And it’s more than that, I can taste it on the air – he’s calling for his old allies, and they’ll be able to hear him, if I can.”
“Who’s he?” said Túrin.
“To a first approximation,” Morwen answered, “Satan.”
Amrod tossed his head in mixed acknowledgement. “He’s credited with planting the seeds of all evil in the world, but as someone responsible for lots of it, I disagree with that. That said, he destroys and taints and slaughters every good thing he encounters, he tortured and enslaved entire races of beings and murdered my grandfather and my father and my uncle and the lion’s share of my cousins and hundreds of thousands of other innocent people –”
“Is he one of you?” Túrin interrupted him.
“No, not at all. I am Eldar; he’s a god.”
“Then how do we fight him?
“That’s a damned good question. Last time, you’ll recall, we lost.”
“And he was – what? Appeased?”
That prompted the first human-looking expression to flash across Amrod’s head all day. “No. The other gods intervened. This world had another continent, once. It was called Beleriand. The war of the Valar and Melkor ground it up inch by inch and sank it beneath the ocean.”
Someone came over the intercom to announce to customers of Target that the store would be, temporarily, forced to close due to problems with their registers. Customers could collect a $10 rain check with the manager’s apologies at the door. They all stood and listened in dumbfounded silence.
“And the Valar are weaker now than they were then.” Amrod added casually.
“Man,” said Húrin, “is stronger.”
"I hope you’re right," he said. "So - allies? For the duration?"
"If you can get us to Denmark," Morwen answered warily.
Amrod blinked. “Denmark? Why do you want to go there?”
"It’s where my daughters are."
"In that case," he said, "I think our interests align."
"Do they?" said Húrin. "What’s in this for you?"
"Well," said Amrod, "he’s the only person on this continent who’s ever killed a dragon."
"He doesn’t remember," Morwen said.
"Actually," said Túrin, "I kind of do."
"That still doesn’t answer the question -"
"What’s in it for me is a ride up to North Dakota," said Amrod, "I never learned to drive."
"I thought we were going to Denmark?"
"There are a bunch of people in North Dakota who also want to go to Denmark,” he said, “and who can help you there. Look, it’s a long car ride. I would be happy to explain along the way.”
"Promise," said Túrin.
"I don’t know where you guys got the impression it worked that way," Amrod grumbled. "Eru give witness that these mortals think your name should be cheaply invoked to reassure every potential ally I run across! Manwë, Varda, hear my words and remember!" He caught their astonished expressions and shrugged. "I’m doomed for all my prayers to fall on deaf ears; it’s unfortunate, but it gives me latitude for irreverent ones."
Túrin had perhaps been thinking too much on Amrod, these last few days; the ways his eyes would widen, the expressions that would come and go on his face between the ones he meant you to see. Túrin was exhausted and possibly paranoid. But he could not have been more certain that Amrod was hiding something. He met his mother’s eyes and nodded.
"All right," Morwen said, "you have a deal."
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, listened to half an hour of heated debate over the options available to him. He cut it off there not because he had heard enough to make his decision but because he was out of time.
"You believe," he said in summary, "that we can use intercontinental ballistic missiles to deflect the incoming - ah - orbital body - the Moon - and use nuclear weaponry above the upper atmosphere in a manner that ensures the pieces will break apart on reentry, and that shouldn’t result in poisoning a major part of the population with radiation."
"Yes," said his Minister of Defense.
"The problem," he said, "is that we don’t really know what Pakistan will think of an unannounced launch of our entire arsenal."
"Yes," said three ministers at once, rather forcefully.
"Are they looking at the same sky?" he said. "Launch, and hope they’re doing the same goddamn thing, or we aren’t going to have enough firepower."
Chapter 20: Wasted Motions
They’d positioned the drilling equipment to carve out the chunk of rock surrounding the Silmaril. It was actually a surprisingly challenging exercise; Curufin was tempted to blame the difficulties on the limitations of modern technology, but modern technology was substantially better than the tools they’d worked with back in Valinor, and he tried to maintain a stance of contempt toward the mortals only where they deserved it.
The problem, of course, was that drilling equipment was intended for making holes, not for getting anything out intact. And the Silmarils were indestructible but the drilling equipment was not, so they only had one shot. Most oil drilling was done at a steep angle for a variety of probably-legitimate reasons he hadn’t the time to research, so by going straight down they were testing the limits of their equipment.
It would be useful to have Celegorm.
He hadn’t said that to his father, because it might seem as if he was making excuses.
The drill, once they set it in motion, was agonizingly loud. Mortals presumably used ear protection. Curufin wondered idly if Elven eardrums could burst, and if they regrew if they did. But the memory of what they had been just six years ago – fading, weakening, clinging toothlessly to remembered selves – lends itself to a reckless sense of invincibility. They have a Silmaril now. In a moment they’ll have two. He flexes the hand where his skin is soft and barely scarred from those six-year-old burn injuries and cannot force himself to worry about loud noises. All wounds can heal.
There was not much work for him to do at the seat of the drilling equipment, despite the bewildering array of levers. There was measuring equipment to monitor, but his senses could do that better than the spectrometers. They were still on track. The sun was rising; they should reach the spot by nightfall.
That’s when the world ended.
It was impossible to hear anything over the steady wailing of the machinery, and the rhythmic thumping it had caused inside his forehead. He felt it, instead, as a shivering sensation across his skin, as a shattering jagged somethingat the branching in his lungs, as Doom at last finding the string it could hang him on and tugging.
He didn’t stop the equipment. He was twelve hours away from getting his hands on a Silmaril.
Amras and Caranthir both turned to look at him with wide, terrified eyes. (Maglor was a mile away, keeping watch. Maglor valued his eardrums and refused to come any closer. Curufin wouldn’t consider this unforgivable selfishness, except for the fact that Maglor once had a Silmaril and threw it away.) The shrieking of the equipment was interfering with his ability to hold a coherent thread of thought.
He gestured to them in the old sign language used for the chaos of combat. Fan out, report back.
They were off like frightened rabbits. Curufin looked down at his hands on the drill. To his annoyance they were pale, bloodless, violently shaking.
“How do your capabilities compare to those of people?”
“We’re people,” he said, rubbing his arms as if it could chase away the prickling sensation. If only he still had the Silmaril. He’d be able to sense more, he’d be able to tell what was going on…
“non-Elves,” Lalaith snapped coldly.
“I could win the Olympics.”
“Everything.” He pressed his fingers to his temple and tried to chase the feeling away from there. It didn’t work. “Listen, can you do me a favor?”
He looked up to meet the eyes of an exceedingly hostile audience. “Very small favor,” he amended. “Go outside, turn on the news, tell me whether there’s been a major earthquake or a reversal of the earth’s magnetic poles or a nuclear war or something.”
The third girl nodded and took two quick steps to the doorway.
“Why?” said Lalaith sharply.
“I have a feeling.”
That made her even more suspicious. “Magic intuition-thing?
"Sorry, what’s the difference?"
"Does it feel like I’m dead?
He blinked at her. “No, not at all. It feels like everyone is doomed, but not you specifically…”
“I had a dog which could sense when there was an earthquake coming,” her friend said. There was still an odd edge to her voice. “Maybe it’s like that.”
“Yes,” Celegorm muttered, “sure, exactly like that, just go check.”
“You aren’t what I was expecting,” said Nienor.
“All the Elves I’ve known were a little…nobler.”
He chuckled bitterly. “I clean up well.”
“Are you Elf nobility?” She managed to make the question light and casual, and she’d almost managed to wedge it in there naturally, but her thoughts were screaming that it was important. He wasn’t quite distracted enough to miss that. But why – oh, yes, they were trying to connect him to Amrod. What the hell had Amrod been up to?
“Me? Nah.” And a good thing it wasn’t Curufin in prison, he thought smugly, because on that particular point Curufin would have been too stubborn to lie.
The third girl opened the door again. Her skin was clammy and her thoughts were – no good, too confused to be useful, and he’d never had a gift for that – certainly panicked, though –
“Lalaith,” she hissed.
Lalaith jumped to her feet, reached out to grab the handles of Nienor’s wheelchair.
“No,” he said, “don’t leave.”
“We’ll be back,” she said.
“No. Please. Don’t leave. Tell me what the fuck is going on. I’ll do whatever you want – I’ll tell you whatever you want – something is terribly wrong, isn’t it? Worse than an earthquake?” And then, inspired, “If it was a nuclear war, I know a place that’s safe.”
Lalaith spun, jaw set, to open the door.
But her friend didn’t move. “Do you really?” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve been prepared for a while just in case.”
She stood frozen.
“It’s that bad?” Lalaith asked flatly.
“I – I don’t know.”
“Well,” Celegorm said, striving for and just barely falling short of a civil tone, “you could tell us.”
“Twenty minutes ago,” the girl said, “something happened – um – on the Moon, or from the Moon, or to the Moon. TV’s playing the same clip over and over – it looksweird, like nothing you’ve ever seen – and since then we’ve lost communication with basically everyone. Phones don’t work. Most of the TV channels are down.”
“Is this you?” Lalaith demanded, spinning around.
He raised his hands helplessly. “I’ve been right here.”
“No Elf can or would knock the Moon out of the sky.”
“I didn’t say that,” Lalaith’s friend said.
“The news did, though, right? Because they’re sensationalist and jump to conclusions, only this time I think they jumped rightly. It’s part of the prophecy - Listen,” he said urgently, “you have to get me out of here.”
“No way in hell,” Lalaith answered instantly, “You’re serving a life sentence for a murder you admit you committed, you just said you don’t care if humans die since we’re all going to die anyway-”
“I do care if you go extinct,” he said, “that wasn’t bound to happen anyway.”
"Humanity isn’t going to go extinct," Nienor said unsteadily.
"If the Moon smashes into the Earth, yes, you will.”
“I don’t think the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was as big as the Moon,” Lalaith’s friend whispered after a moment.
“See!” said Celegorm, “exactly. I like you. What’s your name?”
“Amirah,” she said, “and I don’t like you. But if you have the means to stop this, I’m listening.”
“Yeah,” he lied, “I do. We just need to get back to Canada.”
“Canada? If you’re right about what happened, the world’s going to freeze,” Lalaith said. “That’s what killed the dinosaurs, years-long winter brought on by ash and debris in the upper atmosphere. So, I mean, Canada is probably the worst place we could go.”
“That’s where my family is,” he said.
“My family’s in Dallas.”
“Mine’s in San Francisco,” Amirah said.
His skin was itching again, screaming urgently that there was something to see just beyond the limits of his current perception. “Look, I think I might know what’s going on, but I need to be out there to see it for sure. And there’s something in Canada that will help me, make me stronger, make me able to sense it.”
They looked at each other.
"What’s your guess?"
"I’ll tell you when I know more."
“No deal,” Lalaith said.
“Who put you in charge?” Celegorm groused, though it was probably pointless.
“No deal,” Nienor and Amirah both said forcefully.
“Fine,” he said. “I hope you don’t die.”
“You aren’t answering any more questions?”
"Okay," Lalaith muttered. "That’s enough. We’re out of here." She waited expectantly for a moment, as if he’d change his mind or lose his composure and beg them not to leave again.
"You are quite welcome," he said, nodding to her. He was not going to be manipulated by mortals. Once they left he’d just have to persuade someone else.
At that moment someone outside screamed. And then several other people – mortal hearing wouldn’t catch it yet, but the latter few had been closer than the first – “listen!” he hissed, and with deliciously satisfying timing someone nearby howled loudly enough that even mortals could hear. It was almost entertaining to watch them panic.
“…you want one more question?” he asked lazily.
“What’s your guess about what’s going on?”
And then, loud enough that no mortal could fail to hear it, loud enough that there was no way Celegorm could fail to recognize it, something roared.
"That," he said, "is a dragon. And my guess - though, mind, don’t take ittoo seriously, far more sensible to be spiteful and waste time arguing minutia with me -“
"I will kill you,” Lalaith said -
"My guess is that the Final Battle is here.”
Matt Carter didn’t technically have permission to use the emergency internal public address system, but he flashed a glare at the tech who did have that authority and sent her skittering out of her seat. “Attention,” his voice echoed through the building, “this is high priority.”
He could as easily have claimed top priority, but every interruption claimed to be top priority; the modest understatement might actually get their attention better. “Five minutes ago hostile enemy action took out of commission every satellite in geosynchronous orbit or closer. We do not know the enemy. Use radio and grounded communication channels. At the same time a geological disruption occurred which is expected to produce massive tidal waves. The city of Washington, D.C. will be underwater in twenty minutes. We are beginning a priority evacuation.”
He set the phone down and smiled blandly at the tech. She was glaring back at him. “Satellites are down,” she said, “but how’d you know the rest?”
“Above your clearance,” he said. “Do you have a grounded line to Rogers?”
“If what you just said is true we need to radio the New York office, tell them to shut down inbound traffic on the bridges and tunnels into Manhattan – the city’s going to be a death trap.”
“I assure you that everything I just said is true. Do you have a grounded line to Rogers?”
“Conway,” she called across the room. She didn’t really need to; the room had gone deathly silent when that announcement had been made. “Go find a radio, warn them.” The woman she’d given the order to was halfway out the door before she’d finished the sentence.
“Admiral Rogers’s in his office today,” she added, looking back at Carter. “Though, he’d have heard your message, so-”
The door swung open with the efficient clipped stride of the career military officer, he entered the room.
Admiral Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, Chief of the Central Security Service and Commander of the United States Cyber Command, had ascended to the post when his predecessor resigned in the wake of the Snowden controversy. He’d been promoted from the commander of the Tenth Fleet and the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command. He had an ugly face, a mind like a trap, and a decidedly intimidating stature.
Carter towered over him.
“Sir,” Carter said, “firstly, I tender my resignation, because I can no longer in good faith swear to act in the interests of the U.S. government or her people. Secondly, I confess to lying on my initial application for this position. I wrote that I was twenty-five. That was a lie. I was born before the Sun or the Moon, before the beginning of written history. I have walked among gods with the power to push the moon out of the sky. I have walked among the gods who put it there.” It was subtle, under the fluorescent lights, but he was visibly glowing. “Thirdly,” he continued, “and most urgently, I can win you this war.”
Chapter 21: Bias Toward Action
The dragon had stopped on the highway. Celegorm could guess as much from the crunching sound that cars made when they went flying, from the anguished shrieks of their passengers, from the angered grunt the dragon itself made when someone barreled into it going one hundred –
- brave of them. Too bad that the collision would have certainly killed them.
He asked himself if he was willing to punch another bright-eyed kid, maybe break his fragile mortal neck, getting out of here. The answer was yes. If he had to. But there might, actually, be an easier way.
“Take me with you,” he said. It was a medium-security prison but under today’s conditions –
“Can you kill a dragon?”
She looked startled by his honesty.
“No one can kill a dragon,” he said impatiently, “they’re magic, usually invulnerable, you need a special weapon –”
“Túrin’s sword could talk,” Nienor said.
“That wouldn’t have been the essential characteristic,” Celegorm grumbled, “but sure.”
“You murdered someone,” Lalaith said, glaring at him.
He just barely repressed himself from replying ‘you’re still hung up on that?’
“I do,” he said instead, “know how to cripple, wound, and otherwise seriously inconvenience dragons.”
“All right,” Amirah said, and Lalaith shot her a betrayed glance. She didn’t explain her reasoning until they were out in the hallway. “If we’d left you there you’d have fought your way out, right?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to sit there and die.”
The corridor was in disarray. The two staff members (they were not called ‘prison guards, not in Denmark’ who’d been standing outside the room where he’d entertained his visitors had been called away, presumably, by the catastrophe outside. One other, alarmed, started toward him and Lalaith waved him off with an authoritative ‘he’s with us.’ People’d left the break room and their cells and were crowding the hallways. Getting Nienor’s wheelchair through was going to be a hassle – no, it was going to be impossible. He reached over and pulled her out of it into his arms. All three of them shrieked their dismay, and half the corridor turned around to stare.
“You’re all going to die,” he growled at them, “run,” and then set an example by charging for the exit opposite the direction the dragon was coming. A uniformed staff member looked at him, looked at Nienor, and stood aside. He wondered which had been the deciding factor. Running felt good. The door was unlocked. He burst through it into a parking lot and then, finding his stride, through the parking lot into the hills. He stopped at that point because Nienor was clawing at his eyeballs. “They’re right behind us,” he shouted at her – he could hear their footsteps and their noisy mortal breathing – and she stopped, briefly, her jaw clenched and her eyes wide and angry.
“Shouldn't...carry...people...in...wheelchairs...without permission...incredibly rude,” Lalaith said, catching up.
“In the Dagor Bragollach,” Celegorm said, “we held the Pass of Aglon for a month, losing warriors left and right. I’d known some of them for a hundred years. And it was too much – they were too many – they’d swept across the Marches and were pressing us in from both sides and we had to call a fighting retreat or we would all have died there. We had amputees, we had men who’d never walk again…”
“And women?” said Amirah.
“My language has a perfectly suited gender-neutral inclusive plural,” he snapped. “We’re speaking yours."
“Go on,” Lalaith said.
“The soldiers who were injured – who couldn’t make it on their own – we carried them. Stupid, probably, but I wasn’t going to leave them. We were slow, we were outnumbered, we were surrounded, we lost a lot of people on the way. But some people made it who wouldn’t have, if I’d chosen otherwise.”
The anger had faded, in their faces, to wariness. “I picked her up because I could carry her,” he said. “That’s the whole and only reason. Listen - you want me to fight that dragon? I can try. But you want me to run from it? To get us out of here alive, in shape to fight again someday? That’s what I’m good at.”
They fell silent. He wondered if they could hear down to the highway, the creak of crushed metal, the sharp intake of breath that meant the exhalation would be fire. He wondered in which direction it would influence them if they could hear.
“If we run,” Lalaith said, “who stops the dragon?”
“No one stops the dragon,” he said. “Some days the bad guys win. Some days your only choices are lose and die, or lose and live.”
“You did this on purpose,” Amirah said. “Without the wheelchair we need you to carry Nienor.”
“With the wheelchair you’d be stuck in there,” he said, “and how exactly were you going to use it in the backcountry, anyway?” People were racing out of the building now. Most of the staff were getting in cars. He wished he’d thought to shout a better warning –
“No one stops it? It just keeps – ”
“We lost the Pass of Aglon,” Celegorm said. “We lost the whole damn war. No one stops it. No one can.”
"You said you’d fight the dragon,” said Lalaith. "Fight the dragon."
He shouldn’t have listened to her. If he’d had merely mortal hearing, maybe. If he hadn’t been thinking that he’d have to travel thirty miles at mortal running pace before he was at a sufficient distance to no longer hear those screaming, crunching sounds.
“Who put her in charge,” he asked Amirah instead, disgustedly, “and do any of you have a weapon?”
“For your purposes,” Maedhros continued, swiftly, urgently, in the clipped military protocol-speech which was, so far, holding Admiral Rogers at bay from ordering him locked up for psychiatric evaluation, “I am an alien from a powerful, distant civilization, and so are the people who just attacked us. I can prove it; I can correctly predict their next moves. Get someone to model ways the Moon could break apart in some kind of gravitational simulator. You’ll get a model like what just happened when all of the force is applied at the surface of the distant side, from a single point, with a lot of backsplash and messiness. I know this guy, sir, I know how he operates.”
“Name?” Admiral Rogers managed.
“You said D.C. was going to drown –”
“Well, that’s just physics,” he said. “The moon controls the tides, right? Having the moon on your side of the planet shifts the oceans so dramatically the coastline changes, what, ten feet? Having the Moon on a spiraling catastrophic collision orbit-”
“Is it going to hit?”
“We should ensure that it does not, sir.”
“You said,” Rogers said stiffly, “that you could prove it.”
The man in front of him vanished. Instinctively Admiral Rogers reached out to poke the air to test if he was really gone. His hand moved through empty air.
To their credit not a single person in the NSA’s chief communications office screamed, or fainted, or even went wobbly on their feet. To their even greater credit, Agent Conway had returned with radios and most of them were trying to contact police departments in distant cities with evacuation warnings, even if they were also watching their supervisor and the proceedings generally with great interest.
He appeared a second later, six feet to the side.
“How the hell,” said Rogers slowly, “do your clothes stay on?”
“From my perspective I was – ah, ‘stepping sideways’, sir. Out of this world, into another, and then back. I can take things with me easily.”
“Can you take people with you?”
Barely an instant’s hesitation. “Yes.”
Maedhros reached forward and grabbed his arm. Then he tugged on it, just slightly. The world went gray and blurred and urgent around them; there was something howling terribly in the air. It saw them; it recognized them. They could feel the terrible pressure of its interest, brought to bear on them alone –
They reappeared precisely where they’d disappeared. “Well,” Admiral Rogers said, his back still straight, his expression swiftly returning to ‘serious’, “what the hell was that?”
“Morgoth, sir,” Maedhros said. “He knows me.”
“You poor thing,” the admiral said. It had been meant as a gruff joke but something flared in Maedhros’ eyes that made it, in retrospect, not at all funny. He cleared his throat. “All right, now what?”
“You call the President, vouch for me, we get started on winning this-”
“I’m sorry,” Rogers said, “but vouch for what? Your sanity? Because-”
“My forty years of loyal service to this department,” Maedhros said, “the correctness of my prediction about the impact fragmentation pattern of the Moon, and what I just showed you.”
“That thing – it’s what did this?”
“Can we launch a couple missiles at it? Because –”
“Trust me, sir, you cannot possibly want that as badly as I do.”
“There’s a prophecy,” Amrod said reluctantly, when they cleared the Dallas city limits.
Túrin made his opinion of this known with a disgruntled huff. “How common are those?” Morwen asked.
“Very rare, actually. I can only think of four or five recorded ones.”
“Did they all come true?”
“Obviously. You make it when you have a vision of the future, and the sort of people who get visions of the future know how to distinguish them from ordinary dreams.”
“Do you get visions?”
Amrod laughed. In the car, fey and eerie laughter sounded wrong; it bumped up against the windows and air-conditioning vents and came out like a bad soundtrack. “I’m not on good terms with Lórien,” he said.
Morwen’s fingertips played across her palms as if she had long-since outlearned the habit of picking at her nails. “Lórien?”
“The Vala of dreams and visions. He’s – not the one who sends them, exactly, but without his favor you won’t get them.”
“So how’d you hear about this prophecy?”
“It’s well known. It regards the Final Battle, when the world ends. It goes, “When the world is old and the watchers at the Gates grow weary, Melkor shall in some wise contrive a quarrel between Moon and Sun, and Ilinsor shall seek to follow Urwendi through the Gates, and be destroyed, and Urwendi lost,”
“Can you translate?” Morwen interrupted..
“I am,” Amrod said; “did you think it was originally in English?”
“Ilinsor is the Moon,” Túrin volunteered, “and Urwendi the Sun.”
Amrod continued with a cadence suggesting he’d never been interrupted. “and Eönwë son of Manwë of love for Urwendi shall in the end be Melkor’s bane, and shall destroy the world to destroy his foe, and so shall all things then be rolled away. And on the plains of Valinor Turambar shall fight beside him, and Melkor and his drakes shall curse the sword of Mormegil, and in the end it is by that black sword shall Melkor fall-” he paused, “there’s more, but that’s the relevant bit.”
“Well,” Morwen said.
“If you’re fucking with me-” Túrin said.
“I swear that I am not deceiving, misleading, or deliberately manipulating you.”
“Melkor,” said Húrin, “is another name for Morgoth?”
“Yes,” Amrod said.
“Elves like naming things,” Túrin muttered, bitterness that had a hint of recollection in it.
“Turambar,” said Amrod, “Fate’s Master, also known as Neithan, the Wronged, Gorthol, the Dread Helm, Agarwaen, the Bloodstained, Adanedhel, the Man-Elf, Mormegil, the Black-sword, who introduced himself to me as Barack Obama, you are poorly placed to complain that Elves have too many names.”
“Turambar is Túrin,” Húrin said attentively. “So your prophecy is that Morgoth will return, what, coax the Moon into the Sun –”
“Coax the Moon into following the Sun, in their respective trajectories across the sky,” Amrod corrected him, “until the Moon is destroyed and the Sun is lost. And then he’ll fight with his ancient allies on the plains of Valinor –”
“And destroy the world to destroy his foe,” Morwen said, “I caught that part –”
“And Turambar, in the end, will kill him,” said Húrin. “I caught that part, too.”
“Yup,” Amrod said. “That’s the prophecy.”
“So…the world is going to be destroyed,” Túrin said. His voice was flat and level, but you would had no trouble identifying him as the person destined to kill Melkor.
“Well,” said Amrod, “prophecies usually have some flexibility to them. There are two worlds, you see. When you tried to punch me, earlier, what I was doing was moving between them. And then there’s Valinor, which might count as a world of its own. So, aworld is going to be destroyed. I have an interest in it not being this one.”
“Isn’t Valinor where your gods live?
“It’s where nearly all the Elves live. All of them except my family, actually, and some of the more stubborn Avari. They don’t want to go on principle. We’re exiled.”
“For the same reason you’re Doomed?”
“So,” Túrin said, “it sounds like I need to acquire my sword and get over there, fast, because this thing can’t end without me. Can you do that?”
“…probably,” Amrod said, but Túrin saw the things that flashed across his face before it settled on thoughtful consideration, and was once again quite certain Amrod was lying.
Caranthir was shouting ‘turn the machines off!’ and Curufin pretended for a full second that he was having trouble reading his brother’s lips.
The machinery died down to a tolerable, whining, clattering shutdown procedure, and in the absence of that sound Curufin could hear all of the other sounds he’d nearly missed. Morgoth was back. Morgoth was calling his friends.
At that moment perhaps they still had time. “Why,” he demanded, “did you tell me to shut down the drill?”
“He’s coming here,” Amras said, “we need to run.”
“The Silmaril’s here. We can’t let him take it.”
“If we’re here he kills us and takes it,” said Maglor, Maglor who’d had a Silmaril and thrown it away.
Curufin realized with a cold lurch in his stomach that he actually could not trust his brothers’ motives at all. “How did you arrive at the conclusion that he’s coming here?” he said. “Of all the places in the world –”
“He can sense that it’s here,” Amras said, “he can sense that we’re here – we have to go home to Father – ”
“Not empty-handed –”
“Better empty-handed than with a bloody stump for a hand,” said Caranthir darkly, which was the exact wrong thing to say; Curufin felt something inside him cool and harden.
Even then, perhaps, they still had time. “I would be ashamed,” he said, “to return home without injuries serious enough to justify my failure.”
“This is Morgoth,” Maglor said. “We won’t be injured. We’ll be dead.”
“Wreck the machinery,” Caranthir said, “so he can’t reach it easily either. We can always come back.
“When? If we let him establish a position here –”
And by then it was too late. “Relevant here,” Maglor interrupted, and now there was a lilt to his voice that said he had the command here, and was not-very-reluctantly going to use it, “is that we don’t have any means by which to stop him from establishing a position here. Curufinwë Atarinke, we are going to pull back.”
"After we destroy the equipment?" Caranthir asked.
A shadow fell across the sun. “Leave the equipment,” said Amras.
To the north they could hear the howling of the earth as something ripped straight through it, tossed the continental plates apart. They were knocked off their feet by the shudder of the bedrock slamming back together; Caranthir was tossed twenty meters.
“There’s no fault line here,” Curufin said, as if anyone cared.
“Into the mountains,” Maglor called as they all stood up, but he was panicking and he called too loudly; his voice echoed mockingly off the distant rock. They’d started running; the mountains were not getting any closer. “I should have brought a sword,” he added in a more normal voice, but now the mountains had caught the tune, and they echoed that too, louder than his words had been originally. “Should have brought a sword, should have brought a sword.”
By now the sky was black as night; the ground was shuddering again, frequent percussive seizures that kept knocking them to the ground. It was the Darkening of Valinor all over again, Curufin thought wildly, except the rock around him was unfamiliar and it was singing a mocking litany of his mistakes. “Should have brought a sword!” He got up. He kept running.
Other voices were joining the chorus of echoes.
From the North and from the East, beasts were lashing their way free of the bedrock that had bound them since the War of Wrath. “Run,” Maglor hissed to his brother, urgently, and then rose steadily to his feet, breathed in, and raised his voice. He had been known as the greatest singer in Valinor, once. When Maglor raised his voice, you listened.
“Melkor,” he sang, “come out and play.”
Chapter 22: Rules of Engagement
Over the radio they were reading the names of cities the way that, in a lesser tragedy, they might read the names of the dead. Miami. Baltimore. Los Angeles. Atlantic City. Norfolk. Savannah. Charleston. San Francisco. New York. Bridgeport. Portland. Boston. San Diego. New Haven.
Every few minutes Amrod shifted in his seat. That is, he vanished and then reappeared in loosely the same place, looking no different except perhaps slightly unhappier.
“How does that work?” Túrin said.
“I’m an Elda of Valinor, raised in the Treelight, I can –”
“No, I mean, specifically, we’re in a car. When you shift dimensions are you travelling through the other one at seventy miles an hour? When you switch back, how are you still with us?”
Amrod looked confused. “I left from here.”
“Magic doesn’t run on physics,” Túrin grumbled, “Got it.”
“Everything runs on physics,” Morwen said, “physics is our word for ‘how everything runs.’”
“’Magic’ is the entirely wrong way of thinking about this,” Amrod said. “I can feel the connections between things more easily, so I can move between them. I can manipulate those connections, so it’s similarly trivial to manipulate my momentum. And the edges aren’t made of the same things as here.”
They didn’t get an answer. After a minute Húrin turned up the radio. Annapolis. Houston. New Orleans. Olympia.
“When I pick up a sword,” Túrin said, “will I know what to do with it?”
Amrod disappeared and reappeared again. It was, Túrin had come to realize, what he did in place of shrugging. “Probably not,” he said. “It’s partially muscle memory, but you don’t even have the muscles…”
“How long should it take to learn?”
Another, longer flutter. “You learn on the job, I suppose.”
In Topeka Húrin pulled off I-35 and onto I-70. Amrod, lost in his own head, didn’t notice at once. Túrin did, opened his mouth, and then with sudden understanding closed it.
Amrod noticed anyway, a few minutes later. “We’re travelling West,” he said. “Should be north.”
“The radio said I-35 is closed north of here,” Morwen answered without missing a beat, “and they’re redirecting people up 76.”
“What does that mean for our arrival time?”
“Might be set back a few hours,” Húrin said, “but we’ll make it.” He gunned the engine; at 90 miles an hour the windshield rattled with dismay and Amrod sat back, appeased or at least disinterested.
Túrin knew better. I-76 led to Denver. Denver was where his aunt and uncle and his cousin Tuor lived. It was hard to feel even the slightest twinge of guilt at going to fetch his own family before Amrod’s.
They ran. They ran as only Elves could, anticipating not just the ruts and gaping maws in the land but also the way it was moving. They sprung across the valley with the leverage granted by rocks as they tumbled into the earth. Maglor’s song, Curufin thought at the third lucky earthquake clearing the way ahead of him, was helping them.
From the sound of Maglor’s voice, he hadn’t moved. Curufin was not going to think about that right now.
He thought, instead, about whether the shaking of the earth might have unearthed the Silmaril, and whether death was really worse than fleeing emptyhanded when it was so close, and why Maedhros had thrown it away in the first place. He replayed the conversation of six years ago in Copenhagen in his head. ‘fifty percent casualties!’ Maedhros had said. ‘we can get him back,’ Curufin had answered. The memory was so vivid he could feel his hands burning. He was leaving someone behind, again.
Extraordinary how you could commit not to think about something and then every other thought in your mind would suddenly seem to circle back toward that one.
They kept running.
At the center of the darkness above them, something drew itself into a vaguely human shape. It did so with luxurious slowness; the embers cooled as they coalesced, superheated as they’d been by their descent through Earth’s atmosphere. Ash was raining, softly, like snowflakes, and leaving snowflake-shaped burns on Curufin’s skin where it landed. It was becoming difficult to breathe.
But they were Eldar; they kept running.
Maglor sang of the winds that scour the northern plains, and the ash swirled in senseless eddies, distracted from coalescing into physical form, distracted and angry;when it landed it left deeper welts. Maglor sang of Araman, in the far north of Valinor, in the bitter cold of ages past, and the ash cooled faster – too fast, in fact, it clumped and fell like raindrops rather than snowflakes. They left bruises now instead of burns.
And then Melkor struck back. It wasn’t a song – perhaps vocal chords, thought Curufin, were tricky to get exactly right, perhaps he was still working on the finer details of his new physical form – but it carried the force of song anyway, the air vibrated with it. “You abandoned them there,” it said. A blast of cold and fear and anguish, the memories of Nolofinwë’s betrayed host – of starvation and frostbite and hearts, pressed too hard, which stopped beating on that ice.
Maglor laughed, and the sound broke. “Yes,” he said, “that would have worked on Findaráto, wouldn’t it have? You choose your targets poorly, Melkor; no one here has any regrets.” And he sang back the burning of the fleet at Losgar, to cancel the cold; Amras stumbled, and Curufin grabbed his forearm and ran for both of them, wondering what on earth Maglor was thinking. Maglor had lied; Maglor had lied with song, which was particularly unwise. Everyone here except Curufin had regrets.
Melkor seized on it. He sent children, bloodstained children, a woman leaping off a cliff with Silmaril in hand, he sent refugees limping south from Himring, wounded, grieving, most of the way to dead. He sang the song that had been played on Maglor’s wedding day. He sent –
Curufin stumbled, and it was Amras’s turn to hold him steady, to pull him forward –
- it was only because Celebrimbor looked so much like Fëanor and had died so much like Fëanor, alone -
Melkor had a body. It still glowed white-hot at the joints, red-hot in the eyes, rapidly cooling to slate-gray. It landed on the equipment that had been used for Silmaril-excavation, and the metal twisted and snapped like twigs; it sang something that sent all the ash racing back toward it, a black blizzard of dust. Despite himself, Curufin turned back to watch. They’d travelled only seven miles in their flight. Elven eyesight could handle that easily.
Maglor, tiny and fragile in Melkor’s shadow, overmatched and barely on his feet, was diverting the ash around him like a rock in a river, singing of – fluid dynamics? – well, yes, that would work – and then of something else, something that sent the ash puffing away from him in surprising elliptical arcs.
Curufin suddenly understood. “Take cover,” he shouted to his brothers, and they leapt into the next crevice instead of over it, trusting him at least that much, and pressed themselves flat against the rock, just in time.
The President had aged a few decades, or so it looked, in his seven years in office. Maedhros noticed this and felt a strange sort of affinity with the man, despite the fact he did not age at all.
“On our radar it looks like a very severe dust storm.”
“It’s Melkor reconstituting his body from the fragments of the Moon,” Maedhros said, “and building a stronghold, and once he succeeds it will be substantially more difficult to assail him.” His thoughts could reach as far as North Dakota, easily, but he was with tremendous exertion of willpower not checking – the right thing to do here was the same regardless of whether they’d gotten out.
“If we know nothing about this enemy, how do we know that this destroys him? Or, for that matter, that the use of more conventional weaponry wouldn’t?”
“He’s drawing himself together from dust. He takes up a space that spans miles. Conventional weaponry will go right through him. You need something that can immediately alter the state of all of the matter within a square mile, and you have that-” the not-checking was starting to rub his nerves raw, he needed to be more diplomatic. “Please don’t think that I don’t appreciate the gravity of deploying nuclear weapons on U.S. soil. But there aren’t any people there! You are not killing any of your own subjects-”
“Citizens,” the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said tensely.
"I stand corrected, sir." Maedhros agreed automatically.
The President turned to him gratefully. “What is your recommendation?”
The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff puffed, Maedhros thought, like a superheated marshmellow. “Rogers, you can verify every other claim this – thing - has made?”
Rogers looked deeply unhappy at the thought that his career now rested on Maedhros’ credibility. Or maybe, Maedhros thought more charitably, he was unhappy for other reasons; his family lived in Annapolis, and no one had made it out of Annapolis. “Yes, sir, I can,” Rogers said.
The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was General Martin Dempsey. He had three children and eight grandchildren. Most of them, Maedhros recalled, were enlisted, or had been. “My recommendation is that we engage, Mr. President.”
And once the decision was made, once the strategically responsible considerations were in play, Maedhros could afford to let his mind seek North Dakota. He found Maglor first. Their affinity was strongest, and Maglor’s internal voice was clear across remarkable distances. Maedhros sent the image, a missile already in motion. A stirring beyond the horizon. Run.
Acknowledgment was slow in coming – was Maglor distracted? and when it did come it took a strange shape, a mass of overlapping spheroids that Maedhros took a few long moments to decode. By the time he understood it, it was too late.
It felt good to be free. He’d spent six years pretending during exercise periods that he had mortal limitations, and without them he felt already more alive. He crested the ridge where the dragon was and felt a surge of exhilaration that did not match the scene below him at all.
It was a major road; cars had piled up behind the ones originally stalled. Then some terrified drivers had fled their vehicles – they lay scorched or half-eaten by the side of the road. Celegorm was quite certain that no one had made it out alive that way. And in doing so they’d left their cars as obstacles to everyone ahead of them, who sat trapped in a metal box fenced in by other metal boxes as the dragon delightedly ripped through them all like packaged snacks.
Celegorm darted down the ridge toward the cars at the end of the line. If only he had a bow and arrows. Or a machine gun. Where was this country’s military? And their police?
He didn’t have those. But after ripping the trunk off the back of the first abandoned car he saw, he had emergency safety flares. A necessity, when you drove a prone-to-malfunction hunk of metal in a nation with roads as narrow and winters as long and bitter as the ones here. He rifled through two more cars and ended with his arms full of them. At least a dozen. The third car’s engine was still running; he unbolted the ugly concrete roadside barrier, got behind its wheel, and raced it up the ridge. It sputtered like a dying thing; the concrete must have scraped its underbelly. He’d run over a few corpses, too. He barely registered those things. This was war – just war, against an evil enemy – and in war everything that wasn’t an objective or an enemy was a footnote. At the top of the ridge he leapt out of the car, safety flares now stuffed down his shirt for convenience, and gave it a shove in the dragon’s general direction. “Oy, you big idiot,” he shouted as it started to roll, “Did Melkor give all the assignments with actual treasure to someone a little worthier?”
That worked, of course; it raised its head and charged up the hill, toward the rolling car, toward Celegorm – okay, so ‘worked’ depended on what your aims were – and it barreled into the abandoned truck with a force that flipped it and flattened it, catapulting truck and dragon alike farther up the hill.
Celegorm threw a safety flare into its left eye.
They were poorly balanced as thrown weapons; he failed at his aim, which had been to catch the corner of the eye and thus leave the flare trapped there when the dragon’s lids slid closed. But it still hit its eye, and it evidently hurt; the dragon, mouth full of car, lurched toward him, and he threw one at its right eye.
That one was a perfect hit. The dragon let the car fall from its fangs, breathed in the crisp Norwegian air, and – as Celegorm raced for the crest of the ridge – roared.
Celegorm was on fire.
Standard safety procedures apply, he thought distantly, and curled up into a ball androlled over the edge of the ridge, down the steep and rocky hillside, the dragon’s distant screams indicating it intended to follow him. The safety flares were aflame against his chest; he could feel them frying through his skin, though it was less urgent than the rocks smashing his arms as he used them to shield his head. His hair was also on fire.
The dragon had lost its footing; it had been twisting its head violently from side to side, and now it gave up balance entirely, rolling down the mountain after him, though the rocks wouldn’t shred its skin the way it was shredding his. In flashes he could catch a glimpse of the rocks ahead of him. They were racing toward a precipice – there was a little bit of level ground where he’d have to stop his momentum, or he’d fall over, and that would probably kill him.
In the old days, he thought, I was so much stronger – and then the next rock hit his temple wrong, and he stopped thinking.
“I’m American,” Amirah had said to the woman, “I use guns all the time,” and to her astonishment that had worked. There was research into human psychology that suggested people would grant a favor if given an excuse, no matter how stupid the excuse – even ‘may I cut ahead of you in line for the copier? I need to make some copies’ seemed to suffice. So perhaps that was why it worked; or perhaps people in Denmark genuinely felt that Americans could probably be trusted with guns when a dragon was attacking, even if they were good for nothing else.
It was a small personal handgun, twelve bullets; it had been in a safe, but the woman who’d given it to them – prison staff - had wisely taken it with her when fleeing, and when they told her they were going to go fight the dragon she’d agreed to give it to them.
“We’ll wait here,” Lalaith had said unhappily. She couldn’t run while carrying Nienor, though she’d managed for longer than seemed physically possible. “If he’s not fighting it – if he betrayed us and ran off – come straight back, right?”
“Yeah,” Amirah said. Even with the safety on, she felt excruciatingly irresponsible for running with a weapon. And when she saw the scene, she felt irresponsible for not running faster. Fifty cars, maybe more, at the center of the devestation. Bodies – actual bodies, her stomach heaved – strewn everywhere. And a scorched path up the hillside that framed this highway, as if someone had drawn the dragon off…
She crested the hill to see both of them, four hundred meters down a very very steep slope. The dragon was clinging to a rock with its talons and shaking itself like a wet dog. The Elf wasn’t moving at all.
“You can’t kill a dragon,” the Elf had said, they could be destroyed only with magical weapons. Well – all right. She lay down at the top of the hill, to steady her hands against the ground, and shot the rock it was clinging to. And again. Again. Again-
-the rock crumbled, the dragon made a vaguely pitiable noise like a bird, and it was tumbling, again, over the edge of the cliff.
Amirah slid the safety back on, eased herself over the crest of the ridge and began slowly making her way down toward the Elf. Though he’d damn well better be able to climb, she thought dimly, because there’s no way I can carry him.
"Hey," she shouted, "mission accomplished. Let’s go."
In that instant the dragon, wings outstretched, soared back over the edge of the cliff.
Chapter 23: Win Some
He wasn’t usually the type to fixate on the Silmarils. There was more than enough of that in the family, and it had always felt rather diminishing to throw his thoughts after a problem one of his brothers was already thinking about, it being nearly certain that they’d come to a solution first.
But damn, it would be useful to have the strength he ought to, the toughness that had carried him through an Age of injuries far worse than this, the reflexes –
- the dragon roared -
he was not going to heroically leap onto it so they fell together off the cliff, he wasn’t a Nolofinwion –
Amirah turned around from her unstable grip on the face of the hill and fired three shots at it, pointlessly. You could probably take down a dragon with a gun, but not with the aim of a mortal. “Throw it to me,” he yelled at her.
She looked at him with wide-eyed astonishment, very pointedly clicked the safety, and then tossed it to him, as if she thought he was stupid enough he might catch the weapon in a manner that discharged it. Actually, he could respect a warrior who assumed everyone she worked with was incompetent. He filed that thought away for later, caught the gun, and dropped to the ground just in time to escape the rake of the dragon’s talons. His momentum carried him almost over the cliff’s edge.
He could hear sirens from the distant roadway. Of course now the local forces were arriving. The dragon made for Amirah, and he wasted two more bullets against its armored flank just trying to get its attention. “Do you hear that? They’re gonna kill you,” he said to the dragon, “even if they have to sting you to death with ten thousand bullets. If you were smart you’d run now, let us be. It’s a weak, weak animal that can’t afford to forget a single indignity.”
It hesitated. Only for a second, admittedly, but he made good use of the second, scrambling along the hillside to somewhere with a touch more space to maneuver. “It’s a coward’s need to prove itself that’s keeping you here,” he said. “I know because I’ve been that coward-”
Now it dove toward him. He emptied the rest of the magazine into its gaping throat and, with the last of the strength in his shaking legs, leapt.
He’d never been close enough to a dragon to try this. But alligators had the musculature to snap their jaws shut with bone-crushing force, and none of the corresponding muscles to open the jaw against even moderate resistance. You could – just for show, say, as a young man in Valinor trying to impress your cousins – hold one by the snout and totally neutralize it.
He landed on the ridge atop the dragon’s upper jaw, let himself collapse there, and gave the thing a hug. Its mouth had snapped shut around what would have been his torso and – yes! – convulsed against his grip without reopening.
So then of course it attempted to shake him off.
Celegorm did not want to die. He was barely stronger than a mortal and his body was badly bruised and burned and broken and the gunshots were still ringing in his ears. But this was a fight, a fair fight against an evil enemy, and he did not want to die, and he clung to its jaw through three mad rolls in midair and four times the dragon violently bashed its snout against the rocks. When it realized it could not attack him and instead started lashing out at the hillside with its tail, trying to crush Amirah, he did not look to see whether it succeeded. He held on. It was flying poorly – had he thrown off its balance? – and then abruptly it was not flying at all, not moving at all. The gunshots stopped ringing in his head and he realized they hadn’t been ringing in his head, they’d been actual shots, fired by the police, who were now racing down the hill in combat gear.
“Don’t shoot me,” he shouted, in what probably wasn’t even the right language, and then he closed his eyes and did not reopen them.
“Nuclear weapon,” Curufin said, when the shockwaves had blown past them. “The radiation can do us damage also – Celegorm got on a nuclear-apocalypse kick back in the 80s, and had me research all these things for him. Excessive exposure will kill you. Complicating matters, at the center of a crater where that bomb just went off is the Silmaril, and the Silmaril prevents decay, and radiation is decay, and I have no idea how their effects intersect.”
“Also Maglor,” said Caranthir. “Maglor’s at the center of that.”
“Maglor was at the center of that,” Curufin corrected him. “Nothing that was there is still there, I can assure you of that.” The words came out much colder than the feelings that had prompted them. But then, that was always true for Curufin, and anyone with whom he had a meaningful interpersonal dynamic knew to correct for it. Caranthir did not even look offended.
“How long for the radiation to kill us?”
Curufin shrugged. “If we were to stand there in physical, embodied form? A few minutes, probably. If we abandon our bodies, a few more.”
“Not long enough to get to the Silmaril.”
“So then –”
“Radiation has an exponential decay curve. In two hours we should be safe. Mortals still wouldn’t be, won’t be for decades, but-”
Caranthir clawed a rock loose of the embankment they were crouching in and crushed it between his fingers. “We don’t want a physics lecture, Curvo.”
"Morgoth’s gone," Curufin offered instead. "Temporarily, of course, since he can build himself another physical form, but this one would have been exceptionally powerful and he won’t be able to do that again."
“We should try to catch Nelyo’s attention,” Amras said dully. “Or Father’s. Let them know –”
“Nelyo is presumably the one who ordered the nuclear strike,” Curufin said.
“He wouldn’t have,” Caranthir growled, more at the rock than at Curufin. “He was speaking to Maglor just a minute before, he knew we hadn’t gotten clear.”
“He was speaking to Maglor?”
“Yeah. Why – what does that change?”
“Everything,” Curufin said eagerly. “Did you see Maglor a few seconds before the bomb landed? The overlapping spherical pattern he sang?”
“Yes,” his brothers chorused. They were wearing the identical suspicion of people who would never forgive him if it was a scientific revelation he turned out to be sharing.
“Valence shells,” he said, just for the fun of watching the suspicion turn to disgust on their faces. And then, for the satisfaction of watching it turn right back to hope, “Maglor was singing a radiation shield”.
He watched with contentment while that sank in. “I thought he was doing it for our benefit, as a warning,” Curufin said, “but if he was in communication with Maedhros then he would have run with us if he’d thought it was hopeless. He went into that confrontation with a plan.”
“And what was that?”
It was infuriating to admit that one of his brothers might be smarter than him. Curufin now had all the information Maglor would have had, should be able to infer anything Maglor could have inferred. “He thought he could survive,” he muttered, buying time. “He – he made a few stupid mistakes, he drew Morgoth in – he –”
He faded out of the corporeal world, leapt out of the crevice and started running.
“It hasn’t been two hours,” Amras said, effortlessly at his side somehow.
“That estimate, like all good ones, had a margin of safety built in,” Curufin answered.
The run back was faster than the run in, because there were no obstacles. The occasional tree was on fire, but most of the trees just weren’t. There were ash-shadows on the ground where they’d been planted. Curufin hoped the detonation hadn’t killed Morgoth instantly, hoped he’d had a microsecond to marvel, baffled, at the power Men had grown to wield. An instant to experience the shocked horror of being confronted with your own hubris, and then his newly-won physical form melting to slag – yes, that was encouraging to think about. He ran faster.
The Silmaril was there. Off-center from the impact site of the highly-compressed wave of energy that had seared the ground a second after the bomb went off. Their mining work had been done for them. It sat perched upon a wedge of land. But of course. The Silmaril itself was indestructible. The force of the blast would have patterned around it.
Maglor was there too. From a mile off Curufin could pick out even the minute details. The clothes he’d been wearing had superheated and melted into his skin. Ash and rock coated his face so thickly it was impossible to see if it the flesh had been scorched away or protected by it. He was, very shallowly, breathing.
They closed the last mile in record time. Curufin pulled his own shirt off and used it as improvised gloves to tug the Silmaril from its impromptu pedestal. Then he carried it back to Maglor’s side. Amras was singing, poorly, an old Elven healing song for burns.
“Explain,” Curufin thought at Maglor, and both Amras and Caranthir looked up to glare at him. As if it was insensitive to act instead of weeping pointlessly at his brother’s bedside. As if information wasn’t vitally important in this situation.
“Silmaril counters decay,” Maglor thought back. Curufin allowed himself to nurture a growing thread of affection for his injured brother. At least he was capable of keeping his head in the game. “Close enough to the Silmaril, and it's merely an ordinary bomb. No radioactive effects whatsoever except the initial second, which was intense enough the Silmaril couldn’t counter it. I sang a radiation shield. At that point it’s just the blast, and those have dramatically lessened effects when you’re incorporeal… still powerful enough to kill me, though, so I needed something to shelter behind, so I had to let Morgoth reconstitute his physical form and then get close enough I could hide behind him at the last second. He’s all over my face…” and he stirred and spat.
Caranthir was smiling; Amras was bouncing on his heels contentedly.
“All the more reason not to let Morgoth get a Silmaril,” Curufin said, “if we suppose that, with one, and with the means to build himself a defense, he would be indestructible even by the most powerful weapons the mortals possess.”
“That wasn’t,” Maglor corrected him. “They have bigger bombs. This was a medium one. Talk with Nelyo.”
It required substantial personal discipline to find someone at the distance of half a continent. Curufin closed his eyes and attempted to meditate.
Maedhros found him first. “All of you all right?”
“Silmaril acquired,” Curufin thought back. Someone had to keep this family apprised of their actual priorities.
He could hear the exasperated sigh even through Maedhros’ thoughts. “No losses?”
“None. Maglor says the Americans have even bigger bombs.”
“They do. Why?”
“Shouldn’t matter, as long as Melkor doesn’t get a Silmaril.”
A long pause. “Point taken,” said Maedhros.
“Don’t think there’s much of a risk he could use this method,” Maglor volunteered, “if you send a team in afterwards. If there’d been anything around to kill me I’d be dead.”
Maedhros’s response was not in words; it was a sentiment, and obviously not aimed at Curufin, because it carried with it mixed-up memories of the end of the First Age. Maglor stirred restlessly. “I think all of your ribs are broken,” said Curufin, watching him breathe, “so you probably shouldn’t move.”
Around them the fires lit by the bomb burned, and then burned out. Ash rained down from the sky and settled gently on their shoulders. The sun was still not visible through the haze of chaos in the upper atmosphere. “It’s not coming back, is it?” Amras said, looking.
Caranthir hadn’t taken his eyes off the ground. “What isn’t?”
“Not for a few years,” Curufin said, “taking supervolcanic eruptions and asteroid strikes as a precedent. This is bigger than that, so – longer, maybe.”
“Everything will die,” Amras said.
“Not us.” They had enough food stored for a few centuries, just to be safe.
“God,” Caranthir said, “sometimes you’re an ass, Curvo.”
“You reliably are,” Curufin responded absently; it was an adolescent argument and hardly worth his full attention. The Silmaril was starting to burn his hands even through the shirt he’d used as a barrier.
They sat there for eight hours longer, until Amrod arrived.
Her injuries were shockingly minor – bruises, abrasions, a puncture wound on her arm that they insisted on fixing with stitches even though she’d had a dog bite that was far worse. The language barrier made it awkward to explain that she was fine. Dragon tails were meant for cutting swathes through approaching armies, not for targeted squishing of individual mortals. She sat there patiently while they put stitches in the wound and thought about abstract, sensible things like that. She was probably in shock. That was all right. She wasn’t sure why people talked about being in shock like it was a bad thing. The adrenaline bubbling through her system gave the world a little distance, a little clarity. It was nice, being in shock. A nurse gave her something to drink.
Lalaith and Nienor arrived at the hospital after less than an hour, with scavenged pizza from a remarkably diligent local shopowner who’d decided to stay open. Someone dug up a new wheelchair for Nienor.
“He’s sedated,” Amirah told them after she’d eaten three slices, “he has such severe internal injuries that they can’t figure out how he’s alive. They aren’t operating because they don’t know what they’d do – everything inside you is crushed isn’t something that lends itself to treatment. And it’s worse than that. They gave him a blood transfusion, and he reacted to it. He stopped breathing, his pulse got weak – he needs Elf blood, that’s got to be the explanation, he’s incompatible…”
Lalaith buried her head in her hands. “He can’t die.”
“Elves can die,” Nienor answered, which had to be a willful misinterpretation of the sentiment.
“What we need,” Amirah said, “is an Elf doctor. They presumably know their own kind, can donate blood, etcetera. If – if only we could be certain that your family was safe, I would say it’s time to get in touch with the Elves who were hunting you down.”
“I’m not risking that for him,” Lalaith said sharply.
“He risked his life for us! Not even for us, for the people on the roadway – for me, he yelled something at it to get it off of me –”
“He said he doesn’t care about humans!”
“If I were evil,” Amirah said, “I’d claim I did care about humans. So maybe he isn’t.”
“No,” Lalaith muttered, “that doesn’t work. Because if you weren’t evil you’d also claim you did care about humans. Claiming to be evil can’t be evidence you’re good, unless when people declare that they do care about humans you assume those are evil…”
“Chaotic neutral?” offered Nienor, taking the last slice from the box. “Or – you know – you can not care about anyone except yourself, refuse to acknowledge that other people have some innate worthiness-of-concern, and still help them sometimes because you want to. That can even be a healthy way to think, you know, if you’ve spent too much time being told you owe yourself to other people.”
“I doubt he has that problem,” Lalaith said.
“If they get communications with the U.S. up and running again,” Amirah said, “I’m going to try to get in contact with other Elves, tell them that one of their own fought a dragon and is dying.”
“Why are we assuming there aren’t other Elves in Europe?” Nienor said.
At that Lalaith snapped her fingers, reluctance apparently dissolved. “The soccer player in Germany!”
“Excellent,” Amirah said, “let’s go.”
“I don’t know how much time he has.”
“I want a police escort,” said Lalaith. “Is there anyone here who speaks English and can translate for us?”
“Like half the population does,” Amirah said. “Kind of puts me to shame. I wasn’t even entirely sure which language Denmark speaks, and here they are, all fluent in several.”
Lalaith stood up to go ask someone about a police escort. The world flashed oddly before Amirah’s eyes as she watched her stride down the hall.
“Are you okay?” Nienor said. “You’re shaking.”
“Yeah. You – you faced a dragon, right?”
A bitter smile. “It did not go well.”
“But,” Amirah said, reaching for something, coming up empty, “in the end, it was dead, and you were alive…”
“Dead,” Nienor said. “Still walking, but already dead.”
“We’ve got to get to Munich.”
“What if there’s a Balrog there?” Nienor asked, and giggled.
Amirah should probably have asked what a Balrog was, but suddenly her head felt very heavy and the world very, very loud.
Chapter 24: Cards on the Table
Melkor clung to the shards of the physical form as they writhed and shattered in his grip, shattered on a scale so small he'd never thought of it before. Melkor did not wish to lose this physical form. It had weight to it, significance; it was the first thing he'd created as he reentered the world. And more than that, it was charged now, with a terrible and arcane energy, the molecules splitting and hissing and sending their whispered cries out into the world, at such high speeds and with such violence that even the tiny particles could kill.
Melkor reeled, and stepped out of the world, and let himself disperse enough to endure. He could not let this body go. He liked it. It was something new. The particles that had reached beyond the Void, that had been his bridge back to the world - they were part of him, now, and that felt right.
Yesterday, the U.S. military could have tracked the launch of an American nuclear warhead via the warhead’s own internal targeting system, the nation’s anti-ballistic missile system, a network of revolving geopositioning satellites, and probably an array of other systems that Maedhros was not privy to. The branches of the Armed Forces guarded their systems jealously. Understandably so, because they were each other’s greatest rival. The largest air force in the world was the U.S. Air Force. The second largest was the U.S. Navy. Yesterday the U.S. Navy had possessed more aircraft carriers than the rest of the world combined. If one of those carriers were its own country, it would have been the world’s fifth largest air force. Yesterday, there’d been no one in the world who couldtouch this country. What he was witnessing now, then, was the untouchable nation finding themselves terrifyingly vulnerable.
They had handled it well; mortals were resilient. Grim faces and little energy wasted on grief or anger. They had the capacity to reserve that for a better time, perhaps, or perhaps they could not comprehend the magnitude of a billion deaths, perhaps it dulled the emotional impact the way a bone viciously rebroken for the hundredth time felt only vaguely unpleasant. Maedhros knew some things about that.
He hadn’t needed to inspire them to fight back, or persuade them to act immediately. He hadn’t needed to remind them of their buried contingency plans. The Armed Forces were successfully communicating via radio with seventy percent of their bases around the country, and forty percent of the ones on foreign soil. All but one of the nuclear submarines were in contact, praise God – or, rather, praise the contractors who’d built them, Maedhros thought grudgingly.
With no targeting systems to provide confirmation that the bomb had detonated, some fighter jets from the Grand Forks, North Dakota Air Force base was doing a flyover of the site. Maedhros knew that it had, of course. They hadn’t believed him. He had not pressed the point.
The radio crackled and the commander at Grand Forks reported in. The men listened with grim faces and then debated containment of the area. Maedhros wished idly that there was a way to convey to them the magnitude of what they’d just achieved. The Siege of Angband had lasted five hundred years. The war for Utumno had been before years were counted, but had stretched on for perhaps ten thousand. Men had taken Morgoth down five seconds after he returned. And as a result they would not understand to think of it as an achievement.
“Is he dead, then?” the President demanded, and everyone turned to look at Maedhros.
“No,” he said. “He can’t be killed. Destroying his physical form, though, makes it much, much more difficult for him to affect anything in this world. By precedent it should be a few millennia before he returns.” They stirred, at that, as if the scope of the thing was finally starting to dawn on them. “So it’ll be my concern, but not yours.”
“The hell it’s not our concern,” said the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “he killed millions of our people. We did not detonate a nuclear weapon on U.S. soil to temporarily set him back. You don’t know how to kill him, all right, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
“He’s a god,” Maedhros said.
“No,” the Commandant of the Marine Corps said. “I have no idea where you’re from, but around here that word means something, and I will not extend it to him.”
“You should authorize another Manhattan Project, Mr. President,” someone said, “every genius we can trust housed on a base in one of the unaffected areas, developing the new physics necessary to operate in this –” he shot a glare at Maedhros, as if the inadequacy of their current physics was his fault – “interconnected parallel world that our enemies can access. Developing weapons that will destroy their souls, if that’s what it takes to prevent him from ever returning.”
“I’ll consider it,” the President said.
“You have a few thousand years, sir,” Maedhros objected. “This is not your top priority. That ought to be efficient takedowns of Morgoth’s creations and allies. He’s called things back from the deepest depths of the Earth, and some of them are nearly as terrible as he.”
“And search and rescue,” added the Commandant of the Coast Guard. “Manhattan is ten feet under water, there are a couple million people trapped there alone…”
“I recommend martial law in all fifty states,” agreed the Chief of Staff of the Army, “with activities of the National Guard and the reserves falling under the command structure of the Army. It won’t be sufficient to prevent civil unrest but it might be sufficient to prevent a total collapse of the social order.” His radio crackled. “That’s – we’ve made contact with overseas forces, Mr. President.”
A collective exhalation. “Mr. President,” Maedhros said, “a high priority for the U.S. forces in Europe should be repatriating my younger brother. He’s in Denmark. He’s an asset to our side and a pretty significant disruptive force if not in communication with us.”
“What’s he doing in Denmark?”
“Serving a prison sentence,” Maedhros said. “An op went badly-”
Rogers was glaring at him. “An op I authorized?”
“Conducted using the resources of our department?”
The hostility in the room was suddenly palpable.
“Just so we’re all on the same page,” the President said, “the reason you aren’t facing charges for treason is because I am given to understand that we don’t have a prison which could hold you.”
“You don’t,” Maedhros said, “not even temporarily. And if you try to stop me now Iwill resist arrest, I am needed out there. But find my brother alive and,” he smiled, “I’ll cooperate entirely.”
“Name?” the Chair growled.
“Can he fade out of the world like you can?” someone asked suspiciously.
“No,” Maedhros said impatiently, “or he wouldn’t very well be in prison, would he? I have access to resources that made it possible for me to control the fading of the Eldar from the world. He doesn’t. He’s in nearly as much danger as a mortal.”
“Do we have communication with the U.S. bases in Germany?” asked the President, and people scrambled to make that happen.
Maedhros let himself relax – just a little, imperceptibly – for the first time since this morning. It was always Morgoth’s mistake to underestimate the strength of Men.
She has no idea how to talk people into giving her a military escort to Germany in the middle of the collapse of the world. But she did learn somewhere how to imitate her mother, and her mother would have been able to do it. Framed in those terms it seemed almost achievable.
“I am not asking this favor out of gratitude to him for taking down the dragon,” she said, “though I should say that he’s owed some. This isn’t about that. It’s about saving lives. It is in our interests to get him awake because he knows what is going on. He knows what caused this. He knows how to stop this. He took down a dragon singlehandedly and unarmed, and he can tell us how to take down all the others.”
“I don’t have authorization –”
“Find someone who does.”
“I don’t know who does.”
“If you put me, my sister, and my friend in the back of a police car right now, ask three others to accompany us, and drive south, who stops you?”
“I – the customs office at the border, probably.”
“Who can cut through the red tape and ensure we aren’t stopped at the border?”
“The Germans, probably, and we don’t have a way to get in touch with them.”
Her hands were shaking. She pressed them tightly to her side in an effort to conceal it. “You aren’t trying. You are not acting like the lives of everyone you know depends on us getting to Munich, even though it very well might. You’re coming up with excuses, notobstacles – if you believe me, you should think ‘what can I throw at this problem’, not ‘why might it not work’ –
“I have orders here,” he said steadily. “I have a department I command here. Crises don’t demand heroism, sometimes, they demand stability, patience, people willing to do their jobs, even when they would rather rush home to protect their families, even when they would rather hare off to Germany to be a hero. I’m sorry. But no.”
She found someone else.
And someone else.
An hour later she found her way back to Nienor and Amirah exhausted and exasperated. They were cuddling on a bench in the waiting room. Amirah’s skin looked clammy and bloodless. Nienor was singing in a language Lalaith didn’t speak.
“Everyone said no,” she said. “It’s a great idea, under ordinary circumstances they’d be willing to fly him in, but there’s no one to spare and no one willing to chance it.” She hesitated. “It’s also a full eight hours each way. Might be too late by the time we –”
“He might not even be there,” Nienor said, “football teams move around a lot.”
“Yeah,” Lalaith said. “Are you ready to go?”
They both stirred. “Go where?”
“The border. If the Germany military has any communications up internally, they could try to find him. And if we can just get him on the radio with the doctors, maybe he can tell them what to do.”
“Highways are closed,” Nienor said.
“I’m pretty sure I can talk my way past the police. They want to help us –” her hands fluttered helplessly – “they just won’t.”
“Can you bring the car here?” Amirah said. “There’s not actually anything wrong with me but I’m not sure how far I can walk.”
Lalaith hesitated. “Would you rather stay here? Just in case you have internal injuries?”
“Might you have internal injuries? How carefully did they check? Maybe you really should.”
Amirah shrugged weakly. “Do you need me?”
“With or without you, we can’t take an Elf if they don’t want to come. It’d be nice to have you if there was another dragon, though.”
“If there was another dragon I couldn’t do a damned thing.”
Lalaith looked around miserably. “Stay with him, then. Tell the nurses exactly how you feel, don’t downplay it, and careful of the language gap, because-”
“Sometimes people hit their heads and they think everything is okay and then they just die, hours later, from an aneurysm or something, bleeding that no one thought to check for –”
Amirah smiled shakily. “Not very often, though. Statistically speaking. Lalaith -”
“You should run your symptoms by a nurse, just in case.”
“I will, but I don’t want you to –”
“I said fight the dragon, I don’t know why I said it, he told me it was a stupid idea…”
“Lalaith! I would have been in D.C. when the waves hit,” Amirah said, and Lalaith finally fell silent. “I would have been in D.C., in the awesome new studio apartment I never did convince you to see – I would be dead – what I’m saying is don’t feel guilty, it’s so hard to see the future, it’s so hard to know…”
“No,” Lalaith said, “I can’t believe that, because then there’d be no reason to act at all, we could just curl up and cry and not try to change anything. And you did kill a dragon. The calls we make matter. They have to.”
“Ms. Thalion?” said a voice behind them.
Morwen had a skill for wiping her face blank of everything, instantly. Nienor had never seen Lalaith do it, but she did it now. “Yes, sir?”
“We have established communications with the German government to coordinate humanitarian efforts. I talked to some people who talked to some people and…I can take down a message for you, to be sent through once everything more urgent has. It might be a while. But-”
“I have a better idea,” Nienor said. “Do you have a smartphone?”
He pulled it out of his pocket with a weary smile. “Satellites are down, miss. It’s a fancy paperweight now.”
“Should still be able to record and play back audio,” Nienor said.
A second’s thoughtful silence. “What are you planning?”
“There are a bunch of them. We know there are, because in 35,000 pictures I found six. Even assuming they are disproportionately likely to be famous, there have to be others, maybe some closer than the footballer, maybe some with a means of getting in touch. And they speak Sindarin. Do you have a radio channel that’s being used to broadcast to the public? Let me announce – in their language – that one of them is here at the hospital, dying, injured taking the dragon down. Let’s see who comes.”
“The ones who tried to hunt down Túrin?” Lalaith said. “What if they come?”
“There are a lot of police officers here,” Nienor said. “We could take them. And I think they’re weaker than you realize. Our Elf said you couldn’t kill a dragon without special weapons. And yet, dragon is dead, and all they did was fire normal bullets at it-”
The officer who’d sought them out grimaced at that. “Those weren’t normal bullets-”
“By normal I just mean non-magical,” Nienor said. “Human technology is stronger than Morgoth accounted for. Stronger than the Elves accounted for either. I think we have the upper hand.”
“Record it,” he said, “and I’ll see what I can do.”
The Colorado National Guard stopped them on the border. Two hours’ delay, during which Amrod, restless and visibly miserable, had to stay present the whole time lest someone notice him vanishing. “I’m visiting my brother,” Húrin said. “We left Dallas this morning. Is the concern that the state will be flooded with refugees? And if so, do you plan to turn them away? Your own fellow citizens, unlucky enough to live in a coastal state?”
“I don’t give the orders, sir,” mumbled the kid. He looked younger than Túrin, younger still because of the weight of the uniform with its stiff collar.
“Who does? Can we talk to them?”
His commander also looked younger than Túrin. “There’s going to be rationing,” he explained flatly. “There’s going to be a system for distribution of food and necessities, and gasoline – which you’re wasting on a trip from Dallas to Denver why, exactly?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “But that system isn’t in place and we’re here to make sure people don’t exploit the uncertainty.”
“All right,” Húrin said, “how do we help?”
His frozen surprise was just slightly entertaining. Húrin smiled encouragingly. “You’ve got hundreds of cars lined up here, frightened, idling – but you’ve also got hundreds of able-bodied American citizens angry and grieving and prepared to help protect their country. Tell them to stay still and they’re going to hate you. Give them orders and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth – and, just between you and me, that might be where we’re going, right?”
“Could be,” the man had granted him, quietly.
“Send people out on foot, groups of ten, to report trouble. If any of the wild rumors on the radio are true, having everyone here, trapped, is a bad idea anyway. You can dramatically expand the space you control. Put your people in charge.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I served for twenty years,” Húrin said evenly.
(“There aren’t any Balrogs here,” Amrod said, after their makeshift patrol had walked for a mile. “Not within several miles, at least. I am also unclear on what you plan to do if you see one. Shooting it won’t do a thing.”
“What’s a Balrog?” asked the National Guard soldier who was leading their little group. She was the only one with a weapon. She held it like it was very dangerous. On the whole Túrin thought this made him feel more secure.
“The rumors you’ve heard on the radio,” Amrod said. His tone managed to imply he wasn’t conversing at all, just saying things out loud which happened to be relevant. “Corrupted Maiar from the origins of the world. Demons of flame and darkness. They killed my father.”
Now she was staring.
“He has some information relevant to this crisis,” Húrin said, “which is why we’re travelling. D’you suppose we could rotate out now? I’d be happy to take a message for you out to Denver.”
“Forget Denver,” Amrod had growled. “Whatever it is you are concerned for, if it’s there, it’s safe. We need to get to my father’s home.”
She looked alarmed. “If you have information relevant to the crisis –”
“I do,” Amrod snapped –
“Then you should report it to the appropriate people-”
“That’s what we were on our way to go do.”
A moment’s silence. “If you don’t go through Colorado,” she said, “it’s none of my business, really. Though perhaps I’m obligated to send you with a National Guard escort, you know, just to make sure that you do report it-”
“I’d be delighted to have their company,” Amrod said.)
That was how it had only been a two-hour delay.
A hundred miles south of Fargo Amrod relaxed, totally and abruptly.
“Good news?” Morwen said.
“Yes,” he said. “You can’t safely go much further – there are more soldiers ahead, they’ll stop you – but I’ll go ahead.”
“You aren’t leaving our sight,” Húrin said.
Amrod flickered out of view as if to remind them that he was not remotely obligated to obey that. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
“One thing first,” Túrin said slowly. “Earlier, you lied. About something. I don’t know what it was, but you aren’t hard to read. Tell me what it was, before you go.”
Again a dozen emotions skirting across his face before he settled on the one he intended them to see. Túrin felt a surge of contempt and dislike for Elves that felt like it was grounded in the ancient memories.
And then Amrod raised his hands in a gesture of cheerful surrender. “The prophecy also says that, in the end, the Silmarils will be destroyed to restore light to Arda,” he said. “And needless to say, that happens over my dead body. So we’ll help you get to Denmark and save your family. We’ll help you get to Valinor and dual Morgoth. We’ll help you defeat dragons. We’ll help make sure that the world unrolled here, the world that ends with this fight, isn’t yours. But only if we can be damn sure that everything ends with the Silmarils in our hands. Thank you for the ride.”
And he vanished.
“I thought it would be something like that,” Morwen said with something resembling calm.
“One in Denmark,” said Húrin, “one in Fargo. There are three, right? Where’s the third?”
The woman was an Elf. It was apparent from the instant they saw her, even more outrageously transparent than it had been with the first one. She was stunningly, hypnotically, beautiful. Lalaith leapt to her feet in triumph. The motion caught the Elf’s eye.
“Did you send the message?” she asked. Her voice was more melodic, too. Lalaith wondered dizzily if they’d had the misfortune to stumble across a very sickly Elf, first one they met.
“That would be me,” offered Nienor. “Can you save him?”
“Yes, of course. Who is he?”
“He gave his name as Thalfin, but I think he was lying.”
“And how do you speak Sindarin?”
They exchanged glances. “Long story,” Nienor said.
“I will be eager to hear it,” the woman mused. “Your message was Eru-sent, in any event. I desire nothing more than to aid in retaliation against the Enemy, but I did not know how best to help. Perhaps your friend, when he awakes, can direct us better.”
Lalaith was frantically flagging down a nurse. “What’s your name?” she asked the newcomer.
The blinding force of that smile was – well, rather more than distracting, when turned on her with all its force. “Annatári,” the woman said. “It means Lady of Gifts, and I have many; we shall see if they are enough.”
Chapter 25: Self-interest
Amrod had arrived over the horizon with his eyes glowing with urgent news. At the sight in front of him he’d shifted, with superhuman alacrity, to concerned and near-worshipful. They’d explained the whole story while he kneeled anxiously at Maglor’s side.
“So you and Nelyo killed Morgoth together,” he said to Maglor, and won a cracked smile in return.
Curufin let them have a full thirty seconds of sentimentality. He’d have stretched it to a minute if they were at least trading accurate platitudes. Then he cleared his throat. “You have news?”
“Yes. The armies of the Americans are surrounding the area, turning back travellers. Túrin Turambar is alive again, and his family, and he wants a ride to Denmark.”
And a good thing he hadn’t allowed them a full minute to waste time. “Alive again?” Curufin said. “Reborn? Resurrected? How are you sure, the name could be a coincidence- does he look the same? Is it the same underlying spirit?”
A helpless shrug. “I didn’t know him last time. Calls himself Túrin, inept but you’d expect that from mortals these days, remembers bits and pieces. The interesting bit-”
“Mortals can return from death,” Curufin said, “that’s the interesting bit. Whatever the rest of your news, I guarantee you that’s the interesting bit. How sure are you it’s him?”
One of Amrod’s hands was curled around Maglor’s. The other was restlessly scratching at the dust. He’d scoop up a handful of it, let it fall through his hand, and then pick it up again. “Very sure.“
“Could be a trick of the Enemy –”
“I met him before the Enemy returned.”
“What’s the interesting bit?” Amras asked lazily from behind them.
“They agreed to come here with me on the condition we get them to Denmark.”
Caranthir stirred. “The hell do they want in Denmark?”
“They pieced it together. Turambar’s sisters went to the prison to talk to him. Last they’d heard they had an appointment –”
“Just to talk?”
“As far as Turambar knew.”
“It’s fine,” Curufin said, “even if they went to kill him. He can take two mortal girls.”
“Turambar’s mother carries a gun,” Amrod said.
He hadn’t let go of Maglor’s hand and was now squeezing it too tightly. Curufin shot Maglor a frustrated glance, realized he wasn’t going to bring it up, and reached out himself to take Amrod’s arm. Amrod relaxed his grip.
“All right,” Curufin said, “so we get a plane and fly to Denmark.”
“They’ll shoot us down,” Caranthir said.
“Nelyo’s doing something,” Maglor murmured. “He didn’t say what but he said it was being taken care of.”
“Tell him to get Turambar’s sisters as well, then,” Amrod said. Maglor grimaced and his eyes fluttered shut.
“If they’re dead,” said Curufin, “do you think Turambar is more or less likely to carry out his role in the prophecy?”
Amrod flickered in and out of view while thinking about it. “Less likely, I think. The sort to be more motivated by protecting people than avenging them, and more importantly he currently wants to go to Valinor and fulfill his destiny so losing them can only change his goals for the worse.”
“Assuming,” said Caranthir, “we want to save Valinor.”
“Part of the prophecy,’ Curufin commented, his voice clear and distant, “is that in Turambar’s victory the world will be rolled up and remade. At the last the Silmarils will be broken and their blessed light will illuminate the new world.”
As a child he’d believed there was no such thing as silence. He could hear the insects landing on leaves outside, the buds of flowers cracking open to extend their petals, the slightest breezes rippling through blades of grass. Even in the deepest caves an ambitious young prince could explore in Valinor, you could hear the distant running water.
This was the only moment, he realized, when absolute silence was even possible, when every living thing within the range of his enhanced hearing was dead and his brothers, beside him, hesitated to breathe.
Caranthir, of course, broke it first. “Do we want that?”
“I don’t,” Curufin said.
“I haven’t decided,” said Amrod, “but I told Turambar and his family that it might be a problem.”
“You told them?”
“Drop it, Curvo,” Maglor murmured.
Curufin turned to glare at him, abruptly certain that he was pretending to be much sicker than he was. “The Silmarils are Father’s, so it’s his decision, and he’s not going to break them to aid the Valar in imposing their vision of paradise.”
“The Silmarils are the world’s only reliable source of light, and it’s going to be a long time before this mortal world sees another sunrise –”
“The breaking will kill Father,” Curufin snarled.
“So will a nuclear winter.”
“We’ll have the Silmarils, we can grow crops privately-”
Caranthir lunged at him, then, so abruptly that he did not even think to raise his hands in self-defense. His hands flew instinctively to cradle the Silmaril, which turned out to be precisely where Caranthir was aiming; he ripped it from Curufin’s grasp, bare-handed, and held it up to the ashen sky.
Amras and Amrod, who’d both faded out as if on reflex, reappeared with wide curious eyes.
After a second he dropped it. His hands were red and brown and blistered; you could catch the scent of cooked meat on the air. He looked around with vicious joy at his horrified audience. “They aren’t ours,” he said, breathing hard. “Did you miss that, you idiot? We hold them but we don’t have them, they aren’t ours, the Oath isn’t satisfied, and none of this is over.” He wheeled on Curufin. “And the only way out is to be a good person but the more scared you get the more fucking selfish you are. You like mortals. You were friends with them-”
“But I will put this family first,” Curufin said, “because no one else ever will.”
“You said that before Doriath,” Caranthir spat. “What kind of fucking family has all of its members die in its service?”
“This one. Do you wish that you belonged to another?”
Caranthir kicked the Silmaril. It flew twenty feet through the air, a blazing comet in the dim light, and Curufin felt his heart thrum against his ribcage in protective panic. “No,” Caranthir said, “I wish this one was different.”
Annatári spoke Danish. The instant her eyes lit on their dying Elf in his hospital bed, she started arguing with the doctors, eyes wide and voice melodic and persuasive even when you didn’t understand the language. Lalaith noted dimly that she’d arrived after only half an hour, that she must live quite close. Her English had been flawless, though.
Nienor was frowning.
“Do you recognize the name?” Lalaith whispered to her.
“I left my jacket at the food court.”
Their Elf looked bad. There were at least eight machines bleating their readings into the hectic background noises of the intensive care unit. He was hooked up to three IVs. The only one Lalaith could recognize was the heart rate monitor, and it hadn’t moved in the last twenty seconds.
Annatári was waving away the nurses who looked appropriately panicked about this.
“Your jacket can wait,” she told Nienor.
“No, it can’t,” Nienor said.
“Amirah, can you –”
“We should all go,” Amirah said gently.
“If you’re thinking that we shouldn’t watch him die,” Lalaith said, “you are welcometo leave but I’m staying right here, I told him to fight the dragon –”
His heart beat. Once.
“I don’t want to talk right now,” she said.
Amirah grabbed her by the arm, then, and forcefully steered both of them out of the room. Lalaith fell silent only to avoid distracting the nurses. When the door had closed behind them she shook her hand free. “What the hell-”
“My jacket’s all the way at the end of the hall,” Nienor said, and set herself rolling in that direction.
Then it clicked.
“You wanted to get out of Elven earshot,” Lalaith muttered as they rounded the corner.
“Yeah,” Nienor whispered. “You’re a bit slow when you’re stressed.”
“He might be dying in there.”
“He might,” Nienor said simply.
“So what the hell is important enough-”
“Annatári,” Nienor said. “I don’t like her. Something feels – off.”
“She’s an Elf. Something feels off about all of them.”
“Something feels off about her in particular.”
“Honestly,” Lalaith said, “she seems more in line with how I imagined them from your description than he does.”
“You didn’t see him fight the dragon,” said Amirah.
“No, I didn’t.”
“I don’t know what it is,” Nienor said. “But she’s – something is weird. If she’s been around for millennia she should know when to turn down the charm – particularly inthat sense – I wonder if that’s what Lúthien was like –”
“You’re upset because I can’t stop gaping at her?” Lalaith snapped.
“No, no, look as much as you like, you’re only human – I went through pubertyliving among Elves, can you imagine what that does to a little girl’s self-esteem? No, that’s not it. It’s magic-intuition, I guess.”
“Your magic-intuition says I’m dead but failed to warn about the end of the world,” Lalaith said. “I think it’s useless.”
They stood around for another minute. Lalaith thought of a dozen things to say and decided it wiser and kinder not to say any of them.
“If he lives,” she said, after a while, “we’ll know we can trust her.”
The woman had knocked on the door to his office unescorted, somehow having found her way into the secret facility without running across a single guard. At the beginning of their conversation she had been radiant but – judging his reactions, possibly – she’d altered her face and voice as she spoke, so that now she was unremarkable save for the intensity in her eyes.
“The Americans,” she concluded, “stumbled across this weapon by luck. They might not even realize that they have it, yet. I don’t know whether the Elven commander in their company will have chosen already to reveal himself, or by which lies he might have convinced them to trust him. I know, though, that he isn’t theirs. He’ll help them kill the inconvenient little beasts and so forth that keep popping up everywhere, and that’s all well and good. He may, if he has no overriding other concern, help them reopen the Straight Road to Valinor, and that is less good. The nation that controls that bridge-”
“I follow you,” he’d said.
“But he has an overriding other concern,” she’d breathed. “Six brothers. One of whom is much closer to here than to America. As much as he hates the Enemy he will forget that war to keep them safe. And three Silmarils. For those he will march to war in the Enemy’s service, if that is what is demanded of him. Get one of those, and you have the most powerful force in this world on a very short leash.”
“Would he trade a brother for a Silmaril?”
“No,” she’d said. “They will choose the Silmarils over everything. I’d call it a vice, but it’s more of an interesting constraint, don’t you think?”
“A complication,” he’d said. “You are quite sure that this man has the power and influence over the U.S. military to call in a nuclear strike against his own nation, and that my agents will shortly confirm he has already done so.”
“And what’s your part in this?”
Her eyes had widened with a sincerity he found enticing despite not trusting it a bit. “I want you to rule the world,” she told him.
That would explain how she got past the guards, he thought, amused, intrigued. His place of safety was apparently not so safe. There seemed, suddenly, little incentive to patiently wait out the end of the world.
Vladimir Putin rose from his chair and knelt to examine the impressions that her pacing feet had left in his floor. Then he called in his security team. “There’s a man in Denmark serving time for murder,” he said. “His name is Brian Aherne. The interests of this nation in these coming days and weeks lie in getting him here alive.”
Chapter 26: History
Five minutes after Amrod vanished, they rounded a crick in the road to find it blockaded. Four tanks and a dozen soldiers with grim faces and full-body protective gear, the dust behind them hanging in the air in the eerie and familiar shape of a mushroom cloud.
This, Túrin thought absently, was the first moment that seemed properly out of the apocalypse.
His father let the car roll to a stop.
“Well,” he said. “That wasn’t on the radio.”
“Amrod would have known,” Morwen said.
“D’you suppose he did it?” said Túrin. “One of their Silmarils was buried here. I – I suppose this is one way you could dig it up.”
A few of the soldiers had broken apart from the others, not quite marching but walking with purpose. Morwen went very still in her seat. “If they have that kind of power, why bother with this pretense of agreements and trades?”
“They need me to save the world.”
“I would not count on it,” his father said, and then the soldiers were within earshot. Their leader pulled her visor up.
“I take it,” Húrin said through the window, “that this road is closed.”
“Yes,” their commander said stiffly.
“My daughter works for Dakota Petroleum. They were conducting surveying in this area. About an hour’s drive farther north, to be specific. Have you seen her leave? Curly hair, looks like me. If you announced an evacuation of the area I’m sure she got out, good head on her shoulders…” At the consternation on their faces he nearly slipped up and cracked a smile. He recovered with a dip of his head that turned into an astonished glance at the cloud. “Wait – lord almighty – it – you –”
“You did evacuate the area?” Morwen demanded, matching him in feigned panic.
“She had coworkers, too,” Húrin said, “a whole crew, you couldn’t have missed them evacuating.”
The soldiers were looking horrified. Túrin suppressed a futile flare of annoyance. This wasn’t going to get them anywhere. His enemy was in Valinor, supposedly, and the people who could get him to Valinor were untrustworthy and had gone, temporarily where he couldn’t follow them…
He opened the door to the car.
The soldiers immediately took several steps backwards and drew their guns on him.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said. His voice was too insincere. Adrenaline made him a bad actor. Why was it so different for his parents? “I just want one of those body suits.”
“No,” the commander said, recovering.
“Okay,” he said, and broke out into a run.
They were slow and clumsy in the suits, and the tanks were parked to prevent a car from getting through, not a runner. Three people reached out of him and missed. The commander, recovering fastest, opened fire at the ground in front of his feet. He turned to glare at her.
"Are you really going to shoot me?"
“You can’t go,” she said. “I hope your sister made it safely, but the area is – you’ll die of radiation poisoning.”
“Then give me a suit,” he said.
“I can’t do that. I have orders to keep people out-”
“Why? To keep them safe, right? You are a soldier and your obligation is to protect the American people, and someone just dropped a nuke on them.”
“That’s not what happened.”
He stared at her disbelievingly. “Your orders are to cover this up?”
“My orders are to maintain this perimeter.”
“Well, I’m going in. You can let me die, I guess, or you can give me a suit. My mission is search-and-rescue, so shooting me would technically be a war crime.” He was playing fast and loose with the law here, but who cared?
Morwen stepped out of the car, then. The soldiers spun around to glare at both of them. The guns, at least, they’d lowered. “I’ve gathered,” she said, “that you didn’t give evacuation orders in advance. And that means my daughter might be dying there, somewhere, or she might be still alive but in an area that puts her at danger of radiation poisoning, or she might-“
“If she was there it’s too late,” the woman said.
That was Húrin’s cue. He, too, stepped out of the car. “You understand that we have to try.”
“Give us a suit, then.”
“That’d be disobeying ord-”
“You have orders not to give civilians protection? Specifically?” Húrin said. “Because if you do, you had damn well better disobey them, there is something very very wrong.”
She looked as if she might be wavering. But then her posture stiffened and she reached for the radio at her side. “I’ll ask.”
“Great,” Húrin said, and slipped effortless between the tanks to join his son. “We’ll wait.”
There was too much pressure on Celegorm’s lungs. He tried to think where it was coming from. Blood. He’d lost a lot of blood. Internally. His heart had nearly given up. That was no good? Why had it – he’d been poisoned – poison blood –
“It’s all right,” a woman’s voice said above him, gently.
“Irissë?” he mumbled. Because he’d been thinking about poison and dying, of course, not because he expected or particularly desired to see her again.
The person was not Irissë, and was surprised that he had guessed that. He could hear her drawing back, just a touch, and then determinedly leaning back in. It was enough to make him distrust her. “You need to focus on healing,” she said.
That was annoying because it was false. He wasn’t going to heal; he was going to die. He’d been poisoned. And it wasn’t as if he needed to consciously direct the process of healing. His spirit would have done it instinctively, if his spirit were not shredded by centuries of resisting the call to fade away.
Pressure on his hand. She’d taken it. It was an intimate gesture, and he did not know her, and he was annoyed. Better to have died in the dragon’s mouth than in a strange loud painful place like this, with poisoned blood, and a stranger whispering reassurances in the language that no one spoke anymore outside his family.
She was squeezing his hand, trying to lend him something of her own strength. She was surprisingly incompetent. His brothers’ souls were ill-suited for healing (killing did that to you, after a while) but they would have been more useful than this. He wanted to tell her to give it up. But death would mean the Halls of Mandos again. And this time it would be forever. He’d taken his second chance and he’d killed people again.
The poison must have gotten to his head, a little earlier. Of course he did not want to die. He let the repulsion flow through him. It was a strong emotion. It started whisking up the poison in his blood.
“The dragon is dead,” she said. “Your name will join few others, in the songs. It is no mean feat.”
Not poison, actually, just…blood? There was someone else’s blood in his blood? There was also a broken rib putting pressure on his heart. He thought of its correct place, of bone and blood and gore and running free, of not being dead, and it moved back into place.
She was still holding his hand; it felt warm. There was another rib out of place. It suddenly seemed it would be trivial to fix it.
The commander at the roadblock got a lecture over the radio about not letting people close enough that problems like this could even arise, and then a stern refusal to give them any aid. Then he was cut off by another, sterner, angrier voice, which said to call their bluff.
“I’m not bluffing,” Túrin said to his parents. “Mind, you can go back.”
“You think the Elves will rescue us?” Húrin asked. They had started jogging.
“Not sure. I just – if I get cancer in ten years it doesn’t really matter, you know?”
“There’s also the acute kind of radiation poisoning that kills you right away,” his mother said.
“Well. I said you can go back.”
As they’d mostly-expected the Elves found them in under an hour. Amrod and two others, one of whom was carrying a glowing gemstone against his chest in an improvised sling.
Glowing, actually, did not suffice as a description. The gemstone transformed the ground, as they approached, into a crystalline dance floor; the ash and dust refracted rays of dancing iridescent light. It bathed them all with a warm, white glow.
“Maybe they were never cursed,” said the dark-haired one not carrying the gem. He was looking at his brothers, but both the tone and the use of English made it clear that the words were for them. “Maybe they’re just irretrievably stupid.”
“If he’d tried this while he was cursed,” Amrod disagreed lightly, “the soldier would have tried to shoot him and ended up shooting several of her friends, and then a mistaken relay of information about events would have ended with the American government in a civil war.”
“The Enemy never had that power,” said the first. “The Curse could not have held such strength.”
“It did,” Amrod said. By then they had approached to a close enough distance that pretending to talk amongst themselves was blatantly rude. “My brothers,” Amrod said with half-a-bow, “Curufinwë Atarinke and Morifinwë Carnistir.”
“Call me Curufin,” said the one with the Silmaril, with a toss of his head. “I think you’re right, Pityo, it’s him and he’s no longer cursed.” He frowned at them. “How did you do it?”
Túrin, against his better judgment, sent an insolent glare back. “Followed the arcane steps of an ancient ritual that involved bathing in the blood of infants atop the Pyramids at the full moon.”
Curufin almost smiled. “Unfortunately we cannot follow in your footsteps, then. There is no Moon.”
“We fulfilled our end of the deal,” Túrin said. “Take us to Denmark, and then to Valinor.”
“Valinor wasn’t part of the deal,” Amrod corrected him mildly.
“It’s the only way I can save your homeland.”
“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to,” Curufin said, “but Valinor is not our homeland.”
“And there’s no one there who you give a shit about?” Túrin said.
That went unanswered.
“You should sleep,” Annatári said. “He’ll be fine by morning. Once they got him off the sedatives he began to recover. Never induce a coma on an Elf. Pain we can handle. But the spirit needs access to the body to recover.”
“That sounds like something a homeopathy crystal healing salesperson would say,” Nienor said.
“The Eldar are unlike Men,” she said.
Lalaith had not expected to sleep well that night, but under Annatári’s watchful eyes she drifted off the second she closed her eyes.
In the morning their Elf was sitting up and the nurses were bubbling about a miracle. Lalaith argued with a few people and won the right to bring him breakfast, which he ate eagerly. His skin was barely even bruised.
“That’s sausage,” she said. “I thought you only eat meat if you’ve killed it yourself?”
“Not what I said,” he answered between mouthfuls, “said ‘I eat meat if I killed it myself’. Also if I didn’t, as it happens. You eat meat, don’t you?”
“Then why do you care?”
“If I could talk to animals and they understood me, I sure wouldn’t.”
He ignored her then, thankfully, and went on eating, and gave her a moment to gather her composure and say the thing she’d actually intended. “I’m sorry.”
Another full-mouth, sideways, disbelieving stare.
“You said we should run and live and I told you to fight the dragon and it nearly killed you.”
He swallowed. “Well, I didn’t have to listen to you.”
“Still. I told you to, so it’s on me-”
“No,” he said. “See, then we’re establishing an expectation that I obey you and you self-flagellate if I die doing it. I’ve never bought into authority, much, because that’s always what it plays out as. I killed a dragon because I was bored and curious if I still could. Your heart can sit lightly. All right?”
She watched his hands for a while. Swift and capable, with tiny scars on the knuckles. “I’m glad you did it. People are alive because of you.”
“They’ll die anyway.”
“Maybe not,” she said. “Before we leave, do the doctors have your consent for blood and tissue samples? Once we’ve won the war we can probably reverse-engineer Elven immortality.”
He stared at her for a second. “The differences are spiritual, not physical.”
“No,” she said. “Your body rejected a blood donation. Your cells are different – theyalready took samples for analysis, actually, they just won’t use them for research without your consent. No one was sure if you meant to donate your body. If you’d died.”
“Wouldn’t have worked,” he said. “Without the spirit sustaining them, Elven bodies disintegrate quickly.”
“Mmm. Okay. You do consent, though? It could save billions of lives.”
“If that’s so, why ask for consent?”
“Just…some principles, if you start breaking them for really good reasons, pretty soon you’re breaking them for less good reasons. You know?”
“Not really,” he said. “It seems like you’d break them whenever it’s in your interest and that’s always a good reason. Or are you very very bad at estimating your own interests?”
“Principles are for cases where your own interests aren’t sufficient reason. Like, if you helped us, it wouldn’t be for your own good, right? It’d be for ours, so we didn’t die.”
“If mortals didn’t die,” he said, “You’d take care of the land better. You’d plan ahead more. I wouldn’t have to change jobs frequently to disguise that I don’t age. You would eventually all grow up and I could marry someone.”
He’d finished the sausages. There’d been twenty. “Well. Okay,” she said. “Point is, you consent?”
“They can use the blood they’ve already taken in whatever manner they please.”
At that moment Annatári burst in. Her face was exquisitely anguished. “Celegorm,” she said, “does one of your brothers work for the American government?”
Beside her, he stiffened. “I didn’t give you my name.”
“You did,” she said, “while you were ill. It doesn’t matter – that is, it does, of course, but I trust Mandos in his mercy.” She blinked rapidly. “The American government has agents outside the hospital, negotiating for access to you. I have read their minds. They mean to take you hostage to force your brothers to cooperate in their aims.”
“What aims?” said Lalaith, but he was already on his feet. “We'll leave separately. Get your sister and friend,” he said. “If you get away from here without attracting their attention I will find you later.”
“Find us how?”
A very mild disbelieving stare. Then he picked up a suitably heavy piece of equipment and shattered the window. Annatári took his hand.
Lalaith left through the hallway. She brushed past a few uniformed American soldiers as she went; they did not pay her a second glance. She found Nienor and Amirah right where she’d left them in the food court. “We have to get out of here,” she said. “Thalfin-who-is-actually-named-Celegorm and Annatári are taking a different exit, there are people pursuing them.”
“What?” Nienor said.
“We have to get out of here,” Lalaith repeated. “Can I push you?”
Her sister gave her permission with an anxious, impatient wave of one hand. “Celegorm,” she said.
“Yeah.” There were police and soldiers everywhere. Now that they were perhaps-maybe-sort-of escaping them, she noticed every one. It was terrifying.
"The other Elf called him that?"
Every casual glance in their direction felt like it might be inviting disaster. The American government wanted their Elf. Her heart was jumping about unsteadily in her chest. "She did. Nienor, maybe we shouldn't say anything in earshot - if they see us, if they stop us..."
Nienor lowered her voice but only slightly. “Remember the story I told you, of Beren and Lúthien? And specifically of the prince who is betrayed to his death by his cousins, who stage a coup? The cousins who also try to shoot Beren and Lúthien as they flee?”
“Yes,” Lalaith said.
“Celegorm,” said Nienor.
"The one betrayed to his death?" Amirah said. "Or the one doing the betraying?"
The guards stationed at the hospital front door made a motion as if to stop them and then decided, apparently, to let it be.
"Take a guess," Nienor said, and they walked with fragile nonchalance into the ashen, sunless morning light.
Chapter 27: Treasons of Kin
They walked until no one was looking. That was a long walk, since they stood out and the roads were largely empty. They found a marble bench squeezed between a highway and a river, swollen enough from a spring rain that even Elven ears ought to struggle to pick out their conversation.
"Our people are here," said Nienor, tight and clipped and bitingly sarcastic.
"The American military is here," Lalaith grumbled. "I'm not sure in what sense they're our-"
"They're trying to find him."
"He knows things that could make this less of a disaster, that could help them face the next few dragons," Amirah said. "They have a pretty good reason. As reasons go. Did he say why he was running away?"
Lalaith nodded, swallowed, picked at her nails some more. "She said they were going to try to use him to control his brothers."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"I don't know, is it?"
"Yes," said Nienor flatly.
“So,” Lalaith murmured. “Betray him to the government: do we or don’t we?”
Amirah shook her head.
“Threaten to, maybe,” Nienor whispered.
The park had once faced one of the busiest highways in Odense. It was closed. Tanks were rolling down it.
“We don’t have any information that we didn’t have an hour ago,” Amirah muttered. “We knew he’s a murderer. We also knew he’s willing to help us.”
Nienor shook her head violently. “The sons of Fëanor – no one trusts them. And with good reason. There are – were – plenty of garden-variety murderers in Beleriand. War makes people desperate. Their reputation is different.”
“The sort of people,” Amirah said, “who’ll kill a dragon for you but also kill innocent people to get to the Silmarils. Who are sorta-somehow metaphysically compelled to do that. I’m all right with that. That might in fact be the sort of person who we want on our side. And it’s not like the American government has clean hands – what if they take him to Guantanamo –”
“We’re contemplating betraying evil people to morally-really-iffy people,” Lalaith agreed. “But if the government thinks they need our Elf to win this war –”
“If having Celegorm in custody helps the government win the war, we all support turning him in,” Nienor whispered, “right?”
Amirah was gripping the edge of the bench unhappily. “What war? This is closer to a natural disaster.”
At that Nienor let her voice rise to full volume. “Morgoth has returned. Trust me, there’ll be a war.”
Lalaith coughed. “So, turning Celegorm in to the American soldiers, do we or don’t-”
“You haven’t said what you think.”
“I think yes,” Lalaith said. “If it even increases the chances of preventing a disaster by a tiny, tiny bit, that outweighs personal feelings of fondness-”
“That’s the kind of logic by which someone ends up betraying their cousins to death,” Amirah hissed.
“He’s a murderer.”
“That wasn’t one of the considerations you just mentioned. You can’t have it both ways: does that matter or not?”
“Doesn’t really matter to whether it’s the right decision,” Lalaith said. “Definitely matters to whether I could go through with it.”
“If we want to help them catch him,” Nienor said, “how?”
Explaining the plan in half-whispers which the river ripped away and both of them misheard turned out to be a waste of time. “Trust me,” she hissed eventually in frustration, and then, “Amirah, tell us about the dragon,” the conversation making for unconvincing cover as they headed back toward town.
“They want you to get to your brothers,” Annatári told him as they leapt from the roof of a building three blocks from the hospital to a balcony on the next one. She’d been spoon-feeding him insights every step of the way, as if she thought him too unintelligent to draw the obvious conclusions on his own. Had it been Curufin it would have chafed, but that was because Curufin was genuinely smarter than him. From her it was barely the nagging annoyance of hearing a distant insect with an injured wing.
Better to let her think whatever she’d already decided. “How?” he asked.
“You’ve been in a mortal prison for, what, ten years?” she said, her eyes raking across him with an intensity that made him feel uncomfortably exposed. “You can barely walk.”
The words might seem odd, spoken as they were while they darted across buildings. They were true, though. He’d been raised in Valinor. He could remember what it felt like to be strong.
She gestured at a nearby urban rail station. They landed on the sidewalk and he followed her down the stairs.
“Mortals can keep you in prison,” she said. “How many of us is that true of, in these days? I am guessing it’s not true of your brothers.”
“Most of the Eldar couldn’t survive six years in prison,” he countered. She bit her lip. He felt as if he’d won a point in some game that did not matter. “I just need to spend a year or so sunbathing with the Silmaril. Then I’ll be fine.”
The trains weren’t running. They both heard the unnatural echoes of a stalled rail system as soon as they entered the tunnels. A voice over the speakers explained that the tunnels were flooded.
“Do you have the means to get in touch with your brothers?”
“Obviously not,” he said bitterly, “or I’d have done that, wouldn’t I have?”
She stopped abruptly, then, and leaned her head against the wall. Her eyes flickered closed. Her face was glowing pale and clear. “This tunnel is clear for six miles and leads out of the city.”
It hadn’t sounded clear to him. It sounded like there were people at the other end. Embarrassing to be wrong, though, and by rights she should have better hearing. He tried to find something on which to pin his vague unease. “I have to go back for those girls,” he said.
“Their brother is Túrin Turambar. You know the prophecy –”
Her eyes flared quite bright, suddenly. “Yes.”
“Turambar is supposed to possess strength unsurpassed even among the Eldar. And he is foretold to be the one who takes down Morgoth, which is great because I sure don’t want it to fall to me.”
“Would you do it?”
“I mean – yeah. Do you know what he did to my family?”
“The way it’s told,” she said, “you did it all to yourselves.”
“That too.” There were definitely people in the tunnel; he could hear their voices. He hopped down onto the train tracks. “Work crew, you think?”
“If we head northeast we’ll be clear of them.” She extended her hand again, pleadingly. “With all due respect, you can’t hear. You nearly died. You’ve been in prison for six years and you’re disoriented.”
It was the ‘with all due respect’ that rang wrong. What respect was due the damned? No one offered it, not to sons of Fëanor. To Maedhros, maybe, because despite everything he managed to command it. To Curufin, maybe, because he was hard to work with if one didn’t at least pretend at it.
He drew to a halt. “With all due respect,” he said, “I’ll go west. May the stars light your path.”
She almost pouted. “You’re being silly.”
He caught her next movement out of the corner of his eye; he turned, but not quite in time.
Annatári had been Zigur, in Númenor in the second age, when she’d risen to absolute power with nothing more than a charming smile and a ring on her finger and a talent for telling people what they wanted to hear.
She’d been Annatar in Eregion. The Lord of Gifts, needling her way into the hearts and minds of the exiled Ñoldorin craftsmen with a promise of knowledge. Everyone had a thread, and she’d known how to pull them. It was in Eregion that the Rings were forged. Power, magic, immortality, independence. The motives of men and Elves and Dwarves, in sleek metal on her hand.
Celegorm was still breathing. He lay slumped against the tunnel floor, his face still rigid with the expression that had flashed across it as she took him down. Around them there were craters in the cement. She’d underestimated the Eldar once or twice; she did not do that any longer. Even weakened they possessed astonishing reserves of strength.
She’d been Gorthaur, in the First Age. Lord of Werewolves, Melkor’s cruelest and most capable servant, the scourge of Tol Sirion, the deciding force in the war for the East. She’d tortured Elven kings to death and madness in her dungeons. Her name had been spoken with horror. Gorthaur, the Cruel.
She lifted Celegorm up with annoyance and carried him down the tunnel. The men there stiffened anxiously and drew their guns at her arrival. They should have been carrying them all along. She would have punished such incompetence.
She’d been Mairon, in the beginning. A Maia born before the world itself, tempted into evil by Melkor’s incautious and seductive anger.
“Here he is,” she said in fluid lilting Russian. “A trophy the Americans would kill for – or kill rather than see it fall into your hands. Be careful.”
“And you are?”
In the Third Age the preferred name had been the Quenya one. Sauron. It meant ‘the Abhorred.’
But now her facial features blended seamlessly to match those of the body she was carrying. “The enemy of your enemies,” Celegorm’s voice said. They were startled. They backed away. She turned and bounded through the tunnels.
“I have to go back for those girls,” he’d said.
Well, all right.
They’d written everything out on a sheet of paper and handed it to the receptionist at the hotel they’d ‘checked into’ – no one was quite sure what money was worth anymore, and their credit cards did not work, but the clerk had smiled at Nienor in her wheelchair and told them there was a room on this floor, no guarantee of service.
The piece of paper had contained all of the information they had about Celegorm, with emphasis on the murdering, and had concluded by saying that he was coming back to find them, and that he’d leave and not return if he noticed a police presence, and that a substantial police presence would nonetheless probably be needed to take him into custody.
“They’re the people trained for this stuff,” Lalaith had said, “they can figure out how to do that.”
“What if he kills us when he finds out we’ve betrayed him?” Nienor had murmured.
“He won’t.” There was something stilling in Amirah’s voice; they didn’t argue.
Celegorm found them around 3 in the afternoon. He let himself in through the window and did not explain how he’d tracked them down. His eyes were brighter and his hair flowed around his back as if it were windy; it wasn't.
“We’re going home,” Lalaith said, “as soon as it’s safe. Which might be a while. Y’know, one advantage to turning yourself in would be a free ride back to the United States as soon as airplanes are moving.”
Celegorm looked disgusted for a second. Then he smiled blindingly. “Where would that leave you?”
“Here,” Nienor said dryly.
“Your family is probably terrified.”
It was probably just because they were about to hand him over, but he felt different to Lalaith. There’d been a joy there, a restlessness, which no longer animated him. He was brighter but more distant. “They’re pretty hard to shake,” she said. “Are you up for answering more of my questions while we wait?”
He smiled again. “Sure.”
“Elves coming back to life after they die. How does that work?”
He settled himself on her bed with unselfconscious grace. “When an Elven body is damaged beyond the capacity of the spirit to repair it,” he said, “the spirit departs. It is called to Mandos. The call can be refused, but spirits who do not seek Mandos are vulnerable to Melkor’s reach. In Mandos we are judged, and sit in waiting for a length of time appropriate to our faults in life. For my family that was a very long time. Eventually it is decided whether we deserve to be granted a new body and a new life. If we are, we are corrected of our evils and usually reawaken in Valinor. If not, the Halls serve also as a prison.”
“Mandos himself, of course. It is said he was appointed by the One.”
“And what counts as a fault?”
“Suicide,” Celegorm said. “Forcing someone else to take your life in their defense. Doubting or questioning the Valar or the One. Beyond that, it isn’t known. It is considered impolite to ask, as if you’re trying to cheat the judgment that none can escape.”
“And what is imprisonment in the Halls like?”
“Being alone. Always. You can’t feel or move, you can only think, so your mind summons up things to sense around you lest it go mad in the darkness. Sometimes you can feel Mandos twisting your thoughts around to correct you. You can refuse him, but then you cannot begin to face judgment and the hope of returning to life.”
“Um,” Lalaith said, “that sounds horrifying.”
“I hope you aren’t doubting or questioning the Valar or the One,” he said with a weary smile. “That’s a fault.”
“You said you were punished for murder,” Amirah interrupted suspiciously.
“There are many thousands of souls languishing in Mandos for lesser crimes,” he said agreeably. “I accepted correction. And so I do not remember what, exactly, I was punished for. In correcting a soul, Mandos eliminates from the mind all comprehension of their past aberrance.”
Lalaith opened and closed her mouth speechlessly.
“That’s why I did everything,” he told the ceiling. “I wanted to get the pieces back.”
They sat there.
He smiled. "Did you have other questions?"
"Morgoth. The enemy. Tell me about him."
Celegorm's eyes shone brighter. There was the restless energy again. She'd been uneasy in its absence. "In the beginning," he said, "Eru had a plan for the world, and Melkor was the only one who dared to disrupt it. You can say he was a monster even then, but no beings had yet been born to hurt; they battled out their differences on a plane still in the making. Eru wanted the world to be perfect. Melkor wanted something different."
At that moment a SWAT team broke down the door.
Lalaith screamed and dove for the floor. Amirah and Nienor, better prepared, had pressed themselves against it. Celegorm stretched out an arm to watch with amazement as it danced with the laser-sights of a dozen guns.
“Hands on your head,” a voice cried out in English from a megaphone across the street. He sat frozen for a moment and then, half-smiling, surrendered.
Chapter 28: Arc V: Allies
“Where are we going?” Túrin asked after about half an hour. The Elves were bad at keeping a mortal pace. To be shielded from radiation they had to stay within a circle of sorta-uncertain-radius of the Silmaril, and seemed disinclined to venture even that far from it, so they paced in skewed orbits around Túrin and his parents, talking to each other in voices he could barely catch and a language that he didn’t speak.
Curufin spun around to stare at him. He didn’t look hostile; that would have been less jarring. Just slightly bored. “Our home.”
“Um,” Túrin said. “If it’s within walking distance of here, you’d better have damn good homeowner’s insurance because now it’s radioactive rubble. And if it isn’t, how are we getting there?”
“In the weeks after Melkor’s first assault on my people,” said Curufin, “we walked from Taniquetil to Formenos to Tirion to Losgar – several thousand miles.”
“Killed some people along the way,” volunteered Caranthir at his side. His tone was angry but not threatening. Angry at his brother? For neglecting to mention that?
Túrin’s head was starting to hurt. “Your point?”
Where emotions had fluttered across Amrod’s face like the pages of a book upturned in a terrible wind, they scarcely touched Curufin’s at all. “Our home is within walking distance,” he said, “but outside the blast radius.”
“Hate to break it to you, but we’re mortal –”
“You don’t say.”
“And walking a couple thousand miles is out,” Túrin said. “You promised a ride to Denmark, not an escort.”
This provoked an argument between the Elves, which they carried out again in their language and pitched too high for him to catch anything. “You know,” he interrupted after a moment, “that’s generally considered rude.”
Curufin half-smiled. “I beg your forgiveness.”
“I gather,” Húrin said, a hand landing firmly on his son’s shoulder to interrupt Túrin’s answer, “that you do not in fact have access to an airplane or to magical Elven means of reaching Denmark, that we were misled in the suggestion that you did, and that you’re trying to think of one anyway.”
“Having had nine hours’ head start in thinking on the question,” said Morwen, “can we save you some time?”
Amrod muttered something that made both his brothers suppress a chuckle.
“Yes,” Curufin said.
“Boat: slow, nowhere to run if we’re ambushed by enemies, can probably commandeer one even with the limited numbers available to us, likely couldn’t run it. Plane: fast, definitely fatal if we’re taken down, doubt we can commandeer one with these numbers, definitely can’t fly one. Does Morgoth have things that can fly?”
“Yes,” the Elves said in unison.
“Planes are probably out of the question, then.”
“We’d need a military escort,” said Caranthir. “Which is possible, since we have contacts and support within the American government, but it will take some time to establish.”
“You probably should have led with that,” Húrin said. “What kind of contacts? Is the American government still even stable? Are they in contact with our bases overseas?”
“The sort of contacts that enabled us to order this airstrike,” Curufin said indifferently, ignoring the rest of the questions, and then turned to extend a hand and help them over a particularly sharp precipice.
It was four hours’ ride to the American base in Stuttgart. They spent it in the back of a truck which was itself in the back of the convoy carrying Celegorm. Lalaith would have picked her nails bloody again, but Amirah caught her at it and held out her own hands, still clammy and bloodless. Lalaith gave them a halfhearted massage instead. By the time they reached Stuttgart her thumbs were sore and Amirah’s hands were still very, very cold.
They didn’t talk. Nothing worth saying could be said in front of the three soldiers who sat next to them for the ride, automatic weapons bouncing on their laps.
Once they arrived, though, by silently negotiated consensus they found their way to an administrative building sufficiently noisy that no one was listening.
“You regret it,” Amirah said.
“You heard what he said,” Lalaith said, “right before they came.”
“Could’ve been lying.”
“It’d be a bit unlike him, though. Nienor, is it consistent with –”
“Mandos judges the Elven dead,” she said. “That’s all I know.”
“Even if it’s true that the Elven gods are evil,” Amirah said, “so what?”
“What do you mean, so what?”
“Morgoth killed – what – literally billions of people yesterday. If we need their help to repair the world, it doesn’t actually matter if they’re evil, right?”
The atmosphere on the base was one of barely suppressed panic. People were rushing past them in everything between civilian clothes and very important beribboned uniforms. Lalaith listened to the chatter for a minute, wondering if Morgoth had finally made the much-awaited appearance that everyone agreed would start the war. “It matters for what we do afterwards.”
“We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.” Nienor’s voice was brittle.
“Not really,” Lalaith said. “There are agents as powerful as Morgoth but good – the Elven gods. And they waited five hundred years to intervene and take Morgoth down last time. Is that right?”
“Yes,” Nienor said.
“Understanding their motivations seems pretty damn important.”
“So,” Amirah said pointedly, “do you regret turning him in?”
“Depends on whether we get another chance to talk to him, I guess, and whether better-qualified people do. And whether it’s true that he’s been tortured in the Halls of Death by evil gods, I guess that does kind of change how I feel about handing him over to our government-”
“Halls of Mandos,” Nienor said.
“Thank you, very helpful” grumbled Lalaith, more spitefully than was actually fair.
An alarm started ringing. The bustle around them intensified. They watched in awestruck, nervous silence for a minute or two until Lalaith, seeing her chance, leapt up and snagged a soldier who didn’t seem to be going anywhere. “I’m Lalaith Thalion, we brought Celegorm down from Odense an hour ago,” she said, “what’s going on?”
Lalaith tried a Morwen smile. “Someone who needs to know what’s going on.”
“You brought the person of interest in from Denmark?”
“Well, he said something that has the command on edge. And by ‘on edge’, I mean ‘Cold War’. Did he say anything about Russian involvement in the catastrophe yesterday?”
“Russian involvement?” said Nienor disbelievingly.
“Yes,” Annatári told the soldiers, her eyes wide and sincere and sparkling with the Light of Valinor. “Morgoth has been imprisoned for Ages, and could have returned to the world only with the deliberate aid of some mortals in the know and with access to nuclear weapons. They would have had to blast open the Gates to the Void, and that means getting a warhead to the Moon.”
The men looked at each other. They were afraid. She let Celegorm’s face mirror theirs, as it was inclined to do automatically. This was so much fun. “Was it you? Because whatever he promised you, I don’t think it was worth it. He keeps his promises. You’ll have world domination. Your enemies will all burn in their homes. But I think maybe you’ll find it wasn’t-”
Someone grabbed her collar and she let Celegorm’s pupils dilate in pretended fear. “You think this bastard negotiated with someone on Earth for world domination in exchange for releasing him?”
“Definitely,” said Annatári. “Someone with a space program and nukes, which I guess narrows it down. Are you sure it wasn’t you?”
The man, breathing hard, released her and looked around at his colleagues. She watched the terror bounce between their eyes.
He awoke on a freighter in the Black Sea. Freighter, easy to tell by the way it moved through the water, the tonnage perceptible in every movement, the grind of the engines screaming the purpose they’d been built for. Black Sea, easy to tell from the numbers spit out of the crackling radio held by a man who must have assumed he was out of hearing distance.
He did not open his eyes.
Annatári had attacked him, chosen not to kill him, handed him over to the snuffling, whispering idiots now on the deck of this boat. That meant – nothing good, certainly, but it was hard to stretch even for something bad. An Elf wouldn’t have done that. They would have preferred to settle this personally, most likely. Taken him to Geneva for a war crimes trial, maybe, if they were more idealistic than anyone who’d survived the First Age had any right to be. But this? This was mafia justice, and no Elf would-
-a terrible picture was coalescing in his head.
He tested the restraints. Handcuffs, too small, cutting off his circulation, not at an angle he could manipulate free.
Maedhros, shackled to a cliff once, had returned with a bloody stump where his hand had been, and learned to wield a sword with the other. That won’t work, Celegorm though with distant amusement, I couldn’t do without both of them. He leaned his head back and listened to the conversation on deck. He didn’t speak the language. He wasn’t sure which it was. Curufin would have known, of course.
He tried to make a mental accounting of all the things Curufin or Maedhros would have done differently in the last two days. After a minute he discarded the project as uninteresting. Another thought was curling its cold fingers around his skull, even more distracting – the thought that if Annatári wasn’t an Elf, then she was one of Sauron’s demons who could assume whatever form she liked. Maedhros and Curufin and everyone else would see him again, safe, free, with Turambar’s little sisters, and they’d race unarmed into his arms…
There had to be rats on the ship. There were always rats on a ship.
He called to them in the languages he’d learned far more easily than mortal tongues, the languages of instinct and hunger. Risky and stupid to ask them to bring him the key. In the engine room, he thought instead – translating automatically into all of the right concepts for an engine room, the heat and noise and scent of it – there’s bottles in the shelves, I need one that burns to breathe, I need it here…
They were listening, but they weren’t inclined to obey. He meant to send them something encouraging, reassuring, but the thought that floated to his head was of the bears in Yosemite, the ones he’d told to stay away from human settlements, the ones who’d refused and been euthanized, the ones he’d watched die with a cynical futility. Though they’d haunted his dreams for weeks afterwards.
The rats, catching the tenor of his thoughts, had fled. He hissed in frustration under his breath and set his mind to luring them back with happy thoughts. They were hard to find. It was jarring to realize he must have been a happy person, once, for this sort of communication to have ever been so effortless.
At the center of the blast site they met two more Elves, one of whom was, despite several apparently serious injuries, the most majestic one Túrin had seen yet. Even the ash that coated his skin left it contoured interestingly.
“Maglor,” he said, melodically and with a grave dip of his head, when they arrived. “I spoke to Father,” He was clearly talking to his brothers, but he said it in English. Túrin revised his mental estimation upwards. “He wanted to come, but-”
“No,” Curufin said fiercely.
“After some discussion we concluded that travelling alone in this environment was unwise. We’ll head to him, then. If we go due north we’ll run across a road and can probably acquire a vehicle.”
“We’ll run across a roadblock,” said Túrin. “The army is stopping people from coming here.”
“But not from leaving, one presumes,” Amrod offered.
“Worst case,” said Caranthir, “they try to stop us and that’s how we acquire a truck.”
“For the record, if you kill a on-duty U.S. soldier following reasonable orders,” Húrin said, “we’re out.”
“Then,” said Curufin, helping the injured brother to his feet, “I daresay you’re not really in this for the fate of the world.”
“You’re one to talk,” Túrin snapped at him.
“I am not in this for the fate of the world,” he agreed, “but for the fate of my family, which can endure the downfall of nearly everything else. Our interests align only insofar as part of my family is in Denmark.”
“And part is in Valinor,” said Caranthir, stepping in beside him to take Maglor’s other arm.
Curufin stiffened so abruptly he half-dragged Maglor off his feet. His lips moved, but if he’d said anything he’d said it far too quietly for mortal ears.
“Father,” Maglor said peaceably, “wishes to get Turambar to Valinor in time to save it, if we can. I suppose him motivated in part by concern for his grandson, and in part by concern for all of the pretty trinkets they’ve no doubt fashioned in the Ages without us.”
“I doubt trinkets motivate him at all,” said Curufin, whose movements were now clipped and uncomfortably precise.
They’d been walking for a few minutes and barely covered any ground at all. Maglor sighed deeply and began singing. It was a song about a river: bright, pure, and clean but most importantly fast, rushing currents that would drag you under. The ground began to swim around Túrin and he staggered.
“Trust me,” Maglor interrupted himself to instruct them, and the illusion faded. Then he sang another note and it returned. The ground swelled and agreeably raced them on forward, swirling on the eddies of currents that should not exist. Maglor caught their eyes with a smile and sang of fish, then, and of golden and silver trees lighting the water in the color of a precious metal.
When he stopped singing they’d left the blast site ten miles behind. “We should get a car, though,” he murmured. “I will tire if I have to do that all the way home.”
Chapter 29: Lose Some
It’s been a while, so to refresh your memory:
THE FIRST SILMARIL was in the ocean off the coast of Denmark, until an oil rig found it and CERTAIN PEOPLE mounted an ugly but successful retrieval mission. CELEGORM is serving a life sentence for hijacking, murder and unauthorized destruction of telecommunications equipment impeding emergency services, but CURUFIN got to deliver a Silmaril to FËANOR, who is planning to use it to go build a new civilization on Alpha Centauri, mostly to prove that mortals can’t do anything he can’t do but also because MANWË once said that he was king of all of Arda and Alpha Centauri is probably outside his jurisdiction.
THE SECOND SILMARIL was in the bedrock under Fargo, North Dakota, until LALAITH noticed it while surveying the land as a petroleum engineer. She left (just before CERTAIN PEOPLE arrived) in an effort to help NIENOR, her sister, either prove that her visions are lies or figure out what on earth it would mean if they’re true. The two of them, plus Lalaith’s girlfriend, had followed their leads to Denmark where they were debating metaphysics with Celegorm when the world ended.
MORGOTH had resided in the Void beyond the world for seven ages. Finally he found a foothold to get out. His arrival knocked the Moon out of the sky and sent the pieces spiraling toward Earth, and his ancient allies emerged from the bedrock to greet them.
MAEDHROS has actually had a lot of days that were worse than this one.
SAURON decided to help Vladimir Putin use the mess to seize world power.
Using the Silmaril as a radiation shield, CERTAIN PEOPLE survived a nuclear blast that temporarily prevented Morgoth from retaking physical form. They’re now allying with TÚRIN to fulfill the prophecy in which he saves Valinor – at least, unless they later decide that they don’t want to save Valinor, which they kind of might. Meanwhile Maedhros has tried to rescue Celegorm by convincing the U.S. government to capture him, but Sauron warned Celegorm about this and he fled, but Lalaith and Nienor told the U.S. government about this and they successfully ambushed him, except the Celegorm they captured is really Sauron in disguise, and the real Celegorm is on a freighter in the Black Sea, trying to talk rats into rescuing him.
THE THIRD SILMARIL travels through the night sky on the brow of Eärendil, which is more widely known as the planet Venus.
They stole a car.
Two cars, actually, for more freedom of movement in the case of trouble, if Túrin was reading rightly the tone of the Elven words that bounced between the members of their escort. The Elves had not disdained to explain themselves in English.
Túrin was beginning to cultivate an intense dislike of Elves.
Curufin drove the first car. Maglor drove the second. For the first forty miles they clung eerily close to each other on the one-lane road, scarcely a few inches between the bumpers. "Elven reflexes," Amrod said smugly when he saw Morwen cringing. "It won't be a problem."
"Reflexes aren't really the concern," Morwen had muttered. "How sure are you that the car with the better brakes is the one in the back?"
Amrod had looked slightly disconcerted but Maglor hadn't backed off even an inch. If anything, he'd pulled in even closer.
It was the darkest night imaginable. No Moon, of course. No stars. It was still raining ash, even here. It built up on the windshields; Maglor turned on the windshield wipers and they ineffectually pushed the ash and dust across the glass, leaving deep gray smears. Túrin leaned back in his seat and tried to remember dragons, tried to call up by force of will the knowledge that would be needed to win the war. To understand their allies. To even get to the battlefield.
Nothing. If it was there at all, it couldn't be reached voluntarily. His father had said that he expected he'd know what to do with a sword. Maybe it was the same for Túrin. Presented with a situation, enough of the memories would work their way loose that he could handle it. Had that happened in Dallas? Had some ancient instincts for self-preservation surfaced when he'd scuffled with Amrod, or lived on the run, or lied so automatically? Or had that been his standard personality? He closed his eyes.
He opened them to the car braking with such sudden, desperate, violent force that it pitched him painfully forward against his seatbelt and choked the air from his lungs. They collided with the car in front of them and the airbags smashed him backwards with almost as much force as the collision had pitched him forward. He felt a rib snap. Maglor hissed beside him. No one screamed only because no one could breathe.
And then, in front of them, something moved.
It was on fire, but it wasn't a fire that shone bright against the darkness; it was a smoldering fire that relished the darkness, hid in it, had made use of the darkness to escape even Elven eyes until too late. Maglor had pulled out a knife, was slashing his way free of his own airbag. "Help," Túrin hissed, once he could draw the air for it.
It was too late. The Balrog struck.
"Something's wrong," Nienor said.
"The explanation he gave us didn't have anything to do with-"
"I know," Lalaith said, testily, which wasn't fair. It was probably wise to spell it out, say exactly what they were all thinking so there’d be no confusion later. “Either he’s lying to them, or he lied to us. And if he’s telling the truth to them, why bother lying to us? It’s not as if we’d have reacted any differently if he’d said –”
“Or,” said Amirah, “and more plausibly, he said to them what he said to us but the government misunderstood it and overreacted because the American military is still stuck in the Cold War.”
“Or that,” Lalaith said, relaxing and then realizing that the thought should not inspire relaxation. “But he won’t know why it’s important to correct them –”
“He’d definitely know that, he was around for the last century and can't have had his head buried that far in the sand. It’s even possible that the higher-ups got the right story but Russia leaked in while the soldiers gossiped, that happens…”
“Or he’s lying to them,” Nienor said, “go back to that one. Maybe they had a horrible misunderstanding and he said ‘an evil demonic demigod did this’ and they heard ‘Russia did this’, or maybe he’s lying to them, and he is a notorious mass murderer who I think was involved in at least one coup –”
“Right,” Lalaith snapped, feeling a little more justified in her frustration this time, “tell us about that.”
“I told you the whole story back in the hospital. They were Elven royalty. The King’s grandchildren. The King died protecting the Silmarils and they swore to get them back at any cost and they slaughtered their way across half the world, trying.”
Humans didn’t matter, he’d said, they died anyway. Would he tell a lie that could spark a war? Would he share a truth that would spark a war, for that matter? “Did they hate Morgoth?” she asked, head aching.
“Yeah. Didn’t stop them from serving his interests.”
“Who benefits?” Amirah said.
“Who benefits? If he tells everyone that Russia is working with Morgoth –”
“Morgoth,” Nienor said. “Morgoth benefits. Except – where is he? Our Elf – ah, Celegorm - sounded so sure that he was coming, that he’d be here, that when he came there would be war. What if there’s no Morgoth, what if –”
“What called the dragons?”
Nienor shrugged helplessly.
A voice spat numbers over the intercom, and the soldiers rushing about around them fell silent, went still, and then broke forth again at twice the pace. I want to go home, Lalaith thought. If he’s lying I’ll kill him. Though she’d threatened that before, and ended up breaking him out of prison.
“Germany seems like a bad place to be,” Amirah said, “if the Cold War is starting up again.”
Nienor picked idly at the seat cushion. “It won’t be a cold war. Won’t be a long one, either.”
The whip lashed out and cut the lead car in half. Some part of Túrin’s brain tried to fathom what kind of force that would take, what kind of unimaginable power – but it didn’t really matter, did it? Strong enough to kill you was strong enough to kill you, whether it could cleanly slice hardened steel in half or merely pummel it into the ground. The Elves were on their feet, but they weren’t fighting. The whip lashed out again and split the hood of their car, this time. Túrin could see a beautiful cross-section of the engine block.
Once you knew what you were looking for you could see the outlines. It was the height, perhaps, of a two-story building, its form almost humanoid. Smouldering charcoal and pitch black. Túrin felt his seatbelt go loose; maybe the Balrog had disrupted the mechanism. He threw himself out of the car and rolled across the ground. The ash clung to him. The whip slashed at the ground at his side.
The next strike went through Amrod, harmlessly. He flickered and returned, his face alight with dark amusement. That was why the Elves weren’t attacking, then; this was a standoff. Half-faded from this world, the Balrog could not reach them. And weaponless, they could not scratch it.
The Balrog finished chopping up the car in what Túrin could now recognize as a flurry of frustration. And maybe fascination: would the thing ever have seen a car before? Was it intelligent? Behind him Maglor’s voice rang out in daring mockery. “I licked the ashes of your master off my lips,” he said, and showed it, and the creature turned to slice him to shreds, leaving long scars in the landscape instead –
Túrin stepped back towards the car, and picked up a jagged piece of metal. Useless, probably, but he felt better with it in his hands. “The Golodhrim destroyed all the armies of orcs that had carpeted this land,” a voice said in his head, wearily, “and the Balrogs destroyed the Golodhrim. Their King charged out alone, in might and fury, and they encircled him and he died there, before his people could catch up with him. There are many many lessons to learn from the story of Fëanor, Túrin, but for you I should think that one the most important –”
He was not sure if he remembered the voice. Something inside him was warning that he didn’t want to. Maglor made the sky above them dissolve into a painfully bright white, and the Balrog howled in anguished furious frustration, and then the whip slashed cleanly through his parents, who did not have the Elven ability to go immaterial at will. They tried to run, but not in time.
Túrin charged it.
The voice in his head was screaming for him to stop, and now he did remember who the speaker was, but even the horror and dismay of that old memory was not enough to slow him down, and the creature’s whips slashed at him but somehow, miraculously, missed, and the Elves cried out in simultaneous dismay and he leapt at the thing, where the throat might be, and stabbed it. Leapt at where the eyes might be and stabbed that. It burned to the touch, he could feel his skin peeling back from his flesh, but that was nothing, nothing, it had to die it had to die it had to die –
Amrod threw himself at one of the creatures’ terrible whips and faded out and took it with him. They appeared a second later, thirty feet away. Blood was running down Amrod’s face and chest and thigh, and the skin that wasn’t bloodied was burning.
“The Silmaril,” Caranthir hissed, but Curufin clung to it, his fingers burning even through the cloth, keeping it hidden, the prize this enemy could take from them - “the Silmaril, Curvo, we can kill this one, we can finally get it right –”. Curufin’s fingers slipped slightly. Maybe that was assent, maybe he just didn’t care about Curufin’s agreement anymore, but he grabbed the bag and pulled it open (and Maglor sang – not again, not today) – and Túrin Turambar’s makeshift blade shone white with the holy light of Valinor, and the half of Túrin Turambar that was still hanging off the Balrog managed to drive the blade in again, true.
The Balrog exploded. The rush of hot air scoured their faces like a furnace, the ground rose up to meet them with a terrible roar, and then they were on their feet again, the Elves with the natural dexterity of their kind, Morwen and Húrin with the desperate strength of a parent facing their worst fear.
Túrin saw them, and his eyes flickered with confusion. He had lost an arm and both legs; his blood was being swallowed by the hot, dry ground. But for another few seconds he was alive, and he saw them, and he tried to swallow the ash so he could ask – “you’re fine?”
They weren’t fine. But they were uninjured.
“You thought…” Morwen whispered, her whole body shaking, her voice terribly cold and steady.
“I built an illusion of all of us,” said Maglor. “A few feet offset from the real thing. Did you wonder why it missed, when it aimed for you?”
“You fucking bastard,” Húrin snarled. Even while weeping he was frightening in his anger.
“But this is all right,” Maglor answered softly. “It’s the fastest way, really, to where he needs to be.”
It is harder than one might expect to flatten a mountain with a nuclear warhead. You’ll leave craters; you’ll kill everything; the ground will shake and tremble, and the inhabitants of the land behind the mountain range will know that you are coming, and be afraid. But the mountains will not collapse like so much rubble; the forces that shaped them are far greater than the greatest forces Men can yet command.
Melkor used his newfound power, the terrible energy that had infused his new physical form, eight times before he managed to wedge open the Pelóri.
Chapter 30: Two Dozen is a Statistic
“Mr. President, I need to talk to him.”
“No,” said everyone in the room simultaneously. At least three of them followed it up with body language that was probably intended to be threatening. He briefly considered, and then discarded, the possibility that he should move the facial muscles that would make him appear afraid. They would feel more confident they had leverage over him and be more inclined to listen. On the other hand, that ship had already sailed, as the mortal expression went. He’d looked up the etymology once, wondering if perhaps –
He let his facial expression harden instead. “He is lying to you, and I don’t think he will lie to me. We would be conversing through channels of communication you control entirely. You are welcome to give me a script to stick to, if you think I would attempt to give him orders –”
“No,” said the president again, rather wearily. “You talked us into deploying nuclear weapons on American soil. You told us this would destroy an unimaginable evil – and, conveniently, since the unimaginable evil is now destroyed, there is no way to verify that it existed at all. You told us to immediately take into custody this agent of yours –”
"It was in the national interest."
"Like all the strings you've been pulling, illegally and without orders, for some cause that you assure us is beyond our comprehension? We established already that the only reason you're not in prison is because our prisons cannot hold you. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you're trusted. Your agent says that the destruction of the Moon would have required the assistance and support of an Earth-based military with space capabilities. That leaves –”
“He’s wrong,” Maedhros snapped, “if there were anything that could be done from this world to loose Morgoth from the Void, it would have been done long ago by Morgoth's servants. He knows strictly less about this situation than I do, Mr. President, and –”
“And I have equally little reason to trust either of you!”
“I’ve served this country for forty years, he’s been serving time in a Denmark prison –”
“For a murder he committed on your orders, as I understand it.”
“I’m not claiming the moral high ground here, sir, but the logistical one. It makes no sense that he would have information about Morgoth’s release that I don’t have, unless he ran across it in the last few hours, in which case he could share the information itself, not just the conclusion he arrived at. Let me talk to him.”
It was probably time to cut his losses, leave, find out who was holding Celegorm, and press this link on the weaker end. He wondered if the Americans were capable of keeping him out of their computerized security systems. Probably not, but they were capable of operating without them, keeping all critical information out of the network. Which hurt Maedhros and the Americans but not the enemy. So when he tired of this and left, he’d be handicapping them and wasting the time of everyone –
Celegorm’s lie, or truth if indeed it somehow was, served the enemy. Therefore the enemy had a Silmaril, because nothing else could plausibly motivate Celegorm to try to start a war among the humans. But even a Silmaril wouldn’t oblige him to do that, only a plausible way that the lie would enable them to recover it –
- a nation with a space program -
- Morgoth's release could not conceivably have required aid from someone on Earth with space capabilities, that made no sense. But there was another project that would require exactly that.
“If my agent isn't lying,” Maedhros said, "he's working for Putin."
They all stared at him. "If you're not going to trust me," he said impatiently, "it's a waste of our time for me to spell this out. But all right. I said that he must have run across some information in the last few hours, and if he'd done that he'd be able to produce the evidence, and therefore he had to be lying. But that assumes he was truthful with me up to our last communication. If he says Russia was involved, and he's not lying, then he knows it because he worked for Russia - and he must be telling you now because he's realized -"
They believed it. It wasn't even among his most convincing performances - he was not in fact confident that this was what Celegorm was signaling he ought to do - but they were terrified and blindsided from every direction and a straightforward conspiracy made the pieces fit together. He could see the skepticism soften slightly on their faces.
If Russia had the Silmaril, it would be easy enough to pluck it out of the ashes.
The generals of the American military scurried to what they must have believed was outside his earshot before they began to speak of war.
“Aside from the fact I can’t do it,” Húrin said, “give me one good reason I shouldn’t kill you all right now.”
Túrin’s eyes had not fluttered shut when he died, but something had departed from them. It made an odd contrast to the monstrous, smouldering corpse behind them: small, fragile, desperately cold. Horrifically battered, and yet somehow serene. The expression on his face was one of relief.
They stood around stupidly, letting the ash rain down.
“It isn’t really as satisfying as you’d imagine,” Amras murmured, but half-heartedly.
Morwen’s voice was very distant and very brittle. “Tell us about the Halls of Mandos.”
“Mortals don’t usually linger there,” Maglor said, “you have something else. Beyond. But clearly the rules aren’t all in proper effect, because none of you should ever have been born. Reborn. Eru’s hand is in this, and –”
“Fewer words,” she snapped.
“The Halls of Mandos are in Valinor. The spirits of the dead go there. The Eldar are then returned to life; your people go on, usually. But on one memorable occasion a man was granted a return to life. The prophecy says that Turambar will fight Morgoth on the plains of Valinor, so clearly they’ll hold him there, and release him when Morgoth arrives if not before.”
“He’ll have relatives there,” Amrod offered. “His cousin Tuor –”
“Tuor goes to CU Denver,” Morwen said.
The Elves looked surprised. “That can’t be,” Maglor said, “souls can’t be duplicated.”
“We were going to detour to pick them up,” Húrin said slowly, “but the Colorado National Guard –”
“No detours,” Curufin said, “we’re going to our father’s.”
“If I did have the means to kill any of you,” Húrin said without looking at him, “I’d kill you first.”
“For failing to save him? Son of Galdor, we did not intend this. It is a grievous loss to this world, if a gain to Aman, and I in particular would not have seen it come to pass –”
“Because my son is dead,” Húrin snarled, “and you are standing there clinging to your precious little rock and debating whose interests his death serves. I have never met anyone so profoundly self-centered.”
“He’s not clinging to the rock,” said Morwen, which was true; three layers of fabric separated the Silmaril from his hands. “He can’t. There’s no point in telling them to go to hell, that’s been done and well.”
Silence fell. It was a strikingly absolute silence. If not for the tears making ashy tracks down Morwen’s face, you would not have been able to tell that she was weeping. Her breathing steadied, and the tear-tracks stopped, long before anyone dared to break it.
“If we can acquire two more cars,” Amrod said, “we could get the Silmaril to Father and the mortals to their relatives.”
“The cars probably still run,” Maglor said, glancing at them; they were grievously dented, but decidedly in one piece. “Did any of you even try to imagine how much force it would take to chop a car in half with a whip? I thought it’d make for a compelling illusion, and scare everyone out of trying anything stupid, and perhaps make the Balrog arrogant enough to think that modern steel is no better than the steel it remembers from its time –”
“If Balrogs could do that,” Curufin added, “there’d be a sonic boom every time they moved the whips, the necessary acceleration would be –”
“I don’t think you’re self-centered,” Morwen interrupted him, suddenly and coldly. “You don’t value yourself enough, or at all. Wherever your center is, it’s somewhere else. You are astonishingly insensitive, though, and should shut. up. Both of you –” and she gestured rather viciously at Maglor. “We’ll take the redheads as our escort to Denver. You –” looking up at Amrod this time – “you tried.”
“You really shouldn’t credit that,” Amrod said, but he walked over to the lead car and ripped the door open with a shriek of metal. It fell off.
“Fix them,” she said, “get them running again, or go steal new ones. We are going to bury our son.”
Trying to use acid to eat through your handcuffs would cost you your hands, just as thoroughly as cutting them off directly. Using it to eat through the wall they were attached to, though, was a fair bit safer. The rats watched him with extraordinary wariness.
Now I escape, he told them. They understood that. Their vocabulary was more sophisticated than the mortal one, when it came to communicating what it was to be trapped, what it was to get free, what the many flavors of fear were. He was tempted to spend an hour discussing his problems with them. It might clear his head. It could hardly fog it any further.
The woman had been one of the enemy’s shapechanging servants; no Elf would have arranged for this sort of ineffectual and protracted vengeance, if vengeance it was. She had not accompanied him onto the freighter, or left any semblance of detailed instructions about how to confine him; whoever had done it had known rather little about Elves. Did she have some objective in Denmark? Had she been trying to get him out of her way? But if so, why not just let him die – for he’d been dying -
None of it made sense. He sighed, ripped the cuffs loose of the wall, and told the rats to scatter, which they were already doing. The next thing to do was obviously to seize the ship’s communications and contact Maedhros, unsatisfying as that would be. He stretched his arms. Two dozen crew members rushing about, and he no more desired to kill them then he desired to throw the rats overboard and listen to them drown. He imagined the self-righteous girl children scolding him: don’t you know the value of a human life?
I wish I didn’t, he would tell her. The people who treasure them seem happier than the people who’ve noticed how worthless they are.
There were three crew members lounging outside the room where he’d been chained. He bludgeoned in their heads and took their guns.