Night Vale (present).
Dana projects herself directly from the present toward the past, aiming for a moment when time itself may not have been stable
and almost immediately steps on a crack
and finds herself somewhen else.
The radio station floor is stained with rows of bloody footprints. An intern is on her knees with a sponge and bucket, working diligently to scrub them away. Standard, mundane community-radio intern duties. Nothing special to see here.
Until the intern's cat daemon catches sight of Dana, and hisses. "There's another one!"
The intern turns...and Dana finds herself staring into her own face.
"Don't you try anything," orders past-Dana, rising to her feet and wielding her mop like a claymore. "I do not know how many of you there are going to be, but I will do what must be done. As many times as I have to."
Of course — this must be the day of the Sandstorm. She's missed her target by a couple of weeks, stumbled into the middle of last March rather than the beginning. Dana holds up her hands. "I'm not another double! Look at me more closely. I'm different from you, see? My hairstyle has changed, my face has gotten older...and Eustathias is not with me."
"I suppose that's true," allows past-Dana. Still-intern Dana, as opposed to Walker Dana, Messenger Dana, Traveler-Of-Time-And-Space Dana. "But if you are not a sandstorm double, then what, exactly, are you?"
"A time-traveling astral projection of yourself from the future."
"Oh! That explains it."
"Or at least, somebody's future," says Traveler Dana. "Because I, as I am now, do not remember meeting myself like this, when I was you. And where did the experimental theologian go?" She remembers one in the booth the whole time she was working: getting biological samples and taking readings, asking about her experience during the storm, eventually sending her to the tape room with a message for Carlos.
Intern Dana frowns. "The Outsider one? Carlos? Do you remember him being here?"
"Him too. He brought one of his students...or colleagues...or colleagues' students? I don't remember exactly what they were."
"You must be thinking of someone else," says the intern. "Carlos doesn't have colleagues."
Oh dear. That sounds, not just different, but jarringly wrong. "Are you sure? Perhaps you just haven't met them yet."
"Very sure. He's been the exciting new story in town ever since he was brought here two weeks ago. If any other experimental theologians had arrived at the same time, they would have been the talk of the town as well." Switching back to a more standard mop-wielding posture, Intern Dana returns to the work of scrubbing bloodstains. "At least, until another story came along that had enough general interest to displace it. This sandstorm might do. It's been quite an event."
"Can you tell me about how Carlos was...brought here?" Traveler Dana doesn't remember much about her version. In her timeline, the experimental theologians arrived the summer before the sandstorm, before she had much reason to pay attention to the radio. But since this Dana is already working here....
"I certainly can. It was in the middle of a town meeting. Cecil was there, reporting, and I was there too, learning how to report. The main subject of discussion was a long and involved debate over new bloodstone manufacture regulations. Positions grew tense. Mayor Pamela Winchell's fists were clenched so tightly that her nails dug into —"
"If you wouldn't mind skipping ahead," interrupts Dana. This is probably some kind of karmic punishment, being faced with her own younger self's extremely roundabout narration. "Tell me about where they introduced Carlos."
"I'm getting to it," protests Intern Dana. "As the debate was reaching a moment of high tension, the doors flew open, and a group of strangers strode in. The ones in the front were all women, in black dresses, with beautiful faces that looked very young but eyes that revealed them to be much older. And the strangest thing was, only a few of them had daemons in sight —"
"Witches. They were witches."
"Yes! We were all intimidated by the sight of them. The City Council hid behind their podiums. I confess, if I had had a podium of my own, I might have hidden behind it as well. Only Cecil and Mayor Pamela Winchell were not afraid. But then Cecil's expression changed. Not to fear...no, to something more complicated than fear. He was looking toward one of the witches in particular. I followed his gaze, and I saw. She had long white hair, tan skin, a compact build...."
Intern Dana gazes at her older self in wide-eyed reverence. "How did you know?"
"We have...in a sense...met." Traveler Dana doesn't go into details. One version of her telling a story is taking long enough; if they both went for it, this could last for years. "What did she do?"
"Nothing, at first. It was one of the other witches who spoke." This time, mercifully, the intern doesn't try to give a full physical description. "She explained to us that Night Vale was meant to have experimental theologians. She said it was in accordance with some important prophecies. She went on to say that one theologian in particular was important, and since he had somehow been assigned to a research post on the wrong side of the planet, they had done us the favor of bringing him here instead."
"And that was Carlos."
"That was Carlos. He was just over six feet tall, with hair that was perfect in every way...."
Although Dana knows what the experimental theologian looks like, she gives up and allows her younger self to reel off a detailed description, from Carlos's gleaming white teeth all the way down to his fur-lined snow boots.
"Cecil's mother led Carlos over to the place in the gallery where Cecil and I were sitting. By this point Cecil was quite flustered by both of them, although for different reasons. He thinks Carlos is very handsome, you know."
"The Cecil in my timeline has brought it up a few times, yes."
"I didn't follow the exchange that came next so well," admits Intern Dana, washing off her mop in the bucket. "It was conducted in English, which I don't speak. From what I could gather, Cecil's mother announced that Carlos was going to love Cecil, and, I think, to marry Cecil? It all made Carlos very upset. Now that I think back on it, I assumed whatever she said was part of the prophecy, but perhaps he didn't understand it that way. Perhaps he took it as an order."
"That would make anyone upset," says Dana sympathetically. She can't imagine agreeing to go somewhere for a job, only to find herself presented to one of the organizers' sons like some kind of romantic trophy.
"It hasn't been easy for Cecil either," sighs her younger self. "He told off his mother as soon as it happened, of course. But now he's afraid that if he reaches out at all, Carlos will take it as a sign that he feels entitled to Carlos's affections after all, and
"...and what?" prompts Dana.
Her voice is drowned out by some kind of choir, and the chiming of bells.
She's slipped on another crack, or maybe time itself cracked around her, so that now she's in the reception hall of the local Temple of the Beams. It's full of white streamers and beautiful music, all the guests in their best furry pants and soft meat crowns, cactus flowers wreathing everything in the soft color gradients of their petals. Dana can't narrow the time down to anything more specific than "some year after this temple was built."
Until, a few tables over, she spots herself from this timeline. Herself, still looking about sixteen, and wearing an NVCR press badge...but sporting a short, clipped haircut, with Eustathias perched on her shoulder as a ribbon-tailed bird-of-paradise. A different incarnation of Intern Dana, here to get the news.
None of the beautifully-dressed people at this table notice Traveler Dana, even when she's standing in front of their faces. They're all too busy listening to...Dana takes a few steps, getting a better line of sight toward the head of the room....
"People say to me...."
...ah, that's the bride. Radiant in ivory and emerald, her cactus daemon in a pearl-studded pot on the table beside her.
"...'June, you've been on that cactus for three years now. How did he persuade you to come down?' And I tell them...." One hand rests over the light swell of her stomach; she breaks into a cheeky smile. "...what makes you think I came down first?"
Genteel laughter from the crowd.
The groom, in a dark tunic with gold braid, looks...satisfied. Not delighted, not dizzyingly in love, but happy enough, Dana thinks. And perhaps that's just the natural look of his face. His foreign face, with its handsome but terrible beard...
...and cold eyes. Frightening, steely blue eyes. Eyes that Dana has seen before.
Cactus June talks more seriously about how happy she is to have found such a wonderful man, while Dana approaches their table. If she can get at the right angle to see his daemon, then she'll know if it's really him. None of the wedding guests react as she walks right through people, furniture, centerpieces, accessories.
Until she walks past Intern Dana, who gasps. Traveler Dana turns back to check, and the younger Dana stares right into her eyes, shocked and
she's in a desert. Sun-baked desert, strewn with the occasional piece of wreckage protruding from the sand.
At first Dana thinks she's back in the otherworldly desert that has become so familiar. But she turns all around and sees no mountains in any direction, certainly none with blinking lights on top. Just blocks of cement, poles of metal, the odd rusted-out chassis of a car.
"Dana?" she calls, because there might be a version of herself around here, too, bleak and lonely though it would be.
No one responds.
So Dana, out of habit, starts walking.
Eventually she sees the twisted wreckage of what must have once been a radio tower: half-buried in sand, with weedy tufts of grass sprouting all around it. She approaches. Of course it could be any tower, from any radio station, in any world that invented radio...but it is a landmark by which to orient herself, if nothing else.
Twenty paces from the blackened metal, she realizes she is walking through scattered bones.
Dana keeps walking, but looks more closely at her feet than at what she is approaching. After that, it isn't long before she sees the first unmistakable sign of where she is: a tile, engraved with a name. The material is sturdy and well-enchanted, under warranty to last through at least one apocalypse or your money back.
It's the memorial tile for an NVCR intern. With a stylized human eye carved next to the letters, indicating that they almost certainly provided some of the bones Dana is standing in.
It takes a long time for her to search through the unburied tiles, using the angle and distance from the radio tower to keep herself oriented. After some number of minutes, or hours, or days, she finds the one she was looking for:
It has a crescent moon. She died with exceptional valor in the service of community radio. But there's no eye, which means the tile is a memorial only. Her remains were never recovered.
Shaken, Dana steps backward
into another wedding reception.
This one looks to be in the back yard of a house Dana doesn't recognize. She's standing in the middle of a picnic table full of desserts, draped with a tablecloth decorated with a gorgeous pattern of embroidered flowers.
"Excuse me," says a voice from below waist level. "I would like to get to the cake, please."
Dana looks down to find...herself. A much tinier version of herself, in a frilly purple dress with white trim. The corresponding tiny Eustathias is riding on the girl's shoulder in the form of some kind of violet-feathered songbird, so they match.
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to be in the way. You go right ahead." Traveler Dana steps back out of the table, giving Little Dana space to take a slice of cake unimpeded. "Your name is Dana Cardinal, right?"
"And how old are you?"
"Five and three quarters."
That gives Dana an almost perfect reckoning of the date. Moreover, she knows she never went to a wedding at this age. Her brother's wedding was a big deal because it was the first one she had ever gone to, and her brother, in this time and place, is only nine. "Can you tell me who's getting married today?"
Little Dana shrugs. "One of Mamá's friends, I think."
"I see. In that case, can —"
Dana stops short as a deep, familiar voice echoes from the other side of the crowd: "Welcome...to the wedding."
If there's something important here, something central to the development of this timeline, the odds are good that she'll hear about it around Cecil. "Sorry," she says to her younger self, "but would you excuse me? There's someone I need to go say hi to."
When she finds him, the mid-twenties version of Cecil is strong-arming someone toward the house: a peninsular guy with a badger daemon. Cecil is resplendent in a green velvet tuxedo and a towering soft meat crown. The other man is wearing a threadbare dinner suit and protesting all the while. "You have to understand —"
"I understand that this is a very special day, Steve Carlsberg," snarls Cecil. "Not a day for rabble-rousing, or conspiracy theories, or trying to convince us that our town should have murders handled by the police instead of informal vigilante squads, or whatever other inanity you're trying to bring us today."
He drags Steve up onto the porch and through the wide French doors. Dana walks through the wall beside them.
"Today is a day for family. How's your wife, by the way?"
"Pregnant. Tired and cranky. Sends her regards," says Steve impatiently. "Family is the whole reason I'm here! I know you don't like it, Cecil, but you need to listen to me. You need to know the truth about this — this person who's about to marry into your family!"
"No, you listen to me, Steve!" snaps Cecil, backing him up against the nearest wall...and glaring at him with vivid purple eyes, focused and unclouded. "We already know."
"Maybe you think you know, but —"
"Will you stop your insipid yammering for one minute and look at me?"
Steve, to Dana's invisible astonishment, stops yammering.
"But my sister is in love, so she is dealing, and I am too. In ways that we are not going to discuss when we are under observation by so many hard-working and on-duty members of the Sheriff's secret police — not to mention all the off-duty members who are attending this wedding as guests. Yes, Steve, we are aware of the guests!" Lowering his voice, Cecil adds, "If this new connection means you no longer want to send your ridiculous letters in to the station, I will understand. I'll be thrilled! It'll mean less time wasted eviscerating them on-air, more time to focus on real news."
Dana doesn't stay to hear more. For one thing, she's heard enough of Cecil yelling at Steve on the radio over the years that she could probably fill in the rest of this rant herself. For another...she has got to try to find this sister.
Cecil has a sister.
If that means what Dana thinks it means —
— she probably isn't going to find the answer in Jorge's Tacos.
There's a group of girls in one of the booths, gangly tweens with braces and unsettled daemons and sticker-studded backpacks, chattering over their forsaken enchiladas. One of them is Middle-School Dana. This must be four or five years ago...except that one of her companions looks a whole lot like Tamika, and isn't much younger than the version Traveler Dana last spoke to.
Also, that's definitely High-School Maureen at the register.
And over the radio, Cecil's voice is calmly reporting, Carlos and his team of experimental theologians warn that in the undeveloped land out back of the old elementary school, a house exists.
Well, if there's a potential twist of time that could lead Cecil's brother to be born a sister, surely there's one that could prompt Dana's mother to have children a few years later. Dana doesn't waste time on wild speculation, just walks straight up to Middle-School Dana and says, "Excuse me, what year is this?"
It doesn't seem like it exists, explained Carlos and his perfect hair. It's not there when you look for it. And it's between two identical undeveloped plots of land, so it would make more sense for it not to be there.
Possibly-Tamika narrows her eyes in the direction Middle-School Dana is looking. Her daemon turns into a sharp-eyed owl and flutters onto her shoulder. "Nobody's there."
But, he says, they have done experiments, and the house is definitely there.
"I'm a time-traveling future version of yourself that only you can see," explains Dana.
At news time, the theologians are standing in a group in front of the existent house, daring each other to go knock on the door.
"She says only I can see her," Middle-School Dana informs the other girls. To her older self, she says, "It's 2013. Are you like the man who married Cactus Judy? He says he is a time traveler as well. He has a foreign face, cold blue eyes, and a handsome yet terrible beard."
"I may be," says Traveler Dana. "Can you tell me
anything else about —"
The rest of the phrase dies on her lips.
She's back in the Dog Park.
Dana tells herself not to lose hope. She is still traveling. This cannot be the last place and time she ends up, this shadowy landscape with its barren ground and withered trees and high onyx walls. Not after she waited so long and worked so hard to get out of here.
It is dark, as usual, but here's something odd: beyond the walls, beyond the gloomy cloud cover, Dana sees light. That never happened before. Even on the days when Emmanuel assured her it was sunny and warm in the rest of Night Vale....
Hiding behind a black stone monolith, peering out at her with sunken eyes in a hunger-thinned face, is Dog Park Refugee Dana.
A few gentle questions from Traveler Dana, and she knows enough to orient herself. This version of Refugee Dana attended the wedding of Cactus Jenny as an intern, but was not in the groom's party when her brother got married, because her brother is still single. (Traveler Dana names and describes her sister-in-law; it isn't someone Refugee Dana recognizes.) She does not remember any Outsider experimental theologians coming to Night Vale. She has her doubts about whether an Outside has existed within her lifetime at all.
"No one has visited me while I have been trapped here," she says, when Dana asks about Emmanuel. "I do not know how long it has been. I do not know what is happening outside. It was easier to keep track when the broadcasts were regular, but they have not been regular in a long time. Perhaps they will not be at all, now that the Voice is dead."
Traveler Dana's eyes widen. "Cecil died? How?"
Refugee Dana leans against the monolith, wrapping her frail arms around herself against the chill of the hooded spectres. Or perhaps against the chill of having so little meat on her bones. "I'm afraid I don't know anyone named Cecil."
Dana reflexively touches one of her earrings: the little anchors, the symbols of hope, that her version of Cecil sent over the walls via trebuchet. "You still have a chance to get out of here. To get to a place where you won't go hungry or thirsty, and where, perhaps, you can still make a difference. Go to the wall, place your hand on the onyx, and begin walking...."
But for all her prompting, she can't even convince her alternate self to get up.
Swings creaking. Birds chirping in the trees. Children laughing as they run around, sneakers kicking up mulch, daemons flipping from one shape to another as they match their bodies' paces.
Dana soaks in the familiar ambiance of Mission Grove Park, in all its living, active, not-destroyed glory.
It all looks the way she remembers. Same wheat and wheat by-products shelter. Same giant-size bloodstone circle. Same playground equipment, painted with extensive anti-graffiti runes. Same little picnic area nearby. Her younger self is on the playground, perhaps seven or eight years old, riding high on her favorite swing with sandpiper-shaped Eustathias perched on the crossbeam.
And Cecil is alive. Once again Dana hears him before seeing him — not using his calm and authoritative radio voice, or his deep and sinister warning-Steve-Carlsberg voice, but a high, delighted coo:
"Where's Tío Cecil? Wheeeeeere's Tío Cecil?" Pause. "There he is!"
Dana follows an outburst of delighted baby giggles to the source. Cecil is sitting on the edge of a picnic bench, his hair long and gathered into a single braid down his back, addressing a dark-haired infant in a stroller. He holds his hands over his face; she gets worried; he pulls them away; she squeals with laughter and yells, "Ceecee!" Her daemon turns into a tiny black fluffball of a bird and hops around in excitement.
So much excitement, in fact, that he falls out of the stroller.
Cecil's niece scrunches up her face in abject despair. And Khoshekh is nowhere to be seen, so he can't rescue the confused little bird.
"Shh, honey, don't cry!" soothes Cecil, clasping his hands around her waist. "We're gonna pick him right up, understand? You and me. Ready? Up!"
He lifts the girl out of her seat — her kicking little legs look smaller than they should be, if Dana's understanding of baby proportions is correct — and down into the grass. Her daemon turns into a baby rabbit and hops into her arms.
The whole thing is so adorable that Dana has been walking closer this whole time, a dreamy smile on her face. She doesn't realize how close she's gotten until the niece looks straight at her, points, and says, "Fa-ma!"
Dana stops short. "Me? Are you talking to me?"
Cecil follows the girl's gaze, unclouded violet eyes looking right through Dana. "What is it, little one? Do you see something?"
"Fa-ma, Ceecee, fa-as'ma!"
"Un fantasma? Do you see a ghost?" Cecil closes his fingers over his niece's pointing hand and guides it down to her side. "Nobody else can see it, smart girl. If you see something, say nothing. You're too young to drink to forget, and you see more things than most people, so you have to be extra careful."
Dana turns, moving carefully so she doesn't slip on a crack in time too soon, and looks for her seven-year-old self. Cecil can't perceive her, and the baby is too young to be interrogated, but maybe Little Dana can relay a few questions. Who are the child's parents? Does Cecil have completely different siblings in this version of reality? Or could it be....
There's a witch in the sky overhead.
As Dana watches, the figure circles down toward the grass of the park. She is wearing jeans and a flowing blouse, and has no daemon in sight. Her face is neither familiar nor unfamiliar. She has long dark hair, tan skin, a compact build, a strong nose...and eyes that light up when she lands on the soil of the park, and Cecil's niece chirps, "Mamá, up!"
"Hi, pajarita," says this timeline's version of Cecil's brother. "You didn't let your uncle get into any trouble, did you?"
Of course, thinks Dana. If he had never been a boy, he would have been recognized by the other witch-clans without a second thought. Would never have felt so desperate for their approval that he was willing to take an unthinkable risk, and so hurt that his mother, against her better judgment, agreed to help. Wouldn't have been completely torn out of his family's lives when they channeled all that power and it backfired.
"Excuse you, Abby," huffs Cecil, as his sister scoops up the baby (the little daemon stays in a form that can cling to her side) and offers her a finger to grab. "I am a fine, upstanding, model citizen."
Lowering his voice, he switches from Spanish to a Northern language, one that nobody in town except its other witches and the invisible Dana would understand:
"She thinks there's a ghost around. I didn't feel any malicious presence, but maybe double-check your wards tonight, just in
There is a man standing on the tailgate of a truck, addressing a small crowd of curious people in English-accented Spanish. He has a foreign face, cold blue eyes, and a handsome but terrible beard.
"I have traveled here from your past. I am here to preserve this future," he is saying, in a voice Dana has heard before. "You do not know it is in danger because your memories have been changed, along with the course of events. In your understanding, it has already been saved."
Traveler Dana looks around for the other Traveler's daemon...and finds her at last, hiding out in the shade under the truck: a gorgeous, thick-furred snow leopard.
One of the audience members, a heavily pregnant beauty with a cactus daemon at her side, watches him with a proud glow and whispers to the woman next to her, "We just bought a house together! In the development right out back of the elementary school, so it'll be right there when the baby gets old enough."
Her companion sighs. "I don't know, Jean, he's still
my intern back together!"
"I can't!" shouts Carlos, voice echoing off the hospital walls.
"Why not?" wails Cecil. This one is much like the version Dana remembers, his hair cropped short and stark white, hands clutching the lapels of Carlos's chapel coat. "You and I can generate a lot of Rusakov particles together. A theologically remarkable amount, you said!"
"Not enough for this!"
They're not far down the hall from a room with the blinds drawn, and dark cloth hung over the windows. Even over the sound of the argument next to her, Dana can hear muffled sobbing coming from inside.
It sounds like her mother.
Carlos is still yelling, angry and hurt. "In fact, the laws of entropy mean you'd need at least two to make sure you didn't fall short — and that's assuming the falloff of the energy curve is linear, it could always be exponential or logarithmic — and even if we had perfect equipment and could ensure total conservation of energy, who would you have me kill to save Dana, huh? Whose child would you cut?"
Cecil dissolves into choked sobs, falling against Carlos's chest. Carlos holds him close and tight, face drawn with pain, armadillo daemon rolled up into a ball at his feet.
"This didn't happen!" cries Dana. There is nobody around who can perceive her right now; she's mostly addressing the universe in general. "These are not my memories! Whatever course of events led to this moment,
it was changed!"
Another post-apocalyptic wasteland. This time, enough of the ruins remain standing that Dana can orient herself: she's a short walk down the block from her own house. The building is sun-baked and weather-beaten, roof caved in, nothing left of the windows but a few glittering shards.
This can't be her town's real fate either. Can it? The shattered mess of continuity she's stumbled into was/will be eventually resolved into the sequence of events she remembers. It must!
She tries to project herself back to her own nice stable present,
slips on another crack,
and, oh dear, now she's in jail.
Or so she thinks at first. It's a single room with no windows, a small attached bathroom, and a heavy lock on the door. The furniture, the wallpaper, the flatscreen TV, all of that is prison-issue.
But there are personal items here, too. Handmade woodcarvings, one of them half-finished, on the end table next to the lamp. A pile of laundry on the chair. Framed photograms (the biggest one shows Carlos and Cecil at a carnival, wearing silly hats and showing off their prizes from a shooting game) next to the television.
Also, the lock in a cell isn't typically on the inside.
Someone in the bathroom flushes, and out wanders Cecil. Dana tries to get an idea of the date from studying him — he's either older than her contemporary Cecil or significantly more stressed, with lines around his eyes and several days' growth of white beard on his chin — but stops quickly, embarrassed. The poor man is disheveled and depressed, wearing only pajama pants and a faded T-shirt, his clouded eyes dulled with the kind of pain that has lasted so long it becomes a background haze in everything a person does. It's not right, spying on a person in a state like this if you're not a member of the Sheriff's secret police.
Cecil flops down on the mattress. His daemon, Dana realizes, is curled up in a cushioned wicker basket next to the bed; Cecil swings a hand down to skritch the margay's ears. What's left of them, anyway.
There's a knock on the door, and Dana's own voice says, "Cecil? Are you in there?"
"What is it?" calls Cecil, his voice surprisingly normal.
"Can I come in?"
"Gimme a minute." Cecil sits up, and makes a halfhearted attempt to un-dishevel his T-shirt. "Are you alone?"
The Dana outside his room hesitates. "Your mother's with me."
Cecil groans. "Dana!"
Traveler Dana makes her way through the wall to see what's going on outside. Sure enough, there's Cecil's mother: looking exactly as young as she did when Cecil was a toddler, though the frayed clothes and stringy, unwashed hair make her less striking than she might be. And there's Dana, an adult version of Dana in a suit and half-moon glasses, with short, natural hair and the bearing of someone important. Neither of their daemons are in sight.
"She was very insistent!" calls Adult Dana through the door. "And none of us speak enough Suomi to know exactly why."
Cecil's reply is muffled but firm. "Tell her if she wants to live in this country, enjoy all the benefits of our military and our converted underground shelters and our extensive stockpiles of canned goods, she needs to start speaking Spanish like the rest of us!"
"I know you don't like talking to her," says Adult Dana. "And I know it isn't fair, that she is the one not cooperating, and yet you are the one I am pushing to make sacrifices in order to accommodate her. I would not bring this to you if I didn't think it might really be important."
There's a long pause before Cecil answers. "Is this an order, Mayor Cardinal?"
"This is a request from a friend," says...Mayor Dana, apparently. "Cecil, please."
At last Cecil relents. He's wearing a nice black tunic when he opens the door, and has run a wet comb through his hair. "Hi, Dana. Hello, mother."
Señora Palmero stares absently at a nick in the cement floor.
(Overhead, something rumbles. A subway train, an earthquake, a bomb? Traveler Dana can't tell.)
"Go ahead," prompts Mayor Dana.
"Come on, out with it," adds Cecil. "I have important walls to stare at too, you know."
"None of this is really happening," says his mother in monotone Suomi.
Cecil throws up his hands. "Great! That's a real help, thanks, Mom. Is that all?"
Mayor Dana looks from the mother to the son. "What did she —"
"This sequence of events doesn't exist," continues Señora Palmero, now staring absently through Cecil's torso. "It feels like it exists. Like it's right here as we experience it. And it's affecting our senses all around us, so it would make more sense for it to exist than not. But it isn't real."
"She's rambling," translates Cecil. "It doesn't mean anything."
"The only real thing here —" Without looking, the witch points directly at Traveler Dana. "— is her."
"There's nobody there, Mom!"
Mayor Dana follows the gesture, and her eyes widen ever so slightly. Traveler Dana gives her older self a sheepish wave. "Hello."
"You don't see anyone?" asks Mayor Dana softly.
"No! Because she's —" Cecil checks himself, noticing her change in focus. "Dana? Are you all right?"
"I'm not hallucinating things, if that's what you mean!" says the mayor. "I am still calm and rational and entirely fit to do the job that I am doing."
"All true!" exclaims Traveler Dana. "This is not a hallucination. It's just that right now I can only be seen by versions of myself...and sensed by a limited group of other people. I am a younger version of you, a time traveler, from the timeline that really happened. You would like it, I think! It's much less...sequestered...than this one. Does everyone in town live in the abandoned mine shaft now?"
Mayor Dana swallows. "Everyone who's left."
Oh dear. "Then I really should be getting home. Will you ask Señora Palmero something on my behalf? Ask if there is something I need to do, order to put time back on its proper course, before I can return there."
Cecil's mother cackles. There's no other word for it. Dana can't tell if it was a response to the question, or if she simply feels like doing that every so often, and sometimes gets lucky with the timing.
Giving Señora Palmero a cautious look, Mayor Dana says, "Would it be easier if I just had Cecil look it up?"
"No," says Cecil instantly. "Whatever you're talking about, whatever the other half of this conversation is, I am not getting involved in anything that comes out of my mother's head. Not even for you, Dana."
But there is someone he would do it for, isn't there?
The photos in his room. His single-occupant room. In the shelter for everyone who's left.
Standing up straighter, Traveler Dana tries to channel her older self's natural authority. "Tell Cecil that, in the real timeline, Carlos is alive."
The room is richly furnished: a thick carpet, lush leather armchairs, a wide stone fireplace with a coal fire flickering inside.
Through the glass windows Dana can see a clear and starlit sky. When she approaches one, she realizes this building is set on an icy slope. Snow is heaped against the walls. A frozen sea glitters below.
It's quiet. Dana can only hear a few sounds aside from the blustering wind: the fire, the splashing of someone in a bathtub in another room, the low tones of someone giving orders next door. A servant with a pinscher daemon comes in to light the naptha lamps, then goes out again.
And in comes the Traveler, warmly dressed, snow-leopard daemon padding along at his side.
He stops when he sees Dana, though only a slight twitch around the eyes reveals his surprise. "Well! This is quite the day for unexpected visitors. Did you come with the bears as well?" He keeps his gaze on her, while his daemon looks subtly and quickly around the room. "Or are you a witch? These are strange times. I've never known an African witch before."
"I'm not here on behalf of anyone you would know," says Dana calmly. "Your fight is not my fight. Your time is not my time. I will be born in the future; I am one of the children you are fighting for."
The experimental theologians she knows back home would have been excited at the revelation, or full of questions about what else Dana knows. This man just nods, as if his superiority is the natural assumption. "Is that so? You've arrived too early for my plans to have gone into action, but I'll accept your thanks regardless."
"Oh, I didn't come to thank you!" exclaims Dana. "I'm here to ask if you have considered making your progress happen more quickly by learning to command time."
"It will be very dangerous. If you make a mistake and are stopped before you can fix it, you will plunge the course of time into a path where your War is lost. Or a timeline where you win this War, only to lay the groundwork for an apocalypse a few centuries later that will devour this world, and every other one it can reach."
"Every world?" echoes the not-yet-Traveler. "So there are more than two, after all."
"You haven't even figured that out yet?" Honestly, with the ego radiating from every line of this man's bearing, Dana would have expected him to at least know basic theology.
Maybe he'll derive the rest on his own, especially once he gets the hang of the time-commanding thing. But it can't hurt for her to give him as many hints as she can. Just in case.
"There are many worlds. Not an infinite number, but an extremely large one. Conveniently located in our own world is a deposit of bloodstone with special properties, which you should take advantage of! If you come to Night Vale, in Hispania Nova in the early twenty-first century, you can get first-hand expert advice on bloodstone circles and how to use them. Also, if you should happen to buy a house while you're there, take some photograms of the Clouded Mountain and hang them on the walls. That doesn't have any important theological purpose; it's just so I'll have the foreshadowing. Oh, and, have you ever considered the virtues of basalt as a building material?" Dana pauses. "Maybe I should let you get something to take notes."
Night Vale (present).
When Dana flickers back into sight in the real present, a couple of Carlos's colleagues have joined him in the living room. Sure enough, they're the ones she remembers. And there's Cecil and his daemon, too: sporting all the injuries and signs of age she expected, and no others.
"That was quick," says Carlos. "On our end, at least. Did you find anything?"
"I have found so many things," says Dana, excited and relieved. "Someone was destabilizing time, yes, but it was not Strexcorp — or anything to do with Strexcorp — or anything to do with us. The course of history is stable. We only know it was ever destabilized at all because, when it re-solidified, a few stray fragments of other potential histories were melted in."
"Like Cactus Jane's baby?" asks Sherie.
"Like him, yes! And like the memories of that woman who lives in the theology building at the college, who thinks the world ended several decades ago. Like the house that is only partly here, unstuck in time, appearing by any normal measurement not to exist. Like the recordings from your theological equipment of measurements that did not, in the real version of history, happen."
Like Janice, she doesn't say. Other people deserve to hear that news first. But once it's been broken to them, surely it won't be long before Janice tracks Cecil down and lets him know that she is his Niece Who Exists.
(She doesn't seem like she should exist. Her parents never met, her biological mother has no memory of or interest in carrying a child, and Dana suspects one of her grandparents on her other mother's side was never actually born, so it would make more sense for her not to exist. But here she is.)
"There are things I saw that I need to pass on to others," continues Dana. "But before I leave: Carlos, in one alternate timeline, I heard you explaining something. It sounded as if you were saying that if you had enough Rusakov particles, you could repair intercision."
Carlos grimaces, echoing the pain he'd shown in that other scene, when the laws of theology had forced him to crush Cecil's hopes and he'd clearly hated every second. Nirliq steps in to help. "Please don't get your hopes up. It's like saying, if we had enough rocket fuel, everyone on the planet could move to Mars. Even if it's possible in theory, some estimates say it would take as much as...."
She recites a number.
"That is an impressively large number," admits Dana. "I don't know if I have access that much. I don't have any theological equipment for measuring these things. All I can give you is a visual estimate. The Dust has gathered in a pool about ten feet deep, in a canyon at least two thousand feet long, and perhaps four hundred feet across at the widest point."
"Dana, we're talking about the scale of the output of continents...."
"How densely would the particles need to be gathered to be visible to the human eye?"
All the physicists stare.
"Sweetie, that can't be right," says Sherie at last. "You've seen something else that's luminescent, and it's pretty and shiny and gold, and you're mistaking it for Rusakov particles."
"Unless she hasn't," says Carlos.
Cecil touches his arm. "Carlos — does that mean...?"
"I don't know! We don't know anything for sure yet. Sherie, Nirliq, Köhler, go find some neighbors who will let you pray in their bloodstone circles. We need to make a network with Dana, project someone over into her world, and get eyes on this thing. And Cecil...."
Cecil nods, barely breathing.
"Call Steve," says Carlos. "Don't give him any premature hope, just talk to him — find out how he's doing — and if he's on the verge of any hopeless, final decisions, hold him off until we get back."