Her windowsill is in Ul Qoma, of course; the entire block of student residences is. Mahalia has the room on the corner, less because she'd asked for it than because nobody else had wanted it. The view is nothing special: no neon, no dazzling architecture, no illicitly schizophrenic vista of the cities—nothing particularly Ul Qoman at all.
Down the block, in fact, it is Besz total, although Mahalia, ever careful, never looks. The street itself is crosshatch, therefore safe, though of course she disregards half of the passers-by.
The windowsill is Ul Qoman, but only just. This is where the notes appear, left sometime in the night, and try though she may she cannot catch their arrival.
Tonight, the most recent note says. Between.
Yolanda is watching TV in the building's shabby lounge when Mahalia gets back, Lloyd's Semiotics of Pre-Cleavage Sculpture open across her knees, pen clenched between her teeth.
"Hey, 'Landa," Mahalia says, perched on the arm of the couch. "How's Lloyd?"
Yolanda huffs out a gust of annoyed air, flipping her hair out of her face. "Impenetrable, as always," she says, "and also wrong." She flips back a few pages to a cluster of furious post-it flags, clears her throat, and begins to read in dreary, portentious tones. "Clearly, then, so-called post-feminist interpretations are vitally flawed; the engendering of structural identity is indistinguishable from the necessary but perhaps impossible notion of the masculine." She rolls her eyes. "Etcetera, etcetera, blah blah fucking blah." She snaps the book shut and drops it onto the couch beside her with a meaty thump; Mahalia pushes it to the floor and takes its place.
"God, I know, he's awful," she says. "Four hundred pages of fucking phallic symbolism—the man clearly read too much Freud in his formative years." She glances at the TV. "Feeling homesick?"
"Yeah, I guess." Yolanda shrugs. "Sick of fucking Lloyd and his fucking dick, for sure," she adds. "Plus, you know, my folks."
"Yeah." The movie is a classic—American, of course, Ul Qoman cinema being altogether too new to have much in the way of classics. There are criminals—on the side of justice, naturally—and labyrinthine plots, wheels within wheels. Plenty of explosions, too, and snappy banter from clean-cut men in dark suits.
They've both got better things to do, but they watch the whole thing, like they always do, talking idly about the dig, their writing, the students and faculty. When the movie's loose ends have been tied in a neat bow, Mahalia stands up, stretching.
"Back to the mines, I guess." It's almost one, and she has to be back out at Bol Ye'an by nine, but that leaves at least two hours to work, maybe three if she drinks an extra cup of coffee in the morning. "You going to keep on with Lloyd?"
"Ugh." Yolanda covers her face with her hands, kicks vaguely at the book on the floor. "Yeah, I guess—David wants my analysis in by Monday, but Aikam wants to go out tomorrow night, so unless I want to spend my entire weekend locked in the library..." She shrugs. "What about you?"
"Oh, the usual." Mahalia grabs her coat, her bag. "Sherman, Rosen, Vijnic—and the book, of course." The book, they call it—contraband, here, although very lightly so; as a foreign student, she probably wouldn't get worse than a slap on the wrist for having it in her bag.
(Her annotations might raise more questions, which makes it good that nobody else wants to read it.)
Yolanda grins wryly. "You're driving David insane, you know," she says. "First you bring up his old demons, and now you tear his research apart—the poor dear doesn't know if he's coming or going."
"Well, you know what you get from two scholars in a library," Mahalia says. It's an old Besz joke, one she learned on her first trip; it's something of a catchphrase on the dig, a shorthand for the entwined conflicts of the cities.
Yolanda supplies the punchline: "three opinions, and then they open the books." She drags the Semiotics up onto her lap, lets it drop open, pulls a face. "Good luck, then."
Back in her room, she goes back over sentences she's read a dozen, a hundred times, chasing down the logic, flipping back to double-check footnotes and figures. No, she writes, no—citing the sources she used to dismiss. In places, the original text is practically obscured by her marginalia, notes upon notes, but as she traces the printed words, cross-references, it begins to come clear. They've missed so much, ignored the obvious explanation with a dedication that approaches unseeing.
The irony of it—of focusing so much on the interstitial, the transient, that they've ignored the actual evidence—does not escape her.
She falls asleep at her desk, face pillowed on the text that started it all, and dreams of gears and shadows and ticking explosives.
The first time she'd talked to David, he'd walked away from her in the middle of the conversation, disappearing around the corner and into a crowd. She'd been new to the cities, then, and still more used to Besz than Ul Qoma; she'd hesitated, unsure of the limits, and he'd gotten away.
She wears him down, though, over time, staging carefully non-confrontational meetings—largely mediated through Yolanda—until he's comfortable enough to let her corner him in his apartment.
"You're brave, Mahalia," he says, not meeting her eyes. "To take on—well." He shrugs, turns to the window. "If I'd been smarter, back when—" He cuts himself off again, stares out at the street: a busy crosshatch, pedestrians and cars conscientiously avoiding each other.
"You see that woman, there?" She steps up, follows the pointing of his finger, watching the woman waiting for the bus. "That, right there—the way she taps her fingers against the shelter, you see?" She nods, noting the rhythmic drumming. "They don't do that in Beszel, when they wait—they tap their toes." He shrugs. "Nothing that shows up on the proscribed lists, of course, but it's there all the same."
Across the street, there is a Besz bus stop. Bus service is unreliable in both cities, and if either of them looked, they could probably see exactly the behavior he's describing.
They don't, of course. They wouldn't.
"I don't remember that," Mahalia says, stepping back from the window. "From when I was in Beszel, I mean."
David smiles slightly, still looking out the window. "You just have to know what to look for," he says. "It's all there, if you know what to look for." He pauses, then sighs. "You might consider looking at Gaines' Typography of Precursor Architecture, if you're stuck for sources." The book is on the table, and when she flips through it she sees that it is densely annotated, cramped handwriting crowding onto itself, margins filled with furious argument.
"Thank you." She can see his reflection, vaguely, in the glass of the window, but it's hard to make out his expression against the wobble of the glass.
"You're welcome," he says. "Best of luck with your studies."
"—and I'm worried, David," she says. "What if—"
"Mahalia," he says, hands raised, "hold on, calm down."
"—David, listen!" She's shouting, she realizes, and takes a deep, shaking breath. Straightens her shoulders. Exhales, slowly, watching David watch her. "Sorry," she says, finally, reluctantly, "but this is—this is everything, David." She gestures at the walls, the window, makes the curl-and-flick of the fingertips that Ul Qomans use to indicate Breach.
David sighs. "Mahalia, dear," he says, "You know that Orciny—" his mouth twists, self-mocking. "Well, they're hardly going to show their hand, are they?"
"But that's the point," she says, picking up the book, brandishing it at him. "David, I think you were right—I think—" she takes another breath, fighting the urge to look over her shoulder. "I don't think Orciny is real."
His eyes go flat and cold, and he steps over to the desk, running a fingertip over an odd collection of gears there—something he'd kept from the very beginning of the dig. Highly illegal, of course, but all of the senior faculty have something of the sort, some little reminder of less carefully legislated times.
"That's what I've been saying," he says, slowly, bitterly. "That's what everybody says." His laugh is short and ugly. "Congratulations, Mahalia—you've caught up with modern archaeology."
"But you believed," she says, "and I did, too, but, David, it's not—or, who knows," she says, throwing up her hands, "maybe it is, somewhere, somehow, but whatever it is," she glances out the window, seeing only nonpresent pedestrians, "whatever it is, David, that's not what we've been dealing with."
There's a long pause. "What do you mean?"
She keeps staring out the window, finally letting her eyes focus on those other citizens. In for a penny, as they say, and so Mahalia lets herself stare at those faraway-neighbors, taking in for the first time their carefully distinct clothes, their mannerisms. She'll miss them, she thinks, when—after.
"I think," she says, "that somebody's been using us—pretending to be Orciny, getting us to steal from the dig. Getting us," she says, swallowing hard, "to breach."
Bowden says nothing.
"Your work," she says, tapping her fingers on the doorframe. "I've been looking at it, trying to understand—but with what we know of Breach, it just doesn't make sense, unless—" she closes her eyes, shutting out the others. "Unless we were wrong. Unless Orciny was a lie all along."
"No," he says, voice tight, furious. "No, Mahalia."
At this point, with what she knows, what she's done, the rules can hardly be said to apply to her—and yet she finds herself following the same circuitous paths, practicing the navigation by successive approximation that has always been her way of confronting the cities. To go here, first turn here, then there, then follow this street—but not too far, never too far.
It was a point of pride among the foreign students: how used to the cities could you get, how native? Nothing you could brag about, of course—how could you draw attention to the act of inattention?—but they found their ways. An ambulance would rush past on a Besz street, flashing that other blue, and the newer students would startle, then glance admiringly at those who hadn't. Hard core, they'd say.
Not Mahalia, though—never Mahalia. She'd held her ground, respected the letter of the law even as she interrogated its spirit. She'd kept her mind on the edges and her eyes on her work, focused, focused, never daring to look until—
And now she is dead, anyways, and nobody pays much attention at all.