Walked the Land of Wind and Shade; walked the Land of Little Cubes and Tea. Walked the hivestem of the Striders; walked the gang war on the moon. Walked the dirty little secret; walked the recognition scene. Walked the spaces in-between, the hybrid-zones.
Walked back here too, sometimes. One day she’d thought about that girl, and snap! Butt-deep in a school of cuttlefish and wondering how to breathe. That’s how the first settlers had come, when their dreams were still elastic, and the palace more a clubhouse than a Court.
Olympia liked her job. She could travel the world, and punch out whoever she liked. The problem was she didn’t like her boss, and clocking her was out the question.
Phantom sound began to prickle in her ears: one of her twisted doubles croaking; a sleepy Tavros sighing to himself; the wet gyrations of a nameless creature; Sully, laughing. The skin that separated one dream from the next gave way beneath her hands.
Speak of the devilfucking dickens. That was him, all right. He was dressed like the hero from that propaganda flick, A Moral yet Exciting Exploration of the Consequences of Political Heterodoxy, wherein the Last Surviving Seadweller Demonstrates both the Inherent Nobility of his Caste and the Hazards of Gutterblood Government, or “that epic Kevin Costner film”, as Sully put it. Olympia sprinted over, flooring two dersites and severely winding another. She landed a punch on his arm with such strength his spectacles skipped across the terrace.
“Sully, you bastard. What have you been up to?”
Sully groaned, groped for his glasses, stood up stoically and punched her back. He smiled. She grinned with the force of several explosions.
“Nothing much, Meg. Been out on mercenary ventures for the last few Turns. Queenie had us roughing up a band of insurgents in a bubble close to Can Town. One of ‘em had a regisword - gouged out my right eye! Nearly fucking soiled myself with fear.”
“Baby! I couldn’t bear the thought of them harming that pretty little head of yours.”
She pinched his cheek roughly and rocked his face from side to side. He squirmed.
“You’ve got to be more careful. Seriously.”
She let go. “Well then. If you want some quality protection, we could always get you out that pesky flesh and into some robotic duds like mine. Only hurt a little. Promise.”
“Confound you. Always banging on about this roboticization nonsense. I swear, it’s beginning to border on the fetishistic.”
“I’m sorry, babe, you’ll have to help me with that big long word of yours. What does ‘fettyshistick’ mean?”
“It means, as you jolly well know, you get some sort of perverse thrill at the thought of turning me into your robotic butler, or whatever it is you have in mind.”
“You have to admit it would be cool to be my sidekick. Exploring the dream, kicking some ass, toppling some sacred urns. Wouldn’t that be the afterlife?”
“Egads, you know I know it would, but I’m afraid I don’t see why I need the full Arnold S. in order to participate.”
“Well, if you had roboparts…”
And she leaned in so her cold cheek brushed the surface of his ear:
“…who knows what sort of mischief we could get up to.”
He blushed, hard. She forged ahead.
“I’m talking about sex.”
“You know, like that sex we had before? Like that. Only better.”
The damage done, Olympia withdrew and walked away. Turning over her shoulder, she called out after him.
“Oh, it would be great to catch up over drinks. Off to see her Highness now; grab you when I come back. Usual place?”
She walked but had to stop. Several feet of smug muscle barred her way.
“What’s up, Penemue? Take time out from torturing your doubles to come and see a lowly Pawn like me?”
Penemue flexed his wings - two unnatural, feathery mutations – and whistled. “That’s a vile rumour an you know it is, Lym. Makes me down right frustrated when people harp on about the Project like that. I’m not demandin’ your forgiveness, but. Is it so hard to believe that I finally learned from my mistakes an want to make myself a better afterlife? An if the other versions of me don’t want to hear what I’m preachin’ you should know they’re free to leave.”
“Really. Not all of us fly into a rage when we see our dopples, Lym. Some of us actually want to talk to em, learn from em an maybe help em too.”
Their voices echoed in the cavernous hall. Its crystal walls bristled with points of light, thousands of microscopic movements like the tentacles of a vast anemone. They called it the Amaranthine Antechamber. It was a jumped-up waiting room.
“How nice. And here I thought that was the Queen’s idea.”
“Don’t be havin such a negative ‘pinion just ‘cause I work my best to help the Queen. I don’t let lust ruin my relationship.” He laughed. Teeth glittered like stars. “Anyways I didn’t come out here to start a fight, Lym, honest. As a matter a fact, I wanted to give you a warnin’.”
Olympia exhaled. Her breath hung there, a glitch of vapour.
“Let me guess; I’m a loose cannon. Slap me limply on my robowrist and get it over with.”
“Just listen, will you?” He stepped in; drew his wings around them. Penemue whispered gruffly. “She’s in a bad mood today. If you storm in like usual she’s gonna do a number on you with the horrorterrorisin.” He fished out something from his off-white cassock and placed it in her hand. “Here, take a look at this. Maybe it’ll calm you down a bit, huh? Always worked for me.”
It was a picture of a dumbo octopus.
“Thanks, Penemue.” She returned the crumpled photo. “Really.” She pushed a wing to one side – it was warm as blood, and soft – and headed for the Queen.
Penemue looked at his picture. He stayed like that a while, then flew away.
“…horseshit everywhere. Brief said total cleanup, so there was nothing left but to captchalogue it piece by piece. Fucking NIGHTMARE. Abstratus smelled of Roby D. for weeks.”
Sully was accompanying a carapace at an open-roofed café. A dozen such establishments sprawled the streets of the old quarter, paths of stone worn smooth by walking. The scent of Turkish coffee, fresh gnocchi, cloves and absinthe caught and danced up through the awnings. Polite conversation lingered there too: discussion of the season’s rummest fashions, the latest Court intrigues, the gossip from the ball of General Such-and-Such, where a marchioness had challenged a Rook to a duel because she’d dunked her tea-cakes in the punch. But there was tension. Oh, a tension! For although this was indeed a pleasant mingling of scents and sounds, was it not also a trifle stale? Was not the force of sentences unsaid far louder and ranker than a thousand palace bugles primed with Turn-old syllabub? Sniff there; is that the clamour of dissent? Or perhaps the heady fumes of revolution? Alas, we’ll never know. At this moment a motorcycle screeched like a vixen clicketing and spoiled our little fun.
“Oh, hey Meg. Thought we were going to get wankered?”
“Change of plan. Need to head off soon. Come sparring with me?”
“Sure. One sec.”
He downed the pod of bright blue liquid; shelled some coins onto the table.
“Send my fondest to the Mayor. Cracking bumping into you like this.”
He took a running leap and landed behind Olympia. She revved and shot off, snarling. Sully had to shout over the buzzing of the engine.
“So what’s with the speedy getaway?”
“Need to leave”.
“Queen’s got worse, eh?”
They rode in silence. The architecture of the older city bled away, replaced by high-rise hivestems of harder and more functional design.
“Where exactly are we going?”
“Abandoned prototyping tower. Our regular. Got moved way out where.”
“Because of what happened last time, I guess.”
They stood out in the rain. Olympia tried furiously to jimmy open the door with the flat of her hand, like a fairy trying to finger-fuck an ogress.
She got the bastard loose. Inside the tower was damp and icy. The transportalizer was out, so they had the prospect of several thousand spiral stairs. Sully looked up, and murmured grimly.
“Don’t pull that face on me. It’ll be good exercise.”
“Says the woman with no muscles.”
“I still have to do maintenance. Don’t stay as pneumatic as I am by snorting Ylang Ylang and a plentiful supply of antioxidants”.
“I imagine there’s a great deal of WD-40 involved.”
“Like you wouldn’t believe. You can help lubricate me after, if you want.”
“Meg, you’re incorrigible. I thought time was of the essence.”
“That and I like to ride fast. Don’t be such a wiggler. Hop into my arms and I’ll take us to the top.”
“Uh. OK??” Sully did as he was told.
“All aboard the sexyvator! If you find yourself in need of muzak, clench the left buttcheek twice. Oh, and hold on. Tight.”
The muzak proved unnecessary.
“I’m going to come and get you. If you manage to avoid me thirty seconds, you win. OK?”
“OK. Start as soon as the warship passes overhead?” He pointed skyward.
“Yeah, sure.” She turned around. By the time she turned back he was gone.
“Nice try, Jake, but it won’t save you. My arm has an imminent date with your backside, and this time, you’re paying the bill.”
She could hear his heart beating from the opposite side of the spire, where a huge crystalline construction obscured the walkway. She could feel him smirking, too. Olympia vaulted over and into the ground like a tiny vanadium comet. But when she stepped out the crater Sully was gone. Again.
“Ten seconds!” she called out. She was about to try another jump when she caught a sparkle in the corner of her eye. Barbasol?
The explosion rocked the tower and threw her to her knees. Adhesive goop went everywhere. To lament the volatility of shaving cream could hardly have occurred to her. It was now, officially, on.
“Twenty seconds”, taunted Sully. An echo. He was somewhere on the stairway.
“Ungrateful little shit!”
The glue barely slowed her. She was at the entrance of the stairway; she was on the stairs; took two, four, seven at a time. She swung; Jake rolled out onto the landing, almost fell, but gripped the staircase ledge instead. Olympia stooped; was in the middle of delivering a well-earned slap across his face when she abruptly stopped midway.
“Thirty seconds?” Jake gasped.
“Thirty seconds.” She offered him her hand and pulled him up.
“Next game. Synthesis. We’re going to try to bring together the techniques we’ve practiced in our previous sessions. I believe the score is now 1-4 to me, so you’ll want to win this one to claw back some respect.”
Jake looked unphased. “Normally I don’t win any of our games, so, worst case scenario, I’ll still be looking at a personal best. Plus, I managed to piss you off royally with victory number one, so any further success seems highly ill-advised.”
“Fuck off. I was very pleased you won that round. And won it fighting dirty; I am such a good bad influence on you.” She stretched. “Anyhow. Rules are simple. I’m going to try and hit you –“
“Meg, I’m having the most frightful sense of Déjà vu – ”
“ – shut up, English – I’m going to try to land a hit on you; you try to land a hit on me. The first to do so is the winner. To make matters a little less one-sided, I’m going to start waaaay out in the sky over there, so you’ll have plenty of chance to tag me before I close in for the kill. I’m not using psychics save for flying, so this should be easy, Sully.”
Her voice grew fainter as she took her position in the blue-glass atmosphere. Jake shuffled his puzzle modus.
He fired two sets of bolas before she’d even finished speaking. She flitted from space to space like a homicidal metal hummingbird. Wherever his missiles were, there she was not. Horsefeathers. Olympia closed the gap between them ever faster. He equipped his knuckledusters. He’d only get one chance.
“What’s the matter, English! Given up?”
He clenched his hands, set his feet and waited. She was almost on him; closer, ever closer –
At the last moment he did a backflip to avoid her strike, followed through with his right arm at the apex; twisted; slammed his fist towards Olympia and the ground.
When the dust cleared, Olympia stood behind him, smiling. With her right hand, she pointed to a graze-mark on her cheek. Sully stood up and punched the air. Then his trousers fell down.
“Hey! I thought we said no psychics.”
Olympia took her left hand from behind her back and opened it. Inside was a leather strip, like a dry rat’s tail. A belt.
Sully was the first to crack. He started hooting; huge belly laughs ringing out across the sky. Olympia followed suit soon after. They collapsed into a heap on the battered purple floor.
“Whilst I may not go full robo”, Jake said, wiping his eyes, “maybe I should get myself some metal armour. Like when Marty Mcfly confronted Buford’s gang in that ripsnorter of a movie. Certainly helped him overcome superior odds.”
“I dunno”, said Olympia. “Your current getup has its own tactical advantages. I’d be thoroughly distracted by that handsome package peeking out at me.”
They fell into another round of laughter. When they’d recovered, Jake looked pensive.
“Meg. Mind if I spoil the tone and talk serious business with you for a moment?”
“I’m…not in a good place right now, Meg. I don’t know what I’m doing. All this mercenary stuff. It’s grown distasteful. Before we were envoys, explorers, chartering the dreams of others and joining them all together. It was something I could get behind, you know? Something I could really believe in. But at some point, some moment I can’t quite put my finger on, it soured. It’s like. It feels less proper now. Almost as if we shouldn’t be doing it. It’s become less and less about exploration, and more about…”
“Yes, that. And also maybe it never was about exploration in the first place, maybe that was a happy gloss I painted onto my particular pair of rose-tinted spectacles. I always felt that we were the good guys. And now it’s not that we’re the bad guys, per se, but that it occurs to me that, hah, it’s not so simple after all. Pretty mediocre as far as revelations go, eh? ‘Things aren’t that simple.’ But there you have it.”
“Seems wise enough. After all, there’s a difference between knowing something and really knowing something, isn’t there? It seems to me that all of us understand stuff at a superficial level. But to really know it, know it in their guts? Not many people get that far.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“What. What? What was it that I said?”
“Nothing; it’s just…‘it seems’.”
“You still miss him. Tetsuo, I mean.”
“Does it remind you of him? Us sparring like this?”
“If I’m going to be completely honest with myself and with you, then. Yes. But not in a bad way. It makes me very happy. And of course I’m not thinking of you as a replacement – “
She raised an eyebrow.
“ – steady on! What I mean by that is, well, I think of you as you, not somebody else. Meg, you’re a real out-and-outer, and to speak plainly, a finer frigate don’t walk. I would be doing you and our relationship an immense disservice if I were to practice emotional chicanery on that sort of a scale. But, to return to the original line of enquiry: yes, I do miss him, and yes, sometimes you remind me of him. It’s sort of bittersweet, you know?”
She nodded. He sighed.
“Do you think you’d feel better about it if we worked out things between us, first? I get the vibe that you’re kinda confused about where this is all going. I’m a terrible flirt, a notorious tease, and many other things besides, Jake English, but what I’m not in business for is breaking people’s hearts.”
“Don’t doubt it.”
“Now. How do you feel about our relationship, Jake? Are you happy with it as it is, or do you want it to be…different?”
She worked her hand under his chin and raised his head to look him in the eye. Then she put the hand on his.
“Hum. It’s not that, er, St.George didn’t enjoy his automatic straphanger, merely. I still want us to be moirails? If that’s the word for what we are?
She punched him on the side, then hugged him. The hug hurt.
“Of course that’s what we are, you great big dope. I was worried that things might be getting too flushed between us; in my experience human guys tend to get all weird when you fuck ‘em for the first time. Especially if you’re a robot. But let me ask you this: would you be uncomfortable if we were two moirails who sometimes happened to have great sex? When we both wanted it? At the same time as having sex with whoever else we wanted to, of course.”
“Hoo boy, Meg. Hoo fucking boy.”
“You don’t have to answer now. Just want you to think about it.”
He raised his eyebrows and nodded. She let out a little chuckle.
“Look at us sitting here, talking about feelings like a right pair of Karkats. Mind if I spoil the tone and talk regular business with you for a second?”
“Do you happen to know of any Rose Lalondes? Preferably in a bubble close to here.”
“Are you being fresh with me, Meg?”
“There’s a Rose Lalonde working here. At the palace.”
15640. And in this Turn there was confusion in the Court and in the Dream. Time slowed; a pall choked out the sky; the seas grew restless; young and old died in great agitation. The Queen fell ill. Her frequent cries echoed through the palace halls. Prayers went unanswered: Urqvtch turned away; Nrub'yiglith was silent; Jyyrrx laughed. But Oglogoth was listening. And so it was that Oglogoth-in-flesh paid homage to the Queen. He laid his mouths against her ears and mouthed her things that only Great Ones hear. He laid his ears across her eyes and glimpsed her things that only Great Ones see. He laid his eyes along her corpse and dreamed her things that only Great Ones dream. The Autumn Queen beheld the cancer then. And so it was a Pawn was summoned to the Faded Court.
“Radio-age maid. We have a use for you, but first you must be cleansed.” And the Pawn, who was in error, nodded meekly; she deserved this admonition, long-prepared. The Queen laid hands upon the Pawn; the Pawn was made subservient to her will.
“A cancer comes to gratify the Lord. Find me this fetish ogler, flesh goitre, elfish ergot. Deter there this foe slighter, sole fighter. Go heelfirst to this heftier slog, and I will grant you audience with the media motif you long have sought.”
And the Queen bequeathed the Pawn a burning mark, so all would know her purpose.
- Turnings of the Faded Court, vol. XXVIII
“So what you’re saying is, you’d like my help to murder Alpha Rose.” She shrugged. “Just so we’re clear.”
“Not necessarily murder. Just really, emphatically, dissuade. With violence if the words part doesn’t work out.”
This was awkward. They were seated in Eloise’s study; Olympia sitting in a floral-print high-back armchair, Sully cross-legged on a rug by the fireplace. Eloise had stood up and was affecting a most convincing interest in a section of shelving housing a collection of court proceedings. Unless, Olympia thought, this was a sudden but quite genuine fascination. With this human it was difficult to tell.
“I think what Olympia’s trying to say, is that this is, essentially, a diplomatic mission”, Jake added.
Eloise was wearing a princess-line gown with a train like creeping tar. She looked more stately than Olympia had imagined her. Jake had changed out of his Costner cosplay and into an evening suit. He looked gorgeous. Olympia had dressed up, too, against her better judgement: she wore a tailored red leather trenchcoat with scythe-blade lapels and bronze buttons she’d plundered from a kingdom called Wales. A matching fedora rested on a dresser in the corner.
“I’m afraid it’s not going to work”, said Eloise. “Don’t be disheartened, though. I do have some ideas.” She turned around. “First there is the matter of my compensation.”
This was unexpected. “What do you want?”, said Olympia. A teacup teetered in the palm of her hand, a fledgling bird at the edge of the nest. She worried if she pushed her thick fingers through the handle it would shatter, sending chai and china everywhere.
“One: I want my badge brought down here. Two: If I die, I want a departmental funeral. Three: I want to know who killed my partner.”
“That’s ridiculous! Firstly, I didn’t think court Scribblers even had badges, and I don’t have the first clue about where to go to get one; frankly I don’t see why you can’t get your own damn badge. Secondly, how are you even going to die again, I mean, unless - ”
Sully guffawed out loud and she trailed off.
“Sorry, Meg. I think Eloise is pulling your leg. S’ a line from an earth film. Got Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson in, if that rings a bell?” It didn’t. “How come you don’t want us to find the informant as well?”
“Hang the informant. I have plenty of sources.” Eloise smiled. “Although, I wasn’t pulling your leg, Olympia. I gather that pulling any part of you is an activity fraught with hazard.” She winked.
“I want you to secure me greater access to the archives. My restrictions have grown oppressive.”
“OK. You want me to use my robopowers so you can read more books?”
“Exactly. Although I imagine that with the access will come other privileges, namely the ability to dictate my own research agenda, and a significant increase in the time available for, ah, personal projects. You may not have noticed, Olympia, but humans – especially humans like me – tend to be passed over for promotion with an almost depressing inevitability.”
“And what makes you think I have the influence to jumpstart your career? I’m only a messenger. I’m not exactly on best terms with the Queen or her cronies, either.”
“I never said I thought you had the influence. At least, not now. You will do. Especially if this mission goes to plan.”
Olympia grumbled. “I don’t have to ask nicely, you know. I could command, instead.”
“Oh?” It was as if she’d told a dowager her favourite pastime was erotic dick juggling.
Olympia stood on the chair and flipped her trenchcoat up so Eloise could see. Her teacup wavered, delicately. “Behold! The tramp stamp of Her Infernal Majesty.” Jake looked resigned. “It means I can requisition ‘objects of the Court’. Turns out Scribes don’t count as people.”
“Very striking. I never knew the Queen had such an interest in animal husbandry. After the Ampora Rehabilitation Project, I suppose it was the logical next step.”
Olympia finished mooning her, happy to have made her point. Eloise grew quietly absorbed by a paperweight doing double-duty as a bookend. It was of the same material as the palace, and flickered balefully.
“If you decided to compel me, would my assistance be ideal? Speaking hypothetically, of course.” She seized the bookend. A copy of the Turnings of The Faded Court, Volume XXV, fell sideways with a thump. “No. You’re going to let me volunteer instead, and promise to reward me for my trouble.”
“All right then. But your ideas better be worth a damn, or I’m not promising anything.”
Eloise swept into the other chair, which Jake had gallantly left absent. She smiled and dropped the paperweight onto her coffee table.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby call this meeting to order. The first item of business: ‘Operation Selfmurder – Xtreme Diplomacy Edition’”.
Olympia stretched and yawned. This human wasn’t bad. She was very, very, smart.
“I’d better be off. Ellie, would you mind if I borrowed you a sec?”
“My, you do move fast”. Eloise inclined her head. It was coquettish but had teeth.
“Oh, right. Let’s all make fun of the girl who loves to fuck.”
Eloise dropped coquettish for quizzical. “Why do you suppose I was making fun?”
“Look at you.” Olympia gestured helplessly. “Look at how you hold yourself. Look at how you dress. You’re not exactly giving anyone a green flag of encouragement, are you? More like a great big stygian warning.”
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here?” She looked down at her dress.
“Yeah. So it’s natural that you would think a little less of me.”
“Meg, I hardly think…”
Hmm. No sense in taking it out on her. Olympia struggled for politeness and the words formed one by one. “Eloise, what I mean is, I’d like you to act as my Gate. With your permission.”
“Huh. You want to use my body as a portal to my Alpha?”
“Fascinating. May I ask you how it works?”
“You’ve never heard of a Gate before? I thought you’d have at least a couple textbooks stashed somewhere around here.”
“Alas, Interdimensional Travel for Assholes has let me down again.”
“Oh, OK. Basic principle is, I use you as a window into your other selves. Normally, you get to other people’s bubbles by thinking about times you’ve done stuff together – shared memories. Of course, there’s no way of telling whether you’ll actually get them, or a different them - at least, most of the time. Or you could try to find them if they’re in a stable bubble and you know where they live. In the case of the Alpha that I want I don’t have memories and she’s not in a stable bubble so the only way around that is brute forcing - and brute forcing might take forever. A Gate is a more sophisticated way of brute forcing, though, because you open up connections into all your doppelgangers, not just one, and that way you can get to who you want.”
“So, why don’t you use yourself as a Gate, and find a you that has a memory of me, instead?”
“Shenanigans. Using yourself as a Gate is a real mindfuck ‘cause you have to deal with all these memoro-temporal feedback loops. Plus, I’m a bit of a special case here in that my Alphas are a big red no-go zone, and the things they’ve grafted to my mental landscape make the place a fucking disaster.”
“And I suppose the memories you have of me are still too fresh?”
“Dead memories are a whooole other topic of conversation. But you’re right.”
“Well then, I guess you’d better work your magic on me.” She spread her arms. Olympia motioned Eloise to stand up and put a hand on either shoulder. Ellie breathed in, slowly. “One thing. At the risk of inviting dramatic misfortune: is this – dangerous?”
Olympia bowed her head. The crockery began to chatter. “For you, not so much”. Eloise let loose a gasp as her hair stood up, prickling with static. “It'll tickle a little, but it’s not dangerous.”
When she looked back up again, her red eyes crackled green and yellow. “For me, though, maybe.”
Olympia’s outline started to hum and blur, like a transdimensional washing machine in a particularly volatile spin cycle. A pitcher juddered off the top of a cupboard; Jake rescued it before it shattered on the floor. “Huh. This is a little more intense than I’d imagined”.
“Imagined? Wait. How many times have you done this thing?”
“Plenty of times! It’s just. I’ve never really tried it on a human I don’t know. That’s the first thing.” Sully dived to catch a photo frame. The Dave inside looked completely unperturbed. “And the second thing is, I’ve never met someone whose memories were balled so tight inside their head. They’re wound tighter than my fucking horns!” A burst of green lightning discharged into the chandelier above, spraying all three of them with broken glass.
“Meg! Ellie! Are you OK?!” Jake tried to wrest the two of them apart, but the moment he touched Olympia he was blown back into the wall. A beautiful tapestry of interwoven green and violet flames became unhitched and crumpled stiffly over Sully.
“Jake, you flop, stop doing that! You’re going to get yourself hurt!”
“Mnook whobse talnking!”
“If I could have stopped this thing I would. Remember that bit with the lightning? That was me, trying.” The armchair combusted. She turned to look at Eloise, whose eyes had rolled up into the back of her head. “Eloise. Eloise! Snap out of it. This is all going to be alright. Just a little push and we’ll get inside your head, no problem.”
Eloise’s eyes returned. “Hnurrrrr.”
“Hnurrr. Now, Eloise. I’m going to try something different.” She shouted over the sound of fabric ripping and pages shuddering into dust. Future scholars of the Court would turn to Lassetar’s Ode on Jyrxx and weep that the last thirty pages had not been left extant. “I need some reassurance, here. Eloise, despite appearances, you’re a fairly laid back person, yeah? You take life as it comes. Any past trauma you may have had, it probably doesn’t bother you at all, am I right?”
“Hnurr. Hnurr hnurr hnurr hnurr hnurrr.”
At least she’d reached euphoria. It was better than the pain, and meant that they were almost there.
A whipcrack of viridian set the other chair on fire. Something strange began to happen to Eloise. Her hairline receded; her cheeks sagged; her hair wrinkled. Her whole body seemed to shrink. It was like watching a time-lapse camera of a horde of ants devouring a wildebeest. Except, in this case, the wildebeest was Rose Lalonde.
“What’s happening to her!” screamed Sully, having freed himself from the tapestry.
“Time ants”, said Olympia. At least, she would have done, if she’d been party to our previous simile. Regrettably, she was not.
“She’s aging” Olympia bellowed. “Happens more often the further you are away from here. Shit, Sully, you must have –“
And at the moment, Ellie shimmered, and Olympia fell forwards through her body into darkness.
The gramophone blared. “EVERYBODY STOP WHAT YOURE DOING IMMEDIATELY! WHATEVER IT MIGHT BE. ANOTHER DREAM BUBBLE IS APPROACHING RAPIDLY. EVERYONE MAN YOUR STATIONS! BY WHICH I MEAN GO ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS AS USUAL I GUESS, UNLESS YOU WANT TO MEET ME UP HERE AND CHECK IT OUT, OVER!”
Rose shook her head, smiled, and pecked Kanaya on the cheek. “Let’s leave the boys to their erotic play. We have a dream to catch”. She grabbed her by the hand, and they ran into the corridor together.
Your name is Rose Lalonde. Birds chirrup melodically in the distance; a little brook gurgles; the scent of hyacinths is on the breeze. It is, all in all, a beautiful and sunny summer’s day, were it not for three insoluble arguments against it. 1) Your family home has recently burnt down, incinerating your alcoholic mother. 2) Your last surviving intimate is also dead. 3) Men from an institution you long have sought to elude are coming to take you away.
But right now, you have more pressing matters.
A Jack Russell Terrier is sniffing excitedly at your granola, and unless immediate action is taken, he will devour it.
>WTF is a Jack Russell
A Jack Russell is a breed of dog. Or as Alternians might say, a pawbeast.
>Tell Jack Russell to fuck off
The dog is quite insensible to reprieve. “Pleeeease”, his little quavering eyes declare, “Pleeease. Let me have some of your food. I’m soooo very very hungry!”
The chances are he’s eaten twice already.
You consume your breakfast hastily. Once you’re done, you let the animal lick the bowl. He wanders off. Crisis averted.
You gain one GOURMET POINT. Your GASTRONOLEVEL increases. Congratulations! You have earned the rank: ERSTWHILE EPICURE.
>search hive for survival tools
Your house (we call them houses, not hives) is quite destroyed. You dragged anything salvageable outside: fridges and vacuums and statues of wizards piled high like disgorged entrails. Anything of use you now have on your person. Besides, if you go inside, you may encounter whatever’s left of mother.
She probably went up like a bonfire.
You are carrying:
- A slightly slobbery bowl
- A silver spoon
- A letter
- A stiletto dagger
- A purse
From the estate of Dave Strider. You do not have the energy to read it, again. But having it in your pocket brings you a kind of numb tranquillity.
You hear a van pulling up nearby. That was fast.
These would be the men we alluded to earlier.
>what about these men? Are they dangerous
They were last time.
>abscond in the opposite direction they’re coming from
You didn’t know where they were coming from at the time.
>but you do now, right?
You make your way through a forest, to a clearing by a river. You can smell damp moss, ducks, and the promise of rain, exactly in that order. They’re still coming.
You can’t. You’re completely out of breath.
>you’re shitting me
Frankly it’s a miracle you haven’t had a stroke by now.
>I better get out of here. Look for door.
Your quest to find a door in the middle of an area uninhabited for a hundred years is understandably unsuccessful.
>no, but seriously. Look for door.
OK. On second glance, you actually see a door? You’re not sure where this is going.
>describe it. That will help.
You are moved by the beauty of the lacquered mahogany door which exists so evidently before you. It must have taken a thousand devotees of Janus to conceive of such a portal. It seems to have been hewn out of a single, colossal tree – more a sculpture than a piece of carpentry. It stands ever-so-slightly ajar, like a chaste maiden bearing her ankle; teasing; inviting.
>wonderful. You’re a natural
>I was hoping to push through to one of your Voltas – these climactic turning points in your life which generate the most branch timelines. No luck there. So I took the risky alternative – to come to the time and place where your branch timeline ends.
Would I be right in assuming that if you die here, you “die” in the Queen’s dream, too?
>No. But it hurts like a bastard. You’ll be fine, though.
So, where does that door go to?
> I’m not really sure. But it should get me where I need to go.
>Thanks. I’ll see you back in your room. Oh, and sorry about all the mess I caused. I think I broke most of your stuff. It was good stuff, too.
I noticed. You and I are going to have to have a nice long sit down afterwards. You can help me to imagine up replacements.
>Fair enough. Provided I make it out of there undead.
You step through the doorway, and disappear.
The doorway led to a museum of sculptures. All of them were carved from the same translucent alabaster. All of them were Rose Lalonde. But the ages, poses, emblems and epitaphs were different. The room was a manifestation of the will of paradox space, seen through the fogged and twisted lens of the truth the Great Ones dreamed. These were Rose Lalondes that could have been, but never were to be.
The first statue of Rose she saw was sitting upright at a desk, and signing some sort of important-looking paper. Her pedestal bore three symbols: a lightning bolt, a handshake, and an eye. It read:
And below that:
The Rose beside her was much shorter – and, Olympia guessed, much younger, too. She was sitting in a swing, and a prowlbeast danced between her feet. She was laughing. Her pedestal bore a hammer and a wizard hat. It read:
And below that:
Olympia had often wondered what these numbers meant. She’d assumed that they marked out the different branches people took in life, but now she was having second thoughts. These numbers seemed more sinister. They seemed more like a score.
Olympia walked on, quickly. She made her way to the largest statue, which stood out at the centre of the room. It was obvious that she was the pre-scratch Alpha Rose. Not just because her statue was given the most prominent position, or because it was larger than the others. Nor was it the God Tier vestments, proof enough that she had realised the potential deep within. Olympia wanted to say it was her pose: her veiled eyes fixed on some hidden place in the stone-capped sky, her delicate finger drawn firmly to some pinprick of destiny. But it was something more to do with her fragility. She was like a fucking fulcrum. Olympia got the sense that if she were to do so much as to breathe upon the thing it would pitch over and break into a million pieces.
The most striking thing was the mass of eerie tentacles coiled around the statue’s feet. One of them was insinuating its way up Rose’s ankle. The dreams of the dark gods; the will of Skaia; the machinations of Lord English; the plan of some unspoken Author. Where these threads intersected in a rich incestuous slurry, there, at the thickest point, would you find the Alpha Timeline. Which left her with the question, which one of these was the best Lalonde to be? An Alpha Rose, no better than a pawn; or a doomed Rose, meaningless and unsignified?
Her pedestal had no numbers, and bore the words, “The Sun”. Olympia shattered it with her fist and dived into the empty tomb below.
The sky was periwinkle and the clouds were custard. Between them - green. A monolithic green. A secret green. A giant green. Or to put it more precisely, the exact shade of green you’d colour a giant, monolithic, secret, captchalogue card depictng the Green Sun.
The green of the Green Sun is an entirely different green, so we won’t go into that here.
Kanaya had evaporated. A buzzing behind Rose’s eye alterted her to a message from a far-off meteor.
AA: it was always a big set up
TT: You died?
TT: Revived via dream self, I take it?
AA: i never had 0ne
AA: s0rt 0f a special case here
AA: i just wish
AA: back when i was behaving recklessly
AA: i had s0me0ne t0 tell me t0 st0p listening
AA: even if i ended up ign0ring their advice
AA: it w0uld have been nice
TT: What did they tell you?
AA: i was assured i w0uld be saving my race
AA: which is maybe still true i d0nt kn0w
AA: but if it is then it will be the punchline t0 the vast j0ke
TT: Is that anything like the ultimate riddle?
AA: y0u really d0nt understand anything yet d0 y0u
AA: and yet y0u bug and fuss and meddle
AA: with things m0re danger0us than y0u can imagine
AA: you kn0w that the condesce has this wh0le thing planned already?
AA: she wants y0u t0 p0pulate the v0id sessi0n
AA: y0u’re being pranked
“This isn’t how the conversation goes. Where are you?”
Green disappeared; Olympia replaced it. She bowed, deeply, and floated in mid-air. “You’re rather good at lucid dreaming, aren’t you?”
Rose followed. “I’ve been practicing for some time now”.
“Well, it was fun pretending to be Aradia and all, but don’t you get tired of her after a while? So whiny. And that affectation of talking in those hoolloow wooords. Light the black tallow candles and cry yourself to sleep why don’t you. Urgh”. She spat out something dark and unctuous. To the turtle lying prone almost immediately underneath her, it was an unexpected but appropriate end to a totally shitty day.
“There’s a time and a place to mourn. Especially if you’re mourning your sense of self. Never mind. Who are you?”
The bubble hissed like a detuned radio and the sky grew slightly darker. “I’m Olympia. But you might do better to call me...the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.”
“Ah. In my defence, that orphan furnace wasn’t going to fuel itself.”
“Um. No. You should think of me as - that person I just mentioned, because I’m here to show you how badly you fuck things up if you stay on your present course.” Olympia snapped her fingers and the world around them blinked out of existence. In place of snow drifts there were mounds of bodies. In place of rain, there was blood. Sickly fires burned everywhere, filling Rose’s lungs with viscous black sludge. Among the charred corpses she could make out familiar faces: John; Terezi; Dave; Kanaya. “This is a snapshot of what happens when you gatecrash the post-scratch universe and play exactly into their hands. You know how this place works. I can’t show you anything that isn’t in your memory or mine. What happens here is real.”
“But your being here makes no sense. If you’re from the Alpha timeline, what happens has to happen, and there’s no way of avoiding it. If you’re from a doomed timeline, what happens doesn’t happen, so there’s really no point in worrying.”
“The problem is you buying into this idea that the Alpha timeline can’t be changed. Fuck that; it’s what they want you to think.”
“Even supposing that you’re right, you forget about my powers as a Seer. I'm pretty sure the path to victory I seek doesn’t pass through a barbeque of all my friends. Delightful as that would be.”
“Argh. Did you ever stop to think where the power you’re using actually comes from? It’s no better than listening to the voices in your head. ”
“The difference is I choose whose voice to listen to. For example: I'm not listening to you.”
“Fine. You didn't listen to me before and look at where that got you. So I’m asking you this time: turn your meteor around and stay the fuck away. Before it’s too late.”
This is not how Eloise had said that things would go. Time for plan B, then. Olympia reached out with her mind for something suitably frightening. There. That would do.
Rose looked around, then up. Thousands of robots crawled across the sky like thunderbugs on yellow; each of them Aradia. She readjusted to the mental landscape.
“That ought to give you a little taster of my power. Now. You fucking listen. I’m giving you an ultimatum. If you don’t stop, I’m going to hurt you. Lots. And don’t think I’ll stop at you. I’m not above hurting your friends, as well.”
“I don't belive you. You barely register on the Rattigan scale of comic villainy. You don’t even have proper goons.” Rose paused, then slapped her forehead in mock-pseudoironic chagrin. “But you’re not the villain, are you? You’re the goon.” Rose shrugged, and set her forefinger and thumb around a robot in the distance. She gradually squeezed the two together. It exploded.
“What! What are you doing!?”
“I’m not in a dream bubble. At least I am, but I know my body isn’t. I’m asleep.” Her words were like an expert mounting butterflies into cases. The pins sank into wings; hit cork; met no resistance. “Why, did you honestly think I couldn’t tell the difference?”
Rose span around, flourishing her arms before her. Her dress flared. She was a virtuouso conductor of the Allegro del’ robodestruction con moto - where her hands brushed the heavens, bots went up like fireworks. Out of the corner of her eye, Olympia blurred about the edges.
“Oh no you don’t. I have some questions for you.” Her concentration hardened like a vice. Olympia was frozen in place, her arms forced tightly against both sides, her body bent back like a bow. “Let me teach you something about villainy. When you’re trying to coerce, I recommend a little line like this.” She coughed. “Now, we can do this the easy way - “
The Thorns were in her hands.
“- or the hard way. Please don’t fuck around with me. Your spiel about my friends has made me jumpy. Who knows what I might do next.”
Her eyebrows arched. “Who sent you?”
She held a wand against the robot’s shell. It blistered and dissolved like a cheap plastic chair under a lighter flame.
“I said, who sent you.”
Silence. Rose jabbed into the wound again, but Olympia grabbed the Thorn in her left hand and forced it back towards her.
Her voice rose resolute above the pain. “I wanted to do this the easy way”. Olympia’s fingers were melting like wax. “I was the easy way. The hard way comes later. The monsters she’ll send after you are much, much, worse than me.”
By now there was nothing much clutching the wand but a dripping metal stump.
“I hope you'll think about that once you wake up ”.
Kanaya was shaking her vigorously. She looked around blearily; everything was far too bright and distinctly hangoverish. That was one of the unexpected disadvantages of a luminous girlfriend; waking up after a bacchanal was even less of a pleasant experience.
Rose dabbed a knuckle at the wetness at the corner of her mouth, then failed to sit up.
“Kanaya. Get me my deerstalker. A mystery is afoot.”
“But of course. Would my lady care for us to exit the dream bubble first? Or would she perhaps desire another impromptu nap? Really. It’s no inconvenience at all.”
Rose looked around. There were outside some sort of gaudy pavilion, and twin moons glimmered in the distance.
Olympia slid out of Rose and clattered to the floor. She didn’t get up.
Sully ran outside for help.
“The Iron Giant?” She eyed the film suspiciously. “Is this going to be like that one which was supposed to be about a sassy female robot but turned out to be a propaganda flick about the Earth equivalent of the Condesce?” Olympia sank petulantly into the beanbag, crushing hundreds of polystyrene pellets beneath formidable caboose. Jake looked up from his collection. He seemed to own more movies than Eloise had books.
“Dash it all, I never said it was going to be about a sassy female robot; that was an error you persisted in despite Streep’s evident humanity.” She pouted. “I give you my solemn word of honour that this picture not only features a robot, but that it is heart-warming and excellent in all the right ways.”
Olympia unfolded her arms. “All right then. I’ll give you another chance.” She wasn’t sure how many chances she’d give Jake English, but she reckoned he had plenty in his Second Chance account. Not to mention his Trust ISA, Friendship bonds, and sexy stock options.
He popped the DVD into the lunchtop and threw himself into the bag beside her. He clapped twice and the lights dimmed.
“This movie’s always been there for me, Meg. Which is why I know you’re going to love it.”
She rolled over so their bodies touched. She winced; her left stump was sore, and still growing back.
An hour later and they were both enraptured. Tears rolled down Jake’s face. But it was impossible to tell from where they sprang; from the drama of the film or from that firm steel hand that gripped his ever tighter.